Pet's Husband

I

IT was generally thought that Pet had done very well for herself when she married him. She was the third daughter of Mr. Wainwright of Dedham, and he was Instructor in English at the—College for women. I spell Instructor with a capital, since it is so spelled in the institution in which he served. The branch of English that he elected to teach — and that his official superior graciously permitted him to teach — was a mysterious branch of Gaelic. It had to do with North of Ireland ballads and Scottish Border poems, enlivened by dabs of Chaucer. It may easily be understood that neither the trustees of the institution nor his official superior were altogether fitted to pronounce on the thoroughness of his knowledge or the range of his equipment; and he was popularly supposed to have received his appointment on the strength of poems published in the Century Magazine. Those who took the trouble to look up the poems found that they were three in number and of remarkable length. They dealt with supernatural powers and gnomes, and gave the reader a sense of wind soughing through empty boughs or ghosts striving to lift a trap-door of ebony. No one pretended to understand the poems. But it was conceded that they were remarkable work, — for a young man, —and that they promised yet more remarkable things in the future.

He was therefore elected to the instructorship; and he and Pet were married in June. In September he took up his duties at the college. He offered two courses in his subject, and they were elected by ten students each.

There was a feeling in the college that since so erudite a subject was offered it would be, in a certain sense, a disgrace to the college should no one elect it. Jt might seem to indicate that women were not the intellectual equals of men, or something to that effect. The student body had a courageous conviction that women were in all respects the equals of men, as well as their superiors. They held themselves ready to elect any number of subjects to prove it. Moreover, the new Instructor had an interesting lock of hah that fell across his forehead and required brushing back absently as he talked. This stimulated the imagination. It was held, by some at least, to offset the difficulties of the course.

It was soon found, however, that, except for the lock of hair, the new Instructor added no personal inducements to the study of Gaelic. He worshiped his subject — and Pet. His mind was preoccupied with poetic dreams, and his gaze was, for the most part, turned inward. He was blind to the very intelligent faces that confronted him in the front row. His dark eyes rested on them impartially, and his lips, framed to utter musical sounds, expounded learnedly the secrets of middle-high Gaelic.

Pet meanwhile had settled down to the career of being a professor’s wife, with exalted joy. That she was as yet only the wife of an Instructor did not trouble her. She knew that Alwyn had in him lofty powers, that he was destined for high places. She accepted, without question, the responsibility of assisting his great career, and of rising beside him to stand at last in the full radiance of glory. She was curiously unalive to the possibility of failure. She knew Alwyn for what he was, and she believed in him to the utmost. Meantime it was her obvious duty to fail him in no particular. She kept her pretty new clothes in the freshest order, and received and returned her calls with promptness. It was not always easy to cajole Alwyn into accompanying her on the calling expeditions, and he was sometimes guilty of stealing away through the side door to the little grove that flanked the house, when callers appeared at the front door. Pet’s manner on these occasions did duty for two. She did not attempt to conceal the flight or excuse it. She took the public boldly into her confidence. She assumed that they, too, admired Alwyn’s genius and were proud of it, and, with her, shared the responsibility of preserving it to the world. She so far succeeded that, whatever the public might think of the new Instructor’s manners, they agreed in pronouncing those of his wife charming. She was a distinct acquisition to the slow-moving life of the place. The wives of countless professors had exercised themselves through endless years in inventing appropriate social excuses for delinquent husbands. It had not occurred to them to acknowledge the thing openly and glory in it. Pet’s frankness toward life entertained them. It might easily have shocked them. And the sense of license and wild risk involved added to her charm.

Before the close of the first year the Condors held an assured place in the community; and when, on the opening of college in September, it was known that the baby that had come to them in the vacation had died, the sympathy of the whole community went out to them. They were knit into the life of the place by social dependence, and now by sympathy.

II

It was near the close of the first semester of the second year that Alwyn came in one afternoon with a disturbed face. Pet, wdio was writing out the menu for a little dinner party the following -week, put down her papers and came across to the fire.

He sat leaning forward, looking into the fire and rubbing his long fingers.

She took the hearth-brush and brushed away infinitesimal specks. She hung the brush on its nail and sat down near him. He smiled at her absently.

She nodded, with a quick look, leaning forward, “Everything all right?”

“Not —quite.”

She waited in silence.

“It’s nothing.” He pushed back the lock of hair. “Only my classes” —

“Don’t they work?”

“What there is of them — yes.”

Her eyes grew quickly round. “What do you mean ? You have almost as many as you had last year.”

“About half,” he corrected. “And they’re going to drop it.”

“All of them?”

“There will be one student left in the three-hour course, and none in the twohour. The list came in to-day.” He smiled at her a little apologetically.

She smiled back bravely. “Sillies!” She moved nearer to him, brushing his sleeve with her fingers. “What do you suppose made them?”

He shook his head. “ Just the freak — perhaps.”

“Yes?”

“There’s another course in Economics, — a new man.”

“They’re sheep. What one takes, the rest will!”

“ I have sometimes thought they don’t elect a subject because they care for the subject ?” He put it tentatively.

“They don’t elect subjects — nor even professors,” she said with decision; “they just elect each other. — You have one left ?”

“Yes. I have one.”

“ I’m going to make you a cup of tea,” she said, “and then we’ll go for a long walk. I want to take you to that place up the glen where I found the ice crystals. They’re beautiful.” She busied herself among the tea-things. “Besides, dear, the fewer you have, the more time you’ll get for yourself and your writing. It’s really better.” She looked up with a smile.

He returned the smile, his eyes lingering on the trim figure and peach-blossom skin and wide eyes. “It’s really better,” he assented. “So long as I keep enough to draw my salary.”

Something in the tone reached her. She dropped the sugar-tongs. “So long as”— She gave a quick laugh. “How silly, Alwyn! Of course you ’ll draw your salary.”

“If I have a student,” he said. “I imagine the trustees won’t feel justified in paying me a salary just as an ornament.”

“They ought to.”

“Well — perhaps.”

“It is n’t like most subjects,” she said indignantly. “Of course the classes will be small.”

“Small — yes,” he assented.

“The college ought to be proud to keep you even if you had n’t a student — just for glory.”

He laughed shortly.

She came across to him, bringing the cup of tea.

He took it from her absently. “It’s not a rich college,” he said.

“Neither are we,” she replied.

“I know. I’ve thought of that. I must do something.”

“You will do nothing,” she said promptly, “except be a poet.” She bent, and kissed the lock of hair on his forehead lightly. “Now I’m going to put on my walking-skirt. Finish your tea, dear, and then we’ll go out.” She flashed from the room and tripped up the long stairway, humming a little song. She closed the door of her room softly. She stood very still, staring before her with wide eyes.

III

In the summer the Condors went to the White Mountains. Alwyn was not strong. A slight cough troubled him. The doctor had ordered a bracing climate. They settled down comfortably in the small hotel in which they found themselves. The other guests were pleasant people, and they had a large room facing to the east. Alwyn began to take long walks by himself among the hills. He gained in color and weight. They resolutely turned their thoughts from the coming year and from college. Unless some student should alter her election when college reopened, Alwyn would have no classes. His one student had finished her course in June, and the lists handed in for the coming year furnished no one to take her place. Pet refused to admit that the situation was serious. Even if no one should elect the work, she pointed out, the college could not turn him adrift at the opening of the year. They must, in common decency, carry him on for a while, and there would be a revival of interest in Gaelic before another year. Alwyn admitted the possibility, and the subject was dropped.

He continued his long walks in the hills, and Pet devoted herself to the guests of the hotel. She would have preferred to go with Alwyn. She would have tramped by his side for miles without a word. But since he did not wish her, she served him, staying behind. There might be something she could do for him if she were watchful and ready.

She made friends with women from New York and Boston, and with one from Philadelphia. There was always the possibility of lectures in the winter. The hotel responded warmly to her advances. She was tactful and spontaneous, and she never drew a breath without devoting it to Alwyn. The hotel pronounced her charming, and her husband distinguished and interesting.

When they had been five weeks at the hotel a new guest arrived. She was from Maryland, a young woman with a Southern accent and reddish brown hair. She and Pet at once became good friends. They walked together, and drove and played golf, and sat on the piazza and made doilies. When Alwyn returned from his walks he found them always together. It came about naturally that be read to them both the verses he had formerly read to Pet. The Southern girl sat with downcast eyes listening to the strange lines. As she listened a flush crept into her face, and when she lifted her eyes they were shining. Pet, watching her, smiled serenely. If one woman were so moved by it, what would be the result when all the world should hear it! She begged him to publish something now. But he put her aside. It was not finished. It must wait.

When the summer was almost done, and they were about to return to college, she made a discovery to him. He was going for a last walk across the hills, and seeing the look in her eyes, he had asked her to go with him.

They spread their luncheon on a rock, mid-stream in a tumbling brook. Pet made her way back and forth from the bank to the rock, bearing great handfuls of leaves and branches and flowers to deck the table. Alwyn, lying on his back on the rock, watched her from under his hat-brim as she flitted from rock to rock, breathless, laden with trailing green. Her hair, curling in tendrils, blew about her face, her eyes glowed, and her color came and went softly. She was supple and vigorous. There was something of the woods about her, — cleanliness and abandon. She laid the last branches on the rock, and pushed back the hair from her face, leaning over the side of the rock to dash the water across her face and neck. She dried it on a fresh napkin that she took from the basket.

He pushed back his hat and sat up. She regarded him critically. “You might wash your face,” she said, “and comb your hair a little.”

“ With my fingers ?” He held them up.

“ When they’re washed,” she assented.

He leaned over, dabbling them in the water where it foamed against the rock.

She watched him with clear eyes. “Who do you think is going to college next year?” Her voice laughed.

“To our college?” “Yes.”

“Anybody I know?”

“Yes.”

He considered, dipping his fingers up and down in the water and letting it drip from them as he held them up. “Somebody here?” he asked.

“Yes.”

He sat up. “ Not—Miss Leffingwell ?”

She nodded, her eyes dancing.

“ She said she was going back to Maryland.” A shadow from a pine tree flecked his face.

“She is. But she’s coming North again — later.”

There was silence. The air stirred freshly about them. Alwyn had taken a sandwich from its green plate and was breaking it absently in his fingers. “What is she going for?”

“To study ballad poetry and Gaelic.”

“What!” He sat up suddenly.

She smiled at him.

He returned the look with sternness. “You have told her” —

“I have not told her a thing,” she said slowly, “except what you teach.”

“ She will be the only one in the class. ”

“Perhaps not,” said Pet. “Eat your sandwich. I told her,” she went on, watching with satisfaction as his teeth closed on the morsel, “I told her the classes were very small.”

“You can’t call nothing small.” He was looking at her searchingly.

She laughed out. “You need n’t be suspicious, Alwyn. I did n’t deceive her in the least. She just wanted to come.”

“Very likely,” he responded.

IV

Miss Leffingwell was a distinguished looking girl. It soon became known that she had come from Maryland for the express purpose of taking Mr. Condor’s work. The effect was what might have been foreseen, even by a less astute person than Alwyn’s wife. Other students reexperienced a desire for Gaelic. The classes started off with good numbers. Had Alwyn been endowed with ability to carry on a mild and legitimate flirtation while expounding the subtleties of language, his career — and Pet’s — might have been different. His classes would have grown in numbers, and his reputation would have been heard in the land. This does not mean that he would have done anything unworthy of a dignified gentleman, — only that he would have treated his students as individual human beings. His classes laid at his feet respectful admiration, tempered by a desire for personal recognition. He fixed his dreamy eyes on the admiration, blinked at it a little, uncomprehending, and, planting his foot upon it, walked calmly on.

The classes dwindled again. Miss Leffingwell stayed till the end of the year. Pet had her often to dinner. Sometimes Alwyn read to them as in the summer. In June Miss Leffingwell went away.

“X could n’t help — any one — by staying another year,” she said. She stood on the lower step, looking up to Pet. Something in Pet’s face stayed her. “I could n’t help ?” she repeated.

“No, dear, you can’t help,” said Pet.

The girl stood with one foot slightly raised to the step above, her head, with its reddish crown, lifted proudly. “I’d be glad to stay, you know ?” She looked up with frank eyes.

Pet nodded. “Yes, I know. Thank you, dear.”

At luncheon Pet mentioned that Miss Leffingwell had gone. “She came to say good-by,” she said casually.

“Did she? I meant to see her. — A nice girl,” he added, waking out of a study.

“A thoroughly nice girl,” said Pet.

The next year the President arranged for a certain amount of clerical work for Alwyn. Pet did the work, and Alwyn had a free year for writing. Before the next year came round, Pet’s plans were made. In the fall she opened her house to students. The rooms were large. Pet was an excellent housekeeper, and the house became very popular. Perhaps its chief attraction was the young poet. He gave a charm to the place, an other-worldliness that the college lacked as a whole. It was rumored that he was at work on a great book. The girls vied in thoughtfulness. They felt vaguely that they assisted at the birth of literature. They formed themselves into a guard. Newcomers were tried by the shibboleth of his genius.

Near the close of the year Alwyn’s cough returned. He and Pet were unable to go away for the summer. The following winter he went South. He soon returned. He could not be contented away from Pet. She arranged her affairs and went with him. They were gone two months.

When they came back every one knew that the poet would not recover. He spent his days in an upper room looking to the east. No one in the house saw him, but his presence was on the place. The girls came and went in the shadow of it. It spread about them luminously.

V

In his upper room the poet sat with his face toward death. He could hardly be said to fight it. Sometimes one watching him, as Pet watched him, might fancy that he moved toward it a step, deliberately. He did not speak of dying.

Pet cared for him now as she had always cared for him, surrounding him with love and pansies and nourishing broths. She shared his defeat, as she would have shared his glory, outside of it, but serene and poised. He watched her without words. Then when the sun came in at the east, and she left the room, he turned toward it, impatient. He tarried too long. He was a burden to Pet and to the house. A dying man would sadden it. The girls would grow tired, as they had grown tired of his classes. They would leave Pet, — and there was no money.

His eye rested on the desk across the room. It was filled to the lid. Pet had urged him once or twice, gently, to let her copy something and send it to the publishers. She had thought it might rouse him. He had put her off. He looked to the sun, blankly. — A thousand years, as yesterday when it is past. He saw the procession across the years: Homer, groping blindly— Milton — Dante in exile — Keats — and Lanier. He stretched out his hands to them. The hands dropped helpless. They had achieved. — Only long enough for that!

Pet came in, bringing his breakfast. She had placed the strawberries among their leaves, and they glowed freshly. His eye lighted. He lifted his hand and stroked her cheek.

She smiled at him and sat beside him, talking of little things while he ate.

When she had gone he lay thinking. In another week college would be done. He must make haste. There would be time for Pet to rest. It must be over before they came back. Dear Pet! She was brave. He turned his face with a sigh.

When the girls came back in the fall, their first question was for him. Pet’s face had grown a little thin under its courage. “He is no better,” she said. “ But not — perhaps — not worse.”

Then, to the surprise of the doctor and of every one, he took new life. He insisted on sitting up. Pet’s face filled with light. Her lips sang as she went about the house.

So it happened that the poet fought against death,— fought it inch by inch. He was very weary. Often he longed to sleep. He was dead,— all but his heart. That beat still for Pet, — to save her disaster. A death might drive the girls away. He put it crudely to himself. His soul was dead, locked away there in the desk. He saw nothing but Pet’s face and its courage.

Pet sat in his room, waiting for the tea-bell to ring. It was late November.

She leaned toward him, smoothing out the spread with little touches. “Comfortable, dear?”

“Yes.” His hand reached out for hers.

She took it, stroking it as she talked. “The girls go to-morrow,” she said.

His gaunt eyes turned to her out of the dusk. “Go — where?”

“Home. It’s Thanksgiving. Had you forgotten?”

He drew a slow breath. “Thanksgiving— so it is — Thanks—giving.”

He lay so quiet that she thought he was asleep. She slipped from the room.

The next day he was not well. Pet told the girls when they said good-by. They went away soberly.

The noise of moving trunks and footsteps disturbed him. He was restless, sleeping fitfully. Late in the afternoon he woke, startled.

“What was that?”

“One of the trunks,” said Pet. She came across to the bed and patted him lightly. “They’re all gone now, dear. You can rest.”

“Yes, I can rest. Kiss me, Pet.”

He turned to the wall and slept.

Pet sat alone in the silent house. Tomorrow the girls would have returned. Tonight was her own —and Alwyn’s. In her hand she held a bundle of papers. She had been sorting them, rearranging them. She had been surprised to find them so neatly copied. Everything was ready. To-morrow she would send them off. She had been reading them till the light failed, dumbly, with vague stirring of heart. She could not understand. But the world would know. She remembered the look in Miss Leffingwell’s face. The world would know. Her husband’s memory was safe with the world. — To-morrow they should go to the publisher.