The Parting of the Waters
THE PARTING OF THE WATERS
By Alice Duer and
NEITHER of the two of the Pullman compartment was heeding the panorama of country through which they were being rapidly drawn. Instead, she saw the sleek form of the ubiquitous sexton suddenly galvanized into life at the receipt of some occult signal; a pair of doors thrown open; a sea of flowers, both real and artificial; a white blur that she believed to be bridesmaids undulating before her, and then an endless queue of smiling, congratulatory faces. She heard herself responding with unmeaning phrases to those to whom she had wished to say most; but then, there had been so little time.
That was really the trouble with the whole affair—there had been so little time. If she had only had a moment to sit down and rest her eyes, that felt as if they had been sandpapered, and to relax the smile that had grown purely muscular! More than all this, she had wanted time to realize that the occasion was important, and she happy. And now all that remained was a confusion of memories and physical weariness.
He was wondering why it had been ordained that before entering the holy state of matrimony a man should be deprived of sleep by the necessity of entertaining his intemperate and riotous friends.
It was beginning to rain. Mrs. Waters thought that there had never been a flatter or more uninteresting country than that through which they were passing. She turned sharply from the window and looked at her husband expectantly. This, she realized, was the first half-hour they had ever spent together which had not been notably amusing. She looked back on a long series of fortunate occasions when their mutual appreciativeness had enhanced their entertainment, so that in private they had never ceased to be amusing and in public had never failed to be amused; until she had come to identify their mirth and affection. Indeed, she now saw for the first time that he had always stood to her as a new conception of how enjoyable life could be made.
She looked out moodily on the monotony of the landscape and deplored the necessity of people going junketing over the country as soon as they were married, recalling with regret, too, that railroad travel always depressed her. She felt it high time that someone should resuscitate the conversation, and said, suggestively: "This must be Trenton."
"Only New Brunswick, I'm afraid," he replied, and silence again descended on the compartment.
In view of this condition of affairs it was at least infelicitous that the porter should have thought it necessary to give a preliminary rattle at the door handle on entering. Mrs. Waters's eyes rested on the unfurled evening paper that was all that indicated the presence of her husband, and glanced contemptuously at a heap of current literature that had been provided for her. Was it possible he was indifferent to the danger of her present mood? Or was his dramatic sense blind to an anti-climax?
The lighting of the over-brilliant lamps limited her range of vision to the compartment. The crackling of the paper continued to be the only interruption to the silence. She had full opportunity, therefore, to realize that she was so tired that food was out of the question, while at the same time she looked forward to dinner as the inevitable moment when her husband should realize that she had become dangerously bored and depressed, and needed something more stimulating than the periodicals.
The paper rattled for the last time, and Mr. Waters reappeared. She looked up with keen interest to discover the method he must have evolved by which he could clear the atmosphere, and she was prepared to temper justice with mercy.
"Anything in the magazines?" he said.
Before she answered him she allowed that extra moment to elapse which, if it cannot be said to outrage courtesy, is at least more than affection allows.
"I haven't looked at them," she said. She supposed her tone unmistakable.
"No?" he answered, gently, and began to examine the heap with interest.
That mortal man could be no dense staggered her intellect almost as much as it bruised her affection, but showed her that unless her own magnanimity should intervene nothing could now save the situation. The horrible fancy arose that her presence, which hitherto had served as a spur to his wit, now only nourished a sense of possession, and at this, if she had not felt the danger of floundering at his side, she would gladly have allowed him to sink in the quicksands of his own fatuousness. But having cherished this vision until it had almost acquired the value of an accomplished revenge, her generosity of spirit, a quality by which she set great store, suggested the quixotic nobility of giving him yet one more chance at rehabilitation. Dinner, she thought, would give this virtue a peculiar opportunity.
Mr. Waters's next remark was: "It's high time you had something to eat; you look tired."
Every woman knows that the difference between Mr. Waters's last remark and being told she looks plain is a difference not of fact but of courteous intent.
He touched the bell, and his man and the porter appeared, carrying a hamper between them. It was impossible that even Mrs. Waters's languid interest in life should not revive at the ingenious complexity of its internal arrangement. Cunningly contrived compartments yielded up china and glass; unsuspected pockets divulged knives and forks, and in a few minutes the table was furnished with an entire service. Mrs. Waters had a liking for cold clam broth, and as it was now set before her, she found less difficulty in addressing her husband in amity.
"I see by the papers, Mr. Waters," she said, "that you have recently laid yourself open to the charge of matrimony. It is a subject to which, from time to time, I myself have given attention, and I am sure your impressions could not fail to be of interest."
"One of the first things that struck me," he replied, "was the vast number of theories I entertained concerning the holy state, and every one of them totally erroneous."
"For instance—may I give you some of this cold salmon?—one is accustomed to regard the matter in the light of a Great Step. Now, nothing, I find, is more fallacious. Granting the initial step of falling in love—you don't care for mayonnaise?—the Great Step becomes a mere date—a link in the chain."
Conscious that she had fallen into the crudity he indicated, she said, hastily: "You speak for your own sex, I take it?"
"Yes, I think I do," he answered, "for the situation, speaking generally, is more crucial for a woman."
"Because," she murmured, looking with meaning over the rim of her champagne glass, "because a woman rarely makes a man she loves unhappy, at least without intention."
"Yes," said Mr. Waters, cordially adopting a thought so thoroughly in harmony with his own; "whereas, a man, with the best intentions in the world, may hurt a woman considerably, without ever guessing it."
Mrs. Waters prepared herself to point out to him that he would not have far to go for a practical example, but his eloquence swept on. (Mr. Waters was a lawyer.)
"For," he continued, noting with approval the perfection of the boned grouse that was placed before him, "as I look at it, there is a very debatable piece of ground before a couple such as we have in mind. Two people fall in love—nothing very extraordinary in that—and as we suppose them intelligent beings, they soon grow to have an accurate but theoretic knowledge of each other's characters. But the period during which this knowledge is being turned into the practical coinage of everyday life, while the inspiration of sentiment is becoming the habit of intimacy, is a time indeed fraught with danger. And, as we were saying, it is the man who finds it the most dangerous. The pitfalls for his feet are legion. In the first place, the public nature of the institution of matrimony forces him to acquire a manner for the public. Now, your mere male is a very bad hand at living up to such a demand as that, and his conception of the part is apt to be that of one who goes about exclaiming: 'Behold, I am the owner of a valuable chattel.' In the second place——"
And Mrs. Waters heard him go on to enumerate the very list of her charges against him.
She could not allow him to make such an exhibition, and before it had gone further she felt this was an excellent opportunity to point out to him how high a standard she had set on that very debatable ground of which he spoke so glibly. But even as she opened her mouth to speak, he fixed his eyes on hers and proceeded:
"Now, I must admit, Edna, that I had rather looked forward with alarm to this period, especially to-day. You're tired—" she looked furtively in the glass—"and I'm pretty well beat. Traveling is fussy work at the best of times, and though I know you are too sensible to be over-sensitive, still I can imagine that I might easily have done something that would have got on your nerves. But now I feel quite easy." And having attained so enviable a state of mind, Mr. Waters's attention shifted to the galantine.
Mrs. Waters leaned her head back on the cushions and closed her eyes. All hope had left her. She felt the worst had arrived. Easy—he felt easy. The word vibrated within her. She had succeeded in quieting her nerves in order to talk the matter over with him, but now she was lost in a jangle and confusion. She looked at him beneath her half-closed lids and saw in fancy the man she had imagined him to be—a man with brilliance and tact in place of this fortuitous forensic and painstaking density.
In justice to her own feelings, food now became out of the question. Galantine, tomatoes farcies with caviare, bar-le-duc and iced pineapple passed in a rejected succession. The two men came in and took away the dishes. Waters stretched himself luxuriously and lighted a cigar, in defiance of the company's rule.
"I feel a thousand times better," he said. "Twelve hours from now we shall be in Echo Valley."
Mrs. Waters started. It was quite true. Twelve hours from then they would still be repeating this miserable farce, and twelve hours from then again. She crossed her arms, repressing a shudder.
"Where are we now?" she asked.
"We can't be far from Washington," answered Mr. Waters, and was thereupon so ill-advised as to attempt a little of what is known as "general conversation." But, although he made a brave start, his inspiration appeared to be fitful, and after a strenuous effort he came to a dead stop.
During all this time his wife had been incapable of attention, although the necessity of s self-expression was hurrying her toward speech that would open his eyes to the gulf between them.
A few minutes of the rhythm of the train, while the first irregular lights of the suburbs of Washington came flashing by, and then she heard herself beginning: "Adam, you must help me. Something is wrong. I know I exaggerate, but I am very tired—perhaps you will think over-sensitive—but—" she was doing her best to be just—"we must both make allowances. I—" She looked up.
Adam was asleep.
She rose and pushed open the door of the compartment. The train was almost at a standstill.
"Washington!" cried the porter.
Fresh air came to her through the open door, and she moved toward it. She stepped on to the platform, and, walking to the end of the train, stood and watched the hurrying stream of passengers for how many minutes she could not have told. Suddenly the car at her elbow began slipping past. The porter, step in hand, gesticulated wildly; but she only shook her head.
The red eyes on the rear platform were soon all that could be seen of the southbound Echo Valley Express.
It was late in the morning when Mrs. Waters awoke at the Langham Hotel in Washington, and looked forward to a recuperative day in bed with great satisfaction. First, however, drawing to her a sheet of the hotel paper, she indited the following:
There is a very debatable piece of ground—
Somehow—never mind through whose fault—we reached it yesterday, and somehow, too, I did not get safely over. As a consequence, I am waiting here. What I say accounts for that, doesn't it?
The rest I may safely leave to you.
She felt that this note, if a trifle enigmatic, would at the same time reveal to her husband the error of his ways and show him how easy and pleasant his return to favor would be made. This done, she returned to bed and to a perusal of copies of those magazines she had spurned the day before.
The next morning, very much refreshed, she might have been observed sitting behind a stand of palms in the dining-room of the hotel. A golden rod of the April sunlight fell on the table. The menu was propped against the carafe on one side and a time-table on the other. Mrs. Waters was at that moment absorbed in ordering breakfast, the first time she had ever had an opportunity of doing so for herself. It was a matter, therefore, to which she was giving her whole soul, and presently the paraphernalia of an ideal light meal for a Spring morning were set before her.
A day among the parks of Washington seemed demanded by her sense of dramatic propriety, so, having purchased a white veil and a copy of Hazlitt's Essays, she proceeded to the grounds of the Smithsonian Institute. There is a peculiarly favored spot in this park where the near foreground is composed of a fountain, a pool covered with Egyptian lotus; and a quarter of a mile of slope of lawn edged with beeches constitutes the middle distance. Over the green tops of these rises the whole stretch of Washington. Mrs. Waters ensconced herself on a bench before the fountain, let her eyes rest on the flaming beds of crocuses set in the lawn, then on the Capitol to one side and the Monument to the other. Some children were racing along the asphalt walk. Mrs. Waters blinked her eyes in the sun and found life very good.
A little later she hailed an open carriage driven by an antiquated darkey, and visited that depository of American taste, good and otherwise, the Congressional Library; then lunched in the Library restaurant, finishing in time to catch the Mount Vernon trolley. She was whirled away in the open car over the Potomac and into Virginia; for an hour watched the river below the yellow mist of budding trees at Mount Vernon, and returned to the hotel in time for dinner. A letter was handed to her; she had expected a telegram. It read as follows:
I thought we decided Washington was too tourist-ridden.
Without the authority of your closing words I could scarcely have allowed myself to have had such a good time as fell to my lot. Beginning at the beginning, you really missed a great deal by not alighting at the station with me and witnessing the effect produced on the populace by your pair of chestnuts, which looked ripping, if a trifle wicked, in the lead.
Timpson had managed to get down ahead of us by fast freight, and was suspended, like Mahomet's coffin, from the leader's bridle. I took a circuitous route out of the village in order to avoid comment on the solitary condition of the box seat.
About three o'clock this afternoon I came on a handsome young gentleman leading a horse that appeared to have gone lame. I made him get up, and told one of the men to lead the animal to the gentleman's house, about two miles further along. We got talking, and on hearing that I proposed to put up at the local hotel, my friend said it was a vile hole, and wouldn't hear of it, and that I was to stop with his people. Accordingly, I drove the break up the avenue of a regular old-fashioned manor, and we were greeted by the father, another son and four of the prettiest girls you could find in a day's journey. They were, I need not say, hospitality itself. Your letter was brought to me from the post-office about five. After supper we played polo like mad on bicycles, among the syringa bushes, and then, it being distinctly warm and the sun just setting, we trooped down, girls and all, to a pool in the river for a swim. Afterward a mint julep—the real article; this to you, and so to bed.
Mr. Waters was a regular correspondent. The next day at luncheon his wife received the following:
To-day I reached Echo Valley. When I got to the house I found the table piled with roses and lilacs, and a stack almost as high of cards and invitations. Among them was a note from Charlie Rawlings saying that they were giving a dance at the Hunt Club that night, and you and I were to lead. After dinner I got into my pink and went over to the inn, where the festivities were in full swing. They were grieved to hear the journey had knocked you out so completely; said they had been afraid it might do so and had considered postponing the ball, and finally insisted that I should stay in your place, if only for a little while. Accordingly, I took a hand, dancing with pretty little Mrs. Ripley. The cotillion, with elaborate figures and favors, was just enough on the rowdydow order to suit the occasion. 1 have never tasted better champagne. I told everyone that instead of spending the week here we leave at once and start "driving down to meet the Spring," as I remember you said. It should be now in full blast in South Carolina. Good-night Ever yours,
And another letter was enclosed:
My Dear Daughter:
I was perfectly thrilled by the account Adam sent me of your gaiety. I know how well you must have appeared and how much you must have enjoyed it. Didn't the scarlet hat become you? I say "your gaiety," though, poor dear, you seem to have missed part on account of that dreadful journey. However, I suppose you must have come in for some of it I hope, particularly, you saw something of the charming young Louisianians just released from the Mardi Gras, who were staying with the Larkins. They seem to have "made things hum." It was so nice in Adam to manage to have your pair sent down in time to meet you. Get him to write often until you are better. I have always said a satisfactory honeymoon, a satisfactory marriage. Dora's child looks, etc.
Thus, day by day, did the pile of letters on Mrs. Waters's table at the hotel increase.
On the nineteenth of the month she received the final letter of the series, the last few lines of which read:
You remember we decided to be back in New York on the 20th. I leave, therefore, to-morrow. My train arrives in Washington at 1.03.
Mrs. Waters looked at her watch. It was already twelve o'clock, She sprang to the bell and rang it with such vigor that not one but three bellboys appeared, whom she severally despatched for the correct time, a porter, a cab and a time-table. Her treatment of these messengers was a mixture of extreme impatience and lavish expenditure of small change. By their united efforts she arrived at the station twenty minutes ahead of time.
As the train pulled in, her husband was standing on the step. A moment later the porter closed the door of the compartment, and they were alone.
"I have a letter from your mother," said Mr. Waters, drawing it from his waistcoat pocket. "She says, strangely enough, that a honeymoon generally serves to show two people whether it is possible they can see too much of each other, or whether, under ideal conditions, they can really be happy together. At least, Edna, we have avoided the former danger.
"Mamma is quite right," began Mrs. Waters, with a brave effort to imitate his detached manner; "and if a successful honeymoon is one that shows people they cannot be happy apart—oh, Adam, I don't know anything about ideal conditions and being together, but I have found out how wretched I can be without you, and—" The rest of a sentence that bade fair to be interesting she found herself forced to confide to the lapel of her husband's coat.
A second later, however, she raised her head and said, with a faint gleam in her eye:
"But it was dull of you to go to sleep."
"Perhaps it may be a satisfaction to you," said Mr. Waters, "to know I have made up for it. It doesn't seem to me that I have closed my eyes since."