The Novelist Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 - August 11, 1937) was born Edith Newbold Jones. The Joneses were a wealthy New York family often associated with the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses."
Wharton was the first woman to with the Pulitzer Prize for literature, taking that honor in 1921 for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE..
Her 1911 novel , ETHAN FROME, has become a staple of American Literature and is widely studied in classrooms around the world
A Venetian Night's Entertainment
This is the story that, in the dining-room of the old Beacon Street house (now the Aldebaran Club), Judge Anthony Bracknell, of the famous East India firm of Bracknell & Saulsbee, when the ladies had withdrawn to the oval parlour (and Maria's harp was throwing its gauzy web of sound across the Common), used to relate to his grandsons, about the year that Buonaparte marched upon Moscow.
"Him Venice!" said the Lascar with the big earrings; and Tony Bracknell, leaning on the high gunwale of his father's East Indiaman, the Hepzibah B., saw far off, across the morning sea, a faint vision of towers and domes dissolved in golden air.
It was a rare February day of the year 1760, and a young Tony, newly of age, and bound on the grand tour aboard the crack merchantman of old Bracknell's fleet, felt his heart leap up as the distant city trembled into shape. Venice! The name, since childhood, had been a magician's wand to him. In the hall of the old Bracknell house at Salem there hung a series of yellowing prints which Uncle Richard Saulsbee had brought home from one of his long voyages: views of heathen mosques and palaces, of the Grand Turk's Seraglio, of St. Peter's Church in Rome; and, in a corner -- the corner nearest the rack where the old flintlocks hung -- a busy merry populous scene, entitled: ST. MARK'S SQUARE IN VENICE. This picture, from the first, had singularly taken little Tony's fancy. His unformulated criticism on the others was that they lacked action.
True, in the view of St. Peter's an experienced-looking gentleman in a full-bottomed wig was pointing out the fairly obvious monument to a bashful companion, who had presumably not ventured to raise his eyes to it; while, at the doors of the Seraglio, a group of turbaned infidels observed with less hesitancy the approach of a veiled lady on a camel. But in Venice so many things were happening at once -- more, Tony was sure, than had ever happened in Boston in a twelve-month or in Salem in a long lifetime. For here, by their garb, were people of every nation on earth, Chinamen, Turks, Spaniards, and many more, mixed with a parti-coloured throng of gentry, lacqueys, chapmen, hucksters, and tall personages in parsons' gowns who stalked through the crowd with an air of mastery, a string of parasites at their heels. And all these people seemed to be diverting themselves hugely, chaffering with the hucksters, watching the antics of trained dogs and monkeys, distributing doles to maimed beggars or having their pockets picked by slippery-looking fellows in black -- the whole with such an air of ease and good-humour that one felt the cut-purses to be as much a part of the show as the tumbling acrobats and animals.
As Tony advanced in years and experience this childish mumming lost its magic; but not so the early imaginings it had excited. For the old picture had been but the spring-board of fancy, the first step of a cloud-ladder leading to a land of dreams. With these dreams the name of Venice remained associated; and all that observation or report subsequently brought him concerning the place seemed, on a sober warranty of fact, to confirm its claim to stand midway between reality and illusion. There was, for instance, a slender Venice glass, gold-powdered as with lilypollen or the dust of sunbeams, that, standing in the corner cabinet betwixt two Lowestoft caddies, seemed, among its lifeless neighbours, to palpitate like an impaled butterfly. There was, farther, a gold chain of his mother's, spun of that same sunpollen, so thread-like, impalpable, that it slipped through the fingers like light, yet so strong that it carried a heavy pendant which seemed held in air as if by magic. Magic! That was the word which the thought of Venice evoked. It was the kind of place, Tony felt, in which things elsewhere impossible might naturally happen, in which two and two might make five, a paradox elope with a syllogism, and a conclusion give the lie to its own premiss. Was there ever a young heart that did not, once and again, long to get away into such a world as that? Tony, at least, had felt the longing from the first hour when the axioms in his horn-book had brought home to him his heavy responsibilities as a Christian and a sinner. And now here was his wish taking shape before him, as the distant haze of gold shaped itself into towers and domes across the morning sea!
The Reverend Ozias Mounce, Tony's governor and bear-leader, was just putting a hand to the third clause of the fourth part of a sermon on Free-Will and Predestination as the Hepzibah B.'s anchor rattled overboard. Tony, in his haste to be ashore, would have made one plunge with the anchor; but the Reverend Ozias, on being roused from his lucubrations, earnestly protested against leaving his argument in suspense. What was the trifle of an arrival at some Papistical foreign city, where the very churches wore turbans like so many Moslem idolators, to the important fact of Mr. Mounce's summing up his conclusions before the Muse of Theology took flight? He should be happy, he said, if the tide served, to visit Venice with Mr. Bracknell the next morning.
The next morning, ha! -- Tony murmured a submissive "Yes, sir," winked at the subjugated captain, buckled on his sword, pressed his hat down with a flourish, and before the Reverend Ozias had arrived at his next deduction, was skimming merrily shoreward in the Hepzibah's gig.
A moment more and he was in the thick of it! Here was the very world of the old print, only suffused with sunlight and colour, and bubbling with merry noises. What a scene it was! A square enclosed in fantastic painted buildings, and peopled with a throng as fantastic: a bawling, laughing, jostling, sweating mob, parti-coloured, parti-speeched, crackling and sputtering under the hot sun like a dish of fritters over a kitchen fire. Tony, agape, shouldered his way through the press, aware at once that, spite of the tumult, the shrillness, the gesticulation, there was no undercurrent of clownishness, no tendency to horse-play, as in such crowds on market-day at home, but a kind of facetious suavity which seemed to include everybody in the circumference of one huge joke. In such an air the sense of strangeness soon wore off, and Tony was beginning to feel himself vastly at home, when a lift of the tide bore him against a droll-looking bell-ringing fellow who carried above his head a tall metal tree hung with sherbet-glasses.
The encounter set the glasses spinning and three or four spun off and clattered to the stones. The sherbet-seller called on all the saints, and Tony, clapping a lordly hand to his pocket, tossed him a ducat by mistake for a sequin. The fellow's eyes shot out of their orbits, and just then a personable-looking young man who had observed the transaction stepped up to Tony and said pleasantly, in English:
"I perceive, sir, that you are not familiar with our currency."
"Does he want more?" says Tony, very lordly; whereat the other laughed and replied: "You have given him enough to retire from his business and open a gaming-house over the arcade."
Tony joined in the laugh, and this incident bridging the preliminaries, the two young men were presently hobnobbing over a glass of Canary in front of one of the coffee-houses about the square. Tony counted himself lucky to have run across an English-speaking companion who was good-natured enough to give him a clue to the labyrinth; and when he had paid for the Canary (in the coin his friend selected) they set out again to view the town. The Italian gentleman, who called himself Count Rialto, appeared to have a very numerous acquaintance, and was able to point out to Tony all the chief dignitaries of the state, the men of ton and ladies of fashion, as well as a number of other characters of a kind not openly mentioned in taking a census of Salem.
Tony, who was not averse from reading when nothing better offered, had perused the "Merchant of Venice" and Mr. Otway's fine tragedy; but though these pieces had given him a notion that the social usages of Venice differed from those at home, he was unprepared for the surprising appearance and manners of the great people his friend named to him. The gravest Senators of the Republic went in prodigious striped trousers, short cloaks and feathered hats. One nobleman wore a ruff and doctor's gown, another a black velvet tunic slashed with rose-colour; while the President of the dreaded Council of Ten was a terrible strutting fellow with a rapier-like nose, a buff leather jerkin and a trailing scarlet cloak that the crowd was careful not to step on.
It was all vastly diverting, and Tony would gladly have gone on forever; but he had given his word to the captain to be at the landing-place at sunset, and here was dusk already creeping over the skies! Tony was a man of honour; and having pressed on the Count a handsome damascened dagger selected from one of the goldsmiths' shops in a narrow street lined with such wares, he insisted on turning his face toward the Hepzibah's gig. The Count yielded reluctantly; but as they came out again on the square they were caught in a great throng pouring toward the doors of the cathedral.
"They go to Benediction," said the Count. "A beautiful sight, with many lights and flowers. It is a pity you cannot take a peep at it."
Tony thought so too, and in another minute a legless beggar had pulled back the leathern flap of the cathedral door, and they stood in a haze of gold and perfume that seemed to rise and fall on the mighty undulations of the organ. Here the press was as thick as without; and as Tony flattened himself against a pillar, he heard a pretty voice at his elbow:
--"Oh, sir, oh, sir, your sword!"
He turned at sound of the broken English, and saw a girl who matched the voice trying to disengage her dress from the tip of his scabbard. She wore one of the voluminous black hoods which the Venetian ladies affected, and under its projecting eaves her face spied out at him as sweet as a nesting bird.
In the dusk their hands met over the scabbard, and as she freed herself a shred of her lace flounce clung to Tony's enchanted fingers. Looking after her, he saw she was on the arm of a pompous-looking graybeard in a long black gown and scarlet stockings, who, on perceiving the exchange of glances between the young people, drew the lady away with a threatening look.
The Count met Tony's eye with a smile. "One of our Venetian beauties," said he; "the lovely Polixena Cador. She is thought to have the finest eyes in Venice."
"She spoke English," stammered Tony.
"Oh -- ah -- precisely: she learned the language at the Court of Saint James's, where her father, the Senator, was formerly accredited as Ambassador. She played as an infant with the royal princes of England."
"And that was her father?"
"Assuredly: young ladies of Donna Polixena's rank do not go abroad save with their parents or a duenna."
Just then a soft hand slid into Tony's. His heart gave a foolish bound, and he turned about half-expecting to meet again the merry eyes under the hood; but saw instead a slender brown boy, in some kind of fanciful page's dress, who thrust a folded paper between his fingers and vanished in the throng. Tony, in a tingle, glanced surreptitiously at the Count, who appeared absorbed in his prayers. The crowd, at the ringing of a bell, had in fact been overswept by a sudden wave of devotion; and Tony seized the moment to step beneath a lighted shrine with his letter.
"I am in dreadful trouble and implore your help. Polixena" -- he read; but hardly had he seized the sense of the words when a hand fell on his shoulder, and a stern-looking man in a cocked hat, and bearing a kind of rod or mace, pronounced a few words in Venetian.
Tony, with a start, thrust the letter in his breast, and tried to jerk himself free; but the harder he jerked the tighter grew the other's grip, and the Count, presently perceiving what had happened, pushed his way through the crowd, and whispered hastily to his companion: "For God's sake, make no struggle. This is serious. Keep quiet and do as I tell you."
Tony was no chicken-heart. He had something of a name for pugnacity among the lads of his own age at home, and was not the man to stand in Venice what he would have resented in Salem; but the devil of it was that this black fellow seemed to be pointing to the letter in his breast; and this suspicion was confirmed by the Count's agitated whisper.
"This is one of the agents of the Ten. -- For God's sake, no outcry." He exchanged a word or two with the mace-bearer and again turned to Tony. "You have been seen concealing a letter about your person --"
"And what of that?" says Tony furiously.
"Gently, gently, my master. A letter handed to you by the page of Donna Polixena Cador. A black business! Oh, a very black business! This Cador is one of the most powerful nobles in Venice I beseech you, not a word, sir! Let me think deliberate --"
His hand on Tony's shoulder, he carried on a rapid dialogue with the potentate in the cocked hat.
"I am sorry, sir -- but our young ladies of rank are as jealously guarded as the Grand Turk's wives, and you must be answerable for this scandal. The best I can do is to have you taken privately to the Palazzo Cador, instead of being brought before the Council. I have pleaded your youth and inexperience" -- Tony winced at this --"and I think the business may still be arranged."
Meanwhile the agent of the Ten had yielded his place to a sharp-featured shabby-looking fellow in black, dressed somewhat like a lawyer's clerk, who laid a grimy hand on Tony's arm, and with many apologetic gestures steered him through the crowd to the doors of the church. The Count held him by the other arm, and in this fashion they emerged on the square, which now lay in darkness save for the many lights twinkling under the arcade and in the windows of the gaming-rooms above it.
Tony by this time had regained voice enough to declare that he would go where they pleased, but that he must first say a word to the mate of the Hepzibah, who had now been awaiting him some two hours or more at the landing-place.
The Count repeated this to Tony's custodian, but the latter shook his head and rattled off a sharp denial.
"Impossible, sir," said the Count. "I entreat you not to insist. Any resistance will tell against you in the end."
Tony fell silent. With a rapid eye he was measuring his chances of escape. In wind and limb he was more than a mate for his captors, and boyhood's ruses were not so far behind him but he felt himself equal to outwitting a dozen grown men; but he had the sense to see that at a cry the crowd would close in on him. Space was what he wanted: a clear ten yards, and he would have laughed at Doge and Council. But the throng was thick as glue, and he walked on submissively, keeping his eye alert for an opening. Suddenly the mob swerved aside after some new show. Tony's fist shot out at the black fellow's chest, and before the latter could right himself the young New Englander was showing a clean pair of heels to his escort. On he sped, cleaving the crowd like a flood-tide in Gloucester bay, diving under the first arch that caught his eye, dashing down a lane to an unlit waterway, and plunging across a narrow hump-back bridge which landed him in a black pocket between walls. But now his pursuers were at his back, reinforced by the yelping mob. The walls were too high to scale, and for all his courage Tony's breath came short as he paced the masonry cage in which ill-luck had landed him. Suddenly a gate opened in one of the walls, and a slip of a servant wench looked out and beckoned him. There was no time to weigh chances. Tony dashed through the gate, his rescuer slammed and bolted it, and the two stood in a narrow paved well between high houses.
The servant picked up a lantern and signed to Tony to follow her. They climbed a squalid stairway of stone, felt their way along a corridor, and entered a tall vaulted room feebly lit by an oillamp hung from the painted ceiling. Tony discerned traces of former splendour in his surroundings, but he had no time to examine them, for a figure started up at his approach and in the dim light he recognized the girl who was the cause of all his troubles.
She sprang toward him with outstretched hands, but as he advanced her face changed and she shrank back abashed.
"This is a misunderstanding -- a dreadful misunderstanding," she cried out in her pretty broken English. "Oh, how does it happen that you are here?"
"Through no choice of my own, madam, I assure you!" retorted Tony, not over-pleased by his reception.
"But why -- how -- how did you make this unfortunate mistake?"
"Why, madam, if you'll excuse my candour, I think the mistake was yours --"
--"in sending me a letter --"
"You -- a letter?"
--"by a simpleton of a lad, who must needs hand it to me under your father's very nose --"
The girl broke in on him with a cry. "What! It was you who received my letter?" She swept round on the little maid-servant and submerged her under a flood of Venetian. The latter volleyed back in the same jargon, and as she did so, Tony's astonished eye detected in her the doubleted page who had handed him the letter in Saint Mark's.
"What!" he cried, "the lad was this girl in disguise?"
Polixena broke off with an irrepressible smile; but her face clouded instantly and she returned to the charge.
"This wicked, careless girl -- she has ruined me, she will be my undoing! Oh, sir, how can I make you understand? The letter was not intended for you -- it was meant for the English Ambassador, an old friend of my mother's, from whom I hoped to obtain assistance -- oh, how can I ever excuse myself to you?"
"No excuses are needed, madam," said Tony, bowing; "though I am surprised, I own, that any one should mistake me for an ambassador."
Here a wave of mirth again overran Polixena's face. "Oh, sir, you must pardon my poor girl's mistake. She heard you speaking English, and -- and -- I had told her to hand the letter to the handsomest foreigner in the church." Tony bowed again, more profoundly. "The English Ambassador," Polixena added simply, "is a very handsome man."
"I wish, madam, I were a better proxy!"
She echoed his laugh, and then clapped her hands together with a look of anguish. "Fool that I am! How can I jest at such a moment? I am in dreadful trouble, and now perhaps I have brought trouble on you also -- Oh, my father! I hear my father coming!" She turned pale and leaned tremblingly upon the little servant.
Footsteps and loud voices were in fact heard outside, and a moment later the red-stockinged Senator stalked into the room attended by half-a-dozen of the magnificoes whom Tony had seen abroad in the square. At sight of him, all clapped hands to their swords and burst into furious outcries; and though their jargon was unintelligible to the young man, their tones and gestures made their meaning unpleasantly plain. The Senator, with a start of anger, first flung himself on the intruder; then, snatched back by his companions, turned wrathfully on his daughter, who, at his feet, with outstretched arms and streaming face, pleaded her cause with all the eloquence of young distress. Meanwhile the other nobles gesticulated vehemently among themselves, and one, a truculent-looking personage in ruff and Spanish cape, stalked apart, keeping a jealous eye on Tony. The latter was at his wit's end how to comport himself, for the lovely Polixena's tears had quite drowned her few words of English, and beyond guessing that the magnificoes meant him a mischief he had no notion what they would be at.
At this point, luckily, his friend Count Rialto suddenly broke in on the scene, and was at once assailed by all the tongues in the room. He pulled a long face at sight of Tony, but signed to the young man to be silent, and addressed himself earnestly to the Senator. The latter, at first, would not draw breath to hear him; but presently, sobering, he walked apart with the Count, and the two conversed together out of earshot.
"My dear sir," said the Count, at length turning to Tony with a perturbed countenance, "it is as I feared, and you are fallen into a great misfortune."
"A great misfortune! A great trap, I call it!" shouted Tony, whose blood, by this time, was boiling; but as he uttered the word the beautiful Polixena cast such a stricken look on him that he blushed up to the forehead.
"Be careful," said the Count, in a low tone. "Though his Illustriousness does not speak your language, he understands a few words of it, and --"
"So much the better!" broke in Tony; "I hope he will understand me if I ask him in plain English what is his grievance against me."
The Senator, at this, would have burst forth again; but the Count, stepping between, answered quickly: "His grievance against you is that you have been detected in secret correspondence with his daughter, the most noble Polixena Cador, the betrothed bride of this gentleman, the most illustrious Marquess Zanipolo --" and he waved a deferential hand at the frowning hidalgo of the cape and ruff.
"Sir," said Tony, "if that is the extent of my offence, it lies with the young lady to set me free, since by her own avowal --" but here he stopped short, for, to his surprise, Polixena shot a terrified glance at him.
"Sir," interposed the Count, "we are not accustomed in Venice to take shelter behind a lady's reputation."
"No more are we in Salem," retorted Tony in a white heat. "I was merely about to remark that, by the young lady's avowal, she has never seen me before."
Polixena's eyes signalled her gratitude, and he felt he would have died to defend her.
The Count translated his statement, and presently pursued: "His Illustriousness observes that, in that case, his daughter's misconduct has been all the more reprehensible."
"Her misconduct? Of what does he accuse her?"
"Of sending you, just now, in the church of Saint Mark's, a letter which you were seen to read openly and thrust in your bosom. The incident was witnessed by his Illustriousness the Marquess Zanipolo, who, in consequence, has already repudiated his unhappy bride."
Tony stared contemptuously at the black Marquess. "If his Illustriousness is so lacking in gallantry as to repudiate a lady on so trivial a pretext, it is he and not I who should be the object of her father's resentment."
"That, my dear young gentleman, is hardly for you to decide. Your only excuse being your ignorance of our customs, it is scarcely for you to advise us how to behave in matters of punctilio."
It seemed to Tony as though the Count were going over to his enemies, and the thought sharpened his retort.
"I had supposed," said he, "that men of sense had much the same behaviour in all countries, and that, here as elsewhere, a gentleman would be taken at his word. I solemnly affirm that the letter I was seen to read reflects in no way on the honour of this young lady, and has in fact nothing to do with what you suppose."
As he had himself no notion what the letter was about, this was as far as he dared commit himself.
There was another brief consultation in the opposing camp, and the Count then said: --"We all know, sir, that a gentleman is obliged to meet certain enquiries by a denial; but you have at your command the means of immediately clearing the lady. Will you show the letter to her father?"
There was a perceptible pause, during which Tony, while appearing to look straight before him, managed to deflect an interrogatory glance toward Polixena. Her reply was a faint negative motion, accompanied by unmistakable signs of apprehension.
"Poor girl!" he thought, "she is in a worse case than I imagined, and whatever happens I must keep her secret."
He turned to the Senator with a deep bow. "I am not," said he, "in the habit of showing my private correspondence to strangers."
The Count interpreted these words, and Donna Polixena's father, dashing his hand on his hilt, broke into furious invective, while the Marquess continued to nurse his outraged feelings aloof.
The Count shook his head funereally. "Alas, sir, it is as I feared. This is not the first time that youth and propinquity have led to fatal imprudence. But I need hardly, I suppose, point out the obligation incumbent upon you as a man of honour."
Tony stared at him haughtily, with a look which was meant for the Marquess. "And what obligation is that?"
"To repair the wrong you have done -- in other words, to marry the lady."
Polixena at this burst into tears, and Tony said to himself: "Why in heaven does she not bid me show the letter?" Then he remembered that it had no superscription, and that the words it contained, supposing them to have been addressed to himself, were hardly of a nature to disarm suspicion. The sense of the girl's grave plight effaced all thought of his own risk, but the Count's last words struck him as so preposterous that he could not repress a smile.
"I cannot flatter myself," said he, "that the lady would welcome this solution."
The Count's manner became increasingly ceremonious. "Such modesty," he said, "becomes your youth and inexperience; but even if it were justified it would scarcely alter the case, as it is always assumed in this country that a young lady wishes to marry the man whom her father has selected."
"But I understood just now," Tony interposed, "that the gentleman yonder was in that enviable position."
"So he was, till circumstances obliged him to waive the privilege in your favour."
"He does me too much honour; but if a deep sense of my unworthiness obliges me to decline --"
"You are still," interrupted the Count, "labouring under a misapprehension. Your choice in the matter is no more to be consulted than the lady's. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is necessary that you should marry her within the hour."
Tony, at this, for all his spirit, felt the blood run thin in his veins. He looked in silence at the threatening visages between himself and the door, stole a side-glance at the high barred windows of the apartment, and then turned to Polixena, who had fallen sobbing at her father's feet.
"And if I refuse?" said he.
The Count made a significant gesture. "I am not so foolish as to threaten a man of your mettle. But perhaps you are unaware what the consequences would be to the lady."
Polixena, at this, struggling to her feet, addressed a few impassioned words to the Count and her father; but the latter put her aside with an obdurate gesture.
The Count turned to Tony. "The lady herself pleads for you -- at what cost you do not guess -- but as you see it is vain. In an hour his Illustriousness's chaplain will be here. Meanwhile his Illustriousness consents to leave you in the custody of your betrothed."
He stepped back, and the other gentlemen, bowing with deep ceremony to Tony, stalked out one by one from the room. Tony heard the key turn in the lock, and found himself alone with Polixena.
The girl had sunk into a chair, her face hidden, a picture of shame and agony. So moving was the sight that Tony once again forgot his own extremity in the view of her distress. He went and kneeled beside her, drawing her hands from her face.
"Oh, don't make me look at you!" she sobbed; but it was on his bosom that she hid from his gaze. He held her there a breathingspace, as he might have clasped a weeping child; then she drew back and put him gently from her.
"What humiliation!" she lamented.
"Do you think I blame you for what has happened?"
"Alas, was it not my foolish letter that brought you to this plight? And how nobly you defended me! How generous it was of you not to show the letter! If my father knew I had written to the Ambassador to save me from this dreadful marriage his anger against me would be even greater."
"Ah -- it was that you wrote for?" cried Tony with unaccountable relief.
"Of course -- what else did you think?"
"But is it too late for the Ambassador to save you?"
"From you?" A smile flashed through her tears. "Alas, yes." She drew back and hid her face again, as though overcome by a fresh wave of shame.
Tony glanced about him. "If I could wrench a bar out of that window --" he muttered.
"Impossible! The court is guarded. You are a prisoner, alas. -- Oh, I must speak!" She sprang up and paced the room. "But indeed you can scarce think worse of me than you do already --"
"I think ill of you?"
"Alas, you must! To be unwilling to marry the man my father has chosen for me --"
"Such a beetle-browed lout! It would be a burning shame if you married him."
"Ah, you come from a free country. Here a girl is allowed no choice."
"It is infamous, I say -- infamous!"
"No, no -- I ought to have resigned myself, like so many others."
"Resigned yourself to that brute! Impossible!"
"He has a dreadful name for violence -- his gondolier has told my little maid such tales of him! But why do I talk of myself, when it is of you I should be thinking?"
"Of me, poor child?" cried Tony, losing his head.
"Yes, and how to save you -- for I can save you! But every moment counts -- and yet what I have to say is so dreadful."
"Nothing from your lips could seem dreadful."
"Ah, if he had had your way of speaking!"
"Well, now at least you are free of him," said Tony, a little wildly; but at this she stood up and bent a grave look on him.
"No, I am not free," she said; "but you are, if you will do as I tell you."
Tony, at this, felt a sudden dizziness; as though, from a mad flight through clouds and darkness, he had dropped to safety again, and the fall had stunned him.
"What am I to do?" he said.
"Look away from me, or I can never tell you."
He thought at first that this was a jest, but her eyes commanded him, and reluctantly he walked away and leaned in the embrasure of the window. She stood in the middle of the room, and as soon as his back was turned she began to speak in a quick monotonous voice, as though she were reciting a lesson.
"You must know that the Marquess Zanipolo, though a great noble, is not a rich man. True, he has large estates, but he is a desperate spendthrift and gambler, and would sell his soul for a round sum of ready money. -- If you turn round I shall not go on! -- He wrangled horribly with my father over my dowry -- he wanted me to have more than either of my sisters, though one married a Procurator and the other a grandee of Spain. But my father is a gambler too -- oh, such fortunes as are squandered over the arcade yonder! And so -- and so -- don't turn, I implore you -- oh, do you begin to see my meaning?"
She broke off sobbing, and it took all his strength to keep his eyes from her.
"Go on," he said.
"Will you not understand? Oh, I would say anything to save you! You don't know us Venetians -- we're all to be bought for a price. It is not only the brides who are marketable -- sometimes the husbands sell themselves too. And they think you rich -- my father does, and the others -- I don't know why, unless you have shown your money too freely -- and the English are all rich, are they not? And -- oh, oh -- do you understand? Oh, I can't bear your eyes!"
She dropped into a chair, her head on her arms, and Tony in a flash was at her side.
"My poor child, my poor Polixena!" he cried, and wept and clasped her.
"You are rich, are you not? You would promise them a ransom?" she persisted.
"To enable you to marry the Marquess?"
"To enable you to escape from this place. Oh, I hope I may never see your face again." She fell to weeping once more, and he drew away and paced the floor in a fever.
Presently she sprang up with a fresh air of resolution, and pointed to a clock against the wall. "The hour is nearly over. It is quite true that my father is gone to fetch his chaplain. Oh, I implore you, be warned by me! There is no other way of escape."
"And if I do as you say -- ?"
"You are safe! You are free! I stake my life on it."
"And you -- you are married to that villain?"
"But I shall have saved you. Tell me your name, that I may say it to myself when I am alone."
"My name is Anthony. But you must not marry that fellow."
"You forgive me, Anthony? You don't think too badly of me?"
"I say you must not marry that fellow."
She laid a trembling hand on his arm. "Time presses," she adjured him, "and I warn you there is no other way."
For a moment he had a vision of his mother, sitting very upright, on a Sunday evening, reading Dr. Tillotson's sermons in the best parlour at Salem; then he swung round on the girl and caught both her hands in his. "Yes, there is," he cried, "if you are willing. Polixena, let the priest come!"
She shrank back from him, white and radiant. "Oh, hush, be silent!" she said.
"I am no noble Marquess, and have no great estates," he cried. "My father is a plain India merchant in the colony of Massachusetts -- but if you --"
"Oh, hush, I say! I don't know what your long words mean. But I bless you, bless you, bless you on my knees!" And she knelt before him, and fell to kissing his hands.
He drew her up to his breast and held her there.
"You are willing, Polixena?" he said.
"No, no!" She broke from him with outstretched hands. "I am not willing. You mistake me. I must marry the Marquess, I tell you!"
"On my money?" he taunted her; and her burning blush rebuked him.
"Yes, on your money," she said sadly.
"Why? Because, much as you hate him, you hate me still more?"
She was silent.
"If you hate me, why do you sacrifice yourself for me?" he persisted.
"You torture me! And I tell you the hour is past."
"Let it pass. I'll not accept your sacrifice. I will not lift a finger to help another man to marry you."
"Oh, madman, madman!" she murmured.
Tony, with crossed arms, faced her squarely, and she leaned against the wall a few feet off from him. Her breast throbbed under its lace and falbalas, and her eyes swam with terror and entreaty.
"Polixena, I love you!" he cried.
A blush swept over her throat and bosom, bathing her in light to the verge of her troubled brows.
"I love you! I love you!" he repeated.
And now she was on his breast again, and all their youth was in their lips. But her embrace was as fleeting as a bird's poise and before he knew it he clasped empty air, and half the room was between them.
She was holding up a little coral charm and laughing. "I took it from your fob," she said. "It is of no value, is it? And I shall not get any of the money, you know."
She continued to laugh strangely, and the rouge burned like fire in her ashen face.
"What are you talking of?" he said.
"They never give me anything but the clothes I wear. And I shall never see you again, Anthony!" She gave him a dreadful look. "Oh, my poor boy, my poor love -- 'I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, POLIXENA!'"
He thought she had turned light-headed, and advanced to her with soothing words; but she held him quietly at arm's length, and as he gazed he read the truth in her face.
He fell back from her, and a sob broke from him as he bowed his head on his hands.
"Only, for God's sake, have the money ready, or there may be foul play here," she said.
As she spoke there was a great tramping of steps outside and a burst of voices on the threshold.
"It is all a lie," she gasped out, "about my marriage, and the Marquess, and the Ambassador, and the Senator -- but not, oh, not about your danger in this place -- or about my love," she breathed to him. And as the key rattled in the door she laid her lips on his brow.
The key rattled, and the door swung open -- but the black-cassocked gentleman who stepped in, though a priest indeed, was no votary of idolatrous rites, but that sound orthodox divine, the Reverend Ozias Mounce, looking very much perturbed at his surroundings, and very much on the alert for the Scarlet Woman. He was supported, to his evident relief, by the captain of the Hepzibah B., and the procession was closed by an escort of stern-looking fellows in cocked hats and small-swords, who led between them Tony's late friends the magnificoes, now as sorry a looking company as the law ever landed in her net.
The captain strode briskly into the room, uttering a grunt of satisfaction as he clapped eyes on Tony.
"So, Mr. Bracknell," said he, "you have been seeing the Carnival with this pack of mummers, have you? And this is where your pleasuring has landed you? H'm -- a pretty establishment, and a pretty lady at the head of it." He glanced about the apartment and doffed his hat with mock ceremony to Polixena, who faced him like a princess.
"Why, my girl," said he, amicably, "I think I saw you this morning in the square, on the arm of the Pantaloon yonder; and as for that Captain Spavent --" and he pointed a derisive finger at the Marquess --"I've watched him drive his bully's trade under the arcade ever since I first dropped anchor in these waters. Well, well," he continued, his indignation subsiding, "all's fair in Carnival, I suppose, but this gentleman here is under sailing orders, and I fear we must break up your little party."
At this Tony saw Count Rialto step forward, looking very small and explanatory, and uncovering obsequiously to the captain.
"I can assure you, sir," said the Count in his best English, "that this incident is the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding, and if you will oblige us by dismissing these myrmidons, any of my friends here will be happy to offer satisfaction to Mr. Bracknell and his companions."
Mr. Mounce shrank visibly at this, and the captain burst into a loud guffaw.
"Satisfaction?" says he. "Why, my cock, that's very handsome of you, considering the rope's at your throats. But we'll not take advantage of your generosity, for I fear Mr. Bracknell has already trespassed on it too long. You pack of galley-slaves, you!" he spluttered suddenly, "decoying young innocents with that devil's bait of yours --" His eye fell on Polixena, and his voice softened unaccountably. "Ah, well, we must all see the Carnival once, I suppose," he said. "All's well that ends well, as the fellow says in the play; and now, if you please, Mr. Bracknell, if you'll take the reverend gentleman's arm there, we'll bid adieu to our hospitable entertainers, and right about face for the Hepzibah."
Their railway carriage had been full when the train left Bologna; but at the first station beyond Milan their only remaining companion a courtly person who ate garlic out of a carpetbag had left his crumb-strewn seat with a bow.
Lydia's eye regretfully followed the shiny broadcloth of his retreating back till it lost itself in the cloud of touts and cab drivers hanging about the station; then she glanced across at Gannett and caught the same regret in his look. They were both sorry to be alone.
"Par-ten-za!" shouted the guard. The train vibrated to a sudden slamming of doors; a waiter ran along the platform with a tray of fossilized sandwiches; a belated porter flung a bundle of shawls and band-boxes into a third-class carriage; the guard snapped out a brief Partenza! which indicated the purely ornamental nature of his first shout; and the train swung out of the station.
The direction of the road had changed, and a shaft of sunlight struck across the dusty red velvet seats into Lydia's corner. Gannett did not notice it. He had returned to his Revue de Paris, and she had to rise and lower the shade of the farther window. Against the vast horizon of their leisure such incidents stood out sharply.
Having lowered the shade, Lydia sat down, leaving the length of the carriage between herself and Gannett. At length he missed her and looked up.
I moved out of the sun," she hastily explained.
He looked at her curiously: the sun was beating on her through the shade.
"Very well," he said pleasantly; adding, "You don't mind?" as he drew a cigarette case from his pocket.
It was a refreshing touch, relieving the tension of her spirit with the suggestion that, after all, if he could smoke! The relief was only momentary. Her experience of smokers was limited (her husband had disapproved of the use of tobacco) but she knew from hearsay that men sometimes smoked to get away from things; that a cigar might be the masculine equivalent of darkened windows and a headache. Gannett, after a puff or two, returned to his review.
It was just as she had foreseen; he feared to speak as much as she did. It was one of the misfortunes of their situation that they were never busy enough to necessitate, or even to justify, the postponement of unpleasant discussions. If they avoided a question it was disagreeable. They had unlimited leisure and an accumulation of mental energy to devote to any subject that presented itself; new topics were in fact at a premium. Lydia sometimes had premonitions of a famine-stricken period when there would be nothing left to talk about, and she had already caught herself doling out piecemeal what, in the first prodigality of their confidences, she would have flung to him in a breath. Their silence therefore might simply mean that they had nothing to say; but it was another disadvantage of their position that it allowed infinite opportunity for the classification of minute differences.
Lydia had learned to distinguish between real and factitious silences; and under Gannett's she now detected a hum of speech to which her own thoughts made breathless answer.
How could it be otherwise, with that thing between them? She glanced up at the rack overhead. The thing was there, in her dressing bag, symbolically suspended over her head and his. He was thinking of it now, just as she was; they had been thinking of it in unison ever since they had entered the train. While the carriage had held other travelers they had screened her from his thought; but now that he and she were alone she knew exactly what was passing through his mind; she could almost hear him asking himself what he should say to her.
The thing had come that morning, brought up to her in an innocent-looking envelope with the rest of their letters, as they were leaving the hotel at Bologna. As she tore it open, she and Gannett were laughing over some ineptitude of the local guidebook they had been driven, of late, to make the most of such incidental humors of travel. Even when she had unfolded the document she took it for some unimportant business paper sent abroad for her signature, and her eye traveled inattentively over the curly Whereases of the preamble until a word arrested her: Divorce. There it stood, an impassable barrier, between her husband's name and hers.
She had been prepared for it, of course, as healthy people are said to be prepared for death, in the sense of knowing it must come without in the least expecting that it will. She had known from the first that Tillotson meant to divorce her but what did it matter? Nothing mattered, in those first days of supreme deliverance, but the fact that she was free; and not so much (she had begun to be aware) that freedom had released her from Tillotson as that it had given her to Gannett. This discovery had not been agreeable to her self-esteem. She had preferred to think that Tillotson had himself embodied all her reasons for leaving him; and those he represented had seemed cogent enough to stand in no need of reinforcement. Yet she had not left him till she met Gannett. It was her love for Gannett that had made life with Tillotson so poor and incomplete a business. If she had never, from the first, regarded her marriage as a full cancelling of her claims upon life, she had at least, for a number of years, accepted it as a provisional compensation, she had made it "do." Existence in the commodious Tillotson mansion in Fifth Avenue with Mrs. Tillotson senior commanding the approaches from the second-story front windows had been reduced to a series of purely automatic acts. The moral atmosphere of the Tillotson interior was as carefully screened and curtained as the house itself: Mrs. Tillotson senior dreaded ideas as much as a draft in her back. Prudent people liked an even temperature; and to do anything unexpected was as foolish as going out in the rain. One of the chief advantages of being rich was that one need not be exposed to unforeseen contingencies: by the use of ordinary firmness and common sense one could make sure of doing exactly the same thing every day at the same hour. These doctrines, reverentially imbibed with his mother's milk,
Tillotson (a model son who had never given his parents an hour's anxiety) complacently expounded to his wife, testifying to his sense of their importance by the regularity with which he wore galoshes on damp days, his punctuality at meals, and his elaborate precautions against burglars and contagious diseases. Lydia, coming from a smaller town, and entering New York life through the portals of the Tillotson mansion, had mechanically accepted this point of view as inseparable from having a front pew in church and a parterre box at the opera. All the people who came to the house revolved in the same small circle of predjudices. It was the kind of society in which, after dinner, the ladies compared the exorbitant charges of thier children's teachers, and agreed that, even with the new duties on French clothes, it was cheaper in the end to get everything from Worth; while the husbands, over their cigars, lamented municipal corruption, and decided that the men to start a reform were those who had no private interests at stake.
To Lydia this view of life had become a matter of course, just as lumbering about in her mother-in-law's locomotion, and listening every Sunday to fashionable Presbyterian divine the inevitable atonement for having thought oneself bored on the other six days of the week. Before she met Gannett her life had seemed merely dull; his coming made it appear like one of those dismal Cruikshank prints in which the people are all ugly and all engaged in occupations that are either vulgar or stupid.
It was natural that Tillotson should be the chief sufferer from this readjustment of focus. Gannett's nearness had made her husband ridiculous, and a part of the ridicule had been reflected on herself. Her tolerance laid her open to a suspicion of obtuseness from which she must, at all costs, clear herself in Gannett's eyes.
She did not understand this until afterwards. At the time she fancied that she had merely reached the limits of endurance. In so large a charter of liberties as the mere act of leaving Tillotson seemed to confer, the small question of divorce or no divorce did not count. It was when she saw that she had left her husband only to be with Gannett that she perceived the significance of anything affecting their relations. Her husband, in casting her off, had virtually flung her at Gannett: it was thus that the world viewed it. The measure of alacrity with which Gannett would receive her would be the subject of curious speculation over afternoon tea tables and in club corners. She knew what would be said she had heard it so often of others! The recollection bathed her in misery. The men would probably back Gannett to "do the decent thing"; but the ladies' eyebrows would emphasize the worthlessness of such enforced fidelity; and after all, they would be right. She had put herself in a position where Ganett "owed" her something; where, as a gentleman, he was bound to "stand the damage." The idea of accepting such compensation had never crossed her mind; the so-called rehabilitation of such a marriage had always seemed to her the only real disgrace. What she dreaded was the necessity of having to explain herself; of having to combat his arguments; of calculating, in spite of herself, the exact measure of insistence with which he presssed them. She knew not whether she most shrank from his insisting too much or too little. In such a case the nicest sense of proportion might be at fault; and how easily to fall into the error of taking her resistance for a test of his sincerity! Whichever way she turned, an ironical implication confronted her: she had the exasperated sense of having walked into the trap of some stupid practical joke.
Beneath all these preoccupations lurked the dread of what he was thinking. Sooner or later, of course, he would have to speak; but that, in the meantime, he should think, even for a moment that there was any use in speaking, seemed to her simply unendurable. Her sensitiveness on this point was aggravated by another fear, as yet barely on the level of consciousness; the fear of unwillingly involving Gannett in the trammels of her dependence. To look upon him as the instrument of her liberation; to resist in herself the least tendency to a wifely taking possession of his future; had seemed to Lydia the one way of maintaining the dignity of their relation. Her view had not changed, but she was aware of a growing inability to keep her thoughts fixed on the essential point the point of parting with Gannett. It was easy to face as long as she kept it sufficiently far off: but what was this act of mental postponement but a gradual encroachment on his future? What was needful was the courage to recognize the moment when by some word or look, their voluntary fellowship should be transformed into a bondage the more wearing that it was based on none of those common obligations which make the most imperfect marriage in some sort a center of gravity.
When the porter, at the next station, threw the door open, Lydia drew back, making way for the hoped-for intruder; but none came, and the train took up its leisurely progress through the spring wheat fields and budding copses. She now began to hope that Gannett would speak before the next station. She watched him furtively, half-disposed to return to the seat opposite his, but there was an artificiality about his absorption that restrained her. She had never before seen him read with so conspicuous an air of warding off interruption. What could he be thinking of? Why should he be afraid to speak? Or was it her answer that he dreaded?.
The train paused for the passing of an express, and he put down his book and leaned out of the window. Presently he turned to her with a smile.
"There's a jolly old villa out here," he said.
His easy tone relieved her, and she smiled back at him as she crossed over to his corner.
Beyond the embankment, through the opening in a mossy wall, she caught sight of the villa, with its broken balustrades, its stagnant fountains, and the stone satyr closing the perspective of a dusky grass walk.
"How should you like to live there?" he asked as the train moved on.
"In some such place, I mean. One might do worse, don't you think so? There must be at least two centuries of solitude under those yew trees. Shouldn't you like it?"
"I don't know," she faltered. She knew now that he meant to speak.
He lit another cigarette. "We shall have to live somewhere, you know," he said as he bent above the match.
Lydia tried to speak carelessly. "Je n'en vois pas la necessite! Why not live everywhere, as we have been doing?"
"But we can't travel forever, can we?
"Oh, forever's a long word," she objected, picking up the review he had thrown aside.
"For the rest of our lives then," he said, moving nearer.
She made a slight gesture which caused his hand to slip from hers.
"Why should we make plans? I thought you agreed with me that it's pleasanter to drift."
He looked at her hesitatingly. "It's been pleasant, certainly; but I suppose I shall have to get at my work again some day. You know I haven't written a line since all this time," he hastily amended.
She flamed with sympathy and self-reproach. "Oh, if you mean that if you want to write of course we must settle down. How stupid of me not to have thought of it sooner! Where shall we go? Where do you think you could work best? We oughtn't to lose any more time."
He hesitated again. "I had thought of a villa in these parts. It's quiet; we shouldn't be bothered. Should you like it?"
"Of course I should like it." She paused and looked away. "But I thought I remember your telling me once that your best work had been done in a crowd in big cities. Why should you shut yourself up in a desert?"
Gannett, for a moment, made no reply. At length he said, avoiding her eye as carefully as she avoided his: "It might be different now; I can't tell, of course, till I try. A writer ought not be dependent on his milieu, it's a mistake to humor oneself in that way; and I thought that just at first you might prefer to be."
She faced him. "To be what?"
"Well quiet. I mean."
"What do you mean by 'at first'?" she interruped.
He paused again. "I mean after we are married."
She thrust up her chin and turned toward the window. "Thank you!" she tossed back at him.
"Lydia!" he exclaimed blankly; and she felt in every fiber of her averted person that he had made the inconceivable, the unpardonable mistake of anticipating her acquiescence.
The train rattled on and he groped for a third cigarette. Lydia remained silent.
"I haven't offended you?" he ventured at length, in the tone of a man who feels his way.
She shook her head with a sigh. "I thought you understood," she moaned. Their eyes met and she moved back to his side.
"Do you want to know how not to offend me? By taking it for granted, once for all, that you've said your say on the odious question and that I've said mine, and that we stand just where we did this morning before that that hateful paper came to spoil everything between us!"
"To spoil everything between us? What on earth do you mean? Aren't you glad to be free?"
"I was free before."
"Not to marry me," he suggested.
But I don't want to marry you!" she cried.
She saw that he turned pale. "I'm obtuse, I suppose," he said slowly. "I confess I don't see what you're driving at. Are you tired of the whole business? Or was I simply an excuse for getting away? Perhaps you didn't care to travel alone? Was that it? And now you want to chuck me?" His voice had grown harsh. "You owe me a straight answer, you know; don't be tenderhearted!"
Her eyes swam as she leaned to him. "Don't you see it's because I care because I care so much? Oh, Ralph! Can't you see how it would humiliate me? Try to feel it as a woman would! Don't you see the misery of being made your wife in this way? If I'd known you as a girl that would have been a real marriage! But now this vulgar fraud upon society and upon a society we despised and laughed at this sneaking back into a position that we've voluntarily foreited: don't you see what a cheap compromise it is? We neither of us believe in the abstract 'sacredness' of marriage; we both know that no ceremony is needed to consecrate our love for each other; what object can we have in marrying, except the secret fear of each that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back graduallyoh, very gradually into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated? And the very fact that, after a decent interval, these same people would come and dine with us the women who would let me die in a gutter today because I am 'leading a life of sin doesn't that disgust you more than their turning their backs on us now? I can stand being cut by them, but I couldn't stand their coming to call and asking what I meant to do about visiting that unfortunate Mrs. So-and-so!"
She paused, and Gannett maintained a perplexed silence.
"You judge things too theoretically," he said at length, slowly. "Life is made up of compromises."
"The life we ran away from yes! If we had been willing to accept them "she flushed" we might have gone on meeting each other at Mrs. Tillotson's dinners."
He smiled slightly. "I didn't know that we ran away to found a new system of ethics. I supposed it was because we loved each other."
"Life is complex, of course; isn't it the very recognition of that fact that separates us from the people who see it tout d'une piece? If they are right, if marriage is sacred in itself and the individual must always be sacrificed to the family then there can be no real marriage between us, since our being together is a protest against the sacrifice of the individual to the family." She interrupted herself with a laugh. "You'll say now that I'm giving you a lecture on sociology! Of course one acts as one can as one must, perhaps pulled by all sorts of invisible threads; but at least one needn't pretend, for social advantages, to subscribe to a creed that ignores the complexity of human motives that classifies people by arbitrary signs, and puts it in everybody's reach to be on Mrs. Tillotson's visiting list. It may be necessary that the world should be ruled by conventions but if we believed in them, why did we break through them? And if we don't believe in them, is it honest to take advantage of the protection they afford?"
Gannett hesitated. "One may believe in them or not; but as long as they do rule the world it is only by taking advantage of their protection that one can find a modus vivendi."
"Do outlaws need a modus vivendi?"
He looked at her hopelessly. Nothing is more perplexing to man than the mental process of a woman who reasons her emotions.
She thought she had scored a point and followed it up passionately. "You do understand, don't you? You see how the very thought of the thing humiliates me! We are together today because we choose to be don't let us look any farther than that!" She caught his hands. "Promise me you'll never speak of it again; promise me you'll never think of it even," she implored, with a tearful prodigality of italics.
Through what followed his protests, his arguments, his final unconvinced submission to her wishes she had a sense of his but half-discerning all that, for her, had made the moment so tumultuous. They had reached that memorable point in every heart history when, for the first time, the man seems obtuse and the woman irrational. It was the abundance of his intentions that consoled her, on reflection, for what they lacked in quality. After all, it would have been worse, incalculably worse, to have detected any overreadiness to understand her.
When the train at nightfall brought them to their journey's end at the edge of one of the lakes, Lydia was glad that they were not, as usual, to pass from one solitude to another. Their wanderings during the year had indeed been like the flight of the outlaws: through Sicily, Dalmatia, Translyvania and Southern Italy they had persisted in their tacit avoidance of their kind. Isolation, at first, had deepened the flavor of their happiness, as night intensifies the scent of certain flowers; but in the new phase on which they were entering, Lydia's chief wish was that they should be less abnormally exposed to the action of each other's thoughts.
She shrank, nevertheless, as the brightly-looming bulk of the fashionable Anglo-American hotel on the water's brink began to radiate toward their advancing boat its vivid suggestion of social order, visitors' lists, Church services, and the bland inquisition of the table d'hote. The mere fact that in a moment or two she must take her place on the hotel register as Mrs. Gannett seemed to weaken the springs of her resistance.
They had meant to stay for a night only, on their way to a lofty village among the glaciers of Monte Rosa; but after the first plunge into publicity, when they entered the dining room, Lydia felt the relief of being lost in a crowd, of ceasing for a moment to be the center of Gannett's scrutiny; and in his face she caught the reflection of her feeling. After dinner, when she went upstairs, he strolled into the smoking room, and an hour or two later, sitting in the darkness of her window, she heard his voice below and saw him walking up and down the terrace with a companion cigar at his side. When he came he told her he had been talking to the hotel chaplain a very good sort of fellow.
"Queer little microcosms, these hotels! Most of these people live here all summer and then migrate to Italy or the Riviera. The English are the only people who can lead that kind of life with dignity those soft-voiced old ladies in Shetland shawls somehow carry the British Empire under their caps. Civis Romanus sum. It's a curious study there might be some good things to work up here."
He stood before her with the vivid preoccupied stare of the novelist on the trail of a "subject." With a relief that was half painful she noticed that, for the first time since they had been together, he was hardly aware of her presence.
"Do you think you could write here?"
"Here? I don't know." His stare dropped. "After being out of things so long one's first impressions are bound to be tremendously vivid, you know. I see a dozen threads already that one might follow "
He broke off with a touch of embarrassment.
"Then follow them. We'll stay," she said with sudden decision.
"Stay here?" He glanced at her in surprise, and then, walking to the window, looked out upon the dusky slumber of the garden.
"Why not?" she said at length, in a tone of veiled irritation.
"The place is full of old cats in caps who gossip with the chaplain. Shall you like I mean, it would be different if "
She flamed up.
"Do you suppose I care? It's none of their business."
"Of course not; but you won't get them to think so."
"They may think what they please."
He looked at her doubtfully.
"It's for you to decide."
"We'll stay," she repeated.
Gannett, before they met, had made himself known as a successful writer of short stories and of a novel which had achieved the distinction of being widely discussed. The reviewers called him "promising," and Lydia now accused herself of having too long interfered with the fulfillment of his promise. There was a special irony in the fact, since his passionate assurance that only the stimulus of her companionship could bring out his latent faculty had almost given the dignity of a "vocation" to her course: there had been moments when she had felt unable to assume, before posterity, the responsibility of thwarting his career. And, after all, he had not written a line since they had been together: his first desire to write had come from renewed contact with the world! Was it all a mistake then? Must the most intelligent choice work more disastrously than the blundering combinations of chance? Or was there a still more humiliating answer to her perplexities? His sudden imp! ulse of activity so exactly coincided with her own wish to withdraw, for a time, from the range of his observation, that she wondered if he too were not seeking sanctuary from intolerable problems.
"You must begin tomorrow!" she cried, hiding a tremor under the laugh with which she added, "I wonder if there's any ink in the inkstand?"
Whatever else they had at the Hotel Bellosguardo, they had, as Miss Pinsent said, "a certain tone." It was to Lady Susan Condit that they owed this inestimable benefit; an advantage ranking in Miss Pinsent's opinion above even the lawn tennis courts and the resident chaplain. It was the fact of Lady Susan's annual visit that made the hotel what it was. Miss Pinsent was certainly the last to underrate such a privilege: "It's so important, my dear, forming as we do a little family, that there should be someone to give the tone; and no one could do it better than Lady Susan an earl's daughter and a person of such determination. Dear Mrs. Ainger now who really ought, you know, when Lady Susan's away absolutely refuses to assert herself." Miss Pinsent sniffed derisively. "A bishop's niece! my dear, I saw her once actually give in to some South Americans and before us all. She gave up her seat at table to oblige them such a lack of ! dignity! Lady Susan spoke to her very plainly about it afterwards."
Miss Pinsent glanced across the lake and adjusted her auburn front.
"But of course I don't deny that the stand Lady Susan takes is not always easy to live up to for the rest of us, I mean. Monsieur Grossart, our good proprietor, finds it trying at times, I know he has said as much, privately, to Mrs. Ainger and me. After all, the poor man is not to blame for wanting to fill his hotel, is he? And Lady Susan is so difficult so very difficult about new people. One might almost say that she disapproves of them beforehand, on principle. And yet she's had warnings she very nearly made a dreadful mistake once with the Duchess of Levens, who dyed her hair and well, swore and smoked. One would have thought that might have been a lesson to Lady Susan." Miss Pinsent resumed her knitting with a sigh. "There are exceptions, of course. She took at once to you and Mr. Gannett it was quite remarkable, really. Oh, I don't mean that either of course not! It was perfectly natural we all thought you so charming and interesting form the first day we knew at once that Mr. Gannett was intellectual, by the magazines you took in; but you know what I mean. Lady Susan is so very well, I won't say prejudiced, as Mrs. Ainger does but so prepared not to like new people, that her taking to you in that way was a surprise to us all, I confess."
Miss Pinsent sent a significant glance down the long laurustinus alley from the other end of which two people a lady and a gentleman were strolling toward them through the smiling neglect of the garden.
"In this case, of course, it's very different; that I'm willing to admit. Their looks are against them; but, as Mrs. Ainger says, one can't exactly tell them so."
"She's very handsome," Lydia ventured, with her eyes on the lady, who showed, under the dome of a vivid sunshade, the hourglass figure and superlative coloring of a Christmas chromo.
"That's the worst of it. She's too handsome."
"Well, after all, she can't help that."
"Other people manage to," said Miss Pinsent skeptically.
"But isn't it rather unfair of Lady Susan considering that nothing is known about them?"
"But my dear, that's the very thing that's against them. It's infinitely worse than any actual knowledge."
Lydia mentally agreed that, in the case of Mrs. Linton, it possibly might be.
"I wonder why they came here?" she mused.
"That's against them too. It's always a bad sign when loud people come to a quiet place. And they've brought van loads of boxes her maid told Mrs. Ainger's that they meant to stop indefinitely."
"And Lady Susan actually turned her back on her in the salon?"
"My dear, she said it was for our sakes; that makes it so unanswerable! But poor Grossart is in a way! The Lintons have taken his most expressive suite, you know the yellow damask drawing room above the portico and they have champagne with every meal!"
They were silent as Mr. and Mrs. Linton sauntered by; the lady with tempestuous brows and challenging chin; the gentleman, a blond stripling, trailing after her, head downward, like a reluctant child dragged by his nurse.
"What does your husband think of them, my dear?" Miss Pinsent whispered as they passed out of earshot.
Lydia stooped to pick a violet in the border.
"He hasn't told me."
"Of your speaking to them, I mean. Would he approve of that? I know how very particular nice Americans are. I think your action might make a difference; it would certainly carry weight with Lady Susan."
"Dear Miss Pinsent, you flatter me!"
Lydia rose and gathered up her book and sunshade.
"Well, if you're asked for an opinion if Lady Susan asks you for one I think you ought to be prepared," Miss Pinsent admonished her as she moved away.
Lady Susan held her own. She ignored the Lintons, and her little family, as Miss Pinsent phrased it, followed suit. Even Mrs. Ainger agreed that it was obligatory. If Lady Susan owed it to the others not to speak to the Lintons, the others clearly owed it to Lady Susan to back her up. It was generally found expedient, at the Hotel Bellosguardo, to adopt this form of reasoning.
Whatever effect this combined action may have had upon the Lintons, it did not at least have that of driving them away. Monsieur Grossart, after a few days of suspense, had the satisfaction of seeing them settle down in his yellow damask premier with what looked like a permanent installation of palm trees and silk cushions, and a gratifying continuance in the consumption of champagne. Mrs. Linton trailed her Doucet draperies up and down the garden with the same challenging air, while her husband, smoking innumerable cigarettes, dragged himself dejectedly in her wake; but neither of them, after the first encounter with Lady Susan, made any attempt to extend their acquaintance. They simply ignored their ignorers. As Miss Pinsent resentfully observed, they behaved exactly as though the hotel were empty.
It was therefore a matter of surprise, as well as of displeasure, to Lydia, to find, on glancing up one day from her seat in the garden, that the shadow which had fallen across her book was that of the enigmatic Mrs. Linton.
"I want to speak to you," that lady said, in a rich hard voice that seemed the audible expression of her gown and her complexion.
Lydia started. She certainly did not want to speak to Mrs. Linton.
"Shall I sit down here?" the latter continued, fixing her intensely-shaded eyes on Lydia's face, "or are you afraid of being seen with me?"
"Afraid?" Lydia colored. "Sit down, please. What is it that you wish to say?"
Mrs. Linton, with a smile, drew up a garden chair and crossed one openwork ankle above the other.
"I want you to tell me what my husband said to your husband last night."
Lydia turned pale.
"My husband to yours?" she faltered, staring at the other.
"Didn't you know they were closeted together for hours in the smoking room after you went upstairs? My man didn't get to bed until nearly two o'clock and when he did I couldn't get a word out of him. When he wants to be aggravating I'll back him against anybody living!" Her teeth and eyes flashed persuasively upon Lydia. "But you'll tell me what they were talking about, won't you? I know I can trust you you look so awfully kind. And it's for his own good. He's such a precious donkey and I'm so afraid he's got into some beastly scrape or other. If he'd only trust his own old woman! But they're always writing to him and setting him against me. And I've got nobody to turn to." She laid her hand on Lydia's with a rattle of bracelets. "You'll help me, won't you?"
Lydia drew back from the smiling fierceness of her brows.
"I'm sorry but I don't think I understand. My husband has said nothing to me of of yours."
The great black crescents above Mrs. Linton's eyes met angrily.
"I say is that true?" she demanded.
Lydia rose from her seat.
"Oh, look here, I didn't mean that, you know you mustn't take one up so! Can't you see how rattled I am?"
Lydia saw that, in fact, her beautiful mouth was quivering beneath softened eyes.
"I'm beside myself!" the splendid creature wailed, dropping into her seat.
"I'm so sorry," Lydia repeated, forcing herself to speak kindly; "but how can I help you?"
Mrs. Linton raised her head sharply.
"By finding out there's a darling!"
"Finding what out?"
"What Trevenna told him."
"Trevenna ?" Lydia echoed in bewilderment.
Mrs. Linton clapped her hand to her mouth.
"Oh, Lord there, it's out! What a fool I am! But I supposed of course you knew; I supposed everybody knew." She dried her eyes and bridled. "Didn't you know that he's Lord Trevenna? I'm Mrs. Cope."
Lydia recognized the names. They had figured in a flamboyant elopement which had thrilled fashionable London some six months earlier.
"Now you see how it is you understand, don't you?" Mrs. Cope continued on a note of appeal. "I knew you would that's the reason I came to you. I suppose he felt the same thing about your husband; he's not spoken to another soul in the place." Her face grew anxious again. "He's awfully sensitive, generally he feels our position, he says as if it wasn't my place to feel that! But when he does get talking there's no knowing what he'll say. I know he's been brooding over something lately, and I must find out what it is it's to his interest that I should. I always tell him that I think only of his interest; if he'd only trust me! But he's been so odd lately I can't think what he's plotting. You will help me, dear?"
Lydia, who had remained standing, looked away uncomfortably.
"If you mean by finding out what Lord Trevenna has told my husband, I'm afraid it's impossible."
"Because I infer that is was told in confidence."
Mrs. Cope stared incredulously.
"Well, what of that? Your husband looks such a dear anyone can see he's awfully gone on you. What's to prevent your getting it out of him?"
"I'm not a spy!" she exclaimed.
"A spy a spy? How dare you?" Mrs. Cope flamed out. "Oh, I don't mean that either! Don't be angry with me I'm so miserable." She essayed a softer note. "Do you call that spying for one woman to help out another? I do need help so dreadfully! I'm at my wits' end with Trevenna, I am indeed. He's such a boy a mere baby, you know; he's only two-and-twenty." She dropped her orbed lids. "He's younger than me only fancy, a few months younger. I tell him he ought to listen to me as if I was his mother, oughtn't he now? But he won't, he won't! All his people are at him, you see oh, I know their little game! Trying to get him away from me before I can get my divorce that's what they're up to. At first he wouldn't listen to them; he used to toss their letters over to me to read; but now he reads them himself, and answers 'em too, I fancy; he's always shut up in his room, writing. If I only knew what his plan is I could stop him fa! st enough he's such a simpleton. But he's dreadfully deep too at times I can't make him out. but I know he's told your husband everything I knew that last night the minute I laid eyes on him. And I must find out you must help me I've got no one else to turn to!"
She caught Lydia's fingers in a stormy pressure.
"Say you'll help me you and your husband."
Lydia tried to free herself.
"What you ask is impossible; you must see that it is. No one could interfere in in the way you ask."
Mrs. Cope's clutch tightened.
"You won't, then? You won't?"
"Certainly not. Let me go, please."
Mrs. Cope released her with a laugh.
"Oh, go by all means pray don't let me detain you! Shall you go and tell Lady Susan Condit that there's a pair of us or shall I save you the trouble of enlightening her?"
Lydia stood still in the middle of the path, seeing her antagonist through a mist of terror. Mrs. Cope was still laughing.
"Oh, I'm not spiteful by nature, my dear; but you're a little more than flesh and blood can stand! It's impossible, is it? Let you go, indeed! You're too good to be mixed up in my affairs, are you? Why, you little fool, the first day I laid eyes on you I saw that you and I were both in the same box that's the reason I spoke to you."
She stepped nearer, her smile dilating on Lydia like a lamp through a fog.
"You can take your choice, you know; I always play fair. If you'll tell I'll promise not to. Now then, which is it to be?"
Lydia, involuntarily, had begun to move away from the pelting storm of words; but at this she turned and sat down again.
"You may go," she said simply. "I shall stay here."
She stayed there for a long time, in the hypnotized contemplation, not of Mrs. Cope's present, but of her own past. Gannett, early that morning, had gone off on a long walk he had fallen into the habit of taking these mountain tramps with various fellow lodgers; but even had he been within reach she could not have gone to him just then. She had to deal with herself first. She was surprised to find how, in the last months, she had lost the habit of introspection. Since their coming to the Hotel Bellosguardo she and Gannett had tacitly avoided themselves and each other.
She was aroused by the whistle of the three o'clock steamboat as it neared the landing just beyond the hotel gates. Three o'clock! Then Gannett would soon be back he had told her to expect him before four. She rose hurriedly, her face averted from the inquisitorial facade of the hotel. She could not see him just yet; she could not go indoors. She slipped through one of the overgrown garden alleys and climbed a steep path to the hills.
It was dark when she opened their sitting-room door. Gannett was sitting on the window ledge smoking a cigarette. Cigarettes were now his chief resource: he had not written a line during the two months they had spent at the Hotel Bellosguardo. In that respect, it had turned out not to be the right milieu after all.
He started up at Lydia's entrance.
"Where have you been? I was getting anxious."
She sat down in a chair near the door.
"Up the mountain," she said wearily.
Gannett threw away his cigarette: the sound of her voice made him want to see her face.
"Shall we have a little light?" he suggested.
She made no answer and he lifted the globe from the lamp and put a match to the wick. Then he looked at her.
"Anything wrong? You look done up."
She sat glancing vaguely about the little sitting room, dimly lit by the pallid-globed lamp, which left in twilight the outlines of the furniture, of his writing table heaped with books and papers, of the tea roses and jasmine drooping on the mantelpiece. How like home it had all grown how like home!
"Lydia, what is wrong?" he repeated.
She moved away from him, feeling for her hatpins and turning to lay her hat and sunshade on the table.
Suddenly she said: "That woman has been talking to me."
"That woman? What woman?"
"Mrs. Linton Mrs. Cope."
He gave a start of annoyance, still, as she perceived, not grasping the full import of her words.
"The deuce! She told you ?"
"She told me everything."
Gannett looked at her anxiously.
"What impudence! I'm so sorry that you should have been exposed to this, dear."
"Exposed!" Lydia laughed.
Gannett's brow clouded and they looked away from each other.
"Do you know why she told me? She had the best of reasons. The first time she laid eyes on me she saw that we were both in the same box."
"So it was natural, of course, that she should turn to me in a difficulty."
"It seems she has reason to think that Lord Trevenna's people are trying to get him away from her before she gets her divorce "
"And she fancied he had been consulting with you last night as to as to the best way of escaping from her."
Gannett stood up with an angry forehead.
"Well what concern of yours was all this dirty business? Why should she go to you?"
"Don't you see? It's so simple. I was to wheedle his secret out of you."
"To oblige that woman?"
"Yes; or, if I was unwilling to oblige her, then to protect myself."
"To protect yourself? Against whom?"
"Against her telling everyone in the hotel that she and I are in the same box."
"She threatened that?"
"She left me the choice of telling it myself or of doing it for me."
There was a long silence. Lydia had seated herself on the sofa, beyond the radius of the lamp, and he leaned against the window. His next question surprised her.
"When did this happen? At what time, I mean?"
She looked at him vaguely.
"I don't know after luncheon, I think. Yes, I remember, it must have been at about three o'clock."
He stepped into the middle of the room and as he approached the light she saw that his brow had cleared.
"Why do you ask?" she said.
"Because when I came in, at about half-past three, the mail was just being distributed, and Mrs. Cope was waiting as usual to pounce on her letters; you know she was always watching for the postman. She was standing so close to me that I couldn't help seeing a big official-looking envelope that was handed to her. She tore it open, gave one look at the inside, and rushed off upstairs like a whirlwind, with the director shouting after her that she had left all her other letters behind. I don't believe she ever thought of you again after that paper was put into her hand."
"Because she was too busy. I was sitting in the window , watching for you, when the five o'clock boat left, and who should go on board, bag and baggage, valet and maid, dressing bags and poodle, but Mrs. Cope and Trevenna. Just an hour and a half to pack up in! And you should have seen her when they started. She was radiant shaking hands with everybody waving her handkerchief from the deck 8212distributing bows and smiles like an empress. If ever a woman got what she wanted just in the nick of time that woman did. She'll be Lady Trevenna within a week, I'll wager."
"You think she has her divorce?"
"I'm sure of it. And she must have got it just after her talk with you."
Lydia was silent.
At length she said, with a kind of reluctance, "She was horribly angry when she left me. It wouldn't have taken long to tell Lady Susan Condit."
"Lady Susan Condit has not been told."
"How do you you know."
"Because when I went downstairs half an hour ago I met Lady Susan on the way "
He stopped, half smiling.
"And she stopped to ask if I thought you would act as patroness to a charity concert she is getting up."
In spite of themselves they both broke into a laugh. Lydia's ended in sobs and she sank down with her face hidden. Gannett bent over her, seeking her hands.
"That vile woman I ought to have warned you to keep away from her; I can't forgive myself! But he spoke to me in confidence; and I never dreamed well, it's all over now."
Lydia lifted her head.
"Not for me. It's only just beginning."
"What do you mean?"
She put him gently aside and moved in her turn to the window. Then she went on, with her face turned toward the shimmering blackness of the lake, "You see of course that it might happen again at any moment."
"This this risk of being found out. And we could hardly count again on such a lucky combination of chances, could we?"
He sat down with a groan.
Still keeping her face toward the darkness, she said, "I want you to go and tell Lady Susan and the others."
Gannett, who had moved towards her, paused a few feet off.
"Why do you wish me to do this?" he said at length, with less surprise in his voice than she had been prepared for.
"Because I've behaved basely, abominably, since we came here: letting these people believe we were married lying with every breath I drew "
"Yes, I've felt that too," Gannett exclaimed with sudden energy.
The words shook her like a tempest: all her thoughts seemed to fall about her in ruins.
"You you've felt so?"
"Of course I have." He spoke with low-voiced vehemence. "Do you suppose I like playing the sneak any better than you do? It's damnable."
He had dropped on the arm of a chair, and they stared at each other like blind people who suddenly see.
"But you have liked it here," she faltered.
"Oh, I've liked it I've liked it." He moved impatiently. "Haven't you?"
"Yes," she burst out; "that's the worst of it that's what I can't bear. I fancied it was for your sake that I insisted on staying because you thought you could write here; and perhaps just at first that really was the reason. But afterwards I wanted to stay myself I loved it." She broke into a laugh. "Oh, do you see the full derision of it? These people the very prototypes of the bores you took me away from, with the same fenced-in view of life, the same keep-off-the-grass morality, the same little cautious virtues and the same little frightened vices well, I've clung to them, I've delighted in them, I've done my best to please them. I've toadied Lady Susan, I've gossiped with Miss Pinsent, I've pretended to be shocked with Mrs. Ainger. Respectability! It was the one thing in life that I was sure I didn't care about, and it's grown so precious to me that I've stolen it because I couldn't get it any other way."
She moved across the room and returned to his side with another laugh.
"I who used to fancy myself unconventional! I must have been born with a cardcase in my hand. You should have seen me with that poor woman in the garden. She came to me for help, poor creature, because she fancied that, having 'sinned,' as they call it, I might feel some pity for others who had been tempted in the same way. Not I! She didn't know me. Lady Susan would have been kinder, because Lady Susan wouldn't have been afraid. I hated the woman my one thought was not to be seen with her I could have killed her for guessing my secret. The one thing that mattered to me at that moment was my standing with Lady Susan!"
Gannett did not speak.
"And you you've felt it too!" she broke out accusingly. "You've enjoyed being with these people as much as I have; you've let the chaplain talk to you by the hour about The Reign of Law and Professor Drummond. When they asked you to hand the plate in church I was watching you you wanted to accept."
She stepped close, laying her hand on his arm.
"Do you know, I begin to see what marriage is for. It's to keep people away from each other. Sometimes I think that two people who love each other can be saved from madness only by the things that come between them children, duties, visits, bores, relations the things that protect married people from each other. We've been too close together-that has been our sin. We've seen the nakedness of each other's souls."
She sank again on the sofa, hiding her face in her hands.
Gannett stood above her perplexedly: he felt as though she were being swept away by some implacable current while he stood helpless on its bank.
At length he said, "Lydia, don't think me a brute but don't you see yourself that it won't do?"
"Yes, I see it won't do," she said without raising her head.
His face cleared.
"Then we'll go tomorrow."
"To Paris; to be married."
For a long time she made no answer; then she asked slowly, "Would they have us here if we were married?"
"Have us here?"
"I mean Lady Susan and the others."
"Have us here? Of course they would."
"Not if they knew at least, not unless they could pretend not to know."
He made an impatient gesture.
"We shouldn't come back here, of course; and other people needn't know no one need know."
She sighed. "Then it's only another form of deception and a meaner one. Don't you see that?"
"I see that we're not accountable to any Lady Susans on earth!"
"Then why are you ashamed of what we are doing here?"
"Because I'm sick of pretending that you're my wife when you're not when you won't be."
She looked at him sadly.
"If I were your wife you'd have to go on pretending. You'd have to pretend that I'd never been anything else. And our friends would have to pretend that they believed what you pretended."
Gannett pulled off the sofa tassel and flung it away.
"You're impossible," he groaned.
"It's not I it's our being together that's impossible. I only want you to see that marriage won't help it."
"What will help it then?"
She raised her head.
"My leaving you."
"Your leaving me?" He sat motionless, staring at the tassel which lay at the other end of the room. At length some impulse of retaliation for the pain she was inflicting made him say deliberately:
"And where would you go if you left me?"
"Oh!" she cried.
He was at her side in an instant.
"Lydia Lydia you know I didn't mean it; I couldn't mean it! But you've driven me out of my senses; I don't know what I'm saying. Can't you get out of this labyrinth of self-torture? It's destroying us both."
"That's why I must leave you."
"How easily you say it!" He drew her hands down and made her face him. "You're very scrupulous about yourself and others. But have you thought of me? You have no right to leave me unless you've ceased to care "
"It's because I care "
"Then I have a right to be heard. If you love me you can't leave me."
Her eyes defied him.
He dropped her hands and rose from her side.
"Can you?" he said sadly.
The hour was late and the lamp flickered and sank. She stood up with a shiver and turned toward the door of her room.
At daylight a sound in Lydia's room woke Ganett from a troubled sleep. He sat up and listened. She was moving about softly, as though fearful of disturbing him. He heard her push back one of the creaking shutters; then there was a moment's silence, which seemed to indicate that she was waiting to see if the noise had roused him.
Presently she began to move again. She had spent a sleepless night, probably, and was dressing to go down to the garden for a breath of air. Gannett rose also; but some undefinable instinct made his movements as cautious as hers. He stole to his window and looked out through the slats of the shutter.
It had rained in the night and the dawn was gray and lifeless. The cloud-muffled hills across the lake were reflected in its surface as in a tarnished mirror. In the garden, the birds were beginning to shake the drops from the motionless laurustinus boughs.
An immense pity for Lydia filled Gannett's soul. Her seeming intellectual independence had blinded him for a time to the feminine cast of her mind. He had never thought of her as a woman who wept and clung: there was a lucidity in her intuitions that made them appear to be the result of reasoning. Now he saw the cruelty he had committed in detaching her from the normal conditions of life; he felt, too, the insight with which she had hit upon the real cause of their suffering. Their life was "impossible," as she had said and its worst penalty was that it had made any other life impossible for them. Even had his love lessened, he was bound to her now by a hundred ties of pity and self-reproach; and she, poor child, must turn back to him as Latude returned to his cell.
A new sound startled him: it was the stealthy closing of Lydia's door. He crept to his own and heard her footsteps passing down the corridor. Then he went back to the window and looked out.
A minute or two later he saw her go down the steps of the porch and enter the garden. From his post of observation her face was invisible, but something about her appearance struck him. She wore a long traveling cloak and under its folds he detected the outline of a bag or bundle. He drew a deep breath and stood watching her.
She walked quickly down the laurustinus alley toward the gate; there she paused a moment, glancing about the little shady square. The stone benches under the trees were empty, and she seemed to gather resolution from the solitude about her, for she crossed the square to the steamboat landing, and he saw her pause before the ticket office at the head of the wharf. Now she was buying her ticket. Gannett turned his head a moment to look at the clock: the boat was due in five minutes. He had time to jump into his clothes and overtake her
He made no attempt to move; an obscure reluctance restrained him. If any thought emerged from the tumult of his sensations, it was that he must let her go if she wished it. He had spoken last night of his rights: what were they? At the last issue, he and she were two separate beings, not made one by the miracle of common forbearances, duties, abnegations, but bound together in a noyade of passion that left them resisting yet clinging as they went down.
After buying her ticket, Lydia had stood for a moment looking out across the lake; then he saw her seat herself on one of the benches near the landing. He and she, at that moment, were both listening for the same sound: the whistle of the boat as it rounded the nearest promontory. Gannett turned again to glance at the clock: the boat was due now.
Where would she go? What would her life be when she had left him? She had no near relations and few friends. There was money enough . . . but she asked so much of life, in ways so complex and immaterial. He thought of her as walking barefooted through a stony waste. No one would understand her no one would pity her and he, who did both, was powerless to come to her aid.
He saw that she had risen from the bench and walked toward the edge of the lake. She stood looking in the direction from which the steamboat was to come; then she turned to the ticket office, doubtless to ask the cause of the delay. After that she went back to the bench and sat down with bent head. What was she thinking of?
The whistle sounded; she started up, and Gannett involuntarily made a movement toward the door. But he turned back and continued to watch her. She stood motionless, her eyes on the trail of smoke that preceded the appearance of the boat. Then the little craft rounded the point, a dead white object on the leaden water: a minute later it was puffing and backing at the wharf.
The few passengers who were waiting two or three peasants and a snuffy priest were clustered near the ticket office. Lydia stood apart under the trees.
The boat lay alongside now; the gangplank was run out and the peasants went on board with their baskets of vegetables, followed by the priest. Still Lydia did not move. A bell began to ring querulously; there was a shriek of steam, and someone must have called to her that she would be late, for she started forward, as though in answer to a summons. She moved waveringly, and at the edge of the wharf she paused. Gannett saw a sailor beckon to her; the bell rang again and she stepped upon the gangplank.
Halfway down the short incline to the deck she stopped again; then she turned and ran back to the land. The gangplank was drawn in, the bell ceased to ring, and the boat backed out into the lake. Lydia, with slow steps, was walking toward the garden.
As she approached the hotel she looked up furtively and Gannett drew back into the room. He sat down beside a table; a Bradshaw lay at his elbow, and mechanically, without knowing what he did, he began looking out the trains to Paris.
It was on an impulse hardly needing the arguments he found himself advancing in its favor, that Thursdale, on his way to the club, turned as usual into Mrs. Vervain's street.
The "as usual" was his own qualification of the act; a convenient way of bridging the interval -- in days and other sequences -- that lay between this visit and the last. It was characteristic of him that he instinctively excluded his call two days earlier, with Ruth Gaynor, from the list of his visits to Mrs. Vervain: the special conditions attending it had made it no more like a visit to Mrs. Vervain than an engraved dinner invitation is like a personal letter. Yet it was to talk over his call with Miss Gaynor that he was now returning to the scene of that episode; and it was because Mrs. Vervain could be trusted to handle the talking over as skilfully as the interview itself that, at her corner, he had felt the dilettante's irresistible craving to take a last look at a work of art that was passing out of his possession.
On the whole, he knew no one better fitted to deal with the unexpected than Mrs. Vervain. She excelled in the rare art of taking things for granted, and Thursdale felt a pardonable pride in the thought that she owed her excellence to his training. Early in his career Thursdale had made the mistake, at the outset of his acquaintance with a lady, of telling her that he loved her and exacting the same avowal in return. The latter part of that episode had been like the long walk back from a picnic, when one has to carry all the crockery one has finished using: it was the last time Thursdale ever allowed himself to be encumbered with the debris of a feast. He thus incidentally learned that the privilege of loving her is one of the least favors that a charming woman can accord; and in seeking to avoid the pitfalls of sentiment he had developed a science of evasion in which the woman of the moment became a mere implement of the game. He owed a great deal of delicate enjoyment to the cultivation of this art. The perils from which it had been his refuge became naively harmless: was it possible that he who now took his easy way along the levels had once preferred to gasp on the raw heights of emotion? Youth is a high-colored season; but he had the satisfaction of feeling that he had entered earlier than most into that chiar'oscuro of sensation where every half-tone has its value.
As a promoter of this pleasure no one he had known was comparable to Mrs. Vervain. He had taught a good many women not to betray their feelings, but he had never before had such fine material to work in. She had been surprisingly crude when he first knew her; capable of making the most awkward inferences, of plunging through thin ice, of recklessly undressing her emotions; but she had acquired, under the discipline of his reticences and evasions, a skill almost equal to his own, and perhaps more remarkable in that it involved keeping time with any tune he played and reading at sight some uncommonly difficult passages.
It had taken Thursdale seven years to form this fine talent; but the result justified the effort. At the crucial moment she had been perfect: her way of greeting Miss Gaynor had made him regret that he had announced his engagement by letter. It was an evasion that confessed a difficulty; a deviation implying an obstacle, where, by common consent, it was agreed to see none; it betrayed, in short, a lack of confidence in the completeness of his method. It had been his pride never to put himself in a position which had to be quitted, as it were, by the back door; but here, as he perceived, the main portals would have opened for him of their own accord. All this, and much more, he read in the finished naturalness with which Mrs. Vervain had met Miss Gaynor. He had never seen a better piece of work: there was no over-eagerness, no suspicious warmth, above all (and this gave her art the grace of a natural quality) there were none of those damnable implications whereby a woman, in welcoming her friend's betrothed, may keep him on pins and needles while she laps the lady in complacency. So masterly a performance, indeed, hardly needed the offset of Miss Gaynor's door-step words -- "To be so kind to me, how she must have liked you!" -- though he caught himself wishing it lay within the bounds of fitness to transmit them, as a final tribute, to the one woman he knew who was unfailingly certain to enjoy a good thing. It was perhaps the one drawback to his new situation that it might develop good things which it would be impossible to hand on to Margaret Vervain.
The fact that he had made the mistake of underrating his friend's powers, the consciousness that his writing must have betrayed his distrust of her efficiency, seemed an added reason for turning down her street instead of going on to the club. He would show her that he knew how to value her; he would ask her to achieve with him a feat infinitely rarer and more delicate than the one he had appeared to avoid. Incidentally, he would also dispose of the interval of time before dinner: ever since he had seen Miss Gaynor off, an hour earlier, on her return journey to Buffalo, he had been wondering how he should put in the rest of the afternoon. It was absurd, how he missed the girl. . . . Yes, that was it; the desire to talk about her was, after all, at the bottom of his impulse to call on Mrs. Vervain! It was absurd, if you like -- but it was delightfully rejuvenating. He could recall the time when he had been afraid of being obvious: now he felt that this return to the primitive emotions might be as restorative as a holiday in the Canadian woods. And it was precisely by the girl's candor, her directness, her lack of complications, that he was taken. The sense that she might say something rash at any moment was positively exhilarating: if she had thrown her arms about him at the station he would not have given a thought to his crumpled dignity. It surprised Thursdale to find what freshness of heart he brought to the adventure; and though his sense of irony prevented his ascribing his intactness to any conscious purpose, he could but rejoice in the fact that his sentimental economies had left him such a large surplus to draw upon.
Mrs. Vervain was at home -- as usual. When one visits the cemetery one expects to find the angel on the tombstone, and it struck Thursdale as another proof of his friend's good taste that she had been in no undue haste to change her habits. The whole house appeared to count on his coming; the footman took his hat and overcoat as naturally as though there had been no lapse in his visits; and the drawing-room at once enveloped him in that atmosphere of tacit intelligence which Mrs. Vervain imparted to her very furniture.
It was a surprise that, in this general harmony of circumstances, Mrs. Vervain should herself sound the first false note.
"You?" she exclaimed; and the book she held slipped from her hand.
It was crude, certainly; unless it were a touch of the finest art. The difficulty of classifying it disturbed Thursdale's balance.
"Why not?" he said, restoring the book. "Isn't it my hour?" And as she made no answer, he added gently, "Unless it's some one else's?"
She laid the book aside and sank back into her chair. "Mine, merely," she said.
"I hope that doesn't mean that you're unwilling to share it?"
"With you? By no means. You're welcome to my last crust."
He looked at her reproachfully. "Do you call this the last?"
She smiled as he dropped into the seat across the hearth. "It's a way of giving it more flavor!"
He returned the smile. "A visit to you doesn't need such condiments."
She took this with just the right measure of retrospective amusement.
"Ah, but I want to put into this one a very special taste," she confessed.
Her smile was so confident, so reassuring, that it lulled him into the imprudence of saying, "Why should you want it to be different from what was always so perfectly right?"
She hesitated. "Doesn't the fact that it's the last constitute a difference?"
"The last -- my last visit to you?"
"Oh, metaphorically, I mean -- there's a break in the continuity."
Decidedly, she was pressing too hard: unlearning his arts already!
"I don't recognize it," he said. "Unless you make me --" he added, with a note that slightly stirred her attitude of languid attention.
She turned to him with grave eyes. "You recognize no difference whatever?"
"None -- except an added link in the chain."
"An added link?"
"In having one more thing to like you for -- your letting Miss Gaynor see why I had already so many." He flattered himself that this turn had taken the least hint of fatuity from the phrase.
Mrs. Vervain sank into her former easy pose. "Was it that you came for?" she asked, almost gaily.
"If it is necessary to have a reason -- that was one."
"To talk to me about Miss Gaynor?"
"To tell you how she talks about you."
"That will be very interesting -- especially if you have seen her since her second visit to me."
"Her second visit?" Thursdale pushed his chair back with a start and moved to another. "She came to see you again?"
"This morning, yes -- by appointment."
He continued to look at her blankly. "You sent for her?"
"I didn't have to -- she wrote and asked me last night. But no doubt you have seen her since."
Thursdale sat silent. He was trying to separate his words from his thoughts, but they still clung together inextricably. "I saw her off just now at the station."
"And she didn't tell you that she had been here again?"
"There was hardly time, I suppose -- there were people about --" he floundered.
"Ah, she'll write, then."
He regained his composure. "Of course she'll write: very often, I hope. You know I'm absurdly in love," he cried audaciously.
She tilted her head back, looking up at him as he leaned against the chimney-piece. He had leaned there so often that the attitude touched a pulse which set up a throbbing in her throat. "Oh, my poor Thursdale!" she murmured.
"I suppose it's rather ridiculous," he owned; and as she remained silent, he added, with a sudden break --"Or have you another reason for pitying me?"
Her answer was another question. "Have you been back to your rooms since you left her?"
"Since I left her at the station? I came straight here."
"Ah, yes -- you could: there was no reason --" Her words passed into a silent musing.
Thursdale moved nervously nearer. "You said you had something to tell me?"
"Perhaps I had better let her do so. There may be a letter at your rooms."
"A letter? What do you mean? A letter from her? What has happened?"
His paleness shook her, and she raised a hand of reassurance. "Nothing has happened -- perhaps that is just the worst of it. You always hated, you know," she added incoherently, "to have things happen: you never would let them."
"And now -- ?"
"Well, that was what she came here for: I supposed you had guessed. To know if anything had happened."
"Had happened?" He gazed at her slowly. "Between you and me?" he said with a rush of light.
The words were so much cruder than any that had ever passed between them that the color rose to her face; but she held his startled gaze.
"You know girls are not quite as unsophisticated as they used to be. Are you surprised that such an idea should occur to her?"
His own color answered hers: it was the only reply that came to him.
Mrs. Vervain went on, smoothly: "I supposed it might have struck you that there were times when we presented that appearance."
He made an impatient gesture. "A man's past is his own!"
"Perhaps -- it certainly never belongs to the woman who has shared it. But one learns such truths only by experience; and Miss Gaynor is naturally inexperienced."
"Of course -- but -- supposing her act a natural one -- " he floundered lamentably among his innuendoes -- "I still don't see -- how there was anything --"
"Anything to take hold of? There wasn't --"
"Well, then -- ?" escaped him, in crude satisfaction; but as she did not complete the sentence he went on with a faltering laugh: "She can hardly object to the existence of a mere friendship between us!"
"But she does," said Mrs. Vervain.
Thursdale stood perplexed. He had seen, on the previous day, no trace of jealousy or resentment in his betrothed: he could still hear the candid ring of the girl's praise of Mrs. Vervain. If she were such an abyss of insincerity as to dissemble distrust under such frankness, she must at least be more subtle than to bring her doubts to her rival for solution. The situation seemed one through which one could no longer move in a penumbra, and he let in a burst of light with the direct query: "Won't you explain what you mean?"
Mrs. Vervain sat silent, not provokingly, as though to prolong his distress, but as if, in the attenuated phraseology he had taught her, it was difficult to find words robust enough to meet his challenge. It was the first time he had ever asked her to explain anything; and she had lived so long in dread of offering elucidations which were not wanted, that she seemed unable to produce one on the spot.
At last she said slowly: "She came to find out if you were really free."
Thursdale colored again. "Free?" he stammered, with a sense of physical disgust at contact with such crassness.
"Yes -- if I had quite done with you." She smiled in recovered security. "It seems she likes clear outlines; she has a passion for definitions."
"Yes -- well?" he said, wincing at the echo of his own subtlety.
"Well -- and when I told her that you had never belonged to me, she wanted me to define my status -- to know exactly where I had stood all along."
Thursdale sat gazing at her intently; his hand was not yet on the clue. "And even when you had told her that --"
"Even when I had told her that I had had no status -- that I had never stood anywhere, in any sense she meant," said Mrs. Vervain, slowly -- "even then she wasn't satisfied, it seems."
He uttered an uneasy exclamation. "She didn't believe you, you mean?"
"I mean that she did believe me: too thoroughly."
"Well, then -- in God's name, what did she want?"
"Something more -- those were the words she used."
"Something more? Between -- between you and me? Is it a conundrum?" He laughed awkwardly.
"Girls are not what they were in my day; they are no longer forbidden to contemplate the relation of the sexes."
"So it seems!" he commented. "But since, in this case, there wasn't any --" he broke off, catching the dawn of a revelation in her gaze.
"That's just it. The unpardonable offence has been -- in our not offending."
He flung himself down despairingly. "I give it up! -- What did you tell her?" he burst out with sudden crudeness.
"The exact truth. If I had only known," she broke off with a beseeching tenderness, "won't you believe that I would still have lied for you?"
"Lied for me? Why on earth should you have lied for either of us?"
"To save you -- to hide you from her to the last! As I've hidden you from myself all these years!" She stood up with a sudden tragic import in her movement. "You believe me capable of that, don't you? If I had only guessed -- but I have never known a girl like her; she had the truth out of me with a spring."
"The truth that you and I had never --"
"Had never -- never in all these years! Oh, she knew why -- she measured us both in a flash. She didn't suspect me of having haggled with you -- her words pelted me like hail. 'He just took what he wanted -- sifted and sorted you to suit his taste. Burnt out the gold and left a heap of cinders. And you let him -- you let yourself be cut in bits' -- she mixed her metaphors a little -- 'be cut in bits, and used or discarded, while all the while every drop of blood in you belonged to him! But he's Shylock -- and you have bled to death of the pound of flesh he has cut out of you.' But she despises me the most, you know -- far the most --" Mrs. Vervain ended.
The words fell strangely on the scented stillness of the room: they seemed out of harmony with its setting of afternoon intimacy, the kind of intimacy on which at any moment, a visitor might intrude without perceptibly lowering the atmosphere. It was as though a grand opera-singer had strained the acoustics of a private music-room.
Thursdale stood up, facing his hostess. Half the room was between them, but they seemed to stare close at each other now that the veils of reticence and ambiguity had fallen.
His first words were characteristic. "She does despise me, then?" he exclaimed.
"She thinks the pound of flesh you took was a little too near the heart."
He was excessively pale. "Please tell me exactly what she said of me."
"She did not speak much of you: she is proud. But I gather that while she understands love or indifference, her eyes have never been opened to the many intermediate shades of feeling. At any rate, she expressed an unwillingness to be taken with reservations -- she thinks you would have loved her better if you had loved some one else first. The point of view is original -- she insists on a man with a past!"
"Oh, a past -- if she's serious -- I could rake up a past!" he said with a laugh.
"So I suggested: but she has her eyes on his particular portion of it. She insists on making it a test case. She wanted to know what you had done to me; and before I could guess her drift I blundered into telling her."
Thursdale drew a difficult breath. "I never supposed -- your revenge is complete," he said slowly.
He heard a little gasp in her throat. "My revenge? When I sent for you to warn you -- to save you from being surprised as I was surprised?"
"You're very good -- but it's rather late to talk of saving me." He held out his hand in the mechanical gesture of leave-taking.
"How you must care! -- for I never saw you so dull," was her answer. "Don't you see that it's not too late for me to help you?" And as he continued to stare, she brought out sublimely: "Take the rest -- in imagination! Let it at least be of that much use to you. Tell her I lied to her -- she's too ready to believe it! And so, after all, in a sense, I sha'n't have been wasted."
His stare hung on her, widening to a kind of wonder. She gave the look back brightly, unblushingly, as though the expedient were too simple to need oblique approaches. It was extraordinary how a few words had swept them from an atmosphere of the most complex dissimulations to this contact of naked souls.
It was not in Thursdale to expand with the pressure of fate; but something in him cracked with it, and the rift let in new light. He went up to his friend and took her hand.
"You would do it -- you would do it!"
She looked at him, smiling, but her hand shook.
"Good-by," he said, kissing it.
"Good-by? You are going -- ?"
"To get my letter."
"Your letter? The letter won't matter, if you will only do what I ask."
He returned her gaze. "I might, I suppose, without being out of character. Only, don't you see that if your plan helped me it could only harm her?"
"To sacrifice you wouldn't make me different. I shall go on being what I have always been -- sifting and sorting, as she calls it. Do you want my punishment to fall on her?"
She looked at him long and deeply. "Ah, if I had to choose between you -- !"
"You would let her take her chance? But I can't, you see. I must take my punishment alone."
She drew her hand away, sighing. "Oh, there will be no punishment for either of you."
"For either of us? There will be the reading of her letter for me."
She shook her head with a slight laugh. "There will be no letter."
Thursdale faced about from the threshold with fresh life in his look. "No letter? You don't mean --"
"I mean that she's been with you since I saw her -- she's seen you and heard your voice. If there is a letter, she has recalled it -- from the first station, by telegraph."
He turned back to the door, forcing an answer to her smile. "But in the mean while I shall have read it," he said.
The door closed on him, and she hid her eyes from the dreadful emptiness of the room.
I had always thought Jack Gisburn rather a cheap genius -- though a good fellow enough -- so it was no great surprise to me to hear that, in the height of his glory, he had dropped his painting, married a rich widow, and established himself in a villa on the Riviera. (Though I rather thought it would have been Rome or Florence.)
"The height of his glory" -- that was what the women called it. I can hear Mrs. Gideon Thwing -- his last Chicago sitter -- deploring his unaccountable abdication. "Of course it's going to send the value of my picture 'way up; but I don't think of that, Mr. Rickham -- the loss to Arrt is all I think of." The word, on Mrs. Thwing's lips, multiplied its rs as though they were reflected in an endless vista of mirrors. And it was not only the Mrs. Thwings who mourned. Had not the exquisite Hermia Croft, at the last Grafton Gallery show, stopped me before Gisburn's "Moon-dancers" to say, with tears in her eyes: "We shall not look upon its like again"?
Well! -- even through the prism of Hermia's tears I felt able to face the fact with equanimity. Poor Jack Gisburn! The women had made him -- it was fitting that they should mourn him. Among his own sex fewer regrets were heard, and in his own trade hardly a murmur. Professional jealousy? Perhaps. If it were, the honour of the craft was vindicated by little Claude Nutley, who, in all good faith, brought out in the Burlington a very handsome "obituary" on Jack -- one of those showy articles stocked with random technicalities that I have heard (I won't say by whom) compared to Gisburn's painting. And so -- his resolve being apparently irrevocable -- the discussion gradually died out, and, as Mrs. Thwing had predicted, the price of "Gisburns" went up.
It was not till three years later that, in the course of a few weeks' idling on the Riviera, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why Gisburn had given up his painting. On reflection, it really was a tempting problem. To accuse his wife would have been too easy -- his fair sitters had been denied the solace of saying that Mrs. Gisburn had "dragged him down." For Mrs. Gisburn -- as such -- had not existed till nearly a year after Jack's resolve had been taken. It might be that he had married her -- since he liked his ease -- because he didn't want to go on painting; but it would have been hard to prove that he had given up his painting because he had married her.
Of course, if she had not dragged him down, she had equally, as Miss Croft contended, failed to "lift him up" -- she had not led him back to the easel. To put the brush into his hand again-what a vocation for a wife! But Mrs. Gisburn appeared to have disdained it -- and I felt it might be interesting to find out why.
The desultory life of the Riviera lends itself to such purely academic speculations; and having, on my way to Monte Carlo, caught a glimpse of Jack's balustraded terraces between the pines, I had myself borne thither the next day.
I found the couple at tea beneath their palm-trees; and Mrs. Gisburn's welcome was so genial that, in the ensuing weeks, I claimed it frequently. It was not that my hostess was "interesting": on that point I could have given Miss Croft the fullest reassurance. It was just because she was not interesting -- if I may be pardoned the bull -- that I found her so. For Jack, all his life, had been surrounded by interesting women: they had fostered his art, it had been reared in the hot-house of their adulation. And it was therefore instructive to note what effect the "deadening atmosphere of mediocrity" (I quote Miss Croft) was having on him.
I have mentioned that Mrs. Gisburn was rich; and it was immediately perceptible that her husband was extracting from this circumstance a delicate but substantial satisfaction. It is, as a rule, the people who scorn money who get most out of it; and Jack's elegant disdain of his wife's big balance enabled him, with an appearance of perfect good-breeding, to transmute it into objects of art and luxury. To the latter, I must add, he remained relatively indifferent; but he was buying Renaissance bronzes and eighteenth-century pictures with a discrimination that bespoke the amplest resources.
"Money's only excuse is to put beauty into circulation," was one of the axioms he laid down across the Sevres and silver of an exquisitely appointed luncheon-table, when, on a later day, I had again run over from Monte Carlo; and Mrs. Gisburn, beaming on him, added for my enlightenment: "Jack is so morbidly sensitive to every form of beauty."
Poor Jack! It had always been his fate to have women say such things of him: the fact should be set down in extenuation. What struck me now was that, for the first time, he resented the tone. I had seen him, so often, basking under similar tributes -- was it the conjugal note that robbed them of their savour? No -- for, oddly enough, it became apparent that he was fond of Mrs. Gisburn -- fond enough not to see her absurdity. It was his own absurdity he seemed to be wincing under -- his own attitude as an object for garlands and incense.
"My dear, since I've chucked painting people don't say that stuff about me -- they say it about Victor Grindle," was his only protest, as he rose from the table and strolled out onto the sunlit terrace.
I glanced after him, struck by his last word. Victor Grindle was, in fact, becoming the man of the moment -- as Jack himself, one might put it, had been the man of the hour. The younger artist was said to have formed himself at my friend's feet, and I wondered if a tinge of jealousy underlay the latter's mysterious abdication. But no -- for it was not till after that event that the rose Dubarry drawing-rooms had begun to display their "Grindles."
I turned to Mrs. Gisburn, who had lingered to give a lump of sugar to her spaniel in the dining-room.
"Why has he chucked painting?" I asked abruptly.
She raised her eyebrows with a hint of good-humoured surprise.
"Oh, he doesn't have to now, you know; and I want him to enjoy himself," she said quite simply.
I looked about the spacious white-panelled room, with its famille-verte vases repeating the tones of the pale damask curtains, and its eighteenth-century pastels in delicate faded frames.
"Has he chucked his pictures too? I haven't seen a single one in the house."
A slight shade of constraint crossed Mrs. Gisburn's open countenance. "It's his ridiculous modesty, you know. He says they're not fit to have about; he's sent them all away except one -- my portrait -- and that I have to keep upstairs."
His ridiculous modesty -- Jack's modesty about his pictures? My curiosity was growing like the bean-stalk. I said persuasively to my hostess: "I must really see your portrait, you know."
She glanced out almost timorously at the terrace where her husband, lounging in a hooded chair, had lit a cigar and drawn the Russian deerhound's head between his knees.
"Well, come while he's not looking," she said, with a laugh that tried to hide her nervousness; and I followed her between the marble Emperors of the hall, and up the wide stairs with terracotta nymphs poised among flowers at each landing.
In the dimmest corner of her boudoir, amid a profusion of delicate and distinguished objects, hung one of the familiar oval canvases, in the inevitable garlanded frame. The mere outline of the frame called up all Gisburn's past!
Mrs. Gisburn drew back the window-curtains, moved aside a jardiniere full of pink azaleas, pushed an arm-chair away, and said: "If you stand here you can just manage to see it. I had it over the mantel-piece, but he wouldn't let it stay."
Yes -- I could just manage to see it -- the first portrait of Jack's I had ever had to strain my eyes over! Usually they had the place of honour -- say the central panel in a pale yellow or rose Dubarry drawing-room, or a monumental easel placed so that it took the light through curtains of old Venetian point. The more modest place became the picture better; yet, as my eyes grew accustomed to the half-light, all the characteristic qualities came out -- all the hesitations disguised as audacities, the tricks of prestidigitation by which, with such consummate skill, he managed to divert attention from the real business of the picture to some pretty irrelevance of detail. Mrs. Gisburn, presenting a neutral surface to work on -- forming, as it were, so inevitably the background of her own picture -- had lent herself in an unusual degree to the display of this false virtuosity. The picture was one of Jack's "strongest," as his admirers would have put it -- it represented, on his part, a swelling of muscles, a congesting of veins, a balancing, straddling and straining, that reminded one of the circus-clown's ironic efforts to lift a feather. It met, in short, at every point the demand of lovely woman to be painted "strongly" because she was tired of being painted "sweetly" -- and yet not to lose an atom of the sweetness.
"It's the last he painted, you know," Mrs. Gisburn said with pardonable pride. "The last but one," she corrected herself-"but the other doesn't count, because he destroyed it."
"Destroyed it?" I was about to follow up this clue when I heard a footstep and saw Jack himself on the threshold.
As he stood there, his hands in the pockets of his velveteen coat, the thin brown waves of hair pushed back from his white forehead, his lean sunburnt cheeks furrowed by a smile that lifted the tips of a self-confident moustache, I felt to what a degree he had the same quality as his pictures -- the quality of looking cleverer than he was.
His wife glanced at him deprecatingly, but his eyes travelled past her to the portrait.
"Mr. Rickham wanted to see it," she began, as if excusing herself. He shrugged his shoulders, still smiling.
"Oh, Rickham found me out long ago," he said lightly; then, passing his arm through mine: "Come and see the rest of the house."
He showed it to me with a kind of naive suburban pride: the bath-rooms, the speaking-tubes, the dress-closets, the trouserpresses -- all the complex simplifications of the millionaire's domestic economy. And whenever my wonder paid the expected tribute he said, throwing out his chest a little: "Yes, I really don't see how people manage to live without that."
Well -- it was just the end one might have foreseen for him. Only he was, through it all and in spite of it all -- as he had been through, and in spite of, his pictures -- so handsome, so charming, so disarming, that one longed to cry out: "Be dissatisfied with your leisure!" as once one had longed to say: "Be dissatisfied with your work!"
But, with the cry on my lips, my diagnosis suffered an unexpected check.
"This is my own lair," he said, leading me into a dark plain room at the end of the florid vista. It was square and brown and leathery: no "effects"; no bric-a-brac, none of the air of posing for reproduction in a picture weekly -- above all, no least sign of ever having been used as a studio.
The fact brought home to me the absolute finality of Jack's break with his old life.
"Don't you ever dabble with paint any more?" I asked, still looking about for a trace of such activity.
"Never," he said briefly.
"Or water-colour -- or etching?"
His confident eyes grew dim, and his cheeks paled a little under their handsome sunburn.
"Never think of it, my dear fellow -- any more than if I'd never touched a brush."
And his tone told me in a flash that he never thought of anything else.
I moved away, instinctively embarrassed by my unexpected discovery; and as I turned, my eye fell on a small picture above the mantel-piece -- the only object breaking the plain oak panelling of the room.
"Oh, by Jove!" I said.
It was a sketch of a donkey -- an old tired donkey, standing in the rain under a wall.
"By Jove -- a Stroud!" I cried.
He was silent; but I felt him close behind me, breathing a little quickly.
"What a wonder! Made with a dozen lines -- but on everlasting foundations. You lucky chap, where did you get it?"
He answered slowly: "Mrs. Stroud gave it to me."
"Ah -- I didn't know you even knew the Strouds. He was such an inflexible hermit."
"I didn't -- till after. . . . She sent for me to paint him when he was dead."
"When he was dead? You?"
I must have let a little too much amazement escape through my surprise, for he answered with a deprecating laugh: "Yes -- she's an awful simpleton, you know, Mrs. Stroud. Her only idea was to have him done by a fashionable painter -- ah, poor Stroud! She thought it the surest way of proclaiming his greatness -- of forcing it on a purblind public. And at the moment I was the fashionable painter."
"Ah, poor Stroud -- as you say. Was that his history?"
"That was his history. She believed in him, gloried in him -- or thought she did. But she couldn't bear not to have all the drawing-rooms with her. She couldn't bear the fact that, on varnishing days, one could always get near enough to see his pictures. Poor woman! She's just a fragment groping for other fragments. Stroud is the only whole I ever knew."
"You ever knew? But you just said --"
Gisburn had a curious smile in his eyes.
"Oh, I knew him, and he knew me -- only it happened after he was dead."
I dropped my voice instinctively. "When she sent for you?"
"Yes -- quite insensible to the irony. She wanted him vindicated-and by me!"
He laughed again, and threw back his head to look up at the sketch of the donkey. "There were days when I couldn't look at that thing -- couldn't face it. But I forced myself to put it here; and now it's cured me -- cured me. That's the reason why I don't dabble any more, my dear Rickham; or rather Stroud himself is the reason."
For the first time my idle curiosity about my companion turned into a serious desire to understand him better.
"I wish you'd tell me how it happened," I said.
He stood looking up at the sketch, and twirling between his fingers a cigarette he had forgotten to light. Suddenly he turned toward me.
"I'd rather like to tell you -- because I've always suspected you of loathing my work."
I made a deprecating gesture, which he negatived with a goodhumoured shrug.
"Oh, I didn't care a straw when I believed in myself -- and now it's an added tie between us!"
He laughed slightly, without bitterness, and pushed one of the deep arm-chairs forward. "There: make yourself comfortable -- and here are the cigars you like."
He placed them at my elbow and continued to wander up and down the room, stopping now and then beneath the picture.
"How it happened? I can tell you in five minutes -- and it didn't take much longer to happen. . . . I can remember now how surprised and pleased I was when I got Mrs. Stroud's note. Of course, deep down, I had always felt there was no one like him-only I had gone with the stream, echoed the usual platitudes about him, till I half got to think he was a failure, one of the kind that are left behind. By Jove, and he was left behind-because he had come to stay! The rest of us had to let ourselves be swept along or go under, but he was high above the current -- on everlasting foundations, as you say.
"Well, I went off to the house in my most egregious mood -- rather moved, Lord forgive me, at the pathos of poor Stroud's career of failure being crowned by the glory of my painting him! Of course I meant to do the picture for nothing -- I told Mrs. Stroud so when she began to stammer something about her poverty. I remember getting off a prodigious phrase about the honour being mine -- oh, I was princely, my dear Rickham! I was posing to myself like one of my own sitters.
"Then I was taken up and left alone with him. I had sent all my traps in advance, and I had only to set up the easel and get to work. He had been dead only twenty-four hours, and he died suddenly, of heart disease, so that there had been no preliminary work of destruction -- his face was clear and untouched. I had met him once or twice, years before, and thought him insignificant and dingy. Now I saw that he was superb.
"I was glad at first, with a merely aesthetic satisfaction: glad to have my hand on such a 'subject.' Then his strange lifelikeness began to affect me queerly -- as I blocked the head in I felt as if he were watching me do it. The sensation was followed by the thought: if he were watching me, what would he say to my way of working? My strokes began to go a little wild -- I felt nervous and uncertain.
"Once, when I looked up, I seemed to see a smile behind his close grayish beard -- as if he had the secret, and were amusing himself by holding it back from me. That exasperated me still more. The secret? Why, I had a secret worth twenty of his! I dashed at the canvas furiously, and tried some of my bravura tricks. But they failed me, they crumbled. I saw that he wasn't watching the showy bits -- I couldn't distract his attention; he just kept his eyes on the hard passages between. Those were the ones I had always shirked, or covered up with some lying paint. And how he saw through my lies!
"I looked up again, and caught sight of that sketch of the donkey hanging on the wall near his bed. His wife told me afterward it was the last thing he had done -- just a note taken with a shaking hand, when he was down in Devonshire recovering from a previous heart attack. Just a note! But it tells his whole history. There are years of patient scornful persistence in every line. A man who had swum with the current could never have learned that mighty up-stream stroke. . . .
"I turned back to my work, and went on groping and muddling; then I looked at the donkey again. I saw that, when Stroud laid in the first stroke, he knew just what the end would be. He had possessed his subject, absorbed it, recreated it. When had I done that with any of my things? They hadn't been born of me -- I had just adopted them. . . .
"Hang it, Rickham, with that face watching me I couldn't do another stroke. The plain truth was, I didn't know where to put it -- I had never known. Only, with my sitters and my public, a showy splash of colour covered up the fact -- I just threw paint into their faces. . . . Well, paint was the one medium those dead eyes could see through -- see straight to the tottering foundations underneath. Don't you know how, in talking a foreign language, even fluently, one says half the time not what one wants to but what one can? Well -- that was the way I painted; and as he lay there and watched me, the thing they called my 'technique' collapsed like a house of cards. He didn't sneer, you understand, poor Stroud -- he just lay there quietly watching, and on his lips, through the gray beard, I seemed to hear the question: 'Are you sure you know where you're coming out?'
"If I could have painted that face, with that question on it, I should have done a great thing. The next greatest thing was to see that I couldn't -- and that grace was given me. But, oh, at that minute, Rickham, was there anything on earth I wouldn't have given to have Stroud alive before me, and to hear him say: 'It's not too late -- I'll show you how'?
"It was too late -- it would have been, even if he'd been alive. I packed up my traps, and went down and told Mrs. Stroud. Of course I didn't tell her that -- it would have been Greek to her. I simply said I couldn't paint him, that I was too moved. She rather liked the idea -- she's so romantic! It was that that made her give me the donkey. But she was terribly upset at not getting the portrait -- she did so want him 'done' by some one showy! At first I was afraid she wouldn't let me off -- and at my wits' end I suggested Grindle. Yes, it was I who started Grindle: I told Mrs. Stroud he was the 'coming' man, and she told somebody else, and so it got to be true. . . . And he painted Stroud without wincing; and she hung the picture among her husband's things. . . ."
He flung himself down in the arm-chair near mine, laid back his head, and clasping his arms beneath it, looked up at the picture above the chimney-piece.
"I like to fancy that Stroud himself would have given it to me, if he'd been able to say what he thought that day."
And, in answer to a question I put half-mechanically --"Begin again?" he flashed out. "When the one thing that brings me anywhere near him is that I knew enough to leave off?"
He stood up and laid his hand on my shoulder with a laugh. "Only the irony of it is that I am still painting -- since Grindle's doing it for me! The Strouds stand alone, and happen once -- but there's no exterminating our kind of art."
THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD HAND
"Above all," the letter ended, "don't leave Siena without seeing Doctor Lombard's Leonardo. Lombard is a queer old Englishman, a mystic or a madman (if the two are not synonymous), and a devout student of the Italian Renaissance. He has lived for years in Italy, exploring its remotest corners, and has lately picked up an undoubted Leonardo, which came to light in a farmhouse near Bergamo. It is believed to be one of the missing pictures mentioned by Vasari, and is at any rate, according to the most competent authorities, a genuine and almost untouched example of the best period.
"Lombard is a queer stick, and jealous of showing his treasures; but we struck up a friendship when I was working on the Sodomas in Siena three years ago, and if you will give him the enclosed line you may get a peep at the Leonardo. Probably not more than a peep, though, for I hear he refuses to have it reproduced. I want badly to use it in my monograph on the Windsor drawings, so please see what you can do for me, and if you can't persuade him to let you take a photograph or make a sketch, at least jot down a detailed description of the picture and get from him all the facts you can. I hear that the French and Italian governments have offered him a large advance on his purchase, but that he refuses to sell at any price, though he certainly can't afford such luxuries; in fact, I don't see where he got enough money to buy the picture. He lives in the Via Papa Giulio."
Wyant sat at the table d'hote of his hotel, re-reading his friend's letter over a late luncheon. He had been five days in Siena without having found time to call on Doctor Lombard; not from any indifference to the opportunity presented, but because it was his first visit to the strange red city and he was still under the spell of its more conspicuous wonders -- the brick palaces flinging out their wrought-iron torch-holders with a gesture of arrogant suzerainty; the great council-chamber emblazoned with civic allegories; the pageant of Pope Julius on the Library walls; the Sodomas smiling balefully through the dusk of mouldering chapels -- and it was only when his first hunger was appeased that he remembered that one course in the banquet was still untasted.
He put the letter in his pocket and turned to leave the room, with a nod to its only other occupant, an olive-skinned young man with lustrous eyes and a low collar, who sat on the other side of the table, perusing the Fanfulla di Domenica. This gentleman, his daily vis-a-vis, returned the nod with a Latin eloquence of gesture, and Wyant passed on to the ante-chamber, where he paused to light a cigarette. He was just restoring the case to his pocket when he heard a hurried step behind him, and the lustrouseyed young man advanced through the glass doors of the diningroom.
"Pardon me, sir," he said in measured English, and with an intonation of exquisite politeness; "you have let this letter fall."
Wyant, recognizing his friend's note of introduction to Doctor Lombard, took it with a word of thanks, and was about to turn away when he perceived that the eyes of his fellow diner remained fixed on him with a gaze of melancholy interrogation.
"Again pardon me," the young man at length ventured, "but are you by chance the friend of the illustrious Doctor Lombard?"
"No," returned Wyant, with the instinctive Anglo-Saxon distrust of foreign advances. Then, fearing to appear rude, he said with a guarded politeness: "Perhaps, by the way, you can tell me the number of his house. I see it is not given here."
The young man brightened perceptibly. "The number of the house is thirteen; but any one can indicate it to you -- it is well known in Siena. It is called," he continued after a moment, "the House of the Dead Hand."
Wyant stared. "What a queer name!" he said.
"The name comes from an antique hand of marble which for many hundred years has been above the door."
Wyant was turning away with a gesture of thanks, when the other added: "If you would have the kindness to ring twice."
"To ring twice?"
"At the doctor's." The young man smiled. "It is the custom."
It was a dazzling March afternoon, with a shower of sun from the mid-blue, and a marshalling of slaty clouds behind the umbercolored hills. For nearly an hour Wyant loitered on the Lizza, watching the shadows race across the naked landscape and the thunder blacken in the west; then he decided to set out for the House of the Dead Hand. The map in his guidebook showed him that the Via Papa Giulio was one of the streets which radiate from the Piazza, and thither he bent his course, pausing at every other step to fill his eye with some fresh image of weather-beaten beauty. The clouds had rolled upward, obscuring the sunshine and hanging like a funereal baldachin above the projecting cornices of Doctor Lombard's street, and Wyant walked for some distance in the shade of the beetling palace fronts before his eye fell on a doorway surmounted by a sallow marble hand. He stood for a moment staring up at the strange emblem. The hand was a woman's -- a dead drooping hand, which hung there convulsed and helpless, as though it had been thrust forth in denunciation of some evil mystery within the house, and had sunk struggling into death.
A girl who was drawing water from the well in the court said that the English doctor lived on the first floor, and Wyant, passing through a glazed door, mounted the damp degrees of a vaulted stairway with a plaster AEsculapius mouldering in a niche on the landing. Facing the AEsculapius was another door, and as Wyant put his hand on the bell-rope he remembered his unknown friend's injunction, and rang twice.
His ring was answered by a peasant woman with a low forehead and small close-set eyes, who, after a prolonged scrutiny of himself, his card, and his letter of introduction, left him standing in a high, cold ante-chamber floored with brick. He heard her wooden pattens click down an interminable corridor, and after some delay she returned and told him to follow her.
They passed through a long saloon, bare as the ante-chamber, but loftily vaulted, and frescoed with a seventeenth-century Triumph of Scipio or Alexander -- martial figures following Wyant with the filmed melancholy gaze of shades in limbo. At the end of this apartment he was admitted to a smaller room, with the same atmosphere of mortal cold, but showing more obvious signs of occupancy. The walls were covered with tapestry which had faded to the gray-brown tints of decaying vegetation, so that the young man felt as though he were entering a sunless autumn wood. Against these hangings stood a few tall cabinets on heavy gilt feet, and at a table in the window three persons were seated: an elderly lady who was warming her hands over a brazier, a girl bent above a strip of needle-work, and an old man.
As the latter advanced toward Wyant, the young man was conscious of staring with unseemly intentness at his small round-backed figure, dressed with shabby disorder and surmounted by a wonderful head, lean, vulpine, eagle-beaked as that of some artloving despot of the Renaissance: a head combining the venerable hair and large prominent eyes of the humanist with the greedy profile of the adventurer. Wyant, in musing on the Italian portrait-medals of the fifteenth century, had often fancied that only in that period of fierce individualism could types so paradoxical have been produced; yet the subtle craftsmen who committed them to the bronze had never drawn a face more strangely stamped with contradictory passions than that of Doctor Lombard.
"I am glad to see you," he said to Wyant, extending a hand which seemed a mere framework held together by knotted veins. "We lead a quiet life here and receive few visitors, but any friend of Professor Clyde's is welcome." Then, with a gesture which included the two women, he added dryly: "My wife and daughter often talk of Professor Clyde."
"Oh yes -- he used to make me such nice toast; they don't understand toast in Italy," said Mrs. Lombard in a high plaintive voice.
It would have been difficult, from Doctor Lombard's manner and appearance to guess his nationality; but his wife was so inconsciently and ineradicably English that even the silhouette of her cap seemed a protest against Continental laxities. She was a stout fair woman, with pale cheeks netted with red lines. A brooch with a miniature portrait sustained a bogwood watchchain upon her bosom, and at her elbow lay a heap of knitting and an old copy of The Queen.
The young girl, who had remained standing, was a slim replica of her mother, with an apple-cheeked face and opaque blue eyes. Her small head was prodigally laden with braids of dull fair hair, and she might have had a kind of transient prettiness but for the sullen droop of her round mouth. It was hard to say whether her expression implied ill-temper or apathy; but Wyant was struck by the contrast between the fierce vitality of the doctor's age and the inanimateness of his daughter's youth.
Seating himself in the chair which his host advanced, the young man tried to open the conversation by addressing to Mrs. Lombard some random remark on the beauties of Siena. The lady murmured a resigned assent, and Doctor Lombard interposed with a smile: "My dear sir, my wife considers Siena a most salubrious spot, and is favorably impressed by the cheapness of the marketing; but she deplores the total absence of muffins and cannel coal, and cannot resign herself to the Italian method of dusting furniture."
"But they don't, you know -- they don't dust it!" Mrs. Lombard protested, without showing any resentment of her husband's manner.
"Precisely -- they don't dust it. Since we have lived in Siena we have not once seen the cobwebs removed from the battlements of the Mangia. Can you conceive of such housekeeping? My wife has never yet dared to write it home to her aunts at Bonchurch."
Mrs. Lombard accepted in silence this remarkable statement of her views, and her husband, with a malicious smile at Wyant's embarrassment, planted himself suddenly before the young man.
"And now," said he, "do you want to see my Leonardo?"
"Do I?" cried Wyant, on his feet in a flash.
The doctor chuckled. "Ah," he said, with a kind of crooning deliberation, "that's the way they all behave -- that's what they all come for." He turned to his daughter with another variation of mockery in his smile. "Don't fancy it's for your beaux yeux, my dear; or for the mature charms of Mrs. Lombard," he added, glaring suddenly at his wife, who had taken up her knitting and was softly murmuring over the number of her stitches.
Neither lady appeared to notice his pleasantries, and he continued, addressing himself to Wyant: "They all come -- they all come; but many are called and few are chosen." His voice sank to solemnity. "While I live," he said, "no unworthy eye shall desecrate that picture. But I will not do my friend Clyde the injustice to suppose that he would send an unworthy representative. He tells me he wishes a description of the picture for his book; and you shall describe it to him -- if you can."
Wyant hesitated, not knowing whether it was a propitious moment to put in his appeal for a photograph.
"Well, sir," he said, "you know Clyde wants me to take away all I can of it."
Doctor Lombard eyed him sardonically. "You're welcome to take away all you can carry," he replied; adding, as he turned to his daughter: "That is, if he has your permission, Sybilla."
The girl rose without a word, and laying aside her work, took a key from a secret drawer in one of the cabinets, while the doctor continued in the same note of grim jocularity: "For you must know that the picture is not mine -- it is my daughter's."
He followed with evident amusement the surprised glance which Wyant turned on the young girl's impassive figure.
"Sybilla," he pursued, "is a votary of the arts; she has inherited her fond father's passion for the unattainable. Luckily, however, she also recently inherited a tidy legacy from her grandmother; and having seen the Leonardo, on which its discoverer had placed a price far beyond my reach, she took a step which deserves to go down to history: she invested her whole inheritance in the purchase of the picture, thus enabling me to spend my closing years in communion with one of the world's masterpieces. My dear sir, could Antigone do more?"
The object of this strange eulogy had meanwhile drawn aside one of the tapestry hangings, and fitted her key into a concealed door.
"Come," said Doctor Lombard, "let us go before the light fails us."
Wyant glanced at Mrs. Lombard, who continued to knit impassively.
"No, no," said his host, "my wife will not come with us. You might not suspect it from her conversation, but my wife has no feeling for art -- Italian art, that is; for no one is fonder of our early Victorian school."
"Frith's Railway Station, you know," said Mrs. Lombard, smiling. "I like an animated picture."
Miss Lombard, who had unlocked the door, held back the tapestry to let her father and Wyant pass out; then she followed them down a narrow stone passage with another door at its end. This door was iron-barred, and Wyant noticed that it had a complicated patent lock. The girl fitted another key into the lock, and Doctor Lombard led the way into a small room. The dark panelling of this apartment was irradiated by streams of yellow light slanting through the disbanded thunder clouds, and in the central brightness hung a picture concealed by a curtain of faded velvet.
"A little too bright, Sybilla," said Doctor Lombard. His face had grown solemn, and his mouth twitched nervously as his daughter drew a linen drapery across the upper part of the window.
"That will do -- that will do." He turned impressively to Wyant. "Do you see the pomegranate bud in this rug? Place yourself there -- keep your left foot on it, please. And now, Sybilla, draw the cord."
Miss Lombard advanced and placed her hand on a cord hidden behind the velvet curtain.
"Ah," said the doctor, "one moment: I should like you, while looking at the picture, to have in mind a few lines of verse. Sybilla --"
Without the slightest change of countenance, and with a promptness which proved her to be prepared for the request, Miss Lombard began to recite, in a full round voice like her mother's, St. Bernard's invocation to the Virgin, in the thirty-third canto of the Paradise.
"Thank you, my dear," said her father, drawing a deep breath as she ended. "That unapproachable combination of vowel sounds prepares one better than anything I know for the contemplation of the picture."
As he spoke the folds of velvet slowly parted, and the Leonardo appeared in its frame of tarnished gold:
From the nature of Miss Lombard's recitation Wyant had expected a sacred subject, and his surprise was therefore great as the composition was gradually revealed by the widening division of the curtain.
In the background a steel-colored river wound through a pale calcareous landscape; while to the left, on a lonely peak, a crucified Christ hung livid against indigo clouds. The central figure of the foreground, however, was that of a woman seated in an antique chair of marble with bas-reliefs of dancing maenads. Her feet rested on a meadow sprinkled with minute wild-flowers, and her attitude of smiling majesty recalled that of Dosso Dossi's Circe. She wore a red robe, flowing in closely fluted lines from under a fancifully embroidered cloak. Above her high forehead the crinkled golden hair flowed sideways beneath a veil; one hand drooped on the arm of her chair; the other held up an inverted human skull, into which a young Dionysus, smooth, brown and sidelong as the St. John of the Louvre, poured a stream of wine from a high-poised flagon. At the lady's feet lay the symbols of art and luxury: a flute and a roll of music, a platter heaped with grapes and roses, the torso of a Greek statuette, and a bowl overflowing with coins and jewels; behind her, on the chalky hilltop, hung the crucified Christ. A scroll in a corner of the foreground bore the legend: Lux Mundi.
Wyant, emerging from the first plunge of wonder, turned inquiringly toward his companions. Neither had moved. Miss Lombard stood with her hand on the cord, her lids lowered, her mouth drooping; the doctor, his strange Thoth-like profile turned toward his guest, was still lost in rapt contemplation of his treasure.
Wyant addressed the young girl.
"You are fortunate," he said, "to be the possessor of anything so perfect."
"It is considered very beautiful," she said coldly.
"Beautiful -- beautiful!" the doctor burst out. "Ah, the poor, worn out, over-worked word! There are no adjectives in the language fresh enough to describe such pristine brilliancy; all their brightness has been worn off by misuse. Think of the things that have been called beautiful, and then look at that!"
"It is worthy of a new vocabulary," Wyant agreed.
"Yes," Doctor Lombard continued, "my daughter is indeed fortunate. She has chosen what Catholics call the higher life -- the counsel of perfection. What other private person enjoys the same opportunity of understanding the master? Who else lives under the same roof with an untouched masterpiece of Leonardo's? Think of the happiness of being always under the influence of such a creation; of living into it; of partaking of it in daily and hourly communion! This room is a chapel; the sight of that picture is a sacrament. What an atmosphere for a young life to unfold itself in! My daughter is singularly blessed. Sybilla, point out some of the details to Mr. Wyant; I see that he will appreciate them."
The girl turned her dense blue eyes toward Wyant; then, glancing away from him, she pointed to the canvas.
"Notice the modeling of the left hand," she began in a monotonous voice; "it recalls the hand of the Mona Lisa. The head of the naked genius will remind you of that of the St. John of the Louvre, but it is more purely pagan and is turned a little less to the right. The embroidery on the cloak is symbolic: you will see that the roots of this plant have burst through the vase. This recalls the famous definition of Hamlet's character in Wilhelm Meister. Here are the mystic rose, the flame, and the serpent, emblem of eternity. Some of the other symbols we have not yet been able to decipher."
Wyant watched her curiously; she seemed to be reciting a lesson.
"And the picture itself?" he said. "How do you explain that? Lux Mundi -- what a curious device to connect with such a subject! What can it mean?"
Miss Lombard dropped her eyes: the answer was evidently not included in her lesson.
"What, indeed?" the doctor interposed. "What does life mean? As one may define it in a hundred different ways, so one may find a hundred different meanings in this picture. Its symbolism is as many-faceted as a well-cut diamond. Who, for instance, is that divine lady? Is it she who is the true Lux Mundi -- the light reflected from jewels and young eyes, from polished marble and clear waters and statues of bronze? Or is that the Light of the World, extinguished on yonder stormy hill, and is this lady the Pride of Life, feasting blindly on the wine of iniquity, with her back turned to the light which has shone for her in vain? Something of both these meanings may be traced in the picture; but to me it symbolizes rather the central truth of existence: that all that is raised in incorruption is sown in corruption; art, beauty, love, religion; that all our wine is drunk out of skulls, and poured for us by the mysterious genius of a remote and cruel past."
The doctor's face blazed: his bent figure seemed to straighten itself and become taller.
"Ah," he cried, growing more dithyrambic, "how lightly you ask what it means! How confidently you expect an answer! Yet here am I who have given my life to the study of the Renaissance; who have violated its tomb, laid open its dead body, and traced the course of every muscle, bone, and artery; who have sucked its very soul from the pages of poets and humanists; who have wept and believed with Joachim of Flora, smiled and doubted with AEneas Sylvius Piccolomini; who have patiently followed to its source the least inspiration of the masters, and groped in neolithic caverns and Babylonian ruins for the first unfolding tendrils of the arabesques of Mantegna and Crivelli; and I tell you that I stand abashed and ignorant before the mystery of this picture. It means nothing -- it means all things. It may represent the period which saw its creation; it may represent all ages past and to come. There are volumes of meaning in the tiniest emblem on the lady's cloak; the blossoms of its border are rooted in the deepest soil of myth and tradition. Don't ask what it means, young man, but bow your head in thankfulness for having seen it!"
Miss Lombard laid her hand on his arm.
"Don't excite yourself, father," she said in the detached tone of a professional nurse.
He answered with a despairing gesture. "Ah, it's easy for you to talk. You have years and years to spend with it; I am an old man, and every moment counts!"
"It's bad for you," she repeated with gentle obstinacy.
The doctor's sacred fury had in fact burnt itself out. He dropped into a seat with dull eyes and slackening lips, and his daughter drew the curtain across the picture.
Wyant turned away reluctantly. He felt that his opportunity was slipping from him, yet he dared not refer to Clyde's wish for a photograph. He now understood the meaning of the laugh with which Doctor Lombard had given him leave to carry away all the details he could remember. The picture was so dazzling, so unexpected, so crossed with elusive and contradictory suggestions, that the most alert observer, when placed suddenly before it, must lose his coordinating faculty in a sense of confused wonder. Yet how valuable to Clyde the record of such a work would be! In some ways it seemed to be the summing up of the master's thought, the key to his enigmatic philosophy.
The doctor had risen and was walking slowly toward the door. His daughter unlocked it, and Wyant followed them back in silence to the room in which they had left Mrs. Lombard. That lady was no longer there, and he could think of no excuse for lingering.
He thanked the doctor, and turned to Miss Lombard, who stood in the middle of the room as though awaiting farther orders.
"It is very good of you," he said, "to allow one even a glimpse of such a treasure."
She looked at him with her odd directness. "You will come again?" she said quickly; and turning to her father she added: "You know what Professor Clyde asked. This gentleman cannot give him any account of the picture without seeing it again."
Doctor Lombard glanced at her vaguely; he was still like a person in a trance.
"Eh?" he said, rousing himself with an effort.
"I said, father, that Mr. Wyant must see the picture again if he is to tell Professor Clyde about it," Miss Lombard repeated with extraordinary precision of tone.
Wyant was silent. He had the puzzled sense that his wishes were being divined and gratified for reasons with which he was in no way connected.
"Well, well," the doctor muttered, "I don't say no, I don't say no. I know what Clyde wants I don't refuse to help him." He turned to Wyant. "You may come again you may make notes," he added with a sudden effort. "Jot down what occurs to you. I'm willing to concede that."
Wyant again caught the girl's eye, but its emphatic message perplexed him.
"You're very good," he said tentatively, "but the fact is the picture is so mysterious, so full of complicated detail that I'm afraid no notes I could make would serve Clyde's purpose as well as a photograph, say. If you would allow me "
Miss Lombard's brow darkened, and her father raised his head furiously.
"A photograph? A photograph, did you say? Good God, man, not ten people have been allowed to set foot in that room! A photograph ?"
Wyant saw his mistake, but saw also that he had gone too far to retreat.
"I know, sir, from what Clyde has told me, that you object to having any reproduction of the picture published; but he hoped you might let me take a photograph for his personal use not to be reproduced in his book, but simply to give him something to work by. I should take the photograph myself, and the negative would of course be yours. If you wished it, only one impression would be struck off, and that one Clyde could return to you when he had done with it."
Doctor Lombard interrupted him with a snarl. "When he had done with it ? Just so: I thank thee for that word! When it had been re-photographed, drawn, traced, autotyped, passed about from hand to hand, defiled by every ignorant eye in England, vulgarized by the blundering praise of every art-scribbler in Europe! Bah! I'd as soon give you the picture itself: why don't you ask for that?"
"Well, sir," said Wyant calmly, "if you will trust me with it, I'll engage to take it safely to England and back, and to let no eye but Clyde's see it while it is out of your keeping."
The doctor received this remarkable proposal in silence; then he burst into a laugh.
"Upon my soul !" he said with sardonic good humor.
It was Miss Lombard's turn to look perplexedly at Wyant. His last words and her father's unexpected reply had evidently carried her beyond her depth.
"Well, sir, am I to take the picture ?" Wyant smilingly pursued.
"No, young man; nor a photograph of it. Nor a sketch, either; mind that, -- nothing that can be reproduced. Sybilla," he cried with sudden passion, "swear to me that the picture shall never be reproduced ! No photograph, no sketch now or afterward. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, father," said the girl quietly.
"The vandals," he muttered, "the desecrators of beauty; if I thought it would ever get into their hands I'd burn it first, by God!" He turned to Wyant, speaking more quietly. "I said you might come back I never retract what I say. But you must give me your word that no one but Clyde shall see the notes you make."
Wyant was growing warm.
"If you won't trust me with a photograph I wonder you trust me not to show my notes!" he exclaimed.
The doctor looked at him with a malicious smile.
"Humph!" he said; "would they be of much use to anybody ?"
Wyant saw that he was losing ground and controlled his impatience.
"To Clyde, I hope, at any rate," he answered, holding out his hand. The doctor shook it without a trace of resentment, and Wyant added: "When shall I come, sir? "
"To-morrow to-morrow morning," cried Miss Lombard, speaking suddenly.
She looked fixedly at her father, and he shrugged his shoulders.
"The picture is hers," he said to Wyant.
In the ante-chamber the young man was met by the woman who had admitted him. She handed him his hat and stick, and turned to unbar the door. As the bolt slipped back he felt a touch on his arm.
"You have a letter?" she said in a low tone.
"A letter?" He stared. "What letter?"
She shrugged her shoulders, and drew back to let him pass.
As Wyant emerged from the house he paused once more to glance up at its scarred brick facade. The marble hand drooped tragically above the entrance: in the waning light it seemed to have relaxed into the passiveness of despair, and Wyant stood musing on its hidden meaning. But the Dead Hand was not the only mysterious thing about Doctor Lombard's house. What were the relations between Miss Lombard and her father? Above all, between Miss Lombard and her picture? She did not look like a person capable of a disinterested passion for the arts; and there had been moments when it struck Wyant that she hated the picture.
The sky at the end of the street was flooded with turbulent yellow light, and the young man turned his steps toward the church of San Domenico, in the hope of catching the lingering brightness on Sodoma's St. Catherine.
The great bare aisles were almost dark when he entered, and he had to grope his way to the chapel steps. Under the momentary evocation of the sunset, the saint's figure emerged pale and swooning from the dusk, and the warm light gave a sensual tinge to her ecstasy. The flesh seemed to glow and heave, the eyelids to tremble; Wyant stood fascinated by the accidental collaboration of light and color.
Suddenly he noticed that something white had fluttered to the ground at his feet. He stooped and picked up a small thin sheet of note-paper, folded and sealed like an old-fashioned letter, and bearing the superscription:
To the Count Ottaviano Celsi.
Wyant stared at this mysterious document. Where had it come from ? He was distinctly conscious of having seen it fall through the air, close to his feet. He glanced up at the dark ceiling of the chapel; then he turned and looked about the church. There was only one figure in it, that of a man who knelt near the high altar.
Suddenly Wyant recalled the question of Doctor Lombard's maidservant. Was this the letter she had asked for ? Had he been unconsciously carrying it about with him all the afternoon ? Who was Count Ottaviano Celsi, and how came Wyant to have been chosen to act as that nobleman's ambulant letter-box ?
Wyant laid his hat and stick on the chapel steps and began to explore his pockets, in the irrational hope of finding there some clue to the mystery; but they held nothing which he had not himself put there, and he was reduced to wondering how the letter, supposing some unknown hand to have bestowed it on him, had happened to fall out while he stood motionless before the picture.
At this point he was disturbed by a step on the floor of the aisle, and turning, he saw his lustrous-eyed neighbor of the table d'hote.
The young man bowed and waved an apologetic hand.
"I do not intrude ?" he inquired suavely.
Without waiting for a reply, he mounted the steps of the chapel, glancing about him with the affable air of an afternoon caller.
"I see," he remarked with a smile, "that you know the hour at which our saint should be visited."
Wyant agreed that the hour was indeed felicitous.
The stranger stood beamingly before the picture.
"What grace ! What poetry !" he murmured, apostrophizing the St. Catherine, but letting his glance slip rapidly about the chapel as he spoke.
Wyant, detecting the manoeuvre, murmured a brief assent.
"But it is cold here mortally cold; you do not find it so?" The intruder put on his hat. "It is permitted at this hour -- when the church is empty. And you, my dear sir, do you not feel the dampness ? You are an artist, are you not ? And to artists it is permitted to cover the head when they are engaged in the study of the paintings."
He darted suddenly toward the steps and bent over Wyant's hat.
"Permit me cover yourself !" he said a moment later, holding out the hat with an ingratiating gesture.
A light flashed on Wyant.
"Perhaps," he said, looking straight at the young man, "you will tell me your name. My own is Wyant."
The stranger, surprised, but not disconcerted, drew forth a coroneted card, which he offered with a low bow. On the card was engraved: --
Il Conte Ottaviano Celsi.
"I am much obliged to you," said Wyant; "and I may as well tell you that the letter which you apparently expected to find in the lining of my hat is not there, but in my pocket."
He drew it out and handed it to its owner, who had grown very pale.
"And now," Wyant continued, "you will perhaps be good enough to tell me what all this means."
There was no mistaking the effect produced on Count Ottaviano by this request. His lips moved, but he achieved only an ineffectual smile.
"I suppose you know," Wyant went on, his anger rising at the sight of the other's discomfiture, "that you have taken an unwarrantable liberty. I don't yet understand what part I have been made to play, but it's evident that you have made use of me to serve some purpose of your own, and I propose to know the reason why."
Count Ottaviano advanced with an imploring gesture.
"Sir," he pleaded, "you permit me to speak ?"
"I expect you to," cried Wyant. "But not here," he added, hearing the clank of the verger's keys. "It is growing dark, and we shall be turned out in a few minutes."
He walked across the church, and Count Ottaviano followed him out into the deserted square.
"Now," said Wyant, pausing on the steps.
The Count, who had regained some measure of self-possession, began to speak in a high key, with an accompaniment of conciliatory gesture.
"My dear sir,my dear Mr. Wyant , you find me in an abominable position -- that, as a man of honor, I immediately confess. I have taken advantage of you -- yes! I have counted on your amiability, your chivalry too far, perhaps ? I confess it! But what could I do? It was to oblige a lady" - he laid a hand on his heart "a lady whom I would die to serve!" He went on with increasing volubility, his deliberate English swept away by a torrent of Italian, through which Wyant, with some difficulty, struggled to a comprehension of the case.
Count Ottaviano, according to his own statement, had come to Siena some months previously, on business connected with his mother's property; the paternal estate being near Orvieto, of which ancient city his father was syndic. Soon after his arrival in Siena the young Count had met the incomparable daughter of Doctor Lombard, and falling deeply in love with her, had prevailed on his parents to ask her hand in marriage. Doctor Lombard had not opposed his suit, but when the question of settlements arose it became known that Miss Lombard, who was possessed of a small property in her own right, had a short time before invested the whole amount in the purchase of the Bergamo Leonardo. Thereupon Count Ottaviano's parents had politely suggested that she should sell the picture and thus recover her independence; and this proposal being met by a curt refusal from Doctor Lombard, they had withdrawn their consent to their son's marriage. The young lady's attitude had hitherto been one of passive submission; she was horribly afraid of her father, and would never venture openly to oppose him; but she had made known to Ottaviano her intention of not giving him up, of waiting patiently till events should take a more favorable turn. She seemed hardly aware, the Count said with a sigh, that the means of escape lay in her own hands; that she was of age, and had a right to sell the picture, and to marry without asking her father's consent. Meanwhile her suitor spared no pains to keep himself before her, to remind her that he, too, was waiting and would never give her up.
Doctor Lombard, who suspected the young man of trying to persuade Sybilla to sell the picture, had forbidden the lovers to meet or to correspond; they were thus driven to clandestine communication, and had several times, the Count ingenuously avowed, made use of the doctor's visitors as a means of exchanging letters.
"And you told the visitors to ring twice ?" Wyant interposed.
The young man extended his hands in a deprecating gesture. Could Mr. Wyant blame him? He was young, he was ardent, he was enamored! The young lady had done him the supreme honor of avowing her attachment, of pledging her unalterable fidelity; should he suffer his devotion to be outdone? But his purpose in writing to her, he admitted, was not merely to reiterate his fidelity; he was trying by every means in his power to induce her to sell the picture. He had organized a plan of action; every detail was complete; if she would but have the courage to carry out his instructions he would answer for the result. His idea was that she should secretly retire to a convent of which his aunt was the Mother Superior, and from that stronghold should transact the sale of the Leonardo. He had a purchaser ready, who was willing to pay a large sum; a sum, Count Ottaviano whispered, considerably in excess of the young lady's original inheritance; once the picture sold, it could, if necessary, be removed by force from Doctor Lombard's house, and his daughter, being safely in the convent, would be spared the painful scenes incidental to the removal. Finally, if Doctor Lombard were vindictive enough to refuse his consent to her marriage, she had only to make a sommation respectueuse, and at the end of the prescribed delay no power on earth could prevent her becoming the wife of Count Ottaviano.
Wyant's anger had fallen at the recital of this simple romance. It was absurd to be angry with a young man who confided his secrets to the first stranger he met in the streets, and placed his hand on his heart whenever he mentioned the name of his betrothed. The easiest way out of the business was to take it as a joke. Wyant had played the wall to this new Pyramus and Thisbe, and was philosophic enough to laugh at the part he had unwittingly performed.
He held out his hand with a smile to Count Ottaviano.
"I won't deprive you any longer," he said, "of the pleasure of reading your letter."
"Oh, sir, a thousand thanks ! And when you return to the casa Lombard, you will take a message from me the letter she expected this afternoon?"
"The letter she expected ?" Wyant paused. "No, thank you. I thought you understood that where I come from we don't do that kind of thing knowingly."
"But, sir, to serve a young lady !"
"I'm sorry for the young lady, if what you tell me is true" the Count's expressive hands resented the doubt "but remember that if I am under obligations to any one in this matter, it is to her father, who has admitted me to his house and has allowed me to see his picture."
"His picture ? Hers !"
"Well, the house is his, at all events."
"Unhappily, since to her it is a dungeon!"
"Why doesn't she leave it, then ?" exclaimed Wyant impatiently.
The Count clasped his hands. "Ah, how you say that -- with what force, with what virility! If you would but say it to her in that tone you, her countryman! She has no one to advise her; the mother is an idiot; the father is terrible; she is in his power; it is my belief that he would kill her if she resisted him. Mr. Wyant, I tremble for her life while she remains in that house!"
"Oh, come," said Wyant lightly, "they seem to understand each other well enough. But in any case, you must see that I can't interfere at least you would if you were an Englishman," he added with an escape of contempt.
Wyant's affiliations in Siena being restricted to an acquaintance with his land-lady, he was forced to apply to her for the verification of Count Ottaviano's story.
The young nobleman had, it appeared, given a perfectly correct account of his situation. His father, Count Celsi-Mongirone, was a man of distinguished family and some wealth. He was syndic of Orvieto, and lived either in that town or on his neighboring estate of Mongirone. His wife owned a large property near Siena, and Count Ottaviano, who was the second son, came there from time to time to look into its management. The eldest son was in the army, the youngest in the Church; and an aunt of Count Ottaviano's was Mother Superior of the Visitandine convent in Siena. At one time it had been said that Count Ottaviano, who was a most amiable and accomplished young man, was to marry the daughter of the strange Englishman, Doctor Lombard, but difficulties having arisen as to the adjustment of the young lady's dower, Count Celsi-Mongirone had very properly broken off the match. It was sad for the young man, however, who was said to be deeply in love, and to find frequent excuses for coming to Siena to inspect his mother's estate.
Viewed in the light of Count Ottaviano's personality the story had a tinge of opera bouffe; but the next morning, as Wyant mounted the stairs of the House of the Dead Hand, the situation insensibly assumed another aspect. It was impossible to take Doctor Lombard lightly; and there was a suggestion of fatality in the appearance of his gaunt dwelling. Who could tell amid what tragic records of domestic tyranny and fluttering broken purposes the little drama of Miss Lombard's fate was being played out? Might not the accumulated influences of such a house modify the lives within it in a manner unguessed by the inmates of a suburban villa with sanitary plumbing and a telephone?
One person, at least, remained unperturbed by such fanciful problems; and that was Mrs. Lombard, who, at Wyant's entrance, raised a placidly wrinkled brow from her knitting. The morning was mild, and her chair had been wheeled into a bar of sunshine near the window, so that she made a cheerful spot of prose in the poetic gloom of her surroundings.
"What a nice morning !" she said; "it must be delightful weather at Bonchurch."
Her dull blue glance wandered across the narrow street with its threatening house fronts, and fluttered back baffled, like a bird with clipped wings. It was evident, poor lady, that she had never seen beyond the opposite houses.
Wyant was not sorry to find her alone. Seeing that she was surprised at his reappearance he said at once: "I have come back to study Miss Lombard's picture."
"Oh, the picture " Mrs. Lombard's face expressed a gentle disappointment, which might have been boredom in a person of acuter sensibilities. "It's an original Leonardo, you know," she said mechanically.
"And Miss Lombard is very proud of it, I suppose? She seems to have inherited her father's love for art."
Mrs. Lombard counted her stitches, and he went on: "It's unusual in so young a girl. Such tastes generally develop later."
Mrs. Lombard looked up eagerly. "That's what I say! I was quite different at her age, you know. I liked dancing, and doing a pretty bit of fancy-work. Not that I couldn't sketch, too; I had a master down from London. My aunts have some of my crayons hung up in their drawing-room now I did a view of Kenilworth which was thought pleasing. But I liked a picnic, too, or a pretty walk through the woods with young people of my own age. I say it's more natural, Mr. Wyant; one may have a feeling for art, and do crayons that are worth framing, and yet not give up everything else. I was taught that there were other things."
Wyant, half-ashamed of provoking these innocent confidences, could not resist another question. "And Miss Lombard cares for nothing else?"
Her mother looked troubled.
"Sybilla is so clever -- she says I don't understand. You know how self-confident young people are! My husband never said that of me, now -- he knows I had an excellent education. My aunts were very particular; I was brought up to have opinions, and my husband has always respected them. He says himself that he wouldn't for the world miss hearing my opinion on any subject; you may have noticed that he often refers to my tastes. He has always respected my preference for living in England; he likes to hear me give my reasons for it. He is so much interested in my ideas that he often says he knows just what I am going to say before I speak. But Sybilla does not care for what I think --"
At this point Doctor Lombard entered. He glanced sharply at Wyant. "The servant is a fool; she didn't tell me you were here." His eye turned to his wife. "Well, my dear, what have you been telling Mr. Wyant? About the aunts at Bonchurch, I'll be bound!"
Mrs. Lombard looked triumphantly at Wyant, and her husband rubbed his hooked fingers, with a smile.
"Mrs. Lombard's aunts are very superior women. They subscribe to the circulating library, and borrow Good Words and the Monthly Packet from the curate's wife across the way. They have the rector to tea twice a year, and keep a page-boy, and are visited by two baronets' wives. They devoted themselves to the education of their orphan niece, and I think I may say without boasting that Mrs. Lombard's conversation shows marked traces of the advantages she enjoyed."
Mrs. Lombard colored with pleasure.
"I was telling Mr. Wyant that my aunts were very particular."
"Quite so, my dear; and did you mention that they never sleep in anything but linen, and that Miss Sophia puts away the furs and blankets every spring with her own hands? Both those facts are interesting to the student of human nature." Doctor Lombard glanced at his watch. "But we are missing an incomparable moment; the light is perfect at this hour."
Wyant rose, and the doctor led him through the tapestried door and down the passageway.
The light was, in fact, perfect, and the picture shone with an inner radiancy, as though a lamp burned behind the soft screen of the lady's flesh. Every detail of the foreground detached itself with jewel-like precision. Wyant noticed a dozen accessories which had escaped him on the previous day.
He drew out his note-book, and the doctor, who had dropped his sardonic grin for a look of devout contemplation, pushed a chair forward, and seated himself on a carved settle against the wall.
"Now, then," he said, "tell Clyde what you can; but the letter killeth."
He sank down, his hands hanging on the arm of the settle like the claws of a dead bird, his eyes fixed on Wyant's notebook with the obvious intention of detecting any attempt at a surreptitious sketch.
Wyant, nettled at this surveillance, and disturbed by the speculations which Doctor Lombard's strange household excited, sat motionless for a few minutes, staring first at the picture and then at the blank pages of the note-book. The thought that Doctor Lombard was enjoying his discomfiture at length roused him, and he began to write.
He was interrupted by a knock on the iron door. Doctor Lombard rose to unlock it, and his daughter entered.
She bowed hurriedly to Wyant, without looking at him.
"Father, had you forgotten that the man from Monte Amiato was to come back this morning with an answer about the bas-relief? He is here now; he says he can't wait."
"The devil!" cried her father impatiently. "Didn't you tell him "
"Yes; but he says he can't come back. If you want to see him you must come now."
"Then you think there's a chance? "
He turned and looked at Wyant, who was writing assiduously.
"You will stay here, Sybilla; I shall be back in a moment."
He hurried out, locking the door behind him.
Wyant had looked up, wondering if Miss Lombard would show any surprise at being locked in with him; but it was his turn to be surprised, for hardly had they heard the key withdrawn when she moved close to him, her small face pale and tumultuous.
"I arranged it , I must speak to you," she gasped. "He'll be back in five minutes."
Her courage seemed to fail, and she looked at him helplessly.
Wyant had a sense of stepping among explosives. He glanced about him at the dusky vaulted room, at the haunting smile of the strange picture overhead, and at the pink-and-white girl whispering of conspiracies in a voice meant to exchange platitudes with a curate.
"How can I help you ?" he said with a rush of compassion.
"Oh, if you would ! I never have a chance to speak to any one; it's so difficult , he watches me, he'll be back immediately."
"Try to tell me what I can do."
"I don't dare; I feel as if he were behind me." She turned away, fixing her eyes on the picture. A sound startled her. "There he comes, and I haven't spoken ! It was my only chance; but it bewilders me so to be hurried."
"I don't hear any one," said Wyant, listening. "Try to tell me."
"How can I make you understand? It would take so long to explain." She drew a deep breath, and then with a plunge "Will you come here again this afternoon at about five ?" she whispered.
"Come here again ?"
"Yes, you can ask to see the picture, make some excuse. He will come with you, of course; I will open the door for you and ... and lock you both in" she gasped.
"Lock us in ?"
"You see ? You understand ? It's the only way for me to leave the house, if I am ever to do it" She drew another difficult breath. "The key will be returned, by a safe person, in half an hour, perhaps sooner ..."
She trembled so much that she was obliged to lean against the settle for support.
"Wyant looked at her steadily; he was very sorry for her.
"I can't, Miss Lombard," he said at length.
"You can't ?"
"I'm sorry; I must seem cruel; but consider "
He was stopped by the futility of the word: as well ask a hunted rabbit to pause in its dash for a hole !
Wyant took her hand; it was cold and nerveless.
"I will serve you in any way I can; but you must see that this way is impossible. Can't I talk to you again ? Perhaps "
"Oh," she cried, starting up, "there he comes !"
Doctor Lombard's step sounded in the passage.
Wyant held her fast. "Tell me one thing: he won't let you sell the picture ?"
"No, hush !"
"Make no pledges for the future, then; promise me that."
"The future ?"
"In case he should die: your father is an old man. You haven't promised ?"
She shook her head.
"Don't, then; remember that."
She made no answer, and the key turned in the lock.
As he passed out of the house, its scowling cornice and facade of ravaged brick looked down on him with the startlingness of a strange face, seen momentarily in a crowd, and impressing itself on the brain as part of an inevitable future. Above the doorway, the marble hand reached out like the cry of an imprisoned anguish.
Wyant turned away impatiently.
"Rubbish!" he said to himself. "She isn't walled in; she can get out if she wants to."
Wyant had any number of plans for coming to Miss Lombard's aid: he was elaborating the twentieth when, on the same afternoon, he stepped into the express train for Florence. By the time the train reached Certaldo he was convinced that, in thus hastening his departure, he had followed the only reasonable course; at Empoli, he began to reflect that the priest and the Levite had probably justified themselves in much the same manner.
A month later, after his return to England, he was unexpectedly relieved from these alternatives of extenuation and approval. A paragraph in the morning paper announced the sudden death of Doctor Lombard, the distinguished English dilettante who had long resided in Siena. Wyant's justification was complete. Our blindest impulses become evidence of perspicacity when they fall in with the course of events.
Wyant could now comfortably speculate on the particular complications from which his foresight had probably saved him. The climax was unexpectedly dramatic. Miss Lombard, on the brink of a step which, whatever its issue, would have burdened her with retrospective compunction, had been set free before her suitor's ardor could have had time to cool, and was now doubtless planning a life of domestic felicity on the proceeds of the Leonardo. One thing, however, struck Wyant as odd -- he saw no mention of the sale of the picture. He had scanned the papers for an immediate announcement of its transfer to one of the great museums; but presently concluding that Miss Lombard, out of filial piety, had wished to avoid an appearance of unseemly haste in the disposal of her treasure, he dismissed the matter from his mind. Other affairs happened to engage him; the months slipped by, and gradually the lady and the picture dwelt less vividly in his mind.
It was not till five or six years later, when chance took him again to Siena, that the recollection started from some inner fold of memory. He found himself, as it happened, at the head of Doctor Lombard's street, and glancing down that grim thoroughfare, caught an oblique glimpse of the doctor's house front, with the Dead Hand projecting above its threshold. The sight revived his interest, and that evening, over an admirable frittata, he questioned his landlady about Miss Lombard's marriage.
"The daughter of the English doctor ? But she has never married, signore."
"Never married ? What, then, became of Count Ottaviano ?"
"For a long time he waited; but last year he married a noble lady of the Maremma."
"But what happened, why was the marriage broken ?"
The landlady enacted a pantomime of baffled interrogation.
"And Miss Lombard still lives in her father's house ?"
"Yes, signore; she is still there."
"And the Leonardo "
"The Leonardo, also, is still there."
The next day, as Wyant entered the House of the Dead Hand, he remembered Count Ottaviano's injunction to ring twice, and smiled mournfully to think that so much subtlety had been vain. But what could have prevented the marriage ? If Doctor Lombard's death had been long delayed, time might have acted as a dissolvent, or the young lady's resolve have failed; but it seemed impossible that the white heat of ardor in which Wyant had left the lovers should have cooled in a few short weeks.
As he ascended the vaulted stairway the atmosphere of the place seemed a reply to his conjectures. The same numbing air fell on him, like an emanation from some persistent will-power, a something fierce and imminent which might reduce to impotence every impulse within its range. Wyant could almost fancy a hand on his shoulder, guiding him upward with the ironical intent of confronting him with the evidence of its work.
A strange servant opened the door, and he was presently introduced to the tapestried room, where, from their usual seats in the window, Mrs. Lombard and her daughter advanced to welcome him with faint ejaculations of surprise.
Both had grown oddly old, but in a dry, smooth way, as fruits might shrivel on a shelf instead of ripening on the tree. Mrs. Lombard was still knitting, and pausing now and then to warm her swollen hands above the brazier; and Miss Lombard, in rising, had laid aside a strip of needle-work which might have been the same on which Wyant had first seen her engaged.
Their visitor inquired discreetly how they had fared in the interval, and learned that they had thought of returning to England, but had somehow never done so.
"I am sorry not to see my aunts again," Mrs. Lombard said resignedly; "but Sybilla thinks it best that we should not go this year."
"Next year, perhaps," murmured Miss Lombard, in a voice which seemed to suggest that they had a great waste of time to fill.
She had returned to her seat, and sat bending over her work. Her hair enveloped her head in the same thick braids, but the rose color of her cheeks had turned to blotches of dull red, like some pigment which has darkened in drying.
"And Professor Clyde, is he well?" Mrs. Lombard asked affably; continuing, as her daughter raised a startled eye: "Surely, Sybilla, Mr. Wyant was the gentleman who was sent by Professor Clyde to see the Leonardo ?"
Miss Lombard was silent, but Wyant hastened to assure the elder lady of his friend's well-being.
"Ah, perhaps, then, he will come back some day to Siena," she said, sighing. Wyant declared that it was more than likely; and there ensued a pause, which he presently broke by saying to Miss Lombard: "And you still have the picture ?"
She raised her eyes and looked at him. "Should you like to see it ?" she asked.
On his assenting, she rose, and extracting the same key from the same secret drawer, unlocked the door beneath the tapestry. They walked down the passage in silence, and she stood aside with a grave gesture, making Wyant pass before her into the room. Then she crossed over and drew the curtain back from the picture.
The light of the early afternoon poured full on it: its surface appeared to ripple and heave with a fluid splendor. The colors had lost none of their warmth, the outlines none of their pure precision; it seemed to Wyant like some magical flower which had burst suddenly from the mould of darkness and oblivion.
He turned to Miss Lombard with a movement of comprehension.
"Ah, I understand, you couldn't part with it, after all!" he cried.
"No, I couldn't part with it," she answered.
"It's too beautiful, too beautiful," he assented.
"Too beautiful ?" She turned on him with a curious stare. "I have never thought it beautiful, you know."
He gave back the stare. "You have never "
She shook her head. "It's not that. I hate it; I've always hated it. But he wouldn't let me, he will never let me now."
Wyant was startled by her use of the present tense. Her look surprised him, too: there was a strange fixity of resentment in her innocuous eye. Was it possible that she was laboring under some delusion ? Or did the pronoun not refer to her father ?
"You mean that Doctor Lombard did not wish you to part with the picture ?"
"No, he prevented me; he will always prevent me."
There was another pause. "You promised him, then, before his death "
"No; I promised nothing. He died too suddenly to make me." Her voice sank to a whisper. "I was free, perfectly free, or I thought I was till I tried."
"Till you tried ?"
"To disobey him to sell the picture. Then I found it was impossible. I tried again and again; but he was always in the room with me."
She glanced over her shoulder as though she had heard a step; and to Wyant, too, for a moment, the room seemed full of a third presence.
"And you can't" he faltered, unconsciously dropping his voice to the pitch of hers.
She shook her head, gazing at him mystically. "I can't lock him out; I can never lock him out now. I told you I should never have another chance."
Wyant felt the chill of her words like a cold breath in his hair.
"Oh" he groaned; but she cut him off with a grave gesture.
"It is too late," she said; "but you ought to have helped me that day."
Note: if you need to read the noverls by Edith Wharton go to :
for ETHAN FROME : http://www.americanliterature.com/author/edith-wharton/book/ethan-frome/summary
for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE : http://www.americanliterature.com/author/edith-wharton/book/the-age-of-innocence/summary