Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.

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[Illustration: GERTRUDE ATHERTON]


The

Bell in the Fog

And Other Stories


By
Gertrude Atherton

Author of
"Rulers of Kings" "The Conqueror" etc.


New York and London
Harper & Brothers
Publishers :: 1905


To
The Master

Henry James




Contents

I. THE BELL IN THE FOG

II. THE STRIDING PLACE

III. THE DEAD AND THE COUNTESS

IV. THE GREATEST GOOD OF THE GREATEST NUMBER

V. A MONARCH OF A SMALL SURVEY

VI. THE TRAGEDY OF A SNOB

VII. CROWNED WITH ONE CREST

VIII. DEATH AND THE WOMAN

IX. A PROLOGUE (TO AN UNWRITTEN PLAY)

X. TALBOT OF URSULA




I

The Bell in the Fog


I

The great author had realized one of the dreams of his ambitious
youth, the possession of an ancestral hall in England. It was not so
much the good American's reverence for ancestors that inspired the
longing to consort with the ghosts of an ancient line, as artistic
appreciation of the mellowness, the dignity, the aristocratic aloofness
of walls that have sheltered, and furniture that has embraced,
generations and generations of the dead. To mere wealth, only his astute
and incomparably modern brain yielded respect; his ego raised its
goose-flesh at the sight of rooms furnished with a single check,
conciliatory as the taste might be. The dumping of the old interiors of
Europe into the glistening shells of the United States not only roused
him almost to passionate protest, but offended his patriotism - which he
classified among his unworked ideals. The average American was not an
artist, therefore he had no excuse for even the affectation of
cosmopolitanism. Heaven knew he was national enough in everything else,
from his accent to his lack of repose; let his surroundings be in
keeping.

Orth had left the United States soon after his first successes, and, his
art being too great to be confounded with locality, he had long since
ceased to be spoken of as an American author. All civilized Europe
furnished stages for his puppets, and, if never picturesque nor
impassioned, his originality was as overwhelming as his style. His
subtleties might not always be understood - indeed, as a rule, they were
not - but the musical mystery of his language and the penetrating charm
of his lofty and cultivated mind induced raptures in the initiated,
forever denied to those who failed to appreciate him.

His following was not a large one, but it was very distinguished. The
aristocracies of the earth gave to it; and not to understand and admire
Ralph Orth was deliberately to relegate one's self to the ranks. But the
elect are few, and they frequently subscribe to the circulating
libraries; on the Continent, they buy the Tauchnitz edition; and had
not Mr. Orth inherited a sufficiency of ancestral dollars to enable him
to keep rooms in Jermyn Street, and the wardrobe of an Englishman of
leisure, he might have been forced to consider the tastes of the
middle-class at a desk in Hampstead. But, as it mercifully was, the
fashionable and exclusive sets of London knew and sought him. He was too
wary to become a fad, and too sophisticated to grate or bore;
consequently, his popularity continued evenly from year to year, and
long since he had come to be regarded as one of them. He was not keenly
addicted to sport, but he could handle a gun, and all men respected his
dignity and breeding. They cared less for his books than women did,
perhaps because patience is not a characteristic of their sex. I am
alluding, however, in this instance, to men-of-the-world. A group of
young literary men - and one or two women - put him on a pedestal and
kissed the earth before it. Naturally, they imitated him, and as this
flattered him, and he had a kindly heart deep among the cere-cloths of
his formalities, he sooner or later wrote "appreciations" of them all,
which nobody living could understand, but which owing to the sub-title
and signature answered every purpose.

With all this, however, he was not utterly content. From the 12th of
August until late in the winter - when he did not go to Homburg and the
Riviera - he visited the best houses in England, slept in state chambers,
and meditated in historic parks; but the country was his one passion,
and he longed for his own acres.

He was turning fifty when his great-aunt died and made him her heir: "as
a poor reward for his immortal services to literature," read the will of
this phenomenally appreciative relative. The estate was a large one.
There was a rush for his books; new editions were announced. He smiled
with cynicism, not unmixed with sadness; but he was very grateful for
the money, and as soon as his fastidious taste would permit he bought
him a country-seat.

The place gratified all his ideals and dreams - for he had romanced about
his sometime English possession as he had never dreamed of woman. It had
once been the property of the Church, and the ruin of cloister and
chapel above the ancient wood was sharp against the low pale sky. Even
the house itself was Tudor, but wealth from generation to generation had
kept it in repair; and the lawns were as velvety, the hedges as rigid,
the trees as aged as any in his own works. It was not a castle nor a
great property, but it was quite perfect; and for a long while he felt
like a bridegroom on a succession of honeymoons. He often laid his hand
against the rough ivied walls in a lingering caress.

After a time, he returned the hospitalities of his friends, and his
invitations, given with the exclusiveness of his great distinction, were
never refused. Americans visiting England eagerly sought for letters to
him; and if they were sometimes benumbed by that cold and formal
presence, and awed by the silences of Chillingsworth - the few who
entered there - they thrilled in anticipation of verbal triumphs, and
forthwith bought an entire set of his books. It was characteristic that
they dared not ask him for his autograph.

Although women invariably described him as "brilliant," a few men
affirmed that he was gentle and lovable, and any one of them was well
content to spend weeks at Chillingsworth with no other companion. But,
on the whole, he was rather a lonely man.

It occurred to him how lonely he was one gay June morning when the
sunlight was streaming through his narrow windows, illuminating
tapestries and armor, the family portraits of the young profligate from
whom he had made this splendid purchase, dusting its gold on the black
wood of wainscot and floor. He was in the gallery at the moment,
studying one of his two favorite portraits, a gallant little lad in the
green costume of Robin Hood. The boy's expression was imperious and
radiant, and he had that perfect beauty which in any disposition
appealed so powerfully to the author. But as Orth stared to-day at the
brilliant youth, of whose life he knew nothing, he suddenly became aware
of a human stirring at the foundations of his aesthetic pleasure.

"I wish he were alive and here," he thought, with a sigh. "What a jolly
little companion he would be! And this fine old mansion would make a far
more complementary setting for him than for me."

He turned away abruptly, only to find himself face to face with the
portrait of a little girl who was quite unlike the boy, yet so perfect
in her own way, and so unmistakably painted by the same hand, that he
had long since concluded they had been brother and sister. She was
angelically fair, and, young as she was - she could not have been more
than six years old - her dark-blue eyes had a beauty of mind which must
have been remarkable twenty years later. Her pouting mouth was like a
little scarlet serpent, her skin almost transparent, her pale hair fell
waving - not curled with the orthodoxy of childhood - about her tender
bare shoulders. She wore a long white frock, and clasped tightly against
her breast a doll far more gorgeously arrayed than herself. Behind her
were the ruins and the woods of Chillingsworth.

Orth had studied this portrait many times, for the sake of an art which
he understood almost as well as his own; but to-day he saw only the
lovely child. He forgot even the boy in the intensity of this new and
personal absorption.

"Did she live to grow up, I wonder?" he thought. "She should have made a
remarkable, even a famous woman, with those eyes and that brow,
but - could the spirit within that ethereal frame stand the
enlightenments of maturity? Would not that mind - purged, perhaps, in a
long probation from the dross of other existences - flee in disgust from
the commonplace problems of a woman's life? Such perfect beings should
die while they are still perfect. Still, it is possible that this little
girl, whoever she was, was idealized by the artist, who painted into her
his own dream of exquisite childhood."

Again he turned away impatiently. "I believe I am rather fond of
children," he admitted. "I catch myself watching them on the street when
they are pretty enough. Well, who does not like them?" he added, with
some defiance.

He went back to his work; he was chiselling a story which was to be the
foremost excuse of a magazine as yet unborn. At the end of half an hour
he threw down his wondrous instrument - which looked not unlike an
ordinary pen - and making no attempt to disobey the desire that possessed
him, went back to the gallery. The dark splendid boy, the angelic little
girl were all he saw - even of the several children in that roll-call of
the past - and they seemed to look straight down his eyes into depths
where the fragmentary ghosts of unrecorded ancestors gave faint musical
response.

"The dead's kindly recognition of the dead," he thought. "But I wish
these children were alive."

For a week he haunted the gallery, and the children haunted him. Then he
became impatient and angry. "I am mooning like a barren woman," he
exclaimed. "I must take the briefest way of getting those youngsters off
my mind."

With the help of his secretary, he ransacked the library, and finally
brought to light the gallery catalogue which had been named in the
inventory. He discovered that his children were the Viscount Tancred and
the Lady Blanche Mortlake, son and daughter of the second Earl of
Teignmouth. Little wiser than before, he sat down at once and wrote to
the present earl, asking for some account of the lives of the children.
He awaited the answer with more restlessness than he usually permitted
himself, and took long walks, ostentatiously avoiding the gallery.

"I believe those youngsters have obsessed me," he thought, more than
once. "They certainly are beautiful enough, and the last time I looked
at them in that waning light they were fairly alive. Would that they
were, and scampering about this park."

Lord Teignmouth, who was intensely grateful to him, answered promptly.

"I am afraid," he wrote, "that I don't know much about my
ancestors - those who didn't do something or other; but I have a vague
remembrance of having been told by an aunt of mine, who lives on the
family traditions - she isn't married - that the little chap was drowned
in the river, and that the little girl died too - I mean when she was a
little girl - wasted away, or something - I'm such a beastly idiot about
expressing myself, that I wouldn't dare to write to you at all if you
weren't really great. That is actually all I can tell you, and I am
afraid the painter was their only biographer."

The author was gratified that the girl had died young, but grieved for
the boy. Although he had avoided the gallery of late, his practised
imagination had evoked from the throngs of history the high-handed and
brilliant, surely adventurous career of the third Earl of Teignmouth. He
had pondered upon the deep delights of directing such a mind and
character, and had caught himself envying the dust that was older still.
When he read of the lad's early death, in spite of his regret that such
promise should have come to naught, he admitted to a secret thrill of
satisfaction that the boy had so soon ceased to belong to any one. Then
he smiled with both sadness and humor.

"What an old fool I am!" he admitted. "I believe I not only wish those
children were alive, but that they were my own."

The frank admission proved fatal. He made straight for the gallery. The
boy, after the interval of separation, seemed more spiritedly alive than
ever, the little girl to suggest, with her faint appealing smile, that
she would like to be taken up and cuddled.

"I must try another way," he thought, desperately, after that long
communion. "I must write them out of me."

He went back to the library and locked up the _tour de force_ which had
ceased to command his classic faculty. At once, he began to write the
story of the brief lives of the children, much to the amazement of that
faculty, which was little accustomed to the simplicities. Nevertheless,
before he had written three chapters, he knew that he was at work upon a
masterpiece - and more: he was experiencing a pleasure so keen that once
and again his hand trembled, and he saw the page through a mist.
Although his characters had always been objective to himself and his
more patient readers, none knew better than he - a man of no
delusions - that they were so remote and exclusive as barely to escape
being mere mentalities; they were never the pulsing living creations of
the more full-blooded genius. But he had been content to have it so. His
creations might find and leave him cold, but he had known his highest
satisfaction in chiselling the statuettes, extracting subtle and
elevating harmonies, while combining words as no man of his tongue had
combined them before.

But the children were not statuettes. He had loved and brooded over them
long ere he had thought to tuck them into his pen, and on its first
stroke they danced out alive. The old mansion echoed with their
laughter, with their delightful and original pranks. Mr. Orth knew
nothing of children, therefore all the pranks he invented were as
original as his faculty. The little girl clung to his hand or knee as
they both followed the adventurous course of their common idol, the
boy. When Orth realized how alive they were, he opened each room of his
home to them in turn, that evermore he might have sacred and poignant
memories with all parts of the stately mansion where he must dwell alone
to the end. He selected their bedrooms, and hovered over them - not
through infantile disorders, which were beyond even his
imagination, - but through those painful intervals incident upon the
enterprising spirit of the boy and the devoted obedience of the girl to
fraternal command. He ignored the second Lord Teignmouth; he was himself
their father, and he admired himself extravagantly for the first time;
art had chastened him long since. Oddly enough, the children had no
mother, not even the memory of one.

He wrote the book more slowly than was his wont, and spent delightful
hours pondering upon the chapter of the morrow. He looked forward to the
conclusion with a sort of terror, and made up his mind that when the
inevitable last word was written he should start at once for Homburg.
Incalculable times a day he went to the gallery, for he no longer had
any desire to write the children out of his mind, and his eyes hungered
for them. They were his now. It was with an effort that he sometimes
humorously reminded himself that another man had fathered them, and
that their little skeletons were under the choir of the chapel. Not
even for peace of mind would he have descended into the vaults of the
lords of Chillingsworth and looked upon the marble effigies of his
children. Nevertheless, when in a superhumorous mood, he dwelt upon his
high satisfaction in having been enabled by his great-aunt to purchase
all that was left of them.

For two months he lived in his fool's paradise, and then he knew that
the book must end. He nerved himself to nurse the little girl through
her wasting illness, and when he clasped her hands, his own shook, his
knees trembled. Desolation settled upon the house, and he wished he had
left one corner of it to which he could retreat unhaunted by the child's
presence. He took long tramps, avoiding the river with a sensation next
to panic. It was two days before he got back to his table, and then he
had made up his mind to let the boy live. To kill him off, too, was more
than his augmented stock of human nature could endure. After all, the
lad's death had been purely accidental, wanton. It was just that he
should live - with one of the author's inimitable suggestions of future
greatness; but, at the end, the parting was almost as bitter as the
other. Orth knew then how men feel when their sons go forth to
encounter the world and ask no more of the old companionship.

The author's boxes were packed. He sent the manuscript to his publisher
an hour after it was finished - he could not have given it a final
reading to have saved it from failure - directed his secretary to examine
the proof under a microscope, and left the next morning for Homburg.
There, in inmost circles, he forgot his children. He visited in several
of the great houses of the Continent until November; then returned to
London to find his book the literary topic of the day. His secretary
handed him the reviews; and for once in a way he read the finalities of
the nameless. He found himself hailed as a genius, and compared in
astonished phrases to the prodigiously clever talent which the world for
twenty years had isolated under the name of Ralph Orth. This pleased
him, for every writer is human enough to wish to be hailed as a genius,
and immediately. Many are, and many wait; it depends upon the fashion of
the moment, and the needs and bias of those who write of writers. Orth
had waited twenty years; but his past was bedecked with the headstones
of geniuses long since forgotten. He was gratified to come thus publicly
into his estate, but soon reminded himself that all the adulation of
which a belated world was capable could not give him one thrill of the
pleasure which the companionship of that book had given him, while
creating. It was the keenest pleasure in his memory, and when a man is
fifty and has written many books, that is saying a great deal.

He allowed what society was in town to lavish honors upon him for
something over a month, then cancelled all his engagements and went down
to Chillingsworth.

His estate was in Hertfordshire, that county of gentle hills and tangled
lanes, of ancient oaks and wide wild heaths, of historic houses, and
dark woods, and green fields innumerable - a Wordsworthian shire, steeped
in the deepest peace of England. As Orth drove towards his own gates he
had the typical English sunset to gaze upon, a red streak with a church
spire against it. His woods were silent. In the fields, the cows stood
as if conscious of their part. The ivy on his old gray towers had been
young with his children.

He spent a haunted night, but the next day stranger happenings began.


II

He rose early, and went for one of his long walks. England seems to cry
out to be walked upon, and Orth, like others of the transplanted,
experienced to the full the country's gift of foot-restlessness and
mental calm. Calm flees, however, when the ego is rampant, and to-day,
as upon others too recent, Orth's soul was as restless as his feet. He
had walked for two hours when he entered the wood of his neighbor's
estate, a domain seldom honored by him, as it, too, had been bought by
an American - a flighty hunting widow, who displeased the fastidious
taste of the author. He heard children's voices, and turned with the
quick prompting of retreat.

As he did so, he came face to face, on the narrow path, with a little
girl. For the moment he was possessed by the most hideous sensation
which can visit a man's being - abject terror. He believed that body and
soul were disintegrating. The child before him was his child, the
original of a portrait in which the artist, dead two centuries ago, had
missed exact fidelity, after all. The difference, even his rolling
vision took note, lay in the warm pure living whiteness and the deeper
spiritual suggestion of the child in his path. Fortunately for his
self-respect, the surrender lasted but a moment. The little girl spoke.

"You look real sick," she said. "Shall I lead you home?"

The voice was soft and sweet, but the intonation, the vernacular, were
American, and not of the highest class. The shock was, if possible, more
agonizing than the other, but this time Orth rose to the occasion.

"Who are you?" he demanded, with asperity. "What is your name? Where do
you live?"

The child smiled, an angelic smile, although she was evidently amused.
"I never had so many questions asked me all at once," she said. "But I
don't mind, and I'm glad you're not sick. I'm Mrs. Jennie Root's little
girl - my father's dead. My name is Blanche - you _are_ sick! No? - and I
live in Rome, New York State. We've come over here to visit pa's
relations."

Orth took the child's hand in his. It was very warm and soft.

"Take me to your mother," he said, firmly; "now, at once. You can return
and play afterwards. And as I wouldn't have you disappointed for the
world, I'll send to town to-day for a beautiful doll."

The little girl, whose face had fallen, flashed her delight, but walked
with great dignity beside him. He groaned in his depths as he saw they
were pointing for the widow's house, but made up his mind that he would
know the history of the child and of all her ancestors, if he had to sit
down at table with his obnoxious neighbor. To his surprise, however,
the child did not lead him into the park, but towards one of the old
stone houses of the tenantry.

"Pa's great-great-great-grandfather lived there," she remarked, with all
the American's pride of ancestry. Orth did not smile, however. Only the
warm clasp of the hand in his, the soft thrilling voice of his still
mysterious companion, prevented him from feeling as if moving through
the mazes of one of his own famous ghost stories.

The child ushered him into the dining-room, where an old man was seated
at the table reading his Bible. The room was at least eight hundred
years old. The ceiling was supported by the trunk of a tree, black, and
probably petrified. The windows had still their diamond panes,
separated, no doubt, by the original lead. Beyond was a large kitchen in
which were several women. The old man, who looked patriarchal enough to
have laid the foundations of his dwelling, glanced up and regarded the
visitor without hospitality. His expression softened as his eyes moved
to the child.

"Who 'ave ye brought?" he asked. He removed his spectacles. "Ah!" He
rose, and offered the author a chair. At the same moment, the women
entered the room.

"Of course you've fallen in love with Blanche, sir," said one of them.
"Everybody does."

"Yes, that is it. Quite so." Confusion still prevailing among his
faculties, he clung to the naked truth. "This little girl has interested
and startled me because she bears a precise resemblance to one of the
portraits in Chillingsworth - painted about two hundred years ago. Such
extraordinary likenesses do not occur without reason, as a rule, and, as
I admired my portrait so deeply that I have written a story about it,
you will not think it unnatural if I am more than curious to discover
the reason for this resemblance. The little girl tells me that her
ancestors lived in this very house, and as my little girl lived next
door, so to speak, there undoubtedly is a natural reason for the
resemblance."

His host closed the Bible, put his spectacles in his pocket, and hobbled
out of the house.

"He'll never talk of family secrets," said an elderly woman, who
introduced herself as the old man's daughter, and had placed bread and
milk before the guest. "There are secrets in every family, and we have
ours, but he'll never tell those old tales. All I can tell you is that
an ancestor of little Blanche went to wreck and ruin because of some
fine lady's doings, and killed himself. The story is that his boys
turned out bad. One of them saw his crime, and never got over the
shock; he was foolish like, after. The mother was a poor scared sort of
creature, and hadn't much influence over the other boy. There seemed to
be a blight on all the man's descendants, until one of them went to
America. Since then, they haven't prospered, exactly, but they've done
better, and they don't drink so heavy."

"They haven't done so well," remarked a worn patient-looking woman. Orth


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