AN October wind, laden with dust, was sweeping along the broad city street, and Cortelyou, holding on his hat, had stopped midway in order to take a leisurely survey up and down.
There was no danger of being run over. The wide, light thoroughfare—from the gigantic buildings which blocked it at one end up to the thin black line where, miles away, it merged in a colorless, cloudy sky—was dotted with passers as leisurely as himself; and, in spite of the gray day, the distracting wind, and the gritty haze which set men’s teeth on edge, both people and place wore a cheerful, holiday air that Cortelyou, considering the present stage of human development, stigmatized as an unfeeling anachronism. For his own part, he was not disposed to be pleased with anything he saw. He had been born in a different part of the country, and his alien prepossessions were a sacred inheritance, a sort of mental opera-glass—which his traditions compelled him to use inverted. Moreover, he had been interrupted in an absorbing piece of work by an imperative summons abroad, and was snapping and growling at circumstances with something of the ungovernable irritation of a dog who has been dragged from his bone.
He continued on his way now to the other side of the street, where an exhibition of pictures at the St. Bardolph Club promised to beguile, in a measure, the desperate tedium of a day’s sojourn in a strange place. Passing through the ante-room he reached the gallery, still conscientiously morose. Even the little school-girl who paced slowly down the room—declaring, with the air of a connoisseur, that while Monet’s drawing was undoubtedly fine she nevertheless “did not think his color was anything to speak of”—had no power to divert him. The ingenuous naiveté of youth was utterly without charm just then to a man compelled to take a flying trip abroad in order to gratify the caprices of a school-girl of his own.
The gallery, too, was becoming most uncomfortably crowded. “Is it possible that there is only one of that fellow?” grumbled Cortelyou, viewing, with extreme disfavor, a magnificent young athlete with auburn locks. “I seem to see him every way I turn, and there’s not a soul in the room he doesn’t know. Hair like that should be refused admission at the door—it kills all the delicate color in the pictures. Still, you can’t expect these people to know how to manage anything. They are a material lot, the whole of them. I don’t believe there are fifteen here capable of appreciating what they have come to see. It makes me think of a respectable Sodom, a sort of moral Gomorrah!” And with a captious expression of discontent he began to wander up and down the room, scanning the faces he met and apparently counting.
“And if there be ten righteous among them they shall not perish,” he graciously granted, somewhat appeased by the whimsicality of his own proceedings.
But lo, the ten were not forthcoming! “Peradventure there may be five,” he thought; but even five seemed far too many, and after having gone the length of the gallery a second time he returned to one of the long divans in the middle of the floor and sat down, discouraged. “And if there be but one,” he conceded, meekly, “it shall suffice.”
He had placed himself facing the door which led into a dark, richly furnished ante-room, and entering this from the yellow glare of a hall beyond was a girl, or a woman—he did not stop to analyze, as for a moment she stood tranquilly watching the passing crowd. At last, crossing the floor, she came toward him; automatically he made room for her; she bent her head with gentle gravity and seated herself at his side.
She had flitted in out of the shadows with a sort of shy self-possession, a timid boldness. There was something about her at once brilliant and subdued, like a southern sunset, and Cortelyou found himself thinking of the blending of wonderful dusky dyes and stray threads of gold in certain rare, silken fabrics that, as a child, he was wont to touch, timidly, with delicate, reverent finger.
“And if there be but one righteous among them—it shall suffice!” he repeated.
She turned upon him, astonished and offended, but, compelled by the regretful consternation of his eyes, her wrath gave way to amusement. “You must not ask too much,” she answered, seriously.
“Sometimes.” he said, “a gracious thing befalls, unsolicited.” It was an experiment, this speech; but when she arose and walked away a sharp sensation of chagrin apprised Cortelyou of the value he had set upon success.
“This is an idiotic place to exhibit pictures in!” he commented, spitefully, as an opening in the throng gave him a fleeting vision of chaotic blues and purples put on in coarse, waving strokes of the brush. ‘‘Still, one might as well practise resignation. Life nowadays consists mainly of detail: there is no getting away from anything far enough to see what it means! Of course she is married,” his gaze turning wistfully in the direction of the newcomer. “If she were not she would be more conventional. Thank Heaven, she doesn’t know Rufus! that red head. But by staring after her I shall only increase the burden of my offenses!” and with a little sigh he resolutely directed his attention the other way.
The stranger, in the meantime, was debating with herself: “What a nice boy! And he did not intend to be impertinent. I hope that he does not imagine that at my age I was stupid enough to feel annoyed; I really ought to go back. Of course if he were a gorgeous creature like that,” glancing at the pervasive young giant with the red hair, “it would be quite out of the question, but as it is—’’ and coming slowly down the room she seated herself again in her old place.
To Cortelyou life’s details, for the moment, became less obtrusive, but he-made no sign of recognition; on the contrary, his attention seemed wholly fixed upon a conversation which a man and woman behind them were incautiously carrying on in Italian.
“I told you that they had met before,” said the woman, triumphantly. “Here she is again: he has been searching for her nearly an hour.”
“He never saw her in his life until ten minutes ago,” said the man. “Great Heavens, what wonderful coloring! It would be money in one’s pocket to paint her.”
“It would be if you could make a success like that picture of De Graf’s,” said the woman, skeptically. “But he looks younger than it does—do you not think so?”
“Oh, I give him forty,” said the man.
“Nonsense! he has not passed thirty.”
“Forty,” the man insisted. “You did not notice his expression: tired, keen, far-seeing; your man of twenty-five hasn’t had time to acquire that look about the eyes.”
“You should have been here when she came in. He did not look twenty then,” said the woman.
“But I tel1 you,” said the man, moving away impatiently, “this is the first time he ever set eyes on her.”
“And 1 tell you,” persisted the woman, speaking louder as she followed him, “that he worships the ground she treads on!”
During this conversation Cortelyou’s neighbor had been .studying his face with painful enlightenment, and as his eyes now involuntarily met hers she rose in hurried confusion. He sprang up before her, his eagerness to persuade her to remain overcoming his resolution not to intrude upon her a second time.
“You understood?” he asked. “You are going?”
“It is late,” she murmured.
“It is not half-past three o’clock; the doors are not closed until four. Thirty minutes is but a little space of time to grant—to Monet.”
She looked at him doubtfully.
“As for me,” he added, carelessly, “ I am here to-day and gone to-morrow; the passing shadow of a cloud, nothing more.”
“I am a stranger also,” she faltered. “I know no one—”
“Then why,” he began, impetuously, “do you allow a pair of idiots?—” he stopped—“but they shall not drive you away,” he continued, more slowly. “I was about to leave myself.” He bowed a little ceremoniously, and turned toward the door.
“I cannot permit this,” she cried, in tones of distress. “Oh, why did those people open my eyes to die fact that you were not a boy? A nice, amusing, inconspicuous boy?”
A curious expression came over Cortelyou’s face. “Surely I am no more conspicuous now than I was when you first made up your mind about me,” he said.
“N—no, of course you are not,” she murmured. “You are only—older.”
“Ah! Is age, then, the disqualification? But for that I might remain?”
“Suppose you try to feel old yourself,” he suggested, “quite old, and restore the original proportion. Fifty might do; seventy, perhaps, would be safer.”
For the first time she laughed. “The experiment is too dangerous; a woman is only as young as she feels.”
“Not by any means! That delightful excuse for folly is the prerogative of man,” said Cortelyou, eagerly. “I am glad to be reminded of it; it makes me twenty again; I look it, too, as you heard. Help me to keep up the illusion—it is only for half an hour. If you let me stay, I shall be as young as you could wish, and perhaps, in consequence, I may be nice, even amusing—all your requirements, you see.”
There was an undercurrent of something almost joyous in his tone; she drew back a step, startled.
“Think of the opportunity,” he pleaded, “of the heresies we might utter, unafraid; of the enthusiasms we might let fly, and never a single one come home to roost!”
“I have always felt that enthusiasms were curses,” she said.
The speech jarred upon Cortelyou, like the cynicisms of an imitative child.
“She has picked it up from her husband,” he thought; “very likely he is a brute. We might even curse with impunity,” he added aloud, “for the beauty of the whole situation consists in its being entirely without consequences. I shall make no surmises, ask no questions; if I saw the clew to your identity lying at my feet I should not stoop to pick it up.”
With a delightful, childish movement of anxiety she looked down upon the floor. Cortelyou laughed outright.
“It is not there,” he said; “and it is just as well, for I should be sorry to be put to the test. May I stay? To-morrow will probably find us starting for opposite corners of the earth; I sail for Europe on Wednesday.”
“And I,” she said, after a slight hesitation, “start for the West in the morning.”
“Then—why not let me stay?”
For a moment she lost color, and the hand that held her catalogue trembled. “She can’t be frightened,” thought Cortelyou. “She has seen too much of the world for that.” Then his heart gave a short, quick throb as she turned slowly toward the pictures, and, since she had not forbidden him, he followed, wondering at the irrational elation of his feelings.
He came to her side at the end of the gallery, where she lingered a moment before a picture of some sunlit cliffs that rose up ruddy and bold against a sky dark with illimitable blue.
“Feel the breeze,” he said, “blowing in, strong and warm, over the waters.”
For answer, she only sighed.
“And the sands,” he continued, “fairly simmer; long after sundown, if you place your hand upon the rocks, they will feel hot beneath your touch, and the slow, deep breathing of the waves—”
He stopped, startled by the sensitive quiver of her lip.
“Is all that there?” she asked, unsteadily.
“It is if any one chooses to put it there,” returned Cortelyou, dogmatically.
“And you see the world after that fashion—yet?”
“Even—yet,” he repeated, hardly well pleased.
“You have never stepped to the door in the morning and found that for you the grass was green no longer, that the dew had ceased to sparkle, and that the shadows of the clouds upon the hillsides were shadows—nothing more?”
Cortelyou’s eyes darkened and softened. “Those are the dregs of the cup of bitterness,” he said. “We all drain them once, but the spell passes, and we get our second sight—it is better than our first; yet—there is vision even clearer.”
“A time may come,” said Cortelyou, absently, “when for you the smooth, fine grass will lie below the trees, green, with a tender beauty you never knew before. The sun will glisten on the leaves, and in the distance, splendid and peaceful, the hills will rest beneath the sailing clouds that purple every smiling slope with moving, velvet shade; but the pain of it! The pain of it never passes, for the clearness of that vision is immortal; its source is sorrow.”
“Ah,” she cried, “hush! prophecy is dangerous pastime.”
They had been moving together, a step at a time, and now, with unconscious accord, they stopped; before them wound a sullen, sluggish river laden with floating cakes of sodden ice. An angry sun was going down, rayless in the bitter air, that remained unwarmed in spite of the universal reddish mist pervading it.
“Do you always illustrate your discourses?” she asked. The tone was light, almost malicious, but after the first shock of finding that he was not taken seriously Cortelyou was relieved.
“This is not sorrow,” he said; “it is bitterness.”
She looked at it gravely, nodded assent, and turned to another corner of the room, where a row of young willows, pink with the promise of spring, were mirrored. in the glassy surface of a frozen pond; little ridges of ice and snow broke up the lines of reflection, and the blue sky again was filled with reddish mist.
“And this,” she asked, “is this also bitterness?”
Cortelyou smiled. “This is the root of bitterness,” he said. “When I look at it my heart gives a little flutter; I feel as if life were to live again; all sorts of vague old dreams return to me. At twenty the would looked thus, when I was in love, and happiness brought out the colors.”
Since when has happiness been the flower of love?”
“Not since then,” said Cortelyou, quickly. “The root of bitterness blooms once in every twenty years, and I am not quite forty yet.”
She laughed without a trace of consciousness. “But it is not happiness exclusively that makes a man see nature in this way, “she said, indicating the picture before them. “It is-an exalted mood, and whatever its cause—be it misery or bliss—it is the only thing that makes a man’s work supreme.”
Cortelyou shook his head in half dissent.
“But, yes,” she insisted, “and not merely supreme in art; supreme in literature. Here is Cortelyou, for example;” and she held toward him a book she had been carrying. “What else puts him far and away above every other man of his guild? Nothing more nor less than that same mood. He lives in his work; his people, good and bad, are all alive. You walk on his uplands; you are beaten by his storms. Do you not feel it?”
A deep flush spread over Cortelyou’s face; he opened his mouth and then closed it again in dumb confusion.
“Do you mean to say you don’t know Cortelyou?” she asked, incredulously.
“At this present moment,” he stammered miserably, “I—I—hardly think I do know Cortelyou. In fact, I don’t believe he would know himself.”
“That means you do not like him.”
“You must acknowledge,” he proceeded, haltingly, “that of late Cortelyou has been pretty severely handled.”
“You read the Censor, evidently.”
“No,” he said, shortly, “I prefer to do my own grumbling.”
“I see; you are one of his critics.”
Cortelyou looked about him, as if searching for a way of escape.
“Are you one of his critics?” she asked, severely.
“Yes; I am,” he answered, defiantly, “and by those who know me—and by those who also know Cortelyou—I am conceded to be about the severest and the most unsparing critic he has.”
They had been moving farther and farther back from the pictures, for people were gradually leaving the gallery, and now, finding a divan behind her, she sat down.
“Then you know him personally?” she said, looking up at him, her eyes full of interest and excitement. “Tell me about him.”
“You would not like him. He is an old, hard, tired, cynical, selfish, disappointed man.”
“You are quite incapable of appreciating him,” she protested. “If you want something that really embodies your description you had better look much nearer home.”
“Do not let us discuss him,” said Cortelyou, laughing, in spite of himself. “We shall never agree.”
“But we must,” she insisted. “I cannot permit you to go on injuring him through a mere indisposition on your part to learn what he really is.”
Cortelyou sat down by her side. His eyes were full of amusement. A bubble of delighted laughter rose in his throat. This was better even than being twenty again; at that age a man never knows when he is well off.
“Proceed,” he said. “Any extenuating circumstances in Cortelyou’s character or career I shall be glad to take under consideration.”
This attitude seemed to displease her. “Insincerity is a weariness,” she said, with a little yawn, and rising moved toward the pictures.
“But can you not see,” insisted Cortelyou, following her, “that my interest is so sincere as to be almost painful?”
Suddenly she stopped. “It is curious,” she said, “how offensive things are when they are personal, and yet”—with pensive second thought—“how uninteresting they can become when they are not.”
“And in what respect is Cortelyou personal?” he asked, stiffly.
“Is it possible? I had always been under the impression that Cortelyou was a man.”
“Oh, a man!” she repeated; “there may be a man Cortelyou somewhere in the world, but except as a necessary implement one almost resents his existence. The real Cortelyou is a living spirit.”
“Ah!” he said, struggling in vain with carnal laughter.
“And there lies the personality. It is vanity, I know”—she hesitated—“but the attraction of that man’s work is, for me, overwhelming. Chaotic thoughts which I have never been able to formulate find shape only in him. He has been the one tremendous influence of my life. I see nature as he sees it; I understand humanity as he understands it.”
“So much the worse for you,” he cried, aghast at this responsibility. “Cortelyou’s books are not meant for women; they had better let him alone. Read something more cheerful, less intense. Life is not all made up of—”
“The usual hackneyed criticisms. Everybody knows them by heart!” she interrupted.
“Then, by Jove! there must be something in them!” exclaimed Cortelyou, wrathfully.
“How you hate him! What has he done?”
“He has spoiled my half hour. See,” he held out his watch, “there is hardly anything left of it.”
“And I had meant to air all my heterodoxies at once!” she cried, regretfully. “I suppose you have never known what it was to feel an overwhelming impulse of that kind?” She turned toward him, appealingly, and his face brightened again with boyish amusement.
“That is a craving I have frequently gratified, only it required a somewhat more extended opportunity. Do you think you could have got all your heterodoxies into thirty minutes?”
“Yes,” she answered, gravely, after a moment’s silent computation. “Yes, I think I could. There are a good many of them, but they have been compressed so long, and so—hard, that they occupy very little space.”
“It has not been easy, then?”
She shook her head, a gesture that, while it answered him, denied further confidence; but he would not be deterred.
“And where is this uncompromising home of orthodoxy to be found?”
“You were to ask no questions,” she said, “but even if I were to answer you it would do you no good. I am never going back to that place again! Never, thank God!”
He was startled at this sudden flaming up of something fierce and resentful; in spite of all her gentle helplessness she seemed like one of those small, wild creatures whom no petting can tame. He felt that she should not be left to her own guidance. He wanted to think, to arrange some plan of action—and the half hour was ending!
A servant in the club livery had entered some minutes before, and after drawing the portières with a great rattling of rings, had begun to wander about the gallery, picking up stray catalogues, and regarding the few lingering picture-lovers in evident embarrassment.
“He wants us to go,” she said, catching sight of the man’s puzzled face. “See, he is really turning us out.”
The man had stepped to the portière, and was holding it suggestively aside. As if panic-stricken, the groups of loiterers crowded toward the doorway, and she moved to join them.
“Let them pass,” said Cortelyou, feeling savagely impatient, as he racked his brain for some pretext to detain her. “And so you go West to-morrow?”
“To Colorado,” she answered.
“What possible attraction can that hideous flat country hold forth?” began Cortelyou; but she interrupted him.
“You have forgotten the mountains, far, blue, transparent, rising up, up from the level earth—mountains that are mountains, not bristling hillocks of scraggy pine; mountains that take your breath away. Ah, it is my heaven, my dream, to go back there!”
“Your heaven? Your dream?”
“Yes, to travel, evening after evening, straight into the sunset; to see the yellow, arching skies, and the wide purple reaches of prairie. To lie upon the ground listening to the grasses whisper for miles around me, and to breathe the suave, soft, heavy, inland air; then at night to see the stars—all the stars at once! Ah, my wide, beautiful, generous West! To think that I had forgotten you!”
“Do people forget their heavens and their dreams so lightly?”
“They do if they are wise,” she said, with one of her incongruous lapses into cynicism. “I was going to Europe through mere force of habit; my passage is engaged on the Viga.”
“Is?” said Cortelyou, eagerly.
“I wrote to give it up this morning, but I have not mailed the letter.”
“You can’t give your passage up at this late date; the ship sails Wednesday.”
“And I start for Colorado in the morning.”
“But this is absurd!” exclaimed Cortelyou, unaccountably annoyed.
“That is its highest charm!” she said, gently; and, with a little gesture of farewell, she joined the last group of people who were crowding the ante-room.
Something attracted the attention of the servant, and he dropped the curtain. Cortelyou stood a moment alone in the gallery, staring at the brown plush barrier in front of him; then twisting it into a whirl, he followed, and was furiously pushing his way toward the outer door when the only man he knew in that whole city detained him. It was but a moment, but when he escaped he found that she was gone!
He was very angry. “It matters nothing to her, of course, whether she ever sees or hears of me again, but common courtesy should have prompted her at least to make an effort to mask her indifference.”
And, grumbling at everything he saw, he took his way to a picture dealer’s, where he had heard that there were some casts tinted in imitation of the antique.
Seating himself in disdainful criticism before a shrimp-colored Hermes with horse-chestnut eyes, and a jaundiced Aphrodite with gilded hair, he continued his reflections. “On the whole,” he told himself, “it ended very artistically, just in time, and I should be almost sorry to see her again. In fact, I would rather avoid another meeting; it might spoil the—the—” his thoughts broke off abruptly, and he turned his head toward a screen behind him. A gentle, familiar voice was laying down the law to Coriani, the picture-dealer. “And when you have done this, send the casts to The Priory—Clifton,” it concluded.
Cortelyou held his breath lest he should miss a word. He had never been in Clifton, but he knew the Priory. His daughter had been there at school for three years.
“And have you severed your connection with the Seminary?” added Coriani.
“Quite,” she answered; “I shall probably never go back to Clifton again.”
The screen stood at the head of the stairs. Cortelyou sprang to his feet and hurried around it, but when he reached the landing on the other side Coriani and his customer had already descended, and were lost to view in the crowded showroom below. The next instant he caught sight of the bowing Coriani closing the outer door. She had left the shop.
He went down the steps with a whirr like a drumming partridge, and, leaving a foaming wake of wrath behind him, cleaved his way to the open air. She had crossed the sidewalk, and was trying to mail some letters in the high box, when the banging of the shop-door caused her to turn her head. Seeing Cortelyou, she started, and half a dozen large, square envelopes were scattered over the paving. Without speaking, he stooped to pick them up, drawing a curious, quick breath of amazement as the strongly individual character of the writing on the backs met his eye—it was more than familiar, it was unmistakable—a clew! In fact, all the letters he had ever received from Mademoiselle Martin of the Priory, in regard to his daughter’s studies, had been written in this hand.
He turned toward her impulsively, only to remember that he had agreed to ask no questions. Mademoiselle Martin herself had given him to understand that she was an old woman. Who then was this? Her amanuensis? And—one of the letters was addressed to the agency of the Viga!
“It was impossible to avoid seeing this,” he said, holding it out to her, after he had put the others in the box. “The writing is as large as a sign-board.”
“But why do you not mail it?”
“Because—I am sailing on the Viga myself.”
A dark, red flush mounted to her forehead. She took the letter from his hand, and stood undecided, turning it over and over.
“Will you not keep it until morning?” he asked, trying to appear indifferent.
“That will be too late.”
“You can telegraph.”
She shook her head.
“Keep it an hour, then, only one hour,” he entreated.
“But what is to be gained by that?”
“Oh, time!” cried Cortelyou, desperately. “Time, unlimited by certainty. Let us go to the exhibition at the Academy; there is a portrait there you might like to see.”
“You mean De Graf s picture of Cortelyou? Coriani said it was the only thing they had worth looking at.”
“We will take Cortelyou last.”
“I shall take him first,” she said, resentfully.
“First and last! I will present him to you!” he cried, joyously. “Only take him, and let me come as witness to the deed of gift.”
They had begun to walk slowly toward the great public building that blocked the street, and as they passed into the court she put the letter into her pocket. “Are you willing to agree never to say or write anything more against him?” she asked, abruptly.
“I will devote my life to his fame!”
Her heavy eyebrows drew together in a slight, distracted frown. “This is too absurd!” she murmured.
“That is its highest charm.”
“But going to Colorado is different,” she protested, recognizing her own words. “That is merely unconventional; this is improper.”
“I beg your pardon. It is nothing of the kind.”
“Ah, well, it may not be! Perhaps I am not a competent judge. Still, I hope that no account of my present escapade will reach the ears of any of my former parents—Mr. Cortelyou, for example.”
“And which of your parents was Mr. Cortelyou!”
“He was a father, and a very bad one, too; we had his daughter in our school.”
“In what respect, pray, was he a bad father?” said Cortelyou, suddenly acquiring a very stiff, military bearing.
“Oh, in every respect,” she said, briefly; “that is another of the things that endeared him to all of us. We had Evelyn three years, and he never gave us any advice. Ah, it is not possible that there is going to be a shower!”
They had reached the other side of the court, where, softened and beautified by a thin veil of descending rain, a long perspective of little red shops, diversified by an occasional tower or church spire, rose before them framed in the archway of the outer door. Already the broad, dusty terrace at the front of the building was stippled in fine spray, and the plump, bronze backs of the little equestrian heroes at the corners were beginning to glisten with moisture. She shook her head at it despairingly and drew back within the shelter of the arch.
“The Academy is barely five minutes’ walk from here,” said Cortelyou, “and you have an umbrella.”
“It is new; and so is my hat. You do not know the misery of having to choose between your umbrella and your hat.”
“It is a warning to the extravagant,” he said, solemnly; “what are you going to do?”
“I shall be compelled to take a cab. A hansom,” she added, as one of those vehicles caught her eye, “seems to me more proper than a coupé; besides, I have always wanted to try a hansom;” and signalling the driver she ran across the flagged pavement.
Fuming and completely at a loss, Cortelyou followed. “Where shall I tell him to go?”
“To the Academy, of course. Are you not coming, also?”
He climbed in after her and shut the door. An irrepressible smile came over his face as they rattled away; she looked at him inquiringly.
“I am trying to place myself in the attitude of a parent,” he said, by way of excuse.
“Don’t do it; it is a very disagreeable attitude.”
“But I shall try to emulate Cortelyou and not Mademoiselle Martin’s good, conscientious parents, the kind who always give advice.”
The smile left her face and she grew quite pale. “This is unfair,” she said. “How long have you known me? You agreed to ask no questions, make no surmises.”
“I have not broken my agreement,” protested Cortelyou, “and further than the fact that you have severed your connection with the Priory I know nothing, not even your name.”
“You do not know my name?”
“How should I find it out?” he cried, impatiently. “All I know was gathered in a second while you were talking to Coriani in the picture gallery. I was on the other side of the screen—anyone might have heard you. I could not avoid doing so.”
“I think I must ask you to stop the cab,” she said.
“But that is unreasonable! Come, let us talk of something else. Tell me about Mademoiselle Martin. What kind of an old lady is she? I have always wanted to know.”
“Mademoiselle?” she said, hesitatingly. “I—I—am hardly in a position to speak very freely of Mademoiselle. May I ask what you have heard of her yourself?”
Cortelyou’s conscience abruptly reminded him of the semi-deception he was practising in not confessing his recognition of the writing he had seen upon the backs of the envelopes, but that involved the telling of his own name, and he was reluctant as yet to face the consequences of a frank avowal. “I know very little of her beyond the accounts of some of her pupils,” he said, after a pause. “She seemed to inspire a sort of adoring terror; there must have been something essentially conventional about her, too—those girls had such a morbid dread of small transgressions in matters of etiquette.”
“I beg your pardon,” she said, sharply; “it never struck me in that light!”
Cortelyou smiled the smile of superior insight. “That is because you have been so long subject to the same influence,” he said; “it is impossible not to perceive in you, almost at a glance, the stamp of an individuality stronger and much more fixed than your own.”
“You find it?” she said, courteously.
“And it is curious, too,” he continued, beguiled by the extreme interest of her tone, “to note in you the sense of chafing and revolt that has been produced through grafting upon an unusually gentle and unsuspicious nature the pessimistic cynicisms of a hard, witty, worldly, calculating, money-making old Frenchwoman.”
“But this is atrocious!” she cried, suddenly. “I forbid you to speak of her in such a manner!”
For the first time Cortelyou became aware of a slight foreign accent in her speech. “I beg your pardon,” he said, impulsively. “It never occurred to me that she might be a relative.”
She looked at him disdainfully as if about to speak, and then resolutely closed her mouth.’
Cortelyou glanced at the rich, beautiful red which had risen to her cheek, the soft, dark waves of her heavy brown hair, and the unmarked youthful contour of her face. “She is about twenty-four,” he said to himself; but at that instant she turned away, and he noted here and there a scattered thread of white winding through the thick coil that covered the back of her head. It gave him a sinking of the heart to see it, and yet: “What does it matter?” he thought, as with an abrupt change of manner she faced him again, laughing a little at her own petulance.
“What does it matter?” she said, curiously echoing the words of his thought while she contradicted the sentiment— “whether you understand her or not; she goes West to-morrow with me, and we shall never see you again. What!” as the driver drew up at the Academy, “are we here already?”
Before she could remonstrate Cortelyou had ordered the man to drive around the block and return. “Why should you go West to-morrow?” he asked, leaning forward to see her eyes. “What possible attraction can it have for you?”
“But I was born there! My father and mother were French—they came to this country forty years ago.”
“Did Mademoiselle Martin come with them?”
“N-no; she came three or four years later.”
“Is she your aunt, then?”
“Oh, a much nearer relation than that!” she answered, laughing.
“Your sister—or perhaps your half-sister?”
“Ah, yes—my half-sister.”
“And it is on her account that you have changed your plans?”
“Entirely on her account.”
Cortelyou frowned. “It strikes me—”
“Not another word against her!” she interposed. “I owe to her everything I have in the world.”
“Except freedom, apparently.”
“Including freedom—that is the largest item of my debt.”
“Ah, then,” said Cortelyou, joyously, “why could you not ask her to reconsider the plan of going West?”
“Because she prefers Colorado to Europe, which is an old story for both of us.”
Cortelyou seemed to be thinking.
“Are you happy with her?” he asked at last, abruptly.
“Oh,” she answered, with a burst of inconsistent merriment. “I am not happy with her at all, but there are certain ties which one does not lightly sever—even though they chafe.”
“I shall come and see her to-morrow, and try to persuade her myself.”
She smiled incredulously.
“You think that I do not know where she is? I saw her address in the paper this morning among the arrivals at the Fenton. I shall certainly come.”
“You must not think of such a thing!” she exclaimed, beginning to look frightened and annoyed.
“There is no cause for alarm. You will find that she knows all about me.”
“She knows no more about you than I do myself.”
“If she only knew as much!” he breathed, softly.
She was looking anxiously forward into the rain and did not hear. “I shall leave you at the Academy,” she said, “and be driven directly home.”
“Who is Cortelyou?” she said, perversely.
“Apparently not the same man he was an hour ago!” he responded, bitterly.
“How unreasonable of you to be annoyed when you know you do not like him.”
Cortelyou leaned back in his corner of the hansom, and folded his arms; two or three minutes passed in silence.
“Are we never going to get to the Academy?” she cried, her voice tense with alarm.
“We are there,” said Cortelyou, “but you must come in and see that picture; you owe it to me and to yourself.”
“I cannot perceive the obligation.”
“I want to prove to you that the confidence you have shown in your own judgment has not been misplaced.”
“What has the picture to do with it?”
“Everything!” Throwing open the doors, he sprang out, and, taking the hand he offered, she stepped down. It was raining hard.
“Wait here,” she said to the driver. “I shall be out in a minute.”
Cortelyou followed her into the building, and made his way behind her up the stairs where a crowd of young people were seated, listening to a small orchestra on the upper landing. They moved grudgingly to let her pass, and then glanced at her escort with startled eyes.
“Ask someone where it is,” she said, as they stopped on the landing.
“I know,” he answered.
Surprised at the number of heads that were turned as they passed, she walked with him down the long rooms until they came to the end. A picture hung on a wall by itself; he led her toward it, and stepped aside.
From the canvas, he was looking at her still; the same blue eyes with intensely black lashes; the same short, fair, slightly curling hair; the same worn, half-scoffing, penetrating face; and, above all, the same intangible quality which had at first attracted her—the immortal youthfulness of genius.
“Does it look like a parent?” he asked; “a bad parent?”
She did not answer for some time, and when at last she turned to him her eyes were full of tears.
“Do you not think I might venture to come and see Mademoiselle Martin after all our correspondence last winter?”
“You recognized my writing?” she whispered.
“How could I help it?”
“Then you have known me, all along?”
“I knew nothing but what you have chosen to tell. Of course when you dropped the letters I inferred that you probably had acted as Mademoiselle Martin’s amanuensis, but that you should turn out to be her half-sister was a great surprise, especially as Evelyn never mentioned you. You knew my daughter?”
“Evelyn?” she said. “Ah, you are going to Evelyn? Do you know how much she needs you?”
“It is not imagination then,” said Cortelyou; “she is really unhappy?”
“So unhappy that I had meant to go to her myself. I can start for Colorado now with a mind more at ease.”
“But you are not going to Colorado! You cannot go!” He was speaking almost passionately, while she with terrified eyes was watching the people about them, who drew a little to one side as they passed and stared after them curiously.
“Oh, pray be careful!” she implored; “we are attracting attention.”
“Impossible! There is nothing unusual about us.”
“But there is—something very unusual about us.”
“What?” looking her over incredulously.
“But you!” she cried, impatiently. “Don’t you know that you are horribly conspicuous? Are you entirely unaware of your own fame?”
“Bah!” said Cortelyou. Still she hurried on to the top of the crowded stairway, where all the upturned eyes, once so resentful, took on an expression of friendly admiration, and a narrow path opened willingly before them. Half way down Cortelyou trod on something and very nearly fell headlong.
“Oh, I beg pardon!” he said, recovering himself, and, picking up a small silver bonbonnière, crushed shapeless, he looked ruefully for the owner. The little school-girl of the St. Bardolph Club was gazing up at him with adoring eyes, her beautiful, enthusiastic face full of emotion.
“It is mine,” she said, taking the flattened object reverently from his hand. “Oh, thank you. I shall always keep it.”
Cortelyou flushed, laughed, and went on again with a little cough. She reminded him of Evelyn.
But as they came to the outer door his mind flew to other things. “Say that you will not go West,” he implored.
“I cannot promise.”
“You can promise to wait a day.”
She seated herself in the hansom and closed the door. He stood with his hat off in the rain that was falling like little strings of diamonds, under the light of an electric lamp overhead. He could see the soft lustre of her eyes in the shadow.
“May I come to-morrow?” he said, softly.
“Yes,” she whispered.
The cab rattled off, and for a few moments she remained leaning back in gentle, unreasoning content, seeing before her a long procession of happy days, and then, suddenly aware of the fierce pain of her burning cheeks, she covered them with her hands.
“Shall you never grow old?” she upbraided herself. “What will he think?”
But her doubts were short-lived.
“A middle-aged woman,” she reasoned, “meets, quite by accident, a middle-aged man. They see a few pictures, they make a few remarks—where is the harm? The harm,” she murmured half aloud, “lies in the fact that their middle-aged observations were, unfortunately, not made in a wholly middle-aged manner.”
Suddenly and wilfully she laughed. “Why should I always insist on spoiling things?” she asked herself, and, taking down her hands, she leaned forward to watch the passing reflections on the wet, smooth surface of the asphalt. “And why,” she added, after a moment, “should I not be happy—at least for awhile—by way of change?”
On either side of the way great globes of white light hung out over the street, converging far off in a long line of tiny lanterns like pearls on a string; the swimming pavement below was bright with broad bars of alternate silver and gold, where people and vehicles came and went in strong black silhouette, reminding her of boats on a ripple of moonshine.
“In this place,” she sighed, “one remembers that it is good to live. I had almost forgotten that such a view were possible.”
The cabman turned with a whirl into a side street and drew up before the Fenton, a large house on the next corner. Without removing her hat she went directly to the dining-room, and, discouraging the overtures of chance acquaintance, she ate her dinner in silence and went upstairs.
Her room was still unlighted, but the electric lamp on the opposite corner of the street shadowed the patterned leaves of the lace curtains in the flickering squares of white upon the walls and floor, and the common surroundings took on an unfamiliar refinement that was almost beauty. She came in, and, closing the door behind her, drew a deep breath. A draught of warm, scented air was blowing through an open sash at the far end of the room. She went, and, leaning her arm on the window-sill, looked down upon the tumbled masses of Virginia creeper that covered the trellised roof of the porch beneath. Soft droppings and whisperings came up from the little trees and shrubs in the garden at the back of the house, and, mingled with the faint autumnal odor of dead leaves, the sweet, heavy perfume greeted her afresh.
What was it? It moved her strangely; she could feel her heart beat against her folded arms, slowly and heavily, like the surges after a storm.
And why not sail on the Viga? She had lived long enough like a nun. That school had been a cloister, a veritable cloister even in the midst of the world! Men always talked to her in the respectful, tolerant tones reserved for the mothers of large and absorbing families. “Ah, how weary, how weary I am of everything I ever did!” she sighed. “It must have been that I had no vocation, decidedly, no vocation. Now, this afternoon—”
A quick patter of rain passed over the leaves on the trellis, and the sleepy perfume from the garden mounted heavier than before.
There was jasmine in it—jasmine and heliotrope!
Once, years ago—
“Ah, no! that wound is closed!” But even as she spoke memories, like drops of scalding blood, fell hot upon her spirit.
Then, Life was beautiful, with youth and summer, and a marvellous Southern night. Now—“Ah, well knew the ancients!” she cried; “their Love remained forever young. At thirty-six he becomes a repulsive anachronism, and increasing age means but augmented pain. I dare not risk it!”
For awhile she remained looking up at the pale violet reflections on the soft, woolly clouds overhead. The under sides of the telegraph wires shone like strings of silver, and high on the topmost twig of a poplar-tree a diamond shivered before it fell. An electric-car passed thundering down the cobbled street, dragging a broad wake of gleaming scales in green and red and gold behind it, and into the silence that followed, dropping with the rain, came a few notes upon the piano. She shivered slightly.
“That hurts,” she murmured. “He plays it too well.” But the musician went on inexorably, and she hid her face in her hands to listen while the rain blew unheeded in beads of dew upon her smoothly waving hair.
At last she closed the window, and, lighting the gas, seated herself at a desk and took up a pen; but instead of writing letters she began to trace idly upon the paper, while her thoughts, following an intricate series of figures of eight, wound tortuously back to the gallery of the Art Club. Lying near her was the book which she had carried throughout the afternoon, and by a natural sequence of ideas she made a motion as if to pick it up, but, hastily withdrawing her hand, she glanced about like a guilty child, and in involuntary confusion rose from her chair.
Turning toward a dressing-table, she made a pretence of arranging some small articles in front of the mirror, until, looking up, she caught sight of her own face.
“Ah, fool!” she said, “is it you again? Will you always be afraid?” and, going back to the desk, she took up the book and began to read, resting at first in a temporary and provisional attitude on the arm of her chair. Gradually, however, as she turned the pages she let herself sink to the seat, for each sentence now breathed a personal memory of the man who had written it. She understood Cortelyou as never before; the recollection of his tones and expression lent clearness to her insight, and the charm of his compelling genius held her late into the night. At last she allowed the book to fall into her lap and sat there dreaming.
“A wonderful man,” she whispered, “famous, fêted, set apart! What senseless vanity prompts me to fancy—” She stopped at the thought of Cortelyou’s voice as he bent to see her eyes in the shadow of the hansom, “May I come to-morrow?” and her heart beat heavily in dull, tumultuous response.
“I am going,” she said; “for Love is eternally young—the Ancients knew better than I guessed, and thirty-six years in my case is a mere jest of time.”
It was late when she finished her preparation for the voyage, and once in bed she slept heavily until wakened by the rolling of carts and cars in the early morning. The sky in the east was gray and the garden was dim with mist, but she began to dress hurriedly in order to be ready to explain her change of plan to the expressman.
“I shall tell him to come again at twelve,” she said to herself, standing in front of the mirror and unbraiding her hair. The process of arranging it was a tedious one, for her hair was very long, and as she slowly passed the comb to and fro she stepped absently to the window. Through a gap between the houses she caught a glimpse of the eastern sky, already touched with rose. “The sun will soon be up,” she murmured, nervously quickening her motions; “it is after six o’clock! I must hurry!” Suddenly the strand of hair she was holding twisted, and the comb drew through it with a painful jerk; involuntarily she stopped to see how much she had pulled out—one curling thread of silver reached from the level of her hand nearly to the floor.
“A white hair!” she said aloud, and her voice held a little thrill of consternation. “A white hair!”
Forgetful of the need for haste, she stood, looking at it; while on her face a cynical expression, worthy of Cortelyou’s “witty, worldly, calculating, old Frenchwoman,” perceptibly deepened.
Then, smiling, she took a pair of scissors and cut a fragment of brown velvet from the ribbons which ornamented the dress she had worn the day before, and, allowing her hair to curl down upon it in a large ring, she fastened one end with a stitch of thread. Putting this into an envelope she sealed it carefully and directed it to Cortelyou. “He will understand,” she said; “we are of a piece! More’s the pity!”
But this done, she finished dressing in the wildest haste, and summoned a maid to aid in repacking for the journey West. The expressman, in spite of his being late, was called upon to assist in closing the gaping trunks.
“There’s a hansom outside, ma’am,” he panted, red and breathing with exertion; “you’d better let me call it, for you’ve just missed a trolley, and you’ll never get down there in the world if you wait for the next.”
“A hansom!” she cried—“Will you drive me mad with your hansoms? I am going down on the wagon with the trunks, and we must make the train. It is a case of life and death!”
Spurred by this announcement, the man drove through the city at a desperate pace, and she made her train in a dash, with various of her belongings clasped to her heart.
For awhile she was too much shaken and unnerved to think, but in time the steady grind of the wheels seemed to sooth her.
She was bound at last for the yellow West, the clear, broad skies, the wilderness of stars, her heaven, and the fulfilment of her dream! She had turned her back upon Europe, and upon that sea whereon only those eternally young might venture to set sail. Behind her and her gray hairs the sunrise lay forever.
“Oh, the joy of getting old!” she murmured, clasping her hands.” The freedom, the clear sight, the unclouded judgment of an age that knows no peradventure! Give me the cycle of Cathay! The broad unconventionality, the unfettered mind, the impersonal dreams, and self-possession free from intrusion!”
Then, turning her head discreetly from view, she cried, as she looked out of the window, and the unconventionality of Cathay gave place to personal memories of Cortelyou. “But I shall forget him,” she assured herself. “I shall certainly forget him—if I can.”
When the maid at the boarding-house gave the note which had been intrusted to her care to the gentleman who came that morning to inquire for Mademoiselle Martin, she was assisted in the performance of her duty by as many witnesses as could conveniently spare sufficient time from their daily occupations to wait for his appearing.
“And are they both gone?” asked Cortelyou incredulously.
“Both?” said the maid.
“Yes, Mademoiselle Martin and her sister.”
“Mademoiselle has no sister.”
“I mean the young lady with the dark eyes and hair; she wears a brown dress—”
“That is Mademoiselle herself,” said the landlady.
Cortelyou stood frowning at her, hugging his dulness, loath to entertain the conclusions which were forcing themselves upon him.
“Mademoiselle Martin was the owner of the great school at Clifton,” explained the landlady, speaking slowly and very loudly, as some people do to a foreigner or deaf-mate. “And although she looks younger, she is at least thirty-five years of age. There is no mistake, because she always stays here when she comes to the city, and I have—known—her—for—years!”
Stunned by the ponderous volume of the last words, Cortelyou looked appealingly at the maid.
“Mademoiselle told me to tell you that the note would explain,” said the girl, sympathetically—“and she wanted me to ask, sir, if you wouldn’t be so kind as to send the telegram she was speaking of yesterday.”
To the infinite disappointment of every one Cortelyou left the house without opening his letter, and in the interested discussion that arose as the door closed behind him no one thought to peep through the curtains; so he stood on the steps unobserved and tore open the envelope.
The wind was blowing the leaves from a row of poplar-trees on the opposite side of the street, and, as he unfolded the little strip of velvet which was apparently the only enclosure, it caught deftly at the long thread of white hair and spun it out like a filament of spiders’ web. Cortelyou’s eyes followed its enormous length in stupid astonishment.
“The note would explain,” he murmured. “A—ah, a white hair!”
It was a moment of enlightenment and of loss; for the wind, swooping down with a whirl of leaves, caught the curl from its insecure fastening, and in an instant it was gone beyond recovery.
For two whole days Cortelyou was very angry, and, being a good sailor, his indignation even carried over the first twenty-four hours on the Viga; but toward the end of the second evening of the voyage, as he leaned over the railing musing and thinking of many things, he found, to his dismay, that his rage was abating.
“Ah, well,” he sighed, at last, “after all I am not so much disappointed as I would like to be!”
Beyond the vast gray hillocks of sad, tossing waters a strip of yellow sky broke through the bank of clouds that obscured the sunset.
Cortelyou threw his cigar far into the waves, and, standing upright, bared his head.
“Oh,” he said, softly, “that beautiful, generous, unattainable West!”
“The Key of the Fields” by
Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in
v. 23, no. 2, February 1898; reprinted in
Pro Tempore, and Other Stories by Mary Tappan Wright, edited by Brian Kunde, Mountain House, Fleabonnet Press, 2007.
The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is
©2007-2008 by Brian Kunde.