[Frontispiece: "Dark against the light illumination of the hall stood Lucy Fulton."]
AUTHOR OF THE SEVEN DARLINGS, ETC
GROSSET & DUNLAP
COPYRIGHT, 1916, BY
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1913, 1916, BY THE INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE COMPANY
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Dark against the light illumination of the hall stood Lucy Fulton" . . . . . . Frontispiece
"They met with an honest kiss, like lovers long parted"
"It's what you and I stood up and promised before a lot of people"
"'You are all that counts . . . you know that'"
When I know that Lucy is going to Palm Beach for the winter I shall go to Aiken. When I know that she is going to Aiken, I shall go to Palm Beach. And I shall play the same game with Bar Harbor, Newport, Europe, and other summer resorts. So we shall only meet by accident, and hardly ever. We've been asked not to.
But I ought to begin further back. It would do no harm to begin at the beginning. There is even a king's advice to that effect. Said the king in "Alice," "Begin at the Beginning, go on to the End, and then stop."
In the beginning, then: When I was a little boy, old enough to be warned against playing with matches, I began of course to think them desirable playthings, and whenever I got a chance played with them. And I never:
(1) Set myself on fire,
(2) Nor anybody else,
(3) Nor the house in which my parents lived with me.
And yet I had been told that I should do all of these things; not often perhaps, but certainly every once in a while.
Of course it is possible to do all sorts of things with a match. You may light it and blow it out, for instance. Lighted, you may put it in your mouth without burning yourself. And if you do this in the dark, the light will shine through your cheek, and if you are a fat child you will give the impression of a Hallowe'en lantern carved from a pumpkin. Or you may light the butt of your father's cigar and learn to smoke. It is one of the cheapest ways. Or you may set fire to the lower edge of the newspaper which your grandfather is reading in the big armchair by the window, and I guarantee that you will surprise him. Here is an interesting play: Light a match, blow it out, and, while the end is still red hot, touch the cook firmly on the back of the neck. If she has been reading Swinburne she will imagine that she has been kissed by a policeman. When she finds out that she hasn't she will be disappointed, and perhaps you will be disappointed, too. Oh, a match is a wonderful thing, even the wooden ones that are made on earth! You may burn a whole city to the ground. And once, I am told, there was a man who lighted a match and fired a cannon that was heard around the world.
To play with matches is one thing: to play with the fire that you have lighted, or helped light, is another. And it was not until I played with fire that I did any real harm in this world (that I know about). Playing with fire I singed a moth; I singed a butterfly, and I burnt a man.
If this was just the story of my own life I wouldn't be so impertinent as to hope that it would be interesting to anybody. It isn't my story, and no matter how much I may seem to figure in it, I am neither its hero, nor, I think, the god who started the machinery.
Thirty-five years ago I took to live with me a middle-aged couple, who had begun to fear that they were going to die without issue. Though I say it that shouldn't, I was very good to them. I let them kiss me and maul me from morning till night. Later, when I knew that it was the very worst thing in the world for me, I let them spoil me as much as they wanted to. They even gave me the man's name, without my consent, and I didn't make a row. But I did lift my head with sufficient suddenness and violence to cause the Bishop of New York to bite his tongue, and to utter a word that is not to be found in the prayer book. I was christened Archibald Mannering Damn.
But I have never used the surname with which the good Bishop so suddenly and without due authorization provided me. Certain old friends, acquainted with the story, do not always, however, show my exquisite taste and reticence in this matter. Only the other day in the Knickerbocker Club I overheard some men talking. And one of them, in a voice which I did not care for, said "Archibald Mannering—damn!" And conveyed without other word or qualification than the tone of his voice, that he had very little use for me. Well, I can thank God for putting into the world some other people who have not that man's clearsightedness and excellent powers for passing judgment upon his fellow men.
So the man gave me his name and took other liberties with me, and the woman gave me her watch to break (I broke it) and took other liberties, and a second woman who called herself Nana took still other liberties with me—liberties which made me furiously angry at the time, and which even now would make me blush.
Sometimes I was sorry that I had taken the man and the woman to live with me. At times they bored me. They seemed to me intelligent, and I had to choose my words carefully, and talk down to them as to a pair of children. But I got used to them gradually. And I got to like them, especially the woman. I even formed the habit of forgiving her things offhand without being asked to—Oh, my dear parents, I am only trying to poke a little fun at you! And you weren't middle-aged when you came to live with me. I only imagine that you must have seemed so to a baby whose eyes had only just come undone. Thirty-five years have rolled by—bringing, taking, and, alas! leaving behind them cares and vicissitudes, and still you seem no more than middle-aged to me. You, father, with your fine, frank weather-beaten face of a county squire with the merry smile and the wit which makes you so welcome wherever you go, even those ghosts of sorrow deep in your eyes don't make you look more than middle-aged. And yet I think no hour of your life passes in which you don't recall, with a strangling at your throat, how my little sister, Pitapat, came in from the garden drooping, to you, almost always to you, when she was in trouble, and climbed and was lifted into your lap, and cuddled against you—Oh, I can't write the rest. But I tell you that I, too, sir, have recalled little Pitapat, and how she died, all on a summer's day, in her "Dada's" arms, and that the thought of what she was to you, and what such another child might be to such another man, has twisted even my tough entrails, and caused me for once, at least, to draw back from a piece of easy and enticing mischief, and play the man.
And you, mother, with your face of a saint, haven't I always poked fun at you? You don't look more than middle-aged either. You look less. And yet you too have your sorrow that never dies. For you were fitted to be a mother of men, and you have brought into the world only a lovely flower that soon withered away, and a Butterfly.
I don't call myself a Butterfly from choice. I only do it because I'm trying to be honest, and I think that it's just about what I am. But do we really know what a butterfly is? Have we given that ornamental (though I say it—that shouldn't) and light-minded (though I say it with shame) and light-hearted (though the very lightest of hearts must weigh something, you know) insect a square deal? I confess that only a light-hearted insect would perpetrate such a sentence as the foregoing; but wouldn't it be fun if, when the whole truth comes to be known about butterflies, we found them more or less self-respecting, more or less monogamous, occasionally ratiocinative, carelessly kind, rather than light-hearted creatures, and not insects, in the accepted sense, at all? It would surprise me no more to learn that an insect was really a man, than that a man, even so great and thinking a man as Mr. Bryan for example, was an insect.
If the butterfly at lunch flits from flower to flower; and the butterfly at play flits from butterfly to butterfly; so then may the butterfly (at what he is pleased to call his work) flit from theme to theme, from subject to subject, from character to character, from plot to counterplot, and crosswise and back again. If more autobiographists realized how many difficulties may be avoided in this way, far fewer autobiographists would be heroes and many, many more would be butterflies.
Even before I was born the richer people of New York did not inhabit that city the year round, but their holiday excursions were far shorter than now, both in distance and duration. To escape the intenser heats of summer the moneyed citizen of those days sent his family to the seaside for six weeks or to the mountains. Later his family began to insist that it must also be spared the seasons of intense cold. And nowadays there are families (and the number of these increases by leaps and bounds) who if they are not allowed to escape from everything which seems to them disagreeable or difficult, get very down in the mouth about it. Even the laboring classes are affected. The rich man wishes to live without any discomfort whatever, and the poor man wishes to live without doing any work whatever. That, I think, is at the root of their most bloody differences of opinion, for the poor man thinks that the rich man ought to be uncomfortable, and the rich man thinks that the poor man ought to work. And they will never be in agreement.
Given enough money it becomes easier and easier to run from one difficulty or discomfort into another. And even the laborer finds it continually easier to make a living without earning it.
When I was a little boy, Newport and Bar Harbor were a long way from New York. To Europe was a real voyage; while such places as Palm Beach and Aiken were never mentioned in polite society, for the simple reason that polite society had never heard of them. But nowadays it is not uncommon for a man to have visited all these places (and some of them more than once) in the course of a year. Europe which was once a foreign country is now but as a suburb of New York. And I myself, I am happy to say, have been far oftener in Paris than in Brooklyn.
The modern butterfly thinks little of flying out to Pittsburg or Cleveland or St. Louis for a dance or a mere wedding. He attends athletic events thousands of miles apart, and knows his way from the front door to the bar and card room of every important club between the Jockey Club in Paris and the Pacific Union in San Francisco, excepting, of course, those clubs in his own city to which he does not happen to belong.
My father, because of my little sister's fragility, was one of the first men I know to make a practice of going South for the winter, and to Long Island for the spring and autumn. In summer we went to Europe or Bar Harbor, for with justice he preferred the climate of the latter to that of Newport or Southampton. We were less and less in our town house, and indeed so jumped about from place to place, that although my mother succeeded in making her other houses easy and indeed charming to live in, I have never known what it was to have a home. And indeed I cannot at this moment call to mind a single New York family of the upper class that lives in a home.
My mother is old-fashioned. She would have preferred to live in one place the year around, to beautify and to ennoble that place; to be buried from it as she had been married into it, and to leave upon it the stamp of her character, incessant industry and good taste; to fill it gradually with the things she loved best or admired most, and to be always there, ready for the children or the grandchildren to come home.
But she gave up this ambition at a hint of delicacy in a child's face, and a note of anxiety in a husband's voice, and took to packing trunks to go somewhere, and unpacking them when they arrived. Of course she couldn't do this to all of them, for we moved with very many, but there were certain ones to which she would let nobody put hand but herself—my father's, my sister's, mine, and her own. And you always knew that if you had accidentally left letters and notes in your pockets that you didn't want seen, they wouldn't be.
My father would almost abuse her for doing so much work with her own hands, and for always being up so early, but in secret he was very proud of her; and to see her dressed for the dance or the opera, eager and gay as a girl, slender and beautiful, her head very high and fearless, you would have thought that she had never done anything in all her life, but be pampered and groomed and sheltered.
Upon one good old-fashioned custom they were in firm agreement. They always slept in the same bed; they do still. And they will lie in the same grave.
Whichever home it was that we happened to be inhabiting, unless out of season because of my sister, it was always pretty well filled with people. My father loved people, and my mother got to love them for his sake. For my part, until very recently, I have always hated to be alone. Flint is a gloomy solitary, but when he meets with Steel there are sparks.
I suppose there are brooding lovers of knowledge in this world who are fonder of their own than of any other company. But most people can only think half thoughts and need other people to complete them. It is amusing enough to knock a ball against a wall, and a wonderful help in the perfection of strokes, but it is far more amusing to face somebody across a net and play lawn tennis.
My father and mother always hoped that I would be a great man, and even now they hope that I may one day turn over a new leaf. Unfortunately there was no greatness in me, and as for those leaves of my life which I have not yet read, they are uncut, and I am always mislaying the paper knife. And whether the matter on the next leaf or the one after will be new or not, is for the future to know. You cannot, I think, teach a child to grow great.
But you can teach a child to dance and swim and shoot and sail, and to ride and to be polite, and to keep clean, and by example rather than precept, to be natural and unaffected! It was hoped then that I would be a great man; in the event, however, of my turning out to be nothing but a butterfly, I was brought up to be as ornamental a butterfly as possible. I cannot remember when I wasn't being prepared and groomed to take, without awkwardness, a place in society.
Well-bred grown-ups talk to children, without affectation or condescension, as if they too were grown-ups. My parents were always entertaining people, and it was assumed without comment that I too was host no less than they. Twice a day I had to be in evidence: at tea time, face and hands shining clean, hair carefully brushed, my small body covered with crisp white duck, black silk stockings, on my legs, and patent leather pumps on my feet. No conversation was required of me, but if I had forgotten a name and the face that went with it, I was allowed to feel uncomfortable; allowed to feel as a grown man feels when he has accidentally said something that would better have been left unsaid. It was my duty to go accurately from guest to guest, to shake hands, and to say perfectly naturally not "Hunh!" as so many modern children do, but "How do you do, Mrs. Lessing," or "How do you do, Mrs. Green," and not to stare and fidget or be awkward. Then I had my tea, discolored hot water with sugar and cream, my buttered toast, and a bit of cake. After that my mother would make it exceedingly easy for me to get away. My second public appearance was just before dinner. Then, dressed once more in white and patent leather, I came to the drawing-room to wish and be wished good night.
To obey my mother, when there was no real temptation to disobey her, was very easy, and nobody ever saw me look sulky or balky when I was told to do this or that. It was easy to obey her, because from the first, she took it absolutely for granted that she was going to be obeyed. Of course it was different with general orders designed to cover long periods of time, for here the tempter had his chance at me, and I was forever falling. "Stop kicking the table leg, Archie," is an order easily and instantly obeyed. For "Never kick a table," I cannot say the same. I used to divide her orders into two classes: The now nows and the never nevers. The latter were mostly beyond me. Though you may halt one sinner in the act of throwing a stone at another, there is little reason to believe that he will not soon be trying his aim again.
I like children when they are polite and a little reticent, when they are not too much in evidence, and when the whole household is not made to revolve about them.
Fulton once said to me, in that shy yet eager way of his: "If only I could arrest my babies' development; keep them exactly as they are; on tap when I wanted them, and hibernated like a couple of little bears when I was busy and mustn't be disturbed! They should never change, while I lived, if I had my way. And I'd promise not to abuse my privileges. I'd only take 'em out of the ice box when I absolutely needed them and couldn't do without them."
It was the first time that I ever was in the Fulton house that he said that. The two babies, a boy and a girl, Jock and "Hurry," two roly-polies, with their mother's eyes and mischievous smile, had been brought in to the tea table to be polite and share a lump of sugar. And they had been very polite, and had shown the proper command over their shyness, and had shaken me decorously by the hand, and made their funny grave little bows and asked me how I did. And I had said something in praise of the little girl to her face, and Fulton had reproached me a little for doing so.
"In India," he had said, "it is very bad luck to praise a child to its face, very bad luck indeed."
"I'm so sorry," I said, when the children had gone. "I ought to have remembered that even very little babies in the cradle understand everything that's said to them. May I praise them now? Because they are the two most delicious babies in the world. I'd like to eat them."
"When I'm tired or worried," said Fulton, his eyes lighting with tenderness, "Hurry always knows. And she comes and climbs into my lap and leans against me without saying a word, and she keeps creepy-mouse still until she knows that I'm feeling better. Then she chuckles, and I hug her. Sometimes I wish that she was made like a tennis ball; then I could hug her as hard as I wanted to without hurting her."
While he was speaking, Mrs. Fulton looked all the time at her husband's face. I remember thinking, "God! If ever some woman should look at me like that!" Her mouth smiled mischievously, just the way little Hurry's smiled, and her eyes—I won't try to describe the love and tenderness that was in them, nor the dog-like faithfulness—were eyes that prayed. And they were the deepest, most brilliant blue—like those Rheims windows that the Beast smashed the other day. She laughed and said: "Hurry and her father don't care about each other—not at all."
Fulton lifted his eyes to hers and it was as if "I love you" flashed from each to the other in that crumb of time. His face reddened a little, and hers became more rosy. They weren't a bit ashamed of being obviously in love with each other. I think they rather prided themselves on it.
"Why Hurry?" I asked. "Is it a real name? Of course I remember Hurry Harry in Cooper——"
"Her real name is Lucy," said Fulton, "same as her Mumsey, but they look so ridiculously alike that I was afraid I'd get 'em mixed up. And so we call her Hurry, because she always hurries; she hurries like mad. Same as her Mumsey."
"Do you," I asked, "hurry like mad?"
She gave a comical hurried nod that made me laugh right out, and Fulton said:
"She has smashed the more haste the less speed fallacy all to pieces." You could see that the man was glowing with pride. And he began to boast about her, and though she tried to stop him, she couldn't help looking perfectly delighted with herself, like some radiant child in the new dress for the party.
When Fulton had finished his eulogy, a long one, filled with humor, character drawing, and tenderness—something in his voice rather than his words, perhaps, always gave people the feeling that he had a wonderfully light touch, and a point of view at once sentimental and humorous—I reproached him, in turn, for praising a child to her face.
"In India," I said, "it's considered beastly unlucky."
Mrs. Fulton sprang to his defense. "I'm not a child," she defied me, "I'm a married woman."
They took me to the front door themselves, and watched me as far as the gate. I know this, because although I did not look back, it was when I reached the gate that I heard the door close, and I thought: "Now if I looked back, and the door was transparent, I'd see a pretty picture. It's a thousand to one shot that he's caught her in his arms and is kissing her and that she's perfectly delighted."
It is not easy for me to keep away from Lucy Fulton either on paper or in real life. The latter I have to do, for I think that I am able to keep a promise, and I ought to do the former as much as I can, if I am to tell her story and her husband's and my own in their true proportions. Otherwise we should but appear as one of those "eternal triangles" to which so much of French dramatic genius has been devoted; whereas it appears to me, though not, I am afraid, to Fulton, that if our relations to each other could be symbolized by a figure, that figure would not be a triangle; but a cross, let us say, between a triangle and a square.
Fulton and I are the same age. We were in the same class at Mr. Cutter's school for a year or two, and were quite friendly at times. But except that we both collected postage stamps, we had no tastes in common. It is almost enough to say that he was full of character and reserve, and that I was unstable and kept the whole of my goods displayed in the shop window. I cannot imagine thirteen-year-old Fulton in love with fifteen-year-old Nell or Nancy, but I was frequently in love with both at the same time, or so fancied myself, and, almost consciously, as it seems, he was conserving his powers of loving for the one great passion of his life, when he should give all that a man may have in him of purity and faith and purpose. But when my time for a great passion came, though I gave all that I had to give, it is true, still that all was not the whole that I might have had; it was only all that was left, all that had not already been given. But there was enough at that to hurt and do harm.
Fulton was studious and enamored of knowledge for its own sake. I was lazy and only interested in such pieces of knowledge as I felt might be of use to me. But we both stood well in our classes; he because he had brains and knew how to use them, and I because the Lord had gifted me with a capital sight memory.
Perhaps I should do better to state who our intimates were in those days, and what has become of them. Fulton's most intimate friend was a boy named Lansing, who made a practice of cutting open dead things to see what was inside of them. Today Lansing (of course that's not his real name) is so great a surgeon that even the man in the street knows him by sight. My most intimate friend was Harry Colemain, and we were mixed up in all sorts of deviltries together. To me he has been always a faithful friend and a charming companion, but of his career, what can I say that is really pleasant? Nothing, unless I modify each statement by pages of explanation and reminiscence. As he danced the old dances, so he dances the new, to greater perfection than any man in New York. He is gorgeously built, and has a carriage of the head, an eye and a smile, and a way with him that can shake a man from the water wagon or a woman from her virtue. He smokes like a factory, and drinks like a fish, yet at a moment's notice he is ready for some great feat of endurance—such as playing through the racket championship, or swimming from Newport to Narragansett Pier. He might have been—anything you please. But what can I say definitely that he is? Well, at this very moment, he is co-respondent in a divorce suit which is delighting the newspapers, and it looks as if he'd have to marry her in the end. And that's a pity because they were tired of each other before they got found out, and she's not the kind of woman that his friends are going to like.
Fulton's friend Ludlow has just published the best book on the birds of New York, past and present, that was ever written. My friend Pierson died the other day of pneumonia. As a boy he had the constitution of an ox, and ought to have thrown off pneumonia as I would throw off a cold in the head, but the doctors say that he had simply burned up his powers of resistance with overdoses of alcohol. You never saw him drunk or off his balance or merry in any way; he simply and slowly soaked himself till his insides were like sponges dipped in the stuff. And Pierson's not the only man in my circle who has gone out like that; and as they went so will others go; strong and well Saturday to the casual eye, and dead Monday.
This is not the time to take up those great issues which have risen between those who are tempted by drink and fall, and those who are not tempted and don't. But I am very sure of this: that a vast majority of the men who make the world go round drink or have drunk; and that when at last the world comes to be governed by those who don't and haven't, it will be even worse governed, more pettily and meddlesomely, than it is at present. And that is saying a good deal, even for a butterfly.
You mustn't gather that Fulton and his friends were a goody-goody set of boys. They erred and strayed from their ways at times, like the worst of us. There was Browning for instance, a born experimenter, who so experimented with cocktails one fine morning (at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Forty-third Street) that he marched into Madame Castignet's French class, drunk as a lord, full of argument, and was presently expelled from the school. It was commonly said that the disgrace of it would hound him through life. Far from it! Those who at this day pack Carnegie Lyceum to hear him play the violin, and who listen, laughing and crying, and comparing him to the incomparable Kreisler, perceive no disgrace in that youthful episode, rather they see in it an early indication of the divine temperament trying to shake off its fetters and be free.
One boy that I went to school with is on the famous Meadowbrook team; another has played in Davis Cup matches; another brought home a First from the Olympic games. In the pack that I run with there is even one Roper who achieves a large income by writing fiction for the magazines, but even he isn't in the least like that brilliant little circle to which Fulton belonged. For we feel that we are paying him an immense compliment when we say, "Would you ever suspect that he was an author?" Good at games, fond of late hours and laughter, with the easiest and most affectionate good manners, he is quite convinced, if you can get him to talk shop, at all, that art for art's sake is bunk, and that there is more amusement and inspiration to be had on Bailey's Beach and in the Casino at Newport than in the whole of Italy.
I must set Roper off against Fulton's friend Garrick. Poor Garrick slaved and slaved and reached after perfection. Some say that in the thin little volume that he succeeded at last in getting published, and leaving behind for the delight of posterity, he actually touched perfection. Perhaps he did. I don't know. But I do know this: that he had enough talent and energy to make a living, and didn't. That he loved his art more than his wife and family, and that they all starved together. Is it worse to starve your family for love of liquor than for love of art? Roper loves his liquor but he fights against it and makes a handsome income; Garrick gave himself up body and soul to his love for art, and if it wasn't for his friends Mrs. Garrick would be working in a sweatshop.
Fulton and I discussed him once (when I was going to the Fulton house a good deal), but we had to give it up as a topic. Fulton saw something fine and generous in the man, and could not speak of him without emotion, while I found it impossible to speak of him without contempt.
Fulton himself fell away from his friends in later years, not spiritually but physically. Lucy Fulton simply had to go on living among the people with whom she had been brought up, and in the manner to which she was accustomed; and Fulton seeing her pine and grow sorrowful in other conditions, and bored and fretful, gradually fell into her ways and wishes, as a gentleman shouldn't (but does always), and made his new friends among those who are born to be amused. Her love and happiness were far more important to him than changed ways and the injured feelings of old friends. Once he talked to me about this (for we grew quite intimate). I remember he said:
"Somehow I don't seem to see my old friends any more or keep up with them. If anything happened to Lucy, I'd be absolutely alone in the world, except for the babies. A man does wrong to drift away from those who he knows by a thousand proofs care for him, on any pretext or for any cause."
And yet he had come to wear the hallmarks of the pack, and to talk the language of the world that only asks to be happy and amused. He took to games seriously and played them well, and you couldn't point to him as one of those cautious persons who never by any chance drank even one cocktail too many. Indeed, he often became hilarious and witty, and added no end to the gayety of occasions, and was afterward privately reproached by Lucy. Coming from another, the hilarity and wit would have rejoiced her, but, coming from her nearest and dearest, her mind narrowed, and the cold fear that women have of liquor possessed her.
To me it has always been comical, even when I didn't feel well myself, to see the husbands come into the club after a big night; each wearing upon his face, as plainly as if they had been physical scratches, the marks of the wifely tears which he had been forced to witness, and of the reproaches which he had been forced to hear, and yet each trying to look as if he was the master of his own house and his own destiny. No well-born woman, however cold and calculating, can silently put up with her husband's drinking, yet how easily she overlooks it in any other man! How many excuses she will find for him:
"Why, he's quite wonderful! Of course I knew at once that he was tipsy, but he was perfectly sensible—perfectly."
If men didn't drink, women wouldn't have so many parties to go to or so much money to spend. How many teetotalers let their wives spend them into ruin and disgrace? It is the drinking American who indulges his wife and lets her make a fool of herself and him. It's his unconfessed, and perhaps unadmitted, remorse seeking a short cut to forgiveness.
It seems that I played too much pool and billiards for a small boy; and got into too much city mischief, for I learned at the end of a delightful Newport summer that I was to finish my schooling, not at Mr. Cutter's, but at Groton.
In those Groton days I let matches strictly alone; I neither played with them, nor used them to light cigarettes with. I was vaguely ambitious to be great and splendid, and I was down on purposeless boys who didn't behave themselves.
Lucy's brother was in my form. She used to come to visit him, with her parents, in their car. Even for Groton parents the Ludlows were enormously rich, or if they weren't enormously rich, they were enormous spenders.
Lucy was seven years our junior, but even in those baby days she had the laughing mouth and the praying eyes that were to play such havoc later on. She was a child of the world; natural, straightforward, and easy-going.
Lucy at nine was so pretty, so engaging, and had so much charm and magnetism that I remember having regretted, very solemnly, and with youthful finality, that we did not belong to the same generation. I was sorry that she was not fifteen or sixteen like myself; so that I could be in love with her and she with me!
Once Lucy was so sick that they thought she was going to die, and Schuyler was called home from school. The whole school was affected, so strong and vivid was its memory of an engaging and fearless child. I remember being sorrier than ever that I had been confirmed into a system which makes disease contagious instead of health, and asking one of the masters how he reconciled the death of a kid like that, whom everybody loved, with his conception of an all-wise and all-merciful God. He answered, it has always seemed to me very lamely, that if we didn't believe that all was for the best, in this best of all worlds, we should never get anywhere.
All for the best! If we are to forgive the Power that sets him on, why not the murderer himself who does the real dirty work? If all is for the best, so then must the component parts of all (each and every) be for the best. In short we can do no wrong in this best of worlds. Oh, what grim, weak-minded nonsense they prate and preach!
There was hand-clapping when the Rector told us that Schuyler Ludlow's little sister was going to get well, and presently Schuyler returned to school somewhat self-important, as becomes one who has sat at meat with famous doctors, and talked of them in extremis.
The first rime I rode with Lucy through the Aiken woods, I recalled this famous illness of hers, and I think it had something to do with all that happened afterward.
We had lost ourselves, a little, as you do at Aiken, among the infinity of sand trails beyond the Whitney drive. We knew where we were, of course, and we knew where Aiken was, but every trail that started toward it fetched up short with a wrong turning. It was one of those bright hot days in late February, when a few jasmine flowers have opened, and you are pretty sure that there won't be any more long spells of rain or freezing cold. Even Lucy, who loved riding, was content to sit a walking horse, and bask in the sunshine.
I mentioned her famous illness, and she remembered nothing about It. "I'm always too busy," she said, "with what's going on right now to remember things."
"Why," I said, "Schuyler was sent for, and you were given up half a dozen times. Don't you really remember at all?"
"They wouldn't have told me I was being given up right and left, would they? Probably it didn't hurt much, and I was given a great many presents. It seems to me I do remember one particularly great time of presents, when lots of old gentlemen came to see me."
"I hoped you'd remember better," I said; "because at the time it seemed to me one of the most important things that had ever happened in the world."
Lucy listened eagerly. She didn't in the least mind a conversation that was all about herself.
"The whole school," I said, "was touched with solemnity. Now you wouldn't take me for a praying man, would you?"
"I don't know. Wouldn't I?"
"Whether I am or not," I said, "doesn't matter now, because I have so little to pray for. But at that time I went down on my knees and prayed that you'd get well."
"You were very fond of Schuyler, weren't you?"
"And am. But that wasn't the reason. I don't know just what the reason was. Maybe I was looking forward to this ride, and didn't want to miss it! I was ashamed to be seen praying, so I prayed in bed. But I was afraid that wouldn't do any good, so when my roommate had gone to sleep I got up in the dark and went down on my marrowbones on the bare icy floor, and I prayed like a good 'un."
Lucy's mouth laughed, but her eyes prayed.
"Then, maybe," she said, "if it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't be here now."
"I'd like to think that," I said; "but there must have been lots of others who prayed. I should like nothing better than a Carnegie hero medal, with the attached pension, but the jury require proofs."
"It's funny," she said, "to think of you kneeling on the icy floor and praying for me."
"For your recovery!" I corrected her.
"I think it would have been nicer if you had prayed for me. Didn't you—even a little?"
"If I had realized that I could be seven years older than you and still belong to the same generation, my prayers would have been altogether different, and there would have been more of them."
"Where do you think this road goes?"
She turned into it without waiting for an answer, and urged her pony into a gentle amble.
I caught up with her and said: "I know this trail. It will take us straight to the Whitney drive. Then we can go right up over the hill and come out by Sand River."
"It's fun," she said, "to find somebody that likes riding. Everybody's mad about golf. John rides whenever I ask him, but it's cruel to separate him from the new mid-iron that Jimmie made for him. And he won't let me ride alone."
Poor John Fulton showed little worldly wisdom in making that prohibition.
"I'd rather ride than eat," I said. "Will you ride again tomorrow?"
She quoted the Aiken story of the lonely bachelor in the boarding-house. He is called to the telephone, hears a hospitable voice that says, "Will you come to lunch tomorrow at one-thirty?" and answers promptly, "You bet I will! . . . Who is it?"
Just before you reach the Whitney drive there is a right angle turn from the trail which we were following; it back-tracks a little, errs and strays through some fine jasmine "bowers," and comes out at the old race track.
"It's early," I said; "let's go this way."
She wheeled her pony instantly.
"Do you always do what you're told?"
She bowed her head very humbly, and meekly, through a mischievous mouth, said: "Yes, sir!" And added: "Except when awfully long."
"What do you mean by that?"
"That the most fun is beginning something, and then beginning something else before you get all tired out and tangled up. Never say no until you are sure that what's been proposed isn't any good. Then back out!"
"Don't you ever say no?"
"I 'spect I was very badly brought up. Nobody ever said no to me."
We wound up a hot hillside among tangled masses of jasmine, in which here and there were set star-like golden flowers, whose gardenia-like perfume mixed with the resinous aromatic smell of the long-needle pines. I rode a little behind, on purpose, for I love to see a pretty woman turn her head and look backward across her shoulder. She has no pose more charming, unless it be when she stands before the "laughing mirror" and lifts her hands to her hair.
"I have often wondered," I said, "how you happened to marry Fulton. But now I understand. It was because you couldn't say no to anybody, and yet he couldn't by any possible chance have been the first to ask. What has become of the first poor fellow to whom you were unable to say no? . . . And all the others?"
She looked back at me over her shoulder, her eyebrows lifted in an effort of memory, which, with a mischievous laugh, she presently abandoned.
"Why," she said, "as far as I know: 'One flew east and one flew west and one flew over the cuckoo's nest.'" I wish I could convey by words the lilt of her clear, fearless, boyish voice, the sparkle of mischief and daring in her eyes, and deep beneath, like treasures in the sea, that look of steadfastness, of praying, that made you wonder if she was really as happy and as carefree as she seemed to be, and not some loyal martyr upon the altar of matrimony.
To look at, she was but a child in her teens, slender and virginal, and yet I had it from Fulton himself that her babies had weighed nine pounds apiece and that she had nursed them both. "She looks down," he said, "with contempt, on bottle babies."
He was just coming in from golf, with the smug smile of one who has played a good round, on his face. His buggy boy, Cornelius Twombly, a black imp of twelve, who carried a razor in his hip pocket, wore also the smug look of one who has caddied to victory, and won certain nickels and dimes from another caddie upon the main and minor issues of the match.
As Fulton climbed out of his rickety, clattering runabout, Mrs. Fulton slipped from her smart pony, and they met with an honest kiss, like lovers long parted, and at once each began to tell the other all about everything.
"If they love each other like that," I thought, "why doesn't he always ride with her, or why doesn't she always play golf with him?"
I heard such expressions as "And the new mid-iron" . . . "The jasmine will be in full bloom in a week." "As we were going to Black Jack" (this is the eighth hole at Aiken, where the holes are all so good that they are spoken of by name instead of by number). "Mr. Mannering is the nicest person to ride with," etc., etc.
Then Fulton remembered my existence. "You'll not go without a drink!" he said.
Mrs. Fulton's eyes confirmed the invitation, so I chucked the reins over my pony's head to make him think that he was tied to a hitching-post, and went into the house with them. But I did not stay long. Fulton wanted to talk golf; Mrs. Fulton wanted to bathe and change into skirts, and I wanted to go away by myself and think. I wanted to study out why it was that toward the end of our ride together, whenever Mrs. Fulton spoke to me or looked back at me over her shoulder, my pulses seemed to quicken—and my breathing.
We were at the beginning of those parlous times when the Democrats, having come into power upon a wave of impassioned idiocy and jealousy, were beginning to make us poor at home and despised abroad. A schoolmaster president, with three cabinet officers plucked by the hair from a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, had put a temporary end to all our best qualities as a nation, with the possible exception of the power to laugh at jokes.
It was a hectic winter in Aiken. Some of the richest members of the Aiken Club were in trouble. There was some talk of making two and a half cents a point bridge standard instead of five. Even my own father asked me to go a little light, if I could, and not be led into any foolishness. "I've not been hit yet," he said, "but you can't tell what the fools will do next." You heard very few bets made. There was less drinking. It was as if certain men were going into training in order to be at their very best when the worst times should come.
Fulton's Cartridge Company, with its headquarters in New York and its mills in Bridgeport, Connecticut, had not paid a dividend in some time. He had only his salary as president (twenty or twenty-five thousand a year, I believe), and it was with the drastic intention of cutting that salary in two, and otherwise paring the company's expenses to the quick, that he went north the first week in March.
I dined with them the night before he left. There were only four of us: the Fultons, myself, and one of those charming Southampton girls, with sea-blue eyes, and sunburned hair, who swim like seals, play tennis like men, and fear nothing. Evelyn Gray was the name of this particular one. I liked her immensely, and was not altogether sorry to learn that she was to keep Lucy Fulton company until Fulton returned.
But it was a somewhat depressing dinner. There was an atmosphere in the cheerful blue and white dining-room, the white panels of the doors and wainscoting had a narrow border of blue, like impending fate. Fulton, it seemed, had never yet been away from home over night. And this was a record of devotion which he was very loath to break. Even more loath to see it broken was Lucy Fulton.
"I tell him," she said, "that if he goes it will be the beginning of the end." She spoke in jest, and although Fulton laughed back at her you could see that what she had said troubled him and hurt him. "As a matter of fact," she went on, "he's been looking for an excuse for some time. And now he thinks he's found one, but it wouldn't pass in a court of chivalry. He could write to his old directors just as well as not. Oh, you needn't think you're the only one who's going to have a gay time. You needn't be surprised to hear that I, too, have left home in the company of a dark and fascinating foreigner. And anyway I shall give a dance and open all the champagne in the cellar."
"There are only two quarts and a pint," said Fulton, and he turned to me. "You've never been married, have you? So you don't know what the modern woman can spend when she gets going, do you?"
I had a pretty good idea, but did not make the admission and continued to look interrogative.
"Well," he said, smiling, "she just has to spend so much, she says so herself. Then her poor husband's dividends are passed, and still she has to spend so much; she just has to, she says so herself. Then her poor husband's poor salary has to be cut in half, and she speaks calmly of giving dances and opening wine. Evelyn, I count on you as an old and tried friend. If necessary you will interpose your dead body between Lucy and this dance of hers."
Superficially he was very tolerant and good-natured, but you could see that beneath the surface, nerves were jumping, and that he was in that condition of financial and perhaps mental embarrassment which causes molehills to look like mountains. And it was here, and now, that I learned something new about Lucy; that even in jest she did not enjoy having economy preached to her. She looked a little sullen for a moment and bored.
"What's the matter with my giving a dance?" I asked.
"Oh, will you?" cried Lucy, the sullen look vanishing beneath a radiant flash of child-like joy and enthusiasm. "Where will you give it? At Wilcox's?"
"Anywhere you say."
Fulton tossed his hands in a merry gesture of despair.
"Now you're stung!" he said, and then to Lucy, with a swift change of voice and manner: "I was only joking, you know that. If you want to give a dance, give it."
It was as if a child had cried to be taken up, and in the face of all the tenets of modern training, had been taken up. And you knew that with the lightest heart in the world Mrs. Fulton was going to spend money, which her husband could ill afford.
Shortly after dinner a loud yelling arose in the nursery, and the Fultons hurried off to investigate and give comfort, leaving the manipulation of a fearful and wonderful glass coffee machine to Evelyn Gray and me.
"Lucy," said Evelyn, "has as much idea of money as an alcohol lamp has. She ought to be well shaken. I don't believe John has been able to lay by a cent for a rainy day."
"But think what a run she gives him for his money. He's the original happy married man. Think how she works to make him comfortable, and how she mothers the babies, and how she hangs on his words, as if nobody else was present. Just now, most people would have sent a servant to find out which baby was making a disturbance, and why—but those two simply bolted for the nursery as if controlled by one brain and one set of muscles."
"Almost makes a bachelor wish he wasn't a bachelor!"
"Just the same I think they are a model of what married people ought to be. Since I got to know them pretty well, I've entirely changed my notions of the institution."
"I always thought it was a bully good institution,"' said Evelyn. Through two glass tubes water, raised almost to the boiling point by an alcohol flame, began to mount from one retort into another containing pulverized coffee.
"But," she went on with an affectation of melancholy, "I've never found the right man, or he's never found me."
"Have you looked," I asked, "diligently and with patience?"
She lifted her fine sea-blue eyes to mine. "Not so diligently, I hope, as to be conspicuous," she said. "But no girl fails to examine the possibility of every man she meets—married or single—and the girl you think the most matter-of-fact is the one who most often slips out of bed, sits by her window, and looks at the moon."
"Do you want to get married?"
"There, you're not merely surprised, you're shocked at the idea. Of course I do. Look now the coffee's running down into the bottom thing. What do we do next?"
"It's too pale," I said. "Put the lamp back and send it through again. And pray that it don't explode. But listen—for the sake of argument—I want to get married, too."
"You! A nice husband you'd make!"
"That's what I wanted to know. So even I have had my matrimonial possibilities examined into by matter-of-fact ladies, who sit at windows in their nightgowns, and look at the moon! I didn't like to ask more directly. Now tell me what's wrong with me?"
Her eyebrows rose mirthfully. "Are we playing truths, or shall I let you down easily?"
"I want the truth."
"Well, if your father lost his money, or disinherited you, you couldn't support a wife."
"Decision deferred," I said.
"You would begin married life with the highest and most generous resolutions; your subsequent fall would be all the harder for your wife to bear. You have a certain something about you that few really good men have, that attracts women. How long could you let that power rest without experimenting to see if you still had it? Not very long. You are the kind of man whose wife doesn't dare to have a good-looking maid."
"There," I said somewhat nettled, "you do me an injustice."
"You are a faithful friend," she said, "but you wouldn't be a faithful lover. Change and excitement and risk are bread and meat to you."
"Look here," I said, laughing, "you've not only considered me, you've considered me more than once, and seriously!"
"You have always," she said, "charmed me far more than was good for me."
I answered her mocking look with one as mocking.
"I should like," I said, "nothing better than to disprove all the things you think about me."
"You never will."
"Do you know what I think about myself? I think that I shall astonish the world with one of those grand passions which make history worth reading. The girl who gets me will be very lucky!"
"If you ever do have a grand passion," said Evelyn thoughtfully, "and it's just barely possible, it won't be for a girl. It won't be the kind that brings any good to anybody."
As they appeared in the door of the living-room, Fulton's hand dropped from his wife's waist. She was very rosy and lovely. They looked as if they had loitered on their way back from the nursery.
"Mrs. Fulton," I said, "I don't like your coffee-machine because I think it's going to explode, and we don't know how to get the coffee out. And I don't like your friend. She has exploded and scalded me cruelly."
"Oh," said Lucy, with the look of a knowing child, "I know, you've been playing truths, and Evelyn's got a New England conscience."
"If she wasn't so good-looking," I said, "I don't believe people would have her around, after a few experiences."
"You must try not to let her get on your nerves," said Fulton, "for I'm counting on you to keep an eye on this household while I'm away, and to see that those who inhabit it behave themselves."
"I don't want any more talk about going away," said Mrs. Fulton; "the fact is bad enough. I'm not a bit ashamed to have people know that I'll be miserable and cross all the time you are gone."
But she wasn't.
I saw her the next day just after his train had pulled out. She had taken Jock and Hurry to see him off. And all three, I was told by an eye-witness, had wept openly and without shame. My informant, Mrs. Deering, said that she had been reminded of Louis XVI leaving his family for the scaffold. But when I saw them five minutes later (you could still hear the far-off coughing of the northbound train) only Hurry looked grave, while Jock and his mother were illustrating to perfection the old adage, "Out of sight out of mind."
They did not look like a mother and her children, but like a big sister with her very littlest brother and sister. Hurry, sitting in the middle, was being allowed to hold the reins and the whip. She was in her usual hurry, and you could see at a glance that over any actual use of the whip friction was constantly arising. Under the runabout could be seen the thin dangling legs of Cornelius Twombly. I waved and shouted. Mrs. Fulton and Jock waved and shouted back, and Hurry seized the opportunity to strike cunningly with the whip. The horse lurched sharply forward, the three handsome bare heads jerked sharply back, and upon two wheels, in dust and laughter, they rounded the nearest corner and vanished.
I was going nowhere in particular, and so I turned my pony and trotted after them. If they came to grief, I thought, I owed it to Fulton to be on hand to pick up the pieces. But I didn't really expect to be useful. I caught them just as they pulled up in front of their house, and within a minute Hurry had commandeered me to ride her round the block, so I took her up in front, and we had a fine ride; then Jock, looking wistful, had to have his turn, and after that I was ordered to leave my pony and come see the new sand pile and the new puppy. Mrs. Fulton had gone into the house and left me to my fate, so I gave a hand to Jock and a hand to Hurry, and they dragged me to their own particular playground, and made me build King Solomon's palace in the "Butterfly that Stamped," and plant a whole palace garden with sprigs of box and Carolina cherry. And I built and planted with all my might, and it was a lot of fun, until suddenly Hurry crawled into my lap, and laid her head against me and went to sleep.
"You mustn't mind her," said Jock, "she's only a little baby."
I didn't mind her a bit; but somehow she had taken all the fun out of me, and made me feel more serious and tender than I liked. I made her as comfortable as I could, and presently my own crossed legs began to go to sleep; the new puppy made a hunter-like dash into the nearest shrubbery, Jock caught up his bow and arrow and followed, the children's nurse scuttled off toward the kitchen wing for a cup of tea, and I was generally abandoned to my fate.
Once or twice Hurry twitched sharply as all young animals do in sleep; and once she shook her head quite sharply as if a dream had required something of her and been denied. Then she turned her face upward so that it was in the full glare of the sun and because I had no hat I shielded it with my hand.
Then very quietly came Lucy Fulton and stood looking down at us, and I looked up at her, and in that exchange of glances was promoted from an acquaintance to an old and intimate friend of the family. Thereafter we did not have to make new beginnings of conversations, but could if we chose resume where we had left off.
Hurry waked as suddenly as she had gone to sleep, and Lucy made her thank me for taking such good care of her. But when it was time for me to get up out of the hot sand, I couldn't at first because of the soundly sleeping legs, and when I managed it, it was for Hurry's benefit, with a great, and I hope, humorous exaggeration of the pains and difficulties.
I don't know why I drank so many cocktails that night before dinner, nor so much champagne at dinner, nor so many whiskies afterward. I had neither made a heavy killing at the races, nor met with disaster. If the day differed from other days it was only in this, that I had received the confidence of a little child and her mother; that this confidence had touched my heart very nearly, and given me the wish to be of use to those two, and if necessary to sacrifice my selfish self for them. Feeling then that I was a better man than I had thought myself, elated with that thought, and almost upon the brink of good resolutions, I cut into a rubber of bridge, and began to drink cocktails. Why, I shall never know. Let those who drink explain and understand, each to himself, and let those who don't drink despise and condemn, publicly, as is usual with them.
I was feeling very sentimental by the time I got to bed. I had had a long, and I suppose maudlin, talk with Harry Colemain on the beauties of matrimony. We had maintained the Fultons against all comers, as our ideal example of that institution.
"Just think," I said, "this very night is the first one that John has been away from her since they were married. That's going some. That's some record. He boarded the train like a man mounting the scaffold to have his head chopped off."
I almost cried over the touching picture which I felt I had drawn.
"There aren't many couples like them," Harry agreed wistfully. "But I bet even you and I had it in us to be decent and faithful if we'd ever struck the right girl. Those things are the purest luck, and we've been unlucky. But it makes me sick to be as old as we are, and no nearer home than the day we left college."
"When that baby was asleep in my lap—did I tell you about that?"
"Twice," said Harry mournfully.
I didn't believe him, and related the episode again. "It was wonderful," I said; "she was like a little stove with a fire in it. She made me feel so trusted and tender that I could have put back my head and bawled like a wolf. Think of having babies like that for your very own, and a wife like Lucy Fulton thrown in."
"She could have married most anybody," said Harry, "but she took a poor man and a rank outsider because she—hic—loved him. That's the kind of girl she is! Why nobody ever thought she'd settle to anybody. I bet she broke her word to half a dozen men, before she gave it to Fulton and kept it."
"I wouldn't call him exactly an outsider," I said; "anyway she's made an insider of him. Everybody likes him, and admires him. I never thought much of him at school, but I think he's a peach now. And he understands everything you say to him."
"He understands a good deal more than we'll ever be able to say to him. He's got brains. Evelyn Gray is staying with them."
"I know she is. I dined there last night. She's looking very pretty."
"She is pretty," said Harry, "and she's got pretty hands and feet; most pretty women haven't. It's usually the woman with a face that would stop a clock that has pretty feet."
"Like Mrs. Deering," I suggested.
"Exactly," he said. "But Deering is no fool."
"How do you mean he isn't a fool?"
"Why," said Harry, "he makes her sleep with her feet on the pillow."
This struck me as very funny, and I laughed until I had forgotten what I was laughing at. Harry got laughing, too, after a while. He put his whole soul in it. Then we ordered two bottles of ale and had some fat wood put on the fire, and watched it roar and sputter with flame as only fat wood can. After much meditation and a swallow of the fresh-brought ale, my mind began to harp on Evelyn Gray, and to magnify her good looks and attractions. So I said:
"Harry, why don't you marry Evelyn?"
For a moment he scowled at the fire. Then he spoke in a bitter voice.
"Suppose I wanted to, and she wanted to," he said, "still we couldn't."
"Why not?" I asked innocently, expecting, I think, that his phrase was some sort of a conundrum.
"Why, Archie, my boy," he said, and his scowl faded to a look of weariness and disgust, "it looks as if I might have to marry somebody else."
He nodded. And presently he said, "It will be best for her—of course."
"But I haven't heard even a rumor. Has he started anything?"
"No. He's a decentish little chap. He's trying to make up his mind whether to divorce her or be divorced himself. It hinges on the children. If he divorces her he'll get them, and if he lets himself be divorced, she will."
"It's big trouble, Harry!"
"Yes. For we are sick and tired of each other. I'd rather like to blow my head off."
"But if she divorces him, you needn't marry her."
He rose slowly to his full height and held out his hand. "I'm going to turn in," he said. "Good night."
"Good night, Harry. I'm sorry for you, you know that."
"I only have my deserts," he said. "Sensible men, like you, steer clear of family complications."
When he had gone I had another bottle of ale in front of the fire, and from thinking of Harry, I got to thinking of how well ale seemed to go on top of whiskey, and to congratulating myself on my strong head and stomach. "Nobody," I thought complacently, "would suspect that I had been drinking." Then I got to thinking once more about Evelyn Gray. It was time I settled down, why not with Evelyn—if only to prove to her that the truths she had told me about myself weren't true? I began to fancy that I had in me all the qualities that go to make the ideal husband, and that in Evelyn were to be found all the qualities which make the ideal wife. I could have wept to think what a good sportsman she was, and how Pilgrim-father honest.
On her writing-desk my mother has three little monkeys carved in ivory. One has his hands clapped to his ears, one to his eyes, and the other to his mouth. Their names are "Hear no Evil," "See no Evil," and "Speak no Evil."
I have to pass her door to get to my room. But late at night that door is never left ajar. She is not the kind of mother who puts in a sudden (and wholly accidental!) appearance when her son is coming home a little the worse for wear. She has never seen me the worse for wear (and I'm not very often), and if she has her way (and I have mine) she never will.
"What in thunderation started you last night?" said my father at breakfast.
"I'm hanged if I know," I said; "but what makes you think I got started?"
"I'd just put out the lights in the library when you came in. You stopped in front of the hall mirror, and said:
"Beautiful Evelyn Gray is dead Come and sit by her side an hour."
"I didn't," I exclaimed indignantly.
My father began to chuckle all over like Santa Claus in the Christmas poem.
"You mean beautiful Evelyn Hope, don't you?" I asked.
"Gray was the name."
"I'd like to know what you were doing up so late?"
"Oh, we had a big night—three tables of bridge and one of poker. I sat up late to count my winnings."
"How much did you drop, as a matter of fact?"
"Only about eighty."
"Any twinges this morning?"
"No, sir. And a better appetite than you've got."
"I doubt that."
And, indeed, we both ate very hearty breakfasts.
If I thought that Lucy would be melancholy during her husband's absence I was mistaken. It was almost as if she had no husband. She was like some radiant schoolgirl home for the holidays. But I am pretty sure that Fulton missed her during every waking moment. He wrote to her at least twice a day and sent her many telegrams.
"He knows what a shocking memory I have," she explained; "and he's afraid that I'll forget him unless constantly reminded. Wouldn't it be funny if people only existed for us when they were actually present? Some time I think I'm a little like that about people. Until I really fell in love, I always loved the boy that was on the spot."
"I've heard that you were an outrageous flirt."
"I didn't know my own mind. That isn't flirting. And when a boy said he liked me, I was so pleased and flattered that I always said I liked him, too, and the minute he was out of sight, I'd find that I didn't."
A few days of hot sunshine had worked wonders with the jasmine. Here and there the bright golden trumpets were so massed as to give an effect of bonfires; here and there a vine carried beauty and sweetness to the top of a tall tree, or festooning among the branches resembled a string of lights. The humming of bees was steady and insistent like the roar of far-off surf. And so strong was the mounting of the sap that already the twigs and branches of deciduous trees appeared as through a mist of green. The buds on the laurel, swollen and pink, looked like sugar decorations for wedding cakes. Flashes of brightest blue and scarlet told of birds recently arrived from still farther south. Lucy Fulton had just received a telegram from her husband, saying that in New York a blizzard was raging.
She was in one of her talkative moods. Her voice, clear and boyish and far-carrying, was so easy and pleasant to listen to that it didn't matter much what she said. Should I convey an erroneous impression and one derogatory to a charming companion if I said that she chattered along like a magpie? She talked about servants, and I gathered that she had never had any trouble with servants. And I thought, "Why should you, you who are so friendly, so frank, and so kind?" She gave me both sides of the argument about bare legs for children versus stockinged legs. She confessed to an immense passion for so lowly a dish as stewed prunes, she memorialized upon dogs and horses that had belonged to her. I learned that her favorite story was the "Brushwood Boy," that her favorite poem was "The Last Ride Together," and that her favorite flower was Olea fragrans, the tea-olive (she really said its Latin name), whose waxy-white blossom is no bigger than the head of a pin, and whose fragrance is as that of a whole basketful of hot-house peaches.
Had I really and truly liked the teagown she wore the other night? Would I cross my heart to that effect? Well, then, she had made it all herself in a day. If the worse came to the worst, if cartridges fell upon still more evil days, she would turn dressmaker, and become rich and famous. Wasn't it a pity that John had to work so hard, and miss so many lovely days?
"I think he'd be quite rich," she said, "if it wasn't for me. I was brought up to spend all the money I wanted to, and I don't seem able to stop. I know it isn't fair to John, and John says it isn't fair to the babies, and I make beautiful resolutions and forget all about them."
"But now that your husband has had to cut his salary in half, you'll simply have to be good, won't you?"
She admitted that now she would simply have to be good. And a moment later she was making plans for the dance that she was going to give at Wilcox's.
"Why wouldn't it be a fine beginning of economy to cut that dance out?" I asked. "Why not let me give it? I'm quite flush just now. It wouldn't hurt me a bit."
"I thrashed it all out with John," she said, "that same night after you'd gone. He told me to go ahead, and not disappoint myself. I didn't see why you shouldn't give a dance for me if you wanted to, and I wanted you to. But John wouldn't listen to that for a minute. I must say I couldn't see why, and I don't yet. It isn't like paying my dressmaker's bill, or giving me a pearl necklace. I said that. And he said no, it wasn't like that, but that it was a second cousin twice removed."
"I think he'd be mightily pleased if he came back and found that the price of this dance was still to his credit in that firm and excellent institution, the Bank of Western Carolina."
"If we are really hard up," she said, "what does a few hundred dollars matter one way or the other?"
It seemed to me that I had done all that I could to save Fulton's money for him. I had the feeling that if I continued to preach economy I might get myself disliked, for already Lucy seemed to have lost something of her light-heartedness and vivacity.
"When do you give it?" I said. "Please ask me."
"I shall give it day after tomorrow night," she said; "and I shall ask everybody in Aiken."
I said that she insulted me, and then we laughed like two silly children, and light-heartedness and vivacity returned to her like two bright birds to a flowering bush. We planned the dance in full detail. There was just time to get a famous quartette down from Washington. She would have the rooms decorated with wagon-loads of jasmine. Once I had seen the expression of Hurry's face upon learning that there was to be chocolate ice cream for dessert. In planning her dance Lucy's face had just the same expression. When she was excited with happiness it seemed to me that she had the loveliest face I had ever seen.
We rode until dusk, but I could not accept her invitation for tea or a drink, because my mother was expecting some people over from Augusta and I had promised to come home. The people's motor, however, had broken down, and I found my mother all alone, presiding at a tea table that almost groaned with good things to eat.
"What have you been doing?" she asked.
"I've been riding—as you see. I've been riding with Mrs. Fulton."
"Again? It seems to me you ride with her every day. You must find her fascinating, or you wouldn't do it."
"You read me like a book, mother. I certainly wouldn't. But don't you think fascinating is rather a strong word? She's the most easy-going and engaging little person in the world, but fascinating . . .? Fascination suggests the effect of paint and fixed smiles and lights and spangles upon old men with bald heads, the effect of the wily serpent upon the guileless bird."
"Aiken," said my mother, "is such a very small place."
"It isn't like you to beat about the bush. Why not say frankly that if I keep on I'll end by making Lucy Fulton conspicuous?"
"Very well," smiled my mother (very gently), "that's just what I do say."
"Aiken," I said, "can go hang. If two people like to ride together, for no worse reason than that they like riding and are good friends, what earthly business is it of Aiken's? People make me sick. That's a bromide, but it's a good one. As for Lucy Fulton, I really like her a lot, and she really amuses me, but if I knew that I was never to see her again in this world, I'd lose no sleep over it. Why, they are the original happy married pair. Just think he's away from home for the first time since they were married. They make love to each other openly, right under your very nose, so that it's downright embarrassing. Latterly I've had a meal ticket at their house, and seeing them together with their babies, and noting all the peace and trustfulness and lovingness of it, has opened my eyes (that were so firmly shut) to the possibilities and beauties of matrimony."
"At any rate," said my mother, "you haven't talked yourself entirely out."
"Well, you see, I was a listener today. Part of the time I was lectured on the empty life I lead, and then I was almost persuaded that I ought to fall in love with Evelyn Gray, and she with me. I shouldn't wonder if Mrs. Fulton bullied us into it before she got through."
"It would be a delightful marriage," said my mother with enthusiasm, "for everybody."
"With the possible exception of Evelyn and me."
Just after this Evelyn, who was great friends with my mother, came in without being announced, and said that she was famished, and that she put herself entirely in our hands. So we fed her tea, toast, hot biscuits, three kinds of sandwiches, and as many kinds of cakes. And she finished off with a tumbler full of thick cream.
"Been sitting by your window lately," I asked, "looking at the moon?"
"He thinks," Evelyn complained to my mother, "that delicate sentiments and a hearty appetite don't go together. But we know better, don't we?"
"When I'm in love," I said, "I eat like a canary bird. I just waste away. Don't I, mother?"
"Fall in love with somebody," said my mother, "and I'll tell you."
"Nobody encourages me," I said; "my life has been one long rebuff, I remind myself of a dog with muddy paws; whenever I start to jump up I get a whack on the nose."
"Your sad lot," said Evelyn, "is almost the only topic of conversation among sympathetic people. But of course, if you will have muddy paws——!"
"And yet, seriously," I said; "somewhere in this wide world there must be one girl in whose eyes I might succeed in passing myself off as a hero. I wish to heaven I had her address—a little cream?"
Evelyn scorned the hospitable suggestion and reached for her gloves and riding crop.
"I came to see you," she said to my mother, "really I did. And I've done nothing but eat. I'm coming again soon when there's nobody here but you, and the larder is low."
"Good Lord!" I said, when we had reached the front gate. "Where's your pony?"
"I sent him away," she said; "I'm walking. And you don't have to see me home."
"But if I want to? And anyway it's too late and dark for you to walk home alone. Once upon a time there was a girl and her name was Little Red Riding Hood, and once as she was walking home in the dark, after an unusually heavy tea, she met a wolf. And he said, 'Evening, Little Red Riding Hood,' and she, though she was twittering with fear, and in no condition for running because of the immensely heavy tea, said, 'Evening, Mr. Wolf.'"
"Come along then!" said Evelyn. "Already you have persuaded me that Little Red Riding Hood is a pig, and that she is in great danger."
But we didn't walk to the Fultons', we strolled. And the deep dusk turned to a velvety black night, soft and warm as a garment, and all spangled over with stars. It was one of the Aiken nights that smells of red cedar. We passed more than one pair of soft-voiced darkies who appeared to lean against each other as they strolled, and from whom came sounds like the cooing of doves. Once far off we heard shouting and a pistol shot, and presently one came running and crossed our path far ahead, but whether a white man or a black we could not tell.
The lights in the Fultons' yard had not yet been switched on. In a recess cut from the foliage of a cedar tree, a white garden seat glimmered in the starlight.
"It's too early to dress for dinner," I said, "and it's a pity to go indoors."
Without a word Evelyn turned into the fragrant recess. The sudden acquiescence of one usually so disputatious, where I was concerned, troubled me a little, because I could not explain it to my satisfaction. It never had happened before. I could not see her face clearly enough to gather its expression, and so I put a cigarette in my mouth and struck a match. It missed fire, and Evelyn said, "Please don't. Unless you want to very much."
"I don't want to at all," I said; "it was just habit. Cedar smells better than tobacco, and that's saying a good deal."
She did not answer and a few moments later I said:
"Any other couple, I suppose, seated on this bench in these surroundings would make a noise like the cooing of doves. But either you or I don't say anything, like tonight walking home, or we fight. And yet I think that if the whole truth were told we like each other quite a good deal. I admit that you often say hard things about me to my face, but I deny that you say them behind my back. Behind my back I have heard that you sometimes make valiant and comradely efforts to—well to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, so to speak."
"I've always remembered," she said, very gently, "and never forgotten how nice you were to me at my coming-out party, when I was so scared and young and all. I thought you were the most wonderful man in the world, and had the most understanding and the most tact."
She laughed softly, but not mirthfully.
"That night," she said; "if you'd asked me to run away with you I'd have done it like a shot."
"But tonight," I said, "if I so much as touched your hand, you'd turn into an icicle, and send me about my business with a few disagreeable truths to wear in my bonnet. And I think I know the reason. It's because on that first night, even if I had been desperately in love with you, I wouldn't have thought of asking you to run away with me, whereas now I can conceive of making such a proposition to somebody that I didn't even love two bits' worth—for no better reason than that she was lovely to look at and that the night smelled of cedar."
"I've only been out seven years," said Evelyn; "seven years tonight."
"Many happy returns, Evelyn. I had no idea this was an anniversary."
"It doesn't seem possible," she went on, "for a man to change his whole moral nature in seven years, and to boast about that change."
"I haven't changed and I didn't boast. If I ever knew what was right and what was wrong, I still know. The only difference is that I used to think it mattered a lot, and now I'm not so sure. I see good people suffer, and wicked people triumph; and I don't think that everything is for the best in this best of worlds; I think most things are decidedly for the worst. Why should so many people be poor and sick and uncomfortable? Why should so many men marry the wrong girls, so many girls the wrong men? If we are suffering for our sins, well and good, but what was the use of making us so pesky sinful! You won't, of course, but most people come back at one with one's inability to comprehend—they always say 'comprehend' the Great Design. As if they themselves comprehended said Great Design to perfection. If there is a Great Design, no human being understands a jot of it; that's certain. Why be so sure then that something we don't understand, and which may not even exist, is absolutely right and beautiful? Suppose it could be proved to us that there was no Great Design, and no Great Designer, that the world was the result of some blind, happy-go-lucky creative force, what would we think of the world then, poor thing? A poor woman with nothing to live for walks the streets that she may live; a rich woman with much to live for dies slowly and in great torture, of cancer. If we accept the Great Design we shouldn't even feel pity for these two women, we should say of them merely, 'How right! How beautiful!' But we do feel pity for them, and by that mere feeling of pity deny automatically the beauty of the Great Design, in the first place, and its subsequent execution. I can conceive, I think, of a lovely picture: you for instance, on a white bench, under a cedar in the starlight, listening to my delightful conversation, but I couldn't possibly draw the picture, let alone paint it. The Great Design, it seems to me, had a tremendous gift for landscape, but fell down a little when it came to people."
"Archie," said Evelyn, "you talk like an irreverent schoolboy."
"Of course I do," I said; "I must. I can't help myself. I am only playing my part in the Great Design. But if you believe in that then it is irreverent of you to say that my talk is anything but absolutely right, just, and beautiful. So there!"
She said nothing. And after a few moments of silence I began to feel sorry that I had talked flippantly.
"Evelyn," I said, "you mustn't mind poor old me."
Almost unconscious of what I was doing I lifted her right hand from her lap, and held it in both mine. She made one feeble little effort to tug her hand away and then no more. In the heavens, a star slipped, and from the heavens fell, leaving a wake of golden glory. And it seemed after that sudden blazing as if the night was blacker than before.
I slid my left arm around her shoulders, and, unresisted, drew her a little toward me, until I could feel her heart beating strongly against mine.
Just then the latch of the house door turned with a strong oil click, the door swung open, and dark against the light illumination of the hall stood Lucy Fulton. As she stood looking and listening, the strong bell of the far-off courthouse clock began to strike. Long before the lights and last clanging concussion, Evelyn and I had withdrawn to the uttermost ends of our bench.
Then Lucy turned and went back into the house and shut the door after her.
Evelyn had risen.
"Good night," she said, but she did not hold out her hand.
"Good night," I said; "I've made you late. I'm sorry."
She started to speak, hesitated, and then said, very quietly, "Why did you make love to me just now?"
It seemed to me that the least I could do was to answer "Because I love you." But the words must have choked me, and with shame, I told her the truth.
"I made love to you," I said, "because I have only one life to live."
"I thought so," she said, still very quietly, and turned toward the house. But I had caught up with her in a mere crumb of time.
"I have been honest with you, Evelyn," I said; "will you be honest with me? I have told you why I made love to you. I want to know; it seems to me that I ought to know. Why did you let me?"
"Oh," she said, "I shut my eyes and pretended that we were in the conservatory, seven years ago tonight."
"Yes, Archie, honestly."
Halfway up the steps of the house she turned, and said a little wearily, "How many lives do you think I have to live?"
"May it be long and happy."
On that we parted, and I heard the ghost of a cynical laugh as she let herself into the house.
And I hurried home, inexcusably late for dinner, and filled with shame and remorse. And ever at the back of my head was the image, not of Evelyn Gray, vague and illusive in the starlight, but of that other image that had stood forth dark and sharply defined against the light of the hall.
"Lucy Fulton," I said to myself, "you came in the nick of time. And you are my good angel."
On the following day I had no especial desire to see Evelyn. I thought that it might be embarrassing for her, and I knew that it would be embarrassing for me, so that it was not without trepidation that I presented myself at the Fultons' house to keep a riding engagement with Lucy.
But you never know what will embarrass a woman and what won't. I remember when the Jocelyn house burned down, and nothing was saved but a piano (at which Peter Reddy seated himself and played the "Fire Music") and a scuttle of coal, how Mrs. Jocelyn, usually the shyest and most easily shocked person in the world, came down a ladder in nothing but a flimsy nightgown, and stood among us utterly unselfconscious and calmly making the best of things, until someone (it was a warm night and there were no overcoats in the crowd) tore down a veranda awning and wrapped her in it. And I remember a certain very rich and pushing Mrs. Edison from somewhere in New Jersey who worked herself almost into the top circle of society, and was then caught in a very serious and offensive lie, which ended her social career as suddenly as a sentence is ended by a period. I had been present when she told the lie, and I was present when it was brought home to her, and I felt almost as sick as if I had told it myself, and been caught. But she didn't turn a hair. She just laughed and said, "Yes. I made it up. What are you going to do about it?" Morgan Forbes, about whom the lie had been told, was trembling so with rage that he could hardly articulate. He said, "The next time you set foot in Newport you will be arrested and prosecuted for criminal libel." And she knew that he meant it and that her career was ended; still she didn't turn a hair. You couldn't help admiring her. Sometimes I can't help wondering what has become of her. She looked like one of those Broken Pitcher girls that Greuze painted; and you'd no more have expected to find poison in her than in a humming-bird.
Nor did Evelyn show any embarrassment whatever. She was sitting cross-legged on the big living-room lounge, reading a Peter Rabbit book to Jock and Hurry, and looking cool as a lily. She looked serene and aloof. I could not believe that only a few hours before she had felt that, having but one life to live, nothing mattered much one way or another. "At least," I thought, "she'll never wish to talk the thing over, and that's a blessing!"
Lucy, dressed for riding, was drumming on a window-pane, and looking out into the shady, over-grown garden. I thought her expression a little quizzical, her hand a little cool and casual, not altogether friendly. And I was surprised to find how great an effect of discomfort and dreariness this thought had upon me.
"Any news from the man of the house?" I asked.
"Be back Monday," she said. This was a day sooner than she had expected him, but she spoke without any show of enthusiasm. Indeed, she spoke a little wearily. I had never seen her face with so little color in it. Evelyn, after a friendly nod, and a "You mustn't interrupt," had gone on with her reading.
"Are we riding?" I said. "We don't seem to be wanted here."
"Yes," said Lucy. "Let's ride. I feel as if I hadn't exercised for a week." She led the way to the ponies, through the garden and round the house, almost brusquely. A Spanish bayonet pricked her in the arm, and she made a monosyllabic exclamation in which there was more anger than pain. Usually so gay and chattersome, she seemed now a petulant and taciturn creature.
But she was no sooner astride her pony than the color returned to her cheeks, and the sparkle, if not the gayety, to her eyes. And at once, as if her taciturnity had been a vow, to be ended when she should touch leather, she began to talk. "I'm cross with you," she said.
"About last night. I thought—I don't know what I thought. But I've liked you so much. And all your thoughts about people are kind and generous, and I simply won't believe that it's all put on for effect, and——"
"What about last night? I didn't even see you. What have I done?"
"Evelyn saw you, didn't she? Well, I saw Evelyn right afterward. A child could have seen that she was upset, and I made her tell me all about everything. You don't care two straws about her, really. Do you?"
"Does she care two straws about me?"
"Was it just one of those things that happen when it's dark and romantic and two people feel lonely, and——"
"And have forgotten yesterday, and aren't considering tomorrow. But nothing did happen. You came out on the porch, and the courthouse bell sounded a shockingly late hour, and if we didn't remember yesterday or consider tomorrow, at least we thought of dinner."
"Evelyn," said Lucy, "was wild with anger and shame."
"I am sorry."
"You don't look a bit sorry."
"I don't believe a man is ever sorry unless he makes real trouble."
"Isn't losing faith in oneself real trouble?"
"And who has done that?"
"Why, Evelyn, of course. She thought that she was as unapproachable as an icicle, and now she says all sorts of wild things about herself. Just before you came in the children asked her to read Peter Rabbit to them. She said she would, but that she didn't think she was fit to."
I burst out laughing, and so did Lucy. "And still," she cried, "you don't look sorry."
"I'm looking at you," I said, "and I'm hanged if I can look at you and either feel sorry or half the time keep a straight face. And if I could, I wouldn't. As for Evelyn I'm glad she's found out that she isn't an icicle. Look here, I'll bet you a thousand dollars she's engaged or married within a year, beginning today."
"I couldn't pay if I lost," said Lucy. "But if you'll make it ten dollars, I'll take you ten times."
We shook hands, and then, as is usual, tried to prove that we had bet wisely.
"She's lonely," I said, "that's all that is the matter with her. She sees all her friends married and established, she has the perfectly ludicrous idea that she is not as young as she used to be. She feels like an ambitious thoroughbred that's been left at the post."
To this characterization of Evelyn Lucy took opposing views. Her friend, as a matter of fact, wasn't in the least lonely, but was excellent company for herself, and led a full life. She was not the marrying kind. If she liked men it was only because they played the games she liked to play better than women play them. "Imagine Evelyn," she said, "unable to eat, unable to sleep! Imagine her sitting at the window in her nightgown and looking pensively at the moon!"
"Funny," I said, "but that's just what I was imagining. All girls do it and some wives. It's as much a part of a girl as long hair, and the fear of spiders. If a girl didn't get her moon bath now and then, she'd just shrivel up and die."
"Well," said Lucy, and she pretended to sigh, "there may be something in it. But not for Evelyn."
A moment later.
"Listen," she said, "just to make me out wrong, and win my good money you wouldn't——"
"My word," I said, "you are suspicious. But I thought you were a born matchmaker. I thought you'd be pleased if you got Evelyn and me married!"
"It wouldn't do at all," she said.
"Oh," she said, "if you must know, it's because I like you—both—better the way you are."
And from a walk she put her pony into a brisk gallop, and I followed suit, and caught up with her. And I was a little moved and troubled by what she had said. For it seemed to me as if she had said it of me alone, and that the inclusion of Evelyn in that delayed and hanging fire "both" of her phrase had been an afterthought.
After a pleasant uphill while of soft galloping, she signaled with her hand, and once more the ponies walked.
"Tell me truthfully," she said. "Are you interested in Evelyn?"
"Is it manners for a man to say he isn't interested in a girl?"
"You couldn't say it to me, because—Oh, because I really want to know."
"Mrs. Fulton," I said, "if I've made her think so, I deserve to be kicked."
"Then that's all right. She knows exactly the value to put on your attentions. And I'm glad."
"I don't think it would be much fun to ride with a man who couldn't bring his mind along with him, do you? Especially now that all the flowers are popping out and it's so lovely in the woods."
"But," I said, "you have yet to forgive me for last night."
"There's nothing to forgive," she said. "Don't you know that though the man always takes the blame, it's always the girl's fault. A man can't get himself into trouble by just sitting still and looking pensive, but a girl can. From the moment Evelyn sat on that bench under the cedar she had only one thought. It was to see if she could make you kiss her."
"No, no, Mrs. Fulton," I exclaimed. "It wasn't a bit like that. Honestly it wasn't."
"In that case," said Mrs. Fulton, and her rosy face was at its very gayest, "Evelyn is a liar."
"She told you that she tried to make me?"
"Why, what else was there for her to be ashamed about?"
"But you said she was also angry."
"I suppose," said Lucy mischievously, "she was angry because I came out on the porch."
In the days of the waltz and the twostep, Aiken did not dance, but immediately upon the introduction of the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear, she made honorable amends. Wilcox built an oval ballroom with a platform for musicians, the big room at the Golf Club was found to have a capital floor, and the grip of bridge whist upon society was rudely loosened.
Whatever may be said in derogation of the modern dances, they have rejuvenated the old and knocked a lot of nonsense out of the young. To my eye there is nothing more charming than a well-danced maxixe. To dance well a man must be an athlete and a musician; to be either is surely a worthy ambition. To dance well a girl must at the very least have grace and charm.
So far as I am concerned, Lucy Fulton's dance was a great success, from the arrival of the first guest. I was the first guest.
We had a whole dance to ourselves while Evelyn was busy with the telephone and before the second guest arrived. In all her life Lucy had never looked more animated or more lovely. The musicians caught her enthusiasm and the high spirit which flowed from her like an electric current, and at once these things appeared in their music.
"I've only one sorrow," I said, "that I can't dance with you and watch you dance at the same time."
"But if you had to choose one or the other?"
"I shall choose often," I said, "but I'm afraid others will begin getting chosen. If I had my way there would be no other man but me and no other girl but you, and we'd dance till breakfast time."
"Evelyn," said Lucy, her eyes full of mischief, "could chaperon us from a bench. She could send for her knitting."
"Who is this Evelyn?" I said.
And then the rhythm of the music became too much for us, and we did not speak any more, only danced; only danced and liked each other more and more.
That night it seemed there were no tired men or women in Aiken. There were no lingering groups of yarn-swapping men in the buffet, only half-melted humanity who gulped down a glass of champagne and flew back to the dance. We made so much noise that half the dogs in Aiken barked all night, and roosters waked from sleep began to crow at eleven o'clock.
I am sure that Lucy did not give many thoughts to poor John Fulton, worrying his head off in far New York. She had the greatest power upon her own thoughts of any woman or man I ever knew. And always she chose agreeable and even delightful things to think about. When I try to make castles in the air I get worrying about details, such as neighbors and plumbing. Sometimes I have felt that it would be agreeable to run away from everyone and everything, and live on some South Sea beach in an undershirt and an old pair of trousers. I can see the palms and the breadfruit, as well as the next man. I can picture the friendly brown girls with their bright, black eyes and their long necklaces of scarlet flowers and many-colored shells, and I can hear the long-drawn roar of the surf on the coral beach. But always my bright, hopeful pictures go to smash on details. More insistent than the roar of the surf, I hear the humming of great angry mosquitoes, and I try to figure out what I should do if I came down with appendicitis and no surgeon within a thousand miles.