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The Brothers (Boyce)

The Brothers

by Neith Boyce

Author of "The Blue Pearl," etc

THE two handsome boys, six and four years old, one blond like the mother, the younger dark like the father, were playing on the terrace, through the light and shade of pointed firs. They were both dressed in white, with sturdy bare legs, their hair picturesquely cut square across the forehead and nape of the neck. The younger had a new tricycle, and the elder, Richard, was teaching him to ride it, keeping a careful touch on the handle-bars and admonishing Paul in a grave, gentle voice:

"No, no, Paul; when you want to go this way you turn the handle this way—see?"

Paul saw, but sportively turned the handle the wrong way, and fell off, rolling on the grass with a shout of joy. Richard picked him up and dusted him, and said sternly:

"Well, if you don't want to learn, all right; I'll go and feed my rabbits."

"I do want to!" cried Paul, with a look of alarm. And he mounted the seat again, turning his big dark eyes with adoring submission on his brother's face.

"I will learn, Wickie—don't go away."

From where she lay in a long chair in the loggia, the boys' mother had been watching them, with a gaze that was not soft and smiling, but rather fierce.

"Do you think," she said in a low, hard tone, "that I would ever give up those children?"

The person whom she addressed did not reply. He sat leaning forward, also watching intently the two small white figures, a half-smoked cigar held in long, drooping fingers. While Mrs. Allyn was speaking, as she had been doing in a vehement undertone almost continuously for half an hour, Fleming held the cigar, and looked at it from time to time, watching its glow gather a white shroud of ashes—a symbol, in a way, of her story. As he listened, he seemed to see the dying of the fire of love that he remembered—its slow choking to death: a fire of straw, he said to himself, that flamed brightly for a time, but was not strong enough to fuse into unity two dissimilar natures. He had, as yet, made no comment. His face was impassive; his steady gaze away from the pretty woman beside him was the only sign he gave.

In her intense preoccupation with her own point of view, and her presentation of it with a woman's terrible frankness, Minna Allyn had seemed to have no least doubt of Fleming's sympathy. But she did at last note his silence, and she repeated her question sharply:

"Do you think any one could expect that I should give up my children—either of them?"

Fleming's slow reply came after a pause:

"They are his children too, aren't they?"

"What of that? A mother's right comes first! Even the law won't take away her children from the woman who has borne and cared for them, unless she is proved to be an unfit person—and I don't think he could prove that!"

She had sprung to meet the first hint of unfavorable judgment. He saw her now flushed, armed for battle.

"You know what I could prove against him, if necessary!" she cried. "His ideas and habits make him an unfit person to have them. I could divorce him, and they would be awarded to me. He hasn't a home for them, and I have—this place is mine."

"You want, then," said Fleming, "just to turn him out. You want to keep the house and the children, and merely to eliminate Robert."

"I want to keep the children, yes, and a proper home for them—of course. Thank heaven, I have money enough of my own to support them. All I ask is to be freed from a man that I have no respect for any longer,—not to mention love,—and who behaves to me in a perfectly insupportable manner and has the temper of a fiend!"

"Robert loves the children," said Fleming slowly.

"Perhaps he does—in a way. He likes to play with them, and to contradict all my ideas about them. But he's too immoral to be fit for the responsibility of a father."

"Then why did you confer it upon him?"

Minna's angry flush deepened.

"How could I know then what he would turn out to be?" she cried. "He was very promising then, every one thought. It's only the last few years that he's neglected his profession and become disreputable."

Fleming looked keenly at her, and almost smiled.

"You are unjust," he said quietly. "Robert is exactly what he was when you married him. He was never of the conventional pattern, and you knew it. Now perhaps he has become careless in some ways,—unhappiness makes people careless, you know,—but he isn't disreputable. Remember that, Minna, when you talk of appeal to the law."

"Yes; you are all alike, you men, so you stand by one another! But, if I have to, I will fight you all. I will fight for my children with every weapon I can find!"

She sank back against her cushions, breathing quickly, with parted lips.

Fleming looked at her in some admiration,—emotion gave her prettiness almost the character of beauty,—but with a question in his mind, how much of her emotion was genuine.

"I can see," Minna went on in a hard voice, "that you're entirely on Robert's side. I don't know what he's said to you——"

"He's told me nothing—in words. It didn't need words to tell me that he's a broken man. I was shocked when I saw him."

"Oh, for the past year, you know, he's been very dissipated. All kinds of shady people and irregular hours——"

"Yes, you told me that; but I think that's the effect, not the cause. If he's dissipated, as you call it, it's because he's unhappy."

"And I suppose you blame me for that?"

"Well, Minna—when I last saw you two, some years ago, Robert was very much in love with you, and you with him. I believe he still loves you. At any rate, it isn't he that's forcing the situation, wanting to break up the household—it's you."

"Yes, I want my freedom! It's nonsense to say that Robert loves me. Hates me would be nearer right—at least, he acts as if he hated me. Robert and I simply irritate each other; we're always quarreling—the children are beginning to notice it, and I don't want them to grow up in that kind of an atmosphere. And I'm not willing, as he is, to keep up the pretense of a relation that no longer exists."

"Not if it were best for the children?"

"How could it be?"

"You think, then, that you can supply the place of father to them as well?"

"Of such a father, yes! What can he teach them but his own immoral ideas and self-indulgence? What good could his example do them?"

"My God, Minna! You hold cheap enough now what you loved once!"

Fleming, with this exclamation, sprang out of his chair and strode to the railing of the loggia.

Minna rose too, and after a moment went to Fleming's side and put her hand on his arm.

"I know you think badly of me. But I can't help it; I'm fighting for my life," she said.

Fleming looked at her delicate face, too thin and sharp now, and at the hand that lay with rings tinkling loosely on his sleeve.

"I'm sorry. I'm your friend too," he said, with the first feeling for her that he had shown.

In nervous response, her eyes filled with tears; she turned and went into the house. Fleming looked at his watch; it was still early for Robert's train. He walked out on the terrace and down a few steps into the formal garden. Minna had made this place as nearly as possible after an Italian model, and she had attained in it a careful prettiness, a studied, minute elegance, which exactly expressed herself. Minna had wished to construct her life, too, on the best models, according to the opinion of the best people. But a sudden infatuation had swept her off her feet, and in Robert Allyn she had taken into her planned-out world a piece of material that she could not possibly assimilate to her design. Fleming, pausing a moment by the fountain, smiled mournfully. A shout of childish voices roused him. The two boys, with their governess, came out into the garden to take their supper on a round stone table. A man-servant brought the tray. Each child had a silver porringer and spoon and mug with his name on it. Each had a fresh damask napkin tucked under his chin. They sat there like two small princelings in a happy kingdom of sunlight, flowers, and bird-songs. Fleming stayed chatting with them a few minutes, and then went off to the station to meet Allyn.

Instead of returning directly to the house, he and Allyn took a roundabout path through the woods. Allyn, a slender dark man, rather carelessly dressed, looked fagged, and nervously smoked one cigarette after another. They went on for a little way in silence, then Allyn asked:

"Have you had your talk with Minna? Oh, I knew she meant to talk to you to-day. She's fond of talking just now—to anybody but me."

Fleming put an arm about Allyn's shoulders.

"She's in a very nervous state, old man."

"Yes—for her, she is. She's usually cool and calm enough—rather too much so. When she gets rid of me she'll be all right. I suppose she told you that, didn't she?"

"Look here, Bob; this thing can't be so serious as it seems! Married people all have jars and tiffs—I shouldn't wonder if a lot of them pulled through a strain like this and came out all right."

"No, old fellow, it's serious. It's been coming on for years—ever since Paul was born. It's got to the breaking-point now."

"I had an idea," said Fleming, after a pause, "that you felt there needn't be an absolute break."

"It seemed to me there needn't be," Allyn replied, "because there is no one else that Minna cares for—at present. But she means that there shall be some one else. She wants a complete new life. She wants to begin over again. I couldn't do it. But, of course, the reason is simple—she never loved me."

"I thought she did. Bob—when I saw you years ago, just after you were married."

"She thought she did—but it wore out. I'm not what Minna likes at all—never was. Now, of course, she hates me—because of the strain of the situation. But her natural feeling toward me is just cool dislike. I'm everything that she disapproves of. She's wasted seven years on me, and she thinks that's enough."

"She wants to retreat with all the honors of war, however."

"Yes; that's the difficulty, of course—the children."

Allyn stopped short and stood staring at a tree-stem by the side of the path.

"That's the difficulty," he repeated absently.

"You see," he went on, "we've disagreed from the first about the children. Minna thinks I want to bring them up to be like me—questioning everything. I think her values of life—the ordinary conventional ones—tend to make the boys soft and snobbish. … But the point now is, what shall be done with them if we separate? Minna wants to keep them both. She thinks they'll be better off with her—and, anyway, she wants them. She doesn't consider what it would mean to me to give them up."

"It seems to me that the children probably need you both," said Fleming. "I think you should insist on sharing them."

"But that would mean continuing the present arrangement, and Minna refuses to do that. She points out that, while it leaves me free to indulge my immoral inclinations, it binds her. Minna would never do anything immoral—from her own point of view. She is as free as I am—only it isn't that kind of freedom she wants."

"Does she want a divorce?"

"At present she just wants me out of the way. She can't bear to see me—she feels I've injured her deeply."

"But how?"

"Oh, first by not being, or even trying to be, what she wants—an ambitious, energetic, successful citizen. Second, because, failing to get from her the one thing I wanted, I've been unpleasant to her—irritable, ill-tempered, harsh. I couldn't help it. I don't care much for what most people want. I did want love—and I've never had it."

The two men walked on again, slowly. They were near the house now; its lights shone through the trees.

"This is about what Minna told you, I suppose—from her own point of view," said Allyn wearily.

"Yes—about that."

"And that she is determined to keep both of the children."

"Yes. But you should not allow that, Bob. You have as much right to them as she has. Even if it came to a legal fight——"

Allyn shuddered. "Good God! What an ending!" he cried brokenly.

They went on in silence.

The sunset light shone on a charming group under the loggia: the slender mother and the two boys close on either side, their faces lit with eager interest in the story she was telling. The children ran to greet their father; but there was no greeting between him and Minna. She looked bored, and after a moment spoke crisply:

"It's almost bedtime. If you want to hear the rest of the story——"

"You come and hear it too, father," said Richard, in his grave voice. "It's about some princes that were turned into swans——"

"No, not now," said Allyn gently. "I'm tired and dusty. You can tell me the story sometime, Rick."

He bent and kissed the child's head, and went into the house.

Fleming lingered—but the charm of the story was broken. Minna finished it hurriedly, announced that it was bedtime, and led the children in. Paul, who was rather a rebellious spirit, protested and began to cry. But the small disturbance was quickly quelled.

To an observer not in the secret of its inner life, that orderly, quiet house might have seemed a temple of peace and domesticity. Fleming felt a dolorous impatience with his two friends. Why on earth, with ease, leisure, agreeable surroundings, and those fine children, could they not sink their temperamental differences and live decently together for something besides their narrow personal feelings? He felt his own position between them acutely. Their discord made him wretched. But he would not follow his impulse and flee. He would, if possible, help them out of their present deadlock. But he foresaw a tough struggle with Minna. She would have to yield something; Robert should have one of the children.

"That seems the only solution that's at all fair to you both," he said, when, after dinner, the governess went out and the other three into the loggia for coffee.

Minna made no comment in words at first; but Fleming could hear her draw her breath sharply, and see her eyes turned toward him, gleaming like cold steel. Allyn was walking up and down restlessly.

"That would be all right," he said at last, "if they weren't so deucedly fond of each other—the boys. I don't know if you've noticed it, Fleming, but there's an unusual affection between them. They've never had many other playmates; they've never been separated for a day. Richard loves Paul. He's the more affectionate of the two. He loves Paul more than he does his mother or me——"

"And Paul is devoted to Richard," broke in Minna sharply. "You've never been fair to Paul, because he doesn't care as much for you as he does for me. But he loves Richard dearly. Would you separate those two children?"

"It isn't fair that I should give them both up," retorted Allyn instantly. "They're mine as much as they're yours. No, by heaven, I won't give them both up!"

Fleming, after the quarrel that followed, could not sleep. The luxurious silence of the big house, the soft breathing of the wind in the trees, the bright moonlight, all jarred on his strained nerves. With the first glimmer of dawn, he dressed and went out for a long walk. He breakfasted with Allyn, the governess, and the children at the stone table in the garden; Minna did not appear. It was a bright, fresh day, and the children were full of joyous spirits; their presence was like the exquisite candor of the morning light, and as untouched by the shadow that lay over the three elders. Allyn watched them constantly, and Fleming found himself studying them with a new perception. A little later he sat smoking in the loggia, where Paul and Richard were building a house of blocks. Richard had almost finished an elaborate thing of towers and pinnacles, when Paul, with a mischievous sweep of the arm, knocked it flat. Richard snatched a big block and threw up his arm to strike.

"Richard!" called the governess quickly.

The boy's face with its flare of anger was suddenly fixed. He dropped the block, and, turning, threw himself full length on the floor, his face hidden. Paul began to cry.

"I didn't mean to do it; I'm sowwy," he stammered.

He crept over and took hold of Richard's arm, trying to pull it down from his face.

"I'm sowwy—I'm sowwy," he cried. "Wickie, I won't do it again, Wickie—I'm sowwy——"

Richard twitched his arm impatiently, and after a moment he got up and started to walk away., His small face was quite pale. Paul clung to him, sobbing:

"Don't go away, Wickie—stay with Paul!"

"There, don't cry," muttered the elder boy. "You're a naughty boy, though, Paul."

"I didn't mean to! Will you build another house, Wickie?"

A pause, while Richard visibly put forth his uncommon self-control.

"Will you behave yourself?" he demanded.

"Yes, I will. I'll be good, Wickie—don't go away!"

"Well, then," said Richard slowly. "Remember, I didn't hit you."

Paul began to gather up the blocks eagerly, but paused to kiss his brother on the cheek; and Richard, with a gesture that seemed to Fleming strangely mature, strangely touching, laid his hand for a moment on Paul's dark head. Then they went on with the building, Paul anxiously obeying orders like a small attendant sprite.

Fleming looked at the governess, who was sifting near him.

"That's so like them," she said in a low voice. "Paul is always irritating Richard, and yet he can't bear Richard to be angry with him. The worst punishment for him is not to be allowed to play with Richard. But I think Richard is fonder of Paul than Paul is of him. He's the more loving of the two. He's very good to Paul."

Fleming nodded, with a troubled look. He was beginning to dislike what had seemed to him the only fair solution of the Allyns' domestic problem. "Wickie, don't go away—stay with Paul!" He did not like it—and yet, what other was there?

He put it strongly to Minna when she came out to talk to him, looking fragile and colorless in the strong light. She was much shaken. At first she had absolutely refused, declaring that Robert was selfish and cruel to wish to separate the two boys, to take either of them from a place where they were happy and well cared for, to drag about with him, heaven knew where; and that she would fight out the question in the courts rather than yield.

"Very well," Fleming had said. "It will probably come to that, then—and will probably go against you. You ask too much. In a break like this, you must expect to compromise."

Minna had given up her first absolute stand. This morning she came to plead and argue for her side of it. Fleming presented Robert's side. And it came down to the hard fact that Robert refused to give up both of the children, and could not be forced to do it. Before Fleming's driving in of this fact, Minna gave back, little by little. At the end of the talk she seemed to be convinced that she must yield something. But she did not by any means yield at once. Sullenly she consented to consider the compromise. Fleming, tired out, wished to cut short his visit and go back to town: but, at Minna's desire, he promised to "see them through."

"It can't last much longer," she said wearily. "I can't stand it; I'm a wreck now."

"The whole thing seems to be a wreck," said Fleming somberly. "Even the two poor little kids will have to suffer."

"Ah, you see that, do you?" murmured Minna.

"Of course I see it. I'm sorrier for them than I am for you or Robert. After all, you've made your own shipwreck; but their small world is going to be broken up through no fault of their own. I should think I did see it!"

He left her, wishing heartily that he had never come back to be mixed up in this unhappy affair. As he wandered in the woods, thinking about it, the possibility recurred to him that Minna might, to keep the children together, try to patch up her differences with Robert. Logically, if she felt for her children as much as she assumed to, she ought to do that—and Robert, he knew, was willing enough to try it. A gleam of hope came to him. He planned to put this strongly before Minna at their next interview. But it appeared that there was one form of compromise that Minna would not consider. Between giving up her freedom and giving up the child, she, after several days of argument, with tears and the bitterest resentment against Robert, yielded the child.

"I shall keep Paul," she said, trembling.

That night Fleming and Allyn sat together before a fire in the library. It was pouring rain outside. They had dined alone together, and the silence between them had hardly been broken. Allyn, sunk in a big chair, stared earnestly at the flames. From time to time, he gave a half-audible ejaculation.

"No, by Jove!" he said at last, loudly.

"Eh, what?" Fleming started from a reverie that pleasantly concerned his own affairs. Allyn looked at him bewildered for a moment, then rose and began to walk about the room.

"I can't do it," he said.

"Can't do what?" Fleming asked.

"Can't take the child away—either of them. I can't separate them. It was no use ragging Minna, poor girl. They're the one beautiful thing—the children and their relation to each other—that's come of my marriage. I can't destroy that. It was worth while, if they live and keep on loving each other."

He spoke the last words huskily, with difficulty, and stood looking at Fleming with strained, bright eyes. After a moment he went on:

"We wanted Paul, you see, to be a companion to Richard. I wanted it particularly. I was an only child—and a lonely one. I wouldn't condemn another child to loneliness, of my own free will. I don't think enough of myself to think I could make up to either of them. Paul, perhaps—he's the younger and would forget more easily. But Minna will want to keep him. And Richard—he's too old now for his years—I wouldn't give him his first sorrow. No, Fleming! I see now it's impossible. I'll leave them together. I'll go away—abroad somewhere——"

"Better think it over," said Fleming softly.

"No, no! You tell Minna I give them up!" cried Allyn. "Not for always, of course—I don't give up my responsibility for them. Later we can make some other arrangement. If she wants a divorce, they could both be with me part of the time. She won't understand—she doesn't believe I care much for them, you know. But, somehow, I think you, old fellow——"

Allyn broke down as he clasped the hand that Fleming put out to him.

"You go—and tell Minna," he whispered.

"Are you sure?" asked Fleming, hesitating. "Look here, Bob; are you right to give in to Minna like this——"

"It isn't Minna; it's for the children."

"She wouldn't do it," said Fleming. "She wouldn't compromise, to keep them together."

"No, she wouldn't," said Allyn dully. "So I must. Go and tell her——"

"You must tell her yourself," said Fleming, as he rang the bell. "I'm out of this."

"I'd rather you stayed. There's nothing between us now that any one mightn't hear," said Allyn.

He stood quiet and composed when Minna came in a few moments later, wrapped in a loose robe of blue silk, and looking pale and apprehensive.

"What is it?" she asked, shutting the door and leaning against it.

"Nothing to frighten you, Minna," said Allyn gently. "Sit down."

He moved a chair for her near the fire, but she did not stir. Then he told her his decision briefly, in a colorless voice.

"But I thought you wanted one of them," said Minna sharply.

Allyn winced. "Not now. You were right—it would be cruel to separate them."

"Then I am to keep them both?"

He bowed his head.

Minna drew a long breath, moved and sat down, folded her hands about her knee, and looked at Allyn, frowning. He did not meet her look, and she turned to Fleming suddenly.

"Does he mean it?" she demanded. "What makes him give up—what is it really?"

"Well, Minna, if you ask me," said Fleming dryly, "this incident reminds me of a certain judgment of Solomon. Perhaps you recollect a story about two women and a child? You were willing to divide the children, though you thought they would suffer by it. He is not; he gives up his claim. But he said you wouldn't understand."

She listened and sat in silence, smoothing the loose folds of her robe.

Allyn was looking at her now, and Fleming, too, was watching her face, her lowered flickering eyelids. Still she sat, plaiting and unplaiting the folds of silk. At last Allyn moved sharply, and went toward her with outstretched hand.

"Good-by, Minna," he said. "I'm going away—early to-morrow. I won't bother you. I'll send you an address; you'll write me about them. Say good-by—to them—for me."

She did not seem to see his outstretched hand. After a moment he dropped it, clenched, by his side, and moved away.

"Good-by," he murmured, and went quickly out of the room.

Minna rose to her feet and looked at Fleming. His eyes were intent upon her, scrutinizing, waiting.

"Like that?" she said breathlessly. "All over?"

"Like that," said Fleming. "All over. You win, Minna."

She looked bewilderedly at him.

"I don't—understand it."

"No, poor Minna; you've never understood."

Her head drooped.

"I thought—I must always go on fighting," she faltered. "But he—gives up——"

"He gives up."

"He is generous——"

"He is capable of unselfish love."

"And—I'm not?"

Her quick question found its answer in Fleming's look. Her head drooped again.

"Poor Minna!" said Fleming. Then, after a moment: "You might at least have said good-by to him."

"Ah!" she breathed.

She stood looking straight before her, her large eyes fixed absently.

"I hardly realize it yet," she said softly. "It is so different—from anything I expected, from anything that has been, for so long. Nothing but wrangling. This is——"

"Yes, it is different."

"And—and he is different," said Minna slowly, as if struggling perplexedly for her words. "It isn't like him to do a thing like this."

"It is like him, Minna, when it comes to the test. Perhaps you'll come to see that—when you think of him, as surely you will now, with some kindness."

Fleming squared his shoulders and breathed deeply, as if a weight had fallen from him.

"This doesn't seem to me much of a solution," he said. "It seems to me to be pretty deeply unjust to Robert. But, all the same, it lets a little light into what was a fairly sordid situation."

Minna moved slightly.

"Sordid? Yes, perhaps it was," she said in a low voice.

"It was. But there is beauty in this act of Robert's."

"Yes. If he had only been like this always——"

Fleming laughed shortly. "If you had only had your own way always! Minna, Minna, is this all?"

She raised her head and looked at him proudly.

"No!" she said clearly. "But do you give me time—you and Robert. You think all the generosity, all the feeling, is on his side. I will do my share—I will try what I can do. I will not cut Robert off from the children; only—leave me now in peace a little while."

Her voice became veiled, and her eyes filled with tears.

"I shall not have to give either of them up—oh, I am thankful! Tell Robert I thank him—no, I will tell him; I will go and tell him."

She gave Fleming a quick grasp of the hand, the tears running down her cheeks, and went swiftly from the room.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1951, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.