The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together. All's Well That Ends Well, iv. 3.
"Abandoning my heart, and rapt in ecstasy, I ran after her till I came to a place in which religion and reason forsook me." _Persian Religious Hymn.
I. AFTER SUCH A PAGAN CUT II. THERE BEGINS CONFUSION III. AS FALSE AS STAIRS OF SAND IV. SOME SPEECH OF MARRIAGE V. VOLUBLE AND SHARP DISCOURSE VI. HEART-BURNING HEAT OF DUTY VII. THE SHOT OF ACCIDENT VIII. LIKE COVERED FIRE IX. HIS PURE HEART'S TRUTH X. A SYMPATHY OF WOE XI. IN PLACE AND IN ACCOUNT NOTHING XII. THE INLY TOUCH OF LOVE XIII. A NECESSARY EVIL XIV. HE SPEAKS THE MERE CONTRARY XV. HEARTSICK WITH THOUGHT XVI. THE GREAT ASSAY OF ART XVII. A BOND OF AIR XVIII. CRUEL PROOF OF THIS MAN'S STRENGTH XIX. 'TWAS WONDROUS PITIFUL XX. IN WAY OF TASTE XXI. THIS "WOULD" CHANGES XXII. THE BITTER PAST XXIII. THIS DEED UNSHAPES ME XXIV. FAREWELL AT ONCE, FOR ONCE, FOR ALL, AND EVER XXV. WHOM THE FATES HAVE MARKED XXVI. O WICKED WIT AND GIFT XXVII. UPON A CHURCH BENCH XXVIII. BEDECKING ORNAMENTS OF PRAISE XXIX. WEIGHING DELIGHT AND DOLE XXX. PARTED OUR FELLOWSHIP XXXI. HOW CHANCES MOCK XXXII. NOW HE IS FOR THE NUMBERS XXXIII. A MINT OF PHRASES IN HIS BRAIN XXXIV. WHAT TIME SHE CHANTED XXXV. THE WORLD IS STILL DECEIVED XXXVI. THE HEAVY MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT XXXVII. THIS IS NOT A BOON
AFTER SUCH A PAGAN CUT Henry VIII., i. 3.
"We are all the children of the Puritans," Mrs. Herman said smiling. "Of course there is an ethical strain in all of us."
Her cousin, Philip Ashe, who wore the dress of a novice from the Clergy House of St. Mark, regarded her with a serious and doubtful glance.
"But there is so much difference between you and me," he began. Then he hesitated as if not knowing exactly how to finish his sentence.
"The difference," she responded, "is chiefly a matter of the difference between action and reaction. You and I come of much the same stock ethically. My childhood was oppressed by the weight of the Puritan creed, and the reaction from it has made me what you feel obliged to call heretic; while you, with a saint for a mother, found even Puritanism hardly strict enough for you, and have taken to semi- monasticism. We are both pushed on by the same original impulse: the stress of Puritanism."
She had been putting on her gloves as she spoke, and now rose and stood ready to go out. Philip looked at her with a troubled glance, rising also.
"I hardly know," said he slowly, "if it's right for me to go with you. It would have been more in keeping if I adhered to the rules of the Clergy House while I am away from it."
Mrs. Herman smiled with what seemed to him something of the tolerance one has for the whim of a child.
"And what would you be doing at the Clergy House at this time of day?" she asked. "Wouldn't it be recreation hour or something of the sort?"
He looked down. He never found himself able to be entirely at ease in answering her questions about the routine of the Clergy House.
"No," he answered. "The half hour of recreation which follows Nones would just be ended."
His cousin laughed confusingly.
"Well, then," she rejoined, "begin it over again. Tell your confessor that the woman tempted you, and you did sin. You are not in the Clergy House just now; and as I have taken the trouble to ask leave to carry you to Mrs. Gore's this afternoon, more because you wanted to see this Persian than because I cared about it, it is rather late for objections."
Philip raised his eyes to her face only to meet a glance so quizzical that he hastened to avoid it by going to the hall to don his cloak; and a few moments later they were walking up Beacon Hill.
It was one of those gloriously brilliant winter days by which Boston weather atones in an hour for a week of sullenness. Snow lay in a thin sheet over the Common, and here and there a bit of ice among the tree- branches caught the light like a glittering jewel. The streets were dotted with briskly gliding sleighs, the jingle of whose bells rang out joyously. The air was full of a vigor which made the blood stir briskly in the veins.
Philip had not for years found himself in the street with a woman. Seldom, indeed, was he abroad with a companion, except as he took the walk prescribed in the monastic regime with his friend, Maurice Wynne. For the most part he went his way alone, occupied in pious contemplation, shutting himself stubbornly in from outward sights and sounds. Now he was confused and unsettled. Since a fire had a week earlier scattered the dwellers in the Clergy House, and sent him to the home of his cousin, he had gone about like one bewildered. The world into which he was now cast was as unknown to him as if he had passed the two years spent at St. Mark's in some far island of the sea. To be in the street with a lady; to be on his way to hear he knew not what from the lips of a Persian mystic; to have in his mind memory of light talk and pleasant story; all these things made him feel as if he were drifting into a strange unknown sea of worldliness.
Yet his feeling was not entirely one of fear or of reluctance. Sensitive to the tips of his fingers, he felt the influences of the day, the sweetness of his cousin's laughter, the beauty of her face. He was exhilarated by a strange intoxication. He was conscious that more than one passer looked curiously at them as, he in his cassock and she in her furs, they walked up Beacon Street. He felt as in boyhood he had felt when about to embark in some adventure to childhood strange and daring.
"It is a beautiful day," he said involuntarily.
"Yes," Mrs. Herman answered. "It is almost a pity to spend it indoors. But here we are."
They had come into Mt. Vernon Street, and now turned in at a fine old house of gray stone.
"Is there any discussion at these meetings?" he asked, as they waited for the door to be opened.
"Oh, yes; often there is a good deal. You'll have ample opportunity to protest against the heresies of the heathen."
"I do not come here to speak," he replied, rather stiffly. "I only come to get some idea of how the oriental mind works."
He felt her smile to be that of one amused at him, but he could not see why she should be.
"I must give you one caution," she went on, as they entered the house. "It's the same that the magicians give to those who are present at their incantations. Be careful not to pronounce sacred words."
"But don't they use them?"
"Oh, abundantly; but they know how to use them in a fashion understood only by the initiated, so that they are harmless."
They passed up the wide staircase of Mrs. Gore's handsome, if over- furnished house. They were shown into the drawing-room, where they were met by the hostess, a tall, superb woman of commanding presence, her head crowned with masses of snow-white hair. Coming in from the brilliant winter sunlight, Philip could not at first distinguish anything clearly. He went mechanically through his presentation to the hostess and to the Persian who was to address the meeting, and then sank into a seat. He looked curiously at the Persian, struck by the picturesque appearance of the long snow-white beard, fine as silk, which flowed down over the rich robe of the seer. The face was to Philip an enigma. To understand a foreign face it is necessary to have learned the physiognomy of the people to which it belongs, as to comprehend their speech it is necessary to have mastered their language. As he knew not whether the countenance of the old man attracted or repelled him more, and could only decide that at least it had a strange fascination.
Suddenly Ashe felt his glance called up by a familiar presence, and to his surprise saw his friend, Maurice Wynne, come into the room, accompanied by a stately, bright-eyed woman who was warmly greeted by Mrs. Gore. He wondered at the chance which had brought Maurice here as well as himself; but the calling of the meeting to order attracted his thoughts back to the business of the moment.
The Persian was the latest ethical caprice of Boston. He had come by the invitation of Mrs. Gore to bring across the ocean the knowledge of the mystic truths contained in the sacred writings of his country; and his ministrations were being received with that beautiful seriousness which is so characteristic of the town. In Boston there are many persons whose chief object in life seems to be the discovery of novel forms of spiritual dissipation. The cycle of mystic hymns which the Persian was expounding to the select circle of devotees assembled at Mrs. Gore's was full of the most sensual images, under which the inspired Persian psalmists had concealed the highest truth. Indeed, Ashe had been told that on one occasion the hostess had been obliged to stop the reading on the ground that an occidental audience not accustomed to anything more outspoken than the Song of Solomon, and unused to the amazing grossness of oriental symbolism, could not listen to the hymn which he was pouring forth. Fortunately Philip had chanced upon a day when the text was harmless, and he could hear without blushing, whether he were spiritually edified or not.
The Persian had a voice of exquisite softness and flexibility. His every word was like a caress. There are voices which so move and stir the hearer that they arouse an emotion which for the moment may override reason; voices which appeal to the senses like beguiling music, and which conquer by a persuasive sweetness as irresistible as it is intangible. The tones of the Persian swayed Ashe so deeply that the young man felt as if swimming on a billow of melody. Philip regarded as if fascinated the slender, dusky fingers of the reader as they handled the splendidly illuminated parchment on which glowed strange characters of gold, marvelously intertwined with leaf and flower, and cunning devices in gleaming hues. He looked into the deep, liquid eyes of the old man, and saw the light in them kindle as the reading proceeded. He felt the dignity of the presence of the seer, and the richness of his flowing garment; but all these things were only the fitting accompaniments to that beautiful voice, flowing on like a topaz brook in a meadow of daffodils.
The Persian spoke admirable English, only now and then by a slight accent betraying his nationality. He made a short address upon the antiquity of the hymn which he was that day to expound, its authorship, and its evident inspiration. Then in his wonderful voice he read:—
THE HYMN OF ISMAT.
Yesterday, half inebriated, I passed by the quarters where the vintners dwell, to seek the daughter of an infidel who sells wine.
At the end of the street, there advanced before me a damsel, with a fairy's cheeks, who in the manner of a pagan wore her tresses dishevelled over her shoulders like a sacerdotal thread. I said: "O thou, to the arch of whose eyebrow the new moon is a slave, what quarter is this, and where is thy mansion?"
She answered: "Cast thy rosary to the ground; bind on thy shoulder the thread of paganism; throw stones at the glass of piety; and quaff from a full goblet."
"After that come before me that I may whisper a word in thine ear;— thou wilt accomplish thy journey if thou listen to my discourse."
Abandoning my heart, and rapt in ecstasy, I ran after her until I came to a place in which religion and reason forsook me.
At a distance I beheld a company all insane and inebriated, who came boiling and roaring with ardor from the wine of love.
Without cymbals or lutes or viols, yet all filled with mirth and melody; without wine or goblet or flagon, yet all incessantly drinking.
When the cord of restraint slipped from my hand, I desired to ask her one question, but she said: "Silence!"
"This is no square temple to the gate of which thou canst arrive precipitately; this is no mosque to which thou canst come with tumult, but without knowledge. This is the banquet-house of infidels, and within it all are intoxicated; all from the dawn of eternity to the day of resurrection lost in astonishment."
"Depart thou from the cloister and take thy way to the tavern; cast off the cloak of a dervish, and wear the robe of a libertine."
I obeyed; and if thou desirest the same strain and color as Ismat, imitate him, and sell this world and the next for one drop of pure wine!
The company sat in absorbed silence while the reading went on. Nothing could be more perfect than the listening of a well-bred Boston audience, whether it is interested or not. The exquisitely modulated voice of the Persian flowed on like the tones of a magic flute, and the women sat as if fascinated by its spell.
When the reading was finished, and the Persian began to comment upon the spiritual doctrine embodied in it, Ashe sat so completely absorbed in reverie that he gave no heed to what was being said. In his ascetic life at the Clergy House he had been so far removed from the sensuous, save for that to which the services of the church appealed, that this enervating and luxurious atmosphere, this gathering to which its quasi- religious character seemed to lend an excuse, bred in him a species of intoxication. He sat like a lotus-eater, hearing not so much the words of the speaker as his musical voice, and half-drowned in the pleasure of the perfumed air, the rich colors of the room, the Persian's dress, the illuminated scroll, in the subtile delight of the presence of women, and all those seductive charms of the sense from which the church defended him.
The Persian, Mirza Gholan Rezah, repeated in his flute-like voice: "'O thou, to the arch of whose eyebrow the new moon is a slave;'" and, hearing the words as in a dream, Philip Ashe looked across the little circle to see a woman whose beauty smote him so strongly that he drew a quick breath. To his excited mood it seemed as if the phrase were intended to describe that beautifully curved brow, brown against the fair skin, and in his heart he said over the words with a thrill: "'O thou, to the arch of whose eyebrow the new moon is a slave!'" Half unconsciously, and as if he were taken possession of by a will stronger than his own, he found himself noting the soft curve and flush of a woman's cheek, the shell-texture of her ear, and the snowy whiteness of her throat. She sat in the full light of the window behind him, leaning as she listened against a pedestal of ebony which upheld the bronze bust of a satyr peering down at her with wrinkled eyes; her throat was displayed by the backward bend of her head, and showed the whiter by contrast with the black gown she wore. Philip's breath came more quickly, and his head seemed to swim. Sensitive to beauty, and starved by asceticism, he was in a moment completely overcome.
Suddenly he felt the regard of his friend Maurice resting upon him with a questioning glance, and it was as if the thought of his heart were laid bare. Philip made a strong effort, and fixed his look and his attention upon the speaker, who was deep in oriental mysticism.
"It is written in the Desatir," Mirza Gholan Rezah was saying, "that purity is of two kinds, the real and the formal. 'The real consists in not binding the heart to evil: the formal in cleansing away what appears evil to the view.' The ultimate spirit, that inner flame from the treasure-house of flames, is not affected by the outward, by the apparent. What though the outer man fall into sin? What though he throw stones at the glass of piety and quaff the wine of sensuality from a full goblet? The flame within the tabernacle is still pure and undefined because it is undefilable."
Ashe looked around the circle in astonishment, wondering if it were possible that in a Christian civilization these doctrines could be proclaimed without rebuke. His neighbors sat in attitudes of close attention; they were evidently listening, but their faces showed no indignation. On the lips of Wynne Philip fancied he detected a faint curl of derisive amusement, but nowhere else could he perceive any display of emotion, unless—He had avoided looking at the lady in black, feeling that to do so were to play with temptation; but the attraction was too strong for him, and he glanced at her with a look of which the swiftness showed how strongly she affected him. It seemed to him that there was a faint flush of indignation upon her face; and he cast down his eyes, smitten by the conviction that there was an intimate sympathy between his feeling and hers.
"This is the word of enlightenment which the damsel, the personification of wisdom, whispered into the ear of the seeker," continued the persuasive voice of the Persian. "It is the heart-truth of all religion. It is the word which initiates man into the divine mysteries. 'Thou wilt accomplish thy journey if thou listen to my discourse.' Life is affected by many accidents; but none of them reaches the godhead within. The divine inebriation of spiritual truth comes with the realization of this fact. The flame within man, which is above his consciousness, is not to be touched by the acts of the body. These things which men call sin are not of the slightest feather-weight to the soul in the innermost tabernacle. It is of no real consequence," the speaker went on, warming with his theme until his velvety eyes shone, "what the outer man may do. We waste our efforts in this childish care about apparent righteousness. The real purity is above our acts. Let the man do what he pleases; the soul is not thereby touched or altered."
Ashe sat upright in his chair, hardly conscious where he was. It seemed to him monstrous to remain acquiescent and to hear without protest this juggling with the souls of men. The instinct to save his fellows which underlies all genuine impulse toward the priesthood was too strong in him not to respond to the challenge which every word of the Persian offered. Almost without knowing it, he found himself interrupting the speaker.
"If that is the teaching of the Persian scriptures," he said, "it is impious and wicked. Even were it true that there were a flame from the Supreme dwelling within us, unmanifested and undeniable, it is evidently not with this that we have to do in our earthly life. It is with the soul of which we are conscious, the being which we do know. This may be lost by defilement. To this the sin of the body is death. I, I myself, I, the being that is aware of itself, am no less the one that is morally responsible for what is done in the world by me."
Led away by his strong feeling, Philip began vehemently; but the consciousness of the attention of all the company, and of the searching look of Mirza, made the ardent young man falter. He was a stranger, unaccustomed to the ways of these folk who had come together to play with the highest truths as they might play with tennis-balls. He felt a sudden chill, as if upon his hot enthusiasm had blown an icy blast.
Yet when he cast a glance around as if in appeal, he saw nothing of disapproval or of scorn. He had evidently offended nobody by his outburst. He ventured to look at the unknown in black, and she rewarded him with a glance so full of sympathy that for an instant he lost the thread of what the Persian, in tones as soft and unruffled as ever, was saying in reply to his words. He gathered himself up to hear and to answer, and there followed a discussion in which a number of those present joined; a discussion full of cleverness and the adroit handling of words, yet which left Philip in the confusion of being made to realize that what to him were vital truths were to those about him merely so many hypotheses upon which to found argument. There were more women than men present, and Ashe was amazed at their cleverness and their shallow reasoning; at the ease and naturalness with which they played this game of intellectual gymnastics, and at the apparent failure to pierce to anything like depth. It was evident that while everything was uttered with an air of the most profound seriousness, it would not do to be really in earnest. He began to understand what Helen had meant when she warned him not to pronounce sacred words in this strange assembly.
When the meeting broke up, the ladies rose to exchange greetings, to chat together of engagements in society and such trifles of life. Ashe, still full of the excitement of what he had done, followed his cousin out of the drawing-room in silence. As they were descending the wide staircase, some one behind said:—
"Are you going away without speaking to me, Helen?"
Ashe and Mrs. Herman both turned, and found themselves face to face with the lady in black, who stood on the broad landing.
"My dear Edith," Mrs. Herman answered, "I am so little used to this sort of thing that I didn't know whether it was proper to stop to speak with one's friends. I thought that we might be expected to go out as if we'd been in church. I came only to bring my cousin. May I present Mr. Ashe; Mrs. Fenton."
"I was so glad that you said what you did this afternoon, Mr. Ashe," Mrs. Fenton said, extending her hand. "I felt just as you did, and I was rejoiced that somebody had the courage to protest against that dreadful paganism."
Philip was too shy and too enraptured to be able to reply intelligibly, but as they were borne forward by the tide of departing guests he was spared the need of answer. At the foot of the stairway he was stopped again by Maurice Wynne, and presented to Mrs. Staggchase, his friend's cousin and hostess for the time being; but his whole mind was taken up by the image of Mrs. Fenton, and in his ears like a refrain rang the words of the Persian hymn: "O thou, to the arch of whose eyebrow the new moon is a slave!"
THERE BEGINS CONFUSION Henry VI., iv. 1.
That afternoon at Mrs. Gore's had been no less significant to Maurice Wynne than to Philip Ashe. His was a less spiritual, less highly wrought nature, but in the effect which the change from the atmosphere of the Clergy House to the Persian's lecture had upon him, the experience of Maurice was much the same. He too was attracted by a woman. He gave his thoughts up to the woman much more frankly than would have been possible for his friend. She was young, perhaps twenty, and exquisite with clear skin and soft, warm coloring. Her wide-open eyes were as dark and velvety as the broad petals of a pansy with the dew still on them; her cheeks were tinged with a hue like that which spreads in a glass of pure water into which has fallen a drop of red wine; her forehead was low and white, and from it her hair sprang up in two little arches before it fell waving away over her temples; her lips were pouting and provokingly suggestive of kisses. The whole face was of the type which comes so near to the ideal that the least sentimentality of expression would have spoiled it. Happily the big eyes and the ripe, red mouth were both suggestive of demure humor. There was a mirthful air about the dimple which came and went in the left cheek like Cupid peeping mischievously from the folds of his mother's robe. A boa of long-haired black fur lay carelessly about her neck, pushed back so that a touch of red and gold brocade showed where she had loosened her coat. Maurice noted that she seemed to care as little for the lecture as he did, and he gave himself up to the delight of watching her.
When the company broke up Mrs. Staggchase spoke almost immediately to the beautiful creature who so charmed him.
"How do you do, Miss Morison," Mrs. Staggchase said; "I must say that I am surprised that cousin Anna brought you to a place where the doctrine is so far removed from mind-cure. My dear Anna," she continued, turning to a lady whom Wynne knew by name as Mrs. Frostwinch and as an attendant at the Church of the Nativity, "you are a living miracle. You know you are dead, and you have no business consorting with the living in this way."
"It is those whom you call dead that are really living," Mrs. Frostwinch retorted smiling. "I brought Berenice so that she might see the vanity of it all."
Mrs. Staggchase presented Maurice to the ladies, and after they had spoken on the stairs with one and another acquaintance, and Maurice had exchanged a word with his friend Ashe, it chanced that the four left the house together. Wynne found himself behind with Miss Morison, while his cousin and Mrs. Frostwinch walked on in advance. He was seized with a delightful sense of elation at his position, yet so little was he accustomed to society that he knew not what to say to her. He was keenly aware that she was glancing askance at his garb, and after a moment of silence he broke out abruptly in the most naively unconscious fashion:—
"I am a novice at the Clergy House of St. Mark."
A beautiful color flushed up in Miss Morison's dark cheek; and Wynne realized how unconventional he had been in replying to a question which had not been spoken.
"Is it a Catholic order?" she asked, with an evident effort not to look confused.
"It is not Roman," he responded. "We believe that it is catholic."
"Oh," said she vaguely; and the conversation lapsed.
They walked a moment in silence, and then Maurice made another effort.
"Has Mrs. Frostwinch been ill?" he asked. "Mrs. Staggchase spoke of her as a miracle."
"Ill!" echoed Miss Morison; "she has been wholly given up by the physicians. She has some horrible internal trouble; and a consultation of the best doctors in town decided that she could not live a week. That was two months ago."
"But I don't understand," he said in surprise. "What happened?"
"A miracle," the other replied smiling. "You believe in miracles, of course."
"But what sort of a miracle?"
"Faith-cure!" repeated he in astonishment. "Do you mean that Mrs. Frostwinch has been raised from a death-bed by that sort of jugglery?"
His companion shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't think it would raise you in her estimation if she heard you. The facts are as I tell you. She dismissed her doctors when they said they could do nothing for her, and took into her house a mind-cure woman, a Mrs. Crapps. Some power has put her on her feet. Wouldn't you do the same thing in her place?"
Wynne looked bewildered at Mrs. Frostwinch walking before him in a shimmer of Boston respectability. He had an uneasy feeling that he was passing from one pitfall to another. He was keenly conscious of the richness of the voice of the girl by his side, so that he felt that it was not easy for him to disagree with anything which she said. He let her remark pass without reply.
"For my part," she went on frankly, "I don't in the least believe in the thing as a matter of theory; but practically I have a superstition about it, because I've seen Cousin Anna. She was helpless, in agony, dying; and now she is as well as I am. If I were ill"—
She broke off with a pretty little gesture as they came within hearing of the others, who had halted at Mrs. Frostwinch's gate. Wynne said good-by absently, and went on his way down the hill like a man in a dream.
"Well," Mrs. Staggchase said, "you have seen one of Boston's ethical debauches; what do you think of it?"
"It was confusing," he returned. "I couldn't make out what it was for."
"For? To amuse us. We are the children of the Puritans, you know, and have inherited a twist toward the ethical and the supernatural so strong that we have to have these things served up even in our amusements."
"Then I think that it is wicked," Maurice said.
"Oh, no; we must not be narrow. It isn't wrong to amuse one's self; and if we play with the religion of the Persians, why is it worse than to play with the mythologies of the Greeks or Romans? You wouldn't think it any harm to jest about classical theology."
Wynne turned toward her with a smile on his strong, handsome face.
"Why do you try to tangle me up in words?" he asked.
Mrs. Staggchase did not turn toward him, but looked before with face entirely unchanged as she replied:—
"I am not trying to entangle you in words, but if I were it would be all part of the play. You are undergoing your period of temptation. I am the tempter in default of a better. In the old fashion of temptations it wouldn't do to have the tempter old and plain. Then you were expected to fall in love; now we deal in snares more subtle."
Maurice laughed, but somewhat unmirthfully. There was to him something bewildering and worldly about his cousin; and he had come to feel that he could never be at all sure where in the end the most harmless beginning of talk might lead him.
"What then is the modern way of temptation?" he inquired.
"It shows how much faith we have in its power," she replied, as they waited on the corner of Charles Street for a carriage to pass, "that I don't in the least mind giving you full warning. Did you know the lady in that carriage, by the way?"
"It was Mrs. Wilson, wasn't it?"
"Yes; Mrs. Chauncy Wilson. You have seen her at the Church of the Nativity, I suppose. She is one phase of the temptation."
"I don't in the least understand."
"I didn't in the least suppose that you would. You will in time. My part of the temptation is to show you all sorts of ethical jugglery, the spiritual and intellectual gymnastics such as the Bostonians love; to persuade you that all religion is only a sort of pastime, and that the particular high-church sort which you especially affect is but one of a great many entertaining ways of killing time."
"Cousin Diana!" he exclaimed, genuinely shocked.
"I hope that you understand," she continued unmoved. "I shall exhibit a very pretty collection of fads to you if we see them all."
"But suppose," he said slowly, "that I refused to go with you?"
"But you won't," returned she, with that curious smile which always teased him with its suggestion of irony. "In the first place you couldn't be so impolite as to refuse me. A woman may always lead a man into questionable paths if she puts it to his sense of chivalry not to desert her. In the second, the spirit of the age is a good deal stronger in you than you realize, and the truth is that you wouldn't be left behind for anything. In the third, you could hardly be so cowardly as to run away from the temptation that is to prove whether you were really born to be a priest."
"That was decided when I entered the Clergy House."
"Nonsense; nothing of the sort, my dear boy. The only thing that was decided then was that you thought you were. Wait and see our ethical and religious raree-shows. We had the Persian to-day; to-morrow I'm to take you to a spiritualist sitting at Mrs. Rangely's. She hates to have me come, so I mustn't miss that. Then there are the mind-cure, Theosophy, and a dozen other things; not to mention the semi- irreligions, like Nationalism. You will be as the gods, knowing good and evil, by the time we are half way round the circle,—though it is perhaps somewhat doubtful if you know them apart."
She spoke in her light, railing way, as if the matter were one of the smallest possible consequence, and yet Wynne grew every moment more and more uncomfortable. He had never seen his cousin in just this mood, and could not tell whether she were mocking him or warning him. He seized upon the first pretext which presented itself to his mind, and endeavored to change the subject.
"Who is Mrs. Rangely?" he asked. "A medium?"
"Oh, bless you, no. She is not so bad as a medium; she is only a New Yorker. Do you think we'd go to real mediums? Although," she added, "there are plenty who do go. I think that it is shocking bad form."
"But you speak as if"—
"As if spiritualism were one of the recognized ethical games, that's all. It is played pretty well at Mrs. Rangely's, I'm told. They say that the little Mrs. Singleton she's got hold of is very clever."
"Mrs. Singleton," Maurice repeated, "why, it can't be Alice, brother John's widow, can it? She married a Singleton for a second husband, and she claimed to be a medium."
"Did she really? It will be amusing if you find your relatives in the business."
"She wasn't a very close relative. John was only my half-brother, you know, and he lived but six months after he married her. She is clever enough and tricky enough to be capable of anything."
"Well," Mrs. Staggchase said, as they turned in at her door, "if it is she it will give you an excellent chance to do missionary work."
They entered the wide, handsome hall, and with an abrupt movement the hostess turned toward her cousin.
"I assure you," she said, "that I am in earnest about your temptation. I want to see what sort of stuff you are made of, and I give you fair warning. Now go and read your breviary, or whatever it is that you sham monks read, while I have tea and then rest before I dress."
Maurice had no reply to offer. He watched in silence as she passed up the broad stairway, smiling to herself as she went. He followed slowly a moment later, and seeking his room remained plunged in a reverie at which the severe walls of the Clergy House might have been startled; a reverie disquieted, changing, half-fearful; and yet through which with strange fascination came a longing to see more of the surprising world into which chance had introduced him, and above all to meet again the dark, glowing girl with whom he had that afternoon walked.
AS FALSE AS STAIRS OF SAND Merchant of Venice, v. 2.
It was cold and gray next morning when Maurice took his way toward a Catholic church in the North End. He had been there before for confession, and had been not a little elated in his secret heart that he had been able to go through the act of confession and to receive absolution without betraying the fact that he was not a Romanist. He had studied the forms of confession, the acts of contrition, and whatever was necessary to the part, and for some months had gone on in this singular course. To his Superior at the Clergy House he confessed the same sins, but Maurice had a feeling that the absolution of the Roman priest was more effective than that of his own church. He was not conscious of any intention of becoming a Catholic, but there was a fascination in playing at being one; and Wynne, who could not understand how the folk of Boston could play with ethical truths, was yet able thus to juggle with religion with no misgiving.
This morning he enjoyed the spiritual intoxication of the confessional as never before. He half consciously allowed himself to dwell upon the image of the beautiful Miss Morison to the end that he might the more effectively pour out his contrition for that sin. He was so eloquent in the confessional that he admired himself both for his penitence and for the words in which he set it forth. He floated as it were in a sea of mingled sensuousness and repentance, and he hoped that the penance imposed would be heavy enough to show that the priest had been impressed with the magnitude of the sin of which he had been guilty in allowing his thoughts, consecrated to the holy life of the priesthood, to dwell upon a woman.
It was one of those absurd anomalies of which life is full that while Maurice sometimes slighted a little the penances imposed by his own Superior, he had never in the least abated the rigor of any laid upon him by the Catholic priest. It was perhaps that he felt his honor concerned in the latter case. This morning the penance was satisfactorily heavy, and he came out of the church with a buoyant step, full of a certain boyish elation. He had a fresh and delightful sense of the reality of religion now that he had actually sinned and been forgiven.
Next to being forgiven for a sin there is perhaps nothing more satisfactory than to repeat the transgression, and if Maurice had not formulated this fact in theory he was to be acquainted with it in practice. As he walked along in the now bright forenoon, filled with the enjoyment of moral cleanness, he suddenly started with the thrill of delicious temptation. Just before him a lady had come around a corner, and was walking quietly along, in whom at a glance he recognized Miss Morison. There came into his cheek, which even his double penances had not made thin, a flush of pleasure. He quickened his steps, and in a moment had overtaken her.
"Good morning," he said, raising his ecclesiastical hat with an air which savored somewhat of worldliness. "Isn't it a beautiful day?"
She started at his salutation, but instantly recognized him.
"Good morning," she responded. "I didn't expect to find anybody I knew in this part of the town."
"It isn't one where young ladies as a rule walk for pleasure, I suppose," Maurice said, falling into step, and walking beside her.
"I am very sure that I don't," Miss Morison replied with a toss of her head. "I do it because I was bullied into being a visitor for the Associated Charities, and I go once a week to tell some poor folk down here that I am no better than they are. They know that I don't believe it, and I have my doubts if they even believe it themselves, only they wouldn't be foolish enough to prevaricate about it. Oh, it's a great and noble work that I'm engaged in!"
There was something exhilarating about her as she tossed her pretty head. Wynne laughed without knowing just why, except that she intoxicated him with delight.
"You don't speak of your work with much enthusiasm," said he.
"Enthusiasm!" she retorted. "Why should I? It's abominable. I hate it, the people I visit hate it, and there's nobody pleased but the managers, who can set down so many more visits paid to the worthy poor, and make a better showing in their annual report. For my part I am tired of the worthy poor; and if I must keep on slumming, I'd like to try the unworthy poor a while. I'm sure they'd be more interesting."
She spoke with a pretty air of recklessness, as if she were conscious that this was not the strain in which to address one of his cloth. There was not a little vexation under her lightness of manner, however, and Wynne was not so dull as not to perceive that something had gone amiss.
"But philanthropy," he began, "is surely"—
"Your cousin," she interrupted, "declares that only the eye of Omniscience can possibly distinguish between what passes for philanthropy and what is sheer egotism."
He laughed in spite of himself, feeling that he ought to be shocked.
"But what," he asked, "has impressed this view of things upon you this morning in particular?"
His companion made a droll little gesture with both her hands.
"Of course I show it," she said; "though you needn't have reminded me that I have lost my temper."
"I beg your pardon," began Maurice in confusion, "I"—
"Oh, you haven't done anything wrong," she interrupted, "the trouble is entirely with me. I've been making a fool of myself at the instigation of the powers that rule over my charitable career, and I don't like the feeling."
They walked on a moment without further speech. Maurice said to himself with a thrill of contrition that he would double the penance laid upon him, and he endeavored not to be conscious of the thought which followed that the delight of this companionship was worth the price which he should thus pay for it.
"This is what happened," Miss Morison said at length. "I don't quite know whether to laugh or to cry with vexation. There's a poor widow who has had all sorts of trials and tribulations. Indeed, she's been a miracle of ill luck ever since I began to have the honor to assure her weekly that I'm no better than she is. It may be that the fib isn't lucky."
She turned to flash a bright glance into the face of her companion as she spoke, and he tried to clear away the look of gravity so quickly that she might not perceive it.
"Oh," she cried; "now I have shocked you! I'm sorry, but I couldn't help it."
"No," he replied, "you didn't really shock me. It only seemed to me a pity that you should be working with so little heart and under direction that doesn't seem entirely wise."
"Wise!" she echoed scornfully. "There's a benevolent gentleman who insisted upon giving this old woman five dollars. It was all against the rules of the Associated Charities, for which he said he didn't care a fig. That's the advantage of being a man! And what do you think the old thing did? She took the whole of it to buy a bonnet with a red feather in it! The committee heard of it, though I can't for my life see how. There are a lot of them that seem to think that benevolence consists chiefly in prying into the affairs of the poor wretches they help! And they posted me off to scold her."
"But why did you go?"
"They said they would send Miss Spare if I didn't, and in common humanity I couldn't leave that old creature to the tender mercies of Miss Spare."
"What did you say?"
The face of Miss Morison lighted with mocking amusement.
"That's the beauty of it," she cried, bursting into a low laugh which was full of the keenest fun. "I began with the things I'd been told to say; but the old woman said that all her life long she had wanted a bonnet with red feathers, but that she had never expected to have one. When she got this money, she went out to buy clothing, and in a window she saw this bonnet marked five dollars. She piously remarked that it seemed providential. She's like the rest of the world in finding what she likes to be providential."
"Yes," murmured Maurice, half under his breath; "like my meeting you."
Miss Morison looked surprised, but she ignored the words, and went on with her story.
"She said she concluded she'd rather go without the clothes, and have the bonnet; and by the time we were through I had weakly gone back on all the instructions I'd received, and told her she was right. She knew what she wanted, and I don't blame her for getting it when she could. I'm sick of seeing the poor treated as if they were semi-idiots that couldn't think without leave from the Associated Charities."
The whole tone of the conversation was so much more frank than anything to which Wynne was accustomed that he felt bewildered. This freedom of criticism of the powers, this want of reverence for conventionalities, gave him a strange feeling of lawlessness. He felt as if he had himself been wonderfully and almost culpably daring in listening. He wondered that he was not more shocked, being sure that it was his duty to be. There was about the young man's mental condition a sort of infantile unsophistication. The New England mind often seems to inherit from bygone Puritanism a certain repellent quality through which it takes long for anything savoring of worldliness or worldly wisdom to penetrate. When once this covering is broken, it may be added, the result is much the same as in the case of the cracking of other glazes.
After he had parted from Miss Morison, Maurice walked on in a blissful state of conscious sinfulness. He understood himself well enough to know that before him lay repentance, but this did not dampen his present enjoyment. He had not so far outgrown his New England conscience as to escape remorse for sin, but he had become so accustomed to the belief that absolution removed guilt that there was in his cup of self-reproach little abiding bitterness.
That afternoon he accompanied Mrs. Staggchase to the house of Mrs. Rangely with a confused feeling as if he were some one else. His cousin wore the same delicately satirical air which marked all her intercourse with him. She carried her head with her accustomed good-humored haughtiness, and her straight lips were curled into the ghost of a smile.
"This is the most stupid humbug of them all," she remarked, as they neared Mrs. Rangely's house on Marlborough Street. "You'll think the deception too transparent to be even amusing,—if you don't become a convert, that is."
"A convert to spiritualism?" Wynne returned with youthful indignation. "I'm not likely to fall so low as that. That is one of the things which are too ridiculous."
She laughed, with that air of superiority which always nettled him a little.
"Don't allow yourself to be one of those narrow persons to whom a thing is always ridiculous if they don't happen to believe it. You believe in so many impossible things yourself that you can't afford to take on airs."
The tantalizing good nature with which she spoke humiliated Wynne. She seemed to be playing with him, and he resented her reflection upon his creed. He was, however, too much under the spell of his cousin to be really angry, and he was silenced rather than offended. They entered the house to find several of the persons whom he had seen at Mrs. Gore's on the day previous; and Wynne was at once charmed and disquieted by the entrance a moment later of Miss Morison, who came in looking more beautiful than ever. It gave him a feeling of exultation to be sharing her life, even in this chance way.
The preliminaries of the sitting were not elaborate. Mrs. Rangely, the hostess, impressed it upon her guests that Mrs. Singleton, the medium, was not a professional, but that she was with them only in the capacity of one who wished to use her peculiar gifts in the search for truth.
"She does not understand her powers herself," Mrs. Rangely said; "but she feels that it is not right to conceal her light."
Maurice was too unsophisticated to understand why Mrs. Rangely's talk struck him as not entirely genuine, but he was to some extent enlightened when his cousin said to him afterward: "Frances Rangely has the imitation Boston patter at her tongue's end now, but she is too thoroughly a New Yorker ever to get the spirit of it. She rattles off the words in a way that is intensely amusing."
The shutters of the small parlor in which the company was assembled had been closed and the gas lighted. There were about a dozen guests, and all had the air of being of some position. While the hostess went to summon the medium, Maurice asked in a whisper if the master of the house was present, and was answered that Fred Rangely was too clever to be mixed up in this sort of thing. Wynne caught a satirical glance between his cousin and Miss Morison, and more than ever he felt that the meeting was a farce in which he, vowed to a nobler life, should have had no part.
His musings were cut short by the entrance of Mrs. Rangely with the medium. He recognized Mrs. Singleton at a glance, and was struck as he had been before by the appealing look of innocence. She was a slender, almost beautiful woman, with exquisite shell-like complexion, and delicate features. An entire lack of moral sense frequently gives to a woman an air of complete candor and purity, and Alice Singleton stood before the company as the incarnation of sincerity and truth. Her face was of the rounded, full-lipped, wistful type; the sensuous, selfish face moulded into the likeness of childlike guilelessness which of all the multitudinous varieties of the "ever womanly" is the one most likely to be destructive.
Had it not been that Maurice was acquainted with her history, he could hardly have resisted the fascination of this creature, as tender and as innocent in appearance as a dewy rose; but he was thoroughly aware of her moral worthlessness. Yet as she stood shrinking on the threshold as if she were too timid to advance, he could not but feel her attractiveness and the sweetness of her presence. He watched curiously as in response to a word from Mrs. Rangely she came hesitatingly forward, bowed in acknowledgment to a general introduction, and sank into the chair placed for her in the centre of the circle. She was clad in black, but a little of her creamy neck was visible between the folds of lace which set off its fairness. Her arms were bare half way to the elbows, and her hands were ungloved. Maurice wondered if she would recognize him; then he reflected that he sat in the shadow, out of the direct line of her vision, and that it was years since she had seen him.
"We will have the gas turned down," Mrs. Rangely said; and at once turned it, not down, but completely out, leaving the room in absolute darkness.
There followed an interval of silence, and Maurice, whose wits were sharpened by his knowledge of the medium, and who was on the lookout for trickery, reflected how inevitable it was that this breathless silence, coupled with the darkness and the expectation of something mysterious, should bring about the frame of mind which the medium would desire. The silence lasted so long that he, not wrapt in expectation, began to grow impatient. He put out his hand timidly in the darkness and touched the chair in which Miss Morison was sitting, getting foolish comfort from even such remote communion. He fell into a reverie in which he felt dimly what life might have been with her always at his side, had he not been vowed to the stern refusal of all earthly companionship.
His reflections were broken by a loud, quivering sigh seeming to come from the medium, and echoed in different parts of the room. There was another brief interval of silence, and then the medium began to speak. Her tone was strained and unnatural, and at first she murmured to herself. Then her words came more clearly and distinctly.
"Oh, how beautiful!" she whispered. Then in a voice growing clearer she went on: "Bright forms! There are three,—no, there are five; oh, the room is full of them. Oh, how bright they are growing! They shine so that they almost blind me. Don't you see them?"
The room rustled like a field of wheat under a breeze.
"There is one that is clearer than the others," went on the voice of the medium in the electrical darkness. "She is all shining, but I can see that her hair is white as snow. She must have been old before she went into the spirit world. She smiles and leans over the lady in the armchair. Oh, she is touching you! Don't you feel her dear hands on your head?"
Maurice felt the chair against which his fingers rested shaken by a movement of awe or of impatience. He flushed with indignation. It was Miss Morison to whom the medium was directing this childish impertinence. He longed to interfere, and even made so brusque a movement that Mrs. Staggchase leaned over and whispered to him to remain quiet.
"There are many spirits here," the medium went on with increasing fervor, "but none of them are so clear. She is speaking to you, but you cannot hear her. She is grieved that you do not understand her. Oh, try to listen so that you may hear her message with the spiritual ear. She is so anxious."
The audience seemed to quiver with excitement. Simply because a woman whom Maurice knew to be capable of any falsehood sat here in the darkness and pretended to see visions, these men and women were apparently carried out of themselves. It seemed to him at once monstrous and pitifully ridiculous.
"It must be your grandmother," spoke again the voice of Mrs. Singleton, now thick with emotion. "Yes, she nods her head. She is so anxious to reach through your unconsciousness. Wait! she is going to do something. I think she is going to give you some token. Let me rest a moment, so that I can help her. She wants to materialize something."
Heavy silence, but a silence which seemed alive with excitement, once more prevailed. Maurice began himself to feel something of the influence pervading the gathering, and was angry with himself for it. Suddenly a cry from the medium, earnest and full of feeling, broke out shrilly.
"Oh, she has something in her hand. Try to assist her. She will succeed in materializing it fully if we can help her with our wills. I can see it becoming clearer—clearer—clearer! Now she is smiling. She is happy. She knows she will succeed. Yes; it is—Oh, what beautiful roses! They are changing from white to red in her hands. She holds them up for me to see; she is lifting them up over your head. Now, now she is going to drop them! Quick! The light!"
The voice of Mrs. Singleton had risen almost to a scream, and bit the nerves of the hearers. As she ended Maurice heard the soft sound of something falling, and felt Miss Morison start violently. The gas was at once lighted, and there in the lap and at the feet of Berenice, who regarded them with an expression of mingled disgust and annoyance, lay scattered a handful of crimson roses.
The company broke into expressions of admiration, of belief, of awe. Mrs. Singleton had played to her audience with evident success. Miss Morison gathered up the flowers without a word, and held them out to the medium, who lay back wearied in her chair.
"Don't give them to me," Mrs. Singleton said in a faint voice. "They were brought for you."
"How can you bear to give them up?" a woman said. "It must be your grandmother that brought them."
"My grandmother was in very good health in Brookfield yesterday," Berenice responded. "I hardly think that they come from her."
The tone was so cold that Mrs. Singleton was visibly disconcerted.
"Of course I don't know the spirit," she said. "But are both your grandmothers living?"
"She nodded her head, you know," put in another.
To this Miss Morison did not even reply; but the awkwardness of the situation was relieved by Mrs. Rangely, who broke into conventional phrases of admiration and wonder.
"Yes, Frances," Mrs. Staggchase observed dryly, "as you say, it couldn't be believed if one hadn't seen it."
Her manner was unheeded in the flood of praise and congratulation with which Mrs. Singleton was being overwhelmed.
"It is what I've longed for all my life," one lady declared, wiping her eyes. "I never could have confidence in professional mediums, but this is so perfectly satisfactory. Oh, I do feel that I owe you so much, Mrs. Singleton!"
"Yes, this we have seen with our own eyes," another added. "It is impossible for the most skeptical to doubt this."
To this and more Maurice listened in amazement, until he rather thought aloud than consciously spoke:—
"But it all depends upon the unsupported testimony of the medium."
Mrs. Rangely drew herself up with much dignity.
"That," she said, "I will be responsible for."
"It isn't unsupported," chimed in one of the ladies. "Here are the roses."
At the sound of Maurice's voice Mrs. Singleton had turned toward him, and he saw that she recognized him. She looked around with a glance half terrified, half appealing.
"It is so kind in you to believe in me," she murmured pathetically. "I don't ask you to. I only tell you what I see, and"—
Maurice rose abruptly and strode forward.
"Alice," he exclaimed, "what do you mean by this humbug? Don't you see that they take it seriously? Tell them it's a joke."
Again Mrs. Singleton looked around as if to see whether she had support.
"It is manly of you to attack me," she answered, evidently satisfied with the result of her survey. "I cannot defend myself."
"Do you mean to insist?" he demanded, with growing anger.
"If the roses do not justify what I said," responded she, sinking back as if exhausted, "it may be that I saw only imaginary shapes."
A sharp murmur ran around the room. The believers were evidently rallying indignantly to the support of their sibyl, and cast upon Wynne glances of bitter reproach. He looked at Mrs. Staggchase, but it was impossible to judge from her expression whether she approved or disapproved of what he had done. He was suddenly abashed, and stood speechless before the rising tide of outraged remonstrance. Then unexpectedly came from behind him the clear voice of Miss Morison.
"It is unfortunate that the roses should have been given to me," she said, "for by an odd chance I saw them bought a couple of hours ago on Tremont Street."
There was an instant of hushed amazement, and then the medium fled from the parlor in hysterics.
SOME SPEECH OF MARRIAGE Measure for Measure, v. 1.
"O thou to the arch of whose eyebrow the new moon is a slave!"
Philip Ashe colored with self-consciousness as the words came into his mind. He felt that he had no right to think them, and yet as he looked across the table at his hostess it seemed almost as if the phrase had been spoken in his ear by the seductive voice of Mirza Gholan Rezah. He sighed with contrition, and looked resolutely away, letting his glance wander about the room in which he was sitting at dinner. He noted the panels of antique stamped leather, and although he had had little artistic training, he was pleased by the exquisite combination of rich colors and dull gold. Some Spanish palace had once known the glories which now adorned the walls of Mrs. Fenton's dining-room, and even his uneducated eye could see that care and taste had gone to the decoration of the apartment. Jars of Moorish pottery, few but choice, and pieces of fine Algerian armor inlaid with gold were placed skillfully, each displayed in its full worth and yet all harmonizing and combining in the general effect. Ashe knew that the husband of Mrs. Fenton had been an artist of some note, and so strongly was the skill of a master-hand visible here that suddenly the painter seemed to the sensitive young deacon alive and real. It was as if for the first time he realized that the beautiful woman before him might belong to another. By a quick, unreasonable jealousy of the dead he became conscious of how keenly dear to him had become the living.
Ashe had met Mrs. Fenton a number of times during the week which had intervened since the Persian's lecture at Mrs. Gore's. He had seen her once or twice at the house of his cousin, with whom Mrs. Fenton was intimate, and chance had brought about one or two encounters elsewhere. He had until this moment tried to persuade himself that his admiration for her was that which he might have for any beautiful woman; but looking about this room and realizing so completely the husband dead half a dozen years, he felt his self-deception shrivel and fall to ashes. With a desperate effort he put the thought from him, and gave his whole attention to the talk of his companions.
"Yes, Mr. Herman is in New York," Mrs. Herman was saying. "He has gone on to see about a commission. They want him to go there to execute it, but I don't think he will."
"Doesn't he like New York?" asked Mr. Candish, the rector of the Church of the Nativity, who was the fourth member of the little company.
Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenton both laughed.
"You know how Grant feels about New York, Edith," the former said. "If anything could spoil his temper, it is a day in what he calls the metropolis of Philistinism."
"I never heard Mr. Herman say anything so harsh as that about anything," Candish responded. "Do you feel in that way about it?"
"The thing which I dislike about the place is its provincialism," she answered. "It is the most provincial city in America, in the sense that nothing really exists for it outside of itself. If I think of New York for ten minutes I have no longer any faith in America."
"Then I shouldn't think of it, Helen," put in Mrs. Fenton.
"Then you wouldn't go with your husband if he went there to do this work, I suppose," Mr. Candish observed.
"I should go with him anywhere that, he thought it best to go. I fear that you haven't an exalted idea of the devotion of the modern wife, Mr. Candish."
Ashe watched with interest the rector, who flushed a little. He knew of him well, having more than once heard the awkwardness and social inadaptability of the man urged as reasons of his unfitness to be placed at the head of the most fashionable church in the city. Philip saw him glance at the hostess and then cast down his eyes; and wondered if this were simple diffidence.
"That is hardly fair," Mr. Candish said, somewhat awkwardly. "The clergy, not having wives, are poor judges in such a matter."
"That might be taken as an argument for the marriage of the clergy," she responded with a smile.
"If they had wives they would be better able to sympathize with the trials and joys of their parishioners."
"I never thought of that," murmured Mrs. Fenton.
Mr. Candish flushed all over his homely, freckled face.
"By the same reasoning you might hold that a clergyman should have committed all the sins in the decalogue, so that he should have ready sympathy with all sorts of sinners."
"I'm not sure that he wouldn't be more useful if he had," Mrs. Herman answered with a smile; "at least a man who hasn't wanted to commit a sin must find it hard to sympathize with the wretch that hasn't been strong enough to resist temptation. Still, I hope that sin and marriage are not put into the same category."
"Oh, of course not," Mrs. Fenton interpolated. "Marriage is a sacrament."
"It has always seemed to me inconsistent," Mrs. Herman went on, "that the church should exclude her priests from one of the sacraments."
Ashe saw a faint cloud pass over the face of the hostess. He was himself a little shocked; and Candish frowned slightly.
"The church admits her priests to this sacrament in a higher sense," he said with some stiffness.
"Now I have shocked you," was her comment. "I beg your pardon."
"I can never accustom myself to a familiar way of handling sacred things," he returned. "It is to me too vital a matter."
"I am afraid that that is because you are still so young," she retorted. "It is, if you'll pardon me, the prerogative of youth to find all views but its own intolerable."
The manner in which this was said deprived the words of their sting, but Mrs. Fenton evidently felt that they were getting upon dangerous ground, and she interposed.
"We shall ask you to define youth next, Helen," she threw in.
"Oh, that is easy. Young people are always those of our own age."
In the laugh that followed this the question of the marriage of the clergy was allowed to drop; but to all that had been said Philip had listened with a beating heart. He felt the air about him to be charged with meanings which he could not divine. He had somehow a suspicion that the hostess was more interested in this talk than she was willing to show; and with what in a moment he recognized as consummate and fatuous egotism, he felt in his heart the shadow of a hope that there might be some connection between this and her interest in him. Then a fear followed lest there might be things here hidden which would make him miserable did he understand.
"Mrs. Herman insists that she is a Puritan," Mrs. Fenton said a moment later. "You see how she proves it by the position she takes on all these questions."
"Of course I am a Puritan," was the answer. "I was born so. There is nothing which I believe that wouldn't have seemed to my forefathers good ground for having me whipped at the cart's tail, but I am Puritan to the bone."
"I don't see what you mean," Candish said.
"I mean that I inherit, like all of us children of the Puritans, the way of looking at things without regard to consequences, of feeling devoutly about whatever seems to us true, and of realizing that individual preferences do not alter the laws of the universe; isn't that the essence of Puritanism?"
"Perhaps," he answered; "but are the unbelievers of to-day devout?"
Ashe looked at his cousin as she paused before answering. He felt that the question must baffle her. He did not comprehend what was behind her faint smile.
"Certainly not all of them," was her reply. "The age isn't greatly given to reverence. I am a Puritan, however, and I must say what I think. I believe that there is a hundredfold more devoutness in the infidelity of New England to-day than in its belief."
Ashe leaned forward in amazement, half overturning his glass in his eagerness.
"Why, that is a contradiction of terms," he exclaimed.
Mrs. Herman's smile deepened.
"Not necessarily, Cousin Philip," returned she.
"It is possible for belief to degenerate into mere conventionality, while sincere doubters at least must have a realization of the mystery and the awe which overshadow life."
Mrs. Fenton put up her hand in a pretty gesture of deprecation.
"Come," she said, "I don't wish to be despotic, but I can't let Mrs. Herman lead you into a discussion of that sort. We'll talk of something else."
"Am I to bear the blame of it all?" demanded Helen. "That I call genuinely theological."
"Worse and worse," the hostess responded. "Now you attack the cloth."
"It seems to me," observed Mr. Candish, coming out of a brief study in which he had apparently not heard Mrs. Fenton's last words, "that you leave out of account the matter of desire. The believer at least longs to believe, and surely deserves well for that."
"I don't see why. Certainly he hasn't learned the first word of the philosophy of life who still confounds what he desires and what he deserves."
"Come, Helen," put in Mrs. Fenton; "I wouldn't have suspected you of trying to pose as a belated remnant of the Concord School."
Ashe easily perceived that the hostess was becoming more and more uneasy at the course of the discussion. He could see too that Mr. Candish was growing graver, and his sallow face beginning to flush through its thin skin. It was evident that Mrs. Fenton saw and appreciated these signs, and wished to change the subject of conversation. Philip wondered that she took the matter so gravely, but cast about in his own mind for the means of helping her. Before he could think of anything to say his cousin had started a fresh topic.
"By the way," she asked, "who is to be bishop?"
Candish shook his head with a grave smile.
"We should be relieved if we knew," was his answer.
"There's a great deal being done to defeat Father Frontford," Ashe added; "but the lay delegates haven't been chosen."
"The friends of Mr. Strathmore are working very hard," observed Mrs. Fenton. "It would be a great misfortune if they were to succeed."
"But I suppose the friends of Father Frontford are at work too?" returned Helen.
Ashe thought that he detected a faint trace of satire in her voice, and he turned toward her with earnest gravity.
"It is not to be supposed," he answered, "that the friends of the church are idle at a time of so much importance. Mr. Strathmore is really little better than a Unitarian; or at least he is so lax that he gives the world that opinion."
He felt that this was a reply which must end all inclination to raillery on her part. He began to feel fresh sympathy with the disturbance of Mr. Candish earlier in the dinner. The matter now was to him so vital that he could not talk of it except with the greatest gravity. He watched Helen closely to discover if she were disposed to smile at his reply. He could detect no ridicule in her expression, although she did not seem much impressed with the weight of the charge he had brought against Mr. Strathmore, the popular candidate for the bishopric of the diocese, then vacant.
"Mrs. Chauncy Wilson is doing a good deal," Mrs. Fenton remarked, glancing smilingly at Helen.
"Oh, yes," responded the other. "I remember now that she declined to be on a committee for the picture-show because, as she said, she had to run the campaign for the bishop."
"The expression," Candish began, rather stiffly, "is somewhat"—
"It is hers, not mine," Helen replied. "I should not have chosen the phrase myself."
"It is singular," Mrs. Fenton said thoughtfully, "how little general interest there is in this matter of the choice of a bishop."
"And what there is," Mrs. Herman put in with a faint suspicion of raillery in her tone, "comes from the fact that Mr. Strathmore is popular as a radical."
"It is natural enough that the general public should look at it in that way," Mr. Candish commented. "Mr. Strathmore has all the elements of popularity. He is emotional and sympathetic; and religious laxity presented by such a man is always attractive."
"The infidelity of the age finds such a man a living excuse," Ashe said, feeling to the full all that the words implied.
Mrs. Fenton smiled upon him, but shook her head.
"That is a somewhat extreme view to take of it, Mr. Ashe. I think it is rather the personal attraction of the man than anything else."
The talk drifted away into more secular channels, and Ashe in time forgot for the moment that he was already almost a priest. Youth was strong in his blood, and even when a man has vowed to serve heaven by celibacy the must of desire may ferment still in his veins. A youthful ascetic has in him equally the making of a saint and a monster; and until it is decided which he is to be there will be turmoil in his soul. His newly realized love for Mrs. Fenton threw Ashe into a tumult of mingled bliss and anguish. The heart of the most simple mortal soars and exults in the sense that it loves. It may be timid, sad, despairing, but even the smart of love's denial cannot destroy the joy of love's existence. Philip felt the sting of his conscience; he looked upon his passion as no less hopeless than it was opposed to his vows; he was overshadowed by a half-conscious foresight of the pain which must arise from it; yet he swam on waves of delight such as even in his moments of religious ecstasy he had never before known. He felt his cheeks flush, and when his cousin glanced at him he dropped his eyes in the fear that they would betray his secret. He dared not look openly at Mrs. Fenton, yet from time to time he stole glances so slyly that he seemed almost to deceive himself and to conceal from his conscience the transgression.
Yet, too, he struggled. He realized at moments what he was doing, and his cheek grew pale at the idea that he was juggling with his conscience and his soul. He tried to attend to the talk, and could only succeed in listening for the sound of her voice. He kept no more hold on the conversation than was sufficient to allow him to put in a word now and then to cover his preoccupation. The instinct of simulation asserted itself as it springs in a bird which flies away to decoy the hunter from its nest. He feigned to be interested, to be as usual, but all his blood was trembling and tumbling with this new delirium; and all struggles to forget his passion only increased its intensity.
At moments he was astonished at himself. He could not understand what had taken possession of him. He even whispered a desperate question to himself whether it might not be that he had been singled out for a special temptation of the devil,—a distinction too flattering to be wholly disagreeable. Then he glanced again at his hostess, fair, sweet, and to his mind sacred before him, and felt that he had wronged her by supposing that the arch fiend could make of her a temptation. He had for a moment a humiliating fear that he might have eaten something that after the spare diet of the Clergy House had exhilarated him unduly. He felt that at best he was a poor thing; and he seemed to stand outside of his bare, empty life, pitying and scorning the futility of an existence unblessed by the love of this peerless woman.
The evening went on, and Ashe struggled to conceal the wild commotion of his mind, feeling it almost a relief to get away, so fearful had he been of losing control of his tumultuous emotions. It would be bliss to be alone with his dream.
As he and Mrs. Herman were going home, Helen said:—
"I do wonder"—
"What do you wonder?" he asked.
"Did I say that out loud?" she responded. "I didn't mean to. I was thinking that I couldn't help wondering whether Edith Fenton will ever marry Mr. Candish."
The first thought of Ashe was terror lest his secret had been discovered; his second was a memory of the way in which he had seen Mrs. Fenton look at the rector at dinner. He was overwhelmed by a rush of hot anger against his rival.
"Mr. Candish!" he echoed. "Why, he is an ordained priest!"
His own words cut him like a sword. He had himself pronounced the death sentence of his own hope. It was with difficulty that he suppressed a groan, and what reply or comment Mrs. Herman made was lost in the tumult of an inner voice crying in his heart: "O thou, to the arch of whose eyebrow the new moon is a slave!"
VOLUBLE AND SHARP DISCOURSE Comedy of Errors, ii. 1.
On the morning after the dinner at Mrs. Fenton's, Philip Ashe and Maurice Wynne met on the steps of Mrs. Chauncy Wilson's. The house was on the proper side of the Avenue, with a regal front of marble and with balconies of wrought iron before the wide windows above, one of especially elaborate workmanship, having once adorned the front of the palace of the Tuileries. Pillars of verd antique stood on either side of the doorway, as if it were the portal of a temple.
"Good morning, Phil," Maurice called out as they met. "Are you bound for Mrs. Wilson's too?"
"Yes," was the answer. "I had a note last night."
"Well," Wynne said gayly, as they mounted the steps, "if the inside of the house is as splendid as the outside, we two poor duffers will be out of place enough in it."
"You may be a duffer if you like," he retorted, "but I'm not."
"Here comes somebody," was the reply. "For my part I'm half afraid of Mrs. Wilson. They say"—
But the door began to move on its hinges, and cut short his words.
Wynne might have concluded his remark in almost any fashion, for there were few things which had not been said about Mrs. Wilson. Although she had been born and bred in Boston, one of the most common comments upon her was that she was "so un-Bostonian." Exactly what the epithet "Bostonian" might mean would probably have been hard to explain, but it is seldom difficult to defend a negation; it was at least easy to show that the lady did not regard the traditions in which she had been nourished, and that she had a boldness which was as far as possible from the decorous conventionality to be expected of one in whose veins ran the blood of the most correctly exclusive old Puritan families.
There was a general feeling that Mrs. Wilson's marriage was to be held accountable for many of her eccentricities; although, as Mrs. Staggchase remarked, if Elsie Dimmont had not been what she was she would not have chosen Chauncy Wilson. Well-born, wealthy, pretty, and not without a certain cleverness, Miss Dimmont had had choice of suitors enough who were all that the most exacting of her relatives could desire; yet she had disregarded the conviction of the family that it was her duty to marry to please them, and had chosen to please herself by selecting a handsome young doctor whom she met at the house of a cousin in the country. He was of some local eminence in his profession, it is true, although as time went on he gave less attention to it; he was handsome, and astute, and amusing; but he was a man without ancestors or traditions. He seemed born to justify the saying that nothing subdues the feminine imagination like force; and although the stormy times which were liberally predicted at the marriage of two creatures so strong-willed had undoubtedly marked their marital career, it was in the end impossible not to see that Dr. Wilson had secured and held command of his household.
It is impossible for two to live together, however, without mutual reaction, and Elsie had unquestionably lost something of the fineness of the breeding which was hers by right of birth. For a time after her marriage she had been excessively given up to gayety. She had figured as a leader in the fastest of the "smart set," as society journals called it. She rode well, owned a stud which could not be matched in town, and raced for stakes which startled the conservative old city. It was even affirmed by the more credulous or more scandalous of the gossips that it was only the stand taken by the managers of the County Club which prevented her on one occasion from riding as her own jockey; and short of this there was little she did not do.
All this, however, was in the early days of the marriage, before Dr. Wilson had become accustomed to his position as husband of the richest woman in town and a member of what was to him the sacred aristocracy. When the time came that he had found his place and entered his veto upon these wild doings, there was an instant and determined revolt on the part of his wife. Elsie fought desperately to maintain her position as head of the family. By way of humiliating her husband she flirted with an openness which won for her a reputation by no means to be envied, and she wantonly trampled on his wishes. Given a husband, however, with an iron will and a fibre not too fine, with a good temper and yet with a certain ruthlessness in asserting his sway, and there is little doubt that in the end he will triumph. If a clever, handsome, good-humored man does not subdue a wild, headstrong wife, it is almost surely owing to over-delicacy; and Chauncy Wilson was never hampered by this. Elsie plunged and reared when she felt the curb,—to use a figure which in those days might have been her own,—but she was by a judicious application of whip and spur taught that she had found her master. The result was that she became not only manageable, but devotedly fond of her husband. No woman was ever mastered and treated with kindness who did not thereupon love. Dr. Wilson was too good- natured to be unkind, and for the most part he allowed his wife to have her way, fully aware that he had but to speak to restrain her; and thus it came about that the household was on a most peaceful and satisfactory basis.
Mrs. Wilson, however, craved excitement, and ethical amusements she laughed to scorn. She did, it is true, take up high-church piety, which she treated, as Mrs. Staggchase did not hesitate to say, as a plaything; but her interest in church matters was chiefly in the line of politics. She took charge of the affairs of the Church of the Nativity with a high hand which abashed and disquieted the devout rector. She liked Mr. Candish, although she did not hesitate to jest at his unpolished manners and rather unprepossessing person, and it was inevitable that she should be unable to appreciate his self-denying devotion. On one or two occasions she had found him to have a will not inferior to her own; and although she resented whatever balked her pleasure, she was yet a woman and respected power in a man.
Mr. Candish was of all men the one least resembling the traditional pastor of a fashionable church, and had nothing of the caressing manner dear to the souls of self-pampered penitents. Fashionable women found little to admire in this man with the air of a bourgeois and the simplicity of a babe. He had, however, a strong will, and a sure faith which was not without its effect upon his parishioners. Ladies whose religion was largely an affair of nerves found comfort in relying upon his simple and untroubled devotion. They were piqued by being treated as souls rather than bodies, but this was perhaps one of the secrets of his influence. Every woman of his flock had unconsciously some secret conviction that to her was reserved the triumph of subduing this intractable nature, hitherto unconquered by the fascinations of the sex. An ugly man may generally be successful with women if he remains sufficiently indifferent to them. His unattractiveness, suggesting, as it must, the idea of his having cause to be especially solicitous and humble, imparts to his attitude in such a case an all-subduing flavor of mystery. The instinctive belief of the other sex is that he is but protecting his sensitiveness, and each longs to tear aside the veil of dissimulation. The rector, it may be added, was an eloquent preacher, and he intoned the service wonderfully. His voice in speaking was somewhat harsh, but when he intoned, it melted into a beautiful baritone, rich, full, and sweet, which, informed by his deep and earnest feeling, thrilled his hearers with profound emotion. Mrs. Wilson was proud of the effect which the service at the Nativity always had, and she took in it the double pleasure of one who claimed a share in religious enthusiasms and who had something of the glory of a manager whose tenor succeeds in opera.
Into the contest over the election of a bishop to fill the place recently left vacant Mrs. Wilson had thrown herself with characteristic vigor. There were but two candidates now seriously considered, the Rev. Rutherford Strathmore and Father Frontford. The former, a popular preacher of liberal views, was regarded as the more likely to receive the appointment, but the High Church party contested the point warmly, supporting the claims of the Father Superior of the Clergy House which was the home of Maurice Wynne and Philip Ashe. The political side of the matter was exactly to Mrs. Wilson's taste. A woman has but to be rich enough and determined enough to be allowed to amuse herself with the highest concerns of both church and state; and Mrs. Wilson lacked neither money nor determination. Her vigor at first disconcerted and in the end outwardly subdued the clergy. If she actually had less influence than she supposed, she was at least thoroughly entertained, and that after all was her object. She interviewed influential persons, she wrote letters, some of them sufficiently ill-judged, she sought information in regard to the character and circumstances of the clergy in the diocese, and did everything with the zeal and dash which characterized whatever she undertook.
"Have you any idea what Mrs. Wilson wants of us?" Wynne asked of Philip, as they waited in the luxurious reception-room.
"I only know that Father Frontford said that we were to put ourselves under her orders," was the reply. "Of course it is something about the election."
Maurice looked at him keenly.
"Old fellow," he said, "you look pale. What's the matter with you?"
"I didn't sleep well," Ashe answered with a flush. "I went to Mrs. Fenton's to dine, and the indulgence wasn't good for me. It's really nothing."
Maurice did not reply, but sank into an easy-chair and looked about him. The room was a charming fancy of the decorator, who claimed to have taken his inspiration from the American mullein. The ceiling was of a pale, almost transparent blue, a tint just strong enough to suggest a sky and yet leave it half doubtful if such a meaning were intended; the walls were hung with a rough paper matching in hue the velvety leaves of the plant, here and there touched with conventionalized figures of the yellow blossoms. This contrast of green and yellow was softened and united by a clever use of the clear red of the mullein stamens sparingly used in the figures on the walls, in the cords of the draperies, and in the trimmings of the velvet furniture. The decorator had used the same simple tone for walls, furniture, and curtains; and the effect was delightfully soothing and distinguished.
Wynne felt somehow out of place in this room which bore the stamp of wealth and taste so markedly. He smiled to himself a little bitterly, recalling how alien he was to these things. Descended from a family for generations established in a New England town, he had in his veins too good blood to feel abashed at the sight of splendors; but he had in his life seen little of the world outside of lecture-rooms or the Clergy House. Born with the appreciation of sensuous delight, with the instinctive desire for the beautiful and refined, he felt awake within him at contact with the richness and luxury of the life which he was now leading tastes which he had before hardly been aware of possessing. He was being influenced by the joy of worldly life, so subtly presented that he did not even appreciate the need of guarding against the danger.
His reflections were cut short by the entrance of a servant who conducted the young men to a private sitting-room up-stairs. The halls through which they passed were hung with superb old tapestry, interspersed with magnificent pictures. On the broad landing it was almost as if the visitors came into the presence of a beautiful woman, lying naked amid bright cushions in an oriental interior. As he dropped his eyes from the alluring vision, Maurice saw in the corner the name of the artist.
"Fenton," he said aloud. "Did he paint that?"
His companion started, regarding the picture with widening eyes. The English footman, whom Wynne addressed, turned back to say over his shoulder:—
"Yes, sir; they say it's his best picture, and some says he painted his best friend's wife that way, with nothing on, sir."
"It is a wicked picture!" Ashe said with what seemed to Maurice unnecessary emphasis.
The footman regarded the speaker over his shoulder with a smile.
"Oh, that's owin' to your bein' of the cloth, sir," was his comment. "They don't generally feel to own to likin' it; but they mostly notices it."
A superb screen of carved and gilded wood stood before an open door above. When this was reached, the footman slipped noiselessly behind it, and they heard their names announced.
"Show them in," Mrs. Wilson's voice said.
The lady met them in a wonderful morning gown which seemed to be chiefly cascades of lace, with bows of carmine ribbon here and there which brought out the color of the dark eyes and hair of the wearer. Maurice could hardly have told why he flushed, yet he was conscious of the feeling that there was something intimate in the costume. To be met by this beautiful woman, her hand outstretched in greeting, her eyes shining, her white neck rising out of the foam of laces; to breathe the air, soft and perfumed, of this room; to be surrounded by this luxury, these tokens of a life which stinted nothing in the pursuit of enjoyment; more than all to appreciate by some subtle inner sense the appealing charm of femininity, the suggestions of domestic intimacies; all this was to the young deacon to be exposed to influences far more formidable to the ascetic life than those grosser temptations with which a stupid fiend assailed St. Anthony. Wynne drew a deep breath, wondering why he felt so strangely moved and confused; yet unconsciously steeling himself against owning to his conscience what was the truth.