Chapter XI. "So Sensitive"
 

Adelaide was about to go in search of her brother when he came hunting her. A good example perhaps excepted, there is no power for good equal to a bad example. Arthur's outburst before his mother and her, and in what seemed the very presence of the dead, had been almost as potent in turning Adelaide from bitterness as the influence her father's personality, her father's character had got over her in his last illness. And now the very sight of her brother's face, freely expressing his thoughts, since Ellen was not there to shame him, gave double force to the feelings her mother's denunciations had roused in her. "We've got to fight it, Del," Arthur said, flinging himself down on the grass at her feet. "I'll see Torrey to-morrow morning."

Adelaide was silent.

He looked fiercely at her. "You're going to help me, aren't you?"

"I must have time to think," she replied, bent on not provoking him to greater fury.

He raised himself to a sitting posture. "What has that Hargrave fellow been saying to you?" he cried. "You'll have to break off with him. His father--the old scoundrel!--got at father and took advantage of his illness and his religious superstition. I know just how it was done. We'll bring it all out."

Adelaide did not answer.

"What did Dory say to you?" repeated Arthur.

"He went as soon as I came out from mother," she replied. She thought it best not to tell him that Dory had stopped long enough to urge her to go to her brother, and to make and keep peace with him, no matter what he might say to anger her. "Don't you think," she continued, "that you ought to see Janet and talk with her?"

Artie sank back and stared somberly at the ground.

"When is she coming?" asked his sister.

"I don't know," he answered surlily. "Not at all, perhaps. The Whitneys won't especially care about having any of us in the family now." He looked furtively at Adelaide, as if he hoped she would protest that he was mistaken, would show him that Janet would be unchanged.

"Mrs. Whitney won't," said Adelaide. "But Janet--she's different, I think. She seems to be high-minded, and I believe she loves you."

Arthur looked relieved, though Adelaide was too honest to have been able to make her tone as emphatic as her words. Yes, Janet was indeed high-minded, he said to himself; did indeed love him. Her high-mindedness and the angel purity of her love had often made him uneasy, not to say uncomfortable. He hated to be at the trouble of pretenses; but Janet, living on a far higher plan than he, had simply compelled it. To let her see his human weaknesses, to let her suspect that he was not as high-minded as she told him he was, to strip from himself the saintly robes and the diadem with which she had adorned him--well, he would put it off until after marriage, he had always told himself, and perhaps by that time he would feel a little less like a sinner profaning a sanctuary when he kissed her. He had from time to time found in himself a sinful longing that she were just a little less of an angel, just a little more of a fellow sinner--not too much, of course, for a man wants a pure wife, a pure mother for his children. But, while the attitudes of worship and of saintliness were cramped, often severely so, still on the whole Arthur had thought he was content with Janet just as she was.

"Why don't you go to Chicago and see her?" suggested Adelaide. "You ought to talk with her before anyone else has a chance. I wouldn't put anything past her mother."

"That's a good idea!" exclaimed Arthur, his face clearing before the prospect of action. "I'll take the night train. Yes, I must be the one to tell her."

Adelaide had a sense of relief. Arthur would see Janet; Janet would pour balm upon his wounds, would lift him up to a higher, more generous view. Then, whatever he might do would be done in the right spirit, with respect for the memory of their father, with consideration for their mother.

"You had better not see mother again until you come back," she suggested.

His face shadowed and shame came into it that was from the real Arthur Ranger, the son of Hiram and Ellen. "I wish I hadn't burst out as I did, Del," he said. "I forgot everything in my own wrongs. I want to try to make it all right with mother. I can't believe that I said what I remember I did say before her who'd be glad to die for us."

"Everything'll be all right when you come back, Artie," she assured him.

As they passed the outbuilding where the garden tools were kept they both glanced in. There stood the tools their father had always used in pottering about the garden, above them his old slouch and old straw hats. Arthur's lip quivered; Adelaide caught her breath in a sob. "O Artie," she cried brokenly, "He's gone--gone--gone for ever." And Artie sat on the little bench just within the door and drew Del down beside him, and, each tightly in the other's arms, they cried like the children that they were, like the children that we all are in face of the great tragedy.

A handsome and touching figure was Arthur Ranger as he left his cab and slowly ascended the lawn and the steps of the Whitney palace in the Lake Drive at eleven the next morning. His mourning garments were most becoming to him, contrasting with the fairness of his hair, the blue of his eyes, and the pallor of his skin. He looked big and strong and sad, and scrupulously fashionable, and very young.

The Whitneys were leading in Chicago in building broad and ever broader the barriers, not between rich and poor, but between the very, very rich and all the rest of the world. Mrs. Whitney had made a painstaking and reverent study of upper-class life in England and on the Continent, and was endeavoring to use her education for the instruction of her associates, and for the instilling of a proper awe into the multitude. To enter her door was at once to get the impression that one was receiving a high privilege. One would have been as greatly shocked as was Mrs. Whitney herself, could one have overheard "Charley" saying to her, as he occasionally did, with a grin which he strove to make as "common" as he knew how, "Really, Tillie, if you don't let up a little on this putting on dog, I'll have to take to sneaking in by the back way. The butler's a sight more of a gent than I am, and the housekeeper can give you points on being a real, head-on-a-pole-over-the-shoulder lady." A low fellow at heart was Charley Whitney, like so many of his similarly placed compatriots, though he strove as hard as do they, almost as hard as his wife, to conceal the deficiencies due to early training in vulgarly democratic ways of living and thinking.

Arthur, ushered by the excruciatingly fashionable butler into the smallest of the series of reception salons, fell straightway into the most melancholy spirits. He felt the black, icy shadow of the beginnings of doubt as to his right to admittance on terms of equality, now that his titles to nobility had been torn from him and destroyed. He felt that he was in grave danger of being soon mingled in the minds of his fashionable friends and their servants with the vulgar herd, the respectable but "impossible" middle classes. Indeed, he was not sure that he didn't really belong among them. The sound of Janet's subdued, most elegant rustle, drove out of his mind everything but an awful dread of what she would say and think and feel when he had disclosed to her the hideous truth. She came sweeping in, her eyes full of unshed tears, her manner a model of refined grief, sympathetic, soothing. She was tall and slim, a perfect figure of the long, lithe type; her face was small and fine and dreamy; her hair of an unusual straw color, golden, yet pale, too, like the latest autumn leaves in the wan sun of November; her eyes were hazel, in strange and thrilling contrast to her hair. To behold her was to behold all that man finds most fascinating in woman, but so illumined by the soul within that to look on it with man's eye for charms feminine seemed somewhat like casting sensuous glances upon beauty enmarbled in a temple's fane. Janet was human, but the human that points the way to sexless heaven.

"Dear Artie!" she said gently. "Dear Artie!" And she took both his hands and, as she looked at him, her tears fell. Arthur, in his new humility of poverty, felt honored indeed that any loss of his could cause her matchless soul thus to droop upon its dazzling outer walls the somber, showery insignia of grief. "But," she went on, "you have him still with you--his splendid, rugged character, the memory of all he did for you."

Arthur was silent. They were seated now, side by side, and he was, somewhat timidly, holding one of her hands.

"He was so simple and so honest--such a man!" she continued. "Does it hurt you, dear, for me to talk about him?"

"No--no," he stammered, "I came to you--to--to--talk about him." Then, desperately, seizing her other hand and holding both tightly, "Janet, would it make any difference with you if I--if I--no--What am I saying? Janet, I release you from our engagement. I--I--have no prospects," he rushed on. "Father--They got round him and wheedled him into leaving everything to the college--to Tecumseh. I have nothing--I must give you up. I can't ask you to wait--and--"

He could not go on. He longed for the throbbing, human touch that beauty of hers could make so thrilling. But she slowly drew away her hands. Her expression made him say:

"What is it, Janet? What have I said that hurt you?"

"Did you come," she asked, in a strange, distant voice, "because you thought your not having money would make a difference with me?"

"No," he protested, in wild alarm. "It was only that I feel I--"

"You feel that there could be a question of money between us?" she interrupted.

"Not between us, Janet," he said eagerly; "but there is your--your mother."

"I beg you," she replied coldly, "not to speak of mamma in that way to me, even if you have such unjust thoughts of her."

Arthur looked at her uncertainly. He had an instinct, deep down, that there was something wrong--something in her that he was not fathoming. But in face of that cloud-dwelling beauty, he could only turn and look within himself. "I beg your pardon, dear," he said. "You know so little of the practical side of life. You live so apart from it, so high above it, that I was afraid I'd be doing wrong by you if I did not put that side of it before you, too. But in the bottom of my heart I knew you would stand by me."

She remained cold. "I don't know whether I'm glad or sorry, Arthur, that you let me see into your real self. I've often had doubts about our understanding each other, about our two natures being in that perfect harmony which makes the true marriage. But I've shut out those doubts as disloyal to you. Now, you've forced me to see they were only too true!"

"What do you mean, Janet? Of course, I'm not good enough for you--no one is, for that matter; but I love you, and--Do you care for me, Janet?"

"Yes," she replied mournfully. "But I must conquer it. O Arthur, Arthur!" Her voice was tremulous now, and her strange hazel eyes streamed sorrowful reproach. "How could you think sordidly of what was sacred and holy to me, of what I thought was holy to us both? You couldn't, if you had been the man I imagined you were."

"Don't blame a fellow for every loose word he utters when he's all upset, Janet," he pleaded. "Put yourself in my place. Suppose you found you hadn't anything at all--found it out suddenly, when all along you had been thinking you'd never have to bother about money? Suppose you--But you must know how the world, how all our friends, look on that sort of thing. And suppose you loved--just as I love you. Wouldn't you go to her and hope she'd brace you up and make you feel that she really loved you and--all that? Wouldn't you, Janet?"

She looked sadly at him. "You don't understand," she said, her rosebud mouth drooping pathetically. "You can't realize how you shook--how you shattered--my faith in you."

He caught her by the arms roughly. "Look here, Janet Whitney. Do you love me or don't you? Do you intend to throw me over, now that I have lost my money, or do you intend to be all you've pretended to be?"

The sadness in her sweet face deepened. "Let me go, Arthur," she said quietly. "You don't understand. You never will."

"Yes or no?" he demanded, shaking her. Then suddenly changing to tenderness, with all his longing for sympathy in his eyes and in his voice, "Janet--dear--yes or no?"

She looked away. "Don't persist, Arthur," she said, "or you will make me think it is only my money that makes you, that made you, pretend to--to care for me."

He drew back sharply. "Janet!" he exclaimed.

"Of course, I don't think so," she continued, after a constrained silence. "But I can't find any other reason for your talking and acting as you have this morning."

He tried to see from her point of view. "Maybe it's true," he said, "that other things than our love have had too much to do with it, with both of us, in the past. But I love you for yourself alone, now, Janet. And, you haven't a fortune of your own, but only expectations--and they're not always realized, and in your case can't be for many a year. So we don't start so unevenly. Give yourself to me, Janet. Show that you believe in me, and I know I shall not disappoint you."

Very manly his manner was as he said this, and brave and convincing was the show of his latent, undeveloped powers in his features and voice. She hesitated, then lowered her head, and, in a sad, gentle voice, said, "I don't trust you, Arthur. You've cut away the foundation of love. It would be fine and beautiful for us to start empty-handed and build up together, if we were in sympathy and harmony. But, doubting you--I can't."

Again he looked at her uneasily, suspicious, without knowing why or what. But one thing was clear--to plead further with her would be self-degradation. "I have been tactless," he said to her. "Probably, if I were less in earnest, I should get on better. But, perhaps you will judge me more fairly when you think it over. I'll say only one thing more. I can't give up hope. It's about all I've got left--hope of you--belief in you. I must cling to that. I'll go now, Janet."

She said nothing, simply looked unutterable melancholy, and let her hand lie listlessly in his until he dropped it. He looked back at her when he reached the door. She seemed so sad that he was about to return to her side. She sighed heavily, gazed at him, and said, "Good-by, Arthur." After that he had no alternative. He went. "I must wait until she is calm," he said to himself. "She is so delicately strung."

As he was driving toward the hotel, his gloom in his face, he did not see Mrs. Whitney dash past and give him an anxious searching glance, and sink back in her carriage reassured somewhat. She had heard that he was on the Chicago express--had heard it from her masseuse, who came each morning before she was up. She had leaped to the telephone, had ordered a special train, and had got herself into it and off for her Chicago home by half-past eight. "That sentimental girl, full of high ideals--what mayn't she do!" she was muttering, almost beside herself with anxiety. "No doubt he'll try and induce her to run away with him." And the rushing train seemed to creep and crawl.

She burst into the house like a dignified whirlwind. "Where's Miss Janet?" she demanded of the butler.

"Still in the blue salon, ma'am, I think," he replied. "Mr. Arthur Ranger just left a few moments ago."

Clearing her surface of all traces of agitation, Mrs. Whitney went into the presence of her daughter. "Mamma!" cried Janet, starting up. "Has anything happened?"

"Nothing, nothing, dear," replied her mother, kissing her tenderly. "I was afraid my letter might have miscarried. And, when I heard that Arthur had slipped away to Chicago, I came myself. I've brought you up so purely and innocently that I became alarmed lest he might lead you into some rash sentimentality. As I said in my letter, if Arthur had grown up into a strong, manly character, I should have been eager to trust my daughter to him. But my doubts about him were confirmed by the will. And--he is simply a fortune-hunter now."

Janet had hidden her face in her handkerchief. "Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "You wrong him, mother."

"You haven't encouraged him, Janet!" cried Mrs. Whitney. "After what I've been writing you?"

"The loss of his money hasn't made any difference about him with me," said Janet, her pure, sweet face lighting up with the expression that made her mother half-ashamed of her own worldliness.

"Of course not! Of course not, Janet," said she. "No child of mine could be mercenary without being utterly false to my teachings."

Janet's expression was respectful, yet not confirmatory. She had often protested inwardly against the sordid views of life which her mother unconsciously held and veiled with scant decency in the family circle in her unguarded moments. But she had fought against the contamination, and proudly felt that her battle for the "higher plane" was successful.

Her mother returned, somewhat awkwardly, to the main point. "I hope you didn't encourage him, Janet."

"I don't wish to talk of it, mother," was Janet's reply. "I have not been well, and all this has upset me."

Mrs. Whitney was gnawing her palms with her nails and her lip with her teeth. She could scarcely restrain herself from seizing her daughter and shaking the truth, whatever it was, out of her. But prudence and respect for her daughter's delicate soul restrained her.

"You have made it doubly hard for me," Janet went on. "Your writing me to stay away because there was doubt about Arthur's material future--oh, mother, how could that make any difference? If I had not been feeling so done, and if father hadn't been looking to me to keep him company, I'd surely have gone. For I hate to have my motive misunderstood."

"He has worked on her soft-heartedness and inexperience," thought Mrs. Whitney, in a panic.

"And when Arthur came to-day," the girl continued, "I was ready to fly to him." She looked tragic. "And even when he repulsed me--"

"Repulsed you!" exclaimed Mrs. Whitney. She laughed disagreeably. "He's subtler than I thought."

"Even when he repulsed me," pursued Janet, "with his sordid way of looking at everything, still I tried to cling to him, to shut my eyes."

Mrs. Whitney vented an audible sigh of relief. "Then you didn't let him deceive you!"

"He shattered my last illusion," said Janet, in a mournful voice. "Mother, I simply couldn't believe in him, in the purity of his love. I had to give him up."

Mrs. Whitney put her arms round her daughter and kissed her soothingly again and again. "Don't grieve, dear," she said. "Think how much better it is that you should have found him out now than when it was too late."

And Janet shuddered.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ross dropped in at the house in the Lake Drive the next morning on his way East from the Howlands. As soon as he was alone with his mother, he asked, "How about Janet and Arthur?"

Mrs. Whitney put on her exalted expression. "I'm glad you said nothing before Janet," said she. "The child is so sensitive, and Arthur has given her a terrible shock. Men are so coarse; they do not appreciate the delicateness of a refined woman. In this case, however, it was most fortunate. She was able to see into his true nature."

"Then she's broken it off? That's good."

"Be careful what you say to her," his mother hastened to warn him. "You might upset her mind again. She's so afraid of being misunderstood."

"She needn't be," replied Ross dryly.

And when he looked in on Janet in her sitting room to say good-by, he began with a satirical, "Congratulations, Jenny."

Jenny looked at him with wondering eyes. She was drooping like a sunless flower and was reading poetry out of a beautifully bound volume. "What is it, Ross?" she asked.

"On shaking Artie so smoothly. Trust you to do the right thing at the right time, and in the right way. You're a beauty, Jen, and no mistake," laughed Ross. "I never saw your like. You really must marry a title--Madame la Duchesse! And nobody's on to you but me. You aren't even on to yourself!"

Janet drew up haughtily and swept into her bedroom, closing the door with almost coarse emphasis.