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"We women can't. There's only the one nesting-time for us. But they say, no matter how shattered his life may be, a man can forget. He can begin anew. If Norton would marry again-if he only could! But he never will. There is nothing left to build with." She stood looking down at the snowy park. I don't think she knew how every word was stabbing me. "Norton's life is like a burned-out world, for Gertrude wrecked everything long before she died-all his courage, all his faith, all that splendid, gay ambition of his. No, it would be a dismal joke for poor old Norton to try to build again."
I must have put my hands up over my ears, for Gwendolen stopped short, then cried out in quick self-reproach:
"O Mother! Oh, I did not mean to hurt you so!"
"It does n't matter; I 've long since known that, Gwendolen."
Yet her words had hurt, and sorely, although every thought of my dear, good younger son is like a thorn in my heart because of the long, thorny road that he has trodden.
"It is time for the recital, Mother. Of course you 're going?"
"I suppose so, though I 'd rather go to that new Scotch comedy."
"But there's so much more to the music, Mother!" Gwen's voice fluted with angelic patience toward the cantankerous old lady. True; there's so much more to the music that I 'd rather stay away. It rouses too many aching thoughts, it stirs the ashes of old, frustrated hopes and dreams. Better to go to the comedy, and laugh, and come away.
"Well, I'll go. I may as well." After all, the recital did not make much difference. All the old, harsh memories were awake. The music could neither evoke nor quell. Through the long program I sat there in the great rose room, my old brain toiling away on its eternal round, like a stumbling old horse on its treadmill.
Last winter Gwendolen heckled me into attending a course of lectures on eugenics, given by a world-renowned, yet singularly artless, scientist. After dragging us by our weary ears all around Robin Hood's barn, he won this ingenuous goal: that, for all our boasted civilization, we are at best only primitive ani
mals. That our basic needs are just as sovereign as they were in the gray mornings, a thousand centuries ago, when we women stood on the ledges before our caves, with our babies on our backs, and watched our men paddle away down the roaring cañon-river, and cried them good hunting. And that these needs are today what they were then-a safe, quiet hiding-place for the little ones; work for the woman to do for her own, with her own hands; warmth and food and comfort for the man when he comes home tired and cold from the day's hunt. Well, Gwen's artless scientist was indubitably. correct. I knew all that when he was cutting his milk-teeth. So did every other woman. Almost every other woman; for that was what Gertrude never knew, what Gertrude never could understand.
Perhaps there had been no real woman in Gertrude. Perhaps she was just a charming pink-and-white shell. All the big, powerful, vital instincts were shrunk and withered in her. Her own home made no appeal. Her children always irritated her. Even when they were just tiny, soft armfuls, she left them to the nurse as much as she could. As for Norton, she had no more longing to protect him, to mother him, to shield him at his work, than would a pink-and-white butterfly. Like Professor Agassiz, Norton had no time to make money. But Gertrude was minded to mend all that. The first years she coaxed and teased, with pretty beguilings. After that she grew plaintive, abused, and frequently wondered why Norton could not realize that she was young, pretty, and eager for all the things that money could buy. I dare say it never occurred to her that, given peace of mind and time, Norton might make some discovery that would give her all the luxuries she craved. But, as Charles Edward grimly said, Gertrude never wasted good gray matter in reasoning things out. Instead, she lived by one precept alone: let Norton do it.
And Norton did it, or tried to. Year after year he plodded on, teaching all day, keeping an eye on the little girls and their haphazard nurses, calming the perennial tempests in the kitchen, forever struggling against the tides of debt that forever menaced him. Silent, taciturn, never complaining-all that was Norton's way;
and concerning Gertrude his mouth was sealed with the double seal of love and shame.
When Winifred was five and Louise three, Gertrude's uncle died and left her all his money. At last, she jubilantly declared, she could go as far as she liked. She went far enough. Norton's hands were full that winter, for his senior professor had gone to Berlin for his sabbatical year. Gertrude managed very well without him. She was already popular among the rich, gay younger set. She had several devoted cavaliers. One, a handsome, reckless boy, heir to a great fortune, had made her conspicuous more than once by his flamboyant attentions. No, she did not need Norton; and Norton, fagged, angry, disheartened, held his tongue, and let her gang her ain gait.
It was all wrong of Norton, of course. He should have held her back. His was a strong nature; he could have ruled. But that was Norton all over. Never would he speak out. Always he kept silent, though the heavens should fall.
The black months that followed! Charles Edward and Gwendolen were conspiring to keep things from me, I well knew. But sinister echoes reached me. Only Norton's prestige, joined to an eloquent handful of Charles Edward's money, had availed to keep one or two of her exploits from the public eye. Norton never said anything. Yes, Gertrude was well. She was spending this week in the Berkshires, he believed. Next week she had planned a run to Washington in young Schoonover's private car. Some how he did n't care to see her accept so much from Schoonover. "But you know Gertrude." He stopped, with a wry laugh that sent the furious pulses leaping in my throat. Yes, I knew Gertrude.
Two weeks later I fled up to Boston, swept on a wind of mad, unknowing fear. I did not go out to Harbridge, though. Instead, I telephoned from the hotel.
Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth were out for the evening. Yes, both were well. Yes, the maid would give my message to Mr. Wentworth. Certainly.
"So much for your foresight, you flighty, old wild goose!" I scolded as I settled down with a book. But at midnight Norton came to me. That hour is burned into my soul.
It was a rough, wet night, and Norton was in evening dress, but he'd forgotten his overcoat. He blundered into my room at the heels of the page. In his arms he carried little Louise, sound asleep. Winifred toddled beside him. Norton stared at me. His face was drawn and ghastly, as hard as steel.
"Good evening, Mother. Sorry to come so late, but-it could n't be helped. I've brought you the kids. Do you remember, Mother, when we were little tads,"-his ashy face whitened, his lean hands twitched,-"when we were little tads, like my babies here, you-you saved us jolts? Well, that 's why I 'm bring ing you the children. I"-he stopped; the veins swelled dark on his forehead"I don't want them to see their mother for a while. Do you-do you see?"
I took the children from him. They did n't seem to matter so much; but if only I could have taken my son in my arms and comforted him! He was not my grave, dignified young professor any longer; he was my little beaten, hurt boy. But I dared not touch him lest I unnerve him. I dared not say one word. This woman, this breathing shame, was his wife. I must hold silence. But the anger that swept me crushed out the last spark of youth in me. No, it is better not to remember.
Gertrude and Landon Schoonover had motored up to Pittsfield to the Aëro Club races. There, according to the newspapers, Norton would meet them later in the day. As it chanced, Norton was attending the Academy of Science meeting in Worcester, so the lying report carried conviction. Young Schoonover, it was well known, drove always at a reckless pace. Flying down a long hill, he had not seen the red flag at the culvert ahead. His heavy car crashed through the timbers and capsized in the gully below.
When the horrified laborers pried the car from his body, he was just breathing his last. Gertrude was instantly killed.
Over and over those cruel, eager despatches shouted their tale. Never once did they carry a word, a hint, of blame. Once more Charles Edward's money had done its work. To the eyes of the world, to her college acquaintances even, Gertrude had died unscathed. A charming woman; rather pronounced in her tastes, perhaps, for the wife of a college professor, but all the more charming for that. She had been widely known. She would be deeply mourned.
After those terrible days, life turned again into dun, quiet paths. Norton brought the children to me. Then he went back to Harbridge, and threw himself into his work. By July he was so fearfully worn that Charles Edward dragged him out of his laboratory, and packed him off to Norway with me.
He was docile enough about going, docile and silent. I had tried all along to interest him in other things; I'd tinkered up many foolish, loving diversions, only to see them fail. But now, when I saw this journey fail, all hope died in me. He was very patient about it, a little dull, a little benumbed, like a creature stupefied by a mortal blow. I did n't try to rouse him any more. I just sat by, hour on hour, and watched that beaten soul give way, quenched, lifeless, the ship go down in port, her pilot broken by his wheel.
At the piano a woman was singing a ballad of pity and tears, with a haunting, wild refrain. I locked my shaking hands. The music was lashing those memories into my heart.
"Wasted, wasted, wasted! No, it cannot be. All my boy's splendid promise shall not fall away to ashes. It cannot be. It shall not be!" But the song wailed it on, crying my heart aloud, telling it all to the listening world.
"You look pale, Mother. I'm afraid that long program bored you. I'll stop to luncheon with you." Gwendolen looked at me keenly.
I did n't want Gwendolen, I did n't want anybody; but maybe it was as well to keep her with me awhile.
So Gwendolen went home with me. But as luncheon was announced, Eliza brought in my mail.
I had seen a good deal of Hilda the summer before. Norton had seen a good deal of her, too, though I'd thought nothing of that. Hilda stood before my eyes as she looked, in those hot, bright mornings, when she 'd stop on the porch to cool off after her round of tennis. I could see her tall, vigorous young figure, the Saxon-blue of her eyes, the velvet curve of her cheek. I could hear her low, deferential young voice; for Hilda, athletic
modern girl, was reared to all the fine courtesies of an older day. Woven into her nature were all the gentle old-time precepts: industry, patience, duty, grace, and reverence. True, wise, happy-hearted, a Salem Brewster, every sound, sweet inch of her. Into those young, strong hands my son had laid the tangled threads of his life. "I know you will be glad for me- " O my son, my beloved, wounded child! Could he only know how glad!
Those weeks flashed by, a shining pageant. Hilda and Norton were married very quietly at Easter, and went straight to Harbridge. There Hilda set up the new home precisely as you 'd know a Salem Brewster would go about it. She chose a small, cozy house on a quiet street. She filled it with Norton's old furniture, and decked it with her wedding-gifts. She made for Norton and the children the first real home that they had ever known.
The little girls adored her from the start. They bloomed under her hand. And Norton-oh, I need not ask how it was with my son! Even the children's letters told so blessedly much. "Mother and father and us kids motor out to the lake twice a week and go swimming, and it 's simply great." "Mother has doubledared father to sign up for the tennis finals. He has gone into stiff training, and he growls most awfully because she won't allow him but one cigar a day. But we girls are betting our allowances on him, and he says, if his own wife and daughters are willing to gamble on him, he guesses he must buck up and save the family coin." "Mother's class has its fifth reunion in June. She's going to cart us all up to Northampton and show us off. She says father absolutely must finish his 'Plant Physiology' by that time, so she can blow about it. He's working like a Turk, and she 's helping revise. She helps on the drawings, too."
That was enough. Straws, maybe; but give any mother such straws, and she'll build her whole House of Content. At first I'd thought Hilda might be a little too young, too practical, too "concrete." She had never known suffering. Would she fail in sympathy? Mind you, she knew nothing of the ugly truths of his earlier marriage. When that sordid tragedy was played, she was a child
at school. But now I knew. Sympathy was the last thing that Norton needed. Instead, he hungered for the very things Hilda gave-work, laughter, ambition, the clean, flashing joy of life, the awakening of desire.
The one day they spent with me gave all I could ask. Peter put that visit into words. Peter sees everything.
"Gosh! Granny," said Peter, sadly, "ain't I your heart's own treasure any more? You have n't given me one blink to-day. You do nothing but gape and gaze at Hilda. You look at her as if she was your one best bet."
Peter was right. I 'd chanced my all on Hilda, and she had won for me. I looked at my girl, so sweet, so fair, in her new wifely dignity. I looked at my son -my son, a year ago a worn, gray, silent man; to-day a great, eager, spirited boy, his head up, his eyes shining, pride and delight in every word and glance. And my heart knelt in love and gratitude to the girl who had worked this miracle.
"It is all well with my children; it 's all settled, all serene. I'll never have any excuse for grieving over Norton again. It's just like the old fairy-tales. 'And so they were married, and lived happily ever after. Forever and ever.'' Even then
Much I knew about it.
NORTON won the tennis championship, to his huge satisfaction, and the scandalous profit of his gamester progeny. He published his "Plant Physiology," and it made the success of the year. The European reviews made me strut like a sinful old peafowl. Every letter was full of new achievements, glowing with well-being. Hilda's letters, less frequent, bore no shadow of reserve. I never once suspected, I never even dreamed.
In October they came to New York. Norton was to exchange with one of the Columbia men. He was bounding with health and energy. I saw now that his marriage had not just healed; it had renewed the deepest springs. Body and mind were made anew. He was throwing himself headlong into life, like a splendid runner eager for his race.
"Just you watch Uncle Norton's smoke," remarked Peter, pensively. "He's not on the side-lines any longer, thank you. He's right in the game."
It was not long till Gwen spoke. Gwen's eyes are very keen.
"Don't you think, Mother, that Hilda seems a little- different?"
ton so happy that he can forget. As for Hilda herself—”
Gwen gave me a long, slow, steady glance. Her lips curled. Out of her pitiless woman wisdom she spoke.
Perhaps the urge of my longing reached Hilda's numb heart. She came to me almost every day. All her talk was of
"Well, tired, perhaps. Yet there 's pleasant, trivial doings. But one thing something awry, I know."
All my cunning awoke. was wild to shield my girl.
"Hilda is perfectly all right, Gwen. We don't realize what a woman she has grown. Can't you see how faithfully she manages her household? Don't you see how happy she has made Norton?"
puzzled me: times without number she would look at me, her wistful eyes dark with strange question. Then her heavy gaze would turn to the portrait of Frederic, my husband, that hangs always above my piano. It's a direful crayon smudge that Charles Edward had made for me, the little dear, with his very first earnings. And I'd wonder and wonder what that questioning look could mean.
Then one day, as simply as a curtain
AFTER that I went right on fretting myself to aching old fiddle-strings. Of mornings I 'd laugh at myself for a pestering, old Meddlesome Matty. By twilight Norton and Hilda would drop in for a moment's gossip, Norton alert, buoyant, bubbling with news of his work; Hilda wan, white-cheeked, icy-still. Sometimes I'd look at them with a queer, scared thought of the eery old-wives' tale, how one who deeply loves can take on the woe of another, and give back happiness. and strength in its stead. Almost it seemed that Norton had seized on Hilda's youth, her verve, her eager, merry spirit; as if she sat here empty, desolate, a weary shadow of the radiant girl.
"If Hilda's own mother had lived, so the child could go to her! If she 'd only come to me! But this thing must stop. Hilda shall tell me. Of course I won't be able to help. Mothers never can help. They can just stand by and suffer. But I must know. I can't live and bear it.”
"Yes, I can see. Hilda has made Nor- lifted, she told me all.