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"It's a fact. Somehow or other I could n't get hold of myself; never felt such a blank fool in all my life before." "What does it matter? Come and sit down here beside me. Tell me, you are glad to see me, Kenneth?" Something of all the yearning of those years was in Cynthia's voice.
"Why, of course," he said heartily. "Always glad to see old friends." He looked around the room. "By Jove! this does look familiar! I have n't been over here since you left. Did n't like that rotten bounder who took the place; played the worst golf I ever saw.'
And although quiet seemed creeping up all around her heart, Cynthia forced herself to answer lightly:
"That damned him, of course."
He squared around again and looked at her.
"Why did n't you let me know you were coming home?" he demanded.
Ah, that was it-he did n't like this surprise. Manlike, he would make her suffer for it. The relief of it brought the blood back to her face.
"Would it have made so much difference to you, Kenneth?" she asked softly. "Why, yes; I might have helped put the place in shape for you. There must have been quite a lot"
"No; thank you just the same. It was no trouble." She got up suddenly and tugged at the bell-cord. "What will you have to drink, Kenneth? Honora can still make a mint cup."
"By Jove! yes; have n't had one in the Lord knows when."
So she gave the order and came back; but she did not take her old seat. She sat down across from him, and they struggled to find something to say to each other.
Honora came in presently and left them alone together once more.
"There's something I want to tell you, Cynthia," he said when he had proved to his own satisfaction that Honora's hand had not lost its cunning. "Yes?"
He cleared his throat.
"It 's this about us, you knowand and Charlotte" He stopped and looked at her. He wished she would help him out, but she sat very still, and of course there was no way he could
know that her hands lying quietly there in her lap had become suddenly like ice. He began again:
"I want you to know that you were right, absolutely right all along when you insisted my duty was to Charlotte and the children. I saw it myself after you had gone. Thank God it wasn't too late! You-you see what I mean, don't you, Cynthia?" She waited so long to answer he hurried on: "I must have been mad; that 's the only way I can account for it. After it was all over, I told Charlotte. Charlotte was a fine woman, Cynthia."
Cynthia spoke now and looked at him.
"You told Charlotte when-when it was all over?"
"Yes, I told her of my mad infatuation for you. I told her the attitude you had taken, what you said about her and the children, -and then your going away so suddenly. I told her everything." The man's voice actually trembled.
He had told Charlotte, while shebut Cynthia could not think.
"You understand, don't you, Cynthia?" he asked again. "I'm willing to take all the blame; I did take it."
Blame? Where had there been any blame? And then she did understand. "Yes," she said slowly, "I understand you, Kenneth-perfectly."
And she did understand. She understood what his attitude this morning should have prepared her for; but, dear God, was it for this she had come home at last? She got up, and went to stand by an open window. She felt she must breathe again. Back of her he went on: "If you had gone with me when I wanted you to, it would have meant a smash. We were almost certain to have been miserable after a little. But, thanks to you, we were saved all that. Your common sense saved us; you even went away without letting me know. It was a good thing, too, because I would have been mad enough to have stopped you, or at least to have tried to do it. But, as it was, the whole thing blew over. I don't think any one ever suspected unless it was Honora."
"You have no cause for alarm." Cynthia's voice came level and calm.
"And I have the consolation of knowing that I did my duty; I made Charlotte happy."
Was it a huge joke? Was this the Kenneth she knew? He had the consolation of knowing he had made Charlotte happy! Would n't he sweep her up in another moment and kiss her numb heart back to life! But no; he went on:
"Sometimes I even wished I knew where you were, so I could write and tell you to come home. Charlotte even suggested it once
"Please she said, and came back and sat down, facing him. He stared at her uncertainly while her eyes searched his face.
He cleared his throat again and set the empty glass he held down on a little table, drew an immaculate handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his hands. Decidedly it was time to change the subject.
"It seems like old times to have you back-" He stopped and frowned. That was a false note. Old times still meant the thing they had just been talking about. "I mean when Waring was living, and we played bridge over here in the evening, you and Waring and Charlotte and I."
With more curiosity than any other feeling, for every other feeling was dead, Cynthia looked at him.
"Does it?" she said. Was that really what this room meant to him, all it meant, when it was here he had held her in his arms and told her he loved her and begged her to go with him?
"You were in France, were n't you?" "Yes," she said; "I was in a canteen at Bar-le-Duc." She could hardly turn her eyes away from him; he fascinated her.
He nodded his head, ponderously. "I thought I heard it somewhere or other. I was in Washington myself. They made a lot of fun of us; called us 'swivelchair majors'-all that sort of thing. But it was no joke, I can tell you; I was at my desk every morning at nine o'clock!" He said it with pride.
Cynthia remembered, as she listened to him, that she had not been at her post at nine o'clock every morning. She remembered sickly the ache of her bruised and swollen feet after she had
danced half the night through with lonesome, homesick boys, the endless dishes she had washed, and the miles of floors she had swept after that dancing was through. No, she had not been at her post at nine o'clock. But she told him none of this. Somehow she could n't imagine herself telling this Kenneth anything.
He went home presently, not the way he had come, but out through the front door. It was more fitting, she thought, as she accompanied him. Then she came back and looked at her room.
It had changed. In just that little while it had changed forever. It was only an old room, rather dull and faded. The hangings should be done over, she noted, with a detached sort of feeling. No, there was nothing there that she remembered, nothing of what she had seen that morning when she had filled it with flowers. Something had gone from it; something had gone from her, too. She felt it a curious lack.
Just there it was he had stood and held her in his arms when the final madness came the madness they had both fought so long. She had not time to build a defense; and, then, she loved him. There was no being false to that. Yes, it was there she had told him in answer to his eager questions. They had been gloriously happy for a little. Perhaps it was infatuation; perhaps he was right, after all. Certainly it had swept them both away. And yet infatuation did not last through years, and, when it was done, make one suffer as she was suffering now. No, it was love she had given him, and love of which he had just robbed her.
And did he think her love nothing that he had not taken it into account? And she had not got over it; she had not tried. She had treasured the fine frenzy of it all those years in the way women do; so that men had said in far-away India or Italy, wherever she had happened to be, "The beautiful Mrs. Waring has a light in her eyes." They had said that, and gone softly when they had seen it. When Charlotte had died it had taken all of her strength to keep from running home, just as it had taken all of her strength to go in the first place. But no, she had waited never doubting.
Love had grown into something akin to an anchorite's hair shirt, something that flagellated, but gave ecstasy.
He was right. She had reasoned for them both and gone away. Hers had been the final decision; but now, to insult her with this! Infatuation he had called it something to apologize for. To laud her for the things her reason had impelled her to do, not her heart! And he had told Charlotte when it was all over. He had not even been true to her memory. And Charlotte had died, he said, admiring her; but she knew Charlotte. It was much more likely Charlotte had died feeling smugly sorry for her. Oh, yes, she knew
The absolute safety of it for him, due first to one woman's renunciation of her very soul and to another's generosity! And yet not generosity. There was nothing generous in permitting conventions to fight one's battles. Charlotte had known she had held all the cards except one, and as years had gone by, she had slowly, inexorably destroyed that one. She had made it just hard enough for him to realize his sin and repent. He had achieved peace through absolution, and then came the beginning of the padding. Charlotte had
known how to supply that-comfort, the children. Oh, yes, she could see it through all the years.
And this was the man who swore to love her always. There never was woman loved as she was loved, so he had said. He would storm high heaven for her, go through hell. Yes, but not through years of ease. He could not do that. Hell would be an adventure, but comfort was a soporific warranted to dull the highest passion.
She remembered now all the fine orthodox things she had talked about his duty, his home. Only men lose their reason in times like these and are unable to see the other side; it had been left for her to see it, to make the sacrifice and go. And now this was the end.
IN return he had pleaded love. Laws were not made for such as he and she, he had said. Their love transcended everything. Prove it, go away with him. He was willing to give everything he possessed for her. They must go. They would go to Egypt-Egypt in the purple dusk, the Nile, Shepherd's Hotel at Cairo, where they would sit with their coffee after dinner and watch the world pass by. He had held her in his arms and talked of Egypt.
Suddenly Cynthia laughed. She had never been to Egypt. With all her going up and down the world she had never been there. She was saving it for the last-for him. Often when she had seen its sun-scorched coast dim from the deck of her steamer plowing up and down the Mediterranean, she had looked and exulted. "Some day!" she whispered to it. So she had waited for it. Together they would live and dream its everlasting age-old romance. She did not know how or when it would come, what would be the circumstance; she only knew if she were true, if she believed and waited, it would come at last. But now love was dead. There was nothing to wait for any longer. She would never see Egypt, never! She would flee from it as from the plague. "Egypt!" she whispered; and sobs came, dry shakings of her whole body. What a fool she had been! What a simple fool! To think that love would last! To feed on dreams for so long! Why had she not taken the gift when it was offered? Once in a lifetime, she told herself, only once; and she had thrown the glory away!
As days went by she walked or drove, or sat in her garden and looked with dulled heart. It seemed that life was over. Was there anything worth going on for? She came to realize the terrible waste of those past years. The realization was agony. She came to resent it. She was thirty-four. Soon she would be old, and never know anything but a promise of happiness.
And then again habit was too strong. All this was not true; the old Kenneth was there, waiting around the corner of the world for her. But he came and sat, with his fat, black cigars, and talked of town and the children and his golf. And it was n't the Kenneth she had known; he was dead. This was a prosperous, middle-aged, rather dull person, well satisfied with himself, a credit to his club, the perfect citizen. He had to be careful what he ate; he had a blood pressure. He discussed it as though it were a patent of respectability.
They sat and talked of the weather, a school for Alix next autumn, and whether Ken should be allowed to go in for law, as he wished. She kept her eyes and hands busy with fine sewing. She
did not suffer any more; there was just a dull pain where the agony had been. And as she saw more of him, listened to his platitudes, there was born a humor of it all. She tried to picture his bewilderment if he but knew what was going on behind her cool detachment, if he knew that she thought he had no soul, that he stood for death and stupidity and stagnation. What would he say if she told him suddenly that his life was merely a matter of digestion?
And then she wondered if she could have saved him. This, too, she came to doubt in time. His love, if it had been love even in the beginning, had been due to her actual bodily presence; there had been nothing fine or ennobling about it. She saw it clearly now.
His pride in the children suffocated. her. She never saw them unless she came upon them by accident. She remembered Alix as a fat, roly-poly baby of four or five and Ken a noisy youngster a few years older. It was strange to see them so nearly grown. And, she noticed, rather amused by it, that Alix had Charlotte's round, moon-like face and the same small, selfish mouth. Ken bore no resemblance to his mother. He much resembled the Kenneth she had first known when she had married and come to live next door. He even possessed the same trick of pushing back that tumbling lock of hair which fell down his forehead at unexpected intervals.
She came upon him one day on the little beach which bound the two houses on the sound side. He was lying flat on his back in the shade of a rock, his arms folded under his head, and a book, its pages ruffling in the wind, beside him. She would have passed on; but at the sight of her he jumped to his feet and snatched the little book out of sight.
Cynthia was faintly amused. stopped, and lowered her parasol. "Poetry, Ken?" she inquired, with a little smile.
The color came under his dark skin, and he hung his head.
She folded the little parasol and sank down on the sand.
"Let me see!" she commanded, holding out her hand.
The boy brought the book to light, suffering tortures meanwhile. Cynthia
had expected Tennyson, or at the very worst Robert Service.
"Why, it's Verlaine!" she said in some surprise.
"Yes," he replied, still more embarrassed.
She opened the little book and read half aloud to herself and half to him, "Clair de Lune":
Your soul is as a moonlit landscape fair, Peopled with maskers delicate and dim, That play on lutes and dance and have an air Of being sad in their fantastic trim.
WHEN she had done, she handed it back to him. All the amusement had gone out of her face. "I have a fuller edition," she told him. "Perhaps you would like to see it sometime."
"It 's awfully good of you," the boy stammered.
"Oh, no." She rose to her feet. "Thank you, Kenneth." And she was gone, leaving the boy to stare after her wonderingly.
And that was the beginning of her friendship with him. All through the summer months they were much together. He had the soul of a poet, she discovered, this shy boy, with his tumbling dark hair and ardent blue eyes. The discovery came slowly as he yielded up to her quick sympathy his dreams and hopes, all his boyish fancies. They talked about all the dear, old lovely things things she had once believed in. Would he lose it, this love of beauty and of the things one could not touch with the hands? Would the moon come to mean a planet necessary to the solar system and nothing more? She often asked herself these questions.
"It 's not law that I want really," he confided one day, stretched at her feet on the little sandy beach. They had just been reading "Gertha's Lovers," taking turns at its lovely limpid prose. "No?" She looked down at the earnest young face.
"No; I want to write."
"I think I knew it, Ken,” she said gently.
He looked up at her.
"Yes, I suppose you did. You - you know everything." He stopped, shyly embarrassed.
"Can you see dad?" he went on presently.
Cynthia nodded her head; yes, she could see him.
"He'll jolly well throw a fit. But I mean to do it. This law course is only a stall. It'll do to start with; it 's better than any other profession for my purpose. I've I've thought it all out, and when I'm free" His voice died away completely. He had forgotten she was there. He was in the future, dreaming.
KENNETH watched their growing intimacy with heavy amusement. One night she dined with them; it was her weekly custom. She refused Kenneth's escort home, saying that Ken would go, that he wanted a book he had left there earlier in the day. And the older Kenneth had flung one arm around the boy's shoulders and said laughingly:
"Do you know, Cynthia, I believe this youngster of mine is in love with you!"
And Cynthia, with one look at the boy's stricken eyes, had mastered an almost insane desire to bury her nails in the man's fat, amused face. But she turned away, and made no reply beyond: "Are you coming, Ken?"
He went with her to her own front door and did not speak a word.
Then for days she did not see him. Finally she sent for him.
"I don't think you 're treating me very well, Ken," she said lightly. That was the tone she meant to take about the whole thing.
He looked at her, but did not answer. "One must have one's little family jokes, you know. Of course I realize my age; but still I think it hardly polite-" "Oh, don't!" he said.
Cynthia stopped, startled; it had been almost a cry.
"I had no idea you were taking it so seriously," she went on. "I'm sorry
"Oh, Mrs. Waring, it is n't that!" His young face was very white. "It 's that he should laugh!"
"But, dear, he thought-" she must say something in Kenneth's favor; it would never do to widen the breach"he was only joking."
"No," he exclaimed violently. "He knows-"