FENNEL AND RUE
By William Dean Howells
The success of Verrian did not come early, and it did not come easily. He had been trying a long time to get his work into the best magazines, and when he had won the favor of the editors, whose interest he had perhaps had from the beginning, it might be said that they began to accept his work from their consciences, because in its way it was so good that they could not justly refuse it. The particular editor who took Verrian's serial, after it had come back to the author from the editors of the other leading periodicals, was in fact moved mainly by the belief that the story would please the better sort of his readers. These, if they were not so numerous as the worse, he felt had now and then the right to have their pleasure studied.
It was a serious story, and it was somewhat bitter, as Verrian himself was, after his struggle to reach the public with work which he knew merited recognition. But the world which does not like people to take themselves too seriously also likes them to take themselves seriously, and the bitterness in Verrian's story proved agreeable to a number of readers unexpectedly great. It intimated a romantic personality in the author, and the world still likes to imagine romantic things of authors. It likes especially to imagine them of novelists, now that there are no longer poets; and when it began to like Verrian's serial, it began to write him all sorts of letters, directly, in care of the editor, and indirectly to the editor, whom they asked about Verrian more than about his story.
It was a man's story rather than a woman's story, as these may be distinguished; but quite for that reason women seemed peculiarly taken with it. Perhaps the women had more leisure or more courage to write to the author and the editor; at any rate, most of the letters were from women; some of the letters were silly and fatuous enough, but others were of an intelligence which was none the less penetrating for being emotional rather than critical. These maids or matrons, whoever or whichever they were, knew wonderfully well what the author would be at, and their interest in his story implied a constant if not a single devotion. Now and then Verrian was tempted to answer one of them, and under favor of his mother, who had been his confidant at every point of his literary career, he yielded to the temptation; but one day there came a letter asking an answer, which neither he nor his mother felt competent to deal with. They both perceived that they must refer it to the editor of the magazine, and it seemed to them so important that they decided Verrian must go with it in person to the editor. Then he must be so far ruled by him, if necessary, as to give him the letter and put himself, as the author, beyond an appeal which he found peculiarly poignant.
The letter, which had overcome the tacit misgivings of his mother as they read it and read it again together, was from a girl who had perhaps no need to confess herself young, or to own her inexperience of the world where stories were written and printed. She excused herself with a delicacy which Verrian's correspondents by no means always showed for intruding upon him, and then pleaded the power his story had over her as the only shadow of right she had in addressing him. Its fascination, she said, had begun with the first number, the first chapter, almost the first paragraph. It was not for the plot that she cared; she had read too many stories to care for the plot; it was the problem involved. It was one which she had so often pondered in her own mind that she felt, in a way she hoped he would not think conceited, almost as if the story was written for her. She had never been able to solve the problem; how he would solve it she did not see how she could wait to know; and here she made him a confidence without which, she said, she should not have the courage to go on. She was an invalid, and her doctor had told her that, though she might live for months, there were chances that she might die at any moment suddenly. He would think it strange, and it was strange that she should tell him this, and stranger still that she should dare to ask him what she was going to ask. The story had yet four months to run, and she had begun to have a morbid foreboding that she should not live to read it in the ordinary course. She was so ignorant about writers that she did not know whether such a thing was ever done, or could be done; but if he could tell her how the story was to come out he would be doing more for her than anything else that could be done for her on earth. She had read that sometimes authors began to print their serial stories before they had written them to the end, and he might not be sure of the end himself; but if he had finished this story of his, and could let her see the last pages in print, she would owe him the gratitude she could never express.
The letter was written in an educated hand, and there were no foibles of form or excesses of fashion in the stationery to mar the character of sincerity the simple wording conveyed. The postal address, with the date, was fully given, and the name signed at the end was evidently genuine.
Verrian himself had no question of the genuineness of the letter in any respect; his mother, after her first misgivings, which were perhaps sensations, thought as he did about it. She said the story dealt so profoundly with the deepest things that it was no wonder a person, standing like that girl between life and death, should wish to know how the author solved its problem. Then she read the letter carefully over again, and again Verrian read it, with an effect not different from that which its first perusal had made with him. His faith in his work was so great, so entire, that the notion of any other feeling about it was not admissible.
"Of course," he said, with a sigh of satisfaction, "I must show the letter to Armiger at once."
"Of course," his mother replied. "He is the editor, and you must not do anything without his approval."
The faith in the writer of the letter, which was primary with him, was secondary with her, but perhaps for that reason, she was all the more firmly grounded in it.
There was nothing to cloud the editor's judgment, when Verrian came to him, except the fact that he was a poet as well as an editor. He read in a silence as great as the author's the letter which Verrian submitted. Then he remained pondering it for as long a space before he said, "That is very touching."
Verrian jumped to his question. "Do you mean that we ought to send her the proofs of the story?"
"No," the editor faltered, but even in this decision he did not deny the author his sympathy. "You've touched bottom in that story, Verrian. You may go higher, but you can never go deeper."
Verrian flushed a little. "Oh, thank you!"
"I'm not surprised the girl wants to know how you manage your problem— such a girl, standing in the shadow of the other world, which is always eclipsing this, and seeing how you've caught its awful outline."
Verrian made a grateful murmur at the praise. "That is what my mother felt. Then you have no doubt of the good faith—"
"No," the editor returned, with the same quantity, if not the same quality, of reluctance as before. "You see, it would be too daring."
"Then why not let her have the proofs?"
"The thing is so unprecedented—"
"Our doing it needn't form a precedent."
"And if you've no doubt of its being a true case—"
"We must prove that it is, or, rather, we must make her prove it. I quite feel with you about it. If I were to act upon my own impulse, my own convictions, I should send her the rest of the story and take the chances. But she may be an enterprising journalist in disguise it's astonishing what women will do when they take to newspaper work—and we have no right to risk anything, for the magazine's sake, if not yours and mine. Will you leave this letter with me?"
"I expected to leave the whole affair in your hands. Do you mind telling me what you propose to do? Of course, it won't be anything—abrupt—"
"Oh no; and I don't mind telling you what has occurred to me. If this is a true case, as you say, and I've no question but it is, the writer will be on confidential terms with her pastor as well as her doctor and I propose asking her to get him to certify, in any sort of general terms, to her identity. I will treat the matter delicately—Or, if you prefer to write to her yourself—"
"Oh no, it's much better for you to do it; you can do it authoritatively."
"Yes, and if she isn't the real thing, but merely a woman journalist trying to work us for a 'story' in her Sunday edition, we shall hear no more from her."
"I don't see anything to object to in your plan," Verrian said, upon reflection. "She certainly can't complain of our being cautious."
"No, and she won't. I shall have to refer the matter to the house—"
"Oh, will you?"
"Why, certainly! I couldn't take a step like that without the approval of the house."
"No," Verrian assented, and he made a note of the writer's address from the letter. Then, after a moment spent in looking hard at the letter, he gave it back to the editor and went abruptly away.
He had proof, the next morning, that the editor had acted promptly, at least so far as regarded the house. The house had approved his plan, if one could trust the romantic paragraph which Verrian found in his paper at breakfast, exploiting the fact concerned as one of the interesting evidences of the hold his serial had got with the magazine readers. He recognized in the paragraph the touch of the good fellow who prepared the weekly bulletins of the house, and offered the press literary intelligence in a form ready for immediate use. The case was fairly stated, but the privacy of the author's correspondent was perfectly guarded; it was not even made known that she was a woman. Yet Verrian felt, in reading the paragraph, a shock of guilty dismay, as if he had betrayed a confidence reposed in him, and he handed the paper across the table to his mother with rather a sick look.
After his return from the magazine office the day before, there had been a good deal of talk between them about that girl. Mrs. Verrian had agreed with him that no more interesting event could have happened to an author, but she had tried to keep him from taking it too personally, and from making himself mischievous illusions from it. She had since slept upon her anxieties, with the effect of finding them more vivid at waking, and she had been casting about for an opening to penetrate him with them, when fortune put this paragraph in her way.
"Isn't it disgusting?" he asked. "I don't see how Armiger could let them do it. I hope to heaven she'll never see it!"
His mother looked up from the paragraph and asked,
"What would she think of me?"
"I don't know. She might have expected something of the kind."
"How expect something of the kind? Am I one of the self-advertisers?"
"Well, she must have realized that she was doing rather a bold thing."
"Venturesome," Mrs. Verrian compromised to the kindling anger in her son's eyes.
"I don't understand you, mother. I thought you agreed with me about the writer of that letter—her sincerity, simplicity."
"Sincerity, yes. But simplicity—Philip, a thoroughly single-minded girl never wrote that letter. You can't feel such a thing as I do. A man couldn't. You can paint the character of women, and you do it wonderfully—but, after all, you can't know them as a woman does."
"You talk," he answered, a little sulkily, "as if you knew some harm of the girl."
"No, my son, I know nothing about her, except that she is not single- minded, and there is no harm in not being single-minded. A great many single-minded women are fools, and some double-minded women are good."
"Well, single-minded or double-minded, if she is what she says she is, what motive on earth could she have in writing to me except the motive she gives? You don't deny that she tells the truth about herself?"
"Don't I say that she is sincere? But a girl doesn't always know her own motives, or all of them. She may have written to you because she would like to begin a correspondence with an author. Or she may have done it out of the love of excitement. Or for the sake of distraction, to get away from herself and her gloomy forebodings."
"And should you blame her for that?"
"No, I shouldn't. I should pity her for it. But, all the same, I shouldn't want you to be taken in by her."
"You think, then, she doesn't care anything about the story?"
"I think, very probably, she cares a great deal about it. She is a serious person, intellectually at least, and it is a serious story. No wonder she would like to know, at first hand, something about the man who wrote it."
This flattered Verrian, but he would not allow its reasonableness. He took a gulp of coffee before saying, uncandidly, "I can't make out what you're driving at, mother. But, fortunately, there's no hurry about your meaning. The thing's in the only shape we could possibly give it, and I am satisfied to leave it in Armiger's hands. I'm certain he will deal wisely with it-and kindly."
"Yes, I'm sure he'll deal kindly. I should be very unhappy if he didn't. He could easily deal more wisely, though, than she has."
Verrian chose not to follow his mother in this. "All is," he said, with finality, "I hope she'll never see that loathsome paragraph."
"Oh, very likely she won't," his mother consoled him.
Only four days after he had seen Armiger, Verrian received an envelope covering a brief note to himself from the editor, a copy of the letter he had written to Verrian's unknown correspondent, and her answer in the original. Verrian was alone when the postman brought him this envelope, and he could indulge a certain passion for method by which he read its contents in the order named; if his mother had been by, she would have made him read the girl's reply first of all. Armiger wrote:
"MY DEAR VERRIAN,—I enclose two exhibits which will possess you of all the facts in the case of the young lady who feared she might die before she read the end of your story, but who, you will be glad to find, is likely to live through the year. As the story ends in our October number, she need not be supplied with advance sheets. I am sorry the house hurried out a paragraph concerning the matter, but it will not be followed by another. Perhaps you will feel, as I do, that the incident is closed. I have not replied to the writer, and you need not return her letter. Yours ever, "M. ARMIGER."
The editor's letter to the young lady read:
"DEAR MADAM,—Mr. P. S. Verrian has handed me your letter of the 4th, and I need not tell you that it has interested us both.
"I am almost as much gratified as he by the testimony your request bears to the importance of his work, and if I could have acted upon my instant feeling I should have had no hesitation in granting it, though it is so very unusual as to be, in my experience as an editor, unprecedented. I am sure that you would not have made it so frankly if you had not been prepared to guard in return any confidence placed in you; but you will realize that as you are quite unknown to us, we should not be justified in taking a step so unusual as you propose without having some guarantee besides that which Mr. Verrian and I both feel from the character of your letter. Simply, then, for purposes of identification, as the phrase is, I must beg you to ask the pastor of your church, or, better still, your family physician, to write you a line saying that he knows you, as a sort of letter of introduction to me. Then I will send you the advance proofs of Mr. Verrian's story. You may like to address me personally in the care of the magazine, and not as the editor. "Yours very respectfully, "M. ARMIGER."
The editor's letter was dated the 6th of the month; the answer, dated the 8th, betrayed the anxious haste of the writer in replying, and it was not her fault if what she wrote came to Verrian when he was no longer able to do justice to her confession. Under the address given in her first letter she now began, in, a hand into which a kindlier eye might have read a pathetic perturbation:
"DEAR SIR,—I have something awful to tell you. I might write pages without making you think better of me, and I will let you think the worst at once. I am not what I pretended to be. I wrote to Mr. Verrian saying what I did, and asking to see the rest of his story on the impulse of the moment. I had been reading it, for I think it is perfectly fascinating; and a friend of mine, another girl, and I got together trying to guess how he would end it, and we began to dare each other to write to him and ask. At first we did not dream of doing such a thing, but we went on, and just for the fun of it we drew lots to see which should write to him. The lot fell to me; but we composed that letter together, and we put in about my dying for a joke. We never intended to send it; but then one thing led to another, and I signed it with my real name and we sent it. We did not really expect to hear anything from it, for we supposed he must get lots of letters about his story and never paid any attention to them. We did not realize what we had done till I got your letter yesterday. Then we saw it all, and ever since we have been trying to think what to do, and I do not believe either of us has slept a moment. We have come to the conclusion that there was only one thing we could do, and that was to tell you just exactly how it happened and take the consequences. But there is no reason why more than one person should be brought into it, and so I will not let my friend sign this letter with me, but I will put my own name alone to it. You may not think it is my real name, but it is; you can find out by writing to the postmaster here. I do not know whether you will publish it as a fraud for the warning of others, but I shall not blame you if you do. I deserve anything. Yours truly, "JERUSHA PEREGRINE BROWN."
If Verrian had been an older man life might have supplied him with the means of judging the writer of this letter. But his experience as an author had not been very great, and such as it was it had hardened and sharpened him. There was nothing wild or whirling in his mood, but in the deadly hurt which had been inflicted upon his vanity he coldly and carefully studied what deadlier hurt he might inflict again. He was of the crueller intent because he had not known how much of personal vanity there was in the seriousness with which he took himself and his work. He had supposed that he was respecting his ethics and aesthetics, his ideal of conduct and of art, but now it was brought home to him that he was swollen with the conceit of his own performance, and that, however well others thought of it, his own thought of it far outran their will to honor it. He wished to revenge himself for this consciousness as well as the offence offered him; of the two the consciousness was the more disagreeable.
His mother, dressed for the street, came in where he sat quiet at his desk, with the editor's letters and the girl's before him, and he mutely referred them to her with a hand lifted over his shoulder. She read them, and then she said, "This is hard to bear, Philip. I wish I could bear it for you, or at least with you; but I'm late for my engagement with Mrs. Alfred, as it is—No, I will telephone her I'm detained and we'll talk it over—"
"No, no! Not on any account! I'd rather think it out for myself. You couldn't help me. After all, it hasn't done me any harm—"
"And you've had a great escape! And I won't say a word more now, but I'll be back soon, and then we—Oh, I'm so sorry I'm going."
Verrian gave a laugh. "You couldn't do anything if you stayed, mother. Do go!"
"Well—" She looked at him, smoothing her muff with her hand a moment, and then she dropped a fond kiss on his cheek and obeyed him.
Verrian still sat at his desk, thinking, with his burning face in his hands. It was covered with shame for what had happened to him, but his humiliation had no quality of pity in it. He must write to that girl, and write at once, and his sole hesitation was as to the form he should give his reply. He could not address her as Dear Miss Brown or as Dear Madam. Even Madam was not sharp and forbidding enough; besides, Madam, alone or with the senseless prefix, was archaic, and Verrian wished to be very modern with this most offensive instance of the latest girl. He decided upon dealing with her in the third person, and trusting to his literary skill to keep the form from clumsiness.
He tried it in that form, and it was simply disgusting, the attitude stiff and swelling, and the diction affected and unnatural. With a quick reversion to the impossible first type, he recast his letter in what was now the only possible shape.
"MY DEAR MISS BROWN,—The editor of the American Miscellany has sent me a copy of his recent letter to you and your own reply, and has remanded to me an affair which resulted from my going to him with your request to see the close of my story now publishing in his magazine.
"After giving the matter my best thought, I have concluded that it will be well to enclose all the exhibits to you, and I now do this in the hope that a serious study of them will enable you to share my surprise at the moral and social conditions in which the business could originate. I willingly leave with you the question which is the more trustworthy, your letter to me or your letter to him, or which the more truly represents the interesting diversity of your nature. I confess that the first moved me more than the second, and I do not see why I should not tell you that as soon as I had your request I went with it to Mr. Armiger and did what I could to prompt his compliance with it. In putting these papers out of my hands, I ought to acknowledge that they have formed a temptation to make literary use of the affair which I shall now be the better fitted to resist. You will, of course, be amused by the ease with which you could abuse my reliance on your good faith, and I am sure you will not allow any shame for your trick to qualify your pleasure in its success.
"It will not be necessary for you to acknowledge this letter and its enclosures. I will register the package, so that it will not fail to reach you, and I will return any answer of yours unopened, or, if not recognizably addressed, then unread.
"P. S. VERRIAN."
He read and read again these lines, with only the sense of their insufficiency in doing the effect of the bitterness in his heart. If the letter was insulting, it was by no means as insulting as he would have liked to make it. Whether it would be wounding enough was something that depended upon the person whom he wished to wound. All that was proud and vain and cruel in him surged up at the thought of the trick that had been played upon him, and all that was sweet and kind and gentle in him, when he believed the trick was a genuine appeal, turned to their counter qualities. Yet, feeble and inadequate as his letter was, he knew that he could not do more or worse by trying, and he so much feared that by waiting he might do less and better that he hurried it into the post at once. If his mother had been at hand he would have shown it her, though he might not have been ruled by her judgment of it. He was glad that she was not with him, for either she would have had her opinion of what would be more telling, or she would have insisted upon his delaying any sort of reply, and he could not endure the thought of difference or delay.
He asked himself whether he should let her see the rough first draft of his letter or not, and he decided that he would not. But when she came into his study on her return he showed it her.
She read it in silence, and then she seemed to temporize in asking, "Where are her two letters?"
"I've sent them back with the answer."
His mother let the paper drop from her hands. "Philip! You haven't sent this!"
"Yes, I have. It wasn't what I wanted to make it, but I wished to get the detestable experience out of my mind, and it was the best I could do at the moment. Don't you like it?"
"Oh—" She seemed beginning to say something, but without saying anything she took the fallen leaf up and read it again.
"Well!" he demanded, with impatience.
"Oh, you may have been right. I hope you've not been wrong."
"She deserved the severest things you could say; and yet—"
"Perhaps she was punished enough already."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't like your being-vindictive."
"Being so terribly just, then." She added, at his blank stare, "This is killing, Philip."
He gave a bitter laugh. "I don't think it will kill her. She isn't that kind."
"She's a girl," his mother said, with a kind of sad absence.
"But not a single-minded girl, you warned me. I wish I could have taken your warning. It would have saved me from playing the fool before myself and giving myself away to Armiger, and letting him give himself away. I don't think Miss Brown will suffer much before she dies. She will 'get together,' as she calls it, with that other girl and have 'a real good time' over it. You know the village type and the village conditions, where the vulgar ignorance of any larger world is so thick you could cut it with a knife. Don't be troubled by my vindictiveness or my justice, mother! I begin to think I have done justice and not fallen short of it, as I was afraid."
Mrs. Verrian sighed, and again she gave his letter back to her son. "Perhaps you are right, Philip. She is probably so tough as not to feel it very painfully."
"She's not so tough but she'll be very glad to get out of it so lightly. She has had a useful scare, and I've done her a favor in making the scare a sharp one. I suppose," Verrian mused, "that she thinks I've kept copies of her letters."
"Yes. Why didn't you?" his mother asked.
Verrian laughed, only a little less bitterly than before. "I shall begin to believe you're all alike, mother."
I didn't keep copies of her letters because I wanted to get her and her letters out of my mind, finally and forever. Besides, I didn't choose. to emulate her duplicity by any sort of dissimulation.
"I see what you mean," his mother said. "And, of course, you have taken the only honorable way."
Then they were both silent for a time, thinking their several thoughts.
Verrian broke the silence to say, "I wish I knew what sort of 'other girl' it was that she 'got together with.'"
"Because she wrote a more cultivated letter than this magnanimous creature who takes all the blame to herself."
"Then you don't believe they're both the same?"
"They are both the same in stationery and chirography, but not in literature."
"I hope you won't get to thinking about her, then," his mother entreated, intelligibly but not definitely.
"Not seriously," Verrian reassured her. "I've had my medicine."
Continuity is so much the lesson of experience that in the course of a life by no means long it becomes the instinctive expectation. The event that has happened will happen again; it will prolong itself in a series of recurrences by which each one's episode shares in the unending history of all. The sense of this is so pervasive that humanity refuses to accept death itself as final. In the agonized affections, the shattered hopes, of those who remain, the severed life keeps on unbrokenly, and when time and reason prevail, at least as to the life here, the defeated faith appeals for fulfilment to another world, and the belief of immortality holds against the myriad years in which none of the numberless dead have made an indisputable sign in witness of it. The lost limb still reports its sensations to the brain; the fixed habit mechanically attempts its repetition when the conditions render it impossible.
Verrian was aware how deeply and absorbingly he had brooded upon the incident which he had done his utmost to close, when he found himself expecting an answer of some sort from his unknown correspondent. He perceived, then, without owning the fact, that he had really hoped for some protest, some excuse, some extenuation, which in the end would suffer him to be more merciful. Though he had wished to crush her into silence, and to forbid her all hope of his forgiveness, he had, in a manner, not meant to do it. He had kept a secret place in his soul where the sinner against him could find refuge from his justice, and when this sanctuary remained unattempted he found himself with a regret that he had barred the way to it so effectually. The regret was so vague, so formless, however, that he could tacitly deny it to himself at all times, and explicitly deny it to his mother at such times as her touch taught him that it was tangible.
One day, after ten or twelve days had gone by, she asked him, "You haven't heard anything more from that girl?"
"What girl?" he returned, as if he did not know; and he frowned. "You mean the girl that wrote me about my story?"
He continued to frown rather more darkly. "I don't see how you could expect me to hear from her, after what I wrote. But, to be categorical, I haven't, mother."
"Oh, of course not. Did you think she would be so easily silenced?"
"I did what I could to crush her into silence."
"Yes, and you did quite right; I am more and more convinced of that. But such a very tough young person might have refused to stay crushed. She might very naturally have got herself into shape again and smoothed out the creases, at least so far to try some further defence."
"It seems that she hasn't," Verrian said, still darkly, but not so frowningly.
"I should have fancied," his mother suggested, "that if she had wanted to open a correspondence with you—if that was her original object—she would not have let it drop so easily."
"Has she let it drop easily? I thought I had left her no possible chance of resuming it."
"That is true," his mother said, and for the time she said no more about the matter.
Not long after this he came home from the magazine office and reported to her from Armiger that the story was catching on more and more with the best class of readers. The editor had shown Verrian some references to it in newspapers of good standing and several letters about it.
"I thought you might like to look at the letters," Verrian said, and he took some letters from his pocket and handed them to her across the lunch-table. She did not immediately look at them, because he went on to add something that they both felt to be more important. "Armiger says there has been some increase of the sales, which I can attribute to my story if I have the cheek."
"That is good."
"And the house wants to publish the book. They think, down there, that it will have a very pretty success—not be a big seller, of course, but something comfortable."
Mrs. Verrian's eyes were suffused with pride and fondness. "And you can always think, Philip, that this has come to you without the least lowering of your standard, without forsaking your ideal for a moment."
"That is certainly a satisfaction."
She kept her proud and tender gaze upon him. "No one will ever know as I do how faithful you have been to your art. Did any of the newspapers recognize that—or surmise it, or suspect it?"
"No, that isn't the turn they take. They speak of the strong love interest involved in the problem. And the abundance of incident. I looked out to keep something happening, you know. I'm sorry I didn't ask Armiger to let me bring the notices home to you. I'm not sure that I did wisely not to subscribe to that press-clippings bureau."
His mother smiled. "You mustn't let prosperity corrupt you, Philip. Wouldn't seeing what the press is saying of it distract you from the real aim you had in your story?"
"We're all weak, of course. It might, if the story were not finished; but as it is, I think I could be proof against the stupidest praise."
"Well, for my part, I'm glad you didn't subscribe to the clippings bureau. It would have been a disturbing element." She now looked down at the letters as if she were going to take them up, and he followed the direction of her eyes. As if reminded of the fact by this, he said:
"Armiger asked me if I had ever heard anything more from that girl."
"Has he?" his mother eagerly asked, transferring her glance from the letters to her son's face.
"Not a word. I think I silenced her thoroughly."
"Yes," his mother said. "There could have been no good object in prolonging the affair and letting her confirm herself in the notion that she was of sufficient importance either to you or to him for you to continue the correspondence with her. She couldn't learn too distinctly that she had done—a very wrong thing in trying to play such a trick on you."
"That was the way I looked at it," Verrian said, but he drew a light sigh, rather wearily.
"I hope," his mother said, with a recurrent glance at the letters, "that there is nothing of that silly kind among these."
"No, these are blameless enough, unless they are to be blamed for being too flattering. That girl seems to be sole of her kind, unless the girl that she 'got together with' was really like her."
"I don't believe there was any other girl. I never thought there was more than one."
"There seemed to be two styles and two grades of culture, such as they were."
"Oh, she could easily imitate two manners. She must have been a clever girl," Mrs. Verrian said, with that admiration for any sort of cleverness in her sex which even very good women cannot help feeling.
"Well, perhaps she was punished enough for both the characters she assumed," Verrian said, with a smile that was not gay.
"Don't think about her!" his mother returned, with a perception of his mood. "I'm only thankful that she's out of our lives in every sort of way."
Verrian said nothing, but he reflected with a sort of gloomy amusement how impossible it was for any woman, even a woman so wide-minded and high-principled as his mother, to escape the personal view of all things and all persons which women take. He tacitly noted the fact, as the novelist notes whatever happens or appears to him, but he let the occasion drop out of his mind as soon as he could after it had dropped out of his talk.
The night when the last number of his story came to them in the magazine, and was already announced as a book, he sat up with his mother celebrating, as he said, and exulting in the future as well as the past. They had a little supper, which she cooked for him in a chafing-dish, in the dining-room of the tiny apartment where they lived together, and she made some coffee afterwards, to carry off the effect of the Newburg lobster. Perhaps because there was nothing to carry off the effect of the coffee, he heard her, through the partition of their rooms, stirring restlessly after he had gone to bed, and a little later she came to his door, which she set ajar, to ask, "Are you awake, Philip?"
"You seem to be, mother," he answered, with an amusement at her question which seemed not to have imparted itself to her when she came in and stood beside his bed in her dressing-gown.
"You don't think we have judged her too harshly, Philip?"
"Do you, mother?"
"No, I think we couldn't be too severe in a thing like that. She probably thought you were like some of the other story-writers; she couldn't feel differences, shades. She pretended to be taken with the circumstances of your work, but she had to do that if she wanted to fool you. Well, she has got her come-uppings, as she would probably say."
Verrian replied, thoughtfully, "She didn't strike me as a country person —at least, in her first letter."
"Then you still think she didn't write both?"
"If she did, she was trying her hand in a personality she had invented."
"Girls are very strange," his mother sighed. "They like excitement, adventure. It's very dull in those little places. I shouldn't wish you to think any harm of the poor thing."
"Poor thing? Why this magnanimous compassion, mother?"
"Oh, nothing. But I know how I was myself when I was a girl. I used almost to die of hunger for something to happen. Can you remember just what you said in your letter?"
Verrian laughed. "NO, I can't. But I don't believe I said half enough. You're nervous, mother."
"Yes, I am. But don't you get to worrying. I merely got to thinking how I should hate to have anybody's unhappiness mixed up with this happiness of ours. I do so want your pleasure in your success to be pure, not tainted with the pain of any human creature."
Verrian answered with light cynicism: "It will be tainted with the pain of the fellows who don't like me, or who haven't succeeded, and they'll take care to let me share their pain if ever they can. But if you mean that merry maiden up country, she's probably thinking, if she thinks about it at all, that she's the luckiest girl in the United States to have got out of an awful scrape so easily. At the worst, I only had fun with her in my letter. Probably she sees that she has nothing to grieve for but her own break."
"No, and you did just as you should have done; and I am glad you don't feel bitterly about it. You don't, do you?"
"Not the least."
His mother stooped over and kissed him where he lay smiling. "Well, that's good. After all, it's you I cared for. Now I can say good- night." But she lingered to tuck him in a little, from the persistence of the mother habit. "I wish you may never do anything that you will be sorry for."
"Well, I won't—if it's a good action."
They laughed together, and she left the room, still looking back to see if there was anything more she could do for him, while he lay smiling, intelligently for what she was thinking, and patiently for what she was doing.
Even in the time which was then coming and which now is, when successful authors are almost as many as millionaires, Verrian's book brought him a pretty celebrity; and this celebrity was in a way specific. It related to the quality of his work, which was quietly artistic and psychological, whatever liveliness of incident it uttered on the surface. He belonged to the good school which is of no fashion and of every time, far both from actuality and unreality; and his recognition came from people whose recognition was worth having. With this came the wider notice which was not worth having, like the notice of Mrs. Westangle, since so well known to society reporters as a society woman, which could not be called recognition of him, because it did not involve any knowledge of his book, not even its title. She did not read any sort of books, and she assimilated him by a sort of atmospheric sense. She was sure of nothing but the attention paid him in a certain very goodish house, by people whom she heard talking in unintelligible but unmistakable praise, when she said, casually, with a liquid glitter of her sweet, small eyes, "I wish you would come down to my place, Mr. Verrian. I'm asking a few young people for Christmas week. Will you?"
"Why, thank you—thank you very much," Verrian said, waiting to hear more in explanation of the hospitality launched at him. He had never seen Mrs. Westangle till then, or heard of her, and he had not the least notion where she lived. But she seemed to have social authority, though Verrian, in looking round at his hostess and her daughter, who stood near, letting people take leave, learned nothing from their common smile. Mrs. Westangle had glided close to him, in the way she had of getting very near without apparently having advanced by steps, and she stood gleaming and twittering up at him.
"I shall send you a little note; I won't let you forget," she said. Then she suddenly shook hands with the ladies of the house and was flashingly gone.
Verrian thought he might ask the daughter of the house, "And if I don't forget, am I engaged to spend Christmas week with her?"
The girl laughed. "If she doesn't forget, you are. But you'll have a good time. She'll know how to manage that." Other guests kept coming up to take leave, and Verrian, who did not want to go just yet, was retired to the background, where the girl's voice, thrown over her shoulder at him, reached him in the words, as gay as if they were the best of the joke, "It's on the Sound."
The inference was that Mrs. Westangle's place was on the Sound; and that was all Verrian knew about it till he got her little note. Mrs. Westangle knew how to write in a formless hand, but she did not know how to spell, and she had thought it best to have a secretary who could write well and spell correctly. Though, as far as literacy was concerned, she was such an almost incomparably ignorant woman, she had all the knowledge the best society wants, or, if she found herself out of any, she went and bought some; she was able to buy almost anything.
Verrian thanked the secretary for remembering him, in the belief that he was directly thanking Mrs. Westangle, whose widespread consciousness his happiness in accepting did not immediately reach; and in the very large house party, which he duly joined under her roof, he was aware of losing distinctiveness almost to the point of losing identity. This did not quite happen on the way to Belford, for, when he went to take his seat in the drawing-room car, a girl in the chair fronting him put out her hand with the laugh of Miss Macroyd.
"She did remember you!" she cried out. "How delightful! I don't see how she ever got onto you"—she made the slang her own—"in the first place, and she must have worked hard to be sure of you since."
Verrian hung up his coat and put his suit-case behind his chair, the porter having put it where he could not wheel himself vis-a-vis with the girl. "She took all the time there was," he answered. "I got my invitation only the day before yesterday, and if I had been in more demand, or had a worse conscience—"
"Oh, do say worse conscience! It's so much more interesting," the girl broke in.
"—I shouldn't have the pleasure of going to Seasands with you now," he concluded, and she gave her laugh. "Do I understand that simply my growing fame wouldn't have prevailed with her?"
Anything seemed to make Miss Macroyd laugh. "She couldn't have cared about that, and she wouldn't have known. You may be sure that it was a social question with her after the personal question was settled. She must have liked your looks!" Again Miss Macroyd laughed.
"On that side I'm invulnerable. It's only a literary vanity to be soothed or to be wounded that I have," Verrian said.
"Oh, there wouldn't be anything personal in her liking your looks. It would be merely deciding that personally you would do, "Miss Macroyd laughed, as always, and Verrian put on a mock seriousness in asking:
"Then I needn't be serious if there should happen to be anything so Westangular as a Mr. Westangle?"
"Not the least in the world."
"But there is something?"
"Oh, I believe so. But not probably at Seasands."
"Is that her house?"
"Yes. Every other name had been used, and she couldn't say Soundsands."
"Then where would the Mr. Westangular part more probably be found?"
"Oh, in Montana or Mesopotamia, or any of those places. Don't you know about him? How ignorant literary people can be! Why, he was the Amalgamated Clothespin. You haven't heard of that?"
She went on to tell him, with gay digressions, about the invention which enabled Westangle to buy up the other clothes-pins and merge them in his own—to become a commercial octopus, clutching the throats of other clothespin inventors in the tentacles of the Westangle pin. "But he isn't in clothespins now. He's in mines, and banks, and steamboats, and railroads, and I don't know what all; and Mrs. Westangle, the second of her name, never was in clothespins."
Miss Macroyd laughed all through her talk, and she was in a final burst of laughing when the train slowed into Stamford. There a girl came into the car trailing her skirts with a sort of vivid debility and overturning some minor pieces of hand-baggage which her draperies swept out of their shelter beside the chairs. She had to take one of the seats which back against the wall of the state-room, where she must face the whole length of the car. She sat weakly fallen back in the chair and motionless, as if almost unconscious; but after the train had begun to stir she started up, and with a quick flinging of her veil aside turned to look out of the window. In the flying instant Verrian saw a colorless face with pinched and sunken eyes under a worn-looking forehead, and a withered mouth whose lips parted feebly.
On her part, Miss Macroyd had doubtless already noted that the girl was, with no show of expensiveness, authoritatively well gowned and personally hatted. She stared at her, and said, "What a very hunted and escaping effect."
"She does look rather-fugitive," Verrian agreed, staring too.
"One might almost fancy—an asylum."
"Yes, or a hospital."
They continued both to stare at her, helpless for what ever different reasons to take their eyes away, and they were still interested in her when they heard her asking the conductor, "Must I change and take another train before we get to Belford? My friends thought—"
"No, this train stops at Southfield," the conductor answered, absently biting several holes into her drawing-room ticket.
"Can she be one of us?" Miss Macroyd demanded, in a dramatic whisper.
"She might be anything," Verrian returned, trying instantly, with a whir of his inventive machinery, to phrase her. He made a sort of luxurious failure of it, and rested content with her face, which showed itself now in profile and now fronted him in full, and now was restless and now subsided in a look of delicate exhaustion. He would have said, if he would have said anything absolute, that she was a person who had something on her mind; at instants she had that hunted air, passing at other instants into that air of escape. He discussed these appearances with Miss Macroyd, but found her too frankly disputatious; and she laughed too much and too loud.
At Southfield, where they all descended, Miss Macroyd promptly possessed herself of a groom, who came forward tentatively, touching his hat. "Miss Macroyd ?" she suggested.
"Yes, miss," the man said, and led the way round the station to the victoria which, when Miss Macroyd's maid had mounted to the place beside her, had no room; for any one else.
Verrian accounted for her activity upon the theory of her quite justifiable wish not to arrive at Seasands with a young man whom she might then have the effect of having voluntarily come all the way with; and after one or two circuits of the station it was apparent to him that he was not to have been sent for from Mrs. Westangle's, but to have been left to the chances of the local drivers and their vehicles. These were reduced to a single carryall and a frowsy horse whose rough winter coat recalled the aspect of his species in the period following the glacial epoch. The mud, as of a world-thaw, encrusted the wheels and curtains of the carryall.
Verrian seized upon it and then went into the waiting-room, where he had left his suit-case. He found the stranger there in parley with the young woman in the ticket-office about a conveyance to Mrs. Westangle's. It proved that he had secured not only the only thing of the sort, but the only present hope of any other, and in the hard case he could not hesitate with distress so interesting. It would have been brutal to drive off and leave that girl there, and it would have been a vulgar flourish to put the entire vehicle at her service. Besides, and perhaps above all, Verrian had no idea of depriving himself of such a chance as heaven seemed to offer him.
He advanced with the delicacy of the highest-bred hero he could imagine, and said, "I am going to Mrs. Westangle's, and I'm afraid I've got the only conveyance—such as it is. If you would let me offer you half of it? Mr. Verrian," he added, at the light of acceptance instantly kindling in her face, which flushed thinly, as with an afterglow of invalidism.
"Why, thank you; I'm afraid I must, Mr. Merriam," and Verrian was aware of being vexed at her failure to catch his name; the name of Verrian ought to have been unmistakable. "The young lady in the office says there won't be another, and I'm expected promptly." She added, with a little tremor of the lip, "I don't understand why Mrs. Westangle—" But then she stopped.
Verrian interpreted for her: "The sea-horses must have given out at Seasands. Or probably there's some mistake," and he reflected bitterly upon the selfishness of Miss Macroyd in grabbing that victoria for herself and her maid, not considering that she could not know, and has no business to ask, whether this girl was going to Mrs. Westangle's, too. "Have you a check?" he asked. "I think our driver could find room for something besides my valise. Or I could have it come—"
"Not at all," the girl said. "I sent my trunk ahead by express."
A frowsy man, to match the frowsy horse, looked in impatiently. "Any other baggage?"
"No," Verrian answered, and he led the way out after the vanishing driver. "Our chariot is back here in hiding, Miss—"
"Shirley," she said, and trailed before him through the door he opened.
He felt that he did not do it as a man of the world would have done it, and in putting her into the ramshackle carryall he knew that he had not the grace of the sort of man who does nothing else. But Miss Shirley seemed to have grace enough, of a feeble and broken sort, for both, and he resolved to supply his own lack with sincerity. He therefore set his jaw firmly and made its upper angles jut sharply through his clean-shaven cheeks. It was well that Miss Shirley had some beauty to spare, too, for Verrian had scarcely enough for himself. Such distinction as he had was from a sort of intellectual tenseness which showed rather in the gaunt forms of his face than in the gray eyes, heavily lashed above and below, and looking serious but dull with their rank, black brows. He was chewing a cud of bitterness in the accusal he made himself of having forced Miss Shirley to give her name; but with that interesting personality at his side, under the same tattered and ill-scented Japanese goat-skin, he could not refuse to be glad, with all his self-blame.
"I'm afraid it's rather a long drive-for you, Miss Shirley," he ventured, with a glance at her face, which looked very little under her hat. "The driver says it's five miles round through the marshes."
"Oh, I shall not mind," she said, courageously, if not cheerfully, and he did not feel authorized further to recognize the fact that she was an invalid, or at best a convalescent.
"These wintry tree-forms are fine, though," he found himself obliged to conclude his apology, rather irrelevantly, as the wheels of the rattling, and tilting carry all crunched the surface of the road in the succession of jerks responding to the alternate walk and gallop of the horse.
"Yes, they are," Miss Shirley answered, looking around with a certain surprise, as if seeing them now for the first time. "So much variety of color; and that burnished look that some of them have." The trees, far and near, were giving their tones and lustres in the low December sun.
"Yes," he said, "it's decidedly more refined than the autumnal coloring we brag of."
"It is," she approved, as with novel conviction. "The landscape is really beautiful. So nice and flat," she added.
He took her intention, and he said, as he craned his neck out of the carryall to include the nearer roadside stretches, with their low bushes lifting into remoter trees, "It's restful in a way that neither the mountains nor the sea, quite manage."
"Oh yes," she sighed, with a kind of weariness which explained itself in what she added: "It's the kind of thing you'd like to have keep on and on." She seemed to say that more to herself than to him, and his eyes questioned her. She smiled slightly in explaining: "I suppose I find it all the more beautiful because this is my first real look into the world after six months indoors."
"Oh!" he said, and there was no doubt a prompting in his tone.
She smiled still. "Sick people are terribly, egotistical, and I suppose it's my conceit of having been the centre of the universe so lately that makes me mention it." And here she laughed a little at herself, showing a charming little peculiarity in the catch of her upper lip on her teeth. "But this is divine—this air and this sight." She put her head out of her side of the carryall, and drank them in with her lungs and eyes.
When she leaned back again on the seat she said, "I can't get enough of it."
"But isn't this old rattletrap rather too rough for you?" he asked.
"Oh no," she said, visiting him with a furtive turn of her eyes. "It's quite ideally what invalids in easy circumstances are advised to take carriage exercise."
"Yes, it's certainly carriage exercise," Verrian admitted in the same spirit, if it was a drolling spirit. He could not help being amused by the situation in which they had been brought together, through the vigorous promptitude of Miss Macroyd in making the victoria her own, and the easy indifference of Mrs. Westangle as to how they should get to her house. If he had been alone he might have felt the indifference as a slight, but as it was he felt it rather a favor. If Miss Shirley was feeling it a slight, she was too secret or too sweet to let it be known, and he thought that was nice of her. Still, he believed he might recognize the fact without deepening a possible hurt of hers, and he added, with no apparent relevance, "If Mrs. Westangle was not looking for us on this train, she will find that it is the unexpected which happens."
"We are certainly going to happen," the girl said, with an acceptance of the plural which deepened the intimacy of the situation, and which was not displeasing to Verrian when she added, "If our friend's vehicle holds out." Then she turned her face full upon him, with what affected him as austere resolution, in continuing, "But I can't let you suppose that you're conveying a society person, or something of that sort, to Mrs. Westangle's." His own face expressed his mystification, and she concluded, "I'm simply going there to begin my work."
He smiled provisionally in temporizing with the riddle. "You women are wonderful, nowadays, for the work you do."
"Oh, but," she protested, nervously, anxiously, "it isn't good work that I'm going to do—I understand what you mean—it's work for a living. I've no business to be arriving with an invited guest, but it seemed to be a question of arriving or not at the time when I was due."
Verrian stared at her now from a visage that was an entire blank, though behind it conjecture was busy, and he was asking himself whether his companion was some new kind of hair-dresser, or uncommonly cultivated manicure, or a nursery governess obeying a hurry call to take a place in Mrs. Westangle's household, or some sort of amateur housekeeper arriving to supplant a professional. But he said nothing.
Miss Shirley said, with a distress which was genuine, though he perceived a trace of amusement in it, too, "I see that I will have to go on."
"Oh, do!" he made out to utter.
"I am going to Mrs. Westangle's as a sort of mistress of the revels. The business is so new that it hasn't got its name yet, but if I fail it won't need any. I invented it on a hint I got from a girl who undertakes the floral decorations for parties. I didn't see why some one shouldn't furnish suggestions for amusements, as well as flowers. I was always rather lucky at that in my own fam—at my father's—" She pulled herself sharply up, as if danger lay that way. "I got an introduction to Mrs. Westangle, and she's to let me try. I am going to her simply as part of the catering, and I'm not to have any recognition in the hospitalities. So it wasn't necessary for her to send for me at the station, except as a means of having me on the ground in good season. I have to thank you for that, and—I thank you." She ended in a sigh.
"It's very interesting," Verrian said, and he hoped he was not saying it in any ignoble way.
He was very presently to learn. Round a turn of the road there came a lively clacking of horses' shoes on the hard track, with the muted rumble of rubber-tired wheels, and Mrs. Westangle's victoria dashed into view. The coachman had made a signal to Verrian's driver, and the vehicles stopped side by side. The footman instantly came to the door of the carryall, touching his hat to Verrian.
"Going to Mrs. Westangle's, sir?"
"Mrs. Westangle's carriage. Going to the station for you, sir."
"Miss Shirley," Verrian said, "will you change?"
"Oh no," she answered, quickly, "it's better for me to go on as I am. But the carriage was sent for you. You must—"
Verrian interrupted to ask the footman, "How far is it yet to Mrs. Westangle's?"
"About a mile, sir."
"I think I won't change for such a short distance. I'll keep on as I am," Verrian said, and he let the goatskin, which he had half lifted to free Miss Shirley for dismounting, fall back again. "Go ahead, driver."
She had been making several gasping efforts at speech, accompanied with entreating and protesting glances at Verrian in the course of his brief colloquy with the footman. Now, as the carryall lurched forward again, and the victoria wheeled and passed them on its way back, she caught her handkerchief to her face, and to Verrian's dismay sobbed into it. He let her cry, as he must, in the distressful silence which he could not be the first to break. Besides, he did not know how she was taking it all till she suddenly with threw her handkerchief and pulled down her veil. Then she spoke three heart-broken words, "How could you!" and he divined that he must have done wrong.
"What ought I to have done?" he asked, with sullen humility.
"You ought to have taken the victoria."
"How could I?"
"You ought to have done it."
"I think you ought to have done it yourself, Miss Shirley," Verrian said, feeling like the worm that turns. He added, less resentfully, "We ought both to have taken it."
"No, Mrs. Westangle might have felt, very properly, that it was presumptuous in me, whether I came alone in it or with you. Now we shall arrive together in this thing, and she will be mortified for you and vexed with me. She will blame me for it, and she will be right, for it would have been very well for me to drive up in a shabby station carryall; but an invited guest—"
" No, indeed, she shall not blame you, Miss Shirley. I will make a point of taking the whole responsibility. I will tell her—"
"Mr. Merriam!" she cried, in anguish. "Will you please do nothing of the kind? Do you want to make bad worse? Leave the explaining altogether to me, please. Will you promise that?"
"I will promise that—or anything—if you insist," Verrian sulked.
She instantly relented a little. "You mustn't think me unreasonable. But I was determined to carry my undertaking through on business principles, and you have spoiled my chance—I know you meant it kindly or, if not spoiled, made it more difficult. Don't think me ungrateful. Mr. Merriam—"
"My name isn't Merriam," he resented, at last, a misnomer which had annoyed him from the first.
"Oh, I am so glad! Don't tell me what it is!" she said, giving a laugh which had to go on a little before he recognized the hysterical quality in it. When she could check it she explained: "Now we are not even acquainted, and I can thank a stranger for the kindness you have shown me. I am truly grateful. Will you do me another favor?"
"Yes," Verrian assented; but he thought he had a right to ask, as though he had not promised, "What is it?"
"Not to speak of me to Mrs. Westangle unless she speaks of me first."
"That's simple. I don't know that I should have any right to speak of you."
"Oh yes, you would. She will expect you, perhaps, to laugh about the little adventure, and I would rather she began the laughing you have been so good."
"All right. But wouldn't my silence make it rather more awkward?"
"I will take care of the awkwardness, thank you. And you promise?"
"Yes, I promise."
"That is very good of you." She put her hand impulsively across the goat-skin, and gave his, with which he took it in some surprise, a quick clasp. Then they were both silent, and they got out of the carryall under Mrs. Westangle's porte-cochere without having exchanged another word. Miss Shirley did not bow to him or look at him in parting.
Verrian kept seeing before his inner eyes the thin face of the girl, dimmed rather than lighted with her sick yes. When she should be stronger, there might be a pale flush in it, like sunset on snow, but Verrian had to imagine that. He did not find it difficult to imagine many things about the girl, whom, in another mood, a more judicial mood, he might have accused of provoking him to imagine them. As it was, he could not help noting to that second self which we all have about us, that her confidences, such as they were, had perhaps been too voluntary; certainly they had not been quite obligatory, and they could not be quite accounted for, except upon the theory of nerves not yet perfectly under her control. To be sure, girls said all sorts of things to one, ignorantly and innocently; but she did not seem the kind of girl who, in different circumstances, would have said anything that she did not choose or that she did not mean to say. She had been surprisingly frank, and yet, at heart, Verrian would have thought she was a very reticent person or a secret person—that is, mentally frank and sentimentally secret; possibly she was like most women in that. What he was sure of was that the visual impression of her which he had received must have been very vivid to last so long in his consciousness; all through his preparations for going down to afternoon tea her face remained subjectively before him, and when he went down and found himself part of a laughing and chattering company in the library he still found it, in his inner sense, here, there, and yonder.
He was aware of suffering a little disappointment in Mrs. Westangle's entire failure to mention Miss Shirley, though he was aware that his disappointment was altogether unreasonable, and he more reasonably decided that if she knew anything of his arrival, or the form of it, she had too much of the making of a grande dame to be recognizant of it. He did not know from her whether she had meant to send for him at the station or not, or whether she had sent her carriage back for him when he did not arrive in it at first. Nothing was left in her manner of such slight specialization as she had thrown into it when, at the Macroyds', she asked him down to her house party; she seemed, if there were any difference, to have acquired an additional ignorance of who and what he was, though she twittered and flittered up close to his elbow, after his impersonal welcome, and asked him if she might introduce him to the young lady who was pouring tea for her, and who, after the brief drama necessary for possessing him of a cup of it, appeared to have no more use for him than Mrs. Westangle herself had. There were more young men than young women in the room, but he imagined the usual superabundance of girlhood temporarily absent for repair of the fatigues of the journey. Every girl in the room had at least one man talking to her, and the girl who was pouring tea had one on each side of her and was trying to fix them both with an eye lifted towards each, while she struggled to keep her united gaze watchfully upon the tea-urn and those who came up with cups to be filled or refilled.
Verrian thought his fellow-guests were all amiable enough looking, though he made his reflection that they did not look, any of them, as if they would set the Sound on fire; and again he missed the companion of his arrival.
After he had got his cup of tea, he stood sipping it with a homeless air which he tried to conceal, and cast a furtive eye round the room till it rested upon the laughing face of Miss Macroyd. A young man was taking away her teacup, and Verrian at once went up and seized his place.
"How did you get here?" she asked, rather shamelessly, since she had kept him from coming in the victoria, but amusingly, since she seemed to see it as a joke, if she saw it at all.
"I walked," he answered.
"No, not truly."
"But, truly, how did you? Because I sent the carriage back for you."
"That was very thoughtful of you. But I found a delightful public vehicle behind the station, and I came in that. I'm so glad to know that it wasn't Mrs. Westangle who had the trouble of sending the carriage back for me."
Miss Macroyd laughed and laughed at his resentment. "But surely you met it on the way? I gave the man a description of you. Didn't he stop for you?"
"Oh yes, but I was too proud to change by that time. Or perhaps I hated the trouble."
Miss Macroyd laughed the more; then she purposely darkened her countenance so as to suit it to her lugubrious whisper, "How did she get here?"
"The mysterious fugitive. Wasn't she coming here, after all?"
"After all your trouble in supposing so?" Verrian reflected a moment, and then he said, deliberately, "I don't know."
Miss Macroyd was not going to let him off like that. "You don't know how she came, or you don't know whether she was coming?"
"I didn't say."
Her laugh resounded again. "Now you are trying to be wicked, and that is very wrong for a novelist."
"But what object could I have in concealing the fact from you, Miss Macroyd?" he entreated, with mock earnestness.
"That is what I want to find out."
"What are you two laughing so about?" the voice of Mrs. Westangle twittered at Verrian's elbow, and, looking down, he found her almost touching it. She had a very long, narrow neck, and, since it was long and narrow, she had the good sense not to palliate the fact or try to dress the effect of it out of sight. She took her neck in both hands, as it were, and put it more on show, so that you had really to like it. Now it lifted her face, though she was not a tall person, well towards the level of his; to be sure, he was himself only of the middle height of men, though an aquiline profile helped him up.
He stirred the tea which he had ceased to drink, and said, "I wasn't 'laughing so about,' Mrs. Westangle. It was Miss Macroyd."
"And I was laughing so about a mysterious stranger that came up on the train with us and got out at your station."
"And I was trying to make out what was so funny in a mysterious stranger, or even in her getting out at your station."
Mrs. Westangle was not interested in the case, or else she failed to seize the joke. At any rate, she turned from them without further question and went away to another part of the room, where she semi- attached herself in like manner to another couple, and again left it for still another. This was possibly her idea of looking after her guests; but when she had looked after them a little longer in that way she left the room and let them look after themselves till dinner.
"Come, Mr. Verrian," Miss Macroyd resumed, "what is the secret? I'll never tell if you tell me."
"You won't if I don't."
"Now you are becoming merely trivial. You are ceasing even to be provoking." Miss Macroyd, in token of her displeasure, laughed no longer.
"Am I?" he questioned; thoughtfully. "Well, then, I am tempted to act upon impulse."
"Oh, do act upon impulse for once," she urged. I'm sure you'll enjoy it."
"Do you mean that I'm never impulsive?"
"I don't think you look it."
"If you had seen me an hour ago you would have said I was very impulsive. I think I may have exhausted myself in that direction, however. I feel the impulse failing me now."
His impulse really had failed him. It had been to tell Miss Macroyd about his adventure and frankly trust her with it. He had liked her at several former meetings rather increasingly, because she had seemed open and honest beyond the most of women, but her piggish behavior at the station had been rather too open and honest, and the sense of this now opportunely intervened between him and the folly he was about to commit. Besides, he had no right to give Miss Shirley's part in his adventure away, and, since the affair was more vitally hers than his, to take it at all out of her hands. The early-falling dusk had favored an unnoticed advent for them, and there were other chances that had helped keep unknown their arrival together at Mrs. Westangle's in that squalid carryall, such as Miss Shirley's having managed instantly to slip indoors before the man came out for Verrian's suit-case, and of her having got to her own appointed place long before there was any descent of the company to the afternoon tea.
It was not for him now to undo all that and begin the laughing at the affair, which she had pathetically intimated that she would rather some one else should begin. He recoiled from his imprudence with a shock, but he had the pleasure of having mystified Miss Macroyd. He felt dismissal in the roving eye which she cast from him round the room, and he willingly let another young man replace him at her side.
Yet he was not altogether satisfied. A certain meaner self that there was in him was not pleased with his relegation even merely in his own consciousness to the championship of a girl who was going to make her living in a sort of menial way. It had better be owned for him that, in his visions of literary glory, he had figured in social triumphs which, though vague, were resplendent with the glitter of smart circles. He had been so ignorant of such circles as to suppose they would have some use for him as a brilliant young author; and though he was outwearing this illusion, he still would not have liked a girl like Julia Macroyd, whose family, if not smart, was at least chic, to know that he had come to the house with a professional mistress of the revels, until Miss Shirley should have approved herself chic, too. The notion of such an employment as hers was in itself chic, but the girl was merely a paid part of the entertainment, as yet, and had not risen above the hireling status. If she had sunk to that level from a higher rank it would be all right, but there was no evidence that she had ever been smart. Verrian would, therefore, rather not be mixed up with her—at any rate, in the imagination of a girl like Julia Macroyd; and as he left her side he drew a long breath of relief and went and put down his teacup where he had got it.
By this time the girl who was "pouring" had exhausted one of the two original guards on whom she had been dividing her vision, and Verrian made a pretence, which she favored, that he had come up to push the man away. The man gracefully submitted to be dislodged, and Verrian remained in the enjoyment of one of the girl's distorted eyes till, yet another man coming up, she abruptly got rid of Verrian by presenting him to yet another girl. In such manoeuvres the hour of afternoon tea will pass; and the time really wore on till it was time to dress for dinner.
By the time that the guests came down to dinner they were all able to participate in the exchange of the discovery which each had made, that it was snowing outdoors, and they kept this going till one girl had the good-luck to say, "I don't see anything so astonishing in that at this time of year. Now, if it was snowing indoors, it would be different."
This relieved the tension in a general laugh, and a young man tried to contribute further to the gayety by declaring that it would not be surprising to have it snow in-doors. He had once seen the thing done in a crowded hall, one night, when somebody put up a window, and the freezing current of air congealed the respiration of the crowd, which came down in a light fall of snow-flakes. He owned that it was in Boston.
"Oh, that excuses it, then," Miss Macroyd said. But she lost the laugh which was her due in the rush which some of the others made to open a window and see whether it could be made to snow in-doors there.
"Oh, it isn't crowded enough here," the young man explained who had alleged the scientific marvel.
"And it isn't Boston," Miss Macroyd tried again on the same string, and this time she got her laugh.
The girl who had first spoken remained, at the risk of pneumonia, with her arm prettily lifted against the open sash, for a moment peering out, and then reported, in dashing it down with a shiver, "It seems to be a very soft snow."
"Then it will be rain by morning," another predicted, and the girl tried hard to think of something to say in support of the hit she had made already. But she could not, and was silent almost through the whole first course at dinner.
In spite of its being a soft snow, it continued to fall as snow and not as rain. It lent the charm of stormy cold without to the brightness and warmth within. Much later, when between waltzes some of the dancers went out on the verandas for a breath of air, they came back reporting that the wind was rising and the snow was drifting.
Upon the whole, the snow was a great success, and her guests congratulated Mrs. Westangle on having thought to have it. The felicitations included recognition of the originality of her whole scheme. She had downed the hoary superstition that people had too much of a good time on Christmas to want any good time at all in the week following; and in acting upon the well-known fact that you never wanted a holiday so much as the day after you had one, she had made a movement of the highest social importance. These were the ideas which Verrian and the young man of the in-doors snow-storm urged upon her; his name was Bushwick, and he and Verrian found that they were very good-fellows after they had rather supposed the contrary.
Mrs. Westangle received their ideas with the twittering reticence that deceived so many people when they supposed she knew what they were talking about.
At breakfast, where the guests were reasonably punctual, they were all able to observe, in the rapid succession in which they descended from their rooms, that it had stopped snowing and the sun was shining brilliantly.
"There isn't enough for sleighing," Mrs. Westangle proclaimed from the head of the table in her high twitter, "and there isn't any coasting here in this flat country for miles."
"Then what are we going to do with it?" one of the young ladies humorously pouted.
"That's what I was going to suggest," Mrs. Westangle replied. She pronounced it 'sujjest', but no one felt that it mattered. "And, of course," she continued, "you needn't any of you do it if you don't like."
"We'll all do it, Mrs. Westangle," Bushwick said. "We are unanimous in that."
"Perhaps you'll think it rather funny—odd," she said.
"The odder the better, I think," Verrian ventured, and another man declared that nothing Mrs. Westangle would do was odd, though everything was original.
"Well, there is such a thing as being too original," she returned. Then she turned her head aside and looked down at something beside her plate and said, without lifting her eyes, "You know that in the Middle Ages there used to be flower-fights among the young nobility in Italy. The women held a tower, and the men attacked it with roses and flowers generally."
"Why, is this a speech?" Miss Macroyd interrupted.
"A speech from the throne, yes," Bushwick solemnly corrected her. "And she's got it written down, like a queen—haven't you, Mrs. Westangle?"
"Yes, I thought it would be more respectful."
"She coming out," Bushwick said to Verrian across the table.
"And if I got mixed up I could go back and straighten it," the hostess declared, with a good—humored candor that took the general fancy, "and you could understand without so much explaining. We haven't got flowers enough at this season," she went on, looking down again at the paper beside her plate, "but we happen to have plenty of snowballs, and the notion is to have the women occupy a snow tower and the men attack them with snowballs."
"Why," Bushwick said, "this is the snow-fort business of our boyhood! Let's go out and fortify the ladies at once." He appealed to Verrian and made a feint of pushing his chair back. "May we use water-soaked snowballs, or must they all be soft and harmless?" he asked of Mrs. Westangle, who was now the centre of a storm of applause and question from the whole table.
She kept her head and referred again to her paper. "The missiles of the assailants are to be very soft snowballs, hardly more than mere clots, so that nobody can be hurt in the assault, but the defenders may repel the assailants with harder snowballs."
"Oh," Miss Macroyd protested, "this is consulting the weakness of our sex."
"In the fury of the onset we'll forget it," Verrian reassured her.
"Do you think you really will, Mr. Verrian?" she asked. "What is all our athletic training to go for if you do?"
Mrs. Westangle read on:
"The terms of capitulation can be arranged on the ground, whether the castle is carried or the assailing party are made prisoners by its defenders."
"Hopeless captivity in either case!" Bushwick lamented.
"Isn't it rather academic?" Miss Macroyd asked of Verrian, in a low voice.
"I'm afraid, rather," he owned.
"But why are you so serious?" she pursued.
"Am I serious?" he retorted, with a trace of exasperation; and she laughed.
Their parley was quite lost in the clamor which raged up and down the table till Mrs. Westangle ended it by saying, "There's no obligation on any one to take part in the hostilities. There won't be any conscription; it's a free fight that will be open to everybody." She folded the paper she had been reading from and put it in her lap, in default of a pocket. She went on impromptu:
"You needn't trouble about building the fort, Mr. Bushwick. I've had the farmer and his men working at the castle since daybreak, and the ladies will find it all ready for them, when they're ready to defend it, down in the meadow beyond the edge of the birchlot. The battle won't begin till eleven o'clock."
She rose, and the clamor rose again with her, and her guests crushed about her, demanding to be allowed at least to go and look at the castle immediately.
One of the men's voices asked, "May I be one of the defenders, Mrs. Westangle? I want to be on the winning side, sure."
"Oh, is this going to be a circus chariot-race?" another lamented.
"No, indeed," a girl cried, "it's to be the real thing."
It fell to Verrian, in the assortment of couples in which Mrs. Westangle's guests sallied out to view the proposed scene of action, to find himself, not too willingly, at Miss Macroyd's side. In his heart and in his mind he was defending the amusement which he instantly divined as no invention of Mrs. Westangle's, and both his heart and his mind misgave him about this first essay of Miss Shirley in her new enterprise. It was, as Miss Macroyd had suggested, academic, and at the same time it had a danger in it of being tomboyish. Golf, tennis, riding, boating, swimming—all the vigorous sports in which women now excel—were boldly athletic, and yet you could not feel quite that they were tomboyish. Was it because the bent of Miss Shirley was so academic that she was periling upon tomboyishness without knowing it in this primal inspiration of hers? Inwardly he resented the word academic, although outwardly he had assented to it when Miss Macroyd proposed it. To be academic would be even more fatal to Miss Shirley's ambition than to be tomboyish, and he thought with pathos of that touch about the Italian nobility in the Middle Ages, and how little it could have moved the tough fancies of that crowd of well-groomed young people at the breakfast-table when Mrs. Westangle brought it out with her ignorant acceptance of it as a social force. After all, Miss Macroyd was about the only one who could have felt it in the way it was meant, and she had chosen to smile at it. He wondered if possibly she could feel the secondary pathos of it as he did. But to make talk with her he merely asked:
"Do you intend to take part in the fray?"
"Not unless I can be one of the reserve corps that won't need to be brought up till it's all over. I've no idea of getting my hair down."
"Ah," he sighed, "you think it's going to be rude:"
"That is one of the chances. But you seem to be suffering about it, Mr. Verrian!" she said, and, of course, she laughed.
"Who? I?" he returned, in the temptation to deny it. But he resisted. "I always suffer when there's anything silly happening, as if I were doing it myself. Don't you?"
"No, thank you, I believe not. But perhaps you are doing this? One can't suppose Mrs. Westangle imagined it."
"No, I can't plead guilty. But why isn't it predicable of Mrs. Westangle?"
"You mustn't ask too much of me, Mr. Verrian. Somehow, I won't say how, it's been imagined for her. She's heard of its being done somewhere. It can't be supposed she's read of it, anywhere."
"No, I dare say not."
Miss Macroyd came out with her laugh. "I should like to know what she makes of you, Mr. Verrian, when she is alone with herself. She must have looked you up and authenticated you in her own way, but it would be as far from your way as—well, say—the Milky Way."
"You don't think she asked me because she met me at your house?"
"No, that wouldn't be enough, from her point of view. She means to go much further than we've ever got."
"Then a year from now she wouldn't ask me?"
"It depends upon who asks you in the mean time."
"You might get to be a fad, and then she would feel that she would have to have you."
"You're not flattering me?"
"Do you find it flattering?"
"It isn't exactly my idea of the reward I've been working for. What shall I do to be a fad?"
"Well, rather degrading stunts, if you mean in the smart set. Jump about on all fours and pick up a woman's umbrella with your teeth, and bark. Anything else would be easier for you among chic people, where your brilliancy would count."
"Brilliancy? Oh, thank you! Go on."
"Now, a girl—if you were a girl—"
"Oh yes, if I were a girl! That will be so much more interesting."
"A girl," Miss Macroyd continued, "might do it by posing effectively for amateur photography. Or doing something original in dramatics or pantomimics or recitation—but very original, because chic people are critical. Or if she had a gift for getting up things that would show other girls off; or suggesting amusements; but that would be rather in the line of swell people, who are not good at getting up things and are glad of help."
"I see, I see!" Verrian said, eagerly. But he walked along looking down at the snow, and not meeting the laughing glance that Miss Macroyd cast at his face. "Well?"
"I believe that's all," she said, sharply. She added, less sharply: "She couldn't afford to fail, though, at any point. The fad that fails is extinguished forever. Will these simple facts do for fiction? Or is it for somebody in real life you're asking, Mr. Verrian?"
"Oh, for fiction. And thank you very much. Oh, that's rather pretty!"
They had come into the meadow where the snow battle was to be, and on its slope, against the dark weft of the young birch-trees, there was a mimic castle outlined in the masonry of white blocks quarried from the drifts and built up in courses like rough blocks of marble. A decoration of green from the pines that mixed with the birches had been suggested rather than executed, and was perhaps the more effective for its sketchiness.
"Yes, it's really beautiful," Miss Macroyd owned, and though she did not join her cries to those of the other girls, who stood scattered about admiring it, and laughing and chattering with the men whose applause, of course, took the jocose form, there was no doubt but she admired it. "What I can't understand is how Mrs. Westangle got the notion of this. There's the soprano note in it, and some woman must have given it to her."
"Not contralto, possibly?" Verrian asked.
"I insist upon the soprano," she said.
But he did not notice what she said. His eyes were following a figure which seemed to be escaping up through the birches behind the snow castle and ploughing its way through the drifts; in front of the structure they had been levelled to make an easier battle-field. He knew that it was Miss Shirley, and he inferred that she had been in the castle directing the farm—hands building it, and now, being caught by the premature arrival of the contesting forces, had fled before them and left her subordinates to finish the work. He felt, with a throe of helpless sympathy, that she was undertaking too much. It was hazardous enough to attempt the practice of her novel profession under the best of circumstances, but to keep herself in abeyance so far as not to be known at all in it, and, at the same time, to give way to her interest in it to the extent of coming out, with her infirmly established health, into that wintry weather, and superintending the preparations for the first folly she had planned, was a risk altogether too great for her.
Who in the world, "Miss Macroyd suddenly demanded, "is the person floundering about in the birch woods?"
"Perhaps the soprano," Verrian returned, hardily.
Bushwick detached himself from a group of girls near by and intercepted any response from Miss Macroyd to Verrian by calling to her before he came up, "Are you going to be one of the enemy, Miss Macroyd?"
"No, I think I will be neutral." She added, "Is there going to be any such thing as an umpire?"
"We hadn't thought of that. There could be. The office could be created; but, you know, it's the post of danger."
Verrian joined the group that Bushwick has left. He found a great scepticism as to the combat, mixed with some admiration for the castle, and he set himself to contest the prevalent feeling. What was the matter with a snow-fight? he demanded. It would be great fun. Decidedly he was going in for it. He revived the drooping sentiment in its favor, and then, flown with his success, he went from group to group and couple to couple, and animated all with his zeal, which came, he hardly knew whence; what he pretended to the others was that they were rather bound not to let Mrs. Westangle's scheme fall through. Their doubts vanished before him, and the terms of the battle were quickly arranged. He said he had read of one of those mediaeval flower-fights, and he could tell them how that was done. Where it would not fit into the snow-fight, they could trust to inspiration; every real battle was the effect of inspiration.
He came out, and some of the young women and most of the young men, who had dimly known of him as a sort of celebrity, and suspected him of being a prig, were reconciled, and accepted him for a nice fellow, and became of his opinion as to the details of the amusement before them.
It was not very Homeric, when it came off, or very mediaeval, but it was really lots of fun, or far more fun than one would have thought. The storming of the castle was very sincere, and the fortress was honestly defended. Miss Macroyd was made umpire, as she wished, and provided with a large snowball to sit on at a safe distance; as she was chosen by the men, the girls wanted to have an umpire of their own, who would be really fair, and they voted Verrian into the office. But he refused, partly because he did not care about being paired off with Miss Macroyd so conspicuously, and partly because he wished to help the fight along.
Attacks were made and repelled, and there were feats of individual and collective daring on the side of the defenders which were none the less daring because the assailants stopped to cheer them, and to disable themselves by laughing at the fury of the foe. A detachment of the young men at last stormed the castle and so weakened its walls that they toppled inward; then the defenders, to save themselves from being buried under the avalanche, swarmed out into the open and made the entire force of the enemy prisoners.