By Alice Duer Miller
Illustrations by Harrison Fisher
EXETER FROST, after a healthy, cheerful boyhood, at the age of twenty-six discovered introspection. This complaint, which, like the measles, it is well to have done with in childhood, so poisoned his outlook on life, that he never afterward knew an unenvenomed moment. What rendered his case particularly desperate was the fact that this new mental attitude was entirely at variance with his temperament and appearance. Some people immediately suggest the confidential corner, and grim dissection of motives; but no one could connect hair-splitting with Exeter's robust personality. So foreign was it to him that he never succeeded in making self-criticism an ally—it was always an enemy to his nature, so that the two forces acting counter to each other rendered the course of his conduct an uncertain zigzag which few could understand.
These few were the women he had made love to—few, yet sufficient to bear witness—and they understood a good deal better than he did; for, to be candid, his combination of susceptibility and caution confused no one so much as it did himself.
His situation was not unlike that of Master Launcelot Gobbo:
"Here is a pretty woman much too good for you," said his Nature.
"But remember, you are hard to please," replied Introspection.
"Most men would fall in love with her," said his Nature.
"But you are so different from most men," answered Introspection.
"I believe you are in love with her," said his Nature.
"But what will you believe to-morrow?" asked Introspection.
It must not be supposed that the fault lay in the weakness of his feelings—on the contrary; his temperament was a violent one, and he felt strongly. He never could see why men with not half so much intensity advanced without impediment—at least without impediments from within. Knowing the conflict within himself, he grew to put all his hope of ultimate triumph in the strength of his emotion, and actually grew to pride himself upon it, although he had reached the age of thirty without having had sufficient confidence in its permanence to ask any woman to marry him. In order to render his plight more pitiable, Frost was convinced that he would never be happy until he was married; and his means were ample.
Miss Bettina Devalon was often called flirtatious, and, in truth, a fondness for her was discoverable in the pasts of a surprising number of agreeable men—in their pasts, because she had rejected a place in their future. Yet she was no cold, unapproachable beauty. She admitted that most women were happier married, only a few, among whom she classed herself, were better single than married to any but the right man. She was frank enough to acknowledge that the best luck in the world would be to find him—a declaration that had a peculiarly maddening effect on those who turned out to be the wrong ones. Evidently she was not to blame for a certain frivolity of appearance which failed to accord with the high seriousness of her views on matrimony. Nor is an infantile smile at variance with the highest ideals. It was, in fact, these high ideals themselves, as Miss Devalon was able to explain to herself, that led to her being called flirtatious—these and a pair of languid blue eyes, which sometimes appeared to express things not intended by their owner.
That Fate should bring these two people together seemed to the well-informed a triumph of retribution. Some looked to see the strictness of Miss Devalon's requirements relax before a man who so tantalizingly refrained from presenting himself as a candidate; while others doubted if Exeter could resist the attraction of one more consistently disappointing than himself. Would he not forget to analyze his feelings in face of an imminent rejection?
For the first six months of what looked like a desperate love affair, the world was interested— for a year; but when two had gone by without bringing any sign of a crisis, interest flagged. Some people wondered when she would make up her mind to take him; others, when she would have the chance. Bettina was in the former class and Exeter in the latter, for both had more confidence in their own attractions than in their constancy. They thought of each other almost continually, and without being in the least priggish, Bettina debated how Exeter would bear a refusal, and he had qualms lest he gave an effect of greater intention than he possessed.
At last a day came when he entered her drawing-room absent and difficult to amuse. He took his tea while staring at the fire, and at last, almost in the midst of one of her sentences, remarked:
"My brother is engaged."
The news was not unexpected, and the match was agreeable to the family, so Bettina merely observed that she supposed they were very happy.
"Yes, they are happy. Their only trouble is that they have to wait. Her mother won't let her be married for a year."
At this Bettina allowed herself to smile a trifle superciliously, sure of her companion's sympathy. She was aware that the fiancés had not known each other long, and a year, according to her views, was a short time in which to make sure of their feelings. But Exeter gave back no answering smile.
"Do you know what he said when he told me?" he asked. "He said" (a portentous pause) "that he supposed I would be married first."
Now Bettina may be excused for supposing that such an opening had but one object, and wishing to stave off a definite proposal until she had made up her mind what she meant to say, she answered hastily that he must not allow such foolish speeches to distress him; that she heard them, too, but that she didn't mind, and that the world never did understand friendships like theirs.
Exeter shook his head. "It isn't a friendship—not on my side," he said solemnly. "You are the only woman for me—the only woman I could ever marry but——"
If Bettina had not anticipated this "but," it came no less as a reprieve.
"But," she said, taking it up quickly, "for people like ourselves that is no reason for marrying—or not a sufficient reason."
"I'm not thinking of myself," said he, not entirely truthfully; "of course I should be happier married to you than under any conceivable circumstances; but should I be justified—be justified in proposing it, I mean, knowing my own nature so well? If you should find me unsatisfactory——"
"I fancy if one is really in love," replied Bettina, who was not entirely pleased with some of the assumptions of his last remark, "one finds nothing unsatisfactory; but as, of course, I do not feel——"
"Exactly," interrupted Frost, "you can't make up your mind. I knew how you stood. Well, I don't see why, if we go on like this, we—you, I mean—should ever be able to come to a decision, and so I have a scheme to propose—I suggest that we enter into a conditional engagement."
"What is that?"
"Why, it would mean that at the end of a year either one would have the right to make it unconditional. In the meantime, things would be much pleasanter. I should see you every day—"
"You do already."
"Call you by your first name."
"Not in public."
"And," he added severely, "I should be allowed to kiss you."
"You would be allowed to do no such thing."
"Oh, very well," he returned sulkily; "only you might as well have said at once that you didn't approve of the whole scheme."
"I don't disapprove of the whole scheme—only of that particular point."
"It's the most important."
"Not to my mind. Its other aspects are much more important. We could talk freely, just as if we were really engaged, about where we should like to live, and how, and," she added, remembering a bar of music which he invariably whistled wrong, "we could mention to each other any little habits we find objectionable."
Into this compact they actually entered. The next day he brought her what they called a conditional-engagement ring—it was unremarkable and worn on the little finger. They began to find the greatest interest in houses, housekeeping, and furniture. Frost took to enclosing her clippings from the real-estate news, with items marked in blue pencil. For the first time she listened when her mother's friends talked of their cooks, for, needless to say, her house was to be run on principles combining economy and luxury as they had never been combined. Furniture, too, interested them, and they induced their friends to give them Christmas presents such as would adorn a house—old prints and decanters. Sometimes in the course of their walks, they might have been seen stealing in and out of old-furniture shops.
The essence, of course, of their arrangement was secrecy—especially as far as their relations were concerned. These on both sides desired the marriage, and could not understand why it did not take place. Bettina and Exeter, who sternly imposed formality, little guessed that behind their backs their respective families often met and compared notes, and, foretelling the outcome, were almost ready to back their opinions. But though the young people did not guess this, they were aware that no obstacles would be thrown in their way by those in authority, and for this very reason they looked more carefully for the obstacles which they themselves could present. For this reason, too, they were careful that no one should know how seriously the question was under consideration. Thus they concealed like crimes their glances at upholsterers' windows, and found the incident of the refrigerator particularly annoying.
One day, while walking together, they saw this glass and white-enamel perfection standing conspicuous in a huge plate-glass window. They paused, they examined, they discussed it. They were no longer ignorant on the subject of refrigerators, and after looking it over, they saw it realized the dreams of connoisseurs.
Finally they entered, not so much to ask its price, as to view it from another angle. Nevertheless, in the process the price was mentioned—not high—a distinct bargain. It had been specially designed and built for a gentleman whose exquisite taste pervaded all departments of his household, but he had unfortunately lost all his money just as the refrigerator was completed, and it had been left on the maker's hands. Bettina and Exeter were forced to the conclusion that if they were connoisseurs he had been an artist, as device after device, insuring health and convenience, was revealed by the shopman. They complimented him and left the shop with lingering glances, only to return a few minutes later. Exeter was resolved that wherever and with whomsoever his future was to be spent, it should be eased by that refrigerator. In short, they bought it, on the understanding that it was to be stored in shop for six months—until it was sent for. An address was demanded, and Bettina's given, as being less conspicuous.
But, alas! the clearest orders are sometimes misunderstood. Exeter walked slowly home with Bettina, and was induced to come in for a cup of tea with her and her mother. He was in the act of setting down his empty cup when the sound of horses backing a heavily laden cart to the curb was heard without. Bettina and Exeter exchanged glances of alarm. A large white refrigerator was seen to stand before the door.
Mrs. Devalon, who was of a hopeful disposition and quick of mind, ran over all the possibilities, and announced that her uncle was sending her a belated Christmas present. In the pause, the cook at the foot of the basement stairs was heard remarking that if she had her way she'd have none of them new-fangled affairs cluttering up her basement.
Exeter's presence of mind saved the situation. He dashed out, interviewed the man, put his hand in his pocket, and returned with the information that it was a mistake. The refrigerator was driven away. Mrs. Devalon recalled the fact that her uncle was growing neglectful; the cook, that her present ice-box was a disgrace.
Beyond sowing these seeds of discontent, the incident was closed; but it had been fraught with danger. Bettina and Exeter were more careful thereafter. They were not without a sense of humor, and knew their position was ludicrous, yet could not on that account make up their minds to change it. The deadly word "marriage" could sweep aside every attitude but terror.
They tried the experiment of sitting side by side through the wedding of a friend, and came out trembling at the force of their imagination.
"Oh, no, Exeter," said she, as they stepped into the street, "it will be a long time before I can go through any such ceremony as that."
Frost, who would have felt his knees give way at any more encouraging speech, replied wonderingly:
"And those two had not met six months ago!" There was a tinge of admiration in his wonder, and it was this that Bettina answered:
"But, don't you see the difference? They look at the whole question so much less seriously—they must. If they had been as sure as we were even a year ago, they would not have hesitated. That is the price we pay for high ideals."
"Oh, of course," he replied; but he did not look as if to him delay were a penalty.
They corresponded daily, and their families' delight at this mark of affection would have been less gratified on a perusal of the letters, of which these are fair samples:
Dear X.—Vaguest of unknown quantities—you did not please me at all yesterday. I say nothing of the manner of your conversation with your hostess, but oh—the matter! Do you really think that after marriage a woman should give up enjoying the society of her old friends? Do you think I will put myself in a cell—even for you? No. Give me a bond signed and sealed that I should be free in such matters, or even a conditional engagement ceases,
How malicious of you, dear, to hold me responsible for theories evolved in the agony of the moment. I found comfort in the thought of grinding you down. I was jealous, my good young woman, bitingly jealous, and if you had talked ten minutes longer to that good-looking young horseman in that appealing manner of yours, I would have sworn that women should be kept behind bars—that Turks are the only wise men.
Is it not evident enough that I have no rights, without rubbing it in?
And Bettina, though in sympathy with his attitude, noted that he had not as yet asked for the rights he lamented.
In summer the two families were widely separated, and though, for the first few weeks, Bettina and Exeter managed to see each other frequently, by means of judiciously arranged visits, during the main part of the summer they were completely cut off.
The result was excellent. They longed for each other ardently; they wrote at great length, and their letters—more particularly his—became absolutely love-letters. For her part, Bettina no longer found pleasure in the friendship of other men, so that it seemed as if in the past these relations had owed their zest more to Exeter's suffering than to their own importance. At the same time, she found herself in terror lest, during her absence, Exeter should meet with someone as pleasing as she and more impetuous. He was harassed by a similar fear. Without betraying it, both made up their minds that in the autumn they would allow the engagement to become unconditional.
But before the Autumn Exeter, usually the most robust of men, fell ill. At first his condition was thought serious, but not desperate. Bettina, casting aside all concealment, sent daily letters to his mother. At length she was telegraphed for and went by the earliest train.
The two women were calm when they met, and the tears in their eyes as they kissed each other were more of sympathy than weakness.
"I will not excite him," murmured Bettina.
"It does not matter what you do, my dear. The doctors say there is no hope."
"Does he know?"
The elder woman bowed her head, and Bettina went in to see the man to whom she might have been married two years before.
An hour later she came out with the intelligence that it was Exeter's wish that they should be married at once, and that she had consented. She did not say that for the fraction of a second—for a period of time too short for even his piercing glance to take note of—she had hesitated. She had hesitated only from habit. Her consent came no less earnestly.
That very afternoon the ceremony they had so often discussed united them. The exertion was too much for Exeter, and he fainted as the last words were said. Bettina was hurried from the room. At the door a servant called her "Mrs. Frost." She remembered that the right to bear his name and to mourn him were the only privileges of their strange union.
That night Exeter grew steadily worse, but the next day rallied somewhat, and on the next showed unexpected improvement. At the end of a week the doctors admitted he had a chance. Within a month he was out of danger.
At this point, the young doctor left in charge proposed firmly that Bettina should leave the house for two weeks. It was not advisable that she should see the patient, and her proximity rendered him restless and unruly. In two weeks she might be allowed an interview.
She went without protest. To tell the truth, a confusion reigned in her being such as her well-ordered young life had never before known, and she was not sorry for a little respite. Of course, there had been a certain recklessness in the permitting of even a conditional engagement; but this element had been held in check by her knowledge that she need never fulfil it if she did not want to. But now there was no room for considering her wishes. This was obvious, and yet still from long custom she found herself weighing the question—only to remember with a shock that the time for decision was past. She was married, and not all the caution in the world would alter the fact.
In a strange house, called by an unaccustomed name, sustaining a new relation to a woman with whom she had never been intimate, Bettina scarcely recognized herself, and could not at all focus Exeter in the strange man whose name she bore. To be married out of hand was the last fate in the world she had expected to overtake her. Her position surprised her, yet was not altogether displeasing. In fact, a certain exhilaration was part of the confusion she endured. The smile with which she met congratulations was as irrepressibly sweet as a bride's should be.
Nevertheless, she was not altogether reluctant when the doctor exiled her from the house of the man whom people spoke of as "your husband." She was to come back in two weeks—a period of time which seemed to her now an eternity, and now but the twinkling of an eye.
Nor did she find peace in her own home, where all the reserves that for two years she had imposed on her family were broken down, so that they talked of little but their past suspicions and present satisfaction. Of the details of housekeeping Bettina could not be induced to talk. She felt alternately so little married that such discussion was indecent, or so much married that it was stifling.
So that when her two weeks were over she came to her interview with Exeter as perturbed as ever. She stood a moment on the threshold of his sunny room—altered, indeed, since last she had entered it with the rector. Exeter was sitting in a large chair, propped up with pillows, looking surprisingly unchanged—surprisingly to poor Bettina, whose self-confidence was so shattered that she would scarcely have wondered at finding him an entirely different person. Whatever the turmoil within her, she had resolved that nothing of the kind should be apparent. She intended to assume the same sincere yet not too encouraging manner which had been so successful during the conditional engagement.
This is what she had intended, but when she opened the door and saw him looking so natural and so happy in her coming, she said nothing at all, but stood almost awkwardly on the threshold, coloring slowly; thus leaving to him the whole control of the situation.
He appeared to recognize her helplessness, for he smiled at her, and said:
"This is a dishonorable trick I have played you, Bettina—this getting well."
Here a safe, whole-souled statement was possible, and she hastened to make it.
"Ah, what a relief to see you well again!"
"But is it a relief to see yourself married?"
Finding him so fully informed of the state of her mind, she replied, with accuracy:
"There never could have been anyone else, Exeter. I never could imagine marrying anyone but you."
"But would you have married me if——"
"Would you?" she retorted.
Apparently he had not expected this obvious question, for he had no answer to it that he chose to make.
There was a moment's pause, while they both considered the familiar question of how, had not their hands been forced, they would have solved the problem.
"There's one thing I should like to know, Bettina," he said at length. "(Come in and shut the door.) Do you honestly feel one bit better prepared than you did two years ago?"
The suggestion was so startling, so revolutionary in character, that Bettina could not answer off-hand. She shut the door, and stood considering, her eyes fixed slantingly on the rug. After an appreciable silence, she said with a gasp:
"Really, Exeter, I don't believe I do."
"Nor I," he returned. "And do you know what I have come to think?—that no preparation is possible; that the only way to get ready to marry a person is just to marry them. That is my opinion, and I don't know whose would be more valuable."
"Oh, it can't be true, Exeter!" cried Bettina, seeing the principles of her life crumbling. "There must be some preparation. If you are right, we've just wasted two years of our lives."
"That's all," he answered; and the truth bursting from him, he added: "For my part, I think it would be better to regret our marriage than to think about it any more."
For an instant this seemed to give Bettina food for thought; but almost at once, another aspect striking her, she raised her habitually languid eyes and said, with a glance of some fire:
"Let me catch you regretting it!"
Whereupon they exchanged their first kiss, with a sensation of recklessness such as the consistently reckless can never know.