The Price She Paid by David Graham Phillips
The intoxication of that wedding held on long enough and strongly enough to soften and blunt the disillusionments of the first few days of the honeymoon. In the prospect that period had seemed, even to Mildred's rather unsophisticated imagination, appalling beyond her power to endure. In the fact--thanks in large part to that intoxication--it was certainly not unendurable. A human being, even an innocent young girl, can usually bear up under any experience to which a human being can be subjected. The general in pajamas-- of the finest silk and of pigeon's-egg blue with a vast gorgeous monogram on the pocket--was more grotesque, rather than more repellent, than the general in morning or evening attire. Also he--that is, his expert staff of providers of luxury--had arranged for the bride a series of the most ravishing sensations in whisking her, like the heroine of an Arabian Night's tale, from straitened circumstances to the very paradise of luxury.
The general's ideas on the subject of woman were old fashioned, of the hard-shell variety. Woman was made for luxury, and luxury was made for woman. His woman must be the most divinely easeful of the luxurious. At all times she must be fit and ready for any and every sybaritic idea that might enter her husband's head--and other purpose she had none. When she was not directly engaged in ministering to his joy she must be busy preparing herself for his next call upon her. A woman was a luxury, was the luxury of luxuries, must have and must use to their uttermost all capacities for gratifying his senses and his vanity. Alone with him, she must make him constantly feel how rich and rare and expensive a prize he had captured. When others were about, she must be constantly making them envy and admire him for having exclusive rights in such wonderful preserves. All this with an inflexible devotion to the loftiest ideals of chastity.
But the first realizations of her husband's notions as to women were altogether pleasant. As she entered the automobile in which they went to the private car in the special train that took them to New York and the steamer--as she entered that new and prodigally luxurious automobile, she had a first, keen sense of her changed position. Then there was the superb private car--her car, since she was his wife--and there was the beautiful suite in the magnificent steamer. And at every instant menials thrusting attentions upon her, addressing her as if she were a queen, revealing in their nervous tones and anxious eyes their eagerness to please, their fear of displeasing. And on the steamer, from New York to Cherbourg, she was never permitted to lose sight of the material splendors that were now hers. All the servants, all the passengers, reminded her by their looks, their tones. At Paris, in the hotel, in the restaurants, in the shops--especially in the shops-- those snobbish instincts that are latent in the sanest and the wisest of us were fed and fattened and pampered until her head was quite turned. And the general began to buy jewels for her. Such jewels-- ropes of diamonds and pearls and emeralds, rings such as she had never dreamed existed! Those shopping excursions of theirs in the Rue de la Paix would make such a tale as your ordinary simple citizen, ignorant of the world's resources in luxury and therefore incredulous about them, would read with a laugh at the extravagance of the teller.
Before the intoxication of the wedding had worn away it was re-enforced by the intoxication of the honey- moon--not an intoxication of love's providing, but one exceeding potent in its influence upon our weak human brains and hearts, one from which the strongest of us, instead of sneering at poor Mildred, would better be praying to be delivered.
At her marriage she had a few hundred dollars left of her patrimony--three hundred and fifty and odd, to be more exact. She spent a little money of her own here and there--in tips, in buying presents for her mother, in picking up trifles for her own toilet. The day came when she looked in her purse and found two one-franc pieces, a fifty-franc note, and a few coppers. And suddenly she sat back and stared, her mouth open like her almost empty gold bag, which the general had bought her on their first day in the Rue de la Paix. About ten dollars in all the world, and the general had forgotten to speak--or to make any arrangement, at least any arrangement of which she was aware--about a further supply of money.
They had been married nearly a month. He knew that she was poor. Why hadn't he said something or, better still, done something? Doubtless he had simply forgotten. But since he had forgotten for a month, might he not continue to forget? True, he had himself been poor at one time in his life, very poor, and that for a long time. But it had been so many years ago that he had probably lost all sense of the meaning of poverty. She frowned at this evidence of his lack of the finer sensibilities--by no means the first time that lack had been disagreeably thrust upon her. Soon she would be without money--and she must have money --not much, as all the serious expenses were looked after by the general, but still a little money. How could she get it? How could she remind him of his neglect without seeming to be indelicate? It was a difficult problem. She worked at it more and more continuously, and irritably, and nervously, as the days went by and her fifty-two francs dwindled to five.
She lay awake, planning long and elaborate conversations that would imperceptibly lead him up to where he must see what she needed without seeing that he had been led. She carried out these ingenious conversations. She led him along, he docilely and unsuspectingly following. She brought him up to where it seemed to her impossible for any human being endowed with the ordinary faculties to fail to see what was so plainly in view. All in vain. General William Siddall gazed placidly--and saw nothing.
Several days of these failures, and with her funds reduced to a fifty-centime piece and a two-sous copper she made a frontal attack. When they went forth for the day's shopping she left her gold bag behind. After an hour or so she said:
"I've got to go to the Galleries Lafayette for some little things. I shan't ask you to sacrifice yourself. I know you hate those stuffy, smelly big shops."
"Very well," said he. "I'll use the time in a call on my bankers."
As they were about to separate, she taking the motor and he walking, she made a face of charming dismay and said: "How provoking! I've left my bag at the hotel."
Instead of the expected prompt offer of money he said, "It'll only take you a minute or so to drive there."
"But it's out of the way," she replied. "I'll need only a hundred francs or so."
Said he: "I've an account at the Bon Marche. Go there and have the things charged. It's much the best big shop in Paris."
"Very well," was all she could trust herself to say. She concealed her anger beneath a careless smile and drove away. How dense he was! Could anything be more exasperating--or more disagreeable? What should she do? The situation was intolerable; yet how could it be ended, except by a humiliating direct request for money? She wondered how young wives habitually dealt with this problem, when they happened to marry husbands so negligent, not to say underbred, as to cause them the awkwardness and the shame. There followed several days during which the money idea was an obsession, nagging and grinning at her every in- stant. The sight of money gave her a peculiar itching sensation. When the little general paid for anything --always drawing out a great sheaf of bank notes in doing it--she flushed hot and cold, her glance fell guiltily and sought the money furtively. At last her desperation gave birth to an inspiration.
About her and the general, or, rather, about the general, revolved the usual rich man's small army of satellites of various degrees--secretaries, butlers, footmen, valets, other servants male and female, some of them supposed to be devoted entirely to her service, but all in fact looking ever to the little general. The members of this company, regardless of differences of rank and pay, were banded together in a sort of democratic fellowship, talking freely with one another, on terms of perfect equality. She herself had, curiously, gotten on excellent terms with this motley fraternity and found no small relief from the strain of the general's formal dignity in talking with them with a freedom and ease she had never before felt in the society of underlings. The most conspicuous and most agreeable figure in this company was Harding, the general's factotum. Why not lay the case before Harding? He was notably sensible, and sympathetic--and discreet.
The following day she did so. Said she, blushing furiously: "Mr. Harding, I find myself in a very embarrassing position. I wonder if you can help me?"
Harding, a young man and of one of the best blond types, said: "No doubt I can--and I'll be glad to."
"The fact is"-- Her voice was trembling with nervousness. She opened the gold bag, took out the little silver pieces and the big copper piece, extended her pink palm with them upon it--"there's all I've got left of the money I brought with me."
Harding gazed at the exhibit tranquilly. He was chiefly remarkable for his perfect self-possession. Said he: "Do you wish me to cash a check for you?"
The stupidity of men! Tears of vexation gathered in her eyes. When she could speak she faltered:
He was looking at her now--a grave, kind glance.
She somehow felt encouraged and heartened. She went on: "I was hoping--that--that the gen-- that my husband had said something to you and that you perhaps had not thought to say anything to me."
Their glances met, his movingly sympathetic and understanding, hers piteously forlorn--the look of a lovely girl, stranded and friendless in a far strange land. Presently he said gently:
"Yes, he told me to say something to you--if you should speak to me about this matter." His tone caused in her heart a horrible stillness of suspense. He went on: "He said--I give you his exact words: `If my wife should ask you for money, tell her my ideas on the subject.' "
A pause. She started up, crimson, her glance darting nervously this way and that to avoid his. "Never mind. Really, it's of no importance. Thank you-- I'll get on very well--I'm sorry to have troubled you--"
"Pardon me, Mrs. Siddall," he interposed, "but I think you'd best let me finish."
She started to protest, she tried to move toward the door. Her strength failed her, she sat down, waited, nervously clasping and unclasping the costly, jewel- embroidered bag.
"He has explained to me, many times," continued Harding, "that he believes women do not understand the value of money and ought not to be trusted with it. He proposes to provide everything for you, every comfort and luxury--I am using his own language, Mrs. Siddall--and he has open accounts at the principal shops in every city where you will go--New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver, Paris, London, Rome. He says you are at liberty to get practically anything you please at these shops, and he will pay the bills. He thus entirely spares you the necessity of ever spending any money. Should you see anything you wish at some shop where he has no account, you can have it sent collect, and I or my assistant, Mr. Drawl, will settle for it. All he asks is that you use discretion in this freedom. He says it would be extremely painful to him to have to withdraw it."
Harding had pronounced this long speech in a dry monotonous voice, like one reading mechanically from a dull book. As Mildred listened, her thoughts began to whirl about the central idea until she fell into a kind of stupor. When he finished she was staring vacantly at the bag in her lap--the bag she was holding open wide.
Harding continued: "He also instructed me to say something about his former--his experiences. The first Mrs. Siddall he married when he was very young and poor. As he grew rich, she became madly extravagant. And as they had started on a basis on which she had free access to his money he could not check her. The result, finally, was a succession of bitter quarrels, and they were about to divorce when she died. He made the second Mrs. Siddall an allowance, a liberal allowance. Her follies compelled him to withdraw it. She resorted to underhanded means to get money from him without his knowing it. He detected the fraud. After a series of disagreeable incidents she committed the indiscretion which caused him to divorce her. He says that these experiences have convinced him that--"
"The second Mrs. Siddall," interrupted Mildred, "is she still alive?"
Harding hesitated. "Yes," he said reluctantly.
"Is she--poor?" asked Mildred.
"I should prefer not to--"
"Did the general forbid you to tell me?"
"On the contrary, he instructed me-- But I'd rather not talk about it, Mrs. Siddall."
"Is she poor?" repeated Mildred.
"What became of her?"
A long pause. Then Harding said: "She was a poor girl when the general married her. After the divorce she lived for a while with the man. But he had nothing. They separated. She tried various kinds of work--and other things. Since she lost her looks-- She writes from time to time, asking for money."
"Which she never gets?" said Mildred.
"Which she never gets," said Harding. "Lately she was cashier or head waitress in a cheap restaurant in St. Louis."
After a long silence Mildred said: "I understand. I understand." She drew a long breath. "I shall understand better as time goes on, but I understand fairly well now."
"I need not tell you, Mrs. Siddall," said Harding in his gentle, tranquil way, "that the general is the kindest and most generous of men, but he has his own methods-- as who has not?"
Mildred had forgotten that he was there--not a difficult matter, when he had in its perfection the secretarial manner of complete self-effacement. Said she reflectively, like one puzzling out a difficult problem:
"He buys a woman, as he buys a dog or a horse. He does not give his dog, his horse, pocket-money. Why should he give his woman pocket-money?"
"Will it help matters, Mrs. Siddall, to go to the other extreme and do him a grave injustice?"
She did not hear. At the picture presented to her mind by her own thoughts she gave a short satirical laugh. "How stupid of me not to have understood from the outset," said she. "Why, I've often heard of this very thing."
"It is more and more the custom among men of large property, I believe," said Harding. "Perhaps, Mrs. Siddall, you would not blame them if you were in their position. The rich men who are careless--they ruin everybody about them, I assure you. I've seen it again and again."
But the young wife was absorbed in her own thoughts. Harding, feeling her mood, did not interrupt. After a while she said:
"I must ask you some questions. These jewels the general has been buying--"
Harding made a movement of embarrassment and protest. She smiled ironically and went on:
"One moment, please. Every time I wish to wear any of them I have to go to him to get them. He asks me to return them when I am undressing. He says it is safer to keep everything in his strong box. I have been assuming that that was the only reason. I begin to suspect-- Am I right, Mr. Harding?"
"Really I can't say, Mrs. Siddall," said Harding. "These are not matters to discuss with me, if you will permit me to say so."
"Oh, yes, they are," replied she laughingly. "Aren't we all in the same boat?--all employes of the general?"
Harding made no reply.
Mildred was beside herself with a kind of rage that, because outlet was necessary and because raving against the little general would be absolutely futile, found outlet in self-mockery and reckless sarcasm.
"I understand about the jewels, too," she went on. "They are not mine. Nothing is mine. Everything, including myself, belongs to him. If I give satisfaction in the position for which I've been hired for my board and clothes, I may continue to eat the general's food and sleep in the general's house and wear the general's jewels and dresses and ride in the general's traps and be waited on by the general's servants. If I don't like my place or he doesn't like my way of filling it"--she laughed merrily, mockingly--"out I go--into the streets--after the second Mrs. Siddall. And the general will hire a new--" She paused, cast about for a word in vain, appealed to the secretary, "What would you call it, Mr. Harding?"
Harding rose, looking at her with a very soothing tranquillity. "If I were you, Mrs. Siddall," said he, "I should get into the auto and go for a long drive-- out to the Bois--out to Versailles--a long, long drive. I should be gone four or five hours at least, and I should look at the thing from all sides. Especially, I'd look at it from his standpoint."
Mildred, somewhat quieter, but still mocking, said: "If I should decide to quit, would my expenses be paid back to where I was engaged? I fancy not."
Harding looked grave. "If you had had money enough to pay your own expenses about, would you have married him?" said he. "Isn't he paying--paying liberally, Mrs. Siddall--for all he gets?"
Mildred, stung, drew herself up haughtily, gave him a look that reminded him who she was and who he was. But Harding was not impressed.
"You said a moment ago--truly--that we are all in the same boat," observed he. "I put those questions to you because I honestly wish to help you--because I wish you not to act foolishly, hastily."
"Thank you, Mr. Harding," said Mildred coldly. And with a slight nod she went, angry and ashamed that she had so unaccountably opened up her secret soul, bared its ugly wounds, before a man she knew so slightly, a man in a position but one remove from menial. However, she took his advice--not as to trying to view the matter from all sides, for she was convinced that there was only the one side, but as to calming herself by a long drive alone in the woods and along quiet roads. When she returned she was under control once more.
She found the general impatiently awaiting her. Many packages had come--from the jewelers, from the furriers, from a shop whose specialty was the thinnest and most delicate of hand-made underwear. The general loved to open and inspect finery for her-- loved it more than he loved inspecting finery for himself, because feminine finery was far more attractive than masculine. To whet his pleasure to the keenest she must be there to admire with him, to try on, to exhibit. As she entered the salon where the little man was fussing about among the packages, their glances met. She saw that Harding had told him--at least in discreet outline--of their conversation. She also saw that if she reopened the subject she would find herself straightway whirled out upon a stormy sea of danger that might easily overwhelm her flimsy boat. She silently and sullenly dropped into her place; she ministered to the general's pleasure in packages of finery. But she did not exclaim, or admire, or respond in any way. The honeymoon was over. Her dream of wifehood was dissipated.
She understood now the look she so often had seen on the faces of rich men's poor wives driving in state in Fifth Avenue. That night, as she inspected herself in the glass while the general's maid for her brushed her long thick hair, she saw the beginnings of that look in her own face. "I don't know just what I am," she said to herself. "But I do know what I am not. I am not a wife."
She sent away the maid, and sat there in the dressing- room before the mirror, waiting, her glance traveling about and noting the profuse and prodigal luxury. In the corner stood a circular rack loaded with dressing- gowns--more than a score of exquisite combinations of silk and lace or silk and chiffon. It so happened that there was nowhere in sight a single article of her apparel or for her toilet that was not bought with the general's money. No, there were some hairpins that she had paid for herself, and a comb with widely separated teeth that she had chanced to see in a window when she was alone one day. Anything else? Yes, a two-franc box of pins. And that was all. Everything else belonged to the general. In the closets, in the trunks--all the general's, part of the trousseau he had paid for. Not an undergarment; not an outer garment; not a hat or a pair of shoes, not a wrap, not a pair of gloves. All, the general's.
He was in the door of the dressing-room--the small wiry figure in rose-silk pajamas. The mustache and imperial were carefully waxed as always, day and night. On the little feet were high-heeled slippers. On the head was a rose-silk Neapolitan nightcap with gay tassel. The nightcap hid the bald spot from which the lofty toupee had been removed. A grotesque little figure, but not grotesque to her. Through the mask of the vain, boastful little face she saw the general watching her, as she had seen him that afternoon when she came in--the mysterious and terrible personality that had made the vast fortune, that had ridden ruthlessly over friend and foe, over man and woman and child--to the goal of its desires.
"It's late, my dear?" said the little man. "Come to bed."
She rose to obey--she in the general's purchases of filmy nightgown under a pale-pink silk dressing-gown.
He smiled with that curious noiseless mumbling and smacking of the thin lips. She sat down again.
"Don't keep me waiting. It's chilly," he said, advancing toward her.
"I shall sleep in here to-night--on the couch," said she. She was trembling with fright at her own audacity. She could see a fifty-centime piece and a copper dancing before her eyes. She felt horribly alone and weak, but she had no desire to retract the words with which she had thrown down the gauntlet.
The little general halted. The mask dropped; the man, the monster, looked at her. "What's the matter?" said he in an ominously quiet voice.
"Mr. Harding delivered your message to-day," said she, and her steady voice astonished her. "So I am going back home."
He waited, looking steadily at her.
"After he told me and I thought about it, I decided to submit, but just now I saw that I couldn't. I don't know what possesses me. I don't know what I'm going to do, or how I'm going to do it. But it's all over between us." She said this rapidly, fluently, in a decisive way, quite foreign to her character as she had thought it.
"You are coming to bed, where you belong," said he quietly.
"No," replied she, pressing herself against her chair as if force were being used to drag her from it. She cast about for something that would make yielding impossible. "You are--repulsive to me."
He looked at her without change of countenance. Said he: "Come to bed. I ask you for the last time."
There was no anger in his voice, no menace either open or covert; simply finality--the last word of the man who had made himself feared and secure in the mining-camps where the equation of personal courage is straightway applied to every situation. Mildred shivered. She longed to yield, to stammer out some excuse and obey him. But she could not; nor was she able to rise from her chair. She saw in his hard eyes a look of astonishment, of curiosity as to this unaccountable defiance in one who had seemed docile, who had apparently no alternative but obedience. He was not so astonished at her as she was at herself. "What is to become of me?" her terror-stricken soul was crying. "I must do as he says--I must--yet I cannot!" And she looked at him and sat motionless.
He turned away, moved slowly toward the door, halted at the threshold to give her time, was gone. A fit of trembling seized her; she leaned forward and rested her arms upon the dressing-table or she would have fallen from the chair to the floor. Yet, even as her fear made her sick and weak, she knew that she would not yield.
The cold drove her to the couch, to lie under half a dozen of the dressing-gowns and presently to fall into a sleep of exhaustion. When she awoke after what she thought was a few minutes of unconsciousness, the clamor of traffic in the Rue de Rivoli startled her. She started up, glanced at the clock on the chimneypiece. It was ten minutes past nine! When, by all the rules governing the action of the nerves, she ought to have passed a wakeful night she had overslept more than an hour. Indeed, she had had the first sound and prolonged sleep that had come to her since the honeymoon began; for until then she had slept alone all her life and the new order had almost given her chronic insomnia. She rang for her maid and began to dress. The maid did not come. She rang again and again; apparently the bell was broken. She finished dressing and went out into the huge, grandly and gaudily furnished salon. Harding was at a carved old-gold and lacquer desk, writing. As she entered he rose and bowed.
"Won't you please call one of the servants?" said she. "I want my coffee. I guess the bell in my room is broken. My maid doesn't answer."
"No, the bell is not broken," said Harding.
She looked at him questioningly.
"The general has issued an order that nothing is to be done in this apartment, and nothing served, unless he personally authorizes it."
Mildred paled, drew herself up in what seemed a gesture of haughtiness but was an effort to muster her strength. To save herself from the humiliation of a breakdown before him, she hastily retreated by the way she had come. After perhaps a quarter of an hour she reappeared in the salon; she was now dressed for the street. Harding looked up from his writing, rose and bowed gravely. Said she:
"I am going out for a walk. I'll be back in an hour or so."
"One moment," said Harding, halting her as she was opening the door into the public hall. "The general has issued an order that if you go out, you are not to be allowed to return."
Her hand fell from the knob. With flashing eyes she cried, "But that is impossible!"
"It is his orders," said Harding, in his usual quiet manner. "And as he pays the bills he will be obeyed."
She debated. Against her will, her trembling hand sought the knob again. Against her will, her weak arm began to draw the door open. Harding came toward her, stood before her and looked directly into her eyes. His eyes had dread and entreaty in them, but his voice was as always when he said:
"You know him, Mrs. Siddall."
"Yes," she said.
"The reason he has got all he wanted--whatever he wanted--is that he will go to any length. Every other human being, almost, has a limit, beyond which they will not go--a physical fear or a moral fear or a fear of public opinion. But the general--he has no limit."
"Yes," she said. And deathly pale and almost stag- gering she drew open the door and went out into the public hall.
"For God's sake, Mrs. Siddall!" cried Harding, in great agitation. "Come in quickly. They are watching-- they will tell him! Are you mad?"
"I think I must be," said she. "I am sick with fear. I can hardly keep from dropping down here in a faint. Yet--" a strange look, a mingling of abject terror and passionate defiance, gave her an aspect quite insane --"I am going. Perhaps I, too, have no limit."
And she went along the corridor, past a group of gaping and frightened servants, down the stairway and out by the private entrance for the grand apartments of the hotel in the Rue Raymond de l'Isle. She crossed the Rue de Rivoli and entered the Tuileries Gardens. It was only bracingly cool in the sunshine of that winter day. She seated herself on a chair on the terrace to regain her ebbed strength. Hardly had she sat down when the woman collector came and stood waiting for the two sous for the chair. Mildred opened her bag, found two coins. She gave the coppers to the woman. The other--all the money she had--was the fifty-centime piece.
"But the bag--I can get a good deal for that," she said aloud.
"I beg your pardon--I didn't catch that."
She came back to a sense of her surroundings. Stanley Baird was standing a few feet away, smiling down at her. He was, if possible, even more attractively dressed than in the days when he hovered about her, hoping vague things of which he was ashamed and try- ing to get the courage to put down his snobbishness and marry her because she so exactly suited him. He was wearing a new kind of collar and tie, striking yet in excellent quiet taste. Also, his face and figure had filled out just enough--he had been too thin in the former days. But he was now entered upon that period of the fearsome forties when, unless a man amounts to something, he begins to look insignificant. He did not amount to anything; he was therefore paling and waning as a personality.
"Was I thinking aloud?" said Mildred, as she gave him her hand.
"You said something about `getting a good deal.' " He inspected her with the freedom of an old friend and with the thoroughness of a connoisseur. Women who took pains with themselves and were satisfied with the results liked Stanley Baird's knowing and appreciative way of noting the best points in their toilets. "You're looking fine," declared he. "It must be a pleasure to them up in the Rue de la Paix to dress you. That's more than can be said for nine out of ten of the women who go there. Yes, you're looking fine--and in grand health, too. Why, you look younger than I ever saw you. Nothing like marriage to freshen a girl up. Well, I suppose waiting round for a husband who may or may not turn up does wear a woman down."
"It almost killed me," laughed Mildred. "And you were largely responsible."
"I?" said Baird. "You didn't want me. I was too old for you."
"No, I didn't want you," said Mildred. "But you spoiled me. I couldn't endure the boys of my own age."
Stanley was remembering that Mildred had married a man much older than he. With some notion of a careless sort of tact in mind he said, "I was betwixt and between--neither young enough nor old enough."
"You've married, too, since we met. By the way, thank you again for that charming remembrance. You always did have such good taste. But why didn't you come to the wedding--you and your wife?"
He laughed. "We were busy busting up," said he. "You hadn't heard? It's been in the papers. She's gone back to her people. Oh, nothing disgraceful on either side. Simply that we bored each other to death. She was crazy about horses and dogs, and that set. I think the stable's the place for horses--don't care to have 'em parading through the house all the time, every room, every meal, sleeping and waking. And dogs-- the infernal brutes always have fleas. Fleas only tickled her, but they bite me--raise welts and hills. There's your husband now, isn't it?"
Baird was looking up at the windows of the Continental, across the street. Mildred's glance slowly and carelessly followed his. At one window stood the little general, gazing abstractedly out over the gardens. At another window Mildred saw Harding; at a third, her maid; at a fourth, Harding's assistant, Drawl; at a fifth, three servants of the retinue. Except the general, all were looking at her.
"You've married a very extraordinary man," said Baird, in a correct tone of admiration. "One of the ablest and most interesting men we've got, I think."
"So you are free again?" said Mildred, looking at him with a queer, cold smile.
"Yes, and no," replied Stanley. "I hope to be entirely free. It's her move next. I'm expecting it every day. But I'm thoroughly respectable. Won't you and the general dine with me?"
"Thanks, but I'm sailing for home to-morrow or next day."
"That's interesting," said Baird, with enthusiasm. "So am I. What ship do you go on?"
"I don't know yet. I'm to decide this afternoon, after lunch." She laughed. "I'm sitting here waiting for someone to ask me to lunch. I've not had even coffee yet."
"Lunch with me!" cried Baird. "I'll go get the general--I know him slightly."
"I didn't say anything about the general," said Mildred.
Stanley smiled apologetically. "It wouldn't do for you to go about with me--not when my missus is looking for grounds for divorce."
"Why not?" said Mildred. "So's my husband."
"You busted up, too? Now, that's what I call jolly." And he cast a puzzled glance up at the abstracted general. "I say, Mildred, this is no place for either of us, is it?"
"I'd rather be where there's food," confessed she.
"You think it's a joke, but I assure you-- Oh, you were joking--about your bust-up?"
"No, indeed," she assured him. "I walked out a while ago, and I couldn't go back if I would--and I don't think I would if I could."
"That's foolish. Better go back," advised he. He was preparing hastily to decamp from so perilous a neighborhood. "One marriage is about like another, once you get through the surface. I'm sure you'll be better off than--back with your stepfather."
"I've no intention of going to his house," she declared. "Oh, there's your brother. I forgot."
"So had I forgotten him. I'll not go there, either. In fact, I've not thought where I'll go."
"You seem to have done mighty little thinking before you took a very serious step for a woman." He was uneasily eying the rigid, abstracted little figure a story up across the way.
"Those things aren't a question of thinking," said she absently. "I never thought in my life--don't think I could if I tried. But when the time came I-- I walked out." She came back to herself, laughed. "I don't understand why I'm telling you all this, especially as you're mad with fright and wild to get away. Well, good-by, Stanley."
He lifted his hat. "Good-by. We'll meet when we can do so without my getting a scandal on you." He walked a few paces, turned, and came back. "By the way, I'm sailing on the Deutschland. I thought you'd like to know--so that you and I wouldn't by any chance cross on the same boat."
"Thanks," said she dryly.
"What's the matter?" asked he, arrested, despite his anxiety to be gone, by the sad, scornful look in her eyes.
"You had such a--such a queer look."
In fact, she had thought--had hoped for the sake of her liking for him--that he had come back to make the glaringly omitted offer of help that should have come from any human being learning that a fellow being was in the precarious position in which she had told him she was. Not that she would have accepted any such offer. Still, she would have liked to have heard the kindly words. She sat watching his handsome, graceful figure, draped in the most artistically cut of long dark overcoats, until he disappeared in the crowd in the Rue de Castiglione. Then, without a glance up at the interested, not to say excited windows of the general's splendid and spreading apartments, she strolled down the gardens toward the Place Concorde. In Paris the beautiful, on a bright and brisk day it is all but impossible to despair when one still has left youth and health. Mildred was not happy--far from it. The future, the immediate future, pressed its terrors upon her. But in mitigation there was, perhaps born of youth and inexperience, a giddy sense of relief. She had not realized how abhorrent the general was-- married life with the general. She had been resigning herself to it, accepting it as the only thing possible, keeping it heavily draped with her vanities of wealth and luxury--until she discovered that the wealth and the luxury were in reality no more hers than they were her maid's. And now she was free!
That word free did not have its full meaning for her. She had never known what real freedom was; women of the comfortable class--and men, too, for that matter-- usually are born into the petty slavery of conventions at least, and know nothing else their whole lives through--never know the joy of the thought and the act of a free mind and a free heart. Still, she was released from a bondage that seemed slavish even to her, and the release gave her a sensation akin to the joy of freedom. A heavy hand that was crushing her very soul had been lifted off--no, flung off, and by herself. That thought, terrifying though it was, also gave her a certain new and exalting self-respect. After all, she was not a worm. She must have somewhere in her the germs of something less contemptible than the essential character of so many of the eminently respectable women she knew. She could picture them in the situation in which she had found herself. What would they have done? Why, what every instinct of her education impelled her to do; what some latent love of freedom, some unsuspected courage of self-respect had forbidden her to do, had withheld her from doing.
Her thoughts and the gorgeous sunshine and her youth and health put her in a steadily less cheerless mood as by a roundabout way she sought the shop of the jeweler who sold the general the gold bag she had selected. The proprietor himself was in the front part of the shop and received "Madame la Generale" with all the honors of her husband's wealth. She brought no experience and no natural trading talent to the enterprise she was about to undertake; so she went directly to the main point.
"This bag," said she, laying it upon the glass between them, "I bought it here a short time ago."
"I remember perfectly, madame. It is the handsomest, the most artistic, we have sold this year."
"I wish to sell it back to you," said she.
"You wish to get something else and include it as part payment, madame?"
"No, I wish to get the money for it."
"Ah, but that is difficult. We do not often make those arrangements. Second-hand articles--"
"But the bag is quite new. Anyhow, it must have some value. Of course I'd not expect the full price."
The jeweler smiled. "The full price? Ah, madame, we should not think of offering it again as it is. We should--"
"No matter," interrupted Mildred. The man's expression--the normally pleasant and agreeable countenance turned to repulsive by craft and lying--made her eager to be gone. "What is the most you will give me?"
"I shall have to consider--"
"I've only a few minutes. Please do not irritate me."
The man was studying her countenance with a desperate look. Why was she, the bride of the monstrously rich American, why was she trying to sell the bag? Did it mean the end of her resources? Or, were there still huge orders to be got from her? His shrewd- ness, trained by thirty years of dealing with all kinds of luxurious human beings, went exploring in vain. He was alarmed by her frown. He began hesitatingly:
"The jewels and the gold are only a small part of the value. The chief value is the unique design, so elegant yet so simple. For the jewels and the gold, perhaps two thousand francs--"
"The purse was twelve thousand francs," interrupted she.
"Perfectly, madame. But--" "I am in great haste. How much will you give me?"
"The most would be four thousand, I fear. I shall count up more carefully, if madame will--"
"No, four thousand will do."
"I will send the money to madame at her hotel. The Continental, is it not?"
"No, I must have it at once."
The jeweler hesitated. Mildred, flushing scarlet with shame--but he luckily thought it anger--took up the bag and moved toward the door.
"Pardon, madame, but certainly. Do you wish some gold or all notes?"
"Notes," answered she. "Fifty and hundred-franc notes."
A moment later she was in the street with the notes in a small bundle in the bosom of her wrap. She went hurriedly up the street. As she was about to turn the corner into the boulevard she on impulse glanced back. An automobile had just drawn up at the jeweler's door and General Siddall--top-hat, sable-lined overcoat, waxed mustache and imperial, high-heeled boots, gold- mounted cane--was descending. And she knew that he had awakened to his one oversight, and was on his way to repair it. But she did not know that the jeweler --old and wise in human ways--would hastily vanish with the bag and that an assistant would come forward with assurances that madame had not been in the shop and that, if she should come in, no business would be negotiated without the general's express consent. She all but fainted at the narrowness of her escape and fled round into the boulevard. She entered a taxi and told the man to drive to Foyot's restaurant on the left bank --where the general would never think of looking for her.
When she had breakfasted she strolled in the Luxembourg Gardens, in even better humor with herself and with the world. There was still that horrid-faced future, but it was not leering into her very face. It was nearly four thousand francs away--"and if I hadn't been so stupid, I'd have got eight thousand, I'm sure," she said. But she was rather proud of a stupidity about money matters. And four thousand francs, eight hundred dollars--that was quite a good sum.
She had an instinct that the general would do something disagreeable about the French and English ports of departure for America. But perhaps he would not think of the Italian ports. That night she set out for Genoa, and three days later, in a different dress and with her hair done as she never wore it, sailed as Miss Mary Stevens for America on a German Mediterranean boat.
She had taken the whole of a cabin on the quieter deck below the promenade, paying for it nearly half of what was left of the four thousand francs. The first three days she kept to her cabin except at the dinner-hour, when she ventured to the deck just outside and walked up and down for exercise. Then followed four days of nasty weather during which she did not leave her bed. As the sea calmed, she, wretched and reckless, had a chair put for herself under her window and sat there, veiled and swathed and turning her face away whenever a rare wandering passenger happened to pass along. Toward noon a man paused before her to light a cigarette. She, forgetting for the moment her precautions, looked at him. It chanced that he looked at her at exactly the same instant. Their glances met. He started nervously, moved on a few steps, returned. Said she mockingly:
"You know you needn't speak if you don't want to, Stanley."
"There isn't a soul on board that anybody ever knew or that ever knew anybody," said he. "So why not?"
"And you look horribly bored."
"Unspeakably," replied Baird. "I've spoken to no one since I left Paris."
"What are you doing on this ship?" inquired she.
"To be perfectly honest," said he, "I came this way to avoid you. I was afraid you'd take passage on my steamer just to amuse yourself with my nervousness. And--here you are!"
"Amusing myself with your nervousness."
"But I'm not nervous. There's no danger. Will you let me have a chair put beside yours?"
"It will be a charity on your part," said she.
When he was comfortably settled, he explained his uneasiness. "I see I've got to tell you," said he, "for I don't want you to think me a shouting ass. The fact is my wife wants to get a divorce from me and to soak me for big alimony. She's a woman who'll do anything to gain her end, and--well, for some reason she's always been jealous of you. I didn't care to get into trouble, or to get you into trouble."
"I'm traveling as Mary Stevens," said Mildred. "No one knows I'm aboard."
"Oh, I'm sure we're quite safe. We can enjoy the rest of this voyage."
A sea voyage not merely induces but compels a feeling of absolute detachment from the world. To both Stanley and Mildred their affairs--the difficulties in which they were involved on terra firma--ceased for the time to have any reality. The universe was nothing but a vast stretch of water under a vast stretch of sky; the earth and the things thereof were a retrospect and a foreboding. Without analyzing it, both he and she felt that they were free--free from cares, from responsibilities--free to amuse themselves. And they proceeded to enjoy themselves in the necessarily quiet and limited way imposed by the littleness of their present world and the meagerness of the resources.
As neither had the kind of mind that expands in abstractions, they were soon talking in the most intimate and personal way about themselves--were confessing things which neither would have breathed to anyone on land. It was the man who set the example of breaking through the barriers of conventional restraint-- perhaps of delicacy, though it must be said that human beings are rarely so fine in their reticences as the theory of refinement would have us believe. Said Stanley, after the preliminaries of partial confidence and halting avowal that could not be omitted, even at sea, by a man of "gentlemanly instinct":
"I don't know why I shouldn't own up. I know you'll never tell anybody. Fact is, I and my wife were never in love with each other for a second. We married because we were in the same set and because our incomes together gave us enough to do the thing rather well." After a solemn pause. "I was in love with another woman--one I couldn't marry. But I'll not go into that. As for my wife, I don't think she was in love with anyone. She's as cold as a stone."
Mildred smiled ironically.
Baird saw and flushed. "At least, she was to me. I was ready to make a sort of bluff. You see, a man feels guilty in those circumstances and doesn't want to humiliate a woman. But she--" he laughed unpleasantly--"she wasn't bothering about my feelings. That's a nice, selfish little way you ladies have."
"She probably saw through you and hated you for playing the hypocrite to her," said Mildred.
"You may be right, I never thought of that," confessed he. "She certainly had a vicious way of hammering the other woman indirectly. Not that she ever admitted being jealous. I guess she knew. Everybody usually knows everything."
"And there was a great deal of talk about you and me," said Mildred placidly.
"I didn't say it was you," protested Stanley, reddening.
"No matter," said Mildred. "Don't bother about that. It's all past and gone."
"Well, at any rate, my marriage was the mistake of my life. I'm determined that she shan't trip me up and trim me for any alimony. And as matters stand, she can't. She left me of her own accord."
"Then," said Mildred thoughtfully, "if the wife leaves of her own accord, she can't get alimony?"
"Certainly not--not a cent."
"I supposed so," said she. "I'm not sure I'd take it if I could get it. Still, I suppose I would." She laughed. "What's the use of being a hypocrite with oneself? I know I would. All I could get."
"Then you had no legal excuse for leaving?"
"No," said she. "I--just bolted. I don't know what's to become of me. I seem not to care, at present, but no doubt I shall as soon as we see land again."
"You'll go back to him," said Stanley.
"No," replied she, without emphasis or any accent whatever.
"Sure you will," rejoined he. "It's your living. What else can you do?"
"That's what I must find out. Surely there's something else for a woman besides such a married life as mine. I can't and won't go back to my husband. And I can't and won't go to the house at Hanging Rock. Those two things are settled."
"You mean that?"
"Absolutely. And I've got--less than three hundred and fifty dollars in the whole world."
Baird was silent. He was roused from his abstraction by gradual consciousness of an ironical smile on the face of the girl, for she did not look like a married woman. "You are laughing at me. Why?" inquired he.
"I was reading your thoughts."
"You think you've frightened me?"
"Naturally. Isn't a confession such as I made enough to frighten a man? It sounded as though I were getting ready to ask alms."
"So it did," said he. "But I wasn't thinking of it in that way. You will be in a frightful fix pretty soon, won't you?"
"It looks that way. But you need not be uneasy."
"Oh, I want to help you. I'll do everything I can. I was trying to think of something you could make money at. I was thinking of the stage, but I suppose you'd balk at that. I'll admit it isn't the life for a lady. But the same thing's true of whatever money can be made at. If I were you, I'd go back."
"If I were myself, I'd go back," said Mildred. "But I'm not myself."
"You will be again, as soon as you face the situation."
"No," said she slowly, "no, I shall never be myself again."
"But you could have everything a woman wants. Except, of course--perhaps-- But you never struck me as being especially sentimental."
"Sentiment has nothing to do with it," rejoined she. "Do you think I could get a place on the stage?"
"Oh, you'd have to study a while, I suppose."
"But I can't afford that. If I could afford to study, I'd have my voice trained."
Baird's face lighted up with enthusiasm. "The very thing!" he cried. "You've got a voice, a grand-opera voice. I've heard lots of people say so, and it sounded that way to me. You must cultivate your voice."
Mildred laughed. "Don't talk nonsense. Even I know that's nonsense. The lessons alone would cost thousands of dollars. And how could I live for the four or five years?"
"You didn't let me finish," said Baird. "I was going to say that when you get to New York you must go and have your voice passed on--by some impartial person. If that person says it's worth cultivating, why, I'm willing to back you--as a business proposition. I can afford to take the risk. So, you see, it's all perfectly simple."
He had spoken rapidly, with a covert suggestion of fear lest she would rebuke him sharply for what she might regard as an impertinent offer. She surprised him by looking at him calmly, reflectively, and saying:
"Yes, you could afford it, couldn't you?"
"I'm sure I could. And it's the sort of thing that's done every day. Of course, no one'd know that we had made this little business arrangement. But that's easily managed. I'd be glad if you'd let me do it, Mildred. I'd like to feel that I was of some use in the world. And I'd like to do something for you."
By way of exceedingly cautious experiment he ventured to put ever so slight an accent of tenderness upon the "you." He observed her furtively but nervously. He could not get a hint of what was in her mind. She gazed out toward the rising and falling horizon line. Presently she said:
"I'll think about it."
"You must let me do it, Mildred. It's the sensible thing--and you know me well enough to know that my friendship can be counted on."
"I'll think about it," was all she would concede.
They discussed the singing career all that and the succeeding days--the possibilities, the hopes, the dangers-- but the hopes a great deal more than the dangers. He became more and more interested in her and in the project, as her beauty shone out with the tranquillizing sea and as her old charm of cleverness at saying things that amused him reasserted itself. She, dubious and lukewarm at first, soon was trying to curb her own excited optimism; but long before they sighted Sandy Hook she was merely pretending to hang back. He felt discouraged by her parting! "If I decide to go on, I'll write you in a few days." But he need not have felt so. She had made up her mind to accept his offer. As for the complications involved in such curiously intimate relations with a man of his temperament, habits, and inclinations, she saw them very vaguely in- deed--refused to permit herself to see them any less vaguely. Time enough to deal with complications when and as they arose; why needlessly and foolishly annoy herself and hamper herself? Said she to herself, "I must begin to be practical."