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A Modern Chronicle -- Volume 03 By Winston Churchill Characters: 19610

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03

It was late November. And as Honora sat at the window of the drawing-room of the sleeping car, life seemed as fantastic and unreal as the moss-hung Southern forest into which she stared. She was happy, as a child is happy who is taken on an excursion into the unknown. The monotony of existence was at last broken, and riven the circumscribing walls. Limitless possibilities lay ahead.

The emancipation had not been without its pangs of sorrow, and there were moments of retrospection-as now. She saw herself on Uncle Tom's arm, walking up the aisle of the old church. How many Sundays of her life had she sat watching a shaft of sunlight strike across the stone pillars of its gothic arches! She saw, in the chancel, tall and grave and pale, Peter Erwin standing beside the man with the flushed face who was to be her husband. She heard again the familiar voice of Dr. Ewing reciting the words of that wonderful introduction. At other weddings she had been moved. Why was her own so unrealizable?

"Honora, wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy state of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?"

She had promised. And they were walking out of the church, facing the great rose window with its blended colours, and the vaults above were ringing now with the volume of an immortal march.

After that an illogical series of events and pictures passed before her. She was in a corner of the carriage, her veil raised, gazing at her husband, who had kissed her passionately. He was there beside her, looking extremely well in his top hat and frock-coat, with a white flower in his buttonhole. He was the representative of the future she had deliberately chosen. And yet, by virtue of the strange ceremony through which they had passed, he seemed to have changed. In her attempt to seize upon a reality she looked out of the window. They were just passing the Hanbury mansion in Wayland Square, and her eyes fell upon the playroom windows under the wide cornice; and she wondered whether the doll's house were still in its place, its mute inhabitants waiting to be called by the names she had given them, and quickened into life once more.

Next she recalled the arrival at the little house that had been her home, summer and winter, for so many years of her life. A red and white awning, stretching up the length of the walk which once had run beside the tall pear trees, gave it an unrecognizable, gala air. Long had it stood there, patient, unpretentious, content that the great things should pass it by! And now, modest still, it had been singled out from amongst its neighbours and honoured. Was it honoured? It seemed to Honora, so fanciful this day, that its unwonted air of festival was unnatural. Why should the hour of departure from such a harbour of peace be celebrated?

She was standing beside her husband in the little parlour, while carriage doors slammed in the dusk outside; while one by one-a pageant of the past which she was leaving forever the friends of her childhood came and went. Laughter and tears and kisses! And then, in no time at all, she found herself changing for the journey in the "little house under the hill." There, locked up in the little desk Cousin Eleanor had given her long ago, was the unfinished manuscript of that novel written at fever heat during those summer days in which she had sought to escape from a humdrum existence. And now-she had escaped. Aunt Mary, helpful under the most trying circumstances, was putting her articles in a bag, the initials on which she did not recognize-H. L. S.-Honora Leffingwell Spence; while old Catherine, tearful and inefficient, knelt before her, fumbling at her shoes. Honora, bending over, took the face of the faithful old servant and kissed it.

"Don't feel badly, Catherine," she said; "I'll be coming back often to see you, and you will be coming to see me."

"Will ye, darlint? The blessing of God be on you for those words-and you to be such a fine lady! It always was a fine lady ye were, with such a family and such a bringin' up. And now ye've married a rich man, as is right and proper. If it's rich as Croesus he was, he'd be none too good for you."

"Catherine," said Aunt Mary, reprovingly, "what ideas you put into the child's head!"

"Sure, Miss Mary," cried Catherine, "it's always the great lady she was, and she a wee bit of a thing. And wasn't it yerself, Miss Mary, that dressed her like a princess?"

Then came the good-bys-the real ones. Uncle Tom, always the friend of young people, was surrounded by a group of bridesmaids in the hall. She clung to him. And Peter, who had the carriage ready. What would her wedding have been without Peter? As they drove towards the station, his was the image that remained persistently in her mind, bareheaded on the sidewalk in the light of the carriage lamps. The image of struggle.

She had married Prosperity. A whimsical question, that shocked her, irresistibly presented itself: was it not Prosperity that she had promised to love, honour, and obey?

It must not be thought that Honora was by any means discontented with her Prosperity. He was new-that was all. Howard looked new. But she remembered that he had always looked new; such was one of his greatest charms. In the long summer days since she had bade him good-by on her way through New York from Silverdale, Honora had constructed him: he was perpetual yet sophisticated Youth; he was Finance and Fashion; he was Power in correctly cut clothes. And when he had arrived in St. Louis to play his part in the wedding festivities, she had found her swan a swan indeed-he was all that she had dreamed of him. And she had tingled with pride as she introduced him to her friends, or gazed at him across the flower-laden table as he sat beside Edith Hanbury at the bridesmaids' dinner in Wayland Square.

The wedding ceremony had somehow upset her opinion of him, but Honora regarded this change as temporary. Julius Caesar or George Washington himself must have been somewhat ridiculous as bridegrooms: and she had the sense to perceive that her own agitations as a bride were partly responsible. No matter how much a young girl may have trifled with that electric force in the male sex known as the grand passion, she shrinks from surrendering herself to its dominion. Honora shrank. He made love to her on the way to the station, and she was terrified. He actually forgot to smoke cigarettes. What he said was to the effect that he possessed at last the most wonderful and beautiful woman in the world, and she resented the implication of possession.

Nevertheless, in the glaring lights of the station, her courage and her pride in him revived, and he became again a normal and a marked man. Although the sex may resent it, few women are really indifferent to clothes, and Howard's well-fitting check suit had the magic touch of the metropolis. His manner matched his garments. Obsequious porters grasped his pig-skin bag, and seized Honora's; the man at the gate inclined his head as he examined their tickets, and the Pullman conductor himself showed them their stateroom, and plainly regarded them as important people far from home. Howard had the cosmopolitan air. He gave the man a dollar, and remarked that the New Orleans train was not exactly the Chicago and New York Limited.

"Not by a long shot," agreed the conductor, as he went out, softly closing the door behind him.

Whereupon the cosmopolitan air dropped from Mr. Howard Spence, not gracefully, and he became once more that superfluous and awkward and utterly banal individual, the husband.

"Let's go out and walk on the platform until the train starts," suggested Honora, desperately. "Oh, Howard, the shades are up! I'm sure I saw some one looking in!"

He laughed. But there was a light in his eyes that frightened her, and she deemed his laughter out of place. Was he, after all, an utterly different man than what she had thought him? Still laughing, he held to her wrist with one hand, and with the other pulled down the shades.

"This is good enough for me," he said. "At last-at last," he whispered, "all the red tape is over, and I've got you to myself! Do you love me just a little, Honora?"

"Of course I do," she faltered, still struggling, her face burning as from a fire.

"Then what's the matter?" he demanded.

"I don't know-I want air. Howard, please let me go. It's-it's so hot inhere. You must let me go."

Her release, she felt afterwards, was due less to a physical than a mental effort. She seemed suddenly to have cowed him, and his resistance became enfeebled. She broke from him, and opened the door, and reached the cement platform and the cold air. When he joined her, there was something jokingly apologetic about his manner, and he was smoking a cigarette; and she could not help thinking that she would have respected him more if he had held her.

"Women beat me," he said. "They're the most erratic stock in the market."

It is worthy of remark how soon the human, and especially the feminine brain adjusts itself to new conditions. In a day or two life became real again, or rather romantic.

For the American husband in his proper place is an auxiliary who makes all things possible. His ability to "get things done," before it ceases to be a novelty, is a quality to be admired. Honora admired. An intimacy-if the word be not too strong-sprang up between them. They wandered through the quaint streets of New Orleans, that most foreign of American cities, searching out the tumbledown French houses; and Honora was never tired of imagining t

he romances and tragedies which must have taken place in them. The new scenes excited her,-the quaint cafes with their delicious, peppery Creole cooking,-and she would sit talking for a quarter of an hour at a time with Alphonse, who outdid himself to please the palate of a lady with such allure. He called her "Madame"; but well he knew, this student of human kind, that the title had not been of long duration.

Madame came from New York, without doubt? such was one of his questions, as he stood before them in answer to Howard's summons, rubbing his hands. And Honora, with a little thrill, acknowledged the accuracy of his guess. There was no dish of Alphonse's they did not taste. And Howard smilingly paid the bills. He was ecstatically proud of his wife, and although he did justice to the cooking, he cared but little for the mysterious courtyards, the Spanish buildings, and the novels of Mr. George W. Cable, which Honora devoured when she was too tired to walk about. He followed her obediently to the battle field of New Orleans, and admired as obediently the sunset, when the sky was all silver-green through the magnolias, and the spreading live oaks hung with Spanish moss, and a silver bar lay upon the Father of Waters. Honora, with beating heart and flushed cheeks, felt these things: Howard felt them through her and watched-not the sunset-but the flame it lighted in her eyes.

He left her but twice a day, and then only for brief periods. He even felt a joy when she ventured to complain.

"I believe you care more for those horrid stocks than for me," she said.

"I-I am just a novelty."

His answer, since they were alone in their sitting-room, was obvious.

"Howard," she cried, "how mean of you! Now I'll have to do my hair all over again. I've got such a lot of it-you've no idea how difficult it is."

"You bet I have!" he declared meaningly, and Honora blushed.

His pleasure of possession was increased when people turned to look at her on the street or in the dining room-to think that this remarkable creature was in reality his wife! Nor did the feeling grow less intense with time, being quite the same when they arrived at a fashionable resort in the Virginia mountains, on their way to New York. For such were the exactions of his calling that he could spare but two weeks for his honeymoon.

Honora's interest in her new surroundings was as great, and the sight of those towering ridges against the soft blue of the autumn skies inspired her. It was Indian summer here, the tang of wood smoke was in the air; in the valleys-as they drove-the haze was shot with the dust of gold, and through the gaps they looked across vast, unexplored valleys to other distant, blue-stained ridges that rose between them and the sunset. Honora took an infinite delight in the ramshackle cabins beside the red-clay roads, in the historic atmosphere of the ancient houses and porticoes of the Warm Springs, where the fathers of the Republic had come to take the waters. And one day, when a north wind had scattered the smoke and swept the sky, Howard followed her up the paths to the ridge's crest, where she stood like a Victory, her garments blowing, gazing off over the mighty billows to the westward. Howard had never seen a Victory, but his vision of domesticity was untroubled.

Although it was late in the season, the old-fashioned, rambling hotel was well filled, and people interested Honora as well as scenery-a proof of her human qualities. She chided Howard because he, too, was not more socially inclined.

"How can you expect me to be-now?" he demanded.

She told him he was a goose, although secretly admitting the justice of his defence. He knew four or five men in the hotel, with whom he talked stocks while waiting for Honora to complete her toilets; and he gathered from two of these, who were married, that patience was a necessary qualification in a husband. One evening they introduced their wives. Later, Howard revealed their identity-or rather that of the husbands.

"Bowker is one of the big men in the Faith Insurance Company, and Tyler is president of the Gotham Trust." He paused to light a cigarette, and smiled at her significantly. "If you can dolly the ladies along once in a while, Honora, it won't do any harm," he added. "You have a way with you, you know,-when you want to."

Honora grew scarlet.

"Howard!" she exclaimed.

He looked somewhat shamefaced.

"Well," he said, "I was only joking. Don't take it seriously. But it doesn't do any harm to be polite."

"I am always polite," she answered a little coldly.

Honeymoons, after all, are matters of conjecture, and what proportion of them contain disenchantments will never be known. Honora lay awake for a long time that night, and the poignant and ever recurring remembrance of her husband's remark sent the blood to her face like a flame. Would Peter, or George Hanbury, or any of the intimate friends of her childhood have said such a thing?

A new and wistful feeling of loneliness was upon her. For some days, with a certain sense of isolation and a tinge of envy which she would not acknowledge, she had been watching a group of well-dressed, clean-looking people galloping off on horseback or filling the six-seated buckboards. They were from New York-that she had discovered; and they did not mix with the others in the hotel. She had thought it strange that Howard did not know them, but for a reason which she did not analyze she hesitated to ask him who they were. They had rather a rude manner of staring -especially the men-and the air of deriving infinite amusement from that which went on about them. One of them, a young man with a lisp who was addressed by the singular name of "Toots," she had overheard demanding as she passed: who the deuce was the tall girl with the dark hair and the colour? Wherever she went, she was aware of them. It was foolish, she knew, but their presence seemed-in the magnitude which trifles are wont to assume in the night-watches-of late to have poisoned her pleasure.

Enlightenment as to the identity of these disturbing persons came, the next day, from an unexpected source. Indeed, from Mrs. Tyler. She loved brides, she said, and Honora seemed to her such a sweet bride. It was Mrs. Tyler's ambition to become thin (which was hitching her wagon to a star with a vengeance), and she invited our heroine to share her constitutional on the porch. Honora found the proceeding in the nature of an ordeal, for Mrs. Tyler's legs were short, her frizzled hair very blond, and the fact that it was natural made it seem, somehow, all the more damning.

They had scarcely begun to walk before Honora, with a sense of dismay of which she was ashamed, beheld some of the people who had occupied her thoughts come out of the door and form a laughing group at the end of the porch. She could not rid herself of the feeling that they were laughing at her. She tried in vain to drive them from her mind, to listen to Mrs. Tyler's account of how she, too, came as a bride to New York from some place with a classical name, and to the advice that accompanied the narration. The most conspicuous young woman in the group, in riding clothes, was seated on the railing, with the toe of one boot on the ground. Her profile was clear-cut and her chestnut hair tightly knotted behind under her hat. Every time they turned, this young woman stared at Honora amusedly.

"Nasty thing!" exclaimed Mrs. Tyler, suddenly and unexpectedly in the midst of a description of the delights of life in the metropolis.

"Who?" asked Honora.

"That young Mrs. Freddy Maitland, sitting on the rail. She's the rudest woman in New York."

A perversity of spirit which she could not control prompted Honora to reply:

"Why, I think she is so good-looking, Mrs. Tyler. And she seems to have so much individuality and independence."

"There!" cried Mrs. Tyler, triumphantly. "Once-not so very long ago-I was just as inexperienced as you, my dear. She belongs to that horribly fast set with which no self-respecting woman would be seen. It's an outrage that they should come to a hotel like this and act as though it belonged to them. She knows me quite as well as I know her, but when I am face to face she acts as though I was air."

Honora could not help thinking that this, at least, required some imagination on Mrs. Maitland's part. Mrs. Tyler had stopped for breath.

"I have been introduced to her twice," she continued, "but of course I wouldn't speak to her. The little man with the lisp, next to her, who is always acting in that silly way, they call Toots Cuthbert. He gets his name in the newspapers by leading cotillons in New York and Newport. And the tall, slim, blond one, with the green hat and the feather in it, is Jimmy Wing. He's the son of James Wing, the financier."

"I went to school at Sutcliffe with his sister," said Honora.

It seemed to Honora that Mrs. Tyler's manner underwent a change.

"My dear," she exclaimed, "did you go to Sutcliffe? What a wonderful school it is! I fully intend to send my daughter Louise there."

An almost irresistible desire came over Honora to run away. She excused herself instead, and hurried back towards her room. On the way she met Howard in the corridor, and he held a telegram in his hand.

"I've got some bad news, Honora," he said. "That is, bad from the point of view of our honeymoon. Sid Dallam is swamped with business, and wants me in New York. I'm afraid we've got to cut it short."

To his astonishment she smiled.

"Oh, I'm so glad, Howard," she cried. "I-I don't like this place nearly so well as New Orleans. There are-so many people here."

He looked relieved, and patted her on the arm.

"We'll go to-night, old girl," he said.

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