The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
Affairs went thus for a week. Orde was much at the Bishop residence, where he was cordially received by the general, where he gained an occasional half-hour with Carroll, and where he was almost ignored by Mrs. Bishop in her complete self-absorption. Indeed, it is to be doubted whether he attained any real individuality to that lady, who looked on all the world outside her family as useful or useless to the church.
In the course of the happy moments he had alone with Carroll, he arrived at a more intimate plane of conversation with her. He came to an understanding of her unquestioning acceptance of Mrs. Bishop's attitude. Carroll truly believed that none but herself could perform for her mother the various petty offices that lady demanded from her next of kin, and that her practical slavery was due by every consideration of filial affection. To Orde's occasional tentative suggestion that the service was of a sort better suited to a paid companion or even a housemaid, she answered quite seriously that it made mother nervous to have others about her, and that it was better to do these things than to throw her into a "spell." Orde chafed at first over seeing his precious opportunities thus filched from him; later he fretted because he perceived that Carroll was forced, however willingly, to labours beyond her strength, to irksome confinement, and to that intimate and wearing close association with the abnormal which in the long run is bound to deaden the spirit. He lost sight of his own grievance in the matter. With perhaps somewhat of exaggeration he came mightily to desire for her more of the open air, both of body and spirit. Often when tramping back to his hotel he communed savagely with himself, turning the problem over and over in his mind until, like a snowball, it had gathered to itself colossal proportions.
And in his hotel room he brooded over the state of affairs until his thoughts took a very gloomy tinge indeed. To begin with, in spite of his mother's assurance, he had no faith in his own cause. His acquaintance with Carroll was but an affair of months, and their actual meetings comprised incredibly few days. Orde was naturally humble-minded. It did not seem conceivable to him that he could win her without a long courtship. And superadded was the almost intolerable weight of Carroll's ideas as to her domestic duties. Although Orde held Mrs. Bishop's exactions in very slight esteem, and was most sceptical in regard to the disasters that would follow their thwarting, nevertheless he had to confess to himself that all Carroll's training, life, the very purity and sweetness of her disposition lent the situation an iron reality for her. He became much discouraged.
Nevertheless, at the very moment when he had made up his mind that it would be utterly useless even to indulge in hope for some years to come, he spoke. It came about suddenly, and entirely without premeditation.
The two had escaped for a breath of air late in the evening. Following the conventions, they merely strolled to the end of the block and back, always within sight of the house. Fifth Avenue was gay with illumination and the prancing of horses returning uptown or down to the Washington Square district. In contrast the side street, with its austere rows of brownstone houses, each with its area and flight of steps, its spaced gas lamps, its deserted roadway, seemed very still and quiet. Carroll was in a tired and pensive mood. She held her head back, breathing deeply.
"It's only a little strip, but it's the stars," said she, looking up to the sky between the houses. "They're so quiet and calm and big."
She seemed to Orde for the first time like a little girl. The maturer complexities which we put on with years, with experience, and with the knowledge of life had for the moment fallen from her, leaving merely the simple soul of childhood gazing in its eternal wonder at the stars. A wave of tenderness lifted Orde from his feet. He leaned over, his breath coming quickly.
"Carroll!" he said.
She looked up at him, and shrank back.
"No, no! You mustn't," she cried. She did not pretend to misunderstand. The preliminaries seemed in some mysterious fashion to have been said long ago.
"It's life or death with me," he said.
"I must not," she cried, fluttering like a bird. "I promised myself long ago that I must always, always take care of mother."
"Please, please, dear," pleaded Orde. He had nothing more to say than this, just the simple incoherent symbols of pleading; but in such crises it is rather the soul than the tongue that speaks. His hand met hers and closed about it. It did not respond to his grasp, nor did it draw away, but lay limp and warm and helpless in his own.
She shook her head slowly.
"Don't you care for me, dear?" asked Orde very gently.
"I have no right to tell you that," answered she. "I have tried, oh, so hard, to keep you from saying this, for I knew I had no right to hear you."
Orde's heart leaped with a wild exultation.
"You do care for me!" he cried.
They had mounted the steps and stood just within the vestibule. Orde drew her toward him, but she repulsed him gently.
"No," she shook her head. "Please be very good to me. I'm very weak."
"Carroll!" cried Orde. "Tell me that you love me! Tell me that you'll marry me!"
"It would kill mother if I should leave her," she said sadly.
"But you must marry me," pleaded Orde. "We are made for each other. God meant us for each other."
"It would have to be after a great many years," she said doubtfully.
She pulled the bell, which jangled faintly in the depths of the house.
"Good-night," she said. "Come to me to-morrow. No, you must not come in." She cut short Orde's insistence and the eloquence that had just found its life by slipping inside the half-open door and closing it after her.
Orde stood for a moment uncertain; then turned away and walked up the street, his eyes so blinded by the greater glory that he all but ran down an inoffensive passer-by.
At the hotel he wrote a long letter to his mother. The first part was full of the exultation of his discovery. He told of his good fortune quite as something just born, utterly forgetting his mother's predictions before he came East. Then as the first effervescence died, a more gloomy view of the situation came uppermost. To his heated imagination the deadlock seemed complete. Carroll's devotion to what she considered her duty appeared unbreakable. In the reaction Orde doubted whether he would have it otherwise. And then his fighting blood surged back to his heart. All the eloquence, the arguments, the pleadings he should have commanded earlier in the evening hurried belated to their posts. After the manner of the young and imaginative when in the white fire of emotion, he began dramatising scenes between Carroll and himself. He saw them plainly. He heard the sound of his own voice as he rehearsed the arguments which should break her resolution. A woman's duty to her own soul; her obligation toward the man she could make or mar by her love; her self-respect; the necessity of a break some time; the advantage of having the crisis over with now rather than later; a belief in the ultimate good even to Mrs. Bishop of throwing that lady more on her own resources; and so forth and so on down a list of arguments obvious enough or trivial enough, but all inspired by the soul of fervour, all ennobled by the spirit of truth that lies back of the major premise that a woman should cleave to a man, forsaking all others. Orde sat back in his chair, his eyes vacant, his pen all but falling from his hand. He did not finish the letter to his mother. After a while he went upstairs to his own room.
The fever of the argument coursed through his veins all that long night. Over and over again he rehearsed it in wearisome repetition until it had assumed a certain and almost invariable form. And when he had reached the end of his pleading he began it over again, until the daylight found him weary and fevered. He arose and dressed himself. He could eat no breakfast. By a tremendous effort of the will he restrained himself from going over to Ninth Street until the middle of the morning.
He entered the drawing-room to find her seated at the piano. His heart bounded, and for an instant he stood still, summoning his forces to the struggle for which he had so painfully gathered his ammunition. She did not look up as he approached until he stood almost at her shoulder. Then she turned to him and held out both her hands.
"It is no use, Jack," she said. "I care for you too much. I will marry you whenever you say."