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A Delicate Affair by Grace E. King

 

“But what does this extraordinary display of light mean?” ejaculated my aunt, the moment she entered the parlor from the dining-room. “It looks like the kingdom of heaven in here! Jules! Jules!” she called, “come and put out some of the light!”

Jules was at the front door letting in the usual Wednesday-evening visitor, but now he came running in immediately with his own invention in the way of a gas-stick,—a piece of broom-handle notched at the end,—and began turning one tap after the other, until the room was reduced to complete darkness.

“But what do you mean now, Jules?” screamed the old lady again.

“Pardon, madame,” answered Jules, with dignity; “it is an accident. I thought there was one still lighted.”

“An accident! An accident! Do you think I hire you to perform accidents for me? You are just through telling me that it was accident made you give me both soup and gumbo for dinner today.”

“But accidents can always happen, madame,” persisted Jules, adhering to his position.

The chandelier, a design of originality in its day, gave light by what purported to be wax candles standing each in a circlet of pendent crystals. The usual smile of ecstatic admiration spread over Jules's features as he touched the match to the simulated wicks, and lighted into life the rainbows in the prisms underneath. It was a smile that did not heighten the intelligence of his features, revealing as it did the toothless condition of his gums.

“What will madame have for her dinner tomorrow,” looking benignantly at his mistress, and still standing under his aureole.

“Do I ever give orders for one dinner, with the other one still on my lips?”

“I only asked madame; there is no harm in asking.” He walked away, his long stiff white apron rattling like a petticoat about him. Catching sight of the visitor still standing at the threshold: “Oh, madame, here is Mr. Horace. Shall I let him in?”

“Idiot! Every Wednesday you ask me that question, and every Wednesday I answer the same way. Don't you think I could tell you when not to let him in without your asking?”

“Oh, well, madame, one never knows; it is always safe to ask.”

The appearance of the gentleman started a fresh subject of excitement.

“Jules! Jules! You have left that front door unlocked again!”

“Excuse me,” said Mr. Horace; “Jules did not leave the front door unlocked. It was locked when I rang, and he locked it again most carefully after letting me in. I have been standing outside all the while the gas was being extinguished and relighted.”

“Ah, very well, then. And what is the news?” She sank into her arm-chair, pulled her little card-table closer, and began shuffling the cards upon it for her game of solitaire. “I never hear any news, you know. She [nodding toward me] goes out, but she never learns anything. She is as stupid tonight as an empty bottle.”

After a few passes her hands, which were slightly tremulous, regained some of their wonted steadiness and brilliancy of movement, and the cards dropped rapidly on the table. Mr. Horace, as he had got into the habit of doing, watched her mechanically, rather absent-mindedly retailing what he imagined would interest her, from his week's observation and hearsay. And madame's little world revolved, complete for her, in time, place, and personality.

It was an old-fashioned square room with long ceiling, and broad, low windows heavily curtained with stiff silk brocade, faded by time into mellowness. The tall white-painted mantel carried its obligation of ornaments well: a gilt clock which under a glass case related some brilliant poetical idyl, and told the hours only in an insignificant aside, according to the delicate politeness of bygone French taste; flanked by duplicate continuations of the same idyl in companion candelabra, also under glass; Sevres, or imitation Sevres vases, and a crowd of smaller objects to which age and rarity were slowly contributing an artistic value. An oval mirror behind threw replicas of them into another mirror, receiving in exchange the reflected portrait of madame in her youth, and in the partial nudity in which innocence was limned in madame's youth. There were besides mirrors on the other three walls of the room, all hung with such careful intent for the exercise of their vocation that the apartment, in spots, extended indefinitely; the brilliant chandelier was thereby quadrupled, and the furniture and ornaments multiplied everywhere and most unexpectedly into twins and triplets, producing such sociabilities among them, and forcing such correspondences between inanimate objects with such hospitable insistence, that the effect was full of gaiety and life, although the interchange in reality was the mere repetition of one original, a kind of phonographic echo.

The portrait of monsieur, madame's handsome young husband, hung out of the circle of radiance, in the isolation that, wherever they hang, always seems to surround the portraits of the dead.

Old as the parlors appeared, madame antedated them by the sixteen years she had lived before her marriage, which had been the occasion of their furnishment. She had traveled a considerable distance over the sands of time since the epoch commemorated by the portrait. Indeed, it would require almost documentary evidence to prove that she, who now was arriving at eighty, was the same Atalanta that had started out so buoyantly at sixteen.

Instead of a cap, she wore black lace over her head, pinned with gold brooches. Her white hair curled naturally over a low forehead. Her complexion showed care—and powder. Her eyes were still bright, not with the effete intelligence of old age, but with actual potency. She wore a loose black sack flowered in purple, and over that a black lace mantle, fastened with more gold brooches.

She played her game of solitaire rapidly, impatiently, and always won; for she never hesitated to cheat to get out of a tight place, or into a favorable one, cheating with the quickness of a flash, and forgetting it the moment afterward.

Mr. Horace was as old as she, but he looked much younger, although his dress and appearance betrayed no evidence of an effort in that direction. Whenever his friend cheated, he would invariably call her attention to it; and as usual she would shrug her shoulders, and say, “Bah! lose a game for a card!” and pursue the conversation.

He happened to mention mushrooms—fresh mushrooms. She threw down her cards before the words were out of his mouth, and began to call, “Jules! Jules!” Mr. Horace pulled the bell-cord, but madame was too excitable for that means of communication. She ran into the antechamber, and put her head over the banisters, calling, “Jules! Jules!” louder and louder. She might have heard Jules's slippered feet running from the street into the corridor and up-stairs, had she not been so deaf. He appeared at the door.

“But where have you been? Here I have been raising the house a half-hour, calling you. You have been in the street. I am sure you have been in the street.”

“Madame is very much mistaken,” answered Jules, with resentful dignity. He had taken off his white apron of waiter, and was disreputable in all the shabbiness of his attire as cook. “When madame forbids me to go into the street, I do not go into the street. I was in the kitchen; I had fallen asleep. What does madame desire?” smiling benevolently.

“What is this I hear? Fresh mushrooms in the market!”

“Eh, madame?”

“Fresh mushrooms in the market, and you have not brought me any!”

“Madame, there are fresh mushrooms everywhere in the market,” waving his hand to show their universality.

“Everybody is eating them—”

“Old Pomponnette,” Jules continued, “only this morning offered me a plate, piled up high, for ten cents.”

“Idiot! Why did you not buy them?”

“If madame had said so; but madame did not say so. Madame said, 'Soup, Jules; carrots, rice,'“ counting on his fingers.

“And the gumbo?”

“I have explained that that was an accident. Madame said 'Soup,'“ enumerating his menu again; “madame never once said mushrooms.”

“But how could I know there were mushrooms in the market? Do I go to market?”

“That is it!” and Jules smiled at the question thus settled.

“If you had told me there were mushrooms in the market—” pursued madame, persisting in treating Jules as a reasonable being.

“Why did not madame ask me? If madame had asked me, surely I would have told madame. Yesterday Caesar brought them to the door—a whole bucketful for twenty-five cents. I had to shut the door in his face to get rid of him,” triumphantly.

“And you brought me yesterday those detestable peas!”

“Ah,” shrugging his shoulders, “madame told me to buy what I saw. I saw peas. I bought them.”

“Well, understand now, once for all: whenever you see mushrooms, no matter what I ordered, you buy them. Do you hear?”

“No, madame. Surely I cannot buy mushrooms unless madame orders them. Madame's disposition is too quick.”

“But I do order them. Stupid! I do order them. I tell you to buy them every day.”

“And if there are none in the market every day?”

“Go away! Get out of my sight! I do not want to see you. Ah, it is unendurable! I must—I must get rid of him!” This last was not a threat, as Jules knew only too well. It was merely a habitual exclamation.

During the colloquy Mr. Horace, leaning back in his arm-chair, raised his eyes, and caught the reflected portrait of madame in the mirror before him—the reflection so much softer and prettier, so much more ethereal, than the original painting. Indeed, seen in the mirror, that way, the portrait was as refreshing as the most charming memory. He pointed to it when madame, with considerable loss of temper, regained her seat.

“It is as beautiful as the past,” he explained most unnaturally, for he and his friend had a horror of looking at the long, long past, which could not fail to remind them of—what no one cares to contemplate out of church. Making an effort toward some determination which a subtle observer might have noticed weighing upon him all the evening, he added: “And, apropos of the past—”

Hein?” interrogated the old lady, impatiently, still under the influence of her irascibility about the mushrooms.

He moved his chair closer, and bent forward, as if his communication were to be confidential.

“Ah, bah! Speak louder!” she cried. “One would suppose you had some secret to tell. What secrets can there be at our age?” She took up her cards and began to play. There could be no one who bothered herself less about the forms of politeness.

“Yes, yes,” answered Mr. Horace, throwing himself back into his chair; “what secrets can there be at our age?”

The remark seemed a pregnant one to him; he gave himself up to it. One must evidently be the age of one's thoughts. Mr. Horace's thoughts revealed him the old man he was. The lines in his face deepened into wrinkles; his white mustache could not pretend to conceal his mouth, worsened by the loss of a tooth or two; and the long, thin hand that propped his head was crossed with blue, distended veins. “At the last judgment”—it was a favorite quotation with him—“the book of our conscience will be read aloud before the whole company.”

But the old lady, deep in her game, paid no more heed to his quotation than to him. He made a gesture toward her portrait.

“When that was painted, Josephine—”

Madame threw a glance after the gesture. The time was so long ago, the mythology of Greece hardly more distant! At eighty the golden age of youth must indeed appear an evanescent myth. Madame's ideas seemed to take that direction.

“Ah, at that time we were all nymphs, and you all demigods.”

“Demigods and nymphs, yes; but there was one among us who was a god with you all.”

The allusion—a frequent one with Mr. Horace—was to madame's husband, who in his day, it is said, had indeed played the god in the little Arcadia of society. She shrugged her shoulders. The truth is so little of a compliment The old gentleman sighed in an abstracted way, and madame, although apparently absorbed in her game, lent her ear. It is safe to say that a woman is never too old to hear a sigh wafted in her direction.

“Josephine, do you remember—in your memory—”

She pretended not to hear. Remember? Who ever heard of her forgetting? But she was not the woman to say, at a moment's notice, what she remembered or what she forgot.

“A woman's memory! When I think of a woman's memory—in fact, I do not like to think of a woman's memory. One can intrude in imagination into many places; but a woman's memory—”

Mr. Horace seemed to lose his thread. It had been said of him in his youth that he wrote poetry—and it was said against him. It was evidently such lapses as these that had given rise to the accusation. And as there was no one less impatient under sentiment or poetry than madame, her feet began to agitate themselves as if Jules were perorating some of his culinary inanities before her.

“And a man's memory!” totally misunderstanding him. “It is not there that I either would penetrate, my friend. A man—”

When madame began to talk about men she was prompted by imagination just as much as was Mr. Horace when he talked about women. But what a difference in their sentiments! And yet he had received so little, and she so much, from the subjects of their inspiration. But that seems to be the way in life—or in imagination.

“That you should”—he paused with the curious shyness of the old before the word “love”—“that you two should—marry—seemed natural, inevitable, at the time.”

Tradition records exactly the same comment by society at the time on the marriage in question. Society is ever fatalistic in its comments.

“But the natural—the inevitable—do we not sometimes, I wonder, perform them as Jules does his accidents?”

“Ah, do not talk about that idiot! An idiot born and bred! I won't have him about me! He is a monstrosity! I tell his grandmother that every day when she comes to comb me. What a farce—what a ridiculous farce comfortable existence has become with us! Fresh mushrooms in market, and bring me carrots!”

The old gentleman, partly from long knowledge of her habit, or from an equally persistent bend of his own, quietly held on to his idea.

“One cannot tell. It seems so at the time. We like to think it so; it makes it easier. And yet, looking back on our future as we once looked forward to it—”

“Eh! but who wants to look back on it, my friend? Who in the world wants to look back on it?” One could not doubt madame's energy of opinion on that question to hear her voice. “We have done our future, we have performed it, if you will. Our future! It is like the dinners we have eaten; of course we cannot remember the good without becoming exasperated over the bad: but”—shrugging her shoulders—“since we cannot beat the cooks, we must submit to fate,” forcing a queen that she needed at the critical point of her game.

“At sixteen and twenty-one it is hard to realize that one is arranging one's life to last until sixty, seventy, forever,” correcting himself as he thought of his friend, the dead husband. If madame had ever possessed the art of self-control, it was many a long day since she had exercised it; now she frankly began to show ennui.

“When I look back to that time,”—Mr. Horace leaned back in his chair and half closed his eyes, perhaps to avoid the expression of her face,—“I see nothing but lights and flowers, I hear nothing but music and laughter; and all—lights and flowers and music and laughter—seem to meet in this room, where we met so often to arrange our—inevitabilities.” The word appeared to attract him. “Josephine,”—with a sudden change of voice and manner,—“Josephine, how beautiful you were!”

The old lady nodded her head without looking from her cards.

“They used to say,” with sad conviction of the truth of his testimony—“the men used to say that your beauty was irresistible. None ever withstood you. None ever could.”

That, after all, was Mr. Horace's great charm with madame; he was so faithful to the illusions of his youth. As he looked now at her, one could almost feel the irresistibility of which he spoke.

“It was only their excuse, perhaps; we could not tell at the time; we cannot tell even now when we think about it. They said then, talking as men talk over such things, that you were the only one who could remain yourself under the circumstances; you were the only one who could know, who could will, under the circumstances. It was their theory; men can have only theories about such things.” His voice dropped, and he seemed to drop too, into some abysm of thought.

Madame looked into the mirror, where she could see the face of the one who alone could retain her presence of mind under the circumstances suggested by Mr. Horace. She could also have seen, had she wished it, among the reflected bric-a-brac of the mantel, the corner of the frame that held the picture of her husband, but peradventure, classing it with the past which held so many unavenged bad dinners, she never thought to link it even by a look with her emotions of the present. Indeed, it had been said of her that in past, present, and future there had ever been but the one picture to interest her eyes—the one she was looking at now. This, however, was the remark of the uninitiated, for the true passion of a beautiful woman is never so much for her beauty as for its booty; as the passion of a gamester is for his game, not for his luck.

“How beautiful she was!”

It was apparently down in the depths of his abysm that he found the connection between this phrase and his last, and it was evidently to himself he said it. Madame, however, heard and understood too; in fact, traced back to a certain period, her thoughts and Mr. Horace's must have been fed by pretty much the same subjects. But she had so carefully barricaded certain issues in her memory as almost to obstruct their flow into her life; if she were a cook, one would say that it was her bad dinners which she was trying to keep out of remembrance.

“You there, he there, she there, I there.” He pointed to the places on the carpet, under the chandelier; he could have touched them with a walking-stick, and the recollection seemed just as close.

“She was, in truth, what we men called her then; it was her eyes that first suggested it—Myosotis, the little blue flower, the for-get-me-not. It suited her better than her own name. We always called her that among ourselves. How beautiful she was!” He leaned his head on his hand and looked where he had seen her last—so long, such an eternity, ago.

It must be explained for the benefit of those who do not live in the little world where an allusion is all that is necessary to put one in full possession of any drama, domestic or social, that Mr. Horace was speaking of the wedding-night of madame, when the bridal party stood as he described under the chandelier; the bride and groom, with each one's best friend. It may be said that it was the last night or time that madame had a best friend of her own sex. Social gossip, with characteristic kindness, had furnished reasons to suit all tastes, why madame had ceased that night to have a best friend of her own sex. If gossip had not done so, society would still be left to its imagination for information, for madame never tolerated the smallest appeal to her for enlightenment. What the general taste seemed most to relish as a version was that madame in her marriage had triumphed, not conquered; and that the night of her wedding she had realized the fact, and, to be frank, had realized it ever since. In short, madame had played then to gain at love, as she played now to gain at solitaire; and hearts were no more than cards to her—and, “Bah! Lose a game for a card!” must have been always her motto. It is hard to explain it delicately enough, for these are the most delicate affairs in life; but the image of Myosotis had passed through monsieur's heart, and Myosotis does mean “forget me not.” And madame well knew that to love monsieur once was to love him always, in spite of jealousy, doubt, distrust, nay, unhappiness (for to love him meant all this and more). He was that kind of man, they said, whom women could love even against conscience. Madame never forgave that moment. Her friend, at least, she could put aside out of her intercourse; unfortunately, we cannot put people out of our lives. God alone can do that, and so far he had interfered in the matter only by removing monsieur. It was known to notoriety that since her wedding madame had abandoned, destroyed, all knowledge of her friend. And the friend? She had disappeared as much as is possible for one in her position and with her duties.

“What there is in blue eyes, light hair, and a fragile form to impress one, I cannot tell; but for us men it seems to me it is blue-eyed, light-haired, and fragile-formed women that are the hardest to forget.”

“The less easy to forget,” corrected madam. He paid no attention to the remark.

“They are the women that attach themselves in one's memory. If necessary to keep from being forgotten, they come back into one's dreams. And as life rolls on, one wonders about them,—'Is she happy? Is she miserable? Goes life well or ill with her?'“

Madame played her cards slowly, one would say, for her, prosaically.

“And there is always a pang when, as one is so wondering, the response comes,—that is, the certainty in one's heart responds,—'She is miserable, and life goes ill with her.' Then, if ever, men envy the power of God.”

Madame threw over the game she was in, and began a new one.

“Such women should not be unhappy; they are too fragile, too sensitive, too trusting. I could never understand the infliction of misery upon them. I could send death to them, but not—not misfortune.”

Madame, forgetting again to cheat in time, and losing her game, began impatiently to shuffle her cards for a new deal.

“And yet, do you know, Josephine, those women are the unhappy ones of life. They seem predestined to it, as others”—looking at madame's full-charmed portrait—“are predestined to triumph and victory. They”—unconscious, in his abstraction, of the personal nature of his simile—“never know how to handle their cards, and they always play a losing game.”

“Ha!” came from madame, startled into an irate ejaculation.

“It is their love always that is sacrificed, their hearts always that are bruised. One might say that God himself favors the black-haired ones!”

As his voice sank lower and lower, the room seemed to become stiller and stiller. A passing vehicle in the street, however, now and then drew a shiver of sound from the pendent prisms of the chandelier.

“She was so slight, so fragile, and always in white, with blue in her hair to match her eyes—and—God knows what in her heart, all the time. And yet they stand it, they bear it, they do not die, they live along with the strongest, the happiest, the most fortunate of us,” bitterly; “and”—raising his eyes to his old friend, who thereupon immediately began to fumble her cards—“whenever in the street I see a poor, bent, broken woman's figure, I know, without verifying it any more by a glance, that it is the wreck of a fair woman's figure; whenever I hear of a bent, broken existence, I know, without asking any more, that it is the wreck of a fair woman's life.”

Poor Mr. Horace spoke with the unreason of a superstitious bigot.

“I have often thought, since, in large assemblies, particularly in weddings, Josephine, of what was going on in the women's hearts there, and I have felt sorry for them; and when I think of God's knowing what is in their hearts, I have felt sorry for the men. And I often think now, Josephine,—think oftener and oftener of it,—that if the resurrection trumpet of our childhood should sound some day, no matter when, out there, over the old St. Louis cemetery, and we should all have to rise from our long rest of oblivion, what would be the first thing we should do? And though there were a God and a heaven awaiting us,—by that same God, Josephine, I believe that our first thought in awakening would be the last in dying,—confession,—and that our first rush would be to the feet of one another for forgiveness. For there are some offenses that must outlast the longest oblivion, and a forgiveness that will be more necessary than God's own. Then our hearts will be bared to one another; for if, as you say, there are no secrets at our age, there can still be less cause for them after death.”

His voice ended in the faintest whisper. The table crashed over, and the cards flew wide-spread on the floor. Before we could recover, madame was in the antechamber, screaming for Jules.

One would have said that, from her face, the old lady had witnessed the resurrection described by Mr. Horace, the rush of the spirits with their burdens of remorse, the one to the feet of the other; and she must have seen herself and her husband, with a unanimity of purpose never apparent in their short married life, rising from their common tomb and hastening to that other tomb at the end of the alley, and falling at the feet of the one to whom in life he had been recreant in love, she in friendship.

Of course Jules answered through the wrong door, rushing in with his gas-stick, and turning off the gas. In a moment we were involved in darkness and dispute.

“But what does he mean? What does the idiot mean? He—” It was impossible for her to find a word to do justice to him and to her exasperation at the same time.

“Pardon, madame; it is not I. It is the cathedral bell; it is ringing nine o'clock.”

“But—”

“Madame can hear it herself. Listen!” We could not see it, but we were conscious of the benign, toothless smile spreading over his face as the bell-tones fell in the room.

“But it is not the gas. I—”

“Pardon, madame; but it is the gas. Madame said, 'Jules, put out the gas every night when the bell rings.' Madame told me that only last night. The bell rings: I put out the gas.”

“Will you be silent? Will you listen?”

“If madame wishes; just as madame says.”

But the old lady had turned to Mr. Horace. “Horace, you have seen—you know—” and it was a question now of overcoming emotion. “I—I—I—a carriage, my friend, a carriage.”

“Madame—” Jules interrupted his smile to interrupt her.

She was walking around the room, picking up a shawl here, a lace there; for she was always prepared against draughts.

“Madame—” continued Jules, pursuing her.

“A carriage.”

“If madame would only listen, I was going to say—but madame is too quick in her disposition—the carriage has been waiting since a long hour ago. Mr. Horace said to have it there in a half hour.”

It was then she saw for the first time that it had all been prepared by Mr. Horace. The rest was easy enough: getting into the carriage, and finding the place of which Mr. Horace had heard, as he said, only that afternoon. In it, on her bed of illness, poverty, and suffering, lay the patient, wasted form of the beautiful fair one whom men had called in her youth Myosotis.

But she did not call her Myosotis.

Mon Amour!” The old pet name, although it had to be fetched across more than half a century of disuse, flashed like lightning from madame's heart into the dim chamber.

Ma Divine!” came in counter-flash from the curtained bed.

In the old days women, or at least young girls, could hazard such pet names one upon the other. These—think of it!—dated from the first communion class, the dating period of so much of friendship.

“My poor Amour!”

“My poor, poor Divine!”

The voices were together, close beside the pillow.

“I—I—” began Divine.

“It could not have happened if God had not wished it,” interrupted poor Amour, with the resignation that comes, alas! only with the last drop of the bitter cup.

And that was about all. If Mr. Horace had not slipped away, he might have noticed the curious absence of monsieur's name, and of his own name, in the murmuring that followed. It would have given him some more ideas on the subject of woman.

At any rate, the good God must thank him for having one affair the less to arrange when the trumpet sounds out there over the old St. Louis cemetery. And he was none too premature; for the old St. Louis cemetery, as was shortly enough proved, was a near reach for all three of the old friends.

 
 
 

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