September daylight, watery and uncertain, and very different from the golden purity of California's September sunshine, fell in pale oblongs upon the polished floor of a certain London drawing-room, and battled with the dancing radiance of a coal fire that sent cheering gleams and flashes of gold into the duskiest corners of the room.
It was a beautiful room, and a part of a beautiful house, for the American doctor and his wife, deciding to make the English capital their home, had searched and waited patiently until in Camden Hill Road they had discovered a house possessed of just the irresistible combination of bigness and coziness, beauty and simplicity, for which they had hoped. In the soft tones of the rugs, the plain and comfortable chairs, the warm glow of a lamp shade, or the gleam of a leather-bound book, there was at once a suggestion of discrimination and of informal ease. And informal yet strangely exhilarating the friends of Doctor and Mrs. Studdiford found it. Very famous folk liked to sit in these deep chairs, and talk on and on beside this friendly fire, while London slept, and the big clock in the hall turned night into morning. No hosts in London were more popular than the big, genial doctor, and his clever, silent, and most beautiful wife. Mrs. Studdiford was an essentially genuine person; the flowers in her drawing-room, like the fruit on her table, were sure to be sensibly in season; her clothes and her children's clothes were extraordinarily simple, and her new English friends, simple and domestic as they were, whatever their rank, found her to be one of themselves in these things, and took her to their hearts.
Julia herself was sitting before the fire now, one slippered foot to the blaze. Four years in London life had left her as lovely as ever; perhaps there was even an increase of beauty in the lines of her closed lips, a certain accentuation of the old spiritual sweetness in her look. Her bright hair was still wound about her head in loose braids, and her severely simple gown of Quaker gray was relieved at the wrists and throat by transparent frills of white. In her arms lay a baby less than a year old, a splendid boy, whose eyes, through half-closed lids, were lazily studying the fire. His little smocked white frock showed sturdy bare knees, and the fine web of his yellow hair blew like a gold mist against his mother's breast.
The room's only other occupant, a tall, handsome woman, in a tan cloth suit, with rich furs, presently turned from the deep curtained arch of a window. This was Barbara Fox, Lady Curriel now, still thin, and still with a hint of sharpness and fatigue in her browned face, yet with rare content and satisfaction written there, too. Barbara's life was full, and every hour brought its demand on her time, but she was a very happy woman, devoted to her husband and her three small sons, and idolizing her baby daughter. Her winters were devoted to the social and political interests that played so large a part in her husband's life and her own, but Julia knew that she was far more happy in the summers, when her brood ran wild over the old manor house at High Darmley, and every cottager stopped to salute the donkey cart and the shouting heirs of "the big family."
"Not a sign of them!" said Barbara now, coming from the window to the fire, and loosening her furs as she sat down opposite Julia. "Is he asleep?" she added in a cautious undertone.
"Not he!" answered Julia, with a kiss for her son. "He's just lying here and finking 'bout fings! I don't know where the others can be," she went on, in evident reference to Barbara's vigil at the window. "Jim said lunch, and it's nearly one o'clock now! Take your things off, Babbie, and lunch with us?"
"Positively I mustn't, dear. I must be at home. I've to see the paperers at two o'clock, and to-morrow morning early, you know, we go back to the kiddies at the seaside."
"And they're all well?"
"Oh, splendid. Even Mary's out of doors all day, and digging in the sand! We think Jim's right about Geordie's throat, by the way; it ought to be done, I suppose, but it doesn't seem to trouble him at all, and it can wait! Julie dear, why don't you and the boy and Anna come down, if only for four or five days? Bring nurse, and some old cottons, and a parasol, and we'll have a lovely, comfy time!"
"But we're just home!" Julia protested laughingly. "I've hardly got straightened out yet! However, I'll speak to Jim," she went on. "This gentleman thinks he would like it, and Anna is frantic to see the boys."
"And we must talk!" Barbara added coaxingly. "Is California lovely?"
"Oh—" Julia raised her brows, with her grave smile. "Home is home, Bab."
"And Mother looks well?"
"Your mother looks very well. But when she and Janey come on in January you'll see for yourself. Janey's so pretty; I wish she'd marry, but she never sees any one but Rich! Rich is simply adorable; he had Con and her husband and little girl with him this summer. Con's getting very fat—she's great fun! And Ted's very much improved, Bab, very much more gentle and sweet. She told me about Bob Carleton's death, poor fellow! She went to see him and took George, and do you know, I don't think Ted will marry again, although she's handsomer than ever!"
"And Sally's the perfect celebrity's wife?" Barbara asked, with a smile.
"Sally? But I wrote you that," Julia laughed. "Yes, Keith was giving a concert in Philadelphia when we went through at Easter. So Jim and I made a special trip down to hear it, and, my dear! The hall was packed, the women went simply crazy over him, and he's really quite poetical looking, long hair and all that. And Sally—-I saw her at the hotel the next morning, and such a manner! Protecting the privacy of the genius, don't you know, and seeing reporters, and answering requests for autographs, and declining invitations, here, there, and everywhere! I think she has more fun than Keith does! He's quite helpless without her; won't see a manager or answer a note, or even order a luncheon! 'Sally,' he says, handing her a card, 'what do I like? Tell them not to ask me!' He worships her, and, of course, she worships him; she even said to me that it was lucky there were no children—Keith hated children!"
"Funny life!" Barbara mused, half laughing. "And your people are well, Ju?" "Splendidly," Julia smiled. "Mama looks just the same; she was simply wild about our Georgie—saw him nearly every day, for if I couldn't go I sent nurse with him. My cousin Marguerite is dead, you know, and her husband is really a very clever fellow, a tailor, making lots of money. He and the three children have come to live with Aunt May; Regina manages the whole crowd; it's really the happiest sort of a home! Anna had beautiful times there; she remembered it all, and Aunt May and Mama nearly spoiled her!"
"You couldn't spoil her," Barbara said affectionately. "She is really the dearest and most precious! Are you going to let La Franz paint her?"
"No." Julia's motherly pride showed only in a sudden brightness in her blue eyes. "And I hope no one will tell her that he asked! Even at ten, Bab, they are quite sufficiently aware of admiration. She had on a sort of greeny-yallery velvet gown the day we met him, and really she was quite toothsome, if you ask an unprejudiced observer. But Jim and I were wondering if it's wise to make her quite so picturesque!"
"You can't help it," Barbara said. "She's just as lovely in a Holland pinny, or a nightie, or a bathing suit! I declare she was too lovely on the sands last year, with her straw-coloured hair, and a straw-coloured hat, and her pink cheeks matching a pink apron! She's going to be prettier than you are, Ju!"
"Well, at that she won't set the Thames afire!" Julia smiled.
"I don't know! You ought to be an absolutely happy woman, Julie."
Julia settled the baby's head more comfortably against her arm, and raised earnest eyes.
"Is any one, Bab? Are you?"
"Well, yes, I think I am!" Lady Curriel said thoughtfully. "Of course those months before Francis's uncle died were awfully hard on us all, and then before Mary came I was wretched; but now—there's really nothing, except that we do not live within our income when we're in the town house, and that frets Francis a good deal. Of course I try to economize in summer, and we catch up, but it's an ever-present worry! And then our Geordie's throat, you know, and being so far from Mother and Rich and the girls, of course! But those things really don't count, Ju. And in the main I'm absolutely happy and satisfied. I'm pleased with the way my life has gone!"
"Pleased is mild," Julia agreed. "I'd be an utter ingrate to be anything but pleased, looking back. Jim is exceptional, of course, and Anna and this young person seem to me pretty nice in their little ways! And when we went home this year it was really pleasant and touching, I thought; all San Francisco was gracious; we could have had five times as long a visit and not worn our welcome out!"
"So much for having been presented," laughed Barbara.
"Well, I suppose so. Mama was wild with interest about it; she has my photograph, in the gown I wore to the drawing-room, framed on the wall. But Aunt May was dubious, isn't at all sure that she admires the British royal family. She's a most delightful person!" Julia laughed out gayly. "If ever I happen to speak of the Duchess of This or Lady That, Mama's eyes fairly dance, but Aunt May isn't going to be hoodwinked by any title. 'Ha!' she says. 'Do you think they're one bit better in the sight of God than I am?' And I like nothing better than to regale her on their silliness, tell her how one has forty wigs, and another is so afraid of losing her diamonds she has a man sit and watch them every night. Long afterward I hear her exclaiming to herself, 'Wigs, indeed!' or 'Diamonds! Well, did you ever!'"
"When you come to think of it, Ju, isn't it odd to think of your own people doing their own work, 'way out there on the very edge of the western world, and you here, in a fair way to become a London f'yvourite!"
"Doing their own work, indeed!" laughed Julia. "My good lady, you forget Carrie. Carrie comes in every night to do the dishes, and because she's coloured, my Aunt May has always felt that she stole sugar and tea. However, we all laughed at Aunt May this year, when it came to suspecting Carrie of stealing Regina's face powder! No, but you're quite right, Bab," she went on more seriously. "It's all very strange and dramatic. Saturday, when the Duchess came in to welcome us, and flowers came from all sides, and the Penniscots came to carry us off to dinner, I really felt, 'Lawk a mussy on me, this can't be I!'"
"Well, then, where is the pill in the jelly?" asked Barbara solicitously.
Julia had flung back her head and was listening intently. Footsteps and voices were unmistakably coming up the hall stairs.
"No pills—all jelly!" she had time to say smilingly, before the door opened and three persons came into the room: Doctor Studdiford, handsomer and more boyishly radiant than ever; Miss Toland, quite gray, but erect and vigorous still; and little Anna, a splendid, glowing ten-year-old, in the blue serge sailor suit and round straw hat made popular by the little English princess.
Babel followed. Every one must kiss Barbara; little George must come in for his full share of attention. Presently the beaming Ellie was summoned, and the children went away with her; Barbara carried off her aunt for a makeshift luncheon in the dismantled Curriel mansion, and the Studdifords were left alone.
"We picked Aunt Sanna up at the corner," said Jim, one arm about his wife as they stood in the window looking down at the departing visitors, "and of course Anna must drag her along with us to see the baby lion! I stopped at Lord Essels's, by the way, and it's a perfect knit—can't tell where one bone stops and the other begins!"
"Oh, Jimmy, you old miracle worker! Aren't you pleased?"
"Well, rath-er! And young Lady Essels wants to call on you, Ju; says you were the loveliest thing at the New Year's ball last year! Remember when we rushed home to feed Georgie, and rushed back again?"
"Oh, perfectly. I hope she will come; she looked sweet. And every one's coming to our Tuesday dinner, Jim, except Ivy; notes from them all. Ivy says Lady Violet is so ill that she can't promise, but Phyllis is coming with the new husband. She wrote such a cunning note! And—I'll see Ivy this afternoon, and I think I'll tell her that I'm going to leave her place open; if she can't come, why we'll just have to have a man over, that's all! It won't be awfully formal anyway, Jimmy, at this time of the year!"
"Whatever you say, old lady!" Jim was thinking of something else. "How do you feel about leaving the kids and going off for a little run with the Parkes to-morrow night?" he asked. "He's found some new place in which he wants us to dine and sleep. Home the next morning."
"Well, I could do that," Julia said thoughtfully.
"You're terribly decent about leaving 'em," said Jim, who knew how Julia hated to be away from Anna and George at night, "but, really, I think this'll be fun—cards, you know, and a good dinner."
"To-morrow." Jim hesitated. "I know you're not crazy about them," he said.
"I don't dislike them," Julia said brightly. "She's really lots of fun, but of course he's the Honourable and he's a little spoiled. But I'm really glad to go. Was Anna nice this morning?"
"Oh, she was lovely—held her little head up and trotted along, asking intelligent questions, don't you know—not like a chattering kid. She pitched right into me on the governess question; she's all for Miss Percival's school, won't hear of a governess for a minute!"
"And the stern parent compromised on Miss Percival?" smiled Julia.
"Well, I only promised for a year," Jim said, shamefaced. "And you were against the governess proposition, too," he added accusingly.
"Absolutely," she assured him soothingly. "I love to have Anna with me in the afternoons, and when Bab's in town we can send her over there—she's no trouble!" Julia turned her face up for a kiss. "Run and wash your hands, Doctor dear!" said she.
"Yes—and what are you going to do?" Jim asked jealously.
"I'm going to wait for you right here, and we'll go down together," she said pacifically. Jim took another kiss.
"Happy?" he asked.
Just as he had asked her a thousand times in the past four years. And always she had answered him, as she did now:
"Happiest woman in the world, Jim!"
The happiest woman in the world! Julia, left alone, still stood dreaming in the curtained window, her eyes idly following the quiet life of the sunny street below. A hansom clattered by, an open carriage in which an old, old couple were taking an airing. Half a square away she could see the Park, with gray-clad nurses chatting over their racing charges or the tops of perambulators.
But Julia's thoughts were not with these. A little frown shaded her eyes, and her mouth was curved by a smile more sad than sweet. The happiest woman in the world! Yet, as she stood there, she felt an utter disenchantment with life seize upon her; she felt an overwhelming weariness in the battle that was not yet over. For Julia knew now that life to her must be a battle; whatever the years to come might hold for her, they could not hold more than an occasional heavenly interval of peace. Peace for Jim, peace for her mother, peace for her children and for all those whom she loved; but for herself there must be times of an increasing burden, an increasing weariness, and the gnawing of an undying fight with utter discouragement. Her secret must never be anything but a secret; and yet, to Julia, it sometimes seemed that her only happiness in life would be to shout it to the whole world.
Not always, for there were, of course, serene long stretches of happiness, confident times in which she was really what she seemed to be, only beautiful, young, exceptionally fortunate and beloved. But it was into these very placid intervals that the word or look would enter, to bring her house of cards crashing about her head once more.
Sometimes, not often, it was a mere casual acquaintance whose chance remark set the old, old wound to throbbing; or sometimes it was Barbara's or Miss Toland's praise: "You're so sweet and fine, Ju—if only we'd all done with our opportunities as you have!" Oftener it was Jim's voice that consciously or unconsciously on his part stabbed Julia to the very soul. For him, the sting was gone, because, at the first prick, Julia was there to take it and bear it. No need to conceal from her now the bitterness of his moods; she would meet him halfway. He was worrying about that old affair? Ah, he mustn't do that—here were Julia's arms about him, her lovely face close to his, her sweet and earnest sympathy ready to probe bravely into his darkest thought, and find him some balm. Still gowned from a ball, perhaps, jewelled, perfumed, dragging her satin train after her, she would come straight into his arms, with: "Something's worrying you, dearest, tell me what it is? I love you so—"
No resentment on Jim's part could live for a moment in this atmosphere. He only wanted to tell her about it, to be soothed like a small boy, to catch his beautiful wife in his arms, and win from her lips again and again the assurance that she loved him and him alone. What these scenes cost Julia's own fine sense of delicacy and dignity, only Julia knew. They left her with a vague feeling of shame, a consciousness of compromise. For a day or two after such an episode a new hesitancy would mark her manner, a certain lack of confidence lend pathos to the sweetness of her voice.
But no outside influence ever could bring home to her the realization of the shadow on her life as forcibly as did her own inner musings, the testimony of her own soul. If she had but been innocent, how easy to bear Jim's scorn, or the scorn of the whole world! It was the bitter knowledge that she had taken her life in her own hands nearly twenty years ago, and wrecked it more surely than if she had torn out her own eyes, that made her heart sick within her now. She, who loved dignity, who loved purity, who loved strength, must carry to her grave the knowledge of her own detestable weakness! She must instruct her daughter, guarding the blue eyes and the active mind from even the knowledge of life's ugly side, she must hold the highest standard of purity before her son, knowing, as she knew, that far back at her life's beginning, were those few hideous weeks that, in the eyes of the world, could utterly undo the work of twenty strong and steadfast years! She must be silent when she longed to cry aloud, she must train herself to cry aloud at the thing that she had been. And she must silently endure the terrible fact that her husband knew, and that he would never forget. Over and over again her spirit shrank at some new evidence of the fact that, with all his love for her, his admiration, his loyalty, there was a reservation in her husband's heart, a conviction—of which he was perhaps not conscious himself—that Julia was not quite as other women. Her criticism of others must be more gentle, her opinion less confidently offered. Others might find in her exceptional charms, rare strength, and rare wisdom—not Jim. For him she was always the exquisite penitent, who had so royally earned a perpetually renewed forgiveness, the little crippled playfellow whom it was his delight to carry in his arms. His judgment for what concerned his children was the wiser, and for her, too, when she longed to throw herself into this work of reform or that—to expose herself, in other words, to the very element from which a kind Providence had seen fit to remove her. Obviously, on certain subjects there must not be two opinions, in any house, and, whatever the usual custom, obviously he was the person to decide in his own.
"Rich says you were not a saint yourself when you were in college, Jim!" she had burst out once, long years ago, before their separation. But only once. After all, the laws were not of Jim's making; whatever he had done, he was a respecter of convention, a keeper of the law of man. Julia had broken God's law, had repented, and had been forgiven. But she had also broken the law of man, for which no woman ever is forgiven. And though this exquisite and finished woman, with her well-stored brain and ripened mind, her position and her charm, was not the little Julia Page of the old O'Farrell Street days, she must pay the price of that other Julia's childish pride and ignorance still.
She must go on, listening, with her wise, wistful smile, to the chatter of other women, wincing at a thousand little pricks that even her husband could not see, winning him from his ugly moods with that mixture of the child and the woman that his love never could resist.
His love! After all he did love her and his children, and she loved the three with every fibre of heart and soul. Julia ended her reverie, as she always ended her reveries, with a new glow of hope in her heart and a half smile on her lips. Their love would save them all—love fulfilled the law.
"Julia!" said Jim, at the door, "where are you?"
She turned in her window recess.
"Not escaped, O Sultan!"
"Well"—he had his arm about her, his air was that of a humoured child—"I didn't suppose you had! But I hate you to go down without me!"
"Well, the poor abused boy!" Julia laughed. "Come, we'll go down together!"
"What were you thinking of, standing there all that time?" he asked.
"You principally, Doctor Studdiford!" Julia gave him a quick sidewise glance.
"Glad I came out to the Mission to fix the Daley kid's arm?" Jim asked.
"Glad!" said Julia softly, with a great sigh that belied her smile. They took each other's hands, like children, and went down the broad stairway together.