Between the Lines

Monday, August 16, 1920.
Just this time last evening we were deep in Napoleon, and dinner, and you had not quite recovered, even after my having so tactfully drawn in Napoleon to distract you, from your indignation over the Prohibition Amendment. And yet you were drinking champagne — In other words it is now 8.30 to-night; and I am the person who at 8.30 last night — Well, it is all described above.
You remember me? Of course you do. I would n’t even ask the question, but that I once dined next to a man (at the town house of our last night’s hostess, by the way) whom I had met, also, for the first time, and who spent most of the evening telling me that he never remembered a person whom he had met only once! I suppose he forgot me. But I have never been able to forget him, as is shown by the above absurd question.
For you do remember me, of course. That’s established. And you remember Napoleon. And some quite interesting things I told you about him — to distract you from Prohibition — that you had n’t known before. And you remember, don’t you, recommending a book about him (which you said you had n’t read, so why you recommended it was n’t clear) by Lord Somebody, about those last days at St. Helena? Well, now we come to my point. I can’t remember Lord Somebody’s name. Would it bother you too much if I ask you to send me a line with just the name? You need n’t remember me afterwards if you don’t want to, but I would like the name. I want to read the book. I liked what you said about it, which must, I suppose, be what someone else said to you.
So there’s the reason for my letter — for it’s going to be one! At least, it’s one of the reasons. The others are that it’s 8.30, and last night at this hour I was struggling with your temper— the hour suggests you. And then I’m alone. I’ve been swimming and motoring all day, and I am tired and have had a tray here in my room. The windows by my desk are open, and I can hear the ocean booming, you know, as it boomed last night at Marian’s; and the light on it is that same long, quivering, golden way. It makes the best of you rise up in your heart, and the truest, and you want to be so frank — so frank — as frank as Maeterlinck says we may be; and you want to say to a perfect stranger who complains of the drought as he drinks deliciously cooled champagne, that you are glad you met him; that one meets so many people, and they are all so confusing; that these times are so confusing, with upheavals in everything — religion, politics, art, life; that one feels the ground slipping beneath one’s feet — especially a person like me, someone who is nothing in particular — a woman not too young to understand life and not too old to enjoy it, with ideals which are torn at and trampled on every day — puzzled — wondering; and that to meet someone who can look with calmness on a war in which he has played a part (which he carefully ignores), and who can look on these heaving times with hope; who hasn’t lost his bearings in the magnitude of the cataclysms that have overtaken us; someone who still looks for the best in us women —just the same good, oldfashioned best that was before these days, when so much has crept in that is coarse and vulgar and cheap: to meet someone like that — and someone who has just your peculiar shade of yellow hair — makes you very glad!
I’m joking, but I’m telling you the sober truth. You remember, perhaps, all that we talked about — a good deal for our first meeting. Well, the best of me was moved, and I shall remember it always.
Will you send me, please, Mr. Bonaparte’s biographer’s name? And so no more — as Du Maurier so often said in Trilby; and how freighted the words were with the lightness and the tragedy of endings! And so no more. From your — what am I? — well, your very grateful

Margaret Hamilton read the letter through, sought in the faithful Social Register for George Talmadge’s address, and finding it where stood his name, with an asterisk beside it, she addressed the envelope.
Then for a long time she looked out at the sea, with the golden light across it, remembering and dreaming.
She was very tired when she turned back to her desk. Somehow a lightness had gone out of her with the writing of the letter. She reread it — all that she had written in ardor and sincerity; but now it brought to her a swelling tide of mortification and chagrin.
’If I had sent it,’ she whispered aghast, ‘to almost an utter stranger! What in the world would he have thought of me! ’ And she tore the sheets carefully across and across. Into the envelope went another note:

MY DEAR MR. TALMADGE, — I wonder if you would mind letting me know the author of the book on Napoleon that you recommended so highly last night at Marian Livingston’s dinner. I’ve forgotten the name you mentioned but would like to read the book.
Trusting that I am not bothering you, I am
Cordially yours,

In his apartment in town, a day or so later, George Talmadge received this note. He did n’t answer it until the end of a busy week, though the fact that it was there to be answered occurred to him constantly.
At last he wrote: —

I am not going to tell you the author’s name that you ask for, though I’m grateful to the fellow for having had a forgettable name, and to you for having forgotten. For I was singularly glad to hear from you. Indeed I can hardly make you understand how glad. It does n’t seem a matter for much rejoicing to meet a strange and charming woman at dinner. One meets so many — the stranger the more charming!
But perhaps you understand — no, I’m sure you understand — how we all have moods now and then of mental Bolshevism, when the world seems turned topsy-turvy, and all our old plans and hopes discredited. And perhaps you can imagine how, if one were in such a mood, the meeting of a stranger might set things right again. Of course, only one kind of a stranger, someone clever and cultivated and sweet, about whom hung the aroma of all that was true and rare and steady in life. May I write you so? Of course I may. Something about you gives me permission, and with your permission I am, of course, taking no liberty.
Besides, I am a little desperate, if that is n’t too tragic a word to use over one’s own unimportant affairs.
I’m to be sent away again; at least the government wants me to go — to South America this time. I don’t want to go. I’ve just come home. And yet I don’t want to shirk, and they tell me that’s where I’m needed most — not that I’m needed much anywhere, but you know how those disagreeable duties are baited.
I feel that, if I could see you again and tell you all about it, I could have the decision to stay, or the strength to go. Don’t laugh at me, though you did laugh at me many times the other night. Just realize — I’ll spare you the details — that I’ve been through a good deal, and I’m upset and lonely, and that I want to talk things over selfishly and self-centredly with someone, and that I want that someone to be you, and I don’t know why, or care why, but won’t you let me come to wherever you are, just for one evening? Laugh at me if you like, but let me come.
I am reminded of my small-boyhood days, and of someone admonishing me, ‘You should say, if you please.’ If you please!
I shall await your answer anxiously. And I don’t care what you say, I think Prohibition is an awful mistake. Your friend, really, though I see you laughing again, — I see your eyes, and I hear you, —

P.S. I am sending you Lord Rosebery’s book. That’s why I’m not bothering you with the name.

George Talmadge threw himself back in his chair, and passed his hands over his warm forehead.
‘It’s beastly hot to-night,’ he muttered; and he stumbled up, and out for a few blocks down the avenue, and back again, restless and half-dreaming, and then to bed.
The next morning he reread his letter. ‘Of all the pieces of d— rot and impertinence!’ he exclaimed, and tore the letter, savagely, to ribbons.
Then he wrote: —

Lord Rosebery is the author of the book on Bonaparte of which we spoke. I am taking the liberty of sending the book to you, to express, partially, my thanks for a very pleasant evening.
Hoping that we shall meet again, I am
Sincerely yours,

The letter and book reached Margaret Hamilton at Southampton. On the evening of their arrival she escaped from her family and some guests who were bent on including her in a game of Auction, and made her way to her room. Alone there, she went to her window and looked out at the sea. There was no moon. The sea was a dark, mysterious surging.
She strained her eyes into the darkness; her breath came heavily; her breast was heaving.
Then she went quickly to her desk, pulled on the electric light and wrote:—

I wrote you a week ago. Not the stupid little line you received, but an honest letter. I hardly remember what I said, only that I felt it all; that I stretched out my hand to you across the fact that we were strangers, and that I felt new strength and buoyancy from the moment’s clasp. And then, of course, I tore the letter up. We women are cowards. We are afraid to read our own statements that we know to be rather fine, and desperately sincere. You who have been a soldier cannot perhaps understand this, but it is true. I was afraid. I rushed back into the banal protection of the inane, and asked only for a name, and you sent me the book. I have come to my room this evening to read the book, and to send you my thanks. You were very kind, and I do thank you.
But I wish you were down on the beach out there. I would go down and join you — you see I ’m not a bit afraid any more, and I would tell you so many things; all I said in my letter, if I could remember it all, and the things I’ve been saying to you through the week, for I’ve had a number of talks with you up here alone. There, you see how brave I am! Why should n’t I be? You interested me — you tempted me to a bigger point of view than those I see around me. I would like to talk over so many things with you if you were down there now on the beach.
Of course, everything might be different, such queer things happen. I might n’t find you a bit interesting a second time. And you might find me dreadfully boring; though you did n’t that night at dinner. I don’t care what you say, I know you did n’t. If you think I ‘make too bold’ in saying this, just avoid me when we meet again, and I’ll understand and be properly rebuked.
Seriously, with my renewed thanks for Lord Rosebery’s book, please accept my greater thanks — for what — for having been what you were that night — for having given me the courage not to be ashamed of an instinct that turns to all that is best — I’m floundering, and you won’t understand — Well, for having prompted me to write so absurdly a second time! MARGARET HAMILTON.

The next morning it was with a certain shriveling of the soul that she realized that this letter, too, must not be sent. ‘It was the night. It was — I don’t care what it was!’ she cried, and sat down, forlornly, at her desk.

MY DEAR MR. TALMADGE [she wrote],—
Thank you so much for the very kind way in which you helped out my poor memory. You were too good. I shall hope to see you again sometime, somewhere, and to be able to thank you in person. I know I shall enjoy the book.
Gratefully and sincerely yours,

One evening, two weeks later, George Talmadge was lounging in his room in that particular, hopeless despondency in which a man is apt to be plunged when he has decided to do what he reluctantly believes to be his duty. He had decided to go to South America.
Something drew him to his desk. He took a card from his pocket, and wrote slowly, ‘I am sailing for South America in three days, to be gone for a few years. If you should happen to be passing through town, won’t you call me up so that I might meet you somewhere, and hear what you think of Lord Rosebery?’
Both sides of the card were covered with the diminutive writing. He read it over to see if she could decipher it.
Then, with a quick gesture, he threw the card into his empty fireplace, struck a match, held it to the message, and in a moment it was gone.