The Second Generation
By David Graham Phillips
Public Domain Books
Chapter XXVI - Charles Whitney’s Heirs
Eight specialists, including Romney, of New York and Saltonstal, of Chicago, had given Charles Whitney their verdicts on why he was weak and lethargic. In essential details these diagnoses differed as widely as opinions always differ where no one knows, or can know, and so everyone is free to please his own fancy in choosing a cloak for his ignorance. Some of the doctors declared kidneys sound but liver suspicious; others exonerated liver but condemned one or both kidneys; others viewed kidneys and liver with equal pessimism; still others put those organs aside and shook their heads and unlimbered their Latin at spleen and pancreas. In one respect, however, the eight narrowed to two groups. “Let’s figure it out trial-balance fashion,” said Whitney to his private secretary, Vagen. “Five, including two-thousand-dollar Romney, say I ’may go soon.’ Three, including our one-thousand-dollar neighbor, Saltonstal, say I am ’in no immediate danger.’ But what the Romneys mean by ’soon,’ and what the Saltonstals mean by ’immediate,’ none of the eight says.”
“But they all say that ’with proper care’–” began Vagen, with the faith of the little in the pretentious.
“So they do! So they do!” interrupted Whitney, whom life had taught not to measure wisdom by profession of it, nor yet by repute for it. And he went on in a drowsy drawl, significantly different from his wonted rather explosive method of speech: “But does any of ’em say what ’proper care’ is? Each gives his opinion. Eight opinions, each different and each cautioning me against the kind of ’care’ prescribed by the other seven. And I paid six thousand dollars!” A cynical smile played round his thin-lipped, sensual, selfish mouth.
“Sixty-three hundred,” corrected Vagen. He never missed this sort of chance to impress his master with his passion for accuracy.
“Sixty-three, then. I’d better have given you the money to blow in on your fliers on wheat and pork.”
At this Vagen looked much depressed. It was his first intimation that his chief knew about his private life. “I hope, sir, nobody has been poisoning your mind against me,” said he. “I court the fullest investigation. I have been honest–”
“Of course, of course,” replied Whitney. “There never was a man as timid as you are that wasn’t honest. What a shallow world it is! How often envy and cowardice pass for virtue!”
“I often say, sir,” replied Vagen, with intent to soothe and flatter, “there ain’t one man in ten million that wouldn’t have done the things you’ve done if they’d had the brains and the nerve.”
“And pray what are the ’things I’ve done’?” inquired Whitney. But the flame of irritation was so feeble that it died down before his words were out. “I’m going down to Saint X to see old Schulze,” he drawled on. “Schulze knows more than any of ’em–and ain’t afraid to say when he don’t know.” A slow, somewhat sardonic smile. “That’s why he’s unknown. What can a wise man, who insists on showing that he’s wise, expect in a world of damn fools?” A long silence during which the uncomfortable Vagen had the consolation of seeing in that haggard, baggy, pasty-white face that his master’s thoughts were serving him much worse than mere discomfort. Then Whitney spoke again: “Yes, I’m going to Saint X. I’m going home to–”
He did not finish; he could not speak the word of finality. Vagen saw the look in his pale, blue-green eyes, saw that the great financier knew he would never again fling his terrible nets broadcast for vast hauls of golden fish, knew his days were numbered and that the number was small. But, instead of this making him feel sympathetic and equal toward his master, thus unmasked as mere galvanized clay, it filled him with greater awe; for, to the Vagens, Death seems to wear a special costume and walk with grander step to summon the rich and the high.
“Yes, I’ll go–this very afternoon,” said Whitney more loudly, turning his face toward the door through which came a faint feminine rustling–the froufrou of the finest, softest silk and finest, softest linen.
He looked attentively at his wife as she crossed the threshold–looked with eyes that saw mercilessly but indifferently, the eyes of those who are out of the game of life, out for good and all, and so care nothing about it. He noted in her figure–in its solidity, its settledness–the signs of age the beauty doctors were still almost successful in keeping out of that masklike face which was their creation rather than nature’s; he noted the rough-looking red of that hair whose thinness was not altogether concealed despite the elaborate care with which it was arranged to give the impression of careless abundance. He noted her hands; his eyes did not linger there, for the hands had the wrinkles and hollows and age marks which but for art would have been in the face, and they gave him a feeling–he could not have defined it, but it made him shudder. His eyes rested again upon her face, with an expression of pity that was slightly satirical. This struggle of hers seemed so petty and silly to him now; how could any human being think any other fact important when the Great Fact hung from birth threateningly over all?
“You feel worse to-day, dear?” said she, in the tones that sound carefully attuned to create an impression of sympathy. Hers had now become the mechanically saccharine voice which sardonic time ultimately fastens upon the professionally sympathetic to make them known and mocked of all, even of the vainest seekers after sympathy.
“On the contrary, I feel better,” he drawled, eyes half-shut. “No pain at all. But–horribly weak, as if I were going to faint in a minute or two–and I don’t give a damn for anything.” There was a personal fling in that last word, an insinuation that he knew her state of mind toward him, and reciprocated.
“Well, to-morrow Janet and her baby will be here,” said Mrs. Whitney, and her soothing tones seemed to stimulate him by irritation. “Then we’ll all go down to Saint X together, if you still wish it.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, I tell you!” he said with some energy in his drawl. ’Don’t talk to me as if you were hanging over my deathbed lying to me about my going to live!” And he closed his eyes, and his breath made his parted, languid lips flutter.
“Mr. Vagen,” said Matilda, in her tone of sweet graciousness, “may I trouble you to go and–”
“Go to the devil, Vagen,” said Charles, starting up again that slow stream of fainting words and sentences. “Anywhere to get you out of the room so you won’t fill the flapping ears of your friends with gossip about Whitney and his wife. Though why she should send you out I can’t understand. If you and the servants don’t hear what’s going on, you make up and tattle worse than what really happens.”
Mrs. Whitney gave Vagen a look of sweet resignation and Vagen responded with an expression which said: “I understand. He is very ill. He is not responsible. I admire your ladylike patience.” As Whitney’s eyes were closed he missed this byplay.
“Here, Vagen–before you go,” he drawled, waving a weary hand toward the table at his elbow. “Here’s a check for ten thousand. You don’t deserve it, for you’ve used your position to try to get rich on the sly. But inasmuch as I was ’on to’ you, and dropped hints that made you lose, I’ve no hard feelings. Then, too, you did no worse than any other would have done in your place. A man’s as good, and as bad, as he has the chance to be. So take it. I’ve not made my will yet, and as I may not be able to, I give you the money now. You’ll find the check in this top drawer, and some other checks for the people near me. I suppose they’ll expect something–I’ve got ’em into the habit of it. Take ’em and run along and send ’em off right away.”
Vagen muttered inarticulate thanks. In fact, the check was making small impression on him, or the revelation that his chief had eyes as keen for what was going on under his nose as for the great movements in the big field. He could think only of that terrifying weakness, that significant garrulousness.
When Vagen was out of the way, Charles repeated: “I’m going this afternoon.” His listless eyes were gazing vacantly at the carved rosewood ceiling. His hands–the hands of a corpse–looked horribly like sheathed, crumpled claws in the gold silk cuffs of his dark-blue dressing gown. His nose, protruding from his sunken cheeks, seemed not like a huge beak, but indeed a beak.
“But Janet–” began Mrs. Whitney, thinking as she spoke that he surely would “not be spared to us much longer.”
“Janet can follow–or stay here–or–I don’t care what she does,” droned Whitney. “Do you suppose I’m thinking about anybody but myself now? Would you, if you were in my fix. I should say,” he amended cynically, ’willyou, when you’re in my fix?”
“Charles!” exclaimed Matilda.
Whitney’s smile checked her. “I’m not a fool,” he rambled on. “Do you suppose I haven’t seen what was going on? Do you suppose I don’t know all of you wish I was out of it? Yes, out of it. And you needn’t bother to put on that shocked look; it doesn’t fool me. I used to say: ’I’ll be generous with my family and give ’em more than they’d have if I was gone.’ ’No children waiting round eager for me to pass off,’ said I, ’so that they can divide up my fortune.’ I’ve said that often and often. And I’ve acted on it. And I’ve raised up two as pampered, selfish children as ever lived. And now–The last seven months I’ve been losing money hand over fist. Everything I’ve gone into has turned out bad. I’m down to about half what I had a year ago–maybe less than half. And you and Ross–and no doubt that marchioness ex-daughter of mine–all know it. And you’re afraid if I live on, I’ll lose more, maybe everything. Do you deny it?”
Matilda was unable to speak. She had known he was less rich; but half!–"maybe less!” The cuirass of steel, whalebone, kid, and linen which molded her body to a fashionable figure seemed to be closing in on her heart and lungs with a stifling clutch.
“No, you don’t deny it. You couldn’t,” Whitney drawled on. “And so my ’indulgent father’ damned foolishness ends just where I might have known it’d end. We’ve brought up the children to love money and show off, instead of to love us and character and self-respect–God forgive me!”
The room was profoundly silent: Charles thinking drowsily, yet vividly, too, of his life; Matilda burning in anguish over the lost half, or more, of the fortune–and Charles had always been secretive about his wealth, so she didn’t know how much the fortune was a year ago and couldn’t judge whether much or little was left! Enough to uphold her social position? Or only enough to keep her barely clear of the “middle class”?
Soon Whitney’s voice broke in upon her torments. “I’ve been thinking a great deal, this last week, about Hiram Ranger.”
Matilda, startled, gave him a wild look. “Charles!” she exclaimed.
“Exactly,” said Whitney, a gleam of enjoyment in his dull eyes.
In fact, ever since Hiram’s death his colossal figure had often dominated the thoughts of Charles and Matilda Whitney. The will had set Charles to observing, to seeing; it had set Matilda to speculating on the possibilities of her own husband’s stealthy relentlessness. At these definite, dreadful words of his, her vague alarms burst into a deafening chorus, jangling and clanging in her very ears.
“Arthur Ranger,” continued Whitney, languid and absent, “has got out of the beaten track of business–”
“Yes; look at Hiram’s children!” urged Matilda. “Everybody that is anybody is down on Arthur. See what his wife has brought him to, with her crazy, upsetting ideas! They tell me a good many of the best people in Saint X hardly speak to him. Yes, Charles, look at Hiram’s doings.”
“Thanks to Hiram–what he inherited from Hiram and what Hiram had the good sense not to let him inherit–he has become a somebody. He’s doing things, and the fact that they aren’t just the kind of things I like doesn’t make me fool enough to underestimate them or him. Success is the test, and in his line he’s a success.”
“If it hadn’t been for his wife he’d not have done much,” said Matilda sourly.
“You’ve lived long enough, I’d think, to have learned not to say such shallow things,” drawled he. “Of course, he has learned from her–don’t everybody have to learn somewhere? Where a man learns is nothing; the important thing is his capacity to learn. If a man’s got the capacity to learn, he’ll learn, he’ll become somebody. If he hasn’t, then no man nor no woman can teach him. No, my dear, you may be sure that anybody who amounts to anything has got it in himself. And Arthur Ranger is a credit to any father. He’s becoming famous–the papers are full of what he’s accomplishing. And he’s respected, honest, able, with a wife that loves him. Would he have been anybody if his father had left him the money that would have compelled him to be a fool? As for the girl, she’s got a showy streak in her–she’s your regular American woman of nowadays–the kind of daughter your sort of mother and my sort of damn-fool father breed up. But Del’s mother wasn’t like you, Mattie, and she hadn’t a fool father like me, so she’s married to a young fellow that’s already doing big things, in his line–and a good line his is, a better line than trimming dollars and donkeys. Our Jenny–Jane that used to be–We’ve sold her to a Frenchman, and she’s sold herself to the devil. Hiram’s daughter–God forgive us, Matilda, for what we’ve done to Janet.” All this, including that last devout appeal, in the manner of a spectator of a scene at which he is taking a last, indifferent, backward glance as he is leaving.
His wife’s brain was too busy making plans and tearing them up to follow his monotonous garrulity except in a general way. He waited in vain for her to defend her daughter and herself.
“As for Ross,” he went on, “he’s keen and quick enough. He’s got together quite a fortune of his own–and he’ll hold on to it and get more. It’s easy enough to make money if you’ve got money–and ain’t too finicky about the look and the smell of the dollars before you gulp ’em down. Your Ross has a good strong stomach that way–as good as his father’s–and mother’s. But–He ain’t exactly the man I used to picture as I was wheeling him up and down the street in his baby carriage in Saint X.”
That vulgar reminiscence seemed to be the signal for which Matilda was waiting. “Charles Whitney,” she said, “you and I have brought up our children to take their proper place in our aristocracy of wealth and birth and breeding. And I know you’re not going to undo what we’ve done, and done well.”
“That’s your ’bossy’ tone, Mattie,” he drawled, his desire to talk getting a fresh excuse for indulging itself. “I guess this is a good time to let you into a secret. You’ve thought you ran me ever since we were engaged. That delusion of yours nearly lost you the chance to lead these thirty years of wedded bliss with me. If you hadn’t happened to make me jealous and afraid the one man I used to envy in those days would get you–I laughed the other day when he was appointed postmaster at Indianapolis–However, I did marry you, and did let you imagine you wore the pants. It seemed to amuse you, and it certainly amused me–though not in the same way. Now I want you to look back and think hard. You can’t remember a single time that what you bossed me to do was ever done. I was always fond of playing tricks and pulling secret wires, and I did a lot of it in making you think you were bossing me when you were really being bossed.”
It was all Mrs. Whitney could do to keep her mind on how sick he was, and how imperative it was not to get him out of humor. “I never meant to try to influence you, Charles,” she said, “except as anyone tries to help those about one. And certainly you’ve been the one that has put us all in our present position. That’s why it distressed me for you even to talk of undoing your work.”
Whitney smiled satirically, mysteriously. “I’ll do what I think best," was all he replied. And presently he added, “though I don’t feel like doing anything. It seems to me I don’t care what happens, or whether I live–or–don’t. I’ll go to Saint X. I’m just about strong enough to stand the trip–and have Schulze come out to Point Helen this evening.”
“Why not save your strength and have him come here?” urged Matilda.
“He wouldn’t,” replied her husband. “Last time I saw him he looked me over and said: ’Champagne. If you don’t stop it you won’t live. Don’t come here again unless you cut out that poison.’ But I never could resist champagne. So I told myself he was an old crank, and found a great doctor I could hire to agree with me. No use to send for Schulze to come all this distance. I might even have to go to his office if I was at Saint X. He won’t go to see anybody who’s able to move about. ’As they want me, let ’em come to me, just as I’d go to them if I wanted them,’ he says. ’The air they get on the way is part of the cure.’ Besides, he and I had a quarrel. He was talking his nonsense against religion, and I said something, and he implied I wasn’t as straight in business as I should be–quoted something about ’He that hasteth to be rich shall not be innocent,’ and one thing led to another, and finally he said, with that ugly jeer of his: ’You pious bandits are lucky to have a forgiving God to go to. Now we poor devils have only our self-respect, and it never forgives anything.’” Whitney laughed, reflected, laughed again. “Yes, I must see Schulze. Maybe–Anyhow, I’m going to Saint X–going home, or as near home as anything my money has left me.”
He drowsed off. She sat watching him–the great beak, the bulging forehead, the thin, cruel lips; and everywhere in the garden of artificial flowers which formed the surface of her nature, hiding its reality even from herself, there appeared the poisonous snakes of hateful thoughts to shoot their fangs and hiss at him. She shrank and shuddered; yet–"It’s altogether his own fault that I feel this way toward him as he lies dying,” she said to herself, resorting to human nature’s unfailing, universally sought comforter in all trying circumstances–self-excuse. “He always was cold and hard. He has become a monster. And even in his best days he wasn’t worthy to have such a woman as I am. And now he is thinking of cheating me–and will do it–unless God prevents him.”
He drowsed on, more asleep than awake, not even rousing when they put him to bed. He did not go to Saint X that day. But he did go later–went to lie in state in the corridor of the splendid hall he had given Tecumseh; to be gaped at by thousands who could not see that they were viewing a few pounds of molded clay, so busy were their imaginations with the vast fortune it was supposed he left; to be preached over, the sermon by Dr. Hargrave, who believed in him–and so, in estimating the man as distinguished from what the system he lived under had made of him, perhaps came nearer the truth than those who talked only of the facts of his public career–his piracy, his bushwhacking, his gambling with the marked cards and loaded dice of “high finance"; to be buried in the old Cedar Grove Cemetery, with an imposing monument presently over him, before it fresh flowers every day for a year–the Marchioness of St. Berthè contracted with a florist to attend to that.
Four days after the funeral Janet sent a servant down to Adelaide and to Mrs. Ranger with notes begging them to come to Point Helen for lunch. “We are lonely and so dreary,” she wrote Adelaide. “We want you–need you.” Only one answer was possible, and at half-past twelve they set out in Mrs. Ranger’s carriage. As they drove away from the Villa d’Orsay Mrs. Ranger said: “When does Mrs. Dorsey allow to come home?”
“Not for two years more,” replied Del.
Ellen’s expression suggested that she was debating whether or not to speak some thought which she feared Del might regard as meddlesome. “When you finally do have to get out,” she said presently, “it’ll be like giving up your own home, won’t it?”
“No,” said Del. “I hate the place!” A pause, then: “I wrote Mrs. Dorsey yesterday that we wouldn’t stay but three months longer–not in any circumstances.”
The old woman’s face brightened. “I’m mighty glad of that,” she said heartily. “Then, you’ll have a home of your own at last.”
“Not exactly,” was Del’s reply, in a curious tone. “The fact is, I’m going to live with Dr. Hargrave.”
Ellen showed her astonishment. “And old Martha Skeffington!”
“She’s not so difficult, once you get to know her,” replied Del. “I find that everything depends on the point of view you take in looking at people. I’ve been getting better acquainted with Dory’s aunt the last few weeks. I think she has begun to like me. We’ll get along.”
“Don’t you think you’d better wait till Dory gets back?”
“No,” said Adelaide firmly, a look in her eyes which made her mother say to herself: “There’s the Ranger in her.”
They drove in silence awhile; then Del, with an effort which brought a bright color to her cheeks, began: “I want to tell you, mother, that I went to Judge Torrey this morning, and made over to you the income father left me.”
“Whatever did you do that for?” cried Ellen, turning in the seat to stare at her daughter through her glasses.
“I promised Dory I would. I’ve spent some of the money–about fifteen hundred dollars–You see, the house was more expensive than I thought. But everything’s paid up now.”
“I don’t need it, and don’t want it,” said Ellen. “And I won’t take it!”
“I promised Dory I would–before we were married. He thinks I’ve done it. I’ve let him think so. And–lately–I’ve been having a sort of house cleaning–straightening things up–and I straightened that up, too.”
Ellen Ranger understood. A long pause, during which she looked lovingly at her daughter’s beautiful face. At last she said: “No, there don’t seem to be no other way out of it.” Then, anxiously, “You ain’t written Dory what you’ve done?”
“No,” replied Del. “Not yet.”
“Not never!” exclaimed her mother. “That’s one of the things a body mustn’t ever tell anyone. You did wrong; you’ve done right–and it’s all settled and over. He’d probably understand if you told him. But he’d never quite trust you the same again–that’s human nature.”
“But you’d trust me,” objected Del.
“I’m older’n Dory,” replied her mother; “and, besides, I ain’t your husband. There’s no end of husbands and wives that get into hot water through telling, where it don’t do any earthly good and makes the other one uneasy and unhappy.”
Adelaide reflected. “It is better not to tell him,” she concluded.
Ellen was relieved. “That’s common sense,” said she. “And you can’t use too much common sense in marriage. The woman’s got to have it, for the men never do where women are concerned.” She reflected a few minutes, then, after a keen glance at her daughter and away, she said with an appearance of impersonality that evidenced diplomatic skill of no mean order: “And there’s this habit the women are getting nowadays of always peeping into their heads and hearts to see what’s going on. How can they expect the cake to bake right if they’re first at the fire door, then at the oven door, openin’ and shuttin’ ’em, peepin’ and pokin’ and tastin’–that’s what I’d like to know.”
Adelaide looked at her mother’s apparently unconscious face in surprise and admiration. “What a sensible, wonderful woman you are, Ellen Ranger!" she exclaimed, giving her mother the sisterly name she always gave her when she felt a particular delight in the bond between them. And half to herself, yet so that her mother heard, she added: “And what a fool your daughter has been!”
“Nobody’s born wise,” said Ellen, “and mighty few takes the trouble to learn.”
At Point Helen the mourning livery of the lodge keeper and of the hall servants prepared Ellen and her daughter for the correct and elegant habiliments of woe in which Matilda and her son and daughter were garbed. If Whitney had died before he began to lose his fortune, and while his family were in a good humor with him because of his careless generosity, or, rather, indifference to extravagance, he would have been mourned as sincerely as it is possible for human beings to mourn one by whose death they are to profit enormously in title to the material possessions they have been trained to esteem above all else in the world. As it was, those last few months of anxiety–Mrs. Whitney worrying lest her luxury and social leadership should be passing, Ross exasperated by the daily struggle to dissuade his father from fatuous enterprises–had changed Whitney’s death from a grief to a relief. However, “appearances" constrained Ross to a decent show of sorrow, compelled Mrs. Whitney to a still stronger exhibit. Janet, who in far-away France had not been touched by the financial anxieties, felt a genuine grief that gave her an admirable stimulus to her efflorescent oversoul. She had “prepared for the worst,” had brought from Paris a marvelous mourning wardrobe–dresses and hats and jewelry that set off her delicate loveliness as it had never been set off before. She made of herself an embodiment, an apotheosis, rather, of poetic woe–and so, roused to emulation her mother’s passion for pose. Ross had refused to gratify them even to the extent of taking a spectator’s part in their refined theatricals. The coming of Mrs. Ranger and Adelaide gave them an audience other than servile; they proceeded to strive to rise to the opportunity. The result of this struggle between mother and daughter was a spectacle so painful that even Ellen, determined to see only sincerity, found it impossible not to suspect a grief that could find so much and such language in which to vent itself. She fancied she appreciated why Ross eyed his mother and sister with unconcealed hostility and spoke almost harshly when they compelled him to break his silence.
Adelaide hardly gave the two women a thought. She was surprised to find that she was looking at Ross and thinking of him quite calmly and most critically. His face seemed to her trivial, with a selfishness that more than suggested meanness, the eyes looking out from a mind which habitually entertained ideas not worth a real man’s while. What was the matter with him–"or with me?” What is he thinking about? Why is he looking so mean and petty? Why had he no longer the least physical attraction for her? Why did her intense emotions of a few brief weeks ago seem as vague as an unimportant occurrence of many years ago? What had broken the spell? She could not answer her own puzzled questions; she simply knew that it was so, that any idea that she did, or ever could, love Ross Whitney was gone, and gone forever. “It’s so,” she thought. “What’s the difference why? Shall I never learn to let the stove doors alone?”
As soon as lunch was over Matilda took Ellen to her boudoir and Ross went away, leaving Janet and Adelaide to walk up and down the shaded west terrace with its vast outlook upon the sinuous river and the hills. To draw Janet from the painful theatricals, she took advantage of a casual question about the lynching, and went into the details of that red evening as she had not with anyone. It was now almost two months into the past; but all Saint X was still feverish from it, and she herself had only begun again to have unhaunted and unbroken sleep. While she was relating Janet forgot herself; but when the story was told–all of it except Adelaide’s own part; that she entirely omitted–Janet went back to her personal point of view. “A beautiful love story!” she exclaimed. “And right here in prosaic Saint X!”
“Is it Saint X that is prosaic,” said Adelaide, “or is it we, in failing to see the truth about familiar things?”
“Perhaps,” replied Janet, in the tone that means “not at all.” To her a thrill of emotion or a throb of pain felt by a titled person differed from the same sensation in an untitled person as a bar of supernal or infernal music differs from the whistling of a farm boy on his way to gather the eggs; if the title was royal–Janet wept when an empress died of a cancer and talked of her “heroism” for weeks.
“Of course,” she went on musingly, to Adelaide, “it was very beautiful for Lorry and Estelle to love each other. Still, I can’t help feeling that–At least, I can understand Arden Wilmot’s rage. After all, Estelle stepped out of her class; didn’t she, Del?”
“Yes,” said Del, not recognizing the remark as one she herself might have made not many months before. “Both she and Lorry stepped out of their classes, and into the class where there is no class, but only just men and women, hearts and hands and brains.” She checked herself just in time to refrain from adding, “the class our fathers and mothers belonged in.”
Janet did not inquire into the mystery of this. “And Estelle has gone to live with poor Lorry’s mother!” said she. “How noble and touching! Such beautiful self-sacrifice!”
“Why self-sacrifice?” asked Del, irritated. “She couldn’t possibly go home, could she? And she is fond of Lorry’s mother.”
“Yes, of course. No doubt she’s a dear, lovely old woman. But–a washerwoman, and constant, daily contact–and not as lady and servant, but on what must be, after all, a sort of equality–” Janet finished her sentence with a ladylike look.
Adelaide burned with the resentment of the new convert. “A woman who brought into the world and brought up such a son as Lorry was,” said she, “needn’t yield to anybody.” Then the silliness of arguing such a matter with Madame la Marquise de Saint Berthè came over her. “You and I don’t look at life from the same standpoint, Janet,” she added, smiling. “You see, you’re a lady, and I’m not–any more.”
“Oh, yes, you are,” Janet, the devoid of the sense of humor, hastened to assure her earnestly. “You know we in France don’t feel as they do in America, that one gets or loses caste when one gets or loses money. Besides, Dory is in a profession that is quite aristocratic, and those lectures he delivered at Göttingen are really talked about everywhere on the other side.”
But Adelaide refused to be consoled. “No, I’m not a lady–not what you’d call a lady, even as a Frenchwoman.”
“Oh, but I’m a good American!” Janet protested, suddenly prudent and rushing into the pretenses our transplanted and acclimatized sisters are careful to make when talking with us of the land whence comes their sole claim to foreign aristocratic consideration–their income. “I’m really quite famous for my Americanism. I’ve done a great deal toward establishing our ambassador at Paris in the best society. Coming from a republic and to a republic that isn’t recognized by our set in France, he was having a hard time, though he and his wife are all right at home. Now that there are more gentlemen in authority at Washington, our diplomats are of a much better class than they used to be. Everyone over there says so. Of course, you–that is we, are gradually becoming civilized and building up an aristocracy.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Adelaide, feeling that she must change the subject or show her exasperation, yet unable to find any subject which Janet would not adorn with refined and cultured views. “Isn’t Ross, there, looking for you?”
He had just rushed from the house, his face, his manner violently agitated. As he saw Adelaide looking at him, he folded and put in his pocket a letter which seemed to be the cause of his agitation. When the two young women came to where he was standing, he joined them and walked up and down with them, his sister, between him and Del, doing all the talking. Out of the corner of her eye Del saw that his gaze was bent savagely upon the ground and that his struggle for self-control was still on. At the first opportunity she said: “I must get mother. We’ll have to be going.”
“Oh, no, not yet,” urged Janet, sincerity strong in her affected accents. Del felt that the sister, for some reason, as strongly wished not to be left alone with the brother as the brother wished to be left alone with the sister. In confirmation of this, Janet went on to say: “Anyhow, Ross will tell your mother.”
Ross scowled at his sister, made a hesitating, reluctant movement toward the steps; just then Matilda and Ellen appeared. Adelaide saw that her mother had succeeded in getting through Matilda’s crust of sham and in touch with her heart. At sight of her son Mrs. Whitney’s softened countenance changed–hardened, Adelaide thought–and she said to him eagerly: “Any news, any letters?”
“This,” answered Ross explosively. He jerked the letter from his pocket, gave it to his mother.
“You’ll excuse me–Ellen–Adelaide,” said Matilda, as she unfolded the paper with ringers that trembled. “This is very important.” Silence, as she read, her eager glance leaping along the lines. Her expression became terrible; she burst out in a voice that was both anger and despair: “No will! He wasn’t just trying to torment me when he said he hadn’t made one. No will! Nothing but the draft of a scheme to leave everything to Tecumseh–there’s your Hiram’s work, Ellen!”
Adelaide’s gentle pressure on her mother’s arm was unnecessary; it was too evident that Matilda, beside herself, could not be held responsible for anything she said. There was no pretense, no “oversoul” in her emotion now. She was as different from the Matilda of the luncheon table as the swollen and guttered face of woe in real life is different from the graceful tragedy of the stage.
“No will; what of it?” said Ellen gently. “It won’t make the least difference. There’s just you and the children.”
Adelaide, with clearer knowledge of certain dark phases of human nature and of the Whitney family, hastily interposed. “Yes, we must go,” said she. “Good-by, Mrs. Whitney,” and she put out her hand.
Mrs. Whitney neither saw nor heard. “Ellen!” she cried, her voice like her wild and haggard face. “What do you think of such a daughter as mine here? Her father–”
Janet, with eyes that dilated and contracted strangely, interrupted with a sweet, deprecating, “Good-by, Adelaide dear. As I told you, I am leaving to-night–”
There Ross laid his hand heavily on Janet’s shoulder. “You are going to stay, young lady,” he said between his teeth, “and hear what your mother has to say about you.” His voice made Adelaide shudder, even before she saw the black hate his eyes were hurling at his sister.
“Yes, we want you, Ellen, and you, Del, to know her as she is,” Mrs. Whitney now raged on. “When she married, her father gave her a dowry, bought that title for her–paid as much as his whole fortune now amounts to. He did it solely because I begged him to. She knows the fight I had to win him over. And now that he’s gone, without making a will, she says she’ll have her legal rights! Her legal rights! She’ll take one-third of what he left. She’ll rob her brother and her mother!”
Janet was plainly reminding herself that she must not forget that she was a lady and a marchioness. In a manner in which quiet dignity was mingled with a delicate soul’s shrinking from such brawling vulgarity as this that was being forced upon her, she said, looking at Adelaide: “Papa never intended that my dowry should be taken out of my share. It was a present.” She looked calmly at her mother. “Just like your jewels, mamma.” She turned her clear, luminous eyes upon Ross. “Just like the opportunities he gave you to get your independent fortune.”
Mrs. Whitney, trembling so that she could scarcely articulate, retorted: “At the time he said, and I told you, it was to come out of your share. And how you thanked me and kissed me and–” She stretched toward Ellen her shaking old woman’s hands, made repellent by the contrasting splendor of magnificent black pearl rings. “O Ellen, Ellen!” she quavered. “I think my heart will burst!”
“You did say he said so,” replied Janet softly, “but he never told me.”
“You–you–” stuttered Ross, flinging out his arms at her in a paroxysm of fury.
“I refuse to discuss this any further,” said Janet, drawing herself up in the full majesty of her black-robed figure and turning her long shapely back on Ross. “Mrs. Ranger, I’m sure you and Del realize that mother and Ross are terribly upset, and not–”
“They’ll realize that you are a cheat, a vulture in the guise of woman!" cried Mrs. Whitney. “Ellen, tell her what she is!”
Mrs. Ranger, her eyes down and her face expressing her agonized embarrassment, contrived to say: “You mustn’t bring me in, Mattie. Adelaide and I must go.”
“No, you shall hear!” shrieked Mrs. Whitney, barring the way. “All the world shall hear how this treacherous, ingrate daughter of mine–oh, the sting of that!–how she purposes to steal, yes, steal four times as much of her father’s estate as Ross or I get. Four times as much! I can’t believe the law allows it! But whether it does or not, Janet Whitney, God won’t allow it! God will hear my cry, my curse on you.”
“My conscience is clear,” said Janet, and her gaze, spiritual, exalted, patient, showed that she spoke the truth, that her mother’s looks and words left her quite unscathed.
Ross vented a vicious, jeering laugh. His mother, overcome with the sense of helplessness, collapsed from rage to grief and tears. She turned to Mrs. Ranger. “Your Hiram was right,” she wailed, “and my Charles said so just before he went. Look at my daughter, Ellen. Look at my son–for he, too, is robbing me. He has his own fortune that his dead father made for him; yet he, too, talks about his legal rights. He demands his full third!”
Adelaide did not look at Ross; yet she was seeing him inside and out, the inside through the outside.
“My heartless children!” sobbed Matilda. “I can’t believe that they are the same I brought into the world and watched over and saw that they had everything. God forgive them–and me. Your Hiram was right. Money has done it. Money has made monsters of them. And I–oh, how I am punished!”
All this time Ellen and Adelaide had been gradually retreating, the Whitneys following them. When Mrs. Whitney at last opened wide the casket of her woe and revealed Ross there, too, he wheeled on Adelaide with a protesting, appealing look. He was confident that he was in the right, that his case was different from Janet’s; confident also that Adelaide would feel that in defending his rights he was also defending hers that were to be. But before Del there had risen the scene after the reading of her own father’s will. She recalled her rebellious thoughts, saw again Arthur’s fine face distorted by evil passions, heard again her mother’s terrible, just words: “Don’t trample on your father’s grave, Arthur Ranger! I’ll put you both out of the house! Go to the Whitneys, where you belong!” And then she saw Arthur as he now was, and herself the wife of Dory Hargrave. And she for the first time realized, as we realize things only when they have become an accepted and unshakable basic part of our lives, what her father had done, what her father was. Hiram had won his daughter.
“We are going now,” said Ellen, coming from the stupor of shame and horror into which this volcanic disgorging of the secret minds and hearts of the Whitneys had plunged her. And the expression she fixed first upon Janet, then upon Ross, then upon Matilda, killed any disposition they might have had to try to detain her. As she and Adelaide went toward her carriage, Ross followed. Walking beside Adelaide, he began to protest in a low tone and with passionate appeal against the verdict he could not but read in her face. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t just!” he pleaded. “Adelaide, hear me! Don’t misjudge me. You know what your–your good opinion means to me.”
She took her mother’s arm, and so drew farther away from him.
“Forgive me,” he begged. “Janet put me out of my mind. It drove me mad to have her rob–us.”
At that “us” Adelaide fixed her gaze on his for an instant. And what he saw in her eyes silenced him–silenced him on one subject forever.
He left for Chicago without seeing either his sister or his mother again. His impulse was to renounce to his mother his share of his father’s estate. But one does not act hastily upon an impulse to give up nearly a million dollars. On reflection he decided against such expensive and futile generosity. If it would gain him Adelaide–then, yes. But when it would gain him nothing but the applause of people who in the same circumstances would not have had even the impulse to forego a million–"Mother’s proper share will give her as much of an income as a woman needs at her age and alone,” reasoned he. “Besides, she may marry again. And I must not forget that but for her Janet would never have got that dowry. She brought this upon herself. Her folly has cost me dearly enough. If I go away to live abroad or in New York–anywhere to be free of the Howlands–why I’ll need all I’ve got properly to establish myself.”
Janet and her baby left on a later train for the East. Before going she tried to see her mother. Her mother had wronged her in thought, had slandered her in word; but Janet forgave her and nobly wished her to have the consolation of knowing it. Mrs. Whitney, however, prevented the execution of this exalted purpose by refusing to answer the gentle persistent knocking and gentle appealing calls of “Mother, mother dear!" at her locked boudoir door.