The Bent Twig
Part 4 out of 9
This did not prevent her making a long detour the next day to avoid
meeting the uncomely old musician on the street and being obliged to
recognize him publicly. She lived in perpetual dread of being thus
forced, when in the company of Mrs. Draper or Jermain, to acknowledge
her connection with him, or with Cousin Parnelia, or with any of
the eccentrics who frequented her parents' home, and whom it was
physically impossible to imagine drinking tea at Mrs. Draper's table.
It was beside this same table that she met, one day in early December,
Jermain Fiske's distinguished father. He explained that he was in La
Chance for a day on his way from Washington to Mercerton, where the
Fiske family was collecting for its annual Christmas house-party, and
had dropped in on Mrs. Draper quite unexpectedly. He was, he added,
delighted that it happened to be a day when he could meet the lovely
Miss Marshall of whom (with a heavy accent of jocose significance)
he had heard so much. Sylvia was a little confused by the pointed
attentions of this gallant old warrior, oddly in contrast with the
manner of other elderly men she knew; but she thought him very
handsome, with his sweeping white mustache, his bright blue eyes,
so like his son's, and she was much impressed with his frock-coat,
fitting snugly around his well-knit, erect figure, and with the
silk hat which she noticed on the table in the hall as she went in.
Frock-coats and silk hats were objects seldom encountered in La
Chance, except in illustrations to magazine-stories, or in photographs
of life in New York or Washington. But of course, she reflected,
Colonel Fiske lived most of his life in Washington, about the
cosmopolitan delights of which he talked most eloquently to the two
As was inevitable, Sylvia also met Eleanor Hubert more or less at Mrs.
Draper's. Sylvia had been rendered acutely self-conscious in that
direction by Mrs. Draper's very open comments on her role in the life
of the other girl, and at first had been so smitten by embarrassment
as positively to be awkward, a rare event in her life: but she was
soon set at ease by the other girl's gentle friendliness, so simple
and sincere that even Sylvia's suspicious vanity could not feel it
to be condescension. Eleanor's sweet eyes shone so kindly on her
successful rival, and she showed so frank and unenvious an
admiration of Sylvia's wit and learning, displayed perhaps a trifle
ostentatiously by that young lady in the ensuing conversation with
Mrs. Draper, that Sylvia had a fresh, healing impulse of shame for her
own recently acquired attitude of triumphing hostility towards the
At the same time she felt a surprised contempt for the other girl's
ignorance and almost illiteracy. Whatever else Eleanor had learned in
the exclusive and expensive girls' school in New York, she had not
learned to hold her own in a conversation on the most ordinary topics;
and as for Mrs. Draper's highly spiced comments on life and folk, her
young friend made not the slightest attempt to cope with them or even
to understand them. The alluring mistress of the house might talk of
sex-antagonism and the hatefulness of the puritanical elements of
American life as much as she pleased. It all passed over the head of
the lovely, fair girl, sipping her tea and raising her candid eyes
to meet with a trustful smile, perhaps a little blank, the glance of
whomever chanced to be looking at her. It was significant that she had
the same smile for each of the three very dissimilar persons who sat
about the tea-table. Of all the circle into which Sylvia's changed
life had plunged her, Eleanor, the type of the conventional society
bud, was, oddly enough, the only one she cared to talk about in her
own extremely unconventional home. But even on this topic she felt
herself bruised and jarred by the severity, the unpicturesque
austerity of the home standards. As she was trying to give her mother
some idea of Eleanor's character, she quoted one day a remark of Mrs.
Draper's, to the effect that "Eleanor no more knows the meaning of her
beauty than a rose the meaning of its perfume." Mrs. Marshall kept
a forbidding silence for a moment and then said: "I don't take much
stock in that sort of unconsciousness. Eleanor isn't a rose, she isn't
even a child. She's a woman. The sooner girls learn that distinction,
the better off they'll be, and the fewer chances they'll run of being
Sylvia felt very angry with her mother for this unsympathetic
treatment of a pretty phrase, and thought with resentment that it was
not _her_ fault if she were becoming more and more alienated from her
This was a feeling adroitly fostered by Mrs. Draper, who, in her
endless talks with Sylvia and Jermain about themselves, had hit upon
an expression and a turn of phrase which was to have more influence on
Sylvia's development than its brevity seemed to warrant. She had, one
day, called Sylvia a little Athenian, growing up, by the oddest of
mistakes, in Sparta. Sylvia, who was in the Pater-reading stage of
development, caught at her friend's phrase as at the longed-for key to
her situation. It explained everything. It made everything appear in
the light she wished for. Above all it enabled her to clarify her
attitude towards her home. Now she understood. One did not scorn
Sparta. One respected it, it was a noble influence in life; but for an
Athenian, for whom amenity and beauty and suavity were as essential as
food, Sparta was death. As was natural to her age and temperament, she
sucked a vast amount of pleasure out of this pitying analysis of her
subtle, complicated needs and the bare crudity of her surroundings.
She now read Pater more assiduously than ever, always carrying a
volume about with her text-books, and feeding on this delicate fare
in such unlikely and dissimilar places as on the trolley-cars, in the
kitchen, in the intervals of preparing a meal, or in Mrs. Draper's
living-room, waiting for the problematical entrance of that erratic
There was none of Mrs. Draper's habits of life which made more of an
impression on Sylvia's imagination than her custom of disregarding
engagements and appointments, of coming and going, appearing and
disappearing quite as she pleased. To the daughter of a scrupulously
exact family, which regarded tardiness as a fault, and breaking an
appointment as a crime, this high-handed flexibility in dealing with
time and bonds and promises had an exciting quality of freedom.
On a good many occasions these periods of waiting chanced to be shared
by Eleanor Hubert, for whom, after the first two or three encounters,
Sylvia came to have a rather condescending sympathy, singularly in
contrast to the uneasy envy with which she had regarded her only a
few months before. However, as regards dress, Eleanor was still a
phenomenon of the greatest interest, and Sylvia never saw her without
getting an idea or two, although it was plain to any one who knew
Eleanor that this mastery of the technique of modern American costume
was no achievement of her own, that she was merely the lovely and
plastic material molded, perhaps to slightly over-complicated effects,
by her mother's hands.
From that absent but pervasive personality Sylvia took one suggestion
after another. For instance, a very brief association with Eleanor
caused her to relegate to the scrapheap of the "common" the ready-made
white ruching for neck and sleeves which she had always before taken
for granted. Eleanor's slim neck and smooth wrists were always set
off by a few folds of the finest white chiffon, laid with dexterous
carelessness, and always so exquisitely fresh that they were obviously
renewed by a skilful hand after only a few hours' wearing. The first
time she saw Eleanor, Sylvia noticed this detail with appreciation,
and immediately struggled to reproduce it in her own costume. Like
other feats of the lesser arts this perfect trifle turned out to
depend upon the use of the lightest and most adroit touch. None of the
chiffon which came in Aunt Victoria's boxes would do. It must be fresh
from the shop-counter, ruinous as this was to Sylvia's very modest
allowance for dress. Even then she spoiled many a yard of the filmy,
unmanageable stuff before she could catch the spirit of those
apparently careless folds, so loosely disposed and yet never
displaced. It was a phenomenon over which a philosopher might
well have pondered, this spectacle of Sylvia's keen brain and
well-developed will-power equally concerned with the problems of
chemistry and philosophy and history, and with the problem of
chiffon folds. She herself was aware of no incongruity, indeed of no
difference, between the two sorts of efforts.
Many other matters of Eleanor's attire proved as fruitful of
suggestion as this, although Aunt Victoria's well-remembered dictum
about the "kitchen-maid's pin-cushion" was a guiding finger-board
which warned Sylvia against the multiplication of detail, even
Mrs. Hubert had evidently studied deeply the sources of distinction
in modern dress, and had grasped with philosophic thoroughness the
underlying principle of the art, which is to show effects obviously
costly, but the cost of which is due less to mere brute cash than to
prodigally expended effort. Eleanor never wore a costume which did not
show the copious exercise by some alert-minded human being, presumably
with an immortal soul, of the priceless qualities of invention,
creative thought, trained attention, and prodigious industry. Mrs.
Hubert's unchallengeable slogan was that dress should be an expression
of individuality, and by dint of utilizing all the details of the
attire of herself and of her two daughters, down to the last ruffle
and buttonhole, she found this medium quite sufficient to express the
whole of her own individuality, the conspicuous force of which was
readily conceded by any observer of the lady's life.
As for Eleanor's own individuality, any one in search of that very
unobtrusive quality would have found it more in the expression of her
eyes and in the childlike lines of her lips than in her toilets. It
is possible that Mrs. Hubert might have regarded it as an unkind
visitation of Providence that the results of her lifetime of effort
in an important art should have been of such slight interest to
her daughter, and should have served, during the autumn under
consideration, chiefly as hints and suggestions for her daughter's
That she was Eleanor's successful rival, Sylvia had Mrs. Draper's more
than outspoken word. That lady openly gloried in the impending defeat
of Mrs. Hubert's machinations to secure the Fiske money and position
for Eleanor; although she admitted that a man like Jerry had his two
opposing sides, and that he was quite capable of being attracted by
two such contrasting types as Sylvia and Eleanor. She informed Sylvia
indeed that the present wife of Colonel Fiske--his third, by the
way--had evidently been in her youth a girl of Eleanor's temperament.
It was more than apparent, however, that in the case of the son,
Sylvia's "type" was in the ascendent; but it must be set down to
Sylvia's credit that the circumstance of successful competition gave
her no satisfaction. She often heartily wished Eleanor out of it. She
could never meet the candid sweetness of the other's eyes without a
qualm of discomfort, and she suffered acutely under Eleanor's gentle
Once or twice when Mrs. Draper was too outrageously late at an
appointment for tea, the two girls gave her up, and leaving the house,
walked side by side back across the campus, Sylvia quite aware of the
wondering surmise which followed their appearance together. On these
occasions, Eleanor talked with more freedom than in Mrs. Draper's
presence, always in the quietest, simplest way, of small events and
quite uninteresting minor matters in her life, or the life of the
various household pets, of which she seemed extremely fond. Sylvia
could not understand why, when she bade her good-bye at the driveway
leading into the Hubert house, she should feel anything but a rather
contemptuous amusement for the other's insignificance, but the odd
fact was that her heart swelled with inexplicable warmth. Once she
yielded to this foolish impulse, and felt a quivering sense of
pleasure at the sudden startled responsiveness with which Eleanor
returned a kiss, clinging to her as though she were an older, stronger
One dark late afternoon in early December, Sylvia waited alone in the
candle-lighted shrine, neither Eleanor nor her hostess appearing.
After five o'clock she started home alone along the heavily shaded
paths of the campus, as dim as caves in the interval before the big,
winking sputtering arc-lights were flashed on. She walked swiftly and
lightly as was her well-trained habit, and before she knew it, was
close upon a couple sauntering in very close proximity. With the
surety of long practice Sylvia instantly diagnosed them as a college
couple indulging in what was known euphemistically as "campus work,"
and prepared to pass them with the slight effect of scorn for
philanderings which she always managed to throw into her high-held
head and squarely swinging shoulders. But as she came up closer,
walking noiselessly in the dusk, she recognized an eccentric,
flame-colored plume just visible in the dim light, hanging down
from the girl's hat--and stopped short, filled with a rush of very
complicated feelings. The only flame-colored plume in La Chance was
owned and worn by Eleanor Hubert, and if she were out sauntering
amorously in the twilight, with whom could she be but Jerry
Fiske,--and that meant--Sylvia's pangs of conscience about supplanting
Eleanor were swept away by a flood of anger as at a defeat. She could
not make out the girl's companion, beyond the fact that he was tall
and wore a long, loose overcoat. Jerry was tall and wore a long, loose
overcoat. Sylvia walked on, slowly now, thoroughly aroused, quite
unaware of the inconsistency of her mental attitude. She felt a rising
tide of heat. She had, she told herself, half a notion to step forward
and announce her presence to the couple, whose pace as the Hubert
house was approached became slower and slower.
But then, as they stood for a moment at the entrance of the Hubert
driveway, the arc-lights blazed up all over the campus at once and she
saw two things: one was that Eleanor was walking very close to her
companion, with her arm through his, and her little gloved fingers
covered by his hand, and next that he was not Jerry Fiske at all,
but the queer, countrified "freak" assistant in chemistry with
whom Eleanor, since Jerry's defection, had more or less masked her
At the same moment the two started guiltily apart, and Sylvia halted,
thinking they had discovered her. But it was Mrs. Hubert whom they had
seen, advancing from the other direction, and making no pretense that
she was not in search of an absent daughter. She bore down upon the
couple, murmured a very brief greeting to the man, accompanied by a
faint inclination of her well-hatted head, drew Eleanor's unresisting
hand inside her arm, and walked her briskly into the house.
MRS. MARSHALL STICKS TO HER PRINCIPLES
During the autumn and early winter it not only happened unfortunately
that the quartet played altogether too much Haydn, but that Sylvia's
father, contrary to his usual custom, was away from home a great deal.
The State University had arrived at that stage of its career when, if
its rapidly increasing needs and demands for State money were to be
recognized by the Legislature, it must knit itself more closely to
the rest of the State system of education, have a more intimate
affiliation with the widely scattered public high schools, and weld
into some sort of homegeneity their extremely various standards of
scholarship. This was a delicate undertaking, calling for much tact
and an accurate knowledge of conditions in the State, especially in
the rural districts. Professor Marshall's twenty years of popularity
with the more serious element of the State University students (that
popularity which meant so little to Sylvia, and which she so ignored)
had given him a large acquaintance among the class which it was
necessary to reach. He knew the men who at the University had been the
digs, and jays, and grinds, and who were now the prosperous
farmers, the bankers, the school-trustees, the leading men in their
communities; and his geniality, vivacity, and knack for informal
public speaking made him eminently fitted to represent the University
in the somewhat thankless task of coaxing and coercing backward
communities to expend the necessary money and effort to bring their
schools up to the State University standard.
If all this had happened a few years sooner, he undoubtedly would have
taken Sylvia with him on many of these journeys into remote corners
of the State, but Sylvia had her class-work to attend to, and the
Professor shared to the fullest extent the academic prejudice against
parents who broke in upon the course of their children's regular
instruction by lawless and casual junketings. Instead, it was Judith
who frequently accompanied him, Judith who was now undergoing that
home-preparation for the University through which Sylvia had passed,
and who, since her father was her principal instructor, could carry
on her studies wherever he happened to be; as well as have the
stimulating experience of coming in contact with a wide variety of
people and conditions. It is possible that Professor Marshall's
sociable nature not only shrank from the solitude which his wife
would have endured with cheerfulness, but that he also wished to take
advantage of this opportunity to come in closer touch with his second
daughter, for whose self-contained and occasionally insensitive nature
he had never felt the instinctive understanding he had for Sylvia's
moods. It is certain that the result was a better feeling between the
two than had existed before. During the long hours of jolting over
branch railroads back to remote settlements, or waiting at cheerless
junctions for delayed trains, or gaily eating impossible meals at
extraordinary country hotels, the ruddy, vigorous father, now growing
both gray and stout, and the tall, slender, darkly handsome girl of
fifteen, were cultivating more things than history and mathematics and
English literature. The most genuine feeling of comradeship sprang up
between the two dissimilar natures, a feeling so strong and so warm
that Sylvia, in addition to her other emotional complications, felt
occasionally a faint pricking of jealousy at seeing her primacy with
her father usurped.
A further factor in her temporary feeling of alienation from him was
the mere physical fact that she saw him much less frequently and that
he had nothing like his usual intimate knowledge of her comings and
goings. And finally, Lawrence, now a too rapidly growing and delicate
lad of eleven, had a series of bronchial colds which kept his mother
much occupied with his care. As far as her family was concerned,
Sylvia was thus left more alone than ever before, and although she had
been trained to too delicate and high a personal pride to attempt the
least concealment of her doings, it was not without relief that she
felt that her parents had but a very superficial knowledge of the
extent and depth to which she was becoming involved in her new
relations. She herself shut her eyes as much as possible to the rate
at which she was progressing towards a destination rapidly becoming
more and more imperiously visible; and consciously intoxicated herself
with the excitements and fatigues of her curiously double life of
intellectual effort in classes and her not very skilful handling of
the shining and very sharp-edged tools of flirtation.
But this ambiguous situation was suddenly clarified by the unexpected
call upon Mrs. Marshall, one day about the middle of December, of no
less a person than Mrs. Jermain Fiske, Sr., wife of the Colonel, and
Jerry's stepmother. Sylvia happened to be in her room when the shining
car drove up the country road before the Marshall house, stopped at
the gate in the osage-orange hedge, and discharged the tall, stooping,
handsomely dressed lady in rich furs, who came with a halting step up
the long path to the front door. Although Sylvia had never seen Mrs.
Fiske, Mrs. Draper's gift for satiric word-painting had made her
familiar with some items of her appearance, and it was with a rapidly
beating heart that she surmised the identity of the distinguished
caller. But although her quick intelligence perceived the probable
significance of the appearance, and although she felt a distinct shock
at the seriousness of having Jerry's stepmother call upon her, she was
diverted from these capital considerations of such vital importance to
her life by the trivial consideration which had, so frequently during
the progress of this affair, absorbed her mind to the exclusion of
everything else--the necessity for keeping up appearances. If the
Marshall tradition had made it easier for her to achieve this not very
elevated goal, she might have perceived more clearly where her rapid
feet were taking her. Just now, for example, there was nothing in her
consciousness but the embittered knowledge that there was no maid to
open the door when Mrs. Fiske should ring.
She was a keen-witted modern young woman of eighteen, with a
well-trained mind stored with innumerable facts of science, but it
must be admitted that at this moment she reverted with passionate
completeness to quite another type. She would have given--she would
have given a year of her life--one of her fingers--all her knowledge
of history--anything! if the Marshalls had possessed what she felt any
decently prosperous grocer's family ought to possess--a well-appointed
maid in the hall to open the door, take Mrs. Fiske's card, show her
into the living-room, and go decently and in order to summon the
mistress of the house. Instead she saw with envenomed foresight what
would happen. At the unusual sound of the bell, her mother, who was
playing dominoes with Lawrence in one of his convalescences, would
open the door with her apron still on, and her spectacles probably
pushed up, rustic fashion, on top of her head. And then their
illustrious visitor, used as of course she was to ceremony in social
matters, would not know whether this was the maid, or her hostess;
and Mrs. Marshall would frankly show her surprise at seeing a richly
dressed stranger on the doorstep, and would perhaps think she had made
a mistake in the house; and Mrs. Fiske would not know whether to hand
over the cards she held ready in her whitely gloved fingers--in the
interval between the clanging shut of the gate and the tinkle of the
doorbell Sylvia endured a sick reaction against life, as an altogether
hateful and horrid affair.
As a matter of fact, nothing of all this took place. When the bell
rang, her mother called out a tranquil request to her to go and open
the door, and so it was Sylvia herself who confronted the unexpected
visitor,--Sylvia a little flurried and breathless, but ushering the
guest into the house with her usual graceful charm of manner.
She had none of this as a moment later she went rather slowly upstairs
to summon her mother. It occurred to her that Mrs. Marshall might very
reasonably be at a loss as to the reason of this call. Indeed, she
herself felt a sinking alarm at the definiteness of the demonstration.
What could Mrs. Fiske have to say to Mrs. Marshall that would not lead
to some agitating crystallization of the dangerous solution which
during the past months Mrs. Marshall's daughter had been so
industriously stirring up? Mrs. Marshall showed the most open surprise
at the announcement, "Mrs. Colonel Fiske to see me? What in the
world--" she began, but after a glance at Sylvia's down-hung head and
twisting fingers, she stopped short, looking very grave, and rose to
go, with no more comments.
They went down the stairs in silence, tall mother and tall daughter,
both sobered, both frightened at what might be in the other's mind,
and at what might be before them, and entered the low-ceilinged
living-room together. A pale woman, apparently as apprehensive as
they, rose in a haste that had almost some element of apology in it,
and offered her hand to Mrs. Marshall. "I'm Mrs. Fiske," she said
hurriedly, in a low voice, "Jerry's stepmother, you know. I hope you
won't mind my coming to see you. What a perfectly lovely home you
have! I was wishing I could just stay and _stay_ in this room."
She spoke rapidly with the slightly incoherent haste of shy people
overcoming their weakness, and glanced alternately, with faded blue
eyes, at Sylvia and at her mother. In the end she remained standing,
looking earnestly into Mrs. Marshall's face. That lady now made a step
forward and again put out her hand with an impulsive gesture at which
Sylvia wondered. She herself had felt no attraction towards the thin,
sickly woman who had so little grace or security of manner. It was
constantly surprising Sylvia to discover how often people high in
social rank seemed to possess no qualifications for their position.
She always felt that she could have filled their places with vastly
"I'm very glad to see you," said Mrs. Marshall in a friendly tone. "Do
sit down again. Sylvia, go and make us some tea, won't you? Mrs. Fiske
must be cold after driving out here from town."
When Sylvia came back ten minutes later, she found the guest saying,
"My youngest is only nine months old, and he is having _such_ a time
with his teeth."
"Oh!" thought Sylvia scornfully, pouring out the tea. "She's _that_
kind of a woman, is she?" With the astonishingly quick shifting of
viewpoint of the young, she no longer felt the least anxiety that her
home, or even that she herself should make a good impression on this
evidently quite negligible person. Her anguish about the ceremony of
opening the door seemed years behind her. She examined with care all
the minutiae of the handsome, unindividualized costume of black velvet
worn by their visitor, but turned an absent ear to her talk, which
brought out various facts relating to a numerous family of young
children. "I have six living," said Mrs. Fiske, not meeting Mrs.
Marshall's eyes as she spoke, and stirring her tea slowly, "I lost
four at birth."
Sylvia was indeed slightly interested to learn through another turn of
the conversation that the caller, who looked to her unsympathetic eyes
any age at all, had been married at eighteen, and that that was only
thirteen years ago. Sylvia thought she certainly looked older than
thirty-one, advanced though that age was.
The call passed with no noteworthy incidents beyond a growing wonder
in Sylvia's mind that the brilliant and dashing old Colonel, after
his other matrimonial experiences, should have picked out so dull and
colorless a wife. She was not even pretty, not at all pretty, in spite
of her delicate, regular features and tall figure. Her hair was dry
and thin, her eyes lusterless, her complexion thick, with brown
patches on it, and her conversation was of a domesticity unparalleled
in Sylvia's experience. She seemed oddly drawn to Mrs. Marshall,
although that lady was now looking rather graver than was her wont,
and talked to her of the overflowing Fiske nursery with a loquacity
which was evidently not her usual habit. Indeed, she said naively, as
she went away, that she had been much relieved to find Mrs. Marshall
so approachable. "One always thinks of University families as so
terribly learned, you know," she said, imputing to her hostess, with a
child's tactlessness, an absence of learning like her own. "I really
dreaded to come--I go out so little, you know--but Jerry and the
Colonel thought I ought, you know--and now I've really enjoyed it--and
if Miss Marshall will come, Jerry and the Colonel will be quite
satisfied. And so, of course, will I." With which rather jerky
valedictory she finally got herself out of the house.
Sylvia looked at her mother inquiringly. "If I go where?" she asked.
Something must have taken place while she was out of the room getting
"She called to invite you formally to a Christmas house-party at the
Fiskes' place in Mercerton," said Mrs. Marshall, noting smilelessly
Sylvia's quick delight at the news. "Oh, what have I got to wear!"
cried the girl. Mrs. Marshall said merely, "We'll see, we'll see,"
and without discussing the matter further, went back to finish the
interrupted game with Lawrence.
But the next evening, when Professor Marshall returned from his latest
trip, the subject was taken up in a talk between Sylvia and her
parents which was more agitating to them all than any other incident
in their common life, although it was conducted with a great effort
for self-control on all sides. Judith and Lawrence had gone upstairs
to do their lessons, and Professor Marshall at once broached the
subject by saying with considerable hesitation, "Sylvia--well--how
about this house-party at the Fiskes'?"
Sylvia was on the defense in a moment. "Well, how about it?" she
"I hope you don't feel like going."
"But I do, very much!" returned Sylvia, tingling at the first clear
striking of the note of disapproval she had felt for so many weeks
like an undertone in her life. As her father said nothing more, biting
his nails and looking at her uncertainly, she added in the accent
which fitted the words, "Why shouldn't I?"
He took a turn about the room and glanced at his wife, who was hemming
a napkin very rapidly, her hands trembling a little. She looked up at
him warningly, and he waited an instant before speaking. Finally he
brought out with the guarded tone of one forcing himself to moderation
of speech, "Well, the Colonel is an abominable old black-guard in
public life, and his private reputation is no better."
Sylvia flushed. "I don't see what that has to do with his son. It's
not fair to judge a young man by his father--or by anything but what
he is himself--you yourself are always saying that, if the trouble is
that the father is poor or ignorant or something else tiresome."
Professor Marshall said cautiously, "From what I hear, I gather that
the son in this case is a good deal like his father."
"No, he _isn't!_" cried Sylvia quickly. "He may have been wild when he
first came up to the University, but he's all right now!" She spoke as
with authoritative and intimate knowledge of all the details of Fiske,
Jr.'s, life. "And anyhow, I don't see what difference it makes, _what_
the Colonel's reputation is. I'm just going up there with a lot of
other young people to have a good time. Eleanor Hubert's invited, and
three or four other society girls. I don't see why we need to be such
a lot more particular than other people. We never are when it's a
question of people being dirty, or horrid, other ways! How about
Cousin Parnelia and Mr. Reinhardt? I guess the Fiskes would laugh
at the idea of people who have as many queer folks around as we do,
thinking _they_ aren't good enough."
Professor Marshall sat down across the table from his daughter and
looked at her. His face was rather ruddier than usual and he swallowed
hard. "Why, Sylvia, the point is this. It's evident, from what your
mother tells me of Mrs. Fiske's visit, that going to this house party
means more in your case than with the other girls. Mrs. Fiske came all
the way to La Chance to invite you, and from what she said about
you and her stepson, it was evident that she and the Colonel--" He
stopped, opening his hands nervously.
"I don't know how they think they know anything about it," returned
Sylvia with dignity, though she felt an inward qualm at this news.
"Jerry's been ever so nice to me and given me a splendid time, but
that's all there is to it. Lots of fellows do that for lots of girls,
and nobody makes such a fuss about it."
Mrs. Marshall laid down her work and went to the heart of the matter.
"Sylvia, you don't _like_ Mr. Fiske?"
"Yes, I do!" said Sylvia defiantly, qualifying this statement an
instant later by, "Quite well, anyhow. Why _shouldn't_ I?"
Her mother assumed this rhetorical question to be a genuine one and
answered it accordingly. "Why, he doesn't seem at all like the type of
young man who would be liked by a girl with your tastes and training.
I shouldn't think you'd find him interesting or--"
Sylvia broke out: "Oh, you don't know how sick I get of being so
everlastingly high-brow! What's the _use_ of it? People don't think
any more of you! They think less! You don't have any better time--nor
so good! And why should you and Father always be so down on anybody
that's rich, or dresses decently? _Jerry's_ all right--if his clothes
"Do you really _know_ him at all?" asked her father pointedly.
"Of course I do--I know he's very handsome, and awfully good-natured,
and he's given me the only good time I've had at the University. You
just don't know how ghastly last year was to me! I'm awfully grateful
to Jerry, and that's all there is to it!"
Before this second disclaimer, her parents were silent again, Sylvia
looking down at her lap, picking at her fingers. Her expression was
that of a naughty child--that is, with a considerable admixture of
unhappiness in her wilfulness.
By this time Professor Marshall's expression was clearly one of
downright anger, controlled by violent effort. Mrs. Marshall was the
first one to speak. She went over to Sylvia and laid her hand on her
shoulder. "Well, Sylvia dear, I'm sorry about--" She stopped and
began again. "You know, dear, that we always believed in letting our
children, as far as possible, make their own decisions, and we won't
go back on that now. But I want you to understand that that puts a
bigger responsibility on you than on most girls to make the _right_
decisions. We trust you--your good sense and right feeling--to keep
you from being carried away by unworthy motives into a false position.
And, what's just as important, we trust to your being clear-headed
enough to see what your motives really are."
"I don't see," began Sylvia, half crying, "why something horrid should
come up just because I want a good time--other girls don't have to be
all the time so solemn, and thinking about things!"
"There'd be more happy women if they did," remarked Mrs. Marshall,
adding: "I don't believe we'd better talk any more about this now. You
know how we feel, and you must take that into consideration. You think
She spoke apparently with her usual calmness, but as she finished she
put her arms about the girl's neck and kissed the flushed cheeks.
Caresses from Mrs. Marshall were unusual, and, even through her tense
effort to resist, Sylvia was touched. "You're just worrying about
nothing at all, Mother," she said, trying to speak lightly, but
escaped from a possible rejoinder by hurriedly gathering up her
text-books and following Judith and Lawrence upstairs.
Her father and mother confronted each other. "_Well!_" said Professor
Marshall hotly, "of all the weak, inconclusive, modern parents--is
_this_ what we've come to?"
Mrs. Marshall took up her sewing and said in the tone which always
quelled her husband, "Yes, this is what we've come to."
His heat abated at once, though he went on combatively, "Oh, I know
what you mean, reasonable authority and not tyranny and all that--yes,
I believe in it--of course--but this goes beyond--" he ended. "Is
there or is there not such a thing as parental authority?"
Mrs. Marshall answered with apparent irrelevance, "You remember what
"Good Heaven! No, I don't remember!" cried Professor Marshall, with an
impatience which might have been Sylvia's.
"He said, 'Any idiot can rule by martial law.'"
"Yes, of course, that theory is all right, but--"
"If a theory is all right, it ought to be acted upon."
Professor Marshall cried out in exasperation, "But see here,
Barbara--here is a concrete fact--our daughter--our precious
Sylvia--is making a horrible mistake--and because of a theory we
mustn't reach out a hand to pull her back."
"We _can't_ pull her back by force," said his wife. "She's eighteen
years old, and she has the habit of independent thought. We can't go
back on that now."
"We don't seem to be pulling her back by force or in any other way! We
seem to be just weakly sitting back and letting her do exactly as she
"If during all these years we've had her under our influence we
haven't given her standards that--" began the mother.
"You heard how utterly she repudiated our influence and our standards
"Oh, what she _says_--it's what she's made of that'll count--that's
the _only_ thing that'll count when a crisis comes--"
Professor Marshall interrupted hastily: "When a crisis! What do you
call _this_ but a crisis--she's like a child about to put her hand
into the fire."
"I trust in the training she's had to give her firm enough nerves to
pull it out again when she feels the heat," said her mother steadily.
Professor Marshall sprang up, with clenched hands, tall, powerful,
helpless. "It's outrageous, Barbara, for all your talk! We're
responsible! We ought to shut her up under lock and key--"
"So _many_ girls have been deterred from a mistake by being shut up
under lock and key!" commented Mrs. Marshall, with an ironical accent.
"But, good Heavens! Think of her going to that old scoundrel's--how
can I look people in the face, when they all know my opinion of
him--how I've opposed his being a Trustee and--"
"_Ah_,--!" remarked his wife significantly, "that's the trouble, is
Professor Marshall flushed, and for a moment made no rejoinder. Then,
shifting his ground, he said bitterly: "I think you're forgetting that
I've had a disillusionizing experience in this sort of thing which you
were spared. You forget that Sylvia is closely related to my sister."
"I don't forget that--but I don't forget either that Sylvia has had
a very different sort of early life from poor Victoria's. She has
breathed pure air always--I trust her to recognize its opposite."
He made an impatient gesture of exasperation. "But she'll be _in_
it--it'll be too late--"
"It's never too late." She spoke quickly, but her unwavering
opposition began to have in it a note of tension.
"She'll be caught--she'll have to go on because it'll be too hard to
"The same vigor that makes her resist us now will give her strength
then--she's not Eleanor Hubert."
Her husband burst out upon her in a frightened, angry rush of
reproach: "Barbara--how _can_ you! You make me turn cold! This isn't a
matter of talk--of theories--we're confronted with--"
She faced him down with unflinching, unhappy eyes. "Oh, of course
if we are to believe in liberty only so long as everything goes
smoothly--" She tried to add something to this, but her voice broke
and she was silent. Her husband looked at her, startled at her pallor
and her trembling lips, immensely moved by the rare discomposure of
that countenance. She said in a whisper, her voice shaking, "Our
little Sylvia--my first baby--"
He flung himself down in the chair beside her and took her hand. "It's
damnable!" he said.
His wife answered slowly, with long pauses. "No--it's all right--it's
part of the whole thing--of life. When you bring children into the
world--when you live at all--you must accept the whole. It's not fair
to rebel--to rebel at the pain--when--"
"Good God, it's not _our_ pain I'm shrinking from--!" he broke out.
"No--oh no--that would be easy--"
With an impulse of yearning, and protection, and need, he leaned to
put his arms around her, his graying beard against her pale cheek.
They sat silent for a long time.
In the room above them, Sylvia bent over a problem in trigonometry,
and rapidly planned a new evening-dress. After a time she got up and
opened her box of treasures from Aunt Victoria. The yellow chiffon
would do--Jerry had said he liked yellow--she could imagine how Mrs.
Hubert would expend herself on Eleanor's toilets for this great
occasion--if she could only hit on a design which wouldn't look
as though it came out of a woman's magazine--something really
sophisticated--she could cover her old white slippers with that bit
of gold-tissue off Aunt Victoria's hat--she shook out the chiffon and
laid it over the bed, looking intently at its gleaming, shimmering
folds and thinking, "How horrid of Father and Mother to go and try to
spoil everything so!" She went back to the problem in trigonometry and
covered a page with figures, at which she gazed unseeingly. She was by
no means happy. She went as far as the door, meaning to go down and
kiss her parents good-night, but turned back. They were not a family
for surface demonstrations. If she could not yield her point--She
began to undress rapidly, turned out the light, opened the windows,
and sprang into bed. "If they only wouldn't take things so awfully
_solemnly_!" she said to herself petulantly.
SYLVIA SKATES MERRILY ON THIN ICE
The design for the yellow chiffon dropped almost literally at Sylvia's
feet the next day, on the frontispiece of a theatrical magazine left
by another passenger in the streetcar in which she chanced to be
riding. Sylvia pounced on it with instant recognition of its value.
It was "different" and yet not "queer," it was artistic and yet
fashionable, and with its flowing lines it would not be hard to
construct. It was the creation of a Parisian boulevard actress, known
widely for her costumes, for the extraordinary manner in which she
dressed her hair, and for the rapidity of her succeeding emotional
entanglements. Her name meant nothing to Sylvia. She tore out the
page, folded it, and put it for safe-keeping between the pages of her
text-book on Logic.
That afternoon she began work on it, running the long seams up on the
machine with whirring rapidity, acutely aware of her mother's silent,
uncommenting passage back and forth through the sewing-room. With an
impulse of secrecy which she did not analyze, she did the trying-on in
her own room, craning and turning about before her own small mirror.
She knew that her mother would think the dress was cut too low,
although, as she told herself, looking with complacency at the smooth,
white, exquisitely fine-grained skin thus disclosed, it wasn't nearly
as low cut as the dresses Eleanor Hubert wore to any little dance. She
had long felt it to be countrified in the extreme to wear the mild
compromises towards evening-dress which she and most of the State
University girls adopted, as compared with the frankly disclosing
gowns of the "town girls" whose clothes came from Chicago and New
York. She knew from several outspoken comments that Jerry admired
Eleanor's shoulders, and as she looked at her own, she was not sorry
that he was to compare them to those of the other girl.
After this brief disposal of the question, she gave it no more
thought, working with desperate speed to complete all her
preparations. She had but a week for these, a week filled with
incessant hurry, since she was naturally unwilling to ask help of her
mother. Judith was off again with her father.
This absence greatly facilitated the moment of Sylvia's departure,
which she had dreaded. But, as it happened, there was only her mother
to whom to say the rather difficult good-bye, her mother who could be
counted on never to make a scene.
About the middle of the morning of the twenty-third of December,
she came down the stairs, her hand-bag in her hand, well-hatted,
well-gloved, freshly veiled, having achieved her usual purpose of
looking to the casual eye like the daughter of a wealthy man. She had
put all of her autumn allowance for dress into a set of furs, those
being something which no ingenuity could evolve at home. The rest
of her outfit, even to the odd little scarlet velvet hat, with its
successful and modish touch of the ugly, was the achievement of her
own hands. Under its absurd and fashionable brim, her fresh face shone
out, excessively pretty and very young.
Mrs. Marshall kissed her good-bye gently, not smiling at Sylvia's
attempt to lighten the moment's seriousness by saying playfully,
"Now, Mother, don't you be such an old worrier!" But she said nothing
"uncomfortable," for which Sylvia was very grateful.
She had no sooner embarked upon the big Interurban trolley-car which
was to take her to Mercerton than her attention was wholly diverted
from uneasy reflections by the unexpected appearance of two of the
house-party guests. Eleanor Hubert, every detail of her Complicated
costume exquisitely finished as a Meissonier painting, sat looking out
of the window rather soberly, and so intently that she saw neither
Sylvia's entrance, nor, close upon her heels, that of a florid-faced,
rather heavily built young man with a large, closely shaven jaw, who
exclaimed joyfully at seeing Miss Marshall, and appropriated with
ready assurance the other half of her seat.
"Now, this is surely dandy! You're going to the house-party too,
of course!" he cried, unbuttoning and throwing back his bright tan
overcoat. "Here's where I cut Jerry out all right, all right! Wait
a minute! _How_ much time have we?" He appealed to the conductor
as though a matter of life and death depended on the answer. "Four
minutes?--here goes--" He sprang to his feet, dashed out of the car
and disappeared, leaving his coat beside Sylvia. It was evidently
quite new, of the finest material, with various cunningly stitched
seams and straps disposed upon its surface in a very knowing way.
Sylvia noted out of the corner of her eye that the address of the
maker, woven into the neckband, was on Fifth Avenue, New York.
The four minutes passed--and the conductor approached Sylvia. "Your
friend's coming back, ain't he?" he asked, with the tolerant,
good-natured respect natural for the vagaries of expensively dressed
young men who wore overcoats made on Fifth Avenue. Sylvia, who had met
the young man but once before, when Jerry had introduced him as an
old friend, was a little startled at having a casual acquaintance so
publicly affixed to her; but after an instant's hesitation, in which
she was reflecting that she positively did not even remember her
"friend's" name, she answered, "Oh yes, yes, I suppose so--here he is
The young man bounded up on the back platform panting, holding his hat
on with one hand, a large box of candy in the other. Sylvia glanced at
the name on the cover. "You didn't go all the way to _Button's!_" she
He nodded, breathless, evidently proud of his feat, and when he caught
his breath enough to speak, explained, "Yepp,--it's the only place in
this bum town where you can get Alligretti's, and they're the only
kind that're fit to eat" He tore open the box as he spoke, demolishing
with ruthless and practised hands the various layers of fine paper
and gold cord which wrapped it about, and presented the rich layer of
black chocolates to Sylvia. "Get a move on and take one," he urged
cordially; "I pretend I buy 'em for the girls, but I'm crazy about 'em
myself," He bit into one with an air of prodigious gusto, took off his
hat, wiped his forehead, and looked at Sylvia with a relish as frank
as his enjoyment of the bonbon. "That's a corking hat you got on,"
he commented. "Most girls would look like the old Harry with that
dangling thing in their eyes, but _you_ can carry it off all right."
Sylvia's face assumed a provocative expression. "Did you ever make
that remark to any other girl, I wonder?" she said reflectively.
He laughed aloud, eyeing her with appreciation, and clapping another
large black chocolate into his mouth. "You're the prompt article,
aren't you?" he said. He hitched himself over and leaned towards her.
"Something tells me I'm goin' to have a good time at this house-party,
Sylvia stiffened. She did not like his sitting so close to her, she
detected now on his breath a faint odor of alcohol, and she was afraid
that Eleanor Hubert would think her lacking in dignity. She regretted
having succumbed to the temptation to answer him in his own tone; but,
under her bravado, she was really somewhat apprehensive about this
expedition, and she welcomed a diversion. Besides, the voluble young
man showed not the slightest sign of noting her attempt to rebuff him,
and she found quite unavailing all her efforts to change the current
of the talk, the loud, free-and-easy, personally admiring note of
which had the effect on her nerves of a draught of raw spirits. She
did not enjoy the taste while it was being administered, but the
effect was certainly stimulating, not to say exciting, and absorbed
her attention so entirely that uncomfortable self-questionings were
impossible. She was also relieved to note that, although the young
man flung himself about in the public conveyance with the same
unceremonious self-assurance that he would have shown in a lady's
drawing-room, Eleanor Hubert, at the other end of the car, was
apparently unaware of his presence. Perhaps she too had some grounds
for uncomfortable thought, for throughout the hour's journey she
continued to stare unseeingly out of the window, or to look down
fixedly and rather sadly at her gloved hands.
Even through the confusion of her own ideas and plans, and the need
for constant verbal self-defense against the encroaching familiarity
of her companion, the notion flitted across Sylvia's mind that
probably Eleanor was thinking of the young assistant in chemistry. How
queer and topsy-turvy everything was, she reflected, as she bandied
lively words with the lively young man at her side, continuing to eat
his candies, although their rich, cloying taste had already palled on
her palate--here was Mrs. Hubert throwing Eleanor at Jerry's head,
when what Eleanor wanted was that queer, rough-neck freak of an
assistant prof; and here were Jerry's parents making such overtures
to Sylvia, when what _she_ wanted--she didn't know what she did want.
Yes, she did, she wanted a good time, which was somehow paradoxically
hard to attain. Something always kept spoiling it,--half the time
something intangible inside her own mind. She gave the candy-box a
petulant push. "Oh, take it away!" she said impatiently; "I've eaten
so many now, it makes me sick to look at them!"
The donor showed no resentment at this ingratitude, holding the box on
his knees, continuing to help himself to its contents with unabated
zest, and to keep the conversation up to concert pitch: "--the only
girl I ever saw who'd stop eating Alligretti's while there was one
left--another proof that there's only one of you--I said right off,
that any co-ed that Jerry Fiske would take to must be a unique
specimen--" He did not further specify the period to which he
referred by his "right off," but the phrase gave Sylvia a tingling,
uncomfortable sense of having been for some time the subject of
speculation in circles of which she knew nothing.
They were near Mercerton now, and as she gathered her wraps together
she found that she was bracing herself as for an ordeal of some sort.
The big car stopped, a little way out of town, in front of a long
driveway bordered with maple-trees; she and the young man descended
from one end-platform and Eleanor Hubert from the other, into the
midst of loud and facetious greetings from the young people who had
come down to meet them. Jerry was there, very stalwart, his white
sweater stretched over his broad chest. All the party carried skates,
which flashed like silver in the keen winter sun. They explained with
many exclamations that they had been out on the ice, which was, so the
three new-comers were assured many times, "perfectly grand, perfectly
dandy, simply elegant!"
A big, many-seated sled came jingling down the driveway now, driven by
no less a personage than Colonel Fiske himself, wrapped in a fur-lined
coat, his big mustache white against the red of his strongly marked
old face. With many screams and shouts the young people got themselves
into this vehicle, the Colonel calling out in a masterful roar above
the din, "Miss Marshall's to come up here with me!"
He held in his pawing, excited horses with one hand and helped Sylvia
with the other. In the seat behind them sat Jerry and Eleanor Hubert
and the young man of the trolley trip. Sylvia strained her ears to
catch Jerry's introduction of him to Eleanor, so that she might
know his name. It was too absurd not even to know his name! But the
high-pitched giggles and deeper shouts of mirth from the rest of the
party drowned out the words. As a matter of fact, although he played
for an instant a rather important role in Sylvia's drama, she was
destined never to know his name.
The Colonel looked back over the sleighload, shouted out "All aboard!"
loosened the reins, and snapped his whip over the horses' heads. They
leaped forward with so violent a spring that the front runners of the
long sled were for an instant lifted into the air. Immediately all the
joyful shrieking and screaming which had gone on before, became as
essential silence compared to the delighted uproar which now rose from
the sleigh. The jerk had thrown most of the young people over backward
into each other's arms and laps, where, in a writhing, promiscuous
mass, they roared and squealed out their joy in the joke, and made
ineffectual and not very determined efforts to extricate themselves.
Sylvia had seen the jerk coming and saved herself by a clutch forward
at the dashboard. Glancing back, she saw that Jerry and Eleanor Hubert
still sat upright; although the gay young man beside them had let
himself go backward into the waving arms and legs, and, in a frenzy of
high spirits, was shouting and kicking and squirming with the others.
It was a joke after his own heart.
Colonel Fiske, so far from slackening his pace to help his young
guests out of their predicament, laughed loudly and cracked his whip
over the horses' ears. They went up the long, curving driveway like
a whirlwind, and drew up under the porte-cochere of a very large
brick-and-stone house with another abrupt jerk which upset those in
the sleigh who had succeeded in regaining their seats. Pandemonium
broke out again, in the midst of which Sylvia saw that Mrs. Fiske had
come to the doorway and stood in it with a timid smile. The Colonel
did not look at her, Jerry nodded carelessly to her as he passed in,
and of all the disheveled, flushed, and laughing young people who
crowded past her into the house, only Sylvia and Eleanor recognized
her existence. The others went past her without a glance, exclaimed at
the lateness of the hour, cried out that they must go and "fix up" for
lunch, and ran upstairs, filling the house with their voices. Sylvia
heard one girl cry to another, "_Oh_, I've had such a good time! I've
hollered till I'm hoarse!"
After luncheon, a meal at which more costly food was served than
Sylvia had ever before seen, Jerry suggested between puffs of the
cigarette he was lighting that they have a game of billiards. Most of
the young people trooped off after him into the billiard-room, but
Sylvia, after a moment's hesitation, lingered near the big wood-fire
in the hall, unwilling to admit that she had never seen a billiard
table. She made a pretext of staying to talk to Mrs. Fiske, who sat
stooping her tall figure forward in a chair too small for her. Sylvia
looked at this ungraceful attitude with strong disapproval. What she
thought was that such inattention to looks was perfectly inexcusable.
What she said was, in a very gracious voice: "What a beautiful home
you have, Mrs. Fiske! How wonderfully happy you must be in it."
The other woman started a little at being addressed, and looked around
vaguely at the conventional luxury of the room, with its highly
polished floors, its huge rich rugs, its antlers on the wall, and its
deeply upholstered leather chairs. When Sylvia signified her intention
of continuing the talk by taking a seat beside the fire, Mrs. Fiske
roused herself to the responsibility of entertaining the young guest.
After some futile attempts at conversation in the abstract, she
discharged this responsibility through the familiar expedient of the
family photograph album. With this between them, the two women were
able to go through the required form of avoiding silences. Sylvia was
fearfully bored by the succession of unknown faces, and utterly unable
to distinguish, in her hostess' somewhat disconnected talk, between
the different sets of the Colonel's children. "This one is Stanley,
Jermain's brother, who died when he was a baby," the dull voice droned
on; "and this is Mattie in her wedding dress."
"Oh, I didn't know Jerry had a married sister," murmured Sylvia
indifferently, glad of any comment to make.
"She's only his half-sister, a great deal older."
"But _you_ haven't a daughter old enough to be married?" queried
"Oh--no--no. Mattie is the daughter of the Colonel's first wife."
"Oh," said Sylvia awkwardly, remembering now that Mrs. Draper had
spoken of the Colonel's several marriages. She added to explain her
question, "I'd forgotten that Jerry's mother was the Colonel's second
wife and not his first."
"She was his third," breathed Mrs. Fiske, looking down at the pages of
Sylvia repressed a "Good gracious!" of startled repugnance to the
topic, and said, to turn the conversation, "Oh, who is that beautiful
little girl with the fur cap?"
"That is my picture," said Mrs. Fiske, "when I was eighteen. I was
married soon after. I've changed very much since my marriage."
Decidedly it was not Sylvia's lucky day for finding topics of talk.
She was wondering how the billiard game was progressing, and was sorry
she had not risked going with the others. She was recalled by Mrs.
Fiske's saying with a soft earnestness, "I want you to know, Miss
Marshall, how I _appreciate_ your kindness to me!"
Sylvia looked at her in astonishment, half fearing that she was being
made fun of.
The other went on: "It was _very_ nice of you--your staying here to
talk with me instead of going off with the young people--the others
don't often--" She played nervously with a gleaming pendant on a
platinum chain which hung over her flat chest, and went on: "I--you
have _always_ seemed to me the very nicest of Jerry's friends--and I
shall never forget your mother's kindness. I hope--I hope so much I
shall see more of her. The Colonel thinks so too--we've liked so much
having him like you." The incoherence of this did not prevent Sylvia's
having a chillingly accurate grasp on its meaning. "It is the
Colonel's hope," she went on painfully, "to have Jerry marry as soon
as he graduates from the Law School. The Colonel thinks that nothing
is so good for a young man as an early marriage--though of course
Jerry isn't so very, very young any more. He--the--Colonel is a great
believer in marriage--" Her voice died away into murmurs. Her long,
thin throat contracted in a visible swallow.
At this point only Sylvia's perception of the other's anguished
embarrassment prevented her from literally running away. As it was,
they sat silent, fingering over the pages of the album and gazing
unseeingly at the various set countenances which looked out at them
with the unnatural glare of the photographed. Sylvia was canvassing
desperately one possibility of escape after another when the door
opened, and the lively young man of the trolley-car stepped in.
He tiptoed to the fireplace with exaggerated caution, looking
theatrically over his shoulder for a pursuer. Sylvia positively
welcomed his appearance and turned to him with a cordiality quite
unlike the cool dignity with which she had planned to treat him. He
sat down on the rug before the fire, very close to her feet, and
looked up at her, grinning. "Here's where I get another one on
Jerry--what?" he said, ignoring Mrs. Fiske. "Old Jerry thinks he's
playing such a wonderful game in there he can't tear himself away--but
there'll be something doing, I guess, when he does come and finds
where I am!" He had partaken freely of the excellent white wine served
at luncheon (the first Sylvia had ever seen), and though entirely
master of his speech, was evidently even more uplifted than was his
usual hilarious wont. Sylvia looked down at him, and across at the
weak-faced woman opposite her, and had a moment of wishing heartily
she had never come. She stood up impatiently, a movement which the
young man took to mean a threat of withdrawal. "Aw, _don't_ go!" he
pleaded, sprawling across the rug towards her. As she turned away, he
snatched laughingly at her skirts, crying out, "Tag! You're caught!
At this moment Jerry Fiske appeared in the doorway. He looked darkly
at his friend's cheerful face and said shortly: "Here, Stub--quit it!
Get up out of that!" He added to Sylvia, holding out his hand: "Come
on, go skating with me. The ice is great."
"Are the others going?" asked Sylvia.
"Oh yes, I suppose so," said Jerry, a trifle impatiently.
The young man on the floor scrambled up. "Here's one that's going,
whoever else don't," he announced.
"Get yourself a girl, then," commanded Jerry, "and tell the rest to
come along. There's to be eats at four o'clock."
* * * * *
The ice was even as fine as it had been so redundantly represented to
Sylvia. Out of doors, leaning her supple, exquisitely poised body to
the wind as she veered like a bird on her flying skates, Sylvia's
spirits rebounded with an instant reaction into enjoyment. She adored
skating, and she had in it, as in all active exercise, the half-wild
pleasure of one whose childhood is but a short time behind her.
Furthermore, her costume prepared for this event (Mrs. Draper had told
her of the little lake on the Fiske estate) was one of her successes.
It had been a pale cream broadcloth of the finest texture, one of Aunt
Victoria's reception gowns, which had evidently been spoiled by having
coffee spilled down the front breadth. Sylvia had had the bold notion
of dyeing it scarlet and making it over with bands of black plush
(the best bits from an outworn coat of her mother's). On her gleaming
red-brown hair she had perched a little red cap with a small black
wing on either side (one of Lawrence's pet chickens furnished this),
and she carried the muff which belonged with her best set of furs.
Thus equipped, she looked like some impish, slender young Brunhilde,
with her two upspringing wings. The young men gazed at her with the
most unconcealed delight. As she skated very well, better than any
of the other girls, she felt, sweeping about the pond in long, swift
curves, that she was repaid for her ignorance of billiards.
Jerry and the young man he called Stub were openly in competition
for her attention, highly jocose on Stub's part and not at all so on
Jerry's, whose brow did not clear at the constant crackling of the
other's witticisms. On the shore burned a big fire, tended by a
man-servant in livery, who was occupied in setting out on a long table
a variety of sandwiches and cups of steaming bouillon. Sylvia had
never encountered before a real man-servant in livery. She looked at
him with the curiosity she might have shown at seeing a mediaeval
knight in full armor. Jerry brought her a cup of the bouillon, which
was deliciously hot and strong. Experienced as she was in the prudent
provisioning of the Marshall kitchen she was staggered to think how
many chickens had gone into filling with that clear liquor the big
silver tureen which steamed over the glittering alcohol lamp. The
table was set, for that casual outdoor picnic lunch, as she could
hardly have imagined a royal board.
"What beautiful things your people have!" she exclaimed to Jerry,
looking at a pile of small silver forks with delicately carved ivory
handles. "The rugs in the house are superb."
Jerry waved them aside as phenomena of no importance. "All of 'em
tributes from Dad's loving constituents," he said, repeating what was
evidently an old joke in the family. "You'd better believe Dad doesn't
vote to get the tariff raised on anything unless he sees to it that
the manufacturers know who they have to thank. It works something
fine! Talk about the presents a doctor gets from his grateful
patients! Nothing to it!"
This picturesque statement of practical politics meant so little to
Sylvia's mind that she dismissed it unheard, admiring, in spite of her
effort to take things for granted, the fabulous fineness of the
little fringed napkin set under the bouillon cup. Jerry followed
the direction of her eyes. "Yep--tariff on linen," he commented
The young man called Stub now sped up to them, skating very fast, and
swept Sylvia off. "_Here's_ where we show 'em how to do it!" he cried
cheerfully, skating backward with crazy rapidity, and pulling Sylvia
after him. There was a clang of swift steel on ice, and Jerry bore
down upon them, the muscles of his jaw showing prominently. Without a
word he thrust his friend aside, caught at Sylvia's hands, and bore
her in a swooping flight to the other end of the pond, now deserted by
the other skaters.
As they sped along he bent over Sylvia fiercely and said in a low,
angry tone, "You don't like that bounder, do you? You _don't_!"
Sylvia was astonished at the heat of his suspicion. She had known that
Jerry was not notably acute, but it had seemed to her that her dislike
for his friend must be more than apparent to any one. They had reached
the edge of the ice now, and Sylvia's hands were still in Jerry's,
although they were not skating, but stood facing each other. A bush
of osier, frozen into the ice, lifted its red twigs near them. Sylvia
looked down at it, hesitating how to express her utter denial of any
liking for the hilarious young man. Jerry misunderstood her pause and
cried out: "Good God! Sylvia! Don't say you _do._"
Sylvia's heart gave a frightened leap. "Oh no--no--not a bit!" she
said hastily, looking longingly across the pond at the group around
the fire. Jerry caught his breath with a gasp and gripped her hands
hard. "It makes me crazy to see you look at another fellow," he said.
He forced her eyes to meet his. "Sylvia--you know--you know what I
Yes, Sylvia knew what he meant. Her very white face showed that. The
young man went on, pressing, masterful, confident, towering over her:
"It's idiotic to speak of it now, out here--with all these people
around--but it just _got_ me to see you with that--I wasn't sure how I
felt about you till I saw how I felt when you seemed so friendly
with him, when you got off the car together. Then I knew. It made me
crazy--I _wanted_ you!"
Sylvia had not been able once to look away from him since he began to
speak. Her mouth was a little open in her white face, her eyes fixed
with a painful intensity on his. He moistened his lips with his
tongue. "Sylvia--_it's all right_--isn't it?"
With no change of expression in her strained face, Sylvia nodded. As
suddenly and apparently as automatically she took a backward step.
The young man made a great stride towards her--there was a sound of
quick strokes on the ice and--"BOO!" shouted the hilarious young man,
bursting between them at railroad speed. He executed a marvelous
pirouette and returned instantly, calling out, "Less spooning in
the corners if you please--or if it's got to be, let me in!" He
was followed closely by a string of young men and girls, playing
snap-the-whip. They "snapped" just as they reached Jerry. The end girl
flew off and bumped, screaming with joy, into Jerry's arms. He looked
furiously over her head towards Sylvia, but she had been enveloped in
a ring and was being conveyed away to the accompaniment of the usual
squeals and shouts. The Colonel had come down to take them all back,
she was informed, and was waiting for them with the sleigh.
AS A BIRD OUT OF A SNARE
Sylvia dressed for dinner literally like one in a dream. Outwardly she
was so calm that she thought she was so inwardly. It was nothing like
so exciting as people said, to get engaged, she thought as she brushed
out her hair and put it up in a big, gleaming knot. Here she had been
engaged for a whole hour and a half, and was getting calmer every
minute, instead of the reverse. She astonished herself by the lucidity
of her brain, although it only worked by snatches--there being lacunae
when she could not have told what she was doing. And yet, as she had
approached the house, sitting again beside the Colonel, she had looked
with a new thrill of interest at its imposing battlemented facade. The
great hall had seemed familiar to her already as she stepped across
it on her way to the stairs, her feet had pressed the rugs with
assurance, she had been able to be quite nonchalant about refusing the
services of the maid who offered to help her dress.
It was true that from time to time she suddenly flushed or paled; it
was true that her mind seemed incapable of the slightest consecutive
thought; it was true that she seemed to be in a dream, peopled by
crazily inconsequent images--she had again and again a vision,
startlingly vivid, of the red-twigged osier beside which she had
stood; it was true that she had a slight feeling of vertigo when she
tried to think ahead of the next moment--but still she was going ahead
with her unpacking and dressing so steadily that she marveled. She
decided again from the depth of her experience that getting engaged
was nothing like so upsetting an event as people made out. She thrust
the last pin into her hair and tipped her head preeningly before the
big triplicate mirror--the first time she had ever encountered this
luxury outside of a ready-made clothes shop. The yellow chiffon
came out from the trunk in perfect condition, looking like a big,
silk-petaled flower as she slipped it on over her bare shoulders, and
emerged above, triumphant and yet half afraid to look at herself in
the mirror lest she should see that her home-made toilet had not "the
right look." One glance satisfied even her jealous eagerness. It had
exactly the right look--that is, it looked precisely like the picture
from which she had copied it. She gazed with naive satisfaction at the
faithfulness with which her reflected appearance resembled that of the
Parisian demi-mondaine whose photograph she had seen, and settled
on her slim, delicately modeled shoulders the straps of shirred and
beaded chiffon which apparently performed the office of keeping her
dress from sliding to the floor. In reality, under its fluid, gauzy
draperies, it was constructed on a firm, well-fitting, well-fastened
foundation of opaque cloth which quite adequately clothed the young
body, but its appearance was of a transparent cloud, only kept from
floating entirely away by those gleaming straps on the shoulders, an
effect carefully calculated in the original model, and inimitably
caught by Sylvia's innocent fingers.
She turned herself about, artlessly surprised to see that her neck and
shoulders looked quite like those of the women in the fashion-plates
and the magazine illustrations. She looked at the clock. It was early
yet. She reflected that she never _could_ take the time other girls
did in dressing. She wondered what they did. What could one do, after
one's bath was taken, one's hair done, and one's gown donned--oh, of
course, powder! She applied it liberally, and then wiped away every
grain, that being what she had seen older girls do in the Gymnasium
dressing-room. Then with a last survey of her face, unaltered by the
ceremonial with the powder-puff, she stepped to the door.
But there, with her hand on the knob, she was halted by an
inexplicable hesitation about opening the door and showing herself.
She looked down at her bare shoulders and bosom, and faintly blushed.
It was really very, very low, far lower than any dress she had ever
worn! And the fact that Eleanor Hubert, that all the "swell" girls
wore theirs low, did not for the moment suffice her--it was somehow
different--their showing their shoulders and her showing her own.
She could not turn the knob and stood, irresolute, frowning vaguely,
though not very deeply disquieted. Finally she compromised by taking
up a pretty spangled scarf Aunt Victoria had sent her, wrapping it
about her like a shawl, in which quaint garb she went out in more
confidence, and walked down the hall to the stairway. Half-way down
she met Colonel Fiske just coming up to dress. Seeing one of his young
guests arrayed for the evening he made her his compliments, the first
words rather absent and perfunctory. But when he was aware which guest
she was, he warmed into a pressing and personal note, as his practised
eyes took in the beauty, tonight startlingly enhanced by excitement,
of the girl's dark, shining eyes, flushed cheeks, and white neck and
arms. He ended by lifting her hand, in his florid way, and pressing
it to his white mustache for a very fervent kiss. Sylvia blushed
prettily, meeting his hot old eyes with a dewy unconsciousness,
and smiling frankly up into the deeply lined carnal face with the
simple-hearted pleasure she would have felt at the kind word of any
elderly man. The Colonel seemed quite old to her--much older than her
father--like Professor Kennedy.
"Jerry's in the library, waiting," his father announced with a sly
laugh. "I wondered at the young rascal's being dressed so far ahead of
time." He turned reluctantly and went on up the stairs, leaving Sylvia
to go forward to her first meeting alone with the man she had promised
to marry. As she descended the long flight of stairs, her scarf,
loosened by her movement, slipped unobserved in her excitement and
hung lightly about her shoulders.
The door to the library was shut. She opened it with a rapidly beating
heart and stood on the threshold, shyly hesitating to advance further,
looking with agitation at the stalwart, handsome, well-groomed figure
which stood in an attitude of impatient expectation by the window.
Except for the light which came in from the electric bulb on the porch
outside, the big room was in twilight. In the brilliantly lighted
door-opening, she stood revealed as by a searchlight.
At the sound of the opening door, and his name spoken in a quavering
voice, the young man turned, paused an instant as if blinded by the
vision, and sprang forward. The door behind Sylvia swung shut, and her
eyes, widening in the dusk, saw only the headlong, overwhelming rush
upon her of her lover. She was enfolded strongly in muscular arms,
she was pressed closer and yet closer to a powerful body, whose heat
burned through the thin broadcloth, she was breathless, stunned,
choked. As the man bent forward over her, clasping her to him, her
flexible spine bent and her head drooped backward, her face with its
flush all gone, gleaming white in the dusk. At this he rained kisses
on it, on her eyes, hair, cheeks, mouth, the burning softness of his
full lips seeming to leave a smear on her skin where they pressed it.
Still holding her with one arm, pressed to him as though the two young
bodies were gripped together by a vice, he loosened the other arm and
thrust it at the back of her dress, through the flimsy gauze of her
scarf, down next her body. His stiff cuff caught on the edge of her
dress, and his sleeve slid up--it was his bare arm against her naked
flesh. He gave a savage, smothered, gasping exclamation, pressed his
fingers deeply into her side, still kissing her passionately, her
neck, her shoulders, burying his hot face in her bosom.
It was the girl's body which acted, since at the first instant of the
whirlwind which had broken over her, her mind had been shocked into
a swooning paralysis. Only her strong, sound body, hardened by work,
fortified by outdoor exercise, was ready in its every fiber for this
moment. Her body bent suddenly like a spring of fine steel, its
strength momentarily more than a match for his, and thrust the man
from her with staggering violence. Her reaction from him was as
physical a sensation as though she had bitten into a tempting fruit
and found it not sweet--not even bitter--but nasty. She sickened at
the sight of him.
As he caught his balance, laughing a little but not at all
good-naturedly, and started back towards her with a dangerous dark
face of excited anger and desire, his headlong rush was checked an
instant by the fierce eyes which flamed at him from her crimson face.
Even her neck and shoulders were now scarlet. She held him off for the
space of a breath, giving one deep exclamation, "_Oh_!" short, sharply
exhaled, almost like a blow in his face.
But his blood was up as well as hers, and after his momentary pause,
he rushed forward again, his handsome, blond face black with passion.
Sylvia stooped, gathered up her skirts, turned, burst open the door,
and fled out of the room, running in her high-heeled satin slippers as
she did on the track in the Gymnasium, with long, deer-like bounds. In
a flash she had crossed the wide hall--which was as it happened empty,
although she would not have slackened her pace for all the assembled
company--and was darting arrow-like up the stairs, her torn scarf
flying behind her like a banner. Her flight had been so unexpected
and so swift that young Fiske did not attempt to follow her; but she
reached her room, flung the door shut, and locked it with as much
precipitancy as though he were on her heels, instead of standing quite
still, open-mouthed, where she had left him.
The sharp crack of her slamming door, loud in the quiet house, broke
the spell which held him. His mouth shut, and his clenched hands
loosened from their fierce tension. He took an aimless step and drew a
long breath. A moment later, quite automatically, he fumbled for his
cigarette-case, and finding it, took out a cigarette and lighted it
with fingers that were not steady. The familiar action and the first
puff of smoke affected him like emerging from a turmoil of darkness
into the quiet and order of a well-lighted room. "Well, may I be
damned!" he said to himself with the beginning of a return of his
usual assurance--"the damn little spitfire!"
He walked about the room, puffing vigorously, feeling with relief his
blood resume its usual rate of circulation. His head seemed to clear
of a thick vapor. The startling recollection of the anger in his
fiancee's eyes was fading rapidly from his mind. Now he only saw her,
blushing, recoiling, fleeing--he laughed out a little, this time not
angrily, but with relish. "Ain't she the firebrand!" he said aloud. He
found his desire for her a hundredfold enhanced and stood still, his
eyes very lustrous, feeling again in imagination the warm softness of
her bosom under his lips. "Gee!" he exclaimed, turning restlessly in
his pacing walk.
He was aware that some one in the room moved. "Jermain," said his
stepmother's faint voice. He looked at her smiling. "Hello, Momma," he
said good-naturedly, "when did _you_ gum-shoe in?"
"Oh, just now," she told him, giving him an assurance which he
doubted, and which he would not have valued had he known it to
be true. He was perfectly indifferent as to the chance that this
negligible person might have been a spectator to the scene between the
son of the house and a guest. If she said anything about it, he meant
to give the all-sufficing explanation that he and Miss Marshall had
just become engaged. This would of course, it seemed self-evident to
him, make it all right.
But Mrs. Fiske did not make any remark calling forth that information.
She only said, in her usual listless manner, "Your sleeve is shoved
He glanced down in surprise, realizing how excited he must be not to
have noticed that before, and remained for a moment silent, looking at
the splendidly muscular white arm, and the large well-manicured
hand. He was feeling in every nerve the reminiscence of the yielding
firmness of Sylvia's flesh, bare against his own. The color came up
flamingly into his face again. He moistened his lips with his tongue.
"Jesus _Christ_!" he exclaimed, contemptuously careless of his
listener, "I'm wild in love with that girl!" He pulled his sleeve down
with a quick, vigorous gesture, deftly shot the cuff out beyond the
black broadcloth, and, the picture of handsome, well-groomed youth in
easy circumstances, turned again to his father's wife. "What you in
here _for_, anyhow?" he asked still with his light absence of concern
about anything she did or did not do.
She hesitated, looking about the room. "I thought Miss Marshall would
be here. She promised to come down early to write the names on the
place-cards. I thought I heard her voice."
"You did," he told her. "She came down early all right--but she went
back again." He laughed, tossed his cigarette-end in the fireplace,
and vouchsafing no more explanation, strolled into the billiard-room,
and began to knock the balls about, whistling a recent dance tune with
great precision and vivacity. He was anticipating with quickened blood
the next meeting with Sylvia. As he thrust at the gleaming balls, his
mouth smiled and his eyes burned.
Mrs. Fiske went upstairs and knocked at Sylvia's door. There was a
rush of quick footsteps and the girl asked from the other side in a
muffled voice, "Who is it?" Mrs. Fiske gave her name, and added, in
answer to another question, that she was alone. The door opened enough
for her to enter, and closed quickly after her. She looked about the
disordered room, saw the open trunk, the filmy cascade of yellow
chiffon half on and half off the bed, the torn and crumpled spangled
scarf, and Sylvia herself, her hastily donned kimono clutched about
her with tense hands.
The mistress of the house made no comment on this scene, looking at
Sylvia with dull, faded eyes in which there was no life, not even the
flicker of an inquiry. But Sylvia began in a nervous voice to attempt
an explanation: "Oh, Mrs. Fiske--I--you'll have to excuse me--I must
go home at once--I--I was just packing. I thought--if I hurried I
could make the eight-o'clock trolley back to La Chance, and you could
send my trunk after me." Her every faculty was so concentrated on the
single idea of flight--flight back to the safety of home, that she did
not think of the necessity of making an excuse, giving a reason for
her action. It seemed that it must be self-evident to the universe
that she could not stay another hour in that house.
Mrs. Fiske nodded. "Yes, I'll send your trunk after you," she said.
She drew a long breath, almost audible, and looked down at the fire on
the hearth. Sylvia came up close to her, looking into her lusterless
eyes with deep entreaty. "And, Mrs. Fiske, _would_ you mind not
telling any one I'm going, until I'm gone--_nobody_ at all! It's
because--I--you could say I didn't feel well enough to come down to
dinner. I--if you--and say I don't want any dinner up here either!"
"Won't you be afraid to go down through the grounds to the trolley
alone, at night?" asked Mrs. Fiske, without looking at her.
"Everybody will be at dinner, won't they?" asked Sylvia.
Mrs. Fiske nodded, her eyes on the floor.
Upon which, "Oh no, I won't be afraid!" cried Sylvia.
Her hostess turned to the door. "Well, I won't tell them if you don't
want me to," she said. She went out, without another word, closing the
door behind her. Sylvia locked it, and went on with her wild packing.
When she came to the yellow chiffon she rolled it up tightly and
jammed it into a corner of her trunk; but the instant afterward she
snatched it out and thrust it fiercely into the fire. The light fabric
caught at once, the flames leaped up, filling the room with a roaring
heat and flare, which almost as quickly died down to blackened
Sylvia faced that instant of red glare with a grimly set jaw and a
deeply flushed face. It did not look at all like her own face.
At a quarter of eight the room was cleared, the trunk strapped and
locked, and Sylvia stood dressed for the street, gloved, veiled, and
furred. Under her veil her face showed still very flushed. She took up
her small handbag and her umbrella and opened the door with caution.
A faint clatter of dishes and a hum of laughing talk came up to her
ears. Dinner was evidently in full swing. She stepped out and went
noiselessly down the stairs. On the bottom step, close to the
dining-room door, her umbrella-tip caught in the balustrade and fell
with a loud clatter on the bare polished floor of the hall. Sylvia
shrank into herself and waited an instant with suspended breath for
the pause in the chatter and laughter which it seemed must follow. The
moment was forever connected in her mind with the smell of delicate
food, and fading flowers, and human beings well-washed and perfumed,
which floated out to her from the dining-room. She looked about her at
the luxuriously furnished great hall, and hated every inch of it.
If the noise was heard, it evidently passed for something dropped by a
servant, for Colonel Fiske, who was telling a humorous story, went on,
his recital punctuated by bass and treble anticipatory laughter from
his auditors: "--and when he called her upon the 'phone the next day
to ask her about it, she said _she_ didn't know he'd been there at
all!" A roar of appreciation greeted this recondite climax, under
cover of which Sylvia opened the front door and shut it behind her.
The pure coldness of the winter night struck sharply and gratefully on
her senses after the warmth and indoor odors of the house. She sprang
forward along the porch and down the steps, distending her nostrils
and filling her lungs again and again. These long deep breaths seemed
to her like the renewal of life.
As her foot grated on the gravel of the driveway she heard a stealthy
sound back of her, at which her heart leaped up and stood still. The
front door of the house had opened very quietly and shut again. She
looked over her shoulder fearfully, preparing to race down the road,
but seeing only Mrs. Fiske's tall, stooping figure, stopped and turned
expectantly. The older woman came down the steps towards the fugitive,
apparently unaware of the biting winter wind on her bared shoulders.
Quite at a loss, and suspiciously on her guard, Sylvia waited for her,
searching the blurred pale face with impatient inquiry.
"I--I thought I'd walk with you a little ways," said the other,
looking down at her guest.
"Oh no! _Don't_!" pleaded Sylvia in despair lest some one notice her
hostess' absence. "You'll take a dreadful cold! With no wraps on--_do_
go back! I'm not a bit afraid!"
The other looked at her with a smoldering flush rising through the
ashes of her gray face. "It wasn't that--I didn't suppose you'd
be afraid--I--I just thought I'd like to go a ways with you,"
she repeated, bringing out the words confusedly and with obvious
difficulty. "_I_ won't make you late," she added, as if guessing the
girl's thoughts. She put a thin hand on Sylvia's arm and drew her
rapidly along the driveway. For a moment they walked in silence. Then,
"How soon will you reach home?" she asked.
"Oh, about a quarter to ten--the Interurban gets into La Chance
at nine-fifteen, and it's about half an hour across town on the
Washington Street trolley."
"In less than two hours!" cried Mrs. Fiske wildly. "In less than two
Seeing no cause for wonder in her statement, and not welcoming at
all this unsought escort, Sylvia made no answer. There was another
silence, and then, looking in the starlight at her companion, the girl
saw with consternation that the quiet tears were running down her
cheeks. She stopped short, "Oh ... _oh_!" she cried. She caught up the
other's hand in a bewildered surprise. She had not the faintest idea
what could cause her hostess' emotion. She was horribly afraid she
would lose the trolley. Her face painted vividly her agitation and her
Mrs. Fiske drew back her hand and wiped her eyes with her palm. "Well,
I must be going back," she said. She looked dimly at the girl's face,
and suddenly threw her arms about Sylvia's neck, clinging to her. She
murmured incoherent words, the only ones which Sylvia could make out
being, "I can't--I can't--I _can't!_"
What it was she could not do, remained an impenetrable mystery to
Sylvia, for at that moment she turned away quickly, and went back up
the driveway, her face in her hands. Sylvia hesitated, penetrated,
in spite of her absorption in her own affairs, by a vague pity, but
hearing in the distance the clang of the trolley-car's bell, she
herself turned and ran desperately down the driveway. She reached the
public road just in time to stop the heavy car, and to swing herself
lightly on, to all appearances merely a rather unusually well-set-up,
fashionably dressed young lady, presenting to the heterogeneous
indifference of the other passengers in the car even a more
ostentatiously abstracted air than is the accepted attitude for young
ladies traveling alone. One or two of her fellow voyagers wondered at
the deep flush on her face, but forgot it the next moment. It was a
stain which was not entirely to fade from Sylvia's face and body for
many days to come.
"BLOW, WIND; SWELL, BILLOW; AND SWIM, BARK!"
She reached home, as she had thought, before ten o'clock, her
unexpected arrival occasioning the usual flurry of exclamation and
question not to be suppressed even by the most self-contained family
with a fixed desire to let its members alone, and a firm tradition of
not interfering in their private affairs. Judith had come home before
her father and now looked up from her game of checkers with wondering
eyes. Sylvia explained that she was not sick, and that nothing had
happened to break up or disturb the house-party. "I just _felt_ like
coming home, that's all!" she said irritably, touched on the raw by
the friendly loving eyes and voices about her. She was glad at least
that her father was not at home. That was one less to look at her.
"Well, get along to bed with you!" said her mother, in answer to her
impatient explanation. "And, you children--keep still! Don't bother
Sylvia crept upstairs into the whiteness of her own slant-ceilinged
room, and without lighting a lamp sat down on the bed. Her knees shook
under her. She made no move to take off her furs or hat. She felt no
emotion, only a leaden fatigue and lameness as though she had been
beaten. Her mother, coming in five minutes later with a lighted lamp
and a cup of hot chocolate, made no comment at finding her still
sitting, fully dressed in the dark. She set the lamp down, and with
swift deftness slipped out hatpins, unhooked furs, unbuttoned and
unlaced and loosened, until Sylvia woke from her lethargy and quickly
completed the process, slipping on her nightgown and getting into bed.
Not a word had been exchanged. Mrs. Marshall brought the cup of hot
chocolate and Sylvia drank it as though she were a little girl again.
Her mother kissed her good-night, drew the blankets a little more
snugly over her, opened two windows wide, took away the lamp, and shut
Sylvia, warmed and fed by the chocolate, lay stretched at full length
in the bed, breathing in the fresh air which rushed across her face
from the windows, feeling herself in a white beatitude of safety and
peace. Especially did she feel grateful to her mother. "Isn't Mother
_great_!" she said to herself. Everything that had passed seemed like
a confusing dream to her, so dreadful, so terrifying that she was
amazed to feel herself, in spite of it, overcome with drowsiness. Now
the roles were reversed. It was her brain that was active, racing and
shuddering from one frightening mental picture to another, while her
body, young, sound, healthful, fell deeper and deeper into torpor,
dragging the quivering mind down to healing depths of oblivion. The
cold, pure air blew so strongly in her face that she closed her eyes.
When she opened them again the sun was shining.
She started up nervously, still under the influence of a vivid
dream--strange.... Then as she blinked and rubbed her eyes she saw her
mother standing by the bed, with a pale, composed face.
"It's nine o'clock, Sylvia," she said, "and Mr. Fiske is downstairs,
asking to see you. He tells me that you and he are engaged to be
Sylvia was instantly wide awake. "Oh no! Oh no!" she said
passionately. "No, we're not! I won't be! I won't see him!" She
looked about her wildly, and added, "I'll write him that--just wait a
minute." She sprang out of bed, caught up a pad of paper, and wrote
hastily: "It was all a mistake--I don't care for you at all--not a
bit! I hope I shall never have to speak to you again." "There," she
said, thrusting it into her mother's hands. She stood for a moment,
shivering in her thin nightgown in the icy draught, and then jumped
back into bed again.
Her mother came back in a few moments, closed the windows, and opened
the register. There was not in her silence or in a line of her quiet
presence the faintest hint of curiosity about Sylvia's actions.
She had always maintained in theory, and now at this crisis with
characteristic firmness of purpose acted upon her theory, that
absolutely unforced confidence was the only kind worth having, and
that moreover, unless some help was necessary, it might be as well for
the younger generation early to acquire the strengthening capacity to
keep its own intimate experiences to the privacy of its own soul,
and learn to digest them and feed upon them without the dubiously
peptonizing aid of blundering adult counsel. Sylvia watched her mother
with wondering gratitude. She wasn't going to ask! She was going to
let Sylvia shut that ghastly recollection into the dark once for
all. She wasn't going by a look or a gesture to force her helplessly
responsive child to give, by words, weight and substance to a black,
shapeless horror from which Sylvia with a vivid impulse of sanity
averted her eyes.
She got out of bed and put her arms around her mother's neck. "Say,
Mother, you are _great_!" she said in an unsteady voice. Mrs. Marshall
patted her on the back.
"You'd better go and take your bath, and have your breakfast," she
said calmly. "Judith and Lawrence have gone skating."
When Sylvia, tingling with the tonic shock of cold water and rough
toweling, and rosy in her old blue sailor-suit, came downstairs, she
found her mother frying pancakes for her in the kitchen blue with
smoke from the hot fat. She was touched, almost shocked by this
strange lapse from the tradition of self-help of the house, and said
with rough self-accusation: "My goodness! The idea of _your_ waiting
on _me_!" She snatched away the handle of the frying-pan and turned
the cakes deftly. Then, on a sudden impulse, she spoke to her mother,
standing by the sink. "I came back because I found I didn't like Jerry
Fiske as much as I thought I did. I found I didn't like him at all,"
she said, her eyes on the frying-pan.
At this announcement her mother's face showed pale, and for an instant
tremulous through the smoke. She did not speak until Sylvia lifted
the cakes from the pan and piled them on a plate. At this signal of
departure into the dining-room she commented, "Well, I won't pretend
that I'm not very glad."
Sylvia flushed a little and looked towards her silently. She had a
partial, momentary vision of what the past two months must have been
to her mother. The tears stood in her eyes. "Say, Mother dear," she
said in a quavering voice that tried to be light, "why don't you eat
some of these cakes to keep me company? It's 'most ten. You must have
had breakfast three hours ago. It'd be fun! I can't begin to eat all
"Well, I don't care if I do," answered Mrs. Marshall. Sylvia laughed
at the turn of her phrase and went into the dining-room. Mrs. Marshall
followed in a moment with a cup of hot chocolate and buttered toast.
Sylvia pulled her down and kissed her. "You'd prescribe hot chocolate
for anything from getting religion to a broken leg!" she said,
laughing. Her voice shook and her laugh ended in a half-sob.
"No--oh no!" returned her mother quaintly. "Sometimes hot milk is
better. Here, where is my share of those cakes?" She helped herself,
went around the table, and sat down. "Cousin Parnelia was here
this morning," she went on. "Poor old idiot, she was certain that
planchette would tell who it was that stole our chickens. I told her
to go ahead--but planchette wouldn't write. Cousin Parnelia laid it to
the blighting atmosphere of skepticism of this house."
Sylvia laughed again. Alone in the quiet house with her mother,
refreshed by sleep, aroused by her bath, safe, sheltered, secure, she
tried desperately not to think of the events of the day before. But in
spite of herself they came back to her in jagged flashes--above all,
the handsome blond face darkened by passion. She shivered repeatedly,
her voice was quite beyond her control, and once or twice her hands
trembled so that she laid down her knife and fork. She was silent
and talkative by turns--a phenomenon of which Mrs. Marshall took no
outward notice, although when the meal was finished she sent her
daughter out into the piercing December air with the command to
walk six miles before coming in. Sylvia recoiled at the prospect of
solitude. "Oh, I'd rather go and skate with Judy and Larry!" she
"Well, if you skate hard enough," her mother conceded.
* * * * *
The day after her return Sylvia had a long letter from Jermain Fiske,
a letter half apologetic, half aggrieved, passionately incredulous of
the seriousness of the break between them, and wholly unreconciled to
it. The upshot of his missive was that he was sorry if he had done
anything to offend her, but might he be everlastingly confounded if
he thought she had the slightest ground for complaint! Everything had
been going on so swimmingly--his father had taken the greatest notion
to her--had said (the very evening she'd cut and run that queer way)
that if he married that rippingly pretty Marshall girl he could have
the house and estate at Mercerton and enough to run it on, and could
practise as much or as little law as he pleased and go at once into
politics--and now she had gone and acted so--what in the world was
the matter with her--weren't they engaged to be married--couldn't an
engaged man kiss his girl--had he ever been anything but too polite
for words to her before she had promised to marry him--and what
_about_ that promise anyhow? His father had picked out the prettiest
little mare in the stables to give her when the engagement should be
announced--the Colonel was as much at a loss as he to make her out--if
the trouble was that she didn't want to live in Mercerton, he was sure
the Colonel would fix it up for them to go direct to Washington, where
with his father's connection she could imagine what an opening they'd
have! And above all he was crazy about her--he really was! He'd never
had any idea what it was to be in love before--he hadn't slept a wink
the night she'd gone away--just tossed on his bed and thought of her
and longed to have her in his arms again--Sylvia suddenly tore the
letter in two and cast it into the fire, breathing hard. In answer she
wrote, "It makes me sick to think of you!"
She could not endure the idea of "talking over" the experience with
any one, and struggled to keep it out of her mind, but her resolution
to keep silence was broken by Mrs. Draper, who was informed,
presumably by Jermain himself, of the circumstances, and encountering
Sylvia in the street waited for no invitation to confidence by the
girl, but pounced upon her with laughing reproach and insidiously
friendly ridicule. Sylvia, helpless before the graceful assurance of
her friend, heard that she was a silly little unawakened schoolgirl
who was throwing away a brilliantly happy and successful life for the
queerest and funniest of ignorant notions. "What did you suppose, you
baby? You wouldn't have him marry you unless he was in love with you,
would you? Why do you suppose a man _wants_ to marry a woman? Did you
suppose that men in love carry their sweethearts around wrapped in
cotton-wool? You're a woman now, you ought to welcome life--rich,
full-blooded life--not take this chilly, suspicious attitude toward
it! Why, Sylvia, I thought you were a big, splendid, vital, fearless
modern girl--and here you are acting like a little, thin-blooded New
England old maid. How can you blame Jerry? He was engaged to you. What
do you think marriage _is_? Oh, Sylvia, just think what your life
would be in Washington with your beauty and charm!"
This dexterously aimed attack penetrated Sylvia's armor at a dozen
joints. She winced visibly, and hung her head, considering profoundly.
She found that she had nothing to oppose to the other's arguments.
Mrs. Draper walked beside her in a silence as dexterous as her
exhortation, her hand affectionately thrust through Sylvia's arm.
Finally, Sylvia's ponderings continuing so long that they were
approaching the Marshall house, in sight of which she had no mind to
appear, she gave Sylvia's arm a little pat, and stood still. She said
cheerfully, in a tone which seemed to minimize the whole affair into
the smallest of passing incidents: "Now, you queer darling, don't
stand so in your own light! A word would bring Jerry back to you
now--but I won't say it will always. I don't suppose you've ever
considered, in your young selfishness, how cruelly you have hurt his
feelings! He was awfully sore when I saw him. And Eleanor Hubert is
right on the spot with Mamma Hubert in the background to push."
Sylvia broke her silence to say in a low tone, blushing scarlet, "He
Mrs. Draper dropped her light tone and said earnestly: "Dear little
ignorant Sylvia--you don't recognize life when you see it. That's the
way men are--all men--and there's no use thinking it horrid unless
you're going into a convent. It's not so bad either,--once you get the
hang of managing it--it's a hold on them. It's a force, like any other
force of nature that you can either rebel against, or turn to your
account and make serviceable, if you'll only accept it and not try to
quarrel with water for running downhill. As long as she herself isn't
carried away by it, it's a weapon in the hand of a clever woman. Only
the stupid women get hurt by it--the silly ones who can't keep their
heads. And after all, my dear, it _is_ a force of nature--and you're
too intelligent not to know that there's no use fighting against that.
It's just idiotic and puritanic to revolt from it--and doesn't do any
good besides!" She looked keenly into Sylvia's downcast, troubled
face, and judged it a propitious moment for leaving her. "_Good_-bye,
darling," she said, with a final pat on the shoulder.
Sylvia walked slowly into the house, her heart like lead. Her food had
no savor to her. She did not know what she was eating, nor what her
mother, the only one at home for lunch, was saying to her. As a matter
of fact Mrs. Marshall said very little, even less than was her custom.
Her face had the look of terrible, patient endurance it had worn
during the time when Lawrence had had pneumonia, and his life had hung
in the balance for two days; but she went quietly about her usual
After the meal was over, Sylvia continued to sit alone at the table,
staring palely down at the tablecloth, her mind full of Mrs. Draper's
illuminating comments on life, which had gone through her entire
system like a dexterously administered drug. And yet that ingenious
lady would have been surprised to know how entirely her attack had
failed in the one point which seemed to her important, the possibility
of a reconciliation between Sylvia and Jermain. The girl was deeply
under the impression made by the philosophy of the older woman; she
did not for the moment dream of denying its truth; but she stood
granite in a perfectly illogical denial of its implications in her own
case. She did not consciously revolt against the suggestion that she
renew her relations to Jerry Fiske, because with a united action of
all her faculties she refused utterly to consider it for an instant.
She would no more have been persuaded to see Jerry again, by a
consideration of the material advantages to be gained, than she could
have been persuaded to throw herself down from the housetop. That
much was settled, not by any coherent effort of her brain, but by a
co-ordination of every instinct in her, by the action of her whole
being, by what her life had made her.
But that certainty brought her small comfort in the blackness of the
hour. What hideous world was this in which she had walked unawares
until now! Mrs. Draper's jaunty, bright acceptance of it affected her
to moral nausea. All the well-chosen words of her sophisticated friend
were imbedded in the tissue of her brain like grains of sand in an
eyeball. She could not see for very pain. And yet her inward vision
was lurid with the beginning of understanding of the meaning of those
words, lighted up as they were by her experience of the day before,
now swollen in her distraught mind to the proportions of a nightmare:
"It's a weapon in the hand of a clever woman--it's not so bad once
you get the hang of managing it--it's a hold on men--" Sylvia turned
whiter and whiter at the glimpse she had had of what was meant by
Mrs. Draper's lightly evasive "it"; a comprehension of which all her
"advanced" reading and study had left her mind as blankly ignorant as
a little child's. Now it was vain to try to shut her thoughts away
from Jermain. She lived over and over the scene with him, she endured
with desperate passivity the recollection of his burning lips on her
bosom, his fingers pressing into her side. Why not, if every man was
like that as soon as he dared? Why not, if that was all that men
wanted of women? Why not, if that was the sole ghastly reality which
underlay the pretty-smooth surface of life?
And beyond this bleak prospect, which filled her with dreary horror,
there rose glimpsed vistas which sent the shamed blood up to her face
in a flood--if every man was like that, why, so were the men she had
known and loved and trusted; old Reinhardt, who seemed so simple,
what had been his thoughts when he used years ago to take her on his
knee--what were his thoughts now when he bent over her to correct her
mistakes on the piano?
The expression of Colonel Fiske's eyes, as he had complimented her,
brought her to her feet with a shudder--but Colonel Fiske was an old,
old man--as old as Professor Kennedy--
Why, perhaps Professor Kennedy--perhaps--she flung out her
arms--perhaps her father--
She ran to the piano as to a refuge, meaning to drown out these
maddening speculations, which were by this time tinctured with
insanity; but the first chords she struck jarred on her ear like a
discordant scream. She turned away and stood looking at the floor with
a darkening face, one hand at her temple.
* * * * *
Her mother, darning stockings by the window, suddenly laid down her
work and said: "Sylvia, how would you like to walk with me over to the
Martins' to see if they have any eggs? Our hens have absolutely gone
back on us."
Sylvia did not welcome this idea at all, feeling as overwhelming an
aversion to companionship as to solitude, but she could think of no
excuse, and in an ungracious silence put on her wraps and joined her
mother, ready on the porch, the basket in her mittened hand.
Mrs. Marshall's pace was always swift, and on that crisp, cold, sunny
day, with the wind sweeping free over the great open spaces of the
plain about them, she walked even more rapidly than usual. Not a word
was spoken. Sylvia, quite as tall as her mother now, and as vigorous,
stepped beside her, not noticing their pace, nor the tingling of the
swift blood in her feet and hands. Her fresh young face was set in
The Martins' house was about six miles from the Marshalls'. It was
reached, the eggs procured, and the return begun. Still not a word had
been exchanged between the two women. Mrs. Marshall would have been
easily capable, under the most ordinary circumstances, of this long
self-contained silence, but it had worked upon Sylvia like a sojourn
in the dim recesses of a church. She felt moved, stirred, shaken. But
it was not until the brief winter sun was beginning to set red
across the open reaches of field and meadow that her poisoned heart
overflowed. "Oh, Mother--!" she exclaimed in an unhappy tone, and said
no more. She knew no words to phrase what was in her mind.
"Yes, dear," said her mother gently. She looked at her daughter
anxiously, expectantly, with a passion of yearning in her eyes, but
she said no more than those two words.
There was a silence. Sylvia was struggling for expression. They
continued to walk swiftly through the cold, ruddy, sunset air, the
hard-frozen road ringing beneath their rapid advance. Sylvia clasped
her hands together hard in her muff. She felt that something in her
heart was dying, was suffocating for lack of air, and yet that it
would die if she brought it to light. She could find no words at all
to ask for help, agonizing in a shy reticence impossible for an adult
to conceive. Finally, beginning at random, very hurriedly, looking
away, she brought out, faltering, "Mother, _is_ it true that all men
are--that when a girl marries she must expect to--aren't there _any_
men who--" She stopped, burying her burning face in her muff.
Her words, her tone, the quaver of desperate sincerity in her accent,
brought her mother up short. She stopped abruptly and faced the girl.
"Sylvia, look at me!" she said in a commanding voice which rang loud
in the frosty silences about them. Sylvia started and looked into her
mother's face. It was moved so darkly and so deeply from its usual
serene composure that she would have recoiled in fear, had she not
been seized upon and held motionless by the other's compelling eyes.
"Sylvia," said her mother, in a strong, clear voice, acutely
contrasted to Sylvia's muffled tones, "Sylvia, it's a lie that men
are nothing but sensual! There's nothing in marriage that a good girl
honestly in love with a good man need fear."
"But--but--" began Sylvia, startled out of her shyness.
Her mother cut her short. "Anything that's felt by decent men in love
is felt just as truly, though maybe not always so strongly, by women
in love. And if a woman doesn't feel that answer in her heart to what
he feels--why, he's no mate for her. Anything's better for her than
going on. And, Sylvia, you mustn't get the wrong idea. Sensual feeling
isn't bad in itself. It's in the world because we have bodies as well
as minds--it's like the root of a plant. But it oughtn't to be a very
big part of the plant. And it must be the root of the woman's feeling
as well as the man's, or everything's all wrong."
"But how can you _tell_!" burst out Sylvia.
"You can tell by the way you feel, if you don't lie to yourself, or
let things like money or social position count. If an honest
girl shrinks from a man instinctively, there's something not
right--sensuality is too big a part of what the man feels for her--and
look here, Sylvia, that's not always the man's fault. Women don't
realize as they ought how base it is to try to attract men by their
bodies," she made her position clear with relentless precision, "when
they wear very low-necked dresses, for instance--" At this chance
thrust, a wave of scarlet burst up suddenly over Sylvia's face, but
she could not withdraw her eyes from her mother's searching, honest
gaze, which, even more than her words, spoke to the girl's soul. The
strong, grave voice went on unhesitatingly. For once in her life
Mrs. Marshall was speaking out. She was like one who welcomes the
opportunity to make a confession of faith. "There's no healthy life
possible without some sensual feeling between the husband and wife,
but there's nothing in the world more awful than married life when
it's the only common ground."
Sylvia gazed with wide eyes at the older woman's face, ardent,
compelling, inspired, feeling too deeply, to realize it wholly,
the vital and momentous character of the moment. She seemed to see
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