The Second Generation
By David Graham Phillips
Public Domain Books
Chapter XXII - Villa D’Orsay
Adelaide did not reach home until the troubles with and through Charles Whitney were settled, and Arthur and Dory were deep in carrying out the plans to make the mills and factories part of the university and not merely its property. When Scarborough’s urgent cable came, Dory found that all the steamers were full. Adelaide could go with him only by taking a berth in a room with three women in the bottom of the ship. “Impossible accommodations,” thought he, “for so luxurious a person and so poor a sailor"; and he did not tell her that this berth could be had. “You’ll have to wait a week or so,” said he. “As you can’t well stay on here alone, why not accept Mrs. Whitney’s invitation to join her?”
Adelaide disliked Mrs. Whitney, but there seemed to be no alternative. Mrs. Whitney was at Paris, on the way to America after the wedding and a severe cure at Aix and an aftercure in Switzerland. She had come for the finishing touches of rejuvenation–to get her hair redone and to go through her biennial agony of having Auguste, beauty specialist to the royalty, nobility and fashion, and demimonde, of three continents, burn off her outer skin that nature might replace it with one new and fresh and unwrinkled. She was heavily veiled as she and Adelaide traveled down to Cherbourg to the steamer. As soon as she got aboard she retired to her room and remained hidden there during the voyage, seen only by her maid, her face covered day and night with Auguste’s marvelous skin-coaxing mask. Adelaide did not see her again until the morning of the last day, when she appeared on deck dressed beautifully and youthfully for the shore, her skin as fair and smooth as a girl’s, and looking like an elder sister of Adelaide’s–at a distance.
She paused in New York; Adelaide hastened to Saint X, though she was looking forward uneasily to her arrival because she feared she would have to live at the old Hargrave house in University Avenue. Miss Skeffington ruled there, and she knew Miss Skeffington–one of those old-fashioned old maids whose rigid ideas of morality extend to the ordering of personal habits in minutest detail. Under her military sway everyone had to rise for breakfast at seven sharp, had to dine exactly at noon, sup when the clock struck the half hour after five. Ingress and egress for members of the family was by the side door only, the front door being reserved for company. For company also was the parlor, and for company the front stairs with their brilliant carpet, new, though laid for the first time nearly a quarter of a century before; for company also was the best room in the house, which ought to have been attractive, but was a little damp from being shut up so much, and was the cause of many a cold to guests. “I simply can’t stand it to live by the striking of clocks!" thought Adelaide. “I must do something! But what?”
Her uneasiness proved unnecessary, however. Dory disappointed his aunt, of a new and interestingly difficult spirit to subdue, by taking rooms at the Hendricks Hotel until they should find a place of their own. Mrs. Ranger asked them to live with her; but Adelaide shrank from putting herself in a position where her mother and Arthur could, and her sister-in-law undoubtedly would, “know too much about our private affairs.” Mrs. Ranger did not insist. She would not admit it to herself, but, while she worshiped Del and thought her even more beautiful than she was, and just about perfection in every way, still Madelene was more satisfactory for daily companionship. Also, Ellen doubted whether two such positive natures as Madelene’s and Adelaide’s would be harmonious under the same roof. “What’s more,” she reflected, “there may be a baby–babies.”
Within a fortnight of Del’s return, and before she and Dory had got quite used to each other again, she fixed on an abode. “Mrs. Dorsey was here this afternoon,” said she, with enthusiasm which, to Dory’s acute perceptions, seemed slightly exaggerated, in fact, forced, “and offered us her house for a year, just to have somebody in it whom she could trust to look after things. You know she’s taking her daughter abroad to finish. It was too good a chance to let pass; so I accepted at once.”
Dory turned away abruptly. With slow deliberation he took a cigarette from his case, lighted it, watched the smoke drift out at the open window. She was observing him, though she seemed not to be. And his expression made her just a little afraid. Unlike most men who lead purely intellectual lives, he had not the slightest suggestion of sexlessness; on the contrary, he seemed as strong, as positive physically, as the look of his forehead and eyes showed him to be mentally. And now that he had learned to dress with greater care, out of deference to her, she could find nothing about him to help her in protecting herself by criticising him.
“Do you think, Del,” said he, “that we’ll be able to live in that big place on eighteen hundred a year?”
It wasn’t as easy for him thus to remind her of their limited means as it theoretically should have been. Del was distinctly an expensive-looking luxury. That dress of hers, pale green, with hat and everything to match or in harmony, was a “simple thing,” but the best dressmaker in the Rue de la Paix had spent a great deal of his costly time in producing that effect of simplicity. Throughout, she had the cleanness, the freshness, the freedom from affectations which Dory had learned could be got only by large expenditure. Nor would he have had her any different. He wanted just the settings she chose for her fair, fine beauty. The only change he would have asked would have been in the expression of those violet eyes of hers when they looked at him.
“You wish I hadn’t done it!” she exclaimed. And if he had not glanced away so quickly he would have seen that she was ready to retreat.
“Well, it’s not exactly the start I’d been thinking of,” replied he, reluctantly but tentatively.
It is not in human nature to refuse to press an offered advantage. Said Del: “Can’t we close up most of the house–use only five or six rooms on the ground floor? And Mrs. Dorsey’s gardener and his helpers will be there. All we have to do is to see that they’ve not neglected the grounds.” She was once more all belief and enthusiasm. “It seemed to me, taking that place was most economical, and so comfortable. Really, Dory, I didn’t accept without thinking.”
Dory was debating with himself: To take that house–it was one of those trifles that are anything but trifles–like the slight but crucial motion at the crossroads in choosing the road to the left instead of the road to the right. Not to take the house–Del would feel humiliated, reasoned he, would think him unreasonably small, would chafe under the restraint their limited means put upon them, whereas, if he left the question of living on their income entirely to her good sense, she would not care about the deprivations, would regard them as self-imposed.
“Of course, if you don’t like it, Dory,” she now said, “I suppose Mrs. Dorsey will let me off. But I’m sure you’d be delighted, once we got settled. The house is so attractive–at least, I think I can make it attractive by packing away her showy stuff and rearranging the furniture. And the grounds–Dory, I don’t see how you can object!”
Dory gave a shrug and a smile. “Well, go ahead. We’ll scramble through somehow.” He shook his head at her in good-humored warning. “Only, please don’t forget what’s coming at the end of your brief year of grandeur.”
Adelaide checked the reply that was all but out. She hastily reflected that it might not be wise to let him know, just then, that Mrs. Dorsey had said they could have the house for two years, probably for three, perhaps for five. Instead, she said, “It isn’t the expense, after all, that disturbs you, is it?”
He smiled confession. “No.”
“I know it’s snobbish of me to long for finery so much that I’m even willing to live in another person’s and show off in it,” she sighed. “But–I’m learning gradually.”
He colored. Unconsciously she had put into her tone–and this not for the first time, by any means–a suggestion that there wasn’t the slightest danger of his wearying of waiting, that she could safely take her time in getting round to sensible ideas and to falling in love with him. His eyes had the look of the veiled amusement that deliberately shows through, as he said, “That’s good. I’ll try to be patient.”
It was her turn to color. But, elbowing instinctive resentment, came uneasiness. His love seemed to her of the sort that flowers in the romances–the love that endures all, asks nothing, lives forever upon its own unfed fire. As is so often the case with women whose charms move men to extravagance of speech and emotion, it was a great satisfaction to her, to her vanity, to feel that she had inspired this wonderful immortal flame; obviously, to feed such a flame by giving love for love would reduce it to the commonplace. All women start with these exaggerated notions of the value of being loved; few of them ever realize and rouse themselves, or are aroused, from their vanity to the truth that the value is all the other way. Adelaide was only the natural woman in blindly fancying that Dory was the one to be commiserated, in not seeing that she herself was a greater loser than he, that to return his love would not be a concession but an acquisition. Most men are content to love, to compel women to receive their love; they prefer the passive, the receptive attitude in the woman, and are even bored by being actively loved in return; for love is exacting, and the male is impatient of exaction. Adelaide did not understand just this broad but subtle difference between Dory and “most men"–that he would feel that he was violating her were he to sweep her away in the arms of his impetuous released passion, as he knew he could. He felt that such a yielding was, after all, like the inert obedience of the leaf to the storm wind–that what he could compel, what women call love, would be as utterly without substance as an image in a mirror, indeed, would be a mere passive reflection of his own love–all most men want, but worthless to him.
Could it be that Dory’s love had become–no, not less, but less ardent? She saw that he was deep in thought–about her, she assumed, with an unconscious vanity which would have excited the mockery of many who have more vanity than had she, and perhaps with less excuse. In fact, he was not thinking of her; having the ability to turn his mind completely where he willed–the quality of all strong men, and the one that often makes the weak-willed think them hard–he was revolving the vast and inspiring plans Arthur and he had just got into practical form–plans for new factories and mills such as a university, professing to be in the forefront of progress need not be ashamed to own or to offer to its students as workshops. All that science has bestowed in the way of making labor and its surroundings clean and comfortable, healthful and attractive, was to be provided; all that the ignorance and the shortsighted greediness of employers, bent only on immediate profits and keeping their philanthropy for the smug penuriousness and degrading stupidity of charity, deny to their own self-respect and to justice for their brothers in their power. Arthur and he had wrought it all out, had discovered as a crowning vindication that the result would be profitable in dollars, that their sane and shrewd utopianism would produce larger dividends than the sordid and slovenly methods of their competitors. “It is always so. Science is always economical as well as enlightened and humane,” Dory was thinking when Adelaide’s voice broke into his reverie.
“You are right, Dory,” said she. “And I shall give up the house. I’ll go to see Mrs. Dorsey now.”
“The house?–What–Oh, yes–well–no–What made you change?”
She did not know the real reason–that, studying his face, the curve and set of his head, the strength of the personality which she was too apt to take for granted most of the time because he was simple and free from pretense, she had been reminded that he was not a man to be trifled with, that she would better bestir herself and give more thought and attention to what was going on in that superbly shaped head of his–about her, about her and him. “Oh, I don’t just know,” replied she, quite honestly. “It seems to me now that there’ll be too much fuss and care and–sham. And I intend to interest myself in your work. You’ve hardly spoken of it since I got back.”
“There’s been so little time–”
“You mean,” she interrupted, “I’ve been so busy unpacking my silly dresses and hats and making and receiving silly calls.”
“Now you’re in one of your penitential moods,” laughed Dory. “And to-morrow you’ll wish you hadn’t changed about the house. No–that’s settled. We’ll take it, and see what the consequences are.”
Adelaide brightened. His tone was his old self, and she did want that house so intensely! “I can be useful to Dory there; I can do so much on the social side of the university life. He doesn’t appreciate the value of those things in advancing a career. He thinks a career is made by work only. But I’ll show him! I’ll make his house the center of the university!”
Mrs. Dorsey had “Villa d’Orsay” carved on the stone pillars of her great wrought-iron gates, to remind the populace that, while her late father-in-law, “Buck” Dorsey, was the plainest of butchers and meat packers, his ancestry was of the proudest. With the rise of its “upper class” Saint X had gone in diligently for genealogy, had developed reverence for “tradition” and “blood,” had established a Society of Family Histories, a chapter of the Colonial Dames, another of Daughters of the Revolution, and was in a fair way to rival the seaboard cities in devotion to the imported follies and frauds of “family.” Dory at first indulged his sense of humor upon their Dorsey or d’Orsay finery. It seemed to him they must choose between making a joke of it and having it make a joke of them. But he desisted when he saw that it grated on Del for him to speak of her and himself as “caretakers for the rich.” And presently his disposition to levity died of itself. It sobered and disheartened and, yes, disgusted him as he was forced to admit to himself the reality of her delight in receiving people in the great drawing room, of her content in the vacuous, time-wasting habits, of her sense of superiority through having at her command a troop of servants–Mrs. Dorsey’s servants! He himself disliked servants about, hated to abet a fellow-being in looking on himself or herself as an inferior; and he regarded as one of the basest, as well as subtlest poisons of snobbishness, the habit of telling others to do for one the menial, personal things which can be done with dignity only by oneself. Once, in Paris–after Besanšon–Janet spoke of some of her aristocratic acquaintances on the other side as “acting as if they had always been used to everything; so different from even the best people at home.” Dory remembered how Adelaide promptly took her up, gave instance after instance in proof that European aristocrats were in fact as vulgar in their satisfaction in servility as were the newest of the newly aristocratic at home, but simply had a different way of showing it. “A more vulgar way,” she said, Janet unable to refute her. “Yes, far more vulgar, Jen, because deliberately concealed; just as vanity that swells in secret is far worse than frank, childish conceit.”
And now–These vanities of hers, sprung from the old roots which in Paris she had been eager to kill and he was hoping were about dead, sprung in vigor and spreading in weedy exuberance! He often looked at her in sad wonder when she was unconscious of it. “What is the matter?” he would repeat. “She is farther away than in Paris, where the temptation to this sort of nonsense was at least plausible.” And he grew silent with her and shut himself in alone during the evening hours which he could not spend at the university. She knew why, knew also that he was right, ceased to bore herself and irritate him with attempts to make the Villa d’Orsay the social center of the university. But she continued to waste her days in the inane pastimes of Saint X’s fashionable world, though ashamed of herself and disgusted with her mode of life. For snobbishness is essentially a provincial vice, due full as much to narrowness as to ignorance; and, thus, it is most potent in the small “set” in the small town. In the city even the narrowest are compelled to at least an occasional glimpse of wider horizons; but in the small town only the vigilant and resolute ever get so much as a momentary point of view. She told herself, in angry attempt at self-excuse, that he ought to take her in hand, ought to snatch her away from that which she had not the courage to give up of herself. Yet she knew she would hate him should he try to do it. She assumed that was the reason he didn’t; and it was part of the reason, but a lesser part than his unacknowledged, furtive fear of what he might discover as to his own feelings toward her, were there just then a casting up and balancing of their confused accounts with each other.
Both were relieved, as at a crisis postponed, when it became necessary for him to go abroad again immediately. “I don’t see how you can leave,” said he, thus intentionally sparing her a painful effort in saying what at once came into the mind of each.
“We could cable Mrs. Dorsey,” she suggested lamely. She was at the Louis Quinze desk in the Louis Quinze sitting room, and her old gold negligee matched in charmingly, and the whole setting brought out the sheen, faintly golden, over her clear skin, the peculiarly fresh and intense shade of her violet eyes, the suggestion of gold in her thick hair, with its wan, autumnal coloring, such as one sees in a field of dead ripe grain. She was doing her monthly accounts, and the showing was not pleasant. She was a good housekeeper, a surprisingly good manager; but she did too much entertaining for their income.
Dory was too much occupied with the picture she made as she sat there to reply immediately. “I doubt,” he finally replied, “if she could arrange by cable for some one else whom she would trust with her treasures. No, I guess you’ll have to stay.”
“I wish I hadn’t taken this place!” she exclaimed. It was the first confession of what her real, her sane and intelligent self had been proclaiming loudly since the first flush of interest and pleasure in her “borrowed plumage” had receded. “Why do you let me make a fool of myself?”
“No use going into that,” replied he, on guard not to take too seriously this belated penitence. He was used to Del’s fits of remorse, so used to them that he thought them less valuable than they really were, or might have been had he understood her better–or, not bothered about trying to understand her. “I shan’t be away long, I imagine,” he went on, “and I’ll have to rush round from England to France, to Germany, to Austria, to Switzerland. All that would be exhausting for you, and only a little of the time pleasant.”
His words sounded to her like a tolling over the grave of that former friendship and comradeship of theirs. “I really believe you’ll be glad to get away alone,” cried she, lips smiling raillery, eyes full of tears.
“Do you think so?” said Dory, as if tossing back her jest. But both knew the truth, and each knew that the other knew it. He was as glad to escape from those surroundings as she to be relieved of a presence which edged on her other-self to scoff and rail and sneer at her. It had become bitterness to him to enter the gates of the Villa d’Orsay. His nerves were so wrought up that to look about the magnificent but too palace-like, too hotel-like rooms was to struggle with a longing to run amuck and pause not until he had reduced the splendor to smithereens. And in that injustice of chronic self-excuse which characterizes all human beings who do not live by intelligently formed and intelligently executed plan, she was now trying to soothe herself with blaming him for her low spirits; in fact, they were wholly the result of her consciously unworthy mode of life, and of an incessant internal warfare, exhausting and depressing. Also, the day would surely come when he would ask how she was contriving to keep up such imposing appearances on their eighteen hundred a year; and then she would have to choose between directly deceiving him and telling him that she had broken–no, not broken, that was too harsh–rather, had not yet fulfilled the promise to give up the income her father left her.
After a constrained silence, “I really don’t need anyone to stop here with me,” she said to him, as if she had been thinking of it and not of the situation between them, “but I’ll get Stella Wilmot and her brother.”
“Arden?” said Dory, doubtfully. “I know he’s all right in some ways, and he has stopped drinking since he got the place at the bank. But–”
“If we show we have confidence in him,” replied Adelaide, “I think it will help him.”
“Very well,” said Dory. “Besides, it isn’t easy to find people of the sort you’d be willing to have, who can leave home and come here.”
Adelaide colored as she smiled. “Perhaps that was my reason, rather than helping him,” she said.
Dory flushed. “Oh, I didn’t mean to insinuate that!” he protested, and checked himself from saying more. In their mood each would search the other’s every word for a hidden thrust, and would find it.
The constraint between them, which thus definitely entered the stage of deep cleavage where there had never been a joining, persisted until the parting. Since the wedding he had kissed her but once–on her arrival from Europe. Then, there was much bustle of greeting from others, and neither had had chance to be self-conscious. When they were at the station for his departure, it so happened that no one had come with them. As the porter warned them that the train was about to move, they shook hands and hesitated, blushing and conscious of themselves and of spectators, “Good-by,” stammered Dory, with a dash at her cheek.
“Good-by,” she murmured, making her effort at the same instant.
The result was a confusion of features and hat brims that threw them into a panic, then into laughter, and so made the second attempt easy and successful. It was a real meeting of the lips. His arm went round her, her hand pressed tenderly on his shoulder, and he felt a trembling in her form, saw a sudden gleam of light leap into and from her eyes. And all in that flash the secret of his mistake in managing his love affair burst upon him.
“Good-by, Dory–dear,” she was murmuring, a note in her voice like the shy answer of a hermit thrush to the call of her mate.
“All aboard!” shouted the conductor, and the wheels began to move.
“Good-by–good-by,” he stammered, his blood surging through his head.
It came into her mind to say, “I care for you more than I knew.” But his friend the conductor was thrusting him up the steps of the car. “I wish I had said it,” thought she, watching the train disappear round the curve. “I’ll write it.”
But she did not. When the time came to write, that idea somehow would not fit in with the other things she was setting down. “I think I do care for him–as a friend,” she decided. “If he had only compelled me to find out the state of my own mind! What a strange man! I don’t see how he can love me, for he knows me as I am. Perhaps he really doesn’t; sometimes I think he couldn’t care for a woman as a woman wants to be cared for.” Then as his face as she had last seen it rose before her, and her lips once more tingled, “Oh, yes, he does care! And without his love how wretched I’d be! What a greedy I am–wanting his love and taking it, and giving nothing in return.” That last more than half-sincere, though she, like not a few of her sisters in the “Woman’s Paradise,” otherwise known as the United States of America, had been spoiled into greatly exaggerating the value of her graciously condescending to let herself be loved.
And she was lonely without him. If he could have come back at the end of a week or a month, he would have been received with an ardor that would have melted every real obstacle between them. Also, it would have dissipated the far more obstructive imaginary obstacles from their infection with the latter-day vice of psychologizing about matters which lie in the realm of physiology, not of psychology. But he did not come; and absence, like bereavement, has its climax, after which the thing that was begins to be as if it had not been.
He was gone; and that impetuous parting caress of his had roused in her an impulse that would never again sleep, would pace its cage restlessly, eager for the chance to burst forth. And he had roused it when he would not be there to make its imperious clamor personal to himself.
As Estelle was at her shop all day, and not a few of the evenings, Del began to see much of Henrietta Hastings. Grandfather Fuller was now dead and forgotten in the mausoleum into which he had put one-fifth of his fortune, to the great discontent of the heirs. Henrietta’s income had expanded from four thousand a year to twenty; and she spent her days in thinking of and talking of the careers to which she could help her husband if he would only shake off the lethargy which seized him the year after his marriage to a Fuller heiress. But Hastings would not; he was happy in his books and in his local repute for knowing everything there was to be known. Month by month he grew fatter and lazier and slower of speech. Henrietta pretended to be irritated against him, and the town had the habit of saying that “If Hastings had some of his wife’s ’get up’ he wouldn’t be making her unhappy but would be winning a big name for himself.” In fact, had Hastings tried to bestir himself at something definite in the way of action, Henrietta would have been really disturbed instead of simply pretending to be. She had a good mind, a keen wit that had become bitter with unlicensed indulgence; but she was as indolent and purposeless as her husband. All her energy went in talk about doing something, and every day she had a new scheme, with yesterday’s forgotten or disdained.
Adelaide pretended to herself to regard Henrietta as an energetic and stimulating person, though she knew that Henrietta’s energy, like her own, like that of most women of the sheltered, servant-attended class, was a mere blowing off of steam by an active but valveless engine of a mind. But this pretense enabled her to justify herself for long mornings and afternoons at the Country Club with Henrietta. They talked of activity, of accomplishing this and that and the other; they read fitfully at serious books; they planned novels and plays; they separated each day with a comfortable feeling that they had been usefully employed. And each did learn much from the other; but, as each confirmed the other in the habitual mental vices of the women, and of an increasing number of the men, of our quite comfortable classes, the net result of their intercourse was pitifully poor, the poorer for their fond delusions that they were improving themselves. They laughed at the “culture craze" which, raging westward, had seized upon all the women of Saint X with incomes, or with husbands or fathers to support them in idleness–the craze for thinking, reading, and talking cloudily or muddily on cloudy or muddy subjects. Henrietta and Adelaide jeered; yet they were themselves the victims of another, and, if possible, more poisonous, bacillus of the same sluggard family.
One morning Adelaide, in graceful ease in her favorite nook in the small northwest portico of the club house, was reading a most imposingly bound and illustrated work on Italian architecture written by a smatterer for smatterers. She did a great deal of reading in this direction because it was also the direction of her talent, and so she could make herself think she was getting ready to join in Dory’s work when he returned. She heard footsteps just round the corner, and looked up. She and Ross Whitney were face to face.
There was no chance for evasion. He, with heightened color, lifted his hat; she, with a nonchalance that made her proud of herself, smiled and stretched out her hand. “Hello, Ross,” said she, languidly friendly. “When did you come to town?” And she congratulated herself that her hair had gone up so well that morning and that her dress was one of her most becoming–from Paris, from Paquin–a year old, it is true, but later than the latest in Saint X and fashionable even for Sherry’s at lunch time.
Ross, the expert, got himself together and made cover without any seeming of scramble; but his not quite easy eyes betrayed him to her. “About two hours ago,” replied he.
“Is Theresa with you?” She gazed tranquilly at him as she fired this center shot. She admired the coolness with which he received it.
“No; she’s up at her father’s place–on the lake shore,” he answered. He, too, was looking particularly well, fresh yet experienced, and in dress a model, with his serge of a strange, beautiful shade of blue, his red tie and socks, and his ruby-set cuff-links. “Mr. Howland is ill, and she’s nursing him. I’m taking a few days off–came down to try to sell father’s place for him.”
“You’re going to sell Point Helen?” said Adelaide, politely regretful. “Then I suppose we shan’t see your people here any more. Your mother’ll no doubt spend most of her time abroad, now that Janet is married there.”
Ross did not answer immediately. He was looking into the distance, his expression melancholy. His abstraction gave Adelaide a chance to verify the impression she had got from a swift but femininely penetrating first glance. Yes, he did look older; no, not exactly older–sad, rather. Evidently he was unhappy, distinctly unhappy. And as handsome and as tasteful as ever–the band of his straw hat, the flower in his buttonhole, his tie, his socks–all in harmony; no ostentation, just the unerring, quiet taste of a gentleman. What a satisfactory person to look at! To be sure, his character–However, character has nothing to do with the eye-pleasures, and they are undeniably agreeable. Then there were his manners, and his mind–such a man of the world! Of course he wasn’t for one instant to be compared with Dory–who was? Still, it was a pity that Dory had a prejudice against showing all that he really was, a pity he had to be known to be appreciated–that is, appreciated by the “right sort” of people. Of course, the observant few could see him in his face, which was certainly distinguished–yes, far more distinguished than Ross’s, if not so regularly handsome.
“I’ve been looking over the old place,” Ross was saying, “and I’ve decided to ask father to keep it. Theresa doesn’t like it here; but I do, and I can’t bring myself to cut the last cords. As I wandered over the place I found myself getting so sad and sentimental that I hurried away to escape a fit of the blues.”
“We’re accustomed to that sort of talk,” said Adelaide with a mocking smile in her delightful eyes. “People who used to live here and come back on business occasionally always tell us how much more beautiful Saint X is than any other place on earth. But they take the first train for Chicago or Cincinnati or anywhere at all.”
“So you find it dull here?”
“I?” Adelaide shrugged her charming shoulders slightly. “Not so very. My life is here–the people, the things I’m used to. I’ve a sense of peace that I don’t have anywhere else.” She gazed dreamily away. “And peace is the greatest asset.”
“The greatest asset,” repeated Ross absently. “You are to be envied.”
“I think so,” assented she, a curious undertone of defiance in her voice. She had a paniclike impulse to begin to talk of Dory; but, though she cast about diligently, she could find no way of introducing him that would not have seemed awkward–pointed and provincially prudish.
“What are you reading?” he asked presently.
She turned the book so that he could see the title. His eyes wandered from it to linger on her slender white fingers–on the one where a plain band of gold shone eloquently. It fascinated and angered him; and she saw it, and was delighted. Her voice had a note of triumph in it as she said, putting the book on the table beside her, “Foolish, isn’t it, to be reading how to build beautiful houses"–she was going to say, “when one will probably never build any house at all.” She bethought her that this might sound like a sigh over Dory’s poverty and over the might-have-been. So she ended, “when the weather is so deliciously lazy.”
“I know the chap who wrote it,” said Ross, “Clever–really unusual talent. But the fashionable women took him up, made him a toady and a snob, like the rest of the men of their set. How that sort of thing eats out manhood and womanhood!”
Just what Dory often said! “My husband says,” she answered, “that whenever the world has got a fair start toward becoming civilized, along have come wealth and luxury to smother and kill. It’s very interesting to read history from that standpoint, instead of taking the usual view–that luxury produces the arts and graces.”
“Dory is a remarkable man,” said Ross with enthusiasm. “He’s amazingly modest; but there are some men so big that they can’t hide, no matter how hard they try. He’s one of them.”
Adelaide was in a glow, so happy did this sincere and just tribute make her, so relieved did she feel. She was talking to one of Dory’s friends and admirers, not with an old sweetheart of hers about whom her heart, perhaps, might be–well, a little sore, and from whom radiated a respectful, and therefore subtle, suggestion that the past was very much the present for him. She hastened to expand upon Dory, upon his work; and, as she talked of the university, she found she had a pride in it, and an interest, and a knowledge, too, which astonished her. And Ross listened, made appreciative comments. And so, on and on. When Henrietta came they were laughing and talking like the best of old friends; and at Ross’s invitation the three lunched at the club and spent the afternoon together.
“I think marriage has improved Ross,” said Henrietta, as she and Adelaide were driving home together after tea–tea with Ross.
“Theresa is a very sweet woman,” said Adelaide dutifully.
“Oh, I don’t mean that–any more than you do,” replied Henrietta. “I mean marriage has chastened him–the only way it ever improves anybody.”
“No doubt he and Theresa are happy together,” said Adelaide, clinging to her pretense with a persistence that might have given her interesting and valuable light upon herself had she noted it.
“Happy?” Henrietta Hastings laughed. “Only stupid people are happy, my dear. Theresa may be happy, but not Ross. He’s far too intelligent. And Theresa isn’t capable of giving him even those moments of happiness that repay the intelligent for their routine of the other sort of thing.”
“Marriage doesn’t mean much in a man’s life,” said Adelaide. “He has his business or profession. He is married only part of each day, and that the least important part to him.”
“Yes,” replied Henrietta, “marriage is for a man simply a peg in his shoe–in place or, as with Ross Whitney, out of place. One look at his face was enough to show me that he was limping and aching and groaning.”
Adelaide found this pleasantry amusing far beyond its merits. “You can’t tell,” said she. “Theresa doesn’t seem the same to him that she does to–to us.”
“Worse,” replied Henrietta, “worse. It’s fortunate they’re rich. If the better class of people hadn’t the money that enables them to put buffers round themselves, wife-beating wouldn’t be confined to the slums. Think of life in one of two small rooms with a Theresa Howland!”
Adelaide had fallen, as far as could one of her generous and tolerant disposition, into Henrietta’s most infectious habit of girding at everyone humorously–the favorite pastime of the idle who are profoundly discontented with themselves. By the time Mrs. Hastings left her at the lofty imported gates of Villa d’Orsay, they had done the subject of Theresa full justice, and Adelaide entered the house with that sense of self-contempt which cannot but come to any decent person after meting out untempered justice to a fellow-mortal. This did not last, however; the pleasure in the realization that Ross did not care for Theresa and did care for herself was too keen. As the feminine test of feminine success is the impression a woman makes upon men, Adelaide would have been neither human nor woman had she not been pleased with Ross’s discreet and sincerely respectful, and by no means deliberate or designing disclosure. It was not the proof of her power to charm the male that had made her indignant at herself. “How weak we women are!” she said to herself, trying to assume a penitence she could not make herself feel. “We really ought to be locked away in harems. No doubt Dory trusts me absolutely–that’s because other women are no temptation to him–that is, I suppose they aren’t. If he were different, he’d be afraid I had his weakness–we all think everybody has at least a touch of our infirmities. Of course I can be trusted; I’ve sense enough not to have my head turned by what may have been a mere clever attempt to smooth over the past." Then she remembered Ross’s look at her hand, at her wedding ring, and Henrietta’s confirmation of her own diagnosis. “But why should thatinterest me,” she thought, impatient with herself for lingering where her ideal of self-respect forbade. “I don’t love Ross Whitney. He pleases me, as he pleases any woman he wishes to make an agreeable impression upon. And, naturally, I like to know that he really did care for me and is ashamed and repentant of the baseness that made him act as he did. But beyond that, I care nothing about him–nothing. I may not care for Dory exactly as I should; but at least knowing him has made it impossible for me to go back to the Ross sort of man.”
That seemed clear and satisfactory. But, strangely, her mind jumped to the somewhat unexpected conclusion, “And I’ll not see him again.”
She wrote Dory that night a long, long letter, the nearest to a love letter she had ever written him. She brought Ross in quite casually; yet–What is the mystery of the telltale penumbra round the written word? Why was it that Dory, in far-away Vienna, with the memory of her strong and of the Villa d’Orsay dim, reading the letter for the first time, thought it the best he had ever got from her; and the next morning, reading it again, could think of nothing but Ross, and what Adelaide had really thought about him deep down in that dark well of the heart where we rarely let even our own eyes look intently?