Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.

The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories online

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placidly stood by while their mammas "arranged" a marriage between their
gold-banked selves and the impecunious scion of an historical house,
that the English, when forced to admit them well-bred, found solace in
the belief that these disgustingly rich and handsome girls were without
heart.

Nevertheless, Lady Carnath, who had worn her weeds but a year, permitted
Butler Hedworth to pay her attentions so pronounced that her world was
mildly betting on his possible acceptance as husband or lover. It was
argued that during the life of Lord Carnath his wife's demeanor had been
above comment, but a cynic remarked that women had all sorts of odd
ideals; and was widely quoted.

Edith Ingoldsby had bought her Earl and paid a high price for him;
nevertheless she had liked him better than any man but one that she had
ever known, and they had been the best of friends. When she met him she
was in the agonies of her only passion, and had clutched the first
opportunity to bury alive the love that was destroying her beauty and
her interest in life.

The passion had lingered for a time, then gone the way of all passions
unfed by a monotonous environment and too much leisure. She found it
very interesting to be an English countess. For a while she had the
impression of playing a part in a modern historical drama; but before
long she realized, with true American adaptability, that her new life
was but the living chapters of a book whose earlier parts had been
serial instalments of retiring memory. Her great wealth, her beauty, her
piquant dashing thoroughbred manner, her husband's popularity and title,
created for her a position that would have closed any wound not
irritated by domestic unhappiness; and this canker was not in her rose.
When Carnath died she mourned him sincerely, but not too profoundly to
anticipate pleasurably the end of the weeded year. When she met Hedworth
she was as free of fancy and of heart as if she had but stepped from a
convent.

"Yes, I was in love once - " she admitted to him one evening as they sat
alone. She blushed as she tripped at the word "before." Hedworth had
made no declaration as yet; they were still playing with electricity,
and content with sparks. "At least, I thought I was. All girls have
their love freaks. I had had several - when I was in my teens. This
seemed more serious, the _grande passion_ - because there was an
obstacle: he was married. If he had been free, if there had been no
barrier between myself and what I wanted, I think it would have been
quite different. You see, I had had my own way so long that the
situation, combined, of course, with the man himself - who was very
magnetic - fascinated me; and I let myself go, to see what it would be
like to long for something I could not have. I suppose it was my
imagination that was at work principally; but I ended by believing
myself frantically in love with him."

Hedworth stood up as she paused, and leaned against the mantel, looking
down at her. They were in her boudoir, a yellow satin room that looked
like a large jewel-casket. Lady Carnath's long slender round figure
betrayed its perfections in a gown of black chiffon; on her white neck
and arms and in her black hair were many diamonds; she had dressed for
the opera, then given the evening to Hedworth. Her dark face was
delicately modelled; the mouth and chin were very firm, but the lips
were full and red. The eyes in repose were a trifle languid, in
animation mutable and brilliant. The brows were finely pencilled, and
the soft dark hair, brushed back from a low forehead, added to the
general distinction of her appearance. Hedworth studied her face as he
had studied it many times.

"Well?" he asked. He had an abrupt voice, suggestive of temper, and the
haughty bearing which is the chief attraction of Englishmen for American
women. His face was as well chiselled as the average of his kind, but
lacked the national repose. The eyes were very clever, the features
mobile; the tenacity and strength of his nature were indicated in the
lower part of his face and in the powerful yet supple build of the man.

"Well, what?"

"What sort of a man was this Johnny?"

"Oh, I am not very good at describing people - quite different from
you - much lighter - "

"I don't care what he looked like. A man only looks to a woman who is in
love with him as she imagines he looks. Was he in love with you?"

"Yes, of course he was."

"Did he tell you so?"

The delicate red in Lady Carnath's dark cheek deepened. "Yes. He did."

"Did you tell him that you loved him?"

"Yes."

"What did he do?"

"I don't know that you have any right to be so curious."

"Of course you need not answer if you don't wish. Did he kiss you?"

"Yes, he did, if you want to know. We had a tremendous scene. I went
into high tragics, and, I suppose, bored the poor man dreadfully."

"He was much more matter-of-fact, I suppose?"

"Yes - he was."

"Where did this scene take place?"

"In the drawing-room one afternoon when he had walked home with me from
a tea."

"What happened the next time you met him?"

"I never saw him again - that is, alone."

Hedworth's face and tone changed suddenly. Both softened. "Why not?"

She raised her head from the back of the sofa and lifted her chin
defiantly. "I did not dare - if you will know. Carnath came along shortly
after, and I took him as soon as he offered himself. Why do you look so
pleased? The one was as bad as the other, only in the course I took
there was no scandal."

"Which is the point. Scandal and snubs and vulgar insinuation in print
and out of it would have demoralized you. How do you feel towards this
man now? If he were free and came for you would you marry him?"

She shook her head, and looked up at him, smiling and blushing again.
"He is no more to me than one of the book-heroes I used to fancy myself
in love with."

"Why didn't he get a divorce and marry you? I thought any one could get
a divorce in the States."

"You English people know so much about the United States! You are
willing to believe anything and to know nothing. I really think you
feel that your dignity would be compromised if you knew as much about
America as we know about Europe. Your attitude is like that of old
people to a new invention which is too remarkable for their powers of
appreciation, so they take refuge in disdain."

He smiled, as he always did when her patriotism flamed. "You haven't
answered my question."

"What? - oh, divorce. If a man has a good wife, no matter how
uncongenial, he can't get rid of her unless he is a brute; and I didn't
happen to like that sort of man."

"Like? I thought you said just now that you loved him."

"I don't think now that I did. I explained that a while ago."

"Why have you changed your mind?"

"I never knew a man to ask so many questions."

But before he left her he knew.

* * * * *

Edith anticipated pleasurably the sensation her engagement would make,
but did not announce it at once. She had a certain feminine
secretiveness which made her doubly enjoy a happiness undiluted by
publicity; moreover, some further deference was due to Carnath. She was
very happy, the more so as she had believed until a short while ago
that her strong temperamental possibilities were vaulted in her nature's
little church-yard. "Our hearts after first love are like our dead," she
thought; "they sleep until the hour of resurrection." Hedworth dominated
her, had taken her love rather than asked for it, and, although he was
jealous and exacting, she was haunted by the traditions of man's
mutability, and studied her resources as it had never occurred to her to
study them before. She found that the outer envelopes of her personality
could be made to shift with kaleidoscopic brilliancy, and except when
Hedworth needed repose - she had much tact - she treated him to these many
moods in turn. It is possible that she added to her fascination, but,
having won him without effort, she might have rested on her laurels. He
was deeply in love with her, and worried himself with presentiments of
what might happen before she would consent to name the wedding-day. Both
being children of worldly wisdom, however, they harlequined their
misgivings and were happy when together.

Fortunately for both, she was heavy-laden with femininity, and was
content to give all, and receive the little that man in the nature of
his life and inherited particles has to offer. She was satisfied to be
adored, desired, mentally appreciated. If his ego was always paramount,
his spiritual demands so imperious that he appropriated the full measure
of sympathy and comprehension that Nature has let loose for man and
woman, not caring to know anything of her beyond the fact that she was
the one woman in the world in whom he saw no fault, she was satisfied to
have it so. She was a clever woman, but not too clever; and their
chances of happiness were good.

And then a strange thing happened to her.

Hedworth was called to Switzerland by his mother, who fell ill. His
parting with Edith occupied several hours, and during the three or four
days following, his affianced protested that she was inconsolable. But
his letters were frequent and characteristic, and she began to enjoy the
new phase of their intercourse: the excitement of waiting for the post,
the delight which the first glimpse of the envelope on her
breakfast-tray gave her, the novelty of receiving a fragment of him
daily, which her imagination could expand into his hourly life and
thoughts. The season was over, and she had little else to do. She
expected him back at any moment, and preferred to await his arrival in
town.

One evening she was sitting in her bedroom thinking of him. The night
was hot and the windows were open. It was very late. She had been
staring down upon the dark mass of tree-tops in the Park,
recapitulating, phase by phase, the growth of her feeling for Hedworth.
Suddenly it occurred to her that it bore a strong racial resemblance to
her first passion, and, being too intelligent to have escaped the habit
of analysis, she dug up the old love and dissected it. It had been
better preserved than she would have thought, for it did not offend her
sense; and she gave an hour to the office. She went back to her first
moment of conscious interest in the hero of her tragedy, galvanized the
thrill she had felt when he entered her presence, her restlessness and
doubt and jealousy when he was away, or appeared to neglect her; the
recognition that she was in the hard grasp of a passion in which she had
had little faith; the sweetness and terror of it, the keen delight in
the sense of danger. There had been weeks of companionship before he had
defined their position; it occurred to her now that he had managed her
with the skill and coolness of a man who understood women and could keep
his head, even while quickened with all that he inspired. She also
recalled, her lips curling into a cynical grin, that she had felt the
same promptings for spiritual abandonment, of high desire to help this
man where he was weak, to restore some of his lost ideals, or to
replace them with better; to root out the weeds which she recognized in
his nature, and to coax the choked bulbs of those fairer flowers which
may have been there before he and the world knew each other too well.
Then she relived the days and nights of torment when she had walked the
floor wringing her hands, barely eating and sleeping. She recalled that
she had even beaten the walls and flung herself against them.

The procession was startlingly familiar and fresh of lineament; even the
moments of rapture, whose memory is soonest to fade, and the fitful
solace she had found, in those last days, imagining what might have
been.

She got up and walked about the room, half amused, half appalled. "What
does it mean?" she thought. "Is it that there is an impalpable entity in
this world for me, and that part of it is in one man and part in
another? Is the man who has the larger share the one I really love? Is
that the explanation of loving a second time? It certainly is very
like - ridiculously like."

She turned her thoughts to Hedworth, but they swung aside and pointed
straight to the other man. She half expected to see his ghost framed in
the dark window, he seemed so close. She found herself living the past
again and again, instinct with its sensations. He had had much in his
life to cark and harrow, and the old sympathy and tenderness vibrated
aloud, and little out of tune. She wondered what had become of him, what
he was doing at the moment. She did not believe that he had loved any
woman since; he had nearly exhausted his capacity for loving when he met
her.

And at the same time she was distinctly conscious that if the two men
stood before her she should spring to Hedworth. Nevertheless, when she
conjured his image, the shadowy figure of the other man stood behind,
looking over Hedworth's shoulder, with the half-cynical smile which had
only left his mouth when he had told her, with white face whose muscles
were free of his will for the moment, that he loved her.

"Is it the old love that is demanding its rights, not the man?" she
thought. "Is it true, then, that all we women want is love, and that it
is as welcome in one attractive frame as another? That it is not
Hedworth I love, but what he gives me? Now that I even suspect this, can
I be happy? Will that ghost always look over his shoulder?"

She was a woman of sound practical sense, and had no intention of
risking her happiness by falling a victim to her imagination. She
pressed the electric-button and wrote a letter to her former lover - a
friendly letter, without sentimental allusion, asking for news of him.
The sight of the handwriting that once had thrilled her, as well as the
nature of his reply, would at least bring her to some sort of mental
climax. Moreover, he might be dead. It might be spiritual influence that
had handled her imagination. She was not a superstitious woman; she was
merely wise enough to know that she knew nothing, and that it was folly
to disbelieve anything.

Hedworth did not return for three weeks. During that time it seemed to
her that her brain was an amphitheatre in which the two men were
constantly wrestling. She never saw one without the other. When Hedworth
mastered for the moment she was reminded that he was merely playing a
familiar tune on her soul-keys. She felt for the man who had first
touched those keys a persistent tenderness, and during the last days
watched restlessly for his letter. But she felt no desire whatever to
see him again. For Hedworth she longed increasingly.

Hedworth returned. The other man vanished.

* * * * *

She announced the engagement. They had been invited to the same houses
for the autumn. Necessarily they saw little of each other, and planned
to meet in the less-frequented rooms and in the woods. At first they
enjoyed this new experience; but when they found themselves in a large
party that seemed to pervade every corner of the house and grounds at
once, and two days had passed without an interview of five minutes'
duration, Hedworth walked up to her - she was alone for the moment - and
said:

"Four weeks from to-day we marry."

She gave a little gasp, but made no protest.

"I have had enough of dawdling and sentimentalizing. We will marry at
your place in Sussex on the second of October."

"Very well," she said.

Shortly after she went to Paris to confer with the talent that should
enhance her loveliness, then paid Mrs. Hedworth a visit in Switzerland.
Hedworth met her there, and his mother saw little of her guests. Edith
returned to England alone. Hedworth was to follow at the end of the
week, and spend the few remaining days of his bachelorhood at the house
of a friend whose estate adjoined the one Lady Carnath had bought not
long after her husband's death.

Several days after her return she was sitting at her dressing-table when
a letter was handed her bearing the Washington post-mark. Her maid was
devising a new coiffure, and she was grumbling at the result. She
glanced at the handwriting, pushed the letter aside, and commanded the
maid to arrange her hair in the simple fashion that suited her best.
After the woman had fixed the last pin, Edith critically examined her
profile in the triple mirror; then thrust out a thin little foot to be
divested of its mule and shod in a slipper that had arrived that morning
from Paris: she expected people to tea. While the maid was on her knees
Edith bethought herself of the letter and read it: -

Dear Lady Carnath - I have been in Canada all summer. No letters
were forwarded. I find yours here at the Metropolitan. Thanks,
I am well. Life is the same with me. I eat and drink and
wither. But you are a memory to be thankful for, and I have
never tried to forget you. I was glad to learn through Tower,
whom I met in Montreal, that you were well and happy. I wish I
may never hear otherwise.

Then followed several pages of news of her old friends.

"Poor fellow!" thought Edith with a sigh. "But I doubt if any woman or
any circumstances would ever make a man like that happy. There are those
wretched people, and I am not half dressed!"

Nevertheless, he again took his stand in her brain and elbowed
Hedworth - whose concrete part was still detained in Switzerland. She did
not answer the letter at once; it was not an easy letter to answer. But
it haunted her; and finally she sat down at her desk and bit the end of
her penholder.

She sat staring before her, the man in complete possession. And
gradually the color left her face. If this old love, which her mind and
senses had corporealized, refused to abdicate, had she any right to
marry Hedworth? Now that she had unlocked this ghost, might not she find
it at her side whenever her husband was absent, reminding her that she
was a sort of mental bigamist? Carnath had no part in her dilemma; she
barely recalled his episode.

She was as positive as she had been when the past unrolled itself that
she had no wish to see the first man again; that did he stand before her
his power would vanish. He was a back number - a fatal position to occupy
in the imagination of a vital and world-living woman.

"Is it all that he awakened, made known to me, represented, that arises
in resentment? Or is it that the soul only gives itself once,
acknowledges only one mate? The mind and body, perhaps, obey the demand
for companionship again. The soul in its loneliness endeavors to
accompany these comrades, but finds itself linked to the mate of the
past. Probably when a woman marries a man she does not love, the soul,
having no demand made upon it, abstracts itself, sleeps. It is when a
mate to whom it might wholly have given itself appears, that, in its
isolation and desolation, it clamors for its wedded part."

Her teeth indented the nib of her penholder. "Was ever a woman in such a
predicament before? So illusionary and yet so ridiculously actual! Shall
I send Hedworth away and sit down with this phantom through life? I
understand that some women get their happiness out of just that sort of
thing. Then when I forget Hedworth would I forget _him_? Is passion
needed to set the soul free? Until Hedworth made me feel awakened
womanhood personified, I had not thought of this man for years, not even
during the year of my mourning, when I was rather bored. What am I to
do? I can't fling my life away. I am not a morbid idiot. But I can't
marry one man if what I feel for him is simply the galvanizing of a
corpse. Hedworth ought to be taken ill and his life despaired of. That
is the way things would work out in a novel."

Her face grew whiter still. She had experienced another mental shock.
For the first time she realized that no woman could suffer twice as she
had suffered five years ago. That at least was all the other man's. Her
capacity for pain had been blunted, two-thirds exhausted. If Hedworth
left her, died, she might regret him, long to have him back; but the
ghost of that abandon of grief, that racking of every sense, that
groping in an abyss while a voiceless something within her raved and
shrieked, resolved itself into a finger of fire, which wrote Hedworth's
inferior position.

"What shall I do? What shall I do?" She dipped the pen into the ink and
put it to the paper. At least, for the moment, she could write a
friendly note to this man, convey tactful sympathy, little good as it
would do him. The letter must be answered.

She heard a step on the gravel beneath her open window. She sprang to
her feet, the blood rushing to her hair. She ran to the window and
leaned out, smiling and trembling. Hedworth's eyes flashed upward to
hers. She was, it must be admitted, a product of that undulating and
alluring plain we call "the world," not of those heights where the few
who have scaled them live alone.




VIII

Death and the Woman.

(This story first appeared in _Vanity Fair_, London, in 1892)


Her husband was dying, and she was alone with him. Nothing could exceed
the desolation of her surroundings. She and the man who was going from
her were in the third-floor-back of a New York boarding-house. It was
summer, and the other boarders were in the country; all the servants
except the cook had been dismissed, and she, when not working, slept
profoundly on the fifth floor. The landlady also was out of town on a
brief holiday.

The window was open to admit the thick unstirring air; no sound rose
from the row of long narrow yards, nor from the tall deep houses
annexed. The latter deadened the rattle of the streets. At intervals the
distant elevated lumbered protestingly along, its grunts and screams
muffled by the hot suspended ocean.

She sat there plunged in the profoundest grief that can come to the
human soul, for in all other agony hope flickers, however forlornly. She
gazed dully at the unconscious breathing form of the man who had been
friend, and companion, and lover, during five years of youth too
vigorous and hopeful to be warped by uneven fortune. It was wasted by
disease; the face was shrunken; the night-garment hung loosely about a
body which had never been disfigured by flesh, but had been muscular
with exercise and full-blooded with health. She was glad that the body
was changed; glad that its beauty, too, had gone some other-where than
into the coffin. She had loved his hands as apart from himself; loved
their strong warm magnetism. They lay limp and yellow on the quilt: she
knew that they were already cold, and that moisture was gathering on
them. For a moment something convulsed within her. _They_ had gone too.
She repeated the words twice, and, after them, "_forever_." And the
while the sweetness of their pressure came back to her.

She leaned suddenly over him. HE was in there still, somewhere. _Where?_
If he had not ceased to breathe, the Ego, the Soul, the Personality was
still in the sodden clay which had shaped to give it speech. Why could
it not manifest itself to her? Was it still conscious in there, unable
to project itself through the disintegrating matter which was the only
medium its Creator had vouchsafed it? Did it struggle there, seeing her
agony, sharing it, longing for the complete disintegration which should
put an end to its torment? She called his name, she even shook him
slightly, mad to tear the body apart and find her mate, yet even in that
tortured moment realizing that violence would hasten his going.

The dying man took no notice of her, and she opened his gown and put her
cheek to his heart, calling him again. There had never been more perfect
union; how could the bond still be so strong if he were not at the other
end of it? He was there, her other part; until dead he must be living.
There was no intermediate state. Why should he be as entombed and
unresponding as if the screws were in the lid? But the faintly beating
heart did not quicken beneath her lips. She extended her arms suddenly,
describing eccentric lines, above, about him, rapidly opening and
closing her hands as if to clutch some escaping object; then sprang to
her feet, and went to the window. She feared insanity. She had asked to
be left alone with her dying husband, and she did not wish to lose her
reason and shriek a crowd of people about her.

The green plots in the yards were not apparent, she noticed. Something
heavy, like a pall, rested upon them. Then she understood that the day
was over and that night was coming.



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