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   Chapter 17 The Price of Silence

The Two Vanrevels By Booth Tarkington Characters: 17214

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


It was the misfortune of Mr. Cummings's first literary offering to annoy one of the editor's friends. The Journal was brought to the corporal at noon, while he was considering whether he should rise from his couch or sleep another hour. Reclining among his pillows, he glanced through Cummings's description with the subdued giggle he always had for the good William's style but as his eye fell upon one paragraph he started sat upright, and proceeded to read the passage several times with anxious attention.

"Only two or three sources of regret occurred to mar the delight (in which young and old participated) of that festal and dazzling scene. One was the absence of Miss Fanchon Bareaud, one the donors; another, that of Corporal Gray; a third was the excessive modesty of Major Vanrevel, although present at the time, refused to receive the ladies' sumptuous offering and insisted that Captain Marsh was the proper person to do the honors, to which the latter reluctantly, though gracefully consented. Also, we were sorry that the Major appeared in citizen's dress, as all were anxious to witness him in his uniform. However, in our humble judgment, he will be compelled by etiquette to don it this afternoon, to receive the officers of the regular army, who will arrive by the stage about five o'clock, it is expected, to inspect the company and swear them into the service of the Federal Government at the Court House. We, for one, have little doubt that, owing to the Major's well-known talent in matters of apparel, his appearance will far eclipse in brilliancy that of his fellow-officers."

Crailey dressed slowly, returning to the paper, now and then, with a perturbed countenance. How would Miss Betty explain this paragraph to herself, and how account for the fact that she had not seen Crailey, how for the fact that she had seen Tom? It seemed unlikely that she could have overlooked the latter-Tom was one of those whom everybody saw, wherever he went. And what inquiries would she make? For Crailey had no means of knowing that she would not see the Journal. Tomorrow he would be gone, it would be all over, but he wanted this last day to run smoothly. What wild hopes he had of things that should happen when they all came marching home, no one can say; even if it were not to be doubted that Crailey ever entertained hopes of any kind whatever, since to hope is to bestow thought upon the future.

But, however affairs ran with him so far as hope was concerned, he seldom lacked an idea; and one came to him presently, a notion that put the frown to rout and brought the old smile to his lips, his smile of the world-worn and tolerant prelate. He flicked the paper lightly from him, and it sped across the room like a big bird in awkward flight. For he knew how to preserve his last day as he wished, and to make all smooth.

He finished his toilet with particular care, took a flower from a vase on his table, placed it in his coat, and went down to the dusty street, where everything was warm and bright with summer. It was joy to be alive; there was wine enough in the air; and Crailey made up his mind not to take a drink that day-the last day! The last day! The three words kept ringing through his head like a minor phrase from a song. Tomorrow, at noon, they would be churning down the river; and this was the last day-the last day!

"Still not too late to make another friend at home," he said, stopping to pat the head of a mangy street cur that came crouching and wobbling toward him like a staveless little keg worried by scurries of wind. Dogs and children always fell in love with Crailey at first sight, and he never failed to receive them in the spirit of their approach. Now the mongrel, at his touch, immediately turned himself over and lay upon the pavement with all paws in air, to say: "Great lord, magnificent in the graciousness which deigns to cast a glimpse upon this abject cluster of ribs, I perceive that your heart is too gentle to kick me in my present helplessness; yet do with me as you will."

"I doubt if you've breakfasted, brother," Crailey responded aloud, rubbing the dog's head softly with the tip of his boot. "Will you share the meagre fare of one who is a poet, should be a lawyer, but is about to become a soldier? Eh, but a corporal! Rise, my friend. Up! and be in your own small self a whole Corporal's Guard! And if your Corporal doesn't come home from the wars, perhaps you'll remember him kindly? Think?"

He made a vivacious gesture, the small animal sprang into the air, convoluted with gratitude and new love, while Crailey, laughing softly, led the way to the hotel. There, while he ate sparsely himself, he provided munificently for his new acquaintance, and recommended him, with an accompaniment of silver, to the good offices of the Rouen House kitchen. After that, out into the sunshine again he went, with elastic step, and a merry word and a laugh for everyone he met. At the old English gardener's he bought four or five bouquets, and carried them on a round of visits of farewell to as many old ladies who had been kind to him. This done, leaving his laughter and his flowers behind him, he went to Fanchon and spent part of the afternoon bringing forth cunning arguments cheerily, to prove to her that General Taylor would be in the Mexican capital before the volunteers reached New Orleans, and urging upon her his belief that they would all be back in Rouen before the summer was gone.

But Fanchon could only sob and whisper, "Hush, hush!" in the dim room where they sat, the windows darkened so that, after he had gone, he should not remember how red her eyes were, and the purple depths under them, and thus forget how pretty she had been at her best. After a time, finding that the more he tried to cheer her, the more brokenly she wept, he grew silent, only stroking her head, while the summer sounds came in through the window: the mill-whir of locusts, the small monotone of distant farm-bells, the laughter of children in the street, and the gay arias of a mocking-bird singing in the open window of the next house. So they sat together through the long, still afternoon of the last day.

No one in Rouen found that afternoon particularly enlivening. Even Mrs. Tanberry gave way to the common depression, and, once more, her doctrine of cheerfulness relegated to the ghostly ranks of the purely theoretical, she bowed under the burden of her woe so far as to sing "Methought I Met a Damsel Fair" (her of the bursting sighs) at the piano. Whenever sadness lay upon her soul she had acquired the habit of resorting to this unhappy ballad; today she sang it four times. Mr. Carewe was not at home, and had announced that though he intended to honor the evening meal by his attendance, he should be away for the evening itself; as comment upon which statement Mrs. Tanberry had offered ambiguously the one word, "Amen!" He was stung to no reply, and she had noted the circumstance as unusual, and also that he had appeared to labor with the suppression of a keen excitement, which made him anxious to escape from her sharp little eyes; an agitation for which she easily accounted when she recalled that he had seen Vanrevel on the previous evening. Mr. Carewe had kept his promise to preserve the peace, as he always kept it when the two met on neutral ground, but she had observed that his face showed a kind of hard-leashed violence whenever he had been forced to breathe the air of the same room with his enemy, and that the thing grew on him.

Miss Betty exhibited not precisely a burning interest in the adventure of the Damsel Fair, wandering out of the room during the second rendition, wandering back again, and once more away. She had moved about the house in this fashion since early morning, wearing what Mamie described as a "peak-ed look." White-faced and restless, with distressed eyes, to which no sleep had come in the night, she could not read; she could no more than touch her harp; she could not sleep; she could not remain quiet for three minutes together. Often she sank into a chair with an air of languor and weariness, only to start immediately out of it and seek some other part of the house, or to go and pace the garden. Here, in the air heavy with roses and tremulous with June, as she walked rapidly up and down, late in the afternoon, at the time when the faraway farm-bells were calling men from the fields to supper, the climax of her restlessness came. That anguish and desperation, so old in her sex, the rebellion against the law that inaction must be her part, h

ad fallen upon her for the first time. She came to an abrupt stop and struck her hands together despairingly, and spoke aloud.

"What shall I do! What shall I do!"

"Ma'am?" asked a surprised voice, just behind her.

She wheeled quickly about, to behold a shock-headed urchin of ten in the path near the little clearing. He was ragged, tanned, dusty, neither shoes nor coat trammelling his independence; and he had evidently entered the garden through the gap in the hedge.

"I thought you spoke to me?" he said, inquiringly.

"I didn't see you," she returned. "What is it?"

"You Miss Carewe?" he asked; but before she could answer he said, reassuringly, "Why, of course you are! I remember you perfect, now I git the light on you, so to speak. Don't you remember me?"

"No, I don't think I do."

"Lord!" he responded, wonderingly. "I was one of the boys with you on them boxes the night of your pa's fire!" Mingled with the surprise in his tone was a respectful unction which intimated how greatly he honored her father for having been the owner of so satisfactory a conflagration.

"Were you? Perhaps I'll remember you if you give me time."

But at this point the youth recalled the fact that he had an errand to discharge, and, assuming an expression of businesslike haste too pressing to permit farther parley, sought in his pocket and produced a sealed envelope, with which he advanced upon her.

"Here. There's an answer. He told me not to tell nobody who sent it, and not to give it to nobody on earth but you, and how to slip in through the hedge and try and find you in the garden when nobody was lookin', and he give a pencil for you to answer on the back of it, and a dollar."

Miss Betty took the note, glancing once over her shoulder at the house, but Mrs. Tanberry was still occupied with the Maiden, and no one was in sight. She read the message hastily.

"I have obeyed you, and shall always. You have not sent for me. Perhaps that was because there was no time when you thought it safe. Perhaps you have still felt there would be a loss of dignity. Does that weigh with you against good-by? Tell me, if you can, that you have it in your heart to let me go without seeing you once more, without good-by-for the last time. Or was it untrue that you wrote me what you did? Was that dear letter but a little fairy dream of mine? Ah, will you see me again, this once-this once-let me look at you, let me talk with you, hear your voice? The last time!"

There was no signature.

Miss Betty quickly wrote four lines upon the same sheet: "Yes-yes! I must see you, must talk with you before you go. Come at dusk. The garden-near the gap in the hedge. It will be safe for a little while. He will not be here." She replaced the paper in its envelope, drew a line through her own name on the letter, and wrote "Mr. Vanrevel" underneath.

"Do you know the gentleman who sent you?" she asked.

"No'm; but he'll be waitin' at his office, 'Gray and Vanrevel,' on Main Street, for the answer."

"Then hurry!" said Betty.

He needed no second bidding, but, with wings on his bare heels, made off through the gap in the hedge. At the corner of the street he encountered an adventure, a gentleman's legs and a heavy hand at the same time. The hand fell on his shoulder, arresting his scamper with a vicious jerk; and the boy was too awed to attempt an escape, for he knew his captor well by sight, although never before had he found himself so directly in the company of Rouen's richest citizen. The note dropped from the small trembling fingers, yet those fingers did not shake as did the man's when, like a flash, Carewe seized upon the missive with his disengaged hand and saw what two names were on the envelope.

"You were stealing, were you!" he cried, savagely. "I saw you sneak through my hedge!"

"I didn't, either!"

Mr. Carewe ground his teeth, "What were you doing there?"

"Nothing!"

"Nothing!" mocked Carewe. "Nothing! You didn't carry this to the young lady in there and get her answer?"

"No, sir!" answered the captive, earnestly.

"Cross my heart I didn't. I found it!"

Slowly the corrugations of anger were levelled from the magnate's face, the white heat cooled, and the prisoner marvelled to find himself in the presence of an urbane gentleman whose placidity made the scene of a moment ago appear some trick of distorted vision. And yet, curious to behold, Mr. Carewe's fingers shook even more violently than before, as he released the boy's shoulder and gave him a friendly tap on the head, at the same time smiling benevolently.

"There, there," he said, bestowing a wink upon the youngster. "It's all right; it doesn't matter-only I think I see the chance of a jest in this. You wait, while I read this little note, this message that you found!" He ended by winking again with the friendliest drollery.

He turned his back to the boy, and opened the note; continuing to stand in that position while he read the two messages. It struck the messenger that, after this, there need be no great shame in his own lack of this much-vaunted art of reading, since it took so famous a man as Mr. Carewe such length of time to peruse a little note. But perhaps the great gentleman was ill, for it appeared to the boy that he lurched several times, once so far that he would have gone over if he had not saved himself by a lucky stagger. And once, except for the fact that the face that had turned away had worn an expression of such genial humor, the boy would have believed that from it issued a sound like the gnashing of teeth.

But when it was turned to him again, it bore the same amiable jocosity of mouth and eye, and nothing seemed to be the matter, except that those fingers still shook so wildly, too wildly, indeed, to restore the note to its envelope.

"There," said Mr. Carewe, "put it back, laddie, put it back yourself. Take it to the gentleman who sent you. I see he's even disguised his hand a trifle-ha! ha!-and I suppose he may not have expected the young lady to write his name quite so boldly on the envelope! What do you suppose?"

"I d'know," returned the boy. "I reckon I don't hardly understand."

"No, of course not," said Mr. Carewe, laughing rather madly. "Ha, ha, ha! Of course you wouldn't. And how much did he give you?"

"Yay!" cried the other, joyously. "Didn't he go and hand me a dollar!"

"How much will you take not to tell him that I stopped you and read it; how much not to speak of me at all?"

"What?"

"It's a foolish kind of joke, nothing more. I'll give you five dollars never to tell anyone that you saw me today."

"Don't shoot, Colonel," exclaimed the youth, with a riotous fling of bare feet in the air, "I'll come down!"

"You'll do it?"

"Five!" he shouted, dancing upon the boards. "Five! I'll cross my heart to die I never hear tell of you, or ever knew they was sich a man in the world!"

Carewe bent over him. "No! Say: 'God strike me dead and condemn me eternally to the everlasting flames of hell if I ever tell!"

This entailed quick sobriety, though only benevolence was in the face above him. The jig-step stopped, and the boy pondered, frightened.

"Have I got to say that?"

Mr. Carewe produced a bank-bill about which the boy beheld a halo. Clearly this was his day; heaven showed its approval of his conduct by an outpouring of imperishable riches. And yet the oath misliked him; there was a savor of the demoniacal contract; still that was to be borne and the plunge taken, for there fluttered the huge sum before his dazzled eyes. He took a deep breath. "'God strike me dead' "-he began, slowly-"' if I ever '-"

"No. 'And condemn me to the everlasting flames of hell '-"

"Have I got to?"

"Yes."-"'And condemn me to-to the everlasting flames of-of hell, if I ever tell!'"

He ran off, pale with the fear that he might grow up, take to drink and some day tell in his cups, but so resolved not to coquet with temptation that he went round a block to avoid the door of the Rouen House bar. Nevertheless, the note was in his hand and the fortune in his pocket.

And Mr. Carewe was safe. He knew that the boy would never tell, and he knew another thing, for he had read the Journal, though it came no more to his house: he knew that Tom Vanrevel wore his uniform that evening, and that, even in the dusk, the brass buttons on an officer's breast make a good mark for a gun steadied along the ledge of a window. As he entered the gates and went toward the house he glanced up at the window which overlooked his garden from the cupola.

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