MoboReader> Literature > The Letter of the Contract

   Chapter 3 REPROACH

The Letter of the Contract By Basil King Characters: 55029

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Chip had never really noticed her until on that Sunday morning in June it suddenly struck him that she was trying to get a word with him alone. He had seen her, of course. She had been at Mountain Brook-which was the name of Emery Bland's place in New Hampshire-every time he had gone there; but, her quality being unobtrusive, he had paid her no attention. Furthermore, both Bland and Mrs. Bland, being emphatic in personality and talkative, he had been the more easily led to ignore this reticent girl, whose function was apparently limited to seeing her aunt provided with a shawl, or her uncle with a cigar, at the right opportunities. If he thought of her at all, it was as of the living spirit of the furniture. The tables and chairs became animate in her, and articulate; but her claim to recognition had never gone beyond the necessity for a hand-shake or a smile. When he did take her hand-on arriving, or on coming down-stairs in the morning-he received an impression of something soft and slim and tender; but the moment of pleasure was always too fleeting for conscious registration. Similarly, when, from a polite instinct to include her in the conversation, he smiled vaguely in her direction, he received a look gentle and beaming and almost apologetic in return; but it was never more to him than if the dimly lustrous surfaces of Mrs. Bland's nice Sheraton had suddenly become responsive. She made no demand; and he offered no more than she asked.

Perhaps the fact that the girl was not really the niece of either Mr. or Mrs. Bland had something to do with his tendency to treat her as a negligible quantity. Mrs. Bland had explained the situation to him during his first visit to Mountain Brook.

"Lily isn't our niece at all," she had said, in a tone which seemed to reproach Lily with an inadvertance. "She's no relation to us whatever. We don't know who she is. She doesn't even know herself. Since you insist," she continued, as though Chip had been pressing for information, "we got her out of an orphanage, the year we built this house. Mr. Bland seemed to think the house ought to have something young in it; and so-"

"You might have had a dog," Chip said, dryly.

"You needn't laugh. It wasn't my desire to adopt a child. I simply yielded to Mr. Bland, as I do in everything. The only stipulation I made was that she should call us uncle and aunt. I couldn't bear to be called mother by a child who wasn't my own; but Mr. Bland is so odd that he wouldn't have cared. I dare say you've noticed how odd he is."

Chip could see that Bland might be odd from his wife's point of view. He was the self-made man who had shed the traces of self-making. Mrs. Bland was fond of describing herself as a self-made woman; but the stages of the process by which she had "turned herself out" were visible. She would have been disappointed had it not been so. Having confessed from youth upward that her ambition was "to make the most of herself," there had never, in her case, been any question of the ars celare artem. She belonged to a number of women's clubs of which the avowed object was "self-improvement," and attended such classes on "current events" as would keep her posted on the problems of the day without the bore of reading the papers. As a self-made woman she also looked the part, dressing for breakfast as she would like to be found in the afternoon, with but slight variation for dinner. In her full panoply of plum or dove color she suggested one of those knights eternally in armor who decorate baronial halls. Chip considered it probable that Emery Bland would never have chosen her as the life-long complement to himself had he not taken that step while he was still an obscure "up-state" country lawyer, and she the dignified young school-teacher who stood for "cultivation" in their little town. Cultivation had always been to Mrs. Bland what hunting is to the rider to hounds-the zest was in the chase. The zest was in the chase, and the quarry but an excuse for the run. Over hedges of lectures, and ditches of "talks," and through turnip-fields of serious, ponderous women like herself, green even in winter, and after being touched by frost, Mrs. Bland kept on in full career, with "cultivation" scudding ahead like a fox she never caught a glimpse of, and which her hounds tracked only by the scent. It was splendid exercise, and helped her to feel in the movement. If she failed to notice that her husband had long ago run the fleet animal to earth, and affixed the mask as an adornment to his home, it was only because their views of life were different.

No one would now suppose that there had been a time in Emery Bland's life when it had been his aim also to "cultivate himself," and when he had actually used the phrase. Between the debonair, experienced New York lawyer, so much in demand for cases requiring discretion and so capable of dealing with them-between him and the farmer's boy he had been there was no more resemblance than between a living word and the dead root out of which it has been coined. In Emery Bland's case the word was not only living, but pliant, eloquent, and arresting to ear and eye. He was one of those men who overlook nothing that can be counted as self-expression, from their dress to the sound of their syllables. Superficially genial, but essentially astute, he had made everything grist that came to his mill, flourishing on it not only in the financial sense, but also in that of character. It was said that he knew as many life histories as a doctor or a priest, and generally the more dramatic ones. The experience had clearly made him cynical, but tolerant also, and human, with a tendency, as far as he was personally concerned, to being morally strait-laced. He had seen so much of the picturesque side of life that he could appreciate the prosaic, which, in Chip's explanation, was why he could stand by Mrs. Bland. Other people's surfeits of champagne and ortolans had assured his own taste for plain roast beef. But he himself ordered the porcelain on which his simple fare was served, and the wines by which it was accompanied, drunk from fine old Irish or Bohemian glass.

Chip took this in by degrees. His first acquaintance with a man who was to exercise some influence on his future was purely professional. He had gone to him as an offset to Aunt Emily. If the results of this move were indirect-since Aunt Emily had won the victory-they became apparent in time. They became apparent when in Chip's bruised heart, where everything healthy seemed to have been stunned, a slight curiosity began to awaken concerning his new friend's personality.

He came to consider him a friend by accident-the accident of a club, where, finding themselves sitting down to dine at the same moment, they had taken the same table. Primarily, it was an opportunity to adjust some loose ends of Chip's domestic affairs; incidentally, they stumbled on a common hobby in Victorian English politics. There was no subject on which Emery Bland was better informed, with a learning that covered the whole long stretch from Lord Melbourne to Lord Salisbury, and which he could garnish with anecdote ad libitum. It was a kind of conversation of which Chip, who had been brought up partly in England, rarely got a taste in New York, and for which Bland, on his side, didn't often find an interested listener. Something like an intimacy thus sprang up, but an intimacy of the kind common among men who have little or no point of contact out of office hours or away from the neutral ground of the club. Within these limits the meetings had already been numerous before it occurred to Chip-more or less idly-that while Bland knew too much of his sad background, he knew nothing of Bland's. An occasional reference revealed the lawyer as a married man, but beyond that basic fact their acquaintance had no more attachment to the main social structure of life than a floating island of moss and flowers has to the system of geological strata. It was Bland himself who took the first step in the direction of closer association.

"Well, how are you getting on?"

He asked the question while slipping into the seat opposite Chip as the latter lunched at the club, where they met most frequently.

"Oh, so so."

"H'm. So so. That's what you call it."

The tone implied reproach or reproof or expostulation. Chip kept his eyes on his knife and fork.

"Well, what do you call it?"

"Oh, I'm not obliged to give it a name. I hear other people do that."

"And what do other people say-since you seem to want me to ask the question?"

"I do. I think you ought to know. They say it's a pity."

Chip took on the defiant air of a bad boy. "They can say it-and go to blazes."

"They'll say it, all right. Don't you worry about that. But I rather think that you'll do the going to blazes-at this rate."

Chip raised his haggard eyes. "Well, why not? What is there any better than blazes for me to go to? Besides, it isn't so awful-when you've got nothing else."

"Oh, rot, Walker! I'm ashamed of you. I can imagine a man of your type doing almost anything else but taking to drink."

Chip shrugged his shoulders with the habit acquired in French schools. "On fait ce que l'on peut. I had three resources left to me-wine, woman, and song. For song I've no ear; for woman-well, that's all over; so it came down to Hobson's choice."

"Hobson's choice be blowed! Walker's choice! And you've just time enough left to cast about for a set of alternatives. Why, I've seen scores of men in your fix; and of some of them it was the salvation."

"And what was it of the others?"

"Hell. But it was a hell of their own making."

"All right. I'm willing to accept the word. It's a hell of my own making-but it's hell, just the same."

"But, good Lord! man, even if it is hell, you don't want to wallow in it."

Chip smiled ruefully. "Oh, I like it. Kind of penance. I like it as medieval sinners used to like a hair shirt."

"Yes; but the hair shirt was kept out of sight. You're parading your penance, as you call it, before the world. See here, Walker, why don't you come up and spend the weekend with me in New Hampshire? My wife would like to have you. To-day is Friday, and I go up to-morrow morning. A Sunday in the country would do you good."

Chip refused, but he long remembered why he retracted his refusal. It was the look of his apartment when he returned to it that night. It was an apartment in a house at the corner of Madison Avenue and a street in the Thirties, dedicated to the use of well-to-do bachelors. It had been a slight mitigation in the collapse of life as he had built it up, that rooms in so comfortable a refuge should have been free for him. He had furnished them with some care; and after his first distress had worn off a little had found a measure of lawless satisfaction in a return to the old unmarried ways.

But on this particular evening the aspect of the place appalled him from the minute he turned his latch-key in the lock. Under the stimulus of Bland's counsels he had come home early, which was in itself a mistake. It was scarcely nine o'clock. There was an hour or an hour and a half to pass before he could think of going to bed. Any such interval as that was always the hardest feature in the day for him. But what smote him specially now was the air of emptiness and loneliness. It met him as an odor in the stale smell of the cigar he had smoked on coming up-town from the office, and which still lingered in the rooms. He had forgotten to open a window, and the house valet, whose duty it was to "tidy up," had evidently gone out.

In the small hall into which Chip entered there was a bookcase with but two or three odds and ends of books in it, for his habits of reading had dropped away from him with everything else. In the sitting-room one brown shoe stood on the hearth-rug before the empty fireplace; the other on the center-table, a collar and necktie beside it. The soiled shirt he had thrown off lay on the couch, a sleeve dragging on the floor. On the mantelpiece, which he had at first consecrated as a shrine for the photographs of Edith and the children, and flanked by two silver candlesticks like an altar, there had intruded an open box of perfectos, an ash-tray that still held the butt-end of a cigar, and an empty tumbler smelling of whisky. There were traces of cigar ashes everywhere-on the arms of the easy-chairs, on the rugs, and on the terra-cotta tiles of the hearth. For the rest the room was a litter of newspapers, as the bedroom which opened off it was a litter of clothes.

He was not disorderly; he was only careless, and incapable of creating order for himself. Disorder shocked him profoundly. He always sat down in the midst of it, helpless, but with a sense of inner misery. And so he sat down in it now. "My God!" he said to himself, summing up in the ejaculation all the wretchedness he had wrought, or that had been wrought, about him.

It was at such minutes that his mind reverted to Edith, with renewed stupefaction over what she had done. Stupefaction was the word. Reflection on the subject only left him the more hopelessly bewildered. If she hadn't loved him her course might have been explicable. As it was, he found himself driven to a choice between mental aberration on her part and a witch's spell, inclining to the latter-with the witch in the guise of Aunt Emily.

Not that he absolved himself. He made no attempt to do that. But he looked upon his offense as of the kind that naturally calls for mercy rather than severity. What was the letter of the contract in comparison with the spirit?-and he had kept the spirit sacredly. Of course he had done wrong. Who in thunder, he asked, impatiently, ever denied that? But how many men had not done wrong in the same way? Very few, was his answer. The answer was the essence of his defense-a defense which, according to all the laws of human nature and common sense, Edith should have accepted. That she shouldn't accept it, or couldn't, or wouldn't, passed his comprehension.

As a rule, he tried not to think of it. He tried not to think of it by filling up the time with something else. When there had been nothing else to fill up the time he had stupefied himself with drink. He drank at first, not because he liked drinking, but because it dulled his brain, his heart. It didn't excite him; on the contrary, it brought him to a state of lethargy which, if he was at the club, made him willing to go home, or, if he was at home, made it possible for him to go to bed and sleep. It was only within a month or so that he had begun to suspect that other people noticed it; and even then he hadn't been sure until Bland had told him so that day.

He had, consequently, come back to his room in the possession of his faculties, but with a feeling of something unfulfilled that emphasized his desolation. He perceived then that a habit was beginning to form in him with a tenacity which it might be difficult to counteract. After all, would anything be gained by counteracting it? He had known fellows who drank themselves to death; and except in the last dreadful stages it hadn't been so bad. They had certainly got their fun out of it, even if in the end they paid high. He was paying high-and perhaps getting nothing at all. Wouldn't it be better if he went off this minute somewhere, and made a night of it?-made a night which would be but the beginning of a long succession of nights of the same kind? Then when he was ruined beyond recovery, or in his grave, Edith would know what she had done to him. He had tried every other way of bringing it home to her but that. That might succeed where argument had failed. She couldn't have a mind so much astray as not to be sorry when she saw, or heard of, the wreck she would have made of him.

It was worth thinking of, and he sat and thought of it. He tried to conjure up the picture of himself as really besotted-he was not besotted as yet, even when the worst was said!-degraded, revolting. He rose to take a cigar, to help his imagination in the task to which he had set it, but he remembered that the cigar suggested a whisky-and-soda to go with it, and there was a bottle of Old Piper in the cupboard. He fell back into his seat again with the longing unsatisfied, but he continued his dream. It was so pleasant a dream-that is, there were so many advantages to the course he thought of taking, that he ended by springing to his feet and saying, almost aloud, "By God, I'll do it."

The resolution being formed, there was a large selection of ways and means of putting it into execution. He could do this or that. He could go here or there. It was a bewilderment of choice that saved him. He sat down again.

No; when it came to the point he wasn't equal to it. It was not the end he shrank from, but the means-the places to which he would have to go, the people he would have to consort with. He knew just enough of them to be sickened in advance. It was with a sense of fleeing to escape that he hurried to the telephone and called up Emery Bland, asking to be allowed to accept his invitation.

He arrived at Mountain Brook late on an afternoon in early June, just as the sun, hovering above the point of its setting, was throwing an almost horizontal light on the northern and western slopes of Monadnock. The mountain raised its majestic mass as the last and successful effort of a tumbling, climbing wilderness of hills. Scattered amid the upward-sweeping stretches of maple and oak, groves of spruce and pine had the effect of passing rain-clouds. In the clear air, against the clear sky, every tree-top on the indented ridges stood out like a little pinnacle, till with a long, downward curve, both gracious and grandiose, the mountainside fell to the edge of a gem-like, broken-shored lake. It was a world extraordinarily green and clean. Its cleanness was even more amazing than its greenness. The unsullied freshness of a new creation seemed to lie on it all day long. It was a world which suggested no past and boded no future. Its transparent air, in which there was not a shred of atmosphere, its high lights, and long shadows, and restful, clambering woods, and singing birds, and sweet, strong winds were like those of some perpetual, paradisical present, with no story to tell, and none that would ever be enacted. It was a world in which Nature seemed to hold herself aloof from man, refusing to be tamed by him, rejecting his caress, keeping herself serene, inviolate, making his presence incongruous with her sanctity.

It was this incongruity that struck Chip first of all. Not that there were any of the unapproachable grandeurs of the Alps or the Selkirks, nor anything that towered or terrified or overawed. All the hilly woodland was smiling and friendly-but remote. Man might buy a piece of ground and camp on it; but if he had sensibilities he would remain conscious of an essence that eluded him, the real thing-withdrawn. He could be on the spot, but he could never be of it-not any more than he could give his dwelling the air of springing from the soil.

Chip noticed that, too-the intrusive aspect of any kind of roof that man could make to cover him, unless it were a wigwam. Emery Bland had tried to temper this resentment of the landscape to what was not indigenous to itself by making the lines of his shelter as simple and as straight as possible. He was from the first apologetic to the Spirit of the Mountain, as who would say, "Hang it all, you've tempted me here, but I'll outrage you as little as I can." So he perched his long, white house, Italian in style if it had style at all, on the top of a knoll whence he could look far into green depths, with nothing in the way of excrescence but a tile-paved open-air dining-room at one end, and a shady spot of similar construction at the other, getting his effects from proportion. Something in the way of lawn and garden he was obliged to have, and Mrs. Bland had insisted on a pergola. He fought the pergola for a year or two, but Mrs. Bland had had her way. A country house without a pergola, she said, was something she had never heard of. A sine qua non was what she called it. So beyond the square of lawn with its border of flowers the pergola stretched its row of trim white wooden Doric pillars, while over the latticed roof and through it hung bine and vine, grape, wistaria, and kadsu. Below the pergola the land broke to a brook that gurgled through copses of alder, tangles of wild raspberry, and clumps of blueberry and goldenrod, carrying the waters of the lake to the Ashuelot, which bore them to the Connecticut, which swept them southward, till quietly, and almost as unobserved by the human eye as when they rose in the bosom of the hills, they fell into the sea.

As there was no other guest, Chip was allowed to do as he pleased. What he pleased was chiefly to sit in the pergola, where the mauve petals of the wistaria were dropping about him, and fill his gaze with the mystic peace of the mountain. On Sunday morning the three Blands went to church, leaving him in sole possession of this green, cool world, with its quality of interpenetrating purity. He took a volume of some ambassador's "Recollections" from his host's shelves of Victorian memoirs; but he never opened it. He also took a cigar, but he didn't smoke. He only looked-looked without effort, almost without consciousness-up into the high wonderlands of peace, whence whatever was brooding there seemed to steal into his soul and cleanse it. It was this sense of cleansing that he carried back as a sort of possession to New York-that and the fact imparted by Mrs. Bland during the afternoon, regarded as unimportant, and yet retained, that Lily Bland was not their niece.

He returned to Mountain Brook twice during that summer, and in June of the following year. It was during this last visit that the girl who had been to him hitherto no more than the living element of the background gave him the impression that she was seeking an opportunity to speak to him.

Throughout Saturday it had been an impression almost too faint to be recorded; but it was significant to him that on Sunday morning she didn't go to church. She shared the house with him, therefore, a fact of which he was scarcely aware till he saw her in possession of the pergola. With a book in her hand she had established herself in a chair not far from that which by preference he had made his own. The act roused his curiosity; but when he, too, had taken a book and strolled out to join her, she didn't keep him in suspense.

She closed her novel as he approached, looking up at him with simple directness. "I've something to tell you."

Behind the attention he gave to these words he registered the observation that when you looked at her-which he had rarely done-you saw she was pretty. Her white skin had a luminosity like that of satin, and the mouth was sweet with a timid, apologetic tenderness. The glances one got from her were almost too fleeting to show the color of the eyes, but he knew they must be blue. Her hair had been striking to him from the first, chiefly because it was of that hue for which there is no English word, but which the French call cendré-ashen-something between flaxen and brown, but with no relation to either-that might have been bleached by a "treatment" only for its unmistakable gleam of life. It waved naturally over the brows from a central parting, and massed itself into a great coil behind. She was dressed simply in white linen, with a belt of "watered" blue silk, and neat, pointed cuffs of the same material.

Instinctively he knew that what she had to tell him must be important, for otherwise she would not have come out of the shy depths into which, like the Spirit of the Mountain, her life seemed to be withdrawn. What it could be he was unable even to guess at. He smiled, however, and, taking a casual tone so as not to strike too strong a note at first, he said, as he sat down, "Have you?"

She continued to speak with the same simple directness. "It's about some one you used to know."

He grew more grave. "Indeed? I should hardly have supposed that you could know any one-whom I used to know?"

"I do. I know-You won't mind my speaking right out, will you?"

"Of course not. Say anything you like."

"Well, I know Miss Maggie Clare."

"Great God!" He sank deeper into his wicker arm-chair, throwing one leg over the other. He seemed to shrink away and to look up at her from under his brows.

The shy serenity of her bearing was undisturbed. "I've got a message to you from her."

He was unable to keep the note of resentment out of his voice. "What?"

"She's very ill. I think she's going to die. She thinks so herself. She wants to know if-if you'd go and see her."

He slipped down deeper into his chair, his chin sunk into his fist. It was quite like the act of cowering. It was long before he spoke. When he did so the tone of resentment was more bitter. "Does she realize what she's done to me?"

"I think she does. In fact, it's the only thing she does realize very clearly now. She talks of it continually, in her dreamy way-but a way that's quite heartbreaking. I really think that if you were to see her-"

He looked up under his lids and brows as she hesitated. "Well?" The tone was as savage as courtesy would let him make it.

"That you'd forgive her."

His body bounded to an upright attitude, his hands thrust deep into pockets. "No." If the word had been louder it would have been a shout. "I shall never forgive her."

There was no change in her sweet reasonableness. "I don't see what you gain by that."

"I gain this much-that I don't do it."

"I still can't see that it makes your situation any better, while it makes hers a good deal worse."

"If hers is worse, mine is better. The woman deliberately wrecked my life after I'd been kind to her-for years."

"The poor thing didn't do it deliberately, Mr. Walker. She did it because she couldn't help it-because she loved you so."

He shook himself impatiently. "Ah, what kind of love is that?"

The audacity of her response-the curious audacity of shyness-seemed to him extraordinary only when, later, he thought it over. "I dare say it isn't a very high kind of love-but there was no question of its being that-from the first. Was there?"

"All the more reason then why she should have kept where she belonged."

"Yes, of course. And yet it's difficult for love to keep itself where it belongs when it's very-very consuming."

He leaned back in his chair, eying her. If he spoke roughly it was only because she had roused all his emotions on his own behalf, as well as a faint subconscious interest in herself. "Look here, Miss Bland. How much do you know about this?"

"Oh, I know all about it," she assured him, hurrying to explain, in answer to something she saw in his face: "Uncle Emery didn't tell me. I read it first in the papers-you remember there was a lot of talk about it in the papers-and then every one was talking of it. I couldn't help knowing. Uncle Emery," she added, "only told me one tiny little thing, which couldn't do any one any harm."

"And that was-?"

"Miss Clare's address. I asked him for it when I found that I-that I wanted to go and see her."

"And why on earth should you want to go and see her

-a young girl like you?"

Her blush was like a color from outside reflected in the soft luster of her skin as a tint of sunset may be caught by the petals of certain white flowers.

"I had a reason. It wasn't doing any one any harm," she repeated, "not even you." In further self-defense she added: "Uncle Emery didn't disapprove, and I've never told Aunt Zena. But I've always been glad I went-very."

"Why?"

"Because she's a sort of charge of Uncle Emery's, for one thing-since you've put her in his care. I help him a little bit. And then the sister she lives with-you knew we'd got her to live with her sister, didn't you?-isn't very kind to her. It's just the money. And then," she continued, the soft color deepening, "I had another reason-more personal-that I'd rather not say anything about."

"I can't imagine anything in the whole bad business that could be personal to you."

"No, of course you can't. It's only personal by association-by imagination, probably." She made nothing clearer by adding: "You know I'm not really Uncle Emery's niece, or Aunt Zena's."

He nodded.

"I don't know who my mother was. But whoever she was-I'm sorry for her."

He began to get her idea. "You're probably quite wrong," he said, kindly; "and until you know you're right I shouldn't let fancies of that sort run away with me."

"Oh, I don't. And yet you can see that when I meet any one like Maggie Clare-well, I don't feel superior to her. It's like being a gipsy-George Eliot's Fedalma, for instance-adopted by a kind family, but knowing she's a gipsy just the same."

He brought his knowledge of the world to bear on her. "I assure you you're not in the least like that kind of gipsy."

"Neither was Fedalma like her kind; and yet when she could do something for them she went to them and did it."

"How old are you?" he said, abruptly, asking the same question which but a few weeks before Noel Ordway had put to Edith, and in much the same way.

"We call it twenty-three-because we keep my birthday on the date on which Uncle Emery and Aunt Zena took me; but I must be nearer twenty-five."

He looked at her more attentively than he had ever done. She was not really shy; she wasn't even reserved; but she was repressed-repressed as any one might be who lived under the weight of Mrs. Bland's protesting, grudging kindliness. It came back to him now, the tone in which she had said, a year earlier, that she couldn't be called mother by a child who didn't belong to her. How that must have been "rubbed in" to the poor girl before him! Other things, too, came back to him, especially on Bland's part certain stolen moments of tenderness toward the girl, that had been interrupted in Chip's presence by a peremptory voice, saying, "Now, Emery, don't spoil the child," or "Lily, dear, can't you find anything better to do than tease your uncle?" In it all Chip had found two subjects of wonderment: first, the strange egoism of this middle-aged woman who could see nothing in the expansion of her husband's affections but what was stolen from herself; and then, the extraordinary freak of marital loyalty that could keep a man like Emery Bland, with his refinement and his knowledge of the world, true to a woman whom he had once loved, no doubt, in a youthful way, but who was now his inferior by every token of character. A good enough woman she was of her kind; but it was no more her husband's kind than it was that of the gods immortal. What was the secret that kept these unequal yoke-fellows together, sympathetic, and tolerably happy, when he and Edith, who were made for each other, had by some force of mutual expulsion been thrust apart? Bland himself was of the type which, in the language that was almost more familiar to him than English, Chip would have called charmeur; and yet he deferred to this second-rate woman, and considered her, and even loved her in a placid, steady-going way, submitting at times to her dictation. Chip couldn't understand it. If he himself had been married to Mrs. Bland-But that was unthinkable. What wasn't unthinkable, and yet became the more bewildering the more he tried to work the problem out, was that he himself had failed to keep for his own the woman who suited him in every respect, whose love he possessed and who possessed his, who was happy with him and he with her, while Emery Bland had contrived to make the most of the estimable but rather coarse-grained lady who sat at the head of his table, and have a truly enviable life with her. No one could be more keenly aware of the lady's shortcomings, which lay within the realm of taste and intelligence, than Bland himself. What was his secret? Was it a principle, or was it nothing but a lucky accident? Was it something in a cast of character or a tenet of a creed, or was it what any one could emulate?

These thoughts and questions passed rapidly through Chip's mind, not for the first time, during the two or three minutes in which there was no sound about them but the murmur of the brook, the humming of insects, and the whisper of the summer wind through millions of trees.

He reverted to Maggie Clare, the timbre of his voice again growing harder. "What's the matter with her?"

She was singularly gentle. "I suppose it could be described most accurately as a broken heart."

He flushed hotly. "Oh, don't say that," he cried, as if he had been stung.

"I shouldn't say it if it didn't answer your question."

"I didn't break her heart," he declared, in sharp aggressiveness of self-defense.

"Oh no. Even she doesn't think so. The poor thing hasn't much mind left, as you know; but what she has is concentrated on that point-that you were not to blame in anything. Please don't think that I'm in any way hinting at such an accusation."

He looked at her stupidly. "Then if her heart's broken, what's broken it?"

"The circumstances, I suppose. You don't seem to understand that the poor soul must long ago have reached a point where her love for you was absolutely the only thing she had."

Again he seemed to shake himself, as though to rid his body of something that had fastened on it. "I never asked her to love me like that. I never wanted it."

She smiled, faintly and sweetly. "Oh, well, that wouldn't make any difference. Love gives itself. It doesn't wait for permission. I should think you'd have known that."

He leaned forward, an arm resting on one knee. While he reflected he broke into the tuneless, almost inaudible, whistling Edith used to know so well. "I said I'd never see her again," he muttered, as the result of his meditation.

"May I ask if that was a promise to any one, or if it was something you just said to yourself and about which you'd have a right to change your mind?"

He continued to mutter. "I said it to-to my wife."

"As a promise? Please forgive me for asking. I shouldn't, only that the request of a dying woman-"

"I said it," he admitted, unwillingly; "but it wasn't exactly a promise. My wife said-" He stopped and bit his lip. "She said she didn't care."

"You can't go by that. Of course she did care."

"Then if she cared, I'd let twenty women die, whoever they were-"

She rose with dignity. "That must be for you to decide, Mr. Walker. I've given you the message I was charged with. It isn't a matter in which I could venture to urge you."

He, too, rose. "You do urge me," he said in a tone of complaint, "by thinking that I ought to go."

She looked him timidly, but steadily, in the eyes. "I'm not so sure that I do. The whole thing is too sacred to your own inner life for me to have an opinion. You must do what you think right, and Maggie Clare-"

"The woman ruined me," he cried, desperately.

"And must she bear all the responsibility of that?"

The words were accompanied by one of her swift, half-frightened smiles; but she didn't wait for an answer. Before Chip could begin to stammer out an explanation that would give his point of view she was passing rapidly up the pathway, bordered with irises and peonies and bleeding-hearts, toward the house.

But when he returned to town he went to see Maggie Clare. He went, and went again. The experience became, in its way, the most poignant in his life. He had not much knowledge of death and even less of sickness. The wasted face and the sunken, burning eyes wrought in him a kind of terror. It was with an effort that he could take the long thin hand, that already had the chill of the grave in its limp fingers, into his own. As for kissing those bloodless lips, so eager, so strained, which he could see was what she wanted him to do, he was unable to bring himself to it. Luckily he was not obliged to talk, since her mind couldn't follow coherent sentences. It was enough for her to have him sit by the bed while she worked her hands gropingly toward him, saying, "Oh, Chip! oh, Chip!" and murmuring broken things in Swedish. It was incredible to him that this poor worn thing, this living shadow, that had exhausted everything but its passion for himself, had once been a woman whom he loved.

He was glad when she died and could be buried, so that he might consider that episode as ended-if there was ever an end to anything in this cursed life! And yet the occurrence brought him another kind of shock. In the death of one who for years had been so closely associated with his thoughts it was as if his own death had begun. He grew uneasy, morbid. Such occupations as he found to fill the hours when he was not at work grew insufficient. He came to hate the clubs, the restaurants, the theaters, and such social gatherings as he was now invited to. There was an evening when from sheer boredom he went home to his rooms as early as eight o'clock-and the bottle of Old Piper came out of its hiding-place.

The real struggle followed on that. He had not so far forgotten Emery Eland's warning as to cease to put up a fight; but he saw now that the fight would be a hard one. There was again a period in which he weighed the advantages of "going to the bad" with all sails set against a life of useless respectability. Going to the bad had the more to recommend it since he knew that Edith was in New York. His downfall might bring her back to him, in some such way, from some such motive of saving or pity, as that by which he himself had been brought to Maggie Clare.

The argument being in favor of Old Piper, Old Piper supported it. Chip never forgot an evening when, as he staggered down the steps of the club toward the taxi that had been called for him, he met Emery Bland, who was coming up. He would have dodged the lawyer without recognition had it not been for the latter's kindly touch on his arm, while a voice of distress said: "Ah, poor old chap, what's this?"

He had just wit enough left to stammer: "Edith's in New York. Go and tell her how you saw me."

With that he staggered on, knowing that he almost fell into the waiting vehicle.

Worse days ensued-for nearly a week. Worse still might have followed had they not been cut short suddenly. They were cut short by a note which bore the signature, Lily Bland. It was a simple note, containing nothing but the request that he should come and see her on one of a choice of evenings which she named. He took the first one, which was that of the day of the note's arrival.

He had hardly seen her since their talk at Mountain Brook in the previous June. He had not gone again that summer to New Hampshire, and on the two or three occasions on which he had visited Bland's house in town she seemed to have retreated once more to her old place as the spirit of the furniture. He had made efforts to get nearer her, but she seemed to elude his approaches.

He knew she would not have summoned him without having something grave to say, and saw that his surmises were correct by her method of receiving him. She was not in the drawing-room, but in Emery Bland's library, with a background of bindings of red and blue and green and gold, a few Brangwyn and Meryon etchings, and one brilliant, sinister spot of color by Félicien Rops. There was a fire in the monumental fireplace, and as he entered, a log was just breaking in the middle and spluttering, across the tall, richly wrought French dog-irons.

It was the room of the successful New-Yorker who delights in giving himself all the indulgences of taste of which his youth has been deprived. The girl, dressed simply in some light stuff, and scarcely décolletée, seemed somewhat lost in the spaciousness of her surroundings. She made no pretense at preliminary social small talk, going straight to her point. She did this by a repetition of the words with which she had opened the similar conversation at Mountain Brook. "I've something to tell you." Having said this while they were shaking hands, she went on as soon as they were seated in the firelight:

"At least Uncle Emery had something to tell you, and I asked him to let me do it."

"Why?" He put the question rather blankly.

"Because I thought I could do it better." But she caught herself up at once. "No; not better. Of course, I can't do that. Only-only I wanted him to let me do it."

Chip's heart bounded. Edith was in New York. She had heard of his condition. She was coming back to him. He was to have his reward for taking pity on Maggie Clare. His tongue and lips were parched as he forced out the words:

"Then it's good news-or you wouldn't want to break it?"

She was not visibly perturbed. Rather, she was pensive, sitting with an elbow resting on the arm of her chair, the hand raised so as to lay a forefinger on her cheek. "Don't you think that we often make news good or bad by our way of taking it?"

"That's asking me a question, when you've got information to give me. What have you to tell me, Miss Bland?"

"I've something to tell you that will give you a great shock; so that I don't want to say it till I know you're prepared."

"Oh, prepared! Is one ever prepared? For God's sake, Miss Bland, what is it? Is one of the children hurt? Is one of them dead?"

"That would be a great grief. I said that this would be a great shock. There's a difference-and one can be prepared."

"Well, I am. Please don't keep me in suspense. Do tell me."

She sat now with hands folded in her lap, looking at him quietly. "No, you're not prepared."

"Tell me what to do and I'll do it," he said, nervously, "only don't torture me."

"One is prepared," she said, tranquilly, "by remembering beforehand one's own strength-by knowing that there's nothing one can't bear, and bear nobly."

"All right; all right; I'll do that. Now please go on."

"But will you?"

"Will I what?"

"Will you try to say to yourself: I'm a man, and I'm equal to this. It can't knock me down; it can't even stagger me. I'll take it in the highest way. I sha'n't let it degrade me or send me for help to degrading things-"

He flung his hands outward. "Yes, yes. I know what you're driving at. I promise. Only, for God's sake, tell me. Is it about-?"

"It's about Mrs. Walker."

"Yes, so I supposed. But what is it? Is she ill? Oh, she isn't dead?"

The cry made her eyes smart, but she kept control of her voice.

"No, she's not dead. She's not even ill. She's perfectly well, so I understand. But she's been-" The horror in his face, the way in which he leaned forward as though he would spring at her, warned her that he knew what was coming. She gave him time to get himself in hand by rising and taking the two or three paces to the fireplace, where she stood with a hand on the mantel-board, which was above her head, while she gazed into the embers. "She's been-married."

She didn't turn round. She knew by all the subtle unnamed senses that he was huddled in his big arm-chair in a state of collapse. For the minute there was nothing to say or do. Since the iron had to enter into his soul, it was better that it should be like this. It was better that it should be like this-with her there to keep him such company as one human being can keep for another at such an hour-better than if he were to learn it in the solitude of his own rooms, or in the unsustaining frigidity of a lawyer's office. She knew she didn't count for much, except for the fact-a detail only-that she was with him in every nerve that helped her to sensation and every faculty she possessed.

So, after the minutes had passed-ten, perhaps, or fifteen-instinct told her when to speak again. She did it without changing the position in which she stood, or turning for a glance toward him.

"You won't forget your promise?"

He spoke with the vacant, suffering tone of a sick child, or of a person so sunk into wretchedness as to find it hard to come up out of it.

"What?"

She repeated the words. "You won't forget your promise?"

His tone was still vacant-vacant and afflicted.

"What promise?"

"That you'd remember you're strong enough to bear it nobly."

"But I'm not."

She turned partly. He was bent over in a crushed, stupid attitude, his hands hanging limply between his knees. "Oh, Mr. Walker!"

He raised his forlorn eyes. "Why did you want to tell me?"

"Because I wanted to say that. I was afraid, if any one else did it, they'd leave it out."

He gazed at her long with a dull, unintelligent, unseeing expression. When he spoke he was like a man who tries to get his wits together after delirium or unconsciousness. "Do you think I am-strong enough?"

"I know you are."

He lumbered to his feet, staggering heavily to the chimney-piece, where he, too, laid his hands upon the mantel-board, which was just on a level with his height, bowing his forehead upon them. As he did so she moved away. Seeing his broad shoulders heave, and fearing she heard something smothered-was it a groan or a sob?-she slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her.

But when, some twenty minutes later, he himself came forth, his head bent, perhaps to hide his red eyes and his convulsed visage, he found her at the door of the dining-room, with a cup of tea in her hand. "Drink this," she said, with gentle command.

He declined it with a shake of his head and an impatient wave of the hand.

"Yes, do," she insisted. "It's nice and hot. I'll have one, too."

Obediently he went into the dining-room. He drank the tea standing and in silence, in two or three gulps, while she, standing likewise, made a feint of pouring a cup for herself. He left without a good-night, beyond a hard, speechless wringing of her hand on his way to the door.

Two things seemed strange to Chip after that evening-the one, that the fight with Old Piper was ended; and the other, that in the matter of Edith's marriage, once the immediate shock had spent its strength, he bowed to the accomplished fact with a docility he himself could not understand. As for the fight with Old Piper, there was no longer a reason for waging it. In the new situation Old Piper had lost its appeal, from sheer inadequacy to meet the new need. The fact of the marriage he contrived to keep at a distance. He could do this the more easily because it was so monstrous. It was so monstrous that the mind refused to take it in, and he made no attempt to force himself. He asked neither whom she had married nor why she had married, nor anything else about her. It was a measure of safety. As long as he didn't know he was able to create a pretended fool's paradise of ignorance which, in his state of mind, was none the less a fool's paradise for being a pretense. Even a fool's paradise was a protection. If it hadn't been for the children, he might not have heard so much as the man's name.

The children called him "papa Lacon." Chip was obliged to swallow that. They spoke of him simply and spontaneously, taking "papa Lacon" as a matter of course. They varied the appellation now and then by calling him "our other papa."

It had been intimated to him, not long after the second marriage, that he might see the children with reasonable frequency, through the good offices of Mr. and Mrs. Bland. He soon saw that the arrangements were really in charge of Lily Bland, who brought the children to her house, and took them home again. Chip saw them in the library.

The first meeting was embarrassing. Tom was nearly eight, and Chippie on the way to six. They entered the library together, dressed alike in blouses and knickerbockers, their caps in their hands. They approached slowly to where he had taken up a position he tried to make nonchalant, standing on the hearth-rug with his hands behind him. He felt curiously culpable before them, like a convict being visited by his friends in jail. He felt childish, too, as though they were older than, and superior to, himself. The childishness was shown in his standing on his guard, determined not to be the first to make the advances. He wouldn't be even the first to speak.

They came forward slowly, with an air judicial and detached. Tom's eyes observed him more closely than his brother's, who looked about the room. Tom, as the elder, seemed to feel the responsibility of the meeting to be on his shoulders. He came to a halt, on reaching the end of the library table, Chippie by his side.

"Hello, papa."

"Hello, Tom."

Encouraged by this exchange of greetings, Chippie also spoke up. "Hello, papa."

"Hello, Chippie."

There followed a few seconds during which the interview threatened to hang fire there, when the protest in Chip's hot heart-which was essentially paternal-broke out almost angrily:

"Aren't you going to kiss me?"

It was Tom who pointed out the unreasonableness of emotion in making this demand. His brows went up in an expression of surprise, which hinted at protest on his own part. "Well, you're not sitting down."

Of course! It was obviously impossible for two little mites to kiss a man of that height at that distance. Chip dropped into an arm-chair, waiting jealously for the two dutiful little pecks that might pass as spontaneous, and then throwing his big arms about his young ones in a desperate embrace. After that the ice was broken, and, with the aid of the games and the picture-books provided by Lily Bland, the meeting could go forward to a glorious termination in ice-cream. Now and then there were difficult questions or observations, but they were never pressed unduly for reply.

"Papa, why don't you live with us any more?"

"Papa, shall we have another papa after this one?"

"Papa, our other papa has a funny nose."

"Papa, are you our real papa, or is papa Lacon?"

In general it was Chippie who put these questions or made the remarks. Tom seemed to understand already that the situation was delicate, and had moments of puzzled gravity.

But, taking one thing with another, the occasion passed off well, as did similar meetings through the rest of that winter and whenever they were possible-which was not often-in the summer that followed. It was a joy to Chip when they began again in the autumn, with a promise of regularity. But that joy, too, was short-lived.

It was his second time of seeing them after the general return to town. Tom was hanging on his shoulder, while Chippie was seated on his knee. Chippie was again the spokesman.

"We've got a baby sister at our house."

It seemed to Chip as if all the blood in his body rushed back to his heart and stayed there. He felt dizzy, sick. The walls of his fool's paradise were dissolved as mist, revealing a picture he had seen twice already, each time with an upleaping of the primal and the fatherly in him; but now ... Edith had been lying in bed, wan, bright-eyed, happy, with a little fuzzy head just peeping at her breast!

He put the boy from off his knee. Tom seemed to divine something and stole away. For a second or two both lads watched him-Chippie looking up straight into his face, Tom gazing from the distant line of the bookcase, with his habitual expression of troubled perplexity. Chip managed to speak at last, getting out the words in a fairly natural tone.

"Look here, boys; I can't stay to-day. I've got a-I've got a pain. Just play by yourselves till Miss Bland comes for you. Be good boys, now, and don't touch any of Mr. Bland's things."

He was hurrying to the door when Chippie interrupted him. "Where have you got a pain, papa?"

He tapped himself on the heart. "Here, Chippie, here; and I hope you may never have anything so awful."

As he went down the steps he found himself saying: "Will this crucifixion never end? Have I deserved it? Was the crime so terrible that I must be tortured by degrees like this?"

He was unable to answer his questions, or even to think. His mind seemed to go blank till as he tramped down the street he came again to the consciousness that he was speaking inwardly.

"Damn her! Damn her! She's nothing to me any more."

He was shocked, but he repeated the imprecation. He repeated it because it shocked him. It struck at what he held to be most sacred. It profaned his holy of holies, and left it bare to sacrilege. It gave him a fierce, perverted joy to feel that she whom he would have loved to shield with everything that was most tender was now exposed to his cursing. It was rifling his own sanctuary and trampling its treasures in the streets.

He had never had a sanctuary but in her. Other people's temples were to him not so much objects of contempt as of dim, vague astonishment. Such words as righteousness and sacrament and Saviour had no place in his speech. Edith had been the holiest thing he knew. She was both shrine and goddess. Now that the shrine had been proven empty, and the goddess irrevocably flown, he got an impious satisfaction from battering down the altars and blaspheming the deity to whom they had been raised.

"Damn her! Damn her!"

He repeated the curse at intervals till he reached his rooms, the hateful rooms that he rarely visited at this hour of the day. He was not, however, thinking of their hatefulness now, as he had come with an intention.

There was a fire laid in the fireplace, and he lighted it. When it was crackling sufficiently he drew Edith's photograph from its frame and, after gazing at it long and bitterly, tossed it into the blaze. He watched it blister and writhe as though it had been a living thing. The flame seized on it slowly and unwillingly, biting at the edges in a curling wreath of blue, and eating its way inward only by degrees. But it ate its way. It ate its way till the whole lovely person disappeared-first the hands, and then the bosom, and then the throat and the features. The sweet eyes still gazed up at him when everything else was gone.

He had hoped to get relief by this bit of ritual, but none came. When that which had been the semblance of his wife was no more than a little swollen rectangle of black ash, and the fire itself was dying down, he threw himself into a chair.

The reaction was not long in setting in. It set in with a voice that might have come from without, but which he nevertheless recognized as his own:

"You fool! Oh, you fool! What difference does this make to your love for her? You know you love her, and that you will never cease loving her, and that what you envy her is-the child."

What you envy her is-the child! He pondered on this. It was like an accusation. The admission of it-when admission came-was the point of departure in his heart of a new conscious yearning.

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares