A Touch of Sun by Mary Hallock Foote
The five-o'clock whistle droned through the heat. Its deep, consequential chest-note belonged by right to the oldest and best paying member of the Asgard group, a famous mining property of northern California.
The Asgard Company owned a square league of prehistoric titles on the western slope of the foot-hills,--land enough for the preservation of a natural park within its own boundaries where fire-lines were cleared, forest-trees respected, and roads kept up. Wherever the company erected a board fence, gate, or building, the same was methodically painted a color known as "monopoly brown." The most conspicuous of these objects cropped out on the sunset dip of the property where the woods for twenty years had been cut, and the Sacramento valley surges up in heat and glare, with yearly visitations of malaria.
Higher than the buildings in brown, a gray-shingled bungalow ranged itself on the lap of its broad lawns against a slope of orchard tops climbing to the dark environment of the forest. Not the original forest: of that only three stark pines were left, which rose one hundred feet out of a gulch below the house and lent their ancient majesty to the modern uses of electric wires and telephone lines. Their dreaming tops were in the sky; their feet were in the sluicings of the stamp-mill that reared its long brown back in a semi-recumbent posture, resting one elbow on the hill; and beneath the valley smouldered, a pale mirage by day, by night a vision of color transcendent and rich as the gates of the Eternal City.
At half past five the night watchman, on his way from town, stopped at the superintendent's gate, ran up the blazing path, and thrust a newspaper between the dark blue canvas curtains that shaded the entrance of the porch. For hours the house had slept behind its heat defenses, every shutter closed, yards of piazza blind and canvas awning fastened down. The sun, a ball of fire, went slowly down the west. Rose-vines drooped against the hanging lattices, printing their watery lines of split bamboo with a shadow-pattern of leaf and flower. The whole house-front was decked with dead roses, or roses blasted in full bloom, as if to celebrate with appropriate insignia the passing of the hottest day of the year.
Half-way down the steps the watchman stopped, surprised by a voice from behind the curtains. He came back in answer to his name.
A thin white hand parted the curtain an inch or two. There was the flicker of a fan held against the light.
"Oh, Hughson, will you tell Mr. Thorne that I am here? He doesn't know I have come."
"Tell him that Mrs. Thorne is home?" the man translated slowly.
"Yes. He does not expect me. You will tell him at once, please?"
The curtain was fastened again from inside. A woman's step went restlessly up and down, up and down the long piazza floors, now muffled on a rug, now light on a matting, or distinct on the bare boards.
Later a soft Oriental voice inquired, "Wha' time Missa Tho'ne wanta dinna?"
"The usual time, Ito," came the answer; "make no difference for me."
"Lika tea--coffee--after dinna?"
"Tea--iced. Have you some now? Oh, bring it, please!"
After an interval: "Has Mr. Thorne been pretty well?"
"It is very hot. How is your kitchen--any better than it was?"
"Missa Tho'ne fixa more screen; all open now, thank you."
"Take these things into my dressing-room. No; there will be no trunk. I shall go back in a few days."
The gate clashed to. A stout man in a blaze of white duck came up the path, lifting his cork helmet slightly to air the top of his head. As he approached it could be seen that his duck was of a modified whiteness, and that his beard, even in that forcing weather, could not be less than a two days' growth. He threw his entire weight on the steps one by one, as he mounted them slowly. The curtains were parted for him from within.
"Well, dear old man! How hot you look! Why do you not carry an umbrella?"
"Because I haven't got you here to make me. What brought you back in such weather? Where is your telegram?"
"I did not telegraph. There was no need. I simply had to speak to you at once--about something that could not be written."
"Well, it's good to have a look at you again. But you are going straight back, you know. Can't take any chances on such weather as this."
Mr. Thorne sank copiously into a piazza chair, and pulled forward another for his wife.
She sat on the edge of it, smiling at him with wistful satisfaction. Her profile had a delicate, bird-like slant. Pale, crisped auburn hair powdered with gray, hair that looked like burnt-out ashes, she wore swept back from a small, tense face, full of fine lines and fleeting expressions. She had taken off her high, close neckwear, and the wanness of her throat showed above a collarless shirt-waist.
"Don't look at me; I am a wreck!" she implored, with a little exhausted laugh. "I wonder where my keys are? I must get on something cool before dinner."
"Ito has all the keys somewhere. Ito's a gentleman. He takes beautiful care of me, only he won't let me drink as much shasta as I want. What is that? Iced tea? Bad, bad before dinner! I'm going to watch you now. You are not looking a bit well. Is there any of that decoction left? Well, it is bad; gets on the nerves, too much of it. The problem of existence here is, What shall we drink, and how much of it can we drink?"
Mrs. Thorne laughed out a little sigh. "I have brought you a problem. But we will talk when it is cooler. Don't you--don't you shave but twice a week when I am away, Henry?"
"I shave every day, when I think of it. I never go anywhere, and I don't have anybody here if I can possibly avoid it. It is all a man can do to live and be up to his work."
"I know; it's frightful to work in such weather. How the mill roars! It starts the blood to hear it. Last spring it sounded like a cataract; now it roars like heat behind furnace doors. Which is your room now?"
"O Lord! I sleep anywhere; begin in my bed generally and end of the piazza floor. It will be the grass if this keeps on."
"Mrs. Thorne continued to laugh spasmodically at her husband's careless speeches, not at what he said so much as through content in his familiar way of saying things. Under their light household talk, graver, questioning looks were exchanged, the unappeased glances of friends long separated, who realize on meeting again that letters have told them nothing.
"Why didn't you write me about this terrible heat?"
"Why didn't you write me that you were not well?"
"I am well."
"You don't look it--anything but."
"I am always ghastly after a journey. It isn't a question of health that brought me. But--never mind. Ring for Ito, will you? I want my keys."
At dinner she looked ten years younger, sitting opposite him in her summery lawns and laces. She tasted the cold wine soup, but ate nothing, watching her husband's appetite with the mixed wonder and concern that thirty years' knowledge of its capacities had not diminished. He studied her face meanwhile; he was accustomed to reading faces, and hers he knew by line and precept. He listened to her choked little laughs and hurried speeches. All her talk was mere postponement; she was fighting for time. Hence he argued that the trouble which had sent her flying home to him from the mountains was not fancy-bred. Of her imaginary troubles she was ready enough to speak.
The moon had risen, a red, dry-weather moon, when they walked out into the garden and climbed the slope under low orchard boughs. The trees were young, too quickly grown; like child mothers, they had lost their natural symmetry, overburdened with hasty fruition. Each slender parent trunk was the centre of a host of artificial props, which saved the sinking boughs from breaking. Under one of these low green tents they stopped and handled the great fruit that fell at a touch.
"How everything rushes to maturity here! The roses blossom and wither the same hour. The peaches burst before they ripen. Don't you think it oppresses one, all this waste fertility, such an excess of life and good living, one season crowding upon another? How shall we get rid of all these kindly fruits of the earth?"
She did not wait for an answer to her morbid questions. They moved on up a path between hedges of sweet peas going to seed, and blackberry-vines covered with knots of fruit dried in their own juices. A wall of gigantic Southern cane hid the boundary fence, and above it the night-black pines of the forest towered, their breezy monotone answering the roar of the hundred stamps below the hill.
A few young pines stood apart on a knoll, a later extension of the garden, ungraded and covered with pine-needles. In the hollow places native shrubs, surprised by irrigation, had made an unwonted summer's growth.
Here, in the blanching moon, stood a tent with both flaps thrown back. A wind of coolness drew across the hill; it lifted one of the tent-curtains mysteriously; its touch was sad and searching.
Mrs. Thorne put back the canvas and stepped inside. She saw a folding camp-cot stripped of bedding, a dresser with half-open drawers that disclosed emptiness, a dusty book-rack standing on the floor. The little mirror on the tent-pole, hung too high for her own reflection, held a darkling picture of a pine-bough against a patch of stars. She sat on the edge of the cot and picked up a discarded necktie, sawing it across her knee mechanically to free it from the dust. Her husband placed himself beside her. His weight brought down the mattress and rocked her against his shoulder; he put his arm around her, and she gave way to a little sob.
"When has he written to you?" she asked. "Since he went down?"
"I think so. Let me see! When did you hear last?"
"I have brought his last letter with me. I wondered if he had told you."
"I have heard nothing--nothing in particular. What is it?"
"The inevitable woman."
"She has come at last, has she? Come to stay?"
"He is engaged to her."
Mr. Thorne breathed his astonishment in a low whistle. "You don't like it?" he surmised at once.
"Like it! If it were merely a question of liking! She is impossible. She knows it, her people know it, and they have not told him. It remains"--
"What is the girl's name?"
"Henry, she is not a girl! That is, she is a girl forced into premature womanhood, like all the fruits of this hotbed climate. She is that Miss Benedet whom you helped, whom you saved--how many years ago? When Willy was a schoolboy."
"Well, she was saved, presumably."
"Saved from what, and by a total stranger!"
"She made no mistake in selecting the stranger. I can testify to that; and she was as young as he, my dear."
"A girl is never as young as a boy of the same age. She is a woman now, and she has taken his all--everything a man can give to his first--and told him nothing!"
"Are you sure it's the same girl? There are other Benedets."
"She is the one. His letter fixes it beyond a question--so innocently he fastens her past upon her! And he says, 'She is "a woman like a dewdrop."' I wonder if he knows what he is quoting, and what had happened to that woman!"
"Dewdrops don't linger long in the sun of California. But she was undeniably the most beautiful creature this or any other sun ever shone on."
"And he is the sweetest, sanest, cleanest-hearted boy, and the most innocent of what a woman may go through and still be fair outside!"
"Why, that is why she likes him. It speaks well for her, I think, that she hankers after that kind of a boy."
"It speaks volumes for what she lacks herself! Don't misunderstand me. I hope I am not without charity for what is done and never can be undone,--though charity is hardly the virtue one would hope to need in welcoming a son's wife. It is her ghastly silence now that condemns her."
Mr. Thorne heaved a sigh, and changed his feet on the gritty tent floor. He stooped and picked up some small object on which he had stepped, a collar-stud trodden flat. He rolled it in his fingers musingly.
"She may be getting up her courage to tell him in her own time and way."
"The time has gone by when she could have told him honorably. She should have stopped the very first word on his lips."
"She couldn't do that, you know, and be human. She couldn't be expected to spare him at such a cost as that. Mighty few men would be worth it."
"If he wasn't worth it she could have let him go. And the family! Think of their accepting his proposal in silence. Why, can they even be married, Henry, without some process of law?"
"Heaven knows! I don't know how far the other thing had gone--far enough to make questions awkward."
Husband and wife remained seated side by side on the son's deserted bed. The shape of each was disconsolately outlined to the other against the tent's illumined walls. Now a wind-swayed branch of manzanita rasped the canvas, and cast upon it shadows of its moving leaves.
"It's pretty rough on quiet old folks like us, with no money to get us into trouble," said Mr. Thorne. "The boy is not a beauty, he's not a swell. He is just a plain, honest boy with a good working education. If you judge a woman, as some say you can, by her choice of men, she shouldn't be very far out of the way."
"It is very certain you cannot judge a man by his choice of women."
"You cannot judge a boy by the women that get hold of him. But Willy is not such a babe as you think. He's a deuced quiet sort, but he's not been knocking around by himself these ten years, at school and college and vacations, without picking up an idea or two--possibly about women. Experience, I grant, be probably lacks; but he has the true-bred instinct. We always have trusted him so far; I'm willing to trust him now. If there are things he ought to know about this woman, leave him to find them out for himself."
"After he has married her! And you don't even know whether a marriage is possible without some sort of shuffling or concealment; do you?"
"I don't, but they probably do. Her family aren't going to get themselves into that kind of a scrape."
"I have no opinion whatever of the family. I think they would accept any kind of a compromise that money can buy."
"Very likely, and so would we if we had a daughter"--
"Why, we have a daughter! It is our daughter, all the daughter we shall ever call ours, that you are talking about. And to think of the girls and girls he might have had! Lovely girls, without a flaw--a flaw! She will fall to pieces in his hand. She is like a broken vase put together and set on the shelf to look at."
"Now we are losing our sense of proportion. We must sleep on this, or it will blot out the whole universe for us."
"It has already for me. I haven't a shadow of faith in anything left."
"And I haven't read the paper. Suppose the boy were in Cuba now!"
"I wish he were! It is a judgment on me for wanting to save him up, for insisting that the call was not for him."
"That's just it, you see. You have to trust a man to know his own call. Whether it's love or war, he is the one who has got to answer."
"But you will write to him to-morrow, Henry? He must be saved, if the truth can save him. Think of the awakening!"
"My dear, if he loves her there will be no awakening. If there is, he will have to take his dose like other men. There is nothing in the truth that can save him, though I agree with you that he ought to know it--from her."
"If you had only told her your name, Henry! Then she would have had a fingerpost to warn her off our ground. To think what you did for her, and how you are repaid!"
"It was a very foolish thing I did for her; I wasn't proud of it. That was one reason why I did not tell her my name."
Mr. Thorne removed his weight from the cot. The warped wires twanged back into place.
"Come, Maggie, we are too old not to trust in the Lord--or something. Anyhow, it's cooler. I believe we shall sleep to-night."
"And haven't I murdered sleep for you, you poor old man? What a thing it is to have nerve and no nerves! I know you feel just as wrecked as I do. I wish you would say so. I want it said to the uttermost. If I could but--our only boy--our boy of 'highest hopes'! You remember the dear old Latin words in his first 'testimonials'?"
"They must have been badly disappointed in their girl, and I suppose they had their 'hopes,' too."
"They should not drag another into the pit, one too innocent to have imagined such treachery."
"I wouldn't make too much of his innocence. He is all right so far as we know; he's got precious little excuse for not being: but there is no such gulf between any two young humans; there can't be, especially when one is a man. Take my hand. There's a step there."
Two shapes in white, with shadows preposterously lengthening, went down the hill. The long, dark house was open now to the night.
* * * * *
There is no night in the "stilly" sense at a mine.
The mill glared through all its windows from the gulch. Sentinel lights kept watch on top. The hundred stamps pounded on. If they ceased a moment, there followed the sob of the pump, or the clang of a truck-load of drills dumped on the floor of the hoisting-works, or the thunder of rock in the iron-bound ore-bins. All was silence on the hill; but a wakeful figure wrapped in white went up and down the empty porches, light as a dead leaf on the wind. It was the mother, wasting her night in grievous thinking, sighing with weariness, pining for sleep, dreading the day. How should they presume to tell that woman's story, knowing her only through one morbid chapter of her earliest youth, which they had stumbled upon without the key to it, or any knowledge of its sequel? She longed to feel that they might be merciful and not tell it. She coveted happiness for her son, and in her heart was prepared for almost any surrender that would purchase it for him. If the lure were not so great! If the woman were not so blinding fair, why, then one might find a virtue in excusing her, in condoning her silence, even. But, clothed in that power, to have pretended innocence as well!
The roar of the stamp-heads deadened her hearing of the night's subtler noises. Her thoughts went grinding on, crushing the hard rock of circumstance, but incapable of picking out the grains of gold therein. Later siftings might discover them, but she was reasoning now under too great human pressure for delicate analysis.
She saw the planets set and the night-mist cloak the valley. By four o'clock daybreak had put out the stars. She went to her room then and fell asleep, awakening after the heat had begun, when the house was again darkened for the day's siege.
She was still postponing, wandering through the darkened rooms, peering into closets and bureau drawers to see, from force of habit, how Ito discharged his trust.
At luncheon she asked her husband if he had written. He made a gesture expressing his sense of the hopelessness of the situation in general.
"You know how I came by my knowledge, and how little it amounts to as a question of facts."
"Henry, how can you trifle so! You believe, just as I do, that such facts would wreck any marriage. And you are not the only one who knows them. I think your knowledge was providentially given you for the saving of your son."
"My son is a man. I can't save him. And take my word for it, he will go all lengths now before he will be saved."
"Let him go, then, with his eyes open, not blindfold, in jeopardy of other men's tongues."
Mr. Thorne rose uneasily.
"Do as you think you must; but it rather seems to me that I am bound to respect that woman's secret."
"You wish that you had not told me."
"Well, I have, and I suppose that was part of the providence. It is in your hands now; be as easy on her as you can."
With a view to being "easy," Mrs. Thorne resolved not to expatiate, but to give the story on plain lines. The result was hardly as merciful as might have been expected.
* * * * *
"DEAR WILLY," she wrote: "Prepare yourself for a most unhappy letter [what woman can forego her preface?]--unhappy mother that I am, to have such a message laid upon me. But you will understand when you have read why the cup may not pass from us. If ever again a father or a mother can help you, my son, you have us always here, poor in comfort though we are. It seems that the comforters of our childhood have little power over those hurts that come with strength of years.
"Seven years ago this summer your father went to the city on one of his usual trips. Everything was usual, except that at Colfax he noticed a pair of beautiful thoroughbred horses being worked over by the stablemen, and a young fellow standing by giving directions. The horses had been overridden in the heat. It was such weather as we are having now. The young man, who appeared to have everything to say about them, was of the country sporting type, distinctly not the gentleman. In a cattle country he would have been a cowboy simply. Your father thought he might have been employed on some of the horse-breeding ranches below Auburn as a trainer of young stock. He even wondered if he could have stolen the animals.
"But as the train moved out it appeared he had appropriated something of greater value--a young girl, also a thoroughbred.
"It did not need the gossip of the train-hands to suggest that this was an elopement of a highly sensational kind. Father was indignant at the jokes. You know it is a saying with the common sort of people that in California elopements become epidemic at certain seasons of the year--like earthquake shocks or malaria. The man was handsome in a primitive way--worlds beneath the girl, who was simply and tragically a lady. Father sat in the same car with them, opposite their section. It grew upon him by degrees that she was slowly awakening, as one who has been drugged, to a stupefied consciousness of her situation. He thought there might still be room for help at the crisis of her return to reason (I mean all this in a spiritual sense), and so he kept near them. They talked but little together. The girl seemed stunned, as I say, by physical exhaustion or that dawning comprehension in which your father fancied he recognized the tragic element of the situation.
"The young man was outwardly self-possessed, as horsemen are, but he seemed constrained with the girl. They had no conversation, no topics in common. He kept his place beside her, often watching her in silence, but he did not obtrude himself. She appeared to have a certain power over him, even in her helplessness, but it was slipping from her. In her eyes, as they rested upon him in the hot daylight, your father believed that he saw a wild and gathering repulsion. So he kept near them.
"The train was late, having waited at Colfax two hours for the Eastern Overland, else they would have been left, those two, and your father--but such is fate!
"It was ten o'clock when they reached Oakland. He lost the pair for a moment in the crowd going aboard the boat, but saw the girl again far forward, standing alone by the rail. He strolled across the deck, not appearing to have seen her. She moved a trifle nearer; with her eyes on the water, speaking low as if to herself, she said:--
"'I am in great danger. Will you help me? If you will, listen, but do not speak or come any nearer. Be first, if you can, to go ashore; have a carriage ready, and wait until you see me. There will be a moment, perhaps--only a moment. Do not lose it. You understand? He, too, will have to get a carriage. When he comes for me I shall be gone. Tell the driver to take me to--' she gave the number of a well-known residence on Van Ness Avenue.
"He looked at her then, and said quietly, 'The Benedet house is closed for the summer.'
"She hung her head at the name. 'Promise me your silence!' she implored in the same low, careful voice.
"'I will protect you in every way consistent with common sense,' your father answered, 'but I make no promises.'
"'I am at your mercy,' she said, and added, 'but not more than at his.'
"'Is this a case of conspiracy or violence?' your father asked.
"She shook her head. 'I cannot accuse him. I came of my own free will. That is why I am helpless now.'
"'I do not see how I can help you,' said father.
"'You can help me to gain time. One hour is all I ask. Will you or not?' she said. 'Be quick! He is coming.'
"'I must go with you, then,' your father answered, 'I will take you to this address, but I need not tell you the house is empty.'
"'There are people in the coachman's lodge,' she answered. Then her companion approached, and no more was said.
"But the counter-elopement was accomplished as only your father could manage such a matter on the spur of the moment--consequences accepted with his usual philosophy and bonhomie. If he could have foreseen all the consequences, he would not, I think, have refused to give her his name.
"He left her at the side entrance, where she rang and was admitted by an oldish, respectable looking man, who recognized her evidently with the greatest surprise. Then your father carried out her final order to wire Norwood Benedet, Jr., at Burlingame, to come home that night to the house address and save--she did not say whom or what; there she broke off, demanding that your father compose a message that should bring him as sure as life and death, but tell no tales. I do not know how she may have put it--these are my own words.
"There was a paragraph in one newspaper, next morning, which gave the girl's full name, and a fancy sketch of her elopement with the famous range-rider Dick Malaby. This was just after the close of the cattlemen's war in Wyoming. Malaby had fought for one of the ruined English companies. (The big owners lost everything, as you know. The country was up in arms against them; they could not protect their own men.) Malaby's employers were friends of the Benedets, and had asked a place with them for their liegeman. He was a desperado with a dozen lives upon his head, but men like Norwood Benedet and his set would have been sure to make a pet of him. One could see how it all had come about, and what a terrible publicity such a name associated with hers would give a girl for the rest of her life.
"But money can do a great deal. Society was out of town; the newspapers that society reads were silent.
"It was announced a few days later that Mrs. Benedet and her daughter Helen had gone East on their way to Europe. As Mr. Benedet's health was very bad,--this was only six months before he died,--society wondered; but it has been accustomed to wondering about the Benedets.
"Mrs. Benedet came home at the time of her husband's death and remained for a few months, but Helen was kept away. You know they have continually been abroad for the last seven years, and Helen has never been seen in society here. When you spoke of 'Miss Benedet' I no more thought of her than if she had not been living. Aunt Frances met them last winter at Cannes, and Mrs. Benedet said positively that they had no intention of coming back to California ever to live. Aunt Frances wondered why, with their beautiful homes empty and going to destruction. I have told you the probable reason. Whether it still exists, God knows--or what they have done with that man and his dreadful knowledge.
"Helen Benedet may have changed her spiritual identity since she made that fatal journey, but she can hardly have forgotten what she did. She must know there is a man who, if he lives, holds her reputation at the mercy of his silence. Money can do a great deal, but it cannot do everything.
"I am tempted to wish that we--your father and I--could share your ignorance, could trust as you do. Better a common awakening for us all, than that I should be the one necessity has chosen to apply the torture to my son.
"The misery of this will make you hate my handwriting forever. But why do I babble? You do not hear me. God help you, my dear!"
* * * * *
These words, descriptive of her own emotions, Mrs. Thorne on re-reading scored out, and copied the last page.
She did not weep. She ached from the impossibility of weeping. She stumbled away from her desk, tripping in her long robes, and stretched herself out at full length on the floor, like a girl in the first embrace of sorrow. But hearing Ito's footsteps, she rose ashamed, and took an attitude befitting her years.
The letter was absently sealed and addressed; there was no reason why the shaft should not go home. Yet she hesitated. It were better that she should read it to her husband first.
The sun dropped below the piazza roof and pierced the bamboo lattices with lines and slits of fervid light.
"From heat to heat the day declined."
The gardener came with wet sacking and swathed the black-glazed jardinieres, in which the earth was steaming. The mine whistle blared, and a rattle of miners' carts followed, as the day-shift dispersed to town. The mine did not board its proletariate. At his usual hour the watchman braved the blinding path, and left the evening paper on the piazza floor. There it lay unopened. Mrs. Thorne fanned herself and looked at it. There must be fighting in Cuba; she did not move to see. Other mothers' sons were dying; what was death to such squalor as hers? Sorrow is a queen, as the poet says, and sits enthroned; but Trouble is a slave. Mothers with griefs like hers must suffer in the fetters of silence.
When dinner was over, Ito made his nightly pilgrimage through the house, opening bedroom shutters, fastening curtains back. He drew up the piazza-blinds, and like a stage-scene, framed in post and balustrade, and bordered with a tracery of rose-vines, the valley burst upon the view. Its cool twilight colors, its river-bed of mist, added to the depth of distance. Against it the white roses looked whiter, and the pink ones caught fire from the intense, great afterglow.
The silent couple, drinking their coffee outside, drew a long mutual sigh.
"Every day," said Mrs. Thorne, "we wonder why we stay in such a place, and every evening we are cajoled into thinking there never can be such another day. And the beauty is just as fresh every night as the heat is preposterous by day."
"It's a great strain on the men," said Mr. Thorne. "We lost two of our best hands this week--threw down their tools and quit, for some tomfoolery they wouldn't have noticed a month ago. The bosses irritate the men, and the men get fighting mad in a minute. Not one of them will bear the weight of a word, and I don't blame them. The work is hard enough in decent weather; they are dropping off sick every day. The night-shift boys can't sleep in their hot little houses---they look as if they'd all been on a two weeks' tear. The next improvement we make I shall build a rest-house where the night-shift can turn in and sleep inside of stone walls, without crying babies and scolding wives clattering around. This heat every summer costs us thousands of dollars in delays, from wear and tear and extra strain--tempers and nerves giving out, men getting frantic and jerking things. I believe it breeds a form of acute mania when it keeps on like this."
"Yes, the point of view changes the instant the sun goes down," said Mrs. Thorne. "I am glad I did not send my letter. Will you let me read it to you, Henry?"
"Not now; let us enjoy the peace of God while it lasts." He stretched himself on his back on the rattan lounge, and folded his hands on that part of his person which illustrated, geographically speaking, the great Continental Divide. The locked hands rose softly up and down. His wife fanned him in silence.
He turned his head and looked at her; her tired eyes, the dragged lines about her mouth, disturbed his sense of rest. He took the fan from her and returned her attention vigorously. "Please don't!" she said with a little teased laugh. She rearranged the lock he had blown across her forehead. His larger help she needed, but he had seldom known how to pet her in little ways.
"I think you ought to let me read it to you," she said. "There is nothing so difficult as telling the truth, even about one's self, and when it's another person"--
"That's what I claim; she is the only one who can tell it."
"This is a case of first aid to the injured," she sighed. "I may not be a surgeon, but I must do what I can for my son."
Then there was silence; the valley grew dimmer, the sky nearer and more intense.
"Yes, the night forgives the day," after a while she said; "it even forgets. And we forget what we were, and what we did, when we were young. What is the use of growing old if we can't learn to forgive?" she vaguely pleaded; and suddenly she began to weep.
The rattle of a miner's cart broke in upon them; it stopped at the gate. Mr. Thorne half rose and looked out; a man was hurrying up the walk. He waved with his cane for him to stop where he was. Messengers at this hour were usually bearers of bad news, and he did not choose that his wife should know all the troubles of the mines.
The two men conversed together at the gate; then Mr. Thorne returned to explain.
"I must go over to the office a moment, and I may have to go to the power-house."
"Is anybody hurt?"
"Only a pump. Don't think of things, dear. Just keep cool while you can."
"For pity's sake, there is a carriage!" Mrs. Thorne exclaimed. "We are going to have a visitor. Fancy making calls after such a day as this!"
Mr. Thorne hurried away with manlike promptitude in the face of a social obligation. The mistress stepped inside and gave an order to Ito.
As she returned, a lady was coming up the walk. She was young and tall, and had a distant effect of great elegance. She held herself very erect, and moved with the rapid, swimming step peculiar to women who are accustomed to the eyes of critical assemblages. Her thin black dress was too elaborate for a country drive; it was a concession to the heat which yet permitted the wearing of a hat, a filmy creation supporting a pair of wings that started up from her beautiful head like white flames. But Mrs. Thorne chiefly observed the look of tense preparation in the face that met hers. She retreated a little from what she felt to be a crisis of some sort, and her heart beat hard with acute agitation.
"Mrs. Thorne?" said the visitor. "Do I need to tell you who I am? Has any one forewarned you of such a person as Helen Benedet?"
The two women clasped hands hurriedly. The worn eyes of the elder, strained by night-watchings, drooped under the young, dark ones, reinforced by their splendor of brows and lashes.
"It was very sweet of you to come," she said in a lifeless voice.
"Without an invitation! You did not expect me to be quite so sweet as that?"
Mrs. Thorne did not reply to this challenge. "You are not alone?" she asked gently.
"I am alone, dear Mrs. Thorne. I am everything I ought not to be. But you will not mind for an hour or two? It's a great deal to ask of you, this hot night, I know."
"You must not think of going back to-night." Mrs. Thorne glanced at the hired carriage from town. "Did you come on purpose, this dreadful weather, my dear? I am very stupid, but I've only just come myself."
"Oh, you are angelic! I heard at Colfax, as we were coming up, that you were at the mine. I came--by main strength. But I should have come somehow. Have you people staying with you? You look so very gay with your lights--you look like a whole community."
"We have no lights here, you see; we are anything but gay. We were talking of you only just now," Mrs. Thorne added infelicitously.
The other did not seem to hear her. She let her eyes rove down the lengths of empty piazza. The close-reefed awnings revealed the stars above the trees, dark and breezeless on the lawn. The matted rose-vines clung to the pillars motionless.
"What a strange, dear place!" she murmured. "And there is no one here?"
"No one at all. We are quite alone. We really must have you."
"I will stay, then. It's perfectly fearful, all I have to say to you. I shall tire you to death."
Ito, appearing, was ordered to send away the lady's carriage.
"May he bring me a glass of water? Just water, please." The tall girl, in her long black dress, moved to and fro, making a pretense of the view to escape observation.
"What is that sloping house that roars so? It sounds like a house of beasts. Oh, the stamps, of course! There goes one on the bare metal. Did anything break then?"
"Oh, no," said Mrs. Thorne; "things do not break so easily as that in a stamp-mill. Only the rock gets broken."
Ito returned with a tray of iced soda, and was spoken to aside by his mistress.
"It's quite a farce," she said, "preparing beds for our friends in this weather. No one sleeps until after two, and then it is morning; and though we shut out the heat, it beats on the walls and burns up the air inside, and we wake more tired than ever."
"Let us not think of sleep! I need all the night to talk in. I have to tell you impossible things."
"Is Willy's father to be included in this talk?" Mrs. Thorne inquired; "because he is coming--he is there, at the gate."
She rose uneasily. Her visitor rose, too, and together they watched the man's unconscious figure approaching. An electric lamp above the gate threw long shadows, like spokes of a wheel, across the grass. Mr. Thorne's face was invisible till he had reached the steps.
"Henry," said his wife, "you do not see we have a visitor."
He took off his hat, and perceiving a young lady, waved her a gallant and playful greeting, assuming her to be a neighbor. Miss Benedet stepped back without speaking.
"God bless me!" said Thorne simply, when his wife had named their guest, and so left the matter, for Miss Benedet to acknowledge or deny their earlier meeting.
Mrs. Thorne gave her little coughing laugh.
"Well, you two!" she said with ghastly gayety. "Must I repeat, Henry, that this is"--
"He is trying to think where he has seen me before," said Helen Benedet. There was a ring in her voice like that of the stamp-heads on the bare steel.
"I am wondering if you remember where you saw me before," Thorne retorted. He did not like the young lady's presence there. He thought it extraordinary and rather brazen. And he liked still less to be drawn into a woman's parlance.
Mrs. Thorne sat still, trembling. "Henry, tell her! Speak to her!"
Miss Benedet turned from husband to wife. Her face was very pale. "Ah," she said, "you knew about me all the time! He has told you everything--and you called me 'my dear'! Is it easy for you to say such things?"
"Never mind, never mind! What did you wish to say to me? What was it?"
"Give me a moment, please! This alters everything. I must get accustomed to this before we go any further."
She reached out her white arm with the thin sleeve wrinkled over it, and helped herself again to water. In every gesture there was the poise and distinction of perfect self-command, a highly wrought self-consciousness, as far removed from pose as from Nature's simplicity. Natural she could never be again. No woman is natural who has a secret experience to guard, whether of grief or shame, her own or of any belonging to her.
"You are the very man," she said, "the one who would not promise. And you kept your word and told your wife. And how long have you known of--of this engagement?"
Mr. Thorne looked at his wife.
"Only a few days," she said.
"Still, there has been time," the girl reflected. She let her voice fall from its high society pitch. "I did not dream there was so much mercy in the world--among parents! You both knew, and you have not told him. You deserve to have Willy for your son!"
Mrs. Thorne leaned forward to speak. Her husband, guessing what trouble her conscience would be making her, forestalled the effort with a warning look. "There was no mercy in the case," he bluntly said; "we do not know your story."
Miss Benedet continued, as if thinking aloud: "Yet you gave me that supreme trust, that I would tell him myself! I have not, and now it is too late. Now I can never know how he would have taken it had he known in time. I do not want his forgiveness, you may be sure, or his toleration. I must be what I was to him or nothing. You will tell him, and then he will understand the letter I wrote him last night, breaking the engagement. We may be honest with each other now; there is no peace of the family to provide for. This night's talk, and I leave myself, my whole self, with you, to do with as you think best for him. If you think better to have it over at one blow, tell him the worst. The facts are enough if you leave out the excuses. But if you want to soften it for the sake of his faith in general,--isn't there some such idea, that men lose their faith in all women through the fault of one?--why, soften it all you like. Make me the victim of circumstances. I can show you how. I had forgiven myself, you know. I thought I was as good as new. I had forgotten I had a flaw. And I was so tired of being on the defensive. Now at last, I said, I shall have a friend! You know--do you know what a restful, impersonal manner your son has? What quiet eyes! We rode and talked together like two young men. It seems a pleasure common enough with some girls, but I never had it; lads of my own age were debarred when I was a girl. I had neither girls nor boys to play with. Girl friends were dealt out to me to fit my supposed needs, but taken that way as medicine I didn't find them very interesting. If I clung to one more than another, that one was not asked soon again for fear of inordinate affections and unbalanced enthusiasms. I was to be an all-around young woman; so they built a wall all around me. It fitted tight at last, and then I broke through one night and emptied my heart on the ground. My plea, you see, is always ready. Could I have lived and kept on scorning myself as I did that night? Do you remember?" She bent her imperative, clears gaze upon Thorne. "I told you the truth when you gave me a chance to lie. Heaven knows what it cost to say, 'I came with him of my own free will!'"
Mrs. Thorne put her hand in her husband's. He pressed it absently, with his eyes on the ground.
"It is such a mercy that I need not begin at the beginning. You know the worst already, and your divine hesitation before judgment almost demands that I should try to justify it. I may excuse myself to you. I will not be too proud to meet you half-way; but remember, when you tell the story to him, everything is to be sacrificed to his cure."
"When we really love them," Mrs. Thorne unexpectedly argued, "do we want them to be cured?"
The defendant looked at her in astonishment, "Do I understand you?" she asked. "You must be careful. I have not told you my story. Of course I want to influence you, but nothing can alter the facts."
There was no reply, and she took up her theme again with visible and painful effort. A sickening familiarity, a weariness of it all before she had begun, showed in her voice and in her pale, reluctant smile.
"Seven years is a long time," she said, looking at Thorne. "Are you sure you have forgotten nothing? You saw what the man was?" she demanded. "He was precisely what he looked to be--one of the men about the stables. I was not supposed to know one from another.
"It is a mistake to talk of a girl having fallen. She has crawled down in her thoughts, a step at a time--unless she fell in the dark; and I declare that before this happened it was almost dark with me!
"My mother is a very clever woman; she has had the means to carry out her theories, and I am her only child (Norwood Benedet is my half-brother). I was not allowed to play with ordinary children; they might have spoiled my accent or told me stories that would have made me afraid of the dark; and while the perfect child was waited for, I had only my nurses. I was not allowed to go to school, of course. Schools are for ordinary children. When I was past the governess age I had tutors, exceptional beings, imported like my frocks. They were too clever for the work of teaching one ignorant, spoiled child. They wore me out with their dissertations, their excess of personality, their overflow of acquirements, all bearing upon poor, stupid me, who could absorb so little. And mama would not allow me to be pushed, so I never actually worked or played. These persons were in the house, holidays and all, and there was a perpetual little dribble of instruction going on. Oh, how I wearied of the deadly deliberation of it all!
"As a family we have always been in a way notorious; I am aware of that: but my mother's ideals are far different from those that held in father's young days, when he made his money and a highly ineligible circle of acquaintances. Nordy inherited all the fun and the friends, and he spent the money like a prince. Once or twice a year he would come down to the ranch, and the place would be filled with his company, and their horses and jockeys and servants. Then mama would fly with me till the reign of sport was over. It was a terrible grief to have to go at the only time when the ranch was not a prison. I grew up nursing a crop of smothered rebellions and longings which I was ashamed to confess. At sixteen mama was to take me abroad for two years; I was to be presented and brought home in triumph, unless Europe refused to part with a pearl of such price. All pearls have their price. I was not left in absolute ignorance of my own. Of all who suffered through that night's madness of mine, poor mama is most to be pitied. There was no limit to her pride in me, and she has never made the least pretense that religion or philosophy could comfort her.
"Now, before I really begin, shall we not speak of something else for a while? I do not want to be quite without mercy."
"I think you had better go on," said Mrs. Thorne gently; "but take off your bonnet, my dear."
"Still 'my dear'?" sighed the girl. "Is so much kindness quite consistent with your duty? Will you leave all the plain speaking to me?"
"Forgive me," said the mother humbly; "but I cannot call you 'Miss Benedet.' We seem to have got beyond that."
"Oh, we have got beyond everything! There is no precedent for us in the past"--she felt for her hat pins--"and no hope in the future." She put off the winged circlet that crowned her hair, and Mrs. Thorne took it from her. Almost shyly the middle-aged woman, who had never herself been even pretty, looked at the sad young beauty, sitting uncovered in the moonlight.
"You should never wear anything on your head. It is desecration."
"Is it? I always conform, you know. I wear anything, do anything, that is demanded."
"Ah, but the head--such hair! I wonder that I do not hate you when I think of my poor Willy."
"You will hate me when I am gone," said the beautiful one wearily; "you may count on the same revulsion in him. I know it. I have been through it. There is nothing so loathsome in the bitter end as mere good looks."
"Ah, but why"--the mother checked herself. Was she groveling already for Willy's sake? She had stifled the truth, and accepted thanks not her due, and listened to praise of her own magnanimity. Where were the night's surprises to leave her?
Mr. Thorne had changed his seat, and the sound of a fresh chair creaking under his comfortable weight was a touch of commonplace welcomed by his wife with her usual laugh, half amused and half apologetic.
"Why do you go off there, Henry? Do you expect us to follow you?"
"There's a breeze around the corner of the house!" he ejaculated fervently.
"Go and find it, then; we do not need you. Do we?"
"I need him," said the girl in her sweetest tones. "He helped me once, without a word. It helps me now to have him sitting there"--
"Without a word!" Mrs. Thorne irrepressibly supplied.
"Why can't we let her finish?" Thorne demanded, hitching his chair into an attitude of attention.
It was impossible for Miss Benedet to take up her story in the key in which she had left off. She began again rather flatly, allowing for the chill of interruptions:--
"To go back to that summer; I was in my sixteenth year, and the policy of expansion was to have begun. But father's health broke, and mama was traveling with him and a cortege of nurses, trying one change after another. It was duller than ever at the ranch. We sat down three at table in a dining-room forty feet long, Aunt Isabel Dwight, Fraeulein Henschel, and myself. Fraeulein was the resident governess. She was a great, soft-hearted, injudicious creature, a mass of German interjections, but she had the grand style on the piano. There had been weeks of such weather as we are having now. Exercise was impossible till after sundown. I had dreamed of a breath of freedom, but instead of the open door I was in straiter bonds than ever.
"I revolted first against keeping hours. I would not get up to breakfast, I refused to study, it was too hot to practice. I took my own head about books, and had my first great orgy of the Russians. I used to lie beside a chink of light in the darkened library and read while Fraeulein in the music-room held orgies of her own. She had just missed being a great singer; but she was a master of her instrument, and her accompaniments were divine. What voice she had was managed with feeling and a pure method, and where voice failed her the piano thrilled and sobbed, and broke in chords like the sea.
"I can give you no idea of the effect that Tolstoi, combined with Fraeulein's music, had upon me. My heart hung upon the pauses in her song; it beat, as I read, as if I had been running. I would forget to breathe between the pages. One day Fraeulein came in and found me in the back chapters of 'Anna Karenina.' She had been playing one of Lizst's rhapsodies--the twelfth. Waves of storm and passion had been thundering through the house, with keen little rifts of melody between, too sweet almost to be endured. She was very negligee, as the weather obliged us to be. Her great white arms were bare above the elbow, and as wet as if she had been over the wash-tub.
"'That is not a book for a jeune fille,' she said.
"I was in a rapture of excitement; the interruption made me wild. 'All the books are for me,' I told her. 'I will read what I please.'
"'You will go mad!'
"I went on reading.
"'You have no way to work it off. You will not study, you cannot sing, you write no letters, the mother does not believe'--
"'Do go away!' I cried.
"'--in the duty to the neighbor. Ach! what will you do with the whole of Tolstoi and Turgenieff shut up within you?'
"'I can ride,' I said. 'If you don't want me to go mad, leave me in the evenings to myself. Take my place in the carriage with Aunt Isabel, and let me ride alone.'
"Fraeulein had lived in bonds herself, and she had the soul of an artist. She knew what it is, for days together, to have barely an hour to one's own thoughts; never to step out alone of a summer night, after a long, hot, feverish day. She let me go with old Manuel, the head groom, as my escort. He was no more hindrance to solitude than a pine-tree or a post.
"The reading and the music and the heat went on. I was in a fever of emotion such as I had never known. Fraeulein perceived it. She recommended 'My Religion' as an antidote to the romances. I did not want his religion. I wanted his men and women, his reading of the human soul, the largeness of incident, the sense of time and space, the intricacy of family life, the problems of race, the march of nations across the great world-canvas.
"I rode--not alone, but with the high-strung beings that lived between the pages of my books: men and women who knew no curb, who stopped at nothing, and who paid the price of their passionate mistakes. Old Manuel, standing by the horses, looked strange to me. I spoke to him dramatically, as the women I read of would have spoken. Nothing could have added to or detracted from his own manner. He was of the old Spanish stock, but for the first time I saw his picturesqueness. I liked him to call me 'the Nina,' and address me in the third person with his eyes upon the ground.
"All this was preparatory. It is part of my defense; but do not forget the heat, the imprisonment, the sense of relief when the sun went down, the wild, bounding rapture of those night rides.
"One evening it was not Manuel who stood by the horses in the white track between the laurels. It was a figure as statuesque as his, but younger, and the pose was not that of a servant. It was the stand-at-ease of a soldier, or of an Indian wrapped in his blanket in the city square. This man was conscious of being looked at, but his training, of whatever sort, would not permit him to show it. Plainly the training had not been that of a groom. I was obliged to send him to the stables for his coat, and remind him that his place was behind. He took the hint good-humoredly, with the nonchalance of a big boy condescending to be taught the rules of some childish game. As we were riding through the woods later, I caught the scent of tobacco. It was my groom smoking. I told him he could not smoke and ride with me. He threw away his cigarette and straightened himself in the saddle with such a smile as he might have bestowed on the whims of a child. He obeyed me exactly in everything, with an exaggerated ironical precision, and seemed to find amusement in it. I questioned him about Manuel. He had gone to one of the lower ranches, would not be back for weeks. By whose orders was he attending me? By Manuel's, he said. He must then have had qualifications.
"'What is one to call you?' I asked him.
"He hesitated an instant. 'Jim is what I answer to around here,' said he.
"'What is your name?' I repeated.
"'The lady can call me anything she likes,'--he spoke in a low, lazy voice,--'but Dick Malaby is my name.'
"We have better heroes now than the Cheyenne cowboys, but I felt as a girl to-day would feel if she discovered she had been telling one of the men of the Merrimac to ride behind!"
"They would not need to be told," Mrs. Thorne interjected.
"No, that is the difference; but discipline did not appeal to me then; recklessness did. Every man on the place had taken sides on the Wyoming question; feeling ran high. Some of them had friends and relatives among the victims. Yet this man in hiding had tossed me his name to play with, not even asking for my silence, though it was the price of his life, and all in a light-hearted contempt for the curious ways of the 'tony set,' as he would have called us.
"I signed to him one evening to ride up. 'I want you to talk to me,' I said. 'Tell me about the cattle war.'
"'Miss Benedet forgets--my place is behind.' He touched his hat and fell back again. Lesson for lesson--we were quits. I made no further attempt to corrupt my own pupil.
"We rode in silence after that, but I was never without the sense of his ironical presence. I was conscious of showing off before him. I wished him to see that I could ride. Fences and ditches, rough or smooth, he never interfered with my wildest pace. I could not extract from him a look of surprise, far less the admiration that I wanted. What was a girl's riding to him? He knew a pace--all the paces--that I could never follow. I felt the absurdity of our mutual position, its utter artificiality, and how it must strike him.
"In the absence of words between us, externals spoke with greater force. He had the Greek line of head and throat, and he sat his horse with a dare-devil repose. The eloquence of his mute attitudes, his physical mastery of the conditions, his strength repressed, tied to my silly freaks and subject to my commands, while his thoughts roamed free! That was the beginning. It lasted through a week of starlight and a week of moonlight--lyric nights with the hot, close days between; and each night an increasing interest attached to the moment when he was to put me on my horse. I make no apology for myself after that.
"One evening we approached a gate at the farther end of our longest course, and the gate stood open. He rode on to close it. I stopped him. 'I am going out,' I said. It was a resolution taken that moment. He held up his watch to the light, which made me angry.
"'Go back to the stables,' I said, 'if you are due there. I don't want to know the time.'
"He brought his horse alongside. 'Where is Miss Benedet going, please?'
"'Anywhere,' I said, 'where it will be cool in the morning.'
"'Miss Benedet will have a long ride. Does she wish for company?'
"I did not answer. Something drove me forward, though I was afraid.
"'Outside that gate,' he went on quietly, 'I shall set the pace, and I do not ride behind.' Still I did not answer. 'Is that the understanding?'
"'Ride where you please,' I said.
"After that he took command, not roughly or familiarly, but he no longer used the third person, as I had instructed him, in speaking to me. The first time he said 'you' it sent the blood to my face. We were far up the mountain then, and morning was upon us.
"I wish to be definite here. From the moment I saw him plainly face to face the illusion was gone. Before, I had seen him by every light but daylight, and generally in profile. The profile is not the man. It is the plan in outline, but the eyes, the mouth, tell what he has made of himself. So attitude is not speech. As a shape in the moonlight he had been eloquent, but once at my side, talking with me naturally--I need not go on! From that moment our journey was to me a dream of horror, a series of frantic plans for escape.
"All fugitives on the coast must put to sea. The Oakland ferry would have answered my purpose. I would never have been seen with him in the city--alive.
"But at Colfax we met your husband. He knows--you know--the rest."
* * * * *
In thinking of the one who had first pitied her, pity for herself overcame her, and the proud penitent broke down.
Mr. and Mrs. Thorne sat in the shy silence of older persons who are past the age of demonstrative sympathy. The girl rose, and as she passed her hostess she put out her hand. Mrs. Thorne took it quickly and followed her. They found a seat by themselves in a dark corner of the porch.
"Your poor, good husband--how tired he is! How patiently you have listened, and what does it all come to?"
"Think of yourself, not of us," said Mrs. Thorne.
"Oh, it's all over for me. I have had my fight. But you have him to grieve for."
"Shall you not grieve for him yourself a little?"
The girl sat up quickly.
"If you mean do I give him up without a struggle--I do not. But you need not say that to him. I told him that it was all a mistake; I did not--do not love him."
"How could you say that"--
"It was necessary. Without that I should have been leaving it to his generosity. Now it remains only to show him how little he has lost."
"But could you not have done that without belying yourself? You do--surely you still care for him a little?"
"Insatiate mother! Is there any other proof I can give?"
"Your hand is icy cold."
"And my face is burning hot. Good-night. May I say, 'Now let thy servant depart in peace'?"
"I shall not know how to let you go to-morrow, and I do not see, myself, why you should go."
"You will--after I am gone."
"My dear, are you crying? I cannot see you. How cruel we have been, to sit and let you turn your life out for our inspection!"
"It was a free exhibition! No one asked me, and I did not even come prepared, more than seven years' study of my own case has prepared me.
"I was a child; but the fault was mine. I should have been allowed to suffer for it in the natural way. No good ever comes of skulking. But they hurried me off to Europe, and began a cowardly system of concealment. They made me almost forget my own misconduct in shame for the things they did by way of covering it up. My mother never took me in her arms and cried over my disgrace. She would not speak of it, or allow me to speak. Not a word nor an admission; the thing must be as though it had never been!
"They ruined Dick Malaby with their hush-money. They might better have shot him, but that would have made talk. My father died with only servants around him. Mama could not go to him. She was too busy covering my retreat. Oh, she kept a gallant front! I admired her, I pitied her, but I loathed her policy. Does not every girl know when she has been dedicated to the great god Success, and what the end of success must be?
"I told mama at last that if she would bring men to propose to me I should tell them the truth. Does Lord So-and-so wish to marry a girl who ran away with her father's groom? That was the breach between us. She has thrown herself into it. She is going to marry a title herself, not to let it go out of the family. Have you not heard of the engagement? She is to be a countess, and the property is controlled by her, so now I have an excuse for doing something."
"My dear!" Mrs. Thorne took the girl's cold hands in hers. "Do you mean that you are not your father's heiress?"
"Only by mama's last will and testament. We know what that would be if she made it now!"
"It was then you came home?"
"It was then, when I learned that one of my rejected suitors was to become my father. He might be my grandfather. But let us not be vulgar!"
"Aren't you girls going to bed to-night?" Mr. Thorne inquired, with his usual leaning toward peace and quietness. "You can't settle everything at one sitting."
"Everything is settled, Mr. Thorne, and I am going to bed," said Miss Benedet.
Mrs. Thorne did not release her hands. "I want to ask you one more question."
"I know exactly what it is, and I will tell you to-morrow."
"Tell me now; it is perfectly useless going to your room; the temperature over your bed is ninety-nine."
"The question, then! Why did I allow your son to commit himself in ignorance?"
"No, no!" Mrs. Thorne protested.
"Yes, yes! You have asked that question, you must have. You are an angel, but you are a mother, too."
"I have asked no questions since you began to tell your story; but I have wondered how Willy could have found courage, in one week, to offer himself to such gifts and possessions as yours."
"A mother, and a worldly mother!" Miss Benedet apostrophized. "I did not look for such considerations from you. And you are troubled for the modesty of your son?"
"My dear, he has nothing, and he is--of course we think him everything he should be--but he is not a handsome boy."
"Thank Heaven he is not."
"And he does not talk"--
"About himself. No."
"Ah, you do care for him! You understand him. You would"--
Miss Benedet rose to her feet with decision.
"You have not answered my question," the unconscionable mother pursued. "Does he know--is it known that you are not the great heiress your name would imply?"
"Everything is known," said the girl. "You do not read your society column, I see. Six weeks ago you might have learned the fate of my father's millions."
She stood by the balustrade and leaned out under the stars, taking a deep breath of the night's growing coolness. A rose-spray touched her face. She put it back, and a shower of dry, scented petals fell upon her breast and sleeve.
"There is always one point in every true story," she said in a tired voice, "where explanations cease to explain. The mysteries claim their share in us, deny them as we will. I don't know why it was, but from the time I threw off all that bondage to society and struck out for myself, I felt made over. Life began again with life's realities. I came home to earn my bread, and on that footing I felt sane and clean and honest. The question became not what I am or was, but what could I do? I discussed the question with your son."
"We did, indeed. We went over the whole field. East and west we tested my accomplishments by the standards of those who want teachers for their children. I have gone rather further in music than anything else. Even Fraeulein would hardly say now I lacked an outlet. I was working things off one evening on the piano--many things beyond the power of speech--the help of prayer, I might say. There were whispers about me already in the house."
"What do you mean?"
"People talking--my mother's old friends. It was rather serious, as I had been thinking of their daughters for pupils. I thought I was alone, but your son--the 'boy' as you call him--was listening. He came and stood beside me. For a person who does not talk, he can make himself quite well understood. I tried to go on playing. My blinded eyes, the wrong notes, told him all. I lay and thought all night, and asked myself, why might I not be happy and give happiness, like other women of my age. I denied to my conscience that I was bound to tell him, since I was not, never had been, what that story in words would report me. Why should I affect a lie in order literally, vainly to be honest? So a day passed, and another sleepless night. And now I had his image of me to battle with. Then it became impossible, and yet more necessary, and each day's silence buried me deeper beyond the hope of speech. So I gave it up. Why should he have in his wife less than I would ask for in my husband? I want none of your experienced men. Such a record as his, such a look in the eyes, the expression unawares of a life of sustained effort--always in one direction"--
A white arm in a black sleeve pointed upward in silence.
"And you would rob him of his reward?" said the mother, in a choked voice.
"Mrs. Thorne! Do you not understand me? I am not talking for effect. But this is what happens if one begins to explain. I did not come here to talk to you for the rest of my life! It was your sweetness that undid me. I will never again say what I think of parents in general."
* * * * *
"Maggie, do you know what time it is?" a suppressed voice issued an hour later from that part of the house supposed to be dedicated to sleep. "Are you going to sit up till morning?"
"I am looking for my letter," came the answer, in a tragic whisper.
"My letter to Willy, that you wouldn't let me read to you last night."
"You don't want to read it to me now, do you?"
There was no reply. A careful step kept moving about the inner rooms, newspapers rustled, and small objects were lifted and set down.
"Maggie, do come to bed! You can't mail your letter to-night."
"I don't want to mail it. I want to burn it. I will not have it on my conscience a moment longer"--
"I wish you'd have me on your conscience! It's after one o'clock." The voices were close together now, only an open door between the speakers.
"Won't you put something on and come out here, Henry? There is a light in Ito's house. I suppose you wouldn't let me go out and ask him?"
"I suppose not!"
"Then won't you go and ask if he saw a letter on my desk, sealed and addressed?"
Mr. Thorne sat up in bed disgustedly. "What is Ito doing with a light this time of night?"
"Hush, dear; don't speak so loud. He's studying. He's preparing himself to go into the Japanese navy."
"He is, is he! And that's why he can't get us our breakfast before half-past eight. I'll see about that light!"
"The letter, the letter!" Mrs. Thorne prompted in a ghostly--whisper. "Ask him if he saw it on my desk--a square blue envelope, thin paper."
The studious little cook was seated by a hot kerosene-lamp, at a table covered with picture-papers, soft Japanese books, and writing-materials. He was in his stocking-feet and shirt-sleeves, and his mental efforts appeared to have had a confusing effect on his usually sleek black hair, which stood all ways distractedly, while his sleepy eyes blinked under Mr. Thorne's brusque examination.
"I care fo' everything," he repeated, eliminating the consonants as he slid along. "Missa Tho'ne letta--all a-ready fo' mail--I putta pos'age-stamp, gifa to shif'-boss. I think Sa' F'a'cisco in a mo'ning. I care fo' everything!"
"Ito cares for everything," Mr. Thorne quoted, in answer to his wife's haggard inquiries. "He stamped your letter and sent it to town yesterday by one of the day-shift men."
"Now what shall be done!" Mrs. Thorne exclaimed tragically.
"I know what I shall do!" Mr. Thorne wrapped his toga around him with an air of duty done. But a husband cannot escape so easily as that. His ministering angel sat beside his bed for half an hour longer, brooding aloud over the day's disaster, with a rigid eye upon the question of personal accountability.
"If you had not stopped me, Henry, when I tried to confess about my letter! There's no time for the truth like the present."
"My dear, when a person is telling a story you don't want to interrupt with quibbles of conscience; if it made it any easier for her to think us a little better than we are, why rob her of the delusion?"
"I shall have to rob her of it to-morrow. To think of my sitting there, a whited sepulchre, and being called generous and forbearing and merciful, with that letter lying on my desk all the time!"
"It would be lying there still except for an accident. She will see how you feel about it. Give her something to forgive in you. Depend upon it, she'll rise to the occasion."
* * * * *
As the mother passed her guest's room next morning she paused and looked remorsefully at the closed door.
"I ought to have told her that we never shut our doors. She must be smothered. I wonder if she can be asleep."
Mr. Thorne went on into the dining-room. Mrs. Thorne knocked, in a whisper as it were. There was no answer. She softly unlatched the door, and a draft of air crept through, widening it with a prolonged and wistful creak. The sleeper did not stir. She had changed her pillows to the foot of the bed, and was lying in the full light, with her window-curtains drawn. In all the room there was an air of abandonment, an exhausted memory of the night's despairing heat. Mrs. Thorne stepped across the matting, and noiselessly bowed the shutters. A dash of spray from the lawn-sprinkler was spattering the sill, threatening to dampen a pile of dainty clothing laid upon a chair. She moved the chair, looked once more at the lovely dark-lashed sleeper, and left her again in peace.
Beside her plate at the breakfast-table there was a great heap of roses, gathered that morning, her husband's usual greeting. She praised them as she always did, and then began to finger them over, choosing the finest to save for her guest. Rare as they were in kind, and opened that morning, there was not a perfect rose among them. Each one showed the touch of blight in bloom. Every petal, just unclosed and dewy at the core, was curled along the edges, scorched in the bud. It was not mildew or canker or disease, only "a touch of sun."
"I won't give them to her," said the mother; "they are too like herself."
She saw her husband go forth into the heat again, and blamed herself, according to her wont of a morning after the night's mistakes, for robbing him of his rest and heaping her self-imposed burdens upon him. He laughed at the remorse tenderly, and brushed away the burdens, and faced the day's actualities with the not too fine remark, "I must go and see what's loose outside."
Everything was "loose" apparently. Something about a "hoist" had broken in the night, and the men were still at work without breakfast, an eighteen-hour shift. The order came for Ito to send out coffee and bread and fruit to the famished gang. Ito was in the lowest of spirits; had just given his mistress warning that he could not stay. The affair of the letter had wounded his susceptibilities; he must go where he would be better understood. All this in a soft, respectful undertone, his mistress trying to comfort him, and incidentally hasten his response to the requisition from outside. At eleven o'clock Mr. Thorne sent in a pencil message on a card: "I shall not be home to lunch. Does she want to get the 12:30 train?" Mrs. Thorne replied in the same manner, by bearer: "She did, but she is asleep. I don't like to wake her."
The darkened house preserved its silence, a restless endurance of the growing heat. Mrs. Thorne, in the thinnest of morning gowns, her damp hair brushed back from her powdered temples, sat alone at luncheon. Ito had put a melancholy perfection into his last salad. It was his valedictory.
She was about to rise when Miss Benedet came silently into the room with her long, even step. Her dark eyes were full of sleep. Mrs. Thorne rang, and began to fuss a little over her guest to cover the shyness each felt at the beginning of a new day. They had parted at too high a pitch of expression to meet again in the same emotional key.
Miss Benedet looked at the clock, lifting her eyebrows wearily. "I have lost my train," she remarked, but added no reproaches. "Is there an evening train to the city?"
"Not from here," Mrs. Thorne replied; "but we could send you over to Colfax to catch the night train from there. I hoped we could have you another day."
"That would be impossible," said Miss Benedet; "but I shall be giving you a great deal of trouble."
"Oh, no; it is only ten miles. Mr. Thorne will take you; we will both take you. It is a beautiful drive by moonlight through the woods. Was I wrong not to call you?"
"If you were, you will be punished by having me on your hands this long, hot afternoon. I ought to have gone last night. When one has parted with the very last bit of one's self, one should make haste to remove the shell."
"Then you would have left me with something remaining on my mind, something I must get rid of at once. Come, let us go where we cannot see each other's faces. I am deeply in the wrong concerning you."
Mrs. Thorne went on incriminating herself so darkly in her preface that when she came to the actual offense her confessor smiled. "I am so relieved!" she exclaimed. "This is much more like real life. I felt you must be keeping something back, or, if not, I could never live up to such a pitch of generosity. I am glad you did not reach it all at once."
"But what becomes of the truth--the story as it should have been told to Willy? Oh, I have sinned, for want of patience, of faith--not against you, dear, but my son!"
After a silence Miss Benedet said, "Now for the heart of my own weakness. Suppose that I did have a hope. Suppose that I had laid the responsibility upon you, the parents, hoping that you would decide for happiness, mere happiness, without question of desert or blame. And suppose you had defended me to him. Would that have been best? Where then would be his cure? Now let us put away all cowardice, for him as well as for ourselves. Happiness for him could have but one foundation. You have told him the facts; if he cannot bear them as all the world knows them, that is his cure. I thank you. You knew where to put the knife."
"Oh, but this is cruel!" said the mother. "I don't want to be your judge. You have had your punishment, and you took it like a queen. Now let us think of Willy!"
"Please!" said the girl. "I cannot talk of this any more. We must stop sometime."
The time of twilight came; the gasping house flung open doors and windows to the night. Mr. Thorne pursued his evening walk alone among the fruits and vegetables, counting his egg-plants, and marking the track of gophers in his rows of artichokes. The women were strolling toward the hill. Miss Benedet had put on a cloth skirt and stiff shirt-waist for her journey, and suffered from the change, but did not show it. Her beauty was not of the florid or melting order. Mrs. Thorne regarded her inconsolably, noting with distinct and separate pangs each item of her loveliness, as she moved serene and pale against the dark, resonant green of the pines. They followed a foot-path back among the trees to a small gate or door in the high boundary fence. Mrs. Thorne tried it to see if it were locked.
"Willy used to live, almost, on this hill when he came out for his vacations." She spoke dreamily, as if thinking aloud. "He slept in that tent. It looks like a little ghost to me these nights in the moonlight, the curtains flap in such a lonely way. That gate was his back door through the woods to town. His wheel used to lean against this tree. I miss his fair head in the sun, and his white trousers springing up the hill. But one cannot keep one's boy forever. You have made him a man, my dear."
The mother put out her hand timidly. She had ventured on forbidden ground once more. But she was not rebuffed. The girl's hand clasped hers and drew it around a slender waist, and they walked like two school friends together.
"I cannot support the idea that you will never come again," mourned the elder. "It is years since I have known a girl like you--a girl who can say things. I can make no headway with girls in general. They are so big and silent and athletic. They wear pins and badges, and belong to more things than I have ever heard of!"
Miss Benedet laughed. "I am silent, too, sometimes," she said.
"But you are not dense!"
"I'm afraid you go very much to extremes in your likes and dislikes, dear lady, and you are much younger than I, you know."
"I am quite aware of that," said Mrs. Thorne. "You have had seven years of Europe to my twenty of Cathay."
"Dear Cathay!" the girl murmured, with moist eyes; "I could live in this place forever."
"Where have you lived? Tell me in how many cities of the world."
"Oh, we never lived. We stayed in places for one reason or another. We were two years in Vienna. I worked there. I was a pupil of Leschetizky."
"Did I not tell you? I can play a little."
"A little! What does that exactly mean?"
"It means too much for drawing-room music, and not enough for the stage."
"You are not thinking of that, are you?"
"Why that voice of scorn? Have I hit upon one of your prejudices?"
"I am dreadfully old-fashioned about some things--publicity, for instance."
"It depends upon the kind, doesn't it? But you will never hear of me on the concert stage. Leschetizky says I have not the poise I might have had. He is very clever. There was a shock, he says, to the nerve centres. They will never again be quite under control. It is true. At this moment I am shivering within me because I must say good-by to one I might have had all my life for a friend. Is it so?"
"My dear, if you mean me, I love you!"
"Call me Helen, then. You said 'my dear' before you knew me."
"Before I meant it."
* * * * *
"I wonder who can be arriving. That is the carriage I came out in last night."
A light surrey with two seats passed below the hill, and was visible an instant against a belt of sky.
"It is going to stop," said Mrs. Thorne. "Suppose we step back a little. I shall not see visitors to-night. Very likely it is only some one for Mr. Thorne."
A tall young man in traveling clothes stepped out upon the horse-block, left his luggage there, and made ten strides up the walk. They heard his step exploring the empty piazzas.
"It is Willy!" said Mrs. Thorne in a staccato whisper.
"Then good-by!" said Miss Benedet. "I will find Mr. Thorne in the garden. Dearest Mrs. Thorne, you must let me go!"
"You will not see him? Not see Willy!"
"Not for worlds. He must not know that I am here. I trust you." She tore herself away.
Mrs. Thorne stood paralyzed between the two--her advancing son, and her fleeing guest.
"Willy!" she cried.
Her tall boy was bending over her--once more the high, fair head, the smooth arch of the neck, which she could barely reach to put her arms about it.
"Mother!" The word in his grave man's voice thrilled her as once had the touch of his baby hands.
"I am afraid to look at you, my son. How is it with you?"
"I am all right, mother. How are things here?"
"Oh, don't speak of us! Did you get my letter?"
"And you read it, Willy?"
There was a silence. Mrs. Thorne clasped her son's arm and leaned her head against it.
"I am sorry you worried so, mother."
"What does it matter about me?"
"I am sorry you took it so hard--because--I knew it all the time."
"You knew it! What do you mean?"
"A nice old lady told me. She was staying in the house. She cornered me and told me a long story--the day after I met Miss Benedet."
"What an infamous old woman!"
"She called herself a friend of yours--warned me for your sake, she said, and because she has sons of her own."
"Oh! Has she daughters?"
"Two--staying in the house."
"I see. She told it brutally, I suppose?"
"Worse than I did, Willy?"
William the Silent held his peace.
"You did not believe it? How much of it did you believe?"
"Mother," he said, "do you think a man can't see what a girl is?"
"But what do you know about girls?"
"Where is she?"
"Where is Helen? The man from Lord's said he brought her out here last night."
"Did you not get her letter?" Mrs. Thorne evaded.
"Where shall I find her?"
"Willy, I am a perjured woman! I have been making mischief steadily for two days."
"You might as well go on, mater." Willy beamed gravely upon his mother's career of dissimulation.
"Don't, for pity's sake, be hopeful! She said she would not see you for worlds."
"Then she hasn't gone."
Willy took a quick survey of the premises. He had long gray eyes and a set mouth. He saw most things that he looked at, and when he aimed for a thing he usually got somewhere near the mark.
"She is not in the house," he decided; "she is not on the hill--remains the garden."
* * * * *
Mrs. Thorne stood alone, meditating on Miss Benedet's trust in her. She saw her husband, her stool of repentance and her mercy-seat in one, plodding toward her contentedly across the soft garden ground, stepping between the lettuces and avoiding the parsley bed. He knocked off a huge fat kitchen weed with his cane.
"Where is that girl?" he said. "It's time you got your things on. We ought to be starting in ten minutes."
"If you can find Willy you'll probably find 'that girl'!" Mrs. Thorne explained, and then proceeded to explain further, as she walked with her husband back to the house.
"Well," he summed up, "what is your opinion of the universe up to date? Got any faith in anything left?"