THE LETTER OF THE CONTRACT
BY BASIL KING
AUTHOR OF The Inner Shrine
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS NEW YORK AND LONDON MCMXIV
BOOKS BY THE AUTHOR OF "THE INNER SHRINE"
THE LETTER OF THE CONTRACT. Ill'd THE WAY HOME. Illustrated THE WILD OLIVE. Illustrated THE INNER SHRINE. Illustrated THE STREET CALLED STRAIGHT. Ill'd LET NOT MAN PUT ASUNDER. Post 8vo IN THE GARDEN OF CHARITY. Post 8vo THE STEPS OF HONOR. Post 8vo THE GIANT'S STRENGTH. Post 8vo
HARPER & BROTHERS, NEW YORK COPYRIGHT, 1914. BY HARPER & BROTHERS PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA PUBLISHED AUGUST, 1914
I. TRANSGRESSION 1 II. RESENTMENT 41 III. REPROACH 83 IV. DANGER 134 V. PENALTY 160
"Can't You See that My Heart's Breaking, Too?" She Looked Him in the Face, Shaking Her Head, Sadly. "No, I Can't See That" Frontispiece
He Turned from the Girl to His Wife. "I'm Willing to Explain Anything You Like—as Far as I Can" Page 26
"Oh, Chip, Go Away! I Can't Stand Any More—Now." "Do You Mean that You'll See Me—Later—when We're in London?" " 155
Edith was Standing in the Doorway, the Man Behind Her. "Chip, Mr. Lacon Knows We Met in England" " 192
THE LETTER OF THE CONTRACT
It was strange to think that if, on finishing her coffee in her room, she had looked in on the children, as she generally did, instead of going down to the drawing-room to write a note, her whole life might have been different. "Why didn't I?" was the question she often asked herself in the succeeding years, only to follow it with the reflection: "But perhaps it would have happened in any case. Since the fact was there, I must have come to know it—in the long run."
The note was an unimportant one. She could have sent it by a servant at any minute of the day. The very needlessness of writing it at once, so that her husband could post it as he went to his office, gave to the act something of the force of fate.
Everything that morning, when she came to think of it, had something of the force of fate. Why, on entering the drawing-room, hadn't she gone straight to her desk, according to her intention, if it wasn't that fate intervened? As a matter of fact, she went to the oriel window looking down into Fifth Avenue, with vague thoughts of the weather. It was one of those small Scotch corner windows that show you both sides of the street at once. It was so much the favorite conning-spot of the family that she advanced to it from habit.
And yet, if she had gone to her desk, that girl might have disappeared before the lines of the note were penned. As it was, the girl was there, standing as she had stood on other occasions—three or four, at least—between the two little iron posts that spaced off the opening for foot-passengers into the Park. She was looking up at the house in the way Edith had noticed before—not with the scrutiny of one who wishes to see, but with the forlorn patience of the unobtrusive creature hoping to be seen.
In a neat gray suit of the fashion of 1904 and squirrel furs she was the more unobtrusive because of a background of light snow. She was pathetically unobtrusive. Not that she seemed poor; she suggested, rather, some one lost or dazed or partially blotted out. People glanced at her as they hurried by. There were some who turned and glanced a second time. She might have been a person with a sorrow—a love-sorrow. At that thought Edith's heart went out to her in sympathy. She herself was so happy, with a happiness that had grown more intense each month, each week, each day, of her six years of married life, that it filled her imagination with a blissful, pitying pain to think that other women suffered.
The pity was sincere, and the bliss came from the knowledge of her security. She felt it wonderful to have such a sense of safety as that she experienced in gazing across the street at the girl's wistful face. It was like the overpowering thankfulness with which a man on a rock looks on while others drown. It wasn't callousness; it was only an appreciation of mercies. She was genuinely sorry for the girl, if the girl needed sorrow; but she didn't see what she could do to help her. It was well known that out in that life of New York—and of the world at large—there were tempests of passion in which lives were wrecked; but from them she herself was as surely protected by her husband's love as, in her warm and well-stored house, she was shielded from hunger and the storm. She accepted this good fortune meekly and as a special blessedness; but she couldn't help rejoicing all the more in the knowledge of her security.
The knowledge of her security gave luxury to the sigh with which she turned in the course of a few minutes to write her note. The desk stood under the mirror between the two windows at the end of the small back drawing-room. The small back drawing-room projected as an ell from the larger one that crossed the front of the house. She had just reached the words, "shall have great pleasure in accepting your kind invitation to—" when she heard her husband's step on the stairs. He was coming up from his solitary breakfast. She could hear, too, the rustle of the newspaper in his hand as he ascended, softly and tunelessly whistling. The sound of that whistling, which generally accompanied his presence in the house, was more entrancing to her than the trill of nightingales.
The loneliness her fancy ascribed to the girl over by the Park emphasized her sense of possession. She raised her head and looked into the mirror. The miracle of it struck her afresh, that the great, strong man she saw entering the room, with his brown velvet house-jacket and broad shoulders and splendid head, should be hers. She herself was a little woman, of soft curves and dimpling smiles and no particular beauty; and he had stooped, in his strength and tenderness, to make her bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, as she had become. And he had become bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. She was no more his than he was hers. That was the great fact. She was no longer content with the limited formula, "They twain shall be one flesh"; they twain had become one spirit and one life.
It was while asserting this to herself, not for the first time, that she saw him start. He started back from the window—the large central window—to which he had gone, probably with vague thoughts of the weather, like herself. It was the manner of his start that chiefly attracted her attention. After drawing back he peered forward. It was an absurd thing to think of him; she knew that—of him of all people!—but one would almost have said that, in his own house, he shrank from being seen. But there was the fact. There was his attitude—his tiptoeing—his way of leaning toward the mantelpiece at an angle from which he could see what was going on in the Park and yet be protected by the curtain.
Then it came to her, with a flush that made her tingle all over, that she was spying on him. He thought her in the children's room up-stairs, when all the while she was watching him in a mirror. Never in her life had she known such a rush of shame. Bending her head, she scribbled blindly, "dinner on Tuesday evening the twenty-fourth at—" She was compelled by an inner force she didn't understand to glance up at the mirror again, but, to her relief, he had gone.
Later she heard him at the telephone. To avoid all appearance of listening she went to the kitchen to give her orders for the day. On her return he was in the hall, dressed for going out. Scanning his face, she thought he looked suddenly care-worn.
"I've ordered a motor to take me downtown," he explained, as he pulled on his gloves. He generally took the street-car in Madison Avenue.
"Aren't you well?" she thought it permissible to ask.
"Oh yes; I'm all right."
He made an effort to be casual: "Well, I just thought I would."
She had decided not to question him—it was a matter of honor or pride with her, she was not sure which—but while giving him the note to post she ventured to say, "You're not worried about anything, are you?"
"Not in the least." He seemed to smother the words by stooping to kiss her good-by.
She followed him to the door. "You'd tell me, wouldn't you, if you were worried?"
For the second time he stooped and kissed her, again smothering the words, "Yes, dear; but I'm not."
She stood staring at the glass door after he had closed it behind him. "Oh, what is it?" she questioned. Within less than an hour the world had become peopled with fears, and all she could do was to stare at the door through which she could still see him dimly.
She could see him dimly, but plainly, for the curtain of patterned filet-work hanging flat against the glass was almost transparent from within the house, though impenetrable from outside. Was it her imagination that saw him look cautiously round before leaving the protection of the doorway? Was it her imagination that watched while he crossed the pavement hurriedly, to spring into the automobile before he could be observed? Was it only the needless alarm of a foolish woman that thought him anxious to reach the shelter of the motor lest he should be approached or accosted? She tried to think so. It was easier to question her own sanity than to doubt him. She would not doubt him. She assured herself of that as she returned to her post in the oriel window.
The girl in gray was gone, and down the long street, over which there was a thin glaze of ice, the motor was creeping carefully. She watched it because he was inside. It was all she should see of him till nightfall. The whole of the long day must be passed with this strange new something in her heart—this something that wasn't anything. If he would only come back for a minute and put his arms about her and let her look up into his face she would know it wasn't anything. She did know it; she said so again and again. But if he would only discover that he had forgotten something—a handkerchief or his cigar-case; that did happen occasionally....
And then it was as if her prayer was to be answered while still on her lips. Before the vehicle had got so far away as to be indistinguishable from other vehicles she saw it stop. It stopped and turned. She held her breath. Slowly, very slowly, it began to creep up the gentle slope again. She supposed it must be the treacherous ground that made it move at such a snail's pace. It moved as if the chauffeur or his client were looking for some one. Gradually it drew up at the curb. It was the curb toward the Park—and from another of the little openings with iron posts to space them off appeared the girl in gray.
She advanced promptly, as if she had been called. At the door of the car she stood for a few minutes in conversation with the occupant. For one of the parties at least that method of communication was apparently not satisfactory, for he stepped out, dismissed the cab, and accompanied the girl through the little opening into the Park. In a second or two they were out of sight, down one of the sloping pathways.
* * * * *
During the next two months Edith had no explanation of this mystery, nor did she seek one. After the first days of amazement and questioning she fell back on what she took to be her paramount duty—to trust. She argued that if he had seen her in some analogous situation, however astounding, he would have trusted her to the uttermost; and she must do the same by him. There were ever so many reasons, she said to herself, that would not only account for the incident, but do him credit. The girl might be a stenographer dismissed from his office, asking to be reinstated; she might be a poor relation making an appeal; she might be a wretched woman toward whom he was acting on behalf of a friend. Such cases, and similar cases, arose frequently.
The wonder was, however, that he never spoke of it. There was that side to it, too. It induced another order of reflection. He was so much in the habit of relating to her, partly for her amusement, partly for his own, all the happenings, both trivial and important, of each day, that his silence with regard to this one, which surely must be considered strange—strange, if no more—was noticeable. A wretched woman toward whom he was acting on behalf of a friend! It surely couldn't, couldn't be a wretched woman toward whom he was acting, not on behalf of a friend, but....
That it might be all over and done with would make no difference. Of course it was all over and done with—if it was that. No man could love a woman as he had loved his wife during the past six or seven years, and still—But it wasn't that. It never had been that. If it had been—even before they were married, even before he knew her—But she would choke that thought back. She would choke everything back that told against him. She developed the will to trust. She developed a trust that acted on her doubts like a narcotic—not solving them, but dulling their poignancy into stupor.
So March went out, and April passed, and May came in, with leaves on the trees and tulips in the Park, and children playing on the bits of greensward. She had walked as far as the Zoo with the two little boys, and, having left them with their French governess, was on her way home. People were in the habit of dropping in between four and six, and of late she had become somewhat dependent on their company. They kept her from thinking. Their scraps of gossip provided her, when she talked to her husband, with topics that steered her away from dangerous ground. He himself had given her a hint that a certain ground was dangerous; and, though he had done it laughingly, she had grown so sensitive as to see in his words more perhaps than they meant. She had asked him a question on some subject—she had forgotten what—quite remote from the mystery of the girl in gray. Leaning across the table, with amusement on his lips and in his eyes, he had replied:
"Don't you remember the warning?
'Where the apple reddens Never pry, Lest we lose our Edens, Eve and I.'"
Inwardly she had staggered from the words as if he had struck her, though he had no reason to suspect that. In response she merely said, pensively: "En sommes nous la?"
"En sommes nous—where?"
"Where the apple reddens."
"Oh, but everybody's there."
"You mean all married people."
"Married and single."
"But married people more than single."
"I mean that we all have our illusions, and we'd better keep them as long as possible. When we don't—"
"We lose our Edens."
"So that our Edens are no more than a sort of fool's paradise."
"Ah, no; a sort of wise man's paradise, in which he keeps all he's been able to rescue from a wicked world."
She was afraid to go on. She might learn that she and their children and their home and their happiness had been what he had been able to rescue from a wicked world—and that wouldn't have appeased her. Her thoughts would have been of the wicked world from which he had escaped more than of the paradise in which he had found shelter. She was no holy Elisabeth, to welcome Tannhaeuser back from the Venusberg. That he should have been in the Venusberg at all could be only a degree less torturing to her than to know he was there still.
So she kept away from subjects that would have told her more than she feared already, taking refuge in themes she had once considered vapid and inane. To miss nothing, she hurried homeward on that May afternoon, so as to be beside her tea-table in the drawing-room before any one appeared. And yet, the minute came when she cast aside all solicitudes and hesitations.
Going up the pathway leading to the opening opposite her house, she noticed a figure standing between the two iron posts. It was not now a figure in gray, but one in white—in white, with a rose-colored sash, and carrying a rose-colored parasol. Edith quickened her pace unconsciously, urged on by fear lest the girl should move away before she had time to reach her. In spite of a rush of incoherent emotions she was able to reflect that she was perfectly cool, entirely self-possessed. She was merely dominated by a need—the need of coming face to face with this person and seeing who she was. She had no idea what she herself would do or say, or whether or not she would do or say anything. That was secondary; it would take care of itself. The immediate impulse was too imperative to resist. She must at least see, even if nothing came of her doing so. If she had any thought of a resulting consequence it was in the assumption that her presence as wife and woman of the world would dispel the noxious thing she had been striving to combat for the past two months, as the sun dissipates a miasma.
But her approaches were careful and courteous. She, too, carried a parasol, negligently, gracefully, over the shoulder. It served to conceal her face till she had passed the stranger by a pace or two and glanced casually backward. She might have done so, however, with full deliberation, for the woman took no notice of her at all. Her misty, troubled blue eyes, of which the lids were red as if from weeping, were fixed on the house across the way.
Edith saw now that, notwithstanding a certain youthfulness of dress and bearing, this was a woman, not a girl. She was thirty-five at least, though the face was of the blond, wistful, Scandinavian type that fades from pallor to pallor without being perceptibly stamped by time. It was pallor like that of the white rose after it has passed the perfection of its bloom and before it has begun to wither.
Edith paused, still without drawing the misty eyes on herself.
"Do you know the people in that house?" she asked, at last.
The woman looked at her, not inquiringly or with much show of comprehension, but vaguely and as from a distance. Edith repeated the question.
The thin, rather bloodless lips parted. The answer seemed to come under compulsion from a stronger will: "I—I know—"
"You know the gentleman."
The pale thin lips parted again. After a second or two there was a barely audible "Yes."
"I'm his wife."
There was no sign on the woman's part either of surprise or of quickened interest.
There was only the brief hesitation that preceded all her responses.
"You knew he was married, didn't you?"
"Have you known him long?"
"That's longer than I've known him."
"Do you know how long I've known him?"
"How do you know?"
"What makes you remember?"
"He told me."
"Why did he tell you?"
A glow of animation came into the dazed face. "That's what I don't know. I didn't care—much. He always said he would marry some day. It had nothing to do with me. We agreed on that from the first."
"From the first of—what?"
"From the first of everything."
Before putting the next question Edith took time to think. Because she was so startlingly cool and clear she was aware of feeling like one who stands with the revolver at her breast or the draught of cyanide in her hand, knowing that within a few seconds it may be too late to reconsider. And yet, she had never in her life felt more perfectly collected. She looked up the street and down the street, and across at her own house, of which the cheerful windows reflected the May sunshine. She bowed and smiled to a man on foot. She bowed and smiled two or three times to people passing in carriages. From the Park she could hear the shrieks of children on a merry-go-round; she could follow a catchy refrain from "The Belle of New York" as played by a band at a distance. Her sang-froid was extraordinary. It was while making the observation to herself that her question came out, before she had decided whether or not to utter it. She had no remorse for that, however, since she knew she couldn't have kept herself from asking it in the end. As well expect the man staggering to the outer edge of a precipice not to reel over.
"So it was—everything?"
In uttering the words she felt oddly shy. She looked down at the pavement, then, with a flutter of the eyelids, up at the woman.
But the woman herself showed no such hesitation.
And then the woman who was not a girl, but who was curiously like a child, suddenly took fright. Tears came to her eyes; there was a convulsive movement of the face. Edith could see she was a person who wept easily.
"I won't tell you any more."
The declaration was made in a tone of childish fretfulness.
Edith grew soothing. "I'm sorry if I've hurt your feelings. Don't mind speaking, because it doesn't make any difference to me—now."
The woman stared, the tears wet on her cheeks. "Don't you—love him?"
Edith was ready with her answer. It came firmly: "No."
This time Edith considered, answering more slowly. "I don't know. If I ever did—the thing is so dead—that I don't understand how it could ever have been alive."
The woman dried her eyes. "I don't see how you can help it."
"You can't help it, can you?" Edith smiled, with a sense of her own superiority. "I suppose that's the reason you come here. I've seen you before."
"Yes; several times. And that is the reason, isn't it?—because you can't help loving him."
The woman's tears began to flow again. "It's because I don't know what else to do. When he doesn't come any more—"
"Oh, so he doesn't come."
"Not unless I make him. When he sees me here—"
"Well, what then?"
"He gets angry. He comes to tell me that if I do it again—"
"I see. But he comes. It brings him. That's the main thing, isn't it? Well, now that you've told me so much, I'll—I'll try to—to send him." She was struck with a new thought. "If you were to come in now—you could—you could wait for him."
The frightened look returned. "Oh, but he'd kill me!"
"Oh no, he wouldn't." She smiled again, with a sense of her superiority. "He wouldn't kill you when he knew I didn't care."
"But don't you care?"
She shook her head. "No. And I shall never care again. He can do what he likes. He's free—and so are you. I'd rather he went to you. Eleven years, did you say? Why, he was your husband long before he was mine."
"Oh no; he was never my husband. We agreed from the first—"
"He wasn't your husband according to the strict letter of the contract; but I don't care anything about that. It's what I call being your husband. I'd rather you took him back.... Oh, my God! There he is."
He was standing on the other side of the street watching them. How long he had been there neither of them knew. Engrossed in the subject between them, and screened by their sunshades, they hadn't noticed him come round the corner from Madison Avenue on his way home. He stood leaning on his stick, stroking an end of his long mustache pensively. He wore a gray suit and a soft gray felt hat. For a minute or more there was no change in his attitude, even when the terrified eyes of the women told him he was observed. As he began to thread his way among the vehicles to cross the street he displayed neither haste nor confusion. Edith could see that, though he was pale and grave, he could, even in this situation, carry himself with dignity. In its way it was something to be glad of. She herself stood her ground as a man on a sinking ship waits for the waves to engulf him.
Reaching the pavement, he ignored his wife to go directly to the woman.
"What does this mean, Maggie?"
His tone was not so much stern as reproachful. The faded woman, who was still trying to make herself young and pretty, quailed at it.
Edith came to her relief:
"Isn't that something for you to explain, Chip?"
He turned to his wife. "I'm willing to explain anything you like, Edith—as far as I can."
"I won't ask you how far that is—because I know already everything I need to know."
"Everything you need to know—what for?"
"For understanding my position, I suppose."
"Your position? Your position is that of my wife."
"Oh no, it isn't. There's your wife."
"Don't say that, Edith. That lady would be the first to tell you—"
"She has been the first to tell me. She's been extremely kind. She's answered my questions with a frankness—"
"But you're not kind, Edith. Surely you see that—that mentally she's not—not like every one else."
"Oh, quite. I don't think I am now. I doubt if I ever shall be again. No woman can be mentally like every one else after she's been deceived as we've been."
"She hasn't been deceived, Edith; and I should never have deceived you if—"
She laughed without mirth. "If you hadn't wanted to keep me in the dark."
"No; if I hadn't had responsibilities—"
"Responsibilities! Do you call that"—her glance indicated the woman, whose misty stare went from the one to the other in a vain effort to follow what they were saying—"do you call that a responsibility?"
"I'm afraid I do, Edith."
"And what about—me?"
"Hasn't a man more responsibilities than one?"
"A married man hasn't more wives than one."
"A married man has to take his life as his life has formed itself. He was an unmarried man first."
"Which means, I suppose, that the ties he formed when he was an unmarried man—"
"May bind him still—if they're of a certain kind."
"And yours are—of a certain kind."
"They're of that kind. I haven't been able to free myself from them. But don't you think we'd better go in? We can hardly talk about such things out here."
She bowed to another passing friend. He, too, lifted his hat. When the friend had gone by she glanced hastily toward the house.
"No, I can't go in," she said, hurriedly. "I'd rather talk out here."
"Very well, then. We can take a stroll in the Park?"
"What? We three?"
"Oh, she's gone—if that's the only reason."
Turning, Edith saw the woman with the rose-colored parasol rapidly descending the path by which she had come.
"I'd still rather stay out here," she said. "If I were to go in, I think it would—"
"I think it would kill me."
"Oh, come, Edith. Let's face the thing calmly. Don't let us become hysterical."
"Am I hysterical, Chip?"
"In your own way, yes. Where another woman would make a fuss, you're unnaturally frozen; but it comes to the same thing. I know that your heart—"
"Is breaking. Oh, I don't deny that. But I'd rather it broke here than indoors. I don't know why, but I can stand it here, with people going by; whereas in there—"
"Oh, cut it, Edith, for God's sake! Can't you see that my heart's breaking, too?"
She looked him in the face, shaking her head sadly. "No, Chip, I can't see that. If there had been any danger of it you wouldn't have—"
"But I couldn't help it. That's what you don't seem to understand."
"No; I'm afraid I don't."
"Would you try to understand—if I were to tell you?"
"I think I know already most of what you'd have to say. She's a woman whom you knew long before you knew me—and from whom you've never been able—"
"She was the daughter of a Swedish Lutheran pastor—dead now—established in New Jersey. In some way she drifted to the stage. Her name was Margarethe Kastenskjold. When she went on the stage she made it Maggie Clare. She had about as much talent for the theater as a paper doll. When I first knew her she was still getting odd jobs in third and fourth rate companies. Since then she hasn't played at all."
"I understand. There's been no need of it. She's quite well dressed."
"Let me go on, will you, Edith? I was about two or three and twenty then. She may have been a year or two older. She was living at that time with Billy Cummings. And somehow it happened—after Billy died—and she was stranded—"
She made an appealing gesture. "Please! I know how those things come about—or I can easily imagine. In your case—I'd—I'd rather not try." She got the words out somehow without breaking down.
"All the same, Edith," he went on, "you'll have to try—if you're going to do me anything like justice. If she hadn't been a refined, educated sort of girl, entirely at sea in her surroundings, and stranded—stranded for money, mind you, next door to going to starve—and no chance of getting a job, because she couldn't act a little bit—if it hadn't been for all that—"
"Oh, I know how you'd be generous!"
"Yes; but you don't know how I came to be a fool."
"Is there any reason why I should know—now that the fact is there?"
He looked at her steadily. "Edith! What are you made of?"
She returned his look. "I think—of stone. Up till to-day I've been a woman of flesh and blood; but I'm not sure that I am any longer. You can't kill the heart in a woman's body—and still expect her to feel."
"But, Edith—Edith darling—there's no reason why I should have killed the heart in your body when I never dreamed of doing you a wrong—that is, an intentional wrong," he corrected.
"You knew you were doing some woman a wrong—some future woman, the woman you'd marry—as far back as when you took up what Billy Cummings dropped from his dead hands—"
"Oh, that! That, dear, is nothing but the talk of feminist meetings. Men are men, and women are women. You can't make one law for them both. Besides, it's too big a subject to go into now."
"I'm not trying to. I wasn't thinking of men in general; I was thinking only of you."
"But, good Lord, Edith, you don't think I've been better than any one else, do you?"
Her forlorn smile made his heart ache. "I did think so. I dare say it was a mistake."
"It was a mistake. If you hadn't made it—"
"But it was at least a mistake one can understand. I could hardly be expected to take it for granted—whatever men may be, or may have the right to be—that the man who asked me to marry him—and who made me love him as I think few men have been loved by women—I could hardly take it for granted that he was already keeping—and had been keeping for years—and would keep for years to come—another—"
He moved impatiently. "But, I tell you, I couldn't get rid of her. I couldn't shake her off—or pay her off—or do any of the usual things. It was agreed between us before I married you—long before I married you—that everything was at an end. But, poor soul, she doesn't know what an agreement is. There's something lacking in her. She's always been like a child, and of late years she's been more so. If you knew her as I do you'd be sorry for her."
"Oh, I am sorry for her. Her whole mind is ravaged by suffering."
"I know it's my fault; but it isn't wholly or even chiefly my fault. A woman like that has no right to suffer. She lost the privilege of suffering when she became what she is. At any rate, she has no right to haunt like a shadow the man who's befriended her—"
"But, I presume, she's befriended him. And—and continues to befriend him—since that's the word."
He avoided her eyes, looking up the street and whistling tunelessly beneath his breath.
"I said—continues to befriend him," she repeated.
The tuneless whistling went on. She allowed him time to get the full effect of her meaning. As far as she could see her way, her line of action depended on his response. When he dodged the question she knew what she would have to do.
"Look here, Edith," he said, at last, "the long and short of it is this. She's on my hands—and I can't abandon her. I must see that she's provided for, at the very least. Hang it all, she's—she's attached to me; has been attached to me for more than ten years. I can't ignore that; now, can I? And she's helpless. How can I desert her? I can't do it, any more than I could desert a poor old faithful dog—or a baby. Can I, now?"
"No; I dare say not."
"But I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll undertake never to see her again—of my own free will. I'll give you my word of honor—"
She shook her head. "Oh, I'm not asking for that."
"Then what do you ask for? Just tell me, and whatever it is—"
"It's that, since you can't abandon her, you abandon me."
She repeated the words more firmly.
"Then I'm afraid it will be for me to abandon you." She gave him a little nod. "Good-by."
She had turned and taken a step or two along the pavement before his astonishment allowed him to overtake her.
"Edith, for God's sake, what do you mean? You're not crazy, are you?"
"Quite possibly I am; I can't tell yet. Or perhaps I can tell. It's like this," she went on, after an instant's thinking. "A half-hour ago, while I was talking to that—that poor creature—before you came up—I was quite aware of being like a woman with a dose of cyanide of potassium in her hand, and doubting whether or not to take it. Well, I took it. I took it and I—died. That is, the Edith who was your wife—died. What survives of her personality is something else. I don't know what it is yet—it's too soon to say—but it isn't your wife.... It's—it's something like that."
"Oh, don't!" he groaned. "Don't talk that way. Come in. You can't stay out here."
She looked over at the house again. He thought she shuddered. "I can't stay out here; but I don't have to go in—there."
"What do you mean? Where are you going?"
"Just now I'm going to Aunt Emily's."
"Very well. I'll send a carriage for you after dinner—if you stay so late."
"No; don't do that."
"Do you mean—?"
"I mean that I may stay there for two or three days—perhaps longer. After that I'll—I'll see."
"Where to go next."
"Oh, come, Edie, let's talk sense. You know I can't allow that."
She smiled again, with that queer, forlorn smile that seemed to stab him. "I'm afraid the authority is out of your hands—now."
He let that pass.
"Even so, there are the children. Think of them."
"I am thinking of them—which is why I must hurry away. They'll be here in a minute; and I—I can't see them yet. I shouldn't be able to bear it."
"And do you think you'll be able to bear our being separated for two or three days, when you know I adore you? Why, you'll break down within an hour."
"That's just it. That's why I must hurry. I shall break down within half an hour. You don't suppose I can go on like this? I'm almost breaking down now. I must get to Aunt Emily's before—"
She was interrupted by a cry: "Hello, papa!"
Up the pathway leading from the Zoo a little white-suited man of five came prancing and screaming, followed by another of three doing the same. The French governess marched primly and sedately behind them.
"You see?" Edith said, quickly. "I must go. I can't see them to-night—or speak to them—or kiss them—or hear them say their prayers—or anything. You wouldn't understand; but—but I couldn't bear it. You must tell them I've gone to spend a few nights with Aunt Emily, as I did when she was ill. You must say that to the servants, too. Tell Jenny she needn't send me anything—yet. I have some things there—that I left the last time—"
"Oh, you're not going to stay all night," he groaned. "You'll come back."
"Very well. If I come back—I come back. It will be so much the better or so much the worse, as the case may be. If I come back, it will be because I accept the compromise you make between me and—and your other—"
He broke in hastily. "It's not a compromise—and there's no 'other.' If you could see how far from vital the whole thing is, from a man's point of view—"
"Unfortunately, I'm only a woman, and can see it only from a woman's point of view. So that, if I don't come back, it will be because—because—the Edith who was your wife is dead beyond resurrection."
"But she isn't!"
"Perhaps not. We must see. I shall know better when I've—I've been away from you a little."
"And in the mean time you may be risking your happiness and mine."
She shot him a reproachful glance. "Do you say that?"
"Yes, Edith, I do say it. If I've broken the letter of the contract, you may be transgressing its spirit. Don't forget that. Take care. What I did, I did because I couldn't help it. You can help it—"
"Oh no, I can't. That's where you haven't understood me. You say I don't see things from your point of view, and perhaps I don't. But neither do you see them from mine. You wonder why I don't go over there"—she nodded toward the house—"where I had my home—where my children have theirs—where you and I ... But I can't. That's all I can say. I may do it some day; I don't know. But just now—I couldn't drag myself up the steps. It would mean that we were going on as before, when all that—that sort of thing—seems to me so—so utterly over."
"You'll feel differently when you've had time to think."
"Perhaps I shall. And time to think is all I'm asking. You understand that, don't you? that I'm not making anything definite—yet. If I can ever come back to you, I will. But if I can't—"
"Hello, mama! Hello, papa!" The elder boy galloped up. "We've seen the monkeys. And one great big monkey looked like—"
"Allo, maman! Allo, papa! N's avons vu les singes—mais des droles! Il y en avait un qui—"
The children caught their father round the knees. Stooping, he put his arms about them, urging them toward their mother. They were to plead for him—to be his advocates.
"Tell mama," he whispered to the older boy, "not to go to Aunt Emily's to-night. Tell her we can't do without her—that we want her at home." He turned to the younger. "Dis a maman que tu vas pleurer si elle te quitte ce soir—qu'il faut qu'elle vienne t'ecouler dire la priere."
But, when he raised himself, Edith was already walking swiftly up the Avenue. He would have followed her, only that the children seemed to restrain him, clinging to his knees. All he could do was to watch her—watch her while the thronging crowds and the shimmering sun-shot dust of the golden afternoon blotted her from his sight—and the great city-world out of which he had received her took her back.
It was a strange sensation to be free. It was still more strange that it was not a sensation. It was a kind of numbness. She could only feel that she didn't feel. In spite of her repeated silent assertions, "I'm free! I'm free!" any consciousness of change eluded her.
It was true that there had been a moment like a descent into hell, from which she thought she must come up another woman. Aunt Emily and the lawyer had whirled her somewhere in a motor. Veiled as heavily as was consistent with articulation, she had told a tale that seemed abominable, though it was no more than a narrative of the facts. It added to her sense of degradation to learn that one of the cheaper dailies had published a snapshot of her taken as she was re-entering the motor to come away. But even the horror of that moment passed, as something too unreal to be other than a dream, and, except that she and the children were staying with Aunt Emily instead of in their own home, all was as before. All was as before to a disappointing degree—to a degree that maddened her.
It maddened her because it brought no appeasement to that which for more than a year had been her dominating motive—to do something to Chip that would bring home to him a realizing sense of what he had done to her. It was not that she wanted revenge. She was positive as to that. She wanted only to make him understand. Hitherto he hadn't understood. She had seen that in all his letters, right up to the moment when, driven to despair by what seemed to her his moral obtuseness, she had implored him not to write again. It was to help him to understand that which he was either unable or unwilling to understand that she had so resolutely refused to see him—partly that, and partly Aunt Emily. She would have died if it hadn't been for Aunt Emily—died or given in; and the mere thought of giving in frightened her.
It frightened her chiefly because she possessed the capacity to do it. In a way it would be easier to do it than not—easier to do it, and yet impossible to go on with the new situation thus created after it was done. It would mean being back in the old home and resuming the old life; there would be what people called a reconciliation. Chip would be coming and going and whistling tunelessly all over the house. And the awful thing about it would be that he had it in him to be as happy as if this horrible thing had never taken place—happier, doubtless, because it would be behind him. He would not have understood; she would have ceased trying to make him understand; he would have so little seen the significance of his own acts as to feel free to do the same thing all over again.
So the impulse to go back frightened her with a fear that paralyzed her longing. If he had said but once: "Edith, I know I've sinned against you; I know I've made you suffer; I've broken the contract between us; I'm repentant; forgive me," it might have been different. But he had said nothing of the kind. His letters, beseeching though they were, only aggravated her complaint against him. "What else could I do?... The poor thing clung to me.... As far as it affected my devotion to you it might have happened in another phase of creation." That was the amazing part of it, that he should expect her to be content with such an explanation, that he should try to deprive her of a wife's last poor pitiful privilege, a sense of indignity. She was not only to condone what he had done, but as nearly as possible she was to give it her approval.
As to this aspect of the case she might not have been so clear if it hadn't been for Aunt Emily. Aunt Emily was very clear. She was clear and just, without being wholly unsympathetic toward Chip. That is, she pointed out the fact that Chip did no more than most men would do. He was no worse than the average. He might even be a little better. But, according to Aunt Emily, the man didn't live who was worthy of a really good woman's love. It was foolish for a really good woman to put herself at the disadvantage of casting her pearls before—well, Aunt Emily was too much of a lady to say what; it was all the more foolish considering the quantity of feminine tag-rag and bobtail quite good enough to be wives.
Edith couldn't deny that her aunt had kept herself on an enviably high plane of safety. She had her money to herself, and no heartaches. She was respected, admired, and feared. By a little circle of adorers, mostly composed of spinsters younger, poorer, and less advantageously placed than herself, she was even loved. She was far from lonely; she was far from having missed the best things in life. She was traveled, well-read, philanthropic, and broad-minded. She was likewise tall, stately, and dominant, with an early Victorian face to which a mid-Victorian wig, kept in place by a band of plaits around the brow, was not unbecoming. Nevertheless, Aunt Emily was entirely modern, modern with that up-to-date femininity which with regard to men takes its key from the bee's impulse toward the drone, stinging him to death once he has fulfilled his functions.
It was a help to Edith that Aunt Emily could enter into the sufferings entailed by an outraged love without being hampered by the weaknesses inherent in the love itself. She could afford to be detached and impartial bringing to bear on the situation the interest every intelligent person takes in drama. For her participation Edith felt she couldn't be too grateful to a relative on whom she had no urgent claim beyond the fact that she was now her only one. Aunt Emily's clear vision might, indeed, be said to have found the way through a tangle of poignant conditions in which her own poor heart had been able to do nothing but fumble helplessly.
It was a way of sorrows, and there had been no choice but to take it. Chip had to be made to feel. Her whole being had become concentrated on that result. From it she had expected not only realization for him, but assuagement of longing for herself; and the latter hadn't come. She could hardly see that anything had come at all. If it were not for Aunt Emily she wouldn't have perceived that she had won a victory. Chip might realize now; she didn't know; she probably would never know; it was perhaps the impossibility of knowing that left her still unsatisfied. So long as the thing had not yet been done she had enjoyed at least the relief of action. She was challenging Chip, she was defying him; he was making her some sort of response, even when it was made in silence. She was the one and he was the other, and there was an interplay of forces between them. Now all that was broken off; all that had come to an end. She was still the one; but there was no other. Where the other had been there was a blank, an emptiness. Her heart when it cried out to him produced the queer, creepy effect of a man talking to himself—there was no one to hear or to answer. There was a needle but no pole; there was a law of gravitation, but nothing to justify the power of attraction.
She was dazed, lost, which was the reason why in the following autumn she went abroad. She didn't know what else to do. Aunt Emily was rich and kind; but there were limits to hospitality. One had to feel that there was a world beneath one's feet, and Europe seemed to be there for that purpose. Besides, it was easy to travel while the children were so young. The lawyer conveyed to Chip her intention of taking them, and returned with the father's consent. She was not bound to ask for this, but she considered it courteous to do so. If while she did it he chose to take the opportunity to recognize her continued existence by an inquiry or a word—well, then, she said to herself with a sob, it was there for him to make use of. But he didn't take it. He maintained the silence on which he had fallen back ever since her final peremptory letter requesting him not to write to her—she wondered if she had made it more peremptory than she had intended!—and so she sailed away without so much as a gift from him to the children. She could hardly bear to look at the shore of the continent that held him as it faded out of sight, so bitterly she resented what she now called his callousness.
When the cold weather came she established herself at Cap d'Ail, where the lofty perch of the hotel above Monaco and the Mediterranean seemed to lift her into a region of friendly, flowery peace. She enjoyed this as much as she could enjoy anything. No echo of the past reached her here, and it was an unexpected relief to be away from Aunt Emily's bursts of triumph and felicitation. With a book she hardly looked at in her hand she could sit at her window or on the terrace, soothed incomprehensibly by the blue-green sweep of the immemorial sea beside which so many other sad hearts had watched before her own. She felt herself caught into a fellowship that included not only Hagar and Hecuba, but myriads of unremembered women whose tears alone might have filled this vast inland ocean—drawing a comfort that was not wholly morbid from the reflection that there was an end even to the breaking of hearts.
Here in this high, sequestered spot, which nevertheless preserved the mondanites to which she was accustomed, she would gladly have spent the winter alone with her children and their governess had there not arrived at the hotel a woman she had known for many years and who was in a position oddly similar to her own. At school she had been Gertie Cottle. In New York she was Mrs. Harry Scadding. She was now Mrs. G. Cottle Scadding for purposes of exact identification. She also had "freed herself"; she also had had a snapshot in the cheaper dailies; she also traveled with two children. It was impossible for Edith not to meet her and engage in amicable conversations, during which the lady talked freely of her "case," discussing the merits and demerits of her "co-," as though that person had been a kind of partner.
She was a lively young woman, frank and amusing. Moreover, she knew the people who made up Edith's small world, and Edith was lonely. While the two sets of children played together the two mothers sat on the terrace and talked. It was talk in which Edith was chiefly a listener, but a listener who couldn't deny that she was entertained. She was uncomfortable only when discerning compatriots appeared, and with visible nods and smiles rated them as "two of a kind." It was a kind over which she and Chip had smiled and nodded many a time during their wanderings in Europe, never thinking that she herself should ever be classed in the number.
She had been able to take the situation lightly then—this curious situation of the "freed" American wife, with or without children, drifting through Europe, aimless, and generally better off when friendless. But she began to be sorry for the type. Instead of shrinking from Gertie in the presence of the discerning compatriots, as she was at first inclined to do, she made it a point to be seen with her, championing the sisterhood of loneliness. There were moments when this association might not have been discreet; but they were also moments in which—so it seemed to Edith—discretion was not a part of valor. Once or twice she accompanied her friend to Nice; once or twice to Monte Carlo. On each of these occasions she found herself in a gathering of cosmopolitan odds and ends in which she was not at ease; but championship being new to her, she felt obliged to take its bitter with its sweet. That it was mostly bitter gave her additional ground of complaint against Chip. He had driven her to a kind of deterioration, a deterioration she couldn't define, but of which, as of something noxious in the atmosphere, she was conscious during every moment spent in her friend's society.
She grew fanciful with regard to the other Americans in the hotel. She imagined they slighted her, or disapproved of her, or watched her course with misgiving. With a family of good, simple people, who apparently had nothing to strive for with the restlessness which characterized the social fag-ends whom she was now in the habit of meeting, she would have been glad to establish relations; but she never got beyond an occasional bow or smile, generally over some incident connected with the children. Of one man she was afraid. She was afraid of him without knowing why, except that he seemed to watch her rather pityingly. She resented the pity; she resented his watching her at all. And yet....
If he hadn't been a grave man, evidently occupied with grave affairs, her resentment might have become annoyance. In the circumstances it was resentment modified by a little gratitude. She hardly understood her gratitude unless it was for a hint of solicitude in a world where no one seemed to bother about her any more. He did bother about her. She grew sure of that. Not for an instant could she think of the quiet, rather wistful, regard with which she caught him following her or the children as being meant otherwise than kindly.
She had no idea who he was. All she could affirm from distant and somewhat superficial observation was that he was Somebody—Somebody of position, experience, and judgment—Somebody to respect. She thought, too, that he must be Somebody of distinction, partly because he looked it, and partly because he was served by a valet and a secretary scarcely less distinguished than himself. All three were serious men well into the forties. The valet was English, the secretary French, the master American. She would not, however, have taken the last-named for a fellow-countryman if she had not accidentally heard him speak. In regard to externals he was as nearly as possible denationalized. He had evidently lived a long time abroad, though he bore no one country's special stamp. He roused her curiosity, even while the kind of interest in herself which she attributed to him—with what she admitted were the most shadowy of reasons—hurt her pride. It hurt it in a manner to make her the more resolute in going her own way.
Not that it was a really reprehensible way. The worst that could be said of it was that it brought her into contacts and promiscuities from which she should have been kept free. Even so no great harm had been done, especially in the case of a woman with her knowledge of the world. None had been so much as threatened until the arrival on the scene of a young Frenchman, a friend of Mrs. Scadding's. Edith then found it necessary to submit to an introduction with daily, almost hourly, hazards of encounter.
He was a young Frenchman like many hundreds of his kind, who might have been a finished sketch in sepia. Sepia would have done justice to the even tan of his complexion, to the soft-brown of his eyes, of his hair, of his mustache, and rendered the rich chestnut which was oftener than not his choice for clothes. Gertie flirted with him outrageously—there was no other phrase for it. It was the kind of flirting one was obliged to consider innocent, since the alternative would have been too appalling. Edith opted for the innocent construction, lending an abashed countenance to the situation out of loyalty to the sisterhood of loneliness. It was a countenance that grew more abashed whenever, in the process of lending it, her eye met that of the man who had constituted himself, she was convinced, her silent guardian.
Fortunately, Mrs. G. Cottle Scadding took herself off to Italy, the young Frenchman disappearing at the same time. It was a new proof to Edith of the depth of need to which she had come down that she missed them. She missed their frivolity and inconsequentiality because they were the only interests she had. She was thrown back, therefore, on her own desolation and on her memories of Chip.
She made the discovery with some alarm that Chip was becoming to her more and more the center of a group of memories. She was losing him. That is, she was losing him as an actuality; she was losing him as the pivot round which her life had swung, even since her knowledge of his great treason. She was no more appalled by the loss than by the perception of her own volatility.
It was a perception that deepened when, some fortnight after Gertie's departure, the young Frenchman reappeared. "He's come back on my account," was Edith's instant reflection. She was indignant; and yet something else stirred in her that was not indignation, and to which she was afraid to give a name. Perhaps there was no name to give it. As far as she could analyze its elements, they lay in the twin facts that she was still young enough to be attractive to men and to find pleasure in her attractiveness. It was a pleasure that raised its head timidly, apologetically; but it raised it none the less.
It was a new and terrifying thought that Chip might not always be the only man in her life. She had dedicated herself to him so entirely that it was difficult to accept the idea that any part of her might have been held in reserve for future possibilities. That her life should have been blasted was bad enough; but that it should renew its vigor and put forth shoots for a second bloom was frightful. Yet there was the fact that such things happened. Women in her position even married again. She might marry again. She never would—of course! But remarriage was among the potentialities of the new conditions she had achieved. The full comprehension of this liberty filled her with dismay.
Up to the present the knowledge that she possessed it had been theoretic only. The young Frenchman brought home to her the fact that she could act on it if she were ever so inclined. Not that he asked her to do so. He had only reached the point of inviting her to dine with him at Monte Carlo and look in at the gaming afterward. She declined this invitation gently and without rancor toward him; but, in the idiom she used in talking with him, it gave her to think.
It gave her to realize also. The moment was rich in revelations concerning herself. She discovered she was a woman whom a relatively strange man might invite to dine with him alone. She had passed out of the fellowship of Hagar and Hecuba to enter that of Mrs. G. Cottle Scadding. This had happened, she hardly knew how. She discovered, moreover, that now that it had happened, she was scarcely shocked. Somehow it seemed in the nature of things—these curious new things she had created for herself—that she should be invited in this way to Ciro's and that there might be similar incidents to follow. She certainly was not shocked. Deep down in her heart something—was it something feminine? or was it something broadly human?—was secretly shamefully flattered. She couldn't blame the young fellow. She couldn't blame Gertie—very much. She might blame herself for being drawn into Gertie's company, and yet what other course could she have taken? She had known Gertie since they were school-girls. When all was said and done Gertie was as good as she—in whatever met the eye. One divorced woman could hardly draw her skirts away from another. The longer she reflected the more clearly she saw that she couldn't have done anything but what she had done without becoming in her own eyes a hypocrite or a prude, and so she had laid herself open to hearing those words, spoken ever so respectfully, with a sympathy no American could have approached:
"Madame is so lonely. Madame is too much by herself. Wouldn't it distraire Madame to dine to-night, let us say, at Ciro's, or the Hotel de Paris, and look in at the Casino afterward? Madame is always so sad."
The man was too insignificant for her wrath, but not so insignificant that he couldn't be a warning. He was a warning that even if he failed to touch her heart it was by no means certain that another man might not succeed; and not long afterward a man did.
That was Sir Noel Ordway. She had met him almost at once after moving to Cannes. She moved to Cannes practically on the advice of the distinguished stranger who continued to follow her with eyes of brooding concern. That is, what he said amounted to advice. It was, in a measure, to show him that she appreciated an interest in which there was an element that touched her profoundly that she accepted it.
She met him suddenly at one of the many turnings in the long flight of steps that descend from the hotel at Cap d'Ail to the station, and what there is in the way of town. She had never come abruptly face to face with him before. She knew she colored and betrayed a ridiculous self-consciousness. He, on his part, was unruffled and sedate, lifting his hat with the somewhat rigid dignity that characterized all his movements.
"Mrs. Chipman Walker, I think."
She acknowledged the words by a slight inclination. He mentioned his own name, which she knew already.
"I've just been seeing some friends of yours," he went on, calmly, "at Cannes. I've been lunching with the Misses Partridge."
"Oh, they're there?" It was to say something, no matter what, to cover up her absurd confusion that she added, "They're friends of my aunt's."
"I, too, have the pleasure of knowing Miss Winfield, which will perhaps excuse my self-introduction." She answered this by another slight inclination, while he continued: "The Misses Partridge asked me to say that they would be glad to see you, if you could ever make it convenient to go over. They wished me to add that they'd come to see you, but that, unfortunately, neither is quite well enough. You'd find them at the Villa Victoire, on the Route de Frejus."
She was murmuring something to the effect that she would go at once, when he said in a tone that struck her as significant:
"It's very pleasant at Cannes—more so than here."
She didn't resent this, perhaps because her need was too great. Besides, there was something about him—it might have been the tenderness of a man who himself knew what suffering was—that put him outside the region of resentments. She only said: "Indeed? Why?"
"You'll see that when you go. For one thing, it's further removed from the atmosphere that comes up to us from—down there." He pointed toward Monte Carlo. "In that way it's—healthier."
She knew that as she thanked him and passed on she smiled, and that she did so from lightness of heart. Certainly her heart was less heavy. It was less heavy because of his kindness, because of this indication that some one cared what became of her. She felt so forsaken that almost anybody's kindness would have had the same effect, almost anybody's care for her welfare; and so she came to respond to the appeal of Noel Ordway.
He sat beside her the first Sunday she lunched at the Villa Victoire. The Misses Partridge "knew every one." Of few people in either hemisphere could the expression be used with no more exaggeration. Possessing little in the way of means, less in that of accomplishments, and nothing at all in the line of looks, they had formed a vast circle of acquaintance, chiefly by a hearty, unaffected interest in each individual personality. No one, however unimportant, was ever forgotten by them. Miss Rosamond, who looked like a coachman, spent her time in correspondence, rounding up absent friends; Miss Gladys, who was thin and angular, coursed whatever neighborhood they happened to be in, getting the nice people to come and see them. For reasons not always clear to the superficial the nice people came and sent others. No two ladies ever received so many letters of introduction, or wrote them. Their Sunday luncheons at Cannes were as famous as their Sunday dinners in New York.
In New York Edith had fought shy of them, mainly because Chip didn't do them justice. He spoke of them flippantly as "those two old flyaways," and would never go to their house. For this reason she herself went rarely, though when she did she got a perception of broad social inclusiveness which Chip could hardly appreciate. It was the only house she knew of in which there were no "sets," and where one met the most interesting people of all walks in life. She often wondered hew the Misses Partridge, with their slight resources, physical and material, accomplished it, envying them somewhat their success. She wondered less, and envied them less, after she had seen them at Cannes.
Miss Rosamond's deep bass voice, the perfect expression of her red face and man-like way of dressing, were the first influence in winning her. "My dear, there's the very hotel for you close beside us, where we could see you all the time. We stay there ourselves when we're opening and closing the villa. Big garden for the children—runs right down to the sea—and nothing but nice people of your own kind."
Edith couldn't help the suspicion that the distinguished stranger at Cap d'Ail had inspired Miss Partridge's solicitude, but neither did she resent this. Miss Gladys accompanied her to the hotel in question, to bring her personal powers to bear on the proprietor, and to help in the selection of rooms, so that next day Edith was able to move over. In this way it happened that on the following Sunday she found herself seated beside Sir Noel Ordway.
The luncheon party was again a collection of cosmopolitan odds and ends—but with a difference. There was a foreign royalty with his morganatic wife, the American wife of an English peer, two or three notable Russians, a French painter of international fame, together with some half-dozen English and Americans of no importance, among whom Edith classed herself and the young Englishman beside her.
Between him and her the friendship ripened rapidly and unexpectedly. It was so unexpectedly that it took her off her guard. It was beyond all the possibilities her imagination could foresee that he should fall in love with her—a woman who had had her tragic experience, of no great beauty, the mother of two children. It was, in fact, through the children that he made his approaches, in as far as he made them intentionally. She judged that he didn't do that, that he was caught unawares, like herself. He had merely expressed a "liking for kids," and offered to take the youngsters for an outing in his motor-car on the following day. The kids were to go with their governess; but when he drove up to the door, and Edith had come out to see them off, it seemed ridiculous that she shouldn't accompany them. Besides, the governess was young and pretty, necessitating an elderly person for purposes of propriety. It was partly, too, in thoughtlessness that Edith yielded to his persuasion and, putting on a thick coat, jumped in with the rest.
He acted as his own chauffeur, and they drove up the new road through the Esterels. Edith sat beside him, and as they talked little she was able to observe him to better effect than on the previous day. She took him to be a year or two younger than herself, tall and slight, with a stoop he had probably acquired at Eton. She had understood from Miss Partridge that he was delicate; and he looked it. The circumstance had kept him from entering the army or going into diplomacy, sending him to the Riviera for his winters. He was blue-eyed and blond, with a ragged mustache too thin to conceal the rather pathetic line of the mouth. A long, thin nose, with an upper lip so short that the flash of teeth was visible even when the mouth was in repose, gave him the appearance of an extremely aristocratic rodent.
The drive was repeated a day or two later, and longer excursions came after that—to St. Raphael, to Valescure, and as far away as Mentone and the Gorges du Loup. Edith couldn't help liking the young man, first for his kindness to the children, and then for himself. For himself she liked him because he was so simple, straightforward, and sincere.
He grew confidential as time went on, telling her of his home, his mother, his sisters, his duties as squire and lord of the manor, and the bore it was to be kept out of a profession and away from England at the very moment of the hunting. He formed the habit of dropping in so frequently to tea with her, in the little sun-pavilion of the hotel, that she fancied the Misses Partridge, who were friends of Lady Ordway's, began to look uneasy. She wondered if they had given the young man all the information concerning her that was his due.
She made up her mind to ask. Once the fact was recognized it would be a safeguard, in that any possibilities of their being other than friends would be out of the way. He gave her the opportunity one afternoon in March by asking where she thought of going after she left Cannes. The children and the governess had had tea with them, but had strolled into the garden. Other occupants of the sun-pavilion had also wandered out among the pansy-beds and the blossoming mimosas. Edith took her time before answering.
"I don't know," she said at last. "It's so hard for me to make plans. You see, there's nothing to hinder me from going to Sweden, Switzerland, or Spain; and when that's the case you're indifferent about going anywhere." She waited a few seconds before saying, "You know about me, don't you?"
"Rather," he said, promptly. "I've known that all along."
The reply was so downright that she was sorry she had raised the subject. He seemed to imply that as far as he was concerned the peculiarities in her situation were of no importance. As she was obliged to say something, she could only express a measure of relief.
"I'm glad of that. I hoped Miss Partridge would tell you."
He startled her by saying, with the bluntness that was curiously, but characteristically, at variance with the hesitations of his general manner:
"You could get married again, couldn't you?"
"Oh no." She blushed helplessly.
"Oh, but you could."
She struggled to keep to the ground of mere discussion. "I could legally; but I never should."
"Oh, for a lot of reasons I can't talk about."
"Then what did you do it for?"
She managed a smile, even if it was a forced and feeble one. She understood what he meant by "it."
"I don't have to explain that, do I?"
"No, I suppose not." She hoped he was going to drop the subject, when he lifted his head to look at her with his rather pathetic blue eyes, "Oh, but I say, you're not serious in thinking you wouldn't, are you?"
"Perfectly serious. I should never look on the matter as admitting discussion."
"Oh, but it does, you know."
"Not for me."
"Well, it might not for you, and yet might for—for other people."
She still forced an unsteady smile. "That's something I don't have to worry about, at any rate. I've given up thinking of other people's opinions."
"I don't mean other people in general—only in particular."
"I don't know any other people—in particular."
"Yes, you do. You know me."
"I only know you—like that." She snapped her fingers so as to give him an idea of the entirely transitory nature of their acquaintance.
"That isn't the way I know you."
"Oh, you don't know me at all. You couldn't. You're too young. I belong to another generation in point of time, and to ages ago in the matter of experience."
"How old are you?"
She told him.
"You're eighteen months older than I; but that's nothing. My mother was four years older than my father—nearer five. That sort of thing often runs in families."
She sprang up. "There's Chippie tramping all over that flower—bed. How can Miss Chesley?"
The negligence of Miss Chesley enabled her to make her escape, and when he rejoined her in the garden he accepted the diversion her ingenuity had found. In a short time he took his leave with no more display of emotion than on previous occasions.
But he left her troubled and shaken. He left her with the feeling that the foundations of life, as she was leading it, were insecure. Where she had thought she was strong and determined she began to see she was weak and irresolute. She began to see herself as a woman with such an instinctive need of protection that sooner or later she would accept it—from some one. If from any one, why not from this man? She liked him; she was sure of his goodness and kindness. He was already fond of the children, and the children of him. Moreover, she could be a mother to him, and he needed mothering, as any one could see. It might not be a romantic marriage, but it could easily be an ideal one, as far as anything ideal still lay within the range of her possibilities. It could be ideal in the sense of a sincere affection both on his side and hers, and a common life for perhaps higher aims than she had lived with Chip.
It would doubtless be the final stage to the process of making Chip understand. She wouldn't marry—she couldn't—without some inner reference to him, without a vital reference to him. If she did marry he would know at last to what he had forced her. He would have forced her to looking to another man for what she should have had from him—and then he would be repentant. Surely he would be repentant then! If he wasn't he would never be. All her efforts would have become in vain. She would feel that for any good she had accomplished she might as well have stayed with him. That thought choked her with its implication of agony escaped—and bliss forfeited.
But it was looking too far ahead. Everything was looking too far ahead. Noel Ordway had not asked her to marry him—and might never do so. She might have scared him off. She hoped she had. That would be simpler. She was not so inexperienced as to be without the knowledge that marriage with him would raise as many difficulties as it would settle—perhaps more. The day came when she had to point that out to him.
But it did not come at once. Nearly a week passed without his return. For Edith it was a week of some disappointment, and a good deal of relief. If she wasn't the happier for his absence, she was more at ease. She could be at ease till the time came for moving on in one direction or another, when she would be oppressed anew with the sense of her helplessness. It became clearer to her that if she married at all it would be to be taken care of.
The question was put formally before her at a moment when she was least expecting it. It was an afternoon late in March when she was struggling along the Boulevard du Midi, in the teeth of a warm west wind. On her left children played in the sands or threw sticks or bruised flowers into the huge breakers to see them rolled shoreward. On her right the palms in the villa gardens bowed their heads eastward, while the mimosas tossed their yellow branches wildly. Before her the Esterels formed a jagged line of indigo flecked with red, above which masses of stormy orange cloud broke along the edges into pink. It was still far from the hour of sunset, though the glamour of sunset was gathering in the air.
She heard his step behind her scarcely an instant before he spoke.
"Oh, I say, Mrs. Walker, I want you to marry me."
The statement was so startling that in spite of all her preparatory discussion with herself, she turned on him tragically. "For God's sake, why?"
"Well, because I'm awfully fond of you, you know."
His expression touched her. There was no mistaking the kindliness in his eyes, or the look of rather wan beseeching in his thin, pinched face. In his golfing suit of Harris tweed he was not an unattractive figure, even if he wasn't handsome.
Again her words had little relation to the things she had thought of beforehand. Her heart was so much with him that she spoke with an emotion she had never shown to him before.
"Even if you are, don't you see, dear friend, that you can't marry me?"
"Oh, but I can, you know."
She looked about her for a refuge where they could talk, finding it in a rough shelter designed for the protection of nurses watching children playing on the sands. It was empty for the moment, except for a tiny, bare-legged girl of three or four crooning over a big doll. Edith led the way. "Come over here." They sat down on a bench hacked with initials and cleanly dirty with sand. The little girl at the other end of the bench rolled her big eyes toward them with indifference, continuing to croon to her doll:
"Dors, mon enfant; dors, dors; ta mere est allee au bal.... Dors, mon enfant, dors; ta mere est au theatre.... Tais-toi; tais-toi; ta mere dine au restaurant.... Dors, ma cherie, dors."
Edith plunged into her subject as soon as they were seated and turned toward each other. "Tell me. If you married a divorced woman, wouldn't your whole position in England be—be different?"
"I shouldn't care anything about that."
"That's not what I'm asking you. I'm asking you if there wouldn't be ways in which it would be hard for you?"
The honesty in his eyes pierced her like a pain. "I shouldn't be thinking about that, you know. I should be thinking about you."
"Well, then, aren't there ways in which it would be hard for me?"
"Not any harder than it is now. It's pretty hard, isn't it?"
The tears sprang into her eyes, but she knew she must control herself. "Yes; but it's in the way of the ills I know. The ills I know not of might be worse."
"Oh, well, they wouldn't be that, you know."
"What about your people?" She sprang the question on him suddenly.
"They'd be all right—in time."
The qualification was like a stab. She spoke proudly. "I'm afraid I couldn't wait for that."
"You wouldn't have to wait for anything. They'd jolly well have to put up with what I decided to do. I've got all the say, you know. I'm the head of the family."
"Yes, you might look at it in that way; but you can easily see what it would be to me to enter a family where I wasn't wanted."
"That's a bit strong," he corrected. "They'd want you right enough, once they knew you. It would only be the—the fact of—the—"
She helped him out. "The divorce."
He nodded and finished. "That they'd jib at. Even then—"
"Oh, please don't think I'm blaming them. I should do exactly the same, in their case."
"They're really not half bad, you know," he tried to explain. "Mother's an awfully decent sort, and so is Di. Aggie's a bit cattish. But then she'll soon be married. Fellow named Jenkins, in the Guards. And then," he added, irrelevantly, "you're an American."
"Which is another disadvantage."
"No," he said, with emphasis. "The other way round when it comes to a—a—" He stumbled at the word, but faced it eventually: "When it comes to a divorce, you know."
She looked at him mistily. "No, I don't know. Aren't a divorced Englishwoman and a divorced American in very much the same position?"
He hastened to reassure her. "Oh, Lord, no. Not in England they wouldn't be. A divorced Englishwoman—well, she's in rather a hole, you know; whereas a divorced American woman—that's natural."
"I see," she responded, slowly. "It's not considered quite so bad."
"Oh, not half so bad. One expects an American woman to be divorced—or something."
She couldn't be annoyed with him because he was so honest and ingenuous. She merely said, "So they'd think me the rule rather than the exception."
"They'd just think you were American, and let it go at that. Besides," he continued, earnestly, "when a woman's only been married in America—"
"She's been hardly married at all. Is that what they'd think in England?"
"Well, if they'd ever seen the chap around—But when they haven't, you know—"
"They can't believe in him."
"Oh, I don't say that. But—well, they wouldn't think anything about him."
She shifted her ground slightly. "But you'd think about him, wouldn't you?"
"Me? Why should I?"
"Because I'd married him before I'd married you—for one thing."
"Oh, but I shouldn't go into that, you know. That would be over and done with."
"Well, wouldn't it?"
She mused silently, while the little girl with the bare legs continued to croon to her doll with a kind of chant:
"Dors, mon enfant, dors.... Ta mere ne reviendra plus ce soir.... Elle dine avec le beau monsieur que tu as vu.... Elle te dira bonne nuit demain.... Dors; sois sage—et dors"
"Even if it were over and done with," Edith said at last, "the fact would remain—supposing I married you—that your wife had had a life in which you possessed no share—a very living life, I assure you—and that her memories of that life were perhaps the most vital thing about her."
"Oh, but I say!" he protested. "That's the very reason I'm so fond of you. I can see all that already. I shouldn't interfere with it, you know. It's what makes the difference between you and other women. It's like the difference between—" He sought for a simile. "It's like the difference between a book that's been written and printed, and has something in it, and a silly blank book."
Her eyes filled with tears. "I wonder if you have the least idea of what you're saying?"
He sought for a more effective figure of speech. "If you were walking about your place, and found something wounded, you'd want to take it home and tend it, wouldn't you, till you'd put it to rights again? And the more you tended it the fonder of it you'd be. But you wouldn't stop to ask whether a boy had thrown a stone at it or whether it had been attacked by its mate. You'd let all that alone—and just tend it."
Her tears were coursing freely now beneath her veil. "Is that really the way you feel about me?"
He grew apologetic. "Oh, I don't mean any Good Samaritan business, don't you know? If I could look after you a bit you'd do the same by me. I'm thinking of that, too. Look here," he pursued, confidentially, but coloring; "I'll tell you something, if you won't think me an ass. I could have married two or three girls—oh, more than that!—if I'd wanted to. But I could see what they were after. It wasn't me—not by a long shot. It was the place—Foljambe—it's really quite a decent place, you know—right in the shires—and the hunting. They'd have thought it awful luck to have to clear out of England every year, just when the hunting begins—and stick in this bally hole—or go to Egypt. But you wouldn't." As she said nothing for the minute, he insisted, "Would you, now?"
She shook her head musingly. "No, I shouldn't."
He looked relieved. "Well, that's just it. That's just what I thought." He colored more deeply, with a hectic spot in each cheek. "Life isn't all beer and skittles to me, don't you know—and you'd be the kind of thing I haven't got, don't you know?" He leaned toward her beseechingly. "Do you see now?"
"I think I do. You mean that we'd mutually take care of each other."
"Well, that's what it would amount to—not to say any more about my being so awfully fond of you. You won't forget that."
She smiled through her tears. "Oh no; I'm not likely to forget it. I wish I could tell you—"
But she broke off because she could say no more, struggling to her feet. He agreed to her request that she should have time to think his proposal over, and also that he should let her return alone to the hotel, remaining in the shelter with the crooning child long after she had gone away.
But once she was out in the wind again she found it difficult to give the matter concentrated thought. Much as she had been moved while he talked to her, the emotion seemed to be blown away by the strong air of reality. It was like the crying in which she had sometimes indulged herself at a play, and which left no aftermath of sadness. She could hardly tell what aftermath had been left by Noel Ordway's words; but as far as she could judge it had everything in it to touch her and appeal to her, except the possible. And yet so much that was impossible had happened to her already, who knew but that the next incredible thing would be that she should become mistress of Foljambe Park? Why not? Since the haven was open to her, and Chip had left the poor little craft of her life to toss in a sea too strong for it, why not creep into any refuge that would receive her? She would certainly be driven sooner or later into some such port—then why not into this?
She hurried homeward between the thundering breakers on the one hand and the tossing palms on the other, her mind in a state of storm. In the garden, as she passed toward the hotel, she saw Miss Chesley with the children, but she couldn't stop and speak to them. She hurried. She wanted the protection of her room, of quiet, of the accessories to mental peace. Perhaps when she got these she should be able to think—and decide; so she hurried on.
To avoid the main hall, where people might speak to her, she took the short cut through the sun-pavilion, which would bring her nearer to the stairs. But on throwing open the door she stood still on the threshold with a little soundless gasp. "Oh!"
He came toward her sedately, the glimmer of a smile on the stamped gravity of his face. "I took the liberty of waiting for you. I couldn't bring myself to go back to Cap d'Ail without knowing how you were."
As he held her hand he seemed to bend over her with what she had already described to herself as a brooding concern. She knew she was blushing foolishly and that her knees were trembling under her; and yet, curiously enough, the little craft of her life seemed suddenly to find itself in quiet waters, ranged round by protecting hills. She was confused and sorry and glad and afraid all in one instant. Nothing but the habit of the hostess, which was so strong in her, enabled her to capture a conventional tone and say the obvious thing:
"I'm so glad you waited. Won't you sit down, and let me ring for tea?"
Chip had never really noticed her until on that Sunday morning in June it suddenly struck him that she was trying to get a word with him alone. He had seen her, of course. She had been at Mountain Brook—which was the name of Emery Bland's place in New Hampshire—every time he had gone there; but, her quality being unobtrusive, he had paid her no attention. Furthermore, both Bland and Mrs. Bland, being emphatic in personality and talkative, he had been the more easily led to ignore this reticent girl, whose function was apparently limited to seeing her aunt provided with a shawl, or her uncle with a cigar, at the right opportunities. If he thought of her at all, it was as of the living spirit of the furniture. The tables and chairs became animate in her, and articulate; but her claim to recognition had never gone beyond the necessity for a hand-shake or a smile. When he did take her hand—on arriving, or on coming down-stairs in the morning—he received an impression of something soft and slim and tender; but the moment of pleasure was always too fleeting for conscious registration. Similarly, when, from a polite instinct to include her in the conversation, he smiled vaguely in her direction, he received a look gentle and beaming and almost apologetic in return; but it was never more to him than if the dimly lustrous surfaces of Mrs. Bland's nice Sheraton had suddenly become responsive. She made no demand; and he offered no more than she asked.
Perhaps the fact that the girl was not really the niece of either Mr. or Mrs. Bland had something to do with his tendency to treat her as a negligible quantity. Mrs. Bland had explained the situation to him during his first visit to Mountain Brook.
"Lily isn't our niece at all," she had said, in a tone which seemed to reproach Lily with an inadvertance. "She's no relation to us whatever. We don't know who she is. She doesn't even know herself. Since you insist," she continued, as though Chip had been pressing for information, "we got her out of an orphanage, the year we built this house. Mr. Bland seemed to think the house ought to have something young in it; and so—"
"You might have had a dog," Chip said, dryly.
"You needn't laugh. It wasn't my desire to adopt a child. I simply yielded to Mr. Bland, as I do in everything. The only stipulation I made was that she should call us uncle and aunt. I couldn't bear to be called mother by a child who wasn't my own; but Mr. Bland is so odd that he wouldn't have cared. I dare say you've noticed how odd he is."
Chip could see that Bland might be odd from his wife's point of view. He was the self-made man who had shed the traces of self-making. Mrs. Bland was fond of describing herself as a self-made woman; but the stages of the process by which she had "turned herself out" were visible. She would have been disappointed had it not been so. Having confessed from youth upward that her ambition was "to make the most of herself," there had never, in her case, been any question of the ars celare artem. She belonged to a number of women's clubs of which the avowed object was "self-improvement," and attended such classes on "current events" as would keep her posted on the problems of the day without the bore of reading the papers. As a self-made woman she also looked the part, dressing for breakfast as she would like to be found in the afternoon, with but slight variation for dinner. In her full panoply of plum or dove color she suggested one of those knights eternally in armor who decorate baronial halls. Chip considered it probable that Emery Bland would never have chosen her as the life-long complement to himself had he not taken that step while he was still an obscure "up-state" country lawyer, and she the dignified young school-teacher who stood for "cultivation" in their little town. Cultivation had always been to Mrs. Bland what hunting is to the rider to hounds—the zest was in the chase. The zest was in the chase, and the quarry but an excuse for the run. Over hedges of lectures, and ditches of "talks," and through turnip-fields of serious, ponderous women like herself, green even in winter, and after being touched by frost, Mrs. Bland kept on in full career, with "cultivation" scudding ahead like a fox she never caught a glimpse of, and which her hounds tracked only by the scent. It was splendid exercise, and helped her to feel in the movement. If she failed to notice that her husband had long ago run the fleet animal to earth, and affixed the mask as an adornment to his home, it was only because their views of life were different.