Electra felt very much alone in a world of wrongdoers. To her mind moral trespassing was a definite state of action fully recognized by the persons concerned in it. She made no doubt that everybody was as well able to classify obliquity as she was to do it for them. She had stated times for sitting down and debating upon her own past deeds, though she seldom found any flagrant fault in them. There was now and then an inability to reach her highest standard; but she saw no crude derelictions such as other people fell into. It was almost impossible for her to think about grandmother at all, the old lady seemed to her so naughty and so mad. Billy Stark, too, though he was a man of the world, admirably equipped, was guilty of extreme bad taste or he could never have asked Madam Fulton to marry him. Why was he calling her Florrie and giving her foolish nosegays every morning ? Rose and Peter, when it came to them, seemed pledged to keeping up some wild fiction beneficial to Rose; only Markham MacLeod was entirely right, and so powerful, too, that his return must shake all the warring atoms into a harmonious conformity with Electra and the moral law.
Moreover she had the entire programme of the club meeting to reconstruct. Nothing, she inexorably knew, would tempt her to allow for a moment any further consideration of her grandmother’s pernicious book. Yet the club was to meet with her, the honorable secretary, and it had no topic to whet its teeth upon. In her dilemma, she put on her hat and walked over to inquire of Rose when her father was to return. MacLeod’s bubbling kindliness seemed to her so generous that she made no doubt he would talk to them for an hour, or even allow her to give him a reception.
Rose was in the garden, as usual, in the long chair, and Peter was painting. Ostensibly he was painting her, but the mood escaped him and he was blurring in a background. Electra remembered, as she went up the path, that still nothing had been said to her about Peter’s painting. He might have been any sort of young ’prentice for all she heard about his work; and here it was beginning incidentally, like an idle task, with no reference to her. She had thought painting was something to be carried on gravely, when one had reached Peter’s eminence. There ought to be talk of theories and emotions inspired by pictures in the inception, not merely this prosaic business of sitting down to work and characterizing beauties with a flippant jargon of words misused. “Very nice,” “stunning” — that was what she had heard Peter say even of sunsets that ought to have moved him to the skies. He had a delicate-fingered way of touching everything, as if the creative process were a little one, of small simplicities: not as if art were long.
When she appeared that morning, behind the hollyhocks, Rose was about to spring up, and Peter did stand, expectant, with his charming smile. Electra at once made proper disclaimers and insisted that the sitter’s pose should not be broken and that it would be an immense entertainment to see the work go on. Peter brought a chair out of the arbor, and she sat down, erect and handsome, while Rose sank back into her unconstrained reclining. Rose wore the simplest dress, and her slender arms were bare. There were about her the signs of tasks abandoned, even of pleasures dropped and not remembered — the book half closed upon her finger, the rose and fan. Her great hat with its long feather lay beside her on the ground, and Electra, justly appraising its picturesqueness and value, thought, with brief distaste, that it looked as if it might belong to an actress. She asked her question at once and Rose answered. No, her father would not be here in time for the important meeting. She had no doubt he would indeed have said more than a few words, since the entertainment had fallen through. Here Electra interrupted her delicately and challenged the use of that term for so serious an issue. It could hardly be called an entertainment; they had simply been unable to consider the topic fixed upon, and it was necessary to find a substitute.
“Let me do something,” said Rose, with her appealing grace. “I’ll sing for them.”
That accounted for her again, Electra thought, the unconsidered ease, perhaps the boldness. She belonged to public life; yet as such she might well be taken into account.
“What do you sing?” she asked.
Rose forgot all about her picture and sat up, looking quite in earnest. Peter held his brush reproachfully poised.
“I tell you what I can do,” she said, after a moment’s thinking. “I can give a little talk on contemporary music — what they are doing in France, in Germany. I can give some personal data about living musicians — things they would n’t mind. And I really sing very well. Peter, boy, tell the lady I sing well.”
“She sings adorably,” said Peter. “She has a nightingale in her throat: —
All the birds in the bush.
You never heard anything more sympathetic. I never did.”
The “Peter, boy,” had spoiled it. Electra grew colder. She wished she were able to be as easy as she liked; but she never could be, with other people perpetually doing and saying things in such bad taste.
“The club is composed of ladies who know the best music,” she heard herself saying, and realized that it sounded like a child’s copy-book.
Rose was still sitting upright, Peter patiently looking at her, evidently wishing she would return to her pose, and yet quite as evidently enriching his attention with this new aspect of her. She had turned into a vivid and yet humble creature, intent on offering something and having it accepted. The thought that she had something Electra wanted seemed for the moment the next best thing to knowing that Electra tendered her kinship and recognition.
“Please like me,” her look begged for her. “Please tolerate me, at least, and take what I have to give.”
The end of it was that Electra did accept it, and that Peter’s painting was quite forgotten while Rose ran eagerly over the ground she could cover. One moment of malice she did have. While Electra was hesitating, she looked up at her with a curious little smile.
“You can introduce me,” she said, “as you always have, as ‘the daughter of Markham MacLeod.’ That will give your afternoon an added flavor.”
Electra answered seriously, “Thank you,” and resolved to do it. Madam Fulton, she thought, would have the decency not to break the situation by her intemperate “Mrs. Tom’s.” Electra had no experience of contrition in her grandmother, but she could but feel that any woman who had done what that old lady had might be trusted to observe the decencies for at least a week thereafter.
“That was my public name,” Rose added hastily, as if she had invalidated her claim. “I sang for eight months or more as Rose MacLeod.”
It was a new triumph for her, Electra realized when the day was over. The ladies came down from the city and, in perfect weather, sat about on the veranda and in the two front rooms, while Rose, at the piano, sang to them and then gave them a charming talk. Electra, who could do no creative work, could not take her eyes from the young creature, all eager brilliancy and dressed in a perfect Paris gown. The dress, Electra knew, was no finer than she herself could amply afford to buy in her own country. Only it was worn with a grace, the air of a woman born to be looked at, and used to fervid tributes. The other women, too, were worshipers of notability, and Rose knew she had raised a wave of admiration. To her, unused to the American woman’s passion for new things, it was a real tribute, something she could count upon to-morrow after the epoch of to-day; and the afternoon left her exhilarated and warm in momentary triumph. The women crowded about her with intemperate comment and question. They wanted to know as much about her father as they did about her. They were all eager to show their conversance with the Brotherhood, its aims and potencies, and they were more than ready to besiege her father and to entertain her. Some of them even wanted to make dates for the coming autumn, and Rose found herself the recipient of a score of visiting cards, all pointing to new alliances. She slipped away before the afternoon was over, to spare Electra the pains of thanking her, and going home, found Markham MacLeod at the gate. Immediately her hopes died. She had forgotten the issues she had to reckon with in him. From these no ladies’ club could save her.
He was affection itself in greeting her.
“I have just come,” he explained. “Peter is in town and Mrs. Grant is taking her afternoon rest. Let us walk a little way.”
“I have n’t my hat,” she demurred.
He looked at her sufficient parasol and took her hand, turning her toward the road again.
“Come. We’ll walk along to that grove. It is shady there. I want to see you before we meet the others,”
She yielded, and presently they stepped in at the bars to the field where the grove invited. Under the trees she furled her parasol, and sat down on a stone. She looked involuntarily toward the plantation, below them to the west. There were the little clumps of nursery trees, the green patches of seedlings, and, dotted through the working area, men with backs bent over the rows. She wondered if Osmond were there, and the thought gave her, if not courage, at least the defiance that answers for it. MacLeod threw himself on the ground, and her eyes came back to him. He looked so strong, so much a part of all living things, that he seemed to her invincible. He spoke quite seriously, as if there were matters between them to be gravely settled.
“I have been wondering about the bearing of these people toward you. What explanation did you make when you came ? ”
“I made no explanation.”
“What attitude did you take?”
“Peter introduced me to her. He went in advance, to tell her I was coming.”
“ Electra ? ”
“Yes, Tom’s sister.”
“What did Peter tell her ? ”
“He told her I was her brother’s wife.”
“Ah! and she accepted you? ”
“No, she has never accepted me.”
He glanced sharply up at her, and she met the look coldly. Her cheeks were burning, but there was nothing willingly responsive in her face. She repeated it: “Peter told her Tom had married me. I have reason to think she told him she did not believe it.”
“Has Peter said that to you ? ”
“No, but I think so.”
“Did she send for you, to go to see her ? ”
“No, I went without it.”
“Now, how did she receive you?” His voice betrayed an amiable curiosity. He might have been interested merely in the vagaries of human nature, and particularly because Electra, as a handsome, willful creature, had paces to be noted. Rose laughed a little, in a way that jarred on him. He liked mirth to sound like mirth.
“She was civil to me. But she has never once given me Tom’s name, nor has she allowed me to introduce myself by it.”
“The old lady used it.”
“That was because I followed an impulse one day and told her. She followed an impulse and used it. She is a naughty old lady.”
“Ah! ” He considered for a moment. “If she did believe you, is it your impression she would expect you to — inherit ? ”
“I would n’t have it.” Her face quivered all over. “I never thought of that for a moment. Can’t you see why I came ? I was beside myself in Paris. There were you, hurrying back from the East and bringing — him.”
“The prince ? ”
“You had written me he would come with you. When he saw me again, you said, he would not take ‘no.’ Peter was going home. Kind Peter ! He said, ‘Why don’t you come with me?’ He said Electra was beautiful, quite the most beautiful person in the world. I thought she would receive me. I could tell another woman — and so kind! — everything, and I could settle down for a little among simple people and get rested before — ” She stopped, and he knew what she had meant to say: “Before you and your prince began pursuing me again.”
But he did not answer that. It was a part of his large kindliness never to perpetuate harsh conclusions, even by accepting them.
“ I shall go to see your Electra at once,” he said.
She raised a forbidding hand.
“Do nothing of the kind. I insist on that.”
But he was again reflecting.
“That puzzles me,” he said at last: “ that she should receive you at all if she does not believe you. Why ? ”
She looked at him steadfastly for a moment, a satirical smile coming on her face. These emotions he was awakening in her made her an older woman.
“I really believe you don’t know,” she said, at length.
“Certainly I don’t know.”
“Why, it’s you! ” He stared at her. It was, she saw, an honest wonder. “She adores you. They all do, all her ladies. They meet and talk over things, and you are the biggest thing of all. I am the daughter of Markham MacLeod. That is what she calls me.”
“I see.” He mused again. “I must go over there to-night.”
“No! no! no!” It was an ascending scale of entreaty, but he did not regard it. He got up and offered her his hand.
“ Come,” he said. “Peter will be back. By the way,” he added, as she followed him laggingly, “does Peter know why you came to America ? ”
“Peter thought it the most natural thing in the world to wish to be with Tom’s relations.”
“You have n’t told him about the prince ? ”
“I have been entirely loyal to you — with Peter. Don’t be afraid. He, too, adores you.”
They walked on in silence. At the house they found grannie, now in her afternoon muslin, cheerfully ready for a new guest, and Peter in extreme delight at seeing him.
Markham MacLeod, once in his own room, sat down and stretched his legs before him. As he ruminated, his face fell into lines. Nobody ever saw them, — even he, — because in public, and before his glass, he had a way of plumping himself into cheerfulness. His tortuous thoughts were for his inmost mind. Whatever he planned, no one knew he was planning; only his results came to him in the eye of the world.
AFTER supper, which had been, grannie thought, a brilliant occasion, MacLeod took his hat and said to Peter with an air of proposing the simplest possible thing,
“ I am going over to pay my respects to your neighbor.”
Peter stared frankly.
“She was so kind as to invite me to luncheon, you know,” MacLeod explained from the doorway. “I want to call at once.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Peter.
“No, no! It’s a first occasion. She’ll want to catechise me, and you’ve heard all the answers. I rather depend on her putting straight questions.”
It was not the custom to wonder at MacLeod. Whatever he did bore the stamp of privilege. He was “ the chief.” So he walked away through the summer dusk, and Peter and Rose, on the veranda, talked Paris while grannie listened, in a pleasant daze, not always sure, through age’s necromancy, whether all the movement and action of their tone and subject belonged to the reality they knew, or to her own dream of a land she never saw.
Electra, the lights turned low, was sitting at the piano, nursing her discontent. She could hear the murmur of Madam Fulton’s voice from the next room, broken by pauses when the old lady waited for Billy Stark to laugh. It all made Electra feel very much alone. Perhaps she had gone to the piano in a tacit emulation of the mastery Rose had shown, to see if, by a happy miracle, she also could bring to birth some of those magical things she never knew she felt until she heard others expressing them. But when she struck a chord, it was no richer and no more responsive than she remembered it in her old practicing days. Then she tried singing a little: —
And all the time she was recalling the liquid flow of another voice, its restrained fervor and dying falls. A thing so beautiful as this song, so simple, had its root, she began dimly to feel, not in happy love but in despair, and as it often happened with her, she seemed to be timidly reaching out chilled fingers toward emotions she feared because they were so unrestrained, and yet which had to be reckoned with because the famous people made them of such account; they were like the earth where all creative power has life.
Electra had given carefully apportioned time to music. She knew something of harmony, in a painstaking way; but at this moment she felt more than ever outside the house of song. She was always having these experiences, always finding herself face to face with artists of various sorts, men and women who, without effort, as it seemed, could coax trees out of the ground and make them blossom before your eyes. And sometimes she had this breathless feeling that the incredible might happen and she, too, might do some of these amazing things. Often, it seemed to her, she was very near it. The turning of a key in the lock, a wind driving through vapor, and she might be on the stage of the world, no longer wondering but making others wonder. These were real hungers. She wanted great acknowledged supremacies, and her own neat ways of action had to end ingloriously.
And at the moment MacLeod came up the steps, without hesitation she went to meet him. Any one that night might have been a messenger from the richer world she coveted. She saw him there smiling at her in the dim hall light, and the old feeling came back that she had known him before and waited for him a long time. They had touched hands and he had gone with her to the sitting-room before she realized that such silent meetings were not the ordinary ones.
“Did Peter come with you?” she asked unnecessarily.
“No. He wanted to.”
“I am glad to see you!”
MacLeod spared no time.
“You have been very kind,” he said, “to my little girl.”
Rose, as any sort of little girl, implied an incredible diminishing; but the phrase served in the interest of conversational ease. Electra’s eyes were on him, absorbed and earnest. There was nothing she believed in so much, at that moment, as the clarity of MacLeod’s mind and heart. It seemed belittling him even to withdraw into the coverts of ordinary talk, and, if she wanted his testimony, to surprise it out of him by stale devices. She was worshiping the truth very hard, and there was no effort in putting her question crudely: —
“Mr. MacLeod, was your daughter married to my brother?”
He met her gaze with the assurance she had expected. It seemed noble to her. At last, Electra reflected with a throb of pride, she was on the heights in worthy company.
“Yes,” he said, not hesitating, “she was his wife.”
Electra drew a long breath.
“Then,” she answered, “I shall know what to do.”
He bent toward her an embracing look. It promised her a great deal: comprehension, sympathy, almost a kind of love.
“What shall you do?” he asked.
Electra choked a little. Her throat hurt her, not at the loss of what she was going to relinquish, but at the greatness of sacrifice with somebody by to take cognizance of the act. He would not, like Madam Fulton, call her a fool. He might even see where the action placed her, on ground he also had a right to, from other deeds as noble.
“I supposed I had inherited my brother’s property,” she said, in a low and penetrating voice. “I shall make it over to her.”
MacLeod put out his hand, and she laid hers within it. When he spoke, it was with a moved restraint.
“That is a good deal to do.”
“It is incumbent on me — ethically.”
At that instant she had a throb of high triumph in remembering that he, at least, would not gird at her choice of terms.
“It is what you would do,” he said warmly. “It is exactly what you would do.”
“I cannot do otherwise.”
They seemed to be engaged in antiphonal praises of abstract right. It gave Electra a solemn satisfaction. She could hardly leave the subject. “I wish to do everything in my power,” she announced. “I cannot ask her to live here, because I may not be here long myself.”
“You will marry Peter and go away!”
Electra felt her face growing warm in the dusk, and an unreasonable vexation possessed her against any one who should have mapped out her purposes and given him the chart. He might know her. He was evidently destined to, she intemperately thought, better than any one else, but she could herself induct him into the paths of intimacy. There was no pleasure in feeling that he was bound to prejudge her through cognizance of this other tie she had for the moment forgotten.
“Did Peter tell you that?” she asked.
“I’m afraid I guessed it.”
His frankness put her back on their pleasant ground of intimacy; it even brought them nearer.
“Why did you guess it?”
Here was foolish talk, she following upon the heels of his venture, as if there were something in the very dust of his progress too precious to be lost. But MacLeod, who cared nothing about inanities once their purpose was served, whirled her away from further challenge and reply.
“You must come to Paris,” he said; “ with or without Peter, you must come.”
Her heart warmed and her voice trembled as she answered, —
“I should like it. I should like nothing better.”
“You have been in Europe?”
“Oh yes, for a year at a time. Three times in all.”
“No, the last time I was very young.”
“You will see things with different eyes.”
He seemed to be promising her something, in the fervor of his speech. Some one had said of him once that, in talking to women, he always said “you” as if it meant “you and I.” It may not have been to women alone. Young men felt that in the reconstruction of the earth it would not be merely MacLeod who led the van, but MacLeod and each one of them.
“I should like,” she dared, “to see the things you are doing. I should like to know — the Brotherhood.”
“You shall know it. There are as many women in it as men. When the starving citizens marched up to Paris to ask King Louis for bread, the women’s voices were loudest, I fancy. There is no distinction in our membership. Men and women serve alike.”
“When could I join it ?”
“Not too fast, dear lady.” He was smiling at her. That warm tone of personal consideration soothed her through the dusk. “It involves hardship, the laying down of self. Are you ready for that?”
“I am ready,” said Electra. Her heart beat high. At last life seemed large enough and rich enough to satisfy her.
“Your entire allegiance and a tenth of your income,” he went on. “Do not pledge it unless you can keep the pledge.”
“I promise. I pledge it, myself and all I have.”
In her uplifted state, it seemed as if some spell had been laid upon her, and she sought to recall her lost composure. The occasion, she knew, was a very large one, and she must not, she earnestly thought, deprive it of dignity. He rose.
“Stand up,” he said; and she also was upon her feet, with a swift compliance. “Give me your hand.” She laid her hand in his. “Do you believe in the Brotherhood of Man ? ”
To say “yes” was not enough. She repeated the words, —
“I believe in the Brotherhood of Man.”
They stood so for a moment, and then he released her hand.
“That is all,” he said.
Electra felt as if she had sworn allegiance not only to some unknown majesty, but to him, and she was ineffably exalted. They two seemed to be together in a world of wrong, pledged to right it, and taking the highest delight in their joint ministrations.
“ When do I — ” she hesitated — “ when do I pay in — money ? ”
“Twice a year,” he answered cheerfully. “Peter will tell you those things, if I am not here.”
If he were not there! Her wings of pleasure drooped. It seemed as if he were always to be there. And Peter! he looked like a small and callow personage seen through the diminishing end of a glass, compared with this great presence.
“I must go,” he said, and Electra pulled herself out of her maze. “May I tell my daughter you accept her?” He made it all very delicate and yet prosaic, as if he quite understood Rose could hardly expect to be received without difficulty, but as if Electra had made it magnificently possible. Still she felt a little recoil.
“I can’t talk about it,” she faltered, “ to her. I could to you. Let me settle all the details, and my lawyer shall submit them to you. Would that satisfy you?”
She spoke humbly, and Markham MacLeod, the chief of the Brotherhood, bent over her hand and touched it with his lips. Then he was gone, and Electra was left standing with that incredibly precious kiss upon her hand. She was poor in imagination, but at the instant it flashed into her mind that this was actually the touch of the coal red from the altar.
Markham MacLeod, walking with long strides through the summer night, drew in deep breaths, and delighted, for the moment, in the voluptuousness of his own good health and the wonder that he had been able to carry youth on into middle age. He had not been accustomed to think about the past or what might come. It was enough to recognize the harmonious interplay of his muscles and the daily stability of a body which until now, and that briefly, had shown no sign of revolt. What insurrection there was he meant to quell, and meantime to forget its possibility, as a chief may, for the time, ignore rebellion. MacLeod was plagued neither by unsatisfied desires nor by remorse. In his philosophy, to live meant to feed upon the earth as it appeared to the eye and to the other senses. He believed, without argument, that all the hungers in him were good lusty henchmen demanding food. Now, in spite of certain grim warnings he had had of late, he was filled with the old buoyant feeling that his body was a well-to-do-republic with his own impartial self at the head of it. Justice should be done to all its members that they might live in harmony. If discomforting forces assailed the republic, they must be crushed. Some of these he might have recognized as regrets, the sort of spectre that was ready to visit Napoleon on a night after the campaign in Egypt. They were, he thought, inseparable from great power and the necessities attending its administration. But they were enemies of the republic, and he killed them. So his voice was always hearty, his eye clear, and his cheek that healthy red.
Peter he found in fits of laughter, and Rose mimicking certain characters known to them in Paris. It was encouraging, he judged, to find Rose out of her dumps. But she was only keeping Peter by her until MacLeod should come and help detain him. Peter had said something in the early evening about going down to find Osmond, who had of late, he averred, been off at night on his deep wood prowls. “No,” Rose wanted to say, — and there would have been a choking triumph in her throat, — “ he has been in the playhouse waiting for me.” And because she could not go that night to the wide liberty of the fields, she would not have Peter wandering off that way and hunting up her playmate, breaking spells and spoiling wordless messages. MacLeod had not seen her so gay, not since the days in Paris before she met Tom Fulton, when she had been one of a changing wave of artist life, made up of students delirious with possibilities and all bent toward the top notch of reputation. He joined her and Peter now in precisely their own mood, his laugh and voice reinforcing theirs. Rose warmed more and more. Not all her dreary memories could keep her from delighting in him. He carried her along on that high wave of splendid spirits, oblivious for the moment to all his faults. Thus, she paused to remember again, it had been in her too-wise childhood when, seeing her mother wan with tears, she had yet put her little hand in his and gone off with him for an hour’s pleasuring, though he was the fount of grief as well as gayety. He compelled her, the sheer physical health of him.
Peter rose finally, to give them a moment alone, and wandered off down the garden, singing a light song and then whistling it farther and farther into the dark. Something constricted the girl’s throat. She remembered, in the silence fallen between them, that she was alone with the enemy of her peace, and felt again that old passionate regret that he had not allowed her to keep the beauty of her belief in him. He had swept away something she had thought to be indestructible. That, more than any deed, was the wrong he had done — he had set his foot upon the flower of hope. But MacLeod, his forehead bared to the night air, hummed to himself the song Peter was singing and then spoke with a commonplace assurance:—
“She asked me the question.”
“Electra ? ”
“Yes. She asked me plainly whether he married you.”
“She asked you! How could she? ”
“She did it without preamble. It was really rather magnificent.”
“Did you answer without preamble? ”
“ I think so. At all events, it contented her. I said, ‘yes,’ — not much more, if anything.”
There was a long silence, and he felt her determination to remain outside the issue, even to the extent of denying herself the further news he brought. When that became apparent, he spoke again, rather lightly: —
“She took my assurance without question. She said she should know what to do.”
“What will she do ? ”
“The simplest thing possible—make over Tom’s money to you. She does n’t consider, apparently, whether you are entitled to the whole of it, any more than she had previously guessed that, if your claim were just, you could have pushed it without her concurrence. She is a very intemperate person.”
Rose did not intend to comment on the situation, however warmly she might express herself over Electra’s personal standpoint.
“Electra did not strike me as intemperate,” she said. “She seemed to me very collected, very cold and resolute.”
“Yes, but her reactions! they’d be something frightful. I can fancy that pendulum swinging just as far the other way. They are terrifying, those women.”
“How are they terrifying? ”
Governing the wild forces in herself at that minute, she felt as if all women were terrifying when they are driven too far, and that all men might well beware of them. MacLeod rose, and stretched himself upward in a muscular abandon.
“Good-night, my dear,” he said. “ I ’m going upstairs. I will see her again to-morrow. You need give yourself no uneasiness about the outcome. You need n’t even concern yourself with the details. I shall arrange them with her.”
Rose was quickly upon her feet. She felt more his equal so than when he towered above her at that height.
“If you see her,” she threatened,”I will overturn everything.”
“No, no, you would n’t. Run upstairs now and go to bed. You are overwrought. This whole thing has been a strain on you.”
“ Yes.” She spoke rapidly and in a low tone, fearing grannie’s window above. “It has been a strain on me. But who brought it on ? I did it myself. I must meet it. But I will not have you meddling with it. I will not.”
“Not to-night, at least,” said MacLeod, with unblemished kindliness. “Don’t do anything intemperate. But you won’t. I know you too well.”
After a good-night she could not answer he went in and up the stairs. She could hear him humming to himself that gay little song. She stood there quite still, as if she were in hiding from him and he might return to find her. When the door closed above, she still stood there, her nails clasped into her palms. And for the instant she was not thinking of herself, but of Electra. It seemed to her that it would be necessary to protect Electra from his charm. Then she heard Peter whistling back again. She stepped down to the end of the veranda and stole across the orchard into the field. The night was still, yet invisible forces seemed to be whispering to one another. In the middle of the field she stopped, tempted to call to Osmond, knowing he was there. But because it was late, and because her thoughts were all a disordered and protesting turmoil, she turned about and fled home.
The next night Rose went early to her own room, and when she heard Peter and MacLeod on the veranda, their voices continuing in a steady interchange, she took her cloak, locked the chamber door behind her, and ran downstairs and out by the long window to the garden, the orchard, and the field. The night was dark and hot, and over in the south played fitful lightnings. In spite of the heat, she wrapped her cloak about her for an invisible shield: for now that MacLeod had come, she felt strangely insecure, as if eyes were everywhere. It was apparent to her that these meetings might be few, and as if this even might be the last; so it must not be interrupted. When she was once in the field, the hush of the night, the heat, and her own uneasy thoughts bewildered her. She stopped in doubt. His voice assured her.
“This way, playmate.”
“I am coming,” she found herself answering, not once but twice, and then, as she reached the seat he had ready for her, it came upon her overwhelmingly that such gladness was of the scope and tumult to bear two creatures to each other’s arms, to mingle there, face to face and breast to breast.
But the quick thought neither threw her back in shame upon herself nor forward to his side. The night and the things of life together were too great to admit of fine timidities or crude betrayals. It was not of so much avail to consider what was done as whether the deed was true. She sat down, in deep relief at finding herself near him.
“Playmate,” she said, “things are very bad indeed.”
“Are they, my dear playmate?”
Her breath came in a sob, his voice sounded so kind, so altogether merciful of her, whatever she might do.
“Dreadful things are happening,” she said.
“The prince? ”
“Not the prince, this time. Worse things.”
“Tell me, child.”
She had ceased to be altogether his playmate. Deeper needs had called out keener sympathies, and she found some comfort even in his altered tone. She waited for a time, listening to the summer sounds, and vainly wishing she had been a more fortunate woman and that these sad steps need not be retraced in retrospect, before life could go on again.
“You will have to listen to a long story,” she said, at last. “And how am I to tell you! Ask me questions.”
“How far shall I go back?”
“To the beginning — to the beginning of my growing up. Before I met Tom Fulton.”
“When you meant to sing? ”
“I did sing. But you must n’t think that was what I wanted. I never wanted anything but love.”
“Go on.” To him, who, in his solitude, had never expected to find close companionship, it was inconceivable that they should be there speaking the unconsidered truth. She, too, who, in the world, had tasted the likeness of happy intercourse, only to despair of it, had found a goal. Here now was the real to which all the old promises had been leading.
“You must understand me,” she said, in a low voice. “I’m going to tell you the plain truth. How awful if you did n’t understand! ”
“I shall understand. Go on.”
“I don’t know how it is with other girls, but always I dreamed of love, always after my first childhood. I thought of kings and queens, knights and ladies. They walked in pairs and loved each other.”
“What did you mean by love ? ”
“Each would die for the other. That was my understanding of it. I knew the time would come some day when a beautiful young man would say to me, ‘I would die for you,’ and I should say to him, ' And I would die for you.’ It was a kind of dream. Maybe it would not have been, except that I was never much of a child when I was a child. I had ecstatic times with my father, but I was lonesome. The lover was to change that, when he came.”
“When did he come? ”
“He came several times, but either he was too rough and he frightened me, or too common and he repelled me, or — ”
“And Tom Fulton came! ”
“Yes, walking just the right way, neither too fast nor too slow, and all chivalry and honor. Oh, my heart ! my heart! ” She was sobbing to herself.
There was a long pause.
“So you married him,” Osmond reminded her.
“Osmond! ” At last she had said his name. She knew it with her mind, but how did her heart have it so ready ? To him it seemed natural that she should use it, until he thought of it next day. She continued in that hurried voice that pleaded so, “I must make you see how I had thought of those things always.”
“What things, dear child?”
“Loving and being loved. It was like your plants, coming to flower. There was to be one person who would give me a perfect devotion. There would be music and dancing and bright weather, day after day, year after year. That was coming to flower, like your plants.”
“A rose in bloom! ” he murmured.
“It was a kind of possession with me. I can’t tell you what hold it took on me. There were years when I tried not to have a wrong thought or do an ugly act, so that I could be beautiful to him when he came.”
“Behold, the bridegroom cometh!”
mused the voice, in involuntary comment, as if it responded to the man’s own. wondering mood.
“He came. He made himself irresistible to me. He knew my father first.”
“Were they friends ? ”
“My father has no friends — not as you would understand it. He touches people at one little point. They think they have everything; but it is nothing. Still, they understood each other. My father sold me to him.”
There was silence from the darkness under the tree; only she heard him breathe.
“I was to blame, too,” she cried. “But I did not see it then. I truly did not see it. My father told me it was nobler and purer to go with my lover so. Marriage, he said, had been profaned a million, million times. Where was the sacrament, he asked, in a church that was all rotten ? He told me so, too — Tom Fulton I went with him. I never married him.” She paused for the answering voice, but it delayed. The silence itself constrained her to go on. “Do you know what Tom Fulton was ? ”
“He was a handsome beast.”
“You never knew the half. But my father knew. He knew men. He knew Tom Fulton. And he delivered me over to the snare of the fowler. I lived a year with him. I left him. He had the accident, and I went back. He died. I thanked God.”
Osmond had not often, to his remembrance, formulated gratitude to any great power, but he also said, —
“Thank God! ” In a way he did not understand, she seemed to him austere in her purity and her rebellion against these bitter facts. There was no hesitation and no shame. She had only wrong to remember, not willful sin. One thing he had to know. He asked his question.
“Was Fulton — kind to you?”
“At first. Not at the last.”
“How was he — not kind?”
That, too, she was apparently thinking out.
“I can hardly tell you,” she said, at length. “He seemed to hate me.”
“I have seen the same thing twice, with other men and other women. You see, it was a terrible blow to him — his vanity, his pride — to stop loving me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You may not, ever. But he had had unworthy things in his life, attachments, those that last a short time. When he cared for me, he thought he cared tremendously. He believed it would last. But it did n’t. He had nothing left to give me.”
“He had gambled it away!”
“I think it hurt his pride. He could only justify himself unconsciously — it was all unconscious — by finding fault with me. By proving I was not worthy to be loved. Do you see ? ”
“You are a strange woman to have guessed that. You must be very clever.”
“No, oh, no! It was because I thought so hard about it. For a long time, night after night, I thought of nothing else. When it died — what he called love — I thought the world died, too.”
“My dear good child!”
“When he was dead, what was I to do ? I thought I should sing. But my father was coming from the East with another suitor, the prince. The prince had seen me here and there for a couple of years. I had always been known as Madame Fulton. I called myself so at first, proudly, honestly. Then other people called me so, and even when I had left him, I let them do it. Peter stepped in then, honest Peter in his ignorance. He wondered why I did n’t come here to Tom’s people. Electra was a kind of goddess. I came. That is all.” She paused.
Osmond spoke musingly.
“So you were not his wife! And Electra knew it. ”
“She did not know it.”
“But she suspected it. She refused to own you.”
“She suspected me because she knew Tom too well. I believe he had shocked her and frightened her until his world was all evil to her. There was another reason.” This was a woman’s reason, and she was ashamed to have put her finger on it. Electra’s proud possession of her lover and her instant revolt at his new partisanship, what was it but crude jealousy ? Yet there were many things she could not even dimly understand in Electra’s striving and abortive life — the emulation that reached so far and met the mists and vapors at the end. “But there was one thing I did not want,” Rose cried, “their money. I never thought of it. I only thought how I might come here for a little and be at peace, away from my father. Then when Electra hated me, I had to stay, I had to fight it out. Why ? I don’t know. I had to. But now it’s all different.”
“How is it different?”
“ Because she has accepted me.”
“But you wanted her to accept you.”
“Ah, yes, on my own word! I believe I had it in my mind to tell her the next minute, — to throw myself on her mercy, the mercy of the goddess, and beg her to see me as I was, all wrong, but innocent. It is innocent to have meant no wrong. But when she met me like an enemy, I had to fight.”
“And now she has accepted you.”
“Yes.” The assent was bitter. “On my father’s word.”
“His word ?”
“Yes. He stands by me. He confirms me. She asked him if I had been married to her brother. ‘Yes,’ said my father.” “Why?”
“The money. Always that — money, position, a pressure here, a pull there.”
“Then ” — his tone seemed to demand her actual meaning, “your case is won. Electra owns you.”
She was on her feet gripping the back of her chair with both hands. The rough wood hurt her and she held it tighter.
“Range myself with him — my father ? Sell myself in his company ? No! When I was fighting before it was from bravado, pride, mean pride, the necessity of the fight. But now when he confirms me — no, no, no.”
“We must tell the truth,” she heard Osmond murmuring to himself.
To her also it looked not only necessary but beautiful. There were many things she wanted to say to him, at that moment, and, as she suddenly saw, they were all in condonation of herself. Yet the passionate justice in her flamed higher as she remembered again that it was true that others had marked out her way for her. When she walked in it, it had been with an exalted sense that it was the one way to go.
“I cannot understand about the truth,” she said. “I can’t, even now.”
“What about it ?”
“Once it seemed as if there were different kinds. He told me so — my father. He always said there was the higher truth, and that almost nobody could understand. Then there were facts. What were facts ? he asked. Often worse than lies.”
“I don’t know,” said Osmond. Whatever he might say, he was afraid of hurting her. It seemed impossible to express himself without it. “Facts are all I have had to do with.”
She seemed like a bewildered creature flying about in a confined space.
“You would n’t say what my father does,” she concluded miserably. “You would n’t feel we have a right to the higher truth, if we feel great desires, great hungers the world would n’t understand ? ”
“I only know about facts,” said Osmond again, “You see, I work in my garden, all day, nearly every day in the year. I know I must sow good seed. I must nourish it. I know nature can’t lie. I did n’t suppose things were so incomprehensible out in the world — or so hard.”
“Have n’t they been hard for you ?”
“For me! ” He caught his breath, and immediately she knew how the question touched him. It was as monstrous as his fate. But he answered immediately and with a gentleness without reproach, —
“Things are different for me in every way. But I should have thought you would reign over them like a queen.”
“A queen! I have been a slave all my life. I see it now. A slave to other people’s passions—Tom Fulton’s cruelty, my father’s greed.”
“His greed for money ? I don’t always understand you when you speak of him.”
“For money, power, everything that makes up life. My father is one great hunger. Give him the world and he would eat it up.”
Images crowded upon her. It seemed to her that here in the silence, with the spaces of the dark about her and that voice answering, her thought was generated like the lightning.
“Do you see,” she asked suddenly, “how I blame those two men, and not myself ? I am the sinner. The sinner ought to own his sin. I don’t know whether I have sinned or not. I believed in love, and because I believed in it, those two men betrayed me. That was how I was taught not to believe in anything.”
“Don’t you believe any more?”
“Oh, I don’t know! I don’t know!” It was a despairing cry. “There is kindness, I know that. Peter is kind. Your grandmother is the kindest person in the world. But that one thing I dreamed about — why, Osmond, that one thing was the most beautiful thing God ever made.”
“Tell me more about it.”
“You have thought about it, too. We can’t be so much alike, you and I, and not have thought the same things.”
“Are we alike?”
It was a wistful voice. She laughed, a little sorry laugh.
“Well,” she said, “at least we are in our playhouse together.”
“All!” He seemed to speak in spite of prudence. “That’s not because we are alike. It is because we are different.” But he went on at once, as if to keep her from interrogating that, or even perhaps remembering it. “I have forbidden myself to think of some things. When they came upon me, I went out and dug them into the ground.”
She was filled that night with an imperative sense of life. It made her forget even him and his claim to be heard. The great resolve in her to be for once understood was like a crowning wave drenching the farthest shore.
“I have never had enough of life, life,” she avowed passionately. “I have always had the appearance of it, the promise that the next minute the cup would be given me. But the cup was never there. Or if it was, there was muddy water in it. The lights have never been bright enough, the music has never gone on long enough. Why ? ” She seemed frightened. “Is that like my father? Do I get that from him ? ”
“It is because you are young,” said Osmond. “And because you are beautiful and the world ought to be yours — to put your foot on it.”
The passion of his voice recalled her.
“No,” she answered humbly. “Not to put my foot on anything. No! no! no! Playmate,” she added, “you are the dearest thing in all the world.”
The voice laughed out harshly. The man was lying prone at full length where she could not see him, his hands upon the earth he loved, his fostering, yet unheeding mother that had saved his life for her own service. At that moment, it seemed to him, his eye turned inward upon himself, as if there were foolish irony in that friendly comment. He looked to himself rather one of the earth forces, supremely strong, waiting for some power to guide it.
“Elemental things are no good until they are harnessed and made to work,” he heard himself saying, as in a trance; and then it was apparent she had not noticed, for she went on, —
“To be able to speak to any one as I speak to you! Playmate, it seems to me men might as well kill a child as kill women’s innocent faith in love.”
“But men love, too,” he heard himself answering her.
“If I thought that! But when anything so beautiful turns into something base, and the creature we worshiped laughs and says it is always so, he kills something in us. And he can’t bring it to life again. Neither he nor any other man can make it live. It is a dream, and the thought of it hurts us too much for us even to dream it over again. — What is that? ”
Out of his web of pain he could only answer, —
“What, playmate? ”
“Something sweet in the air.”
That recalled him to his dear garden and the homely sanities that awaited him. He sat up and brushed the wet hair from his forehead.
“It is the lily field,” he said. “ A wind has risen. The flowers have been coming out to-day, and you get their scent.” He laughed a little, tenderly, as at a child. “You said you never had enough of anything. You would have enough of them if you were there.”
“Why should I? ”
“The fragrance is so strong. You can make yourself drunk with it.”
“Come, playmate! Take me there. Let us walk through them in the dark and smell them.”
“It is n’t good for you.” He spoke seriously. “I know all about the preservatives of life, the medicines that keep us sane. I know we must n’t go and smell strong lilies at ten o’clock at night. We must go home and say our prayers and brush our hair and go to bed.”
“Do you say your prayers ? ”
“ But almost ? ”
“Well, since I have known you, I say something or other to the heathen gods at night about making you safe and sleepy.”
“The heathen gods ? ”
“Well, not precisely. Grannie’s unknown God, I guess it is. Unknown to me! ”
“Why do you say we must brush our hair ? ”
He laughed a little, yet soberly.
“I read it in a novel, the other day. There were two young women talking together while they brushed their hair. Then I thought of yours and how it must hang down your back like a golden fleece.”
“That’s in Shakespeare.”
“It’s in me, too. A golden mane, then.”
“Do you like novels ? ” Suddenly she had back her absorbing curiosity over him.
“Not much. I have n’t read many.”
“It’s best not. They make me discontented. Seed catalogues are better.”
“But you are reading them now! ”
“That’s because you have come.”
“What’s that to do with it? ”
“For the manners and customs. I want to know how young women behave.”
“You know how Electra behaves.”
“Electra behaves like a Puritan’s god. If an early colonist had hewn him a deity out of stone, it would be like Electra.”
“Poor Electra! ”
“Yes. You’re far happier, all fire and frost.”
“But why do you read novels to find out about me ? Why don’t you observe me ? ”
“Because I don’t see you in the light.”
“But you will.”
“Never, playmate? You hurt my feelings. What if we should meet face to face in the lily field at twelve o’clock to-morrow ? ”
He answered sternly, and she believed him.
“I should never speak to you again. You must keep faith with me, or we shall both be sorry.”
“Why, of course! ” Rose said it gently, as if she wondered at him. “Of course I shall keep faith with you.”
She heard him rising from his place.
“Now,” he said, “you must go home.”
“Why must I ? The little side door is never locked.”
“No, but you have been through a good deal. We must take care of you.”
“I feel as if I had all the strength in the world. I could waste it and waste it and then have enough to waste again.”
“It is n’t altogether strength. It’s fire — the fire of youth. Bank it up and let it smoulder, or it will burn you up.”
“How are you so wise, playmate ? You are as wise as dear grannie.”
He stretched up his hands in the darkness, The face he lifted to the shrouded heavens only the unseen citizens of the night could see, the beneficent powers that nurse and foster.
“It has been my study,” he said, in a tone of awe, as if he had not before thought how strange it is never to squander. “All these years I have done nothing but think of my body, how to build up here, how to husband there. So much exercise, so much sleep, so much turning away from what burns up and tears. Well, I have done it. I have made myself into something as solid as the ground, as enduring as the rocks.”
“Has it been — easy ? ” she ventured. “Have you liked to do it? ”
“No, I have not liked to do it.” Afterwards, in her own room, she thought of that question and understood the answer better. “I have never lavished anything,” he said. “As soon as I saw what grannie was about, trying to give me a body to live in, I began to help her. We have done it. Sometimes I think she did it sitting there in her chair and praying to her God. I have n’t done any spending. It has been all saving. But when the time comes, I shall spend it all at once.”
She felt very far away from him.
“How, playmate ? ” she asked timidly.
He roused himself. “Never mind,” he said. “That’s not for us to think about to-night. Now run home, child, and go to bed.”
“But we have n’t decided about me. What must I do ? ”
He was silent for a moment and then he said, —
“A long time ago, grannie told me what to do. She said, ‘Do the thing you think God wishes you to do.’”
“But I don’t know anything about God.”
“Nor I, playmate. But I think very often about what grannie said.”
“Have you tried to do it? ”
“I have kept it in my mind.”
It was her turn to brood in silence. Then she said to him, —
“It does n’t seem to mean anything to you, — that thing — I told you.”
“Everything you tell me means more than anything else in the world.”
“But about Tom Fulton. I was not married to him. I lied about it. It is n’t possible that I seem — the same — to you.”
“You would always seem the same to me,” he answered, — and she found herself smiling at the beauty of his voice. “How could you be different? These things are just things that happen to you. Should I like you less if you were caught in the rain, or got your pretty dress muddy ? ”
“How do you know it is a pretty dress ? ” she asked irrepressibly.
“Because it’s your dress. Run home, now, and brush your hair.”
She went at once, and, in spite of her doubts, lightheartedly. He made her feel, as the night did, that here in this present life, as in the outer universe, are great spaces still unexplored. Everything had possibilities. Sprinkle new pollen on a flower, and its fruit would take on other forms. Stretch out a hand and you might be led into unguessed delights, even after you were dulled with pain. Sleeping in the air even were forces to nourish and revive, dormant only because we do not call upon them. She smiled into the night, and her heart called believingly.
Madam Fulton sat on the veranda, in the shade of the vines. It was rather early in the morning, and Electra was about her methodical tasks. Billy Stark sat reading the paper, but nevertheless not failing, from time to time, to look up and give his old friend a smile. Madam Fulton could not answer it. She felt estranged in a world where she had failed to learn the values.
“Billy,” she said, at length, “do you think she is right ? ”
“Who ? ”
“Electra. She says the money I got out of that pesky book is tainted money. Is it ? ”
Billy folded his paper and hung it over the veranda rail. His face began to pucker into a smile, but, gazing at Madam Fulton, it became apparent to him that she was really troubled. She even looked as if she had not slept. Her faint pinkness was overlaid by a jaded ivory. Her eyes interrogated him with a forlorn pleading. All his chivalry rose in arms.
“Hang the book, Florrie! ” he said. “Forget it. You’ve had your fling with it. You wanted fun and you got it. Stop thinking about it.”
“But,” she persisted, “is it really true ? Have I done a shocking thing, and is it monstrous to use the money ? ”
“You’ve been exceedingly naughty,” said Billy. He eyed her with anxiety. “You ought to have your hands slapped, of course. Electra’s done it, so far as I can see. So now let’s get over crying and go out and jump rope.”
“It is n’t so much the book nor the money nor Electra. It’s because I can’t help wondering whether I’m a moral idiot. Do you think I am, Billy ? ”
“I think you’re the gamest old girl that ever was, if you want to know. Let me have the horse put into the phaeton, Florrie, and we ’ll go out and jog awhile.”
But she was musing. Suddenly he saw how old she looked.
“It’s always been so, Billy. I never was able to see things as other people saw them. These rules they make such a pother about never seemed so vital to me. It’s all a part of life, seems to me. Go ahead and live, that’s what we’re in for. Growing things just grow, don’t they ? They don’t stop and take photographs of themselves on the twenty-third day of every month. Now, do they ? ”
“Florrie,” said her old friend, still watching her, “I’ll tell you what you do. You just run away with me and come to London. We’ve got fifteen good years before us yet, if we take ’em soberly.”
She seemed to be considering. Her face lighted.
“I could almost do it,” she owned. “Electra’s having me here helps out a lot, but I could almost do it — on my polluted gains.”
Billy Stark looked into the distance. In his earlier years he had loved to ride and take his fences well, even when they loomed too high. He could not remember many great challenges in life ; but what he had recognized, he had not refused. Everything he had met like an honest gentleman.
“Florrie,” he said, “I shan’t want to leave you here in Electra’s clutches. You come — and marry me.”
She laughed a little. It was sadly done, but the pink came back into her cheeks.
“As true as I am a living sinner, Billy,” she said, “I’d do it, if I were half sure how we were coming out.”
“Coming out ?”
“Yes. If I thought I should be pretty vigorous up to the end, and then die in my chair, like a lady. Yes, I’d do it, and thank ye, too. But a million things might happen to me. I might be palsied and helpless on your hands, head nodding, deaf as a post —damn, Billy! I could swear.”
“I might give out myself,” he said generously. “You might be the one to tote the burden.”
The old lady laughed again.
“The amount of it is, Billy, we’re afraid. Own up. Now are n’t we?”
Billy thought it over.
“I’m not so sure of that,” he said contentiously. “I’m not prepared to say I’m afraid. Nor you either, Florrie. Come on, old girl. Chance it.”
“I’ll think it over,” said Madam Fulton. The brightness had come back to her eye. So much was gained, at any rate, Billy told himself. “There’s that handsome girl coming, Tom’s widow. — Electra! ”
Electra’s scales were beginning, with a serious emphasis.
“I love to see them together,” Madam Fulton said, “She makes Electra mad as hops.”
Rose was coming very fast. She had the walk of women well trained, for the stage perhaps, the spring and rhythm of art superadded to nature’s willingness. She wore no hat, and the sun made her bright hair brighter and brought out the tragic meaning in her face. She had been thinking in the night, and this morning forbade herself to falter. All through her fluctuating moods there had been a division of joy and dread. The perplexing questions of her past lay heavily upon her, but when she thought of Osmond, she was light as air. He made everything easy, his simplicity, his implied truth. She felt a great loyalty to what seemed good to him. Her conscious life throughout the night and morning became a reaching out of hands to him in the passionate asseveration that she would be true.
Electra came, in answer to Madam Fulton’s call. She, too, was grave, but with a hint of expectation on her face. She had been looking for MacLeod. Since their meeting, she had done nothing but wait for him again. Rose was running up the steps. She glanced from one to another of them with a recognizing swiftness, and when Billy Stark rose and placed a chair for her, she thanked him with a word, and took her place behind it, her hands upon it, so that she faced them all. There was a momentary hush. Madam Fulton put up her eyeglasses and gazed at her curiously, as if she were a species of tableau arranged for notice. Billy Stark felt uneasily as if this were one of the occasions for him to take himself away. Rose spoke rapidly, in her beautifully modulated voice, but without emotion.
“I want to tell you something. I was not his wife.”
Electra was the one to show dramatic feeling. She threw her hands up slightly.
“I knew it.” Her lips formed the words. Her triumphant glance went from one to another saying, “I told you so.”
Rose stood there with perfect selfpossession, very white now and with the chilled look that accompanies difficult resolution. She glanced at Madam Fulton, and the old lady met her gaze eagerly with an unbelieving query.
“For heaven’s sake!” she ejaculated, “Electra, why don’t you speak?”
“I lived with Tom Fulton as his wife,” said Rose, in the same moving voice. She might have been engaged in the rehearsal of a difficult part. No one looking at her could have said whether she duly weighed what she was announcing. “I called myself his wife because I thought I had a right to. Other people would have called me a disgraced woman.”
Billy Stark now, without waiting to find the step, walked off the edge of the veranda and was presently to be seen, if any one had had eyes for him, lighting a cigar in the peaceful garden. Madam Fulton had spoken on the heels of these last words. She brightened into the most cordial animation.
“This is the most extraordinary story I ever heard in my life,” she commented, with relish. “Sit down, my dear, and tell us all about it.”
“There is nothing more to tell,” said Rose. Her eyes traveled to Electra’s face, and stayed there, though the unfriendly triumph of it shook her resolution. “I had to say this because I must say, too, that I do not want money and I will not take it. I do not want to be known as Tom Fulton’s wife. I was not his wife.”
“You wanted it a week ago,” said Electra involuntarily. She had made up her mind not to speak, not to be severe, not to be anything that would destroy the picture Markham MacLeod must have of her in his own mind; but the words escaped her.
“That was before—” Rose stopped. She had almost said it was before her father came, but it was borne floodingly in upon her that this was not alone the reason. It was before she had felt this great allegiance to Osmond Grant.
“Your father confirms you,” said Electra, yielding to her overpowering curiosity. “He says you were my brother’s wife.”
“My father—” Rose held her head higher — “I have nothing to do with that,” she concluded. “It is the truth that I was never married.”
Electra turned away and went into the house. They heard her step in the neighboring room. She had paused there by the piano, considering, in her desire to be mistress of herself, whether she should not go on with her music as if nothing had happened. But the thought of Rose and her mastery of the keys forbade that, as display, and she turned away and went upstairs, with great dignity, though there was no one by to consider the fashion of it. There she sat down by the window, to watch for Markham MacLeod. Madam Fulton had been regarding Rose with an exceedingly friendly smile. The girl looked tired, though her muscles had relaxed with Electra’s going.
“Come here, my dear, and sit down,” said the old lady, indicating a chair. Rose shook her head. Then, as she found herself trembling, she did sit down, and Madam Fulton laid a hand upon her knee. “You are a very interesting child,” she said, with an approving emphasis. “Now what in the world made you fall in love with Tom Fulton ? Did he seem very nice to you ? ”
“I can’t talk about him,” said Rose. It seemed to her as if now his shadow might be lifted from her. “ It is over. He is dead.”
“Of course he’s dead. It was the best thing he could do. Well, well, my dear! What made you come over here and play this little comedy for us ?”
The girl’s eyes had filled with tears.
“I can’t tell you,” she answered. It was easy to defend her cause to Osmond; not to this eager creature who wanted to read her like a curious book. But Madam Fulton was almost whispering. She looked as if she had something of the utmost importance to communicate.
“I ask you, my dear, because I am thoroughly bad myself, and it’s beyond me to understand why it’s so important whether we are bad or good. And I thought maybe if you could tell me — did you know you were bad before you came and Electra found you out?”
Rose was looking kindly into the vivid face.
“No,” she said, “I did n’t think I was bad.”
“That’s it! ” cried the old lady, in high triumph. “We don’t any of us know it till they find us out. My dear, it’s the most awful system — now, is n’t it ? You go on as innocent as you please, and suddenly they tell you you’re a criminal. It’s as if you made up your mouth to whistle, walking along the road, and somebody pounces on you and tells you whistling’s against the law and claps you into jail.”
Rose was smiling at her now, forgetful, for the moment, of her own coil, Madam Fulton seemed to her so pathetically young and innocent of everything save untamed desires.
“What under heavens does it mean ?” Madam Fulton was insisting, with the greatest irritation.
“I must go now,” said Rose. “I had to tell you.”
Madam Fulton kept the detaining hand upon her knee.
“But where are you going?” she insisted. “Back to France?”
“No, I shall stay in America. I shall sing.”
“Do you think anybody’ll want to hear you ? ”
“They’ll love to hear me!”
Madam Fulton eyed her smilingly.
“You’re a brazen hussy,” she said. “But of all things, why did you come here with your little comedy in your hand, if you did n’t mean to play it out ? ”
“I did mean to play it,” said Rose, laying her head back against the high rail of the chair. She closed her eyes, for again she felt the tears coming. “But I — got sick of it.”
Madam Fulton nodded confirmingly.
“That’s precisely it,” she agreed. “We do get sick of it. We get sick of conduct, good or bad. They don’t, the good ones. They go on clambering, one step after another, up that pyramid, and peering over the edge to see us playing in the sand, and occasionally, if they can get a brick, they heave it at us.”
“Who are the good ones?” Rose asked languidly. “Electra?”
“Electra? She’s neither hot nor cold. But she’s of the kind that made the system in the first place.”
“Grannie is good,” said Rose absently.
“Bessie Grant? Yes, she’s God’s anointed, if there is a God. My dear, I love to talk with you, almost as much as with Billy Stark. You come and stay with me next winter.”
“There’s Electra,” she reminded her.
“Bless you, Electra and I don’t live together! I only visit her here half the year, to save my pocket-book. That’s another proof of my general unworthiness. I flout her and mad her all the time. She would n’t do that to me, but she’d drive me to drink trying not to. No, I’ve got a little apartment in town, like a hollow tree, and I crawl into it in the winter. You come, too, and I’ll introduce you to all the people I know, and you can make ’em listen while you sing.”
Rose was looking at her in a moved warmth and wonder.
“How kind you are!” she breathed.
“No! no! Only when you said you were a liar, and worse, I suddenly felt the most extraordinary interest in you. I feel as if you might speak my language. I don’t know that I want to do anything bad, but I don’t want to be kept so nervous trying to decide whether things are bad or not. You come, my dear — unless I marry Billy Stark. I may do that. I must, if it will plague Electra.”
Rose gave her a quick glance, at once withdrawn, and while she allowed the last possibility to sink into the depths of her mind, Madam Fulton was interrogating her again.
“You don’t think it is possible,” she was urging, with the insistence of one who sees incredible good fortune, “you don’t suppose you have n’t any moral sense ? ”
She seemed to hang upon the answer. Rose, in spite of herself and the unhappy moment, laughed.
“I hoped I had,” she rejoined, “but I don’t believe I ever thought much about it.”
Madam Fulton nodded quite gayly.
“That’s it!” she cried. “Don’t you see you have n’t ? When they have it, they’re always thinking about it. It’s like a cinder in the eye. My dear, you ’re just as bad as I am, and I thank my stars I’ve met you.”
But all this touch and go was a strange, poor sequel to the task of that confession. It had all turned out very small beer indeed, except so far as Electra was concerned. Electra, Rose was convinced, in a moment of sadly mirthful fancy, was upstairs setting her judgments in order and decorously glad to have been proved right.
“ I ’ll go now,” she said, rising. She felt very tired with it all. “I’ve told you.”
“But come again, my dear,” the old lady insisted. “Be sure you come again. You are so understanding, I shall miss you sadly. Come every day.”
Rose went down the garden path and noted, with some irony, that Billy Stark, still smoking, turned away into the grape arbor. It looked like the shyness of decorum. She could hardly know that Billy felt unable to bear any more revelations from womenfolk. And now she said to herself, “I shall have to tell grannie and I shall have to tell Peter.”
Opportunity was easy, for Peter was at that moment coming whistling along the road on the way to Electra’s. When she saw him, her purpose failed. He looked so boyish, so free and happy-hearted. How could she give him a sordid secret to keep, in place of their admiring comradeship ?
“Where is my father ? ” she asked him, when they met and Peter had pulled off his hat and salaamed before her.
“Gone down to the plantation to see Osmond.”
She took fright.
“To see Osmond! How does my father know anything about him ? How does he dare — ”
“Osmond sent for him,” said Peter, turning to walk with her. He was tossing up his stick and catching it, in love of the day. “It’s the first human being Osmond has expressed an interest in. But I don’t wonder. Everybody wants to see the chief.”
“Why should he have sent? ” she repeated to herself.
“I’ll tell you something,” continued Peter. “The chief will tell you when you see him. He has been summoned.”
“My father ? ”
“Yes. He is needed.”
“Where ? ”
“He won’t tell me. But it’s urgent. It means canceling his engagements here. Of course there’s but one supposition.”
“Russia ? ”
“I wish I could go with him,” he said impetuously.
She looked at him, and his face was glowing. She had seen that look so many times on other faces, that wistful longing for the unnamed beautiful. It was what Markham MacLeod was always calling out in faces. They might be young, they might be the faces of those who had suffered long experience, but always it was those who were hungry, either with the hunger of youth or the delay of hope, the cruelty of time. He seemed to be the great necromancer, the great promiser. Could such promises come to naught ?
“To leave here? ” she suggested. “To leave — ” she hesitated.
“ I should n’t leave Electra,” said Peter simply. “When I met you I was going to ask her to go with me.”
She stopped and held out her hand to him.
“Go,” she said. “Go to her and ask her. I wish you luck, Peter — dear Peter! ”
He did not look altogether a happy lover, as he stood holding her hand. He gazed at her, she thought, sadly, as if he dreamed of things that could not be. What was it in youth that made everything into twilight, even with the drum and fife calling to wars and victories ? She was impatient with it, with deceiving life itself that promised and then lied. She took her hand away.
“Good-by, Peter,” she said again, sadly now in her turn, because it occurred to her that after Peter should have seen Electra he would never again be her own good comrade. He would know. She left him standing there looking after her, and then, when he found she would not turn again, he went on his way. But Peter did not toss his stick up now. He walked slowly, and thought of what he meant to do.
They seemed to be walking with him, one on each side, Rose and Electra. It was chiefly the thought of Electra, as it had moulded him from year to year while he had been absent from her; but it was the delicate presence of the other woman, so wonderful by nature and so equipped with all the arts of life that the pleasure of her was almost pain. They seemed to keep a hand upon him, one through his fealty to her and the other by compelling and many-sided beauty.
(To be continued.)
- Copyright, 1907, by ALICE BROWN.↩