« AnkstesnisTęsti »
"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."
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 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.
"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.
"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.
heap all this on your shoulders, Granny. I'm going, now. Good-by, dear."
"But he does n't truly care. came first; Gertrude has it all. got to stand it. I'm a horrid bother to
Gertrude And I've
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. I 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? I hardly see him nowadays."
"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?"
"You always do think of the right thing for Norton, Hilda."
Hilda's heavy eyes did not brighten. In these weeks her face had changed mysteriously. The velvety crimson had faded from her cheeks. Her mouth was pinched and gray.
"What have you planned for the afternoon?"
"Won't you go somewhere with me? A little drive or shopping?" "Just as you like, Granny. matter."
It does n't
"Hilda, child, what does matter so terribly these days?" I put my arms about her; but it was like clasping a woman of stone. "You are n't breaking your dear, foolish heart over a whim!”
"No, Granny. If I'm breaking it at all, I'm breaking it on a fact." A wintry gleam crossed her face. "Don't fret over me, dear. I do well enough. Where shall we go?"
"Hilda, I don't want to plague you, but it hurts me so to' see you suffer!"
"Well, I'm a pig to let you see it, Granny. I'm a pig, anyway; that's the whole difficulty. I'm so greedy I can't just take my little warmed-over slice, and say, "Thank you kindly; this is a plenty.' It is n't a plenty; I 'm starved out." "But, Hilda
"Don't say, 'But, Hilda,' in that bland mother-superior tone!" She drew back, looking into my face. Her eyes hardened. "Would n't it be the same with you? Would n't you fight with your last breath for your whole loaf? Would n't it just about finish you to know that you never could have it, that another woman had it, every crumb?"
There she had me cornered, beautifully cornered.
"Yes, Hilda. I could n't live and stand it: Once I knew how it feels, only for a week or so. It was long before we were married. There was another girl at our academy, a beauty, and I imagined that Frederic Yes, I know. Even that one little week-it nearly killed me. I never could laugh about it afterward, though Frederic was always teasing me for my jealousy. I can't laugh about it even now."
"One week! Yet I 've lived and stood
it month on month. I'll have to stand it my whole lifetime. No, I sha'n't." Her eyes flashed dark. "A while ago I thought I could endure it; but now-O Granny, can't you see? Can't you understand?" She hid her face on my breast. "It 's different now. It 's going to be another world, another life, for us. No matter if Gertrude owned him body and soul, he's got to love me now!"
"Yes, he 's got to, Hilda." I was choking back tears as I kissed her. "But don't I keep telling you that he does love you dearly?"
"He ought to tell me so, and tell me now."
"Yes," said I, grimly. "He ought to tell you now." For the first time in my life a deep, resentful bewilderment filled me toward my dear, oblivious son-my son, who sat before his glowing hearth, the door shut forever on his bleak days; my son, who could see all his new happiness, yet could not see the lonely question in his wife's young eyes. A foolish question; yet when did the woman who loves ever ask a wise one?
That hour of the comedy! Through the long, sparkling first act we sat there side by side, like a worried old ghost and an impassive younger one. Not one word of that crisp dialogue reached my ear. I was back on my treadmill, blundering round and round that merciless question. Beside me, Hilda's sleeve was warm against my hand. She sat so close that I heard her faint breathing; yet in her white stillness she seemed a thousand leagues away. Never in all my life have I felt so hopelessly alone.
It was half-way through the second act
when I caught a curious, pungent odor. I have a very keen sense of smell.
At first it was just the slightest acrid tang, a breezy whiff that took me back fifty years and more to a slope of halfcleared woodland, a hot wind in my face, a hazy October sky. I shut my eyes and sniffed in satisfaction at the fine, spicy fragrance of burning brush. Then I smiled at my foolishness. Who, pray tell, would be burning brush on Thirty-ninth Street in front of a nouveau-art theater?
Even in that instant the man beside me turned a blank, yellow-white face toward me and muttered, and a woman in front sprang to her feet, then sat down quickly. Then I knew.
There was no panic at first. Instead, every rustle and whisper stopped. The audience sat moveless, frozen in their seats. It was as if the arched, glittering ceiling were a dome of magic, a vast vacuum-bell in which we could neither speak nor move. In that great, thronged place there was not one sound except the soft clip of the comedian's feet as he took the last steps of his dance.
Then, as if moved by an invisible spring, the audience rose, and began to move decorously toward the aisles.
"Hilda, you must help me get away. The theater is on fire."
Then at last Hilda roused. She staggered to her feet.
"Get behind me, Granny. Put your arms around my waist. Hold tight.'
Hilda did not stir. She sat as if carved in one with her chair. Her face, pallid, expressionless, was like a mask.
"Hilda!" Then terror shook me-t ror of those ghastly faces streaming by, the choking smoke in my throat, the blaring music, my own utter helplessness against this stony, silent girl. Then a dreadful thought came: Hilda did not think of saving herself; Hilda did not
She pushed into the crowd. Foot by foot we were carried on in that grim, urging flood. Nobody spoke. Nobody struggled to forge ahead. Like doomed things, mute before certainty, we drifted on.
Out rang a woman's voice, piercing
scream on scream.
The deathly hush was shattered by a thousand frenzied cries. The crowd stopped, swayed, then broke into a writhing, shrieking mass. Every drop of courage went out of me. I felt myself thrust back, suffocated, crushed.
"Just a minute, Granny. Just one minute more."
Hilda caught me up in her left arm, grasping me like a child. With her right arm she beat her way ahead. She fought out right and left. One man pushed her roughly back. With her shut fist she struck him in the face. He reeled out of her way. Now we had reached the edge of the crowd. Now, with a powerful lift, Hilda swung me through, into a niche under the stairs. I lay against the wall, struggling for breath.
Hilda grasped me again.
"One more pull, Granny. Hold hard, dear."
Again that fighting, smothering mob, those shrieking voices; then a flare of daylight, a gush of blessed, icy air in my face, over my head the blessed, open sky.
"We'll hurry right up to my apartment. It 's nearer than your house. Now, dear."
She swept me through the crazy horde that blocked the pavement, across the street, then into the nearest taxi. She sat close beside me, rubbing my cold, trembling hands. Her own hands were steady and calm. Her face was set and colorless, as dull as stone.
She put me into the easiest chair, before the fire. She tucked a rug over my knees, and poured the tea that a flustered maid hurried to bring. She was as gentle as an angel. For all her real consciousness of me, she might have been a world away. I tried to swallow my tea. Somehow it would n't go down.
"You 're a nice, untruthful duck, Granny." Again it came, that stubborn, weary whisper: "But it is n't one bit of use. What real difference could it make if I"- Then her bitter young face melted with a rare sweetness. "But it would make all the difference in the world if anything had happened to you, Granny."
I should have reasoned with her, reproached her, maybe. That this young, splendid creature, with all of life opening before her, should dare not care! Instead, I felt again that deep, bewildered anger toward my son-my dear, careless son, who took his largess of joy as complacently as the air he breathed, and with as little gratitude. Surely Norton might have thought, he might have known. Yet when did men ever think? When did they ever know? Always we give, and they take, as the wheat takes the sunlight, with no more question or concern. To be sure, that 's quite the most sensible way the wheat can behave. If only we women could learn that before we get to be seventy-six, going on seventy-seven!
I tried to speak again. I had a dim notion of arguing it out with her; but the Fates stooped and caught the whole tangled skein from my hands. There was a ring at the door, then a rush of feet down the hall. Past the astounded maid, in burst Norton-Norton, white-faced, wildeyed, bare-kneed, an outrageous figure in running-drawers and a pink-silk shirt. Luckily somebody had held him at the gymnasium door long enough to throw at fur coat over his shoulders, else he 'd have been arrested before he could cross the drive. He caught me in his arms.
"Mother, I 've just heard! You were in that theater fire! And Hilda-where is she? O Hilda!" He dropped me instantly, and sprang across the room to his wife.
"Hilda! You were n't killed! You were n't even hurt!" He hung over her, stammering like a great school-boy. "Lord! but the soul was frightened out of me! I thought-I don't know what I thought." He stooped and seized her lax hands. "Hilda, why don't you speak to me?" His voice shook for tenderness on the little name.
Hilda had not moved. She did not seem to breathe. Her blue eyes burned darkly on his face.
"We were n't hurt one bit, Norton," she said finally, with an effort. "I'm sorry you were needlessly disturbed." 'Needlessly disturbed!'" Norton tried to laugh. "Well, I was a bit upset. To think of you-you-" he choked. Then he sobbed out: "If anything had happened to you! If anything ever did. happen!"
"Why, Norton!" Hilda stared at his working face. Her dull face lit with a piteous, frightened gleam. "Why, Norton! Would it matter like that, dear? Could it matter-"
"Could it matter?" Norton laughed rather savagely. "Well, no. No more than losing my eyes, say, or having the soul torn out of me by inches. Merest trifle."
"Well, but I 've never supposedHilda gripped his wrists and pushed him back. She stared into his eyes with the peering eyes of a stranger. "I've never dreamed, Norton. If I mean all that to you, why have you never told me so?"
"Told you? Told you what?" Poor Norton! He stood gaping, stupidly puzzled. "Why should I? Could n't you see for yourself?"
"No, I did n't see.”
"You mean that all this time you 've thought-you 've let yourself imagine-" Norton stuttered helplessly. And then
No, it was not honorable in Norton. It was not faithful to the dead. He should have held his tongue, and let that foolish, greedy child beat out her life against those bars of silence. And yetoh, let's be thankful that, when a man does speak, he tells it all; that when the