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The Thing They Loved by Marice Rutledge

 

They had vowed to live only for one another. The theme of their love was sublime enough, but the instruments were fallible. Human beings can rarely sustain a lofty note beyond the measure of a supreme moment.”

When she told her husband that David Cannon had arranged for her a series of recitals in South America, she looked to him for swift response. She was confident that anything touching on her professional life would kindle his eye and warm his voice. It was, in fact, that professional life as she interpreted it with the mind of an artist, the heart of a child, which had first drawn him to her; he had often admitted as much. During one year of rare comradeship he had never failed in his consideration for her work. He would know, she felt sure, that to go on a concert tour with David Cannon, to sing David Cannon's songs under such conditions, presented good fortune in more than one way. He would rejoice accordingly.

But his “Why, my dear, South America!” came flatly upon her announcement. It lacked the upward ring, and his eye did not kindle, his voice did not warm. He himself felt the fictitious inflection, for he added hastily, with happier effect: “It's a wonderful chance, dearest, isn't it?” His voice by then had gained in heartiness, and his smile, always worshipful when turned on her, contained this time something of apology. So close were they, though, in thought, spoken or unspoken, that he had sounded a tiny alarm. Her radiance perceptibly waned. A moment before she had stood, a glowing, vital creature, beside him, eyes and lips singing a duet of delight; now with questioning heart she leaned toward her loved one.

“What is it? Don't you want me to go? I thought you liked David. Can't you come, too, Oliver?”

“You know I can't, dear,” she heard him say with an attempt at lightness. Then he added: “But it's a great chance for you. You'll take it, of course. It was only the thought of losing you even for a little while. What selfish brutes we men are!” He had recovered himself, had defined his passing reserve in loverlike terms, and was newly aware of unworthiness. The luxury of tender persuasion, of arguing her into a sense of sweet security, concerned him next. He could not say enough, and said too much.

They were mellow against an intimate background of yellow walls lit by fire and lamps. Myra's grand piano projected sleek and dark from a corner of warm shadow. The silver tea-set gleamed pale on a slender-legged table; a fragrance of narcissus spread dreamily. Oliver sank on the couch, drawing her down where she could become all feminine. She was that, and most adorably, her bright hair soft about lax brows, her full lips parted, her strong white hands lying in his like brooding birds. He talked on, and she played content for a while; but a moment came when with a sudden maternal gesture she drew his dark, willing head to her shoulder.

“Let's forget South America for to-night,” she said.

He would not, could not, drop the subject. He had been so clumsy in not realizing what it all meant to her; but her news had come as such a surprise. She had seen David Cannon, then, that afternoon?

Yes, he was on his way down to her to settle the date of their concert and to propose this South American scheme. But she need not decide immediately.

He protested that her triumph there would crown him. If he were not a poor young architect attached to his blue prints, he would follow her. As it was, his duller duty lay at home. She caught a flatness of tone, and met it with a vigorous profession of faith in his work. His art was more useful than hers, more enduring. His music was in stone; hers was no greater than the trilling of a bird. He thought this over, moved from her embrace, sat erect, and patted his tie. Well, he summed up, each had a working life converging to a common end. Let her sing Cannon's songs to South America. Her voice would reach him. Then let her come back quickly. He could not conceive of life without her. It would seem strange to be a bachelor again, he went on, with a sigh meant to be comical. He supposed he would eat at his club when he was not invited out. He hoped her friends would take pity on him.

“You mean our friends,” she corrected.

“You're the magnet, dear.”

“I attracted you,” she conceded happily. Then, with a start, she said: “Do you know what time it is? And we're dining with the Wickeses at seven.”

“I never have you to myself any more,” he objected. “If I were an old-fashioned husband, I should be jealous of every one who sees or talks to you.”

“But you're not an old-fashioned husband,” she reminded him.

“I try not to be.” He had risen from the couch, and was making his way to the door, where he paused to look back at her. “Wear the blue brocade to-night, dear, and do your hair that new way.”

“The way Martigues suggested? I thought you didn't like it.”

He hesitated only a second.

“It's a bit extreme,” he had to confess, “but it suits you.”

She came toward him then, laughing.

“You see, you give me over to them.”

“I can afford to,” he said.

They were late, of course, to the dinner. Despite her effort at brightness, Oliver felt her graver mood. He watched her with a shadowy anxiety. Her smile, when her glance sought him out among the chattering guests, did not entirely reassure him. He had never loved her more than this evening when she seemed so removed from him, so easily and brilliantly a guest of honor. What hold had these strangers on her? They could only misread the superficial sparkle of her eyes, the gracious movements of her uncovered neck and arms. He decided then that the blue brocade was too conspicuous. She must not wear it in South America. And her honey-coloured hair, piled high, with a fantastic Spanish comb flaring above the topmost curls, struck him as needlessly theatrical. He blamed Martigues for that. His humour was not improved by the Basque painter's voluble compliments on the success of a coiffure he felt to be his own creation. The fellow was too familiar, thought Oliver, with increasing irritation. He darkened, grew glum and silent; and when, after dinner, Martigues approached him with a luckless tribute to Madame Shaw's superlative loveliness, he answered curtly, and turned on his heel. Myra witnessed the brief discourtesy, and later very gently taxed him with it. What had the unfortunate artist done? He faced her like a sulky boy and would not answer; but she was quick to penetrate his grievance. She laughed then, as a woman laughs who has nothing to conceal, declaring that Martigues's taste was not infallible, and that Oliver knew best what became his Myra. She soon wooed him back to his old charming self, and the incident passed. But there were others on the following days, and Myra grew thoughtful.

She and Oliver were seldom alone. Her joy of life, her vitality, her very talent, depended on a multitude of impressions, on innumerable personal contacts. She belonged to a rich, throbbing world of emotions; she gathered passion for her song from the yearnings, the anonymous aspirations, even the crudities of the human forces about her.

She was Oliver's most gloriously when most surrounded. His pride was centred on her; it was centred, however, on the brilliant returns of her actual presence—a presence which was never too far removed in flesh or spirit to deprive him of a certain naive assumption of ownership. That she should continue all the dear, familiar fascinations beyond his sight or touch, in a far-away land, with David Cannon as a daily companion, was another matter. Not that he was jealous of David. No one man stood out as a rival. But Cannon travelling with Myra, sharing artistic triumphs with her, escorting her to entertainments given in her honour, Cannon, in fact, associated in foreign minds with the beautiful cantatrice, offended the inviolable rights of his lover's vanity. He would have her less beautiful, less gifted, not more faithful.

Exquisitely sensitive where he was concerned, Myra detected this subtle change in his attitude toward her and her work. The origins of the change, she knew, were obscurely lodged in the male egoism. He himself was not aware of them. He seemed nearer and dearer than ever, even more ardent. He wanted her constantly within range of his eyes and hands that he might in a thousand coaxing or, often, petulant ways assert a fond dominion. She yielded gladly to that sweet pressure. Strangely enough for a woman of her independent habits, to be so loved, roused elemental instincts the more powerful since she had never before given them outlet. So she allowed his illusions of mastery full play, which was dangerous, as gradually she altered the delicate balance of their relationship.

A restless month went by. It was February.

Unfortunately, Oliver's work failed to engross him. He grew moodier, more exacting. If Myra arrived home late, he wanted to know where she had been, whom she had seen. Were they dining out, he muttered unsociable objections; were people coming to the house, he complained of the lack of privacy. What a whirl they lived in! So they did, but what was the remedy? Myra herself felt helpless in a tangle of engagements. They overpowered her. She could not seem to cut her way through them. Then there were rehearsals for the concert. David Cannon came to her or she went to him nearly every day. Usually Oliver was present, putting in his opinion between each song. Did David think the South Americans would appreciate that kind of music? How did he think they would like Myra? And so on and on.

David Cannon, never patient, a rough-tongued, self-absorbed genius, resented these interruptions, and was brief in his methods of expressing as much. Even Myra, the most tactful of diplomatists, could not smooth over occasional ugly moments between the two men. She understood Oliver better than he understood himself. His unreasoning love, his apprehensive vanity, would have unsettled a less maternal spirit; but she found a kind of mystic wonder in it, he battled so blindly for possession of her. He was in her way, and she could not advance without pushing him aside. Had he come to her and blustered, “You shall not leave me for any purpose whatsoever,” she would have denied him the right of dictation; but there was no such conflict of wills.

They were both involved in this love of their making—a love whose demands were treacherous. Each day brought up trivial attacks, fancied grievances, little fears unavowed; but when she sought to meet the issue squarely, it eluded her. Oliver's nightly repentance for his daily whims and suspicions drew her nightly into his arms. Enfolded there, she felt moored to his love; and, sleepless, she questioned any life apart.

Two days before the recital, David Cannon, with whom she was going over the programme for the last time, turned suddenly from the piano with an impatient shrug of his shoulders.

“Rotten!” he said brutally, peering up at her. “You're not doing yourself justice. What's the matter with you?” Beneath the strong, overhanging brow his little eyes glowered fiercely.

They happened to be alone that afternoon in his great bare studio, where no soft background or dim lights conspired to hide her dejection. She had sung badly. She knew it, but she could not answer such a brusque attack, could not defend herself against harsh questioning.

“I don't know. Perhaps I'm tired,” she said.

David Cannon rose from the piano with the powerful lunging movement of a bull.

“You tired? Nonsense!” His charge sent him beyond her a pace. He wheeled and came up close. He was shorter than she, but the sheer force of the man topped her. His keen little eyes looked her over, took in her bright, drooping head, and her sloping-shouldered, slim-waisted health. “Tired!” he grunted. “That's an excuse, not a reason.” He tapped his heart and forehead. “Your troubles lie here and here.”

She tried to smile, with a lift of her eyebrows.

“What do you know about it?”

“I know more than you think I do,” he flung at her, frowning. “You're worried about something, and when you worry, you can't sing. You're made that way, and I suppose you can't help it. Don't interrupt yet,” he fairly shouted at her as she began to protest. “I've watched over and taught you for three years. I ought to know.”

“I owe you a lot,” she said faintly.

“You owe me nothing,” he snapped. “Your debt is to yourself.”

She could not fend off that merciless look, which went through and through her. “If my debt is to myself, I need pay only if I choose,” she tried to jest.

“Don't make that mistake,” he warned. “Your work is your life. I tell you that, and I know.”

“I wonder,” she said more to herself than to him.

He looked at her grimly.

“Just as I thought. Same old question—marriage. You're jealous, or he's jealous of God knows whom or what. And your voice goes to pieces. Which is it?” he demanded. “Is Oliver misbehaving?”

“Of course not,” she said indignantly.

“Humph! Well, he's faithful, you're faithful. You've both got talent, friends, a home, a profession. What more do you want?”

“There are other—jealousies,” she said slowly, and with gathering passion she went on: “I suppose I owe you some explanation, David, though you won't understand. Oliver is the most wonderful person in the world. I never thought I could love any one as I love him. And it's the same with him. But he wants me all to himself.” Her hands fluttered together in nervous appeal. “Can't you see how it is? Since we've been married we've never been separated a day. And now this South-American thing has come up, and he's felt—oh, I can't explain. But I'm so afraid—”

“Afraid of what?”

“It's hard to put into words,” she said hopelessly. “I suppose I'm afraid of losing my happiness. Oliver's right in many ways. He never does have me to himself; I belong to so many people. It's always been my life, you know. But I thought I could combine everything when I married, and I'm beginning to see that it can't be done.”

“He knew what your life was,” said David.

“Does one ever know?” she said sadly. “This concert, you see, is my first important appearance since our marriage. And then my going away right after—”

David strode over to the piano and sat there silent, his head sunk on his chest, his short arms stiffly before him.

“I realize how absurd it is,” she murmured; “but it isn't just those few months. He trusts me. It's the feeling he has that this is only a beginning. I know what he means so well,” she ended helplessly. David's short fingers moved over the keys. A music wild and pagan rose up, filled the room with rhythms of free dancing creatures, sank to a minor plaint, and broke off on a harsh discord as the door-bell jangled.

“There's your Oliver,” he said, and went to let him in.

It was the day of the concert, and Myra wanted above all to be alone. She had never felt this way before. She dreaded the evening, dreaded facing a critical audience; she had fretted herself into a fever over it. But when she tried to explain her state of mind to Oliver that morning at breakfast, he would not hear of any prescription for nerves which did not include his company. Why should she want to be alone? If she was ill or troubled, his place was beside her. He had planned to lunch and spend the afternoon with her. Her faintly irritable “I wish you wouldn't,” only wounded and shocked him. Her strength was not equal to discussion, and in the end she yielded.

For the rest of the morning he followed her about, tenderly opposing any exertion.

“I must have you at your best to-night, dear,” he kept on saying. “I'm going to be proud of my Myra.” He was so eager, wistful, and loving, she could not resent his care. She gave in to it with a sense of helplessness.

Soon after lunch her head started aching. She suggested a brisk walk. The air might do her good. But he persuaded her to lie down on the couch instead. The touch of his fingers on her hot forehead was soothing, too soothing. She relaxed luxuriously, closing her eyes, subdued, indifferent.

He was saying:

“What will you do, beloved, if you are taken ill in South America? No Oliver to care for you. I can't bear to think of it.” Suddenly, he laid his cheek against hers. “If anything happens to you, I shall go mad.”

She sat up with a swift movement that brought back an almost intolerable pain.

“Nothing will happen,” she tried to say, and found herself weakly sobbing in his arms.

It was time to dress. She did her hair, to please Oliver, in a girlish way, parted and knotted low. Her gown, designed by Martigues, did not fit in with this simple coiffure. She was aware of an incongruity between the smooth, yellow bands of hair meekly confining her small head, and the daring peacock-blue draperies flowing in long, free lines from her shoulders, held lightly in at the waist by a golden cord.

“One will get the better of the other before the evening is over,” she thought with a sigh, turning away from her mirror.

“My beautiful Myra!” Oliver said as if to cheer her.

“I have never looked worse,” she retorted a trifle impatiently, and would not argue the point as they drove up town.

“We'll see what I really amount to now,” she told herself.

She had never before so tensely faced an audience, but there was more at stake than she cared to confess, and she was not equal to it. She shone, but did not blind those thousand eyes; she sang but did not cast enchantment. And David Cannon would not help her. He sat at the piano, uncouth, impassive, deliberately detached, as if he gave her and his music over to an anonymous crowd of whose existence he was hardly aware. There was something huge and static about him, something elemental as an earth-shape, containing in and by itself mysterious rhythms. His songs were things of faun-like humours, terrible, tender, mocking, compassionate. They called for an entire abandon, for witchery, for passion swayed and swaying; but although at times Myra's voice held a Pan-like flutiness, although an occasional note true and sweet as a mate-call stirred that dark fronting mass, she failed to sustain the spell. She was too aware of Oliver leaning forward in his box, applauding louder than any one. His loyalty would force out of this fastidious audience an ovation she did not deserve. She would not look his way. “I can't sing,” she thought mournfully.

Had David Cannon shown any annoyance, she might have been goaded on to a supreme effort; but he avoided her. When once she went up to him during an intermission and said timidly:

“I'm sorry, David; I'm spoiling everything,” he answered indifferently:

“My songs can stand it.”

She wished then that she had not begged Oliver to keep away from her until the end. She felt lonely and near to tears. As the evening wore on, lightened by spasmodic applause, she became very quiet. She even sang better, and felt rather than saw Oliver brighten. But it was too late; she had lost her audience. There were now gaps in the earlier unbroken rows; a well-known critic trod softly out; little nervous coughs and rustlings rose up.

At last it was all over. She wanted only to hide, but she was not to escape another ordeal. She and Oliver had arranged for a supper party that evening. To it they had bidden many musical personalities and several of Oliver's architect friends. She had meant to announce then the South-American recitals. The prospect of such an entertainment was now almost unendurable. She knew well what these people would say and think. Driving home with Oliver, she relaxed limp against his shoulder, her eyes closed. That haven could at least always be counted on, she reflected with passionate gratitude. His voice sounded from a distance as he talked on and on, explaining, excusing, what he could not honestly ignore. She had worked too hard. She was tired out. There was the headache, too. But she had sung wonderfully all the same.

“Please, Oliver!” she faintly interrupted.

“You made the best of it,” he insisted. “David's songs, though, are beyond me.”

She sat up very straight at this.

“My dear,” she said in a cold voice, “I made a mess of it, and you know it. There is no excuse. David has every reason to be furious.”

“I'd like to see him dare—”

“Please, Oliver!” she said again on a warning note of hysteria. She stared out of the window at the blur of passing lights. It was misting; the streets gleamed wet and wan beneath the lamps.

Oliver's arm went around her.

“I'm sorry, dear. Nothing matters, after all, but you and I together,” he whispered.

“Nothing else does matter, does it?” she cried suddenly. “Love me a great deal, Oliver, a great, great deal. That's all I ask.”

They drove on in silence for a while. She sat very quiet, her face half hidden in the high fur collar of her cloak. Now and then she glanced at Oliver, her eyes wistful.

“Oliver,” she said at last, “would it make any difference to you if I never sang again?”

“Never sang again,” he echoed. “I don't understand.”

“I want you and my home,” came from her slowly. “I've been wondering for some time how much my singing really meant to me. To-night I think I've found out. I can't seem to keep everything I started out with and be happy. I'm not big enough,” she added sadly.

He was startled, incredulous.

“Myra, you don't realize what you're saying. You're tired to-night. I could not let you give up your singing. You are an artist, a big artist.”

She shook her head and sighed.

“I might have been, perhaps; but no, I'm not. David could tell you that. He knows.”

“It's been my fault, then, if you feel this way,” he said in a melancholy voice. “I've been selfish and stupid.”

The taxi slowed down before the red-brick entrance of the apartment house. She put her hand impulsively on his arm.

“Oliver, promise me something.”

“Whatever you ask.”

“Don't mention South America to any one. You promise?”

“But, Myra——”

“Promise.”

“I won't, then. But——”

“I see Walter Mason and Martigues waiting for us,” she said quickly. “Remember, not a word.” She was out of the cab, hurrying forward to greet her guests. Oliver followed, his eyes mutely pleading. But she seemed her old self again, graciously animated, laughing at Martigues, who sulked because he did not like the way her hair was done.

Soon other guests arrived, and still others, all of them primed with compliments carefully prepared.

Last of all came David Cannon, who brushed away flattery with curt gestures and grunts. He sat heavily down in a corner of the room, a plate of cheese sandwiches and a frosted glass of beer before him, and turned an unsociable eye on all intruders. Myra, knowing his mood, left him alone.

“You are different to-night,” Martigues whispered to her. “There is something I do not understand. You have the Madonna smile.”

“I am happy,” she said, and her eyes turned to Oliver, who held the look and gave it back with deeper meaning.

When later Martigues asked her to sing, she glanced again at Oliver, who nodded and smiled.

“If David will accompany me,” she said then. David left sandwiches and beer but without enthusiasm. He crossed over to the piano, and peered up at her with a kind of sombre malice.

“So you will sing now,” he said. “Will this do?” He played a few notes softly, and she nodded with a little smile.

It was a song about the love of a white-throated sparrow for a birch-tree of the North. All summer long the bird lived on the topmost branch and sang most beautifully. The season of southward journey came, but the white throated sparrow would not leave her tree. She stayed on alone, singing while the leaves turned gold and fell. She sang more faintly as the land grew white with the first snows and when she could sing no longer for the cold, she nestled down in a bare hollow of the white tree and let the driving flakes of the North cover her.

Oliver stood near the piano. Myra sang to and for him. She stood very tall and straight, her hair, loosened from its tight bands, soft around her face. Her voice thrilled out in the mate-call, grew fainter and sweeter as winter came on, grew poignant under the cold, quivered on the last note. As David Cannon ended with the fate theme of the tree, a genuine shiver went through the little group. There was no hesitation this time in the applause. They swept forward, surrounding her, begging her to sing again. But it was to Oliver that she turned.

“It pleased you? I'm glad.”

David Cannon said nothing. He sat, his shoulders hunched, his fingers on the keys until she had refused to sing again.

“I didn't think you would,” he said then, and abruptly left his post to go back to beer and sandwiches. Soon after he slipped out. Myra went with him to the hall, where they talked for a while in low voices. When she came back into the room she was smiling serenely.

She and Oliver were alone at last.

“You glorious creature!” he cried. “I'm so proud of you! Everyone was crazy about the way you sang.” She walked slowly toward him.

“Oliver,” she said, “I told David this evening that I wouldn't go to South America with him.”

“You didn't!” His voice rose sharp and shocked.

She nodded, beaming almost mischievously.

“But I did, and nothing will make me change my mind.”

“How could you be so impulsive, so foolish!” he cried.

She was looking at him now more soberly.

“Aren't you glad?”

“Myra, you mustn't! I'll telephone David at once.. I'll—you did this for me. I won't have it. You should have asked me——”

“It's no use; I'm not going,” she said.

He dropped on the couch and hid his face in his hands.

“You're giving this up because of me.”

She went to him.

“Oliver, look at me.”

Slowly he raised his head.

“I don't see why——” he began, but she was so beautiful, so radiant, that he caught his breath and faltered.

She sat down beside him.

“Ah, but you will,” she said. “It's very simple, dear. Even David understands.”

“What does he think?”

“He thinks as I do,” she said quickly. “He was quite relieved; honestly, dear. He didn't want any homesick woman spoiling his songs for him in South America. And then I suggested Frances Maury in my place. She has a lovely voice, and she'll jump at the chance.”

“I've never heard her, but I'm sure she can't sing as well as you,” he said, with returning gloom. “And it was only for two months.”

She laughed as at an unreasonable child.

“It isn't the two months, dear. It's our whole life. There would be other partings, you see, other interests drawing me away. And if it became easier to leave you, then I should know that everything was wrong between us; but if it kept on being hard to divide myself between you and my work, then my work would suffer and so would you. Either way, it couldn't go on. I'm not big enough to do both,” she said.

“I can't accept such a sacrifice.”

“Don't you want me with you always?”

He seized her hands and passionately drew her close to him.

“Want you? I can tell you now. I've been jealous, terribly so, of everyone, everything that touched you.”

“I knew it,” she said. “That's one reason why I didn't sing well to-night. Now I'm free”—she threw her arms out with the gesture of flying—“I'm free to love just you. We'll start another life, Oliver, a life of our own. We'll be fire-side people, dear, homely lovers content to sit and talk of an evening. You'll find me very valuable, really, as a partner,” she said eagerly. “I've never been near enough to your work. And it's such wonderful work!” With an impulsive movement she went over and closed the piano. “I'll only open it when you ask me to,” she said.

The process of elimination was simple enough. There was a touch of melancholy in Myra's measurement of relationships, in her consciousness of their frailty. People fell away easily, leaving her and Oliver to their chosen isolation. A dozen regrets or so to invitations, a week or two of evasions over the telephone, a few friends like Martigues turned away at the door when obviously she was at home, a refusal to sing at a charity concert and, most conclusive of all, David Cannon's advertised departure with another artist, and the thing was virtually done.

Then came a succession of long intimate evenings, she and Oliver left to their caprice, she and Oliver walking and driving together, wandering where their fancy took them in the springtime of city and country. She laughed sometimes at him, he seemed so dazed by the consciousness of utter possession. “You are sure you are not bored, darling?” he would often ask these first days. She could not reassure him enough; could not find ways enough to prove to him that when a woman like herself gave of body, mind, and spirit, it was a full giving. There was exquisite pain in that giving; it was almost a terrifying thing. She was a vital creature, and must spend that which was hers, wisely or foolishly. Her ceaseless energy had always before found an outlet in her work. Now her only expression lay in Oliver. Her mind, never at rest, seized upon his working life, made it hers. But she soon learned that he regarded her self-appointed post of partner with a tender condescension edged with intolerance. She learned with a tiny shock that although in matters musical he trusted absolutely to her judgment, he did not consider the feminine intellect as equal to his own. Music, she discovered, had always been defined by him as something feminine in its application to the arts.

She became gradually aware that he objected to her visits to his office. His glance did not brighten at her entrance. He was not amused as he had been at first, when she bent over the sketches or ran her slim fingers along the tracery of blue prints, daring to question them. Sometimes she had a feeling that she did not entirely know Oliver; that there were plans of his, thoughts of his, which she did not share. She had not missed these before when her own life was full. She had time now during their long hours together to observe reactions of the cause of which she knew nothing. He was absent-minded, off on a trail that led away from her.

There came a week when he allowed her the brunt of wooing; a new dress failed to bring forth the usual compliment; a question lay unanswered where in pride she left it. Then one morning with a new crisp note in his voice, he telephoned, telling her that he must meet a man at his club for dinner that evening. Mechanically she answered, dully heard his voice warm to a sweetness that should have comforted her.

“You know I wouldn't leave you unless it were important, dearest. I can't explain now, but I may have great news for you when I come home.”

She hung up the receiver thoughtfully, and turned to an apartment which seemed suddenly dreary and empty. She had no purpose in her day. The twilight hour loomed in prospect an endless, dusky loneliness. For a moment she thought of ringing him up and proposing to meet him downtown for lunch; then restrained the impulse. Was she to turn into a nagging wife! She longed now for some friend with whom she could spend the day; but she could think of none. Since her marriage with Oliver she had not encouraged intimacies. On his account she had estranged the few women to whom she might now have turned. Oliver had never understood friendships among women.

The day dragged by. For the first time in months she found herself wishing that she was going out that evening. She thought almost guiltily of David Cannon and Frances Maury, imagining herself in Frances's place. She went to the piano, tried to sing, and realized with dismay that she was sadly out of practice. After all, what did it matter? she decided moodily. Oliver rarely asked her for music.

She took up a novel and dozed over it.

At eleven o'clock Oliver came home. She knew by the way he opened the front door that the news was good. She ran to meet him; her dullness vanished.

He took her by the hand and led her into the softly lit room which seemed suddenly warm again with his presence. Then he whirled her, facing him. Her smile was a happy reflection of his own brightness.

“You'll never guess what's happened,” he began.

“Tell me quickly!” she begged.

He waited a moment, with an eye to dramatic effect.

“Well, then,” he said proudly, “I've been appointed on a special committee of reconstruction in France. Malcolm Wild—you've heard me speak of him—came down from Washington to-day to propose it to me. There are six of us on the committee, and I'm the youngest.”

“Oliver!” She put into the exclamation something of what he expected, for he seemed satisfied. He lifted his head with a young, triumphant gesture. “It is my chance to do a great and useful work,” he said. “I needn't tell you what it means. I never hoped, I never dreamed of such an honour.”

“I'm so proud of you!” she cried.

He hardly seemed to hear her.

“Think of it, just think of it—to be invited to go over there with five of the biggest architects here, American money backing us! We've been given a whole section to rebuild; I forget how many villages. It's like a dream.” He passed his hand over his eyes.

“France!” she heard herself saying. “But, Oliver, it's the work of months.”

He nodded happily.

“That's what it is.”

“France!” she murmured in a kind of ecstasy. “I'm just getting it.” She clasped her hands together. “I've always wanted to be in France with you. My dear, when do we start?”

He gave her a swift, bewildered look.

“Why, Myra, didn't you understand? I can't take you right away with me. Later, of course, you'll join me. It won't be long, a few months at most.”

“I'm not to go when you go?”

Her voice, low and strained, drove straight to his heart.

“Myra, I never thought—it's a man's trip just now, darling. I—couldn't take you with me,” he stammered miserably. “Passports are almost impossible to get; and then conditions over there——”

She backed away from him, her arms stiff at her sides.

“When were you—planning to go?”

He stared at her pitifully.

“Beloved, don't look at me that way!”

“When were you planning to go?” she repeated.

“Next week,” he said in an altered voice. “I never thought you would take it this way. I never thought—it's a great chance.”

“That's what I once told you,” she said slowly, and turned away that he might not see her face. “Don't touch me!” she cried as he came nearer. “Don't! I've been nervous all day, and lonely.” She tried to control herself, but as his arms went around her, she began to sob like a hurt child. “If you leave me, I shall die. I can't bear it. I know it's wicked of me.” Her words reached him brokenly. “It's only because you're all I have. I've given up everything; and now——”

He stood very still, staring into space, his hold on her never loosening. She stumbled on, confessing what had lain hidden in her heart until this moment. She told him things she had never thought she could betray to any one—things she had never even dared formulate. When she had done, he said in a strange, gentle voice:

“I didn't know you depended so on me. But it's all right; I won't leave you, ever. It's all right. There, dear, I understand.”

She struggled free from his hold, and dried her eyes with a sudden passionate gesture of scattering tears.

“You shall go,” she said fiercely. “I hate myself for acting this way. It was only because——” She could get no further.

He did not attempt to touch her again. They stood facing one another, measuring their love.

“I might go,” he said at last, as if to himself; “but in going I should spoil something very precious. You deny it now, but you would remember your own sacrifice. And then, of course, you would go back to your work. I should want you to. But it would never be the same again, never.”

“I won't go back.”

He shook his head.

“If you didn't, you would never forgive me. Every day you spent here alone and idle would break one of those fragile bonds that hold us so closely. If only you hadn't given up South America!”

“I was wrong,” she said drearily.

At last he held out his arms.

“Myra,” he said, “you mean more than anything else to me. This offer pleased me; I admit it. But I can work on just as well here. I have the Cromwell house, you know, and the Newburghs may build soon. Don't let's think of it again.”

She held back a moment, afraid to yield; but there was no resisting her longing, and she ran to him with a little sigh, which he softly echoed as he took her and held her close.

They had vowed to live only for one another. The theme of their love was sublime enough, but the instruments were fallible. Human beings can rarely sustain a lofty note beyond the measure of a supreme moment. Emotional as she was in her gratitude, Myra would have kept on sounding that note through the days and nights. She would not allow Oliver to forget what he had given up for her sake.

More than ever she sought to associate herself with his work. He was forced to recognize her personality there. For when skilfully she led the talk on his plans, she hunted down elusive problems, grappled with them, and offered him the solutions of a sure instinct. She did not reckon with his vanity. She was too eager to make up for a lost opportunity, as she too often explained. He came gradually to brood over what he now consented to consider a sacrifice. In passing moments of irritation he even referred to it. He broke out occasionally in fits of nerves, certain that he would be humoured and petted back to the normal. He knew well how a frown dismayed her, how deep a word could strike, what tiny wounds he could inflict. It would seem sometimes as if one or the other deliberately created a short, violent scene over a trivial difference just to relieve routine. The domestic low-lands stretched beyond the eye. He missed the broken country, the unexpected dips and curves of the unknown. Not that his heart went adventuring. He was faithful in body and spirit, but there was discontent in the looks he turned on her.

One afternoon she read in the papers that David Cannon and Frances Maury were back from South America after a triumphant series of recitals. They were to give a concert the following month. Her indifference to the news, she thought drearily, was an indication of how far she had travelled away from her old life. She did not even want to see David Cannon.

It was Oliver who brought up the subject that evening.

“David's back. If you'd been with him, how excited I should have felt to-day!” he remarked. “Odd, isn't it?”

“You would have been in France,” she reminded him.

They sat on in silence for a while.

He laid his book aside with a sudden brisk movement.

“Myra, why don't you sing again?”

“For you, to-night?”

“I mean professionally,” he blurted out.

She drifted across the room to a shadowy corner.

“I don't know,” she said rather flatly, bending over a bowl of white roses. “I suppose I don't feel like it any more. It's hard to take things up again.”

He fingered his book; then, as if despite himself, he said;

“I'm afraid, dear, that we're letting ourselves grow old.”

She swung sharply about, catching her breath.

“You mean I am?”

“Both of us.” He was cautious, tender even, but she was not deceived. It was almost a relief that he had spoken.

“Tell me, dear,” she said from her corner. “You're bored, aren't you? Oh, not with me”—she forestalled his protest—“but just plain bored. Isn't it so?” Her voice was deceptively quiet.

He stirred in his chair, fidgeted under the direct attack, and decided not to evade it.

“I think we've been buried long enough,” he finally confessed. “I love our evenings together, of course; but a little change now and then might be agreeable. Perhaps it isn't a good thing for two people to be thrown entirely on each other's company. And I've been wondering, dear”—he hesitated, carefully picking his words— “I've been wondering if you would not be happier if you had other interests—interests of your own.”

“Suppose I don't want any?” She did not give this out as a challenge, but he frowned a trifle impatiently.

“I can't believe it possible,” he said. “Have you lost all touch with the world?”

She came slowly forward into the warm circle of light.

“I don't seem to care for people and things as I used to. Look at me. I'm not the same Myra.”

She stared at him with a deep, searching expression, and what she saw drew her up with a sudden movement of decision. Her voice, when next she spoke, was lighter, more animated.

“You're right, dear. We're growing poky. I tell you what we'll do,” she continued in a playful manner. Her lips smiled, and her eyes watched as she knelt beside him, her head tilted, her fingers straying over the rough surface of his coat. He never dressed for dinner in these days. “We'll give a party, shall we?” she said. “And then everyone will know that we're still—alive.”

If she had wanted to test his state of mind, she could not have found a better way. Instantly he was all eagerness. Nothing would do but that they should plan the party at once, set the date, make out a list of friends to be invited.

She was ready with pad and pencil and her old address-book, which had lain for many days untouched in her desk.

“Shall we have Frances Maury?” she suggested. “She'll remind you of me as I was before we married.”

“What a gorgeous little devil you were!” he murmured reminiscently.

She wished he had not said that. Yet how absurd it was to be jealous of oneself!

Well, they would entertain again, since it pleased him. But she had lost her social instinct. This party seemed a great enterprise. She had to pretend to an enthusiasm which she did not really feel. “Am I growing old?” she wondered more than once. She had to confess to a panic of shyness when she thought of herself as hostess. That was all she would be this time. Frances Maury held the role of prima donna.

There were no regrets to her invitations. They came, these old friends and acquaintances, with familiar voices and gestures. They seemed genuinely glad to see her, but they did not spare her. She had grown a little stouter, had she not? Ah, well happy people risked that. And they did not need to be told how happy she was. In quite an old-fashioned way, too. Myra domesticated—how quaint that was! Did she sing any more? No? What a pity!

Her rooms had lain quiet too long. So much noise deafened her. She was suddenly aware that she had grown stouter. Her new gown, made for the occasion, should have been more cleverly designed. Martigues as much as told her so. She had, also, lost the power of attraction. She could not hold people's attention as she used to. She was sensitively aware of how readily one and the other drifted away after a few words. Had she not been hostess, she would often have found herself alone.

David Cannon and Miss Maury came late. Frances was fond of dramatic entrances; she had the stage sense. Myra hurried forward, aware, as she did so, that her greeting held a maternal note; that Cannon was looking through and through her with those small, relentless eyes of his. Then Oliver came up, and from the corner of her eyes she saw Frances attach herself to him. She had known that would happen.

Frances Maury was indeed a lovely creature, vivid, electric, swift, and free of movement, mellow of voice. She was like a bell. Touch her and she chimed. Oliver on one side, Martigues on the other, she made her vivacious way through the room, and was soon surrounded. Very prettily she moved her court toward Myra, drew Myra into the circle of her warmth with a gracious friendliness.

Martigues, in raptures, explained that it was he who had designed the very modern jewel she wore, a moonstone set in silver. “Isn't she adorable!” he kept on repeating.

Oliver had bent over to look at this ornament and was fingering it, his dark head close to hers. She whispered to him, and he whispered back. They were already on the best of terms.

David Cannon trod up to Myra.

“What do you think of her?” he asked abruptly. “Her high notes are not as fine as yours were, but she is improving. If she doesn't fall in love, I shall make something of her.” He frowned at Oliver.

Myra flushed.

“She seems very clever,” was all she could manage.

“I'll make her sing,” said Cannon, and elbowed a path to her side. She pouted a little, declared she could never resist him, and moved to the piano.

Myra drew a short breath. She herself had not intended to sing, but she had hoped that Oliver or David would give her a chance to refuse. She did not feel angry or envious of this girl, she was incapable of pettiness; but she felt old and dull and lonely. Her trained smile was her only shield. She held it while Frances Maury sang. She did not look at Oliver, but his delight reached her as if she had caused it. She felt him hovering close to the piano. She knew how he was standing, how his eyes were shining. She knew, because as the warm, rich voice rose up, as Cannon's strange rhythms filled the room with a wild pagan grace, she withdrew into her memory and found there all that went on. She herself was singing; she stood free and beautiful before them all; she met Oliver's eyes.

Frances sang again and again. Oliver led the applause, and Myra sat on, smiling, her steady gaze turned inward. When it was over, she took Frances by the hand, and it was as if she were thanking herself and bidding that self adieu.

Later in the evening David Cannon came up to her and gruffly suggested that she sing.

She shook her head.

“No, my good friend.”

“Why not?” He stood over her, ugly, masterful.

Her smile softened to a sweet, sad flutter of lip.

“You know why.”

“Nonsense!”

“You can't bully me any more, David,” she told him gently. “That's the tragic part of it,” she added under her breath. She liked David, but she wished he would go. She wished they would all go. It must be very late.

It was still later, however, before the last guest departed. That last guest was Frances Maury, escorted by a glum David. Oliver had kept her on.

“Myra and I always get to bed so early that it's a relief to stay up for once,” he had said.

“Of course it's much more sensible to go to bed early.” Miss Maury's voice did not sound as if sensible things appealed to her.

“Oliver has to be at his office so early in the morning,” Myra put in almost as an apology.

“She sees to that,” came from Oliver, with a humorous inflection.

Frances Maury playfully shuddered.

“Wives have too many duties for me. I shall never marry.”

“Don't,” said Oliver, and realized his blunder. He glanced quickly at Myra, and was relieved to observe that she did not seem troubled.

It was David, at last, who insisted on going home. Frances obeyed him with a laughing apology.

“You've given me such a good time. I forgot the hour. May I come again?”

“Indeed you must,” Myra answered hospitably.

She would not leave, however, until they had promised to come to her concert. She would send them tickets. And they must have tea with her soon. Would they chaperon her once in a while? Oliver eagerly promised to be at her beck and call. He followed her out into the hall, unmindful of David's vile temper.

Myra turned slowly back into the room, noting with jaded eyes the empty beer-bottles, crusts of sandwiches, ashes on the rugs, chairs pulled crazily about. The place still resounded with chatter and song. It no longer seemed her home.

Presently Oliver joined her.

“Well, I enjoyed that,” he said with a boyish ring. “Come, now, wasn't it jolly to see people again? Everyone had a wonderful time.” He hummed as he walked lightly over to the table and helped himself to a cigarette.

She dropped on the couch.

“I'm a little tired.”

He lit his cigarette, staring at her over the tiny flame of the match before he blew it out.

“Why, I never noticed. You do look all in.”

She straightened with an effort, put a hand to her hair.

“I'm afraid I've lost the habit.”

“You'll have to get it again,” he said happily. “We're going to give lots of parties. It's good for my business, too. Walter Mason brought a man here to-night who is thinking of building a house on Long Island. Walter tells me he went away quite won over.”

She was all interest at once.

“Why didn't you tell me? I might have made a special effort to be nice to him.”

“Oh, he had a good time,” he said carelessly. “I say, Myra, your friend Miss Maury is fascinating. Sings divinely.” He moved over to the couch and sat on the edge of it, absent-mindedly toying with her hand.

“She's very lovely,” Myra agreed.

“Why didn't you sing?” he suddenly asked.

“I didn't need to.” The little smile was back, fastened to her lips. A certain unfamiliar embarrassment fell between them. She made no effort to dissipate it.

He yawned.

“Well, you should have. Heavens! it's late! Two o'clock. I'm off to bed.” He kissed her lightly on the forehead.

“I'll be along in a moment,” she said.

She heard him humming in the next room, heard him moving about, heard the bump of his shoes on the floor. She lay, her eyes closed. Presently she got up, went to the piano and let her fingers wander over the keys. Then she began to sing softly. Her fine critical faculties were awake. She listened while she sang—listened as if some one else would rise or fall on her verdict. There was a curious lack of vibrancy in her notes. They did not come from the heart.

Suddenly she stopped. Oliver was calling “Myra.”

She thrilled with a swift hope that brought her to her feet, flushed and tremulous.

“Aren't you coming to bed soon? It's too late for music,” drifted faintly querulous down the hall.

The light went out of her face.

“I'm coming.” A leaden weariness was over her. Slowly she closed the piano.

He was already asleep when she tiptoed into the room. She stood a moment staring down at him.

“The worst of it is that I shall sleep, too,” she thought.