THE storm that had threatened all the day now beat against the dirty window panes of the forlorn little inn. Through the driving rain-sheets Marshall could barely make out the black smoke-plumes, far below on the rough sea, of the small coast steamer on its way back to the Calabrian port. His spirits sank as he watched the steamer and realized that for at least twenty-four hours he was committed to this dot of an island, to this storm, and above all to this cheerless country inn. He doubted if that temple of Juno, so bepraised by all the belletristic guidebooks, could be worth the effort. The inn-keeper’s wife was preparing places for two at the dirty table.
“Un’ altra forestiere!” the woman explained proudly. “Una donna Inglese! ” An Englishwoman, also in quest of the famous temple, and storm-bound, too! The news did not gladden Marshall’s heart: the wandering Englishwoman of his acquaintance was not a mitigating prospect. He went back to the rain driving over the tiled roofs of the little town below, while the woman of the inn completed her arrangements. Presently there was a brisk footstep in the corridor, a flutter of skirts, and he turned reluctantly just as the stranger, having seated herself, looked up inquiringly.
In the surprise of their meeting eyes he was distinctly at a disadvantage. The roguish smile, that gay manner of taking the unexpected, which he had reason to know so well, carried her through even this.
With the air almost of having purposely arranged this impossible meeting, she spoke first, while he still fumbled with the back of his chair.
“Well, Alfred, it is unexpected!” she murmured. “How on earth did you ever get here?” he stammered out bluntly.
“Oh! I came yesterday — on the steamer. Could n’t walk very well, you know! ”
She continued to smile, as though the situation gave her mischievous amusement.
“I came to-day,” he managed to say, finally seating himself opposite her.
“So I supposed.”
And then there was silence while the woman of the inn clattered in with two bowls of soup.
As her head bent over the soup he looked at her more closely. Ten years had touched the dark hair with a line of gray here and there, and the gentle curves of the chin and neck had flattened a bit; but he was conscious that she had far less of an account with Time than he, — with his heavy figure, his undisguised baldness. Ten years! It was exasperating that they two who had striven so desperately to separate themselves were thus brought together at the end of the earth — where there was no escape.
“You did n’t think what a — surprise was awaiting you at Stromboli, when you bought your tickets! ” she remarked coolly, sipping at a spoonful of the thick minestra.
“Hardly!” A struggling smile softened the crudity of his tone.
“Fate makes strange—” she caught herself in time, and blushed — charmingly.
“The padrona said an Englishwoman.”
“We’re all English to them — besides, do I look like a touristy American ? ”
To this touch of coquetry he replied clumsily, —
“Not exactly.” There was another silence while she endeavored to make headway in the thick mess with her little sips, but abandoning it in despair she laid down her spoon and looked at him. He ate stolidly through his bowlful, — as if to reprove her excessive daintiness. The expected remark came as he scraped the bottom.
“You must have a bad time with the food in a place like this.”
“It is not Martin’s — this inn,” she replied serenely. “However, one lives — on eggs.”
It was a brave little note. She was leaning on the table, with her fingers arched. The rings were unfamiliar. He missed the two that he had given her, — even the plain gold band, the symbol of their twelve years’ misadventure. She noticed his gaze, and smiled — but did not change the position of her hands. It was as though she wished him to realize that she had done her best to obliterate her woman’s share in their common bondage. They had not divorced, because of the children — for all the reasons. But that she had divorced him in heart and soul, so far as she could, that was what she meant by going about the earth without her papers, so to speak, though married. That was always Eleanor’s way, — to publish her defiance of some convention with needless emphasis, getting satisfaction from spurning a mere symbol.
They were struggling with the tough chicken when she remarked politely, —
“There’s not much to see in this place, — only a heap of brown stone at the other end of the island. I can’t see why they make such a fuss over that temple — it’s mostly on the ground!”
“A fragment of the pediment still in place is said to be of the best period,” he replied pedantically.
“Oh, there are two or three columns still up and a few blocks on top. But the view is lovely, and it’s the dearest, dirtiest little hole of a town — I love it! ” He smiled at her familiar descriptive manner. “I meant to leave by to-day’s steamer — my maid Annette is so miserable it is cruel to keep her here. But it looked blowy — and something — well, I stayed!”
She had done her part, brought them through the meal, almost, — to the dessicated nuts and raisins. It was his, now, to take the laboring oar.
“So you’ve got a maid with you?”
“You did n’t think that I would be here alone! I ’ve had one — ever since —when was it ? I forget.”
He reddened at the neatly delivered blow. His second remark was hardly more fortunate, but it had been on his mind all through the meal.
“Where’s Molly ? why is n’t she with you?”
She answered him squarely, with no attempt at equivocation: —
“She did n’t want to come over — preferred to spend the summer with the Claytons on the Maine coast. You see she’s eighteen this summer, and there are gayer things for a pretty girl of eighteen than knocking about Europe with an old woman of a mother!” Then she added lightly, “The Claytons, you know, have a very charming home.”
It was the second stab so far!
“And Ned,” she continued, now that he had brought the children in, “I had a letter from him last week. He’s camping in some wild place north.”
“ Yes, Saguenay — seems to be enjoying himself with his friends. He really worked at college this year. The trip will do him good.”
“I hope so.”
As there was no coffee, there was no reason for prolonging the lamentable meal. She rose and turning to the window remarked, —
“It does mean business when it rains here.”
He drew a cigar from his pocket. As she passed through the door that he held open for her, she hesitated, then said graciously, —
“I have a small salone upstairs. It ’s cosier than this, and you ’ll hardly find a café at Stromboli. Won’t you come up and smoke your cigar ? It’s quite — proper!” she added demurely.
As he followed her up the flight of dirty stone steps, he felt that he had made a mistake in accepting her invitation, — had compromised their position. But it was too late. The salone was only another cheerless cell of a room, like his across the hall. The bed had been removed, however, and there was a fireplace on which a bundle of fagots burned. There was also a fantastic and ancient lounge drawn before the fire, and on the table near-by some yellow backs besides the guide-books, photographs, writing materials, and other odds and ends that make a forlorn simulacrum of home for the wanderer. In the further corner was a desultory medley of wraps and purchases — no maid could keep Eleanor wholly “ picked up! ”
Marshall, glancing about, wondered vaguely at the energy involved in making over this room, just for a few days’ stay. On the floor beside the fagot fire knelt the maid, holding a tiny copper pot over the flame. He might have guessed that it would never be the inn coffee for Eleanor, luxurious puss!
When the maid rose with the steaming potkin, her mistress said, “Another cup for monsieur, Annette!” and added in English, — “You will have to be just Monsieur Alfred — I can’t bother to resurrect a husband for her after I have so decently buried him!” She laughed boyishly, and he reddened. “You’ve saved the poor girl’s life — she will be crazy with excitement. She finds my loverless existence altogether inexplicable and triste. I shall have to tell her that I just met you —by accident.”
He sipped his coffee, which did not come from Stromboli, and he realized that Eleanor had given him her customary second cup. But she was always generous.
“I’d have had cream, if I had expected the honor.”
“Thanks. I have given up cream,” “Still bothered with your digestion?”
He was looking at the books on the table. With an exclamation of surprise he picked up Paillot’s Sur les Monuments Grecs, etc. The thick volume was turned down well into the middle.
“It’s rather heavy stuff, don’t you think?” and he did not altogether suppress his irony.
“For me ? I’m much interested in it,” his wife replied. “I’ve been cultivating ray mind. It’s about all that’s left for a woman like me to cultivate, you see.”
At the sombre note he felt curiously a reproach originating somewhere far down in his consciousness. He did not reply, but continued to turn over the books, — a new French novel on the eternal French theme, a play or two, some English novels — more what he would have called “her line.” Then he came back to the fire while she curled herself up in the corner of the lengthy lounge, holding her cup of coffee in sensuous reserve. She pointed to some photographs, one of the temple, and near it lay a pencil sketch of the same pièce de résistance of Stromboli.
“You did that ?”
“It’s mine,” she chirped, “and also the others, beyond.”
They were glimpses of the alley life up and down the steep stone stairways of the old Siculi-Italiot-Greek town. He laid them down Avithout comment. To any other woman he would have vouchsafed a word of compliment, if they had been much worse. But he could not phrase it for her. She seemed to understand and smilingly drew his attention to her purchases.
“See those chairs and this old sofa, and the chest of drawers — I’m going to send them home — back, I mean!” (It was so like her to pack up these impossible moth-eaten scraps of furniture and cart them back at immense expense — to repose in a storage warehouse!) “And there’s some linen and truck in the upper drawers.” He looked, and this time he admired moderately.
“What will you do with them?” he asked before he knew what he was saying.
“Oh, some day I shall have — a house, somewhere, just a place to keep duds in
— and for the children to come to — if they will!”
He winced. There had been something of the same vague purpose in the background of his mind latterly.
It seemed as though they had come to an impasse, conversationally. He looked at his half-consumed cigar and debated flight. It was not gay, this skating over all the thin ice that stretched between one and the wife one had avoided for ten years. There were old friends to be asked about, but he refrained. They had divided the camp when the break came, and he had no real curiosity about the other side of the camp. And his wife, having finished her coffee, seemed depressed, too,—could not maintain that light comedy note which she had struck so bravely at first.
“There’s Ned’s letter over there,” she remarked, pointing to the table. “Nice boy! Our children seem to get along,
— to be fairly happy without us! ”
“Well, that usually is the case with children, is n’t it ?”
“Oh, I don’t know — not always.”
There were times when he also reflected that giving his son a liberal allowance at school and college and writing him regularly each week, with an occasional vacation spree, was not completely fulfilling the rôle of parent. Conceivably both the children might criticise them for their failure — in spite of the fact that they had “stuck it out” for twelve years, “ for the sake of the children,” and then merely “separated” instead of availing themselves of the liberal divorce arrangements prevailing in their country.
“There are a good many like us! ” he ventured.
“There are. But it’s not good for a girl, especially — when she begins to think of love and marriage and all that — to know what a failure her mother made of a woman’s life!”
“It does n’t seem to worry them — they usually take their chances, I notice.”
“ Of course — a woman must, somehow — ”
“And a man ?”
Her slight movement of the hand spoke eloquently of the gregarious and uncivilized state of the male.
“When I look at Molly and think — ” “Think what?”
“That very likely she’ll have to go through with it all!”
“Very likely she won’t! ”
“That’s the worst about growing old, — to see in your young the same things popping up — the old character that ran you off the track. Like your old clothes on a poor relative! ”
“But there’s always some difference,” he suggested gently.
He saw that it was a flat thing to say, as the difference would probably consist of what the girl had received from him! But his wife was too much absorbed in her own chain of thought to heed his remark.
“Molly’s so sentimental!” she continued.
“Most girls are —”
“Umph — not nowadays ! All her geese are swans. She’ll never know the man she marries until—
“Perhaps that’s just as well.”
“You think so!”
“I’m beginning to think so — for both.” Thereat they recognized that the topic was too delicately edged with inferences to be continued, and they lapsed into another silence. And shortly afterwards he made a remark or two about the weather and rose. As his wife gave him her hand he noticed certain lines about the mouth — and reflected that most men and women of forty have lines.
“Thank you for a — the evening.” “Don’t mention it, Monsieur Alfred! Buona sera. Buon’riposo! ”
Nothing was said about the morrow.
When Marshall descended the long flight of steps to the quay, the next morning, the rain was no longer falling; but squally wreaths of cloud scudded overhead and what should have been the blue Æolian sea was a mass of dirty gray and foaming white. There was no steamer at the quay, no smoke patch on the horizon. “She’ll not venture out a day like this!” the interested and completely idle citizens of Stromboli vociferated again and again, “There’ll be no vapore until the Virgin sends calm seas! ” Then Marshall, with the persistent resourcefulness of his race in providing extra means for meeting transportation emergencies, demanded a boat. There was stupefaction, and after repeating his idea in all sorts of Italian he was forced to admit that there existed no means of escaping from Stromboli that day.
As he turned back through the stony lane, he saw two women descending in hot haste, Eleanor and the maid staggering under a load of wraps.
“It has n’t gone ? ” his wife demanded without the formality of greeting.
“It has n’t come — and won’t come to-day! ”
“And there’s no other way,” she pouted. “That is the trouble with islands.”
“ No other way — not until the Virgin calms the waters,” he said, repeating unconsciously the picturesque phrase of the citizens of Stromboli.
In spite of the faint rose that exercise in the damp sea air had brought to her face, there were dark circles under the eyes and a look of anxiety. Apparently she had not slept any better than he, and had concluded, on the tossing pillow, as he had, that the situation was impossible, ridiculous — must be evaded. But seeing her look of dismay reflected in his lugubrious face she burst into a hysterical fit of laughter, and finally seated herself on the edge of a step.
“I’m — afraid — we’re — in for it!” she gurgled. “We can’t escape unless you will swim ashore, or take quarters in the temple.”
Her gayety cheered him only moderately. He would have followed her last suggestion incontinently; but one could hardly abandon even one’s separated wife in an island village, without something of an excuse. While he was preparing one, she rose, in gay spirits.
“Come! I’ll show you the place. You see I am installed here — almost chez moi! ”
So they turned up the main alley, Eleanor pointing out to him the dark hole that served as café according to the sign. “See what I saved you from last evening!” Once or twice she darted into a noisome court where incredibly squalid old women pulled and jostled in their eagerness to dispose of certain heirlooms to the mad strangers. Once she came back from her foray to ask change for a banknote, and was very scrupulous about making change to the centime, searching her little net purse for a five-cent piece. Then they climbed a rocky path that skirted the gulf, far above the sea, leading to the temple. A streak of sunlight shot downwards through the leaden cloud masses, illuming for the moment the dull brown stones of the ruin, warming the broken pillars, the fragment still intact in melancholy isolation on the island promontory.
“Oh-h!” she exclaimed. “How lovely, and just for us! Come!”
She hurried the pace, and Marshall puffed heavily behind.
“You’re pretty brisk,” he remarked, remembering that in the old days she had never stirred without a cab.
“I take a good deal of exercise — that’s another occupation for age — besides cultivating one’s mind,” she replied amicably, waiting for him to join her.
“So my counsels have borne fruit — late,” he could not refrain from saying.
Eleanor, excited by the sun-bathed shrine, did not answer. As they gained the scaly hilltop before the east front, the clouds drew together, leaving the spot in chill gloom.
“ An ill omen — perhaps the goddess does not consider us fit persons to enter her sanctuary. Do you suppose she’ll get Zeus to drop a thunderbolt on your head ?”
Marshall smiled grimly at the daring joke in which he detected a jibe at former gallantries with those “other women.” It was gentle enough, however, to be ignored.
“Come on — let’s venture in, any way! ” she continued in the spirit of mischievous raillery. “Juno must have been a forgiving lady — with that husband.”
They plunged into the rank growth of grass about the temple steps, pausing to examine the fragment of the architrave still mouldering on the severe Doric pillars, and the one solitary pillar beyond, to which a thick green vine clung, swaying slightly in the wind. This was the bit, this isolated, broken pillar with the green vine, that she had sketched.
“It’s fine, that!” she exclaimed, opening her arms in instinctive enthusiasm for its noble grace, “and the rest are broken fragments! ”
As she stepped forward into the weedgrown inclosure, the fitful sun darted again from the heavens,
“See! She approves — still.”
They poked about for a time among the prostrate members of the little temple, and she snapped with her camera a few details that he pointed out. Then they came out on the west side overlooking the gusty sea and sat down. Before another one of those uncomfortable conversational gaps she interposed blithely,
“I suppose this was where women came to pray for happy marriages, was n’t it?”
“And now poor Juno’s temple is without honor, here as well as in America!”
“The gods change: here they pray to the Virgin instead.”
“Oh! I see.”
His thought went back to those new occupations, which presented such interesting developments of character.
“So you find time now to read and sketch, as well as to take exercise?”
“Yes — I’m getting dull even to myself. you see, when age comes,” she mused on, “when you’ve finished with all your own agitating possibilities, you ’ve simply got to look out of yourself into life — other people’s lives, — ” she waved her hand to the wide space of the sea, — “and try to see what’s there — apart from yourself.”
“Quite so,” he agreed grimly. “It’s a pity one could n’t take that objective attitude earlier in life!”
She corrected him tranquilly.
“Without having the emotional one first, what would the other be worth ? ”
So they talked on, enjoying the calm and the flickering sunlight. There was something subtly humorous to them both in the idea of sitting there beneath the shadow of the temple of Juno exchanging philosophical reflections on life. It had been so many years, even before the outward rupture, when they had exchanged nothing beyond business details and dry conventionalities. Finally she rose, saying, “It must be past noon and that luncheon will be colder than these stones! " and they retraced their way, shepherded by a swarm of Stromboli youth.
The shambling padrona placed a fat bottle of Asti on the table. “Her votive offering to the goddess,” he dared to suggest. What with the wine and their fresh zest after the morning on the windy promontory, they had a gay little meal.
“It hasn’t been so bad?” she demanded teasingly, on leaving him for her nap. “At any rate we’ve got through the morning — and you’ve seen the temple of Juno, — that celebrated ruin!”
“No, it has n’t come to so much,” he admitted, lighting his second cigar that evening. His wife was lying on the rickety lounge, the full skirt of the summer dress that she had put on in honor of dinner falling gracefully to the floor. In the shadows of the lofty room flickered the light of many candles set about here and there. There was a second bundle of fagots on the fire and flowers in some old pots, — the morning’s purchase. Eleanor had an instinct for giving the festal air even to trivial occasions. At first they had talked briskly, avoiding all roads that led backwards and downwards into the past. She had brought him at last to tell her what he had done with the ten years of freedom. And he had been forced to confess that after that lucky real estate speculation had put him in a position of ease there was not much to tell. He had had some thoughts of a book — indeed was over here now ostensibly to examine certain architectural monuments that might illustrate the book. But it had got vague — the book — and he was not sure that it was altogether worth the doing.
“So,” his wife summed up, “it has n’t been so much better than when you were bard pressed, and there never was quite enough to go around ?”
“No — money does n’t count so much as we used to think, perhaps.”
“What does count?”
Ah, yes! What did count in making up the tally of a life! In the still room the points of tapered light barely touched the woman’s white face where she lay with thoughtful eyes fixed on the ceiling. As he smoked and watched her, his former wife, some old current of memory brought back the days before marriage, when he was in the ardent mood, or as she had said once with woman’s brutality, “wanted me most.” It was uncanny, this slipning back over a third of a lifetime to take up the thread there at the beginning, — the thread they had contrived since to snarl so lamentably! There had been large and worshipful thoughts in those days.
“I wonder sometimes”— his wife’s voice broke the silence with a flutter of mounting sound — “what it would have been for you — with another woman; any other woman ? ”
This bold speculation touched him unpleasantly. His imagination, too, had tried to piece together a picture of what life might have been with her — or another, and had given up the hopeless task. After all would they, any one of them, have come out of the sweating process of marriage better than she had!
“Much the same, I fancy!” He tried to give a gallant ring to the admission.
“Would they have irritated you — brought out all the devil in you, as I used to?” she pursued ruthlessly; “made you put on your hat, so to speak, and get out ? How I’d like to know! ”
“It’s a hard test, marriage,” he remarked at random.
She sat upright, her palms clenched with sudden anguish, as if all the dreary years had swept over her in one whelming sense of despair.
“It is a hard test, God knows! for the woman. Oh, you think it was this or that in me — extravagance, willfulness, stupidity — that did our business. Perhaps not. You wanted your little way and I wanted my little way—and there was never quite enough room or money for both our little ways! Was that all ? Men don’t hate women for their faults.”
“Oh!” he protested at the word.
“More likely it’s the way they do their hair, the shape of their mouth, the way they talk — oh, you can’t say. Something was wrong with the combination!” She slipped back to her cushions with a light word. “Perhaps we did n’t make the proper sacrifice to Juno!”
Nevertheless there were tears, almost, in the voice. He made an impatient gesture, wishing to blot out this intervening gulf of years with all its repulsive detail of the lost game, that separated them from the starting point, so long ago!
“Oh, I am not going into it,” she protested. “It’s dead and decently buried. But one wonders. Do you still get to the station half an hour before train time, Alfred ? What a lot of time you must have wasted these last ten years!”
She showed him that she could still laugh. He did not like this sudden shift up and down the emotional scale.
“But we stuck - after a fashion — sort of half-way stuck! ”
“Yes, we stuck — half-way!”
And there they were at the bottom. The candles flickered and smoked. The last fagot curled up economically into white ash. The woman’s eyes still searched the ceiling for an answer to all the mystery. The man threw away his cigar. It was dead, almost pathetically dead — all their loud discords, their silent inharmonies. Nothing it seemed could ever relight the fire of their passionate distaste. Between the before and the now there lay a field of ashes where there might have been — the fragrant carpet of life, flower-sown with tears and laughter. The mere inexorable fate of it made them calm. He said softly, —
“We missed it — somehow.”
“Yes — we missed it. And now we’re like one of those extinct volcanoes over there in Italy, — a nice, round, proper cone, — all hollow on the inside where the crater was, — except for the ashes. And two little baby cones at our feet, with their hot fires all alive inside. That’s life!”
“Well,” he laughed, recovering from the surprise of her close-tracking thought, “it must be more comfortable for the neighbors when the eruptions cease. And there is always a chance for green things to grow around the dead cone,” he added more gently — “to cover up the scars.”
“But the fire — that was life!” she sighed.
“And the vines and the green things — they are life, too, of a sort.” The candles began to sputter out, and he got up to snuff them. He roamed about the room restlessly, touching this object and that, then came back to the lounge where his wife lay, wide-eyed, looking up into the darkening gloom. There were lines about the mouth — sad lines—and also in the uncertain shadows — the lines of youth — before it all.
“It’s been bad for you, Nelly!”
“For both of us,” and her eyes dropped from the ceiling to his. There came a low knock at the door.
“That’s Annette — it is very late! You must remember that I have n’t explained to Annette—she might find it — embarrassing! ”
During the night the lowering sky had been swept clear of clouds, and a fresh breeze flecked the blue water of the Æolian sea, through which the dirty little coast steamer ploughed its way toward the Calabrian shore. Close together on the rear deck Marshall and his wife stood gazing high above them at the ruined temple on the eastern promontory of the island. One solitary shaft in lovely isolation, wrapped with its clinging vine, reached into the vivid blue of the heavens.
“Some of it still stands — after all!” he exclaimed, pointing upwards.
“And so lovely, even in its ruin,” she murmured. His hand lightly touched her shoulder, and as the temple faded into the distance across the waves he said gently, —
“We must make those green things grow over the dead volcano! ”
She smiled wistfully, while the maid Annette eyed them speculatively through the cabin window.