Chapter XXIII. A Stroll in a Bypath
 

Ross had intended to dine at the club; but Mrs. Hastings's trap was hardly clear of the grounds when he, to be free to think uninterruptedly, set out through the woods for Point Helen.

Even had he had interests more absorbing than pastimes, display, and money-making by the "brace" game of "high finance" with its small risks of losing and smaller risks of being caught, even if he had been married to a less positive and incessant irritant than Theresa was to him, he would still not have forgotten Adelaide. Forgetfulness comes with the finished episode, never with the unfinished. In the circumstances, there could be but one effect from seeing her again. His regrets blazed up into fierce remorse, became the reckless raging of a passion to which obstacles and difficulties are as fuel to fire.

Theresa, once the matter of husband-getting was safely settled, had no restraint of prudence upon her self-complacence. She "let herself go" completely, with results upon her character, her mind, and her personal appearance that were depressing enough to the casual beholder, but appalling to those who were in her intimacy of the home. Ross watched her deteriorate in gloomy and unreproving silence. She got herself together sufficiently for as good public appearance as a person of her wealth and position needed to make, he reasoned; what did it matter how she looked and talked at home where, after all, the only person she could hope to please was herself? He held aloof, drawn from his aloofness occasionally by her whim to indulge herself in what she regarded as proofs of his love. Her pouting, her whimpering, her abject but meaningless self-depreciation, her tears, were potent, not for the flattering reason she assigned, but because he, out of pity for her and self-reproach, and dread of her developing her mother's weakness, would lash himself into the small show of tenderness sufficient to satisfy her.

And now, steeped in the gall of as bitter a draught as experience forces folly to drink anew each day to the dregs--the realization that, though the man marries the money only, he lives with the wife only--Ross had met Adelaide again. "I'll go to Chicago in the morning," was his conclusion. "I'll do the honorable thing"--he sneered at himself--"since trying the other would only result in her laughing at me and in my being still more miserable."

But when morning came he was critical of the clothes his valet offered him, spent an hour in getting himself groomed for public appearance, then appeared at the Country Club for breakfast instead of driving to the station. And after breakfast, he put off his departure "until to-morrow or next day," and went to see Mr. and Mrs. Hastings. And what more natural then than that Henrietta should take him to the Villa d'Orsay "to show you how charmingly Del has installed herself." "And perhaps," said Henrietta, "she and Arden Wilmot will go for a drive. He has quit the bank because they objected to his resting two hours in the middle of the day." What more natural than that Adelaide should alter her resolution under the compulsion of circumstance, should spend the entire morning in the gardens, she with Ross, Henrietta with Arden? Finally, to avoid strain upon her simple domestic arrangements in that period of retrenchment, what more natural than falling in with Ross's proposal of lunch at Indian Mound? And who ever came back in a hurry from Indian Mound, with its quaint vast earthworks, its ugly, incredibly ancient potteries and flint instruments that could be uncovered anywhere with the point of a cane or parasol; its superb panorama, bounded by the far blue hills where, in days that were ancient when history began, fires were lighted by sentinels to signal the enemy's approach to a people whose very dust, whose very name has perished? It was six o'clock before they began the return drive; at seven they were passing the Country Club, and, of course, they dined there and joined in the little informal dance afterwards; and later, supper and cooling drinks in a corner of the veranda, with the moon streaming upon them and the enchanted breath of the forest enchaining the senses.

What a day! How obligingly all unpleasant thoughts fled! How high and bright rose the mountains all round the horizon of the present, shutting out yesterday and to-morrow! "This has been the happy day of my life," said Ross as they lingered behind the other two on the way to the last 'bus for the town. "The happiest"--in a lower tone--"thus far."

And Del was sparkling assent, encouragement even; and her eyes were gleaming defiantly at the only-too-plainly-to-be-read faces of the few hilltop people still left at the club house. "Surely a woman has the right to enjoy herself innocently in the twentieth century," she was saying to herself. "Dory wouldn't want me to sit moping alone. I am young; I'll have enough of that after I'm old--one is old so much longer than young." And she looked up at Ross, and very handsome he was in that soft moonlight, his high-blazing passion glorifying his features. "I, too, have been happy," she said to him. Then, with a vain effort to seem and to believe herself at ease, "I wish Dory could have been along."

But Ross was not abashed by the exorcism of that name; her bringing it in was too strained, would have been amusing if passion were not devoid of the sense of humor. "She does care for me!" he was thinking dizzily. "And I can't live without her--and won't!"

His mother had been writing him her discoveries that his father, in wretched health and goaded by physical torment to furious play at the green tables of "high finance," was losing steadily, swiftly, heavily. But Ross read her letters as indifferently as he read Theresa's appeals to him to come to Windrift. It took a telegram--"Matters much worse than I thought. You must be here to talk with him before he begins business to-morrow"--to shock him into the realization that he had been imperiling the future he was dreaming of and planning--his and Del's future.

On the way to the train he stopped at the Villa d'Orsay, saw her and Henrietta at the far end of Mrs. Dorsey's famed white-and-gold garden. Henrietta was in the pavilion reading. A few yards away Adelaide, head bent and blue sunshade slowly turning as it rested on her shoulder, was strolling round the great flower-rimmed, lily-strewn outer basin of Mrs. Dorsey's famed fountain, the school of crimson fish, like a streak of fire in the water, following her. When she saw him coming toward them in traveling suit, instead of the white serge he always wore on such days as was that, she knew he was going away--a fortunate forewarning, for she thus had time to force a less telltale expression before he announced the reason for his call. "But," he added, "I'll be back in a few days--a very few."

"Oh!" was all Del said; but her tone of relief, her sudden brightening, were more significant than any words could have been.

Henrietta now joined them. "You take the afternoon express?" said she.

Ross could not conceal how severe a test of his civility this interruption was. "Yes," said he. "My trap is in front of the house."

There he colored before Henrietta's expression, a mingling of amusement, indignation, and contempt, a caustic comment upon his disregard of the effect of such indiscretion upon a Saint X young married woman's reputation. "Then," said she, looking straight and significantly at him, "you'll be able to drop me at my house on the way."

"Certainly," was his prompt assent. When Saint X's morality police should see him leaving the grounds with her, they would be silenced as to this particular occurrence at least. After a few minutes of awkward commonplaces, he and Henrietta went up the lawns, leaving Del there. At the last point from which the end of the garden could be seen, he dropped behind, turned, saw her in exactly the same position, the fountain and the water lilies before her, the center and climax of those stretches of white-and-gold blossoms. The sunshade rested lightly upon her shoulder, and its azure concave made a harmonious background for her small, graceful head with the airily plumed hat set so becomingly upon those waves of dead-gold hair. He waved to her; but she made no sign of having seen.

When Henrietta returned, Adelaide had resumed her reverie and her slow march round the fountain. Henrietta watched with a quizzical expression for some time before saying: "If I hadn't discouraged him, I believe he'd have blurted it all out to me--all he came to say to you."

Del was still absent-minded as she answered: "It's too absurd. People are so censorious, so low-minded."

"They are," rejoined Mrs. Hastings. "And, I'm sorry to say, as a rule they're right."

The curve of Del's delicate eyebrows and of her lips straightened.

"All the trouble comes through our having nothing to do," pursued Henrietta, disregarding those signs that her "meddling" was unwelcome. "The idle women! We ought to be busy at something useful--you and I and the rest of 'em. Then we'd not be tempted to kill time doing things that cause gossip, and may cause scandal." Seeing that Adelaide was about to make some curt retort, she added: "Now, don't pretend, Del. You know, yourself, that they're always getting into mischief and getting the men into mischief."

"Don't you ever feel, Henrietta, that we're simply straws in the strong wind?"

"Fate sometimes does force mischief on men and women," was Henrietta's retort, "and it ceases to be mischief--becomes something else, I'm not sure just what. But usually fate has nothing to do with the matter. It's we ourselves that course for mischief, like a dog for rabbits."

Del, in sudden disdain of evasion, faced her with, "Well, Henrietta, what of it?"

Mrs. Hastings elevated and lowered her shoulders. "Simply that you're seeing too much of Ross--too much for his good, if not for your own."

Del's sunshade was revolving impatiently.

"It's as plain as black on white," continued Mrs. Hastings, "that he's madly in love with you--in love as only an experienced man can be with an experienced and developed woman."

"Well, what of it?" Del's tone was hostile, defiant.

"You can't abruptly stop seeing him. Everyone'd say you and he were meeting secretly."

"Really!"

"But you can be careful how you treat him. You can show him, and everybody, that there's nothing in it. You must--" Henrietta hesitated, dared; "you must be just friendly, as you are with Arden and the rest of the men."

Hiram's daughter was scarlet. Full a minute, and a very full minute, of silence. Then Adelaide said coldly: "Thank you. And now that you've freed your mind I hope you'll keep it free for your own affairs."

"Ouch!" cried Henrietta, making a wry face. And she devoted the rest of the afternoon to what she realized, at the parting, was the vain task of mollifying Del. She knew that thenceforth she and Adelaide would drift apart; and she was sorry, for she liked her--liked to talk with her, liked to go about with her. Adelaide's beauty attracted the men, and a male audience was essential to Henrietta's happiness; she found the conversation of women--the women she felt socially at ease with--tedious, and their rather problematic power of appreciation limited to what came from men. As she grew older, and less and less pleasing to the eye, the men showed more and more clearly how they had deceived themselves in thinking it was her brains that had made them like her. As Henrietta, with mournful cynicism, put it: "Men the world over care little about women beyond their physical charm. To realize it, look at us American women, who can do nothing toward furthering men's ambitions. We've only our physical charms to offer; we fall when we lose them. And so our old women and our homely women, except those that work or that have big houses and social power, have no life of their own, live on sufferance, alone or the slaves of their daughters or of some pretty young woman to whom they attach themselves."

The days dragged for Adelaide. "I'm afraid he'll write," said she--meaning that she hoped he would. Indeed, she felt that he had written, but had destroyed the letters. And she was right; almost all the time he could spare from his efforts to save his father from a sick but obstinately active man's bad judgment was given to writing to her--formal letters which he tore up as too formal, passionate letters which he destroyed as unwarranted and unwise, when he had not yet, face to face, in words, told her his love and drawn from her what he believed was in her heart. The days dragged; she kept away from Henrietta, from all "our set," lest they should read in her dejected countenance the truth, and more.