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Title: The Early Short Fiction of Edith Wharton — Part 2
Author: Wharton, Edith
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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THE EARLY SHORT FICTION OF EDITH WHARTON

A Ten-Part Collection

Volume Two



Contents of Part Two

                               Stories
           AFTERWARD............................January   1910
           THE FULNESS OF LIFE..................December  1893
           A VENETIAN NIGHT’S ENTERTAINMENT.....December  1903
           XINGU................................December  1911
           THE VERDICT..........................June      1908
           THE RECKONING........................August    1902


                                Verse

           BOTTICELLI’S MADONNA IN THE LOUVRE...January   1891
           THE TOMB OF ILARIA GIUNIGI...........February  1891
           THE SONNET...........................November  1891
           TWO BACKGROUNDS......................November  1892
           EXPERIENCE...........................January   1893
           CHARTRES.............................September 1893
           LIFE.................................June      1894
           AN AUTUMN SUNSET.....................October   1894



AFTERWARD

January 1910



I


“Oh, there IS one, of course, but you’ll never know it.”

The assertion, laughingly flung out six months earlier in a bright June
garden, came back to Mary Boyne with a sharp perception of its latent
significance as she stood, in the December dusk, waiting for the lamps
to be brought into the library.

The words had been spoken by their friend Alida Stair, as they sat at
tea on her lawn at Pangbourne, in reference to the very house of which
the library in question was the central, the pivotal “feature.” Mary
Boyne and her husband, in quest of a country place in one of the
southern or southwestern counties, had, on their arrival in England,
carried their problem straight to Alida Stair, who had successfully
solved it in her own case; but it was not until they had rejected,
almost capriciously, several practical and judicious suggestions that
she threw it out: “Well, there’s Lyng, in Dorsetshire. It belongs to
Hugo’s cousins, and you can get it for a song.”

The reasons she gave for its being obtainable on these terms--its
remoteness from a station, its lack of electric light, hot-water pipes,
and other vulgar necessities--were exactly those pleading in its
favor with two romantic Americans perversely in search of the economic
drawbacks which were associated, in their tradition, with unusual
architectural felicities.

“I should never believe I was living in an old house unless I was
thoroughly uncomfortable,” Ned Boyne, the more extravagant of the two,
had jocosely insisted; “the least hint of ‘convenience’ would make me
think it had been bought out of an exhibition, with the pieces numbered,
and set up again.” And they had proceeded to enumerate, with humorous
precision, their various suspicions and exactions, refusing to believe
that the house their cousin recommended was REALLY Tudor till they
learned it had no heating system, or that the village church was
literally in the grounds till she assured them of the deplorable
uncertainty of the water-supply.

“It’s too uncomfortable to be true!” Edward Boyne had continued to exult
as the avowal of each disadvantage was successively wrung from her; but
he had cut short his rhapsody to ask, with a sudden relapse to distrust:
“And the ghost? You’ve been concealing from us the fact that there is no
ghost!”

Mary, at the moment, had laughed with him, yet almost with her laugh,
being possessed of several sets of independent perceptions, had noted a
sudden flatness of tone in Alida’s answering hilarity.

“Oh, Dorsetshire’s full of ghosts, you know.”

“Yes, yes; but that won’t do. I don’t want to have to drive ten miles
to see somebody else’s ghost. I want one of my own on the premises. IS
there a ghost at Lyng?”

His rejoinder had made Alida laugh again, and it was then that she had
flung back tantalizingly: “Oh, there IS one, of course, but you’ll never
know it.”

“Never know it?” Boyne pulled her up. “But what in the world constitutes
a ghost except the fact of its being known for one?”

“I can’t say. But that’s the story.”

“That there’s a ghost, but that nobody knows it’s a ghost?”

“Well--not till afterward, at any rate.”

“Till afterward?”

“Not till long, long afterward.”

“But if it’s once been identified as an unearthly visitant, why hasn’t
its signalement been handed down in the family? How has it managed to
preserve its incognito?”

Alida could only shake her head. “Don’t ask me. But it has.”

“And then suddenly--” Mary spoke up as if from some cavernous depth of
divination--“suddenly, long afterward, one says to one’s self, ‘THAT WAS
it?’”

She was oddly startled at the sepulchral sound with which her question
fell on the banter of the other two, and she saw the shadow of the same
surprise flit across Alida’s clear pupils. “I suppose so. One just has
to wait.”

“Oh, hang waiting!” Ned broke in. “Life’s too short for a ghost who can
only be enjoyed in retrospect. Can’t we do better than that, Mary?”

But it turned out that in the event they were not destined to, for
within three months of their conversation with Mrs. Stair they were
established at Lyng, and the life they had yearned for to the point of
planning it out in all its daily details had actually begun for them.

It was to sit, in the thick December dusk, by just such a wide-hooded
fireplace, under just such black oak rafters, with the sense that beyond
the mullioned panes the downs were darkening to a deeper solitude: it
was for the ultimate indulgence in such sensations that Mary Boyne had
endured for nearly fourteen years the soul-deadening ugliness of the
Middle West, and that Boyne had ground on doggedly at his engineering
till, with a suddenness that still made her blink, the prodigious
windfall of the Blue Star Mine had put them at a stroke in possession
of life and the leisure to taste it. They had never for a moment meant
their new state to be one of idleness; but they meant to give themselves
only to harmonious activities. She had her vision of painting and
gardening (against a background of gray walls), he dreamed of the
production of his long-planned book on the “Economic Basis of
Culture”; and with such absorbing work ahead no existence could be too
sequestered; they could not get far enough from the world, or plunge
deep enough into the past.

Dorsetshire had attracted them from the first by a semblance of
remoteness out of all proportion to its geographical position. But
to the Boynes it was one of the ever-recurring wonders of the whole
incredibly compressed island--a nest of counties, as they put it--that
for the production of its effects so little of a given quality went
so far: that so few miles made a distance, and so short a distance a
difference.

“It’s that,” Ned had once enthusiastically explained, “that gives such
depth to their effects, such relief to their least contrasts. They’ve
been able to lay the butter so thick on every exquisite mouthful.”

The butter had certainly been laid on thick at Lyng: the old gray house,
hidden under a shoulder of the downs, had almost all the finer marks of
commerce with a protracted past. The mere fact that it was neither large
nor exceptional made it, to the Boynes, abound the more richly in
its special sense--the sense of having been for centuries a deep, dim
reservoir of life. The life had probably not been of the most vivid
order: for long periods, no doubt, it had fallen as noiselessly into
the past as the quiet drizzle of autumn fell, hour after hour, into the
green fish-pond between the yews; but these back-waters of existence
sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion,
and Mary Boyne had felt from the first the occasional brush of an
intenser memory.

The feeling had never been stronger than on the December afternoon when,
waiting in the library for the belated lamps, she rose from her seat and
stood among the shadows of the hearth. Her husband had gone off, after
luncheon, for one of his long tramps on the downs. She had noticed of
late that he preferred to be unaccompanied on these occasions; and,
in the tried security of their personal relations, had been driven
to conclude that his book was bothering him, and that he needed the
afternoons to turn over in solitude the problems left from the morning’s
work. Certainly the book was not going as smoothly as she had imagined
it would, and the lines of perplexity between his eyes had never been
there in his engineering days. Then he had often looked fagged to the
verge of illness, but the native demon of “worry” had never branded his
brow. Yet the few pages he had so far read to her--the introduction, and
a synopsis of the opening chapter--gave evidences of a firm possession
of his subject, and a deepening confidence in his powers.

The fact threw her into deeper perplexity, since, now that he had done
with “business” and its disturbing contingencies, the one other possible
element of anxiety was eliminated. Unless it were his health, then?
But physically he had gained since they had come to Dorsetshire, grown
robuster, ruddier, and fresher-eyed. It was only within a week that she
had felt in him the undefinable change that made her restless in his
absence, and as tongue-tied in his presence as though it were SHE who
had a secret to keep from him!

The thought that there WAS a secret somewhere between them struck her
with a sudden smart rap of wonder, and she looked about her down the
dim, long room.

“Can it be the house?” she mused.

The room itself might have been full of secrets. They seemed to be
piling themselves up, as evening fell, like the layers and layers of
velvet shadow dropping from the low ceiling, the dusky walls of books,
the smoke-blurred sculpture of the hooded hearth.

“Why, of course--the house is haunted!” she reflected.

The ghost--Alida’s imperceptible ghost--after figuring largely in the
banter of their first month or two at Lyng, had been gradually discarded
as too ineffectual for imaginative use. Mary had, indeed, as became the
tenant of a haunted house, made the customary inquiries among her few
rural neighbors, but, beyond a vague, “They du say so, Ma’am,” the
villagers had nothing to impart. The elusive specter had apparently
never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize about it,
and after a time the Boynes had laughingly set the matter down to their
profit-and-loss account, agreeing that Lyng was one of the few houses
good enough in itself to dispense with supernatural enhancements.

“And I suppose, poor, ineffectual demon, that’s why it beats its
beautiful wings in vain in the void,” Mary had laughingly concluded.

“Or, rather,” Ned answered, in the same strain, “why, amid so much
that’s ghostly, it can never affirm its separate existence as THE
ghost.” And thereupon their invisible housemate had finally dropped out
of their references, which were numerous enough to make them promptly
unaware of the loss.

Now, as she stood on the hearth, the subject of their earlier curiosity
revived in her with a new sense of its meaning--a sense gradually
acquired through close daily contact with the scene of the lurking
mystery. It was the house itself, of course, that possessed the
ghost-seeing faculty, that communed visually but secretly with its own
past; and if one could only get into close enough communion with the
house, one might surprise its secret, and acquire the ghost-sight on
one’s own account. Perhaps, in his long solitary hours in this very
room, where she never trespassed till the afternoon, her husband HAD
acquired it already, and was silently carrying the dread weight of
whatever it had revealed to him. Mary was too well-versed in the code of
the spectral world not to know that one could not talk about the ghosts
one saw: to do so was almost as great a breach of good-breeding as to
name a lady in a club. But this explanation did not really satisfy her.
“What, after all, except for the fun of the frisson,” she reflected,
“would he really care for any of their old ghosts?” And thence she was
thrown back once more on the fundamental dilemma: the fact that one’s
greater or less susceptibility to spectral influences had no particular
bearing on the case, since, when one DID see a ghost at Lyng, one did
not know it.

“Not till long afterward,” Alida Stair had said. Well, supposing Ned HAD
seen one when they first came, and had known only within the last week
what had happened to him? More and more under the spell of the hour, she
threw back her searching thoughts to the early days of their tenancy,
but at first only to recall a gay confusion of unpacking, settling,
arranging of books, and calling to each other from remote corners of the
house as treasure after treasure of their habitation revealed itself to
them. It was in this particular connection that she presently recalled
a certain soft afternoon of the previous October, when, passing from the
first rapturous flurry of exploration to a detailed inspection of the
old house, she had pressed (like a novel heroine) a panel that opened at
her touch, on a narrow flight of stairs leading to an unsuspected flat
ledge of the roof--the roof which, from below, seemed to slope away on
all sides too abruptly for any but practised feet to scale.

The view from this hidden coign was enchanting, and she had flown down
to snatch Ned from his papers and give him the freedom of her discovery.
She remembered still how, standing on the narrow ledge, he had passed
his arm about her while their gaze flew to the long, tossed horizon-line
of the downs, and then dropped contentedly back to trace the arabesque
of yew hedges about the fish-pond, and the shadow of the cedar on the
lawn.

“And now the other way,” he had said, gently turning her about within
his arm; and closely pressed to him, she had absorbed, like some long,
satisfying draft, the picture of the gray-walled court, the squat lions
on the gates, and the lime-avenue reaching up to the highroad under the
downs.

It was just then, while they gazed and held each other, that she had
felt his arm relax, and heard a sharp “Hullo!” that made her turn to
glance at him.

Distinctly, yes, she now recalled she had seen, as she glanced, a shadow
of anxiety, of perplexity, rather, fall across his face; and, following
his eyes, had beheld the figure of a man--a man in loose, grayish
clothes, as it appeared to her--who was sauntering down the lime-avenue
to the court with the tentative gait of a stranger seeking his way. Her
short-sighted eyes had given her but a blurred impression of slightness
and grayness, with something foreign, or at least unlocal, in the cut of
the figure or its garb; but her husband had apparently seen more--seen
enough to make him push past her with a sharp “Wait!” and dash down the
twisting stairs without pausing to give her a hand for the descent.

A slight tendency to dizziness obliged her, after a provisional clutch
at the chimney against which they had been leaning, to follow him down
more cautiously; and when she had reached the attic landing she paused
again for a less definite reason, leaning over the oak banister to
strain her eyes through the silence of the brown, sun-flecked depths
below. She lingered there till, somewhere in those depths, she heard
the closing of a door; then, mechanically impelled, she went down the
shallow flights of steps till she reached the lower hall.

The front door stood open on the mild sunlight of the court, and
hall and court were empty. The library door was open, too, and after
listening in vain for any sound of voices within, she quickly crossed
the threshold, and found her husband alone, vaguely fingering the papers
on his desk.

He looked up, as if surprised at her precipitate entrance, but the
shadow of anxiety had passed from his face, leaving it even, as she
fancied, a little brighter and clearer than usual.

“What was it? Who was it?” she asked.

“Who?” he repeated, with the surprise still all on his side.

“The man we saw coming toward the house.”

He seemed honestly to reflect. “The man? Why, I thought I saw Peters;
I dashed after him to say a word about the stable-drains, but he had
disappeared before I could get down.”

“Disappeared? Why, he seemed to be walking so slowly when we saw him.”

Boyne shrugged his shoulders. “So I thought; but he must have got up
steam in the interval. What do you say to our trying a scramble up
Meldon Steep before sunset?”

That was all. At the time the occurrence had been less than nothing,
had, indeed, been immediately obliterated by the magic of their first
vision from Meldon Steep, a height which they had dreamed of climbing
ever since they had first seen its bare spine heaving itself above the
low roof of Lyng. Doubtless it was the mere fact of the other incident’s
having occurred on the very day of their ascent to Meldon that had kept
it stored away in the unconscious fold of association from which it now
emerged; for in itself it had no mark of the portentous. At the moment
there could have been nothing more natural than that Ned should dash
himself from the roof in the pursuit of dilatory tradesmen. It was the
period when they were always on the watch for one or the other of the
specialists employed about the place; always lying in wait for them,
and dashing out at them with questions, reproaches, or reminders. And
certainly in the distance the gray figure had looked like Peters.

Yet now, as she reviewed the rapid scene, she felt her husband’s
explanation of it to have been invalidated by the look of anxiety on his
face. Why had the familiar appearance of Peters made him anxious?
Why, above all, if it was of such prime necessity to confer with that
authority on the subject of the stable-drains, had the failure to find
him produced such a look of relief? Mary could not say that any one
of these considerations had occurred to her at the time, yet, from the
promptness with which they now marshaled themselves at her summons, she
had a sudden sense that they must all along have been there, waiting
their hour.



II


Weary with her thoughts, she moved toward the window. The library was
now completely dark, and she was surprised to see how much faint light
the outer world still held.

As she peered out into it across the court, a figure shaped itself in
the tapering perspective of bare lines: it looked a mere blot of deeper
gray in the grayness, and for an instant, as it moved toward her, her
heart thumped to the thought, “It’s the ghost!”

She had time, in that long instant, to feel suddenly that the man of
whom, two months earlier, she had a brief distant vision from the roof
was now, at his predestined hour, about to reveal himself as NOT
having been Peters; and her spirit sank under the impending fear of the
disclosure. But almost with the next tick of the clock the ambiguous
figure, gaining substance and character, showed itself even to her weak
sight as her husband’s; and she turned away to meet him, as he entered,
with the confession of her folly.

“It’s really too absurd,” she laughed out from the threshold, “but I
never CAN remember!”

“Remember what?” Boyne questioned as they drew together.

“That when one sees the Lyng ghost one never knows it.”

Her hand was on his sleeve, and he kept it there, but with no response
in his gesture or in the lines of his fagged, preoccupied face.

“Did you think you’d seen it?” he asked, after an appreciable interval.

“Why, I actually took YOU for it, my dear, in my mad determination to
spot it!”

“Me--just now?” His arm dropped away, and he turned from her with a
faint echo of her laugh. “Really, dearest, you’d better give it up, if
that’s the best you can do.”

“Yes, I give it up--I give it up. Have YOU?” she asked, turning round on
him abruptly.

The parlor-maid had entered with letters and a lamp, and the light
struck up into Boyne’s face as he bent above the tray she presented.

“Have YOU?” Mary perversely insisted, when the servant had disappeared
on her errand of illumination.

“Have I what?” he rejoined absently, the light bringing out the sharp
stamp of worry between his brows as he turned over the letters.

“Given up trying to see the ghost.” Her heart beat a little at the
experiment she was making.

Her husband, laying his letters aside, moved away into the shadow of the
hearth.

“I never tried,” he said, tearing open the wrapper of a newspaper.

“Well, of course,” Mary persisted, “the exasperating thing is that
there’s no use trying, since one can’t be sure till so long afterward.”

He was unfolding the paper as if he had hardly heard her; but after a
pause, during which the sheets rustled spasmodically between his hands,
he lifted his head to say abruptly, “Have you any idea HOW LONG?”

Mary had sunk into a low chair beside the fireplace. From her seat
she looked up, startled, at her husband’s profile, which was darkly
projected against the circle of lamplight.

“No; none. Have YOU?” she retorted, repeating her former phrase with an
added keenness of intention.

Boyne crumpled the paper into a bunch, and then inconsequently turned
back with it toward the lamp.

“Lord, no! I only meant,” he explained, with a faint tinge of
impatience, “is there any legend, any tradition, as to that?”

“Not that I know of,” she answered; but the impulse to add, “What makes
you ask?” was checked by the reappearance of the parlor-maid with tea
and a second lamp.

With the dispersal of shadows, and the repetition of the daily domestic
office, Mary Boyne felt herself less oppressed by that sense of
something mutely imminent which had darkened her solitary afternoon. For
a few moments she gave herself silently to the details of her task, and
when she looked up from it she was struck to the point of bewilderment
by the change in her husband’s face. He had seated himself near the
farther lamp, and was absorbed in the perusal of his letters; but was it
something he had found in them, or merely the shifting of her own point
of view, that had restored his features to their normal aspect? The
longer she looked, the more definitely the change affirmed itself. The
lines of painful tension had vanished, and such traces of fatigue as
lingered were of the kind easily attributable to steady mental effort.
He glanced up, as if drawn by her gaze, and met her eyes with a smile.

“I’m dying for my tea, you know; and here’s a letter for you,” he said.

She took the letter he held out in exchange for the cup she proffered
him, and, returning to her seat, broke the seal with the languid gesture
of the reader whose interests are all inclosed in the circle of one
cherished presence.

Her next conscious motion was that of starting to her feet, the letter
falling to them as she rose, while she held out to her husband a long
newspaper clipping.

“Ned! What’s this? What does it mean?”

He had risen at the same instant, almost as if hearing her cry before
she uttered it; and for a perceptible space of time he and she studied
each other, like adversaries watching for an advantage, across the space
between her chair and his desk.

“What’s what? You fairly made me jump!” Boyne said at length, moving
toward her with a sudden, half-exasperated laugh. The shadow of
apprehension was on his face again, not now a look of fixed foreboding,
but a shifting vigilance of lips and eyes that gave her the sense of his
feeling himself invisibly surrounded.

Her hand shook so that she could hardly give him the clipping.

“This article--from the ‘Waukesha Sentinel’--that a man named Elwell has
brought suit against you--that there was something wrong about the Blue
Star Mine. I can’t understand more than half.”

They continued to face each other as she spoke, and to her astonishment,
she saw that her words had the almost immediate effect of dissipating
the strained watchfulness of his look.

“Oh, THAT!” He glanced down the printed slip, and then folded it with
the gesture of one who handles something harmless and familiar. “What’s
the matter with you this afternoon, Mary? I thought you’d got bad news.”

She stood before him with her undefinable terror subsiding slowly under
the reassuring touch of his composure.

“You knew about this, then--it’s all right?”

“Certainly I knew about it; and it’s all right.”

“But what IS it? I don’t understand. What does this man accuse you of?”

“Oh, pretty nearly every crime in the calendar.” Boyne had tossed the
clipping down, and thrown himself comfortably into an arm-chair near
the fire. “Do you want to hear the story? It’s not particularly
interesting--just a squabble over interests in the Blue Star.”

“But who is this Elwell? I don’t know the name.”

“Oh, he’s a fellow I put into it--gave him a hand up. I told you all
about him at the time.”

“I daresay. I must have forgotten.” Vainly she strained back among her
memories. “But if you helped him, why does he make this return?”

“Oh, probably some shyster lawyer got hold of him and talked him over.
It’s all rather technical and complicated. I thought that kind of thing
bored you.”

His wife felt a sting of compunction. Theoretically, she deprecated the
American wife’s detachment from her husband’s professional interests,
but in practice she had always found it difficult to fix her attention
on Boyne’s report of the transactions in which his varied interests
involved him. Besides, she had felt from the first that, in a community
where the amenities of living could be obtained only at the cost of
efforts as arduous as her husband’s professional labors, such brief
leisure as they could command should be used as an escape from immediate
preoccupations, a flight to the life they always dreamed of living. Once
or twice, now that this new life had actually drawn its magic circle
about them, she had asked herself if she had done right; but hitherto
such conjectures had been no more than the retrospective excursions of
an active fancy. Now, for the first time, it startled her a little
to find how little she knew of the material foundation on which her
happiness was built.

She glanced again at her husband, and was reassured by the composure
of his face; yet she felt the need of more definite grounds for her
reassurance.

“But doesn’t this suit worry you? Why have you never spoken to me about
it?”

He answered both questions at once: “I didn’t speak of it at first
because it DID worry me--annoyed me, rather. But it’s all ancient
history now. Your correspondent must have got hold of a back number of
the ‘Sentinel.’”

She felt a quick thrill of relief. “You mean it’s over? He’s lost his
case?”

There was a just perceptible delay in Boyne’s reply. “The suit’s been
withdrawn--that’s all.”

But she persisted, as if to exonerate herself from the inward charge of
being too easily put off. “Withdrawn because he saw he had no chance?”

“Oh, he had no chance,” Boyne answered.

She was still struggling with a dimly felt perplexity at the back of her
thoughts.

“How long ago was it withdrawn?”

He paused, as if with a slight return of his former uncertainty. “I’ve
just had the news now; but I’ve been expecting it.”

“Just now--in one of your letters?”

“Yes; in one of my letters.”

She made no answer, and was aware only, after a short interval of
waiting, that he had risen, and strolling across the room, had placed
himself on the sofa at her side. She felt him, as he did so, pass an arm
about her, she felt his hand seek hers and clasp it, and turning slowly,
drawn by the warmth of his cheek, she met the smiling clearness of his
eyes.

“It’s all right--it’s all right?” she questioned, through the flood of
her dissolving doubts; and “I give you my word it never was righter!” he
laughed back at her, holding her close.



III


One of the strangest things she was afterward to recall out of all the
next day’s incredible strangeness was the sudden and complete recovery
of her sense of security.

It was in the air when she woke in her low-ceilinged, dusky room; it
accompanied her down-stairs to the breakfast-table, flashed out at her
from the fire, and re-duplicated itself brightly from the flanks of the
urn and the sturdy flutings of the Georgian teapot. It was as if, in
some roundabout way, all her diffused apprehensions of the previous
day, with their moment of sharp concentration about the newspaper
article,--as if this dim questioning of the future, and startled return
upon the past,--had between them liquidated the arrears of some haunting
moral obligation. If she had indeed been careless of her husband’s
affairs, it was, her new state seemed to prove, because her faith in him
instinctively justified such carelessness; and his right to her faith
had overwhelmingly affirmed itself in the very face of menace and
suspicion. She had never seen him more untroubled, more naturally and
unconsciously in possession of himself, than after the cross-examination
to which she had subjected him: it was almost as if he had been aware of
her lurking doubts, and had wanted the air cleared as much as she did.

It was as clear, thank Heaven! as the bright outer light that surprised
her almost with a touch of summer when she issued from the house for her
daily round of the gardens. She had left Boyne at his desk, indulging
herself, as she passed the library door, by a last peep at his quiet
face, where he bent, pipe in his mouth, above his papers, and now she
had her own morning’s task to perform. The task involved on such charmed
winter days almost as much delighted loitering about the different
quarters of her demesne as if spring were already at work on shrubs and
borders. There were such inexhaustible possibilities still before her,
such opportunities to bring out the latent graces of the old place,
without a single irreverent touch of alteration, that the winter months
were all too short to plan what spring and autumn executed. And her
recovered sense of safety gave, on this particular morning, a peculiar
zest to her progress through the sweet, still place. She went first to
the kitchen-garden, where the espaliered pear-trees drew complicated
patterns on the walls, and pigeons were fluttering and preening about
the silvery-slated roof of their cot. There was something wrong about
the piping of the hothouse, and she was expecting an authority from
Dorchester, who was to drive out between trains and make a diagnosis of
the boiler. But when she dipped into the damp heat of the greenhouses,
among the spiced scents and waxy pinks and reds of old-fashioned
exotics,--even the flora of Lyng was in the note!--she learned that the
great man had not arrived, and the day being too rare to waste in an
artificial atmosphere, she came out again and paced slowly along the
springy turf of the bowling-green to the gardens behind the house. At
their farther end rose a grass terrace, commanding, over the fish-pond
and the yew hedges, a view of the long house-front, with its twisted
chimney-stacks and the blue shadows of its roof angles, all drenched in
the pale gold moisture of the air.

Seen thus, across the level tracery of the yews, under the suffused,
mild light, it sent her, from its open windows and hospitably smoking
chimneys, the look of some warm human presence, of a mind slowly ripened
on a sunny wall of experience. She had never before had so deep a sense
of her intimacy with it, such a conviction that its secrets were
all beneficent, kept, as they said to children, “for one’s good,” so
complete a trust in its power to gather up her life and Ned’s into the
harmonious pattern of the long, long story it sat there weaving in the
sun.

She heard steps behind her, and turned, expecting to see the gardener,
accompanied by the engineer from Dorchester. But only one figure was
in sight, that of a youngish, slightly built man, who, for reasons she
could not on the spot have specified, did not remotely resemble her
preconceived notion of an authority on hot-house boilers. The
new-comer, on seeing her, lifted his hat, and paused with the air of a
gentleman--perhaps a traveler--desirous of having it immediately known
that his intrusion is involuntary. The local fame of Lyng occasionally
attracted the more intelligent sight-seer, and Mary half-expected to see
the stranger dissemble a camera, or justify his presence by producing
it. But he made no gesture of any sort, and after a moment she asked,
in a tone responding to the courteous deprecation of his attitude: “Is
there any one you wish to see?”

“I came to see Mr. Boyne,” he replied. His intonation, rather than his
accent, was faintly American, and Mary, at the familiar note, looked
at him more closely. The brim of his soft felt hat cast a shade on his
face, which, thus obscured, wore to her short-sighted gaze a look of
seriousness, as of a person arriving “on business,” and civilly but
firmly aware of his rights.

Past experience had made Mary equally sensible to such claims; but she
was jealous of her husband’s morning hours, and doubtful of his having
given any one the right to intrude on them.

“Have you an appointment with Mr. Boyne?” she asked.

He hesitated, as if unprepared for the question.

“Not exactly an appointment,” he replied.

“Then I’m afraid, this being his working-time, that he can’t receive you
now. Will you give me a message, or come back later?”

The visitor, again lifting his hat, briefly replied that he would come
back later, and walked away, as if to regain the front of the house. As
his figure receded down the walk between the yew hedges, Mary saw him
pause and look up an instant at the peaceful house-front bathed in faint
winter sunshine; and it struck her, with a tardy touch of compunction,
that it would have been more humane to ask if he had come from a
distance, and to offer, in that case, to inquire if her husband could
receive him. But as the thought occurred to her he passed out of
sight behind a pyramidal yew, and at the same moment her attention was
distracted by the approach of the gardener, attended by the bearded
pepper-and-salt figure of the boiler-maker from Dorchester.

The encounter with this authority led to such far-reaching issues that
they resulted in his finding it expedient to ignore his train, and
beguiled Mary into spending the remainder of the morning in absorbed
confabulation among the greenhouses. She was startled to find, when the
colloquy ended, that it was nearly luncheon-time, and she half expected,
as she hurried back to the house, to see her husband coming out to meet
her. But she found no one in the court but an under-gardener raking
the gravel, and the hall, when she entered it, was so silent that she
guessed Boyne to be still at work behind the closed door of the library.

Not wishing to disturb him, she turned into the drawing-room, and there,
at her writing-table, lost herself in renewed calculations of the outlay
to which the morning’s conference had committed her. The knowledge that
she could permit herself such follies had not yet lost its novelty; and
somehow, in contrast to the vague apprehensions of the previous days, it
now seemed an element of her recovered security, of the sense that, as
Ned had said, things in general had never been “righter.”

She was still luxuriating in a lavish play of figures when the
parlor-maid, from the threshold, roused her with a dubiously worded
inquiry as to the expediency of serving luncheon. It was one of their
jokes that Trimmle announced luncheon as if she were divulging a
state secret, and Mary, intent upon her papers, merely murmured an
absent-minded assent.

She felt Trimmle wavering expressively on the threshold as if in rebuke
of such offhand acquiescence; then her retreating steps sounded down the
passage, and Mary, pushing away her papers, crossed the hall, and went
to the library door. It was still closed, and she wavered in her turn,
disliking to disturb her husband, yet anxious that he should not exceed
his normal measure of work. As she stood there, balancing her impulses,
the esoteric Trimmle returned with the announcement of luncheon, and
Mary, thus impelled, opened the door and went into the library.

Boyne was not at his desk, and she peered about her, expecting to
discover him at the book-shelves, somewhere down the length of the room;
but her call brought no response, and gradually it became clear to her
that he was not in the library.

She turned back to the parlor-maid.

“Mr. Boyne must be up-stairs. Please tell him that luncheon is ready.”

The parlor-maid appeared to hesitate between the obvious duty of obeying
orders and an equally obvious conviction of the foolishness of
the injunction laid upon her. The struggle resulted in her saying
doubtfully, “If you please, Madam, Mr. Boyne’s not up-stairs.”

“Not in his room? Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, Madam.”

Mary consulted the clock. “Where is he, then?”

“He’s gone out,” Trimmle announced, with the superior air of one who has
respectfully waited for the question that a well-ordered mind would have
first propounded.

Mary’s previous conjecture had been right, then. Boyne must have gone to
the gardens to meet her, and since she had missed him, it was clear that
he had taken the shorter way by the south door, instead of going round
to the court. She crossed the hall to the glass portal opening directly
on the yew garden, but the parlor-maid, after another moment of inner
conflict, decided to bring out recklessly, “Please, Madam, Mr. Boyne
didn’t go that way.”

Mary turned back. “Where DID he go? And when?”

“He went out of the front door, up the drive, Madam.” It was a matter of
principle with Trimmle never to answer more than one question at a time.

“Up the drive? At this hour?” Mary went to the door herself, and
glanced across the court through the long tunnel of bare limes. But
its perspective was as empty as when she had scanned it on entering the
house.

“Did Mr. Boyne leave no message?” she asked.

Trimmle seemed to surrender herself to a last struggle with the forces
of chaos.

“No, Madam. He just went out with the gentleman.”

“The gentleman? What gentleman?” Mary wheeled about, as if to front this
new factor.

“The gentleman who called, Madam,” said Trimmle, resignedly.

“When did a gentleman call? Do explain yourself, Trimmle!”

Only the fact that Mary was very hungry, and that she wanted to consult
her husband about the greenhouses, would have caused her to lay so
unusual an injunction on her attendant; and even now she was detached
enough to note in Trimmle’s eye the dawning defiance of the respectful
subordinate who has been pressed too hard.

“I couldn’t exactly say the hour, Madam, because I didn’t let the
gentleman in,” she replied, with the air of magnanimously ignoring the
irregularity of her mistress’s course.

“You didn’t let him in?”

“No, Madam. When the bell rang I was dressing, and Agnes--”

“Go and ask Agnes, then,” Mary interjected. Trimmle still wore her
look of patient magnanimity. “Agnes would not know, Madam, for she had
unfortunately burnt her hand in trying the wick of the new lamp from
town--” Trimmle, as Mary was aware, had always been opposed to the new
lamp--“and so Mrs. Dockett sent the kitchen-maid instead.”

Mary looked again at the clock. “It’s after two! Go and ask the
kitchen-maid if Mr. Boyne left any word.”

She went into luncheon without waiting, and Trimmle presently brought
her there the kitchen-maid’s statement that the gentleman had called
about one o’clock, that Mr. Boyne had gone out with him without leaving
any message. The kitchen-maid did not even know the caller’s name, for
he had written it on a slip of paper, which he had folded and handed to
her, with the injunction to deliver it at once to Mr. Boyne.

Mary finished her luncheon, still wondering, and when it was over,
and Trimmle had brought the coffee to the drawing-room, her wonder had
deepened to a first faint tinge of disquietude. It was unlike Boyne
to absent himself without explanation at so unwonted an hour, and the
difficulty of identifying the visitor whose summons he had apparently
obeyed made his disappearance the more unaccountable. Mary Boyne’s
experience as the wife of a busy engineer, subject to sudden calls and
compelled to keep irregular hours, had trained her to the philosophic
acceptance of surprises; but since Boyne’s withdrawal from business he
had adopted a Benedictine regularity of life. As if to make up for the
dispersed and agitated years, with their “stand-up” lunches and dinners
rattled down to the joltings of the dining-car, he cultivated the last
refinements of punctuality and monotony, discouraging his wife’s fancy
for the unexpected; and declaring that to a delicate taste there were
infinite gradations of pleasure in the fixed recurrences of habit.

Still, since no life can completely defend itself from the unforeseen,
it was evident that all Boyne’s precautions would sooner or later prove
unavailable, and Mary concluded that he had cut short a tiresome visit
by walking with his caller to the station, or at least accompanying him
for part of the way.

This conclusion relieved her from farther preoccupation, and she went
out herself to take up her conference with the gardener. Thence she
walked to the village post-office, a mile or so away; and when she
turned toward home, the early twilight was setting in.

She had taken a foot-path across the downs, and as Boyne, meanwhile,
had probably returned from the station by the highroad, there was little
likelihood of their meeting on the way. She felt sure, however, of his
having reached the house before her; so sure that, when she entered it
herself, without even pausing to inquire of Trimmle, she made directly
for the library. But the library was still empty, and with an unwonted
precision of visual memory she immediately observed that the papers on
her husband’s desk lay precisely as they had lain when she had gone in
to call him to luncheon.

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had
closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the
long, silent, shadowy room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound,
to be there audibly breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her
short-sighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual
presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from
that intangible propinquity she threw herself suddenly on the bell-rope
and gave it a desperate pull.

The long, quavering summons brought Trimmle in precipitately with a
lamp, and Mary breathed again at this sobering reappearance of the
usual.

“You may bring tea if Mr. Boyne is in,” she said, to justify her ring.

“Very well, Madam. But Mr. Boyne is not in,” said Trimmle, putting down
the lamp.

“Not in? You mean he’s come back and gone out again?”

“No, Madam. He’s never been back.”

The dread stirred again, and Mary knew that now it had her fast.

“Not since he went out with--the gentleman?”

“Not since he went out with the gentleman.”

“But who WAS the gentleman?” Mary gasped out, with the sharp note of
some one trying to be heard through a confusion of meaningless noises.

“That I couldn’t say, Madam.” Trimmle, standing there by the lamp,
seemed suddenly to grow less round and rosy, as though eclipsed by the
same creeping shade of apprehension.

“But the kitchen-maid knows--wasn’t it the kitchen-maid who let him in?”

“She doesn’t know either, Madam, for he wrote his name on a folded
paper.”

Mary, through her agitation, was aware that they were both designating
the unknown visitor by a vague pronoun, instead of the conventional
formula which, till then, had kept their allusions within the bounds of
custom. And at the same moment her mind caught at the suggestion of the
folded paper.

“But he must have a name! Where is the paper?”

She moved to the desk, and began to turn over the scattered documents
that littered it. The first that caught her eye was an unfinished letter
in her husband’s hand, with his pen lying across it, as though dropped
there at a sudden summons.

“My dear Parvis,”--who was Parvis?--“I have just received your letter
announcing Elwell’s death, and while I suppose there is now no farther
risk of trouble, it might be safer--”

She tossed the sheet aside, and continued her search; but no folded
paper was discoverable among the letters and pages of manuscript which
had been swept together in a promiscuous heap, as if by a hurried or a
startled gesture.

“But the kitchen-maid SAW him. Send her here,” she commanded, wondering
at her dullness in not thinking sooner of so simple a solution.

Trimmle, at the behest, vanished in a flash, as if thankful to be out
of the room, and when she reappeared, conducting the agitated underling,
Mary had regained her self-possession, and had her questions pat.

The gentleman was a stranger, yes--that she understood. But what had he
said? And, above all, what had he looked like? The first question was
easily enough answered, for the disconcerting reason that he had said so
little--had merely asked for Mr. Boyne, and, scribbling something on a
bit of paper, had requested that it should at once be carried in to him.

“Then you don’t know what he wrote? You’re not sure it WAS his name?”

The kitchen-maid was not sure, but supposed it was, since he had written
it in answer to her inquiry as to whom she should announce.

“And when you carried the paper in to Mr. Boyne, what did he say?”

The kitchen-maid did not think that Mr. Boyne had said anything, but she
could not be sure, for just as she had handed him the paper and he was
opening it, she had become aware that the visitor had followed her
into the library, and she had slipped out, leaving the two gentlemen
together.

“But then, if you left them in the library, how do you know that they
went out of the house?”

This question plunged the witness into momentary inarticulateness,
from which she was rescued by Trimmle, who, by means of ingenious
circumlocutions, elicited the statement that before she could cross the
hall to the back passage she had heard the gentlemen behind her, and had
seen them go out of the front door together.

“Then, if you saw the gentleman twice, you must be able to tell me what
he looked like.”

But with this final challenge to her powers of expression it became
clear that the limit of the kitchen-maid’s endurance had been reached.
The obligation of going to the front door to “show in” a visitor was
in itself so subversive of the fundamental order of things that it had
thrown her faculties into hopeless disarray, and she could only stammer
out, after various panting efforts at evocation, “His hat, mum, was
different-like, as you might say--”

“Different? How different?” Mary flashed out at her, her own mind, in
the same instant, leaping back to an image left on it that morning, but
temporarily lost under layers of subsequent impressions.

“His hat had a wide brim, you mean? and his face was pale--a youngish
face?” Mary pressed her, with a white-lipped intensity of interrogation.
But if the kitchen-maid found any adequate answer to this challenge,
it was swept away for her listener down the rushing current of her own
convictions. The stranger--the stranger in the garden! Why had Mary not
thought of him before? She needed no one now to tell her that it was he
who had called for her husband and gone away with him. But who was he,
and why had Boyne obeyed his call?



IV


It leaped out at her suddenly, like a grin out of the dark, that they
had often called England so little--“such a confoundedly hard place to
get lost in.”

A CONFOUNDEDLY HARD PLACE TO GET LOST IN! That had been her husband’s
phrase. And now, with the whole machinery of official investigation
sweeping its flash-lights from shore to shore, and across the dividing
straits; now, with Boyne’s name blazing from the walls of every town
and village, his portrait (how that wrung her!) hawked up and down the
country like the image of a hunted criminal; now the little compact,
populous island, so policed, surveyed, and administered, revealed itself
as a Sphinx-like guardian of abysmal mysteries, staring back into his
wife’s anguished eyes as if with the malicious joy of knowing something
they would never know!

In the fortnight since Boyne’s disappearance there had been no word of
him, no trace of his movements. Even the usual misleading reports that
raise expectancy in tortured bosoms had been few and fleeting. No one
but the bewildered kitchen-maid had seen him leave the house, and no one
else had seen “the gentleman” who accompanied him. All inquiries in the
neighborhood failed to elicit the memory of a stranger’s presence that
day in the neighborhood of Lyng. And no one had met Edward Boyne, either
alone or in company, in any of the neighboring villages, or on the road
across the downs, or at either of the local railway-stations. The sunny
English noon had swallowed him as completely as if he had gone out into
Cimmerian night.

Mary, while every external means of investigation was working at its
highest pressure, had ransacked her husband’s papers for any trace of
antecedent complications, of entanglements or obligations unknown to
her, that might throw a faint ray into the darkness. But if any such
had existed in the background of Boyne’s life, they had disappeared as
completely as the slip of paper on which the visitor had written his
name. There remained no possible thread of guidance except--if it were
indeed an exception--the letter which Boyne had apparently been in the
act of writing when he received his mysterious summons. That letter,
read and reread by his wife, and submitted by her to the police, yielded
little enough for conjecture to feed on.

“I have just heard of Elwell’s death, and while I suppose there is now
no farther risk of trouble, it might be safer--” That was all. The “risk
of trouble” was easily explained by the newspaper clipping which had
apprised Mary of the suit brought against her husband by one of his
associates in the Blue Star enterprise. The only new information
conveyed in the letter was the fact of its showing Boyne, when he wrote
it, to be still apprehensive of the results of the suit, though he
had assured his wife that it had been withdrawn, and though the letter
itself declared that the plaintiff was dead. It took several weeks
of exhaustive cabling to fix the identity of the “Parvis” to whom the
fragmentary communication was addressed, but even after these inquiries
had shown him to be a Waukesha lawyer, no new facts concerning the
Elwell suit were elicited. He appeared to have had no direct concern
in it, but to have been conversant with the facts merely as an
acquaintance, and possible intermediary; and he declared himself unable
to divine with what object Boyne intended to seek his assistance.

This negative information, sole fruit of the first fortnight’s feverish
search, was not increased by a jot during the slow weeks that followed.
Mary knew that the investigations were still being carried on, but she
had a vague sense of their gradually slackening, as the actual march of
time seemed to slacken. It was as though the days, flying horror-struck
from the shrouded image of the one inscrutable day, gained assurance as
the distance lengthened, till at last they fell back into their normal
gait. And so with the human imaginations at work on the dark event. No
doubt it occupied them still, but week by week and hour by hour it grew
less absorbing, took up less space, was slowly but inevitably crowded
out of the foreground of consciousness by the new problems perpetually
bubbling up from the vaporous caldron of human experience.

Even Mary Boyne’s consciousness gradually felt the same lowering of
velocity. It still swayed with the incessant oscillations of conjecture;
but they were slower, more rhythmical in their beat. There were moments
of overwhelming lassitude when, like the victim of some poison which
leaves the brain clear, but holds the body motionless, she saw herself
domesticated with the Horror, accepting its perpetual presence as one of
the fixed conditions of life.

These moments lengthened into hours and days, till she passed into a
phase of stolid acquiescence. She watched the familiar routine of life
with the incurious eye of a savage on whom the meaningless processes of
civilization make but the faintest impression. She had come to regard
herself as part of the routine, a spoke of the wheel, revolving with its
motion; she felt almost like the furniture of the room in which she sat,
an insensate object to be dusted and pushed about with the chairs and
tables. And this deepening apathy held her fast at Lyng, in spite of
the urgent entreaties of friends and the usual medical recommendation of
“change.” Her friends supposed that her refusal to move was inspired by
the belief that her husband would one day return to the spot from which
he had vanished, and a beautiful legend grew up about this imaginary
state of waiting. But in reality she had no such belief: the depths of
anguish inclosing her were no longer lighted by flashes of hope. She was
sure that Boyne would never come back, that he had gone out of her sight
as completely as if Death itself had waited that day on the threshold.
She had even renounced, one by one, the various theories as to his
disappearance which had been advanced by the press, the police, and her
own agonized imagination. In sheer lassitude her mind turned from these
alternatives of horror, and sank back into the blank fact that he was
gone.

No, she would never know what had become of him--no one would ever know.
But the house KNEW; the library in which she spent her long, lonely
evenings knew. For it was here that the last scene had been enacted,
here that the stranger had come, and spoken the word which had caused
Boyne to rise and follow him. The floor she trod had felt his tread; the
books on the shelves had seen his face; and there were moments when the
intense consciousness of the old, dusky walls seemed about to break out
into some audible revelation of their secret. But the revelation
never came, and she knew it would never come. Lyng was not one of the
garrulous old houses that betray the secrets intrusted to them. Its
very legend proved that it had always been the mute accomplice, the
incorruptible custodian of the mysteries it had surprised. And Mary
Boyne, sitting face to face with its portentous silence, felt the
futility of seeking to break it by any human means.



V


“I don’t say it WASN’T straight, yet don’t say it WAS straight. It was
business.”

Mary, at the words, lifted her head with a start, and looked intently at
the speaker.

When, half an hour before, a card with “Mr. Parvis” on it had been
brought up to her, she had been immediately aware that the name had been
a part of her consciousness ever since she had read it at the head of
Boyne’s unfinished letter. In the library she had found awaiting her a
small neutral-tinted man with a bald head and gold eye-glasses, and it
sent a strange tremor through her to know that this was the person to
whom her husband’s last known thought had been directed.

Parvis, civilly, but without vain preamble,--in the manner of a man who
has his watch in his hand,--had set forth the object of his visit.
He had “run over” to England on business, and finding himself in the
neighborhood of Dorchester, had not wished to leave it without paying
his respects to Mrs. Boyne; without asking her, if the occasion offered,
what she meant to do about Bob Elwell’s family.

The words touched the spring of some obscure dread in Mary’s bosom.
Did her visitor, after all, know what Boyne had meant by his unfinished
phrase? She asked for an elucidation of his question, and noticed at
once that he seemed surprised at her continued ignorance of the subject.
Was it possible that she really knew as little as she said?

“I know nothing--you must tell me,” she faltered out; and her visitor
thereupon proceeded to unfold his story. It threw, even to her confused
perceptions, and imperfectly initiated vision, a lurid glare on the
whole hazy episode of the Blue Star Mine. Her husband had made his money
in that brilliant speculation at the cost of “getting ahead” of some one
less alert to seize the chance; the victim of his ingenuity was young
Robert Elwell, who had “put him on” to the Blue Star scheme.

Parvis, at Mary’s first startled cry, had thrown her a sobering glance
through his impartial glasses.

“Bob Elwell wasn’t smart enough, that’s all; if he had been, he might
have turned round and served Boyne the same way. It’s the kind of thing
that happens every day in business. I guess it’s what the scientists
call the survival of the fittest,” said Mr. Parvis, evidently pleased
with the aptness of his analogy.

Mary felt a physical shrinking from the next question she tried to
frame; it was as though the words on her lips had a taste that nauseated
her.

“But then--you accuse my husband of doing something dishonorable?”

Mr. Parvis surveyed the question dispassionately. “Oh, no, I don’t.
I don’t even say it wasn’t straight.” He glanced up and down the long
lines of books, as if one of them might have supplied him with the
definition he sought. “I don’t say it WASN’T straight, and yet I don’t
say it WAS straight. It was business.” After all, no definition in his
category could be more comprehensive than that.

Mary sat staring at him with a look of terror. He seemed to her like the
indifferent, implacable emissary of some dark, formless power.

“But Mr. Elwell’s lawyers apparently did not take your view, since I
suppose the suit was withdrawn by their advice.”

“Oh, yes, they knew he hadn’t a leg to stand on, technically. It was
when they advised him to withdraw the suit that he got desperate. You
see, he’d borrowed most of the money he lost in the Blue Star, and he
was up a tree. That’s why he shot himself when they told him he had no
show.”

The horror was sweeping over Mary in great, deafening waves.

“He shot himself? He killed himself because of THAT?”

“Well, he didn’t kill himself, exactly. He dragged on two months before
he died.” Parvis emitted the statement as unemotionally as a gramophone
grinding out its “record.”

“You mean that he tried to kill himself, and failed? And tried again?”

“Oh, he didn’t have to try again,” said Parvis, grimly.

They sat opposite each other in silence, he swinging his eye-glass
thoughtfully about his finger, she, motionless, her arms stretched along
her knees in an attitude of rigid tension.

“But if you knew all this,” she began at length, hardly able to force
her voice above a whisper, “how is it that when I wrote you at the
time of my husband’s disappearance you said you didn’t understand his
letter?”

Parvis received this without perceptible discomfiture. “Why, I didn’t
understand it--strictly speaking. And it wasn’t the time to talk
about it, if I had. The Elwell business was settled when the suit was
withdrawn. Nothing I could have told you would have helped you to find
your husband.”

Mary continued to scrutinize him. “Then why are you telling me now?”

Still Parvis did not hesitate. “Well, to begin with, I supposed you
knew more than you appear to--I mean about the circumstances of Elwell’s
death. And then people are talking of it now; the whole matter’s been
raked up again. And I thought, if you didn’t know, you ought to.”

She remained silent, and he continued: “You see, it’s only come out
lately what a bad state Elwell’s affairs were in. His wife’s a proud
woman, and she fought on as long as she could, going out to work, and
taking sewing at home, when she got too sick--something with the heart,
I believe. But she had his bedridden mother to look after, and the
children, and she broke down under it, and finally had to ask for help.
That attracted attention to the case, and the papers took it up, and a
subscription was started. Everybody out there liked Bob Elwell, and most
of the prominent names in the place are down on the list, and people
began to wonder why--”

Parvis broke off to fumble in an inner pocket. “Here,” he continued,
“here’s an account of the whole thing from the ‘Sentinel’--a little
sensational, of course. But I guess you’d better look it over.”

He held out a newspaper to Mary, who unfolded it slowly, remembering,
as she did so, the evening when, in that same room, the perusal of
a clipping from the “Sentinel” had first shaken the depths of her
security.

As she opened the paper, her eyes, shrinking from the glaring
head-lines, “Widow of Boyne’s Victim Forced to Appeal for Aid,” ran down
the column of text to two portraits inserted in it. The first was
her husband’s, taken from a photograph made the year they had come to
England. It was the picture of him that she liked best, the one that
stood on the writing-table up-stairs in her bedroom. As the eyes in the
photograph met hers, she felt it would be impossible to read what was
said of him, and closed her lids with the sharpness of the pain.

“I thought if you felt disposed to put your name down--” she heard
Parvis continue.

She opened her eyes with an effort, and they fell on the other portrait.
It was that of a youngish man, slightly built, in rough clothes, with
features somewhat blurred by the shadow of a projecting hat-brim. Where
had she seen that outline before? She stared at it confusedly, her heart
hammering in her throat and ears. Then she gave a cry.

“This is the man--the man who came for my husband!”

She heard Parvis start to his feet, and was dimly aware that she had
slipped backward into the corner of the sofa, and that he was bending
above her in alarm. With an intense effort she straightened herself, and
reached out for the paper, which she had dropped.

“It’s the man! I should know him anywhere!” she cried in a voice that
sounded in her own ears like a scream.

Parvis’s voice seemed to come to her from far off, down endless,
fog-muffled windings.

“Mrs. Boyne, you’re not very well. Shall I call somebody? Shall I get a
glass of water?”

“No, no, no!” She threw herself toward him, her hand frantically
clenching the newspaper. “I tell you, it’s the man! I KNOW him! He spoke
to me in the garden!”

Parvis took the journal from her, directing his glasses to the portrait.
“It can’t be, Mrs. Boyne. It’s Robert Elwell.”

“Robert Elwell?” Her white stare seemed to travel into space. “Then it
was Robert Elwell who came for him.”

“Came for Boyne? The day he went away?” Parvis’s voice dropped as hers
rose. He bent over, laying a fraternal hand on her, as if to coax her
gently back into her seat. “Why, Elwell was dead! Don’t you remember?”

Mary sat with her eyes fixed on the picture, unconscious of what he was
saying.

“Don’t you remember Boyne’s unfinished letter to me--the one you found
on his desk that day? It was written just after he’d heard of Elwell’s
death.” She noticed an odd shake in Parvis’s unemotional voice. “Surely
you remember that!” he urged her.

Yes, she remembered: that was the profoundest horror of it. Elwell had
died the day before her husband’s disappearance; and this was Elwell’s
portrait; and it was the portrait of the man who had spoken to her in
the garden. She lifted her head and looked slowly about the library. The
library could have borne witness that it was also the portrait of the
man who had come in that day to call Boyne from his unfinished letter.
Through the misty surgings of her brain she heard the faint boom
of half-forgotten words--words spoken by Alida Stair on the lawn at
Pangbourne before Boyne and his wife had ever seen the house at Lyng, or
had imagined that they might one day live there.

“This was the man who spoke to me,” she repeated.

She looked again at Parvis. He was trying to conceal his disturbance
under what he imagined to be an expression of indulgent commiseration;
but the edges of his lips were blue. “He thinks me mad; but I’m not
mad,” she reflected; and suddenly there flashed upon her a way of
justifying her strange affirmation.

She sat quiet, controlling the quiver of her lips, and waiting till she
could trust her voice to keep its habitual level; then she said, looking
straight at Parvis: “Will you answer me one question, please? When was
it that Robert Elwell tried to kill himself?”

“When--when?” Parvis stammered.

“Yes; the date. Please try to remember.”

She saw that he was growing still more afraid of her. “I have a reason,”
 she insisted gently.

“Yes, yes. Only I can’t remember. About two months before, I should
say.”

“I want the date,” she repeated.

Parvis picked up the newspaper. “We might see here,” he said, still
humoring her. He ran his eyes down the page. “Here it is. Last
October--the--”

She caught the words from him. “The 20th, wasn’t it?” With a sharp look
at her, he verified. “Yes, the 20th. Then you DID know?”

“I know now.” Her white stare continued to travel past him. “Sunday, the
20th--that was the day he came first.”

Parvis’s voice was almost inaudible. “Came HERE first?”

“Yes.”

“You saw him twice, then?”

“Yes, twice.” She breathed it at him with dilated eyes. “He came first
on the 20th of October. I remember the date because it was the day
we went up Meldon Steep for the first time.” She felt a faint gasp
of inward laughter at the thought that but for that she might have
forgotten.

Parvis continued to scrutinize her, as if trying to intercept her gaze.

“We saw him from the roof,” she went on. “He came down the lime-avenue
toward the house. He was dressed just as he is in that picture. My
husband saw him first. He was frightened, and ran down ahead of me; but
there was no one there. He had vanished.”

“Elwell had vanished?” Parvis faltered.

“Yes.” Their two whispers seemed to grope for each other. “I couldn’t
think what had happened. I see now. He TRIED to come then; but he wasn’t
dead enough--he couldn’t reach us. He had to wait for two months; and
then he came back again--and Ned went with him.”

She nodded at Parvis with the look of triumph of a child who has
successfully worked out a difficult puzzle. But suddenly she lifted her
hands with a desperate gesture, pressing them to her bursting temples.

“Oh, my God! I sent him to Ned--I told him where to go! I sent him to
this room!” she screamed out.

She felt the walls of the room rush toward her, like inward falling
ruins; and she heard Parvis, a long way off, as if through the ruins,
crying to her, and struggling to get at her. But she was numb to his
touch, she did not know what he was saying. Through the tumult she heard
but one clear note, the voice of Alida Stair, speaking on the lawn at
Pangbourne.

“You won’t know till afterward,” it said. “You won’t know till long,
long afterward.”


The End of Afterward



THE FULNESS OF LIFE

December 1893



I.


For hours she had lain in a kind of gentle torpor, not unlike that sweet
lassitude which masters one in the hush of a midsummer noon, when the
heat seems to have silenced the very birds and insects, and, lying sunk
in the tasselled meadow-grasses, one looks up through a level roofing
of maple-leaves at the vast shadowless, and unsuggestive blue. Now and
then, at ever-lengthening intervals, a flash of pain darted through her,
like the ripple of sheet-lightning across such a midsummer sky; but it
was too transitory to shake her stupor, that calm, delicious, bottomless
stupor into which she felt herself sinking more and more deeply, without
a disturbing impulse of resistance, an effort of reattachment to the
vanishing edges of consciousness.

The resistance, the effort, had known their hour of violence; but
now they were at an end. Through her mind, long harried by grotesque
visions, fragmentary images of the life that she was leaving, tormenting
lines of verse, obstinate presentments of pictures once beheld,
indistinct impressions of rivers, towers, and cupolas, gathered in the
length of journeys half forgotten--through her mind there now only moved
a few primal sensations of colorless well-being; a vague satisfaction
in the thought that she had swallowed her noxious last draught of
medicine... and that she should never again hear the creaking of her
husband’s boots--those horrible boots--and that no one would come to
bother her about the next day’s dinner... or the butcher’s book....

At last even these dim sensations spent themselves in the thickening
obscurity which enveloped her; a dusk now filled with pale geometric
roses, circling softly, interminably before her, now darkened to a
uniform blue-blackness, the hue of a summer night without stars. And
into this darkness she felt herself sinking, sinking, with the gentle
sense of security of one upheld from beneath. Like a tepid tide it
rose around her, gliding ever higher and higher, folding in its velvety
embrace her relaxed and tired body, now submerging her breast and
shoulders, now creeping gradually, with soft inexorableness, over her
throat to her chin, to her ears, to her mouth.... Ah, now it was rising
too high; the impulse to struggle was renewed;... her mouth was full;...
she was choking.... Help!

“It is all over,” said the nurse, drawing down the eyelids with official
composure.

The clock struck three. They remembered it afterward. Someone opened the
window and let in a blast of that strange, neutral air which walks
the earth between darkness and dawn; someone else led the husband into
another room. He walked vaguely, like a blind man, on his creaking
boots.



II.


She stood, as it seemed, on a threshold, yet no tangible gateway was in
front of her. Only a wide vista of light, mild yet penetrating as the
gathered glimmer of innumerable stars, expanded gradually before her
eyes, in blissful contrast to the cavernous darkness from which she had
of late emerged.

She stepped forward, not frightened, but hesitating, and as her eyes
began to grow more familiar with the melting depths of light about her,
she distinguished the outlines of a landscape, at first swimming in
the opaline uncertainty of Shelley’s vaporous creations, then gradually
resolved into distincter shape--the vast unrolling of a sunlit plain,
aerial forms of mountains, and presently the silver crescent of a
river in the valley, and a blue stencilling of trees along its
curve--something suggestive in its ineffable hue of an azure background
of Leonardo’s, strange, enchanting, mysterious, leading on the eye and
the imagination into regions of fabulous delight. As she gazed, her
heart beat with a soft and rapturous surprise; so exquisite a promise
she read in the summons of that hyaline distance.

“And so death is not the end after all,” in sheer gladness she heard
herself exclaiming aloud. “I always knew that it couldn’t be. I believed
in Darwin, of course. I do still; but then Darwin himself said that he
wasn’t sure about the soul--at least, I think he did--and Wallace was a
spiritualist; and then there was St. George Mivart--”

Her gaze lost itself in the ethereal remoteness of the mountains.

“How beautiful! How satisfying!” she murmured. “Perhaps now I shall
really know what it is to live.”

As she spoke she felt a sudden thickening of her heart-beats, and
looking up she was aware that before her stood the Spirit of Life.

“Have you never really known what it is to live?” the Spirit of Life
asked her.

“I have never known,” she replied, “that fulness of life which we all
feel ourselves capable of knowing; though my life has not been without
scattered hints of it, like the scent of earth which comes to one
sometimes far out at sea.”

“And what do you call the fulness of life?” the Spirit asked again.

“Oh, I can’t tell you, if you don’t know,” she said, almost
reproachfully. “Many words are supposed to define it--love and sympathy
are those in commonest use, but I am not even sure that they are the
right ones, and so few people really know what they mean.”

“You were married,” said the Spirit, “yet you did not find the fulness
of life in your marriage?”

“Oh, dear, no,” she replied, with an indulgent scorn, “my marriage was a
very incomplete affair.”

“And yet you were fond of your husband?”

“You have hit upon the exact word; I was fond of him, yes, just as I
was fond of my grandmother, and the house that I was born in, and my old
nurse. Oh, I was fond of him, and we were counted a very happy couple.
But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house
full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going
in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the
sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list;
but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors
perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows
whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the
soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”

“And your husband,” asked the Spirit, after a pause, “never got beyond
the family sitting-room?”

“Never,” she returned, impatiently; “and the worst of it was that he was
quite content to remain there. He thought it perfectly beautiful, and
sometimes, when he was admiring its commonplace furniture, insignificant
as the chairs and tables of a hotel parlor, I felt like crying out to
him: ‘Fool, will you never guess that close at hand are rooms full of
treasures and wonders, such as the eye of man hath not seen, rooms that
no step has crossed, but that might be yours to live in, could you but
find the handle of the door?’”

“Then,” the Spirit continued, “those moments of which you lately spoke,
which seemed to come to you like scattered hints of the fulness of life,
were not shared with your husband?”

“Oh, no--never. He was different. His boots creaked, and he always
slammed the door when he went out, and he never read anything but
railway novels and the sporting advertisements in the papers--and--and,
in short, we never understood each other in the least.”

“To what influence, then, did you owe those exquisite sensations?”

“I can hardly tell. Sometimes to the perfume of a flower; sometimes to a
verse of Dante or of Shakespeare; sometimes to a picture or a sunset,
or to one of those calm days at sea, when one seems to be lying in
the hollow of a blue pearl; sometimes, but rarely, to a word spoken by
someone who chanced to give utterance, at the right moment, to what I
felt but could not express.”

“Someone whom you loved?” asked the Spirit.

“I never loved anyone, in that way,” she said, rather sadly, “nor was
I thinking of any one person when I spoke, but of two or three who, by
touching for an instant upon a certain chord of my being, had called
forth a single note of that strange melody which seemed sleeping in my
soul. It has seldom happened, however, that I have owed such feelings to
people; and no one ever gave me a moment of such happiness as it was my
lot to feel one evening in the Church of Or San Michele, in Florence.”

“Tell me about it,” said the Spirit.

“It was near sunset on a rainy spring afternoon in Easter week. The
clouds had vanished, dispersed by a sudden wind, and as we entered the
church the fiery panes of the high windows shone out like lamps through
the dusk. A priest was at the high altar, his white cope a livid spot in
the incense-laden obscurity, the light of the candles flickering up and
down like fireflies about his head; a few people knelt near by. We stole
behind them and sat down on a bench close to the tabernacle of Orcagna.

“Strange to say, though Florence was not new to me, I had never been in
the church before; and in that magical light I saw for the first time
the inlaid steps, the fluted columns, the sculptured bas-reliefs and
canopy of the marvellous shrine. The marble, worn and mellowed by the
subtle hand of time, took on an unspeakable rosy hue, suggestive in
some remote way of the honey-colored columns of the Parthenon, but more
mystic, more complex, a color not born of the sun’s inveterate kiss,
but made up of cryptal twilight, and the flame of candles upon martyrs’
tombs, and gleams of sunset through symbolic panes of chrysoprase and
ruby; such a light as illumines the missals in the library of Siena,
or burns like a hidden fire through the Madonna of Gian Bellini in the
Church of the Redeemer, at Venice; the light of the Middle Ages, richer,
more solemn, more significant than the limpid sunshine of Greece.

“The church was silent, but for the wail of the priest and the
occasional scraping of a chair against the floor, and as I sat there,
bathed in that light, absorbed in rapt contemplation of the marble
miracle which rose before me, cunningly wrought as a casket of ivory and
enriched with jewel-like incrustations and tarnished gleams of gold, I
felt myself borne onward along a mighty current, whose source seemed to
be in the very beginning of things, and whose tremendous waters gathered
as they went all the mingled streams of human passion and endeavor.
Life in all its varied manifestations of beauty and strangeness seemed
weaving a rhythmical dance around me as I moved, and wherever the spirit
of man had passed I knew that my foot had once been familiar.

“As I gazed the mediaeval bosses of the tabernacle of Orcagna seemed to
melt and flow into their primal forms so that the folded lotus of
the Nile and the Greek acanthus were braided with the runic knots and
fish-tailed monsters of the North, and all the plastic terror and beauty
born of man’s hand from the Ganges to the Baltic quivered and mingled
in Orcagna’s apotheosis of Mary. And so the river bore me on, past the
alien face of antique civilizations and the familiar wonders of Greece,
till I swam upon the fiercely rushing tide of the Middle Ages, with its
swirling eddies of passion, its heaven-reflecting pools of poetry
and art; I heard the rhythmic blow of the craftsmen’s hammers in the
goldsmiths’ workshops and on the walls of churches, the party-cries of
armed factions in the narrow streets, the organ-roll of Dante’s verse,
the crackle of the fagots around Arnold of Brescia, the twitter of
the swallows to which St. Francis preached, the laughter of the
ladies listening on the hillside to the quips of the Decameron, while
plague-struck Florence howled beneath them--all this and much more I
heard, joined in strange unison with voices earlier and more remote,
fierce, passionate, or tender, yet subdued to such awful harmony that
I thought of the song that the morning stars sang together and felt as
though it were sounding in my ears. My heart beat to suffocation, the
tears burned my lids, the joy, the mystery of it seemed too intolerable
to be borne. I could not understand even then the words of the song; but
I knew that if there had been someone at my side who could have heard it
with me, we might have found the key to it together.

“I turned to my husband, who was sitting beside me in an attitude of
patient dejection, gazing into the bottom of his hat; but at that moment
he rose, and stretching his stiffened legs, said, mildly: ‘Hadn’t we
better be going? There doesn’t seem to be much to see here, and you know
the table d’hote dinner is at half-past six o’clock.”


Her recital ended, there was an interval of silence; then the Spirit of
Life said: “There is a compensation in store for such needs as you have
expressed.”

“Oh, then you DO understand?” she exclaimed. “Tell me what compensation,
I entreat you!”

“It is ordained,” the Spirit answered, “that every soul which seeks
in vain on earth for a kindred soul to whom it can lay bare its inmost
being shall find that soul here and be united to it for eternity.”

A glad cry broke from her lips. “Ah, shall I find him at last?” she
cried, exultant.

“He is here,” said the Spirit of Life.

She looked up and saw that a man stood near whose soul (for in that
unwonted light she seemed to see his soul more clearly than his face)
drew her toward him with an invincible force.

“Are you really he?” she murmured.

“I am he,” he answered.

She laid her hand in his and drew him toward the parapet which overhung
the valley.

“Shall we go down together,” she asked him, “into that marvellous
country; shall we see it together, as if with the self-same eyes, and
tell each other in the same words all that we think and feel?”

“So,” he replied, “have I hoped and dreamed.”

“What?” she asked, with rising joy. “Then you, too, have looked for me?”

“All my life.”

“How wonderful! And did you never, never find anyone in the other world
who understood you?”

“Not wholly--not as you and I understand each other.”

“Then you feel it, too? Oh, I am happy,” she sighed.

They stood, hand in hand, looking down over the parapet upon the
shimmering landscape which stretched forth beneath them into sapphirine
space, and the Spirit of Life, who kept watch near the threshold, heard
now and then a floating fragment of their talk blown backward like the
stray swallows which the wind sometimes separates from their migratory
tribe.

“Did you never feel at sunset--”

“Ah, yes; but I never heard anyone else say so. Did you?”

“Do you remember that line in the third canto of the ‘Inferno?’”

“Ah, that line--my favorite always. Is it possible--”

“You know the stooping Victory in the frieze of the Nike Apteros?”

“You mean the one who is tying her sandal? Then you have noticed, too,
that all Botticelli and Mantegna are dormant in those flying folds of
her drapery?”

“After a storm in autumn have you never seen--”

“Yes, it is curious how certain flowers suggest certain painters--the
perfume of the incarnation, Leonardo; that of the rose, Titian; the
tuberose, Crivelli--”

“I never supposed that anyone else had noticed it.”

“Have you never thought--”

“Oh, yes, often and often; but I never dreamed that anyone else had.”

“But surely you must have felt--”

“Oh, yes, yes; and you, too--”

“How beautiful! How strange--”

Their voices rose and fell, like the murmur of two fountains answering
each other across a garden full of flowers. At length, with a certain
tender impatience, he turned to her and said: “Love, why should we
linger here? All eternity lies before us. Let us go down into that
beautiful country together and make a home for ourselves on some blue
hill above the shining river.”

As he spoke, the hand she had forgotten in his was suddenly withdrawn,
and he felt that a cloud was passing over the radiance of her soul.

“A home,” she repeated, slowly, “a home for you and me to live in for
all eternity?”

“Why not, love? Am I not the soul that yours has sought?”

“Y-yes--yes, I know--but, don’t you see, home would not be like home to
me, unless--”

“Unless?” he wonderingly repeated.

She did not answer, but she thought to herself, with an impulse of
whimsical inconsistency, “Unless you slammed the door and wore creaking
boots.”

But he had recovered his hold upon her hand, and by imperceptible
degrees was leading her toward the shining steps which descended to the
valley.

“Come, O my soul’s soul,” he passionately implored; “why delay a moment?
Surely you feel, as I do, that eternity itself is too short to hold such
bliss as ours. It seems to me that I can see our home already. Have
I not always seem it in my dreams? It is white, love, is it not, with
polished columns, and a sculptured cornice against the blue? Groves
of laurel and oleander and thickets of roses surround it; but from the
terrace where we walk at sunset, the eye looks out over woodlands and
cool meadows where, deep-bowered under ancient boughs, a stream goes
delicately toward the river. Indoors our favorite pictures hang upon the
walls and the rooms are lined with books. Think, dear, at last we shall
have time to read them all. With which shall we begin? Come, help me to
choose. Shall it be ‘Faust’ or the ‘Vita Nuova,’ the ‘Tempest’ or ‘Les
Caprices de Marianne,’ or the thirty-first canto of the ‘Paradise,’ or
‘Epipsychidion’ or ‘Lycidas’? Tell me, dear, which one?”

As he spoke he saw the answer trembling joyously upon her lips; but it
died in the ensuing silence, and she stood motionless, resisting the
persuasion of his hand.

“What is it?” he entreated.

“Wait a moment,” she said, with a strange hesitation in her voice. “Tell
me first, are you quite sure of yourself? Is there no one on earth whom
you sometimes remember?”

“Not since I have seen you,” he replied; for, being a man, he had indeed
forgotten.

Still she stood motionless, and he saw that the shadow deepened on her
soul.

“Surely, love,” he rebuked her, “it was not that which troubled you? For
my part I have walked through Lethe. The past has melted like a cloud
before the moon. I never lived until I saw you.”

She made no answer to his pleadings, but at length, rousing herself with
a visible effort, she turned away from him and moved toward the Spirit
of Life, who still stood near the threshold.

“I want to ask you a question,” she said, in a troubled voice.

“Ask,” said the Spirit.

“A little while ago,” she began, slowly, “you told me that every soul
which has not found a kindred soul on earth is destined to find one
here.”

“And have you not found one?” asked the Spirit.

“Yes; but will it be so with my husband’s soul also?”

“No,” answered the Spirit of Life, “for your husband imagined that
he had found his soul’s mate on earth in you; and for such delusions
eternity itself contains no cure.”

She gave a little cry. Was it of disappointment or triumph?

“Then--then what will happen to him when he comes here?”

“That I cannot tell you. Some field of activity and happiness he will
doubtless find, in due measure to his capacity for being active and
happy.”

She interrupted, almost angrily: “He will never be happy without me.”

“Do not be too sure of that,” said the Spirit.

She took no notice of this, and the Spirit continued: “He will not
understand you here any better than he did on earth.”

“No matter,” she said; “I shall be the only sufferer, for he always
thought that he understood me.”

“His boots will creak just as much as ever--”

“No matter.”

“And he will slam the door--”

“Very likely.”

“And continue to read railway novels--”

She interposed, impatiently: “Many men do worse than that.”

“But you said just now,” said the Spirit, “that you did not love him.”

“True,” she answered, simply; “but don’t you understand that I shouldn’t
feel at home without him? It is all very well for a week or two--but for
eternity! After all, I never minded the creaking of his boots, except
when my head ached, and I don’t suppose it will ache HERE; and he
was always so sorry when he had slammed the door, only he never COULD
remember not to. Besides, no one else would know how to look after him,
he is so helpless. His inkstand would never be filled, and he would
always be out of stamps and visiting-cards. He would never remember to
have his umbrella re-covered, or to ask the price of anything before he
bought it. Why, he wouldn’t even know what novels to read. I always had
to choose the kind he liked, with a murder or a forgery and a successful
detective.”

She turned abruptly to her kindred soul, who stood listening with a mien
of wonder and dismay.

“Don’t you see,” she said, “that I can’t possibly go with you?”

“But what do you intend to do?” asked the Spirit of Life.

“What do I intend to do?” she returned, indignantly. “Why, I mean to
wait for my husband, of course. If he had come here first HE would have
waited for me for years and years; and it would break his heart not to
find me here when he comes.” She pointed with a contemptuous gesture
to the magic vision of hill and vale sloping away to the translucent
mountains. “He wouldn’t give a fig for all that,” she said, “if he
didn’t find me here.”

“But consider,” warned the Spirit, “that you are now choosing for
eternity. It is a solemn moment.”

“Choosing!” she said, with a half-sad smile. “Do you still keep up here
that old fiction about choosing? I should have thought that YOU knew
better than that. How can I help myself? He will expect to find me here
when he comes, and he would never believe you if you told him that I had
gone away with someone else--never, never.”

“So be it,” said the Spirit. “Here, as on earth, each one must decide
for himself.”

She turned to her kindred soul and looked at him gently, almost
wistfully. “I am sorry,” she said. “I should have liked to talk with
you again; but you will understand, I know, and I dare say you will find
someone else a great deal cleverer--”

And without pausing to hear his answer she waved him a swift farewell
and turned back toward the threshold.

“Will my husband come soon?” she asked the Spirit of Life.

“That you are not destined to know,” the Spirit replied.

“No matter,” she said, cheerfully; “I have all eternity to wait in.”

And still seated alone on the threshold, she listens for the creaking of
his boots.


The End of The Fulness of Life



A VENETIAN NIGHT’S ENTERTAINMENT

December 1903



This is the story that, in the dining-room of the old Beacon Street
house (now the Aldebaran Club), Judge Anthony Bracknell, of the famous
East India firm of Bracknell & Saulsbee, when the ladies had withdrawn
to the oval parlour (and Maria’s harp was throwing its gauzy web of
sound across the Common), used to relate to his grandsons, about the
year that Buonaparte marched upon Moscow.



I


“Him Venice!” said the Lascar with the big earrings; and Tony Bracknell,
leaning on the high gunwale of his father’s East Indiaman, the Hepzibah
B., saw far off, across the morning sea, a faint vision of towers and
domes dissolved in golden air.

It was a rare February day of the year 1760, and a young Tony, newly
of age, and bound on the grand tour aboard the crack merchantman of old
Bracknell’s fleet, felt his heart leap up as the distant city trembled
into shape. VENICE! The name, since childhood, had been a magician’s
wand to him. In the hall of the old Bracknell house at Salem there hung
a series of yellowing prints which Uncle Richard Saulsbee had brought
home from one of his long voyages: views of heathen mosques and palaces,
of the Grand Turk’s Seraglio, of St. Peter’s Church in Rome; and, in
a corner--the corner nearest the rack where the old flintlocks hung--a
busy merry populous scene, entitled: ST. MARK’S SQUARE IN VENICE. This
picture, from the first, had singularly taken little Tony’s fancy. His
unformulated criticism on the others was that they lacked action.
True, in the view of St. Peter’s an experienced-looking gentleman in
a full-bottomed wig was pointing out the fairly obvious monument to a
bashful companion, who had presumably not ventured to raise his eyes to
it; while, at the doors of the Seraglio, a group of turbaned infidels
observed with less hesitancy the approach of a veiled lady on a camel.
But in Venice so many things were happening at once--more, Tony was
sure, than had ever happened in Boston in a twelve-month or in Salem in
a long lifetime. For here, by their garb, were people of every nation
on earth, Chinamen, Turks, Spaniards, and many more, mixed with a
parti-coloured throng of gentry, lacqueys, chapmen, hucksters, and tall
personages in parsons’ gowns who stalked through the crowd with an air
of mastery, a string of parasites at their heels. And all these people
seemed to be diverting themselves hugely, chaffering with the hucksters,
watching the antics of trained dogs and monkeys, distributing doles
to maimed beggars or having their pockets picked by slippery-looking
fellows in black--the whole with such an air of ease and good-humour
that one felt the cut-purses to be as much a part of the show as the
tumbling acrobats and animals.

As Tony advanced in years and experience this childish mumming lost
its magic; but not so the early imaginings it had excited. For the old
picture had been but the spring-board of fancy, the first step of a
cloud-ladder leading to a land of dreams. With these dreams the name
of Venice remained associated; and all that observation or report
subsequently brought him concerning the place seemed, on a sober
warranty of fact, to confirm its claim to stand midway between
reality and illusion. There was, for instance, a slender Venice glass,
gold-powdered as with lily-pollen or the dust of sunbeams, that,
standing in the corner cabinet betwixt two Lowestoft caddies, seemed,
among its lifeless neighbours, to palpitate like an impaled butterfly.
There was, farther, a gold chain of his mother’s, spun of that same
sun-pollen, so thread-like, impalpable, that it slipped through the
fingers like light, yet so strong that it carried a heavy pendant which
seemed held in air as if by magic. MAGIC! That was the word which the
thought of Venice evoked. It was the kind of place, Tony felt, in which
things elsewhere impossible might naturally happen, in which two and two
might make five, a paradox elope with a syllogism, and a conclusion give
the lie to its own premiss. Was there ever a young heart that did not,
once and again, long to get away into such a world as that? Tony, at
least, had felt the longing from the first hour when the axioms in
his horn-book had brought home to him his heavy responsibilities as a
Christian and a sinner. And now here was his wish taking shape before
him, as the distant haze of gold shaped itself into towers and domes
across the morning sea!

The Reverend Ozias Mounce, Tony’s governor and bear-leader, was just
putting a hand to the third clause of the fourth part of a sermon
on Free-Will and Predestination as the Hepzibah B.’s anchor rattled
overboard. Tony, in his haste to be ashore, would have made one plunge
with the anchor; but the Reverend Ozias, on being roused from his
lucubrations, earnestly protested against leaving his argument in
suspense. What was the trifle of an arrival at some Papistical
foreign city, where the very churches wore turbans like so many
Moslem idolators, to the important fact of Mr. Mounce’s summing up his
conclusions before the Muse of Theology took flight? He should be happy,
he said, if the tide served, to visit Venice with Mr. Bracknell the next
morning.

The next morning, ha!--Tony murmured a submissive “Yes, sir,” winked at
the subjugated captain, buckled on his sword, pressed his hat down
with a flourish, and before the Reverend Ozias had arrived at his next
deduction, was skimming merrily shoreward in the Hepzibah’s gig.

A moment more and he was in the thick of it! Here was the very world of
the old print, only suffused with sunlight and colour, and bubbling
with merry noises. What a scene it was! A square enclosed in fantastic
painted buildings, and peopled with a throng as fantastic: a bawling,
laughing, jostling, sweating mob, parti-coloured, parti-speeched,
crackling and sputtering under the hot sun like a dish of fritters over
a kitchen fire. Tony, agape, shouldered his way through the press, aware
at once that, spite of the tumult, the shrillness, the gesticulation,
there was no undercurrent of clownishness, no tendency to horse-play,
as in such crowds on market-day at home, but a kind of facetious suavity
which seemed to include everybody in the circumference of one huge joke.
In such an air the sense of strangeness soon wore off, and Tony was
beginning to feel himself vastly at home, when a lift of the tide bore
him against a droll-looking bell-ringing fellow who carried above his
head a tall metal tree hung with sherbet-glasses.

The encounter set the glasses spinning and three or four spun off and
clattered to the stones. The sherbet-seller called on all the saints,
and Tony, clapping a lordly hand to his pocket, tossed him a ducat by
mistake for a sequin. The fellow’s eyes shot out of their orbits,
and just then a personable-looking young man who had observed the
transaction stepped up to Tony and said pleasantly, in English:

“I perceive, sir, that you are not familiar with our currency.”

“Does he want more?” says Tony, very lordly; whereat the other laughed
and replied: “You have given him enough to retire from his business and
open a gaming-house over the arcade.”

Tony joined in the laugh, and this incident bridging the preliminaries,
the two young men were presently hobnobbing over a glass of Canary in
front of one of the coffee-houses about the square. Tony counted
himself lucky to have run across an English-speaking companion who was
good-natured enough to give him a clue to the labyrinth; and when he had
paid for the Canary (in the coin his friend selected) they set out
again to view the town. The Italian gentleman, who called himself Count
Rialto, appeared to have a very numerous acquaintance, and was able to
point out to Tony all the chief dignitaries of the state, the men of ton
and ladies of fashion, as well as a number of other characters of a kind
not openly mentioned in taking a census of Salem.

Tony, who was not averse from reading when nothing better offered,
had perused the “Merchant of Venice” and Mr. Otway’s fine tragedy; but
though these pieces had given him a notion that the social usages of
Venice differed from those at home, he was unprepared for the surprising
appearance and manners of the great people his friend named to him. The
gravest Senators of the Republic went in prodigious striped trousers,
short cloaks and feathered hats. One nobleman wore a ruff and doctor’s
gown, another a black velvet tunic slashed with rose-colour; while the
President of the dreaded Council of Ten was a terrible strutting fellow
with a rapier-like nose, a buff leather jerkin and a trailing scarlet
cloak that the crowd was careful not to step on.

It was all vastly diverting, and Tony would gladly have gone on forever;
but he had given his word to the captain to be at the landing-place at
sunset, and here was dusk already creeping over the skies! Tony was a
man of honour; and having pressed on the Count a handsome damascened
dagger selected from one of the goldsmiths’ shops in a narrow street
lined with such wares, he insisted on turning his face toward the
Hepzibah’s gig. The Count yielded reluctantly; but as they came out
again on the square they were caught in a great throng pouring toward
the doors of the cathedral.

“They go to Benediction,” said the Count. “A beautiful sight, with many
lights and flowers. It is a pity you cannot take a peep at it.”

Tony thought so too, and in another minute a legless beggar had pulled
back the leathern flap of the cathedral door, and they stood in a
haze of gold and perfume that seemed to rise and fall on the mighty
undulations of the organ. Here the press was as thick as without; and as
Tony flattened himself against a pillar, he heard a pretty voice at his
elbow:--“Oh, sir, oh, sir, your sword!”

He turned at sound of the broken English, and saw a girl who matched the
voice trying to disengage her dress from the tip of his scabbard.
She wore one of the voluminous black hoods which the Venetian ladies
affected, and under its projecting eaves her face spied out at him as
sweet as a nesting bird.

In the dusk their hands met over the scabbard, and as she freed herself
a shred of her lace flounce clung to Tony’s enchanted fingers. Looking
after her, he saw she was on the arm of a pompous-looking graybeard in
a long black gown and scarlet stockings, who, on perceiving the
exchange of glances between the young people, drew the lady away with a
threatening look.

The Count met Tony’s eye with a smile. “One of our Venetian beauties,”
 said he; “the lovely Polixena Cador. She is thought to have the finest
eyes in Venice.”

“She spoke English,” stammered Tony.

“Oh--ah--precisely: she learned the language at the Court of Saint
James’s, where her father, the Senator, was formerly accredited as
Ambassador. She played as an infant with the royal princes of England.”

“And that was her father?”

“Assuredly: young ladies of Donna Polixena’s rank do not go abroad save
with their parents or a duenna.”

Just then a soft hand slid into Tony’s. His heart gave a foolish bound,
and he turned about half-expecting to meet again the merry eyes under
the hood; but saw instead a slender brown boy, in some kind of fanciful
page’s dress, who thrust a folded paper between his fingers and vanished
in the throng. Tony, in a tingle, glanced surreptitiously at the Count,
who appeared absorbed in his prayers. The crowd, at the ringing of a
bell, had in fact been overswept by a sudden wave of devotion; and Tony
seized the moment to step beneath a lighted shrine with his letter.

“I am in dreadful trouble and implore your help. Polixena”--he read;
but hardly had he seized the sense of the words when a hand fell on his
shoulder, and a stern-looking man in a cocked hat, and bearing a kind of
rod or mace, pronounced a few words in Venetian.

Tony, with a start, thrust the letter in his breast, and tried to jerk
himself free; but the harder he jerked the tighter grew the other’s
grip, and the Count, presently perceiving what had happened, pushed
his way through the crowd, and whispered hastily to his companion: “For
God’s sake, make no struggle. This is serious. Keep quiet and do as I
tell you.”

Tony was no chicken-heart. He had something of a name for pugnacity
among the lads of his own age at home, and was not the man to stand in
Venice what he would have resented in Salem; but the devil of it was
that this black fellow seemed to be pointing to the letter in his
breast; and this suspicion was confirmed by the Count’s agitated
whisper.

“This is one of the agents of the Ten.--For God’s sake, no outcry.” He
exchanged a word or two with the mace-bearer and again turned to Tony.
“You have been seen concealing a letter about your person--”

“And what of that?” says Tony furiously.

“Gently, gently, my master. A letter handed to you by the page of Donna
Polixena Cador.--A black business! Oh, a very black business! This Cador
is one of the most powerful nobles in Venice--I beseech you, not a word,
sir! Let me think--deliberate--”

His hand on Tony’s shoulder, he carried on a rapid dialogue with the
potentate in the cocked hat.

“I am sorry, sir--but our young ladies of rank are as jealously guarded
as the Grand Turk’s wives, and you must be answerable for this scandal.
The best I can do is to have you taken privately to the Palazzo Cador,
instead of being brought before the Council. I have pleaded your youth
and inexperience”--Tony winced at this--“and I think the business may
still be arranged.”

Meanwhile the agent of the Ten had yielded his place to a sharp-featured
shabby-looking fellow in black, dressed somewhat like a lawyer’s clerk,
who laid a grimy hand on Tony’s arm, and with many apologetic gestures
steered him through the crowd to the doors of the church. The Count held
him by the other arm, and in this fashion they emerged on the square,
which now lay in darkness save for the many lights twinkling under the
arcade and in the windows of the gaming-rooms above it.

Tony by this time had regained voice enough to declare that he would go
where they pleased, but that he must first say a word to the mate of the
Hepzibah, who had now been awaiting him some two hours or more at the
landing-place.

The Count repeated this to Tony’s custodian, but the latter shook his
head and rattled off a sharp denial.

“Impossible, sir,” said the Count. “I entreat you not to insist. Any
resistance will tell against you in the end.”

Tony fell silent. With a rapid eye he was measuring his chances of
escape. In wind and limb he was more than a mate for his captors, and
boyhood’s ruses were not so far behind him but he felt himself equal to
outwitting a dozen grown men; but he had the sense to see that at a cry
the crowd would close in on him. Space was what he wanted: a clear ten
yards, and he would have laughed at Doge and Council. But the throng was
thick as glue, and he walked on submissively, keeping his eye alert for
an opening. Suddenly the mob swerved aside after some new show. Tony’s
fist shot out at the black fellow’s chest, and before the latter could
right himself the young New Englander was showing a clean pair of heels
to his escort. On he sped, cleaving the crowd like a flood-tide in
Gloucester bay, diving under the first arch that caught his eye,
dashing down a lane to an unlit water-way, and plunging across a narrow
hump-back bridge which landed him in a black pocket between walls. But
now his pursuers were at his back, reinforced by the yelping mob. The
walls were too high to scale, and for all his courage Tony’s breath came
short as he paced the masonry cage in which ill-luck had landed him.
Suddenly a gate opened in one of the walls, and a slip of a servant
wench looked out and beckoned him. There was no time to weigh chances.
Tony dashed through the gate, his rescuer slammed and bolted it, and the
two stood in a narrow paved well between high houses.



II


The servant picked up a lantern and signed to Tony to follow her. They
climbed a squalid stairway of stone, felt their way along a corridor,
and entered a tall vaulted room feebly lit by an oil-lamp hung from
the painted ceiling. Tony discerned traces of former splendour in his
surroundings, but he had no time to examine them, for a figure started
up at his approach and in the dim light he recognized the girl who was
the cause of all his troubles.

She sprang toward him with outstretched hands, but as he advanced her
face changed and she shrank back abashed.

“This is a misunderstanding--a dreadful misunderstanding,” she cried
out in her pretty broken English. “Oh, how does it happen that you are
here?”

“Through no choice of my own, madam, I assure you!” retorted Tony, not
over-pleased by his reception.

“But why--how--how did you make this unfortunate mistake?”

“Why, madam, if you’ll excuse my candour, I think the mistake was
yours--”

“Mine?”

--“in sending me a letter--”

“YOU--a letter?”

--“by a simpleton of a lad, who must needs hand it to me under your
father’s very nose--”

The girl broke in on him with a cry. “What! It was YOU who received my
letter?” She swept round on the little maid-servant and submerged her
under a flood of Venetian. The latter volleyed back in the same jargon,
and as she did so, Tony’s astonished eye detected in her the doubleted
page who had handed him the letter in Saint Mark’s.

“What!” he cried, “the lad was this girl in disguise?”

Polixena broke off with an irrepressible smile; but her face clouded
instantly and she returned to the charge.

“This wicked, careless girl--she has ruined me, she will be my undoing!
Oh, sir, how can I make you understand? The letter was not intended
for you--it was meant for the English Ambassador, an old friend of my
mother’s, from whom I hoped to obtain assistance--oh, how can I ever
excuse myself to you?”

“No excuses are needed, madam,” said Tony, bowing; “though I am
surprised, I own, that any one should mistake me for an ambassador.”

Here a wave of mirth again overran Polixena’s face. “Oh, sir, you
must pardon my poor girl’s mistake. She heard you speaking English,
and--and--I had told her to hand the letter to the handsomest foreigner
in the church.” Tony bowed again, more profoundly. “The English
Ambassador,” Polixena added simply, “is a very handsome man.”

“I wish, madam, I were a better proxy!”

She echoed his laugh, and then clapped her hands together with a look
of anguish. “Fool that I am! How can I jest at such a moment? I am in
dreadful trouble, and now perhaps I have brought trouble on you also--
Oh, my father! I hear my father coming!” She turned pale and leaned
tremblingly upon the little servant.

Footsteps and loud voices were in fact heard outside, and a moment
later the red-stockinged Senator stalked into the room attended by
half-a-dozen of the magnificoes whom Tony had seen abroad in the square.
At sight of him, all clapped hands to their swords and burst into
furious outcries; and though their jargon was unintelligible to the
young man, their tones and gestures made their meaning unpleasantly
plain. The Senator, with a start of anger, first flung himself on the
intruder; then, snatched back by his companions, turned wrathfully on
his daughter, who, at his feet, with outstretched arms and streaming
face, pleaded her cause with all the eloquence of young distress.
Meanwhile the other nobles gesticulated vehemently among themselves,
and one, a truculent-looking personage in ruff and Spanish cape, stalked
apart, keeping a jealous eye on Tony. The latter was at his wit’s
end how to comport himself, for the lovely Polixena’s tears had
quite drowned her few words of English, and beyond guessing that the
magnificoes meant him a mischief he had no notion what they would be at.

At this point, luckily, his friend Count Rialto suddenly broke in on
the scene, and was at once assailed by all the tongues in the room. He
pulled a long face at sight of Tony, but signed to the young man to be
silent, and addressed himself earnestly to the Senator. The latter, at
first, would not draw breath to hear him; but presently, sobering,
he walked apart with the Count, and the two conversed together out of
earshot.

“My dear sir,” said the Count, at length turning to Tony with a
perturbed countenance, “it is as I feared, and you are fallen into a
great misfortune.”

“A great misfortune! A great trap, I call it!” shouted Tony, whose
blood, by this time, was boiling; but as he uttered the word the
beautiful Polixena cast such a stricken look on him that he blushed up
to the forehead.

“Be careful,” said the Count, in a low tone. “Though his Illustriousness
does not speak your language, he understands a few words of it, and--”

“So much the better!” broke in Tony; “I hope he will understand me if I
ask him in plain English what is his grievance against me.”

The Senator, at this, would have burst forth again; but the Count,
stepping between, answered quickly: “His grievance against you is that
you have been detected in secret correspondence with his daughter, the
most noble Polixena Cador, the betrothed bride of this gentleman, the
most illustrious Marquess Zanipolo--” and he waved a deferential hand at
the frowning hidalgo of the cape and ruff.

“Sir,” said Tony, “if that is the extent of my offence, it lies with
the young lady to set me free, since by her own avowal--” but here he
stopped short, for, to his surprise, Polixena shot a terrified glance at
him.

“Sir,” interposed the Count, “we are not accustomed in Venice to take
shelter behind a lady’s reputation.”

“No more are we in Salem,” retorted Tony in a white heat. “I was merely
about to remark that, by the young lady’s avowal, she has never seen me
before.”

Polixena’s eyes signalled her gratitude, and he felt he would have died
to defend her.

The Count translated his statement, and presently pursued: “His
Illustriousness observes that, in that case, his daughter’s misconduct
has been all the more reprehensible.”

“Her misconduct? Of what does he accuse her?”

“Of sending you, just now, in the church of Saint Mark’s, a letter which
you were seen to read openly and thrust in your bosom. The incident
was witnessed by his Illustriousness the Marquess Zanipolo, who, in
consequence, has already repudiated his unhappy bride.”

Tony stared contemptuously at the black Marquess. “If his
Illustriousness is so lacking in gallantry as to repudiate a lady on so
trivial a pretext, it is he and not I who should be the object of her
father’s resentment.”

“That, my dear young gentleman, is hardly for you to decide. Your only
excuse being your ignorance of our customs, it is scarcely for you to
advise us how to behave in matters of punctilio.”

It seemed to Tony as though the Count were going over to his enemies,
and the thought sharpened his retort.

“I had supposed,” said he, “that men of sense had much the same
behaviour in all countries, and that, here as elsewhere, a gentleman
would be taken at his word. I solemnly affirm that the letter I was seen
to read reflects in no way on the honour of this young lady, and has in
fact nothing to do with what you suppose.”

As he had himself no notion what the letter was about, this was as far
as he dared commit himself.

There was another brief consultation in the opposing camp, and the
Count then said:--“We all know, sir, that a gentleman is obliged to meet
certain enquiries by a denial; but you have at your command the means of
immediately clearing the lady. Will you show the letter to her father?”

There was a perceptible pause, during which Tony, while appearing to
look straight before him, managed to deflect an interrogatory glance
toward Polixena. Her reply was a faint negative motion, accompanied by
unmistakable signs of apprehension.

“Poor girl!” he thought, “she is in a worse case than I imagined, and
whatever happens I must keep her secret.”

He turned to the Senator with a deep bow. “I am not,” said he, “in the
habit of showing my private correspondence to strangers.”

The Count interpreted these words, and Donna Polixena’s father, dashing
his hand on his hilt, broke into furious invective, while the Marquess
continued to nurse his outraged feelings aloof.

The Count shook his head funereally. “Alas, sir, it is as I feared.
This is not the first time that youth and propinquity have led to fatal
imprudence. But I need hardly, I suppose, point out the obligation
incumbent upon you as a man of honour.”

Tony stared at him haughtily, with a look which was meant for the
Marquess. “And what obligation is that?”

“To repair the wrong you have done--in other words, to marry the lady.”

Polixena at this burst into tears, and Tony said to himself: “Why in
heaven does she not bid me show the letter?” Then he remembered that it
had no superscription, and that the words it contained, supposing them
to have been addressed to himself, were hardly of a nature to disarm
suspicion. The sense of the girl’s grave plight effaced all thought of
his own risk, but the Count’s last words struck him as so preposterous
that he could not repress a smile.

“I cannot flatter myself,” said he, “that the lady would welcome this
solution.”

The Count’s manner became increasingly ceremonious. “Such modesty,”
 he said, “becomes your youth and inexperience; but even if it were
justified it would scarcely alter the case, as it is always assumed in
this country that a young lady wishes to marry the man whom her father
has selected.”

“But I understood just now,” Tony interposed, “that the gentleman yonder
was in that enviable position.”

“So he was, till circumstances obliged him to waive the privilege in
your favour.”

“He does me too much honour; but if a deep sense of my unworthiness
obliges me to decline--”

“You are still,” interrupted the Count, “labouring under a
misapprehension. Your choice in the matter is no more to be consulted
than the lady’s. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is necessary that
you should marry her within the hour.”

Tony, at this, for all his spirit, felt the blood run thin in his veins.
He looked in silence at the threatening visages between himself and the
door, stole a side-glance at the high barred windows of the apartment,
and then turned to Polixena, who had fallen sobbing at her father’s
feet.

“And if I refuse?” said he.

The Count made a significant gesture. “I am not so foolish as to
threaten a man of your mettle. But perhaps you are unaware what the
consequences would be to the lady.”

Polixena, at this, struggling to her feet, addressed a few impassioned
words to the Count and her father; but the latter put her aside with an
obdurate gesture.

The Count turned to Tony. “The lady herself pleads for you--at what
cost you do not guess--but as you see it is vain. In an hour his
Illustriousness’s chaplain will be here. Meanwhile his Illustriousness
consents to leave you in the custody of your betrothed.”

He stepped back, and the other gentlemen, bowing with deep ceremony to
Tony, stalked out one by one from the room. Tony heard the key turn in
the lock, and found himself alone with Polixena.



III


The girl had sunk into a chair, her face hidden, a picture of shame
and agony. So moving was the sight that Tony once again forgot his own
extremity in the view of her distress. He went and kneeled beside her,
drawing her hands from her face.

“Oh, don’t make me look at you!” she sobbed; but it was on his bosom
that she hid from his gaze. He held her there a breathing-space, as
he might have clasped a weeping child; then she drew back and put him
gently from her.

“What humiliation!” she lamented.

“Do you think I blame you for what has happened?”

“Alas, was it not my foolish letter that brought you to this plight? And
how nobly you defended me! How generous it was of you not to show the
letter! If my father knew I had written to the Ambassador to save me
from this dreadful marriage his anger against me would be even greater.”

“Ah--it was that you wrote for?” cried Tony with unaccountable relief.

“Of course--what else did you think?”

“But is it too late for the Ambassador to save you?”

“From YOU?” A smile flashed through her tears. “Alas, yes.” She drew
back and hid her face again, as though overcome by a fresh wave of
shame.

Tony glanced about him. “If I could wrench a bar out of that window--”
 he muttered.

“Impossible! The court is guarded. You are a prisoner, alas.--Oh, I must
speak!” She sprang up and paced the room. “But indeed you can scarce
think worse of me than you do already--”

“I think ill of you?”

“Alas, you must! To be unwilling to marry the man my father has chosen
for me--”

“Such a beetle-browed lout! It would be a burning shame if you married
him.”

“Ah, you come from a free country. Here a girl is allowed no choice.”

“It is infamous, I say--infamous!”

“No, no--I ought to have resigned myself, like so many others.”

“Resigned yourself to that brute! Impossible!”

“He has a dreadful name for violence--his gondolier has told my little
maid such tales of him! But why do I talk of myself, when it is of you I
should be thinking?”

“Of me, poor child?” cried Tony, losing his head.

“Yes, and how to save you--for I CAN save you! But every moment
counts--and yet what I have to say is so dreadful.”

“Nothing from your lips could seem dreadful.”

“Ah, if he had had your way of speaking!”

“Well, now at least you are free of him,” said Tony, a little wildly;
but at this she stood up and bent a grave look on him.

“No, I am not free,” she said; “but you are, if you will do as I tell
you.”

Tony, at this, felt a sudden dizziness; as though, from a mad flight
through clouds and darkness, he had dropped to safety again, and the
fall had stunned him.

“What am I to do?” he said.

“Look away from me, or I can never tell you.”

He thought at first that this was a jest, but her eyes commanded him,
and reluctantly he walked away and leaned in the embrasure of the
window. She stood in the middle of the room, and as soon as his back
was turned she began to speak in a quick monotonous voice, as though she
were reciting a lesson.

“You must know that the Marquess Zanipolo, though a great noble, is
not a rich man. True, he has large estates, but he is a desperate
spendthrift and gambler, and would sell his soul for a round sum of
ready money.--If you turn round I shall not go on!--He wrangled horribly
with my father over my dowry--he wanted me to have more than either of
my sisters, though one married a Procurator and the other a grandee
of Spain. But my father is a gambler too--oh, such fortunes as are
squandered over the arcade yonder! And so--and so--don’t turn, I implore
you--oh, do you begin to see my meaning?”

She broke off sobbing, and it took all his strength to keep his eyes
from her.

“Go on,” he said.

“Will you not understand? Oh, I would say anything to save you! You
don’t know us Venetians--we’re all to be bought for a price. It is
not only the brides who are marketable--sometimes the husbands sell
themselves too. And they think you rich--my father does, and the
others--I don’t know why, unless you have shown your money too
freely--and the English are all rich, are they not? And--oh, oh--do you
understand? Oh, I can’t bear your eyes!”

She dropped into a chair, her head on her arms, and Tony in a flash was
at her side.

“My poor child, my poor Polixena!” he cried, and wept and clasped her.

“You ARE rich, are you not? You would promise them a ransom?” she
persisted.

“To enable you to marry the Marquess?”

“To enable you to escape from this place. Oh, I hope I may never see
your face again.” She fell to weeping once more, and he drew away and
paced the floor in a fever.

Presently she sprang up with a fresh air of resolution, and pointed to a
clock against the wall. “The hour is nearly over. It is quite true that
my father is gone to fetch his chaplain. Oh, I implore you, be warned by
me! There is no other way of escape.”

“And if I do as you say--?”

“You are safe! You are free! I stake my life on it.”

“And you--you are married to that villain?”

“But I shall have saved you. Tell me your name, that I may say it to
myself when I am alone.”

“My name is Anthony. But you must not marry that fellow.”

“You forgive me, Anthony? You don’t think too badly of me?”

“I say you must not marry that fellow.”

She laid a trembling hand on his arm. “Time presses,” she adjured him,
“and I warn you there is no other way.”

For a moment he had a vision of his mother, sitting very upright, on a
Sunday evening, reading Dr. Tillotson’s sermons in the best parlour at
Salem; then he swung round on the girl and caught both her hands in his.
“Yes, there is,” he cried, “if you are willing. Polixena, let the priest
come!”

She shrank back from him, white and radiant. “Oh, hush, be silent!” she
said.

“I am no noble Marquess, and have no great estates,” he cried. “My
father is a plain India merchant in the colony of Massachusetts--but if
you--”

“Oh, hush, I say! I don’t know what your long words mean. But I bless
you, bless you, bless you on my knees!” And she knelt before him, and
fell to kissing his hands.

He drew her up to his breast and held her there.

“You are willing, Polixena?” he said.

“No, no!” She broke from him with outstretched hands. “I am not willing.
You mistake me. I must marry the Marquess, I tell you!”

“On my money?” he taunted her; and her burning blush rebuked him.

“Yes, on your money,” she said sadly.

“Why? Because, much as you hate him, you hate me still more?”

She was silent.

“If you hate me, why do you sacrifice yourself for me?” he persisted.

“You torture me! And I tell you the hour is past.”

“Let it pass. I’ll not accept your sacrifice. I will not lift a finger
to help another man to marry you.”

“Oh, madman, madman!” she murmured.

Tony, with crossed arms, faced her squarely, and she leaned against the
wall a few feet off from him. Her breast throbbed under its lace and
falbalas, and her eyes swam with terror and entreaty.

“Polixena, I love you!” he cried.

A blush swept over her throat and bosom, bathing her in light to the
verge of her troubled brows.

“I love you! I love you!” he repeated.

And now she was on his breast again, and all their youth was in their
lips. But her embrace was as fleeting as a bird’s poise and before he
knew it he clasped empty air, and half the room was between them.

She was holding up a little coral charm and laughing. “I took it from
your fob,” she said. “It is of no value, is it? And I shall not get any
of the money, you know.”

She continued to laugh strangely, and the rouge burned like fire in her
ashen face.

“What are you talking of?” he said.

“They never give me anything but the clothes I wear. And I shall never
see you again, Anthony!” She gave him a dreadful look. “Oh, my poor boy,
my poor love--‘I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, POLIXENA!’”

He thought she had turned light-headed, and advanced to her with
soothing words; but she held him quietly at arm’s length, and as he
gazed he read the truth in her face.

He fell back from her, and a sob broke from him as he bowed his head on
his hands.

“Only, for God’s sake, have the money ready, or there may be foul play
here,” she said.

As she spoke there was a great tramping of steps outside and a burst of
voices on the threshold.

“It is all a lie,” she gasped out, “about my marriage, and the Marquess,
and the Ambassador, and the Senator--but not, oh, not about your danger
in this place--or about my love,” she breathed to him. And as the key
rattled in the door she laid her lips on his brow.

The key rattled, and the door swung open--but the black-cassocked
gentleman who stepped in, though a priest indeed, was no votary of
idolatrous rites, but that sound orthodox divine, the Reverend Ozias
Mounce, looking very much perturbed at his surroundings, and very much
on the alert for the Scarlet Woman. He was supported, to his evident
relief, by the captain of the Hepzibah B., and the procession was closed
by an escort of stern-looking fellows in cocked hats and small-swords,
who led between them Tony’s late friends the magnificoes, now as sorry a
looking company as the law ever landed in her net.

The captain strode briskly into the room, uttering a grunt of
satisfaction as he clapped eyes on Tony.

“So, Mr. Bracknell,” said he, “you have been seeing the Carnival with
this pack of mummers, have you? And this is where your pleasuring has
landed you? H’m--a pretty establishment, and a pretty lady at the head
of it.” He glanced about the apartment and doffed his hat with mock
ceremony to Polixena, who faced him like a princess.

“Why, my girl,” said he, amicably, “I think I saw you this morning in
the square, on the arm of the Pantaloon yonder; and as for that Captain
Spavent--” and he pointed a derisive finger at the Marquess--“I’ve
watched him drive his bully’s trade under the arcade ever since I
first dropped anchor in these waters. Well, well,” he continued, his
indignation subsiding, “all’s fair in Carnival, I suppose, but this
gentleman here is under sailing orders, and I fear we must break up your
little party.”

At this Tony saw Count Rialto step forward, looking very small and
explanatory, and uncovering obsequiously to the captain.

“I can assure you, sir,” said the Count in his best English, “that this
incident is the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding, and if you
will oblige us by dismissing these myrmidons, any of my friends
here will be happy to offer satisfaction to Mr. Bracknell and his
companions.”

Mr. Mounce shrank visibly at this, and the captain burst into a loud
guffaw.

“Satisfaction?” says he. “Why, my cock, that’s very handsome of you,
considering the rope’s at your throats. But we’ll not take advantage of
your generosity, for I fear Mr. Bracknell has already trespassed on
it too long. You pack of galley-slaves, you!” he spluttered suddenly,
“decoying young innocents with that devil’s bait of yours--” His eye
fell on Polixena, and his voice softened unaccountably. “Ah, well, we
must all see the Carnival once, I suppose,” he said. “All’s well that
ends well, as the fellow says in the play; and now, if you please, Mr.
Bracknell, if you’ll take the reverend gentleman’s arm there, we’ll
bid adieu to our hospitable entertainers, and right about face for the
Hepzibah.”


The End of A Venetian Night’s Entertainment



XINGU

December, 1911


Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as
though it were dangerous to meet alone. To this end she had founded
the Lunch Club, an association composed of herself and several other
indomitable huntresses of erudition. The Lunch Club, after three or four
winters of lunching and debate, had acquired such local distinction that
the entertainment of distinguished strangers became one of its accepted
functions; in recognition of which it duly extended to the celebrated
“Osric Dane,” on the day of her arrival in Hillbridge, an invitation to
be present at the next meeting.

The Club was to meet at Mrs. Ballinger’s. The other members, behind
her back, were of one voice in deploring her unwillingness to cede
her rights in favor of Mrs. Plinth, whose house made a more impressive
setting for the entertainment of celebrities; while, as Mrs. Leveret
observed, there was always the picture-gallery to fall back on.

Mrs. Plinth made no secret of sharing this view. She had always regarded
it as one of her obligations to entertain the Lunch Club’s distinguished
guests. Mrs. Plinth was almost as proud of her obligations as she was
of her picture-gallery; she was in fact fond of implying that the one
possession implied the other, and that only a woman of her wealth
could afford to live up to a standard as high as that which she had set
herself. An all-round sense of duty, roughly adaptable to various ends,
was, in her opinion, all that Providence exacted of the more humbly
stationed; but the power which had predestined Mrs. Plinth to keep
footmen clearly intended her to maintain an equally specialized staff of
responsibilities. It was the more to be regretted that Mrs. Ballinger,
whose obligations to society were bounded by the narrow scope of two
parlour-maids, should have been so tenacious of the right to entertain
Osric Dane.

The question of that lady’s reception had for a month past profoundly
moved the members of the Lunch Club. It was not that they felt
themselves unequal to the task, but that their sense of the opportunity
plunged them into the agreeable uncertainty of the lady who weighs the
alternatives of a well-stocked wardrobe. If such subsidiary members as
Mrs. Leveret were fluttered by the thought of exchanging ideas with the
author of “The Wings of Death,” no forebodings of the kind disturbed the
conscious adequacy of Mrs. Plinth, Mrs. Ballinger and Miss Van Vluyck.
“The Wings of Death” had, in fact, at Miss Van Vluyck’s suggestion, been
chosen as the subject of discussion at the last club meeting, and
each member had thus been enabled to express her own opinion or to
appropriate whatever seemed most likely to be of use in the comments
of the others. Mrs. Roby alone had abstained from profiting by the
opportunity thus offered; but it was now openly recognised that, as a
member of the Lunch Club, Mrs. Roby was a failure. “It all comes,” as
Miss Van Vluyck put it, “of accepting a woman on a man’s estimation.”
 Mrs. Roby, returning to Hillbridge from a prolonged sojourn in exotic
regions--the other ladies no longer took the trouble to remember
where--had been emphatically commended by the distinguished biologist,
Professor Foreland, as the most agreeable woman he had ever met; and the
members of the Lunch Club, awed by an encomium that carried the weight
of a diploma, and rashly assuming that the Professor’s social sympathies
would follow the line of his scientific bent, had seized the chance of
annexing a biological member. Their disillusionment was complete. At
Miss Van Vluyck’s first off-hand mention of the pterodactyl Mrs. Roby
had confusedly murmured: “I know so little about metres--” and after
that painful betrayal of incompetence she had prudently withdrawn from
farther participation in the mental gymnastics of the club.

“I suppose she flattered him,” Miss Van Vluyck summed up--“or else it’s
the way she does her hair.”

The dimensions of Miss Van Vluyck’s dining-room having restricted the
membership of the club to six, the non-conductiveness of one member was
a serious obstacle to the exchange of ideas, and some wonder had already
been expressed that Mrs. Roby should care to live, as it were, on the
intellectual bounty of the others. This feeling was augmented by the
discovery that she had not yet read “The Wings of Death.” She owned
to having heard the name of Osric Dane; but that--incredible as it
appeared--was the extent of her acquaintance with the celebrated
novelist. The ladies could not conceal their surprise, but Mrs.
Ballinger, whose pride in the club made her wish to put even Mrs. Roby
in the best possible light, gently insinuated that, though she had not
had time to acquaint herself with “The Wings of Death,” she must at
least be familiar with its equally remarkable predecessor, “The Supreme
Instant.”

Mrs. Roby wrinkled her sunny brows in a conscientious effort of memory,
as a result of which she recalled that, oh, yes, she HAD seen the book
at her brother’s, when she was staying with him in Brazil, and had even
carried it off to read one day on a boating party; but they had all
got to shying things at each other in the boat, and the book had gone
overboard, so she had never had the chance--

The picture evoked by this anecdote did not advance Mrs. Roby’s credit
with the club, and there was a painful pause, which was broken by
Mrs. Plinth’s remarking: “I can understand that, with all your other
pursuits, you should not find much time for reading; but I should have
thought you might at least have GOT UP ‘The Wings of Death’ before Osric
Dane’s arrival.”

Mrs. Roby took this rebuke good-humouredly. She had meant, she owned
to glance through the book; but she had been so absorbed in a novel of
Trollope’s that--

“No one reads Trollope now,” Mrs. Ballinger interrupted impatiently.

Mrs. Roby looked pained. “I’m only just beginning,” she confessed.

“And does he interest you?” Mrs. Plinth inquired.

“He amuses me.”

“Amusement,” said Mrs. Plinth sententiously, “is hardly what I look for
in my choice of books.”

“Oh, certainly, ‘The Wings of Death’ is not amusing,” ventured Mrs.
Leveret, whose manner of putting forth an opinion was like that of an
obliging salesman with a variety of other styles to submit if his first
selection does not suit.

“Was it MEANT to be?” enquired Mrs. Plinth, who was fond of asking
questions that she permitted no one but herself to answer. “Assuredly
not.”

“Assuredly not--that is what I was going to say,” assented Mrs. Leveret,
hastily rolling up her opinion and reaching for another. “It was meant
to--to elevate.”

Miss Van Vluyck adjusted her spectacles as though they were the black
cap of condemnation. “I hardly see,” she interposed, “how a book steeped
in the bitterest pessimism can be said to elevate, however much it may
instruct.”

“I meant, of course, to instruct,” said Mrs. Leveret, flurried by the
unexpected distinction between two terms which she had supposed to be
synonymous. Mrs. Leveret’s enjoyment of the Lunch Club was frequently
marred by such surprises; and not knowing her own value to the other
ladies as a mirror for their mental complacency she was sometimes
troubled by a doubt of her worthiness to join in their debates. It was
only the fact of having a dull sister who thought her clever that saved
her from a sense of hopeless inferiority.

“Do they get married in the end?” Mrs. Roby interposed.

“They--who?” the Lunch Club collectively exclaimed.

“Why, the girl and man. It’s a novel, isn’t it? I always think that’s
the one thing that matters. If they’re parted it spoils my dinner.”

Mrs. Plinth and Mrs. Ballinger exchanged scandalised glances, and the
latter said: “I should hardly advise you to read ‘The Wings of Death,’
in that spirit. For my part, when there are so many books that one HAS
to read, I wonder how any one can find time for those that are merely
amusing.”

“The beautiful part of it,” Laura Glyde murmured, “is surely just
this--that no one can tell HOW ‘The Wings of Death’ ends. Osric Dane,
overcome by the dread significance of her own meaning, has mercifully
veiled it--perhaps even from herself--as Apelles, in representing the
sacrifice of Iphigenia, veiled the face of Agamemnon.”

“What’s that? Is it poetry?” whispered Mrs. Leveret nervously to Mrs.
Plinth, who, disdaining a definite reply, said coldly: “You should
look it up. I always make it a point to look things up.” Her tone
added--“though I might easily have it done for me by the footman.”

“I was about to say,” Miss Van Vluyck resumed, “that it must always be a
question whether a book CAN instruct unless it elevates.”

“Oh--” murmured Mrs. Leveret, now feeling herself hopelessly astray.

“I don’t know,” said Mrs. Ballinger, scenting in Miss Van Vluyck’s tone
a tendency to depreciate the coveted distinction of entertaining Osric
Dane; “I don’t know that such a question can seriously be raised as to a
book which has attracted more attention among thoughtful people than any
novel since ‘Robert Elsmere.’”

“Oh, but don’t you see,” exclaimed Laura Glyde, “that it’s just the
dark hopelessness of it all--the wonderful tone-scheme of black on
black--that makes it such an artistic achievement? It reminded me so
when I read it of Prince Rupert’s maniere noire... the book is etched,
not painted, yet one feels the colour values so intensely...”

“Who is HE?” Mrs. Leveret whispered to her neighbour. “Some one she’s
met abroad?”

“The wonderful part of the book,” Mrs. Ballinger conceded, “is that it
may be looked at from so many points of view. I hear that as a study of
determinism Professor Lupton ranks it with ‘The Data of Ethics.’”

“I’m told that Osric Dane spent ten years in preparatory studies
before beginning to write it,” said Mrs. Plinth. “She looks up
everything--verifies everything. It has always been my principle, as
you know. Nothing would induce me, now, to put aside a book before I’d
finished it, just because I can buy as many more as I want.”

“And what do YOU think of ‘The Wings of Death’?” Mrs. Roby abruptly
asked her.

It was the kind of question that might be termed out of order, and the
ladies glanced at each other as though disclaiming any share in such a
breach of discipline. They all knew that there was nothing Mrs. Plinth
so much disliked as being asked her opinion of a book. Books were
written to read; if one read them what more could be expected? To be
questioned in detail regarding the contents of a volume seemed to her
as great an outrage as being searched for smuggled laces at the Custom
House. The club had always respected this idiosyncrasy of Mrs. Plinth’s.
Such opinions as she had were imposing and substantial: her mind, like
her house, was furnished with monumental “pieces” that were not meant
to be suddenly disarranged; and it was one of the unwritten rules of
the Lunch Club that, within her own province, each member’s habits
of thought should be respected. The meeting therefore closed with
an increased sense, on the part of the other ladies, of Mrs. Roby’s
hopeless unfitness to be one of them.



II


Mrs. Leveret, on the eventful day, had arrived early at Mrs.
Ballinger’s, her volume of Appropriate Allusions in her pocket.

It always flustered Mrs. Leveret to be late at the Lunch Club: she liked
to collect her thoughts and gather a hint, as the others assembled, of
the turn the conversation was likely to take. To-day, however, she
felt herself completely at a loss; and even the familiar contact of
Appropriate Allusions, which stuck into her as she sat down, failed to
give her any reassurance. It was an admirable little volume, compiled
to meet all the social emergencies; so that, whether on the occasion
of Anniversaries, joyful or melancholy (as the classification ran),
of Banquets, social or municipal, or of Baptisms, Church of England
or sectarian, its student need never be at a loss for a pertinent
reference. Mrs. Leveret, though she had for years devoutly conned its
pages, valued it, however, rather for its moral support than for its
practical services; for though in the privacy of her own room she
commanded an army of quotations, these invariably deserted her at the
critical moment, and the only line she retained--CANST THOU DRAW OUT
LEVIATHAN WITH A HOOK?--was one she had never yet found the occasion to
apply.

To-day she felt that even the complete mastery of the volume would
hardly have insured her self-possession; for she thought it probable,
even if she DID, in some miraculous way, remember an Allusion, it would
be only to find that Osric Dane used a different volume (Mrs. Leveret
was convinced that literary people always carried them), and would
consequently not recognise her quotations.

Mrs. Leveret’s sense of being adrift was intensified by the appearance
of Mrs. Ballinger’s drawing-room. To a careless eye its aspect was
unchanged; but those acquainted with Mrs. Ballinger’s way of
arranging her books would instantly have detected the marks of recent
perturbation. Mrs. Ballinger’s province, as a member of the Lunch Club,
was the Book of the Day. On that, whatever it was, from a novel to
a treatise on experimental psychology, she was confidently,
authoritatively “up.” What became of last year’s books, or last week’s
even; what she did with the “subjects” she had previously professed with
equal authority; no one had ever yet discovered. Her mind was an hotel
where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their
address behind, and frequently without paying for their board. It was
Mrs. Ballinger’s boast that she was “abreast with the Thought of the
Day,” and her pride that this advanced position should be expressed by
the books on her drawing-room table. These volumes, frequently renewed,
and almost always damp from the press, bore names generally unfamiliar
to Mrs. Leveret, and giving her, as she furtively scanned them, a
disheartening glimpse of new fields of knowledge to be breathlessly
traversed in Mrs. Ballinger’s wake. But to-day a number of
maturer-looking volumes were adroitly mingled with the primeurs of the
press--Karl Marx jostled Professor Bergson, and the “Confessions of St.
Augustine” lay beside the last work on “Mendelism”; so that even to Mrs.
Leveret’s fluttered perceptions it was clear that Mrs. Ballinger didn’t
in the least know what Osric Dane was likely to talk about, and had
taken measures to be prepared for anything. Mrs. Leveret felt like a
passenger on an ocean steamer who is told that there is no immediate
danger, but that she had better put on her life-belt.

It was a relief to be roused from these forebodings by Miss Van Vluyck’s
arrival.

“Well, my dear,” the new-comer briskly asked her hostess, “what subjects
are we to discuss to-day?”

Mrs. Ballinger was furtively replacing a volume of Wordsworth by a copy
of Verlaine. “I hardly know,” she said somewhat nervously. “Perhaps we
had better leave that to circumstances.”

“Circumstances?” said Miss Van Vluyck drily. “That means, I suppose,
that Laura Glyde will take the floor as usual, and we shall be deluged
with literature.”

Philanthropy and statistics were Miss Van Vluyck’s province, and she
naturally resented any tendency to divert their guest’s attention from
these topics.

Mrs. Plinth at this moment appeared.

“Literature?” she protested in a tone of remonstrance. “But this is
perfectly unexpected. I understood we were to talk of Osric Dane’s
novel.”

Mrs. Ballinger winced at the discrimination, but let it pass. “We can
hardly make that our chief subject--at least not TOO intentionally,” she
suggested. “Of course we can let our talk DRIFT in that direction; but
we ought to have some other topic as an introduction, and that is what
I wanted to consult you about. The fact is, we know so little of Osric
Dane’s tastes and interests that it is difficult to make any special
preparation.”

“It may be difficult,” said Mrs. Plinth with decision, “but it is
absolutely necessary. I know what that happy-go-lucky principle
leads to. As I told one of my nieces the other day, there are certain
emergencies for which a lady should always be prepared. It’s in shocking
taste to wear colours when one pays a visit of condolence, or a last
year’s dress when there are reports that one’s husband is on the wrong
side of the market; and so it is with conversation. All I ask is that I
should know beforehand what is to be talked about; then I feel sure of
being able to say the proper thing.”

“I quite agree with you,” Mrs. Ballinger anxiously assented; “but--”

And at that instant, heralded by the fluttered parlour-maid, Osric Dane
appeared upon the threshold.

Mrs. Leveret told her sister afterward that she had known at a glance
what was coming. She saw that Osric Dane was not going to meet them
half way. That distinguished personage had indeed entered with an air of
compulsion not calculated to promote the easy exercise of hospitality.
She looked as though she were about to be photographed for a new edition
of her books.

The desire to propitiate a divinity is generally in inverse ratio to its
responsiveness, and the sense of discouragement produced by Osric Dane’s
entrance visibly increased the Lunch Club’s eagerness to please her. Any
lingering idea that she might consider herself under an obligation to
her entertainers was at once dispelled by her manner: as Mrs. Leveret
said afterward to her sister, she had a way of looking at you that made
you feel as if there was something wrong with your hat. This evidence
of greatness produced such an immediate impression on the ladies that a
shudder of awe ran through them when Mrs. Roby, as their hostess led
the great personage into the dining-room, turned back to whisper to the
others: “What a brute she is!”

The hour about the table did not tend to correct this verdict. It was
passed by Osric Dane in the silent deglutition of Mrs. Ballinger’s menu,
and by the members of the Club in the emission of tentative platitudes
which their guest seemed to swallow as perfunctorily as the successive
courses of the luncheon.

Mrs. Ballinger’s deplorable delay in fixing a topic had thrown the
Club into a mental disarray which increased with the return to the
drawing-room, where the actual business of discussion was to open. Each
lady waited for the other to speak; and there was a general shock
of disappointment when their hostess opened the conversation by the
painfully commonplace inquiry: “Is this your first visit to Hillbridge?”

Even Mrs. Leveret was conscious that this was a bad beginning; and a
vague impulse of deprecation made Miss Glyde interject: “It is a very
small place indeed.”

Mrs. Plinth bristled. “We have a great many representative people,” she
said, in the tone of one who speaks for her order.

Osric Dane turned to her thoughtfully. “What do they represent?” she
asked.

Mrs. Plinth’s constitutional dislike to being questioned was intensified
by her sense of unpreparedness; and her reproachful glance passed the
question on to Mrs. Ballinger.

“Why,” said that lady, glancing in turn at the other members, “as a
community I hope it is not too much to say that we stand for culture.”

“For art--” Miss Glyde eagerly interjected.

“For art and literature,” Mrs. Ballinger emended.

“And for sociology, I trust,” snapped Miss Van Vluyck.

“We have a standard,” said Mrs. Plinth, feeling herself suddenly secure
on the vast expanse of a generalisation: and Mrs. Leveret, thinking
there must be room for more than one on so broad a statement, took
courage to murmur: “Oh, certainly; we have a standard.”

“The object of our little club,” Mrs. Ballinger continued, “is to
concentrate the highest tendencies of Hillbridge--to centralise and
focus its complex intellectual effort.”

This was felt to be so happy that the ladies drew an almost audible
breath of relief.

“We aspire,” the President went on, “to stand for what is highest in
art, literature and ethics.”

Osric Dane again turned to her. “What ethics?” she asked.

A tremor of apprehension encircled the room. None of the ladies required
any preparation to pronounce on a question of morals; but when they
were called ethics it was different. The club, when fresh from
the “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” the “Reader’s Handbook” or Smith’s
“Classical Dictionary,” could deal confidently with any subject; but
when taken unawares it had been known to define agnosticism as a heresy
of the Early Church and Professor Froude as a distinguished histologist;
and such minor members as Mrs. Leveret still secretly regarded ethics as
something vaguely pagan.

Even to Mrs. Ballinger, Osric Dane’s question was unsettling, and there
was a general sense of gratitude when Laura Glyde leaned forward to say,
with her most sympathetic accent: “You must excuse us, Mrs. Dane, for
not being able, just at present, to talk of anything but ‘The Wings of
Death.’”

“Yes,” said Miss Van Vluyck, with a sudden resolve to carry the war into
the enemy’s camp. “We are so anxious to know the exact purpose you had
in mind in writing your wonderful book.”

“You will find,” Mrs. Plinth interposed, “that we are not superficial
readers.”

“We are eager to hear from you,” Miss Van Vluyck continued, “if
the pessimistic tendency of the book is an expression of your own
convictions or--”

“Or merely,” Miss Glyde hastily thrust in, “a sombre background brushed
in to throw your figures into more vivid relief. ARE you not primarily
plastic?”

“I have always maintained,” Mrs. Ballinger interposed, “that you
represent the purely objective method--”

Osric Dane helped herself critically to coffee. “How do you define
objective?” she then inquired.

There was a flurried pause before Laura Glyde intensely murmured: “In
reading YOU we don’t define, we feel.”

Osric Dane smiled. “The cerebellum,” she remarked, “is not infrequently
the seat of the literary emotions.” And she took a second lump of sugar.

The sting that this remark was vaguely felt to conceal was almost
neutralised by the satisfaction of being addressed in such technical
language.

“Ah, the cerebellum,” said Miss Van Vluyck complacently. “The Club took
a course in psychology last winter.”

“Which psychology?” asked Osric Dane.

There was an agonising pause, during which each member of the Club
secretly deplored the distressing inefficiency of the others. Only Mrs.
Roby went on placidly sipping her chartreuse. At last Mrs. Ballinger
said, with an attempt at a high tone: “Well, really, you know, it was
last year that we took psychology, and this winter we have been so
absorbed in--”

She broke off, nervously trying to recall some of the Club’s
discussions; but her faculties seemed to be paralysed by the petrifying
stare of Osric Dane. What HAD the club been absorbed in lately? Mrs.
Ballinger, with a vague purpose of gaining time, repeated slowly: “We’ve
been so intensely absorbed in--”

Mrs. Roby put down her liqueur glass and drew near the group with a
smile.

“In Xingu?” she gently prompted.

A thrill ran through the other members. They exchanged confused
glances, and then, with one accord, turned a gaze of mingled relief
and interrogation on their unexpected rescuer. The expression of each
denoted a different phase of the same emotion. Mrs. Plinth was the first
to compose her features to an air of reassurance: after a moment’s hasty
adjustment her look almost implied that it was she who had given the
word to Mrs. Ballinger.

“Xingu, of course!” exclaimed the latter with her accustomed promptness,
while Miss Van Vluyck and Laura Glyde seemed to be plumbing the depths
of memory, and Mrs. Leveret, feeling apprehensively for Appropriate
Allusions, was somehow reassured by the uncomfortable pressure of its
bulk against her person.

Osric Dane’s change of countenance was no less striking than that of
her entertainers. She too put down her coffee-cup, but with a look of
distinct annoyance: she too wore, for a brief moment, what Mrs. Roby
afterward described as the look of feeling for something in the back
of her head; and before she could dissemble these momentary signs of
weakness, Mrs. Roby, turning to her with a deferential smile, had said:
“And we’ve been so hoping that to-day you would tell us just what you
think of it.”

Osric Dane received the homage of the smile as a matter of course; but
the accompanying question obviously embarrassed her, and it became clear
to her observers that she was not quick at shifting her facial scenery.
It was as though her countenance had so long been set in an expression
of unchallenged superiority that the muscles had stiffened, and refused
to obey her orders.

“Xingu--” she murmured, as if seeking in her turn to gain time.

Mrs. Roby continued to press her. “Knowing how engrossing the subject
is, you will understand how it happens that the Club has let everything
else go to the wall for the moment. Since we took up Xingu I might
almost say--were it not for your books--that nothing else seems to us
worth remembering.”

Osric Dane’s stern features were darkened rather than lit up by an
uneasy smile. “I am glad to hear there is one exception,” she gave out
between narrowed lips.

“Oh, of course,” Mrs. Roby said prettily; “but as you have shown us
that--so very naturally!--you don’t care to talk about your own things,
we really can’t let you off from telling us exactly what you think about
Xingu; especially,” she added, with a persuasive smile, “as some people
say that one of your last books was simply saturated with it.”

It was an IT, then--the assurance sped like fire through the parched
minds of the other members. In their eagerness to gain the least
little clue to Xingu they almost forgot the joy of assisting at the
discomfiture of Mrs. Dane.

The latter reddened nervously under her antagonist’s direct assault.
“May I ask,” she faltered out in an embarrassed tone, “to which of my
books you refer?”

Mrs. Roby did not falter. “That’s just what I want you to tell us;
because, though I was present, I didn’t actually take part.”

“Present at what?” Mrs. Dane took her up; and for an instant the
trembling members of the Lunch Club thought that the champion Providence
had raised up for them had lost a point. But Mrs. Roby explained herself
gaily: “At the discussion, of course. And so we’re dreadfully anxious to
know just how it was that you went into the Xingu.”

There was a portentous pause, a silence so big with incalculable dangers
that the members with one accord checked the words on their lips, like
soldiers dropping their arms to watch a single combat between their
leaders. Then Mrs. Dane gave expression to their inmost dread by saying
sharply: “Ah--you say THE Xingu, do you?”

Mrs. Roby smiled undauntedly. “It IS a shade pedantic, isn’t it?
Personally, I always drop the article; but I don’t know how the other
members feel about it.”

The other members looked as though they would willingly have dispensed
with this deferential appeal to their opinion, and Mrs. Roby, after a
bright glance about the group, went on: “They probably think, as I do,
that nothing really matters except the thing itself--except Xingu.”

No immediate reply seemed to occur to Mrs. Dane, and Mrs. Ballinger
gathered courage to say: “Surely every one must feel that about Xingu.”

Mrs. Plinth came to her support with a heavy murmur of assent, and Laura
Glyde breathed emotionally: “I have known cases where it has changed a
whole life.”

“It has done me worlds of good,” Mrs. Leveret interjected, seeming
to herself to remember that she had either taken it or read it in the
winter before.

“Of course,” Mrs. Roby admitted, “the difficulty is that one must give
up so much time to it. It’s very long.”

“I can’t imagine,” said Miss Van Vluyck tartly, “grudging the time given
to such a subject.”

“And deep in places,” Mrs. Roby pursued; (so then it was a book!) “And
it isn’t easy to skip.”

“I never skip,” said Mrs. Plinth dogmatically.

“Ah, it’s dangerous to, in Xingu. Even at the start there are places
where one can’t. One must just wade through.”

“I should hardly call it WADING,” said Mrs. Ballinger sarcastically.

Mrs. Roby sent her a look of interest. “Ah--you always found it went
swimmingly?”

Mrs. Ballinger hesitated. “Of course there are difficult passages,” she
conceded modestly.

“Yes; some are not at all clear--even,” Mrs. Roby added, “if one is
familiar with the original.”

“As I suppose you are?” Osric Dane interposed, suddenly fixing her with
a look of challenge.

Mrs. Roby met it by a deprecating smile. “Oh, it’s really not difficult
up to a certain point; though some of the branches are very little
known, and it’s almost impossible to get at the source.”

“Have you ever tried?” Mrs. Plinth enquired, still distrustful of Mrs.
Roby’s thoroughness.

Mrs. Roby was silent for a moment; then she replied with lowered lids:
“No--but a friend of mine did; a very brilliant man; and he told me it
was best for women--not to...”

A shudder ran around the room. Mrs. Leveret coughed so that the
parlour-maid, who was handing the cigarettes, should not hear; Miss Van
Vluyck’s face took on a nauseated expression, and Mrs. Plinth looked as
if she were passing some one she did not care to bow to. But the most
remarkable result of Mrs. Roby’s words was the effect they produced on
the Lunch Club’s distinguished guest. Osric Dane’s impassive features
suddenly melted to an expression of the warmest human sympathy, and
edging her chair toward Mrs. Roby’s she asked: “Did he really? And--did
you find he was right?”

Mrs. Ballinger, in whom annoyance at Mrs. Roby’s unwonted assumption
of prominence was beginning to displace gratitude for the aid she had
rendered, could not consent to her being allowed, by such dubious means,
to monopolise the attention of their guest. If Osric Dane had not enough
self-respect to resent Mrs. Roby’s flippancy, at least the Lunch Club
would do so in the person of its President.

Mrs. Ballinger laid her hand on Mrs. Roby’s arm. “We must not forget,”
 she said with a frigid amiability, “that absorbing as Xingu is to US, it
may be less interesting to--”

“Oh, no, on the contrary, I assure you,” Osric Dane energetically
intervened.

“--to others,” Mrs. Ballinger finished firmly; “and we must not allow
our little meeting to end without persuading Mrs. Dane to say a few
words to us on a subject which, to-day, is much more present in all our
thoughts. I refer, of course, to ‘The Wings of Death.’”

The other members, animated by various degrees of the same sentiment,
and encouraged by the humanised mien of their redoubtable guest,
repeated after Mrs. Ballinger: “Oh, yes, you really MUST talk to us a
little about your book.”

Osric Dane’s expression became as bored, though not as haughty, as when
her work had been previously mentioned. But before she could respond
to Mrs. Ballinger’s request, Mrs. Roby had risen from her seat, and was
pulling her veil down over her frivolous nose.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, advancing toward her hostess with outstretched
hand, “but before Mrs. Dane begins I think I’d better run away.
Unluckily, as you know, I haven’t read her books, so I should be at a
terrible disadvantage among you all; and besides, I’ve an engagement to
play bridge.”

If Mrs. Roby had simply pleaded her ignorance of Osric Dane’s works as
a reason for withdrawing, the Lunch Club, in view of her recent prowess,
might have approved such evidence of discretion; but to couple this
excuse with the brazen announcement that she was foregoing the privilege
for the purpose of joining a bridge-party, was only one more instance of
her deplorable lack of discrimination.

The ladies were disposed, however, to feel that her departure--now
that she had performed the sole service she was ever likely to render
them--would probably make for greater order and dignity in the impending
discussion, besides relieving them of the sense of self-distrust which
her presence always mysteriously produced. Mrs. Ballinger therefore
restricted herself to a formal murmur of regret, and the other members
were just grouping themselves comfortably about Osric Dane when the
latter, to their dismay, started up from the sofa on which she had been
deferentially enthroned.

“Oh wait--do wait, and I’ll go with you!” she called out to Mrs. Roby;
and, seizing the hands of the disconcerted members, she administered
a series of farewell pressures with the mechanical haste of a
railway-conductor punching tickets.

“I’m so sorry--I’d quite forgotten--” she flung back at them from the
threshold; and as she joined Mrs. Roby, who had turned in surprise at
her appeal, the other ladies had the mortification of hearing her say,
in a voice which she did not take the pains to lower: “If you’ll let
me walk a little way with you, I should so like to ask you a few more
questions about Xingu...”



III


The incident had been so rapid that the door closed on the departing
pair before the other members had had time to understand what was
happening. Then a sense of the indignity put upon them by Osric Dane’s
unceremonious desertion began to contend with the confused feeling that
they had been cheated out of their due without exactly knowing how or
why.

There was an awkward silence, during which Mrs. Ballinger, with a
perfunctory hand, rearranged the skilfully grouped literature at which
her distinguished guest had not so much as glanced; then Miss Van Vluyck
tartly pronounced: “Well, I can’t say that I consider Osric Dane’s
departure a great loss.”

This confession crystallised the fluid resentment of the other members,
and Mrs. Leveret exclaimed: “I do believe she came on purpose to be
nasty!”

It was Mrs. Plinth’s private opinion that Osric Dane’s attitude toward
the Lunch Club might have been very different had it welcomed her in the
majestic setting of the Plinth drawing-rooms; but not liking to reflect
on the inadequacy of Mrs. Ballinger’s establishment she sought a
round-about satisfaction in depreciating her savoir faire.

“I said from the first that we ought to have had a subject ready. It’s
what always happens when you’re unprepared. Now if we’d only got up
Xingu--”

The slowness of Mrs. Plinth’s mental processes was always allowed for
by the Club; but this instance of it was too much for Mrs. Ballinger’s
equanimity.

“Xingu!” she scoffed. “Why, it was the fact of our knowing so much more
about it than she did--unprepared though we were--that made Osric Dane
so furious. I should have thought that was plain enough to everybody!”

This retort impressed even Mrs. Plinth, and Laura Glyde, moved by an
impulse of generosity, said: “Yes, we really ought to be grateful
to Mrs. Roby for introducing the topic. It may have made Osric Dane
furious, but at least it made her civil.”

“I am glad we were able to show her,” added Miss Van Vluyck, “that a
broad and up-to-date culture is not confined to the great intellectual
centres.”

This increased the satisfaction of the other members, and they began
to forget their wrath against Osric Dane in the pleasure of having
contributed to her defeat.

Miss Van Vluyck thoughtfully rubbed her spectacles. “What surprised me
most,” she continued, “was that Fanny Roby should be so up on Xingu.”

This frank admission threw a slight chill on the company, but Mrs.
Ballinger said with an air of indulgent irony: “Mrs. Roby always has the
knack of making a little go a long way; still, we certainly owe her a
debt for happening to remember that she’d heard of Xingu.” And this was
felt by the other members to be a graceful way of cancelling once for
all the Club’s obligation to Mrs. Roby.

Even Mrs. Leveret took courage to speed a timid shaft of irony: “I fancy
Osric Dane hardly expected to take a lesson in Xingu at Hillbridge!”

Mrs. Ballinger smiled. “When she asked me what we represented--do you
remember?--I wish I’d simply said we represented Xingu!”

All the ladies laughed appreciatively at this sally, except Mrs. Plinth,
who said, after a moment’s deliberation: “I’m not sure it would have
been wise to do so.”

Mrs. Ballinger, who was already beginning to feel as if she had
launched at Osric Dane the retort which had just occurred to her, looked
ironically at Mrs. Plinth. “May I ask why?” she enquired.

Mrs. Plinth looked grave. “Surely,” she said, “I understood from Mrs.
Roby herself that the subject was one it was as well not to go into too
deeply?”

Miss Van Vluyck rejoined with precision: “I think that applied only to
an investigation of the origin of the--of the--“; and suddenly she found
that her usually accurate memory had failed her. “It’s a part of the
subject I never studied myself,” she concluded lamely.

“Nor I,” said Mrs. Ballinger.

Laura Glyde bent toward them with widened eyes. “And yet it
seems--doesn’t it?--the part that is fullest of an esoteric
fascination?”

“I don’t know on what you base that,” said Miss Van Vluyck
argumentatively.

“Well, didn’t you notice how intensely interested Osric Dane became
as soon as she heard what the brilliant foreigner--he WAS a foreigner,
wasn’t he?--had told Mrs. Roby about the origin--the origin of the
rite--or whatever you call it?”

Mrs. Plinth looked disapproving, and Mrs. Ballinger visibly wavered.
Then she said in a decisive tone: “It may not be desirable to touch on
the--on that part of the subject in general conversation; but, from the
importance it evidently has to a woman of Osric Dane’s distinction,
I feel as if we ought not to be afraid to discuss it among
ourselves--without gloves--though with closed doors, if necessary.”

“I’m quite of your opinion,” Miss Van Vluyck came briskly to her
support; “on condition, that is, that all grossness of language is
avoided.”

“Oh, I’m sure we shall understand without that,” Mrs. Leveret tittered;
and Laura Glyde added significantly: “I fancy we can read between the
lines,” while Mrs. Ballinger rose to assure herself that the doors were
really closed.

Mrs. Plinth had not yet given her adhesion. “I hardly see,” she
began, “what benefit is to be derived from investigating such peculiar
customs--”

But Mrs. Ballinger’s patience had reached the extreme limit of tension.
“This at least,” she returned; “that we shall not be placed again in the
humiliating position of finding ourselves less up on our own subjects
than Fanny Roby!”

Even to Mrs. Plinth this argument was conclusive. She peered furtively
about the room and lowered her commanding tones to ask: “Have you got a
copy?”

“A--a copy?” stammered Mrs. Ballinger. She was aware that the other
members were looking at her expectantly, and that this answer was
inadequate, so she supported it by asking another question. “A copy of
what?”

Her companions bent their expectant gaze on Mrs. Plinth, who, in turn,
appeared less sure of herself than usual. “Why, of--of--the book,” she
explained.

“What book?” snapped Miss Van Vluyck, almost as sharply as Osric Dane.

Mrs. Ballinger looked at Laura Glyde, whose eyes were interrogatively
fixed on Mrs. Leveret. The fact of being deferred to was so new to
the latter that it filled her with an insane temerity. “Why, Xingu, of
course!” she exclaimed.

A profound silence followed this direct challenge to the resources
of Mrs. Ballinger’s library, and the latter, after glancing nervously
toward the Books of the Day, returned in a deprecating voice: “It’s not
a thing one cares to leave about.”

“I should think NOT!” exclaimed Mrs. Plinth.

“It IS a book, then?” said Miss Van Vluyck.

This again threw the company into disarray, and Mrs. Ballinger, with an
impatient sigh, rejoined: “Why--there IS a book--naturally...”

“Then why did Miss Glyde call it a religion?”

Laura Glyde started up. “A religion? I never--”

“Yes, you did,” Miss Van Vluyck insisted; “you spoke of rites; and Mrs.
Plinth said it was a custom.”

Miss Glyde was evidently making a desperate effort to reinforce her
statement; but accuracy of detail was not her strongest point. At length
she began in a deep murmur: “Surely they used to do something of the
kind at the Eleusinian mysteries--”

“Oh--” said Miss Van Vluyck, on the verge of disapproval; and Mrs.
Plinth protested: “I understood there was to be no indelicacy!”

Mrs. Ballinger could not control her irritation. “Really, it is too
bad that we should not be able to talk the matter over quietly among
ourselves. Personally, I think that if one goes into Xingu at all--”

“Oh, so do I!” cried Miss Glyde.

“And I don’t see how one can avoid doing so, if one wishes to keep up
with the Thought of the Day--”

Mrs. Leveret uttered an exclamation of relief. “There--that’s it!” she
interposed.

“What’s it?” the President curtly took her up.

“Why--it’s a--a Thought: I mean a philosophy.”

This seemed to bring a certain relief to Mrs. Ballinger and Laura Glyde,
but Miss Van Vluyck said dogmatically: “Excuse me if I tell you that
you’re all mistaken. Xingu happens to be a language.”

“A language!” the Lunch Club cried.

“Certainly. Don’t you remember Fanny Roby’s saying that there were
several branches, and that some were hard to trace? What could that
apply to but dialects?”

Mrs. Ballinger could no longer restrain a contemptuous laugh. “Really,
if the Lunch Club has reached such a pass that it has to go to Fanny
Roby for instruction on a subject like Xingu, it had almost better cease
to exist!”

“It’s really her fault for not being clearer,” Laura Glyde put in.

“Oh, clearness and Fanny Roby!” Mrs. Ballinger shrugged. “I daresay we
shall find she was mistaken on almost every point.”

“Why not look it up?” said Mrs. Plinth.

As a rule this recurrent suggestion of Mrs. Plinth’s was ignored in the
heat of discussion, and only resorted to afterward in the privacy of
each member’s home. But on the present occasion the desire to ascribe
their own confusion of thought to the vague and contradictory nature of
Mrs. Roby’s statements caused the members of the Lunch Club to utter a
collective demand for a book of reference.

At this point the production of her treasured volume gave Mrs. Leveret,
for a moment, the unusual experience of occupying the centre front; but
she was not able to hold it long, for Appropriate Allusions contained no
mention of Xingu.

“Oh, that’s not the kind of thing we want!” exclaimed Miss Van Vluyck.
She cast a disparaging glance over Mrs. Ballinger’s assortment of
literature, and added impatiently: “Haven’t you any useful books?”

“Of course I have,” replied Mrs. Ballinger indignantly; “but I keep them
in my husband’s dressing-room.”

From this region, after some difficulty and delay, the parlour-maid
produced the W-Z volume of an Encyclopaedia and, in deference to the
fact that the demand for it had come from Miss Van Vluyck, laid the
ponderous tome before her.

There was a moment of painful suspense while Miss Van Vluyck rubbed her
spectacles, adjusted them, and turned to Z; and a murmur of surprise
when she said: “It isn’t here.”

“I suppose,” said Mrs. Plinth, “it’s not fit to be put in a book of
reference.”

“Oh, nonsense!” exclaimed Mrs. Ballinger. “Try X.”

Miss Van Vluyck turned back through the volume, peering short-sightedly
up and down the pages, till she came to a stop and remained motionless,
like a dog on a point.

“Well, have you found it?” Mrs. Ballinger enquired, after a considerable
delay.

“Yes. I’ve found it,” said Miss Van Vluyck in a queer voice.

Mrs. Plinth hastily interposed: “I beg you won’t read it aloud if
there’s anything offensive.”

Miss Van Vluyck, without answering, continued her silent scrutiny.

“Well, what IS it?” exclaimed Laura Glyde excitedly.

“DO tell us!” urged Mrs. Leveret, feeling that she would have something
awful to tell her sister.

Miss Van Vluyck pushed the volume aside and turned slowly toward the
expectant group.

“It’s a river.”

“A RIVER?”

“Yes: in Brazil. Isn’t that where she’s been living?”

“Who? Fanny Roby? Oh, but you must be mistaken. You’ve been reading the
wrong thing,” Mrs. Ballinger exclaimed, leaning over her to seize the
volume.

“It’s the only XINGU in the Encyclopaedia; and she HAS been living in
Brazil,” Miss Van Vluyck persisted.

“Yes: her brother has a consulship there,” Mrs. Leveret eagerly
interposed.

“But it’s too ridiculous! I--we--why we ALL remember studying Xingu last
year--or the year before last,” Mrs. Ballinger stammered.

“I thought I did when YOU said so,” Laura Glyde avowed.

“I said so?” cried Mrs. Ballinger.

“Yes. You said it had crowded everything else out of your mind.”

“Well, YOU said it had changed your whole life!”

“For that matter, Miss Van Vluyck said she had never grudged the time
she’d given it.”

Mrs. Plinth interposed: “I made it clear that I knew nothing whatever of
the original.”

Mrs. Ballinger broke off the dispute with a groan. “Oh, what does it
all matter if she’s been making fools of us? I believe Miss Van Vluyck’s
right--she was talking of the river all the while!”

“How could she? It’s too preposterous,” Miss Glyde exclaimed.

“Listen.” Miss Van Vluyck had repossessed herself of the Encyclopaedia,
and restored her spectacles to a nose reddened by excitement. “‘The
Xingu, one of the principal rivers of Brazil, rises on the plateau of
Mato Grosso, and flows in a northerly direction for a length of no less
than one thousand one hundred and eighteen miles, entering the Amazon
near the mouth of the latter river. The upper course of the Xingu is
auriferous and fed by numerous branches. Its source was first discovered
in 1884 by the German explorer von den Steinen, after a difficult and
dangerous expedition through a region inhabited by tribes still in the
Stone Age of culture.’”

The ladies received this communication in a state of stupefied silence
from which Mrs. Leveret was the first to rally. “She certainly DID speak
of its having branches.”

The word seemed to snap the last thread of their incredulity. “And of
its great length,” gasped Mrs. Ballinger.

“She said it was awfully deep, and you couldn’t skip--you just had to
wade through,” Miss Glyde subjoined.

The idea worked its way more slowly through Mrs. Plinth’s compact
resistances. “How could there be anything improper about a river?” she
inquired.

“Improper?”

“Why, what she said about the source--that it was corrupt?”

“Not corrupt, but hard to get at,” Laura Glyde corrected. “Some
one who’d been there had told her so. I daresay it was the explorer
himself--doesn’t it say the expedition was dangerous?”

“‘Difficult and dangerous,’” read Miss Van Vluyck.

Mrs. Ballinger pressed her hands to her throbbing temples. “There’s
nothing she said that wouldn’t apply to a river--to this river!” She
swung about excitedly to the other members. “Why, do you remember her
telling us that she hadn’t read ‘The Supreme Instant’ because she’d
taken it on a boating party while she was staying with her brother,
and some one had ‘shied’ it overboard--‘shied’ of course was her own
expression?”

The ladies breathlessly signified that the expression had not escaped
them.

“Well--and then didn’t she tell Osric Dane that one of her books was
simply saturated with Xingu? Of course it was, if some of Mrs. Roby’s
rowdy friends had thrown it into the river!”

This surprising reconstruction of the scene in which they had just
participated left the members of the Lunch Club inarticulate. At length
Mrs. Plinth, after visibly labouring with the problem, said in a heavy
tone: “Osric Dane was taken in too.”

Mrs. Leveret took courage at this. “Perhaps that’s what Mrs. Roby did
it for. She said Osric Dane was a brute, and she may have wanted to give
her a lesson.”

Miss Van Vluyck frowned. “It was hardly worth while to do it at our
expense.”

“At least,” said Miss Glyde with a touch of bitterness, “she succeeded
in interesting her, which was more than we did.”

“What chance had we?” rejoined Mrs. Ballinger. “Mrs. Roby monopolised
her from the first. And THAT, I’ve no doubt, was her purpose--to give
Osric Dane a false impression of her own standing in the Club. She would
hesitate at nothing to attract attention: we all know how she took in
poor Professor Foreland.”

“She actually makes him give bridge-teas every Thursday,” Mrs. Leveret
piped up.

Laura Glyde struck her hands together. “Why, this is Thursday, and it’s
THERE she’s gone, of course; and taken Osric with her!”

“And they’re shrieking over us at this moment,” said Mrs. Ballinger
between her teeth.

This possibility seemed too preposterous to be admitted. “She would
hardly dare,” said Miss Van Vluyck, “confess the imposture to Osric
Dane.”

“I’m not so sure: I thought I saw her make a sign as she left. If she
hadn’t made a sign, why should Osric Dane have rushed out after her?”

“Well, you know, we’d all been telling her how wonderful Xingu was, and
she said she wanted to find out more about it,” Mrs. Leveret said, with
a tardy impulse of justice to the absent.

This reminder, far from mitigating the wrath of the other members, gave
it a stronger impetus.

“Yes--and that’s exactly what they’re both laughing over now,” said
Laura Glyde ironically.

Mrs. Plinth stood up and gathered her expensive furs about her
monumental form. “I have no wish to criticise,” she said; “but unless
the Lunch Club can protect its members against the recurrence of
such--such unbecoming scenes, I for one--”

“Oh, so do I!” agreed Miss Glyde, rising also.

Miss Van Vluyck closed the Encyclopaedia and proceeded to button herself
into her jacket. “My time is really too valuable--” she began.

“I fancy we are all of one mind,” said Mrs. Ballinger, looking
searchingly at Mrs. Leveret, who looked at the others.

“I always deprecate anything like a scandal--” Mrs. Plinth continued.

“She has been the cause of one to-day!” exclaimed Miss Glyde.

Mrs. Leveret moaned: “I don’t see how she COULD!” and Miss Van Vluyck
said, picking up her note-book: “Some women stop at nothing.”

“--but if,” Mrs. Plinth took up her argument impressively, “anything
of the kind had happened in MY house” (it never would have, her tone
implied), “I should have felt that I owed it to myself either to ask for
Mrs. Roby’s resignation--or to offer mine.”

“Oh, Mrs. Plinth--” gasped the Lunch Club.

“Fortunately for me,” Mrs. Plinth continued with an awful magnanimity,
“the matter was taken out of my hands by our President’s decision that
the right to entertain distinguished guests was a privilege vested in
her office; and I think the other members will agree that, as she was
alone in this opinion, she ought to be alone in deciding on the best way
of effacing its--its really deplorable consequences.”

A deep silence followed this unexpected outbreak of Mrs. Plinth’s
long-stored resentment.

“I don’t see why I should be expected to ask her to resign--” Mrs.
Ballinger at length began; but Laura Glyde turned back to remind her:
“You know she made you say that you’d got on swimmingly in Xingu.”

An ill-timed giggle escaped from Mrs. Leveret, and Mrs. Ballinger
energetically continued “--but you needn’t think for a moment that I’m
afraid to!”

The door of the drawing-room closed on the retreating backs of the
Lunch Club, and the President of that distinguished association, seating
herself at her writing-table, and pushing away a copy of “The Wings
of Death” to make room for her elbow, drew forth a sheet of the club’s
note-paper, on which she began to write: “My dear Mrs. Roby--”


The End of Xingu



THE VERDICT

June 1908


I had always thought Jack Gisburn rather a cheap genius--though a good
fellow enough--so it was no great surprise to me to hear that, in the
height of his glory, he had dropped his painting, married a rich widow,
and established himself in a villa on the Riviera. (Though I rather
thought it would have been Rome or Florence.)

“The height of his glory”--that was what the women called it. I can hear
Mrs. Gideon Thwing--his last Chicago sitter--deploring his unaccountable
abdication. “Of course it’s going to send the value of my picture ‘way
up; but I don’t think of that, Mr. Rickham--the loss to Arrt is all I
think of.” The word, on Mrs. Thwing’s lips, multiplied its RS as though
they were reflected in an endless vista of mirrors. And it was not only
the Mrs. Thwings who mourned. Had not the exquisite Hermia Croft, at the
last Grafton Gallery show, stopped me before Gisburn’s “Moon-dancers” to
say, with tears in her eyes: “We shall not look upon its like again”?

Well!--even through the prism of Hermia’s tears I felt able to face the
fact with equanimity. Poor Jack Gisburn! The women had made him--it was
fitting that they should mourn him. Among his own sex fewer regrets
were heard, and in his own trade hardly a murmur. Professional jealousy?
Perhaps. If it were, the honour of the craft was vindicated by little
Claude Nutley, who, in all good faith, brought out in the Burlington a
very handsome “obituary” on Jack--one of those showy articles stocked
with random technicalities that I have heard (I won’t say by whom)
compared to Gisburn’s painting. And so--his resolve being apparently
irrevocable--the discussion gradually died out, and, as Mrs. Thwing had
predicted, the price of “Gisburns” went up.

It was not till three years later that, in the course of a few weeks’
idling on the Riviera, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why Gisburn
had given up his painting. On reflection, it really was a tempting
problem. To accuse his wife would have been too easy--his fair sitters
had been denied the solace of saying that Mrs. Gisburn had “dragged him
down.” For Mrs. Gisburn--as such--had not existed till nearly a year
after Jack’s resolve had been taken. It might be that he had married
her--since he liked his ease--because he didn’t want to go on painting;
but it would have been hard to prove that he had given up his painting
because he had married her.

Of course, if she had not dragged him down, she had equally, as Miss
Croft contended, failed to “lift him up”--she had not led him back to
the easel. To put the brush into his hand again--what a vocation for
a wife! But Mrs. Gisburn appeared to have disdained it--and I felt it
might be interesting to find out why.

The desultory life of the Riviera lends itself to such purely academic
speculations; and having, on my way to Monte Carlo, caught a glimpse
of Jack’s balustraded terraces between the pines, I had myself borne
thither the next day.

I found the couple at tea beneath their palm-trees; and Mrs. Gisburn’s
welcome was so genial that, in the ensuing weeks, I claimed it
frequently. It was not that my hostess was “interesting”: on that point
I could have given Miss Croft the fullest reassurance. It was just
because she was NOT interesting--if I may be pardoned the bull--that I
found her so. For Jack, all his life, had been surrounded by interesting
women: they had fostered his art, it had been reared in the hot-house
of their adulation. And it was therefore instructive to note what effect
the “deadening atmosphere of mediocrity” (I quote Miss Croft) was having
on him.

I have mentioned that Mrs. Gisburn was rich; and it was immediately
perceptible that her husband was extracting from this circumstance a
delicate but substantial satisfaction. It is, as a rule, the people who
scorn money who get most out of it; and Jack’s elegant disdain of
his wife’s big balance enabled him, with an appearance of perfect
good-breeding, to transmute it into objects of art and luxury. To the
latter, I must add, he remained relatively indifferent; but he was
buying Renaissance bronzes and eighteenth-century pictures with a
discrimination that bespoke the amplest resources.

“Money’s only excuse is to put beauty into circulation,” was one of
the axioms he laid down across the Sevres and silver of an exquisitely
appointed luncheon-table, when, on a later day, I had again run over
from Monte Carlo; and Mrs. Gisburn, beaming on him, added for my
enlightenment: “Jack is so morbidly sensitive to every form of beauty.”

Poor Jack! It had always been his fate to have women say such things of
him: the fact should be set down in extenuation. What struck me now
was that, for the first time, he resented the tone. I had seen him, so
often, basking under similar tributes--was it the conjugal note that
robbed them of their savour? No--for, oddly enough, it became apparent
that he was fond of Mrs. Gisburn--fond enough not to see her absurdity.
It was his own absurdity he seemed to be wincing under--his own attitude
as an object for garlands and incense.

“My dear, since I’ve chucked painting people don’t say that stuff about
me--they say it about Victor Grindle,” was his only protest, as he rose
from the table and strolled out onto the sunlit terrace.

I glanced after him, struck by his last word. Victor Grindle was, in
fact, becoming the man of the moment--as Jack himself, one might put it,
had been the man of the hour. The younger artist was said to have formed
himself at my friend’s feet, and I wondered if a tinge of jealousy
underlay the latter’s mysterious abdication. But no--for it was not
till after that event that the rose Dubarry drawing-rooms had begun to
display their “Grindles.”

I turned to Mrs. Gisburn, who had lingered to give a lump of sugar to
her spaniel in the dining-room.

“Why HAS he chucked painting?” I asked abruptly.

She raised her eyebrows with a hint of good-humoured surprise.

“Oh, he doesn’t HAVE to now, you know; and I want him to enjoy himself,”
 she said quite simply.

I looked about the spacious white-panelled room, with its famille-verte
vases repeating the tones of the pale damask curtains, and its
eighteenth-century pastels in delicate faded frames.

“Has he chucked his pictures too? I haven’t seen a single one in the
house.”

A slight shade of constraint crossed Mrs. Gisburn’s open countenance.
“It’s his ridiculous modesty, you know. He says they’re not fit to have
about; he’s sent them all away except one--my portrait--and that I have
to keep upstairs.”

His ridiculous modesty--Jack’s modesty about his pictures? My curiosity
was growing like the bean-stalk. I said persuasively to my hostess: “I
must really see your portrait, you know.”

She glanced out almost timorously at the terrace where her husband,
lounging in a hooded chair, had lit a cigar and drawn the Russian
deerhound’s head between his knees.

“Well, come while he’s not looking,” she said, with a laugh that tried
to hide her nervousness; and I followed her between the marble Emperors
of the hall, and up the wide stairs with terra-cotta nymphs poised among
flowers at each landing.

In the dimmest corner of her boudoir, amid a profusion of delicate and
distinguished objects, hung one of the familiar oval canvases, in the
inevitable garlanded frame. The mere outline of the frame called up all
Gisburn’s past!

Mrs. Gisburn drew back the window-curtains, moved aside a jardiniere
full of pink azaleas, pushed an arm-chair away, and said: “If you stand
here you can just manage to see it. I had it over the mantel-piece, but
he wouldn’t let it stay.”

Yes--I could just manage to see it--the first portrait of Jack’s I
had ever had to strain my eyes over! Usually they had the place
of honour--say the central panel in a pale yellow or rose Dubarry
drawing-room, or a monumental easel placed so that it took the light
through curtains of old Venetian point. The more modest place became the
picture better; yet, as my eyes grew accustomed to the half-light, all
the characteristic qualities came out--all the hesitations disguised
as audacities, the tricks of prestidigitation by which, with such
consummate skill, he managed to divert attention from the real business
of the picture to some pretty irrelevance of detail. Mrs. Gisburn,
presenting a neutral surface to work on--forming, as it were, so
inevitably the background of her own picture--had lent herself in an
unusual degree to the display of this false virtuosity. The picture
was one of Jack’s “strongest,” as his admirers would have put it--it
represented, on his part, a swelling of muscles, a congesting of
veins, a balancing, straddling and straining, that reminded one of the
circus-clown’s ironic efforts to lift a feather. It met, in short, at
every point the demand of lovely woman to be painted “strongly” because
she was tired of being painted “sweetly”--and yet not to lose an atom of
the sweetness.

“It’s the last he painted, you know,” Mrs. Gisburn said with pardonable
pride. “The last but one,” she corrected herself--“but the other doesn’t
count, because he destroyed it.”

“Destroyed it?” I was about to follow up this clue when I heard a
footstep and saw Jack himself on the threshold.

As he stood there, his hands in the pockets of his velveteen coat, the
thin brown waves of hair pushed back from his white forehead, his
lean sunburnt cheeks furrowed by a smile that lifted the tips of a
self-confident moustache, I felt to what a degree he had the same
quality as his pictures--the quality of looking cleverer than he was.

His wife glanced at him deprecatingly, but his eyes travelled past her
to the portrait.

“Mr. Rickham wanted to see it,” she began, as if excusing herself. He
shrugged his shoulders, still smiling.

“Oh, Rickham found me out long ago,” he said lightly; then, passing his
arm through mine: “Come and see the rest of the house.”

He showed it to me with a kind of naive suburban pride: the bath-rooms,
the speaking-tubes, the dress-closets, the trouser-presses--all the
complex simplifications of the millionaire’s domestic economy. And
whenever my wonder paid the expected tribute he said, throwing out
his chest a little: “Yes, I really don’t see how people manage to live
without that.”

Well--it was just the end one might have foreseen for him. Only he was,
through it all and in spite of it all--as he had been through, and in
spite of, his pictures--so handsome, so charming, so disarming, that one
longed to cry out: “Be dissatisfied with your leisure!” as once one had
longed to say: “Be dissatisfied with your work!”

But, with the cry on my lips, my diagnosis suffered an unexpected check.

“This is my own lair,” he said, leading me into a dark plain room at
the end of the florid vista. It was square and brown and leathery: no
“effects”; no bric-a-brac, none of the air of posing for reproduction in
a picture weekly--above all, no least sign of ever having been used as a
studio.

The fact brought home to me the absolute finality of Jack’s break with
his old life.

“Don’t you ever dabble with paint any more?” I asked, still looking
about for a trace of such activity.

“Never,” he said briefly.

“Or water-colour--or etching?”

His confident eyes grew dim, and his cheeks paled a little under their
handsome sunburn.

“Never think of it, my dear fellow--any more than if I’d never touched a
brush.”

And his tone told me in a flash that he never thought of anything else.

I moved away, instinctively embarrassed by my unexpected discovery; and
as I turned, my eye fell on a small picture above the mantel-piece--the
only object breaking the plain oak panelling of the room.

“Oh, by Jove!” I said.

It was a sketch of a donkey--an old tired donkey, standing in the rain
under a wall.

“By Jove--a Stroud!” I cried.

He was silent; but I felt him close behind me, breathing a little
quickly.

“What a wonder! Made with a dozen lines--but on everlasting foundations.
You lucky chap, where did you get it?”

He answered slowly: “Mrs. Stroud gave it to me.”

“Ah--I didn’t know you even knew the Strouds. He was such an inflexible
hermit.”

“I didn’t--till after.... She sent for me to paint him when he was
dead.”

“When he was dead? You?”

I must have let a little too much amazement escape through my surprise,
for he answered with a deprecating laugh: “Yes--she’s an awful
simpleton, you know, Mrs. Stroud. Her only idea was to have him done by
a fashionable painter--ah, poor Stroud! She thought it the surest way
of proclaiming his greatness--of forcing it on a purblind public. And at
the moment I was THE fashionable painter.”

“Ah, poor Stroud--as you say. Was THAT his history?”

“That was his history. She believed in him, gloried in him--or thought
she did. But she couldn’t bear not to have all the drawing-rooms with
her. She couldn’t bear the fact that, on varnishing days, one could
always get near enough to see his pictures. Poor woman! She’s just a
fragment groping for other fragments. Stroud is the only whole I ever
knew.”

“You ever knew? But you just said--”

Gisburn had a curious smile in his eyes.

“Oh, I knew him, and he knew me--only it happened after he was dead.”

I dropped my voice instinctively. “When she sent for you?”

“Yes--quite insensible to the irony. She wanted him vindicated--and by
me!”

He laughed again, and threw back his head to look up at the sketch
of the donkey. “There were days when I couldn’t look at that
thing--couldn’t face it. But I forced myself to put it here; and now
it’s cured me--cured me. That’s the reason why I don’t dabble any more,
my dear Rickham; or rather Stroud himself is the reason.”

For the first time my idle curiosity about my companion turned into a
serious desire to understand him better.

“I wish you’d tell me how it happened,” I said.

He stood looking up at the sketch, and twirling between his fingers a
cigarette he had forgotten to light. Suddenly he turned toward me.

“I’d rather like to tell you--because I’ve always suspected you of
loathing my work.”

I made a deprecating gesture, which he negatived with a good-humoured
shrug.

“Oh, I didn’t care a straw when I believed in myself--and now it’s an
added tie between us!”

He laughed slightly, without bitterness, and pushed one of the deep
arm-chairs forward. “There: make yourself comfortable--and here are the
cigars you like.”

He placed them at my elbow and continued to wander up and down the room,
stopping now and then beneath the picture.

“How it happened? I can tell you in five minutes--and it didn’t take
much longer to happen.... I can remember now how surprised and pleased
I was when I got Mrs. Stroud’s note. Of course, deep down, I had always
FELT there was no one like him--only I had gone with the stream, echoed
the usual platitudes about him, till I half got to think he was a
failure, one of the kind that are left behind. By Jove, and he WAS left
behind--because he had come to stay! The rest of us had to let ourselves
be swept along or go under, but he was high above the current--on
everlasting foundations, as you say.

“Well, I went off to the house in my most egregious mood--rather moved,
Lord forgive me, at the pathos of poor Stroud’s career of failure being
crowned by the glory of my painting him! Of course I meant to do the
picture for nothing--I told Mrs. Stroud so when she began to stammer
something about her poverty. I remember getting off a prodigious phrase
about the honour being MINE--oh, I was princely, my dear Rickham! I was
posing to myself like one of my own sitters.

“Then I was taken up and left alone with him. I had sent all my traps in
advance, and I had only to set up the easel and get to work. He had been
dead only twenty-four hours, and he died suddenly, of heart disease,
so that there had been no preliminary work of destruction--his face
was clear and untouched. I had met him once or twice, years before, and
thought him insignificant and dingy. Now I saw that he was superb.

“I was glad at first, with a merely aesthetic satisfaction: glad to have
my hand on such a ‘subject.’ Then his strange life-likeness began
to affect me queerly--as I blocked the head in I felt as if he were
watching me do it. The sensation was followed by the thought: if he WERE
watching me, what would he say to my way of working? My strokes began to
go a little wild--I felt nervous and uncertain.

“Once, when I looked up, I seemed to see a smile behind his close
grayish beard--as if he had the secret, and were amusing himself by
holding it back from me. That exasperated me still more. The secret?
Why, I had a secret worth twenty of his! I dashed at the canvas
furiously, and tried some of my bravura tricks. But they failed me,
they crumbled. I saw that he wasn’t watching the showy bits--I couldn’t
distract his attention; he just kept his eyes on the hard passages
between. Those were the ones I had always shirked, or covered up with
some lying paint. And how he saw through my lies!

“I looked up again, and caught sight of that sketch of the donkey
hanging on the wall near his bed. His wife told me afterward it was the
last thing he had done--just a note taken with a shaking hand, when he
was down in Devonshire recovering from a previous heart attack. Just
a note! But it tells his whole history. There are years of patient
scornful persistence in every line. A man who had swum with the current
could never have learned that mighty up-stream stroke....

“I turned back to my work, and went on groping and muddling; then I
looked at the donkey again. I saw that, when Stroud laid in the first
stroke, he knew just what the end would be. He had possessed his
subject, absorbed it, recreated it. When had I done that with any of my
things? They hadn’t been born of me--I had just adopted them....

“Hang it, Rickham, with that face watching me I couldn’t do another
stroke. The plain truth was, I didn’t know where to put it--I HAD NEVER
KNOWN. Only, with my sitters and my public, a showy splash of colour
covered up the fact--I just threw paint into their faces.... Well, paint
was the one medium those dead eyes could see through--see straight to
the tottering foundations underneath. Don’t you know how, in talking
a foreign language, even fluently, one says half the time not what one
wants to but what one can? Well--that was the way I painted; and as he
lay there and watched me, the thing they called my ‘technique’ collapsed
like a house of cards. He didn’t sneer, you understand, poor Stroud--he
just lay there quietly watching, and on his lips, through the gray
beard, I seemed to hear the question: ‘Are you sure you know where
you’re coming out?’

“If I could have painted that face, with that question on it, I should
have done a great thing. The next greatest thing was to see that I
couldn’t--and that grace was given me. But, oh, at that minute, Rickham,
was there anything on earth I wouldn’t have given to have Stroud alive
before me, and to hear him say: ‘It’s not too late--I’ll show you how’?

“It WAS too late--it would have been, even if he’d been alive. I packed
up my traps, and went down and told Mrs. Stroud. Of course I didn’t
tell her THAT--it would have been Greek to her. I simply said I couldn’t
paint him, that I was too moved. She rather liked the idea--she’s so
romantic! It was that that made her give me the donkey. But she was
terribly upset at not getting the portrait--she did so want him ‘done’
by some one showy! At first I was afraid she wouldn’t let me off--and at
my wits’ end I suggested Grindle. Yes, it was I who started Grindle: I
told Mrs. Stroud he was the ‘coming’ man, and she told somebody else,
and so it got to be true.... And he painted Stroud without wincing; and
she hung the picture among her husband’s things....”

He flung himself down in the arm-chair near mine, laid back his head,
and clasping his arms beneath it, looked up at the picture above the
chimney-piece.

“I like to fancy that Stroud himself would have given it to me, if he’d
been able to say what he thought that day.”

And, in answer to a question I put half-mechanically--“Begin again?”
 he flashed out. “When the one thing that brings me anywhere near him is
that I knew enough to leave off?”

He stood up and laid his hand on my shoulder with a laugh. “Only the
irony of it is that I AM still painting--since Grindle’s doing it
for me! The Strouds stand alone, and happen once--but there’s no
exterminating our kind of art.”


The End of The Verdict



THE RECKONING

August, 1902



I


“The marriage law of the new dispensation will be: THOU SHALT NOT BE
UNFAITHFUL--TO THYSELF.”

A discreet murmur of approval filled the studio, and through the haze of
cigarette smoke Mrs. Clement Westall, as her husband descended from his
improvised platform, saw him merged in a congratulatory group of ladies.
Westall’s informal talks on “The New Ethics” had drawn about him an
eager following of the mentally unemployed--those who, as he had once
phrased it, liked to have their brain-food cut up for them. The talks
had begun by accident. Westall’s ideas were known to be “advanced,” but
hitherto their advance had not been in the direction of publicity. He
had been, in his wife’s opinion, almost pusillanimously careful not
to let his personal views endanger his professional standing. Of late,
however, he had shown a puzzling tendency to dogmatize, to throw down
the gauntlet, to flaunt his private code in the face of society; and the
relation of the sexes being a topic always sure of an audience, a few
admiring friends had persuaded him to give his after-dinner opinions a
larger circulation by summing them up in a series of talks at the Van
Sideren studio.

The Herbert Van Siderens were a couple who subsisted, socially, on
the fact that they had a studio. Van Sideren’s pictures were chiefly
valuable as accessories to the mise en scene which differentiated his
wife’s “afternoons” from the blighting functions held in long New York
drawing-rooms, and permitted her to offer their friends whiskey-and-soda
instead of tea. Mrs. Van Sideren, for her part, was skilled in making
the most of the kind of atmosphere which a lay-figure and an easel
create; and if at times she found the illusion hard to maintain, and
lost courage to the extent of almost wishing that Herbert could paint,
she promptly overcame such moments of weakness by calling in some fresh
talent, some extraneous re-enforcement of the “artistic” impression. It
was in quest of such aid that she had seized on Westall, coaxing him,
somewhat to his wife’s surprise, into a flattered participation in her
fraud. It was vaguely felt, in the Van Sideren circle, that all the
audacities were artistic, and that a teacher who pronounced marriage
immoral was somehow as distinguished as a painter who depicted
purple grass and a green sky. The Van Sideren set were tired of the
conventional color-scheme in art and conduct.

Julia Westall had long had her own views on the immorality of marriage;
she might indeed have claimed her husband as a disciple. In the early
days of their union she had secretly resented his disinclination to
proclaim himself a follower of the new creed; had been inclined to tax
him with moral cowardice, with a failure to live up to the convictions
for which their marriage was supposed to stand. That was in the
first burst of propagandism, when, womanlike, she wanted to turn her
disobedience into a law. Now she felt differently. She could hardly
account for the change, yet being a woman who never allowed her impulses
to remain unaccounted for, she tried to do so by saying that she did not
care to have the articles of her faith misinterpreted by the vulgar. In
this connection, she was beginning to think that almost every one was
vulgar; certainly there were few to whom she would have cared to intrust
the defence of so esoteric a doctrine. And it was precisely at this
point that Westall, discarding his unspoken principles, had chosen to
descend from the heights of privacy, and stand hawking his convictions
at the street-corner!

It was Una Van Sideren who, on this occasion, unconsciously focussed
upon herself Mrs. Westall’s wandering resentment. In the first place,
the girl had no business to be there. It was “horrid”--Mrs. Westall
found herself slipping back into the old feminine vocabulary--simply
“horrid” to think of a young girl’s being allowed to listen to such
talk. The fact that Una smoked cigarettes and sipped an occasional
cocktail did not in the least tarnish a certain radiant innocency which
made her appear the victim, rather than the accomplice, of her parents’
vulgarities. Julia Westall felt in a hot helpless way that something
ought to be done--that some one ought to speak to the girl’s mother. And
just then Una glided up.

“Oh, Mrs. Westall, how beautiful it was!” Una fixed her with large
limpid eyes. “You believe it all, I suppose?” she asked with seraphic
gravity.

“All--what, my dear child?”

The girl shone on her. “About the higher life--the freer expansion of
the individual--the law of fidelity to one’s self,” she glibly recited.

Mrs. Westall, to her own wonder, blushed a deep and burning blush.

“My dear Una,” she said, “you don’t in the least understand what it’s
all about!”

Miss Van Sideren stared, with a slowly answering blush. “Don’t YOU,
then?” she murmured.

Mrs. Westall laughed. “Not always--or altogether! But I should like some
tea, please.”

Una led her to the corner where innocent beverages were dispensed. As
Julia received her cup she scrutinized the girl more carefully. It was
not such a girlish face, after all--definite lines were forming under
the rosy haze of youth. She reflected that Una must be six-and-twenty,
and wondered why she had not married. A nice stock of ideas she would
have as her dower! If THEY were to be a part of the modern girl’s
trousseau--

Mrs. Westall caught herself up with a start. It was as though some one
else had been speaking--a stranger who had borrowed her own voice: she
felt herself the dupe of some fantastic mental ventriloquism. Concluding
suddenly that the room was stifling and Una’s tea too sweet, she set
down her cup, and looked about for Westall: to meet his eyes had long
been her refuge from every uncertainty. She met them now, but only,
as she felt, in transit; they included her parenthetically in a larger
flight. She followed the flight, and it carried her to a corner to which
Una had withdrawn--one of the palmy nooks to which Mrs. Van Sideren
attributed the success of her Saturdays. Westall, a moment later, had
overtaken his look, and found a place at the girl’s side. She bent
forward, speaking eagerly; he leaned back, listening, with the
depreciatory smile which acted as a filter to flattery, enabling him
to swallow the strongest doses without apparent grossness of appetite.
Julia winced at her own definition of the smile.


On the way home, in the deserted winter dusk, Westall surprised his wife
by a sudden boyish pressure of her arm. “Did I open their eyes a bit?
Did I tell them what you wanted me to?” he asked gaily.

Almost unconsciously, she let her arm slip from his. “What I wanted--?”

“Why, haven’t you--all this time?” She caught the honest wonder of his
tone. “I somehow fancied you’d rather blamed me for not talking more
openly--before-- You’ve made me feel, at times, that I was sacrificing
principles to expediency.”

She paused a moment over her reply; then she asked quietly: “What made
you decide not to--any longer?”

She felt again the vibration of a faint surprise. “Why--the wish to
please you!” he answered, almost too simply.

“I wish you would not go on, then,” she said abruptly.

He stopped in his quick walk, and she felt his stare through the
darkness.

“Not go on--?”

“Call a hansom, please. I’m tired,” broke from her with a sudden rush of
physical weariness.

Instantly his solicitude enveloped her. The room had been infernally
hot--and then that confounded cigarette smoke--he had noticed once or
twice that she looked pale--she mustn’t come to another Saturday. She
felt herself yielding, as she always did, to the warm influence of his
concern for her, the feminine in her leaning on the man in him with a
conscious intensity of abandonment. He put her in the hansom, and her
hand stole into his in the darkness. A tear or two rose, and she let
them fall. It was so delicious to cry over imaginary troubles!

That evening, after dinner, he surprised her by reverting to the subject
of his talk. He combined a man’s dislike of uncomfortable questions
with an almost feminine skill in eluding them; and she knew that if he
returned to the subject he must have some special reason for doing so.

“You seem not to have cared for what I said this afternoon. Did I put
the case badly?”

“No--you put it very well.”

“Then what did you mean by saying that you would rather not have me go
on with it?”

She glanced at him nervously, her ignorance of his intention deepening
her sense of helplessness.

“I don’t think I care to hear such things discussed in public.”

“I don’t understand you,” he exclaimed. Again the feeling that his
surprise was genuine gave an air of obliquity to her own attitude. She
was not sure that she understood herself.

“Won’t you explain?” he said with a tinge of impatience. Her eyes
wandered about the familiar drawing-room which had been the scene of so
many of their evening confidences. The shaded lamps, the quiet-colored
walls hung with mezzotints, the pale spring flowers scattered here and
there in Venice glasses and bowls of old Sevres, recalled, she hardly
knew why, the apartment in which the evenings of her first marriage had
been passed--a wilderness of rosewood and upholstery, with a picture of
a Roman peasant above the mantel-piece, and a Greek slave in “statuary
marble” between the folding-doors of the back drawing-room. It was a
room with which she had never been able to establish any closer relation
than that between a traveller and a railway station; and now, as
she looked about at the surroundings which stood for her deepest
affinities--the room for which she had left that other room--she was
startled by the same sense of strangeness and unfamiliarity. The prints,
the flowers, the subdued tones of the old porcelains, seemed to typify a
superficial refinement that had no relation to the deeper significances
of life.

Suddenly she heard her husband repeating his question.

“I don’t know that I can explain,” she faltered.

He drew his arm-chair forward so that he faced her across the hearth.
The light of a reading-lamp fell on his finely drawn face, which had
a kind of surface-sensitiveness akin to the surface-refinement of its
setting.

“Is it that you no longer believe in our ideas?” he asked.

“In our ideas--?”

“The ideas I am trying to teach. The ideas you and I are supposed to
stand for.” He paused a moment. “The ideas on which our marriage was
founded.”

The blood rushed to her face. He had his reasons, then--she was sure now
that he had his reasons! In the ten years of their marriage, how
often had either of them stopped to consider the ideas on which it was
founded? How often does a man dig about the basement of his house to
examine its foundation? The foundation is there, of course--the house
rests on it--but one lives abovestairs and not in the cellar. It
was she, indeed, who in the beginning had insisted on reviewing the
situation now and then, on recapitulating the reasons which justified
her course, on proclaiming, from time to time, her adherence to the
religion of personal independence; but she had long ceased to feel
the need of any such ideal standards, and had accepted her marriage as
frankly and naturally as though it had been based on the primitive needs
of the heart, and needed no special sanction to explain or justify it.

“Of course I still believe in our ideas!” she exclaimed.

“Then I repeat that I don’t understand. It was a part of your theory
that the greatest possible publicity should be given to our view of
marriage. Have you changed your mind in that respect?”

She hesitated. “It depends on circumstances--on the public one is
addressing. The set of people that the Van Siderens get about them don’t
care for the truth or falseness of a doctrine. They are attracted simply
by its novelty.”

“And yet it was in just such a set of people that you and I met, and
learned the truth from each other.”

“That was different.”

“In what way?”

“I was not a young girl, to begin with. It is perfectly unfitting that
young girls should be present at--at such times--should hear such things
discussed--”

“I thought you considered it one of the deepest social wrongs that such
things never ARE discussed before young girls; but that is beside
the point, for I don’t remember seeing any young girl in my audience
to-day--”

“Except Una Van Sideren!”

He turned slightly and pushed back the lamp at his elbow.

“Oh, Miss Van Sideren--naturally--”

“Why naturally?”

“The daughter of the house--would you have had her sent out with her
governess?”

“If I had a daughter I should not allow such things to go on in my
house!”

Westall, stroking his mustache, leaned back with a faint smile. “I fancy
Miss Van Sideren is quite capable of taking care of herself.”

“No girl knows how to take care of herself--till it’s too late.”

“And yet you would deliberately deny her the surest means of
self-defence?”

“What do you call the surest means of self-defence?”

“Some preliminary knowledge of human nature in its relation to the
marriage tie.”

She made an impatient gesture. “How should you like to marry that kind
of a girl?”

“Immensely--if she were my kind of girl in other respects.”

She took up the argument at another point.

“You are quite mistaken if you think such talk does not affect young
girls. Una was in a state of the most absurd exaltation--” She broke
off, wondering why she had spoken.

Westall reopened a magazine which he had laid aside at the beginning
of their discussion. “What you tell me is immensely flattering to my
oratorical talent--but I fear you overrate its effect. I can assure you
that Miss Van Sideren doesn’t have to have her thinking done for her.
She’s quite capable of doing it herself.”

“You seem very familiar with her mental processes!” flashed unguardedly
from his wife.

He looked up quietly from the pages he was cutting.

“I should like to be,” he answered. “She interests me.”



II


If there be a distinction in being misunderstood, it was one denied to
Julia Westall when she left her first husband. Every one was ready to
excuse and even to defend her. The world she adorned agreed that John
Arment was “impossible,” and hostesses gave a sigh of relief at the
thought that it would no longer be necessary to ask him to dine.

There had been no scandal connected with the divorce: neither side
had accused the other of the offence euphemistically described as
“statutory.” The Arments had indeed been obliged to transfer their
allegiance to a State which recognized desertion as a cause for divorce,
and construed the term so liberally that the seeds of desertion were
shown to exist in every union. Even Mrs. Arment’s second marriage did
not make traditional morality stir in its sleep. It was known that she
had not met her second husband till after she had parted from the first,
and she had, moreover, replaced a rich man by a poor one. Though Clement
Westall was acknowledged to be a rising lawyer, it was generally felt
that his fortunes would not rise as rapidly as his reputation. The
Westalls would probably always have to live quietly and go out to
dinner in cabs. Could there be better evidence of Mrs. Arment’s complete
disinterestedness?

If the reasoning by which her friends justified her course was somewhat
cruder and less complex than her own elucidation of the matter, both
explanations led to the same conclusion: John Arment was impossible. The
only difference was that, to his wife, his impossibility was something
deeper than a social disqualification. She had once said, in ironical
defence of her marriage, that it had at least preserved her from
the necessity of sitting next to him at dinner; but she had not then
realized at what cost the immunity was purchased. John Arment was
impossible; but the sting of his impossibility lay in the fact that he
made it impossible for those about him to be other than himself. By
an unconscious process of elimination he had excluded from the world
everything of which he did not feel a personal need: had become, as it
were, a climate in which only his own requirements survived. This might
seem to imply a deliberate selfishness; but there was nothing deliberate
about Arment. He was as instinctive as an animal or a child. It was this
childish element in his nature which sometimes for a moment unsettled
his wife’s estimate of him. Was it possible that he was simply
undeveloped, that he had delayed, somewhat longer than is usual, the
laborious process of growing up? He had the kind of sporadic shrewdness
which causes it to be said of a dull man that he is “no fool”; and it
was this quality that his wife found most trying. Even to the naturalist
it is annoying to have his deductions disturbed by some unforeseen
aberrancy of form or function; and how much more so to the wife whose
estimate of herself is inevitably bound up with her judgment of her
husband!

Arment’s shrewdness did not, indeed, imply any latent intellectual
power; it suggested, rather, potentialities of feeling, of suffering,
perhaps, in a blind rudimentary way, on which Julia’s sensibilities
naturally declined to linger. She so fully understood her own
reasons for leaving him that she disliked to think they were not as
comprehensible to her husband. She was haunted, in her analytic moments,
by the look of perplexity, too inarticulate for words, with which he had
acquiesced to her explanations.

These moments were rare with her, however. Her marriage had been too
concrete a misery to be surveyed philosophically. If she had been
unhappy for complex reasons, the unhappiness was as real as though it
had been uncomplicated. Soul is more bruisable than flesh, and Julia was
wounded in every fibre of her spirit. Her husband’s personality seemed
to be closing gradually in on her, obscuring the sky and cutting off
the air, till she felt herself shut up among the decaying bodies of
her starved hopes. A sense of having been decoyed by some world-old
conspiracy into this bondage of body and soul filled her with despair.
If marriage was the slow life-long acquittal of a debt contracted in
ignorance, then marriage was a crime against human nature. She, for one,
would have no share in maintaining the pretence of which she had been a
victim: the pretence that a man and a woman, forced into the narrowest
of personal relations, must remain there till the end, though they
may have outgrown the span of each other’s natures as the mature tree
outgrows the iron brace about the sapling.

It was in the first heat of her moral indignation that she had met
Clement Westall. She had seen at once that he was “interested,” and had
fought off the discovery, dreading any influence that should draw her
back into the bondage of conventional relations. To ward off the peril
she had, with an almost crude precipitancy, revealed her opinions to
him. To her surprise, she found that he shared them. She was attracted
by the frankness of a suitor who, while pressing his suit, admitted that
he did not believe in marriage. Her worst audacities did not seem to
surprise him: he had thought out all that she had felt, and they had
reached the same conclusion. People grew at varying rates, and the yoke
that was an easy fit for the one might soon become galling to the other.
That was what divorce was for: the readjustment of personal relations.
As soon as their necessarily transitive nature was recognized they would
gain in dignity as well as in harmony. There would be no farther need
of the ignoble concessions and connivances, the perpetual sacrifice of
personal delicacy and moral pride, by means of which imperfect marriages
were now held together. Each partner to the contract would be on his
mettle, forced to live up to the highest standard of self-development,
on pain of losing the other’s respect and affection. The low nature
could no longer drag the higher down, but must struggle to rise, or
remain alone on its inferior level. The only necessary condition to a
harmonious marriage was a frank recognition of this truth, and a solemn
agreement between the contracting parties to keep faith with themselves,
and not to live together for a moment after complete accord had ceased
to exist between them. The new adultery was unfaithfulness to self.

It was, as Westall had just reminded her, on this understanding that
they had married. The ceremony was an unimportant concession to social
prejudice: now that the door of divorce stood open, no marriage need
be an imprisonment, and the contract therefore no longer involved any
diminution of self-respect. The nature of their attachment placed
them so far beyond the reach of such contingencies that it was easy to
discuss them with an open mind; and Julia’s sense of security made her
dwell with a tender insistence on Westall’s promise to claim his release
when he should cease to love her. The exchange of these vows seemed
to make them, in a sense, champions of the new law, pioneers in the
forbidden realm of individual freedom: they felt that they had somehow
achieved beatitude without martyrdom.

This, as Julia now reviewed the past, she perceived to have been her
theoretical attitude toward marriage. It was unconsciously, insidiously,
that her ten years of happiness with Westall had developed another
conception of the tie; a reversion, rather, to the old instinct of
passionate dependency and possessorship that now made her blood revolt
at the mere hint of change. Change? Renewal? Was that what they
had called it, in their foolish jargon? Destruction, extermination
rather--this rending of a myriad fibres interwoven with another’s being!
Another? But he was not other! He and she were one, one in the mystic
sense which alone gave marriage its significance. The new law was not
for them, but for the disunited creatures forced into a mockery of
union. The gospel she had felt called on to proclaim had no bearing on
her own case.... She sent for the doctor and told him she was sure she
needed a nerve tonic.

She took the nerve tonic diligently, but it failed to act as a sedative
to her fears. She did not know what she feared; but that made her
anxiety the more pervasive. Her husband had not reverted to the subject
of his Saturday talks. He was unusually kind and considerate, with a
softening of his quick manner, a touch of shyness in his consideration,
that sickened her with new fears. She told herself that it was because
she looked badly--because he knew about the doctor and the nerve
tonic--that he showed this deference to her wishes, this eagerness to
screen her from moral draughts; but the explanation simply cleared the
way for fresh inferences.

The week passed slowly, vacantly, like a prolonged Sunday. On Saturday
the morning post brought a note from Mrs. Van Sideren. Would dear Julia
ask Mr. Westall to come half an hour earlier than usual, as there was to
be some music after his “talk”? Westall was just leaving for his office
when his wife read the note. She opened the drawing-room door and called
him back to deliver the message.

He glanced at the note and tossed it aside. “What a bore! I shall have
to cut my game of racquets. Well, I suppose it can’t be helped. Will you
write and say it’s all right?”

Julia hesitated a moment, her hand stiffening on the chair-back against
which she leaned.

“You mean to go on with these talks?” she asked.

“I--why not?” he returned; and this time it struck her that his surprise
was not quite unfeigned. The discovery helped her to find words.

“You said you had started them with the idea of pleasing me--”

“Well?”

“I told you last week that they didn’t please me.”

“Last week? Oh--” He seemed to make an effort of memory. “I thought you
were nervous then; you sent for the doctor the next day.”

“It was not the doctor I needed; it was your assurance--”

“My assurance?”

Suddenly she felt the floor fail under her. She sank into the chair with
a choking throat, her words, her reasons slipping away from her like
straws down a whirling flood.

“Clement,” she cried, “isn’t it enough for you to know that I hate it?”

He turned to close the door behind them; then he walked toward her and
sat down. “What is it that you hate?” he asked gently.

She had made a desperate effort to rally her routed argument.

“I can’t bear to have you speak as if--as if--our marriage--were like
the other kind--the wrong kind. When I heard you there, the other
afternoon, before all those inquisitive gossiping people, proclaiming
that husbands and wives had a right to leave each other whenever they
were tired--or had seen some one else--”

Westall sat motionless, his eyes fixed on a pattern of the carpet.

“You HAVE ceased to take this view, then?” he said as she broke
off. “You no longer believe that husbands and wives ARE justified in
separating--under such conditions?”

“Under such conditions?” she stammered. “Yes--I still believe that--but
how can we judge for others? What can we know of the circumstances--?”

He interrupted her. “I thought it was a fundamental article of our
creed that the special circumstances produced by marriage were not to
interfere with the full assertion of individual liberty.” He paused a
moment. “I thought that was your reason for leaving Arment.”

She flushed to the forehead. It was not like him to give a personal turn
to the argument.

“It was my reason,” she said simply.

“Well, then--why do you refuse to recognize its validity now?”

“I don’t--I don’t--I only say that one can’t judge for others.”

He made an impatient movement. “This is mere hair-splitting. What you
mean is that, the doctrine having served your purpose when you needed
it, you now repudiate it.”

“Well,” she exclaimed, flushing again, “what if I do? What does it
matter to us?”

Westall rose from his chair. He was excessively pale, and stood before
his wife with something of the formality of a stranger.

“It matters to me,” he said in a low voice, “because I do NOT repudiate
it.”

“Well--?”

“And because I had intended to invoke it as”--

He paused and drew his breath deeply. She sat silent, almost deafened by
her heart-beats.

--“as a complete justification of the course I am about to take.”

Julia remained motionless. “What course is that?” she asked.

He cleared his throat. “I mean to claim the fulfilment of your promise.”

For an instant the room wavered and darkened; then she recovered a
torturing acuteness of vision. Every detail of her surroundings pressed
upon her: the tick of the clock, the slant of sunlight on the wall, the
hardness of the chair-arms that she grasped, were a separate wound to
each sense.

“My promise--” she faltered.

“Your part of our mutual agreement to set each other free if one or the
other should wish to be released.”

She was silent again. He waited a moment, shifting his position
nervously; then he said, with a touch of irritability: “You acknowledge
the agreement?”

The question went through her like a shock. She lifted her head to it
proudly. “I acknowledge the agreement,” she said.

“And--you don’t mean to repudiate it?”

A log on the hearth fell forward, and mechanically he advanced and
pushed it back.

“No,” she answered slowly, “I don’t mean to repudiate it.”

There was a pause. He remained near the hearth, his elbow resting on the
mantel-shelf. Close to his hand stood a little cup of jade that he had
given her on one of their wedding anniversaries. She wondered vaguely if
he noticed it.

“You intend to leave me, then?” she said at length.

His gesture seemed to deprecate the crudeness of the allusion.

“To marry some one else?”

Again his eye and hand protested. She rose and stood before him.

“Why should you be afraid to tell me? Is it Una Van Sideren?”

He was silent.

“I wish you good luck,” she said.



III


She looked up, finding herself alone. She did not remember when or how
he had left the room, or how long afterward she had sat there. The fire
still smouldered on the hearth, but the slant of sunlight had left the
wall.

Her first conscious thought was that she had not broken her word, that
she had fulfilled the very letter of their bargain. There had been no
crying out, no vain appeal to the past, no attempt at temporizing or
evasion. She had marched straight up to the guns.

Now that it was over, she sickened to find herself alive. She looked
about her, trying to recover her hold on reality. Her identity seemed to
be slipping from her, as it disappears in a physical swoon. “This is my
room--this is my house,” she heard herself saying. Her room? Her house?
She could almost hear the walls laugh back at her.

She stood up, a dull ache in every bone. The silence of the room
frightened her. She remembered, now, having heard the front door close
a long time ago: the sound suddenly re-echoed through her brain. Her
husband must have left the house, then--her HUSBAND? She no longer knew
in what terms to think: the simplest phrases had a poisoned edge. She
sank back into her chair, overcome by a strange weakness. The clock
struck ten--it was only ten o’clock! Suddenly she remembered that
she had not ordered dinner... or were they dining out that evening?
DINNER--DINING OUT--the old meaningless phraseology pursued her! She
must try to think of herself as she would think of some one else, a some
one dissociated from all the familiar routine of the past, whose wants
and habits must gradually be learned, as one might spy out the ways of a
strange animal...

The clock struck another hour--eleven. She stood up again and walked
to the door: she thought she would go up stairs to her room. HER room?
Again the word derided her. She opened the door, crossed the narrow
hall, and walked up the stairs. As she passed, she noticed Westall’s
sticks and umbrellas: a pair of his gloves lay on the hall table. The
same stair-carpet mounted between the same walls; the same old French
print, in its narrow black frame, faced her on the landing. This visual
continuity was intolerable. Within, a gaping chasm; without, the same
untroubled and familiar surface. She must get away from it before she
could attempt to think. But, once in her room, she sat down on the
lounge, a stupor creeping over her...

Gradually her vision cleared. A great deal had happened in the
interval--a wild marching and countermarching of emotions, arguments,
ideas--a fury of insurgent impulses that fell back spent upon
themselves. She had tried, at first, to rally, to organize these chaotic
forces. There must be help somewhere, if only she could master the inner
tumult. Life could not be broken off short like this, for a whim, a
fancy; the law itself would side with her, would defend her. The law?
What claim had she upon it? She was the prisoner of her own choice: she
had been her own legislator, and she was the predestined victim of
the code she had devised. But this was grotesque, intolerable--a mad
mistake, for which she could not be held accountable! The law she had
despised was still there, might still be invoked... invoked, but to what
end? Could she ask it to chain Westall to her side? SHE had been
allowed to go free when she claimed her freedom--should she show less
magnanimity than she had exacted? Magnanimity? The word lashed her with
its irony--one does not strike an attitude when one is fighting for
life! She would threaten, grovel, cajole... she would yield anything to
keep her hold on happiness. Ah, but the difficulty lay deeper! The law
could not help her--her own apostasy could not help her. She was the
victim of the theories she renounced. It was as though some giant
machine of her own making had caught her up in its wheels and was
grinding her to atoms...

It was afternoon when she found herself out-of-doors. She walked with
an aimless haste, fearing to meet familiar faces. The day was radiant,
metallic: one of those searching American days so calculated to
reveal the shortcomings of our street-cleaning and the excesses of our
architecture. The streets looked bare and hideous; everything stared
and glittered. She called a passing hansom, and gave Mrs. Van Sideren’s
address. She did not know what had led up to the act; but she found
herself suddenly resolved to speak, to cry out a warning. It was too
late to save herself--but the girl might still be told. The hansom
rattled up Fifth Avenue; she sat with her eyes fixed, avoiding
recognition. At the Van Siderens’ door she sprang out and rang the bell.
Action had cleared her brain, and she felt calm and self-possessed. She
knew now exactly what she meant to say.

The ladies were both out... the parlor-maid stood waiting for a card.
Julia, with a vague murmur, turned away from the door and lingered a
moment on the sidewalk. Then she remembered that she had not paid the
cab-driver. She drew a dollar from her purse and handed it to him.
He touched his hat and drove off, leaving her alone in the long empty
street. She wandered away westward, toward strange thoroughfares, where
she was not likely to meet acquaintances. The feeling of aimlessness had
returned. Once she found herself in the afternoon torrent of Broadway,
swept past tawdry shops and flaming theatrical posters, with a
succession of meaningless faces gliding by in the opposite direction...

A feeling of faintness reminded her that she had not eaten since
morning. She turned into a side street of shabby houses, with rows of
ash-barrels behind bent area railings. In a basement window she saw the
sign LADIES’ RESTAURANT: a pie and a dish of doughnuts lay against the
dusty pane like petrified food in an ethnological museum. She entered,
and a young woman with a weak mouth and a brazen eye cleared a table for
her near the window. The table was covered with a red and white cotton
cloth and adorned with a bunch of celery in a thick tumbler and a
salt-cellar full of grayish lumpy salt. Julia ordered tea, and sat a
long time waiting for it. She was glad to be away from the noise and
confusion of the streets. The low-ceilinged room was empty, and two or
three waitresses with thin pert faces lounged in the background staring
at her and whispering together. At last the tea was brought in a
discolored metal teapot. Julia poured a cup and drank it hastily. It was
black and bitter, but it flowed through her veins like an elixir. She
was almost dizzy with exhilaration. Oh, how tired, how unutterably tired
she had been!

She drank a second cup, blacker and bitterer, and now her mind was once
more working clearly. She felt as vigorous, as decisive, as when she had
stood on the Van Siderens’ door-step--but the wish to return there had
subsided. She saw now the futility of such an attempt--the humiliation
to which it might have exposed her... The pity of it was that she did
not know what to do next. The short winter day was fading, and she
realized that she could not remain much longer in the restaurant without
attracting notice. She paid for her tea and went out into the street.
The lamps were alight, and here and there a basement shop cast an
oblong of gas-light across the fissured pavement. In the dusk there was
something sinister about the aspect of the street, and she hastened back
toward Fifth Avenue. She was not used to being out alone at that hour.

At the corner of Fifth Avenue she paused and stood watching the stream
of carriages. At last a policeman caught sight of her and signed to her
that he would take her across. She had not meant to cross the street,
but she obeyed automatically, and presently found herself on the
farther corner. There she paused again for a moment; but she fancied the
policeman was watching her, and this sent her hastening down the nearest
side street... After that she walked a long time, vaguely... Night had
fallen, and now and then, through the windows of a passing carriage, she
caught the expanse of an evening waistcoat or the shimmer of an opera
cloak...

Suddenly she found herself in a familiar street. She stood still a
moment, breathing quickly. She had turned the corner without noticing
whither it led; but now, a few yards ahead of her, she saw the house
in which she had once lived--her first husband’s house. The blinds were
drawn, and only a faint translucence marked the windows and the transom
above the door. As she stood there she heard a step behind her, and a
man walked by in the direction of the house. He walked slowly, with a
heavy middle-aged gait, his head sunk a little between the shoulders,
the red crease of his neck visible above the fur collar of his overcoat.
He crossed the street, went up the steps of the house, drew forth a
latch-key, and let himself in...

There was no one else in sight. Julia leaned for a long time against the
area-rail at the corner, her eyes fixed on the front of the house. The
feeling of physical weariness had returned, but the strong tea still
throbbed in her veins and lit her brain with an unnatural clearness.
Presently she heard another step draw near, and moving quickly away, she
too crossed the street and mounted the steps of the house. The impulse
which had carried her there prolonged itself in a quick pressure of the
electric bell--then she felt suddenly weak and tremulous, and grasped
the balustrade for support. The door opened and a young footman with
a fresh inexperienced face stood on the threshold. Julia knew in an
instant that he would admit her.

“I saw Mr. Arment going in just now,” she said. “Will you ask him to see
me for a moment?”

The footman hesitated. “I think Mr. Arment has gone up to dress for
dinner, madam.”

Julia advanced into the hall. “I am sure he will see me--I will not
detain him long,” she said. She spoke quietly, authoritatively, in the
tone which a good servant does not mistake. The footman had his hand on
the drawing-room door.

“I will tell him, madam. What name, please?”

Julia trembled: she had not thought of that. “Merely say a lady,” she
returned carelessly.

The footman wavered and she fancied herself lost; but at that instant
the door opened from within and John Arment stepped into the hall. He
drew back sharply as he saw her, his florid face turning sallow with
the shock; then the blood poured back to it, swelling the veins on his
temples and reddening the lobes of his thick ears.

It was long since Julia had seen him, and she was startled at the change
in his appearance. He had thickened, coarsened, settled down into
the enclosing flesh. But she noted this insensibly: her one conscious
thought was that, now she was face to face with him, she must not let
him escape till he had heard her. Every pulse in her body throbbed with
the urgency of her message.

She went up to him as he drew back. “I must speak to you,” she said.

Arment hesitated, red and stammering. Julia glanced at the footman, and
her look acted as a warning. The instinctive shrinking from a “scene”
 predominated over every other impulse, and Arment said slowly: “Will you
come this way?”

He followed her into the drawing-room and closed the door. Julia, as she
advanced, was vaguely aware that the room at least was unchanged: time
had not mitigated its horrors. The contadina still lurched from the
chimney-breast, and the Greek slave obstructed the threshold of the
inner room. The place was alive with memories: they started out from
every fold of the yellow satin curtains and glided between the angles of
the rosewood furniture. But while some subordinate agency was carrying
these impressions to her brain, her whole conscious effort was centred
in the act of dominating Arment’s will. The fear that he would refuse
to hear her mounted like fever to her brain. She felt her purpose melt
before it, words and arguments running into each other in the heat of
her longing. For a moment her voice failed her, and she imagined herself
thrust out before she could speak; but as she was struggling for a word,
Arment pushed a chair forward, and said quietly: “You are not well.”

The sound of his voice steadied her. It was neither kind nor unkind--a
voice that suspended judgment, rather, awaiting unforeseen developments.
She supported herself against the back of the chair and drew a deep
breath. “Shall I send for something?” he continued, with a cold
embarrassed politeness.

Julia raised an entreating hand. “No--no--thank you. I am quite well.”

He paused midway toward the bell and turned on her. “Then may I ask--?”

“Yes,” she interrupted him. “I came here because I wanted to see you.
There is something I must tell you.”

Arment continued to scrutinize her. “I am surprised at that,” he said.
“I should have supposed that any communication you may wish to make
could have been made through our lawyers.”

“Our lawyers!” She burst into a little laugh. “I don’t think they could
help me--this time.”

Arment’s face took on a barricaded look. “If there is any question of
help--of course--”

It struck her, whimsically, that she had seen that look when some shabby
devil called with a subscription-book. Perhaps he thought she wanted him
to put his name down for so much in sympathy--or even in money...
The thought made her laugh again. She saw his look change slowly to
perplexity. All his facial changes were slow, and she remembered,
suddenly, how it had once diverted her to shift that lumbering scenery
with a word. For the first time it struck her that she had been cruel.
“There IS a question of help,” she said in a softer key: “you can help
me; but only by listening... I want to tell you something...”

Arment’s resistance was not yielding. “Would it not be easier
to--write?” he suggested.

She shook her head. “There is no time to write... and it won’t take
long.” She raised her head and their eyes met. “My husband has left me,”
 she said.

“Westall--?” he stammered, reddening again.

“Yes. This morning. Just as I left you. Because he was tired of me.”

The words, uttered scarcely above a whisper, seemed to dilate to the
limit of the room. Arment looked toward the door; then his embarrassed
glance returned to Julia.

“I am very sorry,” he said awkwardly.

“Thank you,” she murmured.

“But I don’t see--”

“No--but you will--in a moment. Won’t you listen to me? Please!”
 Instinctively she had shifted her position putting herself between
him and the door. “It happened this morning,” she went on in short
breathless phrases. “I never suspected anything--I thought we
were--perfectly happy... Suddenly he told me he was tired of me... there
is a girl he likes better... He has gone to her...” As she spoke, the
lurking anguish rose upon her, possessing her once more to the exclusion
of every other emotion. Her eyes ached, her throat swelled with it, and
two painful tears burnt a way down her face.

Arment’s constraint was increasing visibly. “This--this is very
unfortunate,” he began. “But I should say the law--”

“The law?” she echoed ironically. “When he asks for his freedom?”

“You are not obliged to give it.”

“You were not obliged to give me mine--but you did.”

He made a protesting gesture.

“You saw that the law couldn’t help you--didn’t you?” she went on.
“That is what I see now. The law represents material rights--it can’t go
beyond. If we don’t recognize an inner law... the obligation that love
creates... being loved as well as loving... there is nothing to
prevent our spreading ruin unhindered... is there?” She raised her head
plaintively, with the look of a bewildered child. “That is what I see
now... what I wanted to tell you. He leaves me because he’s tired... but
I was not tired; and I don’t understand why he is. That’s the dreadful
part of it--the not understanding: I hadn’t realized what it meant.
But I’ve been thinking of it all day, and things have come back to
me--things I hadn’t noticed... when you and I...” She moved closer to
him, and fixed her eyes on his with the gaze that tries to reach beyond
words. “I see now that YOU didn’t understand--did you?”

Their eyes met in a sudden shock of comprehension: a veil seemed to be
lifted between them. Arment’s lip trembled.

“No,” he said, “I didn’t understand.”

She gave a little cry, almost of triumph. “I knew it! I knew it! You
wondered--you tried to tell me--but no words came... You saw your life
falling in ruins... the world slipping from you... and you couldn’t
speak or move!”

She sank down on the chair against which she had been leaning. “Now I
know--now I know,” she repeated.

“I am very sorry for you,” she heard Arment stammer.

She looked up quickly. “That’s not what I came for. I don’t want you to
be sorry. I came to ask you to forgive me... for not understanding that
YOU didn’t understand... That’s all I wanted to say.” She rose with a
vague sense that the end had come, and put out a groping hand toward the
door.

Arment stood motionless. She turned to him with a faint smile.

“You forgive me?”

“There is nothing to forgive--”

“Then will you shake hands for good-by?” She felt his hand in hers: it
was nerveless, reluctant.

“Good-by,” she repeated. “I understand now.”

She opened the door and passed out into the hall. As she did so, Arment
took an impulsive step forward; but just then the footman, who was
evidently alive to his obligations, advanced from the background to let
her out. She heard Arment fall back. The footman threw open the door,
and she found herself outside in the darkness.

The End of The Reckoning



VERSE



BOTTICELLI’S MADONNA IN THE LOUVRE.


     WHAT strange presentiment, O Mother, lies
     On thy waste brow and sadly-folded lips,
     Forefeeling the Light’s terrible eclipse
     On Calvary, as if love made thee wise,
     And thou couldst read in those dear infant eyes
     The sorrow that beneath their smiling sleeps,
     And guess what bitter tears a mother weeps
     When the cross darkens her unclouded skies?

     Sad Lady, if some mother, passing thee,
     Should feel a throb of thy foreboding pain,
     And think--“My child at home clings so to me,
     With the same smile... and yet in vain, in vain,
     Since even this Jesus died on Calvary”--
     Say to her then: “He also rose again.”



THE TOMB OF ILARIA GIUNIGI.


     ILARIA, thou that wert so fair and dear
     That death would fain disown thee, grief made wise
     With prophecy thy husband’s widowed eyes
     And bade him call the master’s art to rear
     Thy perfect image on the sculptured bier,
     With dreaming lids, hands laid in peaceful guise
     Beneath the breast that seems to fall and rise,
     And lips that at love’s call should answer, “Here!”

     First-born of the Renascence, when thy soul
     Cast the sweet robing of the flesh aside,
     Into these lovelier marble limbs it stole,
     Regenerate in art’s sunrise clear and wide
     As saints who, having kept faith’s raiment whole,
     Change it above for garments glorified.



THE SONNET.

     PURE form, that like some chalice of old time
        Contain’st the liquid of the poet’s thought
        Within thy curving hollow, gem-enwrought
        With interwoven traceries of rhyme,
     While o’er thy brim the bubbling fancies climb,
        What thing am I, that undismayed have sought
        To pour my verse with trembling hand untaught
        Into a shape so small yet so sublime?
     Because perfection haunts the hearts of men,
        Because thy sacred chalice gathered up
        The wine of Petrarch, Shakspere, Shelley--then
     Receive these tears of failure as they drop
        (Sole vintage of my life), since I am fain
        To pour them in a consecrated cup.



TWO BACKGROUNDS.


     I. LA VIERGE AU DONATEUR.


     HERE  by the ample river’s argent sweep,
     Bosomed in tilth and vintage to her walls,
     A tower-crowned Cybele in armored sleep
     The city lies, fat plenty in her halls,
     With calm, parochial spires that hold in fee
     The friendly gables clustered at their base,
     And, equipoised o’er tower and market-place,
     The Gothic minster’s winged immensity;
     And in that narrow burgh, with equal mood,
     Two placid hearts, to all life’s good resigned,
     Might, from the altar to the lych-gate, find
     Long years of peace and dreamless plenitude.


     II. MONA LISA.


     Yon strange blue city crowns a scarped steep
     No mortal foot hath bloodlessly essayed;
     Dreams and illusions beacon from its keep,
     But at the gate an Angel bares his blade;
     And tales are told of those who thought to gain
     At dawn its ramparts; but when evening fell
     Far off they saw each fading pinnacle
     Lit with wild lightnings from the heaven of pain;
     Yet there two souls, whom life’s perversities
     Had mocked with want in plenty, tears in mirth,
     Might meet in dreams, ungarmented of earth,
     And drain Joy’s awful chalice to the lees.



EXPERIENCE.


     I.

     LIKE Crusoe with the bootless gold we stand
     Upon the desert verge of death, and say:
     “What shall avail the woes of yesterday
     To buy to-morrow’s wisdom, in the land
     Whose currency is strange unto our hand?
     In life’s small market they have served to pay
     Some late-found rapture, could we but delay
     Till Time hath matched our means to our demand.”

     But otherwise Fate wills it, for, behold,
     Our gathered strength of individual pain,
     When Time’s long alchemy hath made it gold,
     Dies with us--hoarded all these years in vain,
     Since those that might be heir to it the mould
     Renew, and coin themselves new griefs again.


     II.

     O, Death, we come full-handed to thy gate,
     Rich with strange burden of the mingled years,
     Gains and renunciations, mirth and tears,
     And love’s oblivion, and remembering hate,
     Nor know we what compulsion laid such freight
     Upon our souls--and shall our hopes and fears
     Buy nothing of thee, Death?  Behold our wares,
     And sell us the one joy for which we wait.
     Had we lived longer, life had such for sale,
     With the last coin of sorrow purchased cheap,
     But now we stand before thy shadowy pale,
     And all our longings lie within thy keep--
     Death, can it be the years shall naught avail?

     “Not so,” Death answered, “they shall purchase sleep.”



CHARTRES.


     I.

     IMMENSE, august, like some Titanic bloom,
        The mighty choir unfolds its lithic core,
     Petalled with panes of azure, gules and or,
        Splendidly lambent in the Gothic gloom,
     And stamened with keen flamelets that illume
        The pale high-altar.  On the prayer-worn floor,
     By surging worshippers thick-thronged of yore,
        A few brown crones, familiars of the tomb,
     The stranded driftwood of Faith’s ebbing sea--
        For these alone the finials fret the skies,
     The topmost bosses shake their blossoms free,
        While from the triple portals, with grave eyes,
     Tranquil, and fixed upon eternity,
        The cloud of witnesses still testifies.


     II.

     The crimson panes like blood-drops stigmatize
        The western floor.  The aisles are mute and cold.
     A rigid fetich in her robe of gold
        The Virgin of the Pillar, with blank eyes,
     Enthroned beneath her votive canopies,
        Gathers a meagre remnant to her fold.
     The rest is solitude; the church, grown old,
        Stands stark and gray beneath the burning skies.
     Wellnigh again its mighty frame-work grows
        To be a part of nature’s self, withdrawn
     From hot humanity’s impatient woes;
        The floor is ridged like some rude mountain lawn,
     And in the east one giant window shows
        The roseate coldness of an Alp at dawn.



LIFE.


     LIFE, like a marble block, is given to all,
     A blank, inchoate mass of years and days,
     Whence one with ardent chisel swift essays
     Some shape of strength or symmetry to call;
     One shatters it in bits to mend a wall;
     One in a craftier hand the chisel lays,
     And one, to wake the mirth in Lesbia’s gaze,
     Carves it apace in toys fantastical.

     But least is he who, with enchanted eyes
     Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be,
     Muses which god he shall immortalize
     In the proud Parian’s perpetuity,
     Till twilight warns him from the punctual skies
     That the night cometh wherein none shall see.



AN AUTUMN SUNSET


     I

     LEAGUERED in fire
     The wild black promontories of the coast extend
     Their savage silhouettes;
     The sun in universal carnage sets,
     And, halting higher,
     The motionless storm-clouds mass their sullen threats,
     Like an advancing mob in sword-points penned,
     That, balked, yet stands at bay.
     Mid-zenith hangs the fascinated day
     In wind-lustrated hollows crystalline,
     A wan valkyrie whose wide pinions shine
     Across the ensanguined ruins of the fray,
     And in her lifted hand swings high o’erhead,
     Above the waste of war,
     The silver torch-light of the evening star
     Wherewith to search the faces of the dead.


     II

     Lagooned in gold,
     Seem not those jetty promontories rather
     The outposts of some ancient land forlorn,
     Uncomforted of morn,
     Where old oblivions gather,
     The melancholy, unconsoling fold
     Of all things that go utterly to death
     And mix no more, no more
     With life’s perpetually awakening breath?
     Shall Time not ferry me to such a shore,
     Over such sailless seas,
     To walk with hope’s slain importunities
     In miserable marriage?  Nay, shall not
     All things be there forgot,
     Save the sea’s golden barrier and the black
     Closecrouching promontories?
     Dead to all shames, forgotten of all glories,
     Shall I not wander there, a shadow’s shade,
     A spectre self-destroyed,
     So purged of all remembrance and sucked back
     Into the primal void,
     That should we on that shore phantasmal meet
     I should not know the coming of your feet?





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