The Tortoise-shell Cat by Elizabeth Robins
The Tortoise-shell Cat by Elizabeth Robins
Printed in The Mills of the Gods and Other Stories (1920).
Hypertext edition is copyrighted Joanne E. Gates and is based on the collected edition in The Mills of the Gods and Other Stories (1920). Pages 283-320.
HE had been showing her his pictures. He stood now, as though a little weary, leaning back against a beautiful panel of Jacobean carving. He seemed, in the fading December light, to be himself a part of the ancient design--his brown-coated figure, his long saturnine face hardly detached themselves from the background.
"If I come," he said, in his grudging way, "you mustn't talk to me about the war."
She smiled. She was rather noted for her smile.
"The reason I'm asking you is that I need to forget how much too closer I've been, all these months, to the desolation over yonder."
"Oh, that's the only reason you're asking me!" His tone said he wasn't going to be pleased, however she put it.
"Well, you see," she excused herself, "when Henry was ill, I had to take his place--unofficially, of course. I had to investigate; I had personally to see--things no woman, no human being ought to see. It's left me like this."
"It's left you more beautiful than ever."
They were distant cousins. He had seen her only once--a passing glimpse--since they were both in their 'teens. As to being beautiful, Aurea Disston had never been that. But always, even as a child, there had been something about her which served the ends of beauty--a curious grace, an air of subtle promise.
Yes; it "served" extraordinarily. Her too round, green-gooseberry eyes had a trick of golden translucency, showing, in some lights, like topaz within their fringes of reddish brown. Her hair, several shades lighter, was the nondescript sort that "something might have been made of"--so experts said. Nothing had ever been made of it. It was just hair--parted in the middle and lumped at the sides. It flowed out negligently now from under the close sealskin hat. The hat was ill-chosen. It covered the low forehead down to the eyebrows. And this emphasized the shape of the face, broad across the brows and cut too sharply to the pointed chin. As she stood there in the middle of the lofty studio, the tall figure took on breadth and a certain fictitious sumptuousness from the heavy furs she was wearing. Her triangular face looked out, catlike, from a collar up to her ears. When Laurence Winter told her she was more beautiful than ever, she didn't lift her eyes. Her downward stare was directed upon one of the canvases,
which he had taken off an easel and stood in front of a rack against the wall.
"It isn't as genuine--that 'Adirondack Afternoon'--as it ought to be--to be yours."
"Oh, genuine!" he laughed.
"Yes; you play, still, with your immense talent."
"Play? They tell me I'm a ruthless realist--the women especially. They fly me like the plague."
"It looks like it." Her slow, sliding glance gathered in from all parts of the studio portraits in various stages of completion. Some of the faces, Mrs. Disston recognized. The majority were New York women, either fashionable or aspiring to be so by dint of striking looks and money enough to have those looks recorded by the most popular and expensive artist in America.
Whether these pictures were so amazingly fine as the fashion of the moment declared, they were certainly audacious, and they were most incontestably alive.
"You see," Mrs. Disston explained, "as an American, I am proud of your--"
"As an American? You don't give me the impression of being an American."
"Of what, then?"
"My impression of you? Oh, you wouldn't like it if I were to tell you."
"So unflattering?" She held out her hand. "Good-bye," and ring Henry or me
up some day, and say you'll come and dine."
"I shall not ring Henry up. I don't know Henry."
"The more reason to come and make his acquaintance."
* * * *
Laurence Winter was one of those American-born artists who had found his feet, if not his soul, in a foreign land. After ten years of Paris, he came to live "in exile in New York"--on account of his wife, he added. Lovers of Winter's art raised their eyebrows with, "The sacrifices men make for women!"
The lady spoke no language but American, and was sure the French were immoral. Her health was much better in New York.
Though Winter himself had been delicate from birth--a long, slight, excessively tenuous person--and his wife was round and apple-cheeked, death might have seemed to vindicate her insistence upon the matter of health. But comment on the event took various forms of pointing out that, to the romantic, iridescent spirit harnessed to her side, she had been but a dull companion, part of whose dullness was to die dully of a dull disease.
The only difference her going seemed to make was that, though Winter spoke of "exile" still, and, with the old, smiling melancholy, he no longer gave a reason; and in place of an apple-cheeked wife, a pale,
solicitous sister made the great man the object of her adoring care.
So much Miss Winter had conveyed to Aurea Disston at that first meeting of the cousins in many years--a meeting at the Mayflower Club in aid of the Refugee Relief Fund. Rows on rows of gilded chairs, and seated on them rows on rows of ladies yet more heavily gilded, either in richness of outward seeming, or in the general and accurate knowledge of what, in millions, they stood or "sat" for.
When Mrs. Disston arrived, the chairman had already opened the proceedings. The late-comer made her way, unobserved, round to the side. She found a place whence, by a little turn of her head, she could watch, with secret anger, the faces in the audience, so largely wary and self-protective, or examples of what someone, over kindly, had called "the matinée face;" or those betraying the half-unconscious purpose of gaining from the misery of others a more luxurious appreciation of their own immunity. Happily, there were those, too, who had come with pity and indignation in their souls; with full pockets, too, ready, like full hearts, to overflow in helpfulness. An attempt to stem this flood was made by an overfed dame with a triple crease in her fat neck emphasized by a repetition of the design, lower down, in a triple row of fat pearls. She stood up, after
the appeal for funds, to mention the word "leakage," and to question "what proportion of the money we have already given has actually reached these people."
"Perhaps the chairman will allow me, as one of the disbursers just returned--"
At recognition of the well-known New Yorker, a flutter went through the throng, a gleam of renewed excitement in the "matinéee-faces," at prospect of a brand-new batch of horrors.
With dry administrative facts and drier figures, Mrs. Disston stopped the loophole of escape from giving. No; she had nothing further to say except that whoever wished might come to her for any needed assurance on the point raised. As she sat down, she saw a hand extended over the back of the row in front of her--Jeannette Winter looking quite stirred for once.
"Such years since we met! Of course we've read about you. How calmly you seem to take it--all this awful business!"
"I'm glad you don't take it calmly," Aurea whispered back. "What shall you do?"
"Do? I--oh, I have my hands full--Laurence, you know."
"Sorry I can't wait for tea." Miss Winter leaned over again as the meeting closed. "I never leave Laurence longer than I can help. He sits in a draught, or he lets the fire
out--and then one of those murderous colds." She wrapped her black-fox stole about her with a suggestion of a shiver.
"Can't someone look after the fire?" Mrs. Disston's attention was obviously centred on the verbal money-promises being made to the chairman.
"Oh, Laurence can't have people running in and out of the studio. Drives him distracted. He hates radiator-heat and will burn wood in the open fireplace." Jeannette Winter's tone was charged with care.
"Why shouldn't he burn wood? Mrs. Disston stood waiting for a dissolution in that congestion between the group trying to reach her and the mass moving toward the tea-room.
" You know what wood is--always burning out. And Laurence never notices till he begins to cough."
"Well, I haven't seen him since we were children, but he sounds to me a great baby. You may tell him so."
"Come and tell him yourself. Oh, do, Aurea!" The pale sister shone an instant.
"We can't have you lavishing all your sympathies on refugees. By the way, they ought to have arranged for a real speech from you."
"I don't make real speeches."
"I dare say you could," said Jeannette encouragingly. "I haven't a doubt you could have told us quite as dreadful things as
that woman in the atrocity hat." Seeing that Aurea made no attempt to substantiate her claim to a repertory of dreadful experiences, Miss Jeannette returned hurriedly to her usual preoccupation. "Well, if you won't talk to the club, come and talk to Laurence. He's killing himself, the way he sticks to his work. No exercise. Come and let him show you his pictures."
"You think that exercise--" She was smiling.
"Well, you see it's so hard to get him to see people. They bore him. Oh, you wouldn't! And he'd show you the portraits he was going to send over to the Salon. Can't now with all these submarines about. Horrid thing, war is!"
Without waiting for the telephone message, Aurea came to see the pictures a second time, and that time she brought her husband.
At first blush, Henry Disston looked like what he had been--a successful stock-broker. War brings about these curiosities of displacement, though, in Disston's case, the oddity was more apparent than real. He had long had business relations with Brussels and Antwerp. In the last year, he had formed other relations as well. He was in Brussels at the outbreak of the war. To be able to continue there, he had to be of use. Very emphatically he was of use.
For the rest, Henry Disston was a par-
ticularly well-dressed gentleman of medium height, whose over-full lips were emphasized by the sternly disciplined, little grey moustche. His other features were too blunt to lend good looks, and not large enough to give force to the somewhat congested-looking face. Yet force of a kind was plainly behind the man's easy, slightly indifferent manner. People had said of him, "If Henry Disston makes up his mind you are to do a thing, you'll be uncommon apt to do it." Did that represent the history of Aurea's marriage? Winter wondered.
He quickly decided that this stockbroking philanthropist wasn't worthy to be shown picutres. So all the "exercise" Winter had that afternoon he got out of actively detesting Henry Disston.
"I hear you've been ill," Winter said, noting afresh the suffused white of eye and hints of purple in the dull red of the ummodelled lips.
"Been ill? I'd have been dead but for my wife. She has pulled me out of the grave. It's she who is ill now."
"She doesn't look it."
"Think not? I'll tell you what, then, Mr. Winter: I should like you to paint my wife."
"You wouldn't like it half so much as I would." Winter let his eyes stray to the lady.
"You mean it? That's fine! Something for you to do, Aurea, when I'm gone."
"You're going back?" enquired Winter, with unseemly alacrity.
"Yes, yes; I have to be at my post. I shall leave her at home this trip. She isn't fit to face--all that." He flourished a compact hand in the general direction of the belligerent countries. "She must try to forget it. Do what you can to help her."
When Mrs. Disston didn't come for a sitting Winter would paint for five minutes and moon about for ten, and then declare the light was all wrong or the studio an ice-box. He'd go for a walk. And all his walks ended in Aurea's drawing-room.
At the end of an hour or so: "Come out and dine to-night," he'd say. "No? Then ask me to dine with you."
Although Laurence Winter was a light and fastidious feeder, food had on him the effect of exhilaration. His talk during dinner would be lighter, more whimsical than that under the great lamp in the next room. Stimulation of the gastric juices stimulated the gift of ironic anecdote. These were often anecdotes that sounded better in French. He told them in the tongue they sounded best in. If she didn't laugh, she smiled. She had seen and heard a great deal--this lady. You did not easily shock her. But if you weren't careful, you might bore her. Laurence Winter was careful.
There was, on the other hand, the at least
equal danger that she or anyone on earth might bore Laurence Winter.
In the early stages, he used to look gloomily for that hitherto inevitable ending. But it tarried.
"I've seen you six times."
"Is it six?"
He looked at her reflectively. "And I could tell you every word you've said to me."
"What a chance lost to have said memorable things!"
"Oh, I'm conscious enough!"
"No; that's just it. Not enough."
He was sitting after dinner in the low armchair under the shaded light, his interminable legs extended and crossed. One of his well-cared-for hands dropped long and brown over the chair-arm. From the fingers of the other (holding the inevitable cigarette), the third and little finger separated themselves and drooped apart, reproducing exactly, as Aurea noticed, the pose of the Sargent Stevenson. Winter himself must have been unconscious of this particular resemblance. It made him "mad," as his friends knew, to be told, as he had been by persons of the last generation, that he looked like R. L. S. But he did. An R. L. S. very much brushed and clipped and dressed in the mode--an R. L. S. drained of most of his optimism, yet with
something of the dreamer surviving, and, as she was later to learn, still more of the child.
They had the half-dozen meetings aforesaid, two at her own house ( tête-à-tête dinner and long evenings, uninterrupted), yet she had not told him of a single Belgian atrocity.
She was plainly a rare person. For upon his mention of the above fact, she shook her head faintly with: "Any telling belittles it. I can't do that."
Had she really been through those incredible scenes? Did she know the things she refrained from telling? Out of his cynical suspicions peered a query or two, intended to elicit autobiography. If, as he now realized, he had come to a point at which he cared to know how she had queened it, how, as the Lady High Almoner, she had shone, saintlike, before the upturned eyes of the starving--surely she must long ago have wanted to tell of these things.
In the small hours of the morning, he reflected that, in lieu of autobiography, and, more strangely still, without the aid of any "story," without the use of a single "horror," she had somehow conveyed to him, with a poignancy that held him sleepless what (behind words and facile instances) invasion really meant. And she had dropped out her bare little admissions, her nerve-shaking implications, with an air so quiet that
he had looked at her twice and thrice to see that he had got her meaning.
A comment of his, intended to evoke some of these particulars as yet withheld, she met a little sharply.
"We won't say any more." Then, into the sudden silence, she let fall a half-embarrassed, "I have a feeling that it's sacrilege." She caught his widened stare. "It makes a special claim--don't you think?--to have been with people in great agony. They are sacred. You must not speak of what you know. Unless it's to those who--" She turned her head suddenly away. "Here's a book you must read, if you're interested in the war." She handed him René Benjamin's "Gaspard." "It's amusing."
He looked at her over the paper-covered volume she held out.
"Why do you encourage meetings for the sole purpose of talking about these people?"
"Oh, because so many who have money haven't any imagination. We--somebody must tell such people, so they can help. But it's a risk."
"Risk of not doing any good?"
"Risk of doing harm. Oh," --she met his unspoken perplexity-- "you'd understand if you'd watched some of their faces as I have, and seen that look!"
"What look?" he said, curious.
"Morbid hunger for excitement-dope!" She flung it out with loathing. And then,
more quietly, "Shall I tell you what I've found out?"
"There's just nothing so bad for people as to hear about misery and do nothing. The only salvation for people who aren't going to do something is not to know." She went to the far side of the room and came back with a piece of sewing--queer sewing for those sophisticated hands. A flannel hospital-shirt. She had hidden it out of sight in a painted Italian chest.
"I've got into the habit," she seemed to apologize, "of doing this kind of thing in the evening--unless we have company."
"I'm glad I'm not company any more." He was looking at her hands. They were beautiful, if you like. Their sculpturesque contours, their warm pearliness shone with new lustre against the coarse flannel.
" You wouldn't like to wear such stuff," she said.
"I would, if you made it." He bent his fine head and kissed her fingers. She made no protest. But directly he lifted his face, she began to sew with measured quickness.
"I am an expert now. If I keep at it, I make one of these things in two evenings."
Winter sat back, with a look of dismay.
"You aren't going to sew at that rate the whole blessed time?"
"It'll help me to forget I've broken my vow."
"Not to talk about them."
"You forget," he said gravely. "You agreed to exceptions." Her hand kept up its rapid rhythm, but she lifted her eyes a second. They were golden in the shaded light. "Some have to be told--those who can help," he reminded her.
"Oh, there are people for that! I'm not one," she said.
"You mean I'm not one?" He took out a pocket-book.
The fervour of sewing slackened; the round golden eyes followed greedily the counting of bills. They came to a hundred and ten dollars.
"That much a month for your people till six months after the war."
"You mean that? Oh!" And then she came to life. Not so much, you'd think, because of Winter's liberality as because he had brought back and made salient the liberality of others.
Yes; she had come to life over the American record. She celebrated American generosity, American tact, American organizing ability. With a fine romantic glow, she spoke of that fleet of sixty ships going to and fro upon the deep, bearing succour from America. No country not directly implicated had ever before made such a gift to a stricken nation. She did not forget Henry's part in all this. Henry's name did not appear in the
papers. Others got the credit. Henry did the work. "Henry--"
"No," he said pettishly; "I don't want to hear about Henry."
"I hate Henry!"
"You hate--" Her eyes danced. "Why?
"You know why." He said it like a sulky schoolboy. "There must be a lot of fellows who hate Henry."
At that, she smiled her famous smile and went on sewing the hospital-shirt.
As for the autobiography, he had to supply that mentally, from odds and ends he remembered reading in the papers and hearing from his sister. Aurea Disston was a person who had no duties, no children, no contact with real life. The typical luxurious American, coming suddenly upon something that sobered her, had been turned, by the quick alchemy of disaster, into a nurse before she was a probationer. One thing she kept saying: "I wasn't a real nurse--only, things had to be done, and I was often the only one who--dared to do them." Then, upon her husband's acceptance of a post, came a change of field or, rather, an ever-changing field. Later, when Henry Disston lay ill of fever, the same calm serviceableness in his deputy, his nurse, his wife.
It was Winter's way to see all life in pictures. He saw them now in endless
succession. Aurea as deputy commissioner. Aurea as a nurse. Aurea as High Almoner. Aurea as wife had to be painted out. One way to do this was to tell her about himself--things he'd never told anyone else. When Winter saw how composedly she took certain passages, he laid on the colour till she said, "Don't!" and held up her hand.
"Why?" he demanded.
That stayed him as no conceivable torrent of moral objurgation could have done.
His sister had been right. Laurence Winter was essentially a non-social person. His restless, critical mind left him no great faith in his kind and no great pleasure in them.
His experience of women in particular had not been happy. For him, the "virtuous" ones had been irredeemably dull, and the unvirtuous had ended by boring him, too. If they had bored him less in the end, it was because the end came quick. He presented the spectacle of a man of genius capable of creating beauty and joy for anybody rather than for himself. And so it came about that this idealizing of Aurea Disston did not work the transformation in him popularly supposed to follow. The easiest attitude for him to fall into was that of affecting to hate Henry and to be in love with Henry's wife.
He flattered her outrageously.
"I suppose he says this sort of thing to all
his sisters," she remarked, one day, when Miss Jeannette slipped into the studio to look at the fire.
"And why do you suppose anything so egregious?" he demanded.
"Puts them in a good humour," the sitter suggested. "Look how I'm grinning, Jeannette--like a Chesire cat!"
"Well, like a cat of some sort," he agreed. "Look here: I'll do you as a cat! You just wait!"
He found a piece of drawing-paper and stuck it on a board. Out of a box he snatched a stick, now a black one, now brown, now orange, vermilion. He seemed to be not so much drawing on paper as drawing out of paper by alluring little strokes and caressings--to be luring to the surface--a cat which had been in hiding. And the tabby-head was also the head of a woman. As the likeness to the particular woman looked impudently out, Miss Jeannette, a piece of firewood in her hands, stood protesting.
Aurea stared, amazed, amused.
"Yes; that's what you're like!" He flattened the low forehead, pointed the triangle of the face, and over the round eyes emphasized the lumps of hair till they stood up like impressionist cat's ears. "It's the creature"--he punctuated comment with accents of fresh colour-- "that keeps her own counsel. Self-contained. No doggish en-
thusiasm. No passionate friendships. The Immemorial Cat!"
"You ought to beat him, Aurea dear!" The pale sister kissed her for amends.
Laurence came closer, too, but came looking back at the sketch and shining subtly with the creator's joy.
"Yes; beat me, Aurea dear." As she still laughed, eyeing the cat, "No beat?" he enquired, with his small-child air. "Very well then." He kissed her, as though offering the necessary alternative. He seemed to forget the cat; he had gone back to the great portrait.
In her astonishment, Aurea had looked round at Jeannette. That lady had taken her brother's sudden ebullition with a calm that both astonished an reassured the object of it. The combination of spontaneity and of openness in his act strengthened a growing conviction in Aurea's mind. The usual fantastic, half-mocking devotion was his pose--an airy superstructure founded on something very different from what he avowed--nothing less than a shamefaced honesty of affection, romantic, innocent. Something far too simple, Aurea felt, for him to own to. Something, nevertheless, that only the finer spirit, whether simple or complex, could bring to birth.
Having settled this in her mind, Aurea most inconsistently twice telephoned to put off her sittings. Three nights in succession she
dined out. On the fourth, he found her at home between nine and ten in the evening.
"Glorious you look in this brown and gold and orange! Do you know, every one of those colours is in your hair. Fact. More tortoise-shell cat than ever in this light." He made only indirect reference to her absences.
"I haven't been idle. More cats for you. A rapturous collection of cats. I'll show them to you--to-morrow? You must have a sitting to-morrow."
Yes, she'd come. She must see the cats, anyway.
He stayed till eleven. And she sewed.
"Well, good night, Saint Aurea." He kissed her hand. His lips lingered there.
"Ask the Beljums. Ask" --he looked up-- "the men you've driven distracted by just smiling at them. There ought to be a law against people smiling like that."
"You, my dear," she said pleasantly, "are a goose."
"Oh, I dare say!" He was smiling himself till he burst out with: "Gods! I should like to see you stirred. Nothing stirs you except war victims. I'm a war victim. Do be a little stirred for my sake."
And then that maddening smile!
What was a man to do?
What, in point of fact, Winter did, was to enjoy himself more than he ever had done in his life, painting his subtle and scandalous
series of Aurea-cats--and, when the mood veered, painting, with a tender brilliancy that marked the apogee of his powers, that masterpiece of his, "Our Lady of Succour."
"How much do you think about me when I'm not here?" he would break out, apropos of nothing at all. "I think of you all the time!" He said it with his touch of burlesque.
"Oh, I dare say!"
"When I don't see you, I'm miserable. Are you miserable when you don't see me? Not a bit. I'm nothing to you." In the face of her cheerful protest, he would gloom a moment, and then forget his injured feelings in looking at her from a new angle. "I know," he said, one evening, with his characteristic quickness of transition, "you're a reincarnation of Ptah, the cat-faced goddess of the Nile. Anybody else ever tell you that? Of course not. Nobody ever told you anything true till I came along. You are more beautiful than ever to-night!"
She looked at him over her sewing.
"What's 'true' is you've had a pipe-dream about me," she said. "You'll come out of it."
"So that's all I get!" He flung out his long hands.
"For my patience. For my--oh, very well. Since it doesn't seem to matter what I say, I'll say anything--I'll say all! Not just that I'm in love with you. You knew
that at the beginning. Oh, yes, you did! That I'm in love with you goes without saying. A horrible lot of men must have been in love with you."
"No; very few."
"Oh, very well, politest of men!"
"What I'd like to know is who you've been in love with."
"Nice thing to talk about to a married woman!"
* * * *
They were extremely gay the next afternoon over those outrageous cats. While Aurea was putting on her things to go home, he stood looking at her.
A good many people had painted her, he said, reflectively stroking his moustache. "And nobody has made a success of it. We're going to make a success of painting you." He came nearer. Under the hand arrested at his upper lip, two sentences dropped out: "I don't believe anybody's ever made a success of loving you. What if we were to make a success of that, too?"
Jeannette came in to say word had been telephoned up that the auto was waiting. Aurea, putting on her gloves, spoke of a letter she'd had that morning from Henry.
"He sent a receipt for your gift," she said to Laurence. "Henry is so grateful--"
"I've been making love to her," Winter interrupted. "That's why she's reminding
me about Henry. She pretends she doesn't know what a large proportion of the population believes in polygamy--like me."
"How you do adore shocking people!" said his sister.
But Aurea shook her head.
"Poor Laurence! I'm coming to see he hasn't any moral sense."
The object of commiseration looked flattered. "Now we're getting on! We've cleared away some of the rubbish."
Jeannette gave Aurea the lead with the indulgent laugh of one well accustomed to take for humour all these waywardnesses of the enfant gâté. But that there should be no mistake, she added, with her wan playfulness, "If all the ladies you've talked nonsense to took you seriously, Larry, you'd have your hands full."
"Viper!" he returned calmly. "You know I've never adored anybody as I adore Aurea."
* * * *
That his wildest extravagances were perpetrated when his sister was present, all fell in with Aurea's theory. When they were alone, he was discreet and often silent. Sometimes, during the sitting, he hardly spoke. On those days, he painted with extraordinary absorption. He was, in truth, painting superbly. Then, after he had thrown down his brushes--reaction.
Aurea saw how little physical strength was behind that energy of genius. At such times, under the surface cynicism and behind the dreamer, she had glimpses of the Eternal Child. The dreamer touched her imagination. But it was the child that carried him farthest with Aurea.
When he wasn't dining with her, he would drop in of an evening about six. "On my way to the club, I suppose."
Aurea had heard from Jeannette that for a long while after his wife died Larry didn't go near the club.
As he stood before Aurea, wearing his overcoat still and carrying hat and gloves, she would ask gently,
"What's the matter?"
"Matter? Life. Isn't that enough?"
"Nonsense! You look cold."
" Am cold," he'd say, looking pinched and childish.
"Then come and sit in this corner. Nobody is ever cold there."
Certainly he wasn't.
While he warmed his blood, he warmed his imagination with daring phrases. He tried them as he'd try a new colour-scheme--with a sense of intellectual excitement. If they had excited her, he told himself he would have desisted. That they didn't excite her, that she smiled at them in her high way, made them seem safe while not detracting from the fascination of their sound. He
went on from one intimacy of speech to another, with all the excitement of the born explorer.
"How you take it all!" he burst out, one night. "Without a quiver of an eyelash. Without"--he bent over her and put his fingers on her pulse-- "without an extra beat. Though I pour out my soul! It's awful to be as unresponsive as that. It's such--such"--he rolled his eyes round to find a sufficiently recriminatory epithet--"it's such a colossal ingratitude."
And when she'd laugh at that, he'd laugh, too. But repetition of the note affected her like discord. It was too much out of tune with her theory. He, too, seemed minded, sometimes, to strike the old resolving chord: "It's little enough I ask in return, though I give you everything!"
* * * *
Neither could have told just when the gay travesty had been abandoned. Certainly, the more he told her how adorable she was, the more he came secretly to resent the way she "took it."
Winter understood as little as most people that no true relation is long proof against the corrosive quality in flattery. The most signal proof of its immorality is that it creates in the flatterer a false sense of service, a conviction in him of obligation on the part of the flattered. This conviction will persist in absence of all initial encouragement or any
proof of gratification. Absence of gratification isn't believed in. That it isn't shown is interpreted as part of a parsimony of soul.
Laurence Winter had given without stint. He had spent himself generously in largesse of the lips and heart. Just what had Aurea given him in return? It grew to be the all-overshadowing question. He came out with it one never-to-be-forgotten evening: she took all and gave nothing.
"Nothing? You say I gave nothing?"
She was sitting in the big chair with her sewing. "Why not the sofa?" he had objected. She only shook her head. No need to remind him that, if she sat on the sofa, he would come and sit there, too--very close. He would do that and more in the studio, in the face of Jeannette--making comedy out of it. "Of course I may kiss my cousin." He gave her the feeling that he watched for supersensitiveness, to pounce on it with laughter, with delicate gibe. That Jeannette was there stamped the scene as "only Larry's fun." The same identical act, or even a far more guarded sketch of it, here at Aurea's, took on significance. "I must alter this," she had said to herself, and shrank before the difficulty. For the difficulty wasn't only because of him. Because of herself. A sense of wrench, of loss, of throwing away something of sweetness, of value. Of what value? Where were they going?
The question had to be faced. Sitting
there on the sofa the night before, again he had kissed her. Quite quietly. Almost gravely. And Aurea had made no protest until he drew her nearer him once more in saying good night.
"No," she had said, smiling.
* * * *
But now, there wasn't any smiling.
"I give nothing? Is friendship nothing to you?"
Hadn't he told her often enough he didn't believe in friendship? He sat looking at her with a critical coldness. Presently: "It's all nonsense what I've been saying about your not really caring. You do care." He said it not at all loverlike, but more as one lodging a charge. "The only excuse for you is that you don't yet realize how much--"
"I've never pretended I didn't care about you," she said, a trifle too hastily. "I'm very fond of you."
"' Fond!'" He was furious. "Dare say! And you're 'fond' of your dog. And 'fond' of chocolates. But don't tell me"--he bent his head and looked at her with an odd upward flash. "It's a great deal more than that."
Though her face was wary, she could still say lightly, "What puts that into your head?"
"If it weren't so, you aren't the kind of woman to encourage me."
She blinked at him as though he had cuffed her. "Do I encourage you?"
" Do you?" Now that she was so very serious, he was laughing like his old self.
Was it "only his fun"? Certainly he was very humble afterward.
"It's so little I ask. I'm willing to do the giving."
But that, too, rang discord. In a sense, she felt he meant that it should--that it should stir her to some show of reciprocity. The thought stirred, instead, some obscure resentment in her. She looked out at him with gathering suspicion.
"If you don't understand friendship and don't want affection, what do you want?"
"I want you to love me," he answered, with his small-child air.
She seemed to consider that--to try to get her old bearings after a violent shaking.
"In a way, I do love you."
"Prove it!" But his tone changed almost instantly. It dropped to ask, "What's the matter?"
Something smouldering in her had gleamed coldly at his challenge. The "something" shone phosphorescent in the golden eyes.
"Since you think I encourage you, I've got to tell you. You can't have what you want." She said it harshly.
"What--I want?" he enquired, with bewilderment.
"Yes; you can't have it!" There was a
hardness in her voice that was like hatred. He shrank under it till his whole attitude confessed repulse. Pushed far back in the deep chair, arms falling over the sides, he stared at the changed face opposite.
"I'm not that kind." Her wounding little sentences fell on quivering flesh. "Any other man would have understood. I've tried hard enough this side of seeming fatuous. I've kept on hoping, hoping,"--the hardness faltered an instant only--"that you'd be satisfied with what I could give you. You aren't satisfied!"
He struggled to his feet.
"But I haven't asked--I didn't want--O Lord!" Out he bolted, with his hands up to both sides of his head, as if the blow had fairly cloven him through the skull.
She sat there a long time, staring at her arrested needle.
The next morning brought a letter.
O blind! How do you suppose I could ever have
painted "Our Lady of Succour" if I'd had those
thoughts in my head?
--an eloquent, indignant letter.
When she laid it down, tears of humiliation stood in her eyes.
"Oh-h," she breathed, "let me hide."
That instinctive cry was the key-note of the days that followed. Hide she did, solitary in a country hotel, for two weeks.
On the morning of her return, she met a friend of Jeannette's.
"What's the matter with Laurence Winter?" the lady demanded. "He looks like a tinker's ghost."
Aurea murmured, "Always delicate, you know," while her heart sank.
"Do you think he's a drug-fiend?" the woman persisted.
"He didn't use to be," said Aurea, with a sense of doom. "What he is now, don't ask me!"
She found him alone, reading, by a dying fire. A sharp contraction held her heart an instant. His face was ghastly.
Aurea looked at him out of appealing eyes. She took his hand. With touching humbleness, she begged him to forgive her for misunderstanding him. "I see clearer now." She drew her chair close to him; a new warmth and candour shone in her face. "Seeing" wasn't always so easy, she told him, and then she looked away. At least, it wasn't easy for a woman. If she was over-ready to--think things, she was a mock. If she didn't, and things went wrong--all her fault!
"Yes, you're right, Larry; it is a hard world to live in." Her eyes dropped on his hands. They were magician-hands. But they were pathetic hands as well. Perhaps that was why, looking at them, her chin
trembled. "What people could do for one another," her low voice went on, was so pitifully little. The little there was--what could excuse us if we didn't do it? She had come to him to say that. As he made no answer, she raised her eyes.
"Oh, Larry dear, don't punish me!--for I--I need you."
"Yes; more than any woman you ever knew. Just what I want to complete my life is what you've offered me. To complete it, did I say? To make it endurable. I'm starved, Laurence. I've been starved for years!"
Two or three broken, hurried sentences told of a girl married very young to a man who wouldn't, at any age, have been the right man. Not for her. "I couldn't, even to you, Larry, tell that story. Then, too, Henry has behaved well these last years. Given me my liberty and never encroached."
"You don't live together?"
"Not since six months after our marriage. We shall never live together again."
"He's no monk."
She made a gesture like one brushing away some little stinging insect.
"I was always stumbling over knowledge of that kind. It used to hurt horribly--used to hurt my pride--my sense of--oh, I know you don't agree about that! Or you pretend you don't. Anyway, those
'lapses,' as Henry calls them, don't hurt me any more. But the loneliness!" She burst out with it suddenly, as though a dam had given way. She rose to her feet and faced him with unseeming eyes. " That was why I flung myself into the Belgian work. I went to Henry. 'Look here!' I said. (The intensity of vision in her face painted Henry Disston on the air. Laurence saw again the man's congested face. And, confronting it, Aurea, as she had stood making that appeal--the clasped hands slightly extended; the gold of her eyes greyed over with tears.) 'I don't interfere. I let you enjoy yourself. I haven't ever before asked you to share anything with me. I do now. Let me share this work.'
"'Why?' Imagine Henry's wanting to know why! I knew he wanted to take another woman over. ' She won't work,' I told him. 'I will. And the work will save my soul alive.' It did, I think," she said humbly, and sank on her knees. She hid her wet eyes on the arm of Winter's chair. "It was the best thing," she went on, in a muffled voice, "that ever happened to me--till you--oh, Larry--" She lifted her face and put out a hand. He seemed not to see it. But she took one of his in both her own, and slipped into her low seat, still holding his hand--cherishing it. "To a lover I could never have told--but to you--just this once. And we'll never talk about it any more. I
do need a little loving-kindness." She lifted his hand to her cheek. She looked over it at him. "And if you need that, too--" She seemed vaguely chilled at his lack of response. Then a light came into her face. "I've been reading a lot of memoirs--filling in the days--yes, and the nights. I didn't know there had been such friendship between men and women. Oh, I remember you never liked that word 'friend.' It's been used for such poor stuff--that's why. But you and I--oh, I do love you, my friend! And to know that I may say so and do no wrong to anyone--that I may have this safe and beautiful background to my life--it's more than I ever thought to find. Dear-- dear--"
She bent over the arm of the chair and laid her cheek to his an instant. He was intensely still. Then the sombre eyes turned on her.
"What is it, Larry?" She could feel all the thin frame trembling against her arm. As he averted his face, she brought hers close again.
And again, " Don't!" he whispered.
She stared, motionless.
"You don't know what you're doing," he said. Then, as she drew sharply back: "You don't know what you have done! Already. Beyond recall." He turned on her. "What devil made you put that into my head?"
"Put--what--into your head?" she breathed.
"That I loved you-- like that. For I didn't. I swear I didn't. Not till you put it into my head!" In the middle of her protest, he bent across the chair-arm and seized her two hands. "The thought of you, I tell you, never cost me an hour's sleep till that night. Never once, till you--"
As she wrested her wrists, forcibly out of his hold, he sat back an instant, a figure spent, hopeless. Then, slowly, he bent forward and hid his face in his hands.
A horrible intensity of silence held the studio till Winter dropped his hands and showed a ravaged face. Still with something childlike in its piteousness, he said, "You've put things in my head that never were there before, Aurea." Suddenly the child vanished, burnt up in the flame of his eyes as he whispered, "What can be done about it?"
Slowly she shook her head.
"But something must be done. I didn't invent those thoughts. You--"
"Yes. Be honest. Admit you invented them. You forced them on me. Take them back, Aurea, or I shall go mad!"
"I--don't know how--to take them back." She drew away. With face turned from him, she stood fastening her long coat. The man sat hunched in his chair.
"It's an unfair game--this game you've
played. And you won't even pay your score!" He waited. Still that foolish buttoning and the head turned from him. "I must pay for you--"
"Hush!" That she kept her face averted gave him hope. She dared not look him in the eyes. "How can a woman of your kind not feel responsible when you are responsible? I swear--"
Jeannette's voice in the hall. As Aurea, without a word, went slowly toward the door, he sprang to his feet.
"What are you made of to be willing to leave me like this? You haven't taken it in. This is your work, Aurea." His low voice, thrilling after her, caught her at the threshold. "Think, when you try to sleep," he went on, "that I'm awake--and--think why. Remember, till that night there was nothing in my thoughts of you--nothing, I tell you, to bring this on me."
She turned at last.
"I don't believe you. The thought was there all the time."
"Was it?" he asked, under his breath, when the door had shut behind her. He stood staring at the desolate hearth.
Jeannette opened the door.
That she did nothing for the fire was so strange he turned to look at her. It was Aurea.
"There was something I forgot to say."
"Yes; I had that impression, too," he answered bitterly.
She looked at him.
"I don't know if you'll understand."
It depends on whether you tell the truth."
"Oh, it's the truth!" But she stood there silent--the counsel-keeping, secret look on her cat's face. Her lips parted, but no word came.
"Shall I help you out?" There was no tenderness in the man's tragic mouth. "You aren't the least horrified that I'm in love with you. You want me to feel like this--and not to say so. Or, at least, not to say so above a whisper. Above all, not to insist. Just give and give. Till I've poured out love, talent, all my days, life itself." She stood there as still as any portrait against the wall. "You want it all--"
"There's an answer to that!" she cried.
"You know you'd take it all! Quite safely, you'd think, as one of the take-all-give-nothing sisterhood."
"This is dreadful!" She turned away.
"You're not going till"--he barred the door-- "not till you tell me what it was you came back to say." Again he stood, gaunt and brown, like a figure carved in relief on the oak panelling. She looked at him.
"He's coming back?"
She moved her head faintly to make, "No."
"He wants you--over there?"
"I think it must be that the people want me. I hope so."
You mean you're going?"
Again that faintest, irrevocablest motion, this time assenting.
He left the door with bent head. His shoulders sagged. When he came within reach of a chair, he laid a hand on the back.
"You hadn't meant to go when you first came in?"
"No." "And now--you're going."
"There'll be no question, there, of my 'taking.' It will be all giving, thank God!"
Her jubilation was more than he could bear.
"Don't deceive yourself! You'll only give bread. You'll get--more of what you've taken away from me--peace." He dropped into the chair. She came over to him and stood at his side. He looked up at her with eyes that brought the tears to her own.
"Aurea--" he began.
"What I really came back to say--" Her first words struck in hurriedly, and then, after a puase, the came as though drawn out of
deeps-- "I mightn't care about you half so much and yet want to--give 'everything,' as we've been calling it."
"I don't understand," he said, in his old plaintive tone as Jeannette came in.
"I was afraid you mightn't," said Aurea.