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omnibus, its great, grinding wheels took up the derisive burden - "Never
see him, never see him again."

All that was only two weeks ago, and here she was, as happy as a lark,
mounting the hill to his door in the spring sunshine. So weak a heart
did not deserve such a radiant fate; and Lizzie said to herself that she
would never again distrust her star.



II


THE cracked bell tinkled sweetly through her heart as she stood
listening for the scamper of Juliet's feet. Juliet, anticipating the
laggard Suzanne, almost always opened the door for her governess, not
from any unnatural zeal to hasten the hour of her studies, but from the
irrepressible desire to see what was going on in the street. But on this
occasion Lizzie listened vainly for a step, and at length gave the bell
another twitch. Doubtless some unusually absorbing incident had detained
the child below-stairs; thus only could her absence be explained.

A third ring produced no response, and Lizzie, full of dawning fears,
drew back to look up at the shabby, blistered house. She saw that the
studio shutters stood wide, and then noticed, without surprise, that
Mrs. Deering's were still unopened. No doubt Mrs. Deering was resting
after the fatigue of the journey. Instinctively Lizzie's eyes turned
again to the studio; and as she looked, she saw Deering at the window.
He caught sight of her, and an instant later came to the door. He looked
paler than usual, and she noticed that he wore a black coat.

"I rang and rang - where is Juliet?"

He looked at her gravely, almost solemnly; then, without answering, he
led her down the passage to the studio, and closed the door when she had
entered.

"My wife is dead - she died suddenly ten days ago. Didn't you see it in
the papers?"

Lizzie, with a little cry, sank down on the rickety divan. She seldom
saw a newspaper, since she could not afford one for her own perusal, and
those supplied to the Pension Clopin were usually in the hands of its
more privileged lodgers till long after the hour when she set out on her
morning round.

"No; I didn't see it," she stammered.

Deering was silent. He stood a little way off, twisting an unlit
cigarette in his hand, and looking down at her with a gaze that was both
hesitating and constrained.

She, too, felt the constraint of the situation, the impossibility of
finding words that, after what had passed between them, should seem
neither false nor heartless; and at last she exclaimed, standing up:
"Poor little Juliet! Can't I go to her?"

"Juliet is not here. I left her at St.-Raphael with the relations with
whom my wife was staying."

"Oh," Lizzie murmured, feeling vaguely that this added to the difficulty
of the moment. How differently she had pictured their meeting!

"I'm so - so sorry for her!" she faltered out.

Deering made no reply, but, turning on his heel, walked the length of
the studio, and then halted vaguely before the picture on the easel. It
was the landscape he had begun the previous autumn, with the
intention of sending it to the Salon that spring. But it was still
unfinished - seemed, indeed, hardly more advanced than on the fateful
October day when Lizzie, standing before it for the first time, had
confessed her inability to deal with Juliet. Perhaps the same thought
struck its creator, for he broke into a dry laugh, and turned from the
easel with a shrug.

Under his protracted silence Lizzie roused herself to the fact that,
since her pupil was absent, there was no reason for her remaining any
longer; and as Deering again moved toward her she said with an effort:
"I'll go, then. You'll send for me when she comes back?"

Deering still hesitated, tormenting the cigarette between his fingers.

"She's not coming back - not at present."

Lizzie heard him with a drop of the heart. Was everything to be changed
in their lives? But of course; how could she have dreamed it would be
otherwise? She could only stupidly repeat: "Not coming back? Not this
spring?"

"Probably not, since are friends are so good as to keep her. The fact
is, I've got to go to America. My wife left a little property, a few
pennies, that I must go and see to - for the child."

Lizzie stood before him, a cold knife in her breast. "I see - I see,"
she reiterated, feeling all the while that she strained her eyes into
impenetrable blackness.

"It's a nuisance, having to pull up stakes," he went on, with a fretful
glance about the studio.

She lifted her eyes slowly to his face. "Shall you be gone long?" she
took courage to ask.

"There again - I can't tell. It's all so frightfully mixed up." He met
her look for an incredibly long, strange moment. "I hate to go!" he
murmured as if to himself.

Lizzie felt a rush of moisture to her lashes, and the old, familiar
wave of weakness at her heart. She raised her hand to her face with an
instinctive gesture, and as she did so he held out his arms.

"Come here, Lizzie!" he said.

And she went - went with a sweet, wild throb of liberation, with the
sense that at last the house was his, that _she_ was his, if he wanted
her; that never again would that silent, rebuking presence in the room
above constrain and shame her rapture.

He pushed back her veil and covered her face with kisses. "Don't cry,
you little goose!" he said.



III


THAT they must see each other again before his departure, in someplace
less exposed than their usual haunts, was as clear to Lizzie as it
appeared to be to Deering. His expressing the wish seemed, indeed, the
sweetest testimony to the quality of his feeling, since, in the first
weeks of the most perfunctory widowerhood, a man of his stamp is
presumed to abstain from light adventures. If, then, at such a moment,
he wished so much to be quietly and gravely with her, it could be only
for reasons she did not call by name, but of which she felt the sacred
tremor in her heart; and it would have seemed incredibly vain and vulgar
to put forward, at such a crisis, the conventional objections by means
of which such little-exposed existences defend the treasure of their
freshness.

In such a mood as this one may descend from the Passy omnibus at the
corner of the Pont de la Concorde (she had not let him fetch her in a
cab) with a sense of dedication almost solemn, and may advance to meet
one's fate, in the shape of a gentleman of melancholy elegance, with an
auto-taxi at his call, as one has advanced to the altar-steps in some
girlish bridal vision.

Even the experienced waiter ushering them into an upper room of the
quiet restaurant on the Seine could hardly have supposed their quest
for seclusion to be based on sentimental motives, so soberly did Deering
give his orders, while his companion sat small and grave at his side.
She did not, indeed, mean to let her private pang obscure their hour
together: she was already learning that Deering shrank from sadness.
He should see that she had courage and gaiety to face their coming
separation, and yet give herself meanwhile to this completer nearness;
but she waited, as always, for him to strike the opening note.

Looking back at it later, she wondered at the mild suavity of the hour.
Her heart was unversed in happiness, but he had found the tone to lull
her apprehensions, and make her trust her fate for any golden wonder.
Deepest of all, he gave her the sense of something tacit and confirmed
between them, as if his tenderness were a habit of the heart hardly
needing the support of outward proof.

Such proof as he offered came, therefore, as a kind of crowning
luxury, the flower of a profoundly rooted sentiment; and here again the
instinctive reserves and defenses would have seemed to vulgarize what
his trust ennobled. But if all the tender casuistries of her heart were
at his service, he took no grave advantage of them. Even when they sat
alone after dinner, with the lights of the river trembling through their
one low window, and the vast rumor of Paris inclosing them in a heart
of silence, he seemed, as much as herself, under the spell of
hallowing influences. She felt it most of all as she yielded to the arm
he presently put about her, to the long caress he laid on her lips and
eyes: not a word or gesture missed the note of quiet union, or cast a
doubt, in retrospect, on the pact they sealed with their last look.

That pact, as she reviewed it through a sleepless night, seemed to have
consisted mainly, on his part, in pleadings for full and frequent news
of her, on hers in the assurance that it should be given as often as
he asked it. She had felt an intense desire not to betray any undue
eagerness, any crude desire to affirm and define her hold on him. Her
life had given her a certain acquaintance with the arts of defense:
girls in her situation were commonly supposed to know them all, and
to use them as occasion called. But Lizzie's very need of them had
intensified her disdain. Just because she was so poor, and had always,
materially, so to count her change and calculate her margin, she would
at least know the joy of emotional prodigality, would give her heart
as recklessly as the rich their millions. She was sure now that Deering
loved her, and if he had seized the occasion of their farewell to give
her some definitely worded sign of his feeling - if, more plainly, he
had asked her to marry him, - his doing so would have seemed less like
a proof of his sincerity than of his suspecting in her the need of a
verbal warrant. That he had abstained seemed to show that he trusted
her as she trusted him, and that they were one most of all in this deep
security of understanding.

She had tried to make him divine all this in the chariness of her
promise to write. She would write; of course she would. But he would be
busy, preoccupied, on the move: it was for him to let her know when he
wished a word, to spare her the embarrassment of ill-timed intrusions.

"Intrusions?" He had smiled the word away. "You can't well intrude, my
darling, on a heart where you're already established, to the complete
exclusion of other lodgers." And then, taking her hands, and looking up
from them into her happy, dizzy eyes: "You don't know much about being
in love, do you, Lizzie?" he laughingly ended.

It seemed easy enough to reject this imputation in a kiss; but she
wondered afterward if she had not deserved it. Was she really cold and
conventional, and did other women give more richly and recklessly? She
found that it was possible to turn about every one of her reserves
and delicacies so that they looked like selfish scruples and petty
pruderies, and at this game she came in time to exhaust all the
resources of an over-abundant casuistry.

Meanwhile the first days after Deering's departure wore a soft,
refracted light like the radiance lingering after sunset. _He_, at any
rate, was taxable with no reserves, no calculations, and his letters
of farewell, from train and steamer, filled her with long murmurs and
echoes of his presence. How he loved her, how he loved her - and how he
knew how to tell her so!

She was not sure of possessing the same aptitude. Unused to the
expression of personal emotion, she fluctuated between the impulse to
pour out all she felt and the fear lest her extravagance should amuse or
even bore him. She never lost the sense that what was to her the central
crisis of experience must be a mere episode in a life so predestined as
his to romantic accidents. All that she felt and said would be subjected
to the test of comparison with what others had already given him: from
all quarters of the globe she saw passionate missives winging their way
toward Deering, for whom her poor little swallow-flight of devotion could
certainly not make a summer. But such moments were succeeded by others
in which she raised her head and dared inwardly to affirm her conviction
that no woman had ever loved him just as she had, and that none,
therefore, had probably found just such things to say to him. And this
conviction strengthened the other less solidly based belief that
_he_ also, for the same reason, had found new accents to express his
tenderness, and that the three letters she wore all day in her shabby
blouse, and hid all night beneath her pillow, surpassed not only in
beauty, but in quality, all he had ever penned for other eyes.

They gave her, at any rate, during the weeks that she wore them on her
heart, sensations even more complex and delicate than Deering's actual
presence had ever occasioned. To be with him was always like breasting
a bright, rough sea, that blinded while it buoyed her: but his letters
formed a still pool of contemplation, above which she could bend, and
see the reflection of the sky, and the myriad movements of life
that flitted and gleamed below the surface. The wealth of his hidden
life - that was what most surprised her! It was incredible to her now
that she had had no inkling of it, but had kept on blindly along the
narrow track of habit, like a traveler climbing a road in a fog, who
suddenly finds himself on a sunlit crag between blue leagues of sky and
dizzy depths of valley. And the odd thing was that all the people about
her - the whole world of the Passy pension - were still plodding along the
same dull path, preoccupied with the pebbles underfoot, and unconscious
of the glory beyond the fog!

There were wild hours when she longed to cry out to them what one saw
from the summit - and hours of tremulous abasement when she asked herself
why _her_ happy feet had been guided there, while others, no doubt as
worthy, stumbled and blundered in obscurity. She felt, in particular,
a sudden urgent pity for the two or three other girls at Mme.
Clopin's - girls older, duller, less alive than she, and by that very
token more appealingly flung upon her sympathy. Would they ever know?
Had they ever known? - those were the questions that haunted her as she
crossed her companions on the stairs, faced them at the dinner-table,
and listened to their poor, pining talk in the dim-lit slippery-seated
_salon_. One of the girls was Swiss, the other English; the third, Andora
Macy, was a young lady from the Southern States who was studying French
with the ultimate object of imparting it to the inmates of a girls'
school at Macon, Georgia.

Andora Macy was pale, faded, immature. She had a drooping Southern
accent, and a manner which fluctuated between arch audacity and fits of
panicky hauteur. She yearned to be admired, and feared to be insulted;
and yet seemed tragically conscious that she was destined to miss both
these extremes of sensation, or to enjoy them only at second hand in the
experiences of her more privileged friends.

It was perhaps for this reason that she took a wistful interest in
Lizzie, who had shrunk from her at first, as the depressing image of her
own probable future, but to whom she had now suddenly become an object
of sentimental pity.



IV


MISS MACY's room was next to Miss West's, and the Southerner's knock
often appealed to Lizzie's hospitality when Mme. Clopin's early curfew
had driven her boarders from the _salon_. It sounded thus one evening
just as Lizzie, tired from an unusually long day of tuition, was in the
act of removing her dress. She was in too indulgent a mood to withhold
her "Come in," and as Miss Macy crossed the threshold, Lizzie felt that
Vincent Deering's first letter - the letter from the train - had slipped
from her loosened bodice to the floor.

Miss Macy, as promptly noting the fact, darted forward to recover the
letter. Lizzie stooped also, fiercely jealous of her touch; but the
other reached the precious paper first, and as she seized it, Lizzie knew
that she had seen whence it fell, and was weaving round the incident a
rapid web of romance.

Lizzie blushed with annoyance. "It's too stupid, having no pockets! If
one gets a letter as she is going out in the morning, she has to carry
it in her blouse all day."

Miss Macy looked at her with swimming eyes. "It's warm from your heart!"
she breathed, reluctantly yielding up the missive.

Lizzie laughed, for she knew better: she knew it was the letter that had
warmed her heart. Poor Andora Macy! _She_ would never know. Her bleak
bosom would never take fire from such a contact. Lizzie looked at her
with kind eyes, secretly chafing at the injustice of fate.

The next evening, on her return home, she found Andora hovering in the
entrance hall.

"I thought you'd like me to put this in your own hand," Miss Macy
whispered significantly, pressing a letter upon Lizzie. "I couldn't
_bear_ to see it lying on the table with the others."

It was Deering's letter from the steamer. Lizzie blushed to the forehead,
but without resenting Andora's divination. She could not have breathed
a word of her bliss, but she was not altogether sorry to have it guessed,
and pity for Andora's destitution yielded to the pleasure of using it
as a mirror for her own abundance. DEERING wrote again on reaching New
York, a long, fond, dissatisfied letter, vague in its indication of his
own projects, specific in the expression of his love. Lizzie brooded
over every syllable of it till they formed the undercurrent of all
her waking thoughts, and murmured through her midnight dreams; but
she would have been happier if they had shed some definite light on the
future.

That would come, no doubt, when he had had time to look about and
get his bearings. She counted up the days that must elapse before she
received his next letter, and stole down early to peep at the papers,
and learn when the next American mail was due. At length the happy date
arrived, and she hurried distractedly through the day's work, trying to
conceal her impatience by the endearments she bestowed upon her pupils.
It was easier, in her present mood, to kiss them than to keep them at
their grammars.

That evening, on Mme. Clopin's threshold, her heart beat so wildly that
she had to lean a moment against the door-post before entering. But on
the hall table, where the letters lay, there was none for her.

She went over them with a feverish hand, her heart dropping down
and down, as she had sometimes fallen down an endless stairway in a
dream - the very same stairway up which she had seemed to fly when she
climbed the long hill to Deering's door. Then it suddenly struck her
that Andora might have found and secreted her letter, and with a spring
she was on the actual stairs and rattling Miss Macy's door-handle.

"You've a letter for me, haven't you?" she panted.

Miss Macy, turning from the toilet-table, inclosed her in attenuated
arms. "Oh, darling, did you expect one to-day?"

"Do give it to me!" Lizzie pleaded with burning eyes.

"But I haven't any! There hasn't been a sign of a letter for you."

"I know there is. There _must_ be," Lizzie persisted, stamping her foot.

"But, dearest, I've _watched_ for you, and there's been nothing,
absolutely nothing."

Day after day, for the ensuing weeks, the same scene reenacted itself
with endless variations. Lizzie, after the first sharp spasm of
disappointment, made no effort to conceal her anxiety from Miss Macy,
and the fond Andora was charged to keep a vigilant eye upon the postman's
coming, and to spy on the _bonne_ for possible negligence or perfidy.
But these elaborate precautions remained fruitless, and no letter from
Deering came.

During the first fortnight of silence Lizzie exhausted all the
ingenuities of explanation. She marveled afterward at the reasons she
had found for Deering's silence: there were moments when she almost
argued herself into thinking it more natural than his continuing to
write. There was only one reason which her intelligence consistently
rejected, and that was the possibility that he had forgotten her, that
the whole episode had faded from his mind like a breath from a mirror.
From that she resolutely turned her thoughts, aware that if she suffered
herself to contemplate it, the motive power of life would fail, and she
would no longer understand why she rose up in the morning and laydown at
night.

If she had had leisure to indulge her anguish she might have been unable
to keep such speculations at bay. But she had to be up and working: the
_blanchisseuse_ had to be paid, and Mme. Clopin's weekly bill, and all
the little "extras" that even her frugal habits had to reckon with.
And in the depths of her thought dwelt the dogging fear of illness and
incapacity, goading her to work while she could. She hardly remembered
the time when she had been without that fear; it was second nature now,
and it kept her on her feet when other incentives might have failed. In
the blankness of her misery she felt no dread of death; but the horror of
being ill and "dependent" was in her blood.

In the first weeks of silence she wrote again and again to Deering,
entreating him for a word, for a mere sign of life. From the first she
had shrunk from seeming to assert any claim on his future, yet in
her aching bewilderment she now charged herself with having been
too possessive, too exacting in her tone. She told herself that his
fastidiousness shrank from any but a "light touch," and that hers had
not been light enough. She should have kept to the character of the
"little friend," the artless consciousness in which tormented genius may
find an escape from its complexities; and instead, she had dramatized
their relation, exaggerated her own part in it, presumed, forsooth, to
share the front of the stage with him, instead of being content to serve
as scenery or chorus.

But though to herself she admitted, and even insisted on, the episodical
nature of the experience, on the fact that for Deering it could be no
more than an incident, she was still convinced that his sentiment for
her, however fugitive, had been genuine.

His had not been the attitude of the unscrupulous male seeking a vulgar
"advantage." For a moment he had really needed her, and if he was silent
now, it was perhaps because he feared that she had mistaken the nature
of the need and built vain hopes on its possible duration.

It was of the very essence of Lizzie's devotion that it sought
instinctively the larger freedom of its object; she could not conceive
of love under any form of exaction or compulsion. To make this clear
to Deering became an overwhelming need, and in a last short letter
she explicitly freed him from whatever sentimental obligation its
predecessors might have seemed to impose. In this studied communication
she playfully accused herself of having unwittingly sentimentalized
their relation, affirming, in self-defense, a retrospective astuteness,
a sense of the impermanence of the tenderer sentiments, that almost
put Deering in the fatuous position of having mistaken coquetry for
surrender. And she ended gracefully with a plea for the continuance of
the friendly regard which she had "always understood" to be the basis of
their sympathy. The document, when completed, seemed to her worthy of
what she conceived to be Deering's conception of a woman of the world,
and she found a spectral satisfaction in the thought of making her final
appearance before him in that distinguished character. But she was never
destined to learn what effect the appearance produced; for the letter,
like those it sought to excuse, remained unanswered.



V


THE fresh spring sunshine which had so often attended Lizzie Weston
her dusty climb up the hill of St.-Cloud beamed on her, some two years
later, in a scene and a situation of altered import.

The horse-chestnuts of the Champs-Elysees filtered its rays through
the symmetrical umbrage inclosing the graveled space about Daurent's
restaurant, and Miss West, seated at a table within that privileged
circle, presented to the light a hat much better able to sustain its
scrutiny than those which had sheltered the brow of Juliet Deering's
instructress.

Her dress was in keeping with the hat, and both belonged to a situation
rich in such possibilities as the act of a leisurely luncheon at
Daurent's in the opening week of the Salon. Her companions, of both
sexes, confirmed and emphasized this impression by an elaborateness of
garb and an ease of attitude implying the largest range of selection
between the forms of Parisian idleness; and even Andora Macy, seated
opposite, as in the place of co-hostess or companion, reflected, in coy
grays and mauves, the festal note of the occasion.

This note reverberated persistently in the ears of a solitary gentleman
straining for glimpses of the group from a table wedged in the remotest
corner of the garden; but to Miss West herself the occurrence did not
rise above the usual. For nearly a year she had been acquiring the habit


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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 20 of 22)