I

Waythorn, on the drawing-room hearth, waited for his wife to come down to dinner.

It was their first night under his own roof, and he was surprised at his thrill of boyish agitation. He was not so old, to be sure—his glass gave him little more than the five-and-thirty years to which his wife confessed—but he had fancied himself already in the temperate zone; yet here he was listening for her step with a tender sense of all it symbolized, with some old trail of verse about the garlanded nuptial door-posts floating through his enjoyment of the pleasant room and the good dinner just beyond it.

They had been hastily recalled from their honeymoon by the illness of Lily Haskett, the child of Mrs. Waythorn’s first marriage. The little girl, at Waythorn’s desire, had been transferred to his house on the day of her mother’s wedding, and the doctor, on their arrival, broke the news that she was ill with typhoid, but declared that all the symptoms were favorable. Lily could show twelve years of unblemished health, and the case promised to be a light one. The nurse spoke as reassuringly, and after a moment of alarm Mrs. Waythorn had adjusted herself to the situation. She was very fond of Lily—her affection for the child had perhaps been her decisive charm in Waythorn’s eyes—but she had the perfectly balanced nerves which her little girl had inherited, and no woman ever wasted less tissue in unproductive worry. Waythorn was therefore quite prepared to see her come in presently, a little late because of a last look at Lily, but as serene and well-appointed as if her good-night kiss had been laid on the brow of health. Her composure was restful to him; it acted as ballast to his somewhat unstable sensibilities. As he pictured her bending over the child’s bed he thought how soothing her presence must be in illness: her very step would prognosticate recovery.

His own life had been a gray one, from temperament rather than circumstance, and he had been drawn to her by the unperturbed gayety which kept her fresh and elastic at an age when most women’s activities are growing either slack or febrile. He knew what was said about her; for, popular as she was, there had always been a faint undercurrent of detraction. When she had appeared in New York, nine or ten years earlier, as the pretty Mrs. Haskett whom Gus Varick had unearthed somewhere—was it in Pittsburgh or Utica?—society, while promptly accepting her, had reserved the right to cast a doubt on its own discrimination. Inquiry, however, established her undoubted connection with a socially reigning family, and explained her recent divorce as the natural result of a runaway match at seventeen; and as nothing was known of Mr. Haskett it was easy to believe the worst of him.

Alice Haskett’s remarriage with Gus Varick was a passport to the set whose recognition she coveted, and for a few years the Varicks were the most popular couple in town. Unfortunately the alliance was brief and stormy, and this time the husband had his champions. Still, even Varick’s stanchest supporters admitted that he was not meant for matrimony, and Mrs. Varick’s grievances were of a nature to bear the inspection of the New York courts. A New York divorce is in itself a diploma of virtue, and in the semi-widowhood of this second separation Mrs. Varick took on an air of sanctity, and was allowed to confide her wrongs to some of the most scrupulous ears in town. But when it was known that she was to marry Waythorn there was a momentary reaction. Her best friends would have preferred to see her remain in the role of the injured wife, which was as becoming to her as crape to a rosy complexion. True, a decent time had elapsed, and it was not even suggested that Waythorn had supplanted his predecessor. Still, people shook their heads over him, and one grudging friend, to whom he affirmed that he took the step with his eyes open, replied oracularly: “Yes—and with your ears shut.”

Waythorn could afford to smile at these innuendoes. In the Wall Street phrase, he had “discounted” them. He knew that society has not yet adapted itself to the consequences of divorce, and that till the adaptation takes place every woman who uses the freedom the law accords her must be her own social justification. Waythorn had an amused confidence in his wife’s ability to justify herself. His expectations were fulfilled, and before the wedding took place Alice Varick’s group had rallied openly to her support. She took it all imperturbably: she had a way of surmounting obstacles without seeming to be aware of them, and Waythorn looked back with wonder at the trivialities over which he had worn his nerves thin. He had the sense of having found refuge in a richer, warmer nature than his own, and his satisfaction, at the moment, was humorously summed up in the thought that his wife, when she had done all she could for Lily, would not be ashamed to come down and enjoy a good dinner.

The anticipation of such enjoyment was not, however, the sentiment expressed by Mrs. Waythorn’s charming face when she presently joined him. Though she had put on her most engaging teagown she had neglected to assume the smile that went with it, and Waythorn thought he had never seen her look so nearly worried.

“What is it?” he asked. “Is anything wrong with Lily?”

“No; I’ve just been in and she’s still sleeping.” Mrs. Waythorn hesitated. “But something tiresome has happened.”

He had taken her two hands, and now perceived that he was crushing a paper between them.

“This letter?”

“Yes—Mr. Haskett has written—I mean his lawyer has written.”

Waythorn felt himself flush uncomfortably. He dropped his wife’s hands.

“What about?”

“About seeing Lily. You know the courts—”

“Yes, yes,” he interrupted nervously.

Nothing was known about Haskett in New York. He was vaguely supposed to have remained in the outer darkness from which his wife had been rescued, and Waythorn was one of the few who were aware that he had given up his business in Utica and followed her to New York in order to be near his little girl. In the days of his wooing, Waythorn had often met Lily on the doorstep, rosy and smiling, on her way “to see papa.”

“I am so sorry,” Mrs. Waythorn murmured.

He roused himself. “What does he want?”

“He wants to see her. You know she goes to him once a week.”

“Well—he doesn’t expect her to go to him now, does he?”

“No—he has heard of her illness; but he expects to come here.”

Here?

Mrs. Waythorn reddened under his gaze. They looked away from each other.

“I’m afraid he has the right….You’ll see….” She made a proffer of the letter.

Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal. He stood staring about the softly lighted room, which a moment before had seemed so full of bridal intimacy.

“I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “If Lily could have been moved—”

“That’s out of the question,” he returned impatiently.

“I suppose so.”

Her lip was beginning to tremble, and he felt himself a brute.

“He must come, of course,” he said. “When is—his day?”

“I’m afraid—to-morrow.”

“Very well. Send a note in the morning.”

The butler entered to announce dinner.

Waythorn turned to his wife. “Come—you must be tired. It’s beastly, but try to forget about it,” he said, drawing her hand through his arm.

“You’re so good, dear. I’ll try,” she whispered back.

Her face cleared at once, and as she looked at him across the flowers, between the rosy candle-shades, he saw her lips waver back into a smile.

“How pretty everything is!” she sighed luxuriously.

He turned to the butler. “The champagne at once, please. Mrs. Waythorn is tired.”

In a moment or two their eyes met above the sparkling glasses. Her own were quite clear and untroubled: he saw that she had obeyed his injunction and forgotten.

Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal


II

Waythorn, the next morning, went down town earlier than usual. Haskett was not likely to come till the afternoon, but the instinct of flight drove him forth. He meant to stay away all day—he had thoughts of dining at his club. As his door closed behind him he reflected that before he opened it again it would have admitted another man who had as much right to enter it as himself, and the thought filled him with a physical repugnance.

He caught the “elevated” at the employees’ hour, and found himself crushed between two layers of pendulous humanity. At Eighth Street the man facing him wriggled out and another took his place. Waythorn glanced up and saw that it was Gus Varick. The men were so close together that it was impossible to ignore the smile of recognition on Varick’s handsome overblown face. And after all—why not? They had always been on good terms, and Varick had been divorced before Waythorn’s attentions to his wife began. The two exchanged a word on the perennial grievance of the congested trains, and when a seat at their side was miraculously left empty the instinct of self-preservation made Waythorn slip into it after Varick.

The latter drew the stout man’s breath of relief.

“Lord—I was beginning to feel like a pressed flower.” He leaned back, looking unconcernedly at Waythorn. “Sorry to hear that Sellers is knocked out again.”

“Sellers?” echoed Waythorn, starting at his partner’s name.

Varick looked surprised. “You didn’t know he was laid up with the gout?”

“No. I’ve been away—I only got back last night.” Waythorn felt himself reddening in anticipation of the other’s smile.

“Ah—yes; to be sure. And Sellers’s attack came on two days ago. I’m afraid he’s pretty bad. Very awkward for me, as it happens, because he was just putting through a rather important thing for me.”

“Ah?” Waythorn wondered vaguely since when Varick had been dealing in “important things.” Hitherto he had dabbled only in the shallow pools of speculation, with which Waythorn’s office did not usually concern itself.

It occurred to him that Varick might be talking at random, to relieve the strain of their propinquity. That strain was becoming momentarily more apparent to Waythorn, and when, at Cortlandt Street, he caught sight of an acquaintance, and had a sudden vision of the picture he and Varick must present to an initiated eye, he jumped up with a muttered excuse.

“I hope you’ll find Sellers better,” said Varick civilly, and he stammered back: “If I can be of any use to you—” and let the departing crowd sweep him to the platform.

At his office he heard that Sellers was in fact ill with the gout, and would probably not be able to leave the house for some weeks.

“I’m sorry it should have happened so, Mr. Waythorn,” the senior clerk said with affable significance. “Mr. Sellers was very much upset at the idea of giving you such a lot of extra work just now.”

“Oh, that’s no matter,” said Waythorn hastily. He secretly welcomed the pressure of additional business, and was glad to think that, when the day’s work was over, he would have to call at his partner’s on the way home.

He was late for luncheon, and turned in at the nearest restaurant instead of going to his club. The place was full, and the waiter hurried him to the back of the room to capture the only vacant table. In the cloud of cigar-smoke Waythorn did not at once distinguish his neighbors; but presently, looking about him, he saw Varick seated a few feet off. This time, luckily, they were too far apart for conversation, and Varick, who faced another way, had probably not even seen him; but there was an irony in their renewed nearness.

Varick was said to be fond of good living, and as Waythorn sat despatching his hurried luncheon he looked across half enviously at the other’s leisurely degustation of his meal. When Waythorn first saw him he had been helping himself with critical deliberation to a bit of Camembert at the ideal point of liquefaction, and now, the cheese removed, he was just pouring his cafe double from its little two-storied earthen pot. He poured slowly, his ruddy profile bent above the task, and one beringed white hand steadying the lid of the coffee-pot; then he stretched his other hand to the decanter of cognac at his elbow, filled a liqueur-glass, took a tentative sip, and poured the brandy into his coffee-cup.

Waythorn watched him in a kind of fascination. What was he thinking of—only of the flavor of the coffee and the liqueur? Had the morning’s meeting left no more trace in his thoughts than on his face? Had his wife so completely passed out of his life that even this odd encounter with her present husband, within a week after her remarriage, was no more than an incident in his day? And as Waythorn mused, another idea struck him: had Haskett ever met Varick as Varick and he had just met? The recollection of Haskett perturbed him, and he rose and left the restaurant, taking a circuitous way out to escape the placid irony of Varick’s nod.

It was after seven when Waythorn reached home. He thought the footman who opened the door looked at him oddly.

“How is Miss Lily?” he asked in haste.

“Doing very well, sir. A gentleman—”

“Tell Barlow to put off dinner for half an hour,” Waythorn cut him off, hurrying upstairs.

He went straight to his room and dressed without seeing his wife. When he reached the drawing-room she was there, fresh and radiant. Lily’s day had been good; the doctor was not coming back that evening.

At dinner Waythorn told her of Sellers’s illness and of the resulting complications. She listened sympathetically, adjuring him not to let himself be overworked, and asking vague feminine questions about the routine of the office. Then she gave him the chronicle of Lily’s day; quoted the nurse and doctor, and told him who had called to inquire. He had never seen her more serene and unruffled. It struck him, with a curious pang, that she was very happy in being with him, so happy that she found a childish pleasure in rehearsing the trivial incidents of her day.

After dinner they went to the library, and the servant put the coffee and liqueurs on a low table before her and left the room. She looked singularly soft and girlish in her rosy pale dress, against the dark leather of one of his bachelor armchairs. A day earlier the contrast would have charmed him.

He turned away now, choosing a cigar with affected deliberation.

“Did Haskett come?” he asked, with his back to her.

“Oh, yes—he came.”

“You didn’t see him, of course?”

She hesitated a moment. “I let the nurse see him.”

That was all. There was nothing more to ask. He swung round toward her, applying a match to his cigar. Well, the thing was over for a week, at any rate. He would try not to think of it. She looked up at him, a trifle rosier than usual, with a smile in her eyes.

“Ready for your coffee, dear?”

He leaned against the mantelpiece, watching her as she lifted the coffee-pot. The lamplight struck a gleam from her bracelets and tipped her soft hair with brightness. How light and slender she was, and how each gesture flowed into the next! She seemed a creature all compact of harmonies. As the thought of Haskett receded, Waythorn felt himself yielding again to the joy of possessorship. They were his, those white hands with their flitting motions, his the light haze of hair, the lips and eyes….

She set down the coffee-pot, and reaching for the decanter of cognac, measured off a liqueur-glass and poured it into his cup.

Waythorn uttered a sudden exclamation.

“What is the matter?” she said, startled.

“Nothing; only—I don’t take cognac in my coffee.”

“Oh, how stupid of me,” she cried.

Their eyes met, and she blushed a sudden agonized red.

III

Ten days later, Mr. Sellers, still house-bound, asked Waythorn to call on his way down town.

The senior partner, with his swaddled foot propped up by the fire, greeted his associate with an air of embarrassment.

“I’m sorry, my dear fellow; I’ve got to ask you to do an awkward thing for me.”

Waythorn waited, and the other went on, after a pause apparently given to the arrangement of his phrases: “The fact is, when I was knocked out I had just gone into a rather complicated piece of business for—Gus Varick.”

“Well?” said Waythorn, with an attempt to put him at his ease.

“Well—it’s this way: Varick came to me the day before my attack. He had evidently had an inside tip from somebody, and had made about a hundred thousand. He came to me for advice, and I suggested his going in with Vanderlyn.”

“Oh, the deuce!” Waythorn exclaimed. He saw in a flash what had happened. The investment was an alluring one, but required negotiation. He listened intently while Sellers put the case before him, and, the statement ended, he said: “You think I ought to see Varick?”

“I’m afraid I can’t as yet. The doctor is obdurate. And this thing can’t wait. I hate to ask you, but no one else in the office knows the ins and outs of it.”

Waythorn stood silent. He did not care a farthing for the success of Varick’s venture, but the honor of the office was to be considered, and he could hardly refuse to oblige his partner.

“Very well,” he said, “I’ll do it.”

That afternoon, apprised by telephone, Varick called at the office. Waythorn, waiting in his private room, wondered what the others thought of it. The newspapers, at the time of Mrs. Waythorn’s marriage, had acquainted their readers with every detail of her previous matrimonial ventures, and Waythorn could fancy the clerks smiling behind Varick’s back as he was ushered in.

Varick bore himself admirably. He was easy without being undignified, and Waythorn was conscious of cutting a much less impressive figure. Varick had no head for business, and the talk prolonged itself for nearly an hour while Waythorn set forth with scrupulous precision the details of the proposed transaction.

“I’m awfully obliged to you,” Varick said as he rose. “The fact is I’m not used to having much money to look after, and I don’t want to make an ass of myself—” He smiled, and Waythorn could not help noticing that there was something pleasant about his smile. “It feels uncommonly queer to have enough cash to pay one’s bills. I’d have sold my soul for it a few years ago!”

Waythorn winced at the allusion. He had heard it rumored that a lack of funds had been one of the determining causes of the Varick separation, but it did not occur to him that Varick’s words were intentional. It seemed more likely that the desire to keep clear of embarrassing topics had fatally drawn him into one. Waythorn did not wish to be outdone in civility.

“We’ll do the best we can for you,” he said. “I think this is a good thing you’re in.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s immense. It’s awfully good of you—” Varick broke off, embarrassed. “I suppose the thing’s settled now—but if—”

“If anything happens before Sellers is about, I’ll see you again,” said Waythorn quietly. He was glad, in the end, to appear the more self-possessed of the two.

The course of Lily’s illness ran smooth, and as the days passed Waythorn grew used to the idea of Haskett’s weekly visit. The first time the day came round, he stayed out late, and questioned his wife as to the visit on his return. She replied at once that Haskett had merely seen the nurse downstairs, as the doctor did not wish any one in the child’s sick-room till after the crisis.

The following week Waythorn was again conscious of the recurrence of the day, but had forgotten it by the time he came home to dinner. The crisis of the disease came a few days later, with a rapid decline of fever, and the little girl was pronounced out of danger. In the rejoicing which ensued the thought of Haskett passed out of Waythorn’s mind and one afternoon, letting himself into the house with a latchkey, he went straight to his library without noticing a shabby hat and umbrella in the hall.

In the library he found a small effaced-looking man with a thinnish gray beard sitting on the edge of a chair. The stranger might have been a piano-tuner, or one of those mysteriously efficient persons who are summoned in emergencies to adjust some detail of the domestic machinery. He blinked at Waythorn through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and said mildly: “Mr. Waythorn, I presume? I am Lily’s father.”

Waythorn flushed. “Oh—” he stammered uncomfortably. He broke off, disliking to appear rude. Inwardly he was trying to adjust the actual Haskett to the image of him projected by his wife’s reminiscences. Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice’s first husband was a brute.

“I am sorry to intrude,” said Haskett, with his over-the-counter politeness.

“Don’t mention it,” returned Waythorn, collecting himself. “I suppose the nurse has been told?”

“I presume so. I can wait,” said Haskett. He had a resigned way of speaking, as though life had worn down his natural powers of resistance.

Waythorn stood on the threshold, nervously pulling off his gloves.

“I’m sorry you’ve been detained. I will send for the nurse,” he said; and as he opened the door he added with an effort: “I’m glad we can give you a good report of Lily.” He winced as the we slipped out, but Haskett seemed not to notice it.

“Thank you, Mr. Waythorn. It’s been an anxious time for me.”

“Ah, well, that’s past. Soon she’ll be able to go to you.” Waythorn nodded and passed out.

In his own room, he flung himself down with a groan. He hated the womanish sensibility which made him suffer so acutely from the grotesque chances of life. He had known when he married that his wife’s former husbands were both living, and that amid the multiplied contacts of modern existence there were a thousand chances to one that he would run against one or the other, yet he found himself as much disturbed by his brief encounter with Haskett as though the law had not obligingly removed all difficulties in the way of their meeting.

Waythorn sprang up and began to pace the room nervously. He had not suffered half so much from his two meetings with Varick. It was Haskett’s presence in his own house that made the situation so intolerable. He stood still, hearing steps in the passage.

“This way, please,” he heard the nurse say. Haskett was being taken upstairs, then: not a corner of the house but was open to him. Waythorn dropped into another chair, staring vaguely ahead of him. On his dressing-table stood a photograph of Alice, taken when he had first known her. She was Alice Varick then—how fine and exquisite he had thought her! Those were Varick’s pearls about her neck. At Waythorn’s instance they had been returned before her marriage. Had Haskett ever given her any trinkets—and what had become of them, Waythorn wondered? He realized suddenly that he knew very little of Haskett’s past or present situation; but from the man’s appearance and manner of speech he could reconstruct with curious precision the surroundings of Alice’s first marriage. And it startled him to think that she had, in the background of her life, a phase of existence so different from anything with which he had connected her. Varick, whatever his faults, was a gentleman, in the conventional, traditional sense of the term: the sense which at that moment seemed, oddly enough, to have most meaning to Waythorn. He and Varick had the same social habits, spoke the same language, understood the same allusions. But this other man…it was grotesquely uppermost in Waythorn’s mind that Haskett had worn a made-up tie attached with an elastic. Why should that ridiculous detail symbolize the whole man? Waythorn was exasperated by his own paltriness, but the fact of the tie expanded, forced itself on him, became as it were the key to Alice’s past. He could see her, as Mrs. Haskett, sitting in a “front parlor” furnished in plush, with a pianola, and a copy of “Ben Hur” on the centre-table. He could see her going to the theatre with Haskett—or perhaps even to a “Church Sociable”—she in a “picture hat” and Haskett in a black frock-coat, a little creased, with the made-up tie on an elastic. On the way home they would stop and look at the illuminated shop-windows, lingering over the photographs of New York actresses. On Sunday afternoons Haskett would take her for a walk, pushing Lily ahead of them in a white enameled perambulator, and Waythorn had a vision of the people they would stop and talk to. He could fancy how pretty Alice must have looked, in a dress adroitly constructed from the hints of a New York fashion-paper; how she must have looked down on the other women, chafing at her life, and secretly feeling that she belonged in a bigger place.

For the moment his foremost thought was one of wonder at the way in which she had shed the phase of existence which her marriage with Haskett implied. It was as if her whole aspect, every gesture, every inflection, every allusion, were a studied negation of that period of her life. If she had denied being married to Haskett she could hardly have stood more convicted of duplicity than in this obliteration of the self which had been his wife.

Waythorn started up, checking himself in the analysis of her motives. What right had he to create a fantastic effigy of her and then pass judgment on it? She had spoken vaguely of her first marriage as unhappy, had hinted, with becoming reticence, that Haskett had wrought havoc among her young illusions….It was a pity for Waythorn’s peace of mind that Haskett’s very inoffensiveness shed a new light on the nature of those illusions. A man would rather think that his wife has been brutalized by her first husband than that the process has been reversed.

“Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure


IV

“Mr. Waythorn, I don’t like that French governess of Lily’s.”

Haskett, subdued and apologetic, stood before Waythorn in the library, revolving his shabby hat in his hand.

Waythorn, surprised in his armchair over the evening paper, stared back perplexedly at his visitor.

“You’ll excuse my asking to see you,” Haskett continued. “But this is my last visit, and I thought if I could have a word with you it would be a better way than writing to Mrs. Waythorn’s lawyer.”

Waythorn rose uneasily. He did not like the French governess either; but that was irrelevant.

“I am not so sure of that,” he returned stiffly; “but since you wish it I will give your message to—my wife.” He always hesitated over the possessive pronoun in addressing Haskett.

The latter sighed. “I don’t know as that will help much. She didn’t like it when I spoke to her.”

Waythorn turned red. “When did you see her?” he asked.

“Not since the first day I came to see Lily—right after she was taken sick. I remarked to her then that I didn’t like the governess.”

Waythorn made no answer. He remembered distinctly that, after that first visit, he had asked his wife if she had seen Haskett. She had lied to him then, but she had respected his wishes since; and the incident cast a curious light on her character. He was sure she would not have seen Haskett that first day if she had divined that Waythorn would object, and the fact that she did not divine it was almost as disagreeable to the latter as the discovery that she had lied to him.

“I don’t like the woman,” Haskett was repeating with mild persistency. “She ain’t straight, Mr. Waythorn—she’ll teach the child to be underhand. I’ve noticed a change in Lily—she’s too anxious to please—and she don’t always tell the truth. She used to be the straightest child, Mr. Waythorn—” He broke off, his voice a little thick. “Not but what I want her to have a stylish education,” he ended.

Waythorn was touched. “I’m sorry, Mr. Haskett; but frankly, I don’t quite see what I can do.”

Haskett hesitated. Then he laid his hat on the table, and advanced to the hearth-rug, on which Waythorn was standing. There was nothing aggressive in his manner; but he had the solemnity of a timid man resolved on a decisive measure.

“There’s just one thing you can do, Mr. Waythorn,” he said. “You can remind Mrs. Waythorn that, by the decree of the courts, I am entitled to have a voice in Lily’s bringing up.” He paused, and went on more deprecatingly: “I’m not the kind to talk about enforcing my rights, Mr. Waythorn. I don’t know as I think a man is entitled to rights he hasn’t known how to hold on to; but this business of the child is different. I’ve never let go there—and I never mean to.”

The scene left Waythorn deeply shaken. Shamefacedly, in indirect ways, he had been finding out about Haskett; and all that he had learned was favorable. The little man, in order to be near his daughter, had sold out his share in a profitable business in Utica, and accepted a modest clerkship in a New York manufacturing house. He boarded in a shabby street and had few acquaintances. His passion for Lily filled his life. Waythorn felt that this exploration of Haskett was like groping about with a dark-lantern in his wife’s past; but he saw now that there were recesses his lantern had not explored. He had never inquired into the exact circumstances of his wife’s first matrimonial rupture. On the surface all had been fair. It was she who had obtained the divorce, and the court had given her the child. But Waythorn knew how many ambiguities such a verdict might cover. The mere fact that Haskett retained a right over his daughter implied an unsuspected compromise. Waythorn was an idealist. He always refused to recognize unpleasant contingencies till he found himself confronted with them, and then he saw them followed by a special train of consequences. His next days were thus haunted, and he determined to try to lay the ghosts by conjuring them up in his wife’s presence.

When he repeated Haskett’s request a flame of anger passed over her face; but she subdued it instantly and spoke with a slight quiver of outraged motherhood.

“It is very ungentlemanly of him,” she said.

The word grated on Waythorn. “That is neither here nor there. It’s a bare question of rights.”

She murmured: “It’s not as if he could ever be a help to Lily—”

Waythorn flushed. This was even less to his taste. “The question is,” he repeated, “what authority has he over her?”

She looked downward, twisting herself a little in her seat. “I am willing to see him—I thought you objected,” she faltered.

In a flash he understood that she knew the extent of Haskett’s claims. Perhaps it was not the first time she had resisted them.

“My objecting has nothing to do with it,” he said coldly; “if Haskett has a right to be consulted you must consult him.”

She burst into tears, and he saw that she expected him to regard her as a victim.

Haskett did not abuse his rights. Waythorn had felt miserably sure that he would not. But the governess was dismissed, and from time to time the little man demanded an interview with Alice. After the first outburst she accepted the situation with her usual adaptability. Haskett had once reminded Waythorn of the piano-tuner, and Mrs. Waythorn, after a month or two, appeared to class him with that domestic familiar. Waythorn could not but respect the father’s tenacity. At first he had tried to cultivate the suspicion that Haskett might be “up to” something, that he had an object in securing a foothold in the house. But in his heart Waythorn was sure of Haskett’s single-mindedness; he even guessed in the latter a mild contempt for such advantages as his relation with the Waythorns might offer. Haskett’s sincerity of purpose made him invulnerable, and his successor had to accept him as a lien on the property.

Mr. Sellers was sent to Europe to recover from his gout, and Varick’s affairs hung on Waythorn’s hands. The negotiations were prolonged and complicated; they necessitated frequent conferences between the two men, and the interests of the firm forbade Waythorn’s suggesting that his client should transfer his business to another office.

Varick appeared well in the transaction. In moments of relaxation his coarse streak appeared, and Waythorn dreaded his geniality; but in the office he was concise and clear-headed, with a flattering deference to Waythorn’s judgment. Their business relations being so affably established, it would have been absurd for the two men to ignore each other in society. The first time they met in a drawing-room, Varick took up their intercourse in the same easy key, and his hostess’s grateful glance obliged Waythorn to respond to it. After that they ran across each other frequently, and one evening at a ball Waythorn, wandering through the remoter rooms, came upon Varick seated beside his wife. She colored a little, and faltered in what she was saying; but Varick nodded to Waythorn without rising, and the latter strolled on.

In the carriage, on the way home, he broke out nervously: “I didn’t know you spoke to Varick.”

Her voice trembled a little. “It’s the first time—he happened to be standing near me; I didn’t know what to do. It’s so awkward, meeting everywhere—and he said you had been very kind about some business.”

“That’s different,” said Waythorn.

She paused a moment. “I’ll do just as you wish,” she returned pliantly. “I thought it would be less awkward to speak to him when we meet.”

Her pliancy was beginning to sicken him. Had she really no will of her own—no theory about her relation to these men? She had accepted Haskett—did she mean to accept Varick? It was “less awkward,” as she had said, and her instinct was to evade difficulties or to circumvent them. With sudden vividness Waythorn saw how the instinct had developed. She was “as easy as an old shoe”—a shoe that too many feet had worn. Her elasticity was the result of tension in too many different directions. Alice Haskett—Alice Varick—Alice Waythorn—she had been each in turn, and had left hanging to each name a little of her privacy, a little of her personality, a little of the inmost self where the unknown god abides.

“Yes—it’s better to speak to Varick,” said Waythorn wearily.

“Earth’s Martyrs.” By Stephen Phillips.

V

The winter wore on, and society took advantage of the Waythorns’ acceptance of Varick. Harassed hostesses were grateful to them for bridging over a social difficulty, and Mrs. Waythorn was held up as a miracle of good taste. Some experimental spirits could not resist the diversion of throwing Varick and his former wife together, and there were those who thought he found a zest in the propinquity. But Mrs. Waythorn’s conduct remained irreproachable. She neither avoided Varick nor sought him out. Even Waythorn could not but admit that she had discovered the solution of the newest social problem.

He had married her without giving much thought to that problem. He had fancied that a woman can shed her past like a man. But now he saw that Alice was bound to hers both by the circumstances which forced her into continued relation with it, and by the traces it had left on her nature. With grim irony Waythorn compared himself to a member of a syndicate. He held so many shares in his wife’s personality and his predecessors were his partners in the business. If there had been any element of passion in the transaction he would have felt less deteriorated by it. The fact that Alice took her change of husbands like a change of weather reduced the situation to mediocrity. He could have forgiven her for blunders, for excesses; for resisting Hackett, for yielding to Varick; for anything but her acquiescence and her tact. She reminded him of a juggler tossing knives; but the knives were blunt and she knew they would never cut her.

And then, gradually, habit formed a protecting surface for his sensibilities. If he paid for each day’s comfort with the small change of his illusions, he grew daily to value the comfort more and set less store upon the coin. He had drifted into a dulling propinquity with Haskett and Varick and he took refuge in the cheap revenge of satirizing the situation. He even began to reckon up the advantages which accrued from it, to ask himself if it were not better to own a third of a wife who knew how to make a man happy than a whole one who had lacked opportunity to acquire the art. For it was an art, and made up, like all others, of concessions, eliminations and embellishments; of lights judiciously thrown and shadows skillfully softened. His wife knew exactly how to manage the lights, and he knew exactly to what training she owed her skill. He even tried to trace the source of his obligations, to discriminate between the influences which had combined to produce his domestic happiness: he perceived that Haskett’s commonness had made Alice worship good breeding, while Varick’s liberal construction of the marriage bond had taught her to value the conjugal virtues; so that he was directly indebted to his predecessors for the devotion which made his life easy if not inspiring.

From this phase he passed into that of complete acceptance. He ceased to satirize himself because time dulled the irony of the situation and the joke lost its humor with its sting. Even the sight of Haskett’s hat on the hall table had ceased to touch the springs of epigram. The hat was often seen there now, for it had been decided that it was better for Lily’s father to visit her than for the little girl to go to his boarding-house. Waythorn, having acquiesced in this arrangement, had been surprised to find how little difference it made. Haskett was never obtrusive, and the few visitors who met him on the stairs were unaware of his identity. Waythorn did not know how often he saw Alice, but with himself Haskett was seldom in contact.

One afternoon, however, he learned on entering that Lily’s father was waiting to see him. In the library he found Haskett occupying a chair in his usual provisional way. Waythorn always felt grateful to him for not leaning back.

“I hope you’ll excuse me, Mr. Waythorn,” he said rising. “I wanted to see Mrs. Waythorn about Lily, and your man asked me to wait here till she came in.”

“Of course,” said Waythorn, remembering that a sudden leak had that morning given over the drawing-room to the plumbers.

He opened his cigar-case and held it out to his visitor, and Haskett’s acceptance seemed to mark a fresh stage in their intercourse. The spring evening was chilly, and Waythorn invited his guest to draw up his chair to the fire. He meant to find an excuse to leave Haskett in a moment; but he was tired and cold, and after all the little man no longer jarred on him.

The two were inclosed in the intimacy of their blended cigar-smoke when the door opened and Varick walked into the room. Waythorn rose abruptly. It was the first time that Varick had come to the house, and the surprise of seeing him, combined with the singular inopportuneness of his arrival, gave a new edge to Waythorn’s blunted sensibilities. He stared at his visitor without speaking.

Varick seemed too preoccupied to notice his host’s embarrassment.

“My dear fellow,” he exclaimed in his most expansive tone, “I must apologize for tumbling in on you in this way, but I was too late to catch you down town, and so I thought—” He stopped short, catching sight of Haskett, and his sanguine color deepened to a flush which spread vividly under his scant blond hair. But in a moment he recovered himself and nodded slightly. Haskett returned the bow in silence, and Waythorn was still groping for speech when the footman came in carrying a tea-table.

The intrusion offered a welcome vent to Waythorn’s nerves. “What the deuce are you bringing this here for?” he said sharply.

“I beg your pardon, sir, but the plumbers are still in the drawing-room, and Mrs. Waythorn said she would have tea in the library.” The footman’s perfectly respectful tone implied a reflection on Waythorn’s reasonableness.

“Oh, very well,” said the latter resignedly, and the footman proceeded to open the folding tea-table and set out its complicated appointments. While this interminable process continued the three men stood motionless, watching it with a fascinated stare, till Waythorn, to break the silence, said to Varick: “Won’t you have a cigar?”

He held out the case he had just tendered to Haskett, and Varick helped himself with a smile. Waythorn looked about for a match, and finding none, proffered a light from his own cigar. Haskett, in the background, held his ground mildly, examining his cigar-tip now and then, and stepping forward at the right moment to knock its ashes into the fire.

The footman at last withdrew, and Varick immediately began: “If I could just say half a word to you about this business—”

“Certainly,” stammered Waythorn; “in the dining-room—”

But as he placed his hand on the door it opened from without, and his wife appeared on the threshold.

She came in fresh and smiling, in her street dress and hat, shedding a fragrance from the boa which she loosened in advancing.

“Shall we have tea in here, dear?” she began; and then she caught sight of Varick. Her smile deepened, veiling a slight tremor of surprise. “Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure.

As she shook hands with Varick she saw Haskett standing behind him. Her smile faded for a moment, but she recalled it quickly, with a scarcely perceptible side-glance at Waythorn.

“How do you do, Mr. Haskett?” she said, and shook hands with him a shade less cordially.

The three men stood awkwardly before her, till Varick, always the most self-possessed, dashed into an explanatory phrase.

“We—I had to see Waythorn a moment on business,” he stammered, brick-red from chin to nape.

Haskett stepped forward with his air of mild obstinacy. “I am sorry to intrude; but you appointed five o’clock—” he directed his resigned glance to the time-piece on the mantel.

She swept aside their embarrassment with a charming gesture of hospitality.

“I’m so sorry—I’m always late; but the afternoon was so lovely.” She stood drawing her gloves off, propitiatory and graceful, diffusing about her a sense of ease and familiarity in which the situation lost its grotesqueness. “But before talking business,” she added brightly, “I’m sure every one wants a cup of tea.”

She dropped into her low chair by the tea-table, and the two visitors, as if drawn by her smile, advanced to receive the cups she held out.

She glanced about for Waythorn, and he took the third cup with a laugh.

 

 
Today’s Friday. I might be mistaken though, and it could be Saturday.
 
How stupid!

Why couldn’t it be Sunday or Monday?

It’s not worth thinking about or even looking at the calendar. I can’t even remember which year the calendar’s for or why I bought it.

His voice was the only tender thing that aroused my interest amid the dryness and monotony of things. His call this morning crushed everything else in my mind.

“Is there still room for me in our little hiding place, or are you tired of waiting?” he said.

“You’ve been away a long time, a very long time.”

“But I came back as I promised,” he said, and then his voice disappeared, leaving behind it a sense of sweet expectation that overwhelmed me with the warmth of childhood days when we would spend the night before Eid with our new clothes laid out on our beds, impatiently awaiting the dawn, and then the Eid kisses, the swings, the candy and the promise of freedom.

All my attempts to cling to time collapsed at the sound of his voice. All he left me with was silence and the sound of the ropes creaking on the holiday swings.

There at the window, dawn was gathering together its drowsiness. It smelled of a tiring winter that I could feel seeping inside me until I sank into a deep sleep.

I felt reassured, since sleep was what I had wanted for ages. I dreamed of beautiful things. It doesn’t matter what they were, but they were definitely beautiful.

I don’t think anything could have spoiled those dreams had it not been for the loud knocks on the door. I ignored them several times, but finally gave in to them after failing to catch the last dream.

I tried to get up to find out who was knocking, but my legs failed me.

I ran my hands over my body. I couldn’t tell where it was because it would rise at one moment and sink at another moment, with the bed as the line between up and down.

I felt an icy emptiness sink into me, as if the details of time, which had once grabbed the darkness by the throat and provided me with markers, had been packed in a tin can that had opened and all the contents had spilled out inadvertently. 

The door opened and two people came toward me, but all I could make out was their bodies. I was happy, in a pleasant state of drowsiness to which I readily succumbed, so I had no desire to recognize the faces.

I was startled to find one of them staring into my face with an obstinacy that was brazen. When I looked at him, I saw that his face was faceless! He was just a skeleton that hesitantly reached out its bony hand and shut my eyes.

In spite of the questions that teemed in my head, I opened my eyes again. As I looked at what was left of his face I forgot to be frightened, or to speak or even scream. Ideas, forebodings and indistinct things had taken shape in the form of a skeleton draped in black.

He looked at my face again with a fear that penetrated the veins of his throat, so his voice came out tremulous as he repeated his words through bare and clattering jaws.

Ignoring all those words, I clung to the thread of happiness that they offered me as they looked back with strange disdain. The disk of the sun had also appeared. It was beautiful and as tempting as a hot bun, and I imagined I could bite into it as if I were in a cartoon. I laughed at myself when I saw the sun tickling my face. At a certain moment that was hard to define, the skeletons carried me out of the room. I turned and found the sun leaving its place and slipping into the calendar to stay there. I was pleased, because everything had happened just as I had suspected: that we would be something undesirable and there would be nothing to regret.

The streets were shambolic as if some event was distorting things, or, let’s say, making them more superficial. I looked for the myrtle tree we had planted when we were children around the place where we used to play in secret, but I couldn’t find it. I remembered him saying, “When I come back, the myrtle will be a companion we can play with as we walk along.”

At the time I swore to him that the myrtle and I wouldn’t grow up without him.

“And what about time?” he asked with the puzzlement of a clever child.

“We’ll hide from time and wait for you.”

It struck me that we had been born long, long ago and that the myrtle and the waiting were a past that played on the heartstrings and the memory. We were neither young nor old, or we may have forgotten the times we spent behind our secret playgrounds.

From the first moment, an awesome barrier began to grow between me and this desolate city. Everything about it was irritating.

I saw a line standing outside a butcher’s shop that I thought I knew well.

I called out to him, “Mister butcher, mister butcher.”

But he pretended he hadn’t heard and when he turned all he did was bow.

He was a skeleton, too!

I appealed to both memory and forgetfulness as I saw night had descended there – mercilessly, where life was stripped bare and seemed empty of everything but the dead.

The skeletal horde, clad in black, began to surround me like a dark cloud.

None of them seemed to know any of the others, or even to care that they were there. Somehow each of them was alone. I was able to speak in a confident voice and create new words.

I said everything I knew but my attempts to wake them up were in vain. They made me feel sad. Something inside them had grown old and turned to stone. I said to myself that something big must be missing.

They couldn’t hear me. My voice felt so broken that I wept. But then I stopped crying. I remembered that big people don’t cry. I wonder why big people mustn’t cry.

My mother used to say, “Shame on you. Big people don’t cry.”

My mother’s voice has haunted me ever since, saying: “Big people don’t cry.”

Maybe I’m still a child!

The procession carried me past deserted lanes and gardens, as if they were telling me, “There’s nothing for us to be sad about.”

“First there are flashes of lightning and then it pours with rain.” I heard this once but the lightning was dazzling and there was no rain. I was desperate and about to close my eyes when I saw his face lit up in one of the last flashes of lightning.

I was embarrassed about staring into his eyes all the time. His presence was as intense as the rain that had started to fall. At that point two skeletons took me off in the procession to somewhere outside the town, where the branches of a myrtle tree loomed on the horizon. I shouted for joy: “At last the myrtle!”

 

* * *

 

“I brushed your face with myrtle to wake you up. You were dreaming, weren’t you?”

I opened my eyes. I found him sitting on the edge of the bed holding a myrtle branch.

“I was dreaming of you. We were young, no, grown up. I don’t know exactly.”

I continued, “There was a city of skeletons, and I was sad and lonely, and …”

I stopped speaking when I saw his smile, which silenced me.

“I know you’re making fun of me,” I said in embarrassment.

He looked at me tenderly and whispered in my ear, “Not at all. I saw that too.”

CHAPTER I–THE PROMISE

 

“An old-fashioned Christmas.–A lively family will accept a gentleman as paying guest to join them in spending an old-fashioned Christmas in the heart of the country.”

That was the advertisement. It had its points. I was not sure what, in this case, an old-fashioned Christmas might happen to mean. I imagine there were several kinds of “old-fashioned” Christmases; but it could hardly be worse than a chop in my chambers, or–horror of horrors!–at the club; or my cousin Lucy’s notion of what she calls the “festive season.” Festive? Yes! She and her husband, who suffers from melancholia, and all the other complaints which flesh is heir to, and I, dragging through what I call a patent-medicine dinner, and talking of everybody who is dead and gone, or else going, and of nothing else.

So I wrote to the advertiser. The reply was written in a sprawling feminine hand. It was a little vague. It appeared that the terms would be five guineas; but there was no mention of the length of time which that fee would cover. I might arrive, it seemed, on Christmas Eve, but there was no hint as to when I was to go, if ever. The whole thing was a trifle odd. There was nothing said about the sort of accommodation which would be provided, nothing about the kind of establishment which was maintained, or the table which was kept. No references were offered or asked for. It was merely stated that “we’re a very lively family, and that if you’re lively yourself you’ll get on uncommonly well.” The letter was signed “Madge Wilson.”

Now it is a remarkable thing that I have always had an extraordinary predilection for the name Madge. I do not know why. I have never known a Madge. And yet, from my boyhood upward, I have desired to meet one. Here was an opportunity offered. She was apparently the careworn mother of a “lively family.” Under such circumstances she was hardly likely to be “lively” herself, but her name was Madge, and it was the accident of her Christian name which decided me to go.

I had no illusions. No doubt the five guineas were badly wanted; even a “lively family” would be hardly likely to advertise for a perfect stranger to spend Christmas with them if they were not. I did not expect a princely entertainment. Still I felt that it could hardly be worse than a chop or cousin Lucy; the subjects of her conversation I never cared about when they were alive, and I certainly do not want to talk about them now they are dead. As for the “pills” and “drops” with which her husband doses himself between the courses, it makes me ill even to think of them.

On Christmas Eve the weather was abominable. All night it had been blowing and raining. In the morning it began to freeze. By the time the streets were like so many skating rinks it commenced to snow. And it kept on snowing; that turned out to be quite a record in the way of snow-storms. Hardly the sort of weather to start for an unknown destination “in the heart of the country.” But, at the last moment, I did not like to back out. I said I would go, and I meant to go.

I had been idiot enough to load myself with a lot of Christmas presents, without the faintest notion why. I had not given a Christmas present for years–there had been no one to give them to. Lucy cannot bear such trifling, and her husband’s only notion of a present at any time was a gallon jar of somebody’s Stomach Stirrer. I am no dealer in poisons.

I knew nothing of the people I was going to. The youngest member of the family might be twenty, or the oldest ten. No doubt the things I had bought would be laughed at, probably I should never venture to offer them. Still, if you have not tried your hand at that kind of thing for ever so long, the mere act of purchasing is a pleasure. That is a fact.

I had never enjoyed “shopping” so much since I was a boy. I felt quite lively myself as I mingled with the Christmas crowd, looking for things which might not turn out to be absolutely preposterous. I even bought something for Madge–I mean Mrs. Wilson. Of course, I knew that I had no right to do anything of the kind, and was aware that the chances were a hundred to one against my ever presuming to hint at its existence. I was actually ass enough to buy something for her husband–two things, indeed; alternatives, as it were–a box of cigars, if he turned out to be a smoker, and a case of whiskey if he didn’t. I hoped to goodness that he would not prove to be a hypochondriac, like Lucy’s husband. I would not give him pills. What the “lively family” would think of a perfect stranger arriving burdened with rubbish, as if he had known them all their lives, I did not dare to think. No doubt they would set him down as a lunatic right away.

It was a horrible journey. The trains were late, and, of course, overcrowded; there was enough luggage in our compartment to have filled it, and still there was one more passenger than there ought to have been; an ill-conditioned old fellow who wanted my hat-box put into the van because it happened to tumble off the rack on to his head. I pointed out to him that the rack was specially constructed for light luggage, that a hat-box was light luggage, and that if the train jolted, he ought to blame the company, not me. He was impervious to reason. His wrangling and jangling so upset me, that I went past the station at which I ought to have changed. Then I had to wait three-quarters of an hour for a train to take me back again, only to find that I had missed the one I intended to catch. So I had to cool my heels for two hours and a half in a wretched cowshed amidst a bitter, whirling snowstorm. It is some satisfaction for me to be able to reflect that I made it warm for the officials, however cold I might have been myself.

When the train did start, some forty minutes after scheduled time, it jolted along in a laborious fashion at the rate of about six miles an hour, stopping at every roadside hovel. I counted seven in a distance, I am convinced, of less than twenty miles. When at last I reached Crofton, my journey’s end, it turned out that the station staff consisted of a half-witted individual, who was stationmaster, porter, and clerk combined, and a hulking lad who did whatever else there was to do. No one had come to meet me, the village was “about half a mile,” and Hangar Dene, the house for which my steps were bent, “about four miles by the road”–how far it was across ploughed fields my informant did not mention.

There was a trap at the “Boy and Blunderbuss,” but that required fetching. Finally the hulking lad was dispatched. It took him some time, considering the distance was only “about half a mile.” When the trap did appear it looked to me uncommonly like an open spring cart. In it I was deposited, with my luggage. The snow was still descending in whirling clouds. Never shall I forget the drive, in that miserable cart, through the storm and those pitch black country lanes. We had been jogging along some time before the driver opened his mouth.

“Be you going to stop with they Wilsons?”

“I am.”

“Ah!”

There was something in the tone of his “Ah!” which whetted my curiosity, near the end of my tether though I was.

“Why do you ask?”

“It be about time as someone were to stay with them as were a bit capable like.”

I did not know what he meant. I did not ask. I was beyond it. I was chilled to the bone, wet, tired, hungry. I had long been wishing that an old-fashioned Christmas had been completely extinct before I had thought of adventuring in quest of one. Better cousin Lucy’s notion of the “festive season.”

We passed through a gate, which I had to get down to open, along some sort of avenue. Suddenly the cart pulled up.

“Here we be.”

That might be so. It was a pity he did not add where “here” was. There was a great shadow, which possibly did duty for a house, but, if so, there was not a light in any of the windows, and there was nothing visible in the shape of a door. The whereabouts of this, however, the driver presently made clear.

“There be the door in front of you; you go up three steps, if you can find ’em. There’s a knocker, if none of ’em haven’t twisted it off. If they have, there’s a bell on your right, if it isn’t broken.”

There appeared to be no knocker, though whether it had been “twisted” off was more than I could say. But there was a bell, which creaked with rust, though it was not broken. I heard it tinkle in the distance. No answer; though I allowed a more than decent interval.

“Better ring again,” suggested the driver. “Hard. Maybe they’re up to some of their games, and wants rousing.”

Was there a chuckle in the fellow’s voice? I rang again, and again with all the force I could. The bell reverberated through what seemed like an empty house.

“Is there no one in the place?”

“They’re there right enough. Where’s another thing. Maybe on the roof; or in the cellar. If they know you’re coming perhaps they hear and don’t choose to answer. Better ring again.”

I sounded another peal. Presently feet were heard advancing along the passage–several pairs it seemed–and a light gleamed through the window over the door. A voice inquired: “Who’s there?”

“Mr. Christopher, from London.”

The information was greeted with what sounded uncommonly like a chorus of laughter. There was a rush of retreating feet, an expostulating voice, then darkness again, and silence.

“Who lives here? Are the people mad?”

“Well–thereabouts.”

Once more I suspected the driver of a chuckle. My temper was rising. I had not come all that way, and subjected myself to so much discomfort, to be played tricks with. I tolled the bell again. After a few seconds’ interval the pit-pat of what was obviously one pair of feet came towards the door. Again a light gleamed through the pane. A key was turned, a chain unfastened, bolts withdrawn; it seemed as if some one had to drag a chair forward before one of these latter could be reached. After a vast amount of unfastening, the door was opened, and on the threshold there stood a girl, with a lighted candle in her hand. The storm rushed in; she put up her hand to shield the light from danger.

“Can I see Mrs. Wilson? I’m expected. I’m Mr. Christopher, from London.”

“Oh!”

That was all she said. I looked at her; she at me. The driver’s voice came from the background.

“I drove him over from the station, Miss. There be a lot of luggage. He do say he’s come to stay with you.”

“Is that you, Tidy? I’m afraid I can offer you nothing to drink. We’ve lost the key of the cellar, and there’s nothing out, except water, and I don’t think you’d care for that.”

“I can’t say rightly as how I should, Miss. Next time will do. Be it all right?”

The girl continued to regard me.

“Perhaps you had better come inside.”

“I think I had.”

I went inside; it was time.

“Have you any luggage?” I admitted that I had. “Perhaps it had better be brought in.”

“Perhaps it had.”

“Do you think that you could manage, Tidy?”

“The mare, she’ll stand still enough. I should think I could, miss.”

 

CHAPTER II–AND THE PERFORMANCE

 

By degrees my belongings were borne into the hall, hidden under an envelope of snow. The girl seemed surprised at their number. The driver was paid, the cart disappeared, the door was shut; the girl and I were alone together.

“We didn’t expect that you would come.”

“Not expect me? But it was all arranged; I wrote to say that I would come. Did you not receive my letter?”

“We thought that you were joking.”

“Joking! Why should you imagine that?”

“We were joking.”

“You were? Then I am to gather that I have been made the subject of a practical joke, and that I am an intruder here?”

“Well, it’s quite true that we did not think you were in earnest. You see, it’s this way, we’re alone.”

“Alone? Who are ‘we’?”

“Well, it will take a good while to explain, and you look tired and cold.”

“I am both.”

“Perhaps you’re hungry?”

“I am.”

“I don’t know what you can have to eat, unless it’s to-morrow’s dinner.”

“To-morrow’s dinner!” I stared. “Can I see Mrs. Wilson?”

“Mrs. Wilson? That’s mamma. She’s dead.”

“I beg your pardon. Can I see your father?”

“Oh, father’s been dead for years.”

“Then to whom have I the pleasure of speaking?”

“I’m Madge. I’m mother now.”

“You are–mother now?”

“The trouble will be about where you are to sleep–unless it’s with the boys. The rooms are all anyhow, and I’m sure I don’t know where the beds are.”

“I suppose there are servants in the house?”

She shook her head.

“No. The boys thought that they were nuisances so we got rid of them. The last went yesterday. She wouldn’t do any work, so we thought she’d better go.”

“Under those circumstances I think it probable that you were right. Then am I to understand that there are children?”

“Rather!”

As she spoke there came a burst of laughter from the other end of the passage. I spun round. No one was in sight. She explained.

“They’re waiting round the corner. Perhaps we’d better have them here. You people, you’d better come and let me introduce you to Mr. Christopher.”

A procession began to appear from round the corner of boys and girls. In front was a girl of about sixteen. She advanced with outstretched hand and an air of self-possession which took me at a disadvantage.

“I’m Bessie. I’m sorry we kept you waiting at the door, but the fact is that we thought it was Eliza’s brother who had come to insult us again.”

“Pray, don’t mention it. I am glad that it was not Eliza’s brother.”

“So am I. He is a dreadful man.”

I shook hands with the rest of them. There were six more, four boys and two girls. They formed a considerable congregation as they stood eyeing me with inquiring glances. Madge was the first to speak.

“I wondered all along if he would take it as a joke or not, and you see he hasn’t. I thought all the time that it was a risky thing to do.”

“I like that! You keep your thoughts to yourself then. It was you proposed it. You said you’d been reading about something of the kind in a story, and you voted for our advertising ourselves for a lark.”

The speaker was the biggest boy, a good-looking youngster, with sallow cheeks and shrewd black eyes.

“But, Rupert, I never meant it to go so far as this.”

“How far did you mean it to go then? It was your idea all through. You sent in the advertisement, you wrote the letters, and now he’s here. If you didn’t mean it, why didn’t you stop his coming?”

“Rupert!”

The girls cheeks were crimson. Bessie interposed.

“The thing is that as he is here it’s no good worrying about whose fault it is. We shall simply have to make the best of it.” Then, to me, “I suppose you really have come to stay?”

“I confess that I had some notion of the kind–to spend an old-fashioned Christmas.”

At this there was laughter, chiefly from the boys. Rupert exclaimed:

“A nice sort of old-fashioned Christmas you’ll find it will be. You’ll be sorry you came before it’s through.”

“I am not so sure of that.”

There appeared to be something in my tone which caused a touch of silence to descend upon the group. They regarded each other doubtfully, as if in my words a reproof was implied. Bessie was again the spokeswoman.

“Of course, now that you have come, we mean to be nice to you, that is as nice as we can. Because the thing is that we are not in a condition to receive visitors. Do we look as if we were?”

To be frank, they did not. Even Madge was a little unkempt, while the boys were in what I believe is the average state of the average boy.

“And,” murmured Madge, “where is Mr. Christopher to sleep?”

“What is he to eat?” inquired Bessie. She glanced at my packages. “I suppose you have brought nothing with you?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t. I had hoped to have found something ready for me on my arrival.”

Again they peeped at each other, as if ashamed. Madge repeated her former suggestion.

“There’s to-morrow’s dinner.”

“Oh, hang it!” exclaimed Rupert. “It’s not so bad as that. There’s a ham.”

“Uncooked.”

“You can cut a steak off, or whatever you call it, and have it broiled.”

A meal was got ready, in the preparation of which every member of the family took a hand. And a room was found for me, in which was a blazing fire and traces of recent feminine occupation. I suspected that Madge had yielded her own apartment as a shelter for the stranger. By the time I had washed and changed my clothes, the impromptu dinner, or supper, or whatever it was, was ready.

A curious repast it proved to be; composed of oddly contrasted dishes, cooked–and sometimes uncooked–in original fashion. But hunger, that piquant sauce, gave it a relish of its own. At first no one seemed disposed to join me. By degrees, however, one after another found a knife and fork, until all the eight were seated with me round the board, eating, some of them, as if for dear life.

“The fact is,” explained Rupert, “we’re a rum lot. We hardly ever sit down together. We don’t have regular meals, but whenever anyone feels peckish, he goes and gets what there is, and cooks it and eats it on his own.”

“It’s not quite so bad as that,” protested Madge, “though it’s pretty bad.”

It did seem pretty bad, from the conventional point of view. From their conversation, which was candour itself, I gleaned details which threw light upon the peculiar position of affairs. It seemed that their father had been dead some seven years. Their mother, who had been always delicate, had allowed them to run nearly wild. Since she died, some ten months back, they appeared to have run quite wild. The house, with some six hundred acres of land, was theirs, and an income, as to whose exact amount no one seemed quite clear.

“It’s about eight hundred a year,” said Rupert.

“I don’t think it’s quite so much,” doubted Madge.

“I’m sure it’s more,” declared Bessie. “I believe we’re being robbed.”

I thought it extremely probable. They must have had peculiar parents. Their father had left everything absolutely to their mother, and the mother, in her turn, everything in trust to Madge, to be shared equally among them all. Madge was an odd trustee. In her hands the household had become a republic, in which every one did exactly as he or she pleased. The result was chaos. No one wanted to go to school, so no one went. The servants, finding themselves provided with eight masters and mistresses, followed their example, and did as they liked. Consequently, after sundry battles royal–lively episodes some of them had evidently been–one after the other had been got rid of, until, now, not one remained. Plainly the house must be going to rack and ruin.

“But have you no relations?” I inquired.

Rupert answered.

“We’ve got some cousins, or uncles, or something of the kind in Australia, where, so far as I’m concerned, I hope they’ll stop.”

When I was in my room, which I feared was Madge’s, I told myself that it was a queer establishment on which I had lighted. Yet I could not honestly affirm that I was sorry I had come. I had lived such an uneventful and such a solitary life, and had so often longed for someone in whom to take an interest–who would not talk medicine chest!–that to be plunged, all at once, into the centre of this troop of boys and girls was an accident which, if only because of its novelty, I found amusing. And then it was so odd that I should have come across a Madge at last!

In the morning I was roused by noises, the cause of which, at first, I could not understand. By degrees the explanation dawned on me; the family was putting the house to rights. A somewhat noisy process it seemed. Someone was singing, someone else was shouting, and two or three others were engaged in a heated argument. In such loud tones was it conducted that the gist of the matter travelled up to me.

“How do you think I’m going to get this fire to burn if you beastly kids keep messing it about? It’s no good banging at it with the poker till it’s alight.”

The voice was unmistakably Rupert’s. There was the sound of a scuffle, cries of indignation, then a girlish voice pouring oil upon the troubled waters. Presently there was a rattle and clatter, as if someone had fallen from the top of the house to the bottom. I rushed to my bedroom door.

“What on earth has happened?”

A small boy was outside–Peter. He explained,

“Oh, it’s only the broom and dustpan gone tobogganing down the stairs. It’s Bessie’s fault; she shouldn’t leave them on the landing.”

Bessie, appearing from a room opposite, disclaimed responsibility.

“I told you to look out where you were going, but you never do. I’d only put them down for a second, while I went in to empty a jug of water on to Jack, who won’t get out of bed, and there are all the boots for him to clean.”

Injured tones came through the open portal.

“You wait, that’s all! I’ll soak your bed tonight–I’ll drown it. I don’t want to clean your dirty boots, I’m not a shoe-black.”

The breakfast was a failure. To begin with, it was inordinately late. It seemed that a bath was not obtainable. I had been promised some hot water, but as I waited and waited and none arrived, I proceeded to break the ice in my jug–it was a bitterly cold morning, nice “old-fashioned” weather–and to wash in the half-frozen contents. As I am not accustomed to perform my ablutions in partially dissolved ice, I fear that the process did not improve my temper.

It was past eleven when I got down, feeling not exactly in a “Christmassy” frame of mind. Everything, and everyone, seemed at sixes and sevens. It was after noon when breakfast appeared. The principal dish consisted of eggs and bacon; but as the bacon was fried to cinders, and the eggs all broken, it was not so popular as it might have been, Madge was moved to melancholy.

“Something will have to be done! We can’t go on like this! We must have someone in to help us!”

Bessie was sarcastic.

“You might give Eliza another trial. She told you, if you didn’t like the way she burned the bacon, to burn it yourself, and as you’ve followed her advice, she might be able to give you other useful hints on similar lines.”

Rupert indulged himself in the same vein.

“Then there’s Eliza’s brother. He threatened to knock your blooming head off for saying Eliza was dishonest, just because she collared everything she laid her hands on; he might turn out a useful sort of creature to have about the place.”

“It’s all very well for you to laugh, but it’s beyond a jest. I don’t know how we’re going to cook the dinner.”

“Can I be of any assistance?” I inquired. “First of all, what is there to cook?”

It seemed that there were a good many things to cook. A turkey, a goose, beef, plum pudding, mince pies, custard, sardines–it seemed that Molly, the third girl, as she phrased it, could “live on sardines,” and esteemed no dinner a decent dinner at which they did not appear–together with a list of etceteras half as long as my arm.

“One thing is clear; you can’t cook all those things to-day.”

“We can’t cook anything.”

This was Rupert. He was tilting his chair back, and had his face turned towards the ceiling.

“Why not?”

“Because there’s no coal.”

“No coal?”

“There’s about half a scuttle full of dust. If you can make it burn you’ll be clever.”

What Rupert said was correct. Madge confessed, with crimson cheeks, that she had meant, over and over again, to order some coal, but had continually forgotten it, until finally Christmas Day had found them with an empty cellar. There was plenty of wood, but it was not so dry as it might have been, and anyhow, the grate was not constructed to burn wood.

“You might try smoked beef,” suggested Rupert. “When that wood goes at all it smokes like one o’clock. If you hung the beef up over it, it would be smoked enough for anyone by the time that it was done.”

I began to rub my chin. Considering the breakfast we had had, from my point of view the situation commenced, for the first time, to look really grave, I wondered if it would not be possible to take the whole eight somewhere where something really eatable could be got. But, when I broached the subject, I learned that the thing could not be done. The nearest hostelry was the “Boy and Blunderbuss,” and it was certain that nothing eatable could be had there, even if accommodation could be found for us at all. Nothing in the shape of a possible house of public entertainment was to be found closer than the market town, eight miles off; it was unlikely that even there a Christmas dinner for nine could be provided at a moment’s notice. Evidently the only thing to do was to make the best of things.

When the meeting broke up Madge came and said a few words to me alone.

“I really think you had better not stay.”

“Does that mean that you had rather I went?”

“No; not exactly that.”

“Then nearly that?”

“No; not a bit that. Only you must see for yourself how awfully uncomfortable you’ll be here, and what a horrid house this is.”

“My dear Madge”–everybody called her Madge, so I did–“even if I wanted to go, which I don’t–and I would remind you that you contracted to give me an old-fashioned Christmas–I don’t see where there is that I could go.”

“Of course, there’s that. I don’t see, either. So I suppose you’ll have to stay. But I hope you won’t think that I meant you to come to a place like this–really, you know.”

“I’m sorry; I had hoped you had.”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean that if I had thought that you were coming, I would have seen that things were different.”

“How different? I assure you that things as they are have a charm of their own.”

“That’s what you say. You don’t suppose that I’m so silly as not to know you’re laughing at me? But as I was the whole cause of your coming, I hope you won’t hate the others because of me.”

She marched off, brushing back, with an impatient gesture, some rebellious locks which had strayed upon her forehead.

That Christmas dinner was a success–positively. Of a kind–let that be clearly understood. I am not inferring that it was a success from the point of view of a “chef de cuisine.” Not at all; how could it be? Quite the other way. By dint of ransacking all the rooms, and emptying all the scuttles, we collected a certain amount of coal, with which, after adding a fair proportion of wood, we managed. Not brilliantly, but after a fashion. I can only say, personally, I had not enjoyed myself so much for years. I really felt as if I were young again; I am not sure that I am not younger than I thought I was. I must look the matter up. And, after all, even if one be, say forty, one need not be absolutely an ancient. Madge herself said that I had been like a right hand to her; she did not know what she would have done without me.

Looking back, I cannot but think that if we had attempted to prepare fewer dishes, something might have been properly cooked. It was a mistake to stuff the turkey with sage and onions; but as Bessie did not discover that she had been manipulating the wrong bird until the process of stuffing had been completed, it was felt that it might be just as well to let it rest. Unfortunately, it turned out that some thyme, parsley, mint, and other things had got mixed with the sage, which gave the creature quite a peculiar flavour; but as it came to table nearly raw, and as tough as hickory, it really did not matter.

My experience of that day teaches me that it is not easy to roast a large goose on a small oil stove. The dropping fat caused the flame to give out a strong smelling and most unpleasant smoke. Rupert, who had charge of the operation, affirmed that it would be all right in the end. But, by the time the thing was served, it was as black as my hat. Rupert said that it was merely brown; but the brown was of a sooty hue, and it reeked of paraffin. We had to have it deposited in the ashbin. I daresay that the beef would not have been bad if someone had occasionally turned it, and if the fire would have burned clear. As it was, it was charred on one side and raw on the other, and smoked all over. The way in which the odour and taste of smoke permeated everything was amazing. The plum-pudding, came to the table in the form of soup, and the mince pies were nauseous. Something had got into the crust, or mincemeat, or something, which there, at any rate, was out of place.

Luckily we came upon a tin of corned beef in a cupboard, and with the aid of some bread and cheese, and other odds and ends, we made a sort of picnic. Incredible though it may seem, I enjoyed it. If there was anywhere a merrier party than we were, I should like to know where it was to be found. It must have been a merry one. When I produced the presents, in which a happy inspiration had urged me to invest, “the enthusiasm reached a climax”–I believe that is the proper form of words which I ought to use. As I watched the pleasure of those youngsters, I felt as if I were myself a boy again.

 

* * * * *

 

That was my first introduction to “a lively family.” They came up to the description they had given of themselves. I speak from knowledge, for they have been my acquaintances now some time. More than acquaintances, friends; the dearest friends I have. At their request, I took their affairs in hand, Madge informally passing her trusteeship on to me. Things are very different with them now. The house is spick and span. There is an excellent staff of servants. Hangar Dene is as comfortable a home as there is in England. I have spent many a happy Christmas under its hospitable roof since then.

The boys are out in the world, after passing with honour through school and college. The girls are going out into the world also. Bessie is actually married. Madge is married too. She is Mrs. Christopher. That is the part of it all which I find is hardest to understand–to have told myself my whole life long that the name of my ideal woman would be Madge, and to have won that woman for my own at last! That is greater fortune than falls to the lot of most men. I thought that I was beyond that kind of thing; that I was too old. But Madge seemed to think that I was young enough. And she thinks so still.

And now there is a little Madge, who is big enough to play havoc with the sheets of paper on which I have been scribbling, to whom, one day, this tale will have to be told.

 

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies also. But Miss Kate and Miss Julia had thought of that and had converted the bathroom upstairs into a ladies’ dressing-room. Miss Kate and Miss Julia were there, gossiping and laughing and fussing, walking after each other to the head of the stairs, peering down over the banisters and calling down to Lily to ask her who had come. It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance. Everybody who knew them came to it, members of the family, old friends of the family, the members of Julia’s choir, any of Kate’s pupils that were grown up enough, and even some of Mary Jane’s pupils too. Never once had it fallen flat. For years and years it had gone off in splendid style, as long as anyone could remember; ever since Kate and Julia, after the death of their brother Pat, had left the house in Stoney Batter and taken Mary Jane, their only niece, to live with them in the dark, gaunt house on Usher’s Island, the upper part of which they had rented from Mr. Fulham, the corn-factor on the ground floor. That was a good thirty years ago if it was a day. Mary Jane, who was then a little girl in short clothes, was now the main prop of the household, for she had the organ in Haddington Road. She had been through the Academy and gave a pupils’ concert every year in the upper room of the Antient Concert Rooms. Many of her pupils belonged to the better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line. Old as they were, her aunts also did their share. Julia, though she was quite grey, was still the leading soprano in Adam and Eve’s, and Kate, being too feeble to go about much, gave music lessons to beginners on the old square piano in the back room. Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, did housemaid’s work for them. Though their life was modest, they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond-bone sirloins, threeshilling tea and the best bottled stout. But Lily seldom made a mistake in the orders, so that she got on well with her three mistresses. They were fussy, that was all. But the only thing they would not stand was back answers. Of course, they had good reason to be fussy on such a night. And then it was long after ten o’clock and yet there was no sign of Gabriel and his wife. Besides they were dreadfully afraid that Freddy Malins might turn up screwed. They would not wish for worlds that any of Mary Jane’s pupils should see him under the influence; and when he was like that it was sometimes very hard to manage him. Freddy Malins always came late, but they wondered what could be keeping Gabriel: and that was what brought them every two minutes to the banisters to ask Lily had Gabriel or Freddy come. “O, Mr. Conroy,” said Lily to Gabriel when she opened the door for him, “Miss Kate and Miss Julia thought you were never coming. Good-night, Mrs. Conroy.” “I’ll engage they did,” said Gabriel, “but they forget that my wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself.” He stood on the mat, scraping the snow from his goloshes, while Lily led his wife to the foot of the stairs and called out: “Miss Kate, here’s Mrs. Conroy.” Kate and Julia came toddling down the dark stairs at once. Both of them kissed Gabriel’s wife, said she must be perished alive, and asked was Gabriel with her. “Here I am as right as the mail, Aunt Kate! Go on up. I’ll follow,” called out Gabriel from the dark. He continued scraping his feet vigorously while the three women went upstairs, laughing, to the ladies’ dressing-room. A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his goloshes; and, as the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze, a cold, fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds. “Is it snowing again, Mr. Conroy?” asked Lily. She had preceded him into the pantry to help him off with his overcoat. Gabriel smiled at the three syllables she had given his surname and glanced at her. She was a slim; growing girl, pale in complexion and with hay-coloured hair. The gas in the pantry made her look still paler. Gabriel had known her when she was a child and used to sit on the lowest step nursing a rag doll. “Yes, Lily,” he answered, “and I think we’re in for a night of it.” He looked up at the pantry ceiling, which was shaking with the stamping and shuffling of feet on the floor above, listened for a moment to the piano and then glanced at the girl, who was folding his overcoat carefully at the end of a shelf. “Tell me. Lily,” he said in a friendly tone, “do you still go to school?” “O no, sir,” she answered. “I’m done schooling this year and more.” “O, then,” said Gabriel gaily, “I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh? “ The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake and, without looking at her, kicked off his goloshes and flicked actively with his muffler at his patent-leather shoes. He was a stout, tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes. His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly beneath the groove left by his hat. When he had flicked lustre into his shoes he stood up and pulled his waistcoat down more tightly on his plump body. Then he took a coin rapidly from his pocket. “O Lily,” he said, thrusting it into her hands, “it’s Christmastime, isn’t it? Just . . . here’s a little. . . .” He walked rapidly towards the door. “O no, sir!” cried the girl, following him. “Really, sir, I wouldn’t take it.” “Christmas-time! Christmas-time!” said Gabriel, almost trotting to the stairs and waving his hand to her in deprecation. The girl, seeing that he had gained the stairs, called out after him: “Well, thank you, sir.” He waited outside the drawing-room door until the waltz should finish, listening to the skirts that swept against it and to the shuffling of feet. He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure. Just then his aunts and his wife came out of the ladies’ dressing-room. His aunts were two small, plainly dressed old women. Aunt Julia was an inch or so the taller. Her hair, drawn low over the tops of her ears, was grey; and grey also, with darker shadows, was her large flaccid face. Though she was stout in build and stood erect, her slow eyes and parted lips gave her the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going. Aunt Kate was more vivacious. Her face, healthier than her sister’s, was all puckers and creases, like a shrivelled red apple, and her hair, braided in the same old-fashioned way, had not lost its ripe nut colour. They both kissed Gabriel frankly. He was their favourite nephew the son of their dead elder sister, Ellen, who had married T. J. Conroy of the Port and Docks. “Gretta tells me you’re not going to take a cab back to Monkstown tonight, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate. “No,” said Gabriel, turning to his wife, “we had quite enough of that last year, hadn’t we? Don’t you remember, Aunt Kate, what a cold Gretta got out of it? Cab windows rattling all the way, and the east wind blowing in after we passed Merrion. Very jolly it was. Gretta caught a dreadful cold.” Aunt Kate frowned severely and nodded her head at every word. “Quite right, Gabriel, quite right,” she said. “You can’t be too careful.” “But as for Gretta there,” said Gabriel, “she’d walk home in the snow if she were let.” Mrs. Conroy laughed. “Don’t mind him, Aunt Kate,” she said. “He’s really an awful bother, what with green shades for Tom’s eyes at night and making him do the dumb-bells, and forcing Eva to eat the stirabout. The poor child! And she simply hates the sight of it! . . . O, but you’ll never guess what he makes me wear now!” She broke out into a peal of laughter and glanced at her husband, whose admiring and happy eyes had been wandering from her dress to her face and hair. The two aunts laughed heartily, too, for Gabriel’s solicitude was a standing joke with them. “Goloshes!” said Mrs. Conroy. “That’s the latest. Whenever it’s wet underfoot I must put on my galoshes. Tonight even, he wanted me to put them on, but I wouldn’t. The next thing he’ll buy me will be a diving suit.” Gabriel laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly, while Aunt Kate nearly doubled herself, so heartily did she enjoy the joke. The smile soon faded from Aunt Julia’s face and her mirthless eyes were directed towards her nephew’s face. After a pause she asked: “And what are goloshes, Gabriel?” “Goloshes, Julia!” exclaimed her sister. “Goodness me, don’t you know what goloshes are? You wear them over your… over your boots, Gretta, isn’t it?” “Yes,” said Mrs. Conroy. “Guttapercha things. We both have a pair now. Gabriel says everyone wears them on the Continent.” “O, on the Continent,” murmured Aunt Julia, nodding her head slowly. Gabriel knitted his brows and said, as if he were slightly angered: “It’s nothing very wonderful, but Gretta thinks it very funny because she says the word reminds her of Christy Minstrels.” “But tell me, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate, with brisk tact. “Of course, you’ve seen about the room. Gretta was saying. . . .” “0, the room is all right,” replied Gabriel. “I’ve taken one in the Gresham.” “To be sure,” said Aunt Kate, “by far the best thing to do. And the children, Gretta, you’re not anxious about them?” “0, for one night,” said Mrs. Conroy. “Besides, Bessie will look after them.” “To be sure,” said Aunt Kate again. “What a comfort it is to have a girl like that, one you can depend on! There’s that Lily, I’m sure I don’t know what has come over her lately. She’s not the girl she was at all.” Gabriel was about to ask his aunt some questions on this point, but she broke off suddenly to gaze after her sister, who had wandered down the stairs and was craning her neck over the banisters. “Now, I ask you,” she said almost testily, “where is Julia going? Julia! Julia! Where are you going?” Julia, who had gone half way down one flight, came back and announced blandly: “Here’s Freddy.” At the same moment a clapping of hands and a final flourish of the pianist told that the waltz had ended. The drawing-room door was opened from within and some couples came out. Aunt Kate drew Gabriel aside hurriedly and whispered into his ear: “Slip down, Gabriel, like a good fellow and see if he’s all right, and don’t let him up if he’s screwed. I’m sure he’s screwed. I’m sure he is.” Gabriel went to the stairs and listened over the banisters. He could hear two persons talking in the pantry. Then he recognised Freddy Malins’ laugh. He went down the stairs noisily. “It’s such a relief,” said Aunt Kate to Mrs. Conroy, “that Gabriel is here. I always feel easier in my mind when he’s here. . . . Julia, there’s Miss Daly and Miss Power will take some refreshment. Thanks for your beautiful waltz, Miss Daly. It made lovely time.” A tall wizen-faced man, with a stiff grizzled moustache and swarthy skin, who was passing out with his partner, said: “And may we have some refreshment, too, Miss Morkan?” “Julia,” said Aunt Kate summarily, “and here’s Mr. Browne and Miss Furlong. Take them in, Julia, with Miss Daly and Miss Power.” “I’m the man for the ladies,” said Mr. Browne, pursing his lips until his moustache bristled and smiling in all his wrinkles. “You know, Miss Morkan, the reason they are so fond of me is—” He did not finish his sentence, but, seeing that Aunt Kate was out of earshot, at once led the three young ladies into the back room. The middle of the room was occupied by two square tables placed end to end, and on these Aunt Julia and the caretaker were straightening and smoothing a large cloth. On the sideboard were arrayed dishes and plates, and glasses and bundles of knives and forks and spoons. The top of the closed square piano served also as a sideboard for viands and sweets. At a smaller sideboard in one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop-bitters. Mr. Browne led his charges thither and invited them all, in jest, to some ladies’ punch, hot, strong and sweet. As they said they never took anything strong, he opened three bottles of lemonade for them. Then he asked one of the young men to move aside, and, taking hold of the decanter, filled out for himself a goodly measure of whisky. The young men eyed him respectfully while he took a trial sip. “God help me,” he said, smiling, “it’s the doctor’s orders.” His wizened face broke into a broader smile, and the three young ladies laughed in musical echo to his pleasantry, swaying their bodies to and fro, with nervous jerks of their shoulders. The boldest said: “O, now, Mr. Browne, I’m sure the doctor never ordered anything of the kind.” Mr. Browne took another sip of his whisky and said, with sidling mimicry: “Well, you see, I’m like the famous Mrs. Cassidy, who is reported to have said: ‘Now, Mary Grimes, if I don’t take it, make me take it, for I feel I want it.’“ His hot face had leaned forward a little too confidentially and he had assumed a very low Dublin accent so that the young ladies, with one instinct, received his speech in silence. Miss Furlong, who was one of Mary Jane’s pupils, asked Miss Daly what was the name of the pretty waltz she had played; and Mr. Browne, seeing that he was ignored, turned promptly to the two young men who were more appreciative. A red-faced young woman, dressed in pansy, came into the room, excitedly clapping her hands and crying: “Quadrilles! Quadrilles!” Close on her heels came Aunt Kate, crying: “Two gentlemen and three ladies, Mary Jane!” “O, here’s Mr. Bergin and Mr. Kerrigan,” said Mary Jane. “Mr. Kerrigan, will you take Miss Power? Miss Furlong, may I get you a partner, Mr. Bergin. O, that’ll just do now.” “Three ladies, Mary Jane,” said Aunt Kate. The two young gentlemen asked the ladies if they might have the pleasure, and Mary Jane turned to Miss Daly. “O, Miss Daly, you’re really awfully good, after playing for the last two dances, but really we’re so short of ladies tonight.” “I don’t mind in the least, Miss Morkan.” “But I’ve a nice partner for you, Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, the tenor. I’ll get him to sing later on. All Dublin is raving about him.” “Lovely voice, lovely voice!” said Aunt Kate. As the piano had twice begun the prelude to the first figure Mary Jane led her recruits quickly from the room. They had hardly gone when Aunt Julia wandered slowly into the room, looking behind her at something. “What is the matter, Julia?” asked Aunt Kate anxiously. “Who is it?” Julia, who was carrying in a column of table-napkins, turned to her sister and said, simply, as if the question had surprised her: “It’s only Freddy, Kate, and Gabriel with him.” In fact right behind her Gabriel could be seen piloting Freddy Malins across the landing. The latter, a young man of about forty, was of Gabriel’s size and build, with very round shoulders. His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavy-lidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy. He was laughing heartily in a high key at a story which he had been telling Gabriel on the stairs and at the same time rubbing the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye. “Good-evening, Freddy,” said Aunt Julia. Freddy Malins bade the Misses Morkan good-evening in what seemed an offhand fashion by reason of the habitual catch in his voice and then, seeing that Mr. Browne was grinning at him from the sideboard, crossed the room on rather shaky legs and began to repeat in an undertone the story he had just told to Gabriel. “He’s not so bad, is he?” said Aunt Kate to Gabriel. Gabriel’s brows were dark but he raised them quickly and answered: “O, no, hardly noticeable.” “Now, isn’t he a terrible fellow!” she said. “And his poor mother made him take the pledge on New Year’s Eve. But come on, Gabriel, into the drawing-room.” Before leaving the room with Gabriel she signalled to Mr. Browne by frowning and shaking her forefinger in warning to and fro. Mr. Browne nodded in answer and, when she had gone, said to Freddy Malins: “Now, then, Teddy, I’m going to fill you out a good glass of lemonade just to buck you up.” Freddy Malins, who was nearing the climax of his story, waved the offer aside impatiently but Mr. Browne, having first called Freddy Malins’ attention to a disarray in his dress, filled out and handed him a full glass of lemonade. Freddy Malins’ left hand accepted the glass mechanically, his right hand being engaged in the mechanical readjustment of his dress. Mr. Browne, whose face was once more wrinkling with mirth, poured out for himself a glass of whisky while Freddy Malins exploded, before he had well reached the climax of his story, in a kink of high-pitched bronchitic laughter and, setting down his untasted and overflowing glass, began to rub the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye, repeating words of his last phrase as well as his fit of laughter would allow him. Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing-room. He liked music but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something. Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes. The only persons who seemed to follow the music were Mary Jane herself, her hands racing along the key-board or lifted from it at the pauses like those of a priestess in momentary imprecation, and Aunt Kate standing at her elbow to turn the page. Gabriel’s eyes, irritated by the floor, which glittered with beeswax under the heavy chandelier, wandered to the wall above the piano. A picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet hung there and beside it was a picture of the two murdered princes in the Tower which Aunt Julia had worked in red, blue and brown wools when she was a girl. Probably in the school they had gone to as girls that kind of work had been taught for one year. His mother had worked for him as a birthday present a waistcoat of purple tabinet, with little foxes’ heads upon it, lined with brown satin and having round mulberry buttons. It was strange that his mother had had no musical talent though Aunt Kate used to call her the brains carrier of the Morkan family. Both she and Julia had always seemed a little proud of their serious and matronly sister. Her photograph stood before the pierglass. She held an open book on her knees and was pointing out something in it to Constantine who, dressed in a man-o-war suit, lay at her feet. It was she who had chosen the name of her sons for she was very sensible of the dignity of family life. Thanks to her, Constantine was now senior curate in Balbrigan and, thanks to her, Gabriel himself had taken his degree in the Royal University. A shadow passed over his face as he remembered her sullen opposition to his marriage. Some slighting phrases she had used still rankled in his memory; she had once spoken of Gretta as being country cute and that was not true of Gretta at all. It was Gretta who had nursed her during all her last long illness in their house at Monkstown. He knew that Mary Jane must be near the end of her piece for she was playing again the opening melody with runs of scales after every bar and while he waited for the end the resentment died down in his heart. The piece ended with a trill of octaves in the treble and a final deep octave in the bass. Great applause greeted Mary Jane as, blushing and rolling up her music nervously, she escaped from the room. The most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment-room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped. Lancers were arranged. Gabriel found himself partnered with Miss Ivors. She was a frank-mannered talkative young lady, with a freckled face and prominent brown eyes. She did not wear a low-cut bodice and the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto. When they had taken their places she said abruptly: “I have a crow to pluck with you.” “With me?” said Gabriel. She nodded her head gravely. “What is it?” asked Gabriel, smiling at her solemn manner. “Who is G. C.?” answered Miss Ivors, turning her eyes upon him. Gabriel coloured and was about to knit his brows, as if he did not understand, when she said bluntly: “O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” “Why should I be ashamed of myself?” asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile. “Well, I’m ashamed of you,” said Miss Ivors frankly. “To say you’d write for a paper like that. I didn’t think you were a West Briton.” A look of perplexity appeared on Gabriel’s face. It was true that he wrote a literary column every Wednesday in The Daily Express, for which he was paid fifteen shillings. But that did not make him a West Briton surely. The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque. He loved to feel the covers and turn over the pages of newly printed books. Nearly every day when his teaching in the college was ended he used to wander down the quays to the second-hand booksellers, to Hickey’s on Bachelor’s Walk, to Web’s or Massey’s on Aston’s Quay, or to O’Clohissey’s in the bystreet. He did not know how to meet her charge. He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years’ standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her. He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books. When their turn to cross had come he was still perplexed and inattentive. Miss Ivors promptly took his hand in a warm grasp and said in a soft friendly tone: “Of course, I was only joking. Come, we cross now.” When they were together again she spoke of the University question and Gabriel felt more at ease. A friend of hers had shown her his review of Browning’s poems. That was how she had found out the secret: but she liked the review immensely. Then she said suddenly: “O, Mr. Conroy, will you come for an excursion to the Aran Isles this summer? We’re going to stay there a whole month. It will be splendid out in the Atlantic. You ought to come. Mr. Clancy is coming, and Mr. Kilkelly and Kathleen Kearney. It would be splendid for Gretta too if she’d come. She’s from Connacht, isn’t she?” “Her people are,” said Gabriel shortly. “But you will come, won’t you?” said Miss Ivors, laying her warm hand eagerly on his arm. “The fact is,” said Gabriel, “I have just arranged to go—” “Go where?” asked Miss Ivors. “Well, you know, every year I go for a cycling tour with some fellows and so—” “But where?” asked Miss Ivors. “Well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany,” said Gabriel awkwardly. “And why do you go to France and Belgium,” said Miss Ivors, “instead of visiting your own land?” “Well,” said Gabriel, “it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.” “And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with—Irish?” asked Miss Ivors. “Well,” said Gabriel, “if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.” Their neighbours had turned to listen to the cross-examination. Gabriel glanced right and left nervously and tried to keep his good humour under the ordeal which was making a blush invade his forehead. “And haven’t you your own land to visit,” continued Miss Ivors, “that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?” “0, to tell you the truth,” retorted Gabriel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” “Why?” asked Miss Ivors. Gabriel did not answer for his retort had heated him. “Why?” repeated Miss Ivors. They had to go visiting together and, as he had not answered her, Miss Ivors said warmly: “Of course, you’ve no answer.” Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy. He avoided her eyes for he had seen a sour expression on her face. But when they met in the long chain he was surprised to feel his hand firmly pressed. She looked at him from under her brows for a moment quizzically until he smiled. Then, just as the chain was about to start again, she stood on tiptoe and whispered into his ear: “West Briton!” When the lancers were over Gabriel went away to a remote corner of the room where Freddy Malins’ mother was sitting. She was a stout feeble old woman with white hair. Her voice had a catch in it like her son’s and she stuttered slightly. She had been told that Freddy had come and that he was nearly all right. Gabriel asked her whether she had had a good crossing. She lived with her married daughter in Glasgow and came to Dublin on a visit once a year. She answered placidly that she had had a beautiful crossing and that the captain had been most attentive to her. She spoke also of the beautiful house her daughter kept in Glasgow, and of all the friends they had there. While her tongue rambled on Gabriel tried to banish from his mind all memory of the unpleasant incident with Miss Ivors. Of course the girl or woman, or whatever she was, was an enthusiast but there was a time for all things. Perhaps he ought not to have answered her like that. But she had no right to call him a West Briton before people, even in joke. She had tried to make him ridiculous before people, heckling him and staring at him with her rabbit’s eyes. He saw his wife making her way towards him through the waltzing couples. When she reached him she said into his ear: “Gabriel. Aunt Kate wants to know won’t you carve the goose as usual. Miss Daly will carve the ham and I’ll do the pudding.” “All right,” said Gabriel. “She’s sending in the younger ones first as soon as this waltz is over so that we’ll have the table to ourselves.” “Were you dancing?” asked Gabriel. “Of course I was. Didn’t you see me? What row had you with Molly Ivors?” “No row. Why? Did she say so?” “Something like that. I’m trying to get that Mr. D’Arcy to sing. He’s full of conceit, I think.” “There was no row,” said Gabriel moodily, “only she wanted me to go for a trip to the west of Ireland and I said I wouldn’t.” His wife clasped her hands excitedly and gave a little jump. “O, do go, Gabriel,” she cried. “I’d love to see Galway again.” “You can go if you like,” said Gabriel coldly. She looked at him for a moment, then turned to Mrs. Malins and said: “There’s a nice husband for you, Mrs. Malins.” While she was threading her way back across the room Mrs. Malins, without adverting to the interruption, went on to tell Gabriel what beautiful places there were in Scotland and beautiful scenery. Her son-in-law brought them every year to the lakes and they used to go fishing. Her son-in-law was a splendid fisher. One day he caught a beautiful big fish and the man in the hotel cooked it for their dinner. Gabriel hardly heard what she said. Now that supper was coming near he began to think again about his speech and about the quotation. When he saw Freddy Malins coming across the room to visit his mother Gabriel left the chair free for him and retired into the embrasure of the window. The room had already cleared and from the back room came the clatter of plates and knives. Those who still remained in the drawing room seemed tired of dancing and were conversing quietly in little groups. Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table! He ran over the headings of his speech: Irish hospitality, sad memories, the Three Graces, Paris, the quotation from Browning. He repeated to himself a phrase he had written in his review: “One feels that one is listening to a thought-tormented music.” Miss Ivors had praised the review. Was she sincere? Had she really any life of her own behind all her propagandism? There had never been any ill-feeling between them until that night. It unnerved him to think that she would be at the supper-table, looking up at him while he spoke with her critical quizzing eyes. Perhaps she would not be sorry to see him fail in his speech. An idea came into his mind and gave him courage. He would say, alluding to Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the generation which is now on the wane among us may have had its faults but for my part I think it had certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity, which the new and very serious and hypereducated generation that is growing up around us seems to me to lack.” Very good: that was one for Miss Ivors. What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women? A murmur in the room attracted his attention. Mr. Browne was advancing from the door, gallantly escorting Aunt Julia, who leaned upon his arm, smiling and hanging her head. An irregular musketry of applause escorted her also as far as the piano and then, as Mary Jane seated herself on the stool, and Aunt Julia, no longer smiling, half turned so as to pitch her voice fairly into the room, gradually ceased. Gabriel recognised the prelude. It was that of an old song of Aunt Julia’s—Arrayed for the Bridal. Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight. Gabriel applauded loudly with all the others at the close of the song and loud applause was borne in from the invisible supper-table. It sounded so genuine that a little colour struggled into Aunt Julia’s face as she bent to replace in the music-stand the old leather-bound songbook that had her initials on the cover. Freddy Malins, who had listened with his head perched sideways to hear her better, was still applauding when everyone else had ceased and talking animatedly to his mother who nodded her head gravely and slowly in acquiescence. At last, when he could clap no more, he stood up suddenly and hurried across the room to Aunt Julia whose hand he seized and held in both his hands, shaking it when words failed him or the catch in his voice proved too much for him. “I was just telling my mother,” he said, “I never heard you sing so well, never. No, I never heard your voice so good as it is tonight. Now! Would you believe that now? That’s the truth. Upon my word and honour that’s the truth. I never heard your voice sound so fresh and so . . . so clear and fresh, never.” Aunt Julia smiled broadly and murmured something about compliments as she released her hand from his grasp. Mr. Browne extended his open hand towards her and said to those who were near him in the manner of a showman introducing a prodigy to an audience: “Miss Julia Morkan, my latest discovery!” He was laughing very heartily at this himself when Freddy Malins turned to him and said: “Well, Browne, if you’re serious you might make a worse discovery. All I can say is I never heard her sing half so well as long as I am coming here. And that’s the honest truth.” “Neither did I,” said Mr. Browne. “I think her voice has greatly improved.” Aunt Julia shrugged her shoulders and said with meek pride: “Thirty years ago I hadn’t a bad voice as voices go.” “I often told Julia,” said Aunt Kate emphatically, “that she was simply thrown away in that choir. But she never would be said by me.” She turned as if to appeal to the good sense of the others against a refractory child while Aunt Julia gazed in front of her, a vague smile of reminiscence playing on her face. “No,” continued Aunt Kate, “she wouldn’t be said or led by anyone, slaving there in that choir night and day, night and day. Six o’clock on Christmas morning! And all for what?” “Well, isn’t it for the honour of God, Aunt Kate?” asked Mary Jane, twisting round on the piano-stool and smiling. Aunt Kate turned fiercely on her niece and said: “I know all about the honour of God, Mary Jane, but I think it’s not at all honourable for the pope to turn the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads. I suppose it is for the good of the Church if the pope does it. But it’s not just, Mary Jane, and it’s not right.” She had worked herself into a passion and would have continued in defence of her sister for it was a sore subject with her but Mary Jane, seeing that all the dancers had come back, intervened pacifically: “Now, Aunt Kate, you’re giving scandal to Mr. Browne who is of the other persuasion.” Aunt Kate turned to Mr. Browne, who was grinning at this allusion to his religion, and said hastily: “O, I don’t question the pope’s being right. I’m only a stupid old woman and I wouldn’t presume to do such a thing. But there’s such a thing as common everyday politeness and gratitude. And if I were in Julia’s place I’d tell that Father Healey straight up to his face. . . .” “And besides, Aunt Kate,” said Mary Jane, “we really are all hungry and when we are hungry we are all very quarrelsome.” “And when we are thirsty we are also quarrelsome,” added Mr. Browne. “So that we had better go to supper,” said Mary Jane, “and finish the discussion afterwards.” On the landing outside the drawing-room Gabriel found his wife and Mary Jane trying to persuade Miss Ivors to stay for supper. But Miss Ivors, who had put on her hat and was buttoning her cloak, would not stay. She did not feel in the least hungry and she had already overstayed her time. “But only for ten minutes, Molly,” said Mrs. Conroy. “That won’t delay you.” “To take a pick itself,” said Mary Jane, “after all your dancing.” “I really couldn’t,” said Miss Ivors. “I am afraid you didn’t enjoy yourself at all,” said Mary Jane hopelessly. “Ever so much, I assure you,” said Miss Ivors, “but you really must let me run off now.” “But how can you get home?” asked Mrs. Conroy. “O, it’s only two steps up the quay.” Gabriel hesitated a moment and said: “If you will allow me, Miss Ivors, I’ll see you home if you are really obliged to go.” But Miss Ivors broke away from them. “I won’t hear of it,” she cried. “For goodness’ sake go in to your suppers and don’t mind me. I’m quite well able to take care of myself.” “Well, you’re the comical girl, Molly,” said Mrs. Conroy frankly. “Beannacht libh,” cried Miss Ivors, with a laugh, as she ran down the staircase. Mary Jane gazed after her, a moody puzzled expression on her face, while Mrs. Conroy leaned over the banisters to listen for the hall-door. Gabriel asked himself was he the cause of her abrupt departure. But she did not seem to be in ill humour: she had gone away laughing. He stared blankly down the staircase. At the moment Aunt Kate came toddling out of the supper-room, almost wringing her hands in despair. “Where is Gabriel?” she cried. “Where on earth is Gabriel? There’s everyone waiting in there, stage to let, and nobody to carve the goose!” “Here I am, Aunt Kate!” cried Gabriel, with sudden animation, “ready to carve a flock of geese, if necessary.” A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat oldfashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes. Gabriel took his seat boldly at the head of the table and, having looked to the edge of the carver, plunged his fork firmly into the goose. He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table. “Miss Furlong, what shall I send you?” he asked. “A wing or a slice of the breast?” “Just a small slice of the breast.” “Miss Higgins, what for you?” “O, anything at all, Mr. Conroy.” While Gabriel and Miss Daly exchanged plates of goose and plates of ham and spiced beef Lily went from guest to guest with a dish of hot floury potatoes wrapped in a white napkin. This was Mary Jane’s idea and she had also suggested apple sauce for the goose but Aunt Kate had said that plain roast goose without any apple sauce had always been good enough for her and she hoped she might never eat worse. Mary Jane waited on her pupils and saw that they got the best slices and Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia opened and carried across from the piano bottles of stout and ale for the gentlemen and bottles of minerals for the ladies. There was a great deal of confusion and laughter and noise, the noise of orders and counter-orders, of knives and forks, of corks and glass-stoppers. Gabriel began to carve second helpings as soon as he had finished the first round without serving himself. Everyone protested loudly so that he compromised by taking a long draught of stout for he had found the carving hot work. Mary Jane settled down quietly to her supper but Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia were still toddling round the table, walking on each other’s heels, getting in each other’s way and giving each other unheeded orders. Mr. Browne begged of them to sit down and eat their suppers and so did Gabriel but they said there was time enough, so that, at last, Freddy Malins stood up and, capturing Aunt Kate, plumped her down on her chair amid general laughter. When everyone had been well served Gabriel said, smiling: “Now, if anyone wants a little more of what vulgar people call stuffing let him or her speak.” A chorus of voices invited him to begin his own supper and Lily came forward with three potatoes which she had reserved for him. “Very well,” said Gabriel amiably, as he took another preparatory draught, “kindly forget my existence, ladies and gentlemen, for a few minutes.” He set to his supper and took no part in the conversation with which the table covered Lily’s removal of the plates. The subject of talk was the opera company which was then at the Theatre Royal. Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, the tenor, a dark-complexioned young man with a smart moustache, praised very highly the leading contralto of the company but Miss Furlong thought she had a rather vulgar style of production. Freddy Malins said there was a Negro chieftain singing in the second part of the Gaiety pantomime who had one of the finest tenor voices he had ever heard. “Have you heard him?” he asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy across the table. “No,” answered Mr. Bartell D’Arcy carelessly. “Because,” Freddy Malins explained, “now I’d be curious to hear your opinion of him. I think he has a grand voice.” “It takes Teddy to find out the really good things,” said Mr. Browne familiarly to the table. “And why couldn’t he have a voice too?” asked Freddy Malins sharply. “Is it because he’s only a black?” Nobody answered this question and Mary Jane led the table back to the legitimate opera. One of her pupils had given her a pass for Mignon. Of course it was very fine, she said, but it made her think of poor Georgina Burns. Mr. Browne could go back farther still, to the old Italian companies that used to come to Dublin—Tietjens, Ilma de Murzka, Campanini, the great Trebelli, Giuglini, Ravelli, Aramburo. Those were the days, he said, when there was something like singing to be heard in Dublin. He told too of how the top gallery of the old Royal used to be packed night after night, of how one night an Italian tenor had sung five encores to Let me like a Soldier fall, introducing a high C every time, and of how the gallery boys would sometimes in their enthusiasm unyoke the horses from the carriage of some great prima donna and pull her themselves through the streets to her hotel. Why did they never play the grand old operas now, he asked, Dinorah, Lucrezia Borgia? Because they could not get the voices to sing them: that was why. “Oh, well,” said Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, “I presume there are as good singers today as there were then.” “Where are they?” asked Mr. Browne defiantly. “In London, Paris, Milan,” said Mr. Bartell D’Arcy warmly. “I suppose Caruso, for example, is quite as good, if not better than any of the men you have mentioned.” “Maybe so,” said Mr. Browne. “But I may tell you I doubt it strongly.” “O, I’d give anything to hear Caruso sing,” said Mary Jane. “For me,” said Aunt Kate, who had been picking a bone, “there was only one tenor. To please me, I mean. But I suppose none of you ever heard of him.” “Who was he, Miss Morkan?” asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy politely. “His name,” said Aunt Kate, “was Parkinson. I heard him when he was in his prime and I think he had then the purest tenor voice that was ever put into a man’s throat.” “Strange,” said Mr. Bartell D’Arcy. “I never even heard of him.” “Yes, yes, Miss Morkan is right,” said Mr. Browne. “I remember hearing of old Parkinson but he’s too far back for me.” “A beautiful, pure, sweet, mellow English tenor,” said Aunt Kate with enthusiasm. Gabriel having finished, the huge pudding was transferred to the table. The clatter of forks and spoons began again. Gabriel’s wife served out spoonfuls of the pudding and passed the plates down the table. Midway down they were held up by Mary Jane, who replenished them with raspberry or orange jelly or with blancmange and jam. The pudding was of Aunt Julia’s making and she received praises for it from all quarters She herself said that it was not quite brown enough. “Well, I hope, Miss Morkan,” said Mr. Browne, “that I’m brown enough for you because, you know, I’m all brown.” All the gentlemen, except Gabriel, ate some of the pudding out of compliment to Aunt Julia. As Gabriel never ate sweets the celery had been left for him. Freddy Malins also took a stalk of celery and ate it with his pudding. He had been told that celery was a capital thing for the blood and he was just then under doctor’s care. Mrs. Malins, who had been silent all through the supper, said that her son was going down to Mount Melleray in a week or so. The table then spoke of Mount Melleray, how bracing the air was down there, how hospitable the monks were and how they never asked for a penny-piece from their guests. “And do you mean to say,” asked Mr. Browne incredulously, “that a chap can go down there and put up there as if it were a hotel and live on the fat of the land and then come away without paying anything?” “O, most people give some donation to the monastery when they leave.” said Mary Jane. “I wish we had an institution like that in our Church,” said Mr. Browne candidly. He was astonished to hear that the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins. He asked what they did it for. “That’s the rule of the order,” said Aunt Kate firmly. “Yes, but why?” asked Mr. Browne. Aunt Kate repeated that it was the rule, that was all. Mr. Browne still seemed not to understand. Freddy Malins explained to him, as best he could, that the monks were trying to make up for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world. The explanation was not very clear for Mr. Browne grinned and said: “I like that idea very much but wouldn’t a comfortable spring bed do them as well as a coffin?” “The coffin,” said Mary Jane, “is to remind them of their last end.” As the subject had grown lugubrious it was buried in a silence of the table during which Mrs. Malins could be heard saying to her neighbour in an indistinct undertone: “They are very good men, the monks, very pious men.” The raisins and almonds and figs and apples and oranges and chocolates and sweets were now passed about the table and Aunt Julia invited all the guests to have either port or sherry. At first Mr. Bartell D’Arcy refused to take either but one of his neighbours nudged him and whispered something to him upon which he allowed his glass to be filled. Gradually as the last glasses were being filled the conversation ceased. A pause followed, broken only by the noise of the wine and by unsettlings of chairs. The Misses Morkan, all three, looked down at the tablecloth. Someone coughed once or twice and then a few gentlemen patted the table gently as a signal for silence. The silence came and Gabriel pushed back his chair. The patting at once grew louder in encouragement and then ceased altogether. Gabriel leaned his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and smiled nervously at the company. Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier. The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door. People, perhaps, were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music. The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres. He began: “Ladies and Gentlemen, “It has fallen to my lot this evening, as in years past, to perform a very pleasing task but a task for which I am afraid my poor powers as a speaker are all too inadequate.” “No, no!” said Mr. Browne. “But, however that may be, I can only ask you tonight to take the will for the deed and to lend me your attention for a few moments while I endeavour to express to you in words what my feelings are on this occasion. “Ladies and Gentlemen, it is not the first time that we have gathered together under this hospitable roof, around this hospitable board. It is not the first time that we have been the recipients—or perhaps, I had better say, the victims—of the hospitality of certain good ladies.” He made a circle in the air with his arm and paused. Everyone laughed or smiled at Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia and Mary Jane who all turned crimson with pleasure. Gabriel went on more boldly: “I feel more strongly with every recurring year that our country has no tradition which does it so much honour and which it should guard so jealously as that of its hospitality. It is a tradition that is unique as far as my experience goes (and I have visited not a few places abroad) among the modern nations. Some would say, perhaps, that with us it is rather a failing than anything to be boasted of. But granted even that, it is, to my mind, a princely failing, and one that I trust will long be cultivated among us. Of one thing, at least, I am sure. As long as this one roof shelters the good ladies aforesaid—and I wish from my heart it may do so for many and many a long year to come—the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we in turn must hand down to our descendants, is still alive among us.” A hearty murmur of assent ran round the table. It shot through Gabriel’s mind that Miss Ivors was not there and that she had gone away discourteously: and he said with confidence in himself: “Ladies and Gentlemen, “A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day. Listening tonight to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age. Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days: and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.” “Hear, hear!” said Mr. Browne loudly. “But yet,” continued Gabriel, his voice falling into a softer inflection, “there are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours. “Therefore, I will not linger on the past. I will not let any gloomy moralising intrude upon us here tonight. Here we are gathered together for a brief moment from the bustle and rush of our everyday routine. We are met here as friends, in the spirit of good-fellowship, as colleagues, also to a certain extent, in the true spirit of camaraderie, and as the guests of—what shall I call them?—the Three Graces of the Dublin musical world.” The table burst into applause and laughter at this allusion. Aunt Julia vainly asked each of her neighbours in turn to tell her what Gabriel had said. “He says we are the Three Graces, Aunt Julia,” said Mary Jane. Aunt Julia did not understand but she looked up, smiling, at Gabriel, who continued in the same vein: “Ladies and Gentlemen, “I will not attempt to play tonight the part that Paris played on another occasion. I will not attempt to choose between them. The task would be an invidious one and one beyond my poor powers. For when I view them in turn, whether it be our chief hostess herself, whose good heart, whose too good heart, has become a byword with all who know her, or her sister, who seems to be gifted with perennial youth and whose singing must have been a surprise and a revelation to us all tonight, or, last but not least, when I consider our youngest hostess, talented, cheerful, hard-working and the best of nieces, I confess, Ladies and Gentlemen, that I do not know to which of them I should award the prize.” Gabriel glanced down at his aunts and, seeing the large smile on Aunt Julia’s face and the tears which had risen to Aunt Kate’s eyes, hastened to his close. He raised his glass of port gallantly, while every member of the company fingered a glass expectantly, and said loudly: “Let us toast them all three together. Let us drink to their health, wealth, long life, happiness and prosperity and may they long continue to hold the proud and self-won position which they hold in their profession and the position of honour and affection which they hold in our hearts.” All the guests stood up, glass in hand, and turning towards the three seated ladies, sang in unison, with Mr. Browne as leader: For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, Which nobody can deny. Aunt Kate was making frank use of her handkerchief and even Aunt Julia seemed moved. Freddy Malins beat time with his pudding-fork and the singers turned towards one another, as if in melodious conference, while they sang with emphasis: Unless he tells a lie, Unless he tells a lie, Then, turning once more towards their hostesses, they sang: For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, Which nobody can deny. The acclamation which followed was taken up beyond the door of the supper-room by many of the other guests and renewed time after time, Freddy Malins acting as officer with his fork on high. The piercing morning air came into the hall where they were standing so that Aunt Kate said: “Close the door, somebody. Mrs. Malins will get her death of cold.” “Browne is out there, Aunt Kate,” said Mary Jane. “Browne is everywhere,” said Aunt Kate, lowering her voice. Mary Jane laughed at her tone. “Really,” she said archly, “he is very attentive.” “He has been laid on here like the gas,” said Aunt Kate in the same tone, “all during the Christmas.” She laughed herself this time good-humouredly and then added quickly: “But tell him to come in, Mary Jane, and close the door. I hope to goodness he didn’t hear me.” At that moment the hall-door was opened and Mr. Browne came in from the doorstep, laughing as if his heart would break. He was dressed in a long green overcoat with mock astrakhan cuffs and collar and wore on his head an oval fur cap. He pointed down the snowcovered quay from where the sound of shrill prolonged whistling was borne in. “Teddy will have all the cabs in Dublin out,” he said. Gabriel advanced from the little pantry behind the office, struggling into his overcoat and, looking round the hall, said: “Gretta not down yet?” “She’s getting on her things, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate. “Who’s playing up there?” asked Gabriel. “Nobody. They’re all gone.” “O no, Aunt Kate,” said Mary Jane. “Bartell D’Arcy and Miss O’Callaghan aren’t gone yet.” “Someone is fooling at the piano anyhow,” said Gabriel. Mary Jane glanced at Gabriel and Mr. Browne and said with a shiver: “It makes me feel cold to look at you two gentlemen muffled up like that. I wouldn’t like to face your journey home at this hour.” “I’d like nothing better this minute,” said Mr. Browne stoutly, “than a rattling fine walk in the country or a fast drive with a good spanking goer between the shafts.” “We used to have a very good horse and trap at home,” said Aunt Julia sadly. “The never-to-be-forgotten Johnny,” said Mary Jane, laughing. Aunt Kate and Gabriel laughed too. “Why, what was wonderful about Johnny?” asked Mr. Browne. “The late lamented Patrick Morkan, our grandfather, that is,” explained Gabriel, “commonly known in his later years as the old gentleman, was a glue-boiler.” “O, now, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate, laughing, “he had a starch mill.” “Well, glue or starch,” said Gabriel, “the old gentleman had a horse by the name of Johnny. And Johnny used to work in the old gentleman’s mill, walking round and round in order to drive the mill. That was all very well; but now comes the tragic part about Johnny. One fine day the old gentleman thought he’d like to drive out with the quality to a military review in the park.” “The Lord have mercy on his soul,” said Aunt Kate compassionately. “Amen,” said Gabriel. “So the old gentleman, as I said, harnessed Johnny and put on his very best tall hat and his very best stock collar and drove out in grand style from his ancestral mansion somewhere near Back Lane, I think.” Everyone laughed, even Mrs. Malins, at Gabriel’s manner and Aunt Kate said: “O, now, Gabriel, he didn’t live in Back Lane, really. Only the mill was there.” “Out from the mansion of his forefathers,” continued Gabriel, “he drove with Johnny. And everything went on beautifully until Johnny came in sight of King Billy’s statue: and whether he fell in love with the horse King Billy sits on or whether he thought he was back again in the mill, anyhow he began to walk round the statue.” Gabriel paced in a circle round the hall in his goloshes amid the laughter of the others. “Round and round he went,” said Gabriel, “and the old gentleman, who was a very pompous old gentleman, was highly indignant. ‘Go on, sir! What do you mean, sir? Johnny! Johnny! Most extraordinary conduct! Can’t understand the horse!” The peal of laughter which followed Gabriel’s imitation of the incident was interrupted by a resounding knock at the hall door. Mary Jane ran to open it and let in Freddy Malins. Freddy Malins, with his hat well back on his head and his shoulders humped with cold, was puffing and steaming after his exertions. “I could only get one cab,” he said. “O, we’ll find another along the quay,” said Gabriel. “Yes,” said Aunt Kate. “Better not keep Mrs. Malins standing in the draught.” Mrs. Malins was helped down the front steps by her son and Mr. Browne and, after many manoeuvres, hoisted into the cab. Freddy Malins clambered in after her and spent a long time settling her on the seat, Mr. Browne helping him with advice. At last she was settled comfortably and Freddy Malins invited Mr. Browne into the cab. There was a good deal of confused talk, and then Mr. Browne got into the cab. The cabman settled his rug over his knees, and bent down for the address. The confusion grew greater and the cabman was directed differently by Freddy Malins and Mr. Browne, each of whom had his head out through a window of the cab. The difficulty was to know where to drop Mr. Browne along the route, and Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane helped the discussion from the doorstep with cross-directions and contradictions and abundance of laughter. As for Freddy Malins he was speechless with laughter. He popped his head in and out of the window every moment to the great danger of his hat, and told his mother how the discussion was progressing, till at last Mr. Browne shouted to the bewildered cabman above the din of everybody’s laughter: “Do you know Trinity College?” “Yes, sir,” said the cabman. “Well, drive bang up against Trinity College gates,” said Mr. Browne, “and then we’ll tell you where to go. You understand now?” “Yes, sir,” said the cabman. “Make like a bird for Trinity College.” “Right, sir,” said the cabman. The horse was whipped up and the cab rattled off along the quay amid a chorus of laughter and adieus. Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing. He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter. The hall-door was closed; and Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane came down the hall, still laughing. “Well, isn’t Freddy terrible?” said Mary Jane. “He’s really terrible.” Gabriel said nothing but pointed up the stairs towards where his wife was standing. Now that the hall-door was closed the voice and the piano could be heard more clearly. Gabriel held up his hand for them to be silent. The song seemed to be in the old Irish tonality and the singer seemed uncertain both of his words and of his voice. The voice, made plaintive by distance and by the singer’s hoarseness, faintly illuminated the cadence of the air with words expressing grief: O, the rain falls on my heavy locks And the dew wets my skin, My babe lies cold . . . “O,” exclaimed Mary Jane. “It’s Bartell D’Arcy singing and he wouldn’t sing all the night. O, I’ll get him to sing a song before he goes.” “O, do, Mary Jane,” said Aunt Kate. Mary Jane brushed past the others and ran to the staircase, but before she reached it the singing stopped and the piano was closed abruptly. “O, what a pity!” she cried. “Is he coming down, Gretta?” Gabriel heard his wife answer yes and saw her come down towards them. A few steps behind her were Mr. Bartell D’Arcy and Miss O’Callaghan. “O, Mr. D’Arcy,” cried Mary Jane, “it’s downright mean of you to break off like that when we were all in raptures listening to you.” “I have been at him all the evening,” said Miss O’Callaghan, “and Mrs. Conroy, too, and he told us he had a dreadful cold and couldn’t sing.” “O, Mr. D’Arcy,” said Aunt Kate, “now that was a great fib to tell.” “Can’t you see that I’m as hoarse as a crow?” said Mr. D’Arcy roughly. He went into the pantry hastily and put on his overcoat. The others, taken aback by his rude speech, could find nothing to say. Aunt Kate wrinkled her brows and made signs to the others to drop the subject. Mr. D’Arcy stood swathing his neck carefully and frowning. “It’s the weather,” said Aunt Julia, after a pause. “Yes, everybody has colds,” said Aunt Kate readily, “everybody.” “They say,” said Mary Jane, “we haven’t had snow like it for thirty years; and I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland.” “I love the look of snow,” said Aunt Julia sadly. “So do I,” said Miss O’Callaghan. “I think Christmas is never really Christmas unless we have the snow on the ground.” “But poor Mr. D’Arcy doesn’t like the snow,” said Aunt Kate, smiling. Mr. D’Arcy came from the pantry, fully swathed and buttoned, and in a repentant tone told them the history of his cold. Everyone gave him advice and said it was a great pity and urged him to be very careful of his throat in the night air. Gabriel watched his wife, who did not join in the conversation. She was standing right under the dusty fanlight and the flame of the gas lit up the rich bronze of her hair, which he had seen her drying at the fire a few days before. She was in the same attitude and seemed unaware of the talk about her. At last she turned towards them and Gabriel saw that there was colour on her cheeks and that her eyes were shining. A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart. “Mr. D’Arcy,” she said, “what is the name of that song you were singing?” “It’s called The Lass of Aughrim,” said Mr. D’Arcy, “but I couldn’t remember it properly. Why? Do you know it?” “The Lass of Aughrim,” she repeated. “I couldn’t think of the name.” “It’s a very nice air,” said Mary Jane. “I’m sorry you were not in voice tonight.” “Now, Mary Jane,” said Aunt Kate, “don’t annoy Mr. D’Arcy. I won’t have him annoyed.” Seeing that all were ready to start she shepherded them to the door, where good-night was said: “Well, good-night, Aunt Kate, and thanks for the pleasant evening.” “Good-night, Gabriel. Good-night, Gretta!” “Good-night, Aunt Kate, and thanks ever so much. Goodnight, Aunt Julia.” “O, good-night, Gretta, I didn’t see you.” “Good-night, Mr. D’Arcy. Good-night, Miss O’Callaghan.” “Good-night, Miss Morkan.” “Good-night, again.” “Good-night, all. Safe home.” “Good-night. Good night.” The morning was still dark. A dull, yellow light brooded over the houses and the river; and the sky seemed to be descending. It was slushy underfoot; and only streaks and patches of snow lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings. The lamps were still burning redly in the murky air and, across the river, the palace of the Four Courts stood out menacingly against the heavy sky. She was walking on before him with Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, her shoes in a brown parcel tucked under one arm and her hands holding her skirt up from the slush. She had no longer any grace of attitude, but Gabriel’s eyes were still bright with happiness. The blood went bounding along his veins; and the thoughts went rioting through his brain, proud, joyful, tender, valorous. She was walking on before him so lightly and so erect that he longed to run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolish and affectionate into her ear. She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her. Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory. A heliotrope envelope was lying beside his breakfast-cup and he was caressing it with his hand. Birds were twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain was shimmering along the floor: he could not eat for happiness. They were standing on the crowded platform and he was placing a ticket inside the warm palm of her glove. He was standing with her in the cold, looking in through a grated window at a man making bottles in a roaring furnace. It was very cold. Her face, fragrant in the cold air, was quite close to his; and suddenly he called out to the man at the furnace: “Is the fire hot, sir?” But the man could not hear with the noise of the furnace. It was just as well. He might have answered rudely. A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fire of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls’ tender fire. In one letter that he had written to her then he had said: “Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?” Like distant music these words that he had written years before were borne towards him from the past. He longed to be alone with her. When the others had gone away, when he and she were in the room in the hotel, then they would be alone together. He would call her softly: “Gretta!” Perhaps she would not hear at once: she would be undressing. Then something in his voice would strike her. She would turn and look at him. . . . At the corner of Winetavern Street they met a cab. He was glad of its rattling noise as it saved him from conversation. She was looking out of the window and seemed tired. The others spoke only a few words, pointing out some building or street. The horse galloped along wearily under the murky morning sky, dragging his old rattling box after his heels, and Gabriel was again in a cab with her, galloping to catch the boat, galloping to their honeymoon. As the cab drove across O’Connell Bridge Miss O’Callaghan said: “They say you never cross O’Connell Bridge without seeing a white horse.” “I see a white man this time,” said Gabriel. “Where?” asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy. Gabriel pointed to the statue, on which lay patches of snow. Then he nodded familiarly to it and waved his hand. “Good-night, Dan,” he said gaily. When the cab drew up before the hotel, Gabriel jumped out and, in spite of Mr. Bartell D’Arcy’s protest, paid the driver. He gave the man a shilling over his fare. The man saluted and said: “A prosperous New Year to you, sir.” “The same to you,” said Gabriel cordially. She leaned for a moment on his arm in getting out of the cab and while standing at the curbstone, bidding the others good-night. She leaned lightly on his arm, as lightly as when she had danced with him a few hours before. He had felt proud and happy then, happy that she was his, proud of her grace and wifely carriage. But now, after the kindling again of so many memories, the first touch of her body, musical and strange and perfumed, sent through him a keen pang of lust. Under cover of her silence he pressed her arm closely to his side; and, as they stood at the hotel door, he felt that they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure. An old man was dozing in a great hooded chair in the hall. He lit a candle in the office and went before them to the stairs. They followed him in silence, their feet falling in soft thuds on the thickly carpeted stairs. She mounted the stairs behind the porter, her head bowed in the ascent, her frail shoulders curved as with a burden, her skirt girt tightly about her. He could have flung his arms about her hips and held her still, for his arms were trembling with desire to seize her and only the stress of his nails against the palms of his hands held the wild impulse of his body in check. The porter halted on the stairs to settle his guttering candle. They halted, too, on the steps below him. In the silence Gabriel could hear the falling of the molten wax into the tray and the thumping of his own heart against his ribs. The porter led them along a corridor and opened a door. Then he set his unstable candle down on a toilet-table and asked at what hour they were to be called in the morning. “Eight,” said Gabriel. The porter pointed to the tap of the electric-light and began a muttered apology, but Gabriel cut him short. “We don’t want any light. We have light enough from the street. And I say,” he added, pointing to the candle, “you might remove that handsome article, like a good man.” The porter took up his candle again, but slowly, for he was surprised by such a novel idea. Then he mumbled good-night and went out. Gabriel shot the lock to. A ghastly light from the street lamp lay in a long shaft from one window to the door. Gabriel threw his overcoat and hat on a couch and crossed the room towards the window. He looked down into the street in order that his emotion might calm a little. Then he turned and leaned against a chest of drawers with his back to the light. She had taken off her hat and cloak and was standing before a large swinging mirror, unhooking her waist. Gabriel paused for a few moments, watching her, and then said: “Gretta!” She turned away from the mirror slowly and walked along the shaft of light towards him. Her face looked so serious and weary that the words would not pass Gabriel’s lips. No, it was not the moment yet. “You looked tired,” he said. “I am a little,” she answered. “You don’t feel ill or weak?” “No, tired: that’s all.” She went on to the window and stood there, looking out. Gabriel waited again and then, fearing that diffidence was about to conquer him, he said abruptly: “By the way, Gretta!” “What is it?” “You know that poor fellow Malins?” he said quickly. “Yes. What about him?” “Well, poor fellow, he’s a decent sort of chap, after all,” continued Gabriel in a false voice. “He gave me back that sovereign I lent him, and I didn’t expect it, really. It’s a pity he wouldn’t keep away from that Browne, because he’s not a bad fellow, really.” He was trembling now with annoyance. Why did she seem so abstracted? He did not know how he could begin. Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord! To take her as she was would be brutal. No, he must see some ardour in her eyes first. He longed to be master of her strange mood. “When did you lend him the pound?” she asked, after a pause. Gabriel strove to restrain himself from breaking out into brutal language about the sottish Malins and his pound. He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her. But he said: “O, at Christmas, when he opened that little Christmas-card shop in Henry Street.” He was in such a fever of rage and desire that he did not hear her come from the window. She stood before him for an instant, looking at him strangely. Then, suddenly raising herself on tiptoe and resting her hands lightly on his shoulders, she kissed him. “You are a very generous person, Gabriel,” she said. Gabriel, trembling with delight at her sudden kiss and at the quaintness of her phrase, put his hands on her hair and began smoothing it back, scarcely touching it with his fingers. The washing had made it fine and brilliant. His heart was brimming over with happiness. Just when he was wishing for it she had come to him of her own accord. Perhaps her thoughts had been running with his. Perhaps she had felt the impetuous desire that was in him, and then the yielding mood had come upon her. Now that she had fallen to him so easily, he wondered why he had been so diffident. He stood, holding her head between his hands. Then, slipping one arm swiftly about her body and drawing her towards him, he said softly: “Gretta, dear, what are you thinking about?” She did not answer nor yield wholly to his arm. He said again, softly: “Tell me what it is, Gretta. I think I know what is the matter. Do I know?” She did not answer at once. Then she said in an outburst of tears: “O, I am thinking about that song, The Lass of Aughrim.” She broke loose from him and ran to the bed and, throwing her arms across the bed-rail, hid her face. Gabriel stood stockstill for a moment in astonishment and then followed her. As he passed in the way of the cheval-glass he caught sight of himself in full length, his broad, wellfilled shirt-front, the face whose expression always puzzled him when he saw it in a mirror, and his glimmering gilt-rimmed eyeglasses. He halted a few paces from her and said: “What about the song? Why does that make you cry?” She raised her head from her arms and dried her eyes with the back of her hand like a child. A kinder note than he had intended went into his voice. “Why, Gretta?” he asked. “I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.” “And who was the person long ago?” asked Gabriel, smiling. “It was a person I used to know in Galway when I was living with my grandmother,” she said. The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins. “Someone you were in love with?” he asked ironically. “It was a young boy I used to know,” she answered, “named Michael Furey. He used to sing that song, The Lass of Aughrim. He was very delicate.” Gabriel was silent. He did not wish her to think that he was interested in this delicate boy. “I can see him so plainly,” she said, after a moment. “Such eyes as he had: big, dark eyes! And such an expression in them—an expression!” “O, then, you are in love with him?” said Gabriel. “I used to go out walking with him,” she said, “when I was in Galway.” A thought flew across Gabriel’s mind. “Perhaps that was why you wanted to go to Galway with that Ivors girl?” he said coldly. She looked at him and asked in surprise: “What for?” Her eyes made Gabriel feel awkward. He shrugged his shoulders and said: “How do I know? To see him, perhaps.” She looked away from him along the shaft of light towards the window in silence. “He is dead,” she said at length. “He died when he was only seventeen. Isn’t it a terrible thing to die so young as that?” “What was he?” asked Gabriel, still ironically. “He was in the gasworks,” she said. Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead. He tried to keep up his tone of cold interrogation, but his voice when he spoke was humble and indifferent. “I suppose you were in love with this Michael Furey, Gretta,” he said. “I was great with him at that time,” she said. Her voice was veiled and sad. Gabriel, feeling now how vain it would be to try to lead her whither he had purposed, caressed one of her hands and said, also sadly: “And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?” “I think he died for me,” she answered. A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself. Her hand was warm and moist: it did not respond to his touch, but he continued to caress it just as he had caressed her first letter to him that spring morning. “It was in the winter,” she said, “about the beginning of the winter when I was going to leave my grandmother’s and come up here to the convent. And he was ill at the time in his lodgings in Galway and wouldn’t be let out, and his people in Oughterard were written to. He was in decline, they said, or something like that. I never knew rightly.” She paused for a moment and sighed. “Poor fellow,” she said. “He was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy. We used to go out together, walking, you know, Gabriel, like the way they do in the country. He was going to study singing only for his health. He had a very good voice, poor Michael Furey.” “Well; and then?” asked Gabriel. “And then when it came to the time for me to leave Galway and come up to the convent he was much worse and I wouldn’t be let see him so I wrote him a letter saying I was going up to Dublin and would be back in the summer, and hoping he would be better then.” She paused for a moment to get her voice under control, and then went on: “Then the night before I left, I was in my grandmother’s house in Nuns’ Island, packing up, and I heard gravel thrown up against the window. The window was so wet I couldn’t see, so I ran downstairs as I was and slipped out the back into the garden and there was the poor fellow at the end of the garden, shivering.” “And did you not tell him to go back?” asked Gabriel. “I implored of him to go home at once and told him he would get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live. I can see his eyes as well as well! He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree.” “And did he go home?” asked Gabriel. “Yes, he went home. And when I was only a week in the convent he died and he was buried in Oughterard, where his people came from. O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!” She stopped, choking with sobs, and, overcome by emotion, flung herself face downward on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window. She was fast asleep. Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death. Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon. The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling. A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

On dark, stormy nights they would run through the sleeping streets, burning torches in their hands, and no one saw their faces and no one knew their names. And the echoes of the steps of fourteen feet and the flicker of the torches unnerved the slumbering town. And the mighty wind that was blowing, and the streams of rain pouring down could not blow out the torches’ yellow flames. They would swiftly pass through all the narrow, crooked alleys and run across the long bridge, whose iron would bend under the weight of their bodies, and they would stand in front of a small old wooden house and wait. And the low door would slowly open, and a small and hunched little woman would appear in its frame. With a deep bow and without a word, she would let one of the seven come into her quarters. And each day, a different one was called upon. And she would shut the door behind her and the remaining six would blow out their torches, and bow their heads, and wait.  

The woman would bring the chosen one into her room, caress him with her burning little body and kiss him, and she would not utter a word and no smile ever passed her lips…

And the rain would trickle into the house through the decrepit roof, washing the two of them, and the wind would burst in and howl through the empty room and make the shutters shudder from outside. And they did not notice a thing…

And when the darkness would disperse and the grey and rainy morning twilight gazed through the windows with surveying eyes, the woman would wake up and take the head of the one who was beside her in both hands… And she would bring her face close to his and look into his eyes, and her mouth would twist with torment and her lips would whisper: “But no, it is not you!” And she would push him away from her, and go to the corner of the room and peer out from there with empty cold eyes, and he would get up and leave the house. 

And again all seven would cross the bridge, and crawl like shadows through narrow and crooked alleys, secretly crying and sighing.

And on gloomy days, when the skies were one big block of lead, heavy and dark dreary days, the little woman would wander through the streets of the town. Her back was hunched and her dress was grey and soiled, and the rims of her grey sweater would flutter in the air. Her face was pale and there was no sparkle in her black eyes. She was like a wounded bat that could not find a place for itself. And everyone saw her face and no one knew her name. She would always hurry through the crowds of people and look at the face of every man who crossed her path. And no one graced her with a smile.   

And then once the skies were a little higher and the air a little purer and colder. And she ran in the evening across the long bridge leading to her house, and the painted iron mocked and laughed under the steps of her little feet. And the woman suddenly raised her head and saw someone before her, who stood opposite and looked at the waters. He was tall and spruce. A white ferret fur shawl descended from his back, fold after fold.  Light blue eyes brightened his young face and silver hairs adorned his cheeks, and a wreath of bluish luminance shimmered on his head. She went to him and looked at his face and he smiled. She took him by the hand and led him to her derelict house. And he, handsome and wonderful, followed her…

And the night was cold, and the first butterflies of snow came down from the skies, quivered in the air and then nestled on the ground. And seven men holding burning torches stood in front of the door of the old house on the other side of the river and waited. But the door did not open and no one came to greet them. And they started banging and banging on the doors and windows and there was no reply. And the wind blew out the flames of their torches, and the cold became greater and greater from hour to hour, and they began to freeze…

And when the darkness dispersed and the fresh morning brightness laughed gaily in the windows, the woman awoke from her sleep. She took the head of the one who was by her side in both hands and put her face close to his and looked into his eyes and her lips whispered: “Why, it is you!” and her cheeks turned rosy and her eyes and hair gleamed all at once and she raised her head and saw that the ceiling above her grew high and her room was glorious and all aglow and her heart was light and she laughed.     

And when the townsfolk awoke and left their houses, they all saw with surprise and amazement a wonder on the other side of the river. Seven statues with torches in their hands were guarding its gates. And the ice torches laughed and glistened in the sunlight in thousands of colours.

 

(1929)

I could think of nothing else all month: Would they let me go to the Christmas party, or not?
I was cunning. I prepared the ground. I told my mother about the glorious achievements of Zhenya Ryazanova, for whom the party was being given. I said that Zhenya was doing very well at school, that she was almost top of the class and was always being held up as an example to us. And that she wasn’t just a little girl, but a very serious woman: she was already sixteen.  

In short, I didn’t waste any time. And then, one fine morn­ing I was called into the living room and told to stand in front of the big mirror and try on a white dress with a blue sash; I understood that I had won. I would be going to the party.

After that, preparations began in earnest: I took oil from the icon lamp in Nanny’s room and smeared it on my eyebrows every evening to make them grow thicker in time for the ball; I altered a corset my older sister had thrown away and then hid it under the mattress; I rehearsed sophisticated poses and enigmatic smiles in front of the mirror. My family expressed surprise. “Why’s Nadya looking so idiotic?” people kept asking. “I suppose she’s at that awkward age. Oh well, she’ll grow out of it.”

The Christmas party would be on the 24th. Zhenya’s name day.

I did everything in my power on the aesthetic front. With no resources at my disposal but a torn corset, I still managed to achieve a quite extraordinary effect. I cinched myself in so tight at the waist that I could only stand on tiptoe. I could barely breathe, and my face took on an imploring look. But it was a joy to make my first sacrifices in the name of beauty.

Nanny was to take me to the party. I put on my fur coat before saying goodbye to my family so as not to overwhelm them with my shapeliness.

There were a lot of people at the Ryazanovs, and most of them grown up: officers, friends of Zhenya’s brother, ladies of various ages. There were only two or three younger girls like myself, and only one cadet between us, so we had to dance with the officers. This was a great honour, of course, but a little intimidating.

At dinner, despite all my attempts to manoeuvre myself into the place next to the cadet, I was seated beside a large officer with a black beard. He was probably about thirty, but at the time he seemed to me a decrepit creature whose life was behind him.

“A fine old relic to be sitting next to,” I thought. “Seems I’m in for a jolly evening!”

The officer studied me very seriously and said, “You’re a typical Cleopatra. Quite remarkable.”

Alarmed, I said nothing.

“I just said,” he went on, “that you remind me of Cleopatra. Have you done Cleopatra at school yet?”

“Yes.”

“You have her regal air, and you are just as sophisticated and experienced a flirt. The only thing is, your feet don’t touch the ground. But that’s a minor detail.”‘

My heart beat faster. That I was an experienced flirt, I had no doubt. But how had this old man spotted it so very quickly?

“Look inside your napkin,” he said.

I looked. A pink chenille ballerina was poking out of the napkin.

“Look what I have.”

He had a green devil, with a tail made from silver metallic cord. The tail shook and the devil danced on a wire, so jolly and so beautiful that I gasped and reached my hand out towards it.

“Stop it!” he said. “He’s my devil! You have a ballerina. Tell her how pretty she is!”

He stood the devil in front of his plate.

“Look at him. Isn’t he wonderful? I can honestly say he’s the finest work of art I’ve ever seen. Still, I don’t suppose you’re interested in art. You’re a flirt. A Cleopatra. You just want to lure men to their doom.”

“Yes, he really is the very most handsome,” I babbled. “Nobody else has anyone like him.”

The officer briskly inspected the other guests. Everybody had a small chenille figure: a dog wearing a skirt, a chimney­ sweep, a monkey. Nobody had a devil like he did. Or anything the least bit like him.

“Well, of course, a devil like him doesn’t come along every day of the week. Look at his tail. It shakes all by itself without anyone even touching it. And he’s such a jolly little fellow!”

There was no need to tell me all this. I was already very taken with the devil. So much so that I didn’t even feel like eating.

“Why aren’t you eating? Did your mother tell you not to?”

Ugh, how very rude! What did my mother have to do with it, when I was a society woman dining with an officer at a ball?

“No, merci, I just don’t feel like it. I never eat much at balls.”

“Really? Well, you know what’s best for you, you must have been to lots of balls over the years. But why aren’t you looking at my little devil? You won’t be able to admire him much longer, you know. Dinner will be over soon and I’ll be putting him in my pocket and going back home with him.”

“What will you do with him?” I asked, with timid hope.

“What do you mean? He will bring beauty to my lonely life. And then I’ll get married and show him to my wife, if she’s well-behaved. He’s a wonderful little devil, isn’t he?”

Horrid old, mean old man, I thought. Didn’t he understand how I loved that jolly devil? How I loved him!

If he hadn’t been so delighted with the devil himself, I might have suggested a swap. My ballerina for his devil. But he was so entranced with this devil that there seemed no point in pestering him.

“Why are you so sad all of a sudden?” he asked. “Is it because all this will be over soon? And you’ll never again see anything like him? It’s true, you don’t come across his sort so very often.”

I hated this unkind man. I even refused a second helping of ice cream, which I really wanted. I refused because I was very unhappy. Nothing in the world mattered to me any more. I had no use for any of life’s pleasures and believed in nothing.

 

Everyone got up from the table. And my companion hurried off, too. But the little devil was still there on the table. I waited. Not that I was thinking anything in particular. I wasn’t thinking with my head. It seemed that only my heart was thinking, because it began to beat fast and hard against the top of my tight corset.

The officer didn’t come back.

I took the devil. The springy silver tail whipped against my hand. Quick—into my pocket he went.

They were dancing again in the hall. The nice young cadet asked me for a dance. I didn’t dare. I was afraid the devil would jump out of my pocket.

I didn’t love the devil any more. He had not brought me joy. Only worry and anxiety. Perhaps I just needed to take a quick look at him then I’d be ready to suffer for his sake. But as it was… What had I gone and done? Should I just slip in and put him back on the table? But the dining room door was locked now. Probably they were already clearing the table.

“Why are you looking so sad, my charming lady?”

The “old man” was standing beside me, smiling roguishly “I’ve suffered a real tragedy,” he said. “My devil’s gone missing. I’m at my wit’s end. I’m going to ring the police. They need to carry out a search. There may be a dangerous criminal in our midst.”

He smiled. What he said about the police was, of course, a joke.

“How old are you?” he asked suddenly.

“I’ll be fifteen soon. In ten months.”

“Aha! As soon as that! So in three years’ time I could be marrying you. If only my dear little devil hadn’t disappeared so inexplicably. How will I be able to make my wife happy now? Why are you so silent? Do you think I’m too old for you?”

“Not now,” I answered gloomily. “But in three years’ time you’ll be an important general.”

“A general. That’s a nice thought. But what can have hap­pened to my devil?”

I looked up into his face. I hated him so much and I was so hugely unhappy that he stopped smiling and walked away.

And I went to my friend’s room and, hiding behind the curtain (not that there was anyone else in the room), I took out the devil. He was a little squashed, but there was something else besides. He had changed. Looking at him no longer made me feel the least bit happy. I didn’t want to touch him, and I didn’t want to laugh. He was just the most ordinary devil, green chenille with a little silver tail. How could he make anybody happy? How ridiculous it all was!

I stood up on the window sill, opened the small pane at the top and threw him out on the street.

Nanny was waiting for me in the hall.

The officer walked up to us, glanced at Nanny and chuckled: “Here to collect our Queen Cleopatra, are you?”

And then he fell silent, looked at me thoughtfully and said, simply and kindly, “Off you go. Off to bed with you, little one. You’ve gone quite pale. God bless you.”

I said goodbye and left, quiet and tired.

B-o-r-i-n-g.

1925

 


 

*Taken from Rasputin and Other Stories by Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler and Ann Marie Jackson, Pushkin Press London

I

It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend, Morgan Mallow. This was a subject on which it was, to the best of his belief, impossible, with veracity, to quote him, and it was nowhere on record that he had, in the connection, on any occasion and in any embarrassment, either lied or spoken the truth. Such a triumph had its honour even for a man of other triumphs—a man who had reached fifty, who had escaped marriage, who had lived within his means, who had been in love with Mrs. Mallow for years without breathing it, and who, last not least, had judged himself once for all. He had so judged himself in fact that he felt an extreme and general humility to be his proper portion; yet there was nothing that made him think so well of his parts as the course he had steered so often through the shallows just mentioned. It became thus a real wonder that the friends in whom he had most confidence were just those with whom he had most reserves. He couldn’t tell Mrs. Mallow—or at least he supposed, excellent man, he couldn’t—that she was the one beautiful reason he had never married; any more than he could tell her husband that the sight of the multiplied marbles in that gentleman’s studio was an affliction of which even time had never blunted the edge. His victory, however, as I have intimated, in regard to these productions was not simply in his not having let it out that he deplored them; it was, remarkably, in his not having kept it in by anything else.

The whole situation, among these good people, was verily a marvel, and there was probably not such another for a long way from the spot that engages us—the point at which the soft declivity of Hampstead began at that time to confess in broken accents to St. John’s Wood. He despised Mallow’s statues and adored Mallow’s wife, and yet was distinctly fond of Mallow, to whom, in turn, he was equally dear. Mrs. Mallow rejoiced in the statues—though she preferred, when pressed, the busts; and if she was visibly attached to Peter Brench it was because of his affection for Morgan. Each loved the other, moreover, for the love borne in each case to Lancelot, whom the Mallows respectively cherished as their only child and whom the friend of their fireside identified as the third—but decidedly the handsomest—of his godsons. Already in the old years it had come to that—that no one, for such a relation, could possibly have occurred to any of them, even to the baby itself, but Peter. There was luckily a certain independence, of the pecuniary sort, all round: the Master could never otherwise have spent his solemn Wanderjahre 1 in Florence and Rome and continued, by the Thames as well as by the Arno and the Tiber, to add unpurchased group to group and model, for what was too apt to prove in the event mere love, fancy-heads of celebrities either too busy or too buried—too much of the age or too little of it—to sit. Neither could Peter, lounging in almost daily, have found time to keep the whole complicated tradition so alive by his presence. He was massive, but mild, the depositary of these mysteries—large and loose and ruddy and curly, with deep tones, deep eyes, deep pockets, to say nothing of the habit of long pipes, soft hats, and brownish, greyish, weather-faded clothes, apparently always the same.

He had ‘written,’ it was known, but had never spoken—never spoken, in particular, of that; and he had the air (since, as was believed, he continued to write) of keeping it up in order to have something more—as if he had not, at the worst, enough—to be silent about. Whatever his air, at any rate, Peter’s occasional unmentioned prose and verse were quite truly the result of an impulse to maintain the purity of his taste by establishing still more firmly the right relation of fame to feebleness. The little green door of his domain was in a garden-wall on which the stucco was cracked and stained, and in the small detached villa behind it everything was old, the furniture, the servants, the books, the prints, the habits, and the new improvements. The Mallows, at Carrara Lodge, were within ten minutes, and the studio there was on their little land, to which they had added, in their happy faith, to build it. This was the good fortune, if it was not the ill, of her having brought him, in marriage, a portion that put them in a manner at their ease and enabled them thus, on their side, to keep it up. And they did keep it up—they always had—the infatuated sculptor and his wife, for whom nature had refined on the impossible by relieving them of the sense of the difficult. Morgan had, at all events, everything of the sculptor but the spirit of Phidias—the brown velvet, the becoming beretto, the ‘plastic’ presence, the fine fingers, the beautiful accent in Italian, and the old Italian factotum. He seemed to make up for every thing when he addressed Egidio with the ‘tu’ and waved him to turn one of the rotary pedestals of which the place was full. They were tremendous Italians at Carrara Lodge, and the secret of the part played by this fact in Peter’s life was, in a large degree, that it gave him, sturdy Briton that he was, just the amount of going abroad he could bear. The Mallows were all his Italy, but it was in a measure for Italy he liked them. His one worry was that Lance—to which they had shortened his godson—was, in spite of a public school, perhaps a shade too Italian. Morgan, meanwhile, looked like somebody’s flattering idea of somebody’s own person as expressed in the great room provided at the Uffizzi museum for Portraits of Artists by Themselves. The Master’s sole regret that he had not been born rather to the brush than to the chisel sprang from his wish that he might have contributed to that collection.

It appeared, with time, at any rate, to be to the brush that Lance had been born; for Mrs. Mallow, one day when the boy was turning twenty, broke it to their friend, who shared, to the last delicate morsel, their problems and pains, that it seemed as if nothing would really do but that he should embrace the career. It had been impossible longer to remain blind to the fact that he gained no glory at Cambridge, where Brench’s own college had, for a year, tempered its tone to him as for Brench’s own sake. Therefore why renew the vain form of preparing him for the impossible? The impossible—it had become clear—was that he should be anything but an artist.

‘Oh dear, dear!’ said poor Peter.

‘Don’t you believe in it?’ asked Mrs. Mallow, who still, at more than forty, had her violet velvet eyes, her creamy satin skin, and her silken chestnut hair.

‘Believe in what?’

‘Why, in Lance’s passion.’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “believing in it.” I’ve never been unaware, certainly, of his disposition, from his earliest time, to daub and draw; but I confess I’ve hoped it would burn out.’

‘But why should it,’ she sweetly smiled, ‘with his wonderful heredity? Passion is passion—though of course, indeed, you, dear Peter, know nothing of that. Has the Master’s ever burned out?’

Peter looked off a little and, in his familiar, formless way, kept up for a moment a sound between a smothered whistle and a subdued hum. ‘Do you think he’s going to be another Master?’

She seemed scarce prepared to go that length, yet she had, on the whole, a most marvellous trust. ‘I know what you mean by that. Will it be a career to incur the jealousies and provoke the machinations that have been at times almost too much for his father? Well—say it may be, since nothing but clap-trap, in these dreadful days, can, it would seem, make its way, and since, with the curse of refinement and distinction, one may easily find one’s self begging one’s bread. Put it at the worst—say he has the misfortune to wing his flight further than the vulgar taste of his stupid countrymen can follow. Think, all the same, of the happiness—the same that the Master has had. He’ll know.’

Peter looked rueful. ‘Ah, but what will he know?’

‘Quiet joy!’ cried Mrs. Mallow, quite impatient and turning away.

 

II

 

He had of course, before long, to meet the boy himself on it and to hear that, practically, everything was settled. Lance was not to go up again, but to go instead to Paris, where, since the die was cast, he would find the best advantages. Peter had always felt that he must be taken as he was, but had never perhaps found him so much as he was as on this occasion. ‘You chuck Cambridge then altogether? Doesn’t that seem rather a pity?’

Lance would have been like his father, to his friend’s sense, had he had less humour, and like his mother had he had more beauty. Yet it was a good middle way, for Peter, that, in the modern manner, he was, to the eye, rather the young stockbroker than the young artist. The youth reasoned that it was a question of time—there was such a mill to go through, such an awful lot to learn. He had talked with fellows and had judged. ‘One has got, to-day,’ he said, ‘don’t you see? to know.’

His interlocutor, at this, gave a groan. ‘Oh, hang it, don’t know!’

Lance wondered. ‘”Don’t”? Then what’s the use———?’

‘The use of what?’

‘Why, of anything. Don’t you think I’ve talent?’

Peter smoked away, for a little, in silence;. then went on: ‘It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that—as we’ve been beautifully told—is bliss.’

‘Don’t you think I’ve talent?’ Lance repeated.

Peter, with his trick of queer, kind demonstrations, passed his arm round his godson and held him a moment. ‘How do I know?’

‘Oh,’ said the boy, ‘if it’s your own ignorance you’re defending———!’

Again, for a pause, on the sofa, his godfather smoked. ‘It isn’t. I’ve the misfortune to be omniscient.’

‘Oh, well,’ Lance laughed again, ‘if you know too much———!’

‘That’s what I do, and why I’m so wretched.’

Lance’s gaiety grew. ‘Wretched? Come, I say!’

‘But I forgot,’ his companion went on—’you’re not to know about that. It would indeed, for you too, make the too much. Only I’ll tell you what I’ll do.’ And Peter got up from the sofa. ‘If you’ll go up again, I’ll pay your way at Cambridge.’

Lance stared, a little rueful in spite of being still more amused. ‘Oh, Peter! You disapprove so of Paris?’

‘Well, I’m afraid of it.’

‘Ah, I see.’

‘No, you don’t see—yet. But you will—that is you would. And you mustn’t.’

The young man thought more gravely. ‘But one’s innocence, already———’

‘Is considerably damaged? Ah, that won’t matter,’ Peter persisted—’we’ll patch it up here.’

‘Here? Then you want me to stay at home?’

Peter almost confessed to it. ‘Well, we’re so right—we four together—just as we are. We’re so safe. Come, don’t spoil it.’

The boy, who had turned to gravity, turned from this, on the real pressure in his friend’s tone, to consternation. ‘Then what’s a fellow to be?’

‘My particular care. Come, old man’—and Peter now fairly pleaded—I’ll look out for you.’

Lance, who had remained on the sofa with his legs out and his hands in his pockets, watched him with eyes that showed suspicion. Then he got up. ‘You think there’s something the matter with me—that I can’t make a success.’

‘Well, what do you call a success?’

Lance thought again. ‘Why, the best sort, I suppose, is to please one’s self. Isn’t that the sort that, in spite of cabals and things, is—in his own peculiar line—the Master’s?’

There were so much too many things in this question to be answered at once that they practically checked the discussion, which became particularly difficult in the light of such renewed proof that, though the young man’s innocence might, in the course of his studies, as he contended, somewhat have shrunken, the finer essence of it still remained. That was indeed exactly what Peter had assumed and what, above all, he desired; yet, perversely enough, it gave him a chill. The boy believed in the cabals and things, believed in the peculiar line, believed, in short, in the Master. What happened a month or two later was not that he went up again at the expense of his godfather, but that a fortnight after he had got settled in Paris this personage sent him fifty pounds.

He had meanwhile, at home, this personage, made up his mind to the worst; and what it might be had never yet grown quite so vivid to him as when, on his presenting himself one Sunday night, as he never failed to do, for supper, the mistress of Carrara Lodge met him with an appeal as to—of all things in the world—the wealth of the Canadians. She was earnest, she was even excited. ‘Are many of them really rich?’

He had to confess that he knew nothing about them, but he often thought afterwards of that evening. The room in which they sat was adorned with sundry specimens of the Master’s genius, which had the merit of being, as Mrs. Mallow herself frequently suggested, of an unusually convenient size. They were indeed of dimensions not customary in the products of the chisel and had the singularity that, if the objects and features intended to be small looked too large, the objects and features intended to be large looked too small. The Master’s intention, whether in respect to this matter or to any other, had, in almost any case, even after years, remained undiscoverable to Peter Brench. The creations that so failed to reveal it stood about on pedestals and brackets, on tables and shelves, a little staring white population, heroic, idyllic, allegoric, mythic, symbolic, in which ‘scale’ had so strayed and lost itself that the public square and the chimney-piece seemed to have changed places, the monumental being all diminutive and the diminutive all monumental; branches, at any rate, markedly, of a family in which stature was rather oddly irrespective of function, age, and sex. They formed, like the Mallows themselves, poor Brench’s own family—having at least, to such a degree, a note of familiarity. The occasion was one of those he had long ago learnt to know and to name—short flickers of the faint flame, soft gusts of a kinder air. Twice a year, regularly, the Master believed in his fortune, in addition to believing all the year round in his genius. This time it was to be made by a bereaved couple from Toronto, who had given him the handsomest order for a tomb to three lost children, each of whom they desired to be, in the composition, emblematically and characteristically represented.

Such was naturally the moral of Mrs. Mallow’s question: if their wealth was to be assumed, it was clear, from the nature of their admiration, as well as from mysterious hints thrown out (they were a little odd!) as to other possibilities of the same mortuary sort, that their further patronage might be; and not less evident that, should the Master become at all known in those climes, nothing would be more inevitable than a run of Canadian custom. Peter had been present before at runs of custom, colonial and domestic—present at each of those of which the aggregation had left so few gaps in the marble company round him; but it was his habit never, at these junctures, to prick the bubble in advance. The fond illusion, while it lasted, eased the wound of elections never won, the long ache of medals and diplomas carried off, on every chance, by every one but the Master; it lighted the lamp, moreover, that would glimmer through the next eclipse. They lived, however, after all—as it was always beautiful to see—at a height scarce susceptible of ups and downs. They strained a point, at times, charmingly, to admit that the public was, here and there, not too bad to buy; but they would have been nowhere without their attitude that the Master was always too good to sell. They were, at all events, deliciously formed, Peter often said to himself, for their fate; the Master had a vanity, his wife had a loyalty, of which success, depriving these things of innocence, would have diminished the merit and the grace. Any one could be charming under a charm, and, as he looked about him at a world of prosperity more void of proportion even than the Master’s museum, he wondered if he knew another pair that so completely escaped vulgarity.

‘What a pity Lance isn’t with us to rejoice!’ Mrs. Mallow on this occasion sighed at supper.

‘We’ll drink to the health of the absent,’ her husband replied, filling his friend’s glass and his own and giving a drop to their companion; ‘but we must hope that he’s preparing himself for a happiness much less like this of ours this evening—excusable as I grant it to be!—than like the comfort we have always—whatever has happened or has not happened—been able to trust ourselves to enjoy. The comfort,’ the Master explained, leaning back in the pleasant lamplight and firelight, holding up his glass alooking round at his marble family, quartered more or less, a monstrous brood, in every room—’the comfort of art in itself!’

Peter looked a little shily at his wine. ‘Well—I don’t care what you may call it when a fellow doesn’t—but Lance must learn to sell, you know. I drink to his acquisition of the secret of a base popularity!’

‘Oh yes, he must sell,’ the boy’s mother, who was still more, however, this seemed to give out, the Master’s wife, rather artlessly conceded.

‘Oh,’ the sculptor, after a moment, confidently pronounced, ‘Lance will. Don’t be afraid. He will have learnt.’

‘Which is exactly what Peter,’ Mrs. Mallow gaily returned—’why in the world were you so perverse, Peter?—wouldn’t, when he told him, hear of.’

Peter, when this lady looked at him with accusatory affection—a grace, on her part, not infrequent—could never find a word; but the Master, who was always all amenity and tact, helped him out now as he had often helped him before. ‘That’s his old idea, you know—on which we’ve so often differed: his theory that the artist should be all impulse and instinct. I go in, of course, for a certain amount of school. Not too much—but a due proportion. There’s where his protest came in,’ he continued to explain to his wife, ‘as against what might, don’t you see? be in question for Lance.’

‘Ah, well,’—and Mrs. Mallow turned the violet eyes across the table at the subject of this discourse,—’he’s sure to have meant, of course, nothing but good; but that wouldn’t have prevented him, if Lance had taken his advice, from being, in effect, horribly cruel.’

They had a sociable way of talking of him to his face as if he had been in the clay or—at most—in the plaster, and the Master was unfailingly generous. He might have been waving Egidio to make him revolve. ‘Ah, but poor Peter was not so wrong as to what it may, after all, come to that he will learn.’

‘Oh, but nothing artistically bad,’ she urged—still, for poor Peter, arch and dewy.

‘Why, just the little French tricks,’ said the Master: on which their friend had to pretend to admit, when pressed by Mrs. Mallow, that these æsthetic vices had been the objects of his dread.

 

III

 

‘I know now,’ Lance said to him the next year, ‘why you were so much against it.’ He had come back, supposedly for a mere interval, and was looking about him at Carrara Lodge, where indeed he had already, on two or three occasions, since his expatriation, briefly appeared. This had the air of a longer holiday. ‘Something rather awful has happened to me. It isn’t so very good to know.’

‘I’m bound to say high spirits don’t show in your face,’ Peter was rather ruefully forced to confess. ‘Still, are you very sure you do know?’

‘Well, I at least know about as much as I can bear.’ These remarks were exchanged in Peter’s den, and the young man, smoking cigarettes, stood before the fire with his back against the mantel. Something of his bloom seemed really to have left him.

Poor Peter wondered. ‘You’re clear then as to what in particular I wanted you not to go for?’

‘In particular?’ Lance thought. ‘It seems to me that, in particular, there can have been but one thing.’

They stood for a little sounding each other. ‘Are you quite sure?’

‘Quite sure I’m a beastly duffer? Quite—by this time.’

‘Oh!’ and Peter turned away as if almost with relief.

‘It’s that that isn’t pleasant to find out.’

‘Oh, I don’t care for “that,” said Peter, presently coming round again. ‘I mean I personally don’t.’

‘Yet I hope you can understand a little that I myself should!’

‘Well, what do you mean by it?’ Peter sceptically asked.

And on this Lance had to explain—how the upshot of his studies in Paris had inexorably proved a mere deep doubt of his means. These studies had waked him up, and a new light was in his eyes; but what the new light did was really to show him too much. ‘Do you know what’s the matter with me? I’m too horribly intelligent. Paris was really the last place for me. I’ve learnt what I can’t do.’

Poor Peter stared—it was a staggerer; but even after they had had, on the subject, a longish talk in which the boy brought out to the full the hard truth of his lesson, his friend betrayed less pleasure than usually breaks into a face to the happy tune of ‘I told you so!’ Poor Peter himself made now indeed so little a point of having told him so that Lance broke ground in a different place a day or two after. ‘What was it then that—before I went—you were afraid I should find out?’ This, however, Peter refused to tell him—on the ground that if he hadn’t yet guessed perhaps he never would, and that nothing at all, for either of them, in any case, was to be gained by giving the thing a name. Lance eyed him, on this, an instant, with the bold curiosity of youth—with the air indeed of having in his mind two or three names, of which one or other would be right. Peter, nevertheless, turning his back again, offered no encouragement, and when they parted afresh it was with some show of impatience on the side of the boy. Accordingly, at their next encounter, Peter saw at a glance that he had now, in the interval, divined and that, to sound his note, he was only waiting till they should find themselves alone. This he had soon arranged, and he then broke straight out. ‘Do you know your conundrum has been keeping me awake? But in the watches of the night the answer came over me—so that, upon my honour, I quite laughed out. Had you been supposing I had to go to Paris to learn that?‘ Even now, to see him still so sublimely on his guard, Peter’s young friend had to laugh afresh. ‘You won’t give a sign till you’re sure? Beautiful old Peter!’ But Lance at last produced it. ‘Why, hang it, the truth about the Master.’

It made between them, for some minutes, a lively passage, full of wonder, for each, at the wonder of the other. ‘Then how long have you understood———’

‘The true value of his work? I understood it,’ Lance recalled, ‘as soon as I began to understand anything. But I didn’t begin fully to do that, I admit, till I got là-bas.’

‘Dear, dear!’—Peter gasped with retrospective dread.

‘But for what have you taken me? I’m a hopeless muff—that I had to have rubbed in. But I’m not such a muff as the Master!’ Lance declared.

‘Then why did you never tell me———?’

‘That I hadn’t, after all’—the boy took him up—’remained such an idiot? Just because I never dreamed you knew. But I beg your pardon. I only wanted to spare you. And what I don’t now understand is how the deuce then, for so long, you’ve managed to keep bottled.’

Peter produced his explanation, but only after some delay and with a gravity not void of embarrassment. ‘It was for your mother.’

‘Oh!’ said Lance.

‘And that’s the great thing now—since the murder is out. I want a promise from you. I mean’—and Peter almost feverishly followed it up—’a vow from you, solemn and such as you owe me, here on the spot, that you’ll sacrifice anything rather than let her ever guess———’

‘That I’ve guessed?’—Lance took it in. ‘I see.’ He evidently, after a moment, had taken in much. ‘But what is it you have in mind that I may have a chance to sacrifice?’

‘Oh, one has always something.’

Lance looked at him hard. ‘Do you mean that you’ve had———?’ The look he received back, however, so put the question by that he found soon enough another. ‘Are you really sure my mother doesn’t know?’

Peter, after renewed reflection, was really sure. ‘If she does, she’s too wonderful.’

‘But aren’t we all too wonderful?’

‘Yes,’ Peter granted—’but in different ways. The thing’s so desperately important because your father’s little public consists only, as you know then,’ Peter developed—’well, of how many?’

‘First of all,’ the Master’s son risked, ‘of himself. And last of all too. I don’t quite see of whom else.’

Peter had an approach to impatience. ‘Of your mother, I say—always.’

Lance cast it all up. ‘You absolutely feel that?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘Well then, with yourself, that makes three.’

‘Oh, me!‘—and Peter, with a wag of his kind old head, modestly excused himself. ‘The number is, at any rate, small enough for any individual dropping out to be too dreadfully missed. Therefore, to put it in a nutshell, take care, my boy—that’s all—that you’re not!’

‘I’ve got to keep on humbugging?’ Lance sighed.

‘It’s just to warn you of the danger of your failing of that that I’ve seized this opportunity.’

‘And what do you regard in particular,’ the young man asked, ‘as the danger?’

‘Why, this certainty: that the moment your mother, who feels so strongly, should suspect your secret—well,’ said Peter desperately, ‘the fat would be on the fire.’

Lance, for a moment, seemed to stare at the blaze. ‘She’d throw me over?’

‘She’d throw him over.’

‘And come round to us?’

Peter, before he answered, turned away. ‘Come round to you.’ But he had said enough to indicate—and, as he evidently trusted, to avert—the horrid contingency.

 

IV

 

Within six months again, however, his fear was, on more occasions than one, all before him. Lance had returned to Paris, to another trial; then had reappeared at home and had had, with his father, for the first time in his life, one of the scenes that strike sparks. He described it with much expression to Peter, as to whom—since they had never done so before—it was a sign of a new reserve on the part of the pair at Carrara Lodge that they at present failed, on a matter of intimate interest, to open themselves—if not in joy, then in sorrow—to their good friend. This produced perhaps, practically, between the parties, a shade of alienation and a slight intermission of commerce marked mainly indeed by the fact that, to talk at his ease with his old playmate, Lance had, in general, to come to see him. The closest, if not quite the gayest, relation they had yet known together was thus ushered in. The difficulty for poor Lance was a tension at home, begotten by the fact that his father wished him to be, at least, the sort of success he himself had been. He hadn’t ‘chucked’ Paris—though nothing appeared more vivid to him than that Paris had chucked him; he would go back again because of the fascination in trying, in seeing, in sounding the depths—in learning one’s lesson, in fine, even if the lesson were simply that of one’s impotence in the presence of one’s larger vision. But what did the Master, all aloft in his senseless fluency, know of impotence, and what vision—to be called such—had he, in all his blind life, ever had? Lance, heated and indignant, frankly appealed to his godparent on this score.

His father, it appeared, had come down on him for having, after so long, nothing to show, and hoped that, on his next return, this deficiency would be repaired. The thing, the Master complacently set forth, was—for any artist, however inferior to himself—at least to ‘do’ something. ‘What can you do? That’s all I ask!’ He had certainly done enough, and there was no mistake about what he had to show. Lance had tears in his eyes when it came thus to letting his old friend know how great the strain might be on the ‘sacrifice’ asked of him. It wasn’t so easy to continue humbugging—as from son to parent—after feeling one’s self despised for not grovelling in mediocrity. Yet a noble duplicity was what, as they intimately faced the situation, Peter went on requiring; and it was still, for a time, what his young friend, bitter and sore, managed loyally to comfort him with. Fifty pounds, more than once again, it was true, rewarded, both in London and in Paris, the young friend’s loyalty; none the less sensibly, doubtless, at the moment, that the money was a direct advance on a decent sum for which Peter had long since privately prearranged an ultimate function. Whether by these arts or others, at all events, Lance’s just resentment was kept for a season—but only for a season—at bay. The day arrived when he warned his companion that he could hold out—or hold in—no longer. Carrara Lodge had had to listen to another lecture delivered from a great height—an infliction really heavier, at last, than, without striking back or in some way letting the Master have the truth, flesh and blood could bear.

‘And what I don’t see is,’ Lance observed with a certain irritated eye for what was, after all, if it came to that, due to himself too—’What I don’t see is, upon my honour, how you, as things are going, can keep the game up.’

‘Oh, the game for me is only to hold my tongue,’ said placid Peter. ‘And I have my reason.’

‘Still my mother?’

Peter showed, as he had often shown it before—that is by turning it straight away—a queer face. ‘What will you have? I haven’t ceased to like her.’

‘She’s beautiful—she’s a dear, of course,’ Lance granted; ‘but what is she to you, after all, and what is it to you that, as to anything whatever, she should or she shouldn’t?’

Peter, who had turned red, hung fire a little. ‘Well—it’s all, simply, what I make of it.’

There was now, however, in his young friend, a strange, an adopted, insistence. ‘What are you, after all, to her?

‘Oh, nothing. But that’s another matter.’

‘She cares only for my father,’ said Lance the Parisian.

‘Naturally—and that’s just why.’

‘Why you’ve wished to spare her?’

‘Because she cares so tremendously much.’

Lance took a turn about the room, but with his eyes still on his host. ‘How awfully—always—you must have liked her!’

‘Awfully. Always,’ said Peter Brench.

The young man continued for a moment to muse—then stopped again in front of him. ‘Do you know how much she cares?’ Their eyes met on it, but Peter, as if his own found something new in Lance’s, appeared to hesitate, for the first time for so long, to say he did know. ‘I’ve only just found out,’ said Lance. ‘She came to my room last night, after being present, in silence and only with her eyes on me, at what I had had to take from him; she came—and she was with me an extraordinary hour.’

He had paused again, and they had again for a while sounded each other. Then something—and it made him suddenly turn pale—came to Peter. ‘She does know?’

‘She does know. She let it all out to me—so as to demand of me no more than that, as she said, of which she herself had been capable. She has always, always known,’ said Lance without pity.

Peter was silent a long time; during which his companion might have heard him gently breathe and, on touching him, might have felt within him the vibration of a long, low sound suppressed. By the time he spoke, at last, he had taken everything in. ‘Then I do see how tremendously much.’

‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Lance asked.

‘Wonderful,’ Peter mused.

‘So that if your original effort to keep me from Paris was to keep me from knowledge———!’ Lance exclaimed as if with a sufficient indication of this futility.

It might have been at the futility that Peter appeared for a little to gaze. ‘I think it must have been—without my quite at the time knowing it—to keep me!‘he replied at last as he turned away.

 

John’s childhood ambition was to be a pilot. Let’s sit with that a while. A boy grew up, like so many other boys all over the world, watching the skies, imagining himself in the endless blue. What do all these boys dream of? Of watching the world from above, of air starts and power-off glides, of aerial somersaults, of moonlit sorties, of racing through the clouds in 15,000 tonnes of machinery, of the attractiveness of being a man in uniform? Universal dreams, and not only boys dream them, of course. As universal as love, as family loyalty, as friendship, as kindness, as fear. And like love, loyalty, friendship, kindness and fear, the dream of being a pilot – however universal in its outlines – must exist and play itself out in very particular circumstances. In John’s case, the circumstances start with place – the country of his birth and upbringing _______. And ______ is where he started the story, when we met in London in a room made smaller than it needed to be by the excessive furniture – round table, too many chairs — crammed into it.

‘I’m from _______,’ he said. ‘It’s a small country. The_______ government is a kind of a dictatorship. It used to be a military dictatorship before supposed democracy came back in but it isn’t really a democratic country. The President has been there for a very long time. So things are not as outsiders would see.’

When he started to speak in his ordered, concise sentences I knew immediately that he had told this tale before, and had learnt how to shape it. It came as no surprise, near the end of our time together, when he said that telling his story was part of his CBT therapy. As a writer, I know the usefulness of stories when confronting our lives. Stories allow us to structure our experiences into beginning, middle, end, and decide which parts to skim over, which to go into in detail; stories allow us to put forward our own points of view and interpretations; stories, in short, allow us a measure of control over our memories. In lives such as John’s, when control is so often in other people’s hands, the value of that must be enormous. It must also be difficult to achieve. As we sat together and his tale unfolded, the ordered re-telling began to fracture, gaps appeared, the story doubled back on itself. At various points, John cried. I didn’t ask him to fill in gaps or expand on details – the reasons should become clear, if they aren’t already.

I am delaying here. I want us to sit with John, the boy who looked at the sky and dreamed of flying through the constellations. But when we met, John did not stop on that any longer than it took to say, ‘When I was young, in primary school, my ambition was to become a pilot. So that was my childhood ambition — to be a pilot. But my Dad was involved in politics.’ And so we hurtled into the lover’s tale.

John’s father was not a politician himself, but he financed opposition politicians. This didn’t stop John from wanting to join the air force — just as it hadn’t stopped his step-brother from joining the army. The route to the skies went through a school that was difficult to get into for anyone who wasn’t rich or well connected, but John scored some of the highest marks in the country’s national exams and was admitted. The school was close to the army barracks, which meant John went to live with his step-brother, the soldier, who was stationed there.

Soon there was another exam, and John was among those ‘selected’ at the end of it. Like the others selected with him, he assumed he had scored well — ‘We thought, OK, because we’re brilliant,’ he said, and I briefly glimpsed the confident, bright, would-be pilot — but instead of entering classrooms for the gifted, he and the others were taken to the countryside and made to undergo rituals, such as drinking dogs’ blood. They were cadets now, they were told, and each one of them was assigned to an army officer who had them clean their shoes, their houses, and ‘do the dirty things that rich people will not do.’ They were being taught obedience, and its flip side: fear. At what point, I wonder, did all the brilliant young men who’d been specially selected realise they belonged to the same tribe — the largest tribe of______, which was not the President’s tribe, and from which significant opposition to his rule arose? At what point did they realise they had been selected to spy on, and betray, their own people? ‘Gradually we were getting the sense of what was happening,’ John told me — gradually, their ‘responsibilities’ increased from cleaning shoes and accompanying their officers on patrol to befriending people from their own tribe, discovering where their loyalties lay, and reporting them to the authorities if they didn’t support the government. Other times, the ‘responsibilities’ would include planting evidence – ‘a pistol, a gun’ – in the home of someone they had befriended, just before the police arrived with a warrant to search the house. ‘People are picked up and disappeared, they kill them, they do whatever they do to them. I wasn’t happy with it. A lot of us weren’t happy with it. That wasn’t why we were there.’

By now, John’s father was dead but his brother had taken up his political activities. It wasn’t John but his step-brother, the soldier, who was ordered to bring that brother in for questioning. The step-brother told a friend he wasn’t prepared to do it. For this act of familial loyalty he was imprisoned in a room called ‘a punishment room’. John, recounting this, gestured around the room we were in, made crowded by a table that could seat at most eight people around it — ‘If you divide this room into four, that’s the punishment room. You can be in there for weeks.’ Within this room, the step-brother fell ill. John was allowed in to see him, and given some medication for him. ‘I didn’t know it was poison so I gave it to him, and he died.’

This is only the beginning.

Words like leaves can fall so easily off our tongues, but John had ‘nowhere to go’, which may be another way of saying ‘no way of going.’ After he was turned into his brother’s killer, he was given several different assignments, moved around from one place to another. Eventually he ended up assigned to one of the sons of the President. He was there when there was a day of celebration in honour of the President. In the evening, after the official celebrations were over, the President’s son returned to his house ‘to have fun’, along with his men, including John.

A woman was brought into a room where the men were gathered. They were ordered to strip her naked. A certain unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘It was really, really bad. It was really bad,’ John said, his voice very low, and cried for the first time.

The girl was taken away, ‘put in a room to die – or whatever happened’ and then her brother was brought in. Another unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘There was blood everywhere. He was really… emotional.’ All this, it later turned out, because the girl hadn’t complied with a Presidential demand. So a message had to be sent – to all the girls who might think to refuse such a man, and to all their family members, too.

This was, said John, ‘the turning point.’ He asked to be re-assigned – if this involved a personal risk he didn’t say so; at no point in his story did he pass judgements of praise or criticism on his own actions. He merely recounted events.

He was assigned the job of guarding an elderly couple. He guarded them for ‘a very long time,’ and as he says, ‘the man became like a father to me. He tells me, “you’re like a son.” He talks to me like a son.’ One day when John was with the couple, soldiers came in and shot them dead. ‘I thought I’d lost my dad. I was going crazy,’ he said, crying again.

The couple had committed no crime. Their son, though, was wanted by the government — John never knew exactly why. The couple were being held to lure the son out of hiding. It didn’t work.

And finally — after all the spying, the murder of his brother, the torture of the girl and her brother, the death of his second father – John fled______ , for a life in a country nearby.

This is nowhere near the end of the story.

Homesickness and hope can be a dangerous combination. John had some kind of life in this other country – he taught at a school to students who taught him English in exchange – but he was lonely, and when there were demonstrations in______and the President promised reform, change started to seem possible. John returned to______ , but he kept himself hidden, staying with a friend. On Sundays, though, he went to church. It was here that he met Sarah.

‘Met’ is the wrong word. They knew each other already. Sarah’s father was an important government financier who lived within the protection of the barracks where John had once been posted. John’s life was separate from that of Sarah and her family – ‘I couldn’t talk to them; they were the rich people’ — but there was obviously some contact, some connection, because when Sarah saw him she called him by the name he’d had when he was in the barracks. This name was not his traditional name, and it was not the name ‘John’ which he later took on. It was a name given to him by the army during his initiation, and inscribed on a bangle that he had to wear on his wrist at all times. He was terrified to be recognised, and it couldn’t have helped to hear her say that everyone had been looking for him.

He could have run, at this point, though he never said so to me – perhaps it never suggested itself to him as a possibility. Instead, he told her everything. He told her why he had left, and of the loneliness that had brought him home. She was sympathetic. She gave him money. He told her, ‘My name is John now.’ Every Sunday he would wait for her to come to church. She brought him food and money, and eventually they became, in his words, ‘very intimate’.

One day he was standing by the church with two other men when a jeep pulled up, followed by a car. Someone in the car asked, ‘Who is John?’ He knew, even before this, that something was wrong. Knew it as soon as the car pulled up. Sarah was in the car. She gestured to him to run. But the men caught hold of him and took him back to the barracks. Here he found out that Sarah was pregnant and her father knew.

Her father — the government financier — was angry for reasons beyond the usual reasons that make certain kinds of men angry when they discover their daughters have a life beyond their control. He was a leading member of a tribe that practiced female genital mutilation. But his daughter had not been ‘cut’, and now he believed her pregnancy would alert people to this fact, and he would be shamed. He wanted the foetus aborted. First though, he came into the cell where John was held, and slapped him. Then he went away but John remained in the cell where he was ‘very maltreated.’

While he was being held, Sarah went to a man she knew – a soldier, who was a friend of her father – and told him what was happening. The man said he couldn’t stand by while his friend forced an abortion on his daughter, but there was a limit to how much he could — or would — do. He smuggled John out of the barracks in his car, gave him the equivalent of £25, and said, ‘Whatever happens to you after is not my problem.’ Still, what he did was enough. John met Sarah at a pre-arranged location — a drinking hole — and together they returned to the country to which John had fled.

This still isn’t near the end of the story.

While in exile, John met an American soldier he knew – a logistics expert called Frank who had been assigned to assist the army in______ when John was serving. He said John should be leading a different life – he suggested emigrating, and offered to help with the costs of getting a visa. Frank’s first suggestion was that John go to a particular country in mainland Europe, but John was adamantly opposed to the idea. ‘I didn’t trust them because I know that whatever happens in______ , they know it; from A to Z they know everything, but they wouldn’t stop it. I didn’t trust them, I didn’t want to go there. I don’t want to.’ Instead, John went to the British Embassy.

In order to get a visa from the British Embassy, John had to prove he was from the country to which he had fled. The passport that Frank was able to procure for him didn’t get past the British visa official who handed him over to the immigration authorities. Once again, he was imprisoned and told he had to stay in a cell while the authorities sorted his case out.

Then, without explanation, he was released. ‘Why?’ he asked, and they only said, ‘You are free to go.’

He walked out of the prison, and a car was waiting for him. He was kidnapped, and driven back to_______.

‘That was really horrible. I thought that was it. I really thought that was it. It was difficult for me. They nearly killed me.’ At every other point when John cried he carried on speaking through the tears but this time he stopped, apologised, took some time before he was able to continue. It wasn’t Sarah’s father who had him picked up this time, but someone far worse – the President’s son, to whom he had once been assigned. ‘He has a house like a stadium, and it has prisons and all the torture things you can think of.’ That’s all he said the first time, before moving on to the next part of his story. Later, when he had finished his tale, but it was clear there were things still to say, things that he hadn’t worked into a narrative over which he had some control, he went back in his mind to that place, to the house like a stadium, with ‘all the torture things you can think of’ and said some of the things that were done to him. I will not write them here. I’ll only say there were many different ways of inflicting pain, and he couldn’t have known if it would continue on for weeks or months or years.

After they were done – at what point do torturers decide they are ‘done’? – they sent him to an army camp to become a Commando. Perhaps they thought they’d tortured enough fear and obedience into him. The Commandos were men without families, expected to kill or die without a second thought because ‘there’s no one for you.’ He was taken to the Captain of the Commando camp – and the man turned out to be an old friend of his, who had been recruited to the army at the same time as John. John told him he wasn’t a man without a family, a man ready to die, but that, instead, he had a wife and a child he needed to get back to. And this friend – ‘He just wanted to help me,’ John said. ‘And so he said, “OK”. Well, he put his life at risk for me. He let me go.’

For the third time, John returned to his country of exile.

How could this possibly be the end of the story?

Because he allowed John to escape, the Captain’s hands were placed in wet cement, which was left to dry, and he was dropped into the sea. His dead body washed up on a beach. John received news of this when he was in exile.

Frank, the American, must have known that his earlier attempts to get John out of the country had gone disastrously wrong. When John was returned Frank came to him again. This time he had a signed document from a friend who worked in the high court to verify that John had renounced his original nationality and was from his country of exile. With this document, John was able to apply for — and receive — a six month UK visa.

This is the beginning of the end of the story, but only the beginning.

John’s brother – the one who his step-brother was supposed to bring in to the barracks for his role in opposition politics – had long since escaped to mainland Europe and, from there, had come to England. John met up with him, in London, and told him of his intention to apply for asylum. But his brother talked him out of it – he’d applied himself, and been rejected, and was adamant that John couldn’t trust the system, never mind how many supporting documents he had. So John moved in with his brother, and didn’t seek asylum. His greatest concern was sending money back to Sarah, who by now had had another child. His brother kept saying he would help out, but he didn’t, and finally John started to work illegally as a kitchen porter. One day while he was working, the police arrived and arrested him. ‘I told the police officer, what’s happening to me? And all the police officers just said to me, “Well, you are one of them.” I was put in a car, and they took me to the police station, and I applied for asylum there. By that time, too, I had incontinence through the torture I had back home. They [the men who tortured him] tied my penis and then I had to drink something that makes you want to urinate, but you can’t urinate. When that happened I passed out.’ John was in prison for six months. From there he was sent to a detention centre and placed on his own in a disabled cell. ‘I was on my own,’ he said, twice, remembering that time. But he also recalled ‘some good people’ from his period of detention. In particular, he mentioned a priest who supported him when he thought of killing himself, and who also found people to help him with his incontinence.

His asylum application was rejected. He appealed. An Australian professor, based in America, who had done a lot of work on______, came to know of his case. This man first spoke to him on the phone and then wrote to the Home Office detailing the situation in_______ and said that if John was sent back there he would be killed. ‘He really saved me,’ John said. He was granted asylum.

But in all this, John had lost track of Sarah. Their lives in exile had always felt fearful — they moved every month, never let anyone get close enough to ask questions about their lives – and while John was in the UK someone came around to where Sarah was living, asking questions. It was enough to make her flee with her three children — John hadn’t known when he left for the UK that Sarah was pregnant again.

In John’s tale, there is great brutality but there are also stories of kindness, sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from acquaintances and strangers. A charity in the north of England started to work with Frank who was now back in America, to try and trace Sarah. When they found her where she was exiled she was ‘in a hospital, dying.’

Of all the parts in the story that he didn’t want to tell this is the one he most completely skimmed over. ‘They are here now, they are here,’ he said in response to whatever look I gave him when he uttered the word ‘dying’. I was left to surmise that someone who is ‘dying’ in one hospital can turn to ‘recovering’ in a place with better facilities.

Sarah is well now. She is in England, with John and their three children aged 7, 8 and 11. After all their years of being together, and apart, and together while apart, they married in London. The Church has become their family, and the Bishop who married them is someone they count as a friend. There’s even been some kind of rapprochement with Sarah’s father. A cousin of Sarah’s, who she found via Facebook, was the intermediary in this — when he heard about the wedding he said Sarah should get in touch with her father. She did; she wrote to him about her wedding, and her three children, and he gave her his blessing. They haven’t seen each other, but they speak on the phone. And John is a full-time undergraduate maths student in a London university and hopes to be a teacher one day — ‘That’s all I love doing,’ he said. He gestured around the room we were in, which was located on the King’s College campus. ‘I’ve applied to a teacher training programme,’ he said. ‘I’m waiting for the results.’

It isn’t easy, though. Torture and imprisonment don’t let go of a man that easily — ‘I’ve come a long way,’ he said, but the trauma is still there. ‘So many things happened to me. I don’t like looking at it anymore, I just don’t like looking at it anymore.’ But the counselling makes him look at it. ‘It helps,’ he said, ‘but it’s hard, it’s tiring, it’s tiring.’ Then he started to talk about the torture. Telling me this story brought things up again. But he said again, yes, there are things he has to sort out, but the CBT is helping and he’s fortunate in his wife and his family and his church who are supportive of him.

I turned off the recorder, at this point. The story was over, I thought. The life will carry on with its struggles and its hardships, but the worst of it is done, a certain kind of narrative of his experiences has come to an end, and his mind can work towards recovery now. I shook his hand, and thanked him, and then he said — I don’t remember how exactly it came up — that earlier in the year he had applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, and been denied.

I switched the recorder back on. The whole family applied, he said. His wife and children received Indefinite Leave to Remain but his application was rejected on the grounds he’d been in prison. For working illegally, all those years ago. He would have to wait another 15 years before he could apply again. Surely not another 15 years? He must mean 15 years in total from the time his asylum application was accepted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it starts this year, so another 15 years.’ From his wallet he pulled out the Residence Permits for himself and his children. ‘We keep things around,’ he said, and I understood he meant that he always had the cards on his person to prove he and his family were legal. The permits for his children all had ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ written on them. Soon they’d be able to apply for citizenship. John’s card said ‘Refugee Leave to Remain’ — he will have to keep re-applying for an extension every 3 years, for the next 15 years. Every re-application bringing with it the threat of a rejection.

‘The system is bit…’ He doesn’t have the words, and neither do I. ‘I don’t understand it.’

He’s confused. Too shy. His sister died of leukemia when he was thirteen. He’s not over his wife yet. He’s intimidated by your sarcastic sense of humor. You’re smarter than he is and he can’t handle it. He’s lost. He doesn’t know what he wants. He’s never had a long-term relationship. He’s young. He works too hard. He’s brilliant, contemplative, needs to learn that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Immature. Terrified. He needs to grow out of his Peter Pan syndrome. But you know what? She really hurt him.

Remember when he pushed your hair out of your face and tucked it behind your ear just like in the movies? And worked hard to make the perfect tuna casserole, sweat gleaming from his forehead under your kitchen light. He admired the dew on the spider webs and knew his fauna well. That one time, he said something so funny you almost peed your pants. Remember when you studied together at the Café Gourmet and you pre­tended to read The Color Purple and he was so beautiful, look­ing down at his book, his hand resting on his cheek, writing in the crooked left-handed way of his. He admired your Bettie Page poster.

He says your name before he comes. He’s affectionate after. You both love Woody Allen films, making fun of stupid movies, sushi, Indian food. You agree you’re not sure what happens when you die, but the two of you verge on hopeful atheism. He said you are the sexiest woman he’d ever met. He did the dishes without you asking. He’s not bad in bed. If only he would read something besides Nietzsche or Jack Kerouac.

He’s in medical, dental, law, graduate school, trying to finish his dissertation on Chaucer. He can’t leave Maggie, his golden retriever, overnight. He once had major surgery. He doesn’t real­ize he’s homosexual. They moved around a lot when he was a kid. His mother was a bitch, cold, too protective, insane, unsteady, emotionally abusive, demanding, a martyr. His father made him play football when he didn’t want to. He’s an only child.

He taught you how to identify a deciduous tree, appreciate the artist Lempicka, comprehend Aristotelian philosophy, admire alternative country music, pick a good avocado, appreciate vintage Spiderman comic books.

His parents divorced and he still blames himself. His parents have been married for thirty-five years and he’s afraid he’ll settle for a love less bright or some shit. He’s an Orthodox Jew. He’s moving to New York in three months. He has a yet-to-be diagnosed personality disorder.

He would never hit you. He’s a feminist, a vegetarian, a fallen Catholic, a poet, a canoe-maker, a yogi. He said, You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met. He bought you a beautiful red dress and took you out to dinner and then fucked you over a chair. He knows how to talk to babies. You look prettier without make-up, he said. His life—it’s too complicated right now.

You shouldn’t have slept with him the first night. You shouldn’t have waited. You confessed too much. You didn’t tell him how you really feel. You shouldn’t have said that thing.

It’s not him; it’s you.

 


*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Aimee LaBrie from Wonderful Girl

My lover’s fingers are long. When he stretches them out, they bow in the middle. When they bend, he can span five frets. He sits on the wide window sill, the guitar resting on his bare legs. The blond wood so much lighter than the hair on his arms, his chest, his thighs.

The room is warm. He turned up the heat as soon as we walked in. That way we could toss aside the sheets and the blankets and duvet of which the hotel is so proud. Their bed is a heavenly body, but for us, it has no wings. Those heavy sheets and blankets and duvet would keep us tamped flat. We sit and we stand and we twist and we bend. In a chair, over a table, on the floor. The bed is a prop, a place to find balance, but we rarely lie flat.

I sit on the floor below my lover on the wide window sill. My hand wraps around his ankle, but my thumb and fingers cannot touch. His guitar notes slide down.

“It’s almost four-thirty,” he says.

I let go of his ankle. “I have to go.”

My plane takes off late. He was in the shower when I left. This is how we say goodbye. Kissing at the curbside is how others go. We do it with him naked and me dressed. Steam fills the bathroom. When I step into the hotel hallway, my lover is tucked away deep. There is snow on the ground.

I arrive home after midnight. The bedroom is cool and dark. A black cat purrs on my pillow. I undress and slide underneath the quilt.

“When did you get home?” My husband’s voice, cloudy with sleep.

“Just now.”

He turns on his side and puts his arm around my waist. His hand rests on my belly. I fall back into his curve.

I am paid to pry. I ask the questions their lovers will not. Their wives, their children, their moms. I ask about the drugs and the sex and who inspired that song. What did you want to be when you were six, or twelve, or last week? Did your father hit you or your mother love you, and what about that groupie who looks underage? And what about your death, what do you think that will be like? I’m not going to die, they say. Or, I’ll probably die next week.

I interview them in Los Angeles and New York and Atlanta. Philadelphia and Boston. Seattle. My lover is a troubadour. Sometimes he’s in these towns. Sometimes he’s not.

My lover’s hips are sturdy and strong. I squeeze them tight with my thighs. We’re on the couch, because the chair has arms. It has casters, too.

“We’ll roll,” I had said.

“Sounds fun,” he said. “Let’s try.” He sat bare in the chair. Tried to keep it still by holding onto the wall.

I shook my head. “My legs won’t fit.”

He dropped his arms over the sides. “Like this.”

“Then I won’t be able to move,” I said.

“Well, we can’t have that.” He went to the couch. He sat, legs together, and I slid on.

The couch is against a window. Over his shoulder, through the glass, is a rooftop garden. A wrought iron bench, potted plants. All the flowers in bloom.

“Jesus,” he says. “Sweet Jesus.” He doesn’t even believe in God.

Later, he reads to me out loud. An article about the Kuiper Belt. Astronomical objects, far away. Cold.

She’s an attorney, tall and tan, smart and kind. My husband married her the day after college graduation. They were sweethearts in high school. Lovers in college. Divorced by thirty.

“I’m friends with my ex-wife,” my husband said on our third date.

“That’s fine,” I said. I’d dated men who weren’t friends with their exes. They were full of hate.

She came to our wedding, wore a dress that shimmered gold. She brought a date—I don’t remember his name. She and I danced together. The foxtrot, I think.

Two years ago she told us she’d met a musician. “Maybe you’ve heard of him,” she said.

I had. He was that kind of guy.

“You should interview him,” she said, and I would.

Fifteen-hundred words and a picture. His guitar in his lap. Fingers spanning across five frets.

They’re in town for the weekend. He plays one show tomorrow night, but the rest of their time is for my husband and me.

We cook on the grill, eat on the patio. The summer corn is sweet. Butter drips onto his chin, and she wipes it away. My husband’s hand rests on my thigh. We talk about work, about where he’s playing next. My lover says Phoenix and Austin and L.A.

“You’ll be in L.A., too, won’t you?” my husband asks.

“Really?” my lover says. “Then we should have dinner.”

My husband’s hand is heavy. Hot.

I usually pry in living rooms, or recording studios, or hotels. But with him, it was near the pit of a fire. We arranged for the interview by e-mail, and I flew to their town. She was having a party at her house, on the beach. He suggested I come by.

She had hugged me hello. Too bad my husband couldn’t come, too.

“It’s just work,” I said. “I’m here today, gone tomorrow.”

We cooked fish over a fire, corn in the coals. We drank Long Island Iced Tea. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s do this thing.”

We sat in the sand. My tape recorder rolled. I asked the questions no one else would. And then he asked them back. We stood over the fire and warmed our hands. We talked about camping, in the mountains, as kids. His fingers were hot in my hair.

“Ash,” he said. He held the gray flake between us. It dissolved in his fingers. Back inside, I hugged her goodbye. His eyes had more questions from across the room.

The next morning I e-mailed him from my hotel. Thank you for the interview, I said. It should be out in six weeks. And by the way, my hair has that smell of toasting marshmallows and cold mountain air and stars sprinkled like wildflowers in the sky. It was a good interview, he wrote back. I’m looking forward to the article. As for your hair . . . perhaps the less said the better. But I feel like there’s more to say.

I was in Denver alone. My lover was at his home, at the beach, with her. I interviewed this band at Red Rocks, in the hills. They smoked a joint while my tape recorder rolled. When I got into my car, there were a thousand stars in the sky. Burning far away, bright.

The black cat purrs at the foot of our bed. I undress and crawl under the sheet. I roll over, try to see my husband in the moonlight. His back is white.

“It’s hot in here,” I say to the ceiling, but it doesn’t respond. “There’s a leaf stuck to your boot,” my lover says.

I sit on the edge of the bed. He peels it away from my three-inch heel. It’s large and red, from a maple tree. His hand slides up the black leather. Onto skin. Into wet.

“No panties,” my lover says. He stands straight, unbuttons his jeans, pushes them to the floor. He pulls off my skirt and grabs my ankles. My back is flat.

The black leather slides and slides and slides. Across his shoulders, slick with sweat.

He sits on the edge of the bed. My chest is pressed against his back, my legs wrapped around his waist. His guitar rests on my ankles. Boots on the floor, unzipped.

He plays three notes. Long, short, long. He says, “They’re having an affair.”

Long, long, short.

“I know.”

He sets down his guitar. On top of my boots. “They write love letters.”

Our e-mails are guarded. Short. Everything unsaid. But they don’t seem to know what you hold on to. What you never say.

“Is it because—?”

“No,” he says. “They did it all on their own.”

He stands. My crossed ankles fall away. He walks to the thermostat, turns down the heat. Then he starts at the foot of the bed. He crawls to the top. He makes himself flat.

“Come on,” he says.

I am flush with his thighs, his belly, his chest. His arm reaches down. Long fingers grab onto the sheet. He pulls it up, over our heads.

 


 

*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Baby’s on Fire: stories by Liz Prato