THE clerk at the hotel desk answered Felicia’s question with his usual smiling urbanity. Yes, the Signorina had gone out some minutes before; adding, as he handed her the room-key, “with the Signorino.” “The Signora,” he further added, “ was just in time for the sunset;”—and it was the unconscious malignity of that final thrust which Felicia still quivered under, when, up in her room, she cast aside her hat and parasol, and sinking into the chair by the window gazed stonily out at the golden expanse of lake.
Was it going to be as it always had been? The shock of the question turned Felicia’s face suddenly to middle age; the sunset, for which she had been in time, brought cruelly out the fine worn lines about her eyes and temples.
She herself had sent for Kathryn. In this extraordinary thing which had happened to her, she had felt the need of Kathryn to confirm her own assurance, as it were. They had only been separated three months, but that had been long enough for the extraordinary thing to happen,— the thing which she had believed to be beyond the possibility of happening in her life.
Not that there was anything in Felicia herself naturally to preclude such happenings; they had indeed been rather plentiful in her youth; but always at the crucial moment Felicia herself had drawn back; she had never felt quite sure enough. There had been a good deal of drawing back, altogether, in Felicia’s life; hers was not a nature to hurl itself headlong into the doubtful places of being, and there had always been somebody or something to consider; she had been constantly stepping away, or aside, as she saw it, in favor of others.
And into the gaps thus left open, it was curious how many times Kathryn had as lightly stepped. There was nothing which inclined to drawing back in Kathryn’s temperament; her every movement was a forward one, generally with the effect of a considerable impetus behind it.
When it had been a question of accompanying an aunt to China, and Felicia, her trunks already packed, knew sudden scruples at parting with an invalid mother, it was Kathryn who packed overnight and went. When it had been a question of the cousins going to Paris to study art seriously, it was Felicia who hesitated before so grave a life-decision. Had she, after all, the justifying talent for forsaking all who depended upon her in varying degrees, and changing the whole current of a life? It was Kathryn, impecunious and doubt-free, who went. Incidentally, it was Felicia who helped her to go, — and this had been their relation all their lives. Kathryn had done unexpectedly well in Paris; if she had not demonstrated herself a genius, she had abundantly justified herself in a growing gift for portraiture; she found already a modest market for heads, and looked forward — with Kathryn’s vision — to larger futures. And from this hopeful contemplation Felicia herself had summoned her, for her own nameless need. In the little Italian lake-village where Felicia was passing the summer there was good sketching, and there were young people — the golf-playing, tennisplaying kind; Kathryn could sketch and golf and play tennis, while — Felicia blushed as she left the sentence unfinished.
There was no real reason why she should have blushed. Cloudsley’s devotion was an unconcealed, unmistakable fact. Felicia’s years did not separate her from the other young people with a greater finality than Cloudsley’s quality as a poet separated him. From the first day of his picturesque appearance at the hotel, he had singled Felicia out with that directness which was a part of his charm, ignoring with an equal simplicity the flattery of appeal from every pretty girl in the hotel, dazzled by the rising of a literary sun. Felicia and he drew together by an irresistible attraction. She had thought of him at first as almost a boy; as for Cloudsley, it was noL in his nature to think of age at all in connection with a woman so delightful. Everything about her pleased his sensitive taste and satisfied his mind. In her indulgence towards his youth she had given him a better opportunity to know her than she gave to other men, putting up no defenses; and it was not until they had sat and walked beneath many suns and moons, in a deepening intimacy of companionship, that she suddenly realized that he was not so much young as ageless. And he was poor and great. It had not yet ceased to be to him a kind of genial miraacle that the world permitted him to make a meagre living out of the work it praised, and it was a part of his own charming nature that he bore it no grudge for its tardy permission; it was not in him to bear anybody or anything a grudge. If it had been, he might have grudged the advent of Kathryn, as an interruption.
Felicia, vividly alive to catch their mutual impressions of each other, had noted with amusement Cloudsley’s impersonal scrutiny of her young cousin, — the wide-eyed look with which he searched by instinct every human document that came his way; she had seen his straying glance arrested once or twice by Kathryn’s bright ruffle of rebellious hair, — hair as vitally full of color as Kathryn herself. Felicia’s own hair was beautiful in another manner, fine and brown and soft, and she had felt kindred expressions in Cloudsley’s eyes when they rested on it.
As for Kathryn’s impressions of the poet, she frankly pronounced him the most beautiful creature she had ever seen, explaining in terms of the art school the reduction of this beauty into a matter of facial angle, caves of the eye, and certain modelings.
“Yes, dear,” answered Felicia absently; she was thinking of the dark wells in those caves and the stars that lighted them.
Kathryn’s aspect seized, the poet was done with her; and when she appeared a fixed fact in their solitude of two, he had instantly shown a transparent shadow of unrest and discontent, causing Kathryn to look in her turn a silent question from her cousin to him and back again. Then she had smiled a little.
The next morning she declined Felicia’s invitation to go rowing with them. Pleading a mood of work, she had gone off alone with her sketching traps, and they had had a perfectly beautiful morning on the lake, — a morning in which the unspoken word hovered so near that Felicia found herself fending it off in a sudden insane panic of delicious terror, — terror of her very longing for it to be spoken.
Why had she done so ? why had she not let him speak ? she asked herself now in the passionate review, and growing cold answered herself, —
“Because —if that were all — it was n’t worth the having.”
That had been their last beautiful morning. On their way home they had come across Kathryn, her hat cast on the ground, painting with ardor. Cloudsley, in the little sting of the rebuffed mood, had stopped to talk with her, and presently Felicia had made an excuse to leave them and hurry on to the hotel in a kind of unhappy happiness. She was bitterly angry with her own perversity, — but there would be to-morrow; and with the prescient joy of that to-morrow came a terror of that joy. Was it, after all, too soon — too hurried, too hurried for him ? She was so much the older, ought she not to be also the wiser — wiser for him ? True, she had persuaded herself that the difference only made for an increased capacity of love, devotion, understanding — on her side. And she had been glad that he was poor. He had never thought of her money, and — what was a good deal more significant of the man — nobody else would ever think he had thought of it; but Felicia had thought; it was one of her assets, enabling her to do so much for him that she would have so much joy in doing. The unspent mother in Felicia, that longdefeated maternity of the heart which enters into an elder love so much more profoundly, had taken this too into account. But had she perhaps overestimated that account in her own favor ? He had suddenly looked so young there beside Kathryn; and Kathryn had looked so young. Oh, — it was necessary to be vitally sure of a thing like this!
“If he loves me enough, it will all be right,” Felicia thought; “but there must be no mistake — no hurry. I must leave him absolutely free.”
Her manner of leaving him free was to withdraw herself into a spiritual distance. If she let him see — let him even suspect how much she cared, that would not be leaving him free. He should have every chance — even the chance to change.
“And if he can change — I do not want that kind of love,” said Felicia, proudly miserable, to herself.
Nothing she could have devised would more have baffled a temperament like Cloudsley’s. It might be true of other men that they only prized what they must fight for; it was the exact untruth of Cloudsley. He only prized that which was given; the very fullness of the gift was that which stirred and drew him. It had been the generosity of their relation which had made it wonderful to him and made Felicia wonderful. He had had his dreams of such a woman. Now that on whatever side he approached her he found her wrapped in an impenetrable veil, so fine and slight that he could not say of what it consisted, but so tenacious that it baffled all nearness, he was first perplexed, then wounded, then indignant. What had he done that she should change like that? Was she no more than ordinary woman after all ? Now and again, since Felicia was in truth exactly that, — ordinary woman, — the old fires escaped a moment and burned alluringly in eyes or voice, and he drew eagerly nearer; but if they parted on that nearness, half an hour later Felicia would descend the stairs wrapped anew in an extra fold of the impenetrability which turned him cold again. She was “leaving him free” once more. But to-day, she had gone much farther.
At lunch, Cloudsley, transparently restless, had talked with Kathryn but looked at her — Felicia. At last the persistent gaze had caught her own; he had instantly leaned forward and addressed her.
“Will you go out to-night to see the sunset on the lake?”
And Felicia had answered carelessly, while her hands clutched the napkin in her lap to stop their trembling, —
“ I am sorry — but I shall hardly be back from town in time.”
The look in his blue eyes followed her all the way upstairs.
Kathryn also followed, and closing the door behind them, faced her cousin with uncompromising directness.
“Felicia,” she said, “do you know what you are doing?”
Felicia, who was busy spearing her hat with a long hat-pin, answered from the refuge of its veil, —
“I am getting ready to go to town.”
The scornful little gesture which was Kathryn’s sole reply made Felicia flush, but she went on gathering up her parasol and gloves and pocket-book.
“If they are so necessary, I will do your errands for you,” said Kathryn.
“Thank you, — but I really prefer to do them myself,” replied Felicia cordially. “Have a good afternoon sketching, Kitty,” she added, lightly touching her cousin’s cheek. “I shall be back for dinner.”
Kathryn had half stretched out her hand to detain her cousin as she passed her; she suddenly withdrew it and let it fall at her side. It seemed to Felicia that Kathryn’s accusing gaze accompanied her down the stairs as Cloudsley’s had followed her up.
She was back in ample season for the sunset; in her heart she had all along known that she intended to be; her eyes leaped hungrily to interrogate the hotel veranda and shady lawn. No one was there. It was the clerk, who, answering her casual inquiry for her cousin, gave into her hand, she felt, not one key but two.
So it had all come to this, — that she sat by the window and asked herself if it was going to be once more as it always had been. She was still sitting there when the two came up the little path from the lake an hour later; when Kathryn opened the door of the room, however, she found her busy writing.
“Felicia,” she said, standing close beside her and looking down at her with a new expression, “ do you know what you are doing ?”
Felicia poised her pen above the paper a brief moment.
“I am writing letters, as you see,” she answered a little coldly.
And Kathryn without another word closed the door between the two rooms with needless emphasis.
Felicia bent lower over the sheet, and presently a slow tear fell upon the blotting pad.
“A man is not a woman,” she thought. “He can always make opportunities; he can always end it when he will.”
And since he did not make the opportunity, did not end it, she grew daily more disengaged in manner and more engaged in time.
As for Kathryn, her part had been taken; with the closing of that door she had definitely closed the whole affair. She persistently refused to make a third in walks and talks; she made it silently clear that Felicia need expect no help from her, and went off daily by herself sketching. Felicia was, however, often aware of her cousin’s gaze, and sometimes longed to have it out with Kathryn; but when the moment came she thrust it from her with the energy of an undetermined fear.
It came at last inexorably. At the lunch table, chosen precisely for its publicity, she handed back one day to Cloudsley a manuscript, with some trifling observation in its praise. Even by her own measure she had said too little, and that little too lightly, because she was so afraid of saying too much — of betraying how infinitely she cared; and in the triviality of her words something — a certain fire of hunger in the poet’s eyes — seemed suddenly to flash and go out. He took the paper with a bow, and Felicia, sitting back in her chair with a breathless agony at heart, caught her cousin’s gaze, bright and judicially stern. She followed Felicia to her room.
“Felicia,” she began, without any preface, “are you quite mad ? Don’t you care to be loved ?”
Felicia held herself by an effort which shook her from head to foot.
“You have certainly done your best to put an end to this kind,” she remarked.
“I will not pretend to misunderstand,” she said slowly, “and — I don’t care for some kinds of love.”
“That is exactly it! ” said Felicia. “If it can be put an end to! You forget that I am thirty-eight years old,” she added bitterly.
Kathryn considered her a moment.
“ Well,” said Kathryn calmly, “ I should think that was old enough to have more sense.”
Felicia made a movement; in another moment she felt she should cry out.
“What I should like to know,” continued Kathryn, still calmly, “is how much longer this is to go on?”
“Since, so far as I am concerned, nothing is going on, I cannot answer your question,” replied Felicia; “and if you please, we will not talk of this any more, — ever.”
Kathryn stood a moment, looking, not at her cousin, but out of the window.
“You really mean what you say, Felicia?” she asked at last, in a changed voice.
Kathryn was silent a moment more; then she gave her cousin a glance in which Felicia received a quivering impression of many things, including compassion.
“Very well,” said Kathryn briefly, and walked away. This time she shut the door with an extreme gentleness which reverberated through Felicia’s nerves like the thunder of approaching doom.
She sat trembling; and presently, from where she still sat, she saw Kathryn issue forth with her sketching things, and a little later Cloudsley, with bent head, strolled moodily in the opposite direction. It was nevertheless with the certainty of foreknowledge that she later awaited their return on the veranda, in the golden end of the day. He was carrying Kathryn’s sketching box, and Kathryn passed her with a little nod.
“We met in the forest,” she said only.
At dinner Kathryn wore her prettiest gown; it was a gift of Felicia’s, for Kathryn’s gowns were not many. She had cast aside her summer’s studious silence, and Cloudsley and she were almost feverishly brilliant; Felicia could be dumb as she felt.
“ Which way do you go to-morrow ? ” she heard Cloudsley ask, and felt Kathryn’s deliberate glance at her before she answered, —
“To the larches beyond the bend.”
“I shall come and carry your things,” said Cloudsley.
Kathryn leaned suddenly forward,
“Felicia — let us all go.” The undertone of her voice drew Felicia’s eyes upwards in spite of herself. “Let us make a picnic for once ? ”
Felicia did not shrink; her gaze met Kathryn’s squarely.
“Thank you,” she said slowly, “but you know I detest picnics. Besides, I am going to town.” Cloudsley’s chair moved brusquely on the floor.
This time Felicia overstayed the sunset; later she schooled herself to be present at those golden home-comings into which the two so quickly fell; she even went with them occasionally; it became her point of honor.
As the interminable summer neared its end, Kathryn ripened with it into a different beauty; she had begun a portrait of the poet. But what was singular was that she was also stilled; it was Felicia who was now the cheerful, the discursive. More, and far more richly, changed than either was the poet himself; he was working exuberantly now; often he brought Felicia the sheets of paper, and they were moist and grassy, more often than not, from the forest earth.
“I get them under my elbow somehow, in the posing,” he explained with the old sunny smile, while he brushed away the stains. He had long ago forgiven Felicia everything.
“She paints to music, then,” was Felicia’s smiling comment, the first time this happened. “It ought to help her.”
“I should like to think it did,” Cloudsley answered seriously. “She has a very rare talent.”
“Oh, yes; Kathryn has talent,” Felicia said quietly.
Kathryn had indeed several kinds of talent, she reflected bitterly, when he had gone, walking swiftly, towards an easily divined goal, with the eager forward bend of his singularly youthful head. He was immortally young, Felicia thought; and she — she was worse than old, middleaged. She took the poems up to her room and shut herself in with them. She laid them down hours later with something like a sob. Oh, there was no mistaking their quality! And he read these things to Kathryn — to Kathryn whose intellect Felicia had always a little despised !
There was a knock at the door and Kathryn walked in. She bore in her arms a large square canvas, and she propped it, without a word, on a chair in front of Felicia and turned away.
Felicia looked and grew still paler. Her first thought was, Kathryn had seen him look like that! her second, Kathryn could paint like that! Felicia’s justice was instinctive, like her pride or generosity. With Cloudsley’s manuscripts still in her hands, she went up to her cousin, and putting the two poemfilled hands on her shoulders, turned her gently round till their eyes met.
“Kathryn! I did not know you could paint like that!”
“No,” said Kathryn, whose color was coming and going, “I did n’t know it either; it is because — because — Felicia, — you know —”
“ I know,” said Felicia quickly. She put up a fending hand, but Kathryn caught it tightly in both of hers.
“Felicia — it is n’t I! — it is n’t I! You think you loved him, but, oh, my dear, — if you had loved you would never have stopped to weigh, to think, to measure, to fear, to consider, to remember how old you were — as if that mattered! You would only have thought of him, instead of making him wretched all those weeks. But you can’t help weighing, thinking, considering, Felicia; you always have done it and you always will, and so — you would only have harmed him.”
“I — Oh!” breathed Felicia, turning her sick, indignant eyes at last on her cousin. “I — Oh!”
“ Yes, you,” insisted Kathryn, clasping her cousin’s hands with almost fierce tenderness. “You would have given him everything — except yourself. You don’t know how to give yourself, Felicia, — to let yourself go! And it is n’t as if he were only a man we love, — he is everything else besides! He is the thing to be thought of — not you — or me. Oh Felicia!” Her eyes ran suddenly over; she dropped her cousin’s hands and turned away.
Felicia stood mechanically clasping the poems; her despairing eyes traveled the room, to fall again upon the portrait. The root of her despair — the terrifying thing — was that with the fragments of her broken life about her Kathryn, who had broken it, should be able to justify herself to Felicia’s own inmost self-conviction. It was not after all Kathryn who had done the thing to her, — it was her own hideous failure. Kathryn was the elder and the wiser, — and how much the stronger! Kathryn had somehow seized selflessly a selfish bliss, and turned Felicia’s self-crucifixion into something selfishly small and mean. Kathryn could love; Kathryn could understand; Kathryn could help; the poems and the portrait were there to prove it. And therefore Kathryn was right, — nothing else mattered. Felicia surrendered proudly.
“You are quite right,” she said. “Nothing matters but what is best — for him.” She added with irrepressible bitterness, “And does n’t it all prove too how right I was ? ”
“No,” said Kathryn sadly, “it proves nothing, — except that you are you.”
Felicia winced slightly; she laid down the poems quietly, however, and folded one hand within the other; it was the symbol of her regained self-possession. She looked at Kathryn, and her lips smiled faintly.
“I hope you will be very happy, dear.”
“Oh,” exclaimed Kathryn angrily, “as if that mattered! but I shall be, by and by, — when you are.”
Then — thought Felicia — you will never be happy again in this world. Aloud she said, “It is best to say everything — now. There is one thing, — it is only a little thing, but I hope you will not deny me it. I — I have so much money; it means nothing to me,” — she could not repress that bitterness nor the gesture of her empty palms, — “and I can’t bear that such a miserable thing as money should limit him or keep him back—or you — from anything. I hope — I hope you’ll let me do that — for both of you, won’t you? Help — I mean ? After all, we are cousins.”
Kathryn stood looking a moment silently at her.
“Yes,” she said at last, “you shall — help.” And Felicia with one more shock of perception recognized that the acceptance left Kathryn somehow still magnanimously the greater of the two.