THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
NEW YORK . BOSTON . CHICAGO . DALLAS ATLANTA . SAN FRANCISCO
MACMILLAN & CO., LIMITED
LONDON . BOMBAY . CALCUTTA MELBOURNE
THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, LTD.
AUTHOR OF "MY LOVE AND I," "CHILDREN OF EARTH," "ROSE MACLEOD," ETC.
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1916
All rights reserved
Copyright, 1916 By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
Set up and electrotyped. Published June, 1916 Reprinted June, 1916 July, 1916 Twice August, 1916.
There could not have been a more sympathetic moment for coming into the country town—or, more accurately, the inconsiderable city—of Addington than this clear twilight of a spring day. Anne and Lydia French with their stepfather, known in domestic pleasantry as the colonel, had hit upon a perfect combination of time and weather, and now they stood in a dazed silence, dense to the proffers of two hackmen with the urgency of twenty, and looked about them. That inquiring pause was as if they had expected to find, even at the bare, sand-encircled station, the imagined characteristics of the place they had so long visualised. The handsome elderly man, clean-shaven, close-clipped, and, at intervals when he recalled himself to a stand against discouragement, almost military in his bearing, was tired, but entrenched in a patient calm. The girls were profoundly moved in a way that looked like gratitude: perhaps, too, exalted as if, after reverses, they had reached a passionately desired goal. Anne was the elder sister, slender and sweet, grave with the protective fostering instinct of mothers in a maidenly hiding, ready to come at need. She wore her plain blue clothes as if unconscious of them and their incomplete response to the note of time. A woman would have detected that she trimmed her own hat, a flat, wide-brimmed straw with a formless bow and a feather worthy only in long service. A man would have cherished the memory of her thin rose-flushed face with the crisp touches of sedate inquiry about the eyes. "Do you want anything?" Anne's eyes were always asking clearly. "Let me get it for you." But even a man thus tenderly alive to her charm would have thought her older than she was, a sweet sisterly creature to be reverentially regarded.
Lydia was the product of a different mould. She was the woman, though a girl in years and look, not removed by chill timidities from woman's normal hopes, the clean animal in her curved mouth, the trick of parting her lips for a long breath because, for the gusto of life, the ordinary breath wouldn't always do, and showing most excellent teeth, the little square chin, dauntless in strength, the eyes dauntless, too, and hair all a brown gloss with high lights on it, very free about her forehead. She was not so tall as Anne, but graciously formed and plumper. Curiously, they did not seem racially unlike the colonel who, to their passionate loyalties, was "father" not a line removed. In the delicacy of his patrician type he might even have been "grandfather", for he looked older than he was, the worsted prey of circumstance. He had met trouble that would not be evaded, and if he might be said to have conquered, it was only from regarding it with a perplexed immobility, so puzzling was it in a world where honour, he thought, was absolutely defined and a social crime as inexplicable as it was rending.
And while the three wait to have their outlines thus inadequately sketched, the hackman waits, too, he of a more persistent hope than his fellows who have gone heavily rolling away to the stable, it being now six o'clock and this the last train.
Lydia was a young woman of fervid recognitions. She liked to take a day and stamp it for her own, to say of this, perhaps: "It was the ninth of April when we went to Addington, and it was a heavenly day. There was a clear sky and I could see Farvie's beautiful nose and chin against it and Anne's feather all out of curl. Dear Anne! dear Farvie! Everything smelled of dirt, good, honest dirt, not city sculch, and I heard a robin. Anne heard him, too. I saw her smile." But really what Anne plucked out of the moment was a blurred feeling of peace. The day was like a cool, soft cheek, the cheek one kisses with calm affection, knowing it will not be turned away. It was she who first became aware of Denny, the hackman, and said to him in her liquid voice that laid bonds of kind responsiveness:
"Do you know the old Blake house?"
Denny nodded. He was a soft, loosely made man with a stubby moustache picked out in red and a cheerfully dishevelled air of having been up all night.
"The folks moved out last week," said he. "You movin' in?"
"Yes," Lydia supplied, knowing her superior capacity over the other two, for meeting the average man. "We're moving in. Farvie, got the checks?"
Denny accepted the checks and, in a neighbourly fashion, helped the station master in selecting the trunks, no large task when there was but a drummer's case besides. He went about this meditatively, inwardly searching out the way of putting the question that should elicit the identity of his fares. There was a way, he knew. But they had seated themselves in the hack, and now explained that if he would take two trunks along the rest could come with the freight due at least by to-morrow; and he had driven them through the wide street bordered with elms and behind them what Addington knew as "house and grounds" before he thought of a way. It was when he had bumped the trunks into the empty hall and Lydia was paying him from a smart purse of silver given her by her dancing pupils that he got hold of his inquisitorial outfit.
"I don't know," said Denny, "as I know you folks. Do you come from round here?"
Lydia smiled at him pleasantly.
"Good night," said she. "Get the freight round in the morning, won't you? and be sure you bring somebody to help open the crates."
Then Denny climbed sorrowfully up on his box, and when he looked round he found them staring there as they had stared at the station: only now he saw they were in a row and "holding hands".
"I think," said Lydia, in rather a hushed voice, as if she told the others a pretty secret, "it's a very beautiful place."
"You girls haven't been here, have you?" asked the colonel.
"No," said Anne, "you'd just let it when we came to live with you."
Both girls used that delicate shading of their adoptive tie with him. They and their mother, now these three years dead, had "come to live with" him when they were little girls and their mother married him. They never suggested that mother married him any time within their remembrance. In their determined state of mind he belonged not only to the never-ending end when he and they and mother were to meet in a gardened heaven with running streams and bowery trees, but as well to the vague past when they were little girls. Their own father they had memory of only as a disturbing large person in rough tweed smelling of office smoke, who was always trying to get somewhere before the domestic exigencies of breakfast and carriage would let him, and who dropped dead one day trying to do it. Anne saw him fall right in the middle of the gravel walk, and ran to tell mother father had stubbed his toe. And when she heard mother scream, and noted father's really humorous obstinacy about getting up, and saw the cook even and the coachman together trying to persuade him, she got a strong distaste for father; and when about two years afterward she was asked if she would accept this other older father, she agreed to him with cordial expectation. He was gentle and had a smooth, still voice. His clothes smelled of Russia leather and lead pencils and at first of very nice smoke: not as if he had sat in a tight room all day and got cured in the smoke of other rank pipes like a helpless ham, but as if a pleasant acrid perfume were his special atmosphere.
"They haven't done much to the garden, have they?" he asked now, poking with his stick in the beds under the windows. "I suppose you girls know what these things are, coming up. There's a peony. I do know that. I remember this one. It's the old dark kind, not pink. I don't much care for a pink piny."
The big front yard sloping up to the house was almost full of shrubbery in a state of overgrown prosperity. There were lilacs, dark with buds, and what Anne, who was devotedly curious in matters of growing life, thought althea, snowball and a small-leaved yellow rose. All this runaway shrubbery looked, in a way of speaking, inpenetrable. It would have taken so much trouble to get through that you would have felt indiscreet in trying it. The driveway only seemed to have been brave enough to pass it without getting choked up, a road that came in at the big gateway, its posts marked by haughty granite balls, accomplished a leisurely curve and went out at another similar gateway as proudly decorated. The house held dignified seclusion there behind the shrubbery, waiting, Lydia thought, to be found. You could not really see it from the street: only above the first story and blurred, at that, by rowan trees. But the two girls facing it there at near range and the colonel with the charm of old affection playing upon him like airs of paradise, thought the house beautiful. It was of mellow old brick with white trimmings and a white door, and at the left, where the eastern sun would beat, a white veranda. It came up into a kindly gambrel roof and there were dormers. Lydia saw already how fascinating those chambers must be. There was a trellis over the door and jessamine swinging from it. The birds in the shrubbery were eloquent. A robin mourned on one complaining note and Anne, wise also in the troubles of birds, looked low for the reason and found, sitting with tail wickedly twitching at the tip, a brindled cat. Being gentle in her ways and considering that all things have rights, she approached him with crafty steps and a murmured hypnotic, "kitty! kitty!" got her hands on him, and carried him off down the drive, to drop him in the street and suggest, with a warning pat and conciliating stroke, the desirability of home.
The colonel, following Lydia's excited interest, poked with his stick for a minute or more at a bed under the front window, where something lush seemed to be coming up, and Lydia, losing interest when she found it was only pudding-bags, picked three sprays of flowering almond for decorating purposes and drew him toward a gate at the east side of the house where, down three rotting steps, lay level land. The end of it next the road was an apple orchard coming into an amazingly early bloom, a small secluded paradise. A high brick wall shut it from the road and ran down for fifty feet or so between it and the adjoining place. There a grey board fence took up the boundary and ran on, with a less definite markedness to the eye, until it skirted a rise far down the field and went on over the rise to lands unknown, at least to Lydia.
"Farvie, come!" she cried.
She pulled him down the crumbling steps to the soft sward and looked about her with a little murmured note of happy expectation. She loved the place at once, and gave up to the ecstasy of loving it "good and hard," she would have said. These impulsive passions of her nature had always made her greatest joys. They were like robust bewildering playmates. She took them to her heart, and into her bed at night to help her dream. There was nothing ever more warm and grateful than Lydia's acceptances and her trust in the bright promise of the new. Anne didn't do that kind of thing. She hesitated at thresholds and looked forward, not distrustfully but gravely, into dim interiors.
"Farvie, dear," said Lydia, "I love it just as much now as I could in a hundred years. It's our house. I feel as if I'd been born in it."
Farvie looked about over the orchard, under its foam of white and pink; his eyes suffused and he put his delicate lips firmly together. But all he said was:
"They haven't kept the trees very well pruned."
"There's Anne," said Lydia, loosing her hold of his sleeve. She ran light-footedly back to Anne, and patted her with warm receptiveness. "Anne, look: apple trees, pear trees, peach in that corner. See that big bush down there."
"Quince," said Anne dreamily. She had her hat off now, and her fine soft brown hair, in silky disorder, attracted her absent-minded care. But Lydia had pulled out the pin of her own tight little hat with its backward pointing quill and rumpled her hair in the doing and never knew it; now she transfixed the hat with a joyous stab.
"Never mind your hair," said she. "What idiots we were to write to the Inn. Why couldn't we stay here to-night? How can we leave it? We can't. Did you ever see such a darling place? Did you ever imagine a brick wall like that? Who built it, Farvie? Who built the brick wall?"
Farvie was standing with his hands behind him, thinking back, the girls knew well, over the years. A mournful quiet was in his face. They could follow for a little way the cause of his sad thoughts, and were willing, each in her own degree of impulse, to block him in it, make running incursions into the road, twitch him by the coat and cry, "Listen to us. Talk to us. You can't go there where you were going. That's the road to hateful memories. Listen to that bird and tell us about the brick wall."
Farvie was used to their invasions of his mind. He never went so far as clearly to see them as salutary invasions to keep him from the melancholy accidents of the road, an ambulance dashing up to lift his bruised hopes tenderly and take them off somewhere for sanitary treatment, or even some childish sympathy of theirs commissioned to run up and offer him a nosegay to distract him in his walk toward old disappointments and old cares. He only knew they were welcome visitants in his mind. Sometimes the mind seemed to him a clean-swept place, the shades down and no fire lighted, and these young creatures, in their heavenly implication of doing everything for their own pleasure and not for his, would come in, pull up the shades with a rush, light the fire and sit down with their sewing and their quite as necessary laughter by the hearth.
"It's a nice brick wall," said Anne, in her cool clear voice. "It doesn't seem so much to shut other people out as to shut us in."
She slipped her hand through the colonel's arm, and they both stood there at his elbow like rosy champions, bound to stick to him to the last, and the bird sang and something eased up in his mind. He seemed to be let off, in this spring twilight, from an exigent task that had shown no signs of easing. Yet he knew he was not really let off. Only the girls were throwing their glamour of youth and hope and bravado over the apprehensive landscape of his fortune as to-morrow's sun would snatch a rosier light from the apple blooms.
"My great-grandfather built the wall," said he. He was content to go back to an older reminiscent time when there were, for him, no roads of gloom. "He was a minister, you know: very old-fashioned even then, very direct, knew what he wanted, saw no reason why he shouldn't have it. He wanted a place to meditate in, walk up and down, think out his sermons. So he built the wall. The townspeople didn't take to it much at first, father used to say. But they got accustomed to it. He wouldn't care."
"There's a grape-vine over a trellis," said Anne softly. She spoke in a rapt way, as if she had said, "There are angels choiring under the trees. We can hum their songs."
"It makes an arbour. Farvie'll sit there and read his Greek," said Lydia. "We can't leave this place to-night. It would be ridiculous, now we've found it. It wouldn't be safe either. Places like this bust up and blow away."
"We can get up the beds to-morrow," said Anne. "Then we never'll leave it for a single minute as long as we live. I want to go ever the house. Farvie, can't we go over the house?"
They went up the rotten steps, Lydia with a last proprietary look at the orchard, as if she sealed it safe from all the spells of night, and entered at the front door, trying, at her suggestion, to squeeze in together three abreast, so they could own it equally. It was a still, kind house. The last light lay sweetly in the room at the right of the hall, a large square room with a generous fireplace well blackened and large surfaces of old ivory paint. There was a landscape paper here, of trees in a smoky mist and dull blue skies behind a waft of cloud. Out of this lay the dining-room, all in green, and the windows of both rooms looked on a gigantic lilac hedge, and beyond it the glimmer of a white colonial house set back in its own grounds. The kitchen was in a lean-to, a good little kitchen brown with smoke, and behind that was the shed with dark cobwebbed rafters and corners that cried out for hoes and garden tools. Lydia went through the rooms in a rush of happiness, Anne in a still rapt imagining. Things always seemed to her the symbols of dearer things. She saw shadowy shapes sitting at the table and breaking bread together, saw moving figures in the service of the house, and generations upon generations weaving their webs of hope and pain and disillusionment and hope again. In the shed they stood looking out at the back door through the rolling field, where at last a fringe of feathery yellow made the horizon line.
"What's at the end of the field, Farvie?" Lydia asked.
"The river," said he. "Nothing but the river."
"I feel," said she, "as if we were on an island surrounded by jumping-off places: the bushes in front, the lilac hedge on the west, the brick wall on the east, the river at the end. Come, let's go back. We haven't seen the other two rooms."
These were the northeast room, a library in the former time, in a dim, pink paper with garlands, and the southeast sitting-room, in a modern yet conforming paper of dull blue and grey.
"The hall is grey," said Lydia. "Do you notice? How well they've kept the papers. There isn't a stain."
"Maiden ladies," said the colonel, with a sigh. "Nothing but two maiden ladies for so long."
"Don't draw long breaths, Farvie," said Lydia. "Anne and I are maiden ladies. You wouldn't breathe over us. We should feel terribly if you did."
"I was thinking how still the house had been," said he. "It used to be—ah, well! well!"
"They grew old here, didn't they?" said Anne, her mind taking the maiden ladies into its hospitable shelter.
"They were old when they came." He was trying to put on a brisker air to match these two runners with hope for their torch. "Old as I am now. If their poor little property had lasted we should have had hard work to pry them out. We should have had to let 'em potter along here. But they seem to like their nephew, and certainly he's got money enough."
"They adore him," said Lydia, who had never seen them or the nephew. "And they're lying in gold beds at this minute eating silver cheese off an emerald plate and hearing the nightingales singing and saying to each other, 'Oh, my! I wish it was morning so we could get up and put on our pan-velvet dresses and new gold shoes.'"
This effective picture Anne and the colonel received with a perfect gravity, not really seeing it with the mind's eye. Lydia's habit of speech demanded these isolating calms.
"I think," said Anne, "we'd better be getting to the Inn. We sha'n't find any supper. Lydia, which bag did you pack our nighties in?"
Lydia picked out the bag, carolling, as she did so, in high bright notes, and then remembered that she had to put on her hat. Anne had already adjusted hers with a careful nicety.
"You know where the Inn is, don't you, Farvie?" Lydia was asking, as they stood on the stone step, after Anne had locked the door, and gazed about them in another of their according trances.
He smiled at them, and his eyes lighted for the first time. The smile showed possibilities the girls had proven through their growing up years, of humour and childish fooling.
"Why, yes," said he, "it was here when I was born."
They went down the curving driveway into the street which the two girls presently found to be the state street of the town. The houses, each with abundant grounds, had all a formal opulence due chiefly to the white-pillared fronts. Anne grew dreamy. It seemed to her as if she were walking by a line of Greek temples in an afternoon hush. The colonel was naming the houses as they passed, with good old names. Here were the Jarvises, here the Russells, and here the Lockes.
"But I don't know," said he, "what's become of them all."
At a corner by a mammoth elm he turned down into another street, elm-shaded, almost as wide, and led them to the Inn, a long, low-browed structure built in the eighteenth century and never without guests.
The next morning brought a confusion of arriving freight, and Denny was supplicated to provide workmen, clever artificers in the opening of boxes and the setting up of beds. He was fired by a zeal not all curiosity, a true interest assuaged by certainty more enlivening yet.
"I know who ye be," he announced to the colonel. This was on his arrival with the first load. "I ain't lived in town very long, or I should known it afore. It's in the paper."
Mr. Blake frowned slightly and seemed to freeze all over the surface he presented to the world. He walked away without a reply, but Lydia, who had not heard, came up at this point to ask Denny if he knew where she could find a maid.
"Sure I do," said Denny, who was not Irish but consorted with common speech. "My wife's two sisters, Mary Nellen, Prince Edward girls."
"We don't want two," said Lydia. "My sister and I do a lot of the work."
"The two of them," said Denny, "come for the price of one. They're studyin' together to set up a school in Canada, and they can't be separated. They'd admire to be with nice folks."
"Mary? did you say?" asked Lydia.
"Mary and Ellen?"
"Yes, Mary Nellen. I'll send 'em up."
That afternoon they came, pleasant-faced square little trudges with shiny black hair and round myopic eyes. This near-sightedness when they approached the unclassified, resulted in their simultaneously making up the most horrible faces, the mere effort of focusing. Mary Nellen—for family affection, recognising their complete twin-ship, always blended them—were aware of this disfiguring habit, but relegated the curing of it to the day of their future prosperity. They couldn't afford glasses now, they said. They'd rather put their money into books. This according and instantaneous grimace Lydia found engaging. She could not possibly help hiring them, and they appeared again that night with two battered tin boxes and took up residence in the shed chamber.
There had been some consultation about the disposition of chambers. It resolved itself into the perfectly reasonable conclusion that the colonel must have the one he had always slept in, the southeastern corner.
"But there's one," said Lydia, "that's sweeter than the whole house put together. Have you fallen in love with it, Anne? It's that low, big room back of the stairs. You go down two steps into it. There's a grape-vine over the window. Whose chamber is that, Farvie?"
He stood perfectly still by the mantel, and the old look of introspective pain, almost of a surprised terror, crossed his face. Then they knew. But he delayed only a minute or so in answering.
"Why," said he, "that was Jeff's room when he lived at home."
"Then," said Anne, in her assuaging voice, "he must have it again."
"Yes," said the colonel. "I think you'd better plan it that way."
They said no more about the room, but Anne hunted out a set of Dickens and a dog picture she had known as belonging to Jeff, who was the own son of the colonel, and took them in there. Once she caught Lydia in the doorway looking in, a strangled passion in her face, as if she were going back to the page of an old grief.
"Queer, isn't it?" she asked, and Anne, knowing all that lay in the elision, nodded silently.
Once that afternoon the great brass knocker on the front door fell, and Mary Nellen answered and came to Lydia to say a gentleman was there. Should he be asked in? Mary Nellen seemed to have an impression that he was mysteriously not the sort to be admitted. Lydia went at once to the door whence there came to Anne, listening with a worried intensity, a subdued runnel of talk. The colonel, who had sat down by the library window with a book he was not reading, as if he needed to soothe some inner turmoil of his own by the touch of leathern covers, apparently did not hear this low-toned interchange. He glanced into the orchard from time to time, and once drummed on the window when a dog dashed across and ran distractedly back and forth along the brick wall. When Anne heard the front door close she met Lydia in the hall.
"Was it?" she asked.
Lydia nodded. Her face had a flush; the pupils of her eyes were large.
"Yes," said she. "His paper wanted to know whether Jeff was coming here and who was to meet him. I said I didn't know."
"Did he ask who you were?"
"Yes. I told him I'd nothing to say. He said he understood Jeff's father was here, and asked if he might see him. I said, No, he couldn't see anybody."
"Was he put out?" Anne had just heard Mary Nellen use the phrase. Anne thought it covered a good deal.
"No," said Lydia. She lifted her plump hands and threaded the hair back from her forehead, a gesture she had when she was tired. It seemed to spur her brain. "No," she repeated, in a slow thoughtfulness, "he was a kind of gentleman. I had an idea he was sorry for me, for us all, I suppose. I was sorry for him, too. He was trying to earn his living and I wouldn't let him."
"No," said Lydia, rather drearily, "I couldn't. Do you think Farvie heard?"
"I think not. He didn't seem to."
But it was with redoubled solicitude that they threw their joint energies into making supper inviting, so that the colonel might at least get a shred of easement out of a pleasant meal. Mary Nellen, who amicably divided themselves between the task of cooking and serving, forwarded their desires, making faces all the time at unfamiliar sauce-pans, and quite plainly agreed with them that men were to be comforted by such recognised device. Anne and Lydia were deft little housewives. They had a sober recognition of the pains that go to a well-ordered life, and were patient in service. Their father had no habit of complaint if the machinery creaked and even caused the walls to shudder with faulty action. Yet they knew their gentle ways contributed to his peace.
After supper, having seen that he was seated and ready for the little talk they usually had in the edge of the evening, Lydia wondered whether she ought to tell him a reporter had run them down; but while she balanced the question there came another clanging knock and Mary Nellen beckoned her. This one was of another stamp. He had to get his story, and he had overborne Mary Nellen and penetrated to the hall. Lydia could hear the young inexorable voice curtly talking down Mary Nellen and she closed the library door behind her. But when the front door had shut after the invader and Lydia came back, again with reddened cheeks and distended eyes, the colonel went to it and shot the bolt.
"That's enough for to-night," said he. "The next I'll see, but not till morning."
"You know we all thought it best you shouldn't," Anne said, always faintly interrogative. "So long as we needn't say who we are. They'd know who you were."
"His father," said Lydia, from an indignation disproportioned to the mild sadness she saw in the colonel's face. "That's what they'd say: his father. I don't believe Anne and I could bear that, the way they'd say it. I don't believe Jeff could either."
The colonel had, even in his familiar talk with them, a manner of old-fashioned courtesy.
"I didn't think it mattered much myself who saw them," he said, "when you proposed it. But now it has actually happened I see it's very unfitting for you to do it, very unfitting. However, I don't believe we shall be troubled again to-night."
But their peace had been broken. They felt irrationally like ill-defended creatures in a state of siege. The pretty wall-paper didn't help them out, nor any consciousness of the blossoming orchard in the chill spring air. The colonel noted the depression in his two defenders and, by a spurious cheerfulness, tried to bring them back to the warmer intimacies of retrospect.
"It was in this very room," he said, "that I saw your dear mother first."
Lydia looked up, brightly ready for diversion. Anne sat, her head bent a little, responsive to the intention of his speech.
"I was sitting here," said he, "alone. I had, I am pretty sure, this very book in my hand. I wasn't reading it. I couldn't read. The maid came in and told me a lady wanted to see me."
"What time of the day was it, Farvie?" Lydia asked, with her eager sympathy.
"It was the late afternoon," said he. "In the early spring. Perhaps it was a day like this. I don't remember. Well, I had her come in. Before I knew where I was, there she stood, about there, in the middle of the floor. You know how she looked."
"She looked like Lydia," said Anne. It was not jealousy in her voice, only yearning. It seemed very desirable to look like Lydia or their mother.
"She was much older," said the colonel. "She looked very worried indeed. I remember what she said, remember every word of it. She said, 'Mr. Blake, I'm a widow, you know. And I've got two little girls. What am I going to do with them?'"
"She did the best thing anybody could," said Lydia. "She gave us to you."
"I have an idea I cried," said the colonel. "Really I know I did. And it broke her all up. She'd come somehow expecting Jeff's father to account for the whole business and assure her there might be a few cents left. But when she saw me dribbling like a seal, she just ran forward and put her arms round me. And she said, 'My dear! my dear!' I hear her now."
"So do I," said Anne, in her low tone. "So do I."
"And you never'd seen each other before," said Lydia, in an ecstasy of youthful love for love. "I call that great."
"We were married in a week," said the colonel. "She'd come to ask me to help her, do you see? but she found I was the one that needed help. And I had an idea I might do something for her by taking the responsibility of her two little girls. But it was no use pretending. I didn't marry her for anything except, once I'd seen her, I couldn't live without her."
"Wasn't mother darling!" Lydia threw at him, in a passionate sympathy.
"You're like her, Lydia," said Anne again.
But Lydia shook her head.
"I couldn't hold a candle to mother," said she. "My eyes may be like hers. So is my forehead. So's my mouth. But I'm no more like mother——"
"It was her sympathy," said their father quietly, seeming to have settled it all a long time before. "She was the most absolutely loving person. You girls may be like her in that, too. I'm sure you're inconceivably good to me."
"I'd like to love people to death," said Lydia, with the fierceness of passion not yet named and recognised, but putting up its beautiful head now and then to look her remindingly in the eyes. "I'd like to love everybody. You first, Farvie, you and Anne. And Jeff. I'm going to love Jeff like a house-a-fire. He doesn't know what it is to have a sister. When he comes in I'm going to run up to him as if I couldn't wait to get him into the room, and kiss him and say, 'Here we are, Jeff. I'm Lyddy. Here's Anne.' You kiss him, too, Anne."
"Why," said Anne softly, "I wonder."
"You needn't stop to wonder," said Lydia. "You do it. He's going to realise he's got sisters anyway—and a father."
The same thought sprang at once into their three minds. It was not uncommon. They lived so close together, in such a unison of interests, that their minds often beat accordingly. Anne hesitatingly voiced the question.
"Do you think Esther'll meet him?"
"Impossible to say," the colonel returned, and Lydia's nipped lips and warlike glance indicated that she found it hideously impossible to say.
"I intend to find out," said she.
"I have an idea," said her father, as if he were in the kindest manner heading her off from a useless project, "that I'd better make a call on her myself, perhaps at once."
"She wouldn't see you when you came before," Lydia reminded him, in a hot rebellion against Jeff's wife who had not stood by him in his downfall. In the space of time that he had been outside the line of civilised life, an ideal of Jeff had been growing up in her own mind as in Anne's. They saw him as the wronged young chevalier without reproach whom a woman had forsaken in his need. Only a transcript of their girlish dreams could have told them what they thought of Jeff. His father's desolation without him, the crumbling of his father's life from hale middle age to fragile eld, this whirling of the leaves of time had seemed to bring them to a blazoned page where Jeff's rehabilitation should be wrought out in a magnificent sequence. The finish to that volume only: Jeff's life would begin again in the second volume, to be annotated with the approbation of his fellows. He would be lifted on the hands of men, their plaudits would upbear his soul, and he would at last triumph, sealed by the sanction of his kind. They grew intoxicated over it sometimes, in warm talks when their father was not there. He talked very little: a few words now and then to show what he thought of Jeff, a phrase or two where he unconsciously turned for them the page of the past and explained obscurities in the text they couldn't possibly elucidate alone—these they treasured and made much of, as the antiquary interprets his stone language. He never knew what importance they laid on every shred of evidence about Jeff. Perhaps if he had known he would have given them clearer expositions. To him Jeff was the dearest of sons that ever man begot, strangely pursued by a malign destiny accomplished only through the very chivalry and softness of the boy's nature. No hero, though; he would never have allowed his girls to build on that. And in all this rehabilitation of Jeff, as the girls saw it, there was one dark figure like the black-clad mourner at the grave who seems to deny the tenet of immortality: his wife, who had not stood by him and who was living here in Addington with her grandmother, had insisted on living with grandmother, in fact, as a cloak for her hardness. Sometimes they felt if they could sweep the black-clad figure away from the grave of Jeff's hopes, Jeff, in glorious apotheosis, would rise again.
"What a name for her—Esther!" Lydia ejaculated, with an intensity of hatred Anne tried to waft away by a little qualifying murmur. "Esther! Esthers are all gentle and humble and beautiful."
"She is a very pretty woman," said her father, with a wise gentleness of his own. Lydia often saw him holding the balance for her intemperate judgments, his grain of gold forever equalising her dross. "I think she'd be called a beautiful woman. Jeff thought she was."
"Do you actually believe, Farvie," said Lydia, "that she hasn't been to see him once in all these hideous years?"
"I know it," said he. "However, we mustn't blame her. She may be a timid woman. We must stand by her and encourage her and make it easier for her to meet him now. Jeff was very much in love with her. He'll understand her better than we do."
"I don't understand her at all," said Lydia, "unless you're going to let us say she's selfish and a traitor and——"
"No, no," said Anne. "We don't know her. We haven't even seen her. We must do what Farvie says, and then what Jeff says. I feel as if Jeff had thought things out a lot."
"Yes," said Lydia, and bit her lip on the implied reason that he'd had plenty of time.
"Yes," said the colonel gravely, in his own way. "I'd better go over there early to-morrow afternoon. Before the reporters get at her."
"Maybe they've done it already," Lydia suggested, and the gravity of his face accorded in the fear that it might be so.
Lydia felt no fear: a fiery exultation, rather. She saw no reason why Esther should be spared her share of invasion, except, indeed, as it might add to the publicity of the thing.
"You'll tell her, Farvie," Anne hesitated, "just what we'd decided to do about his coming—about meeting him?"
"Yes," said he. "In fact, I should consult her. She must have thought out things for herself, just as he must. I should tell her he particularly asked us not to meet him. But I don't think that would apply to her. I think it would be a beautiful thing for her to do. If reporters are there——"
"They will be," Lydia interjected savagely.
"Well, if they are, it wouldn't be a bad thing for them to report that his wife was waiting for him. It would be right and simple and beautiful. But if she doesn't meet him, certainly we can't. That would give rise to all kinds of publicity and pain. I think she'll see that."
"I don't think she'll see anything," said Lydia. "She's got a heart like a stone."
"Oh, don't say that," Anne besought her, "in advance."
"It isn't in advance," said Lydia. "It's after all these years."
The next day, after an early dinner—nobody in Addington dined at night—the colonel, though not sitting down to a definite conclave, went over with Anne and Lydia every step of his proposed call on Esther, as if they were planning a difficult route and a diplomatic mission at the end, and later, in a state of even more exquisite personal fitness than usual, the call being virtually one of state, he set off to find his daughter-in-law. Anne and Lydia walked with him down the drive. They had the air of upholding him to the last.
The way to Esther's house, which was really her grandmother's, he had trodden through all his earlier life. His own family and Esther's had been neighbours intimately at one, and, turning the familiar corner, he felt, with a poignancy cruel in its force, youth recalled and age confirmed. Here were associations almost living, they were so vivid, yet wraithlike in sheer removedness. It was all very subtle, in its equal-sided force, this resurrection of the forms of youth, to be met by the cold welcome of a change in him. The heart did quicken over its recognition of the stability of things, but with no robust urge such as it knew in other years; indeed it fluttered rather pathetically, as if it begged him to put no unwonted strain upon it now, as in that time foregone, when every beat cried out, "Heave the weight! charge up the hill! We're equal to it. If we're not, we'll die submerged in our own red fount." He was not taking age with any sense of egotistical rebellion; but it irked him like an unfamiliar weight patiently borne and for no reward. The sense of the morning of life was upon him; yet here he was fettered to his traitorous body which was surely going to betray him in the end. No miracle could save him from atomic downfall. However exultantly he might live again, here he should live no more, and though there was in him no fervency either of rebellion or belief, he did look gravely now at the pack of mortality he carried. It was carefully poised and handled. His life was precious to him, for he wanted this present coil of circumstance made plain before he should go hence and be seen no more.
The streets just now were empty. It was an hour of mid-afternoon when ladies had not dawned, in calling raiment, upon a world of other expectant ladies, and when the business man is under bonds to keep sequestered with at least the pretext of arduous tasks. The colonel had ample opportunity to linger by yards where shrubbery was coming out in shining buds, and draw into his grave consciousness the sense of spring. Every house had associations for him, as every foot of the road. Now he was passing the great yellow mansion where James Reardon lived. Reardon, of Irish blood and American public school training, had been Jeffrey's intimate, the sophisticated elder who had shown him, with a cool practicality that challenged emulation, the world and how it was to be bought. When there were magnates in Addington, James had been a poor boy. There were still magnates, and now he was one of them, so far as club life went and monetary transactions. He had never tried to marry an Addington girl, and therefore could not be said to have put his social merit absolutely to the touch. But luck had always served him. Perhaps it would even have done it there. He had gone into a broker's office, had made a strike with his savings and then another with no warning reversal, and got the gay habit of rolling up money like a snowball on a damp day. When the ball got too heavy for him to handle deftly, Jim dropped the game, only starting the ball down hill—if one may find symbolism for sedate investments—gathering weight as it went and, it was thought, at obstructive points persuading other little boys to push. The colonel had often wondered if Jeffrey had been one of those little boys. Now, at forty-five, Reardon lived a quiet, pottering life, a bachelor with a housekeeper and servants enough to keep the big yellow house in form. He read in a methodical way, really the same books over and over, collected prints with a conviction that a print is a print, exercised his big frame in the club gymnasium, took a walk of sanitary length morning and afternoon and went abroad once in two years.
"I've got money enough," he was accustomed to say, when the adventurous petitioned him to bolster new projects for swift returns, "all in gilt-edged securities. That's why I don't propose to lay awake an hour in my life, muddling over stocks. Why, it's destruction, man! it's death. It eats up your tissues faster than old age." The eccentricity of his verb indicated only the perfection of his tact. He had a perfect command of the English language, but a wilful lapse into colloquialisms endeared him, he knew, to his rougher kind. There was no more popular man. He was blond and open-featured. He spoke in a loud yet always sympathetic voice, and in skilfully different fashions he called every man brother.
Yet the colonel, his fancy entering the seclusion of the yellow house, rich in books that would have been sealed to even Jim's immediate forebears, rich in all possible mechanical appliances for the ease of life, speculated whether Reardon had, in the old days, been good for Jeff. Could he, with his infernal luck, have been good for any youth of Jeff's impetuous credulity? Mightn't Jeff have got the idea that life is an easy job? The colonel felt now that he had always distrusted Reardon's bluff bonhomie, his sympathetic voice, his booming implication that he was letting you into his absolutely habitable heart. He knew, too, that without word of his own his distrust had filtered out to Anne and Lydia, and that they were prepared, while they stood by Jeff to unformulated issues, to trip up Reardon, somehow bring him low and set Jeff up impeccable. Of this he was thinking gravely now, the different points of it starting up in his mind like sparks of light while he regarded Reardon's neat shrubs healthily growing, as if the last drop of fertilising had been poured into them at this spring awakening, and all pruned to a wholesome symmetry. Then, hearing the sound of a door and painfully averse to meeting Reardon, he went on and mounted the steps of the great brick house where his daughter-in-law lived. And here the adventure came to an abrupt stop. The maid, perfectly courteous and yet with an air of readiness even he, the most unsuspecting of men, could not fail to recognise, told him, almost before he had finished his inquiry, that Mrs. Blake was not at home. She would not be at home that afternoon. No, sir, not the next day. Madam Bell, Esther's grandmother, he asked for then. No, sir, she was not at home. Looking in the smooth sanguine face of the girl, noting mechanically her light eyelashes and the spaces between her teeth, he knew she lied. Yet he was a courteous gentleman, and did not report that to his inner mind. He bestowed his card upon Sapphira, and walked away at his sedate pace, more than anything puzzled. Esther was not proposing to take part in their coming drama. He couldn't count on her. He was doubly sorry because this defection was going to make Anne and Lydia hate her more than ever, and he was averse to the intensification of hatred. He was no mollycoddle, but he had an intuition that hatred is of no use. It hindered things, all sorts of things: kindliness, even justice.
The girls were waiting for him at the door, but reading his face, they seemed, while not withdrawing themselves bodily, really to slip away, in order not even tacitly to question him. They had a marvellous unwillingness to bring a man to the bar. There was no over-tactful display of absence, but their minds simply would not set upon and interrogate his, nor skulk round corners to spy upon it. But he had to tell them, and he was anxious to get it over. Just as they seemed now about to melt away to urgent tasks, he called them back.
"She's not at home," said he.
Anne looked a species of defeated interest. Lydia's eyes said unmistakably, "I don't believe it." The colonel was tired enough to want to say, "I don't either," but he never felt at liberty to encourage Lydia's too exuberant candour.
"She's not to be at home to-morrow," he said. "It looks as if she'd gone for—for the present," he ended lamely, put down his hat and went into the east room and took up his brown book.
"Oh!" said Lydia.
That was all he was to hear from her, and he was glad. He hadn't any assurance within him of the force to assuage an indignation he understood though he couldn't feel it. That was another of the levelling powers of age. You couldn't key your emotions up to the point where they might shatter something or perhaps really do some good. It wasn't only that you hadn't the blood and breath. It also didn't seem worth while. He was angry, in a measure, with the hidden woman he couldn't get at to bid her come and help him fight the battle that was hers even more indubitably than his; yet he was conscious that behind her defences was another world of passion and emotion and terribly strong desires, as valid as his own. She had her side. He didn't know what it was. He wanted really to avoid knowing, lest it weaken him through its appeal for a new sympathy; but he knew the side was there. This, he said to himself, with a half smile, was probably known as tolerance. It seemed to him old age.
So, from their benign choice, he had really nothing to say to Lydia or Anne. In the late afternoon Anne asked him to go to walk and show her the town, and he put her off. He was conscious of having drowsed away in his chair, into one of those intervals he found so inevitable, and that were, at the same time, so irritatingly foreign to his previous habits of life. He did not drop his pursuits definitely to take a nap. The nap seemed to take him, even when he was on the margin of some lake or river where he thought himself well occupied in seeing the moving to and fro of boats, for business and pleasure, just as his own boat had gallantly cut invisible paths on the air and water in those earlier years. The nap would steal upon him like an amiable yet inexorable joker, and throw a cloudy veil over his brain and eyes, and he would sink into a gulf he had not perceived. It lay at his feet, and something was always ready to push him into it. He thought sometimes, wondering at the inevitableness of it, that one day the veil would prove a pall.
But after their twilight supper, he felt more in key with the tangible world, and announced himself as ready to set forth. Lydia refused to go. She had something to do, she said; but she walked down the driveway with them, and waited until they had gone a rod or two along the street. The colonel turned away from Esther's house, as Lydia knew he would. She had not watched him for years without seeing how resolutely he put the memory of pain or loss behind him whenever manly honour would allow. The colonel's thin skin was his curse. Yet he wore it with a proud indifference it took a good deal of warm affection to penetrate. Lydia stood there and looked up and down the street. It had been a day almost hot, surprising for the season, and she was dressed in conformity in some kind of thin stuff with little dots of black. Her round young arms were bare to the elbow, and there was a narrow lacy frill about her neck. It was too warm really to need a hat or jacket, and this place was informal enough, she thought, to do away with gloves. Having rapidly decided that it was also a pity to cool resolution by returning to the house for any conventional trappings, she stepped to the pavement and went, with a light rapidity, along the road to Esther's.
She knew the way. When she reached the house she regarded it for a moment from the opposite side of the street, and Jim Reardon, coming out of his own gate for his evening's stroll to the Colonial Club, saw her and crossed, instead of continuing on his own side as he ordinarily did. She was a nymph-like vision of the twilight, and there was nothing of the Addington girl about her unconsidered ease. Jim looked at her deferentially, as he passed, a hand ready for his hat. But though Lydia saw him she dismissed him as quickly, perhaps as no matter for wonderment, and again because her mind was full of Esther. Now in the haste that dares not linger, she crossed the street and ascended the steps of the brick house. As she did so she was conscious of the stillness within. It might have been a house embodied out of her own dreams. But she did not ring, nor did she touch the circlet the brass lion of a knocker held obligingly in his mouth. She lifted the heavy latch, stepped in and shut the door behind her.
This was not the front entrance. The house stood on a corner, and this door led into a little square hall with a colonial staircase of charming right-angled turns going compactly up. Lydia looked into the room at her right and the one at her left. They were large and nobly proportioned, furnished in a faded harmony of antique forms. The arrangement of the house, she fancied, might be much like the colonel's. But though she thought like lightning in the excitement of her invasion, there was not much clearness about it; her heart was beating too urgently, and the blood in her ears had tightened them. No one was in the left-hand room, no one was in the right; only there was a sign of occupancy: a peach-coloured silk bag hung on the back of a chair and the lacy corner of a handkerchief stood up in its ruffly throat. The bag, the handkerchief, brought her courage back. They looked like a substantial Esther of useless graces she had to fight. And so passionately alive was she to everything concerning Jeffrey that it seemed base of a woman once belonging to him to parade lacy trifles in ruffly bags when he was condemned to coarse, hard usages. But having Esther to fight, she stepped into that room, and immediately a warm, yet, she had time to think, rather a discontented voice called from the room behind it:
"Is that you, Sophy?"
Lydia answered in an intemperate haste, and like many another rebel to the English tongue, she found a proper pronoun would not serve her for sufficient emphasis.
"No," she said, "it's me."
And she followed on the heels of her words, with a determined soft pace, to the room of the voice, and came upon a brown-eyed, brown-haired, rather plump creature in a white dress, who was lying in a long chair and eating candied fruit from a silver dish. This, Lydia knew, was Esther Blake. She had expected to feel for her the distaste of righteousness in the face of the wrong-doer: for Esther, she knew, was proven, by long-continued hardness of heart and behaviour, indubitably wrong. Here was Esther, Jeff's wife, not showing more than two-thirds of her thirty-three years, her brow unlined, her expression of a general sweetness indicating not only that she wished to please but that she had, in the main, been pleased. The beauty of her face was in its long eyelashes, absurdly long, as if nature had said, "Here's a by-product we don't know what to do with. Put it into lashes." Her hands were white and exquisitely cared for, and she wore no wedding ring. Lydia noted that, with an involuntary glance, but strangely it did not move her to any access of indignation. Anger she did feel, but it was, childishly, anger over the candied fruit. "How can you lie there and eat," she wanted to cry, "when Jeff is where he is?"
A little flicker ran over Esther's face: it might at first have been the ripple of an alarmed surprise, but she immediately got herself in hand. She put her exquisite feet over the side of the chair, got up and, in one deft motion, set the fruit on a little table and ran a hand lightly over her soft disorder of hair.
"Do excuse me," said she. "I didn't hear you."
"My name is French," said Lydia, in an incisive haste, "Lydia French. I came to talk with you about Jeff."
The shadow that went over Esther's face was momentary, no more than a bird's wing over a flowery plot; but it was a shadow only. There was no eagerness or uplift or even trouble at the name of Jeff.
"Father came this afternoon," said Lydia. "He wanted to talk things over. He couldn't get in."
"Oh," said Esther, "I'm sorry for that. So you are one of the step-children. Sit down, won't you. Oh, do take this chair."
Lydia was only too glad to take any chair and get the strain off her trembling knees. It was no trivial task, she saw, to face Jeff's wife and drag her back to wifehood. But she ignored the proffer of the softer chair. It was easier to take a straight one and sit upright, her brown little hands clenched tremblingly. Esther, too, took a chair the twin of hers, as if to accept no advantage; she sat with dignity and waited gravely. She seemed to be watchful, intent, yet bounded by reserves. It was the attitude of waiting for attack.
"This very next week, you know, Jeff will be discharged." Lydia spoke with the brutality born of her desperation. Still Esther watched her. "You know, don't you?" Lydia hurled at her. She had a momentary thought, "The woman is a fool." "From jail," she continued. "From the Federal Prison. You know, don't you? You heard he had been pardoned?"
Esther looked at her a full minute, her face slowly suffusing. Lydia saw the colour even flooding into her neck. Her eyes did not fill, but they deepened in some unusual way. They seemed to be saying, defiantly perhaps, that they could cry if they would, but they had other modes of empery.
"You know, don't you?" Lydia repeated, but more gently. She began to wonder now whether trouble had weakened the wife's brain, her power at least of receptivity.
"Yes," said Esther. "I know it, of course. To-day's paper had quite a long synopsis of the case."
Now Lydia flushed and looked defiant.
"I am glad to know that," she said. "I must burn the paper. Farvie sha'n't see it."
"There were two reporters here yesterday," said Esther. She spoke angrily now. Her voice hinted that this was an indignity which need not have been put upon her.
"Did you see them?" asked Lydia, in a flash, ready to blame her whatever she did.
But the answer was eloquent with reproach.
"Certainly I didn't see them. I have never seen any of them. When that horrible newspaper started trying to get him pardoned, reporters came here in shoals. I never saw them. I'd have died sooner."
"Did Jeff write you he didn't want to be pardoned? He did us."
"No. He hasn't written me for years."
She looked a baffling number of things now, voluntarily pathetic, a little scornful, as if she washed her hands gladly of the whole affair.
"Farvie thinks," said Lydia recklessly, "that you haven't written to him."
"How could I?" asked Esther, in a quick rebuttal which actually had a convincing sound, "when he didn't write to me?"
"But he was in prison."
"He hasn't had everything to bear," said Esther, rising and putting some figurines right on the mantel where they seemed to be right enough before. "Do you know any woman whose life has been ruined as mine has? Have you ever met one? Now have you?"
"Farvie's life is ruined," said Lydia incisively. "Jeff's life is ruined, too. I don't know whether it's any worse for a woman than for a man."
"Jeffrey," said Esther, "is taking the consequences of his own act."
"You don't mean to tell me you think he was to blame?" Lydia said, in a low tone charged with her own complexity of sentiment. She was horror-stricken chiefly. Esther saw that, and looked at her in a large amaze.
"You don't mean to tell me you think he wasn't?" she countered.
"Why, of course he wasn't!" Lydia's cheeks were flaming. She was impatiently conscious of this heat and her excited breath. But she had entered the fray, and there was no returning.
"Then who was guilty?" Esther asked it almost triumphantly, as if the point of proving herself right were more to her than the innocence of Jeff.
"That's for us to find out," said Lydia. She looked like the apostle of a holy war.
"But if you could find out, why haven't you done it before? Why have you waited all these years?"
"Partly because we weren't grown up, Anne and I. And even when we were, when we'd begun to think about it, we were giving dancing lessons, to help out. You know Farvie put almost every cent he had into paying the creditors, and then it was only a drop in the bucket. And besides Jeff pleaded guilty, and he kept writing Farvie to let it all stand as it was, and somehow, we were so sorry for Jeff we couldn't help feeling he'd got to have his way. Even if he wanted to sacrifice himself he ought to be allowed to, because he couldn't have his way about anything else. At least, that was what Anne and I felt. We've talked it over a lot. We've hardly talked of anything else. And we think Farvie feels so, too."
"You speak as if it were a sum of money he'd stolen out of a drawer," said Esther. Her cheeks were red, like exquisite roses. "It wasn't a sum of money. I read it all over in the paper the other day. He had stockholders' money, and he plunged, it said, just before the panic. He invested other people's money in the wrong things, and then, it said, he tried to realise."
"I can't help it," said Lydia doggedly. "He wasn't guilty."
"Why should he have said he was guilty?" Esther put this to her with her unchanged air of triumphant cruelty.
"He might, to save somebody else."
Esther was staring now and Lydia stared back, caught by the almost terrified surprise in Esther's face. Did she know about Jim Reardon? But Esther broke the silence, not in confession, if she did know: with violence rather.
"You never will prove any such thing. Never in the world. The money was in Jeff's hands. He hadn't even a partner."
"He had friends," said Lydia. But now she felt she had implied more than was discreet, and she put a sign up mentally not to go that way. Whatever Esther said, she would keep her own eyes on the sign.
Still she returned to the assault. Her next question even made her raise her brows a little, it seemed so crude and horrible; she could have laughed outright at herself for having the nerve to put it. She couldn't imagine what the colonel would have thought of her. Anne, she knew, would have crumpled up into silken disaster like a flower under too sharp a wind.
"Aren't you going to ask Jeff here to live with you?"
Esther was looking at her in a fiery amaze Lydia knew she well deserved. "Who is this child," Esther seemed to be saying, "rising up out of nowhere and pursuing me into my most intimate retreats?" She answered in a careful hedging way that was not less pretty than her unconsidered speech:
"Jeffrey and I haven't been in communication for years."
Then Lydia lost her temper and put herself in the wrong.
"Why," said she, "you said that before. Besides, it's no answer anyway. You could have written to him, and as soon as you heard he was going to be pardoned, you could have made your plans. Don't you mean to ask him here?"
Esther made what sounded like an irrelevant answer, but it meant apparently something even solemn to her.
"My grandmother," said she, "is an old lady. She's bedridden. She's upstairs, and I keep the house very quiet on her account."
Lydia had a hot desire to speak out what she really felt: to say, "Your grandmother's being bedridden has no more to do with it than the cat." Lydia was prone to seek the cat for exquisite comparison. Persons, with her, could no more sing—or dance—than the cat. She found the cat, in the way of metaphor, a mysteriously useful animal. But the very embroidery of Esther's mode of speech forbade her invoking that eccentric aid. Lydia was not eager to quarrel. She would have been horrified if circumstance had ever provoked her into a rash word to her father, and with Anne she was a dove of peace. But Esther by a word, it seemed, by a look, had the power of waking her to unholy revolt. She thought it was because Esther was so manifestly not playing fair. Why couldn't she say she wouldn't have Jeff in the house, instead of sitting here and talking like a nurse in a sanitarium, about bedridden grandmothers?
"It isn't because we don't want him to come to us," said Lydia. "Farvie's been living for it all these years, and Anne and I don't talk of anything else."
"Isn't that interesting!" said Esther, though not as if she put a question. "And you're no relation at all." She made it, for the moment, seem rather a breach of taste to talk of nothing else but a man to whom Lydia wasn't a sister, and Lydia's face burned in answer. A wave of childish misery came over her. She wished she had not come. She wished she knew how to get away. And while she took in Esther's harmony of dress, her own little odds and ends of finery grew painfully cheap to her. But the telephone bell rang in the next room, and Esther rose and excused herself. While she was gone, Lydia sat there with her little hands gripped tightly. Now she wished she knew how to get out of the house another way, before Esther should come back. If it were not for the credit of the family, she would find the other way. Meantime Esther's voice, very liquid now that she was not talking to a sister woman, flowed in to her and filled her with a new distrust and hatred.
"Please come," said Esther. "I depend upon it. Do you mean you weren't ever coming any more?"
When she appeared again, Lydia was quivering with a childish anger. She had risen, and stood with her hands clasped before her. So she was in the habit of standing before her dancing class until the music should begin and lead her through the measures. She was delightful so and, from long training, entirely self-possessed.
"Good-bye," said she.
"Don't go," said Esther, in a conventional prettiness, but no such beguilement as she had wafted through the telephone. "It's been so pleasant meeting you."
Again Lydia had her ungodly impulse to contradict, to say: "No, it hasn't either. You know it hasn't." But she turned away and, head a little bent, walked out of the house, saying again, "Good-bye."
When she got out into the dusk, she went slowly, to cool down and think it over. It wouldn't do for the colonel and Anne to see her on the swell of such excitement, especially as she had only defeat to bring them. She had meant to go home in a triumphant carelessness and say: "Oh, yes, I saw her. I just walked right in. That's what you ought to have done, Farvie. But we had it out, and I think she's ready to do the decent thing by Jeff." No such act of virtuous triumph: she had simply been a silly girl, and Anne would find it out. Near the corner she met the man she had seen on her way in coming, and he looked at her again with that solicitous air of being ready to take off his hat. She went on with a consciousness of perhaps having achieved an indiscretion in coming out bareheaded, and the man proceeded to Esther's door. He was expected. Esther herself let him in.
Reardon had not planned to go to see her at that hour. He had meant to spend it at the club, feet up, trotting over the path of custom, knowing to a dot what men he would find there and what each would say. Old Dan Wheeler would talk about the advisability of eating sufficient vegetables to keep your stomach well distended. Young Wheeler would refer owlishly to the Maries and Jennies of an opera troupe recently in Addington, and Ollie Hastings, the oldest bore, would tell long stories, and wheeze. But Reardon was no sooner in his seat, with his glass beside him, than he realised he was disturbed, in some unexpected way. It might have been the pretty girl he met going into Esther's; it might have been the thought of Esther herself, the unheard call from her. So he left his glass untasted and telephoned her: "You all right?" To which Esther replied in a doubtful purr. "Want me to come up?" he asked, as he thought, against his will. And he swallowed a third of his firewater at a gulp and went to find her. He knew what he should find,—an Esther who bade him remember, by all the pliancy of her attractive body and every tone of her voice, how irreconcilably hard it was that she should have a husband pardoned out of prison, a husband of whom she was afraid.
Lydia found Anne waiting at the gate.
"Why, where've you been?" asked Anne, with all the air of a prim mother.
"Walking," said Lydia meekly.
"You'd better have come with us," said Anne. "It was very nice. Farvie told me things."
"Yes," said Lydia, "I wish I had."
"Without your hat, too," pursued Anne anxiously. "I don't know whether they do that here." Lydia remembered Reardon, and thought she knew.
They went to bed early, in a low state of mind. The colonel was tired, and Anne, watching him from above as he toiled up the stairs, wondered if he needed a little strychnia. She would remember, she thought, to give it to him in the morning. After they had said good-night, and the colonel, indeed, was in his bed, she heard the knocker clang and slipped down the stairs to answer. Halfway she stopped, for Mary Nellen, candle in hand, had arrived from the back regions, and was, with admirable caution, opening the door a crack. But immediately she threw it wide, and tossed her own reassurance over her shoulder, back to Anne.
"Mr. Alston Choate. To see your father."
So Anne came down the stairs, and Mr. Choate, hat in hand, apologised for calling so late. He was extremely busy. He had to be at the office over time, but he didn't want to-day's sun to go down and he not have welcomed Mr. Blake. Anne had a chance, in the space of his delivering this preamble, to think what a beautiful person he was. He had a young face lighted by a twisted whimsical smile, and a capacious forehead, built out a little into knobs of a noble sort, as if there were ample chambers behind for the storing away of precedent. Altogether he would have satisfied every aesthetic requirement: but he had a broken nose. The portrait painter lusted for him, and then retired sorrowfully. But the nose made him very human. Anne didn't know its eccentricity was the result of breakage, but she saw it was quite unlike other noses and found it superior to them.
Alston Choate spent every waking minute of his life in the practice of law and the reading of novels; he was either digging into precedent, expounding it, raging over its futilities, or guiltily losing himself in the life of books. What he really loved was music and the arts, and he dearly liked to read about the people who had leisure to follow such lures, time to be emotional even, and indulge in pretty talk. Yet law was the giant he had undertaken to wrestle with, and he kept his grip. Sometime, he thought, the cases would be all tried or the feet of litigants would seek other doors. The wave of middle age would toss him to an island of leisure, and there he would sit down and hear music and read long books.
As he saw Anne coming down the stairs, he thought of music personified. A crowd of adjectives rose in his mind and, like attendant graces, grouped themselves about her. He could imagine her sitting at archaic instruments, calling out of them, with slim fingers, diaphanous melodies. Yet the beauty that surrounded her like a light mantle she had snatched up from nature to wear about her always, did not displace the other vision of beauty in his heart. It did not even jostle it. Esther Blake was, he knew, the sum of the ineffable feminine.
While he made that little explanation of his haste in coming and his fear that it was an untoward time, Anne heard him with a faint smile, all her listening in her upturned face. She was grateful to him. Her father, she knew, would be the stronger for men's hands to hold him up. She returned a little explanation. Father was so tired. He had gone to bed. Then it seemed to her that Choate did a thing unsurpassed in splendour.
"You are one of the daughters, aren't you?" he said.
"Yes," she answered. "I'm Anne."
Mary Nellen had delivered the candle to her hand, and she stood there holding it in a serious manner, as if it lighted some ceremonial. Then it was that Choate made the speech that clinched his hold upon her heart.
"When do you expect your brother?"
Anne's face flooded. He was not acting as if Jeff, coming from an unspeakable place, mustn't be mentioned. He was asking exactly as if Jeff had been abroad and the ship was almost in. It was like a pilot boat going out to see that he got in safely. And feeling the circumstance greatly, she found herself answering with a slow seriousness which did, indeed, carry much dignity.
"We are not sure. We think he may come directly through; but, on the other hand, he may be tired and not feel up to it."
Choate smiled his irregular, queer smile. He was turning away now.
"Tell him I shall be in soon," he said. "I fancy he'll remember me. Good-night."
Lydia was hanging over the balustrade.
"Who was it?" she asked, as Anne went up.
Anne told her and because she looked dreamy and not displeased, Lydia asked:
"Oh, yes," said Anne. "You've heard Farvie speak of him. Exactly what Farvie said."
Lydia had gone some paces in undressing. She stood there in a white wrapper, with her hair in its long braid, and stared at Anne for a considering interval.
"I think I'd better tell you," said she. "I've been to see her."
There was but one person who could have been meant, and yet that was so impossible that Anne stared and asked:
They had always spoken of Esther as Esther, among themselves, quite familiarly, but now Lydia felt she would die rather than mention her name.
"She is a hateful woman," said Lydia, "perfectly hateful."
"But what did you go for?" Anne asked, in a gentle perplexity.
"To find out," said Lydia, in a savage tearfulness, "what she means to do."
"And what does she?"
The house, almost of its own will, slid into order. Mary Nellen was a wonderful person. She arranged and dusted and put questions to Anne as to Cicero and Virgil, and then, when Anne convoyed her further, to the colonel, and he found a worn lexicon in the attic and began to dig out translations and chant melodious periods. The daughters could have hugged Mary Nellen, bright-eyed and intent on advancement up the hill of learning, for they gave him something to do to mitigate suspense until his son should come. And one day at twilight, when they did not know it was going to be that day at all, but when things were in a complete state of readiness and everybody disposed to start at a sound, the front door opened and Jeffrey, as if he must not actually enter until he was bidden, stood there and knocked on the casing. Mary Nellen, having more than mortal wit, seemed to guess who he was, and that the colonel must not be startled. She appeared before Lydia in the dining-room and gave her a signalling grimace. Lydia followed her, and met the man, now a step inside the hall. Lydia, too, knew who it was. She felt the blood run painfully into her face, and hoped he didn't see how confused she was with her task of receiving him exactly right after all this time of preparation. There was no question of kissing or in any way sealing her sisterly devotion. She gave him a cold little hand, and he took it with the same bewildered acquiescence. She looked at him, it seemed to her, a long time, perhaps a full minute, and found him wholly alien to her dreams of the wronged creature who was to be her brother. He was of a good height, broad in the shoulders and standing well. His face held nothing of the look she had always wrought into it from the picture of his college year. It was rather square. The outline at least couldn't be changed. The chin, she thought, was lovable. The eyes were large and blue; stern, it seemed, but really from the habit of the forehead that had been scarred with deepest lines. The high cheekbones gave him an odd look as if she saw him in bronze. They stared at each other and Jeffrey thought he ought to assure her he wasn't a tramp, when Lydia found her voice.
"I'll tell Farvie," said she. She turned away from him, and immediately whirled back again. "I've got to do it carefully. You stay here."
But in the library where the colonel sat over Mary Nellen's last classic riddle, she couldn't break it at all.
"He's come," she said.
The colonel got up and Virgil slid to the floor.
"Where is he?" he called, in a sharp voice. It was a voice touched with age and apprehension. The girls hadn't known how old a man he was until they heard him calling for his son. Jeffrey heard it and came in with a few long steps, and his father met him at the door. To the two girls Jeff seemed astonished at the emotion he was awakening. How could he be, they wondered, when this instant of his release had been so terrible and so beautiful for a long time? The tears came rushing to their eyes, as they saw Farvie. He had laid aside all his gentle restraint, and put his shaking hands on Jeffrey's shoulders. And then he called him by the name he had been saying over in his heart for these last lean years:
"My son! my son!"
If they had kissed, Lydia would not have been surprised. But the two men looked at each other, the colonel took down his hands, and Jeffrey drew forward a chair for him.
"Sit down a minute," he said, quite gently, and then the girls knew that he really had been moved, though he hadn't shown it, and, ready to seize upon anything to love in him, they decided they loved his voice. When they had got away out of the room and stood close together in the dining-room, as if he were a calamity to be fled from, that was the only thing they could think of to break their silence.
"He's got a lovely voice," said Anne, and Lydia answered chokingly:
"Do you think he sings?" Anne pursued, more, Lydia knew, to loosen the tension than anything. "Farvie never told us that."
But Lydia couldn't answer any more, and then they both became aware that Mary Nellen had hurried out some supper from the pantry and put quite an array of candles on the table. She had then disappeared. Mary Nellen had great delicacy of feeling. Anne began to light the candles, and Lydia went back to the library. The colonel and Jeffrey were sitting there like two men with nothing in particular to say, but, because they happened to be in the same room, exchanging commonplaces.
"Supper's in the dining-room," said Lydia, in a weak little voice.
The colonel was about to rise, but Jeffrey said:
"Not for me."
"Have you had something?" his father asked, and Jeffrey answered:
"None for me—thank you."
The last two words seemed to be an afterthought. Lydia wondered if he hadn't felt like thanking anybody in years. There seemed to be nothing for her to do in this rigid sort of reunion, and she went back to Anne in the dining-room.
"He doesn't want anything," she said. "We can clear away."
They did it in their deft fashion of working together, and then sat down in the candlelight, making no pretence of reading or talk. All the time they could hear the two voices from the library, going on at regular intervals. At ten o'clock they were still going on, at eleven. Lydia felt a deadly sleepiness, but she roused then and said, in the midst of a yawn:
"I'm afraid Farvie'll be tired."
"Yes," said Anne. "I'll go and speak to them."
She went out of the room, and crossed the hall in her delicate, soft-stepping way. She seemed to Lydia astonishingly brave. Lydia could hear her voice from the other room, such a kind voice but steadied with a little clear authority.
"You mustn't get tired, Farvie."
The strange voice jumped in on the heels of hers, as if it felt it ought to be reproved.
"Of course not. I'd no idea how late it was."
Anne turned to Jeffrey. Lydia, listening, could tell from the different direction of the voice.
"Your room is all ready. It's your old room."
There was a pin-prick of silence and then the strange voice said quickly: "Thank you," as if it wanted to get everything, even civilities, quickly over.
Lydia sat still in the dining-room. The candles had guttered and gone down, but she didn't feel it possible to move out of her lethargy. She was not only sleepy but very tired. Yet the whole matter, she knew, was that this undramatic homecoming had deadened all her expectations. She had reckoned upon a brother ready to be called brother; she had meant to devote herself to him and see Anne devote herself, with an equal mind. And here was a gaunt creature with a sodden skin who didn't want anything they could do. She heard him say "Good-night." There was only one good-night, which must have been to the colonel, though Anne was standing by, and then she heard Anne, in a little kind voice, asking her father if he wouldn't have something hot before he went to bed. No, he said. He should sleep. His voice sounded exhilarated, with a thrill in it of some even gay relief, not at all like the voice that had said good-night. And Anne lighted his candle for him and watched him up the stairs, and Lydia felt curiously outside it all, as if they were playing the play without her. Anne came in then and looked solicitously at the guttered candles of which one was left with a winding-sheet, like a tipsy host that had drunk the rest under the table, and appeared to be comforting the others for having made such a spectacle of themselves to no purpose. Lydia was so sleepy now that there seemed to be several Annes and she heard herself saying fractiously:
"Oh, let's go to bed."
Through the short night she dreamed confusedly, always a dream about offering Farvie a supper tray, and his saying: "No, I never mean to eat again." And then the tray itself seemed to be the trouble, and it had to be filled all over. But nobody wanted the food.
In the early morning she awoke with the sun full upon her, for she had been too tired the night before to close a blind. She got out of bed and ran to the window. The night had been so confusing that she felt in very much of a hurry to see the day. Her room overlooked the orchard, outlined by its high red wall. For the first time, the wall seemed to have a purpose. A man in shirt and trousers was walking fast inside it, and while she looked he began to run. It was Jeffrey, the real Jeffrey, she felt sure; not the Jeffrey of last night who had been so far from her old conception of him that she had to mould him all over now to fit him into the orchard scene. He was running in a foolish, half-hearted way; but suddenly he seemed to call upon his will and set his elbows and ran hard. Lydia felt herself panting in sympathy. She had a distaste for him, too, even with this ache of pity sharper than any she had felt while she dreamed about him before he came. What did he want to do it for? she thought, as she watched him run. Why need he stir up in her a deeper sorrow than any she had felt? She stepped back from her stand behind the curtain, and began to brush her hair. She wasn't very happy. It was impossible to feel triumphant because he was out of prison. She had lost a cherished dream, that was all. After this she wouldn't wake in the morning thinking: "Some day he'll be free." She would think: "He's come. What shall we do with him?"
When she went down she found everybody had got up early, and Mary Nellen, with some prescience of it, had breakfast ready. Jeff, now in his coat, stood by the dining-room door with his father, talking in a commonplace way about the house as it used to be, and the colonel was professing himself glad no newer fashions had made him change it in essentials.
"Here they are," said he. "Here are the girls."
Anne, while Lydia entered from the hall, was coming the other way, from the kitchen where she had been to match conclusions with Mary Nellen about bacon and toast. Anne was flushed from the kitchen heat, and she had the spirit to smile and call, "Good morning." But Lydia felt halting and speechless. She had thought proudly of the tact she should show when this moment came, but she met it like a child. They sat down, and Anne poured coffee and asked how Farvie had slept. But before anybody had begun to eat, there was a knock at the front door, and Mary Nellen, answering it, came back to Anne, in a distinct puzzle over what was to be done now:
"It's a newspaper man."
Lydia, in her distress, gave Jeffrey a quick look, to see if he had heard. He put his napkin down. His jaw seemed suddenly to set.
"Reporters?" he asked his father.
The fulness had gone out of Farvie's face.
"I think you'd better let me see them," he began, but Jeffrey got up and pushed back his chair.
"No," said he. "Go on with your breakfast."
They heard him in the hall, giving a curt greeting. "What do you want?" it seemed to say. "Get it over."
There was a deep-toned query then, and Jeffrey answered, without lowering his voice, in what seemed to Lydia and Anne, watching the effect on their father, a reckless, if not a brutal, disregard of decencies:
"Nothing to say. Yes, I understand. You fellows have got to get a story. But you can't. I've been pardoned out, that's all. I'm here. That ends it."
It didn't end it for them. They kept on proffering persuasive little notes of interrogative sound, and possibly they advanced their claim to be heard because they had their day's work to do.
"Sorry," said Jeff, yet not too curtly. "Yes, I did write for the prison paper. Yes, it was in my hands. No, I hadn't the slightest intention of over-turning any system. Reason for doing it? Why, because that's the way the thing looked to me. Not on your life. I sha'n't write a word for any paper. Sorry. Good-bye."
The front door closed. It had been standing wide, for it was a warm morning, but Lydia could imagine he shut it now in a way to make more certain his tormentors had gone. While he was out there her old sweet sympathy came flooding back, but when he strode into the room and took up his napkin again, she stole one glance at him and met his scowl and didn't like him any more. The scowl wasn't for her. It was an introspective scowl, born out of things he intimately knew and couldn't communicate if he tried.
The colonel had looked quite radiantly happy that morning. Now his colour had died down, leaving in his cheeks the clear pallor of age, and his hands were trembling. It seemed that somebody had to speak, and he did it, faintly.