E-text prepared by Stan Goodman
O. HENRY MEMORIAL AWARD PRIZE STORIES 1920
Chosen by the Society of Arts and Sciences
With an Introduction by Blanche Colton Williams
Author of "A Handbook on Story Writing," "Our Short Story Writers," Etc.
Associate Professor of English, Hunter College of the City of New York.
Instructor in Story Writing, Columbia University (Extension Teaching and Summer Session).
EACH IN HIS GENERATION. By Maxwell Struthers Burt
"CONTACT!" By Frances Noyes Hart
THE CAMEL'S BACK. By F. Scott Fitzgerald
BREAK-NECK HILL. By Esther Forbes
BLACK ART AND AMBROSE. By Guy Gilpatric
THE JUDGMENT OF VULCAN. By Lee Foster Hartman
THE ARGOSIES. By Alexander Hull
ALMA MATER. By O. F. Lewis
SLOW POISON. By Alice Duer Miller
THE FACE IN THE WINDOW. By William Dudley Pelley
A MATTER OF LOYALTY. By Lawrence Perry
PROFESSOR TODD'S USED CAR. By L.H. Robbins
THE THING THEY LOVED. By "Marice Rutledge"
BUTTERFLIES. By "Rose Sidney"
NO FLOWERS. By Gordon Arthur Smith
FOOTFALLS. By Wilbur Daniel Steele
THE LAST ROOM OF ALL. By Stephen French Whitman
O. HENRY MEMORIAL AWARD PRIZE STORIES 1919, in its introduction, rendered a brief account of the origin of this monument to O. Henry's genius. Founded in 1918 by the Society of Arts and Sciences, through the initiative of Managing Director John F. Tucker, it took the form of two annual prizes of $500 and $250 for, respectively, the best and second-best stories written by Americans and published in America.
The Committee of Award sifted the periodicals of 1919 and found thirty-two which, in their opinion, were superior specimens of short-story art. The prize-winners, determined in the manner set forth, were Margaret Prescott Montague's "England to America" and Wilbur Daniel Steele's "For They Know Not What They Do." For these stories the authors duly received the awards, on the occasion of the O. Henry Memorial dinner which was given by the Society at the Hotel Astor, June 2, 1920.
Since it appeared to be a fitting extension of the memorial to incorporate in volume form the narratives chosen, they were included, either by title or reprint, in the first book of the series of which this is the second. Thus grouped, they are testimony to unprejudiced selection on the part of the Committee of Award as they are evidence of ability on the part of their authors.
The first volume has met favour from critics and from laymen. For the recognition of tedious, if pleasant, hours necessary to a meticulous survey of twelve months' brief fiction, the Committee of Award are grateful, as they are indebted to the generous cooeperation of authors and publishers, but for whom the work would have been impossible of continuation.
The committee express thanks for the approval which affirms that "No more fitting tribute to the genius of William Sidney Porter (O. Henry) could possibly have been devised than that of this 'Memorial Award,'"  which recognizes each story as "a definite expression of American life—as O. Henry's was,"  which knows by inescapable logic that a story ranking second with five judges is superior to one ranking first with only one of these. A number of reviewers graciously showed awareness of this fact.
[Footnote 1: New York Times, June 2, 1920.]
[Footnote 2: Chicago Tribune, Paris Edition, August 7, 1920.]
The Committee of Award for 1920 consisted of
BLANCHE COLTON WILLIAMS, Ph.D., Chairman EDWARD J. WHEELER, Litt.D. JUDGES ETHEL WATTS MUMFORD MERLE ST. CROIX WRIGHT, D.D. and JOHN F. TUCKER, Managing Director of the Society, Founder of the O. Henry Memorial.
As in preceding years the Committee held regular meetings at which they weighed the merits of every story-candidate presented. By January, 1921, one hundred and twenty-five remained, among which those rated highest are as follows:
Babcock, Edwina Stanton, Gargoyle (Harper's, Sept.) Barrett, Richmond Brooks, The Daughter of the Bernsteins (Smart Set, July). "Belden, Jacques," The Duke's Opera (Munsey's, October). Benet, Stephen Vincent, The Funeral of John Bixby (Munsey's, July). Brooks, Jonathan, Bills Playable (Collier's, September 18). Burt, Maxwell Struthers, A Dream or Two (Harper's, May); Each in His Generation (Scribner's, July). Cabell, James Branch, The Designs of Miramon (Century, August). Child, Richard Washburn, A Thief Indeed (Pictorial Review, June). Clausen, Carl, The Perfect Crime (Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 25). Cram, Mildred, The Ember (McCall's, June); Odell (Red Book, May); Wind (Munsey's, August). Dobie, Charles Caldwell, Young China (Ladies Home Journal, August). Edwards, Cleveland, Pride o' Name on Peachtree (Live Stories, Feb.). Ferber, Edna, You've Got to Be Selfish (McClure's, April). Fitzgerald, Scott, The Camel's Back (Saturday Evening Post, Apr. 24); The Cut-Glass Bowl (Scribner's, May); The Off-Shore Pirate (Saturday Evening Post, May 29). Forbes, Esther, Break-Neck Hill (Grinnell Review, September). Gilpatric, Guy, Black Art and Ambrose (Collier's, August 21). Hartman, Lee Foster, The Judgment of Vulcan (Harper's, March). Hergesheimer, Joseph, "Read Them and Weep" (Century, January). Hooker, Brian, Branwen (Romance, June). Hull, Alexander, The Argosies (Scribner's, September). Hume, Wilkie, The Metamorphosis of High Yaller (Live Stories, June). Kabler, Hugh, Fools First (Saturday Evening Post, November 20). Kerr, Sophie, Divine Waste (Woman's Home Companion, May). La Motte, Widows and Orphans (Century, September). Lewis, O. F., Alma Mater (Red Book, June). Sparks That Flash in the Night (Red Book, October). Marquis, Don Kale (Everybody's, September); Death and Old Man Murtrie (New Republic, February 4). Marshall, Edison, Brother Bill the Elk (Blue Book, May). Means, E. K., The Ten-Share Horse (Munsey's, May). Miller, Alice Duer, Slow Poison (Saturday Evening Post, June 12). Montague, Margaret Prescott, Uncle Sam of Freedom Ridge (Atlantic Monthly, June). Mumford, Ethel Watts, A Look of the Copperleys (Ladies Home Journal, April); Red Gulls (Pictorial Review, October). Newell, Maude Woodruff, Salvage (Green Book, July). Noyes, Frances Newbold, "Contact!"  (Pictorial Review, December). Pelley, William Dudley, The Face in the Window (Red Book, May); The Show-Down (Red Book, June). Perry, Lawrence, The Real Game (Everybody's, July). A Matter of Loyalty (Red Book, July); The Lothario of the Seabird (Ladies Home Journal, August); The Rocks of Avalon (Red Book, December). Post, Melville Davisson, The House by the Loch (Hearst's, May). Redington, Sarah, A Certain Rich Woman (Outlook, May 5). Reid, M. F., Doodle Buys a Bull Pup (Everybody's, August). Richardson, Norval, The Bracelet (McClure's, July). Robbins, L.H., "Ain't This the Darnedest World?" (American, May); Professor Todd's Used Car (Everybody's, July). "Rutledge, Marice," The Thing They Loved (Century, May). Ryan, Kathryn White, A Man of Cone (Munsey's, March). Scarborough, Dorothy, The Drought (Century, May). "Sidney, Rose," Butterflies (Pictorial Review, September). Smith, Gordon Arthur, No Flowers (Harper's, May); The Aristocrat (Harper's, November). Steele, Wilbur Daniel, Both Judge and Jury (Harper's, January); God's Mercy (Pictorial Review, July); Footfalls (Pictorial Review, October). Synon, Mary, On Scarlet Wings (Red Book, July). Titus, Harold, Aliens (Ladies Home Journal, May). Tuckerman, Arthur, Black Magic, (Scribner's, August). Welles, Harriet, According to Ruskin (Woman's Home Companion, June); Distracting Adeline (Scribner's, May). Whitman, Stephen French, The Last Room of All (Harper's, June). Wilkes, Allene Tupper, Toop Goes Skating (Woman's Home Companion, November).
[Footnote 3: Listed alphabetically by authors.]
[Footnote 4: A member of the Committee of Award, this author refused as a matter of course to allow consideration of her stories for republication here or for the prizes. But the other members insist upon their being listed, and upon mention of "Red Gulls" as one of the best stories of 1920.]
[Footnote 5: Reprinted as by Frances Noyes Hart.]
From this list were selected seventeen stories which, in the judgment of the Committee, rank highest and which, therefore, are reprinted in this volume.
Since, as will be recalled from the conditions of the award, only American authors were considered, certain familiar foreign names are conspicuously absent. Achmed Abdullah, Stacy Aumonier, F. Britten Austin, Phyllis Bottome, Thomas Burke, Coningsby Dawson, Mrs. Henry Dudeney, Lord Dunsany, John Galsworthy, Perceval Gibbon, Blasco Ibanez, Maurice Level, A. Neil Lyons, Seumas MacManus, Leonard Merrick, Maria Moravsky, Alfred Noyes, May Sinclair and Hugh Walpole all illustrate recovery from the world war. But with their stories the Committee had nothing to do. The Committee cannot forbear mention, however, of "Under the Tulips" (Detective Stories, February 10), one of the two best horror specimens of the year. It is by an Englishwoman, May Edginton.
Half a dozen names from the foreign list just given are synonymous with the best fiction of the period. Yet the short story as practised in its native home continues to excel the short story written in other lands. The English, the Russian, the French, it is being contended in certain quarters, write better literature. They do not, therefore, write better stories. If literature is of a magnificent depth and intricate subtlety in a measure proportionate to its reflection of the vast complexity of a nation that has existed as such for centuries, conceivably it will be facile and clever in a measure proportionate to its reflection of the spirit of the commonwealth which in a few hundred years has acquired a place with age-old empires.
The American short-story is "simple, economical, and brilliantly effective," H.L. Mencken admits. "Yet the same hollowness that marks the American novel," he continues, "also marks the short story." And of "many current makers of magazine short stories," he asseverates, "such stuff has no imaginable relation to life as men live it in the world." He further comments, "the native author of any genuine force and originality is almost invariably found to be under strong foreign influences, either English or Continental."
With due regard for the justice of this slant—that of a student of Shaw, Ibsen, and Nietzsche—we believe that the best stories written in America to-day reflect life, even life that is sordid and dreary or only commonplace. In the New York Evening Post the present writer observed:
"A backward glance over the short stories of the preceding twelve months discovers two facts. There are many of them, approximately between fifteen hundred and two thousand; there are, comparatively, few of merit."
[Footnote 6: The National Letters, in Prejudices, second series, Knopf, N.Y., 1920.]
[Footnote 7: April 24, 1920.]
"You have looked from the rear platform of the limited, across the widening distance, at a town passed a moment ago. A flourishing city, according to the prospectus; a commonplace aggregation of architecture, you say; respectable middle-class homes; time-serving cottages built on the same plan; a heaven-seeking spire; perhaps a work of art in library or townhall. You are rather glad that you have left it behind; rather certain that soon you will have rolled through another, its counterpart.
"But there may be hope, here, of sorts. For a typical American town represents twentieth century life and development, just as current short stories reflect conditions. If the writer failed to represent his age, to reflect its peculiar images, he would not serve it truly."
It is significant that these words preceded by only a few months the publication of Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street," which illustrates in a big and popular way the point in question. Work of satire that it is, it cannot but hold out a solution of the problem presented: in the sweep of the land to the Rockies lies a "dominion which will rise to unexampled greatness when other empires have grown senile."
America is young; its writers are young. But they are reflecting the many-coloured, multiform life of America, in journalism and in art. Quite naturally, they profit by all that has preceded them in other literatures. Since their work stands rooted in romanticism it may legitimately heighten the effects and lights of everyday life.
A glance at the stories republished by the O. Henry Memorial Award Committee for 1920 will reveal their varied nature. The genus Africanus is represented by "Black Art and Ambrose," which has a close second in another on the list, "The Metamorphosis of High Yaller," and a third in "The Ten-Share Horse" of E.K. Means. The tabulation reveals a number of cosmic types—Jewish, Chinese, English, French, Irish, Italian, American. The Chinese character is even more ubiquitous than in 1919, but the tales wherein he figures appear to the Committee to be the last drops in the bucket. Two exceptions occur: "Young China," by Charles Caldwell Dobie, and "Widows and Orphans," by Ellen La Motte. The former knows San Francisco Chinatown, the latter is acquainted with the Oriental at home. One of the Committee regards "The Daughter of the Bernsteins" as the best story of Jewish character. Another sees in it a certain crudeness. Its companions in the year were the tales of Bruno Lessing, Montague Glass, and—in particular—a story by Leon Kelley entitled "Speeches Ain't Business" (Pictorial Review, July).
But this note on the list is a digression. With regard to the stories reprinted, "The Last Room of All" illustrates old-world influence, surely, in its recountal of events in an age long past, the time of the Second Emperor Frederick of Swabia. In its revival of old forms, old customs, it is a masquerade. But behold that it is a gorgeous blood-coloured masquerade and that Cercamorte is a distinct portrait of the swash-buckler hero of those times.
The young Americans in "The Camel's Back" support a critical thesis made for their author that he is evolving an idiom. It is the idiom of young America. If you are over thirty, read one of this prodigy's ten-thousand word narratives and discover for the first time that you are separated by a hopeless chasm from the infant world.
"Professor Todd's Used Car" and "Alma Mater" are two of the numerous stories published in 1920 which take up the cudgels for the undertrodden college professor. Incidentally, it is interesting to read from a letter of Mr. Lewis: "The brevity—and the twist in the plot at the end—were consciously patterned on O. Henry's methods."
Without further enumeration of the human types, it is a matter of observation that they exist in many moods and ages as they exist in real life. A revenant who lived one hundred years ago might pick up this volume and secure a fairly accurate idea of society to-day. A visitor from another country might find it a guide to national intelligence and feeling.
A few stories appealed to the Committee for their poetry. "The Funeral of John Bixby," by Stephen Vincent Benet, and "The Duke's Opera," by "Jacques Belden" (the first an allegorical fantasy and the second a poetic-romance) are at the head of this division. With these should be included Don Marquis's "Death and Old Man Murtrie," for its sardonic allegory, and "The Designs of Miramon," by James Branch Cabell, for its social satire. Individual members of the Committee would have liked to include these—different members preferring different ones of the four—but the Committee as a whole saw the allegory or satire or poetry predominant over story values.
The mysterious and the tragic are found in the work of Mildred Cram and Wilbur Daniel Steele. "Odell" and "Wind" illustrate Miss Cram's particular genius in this direction: but "The Ember," it is voted, ranks first of her publications. Mr. Steele's "Both Judge and Jury" and "God's Mercy" are exotic, perhaps, but the atmosphere he creates is beguiling in comparison with that of mere everyday. "Footfalls" was selected out of an embarrassment of riches offered by this author. The best horror story of the year is Rose Sidney's "Butterflies." It is a Greek tragedy, unrelieved, to be taken or left without palliation.
Athletics, no one will deny, constitutes a definite phase of American life. The sport-struggle is best illustrated in the fiction of Lawrence Perry, whether it be that of a polo match, tennis game, or crew race. "A Matter of Loyalty" is representative of this contest, and in the combined judgment of the Committee the highest ranking of all Mr. Perry's stories. "Bills Playable," by Jonathan Brooks, conceives athletics in a more humorous spirit.
Animal stories fill page upon page of 1920 magazines. Edison Marshall, represented in the 1919 volume, by "The Elephant Remembers," has delivered the epic of "Brother Bill the Elk." In spite of its length, some fifteen thousand words, the Committee were mightily tempted to request it for republication. Its Western author knows the animals in their native lairs. "Break-Neck Hill," for which a member of the Committee suggests the more poignant "Heart-Break Hill" as title, expresses sympathy for the horse in a way the Committee believe hitherto unexploited. "Aliens" received more votes as the best dog story of the year.
Among a number of sea-tales are those by Richard Matthews Hallet, wherein Big Captain Hat appears. The woman sea-captain is by way of being, for the moment, a novel figure.
Anecdotal stories and very brief tales appear to have received editorial sanction in 1920. "No Flowers" is of the former genre, and whereas certain of the Committee see in the same author's "The Aristocrat" a larger story, they agree with the majority that the scintillance of this well-polished gem should give it setting here.
Variety of setting and diversity of emotion the reader will find in greater measure, perhaps, than in the first volume of this series. "Butterflies," for example, spells unrelieved horror; "The Face in the Window" demands sympathetic admiration for its heroine; to read "Contact!" means to suffer the familiar Aristotelian purging of the emotions through tears. And their locales are as widely dissimilar as are their emotional appeals. With these, all of which are reprinted herein, the reader will do well to compare Dorothy Scarborough's "Drought," for the pathos of a situation brought about by the elements of nature in Texas.
The Committee could not agree upon the first and second prize stories. The leaders were: "Each in His Generation," "Contact!" "The Thing They Loved," "The Last Room of All," "Slow Poison," "God's Mercy" and "Alma Mater." No story headed more than one list. The point system, to which resort was made, resulted in the first prize falling to "Each in His Generation," by Maxwell Struthers Burt, and the second to "Contact!", by Frances Newbold Noyes (now Frances Noyes Hart).
Mr. Burt's story of Henry McCain and his nephew Adrian compresses within legitimate story limits the antagonism between successive generations. Each representative, bound by traditions and customs of the particular age to which he belongs, is bound also by the chain of inheritance. One interested in the outcome of the struggle between the inexorable thrall of "period" and the inevitable bond of race will find the solution of the problem satisfactory, as will the reader who enjoys the individual situation and wishes most to find out whether Uncle Henry left his money to Adrian or rejected that choice for marriage with the marvellous lady of his own era.
"Contact!" is the first story by the author of "My A.E.F." and in its every line testifies to the vital interest Miss Noyes had and has in the boys who won the war—whether American, French or English. So much one would know from a single rapid reading. A critic might guess that it would have been impossible as a first story if the author had not lived much abroad, as she has done since she was very much of a child. At Oxford, or in the home of Gaston Paris, or travelling around the globe, she received the foundation for the understanding sympathy which endeared her as "Petite" to her soldier boys. A critic might also aver that the steady moving forward of the action, joined to the backward progress, yet both done so surely, could not have been achieved without years of training. And in this respect the narrative is little short of being a tour de force. But, as a matter of fact. Miss Noyes dreamed the whole thing! Her antecedent experience proved greater than mere technique.
The Committee wish to comment upon the irregularity of the output of fiction from month to month. May brought forth the greatest number of good stories, as November reaped the fewest. They wish, also, to register notice of the continued flexibility of the short story form. "The Judgment of Vulcan," at one extreme, in some thirteen thousand words none the less relates a short story; "Alma Mater," at the other, accomplishes the same end in two thousand. It is a matter of record that the Committee discovered a number of excellent examples containing not more than two thirds this latter number, a fact that argues against the merging of the short story and the novel. Finally, the Committee believe the fiction of the year 1920 superior to that of 1919.
BLANCHE COLTON WILLIAMS, NEW YORK CITY, March 3, 1921.
EACH IN HIS GENERATION
BY MAXWELL STRUTHERS BURT
From Scribner's Magazine
Every afternoon at four o'clock, except when the weather was very bad—autumn, winter, and spring—old Mr. Henry McCain drove up to the small, discreet, polished front door, in the small, discreet, fashionable street in which lived fairly old Mrs. Thomas Denby; got out, went up the white marble steps, rang the bell, and was admitted into the narrow but charming hall—dim turquoise-blue velvet panelled into the walls, an etching or two: Whistler, Brangwyn—by a trim parlour-maid. Ten generations, at least, of trim parlour-maids had opened the door for Mr. McCain. They had seen the sparkling victoria change, not too quickly, to a plum-coloured limousine; they had seen Mr. McCain become perhaps a trifle thinner, the colour in his cheeks become a trifle more confined and fixed, his white hair grow somewhat sparser, but beyond that they had seen very little indeed, although, when they had left Mr. McCain in the drawing-room with the announcement that Mrs. Denby would be down immediately, and were once again seeking the back of the house, no doubt their eyebrows, blonde, brunette, or red, apexed to a questioning angle.
In the manner of youth the parlour-maids had come, worked, fallen in love and departed, but Mr. McCain, in the manner of increasing age, had if anything grown more faithful and exact to the moment. If he were late the fraction of five minutes, one suspected that he regretted it, that it came near to spoiling his entire afternoon. He was not articulate, but occasionally he expressed an idea and the most common was that he "liked his things as he liked them"; his eggs, in other words, boiled just so long, no more—after sixty years of inner debate on the subject he had apparently arrived at the conclusion that boiled eggs were the only kind of eggs permissible—his life punctual and serene. The smallest manifestation of unexpectedness disturbed him. Obviously that was one reason why, after a youth not altogether constant, he had become so utterly constant where Mrs. Denby was concerned. She had a quality of perenniality, charming and assuring, even to each strand of her delicate brown hair. Grayness should have been creeping upon her, but it was not. It was doubtful if Mr. McCain permitted himself, even secretly, to wonder why. Effects, fastidious and constant, were all he demanded from life.
This had been going on for twenty years—this afternoon call; this slow drive afterward in the park; this return by dusk to the shining small house in the shining small street; the good-by, reticently ardent, as if it were not fully Mr. McCain's intention to return again in the evening. Mr. McCain would kiss Mrs. Denby's hand—slim, lovely, with a single gorgeous sapphire upon the third finger. "Good-by, my dear," he would say, "you have given me the most delightful afternoon of my life." For a moment Mrs. Denby's hand would linger on the bowed head; then Mr. McCain would straighten up, smile, square his shoulders in their smart, young-looking coat, and depart to his club, or the large, softly lit house where he dwelt alone. At dinner he would drink two glasses of champagne. Before he drained the last sip of the second pouring he would hold the glass up to the fire, so that the bronze coruscations at the heart of the wine glowed like fireflies in a gold dusk. One imagined him saying to himself: "A perfect woman! A perfect woman—God bless her!" Saying "God bless" any one, mind you, with a distinct warming of the heart, but a thoroughly late-Victorian disbelief in any god to bless.... At least, you thought as much.
And, of course, one had not the slightest notion whether he—old Mr. Henry McCain—was aware that this twenty years of devotion on his part to Mrs. Denby was the point upon which had come to focus the not inconsiderable contempt and hatred for him of his nephew Adrian.
It was an obvious convergence, this devotion of all the traits which composed, so Adrian imagined, the despicable soul that lay beneath his uncle's unangled exterior: undeviating self-indulgence; secrecy; utter selfishness—he was selfish even to the woman he was supposed to love; that is, if he was capable of loving any one but himself—a bland hypocrisy; an unthinking conformation to the dictates of an unthinking world. The list could be multiplied. But to sum it up, here was epitomized, beautifully, concretely, the main and minor vices of a generation for which Adrian found little pity in his heart; a generation brittle as ice; a generation of secret diplomacy; a generation that in its youth had covered a lack of bathing by a vast amount of perfume. That was it—! That expressed it perfectly! The just summation! Camellias, and double intentions in speech, and unnecessary reticences, and refusals to meet the truth, and a deliberate hiding of uglinesses!
Most of the time Adrian was too busy to think about his uncle at all—he was a very busy man with his writing: journalistic writing; essays, political reviews, propaganda—and because he was busy he was usually well-content, and not uncharitable, except professionally; but once a month it was his duty to dine with his uncle, and then, for the rest of the night, he was disturbed, and awoke the next morning with the dusty feeling in his head of a man who has been slightly drunk. Old wounds were recalled, old scars inflamed; a childhood in which his uncle's figure had represented to him the terrors of sarcasm and repression; a youth in which, as his guardian, his uncle had deprecated all first fine hot-bloodednesses and enthusiasms; a young manhood in which he had been told cynically that the ways of society were good ways, and that the object of life was material advancement; advice which had been followed by the stimulus of an utter refusal to assist financially except where absolutely necessary. There had been willingness, you understand, to provide a gentleman's education, but no willingness to provide beyond that any of a gentleman's perquisites. That much of his early success had been due to this heroic upbringing, Adrian was too honest not to admit, but then—by God, it had been hard! All the colour of youth! No time to dream—except sorely! Some warping, some perversion! A gasping, heart-breaking knowledge that you could not possibly keep up with the people with whom, paradoxically enough, you were supposed to spend your leisure hours. Here was the making of a radical. And yet, despite all this, Adrian dined with his uncle once a month.
The mere fact that this was so, that it could be so, enraged him. It seemed a renunciation of all he affirmed; an implicit falsehood. He would have liked very much to have got to his feet, standing firmly on his two long, well-made legs, and have once and for all delivered himself of a final philippic. The philippic would have ended something like this:
"And this, sir, is the last time I sacrifice any of my good hours to you. Not because you are old, and therefore think you are wise, when you are not; not because you are blind and besotted and damned—a trunk of a tree filled with dry rot that presently a clean wind will blow away; not because your opinions, and the opinions of all like you, have long ago been proven the lies and idiocies that they are; not even because you haven't one single real right left to live—I haven't come to tell you these things, although they are true; for you are past hope and there is no use wasting words upon you; I have come to tell you that you bore me inexpressibly. (That would be the most dreadful revenge of all. He could see his uncle's face!) That you have a genius for taking the wrong side of every question, and I can no longer endure it. I dissipate my time. Good-night!"
He wouldn't have said it in quite so stately a way, possibly, the sentences would not have been quite so rounded, but the context would have been the same.
Glorious; but it wasn't said. Instead, once a month, he got into his dinner-jacket, brushed his hair very sleekly, walked six blocks, said good-evening to his uncle's butler, and went on back to the library, where, in a room rich with costly bindings, and smelling pleasantly of leather, and warmly yellow with the light of two shaded lamps, he would find his uncle reading before a crackling wood fire. What followed was almost a formula, an exquisite presentation of stately manners, an exquisite avoidance of any topic which might cause a real discussion. The dinner was invariably gentle, persuasive, a thoughtful gastronomic achievement. Heaven might become confused about its weather, and about wars, and things like that, but Mr. McCain never became confused about his menus. He had a habit of commending wine. "Try this claret, my dear fellow, I want your opinion.... A drop of this Napoleonic brandy won't hurt you a bit." He even sniffed the bouquet before each sip; passed, that is, the glass under his nose and then drank. But Adrian, with a preconceived image of the personality back of this, and the memory of too many offences busy in his mind, saw nothing quaint or amusing. His gorge rose. Damn his uncle's wines, and his mushrooms, and his soft-footed servants, and his house of nuances and evasions, and his white grapes, large and outwardly perfect, and inwardly sentimental as the generation whose especial fruit they were. As for himself, he had a recollection of ten years of poverty after leaving college; a recollection of sweat and indignities; he had also a recollection of some poor people whom he had known.
Afterward, when the dinner was over, Adrian would go home and awake his wife, Cecil, who, with the brutal honesty of an honest woman, also some of the ungenerosity, had early in her married life flatly refused any share in the ceremonies described. Cecil would lie in her small white bed, the white of her boudoir-cap losing itself in the white of the pillow, a little sleepy and a little angrily perplexed at the perpetual jesuitical philosophy of the male. "If you feel that way," she would ask, "why do you go there, then? Why don't you banish your uncle utterly?" She asked this not without malice, her long, violet, Slavic eyes widely open, and her red mouth, a trifle too large, perhaps, a trifle cruel, fascinatingly interrogative over her white teeth. She loved Adrian and had at times, therefore, the right and desire to torture him. She knew perfectly well why he went. He was his uncle's heir, and until such time as money and other anachronisms of the present social system were done away with, there was no use throwing a fortune into the gutter, even if by your own efforts you were making an income just sufficiently large to keep up with the increased cost of living.
Sooner or later Adrian's mind reverted to Mrs. Denby. This was usually after he had been in bed and had been thinking for a while in the darkness. He could not understand Mrs. Denby. She affronted his modern habit of thought.
"The whole thing is so silly and adventitious!"
Adrian was aware that his wife knew exactly of what he was talking, but he had come to expect the question. "Mrs. Denby and my uncle." He would grow rather gently cross. "It has always reminded me of those present-day sword-and-cloak romances fat business men used to write about ten years ago and sell so enormously—there's an atmosphere of unnecessary intrigue. What's it all about? Here's the point! Why, if she felt this way about things, didn't she divorce that gentle drunkard of a husband of hers years ago and marry my uncle outright and honestly? Or why, if she couldn't get a divorce—which she could—didn't she leave her husband and go with my uncle? Anything in the open! Make a break—have some courage of her opinions! Smash things; build them up again! Thank God nowadays, at least, we have come to believe in the cleanness of surgery rather than the concealing palliatives of medicine. We're no longer—we modern people—afraid of the world; and the world can never hurt for any length of time any one who will stand up to it and tell it courageously to go to hell. No! It comes back and licks hands."
"I'll tell you why. My uncle and Mrs. Denby are the typical moral cowards of their generation. There's selfishness, too. What a travesty of love! Of course there's scandal, a perpetual scandal; but it's a hidden, sniggering scandal they don't have to meet face to face; and that's all they ask of life, they, and people like them—never to have to meet anything face to face. So long as they can bury their heads like ostriches! ... Faugh!" There would be a moment's silence; then Adrian would complete his thought. "In my uncle's case," he would grumble in the darkness, "one phase of the selfishness is obvious. He couldn't even get himself originally, I suppose, to face the inevitable matter-of-fact moments of marriage. It began when he was middle-aged, a bachelor—I suppose he wants the sort of Don Juan, eighteen-eighty, perpetual sort of romance that doesn't exist outside the brains of himself and his like.... Camellias!"
Usually he tried to stir up argument with his wife, who in these matters agreed with him utterly; even more than agreed with him, since she was the escaped daughter of rich and stodgy people, and had insisted upon earning her own living by portrait-painting. Theoretically, therefore, she was, of course, an anarchist. But at moments like the present her silent assent and the aura of slight weariness over an ancient subject which emanated from her in the dusk, affronted Adrian as much as positive opposition.
"Why don't you try to understand me?"
"I do, dearest!"—a pathetic attempt at eager agreement.
"Well, then, if you do, why is the tone of your voice like that? You know by now what I think. I'm not talking convention; I believe there are no laws higher than the love of a man for a woman. It should seek expression as a seed seeks sunlight. I'm talking about honesty; bravery; a willingness to accept the consequences of one's acts and come through; about the intention to sacrifice for love just what has to be sacrificed. What's the use of it otherwise? That's one real advance the modern mind has made, anyhow, despite all the rest of the welter and uncertainty."
"Of course, dearest."
He would go on. After a while Cecil would awake guiltily and inject a fresh, almost gay interest into her sleepy voice. She was not so unfettered as not to dread the wounded esteem of the unlistened-to male. She would lean over and kiss Adrian.
"Do go to sleep, darling! What's the sense? Pretty soon your uncle will be dead—wretched old man! Then you'll never have to think of him again." Being a childless woman, her red, a trifle cruel mouth would twist itself in the darkness into a small, secretive, maternal smile.
But old Mr. Henry McCain didn't die; instead he seemed to be caught up in the condition of static good health which frequently companions entire selfishness and a careful interest in oneself. His butler died, which was very annoying. Mr. McCain seemed to consider it the breaking of a promise made fifteen or so years before. It was endlessly a trouble instructing a new man, and then, of course, there was Adlington's family to be looked after, and taxes had gone up, and Mrs. Adlington was a stout woman who, despite the fact that Adlington, while alive, had frequently interrupted Mr. McCain's breakfast newspaper reading by asserting that she was a person of no character, now insisted upon weeping noisily every time Mr. McCain granted her an interview. Also, and this was equally unexpected, since one rather thought he would go on living forever, like one of the damper sort of fungi, Mr. Denby came home from the club one rainy spring night with a slight cold and died, three days later, with extraordinary gentleness.
"My uncle," said Adrian, "is one by one losing his accessories. After a while it will be his teeth."
Cecil was perplexed. "I don't know exactly what to do," she complained. "I don't know whether to treat Mrs. Denby as a bereaved aunt, a non-existent family skeleton, or a released menace. I dare say now, pretty soon, she and your uncle will be married. Meanwhile, I suppose it is rather silly of me not to call and see if I can help her in any way. After all, we do know her intimately, whether we want to or not, don't we? We meet her about all the time, even if she wasn't motoring over to your uncle's place in the summer when we stop there."
So she went, being fundamentally kindly and fundamentally curious. She spoke of the expedition as "a descent upon Fair Rosamund's tower."
The small, yellow-panelled drawing-room, where she awaited Mrs. Denby's coming, was lit by a single silver vase-lamp under an orange shade and by a fire of thin logs, for the April evening was damp with a hesitant rain. On the table, near the lamp, was a silver vase with three yellow tulips in it, and Cecil, wandering about, came upon a double photograph frame, back of the vase, that made her gasp. She picked it up and stared at it. Between the alligator edgings, facing each other obliquely, but with the greatest amity, were Mr. Thomas Denby in the fashion of ten years before, very handsome, very well-groomed, with the startled expression which any definite withdrawal from his potational pursuits was likely to produce upon his countenance, and her uncle-in-law, Mr. Henry McCain, also in the fashion of ten years back. She was holding the photographs up to the light, her lips still apart, when she heard a sound behind her, and, putting the frame back guiltily, turned about. Mrs. Denby was advancing toward her. She seemed entirely unaware of Cecil's malfeasance; she was smiling faintly; her hand was cordial, grateful.
"You are very good," she murmured. "Sit here by the fire. We will have some tea directly."
Cecil could not but admit that she was very lovely; particularly lovely in the black of her mourning, with her slim neck, rising up from its string of pearls, to a head small and like a delicate white-and-gold flower. An extraordinarily well-bred woman, a sort of misty Du Maurier woman, of a type that had become almost non-existent, if ever it had existed in its perfection at all. And, curiously enough, a woman whose beauty seemed to have been sharpened by many fine-drawn renunciations. Now she looked at her hands as if expecting Cecil to say something.
"I think such calls as this are always very useless, but then—"
"Exactly—but then! They mean more than anything else in the world, don't they? When one reaches fifty-five one is not always used to kindness.... You are very kind...." She raised her eyes.
Cecil experienced a sudden impulsive warmth. "After all, what did she or any one else know about other peoples' lives? Poor souls! What a base thing life often was!"
"I want you to understand that we are always so glad, both Adrian and myself.... Any time we can help in any way, you know—"
"Yes, I think you would. You—I have watched you both. You don't mind, do you? I think you're both rather great people—at least, my idea of greatness."
Cecil's eyes shone just a little; then she sat back and drew together her eager, rather childish mouth. This wouldn't do! She had not come here to encourage sentimentalization. With a determined effort she lifted her mind outside the circle of commiseration which threatened to surround it. She deliberately reset the conversation to impersonal limits. She was sure that Mrs. Denby was aware of her intention, adroitly concealed as it was. This made her uncomfortable, ashamed. And yet she was irritated with herself. Why should she particularly care what this woman thought in ways as subtle as this? Obvious kindness was her intention, not mental charity pursued into tortuous by-paths. And, besides, her frank, boyish cynicism, its wariness, revolted, even while she felt herself flattered at the prospect of the confidences that seemed to tremble on Mrs. Denby's lips. It wouldn't do to "let herself in for anything"; to "give herself away." No! She adopted a manner of cool, entirely reflective kindliness. But all along she was not sure that she was thoroughly successful. There was a lingering impression that Mrs. Denby was penetrating the surface to the unwilling interest beneath. Cecil suspected that this woman was trained in discriminations and half-lights to which she and her generation had joyfully made themselves blind. She felt uncomfortably young; a little bit smiled at in the most kindly of hidden ways. Just as she was leaving, the subversive softness came close to her again, like a wave of too much perfume as you open a church-door; as if some one were trying to embrace her against her will.
"You will understand," said Mrs. Denby, "that you have done the very nicest thing in the world. I am horribly lonely. I have few women friends. Perhaps it is too much to ask—but if you could call again sometime. Yes ... I would appreciate it so greatly."
She let go of Cecil's hand and walked to the door, and stood with one long arm raised against the curtain, her face turned toward the hall.
"There is no use," she said, "in attempting to hide my husband's life, for every one knows what it was, but then—yes, I think you will understand. I am a childless woman, you see; he was infinitely pathetic."
Cecil felt that she must run away, instantly. "I do—" she said brusquely. "I understand more than other women. Perfectly! Good-by!"
She found herself brushing past the latest trim parlour-maid, and out once more in the keen, sweet, young dampness. She strode briskly down the deserted street. Her fine bronze eyebrows were drawn down to where they met. "Good Lord! Damn!"—Cecil swore very prettily and modernly—"What rotten taste! Not frankness, whatever it might seem outwardly; not frankness, but devious excuses! Some more of Adrian's hated past-generation stuff! And yet—no! The woman was sincere—perfectly! She had meant it—that about her husband. And she was lovely—and she was fine, too! It was impossible to deny it. But—a childless woman! About that drunken tailor's model of a husband! And then—Uncle Henry! ..." Cecil threw back her head; her eyes gleamed in the wet radiance of a corner lamp; she laughed without making a sound, and entirely without amusement.
But it is not true that good health is static, no matter how carefully looked after. And, despite the present revolt against the Greek spirit, Time persists in being bigotedly Greek. The tragedy—provided one lives long enough—is always played out to its logical conclusion. For every hour you have spent, no matter how quietly or beautifully or wisely, Nemesis takes toll in the end. You peter out; the engine dulls; the shining coin wears thin. If it's only that it is all right; you are fortunate if you don't become greasy, too, or blurred, or scarred. And Mr. McCain had not spent all his hours wisely or beautifully, or even quietly, underneath the surface. He suddenly developed what he called "acute indigestion."
"Odd!" he complained, "and exceedingly tiresome! I've been able to eat like an ostrich all my life." Adrian smiled covertly at the simile, but his uncle was unaware that it was because in Adrian's mind the simile applied to his uncle's conscience, not his stomach.
It was an odd disease, that "acute indigestion." It manifested itself by an abrupt tragic stare in Mr. McCain's eyes, a whiteness of cheek, a clutching at the left side of the breast; it resulted also in his beginning to walk very slowly indeed. One day Adrian met Carron, his uncle's physician, as he was leaving a club after luncheon. Carron stopped him. "Look here, Adrian," he said, "is that new man of your uncle's—that valet, or whatever he is—a good man?"
Adrian smiled. "I didn't hire him," he answered, "and I couldn't discharge him if I wanted—in fact, any suggestion of that kind on my part, would lead to his employment for life. Why?"
"Because," said Carron, "he impresses me as being rather young and flighty, and some day your uncle is going to die suddenly. He may last five years; he may snuff out to-morrow. It's his heart." His lips twisted pityingly. "He prefers to call it by some other name," he added, "and he would never send for me again if he knew I had told you, but you ought to know. He's a game old cock, isn't he?"
"Oh, very!" agreed Adrian. "Yes, game! Very, indeed!"
He walked slowly down the sunlit courtway on which the back door of the club opened, swinging his stick and meditating. Spring was approaching its zenith. In the warm May afternoon pigeons tumbled about near-by church spires which cut brown inlays into the soft blue sky. There was a feeling of open windows; a sense of unseen tulips and hyacinths; of people playing pianos.... Too bad, an old man dying that way, his hand furtively seeking his heart, when all this spring was about! Terror in possession of him, too! People like that hated to die; they couldn't see anything ahead. Well, Adrian reflected, the real tragedy of it hadn't been his fault. He had always been ready at the slightest signal to forget almost everything—yes, almost everything. Even that time when, as a sweating newspaper reporter, he had, one dusk, watched in the park his uncle and Mrs. Denby drive past in the cool seclusion of a shining victoria. Curious! In itself the incident was small, but it had stuck in his memory more than others far more serious, as concrete instances are likely to do.... No, he wasn't sorry; not a bit! He was glad, despite the hesitation he experienced in saying to himself the final word. He had done his best, and this would mean his own release and Cecil's. It would mean at last the blessed feeling that he could actually afford a holiday, and a little unthinking laughter, and, at thirty-nine, the dreams for which, at twenty-five, he had never had full time. He walked on down the courtway more briskly.
That Saturday night was the night he dined with his uncle. It had turned very warm; unusually warm for the time of year. When he had dressed and had sought out Cecil to say good-by to her he found her by the big studio window on the top floor of the apartment where they lived. She was sitting in the window-seat, her chin cupped in her hand, looking out over the city, in the dark pool of which lights were beginning to open like yellow water-lilies. Her white arm gleamed in the gathering dusk, and she was dressed in some diaphanous blue stuff that enhanced the bronze of her hair. Adrian took his place silently beside her and leaned out. The air was very soft and hot and embracing, and up here it was very quiet, as if one floated above the lower clouds of perpetual sound.
Cecil spoke at last. "It's lovely, isn't it?" she said. "I should have come to find you, but I couldn't. These first warm nights! You really understand why people live, after all, don't you? It's like a pulse coming back to a hand you love." She was silent a moment. "Kiss me," she said, finally. "I—I'm so glad I love you, and we're young."
He stooped down and put his arms about her. He could feel her tremble. How fragrant she was, and queer, and mysterious, even if he had lived with her now for almost fifteen years! He was infinitely glad at the moment for his entire life. He kissed her again, kissed her eyes, and she went down the stairs with him to the hall-door. She was to stop for him at his uncle's, after a dinner to which she was going.
Adrian lit a cigarette and walked instead of taking the elevator. It was appropriate to his mood that on the second floor some one with a golden Italian voice should be singing "Louise." He paused for a moment. He was reminded of a night long ago in Verona, when there had been an open window and moonlight in the street. Then he looked at his watch. He was late; he would have to hurry. It amused him that at his age he should still fear the silent rebuke with which his uncle punished unpunctuality.
He arrived at his destination as a near-by church clock struck the half-hour. The new butler admitted him and led him back to where his uncle was sitting by an open window; the curtains stirred in the languid breeze, the suave room was a little penetrated by the night, as if some sly, disorderly spirit was investigating uninvited. It was far too hot for the wood fire—that part of the formula had been omitted, but otherwise each detail was the same. "The two hundredth time!" Adrian thought to himself. "The two hundredth time, at least! It will go on forever!" And then the formula was altered again, for his uncle got to his feet, laying aside the evening paper with his usual precise care. "My dear fellow," he began, "so good of you! On the minute, too! I——" and then he stumbled and put out his hand. "My glasses!" he said.
Adrian caught him and held him upright. He swayed a little. "I——Lately I have had to use them sometimes, even when not reading," he murmured. "Thank you! Thank you!"
Adrian went back to the chair where his uncle had been sitting. He found the glasses—gold pince-nez—but they were broken neatly in the middle, lying on the floor, as if they had dropped from someone's hand. He looked at them for a moment, puzzled, before he gave them back to his uncle.
"Here they are, sir," he said. "But—it's very curious. They're broken in such an odd way."
His uncle peered down at them. He hesitated and cleared his throat. "Yes," he began; then he stood up straight, with an unexpected twist of his shoulders. "I was turning them between my fingers," he said, "just before you came in. I had no idea—no, no idea! Shall we go in? I think dinner has been announced."
There was the sherry in the little, deeply cut glasses, and the clear soup, with a dash of lemon in it, and the fish, and afterward the roast chicken, with vegetables discreetly limited and designed not to detract from the main dish; and there was a pint of champagne for Adrian and a mild white wine for his uncle. The latter twisted his mouth in a dry smile. "One finds it difficult to get old," he said. "I have always been very fond of champagne. More aesthetically I think than the actual taste. It seems to sum up so well the evening mood—dinner and laughter and forgetting the day. But now——" he flicked contemptuously the stem of his glass—"I am only allowed this uninspired stuff." He stopped suddenly and his face twisted into the slight grimace which Adrian in the last few weeks had been permitted occasionally to see. His hand began to wander vaguely over the white expanse of his shirt.
Adrian pushed back his chair. "Let me—!" he began, but his uncle waved a deprecating hand. "Sit down!" he managed to say. "Please!" Adrian sank back again. The colour returned to his uncle's cheeks and the staring question left his eyes. He took a sip of wine.
"I cannot tell you," he observed with elaborate indifference, "how humiliating this thing is becoming to me. I have always had a theory that invalids and people when they begin to get old and infirm, should be put away some place where they can undergo the unpleasant struggle alone. It's purely selfish—there's something about the sanctity of the individual. Dogs have it right—you know the way they creep off? But I suppose I won't. Pride fails when the body weakens, doesn't it, no matter what the will may be?" He lifted his wine-glass. "I am afraid I am giving you a very dull evening, my dear fellow," he apologized. "Forgive me! We will talk of more pleasant things. I drink wine with you! How is Cecil? Doing well with her painting?"
Adrian attempted to relax his own inner grimness. He responded to his uncle's toast. But he wished this old man, so very near the mysterious crisis of his affairs, would begin to forego to some extent the habit of a lifetime, become a little more human. This ridiculous "facade"! The dinner progressed.
Through an open window the night, full of soft, distant sound, made itself felt once more. The candles, under their red shades, flickered at intervals. The noiseless butler came and went. How old his uncle was getting to look, Adrian reflected. There was a grayness about his cheeks; fine, wire-like lines about his mouth. And he was falling into that sure sign of age, a vacant absent-mindedness. Half the time he was not listening to what he, Adrian, was saying; instead, his eyes sought constantly the shadows over the carved sideboard across the table from him. What did he see there? What question was he asking? Adrian wondered. Only once was his uncle very much interested, and that was when Adrian had spoken of the war and the psychology left in its train. Adrian himself had not long before been released from a weary round of training-camps, where, in Texas dust, or the unpleasant resinous summer of the South, he had gone through a repetition that in the end had threatened to render him an imbecile. He was not illusioned. As separate personalities, men had lost much of their glamour for him; there had been too much sweat, too much crowding, too much invasion of dignity, of everything for which the world claimed it had been struggling and praying. But alongside of this revolt on his part had grown up an immense pity and belief in humanity as a mass—struggling, worm-like, aspiring, idiotic, heroic. The thought of it made him uncomfortable and at the same time elate.
His uncle shook a dissenting head. On this subject he permitted himself mild discussion, but his voice was still that of an old, wearied man, annoyed and bewildered. "Oh, no!" he said. "That's the very feature of it that seems to me most dreadful; the vermicular aspect; the massed uprising; the massed death. About professional armies there was something decent—about professional killing. It was cold-blooded and keen, anyway. But this modern war, and this modern craze for self-revelation! Naked! Why, these books—the young men kept their fingers on the pulses of their reactions. It isn't clean; it makes the individual cheap. War is a dreadful thing; it should be as hidden as murder." He sat back, smiled. "We seem to have a persistent tendency to become serious to-night," he remarked.
Serious! Adrian saw a vision of the drill-grounds, and smiled sardonically; then he raised his head in surprise, for the new butler had broken all the rules of the household and was summoning his uncle to the telephone in the midst of dessert. He awaited the expected rebuke, but it did not come. Instead, his uncle paused in the middle of a sentence, stared, and looked up. "Ah, yes!" he said, and arose from his chair. "Forgive me, Adrian, I will be back shortly." He walked with a new, just noticeable, infirmness toward the door. Once there he seemed to think an apology necessary, for he turned and spoke with absent-minded courtesy.
"You may not have heard," he said, "but Mrs. Denby is seriously ill. Her nurse gives me constant bulletins over the telephone."
Adrian started to his feet, then sat down again. "But—" he stuttered—"but—is it as bad as all that?"
"I am afraid," said his uncle gently, "it could not be worse." The curtain fell behind him.
Adrian picked up his fork and began to stir gently the melting ice on the plate before him, but his eyes were fixed on the wall opposite, where, across the shining table, from a mellow gold frame, a portrait of his grandfather smiled with a benignity, utterly belying his traditional character, into the shadows above the candles. But Adrian was not thinking of his grandfather just then, he was thinking of his uncle—and Mrs. Denby. What in the world——! Dangerously ill, and yet here had been his uncle able to go through with—not entirely calmly, to be sure; Adrian remembered the lack of attention, the broken eye-glasses; and yet, still able to go through with, not obviously shaken, this monthly farce; this dinner that in reality mocked all the real meaning of blood-relationship. Good Lord! To Adrian's modern mind, impatient and courageous, the situation was preposterous, grotesque. He himself would have broken through to the woman he loved, were she seriously ill, if all the city was cordoned to keep him back. What could it mean? Entire selfishness on his uncle's part? Surely not that! That was too inhuman! Adrian was willing to grant his uncle exceptional expertness in the art of self-protection, but there was a limit even to self-protection. There must be some other reason. Discretion? More likely, and yet how absurd! Had Mr. Denby been alive, a meticulous, a fantastic delicacy might have intervened, but Mr. Denby was dead. Who were there to wound, or who left for the telling of tales? A doctor and the servants. This was not altogether reasonable, despite what he knew of his uncle. Here was some oddity of psychology he could not follow. He heard the curtains stir as his uncle reentered. He looked up, attentive and curious, but his uncle's face was the mask to which he was accustomed.
"How is Mrs. Denby?" he asked.
Mr. McCain hesitated for the fraction of a second. "I am afraid, very ill," he said. "Very ill, indeed! It is pneumonia. I—the doctor thinks it is only a question of a little time, but—well, I shall continue to hope for the best." There was a metallic harshness to his concluding words. "Shall we go into the library?" he continued. "I think the coffee will be pleasanter there."
They talked again of the war; of revolution; of the dark forces at large in the world.
Through that hour or two Adrian had a nakedness of perception unusual even to his sensitive mind. It seemed to him three spirits were abroad in the quiet, softly-lit, book-lined room; three intentions that crept up to him like the waves of the sea, receded, crept back again; or were they currents of air? or hesitant, unheard feet that advanced and withdrew? In at the open windows poured at times the warm, enveloping scent of the spring; pervading, easily overlooked, lawless, persistent, inevitable. Adrian found himself thinking it was like the presence of a woman. And then, overlapping this, would come the careful, dry, sardonic tones of his uncle's voice, as if insisting that the world was an ordinary world, and that nothing, not even love or death, could lay disrespectful fingers upon or hurry for a moment the trained haughtiness of the will. Yet even this compelling arrogance was at times overtaken, submerged, by a third presence, stronger even than the other two; a presence that entered upon the heels of the night; the ceaseless murmur of the streets; the purring of rubber tires upon asphalt; a girl's laugh, high, careless, reckless. Life went on. Never for a moment did it stop.
"I am not sorry that I am getting old," said Mr. McCain. "I think nowadays is an excellent time to die. Perhaps for the very young, the strong—but for me, things are too busy, too hurried. I have always liked my life like potpourri. I liked to keep it in a china jar and occasionally take off the lid. Otherwise one's sense of perfume becomes satiated. Take your young girls; they remain faithful to a love that is not worth being faithful to—all noise, and flushed laughter, and open doors." Quite unexpectedly he began to talk in a way he had never talked before. He held his cigar in his hand until the ash turned cold; his ringers trembled just a little.
"You have been very good to me," he said. Adrian raised startled eyes. "Very good. I am quite aware that you dislike me"—he hesitated and the ghost of a smile hovered about his lips—"and I have always disliked you. Please!" He raised a silencing hand. "You don't mind my saying so? No. Very well, then, there is something I want to tell you. Afterward I will never mention it again. I dare say our mutual dislike is due to the inevitable misunderstanding that exists between the generations. But it is not important. The point is that we have always been well-bred toward each other. Yes, that is the point. You have always been a gentleman, very considerate, very courteous, I cannot but admire you. And I think you will find I have done the best I could. I am not a rich man, as such things go nowadays, but I will hand you on the money that will be yours quite unimpaired, possibly added to. I feel very strongly on that subject. I am old-fashioned enough to consider the family the most important thing in life. After all, we are the only two McCains left." He hesitated again, and twisted for a moment his bloodless hands in his lap, then he raised his eyes and spoke with a curious hurried embarrassment. "I have sacrificed a great deal for that," he said. "Yes, a great deal."
The soft-footed butler stood at his elbow, like an actor in comedy suddenly cast for the role of a portentous messenger.
"Miss Niles is calling you again, sir," he said.
"On, yes!—ah—Adrian, I am very sorry, my dear fellow. I will finish the conversation when I come back."
This time the telephone was within earshot; in the hall outside. Adrian heard his uncle's slow steps end in the creaking of a chair as he sat down; then the picking up of the receiver. The message was a long one, for his uncle did not speak for fully a minute; finally his voice drifted in through the curtained doorway.
"You think ... only a few minutes?"
"... Ah, yes! Conscious? Yes. Well, will you tell her, Miss Niles?—yes, please listen very carefully—tell her this. That I am not there because I dared not come. Yes; on her account. She will understand. My heart—it's my heart. She will understand. I did not dare. For her sake, not mine. Tell her that. She will understand. Please be very careful in repeating the message, Miss Niles. Tell her I dared not come because of my heart.... Yes; thank you. That's it.... What? Yes, I will wait, Miss Niles."
Adrian, sitting in the library, suddenly got to his feet and crossed to the empty fireplace and stood with his back to it, enlightenment and a puzzled frown struggling for possession of his face. His uncle's heart! Ah, he understood, then! It was discretion, after all, but not the kind he thought—a much more forgiveable discretion. And, yet, what possible difference could it make should his uncle die suddenly in Mrs. Denby's house? Fall dead across her bed, or die kneeling beside it? Poor, twisted old fool, afraid even at the end that death might catch him out; afraid of a final undignified gesture.
A motor blew its horn for the street crossing. Another girl laughed; a young, thin, excited girl, to judge by her laughter. The curtains stirred and again there was that underlying scent of tulips and hyacinths; and then, from the hall outside, came the muffled thud of a receiver falling to the floor. Adrian waited. The receiver was not picked up. He strode to the door. Crumpled up over the telephone was old Mr. McCain.
Cecil came later. She was very quick and helpful, and jealously solicitous on Adrian's account, but in the taxicab going home she said the one thing Adrian had hoped she wouldn't say, and yet was sure she would. She belonged to a sex which, if it is honest at all, is never reticently so. She believed that between the man she loved and herself there were no possible mental withdrawals. "It is very tragic," she said, "but much better—you know it is better. He belonged to the cumberers of the earth. Yes, so much better; and this way, too!"
In the darkness her hand sought his. Adrian took it, but in his heart was the same choked feeling, the same knowledge that something was gone that could not be found again, that, as a little boy, he had had when they sold, at his father's death, the country place where he had spent his summers. Often he had lain awake at night, restless with the memory of heliotrope, and phlox, and mignonette, and afternoons quiet except for the sound of bees.
BY FRANCES NOYES HART
[Footnote 8: Frances Newbold Noyes, in Pictorial Review for December, 1920.]
The first time she heard it was in the silk-hung and flower-scented peace of the little drawing-room in Curzon Street. His sister Rosemary had wanted to come up to London to get some clothes—Victory clothes they called them in those first joyous months after the armistice, and decked their bodies in scarlet and silver, even when their poor hearts went in black—and Janet had been urged to leave her own drab boarding-house room to stay with the forlorn small butterfly. They had struggled through dinner somehow, and Janet had finished her coffee and turned the great chair so that she could watch the dancing fire (it was cool for May), her cloudy brown head tilted back against the rose-red cushion, shadowy eyes half closed, idle hands linked across her knees. She looked every one of her thirty years—and mortally tired—and careless of both facts. But she managed an encouraging smile at the sound of Rosemary's shy, friendly voice at her elbow. "Janet, these are yours, aren't they? Mummy found them with some things last week, and I thought that you might like to have them."
She drew a quick breath at the sight of the shabby packet.
"Why, yes," she said evenly. "That's good of you, Rosemary. Thanks a lot."
"That's all right," murmured Rosemary diffidently. "Wouldn't you like something to read? There's a most frightfully exciting Western novel——"
The smile took on a slightly ironical edge. "Don't bother about me, my dear. You see, I come from that frightfully exciting West, and I know all about the pet rattlesnakes and the wildly Bohemian cowboys. Run along and play with your book—I'll be off to bed in a few minutes."
Rosemary retired obediently to the deep chair in the corner, and with the smile gone but the irony still hovering, she slipped the cord off the packet. A meager and sorry enough array—words had never been for her the swift, docile servitors that most people found them. But the thin gray sheet in her fingers started out gallantly enough—"Beloved." Beloved! She leaned far forward, dropping it with deft precision into the glowing pocket of embers. What next? This was more like—it began "Dear Captain Langdon" in the small, contained, even writing that was her pride, and it went on soberly enough, "I shall be glad to have tea with you next Friday—not Thursday, because I must be at the hut then. It was stupid of me to have forgotten you—next time I will try to do better." Well, she had done better the next time. She had not forgotten him again—never, never again. That had been her first letter; how absurd of Jerry, the magnificently careless, to have treasured it all that time, the miserable, stilted little thing! She touched it with curious fingers. Surely, surely he must have cared, to have cared so much for that!
It seemed incredible that she hadn't remembered him at once when he came into the hut that second time. Of course she had only seen him for a moment and six months had passed—but he was so absurdly vivid, every inch of him, from the top of his shining, dark head to the heels of his shining, dark boots—and there were a great many inches! How could she have forgotten, even for a minute, those eyes dancing like blue fire in the brown young face, the swift, disarming charm of his smile, and, above all, his voice—how, in the name of absurdity could any one who had once heard it ever forget Jeremy Langdon's voice? Even now she had only to close her eyes, and it rang out again, with its clipped, British accent and its caressing magic, as un-English as any Provincial troubadour's! And yet she had forgotten—he had had to speak twice before she had even lifted her head.
"Miss America—oh, I say, she's forgotten me, and I thought that I'd made such an everlasting impression!" The delighted amazement reached even her tired ears, and she had smiled wanly as she pushed the pile of coppers nearer to him.
"Have you been in before? It's stupid of me, but there are such hundreds of thousands of you, and you are gone in a minute, you see. That's your change, I think."
"Hundreds of thousands of me, hey?" He had leaned across the counter, his face alight with mirth. "I wish to the Lord my angel mother could hear you—it's what I'm forever tellin' her, though just between us, it's stuff and nonsense. I've got a well-founded suspicion that I'm absolutely unique. You wait and see!"
And she had waited—and she had seen! She stirred a little, dropped the note into the flames, and turned to the next, the quiet, mocking mouth suddenly tortured and rebellious.
"No, you must be mad," it ran, the trim writing strangely shaken. "How often have you seen me—five times? Do you know how old I am. How hard and tired and useless? No—no a thousand times. In a little while we will wake up and find that we were dreaming."
That had brought him to her swifter than Fate, triumphant mischief in every line of his exultant face. "Just let those damned old cups slip from your palsied fingers, will you? I'm goin' to take your honourable age for a little country air—it may keep you out of the grave for a few days longer. Never can tell! No use your scowlin' like that—the car's outside, and the big chief says to be off with you. Says you have no more colour than a banshee, and not half the life—can't grasp the fact that it's just chronic antiquity. Fasten the collar about your throat—no, higher! Darlin', darlin', think of havin' a whole rippin' day to ourselves. You're glad, too, aren't you, my little stubborn saint?"
Oh, that joyous and heart-breaking voice, running on and on—it made all the other voices that she had ever heard seem colourless and unreal—
"Darlin' idiot, what do I care how old you are? Thirty, hey? Almost old enough to be an ancestor! Look at me—no, look at me! Dare you to say that you aren't mad about me!"
Mad about him—mad, mad! She lifted her hands to her ears, but she could no more shut out the exultant voice now than she could on that windy afternoon.
"Other fellow got tired of you, did he? Good luck for us, what? You're a fearfully tiresome person, darlin'. It's goin' to take me nine-tenths of eternity to tell you how tiresome you are. Give a chap a chance, won't you? The tiresomest thing about you is the way you leash up that dimple of yours. No, by George, there it is! Janie, look at me——"
She touched the place where the leashed dimple had hidden with a delicate and wondering finger—of all Jerry's gifts to her the most miraculous had been that small fugitive. Exiled now, forever and forever.
"Are you comin' down to White Orchards next week-end? I'm off for France on the twelfth and you've simply got to meet my people. You'll be insane about 'em—Rosemary's the most beguilin' flibbertigibbet, and I can't wait to see you bein' a kind of an elderly grandmother to her. What a bewitchin' little grandmother you're goin' to be one of these days——"
Oh, Jerry! Oh, Jerry, Jerry! She twisted in her chair, her face suddenly a small mask of incredulous terror. No, no, it wasn't true, it wasn't true—never—never—never! And then, for the first time, she heard it. Far off but clear, a fine and vibrant humming, the distant music of wings! The faint, steady pulsing was drawing nearer and nearer—nearer still—it must be flying quite high. The hateful letters scattered about her as she sprang to the open window—no, it was too high to see, and too dark, though the sky was powdered with stars—but she could hear it clearly, hovering and throbbing like some gigantic bird. It must be almost directly over her head, if she could only see it.
"It sounds—it sounds the way a humming-bird would look through a telescope," she said half aloud, and Rosemary murmured sleepily but courteously, "What, Janet?"
"Just an airplane—no, gone now. It sounded like a bird. Didn't you hear it?"
"No," replied Rosemary drowsily. "We get so used to the old things that we don't even notice them any more. Queer time to be flying!"
"It sounded rather—beautiful," said Janet, her face still turned to the stars. "Far off, but so clear and sure. I wonder—I wonder whether it will be coming back?"
Well, it came back. She went down to White Orchards with Rosemary for the following week-end, and after she had smoothed her hair and given a scornful glance at the pale face in the mirror, with its shadowy eyes and defiant mouth, she slipped out to the lower terrace for a breath of the soft country air. Halfway down the flight of steps she stumbled and caught at the balustrade, and stood shaking for a moment, her face pressed against its rough surface. Once before—once before she had stumbled on those steps, but it was not the balustrade that had saved her. She could feel his arms about her now, holding her up, holding her close and safe. The magical voice was in her ears. "Let you go? I'll never let you go! Poor little feet, stumblin' in the dark, what would you do without Jerry? Time's comin', you cheeky little devils, when you'll come runnin' to him when he whistles! No use tryin' to get away—you belong to him."
Oh, whistle to them now, Jerry—they would run to you across the stars!
"How'd you like to marry me before I go back to-morrow? No? No accountin' for tastes, Miss Abbott—lots of people would simply jump at it! All right—April, then. Birds and flowers and all that kind o' thing—pretty intoxicatin', what? No, keep still, darlin' goose. What feller taught you to wear a dress that looks like roses and smells like roses and feels like roses? This feller? Lord help us, what a lovely liar!"
And suddenly she found herself weeping helplessly, desperately, like an exhausted child, shaken to the heart at the memory of the rose-coloured dress.
"You like me just a bit, don't you, funny, quiet little thing? But you'd never lift a finger to hold me—that's the wonder of you—that's why I'll never leave you. No, not for heaven. You can't lose me—no use tryin'."
But she had lost you, Jerry—you had left her, for all your promises, to terrified weeping in the hushed loveliness of the terrace, where your voice had turned her still heart to a dancing star, where your fingers had touched her quiet blood to flowers and flames and butterflies. She had believed you then—what would she ever believe again? And then she caught back the despairing sobs swiftly, for once more she heard, far off, the rushing of wings. Nearer—nearer—humming and singing and hovering in the quiet dusk. Why, it was over the garden! She flung back her head, suddenly eager to see it; it was a friendly and thrilling sound in all that stillness. Oh, it was coming lower—lower still—she could hear the throb of the propellers clearly. Where was it? Behind those trees, perhaps? She raced up the flight of steps, dashing the treacherous tears from her eyes, straining up on impatient tiptoes. Surely she could see it now! But already it was growing fainter—drifting steadily away, the distant hum growing lighter and lighter—lighter still——
"Janet!" called Mrs. Langdon's pretty, patient voice. "Dinner-time, dear! Is there any one with you?"
"No one at all, Mrs. Langdon. I was just listening to an airplane."
"An airplane? Oh, no, dear—they never pass this way any more. The last one was in October, I think——"
The soft, plaintive voice trailed off in the direction of the dining-room and Janet followed it, a small, secure smile touching her lips. The last one had not passed in October. It had passed a few minutes before, over the lower garden.
She quite forgot it by the next week—she was becoming an adept at forgetting. That was all that was left for her to do! Day after day and night after night she had raised the drawbridge between her heart and memory, leaving the lonely thoughts to shiver desolately on the other side of the moat. She was weary to the bone of suffering, and they were enemies, for all their dear and friendly guise; they would tear her to pieces if she ever let them in. No, no, she was done with them. She would forget, as Jerry had forgotten. She would destroy every link between herself and the past—and pack the neat little steamer trunk neatly—and bid these kind and gentle people good-by—and take herself and her bitterness and her dullness back to the class-room in the Western university town—back to the Romance languages. The Romance languages!
She would finish it all that night, and leave as soon as possible. There were some trinkets to destroy, and his letters from France to burn—she would give Rosemary the rose-coloured dress—foolish, lovely little Rosemary, whom he had loved, and who was lying now fast asleep in the next room curled up like a kitten in the middle of the great bed, her honey-coloured hair falling about her in a shining mist. She swept back her own cloud of hair resolutely, frowning at the candle-lit reflection in the mirror. Two desolate pools in the small, pale oval of her face stared back at her—two pools with something drowned in their lonely depths. Well, she would drown it deeper!
The letters first; how lucky that they still used candle-light! It would make the task much simpler—the funeral pyre already lighted. She moved one of the tall candelabra to the desk, sitting for a long time quite still, her chin cupped in her hands, staring down at the bits of paper. She could smell the wall-flowers under the window as though they were in the room—drenched in dew and moonlight, they were reckless of their fragrance. All this peace and cleanliness and orderly beauty—what a ghastly trick for God to have played—to have taught her to adore them, and then to snatch them away! All about her, warm with candle-light, lay the gracious loveliness of the little room with its dark waxed furniture, its bright glazed chintz, its narrow bed with the cool linen sheets smelling of lavender, and its straight, patterned curtains—oh, that hateful, mustard-coloured den at home, with its golden-oak day-bed!
She wrung her hands suddenly in a little hunted gesture. How could he have left her to that, he who had sworn that he would never leave her? In every one of those letters beneath her linked fingers he had sworn it—in every one perjured—false half a hundred times. Pick up any one of them at random—
"Janie, you darling stick, is 'dear Jerry' the best that you can do? You ought to learn French! I took a perfectly ripping French kid out to dinner last night—name's Liane, from the Varietes—and she was calling me 'mon grand cheri' before the salad, and 'mon p'tit amour' before the green mint. Maybe that'll buck you up! And I'd have you know that she's so pretty that it's ridiculous, with black velvet hair that she wears like a little Oriental turban, and eyes like golden pansies, and a mouth between a kiss and a prayer—and a nice affable nature into the bargain. But I'm a ghastly jackass—I didn't get any fun out of it at all—because I really didn't even see her. Under the pink shaded candles to my blind eyes it seemed that there was seated the coolest, quietest, whitest little thing, with eyes that were as indifferent as my velvety Liane's were kind, and mockery in her smile. Oh, little masquerader! If I could get my arms about you even for a minute—if I could kiss so much as the tips of your lashes—would you be cool and quiet and mocking then? Janie, Janie, rosy-red as flowers on the terrace and sweeter—sweeter—they're about you now—they'll be about you always!"
Burn it fast, candle—faster, faster. Here's another for you.
"So the other fellow cured you of using pretty names, did he—you don't care much for dear and darling any more? Bit hard on me, but fortunately for you, Janie Janet, I'm rather a dab at languages—'specially when it comes to what the late lamented Boche referred to as 'cosy names.' Querida mi alma, douchka, Herzliebchen, carissima; and bien, bien-aimee, I'll not run out of salutations for you this side of heaven—no—nor t'other. I adore the serene grace with which you ignore the ravishing Liane. Haven't you any curiosity at all, my Sphinx? No? Well, then, just to punish you, I'll tell you all about it. She's married to the best fellow in the world—a liaison officer working with our squadron—and she worships the ground that he walks on and the air that he occasionally flies in. So whenever I run up to the City of Light, en permission, I look her up, and take her the latest news—and for an hour, over the candles, we pretend that I am Philippe, and that she is Janie. Only she says that I don't pretend very well—and it's just possible that she's right.
"Mon petit coeur et grand tresor, I wish that I could take you flying with me this evening. You'd be daft about it! Lots of it's a rotten bore, of course, but there's something in me that doesn't live at all when I'm on this too, too solid earth. Something that lies there, crouched and dormant, waiting until I've climbed up into the seat, and buckled the strap about me and laid my hands on the 'stick.' It's waiting—waiting for a word—and so am I. And I lean far forward, watching the figure toiling out beyond till the call comes back to me, clear and confident, 'Contact, sir?' And I shout back, as restless and exultant as the first time that I answered it—'Contact!'
"And I'm off—and I'm alive—and I'm free! Ho, Janie! That's simpler than Abracadabra or Open Sesame, isn't it? But it opens doors more magical than ever they swung wide, and something in me bounds through, more swift and eager than any Aladdin. Free! I'm a crazy sort of a beggar, my little love—that same thing in me hungers and thirsts and aches for freedom. I go half mad when people or events try to hold me—you, wise beyond wisdom, never will. Somehow, between us, we've struck the spark that turns a mere piece of machinery into a wonder with wings—somehow, you are forever setting me free. It is your voice—your voice of silver and peace—that's eternally whispering 'Contact!' to me—and I am released, heart, soul, and body! And because you speed me on my way, Janie, I'll never fly so far, I'll never fly so long, I'll never fly so high that I'll not return to you. You hold me fast, forever and forever."
You had flown high and far indeed, Jerry—and you had not returned. Forever and forever! Burn faster, flame!
"My blessed child, who's been frightening you? Airplanes are by all odds safer than taxis—and no end safer than the infernal duffer who's been chaffing you would be if I could once get my hands on him. Damn fool! Don't care if you do hate swearing—damn fools are damn fools, and there's an end to it. All those statistics are sheer melodramatic rot—the chap who fired 'em at you probably has all his money invested in submarines, and is fairly delirious with jealousy. Peg (did I ever formally introduce you to Pegasus, the best pursuit-plane in the R.F.C.—or out of it?)—Peg's about as likely to let me down as you are! We'd do a good deal for each other, she and I—nobody else can really fly her, the darling! But she'd go to the stars for me—and farther still. Never you fear—we have charmed lives, Peg and I—we belong to Janie.
"I think that people make an idiotic row about dying, anyway. It's probably jolly good fun—and I can't see what difference a few years here would make if you're going to have all eternity to play with. Of course you're a ghastly little heathen, and I can see you wagging a mournful head over this already—but every time that I remember what a shocking sell the After Life (exquisite phrase!) is going to be for you, darling, I do a bit of head-wagging myself—and it's not precisely mournful! I can't wait to see your blank consternation—and you needn't expect any sympathy from me. My very first words will be, 'I told you so!' Maybe I'll rap them out to you with a table-leg!
"What do you think of all this Ouija Planchette rumpus, anyway? I can't for the life of me see why any one with a whole new world to explore should hang around chattering with this one. I know that I'd be half mad with excitement to get at the new job, and that I'd find re-assuring the loved ones (exquisite phrase number two) a hideous bore. Still, I can see that it would be nice from their selfish point of view! Well, I'm no ghost yet, thank God—nor yet are you—but if ever I am one, I'll show you what devotion really is. I'll come all the way back from heaven to play with foolish Janie, who doesn't believe that there is one to come from. To foolish, foolish Janie, who still will be dearer than the prettiest angel of them all, no matter how alluringly her halo may be tilted or her wings ruffled. To Janie who, Heaven forgive him, will be all that one poor ghost has ever loved!"
Had there come to him, the radiant and the confident, a moment of terrible and shattering surprise—a moment when he realized that there were no pretty angels with shining wings waiting to greet him—a moment when he saw before him only the overwhelming darkness, blacker and deeper than the night would be, when she blew out the little hungry flame that was eating up the sheet that held his laughter? Oh, gladly would she have died a thousand deaths to have spared him that moment!
"My little Greatheart, did you think that I did not know how brave you are? You are the truest soldier of us all, and I, who am not much given to worship, am on my knees before that shy gallantry of yours, which makes what courage we poor duffers have seem a vain and boastful thing. When I see you as I saw you last, small and white and clear and brave, I can't think of anything but the first crocuses at White Orchards, shining out, demure and valiant, fearless of wind and storm and cold—fearless of Fear itself. You see, you're so very, very brave that you make me ashamed to be afraid of poetry and sentiment and pretty words—things of which I have a good, thumping Anglo-Saxon terror, I can tell you! It's because I know what a heavenly brick you are that I could have killed that statistical jackass for bothering you; but I'll forgive him, since you say that it's all right. And so ghosts are the only things in the world that frighten you—even though you know that there aren't any. You and Madame de Stael, hey? 'I do not believe in ghosts, but I fear them!' It's pretty painful to learn that the mere sight of one would turn you into a gibbering lunatic. Nice sell for an enthusiastic spirit who'd romped clear back from heaven to give you a pleasant surprise—I don't think! Well, no fear, young Janie—I'll find some way if I'm put to it—some nice, safe, pretty way that wouldn't scare a neurasthenic baby, let alone the dauntless Miss Abbott. I'll find—"
Oh, no more of that—no more! She crushed the sheet in her hands fiercely, crumpling it into a little ball—the candle-flame was too slow. No, she couldn't stand it—she couldn't—she couldn't, and there was an end to it. She would go raving mad—she would kill herself—she would—She lifted her head, wrenched suddenly back from that chaos of despair, alert and intent. There it was again, coming swiftly nearer and nearer from some immeasurable distance—down—down—nearer still—the very room was humming and throbbing with it—she could almost hear the singing in the wires. She swung far out over the window edge, searching the moon-drenched garden with eager eyes—surely, surely it would never fly so low unless it were about to land! Engine trouble, perhaps—though she could detect no break in the huge, rhythmic pulsing that was shaking the night. Still—