She stood before the minister who was to marry them, very tall and straight. With lips slightly parted she looked at him steadfastly, not at the man beside her who was about to become her husband. Her father, with a last gentle pressure of her arm, had taken his place behind her. In the hush that had fallen throughout the little chapel, all the restless movement of the people who had gathered there this warm June morning was stilled, in the expectation of those ancient words that would unite the two before the altar. Through the open window behind the altar a spray of young woodbine had thrust its juicy green leaves and swayed slowly in the air, which was heavy with earthy odors of all the riotous new growth that was pushing forward in the fields outside. And beyond the vine could be seen a bit of the cloudless, rain-washed sky.
There before the minister, who was fumbling mechanically at his prayer-book, a great space seemed to divide the man and the woman from all the others, their friends and relatives, who had come to witness the ceremony of their union. In the woman's consciousness an unexpected stillness settled, as if for these few moments she were poised between the past of her whole life and the mysterious future. All the preoccupations of the engagement weeks, the strange colorings of mood and feeling, all the petty cares of the event itself, had suddenly vanished. She did not see even him, the man she was to marry, only the rugged face of the old minister, the bit of fluttering vine, the expanse of blue sky. She stood before the veil of her life, which was about to be drawn aside.
This hushed moment was broken by the resonant tones of the minister as he began the opening words of the sacrament that had been said over so many millions of human beings. Familiar as the phrases were, she did not realize them, could not summon back her attention from that depth within of awed expectancy. After a time she became aware of the subdued movements in the chapel, of people breaking into the remote circle of her mystery,—even here they must needs have their part—and of the man beside her looking intently at her, with flushed face. It was this man, this one here at her side, whom she had chosen of all that might have come into her life; and suddenly he seemed a stranger, standing there, ready to become her husband! The woodbine waved, recalling to her flashing thoughts that day two years before when the chapel was dedicated, and they two, then mere friends, had planted this vine together. And now, after certain meetings, after some surface intercourse, they had willed to come here to be made one...
"And who gives this woman in marriage?" the minister asked solemnly, following the primitive formula which symbolizes that the woman is to be made over from one family to another as a perpetual possession. She gave herself of course! The words were but an outgrown form...
There was the necessary pause while the Colonel came forward, and taking his daughter's hand from which the glove had been carefully turned back, laid it gently in the minister's large palm. The father's lips twitched, and she knew he was feeling the solemnity of his act, that he was relinquishing a part of himself to another. Their marriage—her father's and mother's—had been happy,—oh, very peaceful! And yet—hers must be different, must strike deeper. For the first time she raised her shining eyes to the man at her side...
"I, John, take thee Isabelle for my wedded wife, to have and to hold ... in sickness and in health ... until death us do part ... and hereby I plight thee my troth."
Those old words, heard so many times, which heretofore had echoed without meaning to her,—she had vaguely thought them beautiful,—now came freighted with sudden meaning, while from out the dreamlike space around sounded the firm tones of the man at her side repeating slowly, with grave pauses, word by word, the marriage oath. "I, John, take thee Isabelle," that voice was saying, and she knew that the man who spoke these words in his calm, grave manner was the one she had chosen, to whom she had willed to give herself for all time,—presently she would say it also,—for always, always, "until death us do part." He was promising it with tranquil assurance,—fidelity, the eternal bond, throughout the unknown years, out of the known present. "And hereby I plight thee my troth." Without a tremor the man's assured voice registered the oath—before God and man.
"I, Isabelle," and the priest took up with her this primal oath of fidelity, body and soul. All at once the full personal import of the words pierced her, and her low voice swelled unconsciously with her affirmation. She was to be for always as she was now. They two had not been one before: the words did not make them so now. It was their desire. But the old divided selves, the old impulses, they were to die, here, forever.
She heard herself repeating the words after the minister. Her strong young voice in the stillness of the chapel sounded strangely not her own voice, but the voice of some unknown woman within her, who was taking the oath for her in this barbaric ceremony whereby man and woman are bound together. "And hereby I plight thee my troth,"—the voice sank to a whisper as of prayer. Her eyes came back to the man's face, searching for his eyes.
There were little beads of perspiration on his broad brow, and the shaven lips were closely pressed together, moulding the face into lines of will,—the look of mastery. What was he, this man, now her husband for always, his hand about hers in sign of perpetual possession and protection? What beneath all was he who had taken with her, thus publicly, the mighty oath of fidelity, "until death us do part"? Each had said it; each believed it; each desired it wholly. Perversely, here in the moment of her deepest feeling, intruded the consciousness of broken contracts, the waste of shattered purposes. Ah, but theirs was different! This absolute oath of fidelity one to the other, each with his own will and his own desire,—this irredeemable contract of union between man and woman,—it was not always a binding sacrament. Often twisted and broken, men and women promising in the belief of the best within them what was beyond their power to perform. There were those in that very chapel who had said these words and broken them, furtively or legally... With them, of course, it would be different, would be the best; for she conceived their love to be of another kind,—the enduring kind. Nevertheless, just here, while the priest of society pronounced the final words of union, something spoke within the woman's soul that it was a strange oath to be taking, a strange manner of making two living beings one!
"And I pronounce you man and wife," the words ran. Then the minister hastened on into his little homily upon the marriage state. But the woman's thought rested at those fateful words,—"man and wife,"—the knot of the contract. There should fall a new light in her heart that would make her know they were really one, having now been joined as the book said "in holy wedlock." From this sacramental union of persons there should issue to both a new spirit...
Her husband was standing firm and erect, listening with all the concentration of his mind to what the minister was saying—not tumultuously distracted—as though he comprehended the exact gravity of this contract into which he was entering, as he might that of any other he could make, sure of his power to fulfil all, confident before Fate. She trembled strangely. Did she know him, this other self? In the swift apprehension of life's depths which came through her heightened mood she perceived that ultimate division lying between all human beings, that impregnable fortress of the individual soul.... It was all over. He looked tenderly at her. Her lips trembled with a serious smile,—yes, they would understand now!
The people behind them moved more audibly. The thing was done; the priest's words of exhortation were largely superfluous. All else that concerned married life these two would have to find out for themselves. The thing was done, as ordained by the church, according to the rules of society. Now it was for Man and Wife to make of it what they would or—could.
The minister closed his book in dismissal. The groom offered his arm to the bride. Facing the chapelful she came out of that dim world of wonder whither she had strayed. Her veil thrown back, head proudly erect, eyes mistily ranging above the onlookers, she descended the altar steps, gazing down the straight aisle over the black figures, to the sunny village green, beyond into the vista of life! ... Triumphant organ notes beat through the chapel, as they passed between the rows of smiling faces,—familiar faces only vaguely perceived, yet each with its own expression, its own reaction from this ceremony. She swept on deliberately, with the grace of her long stride, her head raised, a little smile on her open lips, her hand just touching his,—going forward with him into life.
Only two faces stood out from the others at this moment,—the dark, mischievous face of Nancy Lawton, smiling sceptically. Her dark, little eyes seemed to say, 'Oh, you don't know yet!' And the other was the large, placid face of a blond woman, older than the bride, standing beside a stolid man at the end of a pew. The serene, soft eyes of this woman were dim with tears, and a tender smile still lingered on her lips. She at least, Alice Johnston, the bride's cousin, could smile through the tears—a smile that told of the sweetness in life.....
At the door the frock-coated young ushers formed into double line through which the couple passed. The village green outside was flooded with sunshine, checkered by drooping elm branches. Bells began to ring from the library across the green and from the schoolhouse farther down. It was over—the fine old barbaric ceremony, the passing of the irredeemable contract between man and woman, the public proclamation of eternal union. Henceforth they were man and wife before the law, before their kind—one and one, and yet not two.
Thus together they passed out of the church.
The company gathered within the chapel for the wedding now moved and talked with evident relief, each one expressing his feeling of the solemn service.
"Very well done, very lovely!" the Senator was murmuring to the bride's mother, just as he might give an opinion of a good dinner or some neat business transaction or of a smartly dressed woman. It was a function of life successfully performed—and he nodded gayly to a pretty woman three rows away. He was handsome and gray-haired, long a widower, and evidently considered weddings to be an attractive, ornamental feature of social life. Mrs. Price, the bride's mother, intent upon escaping with the Colonel by the side door and rejoining the bridal party at the house before the guests arrived on foot, scarcely heeded the amiable Senator's remarks. This affair of her daughter's marriage was, like most events, a matter of engrossing details. The Colonel, in his usual gregarious manner, had strayed among the guests, forgetful of his duties, listening with bent head to congratulatory remarks. She had to send her younger son, Vickers, after him where he lingered with Farrington Beals, the President of the great Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, in which his new son-in-law held a position. When the Colonel finally dragged himself away from the pleasant things that his old friend Beals had to say about young Lane, he looked at his impatient wife with his tender smile, as if he would like to pat her cheek and say, "Well, we've started them right, haven't we?"
The guests flowed conversationally towards the door and the sunny green, while the organ played deafeningly. But play as exultantly as it might, it could not drown the babble of human voices. Every one wanted to utter those excitable commonplaces that seem somehow to cover at such times deep meanings.
"What a perfect wedding!"
"How pretty it all was!"
"Not a hitch."
"She looked the part."
"Good fellow—nice girl—ought to be happy ... Well, old man, when is your turn coming? ... Could hear every word they said ... looked as though they meant it, too! ..."
In an eddy of the centre aisle a tall, blond young woman with handsome, square shoulders and dark eyes stood looking about her calmly, as if she were estimating the gathering, setting each one down at the proper social valuation, deciding, perhaps, in sum that they were a very "mixed lot," old friends and new, poor and rich. A thin girl, also blond, with deep blue eyes, and a fine bony contour of the face, was swept by the stream near the solitary observer and held out a hand:—
"Isn't it ideal!" Margaret Lawton exclaimed, her nervous face still stirred by all that she had felt during the service,—"the day, the country, and this dear little chapel!"
"Very sweet," the large woman replied in a purring voice, properly modulated for the sentiment expressed. "Isabelle made an impressive bride." And these two school friends moved on towards the door. Cornelia Pallanton, still surveying the scene, nodded and said to her companion, "There's your cousin Nannie Lawton. Her husband isn't here, I suppose? There are a good many St. Louis people."
The guests were now scattered in little groups over the green, dawdling in talk and breathing happily the June-scented air. The stolid man and his placid wife who had sat near the rear had already started for the Colonel's house, following the foot-path across the fields. They walked silently side by side, as if long used to wordless companionship.
The amiable Senator and his friend Beals examined critically the little Gothic chapel, which had been a gift to his native town by the Colonel, as well as the stone library at the other end of the green. "Nice idea of Price," the Senator was saying, "handsome buildings—pleasant little village," and he moved in the direction of Miss Pallanton, who was alone.
Down below in the valley, on the railroad siding, lay the special train that had brought most of the guests from New York that morning. The engine emitted little puffs of white smoke in the still noon, ready to carry its load back to the city after the breakfast. About the library steps were the carriages of those who had driven over from neighboring towns; the whole village had a disturbed and festal air.
The procession was straggling across the village street through the stile and into the meadow, tramping down the thick young grass, up the slope to the comfortable old white house that opened its broad verandas like hospitable arms. The President of the Atlantic and Pacific, deserted by the Senator, had offered his arm to a stern old lady with knotty hands partly concealed in lace gloves. Her lined face had grown serious in age and contention with life. She clung stiffly to the arm of the railroad president,—proud, silent, and shy. She was his mother. From her one might conclude that the groom's people were less comfortably circumstanced than the bride's—that this was not a marriage of ambition on the woman's part. It was the first time Mrs. Lane had been "back east" since she had left her country home as a young bride. It was a proud moment, walking with her son's chief; but the old lady did not betray any elation, as she listened to the kindly words that Beals found to say about her son.
"A first-rate railroad man, Mrs. Lane,—he will move up rapidly. We can't get enough of that sort."
The mother, never relaxing her tight lips, drank it all in, treasured it as a reward for the hard years spent in keeping that boarding-house in Omaha, after the death of her husband, who had been a country doctor.
"He's a good son," she admitted as the eulogy flagged. "And he knows how to get on with all kinds of folks...."
At their heels were Vickers Price and the thin Southern girl, Margaret Lawton. Vickers, just back from Munich for this event, had managed to give the conventional dress that he was obliged to wear a touch of strangeness, with an enormous flowing tie of delicate pink, a velvet waistcoat, and broad-brimmed hat. The clothes and the full beard, the rippling chestnut hair and pointed mustache, showed a desire for eccentricity on the part of the young man that distinguished him from all the other well-dressed young Americans. He carried a thin cane and balanced a cigarette between his lips.
"Yes," he was saying, "I had to come over to see Isabelle married, but I shall go back after a look around—not the place for me!" He laughed and waved his cane towards the company with an ironic sense of his inappropriateness to an American domestic scene.
"You are a composer,—music, isn't it?" the girl asked, a flash in her blue eyes at the thought of youth, Munich, music.
"I have written a few things; am getting ready, you know," Vickers Price admitted modestly.
Just there they were joined by a handsome, fashionably dressed man, his face red with rapid walking. He touched his long, well-brushed black mustache with his handkerchief as he explained:—
"Missed the train—missed the show—but got here in time for the fun, on the express."
He took his place beside the girl, whose color deepened and eyes turned away,—perhaps annoyed, or pleased?
"That's what you come for, isn't it?" she said, forcing a little joke. Noticing that the two men did not speak, she added hastily, "Don't you know Mr. Price, Mr. Vickers Price? Mr. Hollenby."
The newcomer raised his silk hat, sweeping Vickers, who was fanning himself with his broad-brimmed felt, in a light, critical stare. Then Mr. Hollenby at once appropriated the young woman's attention, as though he would indicate that it was for her sake he had taken this long, hot journey.
* * * * *
There were other little groups at different stages on the hill,—one gathered about a small, dark-haired woman, whose face burned duskily in the June sun. She was Aline Goring,—the Eros of that schoolgirl band at St. Mary's who had come to see their comrade married. And there was Elsie Beals,—quite elegant, the only daughter of the President of the A. and P. The Woodyards, Percy and Lancey, classmates of Vickers at the university, both slim young men, wearing their clothes carelessly,—clearly not of the Hollenby manner,—had attached themselves here. Behind them was Nan Lawton, too boisterous even for the open air. At the head of the procession, now nearly topping the hill beneath the house, was that silent married couple, the heavy, sober man and the serene, large-eyed woman, who did not mingle with the others. He had pointed out to her the amiable Senator and President Beals, both well-known figures in the railroad world where he worked, far down, obscurely, as a rate clerk. His wife looked at these two great ones, who indirectly controlled the petty destiny of the Johnstons, and squeezed her husband's hand more tightly, expressing thus many mixed feelings,—content with him, pride and confidence in him, in spite of his humble position in the race.
"It's just like the Pilgrim's Progress," she said with a little smile, looking backward at the stream.
"But who is Christian?" the literal husband asked. Her eyes answered that she knew, but would not tell.
* * * * *
Just as each one had reflected his own emotion at the marriage, so each one, looking up at the hospitable goal ahead,—that irregular, broad white house poured over the little Connecticut hilltop,—had his word about the Colonel's home.
"No wonder they call it the Farm," sneered Nan Lawton to the Senator.
"It's like the dear old Colonel, the new and the old," the Senator sententiously interpreted.
Beals, overhearing this, added, "It's poor policy to do things that way. Better to pull the old thing down and go at it afresh,—you save time and money, and have it right in the end."
"It's been in the family a hundred years or more," some one remarked. "The Colonel used to mow this field himself, before he took to making hardware."
"Isabelle will pull it about their ears when she gets the chance," Mrs. Lawton said. "The present-day young haven't much sentiment for uncomfortable souvenirs."
Her cousin Margaret was remarking to Vickers, "What a good, homey sort of place,—like our old Virginia houses,—all but that great barn!"
It was, indeed, as the Senator had said, very like the Colonel, who could spare neither the old nor the new. It was also like him to give Grafton a new stone library and church, and piece on rooms here and there to his own house. In spite of these additions demanded by comfort there was something in the conglomeration to remind the Colonel, who had returned to Grafton after tasting strife and success in the Middle West, of the plain home of his youth.
"The dear old place!" Alice Johnston murmured to her husband. "It was never more attractive than to-day, as if it knew that it was marrying off an only daughter." To her, too, the Farm had memories, and no new villa spread out spaciously in Italian, Tudor, or Classic style could ever equal this white, four-chimneyed New England mansion.
On the west slope of the hill near the veranda a large tent had been erected, and into this black-coated waiters were running excitedly to and fro around a wing of the house which evidently held the servant quarters. Just beyond the tent a band was playing a loud march. There was to be dancing on the lawn after the breakfast, and in the evening on the village green for everybody, and later fireworks. The Colonel had insisted on the dancing and the fireworks, in spite of Vickers's jeers about pagan rites and the Fourth of July.
The bride and groom had already taken their places in the broad hall, which bisected the old house. The guests were to enter from the south veranda, pass through the hall, and after greeting the couple gain the refreshment tent through the library windows. The Colonel had worked it all out with that wonderful attention to detail that had built up his great hardware business. Upstairs in the front bedrooms the wedding presents had been arranged, and nicely ticketed with cards for the amusement of aged relatives,—a wonderful assortment of silver and gold and glass,—an exhibition of the wide relationships of the contracting pair, at least of the wife. And through these rooms soft-footed detectives patrolled, examining the guests....
Isabelle Price had not wished her wedding to be of this kind, ordered so to speak like the refreshments from Sherry and the presents from Tiffany, with a special train on the siding. When she and John had decided to be married at the old farm, she had thought of a country feast,—her St. Mary's girls of course and one or two more, but quite to themselves! They were to walk with these few friends to the little chapel, where the dull old village parson would say the necessary words. The marriage over, and a simple breakfast in the old house,—the scene of their love,—they were to ride off among the hills to her camp on Dog Mountain, alone. And thus quietly, without flourish, they would enter the new life. But as happens to all such pretty idylls, reality had forced her hand. Colonel Price's daughter could not marry like an eloping schoolgirl, so her mother had declared. Even John had taken it as a matter of course, all this elaborate celebration, the guests, the special train, the overflowing house. And she had yielded her ideal of having something special in her wedding, acquiescing in the "usual thing."
But now that the first guests began to top the hill and enter the hall with warm, laughing greetings, all as gay as the June sunlight, the women in their fresh summer gowns, she felt the joy of the moment. "Isn't it jolly, so many of 'em!" she exclaimed to her husband, squeezing his arm gayly. He took it, like most things, as a matter of course. The hall soon filled with high tones and noisy laughter, as the guests crowded in from the lawn about the couple, to offer their congratulations, to make their little jokes, and premeditated speeches. Standing at the foot of the broad stairs, her veil thrown back, her fair face flushed with color and her lips parted in a smile, one arm about a thick bunch of roses, the bride made a bright spot of light in the dark hall. All those whirling thoughts, the depths to which her spirit had descended during the service, had fled; she was excited by this throng of smiling, joking people, by the sense of her role. She had the feeling of its being her day, and she was eager to drink every drop in the sparkling cup. A great kindness for everybody, a sort of beaming sympathy for the world, bubbled up in her heart, making the repeated hand squeeze which she gave—sometimes a double pressure—a personal expression of her emotion. Her flashing hazel eyes, darting into each face in turn as it came before her, seemed to say: 'Of course, I am the happiest woman in the world, and you must be happy, too. It is such a good world!' While her voice was repeating again and again, with the same tremulous intensity, "Thank you—it is awfully nice of you—I am so glad you are here!"
To the amiable Senator's much worn compliment,—"It's the prettiest wedding I have seen since your mother's, and the prettiest bride, too,"—she blushed a pleased reply, though she had confessed to John only the night before that the sprightly Senator was "horrid,—he has such a way of squeezing your hand, as if he would like to do more,"—to which the young man had replied in his perplexity, due to the Senator's exalted position in the A. and P. Board, "I suppose it's only the old boy's way of being cordial."
Even when Nannie Lawton came loudly with Hollenby—she had captured him from her cousin—and threw her arms about the bride, Isabelle did not draw back. She forgot that she disliked the gay little woman, with her muddy eyes, whose "affairs"—one after the other—were condoned "for her husband's sake." Perhaps Nannie felt what it might be to be as happy and proud as she was,—she was large, generous, comprehending at this moment. And she passed the explosive little woman over to her husband, who received her with the calm courtesy that never made an enemy.
But when "her girls" came up the line, she felt happiest. Cornelia was first, large, handsome, stately, her broad black hat nodding above the feminine stream, her dark eyes observing all, while she slowly smiled to the witticisms Vickers murmured in her ear. Every one glanced at Miss Pallanton; she was a figure, as Isabelle realized when she finally stood before her,—a very handsome figure, and would get her due attention from her world. They had not cared very much for "Conny" at St. Mary's, though she was a handsome girl then and had what was called "a good mind." There was something coarse in the detail of this large figure, the plentiful reddish hair, the strong, straight nose,—all of which the girls of St. Mary's had interpreted their own way, and also the fact that she had come from Duluth,—probably of "ordinary" people. Surely not a girl's girl, nor a woman's woman! But one to be reckoned with when it came to men. Isabelle was conscious of her old reserve as she listened to Conny's piping, falsetto voice,—such a funny voice to come from that large person through that magnificent white throat.
"It makes me so happy, dear Isabelle," the voice piped; "it is all so ideal, so exactly what it ought to be for you, don't you know?" And as Percy Woodyard bore her off—he had hovered near all the time—she smiled again, leaving Isabelle to wonder what Conny thought would be "just right" for her.
"You must hurry, Conny," she called on over Vickers's head, "and make up your mind; you are almost our last!"
"You know I never hurry," the smiling lips piped languidly, and the large hat sailed into the library, piloted on either side by Woodyard and Vickers. Isabelle had a twinge of sisterly jealousy at seeing her younger brother so persistently in the wake of the large, blond girl. Dear Vick, her own chum, her girl's first ideal of a man, fascinatingly developed by his two years in Munich, must not go bobbing between Nan Lawton and Conny!
And here was Margaret Lawton—so different from her cousin's wife—with the delicate, high brow, the firm, aristocratic line from temple to chin. She was the rarest and best of the St. Mary's set, and though Isabelle had known her at school only a year, she had felt curiosity and admiration for the Virginian. Her low, almost drawling voice, which reflected a controlled spirit, always soothed her. The deep-set blue eyes had caught Isabelle's glance at Vickers, and with an amused smile the Southern girl said, "He's in the tide!"
Isabelle said, "I am so, so glad you could get here, Margaret."
"I wanted to—very much. I made mother put off our sailing."
"How is the Bishop?" she asked, as Margaret was pushed on.
"Oh, happy, riding about the mountains and converting the poor heathen, who prefer whiskey to religion. Mother's taking him to England this summer to show him off to the foreign clergy."
Margaret's thin, long lips curved ironically for answer. Hollenby, who seemed to have recollected a purpose, was waiting for her at the library door.... "Ah, my Eros!" Isabella exclaimed with delight, holding forth two hands to a small, dark young woman, with waving brown hair and large eyes that were fixed on distant objects.
"Eros with a husband and two children," Aline Goring murmured, in her soft contralto. "You remember Eugene? At the Springs that summer?" The husband, a tall, smooth-shaven, young man with glasses and the delicate air of the steam-heated American scholar bowed stiffly.
"Of course! Didn't I aid and abet you two?"
"That's two years and a half ago," Aline remarked, as if the simple words covered a multitude of facts about life. "We are on our way to St. Louis to settle."
"Splendid!" Isabelle exclaimed. "We shall have you again. Torso, where we are exiled for the present, is only a night's ride from St. Louis."
Aline smiled that slow, warm smile, which seemed to come from the remote inner heart of her dreamy life. Isabelle looked at her eagerly, searching for the radiant, woodsy creature she had known, that Eros, with her dreamy, passionate, romantic temperament, a girl whom girls adored and kissed and petted, divining in her the feminine spirit of themselves. Surely, she should be happy, Aline, the beautiful girl made for love, poetic, tender. The lovely eyes were there, but veiled; the velvety skin had roughened; and the small body was almost heavy. The wood nymph had been submerged in matrimony.
Goring was saying in a twinkling manner:—
"I've been reckoning up, Mrs. Lane. You are the seventh most intimate girl friend Aline has married off the last two years. How many more of you are there?"
Aline, putting her arms about the bride's neck, drew her face to her lips and whispered:—
"Dearie, my darling! I hope you will be so happy,—that it will be all you can wish!" After these two had disappeared into the library, where there was much commotion about the punch-bowl, the bride wondered—were they happy? She had seen the engagement at Southern Springs,—the two most ecstatic, unearthly lovers she had ever known.... But now? ...
Thus the stream of her little world flowed on, repeating its high-pitched note of gratulation, of jocular welcome to the married state, as if to say, 'Well, now you are one of us—you've been brought in—this is life.' That was what these smiling people were thinking, as they welcomed the neophytes to the large vale of human experience. 'We have seen you through this business, started you joyously on the common path. And now what will you make of it?' For the occasion they ignored, good naturedly, the stones along the road, the mistakes, the miserable failures that lined the path, assuming the bride's proper illusion of triumph and confidence.... Among the very last came the Johnstons, who had lingered outside while the more boisterous ones pressed about the couple. Isabelle noticed that the large brown eyes of the placid woman, who always seemed to her much older than herself, were moist, and her face was serious when she said, "May it be all that your heart desires—the Real Thing!"
A persistent aunt interrupted them here, and it was hours afterward when Isabelle's thought came back to these words and dwelt on them. 'The real thing!' Of course, that was what it was to be, her marriage,—the woman's symbol of the Perfect, not merely Success (though with John they could not fail of worldly success), nor humdrum content—but, as Alice said, the real thing,—a state of passionate and complete union. Something in those misty brown eyes, something in the warm, deep voice of the older woman, in the prayer-like form of the wish, sank deep into her consciousness.
She turned to her husband, who was chatting with Fosdick, a large, heavy man with a Dr. Johnson head on massive shoulders. One fat hand leaned heavily on a fat club, for Fosdick was slightly lame and rolled in his gait.
"Isabelle," he remarked with a windy sigh, "I salute my victor!"
Old Dick, Vickers's playmate in the boy-and-girl days, her playmate, too,—he had wanted to marry her for years, ever since Vick's freshman year when he had made them a visit at the Farm. He had grown very heavy since then,—time which he had spent roving about in odd corners of the earth. As he stood there, his head bent mockingly before the two, Isabelle felt herself Queen once more, the—American woman who, having surveyed all, and dominated all within the compass of her little world, has chosen the One. But not Dickie, humorous and charming as he was.
"How goes it, Dickie?"
"As always," he puffed; "I come from walking or rather limping up and down this weary earth and observing—men and women—how they go about to make themselves miserable."
"My dear friends," he continued, placing both hands on the big cane, "you are about to undergo a new and wonderful experience. You haven't the slightest conception of what it is. You think it is love; but it is the holy state of matrimony,—a very different proposition—"
They interrupted him with laughing abuse, but he persisted,—a serious undertone to his banter. "Yes, I have always observed the scepticism of youth, no matter what may be the age of the contracting parties and their previous experience, in this matter. But Love and Marriage are two distinct and entirely independent states of being,—one is the creation of God, the other of Society. I have observed that few make them coalesce."
As relatives again interposed, Fosdick rolled off, ostentatiously thumping his stick on the floor, and made straight for the punch-bowl, where he seemed to meet congenial company.
Meanwhile inside the great tent the commotion was at its height, most of the guests—those who had escaped the fascination of the punch-bowl—having found their way thither. Perspiring waiters rushed back and forth with salad and champagne bottles, which were seized by the men and borne off to the women waiting suitably to be fed by the men whom they had attached. Near the entrance the Colonel, with his old friends Beals and Senator Thomas, was surveying the breakfast scene, a contented smile on his kind face, as he murmured assentingly, "So—so." He and the Senator had served in the same regiment during the War, Price retiring as Colonel and the Senator as Captain; while the bridegroom's father, Tyringham Lane, had been the regimental surgeon.
"What a good fellow Tyringham was, and how he would have liked to be here!" the Senator was saying sentimentally, as he held out a glass to be refilled. "Poor fellow!—he never got much out of his life; didn't know how to make the most of things,—went out there to that Iowa prairie after the War. You say he left his widow badly off?"
The Colonel nodded, and added with pride, "But John has made that right now."
The Senator, who had settled in Indianapolis and practised railroad law until his clients had elevated him to the Senate, considered complacently the various dispensations of Providence towards men. He said generously:—
"Well, Tyringham's son has good blood, and it will tell. He will make his way. We'll see to that, eh, Beals?" and the Senator sauntered over to a livelier group dominated by Cornelia Pallanton's waving black plumes.
"Oh, marriage!" Conny chaffed, "it's the easiest thing a woman can do, isn't it? Why should one be in a hurry when it's so hard to go back?"
"Matrimony," Fosdick remarked, "is an experiment where nobody's experience counts but your own." He had been torn from the punch-bowl and thus returned to his previous train of thought.
"Is that why some repeat it so often?" Elsie Beals inquired. She had broken her engagement the previous winter and had spent the summer hunting with Indian guides among the Canadian Rockies. She regarded herself as unusual, and turned sympathetically to Fosdick, who also had a reputation for being odd.
"So let us eat and be merry," that young man said, seizing a pate and glass of champagne, "though I never could see why good people should make such an unholy rumpus when two poor souls decide to attempt the great experiment of converting illusion into reality."
"Some succeed," an earnest young man suggested.
Conny, who had turned from the constant Woodyard to the voluble fat man, who might be a Somebody, remarked:—
"I suppose you don't see the puddles when you are in their condition. It's always the belief that we are going to escape 'em that drives us all into your arms."
"What I object to," Fosdick persisted, feeding himself prodigiously, "is not the fact, but this savage glee over it. It's as though a lot of caged animals set up a howl of delight every time the cage door was opened and a new pair was introduced into the pen. They ought to perform the wedding ceremony in sackcloth and ashes, after duly fasting, accompanied by a few faithful friends garbed in black with torches."
Conny gave him a cold, surface smile, setting down his talk as "young" and beamed at the approaching Senator.
"Oh, what an idea!" giggled a little woman. "If you can't dance at your own wedding, you may never have another chance."
Conny, though intent upon the Senator, kept an eye upon Woodyard, introducing him to the distinguished man, thinking, no doubt, that the Chairman of the A. and P. Board might be useful to the young lawyer. For whatever she might be to women, this large blond creature with white neck, voluptuous lips, and slow gaze from childlike eyes had the power of drawing males to her, a power despised and also envied by women. Those simple eyes seemed always to seek information about obvious matters. But behind the eyes Conny was thinking, 'It's rather queer, this crowd. And these Prices with all their money might do so much better. That Fosdick is a silly fellow. The Senator is worn of course, but still important!' And yet Conny, with all her sureness, did not know all her own mental processes. For she, too, was really looking for a mate, weighing, estimating men to that end, and some day she would come to a conclusion,—would take a man, Woodyard or another, giving him her very handsome person, and her intelligence, in exchange for certain definite powers of brain and will.
The bride and groom entered the tent at last. Isabelle, in a renewed glow of triumph, stepped over to the table and with her husband's assistance plunged a knife into the huge cake, while her health was being drunk with cheers. As she firmly cut out a tiny piece, she exposed a thin but beautifully moulded arm.
"Handsome girl," the Senator murmured in Conny's ear. "Must be some sore hearts here to-day. I don't see how such a beauty could escape until she was twenty-six. But girls want their fling these days, same as the men!"
"Toast! Toast the bride!" came voices from all sides, while the waiters hurried here and there slopping the wine into empty glasses.
As the bride left the tent to get ready for departure, she caught sight of Margaret Lawton in a corner of the veranda with Hollenby, who was bending towards her, his eyes fastened on her face. Margaret was looking far away, across the fields to where Dog Mountain rose in the summer haze. Was Margaret deciding her fate at this moment,—attracted, repulsed, waiting for the deciding thrill, while her eyes searched for the ideal of happiness on the distant mountain? She turned to look at the man, drawing back as his hand reached forward. So little, so much—woman's fate was in the making this June day, all about the old house,—attracting, repulsing, weighing,—unconsciously moulding destiny that might easily be momentous in the outcome of the years....
When the bride came down, a few couples had already begun to dance, but they followed the other guests to the north side where the carriage stood ready. Isabelle looked very smart in her new gown, a round travelling hat just framing her brilliant eyes and dark hair. Mrs. Price followed her daughter closely, her brows puckered in nervous fear lest something should be forgotten. She was especially anxious about a certain small bag, and had the maid take out all the hand luggage to make sure it had not been mislaid.
Some of the younger ones led by Vickers pelted the couple with rice, while this delay occurred. It was a silly custom that they felt bound to follow. There was no longer any meaning in the symbol of fertility. Multiply and be fruitful, the Bible might urge, following an ancient economic ideal of happiness. But the end of marriage no longer being this gross purpose, the sterile woman has at last come into honor! ...
The bride was busy kissing a group of young women who had clustered about her,—Elsie Beals, Aline, Alice Johnston, Conny. Avoiding Nannie Lawton's wide open arms, she jumped laughingly into the carriage, then turned for a last kiss from the Colonel.
"Here, out with you Joe," Vickers exclaimed to the coachman. "I'll drive them down to the station. Quick now,—they mustn't lose the express!"
He bundled the old man from the seat, gathered up the reins with a flourish, and whipped the fresh horses. The bride's last look, as the carriage shot through the bunch of oleanders at the gate, gathered in the group of waving, gesticulating men and women, and above them on the steps the Colonel, with his sweet, half-humorous smile, her mother at his side, already greatly relieved, and behind all the serious face of Alice Johnston, the one who knew the mysteries both tender and harsh, and who could still call it all good! ...
Vickers whisked them to the station in a trice, soothing his excitement by driving diabolically, cutting corners and speeding down hill. At the platform President Beals's own car was standing ready for them, the two porters at the steps. The engine of the special was to take them to the junction where the "Bellefleur" would be attached to the night express,—a special favor for the President of the A. and P. The Senator had insisted on their having his camp in the Adirondacks for a month. Isabelle would have preferred her own little log hut in the firs of Dog Mountain, which she and Vickers had built. There they could be really quite alone, forced to care for themselves. But the Colonel could not understand her bit of sentiment, and John thought they ought not to offend the amiable Senator, who had shown himself distinctly friendly. So they were to enter upon their new life enjoying these luxuries of powerful friends.
The porters made haste to put the bags in the car, and the engine snorted.
"Good-by, Mr. Gerrish," Isabelle called to the station agent, who was watching them at a respectful distance. Suddenly he seemed to be an old friend, a part of all that she was leaving behind.
"Good-by, Miss Price—Mrs. Lane," he called back. "Good luck to you!"
"Dear old Vick," Isabelle murmured caressingly, "I hate most to leave you behind."
"Better stay, then,—it isn't too late," he joked. "We could elope with the ponies,—you always said you would run off with me!"
She hugged him more tightly, burying her head in his neck, shaking him gently. "Dear old Vick! Don't be a fool! And be good to Dad, won't you?"
"I'll try not to abuse him."
"You know what I mean—about staying over for the summer. Oh dear, dear!" There was a queer sob in her voice, as if now for the first time she knew what it was. The old life was all over. Vick had been so much of that! And she had seen little or nothing of him since his return from Europe, so absorbed had she been in the bustle of her marriage. Up there on Dog Mountain which swam in the haze of the June afternoon they had walked on snowshoes one cold January night, over the new snow by moonlight, talking marvellously of all that life was to be. She believed then that she should never marry, but remain always Vick's comrade,—to guide him, to share his triumphs. Now she was abandoning that child's plan. She shook with nervous sobs.
"The engineer says we must start, dear," Lane suggested. "We have only just time to make the connection."
Vickers untwisted his sister's arms from his neck and placed them gently in her husband's hands.
"Good-by, girl," he called.
Sinking into a chair near the open door, Isabelle gazed back at the hills of Grafton until the car plunged into a cut. She gave a long sigh. "We're off!" her husband said joyously. He was standing beside her, one hand resting on her shoulder.
"Yes, dear!" She took his strong, muscled hand in hers. But when he tried to draw her to him, she shrank back involuntarily, startled, and looked at him with wide-open eyes as if she would read Destiny in him,—the Man, her husband.
For this was marriage, not the pantomime they had lived through all that day. That was demanded by custom; but now, alone with this man, his eyes alight with love and desire, his lips caressing her hair, his hands drawing her to him,—this was marriage!
Her eyes closed as if to shut out his face,—"Don't, don't!" she murmured vaguely. Suddenly she started to her feet, her eyes wide open, and she held him away from her, looking into him, looking deep into his soul.
It was a hot, close night. After the Bellefleur had been coupled to the Western express at the junction, Lane had the porters make up a bed for Isabelle on the floor of the little parlor next the observation platform, and here at the rear of the long train, with the door open, she lay sleepless through the night hours, listening to the rattle of the trucks, the thud of heavy wheels on the rails, disturbed only when the car was shifted to the Adirondack train by the blue glare of arc lights and phantom figures rushing to and fro in the pallid night.
The excitement of the day had utterly exhausted her; but her mind was extraordinarily alive with impressions,—faces and pictures from this great day of her existence, her marriage. And out of all these crowding images emerged persistently certain ones,—Aline, with the bloom almost gone, the worn air of something carelessly used. That was due to the children, to cares,—the Gorings were poor and the two years abroad must have been a strain. All the girls at St. Mary's had thought that marriage ideal, made all of love. For there was something of the poet in Eugene Goring, the slim scholar, walking with raised head and speaking with melodious voice. He was a girl's ideal.... And then came Nan Lawton, with her jesting tone, and sly, half-shut eyes. Isabelle remembered how brilliant Nan's marriage was, how proud she herself had been to have a part in it. Nan's face was blotted by Alice Johnston's with her phlegmatic husband. She was happy, serene, but old and acquainted with care.
Why should she think of them, of any other marriage? Hers was to be different,—oh, yes, quite exceptional and perfect, with an intimacy, a mutual helpfulness.... The girls at St. Mary's had all had their emotional experiences, which they confessed to one another; and she had had hers, of course, like her affair with Fosdick; but so innocent, so merely kittenish that they had almost disappeared from memory. These girls at St. Mary's read poetry, and had dreams of heroes, in the form of football players. They all thought about marriage, coming as they did from well-to-do parents, whose daughters might be expected to marry. Marriage, men, position in the world,—all that was their proper inheritance.
After St. Mary's there had been two winters in St. Louis,—her first real dinners and parties, her first real men. Then a brief season in Washington as Senator Thomas's guest, where the horizon, especially the man part of it, had considerably widened. She had made a fair success in Washington, thanks to her fresh beauty and spirit, and also, she was frank to confess, thanks to the Senator's interest and the reputation of her father's wealth. Then had come a six months with her mother and Vickers in Europe, from which she returned abruptly to get engaged, to begin life seriously.
These experimental years had seemed to her full of radiant avenues, any one of which she was free to enter, and for a while she had gone joyously on, discovering new avenues, pleasing herself with trying them all imaginatively. At the head of all these avenues had stood a man, of course. She could recall them all: the one in St. Louis who had followed her to Washington, up the Nile, would not be turned away. Once he had touched her, taken her hand, and she had felt cold,—she knew that his was not her way. In Washington there had been a brilliant congressman whom the Senator approved of,—an older man. She had given him some weeks of puzzled deliberation, then rejected him, as she considered sagely, because he spoke only to her mind. Perhaps the most dangerous had been the Austrian whom she had met in Rome. She almost yielded there; but once when they were alone together she had caught sight of depths in him, behind his black eyes and smiling lips, that made her afraid,—deep differences of race. The Prices were American in an old-fashioned, clean, plain sense. So when he persisted, she made her mother engage passage for home and fled with the feeling that she must put an ocean between herself and this man, fled to the arms of the man she was to marry, who somehow in the midst of his busy life managed to meet her in New York.
But why him? Out of all these avenues, her possibilities of various fate, why had she chosen him, the least promising outwardly? Was it done in a mood of reaction against the other men who had sought her? He was most unlike them all, with a background of hard struggle, with limitations instead of privileges such as they had. The Colonel's daughter could understand John Lane's persistent force,—patient, quiet, sure. She remembered his shy, inexperienced face when her father first brought him to the house for dinner. She had thought little of him then,—the Colonel was always bringing home some rough diamond,—but he had silently absorbed her as he did everything in his path, and selected her, so to speak, as he selected whatever he wanted. And after that whenever she came back to her father's home from her little expeditions into the world, he was always there, and she came to know that he wanted her,—was waiting until his moment should come. It came.
Never since then had she had a regret for those possibilities that had been hers,—for those other men standing at the other avenues and inviting her. From the moment that his arms had held her, she knew that he was the best,—so much stronger, finer, simpler than any other. She was proud that she had been able to divine this quality and could prefer real things to sham. During the engagement months she had learned, bit by bit, the story of his struggle, what had been denied to him of comfort and advantage, what he had done for himself and for his mother. She yearned to give him what he had never had,—pleasure, joy, the soft suavities of life, what she had had always.
Now she was his! Her wandering thoughts came back to that central fact.
Half frightened, she drew the blanket about her shoulders and listened. He had been so considerate of her,—had left her here to rest after making sure of her comfort and gone forward to the stuffy stateroom to sleep, divining that she was not yet ready to accept him; that if he took her now, he should violate something precious in her,—that she was not fully won. She realized this delicate instinct and was grateful to him. Of course she was his,—only his; all the other avenues had been closed forever by her love for him, her marriage to him. Ah, that should be wonderful for them both, all the years that were to come! Nevertheless, here on the threshold, her wayward soul had paused the merest moment to consider those other avenues, what they might have offered of experience, of knowledge, had she taken any other one of them. Were she here with another than him, destiny, her inmost self, the whole world of being would be changed, would be other than it was to be! What was that mysterious power that settled fate on its grooves? What were those other lives within her soul never to be lived, the lives she might have lived? Bewildered, weary, she stretched out her arms dreamily to life, and with parted lips sank into slumber....
The sun was streaming through the open door; the train had come to a halt. Isabelle awoke with a start, afraid. Her husband was bending over her and she stared up directly into his amused eyes, looked steadily at him, remembering now all that she had thought the night before. This was her avenue—this was he ... yet she closed her eyes as he bent still nearer to kiss her neck, her temples, her lips. Like a frightened child she drew the clothes close about her, and turned from his eager embraces. Beyond his face she saw a line of straight, stiff firs beside the track, and the blue foot-hills through which the train was winding its way upwards to the mountains. She stretched herself sleepily, murmuring:—
"Dear, I'm so tired! Is it late?"
"Ten o'clock. We're due in half an hour. I had to wake you."
"In half an hour!" She fled to the dressing-room, putting him off with a fleeting kiss.
One of the Senator's guides met them at the station with a buckboard. All the way driving upwards through the woods to the camp they were very gay. It was like one of those excursions she used to take with Vickers when he was in his best, most expansive mood, alternately chaffing and petting her. Lane was in high spirits, throwing off completely that sober self which made him so weighty in his world, revealing an unexpected boyishness. He joked with the guide, talked fishing and shooting. With the deep breaths of mountain air he expanded, his eyes flashing a new fire of joy at sight of the woods and streams. Once when they stopped to water the horses he seized the drinking-cup and dashed up the slope to a spring hidden among the trees. He brought back a brimming cupful of cold water, which she emptied. Then with a boyish, chivalrous smile he put his lips to the spot where she had drunk and drained the last drop. "That's enough for me!" he said, and they laughed self-consciously. His homage seemed to say that thus through life he would be content with what she left him to drink,—absurd fancy, but at this moment altogether delightful.... Later she rested, pillowing her head on his shoulder, covered by his coat, while the trap jolted on through the woods between high hills. Now and then he touched her face with the tips of his strong fingers, brushing away the wandering threads of hair. Very peaceful, happy, feeling that it was all as she would have wished it, she shut her eyes, content to rest on this comrade, so strong and so gentle. Life would be like this, always.
The Senator's camp was a camp only in name, of course; in fact it was an elaborate and expensive rustic establishment on a steep bluff above a little mountain lake. The Japanese cook had prepared a rich dinner, and the champagne was properly iced. The couple tiptoed about the place, looking at each other in some dismay, and John readily fell in with her suggestion that they should try sleeping in the open, with a rough shelter of boughs,—should make their first nest for themselves. The guide took them to a spot some distance up the lake and helped them cut the fir boughs, all but those for the bed, which they insisted upon gathering for themselves. After bringing up the blankets and the bags he paddled back to the camp, leaving them to themselves in the solitude of the woods, under the black, star-strewn sky.
Alone with him thus beside their little fire her heart was full of dream and content, of peace and love. They two seemed to have come up out of the world to some higher level of life. After the joyous day this solitude of the deep forest was perfect. When the fire had died down to the embers, he circled her with his arms and kissed her. Although her body yielded to his strong embrace her lips were cold, hard, and her eyes answered his passion with a strange, aloof look, as if her soul waited in fear.... She knew what marriage was to be, although she had never listened to the allusions whispered among married women and more experienced girls. Something in the sex side of the relations between men and women had always made her shrink. She was not so much pure in body and soul, as without sex, unborn. She knew the fact of nature, the eternal law of life repeating itself through desire and passion; but she realized it remotely, only in her mind, as some necessary physiological mechanism of living, like perspiration, fatigue, hunger. But it had not spoken in her body, in her soul; she did not feel that it ever could speak to her as it was speaking in the man's lighted eyes, in his lips. So now as always she was cold, tranquil beneath her lover's kisses.
And later on their bed of boughs, with her husband's arms about her, his heart throbbing against her breast, his warm breath covering her neck, she lay still, very still,—aloof, fearful of this mystery to be revealed, a little weary, wishing that she were back once more in the car or in her own room at the Farm, for this night, to return on the morrow to her comrade for another joyous, free day.
"My love! ... Come to me! ... I love you, love you!" ...
The passionate tone beat against her ears, yet roused no thrilling response. The trembling voice, the intensity of the worn old words coming from him,—it was all like another man suddenly appearing in the guise of one she thought she knew so well! The taut muscles of his powerful arm pressing against her troubled her. She would have fled,—why could one be like this! Still she caressed his face and hair, kissing him gently. Oh, yes, she loved him,—she was his! He was her husband.' Nevertheless she could not meet him wholly in this inmost intimacy, and her heart was troubled. If he could be content to be her companion, her lover! But this other thing was the male, the something which made all men differ from all women in the crisis of emotion—so she supposed—and must be endured. She lay passive in his arms, less yielding than merely acquiescent, drawn in upon herself to something smaller than she was before....
When he slept at her side, his head pillowed close to hers on the fragrant fir, she still lay awake, her eyes staring up at the golden stars, still fearful, uncomprehending. At last she was his, as he would have her,—wholly his, so she said, seeking comfort,—and thus kissing his brow, with a long, wondering sigh she fell asleep by his side.
In the morning they dipped into the cold black lake, and as they paddled back to the camp for breakfast while the first rays of the warm sun shone through the firs in gold bars, she felt like herself once more,—a companion ready for a frolic. The next morning Lane insisted on cooking their breakfast, for he was a competent woodsman. She admired the deft way in which he built his little fire and toasted the bacon. In the undress of the woods he showed at his best,—self-reliant, capable. There followed a month of lovely days which they spent together from sunrise to starlight, walking, fishing, canoeing, swimming,—days of fine companionship when they learned the human quality in each other. He was strong, buoyant, perfectly sure of himself. No emergency could arise where he would be found wanting in the man's part. The man in him she admired,—it was what first had attracted her,—was proud of it, just as he was proud of her lithe figure, her beauty, her gayety, and her little air of worldliness. She began to assume that this was all of marriage, at least the essential part of it, and that the other, the passionate desire, was something desired by the man and to be avoided by the woman.
They liked their guide, one of those American gypsies, half poacher, half farmer. He kept a wife and family in a shack at the foot of the lake, and Isabelle, with a woman's need for the natural order of life, sought out and made friends with the wild little brood. The woman had been a mill-hand, discovered by the woodsman on a chance visit to the town where she worked, and made his wife, his woman. Not yet thirty, she had had eight children, and another was coming. Freckled, with a few wisps of thin blond hair, her front teeth imperfect, she was an untidy, bedraggled object, used and prematurely aged. Nevertheless the guide seemed attached to her, and when on a Sunday the family went down to the settlement, following the trail through the camp, Isabelle could see him help the woman at the wire fence, carrying on one arm the youngest child, trailing his gun in the other hand.
"He must care for her!" Isabelle remarked.
"Why, of course. Why not?" her husband asked.
"But think—" It was all she could say, not knowing how to put into words the mournful feeling this woman with her brood of young gave her. What joy, what life for herself could such a creature have? Isabelle, her imagination full of comfortable houses with little dinner parties, pretty furniture, books, theatres, charity committees,—all that she conceived made up a properly married young woman's life,—could not understand the existence of the guide's wife. She was merely the man's woman, a creature to give him children, to cook the food, to keep the fire going. He had the woods, the wild things he hunted; he had, too, his time of drink and rioting; but she was merely his drudge and the instrument of his animal passion. Well, civilization had put a few milestones between herself and Molly Sewall! In the years to come her mind would revert often to this family as she saw it filing down the path to the settlement, the half-clothed children peeping shyly at her, the woman trailing an old shawl from her bent shoulders, the man striding on ahead with his gun and his youngest baby, careless so long as there was a fire, a bit of food, and the forest to roam in....
So passed these days of their honeymoon, each one perfect, except for the occasional disquieting presence of passion, of unappeasable desire in the man. This male fire was as mysterious, as inexplicable to her as that first night,—something to be endured forgivingly, but feared, almost hated for its fierce invasion of her. If her husband could only take her as companion,—the deep, deep friend, the first and best for the long journey of life! Perhaps some day that would content him; perhaps this flower of passion came only at first, to be subdued by the work of life. She never dreamed that some day she herself might change, might be waked by passion. And yet she knew that she loved her husband, yearned to give him all that he desired. Taking his face between her hands, she would kiss it gently, tenderly, as a mother might kiss a hot, impulsive child trying to still a restless spirit within.
This mystery of passion! It swept over the man, transfiguring him as the summer storm swept across the little lake, blackening the sky with shadows through which the lightning played fearsomely. She saw this face hot with desire of her, as the face of a stranger,—another one than the strong, self-contained man she had married,—a face with strange animal and spiritual depths in it, all mixed and vivified. It was the brute, she said to herself, and feared. Brute and God lie close together; but she could not see the God,—felt only the fury of the brute.
Like the storm it passed off, leaving him as she loved him, her tender and worshipping husband. It never entered her thought that she might love any man more than she loved him, that perhaps some day she would long for a passion to meet her own heart. She saw now no lack in her cold limbs, her hard lips, her passionless eyes. She was still Diana,—long, shapely, muscular. In her heart she loved this Diana self, so aloof from desire!
The last night of their stay in the mountains she revolved all these things in her mind as they lay side by side on their fir couch, he asleep in a deep, dreamless fatigue, she alert and tense after the long day in the spirituous air, the night wind sighing to her from the upper branches of the firs. To-morrow they would start for the West, to begin the prose of life. Suddenly a thought flashed over her that stopped the beat of her pulse,—she might already have conceived! She did not wish to escape having children, at least one or two; she knew that it was to be expected, that it was necessary and good. He would want his child and she also, and her father and mother would be made happy by children. But her heart said,—not yet, already. Something in which her part had been so slight! She felt the injustice of Nature that let conception come to a woman indifferently, merely of desire in man and acquiescence in woman. How could that be! How could woman conceive so blindly? The child should be got with joy, should flower from a sublime moment of perfect union when the man and the woman were lifted out of themselves to some divine pinnacle of experience, of soul and body union and self-effacement. Then conception would be but the carrying over of their deep yearning, each for the other, the hunger of souls and bodies to create.
Now she saw that it could be otherwise, as perhaps with her this very moment: that Nature took the seed, however it might fall, and nourished it wherever it fell, and made of it, regardless of human will, the New Life,—heedless of the emotion of the two that were concerned in the process. For the first time she saw that pitiless, indifferent face of Nature, intent only on the Result, the thing created, scorning the spiritual travail of the creator, ignoring any great revelation of the man and the woman that would seem to count for so much in this process of life-making. Thus a drunken beast might beget his child in the body of a loathing woman, blind souls sowing life blindly for a blind future.
The idea clutched her like fear: she would defy this fate that would use her like any other piece of matrix, merely to bear the seed and nourish it for a certain period of its way, one small step in the long process. Her heart demanded more than a passive part in the order of Nature. Her soul needed its share from the first moment of conception in making that which she was to give to the race. Some day a doctor would explain to her that she was but the soil on which the fertile germ grew like a vegetable, without her will, her consent, her creating soul! But she would reject that coarse interpretation,—the very blasphemy of love.
And here, at this point, as she lay in the dark beneath the sighing firs, it dawned in her dimly that something was wanting in her marriage, in the union with the man she had chosen. She had taken him of her own free choice; she was willingly his; she would bear his children if they came. Her body and her soul were committed to him by choice, and by that ceremony of marriage before the people in the chapel,—to take her part with him in the endless process of Fate, the continuance of life.
Nevertheless, lying there in full contemplation of this new life that might already be putting its clutch upon her life, to suck from her its own being, she rebelled at it all. Her heart cried for her part, her very own, for that mysterious exaltation that should make her really one with the father in the act of creation, in the fulfilment of Love. And somehow she knew assuredly that this could not be, not with this man by her side, not with her husband....
She turned to him, pillowed there at her side, one hand resting fondly on her arm. Her eyes stared at him through the darkness, trying to read the familiar features. Did he, too, know this? Did he feel that it was impossible ever to be really one with her? Did he suspect the terrible defeat she was suffering now? A tear dropped from her eye and fell on the upturned face of the sleeper. He moved, murmured, "dearest," and settled back into his deep sleep; taking his hand from her arm. With a little cry she fell on him and kissed him, asking his forgiveness for the mistake between them. She put her head close to his, her lips to his lips; for she was his and yet not his,—a strange division separating them, a cleavage between their bodies and their souls.
"Why did we not know?" something whispered within. But she answered herself more calmly,—"It will all come right in the end—it must come right—for his sake!"
When young John Lane first came to St. Louis to work as a clerk in the traffic department of the Atlantic and Pacific, he had called on Colonel Price at his office, a dingy little room in the corner of the second story of the old brick building which had housed the wholesale hardware business of Parrott and Price for a generation. The old merchant had received the young man with the pleasant kindliness that kept his three hundred employees always devoted to him.
"I knew your father, sir!" he said, half-closing his eyes and leaning back in his padded old office chair. "Let me see—it was in sixty-two in camp before Vicksburg. I went to consult him about a boil on my leg. It was a bad boil,—it hurt me.... Your father was a fine man—What are you doing in St. Louis?" he concluded abruptly, looking out of his shrewd blue eyes at the fresh-colored young man whose strong hands gripped squarely the arms of his chair.
And from that day Lane knew that the Colonel never lost sight of him. When his chance came, as in time it did come through one of the mutations of the great corporation, he suspected that the old hardware merchant, who was a close friend of the chief men in the road, had spoken the needed word to lift the clerk out of the rut. At any rate the Colonel had not forgotten the son of Tyringham Lane, and the young man had often been to the generous, ugly Victorian house,—built when the hardware business made its first success.
Nevertheless, when, three years later John Lane made another afternoon visit to that dingy office in the Parrott and Price establishment, his hands trembed nervously as he sat waiting while the Colonel scrawled his signature to several papers.
"Well, John!" the old man remarked finally, shoving the papers towards the waiting stenographer. "How's railroadin' these days?"
"All right," Lane answered buoyantly. "They have transferred me to the Indiana division, headquarters at Torso—superintendent of the Torso and Toledo."
"Indeed! But you'll be back here some day, eh?"
"I hope so!"
"That's good!" The Colonel smiled sympathetically, as he always did when he contemplated energetic youth, climbing the long ladder with a firm grip on each rung.
"I came to see you about another matter," Lane began hesitantly.
"Anything I can do for you?"
"Yes, sir; I want to marry your daughter,—and I'd like you to know it."
The old merchant's face became suddenly grave, the twinkle disappearing from his blue eyes. He listened thoughtfully while the young man explained himself. He was still a poor man, of course; his future was to be made. But he did not intend to remain poor. His salary was not much to offer a girl like the Colonel's daughter; but it would go far in Torso—and it was the first step. Finally he was silent, well aware that there was small possibility that he should ever be a rich man, as Colonel Price was, and that it was presumptuous of him to seek to marry his daughter, and therefore open to mean interpretation. But he felt that the Colonel was not one to impute low motives. He knew the very real democracy of the successful merchant, who never had forgotten his own story.
"What does Belle say?" the Colonel asked.
"I should not have come here if I didn't think—" the young man laughed.
Then the Colonel pulled down the top of his desk, signifying that the day's business was done.
"We have never desired what is called a good match for our girl," he remarked slowly in reply to a further plea from Lane. "All we want is the best;" he laid grave emphasis on this watchword. "And the best is that Isabelle should be happy in her marriage. If she loves the man she marries, she must be that.... And I don't suppose you would be here if you weren't sure you could make her love you enough to be happy!"
The old man's smile returned for a fleeting moment, and then he mused.
"I am afraid it will be hard for her to settle down in a place like Torso—after all she's had," Lane conceded. "But I don't expect that Torso is the end of my rope. I shall give her a better chance than that, I hope."
The Colonel nodded sympathetically.
"I shouldn't consider it any hardship for my daughter to live in Torso or in any other place—if she has a good husband and loves him. That is all, my boy!"
Lane, who realized the grades of a plutocratic democracy better than three years before, and knew the position of the Prices in the city, comprehended the splendid simplicity, the single-mindedness of the man, who could thus completely ignore considerations of wealth and social position in the marriage of his only daughter.
"I shall do my best, sir, to make her happy all her life!" the young man stammered.
"I know you will, my boy, and I think you will succeed, if she loves you as you say she does."
Then the Colonel took his hat from the nail behind the door, and the two men continued their conversation in the street. They did not turn up town to the club and residence quarter, but descended towards the river, passing on their way the massive skeleton of the ten-story building that was to house, when completed, the Parrott and Price business. It rose in the smoky sunset, stretching out spidery tendons of steel to the heavens, and from its interior came a mighty clangor. The Colonel paused to look at the new building,—the monument of his success as a merchant.
"Pretty good? Corbin's doing it,—he's the best in the country, they tell me."
Soon they kept on past the new building into an old quarter of the city, the Colonel apparently having some purpose that guided his devious course through these unattractive streets.
"There!" he exclaimed at last, pointing across a dirty street to a shabby little brick house. "That's the place where Isabelle's mother and I started in St. Louis. We had a couple of rooms over there the first winter. The store was just a block further west. It's torn down now. I passed some of the best days of my life in those rooms on the second story.... It isn't the outside that counts, my boy!" The Colonel tucked his hand beneath the young man's arm, as they turned back to the newer quarters of the city.
Mrs. Price, it should be said, did not accept Lane's suit as easily as the Colonel. Her imagination had been expanded by that winter in Washington, and though she was glad that Isabelle had not accepted any of "those foreigners," yet Harmony Price had very definite ideas of the position that the Colonel's daughter might aspire to in America.... But her objections could not stand before the Colonel's flat consent and Isabelle's decision.
"They'll be a great deal better off than we were," her husband reminded her.
"That's no reason why Belle should have to start where we did, or anywhere near it!" his wife retorted. What one generation had been able to gain in the social fight, it seemed to her only natural that the next should at least hold.
The Colonel gave the couple their new home in Torso, selecting, with a fine eye for real estate values, a large "colonial" wooden house with ample grounds out beyond the smoke of the little city, near the new country club. Mrs. Price spent an exciting three months running back and forth between New York, St. Louis, and Torso furnishing the new home. Isabelle's liberal allowance was to continue indefinitely, and beyond this the Colonel promised nothing, now or later; nor would Lane have accepted more from his hand. It was to the Torso house that the Lanes went immediately after their month in the Adirondacks.
* * * * *
Torso, Indiana, is one of those towns in the Mississippi Valley which makes more impression the farther from New York one travels. New York has never heard of it, except as it appears occasionally on a hotel register among other queer places that Americans confess to as home. At Pittsburg it is a round black spot on the map, in the main ganglia of the great A. and P. and the junction point of two other railroads. At Cincinnati it is a commercial centre of considerable importance, almost a rival. While Torso to Torso is the coming pivot of the universe.
It is an old settlement—some families with French names still own the large distilleries—on the clay banks of a sluggish creek in the southern part of the state, and there are many Kentuckians in its population. Nourished by railroads, a division headquarters of the great A. and P., near the soft-coal beds, with a tin-plate factory, a carpet factory, a carriage factory, and a dozen other mills and factories, Torso is a black smudge in a flat green landscape from which many lines of electric railway radiate forth along the country roads. And along the same roads across the reaches of prairie, over the swelling hills, stalk towering poles, bearing many fine wires glistening in the sunlight and singing the importance of Torso to the world at large.
The Lanes arrived at night, and to Isabelle the prairie heavens seemed dark and far away, the long broad streets with their bushy maple trees empty, and the air filled with hoarse plaints, the rumbling speech of the railroad. She was homesick and fearful, as they mounted the steps to the new house and pushed open the shining oak door that stuck and smelled of varnish. The next morning Lane whisked off on a trolley to the A. and P. offices, while Isabelle walked around the house, which faced the main northern artery of Torso. From the western veranda she could see the roof of the new country club through a ragged group of trees. On the other side were dotted the ample houses of Torso aristocracy, similar to hers, as she knew, finished in hard wood, electric-lighted, telephoned, with many baths, large "picture" windows of plate glass, with potted ferns in them, and much the same furniture,—wholesome, comfortable "homes." Isabelle, turning back to her house to cope with the three Swedes that her mother had sent on from St. Louis, had a queer sense of anti-climax. She swept the landscape with a critical eye, feeling she knew it all, even to what the people were saying at this moment in those large American-Georgian mansions; what Torso was doing at this moment in its main street.... No, it could not be for the Lanes for long,—that was the conviction in her heart. Their destiny would be larger, fuller than any to be found in Torso. Just what she meant by a "large, full life," she had never stopped to set down; but she was sure it was not to be found here in Torso.
Here began, however, the routine of her married life. Each morning she watched her husband walk down the broad avenue to the electric car,—alert, strong, waving his newspaper to her as he turned the corner. Each afternoon she waited for him at the same place, or drove down to the office with the Kentucky horses that she had bought, to take him for a drive before dinner. He greeted her each time with the same satisfied smile, apparently not wilted by the long hours in a hot office. There was a smudged, work-a-day appearance to his face and linen, the mark of Torso, the same mark that the mill-hands across the street from the A. and P. offices brought home to their wives.... Thus the long summer days dragged. For distraction there was a mutiny in the crew of Swedish servants, but Isabelle, with her mother's instinct for domestic management, quickly produced order, in spite of the completely servantless state of Torso. She would telegraph to St. Louis for what she wanted and somehow always got it. The house ran,—that was her business. It was pretty and attractive,—that was also her business. But this woman's work she tossed off quickly. Then what? She pottered in the garden a little, but when the hot blasts of prairie heat in mid-August had shrivelled all the vines and flowers and cooked the beds into slabs of clay, she retired from the garden and sent to St. Louis for the daily flowers. She read a good deal, almost always novels, in the vague belief that she was "keeping up" with modern literature, and she played at translating some German lyrics.
Then people began to call,—the wives of the Torso great, her neighbors in those ample mansions scattered all about the prairie. These she reported to John with a mocking sense of their oddity.
"Mrs. Fraser came to-day. What is she? Tin-plate or coal?"
"He's the most important banker here," her husband explained seriously.
"Oh,—well, she asked me to join the 'travel-class.' They are going through the Holy Land. What do you suppose a 'travel-class' is?"...
Again it was the wife of the chief coal operator, Freke, "who wanted me to know that she always got her clothes from New York." She added gently, "I think she wished to find out if we are fit for Torso society. I did my best to give her the impression we were beneath it."...
These people, all the "society" of Torso, they met also at the country club, where they went Sundays for a game of golf, which Lane was learning. The wife of the A. and P. superintendent could not be ignored by Torso, and so in spite of Isabelle's efforts there was forming around her a social life. But the objective point of the day remained John,—his going and coming.
"Busy day?" she would ask when he bent to kiss her.
"They're all busy days!"
"Tell me what you did."
"Oh," he would answer vaguely, "just saw people and dictated letters and telegrams,—yes, it was a busy day." And he left her to dress for dinner.
She knew that he was weary after all the problems that he had thrust his busy mind into since the morning. She had no great curiosity to know what these problems were. She had been accustomed to the sanctity of business reserve in her father's house: men disappeared in the morning to their work and emerged to wash and dress and be as amusing as they might for the few remaining hours of the day. There were rumors of what went on in that mysterious world of business, but the right kind of men did not disclose the secrets of the office to women.