A FOUNTAIN SEALED
ANNE DOUGLAS SEDGWICK
(Mrs. Basil de Selincourt)
Author of 'The Little French Girl,' 'Franklin Winslow Kane,' 'Tante,' etc.
Three people were sitting in a small drawing-room, the windows of which looked out upon a wintry Boston street. It was a room rather empty and undecorated, but the idea of austerity was banished by a temperature so nearly tropical. There were rows of books on white shelves, a pale Donatello cast on the wall, and two fine bronze vases filled with roses on the mantelpiece. Over the roses hung a portrait in oils, very sleek and very accurate, of a commanding old gentleman in uniform, painted by a well-known German painter, and all about the room were photographs of young women, most of them young mothers, with smooth heads and earnest faces, holding babies. Outside, the snow was heaped high along the pavements and thickly ridged the roofs and lintels. After the blizzard the sun was shining and all the white glittered. The national colors, to a patriotic imagination, were pleasingly represented by the red, white and blue of the brick houses, the snow, and the vivid sky above.
The three people who talked, with many intimate pauses of silence, were all Bostonians, though of widely different types. The hostess, sitting in an easy chair and engaged with some sewing, was a girl of about twenty-six. She wore a brown skirt of an ugly cut and shade and a white silk shirt, adorned with a high linen collar, a brown tie and an old-fashioned gold watch-chain. Her forehead was too large, her nose too short; but her lips were full and pleasant and when she smiled she showed charming teeth. The black-rimmed glasses she wore emphasized the clearness and candor of her eyes. Her thick, fair hair was firmly fastened in a group of knobs down the back of her head. There was an element of the grotesque in her appearance and in her careful, clumsy movements, yet, with it, a quality almost graceful, that suggested homely and wholesome analogies,—freshly-baked bread; fair, sweet linen; the safety and content of evening firesides. This was Mary Colton.
The girl who sat near the window, her furs thrown back from her shoulders, a huge muff dangling from her hand, was a few years younger and exceedingly pretty. Her skin was unusually white, her hair unusually black, her velvety eyes unusually large and dark. In. her attitude, lounging, graceful, indifferent, in her delicate face, the straight, sulky brows, the coldly closed lips, the coldly observant eyes, a sort of permanent discontent was expressed, as though she could find, neither in herself nor in the world, any adequate satisfaction. This was Rose Packer.
The other guest, sitting sidewise on a stiff chair, his hand hanging over the back, his long legs crossed, was a young man, graceful, lean and shabby. He was clean-shaven, with brown skin and golden hair, an unruly lock lying athwart his forehead. His face, intent, alert, was veiled in an indolent nonchalance. He looked earnest, yet capricious, staunch, yet sensitive, and one felt that, conscious of these weaknesses, he tried to master or to hide them.
These three had known one another since childhood. Jack's family was old and rich; Mary's old and poor; Rose Packer's new and of fantastic wealth. Rose was a young woman of fashion and her whole aspect seemed to repudiate any closeness of tie between herself and Mary, who passed her time in caring for General Colton, her invalid father, attending committees, and, as a diversion, going to "sewing-circles" and symphony concerts; but she was fonder of Mary than of any one else in the world. Rose, who had, as it were, been brought up all over the world, divided her time now between two continents and quaintly diversified her dancing, hunting, yachting existence by the arduous study of biology. Jack, in appearance more ambiguous than either, looked neither useful nor ornamental; but, in point of fact, he was a much occupied person. He painted very seriously, was something of a scholar and devoted much of his time and most of his large fortune to intricate benevolences. His shabby clothes were assumed, like the air of indolence; his wealth irked him and, full of a democratic transcendentalism, he longed to efface all the signs that separated him from the average toiler. While Rose was quite ignorant of her own country west of the Atlantic seaboard, Jack had wandered North, South, West. As for Mary, she had hardly left Boston in her life, except to go to the Massachusetts coast in summer and to pay a rare visit now and then to New York. It was of such a visit that she had been talking to them and of the friend who, since her own return home only a few days before, had suffered a sudden bereavement in the death of her father. Jack Pennington, also a near friend of Imogen Upton's, had just come from New York, where he had been with her during the mournful ceremonies of death, and Mary Colton, after a little pause, had said, "I suppose she was very wonderful through it all."
"She bore up very well," said Jack Pennington. "There would never be anything selfish in her grief."
"Never. And when one thinks what a grief it is. She is wonderful," said Mary.
"You think every one wonderful, Molly," Rose Packer remarked, not at all aggressively, but with her air of quiet ill-temper.
"Mary's enthusiasm has hit the mark this time," said Pennington, casting a glance more scrutinizing than severe upon the girl.
"I really can't see it. Of course Imogen Upton is pretty—remarkably pretty—though I've always thought her nose too small; and she is certainly clever; but why should she be called wonderful?"
"I think it is her goodness, Rose," said Mary, with an air of gentle willingness to explain. "It's her radiant goodness. I know that Imogen has mastered philosophies, literatures, sciences—in so far as a young and very busy girl can master them, and that very wise men are glad to talk to her; but it's not of that one thinks—nor of her great beauty, either. Both seem taken up, absorbed in that selflessness, that loving-kindness, that's like a higher kind of cleverness—almost like a genius."
"She's not nearly so good as you are, Molly. And after all, what does she do, anyway?"
Mary kept her look of leniency, as if over the half-playful naughtinesses of a child. "She organizes and supports all sorts of charities, all sorts of reforms; she is the wisest, sweetest of hostesses; she takes care of her brother; she took care of her father;—she takes care of anybody who is in need or unhappy."
"Was Mr. Upton so unhappy? He certainly looked gloomy;—I hardly knew him; Eddy, however, I do know, very well; he isn't in the least unhappy. He doesn't need help."
"I think we all need help, dear. As for Mr. Upton,—you know," Mary spoke very gravely now, "you know about Mrs. Upton."
"Of course I do, and what's better, I know her herself a little. Elle est charmeuse."
"I have never seen her," said Mary, "but I don't understand how you can call a frivolous and heartless woman, who practically deserted her husband and children, charmeuse;—but perhaps that is all that one can call her."
"I like frivolous people," said Rose, "and most women would have deserted Mr. Upton, if what I've heard of him was true."
"What have you heard of him?"
"That he was a bombastic prig."
At this Mary's pale cheek colored. "Try to remember, Rose, that he died only a week ago."
"Oh, he may be different now, of course."
"I can't bear to hear you speak so, Rose. I did know him. I saw a great deal of him during this last year. He was a very big person indeed."
"Of course I'm a pig to talk like this, if you really liked him, Molly."
But Mary was not to be turned aside by such ambiguous apology. "You see, you don't know, Rose. The pleasure-seeking, worldly people among whom you live could hardly understand a man like Mr. Upton. Simply what he did for civic reform,—worked himself to death over it. And his books on ethics, politics. It isn't a question of my liking him. I don't know that I ever thought of my feeling for him in those terms. It was reverence, rather, and gratitude for his being what he was."
"Well, dear, I do remember hearing men, and not worldly men, as you call them, either, say that his work for civic reform amounted to very little and that his books were thin and unoriginal. As for that community place he founded at, where was it?—Clackville? He meddled that out of life."
"He may have been Utopian, he may have been in some ways ineffectual; but he was a good man, a wonderful, yes, Rose, a wonderful man,"
"And do you think that Molly has hit the mark in this, too?" Rose asked, turning her eyes on Pennington. He had been listening with an air of light inattention and now he answered tersely, as if conquering some inner reluctance by over-emphasis, "Couldn't abide him."
Rose laughed out, though with some surprise in her triumph; and Mary, redder than before, rejoined in a low voice, "I didn't expect you, Jack, to let personal tastes interfere with fair judgment."
"Oh, I'm not judging him," said Jack.
"But do you feel with me," said Rose, "that it's no wonder that Mrs. Upton left him."
"Not in the least," Pennington replied, glad, evidently, to make clear his disagreement. "I don't know of any reason that Mrs. Upton had for deserting not only her husband but her children."
"But have they been left? Isn't it merely that they prefer to stay?"
"Prefer to live in their own country? among their own people? Certainly."
"But she spends part of every year with them. There was never any open breach."
"Everybody knew that she would not live with her husband and everybody knew why," Mary said. "It has nearly broken Imogen's heart. She left him because he wouldn't lead the kind of life she wanted to lead—the kind of life she leads in England—one of mere pleasure and self-indulgent ease. She hasn't the faintest conception of duty or of patriotism. She couldn't help her husband in any way, and she wouldn't let him help her. All she cares for is fashion, admiration and pretty clothes."
"Stuff and nonsense, my dear! She doesn't think one bit more about her clothes than Imogen does. It requires more thought to look like a saint in velvet than to go to the best dressmaker and order a trousseau. I wonder how long it took Imogen to find out that way of doing her hair."
"Rose!—I must beg of you—I love her."
"But I'm saying nothing against her!"
"When I think of what she is suffering now, what you say sounds cruelly irreverent. Jack, I know, feels as I do."
"Yes, he does," said the young man. He got up now and stood, very tall, in the middle of the room looking down at Mary. "I must be off. I'll bring you those books to-morrow afternoon—though I don't see much good in your reading d'Annunzio."
"Why, if you do, Jack?" said Mary, with some wonder. And the degree of intimate equality in the relations of these young people may be gaged by the fact that he appeared to receive her rejoinder as conclusive.
"Well, he's interesting, of course, and if one wants to understand modern decadence in an all-round way—"
"I want to understand everything," said Mary. "And please bring your best Italian dictionary with them."
"Before you go, Jack," said Rose, "pray shut the register. It's quite stifling in here."
"Far too hot," said Jack, showing his impartiality of spirit by his seconding of Rose's complaint, for it was evident she had much displeased him. "I've often told you, Mary, how bad it was for you. That's why you are so pale."
"I'm so sorry. Have you been feeling it much? Leave the door into the hall open."
"And do cast one glance, if only of disapprobation, upon me, Jack," Rose pleaded in mock distress.
"You are a very amusing child, Rose, sometimes," was Pennington's only answer.
"He's evidently very cross with me," said Rose, when he was gone. "While you are not—you who have every right to be, angelic Molly."
"I hope you didn't realize, Rose, how you were hurting him."
"I?" Rose opened wide eyes. "How, pray?"
"Don't you know that he is devoted to Imogen Upton?"
"Why, who isn't devoted to her, except wicked me?"
"Devoted in particular—in love with her, I think," said Mary.
Rose's face took on a more acutely discontented look, after the pause in which she seemed, though unrepentantly, to acquiesce in a conviction of ineptitude. "Really in love with her?"
"I think so; I hope so."
"How foolish of him," said Rose. Mary, at this, rested a gaze so long and so reproachful upon her that the discontent gave way to an affectionate compunction. "The truth is, Mary, that I'm jealous; I'm petty; I'm horrid. I don't like sharing you. I like you to like me most, and not to find other people wonderful."
"If you own that you are naughty, Rose, dear, and that you try hard to be naughtier than you really are, I can't be angry with you. But it does hurt me, for your own sake, to see you—really malicious, dear."
"Oh, dear! Am I that?"
"Really you are."
"Because I called Imogen Upton a saint in velvet?—and like her mother so much, much more?"
"Yes, because of that—and all the rest. As for jealousy, one doesn't love people more because they are wonderful. One is glad of them and one longs to share them. It's one of my dearest hopes that you may come to care for Imogen as I do—and as Jack does."
Rose listened, her head bent forward, her eyes, ambiguous in their half-ironic, half-tender, meaning, on her friend; but she only said, "I shall remain in love with you, Mary." She didn't say again, though she was thinking it, that Jack was very foolish.
"Darling, darling Mother:
"I know too well what you have been feeling since the cable reached you; and first of all I want to help you to bear it by telling you at once that you could not have reached him in time. You must not reproach yourself for that.
"I am shattered by this long day. Father died early this morning, but I must hold what strength I have, firmly, for you, and tell you all that you will want to hear. He would have wished that; you know how he felt about a selfish yielding to grief.
"He seemed quite well until the beginning of this week—five days ago—but he was never strong; the long struggle that life must always mean to those who face life as he did, wore on him more and more; for others' sakes he often assumed a buoyancy of manner that, I am sure,—one feels these things by intuition of those one loves—often hid suffering and intense weariness. It was just a case of the sword wearing out the scabbard. A case of, 'Yes, uphill to the very end.' I know that you did not guess how fragile the scabbard had become, and you must not reproach yourself, darling, for that either. We are hardly masters of the intuitions that warn us of these things. Death teaches us so much, and, beside him, looking at his quiet face, so wonderful in its peace and triumph, I have learned many lessons. He has seemed to teach me, in his silence, the gentler, deeper sympathy with temperament. You couldn't help it, darling, I seem to understand that more and more. You weren't at the place, so to speak, where he could help you. Oh, I want to be so tender with you, my mother,—and to help you to wise, strong tenderness toward yourself.
"On Tuesday he worked, as usual, all morning; he had thrown himself heart and soul, as you know, into our great fight with civic corruption—what a worker he was, what a fighter! He was so wonderful at lunch, I remember. I had my dear little Mary Colton with me and he held us both spellbound, talking, with all his enthusiasm and ardor, of politics, art, life and the living of life. Mary said, when she left me that day, that to know him had been one of the greatest things in her experience. In the afternoon he went to a committee meeting at the Citizens' Union. It was bitterly cold and though I begged him to be selfish for once and take a cab, he wouldn't—you remember his Spartan contempt of costly comforts—and I can see him now, going down the steps, smiling, shaking his head, waving his hand, and saying with that half-sad, half-quizzical, smile of his, 'Plenty of people who need bread a good deal more than I need cabs, little daughter.' So, in the icy wind, he walked to the cable-car, with its over-heated atmosphere. He got back late, only in time to dress for dinner. Several interesting men came and we had a splendid evening, really wonderful talk, constructive talk, vitalizing, inspiring, of the world and the work to be done for it. I noticed that father seemed flushed, but thought it merely the interest of the discussion. He did not come down to breakfast next morning and when I went to him I found him very feverish. He confessed then that he had caught a bad chill the day before. I sent for the doctor at once, and for a little while had no anxiety. But the fever became higher and higher and that night the doctor said that it was pneumonia.
"Dearest, dearest mother, these last days are still too much with me for me to feel able to make you see them clearly. It is all a tragic confusion in my mind. Everything that could be done was done to save him. He had nurses and consultations—all the aids of science and love. I wired for Eddy at once, and dear Jack Pennington was with me, too, so helpful with his deep sympathy and friendship. I needed help, mother, for it was like having my heart torn from me to see him go. He was very calm and brave, though I am sure he knew, and once, when I sat beside him, just put out his hand to mine and said: 'Don't grieve overmuch, little daughter; I trust you to turn all your sorrow to noble uses.' He spoke only once of you, dear mother, but then it was to say: 'Tell her—I forgive. Tell her not to reproach herself.' And then—it was the saddest, sweetest summing up, and it will comfort you—'She was like a child.' At the end he simply went—sleeping, unconscious. Oh, mother, mother!—forgive these tears, I am weak.... He lies now, up-stairs, looking so beautiful—like that boyish portrait, you remember, with the uplifted, solemn gaze—only deeper, more peaceful and without the ardor....
"Darling mother, don't bother a bit about me. Eddy and Jack will help me in everything, all our friends are wonderful to us.—Day after to-morrow we are to carry him to his rest.—After that, when I feel a little stronger, I will write again. Eddy goes to you directly after the funeral. If you need me, cable for me at once. I have many ties and many claims here, but I will leave them all to spend the winter with you, if you need me. For you may not feel that you care to come to us, and perhaps it will be easier for you to bear it over there, where you have so many friends and have made your life. So if I can be of any help, any comfort, don't hesitate, mother dear.
"And—oh, I want to say it so lovingly, my arms around you—don't fear that I have any hardness in my heart toward you. I loved him—with all my soul—as you know; but if, sometimes, seeing his patient pain, I have judged you, perhaps, with youth's over-severity,—all that is gone now. I only feel our human weakness, our human need, our human sorrow. Remember, darling, that our very faults, our very mistakes, are the things that may help us to grow higher. Don't sink into a useless self-reproach. 'Turn your sorrow to noble uses.' Use the past to light you to the future. Build on the ruins, dear one. You have Eddy and me to live for, and we love you. God bless you, my darling mother.
This letter, written in a large, graceful and very legible hand, was being read for the third time by the bereaved wife as she sat in the drawing-room of a small house in Surrey on a cold November evening. The room was one of the most finished comfort, comfort its main intention, but so thoroughly attained that beauty had resulted as if unconsciously. The tea-table, the fire, the wide windows, their chintz curtains now drawn, were the points around which the room had so delightfully arranged itself. It was a room a trifle overcrowded, but one wouldn't have wanted anything taken away, the graceful confusion, on a background of almost austere order, gave the happiest sense of adaptability to a variety of human needs and whims. Mrs. Upton had finished her own tea, but the flame still burned in waiting under the silver urn; books and reviews lay in reach of a lazy hand; lamps, candle-light and flowers made a soft radiance; a small griffon dozed before the fire. The decoration of the room consisted mainly in French engravings from Watteau and Chardin, in one or two fine black lacquer cabinets and in a number of jars and vases of Chinese porcelain, some standing on the floor and some on shelves, the neutral-tinted walls a background to their bright, delicate colors.
Mrs. Upton was an appropriate center to so much ease and beauty. In deep black though she was, her still girlish figure stretched out in a low chair, her knees crossed, one foot held to the fire, she did not seem to express woe or the poignancy of regret. The delicate appointments of her dress, the freshness of her skin, her eyes, bright and unfatigued, suggested nothing less than a widow plunged in remorseful grief. Her eyes, indeed, were thoughtful, her lips, as she read her daughter's communication, grave, but there was much discrepancy between her own aspect and the letter's tone, and, letting it drop at last, she seemed herself aware of it, sighing, glancing about her at the Chinese porcelain, the tea-table, the dozing dog. She didn't look stricken, nor did she feel so. The first fact only vaguely crossed her mind; the latter stayed and her face became graver, sadder, in contemplating it. She contemplated it for a long time, going over a retrospect in which her dead husband's figure and her own were seen, steadily, sadly, but without severity for either.
Since the shock of the announcement, conveyed in a long, tender cable over a week ago, she had had no time, as it were, to cast up these accounts with the past. Her mind had known only a confused pain, a confused pity, for herself and for the man whom she once had loved. The death, so long ago, of that young love seemed more with her than her husband's death, which took on the visionary, picture aspect of any tragedy seen from a distance, not lived through. But now, in this long, firelit leisure, that was the final summing of it all. She was grave, she was sad; but she could feel no severity for herself, and, long ago, she had ceased to feel any for poor Everard. They had been greatly mistaken in fancying themselves made for each other, two creatures could hardly have been less so; but Everard had been a good man and she,—she was a harmless woman. Both of them had meant well. Of course Everard had always, and for everything, meant a great deal more than she, in the sense of an intentional shaping of courses. She had always owned that, had always given his intentions full credit; only, what he had meant had bored her—she could not find it in herself now to fix on any more self-exonerating term. After the first perplexed and painful years of adjustment to fundamental disappointment she had at last seen the facts clearly and not at all unkindly, and it seemed to her that, as far as her husband went, she had made the best of them. It was rather odious of her, no doubt, to think it now, but it seemed the truth, and, seen in its light, poor little Imogen's exhortations and consolations were misplaced. Once or twice in reading the letter she had felt an inclination to smile, an inclination that had swiftly passed into compunction and self-reproach.
Yes, there it was; she could find very little of self-reproach within her in regard to her husband; but in regard to Imogen her conscience was not easy, and as her thoughts passed to her, her face grew still sadder and still graver. She saw Imogen, in the long retrospect,—it was always Imogen, Eddy had never counted as a problem—first as a child whom she could take abroad with her for French, German, Italian educational experiences; then as a young girl, very determined to form her own character, and sure, with her father to second her assurance, that boarding-school was the proper place to form it. Eddy was also at school, and Mrs. Upton, with the alternative of flight or an unbroken tete-a-tete with her husband before her, chose the former. There was no breach, no crash; any such disturbances had taken place long before; she simply slid away, and her prolonged absences seemed symbols of fundamental and long recognized divisions. She came home for the children's holidays; built, indeed, the little house among the Vermont hills, so that she might, as it were, be her husband's hostess there. She hoped, through the ambiguous years, for Imogen's young-womanhood; looking forward to taking her place beside her when the time came for her first steps in the world. But here, again, Imogen's clear-cut choice interfered. Imogen considered girlish frivolities a foolish waste of time; she would take her place in the world when she was fully equipped for the encounter; she was not yet equipped to her liking and she declared herself resolved on a college course.
Imogen had been out of college for three years now, but the routine of Mrs. Upton's life was unchanged. The rut had been made too deep for her to climb out of it. It had become impossible to think of reentering her husband's home as a permanent part of it. Eddy was constantly with her in England in the intervals of his undergraduate life; but how urge upon Imogen more frequent meetings when her absence would leave the father desolate? The summers had come to be their only times of reunion and Mrs. Upton had more and more come to look forward to them with an inward tremor of uncertainty and discomfort. For, under everything, above everything, was the fact, and she felt herself now to be looking it hard in the face, that Imogen had always, obviously, emphatically, been fondest of her father. It had been from the child's earliest days, this more than fondness, this placid partizanship. In looking back it seemed to her that Imogen had always disapproved of her, had always shown her disapproval, gently, even tenderly, but with a sad firmness. Her liberation from her husband's standard was all very well; she cared nothing for Imogen's standard either, in so far as it was an echo, a reflection; only, for her daughter not to care for her, to disapprove of her, to be willing that she should go out of her life,—there was the rub; and the fact that she should be considering it over a tea-table in Surrey while Imogen was battling with all the somber accompaniments of grief in New York, challenged her not to deny some essential defect in her own maternity. She was an honest woman, and after her hour of thought she could not deny it, though she could not see clearly where it lay; but the recognition was but a step to the owning that she must try to right herself. And at this point,—she had drawn a deep breath over it, straightening herself in her chair,—her friends came in from their drive and put an end to her solitude.
For the first years of her semi-detached life Mrs. Upton had been as gay as a very decorous young grass-widow can be. Her whole existence, until her marriage, which had dropped, or lifted, her to graver levels, had been passed among elaborate social conditions, and wherever she might go she found the protection of a recognized background. She had multitudes of acquaintances and these surrounding nebula condensed, here and there, into the fixed stars of friendship. Not that such condensations were swift or frequent. Mrs. Upton was not easily intimate. Her very graces, her very kindnesses, her sympathy and sweetness, were, in a manner, outposts about an inner citadel and one might for years remain, hospitably entertained, yet kept at a distance. But the stars, when they did form, were very fixed. Of such were the two friends who now came in eager for tea, after their nipping drive: Mrs. Pakenham, English, mother of a large family, wife of a hard-worked M.P. and landowner; energetically interested in hunting, philanthropy, books and people; slender and vigorous, with a delicate, emaciated face, weather-beaten to a pale, crisp red, her eyes as blue as porcelain, her hair still gold, her smile of the kindest, and Mrs. Wake, American, rosy, rather stout, rather shabby, and extremely placid of mien. Mrs. Pakenham, after her drive, was beautifully tidy, furred as to shoulders and netted as to hair; Mrs. Wake was much disarranged and came in, smiling patiently, while she put back the disheveled locks from her brow. She was childless, a widow, very poor; eking out her insufficient income by novel-writing; unpopular novels that dealt, usually, with gloomy themes of monotonous and disappointed lives. She was, herself, anything but gloomy.
She gave her friend, now, swift, short glances, while, standing before her, her back to the fire, she put her hair behind her ears. She had known Valerie Upton from childhood, when they had both been the indulged daughters of wealthy homes, and through all the catastrophes and achievements of their lives they had kept in close touch with each other. Mrs. Wake's glances, now, were fond, but slightly quizzical, perhaps slightly critical. They took in her friend, her attitude, her beautifully "done" hair, her fresh, sweet face, so little faded, even her polished finger-nails, and they took in, very unobtrusively, the American letter on her lap. It was Mrs. Pakenham who spoke of the letter.
"You have heard, then, dear?"
"Yes, from Imogen."
Both had seen her stunned, undemonstrative pain in the first days of the bereavement; the cables had supplied all essential information. Her quiet, now, seemed to intimate that the letter contained no harrowing details.
"The poor child is well, I hope?"
"Yes, I think so; she doesn't speak much of herself; she is very brave."
Mrs. Pakenham, a friend of more recent date, had not known Mr. Upton, nor had she ever met Imogen.
"Eddy was with her, of course," said Mrs. Wake.
"Yes, and this young Mr. Pennington, who seems to have become a great friend. May Smith and Julia Halliwell, of course, must have helped her through it all. She says that people are very kind." Mrs. Upton spoke quietly. She did not offer to show the letter.
"Jack Pennington. Imogen met him when she went last year to Boston. You remember old Miss Pennington, his great-aunt, Valerie."
"Very well. But this Jack I've never met."
"He is, I hear, devoted to Imogen."
"So I infer."
"And the very nicest kind of young man, though over-serious."
"I inferred that, too."
"And now," said Mrs. Wake, "Eddy will be here on Saturday; but what of Imogen?"
"Imogen says that she will come over at once, if I want her."
"Far the best plan. She will live with you here—until she marries Mr. Pennington, or some other devotee," said Mrs. Pakenham comfortably.
Mrs. Upton looked up at her. "No, I shall go to her, until she marries Mr. Pennington or some other devotee."
There was after this a slight pause, and it was Mrs. Pakenham who broke it with undiminished cheerfulness. "Perhaps, on the whole, that will be best, for the present. Of course it's a pity to have to shut up your home, just as you are so nicely installed for the winter. But, you mustn't let her delay, my dear, in getting married. You can't wait over there indefinitely, you know."
"Ah, it's just that that I must do," said Mrs. Upton.
There was, again, silence at this, perhaps over a further sense of fitness, but in it Mrs. Pakenham's eyes met Mrs. Wake's in a long interchange. Mrs. Upton, in the event of Imogen "delaying," would not stay; that was what, plainly, it intimated.
"Of course," said Mrs. Pakenham, after some moments of this silent acquiescence and silent skepticism, "that will make it very evident why you didn't stay before."
"Not necessarily. Imogen has no one with her now; my preferences as to a home would naturally go down before such an obvious duty."
"So that you will simply take up all the threads, yours and hers?"
"I shall try to."
"You think she'll like that?" Mrs. Pakenham inquired.
"Like what?" Mrs. Upton rather quickly asked.
"That you should take up her threads. Isn't she very self-reliant? Hasn't her life, the odd situation, made her so?"
At this Mrs. Upton, her eyes on the fire, blushed; faintly, yet the deepening of color was evident, and Mrs. Pakenham, leaning impulsively forward, put her hand on hers, saying, "Dear Valerie, I don't mean that you're responsible!"
"But I am responsible." Mrs. Upton did not look at her friend, though her hand closed gently on hers.
"For nothing with which you can reproach yourself, which you can even regret, then. It's well, altogether well, that a girl should be self-reliant and have her own threads."
"Not well, though," said Mrs. Wake, folding the much-entangled veil she had removed, "that a daughter should get on so perfectly without her mother."
"Really, I don't know about that"—Mrs. Pakenham was eager in generous theories—"not well for us poor mothers, perhaps, who find it difficult to believe that we are such background creatures."
"Not well for the daughter," Mrs. Wake rejoined. "In this case I think that Imogen has been more harmed than Valerie."
"Harmed!" Mrs. Pakenham exclaimed, while Valerie Upton's eyes remained fixed on the fire. "How can she have been harmed? From all I hear of her she is the pink of perfection."
"She is a good girl."
"You mean that she's suffered?"
"No, I don't think that she has suffered."
Mrs. Wake was evidently determined to remain enigmatical; but Valerie Upton quietly drew aside her reserves. "That is the trouble, you think; she hasn't."
"That is a symptom of the trouble. She doesn't suffer; she judges. It's very harmful for a young girl to sit in judgment."
"But Valerie has seen her so much!" Mrs. Pakenham cried, a little shocked at the other's ruthlessness. "Three months of every year—almost."
"Three months when they played hostess to each other. It was really Valerie who was the guest in the house when Imogen and her father were there. The relation was never normal. Now that poor Everard is gone, the necessary artificiality can cease. Valerie can try her hand at being a mother, not a guest. It will do both her and Imogen good."
"That's just the conclusion I had come to. That's just how I had been seeing it." The fresh tea-pot was brought in at this juncture, and, as she spoke, Valerie roused herself to measure in the tea and pour on the boiling water. She showed them, thus, more fully, the grace, the freshness, the look of latent buoyancy that made her so young, that made her, even now, in her black dress and with her gravity, remind one of a flower, submerged, momentarily, in deep water, its color hardly blurred, its petals delicately crisp, its fragrance only needing air and sunlight to diffuse itself. For all the youthfulness, a quality of indolent magic was about her, a soft haze, as it were, woven of matured experience, of detachment from youth's self-absorption, of the observer's kindly, yet ironic, insight. Her figure was supple; her nut-brown hair, splendidly folded at the back of her head, was hardly touched with white; her quickly glancing, deliberately pausing, eyes were as clear, as pensive, as a child's; with almost a child's candor of surprise in the upturning of their lashes. A brunette duskiness in the rose of lips and cheeks, in the black brows, in the fruit-like softness of outline, was like a veil drawn across and dimming the fairness that paled to a pearly white at throat and temples. Her upper lip was ever so faintly shadowed with a brunette penciling of down, and three grains de beaute, like tiny patches of velvet, seemed applied with a pretty coquetry, one on her lip and two high on her cheek, where they emphasized and lent a touch of the Japanese to her smile. Even her physical aspect carried out the analogy of something vivid and veiled. She was clear as day, yet melting, merged, elusive, like the night; and in her glance, in her voice, was that mingled brightness and shadow. When she had given them their tea she left her friends, taking her toasted little dog, languid and yawning, under her arm, and, at a sharp yelp from this petted individual, his paw struck by the opening of the door, they heard her exclaiming in contrition over him, "Darling lamb! did his wicked mother hurt him!"
Mrs. Pakenham and Mrs. Wake sipped their tea for some time in silence, and it was Mrs. Pakenham who voiced at last the thought uppermost for both of them, "I wonder how Sir Basil will take it."
"Everard's death, you mean, or her going off?"
"It's obvious, I think, that if he doesn't follow her at once it will only be because he thinks that now his chance has come he will make it surer by waiting."
"It's rather odious of me to think about it at all, I suppose," Mrs. Pakenham mused, "but one can't help it, having seen it all; having seen more than either of them have, I'm quite sure, poor, lovely dears."
"No, one certainly can't help it," Mrs. Wake acquiesced. "Though I, perhaps, should have been too prudish to own to it just now—with poor Everard hardly in his grave. But that's the comfort of being with a frank, unscrupulous person like you; one gets it all out and need take no responsibility."
Mrs. Pakenham smiled over her friend's self-exposure and helped her to greater comfort with a still more crude, "It will be perfect, you know, if he does succeed. I suppose there's no doubt that he will."
"I don't know; I really don't know," Mrs. Wake mused.
"One knows well enough that she's tremendously fond of him,—it's just that that she has taken her stand on so beautifully, so gracefully."
"Yes, so beautifully and so gracefully that while one does know that, one can't know more—he least of all. He, I'm pretty sure, knows not a scrap more,"
"But, after all, now that she's free, that is enough."
"Really, my dear, I see no exception. He is a delightful creature, as sound, as strong, as true; and if he isn't very clever, Valerie is far too clever herself to mind that, far too clever not to care for how much more than clever he is."
"Oh, it's not that she doesn't care—"
"What is it, then, you carping, skeptical creature? It's all perfect. An uncongenial, tiresome husband—and she need have no self-reproach about him, either—finally out of the way; a reverential adorer at hand; youth still theirs; money; a delightful place—what more could one ask?"
"Ah," Mrs. Wake sighed a little, "I don't know. It's not, perhaps, that one would ask more, but less. It's too pretty, too easy, too a propos; so much so that it frightens me a little. Valerie has, you see, made a mess of it. She has, you see, spoiled her life, in that aspect of it. To mend it now, so completely, to start fresh at—how old is she?—at forty-six, it's just a little glib. Somehow one doesn't get off so easily as that. One can't start so happily at forty-six. Perhaps one is wiser not to try."
"Oh, nonsense, my dear! It's very American, that, you know, that picking of holes in excellent material, furbishing up your consciences, running after your motives as if you were ferrets in a rat-hole. If all you have to say against it is that it's too perfect, too happy,—why, then I keep to my own conviction. She'll be peacefully married and back among us in a year."
Mrs. Wake seemed to acquiesce, yet still to have her reserves. "There's Imogen, you know. Imogen has to be counted with."
"Counted with! Valerie, I hope, is clever enough to manage that young person. It would be a little too much if the daughter spoiled the end of her life as the husband spoiled the beginning."
"You are a bit hard on Everard, you know, from mere partizanship. Valerie was by no means a misused wife and his friends may well have thought him a misused husband; Imogen does, I'm sure. She has, perhaps, a right to feel that, as her father's representative, her mother owes her something in the way of atonement."
"It does vex me, my dear, to have you argue like that against your own convictions. It was all his fault,—one only has to know her to be sure of it. He made things unbearable for her."
"It was hardly his fault. He couldn't help being unbearable."
"Well—certainly she couldn't help it!" cried Mrs. Pakenham, laughing as if this settled it. She rose, putting her hands on the mantelpiece and warming her foot preparatory to her departure; and, summing up her cheerful convictions, she added: "I'm sorry for the poor man, of course; but, after all, he seems to have done very much what he liked with his life. And I can't help being very glad that he didn't succeed in quite spoiling hers. Good luck to Sir Basil is what I say."
Mrs. Upton was in the drawing-room next morning when Sir Basil Thremdon was announced. She had not seen this old friend and neighbor since the news of her bereavement had reached her, and now, rising to meet him, a consciousness of all that had changed for her, a consciousness, perhaps more keen, of all that had changed for him, showed in a deepening of her color.
Sir Basil was a tall, spare, stalwart man of fifty, the limpid innocence of his blue eyes contrasting with his lean, aquiline countenance. His hair and mustache were bleached by years to a light fawn-color and his skin tanned by a hardy life to a deep russet; and these tints of fawn and russet predominated throughout his garments with a pleasing harmony, so that in his rough tweeds and riding-gaiters he seemed as much a product of the nature outside as any bird or beast. The air of a delightfully civilized rurality was upon him, an air of landowning, law-dispensing, sporting efficiency; and if, in the fitness of his coloring, he made one think of a fox or a pheasant, in character he suggested nothing so much as one of the deep-rooted oaks of his own park. His very simplicity and uncomplexity of consciousness was as fresh, as wholesome, as genially encompassing, as full summer foliage. One rested in his shade.
He was an inarticulate person and his eyes, now, in their almost seared solicitude, spoke more of sympathy and tenderness than his halting tongue. He ended by repeating a good many times that he hoped she wasn't too frightfully pulled down. Mrs. Upton said that she was really feeling very well, though conscious that her sincerity might somewhat bewilder her friend in his conceptions of fitness, and they sat down side by side on a small sofa near the window.
We have said that for the first years of her freedom Mrs. Upton had been very gay. Of late years the claims on her resources from the family across the Atlantic had a good deal clipped her wings, and, though she made a round of spring and of autumn visits, she spent her time for the most part in her little Surrey house, engaged desultorily in gardening, study, and the entertainment of the friend or two always with her. She had not found it difficult to fold her wings and find contentment in the more nest-like environment. She had never been a woman to seek, accepting only, happily, whatever gifts life brought her; and it seemed as natural to her that things should be taken as that things should be given. But with the renouncement of more various outlooks this autumnal quietness, too, had brought its gift, discreet, delicate, a whispered sentence, as it were, that one could only listen to blindfolded, but that, once heard, gave one the knowledge of a hidden treasure. Sir Basil had been one of the reasons, the greatest reason, for her happiness in the Surrey nest. It was since coming there to live that she had grown to know him so well, with the slow-developing, deep-rooted intimacy of country life. The meadows and parks of Thremdon Hall encompassed all about the heath where Valerie Upton's cottage stood among its trees. They were Sir Basil's woods that ran down to her garden walls and Sir Basil's lanes that, at the back of the cottage, led up, through the heather, to the little village, a mile or so away. She had met Sir Basil before coming to live there, once or twice in London, and once or twice for week-ends at country-houses; but he was not a person whom one came really to know in drawing-room conditions; indeed, at the country-houses one hardly saw him except at breakfast and dinner; he was always hunting, golfing, or playing billiards, and in the interludes to these occupations one found him a trifle somnolent. It was after settling quite under his wing—and that she was under it she had discovered only after falling in love with the little white cottage and rushing eagerly into tenancy—that she had found out what a perfect neighbor he was; then come to feel him as a near friend; then, as those other friends had termed it, to care for him.
Valerie Upton, herself, had never called it by any other name, this feeling about Sir Basil; though it was inevitable, in a woman of her clearness of vision, that she should very soon recognize a more definite quality in Sir Basil's feeling about her. That she had always kept him from naming it more definitely was a feat for which, she well knew it, she could allow herself some credit. Not only had it needed, at some moments, dexterity; it had needed, at others, self-control. Self-control, however, was habitual to her. She had long since schooled herself into the acceptance of her stupidly maimed life, seeing herself in no pathetic similes at all, but, rather, as a foolish, unformed creature who, partly through blindness, partly through recklessness, had managed badly to cripple herself at the outset of life's walk, and who must make the best of a hop-skip-and-jump gait for the rest of it. She had felt, when she decided that she had a right to live away from Everard, that she had no right to ask more of fortune than that escape, that freedom. One paid for such freedom by limiting one's possibilities, and she had never hesitated to pay. Never to indulge herself in sentimental repinings or in sentimental musings, never to indulge others in sentimental relationships, had been the most obvious sort of payment; and if, in regard to Sir Basil, the payment had sometimes been difficult, the reward had been that sense of unblemished peace, that sense of composure and gaiety. It was enough to know, as a justification of her success, that she made him happy, not unhappy. It was enough to know that she could own freely to herself how much she cared for him, so much that, finding him funny, dear, and dull, she was far fonder of his funniness, of his dullness, than of other people's cleverness. He made her feel as if, on that maimed, that rather hot and jaded walk, she had come upon the great oak-tree and sat down to rest in its peaceful shadow, hearing it rustle happily over her and knowing that it was secure strength she leaned against, knowing that the happy rustle was for her, because she was there, peaceful and confident. So it had all been like a gift, a sad, sweet secret that one must not listen to except with blindfolded eyes. She had never allowed the gift to become a burden or a peril. And now, to-day, for the first time, it was as though she could raise the bandage and look at him.
She sat beside him in her widow's enfranchising blackness and she couldn't but seer at last, how deep was that upwelling, inevitable fondness. So deep that, gazing, as if with new and dazzled eyes, she wondered a little giddily over the long self-mastery; so deep that she almost felt it as a strange, unreal tribute to trivial circumstance that, without delay, she should not lean her head against the dear oak and tell it, at last, that its shelter was all that she asked of life. It was necessary to banish the vision by the firm turning to that other, that dark one, of her dead husband, her grief-stricken child, and, in looking, she knew that while it was so near she could not dwell on the possibilities of freedom. So she talked with her friend, able to smile, able, once or twice, to use toward him her more intimate tone of affectionate playfulness.
"But you are coming back—directly!" Sir Basil exclaimed, when she told him that she expected her boy in a few days and that they would sail for New York together.
Not directly, she answered. Before very long, she hoped. So many things depended on Imogen.
"But she will live with you now, over here."
"I don't think that she will want to leave America," said Valerie. "I don't think, even, that I want her to."
"But this is your home, now," Sir Basil protested, looking about, as though for evidences of the assertion, at the intimate comforts of the room. "You know that you are more at home here than there."
"Not now. My home, now, is Imogen's."
Sir Basil appeared to reflect, and then to put aside reflection as, after all, inapplicable, as yet, to the situation.
"Well, I must pay America a visit," he said with an unemphatic smile. "I've not been there for twenty years, you know. I'll like seeing it again, and seeing you—in Miss Imogen's home."
Valerie again flushed a little. In some matters Sir Basil was anything but dull, and his throwing, now, of the bridge was most tactfully done. He intended that she should see it solidly spanning the distance between them and only time was needed, she knew, to give him his right of walking over it, and her right—but that was one of the visions she must not look at. A great many things lay between now and then, confused, anxious, perhaps painful, things. The figure of Imogen so filled the immediate future that the place where Sir Basil should take up his thread was blotted into an almost melancholy haze of distance. But it was good to feel the bridge there, to know him so swift and so sure.
"She is very clever, your girl, isn't she? I've always felt it from what you've told me," he said, defining for himself, as she saw, the future where they were to meet.
"Very, I think."
"Very learned and artistic. I'm afraid she'll find me an awful Philistine. You must stand up for me with her."
"I will," Valerie smiled, adding, "but Imogen is very pretty, too, you know."
"Yes, I know; one can see that in the photographs," said Sir Basil. There were several of these standing about the room and he get up to look at them, one after the other—Imogen in evening, in day dress, all showing her erect slenderness, her crown of hair, her large, calm eyes.
"She looks kind but very cool, you know," he commented. "She would take one in at a great rate; not find much use for an every-day person like me."
"Oh, you won't be an every-day person to Imogen. And her great point, I think, is her finding a use for everybody."
"Making them useful to her?"
"No—to themselves—to the world in general."
"Improving them, do you mean?"
"Well, yes, I should say that was more it. She likes to give people a lift."
"But—she's so very young. How does she manage it?" Sir Basil queried over the photograph, whose eyes dwelt on him while he spoke,
"Oh, you'll see," Valerie smiled a little at his pertinacity. "I've no doubt that she will improve you."
"Well," said Sir Basil, recognizing her jocund intention, "she's welcome to try. As long as you are there to see that she isn't too hard on me." He dismissed Imogen, then, from his sight and thoughts, replacing her on the writing-table and suggesting that Mrs. Upton should take a little walk with him. His horse had been put into the stable and he could come back for him. Mrs. Upton said that when they came back he must stay to lunch and that be could ride home afterward, and this was agreed on; so that in ten minutes' time Mrs. Pakenham and Mrs. Wake, from their respective windows, were able to watch their widowed friend walking away across the heather with Sir Basil beside her.
Neither spoke much as they wended their way along the little paths of silvery sand that intersected the common. The day was clear, with a milky, blue-streaked sky; the distant foldings of the hills were of a deep, hyacinthine blue.
From time to time Sir Basil glanced at the face beside him, thoughtful to sadness, its dusky fairness set in black, but attentive, as always, to the sights and sounds of the well-loved country about her. He liked to watch the quick glancing, the clear gazing, of her eyes; everything she looked at became at once more significant to him—the tangle of tenacious roots that thrust through the greensand soil of the lane they entered, the suave, gray columns of the beeches above, the blurred mauves and russets of the woods, the swift, awkward flight of a pheasant that crossed their way with a creaking whir of wings, the amethyst stars of a bush of Michaelmas daisies, showing over a whitewashed cottage wall, the far blue distance before them, framed in the tracery of the beech-boughs. He knew that she loved it all from the way she looked at it and, almost indignantly, as though against some foolish threat, he felt himself asseverating, "It is her home—she knows it—the place she loves like that." And when they had made their wide round, down the lane, up a grassy dell, into his park, where he had to show her some trees that must come down; when they had skirted the park, along its mossy, fern-grown wall, and under its overhanging branches, until, once more, they were on the common and the white of Valerie's cottage glimmered before them, he voiced this protest, saying to her, as he watched her eyes, dwell on the dear little place, "You could never bear to leave all this for good—even if, even if we let you; you know you couldn't."
Valerie looked round at him, and in his face, against its high background of milk-streaked blue, she saw the embodiment of his words; it was that, not the hyacinthine hills, not the beech-woods, not the heathery common, not even the dear cottage, that she could not bear to leave for good. But since this couldn't be said, she consented to the symbol of it that he put before her, that "all this," and answered, as he had hoped, "No, indeed; I couldn't think of leaving it all, for good."
It was an icy, sunny day, and Imogen Upton and Jack Pennington were walking up and down the gaunt wharf, not caring to take refuge from the cold in the stifling waiting-rooms. The early morning sky was still pink. The waters of the vast harbor were whitened by blocks and sheets of ice. The great city, drawn delicately on the pink in white and pearl, marched its fantastic ranges of "sky-scrapers"—an army of giants—down to the water's edge. And, among all the rose and gold and white, the ocean-liner, a glittering immensity of helpless strength, was being hauled and butted into her dock, like some harpooned sea-monster, by a swarm of blunt-nosed, agile little tugs.
Jack Pennington thought that he had never seen Imogen looking so "wonderful" as on this morning. The occasion, to him, was brimming over with significance. He had not expected to share it, but Imogen had spoken with such sweetness of the help that he would give her if he could be with her in her long, cold waiting, that, with touched delight, he found himself in the position of a friend so trusted, so leaned upon, that he could witness what there must be of pain and fear for her in this meeting of her new life. The old life was with them both. Her black armed her in it, as it were, made her valiant to meet the new. And for him that old life, the life menaced, though so trivially, by the arriving presence, seemed embodied in the free spaces of the great harbor, the soaring sky of frosty rose, the grotesque splendor of the giant city, the glory, the ugliness of the country he loved, the country that made giant-like, grotesque cities, and that made Imogens.
She was the flower of it all—the flower and the so much more than flower. He didn't care a fig, so he told himself, about the mere fact of her being beautiful, finished, in her long black furs, her face so white, her hair so gold under her little hat. She wasn't to be picked and placed high, above the swarming ugliness. No, and that was why he cared for her when he had ceased to care for so many pretty girls—her roots were deep; she shared her loveliness; she gave; she opened; she did not shut away. She was the promise for many rather than the guerdon of the few. Jack's democracy was the ripe fruit of an ancestry of high endeavor and high responsibility. The service of impersonal ends was in his blood, and no meaner task had ever been asked of him or of a long line of forebears. He had never in his own person experienced ugliness; it remained a picture, seen but not felt by him, so that it was not difficult for him to see it with the eyes of faith as glorified and uplifted. It constituted a splendid burden, an ennobling duty, for those who possessed beauty, and without that grave and happy right to serve, beauty itself would lose all meaning. He often talked about democracy to Imogen. She understood what he felt about it more firmly, more surely, than he himself did; for, where he sometimes suspected himself of theory, she acted. She, too, rejoiced in the fundamental sameness of the human family that banded it together in, essentially, the same great adventure—the adventure of the soul.
Imogen understood; Imogen rejoiced; Imogen was bound on that adventure—not only with him, but, and it was this that gave those wide wings to his feeling for her, with them—with all the vast brotherhood of humanity. Now and then, to be sure, faint echoes in her of her father, touches of youthful assurance, youthful grandiloquence, stirred the young man's sense of humor; but it was quickly quelled by an irradiating tenderness that showed her limitations as symptoms of an influence that, in its foolish aspects, he would not have had her too clearly recognize; her beautiful, filial devotion more than compensated for her filial blindness—nay, sanctified it; and her heavenly face had but to turn on him for him to envelop all her little solemnities and importances in a comprehending reverence. Jack thought Imogen's face very heavenly. He was an artist by profession, as we have said, taking himself rather seriously, too, but the artistic perception was so strongly colored by ethical and intellectual preoccupations that the spontaneous satisfaction in the Eternal Now of mere beauty was rarely his. Certainly he saw the flower-like texture of Imogen's skin; the way in which the light azured its whiteness and slid upon its child-like surfaces. He saw the long oval of the face, the firm and gentle lips, drawn with a delicate amplitude, the broad hazel eyes set under a level sweep of dark eyebrow and outlined, not shadowed, so clear, so wide they were, by the dark lashes. But all the fresh loveliness of line, surface, color, remained an intellectual appreciation; while what touched, what penetrated, were the analogies she suggested, the lovely soul that the lovely face vouched for. The oval of her face and the charming squaring of her eyes, so candid, so unmysterious, made him think of a Botticelli Madonna; and her long, narrow hands, with their square finger-tips, might have been the hands of a Botticelli angel holding a votive offering of fruit and flowers. His mind seldom rested in her beauty, passing at once through it to what it expressed of purity, strength and serenity. It expressed so much of these that he had never paused at the portals, as it were, to feel the defects of her face. Imogen's nose was too small; neat rather than beautiful. Her eyes, with the porcelain-like quality of their white, the jewel-like color of their irises, were over-large; and when she smiled, which she did often, though with more gentleness than gaiety, she showed an over-spacious expanse of large white teeth. For the rest, Imogen's figure was that of the typical well-groomed, well-trained, American girl, long-limbed, slender, rounded; in her carriage a girlish air of consciousness; the poise of her broad shoulders and slender hips expressing at once hygienic and fashionable ideals that reproved slack gaits and outlines. As they walked, as they talked, watching the slow advance of the great steamer; as their eyes rested calmly and intelligently on each other, one could see that the girl's relation to this dear friend was untouched by any trace of coquetry and that his feeling for her, if deep, was under most perfect control.
"It's over a year, now, since I saw mama," Imogen was saying, as they turned again from a long scrutiny of the crowded decks—the distance was as yet too great for individual recognition. "She didn't come over this summer as usual,—poor dear, how bitterly she must regret that now, though it was hardly her fault, papa and I fixed on our Western trip for the summer. It seems a very long time to me."
"And to me," said Jack. "It's only a year since I came really to know you; but how much longer it seems than that."
"It's strange that we should know each other so well and yet that you have never seen my mother," said Imogen. "Is that she? No, she is not so tall. Poor darling, how tired and sad she must be."
"You are tired and sad, too," said Jack.
"Ah, but I am young—youth can bear so much better. And, besides, I don't think that my sadness would ever be like mama's. You see, in a way, I have so much more in my life. I should never sit down in my sadness and let it overwhelm me. I should use it, always. It is strange that grief should so often make people selfish. It ought, rather, to open doors for us and give us wider visions."
He was so sure that it had performed these offices for her, looking, as he now looked, at her delicate profile, turned from him while she gazed toward the ship, that he was barely conscious of the little tremor of amusement that went through him for the triteness of her speech. Such triteness was beautiful when it expressed such reality.
"I suppose that you will count for more, now, in your mother's life," he said,—that Imogen should, seemingly, have counted for so little had been the frequent subject of his indignant broodings. "She will make you her object."
Imogen smiled a little. "Isn't it more likely that I shall make her mine? one of mine? But you don't know mama yet. She is, in a way, very lovely—but so much of a child. So much younger—it seems funny to say it, but it's true—than I am."
"Littler," Jack amended, "not younger."
But Imogen, while accepting the amendment, wouldn't accept the negation.
"Both, I'm afraid," she sighed.
"Will she like it over here?" Jack mused more than questioned.
"Hardly, since she has always lived as little here as she could manage."
"Perhaps she will want to take you back to England," he surmised, conscious, while he spoke the almost humorous words, of a very firm determination that she shouldn't do so.
Imogen paused in her walk at this, fixing upon him eyes very grave indeed. "Take me back to England? Do you really think that I would consent to that? Surely you know me better, Jack?"
"I think I do. Only you might yield against your will, if she insisted."
"Surely you know me well enough to know that I would never yield against my will, if I knew that my will was right. I might sacrifice a great deal for mama—I am prepared to—but never that; Never," Imogen repeated. "There are some things that one must not sacrifice. Her living in England is a whim; my living in my own country is part of my religion."
"I know, of course, dear Imogen. But," Jack was argumentative, "as to sacrifice, say that it was asked of you, by right. Say, for instance, that you married a man who had to take you out of your own country?"
She smiled a little at the stupid surmise. "That hardly applies. Besides, I would never marry a man who was not one of my own people, who was not a part—as I am a part—of the Whole I live for. My life is here, all its meaning is here—you know it—just as yours is."
"I love to know it—I was only teasing you."
He loved to know it, of course. Yet, while it answered to all his own theories that the person should be so much less to her than the idea the person lived for, he couldn't but feel at times, with a rueful sense of unworthiness, that this rare capacity in her might apply in most unwelcome fashion to his own case. In Jack, the deep wells of feeling and emotion were barred and bolted over by a whole complicated system of reticences; by a careful sense of responsibility, not only toward others, but toward himself; by a disciplined self-control that was a second nature. But, he could see it well enough, if such, deep wells there were in Imogen, they, as yet, were in no need of barring and bolting. Her eyes could show a quiet acceptance of homage, a placid conviction of power, a tender sympathy, but the depth and trouble of emotion was not yet in them. He often suspected that he was nearer to her when he talked to her of causes than when he ventured, now and then, to talk about his feelings. There was always the uncomfortable surmise that the man who could offer a more equipped faculty for the adventure of the soul, might altogether outdistance him with Imogen. By any emotion, any appeal or passion that he might show, she would remain, so his intuition at moments told him, quite unbiased; while she weighed simply worth against worth, and weight—in the sense of strength of soul—against weight. And it was this intuition that made self-control and reticence easier than they might otherwise have been. His theories might assure him that such integrity of purpose was magnificent; his manly common-sense told him that in a wife one wanted to be sure of the taint of personal preference; so that, while he knew that he would never need to weigh Imogen's worth against anybody else's, he watched and waited until some unawakened capacity in her should be able happily to respond to the more human aspects of life. Meanwhile the steamer had softly glided into the dock and the two young people at last descried upon the crowded decks the tall, familiar figure of Eddy Upton, like Imogen in his fairness, clearness, but with a more masculine jut of nose and chin, sharper lines of brow and cheek and lip. And beside Eddy—Jack hardly needed the controlled quiet of Imogen's "There's mama" to identify the figure in black.
She leaned there, high and far, on the deck of the great steamer that loomed above their heads, almost ominous in its gigantic bulk and darkness; she leaned there against the rosy sky, her face intent, searching, bent upon the fluttering, shouting throng beneath; and for Jack, in this first impression of her, before she had yet found Imogen, there was something pathetic in the earnestness of her searching gaze, something that softened the rigors of his disapprobation. But, already, too, he fancied that he caught the expected note of the frivolous in the outline of her fur-lined coat, in the grace of her little hat.
Still she sought, her face pale and grave, while, with an imperceptible movement, the steamer glided forward, and now, as Imogen raised her muff in a long, steady wave, her eyes at last found her daughter and, smiling, smiling eagerly down upon them, she leaned far over the deck to wave her answer. She put her hand on her son's arm, pointing them out to him, and Eddy, also finding them, smiled too, but with his rather cool kindness, raising his hat and giving Jack a recognizing nod. It was then as if he introduced Jack. Jack saw her question, saw him assent, and her smile went from Imogen to him enveloping him with its mild radiance.
"She is very lovely, your mother, as you say," Jack commented, feeling a little breathless over this silent meeting of forces that he must think of as hostile, and finding nothing better to say.
Imogen, who had continued steadily to wave her muff, welcoming, but for her part unsmiling, answered, "Yes."
"I hope that she won't mind my being here, in the way, after a fashion," said Jack.
"She won't mind," said Imogen.
He knew the significance of her voice; displeasure was in its gentleness, a quiet endurance of distress. It struck him then, in a moment, that it was rather out of place for Mrs. Upton to smile so radiantly at such a home-coming. Not that the smile had been a gay one. It had shone out after her search for her daughter's face; for the finding of it and for him it had continued to shine. It was like sunlight on a sad white day of mist; it did not dispel mournfulness, it seemed only to irradiate it. But—to have smiled at all. With Imogen's eyes he saw, suddenly, that tears would have been the more appropriate greeting and, in looking back at the girl once more, he saw that her own, as if in vicarious atonement, were running down her cheeks. She, then, felt a doubled suffering and his heart hardened against the woman who had caused it.
The two travelers had disappeared and the decks were filled with the jostling hurry of final departure. Jack and Imogen moved to take their places by the long gangway that slanted up from the dock.
He said nothing to her of her tears, silent before this subtle grief; perhaps, for all his love and sympathy, a little disconcerted by its demonstration, and it was Imogen who spoke, murmuring, as they stood together, looking up, "Poor, poor papa."
Yes, that had been the hurt, to see her dead put aside, almost forgotten, in the mother's over-facile smile.
The passengers came trooping down the gangway, with an odd buoyancy of step caused by the steep incline, and Jack, for all his expectancy, had eyes, appreciative and critical, for the procession of his country-people. Stout, short men, embodying purely economic functions, with rudimentary features, slightly embossed, as it were, upon pouch-like faces. Thin, young men, whose lean countenances had somewhat the aspect of steely machinery, apt for swift, ruthless, utilitarian processes. Bloodless old men, many of whom looked like withered, weary children adorned with whitened hair. The average manhood of America, with its general air of cheap and hasty growth, but varied here and there by a higher type; an athletic collegian, auspiciously Grecian in length of limb, width of brow, deep placidity of eye; varied by a massive senatorial head or so, tolerant, humorous, sagacious; varied by a stalwart Westerner, and by the weedier scholar, sensitive, self-conscious, too much of the spiritual and too little of the animal in the meager body and over-intelligent face.
There was a certain discrepancy, in dress and bodily well-being, between the feminine and the masculine portion of the procession; many of the heavy matrons, wide-hipped, well-corseted, benignant and commanding of mien, were ominously suggestive, followed as they were by their fragile husbands, of the female spider and her doomed, inferior, though necessary, mate. The young girls of the happier type resembled Imogen Upton in grace, in strength, in calm and in assurance; the less fortunate were sharp, sallow, anxious-eyed; and the children were either rosy, well-mannered, and confident, or ill-mannered, over-mature, but also, always, confident.
Highly equipped with every graceful quality of his race, not a touch of the male spider about him, Eddy's head appeared at last, proud, delicate and strong. His mother, carrying a small dog, was on his arm, and, as she emerged before the eyes that watched for her, she was smiling again at something that Eddy had said to her. Then her eyes found them, Jack and Imogen, so near now, sentinels before the old life, that her smile, her aspect, her very loveliness, seemed to menace, and Jack felt that she caught a new gravity from the stern gentleness of Imogen's gaze; that she adjusted her features to meet it; that, with a little shock, she recognized the traces of weeping on her daughter's face and saw, in his own intentionally hardened look, that she had tuned herself to a wrong pitch and had been, all unconsciously, jarring.
He couldn't but own that her readjustment, if readjustment it was, was very beautifully done. Tears rose in her eyes, too. He saw, as she neared them, that her face was pale and weary; it looked ever so gently, ever so sadly, perhaps almost timidly, at her daughter, and as she came to them she put out her hand to Imogen, laid hold on her and held her without speaking while they all moved away together.
The tears of quick sympathy had risen to Jack's own eyes and he stood apart while the mother and daughter kissed. After that, and when they had gone on a little before him and Eddy, Mrs. Upton turned to him, and if she readjusted herself she didn't, as it were, retract, for the smile again rested on him while Eddy presented him to her. He saw then that she had suffered, though with a suffering different from any that he would have thought of as obvious. How or what she had suffered he could not tell, but the pale, weary features, for all their smile, reassured him. She wasn't, at all events, a heartless, a flippant woman.
Eddy and Mrs. Upton's maid remained behind to do battle with the custom-house, and Jack, with Imogen and her mother, got into the capacious cab that was waiting for them.
The streets in this mean quarter were deep in mud. The snow everywhere had been trampled into liquid blackness, and the gaunt horses that galloped along the wharfs dragging noisy vans and carts were splashed all over. It might have been some sordid quarter of an Italian town that they drove through, so oddly foreign were the disheveled houses, their predominant color a heavy, glaring red. Men in white uniforms were shoveling snow from the pavements. The many negro countenances in the hurrying crowds showed blue tints in the bitter air. Coming suddenly to a wide, mean avenue, when the carriage lurched and swayed on the street-car tracks, they heard, mingled in an inconceivably ugly uproar, the crash and whine of the cable-cars about them, and the thunder of the elevated-railway above their heads.
Jack, sensitive to others' impressions, wondered if this tumultuous ugliness made more dreary to Mrs. Upton the dreary circumstances of her home-coming. There was no mitigation of dreariness to be hoped for from Imogen, who was probably absorbed in her own bitter reflections. She gazed steadily out of the window, replying only with quiet monosyllables to her mother's tentative questions; her face keeping its look of endurance. One could infer from it that had she not so controlled herself she must have wept, and sitting before the mother and daughter Jack felt much awkwardness in his position. If their meeting were not to be one with more conventional surface he really ought not to have been invited to share it. Imogen, poor darling, had all his sympathy; she hadn't reckoned with the difficulties; she hadn't reckoned with that hurting smile, with the sharp reawakening of the vicarious sense of wrong; but, all the same, before her look, her silence, he could but feel for her mother, and feel, too, a keener discomfort from the fact that his inopportune presence must make Mrs. Upton's discomfort the greater.
Mrs. Upton stroked her tiny dog, who, fulfilling all Jack's conceptions of costly frivolity, was wrapped in a well-cut coat, in spite of which he was shivering, from excitement as much as from cold, and her bright, soft gaze went from him to Imogen. She didn't acquiesce for long in the silence. Leaning forward to him presently she began to ask him questions about Boston, the dear old great-aunt; to make comments, some reminiscent, some interrogative, upon the scenes they passed through; to lead him so tactfully into talk that he found himself answering and assenting almost as fluently as if Imogen in her corner had not kept those large, sad eyes fixed on the passing houses. So mercifully did her interest and her ease lift him from discomfort that, with a sharp twinge of self-reproach, he more than once asked himself if Imogen found something a little disloyal in his willingness to be helped. One couldn't, all the same, remain at the dreadful depth where her silence plunged them; such depths were too intimate. Mrs. Upton had felt that. It was because she was not intimate that she smiled upon him; it was because she intended to hold them both firmly on the surface that she was so kind. He watched her face with wonder, and a little fear, for which he was angry with himself. He noted the three grains de beaute and the smile that seemed to break high on her cheek, in a small nick, like that on the cheek of a Japanese doll. She frightened him, made him feel shy, yet made him feel at ease, too, as though her own were contagious; and his impression of her was softly permeated with the breath of violets. Jack disapproved of perfumes; but he really couldn't tell whether it wasn't Mrs. Upton's gaze only, the sweet oddity of her smile, that, by some trick of association, suggested the faint haze of fragrance.
They reached the long, far sweep of Fifth Avenue, piled high with snow—dazzling in white, blue, gold—on either side, and they turned presently into a street of brownstone houses, houses pleasant, peaceful, with an air of happy domesticity.
Mrs. Upton's eyes, while the cab advanced with many jolts among the heaps of snow, fixed themselves on one of these houses, and Jack fancied that he saw in her glance a whole army of alarmed memories forcibly beaten back. Here she had come as a bride and from here, not three weeks ago, her dead husband had gone with only his children beside him. Now, if ever, she should feel remorse. Whether she did or not he could not tell, but the eyes with which she greeted her old home were not happy.
Imogen, as they alighted, spoke at last, asking him to stay to lunch. He recognized magnanimity in her glance. He had seemed to ignore her hurt, and she forgave him, understanding his helplessness. But though her mother seconded her invitation with, "Do, you must be so tired and hungry, after all these hours," Jack excused himself. Already he thought, a woman with such a manner as Mrs. Upton's—if manner were indeed the word for such a gliding simplicity—must wonder what in the name of heaven he did there. She was simple, she was gliding; but she was not near.
"May I come in soon and see you?" he said to Imogen while they paused at the foot of the stone steps. And, with at last her own smile, sad but sweet, for him, she answered, "As soon as you will, dear Jack. You know how much of strength and comfort you mean to me."
Jack, however, did not go for three or four days, giving them plenty of time, as he told himself, to get used to each other's excesses or lacks of grief. And as he waited for Imogen in the long drawing-room that had been the setting of so many of their communings, he wondered what adjustment the mother and daughter had come to.
The aspect of the drawing-room was unchanged; changelessness had always been for him its characteristic mark; in essentials, he felt sure, it had not changed since the days of old Mrs. Upton, the present Mrs. Upton's long deceased mother-in-law. Only a touch here and there showed the passage of time. It was continuous with the dining-room, so that it was but one long room that crossed all the depth of the house, tall windows at the back, heavily draped, echoing dimly the windows of the front that looked out upon the snowy, glittering street. The inner half could be shut away by folding-doors, and its highly polished sideboard, chairs, table, a silver epergne towering upon it, glimmered in a dusky element that relegated it, when not illuminated for use, to a mere ghostly decorativeness. By contrast, the drawing-room was vivid. Its fringed and buttoned furniture,—crimson brocade set in a dark carved wood, the dangling lusters of the huge chandelier, the elaborate Sevres vases on the mantelpiece, flanking a bronze clock portentously gloomy, expressed old Mrs. Upton's richly solid ideals; but these permanent uglinesses distressed Jack less than the pompous and complacent taste of the later additions. A pretentious cabinet of late Italian Renaissance work stood in a corner; the dark marble mantelpiece, that looked like a sarcophagus, was incongruously draped with an embroidered Italian cope, and a pseudo-Correggio Madonna, encompassed with a wilderness of gilt frame, smiled a pseudo-smile from the embossed paper of the walls. It was one of Jack's little trials to hear Imogen refer to this trophy with placid conviction.
Yet, for all its solemn stupidity, the room was not altogether unpleasing; it signified something, were it only an indifference to fashion, It was, funnily, almost Spartan, for all the carving, the cushioning, the crimson, so little concession did it make to other people's standards or to small, happy minor uses. Mr. Upton and his daughter had not changed it because they had other things to think of; and they thought of these things not in the drawing-room but in the large library up-stairs. There one could find the personal touches, that, but for the cope, the cabinet, the Correggio, were lacking below. There the many photographs from the Italian primitives, the many gracious Donatello and Delia Robbia bas-reliefs, expressed something of Imogen, too, though Jack always felt that Imogen's esthetic; side expressed what was not very essential in her.
While he waited now, he had paused at last before two portraits. He had often so paused while waiting for Imogen. To-night it was with a new curiosity.
They hung opposite the Correggio and on either side of the great mirror that rose from the mantelpiece to the cornice. One was of a young man dressed in the fashion of twenty-five years before, dressed with a rather self-conscious negligence. He was pale, earnest, handsome, though his nose was too small and his eyes too large. A touch of the histrionic was in his attitude, in his dark hair, tossed carelessly, in the unnecessarily weighty and steady look of his dark eyes, even in the slight smile of his firm, full lips, a smile too well-adapted, as it were, to the needs of any interlocutor. Beneath his arm was a book; a long, distinguished hand hanging slackly. Jack turned away with a familiar impatience. In twenty-five years Mr. Upton had changed very little. It was much the same face that he had known; in especial, the slack, self-conscious hand, the smile—always so much more for himself than for you—were familiar. The hand, the necktie, the smile, so deep, so dark, so empty, were all, Jack was inclined to suspect, that there had ever been of Mr. Upton.
The other portrait, painted with the sleek convention of that earlier epoch, was of a woman in a ball-dress. The portrait was by a French master and under his brush the sitter had taken on the look of a Feuillet heroine. She was gay, languid, sentimental, and extraordinarily pretty. Her hair was dressed in a bygone fashion, drawn smoothly up from the little ears, coiled high and falling across her forehead in a light, straight fringe. Her wonderful white shoulders rose from a wonderfully low white bodice; a bracelet of emeralds was on her arm, a spray of jasmine in her fingers; she was evidently a girl, yet in her apparel was a delicate splendor, in her gaze a candid assurance, that marked her as an American girl. And she expressed charmingly, with sincerity as it were, a frivolous convention. This was Miss Cray, a year or so before her marriage with Mr. Upton. The portrait had been painted in Paris, where, orphaned, lovely, but not largely dowered, she had, under the wing of an aunt domiciled in France for many years and bearing one of its oldest names, failed to make the brilliant match that had been hoped for her. This touch of France in girlhood echoed an earlier impress. Imogen had told him that her mother had been educated for some years in a French convent, deposited there by pleasure-loving parents during European wanderings, and Imogen had intimated that her mother's frequent returns to her native land had never quite effaced alien and regrettable points of view. Before this portrait, Jack was accustomed, not to impatience, but to a gaze of rather ironic comprehension. It had always explained to him so much. But to-night he found himself looking at it with an intentness in which was a touched curiosity; in which, also, and once more he was vexed with himself for feeling it, was an anxiety, almost a fear. Of course it hadn't been like, even then, he was surer than ever of that to-night, with his memory of the pale face smiling down at him and at Imogen from the deck of the great steamer. The painter had seen the mask only; even then there had been more to see. And sure, as he had never been before, of all that there must have been besides to see, he wondered with a new wonder how she had come to marry Mr. Upton.
He glanced back at him. Handsome? Yes. Distinguished? Yes; there was no trace of the shoddy in his spiritual histrionics. He had been fired by love, no doubt, far beyond his own chill complacency. Such a butterfly girl, falling with, perhaps, bruised wings from the high, hard glare of worldly ambitions, more of others for her than her own for herself—of that he felt, also quite newly sure to-night—such a girl had thought Mr. Upton, no doubt, a very noble creature and herself happy and fortunate. And she had been very young.
He was still looking up at Miss Cray when Imogen came in. He felt sure, from his first glance at her, that nothing had happened, during the interval of his abstention, to deepen her distress. In her falling and folding black she was serene and the look of untroubled force he knew so well was in her eyes. She had taken the measure of the grown-up butterfly and found it easy of management. He felt with relief that the mother could have threatened none of the things they held dear. And, indeed, in his imagination, her spirit seemed to flutter over them in the solid, solemn room, reassuring through its very lightness and purposelessness.
"I am so glad to see you," Imogen said, after she had shaken his hand and they had seated themselves on the sofa that stretched along the wall under the Correggio. "I have been sorry about the other day."
"Oh!" he answered vaguely, not quite sure for what the regret was.
"I ought to have mastered myself; been more able to play the trivial part, as you did; that was such real kindness in you, Jack, dear. I couldn't have pretended gaiety, but I didn't intend to cast a gloom. It only became that, I suppose, when I was—so hurt."
He understood now. "By there not being gloom enough?"
"If you like to put it so. To see her smile like that!"
Jack was sorry for her, yet, at the same time, sorry for the butterfly.
"Yes, I know how you must have felt. But, it was natural, you know. One smiles involuntarily at a meeting, however sad its background. I believe that you would have smiled if she hadn't."
Imogen's clear eyes were upon him while he thus shared with her his sense of mitigations and she answered without a pause: "Yes, I could have smiled at her. That would have been different."
"You mean—that you had a right to smile?"
"I can't see how she could," said Imogen in a low voice, not answering his question; thinking, probably, that it answered itself. And she went on: "I was ready, you know, to help her to bear it all, with my whole strength; but, and it is that that still hurts me so, she doesn't seem to know that she needs help. She doesn't seem to be bearing anything."
Jack was silent, feeling here that they skirted too closely ground upon which, with Imogen, he never ventured. He had brought from his study of the portraits a keener sense of how much Mrs. Upton had to bear no longer.
"But," Imogen continued, oddly echoing his own sense of deeper insights, "I already understand her so much better than I've ever done. I've never come so near. Never seen so clearly how little there is to see. She's still essentially that, you know," and she pointed to the French portrait that, with softly, prettily mournful eyes, gazed out at them.
"The butterfly thing," Jack suggested rather than acquiesced.
"The butterfly thing," she accepted.
But Jack went on: "Not only that, though. There is, I'm very sure, more to see. She is so—so sensible."
"Sensible?" again Imogen accepted. "Well, isn't that portrait sensible? Doesn't that lovely, luxurious girl see and want all the happy, the easy things of life? It is sensible, of course, clearly to know what they are, and firmly to make for them. That's just what I recognize now in her, that all she wants is to make things easy, to glisser."
"Yes, I can believe that," he murmured, a little dazed by her clear decisiveness; he often felt Imogen to be so much more clear-sighted, so much more clever than himself when it came to judgments and insights, that he could only at the moment acquiesce, through helplessness. "I suppose that is the essential—the desire of ease."
"And it hurts you that I should be able to see it, to say it, of my mother." Her eyes, with no hardness, no reproach, probed him, too. She almost made him feel unworthy of the trust she showed him.
"No," he said, smiling at her, "because I know that it's only to a friend who so understands you, who so cares for all that comes into your life."
"Only to such a friend, indeed," she returned gently.
"Have they been hard, these days?" he asked her, atoning to himself for the momentary shrinking that she had detected.
"Yes, they have," she answered, "and the more so from my seeing all her efforts to keep them soft; as if it was ease I wanted! But I have faced it all."
"What else has there been to face?"
She said nothing for some moments, looking at him with a thoughtful openness that, he felt, was almost marital in its sharing of silence.
"She's against everything, everything," she said at last.
"You mean in the way we feared?—that she'll try to change things?"
"She'll not seem to try. She'll seem to accept. But she's against my country; against my life; against me."
"Well, if she accepts, or seems to, that will make it easy for you. There will be nothing to fight, to oppose."
"Don't use her word, Jack. She will make it easy on the surface; but it's that that will be so hard for me to bear; the surface ease over the hidden discord."
"You may resolve the discord. Give her time to grow her roots. How can you expect anything but effort now, in this soil that she can't but associate with mistakes and sorrows?"
"The mistakes and sorrows were in her, not in the soil," said Imogen; "but don't think that though I find it hard, I don't face it; don't think that through it all I haven't my faith. That is just what I am going to do: give her time, and help her to grow with all the strength and love there is in me."
Something naughty, something rebellious and dissatisfied in him was vaguely stirring and muttering; he feared that she might see into him again and give it a name, although he could only have given it the old name of a humorous impatience with her assured rightness. Really, she was so over-right that she almost irked and irritated him, dear and beloved as she was. One could only call it over-rightness, for wasn't what she said the simple truth, just as he had always seen it, just as she had always known that, with her, he saw it? She had this queer, light burden suddenly on her hands, so much more of a burden for being so light, and if her own weight and wisdom became a little too emphatic in dealing with it, how could he reproach her? He didn't reproach her, of course; but he was afraid lest she should see that he found her, well, a little funny.
"What does she do with herself?" he asked, turning hastily from his consciousness of amusement.
Imogen's pearly face, bent on him with such confidence, made him, once more, ashamed of himself.
"She has seen a good many of her friends. We have had quite a stream of fashionable, furbelowed dames trooping up the steps; very few of them people that papa and I cared to keep in touch with; you know his dislike for the merely pleasure-seeking side of life. And she has seen the dear Delancy Pottses, too, and was very nice to them, one of the cases of seeming to accept; I saw well enough that they were no more to her than quaint insects she must do her duty by. And she has been very busy with business, closeted every day with Mr. Haliwell. And she takes a walk with me when I can spare the time, and for the rest of the day she sits in her room dressed in a wonderful tea-gown and reads French memoirs, just as she used always to do."
Jack was smiling, amused, now, in no way that needed hiding, by her smooth flow of description. "You must take her down to the girls' club some day," he suggested, "and to see your cripples and all the rest of it. Get her interested, you know; give her something else to think of besides French memoirs."
"Indeed, I'm going to try to. Though among my girls I'm not sure that she would be a very wise experiment. Such an ondulee, parfumee, polished person with such fashionable mourning would be, perhaps, a little resented."
"You dress very charmingly, yourself, my dear Imogen."
"Oh, but quite differently. Mamma's is fashion at its very flower of subtle discretion. My clothes, why, they are of any time you will." She swept aside her wing-like sleeves to show the Madonna-like lines of her dress. "A factory girl could wear just the same shape if she wanted to."
"And she doesn't want to, foolish girl? She wants to wear your mother's kind instead?"
"She would dimly recognize it as the unattainable perfection of what she wants. It would pierce."
"Make for envy, you think?"
"Well, I can't see that she would do them any good," said Imogen, now altogether in her lighter, happier mood, "but since they may do her good I must, I think, take her there some day."
"And am I to do her some good? Am I to see her to-night?" Jack asked, feeling that though her humor a little jarred on him he could do nothing better than echo it. Imogen, now, had one of her frankest, prettiest looks.
"Do you know, she is almost too discreet, poor dear," she said. "She wants me to see that she perfectly understands and sympathizes with the American freedom as to friendships between men and women, so that she vacates the drawing-room for my people just as a farmer's wife would do for her daughter's young men. She hasn't asked me even a question about you, Jack!"
Her gaiety so lifted and warmed him that he was prompted to say that Mrs. Upton would have to, very soon, if the answer to a certain question that he wanted to ask Imogen were what he hoped for. But the jocund atmosphere of their talk seemed unfit for such a grave allusion and he repressed the sally.
When Jack went away, after tea, Imogen remained sitting on the sofa, looking up from time to time at the two portraits, while thoughts, quiet and mournful, but not distressing, passed through her mind. An interview with Jack usually left her lapped about with a warm sense of security; she couldn't feel desolate, even with the greatness of her loss so upon her, when such devotion surrounded her. One deep need of her was gone, but another was there. Life, as she felt it, would have little meaning for her if it had not brought to her deep needs that she, and she alone, could satisfy. With Jack's devotion and Jack's need to sustain her, it wasn't difficult to bear with a butterfly. One had only to stand serenely in one's place and watch it hover. It was, after all, as if she had strung herself to an attitude of strength only to find that no weight was to come crushing down upon her. The pain was that of feeling her mother so light.
"Poor papa," Imogen murmured more than once, as she gazed up into the steady eyes; "what a fate it was for you—to be hurt all your life by a butterfly." But he had been far, far too big to let it spoil anything. He turned all pain to spiritual uses. What sorrow there was had always been, most of all, for her.
And then—and here was the balm that had perfumed all her grief with its sacred aroma—she, Imogen, had been there to fill the emptiness for him. She had always been there, it seemed to her, as, in her quiet, sad retrospect, she looked back, now, to the very beginnings of consciousness. From the first she had felt that her place was by his side; that, together they stood for something and against somebody. In this very room, so unchanged—she could even remember the same dull thump of the bronze clock, the blazing fire, the crimson curtains drawn on a snowy street,—had happened the earliest of the episodes that her memory recalled as having so placed her, so defined her attitude, even for her almost babyish apprehension. She had brought down her dolls from her nursery, after tea, and ranged them on the sofa, while her father walked up and down the room, his hands in his pockets, his head thrown back, reciting something to himself, some poem, or stately fragment of antique oratory. He paused now and then as he passed her and laid his hand upon her head and smiled down at her. Then the lovely lady of the portrait,—just like the portrait in Imogen's recollection,—had come, all in white, with wonderful white shoulders, holding a fan and long white gloves in her hand, and, looking round from her dolls, small Imogen had known in a moment that displeasure was in the air. "You are not dressed!" Those had been her mother's first words as she paused on the threshold; and then, echoing her father's words with amazement and anger, "You are not coming!"
The dialogue that followed, vivid on her mother's side as sparks struck from steel, mild as milk on her father's, had been lost upon her; but through it all she had felt that he must be right, in his gentleness, and that she, in her vividness, must be wrong. She felt that for herself, even before, turning as if from an unseemly contest, her father said, looking down at her with a smile that had a twinge of tension, "You would rather go and see sick and sorry people who wanted you, than the selfish, the foolish, the overfed,—wouldn't you, beautiful little one?"