The Tree of Heaven (collection)/Ex Curia
And now, at his attorney's request, and before his report was made, they decided to run through the documents in the case once more, reviewing everything from the very beginning. So young Courtlandt, his attorney, lighted a cigar and unwrapped the pink tape from the bundle of papers.
There was enough daylight left to read by, for wall and ceiling still bore the faded imprint of the red winter sunset. Edgerton sat before the fire, his well-shaped head buried in his hands; Courtlandt, lounging on a sofa by the window, unfolded the first paper, puffed thoughtfully at his cigar, and presently began to read without inflection or apparent interest:
Paris, December 24, 1902.
- John Edgerton, Esq.
- Sir: My client, Michael Innis, is seriously ill, and I am writing you on his behalf and at his urgent solicitation.
- It would appear that, during the panic of 1884, my client came to your father's assistance, at a time when your father's financial ruin, involving also, I believe, the ruin of many of his friends, was apparently only a question of hours.
- It would also appear that, upon your father's death, you wrote Mr. Innis, voluntarily assuming your father's unpaid obligations. (Copy of your letter herewith inclosed.)
- It further appears that Mr. Innis, accepting the assurance of your personal gratitude, generously offered to wait for the sums due him, permitting you to pay at your own convenience. (Copy of Mr. Innis's letter inclosed herewith.)
- In the conclusion of this last letter (No. 2 on file) Mr. Innis mentions his lifelong respect for your father and his family, humorously drawing the social distinction between the late Winthrop Edgerton, Esq., and Michael Innis, the Tammany contractor; and rather wistfully contrasting the future prospects of Mr. Edgerton's son, yourself, and the chances of the child of Michael Innis.
- To this letter you replied (copy herewith), repeating in a manly fashion your assurance of gratitude, holding yourself at the service of Mr. Innis.
- Now, sir, if your assurances meant more than mere civility, you have an opportunity to erase the deep obligations that your father assumed.
- Mr. Innis is a man broken in mind and body. His fortune was invested, against my advice, in Madagascar Railways. To-day he could not realize a thousand dollars from the investment.
- For twenty years his one absorbing passion has been the education and fitting of his only child for a position in the world which he himself could never hope to attain. Wealth and education, linked with an agreeable personality, may go anywhere in this century. And his daughter has had the best that Europe can afford.
- Within a month all is changed. Sir, it is sad to see the stricken man lying here, watching his daughter.
- And now, knowing that impending dissolution is near, terror of the future for her has wrung an appeal from him to you—a strange appeal, Mr. Edgerton. Money alone is little; he asks more; he asks your protection for her—not the perfunctory protection of a guardian for a ward, but the guidance of a father, the companionship of a brother, the loyalty of a husband.
- The man is blinded by worship of his own child; your father's son represents to him all that is noblest, most honorable, most desirable in the world.
- Sir, this is a strange request, an overdrawn draft upon your gratitude, I fear. Yet I write you as I am bidden. An answer should be returned by cable with as little delay as possible. He will live until he receives it. Marriage by proxy is legal. Special dispensation is certain.
- I am, sir, with great respect,
Your very humble servant,
- Att'y and Counselor at Law,
7 rue d'Issy.
When Courtlandt finished reading he folded the letter, glancing across at Edgerton: "That was written two years ago to-day, you remember?—this foreclosure of his mortgage upon your gratitude!"
"I remember," said Edgerton.
"From the gratitude of the conscientious, good Lord deliver us!" murmured Courtlandt, unfolding another paper. "This is a copy of the asinine cablegram you sent, without consulting me." And he read:
23 rue d'Abdul Hamid, Paris.
- I assume all responsibility for your daughter's future. Utterly impossible for me to leave New York. If you believe marriage advisable, arrange for special dispensation and ceremony by proxy.
Courtlandt rose and walked over to the fire where Edgerton was sitting. His client raised his head, eyes a trifle dazed from the pressure of his fingers on the closed lids.
"What the merry deuce did you send that cable for?" muttered Courtlandt under his breath.
"I don't know—a debt of gratitude—and he did not want it paid in money. I—an appeal like that had to be honored, you see. I was ashamed to haggle at the day of reckoning. A man cannot appraise his own gratitude."
"Such things cannot be asked of gratitude," growled the attorney. "The business of the world is not run on impulse! What is gratitude?"
"It is not gratitude if it asks that question," returned Edgerton; "and I fear that after all it was not exactly gratitude. Gratitude gives; a debt of honor exacts. There is no profit in following this line further, is there, Billy?"
"No," assented Courtlandt, "unless it's going to help us disentangle the unfortunate affair." He unfolded another paper. "It's too dark to read," he observed, leaning forward into the fire-light. The red reflection of the coals played over his face and the black-edged notepaper he was scanning. And he read, slowly:
January 3, 1903.
- Dear Mr. Edgerton: For your very gentle letter to me I beg to thank you; I deeply appreciate your delicacy at a time when kindness is most needed. Had you not written as you have, I should have found it difficult to discuss a situation which I am only just beginning to realize must be as embarrassing to you as it is to me.
- In the grief and distress which overwhelmed me when I was so suddenly summoned from the convent to find my father so ill, I did not, could not realize the step I was asked to take. All I knew was that he desired it, begged for it, and it meant to me nothing—this ceremony which made you my husband—nothing except a little happiness for the father I loved.
- He made the responses for you, I kneeling at his bedside, scarce able to speak in my grief. There were two brief ceremonies, the civil and religious. He died very quietly that night.
- Pray believe me that I understand how impossible it is for you to leave affairs of importance to come to Paris at this time. My aunt, who is with the Ursulines, has received me. It is very quiet, very peaceful; I have opportunity for meditation, and for studies which I left uncompleted. Mr. Campbell, whom you have so considerately retained for my legal guidance, is kind and tactful. He has, I believe, communicated with you in regard to the most generous provision you have made for me. Pray believe that I require very, very little. I regret the loss of my father's fortune only because it should have perhaps compensated you a trifle for your kindness to my father in his last hours.
- I hesitate—I feel the greatest reluctance and delicacy in addressing you upon a matter that troubles me. It is this, Mr. Edgerton: if, through gratitude to my father for service done your father, you offered to become responsible for me, perhaps—I do not know—perhaps, as you have done me the honor of protecting me with your name, it is all that could be expected—and I hasten to assure you that I am content. Indeed, had I realized, had I even begun to comprehend what I was doing— Yet what could I do but obey him at such a time?
- So, if you think it well that we remain apart for a while, I am content and happy to obey your wishes. Your name, which I now bear, I honor; your wishes, monsieur, are my commands.
- With gratitude, confidence, and respect, I remain,
Kathleen Innis Edgerton.
- Convent of the Ursulines,
Courtlandt refolded the letter, and sat rubbing his eyes. "For Heaven's sake let's have a light!" he grumbled, leaning over and pushing the electric button.
The light broke out overhead, flooding the library, glistening among gay evergreen wreaths tied with bunches of Christmas holly which hung against the library windows.
Edgerton raised his pale face, then his head sank on his breast; he folded his arms, gazing absently into the fire. "Go on," he said.
So Courtlandt read other letters from Mrs. Edgerton, brief notes, perfunctory, reserved, and naïve; and he read letters from Campbell, the attorney, acknowledging provisions made for his young client.
When he finished he refolded all the papers, retied them with pink tape, and laid them on the table at Edgerton's elbow. "Now," he said, "comes the question. You have arrived at the conclusion that Mrs. Edgerton desires and deserves her freedom. And you want to know what I think."
"Yes," said Edgerton.
"You gave me a month to look up the matter."
"Yes, a month."
"And now you want me to report, don't you, Jack?"
Edgerton glanced up. "If you're ready," he said.
"I'm ready. First I want to ask you a question. Is there any woman you have met, before or since your marriage, whom you might fall in love with if you were free to do so?"
"No, I believe not—I don't know. I am—I was not actuated by selfishness."
"All right. Still, you are capable of loving somebody, are you not?"
"I fancy so. I should like to have a chance—to marry for love."
"But you never met the right one?"
"There is—I have caught a glimpse—once—one woman——"
"Is that all?" laughed Courtlandt. "That's not enough to bowl you over."
"It was almost enough!" retorted Edgerton. Through his voice rang an undertone of impatience. His attorney looked up quickly.
"Oh, is it as serious as that? No wonder you want your freedom! Who is the woman?"
"I don't know what you mean," retorted the younger man sullenly. "I told you that I saw a woman once, whom I should like to have had a chance to see again. What of it? I never shall."
"When was this, Jack?"
"Yesterday—if you want to know."
"Driving in the park."
"Who is she?"
"You could answer that question," said Edgerton, wheeling around on his friend. "You were driving with her."
Courtlandt stared, slowly turning redder and redder.
"You wanted to know," observed Edgerton, eying him. "It means nothing, of course—I was riding along the bridle path and I caught a glimpse of you, and I saw her face. I thought her beautiful, that's all. Drop the subject."
"Certainly," answered Courtlandt. He opened his match box and relighted his cigar; then he fell to musing, breaking the burnt match up into little pieces and tossing the morsels, one by one, into the fire.
"Jack," he drawled, still busy with the match, "you gave me a month to report upon this matter concerning the dissolution of your marriage. It might interest you to learn the first step I took."
"What was it?" inquired Edgerton, raising his troubled eyes.
"I went to Paris."
"Certainly, to see Mrs. Edgerton."
The men's eyes met; the lawyer shrugged his shoulders.
"Mrs. Edgerton is very inexperienced, very young," he said. "She is, of course, a Catholic. But if she desired her freedom a thousand times as fervently as you might desire yours, the law of her religion bars her way. You knew that of course."
"I thought—sometimes——" began the other.
"You are wrong."
Edgerton stared into the glowing coals.
"So you left it to me to see what could be done," added the attorney dryly.
"Well," said Courtlandt, "I shouldn't have accepted such a commission had I not known it was quite unselfish on your part. You told me that her letters to you were pitifully loyal and conscientious; that you felt like a jailer watching an innocent life prisoner; that if you only knew how to do it you would give her the liberty God meant her to enjoy—liberty to love and be loved. And you allowed me a month to find the way to settle this wretched affair."
"Yes. Is there a way?"
"Only one," replied Courtlandt gravely. He rose, offering his hand.
Edgerton also rose, tall, clean cut, closely cropped hair just tinged with gray at the temples.
"Only one way," repeated Courtlandt deliberately, "and that is for you to discuss the situation with Mrs. Edgerton.
"What!" exclaimed Edgerton sharply, dropping his friend's hand. "You know I can't leave town to go to Paris."
Courtlandt coolly consulted his watch. "I neglected to say that Mrs. Edgerton is in town. I believe"—he glanced at his watch again, then closed it with a snap—"I suggested that she waive ceremony and meet us here."
"Here!" muttered Edgerton. "Wait a moment, will you? Do you mean to say that she is coming here to-night?"
"Why not?" said Courtlandt, his gray eyes narrowing. "If she chooses to accept my advice, if she is woman enough to overlook what is due her from her husband, why should she not come here as freely as you come?"
"Are you my attorney or hers?" demanded the other in astonishment.
"Yours, Jack—acting for your interest—which is hers, too—which must be hers. Where is your sense of honor? Where is your sense of justice? Has the glimpse of a woman's face in the park seared your eyes? Is it true that an indifferent man can be just, but a man in love is a partisan? You could be coldly considerate and deal out passionless justice until yesterday. Now for the first time the fetters gall you. Is this the crisis where you flinch?"
He stood, jerking on his gloves, scanning Edgerton's face.
"I told her that the proper place to discuss the situation was under her own roof; and I am right. Do you consider a public hotel the suitable environment for such a conference? Her pride and intelligence comprehended me. That's all I have to say."
"Why did you not tell me before this that she was in town? I understand the requirements of civilization, do I not?"
"I did not tell you, because we landed only yesterday morning."
"She came over with you?"
"On my advice and at my earnest solicitation."
Edgerton stared at him, tugging at his short mustache.
"What are we to discuss?" he demanded sullenly. "As she is Catholic we cannot discuss divorce. We could, of course, come to some conclusion concerning a modus vivendi."
"I expect you to come to some such conclusion. Two years ago you were twenty-eight—an oversensitive young man, impulsive, illogical, and morbid concerning personal obligations. Without consulting your legal adviser you perpetrated a crime—for it is criminal to parody the highest safeguard to civilization—marriage. It was a crime; your wife is your accomplice—particeps criminis, my friend. Neither you nor she deserves mercy."
He turned away, buttoning his gloves.
"It's touched your temples with gray," he observed. "You have learned something at thirty, Jack, even if it's cost you what you think a mésalliance"
As he stepped to the door a maid appeared with a card on a salver. Edgerton glanced at it, then looked straight into Courtlandt's eyes.
"I'm sorry I needed this lesson in decency," he said. "It was all right for you to administer it. You need not worry; I understand that I am at my wife's disposal, not she at mine. I've kept my medicine waiting for two years, that's all."
"Oh, you're getting on," observed Courtlandt carelessly. "Good night—I've a word to say to Mrs. Edgerton before I go."
"You mean to stay, don't you?" began the other, flushing up. "It would be less trying for her——"
But Courtlandt hurried off down the stairs, muttering vaguely of engagements for Christmas Eve, leaving Edgerton staring after him through the dimly lighted hallway.
He heard Courtlandt enter the drawing-room; he could distinguish the quick, low exchange of greeting; then he went down slowly, steadying himself by the banisters.
A young girl in furs turned toward him as he entered; he caught a glimpse of blue eyes, a glint of bright hair framed in fluffy fur; he heard Courtlandt's cool, easy voice presenting him to his wife; he took the slim gloved hand outstretched, held it stupidly until it was withdrawn; then Courtlandt's voice again, promising to return, and exacting her promise to wait here for him if he should be detained.
"I'm sorry I can't remain and dine with you and Mr. Edgerton on this night before Christmas," added Courtlandt blandly, making for the door.
"Oh!" she said, surprised, "I did not understand that Mr. Edgerton invited us."
The color stung Edgerton's face, and he said in a low voice: "You are at home, madam; it is for you to invite us. Perhaps Mr. Courtlandt will stay if you ask him; I will if you ask me."
She gave him a confused, brilliant little smile, a delicate tint mounting to her cheeks.
"Thank you," she said; "you—everybody is so delightful to me. Will you stay, Mr. Courtlandt? I—we beg of you! No? Then, until I—until we have the pleasure—at nine, I believe?"
From force of habit she turned to the dazed maid, who also instinctively recognized authority, and opened the door which a second later closed upon the most profoundly excited young attorney in Manhattan.
Mrs. Edgerton raised her blue eyes to her husband as a maid relieved her of her furs and little gilt-edged tricorne.
"I—I wonder if you are as embarrassed as I am?" she said, laughing and touching her golden hair with a frank side glance at the mirror.
"Dreadfully embarrassed," admitted Edgerton, scarcely conscious of what he uttered; oblivious, too, of the usages of civilization until she sank into an armchair with a shy "May I?"
"It is for me to ask the privilege," he said, biting his lip.
"Oh, if you please?"—she smiled, with a gesture toward the chair beside her.
Seated there with him under the crystal chandelier, she fell silent, meeting his gaze at moments with a questioning smile, partly confident, partly uncertain.
"I saw you in the park yesterday," he said under his breath, never taking his eyes from her.
"I saw you, too," she replied quickly. "You rode a bay. I never imagined—" she bent her head, thoughtfully studying the arabesques on the rug. "You ride very well," she added. Then, after a moment's silence: "And you remembered me?"
"I recognized you at once," he said, "the instant I entered this room. It was that which startled me—made me appear stupid——"
"You did not appear stupid——"
"I was awkward, dumb——"
"I chattered sufficiently for two. Indeed, I was not at all composed."
"Did—did you recognize me at once?"
She looked at him, she glanced at the rug, her blue eyes grew vague, lost in retrospective reverie.
He did not repeat the question, but asked her how long it was since she had been in America.
"Oh, many years—I was only three when my father went to France." Then the warm color came into her face and she clasped her hands impulsively. "I do not believe," she said, "that I have conveyed to you in letters my deep appreciation of your loyalty to me. I—I did not know how to express it—I do not now. Believe me, monsieur, it does exist!"
"What have you to thank me for?" he asked almost brusquely. Then, in a rush of bitterness: "Your sentiments honor yourself, not me, madam. For two years I have been responsible for your happiness. What have I done to secure it?"
She turned a trifle pale, unprepared for such a question. But she answered very sweetly: "You left me guarded by the honor of your own name. I have never wanted for anything; I have had the quiet and seclusion I desired. What more is there, Mr. Edgerton?"
And as he remained silent, she raised her head with a gay little smile: "You could not leave your affairs to come to France; you did not suggest that I come to New York. How could I know that I should——"
"What?" he urged.
But she closed her red lips, sitting mute, suddenly shy again.
After a moment she said: "Mais—he is absent a long while, Mr. Courtlandt."
"He isn't coming until nine o clock," said Edgerton. He glanced across at the clock. It was half-past seven.
"So, in the meanwhile, we are to discuss matters of importance," she suggested seriously. "Mr. Courtlandt said so. What, monsieur, are we to discuss?"
"There is absolutely nothing that I know of to discuss," replied Edgerton slowly.
"Nothing?" she inquired, wide-eyed and innocent.
"Nothing, except your wishes, and they admit of no discussion. You are at home now."
"But I—but I am staying at the Holland—" Edgerton touched a button; a servant appeared.
"Mrs. Edgerton's luggage is at the Holland," he said quietly. "Telephone for it."
Mrs. Edgerton half rose from her chair; then, meeting her husband's grave eyes, she sank back, crimson to the temples.
"We are merely about to exchange quarters," he said pleasantly. "I shall be most comfortable at the Holland."
"Oh, you shall not!—no, it is all wrong!" she pleaded, the color fading in her face. "I cannot come into your house—into your life——"
"It is your house," he said gently. "Still, if—if you don't mind—there is a better way still of arranging matters. I have a whole floor on the third story; and perhaps you might not mind if I retain it. I promise," he added, laughing, "to be a model tenant and not keep coal in my bath tub!"
She laughed, too, a little uncertainly.
"You are so generous—so kindly," she said. "How can you endure to have a perfectly silly girl march into your house——"
"Your house! Carry it by assault, capture the nicest suite, and drive you to the roof among the sparrows! No, it is shameful! More than that, it is absurd!"
"I never have occupied the rooms on the second floor," he protested. "They have been vacant since I took this house."
"Truly. They are too pretty for a man who smokes a pipe—all rococo, and furniture with beagle legs, you know."
"For whom were they intended?" she asked innocently.
He reddened. "I bought the house after our wedding," he hesitated; "then, afterwards, from your letters, I fancied that you might prefer to remain abroad. So I said nothing."
She bent her head. "I—I thought it fairer—to you," she said in a low voice. "I would have come had you asked me. I—how was I to know, Mr. Edgerton?"
They sat silent, eyes bent on the floor. Presently he went on: "So I had that suite fixed up for you. And I moved upstairs. I am very happy that you are to occupy it."
"Do you really desire it?"
"You have no idea how pretty it is," he urged.
"Is it so pretty?"
"Come up and look at it!"
She sprang to her feet on the impulse, smiling, confident of his kindness. And they mounted the stairs together, sans façon, arriving on the second floor breathless.
"Oh," she cried softly, as she entered, "it is perfectly charming!" She stood a moment, gazing around, then with a delightful gesture bade him enter.
"Is this really mine?" she repeated. "How delicious!" She passed from room to room, pausing before bits of furniture that attracted her, touching and lifting the silver on dresser and table. "My own initials!" she said under her breath. "And what is this?" laying her white fingers on a jewel case. "Am I to open it? Really! Oh, the beauty of it all! I—I am perfectly overwhelmed, mons—Mr. Edgerton!" And she sat down on the edge of the bed, pressing her hands to her eyes.
A maid came to the door; the luggage from the Holland had arrived. Presently two burly expressmen entered, staggering under the first of a series of trunks. Her maid directed the men; Mrs. Edgerton sat, hands folded, smiling, blue eyes a trifle dim, while her husband, standing beside her, watched the operations.
The silvery chime of a clock sounded, striking eight times, and on either side of the dial gilt cupids fluttered their burnished wings.
"Impossible!" exclaimed Edgerton. Then with a laugh almost boyish, he said: "We're supposed to dine at eight."
She looked vacantly at her husband. "Dinner already! Can it be possible time has flown like that? And I—behold me! Have I time to dress?"
"Time is yours to dispose of," he said, smiling back into her eyes; "all here are yours to dispose of as you see fit."
"Even you, monsieur?" She laughed in her excitement and happiness, not weighing words and their meaning until their echo returned again to appall her—while her maid aided her to dress—and the echo of his answer, too, rang persistently in her ears: "Yes, to pardon, to dispose of, to command, always, as long as I have life to serve you."
And now she was ready, smiling nervously back at her own flushed reflection in the mirror—a young girl stirred to the soul by kindness, almost intoxicated at a glimpse of her own undreamed of beauty, surprised there in the depths of the mirror.
"At the foot of the stairs she … made him a low reverence.
The banisters were decorated with twisted ropes of evergreens; she descended slowly, cheeks burning, eyes fixed steadily on her husband, who stood motionless below to receive her. A tiny light here and there caught the thick tendrils of her heavy burnished hair and glimmered on her smooth, full neck and arms.
At the foot of the stairs she paused, made him a low reverence, then, gathering her silken train, she looked fearlessly into his face and laid her hand lightly in his.
So, moving serenely side by side, they passed under holly and mistletoe and ropes of evergreen, through the long drawing-room, through the music room, slowly, more slowly, until the great velvet hangings barred their way.
There they paused, turning face to face, her small hand scarcely touching his.
"Can you forgive me?" he asked under his breath.
"Forgive you?" she repeated tremulously; "I can do—more than that. … Ask me."
But there was no time, for the butler, bowing, had drawn the portières to the full length of the golden cords.