A Far Country
Accompanied by young Dr. Strafford, I went to California. My physical illness had been brief. Dr. Brooke had taken matters in his own hands and ordered an absolute rest, after dwelling at some length on the vicious pace set by modern business and the lack of consideration and knowledge shown by men of affairs for their bodies. There was a limit to the wrack and strain which the human organism could stand. He must of course have suspected the presence of disturbing and disintegrating factors, but he confined himself to telling me that only an exceptional constitution had saved me from a serious illness; he must in a way have comprehended why I did not wish to go abroad, and have my family join me on the Riviera, as Tom Peters proposed. California had been my choice, and Dr. Brooke recommended the climate of Santa Barbara.
High up on the Montecito hills I found a villa beside the gateway of one of the deep canons that furrow the mountain side, and day after day I lay in a chair on the sunny terrace, with a continually recurring amazement at the brilliancy of my surroundings. In the early morning I looked down on a feathery mist hiding the world, a mist presently to be shot with silver and sapphire-blue, dissolved by slow enchantment until there lay revealed the plain and the shimmering ocean with its distant islands trembling in the haze. At sunset my eyes sought the mountains, mountains unreal, like glorified scenery of grand opera, with violet shadows in the wooded canon clefts, and crags of pink tourmaline and ruby against the skies. All day long in the tempered heat flowers blazed around me, insects hummed, lizards darted in and out of the terrace wall, birds flashed among the checkered shadows of the live oaks. That grove of gnarled oaks summoned up before me visions of some classic villa poised above Grecian seas, shining amidst dark foliage, the refuge of forgotten kings. Below me, on the slope, the spaced orange trees were heavy with golden fruit.
After a while, as I grew stronger, I was driven down and allowed to walk on the wide beach that stretched in front of the gay houses facing the sea. Cormorants dived under the long rollers that came crashing in from the Pacific; gulls wheeled and screamed in the soft wind; alert little birds darted here and there with incredible swiftness, leaving tiny footprints across the ribs and furrows of the wet sand. Far to the southward a dark barrier of mountains rose out of the sea. Sometimes I sat with my back against the dunes watching the drag of the outgoing water rolling the pebbles after it, making a gleaming floor for the light to dance.
At first I could not bear to recall the events that had preceded and followed my visit to Krebs that Sunday morning. My illness had begun that night; on the Monday Tom Peters had come to the Club and insisted upon my being taken to his house.... When I had recovered sufficiently there had been rather a pathetic renewal of our friendship. Perry came to see me. Their attitude was one of apprehension not unmixed with wonder; and though they, knew of the existence of a mental crisis, suspected, in all probability, some of the causes of it, they refrained carefully from all comments, contenting themselves with telling me when I was well enough that Krebs had died quite suddenly that Sunday afternoon; that his death—occurring at such a crucial moment—had been sufficient to turn the tide of the election and make Edgar Greenhalge mayor. Thousands who had failed to understand Hermann Krebs, but whom he had nevertheless stirred and troubled, suddenly awoke to the fact that he had had elements of greatness....
My feelings in those first days at Santa Barbara may be likened, indeed, to those of a man who has passed through a terrible accident that has deprived him of sight or hearing, and which he wishes to forget. What I was most conscious of then was an aching sense of loss—an ache that by degrees became a throbbing pain as life flowed back into me, re-inflaming once more my being with protest and passion, arousing me to revolt against the fate that had overtaken me. I even began at moments to feel a fierce desire to go back and take up again the fight from which I had been so strangely removed—removed by the agency of things still obscure. I might get Nancy yet, beat down her resistance, overcome her, if only I could be near her and see her. But even in the midst of these surges of passion I was conscious of the birth of a new force I did not understand, and which I resented, that had arisen to give battle to my passions and desires. This struggle was not mentally reflected as a debate between right and wrong, as to whether I should or should not be justified in taking Nancy if I could get her: it seemed as though some new and small yet dogged intruder had forced an entrance into me, an insignificant pigmy who did not hesitate to bar the pathway of the reviving giant of my desires. These contests sapped my strength. It seemed as though in my isolation I loved Nancy, I missed her more than ever, and the flavour she gave to life.
Then Hermann Krebs began to press himself on me. I use the word as expressive of those early resentful feelings,—I rather pictured him then as the personification of an hostile element in the universe that had brought about my miseries and accomplished my downfall; I attributed the disagreeable thwarting of my impulses to his agency; I did not wish to think of him, for he stood somehow for a vague future I feared to contemplate. Yet the illusion of his presence, once begun, continued to grow upon me, and I find myself utterly unable to describe that struggle in which he seemed to be fighting as against myself for my confidence; that process whereby he gradually grew as real to me as though he still lived—until I could almost hear his voice and see his smile. At moments I resisted wildly, as though my survival depended on it; at other moments he seemed to bring me peace. One day I recalled as vividly as though it were taking place again that last time I had been with him; I seemed once more to be listening to the calm yet earnest talk ranging over so many topics, politics and government, economics and science and religion. I did not yet grasp the synthesis he had made of them all, but I saw them now all focussed in him elements he had drawn from human lives and human experiences. I think it was then I first felt the quickenings of a new life to be born in travail and pain.... Wearied, yet exalted, I sank down on a stone bench and gazed out at the little island of Santa Cruz afloat on the shimmering sea.
I have mentioned my inability to depict the terrible struggle that went on in my soul. It seems strange that Nietzsche—that most ruthless of philosophers to the romantic mind!—should express it for me. "The genius of the heart, from contact with which every man goes away richer, not 'blessed' and overcome,... but richer himself, fresher to himself than before, opened up, breathed upon and sounded by a thawing wind; more uncertain, perhaps, more delicate, more bruised; but full of hopes which as yet lack names, full of a new will and striving, full of a new unwillingness and counterstriving."...
Such was my experience with Hermann Krebs. How keenly I remember that new unwillingness and counter-striving! In spite of the years it has not wholly died down, even to-day....
Almost coincident with these quickenings of which I have spoken was the consciousness of a hunger stronger than the craving for bread and meat, and I began to meditate on my ignorance, on the utter inadequacy and insufficiency of my early education, on my neglect of the new learning during the years that had passed since I left Harvard. And I remembered Krebs's words—that we must "reeducate ourselves." What did I know? A system of law, inherited from another social order, that was utterly unable to cope with the complexities and miseries and injustices of a modern industrial world. I had spent my days in mastering an inadequate and archaic code—why? in order that I might learn how to evade it? This in itself condemned it. What did I know of life? of the shining universe that surrounded me? What did I know of the insect and the flower, of the laws that moved the planets and made incandescent the suns? of the human body, of the human soul and its instincts? Was this knowledge acquired at such cost of labour and life and love by my fellow-men of so little worth to me that I could ignore it? declare that it had no significance for me? no bearing on my life and conduct? If I were to rise and go forward—and I now felt something like a continued impulse, in spite of relaxations and revolts—I must master this knowledge, it must be my guide, form the basis of my creed. I—who never had had a creed, never felt the need of one! For lack of one I had been rudely jolted out of the frail shell I had thought so secure, and stood, as it were, naked and shivering to the storms, staring at a world that was no function of me, after all. My problem, indeed, was how to become a function of it....
I resolved upon a course of reading, but it was a question what books to get. Krebs could have told me, if he had lived. I even thought once of writing Perry Blackwood to ask him to make a list of the volumes in Krebs's little library; but I was ashamed to do this.
Dr. Strafford still remained with me. Not many years out of the medical school, he had inspired me with a liking for him and a respect for his profession, and when he informed me one day that he could no longer conscientiously accept the sum I was paying him, I begged him to stay on. He was a big and wholesome young man, companionable, yet quiet and unobtrusive, watchful without appearing to be so, with the innate as well as the cultivated knowledge of psychology characteristic of the best modern physicians. When I grew better I came to feel that he had given his whole mind to the study of my case, though he never betrayed it in his conversation.
"Strafford," I said to him one morning with such an air of unconcern as I could muster, "I've an idea I'd like to read a little science. Could you recommend a work on biology?"
I chose biology because I thought he would know something about it.
"Popular biology, Mr. Paret?"
"Well, not too popular," I smiled. "I think it would do me good to use my mind, to chew on something. Besides, you can help me over the tough places."
He returned that afternoon with two books.
"I've been rather fortunate in getting these," he said. "One is fairly elementary. They had it at the library. And the other—" he paused delicately, "I didn't know whether you might be interested in the latest speculations on the subject."
"Speculations?" I repeated.
"Well, the philosophy of it." He almost achieved a blush under his tan. He held out the second book on the philosophy of the organism. "It's the work of a German scientist who stands rather high. I read it last winter, and it interested me. I got it from a clergyman I know who is spending the winter in Santa Barbara."
Strafford laughed. "An 'advanced' clergyman," he explained. "Oh, a lot of them are reading science now. I think it's pretty decent of them."
I looked at Strafford, who towered six feet three, and it suddenly struck me that he might be one of the forerunners of a type our universities were about to turn out. I wondered what he believed. Of one thing I was sure, that he was not in the medical profession to make money. That was a faith in itself.
I began with the elementary work.
"You'd better borrow a Century Dictionary," I said.
"That's easy," he said, and actually achieved it, with the clergyman's aid.
The absorption in which I fought my way through those books may prove interesting to future generations, who, at Sunday-school age, when the fable of Adam and Eve was painfully being drummed into me (without any mention of its application), will be learning to think straight, acquiring easily in early youth what I failed to learn until after forty. And think of all the trouble and tragedy that will have been averted. It is true that I had read some biology at Cambridge, which I had promptly forgotten; it had not been especially emphasized by my instructors as related to life—certainly not as related to religion: such incidents as that of Adam and Eve occupied the religious field exclusively. I had been compelled to commit to memory, temporarily, the matter in those books; but what I now began to perceive was that the matter was secondary compared to the view point of science—and this had been utterly neglected. As I read, I experienced all the excitement of an old-fashioned romance, but of a romance of such significance as to touch the very springs of existence; and above all I was impressed with the integrity of the scientific method—an integrity commensurate with the dignity of man—that scorned to quibble to make out a case, to affirm something that could not be proved.
Little by little I became familiar with the principles of embryonic evolution, ontogeny, and of biological evolution, phylogeny; realized, for the first time, my own history and that of the ancestors from whom I had developed and descended. I, this marvellously complicated being, torn by desires and despairs, was the result of the union of two microscopic cells. "All living things come from the egg," such had been Harvey's dictum. The result was like the tonic of a cold douche. I began to feel cleansed and purified, as though something sticky-sweet which all my life had clung to me had been washed away. Yet a question arose, an insistent question that forever presses itself on the mind of man; how could these apparently chemical and mechanical processes, which the author of the book contented himself with recording, account for me? The spermia darts for the egg, and pierces it; personal history begins. But what mysterious shaping force is it that repeats in the individual the history of the race, supervises the orderly division of the cells, by degrees directs the symmetry, sets aside the skeleton and digestive tract and supervises the structure?
I took up the second book, that on the philosophy of the organism, to read in its preface that a much-to-be-honoured British nobleman had established a foundation of lectures in a Scotch University for forwarding the study of a Natural Theology. The term possessed me. Unlike the old theology woven of myths and a fanciful philosophy of the decadent period of Greece, natural theology was founded on science itself, and scientists were among those who sought to develop it. Here was a synthesis that made a powerful appeal, one of the many signs and portents of a new era of which I was dimly becoming cognizant; and now that I looked for signs, I found them everywhere, in my young Doctor, in Krebs, in references in the texts; indications of a new order beginning to make itself felt in a muddled, chaotic human world, which might—which must have a parallel with the order that revealed itself in the egg! Might not both, physical and social, be due to the influence of the same invisible, experimenting, creating Hand?
My thoughts lingered lovingly on this theology so well named "natural," on its conscientiousness, its refusal to affirm what it did not prove, on its lack of dogmatic dictums and infallible revelations; yet it gave me the vision of a new sanction whereby man might order his life, a sanction from which was eliminated fear and superstition and romantic hope, a sanction whose doctrines—unlike those of the sentimental theology—did not fly in the face of human instincts and needs. Nor was it a theology devoid of inspiration and poetry, though poetry might be called its complement. With all that was beautiful and true in the myths dear to mankind it did not conflict, annulling only the vicious dogmatism of literal interpretation. In this connection I remembered something that Krebs had said—in our talk about poetry and art,—that these were emotion, religion expressed by the tools reason had evolved. Music, he had declared, came nearest to the cry of the human soul....
That theology cleared for faith an open road, made of faith a reasonable thing, yet did not rob it of a sense of high adventure; cleansed it of the taints of thrift and selfish concern. In this reaffirmation of vitalism there might be a future, yes, an individual future, yet it was far from the smug conception of salvation. Here was a faith conferred by the freedom of truth; a faith that lost and regained itself in life; it was dynamic in its operation; for, as Lessing said, the searching after truth, and not its possession, gives happiness to man. In the words of an American scientist, taken from his book on Heredity, "The evolutionary idea has forced man to consider the probable future of his own race on earth and to take measures to control that future, a matter he had previously left largely to fate."
Here indeed was another sign of the times, to find in a strictly scientific work a sentence truly religious! As I continued to read these works, I found them suffused with religion, religion of a kind and quality I had not imagined. The birthright of the spirit of man was freedom, freedom to experiment, to determine, to create—to create himself, to create society in the image of God! Spiritual creation the function of cooperative man through the coming ages, the task that was to make him divine. Here indeed was the germ of a new sanction, of a new motive, of a new religion that strangely harmonized with the concepts of the old—once the dynamic power of these was revealed.
I had been thinking of my family—of my family in terms of Matthew—and yet with a growing yearning that embraced them all. I had not informed Maude of my illness, and I had managed to warn Tom Peters not to do so. I had simply written her that after the campaign I had gone for a rest to California; yet in her letters to me, after this information had reached her, I detected a restrained anxiety and affection that troubled me. Sequences of words curiously convey meanings and implications that transcend their literal sense, true thoughts and feelings are difficult to disguise even in written speech. Could it be possible after all that had happened that Maude still loved me? I continually put the thought away from me, but continually it returned to haunt me. Suppose Maude could not help loving me, in spite of my weaknesses and faults, even as I loved Nancy in spite of hers? Love is no logical thing.
It was Matthew I wanted, Matthew of whom I thought, and trivial, long-forgotten incidents of the past kept recurring to me constantly. I still received his weekly letters; but he did not ask why, since I had taken a vacation, I had not come over to them. He represented the medium, the link between Maude and me that no estrangement, no separation could break.
All this new vision of mine was for him, for the coming generation, the soil in which it must be sown, the Americans of the future. And who so well as Matthew, sensitive yet brave, would respond to it? I wished not only to give him what I had begun to grasp, to study with him, to be his companion and friend, but to spare him, if possible, some of my own mistakes and sufferings and punishments. But could I go back? Happy coincidences of desires and convictions had been so characteristic of that other self I had been struggling to cast off: I had so easily been persuaded, when I had had a chance of getting Nancy, that it was the right thing to do! And now, in my loneliness, was I not growing just as eager to be convinced that it was my duty to go back to the family which in the hour of self-sufficiency I had cast off? I had believed in divorce then—why not now? Well, I still believed in it. I had thought of a union with Nancy as something that would bring about the "self-realization that springs from the gratification of a great passion,"—an appealing phrase I had read somewhere. But, it was at least a favourable symptom that I was willing now to confess that the "self-realization" had been a secondary and sentimental consideration, a rosy, self-created halo to give a moral and religious sanction to my desire. Was I not trying to do that very thing now? It tortured me to think so; I strove to achieve a detached consideration of the problem,—to arrive at length at a thought that seemed illuminating: that the it "wrongness" or "rightness," utility and happiness of all such unions depend upon whether or not they become a part of the woof and warp of the social fabric; in other words, whether the gratification of any particular love by divorce and remarriage does or does not tend to destroy a portion of that fabric. Nancy certainly would have been justified in divorce. It did not seem in the retrospect that I would have been: surely not if, after I had married Nancy, I had developed this view of life that seemed to me to be the true view. I should have been powerless to act upon it. But the chances were I should not have developed it, since it would seem that any salvation for me at least must come precisely through suffering, through not getting what I wanted. Was this equivocating?
My mistake had been in marrying Maude instead of Nancy—a mistake largely due to my saturation with a false idea of life. Would not the attempt to cut loose from the consequences of that mistake in my individual case have been futile? But there was a remedy for it—the remedy Krebs had suggested: I might still prevent my children from making such a mistake, I might help to create in them what I might have been, and thus find a solution for myself. My errors would then assume a value.
But the question tortured me: would Maude wish it? Would it be fair to her if she did not? By my long neglect I had forfeited the right to go. And would she agree with my point of view if she did permit me to stay? I had less concern on this score, a feeling that that development of hers, which once had irritated me, was in the same direction as my own....
I have still strangely to record moments when, in spite of the aspirations I had achieved, of the redeeming vision I had gained, at the thought of returning to her I revolted. At such times recollections came into my mind of those characteristics in her that had seemed most responsible for my alienation.... That demon I had fed so mightily still lived. By what right—he seemed to ask—had I nourished him all these years if now I meant to starve him? Thus sometimes he defied me, took on Protean guises, blustered, insinuated, cajoled, managed to make me believe that to starve him would be to starve myself, to sap all there was of power in me. Let me try and see if I could do it! Again he whispered, to what purpose had I gained my liberty, if now I renounced it? I could not live in fetters, even though the fetters should be self-imposed. I was lonely now, but I would get over that, and life lay before me still.
Fierce and tenacious, steel in the cruelty of his desires, fearful in the havoc he had wrought, could he be subdued? Foiled, he tore and rent me....
One morning I rode up through the shady canon, fragrant with bay, to the open slopes stained smoky-blue by the wild lilac, where the twisted madrona grows. As I sat gazing down on tiny headlands jutting out into a vast ocean my paralyzing indecision came to an end. I turned my horse down the trail again. I had seen at last that life was bigger than I, bigger than Maude, bigger than our individual wishes and desires. I felt as though heavy shackles had been struck from me. As I neared the house I spied my young doctor in the garden path, his hands in his pockets watching a humming-bird poised over the poppies. He greeted me with a look that was not wholly surprise at my early return, that seemed to have in it something of gladness.
"Strafford," I said, "I've made up my mind to go to Europe."
"I have been thinking for some time, Mr. Paret," he replied, "that a sea-voyage is just what you need to set you on your feet."
I started eastward the next morning, arriving in New York in time to catch one of the big liners sailing for Havre. On my way across the continent I decided to send a cable to Maude at Paris, since it were only fair to give her an opportunity to reflect upon the manner in which she would meet the situation. Save for an impatience which at moments I restrained with difficulty, the moods that succeeded one another as I journeyed did not differ greatly from those I had experienced in the past month. I was alternately exalted and depressed; I hoped and doubted and feared; my courage, my confidence rose and fell. And yet I was aware of the nascence within me of an element that gave me a stability I had hitherto lacked: I had made my decision, and I felt the stronger for it.
It was early in March. The annual rush of my countrymen and women for foreign shores had not as yet begun, the huge steamer was far from crowded. The faint throbbing of her engines as she glided out on the North River tide found its echo within me as I leaned on the heavy rail and watched the towers of the city receding in the mist; they became blurred and ghostlike, fantastic in the grey distance, sad, appealing with a strange beauty and power. Once the sight of them, sunlit, standing forth sharply against the high blue of American skies, had stirred in me that passion for wealth and power of which they were so marvellously and uniquely the embodiment. I recalled the bright day of my home-coming with Maude, when she too had felt that passion drawing me away from her, after the briefest of possessions.... Well, I had had it, the power. I had stormed and gained entrance to the citadel itself. I might have lived here in New York, secure, defiant of a veering public opinion that envied while it strove to sting. Why was I flinging it all away? Was this a sudden resolution of mine, forced by events, precipitated by a failure to achieve what of all things on earth I had most desired? or was it the inevitable result of the development of the Hugh Paret of earlier days, who was not meant for that kind of power?
The vibration of the monster ship increased to a strong, electric pulsation, the water hummed along her sides, she felt the swell of the open sea. A fine rain began to fall that hid the land—yes, and the life I was leaving. I made my way across the glistening deck to the saloon where, my newspapers and periodicals neglected, I sat all the morning beside a window gazing out at the limited, vignetted zone of waters around the ship. We were headed for the Old World. The wind rose, the rain became pelting, mingling with the spume of the whitecaps racing madly past: within were warmth and luxury, electric lights, open fires, easy chairs, and men and women reading, conversing as unconcernedly as though the perils of the deep had ceased to be. In all this I found an impelling interest; the naive capacity in me for wonder, so long dormant, had been marvellously opened up once more. I no longer thought of myself as the important man of affairs; and when in the progress of the voyage I was accosted by two or three men I had met and by others who had heard of me it was only to feel amazement at the remoteness I now felt from a world whose realities were stocks and bonds, railroads and corporations and the detested new politics so inimical to the smooth conduct of "business."
It all sounded like a language I had forgotten.
It was not until near the end of the passage that we ran out of the storm. A morning came when I went on deck to survey spaces of a blue and white sea swept by the white March sunlight; to discern at length against the horizon toward which we sped a cloud of the filmiest and most delicate texture and design. Suddenly I divined that the cloud was France! Little by little, as I watched, it took on substance. I made out headlands and cliffs, and then we were coasting beside them. That night I should be in Paris with Maude. My bag was packed, my steamer trunk closed. I strayed about the decks, in and out of the saloons, wondering at the indifference of other passengers who sat reading in steamer-chairs or wrote last letters to be posted at Havre. I was filled with impatience, anticipation, yes, with anxiety concerning the adventure that was now so imminent; with wavering doubts. Had I done the wisest thing after all? I had the familiar experience that often comes just before reunion after absence of recalling intimate and forgotten impressions of those whom I was about to see again the tones of their voices, little gestures....
How would they receive me?
The great ship had slowed down and was entering the harbour, carefully threading her way amongst smaller craft, the passengers lining the rails and gazing at the animated scene, at the quaint and cheerful French city bathed in sunlight.... I had reached the dock and was making my way through the hurrying and shifting groups toward the steamer train when I saw Maude. She was standing a little aside, scanning the faces that passed her.
I remember how she looked at me, expectantly, yet timidly, almost fearfully. I kissed her.
"You've come to meet me!" I exclaimed stupidly. "How are the children?"
"They're very well, Hugh. They wanted to come, too, but I thought it better not."
Her restraint struck me as extraordinary; and while I was thankful for the relief it brought to a situation which might have been awkward, I was conscious of resenting it a little. I was impressed and puzzled. As I walked along the platform beside her she seemed almost a stranger: I had difficulty in realizing that she was my wife, the mother of my children. Her eyes were clear, more serious than I recalled them, and her physical as well as her moral tone seemed to have improved. Her cheeks glowed with health, and she wore a becoming suit of dark blue.
"Did you have a good trip, Hugh?" she asked.
"Splendid," I said, forgetting the storm. We took our seats in an empty compartment. Was she glad to see me? She had come all the way from Paris to meet me! All the embarrassment seemed to be on my side. Was this composure a controlled one or had she indeed attained to the self-sufficiency her manner and presence implied? Such were the questions running through my head.
"You've really liked Paris?" I asked.
"Yes, Hugh, and it's been very good for us all. Of course the boys like America better, but they've learned many things they wouldn't have learned at home; they both speak French, and Biddy too. Even I have improved."
"I'm sure of it," I said.
"And what else have you been doing?"
"Oh, going to galleries. Matthew often goes with me. I think he quite appreciates the pictures. Sometimes I take him to the theatre, too, the Francais. Both boys ride in the Bois with a riding master. It's been rather a restricted life for them, but it won't have hurt them. It's good discipline. We have little excursions in an automobile on fine days to Versailles and other places of interest around Paris, and Matthew and I have learned a lot of history. I have a professor of literature from the Sorbonne come in three times a week to give me lessons."
"I didn't know you cared for literature."
"I didn't know it either." She smiled. "Matthew loves it. Monsieur Despard declares he has quite a gift for language."
Maude had already begun Matthew's education!
"You see a few people?" I inquired.
"A few. And they have been very kind to us. The Buffons, whom I met at Etretat, and some of their friends, mostly educated French people."
The little railway carriage in which we sat rocked with speed as we flew through the French landscape. I caught glimpses of solid, Norman farm buildings, of towers and keeps and delicate steeples, and quaint towns; of bare poplars swaying before the March gusts, of green fields ablaze in the afternoon sun. I took it all in distractedly. Here was Maude beside me, but a Maude I had difficulty in recognizing, whom I did not understand: who talked of a life she had built up for herself and that seemed to satisfy her; one with which I had nothing to do. I could not tell how she regarded my re-intrusion. As she continued to talk, a feeling that was almost desperation grew upon me. I had things to say to her, things that every moment of this sort of intercourse was making more difficult. And I felt, if I did not say them now, that perhaps I never should: that now or never was the appropriate time, and to delay would be to drift into an impossible situation wherein the chance of an understanding would be remote.
There was a pause. How little I had anticipated the courage it would take to do this thing! My blood was hammering.
"Maude," I said abruptly, "I suppose you're wondering why I came over here."
She sat gazing at me, very still, but there came into her eyes a frightened look that almost unnerved me. She seemed to wish to speak, to be unable to. Passively, she let my hand rest on hers.
"I've been thinking a great deal during the last few months," I went on unsteadily. "And I've changed a good many of my ideas—that is, I've got new ones, about things I never thought of before. I want to say, first, that I do not put forth any claim to come back into your life. I know I have forfeited any claim. I've neglected you, and I've neglected the children. Our marriage has been on a false basis from the start, and I've been to blame for it. There is more to be said about the chances for a successful marriage in these days, but I'm not going to dwell on that now, or attempt to shoulder off my shortcomings on my bringing up, on the civilization in which we have lived. You've tried to do your share, and the failure hasn't been your fault. I want to tell you first of all that I recognize your right to live your life from now on, independently of me, if you so desire. You ought to have the children—" I hesitated a moment. It was the hardest thing I had to say. "I've never troubled myself about them, I've never taken on any responsibility in regard to their bringing up."
"Hugh!" she cried.
"Wait—I've got more to tell you, that you ought to know. I shouldn't be here to-day if Nancy Durrett had consented to—to get a divorce and marry me. We had agreed to that when this accident happened to Ham, and she went back to him. I have to tell you that I still love her—I can't say how much, or define my feelings toward her now. I've given up all idea of her. I don't think I'd marry her now, even if I had the chance, and you should decide to live away from me. I don't know. I'm not so sure of myself as I once was. The fact is, Maude, circumstances have been too much for me. I've been beaten. And I'm not at all certain that it wasn't a cowardly thing for me to come back to you at all."
I felt her hand trembling under mine, but I had not the courage to look at her. I heard her call my name again a little cry, the very poignancy of pity and distress. It almost unnerved me.
"I knew that you loved her, Hugh," she said. "It was only—only a little while after you married me that I found it out. I guessed it—women do guess such things—long before you realized it yourself. You ought to have married her instead of me. You would have been happier with her."
I did not answer.
"I, too, have thought a great deal," she went on, after a moment. "I began earlier than you, I had to." I looked up suddenly and saw her smiling at me, faintly, through her tears. "But I've been thinking more, and learning more since I've been over here. I've come to see that that our failure hasn't been as much your fault as I once thought, as much as you yourself declare. You have done me a wrong, and you've done the children a wrong. Oh, it is frightful to think how little I knew when I married you, but even then I felt instinctively that you didn't love me as I deserved to be loved. And when we came back from Europe I knew that I couldn't satisfy you, I couldn't look upon life as you saw it, no matter how hard I tried. I did try, but it wasn't any use. You'll never know how much I've suffered all these years.
"I have been happier here, away from you, with the children; I've had a chance to be myself. It isn't that I'm—much. It isn't that I don't need guidance and counsel and—sympathy. I've missed those, but you've never given them to me, and I've been learning more and more to do without them. I don't know why marriage should suddenly have become such a mockery and failure in our time, but I know that it is, that ours hasn't been such an exception as I once thought. I've come to believe that divorce is often justified."
"It is justified so far as you are concerned, Maude," I replied. "It is not justified for me. I have forfeited, as I say, any rights over you. I have been the aggressor and transgressor from the start. You have been a good wife and a good mother, you have been faithful, I have had absolutely nothing to complain of."
"Sometimes I think I might have tried harder," she said. "At least I might have understood better. I was stupid. But everything went wrong. And I saw you growing away from me all the time, Hugh, growing away from the friends who were fond of you, as though you were fading in the distance. It wasn't wholly because—because of Nancy that I left you. That gave me an excuse—an excuse for myself. Long before that I realized my helplessness, I knew that whatever I might have done was past doing."
"Yes, I know," I assented.
We sat in silence for a while. The train was skirting an ancient town set on a hill, crowned with a castle and a Gothic church whose windows were afire in the setting sun.
"Maude," I said, "I have not come to plead, to appeal to your pity as against your judgment and reason. I can say this much, that if I do not love you, as the word is generally understood, I have a new respect for you, and a new affection, and I think that these will grow. I have no doubt that there are some fortunate people who achieve the kind of mutual love for which it is human to yearn, whose passion is naturally transmuted into a feeling that may be even finer, but I am inclined to think, even in such a case, that some effort and unselfishness are necessary. At any rate, that has been denied to us, and we can never know it from our own experience. We can only hope that there is such a thing,—yes, and believe in it and work for it."
"Work for it, Hugh?" she repeated.
"For others—for our children. I have been thinking about the children a great deal in the last few months especially about Matthew."
"You always loved him best," she said.
"Yes," I admitted. "I don't know why it should be so. And in spite of it, I have neglected him, neglected them, failed to appreciate them all. I did not deserve them. I have reproached myself, I have suffered for it, not as much as I deserved. I came to realize that the children were a bond between us, that their existence meant something greater than either of us. But at the same time I recognized that I had lost my right over them, that it was you who had proved yourself worthy.... It was through the children that I came to think differently, to feel differently toward you. I have come to you to ask your forgiveness."
"Oh, Hugh!" she cried.
"Wait," I said.... "I have come to you, through them. I want to say again that I should not be here if I had obtained my desires. Yet there is more to it than that. I think I have reached a stage where I am able to say that I am glad I didn't obtain them. I see now that this coming to you was something I have wanted to do all along, but it was the cowardly thing to do, after I had failed, for it was not as though I had conquered the desires, the desires conquered me. At any rate, I couldn't come to you to encumber you, to be a drag upon you. I felt that I must have something to offer you. I've got a plan, Maude, for my life, for our lives. I don't know whether I can make a success of it, and you are entitled to decline to take the risk. I don't fool myself that it will be all plain sailing, that there won't be difficulties and discouragements. But I'll promise to try."
"What is it?" she asked, in a low voice. "I—I think I know."
"Perhaps you have guessed it. I am willing to try to devote what is left of my life to you and to them. And I need your help. I acknowledge it. Let us try to make more possible for them the life we have missed."
"The life we have missed!" she said.
"Yes. My mistakes, my failures, have brought us to the edge of a precipice. We must prevent, if we can, those mistakes and failures for them. The remedy for unhappy marriages, for all mistaken, selfish and artificial relationships in life is a preventive one. My plan is that we try to educate ourselves together, take advantage of the accruing knowledge that is helping men and women to cope with the problems, to think straight. We can then teach our children to think straight, to avoid the pitfalls into which we have fallen."
I paused. Maude did not reply. Her face was turned away from me, towards the red glow of the setting sun above the hills.
"You have been doing this all along, you have had the vision, the true vision, while I lacked it, Maude. I offer to help you. But if you think it is impossible for us to live together, if you believe my feeling toward you is not enough, if you don't think I can do what I propose, or if you have ceased to care for me—"
She turned to me with a swift movement, her eyes filled with tears.
"Oh, Hugh, don't say any more. I can't stand it. How little you know, for all your thinking. I love you, I always have loved you. I grew to be ashamed of it, but I'm not any longer. I haven't any pride any more, and I never want to have it again."
"You're willing to take me as I am,—to try?" I said.
"Yes," she answered, "I'm willing to try." She smiled at me. "And I have more faith than you, Hugh. I think we'll succeed."....
At nine o'clock that night, when we came out through the gates of the big, noisy station, the children were awaiting us. They had changed, they had grown. Biddy kissed me shyly, and stood staring up at me.
"We'll take you out to-morrow and show you how we can ride," said Moreton.
Matthew smiled. He stood very close to me, with his hand through my arm.
"You're going to stay, father?" he asked.
"I'm going to stay, Matthew," I answered, "until we all go back to America."....
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