A Far Country
In spite of that unwonted note of pessimism from Mr. Watling, I went home in a day or two flushed with my new honours, and it was impossible not to be conscious of the fact that my aura of prestige was increased—tremendously increased—by the recognition I had received. A certain subtle deference in the attitude of the small minority who owed allegiance to the personage by whom I had been summoned was more satisfying than if I had been acclaimed at the station by thousands of my fellow-citizens who knew nothing of my journey and of its significance, even though it might have a concern for them. To men like Berringer, Grierson and Tallant and our lesser great lights the banker was a semi-mythical figure, and many times on the day of my return I was stopped on the street to satisfy the curiosity of my friends as to my impressions. Had he, for instance, let fall any opinions, prognostications on the political and financial situation? Dickinson and Scherer were the only other men in the city who had the honour of a personal acquaintance with him, and Scherer was away, abroad, gathering furniture and pictures for the house in New York Nancy had predicted, and which he had already begun to build! With Dickinson I lunched in private, in order to give him a detailed account of the conference. By five o'clock I was ringing the door-bell of Nancy's new mansion on Grant Avenue. It was several blocks below my own.
"Well, how does it feel to be sent for by the great sultan?" she asked, as I stood before her fire. "Of course, I have always known that ultimately he couldn't get along without you."
"Even if he has been a little late in realizing it," I retorted.
"Sit down and tell me all about him," she commanded.
"I met him once, when Ham had the yacht at Bar Harbor."
"And how did he strike you?"
"As somewhat wrapped up in himself," said Nancy.
We laughed together.
"Oh, I fell a victim," she went on. "I might have sailed off with him, if he had asked me."
"I'm surprised he didn't ask you."
"I suspect that it was not quite convenient," she said. "Women are secondary considerations to sultans, we're all very well when they haven't anything more serious to occupy them. Of course that's why they fascinate us. What did he want with you, Hugh?"
"He was evidently afraid that the government would win the coal roads suit unless I was retained."
"More laurels!" she sighed. "I suppose I ought to be proud to know you."
"That's exactly what I've been trying to impress on you all these years," I declared. "I've laid the laurels at your feet, in vain."
She sat with her head back on the cushions, surveying me.
"Your dress is very becoming," I said irrelevantly.
"I hoped it would meet your approval," she mocked.
"I've been trying to identify the shade. It's elusive—like you."
"Don't be banal.... What is the colour?"
"Pretty nearly," she agreed, critically.
I took the soft crepe between my fingers.
"Poet!" she smiled. "No, it isn't quite poinsetta. It's nearer the red-orange of a tree I remember one autumn, in the White Mountains, with the setting sun on it. But that wasn't what we were talking about. Laurels! Your laurels."
"My laurels," I repeated. "Such as they are, I fling them into your lap."
"Do you think they increase your value to me, Hugh?"
"I don't know," I said thickly.
She shook her head.
"No, it's you I like—not the laurels."
"But if you care for me—?" I began.
She lifted up her hands and folded them behind the knot of her hair.
"It's extraordinary how little you have changed since we were children, Hugh. You are still sixteen years old, that's why I like you. If you got to be the sultan of sultans yourself, I shouldn't like you any better, or any worse."
"And yet you have just declared that power appeals to you!"
"Power—yes. But a woman—a woman like me—wants to be first, or nothing."
"You are first," I asserted. "You always have been, if you had only realized it."
She gazed up at me dreamily.
"If you had only realized it! If you had only realized that all I wanted of you was to be yourself. It wasn't what you achieved. I didn't want you to be like Ralph or the others."
"Myself? What are you trying to say?"
"Yourself. Yes, that is what I like about you. If you hadn't been in such a hurry—if you hadn't misjudged me so. It was the power in you, the craving, the ideal in you that I cared for—not the fruits of it. The fruits would have come naturally. But you forced them, Hugh, for quicker results."
"What kind of fruits?" I asked.
"Ah," she exclaimed, "how can I tell what they might have been! You have striven and striven, you have done extraordinary things, but have they made you any happier? have you got what you want?"
I stooped down and seized her wrists from behind her head.
"I want you, Nancy," I said. "I have always wanted you. You're more wonderful to-day than you have ever been. I could find myself—with you."
She closed her eyes. A dreamy smile was on her face, and she lay unresisting, very still. In that tremendous moment, for which it seemed I had waited a lifetime, I could have taken her in my arms—and yet I did not. I could not tell why: perhaps it was because she seemed to have passed beyond me—far beyond—in realization. And she was so still!
"We have missed the way, Hugh," she whispered, at last.
"But we can find it again, if we seek it together," I urged.
"Ah, if I only could!" she said. "I could have once. But now I'm afraid—afraid of getting lost." Slowly she straightened up, her hands falling into her lap. I seized them again, I was on my knees in front of her, before the fire, and she, intent, looking down at me, into me, through me it seemed—at something beyond which yet was me.
"Hugh," she asked, "what do you believe? Anything?"
"What do I believe?"
"Yes. I don't mean any cant, cut-and-dried morality. The world is getting beyond that. But have you, in your secret soul, any religion at all? Do you ever think about it? I'm not speaking about anything orthodox, but some religion—even a tiny speck of it, a germ—harmonizing with life, with that power we feel in us we seek to express and continually violate."
"Nancy!" I exclaimed.
"Answer me—answer me truthfully," she said....
I was silent, my thoughts whirling like dust atoms in a storm.
"You have always taken things—taken what you wanted. But they haven't satisfied you, convinced you that that is all of life."
"Do you mean—that we should renounce?" I faltered.
"I don't know what I mean. I am asking, Hugh, asking. Haven't you any clew? Isn't there any voice in you, anywhere, deep down, that can tell me? give me a hint? just a little one?"
I was wracked. My passion had not left me, it seemed to be heightened, and I pressed her hands against her knees. It was incredible that my hands should be there, in hers, feeling her. Her beauty seemed as fresh, as un-wasted as the day, long since, when I despaired of her. And yet and yet against the tumult and beating of this passion striving to throb down thought, thought strove. Though I saw her as a woman, my senses and my spirit commingled and swooned together.
"This is life," I murmured, scarcely knowing what I said.
"Oh, my dear!" she cried, and her voice pierced me with pain, "are we to be lost, overpowered, engulfed, swept down its stream, to come up below drifting—wreckage? Where, then, would be your power? I'm not speaking of myself. Isn't life more than that? Isn't it in us, too,—in you? Think, Hugh. Is there no god, anywhere, but this force we feel, restlessly creating only to destroy? You must answer—you must find out."
I cannot describe the pleading passion in her voice, as though hell and heaven were wrestling in it. The woman I saw, tortured yet uplifted, did not seem to be Nancy, yet it was the woman I loved more than life itself and always had loved.
"I can't think," I answered desperately, "I can only feel—and I can't express what I feel. It's mixed, it's dim, and yet bright and shining—it's you."
"No, it's you," she said vehemently. "You must interpret it." Her voice sank: "Could it be God?" she asked.
"God!" I exclaimed sharply.
Her hands fell away from mine.... The silence was broken only by the crackling of the wood fire as a log turned over and fell. Never before, in all our intercourse that I could remember, had she spoken to me about religion.... With that apparent snap in continuity incomprehensible to the masculine mind-her feminine mood had changed. Elements I had never suspected, in Nancy, awe, even a hint of despair, entered into it, and when my hand found hers again, the very quality of its convulsive pressure seemed to have changed. I knew then that it was her soul I loved most; I had been swept all unwittingly to its very altar.
"I believe it is God," I said. But she continued to gaze at me, her lips parted, her eyes questioning.
"Why is it," she demanded, "that after all these centuries of certainty we should have to start out to find him again? Why is it when something happens like—like this, that we should suddenly be torn with doubts about him, when we have lived the best part of our lives without so much as thinking of him?"
"Why should you have qualms?" I said. "Isn't this enough? and doesn't it promise—all?"
"I don't know. They're not qualms—in the old sense." She smiled down at me a little tearfully. "Hugh, do you remember when we used to go to Sunday-school at Dr. Pound's church, and Mrs. Ewan taught us? I really believed something then—that Moses brought down the ten commandments of God from the mountain, all written out definitely for ever and ever. And I used to think of marriage" (I felt a sharp twinge), "of marriage as something sacred and inviolable,—something ordained by God himself. It ought to be so—oughtn't it? That is the ideal."
"Yes—but aren't you confusing—?" I began.
"I am confusing and confused. I shouldn't be—I shouldn't care if there weren't something in you, in me, in our—friendship, something I can't explain, something that shines still through the fog and the smoke in which we have lived our lives—something which, I think, we saw clearer as children. We have lost it in our hasty groping. Oh, Hugh, I couldn't bear to think that we should never find it! that it doesn't really exist! Because I seem to feel it. But can we find it this way, my dear?" Her hand tightened on mine.
"But if the force drawing us together, that has always drawn us together, is God?" I objected.
"I asked you," she said. "The time must come when you must answer, Hugh. It may be too late, but you must answer."
"I believe in taking life in my own hands," I said.
"It ought to be life," said Nancy. "It—it might have been life.... It is only when a moment, a moment like this comes that the quality of what we have lived seems so tarnished, that the atmosphere which we ourselves have helped to make is so sordid. When I think of the intrigues, and divorces, the self-indulgences,—when I think of my own marriage—" her voice caught. "How are we going to better it, Hugh, this way? Am I to get that part of you I love, and are you to get what you crave in me? Can we just seize happiness? Will it not elude us just as much as though we believed firmly in the ten commandments?"
"No," I declared obstinately.
She shook her head.
"What I'm afraid of is that the world isn't made that way—for you—for me. We're permitted to seize those other things because they're just baubles, we've both found out how worthless they are. And the worst of it is they've made me a coward, Hugh. It isn't that I couldn't do without them, I've come to depend on them in another way. It's because they give me a certain protection,—do you see? they've come to stand in the place of the real convictions we've lost. And—well, we've taken the baubles, can we reach out our hands and take—this? Won't we be punished for it, frightfully punished?"
"I don't care if we are," I said, and surprised myself.
"But I care. It's weak, it's cowardly, but it's so. And yet I want to face the situation—I'm trying to get you to face it, to realize how terrible it is."
"I only know that I want you above everything else in the world—I'll take care of you—"
I seized her arms, I drew her down to me.
"Don't!" she cried. "Oh, don't!" and struggled to her feet and stood before me panting. "You must go away now—please, Hugh. I can't bear any more—I want to think."
I released her. She sank into the chair and hid her face in her hands....
As may be imagined, the incident I have just related threw my life into a tangle that would have floored a less persistent optimist and romanticist than myself, yet I became fairly accustomed to treading what the old moralists called the devious paths of sin. In my passion I had not hesitated to lay down the doctrine that the courageous and the strong took what they wanted,—a doctrine of which I had been a consistent disciple in the professional and business realm. A logical buccaneer, superman, "master of life" would promptly have extended this doctrine to the realm of sex. Nancy was the mate for me, and Nancy and I, our development, was all that mattered, especially my development. Let every man and woman look out for his or her development, and in the end the majority of people would be happy. This was going Adam Smith one better. When it came to putting that theory into practice, however, one needed convictions: Nancy had been right when she had implied that convictions were precisely what we lacked; what our world in general lacked. We had desires, yes convictions, no. What we wanted we got not by defying the world, but by conforming to it: we were ready to defy only when our desires overcame the resistance of our synapses, and even then not until we should have exhausted every legal and conventional means.
A superman with a wife and family he had acquired before a great passion has made him a superman is in rather a predicament, especially if he be one who has achieved such superhumanity as he possesses not by challenging laws and conventions, but by getting around them. My wife and family loved me; and paradoxically I still had affection for them, or thought I had. But the superman creed is, "be yourself, realize yourself, no matter how cruel you may have to be in order to do so." One trouble with me was that remnants of the Christian element of pity still clung to me. I would be cruel if I had to, but I hoped I shouldn't have to: something would turn up, something in the nature of an intervening miracle that would make it easy for me. Perhaps Maude would take the initiative and relieve me.... Nancy had appealed for a justifying doctrine, and it was just what I didn't have and couldn't evolve. In the meanwhile it was quite in character that I should accommodate myself to a situation that might well be called anomalous.
This "accommodation" was not unaccompanied by fever. My longing to realize my love for Nancy kept me in a constant state of tension—of "nerves"; for our relationship had merely gone one step farther, we had reached a point where we acknowledged that we loved each other, and paradoxically halted there; Nancy clung to her demand for new sanctions with a tenacity that amazed and puzzled and often irritated me. And yet, when I look back upon it all, I can see that some of the difficulty lay with me: if she had her weakness—which she acknowledged—I had mine—and kept it to myself. It was part of my romantic nature not to want to break her down. Perhaps I loved the ideal better than the woman herself, though that scarcely seems possible.
We saw each other constantly. And though we had instinctively begun to be careful, I imagine there was some talk among our acquaintances. It is to be noted that the gossip never became riotous, for we had always been friends, and Nancy had a saving reputation for coldness. It seemed incredible that Maude had not discovered my secret, but if she knew of it, she gave no sign of her knowledge. Often, as I looked at her, I wished she would. I can think of no more expressive sentence in regard to her than the trite one that she pursued the even tenor of her way; and I found the very perfection of her wifehood exasperating. Our relationship would, I thought, have been more endurable if we had quarrelled. And yet we had grown as far apart, in that big house, as though we had been separated by a continent; I lived in my apartments, she in hers; she consulted me about dinner parties and invitations; for, since we had moved to Grant Avenue, we entertained and went out more than before. It seemed as though she were making every effort consistent with her integrity and self-respect to please me. Outwardly she conformed to the mould; but I had long been aware that inwardly a person had developed. It had not been a spontaneous development, but one in resistance to pressure; and was probably all the stronger for that reason. At times her will revealed itself in astonishing and unexpected flashes, as when once she announced that she was going to change Matthew's school.
"He's old enough to go to boarding-school," I said. "I'll look up a place for him."
"I don't wish him to go to boarding-school yet, Hugh," she said quietly.
"But that's just what he needs," I objected. "He ought to have the rubbing-up against other boys that boarding-school will give him. Matthew is timid, he should have learned to take care of himself. And he will make friendships that will help him in a larger school."
"I don't intend to send him," Maude said.
"But if I think it wise?"
"You ought to have begun to consider such things many years ago. You have always been too—busy to think of the children. You have left them to me. I am doing the best I can with them."
"But a man should have something to say about boys. He understands them."
"You should have thought of that before."
"They haven't been old enough."
"If you had taken your share of responsibility for them, I would listen to you."
"Maude!" I exclaimed reproachfully.
"No, Hugh," she went on, "you have been too busy making money. You have left them to me. It is my task to see that the money they are to inherit doesn't ruin them."
"You talk as though it were a great fortune," I said.
But I did not press the matter. I had a presentiment that to press it might lead to unpleasant results.
It was this sense of not being free, of having gained everything but freedom that was at times galling in the extreme: this sense of living with a woman for whom I had long ceased to care, a woman with a baffling will concealed beneath an unruffled and serene exterior. At moments I looked at her across the table; she did not seem to have aged much: her complexion was as fresh, apparently, as the day when I had first walked with her in the garden at Elkington; her hair the same wonderful colour; perhaps she had grown a little stouter. There could be no doubt about the fact that her chin was firmer, that certain lines had come into her face indicative of what is called character. Beneath her pliability she was now all firmness; the pliability had become a mockery. It cannot be said that I went so far as to hate her for this,—when it was in my mind,—but my feelings were of a strong antipathy. And then again there were rare moments when I was inexplicably drawn to her, not by love and passion; I melted a little in pity, perhaps, when my eyes were opened and I saw the tragedy, yet I am not referring now to such feelings as these. I am speaking of the times when I beheld her as the blameless companion of the years, the mother of my children, the woman I was used to and should—by all canons I had known—have loved....
And there were the children. Days and weeks passed when I scarcely saw them, and then some little incident would happen to give me an unexpected wrench and plunge me into unhappiness. One evening I came home from a long talk with Nancy that had left us both wrought up, and I had entered the library before I heard voices. Maude was seated under the lamp at the end of the big room reading from "Don Quixote"; Matthew and Biddy were at her feet, and Moreton, less attentive, at a little distance was taking apart a mechanical toy. I would have tiptoed out, but Biddy caught sight of me.
"It's father!" she cried, getting up and flying to me.
"Oh, father, do come and listen! The story's so exciting, isn't it, Matthew?"
I looked down into the boy's eyes shining with an expression that suddenly pierced my heart with a poignant memory of myself. Matthew was far away among the mountains and castles of Spain.
"Matthew," demanded his sister, "why did he want to go fighting with all those people?"
"Because he was dotty," supplied Moreton, who had an interesting habit of picking up slang.
"It wasn't at all," cried Matthew, indignantly, interrupting Maude's rebuke of his brother.
"What was it, then?" Moreton demanded.
"You wouldn't understand if I told you," Matthew was retorting, when Maude put her hand on his lips.
"I think that's enough for to-night," she said, as she closed the book. "There are lessons to do—and father wants to read his newspaper in quiet."
This brought a protest from Biddy.
"Just a little more, mother! Can't we go into the schoolroom? We shan't disturb father there."
"I'll read to them—a few minutes," I said.
As I took the volume from her and sat down Maude shot at me a swift look of surprise. Even Matthew glanced at me curiously; and in his glance I had, as it were, a sudden revelation of the boy's perplexity concerning me. He was twelve, rather tall for his age, and the delicate modelling of his face resembled my father's. He had begun to think.. What did he think of me?
Biddy clapped her hands, and began to dance across the carpet.
"Father's going to read to us, father's going to read to us," she cried, finally clambering up on my knee and snuggling against me.
"Where is the place?" I asked.
But Maude had left the room. She had gone swiftly and silently.
"I'll find it," said Moreton.
I began to read, but I scarcely knew what I was reading, my fingers tightening over Biddy's little knee....
Presently Miss Allsop, the governess, came in. She had been sent by Maude. There was wistfulness in Biddy's voice as I kissed her good night.
"Father, if you would only read oftener!" she said, "I like it when you read—better than anyone else."....
Maude and I were alone that night. As we sat in the library after our somewhat formal, perfunctory dinner, I ventured to ask her why she had gone away when I had offered to read.
"I couldn't bear it, Hugh," she answered.
"Why?" I asked, intending to justify myself.
She got up abruptly, and left me. I did not follow her. In my heart I understood why....
Some years had passed since Ralph's prophecy had come true, and Perry and the remaining Blackwoods had been "relieved" of the Boyne Street line. The process need not be gone into in detail, being the time-honoured one employed in the Ribblevale affair of "running down" the line, or perhaps it would be better to say "showing it up." It had not justified its survival in our efficient days, it had held out—thanks to Perry—with absurd and anachronous persistence against the inevitable consolidation. Mr. Tallant's newspaper had published many complaints of the age and scarcity of the cars, etc.; and alarmed holders of securities, in whose vaults they had lain since time immemorial, began to sell.... I saw little of Perry in those days, as I have explained, but one day I met him in the Hambleton Building, and he was white.
"Your friends are doing thus, Hugh," he said.
"Undermining the reputation of a company as sound as any in this city, a company that's not overcapitalized, either. And we're giving better service right now than any of your consolidated lines."...
He was in no frame of mind to argue with; the conversation was distinctly unpleasant. I don't remember what I said something to the effect that he was excited, that his language was extravagant. But after he had walked off and left me I told Dickinson that he ought to be given a chance, and one of our younger financiers, Murphree, went to Perry and pointed out that he had nothing to gain by obstruction; if he were only reasonable, he might come into the new corporation on the same terms with the others.
All that Murphree got for his pains was to be ordered out of the office by Perry, who declared that he was being bribed to desert the other stockholders.
"He utterly failed to see the point of view," Murphree reported in some astonishment to Dickinson.
"What else did he say?" Mr. Dickinson asked.
"Well—what?" the banker insisted.
"He wasn't quite himself," said Murphree, who was a comparative newcomer in the city and had a respect for the Blackwood name. "He said that that was the custom of thieves: when they were discovered, they offered to divide. He swore that he would get justice in the courts."
Mr. Dickinson smiled....
Thus Perry, through his obstinacy and inability to adapt himself to new conditions, had gradually lost both caste and money. He resigned from the Boyne Club. I was rather sorry for him. Tom naturally took the matter to heart, but he never spoke of it; I found that I was seeing less of him, though we continued to dine there at intervals, and he still came to my house to see the children. Maude continued to see Lucia. For me, the situation would have been more awkward had I been less occupied, had my relationship with Maude been a closer one. Neither did she mention Perry in those days. The income that remained to him being sufficient for him and his family to live on comfortably, he began to devote most of his time to various societies of a semipublic nature until—in the spring of which I write his activities suddenly became concentrated in the organization of a "Citizens Union," whose avowed object was to make a campaign against "graft" and political corruption the following autumn. This announcement and the call for a mass-meeting in Kingdon Hall was received by the newspapers with a good-natured ridicule, and in influential quarters it was generally hinted that this was Mr. Blackwood's method of "getting square" for having been deprived of the Boyne Street line. It was quite characteristic of Ralph Hambleton that he should go, out of curiosity, to the gathering at Kingdon Hall, and drop into my office the next morning.
"Well, Hughie, they're after you," he said with a grin.
"After me? Why not include yourself?"
He sat down and stretched his long legs and his long arms, and smiled as he gaped.
"Oh, they'll never get me," he said. And I knew, as I gazed at him, that they never would.
"What sort of things did they say?" I asked.
"Haven't you read the Pilot and the Mail and State?"
"I just glanced over them. Did they call names?"
"Call names! I should say they did. They got drunk on it, worked themselves up like dervishes. They didn't cuss you personally,—that'll come later, of course. Judd Jason got the heaviest shot, but they said he couldn't exist a minute if it wasn't for the 'respectable' crowd—capitalists, financiers, millionaires and their legal tools. Fact is, they spoke a good deal of truth, first and last, in a fool kind of way."
"Truth!" I exclaimed irritatedly.
Ralph laughed. He was evidently enjoying himself.
"Is any of it news to you, Hughie, old boy?"
"It's an outrage."
"I think it's funny," said Ralph. "We haven't had such a circus for years. Never had. Of course I shouldn't like to see you go behind the bars,—not that. But you fellows can't expect to go on forever skimming off the cream without having somebody squeal sometime. You ought to be reasonable."
"You've skimmed as much cream as anybody else."
"You've skimmed the cream, Hughie,—you and Dickinson and Scherer and Grierson and the rest,—I've only filled my jug. Well, these fellows are going to have a regular roof-raising campaign, take the lid off of everything, dump out the red-light district some of our friends are so fond of."
"Dump it where?" I asked curiously.
"Oh," answered Ralph, "they didn't say. Out into the country, anywhere."
"But that's damned foolishness," I declared.
"Didn't say it wasn't," Ralph admitted. "They talked a lot of that, too, incidentally. They're going to close the saloons and dance halls and make this city sadder than heaven. When they get through, it'll all be over but the inquest."
"What did Perry do?" I asked.
"Well, he opened the meeting,—made a nice, precise, gentlemanly speech. Greenhalge and a few young highbrows and a reformed crook named Harrod did most of the hair-raising. They're going to nominate Greenhalge for mayor; and he told 'em something about that little matter of the school board, and said he would talk more later on. If one of the ablest lawyers in the city hadn't been hired by the respectable crowd and a lot of other queer work done, the treasurer and purchasing agent would be doing time. They seemed to be interested, all right."
I turned over some papers on my desk, just to show Ralph that he hadn't succeeded in disturbing me.
"Who was in the audience? anyone you ever heard of?" I asked.
"Sure thing. Your cousin Robert Breck; and that son-in-law of his—what's his name? And some other representatives of our oldest families,—Alec Pound. He's a reformer now, you know. They put him on the resolutions committee. Sam Ogilvy was there, he'd be classed as respectably conservative. And one of the Ewanses. I could name a few others, if you pressed me. That brother of Fowndes who looks like an up-state minister. A lot of women—Miller Gorse's sister, Mrs. Datchet, who never approved of Miller. Quite a genteel gathering, I give you my word, and all astonished and mad as hell when the speaking was over. Mrs. Datchet said she had been living in a den of iniquity and vice, and didn't know it."
"It must have been amusing," I said.
"It was," said Ralph. "It'll be more amusing later on. Oh, yes, there was another fellow who spoke I forgot to mention—that queer Dick who was in your class, Krebs, got the school board evidence, looked as if he'd come in by freight. He wasn't as popular as the rest, but he's got more sense than all of them put together."
"Why wasn't he popular?"
"Well, he didn't crack up the American people,—said they deserved all they got, that they'd have to learn to think straight and be straight before they could expect a square deal. The truth was, they secretly envied these rich men who were exploiting their city, and just as long as they envied them they hadn't any right to complain of them. He was going into this campaign to tell the truth, but to tell all sides of it, and if they wanted reform, they'd have to reform themselves first. I admired his nerve, I must say."
"He always had that," I remarked. "How did they take it?"
"Well, they didn't like it much, but I think most of them had a respect for him. I know I did. He has a whole lot of assurance, an air of knowing what he's talking about, and apparently he doesn't give a continental whether he's popular or not. Besides, Greenhalge had cracked him up to the skies for the work he'd done for the school board."
"You talk as if he'd converted you," I said.
Ralph laughed as he rose and stretched himself.
"Oh, I'm only the intelligent spectator, you ought to know that by this time, Hughie. But I thought it might interest you, since you'll have to go on the stump and refute it all. That'll be a nice job. So long."
And he departed. Of course I knew that he had been baiting me, his scent for the weaknesses of his friends being absolutely fiendish. I was angry because he had succeeded,—because he knew he had succeeded. All the morning uneasiness possessed me, and I found it difficult to concentrate on the affairs I had in hand. I felt premonitions, which I tried in vain to suppress, that the tide of the philosophy of power and might were starting to ebb: I scented vague calamities ahead, calamities I associated with Krebs; and when I went out to the Club for lunch this sense of uneasiness, instead of being dissipated, was increased. Dickinson was there, and Scherer, who had just got back from Europe; the talk fell on the Citizens Union, which Scherer belittled with an air of consequence and pompousness that struck me disagreeably, and with an eye newly critical I detected in him a certain disintegration, deterioration. Having dismissed the reformers, he began to tell of his experiences abroad, referring in one way or another to the people of consequence who had entertained him.
"Hugh," said Leonard Dickinson to me as we walked to the bank together, "Scherer will never be any good any more. Too much prosperity. And he's begun to have his nails manicured."
After I had left the bank president an uncanny fancy struck me that in Adolf Scherer I had before me a concrete example of the effect of my philosophy on the individual....
Nothing seemed to go right that spring, and yet nothing was absolutely wrong. At times I became irritated, bewildered, out of tune, and unable to understand why. The weather itself was uneasy, tepid, with long spells of hot wind and dust. I no longer seemed to find refuge in my work. I was unhappy at home. After walking for many years in confidence and security along what appeared to be a certain path, I had suddenly come out into a vague country in which it was becoming more and more difficult to recognize landmarks. I did not like to confess this; and yet I heard within me occasional whispers. Could it be that I, Hugh Paret, who had always been so positive, had made a mess of my life? There were moments when the pattern of it appeared to have fallen apart, resolved itself into pieces that refused to fit into each other.
Of course my relationship with Nancy had something to do with this....
One evening late in the spring, after dinner, Maude came into the library.
"Are you busy, Hugh?" she asked.
I put down my newspapers.
"Because," she went on, as she took a chair near the table where I was writing, "I wanted to tell you that I have decided to go to Europe, and take the children."
"To Europe!" I exclaimed. The significance of the announcement failed at once to register in my brain, but I was aware of a shock.
"When?" I asked.
"Right away. The end of this month."
"For the summer?"
"I haven't decided how long I shall stay."
I stared at her in bewilderment. In contrast to the agitation I felt rising within me, she was extraordinarily calm, unbelievably so.
"But where do you intend to go in Europe?"
"I shall go to London for a month or so, and after that to some quiet place in France, probably at the sea, where the children can learn French and German. After that, I have no plans."
"But—you talk as if you might stay indefinitely."
"I haven't decided," she repeated.
"But why—why are you doing this?"
I would have recalled the words as soon as I had spoken them. There was the slightest unsteadiness in her voice as she replied:—"Is it necessary to go into that, Hugh? Wouldn't it be useless as well as a little painful? Surely, going to Europe without one's husband is not an unusual thing in these days. Let it just be understood that I want to go, that the children have arrived at an age when it will do them good."
I got up and began to walk up and down the room, while she watched me with a silent calm which was incomprehensible. In vain I summoned my faculties to meet it.
I had not thought her capable of such initiative.
"I can't see why you want to leave me," I said at last, though with a full sense of the inadequacy of the remark, and a suspicion of its hypocrisy.
"That isn't quite true," she answered. "In the first place, you don't need me. I am not of the slightest use in your life, I haven't been a factor in it for years. You ought never to have married me,—it was all a terrible mistake. I began to realize that after we had been married a few months—even when we were on our wedding trip. But I was too inexperienced—perhaps too weak to acknowledge it to myself. In the last few years I have come to see it plainly. I should have been a fool if I hadn't. I am not your wife in any real sense of the word, I cannot hold you, I cannot even interest you. It's a situation that no woman with self-respect can endure."
"Aren't those rather modern sentiments, for you, Maude?" I said.
She flushed a little, but otherwise retained her remarkable composure.
"I don't care whether they are 'modern' or not, I only know that my position has become impossible."
I walked to the other end of the room, and stood facing the carefully drawn curtains of the windows; fantastically, they seemed to represent the impasse to which my mind had come. Did she intend, ultimately, to get a divorce? I dared not ask her. The word rang horribly in my ears, though unpronounced; and I knew then that I lacked her courage, and the knowledge was part of my agony.
"Don't you think you've overdrawn things, Maude exaggerated them? No marriages are perfect. You've let your mind dwell until it has become inflamed on matters which really don't amount to much."
"I was never saner, Hugh," she replied instantly. And indeed I was forced to confess that she looked it. That new Maude I had seen emerging of late years seemed now to have found herself; she was no longer the woman I had married,—yielding, willing to overlook, anxious to please, living in me.
"I don't influence you, or help you in any way. I never have."
"Oh, that's not true," I protested.
But she cut me short, going on inexorably:—"I am merely your housekeeper, and rather a poor one at that, from your point of view. You ignore me. I am not blaming you for it—you are made that way. It's true that you have always supported me in luxury,—that might have been enough for another woman. It isn't enough for me—I, too, have a life to live, a soul to be responsible for. It's not for my sake so much as for the children's that I don't want it to be crushed."
"Crushed!" I repeated.
"Yes. You are stifling it. I say again that I'm not blaming you, Hugh. You are made differently from me. All you care for, really, is your career. You may think that you care, at times, for—other things, but it isn't so."
I took, involuntarily, a deep breath. Would she mention Nancy? Was it in reality Nancy who had brought about this crisis? And did Maude suspect the closeness of that relationship?
Suddenly I found myself begging her not to go; the more astonishing since, if at any time during the past winter this solution had presented itself to me as a possibility, I should eagerly have welcomed it! But should I ever have had the courage to propose a separation? I even wished to delude myself now into believing that what she suggested was in reality not a separation. I preferred to think of it as a trip.... A vision of freedom thrilled me, and yet I was wracked and torn. I had an idea that she was suffering, that the ordeal was a terrible one for her; and at that moment there crowded into my mind, melting me, incident after incident of our past.
"It seems to me that we have got along pretty well together, Maude. I have been negligent—I'll admit it. But I'll try to do better in the future. And—if you'll wait a month or so, I'll go to Europe with you, and we'll have a good time."
She looked at me sadly,—pityingly, I thought.
"No, Hugh, I've thought it all out. You really don't want me. You only say this because you are sorry for me, because you dislike to have your feelings wrung. You needn't be sorry for me, I shall be much happier away from you."
"Think it over, Maude," I pleaded. "I shall miss you and the children. I haven't paid much attention to them, either, but I am fond of them, and depend upon them, too."
She shook her head.
"It's no use, Hugh. I tell you I've thought it all out. You don't care for the children, you were never meant to have any."
"Aren't you rather severe in your judgments?"
"I don't think so," she answered. "I'm willing to admit my faults, that I am a failure so far as you are concerned. Your ideas of life and mine are far apart."
"I suppose," I exclaimed bitterly, "that you are referring to my professional practices."
A note of weariness crept into her voice. I might have known that she was near the end of her strength.
"No, I don't think it's that," she said dispassionately. "I prefer to put it down, that part of it, to a fundamental difference of ideas. I do not feel qualified to sit in judgment on that part of your life, although I'll admit that many of the things you have done, in common with the men with whom you are associated, have seemed to me unjust and inconsiderate of the rights and feelings of others. You have alienated some of your best friends. If I were to arraign you at all, it would be on the score of heartlessness. But I suppose it isn't your fault, that you haven't any heart."
"That's unfair," I put in.
"I don't wish to be unfair," she replied. "Only, since you ask me, I have to tell you that that is the way it seems to me. I don't want to introduce the question of right and wrong into this, Hugh, I'm not capable of unravelling it; I can't put myself into your life, and see things from your point of view, weigh your problems and difficulties. In the first place, you won't let me. I think I understand you, partly—but only partly. You have kept yourself shut up. But why discuss it? I have made up my mind."
The legal aspect of the matter occurred to me. What right had she to leave me? I might refuse to support her. Yet even as these thoughts came I rejected them; I knew that it was not in me to press this point. And she could always take refuge with her father; without the children, of course. But the very notion sickened me. I could not bear to think of Maude deprived of the children. I had seated myself again at the table. I put my hand to my forehead.
"Don't make it hard, Hugh," I heard her say, gently. "Believe me, it is best. I know. There won't be any talk about it,—right away, at any rate. People will think it natural that I should wish to go abroad for the summer. And later—well, the point of view about such affairs has changed. They are better understood."
She had risen. She was pale, still outwardly composed,—but I had a strange, hideous feeling that she was weeping inwardly.
"Aren't you coming back—ever?" I cried.
She did not answer at once.
"I don't know," she said, "I don't know," and left the room abruptly....
I wanted to follow her, but something withheld me. I got up and walked around the room in a state of mind that was near to agony, taking one of the neglected books out of the shelves, glancing at its meaningless print, and replacing it; I stirred the fire, opened the curtains and gazed out into the street and closed them again. I looked around me, a sudden intensity of hatred seized me for this big, silent, luxurious house; I recalled Maude's presentiment about it. Then, thinking I might still dissuade her, I went slowly up the padded stairway—to find her door locked; and a sense of the finality of her decision came over me. I knew then that I could not alter it even were I to go all the lengths of abjectness. Nor could I, I knew, have brought myself to have feigned a love I did not feel.
What was it I felt? I could not define it. Amazement, for one thing, that Maude with her traditional, Christian view of marriage should have come to such a decision. I went to my room, undressed mechanically and got into bed....
She gave no sign at the breakfast table of having made the decision of the greatest moment in our lives; she conversed as usual, asked about the news, reproved the children for being noisy; and when the children had left the table there were no tears, reminiscences, recriminations. In spite of the slight antagonism and envy of which I was conscious,—that she was thus superbly in command of the situation, that she had developed her pinions and was thus splendidly able to use them,—my admiration for her had never been greater. I made an effort to achieve the frame of mind she suggested: since she took it so calmly, why should I be tortured by the tragedy of it? Perhaps she had ceased to love me, after all! Perhaps she felt nothing but relief. At any rate, I was grateful to her, and I found a certain consolation, a sop to my pride in the reflection that the initiative must have been hers to take. I could not have deserted her.
"When do you think of leaving?" I asked.
"Two weeks from Saturday on the Olympic, if that is convenient for you." Her manner seemed one of friendly solicitude. "You will remain in the house this summer, as usual, I suppose?"
"Yes," I said.
It was a sunny, warm morning, and I went downtown in the motor almost blithely. It was the best solution after all, and I had been a fool to oppose it.... At the office, there was much business awaiting me; yet once in a while, during the day, when the tension relaxed, the recollection of what had happened flowed back into my consciousness. Maude was going!
I had telephoned Nancy, making an appointment for the afternoon. Sometimes—not too frequently—we were in the habit of going out into the country in one of her motors, a sort of landaulet, I believe, in which we were separated from the chauffeur by a glass screen. She was waiting for me when I arrived, at four; and as soon as we had shot clear of the city, "Maude is going away," I told her.
"Going away?" she repeated, struck more by the tone of my voice than by what I had said.
"She announced last night that she was going abroad indefinitely."
I had been more than anxious to see how Nancy would take the news. A flush gradually deepened in her cheeks.
"You mean that she is going to leave you?"
"It looks that way. In fact, she as much as said so."
"Why?" said Nancy.
"Well, she explained it pretty thoroughly. Apparently, it isn't a sudden decision," I replied, trying to choose my words, to speak composedly as I repeated the gist of our conversation. Nancy, with her face averted, listened in silence—a silence that continued some time after I had ceased to speak.
"She didn't—she didn't mention—?" the sentence remained unfinished.
"No," I said quickly, "she didn't. She must know, of course, but I'm sure that didn't enter into it."
Nancy's eyes as they returned to me were wet, and in them was an expression I had never seen before,—of pain, reproach, of questioning. It frightened me.
"Oh, Hugh, how little you know!" she cried.
"What do you mean?" I demanded.
"That is what has brought her to this decision—you and I."
"You mean that—that Maude loves me? That she is jealous?" I don't know how I managed to say it.
"No woman likes to think that she is a failure," murmured Nancy.
"Well, but she isn't really," I insisted. "She could have made another man happy—a better man. It was all one of those terrible mistakes our modern life seems to emphasize so."
"She is a woman," Nancy said, with what seemed a touch of vehemence. "It's useless to expect you to understand.... Do you remember what I said to you about her? How I appealed to you when you married to try to appreciate her?"
"It wasn't that I didn't appreciate her," I interrupted, surprised that Nancy should have recalled this, "she isn't the woman for me, we aren't made for each other. It was my mistake, my fault, I admit, but I don't agree with you at all, that we had anything to do with her decision. It is just the—the culmination of a long period of incompatibility. She has come to realize that she has only one life to live, and she seems happier, more composed, more herself than she has ever been since our marriage. Of course I don't mean to say it isn't painful for her.... But I am sure she isn't well, that it isn't because of our seeing one another," I concluded haltingly.
"She is finer than either of us, Hugh,—far finer."
I did not relish this statement.
"She's fine, I admit. But I can't see how under the circumstances any of us could have acted differently." And Nancy not replying, I continued: "She has made up her mind to go,—I suppose I could prevent it by taking extreme measures,—but what good would it do? Isn't it, after all, the most sensible, the only way out of a situation that has become impossible? Times have changed, Nancy, and you yourself have been the first to admit it. Marriage is no longer what it was, and people are coming to look upon it more sensibly. In order to perpetuate the institution, as it was, segregation, insulation, was the only course. Men segregated their wives, women their husbands,—the only logical method of procedure, but it limited the individual. Our mothers and fathers thought it scandalous if husband or wife paid visits alone. It wasn't done. But our modern life has changed all that. A marriage, to be a marriage, should be proof against disturbing influences, should leave the individuals free; the binding element should be love, not the force of an imposed authority. You seemed to agree to all this."
"Yes, I know," she admitted. "But I cannot think that happiness will ever grow out of unhappiness."
"But Maude will not be unhappy," I insisted. "She will be happier, far happier, now that she has taken the step."
"Oh, I wish I thought so," Nancy exclaimed. "Hugh, you always believe what you want to believe. And the children. How can you bear to part with them?"
I was torn, I had a miserable sense of inadequacy.
"I shall miss them," I said. "I have never really appreciated them. I admit I don't deserve to have them, and I am willing to give them up for you, for Maude..."
We had made one of our favourite drives among the hills on the far side of the Ashuela, and at six were back at Nancy's house. I did not go in, but walked slowly homeward up Grant Avenue. It had been a trying afternoon. I had not expected, indeed, that Nancy would have rejoiced, but her attitude, her silences, betraying, as they did, compunctions, seemed to threaten our future happiness.