The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XXII. The Case strikes In
Christine's marriage took place while Paul and Moya were lingering in the Bruneau, for Paul's health ostensibly. Banks and Horace had been left to the smiling irony of justice. They never had a straight chance to define their conduct in the woods; for no one accused them. No awkward questions were asked in the city drawing-rooms or at the clubs. For a tough half hour or so at Fort Lemhi they had realized how they stood in the eyes of those unbiased military judges. The shock had a bracing effect for a time. Both boys were said to be much improved by their Western trip and by the hardships of that frightful homeward march.
Mrs. Bogardus had matched her gift of Stone Ridge to her son, which was a gift of sentiment, with one of more substantial value to her daughter,--the income from certain securities settled upon her and her heirs. Banks was carefully unprovided for. The big house in town was full of ghosts--the ghosts that haunt such homes, made desolate by a breach of hearts. The city itself was crowded with opportunities for giving and receiving pain between mother and daughter. Christine had developed all the latent hardness of her mother's race with a sickly frivolity of her own. She made a great show of faith in her marriage venture. She boomed it in her occasional letters, which were full of scarce concealed bravado as graceful as snapping her fingers in her mother's face.
Mrs. Bogardus leased her house in town, and retired before the ghosts, but not escaping them; Stone Ridge must be put in order for its new master and mistress, and Stone Ridge had its own ghosts. She informed her absentees that, before their return, she should have left for Southern California to look after some investments which she had neglected there of late. It was then she spoke of her plan for restoring the old house by pulling down that addition which disfigured it; and Paul had objected to this erasure. It would take from the house's veracity, he said. The words carried their unintentional sting.
But it was Moya's six lines at the bottom of his page that changed and softened everything. Moya--always blessed when she took the initiative--contrived, as swiftly as she could set them down, to say the very words that made the home-coming a coming home indeed.
"Will Madam Bogardus be pleased to keep her place as the head of her son's house?" she wrote. "This foolish person he has married wants to be anything rather than the mistress of Stone Ridge. She wants to be always out of doors, and she needs to be. Oh, must you go away now--now when we need you so much? It cannot be said here on paper how much I need you! Am I not your motherless daughter? Please be there when we come, and please stay there!"
"For a little while then," said the lonely woman, smiling at the image of that sweet, foolish person in her thoughts. "For a little while, till she learns her mistake." Such mistakes are the cornerstone of family friendship.
* * * * *
It was an uneventful summer on the Hill, but one of rather wearing intensity in the inner relations of the household, one with another; for nothing could be quite natural with a pit of concealment to be avoided by all, and an air of unconsciousness to be carefully preserved in avoiding it. Moya's success in this way was so remarkable that Paul half hated it. How was it possible for her to speak to his mother so lightly; never the least apparent premeditation or fear of tripping; how look at her with such sweet surface looks that never questioned or saw beneath? He could not meet his mother's eyes at all when they were alone together, or endure a silence in her company.
Both women were of the type called elemental. They understood each other without knowing why. Moya felt the desperate truth contained in the mother's falsehood, and broke forth into passionate defense of her as against her husband's silence.
He answered her one day by looking up a little green book of fairy tales and reading aloud this fragment of "The Golden Key."
"'I never tell lies, even in fun.' (The mysterious Grandmother speaks.)
"'How good of you!' (says the Child in the Wood.)
"'I couldn't if I tried. It would come true if I said it, and then I should be punished enough.'"
Moya's eyes narrowed reflectively.
"How constantly you are thinking of this! I think of it only when I am with you. As if a woman like your mother, who has done one thing, should be all that thing, and nothing more to us, her children!"
Moya was giving herself up, almost immorally, Paul sometimes thought, to the fascination Mrs. Bogardus's personality had for her. In a keenly susceptible state herself, at that time, there was something calming and strengthening in the older woman's perfected beauty, her physical poise, and the fitness of everything she did and said and wore to the given occasion. As a dark woman she was particularly striking in summer clothing. Her white effects were tremendous. She did not pretend to study these matters herself, but in years of experience, with money to spend, she had learned well in whom to confide. When women are shut up together in country houses for the summer, they can irritate each other in the most foolish ways. Mrs. Bogardus never got upon your nerves.
But, for Paul, there was a poison in his mother's beauty, a dread in her influence over his impressionable young wife, thrilled with the awakening forces of her consonant being. Moya would drink deep of every cup that life presented. Motherhood was her lesson for the day. "She is a queen of mothers!" she would exclaim with an abandon that was painful to Paul; he saw deformity where Moya was ready to kneel. "I love her perfect love for you--for me, even! She is above all jealousy. She doesn't even ask to be understood."
Paul was silent.
"And oh, she knows, she knows! She has been through it all--in such despair and misery--all that is before me, with everything in the world to make it easy and all the beautiful care she gives me. She is the supreme mother. And I never had a mother to speak to before. Don't, don't, please, keep putting that dreadful thing between us now!"
So Paul took the dreadful thing away with him and was alone with it, and knew that his mother saw it in his eyes when their eyes met and avoided. When, after a brief household absence, he would see her again he wondered, "Has she been alone with it? Has it passed into another phase?"--as of an incurable disease that must take its time and course.
Mrs. Bogardus did not spare her conscience in social ways all this time. It was a part of her life to remember that she had neighbors--certain neighbors. She included Paul without particularly consulting him whenever it was proper for him to support her in her introduction of his wife to the country-house folk, many of whom they knew in town.
All his mother's friends liked Paul and supposed him to be very clever, but they had never taken him seriously. "Now, at last," they said, "he has done something like other people. He is coming out." Experienced matrons were pleased to flatter him on his choice of a bride. The daughters studied Moya, and decided that she was "different," but "all right." She had a careless distinction of her own. Some of her "things" were surprisingly lovely--probably heirlooms; and army women are so clever about clothes.
Would they spend the winter in town?
Paul replied absently: they had not decided. Probably they would not go down till after the holidays.
What an attractive plan? What an ideal family Christmas they would have all together in the country! Christine had not been up all summer, had she? Here Moya came to her husband's relief, through a wife's dual consciousness in company, and covered his want of spirits with a flood of foolish chatter.
The smiling way in which women the most sincere can posture and prance on the brink of dissimulation was particularly sickening to Paul at this time. Why need they put themselves in situations where it was required? The situations were of his mother's creation. He imagined she must suffer, but had little sympathy with that side of her martyrdom. Moya seemed a trifle feverish in her acceptance of these affairs of which she was naturally the life and centre. A day of entertaining often faded into an evening of subtle sadness.
Paul would take her out into the moonlight of that deep inland country. The trees were dark with leaves and brooded close above them; old water-fences and milldams cast inky shadows on the still, shallow ponds clasped in wooded hills. No region could have offered a more striking contrast to the empty plains. Moya felt shut in with old histories. The very ground was but moulding sand in which generations of human lives had been poured, and the sand swept over to be reshaped for them.
"We are not living our own life yet," Paul would say; not adding, "We are protecting her." Here was the beginning of punishment helplessly meted out to this proud woman whose sole desire was towards her children--to give, and not to receive.
"But this is our Garden?" Moya would muse. "We are as nearly two alone as any two could be."
"If you include the Snake. We can't leave out the Snake, you know."
"Snake or Seraph--I don't believe I know the difference. Paul, I cannot have you thinking things."
"I?--what do I think?"
"You are thinking it is bad for me to be so much with her. You, as a man and a husband, resent what she, as a woman and a wife, has dared to do. And I, as another woman and wife, I say she could do nothing else and be true. For, don't you see? She never loved him. The wifehood in her has never been reached. She was a girl, then a mother, then a widow. How could she"--
"Do you think he would have claimed her as his wife? Oh, you do not know him;--she has never known him. If we could be brave and face our duty to the whole truth, and leave the rest to those sequences, never dreamed of, that wait upon great acts. Such surprises come straight from God. Now we can never know how he would have risen to meet a nobler choice in her. He had not far to rise! Well, we have our share of blessings, including piazza teas; but as a family we have missed one of the greatest spiritual opportunities,--such as come but once in a lifetime."
"Ah, if she was not ready for it, it was not her opportunity. God is very patient with us, I believe."