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The Highest Power
By MARY HEATON VORSE Illustration by Everett Shinn
T was a matter of chance that I, a
so well, and I want to tell her story; for it leads not only to certain interesting speculations concerning the heart of woman, but others as well-whether, for instance, the cherishing of any ideal day in and day out, even if the ideal in itself seems one which we have pigeonholed as "unworthy," does not form some impregnable fastness in the soul.
When Vivian was eighteen I got a glimpse of the inner heart of her, which burned with such a cold and yet impassioned fire, when a group of young people in a house party were telling what they asked of life. The girls, Vivian among them, were débutantes, the men, quite young; I, the only older one, was there because I was an old friend of Vivian's mother. They all babbled forth what they wanted like clamorous, greedy, spoiled children writing letters to Santa Claus.
Vivian was the only one who did n't talk. When they appealed to her she smiled vaguely at them and said she did n't know yet what she did want.
The group broke up, and she and I were left alone. She was absorbed in her own thoughts; very intense she looked as she let her gaze travel far out into the night. As I looked at her, the purposefulness of her pose and the intentness of her expression made me realize that I had really never seen her before, that in some subtle way she had always been on her guard. I reflected, too, that she was so very beautiful that her beauty would forever serve her as a complete disguise if she chose; for there is no greater disguise for a woman's true nature than beauty, and almost no greater barrier between her
and the comprehension of man. Let her beauty be only great enough, and her lovers will not seek to know who she is, but each one will imagine her the woman of his dreams, and she herself may remain unknown and unloved all her days.
"Why did n't you tell them what you want, Vivian?" I asked her at last. "You know well enough, don't you?" She turned slowly toward me and looked at me with somber eyes, very speculating eyes, as though she were searching me through and through.
"Yes, I know what I want," she said at last. I waited for her to go on, but she did n't speak. She was stronger than I, for I spoke first:
"What is it?" I asked her.
"Power," she answered. She seemed then very earnest and very young.
"Power?" I echoed with middle-aged stupidity. "The high places of the earth?"
She nodded very gravely and looked straight at me, and suddenly the youthfulness of her was lost in the passion I read in her eyes. I saw that she had in her, eating at her heart, an unquenchable desire. I had no further temptation to smile at her youthfulness; I had never had, even when I was young, so impassioned an ambition toward anything as that I felt in her.
"How do you mean to get what you want?" I asked her next.
"There's only one way for me, and that 's through marriage.'
"You may find the price high," I suggested. "What if it goes against your heart?"
"At least I shall get a man this way," she flamed at me, "while the other way I sha'n't be able to tell. I don't see any
of them able to tell-the ones who marry for what they call love."
We talked a long time that night. I can't tell you how completely she convinced me that she had in her the peculiar talent from which her ambition sprang. She wanted to be near the heart of life and see the great people of the world and shape her own place in the world of affairs. She wanted power and responsibility. She had no young cyni
cism about love, but in her own case she counted on her ambition outweighing any upflashing of instinct. It is hard to conceive of a conversation like this with a miss of eighteen not having its element of the ridiculous, but I never had a conversation that more completely escaped it. She did n't say she would achieve what she wanted; she only said she intended to try for it with all her intensity. That she looked the part of a great lady so well, I saw, made it possible.
It was six years before I saw her again except for unimportant moments. We never referred to our conversation, but we always met as close friends. The Neverses did n't need to do that distasteful and devious thing known as "climbing." She went everywhere; was presented at court in England. I heard of her as much courted in Italy. Meantime I noticed that it was Mrs. Nevers and not Vivian of whom people spoke as ambitious. I even heard Vivian referred to as a "sweet girl." During that house party I had seen that the girl already had in her mother an unconscious tool. The latter was immensely proud of her daughter and seemed, if you can put it that way, vaguely appalled by her. She had even then sensed a purpose and a hardness of fiber in the girl that she did n't in the least understand.
I heard two things of her that made me believe that she had remained true to her purpose. One was the affair of David Van Voorhis. His family did n't call Vivian sweet. They said she had played with David and broken his heart. I wondered when I met him if she had n't broken her own as well, to such an extent
had he the quality of charm. I did n't see how any girl he seriously cared for could keep from falling in love with him, he had so much simplicity and fineness. think he would have made any one else but Vivian happy. He had almost everything any woman could ask of a man, including money and position, as position goes in this country, but Vivian had plucked him out of her heart.
The next thing was her affair with a prince of royal blood. The affair rang through Europe. It seemed for a moment as though this prize was hers. It seemed for a moment as if his desire combined with her grace and beauty would triumph over the inevitable obstacles to such a marriage. He was too near the throne for their marriage to be made without all sorts of compromises. With all Europe wondering whether tradition or this romantic and beautiful young couple would win, Vivian withdrew from the scene. She withdrew while there still seemed to be possibilities left on her side. She must have calculated every chance and seen that the sort of victory she wanted could n't possibly be hers. So she quietly and with the utmost dignity departed. And she would never see him again.
This made her an international figure. Every one in America knew who Vivian Nevers was, so did every one in Europe. Her attitude in the whole affair left her with public opinion tremendously on her side, but a worldly old woman said to
"I call Marion Mrs. Now-or-Never, for this next year is the time for her to make any sort of a match she wants for Vivian-except a royal one."
With a proper sense of proportion the Neverses were seen about very little for some time, and then it was in America. They had been traveling and visiting very quietly abroad, and it was there they met Haldane.
I met the Neverses again on their return and I met Haldane at the same time. When I saw him I remembered Vivian's words of six years ago, "At least he will be a man."