A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter XXIII
My sleep that night was fitful and troubled, and I arose the next morning with a sense of oppression quite unusual with me. Hitherto, when I had retired at night a pessimist, the morning sun invariably brought with it relief, which I believe it is its pleasant mission to do, and I awoke an optimist. But as I dressed on this particular day, I felt uneasy, and anxious without any apparent cause, I told myself.
What had happened to justify this state of mind, I asked? Certainly my wedded life had never looked so promising as it did now. I had won my husband's love, most surely. Could a caprice or two on my part extinguish the flame which I had fanned so long and so diligently? Pshaw! The idea was ridiculous. I was out of sorts. I would not give way to my gloomy thoughts. I would exercise my will, and be happy in spite of myself.
That night Arthur and I were to accompany a charming English couple, whose acquaintance we had made at the hotel, to the opera. It was an appointment dating from a week ago, and I remembered it with regret. I would have preferred passing the evening alone with my husband. However, I reflected that I could not offend these people, who were of that genial, whole-souled class, whose acquaintance is a privilege, and whose friendship is nothing less than a boon. After all, a future of unoccupied evenings was before me. Arthur and I undoubtedly had time even to grow tired of one another, I thought, and I smiled at the idea.
At that moment an ebony head-waiter knocked at the door and brought in our breakfast, and two minutes later my husband emerged from his chamber, looking bright and pleasant. At all events, I said to myself, if there were any presentiments in the atmosphere, they had all fallen to my share.
“What a lovely day,” remarked Arthur, with daring originality as we took our seats at the cosy little round table, and I began to pour out the coffee.
“Yes,” I assented, handing him his cup.
“After breakfast we are to go for a nice long walk on Broadway to look at the people, and after dinner we are engaged to Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson for the opera.”
“You have the programme carefully mapped out,” he said, laughing. “Have you been thinking about it long?”
“All night,” I said, thoughtlessly.
He looked at me for a moment. My words had no significence, however, other than their literal meaning.
“What do they sing at the opera to-night?” he asked, carelessly.
“I hate Wagner.”
“Then you have no right to say so,” I assented vigorously, as I dropped an extra piece of sugar into my cup. “If you dare to tell Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson such a thing, the same hotel will never hold us.”
He laughed. He was evidently happy this morning. We chatted pleasantly until breakfast was a thing of the past. Then, after having dismissed the morning papers, as was our custom, we started out from the hotel for our walk.
I felt better. My husband’s good-humor was contagious. It affected me, and I can assure you I was not unwilling to be affected. It was a lovely sunshiny spring day, and Broadway was at its best. It was thronged. Dainty women tripped in and out of the big, well-stocked shops; the beautifully dressed children attracted my attention, and filled me with admiration of juvenile Americans; dapper little men walked quickly by, always, in a hurry on general principles. There was a blue sky overhead. Winter had been successfully vanquished and humanity seemed anxious to celebrate its defeat. I hummed the one song my mother used to make me sing ‘before company,’ when I was at home, and its refrain:
"The merry, merry sun, the mer-ry sun
The merry, merry sun for me-e-e-e.”
Then there was a high note at which I had always quaked, and occasionally lowered, much to the anguish of my maternal parent, who liked a good, tuneful shriek, laboring under the impression that it indicated a cultivated voice.
Arthur and I did not talk much, as we were both too intent looking about us to enjoy conversation. The most delightful thing about this walk was that we were not perpetually stopped by a friendly “How d’ye do?” “Fine day,” or similar every-day greetings. In London we should have been thus annoyed every five minutes if we had selected Regent Street or Oxford Street, the Broadways of the English metropolis. We were absolutely unnoticed, and it was unspeakably pleasant. I began to think that after all there were worse places than New York in which to make a home.
We were now approaching Madison Square, and I looked around with interest at the lively scene; at the big buildings; the people hurrying about in every direction; the tinkling tram-cars on all sides; the large, lumbering “four-wheelers” jolting over the uneven pavements; the nurses and perambulators just visible on the square; Fifth Avenue stretching far away; the curious, uncomfortable looking omnibusses; and the quaint, Swiss-chalet-like structure marking a station on the elevated railway, to be seen traversing the wide thoroughfare on the left. I was fascinated. We crossed the street and found ourselves in front of an enormous, ponderous, gray hotel. A large portico stretched from the entrance to this building, and afforded a standing place for a score or so of men, apparently bent upon ogling passers-by, who unfortunately could not avoid passing them.
I hate a congregation of men, anywhere, so I walked quickly past this group and stopped before I reached the corner to allow Arthur to come up with me. I turned. He was not by my side. He was standing in front of the portico gazing into the lobby. As I waited, he approached me, and I was startled as I looked at his face.
It was livid, and he was trembling violently.
“I am ill, Elsie,” he said, quickly. “I must be ill. Perhaps it is my heart. I—I think so. Let us go home.”
He looked ill indeed. I told myself that it must be heart trouble, as a few moments before he had been perfectly well, and there was nothing else I could think of to affect him in that manner. We returned to the hotel, and I insisted upon sending for a doctor. Arthur rebelled, but I would not give way. The Doctor declared that there was nothing at all the matter with Arthur’s heart. It was sound. He thought his system was out of order generally, and wrote out a prescription. In fact he did what most doctors do, in the usual pompous, would-be impressive way.
“I am going to send down word to Mrs. Donaldson,” I said, half an hour later, “that we cannot accompany her to the Opera to-night. I can’t say I'm particularly sorry,” I added, carelessly.
Arthur started up quickly from the sofa upon which he had been reclining. “You must go,” he declared, “there is no reason why you should not do so. Do not offend these people, Elsie. We have found them very pleasant acquaintances, and I believe they are only going to accommodate us.”
I looked at him in amazement. His eagerness was almost painful to see; there was a bright red spot upon each cheek, and his eyes shone fiercely. His gentle, sympathetic manner of the past few days seemed to have disappeared.
“If you insist upon my going,” I said, to humor him, “I will go; but I would sooner stay at home with you.”
“Nonsense.” He spoke so roughly that the tears started to my eyes. He saw this and looked remorseful.
“I will follow you, Elsie, if I can,” he said.
“Perhaps I m-may join you during the evening, though—”
He got no farther. He was ill, I thought, and possibly an evening alone would do him good. I had given him no opportunities to miss me since we had been in America. I had found so much pleasure in his society, that I was determined to enjoy it. Did I not know, clearly enough, that he loved me, at last? Had I not been able to recognize that fact with sufficient distinctness? Of course I had. He wanted me to go to the opera, and I would go and amuse myself. I should be able to think of him waiting for me at home, and growing perhaps miserably lonely in my absence. He would possibly tell me when I returned that he could not spare me again, and then how thoroughly happy I should feel! Perhaps, after all, Arthur’s indisposition was for the best. I felt that it might be, and my spirits, which had been rapidly sinking since my return from our walk, rose with considerable energy.
We dined in the big dining-room, Arthur declaring that he was not ill enough to be treated as an invalid, and after that meal I robed myself in gorgeous apparel. Arthur walked up and down the parlor, and through my closed door I could hear his quick uneven footsteps. I was soon ready, and my husband wrapped me up in my sortie de bal.
“Good-night, dear,” I said briskly.
“Are you not going to kiss me?” I asked, reproachfully, as he took my hand, and let it drop rather coldly, evidently inclined to make this do duty as a farewell salutation.
He bent over me in silence, and pressed his lips to my upturned face. The kiss chilled me. It reminded me of the first he had ever given me, and I shuddered slightly. For one moment a great feeling of disappointment came over me; the next brought with it the remembrance of last night, and my anxiety was swept away as by a consuming flame.
I ran lightly down stairs and joined the genial Donaldsons. They were waiting for me in the parlors. When I saw Mrs. Donaldson, I really felt pleased that my husband was absent. She was décolletée in a way that made my cheeks burn. The strip of satin that, for politeness’ sake she called a bodice, was so bewilderingly narrow, that one had to look for it carefully, in order to find it. She was a nice little woman, this Mrs Donaldson. I liked what I knew of her, but I had no desire to know quite as much as her attire revealed.
“How charming you look,” she said as I entered the room, and turned my eyes away from her chubby beauty, “and what a bright color you have in your cheeks. One might almost suspect rouge,” she added, laughing.
The bright color was all on her account. I have no doubt it looked very pleasing, but I knew it would not remain. I was one of those unfortunate girls who rarely look rosy unless they are blushing or suffering from indigestion.
Mr. Donaldson was delighted with his wife. To him she was a perpetual source of pleasing astonishment. He saw nothing improper in her costume—or rather want of costume—and I am quite convinced that if she had set forth for the Opera, attired in a sweet smile and a tunic, he would have been satisfied. I reflected that there would probably be other women as outrageously clad as my friend, and reconciled myself in this manner to being seen with her.
I was right. In the vast Opera House the display of feminine undress was so startling, that it look my breath away. It was ten times worse than anything I had ever seen in London. I had been told that New York was, in many respects, an exaggeration of London, and I felt I could believe it.
“Lohengrin,” as I had already said, was the opera; not that it mattered much. The occupants of the boxes paid very little attention to what was going on upon the stage. They talked and laughed and recognized one another; opera-glassed the other side of the house, and commented upon each new arrival within range of their vision. It was a lively scene, at any rate.
Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson pretended to be very fond of Wagner, and I believe they imagined that they were. Being strangers in the city they had few friends to recognize, and were tolerably interested in the opera. Mrs. Donaldson’s costume proved to be positively prudish. There were others that were so much more astonishing, that I felt quite sorry for her. She had started out prepared to astonish the natives, and lo! it was the natives who were astonishing her.
I treasured up a few descriptions with which to regale Arthur when I went home. I imagined I heard his hearty laugh, and that phrase of his, “Your speeches always amuse me so, Elsie.”
Dear old man! How pleasant the future looked, stretched out before us! What happiness there seemed to be held in store for us by coming years.
I looked at Mrs. Donaldson. She was yawning desperately, and seemed vexed to be caught in the act.
“It is not a good performance, by any means,” she said to justify herself. I agreed with her. I was anxious to go home. Arthur had not joined us, and I had heard all the Wagner I wanted for this evening. I tried to delicately insinuate to Mrs. Donaldson that it would be advisable to leave early and avoid the crush. She would not hear of this, however, and favored me with such a Medusa-like stare, that I was silenced most effectually.
The opera was over at last, and slowly and solemnly we wound our way down the broad, red carpeted staircase. A carriage was awaiting us and we were soon rolling hotelward. On the whole I was rather glad I had accompanied the Donaldsons. The scene at the Opera House had amused me somewhat, and I had plenty to say to Arthur, which was in itself a boon. As my husband was not sentimental, and I was determined to be as prosaic as possible, a few novelties to be added to our conversational stock would not be amiss. I wondered if the evening had seemed very long to him. I felt he would not like to admit that it had, but I was resolved that my object should be to force him to make that confession. I pictured him seated in the arm-chair reading and waiting for me—especially waiting.
I said good-night to the Donaldsons as soon as we arrived at the hotel, and resisted their invitation to supper. Supper indeed! Going quietly upstairs I coyly knocked at the parlor door, and then drawing back into the shadow, waited for it to be opened. There was no answer. In my coyness, I supposed I had not made myself heard, so with decidedly more energy, I knocked again.
It was long past midnight. Arthur must have fallen asleep, I reflected. He was tired, and such a vigil was by no means encouraging. So I turned the knob of the door and walked in. The gas was burning brightly; there was an untidy gathering of newspapers upon the sofa, and the room had all the appearance of an extremely occupied apartment. Arthur was not there, however. With a little sob of utter disappointment, I told myself that he had not waited up for me. Oh! how unkind of him, when he knew how much I should have appreciated that little act of attention! In his place, I would have remained awake all night. Pshaw! What peculiar creatures men were, I thought. Their ideas were so absolutely opposed to ours that it was wonderful such a thing as a matrimonial partnership could ever exist for any length of time. Then I stopped in my mental deliberations to remember that I had left Arthur avowedly indisposed. How could I tell that he had not been taken worse during the evening? Surely it was my duty to ascertain the facts of the case. I felt a qualm of remorse as I saw how ready I was to place my husband in the wrong.
I went to the door of his bed-room and knocked. There was no answer.
Becoming seriously alarmed, I knocked again; this time loudly, with the same result. Then, resolved to stand upon no ceremony, I opened the door and walked into his room. It was in complete darkness. A cold apprehension of trouble seized me, and I shivered violently. I went to the table where I knew he kept his matches, and with trembling fingers drew one from the box. I dreaded to light it. I struck the match, however, and closed my eyes for a second. When I had summoned up courage to look around me, I saw that the room was empty.
The bed had not been occupied, and my husband’s coats had disappeared from their hooks in the closet, as I could see through its open door. My knees shook, and I almost fell, as I saw that his trunk and valise had also gone.
For a moment I was too dazed to realize what all this meant. I sat down upon the bed, and held my hands to my forehead, which was throbbing so vigorously that it almost deadened the recognition of any other fact. Arthur had gone and taken his trunk with him. He had left me without a word of explanation. I sprang up, rushed from the room, and startled down stairs to see the hotel clerk and ask him if my husband had left any message with him. I dreaded to face the man at such an hour, and then I suddenly remembered that the clerk who had been on duty before midnight had undoubtedly been succeeded by this time.
I ran back to my rooms. The perspiration was dripping from my forehead and the glimpse I caught of my ghastly face in the looking-glass, which hung above the mantelpiece, frightened me. Ah! there was an envelope in the frame of this looking-glass, which was evidently meant to attract my attention. I made a bound forward and seized it. It was addressed simply to “Elsie.”
A cry escaped my lips as I saw this. He had left me, and this was his explanation. The letters on the envelope became enveloped in a blurred mist, and I could see nothing. I steadied myself by grasping the mantelpiece with one hand, while I pressed the other, holding the letter, against my heart. I must have stood thus for a minute; then, with a feeling of astonishment at my own helplessness, I broke upon the envelope and read this, written in a trembling, hurried hand, mis-spelt and blotted:
“No one will ever know how I have tried to obliterate the memory of a sinful past, and make you the husband, which—noble girl that you are—you deserve. I have long recognized the fact that the old miserable ideas which we have discussed so often, and which led to our marriage, were impossible. I say I have tried to become a good, manly husband to you. I thought I had succeeded until this morning, and so did you, poor girl, but it seems we were both mistaken. I am a wretch. Forget me. Return to England with the Donaldsons next week. I shall come to you no more. After this final step, it would of course be impossible. I make no excuses for myself. I am not worth any, and no one recognizes that fact more than,
The room seemed to be revolving. An awful giddiness overwhelmed me, and I fell heavily to the floor.