Chapter XIII: Cui Malo
For the present, it was decided between Mr. Rivett and his wife that the engagements of both their children should be kept secret.
Except those immediately concerned, only the parents, Diana, and Mr. Dineen knew; and Edgerton, as the nearest male relative of Silvette, was to be informed.
It had been left to Diana to inform him. Silvette wrote a hasty and cordial note for her sister to inclose; then Diana took her writing materials up to the mossy ledge in the woods from where Edgerton and she had once taken the Path to Yesterday on that sun-drenched morning so long—so long ago.
She had never been there since. Once, strolling with Scott Wallace, he had espied the ledge, climbed thither, and called to her to join him in a new-found wonderland.
But it was not new-found to her, and the wonder of it had departed; and she continued on along the river bank below, heedless of his enthusiasm and persuasion.
Now something drew her there. What the sentiment was she did not analyze. Perhaps it was because the girl knew no spot as intimate, no fitter place in which to write him of her sister's happiness.
The place had changed with the season; yellowing leaves clothed the trees; the beds of moss had turned to vast reaches of golden velvet; naked branches crossed and recrossed above in delicate network against the sky.
Here was the silver birch against which she had leaned when his arms were round her and her lips touched his; there he had lain at her feet, stretched across that bed of gilded moss—only a boy then, smiling, idle, unawakened.
She seated herself exactly as she had sat that day, and looked at the empty place where once, so long ago, life had begun and ended for her—the place of self-sacrifice, the altar where her heart had died to appease the Fates and mollify the mischief of the far white gods.
Among the yellow leaves a blue jay screamed through the stillness; and presently she saw him for a moment, a flash of azure and silver, high-winging from his invaded sanctuary.
Behind him he left a silence, deeper for the constant whisper of falling leaves, stranger for the far sighing of the unseen stream below.
She bent over and searched for the imprint of her fingers in the moss where he had kissed them unrebuked. Many a sun and moon and rain had smoothed out that delicate sign manual long since. Only upon her heart the imprint of his lips remained.
Then—for the path was easy to her; alas! too easy—she sent her spirit back along the Road to Yesterday; and soon she heard the starlings piping and saw the sky all rose and gold above the river; and she saw him, and heard his voice, talking of starlings and of children.
If a single bright tear fell, the moss buried it; and when at last she could see her letter paper through glimmering lashes, she inked her pen and set her small, sun-tanned hand resolutely to the task before her:
"Jim, dear, Silvette is going to marry Jack Rivett. She is supremely happy. I inclose her note to you.
"Only the families concerned know about it yet. It is to be announced in December. The date of the wedding has not yet been fixed.
"I write you this pleasant news because you are our nearest relative.
"In my last letter I told you that Silvette did not love him. I was wrong; she did love him all the while, but she was too decent to know it. So how on earth was I to suspect it? I didn't, and she didn't, and if it hadn't been for Jack kicking over the traces and cantering away out of bounds, there probably would have been a tragedy in the family; for Silvette and I had your kind and sensible letter, saying that the only honorable thing to do was to take the first opportunity to withdraw from Adriutha, and we had decided you were right.
"But man proposes, Jim, and the far gods laugh at him—not unkindly, sometimes. My little sister is radiantly happy. Jack is a dear; so is his sister and parents.
"It amuses me to realize that I have come to be a purveyor of marital news to you. First, it was Christine and Mr. Inwood; now it's Silvette and Jack. The nearest I can come to rounding out the classical triad of the blessed is to inform you, monsieur, that the symptoms of Colonel Curmew are becoming acute. He tried to take my hand in the billiard room—not my bridge hand, either.
"He retains my hand too long when he helps me into a canoe. The other day I was horribly tempted to tip him into the river; he said such silly things and popped his eyes and went into rhapsodies over my ankles—which was slightly infringing les convenances, wasn't it?
"But he's merely a foolish, pompous, well-meaning man, slightly silly about all women, but with a very kind heart, I fancy. He is always doing things for me, always strutting around me and shooting his cuffs and curling his mustaches. Half the time I don't understand his talk—his jokes and apparently witty innuendoes, which perhaps are very funny, for he laughs at them himself, and I have to smile and pretend I am not stupid.
"No flight has occurred, although there was a white frost Saturday night.
"The shooting brotherhood are anxious and gloomy. Some even declare that a flight did occur Saturday night; that the birds remained with us over Sunday, when nobody could shoot, and left Sunday night, which was bitter cold and froze water in the garden.
"I don't know about such things—and don't care very much. It seems to me that these big, red-faced men make a ridiculous to-do about the migrations of a few small birds.
"Scott Wallace is the laziest man—which reminds me in time, Jim, to speak about your apparent attitude toward Scott. I merely wrote you that you would like him if you knew him.
"To my surprise, you wrote that you, personally, had no use for the kind of man I described.
"Was that a snub for me or for Scott? I'm sorry I spoke of him. To me he is a nice, wholesome, amusing fellow, so friendly to everybody that, somehow, your letter—what you said in it about a man you never met—hurt me. You would like him if you knew him. So, with this feminine prerogative, I close my lips about Scott Wallace for the present and the future.
"I am glad your arm is practically well; but what makes me entirely contented is what you say of your constant and bewildering promotions. Best of all is what I read between the lines—that you really love the business—the business of generations of Edgertons; and you, the last of them—but not the last, God willing!—are plunging into the game up to your neck, interested, optimistic, enthusiastic, fitting yourself for that dignified place which is yours, Jim, by every right.
"Now that it's over, and the mist blown clear of your path forever, I want to confess to you how dreadfully I felt to see you here in such a capacity. More than that, your light talk about the arts, your light and graceful accomplishments in them, your tendency to drift back toward a career for which you are no more fitted than I—all these things troubled me deeply, so that, sometimes, I even dreamed of them, and finally came to regard your facility with actual fear, so jealous was I for your real career, so anxious was I that you should become your real self.
"I suppose you will scarcely believe it, Jim, when I tell you that this feeling began from the very moment when you offered to go with Silvette and me to Adriutha. Somehow, blindly, I understood even then that it was not the thing for you to do; and, remember, I knew you scarcely at all.
"Yet my instinct resented your going, and if I did not actually protest, perhaps you may recollect that my attitude was not cordial; that you had to ask me many times for my vote; that, after all, I never cast it, but simply refrained from voting at all.
"I suppose this was cowardly in me; yet, Jim, what else could I have done? I scarcely knew you; I dared not appear ungrateful after your kindness to Silvette and to me.
"Forgive this self-defense. I merely wanted you to know; I only wish you to understand that, at heart anyway, I have been, from the beginning, loyal to the best interests of a friend and a kinsman who was most kind to two girls alone in the world."
"This is a still, golden, autumn world—autumn no longer, alas! for we are already well along in November. But autumn lingers in this land of hills and waters, and the frost was not severe enough to blacken the late roses. If the weather is unseasonable, it is also charming, and I love it. Russet and gold always did fascinate me—like the hangings and tapestries in your studio, with the dusty sunlight falling over all.
"Eh bien, monsieur, I must conclude my monologue. You are a brave man if you have read as far as the name you gave me once—centuries ago.
She closed and sealed her letter, wrote his name on the envelope, rested awhile, blue eyes seeing nothing; then, touching the envelope with her lips, she laid it between the leaves of her portfolio.
Since that day in this very place, Edgerton had spoken no more of love to her. She knew that he never would again, that what had begun here on the Path to Yesterday had ended where the path ended. Never again would he retrace those steps with her; never again travel them alone. For it was a lost road to him, a blind trail already overgrown with briars. The days made it fainter, the months were hiding it, the years would obliterate it for him. But for her, alas—she had many a pilgrimage yet to make along that briar-grown path; and many a scar, yet unmade, must heal before that path closed before her pilgrim feet, and shut out forever from her eyes the hidden shrine it led to, where the sky was rosy above the river and the starlings called through the golden light of Paradise.
And now, as she stood up, the subtle scent of autumn hung heavy in the air—a faint odor of ripening, hinting of decay and death. Summer had gone indeed—on earth and in her heart.
Never again would life be the same to her after this day, in this place, alone with memory; never again would she be the same. How old her heart had become—how old—how old! O amari dies! O flebiles noctes!
She rode that afternoon with Colonel Curmew, accepting him instead of another because she thought his chatter might leave her freer to follow her own thoughts.
But after a while it seemed to her as though she could no longer endure them, and that the colonel's inanities were preferable.
They were riding down a mountain road, the horses picking a cautious way among the scattered stones.
He was paying court to her, as usual, and she had been riding on, smiling absently, preoccupied with her own thoughts and mentally oblivious to him, when there came a clatter of stones from behind, and Scott Wallace galloped recklessly up at the risk of his horse's neck as well as his own.
"Halloo!" he said cheerfully; "hope I'm not smashing a twosome, colonel."
The colonel glanced sourly at him. Diana laughed with pleasure: "Not at all, Scott! Colonel Curmew and I are old acquaintances, and the resources of sentiment were long ago exhausted between us. Where are you going?"
"Nowhere; I just felt like a gallop. All the chaps are kickin' over the flight, which either isn't goin' to materialize or passed over Sunday and made boobs of the bunch of us. Where are you goin'?"
"Nowhere in particular; come with us. My nerves needed soothing, so I took the colonel along."
"As a tonic or quieter?" asked Wallace so seriously that Diana threw back her pretty head and the woodlands were melodious.
The colonel laughed loudly, too, and began to hate young Wallace with a hatred that passes all understanding.
Wallace turned to her. "What's wrong with your nerves? I supposed you hadn't any."
"I didn't know it either, Scott. Probably I've played with cards and cigarettes too hard. For all the sunshine, to-day has been a gray one for me.... Shall we gallop?"
She launched her horse into a trot, a canter, then into a dead run. Behind her tore the two men through the afternoon sunlight, on, on, until their winded mounts topped the homeward crest of the hill and they looked down on the meadows of Adriutha.
They wended their way down the mountain in silence—Diana, grave and apparently tired; Wallace smiling slightly, and glancing at her from moment to moment; Colonel Curmew pop-eyed, expressionless, curling his mustache with gloved fingers.
He was furious with Diana, with Wallace, with himself. Yet even he could not see how he might have resented the young man's intrusion otherwise than by the lack of cordiality which he had certainly manifested. Besides Diana had invited him to remain with them. Of what low tricks women are capable! Because she knew well enough that he had desired and sought a tête-à-tête.
Curling his mustache tighter, he rode on, a good figure in the saddle always—ruminating, considering, angry because of the interruption.
For Colonel Follis Curmew had for days, now, been carefully preparing the way for something he meant to say to Diana. He was a cautious man with women; he reconnoitered by degrees, inch by inch, carefully watching effect. Hint, innuendo, double meanings, sly feelers, veiled intent, was the strategy he usually employed at first, skirmishing as close to the dead line as he dared; furtive, alert, ready always for a brilliant and resistless climax at the psychological moment.
A few minutes ago he had believed that the psychological moment was approaching. He had said one or two things so cleverly that not the least resentment had altered her smile; but how was he to know that, if she had heard him at all, she had not in the least understood him? It takes more than one to play a game of that kind. The trouble was that her smiling inattention had deceived him—had always deceived him. He was entirely persuaded that she had drifted into the game long ago.
Surely, surely the psychological moment had been close at hand when that big fool of a boy had come clattering downhill and smashed their approaching understanding into smithereens for the moment. The colonel silently damned him as he rode. It took time and patience to gather up and piece together the fragments and smithereens; it took skill and watchfulness to choose another such propitious day and hour—to select the scenery and the moment for what he meant to say to this young girl.
As he dismounted her at the foot of the terrace he pressed her arm significantly, and said under his breath:
"Can we get away for a moment together this evening?"
Wallace was close by, and the colonel spoke so low and pinched so discreetly that she neither understood nor noticed his amenities, so she merely nodded smilingly, thanked him for his escort, and ran up the steps beside Wallace.
"I'll be in the billiard room later, if that interests you," she called back over her shoulder to Wallace as she ascended the stairs.
"It certainly does!" he replied promptly, and went away to change.
Diana continued on to her own room, disturbing Jack and Silvette on the stairs, and gaily jeering at them as she banged the door. A curious reaction had set in from the sadness of the morning—a feverish desire to escape from herself, from the misery that lay always heavy in her breast, the relentless hours that weighted her heart so that its dull beating had become a burden.
The bath refreshed her; so did the tea. She put on her little Japanese gown and her straw sandals, and curled up by the window, sipping her tea and watching the declining sun.
Dusk came swiftly, and with it Silvette who bent over and kissed her, and tasted the tea, and wandered about the rooms gossiping, too full of the joy of living to endure silence in herself or in anybody else.
Pangs of swift remorse and self-reproach stabbed her at intervals when she thought of her own happiness and remembered Diana's late unhappy affair.
How far Diana had cured herself, she did not know, but she knew that her sister was still more or less unhappy about Edgerton.
"Did you send him my note?" she inquired.
"Yes: I wrote him, and inclosed it."
"He's a dear boy.... How well he must be doing! He ought to go down on his knees and thank you every day of his life for what he is turning out to be."
"He would have turned out all right anyway, sooner or later."
"Well, he's a horrid pig if he isn't grateful to you.... I don't suppose he has the slightest idea what his regeneration cost you."
"Don't talk that way, Silvie."
"What way? I'm merely saying——"
"Don't say it, dear.... If it cost me anything, he is never going to know it."
Silvette looked at her wistfully. "If I could only see you as happy as I am, Di.... Sometimes I can scarcely bear to be as happy as I am, and remember that you are not sharing it."
"True," said Diana, smiling; "Jack can't marry us both, so we can't share your happiness, dear."
Silvette came and sat on the arm of the chair, drawing one arm about Diana's neck.
"Do you still care for him very much?" she asked sorrowfully.
"Do you think it will last?"
"What are you going to do?"
"Isn't there something to do?"
"Perhaps, all this time he really cares for you."
"There is not the slightest possibility. I had my chance; he cared for me—at that moment—when he told me so.... Those men out there"—she made a vague gesture toward the unseen hills—"are no more deadly cool when they shoot than was I when I deliberately killed in him whatever love he may have had for me.... I slew it, I tell you. There is no resurrection for dead things."
Silvette sighed heavily, and laid her smooth cheek against her sister's hair.
"Still," she murmured half to herself, "there are miracles."
"There may be others yet."
"No; I wounded his pride."
"You aroused it."
"By wounding it, and at the expense of what fell dead beside it. Love died that day, little sister, and for that death there is no reincarnation."
Again the feverish desire for escape came over her, seeming to burn through every vein, and she sprang to her feet and rang for the maid.
"I'm likely to do almost anything to-night," she said. "Shall I make it a double event when you're ready?"
"Double event—double wedding? I can easily do so. Is it a good way to drown your griefs, Silvie? Because the prospect of being alone after you and Jack marry actually terrifies me."
"You little goose, you'll live with us!"
"I see myself doing it!—the superfluous spinster to be reckoned with, counted in at dinners, mollified by kindness, secretly feared for her acidulated tongue, to be employed later in either bribing or disciplining the children."
"Course of human events——"
"Jack and I have children," continued Silvette, flushing, "we'll also have nurses to look out for the grubby little things."
"Grubby! You don't know what you're saying. You'll be the most adoring—and adorable mother——"
"Well, please don't talk about it.... I don't care for children now.... I don't know how I'll feel later."
Diana stood in the middle of the room—the smile fading from her face, her small hands clenching.
"I've learned to like children," she said. "I've learned to love them, somehow—even babies.... I want one of my own," she added fiercely. "I wish for one very much; and if I can't have one—and it's impossible, of course—I—I'll marry some man and have one!"
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Silvette, horrified, "what are you talking about? I'll let you have one of mine!"
"I don't want yours! How do you know you'll have any? How do you know you'll have more than one?"
Her eyebrows were bent inward, her lips compressed; she turned her head and stared out at the stars—from where, they say, all babies come, and where they all return at last.
"You know," she said calmly, "that I wouldn't really do such a thing—even to have what I care for so much.... And yet—if a woman is tired, hopeless, alone, isn't marrying some man a help to her? Can't she stand the passing years better? Doesn't it give her some respite from the eternal pain—here"—she laid a slim hand on her breast—"doesn't it give her something to live for, especially if children should come? I don't know, Silvie; I ask you because I'm tired and confused with the pain of it."
She dropped her head on Silvette's shoulder for a moment; then, as the maid knocked, lifted it calmly and bade her come in.
That night at dinner she was very gay—a charming, sparkling, bewildering creature. Through and through Colonel Curmew shot intermittent pangs of jealousy and doubt, mercifully assuaged by hope; through and through Scott Wallace her blue eyes seemed to penetrate, exposing to her laughing gaze his youthful and very susceptible heart.
"Certainly I'm bowled over," he admitted cheerfully to himself. "She is the cunnin'est thing that ever missed a pheasant; but she's found me, all right, with both barrels, and the sky's full of feathers, and I'm on the sod, kickin'."
Me managed to tell her so that evening, in language sportsmanlike and picturesque, before they cut for partners at auction. She was standing on the stairs, two steps up; he below her, with his handsome face lifted.
"All you've got to do is to send your dogs forward, and retrieve me, Diana. I'm grassed in the open in plain sight."
"Suppose I should take you up, Scott?"
"Is it a go?"
She smiled down at him.
"Take care, young man. I'm approaching spinsterhood at a terrifying speed. How do you know that I may not clutch wildly at you?"
"For Heaven's sake, clutch!" he urged her.
"How? Shall I roll up my eyes and whisper, 'Oh, Scott!'—or shall I take a flying leap at you from here, and rope you before you can get away? Instruct me, please, because I really don't know as much about such customs as perhaps you think I do."
"Take the flyer, Diana; I'll catch you. Are you ready? Come on; be a sport!"
"I can't be a sport, Scott. I try; I make a brave effort to be cigaretteful and naughty, but—I'm ashamed to say it isn't in me. Now you'll run, I suppose."
"After you—yes.... Diana, I do love you. I haven't said it right, that's all. Will you marry me and make somethin' out of me besides a loafin' lout in puttees?"
"Oh, Scott, you're so beautiful in puttees! I wouldn't make anything else out of you if I could; you must be perfectly gorgeous in pink."
"Come down to the next hunt ball and see. They're a fine bunch at Meadowbrook. You'll like 'em; maybe you'll learn to like me."
"I do now, you scatter-brain! I adore you, Scott; but, you know, love is a different game."
"That'll come all right," he protested. "When you're the missus, and you see me come a cropper over five bars, you'll suddenly wake up to find you love hubby. And I won't be hurt, but you'll think I am, and you'll pull up and scramble down and look me over, and cover my pale and beautiful face with kisses and—I'll play foxy and let you," he ended with pleased satisfaction.
The smile on her face had suddenly become fixed: for what he was saying had conjured up a vision of the polo field, and a young fellow in white picking himself up from the trampled sod.
Wallace, looking around to see that the hall was empty, sprang up the two steps and took her hand in his.
"Diana, I do love you dearly," he said. "Will you take me on for a trial gallop?"
"Do you mean an engagement?" she said, looking him over.
"Yes, I do; will you?"
"What kind of an engagement?"
"The regular—with a sparkler on the side. Will you, Di?"
"No, you very slangy young man, I won't."
"Well, then—then—what kind of an engagement do you suggest?" he asked cheerfully. "Just the circingle and halter kind?"
"What kind is that, Scott?"
"Oh, an understanding that you're not bitted and bridled yet."
"You mean that the engagement lasts during my pleasure?"
"Yes, that's it."
"And ends in marriage—or a very, very kind note?" she asked, laughing.
"Sure thing! Am I on?"
She considered him, smilingly.
"If you like," she said.
"Oh, I do like! It's awf'lly good of you, Diana.... Would you be gracious enough to wear a sparkler?"
"Not yet, Scott."
"Oh, that's all right—whenever you say." He looked up at her, blushing. "Do you mind if I kiss you?"
She looked at him for a second, then impulsively bent forward and kissed him squarely.
"You nice boy," she said gently; "you nice, nice boy. I wish the world were fuller of your sort.... I don't love you, Scott.... I don't suppose I shall.... But if you knew what I feel for you, I believe you wouldn't exchange it for any love I could ever give you.... Shall we go into the billiard room? I'm playing at Colonel Curmew's table, and he's probably perfectly furious at being kept waiting."
She gave his hand a friendly pressure as he released it, laughed, blushed, and turned away toward the billiard room, where the clamor was already audible.
They parted at the door, where she met her sister in conversation with Mr. Rivett.
"Diana," she said, "Mr. Rivett and I are going to town on the early train. You know he goes every week, and I've simply got to do some shopping. Will you come with us?"
Diana's heart gave a bound. To her, New York had become merely the abiding place of Edgerton, and every mention of it started her pulses.
"Oh, do come, Di," urged her sister. "If you'll come, we'll have Jim to dinner at the Plaza. All the theaters are open, too, and we can have a jolly time."
"How on earth is Jack going to bear it?" asked Diana, laughing.
"Bear it? Did you suppose Jack wasn't coming?" asked Silvette so naïvely that the corners of Mr. Rivett's eyes cracked into wrinkles.
"All right, I'll come," said Diana, with never a thought for Scott Wallace; but, thinking of Edgerton, she had meant to go from the first.
As Silvette, on her future father-in-law's arm, walked on toward the drawing-room, Colonel Curmew appeared from the billiard room.
"Oh," said Diana, "I am so sorry to have kept you waiting. I was talking to my sister about going to town to-morrow."
"I want to see you before you go," said Curmew in a low voice. "It can't be done now—they're waiting for us, and Mrs. Wemyss is developing a temper. When can I see you?"
"Why, I don't know," she said, smiling. "What have you to say to me that cannot be said now?"
The colonel's eyes popped, and he leered at her, not doubting her coquetry.
"On the terrace after cards," he said, curling his mustache. "Is that understood?"
"Indeed, it is not, Colonel Curmew!" she said, amused. "I shall retire early, because I have an early train to catch."
The colonel's face darkened. There were limits to coquetry.
"When did you decide to go?"
"A few minutes ago."
"You knew I had something to say to you?"
"I knew nothing of the sort. And what has it to do with my going to town, anyway?"
The colonel had only a few moments to decide.
"How long will you be in town?"
"I don't know."
"Where will you be?"
He wearied her, and to be rid of him she thoughtlessly gave him the address at the Plaza.
"I'll be in town for a day or two," he said, leering at her once more.
If she heard, she paid no heed, for she was already entering the billiard room with a gay gesture and a smile for Wallace, who waved his hand in reply, and looked volumes at her across the hubbub.