Montague came home with his mind made up that there was nothing he could do except to be more careful next time. For this mistake he would have to pay the price.
He had still to learn what the full price was. The day after his return there came a caller—Mr. John C. Burton, read his card. He proved to be a canvassing agent for the company which published the scandal-sheet of Society. They were preparing a de luxe account of the prominent families of New York; a very sumptuous affair, with a highly exclusive set of subscribers, at the rate of fifteen hundred dollars per set. Would Mr. Montague by any chance care to have his family included?
And Mr. Montague explained politely that he was a comparative stranger in New York, and would not belong properly in such a volume. But the agent was not satisfied with this. There might be reasons for his subscribing, even so; there might be special cases; Mr. Montague, as a stranger, might not realize the important nature of the offer; after he had consulted his friends, he might change his mind—and so on. As Montague listened to this series of broad hints, and took in the meaning of them, the colour mounted, to his cheeks—until at last he rose abruptly and bid the man good afternoon.
But then as he sat alone, his anger died away, and there was left only discomfort and uneasiness. And three or four days later he bought another issue of the paper, and sure enough, there was a new paragraph!
He stood on the street-corner reading it. The social war was raging hotly, it said; and added that Mrs. de Graffenried was threatening to take up the cause of the strangers. Then it went on to picture a certain exquisite young man of fashion who was rushing about among his friends to apologize for his brother's indiscretions. Also, it said, there was a brilliant social queen, wife of a great banker, who had taken up the cudgels.—And then came three sentences more, which made the blood leap like flame into Montague's cheeks:
"There have not been lacking comments upon her suspicious ardour. It has been noticed that since the advent of the romantic-looking Southerner, this restless lady's interest in the Babists and the trance mediums has waned; and now Society is watching for the denouement of a most interesting situation."
To Montague these words came like a blow in the face. He went on down the street, half dazed. It seemed to him the blackest shame that New York had yet shown him. He clenched his fists as he walked, whispering to himself, "The scoundrels!"
He realized instantly that he was helpless. Down home one would have thrashed the editor of such a paper; but here he was in the wolves' own country, and he could do nothing. He went back to his office, and sat down at the desk.
"My dear Mrs. Winnie," he wrote. "I have just read the enclosed paragraph, and I cannot tell you how profoundly pained I am that your kindness to us should have made you the victim of such an outrage. I am quite helpless in the matter, except to enable you to avoid any further annoyance. Please believe me when I say that we shall all of us understand perfectly if you think that we had best not meet again at present; and that this will make no difference whatever in our feelings."
This letter Montague sent by a messenger; and then he went home. Perhaps ten minutes after he arrived, the telephone bell rang—and there was Mrs. Winnie.
"Your note has come," she said. "Have you an engagement this evening?"
"No," he answered.
"Well," she said, "will you come to dinner?"
"Mrs. Winnie—" he protested.
"Please come," she said. "Please!"
"I hate to have you—" he began.
"I wish you to come!" she said, a third time.
So he answered, "Very well."
He went; and when he entered the house, the butler led him to the elevator, saying, "Mrs. Duval says will you please come upstairs, sir." And there Mrs. Winnie met him, with flushed cheeks and eager countenance.
She was even lovelier than usual, in a soft cream-coloured gown, and a crimson rose in her bosom. "I'm all alone to-night," she said, "so we'll dine in my apartments. We'd be lost in that big room downstairs."
She led him into her drawing-room, where great armfuls of new roses scattered their perfume. There was a table set for two, and two big chairs before the fire which blazed in the hearth. Montague noticed that her hand trembled a little, as she motioned him to one of them; he could read her excitement in her whole aspect. She was flinging down the gauntlet to her enemies!
"Let us eat first and talk afterward," she said, hurriedly. "We'll be happy for a while, anyway."
And she went on to be happy, in her nervous and eager way. She talked about the new opera which was to be given, and about Mrs. de Graffenried's new entertainment, and about Mrs. Ridgley-Clieveden's ball; also about the hospital for crippled children which she wanted to build, and about Mrs. Vivie Patton's rumoured divorce. And, meantime, the sphinx-like attendants moved here and there, and the dinner came and went. They took their coffee in the big chairs by the fire; and the table was swept clear, and the servants vanished, closing the doors behind them.
Then Montague set his cup aside, and sat gazing sombrely into the fire. And Mrs. Winnie watched him. There was a long silence.
Suddenly he heard her voice. "Do you find it so easy to give up our friendship?" she asked.
"I didn't think about it's being easy or hard," he answered. "I simply thought of protecting you."
"And do you think that my friends are nothing to me?" she demanded. "Have I so very many as that?" And she clenched her hands with a sudden passionate gesture. "Do you think that I will let those wretches frighten me into doing what they want? I'll not give in to them—not for anything that Lelia can do!"
A look of perplexity crossed Montague's face. "Lelia?" he asked.
"Mrs. Robbie Walling!" she cried. "Don't you suppose that she is responsible for that paragraph?"
"That's the way they fight their battles!" cried Mrs. Winnie. "They pay money to those scoundrels to be protected. And then they send nasty gossip about people they wish to injure."
"You don't mean that!" exclaimed the man.
"Of course I do," cried she. "I know that it's true! I know that Robbie Walling paid fifteen thousand dollars for some trumpery volumes that they got out! And how do you suppose the paper gets its gossip?"
"I didn't know," said Montague. "But I never dreamed—"
"Why," exclaimed Mrs. Winnie, "their mail is full of blue and gold monogram stationery! I've known guests to sit down and write gossip about their hostesses in their own homes. Oh, you've no idea of people's vileness!"
"I had some idea," said Montague, after a pause.—"That was why I wished to protect you."
"I don't wish to be protected!" she cried, vehemently. "I'll not give them the satisfaction. They wish to make me give you up, and I'll not do it, for anything they can say!"
Montague sat with knitted brows, gazing into the fire. "When I read that paragraph," he said slowly. "I could not bear to think of the unhappiness it might cause you. I thought of how much it might disturb your husband—"
"My husband!" echoed Mrs. Winnie.
There was a hard tone in her voice, as she went on. "He will fix it up with them," she said,—"that's his way. There will be nothing more published, you can feel sure of that."
Montague sat in silence. That was not the reply he had expected, and it rather disconcerted him.
"If that were all—" he said, with hesitation. "But I could not know. I thought that the paragraph might disturb him for another reason—that it might be a cause of unhappiness between you and him—"
There was a pause. "You don't understand," said Mrs. Winnie, at last.
Without turning his head he could see her hands, as they lay upon her knees. She was moving them nervously. "You don't understand," she repeated.
When she began to' speak again, it was in a low, trembling voice. "I must tell you," she said; "I have felt sure that you did not know."
There was another pause. She hesitated, and her hands trembled; then suddenly she hurried on.—"I wanted you to know. I do not love my husband. I am not bound to him. He has nothing to say in my affairs."
Montague sat rigid, turned to stone. He was half dazed by the words. He could feel Mrs. Winnie's gaze fixed upon him; and he could feel the hot flush that spread over her throat and cheeks.
"It—it was not fair for you not to know," she whispered. And her voice died away, and there was again a silence. Montague was dumb.
"Why don't you say something?" she panted, at last; and he caught the note of anguish in her voice. Then he turned and stared at her, and saw her tightly clenched hands, and the quivering of her lips.
He was shocked quite beyond speech. And he saw her bosom heaving quickly, and saw the tears start into her eyes. Suddenly she sank down, and covered her face with her hands and broke into frantic sobbing.
"Mrs. Winnie!" he cried; and started to his feet.
Her outburst continued. He saw that she was shuddering violently. "Then you don't love me!" she wailed.
He stood trembling and utterly bewildered. "I'm so sorry!" he whispered. "Oh, Mrs. Winnie—I had no idea—"
"I know it! I know it!" she cried. "It's my fault! I was a fool! I knew it all the time. But I hoped—I thought you might, if you knew—"
And then again her tears choked her; she was convulsed with pain and grief.
Montague stood watching her, helpless with distress. She caught hold of the arm of the chair, convulsively, and he put his hand upon hers.
"Mrs. Winnie—" he began.
But she jerked her hand away and hid it. "No, no!" she cried, in terror. "Don't touch me!"
And suddenly she looked up at him, stretching out her arms. "Don't you understand that I love you?" she exclaimed. "You despise me for it, I know—but I can't help it. I will tell you, even so! It's the only satisfaction I can have. I have always loved you! And I thought—I thought it was only that you didn't understand. I was ready to brave all the world—I didn't care who knew it, or what anybody said. I thought we could be happy—I thought I could be free at last. Oh, you've no idea how unhappy I am—and how lonely—and how I longed to escape! And I believed that you—that you might—"
And then the tears gushed into Mrs. Winnie's eyes again, and her voice became the voice of a little child.
"Don't you think that you might come to love me?" she wailed.
Her voice shook Montague, so that he trembled to the depths of him. But his face only became the more grave.
"You despise me because I told you!" she exclaimed.
"No, no, Mrs. Winnie," he said. "I could not possibly do that—"
"Then—then why—" she whispered.—"Would it be so hard to love me?"
"It would be very easy," he said, "but I dare not let myself."
She looked at him piteously. "You are so cold—so merciless!" she cried.
He answered nothing, and she sat trembling. "Have you ever loved a woman?" she asked.
There was a long pause. He sat in the chair again. "Listen, Mrs. Winnie"—he began at last.
"Don't call me that!" she exclaimed. "Call me Evelyn—please."
"Very well," he said—"Evelyn. I did not intend to make you unhappy—if I had had any idea, I should never have seen you again. I will tell you—what I have never told anybody before. Then you will understand."
He sat for a few moments, in a sombre reverie.
"Once," he said, "when I was young, I loved a woman—a quadroon girl. That was in New Orleans; it is a custom we have there. They have a world of their own, and we take care of them, and of the children; and every one knows about it. I was very young, only about eighteen; and she was even younger. But I found out then what women are, and what love means to them. I saw how they could suffer. And then she died in childbirth—the child died, too."
Montague's voice was very low; and Mrs. Winnie sat with her hands clasped, and her eyes riveted upon his face. "I saw her die," he said. "And that was all. I have never forgotten it. I made up my mind then that I had done wrong; and that never again while I lived would I offer my love to a woman, unless I could devote all my life to her. So you see, I am afraid of love. I do not wish to suffer so much, or to make others suffer. And when anyone speaks to me as you did, it brings it all back to me—it makes me shrink up and wither."
He paused, and the other caught her breath.
"Understand me," she said, her voice trembling. "I would not ask any pledges of you. I would pay whatever price there was to pay—I am not afraid to suffer."
"I do not wish you to suffer," he said. "I do not wish to take advantage of any woman."
"But I have nothing in the world that I value!" she cried. "I would go away—I would give up everything, to be with a man like you. I have no ties—no duties—"
He interrupted her. "You have your husband—" he said.
And she cried out in sudden fury—"My husband!"
"Has no one ever told you about my husband?" she asked, after a pause.
"No one," he said.
"Well, ask them!" she exclaimed. "Meantime, take my word for it—I owe nothing to my husband."
Montague sat staring into the fire. "But consider my own case," he said. "I have duties—my mother and my cousin—"
"Oh, don't say any more!" cried the woman, with a break in her voice. "Say that you don't love me—that is all there is to say! And you will never respect me again! I have been a fool—I have ruined everything! I have flung away your friendship, that I might have kept!"
"No," he said.
But she rushed on, vehemently—"At least, I have been honest—give me credit for that! That is how all my troubles come—I say what is in my mind, and I pay the price for my blunders. It is not as if I were cold and calculating—so don't despise me altogether."
"I couldn't despise you," said Montague. "I am simply pained, because I have made you unhappy. And I did not mean to."
Mrs. Winnie sat staring ahead of her in a sombre reverie. "Don't think any more about it," she said, bitterly. "I will get over it. I am not worth troubling about. Don't you suppose I know how you feel about this world that I live in? And I'm part of it—I beat my wings, and try to get out, but I can't. I'm in it, and I'll stay in till I die; I might as well give up. I thought that I could steal a little joy—you have no idea how hungry I am for a little joy! You have no idea how lonely I am! And how empty my life is! You talk about your fear of making me unhappy; it's a grim jest—but I'll give you permission, if you can! I'll ask nothing—no promises, no sacrifices! I'll take all the risks, and pay all the penalties!"
She smiled through her tears, a sardonic smile. He was watching her, and she turned again, and their eyes met; again he saw the blood mount from her throat to her cheeks. At the same time came the old stirring of the wild beasts within him. He knew that the less time he spent in sympathizing with Mrs. Winnie, the better for both of them.
He had started to rise, and words of farewell were on his lips; when suddenly there came a knock upon the door.
Mrs. Winnie sprang to her feet. "Who is that?" she cried.
And the door opened, and Mr. Duval entered.
"Good evening," he said pleasantly, and came toward her.
Mrs. Winnie flushed angrily, and stared at him. "Why do you come here unannounced?" she cried.
"I apologize," he said—"but I found this in my mail—"
And Montague, in the act of rising to greet him, saw that he had the offensive clipping in his hand. Then he saw Duval give a start, and realized that the man had not been aware of his presence in the room.
Duval gazed from Montague to his wife, and noticed for the first time her tears, and her agitation. "I beg pardon," he said. "I am evidently trespassing."
"You most certainly are," responded Mrs. Winnie.
He made a move to withdraw; but before he could take a step, she had brushed past him and left the room, slamming the door behind her.
And Duval stared after her, and then he stared at Montague, and laughed. "Well! well! well!" he said.
Then, checking his amusement, he added, "Good evening, sir."
"Good evening," said Montague.
He was trembling slightly, and Duval noticed it; he smiled genially. "This is the sort of material out of which scenes are made," said he. "But I beg you not to be embarrassed—we won't have any scenes."
Montague could think of nothing to say to that.
"I owe Evelyn an apology," the other continued. "It was entirely an accident—this clipping, you see. I do not intrude, as a rule. You may make yourself at home in future."
Montague flushed scarlet at the words.
"Mr. Duval," he said, "I have to assure you that you are mistaken—"
The other stared at him. "Oh, come, come!" he said, laughing. "Let us talk as men of the world."
"I say that you are mistaken," said Montague again.
The other shrugged his shoulders. "Very well," he said genially. "As you please. I simply wish to make matters clear to you, that's all. I wish you joy with Evelyn. I say nothing about her—you love her. Suffice it that I've had her, and I'm tired of her; the field is yours. But keep her out of mischief, and don't let her make a fool of herself in public, if you can help it. And don't let her spend too much money—she costs me a million a year already.—Good evening, Mr. Montague."
And he went out. Montague, who stood like a statue, could hear him chuckling all the way down the hall.
At last Montague himself started to leave. But he heard Mrs. Winnie coming back, and he waited for her. She came in and shut the door, and turned toward him.
"What did he say?" she asked.
"He—was very pleasant," said Montague.
And she smiled grimly. "I went out on purpose," she said. "I wanted you to see him—to see what sort of a man he is, and how much 'duty' I owe him! You saw, I guess."
"Yes, I saw," said he.
Then again he started to go. But she took him by the arm. "Come and talk to me," she said. "Please!"
And she led him back to the fire. "Listen," she said. "He will not come here again. He is going away to-night—I thought he had gone already. And he does not return for a month or two. There will be no one to disturb us again."
She came close to him and gazed up into his face. She had wiped her tears away, and her happy look had come back to her; she was lovelier than ever.
"I took you by surprise," she said, smiling. "You didn't know what to make of it. And I was ashamed—I thought you would hate me. But I'm not going to be unhappy any more—I don't care at all. I'm glad that I spoke!"
And Mrs. Winnie put up her hands and took him by the lapels of his coat. "I know that you love me," she said; "I saw it in your eyes just now, before he came in: It is simply that you won't let yourself go. You have so many doubts and so many fears. But you will see that I am right; you will learn to love me. You won't be able to help it—I shall be so kind and good! Only don't go away—"
Mrs. Winnie was so close to him that her breath touched his cheek. "Promise me, dear," she whispered—"promise me that you won't stop seeing me—that you will learn to love me. I can't do without you!"
Montague was trembling in every nerve; he felt like a man caught in a net. Mrs. Winnie had had everything she ever wanted in her life; and now she wanted him! It was impossible for her to face any other thought.
"Listen," he began gently.
But she saw the look of resistance in his eyes, and she cried "No no—don't! I cannot do without you! Think! I love you! What more can I say to you? I cannot believe that you don't care for me—you HAVE been fond of me—I have seen it in your face. Yet you're afraid of me—why? Look at me—am I not beautiful to look at! And is a woman's love such a little thing—can you fling it away and trample upon it so easily? Why do you wish to go? Don't you understand—no one knows we are here—no one cares! You can come here whenever you wish—this is my place—mine! And no one will think anything about it. They all do it. There is nothing to be afraid of!"
She put her arms about him, and clung to him so that he could feel the beating of her heart upon his bosom. "Oh, don't leave me here alone to-night!" she cried.
To Montague it was like the ringing of an alarm-bell deep within his soul. "I must go," he said.
She flung back her head and stared at him, and he saw the terror and anguish in her eyes. "No, no!" she cried, "don't say that to me! I can't bear it—oh, see what I have done! Look at me! Have mercy on me!"
"Mrs. Winnie," he said, "you must have mercy on ME!"
But he only felt her clasp him more tightly. He took her by the wrists, and with quiet force he broke her hold upon him; her hands fell to her sides, and she stared at him, aghast.
"I must go," he said, again.
And he started toward the door. She followed him dumbly with her eyes.
"Good-bye," he said. He knew that there was no use of any more words; his sympathy had been like oil upon flames. He saw her move, and as he opened the door, she flung herself down in a chair and burst into frantic weeping. He shut the door softly and went away.
He found his way down the stairs, and got his hat and coat, and went out, unseen by anyone. He walked down the Avenue-and there suddenly was the giant bulk of St. Cecilia's lifting itself into the sky. He stopped and looked at it—it seemed a great tumultuous surge of emotion. And for the first time in his life it seemed to him that he understood why men had put together that towering heap of stone!
Then he went on home.
He found Alice dressing for a ball, and Oliver waiting for her. He went to his room, and took off his coat; and Oliver came up to him, and with a sudden gesture reached over to his shoulder, and held up a trophy.
He drew it out carefully, and measured the length of it, smiling mischievously in the meanwhile. Then he held it up to the light, to see the colour of it.
"A black one!" he cried. "Coal black!" And he looked at his brother, with a merry twinkle in his eyes. "Oh, Allan!" he chuckled.
Montague said nothing.