Chapter XIX. Madelene
 

To give himself, journeyman cooper, the feeling of ease and equality, Arthur dressed, with long-discontinued attention to detail, from his extensive wardrobe which the eighteen months since its last accessions had not impaired or antiquated. And, in the twilight of an early September evening, he went forth to settle the matter that had become the most momentous.

There is in dress a something independent of material and cut and even of the individuality of the wearer; there is a spirit of caste. If the lady dons her maid's dress, some subtle essence of the menial permeates her, even to her blood, her mind, and heart. The maid, in madame's dress, putting on "airs," is merely giving an outlet to that which has entered into her from her clothes. Thus, Arthur assumed again with his "grande toilette" the feeling of the caste from which he had been ejected. Madelene, come herself to open the door for him, was in a summer dress of no pretentions to style other than that which her figure, with its large, free, splendid lines, gave whatever she happened to wear. His nerves, his blood, responded to her beauty, as always; her hair, her features, the grace of the movements of that strong, slender, supple form, gave him the sense of her kinship with freedom and force and fire and all things keen and bright. But stealthily and subtly it came to him, in this mood superinduced by his raiment, that in marrying her he was, after all, making sacrifices--she was ascending socially, he descending, condescending. The feeling was far too vague to be at all conscious; it is, however, just those hazy, stealthy feelings that exert the most potent influence upon us. When the strong are conquered is it not always by feeble forces from the dark and from behind?

"You have had good news," said Madelene, when they were in the dim daylight on the creeper-screened back porch. For such was her generous interpretation of his expression of self-confidence and self-satisfaction.

"Not yet," he replied, looking away reflectively. "But I hope for it."

There wasn't any mistaking the meaning of that tone; she knew what was coming. She folded her hands in her lap, and there softly entered and pervaded her a quiet, enormous content that made her seem the crown of the quiet beauty of that evening sky whose ocean of purple-tinted crystal stretched away toward the shores of the infinite.

"Madelene," he began in a self-conscious voice, "you know what my position is, and what I get, and my prospects. But you know what I was, too; and so, I feel I've the right to ask you to marry me--to wait until I get back to the place from which I had to come down."

The light was fading from the sky, from her eyes, from her heart. A moment before he had been there, so near her, so at one with her; now he was far away, and this voice she heard wasn't his at all. And his words--She felt alone in the dark and the cold, the victim of a cheat upon her deepest feelings.

"I was bitter against my father at first," he went on. "But since I have come to know you I have forgiven him. I am grateful to him. If it hadn't been for what he did I might never have learned to appreciate you, to--"

"Don't--please!" she said in the tone that is from an aching heart. "Don't say any more."

Arthur was astounded. He looked at her for the first time since he began; instantly fear was shaking his self-confidence at its foundations. "Madelene!" he exclaimed. "I know that you love me!"

She hid her face in her hands--the sight of them, long and narrow and strong, filled him with the longing to seize them, to feel the throb of their life thrill from them into him, troop through and through him like victory-bringing legions into a besieged city. But her broken voice stopped him. "And I thought you loved me," she said.

"You know I do!" he cried.

She was silent.

"What is it, Madelene?" he implored. "What has come between us? Does your father object because I am--am not well enough off?"

She dropped her hands from before her face and looked at him. The first time he saw her he had thought she was severe; ever since he had wondered how he could have imagined severity into a countenance so gentle and sweet. Now he knew that his first impression was not imaginary; for she had again the expression with which she had faced the hostile world of Saint X until he, his love, came into her life. "It is I that must ask you what has changed you, Arthur," she said, more in sadness than in bitterness, though in both. "I don't seem to know you this evening."

Arthur lost the last remnant of his self-consciousness. He saw he was about to lose, if indeed he had not already lost, that which had come to mean life to him--the happiness from this woman's beauty, the strength from her character, the sympathy from her mind and heart. It was in terror that he asked: "Why, Madelene? What is it? What have I done?" And in dread he studied her firm, regular profile, a graceful strength that was Greek, and so wonderfully completed by her hair, blue black and thick and wavy about the temple and ear and the nape of the neck.

The girl did not answer immediately; he thought she was refusing to hear, yet he could find no words with which to try to stem the current of those ominous thoughts. At last she said: "You talk about the position you have 'come down from' and the position you are going back to--and that you are grateful to your father for having brought you down where you were humble enough to find me."

"Madelene!"

"Wait!" she commanded. "You wish to know what is the matter with me. Let me tell you. We didn't receive you here because you are a cooper or because you had been rich. I never thought about your position or your prospects. A woman--at least a woman like me--doesn't love a man for his position, doesn't love him for his prospects. I've been taking you at just what you were--or seemed to be. And you--you haven't come, asking me to marry you. You treat me like one of those silly women in what they call 'society' here in Saint X. You ask me to wait until you can support me fashionably--I who am not fashionable--and who will always support myself. What you talked isn't what I call love, Arthur. I don't want to hear any more about it--or, we might not be able to be even friends."

She paused; but Arthur could not reply. To deny was impossible, and he had no wish to attempt to make excuses. She had shown him to himself, and he could only echo her just scorn.

"As for waiting," she went on, "I am sure, from what you say, that if you ever got back in the lofty place of a parasite living idly and foolishly on what you abstracted from the labor of others, you'd forget me--just as your rich friends have forgotten you." She laughed bitterly. "O Arthur, Arthur, what a fraud you are! Here, I've been admiring your fine talk about your being a laborer, about what you'd do if you ever got the power. And it was all simply envy and jealousy and trying to make yourself believe you weren't so low down in the social scale as you thought you were. You're too fine a gentleman for Madelene Schulze, Arthur. Wait till you get back your lost paradise; then take a wife who gives her heart only where her vanity permits. You don't want me, and I--don't want you!"

Her voice broke there. With a cry that might have been her name or just an inarticulate call from his heart to hers, he caught her in his arms, and she was sobbing against his shoulder. "You can't mean it, Madelene," he murmured, holding her tight and kissing her cheek, her hair, her ear. "You don't mean it."

"Oh, yes, I do," she sobbed. "But--I love you, too."

"Then everything else will straighten out of itself. Help me, Madelene. Help me to be what we both wish me to be--what I can't help being, with you by my side."

When a vanity of superiority rests on what used to be, it dies much harder than when it rests upon what is. But Arthur's self-infatuation, based though it was on the "used-to-be," then and there crumbled and vanished forever. Love cleared his sight in an instant, where reason would have striven in vain against the stubborn prejudices of snobbism. Madelene's instinct had searched out the false ring in his voice and manner; it was again instinct that assured her all was now well. And she straightway, and without hesitation from coquetry or doubt, gave herself frankly to the happiness of the love that knows it is returned in kind and in degree.

"Yes, everything else will come right," she said. "For you are strong, Arthur."

"I shall be," was his reply, as he held her closer. "Do I not love a woman who believes in me?"

"And who believes because she knows." She drew away to look at him. "You are like your father!" she exclaimed. "Oh, my dear, my love, how rich he made you--and me!"

       *       *       *       *       *

At breakfast, the next morning, he broke the news to his mother. Instead of returning his serene and delighted look she kept her eyes on her plate and was ominously silent. "When you are well acquainted with her, mother, you'll love her," he said. He knew what she was thinking--Dr. Schulze's "unorthodox" views, to put it gently; the notorious fact that his daughters did not frown on them; the family's absolute lack of standing from the point of view of reputable Saint X.

"Well," said his mother finally, and without looking at her big, handsome son, "I suppose you're set on it."

"Set--that's precisely the word," replied Arthur. "We're only waiting for your consent and her father's."

"I ain't got anything to do with it," said she, with a pathetic attempt at a smile. "Nor the old doctor, either, judging by the look of the young lady's eyes and chin. I never thought you'd take to a strong-minded woman."

"You wouldn't have her weak-minded, would you, mother?"

"There's something between."

"Yes," said he. "There's the woman whose mind is weak when it ought to be strong, and strong when it ought to be weak. I decided for one like you, mother dear--one that would cure me of foolishness and keep me cured."

"A female doctor!"

Arthur laughed. "And she's going to practice, mother. We shouldn't have enough to live on with only what I'd make--or am likely to make anyway soon."

Mrs. Ranger lifted her drooping head in sudden panic.

"Why, you'll live here, won't you?"

"Of course," replied Arthur, though, as a matter of fact, he hadn't thought where they would live. He hastened to add, "Only we've got to pay board."

"I guess we won't quarrel about that," said the old woman, so immensely relieved that she was almost resigned to the prospect of a Schulze, a strong-minded Schulze and a practicing female doctor, as a daughter-in-law.

"Madelene is coming up to see you this morning," continued Arthur. "I know you'll make her--welcome." This wistfully, for he was now awake to the prejudices his mother must be fighting.

"I'll have the horses hitched up, and go and see her," said Ellen, promptly. "She's a good girl. Nobody could ever say a word against her character, and that's the main thing." She began to contrast Madelene and Janet, and the situation brightened. At least, she was getting a daughter-in-law whom she could feel at ease with, and for whom she could have respect, possibly even liking of a certain reserved kind.

"I suggested that you'd come," Arthur was replying. "But Madelene said she'd prefer to come to you. She thinks it's her place, whether it's etiquette or not. We're not going to go in for etiquette--Madelene and I."

Mrs. Ranger looked amused. This from the young man who had for years been "picking" at her because she was unconventional! "People will misunderstand you, mother," had been his oft-repeated polite phrase. She couldn't resist a mild revenge. "People'll misunderstand, if she comes. They'll think she's running after me."

Like all renegades, the renegades from the religion of conventionality are happiest when they are showing their contempt for that before which they once knelt. "Let 'em think," retorted Arthur cheerfully. "I'll telephone her it's all right," he said, as he rose from the table, "and she'll be up here about eleven."

And exactly at eleven she came, not a bit self-conscious or confused. Mrs. Ranger looked up at her--she was more than a head the taller--and found a pair of eyes she thought finest of all for their honesty looking down into hers. "I reckon we've got--to kiss," said she, with a nervous laugh.

"I reckon so," said Madelene, kissing her, and then, after a glance and an irresistible smile, kissing her again. "You were awfully put out when Arthur told you, weren't you?"

"Well, you know, the saying is 'A bad beginning makes a good ending,'" said Ellen. "Since there was only Arthur left to me, I hadn't been calculating on a daughter-in-law to come and take him away."

Madelene felt what lay behind that timid, subtle statement of the case. Her face shadowed. She had been picturing a life, a home, with just Arthur and herself; here was a far different prospect opening up. But Mrs. Ranger was waiting, expectant; she must be answered. "I couldn't take him away from you," Madelene said. "I'd only lose him myself if I tried."

Tears came into Ellen's eyes and her hands clasped in her lap to steady their trembling. "I know how it is," she said. "I'm an old woman, and"--with an appeal for contradiction that went straight to Madelene's heart--"I'm afraid I'd be in the way?"

"In the way!" cried Madelene. "Why, you're the only one that can teach me how to take care of him. He says you've always taken care of him, and I suppose he's too old now to learn how to look after himself."

"You wouldn't mind coming here to live?" asked Ellen humbly. She hardly dared speak out thus plainly; but she felt that never again would there be such a good chance of success.

It was full a minute before Madelene could trust her voice to make reply, not because she hesitated to commit herself, but because she was moved to the depths of her tender heart by this her first experience of about the most tragic of the everyday tragedies in human life--a lone old woman pleading with a young one for a little corner to sit in and wait for death. "I wish it weren't quite such a grand house," she said at last with a look at the old woman--how old she seemed just then!--a look that was like light. "We're too poor to have the right to make any such start. But, if you'd let me--if you're sure you wouldn't think me an intruder--I'd be glad to come."

"Then that's settled," said Mrs. Ranger, with a deep sigh of relief. But her head and her hands were still trembling from the nervous shock of the suspense, the danger that she would be left childless and alone. "We'll get along once you're used to the idea of having me about. I know my place. I never was a great hand at meddling. You'll hardly know I'm around."

Again Madelene had the choke in her throat, the ache at the heart. "But you wouldn't throw the care of this house on my hands!" she exclaimed in well-pretended dismay. "Oh, no, you've simply got to look after things! Why, I was even counting on your helping me with my practice."

Ellen Ranger thrilled with a delight such as she had not had in many a year--the matchless delight of a new interest. Her mother had been famous throughout those regions in the pioneer days for skill at "yarbs" and at nursing, and had taught her a great deal. But she had had small chance to practice, she and her husband and her children being all and always so healthy. All those years she had had to content herself with thinking and talking of hypothetical cases and with commenting, usually rather severely, upon the conduct of every case in the town of which she heard. Now, in her old age, just as she was feeling that she had no longer an excuse for being alive, here, into her very house, was coming a career for her, and it the career of which she had always dreamed!

She forgot about the marriage and its problems, and plunged at once into an exposition of her views of medicine--her hostility to the allopaths, with their huge, fierce doses of dreadful poisons that had ruined most of the teeth and stomachs in the town; her disdain of the homeopaths, with their petty pills and their silly notion that the hair of the dog would cure its bite. She was all for the medicine of nature and common sense; and Madelene, able honestly to assent, rose in her esteem by leaps and bounds. Before the end of that conversation Mrs. Ranger was convinced that she had always believed the doctors should be women. "Who understands a woman but a woman? Who understands a child but a woman? And what's a man when he's sick but a child?" She was impatient for the marriage. And when Madelene asked if she'd object to having a small doctor's sign somewhere on the front fence, she looked astounded at the question. "We must do better than that," she said. "I'll have you an office--just two or three rooms--built down by the street so as to save people coming clear up here. That'd lose you many a customer."

"Yes, it might lose us a good many," said Madelene, and you'd never have thought the "us" deliberate.

That capped the climax. Mrs. Ranger was her new daughter's thenceforth. And Madelene went away, if possible happier than when she and Arthur had straightened it all out between themselves the night before. Had she not lifted that fine old woman up from the grave upon which she was wearily lying, waiting for death? Had she not made her happy by giving her something to live for? Something to live for! "She looked years younger immediately," thought Madelene. "That's the secret of happiness--something to live for, something real and useful."

"I never thought you'd find anybody good enough for you," said Mrs. Ranger to her son that evening. "But you have. She's got a heart and a head both--and most of the women nowadays ain't got much of either."

And it was that night as Ellen was saying her prayers, that she asked God to forgive her the sin of secret protest she had let live deep in a dark corner of her heart--reproach of Hiram for having cut off their son. "It was for the best," she said. "I see it now."