IX. The Power of Weakness
 

Christine followed her mother to their room, and the two faced each other a moment in pale silence.

Mrs. Bogardus spoke first. "What does this mean?"--her breath came short, perhaps from climbing the stairs. She was a large woman.

"What does what mean? I don't understand you, mother."

"Ah, child, don't repulse me! Twice you and Moya have nearly quarreled about those men. Why were you so rude to her? Why did you behave so about her letter?"

"Paul is so intolerant! And the airs he puts on! If he is my own brother I must say he's an awful prig about other men."

"We are not discussing Paul. That is not the question now. Have you anything to tell me, Christine?"

"To tell you?--about what, mother?" Christine spoke lower.

"You know what I mean. Which of them is it? Is it Banks?--don't say it is Banks!"

"Mother, how can I say anything when you begin like that?"

"Have you any idea what sort of a man Banks Bowen really is? His father supports him entirely--six years now, ever since he left the law school. He does nothing, never will do anything. He has no will or purpose in life, except about trifles like this hunting-trip. As far as I can see he is without common sense."

Christine stood by the dressing-table pleating the cover-frilling with her small fingers that were loaded with rings. She pinched the folds hard and let them go. "Why did no one ever say these things before?"

"We don't say things about the sons of our friends, unless we are compelled to. They were implied in every way possible. When have I asked Banks Bowen to the house except when everybody was asked! I would never in the world have come out in Mr. Borland's car if I had known the Bowens were to be of the party."

"That made no difference," said Christine loftily.

"It was all settled before then, was it?"

"Have I said it was settled, mother? He asked me if I could ever care for him; and I said that I did--a little. Why shouldn't I? He does what I like a man to do. I don't enjoy people who have wills and purposes. It may be very horrid of me, but I wouldn't be in Moya's place for worlds."

"You poor child! You poor, unhappy child!"

"Why am I unhappy? Has Paul added so much to our income since he left college?"

"Paul does not make money; neither does he selfishly waste it. He has a conscience in his use of what he has."

"I don't see what conscience has to do with it. When it is gone it's gone."

"You will learn what conscience has to do with a man's spending if ever you try to make both ends meet with Banks Bowen. I suppose he will go through the form of speaking to me?"

"Mother dear! He has only just spoken to me. How fast you go!"

"Not fast enough to keep up with my children, it seems. Was it you, Christine, who asked them to come here?"

Christine was silent.

"Where did you learn such ways?--such want of frankness, of delicacy, of the commonest consideration for others? To be looking out for your own little schemes at a time like this!" Mrs. Bogardus saw now what must have been Paul's reason for doing what, with all her forced explanations of the hunting-trip, she had never until now understood. He had taken the alarm before she had, and done what he could to postpone this family catastrophe.

Christine retreated to a deep-cushioned chair, and threw herself into it, her slender hands, palm upwards, extended upon its arms. Total surrender under pressure of cruel odds was the expression of her pointed eyebrows and drooping mouth. She looked exasperatingly pretty and irresponsibly fragile. Her blue-veined eyelids quivered, her breath came in distinct pants.

"Perhaps you will not be troubled with my 'ways' for very many years, mother. If you could feel my heart now! It jumps like something trying to get out. It will get out some day. Have patience!"

"That is a poor way to retaliate upon your mother, Christine. Your health is too serious a matter to trifle with. If you choose to make it a shield against everything I say that doesn't please you, you can cut yourself off from me entirely. I cannot beat down such a defense as that. Anger me you never can, but you can make me helpless to help you."

"I dare say it's better that I should never marry at all," said Christine, her eyes closed in resignation. "You never would like anybody I like."

"I shall say no more. You are a woman. I have protected you as far as I was able on account of your weakness. I cannot protect you from the weakness itself."

Mrs. Bogardus rose. She did not offer to comfort her child with caresses, but in her eyes as she looked at her there was a profound, inalienable, sorrowing tenderness, a depth of understanding beyond words.

"I know so well," the dark eyes seemed to say, "how you came to be the poor thing that you are!"

The constraint which she felt towards her mother threw Chrissy back upon Moya. Being a lesser power, she was always seeking alliances. Moya had put aside their foolish tiff as unworthy of another thought; she was embarrassed when at bedtime Christine came humbly to her door, and putting her arms around her neck implored her not to be cross with her "poor pussy." It was always the other person who was "cross" with Christine.

"Nobody is cross with anybody, so far as I know," said Moya briskly. A certain sort of sentimentality always made her feel like whistling or singing or asserting the commonplace side of life in some way.