The Ancient Grudge/Chapter 9
Floyd slept luxuriously late the next morning; when he came down to breakfast, Letty had already gone to her work at the Library.
"Mrs. Bell," he said, while his waited upon him, "what should you do in my place, getting a sudden holiday like this?"
"Land!" said Mrs. Bell, "I don't know, but I guess I'd get as far away from the works as I could."
"It must be fine out in the country this morning," observed Floyd. "I have to go into the city this afternoon; why would n't it be a good thing to spend the morning in the country?"
"Why, it would so," assented Mrs. Bell.
"What do you do with yourself, mornings?" pursued Floyd. What do women do after they get the men-folks shipped out of the house?"
"Oh, warsh the dishes and read up the rooms and sweep and mend clothes and bake and put up preserves and get things ready for dinner," Mrs. Bell replied.
"Suppose you take a holiday from all that this morning," Floyd suggested.
"My land! what for?"
"I'll get a team from the livery-stable and we'll go for a drive in the country."
"Oh, my goodness, Mr. Halket!"
"Yes, you go and get yourself ready, and I'll go after the team. I wonder if Letty could n't join us. I'll stop at the Library and see."
"Oh, the idea!" giggled Mrs. Bell. "Well, it certainly will be enjoyable."
She darted upstairs, and when a moment later Floyd went to his room for a box of cigarettes, he found her there, whisking about, making his bed, beating up his pillow.
"Woman!" he cried sternly, "have I not declared a holiday?"
She turned a scared face. "’T won't take me a minute to read up your room," she pleaded. "Besides, if I don't do it now, I'll have to later."
He looked at her with silent scorn while he pocketed his cigarettes.
"I will return anon," he said, as he departed, "with two horses—two." And he heard her tittering with glee as he descended the stairs.
At the Library he found Letty and sent her, quivering with excitement, to ask for a morning off. The librarian of the Halket Library was not inclined to oppose any obstacles to the wishes of a Halket, and Letty came back to Floyd, pinning on her hat, and with her face radiant.
"Oh, and it's such a beautiful day!" she said as they descended the steps of the building. The sun shone, the sky was all blue, even the smoke from the mills seemed clear and bright, going up in smooth, harmonious curls. Letty ran home to get ready for the drive, and Floyd went down the hill to the livery-stable. Here he had to expostulate with the proprietor, who, on finding that his customer knew something about horses, showed a belated eagerness in supplying the best pair in his establishment and the smartest turn-out. When Floyd drove up the hill, Mrs. Bell and her daughter issued promptly from their door; evidently they had been alarmed lest they might keep him waiting. Mrs. Tustin was pottering round in her front yard; Mrs. Bell had found an opportunity before Letty's arrival to dart over and tell her what was about to happen. She came and leaned upon the fence and smiled at Floyd. She watched her neighbors as they were mounting to the back seat of the carriage.
"Are both of you going to sit in there?" Floyd asked. "Somebody ought to be up here to help me in case these spirited horses get beyond my control."
Mrs. Bell was at once for changing her seat obediently, but her daughter laughed and held her back, saying, "Don't you see, Ma, he's only joking?"
Then Mrs. Tustin cried in her most genial voice,—
"My goodness, seein' that extry seat makes me feel almost like invitin' myself along."
Floyd pretended not to hear, flourished the whip and chirruped to the horses, and in another moment had left Mrs. Tustin standing in sour contemplation by her fence.
Up over the crest of the hills and away from the dirty river he laid his course, and before long the country cleared before them, unspoiled and unbegrimed. Woods of hickory, maple, and birch, all in the full glory of their autumn coloring, fringed the small farms and bordered the roadside.
"Oh, look, Mr. Halket, there goes a chipmunk with a nut in his mouth!" cried Letty; and Floyd touched up the horses and raced the squirrel, who went bounding along the top of the rail fence in wild affright.
"My, that's exciting!" said Mrs. Bell, when the horses had settled again to an easy trot. "I was afraid for a while, Mr. Halket, that they'd got away from you."
"Oh, I tell you," bragged Floyd, "there's nothing so good for the muscle as being an iron-worker."
"This is the first carriage ride I've had in—my goodness! I don't know how many years," mused Mrs. Bell aloud.
"I guess it is n't such a new thing to you, Miss Bell," hazarded Floyd.
"Why, I don't know. What makes you think that?" Letty asked.
"Does n't Hugh Farrell handle the reins now and then?"
Floyd winked perceptibly over his shoulder at Mrs. Bell.
"Now, Mr. Halket, you are the tease!" exclaimed Letty.
Floyd turned round to her with a sober face.
"You'd tell me, would n't you, if you really minded?" he said.
"Why, yes, of course—oh, my goodness, what am I to say!" cried Letty. "Well, you certainly are the tease!"
"I suppose," Floyd said to Mrs. Bell, "your daughter would tell us if we are taking a road that's familiar?"
Mrs. Bell began to giggle, and Letty cried in despair, "Well, if you are n't the tease!"
Returning home by a different road, they came past the grounds of the Avalon Country Club, and Floyd was pointing out the golf links and tennis-courts when a young woman driving in a high-wheeled cart dashed through the gateway toward them. It was Lydia, and as Floyd raised his hat her glance of surprise followed hard on that of recognition. She slowed up to say, "You're coming to luncheon?" and to get his answer, "Yes;" then she drove smartly on.
"Funny, is n't it," Floyd remarked to his companions, "that I should meet the lady I'm going to lunch with away out here."
Letty wanted to ask him who the girl was, sure that she must be one of those enviable persons whose names were so familiar to her in the society column of the Avalon Sunday Eagle. As she said to her mother afterwards, she was "dying to know," and Mrs. Bell confessed to a like curiosity. But though Floyd could be so free in teasing Letty about Hugh, she did not dare to question him flippantly in the same way—especially when he lapsed for a while into an abstracted silence. It was not, however, long before he resumed his former buoyancy and drove with what seemed to Mrs. Bell a wild carelessness, turning about on his seat and chatting irresponsibly with her and Letty. And afterwards, when he had driven them home and left them, and they were talking over the experience, they reminded each other of the note in the strange handwriting and of the idiotic gayety that had possessed him that night, and recalled similarities to what Mrs. Bell termed his "nice craziness" on the road. "I'm sure it's that girl we met, Letty," she said, and Letty agreed with her.
Meanwhile Floyd was hurrying in to Avalon. He went to his grandfather's house, where he put on his riding-clothes, and then to the stable, where he mounted his black mare, Kitty. Then, because he was late, he galloped all the way to the Dunbars', and came in to Lydia and her mother flushed and disheveled.
"So you managed to get your Saturday afternoon off," Lydia said, to him, with a laugh.
Floyd entered upon an earnest explanation of how his work had suddenly been changed and he had unexpectedly been givien the whole day.
"Oh," said Lydia, "I don't think any the worse of you; I'm glad you're willing to take a holiday when you can. It was perfectly splendid to see you enjoying yourself. But I'm afraid after this morning you'll find our ride a very tame affair."
Floyd protested, flushed, and checked himself; he had a feeling that it might be either caddish or priggish to explain to Lydia who his companions had been. He certainly did not mind being teased by her; he wondered why he should seem so embarrassed.
At luncheon Lydia did not altogether drop the subject; she wondered where they would go; she would have to map out a new course, for she had intended to take him where he had been that morning, and it would n't do now at all—such associations as he had with it possibly, and so recent— And Floyd, remembering that in similar words he had teased Letty on the drive, broke here into sudden laughter.
"But what is so funny?" Lydia asked. "Do tell us."
Floyd shook his head. "No, it's just a little private joke of my own," he said, and he went on laughing in the most annoying fashion.
"How mean of you!" exclaimed Lydia. "Mamma, don't you think he might tell us?"
"Lydia," said her mother, "as I have often said, you are consumed by a burning curiosity."
"And yet one would think," observed Floyd, "that a burnt child would dread the fire!"
"Both of you are quite horrid," said Lydia, "and I don't believe I'll read you Stewart's letter."
But after luncheon she relented a little—so far as to read Floyd extracts from it, describing the two French friends he had already acquired and his rooms in the Rue Soufflot. "Why do you skip?" Floyd asked innocently, and was delighted to see her blush and hear her say, "Oh, Stewart gets silly here and it would n't interest you."
The horses were brought round; the groom held them while Floyd helped Lydia to mount. In her light, strong spring from his hand he caught as it were a more vital conception and possession of her personality, more vital than had been conveyed by the touch of her hand or the glance of her eyes. That instant he was flooded with the desire and the love that he had until then been trying to suppress.
He mounted and rode along the driveway by her side, silent and with his nerves throbbing. They trotted down to the park behind his grandfather's hill; here there was a bridle-path, and she gave her pony rein and dared him to catch her. With a sudden fierceness, the antidote to his sense of impotence, he gave chase and swept past her, sitting erect and ruthless, not drawing rein until he had distanced her by twenty yards. She cantered up to him, a little hurt and reproachful.
"You might have made it more of a race," she said, with an appealing smile that went to his heart.
"I guess I just forgot myself," he said humbly.
"I don't mean," she explained, "that I wanted you to let me win."
He laughed. "I guess I should n't think that of you."
They came out of the park and ambled along country roads, now and then making brief dashes, in which for a few seconds at least Lydia always held her own. After a time she said to him,—
"Floyd, I'm going to be very impertinent. Do you mind telling me who those people were I saw you with this morning? If you do mind, just say so."
"They were Mrs. Bell, my landlady, and her daughter," Floyd answered.
"Oh!" She meditated a moment. "That is just the kind of thing that I should have supposed you'd do."
"Put in part of your holiday giving people a good time."
"I'm sorry I'm making such a failure of the rest of it."
"How disagreeable of you to say that! But you know what I mean. It's because I thought it was something of that kind that I dared to be impertinent. Do you mind if I say right out what I think? It makes me like you better than ever."
Floyd swept off his cap and bowed down to his horse's mane.
"Oh, you need n't take that as a great compliment," Lydia continued. "I'm perfectly illogical. Now, we both know that Stewart would no more do a thing like that than he'd—well, I give up. But he would n't do it for anything—and just that trait in him is one of the things that makes me care for him. It's so—Bostonian—and so human."
"And I'm neither Bostonian nor human," Floyd said rather sadly.
"You're certainly not Bostonian; you have some tendency to be human, but I shall always think of you as mainly heroic," Lydia pronounced; and she did not know how deeply the definition cut him. "Of course, Stewart could do an heroic thing, don't you think so, Floyd?"
"Yes, oh yes, indeed," Floyd hastened to declare.
"If he could n't," Lydia continued vaguely, "I'm sure he would n't be so—so lovable. And everybody feels that he is—don't they, Floyd?"
"Yes, everybody," Floyd answered.
They rode silently together, side by side, and Floyd looked at her with a kind of rage, because she was so beautiful and yet was not for him. He clinched his teeth and his lips and turned away from looking at her. And then in a moment he would glance round again, and she, catching the movement and thinking he was about to speak, would turn towards him with an expectant smile. That smile, so cajoling and so gentle, must soften the most churlish companion. It summed up all the light of fellowship and liking in the gray eyes, all the sweetness and humor of the flexible, light lips, the poetry of the temples, the courage and spirit of the chin; it was Lydia. And the figure of the girl, erect on her horse, outlined beneath the tight-fitting black coat, had something of the same frankness, clearness, and simplicity of beauty as her face,—slim-waisted, deep of chest and bust; and more and more as Floyd rode with her the feeling of her spring from his hand to the saddle tingled through him, making him cognizant of her subtle strength and lightness.
A wish was swelling and stifling in his bosom—a wish to show her that he was no monstrosity of self-immolation, such as she seemed to conceive him, but a man, greedy, selfish, passionate, turbulent, loving—loving—loving. He was close by her side; Stewart—in Paris—intervened. The arrogance of utter conviction possessed Floyd; if he chose to show himself, to make the effort, he could win her from Stewart; he looked at her again, and again the conviction cried out arrogantly within him and urged him on. Conquest would not be his at once, but it would be attained; he had the consciousness of utter desire which is the consciousness—or the delusion—of the ultimate power. Yet his lips were sealed and his power was chained in his breast, and his love must beat itself to death in his brain—all because a man lived whom he had plucked from the depth of the sea.
Again he looked at her; and then, with the sudden imagination that he was riding Stewart down, he struck his horse's flank and shot ahead a little way at a gallop. Then he pulled in and sat with his head dejected, thinking, "It would n't be square; it would n't be square."
"I'm afraid you're tired," said Lydia sympathetically, riding up. "I ought to have remembered you're not riding as I am every day."
"No, I'm not tired," Floyd answered. "Don't worry about me; I'll ride with you as long as you want."
"I think perhaps we'd better turn back anyway," she said. "It will be dark by the time we get home."
Most of the way they jogged in silence. When they came near the Halket place, Lydia said, "You must n't bother to ride home with me. Put up your horse and then come over to dinner."
She was so urgent that at last he consented; he was not loath to prolong for an hour an intimacy that in his silent thoughts he had decided to bring to an end.
It did not ease his mind to sit opposite her at dinner that evening; with her arms and shoulders bare, with her dark hair piled thick and glistening and dropping loose tendrils forward about her temples, with her face and neck lighted softly from the shaded candles, she seemed to him even more radiant and entrancing than on horseback. After dinner he took his leave early, though Mrs. Dunbar and Lydia pressed him to pass the night and Sunday with them; he said vaguely that he had things to do at New Rome; no, he could not even come in on Sunday to dinner; he rejected the invitation obstinately, telling himself that no good could come of further dallying.
When he had closed the door of the house behind him, he walked down the driveway with a swelling in his throat and with a miserable feeling of despair. Lydia in Avalon—the presence to which he had looked with expectation and delight—could only be a torture to him—the more maddening the more that he saw her. From this moment he would give up the sight of her if he could not abandon the thought. And then savagely the old, primitive, brutal instincts seized him; he would strangle the thought of her, too. He boarded a car for New Rome and sat brooding and huddled together in a comer. He was not human, was he not? To-night he would carouse with humanity.
He was, however, in a mood which was not easily influenced by drink. In the bar-room in New Some he sat at a table and consumed whiskey. It could not take his mind from Lydia; he thought of her, with his arms outstretched upon the table, turning his glass slowly round and round in his fingers. Though his head remained clear, his thoughts seemed to grow tainted and corrupt, until suddenly he pushed the glass from him, and sitting with his head bowed on his hands muttered to himself, "God! I was soiling her with my thoughts!" He called for more whiskey and for more; and at last with a sullen, dogged, and inflamed mind he resolved this night to descend to a depth from which he need not again aspire, the memory of which would be a reproach and chastisement to his love. "She's not for me; let's be a man to-night." He betook himself upon slightly unsteady legs to the dance-hall.
A large blonde girl stood near the stairs talking with two men. Floyd approached and said to her abruptly, "Will you dance with me?" She looked round, ready to make some flippant reply, but the expression on his dark face subdued her, and she offered herself without a word. When he had put his arm round her, she tried a little coquettishness. "Now you've got me, don't look so fierce. Can't you smile, old Pain-in-the Face?" He did not answer, but whirled away with her, and if she felt piqued she also felt elated, for she had captured one of the best-looking men in the hall.
Bumping through the crowd, Floyd bumped eventually against Hugh Farrell, who had the same partner as at the former dance, the girl with the pronounced cherry color on lips and cheeks, the silent girl who chewed gum. "Hello!" cried Farrell genially. Floyd looked coolly at him and did not answer. Farrell steered close alongside. "Hello!" he said; and then as Floyd still did not answer, his voice became stern. "I'm speakin' to you," he said. Floyd drew his partner away, and getting over to the other side of the room, stopped.
"That will do for me, thank you," he said; and he abandoned her as abruptly as he had come. He went to the head of the stairs and leaned against the wall.
If his mood had suddenly become virtuous, it was still ugly. He kept his eyes fastened on Farrell and his partner. At the end of the dance they sat down on one of the benches across the room; Farrell threw one arm carelessly over her shoulders, and she nestled up to him and chewed her gum in the serenity of being possessed. Floyd stood looking at them; his vindictive, chastising rage on behalf of virtue simmered harmlessly away, and in its place came the wish to help rather than to punish a friend. He walked across the room unsteadily, conscious and ashamed of his unsteadiness, and as he stood bending down in front of Hugh Farrell, he swayed a little from side to side.
"Hugh Farrell," he said, "I—I did n't answer you. I want to beg your pardon." He put out his hand and leaned on Farrell's shoulder, and then continued, murmuring in his ear, "You—you see how it is—how it is with me. I beg your pardon."
"Oh, sure," said Farrell good-naturedly, reaching up and gripping his hand. "I know how it is, old man; that's all right."
"Thanks. Hugh Farrell, I want just a few minutes' private talk with you; just a few minutes, Hugh Farrell; tell—tell her."
Farrell spoke to his partner, who released him; then he rose and walked with Floyd across to the stairs.
"Come outside just a moment," Floyd urged. "I—I can't have private talk with you here."
He was losing control over his speech as well as over his legs, but his head was clear. Farrell was quite willing to humor him and descended the stairs. Floyd drew him across the street, and still clinging to him leaned against the fence inclosing a vacant lot.
"Hugh Farrell," he said, "you're a friend of mine—and I like you. You're engaged to a girl that's a friend of mine—and I like her. She loves you, and you've given her to understand that you love her. Now you think I'm drunk—'nd I am. I can't walk straight—'nd I can't talk straight—but I can see straight—you—you understand?"
He looked Farrell in the eyes, even while he clung to him, wobbling.
"No," said Farrell doggedly.
"Then—then you must have patience while I explain. You must be patient—for 'n this condition I must pick and choose my words—pick and choose—Look here," Floyd stiffened himself. "A man that loves a girl—and then runs with a woman—he's a cad—and he's a—he's a human skunk—"
Farrell cursed under his breath and tried to shake himself free, but Floyd clung fast.
"I tell you he is," he cried earnestly; "I know, for I have so mighty near been one myself—so mighty near—but I'm not—I swear I'm not! And, Hugh Farrell, I don't want you to be one—for you're my friend, and I like you, and you're a man, a man—and Letty—you know, Hugh Farrell, she loves you and you can have her, she's yours," Floyd burst out with a sudden intense passion and came to a full stop, clutching Farrell's coat and looking steadily into his eyes. "And—you run with that!"
He let go of Farrell and pointed across the street up at the lighted windows of the dance-hall. Farrell stood motionless; he did not move when Floyd turned to him again. This time Floyd staggered and half sank against him.
Farrell stood supporting the drunken man.
"Come along, old boy," he said gently at last. "I guess you need a hand getting home.—Now we're off—that's right—no, need n't bother to thank me; some other day we'll thank each other. I swear," he murmured reflectively under his breath, "if you ain't a gentleman, though."
He piloted Floyd home, and since Mrs. Bell and Letty were already in bed, got him up to his room without creating a scandal in the house.