By Alice Duer Miller
THOUGH Miss Wooster's life had been an unusually happy one, she was, at forty, still prone to believe that the worst was extremely likely to happen.
Each year, when she came back from Europe, she would lean, bravely enough, over the rail, trying to read in the eyes of her brother-in-law, who always came to meet her, with his pockets full of American gold, what was the special disaster that had occurred during her absence.
Rodney Traver was a delightful person to help you through the customs—at once so good-tempered and so efficient; and usually, by the time this was over. Miss Wooster found herself reassured, and began to think it possible that perhaps her family and friends had struggled through after all. But on the special occasion before us she was aware that even after they had left the docks and were driving uptown her spirit was not completely at rest.
Was something really wrong? Or was Rodney annoyed at the amount of her duties, or shocked at her not having declared the dress she was wearing?
She decided to hazard a direct question.
"How is Helena?"
He did not instantly answer, and in that second's pause Miss Wooster had time to imagine every possible human tragedy that could have overtaken her sister.
"Helena's well, I think," Rodney answered, but his tone did not satisfy her.
She liked her brother-in-law, sincerely and without reserves, and yet thirteen years before she, and others more naturally optimistic, had not felt absolute confidence that the marriage would turn out well.
For Helena was a beauty—not just a pretty woman, but a pure, perfect blonde beauty, whom foreign courts honored and no one ever forgot. The objection to Rodney was not only that he did not offer anything very brilliant in the way either of money or position, but that he insisted on being interested in his own affairs; he was not absolutely selfless, as it was felt the husband of a great beauty, like the husband of a prima donna, ought to be.
And then Miss Wooster had her own private objection, which she hadn't told any one. Helena was too much in love. It was all very well for ordinary, every-day people to be swayed by such considerations—Mildred Wooster herself would have married for no other reason, but she had an undefined feeling that great beauties, like royalties, ought to look a little farther ahead. It seemed to her as if in some way Helena had been false to a career and would be made to regret it.
For Helena's beauty was of an order that made it in a measure a career. There are, as Miss Wooster had long ago noted, two kinds of beauties—the passive and the active, the hoarders and the spenders: those who consider their beauty as an end in itself and those who consider it merely as a means. Helena was of the latter sort. She did not just contribute her appearance as a splendid spectacle. She made it serve to make her a personage, and a personage she certainly was.
Some of Helena's admirers had regretted that Rodney did not seem to be content with one personage in the family, but had, in a quiet sort of way, set out to be at least a person. But as years went by, and the marriage proved to be an uncommonly successful one, all these criticisms died away, and only an observer as determinedly apprehensive as Miss Wooster still remembered the old doubts.
She was much relieved on arriving at the house to find Helena much as usual. The first fifteen minutes went beautifully; the first hour not so well. And after this everything began to look so black that the first instant she was alone with her sister she turned to her and asked:
"Helena, what in the world is the matter?"
This question is met in but one way by those who do not intend to answer it. Helena allowed her eyes to dwell on her sister as if far away she could just hear a strange but unimportant sound, and then she said:
"With me? Why, nothing at all."
But of course Miss Wooster was not deceived. Helena was depressed, was indeed much more than that—she lived in a sort of fog, an icy mist surrounded her. There was something careful and mechanical in every gesture and expression. The very tone of her voice was indefinably different.
At the end of a day or two Miss Wooster, knowing that her imagination had sometimes led her astray, spoke to her brother-in-law, hoping that he would tell her the nightmare did not exist. But no such comfort was to be hers.
"Oh, I'm so glad you've come home, Mildred," he broke out. "It's been like this for months. What can it be? Sometimes I've tried to persuade myself that it was nothing, but of course you see it too. She's like a fellow I once knew who found out he had a fatal disease—so like that I actually went to the doctor about her, but he says she's as sound as ever. If she were a clerk in my office, I'd say she had embezzled and that she saw the penitentiary looming just ahead of her. You see, if one only knew what it was, one might be able to help."
"Bills sometimes weigh on the best of us," said Miss Wooster from the depths of her own experience.
"Oh, if it were only that! But it isn't."
A darker suspicion had crossed Miss Wooster's mind. A lover. Helena was just at the age to fall in love with a beautiful boy who either did not return the feeling or else was too prudent to admit it. (Miss Wooster had long been of the opinion that prudence was the great masculine virtue—or defect.) She spent several busy days trying, as it were, to pass Helena's conversation through a sieve, in the hope that a telltale name would appear, but without success.
The truth at length came out in the simplest way. Mildred Wooster had brought her sister out a dress, as she usually did, and this year it was of a faint yellowish-pink color which had always been a favorite with Helena. It was obvious from the first moment that it was not becoming. Miss Wooster, with natural egotism, was most occupied with that aspect of the case which concerned her own failure. She felt extremely sorry and said so a number of times.
"But why in the world doesn't it become you?" she cried. "It always used to—that color."
Helena, standing before her long light mirror, turned to her sister with the dress slipping about her knees.
"Because I'm getting old," she said, and for an instant she looked actually haggard.
"My dear child——"
"I'm old; I'm done for," she said with real passion. "Oh, other women wouldn't be who do other things, but I had nothing else. I was a beauty and that was all. Rodney had a friend who went bankrupt last year, and we all pitied him because we said he was nothing but rich. I'm like that. I was nothing but a beauty, and it was quite enough while it lasted. Everything I did was different because of it. You don't understand. No one could, I suppose, who had not had it. Why, the way I came into a room was different because I was beautiful; and don't imagine that the room was not different, too. I believe, Mildred, I could have had anything in the world in the gift of man, if I had wanted it; it isn't impossible. Do you remember our first night at the opera in Berlin? Or that wonderful Texan? I valued those things, not just because they flattered me, but because they made anything possible—they opened doors. And now all the doors are closing."
"I never thought you so vain, Helena."
She smiled. "This is not vanity," she said. "It's just a fact—the greatest fact in my life."
"Not greater than Rodney."
"Yes, in a way greater. Love is a relation, but this is me, myself. I'm like a goddess whose worshippers have turned atheist. They may be kind to me, but there will be no more worshipping done."
"Yes, Rodney loves me, but do you think I want to be loved because I'm a nice old hag whom he's accustomed to! Oh, I shall come to being grateful even for that, but remember, I've been used to being loved because I'm lovely—strange that I never thought of myself as being without my beauty any more than I thought of myself as being without a roof over my head. 'She must have been handsome'—that's what people will soon be saying. I'd rather be dead."
"My dear, my dear, be careful what you say. You have so much to live for. This bitterness of spirit will pass."
"Yes, with the last spark of youth," said Mrs. Traver, "and I shall still go on living—if you call it living."
Miss Wooster was in some doubt whether this interview left her relieved or depressed. Age, after all, was not exactly a catastrophe, and yet there was something terribly inevitable in the quality of Helena's despair.
"She'll adjust herself," Miss Wooster thought, and, even as she formulated the belief, was aware that she herself would find it hard to adjust herself to the idea of Helena faded and marred.
But whatever Mildred's feelings in regard to this conversation may have been, there was no doubt that Rodney, when she told him, as she immediately did, was immensely relieved—relieved and, like so many of us when the strain of anxiety relaxes, a little annoyed.
"I don't want to be a fatuous fool," he said to his sister-in-law, "but, after all, she has me, and to me she is as much the goddess as ever. It seems to me it's rating our relation pretty low in the scale. Besides, even if I didn't exist, her life is a fairly pleasant one—most women would consider it so, I think."
Miss Wooster tried to say something tactful about Helena valuing her beauty principally on her husband's account, but the words would not come. In her heart she thoroughly agreed with him.
It was one of Mildred's gayer theories of life that unwarranted gloom was a beacon to misfortune. And so she was not in the least surprised to learn, some months later—Helena's depression having continued unabated—that her sister was now in the grip of a real disaster.
Rodney's heart, never very strong since his college days, had suddenly given out. There had been a short, sharp, life-and-death struggle to which an indefinite period of invalidism seemed likely to succeed.
Mildred was in California when she received the news, and the worst was over before she reached her sister. Her anxiety had been acute. It was quite clear to her that, if Rodney died, for Helena the last incentive to live would be gone. And then there were other worries.
Rodney's affairs had always been solid rather than brilliant. He was the channel through which an uncle, who owned mills in New England, marketed his products. This business, so prosaic in Mildred's eyes, was not prosaic to Rodney. He had been brought up in and out of the mills, he believed in them; the whole subject had always had his liveliest attention. Now, for the first time, he had begun to succeed, his plans had begun to bear fruit. He was bringing contracts to his uncle instead of merely disposing of whatever his uncle sent him.
But Mildred feared the business was dependent for its existence on Rodney. She feared deeply for the Travers' finances. Helena poor, as well as old, was a thought she could not face.
She had been prepared on her arrival to find her sister heroic, or unstrung, or cold, or passionate, but the one thing she had not expected was to find Helena was out.
Mildred reached the house about noon. Rodney was still in the hands of his nurses. Mrs. Traver would not be back until lunch-time. Miss Wooster went up-stairs to superintend her unpacking and here elicited another fact: Mrs. Traver was always out from half past nine to one.
Soon she heard Helena come in and go straight to Rodney's room. When, presently, luncheon was announced, Miss Wooster was urged to go down alone, as Mrs. Traver was with Mr. Traver and might be a little late.
Mildred had reached the sweet course before Helena came in, very eager and affectionate.
"My dearest Mildred," she cried, "how good of you to come as quickly—" But she did not finish the sentence, for a servant interrupted to say—Mildred could not help hearing—that Mr. Bristow, of the Bristow Curtain Company, would like to speak to Mrs. Traver on the telephone.
Helena was gone in a flash.
As Mildred sat, trying to make three spoonfuls of pudding last twenty minutes, she allowed herself to become aware of one encouraging fact: her sister was no longer plunged in melancholy. If not exactly gay, she was keener and more active than she had seemed for years. Was this merely the effect of a crisis?
One of the little things that in the past had been indicative of Helena's state of mind had been her utter indifference as to what she ate. There was nothing of that now. When, presently, she came back, and at last sat down to the table, she selected her food with the closest attention.
The reason for her changed demeanor was not long in coming out. Helena was running her husband's business. A few days after his illness he had had an appointment in which he had hoped to secure an important contract. He had fretted so much over the danger of losing it that the doctors had finally allowed the interview to take place at his bedside. Helena had been present. She had subsequently become Rodney's messenger and then his representative. He had, of course, coached her for her part.
"It's such fun, Mildred. Business is more of a game than I ever imagined. Rodney told me first what he really wanted and then—a, b, c—what he would be willing to accept. And then he made me try and imagine their point of view and what they would try to put through. He would take my rôle, and I theirs, and we could almost always guess just what they were going to say. And then he taught me to recognize just the psychological second when a deal can be made—the moment to get either in or out."
"Dear me," said Miss Wooster, "it sounds very difficult."
"It is, and it isn't. There are really only a few things to think about, but you must think of them hard. And then you see, my dear, I have the advantage of all Rodney's experience besides the immense advantage of being a woman."
"You mean your looks?"
"Oh, no," said Mrs. Traver, "my looks, in a way, have been a disadvantage."
"A disadvantage!" cried Miss Wooster, and no one could blame her for being astonished. "What do I hear! Is the goddess repudiating her divinity? Six months ago you told me that your beauty——"
"I know, I know, Mildred," said her sister, "but you must not laugh at me because I'm trying to begin all over again—to find something where, since I am losing my beauty, beauty doesn't so much matter. It's not easy, you know—not being a goddess to one who had grown accustomed to it—but I've suddenly found a way that makes it bearable. At least I feel as if I were alive again, and that's something. Only, of course, I was a great beauty, and I shall never be a great business woman."
"I own I'm surprised to see what an interest you take in it," said Miss Wooster.
"Interest!" Helena laughed. "I wake up at six every morning so as to have an uninterrupted hour or two to think out just what I must do through the day. It isn't quite fair, in a way, for my being a woman fusses them terribly: they never can guess how wise or how stupid I'm going to be; whereas, their being men doesn't fuss me at all."
During the hour which, later in the day, she was allowed to spend with her brother-in-law she heard his account of Helena's activities. He had been terribly anxious at first—just at a time when anxiety was most dangerous to him. Helena had, perhaps, saved his life as well as his business.
"When I get about again," he said, "I must take her in as a partner."
Miss Wooster regarded such talk as fantastic, but she was much relieved. Obviously, the Travers' finances were not instantly going to destruction.
Miss Wooster had set up a great friendship with Rodney's doctor, who used to stop in her sitting-room both before and after his visit to his patient,
"Yes," he said on one of these occasions, "I feel thoroughly satisfied. With proper care he'll live for years, though—this between ourselves—he must never go to work again."
"What! Rodney not go back to business!"
"No, it will be safer not. He's one of the fortunate ones, however, with enough money to live on and a wife he adores. When I have to say this to some beggar who knows he must either work or starve, it's a very different matter. But I'm only sentencing Traver to a perpetual holiday."
"Oh, come," said Miss Wooster, "you would not like such a sentence yourself."
"Ah, it's different in my case," said the doctor. "A wretched bachelor—what has he but his work? At my time of life a man begins to realize fully what a mistake it is to suppose that any one can make work his whole existence. We need something more than a career, Miss Wooster, and yet one is hardly fit—hardly dares to offer oneself as a companion. I own I dread idleness, but I should feel very differently if I had a wife to share my leisure. Besides, I can't help feeling that a profession has a slightly higher value to a man than a mere business can have. I have no doubt your brother-in-law, with all his many interests, will find himself leading a pleasanter life than when he used to go to an office every day."
And at this they fell to picturing possible lives for an imaginary couple until the nurse came down to know if she should delay Mr. Traver's luncheon any longer or if the doctor were coming up.
All that day the subject of a fitting background to the life of a sympathetic pair occupied so much of Miss Wooster's attention that perhaps she was not as observant as usual of the particular pair who were nominally, at least, to occupy the centre of the stage.
She had been with Rodney some time before she noticed that his response to her customary gossip was more listless than usual. She rose rather guiltily to go.
"I'm so glad you're really out of the woods, Rodney."
"Yes," he answered, "I'm going to live—if you call it living." Then, seeing her surprise at the bitterness of his tone, he explained: "Didn't you know? I supposed you were in the secret. The doctor talks of a trip abroad, a few months' holiday. I know very well I shall never be able to work again."
"Oh, I'm sure you're mistaken," Miss Wooster gasped rather unconvincingly; "but, even at the worst, is enforced idleness so dreadful?"
He smiled. "Death is nothing but enforced idleness on rather a large scale," he answered. "And, upon my word, I think I'd about as lief be dead. I was not born to be an idler, and, even if I were, my training has made it impossible. I've worked all my life for one object, and now, just as I was reaching it, my doctor blandly tells me to take a holiday and think of something else. Of what, in Heaven's name?"
"How about Helena?"
"Of course it was for Helena I wanted success."
"Business isn't everything, Rodney," said Miss Wooster. "Your daily life does not sound so terrible to me—travelling, books, Helena——"
"Yes, yes, that's what my medical man has been dinning into my ears," he returned crossly. "It's all very well for him. In the first place, he has no one to think of but himself; he's unmarried; and in the second, he's a professional man; I suppose he could sit placidly at home all day and study. But it's very different in business. My only ability is in action—to pit my brain against the other fellow's in the actual every-day contest. That's all I know how to do and about all I want to do. They talk of peace and leisure and art—well, I'm afraid we've just got to face the fact that I'm a commonplace American business man and my only reason for existence has just been taken from me."
There was something so hard and final in his tone that even Mildred could think of nothing consolatory to say, and as she watched him she saw the same haunted look come into his face that had so lately disappeared from Helena's.
In the long pause that followed Helena herself came into the room, and, without breaking the silence, took her husband's hand, not looking at him but staring where he was staring—into the fire.
At last she said, as if phrases from the late dialogue were still audible in the air:
"How strange it is that we are brought up to think middle age is a peaceful time—an easy, monotonous down-grade. As a matter of fact, it's the time for beginning over—for starting your life afresh."
"I'm too old to start fresh," said Rodney.
"It's because you're old that you have to," she answered. "When we're young it all goes of itself. Yes, every one who's worth anything begins life again somewhere between thirty-five and fifty—begins it destitute in some important respect. I look back and see that my parents did it, though I did not know it at the time; they lost their belief in each other; and yours, too, Rodney, though their fresh start was only a financial one. And I've had to do it, and now you must, Rodney."
He shook his head sadly, but she did not change her tone.
"Yes, you will, my dear," she said. "It's a losing fight, I suppose, and that makes it terrible, but somehow it's rather exciting."
There was another pause, and in the silence Miss Wooster, watching her brother-in-law, fancied she saw a speculative gleam begin to waken in his eyes.