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she knows nothing about. He was too proud to tell her about it, and she
hadn't wit enough to see it for herself. That's the truth, and this
emotional sprawl she's indulging in now doesn't change it. - Meanwhile,
she is adding to her collection five new men!"

"I don't believe," said Mary quietly, "that there is one of them she
knows exists. Or wouldn't poison," she added with a smile, "to improve
father's chance of getting well."

This won a nod of grim assent. "There are plenty of them. She could
replace them easily enough. But her hunger for their worship is
insatiable. For a while your father's - infatuation satisfied her. She may
have tried to pull herself up to his level. I dare say she did. But even
at that time she could not abide Wallace Hood, though he was kindness
itself to her, simply because he kept his head. Unfortunately, this poor
young musician was not able to keep his."

It seemed to Mary, even when allowance was made for the bitterness of the
desperate old woman, who then went on for the better part of an hour with
her bill of particulars, that this must be true. Paula must have lost her
head, at any rate. What Mary herself had seen the beginning of, must
have gone on at an accelerated speed until it was beyond all bounds.
There had been few hours when March might not come to the house and none
to which he did not stay. There were whole days when Paula was hardly out
of his company. She took him about with her to people's houses. She
talked about him when she went alone. Those who had at first not known
what to think, at last had come to believe that there was only one thing
they could.

"I tried to suggest to her, quite early, before it had gone so far, that
she was in danger of being misunderstood. It only made her furious. And
John was hardly less so when I mentioned to him that I had spoken to her.
He would see nothing; kept a face of granite through it all."

"Aunt Lucile," Mary asked, after a little silence, "do you think she has
really been - unfaithful to father?"

Miss Wollaston hesitated. "Should you consider the conduct I have
described, to be an example of fidelity?"

"I mean, in the divorce court sense," Mary persisted.

"That," her aunt said, more nearly in her old manner than anything that
Mary had yet seen - "that is a matter upon which I have no opinion."

It was a possibility that Mary had contemplated as early as that first
night of all, when Paula, having sung his song, had come herself to
find him in Annie's old bedroom where she had him hidden and with a
broken laugh had pulled him up in her arms and kissed him, unaware that
she was not alone with him. One kiss, as an isolated phenomenon, didn't
mean much, Mary allowed, but when a man and a woman who were going to
be left alone together a lot, started off that way, they were likely
to - get somewhere. And where the man was the composer of that love song
and the woman the singer of it, it was almost a foregone conclusion
that they would.

But this was not the conclusion that she had come to when she stopped
old Nat on his way down-stairs to turn March out of the house. The
evidence, Rush's and Aunt Lucile's, might seem to point that way but it
didn't, somehow, make a convincing picture. I think, though, that in any
case, she would have gone down to see him.

He had found himself a seat on a black oak settee in the hall around the
corner of the stairs and his attitude, when she came upon him, was very
like what it had been the other time, bent forward a little, his hands
between his knees, as if he were braced for something.

"Mrs. Wollaston won't be able to see you to-day," she said. He sprang to
his feet and she added instantly, "I'm her stepdaughter, Mary Wollaston.
Won't you come in?" Without waiting for an answer, she turned and led the
way into the drawing-room.

So far it had been rehearsed, on her way down-stairs, even to the chair
in the bow window which she indicated, having seated herself, for him to
sit down in. She had up to that point an extraordinarily buoyant sense of
self-possession. This left her for one panicky instant when she felt him
looking at her a little incredulously as if, once more, he wondered
whether she were really there.

"I think, perhaps, you haven't heard of father's illness," she began - not
just as she had expected to. "Or did you come to ask about him?"

"No," he said. "I hadn't heard. Is it - yes, of course it must
be - serious. I'm sorry."

She was struck by the instantaneous change in his manner. From being,
part of him, anyhow, a little remote - wool-gathering would have been Aunt
Lucile's term - he was, vividly, here. It wasn't possible to doubt the
reality of his concern. As a consequence, when she began informing him of
the state of things she found herself pulled away, more and more, from
the impersonal phraseology of a medical bulletin. She told how the attack
had come on; how they had put up a bed for him in the music room, where
there was the most air, and begun what it was evident from the first
would be a life-and-death struggle; she quoted what Rush had told her
when he met the train. "I agree with Rush," she concluded. "They let me
see him, for a few minutes, this morning, just so he'd know that I had
come back. Yet it isn't possible not to believe that he will get well."

When she had squeezed away the tears that had dimmed her eyes, she saw
that his own were bright with them. "He's more than just a great man," he
said gravely. Then, after a moment's silence, "If there's anything I can
do... It would be a great privilege to be of service to him. As errand
boy, any sort of helper. I had some hospital experience at Bordeaux."

It was, on the face of it, just such an offer as any kindly disposed
inquirer would have made. Such as Wallace Hood, for example, had, in
fact, made, only rather more eloquently less than an hour ago. But Mary's
impulse was not to answer as she had answered Wallace with a mere polite
acknowledgment of helpless good intentions. In fact, she could find, for
the moment, no words in which to answer him at all.

He said then, "I mustn't keep you."

Even in response to that she made no movement of release. "There's
nothing, even for me to do," she said, and felt from the look this drew
from him that he must, incredibly, have caught from her some inkling of
what her admission really meant.

He did not repeat his move to go, nor speak, and there was silence
between them for, perhaps, the better part of a minute. It was
terminated, startlingly, for her, by her brother's appearance in the
doorway. He had on his raincoat and carried his hat and an umbrella in
his hands.

"Mary, I'm just going out" ... he began, then broke off short, stared,
and came on into the room. March rose, but Mary, after one glance at
Rush's face, sat back a little more deeply in her seat. Rush ignored her
altogether.

"My sister has been away during the last few weeks," he said to March. It
had, oddly, the effect of a set speech. "If she had not been, I'm sure
she would have told you, as I do now ..." He stumbled there, evidently
from the sudden blighting sense that he was talking like an actor - or an
ass. "This isn't the time for you to come here," he went on. "This house
isn't the place for you to come. When my father's well enough to take
matters into his own hands again, he'll do as he sees fit. For the
present you will have to consider that I'm acting for him."

Mary's eyes during the whole of that speech never wavered from March's
face. There was nothing in it at all at first but clear astonishment, but
presently there came a look of troubled concern that gave her an impulse
to smile. Evidently it disconcerted her brother heavily for at the end of
an appalling silence, not long enough however, to allow March to get his
wits together for a reply, Rush turned about abruptly and strode from the
room. A moment later they heard the house door close behind him.

The two in the drawing-room were left looking at each other. Then,
"Please sit down again," she said.




CHAPTER XI

NOT COLLECTABLE


The effect of Rush's interruption was rather that of a thunderclap,
hardly more. Recalling it, Mary remembered having looked again into
March's face as the street door banged shut to see whether he was
laughing. She herself was sharply aware of the comic effect of her
brother's kicking himself out of the house instead of his intended
victim, but she could not easily have forgiven a sign of such awareness
from March.

He had betrayed none, had tried, she thought - his amazement and concern
had rendered him pretty near inarticulate - to tell her what the look in
his face had already made evident even to Rush; his innocence not only of
any amorous intent toward Paula but even of the possibility that any one
could have interpreted the relation between them in that way. He might
have managed some such repudiation as that had she not cut across his
effort with an apology for her brother.

It had been a terrible week for them all, she said. Especially for Rush
and for his Aunt Lucile, who had been here from the beginning. Even the
few hours since her own return this morning had been enough to teach her
how nearly unendurable that sort of helplessness was.

It must have been in this connection that he told her what had not got
round to her before, the case of his sister Sarah whom they had watched
as one condemned to death until John Wollaston came and saved her. "He
simply wouldn't be denied," March said. "He was all alone; even his
colleagues didn't agree with him. And my father, having decided that she
was going to die and that this must, therefore, be the will of God,
didn't think it ought to be tampered with.

"I remember your father said to him, 'Man, the will of God this morning
is waiting to express itself in the skill of my hands,' and it didn't
sound like blasphemy either. He carried father off in his apron, just as
he was, to the hospital and I went along. I scraped an acquaintance
afterward with one of the students who had been there in the theatre
watching him operate and got him to tell me about it. They felt it was a
historic occasion even at the time; cheered him at the end of it. And
that sort of virtuosity does seem worthier of cheers than any scraping of
horsehair over cat-gut could ever come to. I wonder how many lives there
are to-day that owe themselves altogether to him just as my sister
does. - How many children who never could have been born at all except for
his skill and courage. Because, of course, courage is half of it."

Upon Mary the effect of this new portrait of her father was electrifying;
eventually was more than that - revolutionary. These few words of March's
served, I think, in the troubled, turbid emotional relation she had got
into with her father, as a clarifying precipitant.

But that process was slower; the immediate effect attached to March
himself. The present wonder was that it should have been he, a stranger,
equipped with only the meagerest chances for observation, who, turning
his straying search-light beam upon the dearest person to her in the
world, should thus have illuminated him anew. Even after he had gone it
was the man rather than the things he had said that she thought about.

Amazingly, he had guessed - she was sure she had given him no hint - at the
part Paula was playing in their domestic drama. It had come pat upon what
he had told her of the lives her father had plucked from the hand of
death, the ironic, "he saved others, himself he can not save," hanging
unspoken in their thoughts.

"Paula will be fighting for his life," he said. "Magnificently. That must
be one of your hopes."

She had confirmed this with details. She got the notion, perhaps from
nothing more than his rather thoughtful smile, that he comprehended the
whole thing, even down to Aunt Lucile. Though wasn't there a phrase of
his, - "these uninhibited people, when it comes to getting things _done_
..." that slanted that way? Did that mean that he was one of the other
sort? Wasn't your ability to recognize the absence of a quality or a
disability in any one else, proof enough that you had it yourself? It
would never, certainly, occur to Paula to think of any one as
"uninhibited."

But the opposed adjective didn't fit him. She couldn't see him at all as
a person tangled, helpless, in webs of his own spinning; - neither the man
who had written that love song nor the man who had sat down in his chair
again after Rush had slammed the door.

He wasn't even shy but he was, except for that moment when a vivid
concern over John Wollaston's illness brought him back, oddly remote,
detached. He might have been a Martian, when in response to her leading
he discussed Paula with her; how good a musician she was; how splendidly
equipped physically and temperamentally for an operatic career. "She has
abandoned all that now, I suppose," he said. "Everything that goes with
it. She would wish, if she ever gave us a thought, that LaChaise and I
had never been born."

Mary would have tried to deny this but that the quality and tone of his
voice told her that he really knew it and that, miraculously, he didn't
care. She had exclaimed with a sincerity struck out of her by amazement,
"I don't see how you know that."

"Paula's a conqueror," he had answered simply, "a - compeller. It's her
instinct to compel. That's what makes her the artist she is. Without her
voice she might have been a tamer of wild beasts. And, of course, a great
audience that has paid extravagantly for its pleasure is a wild beast,
that will purr if she compels it, snarl at her if she doesn't manage to.
She's been hissed, howled at. And that's the possibility that makes
cheers intoxicating. Left too long without something to conquer, she
feels in a vacuum, smothered. Well, she's got something now; the greatest
thing in the world to her, - her husband's life. She's flung off the other
thing like a cloak."

Without, at the moment, any sense of its being an extraordinary question,
Mary asked, "Are you glad? That she has forgotten you, I mean."

She was not able, thinking it over afterward, to recall anything that
could have served as a cue for so far-fetched a supposition as that. It
could have sprung from nothing more palpable than the contrast suggested
between Paula, the compeller, the _dompteuse_, and the man who had just
been so describing her. He was so very thin; he was, if one looked
closely, rather shabby, and beyond that, it had struck her that a haggard
air there was about him was the product of an advanced stage of
fatigue, - or hunger. But that of course, was absurd. Anyhow, not even the
sound of her question startled her.

Nor did it him. There was something apologetic about his smile. "It _is_
a reprieve," he admitted. "I left her a week ago," he went on to
explain, - "it must have been the day Doctor Wollaston fell ill - on a
promise not to come back until I had got this opera of mine into the
shape she wants. I came back to-day to tell her that it can't be
done - not by me. I have tried my utmost and it isn't enough. I haven't
improved it even from her point of view let alone from mine. She isn't an
easy person to come to with a confession of failure."

"She's spoiling it," Mary said. "Why do you let her?"

But March dissented from that. "If we agree that the thing's an
opera - and of course that's what it is if it's anything - then what she
wants it made over into is better than what I wrote. She's trying to put
the Puccini throb into it. She's trying to make better drama out of it.
LaChaise agrees with her. He said at the beginning that I relied too much
on the orchestra and didn't give the singers enough to do. And, of
course, it's easy to see that what a woman like Paula said or did would
be more important to an audience than anything that an oboe could
possibly say. When I'm with her, she - galvanizes me into a sort of belief
that I can accomplish the thing she wants, but when I go off alone and
try to do it...." He blinked and shook his head. "It has been a
first-class nightmare, for a fact, this last week."

But Mary demanded again. "Why do you let her?"

"I made a good resolution a while ago," he said. "It was - it was the
night she sang those Whitman songs. You see I've never been tied to
anything; harnessed, you know. Somehow, I've managed to do without. But
I've had to do without hearing, except in my own head, any of the music
I've written. There was an old tin trunk full of it, on paper, that
looked as if it was never going to be anywhere else. Well, I came to a
sort of conviction after I went away from here that night, that those two
facts were cause and effect; that unless I submitted to be harnessed I
never would hear any of it. And it seemed that night that I couldn't
manage to do without hearing it. Keats was wrong about that, you
know, - about unheard melodies being sweeter. They can come to be clear
torment. So I decided I'd begin going in harness. I suppose it was rather
naive of me to think that I could, all at once, make a change like that.
Anyhow, I found I couldn't go on with this. I brought it around
to-day, - it's out there in the hall - to turn it over to Paula to do with
as she liked. That's why it was so - incredible, when you came down the
stairs instead."

He sprang up then to go, so abruptly that he gave her the impression of
having abandoned in the middle, the sentence he was speaking. This time,
however, rising instantly, she released him and in a moment he was gone.
There had been a word from him about her father, the expression of
"confident hopes" for his recovery, and on her part some attempt, not
successfully brought off she feared, to assure him of his welcome when he
came again. She didn't shake hands with him and decided afterward that it
must have been he who had avoided it.

She was glad to have him go so quickly. She wanted him to go so that she
could think about him. It was with a rather buoyant movement that she
crossed the room to the piano bench and very lightly with her finger-tips
began stroking the keys, the cool smooth keys with their orderly
arrangement of blacks and whites, from which it was possible to weave
such infinitely various patterns, such mysterious tissue.

A smile touched her lips over the memory of the picture her fancy had
painted the night Paula sang his songs, the sentimental notion of Paula's
inspiring him with an occasional facile caress to the writing of other
love songs. She might have been a boarding-school girl to have thought of
that. She smiled, too, though a little more tenderly, over his own
attempt - naive he had called it - to go in harness, like a park hack,
submissive to Paula's rein and spur. Pegasus at the plow again. She
smiled in clear self-derision over her contemplated project of saving
him from Paula. He didn't need saving from anybody. He was one of those
spirits that couldn't be tied. Not even his own best effort of submission
could avail to keep the harness on his back.

It was most curious how comfortable she had been with him. During the
miserable month she had spent at home before she went to Wyoming with the
Corbetts, she had dreaded a second encounter with March and had
consciously avoided one. To meet and be introduced as the strangers they
were supposed by the rest of the family to be, to elaborate the pretense
that this was what they were - they who had shared those flaming moments
while Paula sang! - would be ridiculous and disgusting. But anything else,
any attempt to go on from where they had left off was unthinkable. In the
privacy of her imagination she had worked the thing out in half a dozen
ways, all equally distressing.

She had not made good her resolution to quit thinking about him. She was
not able and did not even attempt to dismiss her adventure with him as a
mere regrettable folly to be forgotten as soon as possible. It had often
come back to her during sleepless hours of the long nights and had always
been made welcome. She didn't wish it defaced as she had felt it
necessarily must be by the painful anti-climax of a second meeting.

The impulse upon which she had taken him out of old Nat's hands was
perhaps a little surprising now she looked back on it, but it had not
astonished her at the time. Of course, there, there was something
concretely to be done, an injustice to be averted from a possibly
innocent head. She doubted though if it had been pure altruism.

Whatever its nature, the result of it had been altogether happy. She
_was_ glad she had come down to see him. There need be no misgiving now
about the quality of their future encounters, were there to be any such.
They were on solid ground with each other.

How had that been brought about? How had they managed to talk to each
other for anyway fifteen or twenty minutes without either a reference to
their adventure or a palpable avoidance of it? It wasn't her doing. From
the moment when she got to the end of the lines she had rehearsed coming
down the stairs, the lead had been in his hands. Indeed, to the latter
part of the talk, what she had contributed was no more than a question or
two so flagrantly personal that they reminded her in review of some of
her childish indiscretions with Wallace Hood. How had he managed it?

He hadn't been tactful. She acquitted him altogether of that. She
couldn't have endured tact this afternoon from anybody. Of course, the
mere expressiveness of his face helped a lot. The look he had turned on
Rush for example, that had stopped that nerve-racked boy in full career.
Or the look he gave her when he first learned of her father's illness.
That sudden coming back from whatever his own preoccupation might have
been to a vivid concern for her father.

Well, there, at last, it was. That was his quality. A genius for more
than forgetting himself, for stepping clean out of himself into some one
else's shoes. Wasn't that just a long way of saying imagination? He had
illuminated her father for her and in so doing had given her a ray of
real comfort. He had interpreted Paula - in terms how different from those
employed by Aunt Lucile! He had comprehended Rush without one momentary
flaw of resentment. Last of all, he had quite simply and without one
vitiating trace of self-pity, explained himself, luminously, so that it
was as if she had known him all her life.

One thing, to be sure, she didn't in the least understand - the very
last thing he had said. "That's why it was so incredible when you came
down the stairs instead." That had been to her, a complete non sequitur,
an enigma. But she was content to leave it at that.

Such a man, of course, could never - belong to anybody. He was not
collectable. There would always be about him, for everybody, some last
enigma, some room to which no one would be given the key. But there was a
virtue even in the fringe of him, the hem of his garment.

Was she getting sentimental? No, she was not. Indeed, precisely what his
little visit had done for her was to effect her release from a tangle of
taut-drawn sentimentalities. She hadn't felt as free as this, as
comfortable with herself, since she came home with Rush from New York.

She had no assurance that he'd come to the house again of his own accord
or that Paula would send for him. But she was in no mood to distress
herself just now, even with that possibility.

She crossed the room and got herself a cigarette, and with it alight she
returned to her contemplation of the piano keyboard. She didn't move nor
speak when she heard Rush come in but she kept an eye on the drawing-room
door and when presently he entered, she greeted him with a smile of
good-humored mockery. He had something that looked like a battered school
atlas in his hand.

"What do you suppose this is?" he asked. "It was lying on the bench in
the hall."

She held out a hand for it and together they opened it on the lid of the
piano and investigated.

"It's the manuscript of his opera," she said. "He brought it around to
leave with Paula. To tell her he had done with it. He's been trying to
spoil it for her but he can't."

"I suppose I made an infernal fool of myself," he remarked, after a
little silence.

She blew, for answer, an impudent smoke ring up into his face.

He continued grumpily to cover his relief that she had not been more
painfully explicit, - "I suppose I shall have to make up some sort of
damned apology to him."

"I don't know," she said. "That's as you like. I don't believe he'd
insist upon it. He understood well enough."

He looked at her intently. "Has there been any better news from father


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Online LibraryHenry Kitchell WebsterMary Wollaston → online text (page 11 of 27)