Here was the truth, here was reality, here was the lifethat belonged to him; and he, who fancied himself soscornful of arbitrary restraints, had been afraid to breakaway from his desk because of what people mightthink of his stealing a holiday!
Her first exclamation was: "Newland--has anythinghappened?" and it occurred to him that it would havebeen more "feminine" if she had instantly read in hiseyes why he had come. But when he answered: "Yes--Ifound I had to see you," her happy blushes took thechill from her surprise, and he saw how easily hewould be forgiven, and how soon even Mr. Letterblair'smild disapproval would be smiled away by a tolerantfamily.
Early as it was, the main street was no place for anybut formal greetings, and Archer longed to be alonewith May, and to pour out all his tenderness and hisimpatience. It still lacked an hour to the late Wellandbreakfast-time, and instead of asking him to come inshe proposed that they should walk out to an oldorange-garden beyond the town. She had just been fora row on the river, and the sun that netted the littlewaves with gold seemed to have caught her in itsmeshes. Across the warm brown of her cheek her blownhair glittered like silver wire; and her eyes too lookedlighter, almost pale in their youthful limpidity. As shewalked beside Archer with her long swinging gait herface wore the vacant serenity of a young marble athlete.
To Archer's strained nerves the vision was as soothingas the sight of the blue sky and the lazy river. Theysat down on a bench under the orange-trees and he puthis arm about her and kissed her. It was like drinkingat a cold spring with the sun on it; but his pressuremay have been more vehement than he had intended,for the blood rose to her face and she drew back as ifhe had startled her.
"What is it?" he asked, smiling; and she looked athim with surprise, and answered: "Nothing."
A slight embarrassment fell on them, and her handslipped out of his. It was the only time that he hadkissed her on the lips except for their fugitive embracein the Beaufort conservatory, and he saw that she wasdisturbed, and shaken out of her cool boyish composure.
"Tell me what you do all day," he said, crossing hisarms under his tilted-back head, and pushing his hatforward to screen the sun-dazzle. To let her talk aboutfamiliar and simple things was the easiest way of carryingon his own independent train of thought; and hesat listening to her simple chronicle of swimming, sailingand riding, varied by an occasional dance at theprimitive inn when a man-of-war came in. A few pleasantpeople from Philadelphia and Baltimore werepicknicking at the inn, and the Selfridge Merrys hadcome down for three weeks because Kate Merry hadhad bronchitis. They were planning to lay out a lawntennis court on the sands; but no one but Kate andMay had racquets, and most of the people had noteven heard of the game.
All this kept her very busy, and she had not had timeto do more than look at the little vellum book thatArcher had sent her the week before (the "Sonnetsfrom the Portuguese"); but she was learning by heart"How they brought the Good News from Ghent toAix," because it was one of the first things he had everread to her; and it amused her to be able to tell himthat Kate Merry had never even heard of a poet calledRobert Browning.
Presently she started up, exclaiming that they wouldbe late for breakfast; and they hurried back to thetumble-down house with its pointless porch and unprunedhedge of plumbago and pink geraniums wherethe Wellands were installed for the winter. Mr.Welland's sensitive domesticity shrank from the discomfortsof the slovenly southern hotel, and at immenseexpense, and in face of almost insuperable difficulties,Mrs. Welland was obliged, year after year, to improvisean establishment partly made up of discontentedNew York servants and partly drawn from the localAfrican supply.
"The doctors want my husband to feel that he is inhis own home; otherwise he would be so wretched thatthe climate would not do him any good," sheexplained, winter after winter, to the sympathisingPhiladelphians and Baltimoreans; and Mr. Welland, beamingacross a breakfast table miraculously supplied with themost varied delicacies, was presently saying to Archer:"You see, my dear fellow, we camp--we literally camp.I tell my wife and May that I want to teach them howto rough it."
Mr. and Mrs. Welland had been as much surprisedas their daughter by the young man's sudden arrival;but it had occurred to him to explain that he had felthimself on the verge of a nasty cold, and this seemed toMr. Welland an all-sufficient reason for abandoningany duty.
"You can't be too careful, especially toward spring,"he said, heaping his plate with straw-coloured griddle-cakes and drowning them in golden syrup. "If I'd onlybeen as prudent at your age May would have beendancing at the Assemblies now, instead of spending herwinters in a wilderness with an old invalid."
"Oh, but I love it here, Papa; you know I do. If onlyNewland could stay I should like it a thousand timesbetter than New York."
"Newland must stay till he has quite thrown off hiscold," said Mrs. Welland indulgently; and the youngman laughed, and said he supposed there was such athing as one's profession.
He managed, however, after an exchange of telegramswith the firm, to make his cold last a week; andit shed an ironic light on the situation to know thatMr. Letterblair's indulgence was partly due to thesatisfactory way in which his brilliant young junior partnerhad settled the troublesome matter of the Olenskidivorce. Mr. Letterblair had let Mrs. Welland know thatMr. Archer had "rendered an invaluable service" to thewhole family, and that old Mrs. Manson Mingott hadbeen particularly pleased; and one day when May hadgone for a drive with her father in the only vehicle theplace produced Mrs. Welland took occasion to touchon a topic which she always avoided in her daughter'spresence.
"I'm afraid Ellen's ideas are not at all like ours. Shewas barely eighteen when Medora Manson took herback to Europe--you remember the excitement whenshe appeared in black at her coming-out ball? Anotherof Medora's fads--really this time it was almostprophetic! That must have been at least twelve years ago;and since then Ellen has never been to America. Nowonder she is completely Europeanised."
"But European society is not given to divorce: CountessOlenska thought she would be conforming to Americanideas in asking for her freedom." It was the firsttime that the young man had pronounced her namesince he had left Skuytercliff, and he felt the colour riseto his cheek.
Mrs. Welland smiled compassionately. "That is justlike the extraordinary things that foreigners invent aboutus. They think we dine at two o'clock and countenancedivorce! That is why it seems to me so foolish toentertain them when they come to New York. Theyaccept our hospitality, and then they go home andrepeat the same stupid stories."
Archer made no comment on this, and Mrs. Wellandcontinued: "But we do most thoroughly appreciate yourpersuading Ellen to give up the idea. Her grandmotherand her uncle Lovell could do nothing with her; bothof them have written that her changing her mind wasentirely due to your influence--in fact she said so toher grandmother. She has an unbounded admirationfor you. Poor Ellen--she was always a wayward child.I wonder what her fate will be?"
"What we've all contrived to make it," he felt likeanswering. "if you'd all of you rather she should beBeaufort's mistress than some decent fellow's wife you'vecertainly gone the right way about it."
He wondered what Mrs. Welland would have said ifhe had uttered the words instead of merely thinkingthem. He could picture the sudden decomposure of herfirm placid features, to which a lifelong mastery overtrifles had given an air of factitious authority. Tracesstill lingered on them of a fresh beauty like her daughter's;and he asked himself if May's face was doomedto thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincibleinnocence.
Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind ofinnocence, the innocence that seals the mind againstimagination and the heart against experience!
"I verily believe," Mrs. Welland continued, "that ifthe horrible business had come out in the newspapers itwould have been my husband's death-blow. I don'tknow any of the details; I only ask not to, as I toldpoor Ellen when she tried to talk to me about it.Having an invalid to care for, I have to keep my mindbright and happy. But Mr. Welland was terribly upset;he had a slight temperature every morning while wewere waiting to hear what had been decided. It was thehorror of his girl's learning that such things werepossible--but of course, dear Newland, you felt thattoo. We all knew that you were thinking of May."
"I'm always thinking of May," the young manrejoined, rising to cut short the conversation.
He had meant to seize the opportunity of his privatetalk with Mrs. Welland to urge her to advance the dateof his marriage. But he could think of no argumentsthat would move her, and with a sense of relief he sawMr. Welland and May driving up to the door.
His only hope was to plead again with May, and onthe day before his departure he walked with her to theruinous garden of the Spanish Mission. The backgroundlent itself to allusions to European scenes; and May,who was looking her loveliest under a wide-brimmedhat that cast a shadow of mystery over her too-cleareyes, kindled into eagerness as he spoke of Granadaand the Alhambra.
"We might be seeing it all this spring--even theEaster ceremonies at Seville," he urged, exaggeratinghis demands in the hope of a larger concession.
"Easter in Seville? And it will be Lent next week!"she laughed.
"Why shouldn't we be married in Lent?" herejoined; but she looked so shocked that he saw hismistake.
"Of course I didn't mean that, dearest; but soonafter Easter--so that we could sail at the end of April. Iknow I could arrange it at the office."
She smiled dreamily upon the possibility; but heperceived that to dream of it sufficed her. It was likehearing him read aloud out of his poetry books thebeautiful things that could not possibly happen in reallife.
"Oh, do go on, Newland; I do love your descriptions."
"But why should they be only descriptions? Whyshouldn't we make them real?"
"We shall, dearest, of course; next year." Her voicelingered over it.
"Don't you want them to be real sooner? Can't Ipersuade you to break away now?"
She bowed her head, vanishing from him under herconniving hat-brim.
"Why should we dream away another year? Look atme, dear! Don't you understand how I want you formy wife?"
For a moment she remained motionless; then sheraised on him eyes of such despairing dearness that hehalf-released her waist from his hold. But suddenly herlook changed and deepened inscrutably. "I'm not sureif I DO understand," she said. "Is it--is it becauseyou're not certain of continuing to care for me?"
Archer sprang up from his seat. "My God--perhaps--Idon't know," he broke out angrily.
May Welland rose also; as they faced each other sheseemed to grow in womanly stature and dignity. Bothwere silent for a moment, as if dismayed by the unforeseentrend of their words: then she said in a low voice:"If that is it--is there some one else?"
"Some one else--between you and me?" He echoedher words slowly, as though they were only half-intelligible and he wanted time to repeat the questionto himself. She seemed to catch the uncertainty of hisvoice, for she went on in a deepening tone: "Let ustalk frankly, Newland. Sometimes I've felt a differencein you; especially since our engagement has beenannounced."
"Dear--what madness!" he recovered himself toexclaim.
She met his protest with a faint smile. "If it is, itwon't hurt us to talk about it." She paused, and added,lifting her head with one of her noble movements: "Oreven if it's true: why shouldn't we speak of it? Youmight so easily have made a mistake."
He lowered his head, staring at the black leaf-patternon the sunny path at their feet. "Mistakes are alwayseasy to make; but if I had made one of the kind yousuggest, is it likely that I should be imploring you tohasten our marriage?"
She looked downward too, disturbing the patternwith the point of her sunshade while she struggled forexpression. "Yes," she said at length. "You might want--once for all--to settle the question: it's one way."
Her quiet lucidity startled him, but did not misleadhim into thinking her insensible. Under her hat-brim hesaw the pallor of her profile, and a slight tremor of thenostril above her resolutely steadied lips.
"Well--?" he questioned, sitting down on the bench,and looking up at her with a frown that he tried tomake playful.
She dropped back into her seat and went on: "Youmustn't think that a girl knows as little as her parentsimagine. One hears and one notices--one has one'sfeelings and ideas. And of course, long before you toldme that you cared for me, I'd known that there wassome one else you were interested in; every one wastalking about it two years ago at Newport. And once Isaw you sitting together on the verandah at a dance--and when she came back into the house her face wassad, and I felt sorry for her; I remembered it afterward,when we were engaged."
Her voice had sunk almost to a whisper, and she satclasping and unclasping her hands about the handle ofher sunshade. The young man laid his upon them witha gentle pressure; his heart dilated with an inexpressible relief.
"My dear child--was THAT it? If you only knew thetruth!"
She raised her head quickly. "Then there is a truth Idon't know?"
He kept his hand over hers. "I meant, the truthabout the old story you speak of."
"But that's what I want to know, Newland--what Iought to know. I couldn't have my happiness made outof a wrong--an unfairness--to somebody else. And Iwant to believe that it would be the same with you.What sort of a life could we build on such foundations?"
Her face had taken on a look of such tragic couragethat he felt like bowing himself down at her feet. "I'vewanted to say this for a long time," she went on. "I'vewanted to tell you that, when two people really loveeach other, I understand that there may be situationswhich make it right that they should--should go againstpublic opinion. And if you feel yourself in any waypledged . . . pledged to the person we've spoken of . . .and if there is any way . . . any way in which you canfulfill your pledge . . . even by her getting a divorce. . . Newland, don't give her up because of me!"
His surprise at discovering that her fears hadfastened upon an episode so remote and so completely ofthe past as his love-affair with Mrs. Thorley Rushworthgave way to wonder at the generosity of her view.There was something superhuman in an attitude sorecklessly unorthodox, and if other problems had notpressed on him he would have been lost in wonder atthe prodigy of the Wellands' daughter urging him tomarry his former mistress. But he was still dizzy withthe glimpse of the precipice they had skirted, and fullof a new awe at the mystery of young-girlhood.
For a moment he could not speak; then he said:"There is no pledge--no obligation whatever--of thekind you think. Such cases don't always--present themselvesquite as simply as . . . But that's no matter . . . Ilove your generosity, because I feel as you do aboutthose things . . . I feel that each case must be judgedindividually, on its own merits . . . irrespective of stupidconventionalities . . . I mean, each woman's rightto her liberty--" He pulled himself up, startled by theturn his thoughts had taken, and went on, looking ather with a smile: "Since you understand so many things,dearest, can't you go a little farther, and understandthe uselessness of our submitting to another form ofthe same foolish conventionalities? If there's no oneand nothing between us, isn't that an argument formarrying quickly, rather than for more delay?"
She flushed with joy and lifted her face to his; as hebent to it he saw that her eyes were full of happy tears.But in another moment she seemed to have descendedfrom her womanly eminence to helpless and timorousgirlhood; and he understood that her courage andinitiative were all for others, and that she had none forherself. It was evident that the effort of speaking hadbeen much greater than her studied composure betrayed,and that at his first word of reassurance she had droppedback into the usual, as a too-adventurous child takesrefuge in its mother's arms.
Archer had no heart to go on pleading with her; hewas too much disappointed at the vanishing of the newbeing who had cast that one deep look at him from hertransparent eyes. May seemed to be aware of hisdisappointment, but without knowing how to alleviate it;and they stood up and walked silently home.