by Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Word Count: 10669
Their railway carriage had been full when the train left Bologna; but at the first station beyond Milan their only remaining companion a courtly person who ate garlic out of a carpetbag had left his crumb-strewn seat with a bow.
Lydia's eye regretfully followed the shiny broadcloth of his retreating back till it lost itself in the cloud of touts and cab drivers hanging about the station; then she glanced across at Gannett and caught the same regret in his look. They were both sorry to be alone.
"Par-ten-za!" shouted the guard. The train vibrated to a sudden slamming of doors; a waiter ran along the platform with a tray of fossilized sandwiches; a belated porter flung a bundle of shawls and band-boxes into a third-class carriage; the guard snapped out a brief Partenza! which indicated the purely ornamental nature of his first shout; and the train swung out of the station.
The direction of the road had changed, and a shaft of sunlight struck across the dusty red velvet seats into Lydia's corner. Gannett did not notice it. He had returned to his Revue de Paris, and she had to rise and lower the shade of the farther window. Against the vast horizon of their leisure such incidents stood out sharply.
Having lowered the shade, Lydia sat down, leaving the length of the carriage between herself and Gannett. At length he missed her and looked up.
I moved out of the sun," she hastily explained.
He looked at her curiously: the sun was beating on her through the shade.
"Very well," he said pleasantly; adding, "You don't mind?" as he drew a cigarette case from his pocket.
It was a refreshing touch, relieving the tension of her spirit with the suggestion that, after all, if he could smoke! The relief was only momentary. Her experience of smokers was limited (her husband had disapproved of the use of tobacco) but she knew from hearsay that men sometimes smoked to get away from things; that a cigar might be the masculine equivalent of darkened windows and a headache. Gannett, after a puff or two, returned to his review.
It was just as she had foreseen; he feared to speak as much as she did. It was one of the misfortunes of their situation that they were never busy enough to necessitate, or even to justify, the postponement of unpleasant discussions. If they avoided a question it was disagreeable. They had unlimited leisure and an accumulation of mental energy to devote to any subject that presented itself; new topics were in fact at a premium. Lydia sometimes had premonitions of a famine-stricken period when there would be nothing left to talk about, and she had already caught herself doling out piecemeal what, in the first prodigality of their confidences, she would have flung to him in a breath. Their silence therefore might simply mean that they had nothing to say; but it was another disadvantage of their position that it allowed infinite opportunity for the classification of minute differences. Lydia had learned to distinguish between real and factitious silences; and under Gannett's she now detected a hum of speech to which her own thoughts made breathless answer.
How could it be otherwise, with that thing between them? She glanced up at the rack overhead. The thing was there, in her dressing bag, symbolically suspended over her head and his. He was thinking of it now, just as she was; they had been thinking of it in unison ever since they had entered the train. While the carriage had held other travelers they had screened her from his thought; but now that he and she were alone she knew exactly what was passing through his mind; she could almost hear him asking himself what he should say to her.
The thing had come that morning, brought up to her in an innocent-looking envelope with the rest of their letters, as they were leaving the hotel at Bologna. As she tore it open, she and Gannett were laughing over some ineptitude of the local guidebook they had been driven, of late, to make the most of such incidental humors of travel. Even when she had unfolded the document she took it for some unimportant business paper sent abroad for her signature, and her eye traveled inattentively over the curly Whereases of the preamble until a word arrested her: Divorce. There it stood, an impassable barrier, between her husband's name and hers.
She had been prepared for it, of course, as healthy people are said to be prepared for death, in the sense of knowing it must come without in the least expecting that it will. She had known from the first that Tillotson meant to divorce her but what did it matter? Nothing mattered, in those first days of supreme deliverance, but the fact that she was free; and not so much (she had begun to be aware) that freedom had released her from Tillotson as that it had given her to Gannett. This discovery had not been agreeable to her self-esteem. She had preferred to think that Tillotson had himself embodied all her reasons for leaving him; and those he represented had seemed cogent enough to stand in no need of reinforcement. Yet she had not left him till she met Gannett. It was her love for Gannett that had made life with Tillotson so poor and incomplete a business. If she had never, from the first, regarded her marriage as a full cancelling of her claims upon life, she had at least, for a number of years, accepted it as a provisional compensation, she had made it "do." Existence in the commodious Tillotson mansion in Fifth Avenue with Mrs. Tillotson senior commanding the approaches from the second-story front windows had been reduced to a series of purely automatic acts. The moral atmosphere of the Tillotson interior was as carefully screened and curtained as the house itself: Mrs. Tillotson senior dreaded ideas as much as a draft in her back. Prudent people liked an even temperature; and to do anything unexpected was as foolish as going out in the rain. One of the chief advantages of being rich was that one need not be exposed to unforeseen contingencies: by the use of ordinary firmness and common sense one could make sure of doing exactly the same thing every day at the same hour. These doctrines, reverentially imbibed with his mother's milk, Tillotson (a model son who had never given his parents an hour's anxiety) complacently expounded to his wife, testifying to his sense of their importance by the regularity with which he wore galoshes on damp days, his punctuality at meals, and his elaborate precautions against burglars and contagious diseases. Lydia, coming from a smaller town, and entering New York life through the portals of the Tillotson mansion, had mechanically accepted this point of view as inseparable from having a front pew in church and a parterre box at the opera. All the people who came to the house revolved in the same small circle of predjudices. It was the kind of society in which, after dinner, the ladies compared the exorbitant charges of thier children's teachers, and agreed that, even with the new duties on French clothes, it was cheaper in the end to get everything from Worth; while the husbands, over their cigars, lamented municipal corruption, and decided that the men to start a reform were those who had no private interests at stake.
To Lydia this view of life had become a matter of course, just as lumbering about in her mother-in-law's locomotion, and listening every Sunday to fashionable Presbyterian divine the inevitable atonement for having thought oneself bored on the other six days of the week. Before she met Gannett her life had seemed merely dull; his coming made it appear like one of those dismal Cruikshank prints in which the people are all ugly and all engaged in occupations that are either vulgar or stupid.
It was natural that Tillotson should be the chief sufferer from this readjustment of focus. Gannett's nearness had made her husband ridiculous, and a part of the ridicule had been reflected on herself. Her tolerance laid her open to a suspicion of obtuseness from which she must, at all costs, clear herself in Gannett's eyes.
She did not understand this until afterwards. At the time she fancied that she had merely reached the limits of endurance. In so large a charter of liberties as the mere act of leaving Tillotson seemed to confer, the small question of divorce or no divorce did not count. It was when she saw that she had left her husband only to be with Gannett that she perceived the significance of anything affecting their relations. Her husband, in casting her off, had virtually flung her at Gannett: it was thus that the world viewed it. The measure of alacrity with which Gannett would receive her would be the subject of curious speculation over afternoon tea tables and in club corners. She knew what would be said she had heard it so often of others! The recollection bathed her in misery. The men would probably back Gannett to "do the decent thing"; but the ladies' eyebrows would emphasize the worthlessness of such enforced fidelity; and after all, they would be right. She had put herself in a position where Ganett "owed" her something; where, as a gentleman, he was bound to "stand the damage." The idea of accepting such compensation had never crossed her mind; the so-called rehabilitation of such a marriage had always seemed to her the only real disgrace. What she dreaded was the necessity of having to explain herself; of having to combat his arguments; of calculating, in spite of herself, the exact measure of insistence with which he presssed them. She knew not whether she most shrank from his insisting too much or too little. In such a case the nicest sense of proportion might be at fault; and how easily to fall into the error of taking her resistance for a test of his sincerity! Whichever way she turned, an ironical implication confronted her: she had the exasperated sense of having walked into the trap of some stupid practical joke.
Beneath all these preoccupations lurked the dread of what he was thinking. Sooner or later, of course, he would have to speak; but that, in the meantime, he should think, even for a moment that there was any use in speaking, seemed to her simply unendurable. Her sensitiveness on this point was aggravated by another fear, as yet barely on the level of consciousness; the fear of unwillingly involving Gannett in the trammels of her dependence. To look upon him as the instrument of her liberation; to resist in herself the least tendency to a wifely taking possession of his future; had seemed to Lydia the one way of maintaining the dignity of their relation. Her view had not changed, but she was aware of a growing inability to keep her thoughts fixed on the essential point the point of parting with Gannett. It was easy to face as long as she kept it sufficiently far off: but what was this act of mental postponement but a gradual encroachment on his future? What was needful was the courage to recognize the moment when by some word or look, their voluntary fellowship should be transformed into a bondage the more wearing that it was based on none of those common obligations which make the most imperfect marriage in some sort a center of gravity.
When the porter, at the next station, threw the door open, Lydia drew back, making way for the hoped-for intruder; but none came, and the train took up its leisurely progress through the spring wheat fields and budding copses. She now began to hope that Gannett would speak before the next station. She watched him furtively, half-disposed to return to the seat opposite his, but there was an artificiality about his absorption that restrained her. She had never before seen him read with so conspicuous an air of warding off interruption. What could he be thinking of? Why should he be afraid to speak? Or was it her answer that he dreaded?.
The train paused for the passing of an express, and he put down his book and leaned out of the window. Presently he turned to her with a smile.
"There's a jolly old villa out here," he said.
His easy tone relieved her, and she smiled back at him as she crossed over to his corner.
Beyond the embankment, through the opening in a mossy wall, she caught sight of the villa, with its broken balustrades, its stagnant fountains, and the stone satyr closing the perspective of a dusky grass walk.
"How should you like to live there?" he asked as the train moved on.
"In some such place, I mean. One might do worse, don't you think so? There must be at least two centuries of solitude under those yew trees. Shouldn't you like it?"
"I don't know," she faltered. She knew now that he meant to speak.
He lit another cigarette. "We shall have to live somewhere, you know," he said as he bent above the match.
Lydia tried to speak carelessly. "Je n'en vois pas la necessite! Why not live everywhere, as we have been doing?"
"But we can't travel forever, can we?
"Oh, forever's a long word," she objected, picking up the review he had thrown aside.
"For the rest of our lives then," he said, moving nearer.
She made a slight gesture which caused his hand to slip from hers.
"Why should we make plans? I thought you agreed with me that it's pleasanter to drift."
He looked at her hesitatingly. "It's been pleasant, certainly; but I suppose I shall have to get at my work again some day. You know I haven't written a line since all this time," he hastily amended.
She flamed with sympathy and self-reproach. "Oh, if you mean that if you want to write of course we must settle down. How stupid of me not to have thought of it sooner! Where shall we go? Where do you think you could work best? We oughtn't to lose any more time."
He hesitated again. "I had thought of a villa in these parts. It's quiet; we shouldn't be bothered. Should you like it?"
"Of course I should like it." She paused and looked away. "But I thought I remember your telling me once that your best work had been done in a crowd in big cities. Why should you shut yourself up in a desert?"
Gannett, for a moment, made no reply. At length he said, avoiding her eye as carefully as she avoided his: "It might be different now; I can't tell, of course, till I try. A writer ought not be dependent on his milieu, it's a mistake to humor oneself in that way; and I thought that just at first you might prefer to be."
She faced him. "To be what?"
"Well quiet. I mean."
"What do you mean by 'at first'?" she interruped.
He paused again. "I mean after we are married."
She thrust up her chin and turned toward the window. "Thank you!" she tossed back at him.
"Lydia!" he exclaimed blankly; and she felt in every fiber of her averted person that he had made the inconceivable, the unpardonable mistake of anticipating her acquiescence.
The train rattled on and he groped for a third cigarette. Lydia remained silent.
"I haven't offended you?" he ventured at length, in the tone of a man who feels his way.
She shook her head with a sigh. "I thought you understood," she moaned. Their eyes met and she moved back to his side.
"Do you want to know how not to offend me? By taking it for granted, once for all, that you've said your say on the odious question and that I've said mine, and that we stand just where we did this morning before that that hateful paper came to spoil everything between us!"
"To spoil everything between us? What on earth do you mean? Aren't you glad to be free?"
"I was free before."
"Not to marry me," he suggested.
But I don't want to marry you!" she cried.
She saw that he turned pale. "I'm obtuse, I suppose," he said slowly. "I confess I don't see what you're driving at. Are you tired of the whole business? Or was I simply an excuse for getting away? Perhaps you didn't care to travel alone? Was that it? And now you want to chuck me?" His voice had grown harsh. "You owe me a straight answer, you know; don't be tenderhearted!"
Her eyes swam as she leaned to him. "Don't you see it's because I care because I care so much? Oh, Ralph! Can't you see how it would humiliate me? Try to feel it as a woman would! Don't you see the misery of being made your wife in this way? If I'd known you as a girl that would have been a real marriage! But now this vulgar fraud upon society and upon a society we despised and laughed at this sneaking back into a position that we've voluntarily foreited: don't you see what a cheap compromise it is? We neither of us believe in the abstract 'sacredness' of marriage; we both know that no ceremony is needed to consecrate our love for each other; what object can we have in marrying, except the secret fear of each that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back graduallyoh, very gradually into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated? And the very fact that, after a decent interval, these same people would come and dine with us the women who would let me die in a gutter today because I am 'leading a life of sin doesn't that disgust you more than their turning their backs on us now? I can stand being cut by them, but I couldn't stand their coming to call and asking what I meant to do about visiting that unfortunate Mrs. So-and-so!"
She paused, and Gannett maintained a perplexed silence.
"You judge things too theoretically," he said at length, slowly. "Life is made up of compromises."
"The life we ran away from yes! If we had been willing to accept them "she flushed" we might have gone on meeting each other at Mrs. Tillotson's dinners."
He smiled slightly. "I didn't know that we ran away to found a new system of ethics. I supposed it was because we loved each other."
"Life is complex, of course; isn't it the very recognition of that fact that separates us from the people who see it tout d'une piece? If they are right, if marriage is sacred in itself and the individual must always be sacrificed to the family then there can be no real marriage between us, since our being together is a protest against the sacrifice of the individual to the family." She interrupted herself with a laugh. "You'll say now that I'm giving you a lecture on sociology! Of course one acts as one can as one must, perhaps pulled by all sorts of invisible threads; but at least one needn't pretend, for social advantages, to subscribe to a creed that ignores the complexity of human motives that classifies people by arbitrary signs, and puts it in everybody's reach to be on Mrs. Tillotson's visiting list. It may be necessary that the world should be ruled by conventions but if we believed in them, why did we break through them? And if we don't believe in them, is it honest to take advantage of the protection they afford?"
Gannett hesitated. "One may believe in them or not; but as long as they do rule the world it is only by taking advantage of their protection that one can find a modus vivendi."
"Do outlaws need a modus vivendi?"
He looked at her hopelessly. Nothing is more perplexing to man than the mental process of a woman who reasons her emotions.
She thought she had scored a point and followed it up passionately. "You do understand, don't you? You see how the very thought of the thing humiliates me! We are together today because we choose to be don't let us look any farther than that!" She caught his hands. "Promise me you'll never speak of it again; promise me you'll never think of it even," she implored, with a tearful prodigality of italics.
Through what followed his protests, his arguments, his final unconvinced submission to her wishes she had a sense of his but half-discerning all that, for her, had made the moment so tumultuous. They had reached that memorable point in every heart history when, for the first time, the man seems obtuse and the woman irrational. It was the abundance of his intentions that consoled her, on reflection, for what they lacked in quality. After all, it would have been worse, incalculably worse, to have detected any overreadiness to understand her.
When the train at nightfall brought them to their journey's end at the edge of one of the lakes, Lydia was glad that they were not, as usual, to pass from one solitude to another. Their wanderings during the year had indeed been like the flight of the outlaws: through Sicily, Dalmatia, Translyvania and Southern Italy they had persisted in their tacit avoidance of their kind. Isolation, at first, had deepened the flavor of their happiness, as night intensifies the scent of certain flowers; but in the new phase on which they were entering, Lydia's chief wish was that they should be less abnormally exposed to the action of each other's thoughts.
She shrank, nevertheless, as the brightly-looming bulk of the fashionable Anglo-American hotel on the water's brink began to radiate toward their advancing boat its vivid suggestion of social order, visitors' lists, Church services, and the bland inquisition of the table d'hote. The mere fact that in a moment or two she must take her place on the hotel register as Mrs. Gannett seemed to weaken the springs of her resistance.
They had meant to stay for a night only, on their way to a lofty village among the glaciers of Monte Rosa; but after the first plunge into publicity, when they entered the dining room, Lydia felt the relief of being lost in a crowd, of ceasing for a moment to be the center of Gannett's scrutiny; and in his face she caught the reflection of her feeling. After dinner, when she went upstairs, he strolled into the smoking room, and an hour or two later, sitting in the darkness of her window, she heard his voice below and saw him walking up and down the terrace with a companion cigar at his side. When he came he told her he had been talking to the hotel chaplain a very good sort of fellow.
"Queer little microcosms, these hotels! Most of these people live here all summer and then migrate to Italy or the Riviera. The English are the only people who can lead that kind of life with dignity those soft-voiced old ladies in Shetland shawls somehow carry the British Empire under their caps. Civis Romanus sum. It's a curious study there might be some good things to work up here."
He stood before her with the vivid preoccupied stare of the novelist on the trail of a "subject." With a relief that was half painful she noticed that, for the first time since they had been together, he was hardly aware of her presence.
"Do you think you could write here?"
"Here? I don't know." His stare dropped. "After being out of things so long one's first impressions are bound to be tremendously vivid, you know. I see a dozen threads already that one might follow "
He broke off with a touch of embarrassment.
"Then follow them. We'll stay," she said with sudden decision.
"Stay here?" He glanced at her in surprise, and then, walking to the window, looked out upon the dusky slumber of the garden.
"Why not?" she said at length, in a tone of veiled irritation.
"The place is full of old cats in caps who gossip with the chaplain. Shall you like I mean, it would be different if "
She flamed up.
"Do you suppose I care? It's none of their business."
"Of course not; but you won't get them to think so."
"They may think what they please."
He looked at her doubtfully.
"It's for you to decide."
"We'll stay," she repeated.
Gannett, before they met, had made himself known as a successful writer of short stories and of a novel which had achieved the distinction of being widely discussed. The reviewers called him "promising," and Lydia now accused herself of having too long interfered with the fulfillment of his promise. There was a special irony in the fact, since his passionate assurance that only the stimulus of her companionship could bring out his latent faculty had almost given the dignity of a "vocation" to her course: there had been moments when she had felt unable to assume, before posterity, the responsibility of thwarting his career. And, after all, he had not written a line since they had been together: his first desire to write had come from renewed contact with the world! Was it all a mistake then? Must the most intelligent choice work more disastrously than the blundering combinations of chance? Or was there a still more humiliating answer to her perplexities? His sudden imp! ulse of activity so exactly coincided with her own wish to withdraw, for a time, from the range of his observation, that she wondered if he too were not seeking sanctuary from intolerable problems.
"You must begin tomorrow!" she cried, hiding a tremor under the laugh with which she added, "I wonder if there's any ink in the inkstand?"
Whatever else they had at the Hotel Bellosguardo, they had, as Miss Pinsent said, "a certain tone." It was to Lady Susan Condit that they owed this inestimable benefit; an advantage ranking in Miss Pinsent's opinion above even the lawn tennis courts and the resident chaplain. It was the fact of Lady Susan's annual visit that made the hotel what it was. Miss Pinsent was certainly the last to underrate such a privilege: "It's so important, my dear, forming as we do a little family, that there should be someone to give the tone; and no one could do it better than Lady Susan an earl's daughter and a person of such determination. Dear Mrs. Ainger now who really ought, you know, when Lady Susan's away absolutely refuses to assert herself." Miss Pinsent sniffed derisively. "A bishop's niece! my dear, I saw her once actually give in to some South Americans and before us all. She gave up her seat at table to oblige them such a lack of ! dignity! Lady Susan spoke to her very plainly about it afterwards."
Miss Pinsent glanced across the lake and adjusted her auburn front.
"But of course I don't deny that the stand Lady Susan takes is not always easy to live up to for the rest of us, I mean. Monsieur Grossart, our good proprietor, finds it trying at times, I know he has said as much, privately, to Mrs. Ainger and me. After all, the poor man is not to blame for wanting to fill his hotel, is he? And Lady Susan is so difficult so very difficult about new people. One might almost say that she disapproves of them beforehand, on principle. And yet she's had warnings she very nearly made a dreadful mistake once with the Duchess of Levens, who dyed her hair and well, swore and smoked. One would have thought that might have been a lesson to Lady Susan." Miss Pinsent resumed her knitting with a sigh. "There are exceptions, of course. She took at once to you and Mr. Gannett it was quite remarkable, really. Oh, I don't mean that either of course not! It was perfectly natural we all thought you so charming and interesting form the first day we knew at once that Mr. Gannett was intellectual, by the magazines you took in; but you know what I mean. Lady Susan is so very well, I won't say prejudiced, as Mrs. Ainger does but so prepared not to like new people, that her taking to you in that way was a surprise to us all, I confess."
Miss Pinsent sent a significant glance down the long laurustinus alley from the other end of which two people a lady and a gentleman were strolling toward them through the smiling neglect of the garden.
"In this case, of course, it's very different; that I'm willing to admit. Their looks are against them; but, as Mrs. Ainger says, one can't exactly tell them so."
"She's very handsome," Lydia ventured, with her eyes on the lady, who showed, under the dome of a vivid sunshade, the hourglass figure and superlative coloring of a Christmas chromo.
"That's the worst of it. She's too handsome."
"Well, after all, she can't help that."
"Other people manage to," said Miss Pinsent skeptically.
"But isn't it rather unfair of Lady Susan considering that nothing is known about them?"
"But my dear, that's the very thing that's against them. It's infinitely worse than any actual knowledge."
Lydia mentally agreed that, in the case of Mrs. Linton, it possibly might be.
"I wonder why they came here?" she mused.
"That's against them too. It's always a bad sign when loud people come to a quiet place. And they've brought van loads of boxes her maid told Mrs. Ainger's that they meant to stop indefinitely."
"And Lady Susan actually turned her back on her in the salon?"
"My dear, she said it was for our sakes; that makes it so unanswerable! But poor Grossart is in a way! The Lintons have taken his most expressive suite, you know the yellow damask drawing room above the portico and they have champagne with every meal!"
They were silent as Mr. and Mrs. Linton sauntered by; the lady with tempestuous brows and challenging chin; the gentleman, a blond stripling, trailing after her, head downward, like a reluctant child dragged by his nurse.
"What does your husband think of them, my dear?" Miss Pinsent whispered as they passed out of earshot.
Lydia stooped to pick a violet in the border.
"He hasn't told me."
"Of your speaking to them, I mean. Would he approve of that? I know how very particular nice Americans are. I think your action might make a difference; it would certainly carry weight with Lady Susan."
"Dear Miss Pinsent, you flatter me!"
Lydia rose and gathered up her book and sunshade.
"Well, if you're asked for an opinion if Lady Susan asks you for one I think you ought to be prepared," Miss Pinsent admonished her as she moved away.
Lady Susan held her own. She ignored the Lintons, and her little family, as Miss Pinsent phrased it, followed suit. Even Mrs. Ainger agreed that it was obligatory. If Lady Susan owed it to the others not to speak to the Lintons, the others clearly owed it to Lady Susan to back her up. It was generally found expedient, at the Hotel Bellosguardo, to adopt this form of reasoning.
Whatever effect this combined action may have had upon the Lintons, it did not at least have that of driving them away. Monsieur Grossart, after a few days of suspense, had the satisfaction of seeing them settle down in his yellow damask premier with what looked like a permanent installation of palm trees and silk cushions, and a gratifying continuance in the consumption of champagne. Mrs. Linton trailed her Doucet draperies up and down the garden with the same challenging air, while her husband, smoking innumerable cigarettes, dragged himself dejectedly in her wake; but neither of them, after the first encounter with Lady Susan, made any attempt to extend their acquaintance. They simply ignored their ignorers. As Miss Pinsent resentfully observed, they behaved exactly as though the hotel were empty.
It was therefore a matter of surprise, as well as of displeasure, to Lydia, to find, on glancing up one day from her seat in the garden, that the shadow which had fallen across her book was that of the enigmatic Mrs. Linton.
"I want to speak to you," that lady said, in a rich hard voice that seemed the audible expression of her gown and her complexion.
Lydia started. She certainly did not want to speak to Mrs. Linton.
"Shall I sit down here?" the latter continued, fixing her intensely-shaded eyes on Lydia's face, "or are you afraid of being seen with me?"
"Afraid?" Lydia colored. "Sit down, please. What is it that you wish to say?"
Mrs. Linton, with a smile, drew up a garden chair and crossed one openwork ankle above the other.
"I want you to tell me what my husband said to your husband last night."
Lydia turned pale.
"My husband to yours?" she faltered, staring at the other.
"Didn't you know they were closeted together for hours in the smoking room after you went upstairs? My man didn't get to bed until nearly two o'clock and when he did I couldn't get a word out of him. When he wants to be aggravating I'll back him against anybody living!" Her teeth and eyes flashed persuasively upon Lydia. "But you'll tell me what they were talking about, won't you? I know I can trust you you look so awfully kind. And it's for his own good. He's such a precious donkey and I'm so afraid he's got into some beastly scrape or other. If he'd only trust his own old woman! But they're always writing to him and setting him against me. And I've got nobody to turn to." She laid her hand on Lydia's with a rattle of bracelets. "You'll help me, won't you?"
Lydia drew back from the smiling fierceness of her brows.
"I'm sorry but I don't think I understand. My husband has said nothing to me of of yours."
The great black crescents above Mrs. Linton's eyes met angrily.
"I say is that true?" she demanded.
Lydia rose from her seat.
"Oh, look here, I didn't mean that, you know you mustn't take one up so! Can't you see how rattled I am?"
Lydia saw that, in fact, her beautiful mouth was quivering beneath softened eyes.
"I'm beside myself!" the splendid creature wailed, dropping into her seat.
"I'm so sorry," Lydia repeated, forcing herself to speak kindly; "but how can I help you?"
Mrs. Linton raised her head sharply.
"By finding out there's a darling!"
"Finding what out?"
"What Trevenna told him."
"Trevenna ?" Lydia echoed in bewilderment.
Mrs. Linton clapped her hand to her mouth.
"Oh, Lord there, it's out! What a fool I am! But I supposed of course you knew; I supposed everybody knew." She dried her eyes and bridled. "Didn't you know that he's Lord Trevenna? I'm Mrs. Cope."
Lydia recognized the names. They had figured in a flamboyant elopement which had thrilled fashionable London some six months earlier.
"Now you see how it is you understand, don't you?" Mrs. Cope continued on a note of appeal. "I knew you would that's the reason I came to you. I suppose he felt the same thing about your husband; he's not spoken to another soul in the place." Her face grew anxious again. "He's awfully sensitive, generally he feels our position, he says as if it wasn't my place to feel that! But when he does get talking there's no knowing what he'll say. I know he's been brooding over something lately, and I must find out what it is it's to his interest that I should. I always tell him that I think only of his interest; if he'd only trust me! But he's been so odd lately I can't think what he's plotting. You will help me, dear?"
Lydia, who had remained standing, looked away uncomfortably.
"If you mean by finding out what Lord Trevenna has told my husband, I'm afraid it's impossible."
"Because I infer that is was told in confidence."
Mrs. Cope stared incredulously.
"Well, what of that? Your husband looks such a dear anyone can see he's awfully gone on you. What's to prevent your getting it out of him?"
"I'm not a spy!" she exclaimed.
"A spy a spy? How dare you?" Mrs. Cope flamed out. "Oh, I don't mean that either! Don't be angry with me I'm so miserable." She essayed a softer note. "Do you call that spying for one woman to help out another? I do need help so dreadfully! I'm at my wits' end with Trevenna, I am indeed. He's such a boy a mere baby, you know; he's only two-and-twenty." She dropped her orbed lids. "He's younger than me only fancy, a few months younger. I tell him he ought to listen to me as if I was his mother, oughtn't he now? But he won't, he won't! All his people are at him, you see oh, I know their little game! Trying to get him away from me before I can get my divorce that's what they're up to. At first he wouldn't listen to them; he used to toss their letters over to me to read; but now he reads them himself, and answers 'em too, I fancy; he's always shut up in his room, writing. If I only knew what his plan is I could stop him fa! st enough he's such a simpleton. But he's dreadfully deep too at times I can't make him out. but I know he's told your husband everything I knew that last night the minute I laid eyes on him. And I must find out you must help me I've got no one else to turn to!"
She caught Lydia's fingers in a stormy pressure.
"Say you'll help me you and your husband."
Lydia tried to free herself.
"What you ask is impossible; you must see that it is. No one could interfere in in the way you ask."
Mrs. Cope's clutch tightened.
"You won't, then? You won't?"
"Certainly not. Let me go, please."
Mrs. Cope released her with a laugh.
"Oh, go by all means pray don't let me detain you! Shall you go and tell Lady Susan Condit that there's a pair of us or shall I save you the trouble of enlightening her?"
Lydia stood still in the middle of the path, seeing her antagonist through a mist of terror. Mrs. Cope was still laughing.
"Oh, I'm not spiteful by nature, my dear; but you're a little more than flesh and blood can stand! It's impossible, is it? Let you go, indeed! You're too good to be mixed up in my affairs, are you? Why, you little fool, the first day I laid eyes on you I saw that you and I were both in the same box that's the reason I spoke to you."
She stepped nearer, her smile dilating on Lydia like a lamp through a fog.
"You can take your choice, you know; I always play fair. If you'll tell I'll promise not to. Now then, which is it to be?"
Lydia, involuntarily, had begun to move away from the pelting storm of words; but at this she turned and sat down again.
"You may go," she said simply. "I shall stay here."
She stayed there for a long time, in the hypnotized contemplation, not of Mrs. Cope's present, but of her own past. Gannett, early that morning, had gone off on a long walk he had fallen into the habit of taking these mountain tramps with various fellow lodgers; but even had he been within reach she could not have gone to him just then. She had to deal with herself first. She was surprised to find how, in the last months, she had lost the habit of introspection. Since their coming to the Hotel Bellosguardo she and Gannett had tacitly avoided themselves and each other.
She was aroused by the whistle of the three o'clock steamboat as it neared the landing just beyond the hotel gates. Three o'clock! Then Gannett would soon be back he had told her to expect him before four. She rose hurriedly, her face averted from the inquisitorial facade of the hotel. She could not see him just yet; she could not go indoors. She slipped through one of the overgrown garden alleys and climbed a steep path to the hills.
It was dark when she opened their sitting-room door. Gannett was sitting on the window ledge smoking a cigarette. Cigarettes were now his chief resource: he had not written a line during the two months they had spent at the Hotel Bellosguardo. In that respect, it had turned out not to be the right milieu after all.
He started up at Lydia's entrance.
"Where have you been? I was getting anxious."
She sat down in a chair near the door.
"Up the mountain," she said wearily.
Gannett threw away his cigarette: the sound of her voice made him want to see her face.
"Shall we have a little light?" he suggested.
She made no answer and he lifted the globe from the lamp and put a match to the wick. Then he looked at her.
"Anything wrong? You look done up."
She sat glancing vaguely about the little sitting room, dimly lit by the pallid-globed lamp, which left in twilight the outlines of the furniture, of his writing table heaped with books and papers, of the tea roses and jasmine drooping on the mantelpiece. How like home it had all grown how like home!
"Lydia, what is wrong?" he repeated.
She moved away from him, feeling for her hatpins and turning to lay her hat and sunshade on the table.
Suddenly she said: "That woman has been talking to me."
"That woman? What woman?"
"Mrs. Linton Mrs. Cope."
He gave a start of annoyance, still, as she perceived, not grasping the full import of her words.
"The deuce! She told you ?"
"She told me everything."
Gannett looked at her anxiously.
"What impudence! I'm so sorry that you should have been exposed to this, dear."
"Exposed!" Lydia laughed.
Gannett's brow clouded and they looked away from each other.
"Do you know why she told me? She had the best of reasons. The first time she laid eyes on me she saw that we were both in the same box."
"So it was natural, of course, that she should turn to me in a difficulty."
"It seems she has reason to think that Lord Trevenna's people are trying to get him away from her before she gets her divorce "
"And she fancied he had been consulting with you last night as to as to the best way of escaping from her."
Gannett stood up with an angry forehead.
"Well what concern of yours was all this dirty business? Why should she go to you?"
"Don't you see? It's so simple. I was to wheedle his secret out of you."
"To oblige that woman?"
"Yes; or, if I was unwilling to oblige her, then to protect myself."
"To protect yourself? Against whom?"
"Against her telling everyone in the hotel that she and I are in the same box."
"She threatened that?"
"She left me the choice of telling it myself or of doing it for me."
There was a long silence. Lydia had seated herself on the sofa, beyond the radius of the lamp, and he leaned against the window. His next question surprised her.
"When did this happen? At what time, I mean?"
She looked at him vaguely.
"I don't know after luncheon, I think. Yes, I remember, it must have been at about three o'clock."
He stepped into the middle of the room and as he approached the light she saw that his brow had cleared.
"Why do you ask?" she said.
"Because when I came in, at about half-past three, the mail was just being distributed, and Mrs. Cope was waiting as usual to pounce on her letters; you know she was always watching for the postman. She was standing so close to me that I couldn't help seeing a big official-looking envelope that was handed to her. She tore it open, gave one look at the inside, and rushed off upstairs like a whirlwind, with the director shouting after her that she had left all her other letters behind. I don't believe she ever thought of you again after that paper was put into her hand."
"Because she was too busy. I was sitting in the window , watching for you, when the five o'clock boat left, and who should go on board, bag and baggage, valet and maid, dressing bags and poodle, but Mrs. Cope and Trevenna. Just an hour and a half to pack up in! And you should have seen her when they started. She was radiant shaking hands with everybody waving her handkerchief from the deck 8212distributing bows and smiles like an empress. If ever a woman got what she wanted just in the nick of time that woman did. She'll be Lady Trevenna within a week, I'll wager."
"You think she has her divorce?"
"I'm sure of it. And she must have got it just after her talk with you."
Lydia was silent.
At length she said, with a kind of reluctance, "She was horribly angry when she left me. It wouldn't have taken long to tell Lady Susan Condit."
"Lady Susan Condit has not been told."
"How do you you know."
"Because when I went downstairs half an hour ago I met Lady Susan on the way "
He stopped, half smiling.
"And she stopped to ask if I thought you would act as patroness to a charity concert she is getting up."
In spite of themselves they both broke into a laugh. Lydia's ended in sobs and she sank down with her face hidden. Gannett bent over her, seeking her hands.
"That vile woman I ought to have warned you to keep away from her; I can't forgive myself! But he spoke to me in confidence; and I never dreamed well, it's all over now."
Lydia lifted her head.
"Not for me. It's only just beginning."
"What do you mean?"
She put him gently aside and moved in her turn to the window. Then she went on, with her face turned toward the shimmering blackness of the lake, "You see of course that it might happen again at any moment."
"This this risk of being found out. And we could hardly count again on such a lucky combination of chances, could we?"
He sat down with a groan.
Still keeping her face toward the darkness, she said, "I want you to go and tell Lady Susan and the others."
Gannett, who had moved towards her, paused a few feet off.
"Why do you wish me to do this?" he said at length, with less surprise in his voice than she had been prepared for.
"Because I've behaved basely, abominably, since we came here: letting these people believe we were married lying with every breath I drew "
"Yes, I've felt that too," Gannett exclaimed with sudden energy.
The words shook her like a tempest: all her thoughts seemed to fall about her in ruins.
"You you've felt so?"
"Of course I have." He spoke with low-voiced vehemence. "Do you suppose I like playing the sneak any better than you do? It's damnable."
He had dropped on the arm of a chair, and they stared at each other like blind people who suddenly see.
"But you have liked it here," she faltered.
"Oh, I've liked it I've liked it." He moved impatiently. "Haven't you?"
"Yes," she burst out; "that's the worst of it that's what I can't bear. I fancied it was for your sake that I insisted on staying because you thought you could write here; and perhaps just at first that really was the reason. But afterwards I wanted to stay myself I loved it." She broke into a laugh. "Oh, do you see the full derision of it? These people the very prototypes of the bores you took me away from, with the same fenced-in view of life, the same keep-off-the-grass morality, the same little cautious virtues and the same little frightened vices well, I've clung to them, I've delighted in them, I've done my best to please them. I've toadied Lady Susan, I've gossiped with Miss Pinsent, I've pretended to be shocked with Mrs. Ainger. Respectability! It was the one thing in life that I was sure I didn't care about, and it's grown so precious to me that I've stolen it because I couldn't get it any other way."
She moved across the room and returned to his side with another laugh.
"I who used to fancy myself unconventional! I must have been born with a cardcase in my hand. You should have seen me with that poor woman in the garden. She came to me for help, poor creature, because she fancied that, having 'sinned,' as they call it, I might feel some pity for others who had been tempted in the same way. Not I! She didn't know me. Lady Susan would have been kinder, because Lady Susan wouldn't have been afraid. I hated the woman my one thought was not to be seen with her I could have killed her for guessing my secret. The one thing that mattered to me at that moment was my standing with Lady Susan!"
Gannett did not speak.
"And you you've felt it too!" she broke out accusingly. "You've enjoyed being with these people as much as I have; you've let the chaplain talk to you by the hour about The Reign of Law and Professor Drummond. When they asked you to hand the plate in church I was watching you you wanted to accept."
She stepped close, laying her hand on his arm.
"Do you know, I begin to see what marriage is for. It's to keep people away from each other. Sometimes I think that two people who love each other can be saved from madness only by the things that come between them children, duties, visits, bores, relations the things that protect married people from each other. We've been too close together-that has been our sin. We've seen the nakedness of each other's souls."
She sank again on the sofa, hiding her face in her hands.
Gannett stood above her perplexedly: he felt as though she were being swept away by some implacable current while he stood helpless on its bank.
At length he said, "Lydia, don't think me a brute but don't you see yourself that it won't do?"
"Yes, I see it won't do," she said without raising her head.
His face cleared.
"Then we'll go tomorrow."
"To Paris; to be married."
For a long time she made no answer; then she asked slowly, "Would they have us here if we were married?"
"Have us here?"
"I mean Lady Susan and the others."
"Have us here? Of course they would."
"Not if they knew at least, not unless they could pretend not to know."
He made an impatient gesture.
"We shouldn't come back here, of course; and other people needn't know no one need know."
She sighed. "Then it's only another form of deception and a meaner one. Don't you see that?"
"I see that we're not accountable to any Lady Susans on earth!"
"Then why are you ashamed of what we are doing here?"
"Because I'm sick of pretending that you're my wife when you're not when you won't be."
She looked at him sadly.
"If I were your wife you'd have to go on pretending. You'd have to pretend that I'd never been anything else. And our friends would have to pretend that they believed what you pretended."
Gannett pulled off the sofa tassel and flung it away.
"You're impossible," he groaned.
"It's not I it's our being together that's impossible. I only want you to see that marriage won't help it."
"What will help it then?"
She raised her head.
"My leaving you."
"Your leaving me?" He sat motionless, staring at the tassel which lay at the other end of the room. At length some impulse of retaliation for the pain she was inflicting made him say deliberately:
"And where would you go if you left me?"
"Oh!" she cried.
He was at her side in an instant.
"Lydia Lydia you know I didn't mean it; I couldn't mean it! But you've driven me out of my senses; I don't know what I'm saying. Can't you get out of this labyrinth of self-torture? It's destroying us both."
"That's why I must leave you."
"How easily you say it!" He drew her hands down and made her face him. "You're very scrupulous about yourself and others. But have you thought of me? You have no right to leave me unless you've ceased to care "
"It's because I care "
"Then I have a right to be heard. If you love me you can't leave me."
Her eyes defied him.
He dropped her hands and rose from her side.
"Can you?" he said sadly.
The hour was late and the lamp flickered and sank. She stood up with a shiver and turned toward the door of her room.
At daylight a sound in Lydia's room woke Ganett from a troubled sleep. He sat up and listened. She was moving about softly, as though fearful of disturbing him. He heard her push back one of the creaking shutters; then there was a moment's silence, which seemed to indicate that she was waiting to see if the noise had roused him.
Presently she began to move again. She had spent a sleepless night, probably, and was dressing to go down to the garden for a breath of air. Gannett rose also; but some undefinable instinct made his movements as cautious as hers. He stole to his window and looked out through the slats of the shutter.
It had rained in the night and the dawn was gray and lifeless. The cloud-muffled hills across the lake were reflected in its surface as in a tarnished mirror. In the garden, the birds were beginning to shake the drops from the motionless laurustinus boughs.
An immense pity for Lydia filled Gannett's soul. Her seeming intellectual independence had blinded him for a time to the feminine cast of her mind. He had never thought of her as a woman who wept and clung: there was a lucidity in her intuitions that made them appear to be the result of reasoning. Now he saw the cruelty he had committed in detaching her from the normal conditions of life; he felt, too, the insight with which she had hit upon the real cause of their suffering. Their life was "impossible," as she had said and its worst penalty was that it had made any other life impossible for them. Even had his love lessened, he was bound to her now by a hundred ties of pity and self-reproach; and she, poor child, must turn back to him as Latude returned to his cell.
A new sound startled him: it was the stealthy closing of Lydia's door. He crept to his own and heard her footsteps passing down the corridor. Then he went back to the window and looked out.
A minute or two later he saw her go down the steps of the porch and enter the garden. From his post of observation her face was invisible, but something about her appearance struck him. She wore a long traveling cloak and under its folds he detected the outline of a bag or bundle. He drew a deep breath and stood watching her.
She walked quickly down the laurustinus alley toward the gate; there she paused a moment, glancing about the little shady square. The stone benches under the trees were empty, and she seemed to gather resolution from the solitude about her, for she crossed the square to the steamboat landing, and he saw her pause before the ticket office at the head of the wharf. Now she was buying her ticket. Gannett turned his head a moment to look at the clock: the boat was due in five minutes. He had time to jump into his clothes and overtake her
He made no attempt to move; an obscure reluctance restrained him. If any thought emerged from the tumult of his sensations, it was that he must let her go if she wished it. He had spoken last night of his rights: what were they? At the last issue, he and she were two separate beings, not made one by the miracle of common forbearances, duties, abnegations, but bound together in a noyade of passion that left them resisting yet clinging as they went down.
After buying her ticket, Lydia had stood for a moment looking out across the lake; then he saw her seat herself on one of the benches near the landing. He and she, at that moment, were both listening for the same sound: the whistle of the boat as it rounded the nearest promontory. Gannett turned again to glance at the clock: the boat was due now.
Where would she go? What would her life be when she had left him? She had no near relations and few friends. There was money enough . . . but she asked so much of life, in ways so complex and immaterial. He thought of her as walking barefooted through a stony waste. No one would understand her no one would pity her and he, who did both, was powerless to come to her aid.
He saw that she had risen from the bench and walked toward the edge of the lake. She stood looking in the direction from which the steamboat was to come; then she turned to the ticket office, doubtless to ask the cause of the delay. After that she went back to the bench and sat down with bent head. What was she thinking of?
The whistle sounded; she started up, and Gannett involuntarily made a movement toward the door. But he turned back and continued to watch her. She stood motionless, her eyes on the trail of smoke that preceded the appearance of the boat. Then the little craft rounded the point, a dead white object on the leaden water: a minute later it was puffing and backing at the wharf.
The few passengers who were waiting two or three peasants and a snuffy priest were clustered near the ticket office. Lydia stood apart under the trees.
The boat lay alongside now; the gangplank was run out and the peasants went on board with their baskets of vegetables, followed by the priest. Still Lydia did not move. A bell began to ring querulously; there was a shriek of steam, and someone must have called to her that she would be late, for she started forward, as though in answer to a summons. She moved waveringly, and at the edge of the wharf she paused. Gannett saw a sailor beckon to her; the bell rang again and she stepped upon the gangplank.
Halfway down the short incline to the deck she stopped again; then she turned and ran back to the land. The gangplank was drawn in, the bell ceased to ring, and the boat backed out into the lake. Lydia, with slow steps, was walking toward the garden.
As she approached the hotel she looked up furtively and Gannett drew back into the room. He sat down beside a table; a Bradshaw lay at his elbow, and mechanically, without knowing what he did, he began looking out the trains to Paris.
This page, and all contents (except, naturally, the stories), are © B&L Associates, Bangor, Maine, U.S.A.
All Rights Reserved.