“… if you knew the comfort! I suppose I ought to be frightened–at your guessing like that, but it seems natural, to-night, that you should.–You know who it was, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he told her confidently. “It happened just to-day, didn’t it?”
“It was yesterday he asked me to marry him,” she said. “That wasn’t hounding. He had a right to, I mean. I thought I would marry him, once. I told him I would if I could. I meant, I would if I could make him understand what I really was. He thought I meant something altogether different, something that his image of me might have meant quite nicely. Yesterday when he asked me again, I flew into a fury and told him what I am really like. I needn’t have done it. I could have told him that the reason I wouldn’t marry him was because I was in love with you. That would have been true–in a way. I mean, it wasn’t the reason in the beginning; nor even after I was in love with you–so long as you didn’t know. But I never thought of telling him that. I just wanted to–smash that image of his. And I did. I knew it was cruel when I did it, but not how terrible until this morning when Rush got a letter from him.”
She had to stop there to master a sob. He went around the table and took her in his arms. “Come over to the big chair,” he said, “where I can–hold you. I can’t let you go on like this. You can tell me the rest of it there.”
She released herself from his hands by taking them in her own and pressing them for a moment tight. Then she let them go.
“I couldn’t,” she said. “I couldn’t be comforted like that while I was telling you about him.”
He understood instantly. “That’s like you,” he commented. “You’re always like yourself, thank God.” He walked away to the chair he had invited her to and stood behind it, gripping its padded leather back. “He wrote your brother a letter then.” He had spoken, he thought, quietly and evenly enough, but the indignation he felt must have betrayed itself in his voice for she answered instantly:
“You mustn’t be angry about that. He had to write to Rush, you see. Rush had been in his confidence about it all the while. Rush knew his hopes and his explanations. Rush knew of his coming yesterday, was waiting up at Wallace Hood’s apartment for his news. Now, do you see how horrible it was? He couldn’t tell Rush what I had said to him. There was nothing he could tell him. He couldn’t even face him. He did the only thing I’d left for him to do.”
March asked, “What has he done?”
“We don’t know, exactly. Just gone away, I suppose. The letter was written about midnight from the University Club. He said he wasn’t coming back to Hickory Hill. That he couldn’t possibly come back. He’d arrange things, somehow, later. He told Rush not to try to find him nor make any sort of fuss, and to be very kind to me; not to question nor worry me.”
She broke off there and looked intently up at him. In her eyes he thought he saw incredulity fighting against a dawning hope. “I wonder,” she went breathlessly on, “if you can understand this, too. Can you see that, for him, the unbearable thing about it–was that it was ludicrous? The contrast between what he had believed me to be and–what I am?”
He interrupted sharply, with a frown of irritation, “Don’t put it like that!”
“Well, then,” she amended, “the contrast between his explanation of the way I had been treating him, and the true one?”
“That is a thing I think I can understand,” he said. “It was a sort of–awakening of Don Quixote. To a fine sensitive boy nothing could give a sharper wrench than that.–I’m moving in the dark,” he added. Yet he knew he was drawing near the light. The secret he had set out to discover was not very far away.
“You see well enough,” she said. “Better than Rush, though I tried to explain it to him. He’d caught a surmise of the truth, too, I think, in New York, when he came back from France and brought me home. But he wouldn’t look. Father wouldn’t, either, once when I tried to tell him about it. It was too horrible to be thought,–let alone believed.–I don’t quite see how I can have gone on believing it myself.”
The look he saw in her eyes made him wonder how she could. He managed to hold his own gaze steady. It gave him a sense of somehow supporting her.
“But you,” she said,–“you, of all people in the world, don’t seem to feel that way about it. You were there–waiting for me–before I even tried to tell you. Oh, you do understand, don’t you?”
“I think,” he told her–and the smile that came with the words was spontaneous enough, though it did feel rather tremulous–“I think I could almost repeat the sentence you demolished young Stannard with in your own words. But can’t you see why it doesn’t demolish me? It’s because I love you.”
“So did he. So do father and Rush.”
“Not you. Not quite you. Don’t you see? It’s just the thing I was trying to tell you a while ago. What they insist on loving is–oh, partly you, of course, but partly a sort of–projection of themselves that they call you, dress you out in, try to compel you to fit. One can fight hard to preserve an outlying bit of one’s self like that. But there would be a limit I should think. How your brother, with a letter like that in his hands, could refuse to look at what you were trying to make him see …”
“He had a theory, that began when we were in New York together as a sort of joke, that I was a case of shell-shock. So whenever there has been anything really uncomfortable to face, he has always had that to fall back upon.”
A momentary outburst of anger escaped him. “You’ve been tortured!” he cried furiously. He reined in at once, however. “You’ve never, then,” he went on quietly, “been able to tell the story to any one. I’m sure you didn’t tell it to Graham Stannard. You didn’t even try to.”
She shook her head. The pitifulness of her, sitting there so spent, so white, blurred his vision again with sudden tears. But after he had disposed of them, he managed a smile and sat down comfortably in his easy chair.
“You couldn’t find a better person than me to tell it to,” he said.
“You know already,” she protested. “At least, you know what it comes to.”
“I know the brute fact,” he admitted, “but that and the whole truth are seldom quite the same thing.”
He saw the way her hands locked and twisted together and remembered with a heart-arresting pang, her half-choked cry, “Don’t! Don’t hurt them like that!” when his own had agonized in such a grip. But no caress of his could help her now. He held himself still in his chair and waited.
“The whole truth of this story isn’t any–prettier than the brute fact. There weren’t any extenuating circumstances.”
Then she sat erect and faced him. He was amazed to see a flush of color come creeping into her cheeks. Her eyes brightened, the brows drew down a little, her voice steadied itself and the words came swiftly.
“I think I must make sure you understand that it isn’t the sort of story that you usually find enveloping that particular brute fact. I wasn’t deceived nor betrayed by anybody. There isn’t anybody you can take as a villain. Just a nice, rather inarticulate boy, whom I met at a dance the evening before he went overseas.”
She broke off there to ask him shortly, “When was it that you went over?”
“Not until September,” he said, “when it looked like a very long chance if we ever got to the front at all. Of course, you know, we didn’t. But this was a lot earlier, wasn’t it?”
“The seventeenth of April,” she said. “We’ll never forget those weeks, any of us, who were in New York doing what we called war work, but it’s hard not to feel that we weren’t different persons somehow. I don’t mean that to sound like making excuses. We were more our real selves perhaps than we will ever be again. Anyhow, we worked harder all day long, and never felt tired, and in the evening most of the people I knew went out a lot, to dinners and dances.
“We could always make ourselves believe, of course, that we were doing that to cheer up the men who were going to France–and were very likely never coming back. Like the English women one read about. The only thing that used to trouble me in those days was a perfectly scorching self-contempt that used to come when I realized that I was enjoying it all; enjoying the emotional thrill of it. I knew I was getting off cheap.
“I suppose I needn’t have told you all that. You’d have understood it anyhow. But that was how I felt when I went to that dance. As if it would be a relief to do something–costly.
“It was a uniform dance as far as the men were concerned. We made ourselves, of course, as–attractive as we knew how. Somebody introduced this boy to me with just the look that said, ‘Do be kind to him,’ and that’s what I set out, very resolutely and virtuously, to be. He couldn’t talk much beyond monosyllables and he couldn’t dance,–even with me. I mean, I’ve danced so much …”
“I’ve seen you dance, my dear,” he reminded her, and saw how, with a deep-drawn breath, the memory of that night at Hickory Hill came back to her.
“Don’t,” she gasped. “Let me go on.” But it was the better part of a minute before she could.
“We sat out two or three dances together and then, when I might decently enough have passed him on to some one else with that same sort of explanatory look–I didn’t. Partly because of the feeling I have told you about and partly because I was attracted to him. He was big and young and good-looking, and his voice–oh, one can’t explain those things. It wasn’t pure altruism. That’s what you must see. And then he got up suddenly and said, ‘Good-by.’ It was early, you know, and I asked him why he was going. He said he wanted to get out of there. Rather savagely.
“I got up too and said I felt the same way about it. So he asked if he might ‘see me home.’ The dance was in the East Sixties. There had been a shower but it was clear then and warm. There weren’t any taxis about and, anyhow, he didn’t seem to think of looking for one, and we went over and took a Lexington Avenue car. When we turned at Twenty-third Street I said we’d get out and walk. He’d said hardly anything, but we had sat rather close in the car and he had been holding a fold of my cloak between his fingers.
“We went on down Lexington to Gramercy Park. There was shrubbery in flower inside the iron fence and some of the trees had been leafing out that day and the air was very still and sweet. We both stopped for a minute without saying anything and I slipped my hand farther through his arm and took his.
“He gave a sort of sob and said, ‘You wouldn’t do that if you knew about me.’ I said, ‘You’d better tell me and see.’
“We walked on again, around the park and across Twentieth Street and down Fifth Avenue. When we got to my door he hadn’t told me.
“My flat was just the second story of an old made-over house. There was no one about, I mean, to stare or wonder, and I asked him to come in. When we were inside I looked at my watch and asked him what time he had to report. He said not until seven o’clock in the morning. He was going over detached. There was nothing but a hotel to go back to.
“If I’d asked him that question out on the sidewalk, and got that answer, I don’t know whether I’d have asked him in or not.
“He just stood looking at me for a minute after telling me he hadn’t anywhere to report that night. Then he turned away and sat down on the edge of my couch and bent his face down on his hands and began to talk. He told me what was the matter with him. Of course, the same thing must have tormented thousands of them,–the terror of being afraid. He felt pretty sure he was a coward.
“Mostly, I think, that fear was pretty sensibly dealt with in this war. It got talked out openly. But he must have been a terribly lonely person. He came from Iowa, but somehow he got sent to one of the southern cantonments, and had his officer’s training, such as it was, down there. Then he was sent along to fill in somewhere else. I don’t remember all the details. He’d come to New York alone. The men he had gone to the dance with he had only met that afternoon.
“I tried to help him. I told him how some of the officers in the French and English armies, who had the highest decorations for courage, had suffered most horribly, in advance, from fear. I could tell him two or three that I knew about personally; men who had told their own stories to me. Well, that helped a little, roused him out of his daze, gave him a little gleam of hope perhaps. But it wasn’t much; words can’t be, sometimes.
“He wanted more than that. He wanted me. He didn’t want to go back alone to that hotel. So I kept him. Early in the morning, about six o’clock, I cooked his breakfast and ate it with him and kissed him good-by.”
She made a sudden savage gesture of impatience. “I didn’t mean to make it sound like that. That sounds noble and self-sacrificial and sickening. I suppose because that’s the half of the truth that is easiest to tell. I _did_ want to make an end of perpetually getting off cheap. I did have a sort of feeling of establishing my good faith with myself. I wanted to comfort him and make him happy. But it’s also true that I’d been attracted to him from the very first minute, and that it thrilled me when I first touched his hand, there by the park railing, and afterward when he took me in his arms.”
Since his last interruption he had sat motionless, even breathing small in the extremity of his effort not to hinder. But now he rose and without speaking, came to her and bending down, kissed her forehead, her eyes, her mouth. Then he seated himself on the table close beside her and took possession, thoughtfully, of one of her hands.
“Did you ever hear anything more of him?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t think he remarked my name at all when we were introduced,” she said, “nor asked what it was afterward. I think it must all have seemed afterward a little unreal to him. The girls he’d known at home don’t smoke cigarettes nor drink champagne–nor wear their dresses as low as we do. He couldn’t once have thought of people like father and Rush and Aunt Lucile as belonging to me. I remembered his name and used to look to see if it was there when I read the casualty lists, but I never did see it again.–No, that’s the whole story; just what I have told you.”
There followed the conclusion of the story, an interval of ease. It gave March, to begin with, a new access of courage, almost of confidence, to note that she did not fade white again and that the sick look of horror, banished from her eyes by the mere intensity of her determination to convey the whole truth to him, did not return to them. She substituted her other hand for the one he held in order to shift her position a little and lean against his knees.
Her mind had not detached itself from the story as she made evident by the reflective way in which she went on thinking aloud about it; dwelling on some of the curious consequences of the adventure. It was surprising–she wondered if it indicated anything really abnormal in her–the way she had felt about it afterward.
She’d felt nothing in the least like shame. Certainly not at first. On the contrary, she’d taken a deep soul-satisfying pride in it, a kind of warm sense of readiness for anything.
She told him with a little clutch of embarrassment and resolution, about another incident that happened somewhat later, attributing an importance to it which he conceded while he reflected with a smile that most people, men and women virtuous or otherwise, would have regarded as ridiculously disproportionate. The incident concerned a man whom she didn’t much like, she said, but found somehow, fascinating. He had been paying her attentions of a rather experimental sort for weeks, maneuvering, arranging. He knew she lived by herself and had been angling for an invitation to come to see her, alone. Finally, he telephoned her office one day and asked point-blank if he mightn’t come to tea that afternoon. She said he might without telling him that she was expecting Christabel Baldwin at the same time. An hour later, a restless hour it had been, she had telephoned Christabel and put her off so that when her other guest came he found just what he had expected. In the manner of one sure of his welcome and intent on wasting no time, he had begun making love to her (she apologized for the employment of that phrase but said she knew no other that was usable). She admitted that she had never had any real doubt that this was what he had meant to do and conceded him the right to think that she had invited it. But she found it, nevertheless, unendurable. She felt unspeakably degraded by it and presently flew into a rage and turned the man out of the house, feeling, she added, as much ashamed of that part of the performance as of anything else.
This encounter, she told March, made a profound change in her feeling about the other episode–closed a door upon it. Nothing like that could happen to her again. She simply stopped thinking about it after that, buried it and it had stayed buried comfortably for the better part of a year, until Rush came home from France. At least she wasn’t aware that it had troubled her. The twinges of discomfort she’d felt whenever she’d faced the prospect of coming home, she had attributed to another cause altogether.
“Paula,” he observed. “That’s easy enough to see.”
“Oh, you are a comfort,” she said; “only not Paula by herself. Paula and father and I, in a sort of awkward triangle, all doing our best and all nagging one another. That has got terribly worse in the last few days.”
She seemed to find no difficulty at all in informing him fully about this home situation; needed only a question or surmise dropped here and there to develop the whole story.
It wasn’t a chronological narrative. Her mind drifted like a soaring kingfisher over the whole area between her childhood and the events of this very morning, swooping down here or there to pick up some incident wherever a gleam of memory attracted her.
Her spirit was finding compensation for the agonies of the past hours in a complete detachment. Nothing she told him, no matter how close home it came, seemed to involve any painful emotion. Her body, pressed so close against his that he could have felt the faintest muscle quiver, conveyed no message to him but the relaxation of complete security.
About himself there was a curious duality. One of him was lulled irresistibly into sharing her mood of serene detachment. The other, recognizing the transitoriness of hers, knowing that when this interlude came to an end, as come it must, the storm would break upon them once more, was casting about desperately for the means of saving her.
He had come to see the situation with her own eyes, fairly felt the clutch of it upon his own heart. She or some impish power acting through her agency had certainly made a mess of things. Her father’s happiness destroyed; Rush’s partnership broken; and the whole Hickory Hill project ruined unless some one could be found to buy into it in Graham’s place; Graham humiliated, utterly cast adrift, irreparably hurt. And the prospect for the future….
She had told him of her tramp about the streets yesterday with her newspaper clipping and he was able to feel the full terror of it; and, beyond the terror, the gray emptiness.
There was only one way out of the tangle and this was to marry the man she loved and knew loved her. Well, he knew with merciless certainty what her answer would be when he asked her–begged her–to do that. He had provided her with the answer himself, with his sophomoric talk about traveling light and refusing to wear harness. And he’d worse than talked. His flight from her at Hickory Hill was enough to show that these weren’t mere empty phrases. And yet her life depended to-night upon his ability to persuade her, in the face of those phrases and that fact, to marry him. So he sat very still, wondering how soon she would divine these undercurrents of his thought, listening while she talked to him.
The hours were slipping away, too. A glance at the watch braceleted upon the wrist he held startled him and he covered it with his hand. Had they already, he wondered, begun a search for her? Her words supplied presently the answer to that question. She was talking, with a dry sort of humor, about the commotions of that day.
He could not be sure he was getting it quite straight, for she was commenting upon events rather than narrating them. Apparently she had telephoned to her brother at Hood’s apartment immediately after young Stannard left the house the evening or afternoon before, telling him not to bother about her, as she was going straight to bed. Let him go to a show and be careful not to wake her when he came in. She’d done this and gone to sleep at once, not waking until she’d heard him getting ready for bed in the adjoining room. But after that she hadn’t been able to get off again.
March reflected, with a shudder, what a ghastly procession of hours those must have been. Had it been then, he wondered, that, looking for some harmless thing to help her sleep, she had come upon the deadlier stuff?
Her encounter with her brother at breakfast, which she had prepared, was their first, it seemed, since her visit to Hickory Hill and Rush had been shocked at her wan, lifeless appearance. He’d guessed, of course, that his friend’s suit hadn’t prospered and now took the line, which no doubt seemed to him the most tactful and comforting one available, that she was too ill to attempt any final decision on such a subject just now and that things would look different when better health had driven morbid thoughts away.
Her vehemence in trying to convince him that she had acted finally in the matter, that Graham now acquiesced fully in her decision and no longer wanted to marry her, and that Rush _must_ let him alone–not even try to talk with him about it–had only made him the more confident in his diagnosis.
It must have been pat in the middle of this scene that Graham’s midnight-written letter arrived. Rush’s attitude toward his partner’s flight–after the first moments of mere incredulity–had been one of contemptuous irritation, the natural attitude for any young man who sees a comrade taking no more of a matter than a disappointment in love with an evident lack of fortitude. This was heightened, too, by a rapidly developed sense of personal grievance. What the devil did Graham think was going to happen to him with Hickory Hill left on his hands like that? There was more than enough work for the two of them. And then the financial aspect of it! Mr. Stannard, who had just been brought to the point of loosening up and letting them have a little more money, would of course leave Rush to his fate. If he didn’t call his loans and sell him out! Ruin them altogether! Graham must simply be found and dragged back before his father learned of his flight.
He couldn’t have been paying his sister much attention while he ran on like that! Unwisely, perhaps, but inevitably, Mary attempted to defend the fugitive–in the only way she thought of as possible; namely, by showing her brother what the true situation was.
She didn’t try to tell March what she said. The thing which, with a forlorn smile, she dwelt upon, was the terrified vehemence with which Rush had stopped her at his first inkling of what she was trying to make him see. She was simply out of her head. A bad case, he pronounced, of neurasthenia. Her having set out yesterday to find a job should have made that plain enough. What she needed was a nurse and a doctor–and he meant to provide both within the next few hours. He then compromised by saying that the nurse he had in mind was for the moment Aunt Lucile and the doctor their father.
With an alternation of truculence and cajolery, he had got her to lie down and to promise not to talk–that was the important thing–and this accomplished he devoted half an hour to the composition of a note to Miss Wollaston (whom it was difficult to tell anything to over the telephone, particularly with long distance rural connections) which he despatched, in charge of Pete, in the big car. Pete would get back with her by three at the latest.
Rush then had a long talk by telephone with his father at Ravinia. Mary didn’t know, of course, what they had said, beyond that John had promised to come down immediately after lunch, but she got the idea that the professional medical attitude had been one of less alarm than the amateur one. Mary confessed to March, with a flicker of ironic amusement, that she had supported this lighter view so successfully that, a little before noon, Rush had confided to her his wish–if she were perfectly sure she didn’t need him–to take the one o’clock train to Lake Geneva. He and Graham were still expected there for the week-end and on a good many accounts it would be well if he didn’t fail them. He dreaded going, of course, but he felt he could meet the situation better on the ground whatever turned up. He could wait for the three o’clock train, but this was the one Mr. Stannard always took and he’d like to get in a talk with Sylvia first. She was a great pal of her brother’s and might well have some real information about He’d have Pete’s wife come in and look after Mary–get lunch and so on. And father would be down about two.
March thought the forlorn smile with which she told him this the most heart-breaking thing he had ever seen. Damn Rush! Damn all the sentimentalists in the world. Dressing up their desires in altruistic clothes. Loving themselves in a lot of crooked mirrors!
The rest of the story told itself in very few words. John Wollaston telephoned, about three, from Ravinia, to say that Paula wasn’t well–meant to sing to-night as she was billed to do (she took great pride in never disappointing her audiences)–but very much wanted him at hand through the ordeal. If Mary was feeling as much better as her voice sounded would she mind his not coming until to-morrow morning.
She’d assured him, of course, that she wouldn’t mind a bit. Aunt Lucile hadn’t arrived yet but she would be coming any minute now. Rush had been making a great fuss about nothing, anyway. She did not volunteer the information that Rush had already gone to Lake Geneva.
At five o’clock a telegram, addressed to Rush, had come from Miss Wollaston. Pete had broken one of the springs of the big car and had had to go to Durham for another. She hoped Rush and his father would be able to take care of Mary until to-morrow morning when she would arrive with one of the servants and take charge.
That cleared the board. To-morrow they would descend upon her with their fussy attentions, their medical solemnities, their farcical search for something–for anything except the truth they wouldn’t let her tell–to account for her nervous breakdown. But for a dozen hours she was, miraculously, to be let alone, with blessed open spaces round her. No need for any frantic haste. Plenty of time. The whole of that hot still summer night.
And then, at six o’clock, a man named James Wallace had telephoned! And Jennie MacArthur had decided to drop in that evening for a visit with Sarah! Fate had played its part; given March his chance.
“So that’s why you decided to go away,” he said.
He had been nerving himself during a long slow silence for that. He could almost as easily have struck her a blow, and indeed the effect of it was precisely that. But though she tried to shrink away he held her tighter and went on. “I don’t believe there’s anything in the whole picture now that I don’t see and understand. But–but the way out … Oh, Mary darling, it isn’t the one you are trying to take. There’s happiness for both of us if you’ll take the other way–with me.”
She was struggling now to get free from his hands. “No!” she gasped wildly. “I won’t do that. I’ll do anything–_anything_ else rather than that. Let me go now.”
But he held her fast. Presently she relaxed and lay back panting in her chair. “Won’t you please let me go?” she pleaded. “You haven’t understood at all if you don’t see that you must. Oh, but you do understand! You’ve comforted me … I didn’t think there could be any comfort like that. Let me go now–in peace. Don’t ask the other. I’ve spoiled things for everybody else, but I won’t for you. I couldn’t endure that.”
All the pleas, the arguments, the convincing phrases which he had been mustering while she talked to him so contentedly, to convince her of the truth, the blinding truth that he wanted her now for his wife, that life no longer seemed a possible thing for him upon any other terms–all that feeble scaffolding of words was, to his despair, swept now clean away in the very torrent of his passion. He could do nothing for a while but go on holding her. At last, words burst from him.
“I won’t let you go. Not alone. Wherever you go, I’ll go with you.”
She looked up, staring into his face and he saw an incredulous surmise deepen into certainty. She had seen, heard in that cry of his, the truth–that he understood what she meant to do. Then her face contorted itself like a child’s, ineffectually struggling to keep back tears, and she broke down, weeping.
That broke the spell that had fallen upon him. He took her up, carried her over to the big armchair and sat down with her in his arms.
His own terror, which had never more than momentarily receded since she had first spoken to him from the doorway, was, he realized, gone; replaced by an inexplicable thrilling confidence that he had won his victory. He didn’t speak a word.
The tempest was soon spent. It was a matter only of minutes before the sobbing ceased. But for a long while after she was quiet, all muscles relaxed, she lay just as he held her, a soft dead weight like a sleeping child. He wondered, indeed, if she had not fallen asleep and finally moved his head so that he could see her eyes. They were open, though, and at that movement of his she stirred, sighed and sat erect.
“I think I would have dropped off in another minute,” she said. Then she put her hands upon his shoulders. “I won’t do that. I promise, solemnly, I won’t do what–what we both thought I meant to do. I don’t believe I could now, anyway. Now that the nightmare is gone.”
She smiled then and bent down and kissed him. “But I won’t do the other thing either, my dear. I’ll find some other way. Really go to Omaha perhaps. But I won’t marry you. You see why, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I can tell you exactly why. You don’t want to take away my freedom. You want me to be a sort of–what was that opera you spoke about at Hickory Hill?–_Chemineau_. Doing nothing but what I please. Wandering off wherever I like.” He smiled. “Mary, dear, do you realize that you’re proposing to deal with me exactly as Graham Stannard would have dealt with you? Trying to make an image of me?”
She started from his knees, retreated a pace or two and turned and confronted him.
“That’s not true,” she protested. “That can’t possibly be true!”
He did not answer. He had plenty of arguments with which to establish the parallel, his mind was aflame with phrases in which to plead his cause with her. Somehow they wouldn’t come to his tongue. It didn’t occur to him that fatigue had anything to do with this. He was filled with a sudden fury that he could not talk to her.
She had turned away, restlessly, and moved to one of the dormer windows. Following her with his eyes he saw the dawn coming.
He rose stiffly from his chair. “I guess I had better take you home now,” he said.
She nodded and got her hat. When he found her at the door after he had put out the lamp she clung to him for a moment in the dark and he thought she meant to speak, but she did not.
He helped her down the irregular shaky stair and then, along the gray cool empty street he walked with her toward the brightened sky.
She said, at last, “Graham wouldn’t let me tell him what the real me was like. Tell me the truth about the real you.”
“There isn’t much to tell. I guess I’m pretty much like any one else when it comes down to–to … I don’t want to go on, alone. I want to be woven in with you. I want…”
He stood still in a vain effort to make the words come. “I can’t talk!” he cried, and his voice broke in a sob.
“You needn’t,” she said; and pressing his hand against her breast she led him on again. She was trembling and her hand was cold.
Nothing more was said between them, all the way. But when they reached her door and managed to open it she stood for a moment peering through the dusk into his face.
“If it’s true…” she said. “If you really want a home and a wife–like me… Oh, yes, I know it’s true!”
Two or three hours after March and Mary came to the Dearborn Avenue house that Sunday morning, a little before eight o’clock to be precise, John Wollaston, deterred by humane considerations from ringing the door-bell, tried his latch-key first and found it sufficient. Rather surprisingly since his sister was particular about bolts and chains. But this mild sensation was engulfed the next moment in clear astonishment when he encountered in the drawing-room doorway, Anthony March.
The piano tuner was coatless and in his socks. Evidently it was no less recent an event than the sound of the latchkey which had roused him from sleep.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s you, sir.” And added as he came a little wider awake, “I’m very glad you’ve come.”
John detected a reservation of some sort in this afterthought; faintly ironic perhaps. There was, at any rate, a conspicuous absence of any implication that his presence was urgently needed just then, or eagerly waited for.
He replied with an irony a little more marked, “It’s an unexpected pleasure to find you here. They’re wanting you rather badly up at Ravinia these days, I understand.”
March nodded, cast a glance in the direction of the stairs and led the way decisively into the drawing-room. His pantomime made it clear that he did not wish the rest of the slumbering household aroused. Considerate of him, of course, and all that, but the decisiveness of the action–as if he somehow felt himself in charge, despite the arrival of his host–roused in John a faint hostility.
He followed nevertheless. He saw at once where his unaccountable visitor had made his bed. A big cane davenport had been dragged into the bay window, its velvet cushions neatly stacked on the piano bench, and the composer’s coat, rolled with his deftness of experience, had served him for a pillow. Not a bad bed for such a night as this that John himself had sweltered through so unsuccessfully. Probably the coolest place in the house, right by those open south windows. But all, the same …
“Couldn’t Rush do better for you than that?” he said. “There must be a dozen beds in the house.”
“Rush isn’t here,” March answered. “I believe he went to Lake Geneva yesterday, for over Sunday.”
John Wollaston felt the blood come up into his face as the conviction sprang into his mind that Lucile wasn’t here, either. She’d never have left the front door unbolted. She’d never have permitted a guest, however explicit his preferences, to sleep upon the cane davenport in the drawing-room with his coat for a pillow.
It was as if March had followed his train of thought step by step.
“Miss Wollaston isn’t here either,” he said. “She was detained by a broken spring in the car. I believe she expects to arrive this morning.”
A faint amusement showed in his face and presently brightened into a smile. “I’m really very relieved,” he added, “that it was you who got here first.”
And then the smile vanished and his voice took a new timbre, not of challenge, certainly not of defiance, but all the more for that of authority. “The only other person in the house is Mary.”
A sudden weakness of the legs caused John to seat himself, with what appearance of deliberation he could manage, in the nearest chair. March, however, remained on his feet.
“I brought her home last night,” he went on, “very late–early this morning rather–with the intention of leaving her here alone. But I decided to stay. Also it was her preference that I should. I suspect she’s asleep. She promised, at least, to call me if she didn’t.”
That, apparently, finished for the present what he had to say. He turned–it really was rather gentle the way he disengaged himself from the fixity of John’s look,–replaced the cushions on the cane davenport; and then, seating himself, began putting on his shoes.
Precisely that gentleness, though it checked on John’s tongue the angry question, “What the devil were you doing with her until early this morning?” only added to his anger by depriving it of a target. For a minute he sat inarticulate, boiling.
It was an outrageous piece of slacking on Rush’s part that he should have deserted his sister before the arrival of one or the other of his promised reenforcements relieved him of his duty. It was inexcusable of Lucile to let a trivial matter like a broken spring keep her at Hickory Hill. There were plenty of trains, weren’t there? And the third rail every hour? It was shockingly disengenuous of Mary, when she talked with him over the telephone yesterday afternoon, to have suppressed the essential fact that Rush had already deserted her and that she was at that moment alone.
And then his anger turned upon himself, as a voice within him asked whether, on his conscience, he could affirm that this knowledge would have made a difference in his own actions. Could he be sure he wouldn’t have clutched at the assurance that his sister was already on the way rather than have exacerbated his quarrel with Paula by doing the one thing that would annoy her most.
Laboriously he got himself together, steadied himself. “You mustn’t think,” he said, “that I’m not grateful. We’re all grateful, of course, to you for having done what our combined negligence appears to have made necessary.” Then his voice hardened and the ring of anger crept into it as he added, “You may be sure that nothing of the sort will occur again.”
“No,” March said dryly. “It won’t occur again.” He straightened up and faced John Wollaston squarely. “I’ve persuaded Mary to marry me,” he said.
“To marry–_you_!” John echoed blankly. For a moment before his mind began to work, he merely stared. The first thought that struggled through was a reluctant recognition of the fact that there was a sort of dignity in the man which not even the stale look, inevitable about one who has just slept in his clothes, could overcome. No more than his pallor and the lines of fatigue deeply marked in his face could impeach his air of authority. There was something to him not quite accountable under any of the categories John was in the habit of applying. So much John had conceded from the first; from that morning in this very room when he had found him tuning the Circassian grand and had gone away, shutting the door over yonder, so that Paula shouldn’t hear.
But that Mary should seriously contemplate marrying him! Mary! Good God!
Once more March disengaged himself from John’s fixed gaze. Not at all as if he couldn’t support it; gently again, by way of giving the older man time to recover from his astonishment. He went into the bay and stood looking out the window into the bright hot empty street. From where he sat John could see his face in profile. He certainly was damned cool about it.
There recurred to John’s mind, a moment during that day’s drive he had taken with Mary, down South, when he had leaped to the wild surmise that there might be something between those two. She’d been talking about the piano tuner with what struck him as a surprisingly confident understanding.
She had instantly, he remembered, divined his thought and as swiftly set it at rest. March wasn’t, she had said, a person who saved himself up for special people. He was there for anybody, like a public drinking fountain.
But had she been ingenuous in making that reply to him? Had he really been in her confidence about the man? Obviously not. The only encounter between them that he had ever heard about was the one she had upon that day described to him. And Lucile and Rush were evidently as completely in the dark about the affair as he himself had been. Their meetings, their numerous meetings, must have been clandestine. That Mary, his own white little daughter, should be capable of an affair like that!
Another memory flashed into his mind. The evening of that same day when she had tried to tell him why she couldn’t marry Graham. She wasn’t, she had said, innocent enough for Graham; she wasn’t even quite–good.
The horror of the conclusion he seemed to be drifting upon literally, for a moment, nauseated John Wollaston. The sweat felt cold upon his forehead. And then, white hot, bracing him like brandy, a wave of anger.
Some preliminary move toward speaking evidently caught March’s ear, for he turned alertly and looked. It was one of the oddest experiences John Wollaston had ever had. The moment he met March’s gaze, the whole infernal pattern, like an old-fashioned set-piece in fireworks, extinguished itself as suddenly as it had flared. There was something indescribable in this man’s face that simply made grotesque the notion that he could be a blackguard. John felt himself clutching at his anger to keep him up but the momentary belief which had fed it was gone.
March’s face darkened, too. “If you have any idea,” he said, “that I’ve taken any advantage–or attempted to take any…”
“No,” John said quickly. “I don’t believe anything like that. I confess there was a moment just now when it looked like that; when I couldn’t make it look like anything else. It is still quite unaccountable to me. That explanation is discarded–but I’d like the real one.”
“I don’t believe,” March said, reflecting over it for a moment, “that there is any explanation I could give that would make it much more accountable. We love each other. That is a fact that, accountable or not, we both had to recognize a number of weeks ago. I didn’t ask her to marry me until last night. I wouldn’t have asked her then if it hadn’t become clear to me that her happiness depended upon it as much as mine did. When she was able to see that the converse was also true, we–agreed upon it.”
“What I asked for,” John said, “was an explanation. What you have offered is altogether inadequate–if it can be called an explanation at all.” He wrenched his eyes away from March’s face. “I’ve liked you,” he went on, “I’ve liked you despite the fact that I’ve had some excuse for entertaining a contradictory feeling. And I concede your extraordinary talents. But it remains true that you’re not–the sort of man I’d expect my daughter to marry. Nor, unless I could see some better reason than I see now, permit her to marry.”
This was further than, in cool blood, he’d have gone. But the finding of a stranger here in his own place (any man would have been a stranger when it came as close as this to Mary) professing to understand her needs, to see with the clear eye of certainty where her happiness lay, angered and outraged him. The more for an irresistible conviction that the profession was true. But that word permit went too far. He wasn’t enough of an old-fashioned parent to believe, at all whole-heartedly, that Mary was his to dispose of.
Again, he looked up at the man’s face, braced for the retort his challenge had laid him open to, and once more the expression he saw there–a thing as momentary as a shimmer of summer lightning,–told him more than anything within the resources of rhetoric could have effected. It was something a little less than a smile that flashed across March’s face, a look half pitiful, half ironic. It told John Wollaston that his permission was not needed. Events had got beyond him. He was superseded.
He dropped back limp in his chair. March seated himself, too, and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped.
“I know how it must look to you, sir,” he said gravely. “Even the social aspect of the thing in the narrowest sense of the word is serious. And there are other difficulties harder to get over than that. I don’t think I minimize any of them. And I don’t believe that Mary does. But the main thing is a fact that can’t be escaped. If we face that first …”
He broke off there for a moment and John saw him grip his hands together. It was with a visible effort that he went on.
“One of the things Mary said last night was that sentimentality was the crudest thing in the world. It caused more tragedies, she said, than malice. She had learned the cruelty of it by experience. It’s not an experience she can safely go through again.”
It was in an automatic effort to defend himself against the conviction he felt closing down upon him that John lashed out here with a reply.
“The fact you’re asking me to face is, I suppose, that you two have discovered you’re in love with each other to a degree that makes all other considerations negligible.”
“That’s not quite it,” March replied patiently. “A part of it is, that it would have been just as impossible for Mary to marry Graham Stannard if she had never seen me. And if she could forget me completely it would still be impossible for her to marry any one else like him.”
John didn’t follow that very closely. His mind was still upon the last sentence of March’s former speech. “It’s not an experience she can safely go through again.” What did he mean by that? How much did he mean by that? Would John, if he could, plumb the full depth of that meaning? There was no use fighting any longer.
“The simplest way of stating the fact, I suppose,” he said, “is that you two mean to marry and that you’re satisfied that your reasons for making the decision are valid. Well, if Mary corroborates you, as I have no doubt she will, I’ll face that fact as realistically as possible. I’ll agree not to, as you put it, sentimentalize.”
Then he got up and held out his hand. “I mean that for a better welcome that it sounds,” he concluded. And if there was no real feeling of kindliness for his prospective son-in-law behind the words, there was what came to the same thing, a realization that this feeling was bound to come in time. No candid-minded person could keep alive, for very long, a grievance against Anthony March.
The physician in him spoke automatically while their hands were gripped. “Good lord, man! You’re about at the end of your rope. Exhausted–that’s what I mean. How long is it since you’ve fed?”
March was vague about this; wouldn’t be drawn into the line John had been diverted into. He answered another question or two of the same tenor with half his mind and finally said–with the first touch of impatience he had betrayed, “I’m all right! That can wait. There’s one more thing I want to say before you talk to Mary.”
He seemed grateful for John’s permission to sit down again, dropped into his chair in a way that suggested he might have fallen into it in another minute, and took the time he visibly needed for getting his wits into working order again.
“I think I can see how the prospect must look to you,” he began. “The difficulties and objections that you see are, I guess, the same ones that appeared to me. The fact that I’m not in her world, at all. That I’ve never even tried to succeed nor get on, nor even to earn a decent living. And that, however hard I work to change all that, it will only be by perfectly extraordinary luck if I can contrive to make a life for her that will be–externally anywhere near as good a life as the one she’s always taken for granted.
“It won’t be as much worse, though, as you are likely to think. With the help she’ll give me I shall be able to earn a decent living. Unless that opera of mine fails–laughably, and I don’t believe it will, up at Ravinia, it will help quite a lot. Make it possible for me to get some pupils in composition. And I know I can write some songs that will be publishable and singable–for persons who aren’t musicians like Paula. I did write two or three for the boys in Bordeaux that went pretty well. That sort of thing didn’t seem worth while to me then and I never went on with it.
“Oh, you know how I’ve felt about it. How I’ve talked about traveling light and not letting my life get cluttered up. But that isn’t really the thing that’s changed. I’ve never been willing to pay, in liberty and leisure, for things I didn’t want. The only difference is that there’s something now that I do want. And I shan’t shirk paying for it. I want you to understand that.”
He stressed the word you in a way that puzzled John a little, but what he went on to say after a moment’s hesitation made his meaning clear.
“That’s preliminary. You’ll find that Mary’s misgivings–she’s not without them and they won’t be easy to overcome–aren’t the same as ours. Those aren’t the things that she’s afraid of. She’s afraid of taking my liberty away from me. She won’t be able to believe, easily, that my old vagabond ways have lost their importance for me; that they’re a phase I can afford to outgrow. She’s likely to think I’ve sacrificed something essential in going regularly to work, giving lessons, writing popular songs. Of course, it will rest mostly with me to satisfy her that that isn’t true, but any help you can give her along that line, I’ll be grateful for. Last night she seemed convinced–far enough to give me her promise but…”
Words faded away there into an uneasy silence. John, looking intently into the man’s face, saw him wrestling, he thought, with same idea, some fear, some sort of nightmare horror which with all the power of his will he was struggling not to give access to. He pressed his clenched hands against his eyes.
“What is it?” John asked sharply. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s nothing,” March said between his teeth. “She promised, as I said. She told me I needn’t be afraid.” Then he came to his feet with a gesture of surrender. “Will you let me see her?” he asked John. “Now. Just for a minute before I go.”
John, by that time, was on his feet, too, staring. “What do you mean, man? Afraid of what? What is it you’re afraid of?”
March didn’t answer the question in words, but for a moment he met her father’s gaze eye to eye and what John saw was enough.
“Good God!” he whispered. “Why–why didn’t you …” Then turning swiftly toward the door. “Come along.”
“I’m really not afraid,” March panted as he followed him up the stairs, “because of her promise. It was just a twinge.”
Her door at the foot of the stairs which led to the music room stood wide open, but both men came to an involuntary breathless pause outside it. Then John went in, looked for a brief moment at the figure that slept so gently in the narrow little bed, gave a reassuring nod to March who had hung back in the doorway, a nod that invited him in; then turned away and covered his face with his hands just for one steadying instant until the shock of that abominable fear should pass away.
When he looked again March stood at the bedside gazing down into the girl’s face. It was as if his presence there were palpable to her. She opened her eyes sleepily, smiled a fleeting contented smile and held up her arms to her lover. He smiled, too, and bent down and kissed her. Then as the arms that had clasped his neck slipped down he straightened, nodded to John and went back to the door. John followed and for a moment, outside the room, they talked in whispers.
“I’m going home now,” March said. “To my father’s house–not the other place. There’s a telephone there if she wants me. But I’ll call anyhow before I go to Ravina this afternoon.”
It was he, this time, who held out his hand.
“You can trust her with me in the meantime, I think,” John said as he took it, but the irony of that was softened by a smile. March smiled, too, and with no more words went away.
Her eyes turned upon John when he came back into the room, wide open but still full of sleep. When he stood once more beside her bed a pat of her hand invited him to sit down upon the edge of it.
“He really was here, wasn’t he?” she asked. “I wasn’t dreaming?”
“No, he was here,” John said.
Her eyelids drooped again. “I’m having the loveliest dreams,” she told him. “I suppose I ought to be waking up. What time is it?”
“It’s still very early. Only about half past eight. Go back to sleep.”
“Have you had breakfast? Pete’s wife, out in the garage, will come in and get it for you.”
“When I feel like breakfast, I’ll see to it that I get some,” he said, rising.
Once more she roused herself a little. “Stay here, then, for a while,” she said. “Pull that chair up close.”
When he had planted the easy chair in the place she indicated and seated himself in it she gave him one of her hands to hold. But in another minute she was fast asleep.
And that, you know, was the hottest, most intolerable sting of all. He was sore, of course, all over. He had been badly battered during the last four days. Some of those moments with March down-stairs had been like blows from a bludgeon. But his daughter’s sleepy attempt to concern herself about his breakfast and the perfunctory caress of that slack unconscious hand had the effect of the climax of it all.
She’d just been through the crisis of her life. She’d been down chin-deep in the black waters of tragedy (he didn’t yet know, he told himself, what the elements of the crisis were nor the poisonous springs of the tragedy) and all her father meant to her was a domestic responsibility, some one that breakfast must be provided for!
He managed to control his release of her hand and his rising from his chair so that these actions should not be so brusk as to waken her again and, leaving the room, went down to his own.
That was the way with children. They remained a part of you but you were never a part of them. Mary having awakened for her lover, smiled at him, been reassured by his kiss, had been content to drop off to sleep again. Her father didn’t matter. Not even his derelictions mattered.
He had been derelict. He didn’t pretend to evade that. He could have forgiven her reproaches; welcomed them. But thanks to March, she had nothing to reproach him for The presence of a man she had known a matter of weeks obliterated past years like the writing on a child’s slate. He tried to erect an active resentment against the composer. Didn’t all his troubles go back to the day the man had come, to tune the drawing-room piano? First Paula and then Mary.
None of this was very real and he knew it. There was an underlying stratum of his consciousness that this didn’t get down to at all, which, when it managed to get a word in, labeled it mere petulance, a childish attempt to find solace for his hurts in building up a grievance, a whole fortress of grievances to take shelter in against the bombardment of facts.
Was this the quality of his bitter four days’ quarrel with Paula? Was the last accusation she had hurled at him last night before she shut herself in her room, a fact? “Of course, I’m jealous of Mary,” she had acknowledged furiously when he charged her with it. “You don’t care anything about me except for your pleasure. Down there in Tryon, when you didn’t want that, you got rid of me and sent for Mary instead. If that weren’t true, you wouldn’t have been so anxious all these years that I shouldn’t have a child.”
No, that wasn’t a fact, though it could be twisted into looking like one. If he had refrained from urging motherhood upon her, if he’d given her the benefit of his special knowledge, didn’t her interest in her career as a singer establish the presumption that it was her wish rather than his that they were following. Had she ever said she’d like to have a baby? Or even hinted?
He pulled himself up. There was no good going over that again.
He bathed and shaved and dressed himself in fresh clothes, operations which had been perforce omitted at the cottage this morning in favor of his departure without arousing Paula. (He’d slept, or rather lain awake, upon the hammock in the veranda.) When he came down-stairs he found Pete’s wife already in the kitchen, gave her directions about his breakfast and then from force of habit, thought of his morning paper. The delivery of it had been discontinued, of course, for the months the house was closed, so he walked down to Division Street to get one.
He had got his mind into a fairly quiescent state by then which made the trick it played when he first caught sight of the great stacks of _Tribunes_ and _Heralds_ on the corner news-stand all the more terrifying. It had the force of an hallucination; as if in the head-lines he actually saw the word suicide in thick black letters. And his daughter’s name underneath.
He had managed, somehow, to evade that word; to refrain from putting into any words at all the peril Mary had so narrowly escaped, although the fact had hung, undisguised, between him and March during the moment they stared at each other before they went up-stairs together. It avenged that evasion by leaping upon him now. He bought his paper and hurried home with it under his arm, feeling as if it might still contain the news of that tragedy.
Reacting from this irrational panic he tried to discount the whole thing. March hadn’t lied, of course, but, being a lover, he had exaggerated. As John sat over his breakfast he got to feeling quite comfortable about this. His mind went back to the breakfast he had had with Mary at Ravinia –breakfast after much such an abominable night as this last had been–the breakfast they had left for that talk under the trees beside the lake. And then his own words came back and stabbed him.
He had been arguing with her his right to extinguish himself if he chose. He had said he had no religion real enough to make a valid denial of that right. It was a question no one else could presume to decide. How much more had he said to that sensitive nerve-drawn child of his? He remembered how white she had gone for a moment, a little later. And he had pretended not to see! Just as he had been pretending, a few minutes back, to doubt the reality of the peril March had saved her from. What a liar he was!
Sentimentality, March had quoted Mary as saying, was the cruelest thing in the world. John stood convicted now of that cruelty toward his daughter. Was he guilty of it, also, toward his wife? Did their quarrel boil down to that?
Anthony March might deny as much as he pleased that he was “enough of an Olympian to laugh” at life’s ironies, but it remained true that his God had a sense of humor and that March himself appreciated it. When, well within that same twenty-four hours, a third member of the Wollaston family insisted upon telling him her troubles and asking him what she’d best do about them, he conceded with the flicker of an inward grin (not at all at the troubles which were serious enough nor at their sufferer who was in despair), that the great Disposer, having set out to demolish that philosophy, enjoyed making a thorough job of it.
It was about four o’clock on Sunday afternoon that he came to Paula’s cottage at Ravinia to get the score to _The Outcry_. The maid who opened the door informed him that her mistress wasn’t at home, but when he told her what he wanted, and she had gone rather dubiously up-stairs to see about it, it was Paula herself who, after a wait of ten minutes or so, came down with the manuscript in her hand.
He was, perhaps, just the one person in the world she’d have come down to see. All the explanation she volunteered to herself was that he didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, this was to say, if he did perceive that she had been crying for days and days and looked an utter wreck.
And then his errand brought her a touch of comfort. The acceptance of _The Outcry_ for production restored the proprietary feeling she once had had about it. She was the discoverer of _The Outcry_ and if you’d asked her who was responsible for the revival of interest in it and for the fact that it was now to be produced, I think she’d have told you quite honestly that she was. Hadn’t she asked them all to come to her house to hear it? And sung the part of “Dolores” herself at that very informal audition?
And I’ll hazard one further guess. It is that her quarrel with John made March’s opera a rather pleasanter thing to dwell on a little. She had taken it up in defiance of his wish in the first place; her abandonment of it had acquired from its context the color of a self-sacrificial impulse. She would carry out her contract, she had told John down in Tryon, but she wouldn’t sing “Dolores” for anybody. Well, now that her love-life with John was irremediably wrecked, there was a sort of melancholy satisfaction in handling, once more, the thing that stood as the innocent symbol of the disaster.
That’s neither here nor there, of course. Paula was totally unaware of any such constellation about her simple act of deciding to carry down the score herself instead of handing it over to the maid.
The sight of him standing over the piano in her sitting-room cheered her and the look of melancholy she brought down-stairs with her was replaced by a spontaneous unexpected smile. Just as Mary, out at Hickory Hill, had predicted, she remembered how well she liked him. She laid the manuscript on the piano in order to give him both hands.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am about it,” she said. “I wish you all the luck in the world.”
He brightened responsively at that but looked, she thought, a little surprised, too.
“I am glad you’re pleased about it,” he told her. “I wasn’t quite sure you’d know. Of course, they telephoned.”
She stepped back, puzzled. “But of course I know!” she said. “Haven’t I been working on it for weeks! Why, it was right here in this room that they decided on it. Days ago. I’ve been trying frantically to find you ever since.”
“Oh,” he said, “you mean _The Outcry_. I thought you were congratulating me on my engagement to marry Mary.”
She stared at him in simple blank incredulity. “To marry Mary! Mary Wollaston? You don’t mean that seriously?”
“It’s the only serious fact in the world,” he assured her.
“But John–Does John know about it?” she demanded.
“Yes,” he said.
She drew a long breath, then pounced upon him with another question. “Did you tell him about it, or was it Mary who did?”
“It was I,” March said. “I was the first one to see him after it happened.”
“He hadn’t suspected anything, had he?” she persisted.
She was vaguely aware that he was a little puzzled and perhaps in the same degree amused by her intensity, but she had no interest in half tones of that sort.
When he answered in the sense she expected, “No, I can testify to that. He was taken completely by surprise when I broke it to him;” she heaved another long breath, turned away, and sat down heavily in the nearest chair.
“Poor old John!” she said. But she didn’t let that exclamation go uninterpreted. “I didn’t mean anything–personal by that,” she went on. “Only–only I didn’t think John could make up his mind to let her marry–anybody.” Then in a rush–an aside, to be sure, but one he was welcome to hear if he chose.–“He wanted her so much all to himself.”
Whether he heard it or not, he failed, she thought, to attach any special significance to that last comment of hers. He said that John had been very nice about it, though he was, as any father would be under the circumstances, taken aback. He had consented to regard the arrangement as an accomplished fact and would, March hoped, in time be fully reconciled to it. Then he went back rather quickly to the matter of his opera.
“Of course, it means more than ever to me now,” he said, putting his hand on the manuscript, “to get this produced. If it goes moderately well it will help in a good many ways.”
She found some difficulty in again turning her mind to this theme and answered absently and rather at random, until she perceived that he was getting ready to take his leave. He was saying something about an appointment with LaChaise.
“Is it at once?” she asked. “Do you have to go right away?”
“I’m to have dinner with him and his secretary, who can talk English, at six,” March said, “but I thought I’d carry this off somewhere and read it before I talked with them. It’s been a long way out of my mind this last three months.”
“Don’t go,” Paula said. “It seems so–so nice to have you here. Sit down and read your score. Then you’ll have a piano handy in case you want to hear anything.” She added as she saw him hesitate, “I won’t bother you–but I’m feeling awfully lonely to-day.”
At that, of course, he relinquished, though a little dubiously she thought, his intention to go. She set about energetically making matters convenient for him, cleared a small table of its litter and set it in the window where he would have the best light; chose a chair for him to sit in; urged him to take off his coat; and began looking about for something for him to smoke–but not quite successfully. She was sure there were cigarettes of Mary’s somewhere about.
He didn’t care to smoke just now, he said. If he felt later like resorting to a pipe he would.
Was there anything else? Didn’t he want a pencil and paper to make notes on? No, he was supplied with everything, he said.
But for all the ardor of these preparations of hers, she was a little disconcerted and aggrieved at the way he took her at her word and plunged into the study of his score.
She found herself a novel and managed, for five minutes or so, to pretend to read. Then she flung it aside and drifted over to the piano bench and after gazing moodily a while at the keyboard, began in a fragmentary way to play bits of nothing that came into her head. But she stopped herself short in manifest contrition when, happening to look around at him, she saw a knot of baffled concentration in his forehead.
“Of course, you can’t read if I do that,” she said. “I’m sorry.” Then under cover of the same interruption, “How did John look when you saw him this morning? Like a wreck? What time was it, anyway? It must have been frightfully early that he left here because I waked as soon as it was really light and he was gone by then.”
“I don’t know that he looked particularly a wreck,” March said. “Not any worse, I mean, than he looked out at Hickory Hill the day you opened the season here.”
“He didn’t say anything about me, did he?” she asked.
“No,” March said, “I don’t think he did.”
“I suppose you’d remember it if he’d happened to tell you that he loathed and hated me and never wanted to see me again.” Then she rose and went over to the opposite side of his little table and leaning down spread her hands out over his score.
“Oh, I know I said I wouldn’t bother, but do stop thinking about this and talk to me for a minute. We’re having–we’re having a perfectly hideous time. He and I. We’ve been fighting like cat and dog for four days. I don’t exactly know what it’s all about, except that it seems we hate each other and can’t go on. You’ve got to tell me what to do. It all started with you anyway. With the time you brought around those Whitman songs.–That was the day Mary came home from New York, too,” she added.
“All right,” he said, shutting down the cover upon his manuscript, “then Mary and I will try to patch you up. That is, if we haven’t already done it.”
Her face darkened. “Don’t try to talk the way they do,” she commanded. “I’m not intelligent enough to take hints. Do you mean that the whole trouble is that I’m jealous of Mary? And that now she’s going to marry you I’ll have nothing to be jealous of? Well, you’re wrong both ways. There’s more to it than that. And that isn’t going to stop just because she’s marrying you. She’ll always be there for him. And he’ll be there for her. You’ll find that out before you’ve gone far.”
He didn’t seem disposed to dispute this, nor to be much perturbed about it, either. He annoyed her by saying, “Well, if it’s a permanent fact, like snow in February, what’s the good of taking it so hard?”
“You can go south in February,” she retorted. Then she went on, “I want to know if you don’t think I’ve a right to be jealous of her. I’d saved his life. He admitted that. But when we went south, afterward, he simply didn’t want me around. Sent me home pretending I’d be wanted for rehearsals. And then he sent for her. They spent a week together–talking! As far as that goes, they could have done it just as well if I’d been there. They can talk right over my head and I never know what it’s all about. Wait till they begin doing that with you! I don’t suppose they will though. You’re a talker, too. He told her things he’d never told me-about his money troubles. What he said to me was that he didn’t want to stand in the way of my career. He left her to tell me the truth about it, later,–after I’d told him I didn’t want any career–though I’d just been offered the best chance I ever had. And then, when he came and found that I’d done–for him–what he’d been trying to make me do for myself, he was furious. We fought all night about it. And when I came down the next morning, ready to do anything he wanted me to, he’d wandered off with Mary. To talk me over with her again.–Tell her some more things, I suppose, that I didn’t know about.”
March had nothing to interpose here, it seemed, in Mary’s defense, for her pause gave him ample opportunity to do so. He merely nodded reflectively and loaded and lighted his pipe.
“Well,” she demanded presently, “can you see now that there’s something more to it than jealousy? Whatever I try to do, he fights. When I wanted to begin singing again last spring, he fought that. And when I wanted to give it all up, after he’d so nearly died, he wouldn’t let me. And when I’d refused the best chance I’d ever had, for him, and then changed around and accepted it because of him, he seemed to hate me for doing that. And he simply boiled when I told him I’d gone and got the money, myself, from Wallace Hood.”
“Yes,” March said, so decisively that he startled her, “I know all about it up to there. That was Thursday afternoon, wasn’t it? Go on from then.”
The interruption disconcerted her. “There isn’t much more–to tell,” she went on, but a good deal less impetuously. “Except that we fought and fought and fought. About eight o’clock that night I said I was going to the park to see the performance;–just to get a rest from talking. Mr. Eckstein was there and the Williamsons and James Wallace, so I asked them all to come home with us. And Fournier and LaChaise, too. And we got on your opera and LaChaise played part of it and then I read a lot of it with Fournier. So they didn’t go home till after three. John thought I was keeping them there in order not to be left alone with him.–Well, what was the good of talking, anyhow? We did get started again on Friday, though; all day long. And Friday night we–made up, in a way. At least, I thought we did.
“Well, and then yesterday morning Rush telephoned out from town and said he thought John ought to come in to see Mary. She wasn’t very well. I told him to go if he liked. I was feeling perfectly awful, yesterday, myself–and I was billed for _Thais_ last night. There isn’t another soprano up here who wouldn’t have cancelled it, feeling the way I did. But I told John that if he thought Mary needed him more than I did, he’d better go.–I wish he had gone. After he’d telephoned to say he wasn’t coming–he’d talked to Mary herself, that time–he kept getting colder and gloomier and more–unendurable from hour to hour. And after the performance, we had the most horrible fight of all. He told me I had kept him away from Mary on purpose,–because I was jealous of her. He said he could never forgive himself for the way he’d treated her–in order to curry favor with me. And he said that the first thing in the morning he was going to her. That’s all.–Oh, well, I said a few things to him, too. Do you wonder?”
By way of a flourish, she flashed to her feet again at this conclusion (she’d been up and down half a dozen times in the course of her appeal to him as jury), and walked away to a window. But after the silence had spun itself out to the better part of a minute, she whipped round upon him.
“Have you been listening to a word I’ve said?” she demanded.
“Yes,” he said, but with the contradictory air of fetching himself back from a long way off. “Truly! I’ve listened to every word. And I don’t wonder a bit.”
“Don’t wonder at what?”
“That you said a few things to him, too. You’ve got a valid grievance, it seems to me. You couldn’t be blamed for quarreling with him over it as bitterly as possible.”
She barely heeded the words. They never did mean much to Paula. But his look and his tone reached her, and stung.
“Look here!” she said with sudden intensity. “Before we go any farther, I want to know this. Did Mary really need John, yesterday?”
She saw him turn pale and she had to wait two or three long breaths for her answer. But it came evenly enough at last.
“I happened to turn up instead. And she’s perfectly all right, to-day.”
Her eyes filled with tears. She turned forlornly away from him and dropped down upon a settee. “You hate me, too, now, I suppose. As well as he.”
He sat down beside her and laid a hand upon her shoulder. “My dear,” he said–and his own voice had a break of tenderness in it,–“I couldn’t hate any one to-day if I wanted to. And I never could want to hate you. If there’s anything I can do to help with John Wollaston…. But you see, if you want to keep your grievance you don’t need any help. Nobody can take it away from you. It’s only if you want to get rid of it–because it’s making you beastly unhappy, no matter how valid it is–that you need any help from me or any one else. If that’s what you want, I’ll take a shot at writing you a prescription.”
“Go crawling back to him on my knees, I suppose,” she said in a tone not quite so genuinely resentful as she felt it ought to be. “And ask him to forgive me. What’s the good of that when he doesn’t love me?–Oh, of course I know he does–in a way.”
His hand dropped absently from her shoulder. After a thoughtful moment he sprang up and took a turn of the room. “Do you know,” he said, halting before her, “‘in a way’ is the only way there is. The only way any two people ever do love each other. That’s what makes half the trouble, I believe. Trying to define it as if it were a standard thing. Like sterling silver; so many and so many hundredths per cent. pure. Love’s whatever the personal emotion is that draws two people together. It may be anything. It may make them kind to each other, or it may make them nag each other into the mad-house, or it may make them shoot each other dead. It’s probably never exactly the same thing between any two pairs of people…”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” she said petulantly.
“I’m not a bit sure it’s nonsense,” he persisted. “I only just thought of it, but I believe I’ve got on to something. Well, if I’m right, then the problem is to adjust that emotion to your life, or your life to that emotion, in such a way that the thing will work. There aren’t any rules. There can’t be any. It’s a matter of–well, that’s the word–adjustment.”
She could not see that this was helping her much. It was not at all the line she’d projected for him. Yet she was finding it hard not to feel less tragic. She had even caught herself, just now, upon the brink of being amused. “Wait till you’ve tried to adjust something, as you say, with John, and have had him tell you what you think until you believe you do. When he’s really being perfectly unreasonable all the while.”
“Of course,” March observed with the air of one making a material concession, “he is a good bit of a prima donna himself.”
“What do you mean by that?” she demanded. And then, petulantly, she accused him of laughing at her, of refusing to take her seriously, of trying to be clever like the Wollastons.
“Look here, Paula,” he said, and he put so much edge into his tone that she did, “have you ever spent five minutes out of the last five years trying to think what John was, besides your husband? I don’t believe it. When I spoke of him to you, months ago, as a famous person you didn’t know what I was talking about. He is. He’s got a better chance–say to get into the next edition of the _Encyclopaedia Britannica_, than you have. He’s got a career. He had it long before he knew you existed.–How old was he when he came to Vienna? About fifty, wasn’t he?”
“Forty-nine,” she said with the air of one making a serious contradiction; but her, “Oh, well,–” and a little laugh that followed it conceded that it was not.
“He’d had a career then for a long time,” March went on. “He was established. He had things about as he wanted them. And then, out of nowhere, an irresistible thing like you came along and torpedoed him. He must have realized that he had gone clean out of his head about you. A man of that age doesn’t fall in love unconsciously, nor easily either. He must have had frightful misgivings about persuading you to marry him. On your account as well as his own. Because he is that, you know. Conscientious, I mean. Almost to a morbid degree.”
“Oh, yes,” she conceded, “they’re both like that. They spend half their time working things out trying to be fair.”
He gave her a quick look, then came and sat down beside her again. “Well, then,” he said, “we’re on the right track. Just follow it along. You’re the one big refractory thing in his life. The thing that constantly wants reconciling with something else,–at the same time that you’re the delight of it, and the center and core of it. And while he’s trying to deal with those problems justly, you know, he’s taking on all of yours, too. He’s trying to see things with your eyes, feeling them with your nerves, and since he’s got a kind of uncanny penetration, I’d be willing to bet that he can tell you, half the time, what you’re thinking about better than you could yourself. No wonder, between his conscience and his desire–your mutual desire–he’s unreasonable. And since he’s too old to be reformed out of his conscience that leaves the adjustment up to you.”
“I don’t know what more I can do,” she said. “I’ve offered to give up everything.”
“Yes,” he said with a grunt, “that’s it. I don’t wonder he flew at you. _That’s_ the thing you’ll have to give up!”
He rose and stood over her and thumped home, his point with one fist in the palm of the other hand. “Why, you’ve got to give up the nobility,” he said. “The self-sacrificial attitude. You’ve got to chuck the heroine’s role altogether, Paula. That’s what you’ve been playing, naturally enough. It makes good drama for you, but look where it leaves him! First you give up your career for him, and then you give him up for the career you’ve undertaken for his sake. You’ve contrived to put him in the wrong both ways. Oh, not meaning to, I know; just by instinct. Well, give that up. Give up the renunciatory gesture. Go to him and tell him the truth. That you want, in a perfectly human selfish way, all you can get, both of him and of a career. They aren’t mutually exclusive really. It ought to be possible to have quite a lot of each.”
“You think you know such a lot,” she protested rebelliously, “but there’s only one thing I want, just the same, and that’s John, himself.”
“No doubt that’s true this afternoon,” he admitted. “You sang _Thais_ last night and several thousand people, according to this morning’s paper, cheered you at the end of the second act. But I believe I can tell you your day-dream. It’s to be the greatest dramatic soprano in the world–home for a vacation. With John and perhaps one or two small children of the affectionate age around you.”
Her face flamed at that. “John _has_ been talking about me this morning!” she cried.
He shook his head. “It was only a chance shot,” he told her. “I’m sorry if it came close enough home to hurt. But there couldn’t be a better day-dream than that and there’s no reason I can see why it shouldn’t come reasonably true, if you’ll honestly try for as much of it as you can get. That’s the prescription, anyhow. Give up nobility and all the heroic poses that go with it and practise a little enlightened selfishness instead. Perhaps by force of example you may persuade John Wollaston to abandon about half of his conscience. Then you _would_ be settled.”
With that he went back to his score and by no protest or expostulation could she provoke another word out of him. She fidgeted about the room for a quarter of an hour or so. Then with the announcement that she was going to dress, left it and went up-stairs.
When she came down a while later in street things and a hat she presented him with a new perplexity.
“I’ve been trying everywhere I can think of to get a car,” she said, “and there simply isn’t one to be had. I even tried to borrow one.”
He asked her what she wanted of a car. Where she wanted to go.
“Oh, can’t you see!” she cried, “I don’t want to send for John again to come to me. I want to go to him. It’s too maddening!”
“Well,” he said, with a grin, “if you really want–desperately–to go to him, of course there’s the trolley.”
She stared at him for a moment and then perceiving, or thinking she perceived, something allegorical about the suggestion, she gave a laugh, swooped down and kissed him and went.
It was the next Sunday morning that Miss Wollaston, who had decided to stay in town even though the emergency she had been summoned to meet was found mysteriously to have evanesced when she arrived, asked Wallace Hood, walking home with her from church, to come in to lunch.
“I haven’t the least idea,” she said, “whether we shall be quite by ourselves or whether the entire family, including the latest addition to it, will come straggling in before we’ve finished.”
She would not have considered it quite delicate to have owned to him how very clearly she hoped to have him, for an hour or two, all to herself. He would be found, she was confident, not to have gone through the looking-glass into the world of topsy-turvey that all the rest of them seemed to be inhabiting, these days. It would be comforting to talk with somebody who was still capable of regarding things right side to.
She was much too penetrating a person not to have been perfectly aware from the first that, astonishing as were the facts John had communicated to her, upon her arrival from Hickory Hill a week ago, other facts of major importance were being suppressed.
She had found her brother apparently occupied in the normal Sunday morning manner with his newspaper, and he had answered her rather breathless inquiries about Mary by saying that she was all right. She was finishing off her night’s sleep but would, he supposed, be down by and by. There was nothing the matter. Rush had been unnecessarily alarmed, lacking the fact which explained the case. And then he sprang his mine, informing her that Mary was engaged to marry Anthony March.
When, after a speechless interval, she had asked him, feebly, whether he didn’t mean Graham Stannard, he had been very short with her indeed. The engagement to March was an accomplished fact, and the sooner we took it for granted the better. He showed a great reluctance to go further into detail about the matter and he flinched impatiently from the innocent question;–when had he himself been informed of this astounding state of things. Well, naturally, since in the train of his answer the fact had been elicited that he hadn’t come to town until this morning and that Mary had spent another night alone. And it was not Mary but March who had, already this morning, told him about it.
Beyond that John couldn’t be driven to go. He concluded by putting a categorical injunction upon her. She wasn’t to expostulate with Mary nor to attempt to examine either into her reasons for this step nor into her state of mind in making it. He was satisfied that the girl knew what she was doing and that it represented her real wishes. His sister’s satisfaction on these points would have to be vicarious.
The surmise had formed itself irresistibly in Lucile’s mind that John himself was involved in this decision of Mary’s. Had she done this thing–involved herself in the beginnings of it, anyhow,–as a desperate measure to bring her father and his wife together again? By removing a temptation that Paula was still in danger of yielding to? She didn’t put it to herself quite as crudely as that to be sure.
Certainly she had no intention of asking Wallace Hood what he thought about it. But perhaps he might have some other explanation of her niece’s sacrifice. It must have been a sacrifice to something. An answer to some fancied call of duty. Unless it were a freak of sheer perversity. But this was dangerous ground for Lucile.
The queerest thing about it all was the way it seemed–magically–to be producing such beneficent results. John and Paula were reconciled by it,–or at least as soon as it happened. Paula had come down from Ravinia that very day, had had some sort of scene with her husband, and the two had been almost annoyingly at one upon every conceivable subject since. Something had happened also during the week to Rush, which lightened the gloom that had been hanging on him so long,–some utterly surprising interview with Graham Stannard’s father. Pure coincidence one must suppose this to be, of course. Mary’s engagement couldn’t have anything to do with it. And then Mary herself! The girl was a new person. Absolutely radiant. Orthodox conduct of course for a just engaged girl–but in the circumstances one would think…
Lucile saw that Wallace hesitated a little about accepting her invitation to lunch and recalled the fact that he hadn’t dropped in on them once during the week though he had known that they were more or less back in town.
“Why, yes, I’ll come with pleasure,” he said. “I don’t know precisely what sort of terms I’m on with John. He felt for a few days, I know, that I’d been rather officious, but I may as well have it out with him now as later. And I shall be glad of an opportunity to give Mary my best wishes. I wrote her a note, of course, the day I read the announcement of the engagement in the newspapers.” He added, “I certainly was in the dark as to that affair.”
“Aren’t you–still more or less, in the dark about it?” Miss Wollaston inquired. “I don’t mind owning that I am. Mary’s sense of social values always seemed to me to be at least adequately developed. On the surface one would have to call her rather worldly, I think.”
“On the surface perhaps,” Wallace interposed, “but not really; not at heart. Still, I’ll grant it isn’t easy to understand. There’s a certain attraction about the man of course. And then there’s his music.”
“And Mary,” Miss Wollaston observed, “happens to be the one utterly unmusical person in the family. She’s completely absorbed in the preparation for his opera however.” Then after a little pause, “She may prove rather more explanatory with you than she has been with me. She seems to take a certain pleasure in mystifying me. In saying things in a matter-of-fact way that are quite astounding. That’s the new generation, of course. They talk a different language from mine. It will be a comfort,” she concluded, rather pathetically, as they mounted the high steps to her brother’s door, “to talk the matter over quietly with some one to whom my ideas and standards are still intelligible.”
But this comfort was, for the present, to be denied her. Mary had spent the morning in her room writing notes and was coming down the stairs when the church-goers came in.
She negotiated what were left of the steps in a single swoop, gave her visitor both hands along with the “Wallace! How nice!” that welcomed him, and then, drawing back with a gesture which invited his scrutiny, said, “Well? What do you think?–Oh, but thanks for your note, first. I’ve just answered it.”
Radiant was the word. There couldn’t be any doubt of that. And younger. There was a twinkle of mischief that he had to go back-five years, anyhow, to remember the like of.
He had none of Lucile’s feeling that decency required one’s joy over an event of this sort to be of the chastened variety and he brightened in instantaneous response to the girl’s mood, but the mere impact of her left him for a moment wordless.
“You needn’t try to make me a speech,” she said. “I know you’re pleased. Not as pleased as you would be if you knew all about it, but …”
“As pleased as possible, anyhow,” he said. On that, amicably arm in arm, they followed Miss Wollaston into the drawing-room.
“I don’t believe we’ve seen each other,” she said, “since the night we had dinner together at the Saddle and Cycle, weeks and weeks ago.”
“No,” he said. “I remember very well that we haven’t.”
Miss Wollaston had drifted away from them (occupied, as she so often was when there were no persons present in the formal status of guests, in making minute readjustments of pillows and things as a sort of standing protest against the demon of disorder), and having noted this fact he went on:
“I didn’t come for the picnic tea you invited me to the other day. If I’d known how the land lay, I shouldn’t have sent a substitute. I’m afraid, perhaps, that was rather–tactless of me.”
He saw the queerest look come into her face,–enough in itself to startle him rather though it wasn’t without a gleam of humor.
“I was just wondering,” she explained, “whether if you had come that particular day, I mightn’t be engaged to you now instead of to Tony.”
Unluckily Lucile heard that and froze rigid for a moment with horror. Then recovering her motor faculties, she moved in a stately manner toward the door.
“I think if you will excuse me,” she said, “I’ll go up and prepare for luncheon.”
Mary gazed conscience-stricken from her to Wallace who was blushing like a boy caught stealing apples. “I’m sorry,” she gasped, but not quickly enough for the apology to overtake her aunt. “It’s terrible of me to say things like that and I do, every now and then. Can you bear with me until I’ve had time to quiet down? It’s all so new, to be happy like this, I’m a little–wild with it.”
In his nice neutral unexaggerated way he told her that her happiness could never be anything but a joy to him; and after that, when they were seated side by side upon the cane davenport he asked about her plans; when they were going to be married, where they meant to live, and so on.
“Why, we’ll be married, I suppose,” she said, “at the end of the customary six weeks’ engagement. There isn’t a thing to wait for, really.”
“I’m glad of that,” he remarked.
Anybody but Mary would have taken that at its face value; he was glad that they would have to wait no longer. But he flinched as she glanced round toward him and at that she laughed and patted his hand reassuringly.
“We’re doing everything correctly,” she told him; “beginning with father’s announcement of the engagement in the papers, Tuesday. We remain on exhibition during the conventional six weeks and then we’re married at noon over in the Fourth Church. Impeccable! That’s going to be our middle name.”
Mary used so very little slang that she was able to produce quite extraordinary effects with it when she did.
“I’m glad,” Wallace said, a little ruffled by the start she had given him, “that you have not been persuaded to do anything–differently.”
“Who do you suppose it was,” she asked, “who insisted, in an adamantine manner, that it be done like that? It wasn’t me and it wasn’t Aunt Lucile. It was Anthony March.” She added, after a reflective silence, “He was right about it, of course, because when that’s over it’s done with. And then–what he hasn’t thought of, and I wouldn’t have, most likely until it was too late–he’ll have a friendlier audience next Tuesday night than if he’d given me my way and made a trip to the City Hall with me last Monday. I wanted to burn my bridges, you see;–and he laughed at me. I haven’t told that to any one but you.–All the same, if he thinks, from that, that he can go on accumulating–millstones …”
“Tell me where you are planning to live,” Wallace said, getting back as he was always glad to do, to firm ground again. “Not too far away, I hope, for us to go on seeing a lot of you.”
“Oh, it’s very sad about that,” she told him. “I was hoping to live with him in his secret lair over the Italian grocery. No, but it was really delightful. One big room, bigger than this, with dormers and dusty beams and an outside stair. He’s had it for years. It’s not half a mile from here–and Paula could never find out where it was! But, unexpectedly, he’s being turned out. I could have wept when he told me.”
“Unexpectedly!” quoted Wallace, the professional real estate man in him touched by this evidence of lay negligence. “March hadn’t any lease, I suppose.”
“He didn’t need any,” said Mary. “He owned it.”
“If he owns it how can they turn him out–unexpectedly?”
“What he owned was the second story. Well, he still does, of course. But when they tear the first floor and the basement out from under him, as they’re going to do next week, his second story won’t do him much good.”
“But, good gracious, they can’t do that!” Wallace cried. “They must leave him his floor and his ceiling just where they are now. And his light. They can build above and below–I suppose that’s what they’re tearing the old building down for–but that layer of space, if he really bought it and has got anything to show that he really bought it, belongs to him.”
“Do you mean seriously,” she demanded, “that it’s possible to buy the second story of a building? It’s like Pudd’n-‘head Wilson’s joke about buying half a dog and killing his half.”
“Of course I mean it,” he insisted. “An easement like that cost our estate thousands of dollars only a year or two ago. Serious! I should think it was! Ask Rodney Aldrich. See what he says.–Of course, it’s nothing unless he can show some instrument that proves his title. But if he can it might be worth … Well, it’s just a question how badly they happen to need that particular bit of land. Those people we fell foul of managed to hold us up for a tidy sum.”
She was looking at him thoughtfully, a faint, rather wry smile just touching her lips. “A minute ago,” she said, “I was about to fling myself upon your neck and thank you for so wonderful a wedding present to us as that would be. And now I’m wondering … Wallace, I don’t suppose it would strike you that there would be anything–shady about doing a thing like that.”
“Shady!” He was, for a moment, deeply affronted by the mere suggestion. Then, remembering her total ignorance of all such matters, he smiled at her. “My dear Mary, do you think–leaving my rectitude aside–that I’d have referred you to Rodney Aldrich if I’d felt that there was anything questionable about it?”
“I know,” she conceded. “And Martin Whitney would feel the same way. And father, I suppose, and Rush. Everybody we know. Yet I was wondering whether I’d say anything to Tony about it. I’ve decided I will, but I’m going to ask you not to, nor to anybody else, until I’ve talked to him. I’d like it left–altogether to him, you see.”
He agreed, rather blankly to this. Presently she went on:
“I’m glad he’s a real genius, not just a fragment of one as so many of them are. There’s something–robust about him. And since that’s so, I don’t believe we’ll do him any real harm; we–advantage-snatchers, you know. That’s so very largely how we live, we nice people (it’s why we’re able to be nice, of course)–that we get perfectly blind to it. But he’s so strong, and he can see in so deep, that I guess he’s safe. That’s the belief I have to go on, anyhow.”
She sprang up and gave him another pat upon the shoulder. “He’ll be getting here in a few minutes, I suspect. Father telephoned that he and Paula were going to bring him down as soon as his rehearsal was over. I’m going up now to try to make my peace with Aunt Lucile.”
After lunch she told the family that she had matters to talk over with Tony and meant to take him for a walk. His father and mother expected them to drop in at their house about five and the intervening two hours would give them just about time to “cover the ground.” She was openly laughing at her own pretense at being matter-of-fact.
It was pretty hot for walking, her father thought. Why not let Pete drive them around a while in the car? Or take the small car and drive herself? But she was feeling pedestrian, she said, and, anyhow, the topic she had in mind couldn’t be discussed in a motor-car. They’d go to Lincoln Park and stroll around in the shade.
“And if we get tired,” she added with a flicker, in response to her aunt’s movement of protest, “we can squeeze in among the other couples on some grassy bank.–Oh, Aunt Lucile, don’t mind! We _won’t_ do anything–disgraceful.”
“You see what a cat I am,” she told March as they set out. “I make her squirm without meaning to, and then, when she squirms, I scratch. Now talk to me until I can get in good humor with myself again.”
“I’ve two or three things to tell you,” he said. “I saw Sylvia Stannard this morning. She came to rehearsal with the little Williamson girl, and carried me off bodily for a talk. She’s had a long letter from Graham.
“He’s quite well,” he went on swiftly, ignoring the gasp she gave, “and doesn’t want to be, as he says, fussed over.”
“Where is he?” she asked. “I’ll write him a letter, of course. Only you’ll have to tell me what to say.”
“He’s visiting a friend–a college classmate–on Long Island. And he’s already had a job offered him by his friend’s father, in an engineering office. He’s a pretty good engineer, I believe. He thinks he’ll accept it. Anyhow, he is definitely not coming back to Hickory Hill. Sylvia attaches some significance to the fact that his friend also has a pretty sister, but that’s just the cynicism of youth, I suspect.”
This last suggestion silenced her–with another gasp, as perhaps he had meant it to do. He added, presently:
“As for writing, I’ve already done that myself.”
“You!” she exclaimed. “Where’s the letter?”
“It’s already despatched. I wrote it as soon as the rehearsal was over. But I’ll tell you what I said in it. I told him I supposed he had heard of our engagement, but that I knew you wished him to be told of it personally. You were very fond of him, I said, and the only thing that clouded your happiness was a fear that he might not be able to share it. I assured him that I was completely in your confidence and knew that you had been through a period of very severe nervous stress, verging upon a nervous breakdown, but that I believed you were on the way to a speedy recovery. And I ended by saying that I believed a line from him to you, setting some of your misgivings at rest, would hasten it. And I was his most cordially.”
She didn’t try to pretend she wasn’t aghast at this. “But what an–extraordinary letter. Won’t he be–furious? At you for writing?–Speaking for me in a case like that. Telling him you knew all about it!”
“Well, that was more or less the idea,” he confessed, with a rueful grin. “He’ll think I stole you away from him; he’ll think I gave you the nervous prostration I hinted at. Heaven knows what he won’t think! But, of course, the more of a villain I am the less you’re to be held responsible. And there’s nothing insupportable or–ludicrous about a grievance against another man. At all events it enables him to get round the statement you demolished him with. No, you’ll see. He’ll write you a letter, correctly affectionate but rather chilly, and after that you’ll be off his mind. And if the pretty sister Sylvia alleges doesn’t exist, there’ll be another one along pretty soon, who will.”
She was obviously a little dazed by all this. It was the first time they had talked of Graham since that night in his room and he knew the bruise from that experience must still be painful to touch. So he hastened to produce his other item of news–also provided by Sylvia.
“This is a perfectly dead secret of hers,” he began. “Told me in sacred confidence. She finished, however, by saying that she knew, of course, I’d go straight and tell you. So to justify her penetration, I will. Sylvia has accounted for her father’s amazing change of attitude toward Hickory Hill. It seems she’s persuaded her father to give Graham’s share of it to her. She told him–what’s obviously true–that she’s a better farmer now than Graham would ever be. She hates town and society and all that, she says, and never will be happy anywhere but on a farm–anywhere, indeed, but on that farm. He was very rough and boisterous about the suggestion, she says, for a day or two, but finally he quieted down like a lamb and gave in. He never has refused her anything, of course.”
“But a partnership between her and Rush!” Mary cried. “It’s perfectly impossibly mad. Unless, of course … You don’t mean…?”
“Yes, that’s the idea, exactly,” March said. “Only Rush, as yet, knows nothing about it. Hence the need for secrecy. Sylvia acknowledged to her father that she couldn’t possibly own a farm in partnership with a young man of twenty-three unless she married him, but she said she’d intended to marry Rush ever since she was twelve years old. She’s confident that he’s only waiting for her eighteenth birthday to ask her to marry him, but she says that if he doesn’t, she means to ask him. And if he refuses, she pointed out to her father, he can’t do less than consent to sell the other half of the farm to her. She treats that alternative, though, as derisory.–And I haven’t a doubt she’s right. Evidently her father has none, either.
“Well, it accounts for the change in Mr. Stannard’s attitude toward the farm, of course,” he concluded. “A son’s supposed to thrive on adversity. It wouldn’t be good morals not to make things difficult for him by way of developing his character. But where a mere daughter is involved he can chuckle and write checks. Under his tradition, he’s entitled to regard her as a luxury. Anyhow, your father has nothing more to worry about as far as Rush and Hickory Hill are concerned.”
“Life’s a kaleidoscope,” Mary said. “I’m tired. Let’s sit down.”–They were half-way up the park by that time.–“Oh, here on the grass. What does it matter?” When they were thus disposed she went back to her figure. “There’s just a little turn, by some big wrist that we don’t know anything about, and a little click, and the whole pattern changes.”
“There are some patterns that don’t change,” he said soberly, but he didn’t try to argue the point with her. He knew too exactly how she felt. “Tell me,” he said, “what it was that you wanted to talk to me about.”
She acknowledged that she’d been hoping he’d forgotten that, of the momentousness of his two items of news had left her, as her talk about kaleidoscopes indicated, rather disoriented. So he threw in, to give her time to get round to it, the information that both Sylvia and the little Williamson girl had decided they wanted to study music with him. “I agreed,” he added, “to take them on, when I got around to it.”
“Tony,” she said, “I won’t let you do that. Not music lessons to little girls. I won’t.”
“Afternoons?” he asked gently. “When I’m through the real day’s work? It would be pretty good fun, trying to show a few people–young unspoiled people–what music really is. Dynamite some of their sentimental ideas about it; shake them loose from some of the schoolmasters’ niggling rules about it; make them write it themselves; show ’em the big shapes of it; make a piano keyboard something they knew their way about in. That