Crucial Instances
Edith Wharton

Part 2 out of 3

Claudia accomplished some shopping in the spirit of perfunctoriness that
robs even new bonnets of their bloom; and this business despatched, she
turned aimlessly into the wide inviting brightness of the streets. Never
had she felt more isolated amid that ordered beauty which gives a social
quality to the very stones and mortar of Paris. All about her were
evidences of an artistic sensibility pervading every form of life like the
nervous structure of the huge frame--a sensibility so delicate, alert and
universal that it seemed to leave no room for obtuseness or error. In such
a medium the faculty of plastic expression must develop as unconsciously
as any organ in its normal surroundings; to be "artistic" must cease to be
an attitude and become a natural function. To Claudia the significance of
the whole vast revelation was centred in the light it shed on one tiny
spot of consciousness--the value of her husband's work. There are moments
when to the groping soul the world's accumulated experiences are but
stepping-stones across a private difficulty.

She stood hesitating on a street corner. It was barely eleven, and she had
an hour to spare before going to the Hotel Cluny. She seemed to be letting
her inclination float as it would on the cross-currents of suggestion
emanating from the brilliant complex scene before her; but suddenly, in
obedience to an impulse that she became aware of only in acting on it, she
called a cab and drove to the gallery where her husband's pictures were

A magnificent official in gold braid sold her a ticket and pointed the way
up the empty crimson-carpeted stairs. His duplicate, on the upper landing,
held out a catalogue with an air of recognizing the futility of the offer;
and a moment later she found herself in the long noiseless impressive room
full of velvet-covered ottomans and exotic plants. It was clear that the
public ardor on which Mrs. Davant had expatiated had spent itself earlier
in the week; for Claudia had this luxurious apartment to herself. Something
about its air of rich privacy, its diffusion of that sympathetic quality in
other countries so conspicuously absent from the public show-room, seemed
to emphasize its present emptiness. It was as though the flowers, the
carpet, the lounges, surrounded their visitor's solitary advance with
the mute assurance that they had done all they could toward making the
thing "go off," and that if they had failed it was simply for lack of
co-operation. She stood still and looked about her. The pictures struck her
instantly as odd gaps in the general harmony; it was self-evident that they
had not co-operated. They had not been pushing, aggressive, discordant:
they had merely effaced themselves. She swept a startled eye from one
familiar painting to another. The canvases were all there--and the
frames--but the miracle, the mirage of life and meaning, had vanished
like some atmospheric illusion. What was it that had happened? And had
it happened to _her_ or to the pictures? She tried to rally her
frightened thoughts; to push or coax them into a semblance of resistance;
but argument was swept off its feet by the huge rush of a single
conviction--the conviction that the pictures were bad. There was no
standing up against that: she felt herself submerged.

The stealthy fear that had been following her all these days had her by the
throat now. The great vision of beauty through which she had been moving
as one enchanted was turned to a phantasmagoria of evil mocking shapes.
She hated the past; she hated its splendor, its power, its wicked magical
vitality.... She dropped into a seat and continued to stare at the wall
before her. Gradually, as she stared, there stole out to her from the
dimmed humbled canvases a reminder of what she had once seen in them, a
spectral appeal to her faith to call them back to life. What proof had she
that her present estimate of them was less subjective than the other? The
confused impressions of the last few days were hardly to be pleaded as a
valid theory of art. How, after all, did she know that the pictures were
bad? On what suddenly acquired technical standard had she thus decided
the case against them? It seemed as though it were a standard outside of
herself, as though some unheeded inner sense were gradually making her
aware of the presence, in that empty room, of a critical intelligence that
was giving out a subtle effluence of disapproval. The fancy was so vivid
that, to shake it off, she rose and began to move about again. In the
middle of the room stood a monumental divan surmounted by a _massif_
of palms and azaleas. As Claudia's muffled wanderings carried her around
the angle of this seat, she saw that its farther side was occupied by the
figure of a man, who sat with his hands resting on his stick and his head
bowed upon them. She gave a little cry and her husband rose and faced her.

Instantly the live point of consciousness was shifted, and she became aware
that the quality of the pictures no longer mattered. It was what _he_
thought of them that counted: her life hung on that.

They looked at each other a moment in silence; such concussions are not apt
to flash into immediate speech. At length he said simply, "I didn't know
you were coming here."

She colored as though he had charged her with something underhand.

"I didn't mean to," she stammered; "but I was too early for our

Her word's cast a revealing glare on the situation. Neither of them looked
at the pictures; but to Claudia those unobtruding presences seemed suddenly
to press upon them and force them apart.

Keniston glanced at his watch. "It's twelve o'clock," he said. "Shall we go


At the door he called a cab and put her in it; then, drawing out his watch
again, he said abruptly: "I believe I'll let you go alone. I'll join you at
the hotel in time for luncheon." She wondered for a moment if he meant to
return to the gallery; but, looking back as she drove off, she saw him walk
rapidly away in the opposite direction.

The cabman had carried her half-way to the Hotel Cluny before she realized
where she was going, and cried out to him to turn home. There was an acute
irony in this mechanical prolongation of the quest of beauty. She had
had enough of it, too much of it; her one longing was to escape, to hide
herself away from its all-suffusing implacable light.

At the hotel, alone in her room, a few tears came to soften her seared
vision; but her mood was too tense to be eased by weeping. Her whole being
was centred in the longing to know what her husband thought. Their short
exchange of words had, after all, told her nothing. She had guessed a faint
resentment at her unexpected appearance; but that might merely imply a
dawning sense, on his part, of being furtively watched and criticised. She
had sometimes wondered if he was never conscious of her observation; there
were moments when it seemed to radiate from her in visible waves. Perhaps,
after all, he was aware of it, on his guard against it, as a lurking knife
behind the thick curtain of his complacency; and to-day he must have caught
the gleam of the blade.

Claudia had not reached the age when pity is the first chord to vibrate in
contact with any revelation of failure. Her one hope had been that Keniston
should be clear-eyed enough to face the truth. Whatever it turned out to
be, she wanted him to measure himself with it. But as his image rose before
her she felt a sudden half-maternal longing to thrust herself between him
and disaster. Her eagerness to see him tested by circumstances seemed now
like a cruel scientific curiosity. She saw in a flash of sympathy that he
would need her most if he fell beneath his fate.

He did not, after all, return for luncheon; and when she came up-stairs
from her solitary meal their _salon_ was still untenanted. She
permitted herself no sensational fears; for she could not, at the height of
apprehension, figure Keniston as yielding to any tragic impulse; but the
lengthening hours brought an uneasiness that was fuel to her pity. Suddenly
she heard the clock strike five. It was the hour at which they had promised
to meet Mrs. Davant at the gallery--the hour of the "ovation." Claudia
rose and went to the window, straining for a glimpse of her husband in the
crowded street. Could it be that he had forgotten her, had gone to the
gallery without her? Or had something happened--that veiled "something"
which, for the last hour, had grimly hovered on the outskirts of her mind?

She heard a hand on the door and Keniston entered. As she turned to meet
him her whole being was swept forward on a great wave of pity: she was so
sure, now, that he must know.

But he confronted her with a glance of preoccupied brightness; her first
impression was that she had never seen him so vividly, so expressively
pleased. If he needed her, it was not to bind up his wounds.

He gave her a smile which was clearly the lingering reflection of some
inner light. "I didn't mean to be so late," he said, tossing aside his hat
and the little red volume that served as a clue to his explorations. "I
turned in to the Louvre for a minute after I left you this morning, and the
place fairly swallowed me up--I couldn't get away from it. I've been there
ever since." He threw himself into a chair and glanced about for his pipe.

"It takes time," he continued musingly, "to get at them, to make out what
they're saying--the big fellows, I mean. They're not a communicative lot.
At first I couldn't make much out of their lingo--it was too different from
mine! But gradually, by picking up a hint here and there, and piecing them
together, I've begun to understand; and to-day, by Jove, I got one or two
of the old chaps by the throat and fairly turned them inside out--made them
deliver up their last drop." He lifted a brilliant eye to her. "Lord, it
was tremendous!" he declared.

He had found his pipe and was musingly filling it. Claudia waited in

"At first," he began again, "I was afraid their language was too hard for
me--that I should never quite know what they were driving at; they seemed
to cold-shoulder me, to be bent on shutting me out. But I was bound I
wouldn't be beaten, and now, to-day"--he paused a moment to strike a
match--"when I went to look at those things of mine it all came over me
in a flash. By Jove! it was as if I'd made them all into a big bonfire to
light me on my road!"

His wife was trembling with a kind of sacred terror. She had been afraid
to pray for light for him, and here he was joyfully casting his whole past
upon the pyre!

"Is there nothing left?" she faltered.

"Nothing left? There's everything!" he exulted. "Why, here I am, not much
over forty, and I've found out already--already!" He stood up and began to
move excitedly about the room. "My God! Suppose I'd never known! Suppose
I'd gone on painting things like that forever! Why, I feel like those
chaps at revivalist meetings when they get up and say they're saved! Won't
somebody please start a hymn?"

Claudia, with a tremulous joy, was letting herself go on the strong
current of his emotion; but it had not yet carried her beyond her depth,
and suddenly she felt hard ground underfoot.

"Mrs. Davant--" she exclaimed.

He stared, as though suddenly recalled from a long distance. "Mrs. Davant?"

"We were to have met her--this afternoon--now--"

"At the gallery? Oh, that's all right. I put a stop to that; I went to see
her after I left you; I explained it all to her."


"I told her I was going to begin all over again."

Claudia's heart gave a forward bound and then sank back hopelessly.

"But the panels--?"

"That's all right too. I told her about the panels," he reassured her.

"You told her--?"

"That I can't paint them now. She doesn't understand, of course; but she's
the best little woman and she trusts me."

She could have wept for joy at his exquisite obtuseness. "But that isn't
all," she wailed. "It doesn't matter how much you've explained to her. It
doesn't do away with the fact that we're living on those panels!"

"Living on them?"

"On the money that she paid you to paint them. Isn't that what brought us
here? And--if you mean to do as you say--to begin all over again--how in
the world are we ever to pay her back?"

Her husband turned on her an inspired eye. "There's only one way that I
know of," he imperturbably declared, "and that's to stay out here till I
learn how to paint them."



_Mrs. Ambrose Dale--forty, slender, still young--sits in her drawing-room
at the tea-table. The winter twilight is falling, a lamp has been lit,
there is a fire on the hearth, and the room is pleasantly dim and
flower-scented. Books are scattered everywhere--mostly with autograph
inscriptions "From the Author"--and a large portrait of_ Mrs. Dale,
_at her desk, with papers strewn about her, takes up one of the
wall-panels. Before_ Mrs. Dale _stands_ Hilda, _fair and twenty,
her hands full of letters_.

_Mrs. Dale_. Ten more applications for autographs? Isn't it strange
that people who'd blush to borrow twenty dollars don't scruple to beg for
an autograph?

_Hilda (reproachfully)_. Oh--

_Mrs. Dale_. What's the difference, pray?

_Hilda_. Only that your last autograph sold for fifty--

_Mrs. Dale (not displeased)_. Ah?--I sent for you, Hilda, because I'm
dining out to-night, and if there's nothing important to attend to among
these letters you needn't sit up for me.

_Hilda_. You don't mean to work?

_Mrs. Dale_. Perhaps; but I sha'n't need you. You'll see that my
cigarettes and coffee-machine are in place, and: that I don't have to crawl
about the floor in search of my pen-wiper? That's all. Now about these

_Hilda (impulsively)_. Oh, Mrs. Dale--

_Mrs. Dale_. Well?

_Hilda_. I'd rather sit up for you.

_Mrs. Dale_. Child, I've nothing for you to do. I shall be blocking
out the tenth chapter of _Winged Purposes_ and it won't be ready for
you till next week.

_Hilda_. It isn't that--but it's so beautiful to sit here, watching
and listening, all alone in the night, and to feel that you're in there
_(she points to the study-door)_ _creating_--._(Impulsively.)_
What do I care for sleep?

_Mrs. Dale (indulgently)_. Child--silly child!--Yes, I should have
felt so at your age--it would have been an inspiration--

_Hilda (rapt)_. It is!

_Mrs. Dale_. But you must go to bed; I must have you fresh in the
morning; for you're still at the age when one is fresh in the morning!
_(She sighs.)_ The letters? _(Abruptly.)_ Do you take notes of
what you feel, Hilda--here, all alone in the night, as you say?

_Hilda (shyly)_. I have--

_Mrs. Dale (smiling)_. For the diary?

_Hilda (nods and blushes)_.

_Mrs. Dale (caressingly)_. Goose!--Well, to business. What is there?

_Hilda_. Nothing important, except a letter from Stroud & Fayerweather
to say that the question of the royalty on _Pomegranate Seed_ has been
settled in your favor. The English publishers of _Immolation_ write
to consult you about a six-shilling edition; Olafson, the Copenhagen
publisher, applies for permission to bring out a Danish translation of
_The Idol's Feet_; and the editor of the _Semaphore_ wants a new
serial--I think that's all; except that _Woman's Sphere_ and _The
Droplight_ ask for interviews--with photographs--

_Mrs. Dale_. The same old story! I'm so toed of it all. _(To
herself, in an undertone.)_ But how should I feel if it all stopped?
_(The servant brings in a card.)_

_Mrs. Dale (reading it)_. Is it possible? Paul Ventnor? _(To the
servant.)_ Show Mr. Ventnor up. _(To herself.)_ Paul Ventnor!

_Hilda (breathless)_. Oh, Mrs. Dale--_the_ Mr. Ventnor?

_Mrs. Dale (smiling)_. I fancy there's only one.

_Hilda_. The great, great poet? _(Irresolute.)_ No, I don't

_Mrs. Dale (with a tinge of impatience)_. What?

_Hilda (fervently)_. Ask you--if I might--oh, here in this corner,
where he can't possibly notice me--stay just a moment? Just to see him come
in? To see the meeting between you--the greatest novelist and the greatest
poet of the age? Oh, it's too much to ask! It's an historic moment.

_Mrs. Dale_. Why, I suppose it is. I hadn't thought of it in that
light. Well _(smiling)_, for the diary--

_Hilda_. Oh, thank you, _thank you_! I'll be off the very instant
I've heard him speak.

_Mrs. Dale_. The very instant, mind. _(She rises, looks at herself
in the glass, smooths her hair, sits down again, and rattles the
tea-caddy.)_ Isn't the room very warm?--_(She looks over at her
portrait.)_ I've grown stouter since that was painted--. You'll make a
fortune out of that diary, Hilda--

_Hilda (modestly)_. Four publishers have applied to me already--

_The Servant (announces)_. Mr. Paul Ventnor.

_(Tall, nearing fifty, with an incipient stoutness buttoned into a
masterly frock-coat, Ventnor drops his glass and advances vaguely, with a
short-sighted stare.)_

_Ventnor_. Mrs. Dale?

_Mrs. Dale_. My dear friend! This is kind. _(She looks over her
shoulder at Hilda, mho vanishes through the door to the left.)_ The
papers announced your arrival, but I hardly hoped--

_Ventnor (whose short-sighted stare is seen to conceal a deeper
embarrassment)_. You hadn't forgotten me, then?

_Mrs. Dale_. Delicious! Do _you_ forget that you're public

_Ventnor_. Forgotten, I mean, that we were old friends?

_Mrs. Dale_. Such old friends! May I remind you that it's nearly
twenty years since we've met? Or do you find cold reminiscences

_Ventnor_. On the contrary, I've come to ask you for a dish of
them--we'll warm them up together. You're my first visit.

_Mrs. Dale_. How perfect of you! So few men visit their women friends
in chronological order; or at least they generally do it the other way
round, beginning with the present day and working back--if there's time--to
prehistoric woman.

_Ventnor_. But when prehistoric woman has become historic woman--?

_Mrs. Dale_. Oh, it's the reflection of my glory that has guided you
here, then?

_Ventnor_. It's a spirit in my feet that has led me, at the first
opportunity, to the most delightful spot I know.

_Mrs. Dale_. Oh, the first opportunity--!

_Ventnor_. I might have seen you very often before; but never just in
the right way.

_Mrs. Dale_. Is this the right way?

_Ventnor_. It depends on you to make it so.

_Mrs. Dale_. What a responsibility! What shall I do?

_Ventnor_. Talk to me--make me think you're a little glad to see me;
give me some tea and a cigarette; and say you're out to everyone else.

_Mrs. Dale_. Is that all? _(She hands him a cup of tea.)_ The
cigarettes are at your elbow--. And do you think I shouldn't have been glad
to see you before?

_Ventnor_. No; I think I should have been too glad to see you.

_Mrs. Dale_. Dear me, what precautions! I hope you always wear
goloshes when it looks like rain and never by any chance expose yourself
to a draught. But I had an idea that poets courted the emotions--

_Ventnor_. Do novelists?

_Mrs. Dale_. If you ask _me_--on paper!

_Ventnor_. Just so; that's safest. My best things about the sea have
been written on shore. _(He looks at her thoughtfully.)_ But it
wouldn't have suited us in the old days, would it?

_Mrs. Dale (sighing)_. When we were real people!

_Ventnor_. Real people?

_Mrs. Dale_. Are _you_, now? I died years ago. What you see
before you is a figment of the reporter's brain--a monster manufactured out
of newspaper paragraphs, with ink in its veins. A keen sense of copyright
is _my_ nearest approach to an emotion.

_Ventnor (sighing)_. Ah, well, yes--as you say, we're public property.

_Mrs. Dale_. If one shared equally with the public! But the last shred
of my identity is gone.

_Ventnor_. Most people would be glad to part with theirs on such
terms. I have followed your work with immense interest. _Immolation_
is a masterpiece. I read it last summer when it first came out.

_Mrs. Dale (with a shade less warmth)_. _Immolation_ has been out
three years.

_Ventnor_. Oh, by Jove--no? Surely not--But one is so overwhelmed--one
loses count. (_Reproachfully_.) Why have you never sent me your books?

_Mrs. Dale_. For that very reason.

_Ventnor (deprecatingly)_. You know I didn't mean it for you! And
_my_ first book--do you remember--was dedicated to you.

_Mrs. Dale_. _Silver Trumpets_--

_Ventnor (much interested)_. Have you a copy still, by any chance? The
first edition, I mean? Mine was stolen years ago. Do you think you could
put your hand on it?

_Mrs. Dale (taking a small shabby book from the table at her side)_.
It's here.

_Ventnor (eagerly)_. May I have it? Ah, thanks. This is _very_
interesting. The last copy sold in London for L40, and they tell me the
next will fetch twice as much. It's quite _introuvable_.

_Mrs. Dale_. I know that. _(A pause. She takes the book from him,
opens it, and reads, half to herself--)_

_How much we two have seen together,
Of other eyes unwist,
Dear as in days of leafless weather
The willow's saffron mist,

Strange as the hour when Hesper swings
A-sea in beryl green,
While overhead on dalliant wings
The daylight hangs serene,

And thrilling as a meteor's fall
Through depths of lonely sky,
When each to each two watchers call:
I saw it!--So did I._

_Ventnor_. Thin, thin--the troubadour tinkle. Odd how little promise
there is in first volumes!

_Mrs. Dale (with irresistible emphasis)_. I thought there was a
distinct promise in this!

_Ventnor (seeing his mistake)_. Ah--the one you would never let me
fulfil? _(Sentimentally.)_ How inexorable you were! You never
dedicated a book to _me_.

_Mrs. Dale_. I hadn't begun to write when we were--dedicating things
to each other.

_Ventnor_. Not for the public--but you wrote for me; and, wonderful as
you are, you've never written anything since that I care for half as much

_Mrs. Dale (interested)_. Well?

_Ventnor_. Your letters.

_Mrs. Dale (in a changed voice)_. My letters--do you remember them?

_Ventnor_. When I don't, I reread them.

_Mrs. Dale (incredulous)_. You have them still?

_Ventnor (unguardedly)_. You haven't mine, then?

_Mrs. Dale (playfully)_. Oh, you were a celebrity already. Of course I
kept them! _(Smiling.)_ Think what they are worth now! I always keep
them locked up in my safe over there. _(She indicates a cabinet.)

Ventnor (after a pause)_. I always carry yours with me.

_Mrs. Dale (laughing)_. You--

_Ventnor_. Wherever I go. _(A longer pause. She looks at him
fixedly.)_ I have them with me now.

_Mrs. Dale (agitated)_. You--have them with you--now?

_Ventnor (embarrassed)_. Why not? One never knows--

_Mrs. Dale_. Never knows--?

_Ventnor (humorously)_. Gad--when the bank-examiner may come round.
You forget I'm a married man.

_Mrs. Dale_. Ah--yes.

_Ventnor (sits down beside her)_. I speak to you as I couldn't to
anyone else--without deserving a kicking. You know how it all came about.
_(A pause.)_ You'll bear witness that it wasn't till you denied me all

_Mrs. Dale (a little breathless)_. Yes, yes--

_Ventnor_. Till you sent me from you--

_Mrs. Dale_. It's so easy to be heroic when one is young! One doesn't
realize how long life is going to last afterward. _(Musing.)_ Nor what
weary work it is gathering up the fragments.

_Ventnor_. But the time comes when one sends for the china-mender, and
has the bits riveted together, and turns the cracked side to the wall--

_Mrs. Dale_. And denies that the article was ever damaged?

_Ventnor_. Eh? Well, the great thing, you see, is to keep one's self
out of reach of the housemaid's brush. _(A pause.)_ If you're married
you can't--always. _(Smiling.)_ Don't you hate to be taken down and

_Mrs. Dale (with intention)_. You forget how long ago my husband died.
It's fifteen years since I've been an object of interest to anybody but the

_Ventnor (smiling)_. The only one of your admirers to whom you've ever
given the least encouragement!

_Mrs. Dale_. Say rather the most easily pleased!

_Ventnor_. Or the only one you cared to please?

_Mrs. Dale_. Ah, you _haven't_ kept my letters!

_Ventnor (gravely)_. Is that a challenge? Look here, then! _(He
drams a packet from his pocket and holds it out to her.)_

_Mrs. Dale (taking the packet and looking at him earnestly)_. Why have
you brought me these?

_Ventnor_. I didn't bring them; they came because I came--that's all.
_(Tentatively.)_ Are we unwelcome?

_Mrs. Dale (who has undone the packet and does not appear to hear
him)_. The very first I ever wrote you--the day after we met at the
concert. How on earth did you happen to keep it? _(She glances over
it.)_ How perfectly absurd! Well, it's not a compromising document.

_Ventnor_. I'm afraid none of them are.

_Mrs. Dale (quickly)_. Is it to that they owe their immunity? Because
one could leave them about like safety matches?--Ah, here's another I
remember--I wrote that the day after we went skating together for the first
time. _(She reads it slowly.)_ How odd! How very odd!

_Ventnor_. What?

_Mrs. Dale_. Why, it's the most curious thing--I had a letter of this
kind to do the other day, in the novel I'm at work on now--the letter of a
woman who is just--just beginning--

_Ventnor_. Yes--just beginning--?

_Mrs. Dale_. And, do you know, I find the best phrase in it, the
phrase I somehow regarded as the fruit of--well, of all my subsequent
discoveries--is simply plagiarized, word for word, from this!

_Ventnor (eagerly)_. I told you so! You were all there!

_Mrs. Dale (critically)_. But the rest of it's poorly done--very
poorly. _(Reads the letter over.)_ H'm--I didn't know how to leave
off. It takes me forever to get out of the door.

_Ventnor (gayly)_. Perhaps I was there to prevent you! _(After a
pause.)_ I wonder what I said in return?

_Mrs. Dale (interested)_. Shall we look? _(She rises.)_ Shall
we--really? I have them all here, you know. _(She goes toward the

_Ventnor (following her with repressed eagerness)_. Oh--all!

_Mrs. Dale (throws open the door of the cabinet, revealing a number of
packets)_. Don't you believe me now?

_Ventnor_. Good heavens! How I must have repeated myself! But then you
were so very deaf.

_Mrs. Dale (takes out a packet and returns to her seat. Ventnor extends
an impatient hand for the letters)_. No--no; wait! I want to find your
answer to the one I was just reading. _(After a pause.)_ Here it
is--yes, I thought so!

_Ventnor_. What did you think?

_Mrs. Dale (triumphantly)_. I thought it was the one in which you
quoted _Epipsychidion_--

_Ventnor_. Mercy! Did I _quote_ things? I don't wonder you were

_Mrs. Dale_. Ah, and here's the other--the one I--the one I didn't
answer--for a long time. Do you remember?

_Ventnor (with emotion)_. Do I remember? I wrote it the morning after
we heard _Isolde_--

_Mrs. Dale (disappointed)_. No--no. _That_ wasn't the one I
didn't answer! Here--this is the one I mean.

_Ventnor (takes it curiously)_. Ah--h'm--this is very like unrolling a
mummy--_(he glances at her)_--with a live grain of wheat in it,
perhaps?--Oh, by Jove!

_Mrs. Dale_. What?

_Ventnor_. Why, this is the one I made a sonnet out of afterward! By
Jove, I'd forgotten where that idea came from. You may know the lines
perhaps? They're in the fourth volume of my Complete Edition--It's the
thing beginning

_Love came to me with unrelenting eyes--_

one of my best, I rather fancy. Of course, here it's very crudely put--the
values aren't brought out--ah! this touch is good though--very good. H'm, I
daresay there might be other material. _(He glances toward the

_Mrs. Dale (drily)_. The live grain of wheat, as you said!

_Ventnor_. Ah, well--my first harvest was sown on rocky
ground--_now_ I plant for the fowls of the air. _(Rising and walking
toward the cabinet.)_ When can I come and carry off all this rubbish?

_Mrs. Dale_. Carry it off?

_Ventnor (embarrassed)_. My dear lady, surely between you and me
explicitness is a burden. You must see that these letters of ours can't be
left to take their chance like an ordinary correspondence--you said
yourself we were public property.

_Mrs. Dale_. To take their chance? Do you suppose that, in my keeping,
your letters take any chances? _(Suddenly.)_ Do mine--in yours?

_Ventnor (still more embarrassed)_. Helen--! _(He takes a turn
through the room.)_ You force me to remind you that you and I are
differently situated--that in a moment of madness I sacrificed the only
right you ever gave me--the right to love you better than any other
woman in the world. _(A pause. She says nothing and he continues, with
increasing difficulty--)_ You asked me just now why I carried your
letters about with me--kept them, literally, in my own hands. Well, suppose
it's to be sure of their not falling into some one else's?

_Mrs. Dale_. Oh!

_Ventnor (throws himself into a chair)_. For God's sake don't pity me!

_Mrs. Dale (after a long pause)_. Am I dull--or are you trying to say
that you want to give me back my letters?

_Ventnor (starting up)_. I? Give you back--? God forbid! Your letters?
Not for the world! The only thing I have left! But you can't dream that in
_my_ hands--

_Mrs. Dale (suddenly)_. You want yours, then?

_Ventnor (repressing his eagerness)_. My dear friend, if I'd ever
dreamed that you'd kept them--?

_Mrs. Dale (accusingly)_. You _do_ want them. _(A pause. He
makes a deprecatory gesture.)_ Why should they be less safe with me than
mine with you? _I_ never forfeited the right to keep them.

_Ventnor (after another pause)_. It's compensation enough, almost,
to have you reproach me! _(He moves nearer to her, but she makes no
response.)_ You forget that I've forfeited _all_ my rights--even
that of letting you keep my letters.

_Mrs. Dale_. You _do_ want them! _(She rises, throws all the
letters into the cabinet, locks the door and puts the key in her
pocket.)_ There's my answer.

_Ventnor_. Helen--!

_Mrs. Dale_. Ah, I paid dearly enough for the right to keep them, and
I mean to! _(She turns to him passionately.)_ Have you ever asked
yourself how I paid for it? With what months and years of solitude, what
indifference to flattery, what resistance to affection?--Oh, don't smile
because I said affection, and not love. Affection's a warm cloak in cold
weather; and I _have_ been cold; and I shall keep on growing colder!
Don't talk to me about living in the hearts of my readers! We both know
what kind of a domicile that is. Why, before long I shall become a classic!
Bound in sets and kept on the top book-shelf--brr, doesn't that sound
freezing? I foresee the day when I shall be as lonely as an Etruscan
museum! _(She breaks into a laugh.)_ That's what I've paid for the
right to keep your letters. _(She holds out her hand.)_ And now give
me mine.

_Ventnor_. Yours?

_Mrs. Dale (haughtily)_. Yes; I claim them.

_Ventnor (in the same tone)_. On what ground?

_Mrs. Dale_. Hear the man!--Because I wrote them, of course.

_Ventnor_. But it seems to me that--under your inspiration, I admit--I
also wrote mine.

_Mrs. Dale_. Oh, I don't dispute their authenticity--it's yours I

_Ventnor_. Mine?

_Mrs. Dale_. You voluntarily ceased to be the man who wrote me those
letters--you've admitted as much. You traded paper for flesh and blood. I
don't dispute your wisdom--only you must hold to your bargain! The letters
are all mine.

_Ventnor (groping between two tones)_. Your arguments are as
convincing as ever. _(He hazards a faint laugh.)_ You're a marvellous
dialectician--but, if we're going to settle the matter in the spirit of an
arbitration treaty, why, there are accepted conventions in such cases. It's
an odious way to put it, but since you won't help me, one of them is--

_Mrs. Dale_. One of them is--?

_Ventnor_. That it is usual--that technically, I mean, the
letter--belongs to its writer--

_Mrs. Dale (after a pause)_. Such letters as _these_?

_Ventnor_. Such letters especially--

_Mrs. Dale_. But you couldn't have written them if I hadn't--been
willing to read them. Surely there's more of myself in them than of you.

_Ventnor_. Surely there's nothing in which a man puts more of himself
than in his love-letters!

_Mrs. Dale (with emotion)_. But a woman's love-letters are like her child.
They belong to her more than to anybody else--

_Ventnor_. And a man's?

_Mrs. Dale (with sudden violence)_. Are all he risks!--There, take
them. _(She flings the key of the cabinet at his feet and sinks into a

Ventnor (starts as though to pick up the key; then approaches and bends
over her)_. Helen--oh, Helen!

_Mrs. Dale (she yields her hands to him, murmuring:)_ Paul!
_(Suddenly she straightens herself and draws back illuminated.)_ What
a fool I am! I see it all now. You want them for your memoirs!

_Ventnor (disconcerted)_. Helen--

_Mrs. Dale (agitated)_. Come, come--the rule is to unmask when the
signal's given! You want them for your memoirs.

_Ventnor (with a forced laugh)_. What makes you think so?

_Mrs. Dale (triumphantly)_. Because _I_ want them for mine!

_Ventnor (in a changed tone)_. Ah--. _(He moves away from her and
leans against the mantelpiece. She remains seated, with her eyes fixed on

_Mrs. Dale_. I wonder I didn't see it sooner. Your reasons were lame

_Ventnor (ironically)_. Yours were masterly. You're the more
accomplished actor of the two. I was completely deceived.

_Mrs. Dale_. Oh, I'm a novelist. I can keep up that sort of thing for
five hundred pages!

_Ventnor_. I congratulate you. _(A pause.)_

_Mrs. Dale (moving to her seat behind the tea-table)_. I've never
offered you any tea. _(She bends over the kettle.)_ Why don't you take
your letters?

_Ventnor_. Because you've been clever enough to make it impossible for
me. _(He picks up the key and hands it to her. Then abruptly)_--Was it
all acting--just now?

_Mrs. Dale_. By what right do you ask?

_Ventnor_. By right of renouncing my claim to my letters. Keep
them--and tell me.

_Mrs. Dale_. I give you back your claim--and I refuse to tell you.

_Ventnor (sadly)_. Ah, Helen, if you deceived me, you deceived
yourself also.

_Mrs. Dale_. What does it matter, now that we're both undeceived? I
played a losing game, that's all.

_Ventnor_. Why losing--since all the letters are yours?

_Mrs. Dale_. The letters? _(Slowly.)_ I'd forgotten the letters--

_Ventnor (exultant)_. Ah, I knew you'd end by telling me the truth!

_Mrs. Dale_. The truth? Where _is_ the truth? _(Half to
herself.)_ I thought I was lying when I began--but the lies turned into
truth as I uttered them! _(She looks at Ventnor.)_ I _did_ want
your letters for my memoirs--I _did_ think I'd kept them for that
purpose--and I wanted to get mine back for the same reason--but now _(she
puts out her hand and picks up some of her letters, which are lying
scattered on the table near her)_--how fresh they seem, and how they
take me back to the time when we lived instead of writing about life!

_Ventnor (smiling)_. The time when we didn't prepare our impromptu
effects beforehand and copyright our remarks about the weather!

_Mrs. Dale_. Or keep our epigrams in cold storage and our adjectives
under lock and key!

_Ventnor_. When our emotions weren't worth ten cents a word, and a
signature wasn't an autograph. Ah, Helen, after all, there's nothing like
the exhilaration of spending one's capital!

_Mrs. Dale_. Of wasting it, you mean. _(She points to the
letters.)_ Do you suppose we could have written a word of these if we'd
known we were putting our dreams out at interest? _(She sits musing, with
her eyes on the fire, and he watches her in silence.)_ Paul, do you
remember the deserted garden we sometimes used to walk in?

_Ventnor_. The old garden with the high wall at the end of the village
street? The garden with the ruined box-borders and the broken-down arbor?
Why, I remember every weed in the paths and every patch of moss on the

_Mrs. Dale._ Well--I went back there the other day. The village is
immensely improved. There's a new hotel with gas-fires, and a trolley in
the main street; and the garden has been turned into a public park, where
excursionists sit on cast-iron benches admiring the statue of an

_Ventnor_. An Abolitionist--how appropriate!

_Mrs. Dale_. And the man who sold the garden has made a fortune that
he doesn't know how to spend--

_Ventnor (rising impulsively)_. Helen, _(he approaches and lays his
hand on her letters)_, let's sacrifice our fortune and keep the
excursionists out!

_Mrs. Dale (with a responsive movement)_. Paul, do you really mean it?

_Ventnor (gayly)_. Mean it? Why, I feel like a landed proprietor
already! It's more than a garden--it's a park.

_Mrs. Dale_. It's more than a park, it's a world--as long as we keep
it to ourselves!

_Ventnor_. Ah, yes--even the pyramids look small when one sees a
Cook's tourist on top of them! _(He takes the key from the table, unlocks
the cabinet and brings out his letters, which he lays beside hers.)_
Shall we burn the key to our garden?

_Mrs. Dale_. Ah, then it will indeed be boundless! _(Watching him
while he throws the letters into the fire.)_

_Ventnor (turning back to her with a half-sad smile)_. But not too big
for us to find each other in?

_Mrs. Dale_. Since we shall be the only people there! _(He takes
both her hands and they look at each other a moment in silence. Then he
goes out by the door to the right. As he reaches the door she takes a step
toward him, impulsively; then turning back she leans against the
chimney-piece, quietly watching the letters burn.)_


"You're _so_ artistic," my cousin Eleanor Copt began.

Of all Eleanor's exordiums it is the one I most dread. When she tells me
I'm so clever I know this is merely the preamble to inviting me to meet the
last literary obscurity of the moment: a trial to be evaded or endured, as
circumstances dictate; whereas her calling me artistic fatally connotes
the request to visit, in her company, some distressed gentlewoman whose
future hangs on my valuation of her old Saxe or of her grandfather's
Marc Antonios. Time was when I attempted to resist these compulsions of
Eleanor's; but I soon learned that, short of actual flight, there was
no refuge from her beneficent despotism. It is not always easy for the
curator of a museum to abandon his post on the plea of escaping a pretty
cousin's importunities; and Eleanor, aware of my predicament, is none
too magnanimous to take advantage of it. Magnanimity is, in fact, not in
Eleanor's line. The virtues, she once explained to me, are like bonnets:
the very ones that look best on other people may not happen to suit one's
own particular style; and she added, with a slight deflection of metaphor,
that none of the ready-made virtues ever _had_ fitted her: they all
pinched somewhere, and she'd given up trying to wear them.

Therefore when she said to me, "You're _so_ artistic." emphasizing the
conjunction with a tap of her dripping umbrella (Eleanor is out in all
weathers: the elements are as powerless against her as man), I merely
stipulated, "It's not old Saxe again?"

She shook her head reassuringly. "A picture--a Rembrandt!"

"Good Lord! Why not a Leonardo?"

"Well"--she smiled--"that, of course, depends on _you_."

"On me?"

"On your attribution. I dare say Mrs. Fontage would consent to the
change--though she's very conservative."

A gleam of hope came to me and I pronounced: "One can't judge of a picture
in this weather."

"Of course not. I'm coming for you to-morrow."

"I've an engagement to-morrow."

"I'll come before or after your engagement."

The afternoon paper lay at my elbow and I contrived a furtive consultation
of the weather-report. It said "Rain to-morrow," and I answered briskly:
"All right, then; come at ten"--rapidly calculating that the clouds on
which I counted might lift by noon.

My ingenuity failed of its due reward; for the heavens, as if in league
with my cousin, emptied themselves before morning, and punctually at ten
Eleanor and the sun appeared together in my office.

I hardly listened, as we descended the Museum steps and got into Eleanor's
hansom, to her vivid summing-up of the case. I guessed beforehand that the
lady we were about to visit had lapsed by the most distressful degrees from
opulence to a "hall-bedroom"; that her grandfather, if he had not been
Minister to France, had signed the Declaration of Independence; that the
Rembrandt was an heirloom, sole remnant of disbanded treasures; that for
years its possessor had been unwilling to part with it, and that even now
the question of its disposal must be approached with the most diplomatic

Previous experience had taught me that all Eleanor's "cases" presented a
harrowing similarity of detail. No circumstance tending to excite the
spectator's sympathy and involve his action was omitted from the history of
her beneficiaries; the lights and shades were indeed so skilfully adjusted
that any impartial expression of opinion took on the hue of cruelty. I
could have produced closetfuls of "heirlooms" in attestation of this fact;
for it is one more mark of Eleanor's competence that her friends usually
pay the interest on her philanthropy. My one hope was that in this case the
object, being a picture, might reasonably be rated beyond my means; and
as our cab drew up before a blistered brown-stone door-step I formed the
self-defensive resolve to place an extreme valuation on Mrs. Fontage's
Rembrandt. It is Eleanor's fault if she is sometimes fought with her own

The house stood in one of those shabby provisional-looking New York streets
that seem resignedly awaiting demolition. It was the kind of house that,
in its high days, must have had a bow-window with a bronze in it. The
bow-window had been replaced by a plumber's _devanture_, and one might
conceive the bronze to have gravitated to the limbo where Mexican onyx
tables and bric-a-brac in buffalo-horn await the first signs of our next
aesthetic reaction.

Eleanor swept me through a hall that smelled of poverty, up unlit stairs to
a bare slit of a room. "And she must leave this in a month!" she whispered
across her knock.

I had prepared myself for the limp widow's weed of a woman that one figures
in such a setting; and confronted abruptly with Mrs. Fontage's white-haired
erectness I had the disconcerting sense that I was somehow in her presence
at my own solicitation. I instinctively charged Eleanor with this reversal
of the situation; but a moment later I saw it must be ascribed to a
something about Mrs. Fontage that precluded the possibility of her asking
any one a favor. It was not that she was of forbidding, or even majestic,
demeanor; but that one guessed, under her aquiline prettiness, a dignity
nervously on guard against the petty betrayal of her surroundings. The
room was unconcealably poor: the little faded "relics," the high-stocked
ancestral silhouettes, the steel-engravings after Raphael and Correggio,
grouped in a vain attempt to hide the most obvious stains on the
wall-paper, served only to accentuate the contrast of a past evidently
diversified by foreign travel and the enjoyment of the arts. Even Mrs.
Fontage's dress had the air of being a last expedient, the ultimate outcome
of a much-taxed ingenuity in darning and turning. One felt that all the
poor lady's barriers were falling save that of her impregnable manner.

To this manner I found myself conveying my appreciation of being admitted
to a view of the Rembrandt.

Mrs. Fontage's smile took my homage for granted. "It is always," she
conceded, "a privilege to be in the presence of the great masters." Her
slim wrinkled hand waved me to a dusky canvas near the window.

"It's _so_ interesting, dear Mrs. Fontage," I heard Eleanor
exclaiming, "and my cousin will be able to tell you exactly--" Eleanor, in
my presence, always admits that she knows nothing about art; but she gives
the impression that this is merely because she hasn't had time to look into
the matter--and has had me to do it for her.

Mrs. Fontage seated herself without speaking, as though fearful that a
breath might disturb my communion with the masterpiece. I felt that she
thought Eleanor's reassuring ejaculations ill-timed; and in this I was of
one mind with her; for the impossibility of telling her exactly what I
thought of her Rembrandt had become clear to me at a glance.

My cousin's vivacities began to languish and the silence seemed to shape
itself into a receptacle for my verdict. I stepped back, affecting a more
distant scrutiny; and as I did so my eye caught Mrs. Fontage's profile. Her
lids trembled slightly. I took refuge in the familiar expedient of asking
the history of the picture, and she waved me brightly to a seat.

This was indeed a topic on which she could dilate. The Rembrandt, it
appeared, had come into Mr. Fontage's possession many years ago, while
the young couple were on their wedding-tour, and under circumstances so
romantic that she made no excuse for relating them in all their parenthetic
fulness. The picture belonged to an old Belgian Countess of redundant
quarterings, whom the extravagances of an ungovernable nephew had compelled
to part with her possessions (in the most private manner) about the time of
the Fontages' arrival. By a really remarkable coincidence, it happened that
their courier (an exceptionally intelligent and superior man) was an old
servant of the Countess's, and had thus been able to put them in the way of
securing the Rembrandt under the very nose of an English Duke, whose agent
had been sent to Brussels to negotiate for its purchase. Mrs. Fontage could
not recall the Duke's name, but he was a great collector and had a famous
Highland castle, where somebody had been murdered, and which she herself
had visited (by moonlight) when she had travelled in Scotland as a girl.
The episode had in short been one of the most interesting "experiences" of
a tour almost chromo-lithographic in vivacity of impression; and they had
always meant to go back to Brussels for the sake of reliving so picturesque
a moment. Circumstances (of which the narrator's surroundings declared the
nature) had persistently interfered with the projected return to Europe,
and the picture had grown doubly valuable as representing the high-water
mark of their artistic emotions. Mrs. Fontage's moist eye caressed the
canvas. "There is only," she added with a perceptible effort, "one slight
drawback: the picture is not signed. But for that the Countess, of course,
would have sold it to a museum. All the connoisseurs who have seen it
pronounce it an undoubted Rembrandt, in the artist's best manner; but the
museums"--she arched her brows in smiling recognition of a well-known
weakness--"give the preference to signed examples--"

Mrs. Fontage's words evoked so touching a vision of the young tourists of
fifty years ago, entrusting to an accomplished and versatile courier the
direction of their helpless zeal for art, that I lost sight for a moment
of the point at issue. The old Belgian Countess, the wealthy Duke with a
feudal castle in Scotland, Mrs. Fontage's own maiden pilgrimage to Arthur's
Seat and Holyrood, all the accessories of the naif transaction, seemed
a part of that vanished Europe to which our young race carried its
indiscriminate ardors, its tender romantic credulity: the legendary
castellated Europe of keepsakes, brigands and old masters, that
compensated, by one such "experience" as Mrs. Fontage's, for an after-life
of aesthetic privation.

I was restored to the present by Eleanor's looking at her watch. The action
mutely conveyed that something was expected of me. I risked the temporizing
statement that the picture was very interesting; but Mrs. Fontage's polite
assent revealed the poverty of the expedient. Eleanor's impatience

"You would like my cousin to give you an idea of its value?" she suggested.

Mrs. Fontage grew more erect. "No one," she corrected with great
gentleness, "can know its value quite as well as I, who live with it--"

We murmured our hasty concurrence.

"But it might be interesting to hear"--she addressed herself to me--"as a
mere matter of curiosity--what estimate would be put on it from the purely
commercial point of view--if such a term may be used in speaking of a work
of art."

I sounded a note of deprecation.

"Oh, I understand, of course," she delicately anticipated me, "that that
could never be _your_ view, your personal view; but since occasions
_may_ arise--do arise--when it becomes necessary to--to put a price on
the priceless, as it were--I have thought--Miss Copt has suggested--"

"Some day," Eleanor encouraged her, "you might feel that the picture ought
to belong to some one who has more--more opportunity of showing it--letting
it be seen by the public--for educational reasons--"

"I have tried," Mrs. Fontage admitted, "to see it in that light."

The crucial moment was upon me. To escape the challenge of Mrs. Fontage's
brilliant composure I turned once more to the picture. If my courage needed
reinforcement, the picture amply furnished it. Looking at that lamentable
canvas seemed the surest way of gathering strength to denounce it; but
behind me, all the while, I felt Mrs. Fontage's shuddering pride drawn
up in a final effort of self-defense. I hated myself for my sentimental
perversion of the situation. Reason argued that it was more cruel to
deceive Mrs. Fontage than to tell her the truth; but that merely proved the
inferiority of reason to instinct in situations involving any concession to
the emotions. Along with her faith in the Rembrandt I must destroy not only
the whole fabric of Mrs. Fontage's past, but even that lifelong habit of
acquiescence in untested formulas that makes the best part of the average
feminine strength. I guessed the episode of the picture to be inextricably
interwoven with the traditions and convictions which served to veil Mrs.
Fontage's destitution not only from others but from herself. Viewed in
that light the Rembrandt had perhaps been worth its purchase-money; and I
regretted that works of art do not commonly sell on the merit of the moral
support they may have rendered.

From this unavailing flight I was recalled by the sense that something
must be done. To place a fictitious value on the picture was at best a
provisional measure; while the brutal alternative of advising Mrs. Fontage
to sell it for a hundred dollars at least afforded an opening to the
charitably disposed purchaser. I intended, if other resources failed,
to put myself forward in that light; but delicacy of course forbade my
coupling my unflattering estimate of the Rembrandt with an immediate offer
to buy it. All I could do was to inflict the wound: the healing unguent
must be withheld for later application.

I turned to Mrs. Fontage, who sat motionless, her finely-lined cheeks
touched with an expectant color, her eyes averted from the picture which
was so evidently the one object they beheld.

"My dear madam--" I began. Her vivid smile was like a light held up to
dazzle me. It shrouded every alternative in darkness and I had the flurried
sense of having lost my way among the intricacies of my contention. Of
a sudden I felt the hopelessness of finding a crack in her impenetrable
conviction. My words slipped from me like broken weapons. "The picture,"
I faltered, "would of course be worth more if it were signed. As it is,
I--I hardly think--on a conservative estimate--it can be valued at--at
more--than--a thousand dollars, say--"

My deflected argument ran on somewhat aimlessly till it found itself
plunging full tilt against the barrier of Mrs. Fontage's silence. She sat
as impassive as though I had not spoken. Eleanor loosed a few fluttering
words of congratulation and encouragement, but their flight was suddenly
cut short. Mrs. Fontage had risen with a certain solemnity.

"I could never," she said gently--her gentleness was adamantine--"under any
circumstances whatever, consider, for a moment even, the possibility of
parting with the picture at such a price."


Within three weeks a tremulous note from Mrs. Fontage requested the favor
of another visit. If the writing was tremulous, however, the writer's tone
was firm. She named her own day and hour, without the conventional
reference to her visitor's convenience.

My first impulse was to turn the note over to Eleanor. I had acquitted
myself of my share in the ungrateful business of coming to Mrs. Fontage's
aid, and if, as her letter denoted, she had now yielded to the closer
pressure of need, the business of finding a purchaser for the Rembrandt
might well be left to my cousin's ingenuity. But here conscience put in
the uncomfortable reminder that it was I who, in putting a price on the
picture, had raised the real obstacle in the way of Mrs. Fontage's rescue.
No one would give a thousand dollars for the Rembrandt; but to tell
Mrs. Fontage so had become as unthinkable as murder. I had, in fact, on
returning from my first inspection of the picture, refrained from imparting
to Eleanor my opinion of its value. Eleanor is porous, and I knew that
sooner or later the unnecessary truth would exude through the loose texture
of her dissimulation. Not infrequently she thus creates the misery she
alleviates; and I have sometimes suspected her of paining people in order
that she might be sorry for them. I had, at all events, cut off retreat in
Eleanor's direction; and the remaining alternative carried me straight to
Mrs. Fontage.

She received me with the same commanding sweetness. The room was even barer
than before--I believe the carpet was gone--but her manner built up about
her a palace to which I was welcomed with high state; and it was as a mere
incident of the ceremony that I was presently made aware of her decision to
sell the Rembrandt. My previous unsuccess in planning how to deal with Mrs.
Fontage had warned me to leave my farther course to chance; and I listened
to her explanation with complete detachment. She had resolved to travel for
her health; her doctor advised it, and as her absence might be indefinitely
prolonged she had reluctantly decided to part with the picture in order
to avoid the expense of storage and insurance. Her voice drooped at the
admission, and she hurried on, detailing the vague itinerary of a journey
that was to combine long-promised visits to impatient friends with various
"interesting opportunities" less definitely specified. The poor lady's
skill in rearing a screen of verbiage about her enforced avowal had
distracted me from my own share in the situation, and it was with dismay
that I suddenly caught the drift of her assumptions. She expected me to
buy the Rembrandt for the Museum; she had taken my previous valuation as a
tentative bid, and when I came to my senses she was in the act of accepting
my offer.

Had I had a thousand dollars of my own to dispose of, the bargain would
have been concluded on the spot; but I was in the impossible position of
being materially unable to buy the picture and morally unable to tell her
that it was not worth acquiring for the Museum.

I dashed into the first evasion in sight. I had no authority, I explained,
to purchase pictures for the Museum without the consent of the committee.

Mrs. Fontage coped for a moment in silence with the incredible fact
that I had rejected her offer; then she ventured, with a kind of pale
precipitation: "But I understood--Miss Copt tells me that you practically
decide such matters for the committee." I could guess what the effort had
cost her.

"My cousin is given to generalizations. My opinion may have some weight
with the committee--"

"Well, then--" she timidly prompted.

"For that very reason I can't buy the picture."

She said, with a drooping note, "I don't understand."

"Yet you told me," I reminded her, "that you knew museums didn't buy
unsigned pictures."

"Not for what they are worth! Every one knows that. But I--I
understood--the price you named--" Her pride shuddered back from the
abasement. "It's a misunderstanding then," she faltered.

To avoid looking at her, I glanced desperately at the Rembrandt. Could
I--? But reason rejected the possibility. Even if the committee had been
blind--and they all _were_ but Crozier--I simply shouldn't have dared
to do it. I stood up, feeling that to cut the matter short was the only
alleviation within reach.

Mrs. Fontage had summoned her indomitable smile; but its brilliancy
dropped, as I opened the door, like a candle blown out by a draught.

"If there's any one else--if you knew any one who would care to see the
picture, I should be most happy--" She kept her eyes on me, and I saw that,
in her case, it hurt less than to look at the Rembrandt. "I shall have to
leave here, you know," she panted, "if nobody cares to have it--"


That evening at my club I had just succeeded in losing sight of Mrs.
Fontage in the fumes of an excellent cigar, when a voice at my elbow evoked
her harassing image.

"I want to talk to you," the speaker said, "about Mrs. Fontage's

"There isn't any," I was about to growl; but looking up I recognized the
confiding countenance of Mr. Jefferson Rose.

Mr. Rose was known to me chiefly as a young man suffused with a vague
enthusiasm for Virtue and my cousin Eleanor.

One glance at his glossy exterior conveyed the assurance that his morals
were as immaculate as his complexion and his linen. Goodness exuded from
his moist eye, his liquid voice, the warm damp pressure of his trustful
hand. He had always struck me as one of the most uncomplicated organisms
I had ever met. His ideas were as simple and inconsecutive as the
propositions in a primer, and he spoke slowly, with a kind of uniformity
of emphasis that made his words stand out like the raised type for the
blind. An obvious incapacity for abstract conceptions made him peculiarly
susceptible to the magic of generalization, and one felt he would have been
at the mercy of any Cause that spelled itself with a capital letter. It was
hard to explain how, with such a superabundance of merit, he managed to be
a good fellow: I can only say that he performed the astonishing feat as
naturally as he supported an invalid mother and two sisters on the slender
salary of a banker's clerk. He sat down beside me with an air of bright

"It's a remarkable picture, isn't it?" he said.

"You've seen it?"

"I've been so fortunate. Miss Copt was kind enough to get Mrs. Fontage's
permission; we went this afternoon." I inwardly wished that Eleanor
had selected another victim; unless indeed the visit were part of a
plan whereby some third person, better equipped for the cultivation of
delusions, was to be made to think the Rembrandt remarkable. Knowing the
limitations of Mr. Rose's resources I began to wonder if he had any rich

"And her buying it in that way, too," he went on with his limpid smile,
"from that old Countess in Brussels, makes it all the more interesting,
doesn't it? Miss Copt tells me it's very seldom old pictures can be traced
back for more than a generation. I suppose the fact of Mrs. Fontage's
knowing its history must add a good deal to its value?"

Uncertain as to his drift, I said: "In her eyes it certainly appears to."

Implications are lost on Mr. Rose, who glowingly continued: "That's the
reason why I wanted to talk to you about it--to consult you. Miss Copt
tells me you value it at a thousand dollars."

There was no denying this, and I grunted a reluctant assent.

"Of course," he went on earnestly, "your valuation is based on the fact
that the picture isn't signed--Mrs. Fontage explained that; and it does
make a difference, certainly. But the thing is--if the picture's really
good--ought one to take advantage--? I mean--one can see that Mrs. Fontage
is in a tight place, and I wouldn't for the world--"

My astonished stare arrested him.

"_You_ wouldn't--?"

"I mean--you see, it's just this way"; he coughed and blushed: "I can't
give more than a thousand dollars myself--it's as big a sum as I can manage
to scrape together--but before I make the offer I want to be sure I'm not
standing in the way of her getting more money."

My astonishment lapsed to dismay. "You're going to buy the picture for a
thousand dollars?"

His blush deepened. "Why, yes. It sounds rather absurd, I suppose. It isn't
much in my line, of course. I can see the picture's very beautiful, but I'm
no judge--it isn't the kind of thing, naturally, that I could afford to go
in for; but in this case I'm very glad to do what I can; the circumstances
are so distressing; and knowing what you think of the picture I feel it's a
pretty safe investment--"

"I don't think!" I blurted out.


"I don't think the picture's worth a thousand dollars; I don't think it's
worth ten cents; I simply lied about it, that's all."

Mr. Rose looked as frightened as though I had charged him with the offense.

"Hang it, man, can't you see how it happened? I saw the poor woman's pride
and happiness hung on her faith in that picture. I tried to make her
understand that it was worthless--but she wouldn't; I tried to tell her
so--but I couldn't. I behaved like a maudlin ass, but you shan't pay for my
infernal bungling--you mustn't buy the picture!"

Mr. Rose sat silent, tapping one glossy boot-tip with another. Suddenly he
turned on me a glance of stored intelligence. "But you know," he said
good-humoredly, "I rather think I must."

"You haven't--already?"

"Oh, no; the offer's not made."

"Well, then--"

His look gathered a brighter significance.

"But if the picture's worth nothing, nobody will buy it--"

I groaned.

"Except," he continued, "some fellow like me, who doesn't know anything.
_I_ think it's lovely, you know; I mean to hang it in my mother's
sitting-room." He rose and clasped my hand in his adhesive pressure. "I'm
awfully obliged to you for telling me this; but perhaps you won't mind my
asking you not to mention our talk to Miss Copt? It might bother her, you
know, to think the picture isn't exactly up to the mark; and it won't make
a rap of difference to me."


Mr. Rose left me to a sleepless night. The next morning my resolve was
formed, and it carried me straight to Mrs. Fontage's. She answered my knock
by stepping out on the landing, and as she shut the door behind her I
caught a glimpse of her devastated interior. She mentioned, with a careful
avoidance of the note of pathos on which our last conversation had closed,
that she was preparing to leave that afternoon; and the trunks obstructing
the threshold showed that her preparations were nearly complete. They were,
I felt certain, the same trunks that, strapped behind a rattling vettura,
had accompanied the bride and groom on that memorable voyage of discovery
of which the booty had till recently adorned her walls; and there was a
dim consolation in the thought that those early "finds" in coral and Swiss
wood-carving, in lava and alabaster, still lay behind the worn locks, in
the security of worthlessness.

Mrs. Fontage, on the landing, among her strapped and corded treasures,
maintained the same air of stability that made it impossible, even under
such conditions, to regard her flight as anything less dignified than
a departure. It was the moral support of what she tacitly assumed that
enabled me to set forth with proper deliberation the object of my visit;
and she received my announcement with an absence of surprise that struck
me as the very flower of tact. Under cover of these mutual assumptions the
transaction was rapidly concluded; and it was not till the canvas passed
into my hands that, as though the physical contact had unnerved her,
Mrs. Fontage suddenly faltered. "It's the giving it up--" she stammered,
disguising herself to the last; and I hastened away from the collapse of
her splendid effrontery.

I need hardly point out that I had acted impulsively, and that reaction
from the most honorable impulses is sometimes attended by moral
perturbation. My motives had indeed been mixed enough to justify some
uneasiness, but this was allayed by the instinctive feeling that it is more
venial to defraud an institution than a man. Since Mrs. Fontage had to be
kept from starving by means not wholly defensible, it was better that the
obligation should be borne by a rich institution than an impecunious youth.
I doubt, in fact, if my scruples would have survived a night's sleep, had
they not been complicated by some uncertainty as to my own future. It was
true that, subject to the purely formal assent of the committee, I had
full power to buy for the Museum, and that the one member of the committee
likely to dispute my decision was opportunely travelling in Europe; but the
picture once in place I must face the risk of any expert criticism to which
chance might expose it. I dismissed this contingency for future study,
stored the Rembrandt in the cellar of the Museum, and thanked heaven that
Crozier was abroad.

Six months later he strolled into my office. I had just concluded, under
conditions of exceptional difficulty, and on terms unexpectedly benign,
the purchase of the great Bartley Reynolds; and this circumstance, by
relegating the matter of the Rembrandt to a lower stratum of consciousness,
enabled me to welcome Crozier with unmixed pleasure. My security
was enhanced by his appearance. His smile was charged with amiable
reminiscences, and I inferred that his trip had put him in the humor
to approve of everything, or at least to ignore what fell short of his
approval. I had therefore no uneasiness in accepting his invitation to dine
that evening. It is always pleasant to dine with Crozier and never more so
than when he is just back from Europe. His conversation gives even the food
a flavor of the Cafe Anglais.

The repast was delightful, and it was not till we had finished a Camembert
which he must have brought over with him, that my host said, in a tone of
after-dinner perfunctoriness: "I see you've picked up a picture or two
since I left."

I assented. "The Bartley Reynolds seemed too good an opportunity to miss,
especially as the French government was after it. I think we got it

"_Connu, connu_" said Crozier pleasantly. "I know all about the
Reynolds. It was the biggest kind of a haul and I congratulate you. Best
stroke of business we've done yet. But tell me about the other picture--the

"I never said it was a Rembrandt." I could hardly have said why, but I felt
distinctly annoyed with Crozier.

"Of course not. There's 'Rembrandt' on the frame, but I saw you'd
modified it to 'Dutch School'; I apologize." He paused, but I offered no
explanation. "What about it?" he went on. "Where did you pick it up?" As
he leaned to the flame of the cigar-lighter his face seemed ruddy with

"I got it for a song," I said.

"A thousand, I think?"

"Have you seen it?" I asked abruptly.

"Went over the place this afternoon and found it in the cellar. Why hasn't
it been hung, by the way?"

I paused a moment. "I'm waiting--"


"To have it varnished."

"Ah!" He leaned back and poured himself a second glass of Chartreuse. The
smile he confided to its golden depths provoked me to challenge him with--

"What do you think of it?"

"The Rembrandt?" He lifted his eyes from the glass. "Just what you do."

"It isn't a Rembrandt."

"I apologize again. You call it, I believe, a picture of the same period?"

"I'm uncertain of the period."

"H'm." He glanced appreciatively along his cigar. "What are you certain

"That it's a damned bad picture," I said savagely.

He nodded. "Just so. That's all we wanted to know."


"We--I--the committee, in short. You see, my dear fellow, if you hadn't
been certain it was a damned bad picture our position would have been a
little awkward. As it is, my remaining duty--I ought to explain that in
this matter I'm acting for the committee--is as simple as it's agreeable."

"I'll be hanged," I burst out, "if I understand one word you're saying!"

He fixed me with a kind of cruel joyousness. "You will--you will," he
assured me; "at least you'll begin to, when you hear that I've seen Miss

"Miss Copt?"

"And that she has told me under what conditions the picture was bought."

"She doesn't know anything about the conditions! That is," I added,
hastening to restrict the assertion, "she doesn't know my opinion of the
picture." I thirsted for five minutes with Eleanor.

"Are you quite sure?" Crozier took me up. "Mr. Jefferson Rose does."

"Ah--I see."

"I thought you would," he reminded me. "As soon as I'd laid eyes on
the Rembrandt--I beg your pardon!--I saw that it--well, required some

"You might have come to me."

"I meant to; but I happened to meet Miss Copt, whose encyclopaedic
information has often before been of service to me. I always go to Miss
Copt when I want to look up anything; and I found she knew all about the


"Precisely. The knowledge was in fact causing her sleepless nights. Mr.
Rose, who was suffering from the same form of insomnia, had taken her into
his confidence, and she--ultimately--took me into hers."

"Of course!"

"I must ask you to do your cousin justice. She didn't speak till it became
evident to her uncommonly quick perceptions that your buying the picture on
its merits would have been infinitely worse for--for everybody--than your
diverting a small portion of the Museum's funds to philanthropic uses. Then
she told me the moving incident of Mr. Rose. Good fellow, Rose. And the
old lady's case was desperate. Somebody had to buy that picture." I moved
uneasily in my seat "Wait a moment, will you? I haven't finished my cigar.
There's a little head of Il Fiammingo's that you haven't seen, by the way;
I picked it up the other day in Parma. We'll go in and have a look at it
presently. But meanwhile what I want to say is that I've been charged--in
the most informal way--to express to you the committee's appreciation of
your admirable promptness and energy in capturing the Bartley Reynolds. We
shouldn't have got it at all if you hadn't been uncommonly wide-awake, and
to get it at such a price is a double triumph. We'd have thought nothing of
a few more thousands--"

"I don't see," I impatiently interposed, "that, as far as I'm concerned,
that alters the case."

"The case--?"

"Of Mrs. Fontage's Rembrandt. I bought the picture because, as you say, the
situation was desperate, and I couldn't raise a thousand myself. What I did
was of course indefensible; but the money shall be refunded tomorrow--"

Crozier raised a protesting hand. "Don't interrupt me when I'm talking ex
cathedra. The money's been refunded already. The fact is, the Museum has
sold the Rembrandt."

I stared at him wildly. "Sold it? To whom?"

"Why--to the committee.--Hold on a bit, please.--Won't you take another
cigar? Then perhaps I can finish what I've got to say.--Why, my dear
fellow, the committee's under an obligation to you--that's the way we look
at it. I've investigated Mrs. Fontage's case, and--well, the picture had to
be bought. She's eating meat now, I believe, for the first time in a year.
And they'd have turned her out into the street that very day, your cousin
tells me. Something had to be done at once, and you've simply given a
number of well-to-do and self-indulgent gentlemen the opportunity of
performing, at very small individual expense, a meritorious action in
the nick of time. That's the first thing I've got to thank you for. And
then--you'll remember, please, that I have the floor--that I'm still
speaking for the committee--and secondly, as a slight recognition of your
services in securing the Bartley Reynolds at a very much lower figure than
we were prepared to pay, we beg you--the committee begs you--to accept the
gift of Mrs. Fontage's Rembrandt. Now we'll go in and look at that little


The news of Mrs. Grancy's death came to me with the shock of an immense
blunder--one of fate's most irretrievable acts of vandalism. It was as
though all sorts of renovating forces had been checked by the clogging of
that one wheel. Not that Mrs. Grancy contributed any perceptible momentum
to the social machine: her unique distinction was that of filling to
perfection her special place in the world. So many people are like
badly-composed statues, over-lapping their niches at one point and leaving
them vacant at another. Mrs. Grancy's niche was her husband's life; and if
it be argued that the space was not large enough for its vacancy to leave a
very big gap, I can only say that, at the last resort, such dimensions must
be determined by finer instruments than any ready-made standard of utility.
Ralph Grancy's was in short a kind of disembodied usefulness: one of those
constructive influences that, instead of crystallizing into definite forms,
remain as it were a medium for the development of clear thinking and fine
feeling. He faithfully irrigated his own dusty patch of life, and the
fruitful moisture stole far beyond his boundaries. If, to carry on the
metaphor, Grancy's life was a sedulously-cultivated enclosure, his wife was
the flower he had planted in its midst--the embowering tree, rather, which
gave him rest and shade at its foot and the wind of dreams in its upper

We had all--his small but devoted band of followers--known a moment when it
seemed likely that Grancy would fail us. We had watched him pitted against
one stupid obstacle after another--ill-health, poverty, misunderstanding
and, worst of all for a man of his texture, his first wife's soft insidious
egotism. We had seen him sinking under the leaden embrace of her affection
like a swimmer in a drowning clutch; but just as we despaired he had always
come to the surface again, blinded, panting, but striking out fiercely for
the shore. When at last her death released him it became a question as to
how much of the man she had carried with her. Left alone, he revealed numb
withered patches, like a tree from which a parasite has been stripped. But
gradually he began to put out new leaves; and when he met the lady who
was to become his second wife--his one _real_ wife, as his friends
reckoned--the whole man burst into flower.

The second Mrs. Grancy was past thirty when he married her, and it was
clear that she had harvested that crop of middle joy which is rooted in
young despair. But if she had lost the surface of eighteen she had kept
its inner light; if her cheek lacked the gloss of immaturity her eyes were
young with the stored youth of half a life-time. Grancy had first known her
somewhere in the East--I believe she was the sister of one of our consuls
out there--and when he brought her home to New York she came among us as
a stranger. The idea of Grancy's remarriage had been a shock to us all.
After one such calcining most men would have kept out of the fire; but we
agreed that he was predestined to sentimental blunders, and we awaited
with resignation the embodiment of his latest mistake. Then Mrs. Grancy
came--and we understood. She was the most beautiful and the most complete
of explanations. We shuffled our defeated omniscience out of sight and gave
it hasty burial under a prodigality of welcome. For the first time in years
we had Grancy off our minds. "He'll do something great now!" the least
sanguine of us prophesied; and our sentimentalist emended: "He _has_
done it--in marrying her!"

It was Claydon, the portrait-painter, who risked this hyperbole; and who
soon afterward, at the happy husband's request, prepared to defend it in a
portrait of Mrs. Grancy. We were all--even Claydon--ready to concede that
Mrs. Grancy's unwontedness was in some degree a matter of environment. Her
graces were complementary and it needed the mate's call to reveal the flash
of color beneath her neutral-tinted wings. But if she needed Grancy to
interpret her, how much greater was the service she rendered him! Claydon
professionally described her as the right frame for him; but if she defined
she also enlarged, if she threw the whole into perspective she also cleared
new ground, opened fresh vistas, reclaimed whole areas of activity that had
run to waste under the harsh husbandry of privation. This interaction of
sympathies was not without its visible expression. Claydon was not alone
in maintaining that Grancy's presence--or indeed the mere mention of his
name--had a perceptible effect on his wife's appearance. It was as though a
light were shifted, a curtain drawn back, as though, to borrow another of
Claydon's metaphors, Love the indefatigable artist were perpetually seeking
a happier "pose" for his model. In this interpretative light Mrs. Grancy
acquired the charm which makes some women's faces like a book of which
the last page is never turned. There was always something new to read in
her eyes. What Claydon read there--or at least such scattered hints of
the ritual as reached him through the sanctuary doors--his portrait in
due course declared to us. When the picture was exhibited it was at once
acclaimed as his masterpiece; but the people who knew Mrs. Grancy smiled
and said it was flattered. Claydon, however, had not set out to paint
_their_ Mrs. Grancy--or ours even--but Ralph's; and Ralph knew his own
at a glance. At the first confrontation he saw that Claydon had understood.
As for Mrs. Grancy, when the finished picture was shown to her she turned
to the painter and said simply: "Ah, you've done me facing the east!"

The picture, then, for all its value, seemed a mere incident in the
unfolding of their double destiny, a foot-note to the illuminated text of
their lives. It was not till afterward that it acquired the significance
of last words spoken on a threshold never to be recrossed. Grancy, a year
after his marriage, had given up his town house and carried his bliss an
hour's journey away, to a little place among the hills. His various duties
and interests brought him frequently to New York but we necessarily saw him
less often than when his house had served as the rallying-point of kindred
enthusiasms. It seemed a pity that such an influence should be withdrawn,
but we all felt that his long arrears of happiness should be paid in
whatever coin he chose. The distance from which the fortunate couple
radiated warmth on us was not too great for friendship to traverse; and our
conception of a glorified leisure took the form of Sundays spent in the
Grancys' library, with its sedative rural outlook, and the portrait of Mrs.
Grancy illuminating its studious walls. The picture was at its best in that
setting; and we used to accuse Claydon of visiting Mrs. Grancy in order to
see her portrait. He met this by declaring that the portrait _was_
Mrs. Grancy; and there were moments when the statement seemed unanswerable.
One of us, indeed--I think it must have been the novelist--said that
Clayton had been saved from falling in love with Mrs. Grancy only by
falling in love with his picture of her; and it was noticeable that he, to
whom his finished work was no more than the shed husk of future effort,
showed a perennial tenderness for this one achievement. We smiled afterward
to think how often, when Mrs. Grancy was in the room, her presence
reflecting itself in our talk like a gleam of sky in a hurrying current,
Claydon, averted from the real woman, would sit as it were listening to the
picture. His attitude, at the time, seemed only a part of the unusualness
of those picturesque afternoons, when the most familiar combinations of
life underwent a magical change. Some human happiness is a landlocked lake;
but the Grancys' was an open sea, stretching a buoyant and illimitable
surface to the voyaging interests of life. There was room and to spare on
those waters for all our separate ventures; and always beyond the sunset,
a mirage of the fortunate isles toward which our prows bent.


It was in Rome that, three years later, I heard of her death. The notice
said "suddenly"; I was glad of that. I was glad too--basely perhaps--to be
away from Grancy at a time when silence must have seemed obtuse and speech

I was still in Rome when, a few months afterward, he suddenly arrived
there. He had been appointed secretary of legation at Constantinople and
was on the way to his post. He had taken the place, he said frankly, "to
get away." Our relations with the Porte held out a prospect of hard work,
and that, he explained, was what he needed. He could never be satisfied to
sit down among the ruins. I saw that, like most of us in moments of extreme
moral tension, he was playing a part, behaving as he thought it became a
man to behave in the eye of disaster. The instinctive posture of grief is
a shuffling compromise between defiance and prostration; and pride feels
the need of striking a worthier attitude in face of such a foe. Grancy, by
nature musing and retrospective, had chosen the role of the man of action,
who answers blow for blow and opposes a mailed front to the thrusts of
destiny; and the completeness of the equipment testified to his inner
weakness. We talked only of what we were not thinking of, and parted, after
a few days, with a sense of relief that proved the inadequacy of friendship
to perform, in such cases, the office assigned to it by tradition.

Soon afterward my own work called me home, but Grancy remained several
years in Europe. International diplomacy kept its promise of giving
him work to do, and during the year in which he acted as _charge
d'affaires_ he acquitted himself, under trying conditions, with
conspicuous zeal and discretion. A political redistribution of matter
removed him from office just as he had proved his usefulness to the
government; and the following summer I heard that he had come home and
was down at his place in the country.

On my return to town I wrote him and his reply came by the next post. He
answered as it were in his natural voice, urging me to spend the following
Sunday with him, and suggesting that I should bring down any of the old
set who could be persuaded to join me. I thought this a good sign, and
yet--shall I own it?--I was vaguely disappointed. Perhaps we are apt to
feel that our friends' sorrows should be kept like those historic monuments
from which the encroaching ivy is periodically removed.

That very evening at the club I ran across Claydon. I told him of Grancy's
invitation and proposed that we should go down together; but he pleaded an
engagement. I was sorry, for I had always felt that he and I stood nearer
Ralph than the others, and if the old Sundays were to be renewed I should
have preferred that we two should spend the first alone with him. I said as
much to Claydon and offered to fit my time to his; but he met this by a
general refusal.

"I don't want to go to Grancy's," he said bluntly. I waited a moment, but
he appended no qualifying clause.

"You've seen him since he came back?" I finally ventured.

Claydon nodded.

"And is he so awfully bad?"

"Bad? No: he's all right."

"All right? How can he be, unless he's changed beyond all recognition?"

"Oh, you'll recognize _him_," said Claydon, with a puzzling deflection
of emphasis.

His ambiguity was beginning to exasperate me, and I felt myself shut out
from some knowledge to which I had as good a right as he.

"You've been down there already, I suppose?"

"Yes; I've been down there."

"And you've done with each other--the partnership is dissolved?"

"Done with each other? I wish to God we had!" He rose nervously and tossed
aside the review from which my approach had diverted him. "Look here,"
he said, standing before me, "Ralph's the best fellow going and there's
nothing under heaven I wouldn't do for him--short of going down there
again." And with that he walked out of the room.

Claydon was incalculable enough for me to read a dozen different meanings
into his words; but none of my interpretations satisfied me. I determined,
at any rate, to seek no farther for a companion; and the next Sunday I
travelled down to Grancy's alone. He met me at the station and I saw at
once that he had changed since our last meeting. Then he had been in
fighting array, but now if he and grief still housed together it was
no longer as enemies. Physically the transformation was as marked but
less reassuring. If the spirit triumphed the body showed its scars. At
five-and-forty he was gray and stooping, with the tired gait of an old man.
His serenity, however, was not the resignation of age. I saw that he did
not mean to drop out of the game. Almost immediately he began to speak of
our old interests; not with an effort, as at our former meeting, but simply
and naturally, in the tone of a man whose life has flowed back into its
normal channels. I remembered, with a touch of self-reproach, how I had
distrusted his reconstructive powers; but my admiration for his reserved
force was now tinged by the sense that, after all, such happiness as his
ought to have been paid with his last coin. The feeling grew as we neared
the house and I found how inextricably his wife was interwoven with my
remembrance of the place: how the whole scene was but an extension of that
vivid presence.

Within doors nothing was changed, and my hand would have dropped without
surprise into her welcoming clasp. It was luncheon-time, and Grancy led me
at once to the dining-room, where the walls, the furniture, the very plate
and porcelain, seemed a mirror in which a moment since her face had been
reflected. I wondered whether Grancy, under the recovered tranquillity
of his smile, concealed the same sense of her nearness, saw perpetually
between himself and the actual her bright unappeasable ghost. He spoke of
her once or twice, in an easy incidental way, and her name seemed to hang
in the air after he had uttered it, like a chord that continues to vibrate.
If he felt her presence it was evidently as an enveloping medium, the moral
atmosphere in which he breathed. I had never before known how completely
the dead may survive.

After luncheon we went for a long walk through the autumnal fields and
woods, and dusk was falling when we re-entered the house. Grancy led the
way to the library, where, at this hour, his wife had always welcomed
us back to a bright fire and a cup of tea. The room faced the west, and
held a clear light of its own after the rest of the house had grown dark.
I remembered how young she had looked in this pale gold light, which
irradiated her eyes and hair, or silhouetted her girlish outline as she
passed before the windows. Of all the rooms the library was most peculiarly
hers; and here I felt that her nearness might take visible shape. Then, all
in a moment, as Grancy opened the door, the feeling vanished and a kind
of resistance met me on the threshold. I looked about me. Was the room
changed? Had some desecrating hand effaced the traces of her presence? No;
here too the setting was undisturbed. My feet sank into the same deep-piled
Daghestan; the bookshelves took the firelight on the same rows of rich
subdued bindings; her armchair stood in its old place near the tea-table;
and from the opposite wall her face confronted me.

Her face--but _was_ it hers? I moved nearer and stood looking up at
the portrait. Grancy's glance had followed mine and I heard him move to my

"You see a change in it?" he said.

"What does it mean?" I asked.

"It means--that five years have passed."

"Over _her_?"

"Why not?--Look at me!" He pointed to his gray hair and furrowed temples.
"What do you think kept _her_ so young? It was happiness! But now--"
he looked up at her with infinite tenderness. "I like her better so," he
said. "It's what she would have wished."

"Have wished?"

"That we should grow old together. Do you think she would have wanted to be
left behind?"

I stood speechless, my gaze travelling from his worn grief-beaten features
to the painted face above. It was not furrowed like his; but a veil
of years seemed to have descended on it. The bright hair had lost its
elasticity, the cheek its clearness, the brow its light: the whole woman
had waned.

Grancy laid his hand on my arm. "You don't like it?" he said sadly.

"Like it? I--I've lost her!" I burst out.

"And I've found her," he answered.

"In _that_?" I cried with a reproachful gesture.

"Yes; in that." He swung round on me almost defiantly. "The other had
become a sham, a lie! This is the way she would have looked--does look, I
mean. Claydon ought to know, oughtn't he?"

I turned suddenly. "Did Claydon do this for you?"

Grancy nodded.

"Since your return?"

"Yes. I sent for him after I'd been back a week--." He turned away and gave
a thrust to the smouldering fire. I followed, glad to leave the picture
behind me. Grancy threw himself into a chair near the hearth, so that the
light fell on his sensitive variable face. He leaned his head back, shading
his eyes with his hand, and began to speak.


"You fellows knew enough of my early history to A guess what my second
marriage meant to me. I say guess, because no one could understand--really.
I've always had a feminine streak in me, I suppose: the need of a pair of
eyes that should see with me, of a pulse that should keep time with mine.
Life is a big thing, of course; a magnificent spectacle; but I got so tired
of looking at it alone! Still, it's always good to live, and I had plenty
of happiness--of the evolved kind. What I'd never had a taste of was the
simple inconscient sort that one breathes in like the air....

"Well--I met her. It was like finding the climate in which I was meant to
live. You know what she was--how indefinitely she multiplied one's points
of contact with life, how she lit up the caverns and bridged the abysses!
Well, I swear to you (though I suppose the sense of all that was latent in
me) that what I used to think of on my way home at the end of the day, was
simply that when I opened this door she'd be sitting over there, with the
lamp-light falling in a particular way on one little curl in her neck....
When Claydon painted her he caught just the look she used to lift to mine
when I came in--I've wondered, sometimes, at his knowing how she looked
when she and I were alone.--How I rejoiced in that picture! I used to say
to her, 'You're my prisoner now--I shall never lose you. If you grew tired
of me and left me you'd leave your real self there on the wall!' It was
always one of our jokes that she was going to grow tired of me--

"Three years of it--and then she died. It was so sudden that there was
no change, no diminution. It was as if she had suddenly become fixed,
immovable, like her own portrait: as if Time had ceased at its happiest
hour, just as Claydon had thrown down his brush one day and said, 'I can't
do better than that.'

"I went away, as you know, and stayed over there five years. I worked as
hard as I knew how, and after the first black months a little light stole
in on me. From thinking that she would have been interested in what I was
doing I came to feel that she _was_ interested--that she was there and
that she knew. I'm not talking any psychical jargon--I'm simply trying to
express the sense I had that an influence so full, so abounding as hers
couldn't pass like a spring shower. We had so lived into each other's
hearts and minds that the consciousness of what she would have thought
and felt illuminated all I did. At first she used to come back shyly,
tentatively, as though not sure of finding me; then she stayed longer and
longer, till at last she became again the very air I breathed.... There
were bad moments, of course, when her nearness mocked me with the loss of
the real woman; but gradually the distinction between the two was effaced
and the mere thought of her grew warm as flesh and blood.

"Then I came home. I landed in the morning and came straight down here. The
thought of seeing her portrait possessed me and my heart beat like a
lover's as I opened the library door. It was in the afternoon and the room
was full of light. It fell on her picture--the picture of a young and
radiant woman. She smiled at me coldly across the distance that divided us.
I had the feeling that she didn't even recognize me. And then I caught
sight of myself in the mirror over there--a gray-haired broken man whom she
had never known!

"For a week we two lived together--the strange woman and the strange man.
I used to sit night after night and question her smiling face; but no
answer ever came. What did she know of me, after all? We were irrevocably
separated by the five years of life that lay between us. At times, as I
sat here, I almost grew to hate her; for her presence had driven away my
gentle ghost, the real wife who had wept, aged, struggled with me during
those awful years.... It was the worst loneliness I've ever known. Then,
gradually, I began to notice a look of sadness in the picture's eyes; a
look that seemed to say: 'Don't you see that _I_ am lonely too?' And
all at once it came over me how she would have hated to be left behind! I
remembered her comparing life to a heavy book that could not be read with
ease unless two people held it together; and I thought how impatiently her
hand would have turned the pages that divided us!--So the idea came to me:
'It's the picture that stands between us; the picture that is dead, and not
my wife. To sit in this room is to keep watch beside a corpse.' As this
feeling grew on me the portrait became like a beautiful mausoleum in which
she had been buried alive: I could hear her beating against the painted
walls and crying to me faintly for help....

"One day I found I couldn't stand it any longer and I sent for Claydon. He
came down and I told him what I'd been through and what I wanted him to do.
At first he refused point-blank to touch the picture. The next morning I
went off for a long tramp, and when I came home I found him sitting here
alone. He looked at me sharply for a moment and then he said: 'I've changed
my mind; I'll do it.' I arranged one of the north rooms as a studio and he
shut himself up there for a day; then he sent for me. The picture stood
there as you see it now--it was as though she'd met me on the threshold and
taken me in her arms! I tried to thank him, to tell him what it meant to
me, but he cut me short.

"'There's an up train at five, isn't there?' he asked. 'I'm booked for a
dinner to-night. I shall just have time to make a bolt for the station and
you can send my traps after me.' I haven't seen him since.

"I can guess what it cost him to lay hands on his masterpiece; but, after
all, to him it was only a picture lost, to me it was my wife regained!"


After that, for ten years or more, I watched the strange spectacle of a
life of hopeful and productive effort based on the structure of a dream.
There could be no doubt to those who saw Grancy during this period that
he drew his strength and courage from the sense of his wife's mystic
participation in his task. When I went back to see him a few months later I


Back to Full Books