John Fairchild's Mirror
John Fairchild's Mirror
Illustrations by James O. Chapin
IT had been a raw, blustering day, the pines showing a white light where they tipped beneath the wind that blew across them. November had stripped the fields, and over the whole landscape lay only the high serenity of earth and sky.
Gabrielle Eaton, walking across the great meadow, lifted her face to the sky. She had come out from faculty meeting tired and depressed and longing for a breath of air. The meeting had droned through its three interminable hours of detail and bickering. Little dried-up morsels of men had argued and plotted and counterplotted over the mental and spiritual food that should be served out to vigorous, growing girls. And each had voted with a thrifty eye to the advance of his own department. The small minority that cared for education as a whole and saw the subject in its wider relations had been far outvoted. To-morrow, she knew, there would be lobbying and small factions at work for each other and for themselves, and next week would see the same miserable travesty repeated. She lifted her face again and breathed deep. How was one to bear a life that choked and stifled at every turn? For twelve years she had been teaching girls, and each year she came to feel less certain of what was best for them, what to give, and what to withhold. And Professor Harben's small, round, intelligent face in spectacles, with its pointed beard spearing at knowledge, flashed before her. He had no doubts as to what was best for the young. In his flat, thin voice he had talked for half an hour, explaining, elaborating, systematizing ways of educating girls. And at home, Gabrielle knew, Mrs. Harben, small and flat-chested, with the three little Harbens about her, was trying to I make two thousand dollars do the work of four in the college community.
And men whose business enterprises affected a continent and involved millions intrusted the care of their daughters, the discipline and nurture of their minds, the training of their bodies, to Professor Harbens—to men to whom in their business they would have hesitated to trust the care of office buildings.
The long, low line of mountains to the west beckoned her. She lifted a level gaze to them. She was a tall, thin woman, with dark eyes and flexible, curving lips that seemed half ready to mock at herself, and caught themselves in a little smile. It was the smile that gave the face a subtle beauty, something on-looking, forward-reaching, not to be denied. Suppose she gave up the work? She walked more slowly. A letter in the pocket of her coat brushed against her hand as it swung idly. Suppose she gave up her work?
The light lessened and deepened. The mountains caught a glow above their blueness and became mysterious. The sky lifted itself, vaulting, and a single star hung out above the meadow. She walked slowly, looking down. Why could she not respond, give up this vexing work, and join hands with him for the rest of life? There was no lack of fire in the letter thrust carelessly into her pocket. It was the letter of a man ardently in love. Could she give up her work for John Fairchild, take her place in the world with a man already distinguished, administer his house, receive his guests, and represent him in the world, and be at last in a home of her own? She threw back her head, breathing in the clean-swept November air.
So this was what they might come to—all her dreams! What had forced her to put the dream aside every time it strove to shape itself in the form of some man and held out its hand, beckoning her? Now she was thirty-five, and life again was holding out what it called reality to her. "Come away from your dreams."
The flexible lips smiled; then the light filled her face, and she turned back, walking slowly, her skirt touching the tall grass on each side and bending it a little as she went.
He was coming next week, and he had begged her not to answer the letter. He wanted to look in her face, he had said. The flexible lips mocked a little. Then the smile flooded them, and her face was beautiful again.
What had life to give a woman who would not love, who followed a dream! Ah, but she did love. Her heart was filled with the ache of it, a longing that beat upon her and set her searching every face for the life that was her right. Why should it come to some women, and not to her? She saw Mrs. Harben's thin-chested little figure breasted to the fight, her whole life devoted to Charles and the children. And then suddenly, deep in Mrs. Harben's eyes, she caught a glimpse of something that startled her—something akin to this force in herself that drove her, stripped and desolate and searching.
So some women were false to it, as a man might be false to the vision when he turned aside to work for money? It was not money that had tempted Mrs. Harben. She smiled a little. But there were other things that drew one aside—respectability, convention, timidity, even curiosity. Had she not known them all! She had shrunk from a life of unfulfilment almost with a fierce repulsion. Then her dream had shimmered, and she had followed it. And it had no shape or color or name; only the forward walk into the dark.
The college buildings came in sight, crude, ugly in line, built for use—to shelter the spirits of growing girls! Almost terrified, she gazed up at them. The tower clock struck six, and she quickened her steps.
When she entered the dining-room a little later the evening hubbub was in full swing: plates clattered, voices rose above the clashing of knives and the rattle of forks, and over and under it all rose and swelled a crude, unshaped soul taking its food. As she slipped quietly to her place at the head of one of the long tables one or two girls looked up and smiled. She had not spoken, she seemed hardly to have glanced down the long table; but a little change had come to it. It was as if she had gathered up a loose handful of threads and held and steadied them. Her voice could not have carried half the length of the table had she spoken, but something had invaded it, and traveled and touched each chattering girl. The table seemed to emerge from its shapelessness and and babble. All about it surged the chaotic murmur and push of voices and the sound of dishes. It was hardly possible to talk, to think. Three times a day, seven times a week, one must give oneself in the breaking of bread with them.
After dinner, when in the quiet of her room she drew forward a round table to the fire and arranged the drop-light, with books at hand, and settled comfortably into her deep chair before the fire, the noise and clamor of college life seemed shut away.
As she sat turning the leaves of her book she was subtly aware of the room about her, and happy in its quiet. The room, glimmering in its shadow, had come to express her as few women's homes can express them. The pictures on the wall were there because she had chosen them, each for its place. And the rows upon rows of books were not a conventional library in any usual sense of the term. Each was a phase of her life. Had she suddenly been lifted from her deep chair by the fire and transported to some other world, she would still have remained in the book-lined walls. Not till they had been torn apart, distributed one by one into other hands, would Gabrielle Eaton ceased to exist.
The books were her outer shell, her protection and defense against encroachment. And within them she dwelt, with her drop-light and easy-chair and the scattered pieces of furniture, each old and precious, and gleaming bits of brass and biting green of bronze and little pieces of rare earthenware. She had an artist's delight in these things, and the connoisseur's eye. All that was spurious had been rejected long since. The portière that shut off the narrow bedroom just beyond was of Persian weaving; its soft folds drew and held the eye. On the wall across from the fireplace a Florentine mirror caught the flames, and reflected them from its surface and its burnished frame. Everything was perfect of its kind and beautiful. The whole room expressed and surrounded and comforted her, and the fire purred a little on the wide hearth. Alone, within these four walls, she was herself. And this was the extent of her kingdom—four walls square! Her book fell to her lap. Her eyes studied the flame.
All the unrest of life seemed crushing in on her, invading the quiet room. The books on the table beside her were suddenly trivial. She turned to them idly. Butler's "Life and Habit"—how fascinated she had been when she glanced into it in the book-shop! She gave the book a little push aside with her finger. And Lowes Dickinson on the war, and Binyon, and Bennett's new novel, and Wells's last essays, and Tagore. She pushed them all aside and leaned her head on her hand, looking into the fire.
It seemed suddenly a makeshift, this life and the beautiful room, and all the eager choosing and seeking for right shape and color. It moved away in perspective to something small and trivial. The letter that had been taken from her coat-pocket lay on the table by the drop-light. She picked it up and opened it and spread it on her lap. smoothing it with thoughtful fingers.
Then she took it up and read it through from beginning to end. It was a long letter, and all the light of the fire seemed to gather and play shading hand that stirred only then to reach down and turn written sheet.
A sound in the hall startled her, she glanced up hastily at the clock slipped the letter into its envelop.
A knock had sounded on the door. There was a murmur of voices and laughing, drifting sounds along the hall.
Her voice had a welcoming sound, and the group of girls in the open door came forward as if the room with the woman sitting by the fire, her hands folded in her lap, were a wonted and happy place. They grouped about her, on chairs or cushions, or on the floor by the fire, all centering toward her with unconscious ease. Sometimes in the physicist's laboratory a magnet will make pretty patterns of the bits of steel it passes over. The book-lined walls seemed to have lost their almost repellent orderliness, and the subdued Oriental coloring, touched with the orange or vivid green or scarlet of sweaters and scarfs in the firelight, woke from its age-long quiet. Even the Persian portière seemed to stir slightly in the little movement of life and color and laughter.
The voices settled into quiet discussion; other voices joined them, and the group about the fire, broken only by the coming and going, narrowed a little as the evening went by. Except that they centered always toward Gabrielle Eaton, it might have been difficult at times to guess from the talk that she was the older, dominating personality among them. There was an equality, a sense of outreaching in her mind as in theirs. For all of them the future held a secret. They bent their heads to catch the whisper of it, or lifted their faces as it seemed to pass them swiftly by. It was the rare comradeship that seems to exist only where men or women are sequestered for some chosen aim. And this, too, was a perfect thing of its kind. No more beautiful friendship could be imagined than these young girls gave to Gabrielle Eaton. To enter into this companionship, to understand it and be renewed by it, was her life, as narrow as in the face under the walls of her room, but as fresh and springing as youth itself.
It was not till they had all gone and the clock had struck its late hour that her fingers, dropping to a fold in the chair, touched the letter.
She drew it out and held it a moment thoughtfully in her fingers. Then she bent forward and laid it on the fire, and the flame blackened the edge and ran up eagerly and engulfed it.
She watched it burn to a char. She would wait till she saw him.
At first he had seemed arrogant, a little insistent. They had gone for a long walk across the meadows, and he had pointed out all he should be able to do for her. He could make life beautiful and carefree. And at last he had begged her, almost humbly, to accept what he could give her. She was a little touched. She knew he was not accustomed to asking favors of any one. It was probably years since John Fairchild had asked any man or woman to do a favor for him. He was accustomed to granting favors. He was a little awkward about it, almost like a boy, and slow to take in her refusal when she tried to of her explain to him how she felt. At the end he had refused to go away as an ordinary polite suitor would have done after dismissal. He assured her he was not an ordinary suitor or a polite one. He had known her ever since they were children together. He should stay on as a neighbor, not as a rejected suitor. So she had acquiesced with a smile, and had ordered dinner for them in her sitting-room. The thought of taking him into the din of dishes and voices that made up the college dining-room was not to be contemplated.
The little maid set out the table before the fire and laid the cloth and brought in the tray and disappeared; and Gabrielle Eaton found herself facing her suitor across the table with a curious sense of domestic intimacy she had not counted on.
She had put out a sign that would prevent their being disturbed for the half-hour he might stay. She had assured herself it could not be longer than half an hour. She counted on his being safely out of the way before her girls came for the evening talk by the fire.
She was aware of a desire to free the room of his presence. There was something disturbing in the big man who sat so easily opposite her, looking appreciatively about the room, at the book-lined walls and the bits of soft color and the great dish of roses in the center of the table. He moved a hand to them.
"Wonderful color!" he said.
"Yes; one of my girls brought them. They are really too many for this small table." She looked at them critically. "If you don't mind my getting up?"
He nodded with amused glance.
She brought a slender, clear-glass vase and selected a single rose, half-blown and firm-stemmed, and set it in the middle of the table. The great bowl was removed to the side of the room.
Her eyes studied the effect happily—the single flower in its straight glass.
Suddenly she glanced at him with a half-embarrassed smile.
"I know you think I am silly to care about a little thing like that."
"Why should n't you care? The world is made up of little things." He spoke with a serene common sense, the tolerance of a man who allows for foibles, and she felt he had not a glimmer of understanding of the feeling that had urged her. He accepted the change courteously, as he would accept anything she chose to do; but he would never know the fierce insistence for perfection that had driven her to it, that drove her always. He liked her room, she knew. She had noted the quiet glance he threw about him as he came in. But he could never comprehend the severe, almost religious zeal that had gone to make it what it was, so perfect that not a line could be altered without marring it. Sometimes, it is true, there were even now days of upheaval; but they had become rare. Almost the only things that changed from day to day were the flowers her girls sent her, or a parcel of new books from the shop; and even these must keep their place for the beauty of the whole.
All this played like an undercurrent beneath the surface of talk. She was subtly aware of a force stirring in her room. Something seemed to break and give a little, and she found herself looking anxiously behind her. All her familiar treasures were safe in place.
They talked of life in Dalton, the home town where they had grown up together, and of acquaintances and friends; and the little maid reappeared and carried away the great tray; and still John Fairchild had made no move to go.
Voices were sounding in the hall; they paused outside her door, and came softly through the closed panels.
"She 's engaged! What a shame!"
Then the voices drifted away, and John Fairchild's eye twinkled a little. His fingers had barely touched the end of the cigar that rested in his waistcoat pocket. He glanced about him with a little shake of the head and settled more comfortably in his chair.
Her quick glance noted the movement with a look of surprise. He was evidently expecting to stay! But the quiet restfulness in his face touched some chord in her, and she moved the drop-light a little and took up the knitting that lay beside it.
"Would you like to smoke?" she asked casually.
"Here?" He cast a humorous glance behind him, and she smiled.
"It is permitted," she said dryly.
"Gracious lady!" He leaned forward with a match to the hearth, and the smoke from his lighted cigar drifted slowly up.
It touched the books, brushing carelessly along the leather bindings and obscuring gilt letters and titles; it circled about Gabrielle Eaton and even seemed to tangle itself in the needles and the light wool that played about them in the firelight; and mounting to the ceiling, it grew tenuous and disappeared.
And John Fairchild watched it with a quiet smile.
The drop-light shadowed her face; but the firelight was playing on it as it bent above her needles.
Presently she looked up.
He nodded quietly.
"I should like to take you away from it all," he said.
"From this!" She made a quick movement, almost a gesture of protection, toward the room. "I thought we had settled all that." She spoke a little stiffly.
"No,"—he removed his cigar and looked thoughtfully at the tip,—"we did n't settle everything, did we?"
"But you understood—" She lifted a swift look to him.
"I understood, yes. You will not marry me."
The fire blazed suddenly, and a crash of sparks went scurrying up the chimney. She leaned forward to adjust the sticks. It surprised her to see that her hand, reaching to the tongs, was trembling.
"Let me do it," he said.
She relinquished the tongs, and he replaced the wood, busying himself with building a skilful pyre of sticks through which the flames played. He kept the tongs in his hands, bending forward to the hearth, his back a little turned.
"I meant what I said," he remarked quietly.
"Just now. I want to get you out of this." He was studying the fire thoughtfully.
Her work dropped to her lap.
"What do you mean, John?"
"I don't see why I have left you here so long," he said impatiently.
She stared her surprise, and a little fear of him had come into her look.
The man's strong face had turned and was watching her. Then he seemed to put himself and his wishes aside.
"Do you like it? Do you like all this?" He waved his hand at the self-contained room, and the gesture seemed to include the campus and the college world outside.
"Do you like it?" he demanded. "Does it satisfy you?"
She shook her head with a smile. Something that had frightened her for a moment in his face had disappeared.
"No, I don't like it—altogether; but I do not know anything I should like better."
"Think!" he said. "Be a sport! would you choose, in all the world could have it?"
She leaned forward.
"In all the world!" she repeated softly.
"Would you like to travel?"
"Travel? No." She brushed it aside.
"Well, then, what? You won't marry me, nor any man, I suppose." He was watching her face. "What is it you want?"
She moved vaguely.
"Why should I tell you?" she murmured.
"Because I love you," he retorted in a matter-of-fact tone.
She flushed slightly.
"That is n't a reason."
Again the voices hovered outside her door, with a sound of protest, and moved away.
"You don't even have an evening you can call your own." He motioned to the closed door.
Her lips parted.
"You don't understand."
"I am trying to."
"They are all that makes it endurable. She motioned to the door. "When I think of them it seems worth while. You could never guess the waste there is in a place like this—the wicked waste of it!" She caught her breath.
"Tell me," he said gently.
And while she told him he listened with close attention, smoking thoughtfully. And his thought ran ahead and seemed to meet her at every turn. His comprehension startled her.
"You do understand!" she cried.
"I understand business. I know when a plant is behind the times," he said dryly.
"And there is nothing I can do, so I live with my girls. That at least is worth while—what I give and receive from them."
They were silent a little.
"You might start one of your own," he suggested.
She laughed shortly.
"Why not? I will finance it. If I cannot have you, my money is of no particular value. All you can do with money is to buy pictures or endow a hospital or a college. I 'd rather endow you."
She gazed at the vision a minute. Then she shook her head.
"It would n't be fair."
"Oh, I am not altogether unselfish."
She cast a swift look at him.
"You would make terms?"
"Don't most millionaires make terms?"
"Yes, unless they 're dead. Sometimes they do even then," she said regretfully.
"I 'll make only one term. This institution—"
She held up her hands, protesting.
"Well, school, college, whatever you choose to call it, must be located in Dalton."
Her breath came with a cry of pleasure.
"But I should love that!"
"So should I. So that 's settled." He beamed on her, and she felt strangely shaken from the things about her. She seemed to be gazing through some window into a serene bit of country where through the trees a little river went its glimmering way.
She turned and looked at the man across the hearth.
"You really love me, don't you?" she said wonderingly.
"I really do," he replied in a matter-of-fact tone. "Have you thought out your plans? Do you know what you want—buildings, laboratories, and all that?"
She seemed still wrapped in the dream.
"I don't know—yes. I was reading something the other day—" She got up and crossed to a stand for a book. She knew where it lay, and her hand reached out to it, and paused. Her back was to the man by the fire. But as she lifted her eyes to the Florentine mirror above the stand she caught a glimpse of his face turned to her. There was hunger in it, and a look of quick suffering; all the businesslike indifference was swept away. She stood for a moment staring at it. Then her glance dropped to the book in her hand, and she stood turning the leaves idly. Wave after wave of unknown feeling swept over her, lifting her, engulfing her. The look in his face! She longed to take it in her hands and smooth it away—all the pain and repression in it. Not one of her girls, with eager questing for life, had stirred her as that glimpse of a man's face in the mirror on her wall.
She turned slowly, and faced the successful man of business.
She crossed to him quietly.
"This is the book," she said.
He reached out a hand for it.
With new eyes she saw that it was not quite steady as it reached to her.
"You want something like this?" he asked absently.
"Oh, no, not in the least like it!" she cried.
He looked up, surprised. She caught herself.
"It was reading it that gave me an idea. And when I went to get it just now I had—another idea."
"Yes?" He was feeling absently in his pocket for a pencil.
She watched his fingers nervously. Only the memory of the mirror held her. She threw out her hands a little impatiently,
"I did n't know you cared—like that!" she said.
She crossed to her chair and sat down, facing him almost sternly.
He stared at her. Then he got up and came over slowly.
"What do you mean, Gabrielle?"
He seemed very tall as she looked up to him. She put up a hand.
"I 'd like a school of my own better than this,"—she moved her hand a little,—"but more than anything in the world I want love." She said it swiftly under her breath.
"But I—I—love you!" He was clearly bewildered. He held himself in check. "I love you," he repeated. "I have n't done anything but tell you so for the last month."
"Oh-telling!" It was a little assent of scorn.
Again the swift look she had seen before swept his face, and she felt the grip of his hands on her shoulders.
She winced a little. Then she smiled, and the grip lightened.
"I am hurting you," he cried.
"Don't you know I want to be hurt? What is life for?"
She reached up to his face and drew it down to her, and all the wontedness of life seemed breaking up. She brushed a swift hand across her eyes.
His own searched them, unbelieving.
"You—care," he said under his breath.
She nodded. A little smile came to her eyes.
"You—slow—incomprehensible creature!" she murmured.
"I! Slow! Well!" He was looking down at her with humorous eyes as he drew her toward him.
"And I might never have known!" she said softly. She glanced toward the mirror on the wall. "Looking-glass, looking-glass, that hangeth on the wall—"
"Whom in the wide world do you love best of all?" he quoted slowly. "I used to read it to you, Gabrielle, when we were children."
"All children love it. I have been so foolish!" She said it with a little restful sigh.
"So you don't want your school?" His face was turned to her.
"Of course I want it—more than ever! We will have it together. I need you for it." A sudden thought touched her, and she looked at him.
"Do you know, I think I have been immensely selfish," she said slowly. "I have not for one moment thought of anything but myself and what I want!"
His answer was not perhaps what she expected. He bent to her and kissed her. Then his glance traveled about the perfect room and he smiled.
"Now you will be selfish for me," he said. "I may not always be able to live up to your selfishness; but I want it."
And all the perfect room seemed a little shocked. But Gabrielle Eaton laughed quietly.