The Butterfly House
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Author of "A Humble Romance," "A New England Nun," "The Winning Lady," etc.
With illustrations by Paul Julien Meylan
New York Dodd, Mead and Company 1912
Fairbridge, the little New Jersey village, or rather city (for it had won municipal government some years before, in spite of the protest of far-seeing citizens who descried in the distance bonded debts out of proportion to the tiny shoulders of the place), was a misnomer. Often a person, being in Fairbridge for the first time, and being driven by way of entertainment about the rural streets, would inquire, "Why Fairbridge?"
Bridges there were none, except those over which the trains thundered to and from New York, and the adjective, except to old inhabitants who had a curious fierce loyalty for the place, did not seemingly apply. Fairbridge could hardly, by an unbiassed person who did not dwell in the little village and view its features through the rosy glamour of home life, be called "fair." There were a few pretty streets, with well-kept sidewalks, and ambitious, although small houses, and there were many lovely bits of views to be obtained, especially in the green flush of spring, and the red glow of autumn over the softly swelling New Jersey landscape with its warm red soil to the distant rise of low blue hills; but it was not fair enough in a general way to justify its name. Yet Fairbridge it was, without bridge, or natural beauty, and no mortal knew why. The origin of the name was lost in the petty mist of a petty past.
Fairbridge was tragically petty, inasmuch as it saw itself great. In Fairbridge narrowness reigned, nay, tyrannised, and was not recognised as such. There was something fairly uncanny about Fairbridge's influence upon people after they had lived there even a few years. The influence held good, too, in the cases of men who daily went to business or professions in New York. Even Wall Street was no sinecure. Back they would come at night, and the terrible, narrow maelstrom of pettiness sucked them in. All outside interest was as naught. International affairs seemed insignificant when once one was really in Fairbridge.
Fairbridge, although rampant when local politics were concerned, had no regard whatever for those of the nation at large, except as they involved Fairbridge. Fairbridge, to its own understanding, was a nucleus, an ultimatum. It was an example of the triumph of the infinitesimal. It saw itself through a microscope and loomed up gigantic. Fairbridge was like an insect, born with the conviction that it was an elephant. There was at once something ludicrous, and magnificent, and terrible about it. It had the impressiveness of the abnormal and prehistoric. In one sense, it was prehistoric. It was as a giant survivor of a degenerate species.
Withal, it was puzzling. People if pinned down could not say why, in Fairbridge, the little was so monstrous, whether it depended upon local conditions, upon the general population, or upon a few who had an undue estimation of themselves and all connected with them. Was Fairbridge great because of its inhabitants, or were the inhabitants great because of Fairbridge? Who could say? And why was Fairbridge so important that its very smallness overwhelmed that which, by the nature of things, seemed overwhelming? Nobody knew, or rather, so tremendous was the power of the small in the village, that nobody inquired.
It is entirely possible that had there been any delicate gauge of mentality, the actual swelling of the individual in his own estimation as he neared Fairbridge after a few hours' absence, might have been apparent. Take a broker on Wall Street, for instance, or a lawyer who had threaded his painful way to the dim light of understanding through the intricate mazes of the law all day, as his train neared his loved village. From an atom that went to make up the motive power of a great metropolis, he himself became an entirety. He was It with a capital letter. No wonder that under the circumstances Fairbridge had charms that allured, that people chose it for suburban residences, that the small, ornate, new houses with their perky little towers and aesthetic diamond-paned windows, multiplied.
Fairbridge was in reality very artistically planned as to the sites of its houses. Instead of the regulation Main Street of the country village, with its centre given up to shops and post-office, side streets wound here and there, and houses were placed with a view to effect.
The Main Street of Fairbridge was as naught from a social point of view. Nobody of any social importance lived there. Even the physicians had their residences and offices in a more aristocratic locality. Upon the Main Street proper, that which formed the centre of the village, there were only shops and a schoolhouse and one or two mean public buildings. For a village of the self-importance of Fairbridge, the public buildings were very few and very mean. There was no city hall worthy of the name of this little city which held its head so high. The City Hall, so designated by ornate gilt letters upon the glass panel of a very small door, occupied part of the building in which was the post-office. It was a tiny building, two stories high. On the second floor was the millinery shop of Mrs. Creevy, and behind it the two rooms in which she kept house with her daughter Jessy.
On the lower floor was the post-office on the right, filthy with the foot tracks of the Fairbridge children who crowded it in a noisy rabble twice a day, and perpetually red-stained with the shale of New Jersey, brought in upon the boots of New Jersey farmers, who always bore about with them a goodly portion of their native soil. On the left, was the City Hall. This was vacant except upon the first Monday of every month, when the janitor of the Dutch Reformed Church, who eked out a scanty salary with divers other tasks, got himself to work, and slopped pails of water over the floor, then swept, and built a fire, if in winter.
Upon the evenings of these first Mondays the Mayor and city officials met and made great talk over small matters, and with the labouring of a mountain, brought forth mice. The City Hall was closed upon other occasions, unless the village talent gave a play for some local benefit. Fairbridge was intensely dramatic, and it was popularly considered that great, natural, histrionic gifts were squandered upon the Fairbridge audiences, appreciative though they were. Outside talent was never in evidence in Fairbridge. No theatrical company had ever essayed to rent that City Hall. People in Fairbridge put that somewhat humiliating fact from their minds. Nothing would have induced a loyal citizen to admit that Fairbridge was too small game for such purposes. There was a tiny theatre in the neighbouring city of Axminister, which had really some claims to being called a city, from tradition and usage, aside from size. Axminister was an ancient Dutch city, horribly uncomfortable, but exceedingly picturesque. Fairbridge looked down upon it, and seldom patronised the shows (they never said "plays") staged in its miniature theatre. When they did not resort to their own City Hall for entertainment by local talent, they arrayed themselves in their best and patronised New York itself.
New York did not know that it was patronised, but Fairbridge knew. When Mr. and Mrs. George B. Slade boarded the seven o'clock train, Mrs. Slade, tall, and majestically handsome, arrayed most elegantly, and crowned with a white hat (Mrs. Slade always affected white hats with long drooping plumes upon such occasions), and George B., natty in his light top coat, standing well back upon the heels of his shiny shoes, with the air of the wealthy and well-assured, holding a belted cigar in the tips of his grey-gloved fingers, New York was most distinctly patronised, although without knowing it.
It was also patronised, and to a greater extent, by little Mrs. Wilbur Edes, very little indeed, so little as to be almost symbolic of Fairbridge itself, but elegant in every detail, so elegant as to arrest the eye of everybody as she entered the train, holding up the tail of her black lace gown. Mrs. Edes doted on black lace. Her small, fair face peered with a curious calm alertness from under the black plumes of her great picture hat, perched sidewise upon a carefully waved pale gold pompadour, which was perfection and would have done credit to the best hairdresser or the best French maid in New York, but which was achieved solely by Mrs. Wilbur Edes' own native wit and skilful fingers.
Mrs. Wilbur Edes, although small, was masterly in everything, from waving a pompadour to conducting theatricals. She herself was the star dramatic performer of Fairbridge. There was a strong feeling in Fairbridge that in reality she might, if she chose, rival Bernhardt. Mrs. Emerston Strong, who had been abroad and had seen Bernhardt on her native soil, had often said that Mrs. Edes reminded her of the great French actress, although she was much handsomer, and so moral! Mrs. Wilbur Edes was masterly in morals, as in everything else. She was much admired by the opposite sex, but she was a model wife and mother.
Mr. Wilbur Edes was an admired accessory of his wife. He was so very tall and slender as to suggest forcible elongation. He carried his head with a deprecatory, sidewise air as if in accordance with his wife's picture hat, and yet Mr. Wilbur Edes, out of Fairbridge and in his law office on Broadway, was a man among men. He was an exception to the personal esteem which usually expanded a male citizen of Fairbridge, but he was the one and only husband of Mrs. Wilbur Edes, and there was not room at such an apex as she occupied for more than one. Tall as Wilbur Edes was, he was overshadowed by that immaculate blond pompadour and that plumed picture hat. He was a prime favourite in Fairbridge society; he was liked and admired, but his radiance was reflected, and he was satisfied that it should be so. He adored his wife. The shadow of her black picture hat was his place of perfect content. He watched the admiring glances of other men at his wonderful possession with a triumph and pride which made him really rather a noble sort. He was also so fond and proud of his little twin daughters, Maida and Adelaide, that the fondness and pride fairly illuminated his inner self. Wilbur Edes was a clever lawyer, but love made him something bigger. It caused him to immolate self, which is spiritually enlarging self.
In one respect Wilbur Edes was the biggest man in Fairbridge; in another, Doctor Sturtevant was. Doctor Sturtevant depended upon no other person for his glory. He shone as a fixed star, with his own lustre. He was esteemed a very great physician indeed, and it was considered that Mrs. Sturtevant, who was good, and honest, and portly with a tight, middle-aged portliness, hardly lived up to her husband. It was admitted that she tried, poor soul, but her limitations were held to be impossible, even by her faithful straining following of love.
When the splendid, florid Doctor, with his majestically curving expanse of waistcoat and his inscrutable face, whirred through the streets of Fairbridge in his motor car, with that meek bulk of womanhood beside him, many said quite openly how unfortunate it was that Doctor Sturtevant had married, when so young, a woman so manifestly his inferior. They never failed to confer that faint praise, which is worse than none at all, upon the poor soul.
"She is a good woman," they said. "She means well, and she is a good housekeeper, but she is no companion for a man like that."
Poor Mrs. Sturtevant was aware of her status in Fairbridge, and she was not without a steady, plodding ambition of her own. That utterly commonplace, middle-aged face had some lines of strength. Mrs. Sturtevant was a member of the women's club of Fairbridge, which was poetically and cleverly called the Zenith Club.
She wrote, whenever it was her turn to do so, papers upon every imaginable subject. She balked at nothing whatever. She ranged from household discussions to the Orient. Then she stood up in the midst of the women, sunk her double chin in her lace collar, and read her paper in a voice like the whisper of a blade of grass. Doctor Sturtevant had a very low voice. His wife had naturally a strident one, but she essayed to follow him in the matter of voice, as in all other things. The poor hen bird tried to voice her thoughts like her mate, and the result was a strange and weird note. However, Mrs. Sturtevant herself was not aware of the result. When she sat down after finishing her papers her face was always becomingly flushed with pleasure.
Nothing, not even pleasure, was becoming to Mrs. Sturtevant. Life itself was unbecoming to her, and the worst of it was nobody knew it, and everybody said it was due to Mrs. Sturtevant's lack of taste, and then they pitied the great doctor anew. It was very fortunate that it never occurred to Mrs. Sturtevant to pity the doctor on her account, for she was so fond of him, poor soul, that it might have led to a tragedy.
The Zenith Club of Fairbridge always met on Friday afternoons. It was a cherished aim of the Club to uproot foolish superstitions, hence Friday. It did not seem in the least risky to the ordinary person for a woman to attend a meeting of the Zenith Club on a Friday, in preference to any other day in the week; but many a member had a covert feeling that she was somewhat heroic, especially if the meeting was held at the home of some distant member on an icy day in winter, and she was obliged to make use of a livery carriage.
There were in Fairbridge three keepers of livery stables, and curiously enough, no rivalry between them. All three were natives of the soil, and somewhat sluggish in nature, like its sticky red shale. They did not move with much enthusiasm, neither were they to be easily removed. When the New York trains came in, they, with their equally indifferent drivers, sat comfortably ensconced in their carriages, and never waylaid the possible passengers alighting from the train. Sometimes they did not even open the carriage doors, but they, however, saw to it that they were closed when once the passenger was within, and that was something. All three drove indifferent horses, somewhat uncertain as to footing. When a woman sat behind these weak-kneed, badly shod steeds and realised that Stumps, or Fitzgerald, or Witless was driving with an utter indifference to the tightening of lines at dangerous places, and also realised that it was Friday, some strength of character was doubtless required.
One Friday in January, two young women, one married, one single, one very pretty, and both well-dressed (most of the women who belonged to the Fairbridge social set dressed well) were being driven by Jim Fitzgerald a distance of a mile or more, up a long hill. The slope was gentle and languid, like nearly every slope in that part of the state, but that day it was menacing with ice. It was one smooth glaze over the macadam. Jim Fitzgerald, a descendant of a fine old family whose type had degenerated, sat hunched upon the driver's seat, his loose jaw hanging, his eyes absent, his mouth open, chewing with slow enjoyment his beloved quid, while the reins lay slackly on the rusty black robe tucked over his knees. Even a corner of that dragged dangerously near the right wheels of the coupe. Jim had not sufficient energy to tuck it in firmly, although the wind was sharp from the northwest.
Alice Mendon paid no attention to it, but her companion, Daisy Shaw, otherwise Mrs. Sumner Shaw, who was of the tense, nervous type, had remarked it uneasily when they first started. She had rapped vigorously upon the front window, and a misty, rather beautiful blue eye had rolled interrogatively over Jim's shoulder.
"Your robe is dragging," shrieked in shrill staccato Daisy Shaw; and there had been a dull nod of the head, a feeble pull at the dragging robe, then it had dragged again.
"Oh, don't mind, dear," said Alice Mendon. "It is his own lookout if he loses the robe."
"It isn't that," responded Daisy querulously. "It isn't that. I don't care, since he is so careless, if he does lose it, but I must say that I don't think it is safe. Suppose it got caught in the wheel, and I know this horse stumbles."
"Don't worry, dear," said Alice Mendon. "Fitzgerald's robe always drags, and nothing ever happens."
Alice Mendon was a young woman, not a young girl (she had left young girlhood behind several years since) and she was distinctly beautiful after a fashion that is not easily affected by the passing years. She had had rather an eventful life, but not an event, pleasant or otherwise, had left its mark upon the smooth oval of her face. There was not a side nor retrospective glance to disturb the serenity of her large blue eyes. Although her eyes were blue, her hair was almost chestnut black, except in certain lights, when it gave out gleams as of dark gold. Her features were full, her figure large, but not too large. She wore a dark red tailored gown; and sumptuous sable furs shaded with dusky softness and shot, in the sun, with prismatic gleams, set off her handsome, not exactly smiling, but serenely beaming face. Two great black ostrich plumes and one red one curled down toward the soft spikes of the fur. Between, the two great blue eyes, the soft oval of the cheeks, and the pleasant red fullness of the lips appeared.
Poor Daisy Shaw, who was poor in two senses, strength of nerve and money, looked blue and cold in her little black suit, and her pale blue liberty scarf was horribly inadequate and unbecoming. Daisy was really painful to see as she gazed out apprehensively at the dragging robe, and the glistening slant over which they were moving. Alice regarded her not so much with pity as with a calm, sheltering sense of superiority and strength. She pulled the inner robe of the coupe up and tucked it firmly around Daisy's thin knees.
"You look half frozen," said Alice.
"I don't mind being frozen, but I do mind being scared," replied Daisy sharply. She removed the robe with a twitch.
"If that old horse stumbles and goes down and kicks, I want to be able to get out without being all tangled up in a robe and dragged," said she.
"While the horse is kicking and down I don't see how he can drag you very far," said Alice with a slight laugh. Then the horse stumbled. Daisy Shaw knocked quickly on the front window with her little, nervous hand in its tight, white kid glove.
"Do please hold your reins tighter," she called. Again the misty blue eyes rolled about, the head nodded, the rotary jaws were seen, the robe dragged, the reins lay loosely.
"That wasn't a stumble worth mentioning," said Alice Mendon.
"I wish he would stop chewing and drive," said poor Daisy Shaw vehemently. "I wish we had a liveryman as good as that Dougherty in Axminister. I was making calls there the other day, and it was as slippery as it is now, and he held the reins up tight every minute. I felt safe with him."
"I don't think anything will happen."
"It does seem to me if he doesn't stop chewing, and drive, I shall fly!" said Daisy.
Alice regarded her with a little wonder. Such anxiety concerning personal safety rather puzzled her. "My horses ran away the other day, and Dick went down flat and barked his knees; that's why I have Fitzgerald to-day," said she. "I was not hurt. Nobody was hurt except the horse. I was very sorry about the horse."
"I wish I had an automobile," said Daisy. "You never know what a horse will do next."
Alice laughed again slightly. "There is a little doubt sometimes as to what an automobile will do next," she remarked.
"Well, it is your own brain that controls it, if you can run it yourself, as you do."
"I am not so sure. Sometimes I wonder if the automobile hasn't an uncanny sort of brain itself. Sometimes I wonder how far men can go with the invention of machinery without putting more of themselves into it than they bargain for," said Alice. Her smooth face did not contract in the least, but was brooding with speculation and thought.
Then the horse stumbled again, and Daisy screamed, and again tapped the window.
"He won't go way down," said Alice. "I think he is too stiff. Don't worry."
"There is no stumbling to worry about with an automobile," said Daisy.
"You couldn't use one on this hill without more risk than you take with a stumbling horse," replied Alice. Just then a carriage drawn by two fine bays passed them, and there was an interchange of nods.
"There is Mrs. Sturtevant," said Alice. "She isn't using the automobile to-day."
"Doctor Sturtevant has had that coachman thirty years, and he doesn't chew, he drives," said Daisy.
Then they drew up before the house which was their destination, Mrs. George B. Slade's. The house was very small, but perkily pretentious, and they drove under the porte-cochere to alight.
"I heard Mr. Slade had been making a great deal of money in cotton lately," Daisy whispered, as the carriage stopped behind Mrs. Sturtevant's. "Mr. and Mrs. Slade went to the opera last week. I heard they had taken a box for the season, and Mrs. Slade had a new black velvet gown and a pearl necklace. I think she is almost too old to wear low neck."
"She is not so very old," replied Alice. "It is only her white hair that makes her seem so." Then she extended a rather large but well gloved hand and opened the coupe door, while Jim Fitzgerald sat and chewed and waited, and the two young women got out. Daisy had some trouble in holding up her long skirts. She tugged at them with nervous energy, and told Alice of the twenty-five cents which Fitzgerald would ask for the return trip. She had wished to arrive at the club in fine feather, but had counted on walking home in the dusk, with her best skirts high-kilted, and saving an honest penny.
"Nonsense; of course you will go with me," said Alice in the calmly imperious way she had, and the two mounted the steps. They had scarcely reached the door before Mrs. Slade's maid, Lottie, appeared in her immaculate width of apron, with carefully-pulled-out bows and little white lace top-knot. "Upstairs, front room," she murmured, and the two went up the polished stairs. There was a landing halfway, with a diamond paned window and one rubber plant and two palms, all very glossy, and all three in nice green jardinieres which exactly matched the paper on the walls of the hall. Mrs. George B. Slade had a mania for exactly matching things. Some of her friends said among themselves that she carried it almost too far.
The front room, the guest room, into which Alice Mendon and Daisy Shaw passed, was done in yellow and white, and one felt almost sinful in disturbing the harmony by any other tint. The walls were yellow, with a frieze of garlands of yellow roses; the ceiling was tinted yellow, the tiles on the shining little hearth were yellow, every ornament upon the mantel-shelf was yellow, down to a china shepherdess who wore a yellow china gown and carried a basket filled with yellow flowers, and bore a yellow crook. The bedstead was brass, and there was a counterpane of white lace over yellow, the muslin curtains were tied back with great bows of yellow ribbon. Even the pictures represented yellow flowers or maidens dressed in yellow. The rugs were yellow, the furniture upholstered in yellow, and all of exactly the same shade.
There were a number of ladies in this yellow room, prinking themselves before going downstairs. They all lived in Fairbridge; they all knew each other; but they greeted one another with the most elegant formality. Alice assisted Daisy Shaw to remove her coat and liberty scarf, then she shook herself free of her own wraps, rather than removed them. She did not even glance at herself in the glass. Her reason for so doing was partly confidence in her own appearance, partly distrust of the glass. She had viewed herself carefully in her own looking-glass before she left home. She believed in what she had seen there, but she did not care to disturb that belief, and she saw that Mrs. Slade's mirror over her white and yellow draped dressing table stood in a cross-light. While all admitted Alice Mendon's beauty, nobody had ever suspected her of vanity; yet vanity she had, in a degree.
The other women in the room looked at her. It was always a matter of interest of Fairbridge what she would wear, and this was rather curious, as, after all, she had not many gowns. There was a certain impressiveness about her mode of wearing the same gown which seemed to create an illusion. To-day in her dark red gown embroidered with poppies of still another shade, she created a distinctly new impression, although she had worn the same costume often before at the club meetings. She went downstairs in advance of the other women who had arrived before, and were yet anxiously peering at themselves in the cross-lighted mirror, and being adjusted as to refractory neckwear by one another.
When Alice entered Mrs. Slade's elegant little reception-room, which was done in a dull rose colour, its accessories very exactly matching, even to Mrs. Slade's own costume, which was rose silk under black lace, she was led at once to a lady richly attired in black, with gleams of jet, who was seated in a large chair in the place of honour, not quite in the bay window but exactly in the centre of the opening. The lady quite filled the chair. She was very stout. Her face, under an ornate black hat, was like a great rose full of overlapping curves of florid flesh. The wide mouth was perpetually curved into a bow of mirth, the small black eyes twinkled. She was Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, who had come from New York to deliver her famous lecture upon the subject: "Where does a woman shine with more lustre, at home or abroad?"
The programme was to be varied, as usual upon such occasions, by local talent. Leila MacDonald, who sang contralto in the church choir, and Mrs. Arthur Wells, who sang soprano, and Mrs. Jack Evarts, who played the piano very well, and Miss Sally Anderson, who had taken lessons in elocution, all had their parts, besides the president of the club, Mrs. Wilbur Edes, who had a brief address in readiness, and the secretary, who had to give the club report for the year. Mrs. Snyder was to give her lecture as a grand climax, then there were to be light refreshments and a reception following the usual custom of the club.
Alice bowed before Mrs. Snyder and retreated to a window at the other side of the room. She sat beside the window and looked out. Just then one of the other liverymen drove up with a carriage full of ladies, and they emerged in a flutter of veils and silk skirts. Mrs. Slade, who was really superb in her rose silk and black lace, with an artful frill of white lace at her throat to match her great puff of white hair, remained beside Mrs. Snyder, whose bow of mirth widened.
"Who is that magnificent creature?" whispered Mrs. Snyder with a gush of enthusiasm, indicating Alice beside the window.
"She lives here," replied Mrs. Slade rather stupidly. She did not quite know how to define Alice.
"Lives here in this little place? Not all the year?" rejoined Mrs. Snyder.
"Fairbridge is a very good place to live in all the year," replied Mrs. Slade rather stiffly. "It is near New York. We have all the advantages of a great metropolis without the drawbacks. Fairbridge is a most charming city, and very progressive, yes, very progressive."
Mrs. Slade took it rather hardly that Mrs. Snyder should intimate anything prejudicial to Fairbridge and especially that it was not good enough for Alice Mendon, who had been born there, and lived there all her life except the year she had been in college. If anything, she, Mrs. Slade, wondered if Alice Mendon were good enough for Fairbridge. What had she ever done, except to wear handsome costumes and look handsome and self-possessed? Although she belonged to the Zenith Club, no power on earth could induce her to discharge the duties connected herewith, except to pay her part of the expenses, and open her house for a meeting. She simply would not write a paper upon any interesting and instructive topic and read it before the club, and she was not considered gifted. She could not sing like Leila MacDonald and Mrs. Arthur Wells. She could not play like Mrs. Jack Evarts. She could not recite like Sally Anderson.
Mrs. Snyder glanced across at Alice, who looked very graceful and handsome, although also, to a discerning eye, a little sulky, and bored with a curious, abstracted boredom.
"She is superb," whispered Mrs. Snyder, "yes, simply superb. Why does she live here, pray?"
"Why, she was born here," replied Mrs. Slade, again stupidly. It was as if Alice had no more motive power than a flowering bush.
Mrs. Snyder's bow of mirth widened into a laugh. "Well, can't she get away, even if she was born here?" said she.
However, Mrs. George B. Slade's mind travelled in such a circle that she was difficult to corner. "Why should she want to move?" said she.
Mrs. Snyder laughed again. "But, granting she should want to move, is there anything to hinder?" she asked. She wasn't a very clever woman, and was deciding privately to mimic Mrs. George B. Slade at some future occasion, and so eke out her scanty remuneration. She did not think ten dollars and expenses quite enough for such a lecture as hers.
Mrs. Slade looked at her perplexedly. "Why, yes, she could I suppose," said she, "but why?"
"What has hindered her before now?"
"Oh, her mother was a helpless invalid, and Alice was the only child, and she had been in college just a year when her father died, then she came home and lived with her mother, but her mother has been dead two years now, and Alice has plenty of money. Her father left a good deal, and her cousin and aunt live with her. Oh, yes, she could, but why should she want to leave Fairbridge, and—"
Then some new arrivals approached, and the discussion concerning Alice Mendon ceased. The ladies came rapidly now. Soon Mrs. Slade's hall, reception-room, and dining-room, in which a gaily-decked table was set, were thronged with women whose very skirts seemed full of important anticipatory stirs and rustles. Mrs. Snyder's curved smile became set, her eyes absent. She was revolving her lecture in her mind, making sure that she could repeat it without the assistance of the notes in her petticoat pocket.
Then a woman rang a little silver bell, and a woman who sat short but rose to unexpected heights stood up. The phenomenon was amazing, but all the Fairbridge ladies had seen Miss Bessy Dicky, the secretary of the Zenith Club, rise before, and no one observed anything remarkable about it. Only Mrs. Snyder's mouth twitched a little, but she instantly recovered herself and fixed her absent eyes upon Miss Bessy Dicky's long, pale face as she began to read the report of the club for the past year.
She had been reading several minutes, her glasses fixed firmly (one of her eyes had a cast) and her lean, veinous hands trembling with excitement, when the door bell rang with a sharp peremptory peal. There was a little flutter among the ladies. Such a thing had never happened before. Fairbridge ladies were renowned for punctuality, especially at a meeting like this, and in any case, had one been late, she would never have rung the bell. She would have tapped gently on the door, the white-capped maid would have admitted her, and she, knowing she was late and hearing the hollow recitative of Miss Bessy Dicky's voice, would have tiptoed upstairs, then slipped delicately down again and into a place near the door.
But now it was different. Lottie opened the door, and a masculine voice was heard. Mrs. Slade had a storm-porch, so no one could look directly into the hall.
"Is Mrs. Slade at home?" inquired the voice distinctly. The ladies looked at one another, and Miss Bessy Dicky's reading was unheard. They all knew who spoke. Lottie appeared with a crimson face, bearing a little ostentatious silver plate with a card. Mrs. Slade adjusted her lorgnette, looked at the card, and appeared to hesitate for a second. Then a look of calm determination overspread her face. She whispered to Lottie, and presently appeared a young man in clerical costume, moving between the seated groups of ladies with an air not so much of embarrassment as of weary patience, as if he had expected something like this to happen, and it had happened.
Mrs. Slade motioned to a chair near her, which Lottie had placed, and the young man sat down.
Many things were puzzling in Fairbridge, that is, puzzling to a person with a logical turn of mind. For instance, nobody could say that Fairbridge people were not religious. It was a church going community, and five denominations were represented in it; nevertheless, the professional expounders of its doctrines were held in a sort of gentle derision, that is, unless the expounder happened to be young and eligible from a matrimonial point of view, when he gained a certain fleeting distinction. Otherwise the clergy were regarded (in very much the same light as if employed by a railroad) as the conductors of a spiritual train of cars bound for the Promised Land. They were admittedly engaged in a cause worthy of the highest respect and veneration. The Cause commanded it, not they. They had always lacked social prestige in Fairbridge, except, as before stated, in the cases of the matrimonially eligible.
Dominie von Rosen came under that head. Consequently he was for the moment, fleeting as everybody considered it, in request. But he did not respond readily to the social patronage of Fairbridge. He was, seemingly, quite oblivious to its importance. Karl von Rosen was bored to the verge of physical illness by Fairbridge functions. Even a church affair found him wearily to the front. Therefore his presence at the Zenith Club was unprecedented and confounding. He had often been asked to attend its special meetings but had never accepted. Now, however, here he was, caught neatly in the trap of his own carelessness. Karl von Rosen should have reflected that the Zenith Club was one of the institutions of Fairbridge, and met upon a Friday, and that Mrs. George B. Slade's house was an exceedingly likely rendezvous, but he was singularly absent-minded as to what was near, and very present minded as to what was afar. That which should have been near was generally far to his mind, which was perpetually gathering the wool of rainbow sheep in distant pastures.
If there was anything in which Karl von Rosen did not take the slightest interest, it was women's clubs in general and the Zenith Club in particular; and here he was, doomed by his own lack of thought to sit through an especially long session. He had gone out for a walk. To his mind it was a fine winter's day. The long, glittering lights of ice pleased him and whenever he was sure that he was unobserved he took a boyish run and long slide. During his walk he had reached Mrs. Slade's house, and since he worked in his pastoral calls whenever he could, by applying a sharp spur to his disinclination, it had occurred to him that he might make one, and return to his study in a virtuous frame of mind over a slight and unimportant, but bothersome duty performed. If he had had his wits about him he might have seen the feminine heads at the windows, he might have heard the quaver of Miss Bessy Dicky's voice over the club report; but he saw and heard nothing, and now he was seated in the midst of the feminine throng, and Miss Bessy Dicky's voice quavered more, and she assumed a slightly mincing attitude. Her thin hands trembled more, the hot, red spots on her thin cheeks deepened. Reading the club reports before the minister was an epoch in an epochless life, but Karl von Rosen was oblivious of her except as a disturbing element rather more insistent than the others in which he was submerged.
He sat straight and grave, his eyes retrospective. He was constantly getting into awkward situations, and acquitting himself in them with marvellous dignity and grace. Even Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, astute as she was, regarded him keenly, and could not for the life of her tell whether he had come premeditatedly or not. She only discovered one thing, that poor Miss Bessy Dicky was reading at him and posing at him and trembling her hands at him, and that she was throwing it all away, for Von Rosen heard no more of her report than if he had been in China when she was reading it. Mrs. Snyder realised that hardly anything in nature could be so totally uninteresting to the young man as the report of a woman's club. Inasmuch as she herself was devoted to such things, she regarded him with disapproval, although with a certain admiration. Karl von Rosen always commanded admiration, although often of a grudging character, from women. His utter indifference to them as women was the prime factor in this; next to that his really attractive, even distinguished, personality. He was handsome after the fashion which usually accompanies devotion to women. He was slight, but sinewy, with a gentle, poetical face and great black eyes, into which women were apt to project tenderness merely from their own fancy. It seemed ridiculous and anomalous that a man of Von Rosen's type should not be a lover of ladies, and the fact that he was most certainly not was both fascinating and exasperating.
Now Mrs. George B. Slade, magnificent matron, as she was, moreover one who had inhaled the perfume of adulation from her youth up, felt a calm malice. She knew that he had entered her parlour after the manner of the spider and fly rhyme of her childhood; she knew that the other ladies would infer that he had come upon her invitation, and her soul was filled with one of the petty triumphs of petty Fairbridge.
She, however, did not dream of the actual misery which filled the heart of the graceful, dignified young man by her side. She considered herself in the position of a mother, who forces an undesired, but nevertheless, delectable sweet upon a child, who gazes at her with adoration when the savour has reached his palate. She did not expect Von Rosen to be much edified by Miss Bessy Dicky's report. She had her own opinion of Miss Bessy Dicky, of her sleeves, of her gown, and her report, but she had faith in the truly decorative features of the occasion when they should be underway, and she had immense faith in Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder. She was relieved when Miss Bessy Dicky sat down, and endeavoured to compose her knees, which by this time were trembling like her hands, and also to assume an expression as if she had done nothing at all, and nobody was looking at her. That last because of the fact that she had done so little, and nobody was looking at her rendered her rather pathetic.
Miss Bessy Dicky did not glance at the minister, but she, nevertheless, saw him. She had never had a lover, and here was the hero of her dreams. He would never know it and nobody else would ever know it, and no harm would be done except very possibly, by and by, a laceration of the emotions of an elderly maiden, and afterwards a life-long scar. But who goes through life without emotional scars?
After Miss Bessy Dicky sat down, Mrs. Wilbur Edes, the lady of the silver bell, rose. She lifted high her delicate chin, her perfect blond pompadour caught the light, her black lace robe swept round her in rich darkness, with occasional revelations of flower and leaf, the fairly poetical pattern of real lace. As she rose, she diffused around her a perfume as if rose-leaves were stirred up. She held a dainty handkerchief, edged with real lace, in her little left hand, which glittered with rings. In her right, was a spangled fan like a black butterfly. Mrs. Edes was past her first youth, but she was undeniably charming. She was like a little, perfect, ivory toy, which time has played with but has not injured. Mrs. Slade looked at her, then at Karl von Rosen. He looked at Mrs. Wilbur Edes, then looked away. She was most graceful, but most positively uninteresting. However, Mrs. Slade was rather pleased at that. She and Mrs. Edes were rival stars. Von Rosen had never looked long at her, and it seemed right he should not look long at the other woman.
Mrs. Slade surveyed Mrs. Edes as she announced the next number on the programme, and told herself that Mrs. Edes' gown might be real lace and everything about her very real, and nice, and elegant, but she was certainly a little fussy for so small a woman. Mrs. Slade considered that she herself could have carried off that elegance in a much more queenly manner. There was one feature of Mrs. Edes' costume which Mrs. Slade resented. She considered that it should be worn by a woman of her own size and impressiveness. That was a little wrap of ermine. Now ermine, as everybody knew, should only be worn by large and queenly women. Mrs. Slade resolved that she herself would have an ermine wrap which should completely outshine Mrs. Edes' little affair, all swinging with tails and radiant with tiny, bright-eyed heads.
Mrs. Edes announced a duet by Miss MacDonald and Mrs. Wells, and sat down, and again the perfume of rose leaves was perceptible. Karl von Rosen glanced at the next performers, Miss MacDonald, who was very pretty and well-dressed in white embroidered cloth, and Mrs. Wells, who was not pretty, but was considered very striking, who trailed after her in green folds edged with fur, and bore a roll of music. She seated herself at the piano with a graceful sweep of her green draperies, which defined her small hips, and struck the keys with slender fingers quite destitute of rings, always lifting them high with a palpable affectation not exactly doubtful—that was saying too much—but she was considered to reach limits of propriety with her sinuous motions, the touch of her sensitive fingers upon piano keys, and the quick flash of her dark eyes in her really plain face. There was, for the women in Fairbridge, a certain mischievous fascination about Mrs. Wells. Moreover, they had in her their one object of covert gossip, their one stimulus to unlawful imagination.
There was a young man who played the violin. His name was Henry Wheaton, and he was said to be a frequent caller at Mrs. Wells', and she played his accompaniments, and Mr. Wells was often detained in New York until the late train. Then there was another young man who played the 'cello, and he called often. And there was Ellis Bainbridge, who had a fine tenor voice, and he called. It was delightful to have a woman of that sort, of whom nothing distinctly culpable could be affirmed, against whom no good reason could be brought for excluding her from the Zenith Club and the social set. In their midst, Mrs. Wells furnished the condiments, the spice, and pepper, and mustard for many functions. She relieved to a great extent the monotony of unquestioned propriety. It would have been horribly dull if there had been no woman in the Zenith Club who furnished an excuse for the other members' gossip.
Leila MacDonald, so carefully dressed and brushed and washed, and so free from defects that she was rather irritating, began to sing, then people listened. Karl von Rosen listened. She really had a voice which always surprised and charmed with the first notes, then ceased to charm. Leila MacDonald was as a good canary bird, born to sing, and dutifully singing, but without the slightest comprehension of her song. It was odd too that she sang with plenty of expression, but her own lack of realisation seemed to dull it for her listeners. Karl von Rosen listened, then his large eyes again turned introspective.
Mrs. Edes again arose, after the singing and playing ladies had finished their performance and returned to their seats, and announced a recitation by Miss Sally Anderson. Miss Anderson wore a light summer gown, and swept to the front, and bent low to her audience, then at once began her recitation with a loud crash of emotion. She postured, she gesticulated. She lowered her voice to inaudibility, she raised it to shrieks and wails. She did everything which she had been taught, and she had been taught a great deal. Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder listened and got data for future lectures, with her mirthful mouth sternly set.
After Sally Anderson, Mrs. Jack Evarts played a glittering thing called "Waves of the Sea." Then Sally Anderson recited again, then Mrs. Wilbur Edes spoke at length, and with an air which commanded attention, and Von Rosen suffered agonies. He laughed with sickly spurts at Mrs. Snyder's confidential sallies, when she had at last her chance to deliver herself of her ten dollar speech, but the worst ordeal was to follow. Von Rosen was fluttered about by women bearing cups of tea, of frothy chocolate, plates of cake, dishes of bonbons, and saucers of ice-cream. He loathed sweets and was forced into accepting a plate. He stood in the midst of the feminine throng, the solitary male figure looking at his cup of chocolate, and a slice of sticky cake, and at an ice representing a chocolate lily, which somebody had placed for special delectation upon a little table at his right. Then Alice Mendon came to his rescue.
She deftly took the plate with the sticky cake, and the cup of hot chocolate, and substituted a plate with a chicken mayonnaise sandwich, smiling pleasantly as she did so.
"Here," she whispered. "Why do you make a martyr of yourself for such a petty cause? Do it for the faith if you want to, but not for thick chocolate and angel cake."
She swept away the chocolate lily also. Von Rosen looked at her gratefully. "Thank you," he murmured.
She laughed. "Oh, you need not thank me," she said. "I have a natural instinct to rescue men from sweets." She laughed again maliciously. "I am sure you have enjoyed the club very much," she said.
Von Rosen coloured before her sarcastic, kindly eyes. He began to speak, but she interrupted him. "You have heard that silence is golden," said she. "It is always golden when speech would be a lie."
Then she turned away and seized upon the chocolate lily and pressed it upon Mrs. Joy Snyder, who was enjoying adulation and good things.
"Do please have this lovely lily, Mrs. Snyder," she said. "It is the very prettiest ice of the lot, and meant especially for you. I am sure you will enjoy it."
And Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, whose sense of humour deserted her when she was being praised and fed, and who had already eaten bonbons innumerable, and three ices with accompanying cake, took the chocolate lily gratefully. Von Rosen ate his chicken sandwich and marvelled at the ways of women.
After Von Rosen had finished his sandwiches and tea, he made his way to Mrs. Snyder, and complimented her upon her lecture. He had a constitutional dislike for falsehoods, which was perhaps not so much a virtue as an idiosyncrasy. Now he told Mrs. Snyder that he had never heard a lecture which seemed to amuse an audience more than hers had done, and that he quite envied her because of her power of holding attention. Mrs. Snyder, with the last petal of her chocolate lily sweet upon her tongue, listened with such a naivete of acquiescence that she was really charming, and Von Rosen had spoken the truth. He had wondered, when he saw the eagerly tilted faces of the women, and heard their bursts of shrill laughter and clapping of hands, why he could not hold them with his sermons which, he might assume without vanity, contained considerable subject for thought, as this woman, with her face like a mask of mirth, held them with her compilation of platitudes.
He thought that he had never seen so many women listen with such intensity, and lack of self-consciousness. He had seen only two pat their hair, only one glance at her glittering rings, only three arrange the skirts of their gowns while the lecture was in progress. Sometimes during his sermons, he felt as if he were holding forth to a bewildering sea of motion with steadily recurrent waves, which fascinated him, of feathers, and flowers, swinging fur tails, and kid-gloved hands, fluttering ribbons, and folds of drapery. Karl von Rosen would not have acknowledged himself as a woman-hater, that savoured too much of absurd male egotism, but he had an under conviction that women were, on the whole, admitting of course exceptions, self-centered in the pursuit of petty ends to the extent of absolute viciousness. He disliked women, although he had never owned it to himself.
In spite of his dislike of women, Von Rosen had a house-keeper. He had made an ineffectual trial of an ex-hotel chef, but had finally been obliged to resort to Mrs. Jane Riggs. She was tall and strong, wider-shouldered than hipped. She went about her work with long strides. She never fussed. She never asked questions. In fact, she seldom spoke.
When Von Rosen entered his house that night, after the club meeting, he had a comfortable sense of returning to an embodied silence. The coal fire in his study grate was red and clear. Everything was in order without misplacement. That was one of Jane Riggs' chief talents. She could tidy things without misplacing them. Von Rosen loved order, and was absolutely incapable of keeping it. Therefore Jane Riggs' orderliness was as balm. He sat down in his Morris chair before his fire, stretched out his legs to the warmth, which was grateful after the icy outdoor air, rested his eyes upon a plaster cast over the chimney place, which had been tinted a beautiful hue by his own pipe, and sighed with content. His own handsome face was rosy with the reflection of the fire, his soul rose-coloured with complete satisfaction. He was so glad to be quit of that crowded assemblage of eager femininity, so glad that it was almost worth while to have encountered it just for that sense of blessed relief.
Mrs. Edes had offered to take him home in her carriage, and he had declined almost brusquely. To have exchanged that homeward walk over the glistening earth, and under the clear rose and violet lights of the winter sunset, with that sudden rapturous discovery of the slender crescent of the new moon, for a ride with Mrs. Edes in her closed carriage with her silvery voice in his ear instead of the keen silence of the winter air, would have been torture. Von Rosen wondered at himself for disliking Mrs. Edes in particular, whereas he disliked most women in general. There was something about her feline motions instinct with swiftness, and concealed claws, and the half keen, half sleepy glances of her green-blue eyes, which irritated him beyond measure, and he was ashamed of being irritated. It implied a power over him, and yet it was certainly not a physical power. It was subtle and pertained to spirit. He realised, as did many in Fairbridge, a strange influence, defying reason and will, which this small woman with her hidden swiftness had over nearly everybody with whom she came in contact. It had nothing whatever to do with sex. She would have produced it in the same degree, had she not been in the least attractive. It was compelling, and at the same time irritating.
Von Rosen in his Morris chair after the tea welcomed the intrusion of Jane Riggs, which dispelled his thought of Mrs. Wilbur Edes. Jane stood beside the chair, a rigid straight length of woman with a white apron starched like a board, covering two thirds of her, and waited for interrogation.
"What is it, Jane?" asked Von Rosen.
Jane Riggs replied briefly. "Outlandish young woman out in the kitchen," she said with distinct disapproval, yet with evident helplessness before the situation.
Von Rosen started. "Where is the dog?"
"Licking her hands. Every time I told her to go, Jack growled. Mebbe you had better come out yourself, Mr. Von Rosen."
When Von Rosen entered the kitchen, he saw a little figure on the floor in a limp heap, with the dog frantically licking its hands, which were very small and brown and piteously outspread, as if in supplication.
"Mebbe you had better call up the doctor on the telephone; she seems to have swooned away," said Jane Riggs. At the same time she made one long stride to the kitchen sink, and water. Von Rosen looked aghast at the stricken figure, which was wrapped in a queer medley of garments. He also saw on the floor near by a bulging suitcase.
"She is one of them pedlars," said Jane Riggs, dashing water upon the dumb little face. "I rather guess you had better call up the doctor on the telephone. She don't seem to be coming to easy and she may have passed away."
Von Rosen gasped, then he looked pitifully at the poor little figure, and ran back to his study to the telephone. To his great relief as he passed the window, he glanced out, and saw Doctor Sturtevant's automobile making its way cautiously over the icy street. Then for the first time he remembered that he had been due at that time about a matter of a sick parishioner. He opened the front door hurriedly, and stated the case, and the two men carried the little unconscious creature upstairs. Then Von Rosen came down, leaving the doctor and Martha with her. He waited in the study, listening to the sounds overhead, waiting impatiently for the doctor's return, which was not for half an hour or more. In the meantime Martha came downstairs on some errand to the kitchen. Von Rosen intercepted her. "What does Doctor Sturtevant think?" he asked.
"Dunno, what he thinks," replied Martha brusquely, pushing past him.
"Is she conscious yet?"
"Dunno, I ain't got any time to talk," said Martha, casting a flaming look at him over her shoulder as she entered the kitchen.
Von Rosen retreated to the study, where he was presently joined by the doctor. "What is it?" asked Von Rosen with an emphasis, which rendered it so suspicious that he might have added: "what the devil is it?" had it not been for his profession.
Sturtevant answered noiselessly, the motion of his lips conveying his meaning. Then he said, shrugging himself into his fur coat, as he spoke, "I have to rush my motor to see a patient, whom I dare not leave another moment, then I will be back."
Von Rosen's great Persian cat had curled himself on the doctor's fur coat, and now shaken off, sat with a languid dignity, his great yellow plume of a tail waving, and his eyes like topazes fixed intently upon Sturtevant. At that moment a little cry was heard from the guest room, a cry between a moan and a scream, but unmistakably a note of suffering. Sturtevant jammed his fur cap upon his head and pulled on his gloves.
"Don't go," pleaded Von Rosen in a sudden terror of helplessness.
"I must, but I'll break the speed laws and be back before you know it. That housekeeper of yours is as good as any trained nurse, and better. She is as hard as nails, but she does her duty like a machine, and she has brains. I will be back in a few minutes."
Then Sturtevant was gone, and Von Rosen sat again before his study fire. There was another little note of suffering from above. Von Rosen shuddered, rose, and closed his door. The Persian cat came and sat in front of him, and gazed at him with jewel-like eyes. There was an expression of almost human anxiety and curiosity upon the animal's face. He came from a highly developed race; he and his forbears had always been with humans. At times it seemed to Von Rosen as if the cat had a dumb knowledge of the most that he himself knew. He reached down and patted the shapely golden head, but the cat withdrew, curled himself into a coil of perfect luxuriousness, with the firelight casting a warm, rosy glow upon his golden beauty, purred a little while, then sank into the mystery of animal sleep.
Von Rosen sat listening. He told himself that Sturtevant should be back within half an hour. When only ten minutes had passed he took out his watch and was dismayed to find how short a time had elapsed. He replaced his watch and leaned back. He was always listening uneasily. He had encountered illness and death and distress, but never anything quite like this. He had always been able to give personal aid. Now he felt barred out, and fiercely helpless.
He sat ten minutes longer. Then he arose. He could reach the kitchen by another way which did not lead past the stairs. He went out there, treading on tiptoe. The cat had looked up, stretched, and lazily gotten upon his feet and followed him, tail waving like a pennant. He brushed around Von Rosen out in the kitchen, and mewed a little, delicate, highbred mew. The dog came leaping up the basement stairs, sat up and begged. Von Rosen opened the ice box and found therein some steak. He cut off large pieces and fed the cat and dog. He also found milk and filled a saucer.
He stole back to the study. He thought he had closed all the doors, but presently the cat entered, then sat down and began to lick himself with his little red rough tongue. Von Rosen looked at his watch again. The house shook a little, and he knew that the shaking was caused by Jane Riggs, walking upstairs. He longed to go upstairs but knew that he could not, and again that rage of helplessness came over him. He reflected upon human life, the agony of its beginning; the agony, in spite of bravery, in spite of denial of agony, the agony under the brightest of suns, of its endurance; the agony of its end; and his reflections were almost blasphemous. His religion seemed to crumble beneath the standing-place of his soul. A torture of doubt, a certainty of ignorance, in spite of the utmost efforts of faith, came over him. The cat coiled himself again and sank into sleep. Von Rosen gazed at him. What if the accepted order of things were reversed, after all? What if that beautiful little animal were on a higher plane than he? Certainly the cat did not suffer, and certainly suffering and doubt degraded even the greatest.
He looked at his watch and saw that Sturtevant had been gone five minutes over the half hour. He switched off the electric light, and stood in his window, which faced the street down which the doctor in his car must come. He realised at once that this was more endurable. He was doing what a woman would have done long before. He was masculine, and had not the quick instinct to stand by the window and watch out, to ease impatience. The road was like a broad silver band under the moon. The lights in house windows gleamed through drawn shades, except in one house, where he could see quite distinctly a woman seated beside a lamp with a green shade, sewing, with regular motions of a red, silk-clad arm. Von Rosen strained his eyes, and saw, as he thought, a dark bulk advancing far down the street. He watched and watched, then noted that the dark bulk had not moved. He wondered if the motor had broken down. He thought of running out to see, and made a motion to go, then he saw swiftly-moving lights pass the dark bulk. He thought they were the lights of the motor, but as they passed he saw it was a cab taking someone to the railroad station. He knew then that the dark bulk was a clump of trees.
Then, before he could fairly sense it, the doctor's motor came hurtling down the street, its search-lights glaring, swinging from side to side. The machine stopped, and Von Rosen ran to the door.
"Here I am," said Sturtevant in a hushed voice. There was a sound from the room above, and the doctor, Von Rosen and nurse looked at each other. Then Von Rosen sat again alone in his study, and now, in spite of the closed door, he heard noises above stairs. Solitude was becoming frightful to him. He felt all at once strangely young, like a child, and a pitiful sense of injury was over him, but the sense of injury was not for himself alone, but for all mankind. He realised that all mankind was enormously pitiful and injured, by the mere fact of their obligatory existence. And he wished more than anything in the world for some understanding soul with whom to share his sense of the universal grievance.
But he continued to sit alone, and the cat slept in his golden coil of peace. Then suddenly the cat sat up, and his jewel eyes glowed. He looked fixedly at a point in the room. Von Rosen looked in the same direction but saw nothing except his familiar wall. Then he heard steps on the stairs, and the door opened, and Jane Riggs entered. She was white and stern. She was tragic. Her lean fingers were clutching at the air. Von Rosen stared at her. She sat down and swept her crackling white apron over her head.
When Margaret Edes had returned home after the Zenith Club, she devoted an hour to rest. She had ample time for that before dressing for a dinner which she and her husband were to give in New York that evening. The dinner was set for rather a late hour in order to enable Margaret to secure this rest before the train-time. She lay on a couch before the fire, in her room which was done in white and gold. Her hair was perfectly arranged, for she had scarcely moved her head during the club meeting, and had adjusted and removed her hat with the utmost caution. Now she kept her shining head perfectly still upon a rather hard pillow. She did not relax her head, but she did relax her body, and the result, as she was aware, would be beautifying.
Still as her head remained, she allowed no lines of disturbance to appear upon her face, and for that matter, no lines of joy. Secretly she did not approve of smiles, more than she approved of tears. Both of them, she knew, tended to leave traces, and other people, especially other women, did not discriminate between the traces of tears and smiles. Therefore, lying with her slim graceful body stretched out at full length upon her couch, Margaret Edes' face was as absolutely devoid of expression as a human face could well be, and this although she was thinking rather strenuously. She had not been pleased with the impression which Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder had made upon the Zenith Club, because Mrs. Slade, and not she, had been instrumental in securing her valuable services. Mrs. Edes had a Napoleonic ambition which was tragic and pathetic, because it could command only a narrow scope for its really unusual force. If Mrs. Edes had only been possessed of the opportunity to subjugate Europe, nothing except another Waterloo could have stopped her onward march. But she had absolutely nothing to subjugate except poor little Fairbridge. She was a woman of power which was wasted. She was absurdly tragic, but none the less tragic. Power spent upon petty ends is one of the greatest disasters of the world. It wrecks not only the spender, but its object. Mrs. Edes was horribly and unworthily unhappy, reflecting upon Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder and Mrs. Slade. She cared very much because Mrs. Slade and not she had brought about this success of the Zenith Club, with Mrs. Snyder as high-light. It was a shame to her, but she could not help it, because one living within narrow horizons must have limited aims.
If only her husband had enough money to enable her to live in New York after the manner which would have suited her, she felt capable of being a leading power in that great and dreadful city. Probably she was right. The woman was in reality possessed of abnormal nerve force. Had Wilbur Edes owned millions, and she been armed with the power which they can convey, she might have worked miracles in her subtle feminine fashion. She would always have worked subtly, and never believed her feminine self. She understood its worth too well. She would have conquered like a cat, because she understood her weapons, her velvet charm, her purr, and her claws. She would not have attempted a growling and bulky leap into success. She would have slid and insinuated and made her gliding progress almost imperceptible, but none the less remorseless.
But she was fated to live in Fairbridge. What else could she do? Wilbur Edes was successful in his profession, but he was not an accumulator, and neither was she. His income was large during some years, but it was spent during those years for things which seemed absolutely indispensable to both husband and wife. For instance, to-night Wilbur would spend an extravagant sum upon this dinner, which he was to give at an extravagant hotel to some people whom Mrs. Edes had met last summer, and who, if not actually in the great swim, were in the outer froth of it, and she had vague imaginings of future gain through them. Wilbur had carried his dress suit in that morning. He was to take a room in the hotel and change, and meet her at the New York side of the ferry. As she thought of the ferry it was all Mrs. Edes could do to keep her smooth brow from a frown. Somehow the ferry always humiliated her; the necessity of going up or down that common, democratic gang plank, clinging to the tail of her fine gown, and seating herself in a row with people who glanced askance at her evening wrap and her general magnificence.
Poor Mrs. Edes was so small and slight that holding up magnificence and treading the deck with her high-heeled shoes was physically fatiguing. Had she been of a large, powerful physique, had her body matched her mind, she might not have felt a sense of angry humiliation. As it was, she realised that for her, her, to be obliged to cross the ferry was an insult at the hands of Providence. But the tunnel was no better, perhaps worse,—that plunged into depths below the waters, like one in a public bath. Anything so exquisite, so dainty, so subtly fine and powerful as herself, should not have been condemned to this. She should have been able to give her dinners in her own magnificent New York mansion. As it was, there was nothing for her except to dress and accept the inevitable.
It was as bad as if Napoleon the Great had been forced to ride to battle on a trolley car, instead of being booted and spurred and astride a charger, which lifted one fore-leg in a fling of scorn. Of course Wilbur would meet her, and they would take a taxicab, but even a taxicab seemed rather humiliating to her. It should have been her own private motor car. And she would be obliged to descend the stairs at the station ungracefully, one hand clutching nervously at the tail of her gorgeous gown, the other at her evening cloak. It was absolutely impossible for so slight a woman to descend stairs with dignity and grace, holding up an evening cloak and a long gown.
However, there would be compensations later. She thought, with decided pleasure, of the private dining-room, and the carefully planned and horribly expensive decorations, which would be eminently calculated to form a suitable background for herself. The flowers and candle-shades were to be yellow, and she was to wear her yellow chiffon gown, with touches of gold embroidery, a gold comb set with topazes in her yellow hair, and on her breast a large, gleaming stone which was a yellow diamond of very considerable value. Wilbur had carried in his suit case her yellow satin slippers, her gold-beaded fan, and the queer little wrap of leopard skin which she herself had fashioned from a rug which her husband had given her. She had much skill in fashioning articles for her own adornment as a cat has in burnishing his fur, and would at any time have sacrificed the curtains or furniture covers, had they met her needs.
She would not be obliged—crowning disgrace—to carry a bag. All she would need would be her little case for tickets, and her change purse, and her evening cloak had pockets. The evening cloak lay beside the yellow chiffon gown, carefully disposed on the bed, which had a lace counterpane over yellow satin. The cloak was of a creamy cloth lined with mink, a sumptuous affair, and she had a tiny mink toque with one yellow rose as head covering.
She glanced approvingly at the rich attire spread upon the bed, and then thought again of the dreadful ferry, and her undignified hop across the dirty station to the boat. She longed for the days of sedan chairs, for anything rather than this. She was an exquisite lady caught in the toils of modern cheap progress toward all her pleasures and profits. She did not belong in a democratic country at all unless she had millions. She was out of place, as much out of place as a splendid Angora in an alley. Fairbridge to her instincts was as an alley; yet since it was her alley, she had to make the best of it. Had she not made the best of it, exalted it, magnified it, she would have gone mad. Wherefore the triumph of Mrs. Slade in presenting Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder seemed to her like an affair of moment. For lack of something greater to hate and rival, she hated and rivalled Mrs. Slade. For lack of something big over which to reign, she wished to reign over Fairbridge and the Zenith Club. Mrs. Slade's perfectly-matched drawing-room took on the semblance of a throne-room, in which she had seen herself usurped.
Then she thought of the young clergyman, even as he was thinking of her. She knew perfectly well how he had been trapped, but she failed to see the slightest humour in it. She had no sense of humour. She saw only the additional triumph of Mrs. Slade in securing this rather remarkable man at the Zenith Club, something which she herself had never been able to do. Von Rosen's face came before her. She considered it a handsome face, but no man's face could disturb her. She held her virtue with as nervous a clutch as she held up her fine gown. To soil either would be injudicious, impolitic, and she never desired the injudicious and impolitic.
"He is a handsome man," she said to herself, "an aristocratic-looking man." Then the telephone bell close beside her divan rang, and she took up the receiver carefully, not moving her head, sat up, and put her delicate lips to the speaking tube.
"Hello," said a voice, and she recognised it as Von Rosen's although it had an agitated, nervous ring which was foreign to it.
"What is it?" she said in reply, and the voice responded with volubility, "A girl, a young Syrian girl, is at my home. She is in a swoon or something. We cannot revive her. Is the doctor at home? Tell him to hurry over, please. I am Mr. von Rosen. Tell him to hurry. She may be dead."
"You have made a mistake, Mr. von Rosen," said Mrs. Edes' thin voice, as thin and silvery as a reed. "You are speaking to Mrs. Wilbur Edes. My telephone number is 5R. You doubtless want Doctor Sturtevant. His number is 51M."
"Oh, pardon," cried the voice over the telephone. "Sorry to have disturbed you, Mrs. Edes, I mistook—"
The voice trailed into nothingness. There was a sharp ring. Mrs. Edes hung up her receiver. She thought slowly that it was a strange circumstance that Mr. von Rosen should have a fainting or dead young Syrian girl in his house. Then she rose from the divan, holding her head very stiffly, and began to dress. She had just enough time to dress leisurely and catch the train. She called on one of the two maids to assist her and was quite equipped, even to the little mink toque, fastened very carefully on her shining head, when there was a soft push at the door, and her twin daughters, Maida and Adelaide, entered. They were eight years old, but looked younger. They were almost exactly alike as to small, pretty features and pale blond colouring. Maida scowled a little, and Adelaide did not, and people distinguished them by that when in doubt.
They stood and stared at their mother with a curious expression on their sharp, delicate little faces. It was not exactly admiration, it was not wonder, nor envy, nor affection, yet tinctured by all.
Mrs. Edes looked at them. "Maida," said she, "do not wear that blue hair-ribbon again. It is soiled. Have you had your dinners?"
"Yes, mamma," responded first one, then the other, Maida with the frown being slightly in the lead.
"Then you had better go to bed," said Mrs. Edes, and the two little girls stood carefully aside to allow her to pass.
"Good night, children," said Mrs. Edes without turning her mink-crowned head. The little girls watched the last yellow swirl of their mother's skirts, disappearing around the stair-landing, then Adelaide spoke.
"I mean to wear red, myself, when I'm grown up," said she.
"Ho, just because Jim Carr likes red," retorted Maida. "As for me, I mean to have a gown just like hers, only a little deeper shade of yellow."
Adelaide laughed, an unpleasantly snarling little laugh. "Ho," said she, "just because Val Thomas likes yellow."
Then the coloured maid, Emma, who was cross because Mrs. Edes' evening out had deprived her of her own, and had been ruthlessly hanging her mistress's gown which she had worn to the club in a wad on a closet hook, disregarding its perfumed hanger, turned upon them.
"Heah, ye chillun," said she, "your ma sid for you to go to baid."
Each little girl had her white bed with a canopy of pink silk in a charming room. There were garlands of rosebuds on the wallpaper and the furniture was covered with rosebud chintz.
While their mother was indignantly sailing across the North River, her daughters lay awake, building air-castles about themselves and their boy-lovers, which fevered their imaginations, and aged them horribly in a spiritual sense.
"Amy White's mother plays dominoes with her every evening," Maida remarked. Her voice sounded incredibly old, full of faint derisiveness and satire, but absolutely non-complaining.
"Amy White's mother would look awfully funny in a gown like Mamma's," said Adelaide.
"I suppose that is why she plays dominoes with Amy," said Maida in her old voice.
"Oh, don't talk any more, Maida, I want to go to sleep," said Adelaide pettishly, but she was not in the least sleepy. She wished to return to the air-castle in which she had been having sweet converse with Jim Carr. This air-castle was the abode of innocence, but it was not yet time for its building at all. It was such a little childish creature who lay curled up under the coverlid strewn with rosebuds that the gates of any air-castle of life and love, and knowledge, however innocent and ignorant, should have been barred against her, perhaps with dominoes.
However, she entered in, her soft cheeks burning, and her pulse tingling, and saw the strange light through its fairy windows, and her sister also entered her air-castle, and all the time their mother was sailing across the North River toward the pier where her husband waited. She kept one gloved hand upon the fold of her gown, ready to clutch it effectually clear of the dirty deck when the pier was reached. When she was in the taxicab with Wilbur, she thought again of Von Rosen. "Dominie von Rosen made a mistake," said she, "and called up the wrong number. He wanted Doctor Sturtevant, and he got me." Then she repeated the message. "What do you suppose he was doing with a fainting Syrian girl in his house?" she ended.
A chuckle shook the dark bulk in its fur lined coat at her side. "The question is why the Syrian girl chose Von Rosen's house to faint in," said he lightly.
"Oh, don't be funny, Wilbur," said Margaret. "Have you seen the dining-room? How does it look?"
"I thought it beautiful, and I am sure you will like it," said Wilbur Edes in the chastened tone which he commonly used toward his wife. He had learned long ago that facetiousness displeased her, and he lived only to please her, aside from his interest in his profession. Poor Wilbur Edes thought his wife very wonderful, and watched with delight the hats doffed when she entered the hotel lift like a little beruffled yellow canary. He wished those men could see her later, when the canary resemblance had altogether ceased, when she would look tall and slender and lithe in her clinging yellow gown with the great yellow stone gleaming in her corsage.
For some reason Margaret Edes held her husband's admiration with a more certain tenure because she could not be graceful when weighed down with finery. The charm of her return to grace was a never-ending surprise. Wilbur Edes loved his wife more comfortably than he loved his children. He loved them a little uneasily. They were unknown elements to him, and he sometimes wished that he had more time at home, to get them firmly fixed in his comprehension. Without the slightest condemnation of his wife, he had never regarded her as a woman in whom the maternal was a distinguishing feature. He saw with approbation the charming externals with which she surrounded their offspring. It was a gratification to him to be quite sure that Maida's hair ribbon would always be fresh and tied perkily, and that Adelaide would be full of dainty little gestures copied from her mother, but he had some doubts as to whether his wonderful Margaret might not be too perfect in herself, and too engrossed with the duties pertaining to perfection to be quite the proper manager of imperfection and immaturity represented by childhood.
"How did you leave the children!" he inquired when they were in their bedroom at the hotel, and he was fitting the yellow satin slippers to his wife's slender silk shod feet.
"The children were as well as usual. I told Emma to put them to bed. Do you think the orchids in the dining-room are the right shade, Wilbur?"
"I am quite sure. I am glad that you told Emma to put them to bed."
"I always do. Mrs. George B. Slade is most unpleasantly puffed up."
"Oh, because she got Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder to speak to the club."
"Did she do her stunt well?"
"Well enough. Mrs. Slade was so pleased, it was really offensive."
Wilbur Edes had an inspiration. "The Fay-Wymans," said he (the Fay-Wymans were the principal guests of their dinner party), "know a lot of theatrical people. I will see if I can't get them to induce somebody, say Lydia Greenway, to run out some day; I suppose it would have to be later on, just after the season, and do a stunt at the club."
"Oh, that would be simply charming," cried Margaret, "and I would rather have it in the spring, because everything looks so much prettier. But don't you think it will be impossible, Wilbur?"
"Not with money as an inducement." Wilbur had the pleasant consciousness of an unusually large fee which was sure to be his own before that future club meeting, and he could see no better employment for it than to enable his adored wife to outshine Mrs. George B. Slade. When in New York engaged in his profession, Wilbur Edes was entirely free from the vortex of Fairbridge, but his wife, with its terrible eddies still agitating her garments, could suck him therein, even in the great city. He was very susceptible to her influence.
Margaret Edes beamed at her husband as he rose. "That will make Marion Slade furious," she said. She extended her feet. "Pretty slippers, aren't they, Wilbur?"
"Charming, my dear."
Margaret was so pleased that she tried to do something very amiable.
"That was funny, I mean what you said about the Syrian girl at the Dominie's," she volunteered, and laughed, without making a crease in her fair little face. She was really adorable, far more than pretty, leaning back with one slender, yellow-draped leg crossed over the other, revealing the glittering slippers and one silken ankle.
"It does sound somewhat queer, a Syrian girl fainting in the Dominie's house," said Wilbur. "She could not have found a house where her sex, of any nationality, are in less repute."
"Then you don't think that Alice Mendon—?" There was a faint note of jealousy in Margaret's voice, although she herself had not the slightest interest in Dominie von Rosen or any man, except her husband; and in him only because he was her husband. As the husband of her wonderful self, he acquired a certain claim to respect, even affection, such as she had to bestow.
"I don't think Alice Mendon would take up with the Dominie, if he would with her," responded Wilbur Edes hastily. Margaret did not understand his way of speaking, but just then she looked at herself in an opposite mirror, and pulled down one side of her blond pompadour a bit, which softened her face, and added to its allurement. The truth was Wilbur Edes, before he met Margaret, had proposed to Alice Mendon. Alice had never told, and he had not, consequently Margaret did not know. Had she known it would have made no difference, since she could not imagine any man preferring Alice to herself. All her jealousy was based upon the facts of her superior height, and ability to carry herself well, where she knew herself under many circumstances about as graceful as an Angora cat walking upon her hind legs. She was absolutely sure of her husband. The episode with Alice had occurred before he had ever even seen Herself. She smiled radiantly upon him as she arose. She was conscious of no affection for her husband, but she was conscious of a desire to show appreciation, and to display radiance for his delectation.
"It is charming of you to think of getting Lydia Greenway to read, you dear old man," said she. Wilbur beamed.
"Well, of course, I can not be sure, that is not absolutely sure, but if it is to be done, I will manage it," said he.
It was at this very time, for radically different notes sound at the same time in the harmony or discord of life, that Von Rosen's housekeeper, Jane Riggs, stood before him with that crackling white apron swept over her face.
"What is it?" asked Von Rosen, and he realised that his lips were stiff, and his voice sounded strange.
A strange harsh sob came from behind the apron. "She was all bent to one side with that heavy suit case, as heavy as lead, for I hefted it," said Jane Riggs, "and she couldn't have been more than fifteen. Them outlandish girls get married awful young."
"What is it?"
"And there was poor Jack lickin' her hands, and him a dog everybody is so scared of, and she a sinkin' down in a heap on my kitchen floor."
"What is it?"
"She has passed away," answered Jane Riggs, "and—the baby is a boy, and no bigger than the cat, not near as big as the cat when I come to look at him, and I put some of my old flannels and my shimmy on him, and Doctor Sturtevant has got him in my darning basket, all lined with newspapers, the New York Sun, and the Times and hot water bottles, and it's all happened in the best chamber, and I call it pretty goings on."
Jane Riggs gave vent to discordant sobs. Her apron crackled. Von Rosen took hold of her shoulders. "Go straight back up there," he ordered.
"Why couldn't she have gone in and fainted away somewhere where there was more women than one," said Jane Riggs. "Doctor Sturtevant, he sent me down for more newspapers."
"Take these, and go back at once," said Von Rosen, and he gathered up the night papers in a crumpled heap and thrust them upon the woman.
"He said you had better telephone for Mrs. Bestwick," said Jane. Mrs. Bestwick was the resident nurse of Fairbridge. Von Rosen sprang to the telephone, but he could get no response whatever from the Central office, probably on account of the ice-coated wires.
He sat down disconsolately, and the cat leapt upon his knees, but he pushed him away impatiently, to be surveyed in consequence by those topaz eyes with a regal effect of injury, and astonishment. Von Rosen listened. He wondered if he heard, or imagined that he heard, a plaintive little wail. The dog snuggled close to him, and he felt a warm tongue lap. Von Rosen patted the dog's head. Here was sympathy. The cat's leap into his lap had been purely selfish. Von Rosen listened. He got up, and tried to telephone again, but got no response from Central. He hung up the receiver emphatically and sat down again. The dog again came close, and he patted the humble loving head. Von Rosen listened again, and again could not be sure whether he actually heard or imagined that he heard, the feeblest, most helpless cry ever lifted up from this earth, that of a miserable new born baby with its uncertain future reaching before it and all the sins of its ancestors upon its devoted head.
When at last the door opened and Doctor Sturtevant entered, he was certain. That poor little atom of humanity upstairs was lifting up its voice of feeble rage and woe because of its entrance into existence. Sturtevant had an oddly apologetic look. "I assure you I am sorry, my dear fellow—" he began.
"Is the poor little beggar going to live?" asked Von Rosen.
"Well, yes, I think so, judging from the present outlook," replied the doctor still apologetically.
"I could not get Mrs. Bestwick," said Von Rosen anxiously. "I think the telephone is out of commission, on account of the ice."
"Never mind that. Your housekeeper is a jewel, and I will get Mrs. Bestwick on my way home. I say, Von Rosen—"
Von Rosen looked at him inquiringly.
"Oh, well, never mind; I really must be off now," said the doctor hurriedly. "I will get Mrs. Bestwick here as soon as possible. I think—the child will have to be kept here for a short time anyway, considering the weather, and everything."
"Why, of course," said Von Rosen.
After the doctor had gone, he went out in the kitchen. He had had no dinner. Jane Riggs, who had very acute hearing, came to the head of the stairs, and spoke in a muffled tone, muffled as Von Rosen knew because of the presence of death and life in the house. "The roast is in the oven, Mr. von Rosen," said she, "I certainly hope it isn't too dry, and the soup is in the kettle, and the vegetables are all ready to dish up. Everything is ready except the coffee."
"You know I can make that," called Von Rosen in alarm. "Don't think of coming down."
Von Rosen could make very good coffee. It was an accomplishment of his college days. He made some now. He felt the need of it. Then he handily served the very excellent dinner, and sat down at his solitary dining table. As he ate his soup, he glanced across the table, and a blush like that of a girl overspread his dark face. He had a vision of a high chair, and a child installed therein with the customary bib and spoon. It was a singular circumstance, but everything in life moves in sequences, and that poor Syrian child upstairs, in her dire extremity, was furnishing a sequence in the young man's life, before she went out of it. Her stimulation of his sympathy and imagination was to change the whole course of his existence.
Meanwhile, Doctor Sturtevant was having a rather strenuous argument with his wife, who for once stood against him. She had her not-to-be-silenced personal note. She had a horror of the alien and unusual. All her life she had walked her chalk-line, and anything outside savoured of the mysterious, and terrible. She was Anglo-Saxon. She was what her ancestresses had been for generations. The strain was unchanged, and had become so tense and narrow that it was almost fathomless. Mrs. Sturtevant, good and benevolent on her chalk-line, was involuntarily a bigot. She looked at Chinese laundry men, poor little yellow figures, shuffling about with bags of soiled linen, with thrills of recoil. She would not have acknowledged it to herself, for she came of a race which favoured abolition, but nothing could have induced her to have a coloured girl in her kitchen. Her imaginations and prejudices were stained as white as her skin. There was a lone man living on the outskirts of Fairbridge, in a little shack built by himself in the woods, who was said to have Indian blood in his veins, and Mrs. Sturtevant never saw him without that awful thrill of recoil. When the little Orientals, men or women, swayed sidewise and bent with their cheap suitcases filled with Eastern handiwork, came to the door, she did not draw a long breath until she had watched them out of sight down the street. It made no difference to her that they might be Christians, that they might have suffered persecution in their own land and sought our doorless entrances of hospitality; she still realised her own aloofness from them, or rather theirs from her. They had entered existence entirely outside her chalk-line. She and they walked on parallels which to all eternity could never meet.
It therefore came to pass that, although she had in the secret depths of her being bemoaned her childlessness, and had been conscious of yearnings and longings which were agonies, when Doctor Sturtevant, after the poor young unknown mother had been laid away in the Fairbridge cemetery, proposed that they should adopt the bereft little one, she rebelled.
"If he were a white baby, I wouldn't object that I know of," said she, "but I can't have this kind. I can't make up my mind to it, Edward."
"But, Maria, the child is white. He may not be European, but he is white. That is, while of course he has a dark complexion and dark eyes and hair, he is as white, in a way, as any child in Fairbridge, and he will be a beautiful boy. Moreover, we have every reason to believe that he was born in wedlock. There was a ring on a poor string of a ribbon on the mother's neck, and there was a fragment of a letter which Von Rosen managed to make out. He thinks that the poor child was married to another child of her own race. The boy is all right and he will be a fine little fellow."