A Far Country
The next morning, which was Sunday, I went to Mr. Watling's house in, Fillmore Street—a new residence at that time, being admired as the dernier cri in architecture. It had a mediaeval look, queer dormers in a steep roof of red tiles, leaded windows buried deep in walls of rough stone. Emerging from the recessed vestibule on a level with the street were the Watling twins, aglow with health, dressed in identical costumes of blue. They had made their bow to society that winter.
"Why, here's Hugh!" said Frances. "Doesn't he look pleased with himself?"
"He's come to take us to church," said Janet.
"Oh, he's much too important," said Frances. "He's made a killing of some sort,—haven't you, Hugh?"...
I rang the bell and stood watching them as they departed, reflecting that I was thirty-two years of age and unmarried. Mr. Watling, surrounded with newspapers and seated before his library fire, glanced up at me with a welcoming smile: how had I borne the legislative baptism of fire? Such, I knew, was its implication.
"Everything went through according to schedule, eh? Well, I congratulate you, Hugh," he said.
"Oh, I didn't have much to do with it," I answered, smiling back at him. "I kept out of sight."
"That's an art in itself."
"I had an opportunity, at close range, to study the methods of our lawmakers."
"They're not particularly edifying," Mr. Watling replied. "But they seem, unfortunately, to be necessary."
Such had been my own thought.
"Who is this man Krebs?" he inquired suddenly. "And why didn't Varney get hold of him and make him listen to reason?"
"I'm afraid it wouldn't have been any use," I replied. "He was in my class at Harvard. I knew him—slightly. He worked his way through, and had a pretty hard time of it. I imagine it affected his ideas."
"What is he, a Socialist?"
"Something of the sort." In Theodore Watling's vigorous, sanity-exhaling presence Krebs's act appeared fantastic, ridiculous. "He has queer notions about a new kind of democracy which he says is coming. I think he is the kind of man who would be willing to die for it."
"What, in these days!" Mr. Watling looked at me incredulously. "If that's so, we must keep an eye on him, a sincere fanatic is a good deal more dangerous than a reformer who wants something. There are such men," he added, "but they are rare. How was the Governor, Trulease?" he asked suddenly. "Tractable?"
"Behaved like a lamb, although he insisted upon going through with his little humbug," I said.
Mr. Watling laughed. "They always do," he observed, "and waste a lot of valuable time. You'll find some light cigars in the corner, Hugh."
I sat down beside him and we spent the morning going over the details of the Ribblevale suit, Mr. Watling delegating to me certain matters connected with it of a kind with which I had not hitherto been entrusted; and he spoke again, before I left, of his intention of taking me into the firm as soon as the affair could be arranged. Walking homeward, with my mind intent upon things to come, I met my mother at the corner of Lyme Street coming from church. Her face lighted up at sight of me.
"Have you been working to-day, Hugh?" she asked.
I explained that I had spent the morning with Mr. Watling.
"I'll tell you a secret, mother. I'm going to be taken into the firm."
"Oh, my dear, I'm so glad!" she exclaimed. "I often think, if only your father were alive, how happy he would be, and how proud of you. I wish he could know. Perhaps he does know."
Theodore Watling had once said to me that the man who can best keep his own counsel is the best counsel for other men to keep. I did not go about boasting of the part I had played in originating the now famous Bill No. 709, the passage of which had brought about the capitulation of the Ribblevale Steel Company to our clients. But Ralph Hambleton knew of it, of course.
"That was a pretty good thing you pulled off, Hughie," he said. "I didn't think you had it in you."
It was rank patronage, of course, yet I was secretly pleased. As the years went on I was thrown more and more with him, though in boyhood there had been between us no bond of sympathy. About this time he was beginning to increase very considerably the Hambleton fortune, and a little later I became counsel for the Crescent Gas and Electric Company, in which he had shrewdly gained a controlling interest. Even toward the colossal game of modern finance his attitude was characteristically that of the dilettante, of the amateur; he played it, as it were, contemptuously, even as he had played poker at Harvard, with a cynical audacity that had a peculiarly disturbing effect upon his companions. He bluffed, he raised the limit in spite of protests, and when he lost one always had the feeling that he would ultimately get his money back twice over. At the conferences in the Boyne Club, which he often attended, his manner toward Mr. Dickinson and Mr. Scherer and even toward Miller Gorse was frequently one of thinly veiled amusement at their seriousness. I often wondered that they did not resent it. But he was a privileged person.
His cousin, Ham Durrett, whose inheritance was even greater than Ralph's had been, had also become a privileged person whose comings and goings and more reputable doings were often recorded in the newspapers. Ham had attained to what Gene Hollister aptly but inadvertently called "notoriety": as Ralph wittily remarked, Ham gave to polo and women that which might have gone into high finance. He spent much of his time in the East; his conduct there and at home would once have created a black scandal in our community, but we were gradually leaving our Calvinism behind us and growing more tolerant: we were ready to Forgive much to wealth especially if it was inherited. Hostesses lamented the fact that Ham was "wild," but they asked him to dinners and dances to meet their daughters.
If some moralist better educated and more far-seeing than Perry Blackwood (for Perry had become a moralist) had told these hostesses that Hambleton Durrett was a victim of our new civilization, they would have raised their eyebrows. They deplored while they coveted. If Ham had been told he was a victim of any sort, he would have laughed.
He enjoyed life; he was genial and jovial, both lavish and parsimonious,—this latter characteristic being the curious survival of the trait of the ancestors to which he owed his millions. He was growing even heavier, and decidedly red in the face.
Perry used to take Ralph to task for not saving Ham from his iniquities, and Ralph would reply that Ham was going to the devil anyway, and not even the devil himself could stop him.
"You can stop him, and you know it," Perry retorted indignantly.
"What do you want me to do with him?" asked Ralph. "Convert him to the saintly life I lead?"
This was a poser.
"That's a fact," sand Perry, "you're no better than he is."
"I don't know what you mean by 'better,'" retorted Ralph, grinning. "I'm wiser, that's all." (We had been talking about the ethics of business when Perry had switched off to Ham.) "I believe, at least, in restraint of trade. Ham doesn't believe in restraint of any kind."
When, therefore, the news suddenly began to be circulated in the Boyne Club that Ham was showing a tendency to straighten up, surprise and incredulity were genuine. He was drinking less,—much less; and it was said that he had severed certain ties that need not again be definitely mentioned. The theory of religious regeneration not being tenable, it was naturally supposed that he had fallen in love; the identity of the unknown lady becoming a fruitful subject of speculation among the feminine portion of society. The announcement of the marriage of Hambleton Durrett would be news of the first magnitude, to be absorbed eagerly by the many who had not the honour of his acquaintance,—comparable only to that of a devastating flood or a murder mystery or a change in the tariff.
Being absorbed in affairs that seemed more important, the subject did not interest me greatly. But one cold Sunday afternoon, as I made my way, in answer to her invitation, to see Nancy Willett, I found myself wondering idly whether she might not be by way of making a shrewd guess as to the object of Hambleton's affections. It was well known that he had entertained a hopeless infatuation for her; and some were inclined to attribute his later lapses to her lack of response. He still called on her, and her lectures, which she delivered like a great aunt with a recondite knowledge of the world, he took meekly. But even she had seemed powerless to alter his habits....
Powell Street, that happy hunting-ground of my youth, had changed its character, become contracted and unfamiliar, sooty. The McAlerys and other older families who had not decayed with the neighbourhood were rapidly deserting it, moving out to the new residence district known as "the Heights." I came to the Willett House. That, too, had an air of shabbiness,—of well-tended shabbiness, to be sure; the stone steps had been scrupulously scrubbed, but one of them was cracked clear across, and the silver on the polished name-plate was wearing off; even the act of pulling the knob of a door-bell was becoming obsolete, so used had we grown to pushing porcelain buttons in bright, new vestibules. As I waited for my summons to be answered it struck me as remarkable that neither Nancy nor her father had been contaminated by the shabbiness that surrounded them.
She had managed rather marvellously to redeem one room from the old-fashioned severity of the rest of the house, the library behind the big "parlour." It was Nancy's room, eloquent of her daintiness and taste, of her essential modernity and luxuriousness; and that evening, as I was ushered into it, this quality of luxuriousness, of being able to shut out the disagreeable aspects of life that surrounded and threatened her, particularly impressed me. She had not lacked opportunities to escape. I wondered uneasily as I waited why she had not embraced them. I strayed about the room. A coal fire burned in the grate, the red-shaded lamps gave a subdued but cheerful light; some impulse led me to cross over to the windows and draw aside the heavy hangings. Dusk was gathering over that garden, bleak and frozen now, where we had romped together as children. How queer the place seemed! How shrivelled! Once it had had the wide range of a park. There, still weathering the elements, was the old-fashioned latticed summer-house, but the fruit-trees that I recalled as clouds of pink and white were gone.... A touch of poignancy was in these memories. I dropped the curtain, and turned to confront Nancy, who had entered noiselessly.
"Well, Hugh, were you dreaming?" she said.
"Not exactly," I replied, embarrassed. "I was looking at the garden."
"The soot has ruined it. My life seems to be one continual struggle against the soot,—the blacks, as the English call them. It's a more expressive term. They are like an army, you know, overwhelming in their relentless invasion. Well, do sit down. It is nice of you to come. You'll have some tea, won't you?"
The maid had brought in the tray. Afternoon tea was still rather a new custom with us, more of a ceremony than a meal; and as Nancy handed me my cup and the thinnest of slices of bread and butter I found the intimacy of the situation a little disquieting. Her manner was indeed intimate, and yet it had the odd and disturbing effect of making her seem more remote. As she chatted I answered her perfunctorily, while all the time I was asking myself why I had ceased to desire her, whether the old longing for her might not return—was not even now returning? I might indeed go far afield to find a wife so suited to me as Nancy. She had beauty, distinction, and position. She was a woman of whom any man might be proud....
"I haven't congratulated you yet, Hugh," she said suddenly, "now that you are a partner of Mr. Watling's. I hear on all sides that you are on the high road to a great success."
"Of course I'm glad to be in the firm," I admitted.
It was a new tack for Nancy, rather a disquieting one, this discussion of my affairs, which she had so long avoided or ignored. "You are getting what you have always wanted, aren't you?"
I wondered in some trepidation whether by that word "always" she was making a deliberate reference to the past.
"Always?" I repeated, rather fatuously.
"Nearly always, ever since you have been a man."
I was incapable of taking advantage of the opening, if it were one. She was baffling.
"A man likes to succeed in his profession, of course," I said.
"And you made up your mind to succeed more deliberately than most men. I needn't ask you if you are satisfied, Hugh. Success seems to agree with you,—although I imagine you will never be satisfied."
"Why do you say that?" I demanded.
"I haven't known you all your life for nothing. I think I know you much better than you know yourself."
"You haven't acted as if you did," I exclaimed.
"Have you been interested in what I thought about you?" she asked.
"That isn't quite fair, Nancy," I protested. "You haven't given me much evidence that you did think about me."
"Have I received much encouragement to do so?" she inquired.
"But you haven't seemed to invite—you've kept me at arm's length."
"Oh, don't fence!" she cried, rather sharply.
I had become agitated, but her next words gave me a shock that was momentarily paralyzing.
"I asked you to come here to-day, Hugh, because I wished you to know that I have made up my mind to marry Hambleton Durrett."
"Hambleton Durrett!" I echoed stupidly. "Hambleton Durrett!"
"Have you—have you accepted him?"
"No. But I mean to do so."
"You—you love him?"
"I don't see what right you have to ask."
"But you just said that you invited me here to talk frankly."
"No, I don't love him."
"Then why, in heaven's name, are you going to marry him?"
She lay back in her chair, regarding me, her lips slightly parted. All at once the full flavour of her, the superfine quality was revealed after years of blindness.—Nor can I describe the sudden rebellion, the revulsion that I experienced. Hambleton Durrett! It was an outrage, a sacrilege! I got up, and put my hand on the mantel. Nancy remained motionless, inert, her head lying back against the chair. Could it be that she were enjoying my discomfiture? There is no need to confess that I knew next to nothing of women; had I been less excited, I might have made the discovery that I still regarded them sentimentally. Certain romantic axioms concerning them, garnered from Victorian literature, passed current in my mind for wisdom; and one of these declared that they were prone to remain true to an early love. Did Nancy still care for me? The query, coming as it did on top of my emotion, brought with it a strange and overwhelming perplexity. Did I really care for her? The many years during which I had practised the habit of caution began to exert an inhibiting pressure. Here was a situation, an opportunity suddenly thrust upon me which might never return, and which I was utterly unprepared to meet. Would I be happy with Nancy, after all? Her expression was still enigmatic.
"Why shouldn't I marry him?" she demanded.
"Because he's not good enough for you."
"Good!" she exclaimed, and laughed. "He loves me. He wants me without reservation or calculation." There was a sting in this. "And is he any worse," she asked slowly, "than many others who might be mentioned?"
"No," I agreed. I did not intend to be led into the thankless and disagreeable position of condemning Hambleton Durrett. "But why have you waited all these years if you did not mean to marry a man of ability, a man who has made something of himself?"
"A man like you, Hugh?" she said gently.
"That isn't quite fair, Nancy."
"What are you working for?" she suddenly inquired, straightening up.
"What any man works for, I suppose."
"Ah, there you have hit it,—what any man works for in our world. Power,—personal power. You want to be somebody,—isn't that it? Not the noblest ambition, you'll have to admit,—not the kind of thing we used to dream about, when we did dream. Well, when we find we can't realize our dreams, we take the next best thing. And I fail to see why you should blame me for taking it when you yourself have taken it. Hambleton Durrett can give it to me. He'll accept me on my own terms, he won't interfere with me, I shan't be disillusionized,—and I shall have a position which I could not hope to have if I remained unmarried, a very marked position as Hambleton Durrett's wife. I am thirty, you know."
Her frankness appalled me.
"The trouble with you, Hugh, is that you still deceive yourself. You throw a glamour over things. You want to keep your cake and eat it too.
"I don't see why you say that. And marriage especially—"
She took me up.
"Marriage! What other career is open to a woman? Unless she is married, and married well, according to the money standard you men have set up, she is nobody. We can't all be Florence Nightingales, and I am unable to imagine myself a Julia Ward Howe or a Harriet Beecher Stowe. What is left? Nothing but marriage. I'm hard and cynical, you will say, but I have thought, and I'm not afraid, as I have told you, to look things in the face. There are very few women, I think, who would not take the real thing if they had the chance before it were too late, who wouldn't be willing to do their own cooking in order to get it."
She fell silent suddenly. I began to pace the room.
"For God's sake, don't do this, Nancy!" I begged.
But she continued to stare into the fire, as though she had not heard me.
"If you had made up your mind to do it, why did you tell me?" I asked.
"Sentiment, I suppose. I am paying a tribute to what I once was, to what you once were," she said. "A—a sort of good-bye to sentiment."
"Nancy!" I said hoarsely.
She shook her head.
"No, Hugh. Surely you can't misjudge me so!" she answered reproachfully. "Do you think I should have sent for you if I had meant—that!"
"No, no, I didn't think so. But why not? You—you cared once, and you tell me plainly you don't love him. It was all a terrible mistake. We were meant for each other."
"I did love you then," she said. "You never knew how much. And there is nothing I wouldn't give to bring it all back again. But I can't. It's gone. You're gone, and I'm gone. I mean what we were. Oh, why did you change?"
"It was you who changed," I declared, bewildered.
"Couldn't you see—can't you see now what you did? But perhaps you couldn't help it. Perhaps it was just you, after all."
"What I did?"
"Why couldn't you have held fast to your faith? If you had, you would have known what it was I adored in you. Oh, I don't mind telling you now, it was just that faith, Hugh, that faith you had in life, that faith you had in me. You weren't cynical and calculating, like Ralph Hambleton, you had imagination. I—I dreamed, too. And do you remember the time when you made the boat, and we went to Logan's Pond, and you sank in her?"
"And you stayed," I went on, "when all the others ran away? You ran down the hill like a whirlwind."
"And then you came here one day, to a party, and said you were going to Harvard, and quarrelled with me."
"Why did you doubt met" I asked agitatedly. "Why didn't you let me see that you still cared?"
"Because that wasn't you, Hugh, that wasn't your real self. Do you suppose it mattered to me whether you went to Harvard with the others? Oh, I was foolish too, I know. I shouldn't have said what I did. But what is the use of regrets?" she exclaimed. "We've both run after the practical gods, and the others have hidden their faces from us. It may be that we are not to blame, either of us, that the practical gods are too strong. We've learned to love and worship them, and now we can't do without them."
"We can try, Nancy," I pleaded.
"No," she answered in a low voice, "that's the difference between you and me. I know myself better than you know yourself, and I know you better." She smiled again. "Unless we could have it all back again, I shouldn't want any of it. You do not love me—"
I started once more to protest.
"No, no, don't say it!" she cried.
"You may think you do, just this moment, but it's only because—you've been moved. And what you believe you want isn't me, it's what I was. But I'm not that any more,—I'm simply recalling that, don't you see? And even then you wouldn't wish me, now, as I was. That sounds involved, but you must understand. You want a woman who will be wrapped up in your career, Hugh, and yet who will not share it,—who will devote herself body and soul to what you have become. A woman whom you can shape. And you won't really love her, but only just so much of her as may become the incarnation of you. Well, I'm not that kind of woman. I might have been, had you been different. I'm not at all sure. Certainly I'm not that kind now, even though I know in my heart that the sort of career you have made for yourself, and that I intend to make for myself is all dross. But now I can't do without it."
"And yet you are going to marry Hambleton Durrett!" I said.
She understood me, although I regretted my words at once.
"Yes, I am going to marry him." There was a shade of bitterness, of defiance in her voice. "Surely you are not offering me the—the other thing, now. Oh, Hugh!"
"I am willing to abandon it all, Nancy."
"No," she said, "you're not, and I'm not. What you can't see and won't see is that it has become part of you. Oh, you are successful, you will be more and more successful. And you think I should be somebody, as your wife, Hugh, more perhaps, eventually, than I shall be as Hambleton's. But I should be nobody, too. I couldn't stand it now, my dear. You must realize that as soon as you have time to think it over. We shall be friends."
The sudden gentleness in her voice pierced me through and through. She held out her hand. Something in her grasp spoke of a resolution which could not be shaken.
"And besides," she added sadly, "I don't love you any more, Hugh. I'm mourning for something that's gone. I wanted to have just this one talk with you. But we shan't mention it again,—we'll close the book."...
At that I fled out of the house, and at first the thought of her as another man's wife, as Hambleton Durrett's wife, was seemingly not to be borne. It was incredible! "We'll close the book." I found myself repeating the phrase; and it seemed then as though something within me I had believed dead—something that formerly had been all of me—had revived again to throb with pain.
It is not surprising that the acuteness of my suffering was of short duration, though I remember certain sharp twinges when the announcement of the engagement burst on the city. There was much controversy over the question as to whether or not Ham Durrett's reform would be permanent; but most people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; it was time he settled down and took the position in the community that was to be expected of one of his name; and as for Nancy, it was generally agreed that she had done well for herself. She was not made for poverty—and who so well as she was fitted for the social leadership of our community?
They were married in Trinity Church in the month of May, and I was one of Ham's attendants. Ralph was "best man." For the last time the old Willett mansion in Powell Street wore the gala air of former days; carpets were spread over the sidewalk, and red and white awnings; rooms were filled with flowers and flung open to hundreds of guests. I found the wedding something of an ordeal. I do not like to dwell upon it—especially upon that moment when I came to congratulate Nancy as she stood beside Ham at the end of the long parlour. She seemed to have no regrets. I don't know what I expected of her—certainly not tears and tragedy. She seemed taller than ever, and very beautiful in her veil and white satin gown and the diamonds Ham had given her; very much mistress of herself, quite a contrast to Ham, who made no secret of his elation. She smiled when I wished her happiness.
"We'll be home in the autumn, Hugh, and expect to see a great deal of you," she said.
As I paused in a corner of the room my eye fell upon Nancy's father. McAlery Willett's elation seemed even greater than Ham's. With a gardenia in his frock-coat and a glass of champagne in his hand he went from group to group; and his familiar laughter, which once had seemed so full of merriment and fun, gave me to-day a somewhat scandalized feeling. I heard Ralph's voice, and turned to discover him standing beside me, his long legs thrust slightly apart, his hands in his pockets, overlooking the scene with typical, semi-contemptuous amusement.
"This lets old McAlery out, anyway," he said.
"What do you mean?" I demanded.
"One or two little notes of his will be cancelled, sooner or later—that's all."
For a moment I was unable to speak.
"And do you think that she—that Nancy found out—?" I stammered.
"Well, I'd be willing to take that end of the bet," he replied. "Why the deuce should she marry Ham? You ought to know her well enough to understand how she'd feel if she discovered some of McAlery's financial coups? Of course it's not a thing I talk about, you understand. Are you going to the Club?"
"No, I'm going home," I said. I was aware of his somewhat compassionate smile as I left him....