MRS. WINTON was fond of saying to herself, and to others if the way were made sufficiently easy, that she was a woman without illusions. She had experienced romance, — tragedy it sometimes seemed in moods wherein she was particularly tender of herself; henceforth life stretched before her a straight, even road, not altogether dull, but certainly never again likely to lead through especially diverting territory. She was addicted to retrospection; to reviewing, with a pleasure at once simple and sincere, the bright days of her girlhood in Kingsbridge and of her married life away from her native town. That this latter was ended suddenly, by the tragic death of her husband, gave a certain accent to her widowhood, which, when she had recovered from the shock, was not without its advantages. But emotionalism, the sentiments, — except platonic and philanthropic ones, — were behind her; life had nothing to offer her but the mild diversions of Kingsbridge society and an opportunity for devotion in the local church.
Mrs. Winton found even a greater pleasure in making confidences of these things, with sufficiently delicate variations, to her dear friend Wilhelmina Paine. Miss Paine was not so old as to have acquired for herself a more robust philosophy, nor so young as to be incapable of understanding the meaning of disillusion. She had grown up and passed her life in Kingsbridge, except for the brief period of Mrs. Winton’s matrimonial career, under her friend’s eye. She, too, had enjoyed her little romances, but they had not been tragic and they had not taken definite enough form to be discussed in the light of so rich a confidence as was that of Mrs. Winton. Yet Wilhelmina, as her friend often told her, had “a certain something,” a look, perhaps it was, in her clear gray eye and in the sweetness of her face, which was still fresh, still youthful, still softly beautiful, at seven-and-twenty, that made it really “wonderful” that there had been for her no great passion, nothing complete and perfect to look back upon, as there was for her friend.
Mrs. Winton was not beautiful, nor had she ever been; but she had a manner, — a manner, as Wilhelmina recalled their girlhood together, that had always been successful, particularly so in that sphere of life to which in these later days her memories were so frequently turned. Laura Wainright had had a dozen affairs, each one more thrilling than the last, before she married Herbert Winton; while Wilhelmina, despite her beauty, her sweetness, her cleverness, had drifted unromantically, was still drifting unromantically.
“If I had been a man,” Mrs. Winton said one day, to wind up a conversation, “there would have been a grand romance, I can tell you. Happy, though, is the woman without a history.”
“ Happiness is not the only thing in the world,” Wilhelmina answered softly.
“There is nothing in the world, my dear,” the older woman assured her, “ nothing whatever. Be thankful if your life is spared disillusion. It all comes to that, you know, — everything.”
Wilhelmina smiled. “I am not so sure that I have been spared that.” She spoke a little more gravely than was her wont, and rose to go.
“If you are not sure, you have been spared, depend upon that.” Mrs. Winton spoke with an air of conviction. “ Disillusion is what one can’t escape; it sits beside one, walks beside one, sleeps beside one. It is a lifelong process.”
“I am not sure, then, that it has not its compensations, nor that you have not found them, Laura,” Miss Paine answered.
Mrs. Winton looked up with just a suspicion of annoyance in her expression, but this was quickly exchanged for a hint there that she was just a little hurt. “I try to be brave,” she said simply, as she laid down her knitting and looked at Wilhelmina sadly.
Miss Paine smiled, kissed her lightly, and fled with a playful precipitancy, as though she would not stay to be scolded as she deserved. It was some time before Mrs. Winton took up her work again; and when she did so there was still in her eyes a fine abstraction that betokened a certain preoccupation of the mind with a problem for which it was not quite prepared. Wilhelmina had struck a new note to-day that puzzled her old friend, who was accustomed to a more complete abnegation on the girl’s part, one that refused even to be conscious of itself. That there was in Wilhelmina a touch of the sentiment Mrs. Winton had appropriated in such bulk had the effect of disconcerting her sense of their relationship. “Just what,” she asked herself, “have I missed in her? She has not, I do believe, been wholly frank.” Frankness, another of Mrs. Winton’s conscious virtues, was even a greater desideratum, she thought, in her friends than in herself. “Poor Wilhelmina! she does n’t know what love is, except at second hand.” Mrs. Winton knew what opportunities Wilhelmina had had for that; she had been generous of herself and her emotions. “Poor Wilhelmina!” she sighed afresh; “but at least she has been spared some things.” Just what, the lady did not at this moment state to herself, for at the sound of a distant bell, she arose, smoothed her hair before a mirror, donned her little black bonnet with its long black veil, and betook herself to her devotions at the parish church. It was an afternoon early in Lent.
St. Luke’s, the only Episcopal church in the village, enjoyed the services of a rector and a curate. The rector was an old white-haired gentleman, a saint in appearance and character, an evangelical of the school which flourished fifty years ago. The curate, on the other hand, was young, good-looking, enthusiastic, and as “high ” as he dared to be. He was new to the work, fresh from the seminary, and thought Kingsbridge “ a splendid field,” because of the students who attended Kingsbridge College, which was located in the town. This young man, who had an extremely frank blue eye, a mass of fair hair, strong, clear-cut features, and an heroic build, — he had played football at another college in his day, — never meant to marry, and he usually wore, tied around his waist, over his cassock, a blue girdle, which the initiated understood was the badge of a society the members of which were vowed to celibacy. Tracey Carr had gone far in the seminary. There was a certain enthusiasm in him that carried him to the limit in everything, — he never stopped halfway. He had been popular in the congregation, more or less successful with his students, despite his mild little ritualisms, and satisfactory to the rector.
Mrs. Winton, as she rose from her knees in her pew, which was situated well forward in the church, received a very favorable impression of Carr’s profile outlined against the walnut stalls. His fair hair was brushed back a little carelessly; his white surplice gave him something of the appearance of a Greek statue, she thought; and his voice, deep but very clear, had a grateful, soothing effect. From under the surplice peeped two blue tassels which were attached to the ends of his girdle. Mrs. Winton sighed as her eyes rested on these. Here was a man who had the courage to renounce in advance all the beautiful vain things that made life so sweet and so sad.
Wilhelmina played the organ at the south end of the transept. There was a little mirror over the key-board arranged so that the organist could see the minister on the north side of the chancel, and receive a signal from him in case of necessity. As Mrs. Winton glanced that way she observed that Miss Paine’s clear gray eyes were bent very earnestly on this mirror, and that in them there was an expression — very subtle, very delicate, it is true — which she had never seen in them before; one that remained in her mind strangely enough, and that vaguely troubled her as again she bent her head in prayer. She waited, after the service, until Mr. Carr came out of the vestry, when she stopped him and asked him if he would not come home to supper with her.
“Why, I am awfully busy,” he explained, a trifle brusquely, flushing needlessly, in a boyish way.
“And I am awfully lonely and blue,” she murmured, holding him with her eyes.
“Why, yes, — certainly, I will be delighted,” he said, after just another moment’s hesitation. “But if you will go on, I shall follow you in about half an hour. I have some music to run over with Miss Paine; she is waiting in the transept.”
Yes, Mrs. Winton could see that she was waiting. Yet this was no reason for the annoyance she felt at Mr. Carr’s remark. In fact she told herself distinctly that this emotion had no connection with Miss Paine, whatever. Poor Wilhelmina! her playing seemed to get worse and worse. Mrs. Winton had always been an advocate for a man-organist, but she had never said so because she knew how badly Wilhelmina needed the salary, small as it was.
An hour later, just as the early spring darkness had closed in, she was settled very comfortably at table with Tracey Carr, under the soft light of rose-shaded candles falling on the white of linen and china and gleaming on the silver. There was the pleasant perfume of spring flowers which were massed in a cut-glass bowl in the centre of the table. It was easy for Carr to see over them, and Mrs. Winton, on the other side of the table, looked almost pretty in her simple black gown, with a narrow band of white ruche about her neck. If not pretty, she certainly looked attractive; she had the air of inviting confidence, of being sympathetic, of being obviously interested. Carr felt comfortable; the food was delicious; he was tired, and ate heartily.
“It was awfully jolly and thoughtful of you to ask me,” he said, as though it had suddenly occurred to him.
Mrs. Winton smiled as though it was awfully nice of him to come, but she did not say so. She added, after a moment, as though it were an after-thought. “I am always here, you know. I rarely dine out. I should like it if sometimes you asked me if you might n’t come, or even if you came without being asked.”
“Oh, I should like that,” he said, ingenuously enough. “I get bored eating alone, as I am doing. Only I have to be careful not to go to any one place too much for fear the stupid people will get to talking.”
“ Not about me,” Mrs. Winton assured him, with a note of inspiration.
“Oh, well, I have been advised not — not to be intimate.”
“By whom ? — may I ask ?” She made no point that she was not curious in this.
“Well — the rector,” he admitted, after a little hesitation.
“Oh, — the rector. But you will discover that I have no intimates, when you know me.”
“Why, I thought Miss Paine —”
“Oh, Wilhelmina!” she exclaimed, in quite another tone; “ she tells me all her little secrets. I have none to tell.”
“Intimate friendships do not necessarily imply telling all one’s secrets, do they ? ” he asked, passing his cup for tea.
Mrs. Winton nodded as though his question needed no answer, but she paused to qualify her gesture with a word. “There is something very sweet in confidence. I have known how sweet — and learned to do without it.” Her eyes dropped softly to her hands. Then she busied these among the tea things.
Carr’s heart stirred sympathetically. “Poor little woman!” he murmured to himself, “I fancy she has learned to do without a good many things.”
“Tell me, won’t you,” she resumed presently, “ since we are speaking of confidence, how you came to join that society, — the one you wear the blue girdle for? You take vows, don’t you, to be poor —”
“ Oh, no, simply to remain unmarried,” he explained. “They are not for life, but are renewed each Easter. They are designed to test one’s vocation.”
“What a noble sacrifice!” she exclaimed, with a little wonder in her eyes.
“It isn’t really a sacrifice. It seems just to secure for one a freer hand, a larger scope, — a kind of safeguard against letting one’s self slip into distracting things.”
“But there is a pleasure, you know, in letting one’s self slip into distracting things,” she suggested, with a cautious smile.
“Oh, don’t I?” he laughed. “I was distracted enough in college, I assure you. It’s done me.”
“Done you? I don’t think I quite understand.”
“Well, used me up too much. I moped, wasted time, fooled, you know; pottered and trifled.”
“Dear me! but there was something beside that?”
“Was there? I don’t know. There was one girl, I admit, a sweet fluffy thing, — I used to think I was frightfully in love with her, and that she was with me.”
“I dare say she was,” commented Mrs. Winton, with an air of conviction.
“Well, not too deeply, anyway. When I saw the need of concentration I pulled out.”
“Good heavens, and what became of the girl ?”
“Oh, bless you, she had pulled out already; married for money, and all that sort of thing. I felt awfully broken up; went into settlement work for three or four years, and then to the seminary.”
“ I see! it was a genuine romance then ? And it is because of her that you wear the blue girdle ?”
“Not at all; it is because I want to keep clear of any like her. It may be selfish —”
“No, it is fine,” said Mrs. Winton.
They rose from the table at this and went into the drawing-room. Mrs. Winton sat down at the piano and asked Mr. Carr to light a cigar.
“This is jolly,” he said, and settled back in a comfortable chair to listen to her playing. His hostess had a light and graceful touch, and played with a certain amount of feeling, — quaint, plaintive German songs for the most part, — and without asking him if he liked them. After a while she stopped, and began to talk to him about his work with the college boys. Mrs. Winton took a great interest in them, she always had — they had so much of promise — life all before them — they were a symbol to her of hope, of the future, of the possibilities of love, service, devotion — they were, in fact, just youth, beautiful, beautiful youth. To explain what she meant she got down one of Tourgéneff’s novels — First Love, I think it was—and read him a long passage. It touched him, and he borrowed the book.
“Yes, you must read Tourgéneff,” she told him, “he has the elegiac note.”
At ten o’clock he looked at his watch, and sprang to his feet, suddenly realizing that there was a text and an empty sermon-pad on his study table.
“You must come again, you know,” she said, without trying to detain him.
“Oh, I can’t waste many evenings this way,” he exclaimed, without meaning to be rude, and without impressing his hostess, it seemed, that he had been; “but I have enjoyed this one immensely.”
In truth he had; though as he walked home in the clear windy night he was thinking more of his sermon than his supper.
It was not long before Mrs. Winton sent him a little note saying she was in need of his advice. She wanted to give a prize for excellence in Bible study to the students in his Wednesday evening class. That took him to the little house in High Street before he had paid his supper call. There were a good many preliminaries to arrange, and it chanced that he got in the way of going there almost every week, sometimes oftener; occasionally to a meal. It was so simple, so easy, so pleasant.
As the Lenten season drew towards a close Carr saw much of Miss Paine also. He had some taste and judgment in music, and he enjoyed Wilhelmina’s playing; he took quite a good deal of trouble in helping her with the Easter music. Often after the daily evensong she would stay on in the church and play for him, sometimes music that was not sacred. He was apt, on these occasions, if there were no pressing engagement, to walk home with her. She was a bit hard to talk with at first; but there was something very attractive to him in her gentle, direct way of getting at the heart of things. She had a quick wit, which was never unkind; and a certain amount of intuition, of which, however, she did not make very much. She did much good in the parish in a quiet way; turning her salary into the missionary fund was an instance of it.
After Easter, when there were no more afternoon services, Carr found that these little walks with Wilhelmina had become a very bright spot in his day. They had got in the way of having such good talk. There deepened in him the consciousness of something tremendously helpful in this comradeship; it was giving a tone, a meaning to his Kingsbridge life.
As the spring advanced it happened that Mrs. Winton complained to the curate that Wilhelmina was neglecting her. Without thinking very much about it, he repeated this one day to Miss Paine; he had thought, he told her, they were such good friends.
“We have always known each other,” she remarked, with an unconscious air of explanation; not, however, betraying much interest in the subject.
“Well,” persisted Carr, “she misses you tremendously; she really grieves about it.”
“I should think if disillusion so thoroughly had hold of one,” Wilhelmina replied, “one would not grieve about anything; one would have learned not to.”
“ You are a bit—changeable ? ” There was an interrogation in this, but he meant it more for a statement of fact than a question.
“Perhaps I am,” she admitted; “one is apt to change.”
It was the first note Carr had not liked about her; and he stupidly repeated his criticism to Mrs. Winton, without, however, relating the incident.
That good lady sighed, and looked sweetly sad and resigned.
“Oh, it does not matter, you know. Just one more little illusion knocked on the head. I have had a good many served that way. I have learned how to bear such things.”
The curate pressed her hand at parting, and assured her that he knew how hard some things were. She affected not quite to believe this, but she was glad that he did feel for her. “Only,” she protested, “I don’t even count on that, you know.”
Warm spring days were come then, and Kingsbridge began to take on its fresh, bright, summer air. There was a something of quiet gayety in the shaded box-hedged streets of the pretty old town, and in the campus, ivy-towered, elmstudded, with wide stretches of lawn sweeping away toward the picturesque valley. There was a pleasing lassitude in the air. and the students loafed in comfortable attitudes under the trees, or straggled to lectures, through which they were blissfully to doze. Carr, not so far away from them in feeling as they were apt to think him, envied them their ability to take duty with such light hearts. Certainly such mild interest as they had given to his work in the winter had evaporated. He had an uncomfortable feeling that his own interest had evaporated somewhat, too. All the sap in him seemed to be oozing out in vague day-dreaming.
Since he had talked with Wilhelmina about Mrs. Winton he had seen little of her; he was conscious of a feeling of constraint when they met. But he did not know how large a role this was playing in the restlessness that seemed to have got such hold of him. Pie wanted to go off in the woods with a pal, and hunt and fish, he thought; but the rector was going off instead. He fell to reading old books that had been guide-posts in his intellectual and spiritual life; but soon put them down in disgust. It was as though he had relighted a half-smoked cigar. He went once or twice and asked Wilhelmina to go out into the woods with him. She consented, and they found a rock, whence there was a fine view of Kingsbridge towers, with trees and flowers and moss all about them, and read poetry.
She was quite the same, it appeared, had suggestive criticism to offer, illuminative comment to make. He tried to talk about himself; but this drew from her only the most impersonal conventional comment. She made no profession of finding his moods interesting. Carr gave up these afternoon expeditions and grew more restless.
Often of an evening he would stop at the little house in High Street, where he was apt to find Mrs. Winton sitting on her veranda, placidly enjoying, as she phrased it, the poetry of the night and the stars.
‘“If we would be as they are, we must live as they,’” she quoted, so often that Carr took it for her creed.
“ Oh, I’ve tried it,” he laughed, with a certain grimness in his tone, “and I can’t. I am like a star that is not susceptible to gravity. I keep wandering around in a dazed kind of way, hunting for a place that does n’t seem to exist.”
Mrs. Winton sighed from the security of the place she had found. Once she too had wandered, she told him, — but not now. Now she was quite a dead, dead star, held, as it were, in her little place, by all the forces in the universe. All she could do was to shine in reflected light, — to cast little rays of comfort, — just like a poor little star that was tucked away off in the heavens, and that only a few persons, who really loved the stars, knew anything about. It had been a long, long time since she had wanted to be anything else. Carr would sigh, too; but he wanted something tremendously, he knew that.
But these evening talks contributed as little toward his getting it as the afternoon ones with Wilhelmina. At last vacation came; the college was closed; the rector went away, and many of the townspeople. The Paines always stayed. Mrs. Winton had a little box of a house on the coast; she was presently going to it, she told him, and hinted that a “tiny” visit from him would please her. Carr, in his brusque way, did not think he would please her. Mrs. Winton’s little plans for him sometimes seemed to him rather a bore. Easter had passed and he had not renewed his vows. A letter came from the head of his society asking for information, and Carr, without thinking much about it, wrote out a resignation. He stuffed the blue girdle away in a drawer. He was not up to standing for anything, he felt; he was a poor sort of clergyman. “I shall resign Kingsbridge,” he said to himself, “and go to China in the fall.”
The rector heard eventually that he was out of the society, and wrote to congratulate him. “There is nothing in the way now of your succeeding me, my boy; and I want you to do it very soon. That blue girdle of yours used to scare the vestry.”
Carr tore this letter into little bits and then burned them. When he wrote to the rector he said nothing about it. The rector, however, wrote on the subject to his wardens, and the wives of these gentlemen immediately consulted the other ladies in the parish. In this way it was not long in coming to the ears of the little widow in High Street.
One warm August evening a message came to the curate from this lady, begging his immediate presence at her home; she was in great trouble. Carr hastily pulled himself together, — he had been off rowing that afternoon on the river, and was still in his flannels, which he did not stop to change —and made his way to Mrs. Winton’s cottage. He found the widow sitting on a sofa by an open window in the moonlight, dissolved in tears. She dried her eyes a little, as he came in, and motioned him to a chair drawn up near. She gave a final sob or two, after he was seated, and tried to murmur her thanks for his coming so promptly.
“I will stop now,” she began, in a weak voice. “I know how men hate to see women cry. But I just could not help it.”
Carr bent forward sympathetically. “Don’t worry; don’t worry. Tell me what I can do. I want to help you.”
“Oh, I know you do,” she murmured, applying the handkerchief once more; this time it seemed with success, for she raised her head and looked out upon the moonlit street. “I will try to tell you, hard as it is going to be for me,” she said, clasping the arms of her chair a little tighter. “Oh, dear, oh, dear! now that you are here, I don’t know how I ever can tell you. It is too awful! Oh, what will you think, what will you think ?”
And again at the awfulness of this possibility the handkerchief was raised, but Carr caught the hand that held it, gently but firmly, and the tears did not fall.
“Now,” he said, with the air of a physician, laying her hand on the arm of her chair, as he might have stretched out her handkerchief there, “now, tell me just what is troubling you.”
“I can’t,” she whispered, with a little gasp, “I can’t, — my heart is too full. It is broken — again,” she added, after a momentary interval.
“You have had bad news ? ” he asked, trying to help her out.
“It is not exactly news, but it is bad, — oh, so bad! It came to me, — it is as though some one had taken my heart and wrung it. I am too crushed to talk about it.”
“But, my dear Mrs. Winton, you must have wanted to talk.”
“Oh, I did, I do,” she protested. “I should die if I did not get some help, some sympathy.”
“Well, you know you must — ”
“Yes, I know I must, — I am trying to, just as hard as I can. But you will never forgive me; I ought to have sent for the rector, only he is n’t here. I don’t dare to tell you.”
Carr’s patience began to struggle with his sympathy. He remembered how once in a hospital he had seen an hysterical patient carried in, and speedily restored to her senses by the cupping process. It occurred to him that a clergyman might with advantage carry about paraphernalia for such treatment in cases of emergency. For the moment in this animadversion he had lost track of Mrs. Winton’s ejaculations.
“Come, come,” he said at last, a little sternly, “ if I can be of any assistance to you I must know what the trouble is, and at once.”
“ Oh, it’s you, it’s you,” she exclaimed, turning her gaze into the street again to hide her agitation.
“ I! ” Carr gave a little jump. “Pray —” he began.
“It is very hard,” Mrs. Winton continued, “but I shall be quite, quite calm, and tell you very simply.” She smiled now, a sweet, pathetic, tired smile, and ventured to lay her hand upon his arm.
“Yes, my dear friend, it is you. I am speaking calmly, perfectly calmly, am I not ? I have asked for the grace to do so, though it is from a bursting heart. It is just this, my poor, dear friend, — we have been horribly, horribly misjudged, and it has been by one whom I have loved and trusted; whom you have loved, in your sweet impersonal way, I am sure, and trusted, too. Oh, I shall name no names. I shall keep her name locked securely in my breast.” (Mrs. Winton touched a little bunch of honeysuckle, fastened in her corsage.) “I shall even give my cheek to the lips that have betrayed me. I shall know how to suffer in silence. Heaven has taught me that.”
“Yes, but my dear lady, what has this to do with me ? ”
“Everything, everything. I am trying to be calm, I am trying even more to be clear. I have tried very hard to-night to look at the stars, and have said over and over to myself, ‘Live as they,’ ‘Live as they.’ Shall I tell him? I asked myself. No, he must be spared. Spared ? I cried, — for what ? to rush blindly on, to I know not what catastrophe ? To submit himself to criticism, to calumny, how vile I dare not even imagine? No, no, my friend, a still, small voice bade me spare you that bitterness, bade me warn you to be careful, anywhere, everywhere, with any one, with every one. Our relations, sweet and simple and spiritual as they have been, have been impugned — and by my dearest friend, one whom I have loved and trusted and guided and shielded and helped ever since she was a little girl.”
“I suppose you mean Miss Paine,— what has she done?”
“There ! Oh, you clever man, you have shocked me into betraying myself. I shan’t say it was Miss Paine. The name shall never cross my lips. Remember, at least I have been true.”
“Yes. yes, but what was said? what has she done ? ”
“Oh, what has n’t been said ? ” moaned Mrs. Winton, as she covered her face again with her hands. “That would be easier to tell you. The whole parish is talking—making cruel fun—of you, of me, — of your little blue girdle and of my sacred, sacred mourning. It crushes me to think of it.”
Poor Carr leaned back and began to whistle softly to himself. Decidedly it was time for him to resign Kingsbridge, — a nice work he had been doing among the college students! To be a morsel of gossip for a parcel of women, to have it supposed that he must needs be in love with any woman he chanced to be a little decent to. So they thought him a fool and a kind of soft hypocrite and went about saying so, eh ? Nice work, nice parish, nice people! There was humor in it, though.
“Was any of this gossip delivered to you directly ? ” he asked presently.
Mrs. Winton removed her hands from her face. “Oh, not directly; only unpleasant questions, innuendos, and the like. But it came straight enough — a dear friend warned me. The person who is mainly responsible has been talking all over the town.”
“ Hm — it is not like Miss Paine to do that.”
“I did not say it was Miss Paine,” protested Mrs. Winton weakly.
“Well, you have not said it was n’t.”
“Haven’t I?” she asked, a little blankly. “Well, it has been cruel, cruel. It is breaking my heart.”
“ Oh, no, it is not,” said Carr decisively. “That would be absurd. So long as we know there is no truth in the gossip, what real difference need it make to you or me ? ”
Mrs. Winton sought retreat again behind her handkerchief, that she might resolve the meaning of this remark. It shocked her a little. Carr could be so rude without meaning it. She lowered the screen presently and put one hand out with impulsive kindness.
“It need not make any difference between us, dear friend. I so wanted that it should not. You take it so nobly. It is an example to me.”
He received her pressure a little dryly. “I am glad that you have told me, Mrs. Winton,” he said, rising; “ it will help me shape my course in the future.”
“I hoped it might, — I was quite willing to sacrifice myself.”
“But there is n’t need, you see; and it would be out of the question if there were. But why should you worry ? It is not a crime that a man should be thought to be in love with a woman. Whether he is or not is a matter it seems to me, quite between themselves.”
“Quite,” she admitted. “You cheer me wonderfully. I was so afraid it might reach you through some other source, and that you would shrink from seeing me. Then I did want to warn you to be careful — you will be careful, won’t you ? — not to give color for such gossip in other quarters. I so want you to keep your ideals fresh and pure. Your blue girdle was quite a symbol for me.”
“It will not be any longer,” he said. “I am out of the society; did n’t you know it ?”
“Did n’t I know it? How should I know it ? You don’t tell me your secrets. Ah, then there is all the more need to be strong, to be careful, is n’t there ? ”
“ Quite so. What you have told me tonight will be a help.”
“I so hoped it might be,” she repeated, as she put her hand in his. She met his frank look with eyes full of unshed tears, which glistened with an odd effect in the moonlight.
As Carr turned out of High Street the evening was still young; the moon was sailing serenely in mid heaven, amidst some long slim clouds; there was a tender little breeze abroad which whispered in the elm-trees, and made the pines to murmur pleasantly in the old churchyard. A few moments’ rapid walking brought him to a house that set well back from the road that led out of Kingsbridge on quite the other side of the town. As he strolled up the little inclined avenue toward the old-fashioned house with its broad veranda and big pillars, he saw some one in a white dress sitting on the steps. Fortunately enough a closer inspection revealed that it was Wilhelmina Paine, and that she was sitting there alone. He thought there was a glimmer of pleasure in her eyes, as she greeted him, and explained that her family were gone to bed.
“ It was so pleasant out here that I have been sitting on alone. I am glad to see you. If you sit there on the steps you can get a bit of the view through the trees. I like that tower in silhouette.”
“A symbol, eh?” asked Carr.
“Oh, I don’t go in for the symbolic. It is just good and Gothic and pleasing to the eye, and the perspective is fine; there seem to be vast reaches beyond, and the vista makes it a kind of picture. A symbol of good taste, if you will. All Kingsbridge is not good taste, more’s the pity.”
“That is true enough,” he admitted. “It seems odd that when they had that admirable little bit of Gothic to set the pace, they did n’t keep it up.”
“Oh, we mortals don’t follow a pace, even when it is a good one. I should think you clergymen would have cause to bemoan that rather frequently.”
“We bemoan it enough,” he responded; “ but rather more the fact that the one we set is not often quite what it purports to be. I have just been told that the parish is raking me over the coals at a tremendous rate.”
“What for?” asked Wilhelmina.
“Don’t you know?” he questioned.
Her frank look was quite disingenuous, as she answered, with a little smile, “I think your blue girdle has worried some good people, — they think it is dreadfully Roman and dangerous.”
“Well, it won’t worry them any more. I have given it up.”
“And your vows with it ? ” She looked incredulous.
“My vows with it.”
“So you do not stand any more for celibacy and extreme devotion ? ”
“I seem to have stood for a kind of milksop, with the parish.”
Wilhelmina smiled. “Who opened your eyes?” she asked, her lips twitching a trifle.
“ Mrs. Winton ? ” Wilhelmina repeated the name with an accent of unbelief. “ How do you mean ? I don’t want to pry, — but I confess I am curious.”
“Well, in more ways than one.”
“Knowing her, one would say she was capable of that.”
“She is capable of a great deal,” asserted Carr. “Mrs. Winton is a genius, in her way.”
“Mrs. Winton is a fool,” said Miss Paine, with a conviction that startled Carr into laughter.
“It depends on how you take her,” he conditioned.
“Oh, there are ways and ways of doing that. I think I have ceased taking her altogether.”
“That is what she complains of you, as I tried to tell you before. She gave me a long talking-to to-night. She says the town is talking about her.”
“It is,” assented Wilhelmina.
“And about me,” he added.
“ Oh, it has always done that,” she said with a laugh.
“And I put two and two together.”
“Did she not help a bit ?”
“ Well — a little perhaps. I seem to have been a kind of ass.”
“Oh, don’t say that,” protested Wilhelmina. “You are young; and youth, you know, is so sweet and pathetic and foolish and sad and glad and vain!”
Carr began to laugh. “Why, you do go in for the symbolic.”
“The symbolic ? Does that seem symbolic ? I think it is very obvious. There is not a great deal of nuance in a string of adjectives. Oh, no, dear friend, I don’t go in for nuance; I don’t go in for anything. What is the use ? It all means so little. There is nothing in the world, nothing whatever. Except to be disillusioned, — that’s there, oh, yes, that’s quite, quite there. It is with us every day, every hour, every minute. We can’t escape it, we can’t get away from it, we can’t get beyond it. It sticks to us closer than a brother, closer than our clothes. It is in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the food we eat. There is nothing to do but to strive to be resigned. To bear our trials bravely, to live — ah, how we should — as the stars live.”
“Oh, don’t, don’t!” he protested. “I can’t stand it; I ought not to stand it. I feel like a traitor. How on earth — oh, it’s she, it’s she! but you have kept yourself mightily hidden —”
“Oh, no,” went on Wilhelmina, “what would be the use ? It is not even worth while to keep one’s self hidden, it is not worth while to try to reveal one’s self. It is just what one is — what the day shows one to be — in one’s little place. Oh, it is sweet to have a friend who understands.”
“By Jove,” he cried, and a queer dizzy feeling of hilarity and joy crept over him, “I understand one thing, and that is that I have been head over ears in love with you for the last six months.”
The girl looked at him in sudden alarm; the gayety for a moment went out of her eyes; a momentary joy shone there; then the old shyness crept back; then the mockery; and she looked up at him frankly.
“ Is this the way the little scenes in High Street come to an end ?” she asked.
“Oh, bother High Street! I am sick and tired of being made a fool of by a parcel of women, of passing for a kind of sanctified bachelor. I have been in love with you since we began that music together at St. Luke’s. That was the real reason I threw up the society, and put away the girdle. I honestly thought I wanted to be a celibate. But I could not keep away from you, you saw that. And when I heard that the parish thought I was in love, I realized that the parish was right. I saw a good many things in that quarter of an hour by the light of Mrs. Winton’s illuminating conversation. One thing as plain as day, and I rushed off here to tell you of it. I am to have the parish, if I want it; the rector is going to resign; but if I stay you have got to share it with me. I won’t stay in this town unprotected another month. Otherwise, I am off for China. It is for you to say, Wilhelmina. Which shall it be?”
He took her hands and looked into her eyes, where he saw a good many different expressions in the space of half a minute.
“Oh, the poor heathen!” she said, withdrawing her hands, “you ought to go.”
“It is the Chinese you are thinking of, eh ? ”
“No, stupid, it is myself. If you do go —”
“Well, I don’t.”
This time Wilhelmina did not draw her hand away.
A fortnight later Mrs. Winton went for her annual outing to her little cottage on the coast. From “Resthaven” she wrote Carr a sweet little note, in a slender hand, on soft gray note paper, to which there was attached the suspicion of a violet scent. It was penned “in the murmur of the sea, under the light of the stars.” She told him it would be a long time before she would be back at Kingsbridge; he would be rector then and there would be a Mrs. Carr.
“It is sweet to me to feel that when I do go back, when I gather strength to take up my work again, there will be in the dear old rectory two good, good friends who understand me, who know a little of my sufferings, and how little there is left in life for me. I have so few joys that perhaps you can hardly understand what a pleasure it is to me to see joy in the hearts of my friends. You will never know the comfort it is to me to feel that now you are in a position where horrid calumny can never fix upon you as its victim again, nor the voice of slander wound you as once it did. It was fine of you to understand me so beautifully, to see so clearly my subtle meaning under my poor, agitated, stumbling words. But we must never speak of these things more. My prayer for you both is that you may never know disillusion, — that sweet, gracious Maya may ever be yours.”
Then she added in a postscript: “ There is just one little favor I should like to ask of you. Will you not send me the blue girdle you used to wear ? No one shall ever know of it. I will put it away among my poor little treasures, among the mementos of my far-away bright past. It is a symbol to me, and it will be a help to have it.”
Wilhelmina wrapped up the girdle, and Carr sent it on to “Resthaven.” A few days later came back another little gray note, on which was inscribed, very simply, in Mrs. Winton’s fine, clear hand, the single word, “Thanks.”