Volume 3
Chapter XIII. A Living Poem
 

Part of Frank's most trying interview, next to the meeting with his wife, was that with Mackenzie, who had been his special commissioner in the movement of his masquerade. Mackenzie also had learned a great deal since she had brought Lali--home. She, like others, had come to care truly for the sweet barbarian, and served her with a grim kind of reverence. Just in proportion as this had increased, her respect for Frank had decreased. No man can keep a front of dignity in the face of an unbecoming action. However, Mackenzie had her moment, and when it was over, the new life began at no general disadvantage to Frank. To all save the immediate family Frank and Lali were a companionable husband and wife. She rode with him, occasionally walked with him, now and again sang to him, and they appeared in the streets of St. Albans and at the Abbey together, and oftener still in the village church near, where the Armours of many generations were proclaimed of much account in the solid virtues of tomb and tablet.

The day had gone by when Lali attracted any especial notice among the villagers, and she enjoyed the quiet beauty and earnestness of the service. But she received a shock one Sunday. She had been nervous all the week, she could not tell why, and others remarked how her face had taken on a new sensitiveness, a delicate anxiety, and that her strength was not what it had been. As, for instance, after riding she required to rest, a thing before unknown, and she often lay down for an hour before dinner. Then, too, at table once she grew suddenly pale and swayed against Edward Lambert, who was sitting next to her. She would not, however, leave the table, but sat the dinner out, to Frank's apprehension. He was devoted, but it was clear to Marion and her mother at least that his attentions were trying to her. They seemed to put her under an obligation which to meet was a trial. There is nothing more wearing to a woman than affectionate attentions from a man who has claims upon her, but whom she does not love. These same attentions from one who has no claims give her a thrill of pleasure. It is useless to ask for justice in such a matter. These things are governed by no law; and rightly so, else the world would be in good time a loveless multitude, held together only by the hungering ties of parent and child.

But this Sunday wherein Lali received a shock. She did not know that the banns for Marion's and Captain Vidall's marriage were to be announced, and at the time her thoughts were far away. She was recalled to herself by the clergyman's voice pronouncing their names, and saying: "If any of you do know cause or just impediment why these two people should not be joined together in the bonds of holy matrimony, ye are to declare it." All at once there came back to her her own marriage when the Protestant missionary, in his nasal monotone, mumbled these very words, not as if he expected that any human being would, or could, offer objection.

She almost sprang from her seat now. Her nerves all at once came to such a tension that she could have cried out. Why had there been no one there at her marriage to say: "I forbid it"? How shameful it had all been! And the first kiss her husband had given her had the flavour of brandy! If she could but turn back the hands upon the clock of Time! Under the influence of the music and the excited condition of her nerves, the event became magnified, distorted; it burned into her brain. It was not made less poignant by the sermon from the text: "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin." When the words were first announced in the original, it sounded like her own language, save that it was softer, and her heart throbbed fast. Then came the interpretation: "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting."

Then suddenly swept over her a new feeling, one she had never felt before. Up to this point a determination to justify her child, to reverse the verdict of the world, to turn her husband's sin upon himself, had made her defiant, even bitter; in all things eager to live up to her new life, to the standard that Richard had by manner and suggestion, rather than by words, laid down for her. But now there came in upon her a flood of despair. At best she was only of this race through one-third of her parentage, and education and refinement and all things could do no more than make her possible. There must always be in the record: "She was of a strange people. She was born in a wigwam." She did not know that failing health was really the cause of this lapse of self- confidence, this growing self-depreciation, this languor for which she could not account. She found that she could not toss the child and frolic with it as she had done; she was conscious that within a month there had stolen upon her the desire to be much alone, to avoid noises and bustle--it irritated her. She found herself thinking more and more of her father, her father to whom she had never written one line since she had left the North. She had had good reasons for not writing-- writing could do no good whatever, particularly to a man who could not read, and who would not have understood her new life if he had read. Yet now she seemed not to know why she had not written, and to blame herself for neglect and forgetfulness. It weighed on her. Why had she ever been taken from the place of tamarack-trees and the sweeping prairie grass? No, no, she was not, after all, fit for this life. She had been mistaken, and Richard had been mistaken--Richard, who was so wise. The London season? Ah! that was because people had found a novelty, and herself of better manners than had been expected.

The house was now full of preparations for the wedding. It stared her in the face every day, almost every hour. Dressmakers, milliners, tailors, and all those other necessary people. Did the others think what all this meant to her? It was impossible that they should. When Marion came back from town at night and told of her trials among the dressmakers, when she asked the general opinion and sometimes individual judgment, she could not know that it was at the expense of Lali's nerves.

Lali, when she married, had changed her moccasins, combed her hair, and put on a fine red belt, and that was all. She was not envious now, not at all. But somehow it all was a deadly kind of evidence against herself and her marriage. Her reproach was public, the world knew it, and no woman can forgive a public shame, even was it brought about by a man she loved, or loves. Her chiefest property in life is her self-esteem and her name before the world. Rob her of these, and her heaven has fallen, and if a man has shifted the foundations of her peace, there is no forgiveness for him till her Paradise has been reconquered. So busy were all the others that they did not see how her strength was failing. There were three weeks between the day the banns were announced and the day of the wedding, which was to be in the village church, not in town; for, as Marion said, she had seen too many marriages for one day's triumph and criticism; she wanted hers where there would be neither triumph nor criticism, but among people who had known her from her childhood up. A happy romance had raised Marion's point of view.

Meanwhile Frank was winning the confidence of his own child, who, however, ranked Richard higher always, and became to a degree his father's tyrant. But Frank's nature was undergoing a change. His point of view also had enlarged. The suffering, bitterness, and humiliation of his life in the North had done him good. He was being disciplined to take his position as a husband and father, but he sometimes grew heavy- hearted when he saw how his attentions oppressed his wife, and had it not been for Richard he might probably have brought on disaster, for the position was trying to all concerned. A few days before the wedding Edward Lambert and his wife arrived, and he, Captain Vidall, and Frank Armour took rides and walks together, or set the world right in the billiard-room. Richard seldom joined them, though their efforts to induce him to do so were many. He had his pensioners, his books, his pipe, and "the boy," and he had returned in all respects, in so far as could be seen, to his old life, save for the new and larger interest of his nephew.

One evening the three men with General Armour were all gathered in the billiard-room. Conversation had been general and without particular force, as it always is when merely civic or political matters are under view. But some one gave a social twist to the talk, and presently they were launched upon that sea where every man provides his own chart, or he is a very worm and no man. Each man had been differently trained, each viewed life from a different stand-point, and yet each had been brought up in the same social atmosphere, in the same social sets, had imbibed the same traditions, been moved generally by the same public considerations.

"But there's little to be said for a man who doesn't, outwardly at least, live up to the social necessity," said Lambert.

"And keep the Ten Commandments in the vulgar tongue," rejoined Vidall.

"I've lived seventy-odd years, and I've knocked about a good deal in my time," said the general, "but I've never found that you could make a breach of social necessity, as you call it, without paying for it one way or another. The trouble with us when we're young is that we want to get more out of life than there really is in it. There is not much in it, after all. You can stand just so much fighting, just so much work, just so much emotion--and you can stand less emotion than anything else. I'm sure more men and women break up from a hydrostatic pressure of emotion than from anything else. Upon my soul, that's so."

"You are right, General," said Lambert. "The steady way is the best way. The world is a passable place, if a fellow has a decent income by inheritance, or can earn a big one, but to be really contented to earn money it must be a big one, otherwise he is far better pleased to take the small inherited income. It has a lot of dignity, which the other can only bring when it is large."

"That's only true in this country; it's not true in America," said Frank, "for there the man who doesn't earn money is looked upon as a muff, and is treated as such. A small inherited income is thought to be a trifle enervating. But there is a country of emotions, if you like. The American heart is worn upon the American sleeve, and the American mind is the most active thing in this world. That's why they grow old so young."

"I met a woman a year or so ago at dinner," said Vidall, "who looked forty. She looked it, and she acted it. She was younger than any woman present, but she seemed older. There was a kind of hopeless languor about her which struck me as pathetic. Yet she had been beautiful, and might even have been so when I saw her, if it hadn't been for that look. It was the look of a person who had no interest in things. And the person who has no interest in things is the person who once had a great deal of interest in things, who had too passionate an interest. The revulsion is always terrible. Too much romance is deadly. It is as false a stimulant as opium or alcohol, and leaves a corresponding mark. Well, I heard her history. She was married at fifteen--ran away to be married; and in spite of the fact that a railway accident nearly took her husband from her on the night of her marriage--one would have thought that would make a strong bond--she was soon alive to the attentions that are given a pretty and--considerate woman. At a ball at Naples, her husband, having in vain tried to induce her to go home, picked her up under his arm and carried her out of the ballroom. Then came a couple of years of opium-eating, fierce social excitement, divorce, new marriage, and so on, until her husband agreeably decided to live in Nice, while she lived somewhere else. Four days after I had met her at the dinner I saw her again. I could scarcely believe my eyes. The woman had changed completely. She was young again-twenty-five, in face and carriage, in the eye and hand, in step and voice."

"Who was the man?" suggested Frank Armour. "A man about her own age, or a little more, but who was an infant beside her in knowledge of the world." "She was in love with the fellow? It was a grande passion?" asked Lambert.

"In love with him? No, not at all. It was a momentary revival of an old-possibility."

"You mean that such women never really love?"

"Perhaps once, Frank, but only after a fashion. The rest was mere imitation of their first impulses."

"And this woman?"

"Well, the end came sooner than I expected. I tell you I was shocked at the look in her face when I saw it again. That light had flickered out; the sensitive alertness of hand, eye, voice, and carriage had died away; lines had settled in the face, and the face itself had gone cold, with that hard, cold passiveness which comes from exhausted emotions and a closed heart. The jewels she wore might have been put upon a statue with equal effect."

"It seems to me that we might pitch into men in these things and not make women the dreadful examples," said a voice from the corner. It was the voice of Richard, who had but just entered.

"My dear Dick," said his father, "men don't make such frightful examples, because these things mean less to men than they do to women. Romance is an incident to a man; he can even come through an affaire with no ideals gone, with his mental fineness unimpaired; but it is different with a woman. She has more emotion than mind, else there were no cradles in the land. Her standards are set by the rules of the heart, and when she has broken these rules she has lost her standard too. But to come back, it is true, I think, as I said, that man or woman must not expect too much out of life, but be satisfied with what they can get within the normal courses of society and convention and home, and the end thereof is peace --yes, upon my soul, it's peace."

There was something very fine in the blunt, honest words of the old man, whose name had ever been sweet with honour.

"And the chief thing is that a man live up to his own standard," said Lambert. "Isn't that so, Dick?--you're the wise man."

"Every man should have laws of his own, I should think; commandments of his own, for every man has a different set of circumstances wherein to work--or worry."

"The wisest man I ever knew," said Frank, dropping his cigar, "was a little French-Canadian trapper up in the Saskatchewan country. A priest asked him one day what was the best thing in life, and he answered: 'For a young man's mind to be old, and an old man's heart to be young.' The priest asked him how that could be. And he said: 'Good food, a good woman to teach him when he is young, and a child to teach him when he is old.' Then the priest said: 'What about the Church and the love of God?' The little man thought a little, and then said: 'Well, it is the same-- the love of man and woman came first in the world, then the child, then God in the garden.' Afterwards he made a little speech of good-bye to us, for we were going to the south while he remained in a fork of the Far Off River. It was like some ancient blessing: that we should always have a safe tent and no sorrow as we travelled; that we should always have a cache for our food, and food for our cache; that we should never find a tree that would not give sap, nor a field that would not grow grain; that our bees should not freeze in winter, and that the honey should be thick, and the comb break like snow in the teeth; that we keep hearts like the morning, and that we come slow to the Four Corners where man says Good- night."

Each of the other men present wondered at that instant if Frank Armour would, or could, have said this with the same feelings two months before. He seemed almost transformed.

"It reminds me," said the general, "of an inscription from an Egyptian monument which an officer of the First put into English verse for me years ago:

         "Fair be the garden where their loves shall dwell,
          Safe be the highway where their feet may go,
          Rich be the fields wherein their hands may toil,
          The fountains many where their good wines flow.
          Full be their harvest-bins with corn and oil,
          To sorrow may their humour be a foil;
          Quick be their hearts all wise delights to know,
          Tardy their footsteps to the gate Farewell."

There was a moment's silence after he had finished, and then there was noise without, a sound of pattering feet; the door flew open, and in ran a little figure in white--young Richard in his bed-gown, who had broken away from his nurse, and had made his way to the billiard-room, where he knew his uncle had gone.

The child's face was flashing with mischief and adventure. He ran in among the group, and stretched out his hands with a little fighting air. His uncle Richard made a step towards him, but he ran back; his father made as if to take him in his arms, but he evaded him. Presently the door opened, the nurse entered, the child sprang from among the group, and ran with a laughing defiance to the farthest end of the room, and, leaning his chin on the billiard-table, flashed a look of defiant humour at his pursuer. Presently the door opened again, and the figure of the mother appeared. All at once the child's face altered; he stood perfectly still, and waited for his mother to come to him. Lali had not spoken, and she did not speak until, lifting the child, she came the length of the billiard-table and faced them.

"I beg your pardon," she said, "for intruding; but Richard has led us a dance, and I suppose the mother may go where her child goes."

"The mother and the child are always welcome wherever they go," said General Armour quietly.

All the men had risen to their feet, and they made a kind of semicircle before her. The white-robed child had clasped its arms about her neck, and nestled its face against hers, as if, with perfect satisfaction, it had got to the end of its adventure; but the look of humour was still in the eyes as they ran from Richard to his father and back again.

Frank Armour stepped forwards and took the child's hand, as it rested on the mother's shoulder. Lali's face underwent a slight change as her husband's fingers touched her neck.

"I must go," she said. "I hope I have not broken up a serious conversation--or were you not so serious after all?" she said, glancing archly at General Armour. "We were talking of women," said Lambert.

"The subject is wide," replied Lali, "and the speakers many. One would think some wisdom might be got in such a case."

"Believe me, we were not trying to understand the subject," said Captain Vidall; "the most that a mere man can do is to appreciate it."

"There are some things that are hidden from the struggling mind of man, and are revealed unto babes and the mothers of babes," said General Armour gravely, as, reaching out his hands, he took the child from the mother's arms, kissed it full upon the lips, and added: "Men do not understand women, because men's minds have not been trained in the same school. When once a man has mastered the very alphabet of motherhood, then he shall have mastered the mind of woman; but I, at least, refuse to say that I do not understand, from the stand-point of modern cynicism."

"Ah, General, General!" said Lambert, "we have lost the chivalric way of saying things, which belongs to your generation."

By this time the wife had reached the door. She turned and held out her arms for the child. General Armour came and placed the boy where he had found it, and, with eyes suddenly filling, laid both his hands upon Lali's and they clasped the child, and said: "It is worth while to have lived so long and to have seen so much." Her eyes met his in a wistful, anxious expression, shifted to those of her husband, dropped to the cheeks of the child, and with the whispered word, which no one, not even the general, heard, she passed from the room, the nurse following her.

Perhaps some of the most striking contrasts are achieved in the least melodramatic way. The sudden incursion of the child and its mother into the group, the effect of their presence, and their soft departure, leaving behind them, as it were, a trail of light, changed the whole atmosphere of the room, as though some new life had been breathed into it, charged each mind with new sensations, and gave each figure new attitude. Not a man present but had had his full swing with the world, none worse than most men, none better than most, save that each had latent in him a good sense of honour concerning all civic and domestic virtues. They were not men of sentimentality; they were not accustomed to exposing their hearts upon their sleeve, but each, as the door closed, recognised that something for one instant had come in among them, had made their past conversation to appear meagre, crude, and lacking in both height and depth. Somehow, they seemed to feel, although no words expressed the thought, that for an instant they were in the presence of a wisdom greater than any wisdom of a man's smoking-room.

"It is wonderful, wonderful," said the general slowly, and no man asked him why he said it, or what was wonderful. But Richard, sitting apart, watched Frank's face acutely, himself wondering when the hour would come that the wife would forgive her husband, and this situation so fraught with danger would be relieved.