The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XVII. Noblesse Oblige
The thought which caused Bennington de Lane so suddenly look grave was suggested by the sentence in his mother's letter. For the first time he realized that these people, up to now so amusing, were possibly destined to come into intimate relations with himself. Old Bill Lawton was Mary's father; while Mrs. Lawton was Mary's mother; Maude was Mary's sister.
The next instant a great rush of love into his heart drove this feeling from it. What matter anything, provided she loved him and he loved her? Generous sentiment so filled him that there was room for nothing else. He even experienced dimly in the depths of his consciousness, a faint pale joy that in thus accepting what was disagreeable to his finer sensibilities, he was proving more truly to his own self the boundlessness of his love. For the moment he was exalted by this instant revulsion against anything calculating in his passion. And then slowly, one by one, the objections stole back, like a flock of noisome sombre creatures put to flight by a sudden movement, but now returning to their old nesting places. The very unassuming method of their recurrence lent them an added influence. Almost before Bennington knew it they had established a case, and he found himself face to face with a very ugly problem.
Perhaps it will be a little difficult for the average and democratic reader to realize fully the terrible proportions of this problem. We whose lives assume little, require little of them. Intangible objections to the desires of our hearts do not count for much against their realization; there needs the rough attrition of reality to turn back our calm, complacent acquisition of that which we see to be for our best interest in the emotional world. Claims of ancestry mean nothing. Claims of society mean not much more. Claims of wealth are considered as evanescent among a class of men who, by their efforts and genius, are able to render absolute wealth itself an evanescent quality. When one of us loves, he questions the worth of the object of his passion. That established, nothing else is of great importance. There is a grand and noble quality in this, but it misses much. About the other state of affairs--wherein the woman's appurtenances of all kinds, as well as the woman herself, are significant--is a delicate and subtle aura of the higher refinement--the long refinement of the spirit through many generations--which, to an eye accustomed to look for gradations of moral beauty, possesses a peach-blow iridescence of its own. From one point of view, the old-fashioned forms of thought and courtesy are stilted and useless. From another they retain still the lofty dignity of noblesse oblige.
So we would have none set down Bennington de Laney as a prig or a snob because he did not at once decide for his heart as against his aristocratic instincts. Not only all his early education, but the life lessons of many generations of ancestors had taught him to set a fictitious value on social position. He was a de Laney on both sides. He had never been allowed to forget it. A long line of forefathers, proud-eyed in their gilded frames, mutely gazed their sense of the obligations they had bequeathed to this last representative of their race. When one belongs to a great family he can not live entirely for himself. His disgrace or failure reflects not alone on his own reputation, but it sullies the fair fame of men long dead and buried; and this is a dreadful thing. For all these old Puritans and Cavaliers, these knights and barons, these king's councillors and scholars, have perchance lived out the long years of their lives with all good intent and purpose and with all earnestness of execution, merely that they might build and send down to posterity this same fair fame. It is a bold man, or a wicked man, who will dare lightly to bring the efforts of so many lives to naught! In the thought of these centuries of endeavour, the sacrifice of mere personal happiness does not seem so great an affair after all. The Family Name has taken to itself a soul. It is a living thing. It may be worked for, it may be nourished by affection, it may even be worshipped. Men may give their lives to it with as great a devotion, with as exalted a sense of renunciation, and as lofty a joy in that renunciation, as those who vow allegiance to St. Francis or St. Dominic. The tearing of the heart from the bosom often proves to be a mortal hurt when there is nothing to put in the gap of its emptiness. Not so when a tradition like this may partly take its place.
These, and more subtle considerations, were the noblest elements of Bennington de Laney's doubts. But perhaps they were no more potent than some others which rushed through the breach made for them in the young man's decision.
He had always lived so much at home that he had come to accept the home point of view without question. That is to say, he never examined the value of his parent's ideas, because it never occurred to him to doubt them. He had no perspective.
In a way, then, he accepted as axioms the social tenets held by his mother, or the business methods practised by his father. He believed that elderly men should speak precisely, and in grammatical, but colourless English. He believed also that people should, in society, conduct themselves according to the fashion-plate pattern designed by Mrs. de Laney. He believed these things, not because he was a fool, or shallow, or lacking in humour, or snobbish, but because nothing had ever happened to cause him to examine his beliefs closely, that he might appreciate what they really were. One of these views was, that cultured people were of a class in themselves, and could not and should not mix with other classes. Mrs. de Laney entertained a horror of vulgarity. So deep-rooted was this horror that a remote taint of it was sufficient to thrust forever outside the pale of her approbation any unfortunate who exhibited it. She preferred stupidity to common sense, when the former was allied with good form, and the latter only with plain kindliness. This was partly instinct and partly the result of cultivation. She would shrink, with uncontrollable disgust, from any of the lower classes with whom she came unavoidably in contact. A slight breach of the conventions earned her distrust of one of her own caste. As this personal idiosyncrasy fell in line with the de Laney pride, it was approved by the head of the family. Under encouragement it became almost a monomania.
Bennington pictured to himself only too vividly the effect of the Lawtons on this lady's aristocratic prejudices. He knew, only too well, that Bill Lawton's table manners would not be allowed even in her kitchen. He could imagine Mrs. Lawton's fatuous conversation in the de Laney's drawing-room, or Maude Eliza's dressed-up self-consciousness. The experience of having the three Westerners to dinner just once would, Bennington knew, drive his lady mother to the verge of nervous prostration--he remembered his father's one and only experience in bringing business connections home to lunch--; his imagination failed to picture the effect of her having to endure them as actual members of the family! As if this were not bad enough, his restless fancy carried him a step farther. He perceived the agonies of shame and mortification, real even though they were conventional, she would have to endure in the face of society. That the de Laneys, social leaders, rigid in respectability, should be forced to the humiliation of acknowledging a misalliance, should be forced to the added humiliation of confessing that this marriage was not only with a family of inferior social standing, but with one actually unlettered and vulgar! Bennington knew only too well the temper of his mother--and of society.
It would not be difficult to expand these doubts, to amplify these reasons, and even to adduce others which occurred to the unhappy young man as he climbed the hill. But enough has been said. Surely the reader, no matter how removed in sympathy from that line of argument, must be able now at least to sympathize, to perceive that Bennington de Laney had some reason for thought, some excuse for the tardiness of his steps as they carried him to a meeting with the girl he loved.
For he did love her, perhaps the more tenderly that doubts must, perforce, arise. All these considerations affected not at all his thought of her. But now, for the first time, Bennington de Laney was weighing the relative claims of duty and happiness. His happiness depended upon his love. That his duty to his race, his parents, his caste had some reality in fact, and a very solid reality in his own estimation, the author hopes he has shown. If not, several pages have been written in vain.
The conflict in his mind had carried him to the Rock. Here, as he expected, he found Mary already arrived. He ascended to the little plateau and dropped wearily to the moss. His face had gone very white in the last quarter of an hour.
"You see now why I asked you to come to-day," she said without preliminary. "Now you have seen them, and there is nothing more to conceal."
"I know, I know," he replied dully. "I am trying to think it out. I can't see it yet."
They took entirely for granted that each knew the subject of the other's thoughts. The girl seemed much the more self-possessed of the two.
"We may as well understand each other," she said quietly, without emotion. "You have told me a certain thing, and have asked me for a certain answer. I could not give it to you before without deceiving you. Now the answer depends on you. I have deceived you in a way," she went on more earnestly, "but I did not mean to. I did not realize the difference, truly I didn't, until I saw the girl on the train. Then I knew the difference between her and me, and between her's and mine. And when you turned away, I saw that you were her kind, and I saw, too, that you ought to know everything there was about me. Then you spoke."
"I meant what I said, too," he interrupted. "You must believe that, Mary, whatever comes."
"I was sorry you did," she went on, as though she had not heard him. Then with just a touch of impatience tingeing the even calm of her voice, "Oh, why will men insist on saying those things!" she cried. "The way to win a girl is not thus. He should see her often, without speaking of love, being everything to her, until at last she finds she can not live without him."
"Have I been that to you, Mary? Has it come to that with me?" he asked wistfully.
"Heaven help me, I am afraid it has!" she cried, burying her face in her hands.
A great gladness leaped up into his face, and died as the blaze of a fire leaps up and expires.
"That makes it easier--and harder," he said. "It is bad enough as it is. I don't know how I can make you understand, dear."
"I understand more than you think," she replied, becoming calm again, and letting her hands fall into her lap. "I am going to speak quite plainly. You love me, Ben--ah, don't I know it!" she cried, with a sudden burst of passion. "I have seen it in your eyes these many days. I have heard it in your voice. I have felt it welling out from your great heart. It has been sweet to me--so sweet! You can not know, no man ever could know, how that love of yours has filled my soul and my heart until there was room for nothing else in the whole wide world!"
"You love me!" he said wonderingly.
"If I had not known that, do you think I would have endured a moment's hesitation after you had seen the objectionable features of my life? Do you think that if I had the slightest doubts of your love, I could now understand why you hesitate? But I do, and I honour you for it."
"You love me!" he repeated.
"Yes, yes, Ben dear, I do love you. I love you as I never thought to be permitted to love. Do you want to know what I did that second day on the Rock--the day you first showed me what you really were? The day you told me of your old home and the great tree? It was all so peaceful, and tender, and comforting, so sweet and pure, that it rested me. I felt, here is a man at last who could not misunderstand me, could not be abrupt, and harsh, and cruel. I said to myself, 'He is not perfect nor does he expect perfection.' I shut my eyes, and then something choked me, and the tears came. I cried out loud, 'Oh, to be what I was, to give again what I have not! O God, give me back my heart as it once was, and let me love!' Yes, Ben dear, I said 'love.' And then I was not happy any more all day. But God answered that prayer, Ben dear, and we do love one another now, and that is why we can look at things together, and see what is best for us both."
"You love me!" he exclaimed for the third time.
"And now, dear, we must talk plainly and calmly. You have seen what my family is."
"I don't know, Mary, that I can make you understand at all," began Bennington helplessly. "I can't express it even to myself. Our people are so different. My training has been so different. All this sort of thing means so much to us, and so little to you."
"I know exactly," she interrupted. "I have read, and I have lived East. I can appreciate just how it is. See if I can not read your thoughts. My family is uneducated. If it becomes your family, your own parents will be more than grieved, and your friends will have little to do with you. You have also duties toward your family, as a family. Is that it?"
"Yes, that is it," answered he, "but there are so many things it does not say. It seems to me it has come to be a horrible dilemma with me. If I do what I am afraid is my duty to my family and my people, I will be unhappy without you forever. And if I follow my heart, then it seems to me I will wrong myself, and will be unhappy that way. It seems a choice of just in what manner I will be miserable!" he ended with a ghastly laugh.
"And which is the most worth while?" she asked in a still voice.
"I don't know, I don't know!" he cried miserably. "I must think."
He looked out straight ahead of him for some time. "Whichever way I decide," he said after a little, "I want you to know this, Mary: I love you, and I always will love you, and the fact that I choose my duty, if I do, is only that if I did not, I would not consider myself worthy even to look at you." A silence fell on them again.
"I can not live West," said he again, as though he had been arguing this point in his mind and had just reached the conclusion of it. "My life is East; I never knew it until now." He hesitated. "Would you--that is, could you--I mean, would your family have to live East too?"
She caught his meaning and drew herself up, with a little pride in the movement.
"Wherever I go, whatever I do, my people must be free to go or do. You have your duty to your family. I have my duty to mine!"
He bowed his head quietly in assent. She looked at the struggle depicted in the lines of his face with eyes in which, strangely enough, was much pity, but no unhappiness or doubt. Could it be that she was so sure of the result?
At last he raised his head slowly and turned to her with an air of decision.
"Mary----" he began.
At that moment there became audible a sudden rattle of stones below the Rock, and at the same instant a harsh voice broke in rudely upon their conversation.