BY ALICE BROWN
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1922
All rights reserved
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
Copyright, 1922, By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
Set up and electrotyped. Published October, 1922.
John Raven sat in the library of his shabby, yet dignified Boston house, waiting for Richard Powell, his nephew, whom he had summoned for an intimate talk. He was sitting by the fire making a pretense of reading the evening paper, but really he was prefiguring the coming interview, dreading it a good deal, and chiefly for the reason that there was an argument to be presented, and for this he was insufficiently prepared, and must be, however long it might be delayed. When he telephoned Dick to come he was at last armed with a bold conviction of being able to proffer a certain case to him (his own case, in fact); but, as these last moments went on, he weakened sensibly in any hope he might have had that Dick would be able to meet him from any illuminating viewpoint of his own. This was mid-winter, two years after the end of the War, where Dick and his uncle had worked in the Ambulance Corps to the limit of their capacities—Dick, no soldier, because of what seemed to him a diabolic eccentricity of imperfect sight, and Raven, blocked by what he felt to be the negligible disability of age. John Raven had, with the beginning of the War—which, as early as 1914 he had decided to be his war—made up his mind that although he was over forty and of a business training with inconsiderable excursions into literature, he wanted nothing so much as to get into the thick of it and the rough of it, so far as a man might who was past his physical best, and now he was back again, more fit than when he went, but at this present moment breathless at the realization that he had been up against life as it actually is, and that he found it a brute business and hated it. And this was not so much the horror of life in the field where, however the human heart cried out against the argument of desecrated flesh, the spirit could call mightily upon God, challenging Him to grant the chrism of fulfilment in return for this wild sacrifice of blood, as the horror of life when peace was exercising her rights in unbelievable ways. This he was going to explain to Dick, if he could manage it, while he set forth also his need of retreating from the active scene and leaving some of his formerly accepted duties on Dick's shoulders. As he sat there, gaunt, long, lean man, with a thin brown face and the eagle's look, a fineness of aquiline curve that made him significant in a dominant type, he fitted his room as the room fitted him. The house was old; nothing had been changed in it since the year when, in his first-won prosperity, he persuaded his mother up from the country and let her furnish it with her shyly modest taste, a sense of values that bade her keep within the boundary of the atmosphere she brought with her in good old pieces tenderly used. The room was dim, even by day, from these shadows of the brooding past, and the dull blue draperies at the windows, while they touched it to a more inspiriting tone, still spoke softly of the repose a man wanted when he escaped from the outer world to the assuagement of silence and his books.
To-night, when Raven had just about come to the conclusion that he could not possibly enter upon certain things with Dick because, although Dick elected to be a poet, there was no recognized form of words that would make him understand, and he'd better telephone him to put the interview off, he heard his voice in the hall, and, answering it, even breaking over it, like bright bubbles of a vocal stream, the voice of the girl they both loved, in ways becoming to their differences. Raven drew a comfortable breath. The intimate conference with Dick would have to be deferred, though he would quite as willingly have had Nan listen to it, except for the chance of her carrying it away with her, in that sympathetic tenderness of hers, to burden her young heart. Nan would have made quick work of understanding. She translated you as you went, and even ran ahead of you, in her haste, just as she sometimes cut in on your speech, not rudely rebuking you for being too slow, but in her eagerness to assure you she caught at the first toss. And then they came in, she full of anticipatory delight at seeing Raven, and Dick so full of her that he seemed not to know whether his uncle were there or not, except as an habitual figure in the furnishing of the room.
We must pause a dull minute, while they were projecting themselves into the scene, to find out how they looked and whether they also fitted the room and Raven. Nan, known to her larger world as Annette Hamilton, was a tall, slim, yet muscular girl, graced with as many physical contradictions as you are likely to imagine. While she stood for an instant before, puppy-like, precipitating herself upon Raven, her eyes crinkled up like Mary Seraskier's, and she showed a line of milk-white teeth. Altogether nature—for she had only the most inconsiderable help from art—had done her exceedingly well. She had the hurling impetuosities of the puppy when she found herself anywhere near persons familiarly dear to her; but, unlike the puppy, she was a thing of grace. Her hands and slim arms had a girl's loveliest contours, and yet, hidden somewhere under that satin flesh with its rose and silver lustre, were muscles serviceably strong. Her eyes were grey like Athena's, her hair fine and thick and pale, and her face altogether too irregular to talk about reasonably.
How is it possible to delineate Dick, even with all profuse generosity of comment, without suggesting that he was not of the type to please himself, or tagging him with a priggishness afar from him? He certainly was not the sort of hero his dramatic poems described with a choppy vigor of detail, and whom there is no doubt he would have chosen to resemble. But nature had given him a slimness and an actual grace he found, in his private self-scrutiny, almost girlish, nor could he wholly outwit and supplement her by the athletic training he never intermitted. Dick's face, too, he found much against him, being of a round solidity with a nose too thick and a mouth a thought too small. How could such despite have happened to him, he asked himself in moments of depression when, confronting the mirror, he recognized the wrongs inheritance had done him. But he knew. It was father's people, that was it. They were all round and owlish, and they thickened up in middle life. If he could have shared Uncle Jack's lean aquilinity, people would have looked at him twice, as they did at Uncle Jack, which in itself would be a bore, except that Nan also might look. Aware of these things and hiding them in his soul, he held himself tight, shut his mouth close, and challenged you with a spectacled eye, pinning you down as if to say: "I am born in every particular as I didn't want to be, but take notice that I'll have no light recognition of the hateful trick they did me. I am in training for a husky fellow. I haven't let up on myself one instant since I found out how horrible it was to be a good deal more of a fellow than I shall ever look. I never shall let up. And don't you let me catch you letting up either, in the way you treat me."
Nan, to go back to the minute of their entrance, made a swift assault upon Raven. In the old days when he was a youngish man and she a little girl, a growing thing, elongating like Alice, she used to hurl herself into his arms and insist on staying there. Her aunt, Miss Anne Hamilton, who had brought her up from babyhood, was always detaching her from Raven; but Nan clung as persistently. Raven would look at Miss Anne, over the girl's rumpled silk poll, with whimsically imploring eyes. Why couldn't Nan be allowed to break upon him like a salty, fragrant wave of the sea, he seemed to ask Miss Anne, bringing all sorts of floating richness, the outcrop of her fancies and affections? Aunt Anne would return the glance with her sweet, immovable deprecation and go on detaching, while Nan, with an equal obstinacy—though hers was protesting, vocable, sometimes shrill to the point of anguish—stuck to her self-assumed rights. It was Raven himself who involuntarily stepped over to Aunt Anne's side and finished the detaching process. When Nan came back after her first term at the seminary Aunt Anne preferred to college, and was running to him with her challenge of welcome, he was taken aback by the nymph-like grace and beauty of her, the poise of the small head with its braided crown—the girls at the seminary told her she might have been a Victorian by the way she wore her hair—and he instinctively caught her arms, about to enwreath his neck, held her still and looked at her. She could not know what vision, overwhelming in its suddenness, she brought before him, of childhood gone and maidenhood come and the sacredness of this new state. Aunt Anne knew and frowned a little to herself, from her silent, savage jealousy, realizing, though she would never, in her proud integrity, allow herself to think it, that this hushed veneration of Raven's was worse than the old tumultuous intercourse. What Raven really might have said was:
"Darling, you're a woman and you're a beauty. You don't know it, but you don't want to hug a jaded old reveler like me."
He was not, by any means, a reveler. His life had been little more than a series of walks to business. But those were the words that came to him, catching her adorable freshness of body and mind, and determining to keep it untouched by dusty old pantaloons such as he saw himself. Nan stood for a minute paling out under his eyes, and then drew away from him and left the room, her braid-crowned head high. She had to meet him at dinner, and he knew she had cried and Aunt Anne knew it and was hard on her over the little things she could reprove her for, in a silky, affectionate way, and Raven's heart swelled until he thought they both must know its congestion, and tried to put round it another bond of quiet, kind affection. Since that time, Nan had never kissed him; but now, this two months since the death of Aunt Anne, she had adopted a greeting of her own. She put her hands on his arm and bent her forehead for a minute to his shoulder. The first time she did it, he wanted to kiss the bright hair, but forbade himself, and the second time he said, he was so curious over it:
She was ready with her answer. He suspected she must have thought it out ingeniously beforehand.
"It's because I'm sorry for you."
"Sorry?" he repeated.
"Yes," she said, "about Aunt Anne."
Then he realized she was sorry because Aunt Anne was dead, and he was more and more conscious of the unbecoming lightness and freedom where he found himself at the death of Aunt Anne. He had not dared acknowledge it to himself. He couldn't, for shame. But whereas, in the past years, when he ventured to formulate his own life a little and see what it had done to him and how he could go on meeting it, he had had a sense of harassment and of being driven too hard, after Aunt Anne's death he began to recognize the stillness of the space she had left behind. Now to-day, before Nan had accomplished the little rite of the bowed head on his shoulder, something queer about it seemed to strike Dick, and he said to her:
"He's your uncle, too, you know."
Raven took this with composure, as signifying the length as well as the depth of his adoptive relation toward her, but Nan met it with resentment. She left him and turned upon Dick.
"Now what," she said, "do you mean by that?"
"Why, Nan," said the poor youth, keeping a stiff upper lip, because he recognized the signs of an approaching squabble, "I've told him. I'll tell him again. Jack, we're engaged."
"We're nothing of the sort," said Nan, either in pure surprise or an excellent simulation of it.
Dick met this doggedly.
"We are, too," he said. "You promised me."
"Maybe I did," Nan yielded. "But it was that awful night when you were going out. We won't talk about that. I'd have promised you anything then. I'd have promised anybody, just as I'd have given 'em coffee or a smoke. But when we got back and you expected to begin from there, didn't I tell you to shut up? I've told you to ever since. And I believe," she added, with an acumen that struck him in the center, "you're only dragging it out now to catch me—before him."
"I did shut up," said Dick, holding himself straight and using his mouth tautly, "because your aunt was sick and then because she was worse. But you needn't think I've shut up for good. Besides, it's only Jack I told. He's nobody."
"No," said Raven mildly, "I'm nobody. Only I wish you wouldn't come here to fight. Why can't you get it over on the steps, and then act like Christians after you come in?"
Nan laughed. She was instantly and most obligingly sweet, as if wholly bent on pleasing him. But Richard glowered. It was quite like her, he thought, to sprinkle herself over with that May morning look of hers when she knew she had the horrible advantage not only of being adorable in herself, but a female to boot, within all the sanctities that still do hedge the sex, however it behaves.
"You see," said Nan maternally, "in France we were living at high pressure. Now everything's different. We mustn't be silly. Run away, Dick, just as I told you, and leave me to talk to Rookie."
This was her name for Raven, saved over from childish days.
"All right then," said Dick. "But I sha'n't wait for you. I shall go to Cambridge."
It was such an anticlimax of a threat, delivered in so determined a voice, that he expected them to laugh, in a silly way they had of seeing the merest foolishness always from the same angle. But, as he turned to go, it was with the chill certainty that they had forgotten all about him. Nan had settled herself by the fire and his uncle was bringing her a footstool, an elderly attention, Dick floutingly thought, very well suited to Aunt Anne, but pure silliness for a girl who flung herself about all over the place. At any rate, he wasn't wanted, and he did go to Cambridge and hunted up some of the fellows likely to talk sense; but no sooner had he settled within their circle of geniality than he found himself glooming over Nan and tempted to go back and break in on that mysterious conclave.
It was mysterious. Nan herself had made it so. Her face, on Dick's going, had fallen into a grave repose, and she turned at once to Raven, saying:
"You see, Dick ran in on the way over here, and when he told me you'd sent for him, I said I'd come along, because I'd got to see you instead. Was that cheeky? I really have got to. Couldn't the other thing wait?"
"Perfectly well," said Raven, with a ready cheerfulness he was aware she could not understand. How should she? He had not been in the habit of troubling Dick, or indeed any one, with his vaporings. He had lived, of late years, as a sedate, middle-aged gentleman should, with no implication of finding the world any less roseate than his hopes had promised. As to Dick, the very sight of him had shown him beyond a doubt how little disposed he was to take the lad into that area of tumultuous discontent which was now his mind. "Fire away," he bade her. "You in trouble, dear? You want patriarchal advice?"
Nan might not have heard. She was looking, with a frowning gravity, into the fire. How should she begin? He saw the question beating about in her mind and hoped he could give her a lead. But she found the way for herself. She turned to him with a sudden lovely smile.
"Aunt Anne," she said, "has done something beautiful."
He felt his heart shrinking within him as he combated the ungracious feeling which, it seemed, would not down: that he was never to be done with Aunt Anne's deeds, so often demanding, as they did, a reciprocal action from him. What he wanted, he realized grimly, was to have his cake and eat it, if he might use so homespun a simile for a woman who had persistently lived for him and in him and then had made clear spaces about him by going away in the dignity of death. He wanted to breathe in the space she had left, and he also wanted to be spared the indecency of recognizing his relief. But Nan, studying the fire persistently, to allow his eyes all possible liberty of searching her face while she generously avoided his, was going on in what was evidently a preconceived task of breaking something to him.
"Yes, she's done something beautiful, and done it for you."
Raven's heart had shrunk so now that he wondered it could weigh so heavily. How could a woman, his rebellious intelligence asked him, manage to pursue a man with her benefits even from the grave? All his grown-up life he had fought them, but still they hung about him him like shackles. When he tore them off from one member—always wounding himself only, and scrupulously sure of never, except by the inevitability of his refusals, hurting her—they fastened on him somewhere else. When he was under twenty—for he was fourteen years younger than she—had come the question of her endowing him for the period of his apprenticeship to literature, that he might write with a free mind. He had, tempting as that was and safe as it seemed to his arrogant youth, found the decency and prudence to refuse. He wondered now how he had been spared, saved really by the prophetic gods from taking that guarantee, though he was then so sure of his ability to justify the risk and pay it all back. Perhaps his mother had helped him. She was a woman of rare sanity, and though he could not remember her uttering a dissuading word, he was sure, in the light of his own middle-aged vision, that she must have been throwing the weight of her clear-mindedness into the scale.
Then there was the question of a college course and of European travel: those were among the colossal gifts Anne Hamilton had sought to lavish on him. But again he had saved himself, accepting one thing only, a benefit that must have hurt her heart like a stone, she was so bent on his beautiful, bright aptitude at writing taking its place as soon as possible, and with no dimming from a prosaic drudgery, in the world as she knew it: the Boston world, the New England world, the court of judgment that sits across the Atlantic. This benefit he asked for and received, from her father: a clerk's place in the mills—Hamilton was a wool magnate—and a chance to earn steady money for himself and his mother, who was every year, in spite of her stout heart, slipping into the weakness of the chronic invalid. Raven wrote his books at the fag end of days given to his dull industry, and he succeeded in calling attention to himself as a classical scholar, and then, as he impatiently hit out with what he called pot-boilers in dialect, he got a popular hearing and more money as well. All the time he was advancing in the mills, and, as he advanced, he never failed to see before him the flutter of Anne's discreet draperies or hear the click of her determined heel. She never appeared in the business at all, but he was perfectly sure there wasn't a preferment offered him by her father for which he wasn't indebted to her manipulation of Hamilton in long, skillful hours beforehand. Hamilton had no slightest idea he was being influenced, but, as the years went on, he grew in appreciation of young Raven's business abilities to such a degree that John, reading his mind like a familiar tongue, wondered whether after all it was true, and he hadn't a genius for the affairs of wool. Was he doing the thing that seemed so dull to him with such mechanical and yet consummate cleverness that he was worth all this unripe advancement, or was it indeed Anne's white hand that was turning the wheel of power, her wand that was keeping the augmented vision of him ever before her father's credulous eyes? But he could not retard the wheels of his progress without making a fool of himself, and by the time his sister had prosperously married and his mother had died, he was a partner in the business, and then Hamilton also died and Raven was asking Dick, hoping all the time he would refuse, if he wanted to come in. Dick did refuse, with an instant hearty decision for which his uncle inwardly blessed him. Raven had got so restive by this time over the position he had himself won through Anne's generalship that he felt the curse was going down through the family, and that Dick, if he should come in, would wake up at forty-odd and find himself under the too heavy shade of the Hamilton benevolence.
"Not on your life," said Dick, when he was halfheartedly offered the chance of battening on wool, "not while Mum's got the dough. There's only one of me, and she's bound to keep me going."
"You couldn't marry on it," said Raven.
For that also Dick was cheerfully prepared.
"By the time Nan's ready," he said, having at that point asked her intermittently for several years, "I shall be getting barrelfuls out of my plays."
"'If,'" quoted Raven, "'Medina Sidonia had waited for the skin of the bear that was not yet killed, he might have catched a great cold.'"
"That's all right," said Dick. "You needn't worry, not till it begins to worry me. The only thing that gets me is not pinning Nan down."
"Yes," said Raven, "she's a difficult person to pin."
And saying it, he had a vision of a bright butterfly with "dye-dusty wings" in stiff, glass-covered brittleness. He wondered if marrying might pin Nan down like that.
Another thought troubled him a little: whether Dick had built even obscurely in his own mind on the money Nan would have from Aunt Anne, and the more modest sum she had now from her dead father and mother. He concluded not. He hadn't got to worry about that. Dick had lived in the atmosphere of money and he took its permanence for granted.
But we are keeping Nan looking at the fire and trying to get her news out adequately, waiting a long time for these explanatory excursions into past history. Raven also was waiting, a good deal excited and conscious of his apprehensive heart. And when she spoke, in a studied quietude, he found the words were the very last he expected to hear:
"I wanted to be the one to tell you. We've found her will."
They sat there silent for several minutes. Raven was keeping desperate clutch on the inner self lashed by his hurrying heart, and telling it there was no danger of his saying any of the things it was hounding him on to say. He wanted to break out with an untempered violence:
"Of course you've found it. And of course she's left a lot of it to me."
He did not really believe that: only it so linked up with the chain of her unceasing benevolences toward him that it seemed the only thing to complete them adequately. And Nan, as if his premonition had prompted her, too, was saying, after the minute she had left him to get his pace even with hers, as if to assure him that, although she knew so much more than he, she wouldn't hurry ahead:
"Rookie, dear, she's left it all to you."
Raven felt himself tighten up, every nerve and sinew of him, to do something before it should be too late. He bent forward to her and said, a sharp query:
"Who found it?"
"Why," said Nan, smiling as if she couldn't ask anything better, "I found it, in a perfectly innocent looking envelope with some old deeds and mortgages."
"You haven't got it here, have you?" he pelted on. "You didn't bring it with you?"
His eyes interrogated her with his voice, and she shook her head, wondering at him.
"Nothing to you?" he asked sharply. "I'm the sole legatee?"
"Oh, I have the house, of course," said Nan, "the one here and the place at Wake Hill. She had those only for her lifetime, you know. Yes, you're the sole legatee."
"You haven't told anybody, have you?" he asked, in a despairing haste, as if he were seeking about for ways to suppress the document.
She broke into an amused giggle, the note he sometimes fancied she kept for him alone.
"Why, yes," she said, "of course I have. I telephoned Mr. Whitney, and he was in a great state over it. He came round, and I gave it to him."
"A lawyer!" said Raven, in disgust. "A damned accurate, precedent-preaching lawyer! Well, the fat's in the fire now. What did you have to be so confounded previous for?"
Nan was smiling at him as if she found herself wiser than he.
"You didn't think you could tear it up, did you, Rookie?" she inquired. "You can't, you know, except in stories."
"I don't know what I thought," he said. "Only I wish it hadn't been done, that's all. It's a"—he ended blankly—"a mistake."
She was looking at him now in a warm, sweet way, to tell him she understood and thanked him.
"You're afraid I sha'n't have enough," she said. "I shall. I'd ever so much rather you had it, Rookie."
"It isn't a question," said Raven curtly, in his disaffection, "of how much you're worth. It's simply yours, that's all, and you've got to have it. Well, I can refuse it, I suppose. Only that's so boorish. It drags everybody out into the open. What made her! Oh, what made her!"
"I think it's nice," said Nan comfortably. "It seems to make everything so right. As to other people—why, it's telling them, don't you know, you really were the one she cared most about, though she couldn't care quite in the way you wanted her to."
He sat staring at her. What did she mean? What had she made up, in her adequate mind, about his relation to Aunt Anne? She couldn't know how he had fought off the yearly increasing benefits Anne had showered him with, unless indeed Anne had told her. And it wasn't like her. Anne was dignity itself. She kept her own counsel. She took her stately course without the least recognition that there were peculiarities in the pace she kept or the road she chose. She had the unconscious arrogance of her class, a class perhaps, except as surviving in individuals, almost extinct. She never accounted for herself, because it could not have forced its way into her mind, from birth to death, that there was anything in her conduct save the inevitable best, as ordered as the stars. So, Raven knew, she had probably never talked over his nebulous relation with her to Nan; but he was suddenly alive with curiosity to know. He couldn't coax Nan into betraying that confidence, but he was nevertheless set on getting at it somehow. He wondered if it might be decent to do it by direct attack.
"Nan," said he, "just what was my relation to your Aunt Anne? What do you assume it to have been?"
She looked at him as if in reproach, a hurt pride flushing her cheek and giving a sort of wounded appeal to her glance.
"Why," she stumbled, "I know. Of course I know. Everybody did that heard how long you'd been devoted to her."
This gave him so sharp a pang that it might almost have seemed she had been told off to avenge some of Aunt Anne's wrongs of omission suffered at his hands. He had never been devoted to her, even with his decent show of deference in return for the benefits he had to reject. And now Nan was accusing him of having kept up the relation he had been all his life repudiating, and since Aunt Anne was gone (in the pathetic immunity that shuts the lips of the living as it does those of the dead), he could not repudiate it any more. Nan was looking at him now in her clear-eyed gravity, but still with that unconscious implication of there being something in it all to hurt her personally. The words came as if in spite of her, so impetuously that she might easily not have seen how significant they were:
"There's nothing to be ashamed of in not getting the woman you want, especially with that reason. She adored you, Rookie. I know she did. And it was pretty heroic in her to keep her mind fixed on all those years between you. I wouldn't, I can tell you. Do you s'pose I'd let a matter of fourteen years keep me from the only man? No, sir. Not me."
They sat gazing at each other, she as self-willed as her words and he abjectly afraid of her finding out. Why? He could not have told. But it did seem as if he must protect Anne, in the shadows where she lived now, from the flashing directness of this terrible young glance. It was all he could do for her. It was bad enough to have Nan build up a beautiful dream house of eternal love and renunciation. It was infinitely worse to be the cause of her demolishing it. And as his eyes, in sheer terror of leaving her to reflect any more astutely and productively on this, held hers, and hers answered back, suddenly he saw a new knowledge dawn in their clear depths. She had somehow read him, underneath his evasions. She knew. And before she could turn that involuntary discovery of hers over in her mind and blur it with some of the discretions he was trying to maintain, she burst out, in the extremity of her wonder:
"Good heavens! I don't believe it was so at all. You weren't in love with her. She was with you, and that was the only way she——" Here she saw the morass her crude candor was leading them both into, and stopped, but not soon enough for him to miss the look of eager relief sprung into her eyes. He turned from her and spoke roughly:
"We don't know what we're talking about. Going into things now—why, it's the merest folly. Haven't we enough to worry over in the matter of the will? That's the thing we've got to meet next."
She had now, he saw, the consciously sweet and warming smile she had for him when she wanted to coax him into doing something or ignoring something she had done.
"I'm in hopes," she said, "you may feel differently after you've read her letter."
"Her letter?" he repeated, as if that were a superadded shock. "What letter?"
"It was in the envelope," said Nan soothingly, "with the will."
"Who's it to?"
He was a writer of English, but his extremity was such that only the briefest slovenliness would serve.
"To you," she said, unclasping her little bag and bringing it out, the familiar superscription uppermost and the very size and texture of the envelope so reminiscent of Anne's unchanging habits that he felt again the pressure of her fine indomitable hand on his.
"Have you," he asked bleakly, "shown that to Whitney?"
"Why, no," said she, in a clear-eyed surprise. "Of course not. It's addressed to you."
She held it out to him and, after a perceptible pause, he took it from her and sat holding it, looking over it into the fire, as if he saw his fate there, or as if he should determine it for himself by tossing the letter in, to be devoured. Then he became aware that Nan was gathering herself up to go. It was rather a mental intimation than anything tangible. She was tight furled, like all the women of that moment of fashion, and had no flying draperies to collect. But he felt her flitting and knew at the same instant that he could not lose her, since, determined as he was to bar her out of the inner recesses of his unfurnished mental prison, where he and the memory of Aunt Anne dwelt so miserably together, it was still a comfort to keep her human presence within call.
"Don't go," he implored her, and she, surprised, settled back, saying:
"No, of course not, if you don't want me to. I thought you'd like to read it straight off. Wouldn't it be easier to read it alone?"
"I don't know whether I can ever read it," said Raven, and then, seeing what a great booby he must sound, he ended savagely: "I'll read it now."
Nan took a paper-knife from the table and offered it to him. Evidently she felt an unformulated tenderness there, a guess that if he tore it open it would seem as if he were somehow tearing at Aunt Anne's vanished and helpless delicacies. Then, as he did not accept the knife, or, indeed, seem to see it, she took the letter from his hand, ran the blade noiselessly under the flap, withdrew the folded sheets, and gave them to him. Raven, with a little shake of the head, as if he were reminding himself not to be a fool, opened the letter, fixed his attention on it and, without looking up, hurried through the closely written pages. Nan sat as still as an image of silence, and when he had done and she heard him folding the sheets and putting them back into the envelope, she did not look up.
"Well," said he, his voice so harsh and dry that now she did glance at him in a quick inquiry, "it's as bad as it can be. No, it couldn't very well be worse."
Harrying thoughts raced through her mind. Had Aunt Anne reproached him for any friendliness unreturned, any old hurt time had never healed? No, Aunt Anne was too effectually armored by an exquisite propriety. She would have been too proud to make any egotistical demand for herself during life. Assuredly she could not have done it after death. Raven may have guessed what she was thinking.
"No," he said, in the same tone of dry distaste. All at once it seemed he could be definitely allowed to treat himself to a little wholesome rebuttal of Anne and her ways. "It's nothing you could possibly imagine. She leaves the money to me to be used for a certain purpose. She doesn't leave it to any association of the people that think as she does, because she doesn't absolutely trust them never to divert it into some channel she wouldn't approve. She leaves it to me to administer because I know precisely what she means and I'd feel bound to do it in her way and no other."
"But what is the purpose?" Nan asked him. She was thoroughly surprised and very curious. "So it's for a cause. Aren't you glad, Rookie? A minute ago you didn't want it. What is the cause?"
"The cause," said Raven, with infinite distaste, as if it galled him even to say it, "is the cause of Peace."
"Good Lord!" said Nan breathlessly. "O my stars!" She thought of it a moment, and he thought also, and then she gathered herself hopefully. "But, Rookie dear, you believe in peace. You don't have to carry it out in her way. You can carry it out in yours—and mine—and Dick's—we that have seen things over there. Why, bless you, Rookie, it's a great idea. It's a chance: Liberty enlightening the world! a big educational fund, and you to administer it. Cheer up, Rookie dear. It's a chance."
"Oh, no, it's not a chance," said Raven bitterly. "She's seen to that. She's tied me up, hand and foot. It's got to be done in her way, the way she'd been doing it herself since 1914."
"The acutely sentimental?" asked Nan ruthlessly. Then the misery of his face—a look, too, of mortification as if somebody had put him to public shame—hurt her so that she spoke with an impetuous bitterness of her own: "It was a cruel thing to do. Well, it was like her."
Raven put in heavily:
"She never meant to be cruel."
"No," said Nan, "but the whole thing—all the things she had to do with—came out of her being absolutely stupid and absolutely sure she was right."
Raven thought apathetically for a moment. His mind went plodding back over the years of his acquaintance with Anne, as he had never meant it should again. There had been moments, of late, when he wondered if he need ever go back to that guiding hand of hers on his unresponsive life. Of herself, he would have protested, he must have the decency to think. Just now, recurring to that also, he wondered, with a grim amusement, whether he had perhaps meant to set apart a day for it, say Thursdays from ten to twelve, to think gratefully of Anne. But here he was again at war with her, and the curious part of it seemed to be that he couldn't undertake the warfare with the old, steady, hopeless persistence he had got used to in their past; the mere thought of it had roused him to a certain alarming wildness of revolt.
"Well," he found himself saying to Nan, because there might be a propriety in curbing her impetuous conclusions, "she had a way of being right—conventionally, you might say."
"Was she right about the War?" Nan threw back at him.
"No," he felt obliged to own.
"Is she right about this, trying to fetter you, hand and foot, against what she knew you believed, and banking on your doing it because she's crowded you and rushed you so many times and you've never failed her?"
"Oh, yes," said Raven miserably, "I've failed her often enough."
"But answer me that: was she right when she left you her money to do this fool thing and give the world another kick down hill where the sentimentalists are sending it? Now I ask you, Rookie, was she right?"
"No," he owned again.
"Then," said Nan triumphantly, "you mean she's right about teas and dinners and women's clubs and old portraits and genealogy and believing our family tree was the tree of life. That's what you mean, isn't it, Rookie?"
Raven looked at her, an unhappy smile dawning. He was moderately sure, in his unspoken certainties, that this was what he did mean. She had been the perfect product of a certain form of civilization, her proprieties, her cruelties even—though, so civilized were they, they seemed to rank only as spiritual necessities.
"I'd rather see a monkey climbing our family tree," said Nan, with a rash irrelevance she hoped might shock him into the reaction of a wholesome disapproval, "than all those stiffs she used to hold up for me to imitate."
"Don't!" said Raven involuntarily. "It would hurt her like the mischief to hear you say a thing like that."
"Why, Rookie," said Nan, with a tenderness for him alone, he saw, not for Aunt Anne, "you act as if she might be—in the room." She kept a merciful restraint on herself there. She had almost said: "You act as if you were afraid she might be in the room."
He sat staring at her from under frowning brows. Was it possible, his startled consciousness asked itself, that the spell of Anne's tenacity of will had not lifted in the least and he did think she might be in the room? Not to intimidate him: he had never feared her. He had been under the yoke, not only of his decent gratitude, but his knowledge of the frightful hurts he could deal her. He wondered what Nan would say if he could tell her that, if he could paint for her the most awful hour in his remembrance, more terrible even than that of seeing his mother suffer under mortal disease, when Anne had actually given way before him, the only time in her ordered life, and accused him of the cruelty of not loving her. This had not been the thin passion of the family portraits smiling down on them from her walls, but the terrible nerve-destroying anguish of a woman scorned. That was one of the things in his life he never allowed himself to think about; but it would, in moments of physical weariness, come beating at the door. He would hear it leave the threshold while he sat, hands clenched and lips shut tight, and go prowling round the house, peering in at him through the windows, bidding him waken and remember. And when he did find himself forced to remember before he could get out of doors and walk or ride, it was always with an incredulous amazement that he had, in that moment of her downfall, found the courage to withstand her. When the implacable ghost of remembrance flashed on his mind the picture of her, face wet with streaming tears, hands outstretched to him—beautiful hands, the product of five generations of idleness and care—why did he not meet her passion with some decency of response, swear he did love her, and spend the rest of his life in making good? Would a lifetime of dogged endurance be too much for a man to give, to save all this inherited delicacy of type from the ruin of knowing it had betrayed itself and was delicate no more?—the keenest pang it could feel in a world made, to that circumscribed, over-cultured intelligence, for the nurture of such flowers of life. He felt, as he stood there looking despairingly upon her, as if he had seen all the manufactured expensiveness of the world, lustrous silks, bloom of velvet, filigreed jewels, in rags and ruin. Yet there was more, and this it was that had brought enduring remorse to his mind. It was pride. That was in ruins. If she had assaulted him with the reproaches of an unfed passion, there would have been some savage response of rebuttal in him, to save them both from this meager sort of shame. But what could heal in a man's mind the vision of a woman's murdered pride, as deep as the pride of queens, in the days when the world itself bowed its neck for queens to set their feet on? Nan was looking at him curiously. He became aware of it, and returned to himself with a start. He must, he judged, have been acting queerly. It had never happened before that he had been under other eyes when the vision rose to plague him.
"You've been such a long time without speaking," said Nan gently. "What is it, Rookie dear?"
He shook his head. His forehead was damp with the sweat of his renewed remorses.
"There's such a lot of things, Nan," he answered, "that can't be said."
"Yes," she agreed, "that's true. Want me to go home?"
He didn't want her to go home. He caught at her dear presence. Almost he wished he might tell her how horrible it was, not only to repudiate Anne's last request of him, but to feel he was repudiating it on the heels of that other refusal years ago.
"No, dear," he said, "not yet. I'll go with you when you must."
"I don't believe," Nan ventured, "it's as bad as you think. She did do some foolish things," she meditated, "these last years."
"She did some hideous things," said Raven, "because they weren't normal. They weren't decent. And so they weren't right."
"Maybe I don't know so much as you do about them," said Nan. "You see she was so furious with me for going to France——"
"Oh, don't say she was furious," urged Raven, still out of that sense of her being in the room. "It would hurt her so confoundedly."
"Well, she was, you see," said Nan. "I thought you knew about it. But I remember, you'd gone. And when I told her I was going over, she was furious. Oh, she was, Rookie! You can't say anything else. I know Aunt Anne."
"But just cut out some of the adjectives," said Raven, still with that sense of Anne's being in the room and the unsportsmanlike business of putting her in her place when she could not, even from her place, defend herself. "She never was furious. She simply didn't believe in war and she wouldn't join any relief work and didn't want you to."
"She wouldn't join any relief work," said Nan, relentlessly rehearsing. "She said the most frightful things and said them publicly. She ought to have been arrested, only they didn't take the trouble. She wasn't a Quaker. There was nothing inbred to excuse her. We're decent folks, Rookie, we Hamiltons. But she stood for non-resistance. She said Belgium shouldn't have resisted, and England shouldn't have gone in, and France shouldn't have lifted a finger or thrown a bomb, and when you told her—that is, I told her—she was crazy, she said something awful."
Raven was startled out of his determination to show no curiosity.
"What did she say?" he asked. "What was it that was awful?"
Nan seemed to have paled a little under the rose-leaf texture of her cheek.
"Why, you know," she said, "what they all come back to. Whatever they believe, they come back to that. I don't see how they can. I couldn't, it scares me so. They tell you what He said—Christ."
Raven sat looking at her, wondering absently, in the unregarded depths of his mind, how they could go on with a talk that was ploughing deeper and deeper and yet could get nowhere in the end. For certainly they were both mercifully bent on saving Anne, and Anne, under this shadow of her latest past, herself would not let them.
"She absolutely forbade my going to France," said Nan, this with no special feeling, but as if she had dwelt on it until there was no emotion left to put into it. "She said it was notoriety I wanted. I told her I'd scrub floors over there, if they wanted me to. It proved I did, too, you know. I did it remarkably well. And then she said she forbade me, and I reminded her I was of age and had my own money. And I went."
Raven nodded. He thought they had said enough, but Nan's calm impartiality did rest him. It was something he could not himself attain.
"And now," said Nan, "she wants you to keep on doing the fool things she'd have done then, if they'd let her. She probably wants to get up a big scheme of propaganda and put it into the schools. And every blessed boy and girl in this country is to be taught not to serve the truth and do his job but—safety first."
"Yes," said Raven, drearily "I suppose that's about it."
"But actually," said Nan, suddenly aware that he had not told her, "what does she say? Does she specify? What does she say?"
"She says," Raven answered, in a toneless voice, glancing at the letter but making no movement toward sharing it with her more definitely, "that her money is to build a Palace of Peace—she doesn't say where—for lectures, demonstrations of the sort I know she approves, all the activities possible in the lines she has been following—for the doctrine of non-resistance and the consequent abolishment of war."
Again he ended drearily.
"Well," said Nan, "what are you going to do about it? going to spend your life and the lives of a lot of more or less intelligent pacifists teaching children to compute the number of movies they could go to for the money spent on one battleship——"
"But, good God, Nan!" Raven broke in, "you and I don't want to preach war."
"No," said Nan, "but we can't let Aunt Anne preach peace: not her brand, as we've seen it. O Rookie! what's the use of taking the world as it isn't? Why don't we see if we can't make something of the old thing as it is and has been? and blest if I don't believe as it always will be?"
Raven looked at her in a maze of interrogation. Was this the fragility of girlhood speaking, or was it womanhood, old as time itself, with the knowledge of good and evil? She answered the look.
"No," she said, "I'm not a kid. Don't think it. I suppose it's because I've seen—life."
The pause before the last word, the drop on the word itself was not from bitterness, he knew. But it was sad.
"Well," he said irrepressibly, "you've seen life, and what do you think of it?"
She hesitated. Then she put out her hand and touched the petal of a rose, one of a great dome of splendor in a bowl.
"I like—roses," she said whimsically.
She looked at him with that most moving look of a lovely face: the knitted brows of rueful questioning, the smiling lips. Raven, staring back at her, felt a sudden impulse to speak, to tell. It was the form of her reply that invited him.
"I don't believe, Nan," he said, "I even care about roses. I don't care about the whole infernal scheme. That's what I sent for Dick for—to tell him. Practically, you know I should have to tell Dick. And I haven't done it and now I'm telling you."
Nan sat looking at him with an air of patient alertness, ready, he saw, to meet what he had to say and do the best she could with it. He had an irritated apprehension that, as her work through the last few years had lain chiefly in meeting emergencies, so now he was an emergency. And as Dick, poet though the inner circle of journalism had listed him, might not understand in the least what he was driving at, so there was danger of Nan's understanding too quickly and too much, with the resultant embarrassment of thinking something could be done. And nothing could be done beyond the palliatives he meant to allow himself. He would try her. He might see how far she would insist on going with him along his dreary way. What if she had Anne's over-developed and thwarted maternity of helpfulness? What if she insisted on going all the way and never leaving him to the blessed seclusion of his own soul?
"You see, Nan," he adventured, "I'm sick of the whole show."
"Yes," she said, "I know. Coming back. Finding we aren't any better than we were before we got frightened and said our prayers and promised God if He'd stop the War we'd be different forever and ever, amen. That's it, Rookie, isn't it?"
"Why, yes," said Raven, staring at her, she seemed so accurate, according to his own mental gauging, and so unmoved in her flippancy, "that's pretty nearly it."
She nodded at him again, whether to hearten him or to assure him of their perfect unison he could not tell.
"It was an awful jolt, wasn't it?" she inquired frankly. "You know, I should think it might make some of them laugh, the ones they say observe us from—where is it from? Mars? up in the heavens somewhere. It's like reading a bitter sort of book. It is funny. Rookie, don't you think it's funny?"
Raven remembered a character in Mr. Owen Wister's "Virginian," the hen crazed by her thwarted destiny.
"Well," he said, quoting "The Virginian," "not so damned funny either. But how the dickens did you know what I was going to say?"
"Because it's what we've all come back to," said she, "and what everybody that stayed at home feels, or ought to if they've got anything inside their nuts. Just think, Rookie! we were like the great multitude in the Bible, somewhere, praising God. We broke our idols and—I don't know what we didn't do. And now we're not scared any more, we've set 'em up again: same old idols. Rookie, I bet you the only reason we ever sacrificed to God at all was because we thought He was the biggest joss and things were so desperate and all, we'd better make a sure thing of it. And now we think we aren't in any particular danger, seems as if the little gods would do, same as they did before; and they're not so expensive."
"Goodness, Nan!" said Raven, "how naughty you are. You didn't use to run on so."
"I haven't talked very much to you," said Nan drily, "not since I grew up."
He knew it was true, and knew also that the reason was, if she had allowed her lips to utter it, "Aunt Anne wouldn't let me."
"But," she said, "I don't understand altogether. I know you're mad and discouraged and all the rest of it. But I don't see what Dick has got to do with it."
"It's simply this," said Raven. "I'm going away."
She looked at him in what seemed to be serious alarm.
"Relief work?" she asked. "Reconstruction?"
"No," said Raven. "I don't believe I should be any good to them. There isn't a blamed thing I can do, so far as I see, except for what money I've got. I'm no good, Nan. I shouldn't sell for my hide and horns. And I hate the whole blamed show. I'm sick of it. I'm sick of the system, from the beasts that devour one another to the rest of us. And I'm simply going to desert. I'm going to run away."
"Where?" asked Nan. "You can't run away from the earth."
"No," said Raven, "I can't jump off. So I'm going to do the next convenient thing. I'm going up to Wake Hill and shovel snow with Jerry, and maybe get into the woods and do some thinning out and, if I remember anything about the millennium we've just shaved the edge of, just say to myself there ain't a-going to be no millenium, so I can shut up."
"You've taken advice, haven't you?" she concluded. "That's what they've prescribed. I suppose it's all right."
"Good God, no!" said Raven. "Do you think I've been to a doctor and turned myself inside out? I'm going because Wake Hill is as far out of the world as I can manage. If the whole earth hadn't gone crazy, I'd cut stick for Tartary or some confounded place that isn't on the map. But they're all on the map. There isn't an inch of ground that isn't under some sort of moral searchlight. No, I'll be hanged if it's moral. It's only the mites in the cheese getting busy and stirring up fermentation."
Nan laughed out and then looked up at him in her rueful apology.
"I couldn't help it," she said. "I thought of Dick, your telling him. Dick's just got his book ready for the printer: Democracy, you know, in three-legged verse. And they'll say it's full of insight and prophecy. That's what they said about the other one: insight, prophecy! But Dick won't have the least idea what you're driving at."
"You see," said Raven, "he's thinking of doing some stiff work and getting a degree: a sort of sop to his mother. She's as wild as a hawk, you know, to get him to distinguish himself, doesn't much care how. I'd meant to ask him to camp here with me this winter. I believe I did actually ask him, now I think of it."
"Yes, you did," said Nan. "It'll make a lot of difference to him, your being away."
"I don't think so," said Raven. "Anyhow, he'll have to get used to it, especially as I'm not merely going away. I'm getting out, out of the business and all."
He was really surprising her now. She had grown up in the atmosphere of belief in that particular business. When a Hamilton said his earthly creed, he would have begun, if he had been honest, "I believe in wool."
"You're not retiring?" she hesitated.
"Made your pile, Rookie?"
At once they thought of Anne and the new complication she had saddled him with.
"That isn't the question," he evaded. "The amount of it is, I couldn't go to the office every morning and come home and go the next day, without—well, Nan, frankly, going off my nut. I hate it. I hate the whole business of what we call civilized life. I even think of giving Dick power of attorney and passing all my stuff over into his hands."
"Oh, no," said Nan quickly, "you mustn't do that."
He frowned at her, perplexedly.
"Don't you trust him?" he asked. "Don't you trust Dick?"
"Of course I trust Dick," said she impatiently, "his intentions, that is."
"You ought to," said Raven. "You're bound to, the man you're going to marry."
She kept her eyes on him, but she said nothing. And suddenly Raven realized that he wanted to know about this business of marrying Dick. He wanted to know tremendously. Yet, though this was the little Nan who sometimes used to seem more his child than anybody's, he could not ask her. She looked difficult, if not wayward.
"Well," he compromised, "that's about where it is. I'm going into the country, to get away from the clack of men. My income, all but the little of it I set aside for food and taxes, will go to France. It may go through Dick or it may——Oh, well, well," he added, seeing the quick rebuttal again on her face, "that hasn't got to be decided in a hurry. But ultimately it goes to France."
"Why France?" asked Nan. "I see, though. They're all deserting her."
"It isn't altogether that," said Raven, as if he hadn't finished thinking it out. "It's because I believe in her so tremendously, that quick intelligence of hers. She mustn't be downed, mustn't be kept depleted. It's a loss too horrible to face. She sees the world as it is. She knows the dangers. She's got to be protected from them, so she can go on seeing."
"What does she see?" asked Nan curiously. "What kind of thing?"
"Everything. Life. When it comes to what the collective brain can do, you can't limit her. You never'll make her believe in miracles, but she can find out how they're done."
"Mercy!" said Nan. "You talk like a book."
"Notes, for an essay: 'France.' I've been thinking 'em out. How she ought to be given a hand, so she doesn't have to spend the next thirty years or so outwitting the German devil. That's hard sledding for her beautiful intelligence. She ought to be safe, so she can turn it to other things: the science of living, hers, ours, everybody's."
"Ah," said Nan, "but they'll tell you it won't be for everybody: only France."
"That's the point," said Raven. "It's a gamble. But they can't deny she's got the beautiful intelligence. I can trust anything so perfect. I trust it absolutely."
"Why don't we do it ourselves? Build a fire under us, Rookie. Come on!"
"We aren't homogeneous," said Raven. "We've no race spirit, no live nerve through the whole of us. France has. That mind of hers, that leaping intelligence! If she were as holy as she is keen, she'd make the world the poets dreamed of."
"Then go to it," said Nan. "Turn in your money. I will mine. Stump you!"
"Not yet," said Raven. "You sit tight and see how I come out. I haven't got enough to set the Seine afire, but such as it is, I'd like to turn it over to her for what she needs most: agriculture, schools, research. Administered so it could be withdrawn if she didn't make good and turned in somewhere else. Oh, it's a gamble! I told you it was. But administered, mind you. That's the point."
"Through Dick," she commented, plainly with dissatisfaction. "Now, why Dick?"
"Because," said Raven, "Dick's got a head for organizing. He's his father over again, plus the Raven streak. And the Raven streak doesn't do him any harm. It isn't soft, like Old Crow—and me. It's his mother in him, and she takes back—but O Lord! what's the sense of going into that?"
"Anyhow," said Nan, with decision, "you keep your affairs in your own hands."
"For the present, yes," said Raven. "And I do want to think it out in detail. I can do it at Wake Hill. I shall get on my pins enough for that."
"Isn't it funny?" said she. "Aunt Anne with her Palace of Peace and you with your invincible France. But, Rookie, you hear to me. Whatever you do with your own money, you do it your own way. Don't be a slacker."
Raven sat looking at her, a slow smile dawning. He rather liked Nan's taking him in hand.
"That's it, is it?" he asked, with a relish she was glad to see. "A slacker! so be it. If I'm a slacker, I am. I'm a conscientious objector. What I object to is the universe, the pattern it's made on. I object to the way we're running it, and, being made as we are, I don't see how we can be expected to do anything but what we're doing. It's a perfectly logical proposition. And except for a few minor chores I've got to see to, I simply won't play."
Nan was thinking. She looked down at her hands, lying in her lap. Raven looked at them also and wondered, as he often had, since they came home, how such hands could have done the tasks she set them to. She looked up and met his eyes gravely with something imperative in hers. It is a way women have sometimes. They seem to be calling on the boy in man and bidding him take heed.
"I wouldn't," said she, "talk to Dick about going to Wake Hill."
"What would you do? Cut stick, and let him wonder what in the deuce it's all about?"
"I wouldn't talk; I'd write."
"Oh, write!—what's the difference?"
"If you talk, he'll say something that'll shut you up and you'll be just as far apart as you are to-day. If you write, you can tell him as much as you want to and no more. And the first thing he'll do will be to bring the letter to me."
"I see," said Raven. "And you'll interpret."
"I'll interpret. I can, Rookie. I know you, don't I? and I know Dick."
"You ought to," said Raven rashly again because he was again curious, "the man you're going to marry."
"Yes," said Nan calmly, rising, "the man I'm going to marry. Only"—her face, as she turned it to him, brimmed over with a childish sort of fun—"don't tell him that, Rookie. It's perfectly true I haven't promised him. And I don't mean to—yet."
"Quite right," said Raven, rising. He felt a distinct relief. He, too, wanted to see what Dick would make of himself. "You do your own telling."
"There he is," said Nan, "just as it is in a play. We've got to a climax and he comes in at the door. But, Rookie——" She stopped, for Dick was nearing in the hall, and Raven knew what she would have said. It was in both their minds. They hadn't finished their talk. It had merely strayed into another channel, or bolted and run away there. Aunt Anne's money and her Palace of Peace still stared them in the face. Dick put his head in at the door. He looked rather sheepish, as if his dignified going had been invalidated by this impetuous coming back, as if he couldn't live without Nan and she was bound to see through it.
"Well?" he said gruffly. "Talked out?"
They both laughed, with the sudden absurdity of it. How should they, their eyes questioned each other, ever be talked out, what with Aunt Anne and the universe and France?
"Absolutely," said Nan. "Good night, Rookie. Going to write your letter? Come on, Dick."
Raven sat down at the table and began his letter. He was wrestling with it at once, to give himself no time to argue over the point of its being no ordinary letter such as he had been accustomed to write to Dick. He began with the succinct statement of what he meant to do. He had made all his arrangements for getting out of the business. They could be concluded in short order. As to the business itself, he had no complaint to make. The old man—he permitted himself this indulgence as he never could have in Anne's lifetime, as touching her father—the old man had been square all through. He was as good as they make 'em. But there was nothing for him, Raven, in the concern except its cumulative capacity for making money. He'd no traditional pride in it, as the old man had. He'd worked for all he was worth, to squeeze every drop he could out of it so that his mother—"your grandmother, you know, Dick"—might have every last luxury she wanted. Well, she'd had 'em, though one of the ironical things about it was that she didn't want so very many, and he needn't have worked so hard or so long. However, that's neither here nor there. What's done is done. The War's done—they say—and the thing that would please Raven best would be——Here he brought up with a full stop. He was running into dangerous revelations, going back to a previous state of mind, one he had begun cherishing as soon as his mother died, and even caressed, with a sort of denied passion, when Anne also died, and he felt so shamefacedly free. All his life he had wanted to wander, to explore, to bruise himself against the earth and pick himself up and go on and get bruised again. He loved the earth, he wanted her, in her magnificence and cruelty, wanted to write about her, and make the portrait of her for stay-at-homes who weren't adventurous and were content with reading about her in the blank moments after the office grind. Yet he was a stay-at-home himself. Why? in God's name why?
He asked himself the question, as he sat with lifted pen, almost the words dropping off it, to tell Dick the things it would be simply disconcerting to know. Raven saw, with a sad clearness, why he hadn't written the books he wanted to about the earth. They would have been rough books, full of rock and clay and the tumbling of rivers and thunder grumbling in the clouds. If he had been really afraid of Anne and her ordered ambitions for him, he could have printed them under an assumed name. She need never have known at all. They wouldn't have been the books he could have written if he had been foot-loose and gone blundering along in strange trails over the earth, but they might have held something of the sort his inner man wanted to fashion. And if the secret of them had been kept, they needn't have interfered with his smug little folk stories Anne and her women's clubs prized so much. Had he been actually afraid of Anne? Was he one of the men who are shamefully under the feminine finger, subject to mother, subject to wife, without the nerve—scarcely the wish, indeed—to break away? He was not afraid of his mother, or, if he had been, it was the fear of hurting her who had been so hurt already. Ever since he could remember, he saw himself, even as a little boy, trying to get her away from his father who had a positive cast of mind, a perfect certainty of being right and a confirmed belief that robust measures always were the thing. If you did wrong, you were to be punished, promptly and effectually. If you were afraid of the dark, and came downstairs in your nightgown upon the family sitting by the lamp, you were whaled for it, to teach you there was something worse than bed even in the dark. If you said your head ached and you couldn't eat bacon and greens, which father elected to consider a normal dish, you were made to eat a lot with no matter what dire result, because there wasn't a physical ill which couldn't be mended by treating it robustly. He was God. He knew. And he was perfectly well and had never once for half a minute entered into those disordered cells of bodily ill where the atom cries to its Creator in an anguish of bewilderment and pain. And when his body met the fate appointed for its destruction, as all bodies must, and he was brought home broken after the runaway that made him a thing almost too terrible to look upon, except by eyes so full of compassion that they love the more, Raven, then a very little John, found himself wondering how it seemed to father now. Even runaways, father had appeared to think, could always be governed, if you kept your head.
They never knew what he thought. He died quickly, under opiates, and John believed his mother was so thankful for the merciful haste of it that she could not, until long after, recall herself to mourn. And she did honestly mourn. The little John was glad of that. So ill and tired had she been for years and yet so bound upon the rack of her husband's Spartan theories for her, that John thought he could not have borne it if she had not adored her righteous tormentor, if she had had to look on him as her master, not her lord by love. It seemed to him he was always mourning over his mother, in those days, always lying awake and wondering if she were awake, too, always trying to save her from some task too heavy for her and too heavy for him also, so that, if she were to be saved, it had to be by stratagem. But stratagem was difficult in that house, because his older sister, who became Dick's mother, was of her father's temperament, always perfectly well and also an inferior god who knew at every point what to do, and she had not merely imbibed father's certainty that the only thing mother needed was to take a brace: she had it by nature. And when, father being gone to heaven—and John, young John now, not little any more, made no doubt he had gone, it pleased mother so to say it and be obligingly agreed with—Amelia, his sister, took her departure, on the night of her marriage with a very prosperous Mr. Powell, for the middle west, John Raven, then beginning his apprenticeship to wool, danced a fantastic fling in the sitting-room where the wedding gifts still lay displayed and whooped with emotion at last let loose. His mother, in the gray silk and commendable lace Amelia had selected and he had paid for, did smile unwillingly, but she spoke to him in the reproving tone which was the limit of severity his boyhood had known from her and which he had learned, in those earliest days, meant nothing at all:
"I'd be ashamed! Any one would think you were glad your sister had gone!"
John did not say he was glad. He knew too much to stir up loyal reactions in mother's conscience. He simply wove a dance of intricate mazes about her, as she sat in her chair, and his inner mind was one paean of thanksgiving to God, not the spurious gods who had been his father and sister, but the mysterious Deity who had, for obscure purposes, called them into being, because now John had at last full swing and could let mother out of bondage. What difference did it make that he wasn't trekking through darkest Africa or being hunted by the jungle in India, so long as mother was out of bondage? He even took his allegiance to Anne rather lightly, those first years, he was so absent-minded about everything but hypnotising mother into thinking she was going to be very happy and live a long time doing it. And that was the part of his life when there seemed to be a great deal of it, and if he didn't have a thing now there would be plenty of chances to snatch at it later. He had simply been eaten up, the energy of him, the will, perhaps, by compassion. And then his mother had died and he knew he could have done no more for her than he had done, and while he was turning round to look about him—and ah! in that lean year came Anne's horrible accusation that he did not love her!—the War broke out, and he felt himself shocked into action. The very atoms of his body seemed to fall asunder and rearrange themselves and, as soon as he could decently get away, without throwing the bewilderment of the business on Anne, he had gone, and he had never seen her again.
He had written to her faithfully, and with the compassion that was either natally or by the habit of life a part of him, but he had not obeyed her. For she begged him, almost, at intervals, commanded him, to return to work with her for the peace of mankind. At first he tried to explain himself and assuage her grief over what she called his desertion of their common ideals. He answered the arguments in the letters that had become a misery to him to receive as his had become an inexpressible burden to write. Finally, with a wrench to himself, he ceased, and, with infinite pains, compiled data that might interest without offending her. The letters continued, but as soon as he found she was sending him abstractions valueless because they had no roots in the living issues of things, he had to stop. That, not her death, had been their lasting farewell.
What, in the name of all that was mysterious, he reflected, had made Anne—and so early—assume the burden of an unasked allegiance to him? His family and hers had been next-door neighbors at Wake Hill, but on no equality of worldly footing. The Hamiltons, thriving on wool, had been able to buy for themselves all the picturesque luxuries of civilized life. Their women toiled not. Their delicate air was the product of tuition in dainty ways. Their men had acquired the unconscious pose of dominance, of knowing what was their due and expecting to get it without argument. Sometimes up there at Wake Hill they did receive a disconcerting knock or two from some "embattled farmer" whom they called "my man," and who didn't like the sound of it. But the answering rebuff never penetrated the fine mail of their acquired arrogance. It meant, they smilingly said, "New England," and tolerantly passed it by. Raven's people were of a different stripe, "brainy," he thought with an unspoken pride of his own, yet deficient in a certain practical quality of taking the world "but as the world," and consequently always poor. Their ways were rougher ways. Their women had to work to trim the edges of their plainer surroundings with the alleviating prettinesses the Hamiltons cast aside with every changing style. And Anne, coming home from Europe one summer, where she had not only seen wonder and beauty, already familiar to her—for she was a young lady then—and where he knew she had met men and women whose names were trumpet calls in his ears—singled him out, in his shyness and obscurity, and offered him the key to the fulfilment of his dreams. Education, travel, the life of books—all were in her hand, the potential fruit of her father's doting affection for her, and all were to be his. What could have inspired her with so wholesale and fantastic a philanthropy? He could never adequately guess, and he was no nearer doing it now than in the old bewildering days when the Hesperidean apples were dropping over him and he was, from some shy instinct, dodging to avoid them. And the reason he had never guessed and never could guess was that he left out of all the data at his hand the one first moving factor: that he was a beautiful youth and Anne had imperiously loved him and had never ceased to love.
As he sat there, the pen lifted, his mind going back over the things that had led him away from adventure into wool, and were now leading him as far from wool as might be, he was tempted. What if, in spite of Nan, he should risk it and tell Dick, once for all, why he was going away, make it clear so there should be no after-persuasions, no clutter of half understanding? He was tired of thinking about his life as a life. The temptation to such morose musing had come upon him in the last six months, and once yielded to, he felt the egotistical disease of it through his very blood and bones. If he were Catholic, he could confess and get rid of it. He was not Catholic, only pagan, the natural man. The Church had a wisdom of her own. All her rites and ceremonies found their root in something salutary for the human mind. Confession was salutary. You might not be absolved, but if you were pagan you could believe that the very act of it absolved you. Nan said Dick never would understand. So much the better. Let him carry off the burden of it. If he understood, he'd see the extreme sacredness of a confidence entrusted to him. If he didn't, he'd hide it as a thing you'd better say as little about as possible. So he tucked his first letter into its envelope and began to write again, with no date and no direct address, but from a sense that it was going to be an enormously comforting thing to do.
"I think I'll tell you the real reason why I'm going to Wake Hill. I've told you I'm going, but just as my nerves move the muscles that move my legs to go, so my will moves my nerves and the me that is inside somewhere and is a perfect stranger to you—and also to the me I am used to myself—moves my will. You see, the me inside me knows there's something wrong. Something mighty bad—or it may be merely inevitable—has happened to me. I went through the War all right, on a pretty even keel, because I thought I saw a bright light at the end. I thought we all saw the light. And the light wasn't any electric signboard out to say there never would be any more wars, but it was a light you could see to read by. You could see the stars and see them differently from the old way we'd been seeing them. We could see the moon and the Milky Way—but I suppose that comes under stars—and the upshot of it was that we thought we saw God. And after you'd seen God, you knew saying there shouldn't be any more war was only beginning at the wrong end of the puzzle. Of course war is a damnable business, perhaps the most damnable we go into because it's so wholesale. But if you begin at the right end of the puzzle and not the wrong, the thing we learn is that the only reality in this universe for which it's worth going through the obscene hells of which war is one, is God. To be aware of Him, not to explain Him. You can't explain Him. You can't explain what He's done to you or means to do. All you can do is to keep your eye on Him and fall in.
"I came home. I was rather cracked, when I got here, I was so pleased with my little plaything. I'd seen God. I was only one of a good many millions that saw Him. And it was exactly as if you went into an enchanter's cave and expected to find some dream you'd dreamed made real, and all you found was the Forty Thieves sitting there counting over their spoils. No! no! it isn't an allegory. I don't mean America and profiteers. I don't mean anybody particularly. But it began to come over me more and more every day that we and everybody else on the round world, if they had seen God, had forgotten all about it. Just as the old-fashioned men at Wake Hill used to read their Bible Sunday and put it away on the parlor table with the album and go out early Monday morning to carry the apples to market all deaconed on top. By George! we were the same old lot. And worse, for we'd had our look through the peep-hole into eternities, and now we said, 'It makes my eyes ache. I'm going to wear a shade.' No, son, I don't mean Leagues of Nations and Internationalism or any of the quack remedies. I mean just God. We'd been badly scared—Nan said so to-day—and we got down on our knees and howled to the Highest and offered Him tribute.
"Now you may say that even if the whole world had forgotten God, if I'd seen Him why couldn't I still remember Him? Why couldn't I consider the millions of years that go to the making of man and do my little bit and wait on His will? Because my temptation came on me. I was tempted in the wilderness of my own credulity and conceit. For I looked back over time past and I said like Solomon—I don't know whether he ever said it, but he's the most blase Johnnie I remember—'All is vanity.' As it was in the beginning, so it ever shall be. We are not made in the image of God. We are made rather grotesquely out of dust, and to dust we shall return, all our hopes, all our aspirations, all the pretty plans we form for defeating death and time. And who made us and put us on this dark planet where it is next to impossible to see a step before us? God. Who is responsible for us? God. Can we find out His will? Never. Can we hope for any alleviation of misery on our dark planet? Never: for if we seek out many inventions to down disease and poverty, we shall unloose as many by-products of discovery and bring new plagues upon us. And so I had to turn away from God. Do you see? I didn't deny He exists. I didn't accuse Him of bad faith to us. How can He show either good faith or bad when He has made us no promises? He has merely set us on the dark planet and forced us to whirl with it on the wheel of time. And so, do you see, having turned away from God—and I had to, I had to in mere honesty—I simply lost Him. And having lost Him, there is nothing left to lose. Also, having once seen Him and then lost Him, I can't take up the puzzle again. I can't play the game. If I hadn't what we New Englanders call common sense, I suppose I should put an end to myself. What would be the good? He would simply catch me, like a rabbit out of a cage, and chuck me back again on the dark planet. Don't think I blame Him. He wouldn't do it out of cruelty. He'd have to put me back. That's the way His laws are made. So I'm going up to Wake Hill and live with Charlotte and Jerry, and see if I can't get tired enough every day to sleep at night. I couldn't keep on here. I couldn't. What we call civilization is too sickening to me. I should simply go off my nut. And when you come to that, it's an awful complication, besides the suffering of it. That I shrink from, too. I'm talking a good deal, but actually it's the thing I least want to do. I don't want a fuss."
Here he paused, wondered if he had more to say, thinking Dick must be unusually dull, even for a poet, if he couldn't understand such a plain state of things, and then took an irrational satisfaction in carefully folding these last pages and putting them in the envelope with what he had written first. He addressed the envelope to Dick, sealed and weighed it, got up and stretched himself and felt distinctly better. He had, in a way, confessed, and it was having the effect on him he had so sagely anticipated. He could sleep to-night. And he did sleep. It was one of the nights he used to have after long tramps about Wake Hill, when his tired legs thrilled deliciously before they sank into a swoon of nothingness.
In the morning, he leaped the chasm from four to six, a wakeful misery of late, when he was accustomed to go over and over the last harassing pages in his book of doubts. He did not wake until seven, and then it was with a clear-eyed resumption of consciousness. And here he was, exactly as he had found himself on other mornings when the bath of oblivion had not been so deep. Here was his world, the world he was trying to run away from, waiting for him in all its ordered hostilities. Immediately it struck him full in the center that, instead of having something less to brood upon by reason of his confession to Dick, he had saddled himself with more. He had the letter itself to repent of. He had given, not his unhappiness but his actual self away, and, no matter how clearly Dick understood, he had conjured up another anguish in admitting to his disordered inner world the lenses of another mind. This was only a matter of a second's disconcerting thought. It was also immediately clear to him that the letter must not go, and he spoke from his bedside to the kitchen and gave orders that nothing should be mailed until he came down. A contrite voice replied. The letters were mailed: that is, the thick one on the library table. Mary had gone in last night to lock the windows, and saw it, and knew he had forgotten to leave it in the hall. He often did forget. It was stamped and sealed. And the furnace man came then. Raven thought he might, in another minute, be groaning into her sympathetic ear; so he shut her up with an assurance that it was all right. But he felt the sweat start on his forehead at the picture of Dick sitting down to breakfast—Dick always ordered a big breakfast, having a hunter's appetite and a general impression that, the more he nourished himself, the more manly it would make his nose—and poring over the fable of his uncle's soul, or what seemed to be his soul, with eyes strained to their limit of credulity. However, it was of no use. Nothing was of any use when destiny had one of those ironic fits of hers and sat down to make a caricature of you, just for the fun of bursting her old sides over it. He dressed in a dogged haste, wondering if he'd better telephone Dick and ask him not to open any letter he might have from him that morning, and then dismissing it, because it had assuredly been received and Dick was now absorbing it with his chops and eggs.
Raven went down to his own eggs in a grim and sulky frame of mind. He would repudiate the letter, if need be, tell Dick it was only something he had written as a literary experiment and thought he'd try it on the dog. But the moment he heard the boy's key in the door and then his step through the hall, he knew he could not, for some unexplained reason inherent in his own frame of mind, "put it over." It was as if Dick represented the universe Raven was arraigning, was counsel for it, so to speak, and Raven had got, in sheer decency of honor, to stand to his guns. But it was all worse than he thought. Dick's entrance was so quick, his onslaught so unstudied, his glance so full of alarmed commiseration, that Raven saw at once he had been shocked out of all manly proprieties. Dick caught at a chair, on the way to the table, brought it with him and, placing it at a near angle to Raven's, dropped into it as if exhausted.
"I'd no idea," he began, "why, I'd no more idea——"
Raven's hand tightened on his fork. Then he laid the fork down, for, after all, he had finished breakfast, and might as well make the most of running his hands into his pockets and shutting them there.
"Morning, Dick," he said. "Have in some toast and eggs?"
Dick, in no mind even to weigh the significance of toast and eggs, was staring at him. He was cheated by a poverty of words when he most needed them, and could only repeat:
"I hadn't the least idea. I tell you it never occurred to me. I don't believe it did to Nan, either."
"What?" asked Raven. "What is it that didn't occur to you?"
"I did think of it when you first spoke of going to France, you know," said Dick, in a justification of himself that seemed more for his own ease than Raven's. "I didn't believe you could pull it off, a man of your years. You took it so easy! You never turned a hair. But I might have known you'd have to pay for it afterward."
"What is it I've taken so admirably?" asked Raven. "What is it I've got to pay for?"
"Why," said Dick, "your slogging over there—a man of your age——"
"Well," said Raven curtly, cracking his voice at him in a way Dick had never had to take from him, "how is it I'm paying? What's the matter with me?"
"Why," said Dick, in a perfect innocence of any offense in it, "don't you know? You've seen enough of it. I should think you'd be the first to know."
Raven simply looked at him. Dick had a feeling that his uncle was about to roar out something, and braced himself for the unbelievable event. However, it would not surprise him. That, he knew, was a part of it. But Raven was putting his question again, smoothly and tolerantly, as if to assure him there was time enough to make a well considered reply: