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A Modern Chronicle -- Volume 05 By Winston Churchill Characters: 18450

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Honora did not go back to Quicksands. Neither, in this modern chronicle, shall we.

The sphere we have left, which we know is sordid, sometimes shines in the retrospect. And there came a time, after the excitement of furnishing the new house was over, when our heroine, as it were, swung for a time in space: not for a very long time; that month, perhaps, between autumn and winter.

We need not be worried about her, though we may pause for a moment or two to sympathize with her in her loneliness-or rather in the moods it produced. She even felt, in those days, slightly akin to the Lady of the Victoria (perfectly respectable), whom all of us fortunate enough occasionally to go to New York have seen driving on Fifth Avenue with an expression of wistful haughtiness, and who changes her costumes four times a day.

Sympathy! We have seen Honora surrounded by friends-what has become of them? Her husband is president of a trust company, and she has one of the most desirable houses in New York. What more could be wished for? To jump at conclusions in this way is by no means to understand a heroine with an Ideal. She had these things, and-strange as it may seem-suffered.

Her sunny drawing-room, with its gathered silk curtains, was especially beautiful; whatever the Leffingwells or Allisons may have lacked, it was not taste. Honora sat in it and wondered: wondered, as she looked back over the road she had threaded somewhat blindly towards the Ideal, whether she might not somewhere have taken the wrong turn. The farther she travelled, the more she seemed to penetrate into a land of unrealities. The exquisite objects by which she was surrounded, and which she had collected with such care, had no substance: she would not have been greatly surprised, at any moment, to see them vanish like a scene in a theatre, leaning an empty, windy stage behind them. They did not belong to her, nor she to them.

Past generations of another blood, no doubt, had been justified in looking upon the hazy landscapes in the great tapestries as their own: and children's children had knelt, in times gone by, beside the carved stone mantel. The big, gilded chairs with the silken seats might appropriately have graced the table of the Hotel de Rambouillet. Would not the warriors and the wits, the patient ladies of high degree and of many children, and even the 'precieuses ridicules' themselves, turn over in their graves if they could so much as imagine the contents of the single street in modern New York where Honora lived?

One morning, as she sat in that room, possessed by these whimsical though painful fancies, she picked up a newspaper and glanced through it, absently, until her eye fell by chance upon a name on the editorial page. Something like an electric shock ran through her, and the letters of the name seemed to quiver and become red. Slowly they spelled-Peter Erwin.

"The argument of Mr. Peter Erwin, of St. Louis, before the Supreme Court of the United States in the now celebrated Snowden case is universally acknowledged by lawyers to have been masterly, and reminiscent of the great names of the profession in the past. Mr. Erwin is not dramatic. He appears to carry all before him by the sheer force of intellect, and by a kind of Lincolnian ability to expose a fallacy: He is still a young man, self-made, and studied law under Judge Brice of St. Louis, once President of the National Bar Association, whose partner he is"….

Honora cut out the editorial and thrust it in her gown, and threw the newspaper is the fire. She stood for a time after it had burned, watching the twisted remnants fade from flame colour to rose, and finally blacken. Then she went slowly up the stairs and put on her hat and coat and veil. Although a cloudless day, it was windy in the park, and cold, the ruffled waters an intense blue. She walked fast.

She lunched with Mrs. Holt, who had but just come to town; and the light, like a speeding guest, was departing from the city when she reached her own door.

"There is a gentleman in the drawing-room, madam," said the butler. "He said he was an old friend, and a stranger in New York, and asked if he might wait."

She stood still with presentiment.

"What is his name?" she asked.

"Mr. Erwin," said the man.

Still she hesitated. In the strange state in which she found herself that day, the supernatural itself had seemed credible. And yet-she was not prepared.

"I beg pardon, madam," the butler was saying, "perhaps I shouldn't-?"

"Yes, yes, you should," she interrupted him, and pushed past him up the stairs. At the drawing-room door she paused-he was unaware of her presence. And he had not changed! She wondered why she had expected him to change. Even the glow of his newly acquired fame was not discernible behind his well-remembered head. He seemed no older-and no younger. And he was standing with his hands behind his back gazing in simple, silent appreciation at the big tapestry nearest the windows.

"Peter," she said, in a low voice.

He turned quickly, and then she saw the glow. But it was the old glow, not the new-the light in which her early years had been spent.

"What a coincidence!" she exclaimed, as he took her hand.

"Coincidence?"

"It was only this morning that I was reading in the newspaper all sorts of nice things about you. It made me feel like going out and telling everybody you were an old friend of mine." Still holding his fingers, she pushed him away from her at arm's length, and looked at him. "What does it feel like to be famous, and have editorials about one's self in the New York newspapers?"

He laughed, and released his hands somewhat abruptly.

"It seems as strange to me, Honora, as it does to you."

"How unkind of you, Peter!" she exclaimed.

She felt his eyes upon her, and their searching, yet kindly and humorous rays seemed to illuminate chambers within her which she would have kept in darkness: which she herself did not wish to examine.

"I'm so glad to see you," she said a little breathlessly, flinging her muff and boa on a chair. "Sit there, where I can look at you, and tell me why you didn't let me know you were coming to New York."

He glanced a little comically at the gilt and silk arm-chair which she designated, and then at her; and she smiled and coloured, divining the humour in his unspoken phrase.

"For a great man," she declared, "you are absurd."

He sat down. In spite of his black clothes and the lounging attitude he habitually assumed, with his knees crossed-he did not appear incongruous in a seat that would have harmonized with the flowing robes of the renowned French Cardinal himself. Honora wondered why. He impressed her to-day as force-tremendous force in repose, and yet he was the same Peter. Why was it? Had the clipping that even then lay in her bosom effected this magic change? He had intimated as much, but she denied it fiercely.

She rang for tea.

"You haven't told me why you came to New York," she said.

"I was telegraphed for, from Washington, by a Mr. Wing," he explained.

"A Mr. Wing," she repeated. "You don't mean by any chance James Wing?"

"The Mr. Wing," said Peter.

"The reason I asked," explained Honora, flushing, was because Howard is -associated with him. Mr. Wing is largely interested in the Orange Trust Company."

"Yes, I know," said Peter. His elbows were resting on the arms of his chair, and he looked at the tips of his fingers, which met. Honora thought it strange that he did not congratulate her, but he appeared to be reflecting.

"What did Mr. Wing want?" she inquired in her momentary confusion, and added hastily, "I beg your pardon, Peter. I suppose I ought not to ask that."

"He was kind enough to wish me to live in New York he answered, still staring at the tips of his fingers.

"Oh, how nice!" she cried-and wondered at the same time whether, on second thoughts, she would think it so. "I suppose he wants you to be the counsel for one of his trusts. When-when do you come?"

"I'm not coming."

"Not coming! Why? Isn't it a great compliment?"

He ignored the latter part of her remark; and it seemed to her, when she recalled the conversation afterwards, that she had heard a certain note of sadness under the lightness of his reply.

"To attempt to explain to a New Yorker why any one might prefer to live in any other place would be a difficult task."

"You are incomprehensible, Peter," she declared. And yet she felt a relief that surprised her, and a desire to get away from the subject. "Dear old St. Louis! Somehow, in spite of your greatness, it seems to fit you."

"It's growing," said Peter-and they laughed together.

"Why didn't you come to lunch?" she said.

"Lunch! I didn't know that any one ever went to lunch in New York-in this part of it, at least-with less than three weeks' notice. And by the way, if I am interfering with any engagement-"

"My book is not so full as all that. Of course you'll come and stay with us, Peter."

He shook his head regretfully.

"My train leaves at six, from Forty-Second Street," he replied.

"Oh, you are niggardly," she cried. "To think how little I see of you, P

eter. And sometimes I long for you. It's strange, but I still miss you terribly-after five years. It seems longer than that," she added, as she poured the boiling water into the tea-pot. But she did not look at him.

He got up and walked as far as a water-colour on the wall.

"You have some beautiful things here, Honora," he said. "I am glad I have had a glimpse of you surrounded by them to carry back to your aunt and uncle."

She glanced about the room as he spoke, and then at him. He seemed the only reality in it, but she did not say so.

"You'll see them soon," was what she said. And considered the miracle of him staying there where Providence had placed him, and bringing the world to him. Whereas she, who had gone forth to seek it-"The day after to-morrow will be Sunday," he reminded her.

Nothing had changed there. She closed her eyes and saw the little dining room in all the dignity of Sunday dinner, the big silver soup tureen catching the sun, the flowered china with the gilt edges, and even a glimpse of lace paper when the closet door opened; Aunt Mary and Uncle Tom, with Peter between them. And these, strangely, were the only tangible things and immutable.

"You'll give them-a good account of me?" she said. "I know that you do not care for New York," she added with a smile. "But it is possible to be happy here."

"I am glad you are happy, Honora, and that you have got what you wanted in life. Although I may be unreasonable and provincial and-and Western," he confessed with a twinkle-for he had the characteristic national trait of shading off his most serious remarks-"I have never gone so far as to declare that happiness was a question of locality."

She laughed.

"Nor fame." Her mind returned to the loadstar.

"Oh, fame!" he exclaimed, with a touch of impatience, and he used the word that had possessed her all day. "There is no reality in that. Men are not loved for it."

She set down her cup quickly. He was looking at the water-colour.

"Have you been to the Metropolitan Museum lately?" he asked.

"The Metropolitan Museum?" she repeated in bewilderment.

"That would be one of the temptations of New York for me," he said. "I was there for half an hour this afternoon before I presented myself at your door as a suspicious character. There is a picture there, by Coffin, called 'The Rain,' I believe. I am very fond of it. And looking at it on such a winter's day as this brings back the summer. The squall coming, and the sound of it in the trees, and the very smell of the wet meadow-grass in the wind. Do you know it?"

"No," replied Honora, and she was suddenly filled with shame at the thought that she had never been in the Museum. "I didn't know you were so fond of pictures."

"I am beginning to be a rival of Mr. Dwyer," he declared. "I've bought four-although I haven't built my gallery. When you come to St. Louis I'll show them to you-and let us hope it will be soon."

For some time after she had heard the street door close behind him Honora remained where she was, staring into the fire, and then she crossed the room to a reading lamp, and turned it up.

Some one spoke in the doorway.

"Mr. Grainger, madam."

Before she could rouse herself and recover from her astonishment, the gentleman himself appeared, blinking as though the vision of her were too bright to be steadily gazed at. If the city had been searched, it is doubtful whether a more striking contrast to the man who had just left could have been found than Cecil Grainger in the braided, grey cutaway that clung to the semblance of a waist he still possessed. In him Hyde Park and Fifth Avenue, so to speak, shook hands across the sea: put him in either, and he would have appeared indigenous.

"Hope you'll forgive my comin' 'round on such slight acquaintance, Mrs.

Spence," said he. "Couldn't resist the opportunity to pay my respects.

Shorter told me where you were."

"That was very good of Mr. Shorter," said Honora, whose surprise had given place to a very natural resentment, since she had not the honour of knowing Mrs. Grainger.

"Oh," said Mr. Grainger, "Shorter's a good sort. Said he'd been here himself to see how you were fixed, and hadn't found you in. Uncommonly well fixed, I should say," he added, glancing around the room with undisguised approval. "Why the deuce did she furnish it, since she's gone to Paris to live with Rindge?"

"I suppose you mean Mrs. Rindge," said Honora. "She didn't furnish it."

Mr. Grainger winked at her rapidly, like a man suddenly brought face to face with a mystery.

"Oh!" he replied, as though he had solved it. The solution came a few moments later. "It's ripping!" he said. "Farwell couldn't have done it any better."

Honora laughed, and momentarily forgot her resentment.

"Will you have tea?" she asked. "Oh, don't sit down there!"

"Why not?" he asked, jumping. It was the chair that had held Peter, and

Mr. Grainger examined the seat as though he suspected a bent pin.

"Because," said Honora, "because it isn't comfortable. Pull up that other one."

Again mystified, he did as he was told. She remembered his reputation for going to sleep, and wondered whether she had been wise in her second choice. But it soon became apparent that Mr. Grainger, as he gazed at her from among the cushions, had no intention of dozing, His eyelids reminded her of the shutters of a camera, and she had the feeling of sitting for thousands of instantaneous photographs for his benefit. She was by turns annoyed, amused, and distrait: Peter was leaving his hotel; now he was taking the train. Was he thinking of her? He had said he was glad she was happy! She caught herself up with a start after one of these silences to realize that Mr. Grainger was making unwonted and indeed pathetic exertions to entertain her, and it needed no feminine eye to perceive that he was thoroughly uncomfortable. She had, unconsciously and in thinking of Peter, rather overdone the note of rebuke of his visit. And Honora was, above all else, an artist. His air was distinctly apologetic as he rose, perhaps a little mortified, like that of a man who has got into the wrong house.

"I very much fear I've intruded, Mrs. Spence," he stammered, and he was winking now with bewildering rapidity. "We-we had such a pleasant drive together that day to Westchester-I was tempted-"

"We did have a good time," she agreed. "And it has been a pleasure to see you again."

Thus, in the kindness of her heart, she assisted him to cover his retreat, for it was a strange and somewhat awful experience to see Mr. Cecil Grainger discountenanced. He glanced again, as he went out, at the chair in which he had been forbidden to sit.

She went to the piano, played over a few bars of Thais, and dropped her hands listlessly. Cross currents of the strange events of the day flowed through her mind: Peter's arrival and its odd heralding, and the discomfort of Mr. Grainger.

Howard came in. He did not see her under the shaded lamp, and she sat watching him with a curious feeling of detachment as he unfolded his newspaper and sank, with a sigh of content, into the cushioned chair which Mr. Grainger had vacated. Was it fancy that her husband's physical attributes had changed since he had attained his new position of dignity? She could have sworn that he had visibly swollen on the evening when he had announced to her his promotion, and he seemed to have remained swollen. Not bloated, of course: he was fatter, and-if possible pinker. But there was a growing suggestion in him of humming-and-hawing greatness. If there-were leisure in this too-leisurely chronicle for what might be called aftermath, the dinner that Honora had given to some of her Quicksands friends might be described. Suffice it to recall, with Honora, that Lily Dallam, with a sure instinct, had put the finger of her wit on this new attribute of Howard's.

"You'll kill me, Howard!" she had cried. "He even looks at the soup as though he were examining a security!"

Needless to say, it did not cure him, although it sealed Lily Dallam's fate-and incidentally that of Quicksands. Honora's thoughts as she sat now at the piano watching him, flew back unexpectedly to the summer at Silverdale when she had met him, and she tried to imagine, the genial and boyish representative of finance that he was then. In the midst of this effort he looked up and discovered her.

"What are you doing over there, Honora?" he asked.

"Thinking," she answered.

"That's a great way to treat a man when he comes home after a day's work."

"I beg your pardon, Howard," she said with unusual meekness. "Who do you think was here this afternoon?"

"Erwin? I've just come from Mr. Wing's house-he has gout to-day and didn't go down town. He offered Erwin a hundred thousand a year to come to New York as corporation counsel. And if you'll believe me-he refused it."

"I'll believe you," she said.

"Did he say anything about it to you?"

"He simply mentioned that Mr. Wing asked him to come to New York. He didn't say why."

"Well," Howard remarked, "he's one too many for me. He can't be making over thirty thousand where he is."

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