Resurrection Rock (1920)/Chapter 9

CHAPTER IXCOUSIN AGNES

WHEN lake people have occasion to voyage from the Straits of Mackinac to the great city which lies near the southern end of Lake Michigan, they say they are going "up" to Chicago. Their custom of thought is contrary to the habit of ordinary travelers by railroad who consider that they are journeying "up" when headed north and "down" when speeding south; for the instinct of the lake people is to follow the course of water as it flows and, since Lake Michigan empties through the Straits into Huron, obviously Chicago is "up lake" from Mackinac.

Railroaders and those new settlers coming into the countries served chiefly by the roads are beginning to break down the old way of thinking and speaking; but railroads in the peninsulas are affairs of the last generation and a half; men are still hearty and strong who drove the old stages into Traverse upon the State "roads" slashed through primeval forests of the white and the Norway pine, the tamarack, spruce and balsam when the earliest predecessor of the Père Marquette had stretched its steel only to White Cloud, and when the right of way upon which the G. R. and I. now operates had its northern end at Big Rapids. And in the upper peninsula it was 1885 when the first locomotive thrust its pilot toward the waters of St. Mary's River. During the decades which are clearly in the remembrance of Charlevoix and Emmet County men and women, the whole world was shut in when winter froze over the Straits, stretched its ice-sheet across Grand Traverse Bay and Little Traverse and out to Beaver Island; for the ships, then, were laid up; and, if spring were late and the pioneers in the forest ran out of supplies before the lakes "opened" again, men packed provisions to one another on their backs, following on snowshoes the blazed trails to Traverse and Petoskey. Now, though the railroads run from the Soo to Chicago and from Grand Rapids to Mackinaw City during the twelvemonth, the "closing" and "opening" of the lakes in the fall and spring still tremendously influence the people of the peninsulas; for their chosen ways yet are upon the water.

Ethel Carew, granddaughter of Lucas Cullen—lumberman, mine owner and, in his day, possessor of his string of ships—always was, in her mind, one of the lake people who went from the Straits "up" to Chicago. For old Lucas consciously had taught her, when she was a child at St. Florentin, to think of the city only as an upstream settlement lying at the top of a lake and river system whose mouth is the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but whose center is—not Chicago—but the Straits. The impulse to impart this teaching arose, in Lucas, somewhat from local pride in the tradition which endowed his home with history going back two hundred and fifty years to the time when the first men from France, following the ancient water trails of the Indians, canoed to Michillimackinac and founded at the Straits the settlement which was the center for all western civilization of that time. Chicago was then—Lucas liked to say—only a swamp for Pottowatommies.

But his motive in this teaching was not all pride in the neighborhood of his St. Florentin; nor was his attitude to be explained by considering it the natural, invidious contempt of the city on the part of the forester, the miner and the shipman. Lucas's rancor against Chicago was far more personal and was stirred by the fact that though Lucas once had moved to Chicago and for a long period spoke of himself as "of Chicago" when conversing with strangers, yet Chicagoans never had considered him one of them in the manner that they deemed his brother John a Chicagoan. Lucas claimed, indeed, that he had never desired them to; he had come to the city simply to please his children, and he loudly scorned the social preferment which his brother and his brother's wife and their son Oliver, the "damn weakling", had won.

To tell the whole truth, Lucas himself had for a short time gone into the race for social preferment; and occasionally he admitted it by boasting of his results; for if the gains for himself were negligible, his energies and expenditures certainly succeeded in acquiring for his children much of that which he coveted. In the marriage of his elder daughter to a nobleman of France, had he not indisputable proof that when he undertook to play the social "racket" he had proved himself far more capable than John? For John's only child, Oliver, had married whom? A stenographer. No one of Lucas's four children had done as badly as that.

Lucas habitually terminated his reference to his nephew's wife with a statement of her position in the world when Oliver married her; her later position accorded less perfectly with Lucas's fine talk about the superiority of his branch of the family. For though young Lucas and Myra, his wife, and John and his wife all became well known, they never altogether gained the honorable prominence which Oliver's wife won; and this fact was borne in upon Lucas never more aggravatingly than at the time of the torpedoing of the Gallantic in September of the year just past. For Lucas II and Oliver's wife both were aboard; when the first reports of the disaster reached the city with the list of Chicagoans unaccounted for, there had been as much doubt of the safety of Lucas II as of the fate of Oliver's wife; yet every newspaper in the city displayed in tremendous headlines the fear that Mrs. Oliver Cullen was lost, relegating the interest in Lucas to secondary place.

To old Lucas, this had seemed insulting, disgraceful. "Mrs. Oliver Cullen Among the Lost," he reread the black type contemptuously. "Mrs. Oliver Cullen—Cullen," he repeated grudging her his surname "As if people cared what happened to that woman."

But people did care; many, many of them. Ethel had cared for cousin Agnes, though there was no blood bond between them, far more than for any one else whom she saw in Chicago. Indeed, cousin Agnes's personality was so predominant in Ethel's mind that when she thought of Chicago she had always thought first of cousin Agnes, of seeing her again and talking with her, and learning of the absorbing and vital new activities in which cousin Agnes would be engaged. For cousin Agnes was always absorbed in work and somehow, without dropping the tasks which had enlisted her, she continually was taking on new duties.

She had first come to Chicago when she was a girl,—so she always told those who asked her. Previously she had lived in a small town, she said; and no one—not even a newspaper interviewer—got much further on that point. The recorded year of her arrival in Chicago was 1897; her name had been Agnes Dehan; and she started her business career in the position of a stenographer, as Lucas Cullen repeatedly recalled. She found employment first with a tobacco firm on Wabash Avenue near the river; then she applied for and was given a position in the office of John Cullen on Dearborn Street. There Oliver met her and immediately fell in love with her.

Oliver had always kept a photograph of her as she was at that time,—a girl of medium height, well proportioned but thin. She was never meant to be so slender as she was; her frame was expressive of too great vigor for so little flesh. One knew, in gazing upon her picture, that she needed filling out and, when filled out, would be a beautiful and forceful woman. It was plain that, not long before her employment in the Cullen offices, she had passed through some extraordinary experience which had tremendously sapped her vitality. Not only her thinness betrayed this but also the expression of her lips and the look in her eyes. She had endured some frightful ordeal which temporarily had downed her but had not beaten her; it haunted her, but she was to overcome it; that was what her lips and her eyes silently said.

Many men offered themselves, after their various ways, to take up her battle for her,—men from her own station in life, men from situations usually considered below hers and from places deemed decidedly higher. But only Oliver Cullen, after his fifth or sixth attempt, succeeded in offering himself aright.

This was in '99, after John Cullen had dismissed Agnes Dehan, not for any fault in her work, but because she was too attractive to his son. She had been working elsewhere on Dearborn Street for more than a year; her figure had begun to fill out; she had regained strength and was beginning to exhibit the remarkable vigor of body and of mind and of will which so soon afterwards characterized the woman known to the city as Mrs. Oliver Cullen. She had become beautiful indeed with the beauty which made one feel the deepness and dignity of her thought and her character at the same time that her physical contours of feature, of arm and bosom and limb had become pleasing. Even at the time of her marriage when she was still a girl, no one would have described her as merely pretty. She had wonderful hair, chestnut in color, and she had distinct, dark brows—yes, too heavy, perhaps, if they had been above eyes which were only likeable and pretty. But Agnes Cullen's blue eyes required such brows. The lines were gone from about her lips which smiled seldom, indeed, but pleasantly when they did smile and never meaninglessly.

"That girl is unaccountable," friends of the Cullens said upon meeting her. "She is going to do something before she dies. What in the world do you suppose she wants with Oliver?"

"His money, of course," so the obvious and the stupid said.

But the truth was that, if she had wished only money, she might have married a richer man sooner; and the wise ones, if they had not discovered this fact, at least could have suspected it. "She'll make something surprising of Oliver," they said, which implied that so far—in the estimation of his own people—Oliver had made nothing surprising of himself.

His health, of course, was partly responsible; for Oliver had been born "delicate" and, by maternal anxiety and coddling, had been kept so.

"I don't dare have other children after my experience with Oliver," his mother confided to her intimates. "Besides, I must devote my life to him." And, as it proved that she had twenty years of life left to devote, Oliver was almost of age before he escaped the regime of doctor's diets, prescribed physical exercises and private tutors which altogether had fixed firmly in his consciousness that he was not, and never could be, as other men.

Frequently during Oliver's youth, when his father and his uncle were on speaking terms, Lucas jeered at John for the folly of Oliver's upbringing and boasted the perfect health of his own sons under more rigorous ideas of rearing. But John lived in the terror which only, a strong man, who had acquired much, can feel for the safety of his only son and heir; and his wife, too, had worked her dreads upon him.

"Yes, your way seems good for your boys," John would concede to Lucas. "But we have to be careful with Oliver, or we won't have him at all."

So, after a while, Lucas ceased to advise. If John wanted his boy a damned weakling, that was John's business, and all the more would go to Lucas and his sons. Thus Oliver continued to diet and exercise and study for an established number of hours a day in his rooms on the third floor of the prim, fashionable city home on Scott Street; upon fair afternoons, at appointed times, a riding master might appear, and Oliver would trot, in perfect form and upon a most thoroughly broken and trustworthy horse, around the corner to the Drive and up the bridle paths beside the lake to Lincoln Park. When the season came for his mother's voyages to Europe, Oliver accompanied her. Indeed, she proclaimed that many of her stays at Spa, Marienbad and Biarritz were necessary for Oliver's sake. Her son went to Japan and then around the world with her; but not until the September following her death did Oliver ever undertake an overnight journey alone. Then he ventured from Chicago to Boston to enter Harvard University.

This was wholly his own idea and entered upon of his own initiative. He purposed to make himself, as quickly as possible, like his cousins and the young men they knew, but his pride prevented him from following them to their chosen college. His determination was good; but he started a little late, and Harvard was very big and tolerant. Yale, where his cousins were, or a much smaller college might better have brought him into association with young men of the types he needed to know. There were plenty of them at Cambridge; but there were many of the milder, more timid men, too, studious, serious, interesting to Oliver and friendly. These welcomed Oliver and made him one of them; and so, though he steadfastly tried to row in one of the graded eights at Weld Boat Club, though he offered himself to track coaches and begged them to try him out mercilessly; though he even ventured—without any football experience whatever—to come out and be pummelled on the scrub elevens, the men whom he sought did not seek him. His cousins Lucas and John despised the mild friends he made almost as much as they despised him. When they came to Cambridge with the Yale teams, they introduced Oliver, condescendingly, to Harvard men who had been his neighbors in the dormitories for two years.

Lucas and John were members of good junior societies in New Haven; and it was their Harvard friends, they boasted, who finally put Oliver into the "Pud."

They never gave Oliver credit himself for catching on at last, though he actually had a part in a Hasty Pudding Play and got on the staff of the Lampoon. He was graduated "summa cum laude" and with Phi Beta Kappa, too; so he was offered a fellowship to return to the University next year as graduate instructor. The pay, of course, was ridiculous; but Oliver was independent of salary and delighted that he was wanted for himself. So he returned and instructed, and he dreamt happily of the day when he would work up to head of his Department and he would present to the university a new lecture hall, named after his old professor, and Oliver Cullen would hold classes in the big theater in which two or three hundred boys would gather, calling him affectionate nicknames among themselves and clapping when he came into the room.

His father despairingly attempted to turn Oliver from such ambitions; but his uncle Lucas laughed. Life insurance companies were beginning to ask reëxamination of John's "risk"; and Lucas's sons were out of college and demanding quite a place in the business. If Oliver liked to live like a highbrow on a few thousand a year, let him; he probably would never marry, and if he did, it would be to some Beacon Hill dowd who would keep him anchored in Boston far from interference with the Cullen western offices.

So everything was steering directly toward Lucas when Agnes Dehan put in her oar. Before she married Oliver, she made certain stipulations not communicated to others but which soon appeared in effect. The first evidently was that Oliver take her to England where she managed, by using the Cullen acquaintance and influence in a manner no other Cullen had ever dared, to gain a presentation at Court, and where she made an excellent impression. Shortly afterwards Oliver and she were entertained in English country places; they visited Egypt and India in company with English people of such distinguished standing that when Agnes returned to Chicago the women who previously would have snubbed her unmercifully—if she had been stupid enough to have given them a chance—fell over one another to receive her. But immediately after her return, she made it plain that she had broader plans than a mere social career.

Oliver entered the business; and the antagonism between his father and his uncle, which had more or less lapsed during John's failing health and Oliver's indifference, blazed up hotter than ever. John died and "the damned weakling" and his upstart wife, who had been a stenographer, claimed from Lucas and his stronger, far more able sons, the control of the Cullen corporations which ownership of old John's stock implied.

Lucas fought and blustered; but Oliver asserted the control; or, rather, Agnes did. For Lucas and his sons did not remain long in doubt regarding the force with which they had to deal; nor did outsiders remain ignorant. Mrs. Oliver Cullen, they thought, would have preferred to have her husband in control; but, having seen him try to exercise power, she held no dangerous illusions and took charge herself.

Oliver—whose youthful frailty developed into actual lesions before he was forty—fainted on a July day when he was walking in the sun; upon his recovery, he summoned his lawyer and transferred to Agnes title to all his holdings of every sort; so nominally, as well as actually, she governed stockholders' and directors' meetings and, whenever she cared to, outvoted and humiliated Lucas and his sons. If they did not like her control of family affairs, they had the right to buy her out or they could sell out to her. But they could not buy her out; and they knew the value of their own holdings too well to sell. So they grinned, as best they could, and bore it while they watched Oliver gradually sink into invalidism and year follow year with Agnes childless.

There was an old contract, which Lucas senior had safely locked away in a bank vault and which he inspected from time to time, by which he and his brother had bound themselves—for mutual and perfectly legal compensation in hand and hereby acknowledged—that in the event of either of them or their sons dying without issue, the holdings of the deceased would pass to the survivor. Lucas had hired most capable advice to the effect that, under certain conditions of survivorship, that contract would be enforceable to-day; and at last in the month of September, in the year of our Lord, 1918, those conditions seemed completely fulfilled; for Agnes, who had gone heart and soul into war work and had safely crossed six times through the submarine zone, finally sailed aboard a ship which was torpedoed; and she was lost.

The date of the sinking of the Gallentic was the seventeenth; upon that day Oliver was alive, though in poor health, at his home in Chicago. The news reached him on the eighteenth; on the twentieth he gave up hope for his wife; and on the twenty-second, he died. Now since Agnes, having been thoroughly businesslike, had not taken title to Oliver's possessions without legally providing that all return to him in the event of her death prior to his, Oliver must have been in possession after the seventeenth of September and until the twenty-second, after which date all was Lucas's.

But Agnes, as though to torment Lucas even after her death, had passed on in the most annoying way possible. Though it was obvious that she had drowned, yet no one actually had seen her drown; no one had witnessed at the time of the torpedoing—as the courts required—the infliction of injuries sufficient to cause her death; her body was not found. Hence the courts, though not questioning the validity of Lucas's contract if Agnes' death were known, yet required that a certain protracted period of time pass before the presumption of her death could become legally established. Time, before Lucas could take over her properties! Months and years when Lucas already was past threescore and ten! No wonder he swore whenever he thought of her.

Since she was not legally dead, her home remained open. It had been her habit to supply Mrs. Wain, her housekeeper, with funds for all household expenses for a year ahead; Agnes had done this just before leaving Chicago for her last trip to France; so Mrs. Wain and her servants were at the house, which they were keeping in order as though Mrs. Oliver Cullen were away merely on a visit.