The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
Orde left that evening early. This was at Carroll's request. She preferred herself to inform her family of the news.
"I don't know yet how mother is going to get along," said she. "Come back to-morrow afternoon and see them all."
The next morning Orde, having at last finished and despatched the letter to his mother, drifted up the avenue and into the club. As he passed the smoking room he caught sight of Gerald seated in an armchair by the window. He entered the room and took a seat opposite the young fellow.
Gerald held out his hand silently, which the other took.
"I'm glad to hear it," said Gerald at last. "Very glad. I told you I was on your side." He hesitated, then went on gravely: "Poor Carroll is having a hard time, though. I think it's worse than she expected. It's no worse than I expected. You are to be one of the family, so I am going to give you a piece of advice. It's something, naturally, I wouldn't speak of otherwise. But Carroll is my only sister, and I want her to be happy. I think you are the man to make her so, but I want you to avoid one mistake. Fight it out right now, and never give back the ground you win."
"I feel that," replied Orde quietly.
"Mother made father resign from the army; and while he's a dear old boy, he's never done anything since. She holds me--although I see through her--possibly because I'm weak or indifferent, possibly because I have a silly idea I can make a bad situation better by hanging around. She is rapidly turning Kendrick into a sullen little prig, because he believes implicitly all the grievances against the world and the individual she pours out to him. You see, I have no illusions concerning my family. Only Carroll has held to her freedom of soul, because that's the joyous, free, sweet nature of her, bless her! For the first time she's pitted her will against mother's, and it's a bad clash."
"Your mother objected?" asked Orde.
Gerald laughed a little bitterly. "It was very bad," said he. "You've grown horns, hoofs, and a tail overnight. There's nothing too criminal to have escaped your notice. I have been forbidden to consort with you. So has the general. The battle of last night had to do with your coming to the house at all. As it is not Carroll's house, naturally she has no right to insist."
"I shall not be permitted to see her?" cried Orde.
"I did not say that. Carroll announced then quite openly that she would see you outside. I fancy that was the crux of the matter. Don't you see? The whole affair shifted ground. Carroll has offered direct disobedience. Oh, she's a bully little fighter!" he finished in admiring accents. "You can't quite realise what she's doing for your sake; she's not only fighting mother, but her own heart."
Orde found a note at the hotel, asking him to be in Washington Square at half-past two.
Carroll met him with a bright smile.
"Things aren't quite right at home," she said. "It is a great shock to poor mother at first, and she feels very strongly. Oh, it isn't you, dear; it's the notion that I can care for anybody but her. You see, she's been used to the other idea so long that I suppose it seemed a part of the universe to her. She'll get used to it after a little, but it takes time."
Orde examined her face anxiously. Two bright red spots burned on her cheeks; her eyes flashed with a nervous animation, and a faint shade had sketched itself beneath them.
"You had a hard time," he murmured, "you poor dear!"
She smiled up at him.
"We have to pay for the good things in life, don't we, dear? And they are worth it. Things will come right after a little. We must not be too impatient. Now, let's enjoy the day. The park isn't so bad, is it?"
At five o'clock Orde took her back to her doorstep, where he left her.
This went on for several days.
At the end of that time Orde could not conceal from himself that the strain was beginning to tell. Carroll's worried expression grew from day to day, while the animation that characterised her manner when freed from the restraint became more and more forced. She was as though dominated by some inner tensity, which she dared not relax even for a moment. To Orde's questionings she replied as evasively as she could, assuring him always that matters were going as well as she had expected; that mother was very difficult; that Orde must have patience, for things would surely come all right. She begged him to remain quiescent until she gave him the word; and she implored it so earnestly that Orde, though he chafed, was forced to await the turn of events. Every afternoon she met him, from two to five. The situation gave little opportunity for lovers' demonstrations. She seemed entirely absorbed by the inner stress of the struggle she was going through, so that hardly did she seem able to follow coherently even plans for the future. She appeared, however, to gain a mysterious refreshment from Orde's mere proximity; so gradually he, with that streak of almost feminine intuition which is the especial gift to lovers, came to the point of sitting quite silent with her, clasping her hand out of sight of the chance passer-by. When the time came to return, they arose and walked back to Ninth Street, still in silence. At the door they said good-bye. He kissed her quite soberly.
"I wish I could help, sweetheart," said he.
She shook her head at him.
"You do help," she replied.
From Gerald at the club, Orde sought more intimate news of what was going on. For several days, however, the young man absented himself from his usual haunts. It was only at the end of the week that Orde succeeded in finding him.
"No," Gerald answered his greeting, "I haven't been around much. I've been sticking pretty close home."
Little by little, Orde's eager questions drew out the truth of the situation. Mrs. Bishop had shut herself up in a blind and incredible obstinacy, whence she sallied with floods of complaints, tears, accusations, despairs, reproaches, vows, hysterics--all the battery of the woman misunderstood, but in which she refused to listen to a consecutive conversation. If Carroll undertook to say anything, the third word would start her mother off into one of her long and hysterical tirades. It was very wearing, and there seemed to be nothing gained from day to day. Her child had disobeyed her. And as a climax, she had assumed the impregnable position of a complete prostration, wherein she demanded the minute care of an invalid in the crisis of a disorder. She could bear no faintest ray of illumination, no lightest footfall. In a hushed twilight she lay, her eyes swathed, moaning feebly that her early dissolution at the hands of ingratitude was imminent. Thus she established a deadlock which was likely to continue indefinitely. The mere mention of the subject nearest Carroll's heart brought the feeble complaint:
"Do you want to kill me?"
The only scrap of victory to be snatched from this stricken field was the fact that Carroll insisted on going to meet her lover every afternoon. The invalid demanded every moment of her time, either for personal attendance or in fulfilment of numerous and exacting church duties. An attempt, however, to encroach thus on the afternoon hours met a stone wall of resolution on Carroll's part.
This was the situation Orde gathered from his talk with Gerald. Though he fretted under the tyranny exacted, he could see nothing which could relieve the situation save his own withdrawal. He had already long over-stayed his visit; important affairs connected with his work demanded his attention, he had the comfort of Carroll's love assured; and the lapse of time alone could be depended on to change Mrs. Bishop's attitude, a consummation on which Carroll seemed set. Although Orde felt all the lively dissatisfaction natural to a newly accepted lover who had gained slight opportunity for favours, for confidences, even for the making of plans, nevertheless he could see for the present nothing else to do.
The morning after he had reached this conclusion he again met Gerald at the gymnasium. That young man, while as imperturbable and languid in movement as ever, concealed an excitement. He explained nothing until the two, after a shower and rub-down, were clothing themselves leisurely in the empty couch-room.
"Orde," said Gerald suddenly, "I'm worried about Carroll."
Orde straightened his back and looked steadily at Gerald, but said nothing.
"Mother has commenced bothering her again. It wasn't so bad as long as she stuck to daytime, but now she's taken to prowling in a dozen times a night. I hear their voices for an hour or so at a time. I'm afraid it's beginning to wear on Carroll more than you realise."
"Thank you," said Orde briefly.
That afternoon with Carroll he took the affair firmly in hand.
"This thing has come to the point where it must stop," said he, "and I'm going to stop it. I have some rights in the matter of the health and comfort of the girl I love."
"What do you intend to do?" asked Carroll, frightened.
"I shall have it out with your mother," replied Orde.
"You mustn't do that," implored Carroll. "It would do absolutely no good, and would just result in a quarrel that could never be patched up."
"I don't know as I care particularly," said Orde.
"But I do. Think--she is my mother."
Orde stirred uneasily with a mental reservation as to selfishness, but said nothing.
"And think what it means to a girl to be married and go away from home finally without her parent's consent. It's the most beautiful and sacred thing in her life, and she wants it to be perfect. It's worth waiting and fighting a little for. After all, we are both young, and we have known each other such a very short time."
So she pleaded with him, bringing forward all the unanswerable arguments built by the long average experience of the world-- arguments which Orde could not refute, but whose falsity to the situation he felt most keenly. He could not specify without betraying Gerald's confidence. Raging inwardly, he consented to a further armistice.
At his hotel he found a telegram. He did not open it until he had reached his own room. It was from home, urging his immediate return for the acceptance of some contracted work.
"To hell with the contracted work!" he muttered savagely, and calling a bell-boy, sent an answer very much to that effect. Then he plunged his hands into his pockets, stretched out his legs, and fell into a deep and gloomy meditation.
He was interrupted by a knock on the door.
"Come in!" he called, without turning his head.
He heard the door open and shut. After a moment he looked around. Kendrick Bishop stood watching him.
Orde lit the gas.
"Hello, Kendrick!" said he. "Sit down." The boy made no reply. Orde looked at him curiously, and saw that he was suffering from an intense excitement. His frame trembled convulsively, his lips were white, his face went red and pale by turns. Evidently he had something to say, but could not yet trust his voice. Orde sat down and waited.
"You've got to let my mother alone," he managed to say finally.
"I have done nothing to your mother, Kendrick," said Orde kindly.
"You've brought her to the point of death," asserted Keudrick violently. "You're hounding her to her grave. You're turning those she loves best against her."
Orde thought to catch the echo of quotation in these words.
"Did your mother send you to me?" he asked.
"If we had any one else worth the name of man in the family, I wouldn't have to come," said Kendrick, almost in the manner of one repeating a lesson.
"What do you want me to do?" asked Orde after a moment of thought.
"Go away," cried Kendrick. "Stop this unmanly contest against a defenceless woman."
"I cannot do that," replied Orde quietly.
Kendrick's face assumed a livid pallor, and his eyes seemed to turn black with excitement. Trembling in every limb, but without hesitation, he advanced on Orde, drew a short riding-whip from beneath his coat, and slashed the young man across the face. Orde made an involuntary movement to arise, but sank back, and looked steadily at the boy. Once again Kendrick hit; raised his arm for the third time; hesitated. His lips writhed, and then, with a sob, he cast the little whip from him and burst from the room.
Orde sat without moving, while two red lines slowly defined themselves across his face. The theatrical quality of the scene and the turgid rhetorical bathos of the boy's speeches attested his youth and the unformed violence of his emotions. Did they also indicate a rehearsal, or had the boy merely been goaded to vague action by implicit belief in a woman's vagaries? Orde did not know, but the incident brought home to him, as nothing else could, the turmoil of that household.
"Poor youngster!" he concluded his reverie, and went to wash his face in hot water.
He had left Carroll that afternoon in a comparatively philosophical and hopeful frame of mind. The next day she came to him with hurried, nervous steps, her usually pale cheeks mounting danger signals of flaming red, her eyes swimming. When she greeted him she choked, and two of the tears overflowed. Quite unmindful of the nursemaids across the square, Orde put his arm comfortingly about her shoulder. She hid her face against his sleeve and began softly to cry.
Orde did not attempt as yet to draw from her the cause of this unusual agitation. A park bench stood between two dense bushes, screened from all directions save one. To this he led her. He comforted her as one comforts a child, stroking clumsily her hair, murmuring trivialities without meaning, letting her emotion relieve itself. After awhile she recovered somewhat her control of herself and sat up away from him, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief dampened into a tiny wad. But even after she had shaken her head vigorously at last, and smiled up at him rather tremulously in token that the storm was over, she would not tell him that anything definite had happened to bring on the outburst.
"I just needed you," she said, "that's all. It's just nothing but being a woman, I think. You'll get used to little things like that."
"This thing has got to quit!" said he grimly.
She said nothing, but reached up shyly and touched his face where Kendrick's whip had stung, and her eyes became very tender. A carriage rolled around Washington Arch, and, coming to a stand, discharged its single passenger on the pavement.
"Why, it's Gerald!" cried Carroll, surprised.
The young man, catching sight of them, picked his way daintily and leisurely toward them. He was, as usual, dressed with meticulous nicety, the carnation in his button-hole, the gloss on his hat and shoes, the freshness on his gloves, the correct angle on his stick. His dark, long face with its romantic moustache, and its almost effeminate soft eyes, was as unemotional and wearied as ever. As he approached, he raised his stick slightly by way of salutation.
"I have brought," said he, "a carriage, and I wish you would both do me the favour to accompany me on a short excursion."
Taking their consent for granted, he signalled the vehicle, which rapidly approached.
The three--Carroll and Orde somewhat bewildered--took their seats. During a brief drive, Gerald made conversation on different topics, apparently quite indifferent as to whether or not his companions replied. After an interval the carriage drew up opposite a brown- stone dwelling on a side street. Gerald rang the bell, and a moment later the three were ushered by a discreet and elderly maid into a little square reception-room immediately off the hall. The maid withdrew.
Gerald carefully deposited his top hat on the floor, placed in it his gloves, and leaned his stick against its brim.
"I have brought you here, among other purposes, to hear from me a little brief wisdom drawn from experience and the observation of life," he began, addressing his expectant and curious guests. "That wisdom is briefly this: there comes a time in the affairs of every household when a man must assert himself as the ruler. In all the details he may depend on the woman's judgment, experience, and knowledge, but when it comes to the big crises, where life is deflected into one channel or the other, then, unless the man does the deciding, he is lost for ever, and his happiness, and the happiness of those who depend on him. This is abstruse, but I come to the particular application shortly.
"But moments of decision are always clouded by many considerations. The decision is sure to cut across much that is expedient, much that seems to be necessary, much that is dear. Carroll remembers the case of our own father. The general would have made a name for himself in the army; his wife demanded his retirement; he retired, and his career ended. That was the moment of his decision. It is very easy to say, in view of that simple statement, that the general was weak in yielding to his wife, but a consideration of the circumstances--"
"Why do you say all this?" interrupted Orde.
Gerald raised his hand.
"Believe me, it is necessary, as you will agree when you have heard me through. Mrs. Bishop was in poor health; the general in poor financial circumstances. The doctors said the Riviera. Mrs. Bishop's parents, who were wealthy, furnished the money for her sojourn in that climate. She could not bear to be separated from her husband. A refusal to resign then, a refusal to accept the financial aid offered, would have been cast against him as a reproach--he did not love his wife enough to sacrifice his pride, his ambition, his what-you-will. Nevertheless, that was his moment of decision.
"I could multiply instances, yet it would only accumulate needless proof. My point is that in these great moments a man can afford to take into consideration only the affair itself. Never must he think of anything but the simple elements of the problem--he must ignore whose toes are trodden upon, whose feelings are hurt, whose happiness is apparently marred. For note this: if a man does fearlessly the right thing, I am convinced that in the readjustment all these conflicting interests find themselves bettered instead of injured. You want a concrete instance? I believe firmly that if the general had kept to his army life, and made his wife conform to it, after the storm had passed she would have settled down to a happy existence. I cannot prove it--I believe it."
"This may be all very true, Gerald," said Orde, "but I fail to see why you have brought us to this strange house to tell it."
"In a moment," replied Gerald. "Have patience. Believing that thoroughly, I have come in the last twenty-four hours to a decision. That this happens not to affect my own immediate fortunes does not seem to me to invalidate my philosophy."
He carefully unbuttoned his frock coat, crossed his legs, produced a paper and a package from his inside pocket, and eyed the two before him.
"I have here," he went on suddenly, "marriage papers duly made out; in this package is a plain gold ring; in the next room is waiting, by prearrangement, a very good friend of mine in the clergy. Personally I am at your disposal."
He looked at them expectantly.
"The very thing!" "Oh, no!" cried Orde and Carroll in unison.
Nevertheless, in spite of this divergence of opinion, ten minutes later the three passed through the door into the back apartment-- Carroll still hesitant, Orde in triumph, Gerald as correct and unemotional as ever.
In this back room they found waiting a young clergyman conversing easily with two young girls. At the sight of Carroll, these latter rushed forward and overwhelmed her with endearments. Carroll broke into a quickly suppressed sob and clasped them close to her.
"Oh, you dears!" she cried, "I'm so glad you're here!" She flashed a grateful look in Gerald's direction, and a moment later took occasion to press his arm and whisper:
"You've thought of everything! You're the dearest brother in the world!"
Gerald received this calmly, and set about organising the ceremony. In fifteen minutes the little party separated at the front door, amid a chatter of congratulations and good wishes. Mr. and Mrs. Orde entered the cab and drove away.