MoboReader > Literature > Told in a French Garden / August, 1914

   Chapter 7 THE LAWYER'S STORY

Told in a French Garden / August, 1914 By Mildred Aldrich Characters: 22341

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


THE NIGHT BEFORE THE WEDDING

The Tale of a Bride-Elect

The next day we all hung about the garden, except the Youngster, who disappeared on his wheel early in the day, and only came back, hot and dusty, at tea-time. He waved a hand at us as he ran through the garden crying: "I'll change, and be with you in a moment," and leapt up the outside staircase that led to the gallery on which his room opened, and disappeared.

I found an opportunity to go up the other staircase a little later-the Youngster was an old pet of mine, and off and on, I had mothered him. I tapped at the door.

"Can't come in!" he cried.

"Where've you been?"

"Wait there a minute-and mum-. I'll tell you."

So I went and sat in the window looking down the road, until he came, spick and span in white flannels, with his head not yet dried from the douching he had taken.

"See here," he whispered, "I know you can keep a secret. Well, I've been out toward Cambrai-only sixty miles-and I am tuckered. There was a battle there last night-English driven back. They are only two days' march away, and oh! the sight on the roads. Don't let's talk of it."

In spite of myself, I expect I went white, for he exclaimed: "Darn it, I suppose I ought not to have told you. But I had to let off to some one. I don't want to tell the Doctor. In fact, he forbade my going again."

"Is it a real German victory?" I asked.

"If it isn't I don't know what you'd call it, though such of the English as I saw were in gay enough spirits, and there was not an atmosphere of defeat. Fact is-I kept out of sight and only got stray impressions. Go on down now, or they'll guess something. I'm not going to say a word-yet. Awful sorry now I told you. Force of habit."

I went down. I had hard work for a few minutes to throw the impression off. But the garden was lovely, and tea being over, we all busied ourselves in rifling the flowerbeds to dress the dinner table. If we were going in two days, where was the good of leaving the flowers to die alone? I don't suppose that it was strange that the table conversation was all reminiscent. We talked of the old days: of ourselves when we were boys and girls together: of old Papanti, and our first Cotillion, of Class Days, and, I remembered afterward, that not one of us talked of ourselves except in the days of our youth.

When the coffee came out, we looked about laughing to see which of the three of us left was to tell the story. The Lawyer coughed, tapped himself on his chest, and crossed his long legs.

* * *

It was a cold December afternoon.

The air was piercing.

There had been a slight fall of snow, then a sudden drop in the thermometer preceded nightfall.

Miss Moreland, wrapped in her furs, was standing on a street corner, looking in vain for a cab, and wondering, after all, why she had ventured out.

It was somewhat later than she had supposed, and she was just conventional enough, in spite of her pose to the exact contrary, to hope that none of her friends would pass. She knew her set well enough to know that it would cause something almost like a scandal if she were seen out alone, on foot, on the very eve of her wedding day, when all well bred brides ought to be invisible-repenting their sins, and praying for blessings on the future in theory, but in reality, fussing themselves ill over belated finery.

She had had for some years a number of poor protégées in the lower end of the city, which she had been accustomed to visit on work of a charitable nature begun when she was a school girl. She had found work enough to do there ever since.

It was work of which her father, a hard headed man of business, strongly disapproved, although he was ready enough to give his money. Jack was of her father's mind. She realized that when she returned from the three years' trip round the world, on which she was starting the day after her wedding, she would have other duties, and she knew it would be harder to oppose Jack,-and more dangerous-than it had been to oppose her father.

In this realization there was a touch of self-reproach. She knew, in her own heart, that she would be glad to do no more work of that sort. Experience had made her hopeless, and she had none of the spiritual support that made women like St. Catherine of Sienna. But, if experience had robbed her of her illusions, she knew, too, that it had set a seal of pain on all the future for her. She could never forget the misery she had seen. So it had been a little in a desire to give one more sop to her conscience, that she had dedicated her last afternoon to freedom to her friends in the very worst part of the town.

If her mother had remained at home, she would never have been allowed to go. All the more reason for returning in good season, and here it was dark! Worse still, the trip had been in every way unsuccessful. She had turned her face homeward, simply asking herself, as she had done so many times before, if it were "worth while," and answered the question once more with: "Neither to me nor to them." She had already learned, though too young for the lesson, that each individual works out his own salvation,-that neither moral nor physical growth ever works from the surface inward. Opportunity-she could perhaps give that in the future, but she was convinced that those who may give of themselves, and really help in the giving, are elected to the task by something more than the mere desire to serve. In her case the gift of her youth and her illusions had done others no real good, and had more or less saddened her life forever. If she were to really go on with the work, it would only be by giving up the world-her world,-abandoning her life, with its luxury, its love, everything she had been bred to, and longed for. She did not feel a call to do that, so she chose the existence to which she had been born; the love of a man in her own set,-but the shadow of too much knowledge sat on her like a shadow of fear.

She was impatient with herself, the world, living,-and there was no cab in sight.

She looked at her watch. Half past four.

It was foolish not to have driven over, but she had felt it absurd, always, to go about this kind of work in a private carriage, and to-day she could not, as she usually did, take a street car for fear of meeting friends. They thought her queer enough as it was.

An impatient ejaculation escaped her, and like an echo of it she heard a child's voice beside her.

She looked down.

It was a poor miserable specimen. At first she was not quite sure whether it were boy or girl.

Whimpering and mopping its nose with a very dirty hand, the child begged money for a sick mother-a dying mother-and begged as if not accustomed to it-all the time with an eye for that dread of New England beggars, the man in the blue coat and brass buttons.

Miss Moreland was so consciously irritated with life that she was unusually gentle. She stooped down. The child did not seem six years old. The face was not so very cunning. It was not ugly, either. It was merely the epitome of all that Miss Moreland tried to forget-the little one born without a chance in the world.

With a full appreciation of the child's fear of the police,-begging is a crime in many American towns-she carefully questioned her, watching for the dreaded officer herself.

It was the old story-a dying mother-no father-no one to do anything-a child sent out to cunningly defy the law, but it seemed to be only for bread.

Obviously the thing to do was to deliver the child up to the police. It would be at once properly cared for, and the mother also.

But Miss Moreland knew too much of official charity to be guilty of that.

The easiest thing was to give her money. But, unluckily, she belonged to a society pledged not to give alms in the streets, and her sense of the power of a moral obligation was a strong notion of duty, which had descended to her from her Puritan ancestors. There was one thing left to do.

"Do you know Chardon Street?" she asked.

The child nodded.

There was a flower shop on the corner. She led the child across to it, entered, and asked for an envelope. She wrote a few lines on a card, enclosed it and sealed the envelope. Then she went out to the side-walk again with the child. Stooping over her she made sure that the little one really did know the street. "It isn't far from here," she said. "Give that to any one there, and somebody will go right home with you to see your mother, to warm you, you poor little mite, and feed you, and make you quite happy."

She did not explain, and the child would not have understood, that she vouched for a special donation for the case as a sort of commemorative gift. The sum was large-it was a quixotic sort of salve to a sick conscience which told her that she ought to go herself.

The child, still sobbing, turned away, and drearily started up the hill. She did not go far, however. Miss Moreland had her misgivings on that point. And, just as she was about to draw a breath of relief, convinced that, after all, she would go, the girl stopped deliberately in the shadow of a tree, and sat down on the snow-covered curbstone.

No need to ask what the trouble was. The poor are born with a horror of organized charity. It obliges them to be looked over in all their misery; it presumes a worthiness, or its pretence, which they resent almost as much as they do the intrusion of the visiting committee. This disinclination is as old as poverty, and is the rock ahead of all organized charity. Its exemplification was very trying to Miss Moreland at that moment, and the crouching figure was exasperating.

She pursued the child. She pulled her rather roughly to her feet. It was so provoking to have her sit down in the cold, and to so personify all that she wanted so ardently,-it was purely selfish, she knew that,-to put out of her mind. There seemed but one thing to do: go with the child.

She knew that if she did not, she would not sleep that night, nor smile the next day-and that seemed so unfair to others. Besides, it was not yet so very late.

Bidding the child hurry, she followed her up the hill, and down the other side to a part of the city with which she was not familiar.

The child cried quietly all the way.

Miss Moreland was too vaguely uncomfortable to talk to her, as they hurried along.

It was in front of a dark house that they finally stopped, and went up the stone steps into a hall so dark that she was obliged to take the child's dirty cold hands in hers to be sure of the way.

Perhaps it was a foolish distaste for the contact, combined with her frame of mind, which prevented her from noticing facts far from trifles, which came back to her afterward.

She groped her way up the uncarpeted stairs, and followed her still whimpering guide along what seemed an upper corridor, stumbled on what she immediately knew was the sill of a door, lurched forward as the child let go of her hand, and, before she recovered her balance, the door closed behind her.

She called to the child. No answer.

She felt for the door, foun

d it-it was locked.

She was in perfect darkness.

A terrible wave of sickness passed over her and left her trembling and weak.

All she had ever heard and found it difficult to believe, coursed through her mind.

The folly of it all was worse. Fifteen minutes before all had been well with her-and now-!

Through all her terror one idea was strong within her. She must keep her head, she must be calm, she must be alertly ready for whatever happened.

The whole thing had seemed so simple. The crying child had been so plausible! Yet-to enter a strange dark house, in an unknown part of the city! How absurd it was of her! And that-after noticing-as she had-that, cold as the halls were and uncarpeted, there was neither smell of dirt nor humanity in the air!

While all these thoughts pursued one another through her mind she stood erect just inside the door.

She really dared not move.

Suddenly a fear came to her that she might not be alone. For a moment that fear dominated all other sensations. She held her breath, in a wild attempt to hear she knew not what.

It was deathly still!

She backed to the door, and began cautiously feeling her way along the wall. Inch by inch, she crept round the room, startled almost to fainting at each obstacle she encountered.

It was a large room with an alcove-a bedroom. There was but little furniture, one door only, two windows covered with heavy drapery, the windows bolted down, and evidently shuttered on the outside.

When she returned to the door, one thing was certain, she was alone. The only danger she need apprehend must come through that one door.

Yet she pushed a chair against the wall before she sat down to wait-for what? Ah, that was the horror of it! Was it robbery? There was her engagement ring, a few ornaments like her watch, and very little money! Yet, as she had seen misery, even that might be worth while. But was this a burglar's method? A ransom? That was too medi?val for an American city. If neither, then what?

She had but one enemy in the world, her Jack's best friend, or at least, he was his best friend until the days of her engagement. But he was a gentleman, and these were the days when men did not revenge themselves on women who frankly rejected the attentions they had never encouraged. It was weak, she knew it, to even remember the words he had said to her when she had refused to hear the man she was to marry slandered by his chum-still she wished now that she had told Jack, all the same.

If she could only have a light! There was gas, but no matches. To sit in the dark, waiting, she knew not what, was maddening.

Then a new terror came over her. Suppose she should fall asleep from fatigue and exhaustion, and the effect of the dark?

It seemed days that she sat there.

She knew afterward that it was only five hours and a half, but that five hours and a half were an eternity-three hundred and thirty minutes, each one of which dragged her down, like a weight, into the black abyss of the unknown; three hundred and thirty minutes of listening to the labored beating of her own heart-it was an age, after all!

Only once did she lose control of herself. She imagined she heard voices in the hall-that some one laughed-was there still laughter in the world? In spite of herself, she rushed to the door, and pounded on it. This was so useless that she began to cry hysterically. Yet she knew how foolish that was, and she stumbled back to her chair, sank into it, and calmed herself. She would not do that again.

What was her mother thinking? Poor mama! What would Jack say, when, at eleven o'clock, he ran in from his bachelor's dinner-his last-which he was giving to a few friends? What would her father say? He had always prophesied some disaster for her excursions into the slums.

Her imagination could easily picture the mad search that would be made-but who could find a trace of her?

The blackness, the fear, the dread, were doing their work! She was numb! She began to feel as if she were suspended in space, as if everything had dropped away from her, as if in another instant she would fall-and fall-and fall-.

Suddenly she heard a laugh in the hall again-this time there was no mistake about it, for it was followed by several voices. Some one approached the door.

A key was inserted and turned in the lock.

She started to her feet, and steadied herself!

The door swung open quickly-some one entered. By the dim light in the hall behind, she saw that it was a man-a gentleman in evening clothes, with a hat on the back of his head, and a coat over his arm.

But while her alert senses took that in, the door closed again-the man had remained inside.

The thought of making a dash for the door came to her, but it was too late.

She heard the scratching of a match-a muttered oath at the darkness in a thick voice-then a sudden flood of light blinded her.

She drew her hands quickly across her eyes, and was conscious that the man had flung his hat and coat on the bed before he turned to face her.

In a moment all her fear was gone.

She stumbled weakly as she ran toward him, crying hysterically, "Jack, dear Jack, how did you find me? I should have gone mad if you had been much later! Take me home! Take me home-"

Had Miss Moreland fainted, as a well-conducted girl of her class ought to have done, this would have been a very different kind of a story.

Unluckily, or luckily, according as one views life-in the relief of his presence, all danger of that fled. Unluckily for him, also, the appearance of his bride-elect in such an unexpected place was so appalling to him that his nerve failed him entirely. Instead of clasping her in his arms as he should have done, he had the decency to recoil, and cover his face instinctively from her eyes.

Miss Moreland stopped as if turned to stone.

She was conscious at first of but one thing-he had not expected to find her there. He had not come to seek her. Then, for what?

A sudden flash illumined her ignorance, and behind it she grasped at the vague accusation her other suitor had tried to make to her unwilling ears.

Her outstretched hands fell to her sides.

He still leaned against the wall, where the shock had flung him. The exciting fumes of the wine he had drunk too recklessly evaporated, and only a dim recollection remained in his absolutely sobered brain of the idiotic wager, the ugly jest, the still more contemptible bravado that had sent him into this hell.

He did not attempt to speak.

When her strained voice said: "Take me home, please," he started and the fear that had been on her face was now on his. A hundred dangers, of which she did not dream, stood between that room and a safe exit in which she should not be seen, and that much of this wretched business-which he understood now only too well-miscarry.

He started for the door. "Stay here," he said. "You are perfectly safe," and he went out, and closed and locked the door behind him.

For the man who plotted without, and the woman who sat like a stone within that room, the next half hour were equally horrible. But time was no longer measured by her!

She never remembered much more of that evening. She had a vague recollection that he came back. She had a remembrance that he had helped her stand-given her a glass of water-and led her down the uncarpeted stairs out into the street. Then she was conscious that she walked a little way. Then that she had been helped into a carriage, and then she had jolted and jolted and jolted over the pavings, always with his pale face opposite, and she knew that his eyes were full of pity. Then everything seemed to stop, but it was only the carriage that had come to a standstill. She was in front of her own door.

A voice said in her ear, "Can you stand?" And she knew she was on the steps. She heard the bell ring, but before her mother could catch her in her arms as she fell, she heard the carriage door bang, and he was gone forever.

All that night she lay and tossed and wept and raved, and longed in her fever to die.

And all night, he walked the streets marvelling at himself, at Nature, and at Civilization, between which he had so disastrously fallen, and wondering to how many men the irremediable had ever happened before.

And the next morning, early, messengers were flying about with notices of the bride's illness.-Miss Moreland's wedding was deferred by brain fever.

When she recovered, her hair was white, and she had lost all taste for matrimony, but she had found instead that desire for anything rather than personal existence, which made her the ardent, self-abnegating worker for the welfare of the downtrodden that the world knew her.

* * *

There was a moment of surprised silence.

Some one coughed. No one laughed. Then the Journalist, always ready to leap into a breach, gasped: "Horrible!"

"Getting to be a pet word of yours," said the Lawyer.

The Violinist tried to save the situation by saying gently: "Well, I don't know. It is the commonest of all situations in a melodrama. So why fuss?"

The Trained Nurse shrugged her shoulders. "I know that story," she said.

"You do not," snapped the Lawyer. "You may know a story, but you never heard that one."

"All right," she admitted. "I am not going to add footnotes, don't be alarmed."

"You don't mean to say that is a true story?" ejaculated the Divorcée.

"As for me," said the Critic, "I don't believe it."

"No one asked you to," replied the Lawyer. "It is only another case of the Doctor's pet theory-that whatever the mind of mortal mind can conceive, can come to pass."

"I suppose also that it is a proof of another of his pet theories. Scratch civilized man, and you find the beast."

The Doctor was lying back in his chair. He never said a word. Somehow the story seemed a less suggestive topic of conversation than usual.

"The weather is going to change," said the Doctor. "There's rain in the air."

"Well, anyway," said the Journalist, as we gathered up our belongings and prepared to shut up for the night, "the Youngster's ghost story was a good night cap compared to that."

"Not a bit of it," said the Critic. "There's the foundation of a bully melodrama in that story, and I'm not sure that it isn't the best one yet-so full of reserves."

"No imagination, all the same," answered the Critic. "As realistic in subject, if not in treatment, as Zola."

"Now give us some shop jargon," laughed the Lawyer. "You've not really treated us to a true touch of your methods yet."

"I only do that," laughed the Critic, "when I'm getting paid for it. After all, as the Violinist remarked, the situation is a favorite one in melodrama, from the money-coining 'Two Orphans' down. The only trouble is, the Lawyer poured his villain and hero into one mould. The other man ought to have trapped her, and the hero rescued her. But that is only the difference between reality and art. Life is inartistic. Art is only choosing the best way. Life never does that."

"Pig's wrist," said the Doctor, and that settled the question.

* * *

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