The Bent Twig
Part 9 out of 9
lie down. Sylvia ran after him, her long bounds bringing her up to
his side in a moment. The motion sent the blood racing through her
stiffened limbs again. She drew a long breath of liberation. As she
stepped along beside her father, peering in the starlight at his
dreadful face, half expecting him to turn and strike her at any
moment, she felt an immense relief. The noise of their feet on the
path was like a sane voice of reality. Anything was more endurable
than to stand silent and motionless and hear that screaming call lose
itself in the grimly unanswering distance.
They were on the main road now, walking so swiftly that, in the hot
summer night, Sylvia felt her forehead beaded and her light dress
cling to her moist body. She took her father's hand. It was parched
like a sick man's, the skin like a dry husk. After this, they walked
hand-in-hand. Professor Marshall continued to walk rapidly, scuffling
in his loose, unlaced shoes. They passed barns and farmhouses, the
latter sleeping, black in the starlight, with darkened windows. In
one, a poor little shack of two rooms, there was a lighted pane, and
as they passed, Sylvia heard the sick wail of a little child. The
sound pierced her heart. She longed to go in and put her arms about
the mother. Now she understood. She tightened her hold on her father's
hand and lifted it to her lips.
He suffered this with no appearance of his former anger, and soon
after Sylvia was aware that his gait was slackening. She looked at him
searchingly, and saw that he had swung from unnatural tension to spent
exhaustion. His head was hanging and as he walked he wavered. She put
her hand under his elbow and turned him about on the road. "Now we
will go home," she said, drawing his arm through hers. He made no
resistance, not seeming to know what she had done, and shuffled along
wearily, leaning all his weight on her arm. She braced herself against
this drag, and led him slowly back, wiping her face from time to time
with her sleeve. There were moments when she thought she must let him
sink on the road, but she fought through these, and as the sky was
turning faintly gray over their heads, and the implacably silent stars
were disappearing in this pale light, the two stumbled up the walk to
Professor Marshall let himself be lowered into the steamer chair.
Sylvia stood by him until she was sure he would not stir, and then
hurried into the kitchen. In a few moments she brought him a cup of
hot coffee and a piece of bread. He drank the one and ate the other
without protest She set the tray down and put a pillow under her
father's head, raising the foot-rest. He did not resist her. His head
fell back on the pillow, but his eyes did not close. They were fixed
on a distant point in the sky.
Sylvia tiptoed away into the house and sank down shivering into a
chair. A great fit of trembling and nausea came over her. She rose,
walked into the kitchen, her footsteps sounding in her ears like her
mother's. There was some coffee left, which she drank resolutely, and
she cooked an egg and forced it down, her mother's precepts loud in
her ears. Whatever else happened, she must have her body in condition
to be of use.
After this she went out to the porch again and lay down in the hammock
near her father. The dawn had brightened into gold, and the sun was
showing on the distant, level, green horizon-line.
* * * * *
It was almost the first moment of physical relaxation she had known,
and to her immense, her awed astonishment it was instantly filled with
a pure, clear brilliance, the knowledge that Austin Page lived and
loved her. It was the first, it was the only time she thought of
anything but her father, and this was not a thought, it was a vision.
In the chaos about her, a great sunlit rock had emerged. She laid hold
on it and knew that she would not sink.
* * * * *
But now, _now_ she must think of nothing but her father! There was no
one else who could help her father. Could she? Could any one?
She herself, since her prayer among the roses, cherished in her
darkened heart a hope of dawn. But how could she tell her father of
that? Even if she had been able to force him to listen to her, she had
nothing that words could say, nothing but the recollection of that
burning hour in the garden to set against the teachings of a lifetime.
That had changed life for her ... but what could it mean to her
father? How could she tell him of what was only a wordless radiance?
Her father had taught her that death meant the return of the spirit to
the great, impersonal river of life. If the spirit had been superb and
splendid, like her mother's, the river of life was the brighter for
it, but that was all. Her mother had lived, and now lived no more.
That was what they had tried to teach her to believe. That was what
her father had taught her--without, it now appeared, believing it
And yet she divined that it was not that he would not, but that he
could not now believe it. He was like a man set in a vacuum fighting
for the air without which life is impossible. And she knew no way
to break the imprisoning wall and let in air for him. _Was_ there,
indeed, any air outside? There must be, or the race could not live
from one generation to the next. Every one whose love had encountered
death must have found an air to breathe or have died.
Constantly through all these thoughts, that day and for many days and
months to come, there rang the sound of her mother's name, screamed
aloud. She heard it as though she were again standing by her father
under the stars. And there had been no answer.
She felt the tears stinging at her eyelids and sat up, terrified at
the idea that her weakness was about to overtake her. She would go
again out to the garden where she had found strength before. The
morning sun was now hot and glaring in the eastern sky.
"_A bruised reed will He not break, and a dimly burning wick will He
As she stepped down the path, she saw a battered black straw hat on
the other side of the hedge. Cousin Parnelia's worn old face and
dim eyes looked at her through the gate. Under her arm she held
planchette. Sylvia stepped through the gate and drew it inhospitably
shut back of her. "What is it, Cousin Parnelia?" she said
challengingly, determined to protect her father.
The older woman's face was all aglow. "Oh, my dear; I've had such a
wonderful message from your dear mother. Last night--"
Sylvia recoiled from the mad old creature. She could not bear to have
her sane, calm, strong mother's name on those lips. Cousin Parnelia
went on, full of confidence: "I was sound asleep last night when I
was awakened by the clock's striking two. It sounded so loud that I
thought somebody had called to me. I sat up in bed and said, 'What is
it?' and then I felt a great longing to have planchette write. I got
out of bed in my nightgown and sat down in the dark at the table.
Planchette wrote so fast that I could hardly keep up with it. And when
it stopped, I lighted a match and see ... here ... in your mother's
very handwriting"--fervently she held the bit of paper up for Sylvia
to see. The girl cast a hostile look at the paper and saw that the
writing on it was the usual scrawl produced by Cousin Parnelia, hardly
legible, and resembling anything rather than her mother's handwriting.
"Read it--read it--it is too beautiful!" quivered the other, "and then
let me show it to your father. It was meant for him--"
Sylvia shook like a roughly plucked fiddle-string. She seized the
wrinkled old hand fiercely. "Cousin Parnelia, I forbid you going
anywhere near my father! You know as well as I do how intensely he
has always detested spiritualism. To see you might be the thing that
The old woman broke in, protesting, her hat falling to one side, her
brown false front sliding with it and showing the thin, gray hairs
beneath. "But, Sylvia, this is the very thing that would save
him--such a beautiful, beautiful message from your mother,--_see_! In
her own handwriting!"
Sylvia snatched the sheet of yellow paper. "_That's_ not my mother's
handwriting! Do you think I am as crazy as _you_ are!" She tore the
paper into shreds and scattered them from her, feeling a relief in the
violence of her action. The next moment she remembered how patient her
mother had always been with her daft kinswoman and seeing tears in the
blurred old eyes, went to put placating arms about the other's neck.
"Never mind, Cousin Parnelia," she said with a vague kindness, "I know
you mean to do what's right--only we don't believe as you do, and
Father _must_ not be excited!" She turned sick as she spoke and shrank
away from the hedge, carrying her small old cousin with her. Above the
hedge appeared her father's gray face and burning eyes.
He was not looking at her, but at Cousin Parnelia, who now sprang
forward, crying that she had had a beautiful, beautiful message from
Cousin Barbara. "_It_ came last night at two o'clock ... just after
the clock struck two--"
Professor Marshall looked quickly at his daughter, and she saw that he
too had heard the clock striking in the dreadful night, and that he
noted the coincidence.
"Just after the clock struck two she wrote the loveliest message for
you with planchette. Sylvia tore it up. But I'm sure that if we try
with faith, she will repeat it ..."
Professor Marshall's eyes were fixed on his wife's old cousin. "Come
in," he said in a hoarse voice. They were almost the first words
Sylvia had heard him say.
Cousin Parnelia hastened up the path to the house. Sylvia followed
with her father, at the last extremity of agitation and perplexity.
When Cousin Parnelia reached the dining-room table, she sat down by
it, pushed the cloth to one side, and produced a fresh sheet of yellow
paper from her shabby bag. "Put yourselves in a receptive frame of
mind," she said in a glib, professional manner. Sylvia stiffened and
tried to draw her father away, but he continued to stand by the table,
staring at the blank sheet of paper with a strange, wild expression on
his white face. He did not take his eyes from the paper. In a moment,
he sat down suddenly, as though his knees had failed him.
There was a long silence, in which Sylvia could hear the roaring of
the blood in her arteries. Cousin Parnelia put one deeply veined,
shrunken old hand on planchette and the other over her eyes and
waited, her wrinkled, commonplace old face assuming a solemn
expression of importance. The clock ticked loudly.
Planchette began to write--at first in meaningless flourishes, then
with occasional words, and finally Sylvia saw streaming away from the
pencil the usual loose, scrawling handwriting. Several lines were
written and then the pencil stopped abruptly. Sylvia standing near her
father heard his breathing grow loud and saw in a panic that the veins
on his temples were swollen.
Cousin Parnelia took her hand off planchette, put on her spectacles,
read over what had been written, and gave it to Professor Marshall.
Sylvia was in such a state of bewilderment that nothing her father
could have done would have surprised her. She half expected to see him
dash the paper in the old woman's face, half thought that any moment
he would fall, choking with apoplexy.
What he did was to take the paper and try to hold it steadily enough
to read. But his hand shook terribly.
"I will read it to you," said Cousin Parnelia, and she read aloud
in her monotonous, illiterate voice: "'I am well and happy, dearest
Elliott, and never far from you. When you call to me, I hear you.
All is not yet clear, but I wish I could tell you more of the whole
meaning. I am near you this moment. I wish that--' The message stopped
there," explained Cousin Parnelia, laying down the paper.
Professor Marshall leaned over it, straining his eyes to the rude
scrawls, passing his hand over his forehead as though to brush away a
web. He broke out in a loud, high voice. "That is her handwriting....
Good God, her very handwriting--the way she writes Elliott--it is from
_her!_" He snatched the paper up and took it to the window, stumbling
over the chairs blindly as he went. As he held it up to the light,
poring over it again, he began to weep, crying out his wife's name
softly, the tears streaming down his unshaven cheeks. He came back to
the table, and sank down before it, still sobbing, still murmuring
incessantly, "Oh, Barbara--Barbara!" and laid his head on his
"Let him cry!" whispered Cousin Parnelia sentimentally to Sylvia,
drawing her away into the hall. A few moments later when they looked
in, he had fallen asleep, his head turned to one side so that Sylvia
saw his face, tear-stained and exhausted, but utterly relaxed and at
peace, like that of a little child in sleep. Crushed in one hand was
the yellow sheet of paper covered with coarse, wavering marks.
"_That our soul may swim
We sink our heart down, bubbling, under wave_"
The two sisters, their pale faces grave in the shadow of their wide
hats, were on their knees with trowels in a border of their mother's
garden. Judith had been giving a report of Lawrence's condition, and
Sylvia was just finishing an account of what had happened at home,
when the gate in the osage-orange hedge clicked, and a blue-uniformed
boy came whistling up the path. He made an inquiry as to names, and
handed Sylvia an envelope. She opened it, read silently, "Am starting
for America and you at once. Felix." She stood looking at the paper
for a moment, her face quite unmoved from its quiet sadness. The boy
asked, "Any answer?"
"No," she said decisively, shaking her head. "No answer."
As he lingered, lighting a cigarette, she put a question in her turn,
"Anything to pay?"
"No," said the boy, putting the cigarette-box back in his pocket,
"Nothing to pay." He produced a worn and greasy book, "Sign on this
line," he said, and after she had signed, he went away down the path,
whistling. The transaction was complete.
Sylvia looked after the retreating figure and then turned to Judith
as though there had been no interruption. "... and you can see for
yourself how little use I am to him now. Since he got Cousin Parnelia
in the house, there's nothing anybody else could do for him. Even you
couldn't, if you could leave Lawrence. Not for a while, anyhow. I
suppose he'll come slowly out of this to be himself again ... but I'm
not sure that he will. And for now, I actually believe that he'd be
easier in his mind if we were both away. I never breathe a word of
criticism about planchette, of course. But he knows. There's that much
left of his old self. He knows how I must feel. He's really ever so
much better too, you know. He's taken up his classes in the Summer
School again. He said he had 'a message' from Mother that he was to go
back to his work bravely; and the very next day he went over to the
campus, and taught all his classes as though nothing had happened.
Isn't it awfully, terribly touching to see how even such a poor,
incoherent make-believe of a 'message' from Mother has more power to
calm him than anything we could do with our whole hearts? But how
_can_ he! I can't understand it! I can't bear it, to come in on him
and Cousin Parnelia, in their evenings, and see them bent over that
grotesque planchette and have him look up at me so defiantly, as
though he were just setting his teeth and saying he wouldn't care what
I thought of him. He doesn't really care either. He doesn't think of
anything but of having evening come when he can get another 'message'
from Mother ... from Mother! Mother!"
"Well, perhaps it would be as well for us not to be here for a while,"
murmured Judith. There were deep dark rings under her eyes, as though
she had slept badly for a long time. "Perhaps it may be better later
on. I can take Lawrence back with me when I go to the hospital. I want
to keep him near me of course, dear little Lawrence. My little boy!
He'll be my life now. He'll be what I have to live for."
Something in the quality of her quiet voice sent a chill to Sylvia's
heart. "Why, Judy dear, after you are married of course you and Arnold
can keep Lawrence with you. That'll be the best for him, a real home,
with you. Oh, Judy dear," she laid down her trowel, fighting hard
against a curious sickness which rose within her. She tried to speak
lightly. "Oh, Judy dear, when _are_ you going to be married? Or don't
you want to speak about it now, for a while? You never write long
letters, I know--but your late ones haven't had _any_ news in them!
You positively haven't so much as mentioned Arnold's name lately."
As she spoke, she knew that she was voicing an uneasiness which had
been an unacknowledged occupant of her mind for a long time. But she
looked confidently to see one of Judith's concise, comprehensive
statements make her dim apprehensions seem fantastic and far-fetched,
as Judith always made any flight of the imagination appear. But
nothing which Sylvia's imagination might have been able to conceive
would have struck her such a blow as the fact which Judith now
produced, in a dry, curt phrase: "I'm not going to be married."
Sylvia did not believe her ears. She looked up wildly as Judith rose
from the ground, and advanced upon her sister with a stern, white
face. Before she had finished speaking, she had said more than Sylvia
had ever heard her say about a matter personal to her; but even so,
her iron words were few. "Sylvia, I want to tell you about it, of
course. I've got to. But I won't say a word, unless you can keep
quiet, and not make a fuss. I couldn't stand that. I've got all I can
stand as it is."
She stood by an apple-tree and now broke from it a small, leafy
branch, which she held as she spoke. There was something shocking in
the contrast between the steady rigor of her voice and the fury of her
fingers as they tore and stripped and shredded the leaves. "Arnold is
an incurable alcoholic," she said; "Dr. Rivedal has pronounced him
hopeless. Dr. Charton and Dr. Pansard (they're the best specialists in
that line) have had him under observation and they say the same thing.
He's had three dreadful attacks lately. We ... none of their treatment
does any good. It's been going on too long--from the time he was
first sent away to school, at fourteen, alone! There was an inherited
tendency, anyhow. Nobody took it seriously, that and--and the other
things boys with too much money do. Apparently everybody thought it
was just the way boys are--if anybody thought anything about it,
except that it was a bother. He never had anybody, you know--_never,
never_ anybody who ..." her voice rose, threatened to break. She
stopped, swallowed hard, and began again: "The trouble is he has
no constitution left--nothing for a doctor to work with. It's not
Arnold's fault. If he had come out to us, that time in Chicago when he
wanted to--we--he could--with Mother to--" Her steady voice gave way
abruptly. She cast the ravaged, leafless branch violently to the
ground and stood looking down at it. There was not a fleck of color in
her beautiful, stony face.
Sylvia concentrated all her will-power on an effort to speak as Judith
would have her, quietly, without heroics; but when she broke her
silence she found that she had no control of her voice. She tried to
say, "But, Judith dear, if Arnold is like that--doesn't he need you
more than ever? You are a nurse. How can you abandon him now!" But
she could produce only a few, broken, inarticulate words in a choking
voice before she was obliged to stop short, lest she burst out in the
flood of horror which Judith had forbidden.
Broken and inarticulate as they were, Judith knew what was the meaning
of those words. The corners of her mouth twitched uncontrollably. She
bit her marble lower lip repeatedly before she could bring out the few
short phrases which fell like clods on a coffin. "If I--if we--Arnold
and I are in love with each other." She stopped, drew a painful
breath, and said again: "Arnold and I are in love with each other. Do
you know what that means? He is the only man I could not take care
of--Arnold! If I should try, we would soon be married, or lovers. If
we were married or lovers, we would soon have--" She had overestimated
her strength. Even she was not strong enough to go on.
She sat down on the ground, put her long arms around her knees, and
buried her face in them. She was not weeping. She sat as still as
though carved in stone.
Sylvia herself was beyond tears. She sat looking down at the moist
earth on the trowel she held, drying visibly in the hot sun, turning
to dust, and falling away in a crumbling, impalpable powder. It was
like seeing a picture of her heart. She thought of Arnold with an
indignant, passionate pity--how could Judith--? But she was so close
to Judith's suffering that she felt the dreadful rigidity of her body.
The flat, dead tones of the man in the Pantheon were in her ears. It
seemed to her that Life was an adventure perilous and awful beyond
imagination. There was no force to cope with it, save absolute
integrity. Everything else was a vain and foolish delusion, a
two-edged sword which wounded the wielding hand.
She did not move closer to Judith, she did not put out her hand.
Judith would not like that. She sat quite motionless, looking into
black abysses of pain, of responsibilities not met, feeling press upon
her the terrifying closeness of all human beings to all other
human beings--there in the sun of June a cold sweat stood on her
But then she drew a long breath. Why, there was Austin! The anguished
contraction of her heart relaxed. The warm blood flowed again through
her veins. There was Austin!
She was rewarded for her effort to bring herself to Judith's ways,
when presently her sister moved and reached out blindly for her hand.
At this she opened her arms and took Judith in. No word was spoken.
Their mother was there with them.
Sylvia looked out over the proud, dark head, now heavy on her bosom,
and felt herself years older. She did not try to speak. She had
nothing to say. There was nothing she could do, except to hold Judith
and love her.
There was nothing, _nothing_ left but love.
A LONG TALK WITH ARNOLD
The tall, lean young man, sitting his galloping horse very slackly,
riding fast with a recklessly loose rein, and staring with bloodshot
eyes down at the dust of the road, gave an exclamation, brought the
mare upon her haunches, and sprang down from the saddle. A woman,
young, tall, grave, set like a pearl in her black mourning dress,
stood up from the roadside brook and advanced to meet him. They looked
at each other as people do who meet after death has passed by. They
stammered vague words, their eyes brimming.
"I--she was always so good to me," said Arnold, his voice breaking
and quavering as he wrung Sylvia's hand again and again. "I never
knew--saw much of her, I know--but when I was a little boy, I used--I
used to dream about her at night." His thin, sallow face flushed with
his earnestness. "I don't believe--honestly, Sylvia, I don't believe
her own children loved her any more than I did. I've thought so many
times how different everything would have been if I'd--I don't suppose
you remember, but years ago when you and she were in Chicago, I ran
away from school to go out there, and ask if--"
Sylvia remembered, had thought of nothing else from the moment she had
seen far down the road the horseman vainly fleeing the black beast
on his crupper. She shook her head now, her hand at her throat, and
motioned him to silence. "Don't! Don't!" she said urgently. "Yes, I
remember. I remember."
There was a moment's silence, filled by the murmur of the little brook
at their feet. The mare, which had been drinking deeply, now lifted
her head, the water running from the corners of her mouth. She gave a
deep breath of satisfaction, and began cropping the dense green grass
which grew between the water and the road. Her master tossed the reins
over the pommel and let her go. He began speaking again on a different
note. "But, Sylvia, what in the world--here, can't we go up under
those trees a few minutes and have a talk? I can keep my eye on the
mare." As they took the few steps he asked again, "How ever does it
happen that you're here at Lydford Junction of all awful holes?"
Sylvia took an abrupt resolution, sat down on the pine-needles, and
said, very directly, "I am on my way to Austin Farm to see if Austin
Page still wants to marry me." Her manner had the austere simplicity
of one who has been moving in great and grave emotions.
Arnold spoke with an involuntary quickness: "But you've heard, haven't
you, about his giving up all his Colorado ..."
Sylvia flushed a deep crimson and paid with a moment of bitter, shamed
resentment for the other bygone moments of calculation. "Yes, yes, of
course." She spoke with a stern impatience. "Did you suppose it was
for his fortune that--" She paused and said humbly, "Of course, it's
natural that you should think that of me."
Arnold attempted no self-exculpation. He sat down by her, his
riding-crop across his knees. "Could you--do you feel like telling me
about it?" he asked.
She nodded. It came to her like an inspiration that only if she opened
her heart utterly to Arnold, could he open his sore heart to her.
"There's not much to tell. I don't know where to begin. Perhaps
there's too much to tell, after all, I didn't know what any of it
meant till now. It's the strangest thing, Arnold, how little people
know what is growing strong in their lives! I supposed all the time
I only liked him because he was so rich. I thought it must be so.
I thought that was the kind of girl I was. And then, besides,
I'd--perhaps you didn't know how much I'd liked Felix Morrison."
Arnold nodded. "I sort of guessed so. You were awfully game, then,
Sylvia. You're game now--it's awfully white to fall in love with a man
because he's rich and then stick to him when he's--"
Sylvia waved her hand impatiently. "Oh, you don't understand. It's not
because I think _I ought_ to--Heavens, no! Let me try to tell you.
Listen! When the news came, about this Colorado business--I was about
crazy for a while. I just went to pieces. I knew I ought to answer
his letter, but I couldn't. I see now, looking back, that I had just
crumpled up under the weight of my weakness. I didn't know it then.
I kept saying to myself that I was only putting off deciding till I
could think more about it, but I know now that I had decided to give
him up, never to see him again--Felix was there, you know--I'd decided
to give Austin up because he wasn't rich any more. Did you know I was
that base sort of a woman? Do you suppose he will ever be willing to
take me back?--now after this long time? It's a month since I got his
Arnold bent his riding-crop between his thin, nervous hands. "Are you
sure now, Sylvia, are you sure now, dead sure?" he asked. "It would be
pretty hard on Austin if you--afterwards--he's such a square, straight
sort of a man, you ought to be awfully careful not to--"
Sylvia said quickly, her quiet voice vibrant, her face luminous:
"Oh, Arnold, I could never tell you how sure I am. There just isn't
anything else. Over there in Paris, I tried so hard to think about
it--and I couldn't get anywhere at all. The more I tried, the baser I
grew; the more I loved the things I'd have to give up, the more I hung
on to them. Thinking didn't do a bit of good, though I almost killed
myself thinking--thinking--All I'd done was to think out an ingenious,
low, mean compromise to justify myself in giving him up. And then,
after Judith's cablegram came, I started home--Arnold, what a journey
that was!--and I found--I found Mother was gone, just gone away
forever--and I found Father out of his head with sorrow--and Judith
told me about--about her trouble. It was like going through a long
black corridor. It seemed as though I'd never come out on the other
side. But when I did--A door that I couldn't ever, ever break
down--somehow it's been just quietly opened, and I've gone through
it into the only place where it's worth living. It's the last thing
Mother did for me--what nobody but Mother could have done. I don't
want to go back. I couldn't if I wanted to. Those things don't matter
to me now. I don't think they're wrong, the ease, the luxury, if you
can have them without losing something finer. And I suppose some
people's lives are arranged so they don't lose the finer. But mine
wouldn't be. I see that now. And I don't care at all--it all seems so
unimportant to me, what I was caring about, before. Nothing matters
now but Austin. He is the only thing that has lived on for me. I'm
down on my knees with thankfulness that he just exists, even if he
can't forgive me--even if he doesn't care for me any more--even if I
shouldn't ever see him again--even if he should die--he would be
like Mother, he couldn't die, for me. He's there. I know what he is.
Somehow everything's all right--because there's Austin."
She broke off, smiling palely and quietly at the man beside her. He
raised his eyes to hers for an instant and then dropped them. Sylvia
went on. "I don't pretend to know all the ins and outs of this
Colorado business. It may be that it was quixotic on Austin's part.
Maybe it _has_ upset business conditions out there a lot. It's too
complicated to be _sure_ about how anything, I suppose, is likely to
affect an industrial society. But I'm sure about how it has affected
the people who live in the world--it's a great golden deed that has
enriched everybody--not just Austin's coal-miners, but everybody who
had heard of it. The sky is higher because of it. Everybody has a new
conception of the good that's possible. And then for me, it means that
a man who sees an obligation nobody else sees and meets it--why, with
such a man to help, anybody, even a weak fumbling person like me, can
be sure of at least loyally _trying_ to meet the debts life brings.
It's awfully hard to know what they are, and to meet them--and it's
too horrible if you don't."
She stopped, aware that the life of the man beside her was one of the
unpaid debts so luridly present to her mind.
"Sylvia," said Arnold, hesitating, "Sylvia, all this sounds so--look
here, are you sure you're in _love_ with Austin?"
She looked at him, her eyes steady as stars. "Aren't there as many
ways of being in love, as there are people?" she asked. "I don't
know--I don't know if it's what everybody would call being in
love--but--" She met his eyes, and unashamed, regally, opened her
heart to him with a look. "I can't live without Austin," she said
quickly, in a low tone.
He looked at her long, and turned away. "Oh yes, you're in love with
him, all right!" he murmured finally, "and I don't believe that the
Colorado business or any of the rest of what you're saying has much to
do with anything. Austin's a live man and you're in love with him;
and that's all there is to it. You're lucky!" He took out his
handkerchief, and wiped his forehead and the back of his neck. Sylvia,
looking at him more closely, was shocked to see how thin and haggard
was his face. He asked now, "Did you ever think that maybe what Austin
was thinking about when he chucked the money was what you'd say, how
you'd take it? I should imagine," he added with a faint smile,' "that
he is hard to please if he's not pretty well satisfied."
Sylvia was startled. "No. Why no," she said, "I thought I'd looked at
every single side of it, but I never dreamed of that."
"Oh, I don't mean he did it _for_ that! Lord, no! I suppose it's been
in his mind for years. But afterwards, don't you suppose he thought
... he'd been run after for his money such a terrible lot, you know
... don't you suppose he thought he'd be sure of you one way or the
other, about a million times surer than he could have been any other
way; if you stuck by him, don't you see, with old Felix there with all
his fascinations, plus Molly's money." He turned on her with a sudden
confused wonder in his face. "God! What a time he took to do it! I
hadn't realized all his nerve till this minute. He must have known
what it meant, to leave you there with Felix ... to risk losing you as
well as--Any other man would have tried to marry you first and then--!
Well, what a dead-game sport he was! And all for a lot of dirty
Polacks who'd never laid eyes on him!"
He took his riding-cap from his head and tossed it on the dried
pine-needles. Sylvia noticed that his dry, thin hair was already
receding from his parchment-like forehead. There were innumerable fine
lines about his eyes. One eyelid twitched spasmodically at intervals.
He looked ten years older than his age. He looked like a man who would
fall like a rotten tree at the first breath of sickness.
He now faced around to her with a return to everyday matters. "See
here, Sylvia, I've just got it through my head. Are you waiting here
for that five-fifteen train to West Lydford and then are you planning
to walk out to the Austin Farm? Great Scott! don't do that, in this
heat. I'll just run back to the village and get a car and take you
there in half an hour." He rose to his feet, but Sylvia sprang up
quickly, catching at his arm in a panic. "No! no! Arnold, you don't
understand. I haven't written Austin a word--he doesn't know I'm
coming. At first in Paris I couldn't--I was so despicable--and then
afterwards I couldn't either,--though it was all right then. There
aren't any words. It's all too big, too deep to talk about. I didn't
want to, either. I wanted to _see_ him--to see if he still, if he
wants me now. He could _write_ anything. He'd feel he'd have to. How
would I ever know but that it was only because he thought he ought to?
I thought I would just go to him all by myself, without his knowing
I was coming. _I_ can tell--the first moment he looks at me I can
tell--for all my life, I'll be sure, one way or the other. That first
look, what's in him will show! He can't hide anything then, not even
to be kind. I'll know! I'll know!"
Arnold sat down again with no comment. Evidently he understood. He
leaned his head back against the rough bark of the pine, and closed
his eyes. There was a painful look of excessive fatigue about his
whole person. He glanced up and caught Sylvia's compassionate gaze on
him. "I haven't been sleeping very well lately," he said very dryly.
"It breaks a fellow up to lose sleep." Sylvia nodded. Evidently he was
not minded to speak of his own troubles. He had not mentioned Judith.
She looked up thoughtfully at the well-remembered high line of the
mountain against the sky. Her mother's girlhood eyes had looked at
that high line. She fell into a brooding meditation, and presently,
obeying one of her sure instincts, she sat down by Arnold, and began
to talk to him about what she divined for the moment would most touch
and move him; she began to talk about her mother. He was silent, his
worn, sallow face impassive, but she knew he was listening.
She told one incident after another of her mother's life, incidents
which, she told him, she had not noted at the time, incidents which
were now windows in her own life, letting in the sunlight her mother
loved so well. "All the time I was growing up, I was blind, I didn't
see anything. I don't feel remorseful, I suppose that is the way
children have to be. But I didn't see her. There were so many minor
differences between us ... tastes, interests. I always said hatefully
to myself that Mother didn't understand me. And it was true too. As
if it matters! What if she didn't! She never talked morality to us,
anyhow. She never talked much at all. She didn't need to. She was
herself. No words would express that. She lived her life. And there
it is now, there it always will be for me, food for me to live on. I
thought she had died. But she has never been so living for me. She's
part of me now, for always. And just because I see the meaning of her
life, why, there's the meaning of mine as clear as morning. How can
poor Father crave those 'messages' from her! Everything is a message
from her. We've lived with her. We have her in our hearts. It's all
brightness when I think of her. And I see by that brightness what's in
my heart, and that's Austin ... Austin!" On the name, her voice rose,
expanded, soared, wonderfully rang in the ensuing silence....
Arnold said slowly, without opening his eyes: "Yes, yes, I see. I see
how it is all right with you and Austin. He's big enough for you, all
of you. And Felix--he's not so bad either--but he has, after all, a
yellow streak. Poor Felix!"
This brought up to Sylvia the recollection of the day, so short a time
ago when she had sat on the ground thus, much as she now sat next to
Arnold, and had felt Judith's body rigid and tense. There was nothing
rigid about Arnold. He was relaxed in an exhausted passivity, a beaten
man. Let what would, befall. He seemed beyond feeling. She knew that
probably never again, so life goes, could they speak together thus,
like disembodied spirits, freed for once from the blinding, entangling
tragic web of self-consciousness. She wondered again if he would find
it in his heart to speak to her of Judith. She remembered something
else she had meant to ask him, if she could ever find words for her
question; and she found that, in that hour of high seriousness,
they came quite without effort. "Arnold, when I was in Paris, I met
Professor Saunders. I ran across him by accident. He told me
some dreadful things. I thought they couldn't all be true. But I
Arnold opened his eyes and turned them on her. She saw again, as she
had so many times, the honesty of them. They were bloodshot, yellowed,
set deep in dark hollows; but it was a good gaze they gave. "Oh, don't
take poor old Saunders too seriously. He went all to pieces in the
end. He had a lot to say about Madrina, I suppose. I shouldn't pay
much attention to it. Madrina's not such a bad lot as he makes her
out. Madrina's all right if you don't want anything out of her. She's
the way she is, that's all. It's not fair to blame her. We're all like
that," he ended with a pregnant, explanatory phrase which fell with an
immense significance on Sylvia's ear. "Madrina's all right when she's
got what she wants."
The girl pondered in silence on this characterization. After a time
Arnold roused himself to say again: "I mean she wouldn't go out of
her way to hurt anybody, for anything. She's not the kind that enjoys
seeing other folks squirm. Only she wants things the way she wants
them. Don't let anything old Saunders said worry you. I suppose he
laid all my worthlessness at Madrina's door too. He'd got into that
way of thinking, sort of dotty on the subject anyhow. He was terribly
hard hit, you know. I don't deny either that Madrina did keep him
strung on hot wire for several years. I don't suppose it occurred
to her that there was any reason why she shouldn't if he were fool
enough. I never could see that he wasn't some to blame too. All he had
to do--all they any of them ever had to do, was to get out and stay
out. Madrina'd never lift a finger to hinder. Even Saunders, I guess,
would have had to admit that Madrina always had plenty of dignity. And
as for me, great Scott! what could you expect a woman like Madrina to
do with a boy like me! She never liked me, for one thing; and then
I always bored her almost more than she could stand. But she never
showed her impatience, never once. She's really awfully good-natured
in her way. She wanted to make me into a salon sort of person,
somebody who'd talk at her teas--converse, don't you know. You see
_me_, don't you! It was hard on her. If she'd had you, now--I always
thought you were the only person in the world she ever really cared
for. She does, you know. All this year you've been with her, she's
seemed so different, more like a real woman. Maybe she's had her
troubles too. Maybe she's been deathly lonely. Don't you go back on
her too hard. Madrina's no vampire. That's just old Saunders' addled
wits. She's one of the nicest people in the world to live with, if you
don't need her for anything. And she really does care a lot for you,
Sylvia. That time out in Chicago, when we were all kids, when I wanted
to go to live with your mother, I remember that Madrina suggested to
her (and Madrina would have done it in a minute, too)--she suggested
that they change off, she take you to bring up and I go out to live
with your mother," He stopped to look at the woman beside him. "I
don't know about you, Sylvia, but I guess it would have made some
difference in my life!"
Sylvia drew back, horrified that he was even in thought, even for a
moment robbing her of her mother. "Oh, what I would have been--I can't
bear to _think_ of what kind of woman I would have been without my
mother!" The idea was terrible to her. She shrank away from her
aunt as never before in her life. The reminiscence brought an idea,
evidently as deeply moving, into Arnold's mind. The words burst from
him, "I might now be married to Judith!" He put his hands over his
eyes and cast himself down among the pine-needles.
Sylvia spoke quickly lest she lose courage. "Arnold! Arnold! What are
you going to do with yourself now? I'm so horribly anxious about you.
I haven't dared speak before--"
He turned over and lay on his back, staring up into the dark green of
the pine. "I'm going to drink myself to death as soon as I can," he
said very quietly. "The doctors say it won't take long."
She looked at his wasted face and gave a shocked, pitying exclamation,
thinking that it would be illness and not drink which was to come to
his rescue soon.
He looked at her askance, with his bloodshot eyes. "Can you give me
any single reason why I shouldn't?" he challenged her.
Sylvia, the modern, had no answer. She murmured weakly, "Why must any
of us try to be decent?"
"That's for the rest of you," he said. "I'm counted out. The sooner
I get myself out of the way, the better for everybody. That's what
The bitterness of his last phrase was savage. Sylvia cried out against
it. "Arnold! That's cruel of you! It's killing Judith!"
"She can't care for me," he said, with a deep, burning resentment.
"She can't ever have cared a rap, or she wouldn't be _able_ to--"
Sylvia would not allow him to go on. "You must not say such a thing,
Arnold. You know Judith's only reason is--she feels if she--if she had
children and they were--"
He interrupted her with an ugly hardness. "Oh, I know what her reason
is, all right. It's the latest fad. Any magazine article can tell you
all about it. And I don't take any stock in it, I tell you. It's just
insanity to try to guess at every last obligation you may possibly
have! You've got to live your life, and have some nerve about it! If
Judith and I love each other, what is it to anybody else if we get
married? Maybe we wouldn't have any children. Maybe they'd be all
right--how could they be anything else with Judith for their mother?
And anyhow, leave that to them! Let them take care of themselves!
We've had to do it for ourselves! What the devil did my father do for
me, I'd like to know, that I should die to keep my children unborn? My
mother was a country girl from up here in the mountains. Since I've
been staying here winters, I've met some of her people. Her aunt told
me that my father was as drunk as a lord on his wedding night--What
did he think of _his_ son? Why should I think of mine?"
He was so evidently talking wildly, desperately, that Sylvia made no
attempt to stop him, divining with an aching pity what lay under his
dreadful words. But when he said again, "It's simply that Judith
doesn't care enough about me to stick by me, now I'm down and out. She
can't bear me in her narrow little good world!" Judith's sister could
keep her silence no more.
"Look here, Arnold, I haven't meant to tell you, but I _can't_
have you thinking that. Listen! You know Judith, how splendid and
self-controlled she is. She went all through the sorrow of Mother's
death without once breaking down, not once. But the night before I
started to come here, in the middle of the night, I heard such a sound
from Judith's room! It frightened me, so I could hardly get my breath!
It was Judith crying, crying terribly, so that she couldn't keep it
back any more. I never knew her to cry before. I didn't dare go into
her room--Mother would--but I didn't dare. And yet I couldn't leave
her there alone in such awful trouble. I stood by the door in the
dark--oh, Arnold, I don't know how long--and heard her--When it began
to be light she was quiet, and I went back to bed; and after a while
I tiptoed in. She had gone to sleep at last. Arnold, there under her
cheek was that old baseball cap of yours ... all wet, all wet with her
tears, Judith's tears."
Before she had finished she was sorry she had spoken. Arnold's face
was suffused with purple. He put his hand up to his collar and
wrenched at it, clenched his fists, and finally, flinging his
riding-crop far from him, hid his face in his hands and burst
into tears. "Isn't it damnable!" he said over and over. "Isn't it
Sylvia had nothing more to say. It seemed indeed damnable to her. She
wondered again at Judith's invincible force of will. That alone was
the obstacle--no, it was something back of Judith's will, something
which even Arnold recognized; for now, to her astonishment, he looked
up, his face smeared like a weeping child's, and said in a low tone,
"You know, of course, that Judith's right."
The testimony was wrung out of him. But it came. The moment was one
never to be forgotten.
Out of her passionate pity was born strength that was not to be
denied. She took his hand in hers, his dry, sick man's hand. "Arnold,
you asked me to give you a reason why you should get the best you can
out of yourself. I'll give you a reason. Judith is a reason. Austin is
a reason. I'm a reason. I am never going to let you go. Judith can't
be the one to help you get through the best you can, even though it
may not be so very well--poor, poor Judith, who would die to be able
to help you! Mother wasn't allowed to. She wanted to, I see that now.
But I can. I'm not a thousandth part as strong or as good as they; but
if we hang together! All my life is going to be settled for me in a
few hours. I don't know how it's going to be. But however it is, you
will always be in my life. For as long as you live," she caught her
breath at the realization of how little that phrase meant, "for as
long as you live, you are going to be what you wanted to be, what you
ought to have been, my brother--my mother's son."
He clung to her hand, he clung to it with such a grip that her fingers
ached--and she blessed the pain for what it meant.
"... AND ALL THE TRUMPETS SOUNDED!"
They had told her at the farm, the old man and the old woman who had
looked so curiously at her, that Mr. Page had gone on up the wood-road
towards the upper pasture. He liked to go there sometimes, they said,
to look at the sunset from a big rock that stood in the edge of the
white birch woods. They added, in extenuation of this, that of course
somebody had to go up there anyhow, once in a while, to salt the
Sylvia had passed on, passed the great, square, many-chimneyed house,
passed the old-fashioned garden, and struck into the wood-road beyond
the bars. The sun was so low now, almost below the edge of the Notch,
that the rays were level and long behind her. So she had walked,
bathed in luminous gold at Versailles, on the day when Austin had
first told her that he loved her, on the day she had told him the
truth. From the first moment she had seen him how he had always
brought out from her the truest and best, finer and truer than
anything she had thought was in her, like a reflection from his own
integrity. His eyes that day, what clear wells of loyalty and honor
... how her mother would have loved him! And that other day, when he
said farewell and went away to his ordeal ... she closed her eyes for
an instant, pierced with the recollection of his gaze on her! What was
she, what poor thing transfigured to divinity, that such passion, such
tenderness had been hers ... even for a moment ... even if now ...
She looked timidly up the green tunnel of the arching trees, fearing
to see him at any moment. And yet how she hastened her steps towards
where he was! The moments were too long till she should find her
After a time, there came a moment of such terrible throbbing of the
heart, such trembling, that she could not go on. She sat down on a
rock beside the road and pressed her shaking hands on her cheeks. No,
it was too awful. She had been insane to think of putting everything,
her whole life, to the test of a moment's shock. She would go back.
She would write him....
She looked up and saw her mother's gallant figure standing there
before her. She smiled, and started on. Strange that she had thought
her mother could be dead. Her first instinct had been right. Her
mother, _her_ mother could not die.
The road turned sharply to the left. She came out from the white
birches. She was in the edge of the pasture, sweet-fern at her feet,
a group of sheep raising startled heads to gaze at her, the sun's rim
red on the horizon below her. And up there, the sunlight on his face,
above her, stood Austin.
The sight of him was like a great burst of music in her heart, like a
great flood of light. Her doubts, her uncertainties, they were gone
out, as utterly as night goes before the sun. Her ears rang to a sound
like singing voices. For a moment she did not feel the ground under
Austin looked down and saw her. He stood like a man in a dream.
And then he knew. He knew. And Sylvia knew. He gave a great cry
of welcome which was to ring in her ears for all her life, like a
benediction. He ran down to meet her, and took her in his arms.
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