A Point of Honor
THE room was full of the scent of wood and field, that fine, warm breath of midsummer, and a white rose climbing round the east window made still more exquisite the fragrance. And as pleasantly suggestive as the outdoor odors was the room itself, — old as we Americans count time, — with its ample space, its pieces of fine mahogany, its family portraits, relieved by engravings and water colors, and its abundant glass and silver, which had a look of tranquil, ready hospitality.
In Maryland a summer evening is meant to be spent out of doors, and at My Lord’s Rest the family usually assembled on the airy front portico. But Miss Miriam Hatley, now sole owner of the old Hatley place, was as insensible to heat as a salamander, and she preferred the dining room, a bright lamp, and a mellow book to the desultory talk and music of the young people. Then, too, it chanced just now that Miss Miriam’s guests were reduced to three, — her niece Adela Hatley, Ethel Marsh, and a distant cousin, Stanley Hewes ; and these three could very well dispense with their hostess’s company.
On this special evening, however, Miss Hatley was by no means intent upon her book, which was obviously new. Every now and then she cut a leaf or two, turned it, sipping, skipping, taking the cream off in a finely superior fashion. She was a born reader, yet loved books none the less that she loved life more, and held herself largely independent of the printed word. And now and then Miss Miriam lifted her head, removed her glasses, and unconsciously listened to the sounds that came in from the portico. These sounds were chiefly musical notes, blent occasionally with voices. After a time Miss Hatley pushed away her books, leaned back in her chair, and fell into thought. Her face had that fine poise of expression which means a ready and sympathetic interest in every form of life; and it was full, too, of the echoes of beauty, — echoes all the more delightful in that they were so hauntingly suggestive.
Presently her leisure was interrupted by the three young people, who came strolling in, the gentleman last, and most deliberate in movement.
“ We’ve come to take you out,” said Ethel Marsh’s light, meagre young voice. “ I insisted it was a shame that we should be enjoying the night and the cool” — The speaker paused.
“ And I the lamp and the heat ? ” asked Miss Hatley.
“ But aunt Miriam looks very comfortable,” remarked Adela.
“ And I said that you were like all other women, — only more so, — and liked your own way better than anything else,” observed the gentleman.
They stood about the table, their eyelids drooping and quivering in the strong light, while Miss Miriam sat and looked at them with good-humored, imperturbable comprehension. They all interested her. Stanley and Ethel she liked ; her niece Adela she loved; and with Miss Hatley love was a plant of rare and slow growth.
“ When I want aunt Miriam, I join her; when you think of her, Ethel, you invite her to join you,” said Adela. Her tone was rallying, but there was a slight constraint in it, a slight edge. Miss Miriam sent her niece a glance surprised and monitory, and Adela colored.
“ On this occasion we all seem to have joined Miss Hatley,” said Stanley Hewes easily.
Hewes was one of the men whom women call “interesting,” and interest, like beauty, has never been defined. He was well made, of middle height, and gave a general impression of grace and versatility rather than of force and substance. He had a long, oval face, long, harmonious features, and a beautifully shaped head. His long features might have seemed melancholy but for his dancing, bright hazel eyes, and these, together with the red-brown hair, and close - cut beard and mustache of the same hue, gave color and warmth to his face. In manner Hewes was happily careless, inadvertently polite as it were, as if he might have missed the goal of courtesy, but never did ; and he had the pleasant reputation of being ready for all emergencies. Though not exactly a ladies’ man in the ordinary sense, Hewes was assuredly loved of the ladies, who showed him no little attention. He had “ a way with him,” they said, which has been from time immemorial woman’s general explanation of what pleases her in man. Hewes had, certainly, little traits of expression and manner which proved very effective, — a long, slow side glance, for instance, which seemed to set the girl it was bestowed on apart to be the recipient of special favor ; and a way of saying commonplace things in a lightly romantic, wooingly confidential fashion that seemed to surround the confidante with a soft atmosphere of vague possibility. Then he had, too, an unusually fine voice, whose outward sound was a caress, and whose inward truth was a command. Some women — Ethel Marsh, for instance — went so far as to call him “ magnetic.”
Ethel Marsh herself was a tall, slim girl, with no particular grace of figure, but her face was exquisite. It was a trifle overrefined, a thought too delicate, perhaps ; but the perfect lines, the pellucid eyes, the fair abundant hair and flawless skin, were all of that rare quality of beauty which suggests fragrance.
Between Adela and her aunt there was a strong family likeness: the same dark hair and vivid eyes, and in the younger woman a sun - brewed look which emphasized her rich coloring. The Hatley ladies were fine and handsome rather than pretty, and Adela’s face had a leashed intensity of expression which made it memorable.
“ I see you have all of Meredith,” said Hewes, looking at the new books which Miss Hatley had scattered over the table.
“ Yes, though I don’t know what sort of housemate he ’ll prove,” answered the lady.
“ And do you like him ? ” asked Ethel, with a pretty, obvious air of making polite conversation.
Miss Miriam looked at her humorously. “ Well, in the flood of printed matter in which we are drowning, I can at least hold on to Meredith and keep my head above water,” returned she.
“ Oh, do give him credit for being more than a mere mental support! ” cried Hewes gayly. “ I myself am quite a Mereditliian, and am always on the qui vive for converts.”
“ I don’t care for his somersault English,” said Miss Hatley lightly; “ but then, as our old mammy used to say, he has ' heaps o’ book-learnin’ layin’ roun’ loose,’ to say nothing of that far finer learning, a knowledge of the human heart. But what chiefly interests and amuses me is his attitude toward women ; for while he may strive to say a new thing, he unconsciously sets forth the immemorially old.”
“ And what is that ? ” asked Hewes eagerly.
“ ‘ That the beauty of woman delighteth the countenance, and there is nothing the heart of man loveth better.’ ”
“ Oh, Miss Hatley, surely he says much more than that. Wait till you read all the books! ” cried Hewes deprecatingty.
“ Aunt won’t, unless they are amusing and not too spun out,” said Adela, laughing. “ For she thinks the reader has no responsibility toward the author, but that the author has every responsibility toward the reader.”
Ethel looked at Hewes, as if to say : “ Are you interested in all this ? Suppose we go out again ? ” But Hewes did not move.
“ When we have passed our sixtieth birthday,” said Miss Hatley, smiling, “ the general story of Life ought to have been fairly well learned. But the particular stories are well-nigh infinite, ever varied, and never wholly compassed. The pieces, the moves, and the motives are the same, but the game is forever different.” She looked steadily at Adela. “ Knowing the rules of the game and observing them, we may play with impunity ourselves, and watch others play with ever increasing comprehension, sympathy, and love.” She paused for a moment, and then added: “ A man of Mr. Meredith’s wit, humor, and sagacity, however, cannot fail to be interesting; and his special theory — the need of courage in women—is, at all events, suggestive. But it requires courage to have courage ; to him that hath shall be given, you know. The woman who has the courage of her affections ought, in poetic justice, I suppose, to marry the man who has the courage of his convictions. Both are rarer, perhaps, than we believe. Yet it is pleasant to see Mr. Meredith work out his theories.”
“ Oh,” said Hewes, with a touch of authority, “ no writer, perhaps, when it comes to individual men and women, can give more than an outline, which the imagination of the reader fills in. But every one concedes that Meredith’s women are his strong point! ”
“ Well, I think his men are far in advance of his women,” returned the lady. “As a rule, the men whom men draw, and the women whom women depict, are nearer the truth ; for it is a blessed law of nature that men and women shall view one another through the eyes of the imagination. ‘ He’s all my fancy painted him,’ 'She’s all my fancy painted her,’ is the universal ” — Miss Hatley paused.
“Folly?” asked Hewes deprecatingly.
“ Oh dear, no; wisdom,” answered Miss Miriam, laughing.
“ For most men,” she continued, “ the world of women is divided into two classes, those who prey on men, and those who pray to men, — Becky Sharps and Amelia Sedleys. Mr. Meredith’s ladies appear to be the usual adjuncts to the masculine side of life. The much-vaunted courage is, as I said, the courage of the affections, and is to redound to the advantage of man. But life requires many kinds of courage, and has many more outlooks than the emotional one. Where is the civic and social conscience of these fair ladies ? But we won’t press the point. (Were you playing, Stanley, or was Ethel ?) One thing I will admit, however: that, as a rule, women are apt to have more principle than honor, and men more honor than principle.”
They all exclaimed, Adela with heightened color, and Hewes adding, “ I think that that idea is equally uncomplimentary to both.”
“ It follows upon the assumption that all is fair in love and war. But wait till you reach my age, and you will see, perhaps, what I mean.”
“Aunt Miriam, won’t you come out presently and join us ? ” asked Adela wistfully.
“ Perhaps,” said the elder lady, smiling. “ But remember, I have had my moonlight and guitar-playing. I have listened to the wash of the water on our shore ; to the murmur of the light wind in the mimosa ; to the talk, the laughter, the gentle sighs. I know something of the unspoken wishes, the disembodied dreams. It is your turn now. What counts are the memories you weave for yourselves by means of all these things.”
She looked steadily at Adela, who returned the look with one of disquietude.
“ Wait till you read all of Meredith,” said Hewes, giving Ethel that long, particular side glance. She showed a consciousness of it by coloring and dropping her eyes. In going out, Hewes and Ethel walked together, and Adela slowly followed them, her head bent, and her under lip held close by the small white teeth.
The night deepened. After a time the young people came reluctantly in, said good-night, and went their ways. Then old Uncle Zeke appeared to close and bar the shutters, and hint cautiously to his Miss Miriam that “’t was nigh on to twelve.” But Miss Hatley, without lifting her head, said that she would attend to things, and, sending the man away, still sat on. Every now and then she listened as if with assured expectancy, and then bowed her face over her book again. Lured by the lamp, a moon moth floated in, dyed for a moment its rare pale translucence in the glowing light, and then, after a few agonized flutterings, sank to a disfigured death. Miss Hatley frowned. She loved summer; but the creatures that found death by her lamp troubled her. She picked the dead moth up, and put it gently out of the window* “ You should have stayed with your sister spirit, the microphylla rose,” she said.
Presently a light step was heard in the hall, and Adela, fully dressed, came in. She was pale now, and her face had that determinedly stilled look which means strong emotion strongly repressed.
“ You were waiting for me?” she said briefly.
“Yes,” replied Miss Miriam gently.
There was a long silence, during which Adela paced restlessly up and down the room.
“ You thought I was n’t nice to-night to Ethel Marsh ? ” she said at last, turning abruptly to her aunt.
“ The satirical rogue says here,” answered Miss Miriam, laying her hand on the book she had been gleaning from, “ that all women are trained to cowardice. Perhaps they are. Yet it surely requires courage to be chivalrous, to forego our own strength of perception, never to put the deliberate finger on another’s weakness. You called attention, as it were, to your own disinterestedness where I am concerned, and to her selfseeking.”
“ I lose patience,” said Adela, speaking in low, vibrating tones, “ with her continual selfishness, and her adroit way of making it appear that it is she who thinks of and for others.”
Miss Hatley did not immediately reply.
“ There is no atom of affinity between us,” continued Adela sternly.
Miss Miriam lifted her brows. “ Your friend,” she returned warningly.
“ My acquaintance, not my friend,” re plied Adela coldly. “ She never thought of coming in for you until Stanley began talking, for the moment, exclusively to me. Then she immediately insisted that we should ‘ all go in and see what dear Miss Miriam was doing.’ ”
“ Even toward our acquaintance I think we might exercise the graee of reticence.”
“ Why, aunt Miriam, don’t you want me to tell you frankly how matters are between us ? ”
“ I want you to see the truth, and to do simply the right thing,” returned her aunt. “ I have little faith in confessions, and still less in most confidences : they loosen the bands of self-respect, they dull the fine edge of sensibility. It is a great thing to know, and to know instantly, what are the expedient or lawful or necessary silences of life ; and one learns by practicing on one’s self. Do you really know what is between you and Ethel ? ”
The color flooded Adela’s face, and her features quivered.
“ Not even a woman should look upon another woman’s heart,” said Miss Hatley, with exquisite tenderness.
There fell a long silence, but at last, with a visible effort, Adela said : “ Surely I m not such a weakling that I can’t bear to hear you voice the truth! Say it.”
“ Suppose I speak it, then, somewhat impersonally,” returned Miss Hatley.
Adela sat down, but averted her head, and partly concealed her face with one hand. Her aunt thoughtfully regarded her.
“ The primary emotions, like the primary colors, are always the same,” said Miss Hatley presently, “ and when Solomon said that there is nothing new under the sun, if he was speaking of the human heart with all its many issues, he spoke but a common truth. There were two young girls, then, friends, — or comrades, if you had rather, — who were made such by the easy bond of young girls’ ordinary social interests. Intercourse between these two was pleasant enough until they paid a visit together to an old country house. Here Ethel, an exquisitely pretty girl, met for the first time Stanley Hewes. Hewes had known the other girl, Adela, all her life, and a few years previous, when, on his return from Europe, he had found her a woman, handsome, clever, intelligently sympathetic, the two had become good friends. There was nothing between them, however, — nothing but that indefinable warmth and confidence which seems, nevertheless, to the one who is really interested, prophetic of something more.” Miss Miriam paused, and looked expectantly at her niece ; but Adela did not turn her head. The silence of the night seemed to listen.
“ Sometimes,” continued Miss Hatley, “ a man’s liking for one woman sensitizes him just enough to make him fall in love with another. At all events, Hewes, artistic and impressionable, fell deeply in love with Ethel.”
Adela involuntarily caught her breath. “ You too, then, saw ? ” she said.
“ My child, no one could have helped seeing,” was the reply. “I know how prone we all are to think that love in itself constitutes some sort of claim ; but it does not. It simply gives the right to stand aside or to serve, as the case may be. Lookingthe truth bravely in the face, what claim had Adela on Hewes ? ”
“ None whatever,” answered Adela quickly. Then, after a long pause, she added, “ And yet I cannot help feeling that it might have been different if — if
— if she had n’t crossed our path just here and now.”
“ I am sorry for the woman who will take a man’s liking in default of his possible loving,” said Miss Miriam quietly.
Adela turned pale again. “ Then you think his — his ” — She stopped short.
“ His feeling for Ethel is genuine and well founded ? ” finished Miss Hatley. “ I cannot tell; it would be considering too curiously to consider that. The truth we are facing now is his love for her, not the quality of that love ; that depends on the sort of man he is. Don’t let us confound values. I have noticed that Ethel has been trying to placate you, as it were, and that you have been unconsciously feeding a smouldering resentment, as if to find justification for some sort of action.”
As Adela turned her face it looked as if beaten by an inward storm. “ I don’t know which is worse, the pain or the shame of it,” she gasped.
“ The pain I know full well, but I see no reason for the shame. Our feelings
— especially this feeling — come to us we know not how. What we are responsible for is the action to which we let the feeling give rise.” The winged light as of the stars seemed to shine on Miss Hatley’s face as she spoke.
“ Don’t pity me,” said Adela brokenly, “ don’t excuse me.”
“ I’m not pitying you, — there’s no need,” — returned Miss Miriam, “ and I expect to have no cause for excusing. Pain is the great educator,” she continued feelingly, “ and in order to learn we must suffer. Shall I grudge you wisdom and future joy because they now cost you a heart pang ? Of all the stories of Demeter, that is the subtlest and finest which represents her as the nurse of Demophon, whom, in order to fit for immortality, she was obliged to place upon live coals. Life, our nurse, does the same for all of us, — we must all undergo the fiery ordeal. I only want you to see the truth, and to act aecordingly.”
Adela crushed her hands together, and for a few moments made no reply.
“ Do you think such a nature as Ethel’s can satisfy Stanley? ” she asked presently, in a smothered voice.
“ I think you are not warranted in asking yourself that question,” returned Miss Hatley quickly. “ He must be sole judge of what suits him best.”
“ She has no literary, no artistic taste worth speaking of,” said Adela bitterly, “ and he has so much of both.”
“ Oh, my dear, that’s the mistake so many women make. Men find uncomprehending devotion quite as helpful and soothing as intelligent sympathy. Ethel is the sort of woman who will idolize her husband, — especially a man she can be very proud of, such as Stanley.”
Adela made no answer, and after a time Miss Miriam said, “ She is very imitative, very adaptive, and her ready desire to please makes her seem sympathetic.”
Still Adela kept silence.
“ There have been many women who have had to stand by and see a man’s fancy pass from them,” said Miss Hatley gently.
“ Does that make it easier ? ” rejoined Adela scornfully, and in the lamplight her eyes gleamed with fire. Presently she somewhat impatiently threw up her head. “ Stanley is an honorable man,” she said half hesitatingly. “ If he knew the truth, perhaps he would not care so much for Ethel.”
Miss Hatley’s face grew stern. “ And Adela is an honorable woman,” she said dryly. “ Is it, then, because of Ethel’s limited nature and supposed unsuitability for Stanley that you are trying to find justification for letting him know this derogatory truth ? ”
“ The truth is the truth,” returned Adela moodily. “ Aunt Miriam, you don’t know what it is to — to — to love and be a woman ; never to lift your finger, never to look a look, even, and yet ” — She broke off passionately.
Miss Hatley keenly regarded her. “ What did I say ? — that women have more principle than honor. Can you justify yourself to yourself ? What is this antidotal truth which, like a love potion, you dare hope may turn Stanley’s heart to you ? ”
At her aunt’s tone and manner Adela changed countenance, yet said determinedly : “ Ethel is already engaged to be married, — engaged to her cousin, Henry Carden. It is an indefinite, unacknowledged engagement, because he has nothing as yet to marry on.”
“ Did Ethel tell you this ? ” demanded Miss Miriam.
“ Thrown together as we have been, I could not help knowing it.”
“ Then you, who learned this truth through the privacy and intimacy of ordinary friendship, are now willing to turn the knowledge to your own advantage as against her ? This seems to me a point of honor.” Miss Hatley’s voice was like sunlight on ice, coldness and warmth commingled.
“It is Ethel who is dishonorable!” cried Adela hotly. “ Fancy being engaged to one man, and encouraging another ! ”
Miss Hatley took up her paper cutter, and tapped impatiently for a few seconds on the table. Then she laughed suddenly, a little low, scornful laugh that had the effect of making Adela feel as if she were being unexpectedly pelted with fine, cold rain.
“ So, beeause your friend is dishonorable in a superlative degree, you are going to make it justify you in being dishonorable in a comparative ? ”
“I — Aunt Miriam, what do you mean ? ”
“ That because she is dishonorable as regards her indefinite engagement, therefore you are justified in telling on her ? ”
“ I am under no promise of secrecy,” returned Adela quickly.
“ Precisely; but the unspoken, understood confidence is all the more to be respected.”
Miss Hatley’s beautiful voice was like a soft bell buoy sounding a note of danger. There was another long silence, during which they looked steadily at each other, — two fine spirits struggling for the mastery.
“ The conditions on which we are willing to accept life make life,” said Miss Miriam. “ I don’t wish to persuade you, Adela ; I wish simply that you should see the truth so clearly as to be able rightly to guide yourself. Are you willing to win Stanley Hewes on such terms as these, that, in order to detach him from Ethel, you shall tell him the truth? Suppose it had the effect of turning his heart to you : would you not wince always at the thought of the means you had used ? Can you do it ? Can you forfeit your own self-respect ? ”
The silence of the night seemed to vibrate like held harp strings. “ And yet I ’m half furious with myself that I cannot! ” burst out Adela, her face glowing above her white dress in a flame of color. “ It seems so easy, and yet it’s impossible. The temptation has been so strong, and yet so despicable ! I know it, but I wanted to come and hear you say it. I’ve had it all out with myself, but I thought you might as well spike the guns.”
Her voice broke on the last word, and she hid her face. Miss Hatley quietly waited. The Hatleys were not demonstrative people ; with them comprehension was demonstration enough.
In an altered voice, however, Miss Miriam presently said, “ Will it be of any help, Adela, to know that in my youth I had a like experience ? ”
Adela started, and lifted her bowed head.
“ I need n’t tell you the particulars,” continued Miss Hatley, — “ they were more marked than yours ; for I was actually engaged to the man whose affection I saw pass from me.” She drew a long, deep breath. “ I had my dark hour. I made my choice. And I learned that a clean-cut sorrow is far better than a mangled joy. I let life go, as I thought, and yet it all came back to me a thousandfold in other ways. What have you thought of doing, my Adela ? ” she asked tenderly.
The young girl rose and stood close to her aunt, and looked down on her with a face pale as it was resolute. “ I can catch the early morning express at the Water Station,” she said briefly. “ I think I had better put myself beyond the reach of temptation. They won’t miss me, or know or care why I’ve gone ; and you can explain my absence, and apologize for it, just as you see fit, — will you, aunt Miriam ? ”
Miss Hatley took both the younghands in hers. “ I respect you, Adela. I 'll see that everything is ready, and will drive you over to the station myself.” She drew her niece down, and for a moment held her close. Then Adela, without a word, went away. But Miss Miriam sat on, until a thrill of coolness stole into the room, a gray light shone through the east window, and the birds began to pipe up into song. Then she rose suddenly, swept off her books, put out the lamp, noiselessly closed the shutters, and went softly upstairs.