The Price She Paid by David Graham Phillips
The first of September they went up to town. Stanley left at once for his annual shooting trip; Donald Keith disappeared, saying--as was his habit-- neither what he was about nor when he would be seen again. Mrs. Brindley summoned her pupils and her musical friends. Mildred resumed the lessons with Jennings. There was no doubt about it, she had astonishingly improved during the summer. There had come--or, rather, had come back--into her voice the birdlike quality, free, joyous, spontaneous, that had not been there since her father's death and the family's downfall. She was glad that her arrangement with Donald Keith was of such a nature that she was really not bound to go on with it--if he should ever come back and remind her of what she had said. Now that Jennings was enthusiastic--giving just and deserved praise, as her own ear and Mrs. Brindley assured her, she was angry at herself for having tolerated Keith's frankness, his insolence, his insulting and contemptuous denials of her ability. She was impatient to see him, that she might put him down. She said to Jennings:
"You think I can make a career?"
"There isn't a doubt in my mind now," replied he. "You ought to be one of the few great lyric sopranos within five years."
"A man, this summer--a really unusual man in some ways--told me there was no hope for me."
"A singing teacher?"
"No, a lawyer. A Mr. Keith--Donald Keith."
"I've heard of him," said Jennings. "His mother was Rivi, the famous coloratura of twenty years ago."
Mildred was astounded. "He must know something about music."
"Probably," replied Jennings. "He lived with her in Italy, I believe, until he was almost grown. Then she died. You sang for him?"
"No," Mildred said it hesitatingly.
"Oh!" said Jennings, and his expression--interested, disturbed, puzzled--made Mildred understand why she had been so reluctant to confess. Jennings did not pursue the subject, but abruptly began the lesson. That day and several days thereafter he put her to tests he had never used before. She saw that he was searching for something--for the flaw implied in the adverse verdict of the son of Lucia Rivi. She was enormously relieved when he gave over the search without having found the flaw. She felt that Donald Keith's verdict had been proved false or at least faulty. Yet she was not wholly reassured, and from time to time she suspected that Jennings had not been, either.
Soon the gayety of the preceding winter and spring was in full swing again. Keith did not return, did not write, and Cyrilla Brindley inquired and telephoned in vain. Mildred worked with enthusiasm, with hope, presently with confidence. She hoped every day that Keith would come; she would make him listen to her, force him to admit. She caught a slight cold, neglected it, tried to sing it away. Her voice left her abruptly. She went to Jennings as usual the day she found herself able to do nothing more musical than squeak. She told him her plight. Said he:
"Begin! Let's hear."
She made a few dismal attempts, stopped short, and, half laughing, half ashamed, faced him for the lecture she knew would be forthcoming. Now, it so happened that Jennings was in a frightful humor that day--one of those humors in which the most prudent lose their self-control. He had been listening to a succession of new pupils--women with money and no voice, women who screeched and screamed and thoroughly enjoyed themselves and angled confidently for compliments. As Jennings had an acute musical ear, his sufferings had been frightful. He was used to these torments, had the habit of turning the fury into which they put him into excellent financial or disciplinary account. But on this particular day his nerves went to pieces, and it was with Mildred that the explosion came. When she looked at him, she was horrified to see a face distorted and discolored by sheer rage.
"You fool!" he shouted, storming up and down. "You fool! You can't sing! Keith was right. You wouldn't do even for a church choir. You can't be relied on. There's nothing behind your voice--no strength, no endurance, no brains. No brains! Do you hear?--no brains, I say!"
Mildred was terrified. She had seen him in tantrums before, but always there had been a judicious reserving of part of the truth. Instead of resenting, instead of flashing eye or quivering lips, Mildred sat down and with white face and dazed eyes stared straight before her. Jennings raved and roared himself out. As he came to his senses from this debauch of truth-telling his first thought was how expensive it might be. Thus, long before there was any outward sign that the storm had passed, the ravings, the insults were shrewdly tempered with qualifyings. If she kept on catching these colds, if she did not obey his instructions, she might put off her debut for years--for three years, for two years at least. And she would always be rowing with managers and irritating the public--and so on and on. But the mischief had been done. The girl did not rouse.
"No use to go on to-day," he said gruffly--the pretense at last rumblings of an expiring storm.
"Nor any other day," said Mildred.
She stood and straightened herself. Her face was beautiful rather than lovely. Its pallor, its strong lines, the melancholy intensity of the eyes, made her seem more the woman fully developed, less, far less, the maturing girl.
"Nonsense!" scolded Jennings. "But no more colds like that. They impair the quality of the voice."
"I have no voice," said the girl. "I see the truth."
Jennings was inwardly cursing his insane temper. In about the kindliest tone he had ever used with her, he said: "My dear Miss Stevens, you are in no condition to judge to-day. Come back to-morrow. Do something for that cold to-night. Clear out the throat --and come back to-morrow. You will see."
"Yes, I know those tricks," said she, with a sad little smile. "You can make a crow seem to sing. But you told me the truth."
"To-morrow," he cried pleasantly, giving her an encouraging pat on the shoulder. He knew the folly of talking too much, the danger of confirming her fears by pretending to make light of them. "A good sleep, and to-morrow things will look brighter."
He did not like her expression. It was not the one he was used to seeing in those vain, "temperamental" pupils of his--the downcast vanity that will be up again in a few hours. It was rather the expression of one who has been finally and forever disillusioned.
On her way home she stopped to send Keith a telegram: "I must see you at once."
There were several at the apartment for tea, among them Cullan, an amateur violinist and critic on music whom she especially liked. For, instead of the dreamy, romantic character his large brown eyes and sensitive features suggested, he revealed in talk and actions a boyish gayety--free, be it said, from boyish silliness-- that was most infectious. His was one of those souls that put us in the mood to laugh at all seriousness, to forget all else in the supreme fact of the reality of existence. He made her forget that day--forget until Keith's answering telegram interrupted: "Next Monday afternoon."
A week less a day away! She shrank and trembled at the prospect of relying upon herself alone for six long days. Every prop had been taken away from her. Even the dubious prop of the strange, unsatisfactory Keith. For had he not failed her? She had said, "must" and "at once"; and he had responded with three words of curt refusal.
After dinner Stanley unexpectedly appeared. He hardly waited for the necessary formalities of the greeting before he said to Mrs. Brindley: "I want to see Mildred alone. I know you won't mind, Mrs. Brindley. It's very important." He laughed nervously but cheerfully. "And in a few minutes I'll call you in. I think I'll have something interesting to tell you."
Mrs. Brindley laughed. With her cigarette in one hand and her cup of after-dinner coffee in the other, she moved toward the door, saying gayly to Mildred:
"I'll be in the next room. If you scream I shall hear. So don't be alarmed."
Stanley closed the door, turned beaming upon Mildred. Said he: "Here's my news. My missus has got her divorce."
Mildred started up.
"Yes, the real thing," he assured her. "Of course I knew what was doing. But I kept mum--didn't want to say anything to you till I could say everything. Mildred, I'm free. We can be married to-morrow, if you will."
"Then you know about me?" said she, confused.
"On the way I stopped in to see Keith. He told me about that skunk--told me you were free, too."
Mildred slowly sat down. Her elbows rested upon the table. There was her bare forearm, slender and round, and her long, graceful fingers lay against her cheek. The light from above reflected charmingly from the soft waves and curves of her hair. "You're lovely--simply lovely!" cried Stanley. "Mildred-- darling--you will marry me, won't you? You can go right on with the career, if you like. In fact, I'd rather you would, for I'm frightfully proud of your voice. And I've changed a lot since I became sincerely interested in you. The other sort of life and people don't amuse me any more. Mildred, say you'll marry me. I'll make you as happy as the days are long."
She moved slightly. Her hand dropped to the table.
"I guess I came down on you too suddenly," said he. "You look a bit dazed."
"No, I'm not dazed," replied she.
"I'll call Mrs. Brindley in, and we'll all three talk it over."
"Please don't," said she. "I've got to think it out for myself."
"I know there isn't anyone else," he went on. "So, I'm sure--dead sure, Mildred, that I can teach you to love me."
She looked at him pleadingly. "I don't have to answer right away?"
"Certainly not," laughed he. "But why shouldn't you? What is there against our getting married? Nothing. And everything for it. Our marriage will straighten out all the--the little difficulties, and you can go ahead with the singing and not bother about money, or what people might say, or any of those things."
"I--I've got to think about it, Stanley," she said gently. "I want to do the decent thing by you and by myself."
"You're afraid I'll interfere in the career--won't want you to go on? Mildred, I swear I'm--"
"It isn't that," she interrupted, her color high. "The truth is--" she faltered, came to a full stop-- cried, "Oh, I can't talk about it to-night."
"To-morrow?" he suggested.
"I--don't know," she stammered. "Perhaps to- morrow. But it may be two or three days."
Stanley looked crestfallen. "That hurts, Mildred," he said. "I was so full of it, so anxious to be entirely happy, and I thought you'd fall right in with it. Something to do with money? You're horribly sensitive about money, dear. I like that in you, of course. Not many women would have been as square, would have taken as little--and worked hard--and thought and cared about nothing but making good-- By Jove, it's no wonder I'm stark crazy about you!"
She was flushed and trembling. "Don't," she pleaded. "You're beating me down into the dust. I --I'm--" She started up. "I can't talk to-night. I might say things I'd be-- I can't talk about it. I must--"
She pressed her lips together and fled through the hall to her own room, to shut and lock herself in. He stared in amazement. When he heard the distant sound of the turning key he dropped to a chair again and laughed. Certainly women were queer creatures-- always doing what one didn't expect. Still, in the end-- well, a sensible woman knew a good chance to marry and took it. There was no doubt a good deal of pretense in Mildred's delicacy as to money matters--but a devilish creditable sort of pretense. He liked the ladylike, "nice" pretenses, of women of the right sort --liked them when they fooled him, liked them when they only half fooled him.
Presently he knocked on the door of the little library, opened it when permission came in Cyrilla's voice. She was reading the evening paper--he did not see the glasses she hastily thrust into a drawer. In that soft light she looked a scant thirty, handsome, but for his taste too intellectual of type to be attractive--except as a friend.
"Well," said he, as he lit a cigarette and dropped the match into the big copper ash-bowl, "I'll bet you can't guess what I've been up to."
"Making love to Miss Stevens," replied she. "And very foolish it is of you. She's got a steady head in that way."
"You're mighty right," said he heartily. "And I admire her for that more than for anything else. I'd trust her anywhere."
"You're paying yourself a high compliment," laughed Cyrilla.
"How's that?" inquired he. "You're too subtle for me. I'm a bit slow."
Mrs. Brindley decided against explaining. It was not wise to risk raising an unjust doubt in the mind of a man who fancied that a woman who resisted him would be adamant to every other man. "Then I've got to guess again?" said she.
"I've been asking her to marry me," said Stanley, who could contain it no longer. "Mrs. B. was released from me to-day by the court in Providence."
"But she's not free," said Cyrilla, a little severely.
Stanley looked confused, finally said: "Yes, she is. It's a queer story. Don't say anything. I can't explain. I know I can trust you to keep a close mouth."
"Minding my own business is my one supreme talent," said Cyrilla.
"She hasn't accepted me--in so many words," pursued Baird, "but I've hopes that it'll come out all right."
"Naturally," commented Cyrilla dryly.
"I know I'm not--not objectionable to her. And how I do love her!" He settled himself at his ease. "I can't believe it's really me. I never thought I'd marry--just for love. Did you?"
"You're very self-indulgent," said Cyrilla.
"You mean I'm marrying her because I can't get her any other way. There's where you're wrong, Mrs. Brindley. I'm marrying her because I don't want her any other way. That's why I know it's love. I didn't think I was capable of it. Of course, I've been rather strong after the ladies all my life. You know how it is with men."
"I do," said Mrs. Brindley.
"No, you don't either," retorted he. "You're one of those cold, stand-me-off women who can't comprehend the nature of man."
"As you please," said she. In her eyes there was a gleam that more than suggested a possibility of some man--some man she might fancy--seeing an amazingly different Cyrilla Brindley.
"I may say I was daft about pretty women," continued Baird. "I never read an item about a pretty woman in the papers, or saw a picture of a pretty woman that I didn't wish I knew her--well. Can you imagine that?" laughed he.
"Commonplace," said Cyrilla. "All men are so. That's why the papers always describe the woman as pretty and why the pictures are published."
"Really? Yes, I suppose so." Baird looked chagrined. "Anyhow, here I am, all for one woman. And why? I can't explain it to myself. She's pretty, lovely, entrancing sometimes. She has charm, grace, sweetness. She dresses well and carries herself with a kind of sweet haughtiness. She looks as if she knew a lot--and nothing bad. Do you know, I can't imagine her having been married to that beast! I've tried to imagine it. I simply can't."
"I shouldn't try if I were you," said Mrs. Brindley.
"But I was talking about why I love her. Does this bore you?"
"A little," laughed Cyrilla. "I'd rather hear some man talking about my charms. But go on. You are amusing, in a way."
"I'll wager I am. You never thought I'd be caught? I believed I was immune--vaccinated against it. I thought I knew all the tricks and turns of the sex. Yet here I am!"
"What do you think caught you?"
"That's the mystery. It's simply that I can't do without her. Everything she looks and says and does interests me more than anything else in the world. And when I'm not with her I'm wishing I were and wondering how she's looking or what she's saying or doing. You don't think she'll refuse me?" This last with real anxiety.
"I haven't an idea," replied Mrs. Brindley. "She's --peculiar. In some moods she would. In others, she couldn't. And I've never been able to settle to my satisfaction which kind of mood was the real Mary Stevens."
"She is queer, isn't she?" said Stanley thoughtfully. "But I've told her she'd be free to go on with the career. Fact is, I want her to do it."
Mrs. Brindley's eyes twinkled. "You think it would justify you to your set in marrying her, if she made a great hit?"
Stanley blushed ingenuously. "I'll not deny that has something to do with it," he admitted. "And why not?"
"Why not, indeed?" said she. "But, after she had made the hit, you'd want her to quit the stage and take her place in society. Isn't that so?"
"You are a keen one," exclaimed he admiringly. "But I didn't say that to her. And you won't, will you?"
"It's hardly necessary to ask that," said Mrs. Brindley. "Now, suppose-- You don't mind my talking about this?"
"What I want," replied he. "I can't talk or think anything but her."
"Now, suppose she shouldn't make a hit. Suppose she should fail--should not develop reliable voice enough?"
Stanley looked frightened. "But she can't fail," he cried with over-energy. "There's no question about her voice."
"I understand," Mrs. Brindley hastened to say. "I was simply making conversation with her as the subject."
"Oh, I see." Stanley settled back.
"Suppose she should prove not to be a great artist-- what then?" persisted Cyrilla, who was deeply interested in the intricate obscure problem of what people really thought as distinguished from what they professed and also from what they imagined they thought.
"The fact that she's a great artist--that's part of her," said Baird. "If she weren't a great singer, she wouldn't be she--don't you see?"
"Yes, I see," said Mrs. Brindley with an ironic sadness which she indulged openly because there was no danger of his understanding.
"I don't exactly love her because she amounts to a lot--or is sure to," pursued he, vaguely dissatisfied with himself. "It's just as she doesn't care for me because I've got the means to take care of her right, yet that's part of me--and she'd not be able to marry me if I hadn't. Don't you see?"
"Yes, I see," said Mrs. Brindley with more irony and less sadness. "There's always some reason beside love."
"I'd say there's always some reason for love," said Baird, and he felt that he had said something brilliant-- as is the habit of people of sluggish mentality when they say a thing they do not themselves understand. "You don't doubt that I love her?" he went on. "Why should I ask her to marry me if I didn't?"
"I suppose that settles it," said Cyrilla.
"Of course it does," declared he.
For an hour he sat there, talking on, most of it a pretty dull kind of drivel. Mrs. Brindley listened patiently, because she liked him and because she had nothing else to do until bedtime. At last he rose with a long sigh and said:
"I guess I might as well be going."
"She'll not come in to-night again," said Cyrilla slyly.
He laughed. "You are a good one. I'll own up, I've been staying on partly in the hope that she'd come back. But it's been a great joy to talk to you about her. I know you love her, too."
"Yes, I'm extremely fond of her," said she. "I've not known many women--many people without petty mean tricks. She's one."
"Isn't she, though?" exclaimed he.
"I don't mean she's perfect," said Mrs. Brindley. "I don't even mean that she's as angelic as you think her. I'd not like her, if she were. But she's a superior kind of human."
She was tired of him now, and got him out speedily. As she closed the front door upon him, Mildred's door, down the hall, opened. Her head appeared, an inquiring look upon her face. Mrs. Brindley nodded. Mil- dred, her hair done close to her head, a dressing-robe over her nightgown and her bare feet in little slippers, came down the hall. She coiled herself up in a big chair in the library and lit a cigarette. She looked like a handsome young boy.
"He told you?" she said to Mrs. Brindley.
"Yes," replied Cyrilla.
Silence. In all their intimate acquaintance there had never been an approach to the confidential on either side. It was Cyrilla's notion that confidences were a mistake, and that the more closely people were thrown together the more resolutely they ought to keep certain barriers between them. She and Mildred got on too admirably, liked each other too well, for there to be any trifling with their relations--and over-intimacy inevitably led to trifling. Mildred had restrained herself because Mrs. Brindley had compelled it by rigid example. Often she had longed to talk things over, to ask advice; but she had never ventured further than generalities, and Mrs. Brindley had never proffered advice, had never accepted opportunities to give it except in the vaguest way. She had taught Mildred a great deal, but always by example, by doing, never by saying what ought or ought not to be done. Thus, such development of Mildred's character as there had been was natural and permanent.
"He has put me in a peculiar position," said Mildred. "Or, rather, I have let myself drift into a peculiar position. For I think you're right in saying that oneself is always to blame. Won't you let me talk about it to you, please? I know you hate confidences. But I've got to--to talk. I'd like you to advise me, if you can. But even if you don't, it'll do me good to say things aloud."
"Often one sees more clearly," was Cyrilla's reply-- noncommittal, yet not discouraging.
"I'm free to marry him," Mildred went on. "That is, I'm not married. I'd rather not explain--"
"Don't," said Mrs. Brindley. "It's unnecessary."
"You know that it's Stanley who has been lending me the money to live on while I study. Well, from the beginning I've been afraid I'd find myself in a difficult position."
"Naturally," said Mrs. Brindley, as she paused.
"But I've always expected it to come in another way--not about marriage, but--"
"I understand," said Mrs. Brindley. "You feared you'd be called on to pay in the way women usually pay debts to men."
Mildred nodded. "But this is worse than I expected --much worse."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Cyrilla. "Yes, you're right. If he had hinted the other thing, you could have pretended not to understand. If he had suggested it, you could have made him feel cheap and mean."
"I did," said Mildred. "He has been--really wonderful--better than almost any man would have been-- more considerate than I deserved. And I took advantage of it."
"A woman has to," said Cyrilla. "The fight between men and women is so unequal."
"I took advantage of him," repeated Mildred. "And he apologized, and I--I went on taking the money. I didn't know what else to do. Isn't that dreadful?"
"Nothing to be proud of," said Cyrilla. "But a very usual transaction."
"And then," pursued Mildred, "I discovered that I--that I'd not be able to make a career. But still I kept on, though I've been trying to force myself to-- to show some pride and self-respect. I discovered it only a short time ago, and it wasn't really until to-day that I was absolutely sure."
"You are sure?"
"There's hardly a doubt," replied Mildred. "But never mind that now. I've got to make a living at something, and while I'm learning whatever it is, I've got to have money to live on. And I can get it only from him. Now, he asks me to marry him. He wouldn't ask me if he didn't think I was going to be a great singer. He doesn't know it, but I do."
Mrs. Brindley smiled sweetly.
"And he thinks that I love him, also. If I accept him, it will be under doubly false pretenses. If I refuse him I've got to stop taking the money."
A long silence; then Mrs. Brindley said: "Women-- the good ones, too--often feel that they've a right to treat men as men treat them. I think almost any woman would feel justified in putting off the crisis."
"You mean, I might tell him I'd give him my answer when I was independent and had paid back."
Cyrilla nodded. Mildred relit her cigarette, which she had let go out. "I had thought of that," said she. "But--I doubt if he'd tolerate it. Also"--she laughed with the peculiar intonation that accompanies the lifting of the veil over a deeply and carefully hidden corner of one's secret self--"I am afraid. If I don't marry him, in a few weeks, or months at most, he'll probably find out that I shall never be a great singer, and then I'd not be able to marry him if I wished to."
"He is a temptation," said Cyrilla. "That is, his money is--and he personally is very nice."
"I married a man I didn't care for," pursued Mildred. "I don't want ever to do that again. It is-- even in the best circumstances--not agreeable, not as simple as it looks to the inexperienced girls who are always doing it."
"Still, a woman can endure that sort of thing," said Mrs. Brindley, "unless she happens to be in love with another man." She was observing the unconscious Mildred narrowly, a state of inward tension and excitement hinted in her face, but not in her voice.
"That's just it?" said Mildred, her face carefully averted. "I--I happen to be in love with another man."
A spasm of pain crossed Cyrilla's face.
"A man who cares nothing about me--and never will. He's just a friend--so much the friend that he couldn't possibly think of me as--as a woman, needing him and wanting him"--her eyes were on fire now, and a soft glow had come into her cheeks--"and never daring to show it because if I did he would fly and never let me see him again."
Cyrilla Brindley's face was tragic as she looked at the beautiful girl, so gracefully adjusted to the big chair. She sighed covertly. "You are lovely," she said, "and young--above all, young."
"This man is peculiar," replied Mildred forlornly. "Anyhow, he doesn't want me. He knows me for the futile, weak, worthless creature I am. He saw through my bluff, even before I saw through it myself. If it weren't for him, I could go ahead--do the sensible thing--do as women usually do. But--" She came to a full stop.
"Love is a woman's sense of honor," said Cyrilla softly. "We're merciless and unscrupulous--anything-- everything--where we don't love. But where we do love, we'll go farther for honor than the most honorable man. That's why we're both worse and better than men--and seem to be so contradictory and puzzling."
"I'd do anything for him," said Mildred. She smiled drearily. "And he wants nothing."
She had nothing more to say. She had talked herself out about Stanley, and her mind was now filled with thoughts that could not be spoken. As she rose to go to bed, she looked appealingly at Cyrilla. Then, with a sudden and shy rush she flung her arms round her and kissed her. "Thank you--so much," she said. "You've done me a world of good. Saying it all out loud before you has made me see. I know my own mind, now."
She did not note the pathetic tenderness of Cyrilla's face as she said, "Good night, Mildred." But she did note the use of her first name--and her own right first name--for the first time since they had known each other. She embraced and kissed her again. "Good night, Cyrilla," she said gratefully.
As she entered Jennings's studio the next day he looked at her; and when Jennings looked, he saw--as must anyone who lives well by playing upon human nature. He did not like her expression. She did not habitually smile; her light-heartedness, her optimism, did not show themselves in that inane way. But this seriousness of hers was of a new kind, of the kind that bespeaks sobriety and saneness of soul. And that kind of seriousness-- the deep, inward gravity of a person whose days of trifling with themselves and with the facts of life, and of being trifled with, are over--would have impressed Jennings equally had she come in laughing, had her every word been a jest.
"No, I didn't come for a lesson--at least not the usual kind," said she.
He was not one to yield without a struggle. Also he wished to feel his way to the meaning of this new mood. He put her music on the rack. "We'll begin where we--"
"This half-hour of your time is mine, is it not?" said she quietly. "Let's not waste any of it. Yesterday you told me that I could not hope to make a career because my voice is unreliable. Why is it unreliable?"
"Because you have a delicate throat," replied he, yielding at once where he instinctively knew he could not win.
"Then why can I sing so well sometimes?"
"Because your throat is in good condition some days --in perfect condition."
"It's the colds then--and the slight attacks of colds?"
"If I did not catch colds--if I kept perfectly well --could I rely on my voice?"
"But that's impossible," said he.
"You're not strong enough."
"Then I haven't the physical strength for a career?"
"That--and also you are lacking in muscular development. But after several years of lessons--"
"If I developed my muscles--if I became strong--"
"Most of the great singers come from the lower classes--from people who do manual labor. They did manual labor in their youth. You girls of the better class have to overcome that handicap."
"But so many of the great singers are fat."
"Yes, and under that fat you'll find great ropes of muscle--like a blacksmith."
"What Keith meant," she said. "I wonder-- Why do I catch cold so easily? Why do I almost always have a slight catch in the throat? Have you noticed that I nearly always have to clear my throat just a little?"
Her expression held him. He hesitated, tried to evade, gave it up. "Until that passes, you can never hope to be a thoroughly reliable singer," said he.
"That is, I can't hope to make a career?"
His silence was assent.
"But I have the voice?"
"You have the voice."
"An unusual voice?"
"Yes, but not so unusual as might be thought. As a matter of fact, there are thousands of fine voices. The trouble is in reliability. Only a few are reliable."
She nodded slowly and thoughtfully. "I begin to understand what Mr. Keith meant," she said. "I begin to see what I have to do, and how--how impossible it is."
"By no means," declared Jennings. "If I did not think otherwise, I'd not be giving my time to you."
She looked at him gravely. His eyes shifted, then returned defiantly, aggressively. She said:
"You can't help me to what I want. So this is my last lesson--for the present. I may come back some day--when I am ready for what you have to give."
"You are going to give up?"
"Oh, no--oh, dear me, no," replied she. "I realize that you're laughing in your sleeve as I say so, because you think I'll never get anywhere. But you--and Mr. Keith--may be mistaken." She drew from her muff a piece of music--the "Batti Batti," from "Don Giovanni." "If you please," said she, "we'll spend the rest of my time in going over this. I want to be able to sing it as well as possible."
He looked searchingly at her. "If you wish," said he. "But I doubt if you'll be able to sing at all."
"On the contrary, my cold's entirely gone," replied she. "I had an exciting evening, I doctored myself before I went to bed, and three or four times in the night. I found, this morning, that I could sing."
And it was so. Never had she sung better. "Like a true artist!" he declared with an enthusiasm that had a foundation of sincerity. "You know, Miss Stevens, you came very near to having that rarest of all gifts-- a naturally placed voice. If you hadn't had singing teachers as a girl to make you self-conscious and to teach you wrong, you'd have been a wonder."
"I may get it back," said Mildred.
"That never happens," replied he. "But I can almost do it."
He coached her for half an hour straight ahead, sending the next pupil into the adjoining room--an unprecedented transgression of routine. He showed her for the first time what a teacher he could be, when he wished. There was an astonishing difference between her first singing of the song and her sixth and last--for they went through it carefully five times. She thanked him and then put out her hand, saying:
"This is a long good-by."
"To-morrow," replied he, ignoring her hand.
"No. My money is all gone. Besides, I have no time for amateur trifling."
"Your lessons are paid for until the end of the month. This is only the nineteenth."
"Then you are so much in." Again she put out her hand.
He took it. "You owe me an explanation."
She smiled mockingly. "As a friend of mine says, don't ask questions to which you already know the answer."
And she departed, the smile still on her charming face, but the new seriousness beneath it. As she had anticipated, she found Stanley Baird waiting for her in the drawing-room of the apartment. Being by habit much interested in his own emotions and not at all in the emotions of others, he saw only the healthful radiance the sharp October air had put into her cheeks and eyes. Certainly, to look at Mildred Gower was to get no impression of lack of health and strength. Her glance wavered a little at sight of him, then the expression of firmness came back.
"You look like that picture you gave me a long time ago," said he. "Do you remember it?"
She did not.
"It has a--different expression," he went on. "I don't think I'd have noticed it but for Keith. I happened to show it to him one day, and he stared at it in that way he has--you know?"
"Yes, I know," said Mildred. She was seeing those uncanny, brilliant, penetrating eyes, in such startling contrast to the calm, lifeless coloring and classic chiseling of features.
"And after a while he said, `So, that's Miss Stevens!' And I asked him what he meant, and he took one of your later photos and put the two side by side. To my notion the later was a lot the more attractive, for the face was rounder and softer and didn't have a certain kind of--well, hardness, as if you had a will and could ride rough shod. Not that you look so frightfully unattractive."
"I remember the picture," interrupted Mildred. "It was taken when I was twenty--just after an illness."
"The face was thin," said Stanley. "Keith called it a `give away.' "
"I'd like to see it," said Mildred.
"I'll try to find it. But I'm afraid I can't. I haven't seen it since I showed it to Keith, and when I hunted for it the other day, it didn't turn up. I've changed valets several times in the last six months--"
But Mildred had ceased listening. Keith had seen the picture, had called it a "give away," had been interested in it--and the picture had disappeared. She laughed at her own folly, yet she was glad Stanley had given her this chance to make up a silly day-dream. She waited until he had exhausted himself on the subject of valets, their drunkenness, their thievish habits, their incompetence, then she said:
"I took my last lesson from Jennings to-day."
"What's the matter? Do you want to change? You didn't say anything about it? Isn't he good?"
"Good enough. But I've discovered that my voice isn't reliable, and unless one has a reliable voice there's no chance for a grand-opera career--or for comic opera, either."
Stanley was straightway all agitation and protest. "Who put that notion in your head? There's nothing in it, Mildred. Jennings is crazy about your voice, and he knows."
"Jennings is after the money," replied Mildred. "What I'm saying is the truth. Stanley, our beautiful dream of a career has winked out."
His expression was most revealing.
"And," she went on, "I'm not going to take any more of your money--and, of course, I'll pay back what I've borrowed when I can"--she smiled--"which may not be very soon."
"What's all this about, anyhow?" demanded he. "I don't see any sign of it in your face. You wouldn't take it so coolly if it were so."
"I don't understand why I'm not wringing my hands and weeping," replied she. "Every few minutes I tell myself that I ought to be. But I stay quite calm. I suppose I'm--sort of stupefied."
"Do you really mean that you've given up?" cried he.
"It's no use to waste the money, Stanley. I've got the voice, and that's what deceived us all. But there's nothing behind the voice. With a great singer the greatness is in what's behind the voice, not in the voice itself."
"I don't believe a word of it," cried he violently. "You've been discouraged by a little cold. Everybody has colds. Why, in this climate the colds are always getting the Metropolitan singers down."
"But they've got strong throats, and my throat's delicate."
"You must go to a better climate. You ought to be abroad, anyhow. That was part of my plan--for us to go abroad--" He stopped in confusion, reddened, went bravely on--"and you to study there and make your debut."
Mildred shook her head. "That's all over," said she. "I've got to change my plans entirely."
"You're a little depressed, that's all. For a minute you almost convinced me. What a turn you did give me! I forgot how your voice sounded the last time I heard it. No, you'd not be so calm, if you didn't know everything was all right."
Her eyes lit up with sly humor. "Perhaps I'm calm because I feel that my future's secure as your wife. What more could a woman ask?"
He forced an uncomfortable laugh. "Of course-- of course," he said with a painful effort to be easy and jocose.
"I knew you'd marry me, even if I couldn't sing a note. I knew your belief in my career had nothing to do with it."
He hesitated, blurted out the truth. "Speaking seriously, that isn't quite so," said he. "I've got my heart set on your making a great tear--and I know you'll do it."
"And if you knew I wouldn't, you'd not want to marry me?"
"I don't say that," protested he. "How can I say how I'd feel if you were different?"
She nodded. "That's sensible, and it's candid," she said. She laid her hand impulsively on his arm. "I do like you, Stanley. You have got such a lot of good qualities. Don't worry. I'm not going to insist on your marrying me."
"You don't have to do that, Mildred," said he. "I'm staring, raving crazy about you, though I'm a damn fool to let you know it."
"Yes, it is foolish," said she. "If you'd kept me worrying-- Still, I guess not. But it doesn't matter. You can protest and urge all you please, quite safely. I'm not going to marry you. Now let's talk business."
"Let's talk marriage," said he. "I want this thing settled. You know you intend to marry me, Mildred. Why not say so? Why keep me gasping on the hook?"
They heard the front door open, and the rustling of skirts down the hall. Mildred called:
"Mrs. Brindley! Cyrilla!"
An instant and Cyrilla appeared in the doorway. When she and Baird had shaken hands, Mildred said:
"Cyrilla, I want you to tell the exact, honest truth. Is there any hope for a woman with a delicate throat to make a grand-opera career?"
Cyrilla paled, looked pleadingly at Mildred.
"Tell him," commanded Mildred.
"Very little," said Mrs. Brindley. "But--"
"Don't try to soften it," interrupted Mildred. "The truth, the plain truth."
"You've no right to draw me into this," cried Cyrilla indignantly, and she started to leave the room.
"I want him to know," said Mildred. "And he wants to know."
"I refuse to be drawn into it," Cyrilla said, and disappeared.
But Mildred saw that Stanley had been shaken. She proceeded to explain to him at length what a singer's career meant--the hardships, the drafts on health and strength, the absolute necessity of being reliable, of singing true, of not disappointing audiences--what a delicate throat meant--how delicate her throat was --how deficient she was in the kind of physical strength needed--muscular power with endurance back of it. When she finished he understood.
"I'd always thought of it as an art," he said ruefully. "Why, it's mostly health and muscles and things that have nothing to do with music." He was dazed and offended by this uncovering of the mechanism of the art--by the discovery of the coarse and painful toil, the grossly physical basis, of what had seemed to him all idealism. He had been full of the delusions of spontaneity and inspiration, like all laymen, and all artists, too, except those of the higher ranks--those who have fought their way up to the heights and, so, have learned that one does not achieve them by being caught up to them gloriously in a fiery cloud, but by doggedly and dirtily and sweatily toiling over every inch of the cruel climb.
He sat silent when she had finished. She waited, then said:
"Now, you see. I release you, and I'll take no more money to waste."
He looked at her with dumb misery that smote her heart. Then his expression changed--to the shining, hungry eyes, the swollen veins, the reddened countenance, the watering lips of desire. He seized her in his arms, and in a voice trembling with passion, he cried: "You must marry me, anyhow! I've got to have you, Mildred."
If she had loved him, his expression, his impassioned voice would have thrilled her. But she did not love him. It took all her liking for him, and the memory of all she owed him--that unpaid debt!--to enable her to push him away gently and to say without any show of the repulsion she felt:
"Stanley, you mustn't do that. And it's useless to talk of marriage. You're generous, so you are taking pity on me. But believe me, I'll get along somehow."
"Pity? I tell you I love you," he cried, catching desperately at her hands and holding them in a grip she could not break. "You've no right to treat me like this."
It was one of those veiled and stealthy reminders of obligation habitually indulged in by delicate people seeking repayment of the debt, but shunning the coarseness of direct demand. Mildred saw her opportunity. Said she quietly:
"You mean you want me to give myself to you in payment, or part payment, for the money you've loaned me?"
He released her hands and sprang up. He had meant just that, but he had not had the courage, or the meanness, or both, to admit boldly his own secret wish. She had calculated on this--had calculated well. "Mildred!" he cried in a shocked voice. "You so lacking in delicacy as to say such a thing!"
"If you didn't mean that, Stanley, what did you mean?"
"I was appealing to our friendship--our--our love for each other."
"Then you should have waited until I was free."
"Good God!" he cried, "don't you see that's hopeless? Mildred, be sensible--be merciful."
"I shall never marry a man when he could justly suspect I did it to live off him."
"What an idea! It's a man's place to support a woman!"
"I was speaking only of myself. I can't do it. And it's absurd for you and me to be talking about love and marriage when anyone can see I'd be marrying you only because I was afraid to face poverty and a struggle."
Her manner calmed him somewhat. "Of course it's obvious that you've got to have money," said he, "and that the only way you can get it is by marriage. But there's something else, too, and in my opinion it's the principal thing--we care for each other. Why not be sensible, Mildred? Why not thank God that as long as you have to marry, you can marry someone you care for."
"Could you feel that I cared for you, if I married you now?" inquired she.
"Why not? I'm not so entirely lacking in self- esteem. I feel that I must count for something."
Mildred sat silently wondering at this phenomenon so astounding, yet a commonplace of masculine egotism. She had no conception of this vanity which causes the man, at whom the street woman smiles, to feel flattered, though he knows full well what she is and her dire ne- cessity. She could not doubt that he was speaking the truth, yet she could not believe that conceit could so befog common sense in a man who, for all his slowness and shallowness, was more than ordinarily shrewd.
"Even if I thought I loved you," said she, "I couldn't be sure in these circumstances that I wasn't after your money."
"Don't worry about that," replied he. "I understand you better than you understand yourself."
"Let's stop talking about it," said she impatiently. "I want to explain to you the business side of this." She took her purse from the table. "Here are the papers." She handed him a check and a note. "I made them out at the bank this morning. The note is for what I owe you--and draws interest at four per cent. The check is for all the money I have left except about four hundred dollars. I've some bills I must pay, and also I didn't dare quite strip myself. The note may not be worth the paper it's written on, but I hope--"
Before she could prevent him he took the two papers, and, holding them out of her reach, tore them to bits.
Her eyes gleamed angrily. "I see you despise me --as much as I've invited. But, I'll make them out again and mail them to you."
"You're a silly child," said he gruffly. "We're going to be married."
She eyed him with amused exasperation. "It's too absurd!" she cried. "And if I yielded, you'd be trying to get out of it." She hesitated whether to tell him frankly just how she felt toward him. She decided against it, not through consideration--for a woman feels no consideration for a man she does not love, if he has irritated her--but through being ashamed to say harsh things to one whom she owed so much. "It's useless for you to pretend and to plead," she went on. "I shall not yield. You'll have to wait until I'm free and independent."
"You'll marry me then?"
"No," replied she, laughing. "But I'll be able to refuse you in such a way that you'll believe."
"But you've got to marry, Mildred, and right away." A suspicion entered his mind and instantly gleamed in his eyes. "Are you in love with someone else?"
She smiled mockingly.
"It looks as if you were," he went on, arguing with himself aloud. "For if you weren't you'd marry me, even though you didn't like me. A woman in your fix simply couldn't keep herself from it. Is that why you're so calm?"
"I'm not marrying anybody," said she.
"Then what are you going to do?"
Once more the passionate side of his nature showed --not merely grotesque, unattractive, repellent, as in the mood of longing, but hideous. Among men Stanley Baird passed for a man of rather arrogant and violent temper, but that man who had seen him at his most violent would have been amazed. The temper men show toward men bears small resemblance either in kind or in degree to the temper of jealous passion they show toward the woman who baffles them or arouses their suspicions; and no man would recognize his most intimate man friend--or himself--when in that paroxysm. Mildred had seen this mood, gleaming at her through a mask, in General Siddall. It had made her sick with fear and repulsion. In Stanley Baird it first astounded her, then filled her with hate.
"Stanley!" she gasped.
"Who is it?" he ground out between his teeth. And he seized her savagely.
"If you don't release me at once," said she calmly, "I shall call Mrs. Brindley, and have you put out of the house. No matter if I do owe you all that money."
"Stop!" he cried, releasing her. "You're very clever, aren't you?--turning that against me and making me powerless."
"But for that, would you dare presume to touch me, to question me?" said she.
He lowered his gaze, stood panting with the effort to subdue his fury.
She went back to her own room. A few hours later came a letter of apology from him. She answered it friendlily, said she would let him know when she could see him again, and enclosed a note and a check.