The Gay Cockade/Returned Goods
Perhaps the most humiliating moment of Dulcie Cowan's childhood had been when Mary Dean had called her Indian giver. Dulcie was a child of affluence. She had always had everything she wanted; but she had not been spoiled. She had been brought up beautifully and she had been taught to consider the rights of others. She lived in an old-fashioned part of an old city, and her family was churchly and conscientious. Indeed, so well-trained was Dulcie's conscience that it often caused her great unhappiness. It seemed to her that her life was made up largely of denying herself the things she wanted. She was tied so rigidly to the golden rule that her own rights were being constantly submerged in the consideration of the rights of others.
So it had happened that when she gave to Mary Dean a certain lovely doll, because her mother had suggested that Dulcie had so many and Mary so few, Dulcie had spent a night of agonized loneliness. Then she had gone to Mary.
"I want my Peggy back."
"You gave her to me."
"But I didn't know how much I loved her, Mary. I'll buy you a nice new doll, but I want my Peggy back."
It was then that Mary had called her Indian giver. Mary had been a sturdy little thing with tight-braided brown hair. She had worn on that historic occasion a plain blue gingham with a white collar. To the ordinary eye she seemed just an every-day freckled sort of child, but to Dulcie she had been a little dancing devil, as she had stuck out her forefinger and jeered "Indian giver!"
Dulcie had held to her point and had carried her Peggy off in triumph. Mary, with characteristic independence, had refused to accept the beautiful doll which Dulcie bought with the last cent of her allowance and brought as a peace offering. In later years they grew to be rather good friends. They might, indeed, have been intimate, if it had not been for Dulcie's money and Mary's dislike of anything which savored of patronage.
It was Mary's almost boyish independence that drew Mills Richardson to her. Mills wrote books and was the editor of a small magazine. He came to board with Mary's mother because of the quiet neighborhood. He was rather handsome in a dark slender fashion. He had the instincts of a poet, and he was not in the least practical. He needed a prop to lean on, and Mary gradually became the prop.
She was teaching by that time, but she helped her mother with the boarders. When Mills came in late at night she would have something for him in the dining-room—oysters or a club sandwich or a pot of coffee—and she and her mother and Mills would have a cozy time of it. In due season Mills asked her to marry him, and his dreams had to do with increased snugness and with shelter from the outside world.
They had been engaged three months when Dulcie came home from college. There was nothing independent or practical about Dulcie. She was a real romantic lady, and she appealed to Mills on the æsthetic side. He saw her first in church with the light shining on her from a stained-glass window. In the middle of that same week Mrs. Cowan gave a garden party as a home-coming celebration for her daughter. Dulcie wore embroidered white and a floppy hat, and her eyes when she talked to Mills were worshipful.
He found himself swayed at last by a grand passion. He thought of Dulcie by day and dreamed of her by night. Then he met her by accident one afternoon on Connecticut Avenue, and they walked down together to the Speedway, where the willows were blowing in the wind and the water was ruffled; and there with the shining city back of them and the Virginia hills ahead, Mills, flaming, declared his passion, and Dulcie, trembling, confessed that she too cared.
Mills grew tragic: "Oh, my beloved, have you come too late?"
Dulcie had not heard of his engagement to Mary. Mills told her, and that settled it. She had very decided ideas on such matters. A man had no right to fall in love with two women. If such a thing happened, there was only one way out of it. He had given his promise and he must keep it. He begged, but could not shake her. She cared a great deal, but she would not take him away from Mary.
Mary knew nothing of what had occurred; she thought that Mills was working too hard. She was working hard herself, but she was very happy. She had a hope chest and sat up sewing late o' nights.
Before Mary and Mills were married Dulcie's mother died, and Dulcie went abroad to live with an aunt. Five years later she married an American living in Paris. He was much older than she, and it was rumored that she was not happy. Ten years after her marriage she returned to Washington a widow.
It was at once apparent that she had changed. She wore charming but sophisticated clothes, made on youthful lines so that she seemed nearer twenty-five than thirty-five. Her hair was still soft and shining. She had been a pretty girl, she was a beautiful woman. But the greatest change was in her attitude toward life. In Paris her golden-rule philosophy had been turned topsy-turvy.
Hence when she met Mills and found the old flames lighted in his eyes, she stirred the ashes of her dead romance and discovered a spark. It was pleasant after that to talk with him in dim corners at people's houses. Now and then she invited him and Mary to her own big house with plenty of other guests, so that she was not missed if she walked with Mills in the garden. She meant no harm and she was really fond of Mary.
The years had not been so kind to Mills as to Dulcie. They had stolen some of his slenderness, and his hair was thin at the back. But he wrote better books, and it was Mary who had helped him write them. She had made of his house a home. She was still the same sturdy soul. Her bright color had faded and her hair was gray. Life with Mills had not been an easy road to travel. She had traveled it with loss of youth, perhaps, but with no loss of self-respect. She knew that her husband was in some measure what he was because of her. She had kept the children away from his study door; she had seen that he was nourished and sustained. She had prodded him at times to increased activities. He had resented the prodding, but it had resulted in a continuity of effort which had added to his income.
Dulcie came into Mary's life as something very fresh and stimulating. She spoke of it to Mills.
"It is almost as if I had been abroad to hear her talk. She has had such interesting experiences."
It was not Dulcie's experiences which interested Mills; it was the loveliness of her profile, the glint of her hair, the youth in her, the renewed urge of youth in himself.
Priscilla Dodd saw what had happened. Priscilla was the aunt with whom Dulcie had lived in Paris; and she was a wise, if worldly, old woman. She saw rocks ahead for Dulcie.
"He's in love with you, my dear."
Dulcie, in a rose satin house coat which shone richly in the flame of Aunt Priscilla's open fire, was not disconcerted.
"I know. Mary doesn't satisfy him, Aunt Cilla."
"And you do?"
"The less you see of him the better."
"I'm not sure of that."
"I can inspire him, be the torch to illumine his path."
"So that's the way you are putting it to yourself! But how will Mary like that?"
"Oh, Mary"—Dulcie moved restlessly—"I don't want to hurt Mary. I don't want to hurt Mary," she said again, out of a long silence, "but after all I have a right to save Mills' soul for him, haven't I, Aunt Cilla?"
"Saving souls had better be left to those who make a business of it."
"I mean his poetic soul." Dulcie studied the toes of her rosy slippers. "A man can't live by bread alone."
Yet Mills had thrived rather well on the bread that Mary had given him, and there was this to say for Mills, he was very fond of his wife. She was not the love of his life, but she had been a helpmate for many years. He felt that he owed many things to her affection and strength. Like Dulcie, he shrank from making her unhappy.
It was because of Mary, therefore, that the lovers dallied. Otherwise, they said to each other, Mills would cast off his shackles, ask for his freedom, and then he and Dulcie would fly to Paris, where nobody probed into pasts and where they could make their dreams come true.
They found many ways in which to see each other. Dulcie had a little town car, and she picked Mills up at all hours and took him on long and lovely rides, from which he returned ecstatic, with wild flowers in his coat and a knowledge of work left undone.
Gossip began to fly about. Aunt Priscilla warned Dulcie.
"It is a dangerous thing to do, my dear. People will talk."
"What do Mills and I care for people? Oh, if it were not for Mary——" She had just come in from a ride with Mills, and her eyes were shining.
"I wish we were not dining there to-night," said Aunt Priscilla. "I wonder how Mary manages a dinner of eight with only one servant."
"She is so splendid and competent, Aunt Cilla. Mills says so. Everybody says it. Things are easy for her that would be hard for other people."
"I wonder what she thinks of you?"
Dulcie, drawing off her gloves, meditated.
"I fancy she likes me. I know I love her, but not so much as I love Mills."
Fifteen years ago Dulcie would have died rather than admit her love for a married man. But since then she had seen life through the eyes of a worldly-minded old husband, and it had made a difference.
At dinner that night Dulcie was exquisite in orchid tulle with a string of pearls that hung to her knees. Her hair was like ripe corn, waved and parted on the side with a girlish knot behind. Her skin was as fresh as a baby's. Mary was in black net. She had been very busy helping the cook, and she had had little time to spend on her hair. She looked ten years older than Dulcie, and her mind was absolutely on the dinner. The dinner was really very good. Mills had been extremely anxious about it. He had called up Mary from down-town to tell her that he was bringing home fresh asparagus. He wanted it served as an extra course with Hollandaise sauce. Mary protested, but gave in. It was the Hollandaise sauce that had kept her from curling her hair.
There were orchids for a centerpiece—in harmony with Dulcie's gown. In fact, the whole dinner seemed keyed up to Dulcie. The guests were for the most part literary folk, to whom Mills wanted to display his Egeria. After dinner Dulcie sang for them. She had set to music the words of one of Mills' poems, and she was much applauded.
After everybody had gone Mary went to bed with a headache. She was glad that it was Saturday, for Sunday promised a rest. She decided to send the children over to her mother and to have a quiet day with Mills. She wouldn't even go to church in the morning. There was an afternoon service; perhaps she and Mills might go together.
But Mills had other plans. He walked as far as the church door with Mary, and left her there. Mary wasn't sorry to be left; her headache had returned, and she was glad to sit alone in the peaceful dimness. But the pain proved finally too much for her, so she slipped out quietly and went home.
Clouds had risen, and she hurried before the shower. It was a real April shower, wind with a rush and a silver downpour. Mary, coming into the dark living-room, threw herself on the couch in a far corner and drew a rug over her. The couch was backed up against a table which held a lamp and a row of books. Mary had a certain feeling of content in the way the furniture seemed to shut her in. There was no sound but the splashing of rain against the windows.
She fell asleep at last, and waked to find that Mills and Dulcie had come in. No lights were on; the room was in twilight dimness.
Mills had met Dulcie at her front door. "How dear of you to come," she had told him. He had spoken of his desertion of Mary. "But this day was made for you, Dulcie."
They had walked on together, not heeding where they went, and when the storm had caught them they were nearer Mills' house than Dulcie's and so he had taken her there. They had entered the apparently empty room.
"Mary is still at church. Come and dry your little feet by my fire, Dulcie." Mills knelt and fanned the flame.
Mary, coming slowly back from her dreams, heard this and other things, and at last Dulcie's voice in protest:
"Dear, we must think of Mary."
Now the thing that Mary hated more than anything else in the whole world was pity. Through all the shock of the astounding revelation that Mills and Dulcie cared for each other came the sting of their sympathy. She sat up, a shadow among the shadows.
"I mustn't stay, Mills," Dulcie was declaring.
"I feel like a—thief——"
"Nonsense, we are only taking our own, Dulcie. We should have taken it years ago. Loving you I should never have married Mary."
"I had a conscience then, Mills, and you had promised."
"But now you see it differently, Dulcie?"
Mills was on his knees beside Dulcie's chair, kissing her hands. The fire lighted them. It was like a play, with Mary a forlorn spectator in the blackness of the pit.
"Let me go now, Mills."
"Wait till Mary comes—we'll tell her."
"No, oh, poor Mary!"
Poor Mary indeed!
"Anyhow you've got to stay, Dulcie, and sing for me, and when Mary comes back she'll get us some supper and I'll read you my new verses."
Among the shadows Mary had a moment of tragic mirth. Then she set her feet on the floor and spoke:
"I'm sorry, Mills, but I couldn't cook supper to-night if I died for it——"
From their bright circle of light they peered at her.
"Oh, my poor dear!" Dulcie said.
"I'm not poor," Mary told her, "but I'm tired, dead tired, and my head aches dreadfully, and if you want Mills you can have him."
"Have him?" Dulcie whispered.
"Yes. I don't want him."
"I don't want you, Mills. I'm tired of being a prop; I'm tired of planning your meals, I'm tired of deciding whether you shall have mushrooms with your steak or—onions. You can have him, Dulcie. I know you think I've lost my mind." She came forward within the radius of the light. "But I haven't. As long as I thought Mills cared I could stick it out. But I have learned to-night that he loved you before he married me. You gave him to me, Dulcie, and now you want him back."
Indian giver! Like a flash Dulcie's mind went to the little Mary of the pigtails and pointing forefinger.
"You want him and you can have him. Perhaps if you had taken him years ago he might have been different. I don't know. Perhaps even now he can live up to all the lovely, lovely things that you and he are always talking about. But I've had to talk to Mills about what he likes to eat and what we have to pay for things; I've had to push him and prod him and praise him, and it has been hard work. If you want him you can have him, Dulcie."
Mills had a stunned look.
"Don't you love me, Mary?"
"I think I've proved it," she said quietly; "but I couldn't possibly go on loving you now. You have Dulcie to love you, and one woman is enough for any man. I don't know what you are planning to do, but you needn't run away or do anything spectacular. I'll make it as easy for you as possible. And now if you don't mind I'll go up and take a headache powder; my head is splitting."
Left alone, they tried to regain their air of high romance.
But the words rang hollow. One couldn't possibly call a woman poor who had given away so much with a single gesture.
They tried to talk it over but found nothing to say. At last Mills took Dulcie home. She asked him in and he went. Aunt Priscilla was out, and tea was served for the two of them from a lacquered tea cart—Orange Pekoe and Japanese wafers. It was delicious but unsubstantial. Dulcie with her coat off was like a wood sprite in leaf green. Her hair was gold, her eyes wet violets; but Mills missed something. He had a feeling that he wanted to get home and talk things over with Mary.
At last he rose, and it was then that Dulcie laid her hand on his arm.
"Mills, I can't."
"Let you leave Mary."
"It wouldn't be right."
"It would be as right as it has ever been, Dulcie."
"I know how it must look to you, but—but I knew all the time that wrong is wrong. I thought I was a different Dulcie from the girl of long ago, but I'm not. I still have a conscience; I can't take you away from Mary."
"You're not taking me away. You heard what she said—she doesn't want me."
And Dulcie didn't want him! He saw it in that moment! The things that Mary had said had scared her. She didn't want to prod and push and praise. She didn't want to decide what he should have for dinner. She didn't want to weigh the merits of beefsteak and mushrooms or beefsteak and onions—onions!
He felt suddenly old, fat, bald-headed! The glow had faded from everything. He did not protest or attempt to persuade her. He took his hat, kissed her hand and got away.
Aunt Priscilla coming in found Dulcie in tears by the fire.
"I've given him up, Aunt Cilla."
"Well, it wouldn't be right."
She came into Aunt Priscilla's bedroom later to talk it over. She had on the rosy house coat. She spoke of going back to Paris.
"It will be better for both of us. After all, Aunt Cilla, we are what we are fundamentally, and we Puritans can't get away from our consciences, can we?"
"Some of us," said Aunt Priscilla, "can't."
The old woman lay awake a long time that night, thinking it out. She was glad that Dulcie had stopped the thing in time. But she had a feeling that the solution of the situation could not be laid to an awakened conscience. She hoped that some day Dulcie would tell her the truth.
It was still raining when Mills reached home. The house was dark, the fire had died down. He went up-stairs. The boys were in bed. There was a light in Mary's room. He opened the door. Mary was propped up on her pillows reading a book.
He stopped, uncertain, on the threshold.
"Come in," she said, "my head's better."
He crossed the room and stood beside her. "Oh, Mary," he said, and his face worked. He dropped on his knees by the bed and cried like a child.
She laid her hand on his head and smoothed his thin hair.
"Poor Mills!" she said softly; "poor old Mills!" Then after a moment, brightly: "It will do us both good to have some coffee. Run along, Mills, and start the percolator; I'll be down in a minute to get the supper."