Bread Eaten in Secret
Bread Eaten in Secret
BY ANNE O'HAGAN
IT is difficult for even the most subtly agile of moralists to append the quod erat demonstrandum to this record of the final solution of Susan Apthorpe's emotional complexities. Twist the tale as one will, there is no point at which he can say: "Here was the great mistake; here she had indubitable choice. Had she but turned in this direction the outcome would have been utterly different." Chance, blind and cruel, played so large a role in the shaping of events; and temperament, as capricious, as uncontrollable, as chance, walked hand in hand with it. Even the mysteries among which the little drama came to its culmination were, perhaps, but Susan's fancies grown all-victorious.
Susan was twenty-two, and a normal young woman as young women go, when she met Hardaker. She was not a beauty, but she had charm—laughter, whimsy, wit of an uncertain, fine, feminine flavor, imagination. The impulsiveness of her youth was tempered with something of the poise of a woman of the world. Left an orphan, and not an heiress, before the end of her first decade, she had early learned something of the arts of concealment, of apparent subserviency, of simulated self-forgetfulness—arts whose practice is necessitated by a shifting residence among semi-indifferent relatives. Her tact, however, never degenerated into hypocrisy; she was, at bottom, too affectionate not to be willing to pay, in helpfulness and entertainment, for the haphazard care and shelter she received. But from the time when the child first perceived that the world had not been constructed for her—a fact which orphaned children recognize many years before their fellows—she had made a little world of her own, in which she ruled, a kind and lovely young princess. She emerged from it cheerfully enough at the call of the actual, and her guardians never had cause even to describe her as "dreamy," so immediate was her return.
Hardaker, at the time they met, was in the zenith of his social popularity, though he had not yet won complete recognition as an artist. He was, perhaps, forty; but he had carried into this beginning of middle age all the slim, strong grace of body which had made him the most picturesque wrestler of his day in college. His was the classic regularity of feature which Susan lacked. Only his mouth, less full, with less of that sensuous joyousness which we call pagan than the Greek type, laid a modern impress upon his face. It was almost thin-lipped, aristocratic, its native austerity converted into something which in repose resembled cruelty, as is often the way when a man of predominant intellect is deliberately a pleasure-seeker.
No one of the group assembled at Cedarholm, the Willis Apthorpe suburban place, expected Hardaker to be seriously interested in Susan, for whom the Willis Apthorpes were dutifully providing that season. When it became evident that the young woman held his attention for more than the evening or two for which the least fascinating of Susan's sex might hope to hold it, Mrs. Willis conscientiously did her utmost for her husband's cousin. She recalled to the girl the discrepancy in their ages, warned her that Hardaker was not of the marrying type, and related enough of the story of his successes with women to indicate that these were matters of notoriety rather than of fair renown. Susan received the information with the right degree of worldly, familiar indifference, tempered with a little youthful disgust.
"I don't think we need worry, Willis," said Mrs. Willis that night. "Susan has a good deal of the coquette in her makeup. I doubt if she'll ever be very hard hit. And I think I succeeded in making her see that he will be a drab, uninteresting person of fifty when she is in the very flower of her young matronhood. If once you can make a girl connect a man with gruel and porous plasters, she's safe enough."
While the astute Mrs. Willis reasoned thus, Susan lay in the darkness, her soft mouth pressed against her forearm on the pillow. He had kissed it when she had extended her hand for a friendly good-night. His kiss against her cool, firm flesh was not warmer than that of her own lips caressing what his touch had made so rapturously dear.
She knew, even while she summoned before her closed eyes the look which had burned in his, that her cousin's wife had told her the truth about Hardaker. But for the hour she elected to forget it, to live in her own familiar kingdom of make-believe. In the morning she would issue into the real world and conduct herself as was seemly. To-night she would dream a splendid, thrilling dream.
For once she found it difficult to separate her two realms. Into her jealously cherished blindness of the night the bitter truth would flash its illuminations—he was a man who only played at love; into the daytime clearness of her perceptions some golden memory of her dream would drift, filling her laughing eyes with sudden warmth and tenderness, breaking the cool smile upon her lips into the sigh of happy reverie. Hardaker, not in the secret of her moods, was puzzled, piqued, fascinated, almost to the undoing of his plans. In a month, half their acquaintances began to wonder if he was, by a miracle, in earnest. When, at the end of the second month, he departed abruptly for Europe, there were as many willing to award her the palm for consummate coquetry as to add her name to the monotonous list of his victims. Only she knew that he had gone without asking her to marry him, and only he knew that he had gone lest he most imprudently might. In his creed, an artist's only excuse for marriage was the increase of his leisure or opportunity for work.
During her deliberate yielding to the intoxication of her dream, Susan had nursed the delusion that she discounted the pain of awakening by anticipating it. She found, however, that the real pangs were not so easily evaded. When he had gone, she longed for him as intensely as if she had expected, like the village maiden of familiar tragedy, to keep him forever; she missed his protestations of love—protestations made in a myriad ways—as if she had received them with full belief. It seemed to her that her hand was parched for the touch of his, that her eyes ached physically for the sight of his.
In her outward manner of life there was no change. She continued to occupy herself in a manner befitting a semidependent young woman of many social gifts but no remunerative talents. She fitted herself with graceful adaptability into several households, being in turn the glittering lure or the effective background for her hostess—here an excellent listener, there a humorous talker; here a skilful maker-over of old garments, there a sufficiently grateful recipient of new ones. Once, in the early period of her desolation, she had tried to make a useful career for herself and had dabbled in philanthropy after the fashion of the broken-hearted of her sex. But Susan's genius was not of the helping-hand variety. She soon withdrew from pursuits alien to her temperament and returned to her own sphere as an adornment of society and a subjugator of man.
In the latter profession she had the wonderful success that attends a native fitness for an undertaking. She liked—she could not help liking—the task of charming. Her inner conviction that she herself was proof against hurt lent, perhaps, an added zest to the sport. She advanced gayly, radiantly, to the duel when she saw an opponent worthy her skill; the sword-play, the passes, the poses, the fire from striking steel, delighted her. She felt that she wore an invisible armor, and sometimes the knowledge of her impregnability made her kind to her fellow fencer and sometimes it filled her with a brilliant recklessness of execution.
But whether she was making an abortive, pathetic attempt to be of use in the world, or whether she was visiting relatives in the country or relatives in town, or whether she was perverting her ardor, her wit, her sentiment, to the tinsel uses of flirtation—whatever her outward life, her outward activities, innerly she thought of herself as James Hardaker's creature. She acknowledged it to herself with a sort of fierce pride in her abasement. She fostered the feeling. It made for her the secret life she had always had since her childhood.
The mere sight of his name in the papers always stopped her heart for the fraction of a second. Each success of his which the paragraphs recounted—and in these years the steps of his approach to his preeminent greatness were magnificent strides which all might mark—started it beating again with the heavy stroke of pride. She admitted his weaknesses, his cruelties, and brushed them aside. Thank Heaven, she said to herself, she had wasted her love upon a man, a great man, a power! False, inconstant, pleasure-seeking, was he? Ah, but he was great! Some women poured their love, their life's devotion, at the feet of poor, inefficient creatures whose moral weakness was redeemed by no strength of intellect, no beauty of artistic achievement. Thank Heaven, she had not been so base, so senseless, a groveller as these!
So six years had passed, and gradually the savor of her meaningless triumphs was growing stale against her palate. She was tormented by a sudden doubt of the nicety of her amusement of all these years; she consoled herself with the reflection that vulgarity of manner was universally conceded to be impossible to an Apthorpe; but was it possible to give dignity to a pursuit so innately trivial and vulgar as flirtation? Moreover, she was no longer able to pass at will into a world dominated by Hardaker. One day, when the trance eluded and defied her, a quick fear made her pale—a fear that she was not essentially different from the other women of her generation—no more fervent in loving, no more blindly loyal. It sickened her. She had had her vanity through the long time of her separation from Hardaker, a deeper vanity than the critics of her flirtations could have understood. It had been to believe herself a woman the intensity and constancy of whose love were boundless, a woman capable of an epic sentiment which only the accident of time and caste denied an epic expression.
The disdain for her amusements, the doubt of the endurance of her love for Hardaker, coincided with the appearance of young Willitson upon her horizon. She saw him first one afternoon at the country club, a big, broad-shouldered, boyish figure. He stood before the fireplace and he was quoting some one to the effect that the capacity for a great passion is as rare as the capacity to compose a great opera. He had had the cold color that an autumn walk brings, she remembered, and she had liked his laugh as he had overthrown some sentimentalist with his bit of philosophy. She herself had thrilled with the consciousness of her secret genius. She had glanced up toward the speaker and had felt the blood mount girlishly to her face beneath the unexpected searching of his gray eyes. It was as though, in an idle conversation concerning poets, some one had divined a hidden gift of song. And yet, it was after that talk that she began to torment herself with the fear that her great song was merely doggerel, after all. She closed her eyes and summoned Hardaker's face. She struggled to wrest from unwilling memory the blueness of his eyes; but blue was a mere word in her mind, not a color, not a living light, as of old. She recalled words—they left her unthrilled. She reminded herself of twilights—sunsets, scenes set for romance, with Hardaker close to her, his hand touching hers, his face, beautiful and eager, bending toward her. But the scenes vanished before their message reached her heart. She was left in the darkness with the memory of young Willitson's divining scrutiny of her.
That young Willitson had soon attached himself rather conspicuously to Susan's train was a matter commented upon by her relatives with the cheerful frankness common to families. Some of them averred that he was a boy, little likely to stir a real ardor in a woman who had so long played with fire. Some said that it would be a shame if she trifled with him after her custom, despoiling him of the morning freshness of his emotions merely to feed an insatiable vanity. Willis Apthorpe expounded a more hopeful theory to his wife.
"Did you ever notice Willitson's jaw?" he asked. "That fresh color of his blinds one to the cut of his face, rather. But you look at him the next time you see him. If he wants Susan, he'll get her. I'll wager you three to one that in five years you'll see her and a pair of young ones driving meekly down to the station to meet him when he comes out from the city in the afternoon. She'll quote his sayings and warm his slippers and humbly wait for him to finish the newspaper before interrupting him—provided he wants it. You mark my words."
"I'm sure I hope so," sighed Mrs. Willis. "But you know, dear, Susan has never seemed quite the same to me since the Hardaker affair."
"Hardaker? Nonsense!" Willis was emphatic rather than argumentative.
"But really," interrupted her husband conclusively, "the whole trouble with Susan is that she hasn't met men. Now young Willitson's a man though he's only a boy. He's going to love like a man and win his woman like a man, and marry and go out and do a man's work in the world. He isn't going to sit around turning phrases about his emotions. And that's the kind of man Susan needs and wants and is waiting for—you'll see."
"I'm sure I hope so," his wife sighed again, some presentiment upon her that so sane and fair a destiny was not for her cousin, despite that cousin's compelling and appealing charm.
Meantime young Willitson made it evident to all observers that he held Susan in extravagant admiration. He laughed at her witticisms, watched her changeful face by the evening together, condoned her ignorance of practical affairs—Willitson himself was rather phenomenal in objective knowledge,—humored her caprices after the indulgent manner of the strong, not the ingratiating manner of the weak.
"He's too nice to be spoiled," Susan told herself as she did up her hair one evening, after she had been off for a splendid, swinging, stinging walk with him through the wind and the driving mist. She was trying to explain to herself why she had held her hand from flirtation with him. Her face looked back at her out of the mirror, glowing, smiling, young-eyed—such a face as she had not seen there for years. "Much too nice," she said again, more emphatically, "and very, very much too young."
Too young! She sighed. Had she offered up her youth on the altar of an unreality? How old was the boy—two, three years younger than she was? He might as well be a decade younger, she felt; he might as well be in the nursery! Ten years and she would be faded, withered, burned out, not to be thrilled even by the thought of the great, secret romance of her youth; ten years and he, the boy, would still be in the vigor and glory of life. A chill went creeping up to her heart. Out of the mirror, which had so often framed her memory of Hardaker's face, Willitson's eyes seemed to look forth at her, laughing, commanding her to put away recollections and anticipations, commanding her to—
"It couldn't be, it couldn't be," she told herself vehemently. "If that other was not real and eternal, then nothing can be real and eternal on God's earth—or I am not the kind that may feel real things. I will not be that other kind. I will keep my love, I will keep it."
She walked down-stairs to find young Willitson in his favorite attitude before the hall fire. He was talking politics with Willis, but he broke off to watch her as she came down. She passed him coldly, listened with a careful indifference as he explained how Mrs. Apthorpe, meeting him at the gate, had been so jolly as to ask him to come back to dinner just as he was.
"Very nice, I'm sure," said Susan, rudely. He looked surprised, and almost hurt for half a second. The ruddy color faded a little from his face, and suddenly the firmness of his jaw became his most prominent facial characteristic. His gray eyes studied her. Then with a slight gesture of accepting her manner, he sauntered across the drawing-room to Mrs. Apthorpe. Susan felt chidden and ashamed. Like a child who is conscious of having misbehaved, she exerted herself at dinner to efface the impression of her wilfulness. But Willitson did not lose the air of a man who merely defers explanation and punishment to a fitting season.
When he was about to leave the house, it came.
"You promised to go with me to see those pictures of Lwein's," he said.
"Yes," answered Susan, docilely. "Is his exhibition on yet?"
"It opens to-morrow. Can you go then?"
Susan smiled and said that she could, without even the pretence of consulting a mental engagement-book.
"Won't you come in early and go to luncheon with me?"
"That will be delightful," said Susan.
"I'm not so sure you'll think so afterwards," he announced. "Very well, then. I'll meet the train that gets in a few minutes before one—the twelve-seven, isn't it?"
Susan's "yes" was unsteady. She was not going to be able to dominate the situation, to keep this downright person from downright utterance and demand—that she felt. But was she going to be able even to control herself, to hold fast to her dream before the vigorous, splendid sunshine he would let into her heart? The premonition of vanquishment shook her.
It was not a joy to her to find herself again on the verge of love. It discredited her past, it mocked her, it disgraced her in her own eyes. A good wife could scarcely feel more shame at the stirring of a vagrant emotion than Susan at the approach of a fresh passion in herself. Her long infatuation for Hardaker was, in her mind, redeemed from folly, ennobled, set among heroic sentiments, by its endurance, its subsistence upon pure imagination. That had been the badge of its sincerity, had marked it no spurious metal. That another emotion should have power to crowd it from her heart debased it and derided her.
She was not a religious woman, but that night she found herself upon her knees, her arms flung across her bed, her face hidden. She formulated no prayer, but all her being besought that her heart might be faithful to its fruitless dream.
As though in answer to her, her broken sleep held dreams of Hardaker, smiling, tender, triumphant. She awoke, strengthened against the boy. To be sure, she counted the hours until they were to meet, but she told herself that her impatience was the burning desire to say what must be said, to end the situation, to strangle the new feeling that struggled for life in her heart, while it was still quiescent.
The train loitered and lagged. She grew almost feverish. She trembled, and hated herself that she could not tell whether it was an old recollection of Hardaker or the memory of Willitson's good-night that thrilled her. She was suddenly afraid to meet the boy's eyes again. Why had she said that she would come, would see him?
And here the malignant fairy that had not been invited to Susan's christening took part in her destiny, or some power as wantonly cruel. To quiet her nerves, she leaned over and took from an empty chair opposite hers a morning paper flung there by some one leaving the train. Her eyes idly roamed up and down the columns. She was unconscious of a word, until there stood out clearly, as though in some raised and curious type for the blind, a paragraph cabled from Florence. "American Sculptor Marries Heiress," it read. The day before, in the Italian city, James Hardaker had taken to wife the only daughter of an ex-ambassador whose chief fitness for his office had been the possession of a fortune larger than those of the monarchs to whose courts he had been accredited.
Jealousy, that outlives love and simulates passion, that stirs the slight embers of a trivial emotion to a sudden final burst of flame, sprang up in Susan. Often as she had prepared herself for the announcement of Hardaker's marriage, the reality found her totally unready. It was as though some new substance had been thrown among the inchoate uncertainties of her heart and had crystallized them. She burned with misery and jealousy. Therefore she loved Hardaker. Therefore she had no feeling at all for Willitson. So, if she had been capable of defining herself, she would have described her emotions.
As she met Willitson in the station, the unnatural, hard brilliance of her eyes, so unlike their customary liquid radiance, the harsh red line of her mouth, the furious rose that burned upon her creamy skin—all these gave him a minute's uneasiness. But he refused to listen to their warning; he had determined that day to settle for all time the question of his relation to Susan. Last night he had been deliriously sure that the settlement would be what he desired. To-day he would not let the doubt born of her strange, abrupt manner, her tense, excited face, deter him.
They were not far advanced at the pretence of luncheon when he spoke.
"You know what I want to say to you, don't you?"
The thought of hurting him was not distasteful to Susan in the mood in which she was, though usually she was all exquisite, illogical, feminine tenderness for the pain that she could see.
"I suppose I do," she answered curtly. He studied her with an air of grave surprise for a moment.
"Your manner when you came down to dinner last night," he began, "was so unlike your manner when you came home from our walk, and your manner at dinner so unlike either, that I was puzzled. I am not a subtle person like some of your friends." He half smiled. "I don't care for riddles. I don't want to waste time wondering where I stand with you, and guessing what you mean by this gesture and what by that smile, and whether I have offended you or not. I want to know—to know—how you feel about me."
She was regarding him with hard eyes and a satiric pressure of the lips. His gaze did not falter beneath the irony of her glance.
"Of course," he went on, "this is not a fitting time or place for this conversation. But you see you never treated me capriciously or coquettishly until last night, and my one idea was to have the thing cleared up at the earliest possible second. Susan—I'm pretty madly in love with you. I want your love, I want you, more than I have ever wanted anything in the world. Have I any chance at all?"
He bent forward slightly, his face pale, his eyes shining with suspense. The waiter, hovering near with a chafing-dish upon a tray, discerningly withdrew a few feet.
It seemed to Susan that it would relieve the intolerable, throbbing agony of her own pain if she could wound as deeply. Still satiric and hard, she looked at him.
"You have not the least chance in the world," she replied, with a soft, concise brutality. He drew a sharp breath, settled back in his chair and nodded toward the bearer of the chafing-dish. That functionary, regulating an alcohol flame, removing a cover, disclosing the bubbling contents of the pan as though he revealed the riches of a jewel-case, making passes across the table with plate and fork, mercifully hid the two from each other for a few seconds. When he had once more withdrawn, Susan stole a half-frightened glance at Willitson. Her cruelty had spent itself, after the feminine fashion, in one blow.
"I—I am very sorry," she whispered.
"You are not at all to blame," he told her courteously. "You must not reproach yourself in the least." The formality of his manner was not to her liking.
"You do not understand," she said.
"I am afraid I understand quite clearly all that concerns me.—Shall we have a French dressing with the alligator-pears or a—"
"I don't care what we have with our pears or whether we have pears, or anything," cried Susan, tempestuous, despite the softness of her voice. "You are angry. You think I did this for—my vanity's sake. Oh yes, you do!"—as he made a slight gesture of dissent. "You despise me for a coquette. Every one does—"
"I love you," he interrupted her. "I wanted you for my wife. If you had cared for me you would not have coquetted any more. But you have said you don't, and, if you'll forgive my selfish concern for my own feelings, it's damnably painful for me to talk about it just now. You know I told you I wasn't an amateur psychologist."
But Susan did not want to drop the subject. The relentless egotism of grief, the passion for speech, for outpouring of soul, were upon her.
"You are angry with me," she persisted. "Ah, don't be. Pity me. Can't you see I'm wretched? Can't you see I'm tortured, crucified? Don't I know all about love and pain?"
Her voice broke in self-pity. Willitson leaned forward, forgetting himself.
"You poor girl, you poor child!"
"Don't be too sorry for me," she said in her turn. "I ought to be used to it. It's six—it's nearly seven years now."
"Is he blind or an ass?"
In he silence that fell upon them the waiter removed plates, brought cups. Willitson looked long and searchingly at her. The innocent melancholy of her expression—a sort of confession of ignorance—banished whatever ugly thought had sprung to life at her last words. Resolution gathered in his eyes.
"Listen," he said. His hand fell upon hers, nervously tearing at a leaf upon the table. "Listen. You're awfully young, after all. You're romantic—silly, dear heart, like a sixteen-year-old about a matinée hero. No, you mustn't be angry with me yet. You must listen. You've been fostering something unreal, playing, pretending. Let me teach you the truth. Give me a chance. Why, hang it all, I'm not a fool. You could care for me—I've seen it. Dear love, your eyes—either you've deliberately let them lie to me or you have cared—a little. Only last night—"
But the message from Florence had blotted out last night for Susan.
"I may have thought at one time that I could forget him and care for you," she said. "But I do not wish to. I did not wish to. Real or unreal, it's all there is in the world for me. I'd rather remember his hand-clasp than—than feel your kiss," she cried recklessly. "The memory of him, once in a year, is dearer company for me than you, all of you, love and sympathy and talk and laugh, every day. I'd rather be the woman who loves him hopelessly, never seeing him, forgotten by him, than the best-loved wife in all the world."
"That is all romantic nonsense, Susan," replied Willitson. "To cherish passionately what can have no fruition is morbid, hysterical, false. I'll make you see that some day."
"Romantic, morbid, hysterical, whatever it is, it is my life," she asseverated.
"But it shall not be your life, Susan. Listen to me. You shall love me yet. I will make it the one object of existence to make you forget this—this moonshine. And I'll succeed."
"You never will. I shall not see you, hear from you, hold any communication with you, if you will not respect my feeling. Oh, you do not realize it."
"I realize it better than you do. I am a man. And I mean to win you. I wouldn't fight you, dearest, if I had any real rival, any man who could offer you love and happiness. But as it is—you'll see. Oh, you sha'n't be able to evade me." He laughed. "If you refuse to see me I'll haunt you with my astral body; I'll impress myself upon the light and you'll never see any one else but me! If you won't hear me I'll make the winds my messengers. I'm talking like a drunken fool, am I not? But it only means that I'm not going to give you up to an illusion—that I'm never going to give you up. Do you hear me, Susan—I'm going to win you, for your happiness and my own!"
The boyish rhapsody and daring restored Susan somewhat to herself. She smiled faintly.
"Ah," she said, "you are very young."
"So I have all the more years to persuade you to be happy and all the more years to love you in," he answered, smiling a little also.
They went out into the gusty brightness of the March day. The violence of Susan's mood had passed, but it had left her tired.
"If you don't mind," she said, "we'll skip the pictures. I'm—I'm tired. I'll go home at once."
"But I do mind—most dreadfully."
"Nevertheless, I must go home. Get me a cab, if you will, and send me to the station. I—I think I'm too old for scenes."
"I want you to forget the scene," he rejoined earnestly. "I want you to come and see pictures with me in just a commonplace, every-day fashion. And I won't even tell you"—his eyes were mirthful and daring—"how we'll go jog-trotting to picture shows together all our life!"
She frowned and shook her head in quick impatience. "Let me go with you to the station, at any rate," he begged. "No. I want to be alone."
"Ah, but remember how I'm not going to let you escape me in that way," he laughed. "At least to-night I may—"
"No, no, not to-night," she cried nervously, forestalling his request.
"But I may call you up on the telephone and learn that you have recovered from the—scene?" He could not have explained his own buoyancy; but hope—certainty—flooded his heart as he looked at her. The conquering mood of the night before was again upon him. He shut the carriage door upon her, and before he turned to give directions to the driver, he leaned in through its lowered window.
"Remember," he whispered, "I am going to win out. And you will be as glad as I."
Before anything more articulate than a blush could answer his confident prediction, the carriage began to move, and she looked out to see him standing, bare-headed, young, triumphant, in the bright light. And that vision of him remained with her all the afternoon, contending with the older one and—though she would not yet admit it—overthrowing it.
Late in the day she found herself in the library on the second floor of her cousin's house. The windows commanded a sweep of the high, sloping lawn, the bare trees, the broad road outside the grounds, and the ice-cluttered river beyond. Susan told herself that she was there to see the brief crimson fires die down behind the farther shore. But she knew in her heart that it was to watch for a swinging figure that sometimes strode up from the station in the twilight. Willitson had for home, besides his club in town, his sister's house beyond the Willis Apthorpe place. He would go there to-night, Susan argued; or could he have meant to telephone from the city? Ah, there he came through the enfolding dusk! No, it was Willis, turning in at his own drive. How ridiculous a blunder—to mistake Willis's middle-aged strength of outline for the swinging, youthful leanness of the boy! Then she remembered his boast—his promise—his threat—that she should come to see him in every vision her eyes beheld. She laughed in a flurry of shame and gladness that already his words began to be true.
Nervously, expectantly, she occupied herself after dinner. She paced the rooms aimlessly, she played snatches of melody. She had been hurt, she had fed her heart upon folly, she had nourished herself upon mists—and now, what balm, what tenderness, were to be hers! She looked at her cousins. There had been no guests, the younger children were asleep in the nursery, the older ones busy in the schoolroom with their books. Willis read in middle-aged comfort and Caroline pricked at a piece of fine linen with a needle. It was very sweet. Warmth and peace and the security of wedded love—how beautiful and blessed they were! Her fingers made a sudden discord at the piano.—Did she mean, then, without a further struggle, to yield to the domination of this new love, to yield to this new lover?
The telephone on Willis's desk in the library rang sharply. She turned, half starting to her feet. But Willis moved toward the instrument. She waited, unsure, trembling, to be summoned to it. Their talk would be, of course, noncommittal, but—
"My God! what are you saying, Baird? It can't be true." That was what Willis was shouting in a high, hoarse voice. Lena Baird was Arthur Willitson's sister. From head to foot Susan was instantly cold, stiff, tense.
"Yes, yes. Of course. I'll come at once."
Caroline had stopped her embroidery and was staring at her husband, aghast at the horror and hurry of his tones. Susan was still sitting, perfectly motionless, at the piano.
"God! this is awful," shuddered Willis, stumbling up from the desk and crossing the room. " There's been an explosion. Baird has heard that young Willitson—the hospital telephoned. It seems Arthur had some memoranda with Baird's address—"
"For Heaven's sake, Willis!" Caroline was strident with fear and impatience. "Tell it straight. What is it?"
"Young Willitson's dead—killed in an explosion on Duane Street this afternoon. The hospital authorities have telephoned to Baird. He wants me to go in town with him. Identification—"
Then he became aware of Susan, tall and ghastly white, by his side.
"I do not believe a single word of it," she said woodenly, and, with that expression of unbelief upon her lips, fell forward into Willis's arms in a dead faint.
The steep slope to the river was garlanded with the pale green and rosy white of the later spring-time when Susan looked forth again at evenfall. She was stretched in a long chair, a rug across her knees, her hands folded weakly in her lap. For weeks she had been lying in bed—not sick with tangible disease, not suffering keen pangs, but inert, indifferent, deadened to feeling.
Finally the spell broke. The doctor said that Miss Apthorpe had happily escaped with a brief attack of nervous prostration, and that now, with due care, with a cautious avoidance of excitements, with gentle stimulations of interest, with electricity and massage and tonics, her vigorous constitution would finally reassert itself. Then he went away and wrote a convincing paper upon the penalties exacted by nature from society women for gambling and automobile racing.
And Susan lay at the library window, looking idly down the billowy, blossoming slope to the broad road, where now and then the flash of varnish or the gleam of metal proclaimed the passing of equipages. Faintly she enjoyed the tender colors of the hillside. She still dwelt in the nebulous region where pain and joy are no more real than those are real men and women who pass and repass in a mirror at the end of a great hall.
The west grew softly, celestially bright with pink and primrose and lilac. The carriages rolled closer. Dark figures of pedestrians strode by the low wall at the foot of the hill. The frequent trains were bringing the men home from the city.
Along the road came some one swingingly. He seemed straight and tall and lithe. Something caught roughly at Susan's heart. A hand snatched at the veil which had enwrapped her. She leaned forward, her lips parted, her eyes starry, her whole face transfigured. The man paused at the gate, turned in, resolved himself to Willis's stalwart proportions. She gave a great cry and threw herself backward in her chair. There was no longer any shield of misty forgetfulness between her and the agony of realization.
So she came quite back to life and its cruelty of loneliness. She never even said to herself that she had loved Arthur Willitson, and that in the loss of him, the loss of life with him, she had tasted what was for her the supreme bitterness. She was done with telling herself what her emotions were, done with cherishing them, with defying them, with all forms of playing with them.
Yet, unsought by her—beyond, indeed, any human power of seeking—the visionary life she had always maintained began to reassert itself. Dreams such as she had tried to compel in the old days came to her now unbidden. At first it was only in the twilights, under the shadow of a tree or under the flickering of a street lamp, that some familiar trick of shoulder or of stride, some turn of the neck or free motion of the arm, would make her heart stand still for the space of a quivering eyelash and then bound madly on. By and by the hallucination, that was no hallucination, grew more frequent. Arthur was dead, dead in the great glory of life, dead—ah, the misery of it!—because she had not granted such a little, trivial wish one sunny, blustery day—she knew it. That knowledge was the core of existence to her. Yet, constantly, men walked with his tread, bent their heads as he had done, sprang, ran—simulated all his vigorous, supple motions. Never the man close beside her, never the one who brushed her skirts on the sidewalk, but always the one just turning the far corner, just alighting from the next carriage, the next car, just closing the door of his house behind him. And her eyes, charged with lasting sorrow, came at last to be always longingly fixed on the distances.
Nor was that all. The first time she had answered the telephone after her recovery from her illness—repressing a shudder as she lifted the receiver from the hook—that day the "hello" which had greeted her had been familiar, buoyant, young—the very tones that had prophesied to her joy and the fulfilment of destiny. Her answer had been a whisper. And then a commonplace voice had pronounced a commonplace message and her fluttering heart had dropped, a piece of lead in her breast.
The next time she had been called to the telephone, she went with tremulous expectancy. If only she might have her half-second of delusion that was no delusion! She gave the signal in a low, eager voice, and her blood, for an instant still in her veins, leaped at the answer. Again the "hello" was Willitson's own—ringing, assured, alive, alive, alive! And though the next word shattered into a thousand bits the sought-for joy, nevertheless, for one immeasurable heart-beat, Arthur's very tones had broken against her ears.
So it went on. He appeared to her—no glimmering wraith at twilight, no chilling presence in the pearly-grayness of the dawn, but in the half-glimpsed grace and strength of other men, in half-heard calls from the distance, in a passing laugh, in a boatman's voice upon the water at sunset. None knew of her obsession. None guessed what her far-gazing eyes sought or for what she listened, with an ethereal light of hope upon her face. They said that she seemed like a woman living in a dream, but they did not guess how truly they spoke.
The days had slid into weeks and the weeks into months, until a year was nearly past. Willis and Caroline, coming home across the snowy lawn from some neighborly gathering one night, were talking of their cousin with that deeper, more protective tenderness they had felt for her since her retirement from the world. They were asking themselves how she might be again brought to the life of every day; they were talking of the wonder of her smile, asking themselves what hope shone through her transparent beauty like a light through a fragile lamp.
They unlocked the door and stepped into the soft warmth and luxury of the hall. The tall clock by the stairway chimed some late hour. Then the telephone-bell in the library rang loudly, demandingly. They heard the gentle trailing of Susan's dress to the desk. Then they caught each other's hands in quick, instinctive affright.
For the trembling melody of her greeting had been followed by a full-throated cry of rapture. "Arthur, Arthur!" she called; and then: "Yes, yes. I know; I'll come."
As swiftly as a moonbeam glides into a room she had come into the hall, in front of her cousins. She did not speak to them; her shining eyes took no note of them. She unfastened the door so silently, so swiftly, that she seemed rather to pass through it than to unlock it.
"See who was calling up—ask Central. I'll follow Susan," whispered Willis, bounding to the door. He was out upon the broad, stone steps in an instant, but already the slight figure before him was speeding half-way down the white lawn. He ran, he called, but she made no sign of having heard. On she sped, suddenly flinging her arms wide in a gesture of most loving welcome, of most glad surrender, as she neared the wall.
He came rushing back, alone, white-faced, in a few minutes.
"I must have help," he said. "She—she fell—or—fainted—at the wall. I— It's over, dearest. Who was it telephoned?"
"Central said," whispered Caroline, her grieved, horrified eyes upon her husband's, her voice unvarying—"Central says that our house had not been called this evening?"
"But," protested Willis, while the servants began to gather in response to his ring,—"but we heard."
Yes," whispered Caroline; "I told Central so. She said that she could not understand—that she had not rung us up at all."
They looked at each other, wide-eyed, stupefied, their lips parted, their breath coming in brief gulps. Then Willis turned from his wife and gave his commands to the servants. The little group moved down the white lawn to where the snow at the foot of the garden was darkened by a long, inert figure.
There was a sleigh jingling ironically along the road beyond the wall. At sight of those bent over the relaxed form on the ground, and of the lanterns incongruously yellow in the white night, at sound of a hysterical maid weeping and of tense orders given, the vehicle drew to a standstill. A man leaped from the back seat.
"This is the Apthorpe place, is it not?" he began. Willis turned dully toward the intruder, and the man spoke again.
"It is, of course—Apthorpe, don't you remember me? Hardaker? Is there some trouble?"
He stepped nearer the burden that the men had lifted, and looked on Susan's face.
"My God!" he said very quietly. And then: "I've been thinking of her all the evening. We've been at the club with— What does it all mean, Apthorpe?"