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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. that long program bored you. to luncheon with you." looked at me keenly.
I'm afraid I'll stop Gwendolen
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 stared at it line on line. Gwen's music flickered through the words, a mocking web of sorcery. One minute ago that refrain had been the cry of endless grief. Now it lilted to those tranquil, incredible words, "I know you will be glad for me glad for me."
"What is it, Mother?" Gwen's hands. dropped with a clash. She sprang to me. "Nothing. Only-Norton."
"Norton?" Swift dread woke in Gwendolen's face.
"No, it's good news, Gwen. be married."
"Yes; to Hilda Brewster."
He is to
'Hilda Brewster! Why, she's a mere child! She was graduated at Smith in Isabel's class. She's a darling, but she can't be a day over twenty-four. And Norton is forty. It can't be true!"
"What if he is forty? It is true, just the same." Maybe I was a little snappish. Sixteen years seem a grave difference; yet a great, pounding surge of hope was leaping through me thrill on thrill. 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.'
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."
I laughed at Peter while I exulted. Then I looked at Hilda.
Somehow Hilda was rather quiet nowadays. Very likely it was just my fretty, old-woman notion. Yet mothers develop extra tricks of sight and touch-extra feelers, Peter would say. All was well with my son, but all was not well with my girl.
"Hilda? Why, she looks superbly, Mother." Charles Edward laughed at me. "Too sober? Nonsense. She 's trying to be a dignified Frau Professor, and she 's putting it on a bit thick, that 's all."
I looked at the shadows under Hilda's eyes, the faint, new lines about her lovely mouth. She sat a little back from the noisy family roomful. Somehow it was as if she sat withdrawn behind a curious barrier a barrier as impalpable as frost, maybe, as impassable as a wall of stone. "If there's anything more tiresome than an old lady per se, it's a prying old lady, Mary Caroline," said I, severely. "Can't you keep your meddlesome thumbs out of other folks' porridge? Is n't it enough to look on happiness, without sticking in a pin to make sure whether it's alive or stuffed?"
After which, I tossed on my unreasoning pillow all night long. Norton's happiness was n't stuffed with sawdust. That I knew. But Hilda-Hilda! And as I watched her day by day, and saw the deepening shadows in her sweet eyes, the weariness of her silence, it was as if I looked on my own precious daughter in a pain that I could not ease.
It was not long till Gwen spoke. Gwen's eyes are very keen. "Don't you think, Mother, that Hilda seems a little-different?" "Different?"
"Well, tired, perhaps. 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?"
Gwen gave me a long, slow, steady glance. Her lips curled. Out of her pitiless woman wisdom she spoke.
ton so happy that he can forget. As for
She caught up her furs.
"Good-by, Mother. I must hurry. I'm late to luncheon now."
'Gwen and I are conjuring up a whole witch-band of terrors," I scolded to myself. "There are no cowards on earth like the women who hold love fast, yet are afraid. I know, because I'm one of 'em. And Gwen is another. And Hilda
No, I shall not grieve over Hilda another minute. If my own son is n't enough to make any woman happy, what more does the little minx want, pray?"
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."
Perhaps the urge of my longing reached Hilda's numb heart. She came to me almost every day. All her talk was of pleasant, trivial doings. But one thing 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
"Yes, I can see. Hilda has made Nor- lifted, she told me all.
"Granny, I want to ask you something." Hilda sat staring at Frederic's portrait. Her cheek was gray-white today. Her pale lips quivered. "Have you ever thought, could you ever considercould you have married a second time?"
For a minute I did n't see at all. Instead, I caught my breath. Even at seventy-six I possess the lively remains of a very peppery temper. Marry a second time! I who had been Frederic Wentworth's wife! Then I chuckled inside. It was absurd to be so touchy. Hilda had never seen Frederic. The child had no idea what she was saying. Besides, if she judged by that crayon daub!
"Women don't marry twice, Hildawomen like me, who have had all that love can give. If you 'd known Norton's father, you'd understand."
"What about men, Granny? Is it the same way with them?"
Then at last, poor, old, blind bat, I saw and understood.
"With men it-it 's different. can forget. They can build again. can be just as exquisite, just as new, its beginning."
Men Life as in
"Perhaps," Hilda replied. may be with one man as it is with you, Granny. The first life was the real one; the new life is n't new. It's just patchwork, just makeshift."
"I think not, Hilda." My heart pounded so hard that the words nearly choked me. Oh, the poor, sore-hearted little goose! "New life is not makeshift. It is transformation. It is as supreme as dawn. All the old matters are put away. All the old, sad memories are forgotten." "Ah, are they, Granny?
The question flashed out like a swordthrust. Hilda's eyes blazed, then dulled with heavy mists.
"Hilda, come here! Come to me this minute!"
She hung back; then she came like a child, and crept into my arms. She did not talk to me as one woman talks to another. She poured it all out as if I'd been a graven image, a dim saint in a shrine. Bleeding shred by shred, she unpacked her soul.
"Granny, he 's got to love me best. I can't take my half-loaf. I won't. And he does n't really love me. He never will.
Gertrude came first. Gertrude was his real love. Gertrude has it all." "Gertrude!"
"I'm not blaming Norton, not one bit. But he treats me like a child, Granny. He laughs at everything I say, he romps with me precisely as he does with the little girls. He comes tearing home from his classes, and he storms all over the house, and sings and whistles, and wants the most ridiculous things to eat, and behaves as if he was about fifteen. So do I, for that matter. I'm always so glad when he comes back to me that I—I don't think about things then; I don't seem to care. But Norton never does think. He never does care. He does nothing but rest and enjoy himself and just be glad." I thought what Norton's home-comings used to be seven years ago.
"But surely you want him to enjoy his home!"
"Want him to? I'm wilder than he is. Every minute that Norton is with me, I'm just so happy!" Her soft eyes deepened. Her voice took on the exquisite cadence of the woman beloved. "Oh, he 's such a darling, Granny! But to him I'm nothing but a nice kid, that 's all. I don't reach the depths of Norton's nature. I never shall."
"Well, but maybe he 'd quite as lief not have those depths stirred up. Most of us feel that way. And mind this: Norton is yours, my child, heights and depths and all."
"If I could believe that!" Hilda trembled. "But I know you, Granny. You'd perjure yourself cheerfully to comfort me. Anyway, no matter what tender fibs you 'd tell, I'd know better. Gertrude came first. She had it all. She has it all now."
I opened my mouth; then I shut it again hard.
Gertrude was in her grave. All her poor, faulty days were buried with her. She had been my son's wife, the mother of his children. I could not say one word; but these words were scorching on my tongue:
"Yes, Gertrude had it all-all his youth, his clean ambition, his eager hopes. And she wasted and blighted and threw away. She killed his love so utterly that she 's no more to him now than the dead grass above her. Then you came. And
you, Hilda, are not just the love of his heart; you are the breath of life to your
But I dared not. Even to the pleading face that I loved I could not give comfort. For my lips were closed. I could not tell the cruel truth about the deadthe poor dead to whom only silence can be kind.
"Her portrait has told me so much," Hilda went on in her slow, colorless voice -"the beautiful, unfinished one." "You don't mean you keep that picture hanging in the library!"
"At first Norton said we'd put it away; but I said no, we 'd keep it right there for the children. It seemed as if we ought, you know. Norton never speaks of it. But whenever he looks at it, he forgets what he 's saying; and his eyes grow so grave and sad! Oh, poor, poor boy!"
I should think his eyes would sadden when he looks at that portrait. It was painted by a man of whom he bitterly disapproved, a fat-witted, impudent young adorer of Gertrude's. Gertrude's sittings to him had occasioned so much talk that the artist himself had taken alarm, and had sailed for Europe without giving the last touches.
"Though he never speaks of it, he seems to shrink from it, poor fellow!" Yes, I understood that, too; but I set my lips.
"If I only counted-the least bit!" Hilda's hand trembled in mine. "But I don't; I'm just the thing that holds his home together."
"Well, that's a pretty important job, Hilda."
"Any hired woman could do it."
"Could she? My child, listen. Don't you know your husband loves you SO dearly that he never thinks of telling you so? Norton never speaks out. Even when he was a baby, he was the most provoking, tongue-tied little clam! But his love is as deep as his silence."
"If he does love me, he should tell me." Yes, he ought; but he never would. That 's Norton. I felt an unmotherly desire to cuff his ears.
"But he does n't truly care. Gertrude came first; Gertrude has it all. And I've got to stand it. I'm a horrid bother to
heap all this on your shoulders, Granny. I'm going, now. Good-by, dear."
She went away heavily. I looked after her. I had n't a word to say; I could only listen. That's what you pay for being a mother, mind you. You listen, and you wait. If only I dared drop a word to Norton! If only I dared tell Hilda the truth! No, nothing remained but to fold my hands and hold my tongue, though I'd have bitten a piece out of it for the chance to say one word.
It was days and days before I saw Hilda again. Through that time I was n't a mild, precise old lady any more. I was a sullen, tormented wild thing, threshing myself out against that adamant wall. Yet even in my angry rebellion I could not loose the bonds that held me; for there was my duty to the dead, then the stronger seal that closes the lips of every mother. For your son is flesh of your flesh. The woman he has married may be as dear as your own sweet daughter; yet, as you value their love, hold your silence. Break your heart, if you like; but never lay even your gentlest mother touch upon the secrets of man and wife.
HILDA did not come to me again. I knew why. She was angry with herself for having talked to me. Very likely she was angry with me for having listened. stood that waiting as long as I could. At last, one gray, cold day, I took my courage in both hands. I went straight to Hilda's apartment, and dragged her home to luncheon.
"Norton will be away all day," I insisted against her faint demur. "I need you, Hilda. I'm abominably lonesome and grumpy."
"I need you, too, Granny." Hilda sank down before my fire. The little chill of reserve with which she had greeted me was gone. On her white face only weariness remained.
"How is Norton? nowadays."
I hardly see him
"Very well. And very busy. His book is bringing him a lot of interesting correspondence, you know. This afternoon he 'll put in at the gymnasium. He 's going in for the Marathon hike, and he 's a bit soft."
"Was it your idea for him to go in on the Marathon?"