“THIS is good, Walter!” Mrs. Pender’s little, withered, jewelled hands were lifted to his shoulders as he kissed her. “But why did n’t you bring Alice ?”
“Alice had rather a headache to-night: she wanted to be quiet, so I thought I’d come to you,” Walter explained restlessly. “You can throw me out if you don’t want me. You’ve done it before.”
“Ah, that was when I was a spoiled old woman, and had you whenever I wished.” The bright little eyes were kind and candid, quite satisfied with his explanation. Mrs. Pender knew everything about everybody, but she never seemed to be in process of finding it out. “ I am glad you did not warn me, for now you will get your beloved lamb and mint sauce,” she went on. “If I had expected you, I should have sent out for chickens. You don’t like them so well, but in my bringing up company was company and had chickens; and I can’t change my customs at seventy-nine.” Walter’s wandering attention came back with a start at the last words.
“Seventy-nine ! My dear, you are not! ”
Mrs. Pender smiled blandly. “ It sounds better than sixty-nine, my dear. I put it ten years back as long as it was plausible ! Now I find ten years ahead more effective.”
“Do you call that living up to the best and the highest that is in you?” He seemed to be gloomily quoting. “I am glad you’re a wicked old lady,” he added impulsively, putting his arm over her minute shoulders as they turned to the dining-room. “That is why you’re so lovable.”
She patted his big hand.
“It is nice to have you,” she repeated. “Cast your boys upon the waters of matrimony, and after many days they will return to you.”
“ But not ‘ buttered. ’ ” Walter’s laugh had a grim meaning of its own.
He was spasmodically gay at dinner, with lapses into periods of vagueness wherein he seemed to be carrying on some inner conversation: his lips shaped silent phrases, and once his fist came down on the table with a quick rap of decision or exasperation. He glanced up guiltily, and met Mrs. Pender’s smiling, comprehending look. It seemed to impel confidences. He leaned his elbows on the table, pushing aside his coffee cup.
“My dear,” he began, “did you know that I was on the whole rather a failure as a character ? ”
“No, I did not,” she said stoutly; “and you will have hard work proving it to me.”
“Well, it has been proved pretty thoroughly to me;” and Walter lapsed into frowning silence.
“You were a good boy when I had you.” Her tone was delicately detached and she did not look at him. “You can’t have gone down hill very far in seven months.”
He shook his head. “I have n’t: it is just that I was down hill all the time. Only you and I did n’t know it.” He laughed resentfully. “We do now!”
“Well, I knew you were human, and a man,” Mrs. Pender admitted. “Beyond those two fundamental defects—”
“Oh, they are nothing to my other failures! We’ve got the judgment seat established in our house now. We keep it in the back parlor and spend the evening gathered round it. I am even learning to use it myself, — it’s a contagious habit.” He finished his coffee and rose. “Don’t mind if I’m grumpy,” he added, with an apologetic smile, and they went back to the drawing-room in intimate silence. When he had pulled her chair to the fire, he took his privileged position full length on the hearth-rug, with his hands under his head.
“It’s good to be here,” he said. Presently he tipped his head back so that he might look into her face. “ Do you know, I used to think I was a fairly good sort ? ” he began. “I was truthful, and decent,
— kind to my mother and all that, and people liked me: in fact, I thought I came rather high. Well, it’s something of a shock to have it proved to me that my ideals are second-rate and my ambitions petty. It is, honest.”
Mrs. Pender looked down thoughtfully into the sincere, worried eyes. “ One says things, in anger, — so many things!” she murmured.
“Oh, we don’t quarrel;" the barriers had suddenly dropped, leaving them deep in confidence. “We simply point out to each other, very affectionately and with the highest motives just where we fail. We don’t have any hurt vanity or petty resentment in our house, — we want to develop ourselves to the highest possible point, and only entire frankness with each other can get us there. We’re always warm and kind, but we spend the day analyzing each other, then come together at night to report. And meanwhile”
— he laughed ironically, then sighed. “She’s right, you know, absolutely. I am not being misjudged, — only found out. I can’t deny anything enough to really mitigate it.” He laid his hand for a moment on her little slippered foot. “Why did n’t you bring me up better ?” he accused her.
“Well, if I had caught you when I was Alice’s age, I might have,” she admitted. “But you see you did n’t come under my eye until I was old — old enough to be humbly thankful that you were no worse!” Her glance seemed to turn back for a troubled moment to others who had been worse; then she returned to him with a smile. “If you love each other enough, criticism won’t hurt you,” she added.
“ Oh, I can take a licking all right. But should n’t there be intervals wherein one is merely loved and admired ? ”
“One should be loved and admired every moment of the twenty-four hours. I rather fancy one is!” she added, with a humorous lift of her eyebrows. He turned his face back to the fire.
“All roads lead to the judgment seat, in our house,” he said. Then he began to talk of other things, as though rather ashamed.
When, at ten o’clock, he rose to go, he stood hesitating before her for a moment.
“I have n’t meant to be — disloyal,” he said. “I would n’t have let out so to any one else on earth. You believe that, don’t you ?”
She pulled him down and kissed him. “ I know it. Hold on tight, dear boy, and wait, — just wait!”
Alice’s door was shut when he reached home, and her light out, so he went softly to his own room. It was a fragrantly sweet, well-kept little room: the purity of Alice’s ideals showed in linen and silver and brass as clearly as in words and actions. His book-shelf had been filled with the same earnest fastidiousness: there were Amiel and Maeterlinck and Pater, Tolstoi and Browning, with a touch of Meredith and Mrs. Wharton for lighter moods. Walter had read such books with Alice devotedly during their brief engagement : he would have read Confucius in the original for the privilege of being beside her, — happily and with no consciousness of guile: but that sort of thing could not go on indefinitely. He grew restless under Nietzsche after their marriage, fell asleep over Marius, and finally came to open rebellion after three nights of Plato.
“It’s awful: I can’t stand it,” he protested. “ Do let’s have some good human reading for once in our lives. There’s a ripping story in the new Munsey, — lie down here and I’ll read it to you.”
Alice’s quiet refusal and the dismayed look in her eyes made him feel as if he had been gross.
“But no one could listen indefinitely to that Plato stuff; and it is a good story,” he muttered in bewildered self-justification when, a few minutes later, she rose and left the room. From that night dated the judgment seat: Alice had looked up from her dream and, for the first time, had seen him.
There was a pile of magazines now on the table by his bed, as well as twentysix automobile circulars. Walter read for a while, paying scant attention. At last he threw down a half-finished story, rose, and softly opened his wife’s door. A movement showed that she was awake.
“ How is your head, Alice ? ” he asked, cheerfully ignoring the conversation on which they had parted.
“Better, dear, I think. I shall be all right in the morning:” her voice tried in vain to hide the fact that she had been crying, and Walter felt a rush of irritation. “If I drank or stole!” flashed through his mind in angry protest.
“Well, I hope so. Good-night,” he said coldly, and closed the door. He lay awake a long time, half hoping that she would call him back; but there was no sound from the other room.
Some of Walter’s natural cheerfulness of spirit reasserted itself during the course of the next day’s work. The bewildered resentment that had been daily bringing him nearer and nearer to what he grimly called the breaking-point — he did not define it further — seemed relieved by his outburst to his old friend, and her hopeful, “Wait —just wait!” stayed by him comfortingly. After all, there was no real, tangible trouble between Alice and himself: and every one knew that young couples had struggles their first year. A vision of her face, — childishly rounded, brown-cheeked, wholesome, with wide, eager eyes always a little lifted, as if she were used to talking with tall people or to sitting at the feet of things: devout eyes that seemed to look through a faint mist when they were turned down to what Walter called the ordinary facts of life, — made his heart warm. Dear, dear soul! Asking a little too much of man, perhaps: but deserving far more than she asked. Dear girl! He must not let himself forget the big whole of their marriage in the little struggles of the moment.
He left his office in time for a game of squash, followed by a shower and a rubdown. Encountering a twenty-seventh automobile circular, he read it absorbedly on the way home, and entered his house buoyant with health and cheer. Alice, who was bending over an Italian dictionary, pushed it away and went quickly to meet him. Evidently the day had had its warnings for her, too, for she clung to him with silent intensity. He sat down with her in his arms, talking great folly, “Old sweetness and light! Walter’s bad girl!” being as sensible as any of it. After they had emerged into commonplace language again, he brought out the automobile circular.
“This really seems to be a little beauty,” he explained, “and not so very expensive, either. Look here, it’s got”— he revelled in technicalities, comparing it favorably with the favorites of the twentysix previously examined. Her face had clouded, and she drew away from him: she had never shown any especial response to his automobile enthusiasm; but to-night the disapproval was too marked to be ignored.
“ I ’m not really going to get one, dear,” he reassured her. “I may be extravagant in spots; but I am not quite so rash as all that. I am just amusing myself, honest.” She rose, under pretext of rearranging the fire.
“It is n’t that,” she said, with her back to him. “I would almost rather you bought one, and got it over with.”
“You mean I bore you,” said Walter quietly, returning the circular to his pocket.
“Oh, no, no ! It is only”— she hesitated, then took it up as eagerly as she would have put her hand into the fire if she had believed that demanded of her; “it troubles me to see you spending all that enthusiasm and time on what is, after all, a — grown-up toy. I want your life to count, Walter!” She was facing him now, exalted by her own high desires. “There are so many fine, big things to care about, so much that means growth! Think what they are doing for the city and for science and for the poor and the sick, — the men who count! Think what there is to read and study, — dearest, dearest, there is so little time. How can you spend your leisure and enthusiasm over a toy ? ”
Walter had risen and stood with eyes on the ground, the brightness gone from his boyish face.
“The truth is, Alice,” he said, after a pause, the words coming with a physical effort that made her sensitive hands clench, “the truth is, you have married the wrong man. I’m just a commonplace chap, like a million others. I have n’t any vast ambitions, and I can’t pump them up, — I have tried, but I can’t. My ideal has been to do well by my wife and — and children, to get on in my profession, and keep a decently clean record, and to have as much fun as I could on the side. To satisfy you I’d like to come higher, but I can’t, honest. Now, what are we going to do about it ? ”
There was a new hardness in his voice, a hint of a growing intention, that made her press against a chair for steadiness. The mist seemed to gather between him and the wide, candid eyes that could see only high things.
“ But you could be so much more, Walter,” she pleaded. “You have all the weapons, — courage and brains and judgment. I don’t want you to be what you are not, — only to use what you have. You waste yourself, dearest, — undervalue your own bigness. And it is just because you have never been with people who cared for big things.” She came close to him and took his arm between her hands. “Oh, can’t you see how much more fun it is even, to count, to make your life matter in some one definite way? To belong to the world’s great movement ? ”
He drew away from her with quiet hardness. “I am sorry, Alice, but I don’t see life as a mission. I work fairly hard in my office: the rest of the time I want recreation. And we can’t go on like this, you know.”
“Ah, don’t, don’t!” Her look was that of one who faces a physical blow.
“I must. I can’t stand this sort of thing another hour.” He pulled out his watch, looked at it unseeingly and put it back. “I am going to do the only decent and dignified thing under the circumstances, — which is to clear out.” The mist seemed to be blinding her altogether: she put out her hand as though in the dark.
“To leave me!” The words were so faint that he could ignore them.
“I shall remove myself to Mrs. Pender’s for a few weeks,” he went on steadily. “She will understand without asking questions, and she won’t misjudge you in any way. If you decide in that time that you want me as I am, if you will give up judging and love what you can in me, send me word. I will come back at any minute. Otherwise”— He turned abruptly to the door. “Good-by.”
She shrank into a chair, looking white and stricken and crumpled. She could hear him moving about the room overhead, but she did not stir until his determined tread sounded on the stairs: then she bent forward, listening with strained intentness. She heard him put a bag down in the hall, then, after a horrible pause, his steps turned back and the door opened.
He stood over her a moment in silence.
“Alice, can’t you take me just as I am ? ” he asked sadly. For all her terror, her eyes, lifted to him now, were as steady as his.
“It is you as you really are that I want! I can’t compromise on the boy when the man is there. I want you, the big you.” She caught his hand in both hers. “You can if you only will!”
He stooped and kissed her. “Goodby,” he said.
The closing of the front door jarred and broke her restraint; but through all her desperate sobbing she whispered, “It’s for his sake, for his sake!”
Mrs. Pender took Walter in with unquestioning sympathy, and for a few days the peace of her unexacting affection closed about him like relief: he believed that he was glad to be away from Alice. Then, creeping upon him like a sickness, his longing for her came back, stronger day by day. His face took on an old, tragic look under its boyishness, and he gave up trying to talk, sure of his friend’s understanding. Sometimes it seemed to him that an impassable sea had rolled between him and Alice; and again he would wonder what the trouble was all about, and why he did not simply go home to her.
He did go to her after two weeks, without warning, almost without intention. She was sitting with her books about her, but she was not reading. Except for a deep breath at sight of him, she did not move or speak: the face lifted to him was all one poignant question.
“ I will take up any pursuit you choose,” he began, standing doggedly in front of her: “politics, religion, sanitation, Italian literature, —— anything whatever. They would all be an equal bore to me and I think it’s rot; but I’m willing to meet you half way.” The flush that had risen in her brown cheeks died out and he saw with deepened exasperation how thin she had grown. “Wait!” he added, as she started to speak. “ That is my half: I will do it on condition that you drop all this analyzing and judgment now and forever, that you take me as I am, with as much love as possible, and with no comments.”
If she had flashed into anger it might have been better for them both; but she was too eager for the great issue to care about her own wounds. She answered him with an unconscious forbearance that stung.
“What sort of a marriage would that be, Walter, — without frankness and truth ? I have to say what I think and feel: anything else would be unworthy of us both. My dear love, you don’t know what you are asking.”
“And you don’t know what you are throwing away,” he said shortly, and left her.
Until that hour Alice’s faith had been strong: the big aspect must dominate the little aspect, in time; man, seeing the good thing, must inevitably choose it; she had waited in sorrow and desolation, but she had not once doubted the issue. With his last words and his last look, despair opened before her like a cleft in the solid earth, a cleft that widened daily as the ground crumbled under her, and the giant convictions rooted in her twentythree years of life seemed to bend like twigs under her clutch. “And you don’t know what you are throwing away:” the rough words bruised her afresh every hour. “It is right, it is for the truth,” she cried over and over ; but the words seemed to have lost their resonance.
She went painfully through every step of their trouble, trying to find herself arrogant, self-righteous, narrow-minded; but she was none of these things, and her clear mind would not let her deceive herself into the passionately desired, “I was wrong.” No: she had cared loyally for what was best and biggest, she had been true to the creed of the world’s greatest. Her reasoning was inexorable; but over and above it, night after night, sounded the old, primitive cry,— “I want him! Oh, I want him!”
The days of her torment went by blindly; she scarcely knew evening from morning, held helpless in her anguish by the single straightness of her creed. She did not consciously rebel against her own decisions; she only crouched down under them and suffered. She might have died that way, like a martyr to whom the word “recant” conveys no meaning, but for a trivial announcement in a morning paper. Two clubs, the St. Swithin’s and the Pilgrim, were to meet each other at baseball that afternoon, for the amusement of their friends and the benefit of a day nursery. The Pilgrim being Walter’s club, she read the announcement for the momentary sense of nearness to him, even scanning the list of players for his friends. “Left field, Walter L. Richmond —”
“ Oh, no, no! ” she breathed, and read it over and over, trying not to believe. Their whole life together was at stake, — and he could play amateur baseball while he waited. The agony, then, was all hers. She was utterly alone.
She spent the morning buttonholing a flannel sacque for a friend’s child. One of the few violent acts of her life was to burn it, several weeks later, on sight. After a pretense of lunching, she dressed and went out into a glare of early spring sunshine. Wind was whirling the dust at the corners into flapping banners that closed round her chokingly. The world was as bald and empty as a white plate. Crowded cars went past, bearing advertisements of the charity baseball game: she tried to ignore them, but she had known all along that she must go to it. She had to see him.
She bought a reserved seat, but a glance at the crowd already installed there dismayed her: it was sure to hold friends and acquaintances. Even as she hesitated, she saw little Mrs. Pender, bright and elaborate, being helped devotedly to her place by several youths. She turned away to an uncovered stand opposite, where a crowd of another sort was cushioning the benches with newspapers, and dense clumps of little boys seemed to be chewing gum in unison. They obligingly made room for her, with a glance or two of curiosity, for welldressed, tragic-looking young women, unescorted and evidently oblivious of the fact, were not a usual sight in the bleachers. Then the teams came out, with a pretense of being very seriously in earnest, and she was forgotten.
“There he is!” she said suddenly, as the Pilgrim team spread out on the field beneath.
“ Ma’am ? ” said the youth beside her. She sent him a dim smile of apology and bent down again, her whole hungry, lonely soul in her gaze. Walter came past talking to a comrade, a little grave and thin, perhaps, but present-minded, ready for the occasion. Presently, when the game had begun, the old boyish gayety began to show in his movements: he ran valiantly to second, and joined in the universal chuckle when he was put out on third in spite of a dramatic slide. His voice came to her once or twice, spontaneous and alert. The loneliness closed on her like a shroud.
“I am only one element of his life,” she thought; then realized into what stale old paths her bitter discovery had led her, and repeated, “a woman’s whole existence!” with a new and crushing understanding.
She knew nothing of baseball, and followed the game only as it concerned Walter. The crowd seemed to watch him, too: he was often applauded, generally with friendly laughter. The game was nearly over when a ball, cracking soundly on the bat, went swinging high in his direction: Walter ran back, sprang wildly into the air and caught it. A single voice shot out from the grandstand, — “Good old Walter!” and the cry was repeated in a roar of applause; even the bleachers took it up in joyous familiarity, “Good old Walter!” while he stood laughing, and the attendant Pilgrims ran to pound congratulations on his back. They were all with him, laughing, stamping, cheering: all the world was with him. Only his wife seemed to sit apart in her stifling shroud of loneliness.
“I really cannot stand it,” she said quietly.
“ Ma’am ? ” repeated the youth beside her.
She rose, and they made a path out for her, thinking by her pallor that she was ill. One or two people were already leaving the grandstand opposite, and among them she saw Mrs. Pender. Alice followed her to her carriage.
“May I go home with you ? May I talk with you ? ” She was as oblivious of greetings as a man with a bullet in his side might have been, and Mrs. Pender met her as simply. If, beneath her courtly surface, some lack of sympathy was concealed, it was gone by the time the silent drive was ended.
Alice followed her to the drawingroom with the same stricken unconsciousness of externals and sat down facing her.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said.
I thought he would come back, that he must; but he seems to go farther and farther away. I would n’t mind its killing me, — but it is not saving him. I don’t know what to do.”
The expression, “saving him,” brought back a touch of sharpness to the withered, alert little face.
“My dear Alice!” the protest came briskly, “ if Sir Galahad and Savonarola and Ralph Waldo Emerson could have been rolled into one good-looking young man, you would have made him a perfect wife. But you have married Walter. Now it is n’t a matter of saving him: the question is, are you going to save your marriage?”
“But it is just that that I have been trying and waiting and suffering to save,” Alice broke in eagerly. “I want it to be a big and beautiful marriage, as it must be if we take it right, if we live up to what we know is highest!”
“As it won’t be —” but Mrs. Pender’s irritation was now plainly assumed, “if you keep on driving Walter crazy with judgments and ultimatums. Girls like you,” she went on more gently under the frightened look that was searching hers, “expect a man to be entirely composed of heart and intellect; but there is a good big tract of plain man in Walter, — or just plain boy. You have been trying to do in a few weeks something that in ten years — with infinite tact and patience — you might begin to accomplish. Or say twenty years. Things are as they are, Alice, not as they ought to be. You must take Walter as he is — or lose him.”
“You mean I must compromise;” the girl’s voice trembled; “keep my ideals to myself, put aside the big things to humor toys and games, — deny in my life every day what I know is the truth ? ”
“ If you had a son, dear,”— the old voice had grown wholly gentle, — “would n’t you do very much that? Keep things till he could understand them, hide your criticisms of him under your love in nine cases out of ten, hold his heart close to yours, and so guide it when you could without wounding ? ”
“With a child, yes; but that is n’t marriage.”
Mrs. Pender rose and went to her, laying her little jeweled hands on the drooping shoulders. “ My dear, that is all the marriage a woman like you can have with a man like Walter. Put away your ideal of marriage as something you have missed: take him as your son, love him, help him; above all, be his comrade, — love the game because he loves it, as you would your son’s. Perhaps, this way, in time he will grow nearer to the things you care about: perhaps he never will. But it is all you have left. Take him in your secret heart — your very secret heart — as your oldest son; and, Alice dear,” — she bent down and kissed her with a tremulous smile, — “don’t keep him an only child a minute longer than you can help! ”
She went out of the room, and Alice sat for a long time motionless, staring ahead with wide, misty eyes; all that life meant to her pitted against the pain in her heart. Then the front door closed and a step sounded in the hall. She sprang to her feet, still irresolute, her face drawn with struggle.
“Alice ! ” Walter’s voice was quick, warm, ready for overwhelming gladness. The shadows fled and she ran to him.
“Oh, my little boy!” she cried over and over, her arms about him. “ My boy, my little boy!” He smiled, well content with her new name for him, hearing in it only her tenderness.