BY ALICE BROWN
MADAM FULTON and her grand-daughter Electra were sitting at the breakfast table. It was a warm yet inspiriting day in early spring, and, if the feel and look of it were not enough, the garden under the dining-room windows told the season’s hour like a floral clock. The earliest blossoms had been pushed onward by the mounting spirit of the year, and now the firstlings of May were budding. The great Georgian house, set in the heart of this processional bloom, showed the mellow tints of time. It had an abundant acreage, diversified, at first hand, not only by this terraced garden in the rear, but by another gone to wild abandon on the west, and an orchard stretching away into level fields, and, beyond them, groves of pine.
These dining-room windows, three of them, side by side, and now unshaded, gave large outlook on a beautiful and busy world where the terrace mounted in green, to be painted later with red peony balls, and where the eye, still traveling, rested in satisfaction on the fringe of locusts at the top.
Inside the house the sense of beauty could be fully fed. Here was a sweet consistency, the sacred past in untouched being, that time when furniture was made in England, and china was the product of long voyages and solemn hoarding in corner cabinets with diamond panes. Life here was reflected dimly from polished surfaces and serenely accentuated by quaint carvings and spindle legs. Here was " atmosphere ” — the theatre of simple and austere content.
Madam Fulton outwardly fitted her background as a shepherdess fits a fan. She was a sprite of an old lady, slender and round, and finished in every movement, with the precision of those who have “learned the steps” in dancing of another period. It was her joy that she had kept her figure, her commonplace that, having it, she knew what to do with it. She had a piquant profile, dark eyes, and curls whiter than white, sifted over with the lustre of a living silver. According to her custom, she wore light gray, and there was lace about her wrists and throat.
“Coffee, Electra?” she suddenly proposed, in a contralto voice that still had warmth in it. She put the question impatiently, as if her hidden self and that of the girl opposite had been too long communing, in spite of them, and she had to break the tacit bondage of that intercourse by one more obvious. The girl looked up from the letter in her hand.
“No, thank you, grandmother,” she said. Her voice, even in its lowest notes, had a clear, full resonance. Then she laid the letter down. “I beg your pardon,” she added. “I thought you were opening your mail.”
“No! no!” Madam Fulton cried, in a new impatience. “Go on. Read your letter. Don’t mind me.”
But the girl was pushing it aside. She looked across the table with her direct glance, and Madam Fulton thought unwillingly how handsome she was. Electra was young, and she lacked but one thing: a girl’s uncertain grace. She had all the freshness of youth with the poise of ripest womanhood. She sat straight and well, and seemed to manage her position at table as if it were a horse. Her profile was slightly aquiline and her complexion faultless in its fairness and its testimony to wholesome living. Her lips were rather thin, but the line of white teeth behind them showed exquisitely. She had a great deal of fine brown hair wound about her head in braids, in an imperial fashion. Perhaps the only fault in her face was that her eyes were of a light and not sympathetic blue.
“Shall I open your mail, grandmother?” she asked, with extreme deference.
Madam Fulton’s hand was lying on a disordered pile of letters, twenty deep, beside her plate. She pressed the hand a little closer.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I will attend to them myself.”
Electra laid down her napkin, and pushed her plate to one side, to give space for her own papers. She lifted one sheet, and holding it in her fine hands, began rather elegantly, —
“Grandmother, I have here a most interesting letter from Mrs. Furnivall Williams. She speaks of your book in the highest praise.”
“Oh!” said the old lady, with a shade of satire, “does she? That’s very goodnatured of Fanny Williams.”
“Let me read you what she says.” Electra bent a frowning brow upon the page. “Ah, this is it. ‘It was to be expected that your grandmother would write what we all wanted to read. But her “ Recollections ” are more than welcome. They are satisfying. They are illuminative.’ ”
“Fanny Williams is a fool!”
Electra, not glancing up, yet managed to look deeply pained.
“She goes on to say, ‘What a power your dear grandmother has been! I never realized it until now.’”
“That’s a nasty thing for Fanny Williams to write. You tell her so.”
“Then she asks whether you would be willing to meet the Delta Club for an afternoon of it.”
“Of what ?”
“Your book, grandmother, — your ' Recollections.’ ”
“Electra, you drive me to drink. I have written the book. I’ve printed it. I’ve done with it. What does Fanny Williams want me to do now ? Prance ?”
Electra was looking at her grand mother at last and in a patient hopefulness, like one awaiting a better mood.
“Grandmother dear,” she protested, “it almost seems as if you owe it to the world, having said so much, to say a little more.”
“What, for instance, Electra ? What ?”
Electra considered, one hand smoothing out the page.
“People want to know things about it. The newspapers do. How can you think for a moment of the discussion there has been, and not expect questions?”
The old lady smiled to herself.
“Well,” she said, “they won’t find out.”
“But why, grandmother, why?”
“I can’t tell you why, Electra; but they won’t, and there’s an end of it.” She rose from her chair, and Electra, gathering her mail, followed punctiliously. As they were leaving the room, her grandmother turned upon her. “Did you hear from Peter ?” she asked.
“Yes. From New York. He will be here to-morrow.” Electra’s clear, wellconsidered look was very unlike that of a girl whose lover had come home, after a five years’ absence, for the avowed purpose of marriage.
Madam Fulton regarded her for a moment with a softened glance. It seemed wistfully to include other dreams, other hopes than the girl’s own, a little dancing circle of shadowy memories outside the actual, as might well happen when one has lived many years and seen the growth and passing of such ties.
“Well, Elcetra,” she said then, “I suppose you’ll marry him. You’ll be famous by brevet. That’s what you’ll like.”
Electra laughed a little, in a tolerant way.
“You are always thinking I want to become a celebrity, grandmother,” she said. “That’s very funny of you.”
“Think!” emphasized the old lady. “I know it. I know your kind. They’re thick as spatter now. Everybody wants to do something, or say he’s done it. You want to ‘express ’ yourselves. That’s what you say — ‘express’ yourselves. I never saw such a race.”
She went grumbling into the library to answer her letters, or at least look them through, and paused there for a moment, her hand on the table. She knew approximately what was in the letters. They were all undoubtedly about her book, the “Recollections” of her life, some of them questioning her view of the public events therein narrated, but others palpitating with an eager interest. She had written that history as a woman of letters in a small way, and a woman who had known the local celebrities, and she had done it so vividly, with such incredible originality, that the book was not only having a rapid sale, but it piqued the curiosity of gossiplovers and even local historians. No names were mentioned; but when she wrote, “A poet said to me in Cambridge one day,” everybody knew what poet was meant. When she obscurely alluded to the letters preceding some smooth running of the underground railway, historians of the war itched to see the letters, and invited her to produce them. The book was three months old now, and the wonder no less. The letters had been coming, and the old lady had not been answering them. At first she read them with glee, as a later chapter of her life story; but now they tired her a little, because she anticipated their appeal.
A bird was singing outside. She cocked her head a little and listened, not wholly in pleasure, but with a critical curiosity as well. She was always watching for the diminution of sound, the veiling of sight because she was old, and now she wondered whether the round golden notes were what they had been fifty years ago. She stood a moment thoughtfully, her hand now on the letters, — those tedious intruders upon her leisure. Then, with an air of guilty escape, though there was no one to see and judge, she left them lying there and stole softly out on the veranda, where she sank into her friendly wicker chair, and looking upon the world, smilingly felt it to be good. The sky was very bright, yet not too bright for pleasure; clouds not meant for rain were blotting it in feathery spaces. There was a sweet air stirring, and the birds, though they were busy, said something about it from time to time in a satisfactory way. Madam Fulton felt the rhythm and surge of it all, and acquiesced in her own inactive part in it. Sometimes of late she hardly knew how much of life was memory and how much the present brilliant call of things. It was life, the thing she did not understand. Presently she closed her eyes and sank, she thought, into a deeper reverie. These excursions of hers were less like sleep, she always told herself, than a kind of musing dream. At last she was learning what other old people had meant when they explained, with a shamefaced air of knowing youth could never understand, “I just lost myself.” To lose one’s battered and yet still insistent self was now to be at peace.
When the forenoon was an hour or more along, she opened her eyes, aware of some one looking at her. There he was, an old gentleman of a pleasant aspect, heavy, with a thickness of curling white hair, blue eyes, and that rosiness which is as the bloom upon the flower of good living. His clothes were of the right cut, and he wore them with the ease of a man who has always had the best to eat, to wear, to look at; for whom life has been a well-organized scheme to turn out comfort. The old lady stared at him with unwinking eyes, and the old gentleman smiled at her.
“Billy!” she cried at last, and gave him both her hands. “ Billy Stark! ”
They shook hands warmly and still looked each other in the eye. They had not met for years, and neither liked to think what was in the other’s mind. But Madam Fulton, after they had sat down, challenged it.
“I’m an old woman, Billy.” She wrinkled up her eyes in a delightful way she had. “Don’t you think that’s funny ? ”
Billy with difficulty crossed one leg over the other, helping it with a plump hand.
“You’re precisely what you always were.”
His round, comfortable voice at once put her where she liked to be, in the field of an unconsidered intercourse with man. Electra, she knew, was too much with her, but she had forgotten how invigorating these brisk yet kindly breezes were, from the other planets. “That’s what I came over to see about,” Billy was saying, with a rakish eye. “ I need n’t have taken the trouble. You’re as little changed as that syringa bush.”
Her brilliant face softened into something wistful.
“The bush will come into bloom in a few weeks, Billy,” she reminded him. “I shan’t ever bloom again.”
“Boo to a goose!” said Billy. “You’re in bloom now.”
The wistfulness was gone. She adjusted her glasses on her nose and eyed him sharply.
“I think too much about old age,” she said. “I regard mine as a kind of mildew, and every day and forty times a day I peer at myself to see if the mildew’s growing thicker. But you don’t seem to have any mildew, Billy. You’re just a different kind of person from what you were fifty years ago. You have n’t gone bad at all.”
Billy set his correct feet together on the floor, rose, and, with his hand on his heart, made her a bow.
“I don’t care for it much myself,” he said.
“Growing old? It’s the devil, Billy. Don’t talk about it. Why are n’t you in England ?”
“I’m junior partner now.”
“I know it.”
“I’m a great publisher, Florrie.”
“Your men run over to arrange with us in London. There was no occasion for my coming here. But I simply wanted to. I got a little curious — homesick, maybe. So I came. Got in last night. I read your book before I sailed.”
She looked at him quizzically and almost, it might be said, with a droll uneasiness.
“You brought it out in England,” she offered, in rather a small voice. “Naturally you’d read it.”
“Not because we brought it out. Because it was yours,” he corrected her. “My word, Florrie, what a life you’ve had of it.”
The pink crept into her cheeks. Her eyes menaced him.
“Are you trying to pump me, Billy Stark?” she inquired.
“ Not for a moment. But you ’re guilty, Florrie. What is it?”
She considered, her gaze bent on her lap.
“Well, the fact is, Billy,” she temporized, “I’ve got in pretty deep with that book. I wrote it as a sort of a — well, I wrote it, you know, and I thought I might get a few hundred dollars out of it, same as I have out of those novels I used to write to keep lace on my petticoats. Well! the public has made a fool of itself over the book. Every day I get piles of letters asking what I meant by this and that, and won’t I give my documentary evidence for saying this or that great gun did so and so at such a time.”
“Well, why don’t you?”
“Give my evidence? Why, I can’t!”
She was half whimpering, with a laugh on her old face. “I have n’t got it.”
“You mean you have n’t the actual letters now. Those extraordinary ones of the abolitionist group for example, — can’t you produce them?”
“Why no, Billy, of course I can’t. I” — she held his glance with a mixture of deprecation and a gay delight— “ I made them up.”
William Stark, the publisher, looked at her with round blue eyes growing rounder and a deeper red surging into his seatanned face. He seemed on the point of bursting into an explosion, whether of horror or mirth Madam Fulton could not tell. She continued to gaze at him in the same mingling of deprecating and amused inquiry. In spite of her years she looked like a little animal which, having done wrong, seeks out means of propitiation, and as yet knows nothing better than the lifted eyebrow of inquiry.
“Well,” she said again defiantly, “I made them up.”
“In God’s name, Florrie, what for?”
“I wanted to.”
“To pad out your book?”
“To make a nice book, the kind of one I wanted. I’ll tell you what, Billy,”— she bowled caution into the farthest distance,— “I’m going to make a clean breast of it. Now you won’t peach ? ”
He shook his head.
“Go on,” he bade her.
She lifted her head, sat straighter in her chair, and spoke with firmness: —
“Now, Billy, if I’m going to talk to you at all, you must know precisely where I stand. Maybe you do, but I don’t believe it. You see, all these years I’ve been writing what I called novels, and they’ve paid me a little, and I’ve got up a sort of local fame. I’m as poor — well, I can’t tell you how poor. Only I live here in the summer with Electra in her house —”
“It’s the old Fulton house.”
“Yes, but it came to her through her father. Remember, I was a second wife. I had no children. My husband gave me the Cambridge place and left this to his son.”
“What became of the Cambridge house?”
“Sold, years ago. Eaten up. Seems as if I’d done nothing, all these years, but eat. It makes me sick to think of it. Well, here was I, credit low, my little knack at writing all but gone —why, Billy, styles have changed since my day. Folks would hoot at my novels now. They don’t read them. They just remember I wrote them when they want a celebrity at a tea. I’m a back number. Don’t you know it?”
He nodded, gravely pondering. The one thing about him never to be affected by his whimsical humor was the integrity of a business verdict. Madam Fulton now was warming to the value of her own position. She began to see how picturesque it was.
“Well, then up rises one of your precious publishers and says to me, ‘Mrs. Fulton, you have known all the celebrated people. Why not write your recollections ? ’ ‘Why not?’ says I. Well, I went home and sat down and wrote. And when I looked back at my life, I found it dull. So I gave myself a free hand. I described the miserable thing as it ought to have been, not as it was.”
William Stark was leaning forward, looking her in the face, his hands on his knees, as if to steady him through an amazing crisis.
“Florrie,” he began, “do you mean to say you made up most of the letters in that book ? ”
“Most of them ? Every one! I had n’t any letters from celebrities. Days when I might have had, I did n’t care a button about the eggs they were cackling over, and I did n’t know they were going to be celebrities, then, did I?”
“Do you mean the recollections of Brook Farm, taken down from the lips of the old poet as he had it from a member of the fraternity there — ”
“Faked, dear boy, faked, every one of them.” She was gathering cheerfulness by the way.
“The story of Hawthorne and the first edition — ”
“Hypothetical. Grouse in the gunroom.”
“Do you mean that the story of the old slave who came to your mother’s door in Waltham, and the three abolitionists on their way to the meeting —”
“Now what’s the use, Billy Stark?” cried the old lady. “I told you it was a fake from beginning to end. So it is. So is every page of it. If I’d written my recollections as they were, the book would have been a pamphlet of twenty odd pages. It would have said I married a learned professor because I thought if I got into Cambridge society I should see life, and life was what I wanted. It would have gone on to say I found it death and nothing else, and when my husband died I spent all the money I could get trying to see life and I never saw it then. Who’d have printed that ? Pretty recollections, I should say!”
Mr. Stark was still musing, his eyes interrogating her.
“It’s really incredible, Florrie,” he said at last. “Poor dear! you needed the money.”
“That was n’t it,”
“Then what was?”
“I don’t know.” But immediately her face folded up into its smiling creases and she said, “I wanted some fun.”
William Stark fell back in his chair and began to laugh, round upon wheezy round. When his glasses had fallen off and his cheeks were wet and his face flamed painfully, Madam Fulton spoke, without a gleam.
“You’re a nice man, Billy Stark.”
“You wanted your little joke!” he repeated, subsiding and trumpeting into his handkerchief. “Well, you’ve had it, Florrie, you’ve had it.”
“I don’t know that I have,” she returned. “I had to enjoy it alone, and that kind of palled on me. When the first notices came, I used to lie awake from three o’clock on, to laugh. I used to go to the window when Electra was in the room, and make up faces, to let off steam and keep her from knowing. Then the letters kept coming, and clubs and things kept hounding me, and Electra was always at me. There she is now, with my grog. See me take it and pour it into the syringa.”
Electra was crossing the veranda with her springing step, bearing a glass of beaten egg and milk on a little tray. Madam Fulton signed to her to place the tray on a table, evidently ready for such ministrations, and then presented her friend. Electra greeted him with a smile of bright acceptance. She knew his standing, and his air of worldly ease quite satisfied her.
“May I bring you—?” she began, with a pretty grace.
“I should like a glass of water,” said Billy, “if you will be so good.”
When she had gone, Madam Fulton spoke in impressive haste: —
“How long can you stay, Billy? All day? All night?”
“ I’ve got to run back to New York for a bit, but I shall be in America all summer, one place or another. I’ll stay to luncheon, if you’ll let me.”
“We must avoid Electra! If she comes back and settles on us, I shall simply take you to walk. We can go over to Bessie Grant’s. You remember her. She married the doctor.”
Electra had returned with a glass and pitcher, and ice clinking pleasantly. She took occasion to explain to Madam Fulton, with some civil hesitation, —
“I have a committee meeting, grandmother. I had planned to go in town.”
The old lady responded briskly.
“Go, my dear, go. Mr. Stark will stay to luncheon. We’ll look out for each other.”
When Electra had rustled away, after the pleasantest of farewell recognitions between her and the guest, Madam Fulton heaved a sigh.
“Billy,” said she, “that’s a dreadful girl.”
“She’s a very handsome girl. What’s the matter with her ? ”
“She’s so equipped. First, she’s wellborn. Her grandmother was a Grace and her mother was a Vanderdecken. See her teeth. See her hair, and her profile. Dreadful! ”
“They’re very beautiful, in a correct way. She’s as well made as a grand piano.”
“That’s it, Billy. And she has done nothing but polish herself, and now you can see your face in her. Fancy, Billy, what these modern creatures do. They go to gymnasium. They can take a fivebarred gate, I believe, in their knickerbockers and what they call sneakers. They understand all about foods and what’s good for them and what’s good for the aged, and if you’re over seventy they buy condensed foods in cans and make you take it twice a day.”
“You have n’t tasted your grog.”
“I shan’t. Want it?”
He accepted the glass, and sniffed at it critically.
“That’s good,” he commented. “That’s very good. There’s a familiar creature in that.” He tasted, and then drank with gusto.
“Well,” said the old lady disparagingly, “you would n’t have said so if it had been one of the foods. I have them before I go to bed.”
He spoke persuasively: “Florrie, let’s talk a little more about the book.”
“There’s nothing more to say. I’ve told you the whole story, and I know you won’t tell anybody else.”
“Don’t you think you’d better make a clean breast of it to Gilbert and Wall ?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly: only it seems to me publishers and authors are in a more or less confidential relation. Being a publisher myself, I naturally feel rather strongly about it.”
“I don’t see it in the least,” said the old lady decisively. “All this talk about the paternal relation is mere poppycock. They print me a book. If it takes a start, they back it. They ’re as glad as I am. But as to telling them my glorious little joke, why, I can’t and I won’t.”
“But, dear woman, they’re printing away with full confidence in having got a valuable book out of you.”
“ So they have. It’s selling, is n’t it ? ”
“Madly. Specialists want it for honest data. The general reader has got an idea from the reviews that there’s personal gossip in it, more or less racy. So it goes.”
“Well, let it go,” said the old lady recklessly. “I shan’t stop it.”
“No, but I can’t help thinking Gilbert and Wall ought to be in the secret.”
“Do you imagine they’d stop printing?”
“I don’t imagine anything. I believe to speak temperately, they’d drop dead. I only say it’s a fearful and wonderful situation, and they ought to know it. You see, dear woman, you’ve not only played a joke on the public, you’ve played a joke on them.”
“Well, for goodness’ sake, why not? What’s a publisher, anyway? Has he got to be treated like a Hindu god ? Billy Stark, I wish you’d stayed in London where you belong.”
Again Billy felt himself wheezing, and gave up to it as before. She watched him unwinkingly, and by and by she chuckled a little and then joined him, in an ecstasy.
“Florrie,” said he, “you’re simply a glorious portent, and you’ve no more moral sense than the cat.”
“No, Billy, no!” She was answering in a happy acquiescence. “I never had any. I’ve always wanted some fun, and I want it to this day.” Her old face changed surprisingly under a shade of gravity. “And see where it’s led me.” It was natural to conclude that her verdict embraced wider evidence than that of the erring book. Billy, quite serious in his turn, looked at her in candid invitation. She answered him earnestly and humbly: “Billy, I always took the wrong road. I took it in the beginning and I never got out of it.”
“There’s a frightful number of wrong turnings,” Billy offered, in rather inadequate sympathy, “and a great deficiency of guideposts.”
“You see, Billy, the first thing I did was to give up Charlie Grant and marry Mark Fulton. I was only a country girl. Charlie was a country boy. I thought Mark must be a remarkable person because he was a professor in Cambridge. I thought Charlie was going to be a poor little country doctor, because he was studying medicine with another country doctor, and he could n’t go to college to save his skin. There were eight children, you know, younger than he. He had to work on the farm. Well, Billy, I made a mistake.”
Stark marveled at the crude simplicity of all this. He forgot, for the moment, that she was an old woman, and that for a long time she had been conning over the past like a secret record, full of blemishes, perhaps, but not now to be remedied.
“You did like Charlie,” he ventured. “I knew that.”
“I liked him very much. And I’ve never quite escaped from his line of life, if that’s what they call it. Since Electra was alone and I came here to stay with her, I’ve been thrown with his widow. Bessie’s an old woman, too, you know, like me. But she’s a different kind.”
“She was a pretty girl. Rather sedate, I remember, for a girl.”
“Billy, she’s a miracle. She lives alone, all but old Mary to do the work. She’s stiffened from rheumatism so that she sits in her chair nearly all day, and slumps round a little, in agony, with two canes. But she’s had her life.”
“How has she had it, Florrie? In having Grant?”
“Because all her choices were good choices. She took him when he was poor, and she helped him work. They had one son. He married a singer, a woman — well, like me. Maybe it was in the blood to want a woman like me. Then this boy and the singer had two sons — one of them clever. Peter Grant, you know. I suppose he’s a genius, if there are such. The other has — a deformity.”
“I know,” he nodded. “You wrote me.”
“I didn’t write you all. He was n’t born with it. He was a splendid boy, but when he had the accident the mother turned against him. She could n’t help it. I see how it was, Billy. The pride of life, that’s what it is — the pride of life.”
“Is he dwarfed ?”
“Heavens! he was meant for a giant, rather. He has great strength. Somehow he impresses you. But it’s the grandmother that built him up, body and brain. Now he’s a man grown, and she’s made him. Don’t you see, Billy? she’s struck home every time.”
“Is she religious?”
“Yes, she is. She prays.” Her voice fell, with the word. She looked at him searchingly, as if he might understand better than she did the potency of that communion.
“She’s a Churchwoman, I suppose.”
“No, no. She only believes things — and prays. She told me one day Osmond — he’s the deformed one — he could n’t have lived if she had n’t prayed.”
“That he would be better?”
“No, she was quite explicit about that. Only that they would be taught how to deal with it — his trouble. To do it, she said, as God wished they should. Billy, it’s marvelous.”
“Well, dear child,” said Billy, “you can pray, too.”
Her old face grew pinched in its denial.
“No,” she answered sadly, “no. It would n’t rise above the ceiling. What I mean is, Billy, that all our lives we’re opening gates into different roads. Bessie Grant opened the right gate. She’s got into a level field and she’s at home there. But I should n’t be. I only go and climb up and look over the bars. And I go stumbling along, hit or miss, and I never get anywhere.”
He was perplexed. He frowned a little.
“ Where do you want to get, Florrie ? ” he asked, at length.
She smiled into his face engagingly.
“I don’t know, Billy. Only where things don’t bore me; where they are worth while.”
“But they always get to bore us—” he paused and she took him up.
“You mean I’m bored because I am an old woman. I should say so, too, but then I look at that other woman and I know it is n’t so. No, Billy, I took the wrong road.”
Billy looked at her a long time, searchingly.
“Well,” he said, at last, “what can we do about it ? I mean, besides writing fake memoirs and then going ag’in our best friends when they beg us to own up?”
She put the question by, as if it could not possibly be considered, and yet as if it made another merry chapter to her jest. Billy had gathered his consolatory forces for another leap.
“Florrie,” said he, “come back to London with me.”
“My dear child!”
“You marry me, Florrie. I asked you fifty odd years ago. I could give you a good sober sort of establishment, a salon of a sort. I know everybody in arts and letters. Come on, Florrie.”
Fire was in the old lady’s eye. She rose and made him a pretty courtesy.
“Billy,” said she, “you’re splendid. I won’t hold you to it, but it will please me to my dying day to think I’ve had another offer. No, Billy, no. You would n’t like it. But you’re splendid.”
Billy, too, had risen. They took hands and stood like boy and girl looking into each other’s eyes. There was a little suffusion, a tear perhaps, the memory of other times when coin did not have to be counted so carefully, when they could open the windows without inevitable dread of the night, its dark and chill. The old lady broke the moment.
“Come over and see Bessie Grant. What do you say?”
“Delighted. Get your hat.”
But she appeared with a gay parasol, one of Electra’s, appropriated from the stand with the guilty consideration that the owner would hardly be back before three o’clock. The old lady liked warm colors. She loved the bright earth in all its phases, and of these a parasol was one. They went down the broad walk and out into the road shaded by summer green, that quivering roofwork of drooping branches and many leaves.
“Billy,” said she, “I’m glad you’ve come.”
“So am I, Florrie, so am I.”
It was not far to the old Grant house, rich in the amplitude of its size, and of the grounds, where all conceivable trees that make for profit and delight were colonized according to a wise judgment. The house was large, of a light yellow with white trimmings and green blinds, and the green of the shrubbery relieved it and endowed it with an austere dignity. There was a curving driveway to the door, and following it, they came to the wide veranda, where an old lady sat by herself, dozing and reflecting as Madam Fulton had done that morning. The two canes by her chair told the story of a sad inaction. She was of heroic stature and breadth. Her small, beautifully poised head had thick white hair rolled back and wound about in a soft coil. Her face, pink with a persistent bloom, soft with a contour never to break or grow old, was simply a mother’s face. It had the mother look, — the sweet serious eyes, the low brow, for beauty not for thought, the tranquil mouth. She was dressed in a fine cambric simply made, with little white ruffles about her neck and above her motherly hands. Madam Fulton saw her debating as they came, frowning a little, wondering evidently about the stranger. She called to her.
“Who is this, Bessie Grant?”
The other woman laid a hand upon her canes, and then, as if this were an instinctive movement, yet not to be undertaken hurriedly, smiled and sat still, awaiting them. When they were at the steps, she spoke, in an exceedingly pleasant voice. It deepened the effect of her great gentleness.
“I’m sure I don’t know. Come right up and tell me.”
They mounted the steps together, and Stark put out his hand. Mrs. Grant studied him for a moment. Light broke over her sweet old face.
“It’s Billy Stark,” she said.
“Of course it is,” triumphed the other old lady. “Billy Stark come back from foreign parts as good as new. Now let’s sit down and talk it over.”
They drew their chairs together, and, smiles and glances mingling, went back over the course of the years, first with a leap to the keen, bright time when they were in school together. The type of those pages was clear-cut and vivid. There were years they skipped then, and finally they came to the present, and Billy said, —
“You have two grandsons?”
“Yes. One lives with me. The other is coming home to-morrow. He’s the painter.”
“Engaged to Electra,” added Madam Fulton. “Did you know that ? They are to be married this summer. Then I suppose he’ll go back to Paris and she’ll go with him.”
Mrs. Grant was looking at her with a grave attention.
“We hope not,” she said, “Osmond and I. Osmond hopes Peter will settle here and do some work. He thinks it will be best for him.”
“There ’s no difficulty about his getting it,” said Billy. “I saw his portrait of Mrs. Rhys. That was amazing.”
The grandmother nodded, in a quiet pleasure.
“They said so,” she returned.
“It will do everything for him.”
“It has done everything. Osmond says he has only to sit down now and paint. But he thinks it wall be best for him to do it here — at least for a time.”
“How in the world can Osmond tell before he sees him?” objected Madam Fulton. “You have n’t set eyes on Peter for five years. He may be Parisian to the backbone. You would n’t want to tie him by the leg over here.”
“So Osmond says. But he hopes he won’t want to go back.”
“I can tell him one thing,” said the other old lady; “he’d better make up his mind to some big centre, Paris or New York, or he won’t get Electra. Electra knows what she wants, and it is n’t seclusion. She is going to be the wife of a celebrated painter, and she’ll insist on the perquisites. I know Electra.”
Mrs. Grant smiled in deprecation; but Stark had a habit of intuitive leaps, and he judged that she also knew Electra. His mind wandered a little, as his eyes ran over the nearer features of the place. It hardly suggested wealth: only comfort and beauty, the grace that comes of long devotion, the loving eye, the practiced hand. Somebody’s heart had been put into it. This was the labor that was not hired. He had a strong curiosity to see Osmond, and yet he could not ask for him because Madam Fulton had once written him some queer tale of the man’s sleeping in the woods, in a house of his own building, and living the wild life his body needed. One thing be learned now: Osmond’s name was never out of his grandmother’s mouth. She quoted his decisions as if they stood for ultimate wisdom. His ways were good and lovely to her.
The forenoon hour went by, and finally Madam Fulton remembered.
“Bless me!” she said. “It’s luncheon time. Come, Billy.”
The road was brighter now under the mounting sun. Madam Fulton was a little tired, and they walked silently. Presently, at her own gate, she suggested, not grudgingly, but as if the charm of goodness was, unhappily, assured, —
“I suppose she’s lovely!”
“Great! She’s one of those creatures that have good mother-stuff in them. It does n’t matter much what they mother, It’s there. It’s a kind of force. It helps — I don’t know exactly how.”
“ Now can’t you see what I mean ? That woman has had big things. She had one of the great loves. She built it up, piece by piece, with Charlie. He kept a devotion for her that was n’t to be compared with the tempest he felt about me. I’m sure of that.”
Stark looked at her as they walked, his eyes perplexedly denying the evidence of his ears.
“Do you know, Florrie,” he said, “it’s incredible to hear you talk so.”
“You have a zest for life, a curiosity about it. Why, it’s simply tremendous.”
“No, Billy, no. It’s not tremendous. It’s only that I am quite convinced I have n’t got my money’s worth. Late as it is, I want it yet. I’ll have it — if it’s only playing jokes on publishers!”
They ate together in the shaded room, and Madam Fulton, looking out through the windows at the terrace, realized, with an almost humble gratitude, that the world itself and the simple joys of it were quite different tasted in comradeship. She forgot Electra and the irritated sense that her well-equipped grand-daughter was wooing her to the ideals of a higher life.
“Billy,” she said again, “I’m uncommon glad you came.”
Billy’s heart warmed with responsive satisfaction. He had expected a more or less colorless meeting with his old love, a philosophic reference here and there to vanished youth, a twilight atmosphere of waning days; but here she was, living as hard as ever. And he had brightened her; he had given her pleasure. The complacency of it reacted upon him, and he sought about in his clever mind for another drop to fill the beaker. By the time they had finished their coffee, he knew.
“Florrie,” said he, “ what if you should put on your hat and take the train with me ?”
“My stars, Billy! Run away?”
“Come up to town. We’d scare up some kind of a theatre this evening, and in the morning you could see Gilbert and Wall.”
“And ’fess? Not by a great sight! But I’d like to go, Billy. Leave out Gilbert and Wall, make it you and me, and I’m your man.”
“Worry Electra to death!” she proffered brightly. “I’ll do it, Billy. Here’s the key of my little flat, right here on the writing-desk. I never stayed there alone, but there’s no reason why I should n’t. You can come round in the morning, to see if I ’ve had a fit, and if I have n’t we’ll go to breakfast. But we must take the three o’clock. She’ll be back by four.”
She got her bonnet and her handbag, and when Electra did come back at four, her grandmother had flown, leaving a note behind.
The next morning Electra, dressed in white and rather pale at the lips, walked about the garden with a pretense of trimming a shrub here and there and steadying a flower. But she was waiting for her lover. She had expected him before. The ten o’clock would bring him, and he would come straight to her without stopping to see his grandmother and Osmond. But time went by, and she was nervously alert to the fact that he might not have come. Even Electra, who talked of poise and strove for it almost in her sleep, felt a little shaken at the deferred prospect of seeing him. It was after those five years, and his letters, voluminous as they were, had not told all. Especially had they omitted to say of late whether he meant to return to France when he should be able to take her with him. To see a lover after such a lapse was an experience not unconnected with a possibility of surprise in herself as well as in him. She had hardly, even at the first, explicitly stated that she loved him. She had only recognized his privilege of loving her. But now she had put on a white dress, to meet him, and the garden was, in a sense, a protection to her. The diversity of its flowery paths seemed like a shade out of the glare of a defined relation. At last there was a step and he was coming. She forced herself to look at him and judge him as he came. He had scarcely changed, except, perhaps from his hurrying gait and forward bend, that he was more eager. There was the tall figure, the loose tie floating back, the low collar and straight black hair — the face with its aquiline curve and the wide sweet mouth, the eager dark eyes — he looked exactly like the man who had painted the great portrait of the year. Then he was close to her, and both her hands were in his. He lifted them quickly to his lips, one and then the other.
“Electra!” he said. It was the same voice, the slight eager hesitancy in it like the beginning of a stammer.
Electra, to her surprise, said an inconsequent thing. It betrayed how she was moved.
“Grandmother is away. She has gone to town.”
“We will go into the summer-house,” said the eager voice. “That is where I always think of you. You remember, don’t you ?”
He had kept her hand, and, like two children, they went along the broad walk and into the summer-house, where there was a green flicker of light from the vines. There was one chair, a rustic one, and Peter drew it forward for her. When she had seated herself, he sat down on the bench of the arbor close by, and, lifting her hand, kissed it again.
“Do you remember the knock-kneed poem I wrote you, Electra ?” he asked her. “I called it ‘My Imperial Lady.’ I thought of it the minute I saw you standing there. My imperial lady!”
The current was too fast for her. She could not manage large, impetuous things like flaming words that hurtled at her and seemed to ask a like exchange — something strong and steady in her to meet them in mid air and keep them from too swift an impact. His praise had always been like the warrior’s shields clanging over poor Tarpeia, — precious, but too crushing. They disconcerted her. If she could not manage to escape after the first blow, she guessed how they might bruise.
“ When did you come ?” she asked.
Peter did not answer. He was still looking at her with those wonderful eyes that always seemed to her too compelling for happy intercourse.
“Electra,” he said, and stopped. She had to answer him. There must be some heavy thing to break to her, which he felt unequal to the task of telling unless she helped him. “Electra,” he said again, “I did n’t come alone. Some one came with me. I wrote you about Tom.”
Electra drew her hand away, and sat up straight and chilled. There had been few moments of her grown-up life, it seemed to her, unspoiled by Tom, her recreant brother. In the tumultuous steeple chase of his existence he had brought her nothing but mortification. In his death, he was at least marring this first moment of her lover’s advent.
“You wrote me everything,” she said. The tone should have discouraged him. “You were with him at the last. He knew you. I gather he did n’t send any messages to us, or you would have given them.”
“He did, Electra.”
“He sent a message?”
“I simply could n’t write it, because I knew I should be home so soon. It was about his wife. He begged you to be kind to her.”
“His wife! Tom was not married.”
“He was married, Electra, to a very beautiful girl. I have brought her home with me.”
Electra was upon her feet. Her face had lost its cold sweet pallor. The scarlet of hot blood was upon it, a swift response to what seemed outrage at his hands.
“I have never—” she gasped. “It is not true.”
Peter, too, had risen. He was looking at her rather wistfully. His imperial lady had, in that instant, lost her untouched calm. She was breathing ire.
“Ah, don’t say that,” he pleaded. “You never saw her.”
“I can’t help it. I feel it. She is an adventuress.”
“What did he say to you? What did Tom say?”
“He pointed to her as she stood by the window, her back to us — it was the day before he died — and said, ‘Tell them to be good to her.' ”
“You see! You don’t even know whether he meant it as a message to me or some of his associates. He did n’t say she was his wife?”
He answered calmly and rather gravely, but the green world outside the arbor looked unsteady to him. Electra was one of the fixed ideas of his life; her nobility, her reserve, her strength had seemed to set her far above him. Now she sounded like the devil’s advocate. She was gazing at him keenly.
“Her story made a great impression on you,” she threw out incidentally.
The effort was apparent, but Peter accepted it.
“Yes,” he answered simply. “She makes a great impression on everybody. She will on you.”
“ What evidence have you brought me ? Did you see them married ? ”
“No,” said Peter, with the same unmoved courtesy.
“You see! Have you even found any record of their marriage?”
“ You have the girl’s word. She has come over here with you. What for?”
Peter lifted a hand to his forehead. He answered gently as a man sometimes does, of set purpose, to avoid falling into a passion.
“It was the natural thing, Electra. She has no home, poor child! — nor money, except what Tom left in his purse. He’d been losing pretty heavily just before. I say, it seemed the natural thing to come to you. Half this place was his. His wife belongs here.” The last argument sounded to him unpardonably crude, as to an imperial lady, but he ventured it. Then he looked at her. With his artist’s premonition, he looked to see her brows drawn, her teeth perhaps set angrily upon a quivering lip. But Electra was again pale. Her face was marble to him, to everything.
“ I shall fight it,” she said inexorably, ‘to the last penny.”
He gazed at her now as if she were a stranger. It was incredible that this was the woman whose hand he had kissed but the moment before. He ventured one more defense.
“Electra, you have not seen her.”
“I shall not see her. Where is she, — in New York ?”
“At grandmother’s. I left her there. I thought when we had had our little talk you would come over with me and see her, and invite her home.”
“Invite her here?”
“I thought so.”
“Peter,” said Electra, with a quiet certainty, “ you must be out of your mind.”
There they stood in the arbor, their lovers’ arbor, gazing at each other like strangers. Peter recovered first, not to an understanding of the situation, but to the need of breaking its tension.
“I fancied,” he said, “you would be eager to know her.”
“Is she a grisette?”
His mind ached under the strain of taking her in. He felt dumbly her contrast to the facile, sympathetic natures he had been thrown with in his life abroad. When he had left her, Electra was, as she would have said, unformed; she had not crystallized into the clearness and the hardness of the integrity she worshiped. To him, when in thought he contrasted her with those other types who made for joy and not always for moral beauty, she was immeasurably exalted. In any given crisis where other women did well, he would not have questioned that Electra must have done better. Her austerity was a part of her virgin charm. But as he looked at her now, in her clear outlines, her incisive speech, the side of him that thrilled to beauty trembled with something like distaste or fear. She was like her own New England in its bleakness, without its summer warmth. He longed for atmosphere.
But she had asked her question again: “Is she a grisette?”
He found himself answering: —
“She is the daughter of Markham MacLeod.”
“Not the author? Not the chief ?”
“Yes,” said Peter, with some quiet pride in the assurance, “chief of the Brotherhood, the great Markham MacLeod.”
“If that is true,” she said, “I must call on her.”
“True? I tell you it is true. Electra, what are you saying?”
But Electra was looking at him with those clear eyes where dwelt neither guile nor tolerance of the guile of others.
“Did she tell you so,” she inquired, “or do you know it for a fact ?”
He had himself well in hand now, because it had sprung into his wise artist brain that he must not break the beauty of their interview. It was fractured, but if they turned the hurt side away from the light, possibly no one would know, and the outer crystalline sheen of the thing would be deceptively the same.
“ I know Markham MacLeod,” he said. “I have seen them together. She calls him father.”
A wave of interest swept over her face.
“Do you mean you really know him, Peter ?”
“As the leader of the Brotherhood?”
“Yes, the founder.”
“He is proscribed in Russia and watched in France. Is that true?”
“He gave up writing for this — to go about organizing and speaking? That’s true, is n’t it ?”
“How much do you know about the Brotherhood, Peter ?”
“I belong to it.”
He straightened as he spoke. An impulse of pride passed over him, and she read the betrayal in his kindling eyes and their widened pupils.
“Is there work for you?” she asked, “for men who don’t speak and proselytize ?”
“I do speak, Electra.”
“I have spoken a little. I can’t do it yet in the way he wants. What he wants is money.”
“We have sent him money,” she agreed. “The Delta Club gave a series of plays last winter and voted him the proceeds. The first was for labor in America. The second for free Russia.”
“Yes, it pours in on him. It’s his enormous magnetism.”
“It’s his cause.”
She seemed to have reached something now that warmed her into life, and he took advantage of that kindling.
“Rose is his daughter,” he reminded her. “She is very beautiful, very sad. She is worthy of such a father.”
“Rose? Is that her actual name?”
“Yes. They are Americans, though since her childhood she has lived in France.”
“What did she do before Tom —got acquainted with her ? Live there in Paris with her father?”
“She sang. She has a moving voice. She always hoped she was going to sing better, but there never was money enough to give her the right training. Then she began going about with her father. She spoke, too.”
“In public? For the Brotherhood?”
“Yes. She has great magnetism. But she stopped doing that.”
“I don’t know. I have heard her father ask her to do it, but she refused. She is beautiful, Electra.”
Electra was looking at him thoughtfully.
“Did she persuade you to join the Brotherhood?” she asked.
“No,” said Peter, unmoved, “the chief himself persuaded me. I went to a great meeting one Sunday night. I heard him. That was the end of me. I knew where I belonged.”
Electra, her mind hidden from him as completely as if a veil had fallen between them, was, he could see, considering him. As for her, he hardly dared dwell upon her as she ruthlessly seemed. She was again like the bright American air, too determinate, too sharp. She almost hurt the eyes. He wondered vaguely over several things he was unwilling to ask her, since he could not bear to bring their difference to a finished issue: why she cherished a boundless belief in the father and only reprobation for the daughter, when she had seen neither the one nor the other; why she had this vivid enthusiasm for the charity that embraces the world and none for a friendless child at her door. Their interview seemed to have dropped flat in inconceivable collapse; what was to have been the beginning of their dual life was only the encounter of a hand-to-hand discussion. He tried to summon back the vividness to his fagged emotions, and gave it up. Then he ventured to think of his imperial lady, and found a satirical note beating into his mind. He took refuge in the practical.
“I have not seen Osmond yet.”
“Was n’t he there to meet you ?”
“No. Grannie said I should have to go down to the plantation, to find him. Does he keep up his old ways, Electra?”
“Yes. Sleeping practically out of doors summer and winter, or in the shack, as he calls it, — that log hut he put up years ago. Have n’t you known about him ? Has n’t he written ?”
“Oh, he writes, but not about himself. Osmond would n’t do that. Somehow grandmother never wrote any details about him either. I fancied he did n’t want her to. So I never asked. She only said he was ‘well.’ You know Osmond always says that himself.”
“I believe he is well,” said Electra absently. She was thinking of the alien presence at the other house. “He looks it — strong, tanned. Osmond is very impressive somehow. It’s fortunate he was n’t a little man.”
Peter made one of the quick gestures he had learned since he had been away from her. They told the tale of give and take with a more mobile people. He could not ask her to ignore Osmond’s deformity, yet he could not bear to hear her speak of it. Osmond was, he thought, a colossal figure, to be accepted, whatever his state, like the roughened rock that builds the wall. He rose, terminating, without his conscious will, an interview that was to have lasted, if she had gone to the other house with him and he had returned again with her, the day long.
“I must see Osmond,” he hesitated.
Electra, too, had risen.
“Yes,” she said conformably, though the table, she knew, would be laid for them both in what had promised to be their lovers’ seclusion.
“I will come back. This afternoon, Electra ? ”
That morning the afternoon had been his and hers only. She had expected to listen to the recital of his triumphs in Paris, and to scan eagerly the map of his prospects which was to show her way also. And she too opened her lips and spoke without preconsidered intent.
“This afternoon I shall be busy. I have to go in town.”
“You won’t — ” he hesitated again. “Electra, you won’t call at the house on the way, and see her, at least?”
“Your Rose?” She smiled at him brilliantly. “Not to-day, Peter.”
Then, bruised, bewildered, he went back over the path he had come, leaving his imperial lady to go in and order the luncheon table prepared for one.
“Madam Fulton will not be home,” she said to the maid, with a proud unconsciousness; and for the moment it sounded as if Madam Fulton had been the expected guest.
(To be continued.)
- Copyright, 1907, by ALICE BROWN.↩