From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XXXVIII No. 10 (October, 1911)
Fairbridge, the little New Jersey village, or rather city (for it had won municipal government some years before), was a misnomer. Often a person being in Fairbridge for the first time, and being driven by way of entertainment about the rural streets, would inquire, “Why Fairbridge?”
Bridges there were none, except those over which the trains thundered to and from New York, and the adjective, except to old inhabitants who had a curious fierce loyalty for the place, did not seemingly apply. Fairbridge could hardly, by an unbiassed person who did not dwell in the little village and view its features through the rosy glamour of home life, be called “fair.” There were a few pretty streets, with well-kept sidewalks, and ambitious, although small, houses, and there were many lovely bits of views to be obtained, especially in the green flush of spring, but it was not fair enough in a general way to justify its name. Yet Fairbridge it was without bridge or natural beauty, and no mortal knew why. The origin of the name was lost in the petty mist of a petty past.
Fairbridge was tragically petty, inasmuch as it saw itself great. In Fairbridge narrowness reigned, nay, tyrannized, and was not recognized as such. There was something fairly uncanny about Fairbridge's influence upon people after they had lived there even a few years. The influence held good, too, in the case of men who daily went to business or professions in New York. Fairbridge, to its own understanding, was a nucleus, an ultimatum. It was an example of the triumph of the infinitesimal. It saw itself through a microscope, and loomed up gigantic. And it was puzzling. People, if pinned down, could not say why, in Fairbridge, the little was so monstrous, whether it depended upon local conditions, upon the general population, or upon a few who had an undue estimation of themselves and all connected with them. Was Fairbridge great because of its inhabitants, or were the inhabitants great because of Fairbridge? Who could say?
Fairbridge was in reality very artistically planned as to the sites of its houses. Instead of the regulation main street of the country village, with its center resigned to shops and post-office, side streets wound here and there, and houses were placed with a view to effect. The main street of Fairbridge was as naught from a social point of view. Nobody of any social importance lived there. Even the physicians had their residences and offices in a more aristocratic locality. Upon the main street proper, that which formed the center of the village, there were only shops and a schoolhouse and one or two mean public buildings. For a village of the self-importance of Fairbridge, the public buildings were very few and very mean. The city hall, so designated by ornate gilt letters upon the glass panel of a very small door, occupied part of the building in which was the post-office. It was a tiny building, two stories high. On the second floor was the millinery shop of Mrs. Creevy, and behind it the two rooms in which she kept house with her daughter Jessy. On the lower floor were the post-office, on the right, and the city hall, on the left. This was vacant except upon the first Monday of every month, when the janitor of the Dutch Reformed church, who eked out a scanty salary with divers other tasks, got himself to work, and slopped pails of water over the floor, then swept, and built a fire, if in winter.
Upon the evenings of those first Mondays the mayor and city officials met and made great talk over small matters. The city hall was closed upon other occasions, unless the village talent gave a play for some local benefit. Outside talent was never in evidence in Fairbridge; no theatrical company had ever essayed to rent that city hall. There was a tiny theater in the neighboring city of Axminster, which had really some claims to being called a city, from tradition and usage, aside from size. Axminster was an ancient Dutch city, horribly uncomfortable, but exceedingly picturesque. Fairbridge people looked down upon it and seldom patronized the shows (they never said “plays”) staged in its miniature theater. When they did not resort to their own city hall for entertainment by local talent, they arrayed themselves in their best and patronized New York itself.
When Mr. and Mrs. George B. Slade boarded the seven-o'clock train, Mrs. Slade, tall and majestically handsome, arrayed most elegantly and crowned with a white hat (Mrs. Slade always affected white hats with long, drooping plumes upon such occasions), and George B., natty in his light top-coat, standing well back upon the heels of his shiny shoes, with the air of the wealthy and well-assured, holding a belted cigar in the tips of his gray-gloved fingers, New York was most distinctly patronized, although without knowing it.
It was also patronized, and to a greater extent, by little Mrs. Wilbur Edes, very little indeed, so little as to be almost symbolic of Fairbridge itself, but elegant in every detail, so elegant as to arrest the eye of everybody as she entered the train, holding up her black lace gown. Mrs. Edes doted on black lace. Her small, fair face peered with a curious calm alertness from under the black plumes of her great picture hat, perched sidewise upon a carefully waved pale-gold pompadour which was perfection and would have done credit to the best hair-dresser or the best French maid in New York, but which was achieved solely by Mrs. Wilbur Edes's own native wit and skilful fingers.
Mrs. Wilbur Edes, although small, was masterly in everything, from waving a pompadour to conducting theatricals. She herself was the star dramatic performer of Fairbridge. There was a strong feeling that she might, if she chose, rival Bernhardt.
Mr. Wilbur Edes was an admired accessory of his wife. He was so very tall and slender as to suggest forcible elongation. He carried his head with a deprecatory, sidewise air, as if in accordance with his wife's picture hat; and yet, Mr. Wilbur Edes, out of Fairbridge and in his law office on Broadway, was a man among men. He was an exception to the personal esteem which usually expanded a male citizen of Fairbridge, but he was the one and only husband of Mrs. Wilbur Edes, and there was not room at such an apex as she occupied for more than one. He adored his wife. He watched the admiring glances of other men at his wonderful possession with a triumph and pride which made him really rather a noble sort. He was also so fond and proud of his little twin daughters, Maida and Adelaide, that the fondness and pride fairly illuminated his inner self. Wilbur Edes was a clever lawyer, but love made him something bigger.
In one respect Wilbur Edes was the biggest man in Fairbridge; in another, Doctor Sturtevant was. Doctor Sturtevant depended upon no other person for his glory. He shone, as a fixed star, with his own luster. He was esteemed a very great physician indeed, and it was considered that Mrs. Sturtevant, who was good and honest, and portly with a tight, middle-aged portliness, hardly lived up to her husband.
When the splendid, florid doctor, with his majestically curving expanse of waistcoat and his inscrutable face, whirred through the streets of Fairbridge in his motor-car, with that meek bulk of womanhood beside him, many said quite openly how unfortunate it was that Doctor Sturtevant had married, when so young, a woman so manifestly his inferior.
Poor Mrs. Sturtevant was aware of her status in Fairbridge, and she was not without a steady, plodding ambition of her own. That utterly commonplace, middle-aged face had some lines of strength. Mrs. Sturtevant was a member of the women's club of Fairbridge, which was poetically and cleverly called the Zenith Club.
She wrote, whenever it was her turn to do so, papers upon every imaginable subject. She balked at nothing whatever. She ranged from household discussions to the Orient. Then she stood up in the midst of the women, sunk her double chin in her lace collar, and read her paper in a voice like the whisper of a blade of grass. Doctor Sturtevant had a very low voice. His wife had naturally a strident one, but she essayed to follow him in the matter of voice, as in all other things.
The Zenith Club of Fairbridge always met on Friday afternoons. It was a cherished aim of the club to uproot foolish superstitions, hence Friday. It did not seem in the least risky to the ordinary person for a woman to attend a meeting of the Zenith Club on a Friday, in preference to any other day in the week, but many a member had a covert feeling that she was somewhat heroic, especially if the meeting was held at the home of some distant member, on an icy day in winter, and she was obliged to make use of a livery carriage.
One Friday in January two young women, one married, one single, one very pretty, and both well dressed (most of the women who belonged to the Fairbridge social set dressed well), were being driven by Jim Fitzgerald, one of the local liverymen, a distance of a mile or more, up a long hill. The slope was gentle and languid, like nearly every slope in that part of the state, but that day it was menacing with ice. It was one smooth glaze over the macadam. Jim Fitzgerald, a descendant of a fine old family whose type had degenerated, sat hunched upon the driver's seat, his loose jaw hanging, his eyes absent, his mouth open, chewing with slow enjoyment his beloved quid, while the reins lay slackly on the rusty black robe tucked over his knees. Even a corner of that dragged dangerously near the right wheels of the coupé.
Alice Mendon paid no attention to it, but her companion, Daisy Shaw, otherwise Mrs. Sumner Shaw, who was of the tense, nervous type, had remarked it uneasily when they first started. She had rapped vigorously upon the front window, and a misty, rather beautiful blue eye had rolled interrogatively over Jim Fitzgerald's shoulder.
“Your robe is dragging,” shrieked in shrill staccato Daisy Shaw; and there had been a dull nod of the head, a feeble pull at the dragging robe, then it had dragged again.
“Oh, don't mind, dear,” said Alice Mendon. “It is his own lookout if he loses the robe.”
“It isn't that,” responded Daisy querulously. “It isn't that. I don't care, since he is so careless, if he does lose it, but I must say I don't think it is safe. Suppose it got caught in the wheel, and I know this horse stumbles.”
“Don't worry, dear,” said Alice Mendon.
Alice Mendon was a young woman, not a young girl (she had left young girlhood behind several years since), and she was distinctly beautiful after a fashion that is not easily affected by the passing years. She had had rather an eventful life, but not an event, pleasant or otherwise, had left its mark upon the smooth oval of her face. There was not a side nor retrospective glance to disturb the serenity of her large blue eyes. Although her eyes were blue, her hair was almost black, except in certain lights, when it gave out gleams as of dark gold. Her features were full; her figure large, but not too large. She wore a dark-red tailored gown; and sumptuous sable furs, shaded with dusky softness, and shot, in the sun, with prismatic gleams, set off her handsome, not exactly smiling, but serenely beaming, face.
Poor Daisy Shaw, who was poor in two senses — strength of nerve and money — looked blue and cold in her little black suit, and her pale-blue liberty scarf was horribly inadequate and unbecoming. Daisy was really painful to see as she gazed out apprehensively at the dragging robe and the glistening slant over which they were moving. Alice regarded her not so much with pity as with the calm, sheltering sense of superiority and strength. She pulled the inner robe of the coupé up and tucked it firmly around Daisy's thin knees.
“You look half-frozen,” said Alice.
“I don't mind being frozen, but I do mind being scared,” replied Daisy sharply. She removed the robe with a twitch.
“If that old horse stumbles and goes down and kicks, I want to be able to get out without being all tangled up in a robe,” said she.
“While the horse is kicking and down, I don't see how he can drag you very far,” said Alice with a slight laugh. Then the horse stumbled. Daisy Shaw knocked quickly on the front window with her little nervous hand in its tight white kid glove.
“Do please hold your reins tighter,” she called.
Alice regarded her with a little wonder. Such anxiety concerning personal safety rather puzzled her. “My horses ran away the other day, and Dick went down flat and barked his knees; that's why I have Fitzgerald to-day,” said she. “I was not hurt. Nobody was hurt except the horse. I was very sorry about the horse.”
“I wish I had an automobile,” said Daisy with a regretful sigh. “You never know what a horse will do next.”
Alice laughed again slightly. “There is a little doubt sometimes as to what an automobile will do next,” she remarked.
Just then a carriage drawn by two fine bays passed them, and there was an interchange of nods.
“There is Mrs. Sturtevant,” said Alice. “She isn't using the automobile to-day.”
Then they drew up before the house which was their destination, Mrs. George B. Slade's. The house was very small, but perkily pretentious.
“I heard Mr. Slade had been making a great deal of money in cotton lately,” Daisy whispered, as the carriage stopped behind Mrs. Sturtevant's. “Mr. and Mrs. Slade went to the opera last week. I heard they had taken a box for the season, and Mrs. Slade had a new black velvet gown and a pearl necklace. I think she is almost too old to wear low-neck.”
“She is not so very old,” replied Alice. “It is only her white hair that makes her seem so.” Then she extended a rather large but well-gloved hand and opened the coupé door, while Jim Fitzgerald sat and chewed and waited, and the two young women got out.
They had scarcely reached the door before Mrs. Slade's maid, Lottie, appeared in her immaculate width of apron, with carefully pulled-out bows and little white lace top-knot. “Up-stairs, front room,” she murmured, and the two went up the polished stairs. There was a landing half-way, with a diamond-paned window and one rubber plant and two palms, all very glossy, and all three in nice green jardinières which exactly matched the paper on the walls of the hall. Mrs. George B. Slade had a mania for exactly matching things.
There were a number of ladies in this room, in which everything was yellow, prinking themselves before going down-stairs. They all lived in Fairbridge; they were all well acquainted, but they greeted one another with the most elegant formality. Alice assisted Daisy Shaw to remove her coat and liberty scarf, then she shook herself free of her own wraps, rather than removed them. She did not even glance at herself in the glass. She had viewed herself carefully in her own looking-glass before she left home. She believed in what she had seen there, but she did not care to disturb that belief, and she saw that Mrs. Slade's mirror, over her white-and-yellow draped dressing-table, stood in a cross-light. While all admitted Alice Mendon's beauty, nobody had ever suspected her of vanity; yet vanity she had, in a degree.
The other women in the room looked at her. It was always a matter of interest of Fairbridge what she would wear, and this was rather curious, as, after all, she had not many gowns. There was a certain impressiveness about her mode of wearing the same gown which seemed to create an illusion. To-day, in her dark-red gown, embroidered with poppies of still another shade, she created a distinctly new impression, although she had worn the same costume often before.
When Alice entered Mrs. Slade's elegant little reception-room, which was done in a dull-rose color, its accessories very exactly matching, even to Mrs. Slade's own costume, which was rose silk under black lace, she was led at once to a lady richly attired in black, with gleams of jet, who was seated in a large chair in the place of honor, not quite in the bay window, but exactly in the center of the opening. The lady quite filled the chair; she was very stout. Her face, under an ornate black hat, was like a great rose full of overlapping curves of florid flesh. The wide mouth was perpetually curved into a bow of mirth; the small black eyes twinkled. She was Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, who had come from New York to deliver her famous lecture upon the subject, “Where Does a Woman Shine with More Luster, at Home or Abroad?”
The program was to be varied, as usual upon such occasions, by local talent. Leila Macdonald, who sang contralto in the church choir, and Mrs. Arthur Wells, who sang soprano, and Mrs. Jack Evarts, who played the piano very well, and Miss Sally Anderson, who had taken lessons in elocution, all had their parts, besides the president of the club, Mrs. Wilbur Edes, who had a brief address in readiness, and the secretary, who had to give the club report for the year. Mrs. Snyder was to give her lecture as a grand climax, then there were to be refreshments and a reception.
Alice bowed before Mrs. Snyder and retreated to a window at the other side of the room.
“Who is that magnificent creature?” whispered Mrs. Snyder to Mrs. Slade with a gush of enthusiasm.
“She lives here,” replied Mrs. Slade rather stupidly. She did not quite know how to define Alice.
“Lives here in this little place? Not all the year?” rejoined Mrs. Snyder.
“Fairbridge is a very good place to live in all the year,” replied Mrs. Slade rather stiffly. “It is near New York. We have all the advantages of a great metropolis without the drawbacks. Fairbridge is a most charming city, and very progressive.”
Mrs. Slade took it rather hard that Mrs. Snyder should intimate anything prejudicial to Fairbridge, and especially that it was not good enough for Alice Mendon, who had been born there, and lived there all her life, except the year she had been in college. If anything, she, Mrs. Slade, wondered if Alice Mendon were good enough for Fairbridge. What had she ever done, except to wear handsome costumes and look handsome and self-possessed? Although she belonged to the Zenith Club, no power on earth could induce her to discharge the duties connected therewith, except to pay her part of the expenses and open her house for a meeting.
Mrs. Snyder glanced across at Alice, who looked very graceful and handsome, although, also, a little sulky, and bored with a curious, abstracted boredom.
“She is superb,” whispered Mrs. Snyder, “yes, simply superb. Why does she live here, pray?”
“Why, she was born here,” replied Mrs. Slade, again stupidly. It was as if Alice had no more motive power than a flowering bush.
Mrs. Snyder's bow of mirth widened. “Well, can't she get away, even if she was born here?” said she.
However, Mrs. George B. Slade's mind traveled in such a circle that she was difficult to corner. “Why should she want to move?” said she.
Mrs. Snyder laughed again. “But, granting she should want to move, is there anything to hinder?” she asked.
Mrs. Slade looked at her perplexedly. “Why, yes, she could, I suppose,” said she, “but why?”
“What has hindered her before now?”
“Oh, her mother was a helpless invalid, and Alice was the only child, and she had been in college just a year when her father died; then she came home and lived with her mother, but her mother has been dead two years now, and Alice has plenty of money. Her father left a good deal, and her cousin and aunt live with her. Oh, yes, she could; but why should she want to leave Fairbridge, and —”
Then some new arrivals approached, and the discussion concerning Alice Mendon ceased. The ladies came rapidly now. Soon Mrs. Slade's hall, reception-room, and dining-room, in which a gaily decked table was set, were thronged with women whose very skirts seemed full of important anticipatory stirs and rustles.
Then a lady rang a little silver bell, and Miss Bessy Dicky, the secretary of the Zenith Club, began to read the report of the club for the past year.
She had been reading several minutes, her glasses fixed firmly (one of her eyes had a cast) and her lean, venous hands trembling with excitement, when the door-bell rang with a sharp peremptory peal. Lottie opened the door, and a masculine voice was heard. Mrs. Slade had a storm-porch, so no one could look directly into the hall.
“Is Mrs. Slade at home?” inquired the voice distinctly. The ladies looked at one another, and Miss Bessy Dicky's reading was unheard. They all knew who spoke. Lottie appeared with a crimson face, bearing a little ostentatious silver plate with a card. Mrs. Slade adjusted her lorgnette, looked at the card, and appeared to hesitate for a second. Then a look of calm determination overspread her face. She whispered to Lottie, and presently appeared a young man in clerical costume, moving between the seated groups of ladies with an air not so much of embarrassment as of weary patience, as if he had expected something like this to happen, and it had happened. Mrs. Slade motioned to a chair near her, which Lottie had placed, and the young man sat down.
Many things were puzzling in Fairbridge; that is, puzzling to a person with a logical turn of mind. For instance, nobody could say that Fairbridge people were not religious. It was a church-going community, and five denominations were represented in it, nevertheless the professional expounders of its doctrines were held in a sort of gentle derision; that is, unless the expounder happened to be young and eligible from a matrimonial point of view, when he gained a certain fleeting distinction. Otherwise the clergy were regarded in very much the same light as if employed by a railroad — as the conductors of a spiritual train of cars bound for the Promised Land. They were admittedly engaged in a cause worthy of the highest respect and veneration. The cause commanded it, not they.
Dominie von Rosen came under that head. Consequently he was for the moment, fleeting as everybody considered it, in great request. But he did not respond readily to the social patronage of Fairbridge. He was, seemingly, quite oblivious to its importance. Karl von Rosen was bored to the verge of physical illness by Fairbridge functions. Even a church affair found him wearily to the front. Therefore his presence at the Zenith Club was unprecedented and confounding. He had often been asked to attend its special meetings, but had never accepted. Now, however, here he was, caught neatly in the trap of his own carelessness. Karl von Rosen should have reflected that the Zenith Club was one of the institutions of Fairbridge, and met upon a Friday, and that Mrs. George B. Slade's house was an exceedingly likely rendezvous; but he was singularly absent-minded as to what was near, and very present-minded as to what was afar.
If there was anything in which Karl von Rosen did not take the slightest interest, it was women's clubs in general, and the Zenith Club in particular; and here he was, doomed by his own lack of thought to sit through an especially long session. He had gone out for a walk. To his mind it was a fine winter's day. The long, glittering lights of ice pleased him, and whenever he was sure that he was unobserved, he took a boyish run and long slide. During his walk he had reached Mrs. Slade's house, and since he worked in his pastoral calls whenever he could, by applying a sharp spur to his disinclination, it had occurred to him that he might make one and return to his study in a virtuous frame of mind, and now he was seated in the midst of the feminine throng, and Miss Bessy Dicky's voice quavered more, and she assumed a slightly mincing attitude. Her thin hands trembled more; the hot, red spots on her thin cheeks deepened. Reading the club report before the minister was an epoch in an epochless life.
He sat straight and grave, his eyes retrospective. He was constantly getting into awkward situations, and acquitting himself in them with marvelous dignity and grace. Even Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, astute as she was, regarded him keenly and could not for the life of her tell whether he had come premeditatedly or not. Karl von Rosen always commanded admiration, although often of a grudging character, from women. His utter indifference to them as women was the prime factor in this; next to that, his really attractive, even distinguished personality. He was handsome after the fashion which usually accompanies devotion to women. He was slight, but sinewy, with a gentle, poetical face and great black eyes, into which women were apt to project tenderness merely from their own fancy.
Now Mrs. George B. Slade, magnificent matron as she was, moreover one who had inhaled the perfume of adulation from her youth up, felt a calm malice. She knew that he had entered her parlor after the manner of the spider-and-fly rhyme of her childhood; she knew that the other ladies would infer that he had come upon her invitation, and her soul was filled with one of the petty triumphs of petty Fairbridge.
She, however, did not dream of the actual misery which filled the heart of the graceful, dignified young man by her side. She considered herself in the position of a mother who forces an undesired but nevertheless delectable sweet upon a child, who gazes at her with adoration when the savor has reached his palate. She did not expect von Rosen to be much edified by Miss Bessy Dicky's report. She had her own opinion of Bessy Dicky; but she had faith in the truly decorative features of the occasion when they should be under way, and she had immense faith in Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder. She was relieved when Miss Bessy Dicky sat down and endeavored to compose her knees.
After Miss Bessy Dicky sat down, Mrs. Wilbur Edes, the lady of the silver bell, rose. She lifted high her delicate chin; her perfect blond pompadour caught the light; her black lace robe swept round her in rich darkness, with occasional revelations of flower and leaf, the fairly poetical pattern of real lace. As she rose, she diffused around her a perfume as if rose leaves were stirred up. She held a dainty handkerchief, edged with real lace, in her little left hand, which glittered with rings. In her right was a spangled fan like a black butterfly. Mrs. Edes was past her first youth, but she was undeniably charming. Mrs. Slade looked at her, then at Karl von Rosen. He looked at Mrs. Wilbur Edes, then looked away. She was most graceful, but most positively uninteresting. However, Mrs. Slade was rather pleased at that. She and Mrs. Edes were rival stars.
Mrs. Slade surveyed Mrs. Edes as she announced the next number on the program, and told herself that Mrs. Edes's gown might be real lace, and everything about her very real, and nice, and elegant, but she was certainly a little fussy for so small a woman. Mrs. Slade considered that she herself could have carried off that elegance in a much more queenly manner. There was one feature of Mrs. Edes's costume which Mrs. Slade resented — she considered that it should be worn by a woman of her own size and impressiveness — that was a little wrap of ermine. Now, ermine, as everybody knew, should only be worn by large and queenly women. Mrs. Slade resolved that she herself would have an ermine wrap which should completely outshine Mrs. Edes's little affair, all swinging with tails and radiant with tiny, bright-eyed heads.
Mrs. Edes announced a duet by Miss Macdonald and Mrs. Wells and sat down, and again the perfume of rose leaves was perceptible. Karl von Rosen glanced at the next performers, Miss Macdonald, who was very pretty and well dressed in white embroidered cloth, and Mrs. Wells — who was not pretty, but was considered very striking — who trailed after her in green folds edged with fur, and bore a roll of music. She seated herself at the piano with a graceful sweep of her green draperies and struck the keys with slender fingers quite destitute of rings, always lifting them high with a palpable affectation which was considered pardonable. There was, for the women in Fairbridge, a certain mischievous fascination about Mrs. Wells. Moreover, they had in her their one object of covert gossip.
Mrs. Edes again arose, after the singing and playing ladies had finished, and announced a recitation by Miss Sally Anderson. Miss Anderson, who wore a light summer gown, swept to the front and bent low to her audience, then at once began her recitation with a loud crash of emotion. She postured; she gesticulated; she lowered her voice to inaudibility; she raised it to shrieks and wails. She did everything which she had been taught, and she had been taught a great deal. Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder listened and got data for future lectures, with her mirthful mouth sternly set.
After Sally Anderson, Mrs. Jack Evarts played a glittering thing called, “Waves of the Sea.” Then Sally Anderson recited again; then Mrs. Wilbur Edes spoke at length, and with an air which commanded attention, and von Rosen suffered agonies. He laughed with sickly spurts at Mrs. Snyder's confidential sallies when she had at last her chance to deliver herself of her ten-dollar speech; but the worst ordeal was to follow. Von Rosen was fluttered about by women bearing cups of tea, of frothy chocolate, plates of cake, dishes of bonbons, and saucers of ice-cream. He stood in the midst of the feminine throng, the solitary male figure, looking at his cup of chocolate and a slice of sticky cake, and at an ice representing a chocolate lily, which somebody had placed for his special delectation upon a little table at his right.
Then Alice Mendon came to his rescue. She deftly took the plate with the sticky cake and the cup of chocolate and substituted a plate with a chicken mayonnaise sandwich.
“Here,” she whispered. “Why do you make a martyr of yourself for such a petty cause? Do it for the faith if you want to, but not for thick chocolate and angel cake.”
She swept away the chocolate lily also. Von Rosen looked at her gratefully. “Thank you,” he murmured.
She laughed. “Oh, you need not thank me,” she said. “I have a natural instinct to rescue men from sweets.” She laughed again maliciously. “I am sure you have enjoyed the club very much,” she said.
Von Rosen colored before her sarcastic, kindly eyes. He began to speak, but she interrupted him. “You have heard that silence is golden,” said she. “It is always golden when speech would be a lie.”
Then she turned away and seized upon the chocolate lily, and pressed it upon Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, who was enjoying adulation and good things.
“Do please have this lovely lily, Mrs. Snyder,” she said. “It is the very prettiest ice of the lot and meant especially for you.”
And Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, whose sense of humor deserted her when she was being praised and fed, and who had already eaten bonbons innumerable, and three ices with accompanying cake, took the chocolate lily gratefully. Von Rosen ate his chicken sandwich and marveled at the ways of women.
In spite of his dislike of women, von Rosen had a housekeeper. He had made an ineffectual trial of an ex-hotel chef, but had finally been obliged to resort to Mrs. Jane Riggs. She was an odd creature, with many masculine characteristics. She was tall and strong; she went about her work with long strides; she never fussed; she never asked questions; in fact, she seldom spoke.
When von Rosen entered his house that night after the club meeting, he had a comfortable sense of returning to an embodied silence. The coal fire in his study grate was red and clear. Everything was in order without misplacement. He sat down in his Morris chair before his fire, stretched out his legs to the warmth, which was grateful after the icy outdoor air, rested his eyes upon a plaster cast over the chimney-place, which had been tinted a beautiful hue by his own pipe, and sighed with content.
Mrs. Edes had offered to take him home in her carriage, and he had declined almost brusquely. To have exchanged that homeward walk over the glistening earth, and under the clear rose and violet lights of the winter sunset, with that sudden rapturous discovery of the slender crescent of the new moon, for a ride with Mrs. Edes in her closed carriage, with her silvery voice in his ear instead of the keen silence of the winter air, would have been torture. Von Rosen wondered at himself for disliking Mrs. Edes in particular, whereas he disliked most women in general. There was something about her feline motions, instinct with swiftness and concealed claws, and the half-keen half-sleepy glances of her green-blue eyes, which irritated him beyond measure, and he was ashamed of being irritated.
Von Rosen, in his Morris chair, after the tea, welcomed the intrusion of Jane Riggs, which dispelled his thought of Mrs. Wilbur Edes. Jane stood beside the chair, a rigid straight length of woman, with a white apron, starched like a board, covering two thirds of her, and waited for interrogation.
“What is it, Jane?” asked von Rosen.
Jane Riggs replied briefly. “Outlandish young woman out in the kitchen,” she said with distinct disapproval, yet with evident helplessness before the situation.
Von Rosen started. “Where is the dog?”
“Licking her hands. Every time I told her to go, Jack growled. Mebbe you had better come out yourself, Mr. von Rosen.”
When von Rosen entered the kitchen, he saw a little figure on the floor in a limp heap, with the dog frantically licking its hands, which were small and brown and piteously outspread.
“Mebbe you had better call up the doctor on the telephone; she seems to have swooned away,” said Jane Riggs. At the same time she made one long stride to the kitchen sink and water. Von Rosen looked aghast at the stricken figure, which was wrapped in a queer medley of garments. He also saw on the floor near-by a bulging suit-case.
“She is one of them Syrian peddlers,” said Jane Riggs, dashing water upon the dumb little face. “I rather guess you had better call up the doctor on the telephone. She don't seem to be coming to easy, and she may have passed away.”
Von Rosen gasped, then he looked pitifully at the poor little figure and ran back to his study to the telephone. To his great relief, as he passed the window, he glanced out, and saw Doctor Sturtevant's automobile making its way cautiously over the icy street. He opened the front door hurriedly and stated the case, and the two men carried the little unconscious creature up-stairs. Then von Rosen came down, leaving the doctor and Jane with her. He waited in the study, listening to the sounds overhead, waiting impatiently for the doctor's return, which was not for half an hour or more. In the meantime Jane came down-stairs on some errand to the kitchen. Von Rosen intercepted her. “What does Doctor Sturtevant think?” he asked.
“Dunno what he thinks,” replied Jane brusquely, pushing by him.
“Is she conscious yet?”
“Dunno, I ain't got any time to talk,” said Jane, casting a flaming look at him over her shoulder as she entered the kitchen.
Von Rosen retreated to the study, where he was presently joined by the doctor. “What is it?” asked von Rosen.
Sturtevant answered noiselessly, the motion of his lips conveying his meaning. Then he said, shrugging himself into his fur coat as he spoke, “I have to rush my motor to see another patient whom I dare not leave another moment, then I will be back.”
Von Rosen's great Persian cat had curled himself on the doctor's fur coat, and now, shaken off, sat with a languid dignity, his great yellow plume of a tail waving, and his eyes like topazes fixed intently upon Sturtevant. At that moment a little cry was heard from the guest-room, a cry between a moan and a scream, but unmistakably a note of suffering. Sturtevant jammed his fur cap upon his head and pulled on his gloves.
“Don't go,” pleaded von Rosen in a sudden terror of helplessness.
“I must, but I'll break the speed laws and be back before you know it. That housekeeper of yours is as good as any trained nurse, and better. She is as hard as nails, but she does her duty like a machine, and she has brains. I will be back in a few minutes.”
Then Sturtevant was gone, and von Rosen sat again before his study fire. There was another little note of suffering from above. Von Rosen shuddered, rose, and closed his door. The Persian cat came and sat in front of him and gazed at him with jewel-like eyes. There was an expression of almost human anxiety and curiosity upon the animal's face. He came from a highly developed race; he and his forbears had always been with humans. At times it seemed to von Rosen as if the cat had a dumb knowledge of the most that he himself knew. He reached down and patted the shapely golden head, but the cat withdrew, curled himself into a coil of perfect luxuriousness, with the firelight casting a warm, rosy glow upon his golden beauty, purred a little while, then sank peacefully and contentedly into the mystery of animal sleep.
Von Rosen sat listening. He told himself that Sturtevant should be back within half an hour. When only ten minutes had passed, he took out his watch and was dismayed to find how short a time had elapsed. He replaced his watch and leaned back. He was always listening uneasily. He had encountered illness and death and distress, but never anything quite like this. He had always been able to give personal aid. Now he felt barred out and fiercely helpless.
He sat ten minutes longer; then he arose. He could reach the kitchen by another way which did not lead past the stairs. He went out there, treading on tiptoe. The cat had looked up, stretched and lazily gotten upon his feet and followed him, tail waving like a pennant. He brushed around von Rosen out in the kitchen and mewed, a little, delicate, highbred mew. The dog came leaping up the basement stairs, sat up and begged. Von Rosen opened the ice-box and found therein some steak. He cut off large pieces and fed the cat and dog. He also found milk and filled a saucer.
He stole back to the study. He thought he had closed all the doors, but presently the cat entered, then sat down and began to lick himself with his little red rough tongue. Von Rosen looked at his watch again. The house shook a little, and he knew that the shaking was caused by Jane Riggs walking up-stairs. He longed to go up-stairs, but knew that he could not, and again that rage of helplessness came over him. He reflected upon human life, the agony of its beginning; the agony of its endurance; the agony of its end; and his reflections were almost blasphemous. His religion seemed to crumble beneath the standing-place of his soul. A torture of doubt, a certainty of ignorance, in spite of the utmost efforts of faith, came over him.
He looked at his watch and saw that Sturtevant had been gone five minutes over the half-hour. He switched off the electric light, and stood in his window, which faced the street down which the doctor in his car must come. He realized at once that this was more endurable. He was doing what a woman would have done long before. He was masculine, and had not the quick instinct to stand by the window and watch out to ease impatience. The road was like a broad silver band under the moon. The lights in house windows gleamed through drawn shades, except in one house, where he could see quite distinctly a woman seated beside a lamp with a green shade, sewing with regular motions of a red, silk-clad arm.
Then, before he could fairly sense it, the doctor's motor came hurtling down the street, its search-lights glaring, swinging from side to side. The machine stopped, and von Rosen ran with feverish haste to the door.
“Here I am,” said Sturtevant in a hushed voice. There was a sound from the room above, and the doctor and von Rosen looked at each other. Then von Rosen sat again alone in his study, and now, in spite of the closed door, he heard noises above stairs. He longed for somebody with whom to speak; solitude was becoming frightful to him. He felt all at once strangely young, like a child, and a pitiful sense of injury was over him; but the sense of injury was not for himself alone, but for all mankind. He realized that all mankind was enormously pitiful and injured by the mere fact of their obligatory existence; and he wished more than anything in the world for some understanding soul with whom to share his sense of the universal grievance.
But he continued to sit alone, and the cat slept in his golden coil of peace. Then suddenly the cat sat up, and his jewel eyes glowed. He looked fixedly at a point in the room. Von Rosen looked in the same direction, but saw nothing except his familiar wall. Then he heard steps on the stairs, the door opened, and Jane Riggs entered. She was white and stern; she was tragic. Her lean fingers were clutching at the air. Von Rosen stared at her. She sat down and swept her craclking white apron over her head.
[CONTINUED IN THE NOVEMBER ISSUE]
From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XXXVIII No. 11 (November, 1911)
A little New Jersey city — Fairbridge — is the scene of intense social rivalry. The center of the storm is the woman's literary club, called the Zenith Club, to which the leading feminine spirits of Fairbridge belong. The first meeting of this club to be recorded in the novel is that held at the beautiful home of Mrs. George B. Slade. The president of the club, Mrs. Wilbur Edes, is one of the most exquisitely gowned women present. She is the wife of a brilliant lawyer, the mother of little twin daughters, and is abnormally ambitious. Others present at the meeting include Miss Alice Mendon, a charming woman, and Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, who has come from New York to deliver a famous lecture. During the meeting there appears Dominie von Rosen, a young unmarried minister of Fairbridge, who is bent upon a pastoral visit, and who is horrified at finding himself at a meeting of the club. On his return home he finds that a little drama is taking place in his house. A young woman, a Syrian peddler, has fainted in his kitchen, and Jane Riggs, his housekeeper, tells him to call in Doctor Sturtevant. The doctor and Jane take the poor girl up-stairs, and von Rosen awaits their report below.
When Margaret Edes had returned home after the Zenith Club, she devoted an hour to rest. She had ample time for that before dressing for a dinner which she and her husband were to give in New York that evening. The dinner was set for rather a late hour, in order to enable Margaret to secure this rest before train time.
She lay on a couch before the fire in her room, which was done in white and gold. Her hair was perfectly arranged, for she had scarcely moved her head during the club meeting, and had adjusted and removed her hat with the utmost caution. Now she kept her shining head perfectly still upon a rather hard pillow. She did not relax her head, but she did relax her body, and the result, as she was aware, would be beautifying.
Still as her head remained, she allowed no lines of disturbance to appear upon her face, and, for that matter, no lines of joy. Secretly she did not approve of smiles any more than she approved of tears. Both, she knew, tended to leave traces, and other people, especially other women, did not discriminate between the traces of tears and smiles. Therefore, lying with her slim, graceful body stretched out at full length upon her couch, Margaret Edes's face was as absolutely devoid of expression as a human face could well be, and this although she was thinking rather strenuously.
She had not been pleased with the impression which Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder had made upon the Zenith Club, because Mrs. Slade, and not she, had been instrumental in securing her valuable services. Mrs. Edes had a Napoleonic ambition which was tragic and pathetic, because it could command only a narrow scope for its really unusual force. If only her husband had enough money to enable her to live in New York after the manner which would have suited her, she felt capable of being a leading power in that great and dreadful city. Probably she was right. The woman was in reality possessed of abnormal nerve-force. Had Wilbur Edes owned millions, and she been armed with the power which they can convey, she might have worked miracles in her subtle feminine fashion. She would always have worked subtly, and never belied her feminine self. She understood its worth too well. She would have conquered like a cat, because she understood her weapons — her velvet charm, her purr, and her claws. She would not have attempted a growling and bulky leap into success.
But she was fated to live in Fairbridge. What else could she do? Wilbur Edes was successful in his profession, but he was not an accumulator, and neither was she. His income was large during some years, but it was spent during those years for things which seemed absolutely indispensable to both husband and wife. For instance, to-night Wilbur would spend an extravagant sum upon this dinner, which he was to give at an extravagant hotel to some people whom Mrs. Edes had met last summer. Wilbur had carried his dress suit in that morning. He was to take a room in the hotel and change, and meet her at the New York side of the ferry. As she thought of the ferry, it was all Mrs. Edes could do to keep her smooth brow from a frown. Somehow the ferry always humiliated her: the necessity of going up or down that common, democratic gang-plank, clinging to the tail of her fine gown, and seating herself in a row with people who glanced askance at her evening wrap and her general magnificence.
Poor Mrs. Edes was so small and slight that holding up magnificence and treading the deck with her high-heeled shoes was physically fatiguing. Of course, Wilbur would meet her, and they would take a taxicab, but even a taxicab seemed rather humiliating to her. It should have been her own private motor-car.
However, there would be compensations later. She thought, with decided pleasure, of the private dining-room, and the carefully planned and horribly expensive decorations, which would be eminently calculated to form a suitable background for herself. The flowers and candle-shades were to be yellow, and she was to wear her yellow chiffon gown, with touches of gold embroidery, a gold comb, set with topazes, in her yellow hair, and on her breast a large gleaming stone, which was a yellow diamond of very considerable value. Wilbur had carried in his suit-case her yellow satin slippers, her gold-beaded fan, and the queer little wrap of leopard-skin which she herself had fashioned from a rug which her husband had given her. She had as much skill in fashioning articles for her own adornment as a cat had in burnishing his fur, and would at any time have sacrificed the curtains or furniture-covers, had they met her needs.
She glanced approvingly at the rich attire spread upon the bed, and then thought again of the dreadful ferry, and her undignified hop across the dirty station to the boat. She longed for the days of sedan-chairs, for anything rather than this. She did not belong in a democratic country at all, unless she had millions. She was out of place, as much out of place as a splendid Angora in an alley.
Then she thought of the young clergyman, even as he was thinking of her. She knew perfectly well how he had been trapped, but she failed to see the slightest humor in it. She had no sense of humor. She saw only the additional triumph of Mrs. Slade in securing this rather remarkable man at the Zenith Club, something which she herself had never been able to do. Von Rosen's face came before her. She considered it a handsome face, but no man's face could disturb her.
“He is a handsome man,” she said to herself, “an aristocratic-looking man.” Then the telephone-bell, close beside her divan, rang, and she took up the receiver carefully.
“Hello,” said a voice, and she recognized it as von Rosen's, although it had an agitated, nervous note which was foreign to it.
“What is it?” she said in reply, and the voice responded with volubility: “A girl, a young Syrian girl is at my house. She is in a swoon or something. We cannot revive her. Is the doctor at home? Tell him to hurry over, please. I am Mr. von Rosen. Tell him to hurry. She may be dead.”
“You have made a mistake, Mr. von Rosen,” said Mrs. Edes's thin voice, as thin and silvery as a reed. “You are speaking to Mrs. Wilbur Edes. My telephone number is 5-R. You doubtless want Doctor Sturtevant. His number, which I happen to remember, is 51-M.”
“Oh, pardon,” cried the voice over the telephone. “Sorry to have disturbed you, Mrs. Edes, but I am worried, and mistook —”
The voice trailed into nothingness. Mrs. Edes hung up her receiver. She thought slowly that it was a strange circumstance that Mr. von Rosen should have a fainting or dead young Syrian girl in his house. Then she rose from the divan, and began to dress. She had just enough time to dress leisurely and catch the train. She called on one of the two maids to assist her, and was quite equipped, even to the little mink toque, fastened very carefully on her shining head, when there was a soft push at the door, and her twin daughters, Maida and Adelaide, entered. They were eight years old, but looked younger. They were almost exactly alike as to small, pretty features and pale-blond coloring.
They stood and stared at their mother with a curious expression on their sharp, delicate little faces. It was not exactly admiration, it was not wonder, nor envy, nor affection, yet tinctured by all.
Mrs. Edes looked at them. “Maida,” said she, “do not wear that blue hair-ribbon again. It is soiled. Have you had your dinners?”
“Yes, mamma,” responded first one, then the other.
“Then you had better go to bed,” said Mrs. Edes, and the two little girls stood carefully aside to allow her to pass.
“Good-night, children,” said Mrs. Edes without turning her mink-crowned head. The little girls watched the last yellow swirl of their mother's skirts disappearing around the stair-landing, then Adelaide spoke.
“I mean to wear red myself when I'm grown up,” said she.
“Ho! just because Jim Carr likes red,” retorted Maida. “As for me I mean to have a gown just like hers, only a little deeper shade of yellow.”
Adelaide laughed, an unpleasantly snarling little laugh. “Ho,” said she, “just because Val Thomas likes yellow.”
Then the colored maid, Emma, who was cross because Mrs. Edes's evening out had deprived her of her own, and had been ruthlessly hanging her mistress' gown which she had worn to the club in a wad on a closet hook, disregarding its perfumed hanger, turned upon them.
“Heah, yo chillun,” said she, “your ma said for you to go to baid.”
Each little girl had her white bed, with a canopy of pink silk, in a charming room. There were garlands of rosebuds on the wall-paper, and the furniture was covered with rosebud chintz.
While their mother was indignantly sailing across the North River, her daughters lay awake, building air-castles about themselves and their boy lovers, which fevered their imaginations, and aged them horribly in a spiritual sense.
“Amy White's mother plays dominoes with her every evening,” Maida remarked. Her voice sounded incredibly old, full of faint derisiveness and satire, but absolutely non-complaining.
“Amy White's mother would look awfully funny in a gown like Mama's,” said Adelaide.
“I suppose that is why she plays dominoes with Amy,” said Maida in her old voice.
“Oh, don't talk any more, Maida, I want to go to sleep,” said Adelaide pettishly, but she was not in the least sleepy. She wished to return to the air-castle in which she had been having sweet converse with Jim Carr. This air-castle was the abode of innocence, but it was not yet time for its building at all. It was such a little childish creature who lay curled up under the coverlid strewn with rosebuds that the gates of any air-castle of life and love, and knowledge, however innocent and ignorant, should have been barred against her, perhaps with dominoes.
All this time their mother was sailing across the North River toward the pier where her husband waited. She kept one gloved hand upon the fold of her gown, ready to clutch it effectually clear of the dirty deck when the pier was reached. When she was in the taxicab with Wilbur, she thought again of von Rosen. “Dominie von Rosen made a mistake,” said she, “and called up the wrong number. He wanted Doctor Sturtevant, and he got me. What do you suppose he was doing with a fainting Syrian girl in his house?” she ended.
A chuckle shook the dark bulk in its fur-lined coat at her side. “The question is why the Syrian girl chose von Rosen's house to faint in,” said he lightly.
“Oh, don't be funny, Wilbur,” said Margaret. “Have you seen the dining-room? How does it look?”
“I thought it beautiful, and I am sure you will like it,” said Wilbur Edes in the chastened tone which he commonly used toward his wife. He had learned long ago that facetiousness displeased her, and he lived only to please her, aside from his interest in his profession.
“Mrs. George B. Slade is most unpleasantly puffed up,” said Mrs. Edes when they were in their room at the hotel.
“Oh, because she got Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder to speak to the club.”
“Did she do her stunt well?”
“Well enough. Mrs. Slade was so pleased, it was really offensive.”
Wilbur Edes had an inspiration. “The Fay-Wymans,” said he, — the Fay-Wymans were the principal guests of their dinner-party, — “know a lot of theatrical people. I will see if I can't get them to induce somebody, say Lydia Greenway, to run out some day and do a stunt at the club.”
“Oh, that would be simply charming,” cried Margaret. “But don't you think it will be impossible, Wilbur?”
“Not with money as an inducement.” Wilbur had the pleasant consciousness of an unusually large fee which was sure to be his own before that future club meeting, and he could see no better employment for it than to enable his adored wife to outshine Mrs. George B. Slade.
Margaret Edes beamed at her husband as he rose. “That will make Marion Slade furious,” she said. She extended her feet. “Pretty slippers, aren't they, Wilbur?”
“Charming, my dear.”
Margaret was so pleased that she tried to do something very amiable.
“That was funny, I mean what you said about the Syrian girl at the Dominie's,” she volunteered, and laughed without making a crease in her fair little face.
“It does sound somewhat queer, a Syrian girl fainting in the Dominie's house,” said Wilbur. “She could not have found a house where members of her sex, of any nationality, are in less repute.”
“Then you don't think that Alice Mendon —?” There was a faint note of jealousy in Margaret's voice, although she herself had not the slightest interest in Dominie von Rosen.
“I don't think Alice Mendon would take up with the Dominie, if he would with her,” responded Wilbur Edes hastily. Margaret did not understand his way of speaking, but just then she looked at herself in an opposite mirror, and pulled down one side of her blond pompadour a bit, which softened her face, and added to its allurement. The truth was Wilbur Edes, before he met Margaret, had proposed to Alice Mendon. Alice had never told, and he had not, consequently Margaret did not know. Had she known, it would have made no difference, since she could not imagine any man as preferring Alice to herself. All her jealousy was based upon the facts of her superior height, and ability to carry herself well. She was absolutely sure of her husband. The episode with Alice had occurred before he had ever even seen Herself. She smiled radiantly upon him as she arose. She was conscious of no affection for her husband, but she was conscious of a desire to show appreciation, and to display radiance for his delectation.
“It is charming of you to think of getting Lydia Greenway to read, you dear old man,” said she.
It was at that very time, for radically different notes sound at the same time in the harmony or discord of life, that von Rosen's housekeeper, Jane Riggs, stood before him with her crackling white apron swept over her face.
“What is it?” asked von Rosen, and he realized that his lips were stiff, and his voice sounded strange.
A strange harsh sob came from behind the apron. “She was all bent to one side with that heavy suit-case, as heavy as lead, for I hefted it,” said Jane Riggs, “and she couldn't have been more than fifteen. Them outlandish girls get married awful young.”
“What is it?”
“And there was poor Jack lickin' her hands, and him a dog everybody is so scared of, and she a sinkin' down in a heap on my kitchen floor.”
“What is it?”
“She has passed away,” answered Jane Riggs, “and — the baby is a boy, and no bigger than the cat, not as big near as the cat when I come to look at him, and I put some of my old flannels on him, and Doctor Sturtevant has got him in my darning-basket, all lined with newspapers — the New York Times and the Sun — and hot-water bottles, and it's all happened in the best chamber, and I call it pretty goings on.”
Jane Riggs gave vent to discordant sobs. Her apron crackled. Von Rosen took hold of her shoulders. “Go straight back up there,” he ordered.
“Why couldn't she have gone in and fainted somewhere where there was more women than one!” said Jane Riggs.
“Go back at once,” said von Rosen.
“Doctor Sturtevant said you had better telephone for Mrs. Bestwick,” said Jane. Mrs. Bestwick was the resident nurse of Fairbridge. Von Rosen sprang to the telephone, but he could get no response whatever from the central office, probably on account of the ice-coated wires.
He sat down disconsolately, and the cat leapt upon his knees, but he pushed him away impatiently. Von Rosen listened. He wondered if he heard, or imagined that he heard, a plaintive little wail. The dog snuggled close to him, and he felt a warm tongue-lap. Von Rosen patted the dog's head and listened. He got up, and tried to telephone again, but got no response. He hung up the receiver emphatically and sat down again. The dog again came close, and he patted the humble, loving head. Von Rosen listened again, and again could not be sure whether he actually heard, or imagined that he heard, the feeblest, most helpless cry ever lifted up from this earth, that of a miserable, new-born baby, with its uncertain future reaching before it.
When at last the door opened and Doctor Sturtevant entered, he was certain; that poor little atom of humanity up-stairs was lifting up its voice of feeble rage and woe because of its entrance into existence. Sturtevant had an oddly apologetic look. “I assure you I am sorry, my dear fellow —” he began.
“Is the poor little beggar going to live?” asked von Rosen.
“Well, yes, I think so, judging from the present outlook,” replied the doctor.
“I could not get Mrs. Bestwick,” said von Rosen anxiously. “I think the telephone is out of commission on account of the ice.”
“Never mind that. Your housekeeper is a jewel, and I will get Mrs. Bestwick on my way home. I really must be off now. I will get Mrs. Bestwick here as soon as possible. I think the child will have to be kept here for a short time anyway, considering the weather, and everything.”
“Why of course,” said von Rosen.
After the doctor had gone, he went out in the kitchen. He had had no dinner. Jane Riggs, who had very acute hearing, came to the head of the stairs, and spoke in a muffled tone, muffled, as von Rosen knew, because of the presence of death and life in the house. “The roast is in the oven, Mr. von Rosen,” said she, “and the soup is in the kettle, and the vegetables are all ready to dish up. Everything is ready except the coffee.”
“You know I can make that,” called von Rosen in alarm. “Don't think of coming down.”
Von Rosen could make very good coffee. It was an accomplishment of his college days. He made some now. He felt the need of it. Then he handily served the very excellent dinner, and sat down to his solitary dining-table. As he ate his soup, he glanced across the table, and a blush like that of a girl's overspread his dark face. He had a vision of a high chair, and a child installed therein, with the customary bib and spoon. It was a singular circumstance, but everything in life moves in sequences, and that poor Syrian child up-stairs, in her dire extremity, was furnishing a sequence in the young man's life before she went out of it. Her stimulation of his sympathy and imagination was to change the whole course of his existence.
Meanwhile Doctor Sturtevant was having a rather strenuous argument with his wife, who for once stood against him. She had her not-to-be-silenced personal note. She had a horror of the alien and unusual. All her life she had walked her chalk-line, and anything outside savored of the mysterious and terrible. She was Anglo-Saxon. She was what her ancestresses had been for generations. The strain was unchanged, and had become so tense and narrow that it was almost fathomless.
It therefore came to pass that, although she had in the secret depths of her being bemoaned her childlessness, and had been conscious of yearnings and longings which were agonies, when Doctor Sturtevant, after the poor young unknown mother had been laid away in the Fairbridge cemetery, proposed that they should adopt the bereft little one, she rebelled.
“If he were a white baby, I wouldn't object that I know of,” said she, “but I can't have this kind. I can't make up my mind to it, Edward.”
“But Maria, the child is white. He may not be European, but he is white. That is, while of course he has a dark complexion and dark eyes and hair, he is as white, in a way, as any child in Fairbridge, and he will be a beautiful boy. Moreover, we have every reason to believe that he was born in wedlock. There was a ring on a poor string of a ribbon on the mother's neck, and there was a fragment of a letter which von Rosen managed to make out. He thinks that the poor child was married to another child of her own race. The baby is all right, and he will be a fine little fellow.”
“It is of no use,” said Maria Sturtevant. “I can't make up my mind to adopt a baby that belonged to that kind of people. I simply cannot, Edward.”
Sturtevant gave up the matter for the time being. The baby remained at von Rosen's under the care of Mrs. Bestwick and Jane Riggs, but when it was a month old, the doctor persuaded his wife to go over and see it. Maria Sturtevant gazed at the tiny scrap of humanity curled up on Jane Rigg's darning-basket, the old-young face creased as softly as a rosebud, with none of its beauty, but with a compelling charm. She watched the weak motion of the infinitesimal legs and arms beneath the soft smother of wrappings, and her heart pained her with longing, but she remained firm.
“It is no use, Edward,” she said, when they had returned to von Rosen's study. “I can't make up my mind to adopt a baby coming from such queer people.” Then she was confronted by a stare of blank astonishment from von Rosen, and also from Jane Riggs.
Jane Riggs spoke with open hostility. “I don't know that anybody has asked anybody to adopt our baby,” said she.
Von Rosen laughed, but he also blushed. He spoke rather stammeringly. “Well, Sturtevant,” said he, “the fact is, Jane and I have talked it over, and she thinks she can manage, and he seems a bright little chap, and — I have about made up my mind to keep him myself.”
“He is going to be baptized as soon as he is big enough to be taken out of my darning-basket,” said Jane Riggs with defiance, but Mrs. Sturtevant regarded her with relief.
“I daresay he will be a real comfort to you,” she said, “even if he does come from such queer stock.”
Von Rosen was experiencing a strange, new joy of possession. However, his joy was of short duration. The baby was a little over three months old, and had been promoted to a crib and a perambulator, had been the unconscious recipient of many gifts from the women of von Rosen's parish, and of many calls from admiring little girls. Jane had scented the danger. She came home from marketing one morning, quite pale, and could hardly speak when she entered von Rosen's study.
“There's an outlandish young man around here,” said she, “and you had better keep that baby close.”
Von Rosen laughed. “Those people are always about,” he said. “You have no reason to be nervous, Jane. There is hardly a chance he has anything to do with the baby, and, in any case, he would not be likely to burden himself with the care of it.”
“Don't you be too sure,” said Jane stoutly, “a baby like that!” Jane much against her wishes was obliged to go out that afternoon, and von Rosen was left alone with the baby, with the exception of a little nurse-girl who had taken the place of Mrs. Bestwick. Then it was that the Syrian man, he was no more than a boy, came. Von Rosen did not at first suspect. The Syrian spoke very good English, and he was a Christian, so he told von Rosen. Then he also told him that the dead girl had been his wife, and produced letters signed with the name which those in her possession had borne. Von Rosen was convinced.
There was something about the boy, with his haughty, almost sullen, Oriental manner, which bore the stamp of truth. However, when he only demanded the suit-case which his dead wife had brought when she came to the house, von Rosen was relieved. He produced it at once, and his wonder and disgust mounted to fever-heat when that Eastern boy proceeded carefully to take out the gauds of feminine handiwork which it contained, and press them upon von Rosen at exorbitant prices. Von Rosen was more incensed than he often permitted himself to be. He ordered the boy from the house, and he departed with strange oaths and veiled and intricate threats after the manner of his subtle race, and when Jane Riggs came home von Rosen told her.
“I firmly believe the young rascal was that poor girl's husband, and the boy's father,” he said.
“Didn't he ask to have the baby?”
“Never mentioned such a thing. All he wanted was the articles of value which the poor girl left here.”
Jane Riggs also looked relieved. “Outlandish people are queer,” she said.
But the next morning she rushed into von Rosen's room when he had barely finished dressing, and she was sobbing aloud like a child, her face rigidly convulsed with grief, and her hands waving frantically with no effort to conceal it.
The little Syrian baby had disappeared. Nobody had reckoned with the soft guile of a race as supple and silent as to their real intentions as cats. There was a verandah column, wound with a massive wisteria-vine, near the window of the baby's room. The little nurse-girl went home every night, and Jane Riggs was a heavy sleeper. When she had awakened, her first glance had been into the baby's crib. Then she sprang, and searched with hungry hands. The little softly indented nest was not warm, the child had been gone for some hours, probably had been taken during the first and soundest sleep of the household. Jane's purse and her gold breastpin had incidentally been taken also. When she gave the alarm to von Rosen, a sullen, handsome Syrian boy was trudging along an unfrequented road which led circuitously to the city; and he carried a suit-case, but it was held apart by some of the Eastern embroideries, used as wedges before strapping, and from that came the querulous wail of a baby squirming uncomfortably upon drawn-work centerpieces and crêpe kimonos. Now and then the boy stopped, and spoke in a lovely, gentle voice to the child. He promised it food and shelter soon in his own soft tongue. He was carrying it to his wife's mother, and sullen as he looked and was, and thief as he was, love for his own swayed him, and made him determined to hold it fast.
Von Rosen made all possible inquiries. He employed detectives, but he never obtained the least clue to the whereabouts of the little child. He, however, although he grieved absurdly, almost as absurdly as Jane, had a curious sense of joy over the whole. Life in Fairbridge had, before birth and death entered his home, been so monotonous that he was almost stupefied. Here was a thread of vital gold and flame, although it had brought pain with it. When Doctor Sturtevant condoled with him, he met with an unexpected response. “I feel for you, old man. It was a mighty unfortunate thing that it happened in your house, now that this has come of it,” he said.
“I am very glad it happened, whatever came of it,” said von Rosen. “It is something to have had in my life. I wouldn't have missed it.”
Fairbridge people, who were on the whole a good-natured set, were very sympathetic, especially the women. Bessy Dicky shed tears when talking to Mrs. Sturtevant about the disappearance of the baby. Mrs. Sturtevant was not very responsive.
“It may be all for the best,” she said. “Nobody can tell how that child would have turned out. He might have ended by killing Mr. von Rosen.”
Doctor Sturtevant just then returned from a call upon Margaret Edes, who had just experienced a very severe disappointment, coming as it did after another very successful meeting of the Zenith Club, at Daisy Shaw's, who had most unexpectedly provided a second cousin who recited monologues wonderfully. Wilbur had failed in his attempt to secure Lydia Greenway for Margaret's star feature. Margaret had been quite ill, but Doctor Sturtevant gave her pain pellets, with the result that, late in the afternoon, she sat on her verandah in a fluffy white tea-gown, and then it was that little Annie Eustace came across the street, and sat with her.
Annie was not little, although slender; she was, in fact, quite tall and wide-shouldered, yet there was about her something which seemed to justify the use of the diminutive adjective. Possibly it was her face, which was really small and very pretty, with perfect cameo-like features and an odd, deprecating, almost painfully humble expression. It was the face of a creature entirely capable of asking an enemy's pardon for an injury inflicted upon herself. In reality Annie Eustace had very much that attitude of soul. She always considered the wrong as her natural place, and, in fact, would not have been comfortable elsewhere, although she suffered there. And yet little Annie Eustace was a gifted creature. There was probably not another person in Fairbridge who had been so well endowed by nature, but her environments and upbringing had been unfortunate. If Annie's mother had lived, the daughter might have had more spirit, but she had died when Annie was a baby, and the child had been given over to the tyranny of two aunts and a grandmother. As for her father, he had never married again, but he had never paid much attention to her. He had been a reserved, silent man, and himself under the sway of his mother and sisters. Obedience had been little Annie Eustace's first lesson taught by the trio who to her represented all government in her individual case.
Annie Eustace obeyed her aunts and grandmother, — her father had been dead several years, — but she loved only three, two were women, — Margaret Edes and Alice Mendon, — the other was a man, and the love was not confessed to her own heart.
This afternoon Annie wore an ugly green muslin gown, which was moreover badly cut. The sleeves were too long below the elbow and too short above. The neck arrangement was exceedingly unbecoming, and the skirt not well hung. The green was of the particular shade which made her look yellow. As she sat beside Margaret and embroidered assiduously and very unskilfully some daisies on a linen centerpiece, the other woman eyed her critically.
“You should not wear that shade of green, if you will excuse my saying so, dear,” she remarked presently.
Annie regarded her with a charming, loving smile. She would have excused her idol for saying anything. “I know it is not very becoming,” she agreed sweetly.
“Becoming!” said Margaret a trifle viciously. She was so out of sorts about her failure to secure Lydia Greenway that she felt a great relief in attacking little Annie Eustace.
“Becoming!” said she. “It actually makes you hideous. That shade is impossible for you, and why — I trust you will not be offended, you know it is for your own good, dear — why do you wear your hair in that fashion?”
“I am afraid it is not very becoming,” said Annie with the meekness of those who inherit the earth. She did not state that her aunt, Harriet, had insisted that she dress her hair in that fashion. Annie was intensely loyal.
“You are not doing that embroidery at all well,” said Margaret.
Annie laughed. “I know it,” she said with a sort of meek amusement. “I don't think I ever can master long and short stitch.”
“Why on earth do you attempt it then?”
“Everybody embroiders,” replied Annie. She did not state that her grandmother had made taking the embroidery a condition of her call upon her friend.
Margaret continued to regard her. She was finding a species of salve for her own disappointment in this irritant applied to another. “What does make you wear that hair-ring?” said she.
“It was a present,” replied Annie humbly, but she, for the first time, looked a little disturbed. That mourning-emblem, with her father's and mother's and a departed sister's hair in a neat little twist under a small crystal, grated upon her incessantly. It struck her as a species of ghastly sentiment which at once distressed, and impelled her to hysterical mirth.
“A present!” repeated Margaret. “If anybody gave me such a present as that, I would never wear it. It is simply in shockingly bad taste.”
“I sometimes fear so,” said Annie. She did not state that her Aunt Jane never allowed her to be seen in public without that dismal adornment.
“You are a queer girl,” said Margaret, and she summed up all her mood of petty cruelty and vicarious revenge in that one word “queer.”
However, little Annie Eustace only smiled as if she had been given a peculiarly acceptable present. She was so used to being underrated that she had become in a measure immune to criticism, and, besides, criticism from her adored Mrs. Edes was even a favor. She took another bungling stitch in the petal of a white floss daisy.
Margaret felt suddenly irritated. All this was too much like raining fierce blows upon a down pillow.
“Do for goodness' sake, Annie Eustace, stop doing that awful embroidery if you don't want to drive me crazy,” said she.
Then Annie looked at Margaret, and she was obviously distressed and puzzled. Her grandmother had enjoined it upon her to finish just so many of those trying daisies before her return, and yet, on the other hand, here was Margaret, her adorable Margaret, forbidding her to work, and, moreover, Margaret in such an irritable mood, with that smooth brow of hers frowning, and that sweet voice, which usually had a lazy trickle like honey, fairly rasping, was as awe-inspiring as her grandmother. Annie Eustace hesitated for a second. Her grandmother had commanded; Margaret Edes had commanded; the strongest impulse of her whole nature was obedience; but she loved Margaret, and she did not love her grandmother. Annie folded up the untidy embroidery, and sat regarding her friend with a sort of expectation, and the somewhat mussy little parcel of linen lay in her lap. Annie folded over it her very slender hands, and the horrible hair-ring was in full evidence.
Margaret fixed her eyes upon it. Annie quickly placed the hand which wore it under the other. Then she spoke, since Margaret did not, and she said exactly the wrong thing.
“I hear that the recent meetings of the Zenith Club have been unusually interesting,” said little Annie Eustace, and she could have said nothing more hapless to Margaret Edes in her present irritable mood. Margaret actually flushed.
“I have failed to see anything interesting whatever about them myself,” said she tartly.
Annie offended again. “I heard that Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder's address was really very remarkable,” said she.
“It was simply a very stupid effort to be funny,” returned Margaret. “Sometimes women will laugh because they are expected to, and they did that afternoon. Everything was simply cut and dried. It always is at Mrs. George B. Slade's. I never knew a woman so absolutely destitute of originality.”
Annie looked helplessly at Margaret. She could say no more unless she contradicted.
Margaret continued. She felt that she could no longer conceal her own annoyance, and she was glad of this adoring audience of one.
“I had planned something myself for the next meeting, which has never been done,” said she, “something new and stimulating.”
“Oh, how lovely!” cried Annie. “What was it?”
“Well, I had planned to have Lydia Greenway — you know she is really a great artist — come to the next meeting and give dramatic recitations.”
“Oh, would she?” gasped Annie Eustace.
“Lydia Greenway was obliged to leave unexpectedly, and go to the Riviera. They fear tuberculosis. She sailed last Saturday,” replied Margaret.
“I am so sorry,” said Annie.
Then she proceeded to elaborate her statement in exactly the wrong way. She said how very dreadful it would be if such a talented young actress should fall a victim to such a terrible disease, and what a loss she would be to the public, whereas all that Margaret Edes thought should be at all considered by any true friend of her own was her own particular loss.
“For once the Zenith Club would have had a meeting calculated to take Fairbridge women out of their rut, in which people like Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Sturtevant seem determined to keep them,” returned Margaret testily.
Annie stared at her. Margaret often said that it was the first rule of her life never to speak ill of anyone, and she kept the letter of it as a rule.
“I am so sorry,” said Annie. Then she added with more tact, “It would have been such a wonderful thing for us all to have had Lydia Greenway give dramatic recitals to us. Oh, Margaret, I can understand how much it would have meant.”
“It would have meant progress,” said Margaret. She looked imperiously lovely as she sat there. She lifted one little hand tragically. “Progress,” she repeated, “progress beyond Mrs. George B. Slade's, and Mrs. Sturtevant's, and Miss Bessy Dicky's, and that is precisely what we need.”
Annie Eustace gazed wistfully upon her friend. “Yes,” she agreed, “you are quite right, Margaret. Mrs. Slade, and Mrs. Sturtevant, and poor Bessy Dicky, and all the other members are very good, and we think highly of them, but I, too, feel that we all travel in a rut sometimes. My heart was almost broken because I had to miss that last meeting on account of Grandmother having such a severe cold.”
“That last meeting was not so very much to miss,” said Margaret, for Annie had again said the wrong thing.
Annie, however, went on eagerly and unconsciously. “Margaret, you know,” she cried, “you must know, how I feel toward the Zenith Club. You must know what it means to me. It really does take me out of my little narrow place in life as nothing else does. I cannot tell you what an inspiration it really is to me. Oh, Margaret, you know!”
Margaret nodded in stiff assent. As a matter of fact, she did know. The Zenith Club of Fairbridge did mean very much, very much indeed to little Annie Eustace. Nowhere else did she meet en masse others of her kind. She did not even go to church for the reason that her grandmother did not believe in churchgoing at all, and wished her to remain with her. One aunt was Dutch Reformed, and the other, Baptist; and neither ever missed a service. Annie remained at home Sundays and read aloud to her grandmother, and when both aunts were in the midst of their respective services, and the cook, who was intensely religious, engaged in preparing dinner, she and her old grandmother played pinocle. However, although Annie played cards very well, it was only with her relatives. She had never been allowed to join the Fairbridge Card Club. She never attended a play in the city, because Aunt Jane considered plays wicked. Annie's sole large recreation was the Zenith Club, and it meant, as she had said, much to her. It was to the stifled young heart as a great window admitting the outer air of a common humanity. She got from it a stimulus which was for the strengthening of her soul. She wrote papers for it which were astonishing, although her hearers dimly appreciated the fact, not because of dulness, but because little Annie had written them, and it seemed incredible to Fairbridge women that little Annie Eustace, whom they had always known, could possibly write anything remarkable. It was only Alice Mendon who listened with a frown of wonder and intent eyes upon the reader. When she came home upon one occasion, she remarked to her aunt, Eliza Mendon, and her cousin, Lucy Mendon, that she had been impressed by Annie Eustace's paper, but both women only stared, and murmured assent. She was quite sure that they would quote her opinion of Annie Eustace's paper, but that did not please her. Later on she spoke to Annie herself about it. “Haven't you something else written that you could show me?” she asked. She had even suggested the possibility of Annie's taking up a literary career, but she had found the girl very evasive, even secretive, and had never broached the subject again.
As for Margaret Edes, she had never fairly listened to anything which anybody except herself had written, unless it had afforded matter for discussion and the display of her own brilliancy. Annie's productions were so modestly conclusive as apparently to afford no standing-ground for argument.
She proceeded exactly as if Annie had not made such a fervent disclaimer. “The Zenith Club is the one and only thing which lifts Fairbridge and the women of Fairbridge above the common herd,” said she majestically.
“Don't I know it? Oh, Margaret, don't I know it!” cried the other with such feverish energy that Margaret regarded her wonderingly. For all her exploiting of the Zenith Club of Fairbridge, she herself, unless she were the main figure at the helm, could realize nothing in it so exceedingly inspiring, but it was otherwise with Annie. It was quite conceivable that, had it not been for the Zenith Club, she never would have grown to her full mental height. Annie Eustace had a mind of the sequential order. By subtle processes, unanalyzable even by herself, even the record of Miss Bessy Dicky started her mind upon momentous trains of thought. To others it might seem, during some of the sessions, as a pathetic attempt of village women to raise themselves upon tiptoes enough to peer over their centuries of weedy feminine growth, and an attempt which was as futile, and even ridiculous, as an attempt of a cow to fly. But the Zenith Club justified its existence nobly in the result of little Annie Eustace, if in no other, and it no doubt justified itself in others. Who can say what that weekly gathering meant to women who otherwise would not move outside their little treadmill of household labor, what uplifting, if seemingly futile, grasps at the great outside of life? Let no one underrate the Women's Club until the years have proved its uselessness.
“I am so sorry about Lydia Greenway,” said Annie, and this time she did not irritate Margaret.
“It does seem as if one were simply doomed to failure every time one really made an effort to raise standards,” said Margaret.
Then it was that Annie all unconsciously sowed a seed which led to strange and rather terrifying results. “It would be nice,” said little Annie, “if we could get Miss Martha Wallinford to read a selection from ‘Hearts Astray’ at a meeting of the Club. I read a few nights ago, in a paper I happened to pick up at Alice's, that she was staying in New York at the Hollingsgate. Her publishers were to give her a dinner last night, I believe.”
Margaret Edes started. “I had not seen that,” she said. Then she added in a queer, brooding fashion, “That book of hers had an enormous sale. I suppose her publishers feel that they owe it to her to give her a good time while she is in New York. Then, too, it will advertise ‘Hearts Astray.’”
“Did you like the book?” asked Annie rather irrelevantly. Margaret did not reply. She was thinking intently. “It would be a great feature for the club if we could induce her to give a reading,” she said at length.
“I don't suppose it would be possible,” replied Annie. “You know they say she never does such things, and is very retiring. I read in the paper that she was, and that she refused even to speak a few words at the dinner given in her honor.”
“We might ask her,” said Margaret reflectively. She leaned back, and for once her face was actually contracted with thought to the possible detriment of its smooth beauty.
A clock in the house struck, and at the same time Maida and Adelaide raced up the steps, followed by gleeful calls from two little boys on the sidewalk.
“Where have you been?” asked Margaret. Then she said, without waiting for a reply, “If Martha Wallingford would come, I should prefer that to Lydia Greenway.”
Maida and Adelaide, flushed and panting, and both with mouths full of candy, merely glanced at their mother, then Maida playfully chased Adelaide into the house, their blue skirts flitting out of sight like butterfly wings.
Annie Eustace rose. She noticed that neither Maida nor Adelaide had greeted her, and thought them rude. She herself had been most carefully trained concerning manners of incoming and outgoing.
“I must go,” she said. “It is six o'clock, supper will be ready.” She glanced rather apprehensively as she spoke at the large white house, not two minutes' walk across the street.
“How very delightful it is to be as punctual as your people are,” said Margaret. “Good-by, Annie.” She spoke abstractedly, and Annie felt a little hurt. She passed down the walk between Margaret's beautifully kept Japanese trees, and gained the sidewalk. She little knew the momentous consequences that were to follow from the remark she had made, or of the bearing the little walk she was starting on was to have upon her own life.
[CONTINUED IN THE DECEMBER ISSUE]
From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XXXVIII No. 12 (December, 1911)
A little New Jersey city — Fairbridge — is the scene of intense social rivalry. The center of the storm is the woman's literary club, called the Zenith Club, to which the leading feminine spirits of Fairbridge belong. The first meeting of this club to be recorded in the novel is that held at the beautiful home of Mrs. George B. Slade. The president of the club, Mrs. Wilbur Edes, is one of the most exquisitely gowned women present. She is the wife of a brilliant lawyer, the mother of little twin daughters, and is abnormally ambitious. Others present at the meeting include Miss Alice Mendon, a charming woman, and Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, who has come from New York to deliver a famous lecture. During the meeting there appears Dominie von Rosen, a young unmarried minister of Fairbridge, who is bent upon a pastoral visit, and who is horrified at finding himself at a meeting of the club. On his return home he finds that a little drama is taking place in his house. A young woman, a Syrian peddler, has fainted in his kitchen, and Jane Riggs, his housekeeper, tells him to call in Doctor Sturtevant. The doctor and Jane take the poor girl up-stairs, where she soon dies, leaving a tiny foreign-looking baby, to which Jane becomes very much attached, and as no one claims the child it stays on at the rectory, von Rosen gradually learning to love it. Meanwhile, Margaret Edes fails in an attempt to outdo Mrs. Slade in the matter of a unique club-meeting, and pours out her plaint to Annie Eustace, a young girl who lives under the tyranny of her two aunts and her grandmother. Though Annie is gifted in many ways, her only pleasure and means of development is in the Zenith Club. Annie is devoted to Margaret Edes and Alice Mendon. At the rectory another tragedy has happened: an Armenian youth, who proves to have been the poor peddler-girl's husband, appears one day and steals the baby. No trace of the Armenian or the child is ever found.
As Annie Eustace left the graveled walk which led from Margaret Edes's door, and gained the sidewalk, a sudden recollection filled her with dismay. She had promised her grandmother to go to the post-office before returning; an important business letter was expected. Annie gathered up her skirts, and ran. She realized the necessity of speed, of great speed, for the post-office was a quarter of a mile away, and the Eustace family supped at five minutes past six, with terrible and relentless regularity. Why it should have been five minutes past instead of upon the stroke of the hour, Annie had never known; but so it was.
Therefore she ran, and ran, and it happened that she ran rather heedlessly and blindly, and dropped her mussy little package of fancy-work, and Karl von Rosen, coming out of the parsonage, saw it fall, and picked it up rather gingerly, and called as loudly as was decorous after the flying figure; but Annie did not hear, and von Rosen did not want to shout, neither did he want, or, rather, think it advisable, to run, therefore he followed, holding the linen package well away from him, as if it were a disagreeable insect. He had never seen much of Annie Eustace. Now and then he called on the one of her aunts who avowed her preference for his religious denomination, but if he saw Annie at all, she was seated, engaged upon some such doubtfully ornamental or useful task as the specimen which he now carried. Truth to say, he had scarcely noticed Annie Eustace at all. She had produced the effect of shrinking from observation under some subtle shadow of self-effacement. She was in reality a very rose of a girl, loving and sweet, and withal wonderfully endowed; but this human rose dwelt always, for Karl von Rosen, in the densest of bowers, through which her beauty, and fragrance of character could not penetrate his senses. She never came to church. That perfect little face, with its expression of strange insight, must have aroused his attention among his audience. But there was only the Aunt Harriet Eustace, an exceedingly thin lady, present, and always attired in rich blacks. Karl von Rosen to-day, walking as rapidly as became his dignity, in pursuit of the young woman, was aware that he hardly felt at liberty to accost her with anything more than the greeting of the day. He eyed disapprovingly the parcel which he carried. It was a very dingy white, and grayish threads dangled from it. Von Rosen thought it a most unpleasant thing, and reflected with mild scorn and bewilderment concerning the manner of mind which could find amusement over such employment, for he divined that it was a specimen of feminine skill, called fancy-work.
Annie Eustace ran so swiftly that he soon perceived that interception upon her return, and not overtaking, must ensue. He therefore slackened his pace, and met Annie upon her return. She had a letter in her hand, and was advancing with a headlong rush, and suddenly she attracted him. He surrendered the parcel. “Thank you very much,” said Annie; “but I almost wish you had not found it!”
Von Rosen stared at her. Was she rude after all, this very pretty girl, who was capable of laughter?
“You would not blame me if you had to embroider daisies on that dreadful piece of linen,” said Annie with a rueful glance at the dingy package.
Von Rosen smiled kindly at her. “I don't blame you at all,” he replied. “I can understand it must be a dismal task to embroider daisies.”
“It is. Mr. von Rosen —” Annie hesitated.
“Yes,” said von Rosen encouragingly.
“You know I never go to church.”
“Yes,” said von Rosen mendaciously. He really did not know. In future he would.
“Well, I don't go because —” again Annie hesitated, while the young man waited interrogatively.
Then Annie spoke with force. “I would really very much like to go to church occasionally,” she said; “but I doubt if I would always care to attend services.”
“No, I don't think you would,” assented von Rosen.
“But I never can because — Grandmother is old, and consequently she has not much left in life, you know.”
“It is all very well for people to talk about firesides, and knitting-work, and peaceful eyes of age fixed upon heavenly homes,” said Annie, “but all old people are not like that. Grandma hates to knit, although she does think I should embroider daisies, and she does like to have me play pinocle with her Sunday mornings, when Aunt Harriet and Aunt Jane are out of the way. It is the only chance she has during the whole week, you know, because neither Aunt Harriet nor Aunt Jane approve of cards, and poor Grandma is so fond of them, it seems cruel not to play with her the one chance she has.”
“I think you do entirely right,” said von Rosen with grave conviction, and he was charmed that the girl regarded him as if he had said nothing whatever unusual.
“I have always been sure it was right,” said Annie Eustace, “but I would like sometimes to go to church.”
“I really wish you could,” said von Rosen, “and I would make an especial effort to write a good sermon.”
“Oh,” said Annie, “Aunt Harriet often hears you preach one which she thinks very good.”
Von Rosen bowed. Suddenly Annie's shyness, reserve, whatever it was, seemed to overcloud her. The lovely red faded from her cheeks, the light from her eyes; she lost her beauty in a great measure. She bowed stiffly, saying, “I thank you very much; good-evening,” and passed on, leaving the young man rather dazed, pleased, and yet distinctly annoyed, and annoyed in some inscrutable fashion at himself.
Then he heard shouts of childish laughter, and a scamper of childish feet, and Maida and Adelaide Edes rushed by, almost jostling him from the sidewalk, and Maida carried a letter which her mother had written, and despatched to the last mail; and that letter was destined to be of more importance to von Rosen than he knew, or than Miss Edes could have conjectured.
As for Annie Eustace, whose meeting with von Rosen had, after her first lapse into the unconsciousness of mirth, disturbed her, as the meeting of the hero of a dream always disturbs a true maiden who has not lost through many such meetings the thrill of them, she hurried home trembling, and found everything just exactly as she knew it would be. There sat Aunt Harriet perfectly motionless behind the silver tea-service, and, although the cozy was drawn over the teapot, the tea seemed to be reproachfully drawing to that extent that Annie could hear it. There sat Aunt Jane behind the cut-glass bowl of preserved fruit, with the untouched silver spoon at hand. There sat her grandmother behind the butter-plate. There stood Hannah, white-capped and white-aproned, holding the silver serving-tray like a petrified statue of severity; and not one of them spoke, but their silence, their dignified, reproachful silence, was infinitely worse than a torrent of invective. So she slid into her place opposite her Aunt Jane, and began her own task of dividing into sections the omelet which was quite flat because she was late, and seemed to reproach her in a miserable, low-down sort of fashion.
However, there was in the girl's heart a little glint of youthful joy, which was unusual. She had met Mr. von Rosen, and had forgotten herself, that is at first, and he had looked kindly at her. There was no foolish hope in little Annie Eustace's heart; there would be no spire of aspiration added to her dreams because of the meeting, but she tasted the sweet of self-approbation, and it was a tonic which she sorely needed, and which inspired her to self-assertion in a childishly naughty and mischievous way.
Just before Annie went to bed she stood in the front doorway, looking out at the lovely moonlight and the wonderful shadows which transformed the village street like the wings of angels, and she heard voices and laughter from the Edes house opposite; then Margaret began singing in her shrill piercing voice. Annie adored Margaret, but she shrank before her singing voice. If she had only known what was passing through the mind of the singer after she went to bed that night, she would have shuddered more, for Margaret Edes was planning a possible coup before which Annie, in spite of a little latent daring of her own, would have been aghast.
The next morning Margaret announced herself as feeling so much better that she thought she should go to New York. She had several errands, she said, and the day was beautiful, and the little change would do her good. She would take the train with her husband, but a different ferry, as she wished to go up-town. Wilbur acquiesced readily. “It's a mighty fine morning, and you need to get out,” he said. Poor Wilbur at this time felt guiltily culpable that he did not own a motor-car in which his Margaret might take the air. He had tried to see his way clear toward buying one, but, in spite of a certain improvidence, the whole nature of the man was intrinsically honest. He, it was true, kept a very smart little carriage and a horse, but that was not as much as Margaret should have. Every time Margaret seemed a little dull, or complained of headache, as she had done lately, he thought miserably of that motor-car which was her right. Therefore, when she planned any little trip like that of to-day, he was immeasurably pleased. At the same time he regarded her with a slightly bewildered expression, for, in some subtle fashion, her face, as she propounded the trifling plan, looked odd to him, and her voice also did not sound quite natural. However, he dismissed the idea at once as mere fancy, and watched proudly the admiring glances bestowed upon her in the Fairbridge station while they were waiting for the train. Margaret had a peculiar knack in designing costumes, which were at once plain and striking. This morning she wore a black China silk, through the thin bodice of which was visible an under silk strewn with gold disks. Her girdle was clasped with a gold buckle, and when she moved, there were slight glimpses of a yellow silk petticoat. Her hat was black, but under the brim was tucked a yellow rose against her yellow hair. Then, to finish all, Margaret wore a great brooch of turquoise matrix, which matched her eyes, in the lace at her throat. Her husband realized her as perfectly attired, although he did not in the least understand why. Wilbur watched his wife as she talked sweetly with the other woman, and his heart swelled with the pride of possession. When they were on the train, and he sat by himself in the smoker, having left Margaret with Mrs. Sturtevant, his heart continued to feel warm with elation. He waited to assist his wife off the train at Jersey City, and realized it was a trial that he could not cross the river on the same ferry. Margaret despised the tube, and he wished for the short breath of sea air which he would get on the Courtland ferry. He glanced after her retreating black skirts, with the glimpses of yellow, regretfully, before he turned toward his own ferry-slip; and he glanced the more regretfully because this morning, with all his admiration of his wife, he had a dim sense of something puzzling which arose like a cloud of mystery between them, which he was unable to penetrate.
Wilbur Edes, sailing across the river, had, however, no conception of the change which had begun in his little world. It was only a shake of the kaleidoscope of an unimportant life, resulting in a different combination of atoms, but to each individual it would be a tremendous event, partaking of the nature of a cataclysm. That morning he had seen upon Margaret's charming face an expression which made it seem as the face of a stranger. He tried to dismiss the matter from his mind; he told himself that it must have been the effect of the light, or that she had pinned on her hat at a different angle. Women were so perplexing, and their attire altered them so strangely. But Wilbur Edes had reason to be puzzled; Margaret had looked, and really was, different. In a little while she had become practically a different woman. Of course she had only developed possibilities which had always been dormant within her, but they had been so dormant that they had not been to any mortal perception endowed with life. Hitherto, Margaret had walked along the straight and narrow way, sometimes, it is true, jostling circumstances, and sometimes being jostled by them, yet keeping to the path. Now she had turned her feet into that broad way wherein there is room for the utmost self which is in us all. Henceforth, husband and wife would walk apart in a spiritual sense, unless there should come a revolution in the character of the wife.
Margaret, seated comfortably on the ferry-boat, her little feet crossed so discreetly that only a glimpse of the yellow fluff beneath was visible, was conscious of a not unpleasurable exhilaration. She might and she might not be about to do something which would place her distinctly outside the pale which had heretofore enclosed her little pleasance of life. Were she to cross that pale, she felt that it might be distinctly amusing. Margaret was not a wicked woman, but straight walking ahead, according to the ideas of Fairbridge, had come to drive her at times to the verge of madness. Then, too, there was always that secret, terrible self-love and ambition of hers, never satisfied, always defeated by petty weapons.
She got a taxicab on the other side, and leaned back, catching frequent glances of admiration, and rode pleasurably to the regal up-town hotel which was the home of Miss Martha Wallingford while in the city. Upon her arrival she entered the hotel with an air which caused a stir among bell-boys. Then she entered a reception-room, and sat down, disposing herself with slow grace. Margaret gazed about her, and waited.
Presently the boy with the silver tray approached. Margaret rose, and followed him as he led the way to the elevator. Miss Wallingford, who was a young western woman and a rising, if not already a risen, literary star, had signified her willingness to receive Mrs. Wilbur Edes in her own private sitting-room. Margaret was successful so far. She had pencilled on her card, “Can you see me on a matter of importance? I am not connected with the Press,” and the young woman who esteemed nearly everything of importance, and was afraid of the Press, had agreed at once to see her. Miss Martha Wallingford was staying, in the hotel, with an elderly aunt, against whose rule she rebelled in spite of her youth and shyness, which apparently made it impossible for her to rebel against anybody, and the aunt had retired stiffly to her bedroom when her niece positively declared that she would see her caller.
“You don't know who she is, and I promised your pa when we started that I wouldn't let you get acquainted with folks unless I knew all about them,” the aunt had said, and the niece, the risen star, had set her mouth hard. “We haven't seen a soul except those newspaper men, and I know every one of them is married, and those two newspaper women who told about my sleeves being out of date,” said Martha Wallingford, “and this Mrs. Edes may be real nice. I'm going to see her anyhow. We came so late in the season that I believe everybody in New York worth seeing has gone away, and this lady has come in from the country, and it may lead to my having a good time after all. I haven't had much of a time so far, and you know it, Aunt Susan.”
“How you talk, Martha Wallingford! Haven't you been to the theater every night, and Coney Island, and the Metropolitan, and — everything there is to see?”
“There isn't much to see in New York anyway, except the people,” returned the niece. “People are all I care for anyway, and I don't call the people I have seen worth counting. They only came to make a little money out of me and my sleeves. I am glad I got this dress at a good shop. These sleeves are all right. If this Mrs. Edes should be a newspaper woman, she can't make fun of these sleeves anyway.”
“You paid an awful price for that dress,” said her aunt.
“I don't care. I got such a lot for my book that I might as well have a little out of it, and you know as well as I do, Aunt Susan, that South Morden, Illinois, may be a very nice place, but it does not keep up with New York fashions. I really did not have a decent thing to wear when I started. Miss Slocumb did as well as she knew how, but her ideas are about three years behind New York. I didn't know myself — how should I? — and you didn't, and, as for pa, he would think everything I had on was stylish if it dated back to the ark. You ought to have bought that mauve silk for yourself; you have money enough, you know you have, Aunt Susan.”
“I have money enough, thanks to my dear husband's saving all his life, but it is not going to be squandered on dress by me, now he is dead and gone.”
“I would have bought the dress for you myself then,” said the niece.
“No, thank you,” returned the aunt with asperity; “I have never been in the habit of being beholden to you for my clothes, and I am not going to begin now. I didn't want that dress anyway. I always hated purple.”
“It wasn't purple, it was mauve.”
“I call purple purple, I don't call it anything else.” Then the aunt retreated precipitately before the sound of the opening door, and entrenched herself in her bedroom, where she stood listening.
Margaret Edes treated the young author with respect, which she really deserved for talent she possessed in such a marked degree as to make her phenomenal, and the phenomenal is always entitled to consideration of some sort.
“Miss Wallingford?” murmured Margaret, and she gave an impression of obeisance, this charming, elegantly attired lady before the western girl. Martha Wallingford colored high with delight and admiration.
“Yes, I am Miss Wallingford,” she replied, and asked her caller to be seated. Margaret sat down, facing her. The young author shuffled in her chair like a schoolgirl. She was an odd combination of enormous egotism and the most painful shyness. She realized at a glance that she herself was provincial, and pitifully at a disadvantage personally before this elegant vision.
“I cannot tell you what a great pleasure and privilege this is for me,” said Margaret, and her blue eyes had an expression of admiring rapture. The girl upon whom the eyes were fixed blushed and giggled, and tossed her head with a sudden show of pride. She quite agreed that it was a pleasure and privilege for Margaret to see her, the author of “Hearts Astray,” even if Margaret was herself so charming, and so provokingly well dressed. Miss Martha Wallingford did not hide her light of talent under a bushel, with all her shyness, which was not really shyness at all, but a species of rather sullen pride and resentment, because she was so well aware that she could not do well the things which were continually asked of her, and had not mastered the art of dress and self-poise.
Therefore Martha, with the light of her own achievements full upon her face, which was pretty although untutored, regarded her visitor with an expression which almost made Margaret falter. It was probably the absurd dressing of the girl's hair which restored Margaret's confidence in her scheme. Martha Wallingford actually wore a frizzed bang, very finely frizzed too, and her hair was strained from the nape of her neck, and it seemed impossible that a young woman who knew no better than to arrange her hair in such fashion should not be amenable to Margaret's plan. The plan moreover sounded very simple, and was, except for the little complications which might easily arise. Margaret smiled into the pretty face under the fuzz of short hair.
“My dear Miss Wallingford,” said she, “I have come this morning to beg a great favor. I hope you will not refuse me, although I am such an entire stranger. If unfortunately my intimate friend, Mrs. Fay-Wyman, of whom I assume that you of course know, even if you have not met her, as you may easily have done, or her daughter, Miss Edith Fay-Wyman, had not left town last week for their country house, Rose-in-Flower, at Hyphen-by-the-Sea, a most delightful spot. Mr. Edes and I have spent several week ends there. I am prevented from spending longer than week ends, because I am kept at home by my two darling twin daughters. Mrs. Fay-Wyman is a sweet woman, and I do so wish I could have brought her here to-day, I am sure you would fall at once madly in love with her, and also with her daughter, Miss Edith Fay-Wyman, such a sweet girl, and —”
But here Margaret was unexpectedly, even rudely interrupted by Miss Wallingford.
“I never fall in love with women,” stated that newly risen literary star abruptly and with youthful conviction. “Why should I? What does it amount to anyway?”
“Oh, my dear,” cried Margaret, “when you are a little older, you will find that it amounts to very much. There is a soul-sympathy, and —”
“I don't think that I care much about soul-sympathy,” stated Miss Wallingford, who was beginning to be angrily bewildered by her guest's long unfinished sentences, which seemed to have no point as far as she herself was concerned.
Margaret started a little. Again the doubt seized her whether she were not making a mistake, undertaking more than she could well carry through, for this shy authoress was fast developing unexpected traits.
“Oh, my dear,” Margaret said, and her voice was like honey, “only wait until you are a little older, and you will find that you do care, care very, very much. The understanding and sympathy of other women will become very sweet to you. It is so pure and ennobling, so free from all material taint.”
“I have seen a great many women who were perfect cats,” stated Miss Martha Wallingford.
“Wait until you are older,” said Margaret again, and her voice seemed fairly dissolving into some spiritual liquid of divine sweetness. “Wait until you are older, my dear. You are very young, so young to have accomplished such wonderful work which will live.”
“Oh, well,” said Martha Wallingford, and as she spoke she fixed pitiless, shrewd young eyes upon the face of the other woman, which did not show at its best in spite of veil and the velvety darkness of hat-shadow. This hotel sitting-room was full of garish cross-lights. “Oh, well,” said Martha Wallingford, “of course I don't know what may happen if I live to be old, as old as you.”
Margaret Edes felt like a photograph-proof before the slightest attempt at finish had been made. Those keen young eyes conveyed the impression of convex mirrors. She restrained an instinctive impulse to put a hand before her face; she had an odd, helpless sensation before the almost brutal, clear-visioned young thing. Again she shrank a little from her task, again her spirit reasserted itself. She moved and brought her face somewhat more into shadow. Then she spoke again. She wisely dropped the subject of feminine affinities. She plunged at once into the object of her visit, which directly concerned Miss Martha Wallingford, and Margaret, who was as astute in her way as the girl, knew that she was entirely right in assuming that Martha Wallingford was more interested in herself than in anything else in the world.
“My dear,” she said, “I may as well tell you at once why I intruded upon you this morning.”
“Please do,” said Martha Wallingford.
“As I said before, I deeply regret that I was unable to bring some well-known person, Mrs. Fay-Wyman for instance, to make us acquainted in due form, but —”
“Oh, I don't care a bit about that,” said Martha. “What is it?”
Margaret again started a little; she had not expected anything like this. The mental picture which she had formed of Martha Wallingford, the young literary star, seemed to undergo a transformation akin to an explosion, out of which only one feature remained intact — the book, “Hearts Astray.” If Miss Wallingford had not possessed the firm foundation of that volume, it is entirely possible that Margaret might have abandoned her enterprise. As it was, after a little gasp, she went on.
“I did so wish to assure you in person of my great admiration for your wonderful book,” said she. Martha Wallingford made no reply.
“And I wondered,” said Margaret, “if you would consider it too informal if I ventured to beg you to be my guest, at my home in Fairbridge, next Thursday, and remain for the week end over Sunday. It would give me so much pleasure, and Fairbridge is a charming little village, and there are really many interesting people there, whom I think you would enjoy; and as for them,” Margaret gave a slight roll to her eyes, “they would be simply overwhelmed!”
“I should like to come very much, thank you,” said Martha Wallingford.
Margaret beamed. “Oh, my dear,” she cried, “I cannot tell you how much joy your prompt and warm response gives me. And —” Margaret looked about her rather vaguely, “you are not alone here of course. You have a maid, or perhaps your mother —”
“My Aunt Susan is with me,” said Miss Wallingford, “but there is no use inviting her. She hates going away for a few days; she says it is just as much trouble packing as to go for a month. There is no use even thinking of her, but I shall be delighted to come.”
Margaret hesitated. “May I not have the pleasure of being presented to your aunt?” she inquired.
“Aunt Susan is out shopping,” lied Miss Martha Wallingford. Aunt Susan was clad in a cotton crêpe wrapper, and Martha knew that she would think it quite good enough for her to receive anybody in, and that she could not convince her to the contrary. It was only recently that Martha herself had become converted from morning wrappers, and the reaction was violent. “The idea of a woman like this Mrs. Edes seeing Aunt Susan in that awful pink crêpe wrapper!” she said to herself when her visitor had departed after making definite arrangements concerning trains and meetings.
Then Aunt Susan entered the room, with a cloud of pink crêpe in her wake.
“Who was that?” she demanded of Martha.
“Mrs. Wilbur Edes,” replied her niece, and she aped Margaret to perfection as she added, “and a most charming woman, most charming.”
“What did she want you to do?” inquired the aunt.
“Now, Aunt Susan,” replied her niece, “what is the use of going over it all? You heard every single thing she said.”
“I did hear her ask after me,” said the aunt unabashed, “and I heard you tell a lie about it. You told her I had gone out shopping, and you knew I was right in the next room.”
“I didn't mean to have you come in, and see a woman, dressed like that one, in your wrapper.”
“What is the matter with my wrapper, I'd like to know?” To this question Martha made no reply.
“Are you going?” asked her aunt.
“You know that too,” replied Miss Wallingford.
“I don't know what your pa would say,” remarked Aunt Susan, but rather feebly.
“I don't see how pa can say much of anything, since he is in South Morden, Illinois, and won't know about it, unless you telegraph, until next week,” said Martha calmly. “Now come along, Aunt Susan, and get dressed. I have made up my mind to get that beautiful white silk dress we looked at yesterday. It did not need any alteration. And I think I shall buy that pearl and amethyst necklace.”
Meantime, Margaret, on her way down town to her ferry, was conscious of a slight consternation at what she had done. She understood that in this young woman was a feminine element which radically differed from any which had come within her ken. She, however, was determined to go on. The next day invitations were issued to the Zenith Club for the following Friday, from four to six, and also one to dinner that evening to four men and five women. She planned for Sunday an automobile ride, and a high tea afterward.
When Martha arrived Thursday afternoon, and Margaret met her at the station, she at a glance realized that the girl had discovered how to dress and to do her hair. Some persons' brains work in a great many directions, and Martha Wallingford's was one of them. Somehow or other, she had contrived to dispose of her tightly frizzed fringe, and her very pretty hair swept upward from a forehead which was both intellectual and beautiful. She was well dressed too. She had drawn heavily upon her royalty revenue. She had worked hard, and spent a good deal during the short time since Margaret's call, and her brain had served her body well. She stepped across the station-platform with an air.
Margaret's heart sank more and more, but she conducted her visitor to her little carriage, and ordered the man to drive home, and when arrived there, showed Martha her room. She had a faint hope that the room might intimidate this western girl, but instead of intimidation there was exultation. She looked about her very coolly, but afterward, upon her return to South Morden, Illinois, she bragged a good deal about it. The room was really very charming and rather costly. The furniture was genuine First Empire, the walls, which were hung with paper covered with garlands of roses, were decorated with old engravings, and there was a quantity of Dresden china on the dressing-table. Over a couch lay a kimono of white silk embroidered with pink roses.
When Margaret had gone, Martha looked about her, and her mouth was frankly wide open. She had never seen such exquisite daintiness, and it daunted her, although she would have died rather than admit it.
Martha proceeded to array herself for dinner. She had not a doubt that it would be a grand affair. She, therefore, did not hesitate about the white silk, which was a robe of such splendor that it might have not disgraced a court. It showed a great deal of her thin yet pretty girlish neck, and it had a very long train. She had had a gold fillet studded with diamonds for her hair, that hair which was now dressed according to the very latest mode, a mode which was startling yet becoming, and she clasped around her throat the necklace, and put on long white gloves.
When she appeared upon the veranda, where Margaret sat dressed in a pretty lingerie gown, with Wilbur in a light-gray business suit, the silence could be heard. Then there was one double gasp of admiration from Maida and Adelaide in their white frocks and blue ribbons. They looked at the visitor with positive adoration, but she flushed hotly. She was a very quick-witted girl. Margaret recovered herself, presented Wilbur, and shortly they went in to dinner, but it was a ghastly meal. Martha Wallingford, in her unsuitable splendor, was frankly, as she put it afterward, “hopping mad,” and Wilbur was unhappy, and Margaret aghast, although apparently quite cool. There was not a guest beside Martha. The dinner was simple. Afterward it seemed too farcical to ask a guest attired like a young princess to go out on the veranda and lounge in a wicker chair while Wilbur smoked. Then Annie Eustace appeared, and Margaret was grateful. “Dear Annie,” she said, after she had introduced the two girls, “I am so glad you came over. Come in.”
“It is pleasanter on the veranda isn't it?” began Annie, then she caught Margaret's expressive glance at the magnificent white silk. They all sat stiffly in Margaret's pretty drawing-room. Martha said she did not play bridge, and, upon Annie's timid suggestion of pinocle, said she had never heard of it. Wilbur dared not smoke. All that wretched evening they sat there. The situation was too much for Margaret, that past mistress of situations, and her husband was conscious of a sensation approaching terror and also wrath whenever he glanced at the figure in sumptuous white, the figure expressing sulkiness in every feature and motion. Martha was unmistakably sulky as the evening wore on, and nobody came except this other girl, of whom she took no notice at all. She saw that she was pretty, her hair badly arranged, and that she was ill dressed, and that was enough for her. She felt it to be an insult that these people had invited her and asked nobody to meet her — her, Martha Wallingford, whose name was in all the papers, attired in this wonderful white gown. When Annie Eustace arose to go, she arose too with a peremptory motion.
“I rather guess I will go to bed,” said Martha Wallingford.
“You must be weary,” said Margaret.
“I am not tired” said Martha Wallingford, “but it seems to me as dull here as in South Morden, Illinois. I might as well go to bed as sit here any longer.”
When Margaret had returned from the guest-room, her husband looked at her almost in a bewildered fashion. Margaret sank wearily into a chair. “Isn't she impossible?” she whispered.
“Did she think there was a dinner-party,” Wilbur inquired perplexedly.
“I don't know. It was ghastly. I did not for a moment suppose she would dress for a party unless I told her, and it is Emma's night off, and I could not ask people, with only Clara to cook and wait.”
Wilbur patted his wife's shoulder comfortingly. “Never mind, dear,” he said. “When she gets her chance to do her stunt to-morrow at your club, she will be all right.”
The next day Martha was still sulky, but she did not, as Margaret feared, announce her intention of returning at once to New York. Margaret said quite casually that she had invited a few of the brightest and most interesting people in Fairbridge to meet her that afternoon, and Martha became curious, although still resentful, and made no motion to leave. She resolved, however, to make no further mistakes as to costume, and just as the first tide of the Zenith Club broke over Margaret's threshold, she appeared, clad in one of her South Morden, Illinois, gowns. It was one which she had tucked into her trunk in view of foul weather. It was a hideous thing, made from two old gowns. It had a garish blue tunic, reaching well below the hips, and a black skirt bordered with blue. Martha had it made herself, from a pattern, after long study of the fashion-plates in a Sunday newspaper, and the result, although startling, still half convinced her. It was only after she had seen all the members of the Zenith Club seated, and had gazed at their costumes, that she realized that she had made a worse mistake than that of the night before. To begin with, the day was very warm, and her gown heavy and clumsy. The other ladies were arrayed in lovely lingeries, or light silks and laces. The Zenith Club was exceedingly well dressed on that day. Martha sat in her place beside her hostess, and her face looked like a sulky child's. Her eyelids looked swollen; her pouting lips drooped at the corners; she stiffened her chin until it became double. Margaret was inwardly perturbed, but she concealed it. The program went on with the inevitable singing by Miss McDonald and Mrs. Wells, the playing by Mrs. Jack Evarts, the recitation by Sally Anderson. Margaret had not ventured to omit those features. Then Mrs. Sturtevant read in a trembling voice a paper on Emerson. Then Margaret sprang her mines. She rose, and surveyed her audience with smiling impressiveness. “Ladies,” she said, and there was an immediate hush, “Ladies, I have the pleasure, the exceeding pleasure, of presenting you to-day to my guest, Miss Martha Wallingford, the author of ‘Hearts Astray.’ She will now speak briefly to you upon her motive in writing and her method of work.” There was a soft clapping of hands. Margaret sat down; she was quite pale.
The people waited. Everybody stared at Miss Martha Wallingford, who had written that great seller, “Hearts Astray.” Martha Wallingford sat perfectly still. Her eyes were so downcast that they gave the appearance of being closed; her pretty face looked red and swollen. Everybody waited. She sat absolutely still, and made no sign, except that of her obstinate face of negation. Margaret bent over her, and whispered. Martha did not even do her the grace of a shake of the head.
Everybody waited again. Martha Wallingford sat so still that she gave the impression of a doll made without speaking-apparatus. It did not seem as if she could even wink. Then Alice Mendon, who disliked Margaret Edes, and had a shrewd conjecture as to the state of affairs, but who was broad in her views, pitied Margaret. She arose with considerable motion, and spoke to Daisy Shaw at her right, and broke the ghastly silence, and immediately everything was in motion, and refreshments were being passed, but Martha Wallingford, who had written “Hearts Astray,” was not there to partake of them. She was in her own room, huddled in a chair upholstered with cream silk strewn with roses, and she was in one of the paroxysms of silent rage which belonged to her really strong, although undisciplined nature, and which was certainly in this case justified to some degree.
“It was an outrage,” she said to herself. She saw through it all now. She had refused to read or speak before all those women's clubs, and now this woman had trapped her, — that was the word for it, trapped.
As she sat there, her sullenly staring, angry eyes saw in large letters, at the head of a column in a morning paper on the table beside her, “The Poor Lady,” the greatest anonymous novel of the year.
Then she fell again to thinking of her wrongs, and planning how she should wreak vengeance upon Margaret Edes.
[CONTINUED IN THE JANUARY ISSUE]
From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XXXIX No. 1 (January, 1912)
A Little New Jersey city — Fairbridge — is the scene of intense social rivalry. The center of the storm is the woman's literary club, called the Zenith Club, to which the leading feminine spirits of Fairbridge belong. The first meeting of this club to be recorded in the novel is that held at the beautiful home of Mrs. George B. Slade. The president of the club, Mrs. Wilbur Edes, is one of the most exquisitely gowned women present. She is the wife of a brilliant lawyer, the mother of little twin daughters, and is abnormally ambitious. Others present at the meeting include Miss Alice Mendon, a charming woman, and Mrs. Sarah Joy Snyder, who has come from New York to deliver a famous lecture. During the meeting there appears Dominie von Rosen, a young unmarried minister of Fairbridge, who is bent upon a pastoral visit, and who is horrified at finding himself at a meeting of the club. On his return home he finds that a little drama is taking place in his house. A young woman, a Syrian peddler, has fainted in his kitchen, and Jane Riggs, his housekeeper, tells him to call in Doctor Sturtevant. The doctor and Jane take the poor girl up-stairs, where she soon dies, leaving a tiny foreign-looking baby, to which Jane becomes very much attached, and as no one claims the child it stays on at the rectory, von Rosen gradually learning to love it. Meanwhile, Margaret Edes fails in an attempt to outdo Mrs. Slade in the matter of a unique club meeting, and pours out her plaint to Annie Eustace, a young girl who lives under the tyranny of her two aunts and her grandmother. Though Annie is gifted in many ways, her only pleasure and means of development is in the Zenith Club. Annie is devoted to Margaret Edes and Alice Mendon. At the rectory another tragedy has happened: an Armenian youth, who proves to have been the poor peddler-girl's husband, appears one day and steals the baby. The child is never found. To retrieve her last club failure, Margaret goes to see Martha Wallingford, a young western author visiting in New York, and invites her to a week-end party in Fairbridge. Miss Wallingford accepts, believing the affair to be purely social, but while she is there Margaret holds a meeting of the Zenith Club, and announces that Martha Wallingford will speak on her motive in writing and her method of work. Indignant at the trap that has been set for her, the western girl refuses to say a word, and retires to her room in a passion. Meanwhile, Annie Eustace and the young minister have met, much to their mutual pleasure.
Martha Wallingford was a young person of direct methods. She scorned subterfuges. Another of her age and sex might have gone to bed with a headache; not she. She sat absolutely still beside her window, in full view of the departing members of the Zenith Club, had they taken the trouble to glance in that direction — and some undoubtedly did; and she remained there, and presently she heard her hostess' tiny rap on her door. Martha did not answer, but, after a repeated rap, Margaret chose to assume that she had, and entered. Margaret knelt in a soft flop of scented lingerie beside the indignant young thing. She explained, she apologized, she begged, she implored Martha to put on that simply ravishing gown which she had worn the evening before; she expatiated at length upon the charms of the people whom she had invited to dinner; but Martha spoke not at all until she was quite ready. Then she said explosively, “I won't!”
She was silent after that. Margaret recognized the futility of further entreaties. She went down-stairs, and confided in Wilbur.
“I never saw such an utterly impossible girl,” she said. “There she sits, and won't get dressed and come down to dinner.”
“She is a freak, — must be; most of these writer people are freaks,” said Wilbur sympathetically. “Poor old girl, and I suppose you have got up a nice dinner, too.”
“A perfectly charming dinner, and invited people to meet her.”
“How did she do her stunt this afternoon?” he asked.
Margaret flushed. “None too well,” she replied.
“I don't see how you are to blame,” Wilbur went on.
“I can only say that Miss Wallingford is not well, I suppose,” said Margaret; and that was what she did say, but with disastrous results.
Margaret, ravishing in white lace, sprinkled with little gold butterflies, had taken her place at the head of the table. Emma was serving the first course, and she was making her little speech concerning the unfortunate indisposition of her guest of honor, when she was suddenly interrupted by that guest herself, an image of sulky wrath, clad in the blue-and-black costume pertaining to South Morden, Illinois.
“I am perfectly well. She is telling an awful whopper,” proclaimed this amazing girl. “I won't dress up and come to dinner, because I won't. She trapped me into a woman's club this afternoon, and tried to get me to make a speech, without even telling me what she meant to do, and now I won't do anything.”
With that Miss Wallingford disappeared, and unmistakable stamps were heard upon the stairs. One woman giggled convulsively, another took a glass of water, and choked. A man laughed honestly. Wilbur was quite pale. Margaret was imperturbable. Karl von Rosen, who was one of the guests, and who sat beside Annie Eustace, looked at Margaret with wonder. Was this the way of women? he thought. He did not doubt for one minute that the western girl had spoken the truth. It had been brutal and homely, but it had been truth. Little Annie Eustace, who had been allowed to come to a dinner-party for the first time in her life, and who looked quite charming in an old, much-mended but very fine India muslin and her grandmother's corals, did not, on the contrary, believe one word of Miss Wallingford's.
Annie's sympathy was all with her Margaret. It was a horrible situation, and her dear Margaret was the victim of her own hospitality. She looked across the table at Alice Mendon for another sympathizer, but Alice was talking busily about a new book to the man at her right. She had apparently not paid much attention. Annie wondered how it could have escaped her. That horrid girl had spoken so loudly. She looked up at von Rosen.
“I am so sorry for poor Margaret,” she whispered. Von Rosen looked down at her very gently. This little girl's belief in her friend was like a sacred lily, not to be touched or soiled.
“Yes,” he said, and Annie smiled up at him comforted. Von Rosen was glad she sat beside him. He thought her very lovely, and there was a subtle suggestion of something beside loveliness. He thought that daintily mended India muslin exquisite, and also the carved corals, — bracelets on the slender wrists, a necklace resting like a spray of flowers on the girlish neck, a comb in the soft hair, which Annie had arranged becomingly and covered from her aunt's sight with a lace scarf. She felt deceitful about her hair, but how could she help it?
The dinner was less ghastly than could have been expected after the revelation of the guest of honor and the blank consternation of the host, who made no attempt to conceal his state of mind. Poor Wilbur had no society tricks. Alice Mendon, who was quite cognizant of the whole matter, but who was broad enough to leap to the aid of another woman, did much. She had quite a talent for witty stories, and a goodly fund of them. The dinner went off very well, while Martha Wallingford ate hers off a tray in her room, and felt that every morsel was sweetened with revenge.
The next morning she left for New York, and Margaret did not attempt to detain her, although she had a luncheon-party planned, beside the Sunday festivities. Margaret had had a scene with Wilbur after the departure of the guests the previous evening. For the first time in her experience the devoted husband had turned upon his goddess. He had asked, “Was it true, what that girl said?” And Margaret had laughed up at him bewitchingly to no effect. Wilbur's face was very stern.
“My dear,” said Margaret, “I knew perfectly well that, if I had actually asked her to speak or read, she would have refused.”
“You have done an unpardonable thing,” said the man. “You have betrayed your own sense of honor, your hospitality toward the guest under your roof.”
Margaret laughed as she took an ornament from her yellow head, but the laugh was defiant and forced. In her heart she bitterly resented her husband's attitude, and more bitterly resented the attitude of respect into which it forced her. “It is the very last time I ask a western authoress to accept my hospitality,” said she.
“I hope so,” said Wilbur gravely.
That night Karl von Rosen walked home with Annie Eustace. She had come quite unattended, as was the wont of Fairbridge ladies. That long peaceful main street, lined with the homes of good people, always seemed a safe thoroughfare. Annie was even a little surprised when von Rosen presented himself and said, “I will walk home with you, Miss Eustace, with your permission.”
“But I live a quarter of a mile beyond your house,” said Annie.
Von Rosen laughed. “A quarter of a mile walk will not injure me,” he said.
“It will really be a half-mile,” said Annie. She wanted very much that the young man should walk home with her, but she was very much afraid of making trouble. She was relieved when he only laughed again and said something about the beauty of the night. It was really a wonderful night, and even the eyes of youth, peopling it with fairy dreams, were not essential to perceive it.
“What flower-scent is that?” asked von Rosen.
“I think,” replied Annie, “that it is wild honeysuckle,” and her voice trembled slightly. The perfumed night and the strange presence beside her went to the child's head a bit. The two walked along under the trees, which cast etching-like shadows in the broad moonlight, and neither talked much. There was scarcely a lighted window in any of the houses, and they had a delicious sense of isolation, — the girl and the man awake in a sleeping world. Annie made no further allusion to Miss Wallingford. She had for almost the first time in her life a little selfish feeling, that she did not wish to jar a perfect moment even with the contemplation of a friend's troubles. She was very happy walking beside von Rosen, holding up her flimsy embroidered skirts carefully lest they come in contact with the dewy grass. She had been admonished by her grandmother and her aunts so to do, and reminded that the frail fabric would not endure much washing, however skilful. Between the shadows her lovely face showed like a white flower as von Rosen looked down upon it. He wondered more and more that he had never noticed this exquisite young creature before. He did not yet dream of love in connection with her, but he was conscious of a passion of surprised admiration and protectiveness.
“How is it that I never see you when I call on your Aunt Harriet?” he asked when he parted with her at her own gate, a stately wrought-iron affair in a tall hedge of close-trimmed lilacs.
“I am generally there, I think,” replied Annie, but she was also conscious of a little surprise that she had not paid more attention when this young man called. Then came one of her sudden laughs.
“What is it?” asked von Rosen.
“Oh, nothing, except that the cat is usually there too,” replied Annie. Von Rosen laughed back boyishly.
“Be sure I shall see you next time, and hang the cat,” he said.
When Annie was in her room, unclasping her corals, she considered how very much mortified and troubled her friend, Margaret Edes, must feel. She recalled how hideous it had all been — that appearance of the western girl in the dining-room doorway, her rude words, her flushed angry face. Annie did not dream of blaming Margaret. She was almost a fanatic so far as loyalty to her friends was concerned. She loved Margaret, and she had only a feeling of cold dislike and disapprobation toward Miss Wallingford, who had hurt Margaret. As for that charge of “trapping,” she paid no heed to it whatever. She made up her mind to go and see Margaret the very next day, and tell her a secret, a great secret, which she was sure would comfort her, and make ample amends to her for all her distress of the night before. Little Annie Eustace was so very innocent and ignorant of the ways of the world that had her nearest and dearest been able to look into her heart they might have been appalled, incredulous, and reverent, according to their natures.
For instance, this very good, simple young girl, who had been born with the light of genius, always assumed that her friends would be as delighted at any good fortune of hers as at their own. She herself was. She fairly fed upon her admiration of Alice Mendon that evening, when she had stepped so nobly and tactfully into the rather frightful social breach, and had saved the situation.
“Alice was such a dear,” she thought, and the thought made her face fairly angelic. Then she recalled how lovely Alice had looked, and her own mobile face took on unconsciously Alice's very expression. Standing before her looking-glass, brushing out her hair, she saw reflected not her own beautiful face between the lustrous folds, but Alice's. Then she recalled with pride Margaret's imperturbability under such a trial. “Nobody but Margaret could have carried off such an insult,” she thought.
After she was in bed, and her lamp blown out, and the white moonbeams were entering her open windows like angels, she thought of the three — Margaret, Alice, and Karl von Rosen. Then suddenly a warm thrill passed over her, but it seemed to have its starting-point in her soul. She saw very distinctly the young man's dark, handsome face, but she thought, “How absurd of me to see him so distinctly, as distinctly as I see Margaret and Alice, when I love them so much, and I scarcely know Mr. von Rosen.” Being brought up by one's imperious grandmother and two imperious, reserved aunts, and being oneself naturally of an obedient disposition and of a slowly maturing temperament, tends to lengthen the long childhood of a girl.
The next afternoon she put on her white-barred muslin and obtained her Aunt Harriet's permission to spend an hour or two with Margaret, if she would work assiduously on her daisy centerpiece, and stepped like a white dove across the shady village street. She found Margaret lying indolently in the hammock, which was strung across the wide, shaded verandah. She was quite alone. Annie had seen with relief Miss Martha Wallingford being driven to the station that morning. Margaret greeted Annie a bit stiffly, but the girl did not notice it; she was so full of her ignorant little plan to solace her friend with her own joy. Poor Annie did not understand that it requires a nature seldom met upon this earth to be solaced, under disappointment and failure, by another's joy. Annie had made up her mind to say very little to Margaret about what had happened the evening before. Only at first she remarked upon the beauty of the dinner; then she said quite casually, “Dear Margaret, we were all of us sorry for poor Miss Wallingford's strange conduct.”
“It really did not matter in the least,” replied Margaret coldly. “I shall never invite her again.”
“I am sure nobody can blame you,” said Annie warmly. “I don't want to say harsh things, you know that, Margaret, but that poor girl, in spite of her great talent, cannot have had the advantage of good home-training.”
“Oh, she is Western,” said Margaret. “How very warm it is to-day.”
“Very; but there is quite a breeze here.”
“A hot breeze,” said Margaret wearily. “How I wish we could afford a house at the seashore or the mountains. The hot weather does get on my nerves.”
A great light of joy came into Annie's eyes. “Oh, Margaret dear,” she said, “I can't do it yet, but it does look as if some time, before long perhaps, I may be able myself to have a house at the seashore; I think Sudbury beach would be lovely. It is always cool there, and then you can come and stay with me whenever you like during the hot weather. I will have a room fitted up for you in your favorite white and gold, and it shall be called Margaret's room, and you can always come when you wish.”
Margaret looked at the other with a slow surprise. “I don't understand,” said she.
“Of course you don't. You know we have only had enough to live here as we have done,” said Annie with really childish glee, “but, oh, Margaret, you will be so glad! I have not told you before, but now I must, for I know it will make you so happy, and I know I can trust you never to betray me, for it is a great secret, a very great secret, and it must not be known by other people at present. I don't know just when it can be known, perhaps never, certainly not now.”
Margaret looked at her with indifferent interrogation. Annie did not realize how indifferent. A flood-tide of kindly joyful emotion does not pay much attention to its banks. Annie continued. She looked sweetly excited, her voice rose high above its usual pitch. “You understand, Margaret dear, how it is,” she said. “You see I am quite unknown; that is, my name is quite unknown, and it would really hinder the success of a book.”
Margaret surveyed her with awakening interest. “A book?” said she.
“Yes, a book! Oh, Margaret, I know it will be hard for you to believe, but you know I am very truthful. I — I wrote the book they are talking about so much now. You know what I mean.”
“Not the —?”
“Yes, The Poor Lady. The anonymous novel which people are talking so much about, and which sold better than any other book last week. I wrote it. I really did, Margaret.”
“You wrote it!”
Annie continued almost wildly. “Yes, I did, I did!” she cried, “and you are the only soul who knows except the publishers. They said they were much struck with the book, but advised anonymous publication, my name was so utterly unknown.”
“You wrote The Poor Lady?” said Margaret. Her eyes glittered, and her lips tightened. Envy possessed her, but Annie Eustace did not recognize envy when she saw it.
Annie went on, her sweet, ringing voice almost producing the effect of a song. She was so happy and so pleased to think that she was making her friend happy.
“Yes,” she said, “I wrote it. I wrote The Poor Lady.”
“If,” said Margaret, “you speak so loud, you will be heard by others.”
Annie lowered her voice immediately with a startled look. “Oh,” she whispered, “I would not have anybody hear me for anything.”
“How did you manage?” asked Margaret.
Annie laughed happily. “I fear I have been a little deceitful,” she said, “but I am sure they will forgive me when they know. I keep a journal, I have always kept one since I was a child. Aunt Harriet wished me to do so. And the journal was very stupid. So little unusual happens here in Fairbridge, and I have always been rather loath to write very much about my innermost feelings or very much about my friends in my journal, because of course one can never tell what will happen. It has never seemed to me quite — delicate — to keep a very full journal, and so there was in reality very little to write.” Annie burst into a peal of laughter. “It just goes this way, the journal,” she said. “‘To-day was pleasant and warm. This morning I helped Hannah preserve cherries. In the afternoon I went over to Margaret's, and sat with her on the veranda; embroidered two daisies and three leaves with stems on my centerpiece; came home; had supper; sat in the twilight with Grandmother, Aunt Harriet, and Aunt Susan. Went up-stairs, put on my wrapper, and read until it was time to go to bed. Went to bed.’ Now that took very little time and was not interesting, and so, after I went up-stairs, I wrote my entry in the journal in about five minutes, and then I wrote The Poor Lady. Of course when I began it I was not at all sure that it would amount to anything. I was not sure that any publisher would look at it. Sometimes I felt as if I were doing a very foolish thing — spending time, and perhaps deceiving Grandmother and my aunts very wickedly, though I was quite certain that, if the book should by any chance succeed, they would not think it wrong.
“Grandmother is very fond of books, and so is Aunt Harriet, and I have often heard them say they wished I had been a boy, in order that I might do something for the Eustace name. You know there have been so many distinguished professional men in the Eustace family, and they of course did not for one minute think a girl like me could do anything, and I did not really think so myself. Sometimes I wonder how I had the courage to keep on writing when I was so very uncertain, but it was exactly as if somebody were driving me. Then, when I had the book finished, I was so afraid it ought to be typewritten, but I could not manage that. At least, I thought I could not, but after a while I did, and in a way that nobody suspected, and Aunt Harriet sent me to New York. You know I am not often allowed to go alone, but it was when Grandmother had the grippe and Aunt Susan the rheumatism, and Aunt Harriet had a number of errands, and so I went on the Twenty-third-street ferry, and did not go far from Twenty-third Street, and I took my book in my hand-bag, and carried it into Larkins and White's, and I saw Mr. Larkins in his office, and he was very kind and polite, although I think now he was laughing a little to himself at the idea of my writing a book; but he said to leave the manuscript, and he would let me hear. And I left it, and, oh, Margaret, I heard within a week, and he said such lovely things about it. You know I always go to the post-office, so there was no chance of anybody's finding it out that way. And then the proof began to come, and I was at my wits' end to conceal that, but I did. And then the book was published, and, Margaret, you know the rest. Nobody dreams who wrote it, and I have had a statement, and, oh, my dear, next November, I am to have a check.” (Annie leaned over and whispered in Margaret's ear.) “Only think,” she said with a burst of rapture.
Margaret was quite pale. She sat looking straight before her with a strange expression. She was tasting in the very depths of her soul a bitterness which was more biting than any bitter herb which ever grew on earth. It was a bitterness which, thank God, is unknown to many — the bitterness of the envy of an incapable but self-seeking nature, of one with the burning ambition of genius, but destitute of the divine fire. To such come unholy torture which is unspeakable, at the knowledge of another's success. To think that Annie Eustace, little Annie Eustace, who had worshipped at her own shrine, whom she had regarded with a lazy, scarcely concealed contempt, for her incredible lack of worldly knowledge, her provincialism, her ill-fitting attire, should have achieved a triumph which she herself could never achieve. A cold hatred of the girl swept over the woman. She forced her lips into a smile, but her eyes were cruel.
“How very interesting, my dear Annie.”
Poor Annie started. She was acute, for all her innocent trust in another's goodness, and the tone of her friend's voice, the look in her eyes, chilled her. And yet she did not know what they signified. She went on begging for sympathy and rejoicing with her joy, as a child might beg for a sweet. “Isn't it perfectly lovely, Margaret dear?” she said.
“It is most interesting, my dear child,” replied Margaret.
Annie went on eagerly with the details of her triumph, the book-sales, which increased every week, the reviews, the letters from her publishers, and Margaret listened, smiling in spite of her torture, but she never said more than “How interesting!”
At last Annie went home, and could not help feeling disappointed, although she still did not fathom the significance of Margaret's reception of her astonishing news. Annie only worried because she feared lest her happiness had not cheered her friend as much as she had anticipated.
“Poor Margaret, she must feel so very badly that nothing can reconcile her to such a betrayal of her hospitality,” she reflected, as she flitted across the street. There was nobody in sight at her house at window or on the wide veranda. Annie looked at her watch. It yet wanted a full hour of supper-time. She had time to call on Alice Mendon and go to the post-office. Alice lived on the way to the post-office in a beautiful old colonial house. Annie ran along the shady sidewalk and soon had a glimpse of Alice's pink draperies on her great front porch. Annie ran down the deep front yard between the tall box-bushes, beyond which bloomed, in a riot of color and perfume, roses and lilies, and heliotrope, and pinks, and the rest of their floral tribe, all returned to their dance of summer. On the porch was a table and several chairs. Alice sat in one reading. She was radiant in her pink muslin.
On the heavily carved mahogany table beside her was a blue-and-white India bowl filled with white roses, and heliotrope, and lemon verbena. Annie inhaled the bouquet of perfume happily as she came up the steps, with Alice smiling a welcome at her. Annie had worshipped more fervently at Margaret Edes's shrine than at Alice's, and yet she had a feeling of fuller confidence with Alice. She was about to tell Alice about her book, not because Alice needed the comfort of her joy, but because she herself, although unknowingly, needed Alice's ready sympathy, of which she had no doubt. Her interview with Margaret had left the child hurt and bewildered, and now she came to Alice. Alice did not rise and kiss her. Alice seldom kissed anybody, but she radiated kindly welcome.
“Sit down, little Annie,” she said. “I am glad you have come. My aunt and cousin have gone to New York, and I have been alone all day. We would have tea and cake, but I know the hour of your Medes' and Persians' supper approaches, instead of my later dinner.”
“Yes,” said Annie sitting down, “and if I were to take tea and cake now, Alice, I could eat nothing, and Grandmother and my aunts are very particular about my clearing my plate.”
Alice laughed, but she looked rather solicitously at the girl. “I know,” she said; then she hesitated. She pitied little Annie Eustace, and considered her as rather a victim of loving but mistaken tyranny. “I wish,” she said, “that you could stay and dine with me to-night.”
Annie fairly gasped. “They expect me home,” she replied.
“I know, and I suppose if I were to send over and tell them you would dine with me, it would not answer.”
Annie looked frightened. “I fear not, Alice. You see they would have had no time to think it over, and decide.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“I have time to make you a little call and stop at the post-office for the last mail and get home just in time for supper.”
“Oh, well, you must come and dine with me a week from to-day, and I will have a little dinner-party,” said Alice. “I will invite some nice people. We will have Mr. von Rosen for one.”
Annie suddenly flushed crimson. It occurred to her that Mr. von Rosen might walk home with her as he had done from Margaret's, and a longing and terror at once possessed her.
Alice wondered at the blush.
“I was so sorry for poor Margaret last night,” Annie said with an abrupt change of subject.
“Yes,” said Alice.
“That poor western girl, talented as she is, must have been oddly brought up to be so very rude to her hostess,” said Annie.
“I dare say western girls are brought up differently,” said Alice.
Annie was so intent with what she had to tell Alice that she did not realize the extreme evasiveness of the other's manner.
“Alice,” she said.
“Well, little Annie Eustace?”
“I am going to tell you something. I have told Margaret; I have just told her this afternoon. I thought it might please her, and comfort her after that terrible scene at her dinner last night, but nobody else knows except the publishers.”
“What is it?” asked Alice, regarding Annie with a little amused smile.
“Nothing, only I wrote The Poor Lady,” said Annie.
“My dear Annie, I knew it all the time,” said Alice.
Annie stared at her. “How?”
“Well, you didn't know it, but you repeated in that book, verbatim, ad literatim, a sentence, a very striking one, which occurred in one of your papers which you wrote for the Zenith Club. I noticed that sentence at the time. It was this: ‘A rose has enough beauty and fragrance to enable to give very freely, and yet herself remain a rose. It is the case with many well-endowed natures, but that is a fact which is not always understood.’ My dear Annie, that identical sentence occurs in The Poor Lady on page one hundred forty-two. You see I have fully considered the matter to remember the exact page. I knew the minute I read that sentence that my little Annie Eustace had written that successful anonymous book, and I was the more certain because I had always had my own opinion as to little Annie's literary ability, based upon those same Zenith Club papers. You will remember that I have often told you that you should not waste your time writing club papers when you could do work like that.”
Annie looked alarmed. “Oh, Alice,” she said, “do you think anybody else had remembered that sentence?”
“My dear child, I am quite sure that not a blessed woman in that club has remembered it,” said Alice.
“I had entirely forgotten.”
“Of course you had.”
“It would be very unfortunate if it were remembered, because the publishers are so anxious that my name should not be known. You see, nobody ever heard of me, and my name would hurt the sales. You really don't think anybody does remember?”
“My dear,” said Alice, with her entirely good-natured, even amused and tolerant air of cynicism, “the women of the Zenith Club remember their own papers. You need not have the slightest fear. But Annie, you wonderful little girl, I am so glad you have come to me with this. I have been waiting for you to tell me, for I was impatient to tell you how delighted I am. You blessed child, I never was more glad at anything in my whole life. I am as proud as proud as can be. I feel as if I had written that book myself, and better than if I had written it myself. I have had none of the bother of the work, and my friend had it, and my friend has the fame and the glory, and she goes around among us with her little halo hidden out of sight of everybody except myself.”
Alice stiffened a little. “That is recent,” she said, “and I have known all the time.”
“Margaret could not have remembered that sentence, I am sure,” Annie said thoughtfully. “Poor Margaret, she was so upset by what happened last night that I am afraid the news did not cheer her up as much as I thought it would.”
“Well, you dear little soul,” said Alice, “I am simply reveling in happiness and pride because of it.”
“But you have not had such an awful blow as poor Margaret had,” said Annie. Then she brightened. “Alice,” she cried, “I knew you would be glad, and I have wanted somebody who loved me to be glad.”
“You have not told your grandmother and aunts yet?”
“I have not dared,” replied Annie in a shamed fashion. “I know I deceived them, and I think perhaps Grandmother might find it hard not to tell. She is so old, you know, that she does tell a great deal without meaning, and Aunt Susan likes to tell news. The publishers have been so very insistent that nobody should know, but I had to tell you and Margaret.”
“It made no difference anyway about me,” said Alice, “since I already knew.”
“Margaret can be trusted too, I am sure.”
Annie looked at her watch. “I must go,” she said, “or I shall be late. Isn't it really wonderful that I was able to write a successful book, Alice?”
“You are rather wonderful, my dear,” said Alice. Then she rose, and put her arms around the slender white-clad figure and held her close, and gave her one of her infrequent kisses. “You precious little thing,” she said. “The book is wonderful, but my Annie is more wonderful, because she can be told so, and never get the fact into her head. Here is your work, dear. You dropped it when you first came in.”
An expression of dismay came over Annie's face. “Oh, dear,” she said, “I have only embroidered half a daisy; and what will Aunt Harriet say?”
Alice laughed. “She can't kill you.”
“No; but I don't like to have her so disappointed.”
Alice kissed Annie again before she went, and watched the slight figure flitting down between the box-rows, with a little frown of perplexity. She wished that Annie had not told Margaret Edes about the book, and yet she did not know why she wished so. She was very far from expecting the results which followed. Alice was too noble herself to entertain suspicions of the ignobility of others. Certainty she was obliged to confront, as she had confronted the affair of the night before. It was of course the certainty that Margaret had been guilty of a disgraceful and treacherous deed which made her uneasy in a vague fashion now, and yet she did not for one second dream of what was to occur at the next meeting of the Zenith Club.
The next meeting was at Mrs. Sturtevant's, and was the great meeting of the year. It was called, to distinguish it from the others, “The Annual Meeting,” and upon that occasion the husbands and men friends of the members were invited, and the meeting was in the evening. Margaret had wished to have that meeting at her own house, before the affair of Martha Wallingford, but the annual occasions were regulated by the letters of the alphabet, and it was incontrovertibly the turn of the letter S., and Mrs. Sturtevant's right could not be questioned. During the time which elapsed before this meeting, Margaret Edes was more actively unhappy than she had ever been in her life, and all her strong will could not keep the traces of that unhappiness from her face. Lines appeared, her eyes looked large in dark hollows. Wilbur grew anxious about her.
“You must go away somewhere for a change,” he said, “and I will get my cousin Marion to come here and keep house and look out for the children.”
But Margaret met his anxiety with irritation. She felt as if some fatal fascination confined her in Fairbridge, and especially did she feel that she must be present at the Annual Meeting. Margaret never for one moment formulated to herself why she had this fierce desire for this meeting. She knew in a horrible way, at the back of her brain, but she kept the knowledge covered as with a veil, even from herself.
She had a beautiful new gown made for the meeting. Since she had lost so much color, she was doubtful of the wisdom of wearing her favorite white and gold, or black. She had a crêpe of a peculiar shade of blue which suited her, and she herself worked assiduously embroidering it in a darker shade, which brought out the color of her eyes. She looked quite herself when the evening came, and Wilbur's face brightened as he looked at her in her trailing blues, with a little diamond crescent fastening a tiny blue feather in her golden fluff of hair.
“You certainly do look better,” he said.
“I'm well, you old goose,” said Margaret, fastening her long blue gloves.
“I sincerely hope you are. You do look stunning to-night” said Wilbur, gazing at her with a pride so intense that it was almost piteous. “Is that your stunt there on the table?” he inquired, pointing to a long envelope.
Margaret laughed carefully, dimpling her cheeks. “Yes,” she said, and Wilbur took the envelope and put it in his pocket. “I will carry it for you,” he said. “By the way, what is your stunt, honey?”
“Wait until you hear,” replied Margaret, and she laughed carefully again. She gathered up the train of her blue gown and turned upon him, her blue eyes glowing with strange fire, feverish roses in her cheeks. “You are not to be surprised at anything to-night,” she said.
Soon they were seated in Mrs. Sturtevant's long drawing-room, which was scented with flowers, and a very handsome room, thanks to the decorator, and which Margaret had duly considered in her choice of a gown. The room was done in white and silver with touches of blue. The furniture was upholstered with a wistaria pattern, except a few chairs, which were cane-seated with silvered wood. Margaret had gone directly to one of these chairs. She was not sure of her gown being of exactly the right shade of blue to harmonize with the wistaria at close quarters. The chair was tall and slender. Margaret's feet did not touch the floor, but the long blue trail of her gown concealed that, and she contrived to sit as if they did. She gave the impression of a tall creature of extreme grace as she sat propping her back against her silvered chair. Wilbur gazed at her with adoration. He had almost forgotten the affair of Martha Wallingford. He had excused his Margaret because she was a woman, and he was profoundly ignorant of women's queer ambitions. Now he regarded her with unqualified admiration. He looked at the envelope in her blue lap, and was sure that she had written something which was infinitely superior to the work of any other woman there. Down in the depths of his masculine soul Wilbur Edes had a sense of amused toleration when women's clubs were concerned, but he always took his Margaret seriously, and the Zenith Club on that account was that night an important and grave organization. He wished very much to smoke, and he was wedged into an uncomfortable corner with a young girl who insisted upon talking to him, and who was all the time nervously rearranging her hair.
“Have you read The Poor Lady?” asked spasmodically the girl, and drove in a slipping hairpin at the same time.
“I never read novels,” replied Wilbur absently. “Haven't much time, you know.”
“Oh, I suppose not; but that is such a wonderful book, and, only think, nobody has the least idea who wrote it, and it does make it so interesting. I thought myself it was written by Wilbur Jack until I came to a sentence which I could quite understand, and that put him out of the question. Of course Wilbur Jack is such a great genius that no young girl like myself pretends to understand him, but that is why I worship him. I thought The Poor Lady might have been written by Mrs. Eudora Peasely, because she is always so lucid, and I came to a sentence which I could not understand at all. Oh, dear, I have thought of all the living writers as writing that book, and have had to give it up; and of course the dead ones are out of the question.”
“Of course,” said Wilbur quite gravely, and then his Margaret stood up and took some printed matter from her envelope, and instantly the situation became strangely tense. Men and women turned eager faces; they could not have told why, but they were all conscious of something unusual in the atmosphere, and every expression upon those expectant faces changed suddenly into one which made them as a listening unit. Then Margaret began.
[CONTINUED IN THE FEBRUARY ISSUE]
From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XXXIX No. 2 (February, 1912)
A little New Jersey city — Fairbridge — is the scene of intense social rivalry. The center of the storm is the woman's literary club, called the Zenith Club, to which the leading feminine spirits of Fairbridge belong. The first meeting of this club to be recorded in the novel is that held at the beautiful home of Mrs. George B. Slade. The president of the club, Mrs. Wilbur Edes, is the wife of a brilliant lawyer, the mother of twin daughters, and is abnormally ambitious. During the meeting there appears Dominie von Rosen, a young unmarried minister of Fairbridge, who is bent upon a pastoral visit, and who is horrified at finding himself at a meeting of the club. Afterward, Margaret Edes fails in an attempt to outdo Mrs. Slade in the matter of a unique club meeting, and pours out her plaint to Annie Eustace, a young girl who lives under the tyranny of her two aunts and her grandmother. Though Annie is gifted in many ways, her only pleasure and means of development is in the Zenith Club. Annie is devoted to Margaret Edes and Alice Mendon. To retrieve her last club failure, Margaret goes to see Martha Wallingford, a young western author visiting in New York, and invites her to a week-end party in Fairbridge. Miss Wallingford accepts, believing the affair to be purely social, but while she is there, Margaret holds a meeting of the Zenith Club and announces that Martha Wallingford will speak on her motive in writing and her method of work. Indignant at the trap that has been set for her, the western girl refuses to say a word, and retires to her room in a passion. Meanwhile, Annie Eustace and the young minister have met, much to their mutual pleasure. Thinking to take her mind away from the crude ending of the Wallingford affair, Annie tells Margaret a great secret, confident of Margaret's affection. Annie Eustace is the anonymous author of the successful book “The Poor Lady.” Not even Annie's own family knows this secret; and after telling Margaret, the girl is chilled with the way her friend takes the news, not knowing that Margaret is consumed with jealousy. Needing comfort, Annie confides also in Alice Mendon, who rejoices over the girl's success and talent.
Wilbur Edes thought he had never seen his wife look as beautiful as she did standing there before them all with those fluttering leaves of paper in her hand. A breeze came in at an opposite window, and Margaret's blue feather tossed in it, her yellow hair crisped and fluffed, and the paper fluttered. Margaret stood for an appreciable second surveying them all with a most singular expression. It was compounded of honeyed sweetness, of triumph, and something else more subtle, the expression of a warrior entering battle and ready for death, yet terrible with defiance and the purpose of victory and death for his foe.
Then Margaret spoke, and her thin silvery voice penetrated to every ear in the room. “Members of the Zenith Club and friends,” said Margaret, “I take the opportunity offered me to-night to disclose a secret which is a source of much joy to myself, and which I am sure will be a source of joy to you also. I trust that since you are my friends, and my neighbors, and associates in club-work, you will acquit me of the charge of egotism, and credit me with my sole motive, which is, I think, not an unworthy one: coming to you in joy, as I would come in sorrow for your sympathy and understanding. I am about to read an extract from a book whose success has given me the most unqualified surprise and delight, knowing as I do know that a reading by an author from her own work always increases the interest, even though she may not be an able expositor by word of mouth of what she has written.”
Then Margaret read. She had chosen a short chapter, which was in itself almost as complete as a little story. She read exceedingly well, and without faltering. People listened with ever-growing amazement. Then Mrs. Jack Evarts whispered so audibly to a man at her side that she broke in upon Margaret's clear recitative. “Goodness! She's reading from that book that is selling so — The Poor Lady. I remember every word of that chapter.”
Then, while Margaret continued her reading imperturbably, the chorus of whispers increased: “That is from The Poor Lady. Yes it is. Did she write it? Why, of course she did. She just said so. Isn't it wonderful that she has done such a thing?”
Wilbur Edes sat with his eyes riveted upon his wife's face, his own gone quite pale, but upon it an expression of surprise and joy so intense that he looked almost foolish from such a revelation of his inner self.
The young girl beside him drove hairpins frantically into her hair. She twisted up a lock which had strayed, and fastened it. She looked alternately at Wilbur and Margaret. “Goodness gracious!” said she, and did not trouble to whisper. “That is the next to the last chapter of The Poor Lady. And to think that your wife wrote it! Goodness gracious! and here she has been living right here in Fairbridge all the time, and folks have been seeing her and talking to her, and never knew! Did you know, Mr. Edes?”
The young girl fixed her sharp, pretty eyes upon Wilbur. “Never dreamed of it,” he blurted out. “Just as much surprised as any of you.”
“I don't believe I could have kept such a wonderful thing as that from my own husband,” said the girl, who was unmarried and had no lover; but Wilbur did not hear. All he heard was his beloved Margaret, who had secretly achieved fame for herself, reading on and on. He had not the slightest idea what she was reading. He had no interest whatever in that. All he cared for was the amazing fact that his wife, his wonderful, beautiful Margaret, had so covered herself with glory and honor. He had a slightly hurt feeling because she had not told him until this public revelation. He felt that his own private joy and pride as her husband should have been perhaps sacred and respected by her, and yet possibly she was right. This public glory might have seemed to her the one which would the most appeal to him.
He had, as he had said, not read the book, but he recalled with a sort of rapturous tenderness for Margaret how he had seen the posters all along the railroad as he went to the city, and along the elevated road. His face gazing at Margaret was as beautiful in its perfectly unselfish pride and affection as a mother's. To think that his darling had done such a thing! He longed to be at home alone with her, and say to her what he could not say before all these people. He thought of a very good reason why she had chosen this occasion to proclaim her authorship of the famous anonymous novel. She had been so humiliated, poor child, by the insufferable rudeness of that western girl that she naturally wished to make good. And how modest and unselfish she had been to make the attempt to exalt another author, when she herself was so much greater.
Wilbur fully exonerated Margaret for what she done in the case of Martha Wallingford, in the light of this revelation. His modest, generous, noble wife had honestly endeavored to do the girl a favor, to assist her in spite of herself, and she had received nothing save rudeness, ingratitude, and humiliation in return. Now she was asserting herself. She was showing all Fairbridge that she was the one upon whom honor should be showered. She was showing him, and rightfully. He remembered with compunction his severity toward her on account of the Martha Wallingford affair, — his beautiful, gifted Margaret. Why, even then she might have electrified that woman's club by making the revelation which she had done to-night, and reading this same selection from her own book! He had not read Martha Wallingford's Hearts Astray. He thought that the title was enough for him. He knew that it must be one of the womanish, hysterical, sentimental type of things which he despised. But Margaret had been so modest that she had held back from turning on the search-light of her own greater glory. She had made the effort which had resulted so disastrously to obtain a lesser glory, and he had condemned her! He knew that women always used circuitous ways toward their results, just as men used sledge-hammer ones. Why should a man criticize a woman's method any more than a woman should criticize a man's? Wilbur, blushing like a girl with pride and delight, listened to his wife and fairly lashed himself. He was wholly unworthy of such a woman, he knew.
When the reading was over, and people crowded around Margaret and congratulated her, he stood aloof. He felt that he could not speak of this stupendous thing with her until they were alone. Then Doctor Sturtevant's great bulk pressed against him, and his sonorous voice said in his ear,
“By Jove, old man, your wife has drawn a lucky number. Congratulations!” Wilbur gulped as he thanked him. Then Sturtevant went on talking about a matter which was rather dear to Wilbur's own ambition, and which he knew had been tentatively discussed: the advisability of his running for state senator in the autumn. Wilbur knew that it would be a good thing for him professionally, and at the bottom of his heart he knew that his Margaret's success had been the last push toward his own. Other men came up and began talking, leading from his wife's success toward his own, until Wilbur realized himself as dazzled.
He did not notice what von Rosen noticed, because he had kept his attention upon the girl, that Annie Eustace had turned deadly pale when Margaret had begun her reading, and that Alice Mendon, who was seated beside her, had slipped an arm around her, and quietly and unobtrusively led her out of the room. Von Rosen thought that Miss Eustace must have turned faint because of the heat, and was conscious of a distinct anxiety and disappointment. He had, without directly acknowledging it to himself, counted upon walking home with Annie Eustace. But he yet hoped that she might return, that she had not left the house. When the refreshments were served, he looked for her; but Annie was long since at Alice Mendon's house, in her room. Alice had hurried her there in her carriage.
“Come home with me, dear,” she had whispered, “and we can have a talk together. Your people won't expect you yet.”
Therefore, while Karl von Rosen, who had gone to this meeting of the Zenith Club for the sole purpose of walking home with Annie, waited, the girl herself sat in a sort of dumb and speechless state in Alice Mendon's room. Alice herself stormed. She had a high temper, but seldom gave way to it; now she did. There was something about this which aroused her utmost powers of indignation.
“It is simply an outrage,” declared Alice, marching up and down the large room, her rich white gown trailing behind her, her chin high. “It is the worst form of thievery in the world, stealing the work of another's brain.
“It is inconceivable that Margaret Edes could have done such a preposterous thing. I never liked her. I don't care if I do admit it; but I never thought she was capable of such an utterly ignoble deed. It was all that I could do to master myself not to stand up before them all and denounce her. Well, her time will come.”
“Alice,” said a ghastly little voice from the stricken figure on the couch, “are you sure? Am I sure? Was that from my book?”
“Of course it was from your book. Why, you know it was from your book, Annie Eustace,” cried Alice, and her voice sounded high with anger toward poor Annie herself.
“I hoped that we might be mistaken after all,” said the voice, which had a bewildered quality. Annie Eustace had a nature which could not readily grasp some of the evil of humanity. She was in reality dazed before this. She was ready to believe an untruth rather than the incredible truth; but Alice Mendon was merciless. She resolved that Annie should once for all know.
“We are neither of us mistaken,” she said. “Margaret Edes read a chapter from your book, The Poor Lady; and without stating in so many words that she was the author, she did what was worse, — she made everybody think so. Annie, she is bad, bad, bad! Call the spade a spade, and face it. See how black it is. Margaret Edes has stolen from you your best treasure.”
“I don't care for that so much,” said Annie Eustace, “but — I loved her, Alice.”
“Then,” said Alice, “she has stolen more than your book: she has stolen the light by which you wrote it. It is something hideous, hideous.”
Annie gave a queer little sob. “Margaret could not have done it,” she moaned.
Alice crossed swiftly to her and knelt down beside her. “Darling,” she said, “you must face it; it is better. I do not say so because I do not personally like Margaret Edes, but you must have courage, and face it.”
“I have not courage enough,” said Annie, and she felt that she had not, for it was one of the awful tasks of the world which was before her: the viewing of the mutilated face of love itself.
“You must,” said Alice. She put an arm around the slight figure and drew the fair head to her broad bosom, her maternal bosom, which served her friends in good stead, since it did not pillow the heads of children. Friends in distress are as children to women of her type.
“Darling,” she said in her steady voice, from which the anger had quite gone. “Darling, you must face it. Margaret did read that chapter from your book, and she told, or as good as told, everybody that she had written it.”
Then Annie sobbed outright, and the tears came. “Oh,” she cried, “Oh, Alice, how she must want success, to do anything like that, poor, poor, Margaret! Oh, Alice!”
“How she must love herself,” said Alice firmly. “Annie, you must face it. Margaret is a self-lover; her whole heart turns in love toward her ownself, instead of toward those whom she should love and who love her. Annie, Margaret is bad, bad, with a strange degenerate badness. She dates back to the sins of the First Garden. You must turn your back upon her. You must not love her any more.”
“No, I must not love her any more,” agreed Annie, “and that is the pity of it. I must not love her, Alice; but I must pity her until I die. Poor Margaret!”
“Poor Annie,” said Alice. “You worked so hard over that book, dear; and you were so pleased. Annie, what will you do about it?”
Annie raised her head from Alice's bosom and sat up straight with a look of terror.
“Alice,” she cried, “I must go to-morrow and see my publishers. I must go down on my knees to them if necessary.”
“Do you mean,” asked Alice slowly, “never to tell?”
“Oh, never, never, never!” cried Annie.
“I doubt,” said Alice, “if you can keep such a matter secret. I doubt if your publishers will consent.”
“They must. I will never have it known! Poor Margaret!”
“I don't pity her at all,” said Alice. “I do pity her husband, who worships her, and there is talk of his running for state senator, and this would ruin him; and I am sorry for the children.”
“Nobody shall ever know,” said Annie.
“But how can you manage with the publishers?”
“I don't know. I will.”
“And you will have written that really wonderful book and never have the credit for it. You will live here and see Margaret Edes praised for what you have done.”
“Poor Margaret,” said Annie. “I must go now, Alice. I know I can trust you never to speak.”
“Of course; but I do not think it right.”
“I don't care whether it is right or not,” said Annie; “it must never be known.”
“You are better than I am,” said Alice, as she rang the bell, which was presently answered. “Peter has gone home for the night, Marie says,” Alice told Annie, “but Marie and I will walk home with you.”
“Alice, it is only a step.”
“I know; but it is late.”
“It is not much after ten, and — I would rather go alone, if you don't mind, Alice. I want to get settled a little before Aunt Harriet sees me. I can do it better alone.”
Alice laughed. “Well,” she said, “Marie and I will stand on the front porch until you get out of sight from there, and then we will go to the front gate. We can see nearly to your house, and we can hear if you call.”
It was a beautiful night. The moon was high in a sky which was perceptibly blue. In the west was still a faint glow which was like a memory of a cowslip sunset. The street and the white house-fronts were plumy with soft tree-shadows wavering in a gentle wind. Annie was glad when she was alone in the night. She needed a moment for solitariness and readjustment, since one of the strongest readjustments on earth faced her, — the realization that what she had loved was not. She did not walk rapidly, but lingered along the road. She was thankful that neither of her aunts had been to the annual meeting. She would not need to account for her time so closely. Suddenly she heard a voice, quite a loud voice, a man's, with a music of gladness in it. Annie knew instinctively whose it was, and she stepped quickly upon a lawn and stood behind a clump of trees. A man and woman passed her. Margaret Edes and her husband, and Wilbur was saying in his glad, loving voice, “To think you should have done such a thing, Margaret! My dear, you will never know how proud I am of you.”
Annie heard Margaret's voice in a whisper hushing Wilbur. “You speak so loud, dear,” said Margaret, “everybody will hear.”
“I don't care if they do,” said Wilbur. “I should like to proclaim it from the housetops.” Then they had passed, and the rose scent of Margaret's garments was in Annie's face. She was glad that Margaret had hushed her husband. She argued that it proved some little sense of shame; but, oh, when all alone with her own husband, she had made no disclaimer! Annie came out from her hiding, and went on. The Edeses ahead of her melted into the shadows, but she could still hear Wilbur's glad voice. The gladness in it made her pity Margaret more. She thought how horrible it must be to deceive love like that, to hear that joyful tone and know it all undeserved. Then suddenly she heard footsteps behind, and walked to one side, to allow whoever it was to pass, but a man's voice said, “Good-evening, Miss Eustace,” and von Rosen had joined her. He had in truth been waiting like any village beau near Alice Mendon's house for the chance of her emerging alone.
Annie felt annoyed, and yet her heart beat strangely.
“Good-evening, Mr. von Rosen,” she said, still lingering as if to allow him to pass; but he slowed his own pace and sauntered by her side. “A fine evening,” he remarked tritely.
“Very,” agreed Annie.
“I saw you at the Zenith Club,” said von Rosen presently.
“Yes,” said Annie, “I was there.”
“You left early.”
“Yes; I left quite early with Alice. I have been with her since.”
Annie wondered if Mr. von Rosen suspected anything, but his next words convinced her that he did not.
“I suppose you were as much surprised as the rest of us — although you are her intimate friend — at Mrs. Edes's announcement concerning the authorship of that successful novel,” said he.
“Yes,” said Annie faintly.
“Of course you had no idea that she had written it?”
“Have you read it?”
“What do you think of it? I almost never read novels, but suppose I must tackle that one. Did you like it?”
“Quite well,” said Annie.
“Tell me what is it all about?”
Annie could endure no more. “It will spoil the book for you if I tell you, Mr. von Rosen,” said she, and her voice was at once firm and piteous. She could not tell the story of her own book to him. She would be as deceitful as poor Margaret, for all the time he would think that she were talking of Margaret's work and not of her own.
Von Rosen laughed. After all he cared very little indeed about the book. He had what he cared for: a walk home with this very sweet and very natural girl, who did not seem to care whether he walked home with her or not.
“I dare say you are right,” he said; “but I doubt if your telling me about it would spoil the book for me, because it is more than probable that I shall never read it after all. I may if it comes in my way, because I was somewhat surprised. I had never thought of Mrs. Edes as that sort of person. However, so many novels are written nowadays, and some mighty queer ones are successful, that I presume I should not be surprised. Anybody in Fairbridge might be the author of a successful novel. You might Miss Eustace, for all I know.”
Annie said nothing.
“Perhaps you are,” said von Rosen. He had not the least idea of the thinness of the ice. Annie trembled. Her truthfulness was as her life. She hated even evasions. Luckily von Rosen was so far from suspicion that he did not wait for an answer.
“Mrs. Edes reads well,” he said.
“Very well indeed,” Annie returned eagerly.
“I suppose an author can read more understandingly from her own work,” said von Rosen. “Don't you think so, Miss Eustace?”
“I think she might,” said Annie.
“I don't know but I shall read that book after all,” said von Rosen. “I rather liked that extract she gave us. It struck me as out of the common run of women's books. I beg your pardon, Miss Eustace. If you were a writer yourself, I could not speak so; but you are not, and you must know as well as I do that many of the books written by women are simply sloughs of over-sweetened sentiment and of entirely innocent immorality; but that chapter did not sound as if it could belong to such a book. It sounded altogether too logical for the average woman writer. I think I will read it. Then, after I have read it, you will not refuse to discuss it with me, will you?”
“I do not think so,” replied Annie tremulously. Would he never talk of anything except that book. To her relief he did, to her relief and scarcely acknowledged delight.
“Are you interested in curios, things from Egyptian tombs, for instance?” he inquired with brutal masculine disregard of sequence.
Annie was bewildered, but she managed to reply that she thought she might be. She had heard of von Rosen's very interesting collection.
“I happened to meet your aunt, Miss Harriet, this afternoon,” said von Rosen, “and I inquired if she were by any chance interested, and she said she was.”
“Yes?” said Annie. She had never before dreamed that her Aunt Harriet was in the least interested in Egyptian tombs.
“I ventured to ask if she and her sister, Miss Susan, and you also, if you cared to see it, would come some afternoon and look at my collection,” said von Rosen.
Nobody could have dreamed from his casual tone how carefully he had planned it all out: the visit of Annie and her aunts; the delicate little tea served in the study; the possible little stroll with Annie in his garden. Von Rosen knew that one of the aunts, Miss Harriet, was afflicted with rose-cold, and therefore would probably not accept his invitation to view his rose-garden, and he also knew that it was improbable that both sisters would leave their aged mother. It was of course a toss-up as to whether Miss Harriet or Miss Susan would come. It was also a toss-up as to whether they might not both come, and leave little Annie as companion for the old lady. In fact, he had to admit to himself that the latter contingency was the more probable. He was well accustomed to being appropriated by elder ladies, with the evident understanding that he preferred them. He would simply have to make the best of it and show his collection as gracefully as possible, and leave out the rose-garden and the delicious little tête-à-tête with this young rose of a girl, and think of something else. For Karl von Rosen in these days was accustoming himself to a strange visage in his own mental looking-glass. He had not altered his attitude toward women, but toward one woman; and that one was now sauntering beside him in the summer moonlight, her fluffy white garments now and then blowing across his sober garb. He was conscious of holding himself in with a tight rein. He wondered how long men were usually about their love-making. He wished to make love that very instant, but he feared lest the girl might be lost by such impetuosity. In all likelihood the thought of love in connection with himself had never entered her mind. Why should it? Karl in love was very modest, and he saw himself as a very insignificant figure. Probably this flower-like young creature had never thought of love at all. She had lived her sweet, simple, village life. She had obeyed her grandmother and her aunts, had done her household tasks, and had embroidered. He remembered the grimy bit of linen which he had picked up, and he could not see the very slightest connection between that sort of thing and love and romance. Of course she had read a few love-stories, and the reasoning by analogy develops in all minds. She might have built a few timid air-castles for herself upon the foundations of the love-stories in fiction, and that brought him around to the fatal subject again.
“Do you know Miss Eustace,” he said, “that I am wishing a very queer thing about you?”
“What, Mr. von Rosen?”
“I am wishing, — you know that I would not esteem you more highly, it is not that, — but I am wishing that you also had written a book, a really good sort of love-story, novel, you know.”
“I don't mean because Mrs. Edes wrote The Poor Lady. It is not that. I am quite sure that you could have written a book every whit as good as hers, but what I do mean is: I feel that a woman writer, if she writes the best sort of book, must obtain a certain insight concerning human nature which requires a long time for most women.” Von Rosen was rather mixed, but Annie did not grasp it. She was very glad that they were nearing her own home. She could not endure much more.
“Is The Poor Lady a love-story?” inquired von Rosen.
“There is a little love in it,” replied poor Annie faintly.
“I shall certainly read it,” said von Rosen. He shook hands with Annie at her gate, and wanted to kiss her. She looked up in his face like an adorably timid, trustful, little child, and it seemed almost his duty to kiss her, but he did not. He said good-night, and again mentioned his collection of curios.
“I hope you will feel inclined to come and see them,” he said, “with — your aunts.”
“Thank you,” replied Annie. “I shall be very glad to come, if both Aunt Harriet and Aunt Susan do not. That would, of course, oblige me to stay with Grandmother.”
“Of course,” assented von Rosen, but he said inwardly, “Hang Grandmother!”
In his inmost self von Rosen was not a model clergyman; but he had no reason whatever to hang Grandmother, but quite the reverse, although he did not so conclude as he considered the matter on his way home. It seemed to him that this darling of a girl was fairly hedged in by a barbed-wire fence of feminine relatives.
He passed the Edes house on his way, and saw that a number of the upper windows were still lighted. He even heard a masculine voice pitched on a high cadence of joy and triumph. He smiled a little scornfully. “He thinks his wife is the most wonderful woman in the world,” he told himself, “and I dare say that novel is simply like an oversweetened ice-cream, with an after-taste of pepper out of sheer deviltry.” Had he known it, Margaret Edes was herself tasting pepper, mustard, and all the fierce condiments known, in her very soul. It was a singular thing that Margaret had been obliged to commit an ignoble deed in order to render her soul capable of tasting to the full, but she had been so constituted. As Karl von Rosen passed that night, she was sitting in her room, clad in her white silk negligée and looking adorable, and her husband was fairly on his knees before her, worshipping her, and she was suffering after a fashion hitherto wholly uncomprehended by her. Margaret had never known that she could possibly be to blame for anything, that she could sit on judgment upon herself. Now she knew it, and the knowledge brought a torture which had been unimaginable by her.
She strove not to make her shrinking from her husband and his exultation — her terrified shrinking — evident.
“Oh, Margaret, you are simply wonderful beyond words,” said Wilbur, gazing up in her face.
“I always knew you were wonderful, of course, darling, but this! Why, Margaret, you have gained an international reputation from that one book! And the reviews have been unanimous, almost unanimous, in their praise. I have not read it, dear. I am so ashamed of myself, but you know I never read novels, but I am going to read my Margaret's novel. Oh, my dear, my wonderful, wonderful, dear!” Wilbur almost sobbed. “Do you know what it may do for me, too?” he said. “Do you know, Margaret? It may mean my election as senator. One can never tell what may sway popular opinion. Once, if anybody had told me that I might be elected to office, and my election might possibly be due to the fact that my wife had distinguished herself, I should have been humbled to the dust; but I cannot be humbled by any success which may result from your success. I did not know my wonderful Margaret then.” Wilbur kissed his wife's hands. He was almost ridiculous, but it was horribly tragic for Margaret.
She longed, as she had never longed for anything in her life, for the power to scream, to shout in his ears the truth, but she could not. She was bound hard and fast in the bands of her own falsehood. She could not so disgrace her husband, her children. Why had she not thought of them before? She had thought only of herself and her own glory, and that glory had turned to stinging bitterness upon her soul. She was tasting the bitterest medicine which life and the whole world contains. And, at the same time, it was not remorse that she felt; that would have been easier. What she endured was self-knowledge; the reflection of one's own character under unbiased cross-lights is a hideous thing for a self-lover. She was thinking, while she listened to Wilbur's rhapsodies. Finally she scarcely heard them. Then her attention was suddenly keenly fixed. There were horrible complications about this which she had not considered. Margaret's mind had no business turn. She had not for a moment thought of the financial aspect of the whole. Wilbur was different. What he was now saying was very noble, but very disconcerting. “Of course I know, darling, that all this means a pile of money, but one thing you must remember, it is for yourself alone. Not one penny of it will I ever touch, and more than that, it is not to interfere in the least with my expenditures for you, my wife, and the children. Everything of that sort goes on as before. You have the same allowance for yourself and the children as before. Whatever comes from your book is your own, to do with as you choose.”
Margaret was quite pale as she looked at him. She remembered now the sum which Annie had told her she was to receive. She made no disclaimer. Her lips felt stiff. While Wilbur wished for no disclaimer, she could yet see that he was a little surprised at receiving none, but she could not speak.
“Poor girl,” he said, kissing her hands again. “She is all tired out.”
Margaret went to bed, but she could not sleep. All night long she revolved the problem of how she should settle the matter with Annie Eustace. She did not for a second fear Annie's betrayal, but there was that matter of the publishers.
The next morning Margaret endeavored to get Annie on the telephone, to find that she had gone to New York. Annie's aunt Harriet replied. She had herself sent the girl on several errands.
Margaret could only wait. She feared lest Annie might not return before Wilbur, and in such a case she could not discuss matters with her before the next day. Margaret had a horrible time during the next six hours. The mail was full of letters of congratulation. A local reporter called to interview her. She sent word that she was out, but was certain that he had seen her. Nobody could know how relieved she was, after hearing the four-thirty train, to see little Annie Eustace coming through her gate. Annie stood before her stiffly. The day was very warm, and the girl looked tired.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I cannot sit down. I only stopped to tell you that I have arranged with the publishers. They will keep the secret. I shall have rather a hard task arranging about the checks, because I fear it will involve a little deceit, and I do not like deceit.”
Annie, as she spoke, looked straight at Margaret, and there was something terrible in that clear look of unsoiled truth. Margaret put out a detaining hand.
“Sit down for a minute, please,” she said almost cringingly. “I want to — to explain.”
“There is nothing whatever to explain,” replied Annie. “I heard.”
“Can you ever forgive me?”
“I do not think,” said Annie, “that this is an ordinary offense, to talk of forgiveness. I do pity you, Margaret, for I realize how dreadfully you must have wanted what did not belong to you.”
Margaret winced. “Well, if it is any satisfaction to you, I am realizing nothing but misery from it,” she said.
“I don't see how you can help that,” replied Annie. Then she went away.
It proved Margaret's unflinching trust in the girl, and Annie's recognition of no possibility except that trust, that no request nor promise as to secrecy had been made. Annie, after she got home, almost forgot the whole, for the time, since her aunt Harriet — and Aunt Harriet was the sister who was subject to rose-colds — announced her determination to call at Mr. von Rosen's the next afternoon, with Annie, and see his famous collection.
“Of course,” said she, “the invitation was meant particularly for me, since I am one of his parishioners, and I think it will be improving to you, Annie, to view antiquities.”
“Yes, Aunt Harriet,” said Annie. She was wondering if she would be allowed to wear her pale-blue muslin, and the turquoise necklace, which was a relic of her grandmother's girlhood. Aunt Susan sniffed delicately.
“I will stay with Mother,” she said.
The old lady, stately in her black satin, with white diamonds gleaming on her veinous hands, glanced acutely at them. The next day, when her daughter Harriet insisted that the cross-barred muslin was not too soiled to wear to the inspection of curios, she declared that it was simply filthy, and that Annie must wear her blue, and the little string of turquoise beads.
It therefore happened that Annie and her Aunt Harriet set forth at three o'clock in the afternoon, Annie in blue, and her aunt in thin black grenadine with a glitter of jet, and a little black bonnet with a straight tuft of green rising from a little wobble of jet, and a black-fringed parasol tilted well over her eyes. Annie's charming little face was framed in a background of white parasol. Margaret saw them pass as she sat on her veranda. She had received more congratulatory letters that day, and the thief envied the one from whom she had taken. Annie bowed to Margaret, and her Aunt Harriet said something about the heat, in a high shrill voice.
“She is a wonderful woman to have written that successful novel,” said Aunt Harriet, “and I am going to write her a congratulatory note now you have bought that stationery. I feel that such a subject demands special paper.”
“Yes,” said Annie.
“It is rather odd, and I have often thought so,” said Aunt Harriet, moving alongside with stately sweeps of black skirts, “that you have shown absolutely no literary taste. As you know, I have often written poetry; of course not for publication, but my friends have been so good as to admire it.”
“Yes, Aunt Harriet,” said Annie.
“I realize that you have never appreciated my poems,” said Aunt Harriet tartly.
“I don't think I understand poetry very well,” little Annie said with meekness.
“It does require a peculiar order of mind, and you have never seemed to me in the least poetical or imaginative,” said her aunt in an appeased voice. “For instance, I could not imagine your writing a book like Mrs. Edes, and The Poor Lady was anonymous, and anybody might have written it as far as one knew; but I should never have imagined you for a moment as capable of doing it.”
“No,” said Annie.
Then they had come to the parsonage, and Jane Riggs, as rigid as starched linen could make a human being, had admitted them, and presently, after a little desultory conversation, the collection, which was really a carefully made one, and exceedingly good and interesting, was being displayed. Then came the charming little tea which von Rosen had planned, then the suggestion with regard to the rose-garden, and Aunt Harriet's terrified refusal, knowing as she knew the agony of sneezes and sniffs sure to follow its acceptance, and then Annie, a vision in blue, was walking among the roses, with von Rosen, and both were saying things which they never could remember afterward, about things in which neither had the slightest interest. It was only when they had reached the end of the pergola trained over with climbers, and the two were seated on a rustic bench therein, that the conversation to be remembered began.
[CONTINUED IN THE MARCH ISSUE]
From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XXXIX No. 3 (March, 1912)
A Little New Jersey city — Fairbridge — is the scene of intense social rivalry. The center of the storm is the woman's literary club, called the Zenith Club. The first meeting of this club to be recorded in the novel is that held at the beautiful home of Mrs. George B. Slade. The president of the club, Mrs. Wilbur Edes, is the wife of a brilliant lawyer, and is abnormally ambitious. During the meeting there appears Dominie von Rosen, a young unmarried minister of Fairbridge, who is bent upon a pastoral visit, and who is horrified at finding himself at a meeting of the club. Afterward, Margaret Edes fails in an attempt to outdo Mrs. Slade in the matter of a unique club meeting, and pours out her plaint to Annie Eustace, a young girl who lives under the tyranny of her two aunts and her grandmother. To retrieve her last club failure, Margaret goes to see Martha Wallingford, a young western author visiting in New York, and invites her to a week-end party in Fairbridge. This visit ends in a fiasco mortifying to Mrs. Edes. Meanwhile, Annie Eustace and the young minister have met, much to their mutual pleasure. Thinking to take her mind away from the crude ending of the Wallingford affair, Annie, confident of Margaret's affection, tells her the secret that she, Annie, is the anonymous author of the successful book “The Poor Lady.” Not even Annie's own family knows this. After telling Margaret, the girl is chilled with the way her friend takes the news, not knowing that Margaret is consumed with jealousy. Needing comfort, Annie confides also in Alice Mendon, who rejoices over the girl's success and talent. At the next club meeting, Margaret Edes reads a chapter from “The Poor Lady,” intimating, without exactly saying so, that she is the author of the anonymous book. She is immediately accepted as the author, and congratulated. Her husband is joyful; but Annie Eustace is in despair at the theft of her work and her loss of faith in Margaret. The next day she goes to her publishers, to make them keep the secret of her authorship. Margaret is horror-stricken at her deed, but sees no remedy. Annie and her aunt go to tea at Dominie von Rosen's.
The conversation began, paradoxically, with a silence. Otherwise, it would have begun with platitudes. Since neither von Rosen nor Annie Eustace were given usually to platitudes, the silence was unavoidable. Both instinctively dreaded with a pleasurable dread the shock of speech. In a way this was the first time the two had been alone, with any chance for a seclusion protracted beyond a very few moments. In the house was Aunt Harriet Eustace, who feared a rose as she might have feared the plague; and, moreover, as Annie comfortably knew, and had imparted the knowledge to von Rosen as they had walked down the pergola, she would immediately fall asleep.
“Aunt Harriet always goes to sleep in her chair after a cup of tea,” Annie had said, and had then blushed redly.
“Does she?” asked von Rosen with apparent absent-mindedness, but in reality keenly. He excused himself for a moment, left Annie standing in the pergola, and hurried back to the house, where he interviewed Jane Riggs, and told her not to make any noise, as Miss Eustace, in the library, would probably fall asleep as was her wont after a cup of tea. Jane Riggs assented, but she looked after him with a long, slow look; then she nodded her head stiffly, and went on washing cups and saucers quietly. She only spoke one short sentence to herself: “He's a man, and it's got to be somebody; better be her than anybody else.”
When the two at the end of the pergola began talking, it was strangely enough about the affair of the Syrian girl.
“I suppose, have always supposed, that the poor young thing's husband came and stole his little son,” said von Rosen.
“You would have adopted him?” asked Annie in a shy voice.
“I think I would not have known any other course to take,” replied von Rosen.
“It was very good of you,” Annie said. She cast a little glance of admiration at him.
Von Rosen laughed. “It is not goodness which counts to one's credit when one is simply chucked into it by Providence,” he returned.
Annie laughed. “To think of your speaking of Providence as ‘chucking’!”
“It is rather awful,” admitted von Rosen, “but somehow I never do feel as if I need be quite as straight-laced with you as with most people.”
“Mr. von Rosen, you have talked with me exactly twice, and I am at a loss as to whether I should consider that remark of yours as a compliment or not.”
“I meant it for one,” said von Rosen earnestly. “I should not have used that expression. What I meant was that I felt I could be myself with you, and not weigh words, nor split hairs. A clergyman has to do a lot of that, you know, Miss Eustace, and sometimes — perhaps all the time — he hates it; it makes him feel like a hypocrite.”
“Then it's all right,” said Annie rather vaguely. She gazed up at the weave of leaves and blossoms, then down at the wavering carpet of their shadows.
“It is lovely here,” she said.
The young man looked at the slender young creature in the blue gown, and smiled with utter content.
“It is very odd,” he said, “but nothing except blue, and that particular shade of blue would have harmonized.”
“I should have said green or pink.”
“They surely would have clashed. If you can't melt into nature, it is much safer to try for a discord. You are much surer to chord. That blue does chord, and I doubt if a green would not have been a sort of swear-word in color here.”
“I am glad you like it,” said Annie like a schoolgirl. She felt very much like one.
“I like you,” von Rosen said abruptly.
Annie said nothing. She sat very still.
“No, I don't like you, I love you,” said von Rosen.
“How can you? You have talked with me only twice.”
“That makes no difference with me. Does it with you?”
“No,” said Annie, “but I am not at all sure about —”
“About what, dear?”
“About what my aunts and grandmother will say.”
“Do you think they will object to me?”
“What is it makes you doubtful? I have a little fortune of my own. I have an income beside my salary. I can take care of you.”
Annie looked at him with a quick flush of resentment. “As if I would even think of such a thing as that!”
“You will laugh, but Grandmother is very old, although she sits up so straight, you know, — you have seen and spoken to her, — and she depends on me, and —”
“And what?” His eyes refused to leave her face.
“If I married you, I could not, of course, play pinocle with Grandmother on Sunday.”
“Oh, yes, you could. I most certainly should not object.”
“Then, that makes it hopeless.”
Von Rosen looked at her in perplexity. “I am afraid I don't understand you, dear little soul.”
“No, you do not. You see, Grandmother is in reality very good, almost too good to live, and thinking she is being a little wicked playing pinocle on Sunday, when Aunt Harriet and Aunt Susan don't know, sort of keeps her going. I don't just know why myself, but I am sure of it. Now, the minute she were sure that you, who are the minister, did not object, she would not care a bit about pinocle, and it would hurt her.”
Annie looked inconceivably young. She knitted her candid brows, and stared at him with round eyes of perplexity. Karl von Rosen shouted with laughter.
“Oh, well, if that is all,” he said, “I object strenuously to your playing pinocle with your Grandmother on Sunday. The only way you can manage will be to play ‘hooky’ from church.”
“I need not do that always,” said Annie. “My aunts take naps Sunday afternoons, but I am sure Grandmother would keep awake if she thought she could be wicked.”
“Well, you can either play ‘hooky’ from church, or run away Sunday afternoons, or, if you prefer, and she is able, I will drive your grandmother over here, and you can play pinocle in my study.”
“Then I do think she will live to be a hundred,” said Annie, with a peal of laughter.
“Stop laughing, and kiss me,” said von Rosen.
“I seldom kiss anybody.”
“That is the reason.”
When Annie looked up from her lover's shoulder, a pair of topaz eyes were mysteriously regarding her.
“The cat never saw me kiss anybody,” said von Rosen.
“Do you think the cat knows?” asked Annie blushing, and moving away a little.
“Who knows what any animal knows or does not know,” replied von Rosen. “When we discover that mystery, we may have found the key to existence.”
Then the cat sprang into Annie's blue lap, and she stroked his yellow back, and looked at von Rosen with eyes suddenly reflective, rather coolly.
“After all, neither I nor anybody else ever heard of such a thing as this,” said she. “Do you mean that you consider this an engagement?”
“I most certainly do.” He looked his determination.
“After we have only really seen and talked to each other twice?”
“It has been all our lives, and we have just found it out,” said von Rosen. “Of course it is unusual, but who cares? Do you?”
“No, I don't,” said Annie. They leaned together over the yellow cat, and kissed each other again.
“But what an absurd minister's wife I shall be,” said Annie. “To think of your marrying a girl who has staid at home from church and played cards with her grandmother!”
“I am not at all sure,” said von Rosen, “that you did not get more benefit, more spiritual benefit, than you would have done from my sermons.”
“I think,” said Annie, “that you are just about as funny a minister as I shall be a minister's wife.”
“I never thought I should be married at all.”
“I did not care for women.”
“Then why do you now?”
“Because you are a woman.”
Then there was a sudden movement in front of them. The leaf-shadows flickered, the cat jumped down from Annie's lap, and ran away, his great yellow plume of tail waving angrily, and Margaret Edes stood before them. She was faultlessly dressed as usual. A woman of her type cannot be changed utterly by force of circumstances in a short time. Her hat was loaded with wistaria; she wore a wistaria gown of soft wool. She held up her skirts daintily; a great amethyst gleamed at her throat, but her face, wearing a smile like a painted one, was dreadful. It was inconceivable, but Margaret Edes had actually in view the banality of confessing her sin to her minister. Of course Annie was the one who divined her purpose; von Rosen was simply bewildered. He rose, and stood with an air of polite attention.
“Margaret,” cried Annie, “Margaret!”
The man thought that his sweetheart was simply embarrassed because of discovery. He did not understand why she bade him peremptorily to please go in the house and see if Aunt Harriet were awake, that she wished to speak to Mrs. Edes. He, however, went as bidden, already discovering that man is as a child to a woman when she is really in earnest.
When he was quite out of hearing, Annie turned upon her friend. “Margaret,” she said, “Margaret, you must not!”
Margaret turned her desperate eyes upon Annie. “I did not know it would be like this,” she said.
“You must not tell him.”
“You must not, and all the more now.”
“I am going to marry him.”
“Then he ought to know.”
“Then he ought not to know, for you have also drawn me into your web of deceit. He has talked and talked to me about you and the book. I have not betrayed you; you cannot betray me.”
“It will kill me. I did not know it would be like this. I never blamed myself for anything before.”
“It will not kill you, and if it does, you must bear it. You must not do your husband and children such an awful harm.”
“Wilbur is nominated for senator. He would have to give it up. He would go away from Fairbridge. He is very proud,” said Margaret in a breathless voice, “but I must tell.”
“You cannot tell.”
“The children talk of it all the time. They look at me so. They wonder because they think I have written that book. They tell all the other children. Annie, I must confess to somebody. I did not know it would be like this.”
“You cannot confess to anybody except God,” said Annie.
“I cannot tell my husband. I cannot tell poor Wilbur, but I thought Mr. von Rosen would tell him.”
“You cannot tell Mr. von Rosen. You have done an awful wrong, and now you cannot escape the fact that you have done it. You cannot get away from it.”
“You are so hard.”
“No, I am not hard,” said Annie. “I did not betray you there before them all, and neither did Alice.”
“Did Alice Mendon know?” asked Margaret in an awful voice.
“Yes, I had told Alice. She was so hurt for me that I think she might have told.”
“Then she may tell now. I will go to her.”
“She will not tell now. And I am not hard. It is you who are hard upon yourself, and that nobody, least of all I, can help. You will have to know this dreadful thing of yourself all your life, and you can never stop blaming yourself. There is no way out of it. You cannot ruin your husband; you cannot ruin your children's future, and you cannot, after the wrong you have done me, put me in the wrong, as you would do if you told. By telling the truth, you would put me to the lie, when I kept silence for your sake and the sakes of your husband and children.”
“I did not know it would be like this,” said Margaret in her desperate voice. “I had done nothing really worth doing all my life, and the hunger to do something had tormented me. It seemed easy; I did not know how I could blame myself. I have always thought so well of myself, I did not know. Annie, for God's sake, let me tell! Let me tell Mr. von Rosen. People always tell ministers. Even if he does not tell Wilbur; but perhaps he can tell him and soften it; it would be a relief. People always tell ministers, Annie.”
“People do not always tell ministers,” said Annie, “and you cannot tell Mr. von Rosen, Margaret. I forbid it. Go home, and keep still.”
“I cannot bear it.”
“You must bear it.”
“They are going to give me a dinner, the Zenith Club,” said Margaret.
“You will have to accept it.”
“I cannot. Annie Eustace, of what do you think me capable? I am not as bad as you think. I cannot and will not accept that dinner, and make the speech which they will expect, and hear all the congratulations which they will offer; I cannot.”
“You must accept the dinner, but I don't see that you need make the speech,” said Annie, who was herself aghast over such extremity of torture.
“I will not,” said Margaret. She was very pale, and her lips were a tight line. Her eyes were opaque and lustreless. She was in reality suffering what a less egotistical nature could not even imagine. All her life had Margaret Edes worshipped and loved Margaret Edes. Now she had done an awful thing. The falling from the pedestal of a friend is nothing to hurling oneself from one's height of self-esteem, and that she had done. She stood, as it were, over the horrible body of her once beautiful and adored self. She was not actually remorseful; and that made it all the worse. She simply could not evade the dreadful glare of light upon her own imperfections, she who had always thought of herself as perfect; but the glare of knowledge came mostly from her appreciation of the attitude of her friends and lovers toward what she had done. Suppose she went home and told Wilbur. Suppose she said, “I did not write that book; my friend, Annie Eustace, wrote it. I am a thief, and worse than a thief.” She knew how he would look at her, his wife, his Margaret who had never done wrong in his eyes. For the first time in her life she was afraid; and yet, how could she live, and bear such torture, and not confess? Confession would be like a person, ill unto death, giving up, and seeking the peace of a sick-chamber, and the rest of bed, and the care of a physician. She had come to feel like that; and yet, confession would be like a fiery torture. Margaret had in some almost insane fashion come to feel that she might confess to a minister, a man of God, and ease her soul, without more. And she had never been religious, and would have formerly smiled in serene scorn at her own state of mind. And here was the other woman, whom she had wronged, forbidding her this one little possibility of comfort.
She said again humbly, “Let me tell him, Annie. He will only think the more of you because you shielded me.”
But Annie was full of a scorn which Margaret could not understand, since her nature was not so fine. “Do you think I wish him to?” she asked, but in a whisper, because she heard voices and footsteps. “You cannot tell him, Margaret.”
Then von Rosen and Aunt Harriet, whose eyes were dim with recent sleep, came in sight; and Harriet Eustace, who had not seen Margaret since the club meeting, immediately seized upon her two hands, and kissed and congratulated her.
“You dear, wonderful creature,” she said. “We are all so proud of you. Fairbridge is so proud of you, and, as for us, we can only feel honored that our little Annie has such a friend. We trust that she will profit by your friendship, and we realize that it is such a privilege for her.”
“Thank you,” said Margaret. She turned her head aside. It was rather dreadful, and Annie realized it.
Von Rosen stood by smiling. “I am glad to join in the congratulations,” he said. “In these days of many books, it is a great achievement to have one singled out for special notice. I have not yet had the pleasure of reading the book, but shall certainly have it soon.”
“Thank you,” said Margaret again.
“She should give you an autograph copy,” said Harriet Eustace.
“Yes,” said Margaret. She drew Annie aside, and whispered, “I shall tell my husband, then. I shall.”
Then she bade them good-afternoon in her usual graceful way, murmured something about a little business which she had had with Annie, and was flitted down the pergola in a cloud of wistaria.
“It does seem wonderful,” said Harriet Eustace, “that she should have written that book.”
Von Rosen glanced at Annie with an inquiring expression. He wondered whether she wished him to announce their engagement to her aunt. The amazing suddenness of it all had begun to daunt him. He was in considerable doubt as to what Miss Harriet Eustace, who was a most conservative lady; who had always done exactly the things which a lady under similar circumstances might be expected to do; who always said the things to be expected, would say to this which must, of course, savor very much of the unexpected. Von Rosen was entirely sure that Miss Harriet Eustace would be scarcely able to conceive of a marriage engagement for her niece, especially with a clergyman, without all the formal preliminaries of courtship, and he knew well that preliminaries had hardly existed, in the unusual sense of the term. He felt absurdly shy, and finally Miss Harriet and Annie took their leave, and he had said nothing about the engagement. Miss Harriet said a great deal about his most interesting and improving collection. She was a woman of patronizing turn of mind, and she made von Rosen feel like a little boy.
“I especially appreciate the favor for the sake of my niece,” she said. “It is so desirable for the minds of the young to be improved.” Von Rosen murmured a polite acquiescence. She had spoken of his tall, lovely girl as if she were in short skirts. Miss Harriet continued:
“When I consider what Mrs. Edes has done,” she said, “written a book which has made her famous, I realize how exceedingly important it is for the minds of the young to be improved.”
For the first time poor Annie was conscious of a distinct sense of wrath. Here she herself had written that book, and her mind, in order to have written it, must be every whit as improved as Margaret Edes'; and her Aunt Harriet was belittling her before her lover. It was a struggle to maintain silence, especially as her aunt went on talking in a still more exasperating manner.
“I always considered Mrs. Wilbur Edes as a very unusual woman,” said she, “but of course this was unexpected. I am so thankful that Annie has the great honor of her friendship. Of course Annie can never do what Mrs. Edes has done. She herself knows that she lacks talent, and also concentration. Annie, you know you have never finished that daisy centerpiece which you have had begun full six months ago. I am quite sure that Mrs. Edes would have finished it in a week.”
Annie did lose patience at that. “Margaret just loathes fancy-work, Aunt Harriet,” said she. “She would never even have begun that centerpiece.”
“It is much better never to begin a piece of work than never to finish it,” replied Aunt Harriet, “and Mrs. Edes, my dear, has been engaged in much more important work. If you had written a book which had made you famous, no one could venture to complain of your lack of industry with regard to the daisy centerpiece. But I am sure that Mrs. Edes, in order to have written that book of which everybody is talking, must have displayed much industry and concentration in all the minor matters of life. I think you must be mistaken, my dear. I am quite sure that Mrs. Edes has not neglected work.”
Annie made no rejoinder, but her aunt did not seem to notice it.
“I am so thankful, Mr. von Rosen,” said she, “that my niece has the honor of being counted among the friends of such a remarkable woman. May I inquire if Mrs. Edes has ever seen your really extraordinary collection, Mr. von Rosen?”
“No, she has not seen it,” replied von Rosen, and he looked annoyed. Without in the least understanding the real trend of the matter, he did not like to hear his sweetheart addressed after such a fashion, even although he had no inkling of the real state of affairs. To his mind, this exquisite little Annie, grimy daisy centerpiece and all, had accomplished much more in simply being herself than had Margaret Edes with her much-blazoned book.
“I trust that she will yet see it,” said Miss Harriet Eustace. Harriet Eustace was tall, dull-skinned, and wide-mouthed, and she had a fashion, because she had been told from childhood that her mouth was wide, of constantly puckering it as if she were eating alum.
“I shall, of course, be pleased to show Mrs. Edes my collection at any time,” said von Rosen politely.
“I hope she will see it,” said Harriet, puckering, “it is so improving, and if anything is improving to the ordinary mind, what must it be to the great mind of a genius?”
The two took leave then, Annie walking behind her aunt, since the sidewalk, which was encroached upon by grass, was very narrow. Annie did not speak at all. She heard her aunt talk incessantly, without realizing the substance of what she said. Her own brain was overwhelmed with bewilderment and happiness. Here was she, Annie Eustace, engaged to be married, and to the right man. The combination was astounding. Annie had been conscious ever since she had first seen him, that Karl von Rosen dwelt at the back of her thoughts, but she was rather a well-disciplined girl. She had not allowed herself the luxury of any dreams concerning him. She had not considered the possibility of his caring for her, not because she underestimated herself, but because she overestimated him. Now she knew he cared; he cared, and he wanted to marry her, to make her his wife. It did not occur to her to tell her aunt. After she had reached home, it did not occur to her, when they were seated at the tea-table, to tell anybody. She ate and felt as if she were in a blissful crystal sphere of isolation. It did not occur to her to tell anybody, until she went into her grandmother's room rather late to bid her good-night. Annie had been sitting by herself on the front piazza, and allowing herself a perfect feast in future air-castles. She could see from where she sat the lights in the windows of the Edes house, and she heard Wilbur's voice and now and then his laugh. Margaret's voice, she never heard at all. Annie went into the chamber, the best in the house, and there lay her grandmother, old Ann Maria Eustace, propped up in bed, reading a novel which was not allowed in the Fairbridge library. She had bidden Annie buy it for her, when she last went to New York.
Now she looked up when Annie entered. “It is not wicked at all,” she said in rather a disappointed tone. “It is much too dull. In order to make a book wicked it must be at least somewhat entertaining. The writer speaks of wicked things, but in such a very moral fashion that it is all like a sermon. I don't like the book at all. At the same time a girl like you had better not read it, and you had better see that Harriet and Susan don't get a glimpse of it. They would be set into fits. It is a strange thing that both my daughters should be such old maids to the bone and marrow. You can read it though, if you wish Annie. I doubt if you understand the wickedness anyway, and I don't want you to grow up so straight-laced as Harriet and Susan. It is really a misfortune. They lose a lot.”
Then Annie spoke. “I shall not be an old maid, I think,” said she.
“I am going to be married.”
“Married! Who is going to marry you? I haven't seen a man in this house, except the doctor and the minister, for the last twenty years.”
“I am going to marry the minister, Mr. von Rosen.”
“Good heavens!” said Annie's grandmother, and stared at her. She was a queer-looking old lady propped up on fat pillows, with her wicked book. She had removed the front piece which she wore by day, and her face showed large and rosy between the frills of her nightcap. Her china-blue eyes were exceedingly keen and bright; her mouth as large as her daughter Harriet's, not puckered at all, but frankly open in an alarming slit, in her amazement.
“When, for goodness' sake, has the man courted you?” she burst forth at last.
“I don't know.”
“Well, I don't know, if you don't. You haven't been meeting him outside the house. No, you have not. You are a lady, if you have been brought up by old maids who tell lies about spades.”
“I did not know until this afternoon,” said Annie. “Mr. von Rosen and I went out to see his rose-garden, while Aunt Harriet —”
Then the old lady shook the bed with mirth.
“I see,” said she. “Harriet is scared to death of roses, and she went to sleep in the house, and you got your chance. Good for you! I am thankful the Eustace family won't quite sputter out in old maids.” The old lady continued to chuckle. Annie feared lest her aunts hear. Beside the bed stood a table with the collection of things which was Ann Maria Eustace' nightly requirement. There were a good many things. First there was a shaded reading-lamp, then a candle and a match-box. There was a plate of thin bread and butter, carefully folded in a napkin; a glass of milk, covered with a glass dish; two bottles of medicine; two spoons; a saucer of sugared raspberries; exactly one square inch of American cheese on a tiny plate; a pitcher of water, carefully covered; a tumbler; a glass of port wine, and a bottle of camphor. Old Ann Maria Eustace took most of her sustenance by night. Night was really her happy time. When that worn, soft old bulk of hers was ensconsed among her soft pillows and feather bed, and she had her edibles, drinkables, and literature at hand, she was in her happiest mood, and she was none the less happy from the knowledge that her daughters considered that any well-conducted old woman should have beside her bed merely a stand with a fair linen cloth, a glass of water, a candle, and the Good Book, and that, if she could not go immediately to sleep, she should lie quietly and say over texts and hymns to herself. All Ann Maria's spice of life was got from a hidden antagonism to her daughters and quietly flying in the face of their prejudices, and she was the sort of old lady who could hardly have lived at all without a little spice.
“Your Aunt Harriet will be hopping,” said the grandmother with a chuckle.
“Harriet had an eye on him herself.”
Annie gasped, and looked aghast.
“When are you going to get married?” asked the old lady.
“I don't know.”
“Haven't settled that yet? Well, when you do, there's the white satin embroidered with white roses that I was married in, and my old lace veil. I think he's a nice young man. All I have against him is his calling. You will have to go to meeting whether you want to or not, and listen to the same man's sermons. But he is good-looking, and they say he has money, and, anyway, the Eustaces won't peter out in old maids. There's one thing I am sorry about. Sunday is going to be a pretty long day for me, after you are married.”
Then Annie spoke decidedly. “I am always going to play pinocle with you Sunday forenoons, as long as you live, Grandmother,” said she.
“After you are married?”
“Yes, I am.”
“After you are married to a minister?”
The old lady sat up straight and eyed Annie with her delighted china-blue gaze.
“Mr. von Rosen is a lucky man,” said she. “Enough sight luckier than he knows. You are just like me, Annie Eustace, and your grandfather set his eyes by me as long as he lived. A good woman who has sense enough not to follow all the rules and precepts, and keep good, isn't found every day, and she can hold a man; and holding a man is about as tough a job as the Almighty ever set a woman. I've got a ring and a pearl necklace in the bank. Harriet has always wanted them, but what is the use of a born old maid decking herself out? I always knew Harriet and Susan would be old maids. Why, they didn't like to play with dolls. When you see a little girl like that, you can always be sure she is cut for an old maid. I don't care when you get married, — just as soon as you want to, — and you shall have a pretty wedding, and you shall have your wedding-cake made after my old recipe. You are a good girl, Annie. You look like me, and you are like me. You are enough sight better than you would be if you were better, and you can make what you can out of that. Now you must go to bed. You haven't told Harriet and Susan yet, have you?”
“I'll tell them myself in the morning,” said the old lady with a chuckle which made her ancient face a mask of mirth and mischief. “Now you run along and go to bed. This book is dull, but I want to see how wicked the writer tried to make it, and the heroine is just making an awful effort to run away with a married man. She won't succeed, but I want to see how near she gets to it. Good-night, Annie. You can have the book to-morrow.”
Annie went to her own room, but she made no preparations for bed. She planned to work as she had worked lately until nearly morning. She was hurrying to complete another book which she had begun before Margaret Edes's announcement that she had written The Poor Lady. The speedy completion of this book had been the condition of secrecy with her publishers. However, Annie, before she lit the lamp on her table, could not resist the desire to sit for a minute beside her window and gaze out upon the lovely night, and revel in her wonderful happiness. The night was lovely enough for anyone, and for a girl in the rapture of her first love it was as beautiful as heaven: the broad village, gleaming like silver in the moonlight, satisfied her as well as a street of gold, and the tree-shadows waved softly over everything like wings of benediction; sweet odors came to her face, — she could see the soft pallor of a clump of lilies in the front yard; the shrilling of the night insects seemed like the calls of prophets of happiness. The lights had gone out of the windows of the Edes house, but suddenly she heard a faint, very faint, but very terrible cry, and a white figure rushed out of the Edes gate. Annie did not wait a second: she was up, out of her room, sliding down the stair-banisters after the habit of her childhood, and after it.
[CONCLUDED IN THE APRIL ISSUE]
From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XXXIX No. 4 (April, 1912)
Margaret Edes, light, and slender, and supple as she was, and, moreover, rendered swift with the terrible spur of hysteria, was no match for Annie Eustace. Annie caught up with her, just before they reached Alice Mendon's house, and seized her by one arm. Margaret gave a stifled shriek. Even in hysteria she did not quite lose her head. “Let me go,” she gasped. Annie saw that Margaret carried a suit-case, which had probably somewhat hindered her movements. “Let me go; I shall miss the ten-thirty train,” Margaret said in her breathless voice.
“Where are you going?”
“I am going.”
“Anywhere. Away from it all.”
The two struggled together as far as Alice' gate, and to Annie's great relief a tall pale figure appeared, Alice herself. She opened the gate and came on Margaret's other side.
“What is the matter?” she asked.
“I am going to take the ten-thirty train,” said Margaret.
“Where are you going?”
“To New York.”
“Where in New York?”
“I am going.”
“You are not going,” said Alice Mendon. “You will return quietly to your own home like a sensible woman. You are running away, and you know it.”
“Yes, I am,” said Margaret in her desperate voice. “You would run away if you were in my place.”
“I could never be in your place,” said Alice, “but if I were, I should stay, and face the situation.” She spoke with quite undisguised scorn and yet with pity. “You must think of your husband and children and not entirely of yourself,” she added.
“If,” said Margaret, stammering as she spoke, “I tell Wilbur, I think it will kill him. If I tell the children, they will never really have a mother again. They will never forget. But if I do not tell, I shall not have myself. It is a horrible thing not to have yourself, Alice Mendon.”
“It is the only way.”
“It is easy for you to talk, Alice Mendon. You have never been tempted.”
“No,” replied Alice, “that is quite true, I have never been tempted because — I cannot be tempted.”
“It is no credit to you. You were made so.”
“Yes, that is true also. I was made so. It is no credit to me.”
Margaret tried to wrench her arm free from Annie's grasp. “Let me go, Annie Eustace,” she said, “I hate you.”
“I don't care if you do,” replied Annie. “I don't love you any more myself. I don't hate you, but I certainly don't love you.”
“I stole your laurels,” said Margaret, and she seemed to snap out the words.
“You could have had the laurels,” said Annie, “without stealing, if I could have given them to you. It is not the laurels that matter, it is you.”
“I will kill myself if it ever is known,” said Margaret in a low, horrified whisper.
“It will never be known unless you yourself tell it,” said Annie.
“I cannot tell,” said Margaret. “I have thought it all over. I cannot tell; and yet how can I live and not tell?”
“I suppose,” said Alice Mendon, “that always when people do wrong they have to endure punishment. I suppose that is your punishment, Margaret. You have always loved yourself, and now you will have to despise yourself. I don't see any way out of it.”
“I am not the only woman who does such things,” said Margaret, and there was defiance in her tone.
“No doubt you have company,” said Alice. Alice, large and fair in her white draperies, towered over Margaret Edes like an embodied conscience. She was almost unendurable, like the ideal of which the other woman had fallen short. Her mere presence was maddening. Margaret actually grimaced at her.
“It is easy for you to preach,” said she; “very easy, Alice Mendon. You have not a nerve in your whole body. You have not an ungratified ambition. You neither love nor hate yourself, nor other people. You want nothing on earth enough to make the lack of it disturb you.”
“How well you read me,” said Alice, and she smiled a calm smile, as a statue might smile could it relax its marble mouth.
“And as for Annie Eustace,” said Margaret, “she has what I stole, and she knows it, and that is enough for her. Oh, both of you look down on me, and I know it.”
“I look down upon you no more than I have always done,” said Alice; but Annie was silent, because she could not say that truly.
“Yes, I know you have always looked down upon me, Alice Mendon,” said Margaret, “and you never had reason.”
“I had the reason,” said Alice, “that your own deeds have proved true.”
“You could not know that I would do such a thing. I did not know it myself. Why, I never knew that Annie Eustace could write a book.”
“I knew that a self-lover could do anything and everything to further her own ends,” said Alice in her inexorable voice, which yet contained an undertone of pity.
She pitied Margaret far more than Annie could pity her, for she had not loved her so much. She felt the little arm tremble in her clasp, and her hand tightened upon it as a mother's might have done. “Now, we have had enough of this,” said she, “quite enough. Margaret, you must positively go home at once. I will take your suit-case, and return it to you to-morrow. I shall be out driving. You can get in without being seen, can't you?”
“I tell you both I am going,” said Margaret. “I cannot face what is before me.”
“All creation has to face what is before it. Running makes no difference,” said Alice. “You will meet it at the end of every mile. Margaret Edes, go home. Take care of your husband and your children, and keep your secret, and let it tear you for your own good.”
“They are to nominate Wilbur for senator,” said Margaret. “If they knew, if he knew, Wilbur would not run. He has always had ambition. I should kill it.”
“You will not kill it,” said Alice. “Give me that suit-case. I will set it inside the gate here. Now Annie and I will walk home with you, and you must steal in, and not wake anybody, and go to bed and to sleep.”
“To sleep!” repeated Margaret bitterly.
“Then not to sleep; but you must go,” said Alice.
The three passed down the moon-silvered road. When they had reached Margaret's door, Alice suddenly put an arm around her, and kissed her.
“Go in as softly as you can, and to bed,” she whispered.
“What made you do that, Alice?” asked Annie in a small voice when the door had closed behind Margaret.
“I think I am beginning to love her,” whispered Alice. “Now you know what we must do, Annie?”
“We must both watch until dawn, until after that train to New York, which stops here at three-thirty. You must stand here, and I will go to the other door. There are only two doors, and I don't think she will try the windows, because she won't suspect our being here. But I don't trust her, poor thing. She is desperate. You stay here, Annie. Sit down close to the door, and — you won't be afraid?”
“Of course there is nothing to be afraid of,” said Alice. “Now I will go to the other door.”
Annie sat there until the moon sank. She did not feel in the least sleepy. She sat there and counted up her joys of life, and almost forgot poor Margaret, who had trampled hers in the dust raised by her own feet of self-seeking.
Then came the whistle and roar of a train, and Alice stole around the house.
“It is safe enough for us to go now,” said she wearily. “That was the last train. Do you think you can get in your house without waking anybody, my dear?”
“There is no danger unless I wake Grandmother. She wakes very early of herself, and she may not be asleep, and her hearing is very quick.”
“What will she say?”
“I think I can manage her.”
“Well, we must hurry. It is lucky that my room is away from the others, or I should not be sure of getting there unsuspected. Hurry, Annie!”
The two sped swiftly and noiselessly down the street which was now very dark. The village houses seemed rather awful with their dark windows like sightless eyes. When they reached Annie's house, Alice gave her a swift kiss. “Good-night,” she whispered.
“Well, little Annie?”
“I am going to be married. To Mr. von Rosen.”
Alice started ever so slightly. “You are a lucky girl,” she whispered, “and he is a lucky man.”
Alice flickered out of sight down the street like a white moonbeam, and Annie stole into the house. She dared not lock the door behind her, lest she arouse somebody. She tiptoed up-stairs; but as she was passing her grandmother's door, it was opened, and the old lady stood there, her face lit up by her flaring candle.
“You just march right in here,” said she so loudly that Annie shuddered for fear she would rouse the whole house. She followed her grandmother into her room, and the old woman turned, and looked at her, and her face was white.
“Where have you been, Miss?” said she. “It is after three o'clock in the morning. A pretty hour!”
“I had to go, Grandmother, and there was no harm, but I can't tell you. Indeed, I can't,” replied Annie trembling.
“Why can't you? I'd like to know.”
“I can't; indeed, I can't, Grandmother.”
“Why not? I'd like to know. Pretty doings I call it.”
“I can't tell you why not, Grandmother.”
The old woman eyed the girl. “Out with a man — I don't care if you are engaged to him — till this time!” said she.
Annie started and crimsoned. “Oh, Grandmother!” she cried.
“I don't care if he is a minister. I am going to see him to-morrow, no to-day, right after breakfast, and give him a piece of my mind.”
“Grandmother, there wasn't any man.”
“Are you telling me the truth?”
“I always tell the truth.”
“Yes, I think you always have since that time when you were a little girl and I spanked you for lying,” said the old woman. “I rather think you do tell the truth, but sometimes when a girl gets a man into her head she goes round like a top. You haven't been alone, you needn't tell me that.”
“No, I haven't been alone.”
“But he wasn't with you? There wasn't any man?”
“No, there was not any man, Grandmother.”
“Then you'd better get into your own room as fast as you can, and move still, or you will wake up Harriet and Susan.”
Annie went. “I am thankful I am not curious,” said the old woman, clambering back into bed. She lit her lamp and took up her novel again.
The next morning old Ann Maria Eustace announced her granddaughter's engagement at the breakfast table. She waited until the meal was in full swing, then she raised her voice.
“Well, girls,” she said, looking first at Harriet, then at Susan, “I have some good news for you. Our little Annie here is too modest, so I have to tell you for her.”
Harriet Eustace laughed unsuspiciously. “Don't tell us that Annie has been writing a great anonymous novel like Margaret Edes,” she said, and Susan laughed also. “Whatever news it may be, it is not that,” she said. “Nobody could suspect Annie of writing a book. I myself was not so much surprised at Margaret Edes.”
To Annie's consternation her grandmother turned upon her a long, slow, reading look. She flushed under it, and swallowed a spoonful of cereal hastily. Then her grandmother chuckled under her breath, and her china-blue eyes twinkled.
“Annie has done something a deal better than to write a book,” said she, looking away from the girl, and fixing unsparing eyes upon her daughters. “She has found a nice man to marry her.”
Harriet and Susan dropped their spoons, and stared at their mother.
“Mother, what are you talking about?” said Harriet sharply. “She has had no attention.”
“Sometimes,” drawled the old lady in a way she affected when she wished to be exasperating, “sometimes a little attention is so strong that it counts, and sometimes attention is attention when nobody thinks it is.”
“Who is it?” asked Harriet in rather a hard voice. Susan regarded Annie with a bewildered yet kindly smile. Poor Susan had never regarded the honey-pots of life as intended for herself, and thus could feel a kindly interest in their acquisition by others.
“My granddaughter is engaged to be married to Mr. von Rosen,” said the old lady. Then she stirred her coffee assiduously.
Susan rose, and kissed Annie. “I hope you will be happy, very happy,” she said in an awed voice. Harriet rose to follow her sister's example, but she looked viciously at her mother.
“He is a good ten years older than Annie,” she said.
“And a good twenty-five younger than you,” said the old lady, and sipped her coffee delicately. “He is just the right age for Annie.”
Harriet kissed Annie, but her lips were cold, and Annie wondered. It never occurred to her then, nor later, to imagine that her Aunt Harriet might have had her own dreams, which had never entirely ended in rainbow mists. She did not know how hard dreams die. They are sometimes not entirely stamped out during a long lifetime.
That evening von Rosen came to call on Annie, and she received him alone in the best parlor. She felt embarrassed and shy, but very happy. Her lover brought her an engagement ring, a great pearl, which had been his mother's, and put it on her finger, and Annie eyed her finger with a big, round gaze like a bird's. Von Rosen laughed at the girl holding up her hand and staring at the beringed finger.
“Don't you like it, dear?” he said.
“It is the most beautiful ring I ever saw,” said Annie. “But I keep thinking it may not be true.”
“The truest things in the world are the things which do not seem so,” he said, and caught up the slender hand, and kissed the ring and the finger.
Margaret on her veranda had seen von Rosen enter the Eustace house, and had guessed dully at the reason. She had always thought that von Rosen would eventually marry Alice Mendon, and she wondered a little, but not much. Her own affairs were entirely sufficient to occupy her mind. Her position had become more impossible to alter, and more ghastly. That night Wilbur had brought home a present to celebrate her success. It was something which she had long wanted, and which she knew he could ill afford: a circlet of red topazes for her hair. She kissed him, and put it on to please him, but it was to her as if she were crowned because of her infamy, and she longed to snatch the thing off and trample it. And yet always she was well aware that it was not remorse which she felt, but a miserable humiliation that she, Margaret Edes, should have cause for remorse. The whole day had been hideous. The letters and calls of congratulation had been incessant. There were brief notices in a few papers, which had been marked and sent to her, and Wilbur had brought them home also. Her post-office box had been crammed. There were requests for her autograph; there were requests for aid from charitable institutions; there were requests for advice and assistance from young authors. She had two packages of manuscripts sent her for inspection concerning their merits. One was a short story, and came through the mail; one was a book, and came by express. She had requests for work from editors and publishers. Wilbur had brought a letter of congratulation from his partner. It was absolutely impossible for her to draw back without terrible results, and she did not wish to draw back except for that ignoble reason: the reinstatement of herself in her own self-esteem. She could not possibly receive all this undeserved adulation and retain her self-esteem. It was all more than she had counted upon. She had opened Pandora's box with a vengeance, and the stinging things swarmed over her. Wilbur sat on the veranda with her, and scarcely took his eyes of adoring wonder from her face. She had sent the little girls to bed early. They had told all their playmates, and talked incessantly with childish bragging. They seemed to mock her as with peacock eyes.
“You sent the poor little things to bed very early,” Wilbur said. “They did so enjoy talking over their mother's triumph. It is the greatest day of their lives you know, Margaret.”
“I am tired of it,” Margaret said sharply, but Wilbur's look of worship deepened.
“You are so modest, sweetheart,” he said, and Margaret writhed. Poor Wilbur had been reading The Poor Lady instead of his beloved newspapers, and now and then he quoted a passage which he remembered with astonishing accuracy.
“Say, darling, you are a marvel,” he would remark after every quotation. “Now how in the world did you ever manage to think that up? I suppose just this minute, as you sit there looking so sweet in your white dress, just such things are floating through your brain, eh?”
“No, they are not,” replied Margaret. Oh, if she had only understood the horrible depth of a lie!
“Suppose von Rosen is making up to little Annie?” said Wilbur presently.
“I don't know.”
“Well, she is a nice little thing, sweet-tempered and pretty, although of course her mental calibre is limited. She may make a good wife, though. A man doesn't expect his wife always to set the river on fire as you have done, sweetheart.”
That night Wilbur looked into his wife's room at midnight. “Awake?” he asked in his monosyllabic fashion.
“Say, old girl, von Rosen has just this minute gone. Guess it's a match fast enough.”
“I always thought it would be Alice,” returned Margaret wearily. Love affairs did seem so trivial to her at this juncture.
“Alice Mendon has never cared a snap about getting married, anyway,” returned Wilbur. “Some women are built that way. She is.”
Margaret did not inquire how he knew. If Wilbur had told her that he himself had asked Alice in marriage, it would have been as if she had not heard. All such things seemed very unimportant to her in the awful depths of her lie. She said good-night in answer to Wilbur's, and again fell to thinking. There was no way out, absolutely no way. She must live and die with this secret self-knowledge, which abased her, gnawing at her heart. Wilbur had told her that he believed that her authorship of The Poor Lady might be the turning-point of his election. She was tongue-tied in a horrible spiritual sense. She was disfigured for the rest of her life, and she could never once turn away her eyes from her disfigurement.
The light from Annie Eustace' window shone in her room for two hours after that. She wondered what she was doing, and guessed Annie was writing a new novel to take the place of the one of which she had robbed her. An acute desire, which was like a pain, to be herself the injured instead of the injurer possessed her. Oh, what would it mean to be Annie, sitting there, without leisure to brood over her new happiness, working, working into the morning hours, and have nothing to look upon except moral and physical beauty in her mental looking-glass. She envied the poor girl, who was really working beyond her strength, as she had never envied any human being. The envy stung her, and she could not sleep. The next morning she looked ill, and then she had to endure Wilbur's solicitude.
“Poor girl, you overworked writing your splendid book,” he said. Then he suggested that she spend a month at an expensive seashore resort, and another horror was upon Margaret. Wilbur, she well knew, could not afford to send her to such a place, but was innocently, although rather shamefacedly, assuming that she could defray her own expenses from the revenue of her book. He would never call her to account as to what she had done with the wealth which he supposed her to be reaping. She was well aware of that, but he would naturally wonder within himself. Any man would. She said that she was quite well, that she hated a big hotel, and much preferred home during the hot season; but she heard the roar of these new breakers. How could she have dreamed of the lifelong disturbance which a lie could cause!
Night after night she saw the light in Annie's windows, and she knew what she was doing. She knew why she was not to be married until next winter. That book had to be written first. Poor Annie could not enjoy her romance to the full because of overwork. The girl lost flesh, and Margaret knew why. Preparing one's trousseau, living in a love affair, and writing a book are rather strenuous when undertaken at the same time.
It was February when Annie and von Rosen were married, and the wedding was very quiet. Annie had overworked, but her book was published, and was outselling The Poor Lady. It also was published anonymously, but Margaret knew; she knew even from the reviews. Then she bought the book and read it, and was convinced. The book was really an important work. The writer had gone far beyond her first flight, but there was something unmistakable about the style to such a jealous reader as Margaret. Annie Eustace had her success. In all modesty she wore her laurels, although unseen of men, with her orange-blossoms. Margaret saw in every paper, in great head-lines, the notice of the great seller, the best novel for a twelve-month, — The Firm Hand. Wilbur talked much about it. He had his election. He was senator, and was quietly proud because of it, but nothing mattered to him as much as Margaret's book.
“I have read that novel they are talking so much about, and it cannot compare with yours,” he told her. “The publishers ought to push yours a little more. Don't you think I had better look in on them and have a quiet little heart-to-heart talk?”
Margaret's face was ghastly. “Don't do anything of the sort,” she said.
“Well, I won't if you don't want me to, but —”
“I most certainly don't want you to.” Then Margaret never had a day of peace. She feared lest Wilbur, who seemed nightly more incensed at the flaming notices of The Firm Hand, might in spite of her remonstrances go to see the publishers, and would they keep the secret if he did?
Margaret continued to live as she had done before. That was part of the horror. She dared not resign from the Zenith Club. However, she came in time to get a sort of comfort from it. Meeting all those members, presiding over the meetings, became a sort of secret flagellation which served as a counter irritation for her tormented soul. All those women thought well of her. They admired her. The acute torture which she derived from her knowledge of herself as compared with their opinion of her, seemed at times to go a little way toward squaring her account with her better self. And the club also seemed to arouse within her a keener vitality of her better self. Especially when the New Year came, and Mrs. Slade was elected president in her stead, was this the case. Once Margaret would have been incapable of accepting that situation so gracefully. She gave a reception to Mrs. Slade in honor of her election, and that night had a little return of her lost peace. Then during one of the meetings a really good paper was read which set her thinking. That evening she played dominoes with Maida and Adelaide, and always after that a game followed dinner. The mother became intimate with her children. She really loved them because of her loss of love for herself, and because the heart must hold love. She loved her husband, too, but he realized no difference, because he had so loved her that coldness had made no headway against such doting worship. But the children realized.
But always Margaret suffered horribly, although she gave no sign. She took care of her beauty. She was more particular than ever about her dress. She entertained; she accepted every invitation, and they multiplied since Wilbur's flight in politics and her own reputed authorship. She was Spartan in her courage, but she suffered, because she saw herself as she was, and she had so loved herself. It was not until Annie Eustace was married that she obtained the slightest relief. Then she ascertained that the friend whom she had robbed of her laurels had obtained a newer and greener crown of them. She went to the wedding, and saw on a table Annie's new book. She glanced at it, and she knew, and she wondered if von Rosen knew. He did not.
Annie waited until after their return from their short wedding journey and they were settled in their home. Then one evening, seated with her husband before the fire in the study, with the yellow cat in her lap and the bull terrier on the rug, his white skin rosy in the firelight, she said:
“Karl, I have something to tell you.”
Von Rosen looked lovingly at her. “Well, dear?”
“It is nothing, only you must not tell, for the publishers insist upon its being anonymous: I — wrote The Firm Hand.”
Von Rosen made a startled exclamation and looked at Annie, and she could not understand the look.
“Are you displeased?” she faltered. “Don't you like me to write? I will never neglect you or our home because of it. Indeed, I will not. You are displeased?”
“Displeased,” said von Rosen. He got up and deliberately knelt before her. “I am proud that you are my wife,” he said, “prouder than I am of anything else in the world.”
“Please get up, dear,” said Annie; “but I am so glad, although it is really I who am proud, because I have you for my husband. I feel all covered over with peacocks' eyes.”
“I cannot imagine a human soul less like a peacock,” said von Rosen. He put his arms around her as he knelt, and kissed her. The yellow cat gave an indignant little snarl, and jumped down: he was jealous.
“Sit down,” said Annie laughing. “I thought the time had come to tell you, and I hoped you would be pleased. It is lovely, isn't it? You know it is selling wonderfully.”
“It is lovely,” said von Rosen. “It would have been lovely, anyway, but your success is a sweet morsel for me.”
“You had better go back to your chair, and smoke, and I will read to you,” said Annie.
“Just as if you had not written a successful novel,” said von Rosen.
But he obeyed, the more readily because he knew, and pride and reverence for his wife fairly dazed him. Von Rosen had been more acute than the critics, and Annie had written at high pressure, and one can go over a book a thousand times and be blind to things which should be seen. She had repeated one little sentence which she had written in The Poor Lady. Von Rosen knew, but he never told her that he knew. He bowed before her great, generous silence as he would have bowed before a shrine, but he knew that she had written The Poor Lady, and had allowed Margaret Edes to claim unquestioned the honor of the work.
As they sat there, Annie's aunt Susan came in and sat with them. She talked a good deal about the wedding presents. Wedding presents were very wonderful to her. They were still spread out, most of them on tables in the parlor, because all Fairbridge was interested in viewing them. After a while Susan went into the parlor, and gloated over the presents. When she came back, she wore a slightly disgusted expression.
“You have beautiful presents,” said she, “but I have been looking all around, and the presents are not all on those tables, are they?”
“No,” said Annie.
Von Rosen laughed. He knew what was coming, or thought that he did.
“I see,” said Aunt Susan, “that you have forty-two copies of Margaret Edes's book, The Poor Lady, and I have always thought it was a very silly book; and you can't exchange them, for every single one is autographed.”
It was quite true. Poor Margaret Edes had autographed the forty-two. She had not even dreamed of the incalculable depths of a lie.