TOLD IN A FRENCH GARDEN
BY Mildred Aldrich
Author of "A Hilltop on the Marne"
BOSTON SMALL, MAYNARD & COMPANY 1916
Copyright, 1916 BY MILDRED ALDRICH
F. E. C.
a prince of comrades and a royal friend, whose quaint humor gladdened the days of my early struggle, and whose unfailing faith inspired me in later days to turn a smiling face to Fate
CHAPTER INTRODUCTION How We Came into the Garden
I THE YOUNGSTER'S STORY It Happened at Midnight—The Tale of a Bride's New Home
II THE TRAINED NURSE'S STORY The Son of Josephine—The Tale of a Foundling
III THE CRITIC'S STORY 'Twas in the Indian Summer—The Tale of an Actress
IV THE DOCTOR'S STORY As One Dreams—The Tale of an Adolescent
V THE SCULPTOR'S STORY Unto This End—The Tale of a Virgin
VI THE DIVORCEE'S STORY One Woman's Philosophy—The Tale of a Modern Wife
VII THE LAWYER'S STORY The Night Before the Wedding—The Tale of a Bride-Elect
VIII THE JOURNALIST'S STORY In a Railway Station—The Tale of a Dancer
IX THE VIOLINIST'S STORY The Soul of the Song—The Tale of a Fiancee
X EPILOGUE Adieu—How We Went Out of the Garden
TOLD IN A FRENCH GARDEN
HOW WE CAME INTO THE GARDEN
It was by a strange irony of Fate that we found ourselves reunited for a summer's outing, in a French garden, in July, 1914.
With the exception of the Youngster, we had hardly met since the days of our youth.
We were a party of unattached people, six men, two women, your humble servant, and the Youngster, who was an outsider.
With the exception of the latter, we had all gone to school or college or dancing class together, and kept up a sort of superficial acquaintance ever since—that sort of relation in which people know something of one another's opinions and absolutely nothing of one another's real lives.
There was the Doctor, who had studied long in Germany, and become an authority on mental diseases, developed a distaste for therapeutics, and a passion for research and the laboratory. There was the Lawyer, who knew international law as he knew his Greek alphabet, and hated a court room. There was the Violinist, who was known the world over in musical sets,—everywhere, except in the concert room. There was the Journalist, who had travelled into almost as many queer places as Richard Burton, seen more wars, and followed more callings. There was the Sculptor, the fame of whose greater father had almost paralyzed a pair of good modeller's hands. There was the Critic, whose friends believed that in him the world had lost a great romancer, but whom a combination of hunger and laziness, and a proneness to think that nothing not genius was worth while, had condemned to be a mere breadwinner, but a breadwinner who squeezed a lot out of life, and who fervently believed that in his next incarnation he would really be "it." Then there was "Me," and of the other two women—one was a Trained Nurse, and the other a Divorcee, and—well, none of us really knew just what she had become, but we knew that she was very rich, and very handsome, and had a leaning toward some sort of new religion. As for the Youngster—he was the son of an old chum of the Doctor—his ward, in fact—and his hobby was flying.
Our reunion, after so many years, was a rather pretty story.
In the summer of 1913, the Doctor and the Divorcee, who had lost sight of one another for twenty years, met by chance in Paris. Her ex-husband had been a college friend of the Doctor. They saw a great deal of one another in the lazy way that people who really love France, and are done sightseeing, can do.
One day it occurred to them to take a day's trip into the country, as unattached people now and then can do. They might have gone out in a car—but they chose the railroad, with a walk at the end—on the principle that no one can know and love a country who does not press its earth beneath his feet,—the Doctor would probably have said, "lay his head upon its bosom." By an accident—they missed a train—they found themselves at sunset of a beautiful day in a small village, and with no possible way of getting back to Paris that night unless they chose to walk fifteen miles to the nearest railway junction. After a long day's tramp that seemed too much of a good thing.
So they looked about to find a shelter for the night. The village—it was only a hamlet—had no hotel, no cafe, even. Finally an old peasant said that old Mother Servin—a widow—living a mile up the road—had a big house, lived alone, and could take them in,—if she wanted to,—he could not say that she would.
It seemed to them worth trying, so they started off in high spirits to tramp another mile, deciding that, if worse became worst—well—the night was warm—they could sleep by the roadside under the stars.
It was near the hour when it should have been dark—but in France at that season one can almost read out of doors until nine—when they found the place. With some delay the gate in the stone wall was opened, and they were face to face with the old widow.
It was a long argument, but the Doctor had a winning way, and at the end they were taken in,—more, they were fed in the big clean kitchen, and then each was sheltered in a huge room, with cement floor, scrupulously clean, with the quaint old furniture and the queer appointments of a French farmhouse.
The next morning, when the Doctor threw open the heavy wooden shutters to his window, he gave a whistle of delight to find himself looking out into what seemed to be a French Paradise—and better than that he had never asked.
It was a wilderness. Way off in the distance he got glimpses of broken walls with all kinds of green things creeping and climbing, and hanging on for life. Inside the walls there was a riot of flowers—hollyhocks and giroflees, dahlias and phlox, poppies and huge daisies, and roses everywhere, even climbing old tree trunks, and sprawling all over the garden front of the rambling house. The edges of the paths had green borders that told of Corbeil d'Argent in Midwinter, and violets in early spring. He leaned out and looked along the house. It was just a jumble of all sorts of buildings which had evidently been added at different times. It seemed to be on half a dozen elevations, and no two windows were of the same size, while here and there an outside staircase led up into a loft.
Once he had taken it in he dressed like a flash—he could not get out into that garden quickly enough, to pray the Widow to serve coffee under a huge tree in the centre of the garden, about the trunk of which a rude table had been built, and it was there that the Divorcee found him when she came out, simply glowing with enthusiasm—the house, the garden, the Widow, the day—everything was perfect.
While they were taking their coffee, poured from the earthen jug, in the thick old Rouen cups, the Divorcee said:
"How I'd love to own a place like this. No one would ever dream of building such a house. It has taken centuries of accumulated needs to expand it into being. If one tried to do the thing all at once it would look too on-purpose. This place looks like a happy combination of circumstances which could not help itself."
"Well, why not? It might be possible to have just this. Let's ask the Widow."
So, when they were sitting over their cigarettes, and the old woman was clearing the table, the Doctor looked her over, and considered the road of approach.
She was a rugged old woman, well on toward eighty, with a bronzed, weather-worn face, abundant coarse gray hair, a heavy shapeless figure, but a firm bearing, in spite of her rounded back. As far as they could see, they were alone on the place with her. The Doctor decided to jump right into the subject.
"Mother," he said, "I suppose you don't want to sell this place?"
The old woman eyed him a moment with her sharp dark eyes.
"But, yes, Monsieur," she replied. "I should like it very well, only it is not possible. No one would be willing to pay my price. Oh, no, no one. No, indeed."
"Well," said the Doctor, "how do you know that? What is the price?—Is it permitted to ask?"
The old woman hesitated,—started to speak—changed her mind, and turned away, muttering. "Oh, no, Monsieur,—it is not worth the trouble—no one will ever pay my price."
The Doctor jumped up, laughing, ran after her, took her by the arm, and led her back to the table.
"Now, come, come, Mother," he remarked, "let us hear the price at any rate. I am so curious."
"Well," said the Widow, "it is like this. I would like to get for it what my brother paid for it, when he bought it at the death of my father—it was to settle with the rest of the heirs—we were eight then. They are all dead but me. But no, no one will ever pay that price, so I may as well let it go to my niece. She is the last. She doesn't need it. She has land enough. The cultivator has a hard time these days. It is as much as I can do to make the old place feed me and pay the taxes, and I am getting old. But no one will ever pay the price, and what will my brother think of me when the bon Dieu calls me, if I sell it for less than he paid? As for that, I don't know what he'll say to me for selling it at all. But I am getting old to live here alone—all alone. But no one will ever pay the price. So I may as well die here, and then my brother can't blame me. But it is lonely now, and I am growing too old. Besides, I don't suppose you want to buy it. What would a gentleman do with this?"
"Well," said the Doctor, "I don't really know what a gentleman would do with it," and he added, under his breath, in English, "but I know mighty well what this fellow could do with it, if he could get it," and he lighted a fresh cigarette.
The keen old eyes had watched his face.
"I don't suppose you want to buy it?" she persisted.
"Well," responded the Doctor, "how can a poor man like me say, if you don't care to name your price, and unless that price is within reason?"
After some minutes of hesitation the old woman drew a deep breath. "Well," she said, with the determination of one who expected to be scoffed at, "I won't take a sou less than my brother paid."
"Come on, Mother," said the Doctor, "what did your brother pay? No nonsense, you know."
"Well, if you must know—it was FIVE THOUSAND FRANCS, and I can't and won't sell it for less. There, now!"
There was a long silence.
The Doctor and his companion avoided one another's eyes. After a while, he said in an undertone, in English: "By Jove, I'm going to buy it."
"No, no," remonstrated his companion, her eyes gazing down the garden vista to where the wistaria and clematis and flaming trumpet flower flaunted on the old wall. "I am going to have it—I thought of it first. I want it."
"So do I," laughed the Doctor. "Never wanted anything more in all my life."
"For how long," she asked, "would a rover like you want this?"
"Rover yourself! And you? Besides what difference does it make how long I want it—since I want it now? I want to give a party—haven't given a party since—since Class Day."
The Divorcee sighed. Still gazing down the garden she said quietly: "How well I remember—ninety-two!"
Then there was another silence before she turned to him suddenly: "See here—all this is very irregular-so, that being the case—why shouldn't we buy it together? We know each other. Neither of us will ever stay here long. One summer apiece will satisfy us, though it is lovely. Be a sport. We'll draw lots as to who is to have the first party."
The Doctor waved the old woman away. Her keen eyes watched too sharply. Then, with their elbows on the table, they had a long and heated argument. Probably there were more things touched on than the garden. Who knows? At the end of it the Divorcee walked away down that garden vista, and the old woman was called and the Doctor took her at her word. And out of that arrangement emerged the scheme which resulted in our finding ourselves, a year later, within the old walls of that French garden.
Of course a year's work had been done on the interior, and Doctor and Divorcee had scoured the department for old furniture. Water had been brought a great distance, a garage had been built with servants' quarters over it—there were no servants in the house,—but the look of the place, we were assured, had not been changed, and both Doctor and Divorcee declared that they had had the year of their lives. Well, if they had, the place showed it.
But, as Fate would have it, the second night we sat down to dinner in that garden, news had come of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand-Charles-Louis Joseph-Marie d'Autriche-Este, whom the tragic death of Prince Rudolphe, almost exactly twenty-four years and six months earlier to a day, had made Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary—and the tone of our gathering was changed. From that day the party threatened to become a little Bedlam, and the garden a rostrum.
In the earlier days it did not make so much difference. The talk was good. We were a travelled group, and what with reminiscences of people and places, and the scandal of courts, it was far from being dull. But as the days went on, and the war clouds began to gather, the overcharged air seemed to get on the nerves of the entire group, and instead of the peaceful summer we had counted upon, every one of us seemed to live in his own particular kind of fever. Every one of us, down to the Youngster, had fixed ideas, deep-set theories, and convictions as different as our characters, our lives, our callings, and our faiths. We were all Cosmopolitan Americans, but ready to spread the Eagle, if necessary, and all of us, except the Violinist, of New England extraction, which means really of English blood, and that will show when the screws are put on. We had never thought of the Violinist as not one of us, but he was really of Polish origin. His great-grandfather had been a companion of Adam Czartoriski in the uprising of 1830, and had gone to the States when the amnesty was not extended to his chief after that rebellion, Poland's last, had been stamped out.
As well as I can remember it was the night of August 6th that the first serious dispute arose. England had declared war. All our male servants had left us except two American chauffeurs, and a couple of old outside men. Two of our four cars, and all our horses but one had been requisitioned. That did not upset us. We had taken on the wives of some of the men, among them Angele, the pretty wife of one of the French chauffeurs, and her two-months-old baby into the bargain. We still had two cars, that, at a pinch, would carry the party, and we still had one mount in case of necessity.
The question arose as to whether we should break up and make for the nearest port while we could, or "stick it out." It had been finally agreed not to evacuate—yet. One does not often get such a chance to see a country at war, and we were all ardent spectators, and all unattached. I imagine not one of us had at that time any idea of being useful—the stupendousness of it all had not dawned on any of us—unless it was the Doctor.
But after the decision of "stick" had been passed unanimously, the Critic, who was a bit of a sentimentalist, and if he were anything else was a Norman Angel-lite, stuck his hands in his pockets, and remarked: "After all, it is perfectly safe to stay, especially now that England is coming in."
"You think so?" said the Doctor.
"Sure," smiled the Critic. "The Germans will never cross the French frontier this time. This is not 1870."
"Won't they, and isn't it?" replied the Doctor sharply.
"They never can get by Verdun and Belfort."
"Never said they could," remarked the Doctor, with a tone as near to a sneer as a good-natured host can allow himself. "But they'll invade fast enough. I know what I am talking about."
"You don't mean to tell me," said the Critic, "that a nation like Germany—I'm talking now about the people, the country that has been the hot bed of Socialism,—will stand for a war of invasion?"
That started the Doctor off. He flayed the theorists, the people who reasoned with their emotions and not their brains, the mob that looked at externals, and never saw the fires beneath, the throng that was unable to understand anything outside its own horizon, the mass that pretended to read the history of the world, and because it changed its clothes imagined that it had changed its spirit.
"Why, I've lived in Germany," he cried. "I was educated there. I know them. I have the misfortune to understand them. They'll stick together and Socialism go hang—as long as there is a hope of victory. The Confederation was cemented in the blood of victory. It can only be dissolved in the blood of defeat. They are a great, a well-disciplined, and an obedient people."
"One would think you admired them and their military system," remarked the Critic, a bit crest-fallen at the attack.
"I may not, but I'll tell you one sure thing if you want a good circus you've got to train your animals. The Kaiser has been a corking ringmaster."
Of course this got a laugh, and though both Critic and Journalist tried to strike fire again with words like "democracy" and "civilization," the Doctor had cooled down, and nothing could stir him again that night.
Still the discord had been sown. I suppose the dinner-table talk was only a sample of what was going on, in that month, all over the world. It did not help matters that as the days went on we all realized that the Doctor had been right—that France was to be invaded, not across her own proper frontier, but across unprotected Belgium. This seemed so atrocious to most of us that indignation could only express itself in abuse. There was not a night that the dinner-table talk was not bitter. You see the Doctor did not expect the world ever to be perfect—did not know that he wanted it to be—believed in the struggle. On the other hand the Critic, and in a certain sense the Journalist, in spite of their experiences, were more or less Utopian, and the Sculptor and the Violinist purely spectators.
No need to go into the details of the heated arguments. They were only the echo of what all the world,—that had cradled itself into the belief that a great war among the great nations had become, for economic as well as humanitarian reasons, impossible,—were, I imagine, at this time saying.
As nearly as I can remember it was on August 20th that the climax came. Liege had fallen. The English Expedition had landed, and was marching on Belgium. A victorious German army had goose-stepped into defenseless Brussels, and was sweeping out toward the French frontier. The French advance into Alsace had been a blunder.
The Doctor remarked that "the English had landed twelve days too late," and the Journalist drew a graphic, and purely imaginary, picture of the pathos of the Belgians straining their eyes in vain to the West for the coming of the men in khaki, and unfortunately he let himself expatiate a bit on German methods.
The spark touched the Doctor off.
"By Jove," he said, "all you sentimentalists read the History of the World with your intellects in your breeches pockets. War is not a game for babies. It is war—it is not sport. You chaps think war can be prevented. All I ask you is—why hasn't it been prevented? In every generation that we know anything about there have been some pretty fine men who have been of your opinion—Erasmus for one, and how many others? But since the generations have contented themselves with talking, and not talked war out of the problem, why, I can't see, for my part, that Germany's way is not as good as any. She is in to win, and so are all the rest of them. Schools of War are like the Schools of Art you chaps talk so much about—it does not make much difference what school one belongs to—the only important thing is making good."
"One would think," said the Journalist, "that you liked such a war."
"Well, I don't even know that I can deny that. I would not deliberately choose it. But I am willing to accept it, and I am not a bit sentimental about it. I am not even sure that it was not needed. The world has let the Kaiser sit twenty-five years on a throne announcing himself as 'God's anointed.' His pretensions have been treated seriously by all the democracies of the world. What for? Purely for personal gain. We have come to a pass where there is little a man won't do—for personal gain. The business of the world, and its diplomacy, have all become so complicated and corrupt that a large percentage of the brains of honest mankind are little willing to touch either. We need shaking up—all of us. If nothing can make man realize that he was not born to be merely happy and get rich, or to have a fine old time, why, such a complete upheaval as this seems to me to be necessary, and for me—if this war can rip off, with its shrapnel, the selfishness with which prosperity has encrusted the lucky: if it can explode our false values with its bombs: if it can break down our absurd pretensions with its cannon,—all I can say is that Germany will have done missionary work for the whole world—herself included."
Before he had done, we were all on our feet shouting at him, all but the Lawyer, who smiled into his coffee cup.
"Why," cried the Critic, in anger, "one would think you held a brief for them!"
"I do NOT," snapped the Doctor, "but I don't dislike them any more than I do—well," catching himself up with a laugh, "lots of other people."
"And you mean to tell me," said the gentle voice of the Divorcee at his elbow, "that you calmly face the idea of the hundreds of thousands of men,—well and strong to-day—dead to-morrow,—the thought of the mothers who have borne their sons in pain, and bred them in love, only to fling them before the cannon?"
"For what, after all, are we born?" said the Doctor. "Where we die, or when is a trifle, since die we must. But why we die and how is vital. It is not only vital to the man that goes—it is vital to the race. It is the struggle, it is the fight, which, no matter what form it takes, makes life worth living. Men struggle for money. Financiers strangle one another at the Bourse. People look on and applaud, in spite of themselves. That is exciting. It is not uplifting. But for men just like you and me to march out to face death for an idea, for honor, for duty, that very fact ennobles the race."
"Ah," said the Lawyer, "I see. The Doctor enjoys the drama of life, but he does not enjoy the purely domestic drama."
"And out of all this," said the Trained Nurse, in her level voice, "you are leaving the Almighty. He gave us a world full of beauty, full of work, full of interest, and he gave us capacities to enjoy it, and endowed us with emotions which make it worth while to live and to die. He gave us simple laws—they are clear enough—they mark sharply the line between good and evil. He left us absolutely free to choose. And behold what man has made of it!"
"I deny the statement," said the Doctor.
"That's easy," laughed the Journalist.
"I believe," said the Doctor, impatiently, "that no good comes but through evil. Read your Bible."
"I don't want to read it with your eyes," replied the Journalist, and marched testily down the path toward the house.
"Well," snapped the Doctor, "if I read it with yours, I should call on the Almighty to smite this planet with his fires and send us spinning, a flaming brand through space, to annihilation—the great scheme would seem to me a failure—but I don't believe it is." And off he marched in the other direction.
The Lawyer shrugged his shoulders, and suppressed, as well as he could, a smile. The Youngster, leaning his elbows on his knees, recited under his breath:
"And as he sat, all suddenly there rolled, From where the woman wept upon the sod, Satan's deep voice, 'Oh Thou unhappy God.'"
"Exactly," said the Lawyer.
"What's that?" asked the Violinist.
"Only the last three lines of a great little poem by a little great Irishman named Stephens—entitled 'What Satan Said.'"
"After all," said the Lawyer, "the Doctor is probably right. It all depends on one's point of view."
"And one's temperament," said the Violinist.
"And one's education," said the Critic.
Just here the Doctor came back,—and he came back his smiling self. He made a dash down the path to where the Journalist was evidently sulking, went up behind him, threw an arm over his shoulder, and led him back into the circle.
"See here," he said, "you are all my guests. I am unreasonably fond of you, even if we can't see Life from the same point of view. Man as an individual, and Man as a part of the Scheme are two different things. I asked you down here to enjoy yourselves, not to argue. I apologize—all my fault—unpardonable of me. Come now—we have decided to stay as long as we can—we are all interested. It is not every generation that has the honor to sit by, and watch two systems meet at the crossroads and dispute the passage to the Future. We'll agree not to discuss the ethics of the matter again. If the men marching out there to the frontier can agree to face the cannon—and there are as many opinions there as here—surely we can look on in silence."
And on that agreement we all went to bed.
But on the following day, as we sat in the garden after dinner, our attempts to "keep off the grass" were miserably visible. They cast a constraint on the party. Every topic seemed to lead to the forbidden enclosure. It was at a very critical moment that the Sculptor, sitting cross-legged on a bench, in a real Alma Tadema attitude, filled the dangerous pause with:
"It was in the days of our Lord 1348 that there happened in Florence, the finest city in Italy—"
And the Violinist, who was leaning against a tree, touched an imaginary mandolin, concluding: "A most terrible plague."
The Critic leaped to his feet.
"A corking idea," he cried.
"Mine, mine own," replied the Sculptor. "I propose that what those who, in the days of the terrible plague, took refuge at the Villa Palmieri, did to pass away the time, we, who are watching the war approach—as our host says it will—do here. Let us, instead of disputing, each tell a story after dinner—to calm our nerves,—or otherwise."
At first every one hooted.
"I could never tell a story," objected the Divorcee.
"Of course you can," declared the Journalist. "Everybody in the world has one story to tell."
"Sure," exclaimed the Lawyer. "No embargo on subjects?"
"I don't know," smiled the Doctor. "There is always the Youngster."
"You go to blazes," was the Youngster's response, and he added: "No war stories. Draw that line."
"Then," laughed the Doctor, "let's make it tales of our own, our native land." And there the matter rested. Only, when we separated that night, each of us carried a sealed envelope containing a numbered slip, which decided the question of precedence, and it was agreed that no one but the story-teller should know who was to be the evening's entertainer, until story-telling hour arrived with the coffee and cigarettes.
THE YOUNGSTER'S STORY
IT HAPPENED AT MIDNIGHT
THE TALE OF A BRIDE'S NEW HOME
The daytimes were not ever very bad. Short-handed in the pretty garden, every one did a little work. The Lawyer was passionately fond of flowers, and the Youngster did most of the errands. The Sculptor had found some clay, and loved to surprise us at night with a new centre piece for the table, and the Divorcee spent most of her time tending Angele's baby, while the Doctor and the Nurse were eternally fussing over new kinds of bandages and if ever we got together, it was usually for a little reading aloud at tea-time, or a little music. The spirit of discussion seemed to keep as far away before the lights were up as did the spirit of war, and nothing could be farther than that appeared.
The next day we were unusually quiet.
Most of us kept in our rooms in the afternoon. There were those stories to think over, and that we all took it so seriously proved how very much we had been needing some real thing to do. We got through dinner very comfortably.
There was little news in the papers that day except enthusiastic accounts of the reception of the British troops by the French. It was lovely to see the two races that had met on so many battle fields—conquered, and been conquered by one another—embracing with enthusiasm. It was to the credit of all of us that we did not make the inevitable reflections, but only saw the humor and charm of the thing, and remembered the fears that had prevented the plans of tunnelling the channel, only to find them humorous.
The coffee had been placed on the table. The Trained Nurse, as usual, sat behind the tray, and we each went and took our cup, found a comfortable seat in the circle under the trees, where a few yellow lanterns swung in the soft air.
Then the Youngster pulled a white head-band with a huge "Number One" on it, out of his pocket, placed it on his head after the manner of the French Conscripts, struck an attitude in the middle of the circle, drew his chair deftly under him, and with the air of an experienced monologist began:
* * * * *
Not so very many years ago there was a pretty wedding at Trinity Church in Boston. It was quite the sort of marriage Bostonians believe in. The man was a rising lawyer, rather a sceptic on all sorts of questions, as most of us chaps pride ourselves on being, when we come out of college. They were married in church to please the Woman. What odds did it make?
Before they were married they had decided to live outside the city. She wanted a garden and an old house. He did not care where they lived so long as they lived together. Very proper of him, too. They spent the last year of their engaged life, the nicest year of some girls' lives, I have heard—in hunting the place. What they finally settled on was an old colonial house with a colonnaded front, and a round tower at each end, standing back from the road, and approached by a wide circular drive. It was large, substantial, with great possibilities, and plenty of ground. It had been unoccupied for many years, and the place had an evil report, and, at the time when they first saw it, appeared to deserve it.
He had looked it over. The situation was healthy. It was convenient to the city. He could make it in his car in less than forty-five minutes. They saw what could be done with the place, and did not concern themselves with why other people had not cared to live there. Architects, interior decorators, and landscape gardeners were put to work on it, and, even before the wedding, the place was well on toward its habitable stage.
Then they were married, and, quite correctly, went abroad to float in a gondola on the Grand Canal—together; to cross the Gemmi—together; to stroll about Pompeii and cross to Capri—together; and then ravage antiquity shops in Paris—together. They returned in the early days of a glorious September. The house was ready for its master and mistress to lay the touch of their personality on it, and put in place the trophies of their Wedding Journey.
The evil look the house once had was gone.
A few old trees had been cut down round it to let in the glorious autumn sun all over the house, and when, on their first morning, after a good sound, well-earned sleep, they took their coffee on the terrace off the breakfast room, under a yellow awning, they certainly did not think, if they ever had, of the mysterious rumors against the house which had been whispered about when they first bought it. To them it seemed that they had never seen a gayer place.
But on the second night, just as the Woman was putting her book aside, and had a hand stretched out to shut off the light, she stopped—a carriage was coming up the drive. She sat up, and listened for the bell. It did not ring. After a few moments—as there was absolutely no sound of the carriage passing—she got up, and gently pushed the shutter—her room was on the front—there was nothing there, so, attaching no importance to it, she went quietly to bed, put out her light, just noticing as she did so, that it was midnight, and went to sleep. In the morning, the incident made so little impression on her, that she forgot to even mention it.
The next night, by some queer trick of memory, just as she went to bed, the thing came back to her, and she was surprised to find that she had no sleep in her. Instead of that she kept looking at the clock, and just before twelve, cold chills began to go down her back, when she heard the rapid approach of a carriage—this time she was conscious that her hearing was so keen that she knew there were two horses. She listened intently—no doubt about it—the carriage had stopped at the door.
Then there was a silence.
She was just convincing herself that there must be some sort of echo which made it appear that a team passing in the road had come up the drive—when she was suddenly sure that she heard a hurried step in the corridor—it passed the door. Now she was naturally a very unimaginative person, and had never had occasion to know fear. So, after a bit, she put out her light, saying to herself that a belated servant was busy with some neglected work—nothing more likely—and she went to sleep.
Again the morning sunlight, the Man's gay companionship, the hundreds of delightful things to do, wiped out that bad quarter of an hour, and again it never occurred to her to mention it.
The next night the remembrance came back so vividly after the Man had gone to his room, that she regretted she had not at least asked him if he had heard a carriage pass in the night. Of course she was sure that he had not. He was such a sound sleeper. Besides, it was not important. If he had, he would not have been nervous about it. Still, she could not sleep, and, just before the dining room clock began to chime midnight—she had never heard it before, and that she heard it now was a proof of how her whole body was listening—again came the rapid tread of running horses. This time every hair stood up on her head, and before she could control herself, she called out toward the open door: "Dearest, are you awake?"
Almost before she had the words out he was standing smiling in the doorway. It was all right.
"Did you think you heard a carriage come up the driveway?" she asked.
"Why, yes," he replied, "but I didn't."
"Listen! Is there some one coming along the corridor?"
He crossed the room quietly, opened the door, and turned on the light. "No, dear. There is no one there."
"Hadn't you better ring for your man, and have him see if any of the servants are up?"
He sat down on the edge of the bed, and laughed heartily.
"See here, dear girl," he said, "you and I are a pair of healthy people. We have happened to hear a noise which we can't explain. Be sure that there is rational explanation. You're not afraid?"
"Well, no, I really am not," she declared, "but you cannot deny that it is strange. Did you hear it last night?"
"Go on, now, with your cross-examination," he said. "Let's go to sleep. At any rate the exhibition is over for to-night."
The fourth night they did not speak in the night any more than they had in the daytime. But the next day they had a long conversation, the gist of which was this: That they had bought the place, that except for fifteen minutes at midnight, the place was ideal. They were both level-headed, neither believed in anything super-natural. Were they to be driven out of such a place by so harmless a thing as an unexplained noise? They could get used to it. After a bit it would no more wake them up,—such was the force of habit—than the ticking of the clock. To all this they both agreed, and the matter was dropped.
For ten days they did not mention it, but in all those ten days a sort of crescendo of emotion was going on in her. At first she began to think of it as soon as bed-time approached; then she felt it intruding on her thoughts at the dinner table; then she was unable to sleep for an hour or two after the fifteen minutes had passed, and, finally, one night, she fled into his room to find him wide awake, just before dawn, and to confess that the shadow of midnight was stretched before and after until it was almost a black circle round the twenty-four hours.
She knew it was absurd. She had no intention of being driven out of such a lovely place—BUT—
"See here, dear," he said. "Let's break our rule. We neither of us want company, but let's, at least, have a big week ender, and perhaps we can prove to ourselves that our nerves are wrong. One thing is sure, if you are going to get pale over it, I'll burn the blooming house down before we'll live in it."
"But you mind it yourself?"
"Not a bit!"
"But you are awake."
"Of course I am, because I know that you are."
"Do you mean to say that if I slept you wouldn't notice it?"
"On my honor—I should not."
"You are a comfort," she ejaculated. "I shall go right to sleep." And off she went, and did go to sleep.
All the same, in the morning, he insisted on the house-party.
"Let me see our list," he said. "Let us have no students of occult; no men who dabble in laboratory spiritualism; just nice, live, healthy people who never heard of such things—if possible. You can find them."
"You see, dear," she explained, "it would not trouble me if I heard it and you did not—but—"
"Oh, fudge!" he laughed. "Just now I should be sure to hear anything you did, I suppose."
"You old darling," she replied, "then I don't care for it a bit."
"All the same we'll have the house-party."
So the following Saturday every room in the house was occupied.
At midnight they were all gathered in the long drawing room opening on the colonnade, and, when the hour sounded, some one was singing. The host and hostess heard the running horses, as usual, and they were conscious that one or two people turned a listening ear, but evidently no one saw anything strange in it, and no comment was made. It was after one when they all went up to their rooms, so that evening passed off all right.
But on Sunday night two of the younger guests had gone to sit on the front terrace, and the older people were walking, in the moonlight, in the garden at the back. The sweet little girl, who was having her hand held, got up properly when she heard the carriage coming, and went to the edge of the terrace to see who was arriving at midnight. She had a fit of nerves as the invisible vehicle and its running horses seemed about to ride over her. She ran in, trembling with fear, to tell the tale, and of course every one laughed at her, and the matter would have been dropped, if it had not happened that, just at that moment a very pale gentleman came stumbling out of the house with the statement that he wanted a conveyance "to take him back to town," that "he refused to sleep in a haunted house," that he "had encountered an invisible person running along the corridor to his room," in fact the footsteps had as he put it "passed right through him."
The host broke into laughter, but he took the bull by the horns—the facts, as he knew them, were safer than the tales which he knew would run over the city if he attempted to deny things.
"See here, my good people," he said, "there is a little mystery here that we can't explain. The truth is, there is a story about this house. It used to belong to the president of a well-known railroad. That was twenty-five years ago. They say that one night, when he was driving from a place he had up country, his team was run into at a railway crossing five miles from here—one of those grade crossings that never ought to have been—and he was killed and his horses came home at midnight. 'They say' that the people who lived here after that declared that the horses have come home every midnight since. Now, there's the story. They don't do any harm. It only takes them a few minutes. They don't even trample the driveway, so why not?"
"All the same, I want to go back to town," said the frightened guest.
"I would stay the night, if I were you," said the host. "They won't come again until to-morrow."
All the same, when morning came, every one skipped, and as the last of them drove away, the Woman put her hand through the Man's arm, and smiled as she said: "It's all over. I don't mind a bit. When I heard you saying last night, 'They don't even trample the driveway, so why not?' I said to myself, 'Why not?' indeed."
"Good girl," he replied. "I'll bet my top hat you grow to be proud of them."
I don't know that they ever did, but I do know that they still live there. I went to school with the son, and whenever any one bragged, he used to say, "Well, we've always had a ghost. You ain't got that!"
The Youngster threw his lighted cigarette into the air, ran under it, caught it between his lips, and made a bow, as the Doctor broke into a roar of laughter.
"I know that old house," he said. "Jamaica Pond. But see here, Youngster, your idea of ghosts is terribly illogical. It was the man who was killed, not the horses. The wrong part of the team walked."
"You are particular," replied the Youngster. "The man did not come back, and the horses did. I can't split hairs when it's a ghost story. I feel afraid that I have missed my vocation, and that flights in the imagination are more in my line than flights in the air. I don't know what you think. I think it's a mighty good story. I say, Journalist, do you think I could sell that story? I've never earned a dollar in my life."
"Well," laughed the Journalist, "a dollar is just about what you would get for it."
"If I had been doing that story," said the Critic, "I should have found a logical explanation for it."
"Of course you would," said the Youngster. "I know one of a haunted house on St. James Street which had an explanation."
But the Doctor cut him short with: "Come now, you've done your stunt. No more stories to-night. Off to bed. You and I are going to take a run to Paris to-morrow."
"Tell you to-morrow."
As every one began to move toward the house, the Violinist remarked, "I was thinking of running up to Paris myself to-morrow. Any one else want to go with me?" The Journalist said that he did, and the party broke up. As they strolled toward the house the Lawyer was heard asking the Youngster, "What were the steps in the corridor?"
"Well," replied the Youngster, "I suppose on the night that the team came home there must have been great excitement in the house—every one running to and fro and—"
But the Journalist's shout of laughter stopped him.
The Youngster eyed him with shocked surprise.
"By Jupiter!" cried the Journalist. "That is the darnedest ghost story I ever heard. Everything and everybody walked but the dead man—even the carriage."
"That isn't my fault," said the Youngster, indignantly.
THE TRAINED NURSE'S STORY
THE SON OF JOSEPHINE
THE TALE OF A FOUNDLING
The house was very quiet next day. All the men, except the Critic and the Sculptor, had made an early and hurried run to Paris. So we saw little of each other until we gathered for dinner, and the conversation was calm—in fact subdued.
The Doctor was especially quiet. No one was really gay except the Youngster. He talked of what he had seen in Paris—the silent streets—the moods of the women—the sight of officers in khaki flying about in big touring cars—and no one asked what had really taken them to town.
The Trained Nurse and I had walked to the nearest village, but we brought back little in the way of news. The only interesting thing we saw was Monsieur le Cure talking to a handsome young peasant woman in the square before the church. We heard her say, with a sob in her throat, "If my man does not come back, I'll never say my prayers again. I'll never pray to a God who let this thing happen unless my man comes back."
"She will, just the same," said the Lawyer. "One of the strangest features of such a catastrophe is that it steadies a race, especially the race convinced that it has right on its side."
"It goes deeper than that," said the Journalist. "It strikes millions with the same pain, and they bear together what they could not have faced separately."
"True," remarked the Doctor, "and that is one reason why I have always mistrusted the effort of people outside the radius of disaster to help in anyway, except scientifically."
"That is rather a cruel idea," commented the Trained Nurse.
"Perhaps. But I believe organized charity even of that sort is usually ineffective, and weakens the race that accepts it. I believe victims of such disaster are healthier and come out stronger for facing it, dying, or surviving, as Fate decrees."
"Keep off the grass," cried the Youngster. "I brought back a car full of books." The hint was taken, and we talked of books until the coffee came out.
As usual, the Trained Nurse sat behind the pot, and when we were all served, she pushed the tray back, folded her strong capable white hands on the edge of the table, and said quietly:
"Messieurs et Mesdames"—
We lit our cigarettes, and she began:
* * * * *
It was the first year after I left home and took up nursing. I had a room at that time in one of the Friendly Society refuges on the lower side of Beacon Hill. It was under the auspices of an Episcopal High Church in the days of Father Hall, and was rather English in tone. Indeed its matron was an Englishwoman—gentle, round-faced, lace-capped, and very sympathetic. I was very fond of her. I had, as a seamstress, a neat little girl named Josephine.
Josephine was a tiny creature, all grey in tone, with mouse-colored hair. She was a foundling. She had not the least notion who her people were. Her first recollections were of the orphan asylum where she was brought up. In her early teens she had been bound out to a dressmaker, who had been kind to her, and, when her first employer died, Josephine, who had saved a little money, and longed for independence, began to go out as a seamstress among the women she had grown to know in the dressmaking establishment, and went to live at one of the Christian Association homes for working girls.
Every one knows what those boarding houses are—two or three hundred girls of all ages, from sixteen up, of all temperaments. All girls willing to submit to control; girls with their gay days and their tragic, girls of ambition, and girls with faith in the future, as well as girls of no luck, and girls with their simple youthful romances.
Every one loved Josephine.
She was by nature a little lady, dainty in her ways, industrious, unrebellious, always ready to help the other girls about their clothes, and a model of a confidant. Every one told her their little troubles, every one confided their little romances. They were sure of a good listener, who never had any troubles or romances of her own to confide.
I don't know how old Josephine was at that time. She might have been twenty-five, looked younger, but was perhaps older. She was so tiny, and such a mouse of a thing that she seemed a child, but for her energy, and her capacity for silence.
It was, I fancy, three years after I first knew her that she one evening confided to a group of her intimate friends, as they sat together over their sewing, that she was engaged to be married. There was a great excitement. Little lonely Josephine, so discreet, who had sympathized with the romances of so many of her comrades, had a romance of her own. Such a hugging and kissing as went on, you never saw, unless you have seen a crowd of such girls together. Every one was full of questions, and there were almost as many tears shed as questions asked.
He was a carpenter, Josephine told them. She had known him ever since she was with the dressmaker who took her out of the asylum. He lived in Utica, New York. He had a good job, and they were to be married as soon as she could get ready.
So Josephine set to work with her nimble fingers to make her trousseau. During the years she had worked for me, the Matron at the Friendly Society, and many of its patrons had come to know and love dear little Josephine, and in our house there was almost as much excitement over the news as there was at the Association at the South End. All the girls set to work to make something for little Josephine. Every one for whom she had worked gave her something. One lady gave her black silk for a frock. All the girls sewed a bit of underwear for her. She had sheets and table linen, and all sorts of dainty things which her girl friends loved to count over, and admire in the evening without the least bit of envy. By the time Spring came Josephine had to buy a new trunk to pack her things away in.
Then she told us all that she was going to Utica to be married. What was the use of his spending his money to come east for her, and pay his expenses back? That seemed reasonable, and the day was fixed for her departure.
Her trunks were packed.
She took a night train so that we could all go to the station to see her off, and I am sure that the crowd who saw us kissing her good-bye are not likely to forget the scene.
Then the girls went home chattering about "dear little Josephine."
In due time came a letter from a place near Utica, where she was, she said, on her little "wedding trip," and "very happy," and "he" sent his love, and it was signed with her new name, and she would send us her address as soon as she was settled.
Time went by—some months. Then she did send an address, but she did not write often, and when she did, she said little but that she was happy.
As nearly as I can remember, it was a year and a half after she left that news came that Josephine had a son. By that time a great many of the girls she had known were gone. Changes come fast in such a place. But there was great rejoicing, and those who had known her found time to make something for dear little Josephine's baby, and the sending of the things kept up the interest in her for some months.
Then the letters ceased again.
I can't be sure how long it was after that that I received a letter from her. She told me that her husband was dead, that she never really had taken root in Utica, and now that she was alone, with her baby to support, she longed to come back to Boston, and asked my advice. Did I think she could take up her old work?
I took the letter at once to the Matron of the Friendly Society—I happened to be resting between two cases—and we decided that it was safe. At least between us we could help her make the trial.
A few months later she came, and we went to the station to meet her. I could not see that she had changed a bit. She did not look a day older, and the bouncing baby she carried in her arms was a darling.
Of course she could not go back to the Association. That was not for married women. But we found her a room just across the street, and in no time, she dropped right back into the place she had left. Every morning she took the baby boy to the creche and every night she took him home, and a better cared-for, better loved, more wisely bred youngster was never born, nor a happier one. Every one loved him just as every one loved Josephine.
There I thought Josephine's story ended, and so far as she was concerned, it did.
But when the baby was six years old, and forward for his age, the Matron of the Friendly Society came into my room one day, when I was there to take a longer rest than usual, after a very trying case, and told me that she was in great distress. A friend of hers, who had been her predecessor, and was now the Matron of an Orphan Asylum in New York State, was going to the hospital to have a cataract removed from her eye, and had written to ask her to come and take her place while she was away. She begged me to replace her at the Friendly Society while she was gone. As her assistant was a capable young woman, and my relations with every one were pleasant I was only too glad to consent. She had always been so good to me.
She was gone a month.
On her return I noticed that she was distressed about something. I taxed her with it. She said it was nothing she felt like talking about. But one evening when Josephine had been sewing for me, after she was gone, the Matron, who had been in my room, got up, and closed the door after her.
"I've really got to tell you what is on my mind," she said. "And I am sure that you will look on it as a confidence. You know the asylum where I have been is not far from Utica, where Josephine went when she was married. Well, one day, about a fortnight after I got there, I had occasion to look up the record of a child in the books, and my attention was attracted by a name the same as Josephine's. The coincidence struck me, and I read the record that on a certain day, which as near as I could calculate, must have been a year after Josephine left, a person of her name, written down as a widow, a member of the Orthodox Church, had adopted a male child a few months old. I was interested. I did not suspect anything, but I asked the assistant matron if she remembered the case. She did, clearly. She said the woman was a dear little thing, who had come there shortly before, a young widow, a seamstress. She was a lonely little thing, and some one connected with the asylum had given her work, which she had done so well that she soon had all she needed. She had been employed in the asylum, and loved children as they did her. The child in question was the son of a woman who had died at its birth, from the shock of an accident which had killed the father. It took a fancy to Josephine, and she wanted to adopt it. The committee took the matter up. The clergyman spoke well of her, as did every one, and they all decided that she was perfectly able to care for it. So she took the child. All of a sudden, one day, Josephine went, as she had come. There was no mystery about it. She told the clergyman that she was homesick for her old friends, and had gone east, and would write, and she always has.
"Of course I was puzzled. There was no doubt in my mind that it was our little Josephine. Naturally I was discreet. Luckily. I spoke of her to several people who remembered her, and they all called her 'dear little Josephine' just as we had. I talked of her with the clergyman and his wife. I asked questions that were too natural to rouse suspicions, when I told them that I knew her, that the baby was the dearest and happiest child I knew, and what do you suppose I found out, more by inference than facts?"
No need to ask me. Didn't I know?
Josephine had never been married. There had never been any "He." It all seemed so natural. It did not shock me, as it had the Matron, and I was glad she had told no one but me. Dear little Josephine! Sitting there in the Association without family, with no friends but her patrons, and those girls whose little romances went on about her! No romances ever came her way. So she had made one all of her own. I proved to the Matron easily that what she had discovered by accident was not her affair, that to keep Josephine's secret was a virtue, and not a sin. I was sure of that, for, as I watched her afterwards, I knew that Josephine had played her part in her dream romance so well, that she no longer remembered that it was not true. She had forgotten she had not really borne the child she carried so lovingly in her arms.
* * * * *
"Is that all?" asked the Journalist.
"That is all," replied the Trained Nurse.
"By Jove," said the Doctor, "that is a good story. I wish I had told it."
"Thank you, Doctor," laughed the Trained Nurse. "I thought it was a bit in your line."
"But fancy the cleverness of the little thing to do all the details up so nicely," said the Lawyer. "She dovetailed everything so neatly. But what I want to know is whether she planned the baby when she planned the make-believe husband?"
"I fancy not," replied the Nurse. "One thing came along after another in her imagination, quite naturally."
"Poor little Josephine—it seems to me hard luck to have had to imagine such an every day fate," sighed the Divorcee.
"Don't pity her," snapped the Doctor. "Poor little Josephine, indeed! Lucky little Josephine, who arranged her own romance, and risked no disillusion. There have been cases where the joys of the imagination have been more dangerous."
"You are sure she had no disillusion?" asked the Critic.
"I am," said the Nurse.
"And her name was Josephine?" asked the Divorcee.
"It was not, and Utica was not the town," replied the Nurse.
"Perhaps her disillusion is ahead of her," said the Journalist. "'Say no man'—or woman either—'is happy until the day of his death.'"
"She is dead," said the Nurse.
"I told you she was lucky little Josephine," ejaculated the Doctor.
"And she died without telling the boy the truth?" asked the Journalist.
"The truth?" repeated the Nurse. "I've told you that she had forgotten it. No woman was ever so loved by a son. No mother ever so grieved for."
"Then the son lives?" asked the Doctor.
The Nurse smiled quietly.
"Good-night," said the Doctor. "I am going to bed to dream of that. It is a pity some of the rest of us childless slackers had not done as well as Josephine. She took her risk. She was lucky."
"She did," replied the Nurse, "but she did not realize anything of that. She was too simple, too unanalytic."
"I wonder?" said the Critic.
"You need not, I know." Her eyes fell on the Lawyer, and she caught a laugh in his eye. "What does that mean?" she asked.
"Well," said the Lawyer, "I was only thinking. She was religious, that dear little Josephine?"
"At least she always went to church."
"I know the type," said the Violinist, gently. "Accepted what she was taught, believed it."
"Exactly," said the Lawyer, "that is what I was getting at. Well then, when her son meets her au dela—he will ask for his father—"
"Or," interrupted the Violinist, "his own mother will claim him."
"Don't worry," laughed the Critic. "It's dollars to doughnuts that she was 'dear little Josephine' to all the Heavenly Host half an hour after she entered the 'gates of pearl.' Don't look shocked. That is not sacrilegious. It is intentions—motives, that are immortal, not facts. Besides—"
"Don't push that idea too far," interrupted the Doctor from the door.
"Don't be alarmed. I was only going to say—there are Ik Marvels au dela—"
"I knew that idea was in your head. Drop it!" laughed the Doctor.
"Anyway," said the Violinist, "if Life is but a dream, she had a pretty one. Good night." And he went up to bed, and we all soon followed him, and I imagine not one of us, as we looked out into the moonlit air, thought that night of war.
THE CRITIC'S STORY
'TWAS IN THE INDIAN SUMMER
THE TALE OF AN ACTRESS
The next day, just as we were sitting down to dinner, the news came that Namur had fallen. The German army had marched singing into the burning town the afternoon before. The Youngster had his head over a map almost all through dinner. The Belgians were practically pushed out of all but Antwerp, and the Germans were rapidly approaching the natural defences of France running from Lille to Verdun, through Valenciennes, Mauberge, Hirson and Mezieres.
Things were beginning to look serious, although we still insisted on believing that the Germans could not break through. One result of the march of events was that we none of us had any longer the smallest desire to argue. Theories were giving way to the facts of every day, but in our minds, I imagine, we were every one of us asking, "How long CAN we stay here? How long will it be wise, even if we are permitted?" But, as if by common consent, no one asked the question, and we were only too glad to sit out in the garden we had all learned to love, and to talk of anything which was not war, until the Critic moved his chair into the middle of the circle, and began his tale.
"Let me see," he remarked. "I need a property or two," and he pulled an envelope out of his pocket and laid it on the table, and, leaning his elbows on it, began:
* * * * *
It was in the Autumn of '81 that I last saw Dillon act.
She had made a great success that winter, yet, in the middle of the season, she had suddenly disappeared.
There were all kinds of newspaper explanations.
Then she was forgotten by the public that had enthusiastically applauded her, and which only sighed sadly, a year later, on hearing of her death, in a far off Italian town,—sighed, talked a little, and forgot again.
It chanced that a few years later I was in Italy, and being not many miles from the town where I heard that she was buried, and a trifle overstrung by a few months delicious, aimless life in that wonderful country, I was taken with a sentimental fancy to visit her grave.
It was a sort of pilgrimage for me, for I had given to Dillon my first boyish devotion.
I thought of her, and to remember her was to recall her rare charm, her beauty, her success, after a long struggle, and the unexpected, inexplicable manner in which she had abandoned it. It was to recall, too, the delightful evenings I had spent under her influence, the pleasure I had had in the passion of her "Juliet," the poetic charm of her "Viola"; the graceful witchery of her "Rosalind"; how I had smiled with her "Portia"; laughed with her "Beatrice"; wept with her "Camille"; in fact how I had yielded myself up to her magnetism with that ecstatic pleasure in which one gets the best joys of every passion, because one does not drain the dregs of any.
I well remembered her last night, how she had disappeared, how she had gone to Europe, how she had died abroad,—all mere facts known in their bareness only to the public.
It was hard to find the place where she was buried. But at last I succeeded.
It was in a humble churchyard. The grave was noticeable because it was well kept, and utterly devoid of the tawdry ornamentation inseparable from such places in Italy. It was marked by a monument distinctly unique in a European country. It was a huge unpolished boulder, over which creeping green vines were growing.
On its rough surface a cross was cut, and underneath were the words:
"Yesterday This Day's Madness did prepare, To-morrow's Silence, Triumph or Despair."
Below that I read with stupefaction,
"Margaret Dillon and child,"
and the dates
"January, 1843" "July 25, 1882."
In spite of the doubts and fancies this put into my mind, I no sooner stood beside the spot where the earth had claimed her, than all my old interest in her returned. I lingered about the place, full of romantic fancies, decorating her tomb with flowers, as I had once decorated her triumphs, absorbed in a dreamy adoration of her memory, and singing her praise in verse.
It was then that I learned the true story of her disappearance, guessed at that of her death, as I did at the identity of the young Dominican priest, who sometimes came to her grave, and who finally told me such of the facts as I know. I can best tell the story by picturing two nights in the life of Margaret Dillon, the two following her last appearance on the stage.
The play had been "Much Ado."
Never had she acted with finer humor, or greater gaiety. Yet all the evening she had felt a strange sadness.
When it was all over, and friends had trooped round to the stage to praise her, and trooped away, laughing and happy, she felt a strange, sad, unused reluctance to see them go.
Then she sat down to her dressing table, hurriedly removed her make-up, and allowed herself to be stripped of her stage finery. Her fine spirits seemed to strip off with her character. She shivered occasionally with nervousness, or superstition, and she was strangely silent.
All day she had, for some inexplicable reason, been thinking of her girlhood, of what her life might have been if, at a critical moment, she had chosen a woman's ordinary lot instead of work,—or if, at a later day, she had yielded to, instead of resisted, a great temptation. All day, as on many days lately, she had wondered if she regretted it, or if, the days of her great triumph having passed,—as pass they must,—she should regret it later if she did not yet.
It was probably because,—early in the season as it was—she was tired, and the October night oppressed her with the heat of Indian Summer.
Silently she had allowed herself to be undressed, and redressed in great haste. But before she left the theatre she bade every one "good night" with more than her usual kindliness, not because she did not expect to see them all on Monday,—it was a Saturday night,—but because, in her inexplicably sad humour, she felt an irresistible desire to be at peace with the world, and a still deeper desire to feel herself beloved by those about her.
Then she entered her carriage and drove hurriedly home to the tiny apartment where she lived quite alone.
On the supper table lay a note.
She shivered as she took it up. It was a handwriting she had been accustomed to see once a year only, in one simple word of greeting, always the same word, which every year in eighteen had come to her on New Year's wherever she was.
But this was October.
She sat perfectly still for some minutes, and then resolutely opened the letter, and read:
"Madge:—I am so afraid that my voice coming to you, not only across so many years, but from another world, may shock you, that I am strongly tempted not to keep my word to you, yet, judging you by myself, I feel that perhaps this will be less painful than the thought that I had passed forgetful of you, or changed toward you. You were a mere girl when we mutually promised, that though it was Fate that our paths should not be the same, and honorable that we should keep apart, we would not pass out of life, whatever came, without a farewell word,—a second saying 'good-bye.'"
"It is my fate to say it. It is now God's will. Before it was yours. It is eighteen years since you chose my honor to your happiness and mine. To-day you are a famous woman. That is the consolation I have found in your decision. I sometimes wonder if Fame will always make up to you for the rest. A woman's way is peculiar—and right, I suppose. I have never changed. My son has been a second consolation, and that, too, in spite of the fact that, had he never been born, your decision might have been so different. He is a young man now, strangely like what I was, when as a child, you first knew me, and he has always been my confidant. In those first days of my banishment from you I kept from crying my agony from the housetops by whispering it to him. His uncomprehending ears were my sole confessional. His mother cared little for his companionship, and her invalidism threw him continually into my care. I do not know when he began to understand, but from the hour he could speak he whispered your name in his prayers. But it was only lately that, of himself, he discovered your identity. The love I felt for you in my early days has grown with me. It has survived in my heart when all other passions, all prides, all ambitions, long ago died. I leave you, I hope, a good memory of me—a man who loved you more than he loved himself, who for eighteen years has loved you silently, yet never ceased to grieve for you. But I fear that I have bequeathed to my son, with the name and estate of his father, my hopeless love for you. If, by chance, what I fear be true,—if, when bereft of me, he seeks you out, as be sure he will,—deal gently with him for his father's sake.
"There was an old compact between us, dear. I mention it now only in the hope that you may not have forgotten—indeed, in the certainty that you have not. I know you so well. Remember it, I beg of you, only to ignore it. It was made, you know, when one of us expected to watch the passing of the other. This is different. If this reminds you of it, it reminds you only to warn you that Time cancels all such compacts. It is my voice that assures you of it.
Underneath, written in letters, like, yet so unlike, were the words, "My father died this morning. F. R." and an uncertain mark as though he had begun to add "Jr." to the signature, and realized that there was no need.
The letter fell from her hands.
For a long time she sat silent.
Dead! She had never felt that he could die while she lived. A knowledge that he was living,—loving her, adoring her hopelessly—was necessary to her life. She felt that she could not go on without it. For eighteen years she had compared all other men, all other emotions to him and his love, to find them all wanting.
And he had died.
She looked at the date of the letter. He would be resting in that tomb she remembered so well, before she could reach the place; that spot before which they had often talked of Death, which had no terrors for either of them.
She rose. She pushed away her untouched supper, hurriedly drank a glass of wine, and, crossing the hall to her bedroom, opened a tiny box that stood locked upon her dressing table. She took from it a picture—a miniature. It was of a young man not over twenty-five. The face was strong and full of virile suggestion, even in a picture. The eyes were brown, the lips under the short mustache were firm, and the thick, short, brown hair fell forward a bit over the left temple. It was a handsome manly face.
The picture was dated eighteen years before. It hardly seemed possible that eighteen years earlier this woman could have been old enough to stir the passionate love of such a man. Her face was still young, her form still slender; her abundant hair shaded deep gray eyes where the spirit of youth still shone. But she belonged, by temperament and profession, to that race of women who guard their youth marvellously.
There were no tears in her eyes as she sat long into the morning, and, with his pictured face before her, reflected until she had decided.
He had kept his word to her. His "good bye" had been loyally said. She would keep hers in turn, and guard his first night's solitude in the tomb with her watchful prayers. She calculated well the time. If she travelled all day Sunday, she would be there sometime before midnight. If she travelled back at once, she could be in town again in season to play Monday; not in the best of conditions, to be sure, for so hard a role as "Juliet," but she would have fulfilled a duty that would never come to her again.
* * * * *
It was near midnight, on Sunday.
The light of the big round harvest moon fell through the warm air, which scarcely moved above the graves of the almost forgotten dead in the country churchyard. The low headstones cast long shadows over the long grass that merely trembled as the noiseless wind moved over it.
A tall woman in a riding dress stood beside the rough sexton at the door of the only large tomb in the enclosure.
He had grown into a bent old man since she last saw him, but he had recognized her, and had not hesitated to obey her.
As he unlocked and pushed back the great door which moved easily and noiselessly, he placed his lantern on the steps, and telling her that, according to a family custom, there were lights inside, he turned away, and left her, to keep his watch near by.
No need to tell her the family customs. She knew them but too well.
For a few moments she remained seated on the step where she had rested to await the opening of the door, on the threshold of the tomb of the one man among all the men she had met who had stirred in her heart a great love. How she had loved him! How she had feared that her love would wear his out! How she had suffered when she decided that love was something more than self-gratification, that even though for her he should put aside the woman he had heedlessly married years before, there could never be any happiness in such a union for either of them. How many times in her own heart she had owned that the woman would not have had the courage shown by the girl, for the girl did not realize all she was putting aside. Yet the consciousness of his love, in which she never ceased to believe, had kept her brave and young.
She rose and slowly entered the vault.
The odor of flowers, the odor of death was about it.
She lifted the lantern from the ground, and, with it raised above her head, approached the open coffin that rested on the catafalque in the centre of the tomb and mounted the two steps. She was conscious of no fear, of no dread at the idea of once more, after eighteen years, looking into the face of the man she had loved, who had carried a great love for her into another world. But as she looked, her eyes widened with fright. She bent lower over him. No cry burst from her lips, but the hand holding the lantern lowered slowly, and she tumbled down the two steps, and staggered back against the wall, where, behind lettered slides, the dead Richmonds for six generations slept their long sleep together. Her breast heaved up and down, as if life, like a caged thing, were striving to escape. Yet no sound came from her colorless lips, no tears were in her widened eyes.
The realizing sense of departed years had reached her heart at last, and the shock was terrible. With a violent effort she recovered herself. But the firm step, the fearless, hopeful face with which she had approached the coffin of her dead lover were very different from the blind manner in which she stumbled back to his bier, and the hand which a second time raised the lantern trembled so that its wavering light shed an added weirdness on the still face, so strange to her eyes, and stranger still to her heart.
He had been a young man when they parted. To her he had remained young. Now the hair about the brows was thin and white, the drooping mustache that entirely concealed the mouth was grizzled; lines furrowed the forehead, outlined the sunken eyes, and gave an added thinness to the nostrils. She bent once more over the face, to her only a strange cold mask. A painful fascination held her for several minutes, forcing her to mark how love, that had kept her young, proud, content in its very existence, had sapped his life, and doubled his years.
The realization bent her slender figure under a load of self-reproach and self-mistrust. She drooped lower and lower above the sad, dead face until she slid to the ground beside him. Heavy tearless sobs shook her slight frame as it stretched its length beside the dead love and the dead dream. The ideal so long treasured in her soul had lost its reality. The present had wiped out the past as a sponge wipes off a slate.
If she had but heeded his warning, and refrained from coming until later, she would have escaped making a stranger of him forever. Now the sad, aged face, the dead, strange face which she had seen but five minutes before, had completely obscured in her memory the long-loved, young face that had been with her all these years. The spirit whose consoling presence she had thought to feel upholding her at this moment made no sign. She was alone in the world, bereft of her one supporting ideal, alone beside the dead body of one who was a stranger alike to her sight and her emotions; alone at night in an isolation as unexpected as it was terrible to her, and which chilled her senses as if it had come to oppress her forever.
The shadows which she had not noticed before, the dark corners of the tomb, the motionless gleam of the moon as it fell through the open door, and laid silently on the floor like light stretched dead, the low rustle of the wind as if Nature restlessly moved in her sleep, came suddenly upon her, and brought her—fear. She held her breath as she stilled her sobs to realize that she alone lived in this city of the Dead. The chill of fright crept along the surface of her body, which still vibrated with her storm of grief.
She seemed paralyzed. She dared not move.
Every sense rallied to her ears in dread.
Suddenly she heard her name breathed: "Margaret!"
It was whispered in a voice once so familiar to her ears, a voice that used to say, "Madge."
She raised herself on her elbow.
She dared not answer.
She hardly dared breathe.
She was afraid in every sense, and yet she hungered for another sound of that loved voice. Every hour of its banishment was regretted at that moment. There seemed no future without it.
Every nerve listened.
At first she heard nothing but the restless moving of the air, which merely emphasized her loneliness, then she caught the pulsation of slow regular breathing.
She started to her feet.
She snatched up the lantern and quickly mounted to the bier. She looked sharply down into the dead face.
Silent, with its white hair, and worn lines, it rested on its white pillows.
No sound came from the cold still lips.
Yet, while her eyes were riveted on them, once more the longed-for voice breathed her name. "Margaret!"
It came from behind her.
She turned quickly.
There in the moonlit doorway, with a sad, compassionate smile on his strong, young face—as if it were yesterday they had parted—stood the man she remembered so well.
Her bewildered eyes turned from the silent, unfamiliar face among the satin cushions, to the living face in the moonlight,—the young, brown eyes, the short, brown hair falling forward over the left temple, the erect, elastic figure, the strong loving hands stretching out to her.
She was so tired, so heart sick, so full of longing for the love she had lost.
"Felix," she sobbed, and, blindly groping to reach what she feared was a hallucination, she stumbled down the steps, and was caught up in the arms flung wide to catch her, and which folded about her as if forever. She sighed his name again, upon the passionate young lips which had inherited the great love she had put aside so long before.
* * * * *
As the last words died away, the Critic drew himself up and laughed.
He had told the story very dramatically, reading the letter from the envelope he had called a "property," and he had told it well.
The laugh broke the spell, and the Doctor echoed it heartily.
"All right, old man," said the Critic, "you owed me that laugh. You're welcome."
"I was only thinking," said the Doctor, his face still on a broad grin, "that we have always thought you ought to have been a novelist, and now we know at last just what kind of a novelist you would have been."
"Don't you believe it," said the Critic, "That was only improvisatore—that's no sample."
"Ho, ho! I'll bet you anything that the manuscript is up in your trunk, and that you have been committing it to memory ever since this idea was proposed," said the Doctor, still laughing.
"No, that I deny," replied the Critic, "but as I am no poseur, I will own that I wrote it years ago, and rewrote it so often that I never could forget it. I'll confess more than that, the story has been 'declined with thanks' by every decent magazine in the States and in England. Now perhaps some one will tell me why."
"I don't know the answer," said the Youngster, seriously, "unless it is 'why not?'"
"I shouldn't wonder if it were sentimental twaddle," sighed the Journalist, "but I don't know."
"I noticed," expostulated the Critic, "that you all listened, enthralled."
"Oh," replied the Doctor, "that was a tribute to your personal charm. You did it very well."
"Exactly," said the Critic, "if editors would let me read them my stories, I could sell them like hot cakes. I never believed that Homer would have lived as long as he has, if he had not made the reputation of his tales by singing them centuries before any one tried to read them. Now no one dares to say they bore him. The reading public, and the editors who cater to it, are just like some stupid theatrical managers I know of, who will never let an author read a play to them for fear that he may give the play some charm that the fool theatrical man might not have felt from mere type-written words on white or yellow paper. By Jove, I know the case of a manager who once bought the option on a foreign play from a scenario provided by a clever friend of mine—and paid a stiff price for it, too, and when he got the manuscript wrote to the chap who did the scenario—'Play dashety-dashed rot. If it had been as good as your scenario, it would have gone.' And, what is more, he sacrificed the tidy five thousand he had paid, and let his option slide. Now, when the fellow who did the scenario wrote: 'If you found anything in the scenario that you did not discover in the play, it is because I gave you the effect it would have behind the footlights, which you have not the imagination to see in the printed words,' the Manager only replied 'You are a nice chap. I like you very much, but you are a blanketty-blanketty fool.'"
"Which was right?" asked the Journalist.
"The scenario man."
"How do you know?"
"How do I know? Why simply because the play was produced later—ran five years, and drew a couple of million dollars. That's how I know."
"By cricky," exclaimed the Youngster, "I believe he thinks his story could earn a million if it had a chance."
"I don't say 'no,'" said the Critic, yawning, "but it will never get a chance. I burned the manuscript this morning, and now being delivered of it, I have no more interest in it than a sparrow has in her last year's offspring."
"The trouble with you is that you haven't any patience, any staying power. That ought to have been a three volume novel. We would have heard all about their first meeting, their first love, their separation, his marriage, her debuts, etc., etc.," declared the Journalist.
"Oh, thunder," said the Doctor. "I think there was quite enough of it. Don't throw anything at me—I liked it—I liked it! Only I'm sorry she died."
"So am I," said the Critic. "That really hurt me."
"Because," said the Doctor, shying away toward the door, "I should have liked to know if the child turned out to be a genius. That kind do sometimes," and he disappeared into the doorway.
"Anyhow," said the Critic, "I am going to wear laurels until some one tells a better—and I'd like to know why the Journalist looks so pensively thoughtful?"
"I am trying to recall who she was—Margaret Dillon."
"Don't fret—she may be a 'poor thing,' but she is all 'mine own'—a genuine creation, Mr. Journalist. I am no reporter."
"Ah? Then you are more of a sentimentalist than I even dared to dream."
"Don't deny it," said the Critic, as he rose and yawned. "So I am going to bed to sleep on my laurels while I may. Good night."