THE post that brought to Roger Carey Lyssie’s terrified and confused appeal brought also a brief communication from Mrs.Shore. She was anxious to consult Mr. Carey on business ; could he run down to Old Chester for a day or two? She would be greatly indebted to him if he could spare the time to come.
As it happened, Roger really could not spare the time very well, and a stern sense of duty might have made him write to Lyssie, with anxious regret, that he could not possibly leave his office at what chanced to be an important moment; but Mrs. Shore’s summons, couched in business terms, gave him an excuse with which to silence his conscience for stealing a day off with Alicia. “ I’ve got to go,” he assured himself, his face beaming with satisfaction. “Businessis business; but I ’ll stay over Sunday, and maybe Lyssie will be willing not to go to church this once ; — and then she ’ll tell me what troubles her,” he thought, a little amused, but tender. Roger had forgotten his vague self-reproach for something he had not done on the day that he had last seen Lyssie and her sister, and he was aware now of nothing but eagerness to see his sweetheart again. “ I ’ll take the Friday afternoon stage,” he told himself, with great delight.
It happened that Mr. Joseph Lavendar took the same stage, and he, with instant hospitality, insisted that Mr. Carey, instead of putting up at the village tavern, should come to the rectory. “ My brother will be delighted to see you,” he said, “ delighted ! ”
Roger, alarmed at the prospect of the rectory, and morning and evening worship, and no food to speak of, protested that the tavern was very comfortable; that he was in town on business, and would be much occupied ; that he could not think of bothering Dr. Lavendar: in fact, he offered all those excuses with which we try to evade undesired hospitality, and which never save us.
Mr. Lavendar pooh-poohed them all. “My brother’ll be delighted,” he insisted, beaming.
And Roger, with a sigh for the freedom of the tavern, declared that, in that case, he should be delighted, too ; and so it was settled.
Mr. Lavendar was honestly glad to see the young man, because he was a young man, and in love, and on his way to Old Chester, — three things calculated to arouse a kindly sentiment in the mind of Joseph Lavendar ; but he suddenly remembered that Mr. Carey was also a cousin of Mrs. Pendleton’s, and he was at once conscious of a distinctly warmer feeling for him. As they sat side by side on the box seat, he scanned Roger furtively over the rims of his spectacles, and seemed to find the inspection satisfactory. He liked the young man’s gray clothes ; he liked his straw hat; he liked his clean-shaven face, his strong mouth, his keen eye. “ He has a look of Amanda,” Mr. Joseph thought sentimentally, indifferent to the claims of blood on the part of the late Mr. Pendleton.
They did not talk very much. Roger, until the long, slow jog in the sunshine made him sleepy, was wondering what on earth Mrs. Shore could want of him ; and the other had his own affairs to think of.
Mr. Joseph sighed once or twice, and looked at his companion as though about to speak. Yet they were more than halfway to Old Chester before, in the most casual way in the world, though with a flurried note in his voice which Roger might have noticed had he been less sleepy, Mr. Lavendar began to say something of his young friend’s interesting relative Mrs. Pendleton. He spoke of her writings, her garden, her pleasing and most feminine manners, and then he ventured the criticism that she must he somewhat lonely, being (comparatively) a stranger in Old Chester.
Roger yawned, and said, Well, yes, he supposed so.
Then there was a little silence, after which the older man observed, hurriedly, that the afternoon was charming, and he wondered that so agreeable a lady had not married again.
“ Yes,” said Roger, glancing off across the russet fields.
“ It surprises me a little,” Mr. Lavendar remarked, and paused to cough gently behind his hand, “that she has not made another choice ; though perhaps it is a little soon to think of it, and I am certain that your relative would observe every propriety. However, I have no doubt she will make another choice at some time ? ”
“Very likely,” Roger agreed absently. He had waked up enough to say to himself again, “ But why does she send for me ? Where’s Woodhouse ? He looks after their affairs. I wonder if Shore advised it ? ” He did not notice how instantly the furtive anxiety had cleared from Mr. Lavendar’s face, nor how he drew a full breath, and smiled, and began to talk to the stage-driver with a certain excited gayety.
When Mr. Carey climbed down at Alicia’s door, and said he should not come to the rectory until late, for he thought Mrs. Drayton would give him some supper, Mr. Lavendar hardly protested. His mind was too full of the conclusion lie had drawn from the young man’s assent to his statement that Mrs. Pendleton would no doubt make another choice.
“That settles the question of the will,” he thought, his heart heating hard. For the rest of the evening he thought of nothing else, even while the preface to the chapters which were to be written upon The Relation of Precious Stones to the Science and Practice of Medicine was being read aloud to him, and while he told his brother all the Mercer news.
After supper, as usual, the brothers played dominoes, with Danny snuggled close beside Dr. Lavendar, who was constantly addressing the little grizzled dog with fierce epithets, and threatening that he would give him away to the first person who would take him. “You are a scoundrel, sir ! ” his master assured him, edging forward in his chair to make more room for him.
“ Go on, Joey, it’s your draw. You ’re slow, boy! ”
Mr. Joseph drew. “Ah — brother Jim,” he said, continuing to draw, “I spoke — I should say, young Carey spoke — of my friend Mrs. Pendleton. You recall your fear that she might be hampered, as you might say, by the will of the late Mr. Pendleton ? ”
Dr. Lavendar, about to mark his gains with a broken match upon an old cribbage board, looked up, his jaw dropping.
“ Young Carey said,” Mr. Joseph went on (still drawing) — “ he said that — but I won’t trouble you with what he said ; only, brother Jim, I wished you to know that there are strong probabilities that the — impediment — which you mentioned does not exist.”
“But nine hundred and ninety-nine other impediments do ! ” cried Dr. Lavendar, choking.
“ I am not aware of them,” said Mr. Joseph, with dignity; but he breathed hard, and drew three more dominoes very rapidly.
“ Have you asked her yet ? ” the brother demanded. (“ Hold on ! How many are you going to draw? ”)
Mr. Lavendar checked himself and apologized ; beginning, with a shaking hand, to arrange a fence of dominoes like a Druid circle about the altar of a double six. “ I haven’t asked her yet; but now I mean to. I don’t think we need pursue this subject; it is painful for us both.”
“ The result will be painful for you, sir ! ” Dr. Lavendar answered loudly. “ But if Ephraim is joined to his idols, I suppose one must let him alone; only I should like to say one thing, and then we’ll drop the subject. Are you prepared to live on your wife, sir? ”
“ I have my profession,” returned poor Mr. Joseph, matching a five, and turning off the snaky line to the left; but he quivered under the thrust.
“ Well,” said Dr. Lavendar, throwing himself back in his chair so suddenly that Danny squeaked, and scrambled out from under his arm, “ in my young days, a young man wouldn’t have had the face to go to a rich woman and say, ‘ I can earn my coach fare, ma’am, and a dollar or two beside, but I ’ll be obliged to you if you will marry me.’ But never mind, never mind. Things have changed since then.”
“ James ! ”
“ Well, he would n’t,” Dr. Lavendar said tremulously. Then he opened and shut his lips several times before he succeeded in adding, “ I did n’t mean that, Joey. You make me seem irritable sometimes ; but not at all; I am merely impatient. Of course you earn your living. But I don’t like her, Joey ; that’s the fact. She threw you over once ; she’d do it again.”
“ You’ve no right to say that, brother Jim,” Mr. Joseph said; then, the gibe about his money still rankling, he went on with some spirit: “ And beside, it is n’t as though I were a money-hunter ; not at all. I have something beside my profession. There ’s the income we shall have from the book.”
Dr. Lavendar was silent. He got up, and went over to the mantelshelf and filled his pipe, forgetting to light it; then he came shuffling back. “ It’s your draw,” he said, and stroked Danny’s ears violently. “I — I, of course, expect a good income from my book. But you’ve no right to reckon on that. It belongs to me.”
Mr. Joseph did not speak. Dr. Lavendar played excitedly; the tears stood in his eyes. “ Don’t you want a light, Jim ” his brother said, and got up and brought a live coal in the tongs ; and then they played in silence.
Joseph Lavendar could hardly see. If he did not match his dominoes, his brother let it pass. You’ve no right to reckon on that: ” Mr. Joseph said it over and over. He forgot Mrs. Pendleton. Such a threat had no bearing upon his purpose, but it broke his heart. Jim’s book — Jim’s income — he had “ no right to reckon ” on them! He played on blindly ; he felt as though he hated Mrs. Pendleton for this grief ; but he matched a double, and turned and twisted the long line across the slippery top of the table, and made no protest.
It was a dreadful evening to these two brothers : they wished Roger Carey would come in ; they could not meet each other’s eyes as they sat there alone, and it would be something to have the young man to talk to and to look at. But he did not come; and by and by, at half past nine to the minute, they went out together to look, as usual, at the thermometer, and to mark the temperature upon a sheltered clapboard at one end of the porch, where a line of such marks showed the age of the habit. Then they had prayers ; after which, still as usual, they together conducted Danny to his bed in the barn, and blew out the lights. They put a candle and a match upon the hall table for Mr. Carey, and left the door on the latch. Then they said good-night, and each shut himself up in his room.
Both of them were awake when, the night half over, Roger Carey entered, and, with careful stealth, climbed the stairs to his bedroom.
When Alicia’s first delight at seeing her lover had worn off, her face settled into anxious lines. But she was incapable of putting into words, even to him, the “dreadful thing,” the “shameful thing,” as she thought it, which had happened to her sister; all that she told him, the color coming up into her face, and even her slender neck flushing, was that something troubled Cecil and Philip. “ I ’m sure you can help them,” she said.
Roger did not press her for any explanation.
“Very well, dear, I’ll do my best,” he told her gently, and saw the painful color ebb, and her clear eyes meet his again. He was very gentle with her, as one is with a child whose modesty is a beautiful ignorance ; but it removed him very far away from her. In his own mind he smiled a little. “ They ’ve quarreled, I suppose,” he thought, “ and Lyssie, bless her little heart! wants me to reconcile them. But I can’t do anything. The fellow who tries to mediate between husband and wife is a fool. But why in the world did she send for me ? It can’t be this squabble ? ”
And when, directly after supper, he left Lyssie, with the promise of an early return, and went up to Mrs. Shore’s, he was still in the dark as to why he had been summoned to Old Chester.
No, Mr. Shore was not at home, he was told. Mrs. Shore was in, yes; the servant would find out whether she would see Mr. Carey. Roger, waiting, received a leaping welcome from Eric, and responded as warmly. “ You old scamp ! ” he said lovingly, as the dog showed that beautiful and joyous affection which the human creature is as unworthy to receive as he is incapable of experiencing in himself. But all the while he was listening intently for a step upon the stairs, and he was aware that he was breathing quickly. Then the maid came to say, Would Mr. Carey please go up to Mrs. Shore’s sitting-room ?
She did not rise to meet him, but she smiled, and held out her hand without Speaking. That reception of smiling silence is strangely flattering. Roger felt it so now.
“ You see I come at once,” he said.
“You are very good,” she answered cordially; and then said something of the bore of a stage ride, and asked him if he had had dinner, and would he not have a glass of wine ?
“ No, thank you,” Roger said. The situation itself was suddenly like wine to him. He could not hold his eyes away from her. Behind her, high on the wall, a cluster of candles burned in an old sconce, and a shower of soft light fell on her bronze hair, wrapped in two noble braids about her head ; at her suggestion, he threw a fresh log upon the fire, and when, with a leaping rush of sparks, the small flames curled about it as tremulously as the fingers of a player about the neck of his mandolin, the light shone on her face, and glimmered in a square topaz that caught the lace together at her throat, and spread itself in a sheen upon her lap.
Cecil talked, in her slow voice, — a voice that had color in it, — of this or that: told him Molly was in despair to have to go to bed without seeing him ; laughed a little at the invitation from the rectory ; said Eric had pined for him. Eric, outside, heard his name, and rapped on the door with his tail. Roger answered recklessly and gayly. He had no longer any curiosity to know why she had sent for him; he was here, and he could look at her, and that was enough. He said to himself that he had never seen a more splendid creature. She was not Mrs. Philip Shore to him; still less was she Lyssie’s sister: she was a “splendid creature.”
“Yes,” Cecil continued, “it is very good in you to come so promptly. I have some business matters I want to put into your hands, Mr. Carey. Mr. Shore and I are going to separate.”
The blood flew to Roger Carey’s face. “ What ? ”
“ Yes. Oh, I don’t mean that I am going to need your professional services. Did you have a vision of the divorce court ? No ; we are most amicable, Mr. Shore and I. We are a perfect Darby and Joan in the way in which we agree about this. We are going to live apart ; that’s all. What I wanted to ask you was only a question about Molly. And I want you to take care of my money, too, if you will ? ”
Her words were like a dash of water in his face; be dropped abruptly from that haze of impersonal appreciation of the “ splendid creature ” to keen interest and very honest dismay. His friend’s wife was going to leave him !
“ Oh, Mrs. Shore,” he cried, “ this is very dreadful! It is — why, it is incredible ! Surely you don’t mean — it’s only a passing impulse ; you can’t mean ” —
“Yes,” Cecil answered quietly, “I do mean it, Mr. Carey. I need not bother you with my reasons, but I do mean it.”
“ But I don’t understand ! You’ve had some difference, I suppose; and now you think — Oh, Mrs. Shore, it’s impossible ! You must let me see Philip and tell him you think better of it. You must let me — do something.”
“ You are very kind,” Cecil said, with an annoyed look, “ but it’s all settled, thank you very much. I merely wished to ask you one or two questions.”
“ I ’ll answer any questions I can, but first please let me say how distressed and shocked I am at what you tell me. Of course, if — if Philip has offended you in any way ” —
“ Oh, not at all. We have nothing against one another, — except each the existence of the other. Oh yes ; the daily aggravation of Philip’s good example has been very trying. My dear Mr. Carey, we are bored ; that is all.”
Roger was too dumfounded at the folly of it for words ; his face grew rigid with consternation.
“ I thought you believed in separation ? ” Cecil said. “ Did n’t you say the Todds ought to separate ? Or no ; it was Mr. Shore who said that; I had forgotten. But you certainly told me you believed in separation.”
“ Under some circumstances I do. The Todds ought n’t to live together, perhaps, but such a separation ought to be made by the State for the State,— not by themselves for any selfish reasons. But how ridiculous to speak of such a thing! You and Philip are educated and responsible people, who propose to do an absolutely wicked thing, for apparently no reason or motive whatever! ”
“ Oh, we have very exalted reasons,” Cecil answered, with a slight smile. “ Mr. Shore knows that—that I no longer adore him ; Love’s young dream is over, so to speak, so on high moral grounds we think it right to part.” Her color deepened as she spoke, and there was an instant’s silence between them.
Then Roger said, constrainedly, something about false ideas of morality. “ It’s all very well to hide the fact under fine sentiments; but I tell you what it is, it is a case of the Emperor in Hans Andersen’s story, who said he was so finely dressed: — do you remember what the child cried out? I don’t care how exalted your reasons and Philip’s are, the real naked fact is selfishness. But I refuse to think it possible that you will do such a thing. It ’s only an impulse, as I said. Will you not authorize me to go to see Philip and tell him that you think better of it ? ”
“You would like to arrange a reconciliation, would n’t you ? ” she said drolly. “ Do you want Molly to fall ill, and then join our hands over her cradle ? Or shall one of us die, to give freedom to the other, and uncomfortably remorseful love result ? No, Mr. Carey ; the dramatic does n’t happen. Molly is very robust, thank Heaven, and neither Mr. Shore nor I mean to commit suicide ” —
Roger interrupted her, frowning. “ This is too grave a matter for flippancy. Let me discuss it with you seriously.”
But even while he discussed it the old excitement crept over him, this time with a shadowy terror in it; his earnestness held a singular note of fright. He did not want Cecil Shore to be free ! Her husband must not set a trap for him in this way ! Every argument of conventionality, of duty to Molly, of ecclesiastical force, was hot upon his lips. She could not, he declared, find a word of complaint against Philip; Philip was the best fellow in the world. He sternly bade her realize her husband’s worth. He was convinced, he said, that the fault was hers, if Philip, for this preposterous reason which she had given, wished to leave her. “ You are a selfish woman,” he said, — he was bending forward, one hand behind him, gripping the arm of his chair, the other outstretched, almost touching hers in his excitement, yet never unconscious enough really to do it, — “ you are a selfish woman, and you are flippant, which is worse. Even now you are flippant. Here is a matter of awful seriousness, and you regard it — or you pretend to regard it —lightly, and from a simply selfish point of view.”
Roger was battling for his friend with all his heart, but he looked all the while — he could not take his eyes away from her —at this beautiful woman, who, despite the matter of which they were speaking, was again only a beautiful woman to him.
But defense of her husband was an insult to Cecil. She flung out at him that she only wished to consult him about Molly, — unless, of course, being Mr. Shore’s friend, he did not wish to advise her ? In which case she would consult some one else.
“ I am here to advise you, whether you want it or not,” he returned ; “now just listen to me, please.” He stood up in front of her, one hand in his pocket, the other emphasizing his curt words. “There shall be no question about Molly; you and Shore will both do your duty, and keep a home for her.”
His indignation, his apparent feeling that her views and reasons were beneath argument, his evident and rude belief that if she would only behave herself like an intelligent woman Philip would “be willing ” to give up this mad and wicked plan, made Cecil furious. She was not for a moment impressed by the value of anything he said. It is not impossible that this was because of its insincerity. He was arguing as he believed, but not because he believed it. He was arguing from absolute, dismayed selfishness.
“ As for Molly,” he said, “ I can’t help telling you frankly that I consider you the last person in the world to take charge of her ; you spoil her, you amuse yourself with her, you neglect her, just as it happens to suit you.”
“ Mr. Carey, you force me to remind you that I have not asked your opinion about my conduct, I ” —
“ Well, I’m sorry to appear to thrust my opinion upon you, but it’s certainly just as well you should know what people will think and say if you carry out this preposterous idea. Upon my word, Mrs. Shore, it is amazing to me that a man of Philip’s integrity, and a woman of — well, of as much horse sense, in the long run, as you have, can seriously consider such a thing ! I shall tell Philip that he ’ll sacrifice Molly if he carries out an abstract idealism (of course that’s what it is in him), because she will be left without his influence. It’s the only influence for good the child has,” he ended, looking at her severely.
She defended herself as well as she could, but his words beat her like whips. In spite of her anger and her pride, she cowered ; tears, even, rose in her eyes. “You are very unjust — you are very unjust,” she murmured.
“ On the contrary, I am only just; I tell you the truth. As for your having Molly, — yes, I suppose she would be given to you, if you did anything so wicked as to push this matter to a question of law. Unfortunately, the court would not take cognizance of the fact that you are an unfit woman to be entrusted with her. But there must n’t be such a question ; you must go back to your husband, — and you must remember you ’re his wife. This matter of flinging off an obligation because it is n’t agreeable is vicious and pernicious, I don’t care what the ideals are ! Ideality can be responsible for damnable crimes.” He spoke with that brutal indifference as to his choice of words that a man reserves for men, and for the woman who loves him. It did not strike either of them at the time, but he did not excuse his indignant excitement on the ground of his approaching connection with the family.
He stood looking down at her, his chin set, his eyes narrowing in a certain aggressive masculinity that made all the woman in her shrink. “ You ought to be ashamed of yourself ! ” he said.
She rose ; his words and the jarring anger of his voice were as tangible as a grip upon her wrists, pulling her to her feet before him. “ Don’t say such things, — don’t talk to me that way. It’s done. I can’t help it. It’s done. I wish you would help me instead of talking that way.”
He said, breathlessly, that he was helping her when he told her she must not leave her husband ; for Molly’s sake, for — for — “ My heavens ! Philip Shore’s a fool!” he burst out. But instantly, as though a quick rein tightened upon him, he again stammered something of duty. “ Promise me to do your duty ! ”
“ I ’ll think over what you’ve said,” she answered faintly. She felt as though he had compelled the words; she was afraid of him. Her breath came in a sob, and she swayed a little as though about to fall.
“You are faint!” he said quickly. Her arms fell along his own stretched out to support her; he felt her warm, swaying weight upon his breast ; their eyes met in one full, pulsating look, — met with a clash of exultant shame, and dropped, cowering.
Cecil drew back violently, flinging her hands behind her as though she had touched fire. Neither spoke. Roger Carey trembled to his soul.
“I — I beg your pardon ; I thought you were faint ” —
A spark from the fire leaped suddenly out across the hearth and fell on the white rug at their feet.
“ How that wood does snap ! ” he said, breathless.
“ Yes — yes ; it ’s a nuisance to have it snap so. Oh, are you — must you go ? ”
“ I think so. Yes. I will see you to-morrow. Good-night.”
“ No, it was so late when I left Mrs. Shore’s, I thought I ’d better not come in,”
“ Oh, Roger, could you make things straight ? Oh, is n’t it dreadful that she should have thought of such a thing? I felt sure you ’d show her how wrong it was.”
“ Well, I said everything I could think of. Yes, I produced some effect. I bad a note from her this morning, and ” —
“ Oh,” interrupted Lyssie, “ won’t you please begin at the beginning ? Tell me everything! I’m so worried.”
But there was singularly little to tell.
“ She promises to reconsider it,” he said. “ There ’s her letter ; read it, if you want to. She just says she will reconsider it. Lys, after I left—Mrs. Shore’s, I took a walk. That’s another thing that made me late. The fact was, I wanted to think.”
“ About this, I suppose ? ”
“ About you.”
The color came into Lyssie’s face, and she smiled, in spite of the grief of the world. “ You might have found a better subject! ”
They were in the parlor ; Lyssie near the window, for the room was dark with a steady sweep of rain against the glass, and she was busy with a bit of sewing. Outside there was a glimpse of a frosted garden standing forlornly in the mist; there was a yellow litter of fallen leaves under the chestnuts, and in the sodden border a single blot of scarlet, where a late geranium burned bravely in spite of its pallid hanging leaves. Once or twice a drop splashed down the chimney and sputtered on the hearth ; but the fire flamed cheerily, with a low murmur of sap, and Eric lay comfortably in front of it, steaming a little, and twinkling up at Roger from under anxious, deprecatory brows.
“ He met me in the village, and he would come,” Roger explained, and touched the dog’s big nose with his foot. “ Come, wake up, old man ! ”
Eric lifted one eyebrow, and flopped his tail, but he had no intention of moving.
“ What a beastly day it is! ” said Roger; he was wondering whether he looked as stupid as he felt.
“Yes,” Lyssie assented, glancing up from her sewing. “ Just see this yellow leaf the rain has beaten against the window ! It’s too bad about our walk, but perhaps it will clear by this afternoon.”
“ I don’t believe it will,” Roger remarked gloomily ; and then he came and sat down by Lyssie’s little work-table, and took her scissors and began to snip off bits of thread ; when reproved for such untidy ways, he built the spools into pyramids, and then drummed on the table to make them totter and fall. He had nothing to say of Cecil and Philip, except that “ it was all perfectly absurd,” and just a passing impulse. “It will come out all right,” he told her impatiently.
“ Oh, Roger, are you sure ? ” Lyssie entreated, ready to cry with the relief of it. She wished he would be a little more explicit, but she would not tease him with questions ; perhaps he felt that such a matter ought not to be spoken of.
Roger knocked all the spools down at a blow, and rose, and stirred Eric up, rolling him over with his foot, and worrying him with grumbling affection. “ It ’s beastly, this rain,” he announced again ; which made Alicia put down her work and say with decision, “ We will go out to walk. You don’t mind the rain, do you ? I don’t. And it will be pleasanter than staying in the house.”
Roger brightened up at once, but protested faintly : “ You might get damp ; your mother will think I am insane. Of course you must n’t go out in the rain. We can talk here just as well. I want to tell you what it was that I thought about you last night.”
If this suggestion of a confidence by the quiet fireside was any temptation to Alicia, she did not betray it. “ Damp ? What does that matter ! I ’d love a walk in the rain ; ” and she silenced him by running away to get her cloak.
Left alone, Roger stood moodily by the window and looked out at the rain. The fact was, he had decided, after a night’s sleep, that when he had left Mrs. Shore, the night before, he had taken himself too seriously.
There was certainly no doubt about it, — he had taken himself too seriously. He had gone down through Cecil Shore’s silent house, out into the amber dusk of the moonlit autumnal night, half drunk with excitement. All the man, for one glowing moment, had spoken in his eyes ; all the woman had answered in hers ; and then had come the speechless outcry of fear and triumph, the ringing silence ; for those words of the habit of conventionality neither of them had heard. When he had shut the door behind him, he stood for a moment on the porch, staring into the night and breathing heavily. The stone steps were wet with mist; there was a scent of dead leaves and damp earth. In the house behind him some one closed a window ; and he caught his breath with a start, as though he were awakening. Mechanically he walked across the terrace, and down along the flagged path to the pool. There was a light gauze of mist over the water, and the fallen leaves under the two old poplars were heavy with moisture. At the sound of his step along the path, the frogs stopped suddenly their bell-like clangor, and there was a splash somewhere under the mist, and then silence. Roger sat down on the stone bench, and passed his hand over his eyes.
“ Good Lord ! suppose I had kissed her ? ”
His danger made him shiver. A breath of colder air came straying across the pool, and touched his hands, clasped listlessly between his knees. Yes : she had leaned against his breast; he had felt the satin warmth of her arm along his wrist. Again the blood leaped in his temples, he felt hot pulses in his fingers ; he drew in his lips, and his eyelids drooped into a smile that drove the soul out of his face. Ah, that swaying weight in his arms !
He exulted, even while he cowered at the danger he had been in ; but he lifted his wrist to his lips and kissed it savagely, and cursed himself, with a laugh, for a fool.
“ Well, I did n’t. But damn Philip Shore ! ”
Then the shame of it grew upon him, and that inescapable fright which comes with the recognition of a possibility. His self-knowledge struck him insolently in the face. 11 But I did n’t do it! ” he insisted sullenly. He almost forgot Cecil, as he thus came to himself and saw his possibilities before him ; bis friend’s wife had only opened the door to facts. He could forget the doorkeeper, face to face with the drunken crew whom she had admitted. In his dismay, he had no concern for any dismay that she might feel. A little later, to protect her in his thoughts, he decided that she was unaware of that hot impulse of his, and that he had read no consent in her eyes; but just at that moment, in the mist under the poplars, he did not think of her at all.
But how keenly aware Cecil had been of it all ! When Roger Carey closed the door, and the flames of the candles swerved and bent, and then burned in a pointed gleam, she had stood quite still for a moment. She looked down at the charred bit of wood on the rug, and even pushed it away with her foot, and stooped as if to see whether the rug were burned. Then she walked the length of the room with violent haste, and stood, panting.
“Suppose he had kissed me ? What could I have done ? Why did n’t he ? He’s not a fool.”
She came back to the fire, and leaned her arms along the mantelpiece, resting her forehead on them. She felt herself smile and blush ; and she shut her eyes and closed her teeth upon her lip. She stood there a long time, — longer than Roger Carey sat on the bench under the poplars. And when at last a log smouldered through, and fell apart with a soft crash of sparks, the light shone on a face stained by tears and full of a strange terror.
She went over to her writing-desk, and hunted among the litter of notes and papers, and found some telegram blanks. But she sat there a long time, making idle marks upon her blotting paper, before she wrote : “ Pray come back to Old Chester at once. Important.” Then she addressed it to her husband.
Cecil Shore, too, had had a glimpse of her possibilities ; all her instincts and traditions revolted in alarm. She fled to cover; she summoned her husband. “ Lyssie — Lyssie — Lyssie ! ” she said to herself, her face hot with shame. “ Oh, he is good!” she thought. She had decided swiftly that Philip should give up his foolery, and she her freedom, because Roger Carey was “good.” She did not reason about it, but she wanted to meet him on his own level.
It was curious that, as he fell, he lifted her. Yet, absorbed in the selfishness of remorse, — and nothing may be more selfish than remorse, — Roger, sitting there on the stone bench, had not a thought for her, except perhaps of dull dislike.
But all that amazement and shame had been last night. By daylight things looked different; so different that, standing there at the window, in Lyssie’s parlor, grumbling at the rain, he assured himself that he had not been guilty of the slightest impropriety ; all the world might know that, seeing Mrs. Shore about to faint, he had supported her, and that he had come within an ace of kissing her ! So long as he did n’t do it, what an ass he had been to feel himself dishonorable ! Good Lord, if a man is to agonize because he has had the impulse to kiss a pretty woman, he had best go into a monastery at once ! He was morosely amused at himself. He had been too intense ; and the reaction was an irritated conviction that he was a fool. It was this irritation which made it an effort to speak on a certain subject to Lyssie : he had made up his mind to ask her to be married at once ; and then, as he put it to himself, “clear out, and let the Shores settle their own messes.” He had not, in this connection, the slightest impulse to confess to Alicia his experience of the night before. Confession would be as absurd as his remorse had been; he never thought of it; if he had, it would have been to say that “ Lyssie would not understand,”— in which he would probably have been correct. No, he was not going to confess; he was only going to catch at her tender hand to save himself from his possibilities. He did mean, however, to say that he was not good enough to tie her little shoes ; and having told so much truth as that, he would feel, like the rest of his sex, that he was square with his conscience. That such statements only enhance his virtue in his beloved’s eyes never troubles a man.
Roger Carey, to protect himself, was going to beg Lyssie to name the day.
Now, when a man wants to urge a speedy marriage on the girl he loves, he may well hold her hand in his, and perhaps kiss the finger tips, softly, and slip an arm around her waist to bring her shy face close to his, that he may hear her whisper, “ Yes — yes ; if you wish it! ”
But any action seemed an effort to Roger ; he was dull, he acknowledged listlessly; it would be easier to tramp along in the rain and hold an umbrella over Lyssie’s head, and be perhaps just a little matter of fact. He was glad to start out; the fresh air would brighten him up, he thought.
The street was quite deserted. Dr. Lavendar’s old hooded gig, sagging on its C springs, went slowly past them, leaving wheel-ruts full of running yellow water ; the shaggy fetlocks of the little old blind horse came up from each step with a pull, and went squashing down again into the mud.
“ Well, well,” said Dr. Lavendar over the rubber apron, “ are n’t you young folks allowed to stay indoors to-day ? Mr. Carey, you ’re welcome to my study, if Lyssie won’t give you her parlor. What weather ! What weather ! ”
“Is n’t it funny,” said Alicia, as the gig bobbed along ahead of them, “that old people don’t seem to see the pleasure of walking in the rain ? ”
“ It depends on whether they are walking with their girls,” Roger explained.
“ No, it’s pleasant anyhow ! ” Roger’s girl declared. Her young face was wet with mist, and glowing with the color of a peach blossom ; her eyes were shining under the dark brim of her hat.
“ Lyssie, do you know what I was thinking about, — I mean when I took that walk, last night ? I told you I was going to tell you what I was thinking about.”
Lyssie’s face sobered. “ Cecil ? ”
“No! Why should I think of — of Mrs. Shore ? Oh, you mean — oh, about that? That’ll come out all right,” he said, frowning. “I was thinking of you, Lyssie. Look here : this thing of seeing you for a day, and then going off for a month, is preposterous. I can’t stand it. Let’s put a stop to it. What do you say ? This is the 28th of October ; can’t it be on the 1st of December? That’s Wednesday. I looked it up on the calendar.”
“ Can’t what be ? ” cried Lyssie. “Why, you don’t mean— Roger, you are crazy ! ”
“ I never was more sane. Lyssie, listen! Don’t laugh. And please say 1 yes.’ ”
“ What are you talking about ? ” she said. “ I never heard of anything so absurd ; you might as well ask me to fly! ” And then she sobered a little. “ It’s simply impossible, you know. In a month ? If you had said a year, I should have laughed.”
“ I should have laughed if I had said a year ! Be serious, Lys. Lots of people are married when they have n’t been engaged as long as we have. There’s no reason to wait. It’s just waste of time. Let’s begin to be happy. I know of a house, and I can have it all in order by the 1st of December.”
“ In the first place, you could n’t. It takes ever so much longer to put a house in order — Oh dear ! ” she interrupted herself, “ would n’t it be lovely ? ” All the domesticity of the sweet woman stirred in her, just as some women’s eyes lighten when they look at the picture of a baby. “ Yes, it takes a long time to put a house in order ; but that is n’t the question. I could n’t, possibly, Roger.”
“ Could n’t what ? ”
“ Be — married,” she said, looking up at him with clear, sweet eyes, but with the pretty color deepening suddenly in her face. “Oh, I couldn’t for ever so long.”
Roger looked at her blankly, standing still, and holding the umbrella over his own head.
“ What do you mean? Can’t be married for a long time ? Dear, consider ! ”
He was very gentle. Her shyness seemed so exquisite. He had no idea of her reason. It was not until they began to climb the hill on the further side of Old Chester that he realized that her unwillingness was on account of her mother.
“ I’m young,” she said; “I can wait.”
“Well, but what about me? ” he asked, in the simplicity of his astonishment.
Then Alicia looked at him with pathetic anxiety in her eyes that her ideal should not fail her. “ Would n’t it be just thinking of ourselves, if we — got married now ? ”
“ I ’m sure I don’t know who else ought to be thought of ! And look here : you may have a right to sacrifice your own life, but do you think you have a right to sacrifice mine? And that’s what you will do, you little saint! Lyssie darling, if the 1st of December is too soon, really and seriously, why of course I ’ll not urge. I ’ll put it off a month, or even two months.”
Alicia was silent with dismay. They had stopped on the top of the hill, and turned to look down into the valley, lying in a gray mist. The low sumacs that fringed the road were still burning their small red torches, but they had dropped a carpet of yellow leaves upon the path. Eric, very muddy, and panting, flung himself down to rest; no doubt he thought of the fire and the rug, and decided that his two young friends were fools.
All Roger’s listlessness had gone ; Alicia’s resistance made her more charming than he had ever seen her. As they walked back, he began again, so confidently that her little sad interruption, “ It ’s impossible, Roger,” was like the steel to his flint. But it brought love as well as anger into his voice.
“ I believe you ’d like to put it off a year ! ” he declared.
“A year?” returned Alicia, sighing. “ There ’s no use thinking of a year ; perhaps in two, in three ” —
“ In three years! ”
“ Oh, Roger, don’t! Somebody will hear. Roger, listen. Why isn’t it happiness enough to go on a little while as we are? You know I love you.”
“I hope you do, ” he answered meanly.
“You know it. And I don’t see why that is n’t enough, — just to know I love you.”
“ Well, it is n’t,” Roger said, half mollified by her voice and words ; and he proclaimed a dozen reasons to the contrary ; in his earnestness, he almost touched the true reason: “ I need you, Lyssie.”
“ But mother needs me, and ” —
“ She ’ll need you forever, if you ’re going to let that come into it,” he interrupted angrily, again forgetting to hold the umbrella over her head, and gesticulating with it to emphasize his words. “ Besides, I need you as no mere mother can.”
Alicia was silent.
Roger talked on until they reached home, and then he paused long enough to take off her rubbers and scold her for being damp.
“ Eric’s feet must be wiped before he can come into the house,” said Lyssie absently, and went to get a cloth.
Roger, looking cross and worried, wiped the great paws ; and Lyssie, watching him, laughed nervously at the dog’s serious expression, and his sudden affection in trying to lick his friend’s cheek ; but Roger never smiled. Then they went into the parlor, and Roger put a log on the fire, and Alicia took up the bellows and sent a puff of flame and smoke crackling up the chimney, and the discussion went on as though there had been no interruption.
“ You say your mother needs you. Dear, I need you. Your husband needs you, Lyssie.”
The sudden color throbbed in her face, but she did not answer. Roger could not see how she was trembling, for she held the bellows hard to keep her fingers steady.
“ And see the effect of your unreasonableness,” he went on: “you make me — well, annoyed at your mother. Of course it is n’t fair ; but I can’t help it.”
Alicia looked at him hopelessly. “ I don’t seem able to put it right, or else you would n’t feel so. Oh, I think it would kill her if I got married now.”
“ Kill her!” said Roger, and paused, for it would scarcely do to express his belief that there was no such luck to be expected. “ Kill her ! Why, look here : in the first place, she has all the wonderful vitality of the invalid ; it would n’t kill her at all. She’d be awfully interested ; and it’s the best thing in the world for hypochon — I mean for people sick as she is, to be interested. It makes them forget themselves. And then she ’d enjoy coming to visit us sometimes, and ” —
“ Visit us ? ” Lyssie broke in blankly.
“ Why,” said Roger, as blankly, “ you did n’t think she’d live with us ? ” And then they looked at each other.
“ If you wish it, of course,” Roger hastened to say, but in his own mind he added, “ Good Lord !”
“ I had thought so — when the time came,” Lyssie faltered.
“ Dear, with all due regard for your mother, — and you know I’m very fond of her — but as a matter of common sense, I do think it is a mistake for people to have their mothers-in-law live with them. I mean any mother-in-law, even a nice one — I ’m not making this personal to Mrs. Drayton. Lyssie, please don’t think I mean to be unkind ! ” he ended, in a burst. “ I ’m very fond of her, you know.”
Lyssie drew in her breath, and looked away from him.
“ I ’d say it of my own mother, if she were alive,” he protested, “ and she was an angel. But she never would have wanted to live with us ; she had too much sense,” he floundered on.
“ I don’t want to thrust my mother on any one,” said Alicia. “ I had thought she would have a home with us; but — never mind.”
Roger was silent for a moment; then he told her, as courteously as though he were not engaged to her, “ Your wish settles it, my darling. And of course your mother is always welcome in my house. But if she is to come to us, you must see that there’s no reason why we should n’t be married at once.”
“ There’s every reason, Roger. For one thing, she’ll have to get used to the idea of leaving her own home. It would be dreadful for her. I have n’t even dared to propose it to her yet. But I will. I promise you I will. And perhaps in two years, or a little more ” —
Roger tramped back and forth across the room. Eric sprang up joyfully, and capered to the door ; but nobody noticed him, and he subsided under the piano.
“ Lyssie,” the young man demanded, standing before her, with his hands in his pockets, “ have you made any promise to your mother about this thing ? ”
“ I said something once. But that has nothing to do with it. It is n’t because of my promise. It ’s because I must n’t.”
“Well, may I ask how long you are going to prefer your mother to me ? ”
“ Oh, Roger ! ”
“ You need n’t say ‘ Oh, Roger ! ’ That’s what it amounts to; hut Lyssie, don’t, don’t push me off this way ! There’s so much uncertainty; and — I do need you. Don’t push me off ! ” His voice trembled.
Lyssie, her fingers quite cold, her voice breaking, came up to him, and put her hands on his shoulders.
“ I ’ll have to tell you. I did n’t mean to, but I ’ll have to tell you. Then you ’ll understand.” And with her face flaming with shame and pain, she told him of Mrs. Drayton’s threat of suicide.
Roger Carey listened, — grimly, at first; then he swore under his breath ; then he laughed, with the exuberance of gleeful relief and contempt.
“You poor blessed child! don’t you know what that’s worth ? Just that !” and he snapped his fingers. “ Kill herself ? She ’ll outlive us both ; they always do ! ” He would have kissed her, though he was still irritated ; but she was rigid, and drew away from him stiffly.
“ You must n’t say such things. You have no right to say such things. You are cruel !”
Her anger lasted only long enough to kindle his ; he was already out of patience. He said something bitter about “ selfishness,” and “ that sort of love,” and “ having been mistaken, no doubt, in her feeling for him.” He did not mean what he said, but, unfortunately, the effect of such statements is not in proportion to their sincerity.
Alicia’s face whitened and whitened. These two young persons, with the little work-table between them, and Eric’s head poking itself under Alicia’s nervous hand and upsetting Roger’s tottering columns of spools, looked into each other’s eyes, and used words like swords, while each declared the other wrong.
“ Then I am to understand that you dismiss me ? ” said Roger Carey.
“ You shall not put it upon me ! ” Lyssie cried piteously. “ It is n’t my fault. You are perfectly selfish about it. I am doing what is right. Of course our engagement is broken, but it is n’t my fault! ”
“ Of course not; there’s no fault about it. You simply choose between your mother and me. I don’t blame you ; I ’d be the last person in the world to blame you. I always told you I was n’t worthy of you, and I suppose now you ’ve discovered it for yourself.”
Lyssie was silent.
“ Well, good-by. I — Oh well, there ’s no use talking! Good-by.”
Roger swung himself out of the door and out of the house without another look. He had never been so much in love with her before.
Eric jumped up with a great bound ; the work-table rocked, and all the spools went rolling about on the floor ; then he whined, and scratched, and looked at Alicia, and whined again.
She, with poor trembling hands, and with the breath catching in her young throat, opened the front door, and the dog, impatient for his friend, rushed past her, and went bounding with splendid leaps out into the rain.