They were paying the price of their romance, and the question was whether they would pay it cheerfully. They had been married a couple of years, and the first flush of excitement over their passion and the stumbling-blocks it had met was fading away. When he, an untried young lawyer and delicate dilettante, had married her she was a Miss Benton, of St. Louis, "niece of Oliphant, that queer old fellow who made his money in the Tobacco Trust," and hence with no end of prospects. Edwards had been a pleasant enough fellow, and Oliphant had not objected to his loafing away a vacation about the old house at Quogue. Marriage with his niece, the one remaining member of his family who walked the path that pleased him, was another thing. She had plenty of warning. Had he not sent his only son adrift as a beggar because he had married a little country cousin? He could make nothing out of Edwards except that he was not keen after business—loafed much, smoked much, and fooled with music, possibly wrote songs at times.
Yet Miss Benton had not expected that cruel indifference when she announced her engagement to the keen old man. For she was fond of him and grateful.
"When do you think of marrying?" had been his single comment. She guessed the unexpressed complement to that thought, "You can stay here until that time. Then good-by."
She found in herself an admirable spirit, and her love added devotion and faith in the future, her lover's future. So she tided over the months of her engagement, when her uncle's displeasure settled down like a fog over the pleasant house. Edwards would run down frequently, but Oliphant managed to keep out of his way. It was none of his affair, and he let them see plainly this aspect of it. Her spirit rose. She could do as other women did, get on without candy and roses, and it hurt her to feel that she had expected money from her uncle. She could show him that they were above that.
So they were married and went to live in a little flat in Harlem, very modest, to fit their income. Oliphant had bade her good-by with the courtesy due to a tiresome Sunday visitor. "Oh, you're off, are you?" his indifferent tones had said. "Well, good-by; I hope you will have a good time." And that was all. Even the colored cook had said more; the servants in general looked deplorable. Wealth goes so well with a pretty, bright young woman!
Thus it all rested in the way they would accept the bed they had made. Success would be ample justification. Their friends watched to see how well they would solve the problem they had so jauntily set themselves.
Edwards was by no means a fainéant—his record at the Columbia Law School promised better than that, and he had found a place in a large office that might answer for the stepping-stone. As yet he had not individualized himself; he was simply charming, especially in correct summer costume, luxuriating in indolent conversation. He had the well-bred, fine-featured air of so many of the graduates from our Eastern colleges. The suspicion of effeminacy which he suggested might be unjust, but he certainly had not experienced what Oliphant would call "life." He had enough interest in music to dissipate in it. Marriage was an excellent settler, though, on a possible income of twelve hundred!
The two years had not the expected aspiring march, however; ten-dollar cases, even, had not been plenty in Edwards's path, and he suspected that he was not highly valued in his office. He had been compelled to tutor a boy the second year, and the hot summers made him listless. In short, he felt that he had missed his particular round in the ladder. He should have studied music, or tried for the newspapers as a musical critic. Sunday afternoons he would loll over the piano, picturing the other life—that life which is always so alluring! His wife followed him heroically into all his moods with that pitiful absorption such women give to the men they love. She believed in him tremendously, if not as a lawyer, as a man and an artist. Somehow she hadn't been an inspiration, and for that she humbly blamed herself. How was it accomplished, this inspiration? A loving wife inspired the ordinary man. Why not an artist?
They got into the habit of planning their life all differently—so that it might not be limited and futile. If they had a few thousand dollars! That was a bad sign, and she knew it, and struggled against it. If she could only do something to keep the pot boiling while he worked at his music for fame and success! But she could reduce expenses; so the one servant went, and the house-bills grew tinier and tinier. However, they didn't "make connections," and—something was wrong—she wondered what.
As the second summer came in they used to stroll out of their stuffy street of an evening, up St. Nicholas Avenue, to the Park, or to the Riverside Drive. There they would sit speechless, she in a faded blue serge skirt with a crisp, washed-out shirtwaist, and an old sailor hat—dark and pretty, in spite of her troubled face; he in a ready-made black serge suit, yet very much the gentleman—pale and listless. Their eyes would seek out any steamer in the river below, or anything else that reminded them of other conditions. He would hum a bit from an opera. They needed no words; their faces were evident, though mute, indications of the tragedy. Then they would return at bed-time into the sultry streets, where from the open windows of the flats came the hammered music of the city. Such discordant efforts for harmony! Her heart would fill over him, yearning like a mother to cherish him in all the pleasant ways of life, but impotent, impotent!
She never suggested greater effort. Conditions were hard, she said over and over; if there were only a little money to give him a start in another direction. She admired his pride in never referring to old Oliphant. Her uncle was often in her mind, but she felt that even if she could bring herself to petition him, her husband would indignantly refuse to consider the matter.
Still, she thought about it, and especially this summer, for she knew he was then at Quogue. Moreover, she expected her first child. That worried her daily; she saw how hopeless another complication would make their fate. She cried over it at night when the room was too hot to sleep. And then she reproached herself; God would punish her for not wanting her baby.
One day she had gone down town to get some materials for the preparations she must make. She liked to shop, for sometimes she met old friends; this time in a large shop she happened upon a woman she had known at Quogue, the efficient wife of a successful minister in Brooklyn. This Mrs. Leicester invited her to lunch at the cafe at the top of the building, and she had yielded, after a little urging, with real relief. They sat down at a table near the window—it was so high up there was not much noise—and the streets suddenly seemed interesting to Mrs. Edwards. The quiet table, the pleasant lunch, and the energetic Mrs. Leicester were all refreshing.
"And how is your husband?" Mrs. Leicester inquired, keenly. As a minister's wife she was compelled to interest herself in sentimental complications that inwardly bored her. It was a part of her professional duties. She had taken in this situation at once—she had seen that kind of thing before; it made her impatient. But she liked the pretty little woman before her, and was sorry she hadn't managed better.
"Pretty well," Mrs. Edwards replied, consciously. "The heat drags one down so!"
Mrs. Leicester sent another quick glance across the table. "You haven't been to Quogue much of late, have you? You know how poorly your uncle is."
"No! You must know that Uncle James doesn't see us."
"Well," Mrs. Leicester went on, hastily, "he's been quite ill and feeble, and they say he's growing queer. He never goes away now, and sees nobody. Most of the servants have gone. I don't believe he will last long."
Then her worldliness struggled with her conventional position, and she relapsed into innuendo. "He ought to have someone look after him, to see him die decently, for he can't live beyond the autumn, and the only person who can get in is that fat, greasy Dr. Shapless, who is after his money for the Methodist missions. He goes down every week. I wonder where Mr. Oliphant's son can be?"
Mrs. Edwards took in every word avidly while she ate. But she let the conversation drift off to Quogue, their acquaintances, and the difficulty of shopping in the summer. "Well, I must be going to get the train," exclaimed Mrs. Leicester at last. With a sigh the young wife rose, looked regretfully down at the remains of their liberal luncheon, and then walked silently to the elevator. They didn't mention Oliphant again, but there was something understood between them. Mrs. Leicester hailed a cab; just as she gathered her parcels to make a dive, she seemed illuminated with an idea. "Why don't you come down some Sunday—visit us? Mr. Leicester would be delighted."
Mrs. Edwards was taken unawares, but her instincts came to her rescue.
"Why, we don't go anywhere; it's awfully kind, and I should be delighted; I am afraid Mr. Edwards can't."
"Well," sighed Mrs. Leicester, smiling back, unappeased, "come if you can; come alone." The cab drove off, and the young wife felt her cheeks burn.
* * * * *
The Edwardses had never talked over Oliphant or his money explicitly. They shrank from it; it would be a confession of defeat. There was something abhorrently vulgar in thus lowering the pitch of their life. They had come pretty near it often this last summer. But each feared what the other might think. Edwards especially was nervous about the impression it might make on his wife, if he should discuss the matter. Mrs. Leicester's talk, however, had opened possibilities for the imagination. So little of Uncle James's money, she mused, would make them ideally happy—would put her husband on the road to fame. She had almost made up her mind on a course of action, and she debated the propriety of undertaking the affair without her husband's knowledge. She knew that his pride would revolt from her plan. She could pocket her own pride, but she was tender of his conscience, of his comfort, of his sensibilities. It would be best to act at once by herself—perhaps she would fail, anyway—and to shield him from the disagreeable and useless knowledge and complicity. She couldn't resist throwing out some feelers, however, at supper that night. He had come in tired and soiled after a day's tramp collecting bills that wouldn't collect this droughty season. She had fussed over him and coaxed a smile out, and now they were at their simple tea.
She recounted the day's events as indifferently as possible, but her face trembled as she described the luncheon, the talk, the news of her uncle, and at last Mrs. Leicester's invitation. Edwards had started at the first mention of Quogue.
"It's been in his mind," she thought, half-relieved, and his nervous movements of assumed indifference made it easier for her to go on.
"It was kind of her, wasn't it?" she ended.
"Yes," Edwards replied, impressively. "Of course you declined."
"Oh, yes; but she seemed to expect us all the same." Edwards frowned, but he kept an expectant silence. So she remarked, tentatively:
"It would be so pleasant to see dear old Quogue again." Her hypocrisy made her flush. Edwards rose abruptly from the table and wandered about the room. At length he said, in measured tones, his face averted from her:
"Of course, under the circumstances, we cannot visit Quogue while your uncle lives—unless he should send for us." Thus he had put himself plainly on record. His wife suddenly saw the folly and meanness of her little plans.
It was hardly a disappointment; her mind felt suddenly relieved from an unpleasant responsibility. She went to her husband, who was nervously playing at the piano, and kissed him, almost reverently. It had been a temptation from which he had saved her. They talked that evening a good deal, planning what they would do if they could get over to Europe for a year, calculating how cheaply they could go. It was an old subject. Sometimes it kept off the blues; sometimes it indicated how blue they were. Mrs. Edwards forgot the disturbance of the day until she was lying wide awake in her hot bed. Then the old longings came in once more; she saw the commonplace present growing each month more dreary; her husband drudging away, with his hopes sinking. Suddenly he spoke:
"What made Mrs. Leicester ask us, do you suppose?" So he was thinking of it again.
"I don't know!" she replied, vaguely. Soon his voice came again:
"You understand, Nell, that I distinctly disapprove of our making any effort that way." She didn't think that her husband was a hypocrite. She did not generalize when she felt deeply. But she knew that her husband didn't want the responsibility of making any effort. Somehow she felt that he would be glad if she should make the effort and take the responsibility on her own shoulders.
Why had he lugged it into plain light again if he hadn't expected her to do something? How could she accomplish it without making it unpleasant for him? Before daylight she had it planned, and she turned once and kissed her husband, protectingly.
* * * * *
That August morning, as she walked up the dusty road, fringed with blossoming golden-rod, toward the little cottage of the Leicesters, she was content, in spite of her tumultuous mind. It was all so heavenly quiet! the thin, drooping elms, with their pendent vines, like the waterfalls of a maiden lady; the dusty snarls of blackberry bushes; the midsummer contented repose of the air, and that distantly murmuring sea—it was all as she remembered it in her childhood. A gap of disturbed years closed up, and peace once more! The old man slowly dying up beyond in that deserted, gambrel-roofed house would Forget and forgive.
Mrs. Leicester received her effusively, anxious now not to meddle dangerously in what promised to be a ticklish business. Mrs. Edwards must stay as long as she would. The Sundays were especially lonely, for Mr. Leicester did not think she should bear the heat of the city so soon, and left her alone when he returned to Brooklyn for his Sunday sermon. Of course, stay as long as Mr. Edwards could spare her—a month; if possible.
At the mention of Mr. Edwards the young wife had a twinge of remorse for the manner in which she had evaded him—her first deceit for his sake. She had talked vaguely about visiting a friend at Moriches, and her husband had fallen in with the idea. New York was like a finely divided furnace, radiating heat from every tube-like street. So she was to go for a week or ten days. Perhaps the matter would arrange itself before that time was up; if not, she would write him what she had done. But ten days seemed so long that she put uncomfortable thoughts out of her head.
Mrs. Leicester showed her to her room, a pretty little box, into which the woodbine peeped and nodded, and where from one window she could get a glimpse of the green marshes, with the sea beyond. After chatting awhile, her hostess went out, protesting that her guest must be too tired to come down. Mrs. Edwards gladly accepted the excuse, ate the luncheon the maid brought, in two bites, and then prepared to sally forth.
She knew the path between the lush meadow-grass so well! Soon she was at the entrance to the "Oliphant place." It was more run down than two years ago; the lower rooms were shut up tight in massive green blinds that reached to the warped boards of the veranda. It looked old, neglected, sad, and weary; and she felt almost justified in her mission. She could bring comfort and light to the dying man.
In a few minutes she was smothering the hysterical enthusiasm of her old friend, Dinah. It was as she had expected: Oliphant had grown more suspicious and difficult for the last two years, and had refused to see a doctor, or, in fact, anyone but the Rev. Dr. Shapless and a country lawyer whom he used when absolutely necessary. He hadn't left his room for a month; Dinah had carried him the little he had seen fit to eat. She was evidently relieved to see her old mistress once more at hand. She asked no questions, and Mrs. Edwards knew that she would obey her absolutely.
They were sitting in Oliphant's office, a small closet off the more pretentious library, and Mrs. Edwards could see the disorder into which the old man's papers had fallen. The confusion preceding death had already set in.
After laying aside her hat, she went up, unannounced, to her uncle's room, determined not to give him an opportunity to dismiss her out of hand. He was lying with his eyes closed, so she busied herself in putting the room to rights, in order to quiet her nerves. The air was heavily languorous, and soon in the quiet country afternoon her self-consciousness fell asleep, and she went dreaming over the irresponsible past, the quiet summers, and the strange, stern old man. Suddenly she knew that he was awake and watching her closely. She started, but, as he said nothing, she went on with her dusting, her hand shaking.
He made no comment while she brought him his supper and arranged the bed. Evidently he would accept her services. Her spirit leapt up with the joy of success. That was the first step. She deemed it best to send for her meagre satchel, and to take possession of her old room. In that way she could be more completely mistress of the situation and of him. She had had no very definite ideas of action before that afternoon; her one desire had been to be on the field of battle, to see what could be done, perhaps to use a few tears to soften the implacable heart. But now her field opened out. She must keep the old man to herself, within her own care—not that she knew specifically what good that would do, but it was the tangible nine points of the law.
The next morning Oliphant showed more life, and while she was helping him into his dressing-gown, he vouchsafed a few grunts, followed by a piercing inquiry:
"Is he dead yet?"
The young wife flushed with indignant protest.
"Well, we haven't starved yet." But she was cowed by his cynical examination. He relapsed into silence; his old, bristly face assumed a sardonic peace whenever his eyes fell upon her. She speculated about that wicked beatitude; it made her uncomfortable. He was still, however—never a word from morning till night.
The routine of little duties about the sickroom she performed punctiliously. In that way she thought to put her conscience to rights, to regard herself in the kind rôle of ministering angel. That illusion was hard to attain in the presence of the sardonic comment the old man seemed to add. After all, it was a vulgar grab after the candied fruits of this life.
She had felt it necessary to explain her continued absence to her husband. Mrs. Leicester, who did not appear to regard her actions as unexpected, had undertaken that delicate business. Evidently, she had handled it tactfully, for Mrs. Edwards soon received a hurried note. He felt that she was performing her most obvious duty; he could not but be pleased that the breach caused by him had been thus tardily healed. As long as her uncle continued in his present extremity, she must remain. He would run down to the Leicesters over Sundays, etc. Mrs. Edwards was relieved; it was nice of him—more than that, delicate—not to be stuffy over her action.
The uppermost question these days of monotonous speculation was how long would this ebb-tide of a tenacious life flow. She took a guilty interest in her uncle's condition, and yet she more than half wished him to live. Sometimes he would rally. Something unfulfilled troubled his mind, and once he even crawled downstairs. She found him shakily puttering over the papers in his huge davenport. He asked her to make a fire in the grate, and then, gathering up an armful of papers, he knelt down on the brick hearth, but suddenly drew back. His deep eyes gleamed hatefully at her. Holding out several stiff papers, he motioned to her to burn them. Usually she would have obeyed docilely enough, but this deviltry of merriment she resented. While she delayed, standing erect before the smouldering sticks, she noticed that a look of terror crept across the sick face. A spasm shook him, and he fainted. After that his weakness kept him in bed. She wondered what he had been so anxious to burn.
From this time her thoughts grew more specific. Just how should she attain her ends? Had he made a will? Could he not now do something for them, or would it be safer to bide their time? Indeed, for a few moments she resolved to decide all by one straightforward prayer. She began, and the old man seemed so contentedly prepared for the scene that she remained dumb.
In this extremity of doubt she longed to get aid from her husband. Yet under the circumstances she dared to admit so little. One Saturday afternoon he called at the house; she was compelled to share some of her perplexities.
"He seems so very feeble," she remarked. They were sitting on the veranda some distance from Oliphant's room, yet their conversation was furtive. "Perhaps he should see a doctor or a minister."
"No, I don't think so," Edwards replied, assuringly. "You see, he doesn't believe in either, and such things should be left to the person himself, as long as he's in his right mind."
"And a lawyer?" Mrs. Edwards continued, probingly.
"Has he asked for one?"
"No, but he seems to find it hard to talk."
"I guess it's best not to meddle. Who's that?"
A little, fat man in baggy black trousers and a seersucker coat was panting up the gentle hill to the gate. He had a puggy nose and a heavy, thinly bearded face incased about the eyes in broad steel spectacles.
"That must be Dr. Shapless," she said, in a flutter.
"What of it?" Edwards replied.
"He mustn't come in," she cried, with sudden energy. "You must see him, and send him away! He wants to see Uncle Oliphant. Tell him he's too sick—to come another day." Edwards went down the path to meet him. Through the window she could hear a low conversation, and then crunched gravel. Meantime Oliphant seemed restlessly alert, expectant of something, and with suspicious eyes intent on her.
Her heart thumped with relief when the gate clicked. Edwards had been effective that time. Oliphant was trying to say something, but the hot August day had been too much for him—it all ended in a mumble. Then she pulled in the blinds, settled the pillows nervously, and left the room in sheer fright.
The fight had begun—and grimly.
* * * * *
"I wonder what the old cove wanted?" Edwards said the next day; "he was dead set on seeing your uncle; said he had an engagement with him, and looked me up and down. I stood him off, but he'll be down again."
"Don't you know about that new fund the Methodists are raising? Uncle Oliphant has always helped the Methodists, and I suppose Dr. Shapless wanted to see him about some contributions." Edwards asked no more questions, and, in fact, got back to town on a pretext of business that afternoon. He was clearly of no use in Quogue. His wife sent for a physician that week. It was tardy justice to propriety, but it was safe then, for Oliphant had given up all attempts to talk.
The doctor came, looked at the old man, and uttered a few remarks. He would come again. Mrs. Edwards did not need to be told that the end was near. The question was, how soon?
That week had another scare. Somehow old Slocum, the local lawyer Oliphant used, had been summoned, and one morning she ran across him in the hall. She knew the man well of old. He was surprised and pleased to see her, and it was not difficult to get him out of the house without arousing his suspicions. But he would talk so boisterously; she felt her uncle's eyes aflame in anger.
"Be sure and send for me when he rallies, quick," Slocum whispered loudly in the hall. "Perhaps we can do a little something for some folks." And with a wink he went out.
Had she done the clever thing, after all, in shooing old Slocum out? Her mind went over the possibilities in tense anxiety. If there were no will, James, Jr., would get the whole, she thought. If there was a will already in the house, in that old davenport, what then? Would Shapless get the money? She grew keen in speculation. To leave her in the lurch, to give it all to that greasy Shapless, would be the most natural trick in the world for an incisive old fellow like Oliphant.
It was too much! She cried a little, and she began to hate the helpless man upstairs. It occurred to her to poke about in the papers in the adjoining room. She must do it at once, for she expected Edwards every moment.
First she ran upstairs to see if her uncle was all right. As soon as she entered, he glared at her bitterly and would have spoken. She noted the effort and failure, elated. He could not betray her now, unless he rallied wonderfully. So leaving the door ajar, she walked firmly downstairs. Now she could satisfy her desire.
If the money were all left to Shapless? She might secure the will, and bargain with the old parasite for a few thousands of dollars. Her mind was full of wild schemes. If she only knew a little more about affairs! She had heard of wills, and read many novels that turned upon wills lost or stolen. They had always seemed to her improbable, mere novels. Necessity was stranger than fiction.
It did not take long to find the very articles she was after; evidently Oliphant had been overhauling them on that last excursion from his room. The package lay where he had dropped it when he fainted. There were two documents. She unfolded them on the top of the mussy desk. They were hard reading in all their legal dress, and her head was filled with fears lest her husband should walk in. She could make out, however, that Oliphant was much richer than she had ever vaguely supposed, and that since her departure he had relented toward his son. For by the first will in date she was the principal heir, a lot of queer charities coming in besides. In the second, James, Jr., received something. Her name did not appear. Several clauses had been added from time to time, each one giving more money and lands to the Methodists. Probably Shapless was after another codicil when he called.
It had taken her into the twilight to gain even a meagre idea of all this. She was preparing to fold the documents up in their common wrapper, when she felt the door open behind her. All she could see in the terror of the moment was the gaunt white arm of her uncle, and the two angry eyes in the shaking head. She shrieked, from pure nervousness, and at her cry the old man fell in a heap.
The accident steeled her nerves. Dinah came in in a panic, and as they were lifting the bony frame from the floor Edwards arrived. With his assistance they got the sick man to bed.
That was clearly the last gasp. Yet Mrs. Edwards shook in dread every time she entered the room. The look seemed conscious still, intensified malignity and despair creeping in. She was afraid and guilty and unstrung. Perhaps, with some sudden revival of his forces, he would kill her. He was lying there, too still for defeat. His life had been an expression of hates; the last one might be dreadful.
Yet she stood to her post in the sick-room, afraid, as she knew, to trust herself with her husband. Her mind was soiled with seething thoughts, and, in contrast, his seemed so fresh and pure! If she could keep him unsuspicious of her, all would be well in the end. But the task she had set herself for him was hard, so hard!
That night when all was still she crept downstairs and groped about in the davenport for the papers. They had been lying there unopened where they had fallen earlier in the evening. She struck a match, caught up the fresher document, and hugged it to her as she toiled upstairs. When she had tucked it away in her satchel the end seemed near. They must wait now.
She put her husband out of her mind. Outside, the warm summer days died away over the sea, one by one, and the grass beyond the gates grew heavier with dust. Life was tense in its monotony.
* * * * *
That had happened on a Saturday; Monday Dr. Shapless came again, his shoes dusty from his long walk from the station. He looked oiled as ever, but more determined. Mrs. Edwards daringly permitted him to see the dying man—he had been lying in a stupor—for she was afraid that the reverend doctor's loud tones in the hall might exasperate Oliphant to some wild act. Dr. Shapless shut her from the room when he went in, but he did not stay long. A restless despair had settled down on her uncle's face, there to remain for the last few hours.
Her heart sank; she longed to cry out to the poor old man on the bed that she did not want his money. She remained with him all night, yet she did not dare to approach his bed. She would disturb him.
He died the next afternoon, and at the last he looked out on the world and at her with his final note of intelligence. It was pathetic, a suggestion of past tenderness defeated, and of defeat in hate, too. She shuddered as she closed his sad eyes; it was awful to meddle with a man's last purposes.
The funeral was almost surreptitious; old Dinah, the Leicesters, and the Edwardses occupied the one carriage that followed him to the graveyard across the village. They met a hay-cart or two on their way, but no curious neighbors. Old Oliphant's death aroused no interest in this village, ridden with summer strangers.
The day was impersonally suave and tender, with its gentle haze and autumn premonitions. Mr. Leicester said a few equivocal words, while Mrs. Edwards gazed helplessly into the grave. The others fell back behind the minister. Between her and her uncle down there something remained unexplained, and her heart ached.
* * * * *
They spent that night at the Leicesters', for Mrs. Edwards wearily refused to return to the Oliphant place. Edwards carried the keys over to Slocum, and told him to take the necessary steps toward settling the old man's affairs. The next day they returned to the little flat in Harlem. The Leicesters found their presence awkward, now that there was nothing to do, and Mrs. Edwards was craving to be alone with her husband, to shut out the past month from their lives as soon as possible.
These September days, while they both waited in secret anxiety, she clung to him as she had never before. He was pure, the ideal she had voluntarily given up, given up for his sake in order that he might have complete perfection. His delicate sensitiveness kept him from referring to that painful month, or to possible expectations. She worshipped him the more, and was thankful for his complete ignorance. Their common life could go on untainted and noble.
Yet Edwards betrayed his nervous anxiety. His eagerness for the mail every morning, his early return from business, indicated his troubled mind.
The news came at breakfast-time. Mrs. Edwards handed Slocum's letter across the table and waited, her face wanly eager. The letter was long; it took some half-dozen large letter-sheets for the country lawyer to tell his news, but in the end it came. He had found the will and was happy to say that Mrs. Edwards was a large, a very large, beneficiary. Edwards read these closing sentences aloud. He threw down the letter and tried to take her in his arms. But she tearfully pushed him away, and then, repenting, clasped his knees.
"Oh, Will! it's so much, so very much," she almost sobbed.
Edwards looked as if that were not an irremediable fault in their good luck. He said nothing. Already he was planning their future movements. Under the circumstances neither cared to discuss their happiness, and so they got little fun from the first bloom.
In spite of Mrs. Edwards's delicate health and her expected confinement they decided to go abroad. She was feverishly anxious for him to begin his real work at once, to prove himself; and it might be easier to forget her one vicious month when the Atlantic had been crossed. They put their affairs to rights hurriedly, and early in November sailed for France.
The Leicesters were at the dock to bid them God-speed and to chirrup over their good fortune.
"It's all like a good, old-fashioned story," beamed Mrs. Leicester, content with romance for once, now that it had arranged itself so decorously.
"Very satisfactory; quite right," the clergyman added. "We'll see you soon in Paris. We're thinking of a gay vacation, and will let you know."
Edwards looked fatuous; his wife had an orderly smile. She was glad when Sandy Hook sank into the mist. She had only herself to avoid now.
They took some pleasant apartments just off the Rue de Rivoli, and then their life subsided into the complacent commonplace of possession. She was outwardly content to enjoy with her husband, to go to the galleries, the opera, to try the restaurants, and to drive.
Yet her life went into one idea, a very fixed idea, such as often takes hold of women in her condition. She was eager to see him at work. If he accomplished something—even content!—she would feel justified and perhaps happy. As to the child, the idea grew strange to her. Why should she have a third in the problem? For she saw that the child must take its part in her act, must grow up and share their life and inherit the Oliphant money. In brief, she feared the yet unborn stranger, to whom she would be responsible in this queer way. And the child could not repair the wrong as could her husband. Certainly the child was an alien.
She tried to be tender of her husband in his boyish glee and loafing. She could understand that he needed to accustom himself to his new freedom, to have his vacation first. She held herself in, tensely, refraining from criticism lest she might mar his joy. But she counted the days, and when her child had come, she said to herself, then he must work.
This morbid life was very different from what she had fancied the rich future would be, as she looked into the grave, the end of her struggle, that September afternoon. But she had grown to demand so much more from him; she had grown so grave! His bright, boyish face, the gentle curls, had been dear enough, and now she looked for the lines a man's face should have. Why was he so terribly at ease? The world was bitter and hard in its conditions, and a man should not play.
Late in December the Leicesters called; they were like gleeful sparrows, twittering about. Mrs. Edwards shuddered to see them again, and when they were gone she gave up and became ill.
Her tense mind relieved itself in hysterics, which frightened her to further repression. Then one night she heard herself moaning: "Why did I have to take all? It was so little, so very little, I wanted, and I had to take all. Oh, Will, Will, you should have done for yourself! Why did you need this? Why couldn't you do as other men do? It's no harder for you than for them." Then she recollected herself. Edwards was holding her hand and soothing her.
Some weeks later, when she was very ill, she remembered those words, and wondered if he had suspected anything. Her child came and died, and she forgot this matter, with others. She lay nerveless for a long time, without thought; Edwards and the doctor feared melancholia. So she was taken to Italy for the cold months. Edwards cared for her tenderly, but his caressing presence was irritating, instead of soothing, to her. She was hungry for a justification that she could not bring about.
At last it wore on into late spring. She began to force herself back into the old activities, in order to leave no excuse for further dawdling. Her attitude became terribly judicial and suspicious.
An absorbing idleness had settled down over Edwards, partly excused to himself by his wife's long illness. When he noticed that his desultory days made her restless, he took to loafing about galleries or making little excursions, generally in company with some forlorn artist he had picked up. He had nothing, after all, so very definite that demanded his time; he had not yet made up his mind for any attempts. And something in the domestic atmosphere unsettled him. His wife held herself aloof, with alien sympathies, he felt.
So they drifted on to discontent and unhappiness until she could bear it no longer without expression.
"Aren't we to return to Paris soon?" she remarked one morning as they idled over a late breakfast. "I am strong now, and I should like to settle down."
Edwards took the cue, idly welcoming any change.
"Why, yes, in the fall. It's too near the summer now, and there's no hurry."
"Yes, there is hurry," his wife replied, hastily. "We have lost almost eight months."
"Out of a lifetime," Edwards put in, indulgently.
She paused, bewildered by the insinuation of his remark. But her mood was too incendiary to avoid taking offence. "Do you mean that that would be a life, loafing around all day, enjoying this, that, and the other fine pleasure? That wasn't what we planned."
"No, but I don't see why people who are not driven should drive themselves. I want to get the taste of Harlem out of my mouth." He was a bit sullen. A year ago her strict inquiry into his life would have been absurd. Perhaps the money, her money, gave her the right.
"If people don't drive themselves," she went on, passionately, "they ought to be driven. It's cowardly to take advantage of having money to do nothing. You wanted the—the opportunity to do something. Now you have it."
Edwards twisted his wicker chair into uncomfortable places. "Well, are you sorry you happen to have given me the chance?" He looked at her coldly, so that a suspicious thought shot into her mind.
"Yes," she faltered, "if it means throwing it away, I am sorry."
She dared no more. Her mind was so close on the great sore in her gentle soul. He lit a cigarette, and sauntered down the hotel garden. But the look he had given her—a queer glance of disagreeable intelligence—illumined her dormant thoughts.
What if he had known all along? She remembered his meaning words that hot night when they talked over Oliphant's illness for the first time. And why had he been so yielding, so utterly passive, during the sordid drama over the dying man? What kept him from alluding to the matter in any way? Yes, he must have encouraged her to go on. She had been his tool, and he the passive spectator. The blind certainty of a woman made the thing assured, settled. She picked up the faint yellow rose he had laid by her plate, and tore it slowly into fine bits. On the whole, he was worse than she.
But before he returned she stubbornly refused to believe herself.
* * * * *
In the autumn they were again in Paris, in soberer quarters, which were conducive to effort. Edwards was working fitfully with several teachers, goaded on, as he must confess to himself, by a pitiless wife. Not much was discussed between them, but he knew that the price of the statu quo was continued labor.
She was watching him; he felt it and resented it, but he would not understand. All the idealism, the worship of the first sweet months in marriage, had gone. Of course that incense had been foolish, but it was sweet. Instead, he felt these suspicious, intolerant eyes following his soul in and out on its feeble errands. He comforted himself with the trite consolation that he was suffering from the natural readjustment in a woman's mind. It was too drastic for that, however.
He was in the habit of leaving her in the evenings of the opera. The light was too much for her eyes, and she was often tired. One wet April night, when he returned late, he found her up, sitting by the window that overlooked the steaming boulevard. Somehow his soul was rebellious, and when she asked him about the opera he did not take the pains to lie.
"Oh, I haven't been there," he muttered, "I am beastly tired of it all. Let's get out of it; to St. Petersburg or Norway—for the summer," he added, guiltily.
Now that the understanding impended she trembled, for hitherto she had never actually known. In suspicion there was hope. So she almost entreated.
"We go to Vienna next winter anyway, and I thought we had decided on Switzerland for the summer." "You decided! But what's the use of keeping up the mill night and day? There's plenty of opportunity over there for an educated gentleman with money, if what you are after is a 'sphere' for me."
"You want to—to go back now?"
"No, I want to be let alone."
"Don't you care to pay for all you have had? Haven't you any sense of justice to Uncle Oliphant, to your opportunities?"
"Oliphant!" Edwards laughed, disagreeably. "Wouldn't he be pleased to have an operetta, a Gilbert and Sullivan affair, dedicated to him! No. I have tried to humor your idea of making myself famous. But what's the use of being wretched?" The topic seemed fruitless. Mrs. Edwards looked over to the slight, careless figure. He was sitting dejectedly on a large fauteuil, smoking. He seemed fagged and spiritless. She almost pitied him and gave in, but suddenly she rose and crossed the room.
"We've made ourselves pretty unhappy," she said, apologetically, resting her hand on the lapel of his coat. "I guess it's mostly my fault, Will. I have wanted so much that you should do something fine with Uncle Oliphant's money, with yourself. But we can make it up in other ways."
"What are you so full of that idea for?" Edwards asked, curiously. "Why can't you be happy, even as happy as you were in Harlem?" His voice was hypocritical.
"Don't you know?" she flashed back. "You do know, I believe. Tell me, did you look over those papers on the davenport that night Uncle James fainted?"
The unexpected rush of her mind bewildered him. A calm lie would have set matters to rights, but he was not master of it.
"So you were willing—you knew?"
"It wasn't my affair," he muttered, weakly, but she had left him.
He wandered about alone for a few days until the suspense became intolerable. When he turned up one afternoon in their apartments he found preparations on foot for their departure.
"We're going away?" he asked.
"Yes, to New York."
"Not so fast," he interrupted, bitterly. "We might as well face the matter openly. What's the use of going back there?"
"We can't live here, and besides I shall be wanted there."
"You can't do anything now. Talk sensibly about it. I will not go back."
She looked at him coldly, critically. "I cabled Slocum yesterday, and we must live somehow."
"You—" but she laid her hand on his arm. "It makes no difference now, you know, and it can't be changed. I've done everything."
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