The Judgment of Venus
THERE were people who wondered what Barton Foxcroft ever saw in Mary Tracy to inspire him with the love of his life, — a love that proved itself by an act of devotion so spectacular that lions and gloves and the holding of highways against all comers dwindle into a minuteness quite proportionate to the demands of perspective.
Possibly if, after this prelude, I announce that I was not surprised in the least, I may lay myself open to the charge of conceit. The fact is that most people viewed the whole affair as complex, and hunted for complex explanations ; whereas, really, it was, as Mrs. Van Santvoord said, the very simplest and most natural thing in the world.
Society knew Foxoroft as a man of forty, of comfortable means and of wellemployed leisure. That is, he had traveled pretty nearly everywhere, including a few places that men don’t go to without the purpose of adding to the fund of human knowledge, and the courage to hear hardships and danger. He had volunteered on a North Pole expedition, and had been the leading factor in pulling it through without disaster ; he had spent ten months among the hairy Ainos, on the island of Yezo, and had written a monograph which was the acknowdedged authority on their curious tombs and ruins ; he had climbed Mount Aconcagua, and brought back a lot of meteorological data held by scientists to be of incalculable value. To all this may be added that he was handsome, well bred, and well mannered, and had safely weathered half a dozen flirtations, one of which, with the reigning belle of a New York season, and the heiress to untold millions, had been viewed by society as the certain shipwreck of his bachelorhood. There is little doubt that the heiress had viewed it in the same light, and a good many people criticised Foxcroft rather severely in the affair. I will only say in his defense that I knew the facts of the case, and that his conduct was unexceptionable. If she had really wanted him, she’d have won out, for I am sure Foxcroft cared for her. He deliberately put her out of his life ; and it needed all his strength of character to do it, when he came to realize that what she cared for was his prominence and achievements. The truth was that she looked upon them pretty much as a good investment for her money, which, by the bye, she invested a year later in a titled attaché of one of the legations in Washington. All that society saw was that he was attentive, could have married her, and did n’t, — which seemed shabby. What I saw was that he could have married her, wanted to, and did n’t, — which may be quite a different thing.
Now, as to Mary Tracy, she came of good New England stock ; and about the time she graduated from Jones College her father died, practically bankrupt. Then, being alone in the world, she got a position as teacher in Miss Francis’ school at Winfield. She was a pretty girl, in a quiet, refined way, but under her gentle and very feminine look and manners there lurked a decided character and will. Heredity had produced an old-type woman in appearance and bearing; training and modern ideas had underlaid the good old mahogany veneer (I use the term advisedly) with the cheaper wood demanded by new fashions, — a wood well seasoned with independence of prejudice masquerading as thought, loyalty to her sex for a creed, and just the least little trace of priggishness resultant upon — well, several things.
Of course, a man, meeting her as a man meets a woman, would not be apt to note such details, — especially a man like Foxcroft, who had seen the world with its clothes off, and dealt with big thoughts and big passions and crude nature, human and otherwise. Something of the little he might see would only amuse him, and all the rest would be transformed by his sense of chivalry into positive virtues. The main points were that she was pretty, delicate, feminine, appealing; that she was plucky and poor, and had to drudge her life out with those callow, catty girls ; and, above all, that Foxcroft had gone to spend two weeks, and had spent the whole summer, with an aunt who lived at North Merton, within a stone’s throw of Mary Tracy’s home. If any one who thinks he knows the kind of man Foxcroft was feels the least Halt, of surprise at his falling in love with her, why, he simply doesn’t know that kind of man, — that’s all.
Just here is where the seemingly complex side of the affair begins. As I have said, any reasonably rational man ought to be able to understand Barton Foxcroft falling in love with Mary Tracy, but only a clever woman could understand Mary Tracy not falling in love with Barton Foxcroft.
She certainly admired his person, his character, and his exploits ; she enjoyed his society, and found it altogether congenial and entertaining ; while as for his evident devotion, the blind could see that it was far from distasteful to her, — that she realized and liked and sought it, if one can use the word " sought ” with reference to a well-bred woman’s rather receptive attitude in such affairs.
The upshot was that he offered himself, and she refused him in a very kindly, gentle way. That did not turn him in the least. She wished to be his " friend.” Very well, she should be ; but he would be her lover, because that was his business. This, you will understand, is quite different from the position of the fellow who proposes and is rejected, and holds on, and proposes again and again, and wins in the end by sheer persistence. There was something undignified, servile, quite foreign to Foxcroft’s nature, in such a course, and he wanted Mary Tracy so much that he did not want her unless she wanted him in equal measure. Therefore he ceased to be her suitor without ceasing to be her lover : and I think she rather appreciated his attitude, and took a certain satisfaction in it. This was the only return he asked. If at any time she should come to care for him, that also must be a free gift.
It was early in the spring following this understanding between the two. Foxcroft had been spending the Easter holidays at North Merton, and on that particular day he was walking along an old wood road with Mary Tracy. Several of her letters, of late, had seemed big with some exciting disclosure that she had in store for him, but Foxcroft had asked no questions beyond what seemed called for by the possibility of her wishing him to. He never asked questions. He appreciated confidences more than any one I ever knew, but he never tried to force them.
Well, they were walking along the old wood road together. Suddenly she turned to him. “ What do you think I 'm going to do this summer ? ” she said.
Foxcroft smiled. “ Something you want to, I hope.”
“ More than anything in the world ! ” she exclaimed, clasping her hands.
Foxcroft laughed a pleased laugh, glad in her gladness. “ Well ? ” he said.
“ I’m going abroad.”
Now it always seemed to me that there was something almost brutal in this announcement. If you don’t happen to see it so, I could never explain it satisfactorily ; but I ’m sure it hit Foxcroft pretty hard, despite the fact that he and I almost quarreled, afterward, because I intimated that, knowing his feelings as she did, her abruptness was selfish and self-centred and feminine.
When he got his breath, he expressed a sympathy with her pleasant anticipations, and asked about the details of her projected trip.
Then she showed him a sort of ticket and itinerary book, and for a moment he needed all his self-control. Probably she did not notice his effort. At any rate, she rattled on : —
“ You see I could n’t go alone, and I did n’t know any one to go with who would just fit my ideas and means, and who was going and wanted me; and the circular said that Gazook’s parties were all very select, —references required, and all that sort of thing ; and they go to just the places I want to see, and everything is managed for you, so that you don’t have a thing to worry about, and some one goes with each party to explain everything they see, and it’s not very expensive, and, really, it seemed like just what I’d been waiting for ; so I sent and got the ticket at once, for fear I might change my mind.”
Then she paused, with bright eyes and flushed cheeks.
Meanwhile Foxcroft had gotten himself in hand, thanking his stars that no word had slipped from him to mar her satisfaction. The things he said voiced good wishes for her journey ; and if they rang a bit hollow, her attitude was far too satisfied to detect the false note.
When they parted he began to think, — all the way to his room, all the evening, and far into the night.
Poor little girl ! what did she know of the horrors of such parties, — their wild prance through time and space, their hopeless Philistinism, their inherent vulgarity ? Brought up in a quiet New England town, with four years at a quiet New England female college as the only departure from a rigid application of the sheltered-life system ; then a year’s teaching at a quiet New England seminary ; and, added to all this, a nature at once retiring and self-sufficient, — in the face of such an apology, even the halfformed attitude of critical astonishment faded from Foxcroft’s mind, and the wave of sympathy gathered volume.
“To think of that crowd ! ” he pondered. “ All sorts of odds that there won’t be a congenial soul in the party. If there was only a reasonable chance of her meeting one person in the least satisfactory, either for companionship or information ! ” Suddenly his face lighted at the advent of a new idea.
What prevented his joining the party himself ?
Then he lay back in his chair and laughed out at the absurdity of the combination. That he, who had been approximately everywhere, both within and without the boundaries of civilization ; who had led others through difficult and often perilous shifts of travel; who was posted and equipped beyond nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of a thousand on art and history and points of local interest, — that he should be “ personally conducted ” ! His laugh softened into a smile that meant even more ; and yet the idea held its ground.
Why should he care for the personal end of the thing ? It would be three months, — that was all; and meanwhile he would have Mary Tracy’s presence, and the certainty that he was giving her something she could get in no other way.
That settled it. The next day he told her he had decided to join the party, and had written to that effect. It was some years, he said, since he had visited most of the points on the route, and he felt sure he would enjoy a renewal of old associations, especially in such charming company.
“ How perfectly lovely ! ” she exclaimed. “ Now I ’m sure I shall not be absolutely friendless ; and that risk is the only drawback to such trips. Of course there ’ll be lots of nice people, but there might not happen to be any that you or I could just chum with.”
“ Of course there might not,” said Foxcroft.
“And, really,” she went on, “you can’t imagine how set up I feel, that an old traveler like you should have thought one of my ideas worth adopting. It will be nice, won’t it ? ”
“ Great,” said he ; and they talked travel from that on.
There were only a few of the people who knew Foxcroft who ever heard of his Gazook’s tour. It was natural enough that he should keep quiet about it. Independent as he was, he shuddered at thought of the howl of mad mirth with which his friends and acquaintances would greet such an announcement, and worse than all he dreaded their inevitable inferences and innuendoes. His love for Mary Tracy seemed altogether discordant with the semi-humorous attitude which society assumes toward the courtships of its members. As it was quite within his habits to disappear for somewhere at no notice whatever, his disappearances had ceased to excite wonder ; and so it was that only Mrs. Van Santvoord and I happened to know just what he was doing. I’m not so sure that Mrs. Van Santvoord knew as much as I did ; but she inferred pretty shrewdly, and talked just as if her inferences were knowledge. That was how she entrapped me into talking, especially as I knew that she and Foxcroft were intimate enough and friendly enough for him not to care. If he had n’t told her everything himself, it was just because he had n’t happened to feel like it, and not because he did not wish her to know.
Well, we talked, and we agreed and disagreed. I said that it was the most tremendous proof of devotion I had ever heard or read of, and that any woman with a chemical trace of womanliness in her nature must of necessity yield to it. She said that it was the most tremendous proof of devotion she had ever read or heard of — and then she stopped, and smiled, and thought a minute, with an almost sad expression on her face, and then she smiled again, and remarked that the modern woman was a curious creature, passing through a transition stage of development, and that she did n’t believe even she, Theodosia Van Santvoord, understood herself half so well as she imagined she did. After that we drifted off into a sociological discussion.
Mrs. Van Santvoord never uses big words, or bothers about professorial abstractions or egotistical theories; but she’s just about the brightest and most sensible woman I know, and her ideas never get tangled.
As for the tour, there is no necessity to go into painful details. The personal conductor, Mr. Albert George Billings, was a very capable, gentlemanly man of about thirty, a graduate of one of the Western universities. — I forget which, — and with Western “go,” a glib tongue, and a fund of superficial, guidebook information admirably suited to the needs of “ doing ” big sights in little time.
I remember hearing of his entry into the Salon Caret; of the Louvre, with an announcement approximately as follows : “ This is the Salon Carré Every pictore here is a masterpiece. We have just twenty minutes to reach the tomb of Napoleon.” And every one within an hundred yards heard him shout to his three stageloads in front of the Madeleine : “We will now go to the Palais Royal for luncheon. The price of luncheon will be three francs, including wine. Those who do not want wine can have coffee. It is to be hoped that you will all be in your places in the stages within three quarters of an hour, as any delay will curtail our time at the next point of interest. The price of luncheon will be three francs, including wine. Those who do not want wine can have coffee.”
Naturally, much of this hen-and-chickens method of travel, useful enough in its way, proved both a revelation and a shock to Mary Tracy. The hurry, the loss of individuality, the conspicuousness of it all, were elements she had never happened to think of before she bought her ticket, and which erudite friends had kindly refrained from emphasizing after that irrevocable step had been taken.
It was Foxcroft, however, whose constant attendance and thoughtful devotion softened the humiliating features, and supplied material for rational guidance and true appreciation. His mind, stored with a wealth of traveler’s experience and a fund of historical, legendary, personal, and artistic information, was always at her command; and when they two were able to drift out of the range of Mr. Billings’ very capable voice, she saw and learned what Mr. Billings could never have taught, — won an insight which that gentleman could never have given. These, also, were the times when Foxcroft and Miss Tracy fell outside of the amused smile with which detached travelers followed Mr. Billings and his brood in their flutter through art, architecture, and antiquity.
Perhaps one of the hardest parts of the task Foxcroft had set himself was keeping Mary Tracy from suspecting his motive for joining the party, and from appreciating the silent agony of such a martyrdom for such a man. I suppose his motive was partly consideration and partly pride. To his mind, half the value of his sacrifice consisted of his never allowing word or act to hint at it as such, or to place upon her shoulders the lightest straw of obligation. This was where Mrs. Van Santvoord lost all patience with him ; but the attitude was Foxcroft, and it could never have been otherwise, and women always claim that their highest appreciation and love are to be won by just such delicate devotion.
That was what I told her when she talked ; but she only looked at me with a sort of pity in her eyes, and sniffed scornfully.
Of course it was quite impossible that Mary Tracy should not occasionally question just how enjoyable to Foxcroft such a tour could be, but, with all her intelligence, she could never put herself within a league of his place. You see, she had never been abroad before, and she was bound to enjoy what she saw, even under the worst of conditions ; while, thanks to her lover, the existing conditions were very far from the worst. Gazookery became less than half of Gazookery to her. Then, too, she was too busy and occupied to bother much about such questions, and it was easy for Foxcroft to laugh away her suspicions whenever they found voice.
I have spoken above of my friend’s “ sacrifice,” and yet I am not quite sure that I should so term it In a way it was certainly his highest pleasure, and the companionship of Mary Tracy was always a joy to him, save for the constant self-restraint which he felt called upon to exercise. That was undeniably a strain ; but then, realizing that she knew he loved her, there seemed no need for him to embarrass her by emphasizing the fact. Perhaps it would all come out right in the end ; and if it did not — well, surely he was a man big enough to give without return.
Here, again, Mrs. Van Santvoord held up her pretty hands in hopeless despair.
The end of the tour came at last. They boarded the home steamer, and they left it; and after Foxcroft had seen Miss Tracy and her steamer trunk to the Grand Central Station, and received her prettiest thanks for all his kindness, and watched the train for North Merton pull out, he took a cab to his apartment, and spent the night in silent communion with Scotch high-balls and tobacco.
A week later he went to North Merton, to spend a couple of days prior to the beginning of the Winfield term.
It was the last afternoon. They were walking along the same wood road where Foxcroft had first heard of “ the tour.” All through these two days even his masculine intuition had been alive to a certain change in Mary Tracy. She seemed like a delicate instrument tuned half a note above concert pitch. Still, he had attributed it to just “ nerves.”
And now, as they strolled along together, he was wondering whether she ever thought of what it all meant to him ; and she was silent and —
Suddenly she turned, with a small red spot on each cheek.
“MrFoxcroft,” she said; and her voice halted, with a queer, embarrassed little hitch. “ There is something I must tell you before you go back to New York. I am going to be married in the spring.”
By a tremendous effort Foxcroft kept his face in its lines. As for speech, even he dared not trust that. He was strong, one of the strongest men I ever knew ; but for the brutal heedlessness of such a blow he could find no guard, and he stood like a boxer whose vulnerable point has been reached by a chance swing, — on his feet, smiling, his hands up, but needing only a push to send him a crumpled heap upon the boards.
There was no science or intent, though, behind his assailant’s attack. She never noted the condition of the man standing before her. Only she paused, waiting for him to say something. Every moment helped him to rally his self-control, and at last he heard himself speaking, in a voice that sounded weirdly strange in his ears : —
“ You have certainly surprised me, Miss Tracy. Might an old friend ask whom he shall congratulate ? ”
He knew what he said was absurdly formal and stilted, but it was his very best, then ; and the girl did not seem to remark either the voice or the words.
“ It is Mr. Billings,” she said, smiling ; and then, as if the flood gates of speech had been opened, she burst out : “ I was never much with him on the trip, — he was so busy about our comfort, you know; and I never dreamed he cared for me until he came here straight from the steamer, — in the next train after mine; and then, when he told me all about himself, and how he felt, and why he ’d done as he had. I began to realize just how good he’d been to us all through those three months, and how he ’d looked out for everything, and saved us from all the worries and trials of travel. Men can never understand, Mr. Foxcroft, how much such care and devotion mean to a woman ; and such a position for such a man must be terribly trying. Think of all he has to know about everything ! And, between you and me, most of the people in the party were pretty hopeless ; and yet he never lost his temper, or even his patience, once. That ’s what shows character, does n’t it ? And then, with all his kindness, he was so masterful.”