A FORM was stirring among the tall blackberry bushes, when they regained the empty house, which was not that of Star or the Nameless Gray. It proved to be the noxious student with eyes like a bug’s, who had inconvenienced the Fenns at the tea-table, two evenings before, and was now browsing upon the vines with joyless diligence.
He looked up, saw them both, recognized Fenn, and resumed his eating.
“ How did that insect ever get up here ? ” wondered the chemist. “ Can it be his habitat ? ” And he was smitten with an unpleasant apprehension as to the rumors which might find their way to the hotel from this source. He made haste to lead up Star for Anice to mount.
Holding out his gloved hand for her to rest her foot upon, he gazed at her with vague entreaty; and she responded with so kind and clear a glance that he was reassured.
“ You will dine with us, won’t you ? ” she said, when they had ridden a little way. Her cheerfulness was returning.
Fenn had an uneasy belief that he ought not to go again so soon ; but he could not resist. “ Thank you,” he said. " That will be much pleasanter than waiting alone at the hotel.”
They did not talk much, on their way to the farm, but whatever the slight cloud had been which had floated between them, it was gone now ; and this was enough for Fenn. This woman who had so enthralled him had already become his conscience. If she was not offended, he did not care what other power or being might condemn him.
Mr. Evans was at dinner, and to be alone with them in this way carried the young man back to the situation of eight years ago. The elder man’s aspect was precisely what it had been at that time ; he may have had a few more wrinkles and become a little dryer in the skin, but he gave the impression of having been thinly coated over with some preservative gum, which produced a wonderful semblance of arrested maturity that could not alter. Hitherto, Fenn had been aware that Anice and himself had grown older, sadder; that the texture of their characters was more complex, and a correspondence of sympathies less surely to be relied upon. But to-day Mr. Evans’s air of permanence and fresh conservation put all this in the light of an illusion. Fenn was inspired to be as young and free as he had been long ago.
As if he, too, shared in this glamour of the moment, and felt bound to trust the young people to their own devices, the father retired soon after dinner, leaving his daughter and her admirer alone. They talked of his profession, for a while : Anice becoming seriously interested in his account of what he had already done, of his ambitions and the interest of his studies ; and she in her turn revealed, with greater certainty and a more hopeful eagerness than during their talk in the woods, her own wish to become something more than a creature of social accident, an after-thought of fate.
“ Have you ever thought of using your voice on the stage ? ” Fenn asked, with an absorbed air.
“ Oh, often. I don’t underrate the difficulty of success in that art,” said she ; “ but it seems too easy a thing for me individually to enter into. I have the voice, and it may be some of the dramatic gift. But if I failed, I should have lost nothing: I should still be a person of society in New York, with opportunities for entertaining others and being entertained myself. I want to make a sacrifice. If I do anything, it must be an attempt in which failure would be very painful or ridiculous.”
“ Ah, you don’t know what you are speaking of, Anice,” he returned, using her name unconsciously, in the concentration of his thoughts. “ With us who have to succeed in order to live at all, there is no need of piling on the agony by making more difficulties than will come naturally.”
The sound of her name, which he had never uttered before, was welcome to her, much as she might have imagined she would reprove his using it. It struck a slumbering chord.“ Ah,” she sighed, “ that necessity for struggle, — that is what I lack ! You don’t know what it is to have no one to struggle for or with. I suppose I 'm wasting my strength on a chimerical idea of what I would like to do. But — what is there to live for ? ”
It was hard for a man to hear this, who found himself all at once ready to tell her to live for his own admiration or devotion. Fenn was greatly agitated.
“ Sing for me, — sing for me,” he begged, in a stifled voice, rising and going to the piano.
She obeyed. He could not have given her a better injunction. In dreamy succession she recalled and wafted through the room melodies of Abt and Franz and Jenssen and Schumann, poetic and impassioned, yet infinitely soothing, which seemed to lift both her and her listener into a more noble and a serener atmosphere.
And let our hot tears flow together.”
These words from one of the songs, shrouded in dim German syllables, unloosed those bonds that tie people down to their own personality: all the anguish and the holy sorrow of doomed or breaking hearts everywhere flowed through the young man, as, with some leaves of music held vacantly in his hands, he sat there and let the yearning harmony steal upon him.
If they could not exist together otherwise, they could live together for a time in this echoing world of music ; and the flood of emotion it brought did not weaken Fenn, — it was purifying.
When the last strain was over, he determined to go. Anice remained motionless at the piano ; he went towards her, and said, “ Thank you.” Tears were coming into her eyes, but she looked up at him. Impulsively he took her hand, touched it lightly with his lips, and left her. She did not stir ; and in a few moments she heard the clatter of his horse’s hoofs dying away on the bend of the road.
Arrived at his room, he plunged swiftly into his work, writing letters, making estimates, going through long calculations; and, quicker than he expected, the results were ready for mailing to Boston. He took his packets over to the little store, scented with molasses and soap, where the dignity of the government was represented by a cage of letter-boxes ; then he returned to the hotel entrance, and in a short time had the luxury of seeing the Athol stage arrive, jouncing on the top of its dusty red body a leather-colored suit of clothes in which the driver was encased, and several new holiday travelers.
He wondered when Ethel would return. He did not feel in the least wicked, though he was under peculiar excitement, and he looked forward with entire equanimity to encountering his wife. I shall not pretend to decide whether this indicated a hardened conscience. To what he knew were the conventional requirements he so far deferred as to hold a scattered discussion with himself, during the intervals of watching the stage and the lazy movements of people about the house or in the street. But this discussion was very one-sided. He persuaded himself that the world at large could not understand his particular situation, and therefore had no right to impose upon him arbitrary restrictions calculated on too rough a scale. What had he done ? He loved his wife; but could he not love Anice in another way ? Poets had been praised for such wealth of passion, and by enlarging it had contributed vastly to the delight and elevation of later generations. Society must trust the individual more, he told himself. Neither Goethe’s theory of a law of attraction, which Anice and Ethel had both condemned, nor the world’s theory of absolutely excluding mysterious unions like this which had grown up between himself and Mrs. Eulow, could be right. There must be a middle ground, where one could walk safely and with truth.
This conclusion was much more moderate than the impetuous and reckless visions of that morning, during the ride with Anice. He did not notice the fact ; but doubtless the relief of knowing that he had not repelled Anice, and the triumph of kissing her hand at parting, had steadied and given poise to his blind longings, and convinced him that he was satisfied with so much liberty.
It was dusk when Ethel returned with the picnic party. Fenn went forward buoyantly, helped her to alight, and, in the spontaneous pleasure of having her with him again, kissed her on the forehead under protection of the falling darkness.
“You have been a long time,” he said. It even seemed to him that he entertained a new tenderness for her.
“It has been so delicious,” she went on to tell him, as they made their way up-stairs. “ The trees come down to the lake all the way around, and make it lovely ; and then we went out sailing, and Mr. Sharon Reeves caught some little bits of fish, — the tiniest you ever saw, —in a row-boat ; and we had such fun with the lemonade and the ice and getting all the things ready. And, oh, Ben, the Pincotts were there, and what do you think ? Mr. Pincott painted a beautiful little picture of the lake, while we watched him ; and when I told him how much I liked it he said he would make me a copy for myself. He wanted that one for a study, but he’s going to make me a present of the one he paints from it. Is n’t that nice? ”
“Yes,” said Fenn; “but I shall ask him to do it as a commission.”
“ Oh, how delightful ! ” exclaimed Mrs. Fenn, in a miniature rapture. “ Our first order to a painter ! But I’m afraid you can’t afford it, Ben.”
“ No, I can’t. But neither can Pincott afford to give away his pictures. I’m afraid he has a hard time of it, supporting his family.”
“ Well, you have a pretty hard time, too, dear. But it’s real kind and good of you to want to pay him.”
“ I would like to own it that way,” said her husband candidly, and fully meaning what he said, “ because then I can feel that I ’ve had some share in your happiness to-day.”
Ethel was touched. “ That is generous,” she said, coming close to him, and putting her head against his shoulder. (They were now in their room.) “ Do you know, Ben, I missed you dreadfully, and at first I thought I ought not to have gone without you. I was so sorry, thinking of you all alone here.”
“ Ah, but I have n’t been alone all the time,” he returned, gayly.
“ Did you get through your work ? ”
“ Yes. But first I had a horseback ride.”
“ With Mrs. Eulow ? ” Ethel guessed, at once; and as she saw the surprised affirmative in his face, she went on, “ I ’m so glad ! Then you had a pleasant time, too.”
She patted his bearded cheek with her small hand, as if he were a novel and mysterious object, and she were anxious to find out whether the pleasant time had worked any change in him, that contact would disclose.
Fenn was driven to make excuses. “ I enjoyed it very much : but my first idea in getting the horse was to go after you and spend the day at the lake.”
“ Why did n’t you ? I’m sorry you had any second idea, if that was your first.”
“ Well, I felt rather blue ; and then there was the long ride to be taken alone ; and I did n’t feel sure you cared much about it.”
“ Oh, never think that, Ben, if I am cross,” said she, with a charming reproachfulness. “ But I’m glad you did what you felt like doing.”
Fenn was hardly prepared for this cheerful ease. But although in his interior councils he judged that she would have felt very differently had she known the unspoken history of that day’s emotions, he was extremely pleased at her behavior. It bade fair to allow him without a struggle all that liberty which he had been theorizing upon as desirable.
“ We both seem to have been very sensible,” he remarked, with a laugh.
“ And the horseback riding is a very good idea,” Ethel continued. " I believe I shall try it myself. Mr. Kingsmill and I were talking about it at the picnic, and he says there are no very good horses here, but he’s going to have two brought up from his uncle’s at Worcester.”
“ Oh,” responded her husband, not very warmly. For a moment he suspected that this was retaliation, but he soon saw that it was no more than a coincidence. Moreover, it would be in accord with his theory. “ What is this Kingsmill, any way ? ” he asked presently. “ Has he any profession ?”
“ His uncle is his profession,” said Ethel laughingly. “He has a large property, and Mr. Kingsmill is going to inherit it, — so Mrs. Dadmun tells me.”
“ And what does Mrs. Whidden say about it ? ”
“ The same.”
“ Oh, then it must be true,” said Fenn, with as much of a sneer as he thought the subject deserved. “ Those females are two negatives, and two negatives, you know ” —
“ I rather like them, in their way,” said his wife. “ They ’re not ill-natured, if they are gossipy.”
“ You would n’t think so, if they happened to select us for an object,” Fenn intimated. He strongly suspected that the much-bewrinkled Mrs. Dadmun and her scanty little friend would yet give him trouble.
“ But I don’t see,” objected Ethel, “ that their saying Mr. Kingsmill is going to inherit a lot of money is disagreeable, at all.”
“ No, it is n’t. But that was n’t the point, exactly.”
They were not to be put out by differences of opinion this evening, however. They retained their good spirits. A tremendous political discussion took place among a group of gentlemen, in the course of the evening, founded on the morning’s papers, in which most of the male boarders had been wrapped since the arrival of the stage; and they took great delight in advancing with all the vigor of originality the views contained in the latest editorials of their favorite sheets; but, singularly enough, no one seemed to be aware of the transparency of this process. One elderly merchant, who at home never read less than six newspapers a day, and generally as many as ten, had in his present remote abode been reduced to a meagre diet of two, and his intellect, in consequence, gave unmistakable signs of shrinkage. Another had been careful to subscribe to opposite partisan organs, for the campaign then pending ; and, being unable to make up his mind, from the information they gave, that either side was fit to be trusted, he acceded, during the progress of an hour’s talk, to nearly every proposition made by the rest of the disputants, and opposed in rotation each one that he had acceded to. But most of the controversialists had a very simple conception of national affairs, which was that there was a party of atrocious evil, and another so pure and beautiful as to have risen to the summit of human possibilities ; and they invariably considered themselves to belong to the second, to which they gave either name they liked best. But even this assumption did not prevent any of them from admitting that their own party had been guilty of indescribable corruption.
In all this Fenn thought he saw a reflection of the false side of society and human nature, — the same side which would oppose itself to his new opinions concerning the relations of men and women. At all events, if these opinions were deceptive, they derived support from the obvious self-delusion of such politics; and the young chemist found himself straying off into speculation as to whether much of the hypocrisy of certain phases in American life — swindling, embezzlement, and false pretenses in churches — be not aided by the readiness of the people to depend on the factious perversions and crude exaggerations of their political men and sundry of their journalistic prophets. From time to time he joined in the mêlée of alarms as to a new Southern war, charges of unconstitutionality, assertions of corruption, local or central tyranny, and clashing financial policies ; and, although he had not read the papers of the morning, he astonished the others by a little freshness and force of insight. But the amount of sham in the subject had a bad effect on him.
The next day rose in cold bluster and rain. The Institute became a scene of desperate idleness ; the wet wind groaned along its wooden sides, shaking blind and sash monotonously ; and the boarders not only groaned, but also yawned, within. Imprisoned in the commonplace hostelry, Ethel began to find even Kingsmill wearisome; and he was wise enough to retreat. She then had recourse, in company with other ladies, to the solace found in working out the soft perplexities of crochet. But Fenn was weighed down by a reaction from the excitement of the previous afternoon. Reading, games in the parlor, the society of a Dadmun or a Whidden, and of Miss Ibbit and Miss Hamill, were ineffectual to dispel his gloom and weariness. As a last resort, and to relax the stiffness that came from his ride, he got out some rubber boots, and went for a long walk through the wind that still spun across the ridge and slashed the air with sudden bursts of rain like fringed whips. But he set himself resolutely towards the quarter directly opposite to where Anice was. When he came back, late in the afternoon, drenched, glowing, and limber, Ethel showed him a note which had been brought up for her by a glistening man in an open cart.
It was from Mrs. Eulow. “ If Mr. Fenn is too busy to bring you down,” it said, “ why can you not spend the day with me to-morrow, if it clears ? ”
Nothing had been said about his expecting to be busy, and the inference was perforce that it would be judicious for him to become so.
“ You will go, of course,” he said.
“ Yes ; I expect to enjoy it immensely.”
Fenn did not mind this incident much, at first; but before long it began to annoy and puzzle him, and by the night he was consumed with a wish to accompany his wife, and see Anice once more.
At about ten in the morning, Ethel went out, prettily dressed in a dove-like suit, to keep the appointment, and he was left to himself. Ordinarily it would not have been hard for him to find employment for a few vacant hours ; and in fact, having come to the country to rest, it would have been sufficient occupation to lie on the ferns under the shady side of a rock and watch the changing shadows and colors of the hills, had his mind been at ease. But he could not compose himself to anything passive. He was obliged to attach himself to Miss Ibbit and Miss Hamill, who, being in several particulars good contrasts for each other, — Miss Ibbit pale and her friend pink, for example, — had grouped themselves together effectively for the summer. Kingsmill approaching after a time, the deserted husband proposed a game of croquet, and they all went out to the rough sward behind the Institute, where the wickets stood. Fenn came to the conclusion that Kingsmill was a gallant, amiable, and harmless young aristocrat; but the game did not interest him. If it had been dismal work passing a stormy day out of Anice’s society, it was still more tedious to undergo this exile under a clear sky. The odor of the hot grass, the click of mallets and balls, the well-modulated cries of satisfaction or dismay from the two young ladies, and Kingsmill’s painfully scientific shots like West Point experiments in gunnery, all wearied the chemist, instead of refreshing him. The bright sunlight was even more distressing than the cold rain had been, because so persistently cheerful.
They returned to the house for an uninteresting dinner, and then Fenn took a volume of history, and went out to an arbor which stood on a rise beyond the croquet-ground, amid the parched remains of what had once been a flowergarden. He smoked cigarettes and kept his finger in the book, but did not read a word : he had discovered that he could see the roof of the farm-house from the arbor.
Between four and five o’clock he marched in a straight line for the roof, descended the bank, and presented himself at the door.
“ You are late,” said the widow, coming out with Ethel; “ but still you are too early for Mrs. Fenn to go. Why did n’t you let us see a little of you before ? ”
Fenn was astounded. “ I found so much to do ” — he began, mendaciously, his dignity so much offended that truth would no longer protect it. “ Do you mean to say you expected me sooner ? ” he recommenced, turning from one to the other of the two women.
“ I’m sure I did n’t,” said Ethel, provokingly, but with a mollifying goodhumor in her eyes. “We’ve been so busy talking and embroidering and reading and singing that I did n’t notice the time.”
“ No, it was n’t on our account I meant,” said Anice, with her arm in her friend’s. “ I thought you might come for your own sake.”
“ Well, here I am, at any rate,” returned Fenn grimly. He was positively raging within. “ There’s no knowing how long I may be at your service, Ethel,” he added, with an attempt at a jesting tone, “so you’d better seize the opportunity to go home with me now.”
“ Upon my word, he’s getting very lofty! ” observed Ethel to Mrs. Eulow. “ The men have been so political up at the hotel, lately, it’s too bad. You don’t happen to know, Ben, that Mrs. Eulow and I have been talking woman’s rights, this afternoon.”
“ Ah ? I ’ll strike my flag at once, then. Come, Ethel, we really must make haste.” And accordingly the champion of feminine independence was taken away to get her things on.
Fenn was very silent on the way back. He thought he had been trifled with. For a time, he even admitted the suspicion that Mrs. Eulow had betrayed his indiscretion to his wife, and that the two had entered into a scheme for punishing him ; his head was in a whirl, and he was minded to do something violent, but the situation was too hopelessly intangible and placid to furnish any chance for this. Ethel’s recital of how the day had been passed convinced him that his suspicion was a foolish one. The widow and she had chatted quietly, had picked flowers and done fancy-work ; and then Anice had sung some plain little English and American songs, which Ethel liked. “ But I did n’t think she sang with much spirit,” Mrs. Fenn commented. “ I was n’t nearly so much impressed with her voice as I was the other day.”
Her husband was secretly flattered : he considered this a proof that Anice could not sing so well out of his presence, or would not do her best for any one but himself. Nevertheless, her manœuvre in dispensing with him during the day remained inexplicable to him.
Mrs. Eulow’s intention had, indeed, been a mixed one. Her recent scenes with Fenn had startled her; she instinctively sought some means for keeping him at greater distance without breaking their intercourse abruptly. She also felt a genuine interest in Ethel, and some curiosity to know her better ; and to see her alone offered just the temporary protection she wanted. What she should do in the end she did not know ; it was not part of her plan to dispense altogether with the peculiar relation which had so unexpectedly drawn the chemist and herself closer than they had ever been. It had come spontaneously ; she had not willed it; it had as much power over her as it had over him. The widow had already gone so far as to think, albeit with no cool deliberation, that she had a certain kind of right to some amends for the inconsiderate plainness with which he had banished sentiment from their view of each other, long ago. If he chose to import it at this late date, she would receive so much of it as might form a proper tribute, without letting it become an embarrassment or a source of pain to any one. It ought, fairly, to be said that she was as honest as most people are in intricate crises where their own passions or pride are actively engaged ; and she fancied that by strengthening a friendship with Ethel she would be able to conduct herself with justice towards the wife.
It is easy to see inconsistencies or mistakes when they are written down plainly, but it is quite another matter to read them as clearly in our own instinctive actions and feelings, or in the casual outside knowledge we get of those with whom we are going through the incidental and unshaped record of daily life.
The effect of Mrs. Eulow’s precaution upon Fenn was dangerous. “ If she is making fun of me, or using any artifice,” he declared to himself, “ I have ended with her!” He imagined that what she had done diminished his regard for her perceptibly. But, in reality, it only stung him into renewed excitement. His mind became fixed upon the aim of probing to the bottom the nature of her feeling for him.
In the quiet, sunless hours when Tanford slept, and the wide earth moved noiselessly, bearing along with it the grotesque hotel and all its inmates, and the little room where Fenn and Ethel lay, — that was the time when his passion grew. Alone with his wife, whom he would have cherished in any manifest sorrow as he would a dearly loved child, this dark infatuation asserted itself even more boldly than it might have done in her absence.
Through the open window floated the wandering perfume of night-scented balsams, in a garden by one of the meek village houses across the road, and the crickets trilled plaintively from farther away in the fields, as if with a prevision of summer’s transitoriness; while, lying awake and motionless, Fenn’s heart burned with anguish for the wife whom he was tacitly wronging, and glowed with an insensate prepossession when he thought of Anice. Like the flower that delivered its sweetness only to the night, he yielded up his spirit in the darkness to this fatal passion more ardently than in the healthful brightness of daylight.
Ah, human nature, — prosaic, lighthearted, tear-bringing human nature ! — how easily we take you up in our hands, and think we understand you ; and how easily you evade us, because in you too there is a day-time and a night-time, and we cannot look upon you in both at once ! Fenn had yet to learn that the man who persuades himself that he loves his wife at the same time that he is yielding to another woman’s fascination stands in even more seductive peril than he who wholly loses his attachment to the one, while aware of the pitfall prepared for him.
The storm, by confining the Dadmun and Whidden intellect to the house, had generated an atmosphere favorable to gossip. These ladies, with sundry others of a congenial kind who were present, came to the country annually to “ recuperate,” — a process in which so many women pass their entire lives; but they usually found so much charitable work awaiting them, in the way of regulating the behavior of their immediate neighbors, that it is doubtful whether they ever got much benefit from their migrations.
While Fenn had been playing croquet with Kingsmill and the young ladies, these regulators were stitching and knitting in the parlor. There was a piano there, which had worn out many young women of the winter academy, who had hammered away valuable hours on its faded key-board, and it had itself been nearly exhausted of tunefulness by these means; but the stiff young collegian, heretofore mentioned, was playing on it with a specious and unmeaning brilliancy.
“ That young Gregg plays very nicely,” remarked Mrs. Whidden. “ I think it’s a very good thing for young men ; don’t you ? ”
“ Yes,” said the other, catching a stitch.
“It keeps them,” Mrs. Whidden began, “ out of ” —
“ But I don’t like them to play too much,” interrupted Mrs. Dadmun, with a severe sense of what was desirable. She always knew exactly what was desirable for everybody.
“ No ? ”
“ Oh, no ; not to be musicians.” Mrs. Dadmun’s tone was one of grave disapproval, to be justified only in a person whose standard of social dignity was rigid.
“ Dear me, no,” assented her friend. “ But it’s a specially nice accomplishment for young men. It occupies them, and keeps them out of ” —
Mrs. Whidden here introduced a significant pause, a sort of blank form, which Mrs. Dadmun promptly filled up with an emphatic, “ Oh, yes ; yes ! ”
Having thus whetted their appetites by the contemplation of this innocent and exemplary young man, they began to discuss the Fenns.
“ It seems a little odd,” said one of the other women in the group, “ that Mr. Fenn should have stayed away from the picnic, and now here he is passing his time with young unmarried ladies, while his wife has gone away, apparently for the day.”
Three days earlier, this same critic had been finding fault because the Fenns were so much wrapped up in each other, and did not join with a community of feeling in the life of the Institute. But that did not prevent a general ratification of the idea that they were at present going on very unwisely. Several nice ethical and social points were carefully debated, in this connection, and settled to the satisfaction of the group, but rather to the damage of Mr. and Mrs. Fenn.
The collegian of the vitreous eye, whose playing was so entirely mechanical that he had been able to attend to the whole conversation across the room, left the piano and came over to the gossips.
“ Do any of you ladies know this Mrs. Eulow ? ” he asked in a scrannel voice.
“ No,” said Mrs. Dadmun, composing her wrinkles with comfortable disdain.
The rest remained silent, leaving it to be presumed that it was a great blessing that they did n’t know her.
“ Oh, I ’m sorry,” said Gregg, dropping his eye-glasses. “I was hoping I should be able to get an introduction to her.” The presumption of this gave a shock even to the critics who heard him. “ I would like to know her very much,” Gregg went on piping. “ She is handsome, you know, — very.” The ladies were rapidly becoming annoyed at Gregg. “ I think I saw her yesterday, with Mr. Fenn,” he concluded, reserving this for the last shot.
The junto, from being disdainful and displeased, became all alert, Some looked sharply at one another, and others exclaimed, “ You did ! Where ? ”
The noxious youth enjoyed his momentary power, though he pretended to be unaware of it. He contrived to impart very slowly the story of his discovering Fenn and the widow in their lonely excursion on the mountain. It was only on sufferance, however, that he was admitted to the confidence of the group even far enough to give them this information; and when it was done, a tardy sense of the fitness of things caused him to glide away.
Three weeks passed, and during that period the watchful eyes of the feminine police had much to observe which was not at all what they would have any one suppose they liked ; but, fortunately or unfortunately, they were a police without the power of arrest. Otherwise, they must inevitably have taken into custody not only Fenn and Mrs. Eulow, but Mrs. Fenn and Kingsmill, in addition.
Ethel was a person of little experience, who absorbed whatever came into her life that was agreeable, in an unconscious, dreamy way. She of course did not hesitate to take a drive with the fatherly Mr. Evans in his light buggy, but she had no greater fear of riding on horseback in company with Mr. Arthur Kingsmill. He, on his part, was a chivalrous young man, whose chief defect was that he required several square miles of country, or a crowded drawingroom, to bring him into effective relief, but who took a reasonable and healthy delight in the society of an unaffected and pretty young married woman. When his uncle’s horses came up from Worcester, he considerately placed them at the disposal of Fenn and his wife, in the beginning; and Ethel practiced a little with her husband, to regain her seat in the saddle. After this, there were one or two parties made, in which both they and Mrs. Eulow and Kingsmill joined. But it was not always easy to form a cavalcade of four at the same time ; and even when they went out together, each pair was alone during so much of the ride that Ethel saw no remarkable difference between this and going with only Kingsmill.
But somehow it happened too frequently, after this custom had been adopted, that Fenn and Mrs. Eulow went out alone also, when there was no very good reason why they should not have joined the others. Besides, Ethel took her rides less often, and rather as a diversion forced upon her by Fenn’s constant attentions to Mrs. Eulow. When she stayed at home, however, there was no more escape for her from the strictures of her gossiping acquaintances than when she rode ; for Kingsmill still managed to be near her most of the time; his customary attendance on her being now rendered more thoughtful by the compassion he began to feel at seeing her comparatively neglected by her husband.
Anice and her father had been invited to dine at the hotel two or three times, as a meagre recognition of their hospitality. They saw something more of the people there, and liked Kingsmill, who strolled over to the farm for tea with the Fenns. Mrs. Dadmun and some of her friends were asked to call, and always treated Mr. Evans and his daughter with distinguishing cordiality when they met: this gave them a soothing sense of justice in their subsequent severe condemnation of the widow, among themselves. For the four people under surveillance were of course mingling with the rest all the time, and underwent not even the mildest ostracism. There were more picnics, games of croquet, small teas at different houses, groups of æsthetic talkers at Pincott’s, in the evening ; there was a choice of two churches on Sunday, and these being only half filled Sharon Reeves was encouraged to organize an impromptu chapel at the Institute. There was an entertainment by the village dramatic club, in which “ statuary ” appeared against a screen of black cambric, in the glare of red or blue fire, while the audience was nearly suffocated with the smoke ; and there were card parties and political discussions at the hotel. These were the social diversions, — not the most brilliant in the world, but still offering a good deal of entertainment and relaxation to people who knew how to use them, and who had had enough of stimulation and to spare during the town winters. But the best of the summer was in the rides, the drives, and the walks, — the last revealing the most things of natural interest and beauty in the surrounding territory ; and, strange to say, those persons among the floating population who had traveled in Europe, and otherwise cultivated their sensibilities to good purpose, were among the ones who appeared most contented with simple out-door enjoyment, watched for the wild American sunsets with the most eagerness, and found a source of pleasure in the homely barns filling with new hay ; the drowsiness of the village ; the occasional sheep and numerous cattle grazing on the strongly moulded hills, where perhaps a tall white birch rose up with classic slenderness to shadow them.
Pincott, whose gentle eyes had dwelt upon the rich impasting of color on Roman ruins and the delicate-tinted distances of the Campagna and the Alps, slipped lovingly and quietly as a sunbeam from nook to nook of these unstoried highlands, and, like the sunbeam, made a picture wherever he went. It was in the little parlor at his boardingplace, the walls of which he had coated with a glinting mail of color-studies, where Mrs. Pincott had also disposed bits of artistic needle-work and æsthetic fabrics to conceal the harsh barrenness of the rustic room, that there arose a short discussion, one evening, which had a special meaning for Fenn.
His wife was there, with Mrs. Eulow and Kingsmill; and by some chance the incongruous Mrs. Dadmun was also reposing her baggy skirts in one of the tapestried chairs. The talk turned for a moment to the instance of some distinguished artistic people abroad, among whom a singular affair had occurred ; one man resigning his wife to another because he found that she loved his friend.
“I can’t understand such a thing,” said Mrs. Pincott.
“ It couldn’t happen in this country,” the artist observed. “ And it seems to me that that proves the advantage of our freer manners. Where the safeguards are so much more strictly insisted upon, it results often in a violent reaction or an extraordinary assertion of liberty, now and then, among the people of greatest intellect and finest character.”
“ I never heard of a woman giving up her husband in that way,” said Fenn, musingly. “ It is a great deal harder to imagine that happening. Why is it ? ”
“ Perhaps women are not so generous as men,” hazarded Ethel, in a tone the distant, interior sadness of which roused her husband to wonder.
“ Do you call it generous ? ” Mrs. Dadmun demanded, indignantly. She was scandalized that such a theme should be discussed at all. Matters of this kind, she held, should be deplored at great length, and with judicious dwelling upon details, in a select, confidential circle of women; hut any approach to a philosophical consideration of them she resented as dangerous.
“ I meant, taking it in the noblest sense, — supposing it to be done with pure self-sacrifice.” Again Fenn was surprised. Could this be his ardent, prejudiced little wife who was speaking?
“ It might be just as true,” suggested Mrs. Eulow, “ to say that they are more devoted, and that that makes them more exacting.”
Ethel looked up at her gently and steadily, and smiled; but there was a strange pensiveness in the smile, though she seemed to be thanking Anice for what she had said.
Mrs. Pincott, who occupied neutral ground, rallied to the attack with, “ Oh, it’s all wrong, very wrong. There is no way of excusing it.”
“ A woman who consents to such a very improper thing,” asserted Mrs. Dadmun, the ribbons on top of her head frowning loftily as she spoke, “ can have no heart. She is not worthy the name.”
“ I think that’s too harsh,” said Fenn. “ Might n’t it be possible that she loved her husband and his friend both, but in different ways ? ”
“ If she did, she’d better have just turned the ways around, then,” said the regulator of society, aptly enough. “ But really, Mr. Fenn, I don’t see what good these questions do. I can’t talk of it.”
Pincott yielded to a malicious desire to plague her. “ Men,” he said, taking up a drawing with which he meant to change the subject, “ have been known to be in love with two women at once, or to fancy they were.”
He had no share in the current gossip of the hotel, and was innocent of any design to reach Fenn with his remark ; but the chemist, who was looking at him at the instant, turned cold. His glance moved quickly towards Anice, and from the half shadow where she sat she returned it with a deep gaze, in which he fancied a soft warmth flashed.
It was the first intimation he had had, since the day of the thrushes’ song, that she was not using her power over him in a luxurious cruelty. After Ethel’s visit to her alone, he had sought in vain for a renewal of that day’s mood : he had received no new pressure of the hand, upon which he could fasten, nor any clear glance of meaning, known only to themselves, though undefined. He had hovered on the borders of a tempting intimacy, interrupted now and then by pangs of doubt and a sense of unsatisfactoriness ; agitated and increasingly captivated ; but now the intoxicating certainty of that memorable afternoon seized him again. He awoke from this second’s revery to hear Mrs. Dadmun saying conclusively, —
“ Occupation, — that is what such people need. It keeps them out of — out of”— And, having thus put forward Mrs. Whidden’s blank form, she paused.
“ Heaven knows,” said Mrs. Pincott, helping her along, “ artists have plenty of occupation.”
But if Mrs. Dadmun, who was thinking of Mrs. Whidden’s remarks in connection with young Gregg, could have had her way, she would doubtless have prescribed for Fenn a term of hard labor at the exhausted Institute piano.
Kingsmill had said nothing.
It was an instance of the coarse injustice of our system of judging people, that Kingsmill and Ethel were placed by the feminine police in the same category with Fenn and Anice. These inquisitors imagined that the wife was retaliating on the husband, and that Arthur Kingsmill was taking an unfair advantage of the situation.
He himself supposed that Ethel was blind to the progress of her husband’s infatuation. The gossips were in error about him, and he was mistaken in regard to her.
Sanity, so long as it is not stolid, is deeper than insanity ; and jealousy, fatal though it may be, is a disease which works in the surface region of character. Ethel was not jealous. She did not even give way to hatred of the woman who she saw was drawing Benjamin Fenn farther and farther away from her. She had loved Mrs. Eulow from the first; they had soon learned to call one another “Anice” and “Ethel,” and the young wife felt that the widow was an enlarging influence upon her, which she was glad to have. When she detected the growth of that attraction which was swaying Anice towards her husband, her intuitive justice and strong sense of mercy prevented any malignant change in her regard for her new friend: it did not surprise her that Anice should love him. She loved him herself too bitterly well, in the depths of her sweet and vigorous nature, to be astonished; and — so far as it was possible — she forgave her. Neither was she jealous of her husband. Her agony was far more terrible than that. It was a silent, unutterable, radical grief, that seemed to be gradually altering the whole substance of her being, as one can imagine the soft, plant-bearing earth hardening into metal through slow ages, in the midst of hardening rock. A convulsion and change of primeval scope and vast duration, one might say, were compressed for her into a few days of suffering. There was no weakness in her acceptance of the situation. Sharp and racking revolt was hers, at times, and it seemed as if the end of the earth had come ; but she had a sublime native fortitude, the extent of which she had not known till now. Once when she was a girl of about twelve, she had been with her father on a steamer in Long Island Sound, and a collision had occurred with a collier. Every one supposed they would sink : people ran for life-preservers, some even jumped overboard, and most of the female passengers huddled together, shrieking. She fully comprehended what awaited her, but remained perfectly dumb, with a look of farreaching anguish in those trusting eyes and in the face which had that faintly rustic expression ; and she held on to her father’s hand with an intense farewell in the grasp. But ah, how different was the present horror! Her father was long since dead, and there was not even a hand to hold in token of her parting from all that made life dear.
To say that she bore all this without showing a single trace of it would not be literally true ; but the signs were so indistinct as to escape all observers, excepting Anice, possibly, who had begun vaguely to awake to the doom that was settling down upon Mrs. Fenn. Her trouble showed in her eyes. It was not that there was a cloud in them, exactly ; but sometimes you see a soft blue lake darkened by a cloud in the sky, and it was a shadow of woe resembling this that dimly overgloomed her gaze, seeming every moment to pass away, yet returning, and never discovered by Fenn in his preoccupation.
She sat, one afternoon, on the high balcony above the hotel colonnade, listless and unemployed. In the drowsy silence, an occasional rapid carriage would suddenly be heard at a little distance, would fly by with a buzz and rattle, and would pass out of hearing in the other direction. Sometimes the vehicles crossed each other in front of the hotel. They came and went so unexpectedly that they seemed to start up out of the ground for the express purpose of amusing her dull attention, and then to sink into it again, so that they might repeat the performance. Then she watched the slow life of the postoffice store, where dullness and deliberation reached a climax bordering on the sublime. Yet she knew that there was a quick brain inside of the small establishment, a mind of local enterprise, such as it was, and she thought of the care and energy involved in the business ; all the anticipations, too, and petty excitements and droll bargaining attending the purchases made there by the country folk. She tried to think of their existence in all the vivid actuality it had for them, and wondered if they were happy. There was a wagon without a driver standing at the store steps. There seemed to be always a wagon there. “ If I should die,” she mused, “ it would go on standing there just the same.” This contrast of ideas struck her very oddly, and the image of the ugly wagon seemed to give a singular hideousness to the thought of death. The next moment she made a desperate effort to throw aside all belief in the unhappiness that encompassed her, but it would not be shaken off; and she began to resolve that if she must lose Ben, or even lose his love and not his presence, it would be better to kill herself than to go on enduring. Fortunately, a few tears fell and relieved the stricture at her heart. The afternoon was waning ; her husband was still absent, taking a walk with Mrs. Eulow, from which Ethel had excused herself because she longed for a little solitude in which to face her misery. There could not be any solitude, however, she found : even here on the balcony she was crowded upon, oppressed by other presences. Nor could she face the future and try to give it any probable shape : it must all remain vague and dreary.
A little boy was passing in the street, and some people in a garden called out, “ What time does the church say, bub ? ”
He looked long and attentively at the church-clock. At length he drawled, “ One hand’s way up, and t’ other’s most straight down.”
“ Six ? No, it must be five,” concluded the questioners, too much enervated by the heat to look for themselves. A moment later, the bell struck, clear and solemn.
Ethel was laughing, in spite of her wretchedness, at this mode of telling time, when the warning notes from the tower rang out, and seemed to quiver through her, summoning her back to her agony.
“ I cannot bear this ! I will not! ” she exclaimed, under her breath, and bringing her hands together in a close knot. “ I have rights, and I will make Ben remember them. He does not know what he is doing. Oh ! ” she moaned, and then passed into silent thought again : “ I have been too lenient, too forgetful of myself. And then, Anice, — she has conscience ; she will listen to me and bring this to an end.”
But, for the twentieth time, she found herself unable to remain firm in any design of interposing or appealing, or claiming her rights. The stoicism, enshrouded where no one suspected it, in the centre of her heart, restrained her.
There are people in meeting whom we are buoyed up to the surface like corks, floating on the wave of casual talk, and unable to get down into profundities of any kind, however much we may see of them. There are others with whom we tend at once towards the core ; it was so with Anice and Fenn. They conversed on large themes, speculating upon society, love, the work of women, poetry, and belief. That in itself might have been very well, but everything they said had an indirect, veiled reference to themselves as they now stood, and to their mutual regard. The nature of this regard they did not openly inquire into, but they continually touched the edge of such inquiry in a furtive way, speedily recoiling again. Partly to satisfy the taste for intellectual subjects, and partly also to place some object of attention in the way of this tendency to probe each other’s state of mind too directly, they liked to carry a book or magazine with them, in walking, and to diversify the exercise with reading in some sheltered border of the woods.
On this afternoon they had come up by the path through that rocky pasture where Fenn had had his strange experience of believing that Anice had pressed his hand, in getting over the wall, and they had settled upon the place under the oak where he had first heard her voice with its echo, to rest in.
They had with them a little volume of Shakespeare, containing Much Ado, from which they read alternately. Fenn took the second act. Suddenly he stopped, after reciting these words : —
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.”
“ Is that always true ? ” he asked, doubtfully, letting the book drop into a neglected position, as he commanded Anice’s attention.
“ You ask me to revise Shakespeare’s judgment ? ” she returned.
“ Certainly not ; it is only what Claudio says in a hasty moment, when he’s surprised. But I like to weigh how much truth there is in it.”
“ I don’t think a woman can tell. I don’t think I can.”
“ Yet you are very beautiful.”
There was a moment of perfect silence, during which Fenn’s ears rang. He could hardly tell why he had said this.
They looked into each other’s eyes steadily. “ Mr. Fenn,” said Anice, when that silent parrying had spent itself, “ I can’t afford to lose a friend.”
“ I don’t see why I should n’t say it,” he answered, doggedly, looking at the book. “ It is true; and I do not believe that such beauty melts away the impalpable but persistent thing called faith, — though these lines are wonderful, and express the power of a beautiful woman as a poet would naturally do it.”
He had managed to turn the point of her rebuke ; and besides, she was secretly influenced by that centripetal attraction which would not let them remain on the safe exterior of things.
“ Are poets so much more faithless than other men ? ” she asked. Then, as he did not at once reply, she went on to say, " The power of a beautiful woman, which you speak of, is not entirely her own, you know. After a certain point, it is what the person upon whom it falls makes it.”
“ Then why should n’t any honest man be able to feel and respond to those charms, without letting them work witchcraft in his blood?” cried Fenn, in a glow; yet at that very instant the stream of passion in his veins was dissolving his faithfulness. “ That is what I believe in : the establishing of a clear relation of admiration and devotion, where a man may be more than a common friend, and yet ” — He did not know how to finish.
“ I understand,” said Anice in a low voice, that vibrated like the note of some instrument of fabled sweetness. “ I believe in such a thing. I think it is possible.”
They allowed their glance to wander away into the lovely scene before them, where the land dipped towards Swallow Pond, and rose again, melting away to a curtain of haze in which one rank of receding mountains stood beyond another. Somewhere in the deep valleys beyond, it seemed to Fenn that there must be a place where he could find a new life, — a place so secluded that no rumor of conscience could reach him there; and a desire seized him which belied what he had just been saying, to be lost in such a retreat with Anice.
“ I don’t know really what is meant by a platonic affection,” he continued, languidly, half closing his eyes as he looked at the mountains. “ But this that I mean needs no artificial name, subject to sneers and misconstruction ; and it has nothing to do with any philosopher. It will come to be recognized, after a while, as something warmer and more real than that, yet ” — A second time he was at a loss for terms, and let his voice die.
Anice had thrilled with an unreasoning joy, in which triumph and tenderness were blended, when he had begun describing the relation which was really meant to represent their own. She could not tell precisely what she wished that to be. And now a faintness, a gathering desolation, began to come over her. What did it mean ? She did not know whether she was glad or sorry ; there was a kind of anger in her at the whole situation, —and yet was not this because Fenn was not free? She trembled. To have answered herself would have been to risk losing his friendship, because in the light of a positive decision her conscience might have forbidden her to continue it. She could not reprove him for what he had said, either ; anger, or any emotion, would be unsafe.
“ I don’t believe we will read any more,” she said, after a brief deliberation. “ I must go back soon and get ready.”
Fenn glanced at her questioningly. “ For what ? ” he asked.
“ I am going to Boston to-morrow.”
“ You are going away! ” he demanded, thunderstruck. “And why to Boston ? ”
She Smiled. “ Only for a day or two,” she explained. “ There is a friend of mine, a lady, who was to come up from Newport and be in Boston for two or three days, and this will be my only chance to see her.”
“ Your father will go with you, of course,” propounded Fenn, out of sorts at the prospect.
“ No,” said Anice, faltering. “ He is afraid of the heat.”
The chemist’s heart bounded. To go with her ! — it was like a response to that stifled yearning he had had that they might escape together into some hazy distance. “ Will you allow me to be your escort ? ” he asked, with an effort to be simply formal.
“ Oh, Ethel must n’t be left ; I could n’t think of your doing it ! ” exclaimed Mrs. Eulow. “ Besides, there’s no reason why I should n’t travel alone. It is very easy.”
“ I have some business there that I ought to attend to,” said Fenn. “ I had been thinking about it, but did n’t want to go.”
She needed no explanation as to what it was that had held him here. But she hesitated.
“ Well ? ” said he, waiting for her answer.
Anice looked at him in a kind of fear.
“ I shall probably go in the next train after yours, any way,” he declared. “ Would n’t it be better for me to be at hand, in case I might be of use ? ”
“ Very well; I shall be glad if you will,” she responded, but without energy. She felt that she was a coward.
But the cowardice had been in letting him know at all that she was going.
Fenn told his wife, in the evening, that he had engaged a place on the stage, and was going to town on business. “ It happens very luckily, too,” he added, with factitious ease, “ that Anice wants to go down, too, to meet a friend of hers.”
Ethel gave a muffled cry.
He turned from his task of throwing some things together for the journey, acutely alarmed. “ What is the matter?” he asked.
“ Oh, no, no ! I can’t let you go ! ” she exclaimed, with indescribable pain in her voice, and putting both hands on his shoulders, as if to assure herself that he was not already gone. Her fair young figure was alive with terror, and the light downy eyebrows were puckered in sharp lines upon her forehead.
Fenn became peculiarly calm. “ Ethel, what does this mean ? ” he asked, in a tone as if he were drawing his breath in while he spoke.
She came to herself, like one who has been sleep-walking. Her face relaxed. “ Oh, don’t think anything of it,” she said, softly, smiling. “ It was only a sudden feeling I had that I might never see you again.”
“ Poh,” said he, “ that was foolish.” He kissed her, and said tenderly, “ Dear Ethel.” Then he seemed to consider, and went to his hand-valise. “ Shall I stay ? ” he asked. “ Would you rather ? ”
“ No. If you have business, I must not keep you,” she answered, with restored calmness.
George Parsons Lathrop.