The Gay Cockade/White Birches
A Woman, who under sentence of death could plan immediately for a trip to the circus, might seem at first thought incredibly light-minded.
You had, however, to know Anne Dunbar and the ten years of her married life to understand. Her husband was fifteen years her senior, and he had few illusions. He had fallen in love with Anne because of a certain gay youth in her which had endured throughout the days of a dreadful operation and a slow convalescence. He had been her surgeon, and, propped up in bed, Anne's gray eyes had shone upon him, the red-gold curls of her cropped hair had given her a look of almost boyish beauty, and this note of boyishness had been emphasized by the straight slenderness of the figure outlined beneath the white covers.
Anne had married Ridgeley Dunbar because she loved him. And love to Anne had been all fire and flame and spirit. It did not take her long to learn that her husband looked upon love and life as matters of flesh and blood—and bones. By degrees his materialism imposed itself upon Anne. She admired Ridgeley immensely. She worshiped, in fact, the wonder of his day's work. He healed the sick, he cured the halt and blind, and he scoffed at Anne's superstitions—"I can match every one of your Bible miracles. There's nothing to it, my dear. Death is death and life is life—so make the most of it."
Anne tried to make the most of it. But she found it difficult. In the first place her husband was a very busy man. He seemed to be perfectly happy with his cutting people up, and his medical books, and the articles which he wrote about the intricate clockwork inside of us which ticks off the hours from birth to death. Now and then he went out to the theatre with his wife or to dine with friends. But, as a rule, she went alone. She had a limousine, a chauffeur, a low swung touring car—and an electric. Her red hair was still wonderful, and she dressed herself quite understanding in grays and whites and greens. If she did not wear habitually her air of gay youth, it was revived in her now and then when something pleased or excited her. And her eyes would shine as they had shone in the hospital when Ridgeley Dunbar had first bent over her bed.
They shone on Christopher Carr when he came home from the war. He was a friend of her husband. Or rather, as a student in the medical school, he had listened to the lectures of the older man, and had made up his mind to know him personally, and had thus, by sheer persistence, linked their lives together.
Anne had never met him. He had been in India When she had married Ridgeley, and then there had been a few years in Egypt where he had studied some strange germ, of which she could never remember the name. He had plenty of money, hence he was not tied to a practice. But when the war began, he had offered his services, and had made a great record. "He is one of the big men of the future," Ridgeley Dunbar had said.
But when Christopher came back with an infected arm, which might give him trouble, it was not the time to talk of futures. He was invited to spend July at the Dunbars' country home in Connecticut, and Ridgeley brought him out at the week-end.
The Connecticut estate consisted of a rambling stone house, an old-fashioned garden, and beyond the garden a grove of white birches.
"What a heavenly place," Christopher said, toward the end of dinner; "how did you happen to find it?"
"Oh, Anne did it. She motored for weeks, and she bought it because of the birches."
Anne's eyes were shining. "I'll show them to you after dinner."
She had decided at once that she liked Christopher. He still wore his uniform, and had the look of a soldier. But it wasn't that—it was the things he had been saying ever since the soup was served. No one had talked of the war as he talked of it. There had been other doctors whose minds had been on arms and legs—amputated; on wounds and shell shock—— And there had been a few who had sentimentalized. But Christopher had seemed neither to resent the frightfulness nor to care about the moral or spiritual consequences. He had found in it all a certain beauty of which he spoke with enthusiasm—"A silver dawn, and a patch of Blue Devils like smoke against it——;" ... "A blood-red sunset, and a lot of airmen streaming across——"
He painted pictures, so that Anne saw battles as if a great brush had splashed them on an invisible canvas. There were just four at the table—the two men, Anne, and her second cousin, Jeanette Ware, who lived the year round in the Connecticut house, and was sixty and slightly deaf, but who wore modern clothes and had a modern mind.
It was not yet dark, and the light of the candles in sconces and on the table met the amethyst light that came through, the wide-flung lattice. Anne's summer gown was something very thin in gray, and she wore an Indian necklace of pierced silver beads. Christopher had sent it to her as a wedding-present and she had always liked it.
When they rose from the table, Christopher said, "Now for the birches."
Somewhere in the distance the telephone rang, and a maid came in to say that Dr. Dunbar was wanted. "Don't wait for me," he said, "I'll follow you."
Jeanette Ware hated the night air, and took her book to the lamp on the screened porch, and so it happened that Anne and Christopher came alone to the grove where the white bodies of the birches shone like slender nymphs through the dusk. A little wind shook their leaves.
"No wonder," said Christopher, looking down at Anne, "that you wanted this—but tell me precisely why."
She tried to tell him, but found it difficult. "I seem to find something here that I thought I had lost."
"Well—guardian angels—do you believe in them?" She spoke lightly, as if it were not in the least serious, but he felt that it was serious.
"I believe in all beautiful things——"
"I used to think when I was a little girl that they were around me when I was asleep——
'Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—
Bless the bed that I lie on—'"
her laugh was a bit breathless—"but I don't believe in them any more. Ridgeley doesn't, you know. And it does seem silly——"
"Oh, no, it isn't——"
"Ridgeley feels that it is a bit morbid—and perhaps he is right. He says that we must eat and drink and—be merry," she flung out her hands with a little gesture of protest, "but he really isn't merry——"
"I see. He just eats and drinks?" He smiled at her.
"And works. And his work is—wonderful."
They sat down on a stone bench which had been hewn out of solid gray rock. "I wish Ridgeley had time to play," Anne said; "it would be nice for both of us——"
The amethyst light had gone, and the dusk descended. Anne's gray dress was merged into the gray of the rock. She seemed just voice, and phantom outline, and faint rose fragrance. Christopher recognized the scent. He had sent her a precious vial in a sandalwood box. Nothing had seemed too good for the wife of his old friend Dunbar.
"Life for you and Ridgeley," he told her, "should be something more than work or play—it should be infinite adventure."
"Yes. But Ridgeley hasn't time for adventure."
"Oh, he thinks he hasn't——"
As Christopher talked after that, Anne was not sure that he was in earnest. He complained that romance had fallen into disrepute. "With all the modern stories—you know the formula—an ounce of sordidness, a flavor of sensationalism, a dash of sex——" One had to look back for the real thing—Aucassin and Nicolette, and all the rest. "That's why I haven't married."
"Well, I have often wondered."
"If I loved a woman, I should want to make her life all glow and color—and mine—with her——"
Anne's eyes were shining. What a big pleasant boy he was. He seemed so young. He had a way of running his fingers up through his hair. She was aware of the gesture in the dark. Yes, she liked him. And she felt suddenly gay and light-hearted, as she had felt in the days when she first met Ridgeley.
They talked until the stars shone in the tips of the birch trees. Ridgeley did not come, and when they went back to the house, they found that he had been called to New York on an urgent case. He would not return until the following Friday.
Anne and Christopher were thus left together for a week to get acquainted. With only old Jeanette Ware to play propriety.
It did not take Christopher long to decide that Ridgeley was no longer in love with his wife. "Of course he would call it love. But he could live just as well without her. He has made a machine of himself."
He spoke to Dunbar one night about Anne. "Do you think she is perfectly well?"
"There's a touch of breathlessness when we walk. Are you sure about her heart?"
"She has never been strong——" and that had seemed to be the end of it.
But it was not the end of it for Christopher. He watched Anne closely, and once when they climbed a hill together and she gave out, he carried her to the top. He managed to get his ear against her heart, and what he heard drained the blood from his face.
As for Anne, she thought how strong he was—and how fair his hair was with the sun upon it, for he had tucked his cap in his pocket.
That night Christopher again spoke to Ridgeley. "Anne's in a bad way." He told of the walk to the top of the hill.
Ridgeley listened this time, and the next day he took Anne down into his office, and did things to her. "But I don't see why you are doing all this," she complained, as he stuck queer instruments in his ears, and made her draw long breaths while he listened.
"Christopher says you get tired when you walk."
"Well, I do. But there's nothing really the matter, is there?"
There was a great deal the matter, but there was no hint of it in his manner. If she had not been his wife, he would probably have told her the truth—that she had a few months, perhaps a few years ahead of her. He was apt to be frank with his patients. But he was not frank with Anne. He had intended to tell Christopher at once. But Christopher was away for a week.
In the week that he was separated from her, Christopher learned that he loved Anne; that he had been in love with her from the moment that she had stood among the birches—like one of them in her white slenderness—and had talked to him of guardian angels;—"Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John!" He did not believe in saints, nor in the angels whose wings seemed to enfold Anne, but he believed in beauty—and Anne's seemed lighted from within, like an alabaster lamp.
Yet she was very human—and the girl in her and the boy in him had met in the weeks that he had spent with her. They had found a lot of things to do—they had fished in shallow brown streams, they had ridden through miles of lovely country. They had gone forth in search of adventure, and they had found it; in cherries on a tree by the road, and he had climbed the tree and had dropped them down to her, and she had hung them over her ears—— He had milked a cow in a pasture as they passed, and they had drunk it with their sandwiches, and had tied up a bill in Anne's fine handkerchief and had knotted it to the halter of the gentle, golden-eared Guernsey.
But they had found more than adventure—they had found romance—shining upon them everywhere. "If I were a gipsy to follow the road, and she could follow it with me," Christopher meditated as he sat in the train on his way back to Anne.
But there was Anne's husband, and Christopher's friend—and more than all there were all the specters of modern life—all the hideous wheels which must turn if Anne were ever to be his—treachery to Ridgeley—the divorce court—and then, himself and Anne, living the aftermath, of it all, facing, perhaps, disillusion——
"Oh, not that," Christopher told himself, "she'd never grow less—never anything less than she is—if she could once—care——"
For he did not know whether Anne cared or not. He might guess as he pleased—but there had not been a word between them.
Once more the thought flashed, "If I were a gipsy to follow the road——"
As his train sped through the countryside, he became aware of flaming bill-boards—a circus was showing in the towns—the fences fairly blazed with golden chariots, wild beasts, cheap gods and goddesses, clowns in frilled collars and peaked hats. He remembered a glorious day that he had spent as a boy!
"I'll take Anne," was his sudden decision.
He laughed to himself, and spent the rest of the way in seeing her at it. They would drink pink lemonade, and there would be pop-corn balls—the entrancing smell of sawdust—the beat of the band. He hoped there would be a tom-tom, and some of the dark people from the Far East.
He reached his destination at seven o'clock. Dunbar met him at the station. Anne sat with her husband, and Jeanette was in the back seat. Christopher had, therefore, a side view of Anne as she turned a little that she might talk to him. The glint of her bright hair under her gray sports hat, the light of welcome in her eyes——!
"I am going to take you to the circus to-morrow. Ridgeley, you'll go too?"
Dunbar shook his head. "I've got to get back to town in the morning. And I'm not sure that the excitement will be good for Anne."
"Why not?" quickly. "Aren't you well, Anne?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Ridgeley seems to think I'm not. But the circus can't hurt me."
Nothing more was said about it. Christopher decided to ask Ridgeley later. But the opportunity did not come until Anne had gone up-stairs, and Dunbar and Christopher were smoking a final cigar on the porch.
"What's the matter with her?" Christopher asked.
Dunbar told him, "She can't get well."
Anne, getting ready for bed, on the evening of Christopher's arrival, felt unaccountably tired. His presence had been, perhaps, a bit over-stimulating. It was good to have him back. She scarcely dared admit to herself how good. After dinner she and Ridgeley and Christopher had walked down to the grove of birches. There had been a new moon, and she and Ridgeley had sat on the stone bench with Christopher at their feet. She had leaned her head against her husband's shoulder, and he had put his arm about her in the dark and had drawn her to him. He was rarely demonstrative, and his tenderness had to-night for some reason hurt her. She had learned to do without it.
She had talked very little, but Christopher had talked a great deal. She had been content to listen. He really told such wonderful things—he gave her to-night the full story of her silver beads, and how they had been filched from an ancient temple—and he had bought them from the thief. "Until I saw you wear them, I always had a feeling that they ought to go back to the temple—to the god who had perhaps worn them for a thousand years. If I had known which god, I might have carried them back. But the thief wouldn't tell me."
"It would have done no good to carry them back," Ridgeley had said, "and they are nice for Anne." His big hand had patted his wife's shoulder.
"Oh," Christopher had been eager, "I want you to hear those temple bells some day, Anne. Why won't you take her, Dunbar? Next winter—drop your work, and we'll all go——"
"I've a fat chance of going."
"Haven't you made money enough?"
"It isn't money. You know that. But my patients would set up a howl——"
"Let 'em howl. You've got a life of your own to live, and so has Anne."
Dunbar had hesitated for a moment—then, "Anne's better off here."
Anne, thinking of these things as she got out of her dinner dress and into a sheer negligee of lace and faint blue, wondered why Ridgeley should think she was better off. She wanted to see the things of which Christopher had told her—to hear the temple bells in the dusk—the beat of the tom-tom on white nights.
She stood at the window looking out at the moon. She decided that she could not sleep. She would go down and get a book that she had left on the table. The men were out-of-doors, on the porch; she heard the murmur of their voices.
The voices were distinct as she stood in the library, and Christopher's words came to her, "What's the matter with Anne?"
Then her husband's technical explanation, the scientific name which meant nothing to her, then the crashing climax, "She can't get well."
She gave a quick cry, and when the men got into the room, she was crumpled up on the floor.
Her husband reached her first. "My dear," he said, "you heard?"
"Yes. Do you mean that I am—going to die, Ridgeley?"
There was, of course, no way out of it. "It means, my dear, that I've got to take awfully good care of you. Your heart is bad."
Christopher interposed. "People live for years with a heart like that."
But her eyes sought her husband's. "How long do they live?"
"Many months—perhaps years—without excitement——"
This then had been the reason for his tenderness. He had known that she was going to die, and was sorry. But for ten years she had wanted what he might have given her—what he couldn't give her now—life as she had dreamed of it.
She drew a quivering breath—"It isn't quite fair—is it?"
It didn't seem fair. The two doctors had faced much unfairness of the kind of which she complained. But it was the first time that, for either of them, it had come so close.
They had little comfort to give her, although they attempted certain platitudes, and presently Ridgeley carried her to her room.
She insisted the next morning on going to the circus with Christopher. She had not slept well, and there were shadows under her eyes. The physician in Christopher warred with the man. "You ought to rest," he said at breakfast. Dunbar had gone to New York in accordance with his usual schedule. There were other lives to think of; and Anne, when he had looked in upon her that morning, had seemed almost shockingly callous.
"No, I don't want to stay in bed, Ridgeley. I am going to the circus. I shall follow your prescription—to eat and drink and be merry——"
"I don't think I have put it quite that way, Anne."
"You have. Quite. 'Death is death and life is life—so make the most of it.'"
Perhaps she was cruel. But he knew, too, that she was afraid. "My dear," he said gently, "if you can get any comfort out of your own ideas, it might be better."
"But you believe they are just my own ideas—you don't believe they are true?"
"I should like to think they were true."
"You ought to rest," said Christopher at the breakfast table.
"I ought not. There are to be no more oughts—ever——"
He nodded as if he understood, leaning elbows on the table.
"I am going to pack the days full"—she went on. "Why not? I shall have only a few months—and then—annihilation——" She flung her question across the table. "You believe that, don't you?"
He evaded. "We sleep—'perchance to dream.'" "I don't want to dream. They might be horrid dreams——"
And then Jeanette came down, and poured their coffee, and asked about the news in the morning paper.
Dressed for her trip to the circus, Anne looked like a girl in her teens—white skirt and short green coat—stout sports shoes and white hat. She wore her silver beads, and Christopher said, "I'm not sure that I would if I were you."
"In such a crowd."
But she kept them on.
They motored to the circus grounds, and came in out of the white glare to the cool dimness of the tent as if they had dived from the sun-bright surface of the sea. But there the resemblance ceased. Here was no silence, but blatant noise—roar and chatter and shriek, the beat of the tom-tom, the thin piping of a flute—the crash of a band. But it was the thin piping which Christopher followed, guiding Anne with his hand on her arm.
Following the plaintive note, they came at last to the snake-charmer—an old man in a white turban. The snakes were in a covered basket. He sat with his feet under him and piped.
Christopher spoke to him in a strange tongue. The piping broke off abruptly and the man answered with eagerness. There was a quick interchange of phrases.
"I know his village," Christopher said; "he is going to show you his snakes."
A crowd gathered, but the snake-charmer saw only the big man who had spoken to his homesick heart, and the girl with the silver beads. He knew another girl who had had a string of beads like that—and they had brought her luck—a dark-skinned girl, his daughter. Her husband had bestowed the beads on her marriage night, and her first child had been a son.
He put the thin reed to his lips, and blew upon it. The snakes lifted their heads. He drew them up and out of the basket, and put them through their fantastic paces. Then he laid aside his pipe, shut them in their basket, and spoke to Christopher.
"He says that no evil can teach you while you wear the beads," Christopher told Anne.
The old man, with his eyes on her intent face, spoke again. "What you think is evil—cannot be evil," Christopher interpreted. "The gods know best."
They moved toward the inner tent.
"Are you tired?" Christopher asked. "We don't have to stay."
"I want to stay," and so they went in, and presently with a blare of trumpets the great parade began. They looked down on men and women in Roman chariots, men on horseback, women on horseback, on elephants, on camels—painted ladies in howdahs, painted ladies in sedan chairs—Cleopatra, Pompadour—history reduced to pantomime, color imposed upon color, glitter upon glitter, the beat of the tom-tom, the crash of the band, the thin piping, as the white-turbaned snake-charmer showed in the press of the crowd.
Christopher's eyes went to Anne. She was leaning forward, one hand clasping the silver beads. He would have given much to know what was in her mind. How little she was and how young. And how he wanted to get her away from the thing which hung suspended over her like a keen-edged sword.
But to get her away—how? He could never get her away from her thoughts. Unless ...
Suddenly he heard her laughing. Two clowns were performing with a lot of little dogs. One of the dogs was a poodle who played the fool. "What a darling," Anne was saying.
There was more than they could look at—each ring seemed a separate circus—one had to have more than a single pair of eyes. Christopher was blind to it all—except when Anne insisted, "Look—look!"
Six acrobats were in the ring—four men and two women. Their tights were of a clear shimmering blue, with silver trunks. One could not tell the women from the men, except by their curled heads, and their smaller stature. They were strong, wholesome, healthy. Christopher knew the quality of that health—hearts that pumped like machines—obedient muscles under satin skins. One of the women whirled in a series of handsprings, like a blue balloon—her body as fluid as quicksilver. If he could only borrow one-tenth of that endurance for Anne—he might keep her for years.
Then came Pantaloon, and Harlequin and Columbine. The old man was funny, but the youth and the girl were exquisite—he, diamond-spangled and lean as a lizard, she in tulle skirts and wreath of flowers. They did all the old tricks of masks and slapping sticks, of pursuit and retreat, but they did them so beautifully that Anne and Christopher sat spellbound—what they were seeing was not two clever actors on a sawdust stage, but love in its springtime—girl and boy—dreams, rapture, radiance.
Then, in a moment, Columbine was dead, and Harlequin wept over her—frost had killed the flower—love and life were at an end.
Christopher was drawing deep breaths. Anne was tense. But now—Columbine was on her feet, and Harlequin was blowing kisses to the audience!
"Let's get out of this," Christopher said, almost roughly, and led Anne down the steps and into the almost deserted outer tent. They looked for the snake-charmer, but he was gone. "Eating rice somewhere or saying his prayers," Christopher surmised.
"How could he know about the gods?" Anne asked, as they drove home.
"They know a great deal—these old men of the East," Christopher told her, and talked for the rest of the way about the strange people among whom he had spent so many years.
Ridgeley did not come home to dinner. He telephoned that he would be late. It was close and warm. Christopher, sitting with Anne and Jeanette on the porch, decided that a storm was brewing.
Anne was restless. She went down into the garden, and Christopher followed her. She wore white, and he was aware of the rose scent. He picked a rose for her as he passed through the garden. "Bend your head, and I'll put it in your hair."
"I can't wear pink."
"It is white in the dusk——" He put his hands on her shoulders, stopped her, and stuck the rose behind her ear. Then he let her go.
They came to the grove of birches, and sat down on the stone seat. It had grown dark, and the lightning flashing up from the horizon gave to the birches a spectral whiteness—Anne was a silver statue.
"It was queer," she said, "about the old man at the circus."
"About the beads?"
"Yes. I wonder what he meant, Christopher? 'What you think is evil—cannot be evil'? Do you think he meant—Death?"
He did not answer at once, then he said, abruptly, "Anne, how did it happen that you and Ridgeley drifted apart?"
"Oh, it's hard to tell."
"But tell me."
"Well, when we were first married, I expected so much ... things that girls dream about—that he would always have me in his thoughts, and that our lives would be knit together. I think we both tried hard to have it that way. I used to ride with him on his rounds, and he would tell me about his patients. And at night I'd wait up for him, and have something to eat, and it was—heavenly. Ridgeley was so ... fine. But his practice got so big, and sometimes he wouldn't say a word when I rode with him. ... And he would be so late coming in at night, and he'd telephone that I'd better go to bed. ... And, well, that was the beginning. I don't think it is really his fault or mine ... it's just ... life."
"It isn't life, and you know it," passionately. "Anne, if you had married me ... do you think ..?" He reached out in the dark and took her hand. "Oh, my dear, we might as well talk it out."
She withdrew her hand. "Talk what out?"
"You know. I've learned to care for you an awful lot. I had planned to go away. But I can't go now ... not and leave you to face things alone."
He heard her quick breath. "But I've got to face them."
"But not alone. Anne, do you remember what you said ... this morning? That you were going to pack the days full? And you can't do that without some one to help you. And Ridgeley won't help. Anne, let me do it. Let me take you away from here ... away from Ridgeley. We will go where we can hear the temple bells. We'll ride through the desert ... we'll set our sails for strange harbors. We'll love until we forget everything, but the day, the hour,—the moment! And when the time comes for endless dreams ..."
"You mustn't say things like that to me ... you must not ..!"
"I must. I want you to have happiness. We'll crowd more in to a few short months than some people have in a lifetime. And you have a right to it."
"Would it be happiness?"
"Why not? In a way we are all pushing death ahead of us. Who knows that he will be alive to-morrow? There's this arm of mine ... there's every chance that I'll have trouble with it. And an automobile accident may wreck a honeymoon. You've as much time as thousands who are counting on more."
The lightning flashed and showed the birches writhing.
"But afterward, Christopher, afterward ...?"
"Well, if it is Heaven, we'll have each other. And if it is Hell ... there were Paolo and Francesca ... and if it is sleep, I'll dream eternally of you! Anne ... Anne, do you love me enough to do it?"
But the storm was upon them—rain and wind, and the thunder a cannonade. Christopher, brought at last to the knowledge of its menace, picked Anne up in his arms, and ran for shelter. When they reached the house, they found Ridgeley there. He was stern. "It was a bad business to keep her out. She's afraid of storms."
"Were you afraid?" Christopher asked her, as Ridgeley went to look after the awnings.
"I forgot the storm," she said, and did not meet his eyes.
Lying awake in her wide bed, Anne thought it over. She was still shaken by Christopher's vehemence. She had believed him her friend, and had found him her lover—and oh, he had brought back youth to her. If he left her now, how could she stand it—the days with no one but Jeanette Ware, and the soul-shaking knowledge of what was ahead?
And Ridgeley would not care—much. In a week be swallowed up by his work. ... She tried to read, but found it difficult. Across each page flamed Christopher's sentences ... "We'll ride through the desert. ... We'll set our sails for strange harbors. ..."
Was that what the old man had meant at the circus. ... "What you think is evil—cannot be evil"? Would Christopher give her all that she had hoped of Ridgeley? If she lived to be eighty, she and Ridgeley would—jog. Was Christopher right—"You'll have more happiness in a few months than some people in a lifetime?"
She heard her husband moving about in the next room, the water booming in his bath. A thin line of light showed under his door.
She shut her book and turned out her lamp. The storm had died down and the moon was up. Through the open window she could see beyond the garden to the grove of birches.
Hitherto, the thought of the little grove had been as of a sanctuary. She was aware, suddenly, that it had become a place of contending forces. Were the guardian angels driven out ..?
But there weren't any guardian angels! Ridgeley had said that they were silly. And Christopher didn't believe in them. She wished that her mother might have lived to talk it over. Her mother had had no doubts.
The door of her husband's room opened, and he was silhouetted against the light. Coming up to the side of her bed, he found her wide-eyed.
"Can't you sleep, my dear?"
"I don't want to give you anything."
"I don't want anything."
He sat down by the side of the bed. He had on his blue bathrobe, and the open neck showed his strong white throat. "My dear," he said, "I've been thinking of what you said this morning—about my lack of belief and the effect it has had on yours. And—I'm sorry."
"Being sorry doesn't help any, does it, Ridgeley?"
"I should like to think that you had your old faiths to—comfort you."
She had no answer for that, and presently he said, "Are you warm enough?" and brought an extra blanket, because the air was cool after the storm, and then he bent and kissed her forehead. "Shut your eyes and sleep if you can."
But of course she couldn't sleep. She lay there for hours, weighing what he had said to her against what Christopher had said. Each man was offering her something—Christopher, life at the expense of all her scruples. Ridgeley, the resurrection of burnt-out beliefs.
She shivered a bit under the blanket. It would be heavenly to hear the temple bells—with youth beside her. To drink the wine of life from a brimming cup. But all the time she would be afraid, nothing could take away that fear.—Nothing, nothing, nothing.
She was glad that her husband was awake. The thin line of light still showed beneath his door. It would be dreadful to be alone—in the dark. At last she could stand it no longer. She got out of bed, wrapped herself in a robe that lay at the foot of it, and opened the door.
"May I leave it open?"
As her husband turned in his chair, she saw his hand go quickly, as if to cover the paper on which he was writing. "Of course, my dear. Are you afraid?"
"I am always afraid, Ridgeley. Always——"
She put her hands up to her face and began to cry. He came swiftly toward her and took her in his arms. "Hush," he said, "nothing can hurt you, Anne."
When she waked in the morning, it was with, the remembrance of his tenderness. Well, of course he was sorry for her. Anybody would be. But Christopher was sorry, too. And Christopher had something to offer her—more than Ridgeley—yes, it was more——
She was half afraid to go down-stairs. Christopher would be at breakfast on the porch. Jeanette would be there, pouring coffee, and perhaps Ridgeley if he had no calls. And Christopher would talk in his gay young voice—and Ridgeley would read the newspaper, and she and Christopher would make their plans for the day——
She rose and began to dress, but found herself suddenly panic-stricken at the thought of the plans that Christopher might make. If they motored off together, he would talk to her as he had talked in the grove of birches—of the temple bells, and of the desert, and the strange harbors—and how could she be sure that she would be strong enough to resist—and what if she listened, and let him have his way?
She decided to eat her breakfast in bed, and rang for it. A note came up from Christopher. "Don't stay up-stairs. Ridgeley left hours ago, and I shan't enjoy my toast and bacon if you aren't opposite me. I have picked a white rose to put by your plate. And I have a thousand things to say to you——"
His words had a tonic effect. Oh, why not——? What earthly difference would it make? And hadn't Browning said something like that—"Who knows but the world may end to-night?"
She was not sure that was quite the way that Browning had put it, and she thought she would like to be sure—she could almost see herself saying it to Christopher.
So she went into her husband's room to get the book.
Ridgeley's books were on the shelf above his desk. They had nothing to do with his medical library—that was down-stairs in his office, and now and then he would bring up a great volume. But he had a literary side, and he had revealed some of it to Anne in the days before he had been too busy. His Browning was marked, and it was not hard to find "The Last Ride." She opened at the right page, and stood reading—an incongruous figure amid Ridgeley's masculine belongings in her sheer negligee of faint blue.
She closed the book, put it back on the shelf, and was moving away, when her eyes were caught by two words—"For Anne," at the top of a sheet of paper which lay on Ridgeley's desk. The entire page was filled with Ridgeley's neat professional script, and in a flash the gesture which he had made the night before returned to her, as if he were trying to hide something from her gaze.
She bent and read ...
Oh, was this the way he had spent the hours of the night? Searching for words which might comfort her, might clear away her doubts, might bring hope to her heart?
And he had found things like this: "My little sister, Death," said good St. Francis; ... "The darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as day; the darkness and light to thee are both alike ..." "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow ..." These and many others, truths which had once been a part of her.
She read, avidly. Oh, she had been thirsty—for this! Hungry for this! And Ridgeley——! The tears dripped so that she could hardly see the lines. She laid her cheek against the paper, and her tears blistered it.
She carried it into her room. Christopher's note still lay on her pillow. She read it again, but she had no ears now for its call. She rang for her maid. "I shall stay in bed and write some letters."
She wrote to Christopher, after many attempts. "We have been such good, good friends. And we mustn't spoil it. Perhaps if you could go away for a time, it would be best for both of us. I am going to believe that some day you will find great happiness. And you would never have found happiness with me, you would have found only—fear. And I know now what the old man meant about the beads—'What you think is evil—cannot be evil.' Christopher, death isn't evil, if it isn't the end of things. And I am going to believe that it is not the end ..."
Christopher went into town before lunch, and later Anne sat alone on the stone bench in her grove of birches. They were serene and still in the gold of the afternoon. Yet last night they had writhed in the storm. She, too, had been swept by a storm. ... She missed her playmate—but she had a sense of relief in the absence of her tempestuous lover.
Ridgeley came home that night with news of Christopher's sudden departure. "He found telegrams. He told me to say 'good-bye' to you."
"I am sorry," Anne said, and meant it. Sorry that it had to be—but being sorry could not change it.
After dinner Ridgeley had a call to make, and Anne went up to bed. But she was awake when her husband came in, and the thin line of light showed. She waited until she heard the boom of water in his bath, and then she slipped out of bed and opened the door between. She was propped up in her pillows when he reappeared in his blue bathrobe.
"Hello," he called, "did you want me?"
He came in. "Anything the matter?"
"No. I'm not sick. But I want to talk."
"This——" She showed him the paper with its caption, "For Anne."
"Ridgeley, did you write it because I was—afraid?" her hand went out to him.
His own went over it. "I think I wrote it because I was afraid."
His grip almost hurt her. "My dear, my dear, I haven't believed in things. How could I ... with all the facts that men like me have to deal with? But when I faced ... losing you ...! love's got to be eternal ..."
"I won't ... lose you. Oh, I know. We've grown apart. I don't know how a man is going to help it ... in this darned whirlpool. ... But you've always been right ... here.... I've felt I might ... have you, if I ever had time ..." his voice broke.
"And I thought you didn't care."
"I was afraid of that, and somehow I couldn't get ... back ... to where we began. I was always thinking I would. ... And then this came. ...
"I always hated to kill the things that you believed, Anne. I thought I had to be honest ... that it would be better for you to face the truth.... But which one of us knows the Truth? Not a man among us. And I came across this ... 'Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die. ...' We are all fools—the wisest of us. ..."
She held out her arms to him, and he gathered her close. She felt that it had been a thousand years since she had prayed, yet she heard herself speaking ... And when he laid her back upon her pillows, she was aware that together they had approached some height from which they would never again descend.
"I'll leave the door open," he said, as he left her. "I shall be reading, and you can see the light."
It seemed as if the light from his room flooded the world. The four posts of her bed once more were tipped with shining saints! She turned on her pillow—beyond the garden, the grove of white birches was steeped in celestial radiance.
"My little sister, Death," said good St. Francis.
With her hand under her cheek, she slept at last, as peacefully as a child.