To Margaret Reid the headlines of the evening paper had for a moment the effect of being yesterday’s news, so clearly was the apprehension, the suspicion of the last months blazoned there in the two lines of clear type. That her husband had committed suicide seemed also a fact known before. Alan Reid had taken his life in a Philadelphia hotel, having been detected in the misappropriation of trust funds: the woman named in a note found upon his person was his secretary.
It was only when Margaret had ploughed through three columns of sordid detail that the storm held back by her desire to know, to know everything, broke over her. When she lifted her bowed head she was quiet, her bitterness hardened into strength.
There were many things to be done; but the first telegram she sent was to his mother, whom she loved. ‘Expect me Friday.’ It was brief, yet its very brevity would give support. This was Tuesday.
As the cab stopped, she looked eagerly up at the house; but it gave no sign.
Katie came to the door and took her bag.
‘She’s been waiting for you, Miss Margaret. But maybe’ — Katie was looking at her with affectionate anxiety — ‘you’ll take your things off first; the heat has been awful.’
‘ Perhaps I had better go right up to her, Katie.’
Yet she stopped for a moment in the dim hall. Opposite was the parlor, the abiding place of the orphaned furniture of various branches of the family and of incongruities reminiscent of the struggling Montana days. The ranch which Mrs. Reid had managed alone after her husband’s death paid in eleven years sufficiently for her to bring Alan East among her people. Margaret, looking into the pleasant, jumbled room, had the choking realization that the house was unchanged, only — only something had died in it just as something had died in her. A mirror reflected her pale hair clinging damply about her forehead; the pale stern oval of her face; her tired eyes. Her black dress with its austere thin line of white at the throat softened nothing. ‘I must n’t break down,’ she told herself, as she went up the stairs.
Her mother-in-law’s door was half open.
‘Is that you, Margaret?’
It was an old, thin voice, but with a note of heartening.
Margaret went in, seeing only the dark eyes that waited. She had come to give comfort, at least to give love; but she stood, unable to speak, her lips twitching in their effort for control.
Mrs. Reid held out her hand.
With the affectionately compelling gesture, the moan of Margaret’s heart escaped.
‘O mother, how could he! How could he do it! ’ And as she knelt quivering at his mother’s chair the cry went up again. ‘How could he do it, do everything, mother, in the crudest way!’
She did not heed the tremor that went through his mother’s body, which at her first words had braced itself to meet pain. She did not heed anything. She must pour out the choking bitterness at her feet. It was a flood that would not be stayed, even for mercy’s sake.
‘Sit down in that chair, Margaret, and then, then tell me — you must n’t be afraid.’
She obeyed blindly. Her veil had fallen over her face. She removed the pins of her hat with shaking fingers.
‘I hoped you would never have to know,’ — she was trying to speak quietly. ‘I think it began a year ago this summer. You remember I was away two months, nursing my father, and the heat in New York was very terrible. I knew it, but my father was dying. I thought he needed me more than Alan did. When I came home I felt there was something wrong. We had been so happy, mother!’
‘Oh, can’t you understand — I could bear it if she had been just a little worthy of him, just a little lovely! I’ve met her. She forced herself upon me in Philadelphia. She’s the sort that makes scenes, you know. She’s — she’s cheap. And he — evidently — liked to be with her. He wanted what she had to give him — the cheapness, mother. He chose it.’ Her stern, sweet mouth trembled. ‘You think I’m hard, but I was n’t hard. I waited, not knowing, only fearing and dreading, but I waited. I thought if I went on loving him, — just being myself, his wife, — that he would find his way back to me. But I did n’t know quite the depth of the sordidness, I did n’t know the facts. Haven’t you suspected anything?’
‘I thought he seemed not — not quite like himself when he was here on my last birthday; but I did n’t suspect.’
His mother’s gaze was fixed on a small stuffed bird standing in a corner of her desk. Margaret became aware that the desk was littered with letters, with odds and ends, as though the contents of a drawer had been spilled out. She went on, her voice a little more even, a little harder.
‘The funds he — stole belonged to three sisters, elderly women; they were quite dependent upon them. Of course now, they will not suffer. I’ve already put the house into the hands of an agent, and the furniture will go at auction — it’s pretty good furniture. We picked it up, piece by piece. I shall soon be able to pay a good part of their money back. I’m not afraid of things. I can meet life as it comes — after a fashion. He was too cowardly to meet it — so he killed himself.’ Her passion burst through her frozen speech. ‘Don’t you suppose that even after everything I would have helped him and stood by him, if only he had come to me? He was afraid even to come! ’
She paused a moment. She must not break down, she must fight back the tears.
‘He — left a letter,’ — she did not see the eagerness in the waiting eyes,— ‘asking me to “ forgive him.” I burned it. I’ve burned all his letters.’
‘O Margaret!’ It was the first time his mother had cried out.
‘The less I keep, the easier it will be to forget! I’ve got to live.’ Even to her own ears her voice grated harshly. She added, with more gentleness, ‘It’s the only way, mother.’
‘ Is it? I’m not sure, Margaret. I’ve been looking over things to-day, a lot of Alan’s that I’ve never been able to part with. I’m a sentimental person, I suppose. I get attached to things.’ She glanced with smiling tenderness at the stuffed bird. ‘That was the least trouble to me of all the child’s foundlings. It died, poor thing, in spite of coddling, and he was so heart-broken. I had to have it stuffed to comfort him.’ She laughed unsteadily. ‘I ’ve kept it — somehow.’
Margaret listened pitifully. She could be pitiful now that the force of her bitterness had spent itself. She was only terribly tired now.
‘I have n’t any pictures of him as a little boy or a baby,’ his mother went on. It was as though talking created for her an illusion of happiness. ‘ We did n’t have kodaks in Montana then, you know, and I wanted pictures of him. He was such a dear baby, Margaret — the dearest, I think, any woman ever had. I used to believe he understood that there was no time on a ranch for a baby, because he seemed so willing to help bring himself up. He was n’t any real trouble at all, just a bit of happiness through all those hard years. And yet, I think he was the greatest joy after he grew up and went to college and wrote letters. I was reading one of them just before you came.’
Her hand had found several sheets open on the desk before her.
Through Margaret’s fatigue, through the numbness of her heart, shot cruel pain. She had burned his letters, yet the familiar scrawl was more his self than he had been through the long months of her doubt; each character stabbed through to her love for him.
Her mother-in-law looked up. ‘You know he always avoided the stereotyped forms of address or signatures. This just begins, “Mother! Am I a hero or a prig? The class are having a smoker and I’m not at it because of our scapegrace Cousin Ed. Aunt Amy wrote me tearfully, imploring me to ‘ do ’ something. And Ed is n’t the sort to be ‘done.’ You’ve got to deal tactfully with Ed. So I mounted the water wagon and, like the good-natured cub he is, he climbed up beside me ‘ for company.’ Every time I’ve had a hunch he was going to climb down, I’ve shown an alarming disposition to do it first. And he won’t let me. He’s really very stern about it, you know. That’s why I’m not at the smoker, — nor is Ed. He’s at the drug-store, enjoying lemonade. I guess, maybe, I’m not a Hero. Ed’s a nice ass, worth keeping that, of course; but I hate lemonade!”
‘It was clever of him, was n’t it? I must read you another, Margaret.’ His mother’s voice was not old now: there was life in it. There was life in her weak body as she leaned forward. ‘He wrote this the year he spent in Montana just after leaving college. He was pretty much used up, dear boy. So he went out to the mines a few miles from our old ranch. He got a “job” as pit-boss. It was n’t arduous work but rather “occupying” as he says.’ She turned over the page.
‘ “We rise at 6.30 from our blankets. Breakfast is immediate. At 7.30 the whistle blows and I ascend into my cabin on the tipple top where the scales are. Then follows the day’s routine: unlatching the cars, weighing the coal and keeping the screens clean. I like it, and I don’t mind the town. You know the type, mother — a mile of sprawling unpainted ugliness, with an outlook from the tipple of woods and long ribbons of prairie roads that run away among the trees. It’s mostly raw and crude but you can get fun out of it — if you dance. Last night we had a dance at our boarding house (two-roomed tar-papered shack); we danced to a fiddle sawed at by one Tom Wilson — mostly quadrilles. The school-ma’am jigged and the McLean sisters did a Highland schottische. I made a hit with the school-ma’am (ring on third finger left). She is n’t pretty but she certainly can jig— only I wish she would second my wit more nimbly.
‘ “Besides the dancing, there’s the church. It was built four years ago by a little consumptive missionary from the East. We set it going again. It ’s an institutional church, I being the Institution mostly, though there’s a basketball, a croquet set, and an ice-cream freezer too. I preach Sunday morningno one else would. Don’t laugh, mother, I don’t preach anything much, just the Fear of the Lord. It was n’t for nothing that I browsed among grandfather’s Hell-and-Damnation sermons last summer. The old man must chuckle if he’s where they let him chuckle. I’m also superintendent (pro-tem) of the Sunday School, forty little kids who were growing up without the slightest idea as to who made ’em. There is good in these people and promise of better for the next generation ! In the fall I want to begin a night school for the miners — arithmetic and first aid to the injured, $1 a week from each. My philanthropies are going to be self-supporting! Perhaps I can start a savings bank. It will steady them to save. And yet, mother, ice-cream freezers and banks don’t strike at the roots of Sin (I follow grandfather’s capitalization here). If environment, education, etc.,make people good, whyfore the Unholy Rich? There’s logic for you, and my experience in the settlement last winter supports it. To get character you’ve got to get religion — some kind of religion; and for the miners this is a personal God and a very personal Hell. It’s a flabby age, ours, which would put the responsibility on society instead of on the individual. I may be a heathen (I feel like such a jolly one at times), but I’m a Presbyterian too.” ’
Mrs. Reid slowly folded the closely written sheets together.
‘Alan was so much like his grandfather, Margaret. Only the righteousness he loved was n’t quite as sober.’ She smiled. ‘We had so many talks, Alan and I. Sometimes after them I’d cry a little; not that — I had n’t kept my ideals — but in knocking about so I’d parted with most of my illusions — and he had them all because he was young and very fine and high. You began to know him just about that time. You remember what he was then? I think you once said you loved him for the things he loved. He was wonderful, then, Margaret. You remember, don’t you?’
It touched Margaret, her clinging to the past.
‘Yes,’ she answered, gently, ‘he was all you say, but —’ She did not mean to snatch away the poor comfort, only bitterness stronger than her pity welled up again. ‘Mother, what is the use of remembering what he was, when I know what he is?’
It was cruel, yet she said it.
His mother’s dark eyes glowed out of the still pallor of her face.
‘Past and present make One, for mothers, Margaret. They make One, I believe, for the Judge of all the earth. Is n’t a life a whole? Was n’t he Alan when he was just a baby — when he was a little boy — when he was a senior at college? Was n’t he Alan when you wrote — I’ve kept the letter — that he made your days a shining happiness? Was he Alan only beginning with a year ago this summer, when you say “ things started ” ? I’m his mother. It’s the way of mothers to pardon. But I know what he has done. I read the paper Tuesday evening. I read every terrible accusing word. I not only read them, but something within me said they were true. And your brief telegram confirmed my certainty. I have n’t denied, have I, one bit of his guilt? When you said he stole — did I say he did n’t? When you called him cruel, cheap, sordid, a coward, — did I say he wasn’t that? I couldn’t say it, because it’s true —the evidence has been before me, the stained rags of his honor. I have n’t denied nor have I excused. He had no excuse. No one is to be blamed. He was n’t a “victim of society.” You see, I’m old-fashioned, too. He’s responsible for the sin of his own soul. I ’m not hiding my eyes from the stains — only — I’m his mother. I’ve been his mother since before he was born. I see the stains but I see more clearly the white ground which they soil. I see the whole of him. And the whole of him was not cruel, the whole of him was n’t disloyal, the whole of him was not a coward; the whole of him is Alan.’
The last words barely reached Margaret where she sat, her face hidden in her hands. She sat there through the still minutes, while the sun set thickly behind the trees across the street. She was not aware of the darkening room, or of the stifling heat, scarcely of his mother. She only knew that Alan had been given her to love.
But could she love him ? To his mother the knowledge of his guilt had come so swiftly as to make it unreal. His mother’s integrity of mind could accept the brutal facts in a newspaper while her heart believed in the dearness of his letters, in the talks that had voiced the longing of his high youth.
‘I’m a heathen, but I’m a Presbyterian.’ Margaret quivered as the words repeated themselves. The whimsical remark was so like him — not the person who had spelled foreboding and wretchedness, but like Alan. And it was true of him. From the first she had seen, though without understanding, the struggle between the Calvinistic sturdiness which would call this a ‘flabby age’ and the paganism hating ‘lemonade.’ And he was a pagan in his love of life, of all life. Tristan and a ‘show’ were, according to his mood, equally satisfying.
‘But you are such an inveterately perfect lady,’ he laughed at her once; and when she had replied hotly, ‘And what are you if not a patrician, Alan Reid?’ he looked contrite. ‘Guilty — but somehow I really like common people and their commonness. I guess I like about everything.’
She smiled, involuntarily, and with her suddenly cleared vision it came to her that Alan’s secretary that hot, weary summer had not seemed to him cheap but human. And afterward, when the wrong was done, perhaps she had still seemed human; for he was not only a genial pagan but a Presbyterian, too.
And his voice was recovering for her other words — gay, thoughtful, tender; and not words only, but dear experiences. She recalled an afternoon during their engagement when they had walked out into the country — a soft, May afternoon — and Alan had talked as she lay looking up through apple-blossoms into a quivering blue sky. She had covered his eager hands.
‘Why, Alan, you could n’t be more dear than you are,’ she had said to him.
‘Oh, yes,’ he answered, ‘lots more.’
One night, the third anniversary of their marriage, — she remembered the gown worn to celebrate it, a blue and silver thing which Alan thought made moonshine of her, — he had thanked her for helping the dreams to come true.
Yet her own dreams had not been realized. She had wanted children becuse she loved them and because Alan loved them even more. Finally a child came, living only a few hours, and two years later another, stillborn. It was Alan who had told her, his face full of pity, and of strength for her taking, and he had loved her back to health.
Yet through the remembrance of his saving gentleness came words that would always ring in her ears: ‘You had better not look, Mrs. Reid.’ And she saw the room in the Philadelphia hotel and the still thing lying covered there. In the hot glare of her misery she saw his disloyally, his weakness; the idealism which in his youth fought to win had lost its vitality; it was there, but only as a mourner after the fact. Oh, it was true of him, the sin, she saw it — but — but — the gentleness, the sweet strength had been true of him too. And she wanted it, she turned to it as she had turned in that other hour of desolation when she knew that her baby was born dead. She was wanting, needing to love him now. She had wished to forget in order to live; but forgetting, forgetting the dearness, the joy, the very grief that had been Alan, forgetting was not living, it was death. She could deal with the sweet, the sorry truths only if she accepted them all. So should she live by loving.
And the love that swept back into her heart, as a warm quickening tide, was pain. There had been little pain these last few days, only bitterness. Now every quivering memory ached. Her heart was alive and loving him. And the whole of him, since even for love she could not part with her integrity, meant the stains too: it meant the present as well as the past. She faced the ugliness, realizing that though it might fade in time, yet it would be always there, disfiguring the whole that was his self. But she was accepting it since she could not take it away. She was bearing it for him, sharing it with him. That was all she could do for him now — just love him.
If she could only do more than that! All the dark months before he had become some one alien she had longed to stretch out her hands to him. If he were not dead, if he were living now, now when her heart was purged of fear, of doubt, of resentment, now when she was just loving, why, together they would make the brave future. She knew they could do it, love would do it. If only his last act had not been final — if there could be a future — not to redeem the present but to complete it. As long as one lived, there could be no finality. But he was dead.
Out of her pain, her longing, went her cry to him. The name made no sound in the still room, but as its echo came back to her it was not a name. It was life itself — Alan’s life in her love.
A slight stir caused her to look up. Katie had brought in a lamp and put it in the corner of the room. His mother had sunk back in her chair, utterly spent. Her eyes were fixed on Margaret’s face. For the first time, she asked something. And Margaret could give.
‘Mother!’ She bent forward, laying reverent fingers upon the cold hands. ‘I’ve been — remembering, too. Don’t you think that if we love him, you and I, if we love him every day, that he will live, that he will go on living — very beautifully— in our love?’ Her voice broke though she smiled through her tears. ‘ Past and present are only a part of a life, mother. There’s the future, the long future to complete him. He will go on — with us, dear.’
She left her place. She could not bear the flame of joy she had kindled. She gathered the worn body against her breast, holding it as she might have held a child, as she might have held Alan. ‘ O mother! ’ In her voice, in her straining arms, was her yearning that never should be quite satisfied, and her tenderness.