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Slow Poison by Alice Duer Miller

 

The Chelmsford divorce had been accomplished with the utmost decorum, not only outwardly in the newspapers, but inwardly among a group of intimate friends. They were a homogeneous couple—were liked by the same people, enjoyed the same things, and held many friends in common. These were able to say with some approach to certainty that everyone had behaved splendidly, even the infant of twenty-three with whom Julian had fallen in love.

Of course there will always be the question—and we used to argue it often in those days—how well a man can behave who, after fifteen perfectly satisfactory years of married life, admits that he has fallen in love with another woman. But if you believe in the clap-of-thunder theory, as I do, why, then, for a man nearing forty, taken off his feet by a blond-headed girl, Julian, too, behaved admirably.

As for Mrs. Julian, there was never any doubt as to her conduct. I used to think her—and I was not alone in the opinion—the most perfect combination of gentleness and power, and charity and humour, that I had ever seen. She was a year or so older than Julian—though she did not look it—and a good deal wiser, especially in the ways of the world; and, oddly enough, one of the features that worried us most in the whole situation was how he was ever going to get on, in the worldly sense, without her. He was to suffer not only from the loss of her counsel but from the lack of her indorsement. There are certain women who are a form of insurance to a man; and Anne gave a poise and solidity to Julian's presentation of himself which his own flibbertigibbet manner made particularly necessary.

I think this view of the matter disturbed Anne herself, though she was too clever to say so; or perhaps too numbed by the utter wreck of her own life to see as clearly as usual the rocks ahead of Julian. It was she, I believe, who first mentioned, who first thought of divorce, and certainly she who arranged the details. Julian, still in the more ideal stage of his emotion, had hardly wakened to the fact that his new love was marriageable. But Mrs. Julian, with the practical eye of her sex, saw in a flash all it might mean to him, at his age, to begin life again with a young beauty who adored him.

She saw this, at least, as soon as she saw anything; for Julian, like most of us when the occasion rises, developed a very pretty power of concealment. He had for a month been seeing Miss Littell every day before any of us knew that he went to see her at all. Certainly Anne, unsuspicious by nature, was unprepared for the revelation.

It took place in the utterly futile, unnecessary way such revelations always do take place. The two poor innocent dears had allowed themselves a single indiscretion; they had gone out together, a few days before Christmas, to buy some small gifts for each other. They had had an adventure with a beggar, an old man wise enough to take advantage of the holiday season, and the no less obvious holiday in the hearts of this pair. He had forced them to listen to some quaint variant of the old story, and they had between them given him all the small change they had left—sixty-seven cents, I think it was.

That evening at dinner Julian, ever so slightly afraid of the long pause, had told Anne the story as if it had happened to him alone. A few days afterward the girl, whom she happened to meet somewhere or other, displaying perhaps a similar nervousness, told the same story. Even the number of cents agreed.

I spoke a moment ago of the extraordinary power of concealment which we all possess; but I should have said the negative power to avoid exciting suspicion. Before that moment, before the finger points at us, the fool can deceive the sage; and afterward not even the sage can deceive the veriest fool.

Julian had no desire to lie to his wife. Indeed, he told me he had felt from the first that she would be his fittest confidante. He immediately told her everything—a dream rather than a narrative.

Nowhere did Anne show her magnanimity more than in accepting the rather extravagant financial arrangements which Julian insisted on making for her. He was not a rich man, and she the better economist of the two. We knew she saw that in popular esteem Julian would pay the price of her pride if she refused, and that in this ticklish moment of his life the least she could do was to let him have the full credit for his generosity.

“And after all,” as she said to me, “young love can afford to go without a good many things necessary to old age.”

It was the nearest I heard her come to a complaint.

As soon as everything was settled she sailed for Florence, where she had friends and where, she intimated, she meant to spend most of her time.

I said good-by to her with real emotion, and the phrase I used as to my wish to serve her was anything but a convention.

Nor did she take it so.

“Help Julian through this next year,” she said. “People will take it harder than he knows. He'll need you all.” And she was kind enough to add something about my tact. Poor lady! She must have mentally withdrawn her little compliment before we met many times again.

II

Perhaps the only fault in Anne's education of her husband had been her inability to cling. In his new menage this error was rectified, and the effect on him was conspicuously good; in fact, I think Rose's confidence in his greatness pulled them through the difficult time.

For there was no denying that it was difficult. Many people looked coldly on them, and I know there was even some talk of asking him to resign from the firm of architects of which he was a member. The other men were all older, and very conservative. Julian represented to them everything that was modern and dangerous. Granger, the leading spirit, was in the habit of describing himself as holding old-fashioned views, by which he meant that he had all the virtues of the Pilgrim Fathers and none of their defects. I never liked him, but I could not help respecting him. The worst you could say of him was that his high standards were always successful.

You felt that so fanatical a sense of duty ought to have required some sacrifices.

To such a man Julian's conduct appeared not only immoral but inadvisable, and unfitting in a young man, especially without consulting his senior partners.

We used to say among ourselves that Granger's reason for wanting to get rid of Julian was not any real affection for the dim old moral code, but rather his acute realization that without Anne his junior partner was a less valuable asset.

Things were still hanging fire when I paid her the first of my annual visits. She was dreadfully distressed at my account of the situation. She had the manner one sometimes sees in dismissed nurses who meet their former little charges unwashed or uncared for. She could hardly believe it was no longer her business to put the whole matter right.

“Can't she do something for him?” she said. “Make her bring him a great building. That would save him.”

It was this message that I carried home to Rose; at least I suggested the idea to her as if it were my own. I had my doubts of her being able to carry it out.

Out of loyalty to Julian, or perhaps I ought to say out of loyalty to Anne, we had all accepted Rose, but we should soon have loved her in any case. She was extraordinarily sweet and docile, and gave us, those at least who were not parents, our first window to the east, our first link with the next generation, just at the moment when we were relinquishing the title ourselves. I am afraid that some of the males among us envied Julian more than perhaps in the old days we had ever envied him Anne.

But we hardly expected her to further his career as Anne had done, and yet, oddly enough, that was exactly what she did. Her methods had all the effectiveness of youth and complete conviction. She forced Julian on her friends and relations, not so much on his account as on theirs. She wanted them to be sure of the best. The result was that orders flowed in. Things took a turn for the better and continued to improve, as I was able to report to Anne when I went to see her at Florence or at Paris. She was always well lodged, well served, and surrounded by the pleasantest people, yet each time I saw her she had a look exiled and circumscribed, a look I can only describe as that of a spirit in reduced circumstances.

She was always avid for details of Julian and all that concerned him, and as times improved I was stupid enough to suppose I pleased her by giving them from the most favourable angle. It seemed to me quite obvious, as I saw how utterly she had ruined her own life, that she ought at least to have the comfort of knowing that she had not sacrificed it in vain. And so I allowed myself, not an exaggeration but a candour more unrestrained than would be usual in the circumstances.

Led on by her burning interest I told her many things I might much better have kept to myself; not only accounts of his work and his household and any new friends in our old circle, but we had all been amazed to see a sense of responsibility develop in Julian in answer to his new wife's dependence on him. With this had come a certain thoughtfulness in small attentions, which, I saw too late, Anne must always have missed in him. She was so much more competent in the smaller achievements of life than he that it had been wisdom to leave them to her; and Anne had often traveled alone and attended to the luggage, when now Rose was personally conducted like a young empress. The explanation was simple enough: Anne had the ability to do it, and the other had not. Even if I had stopped to think, I might fairly have supposed that Anne would find some flattery in the contrast. I should have been wrong.

Almost the first thing she asked me was whether he came home to luncheon. In old times, though his house was only a few blocks from his office, he had always insisted that it took too much time. Anne had never gained her point with him, though she put some force into the effort. Now I had to confess he did.

“It's much better for him,” she said with pleasure, and quite deceived me; herself, too, perhaps.

Yet even I, for all my blindness, felt some uneasiness the year Rose's son was born. I do not think the desire for offspring had ever taken up a great deal of room in Julian's consciousness, but of course Anne had wanted children, and I felt very cruel, sitting in her little apartment in Paris, describing the baby who ought to have been hers. How different her position would have been now if she had some thin-legged little girl to educate or some raw-boned boy to worry over; and there was that overblessed woman at home, necessary not only to Julian but to Julian's son.

It was this same year, but at a later visit, that I first became aware of a change in Anne. At first the charm of her surroundings, her pretty clothes, even to the bright little buckles on her shoes, blinded me to the fact that she herself was changed. I do not mean that she was aged. One of the delightful things about her was that she was obviously going to make an admirable old lady; the delicate boniness of her face and the clearness of her skin assured that. This was a change more fundamental. Even in her most distracted days Anne had always maintained a certain steadiness of head. She had trodden thorny paths, but she had always known where she was going. I had seen her eyelids red, but I had never failed to find in the eyes themselves the promise of a purpose. But now it was gone. I felt as if I were looking into a little pool which had been troubled by a stone, and I waiting vainly for the reflection to re-form itself.

So painful was the impression that before I sailed for home I tried to convey to her the dangers of her mood.

“I think you are advising me to be happy,” she said.

“I am advising no such thing,” I answered. “I am merely pointing out that you run the risk of being more unhappy than you are. My visits—or rather the news I bring you—are too important to you. You make me feel as if it were the only event of the year—to you who have always had such an interesting life of your own.”

“I have not had a life of my own since I was twenty,” she returned. It was at twenty she had married.

“Then think of Julian,” I said, annoyed not only at my own clumsiness but at the absence of anything of Anne's old heroic spirit. “For his sake, at least, you must keep your head. Why, my dear woman, one look at your face, grown as desperate as it sometimes appears now, would ruin Julian with the whole world. Even I, knowing the whole story, would find it hard to forgive him if you should fail to continue to be the splendid triumphant creature whom we know you were designed to be.”

She gave me a long queer look, which meant something tremendous. Evidently my words had made an impression.

They had, but not just the one I intended.

III

One of the first people I always saw on returning was Julian. How often he thought of Anne I do not know, but he spoke of her with the greatest effort. He invariably took care to assure himself that she was physically well, but beyond this it would have been a brave person who dared to go. He did not want to hear the details of her life and appearance.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that a few months after this I came to tell him that Anne was about to return to America. Why she was coming, or for how long, her letter did not say. I only knew that the second Saturday in December would see her among us again. It seemed fair to assume that her stay would not be long. Julian evidently thought so for he arranged to be in the West for three or four weeks.

I went to meet her. The day was cold and rainy, and as soon as I saw her I made up my mind that the crossing had been a bad one, and I was glad no one else had come to the wharf with me. She was standing by the rail, wrapped in a voluminous fur coat—the fashions were slim in the extreme—and her hat was tied on by a blue veil.

I may as well admit that from the moment I heard of her projected return I feared that her real motive for coming, conscious or unconscious, was to see Julian again. So when I told her of his absence I was immensely relieved that she took it as a matter of course.

“I suppose we might have met,” she observed. “As it is, I can go about without any fear of an awkward encounter.” I say I was relieved, but I was also excessively puzzled. Why had Anne come home?

It was a question I was to hear answered in a variety of ways during the next few months, by many of Anne's friends and partisans; for, as I think I have said, Anne had inspired great attachment since her earliest days. Why had she come home? they exclaimed. Why not, pray? Had she done anything criminal that she was to be exiled? Did I think it pleasant to live abroad on a small income? Even if she could get on without her friends, could they do without her?

The tone of these questions annoyed me not a little when I heard them, which was not for some time. Soon after Anne's arrival I, too, was called away, and it was not until February that I returned and was met by the carefully set piece—Anne the Victim.

With that ill-advised self-confidence of which I have already made mention, I at once set about demolishing this picture. I told Anne's friends, who were also mine, that she would thank them very little for their attitude. I found myself painting her life abroad as a delirium of intellect and luxury. I even found myself betraying professional secrets and arguing with total strangers as to the amount of her income.

Even in Montreal faint echoes of this state of things had reached me, but not until I went to see Anne on my return did I get any idea of their cause. She had taken a furnished apartment from a friend, in a dreary building in one of the West Forties. Only a jutting front of limestone and an elevator man in uniform saved it, or so it seemed to me, from being an old-fashioned boarding house. Its windows, small, as if designed for an African sun, looked northward upon a darkened street. Anne's apartment was on the second floor, and the requirements of some caryatids on the outside rendered her fenestration particularly meager. Her friend, if indeed it were a friend, had not treated her generously in the matter of furniture. She had left nothing superfluous but two green glass jugs on the mantelpiece, and had covered the chairs with a chintz, the groundwork of which was mustard colour.

Another man who was there when I came in, who evidently had known Anne in different surroundings, expressed the most hopeful view possible when he said that doubtless it would all look charming when she had arranged her own belongings.

Anne made a little gesture. “I haven't any belongings,” she said.

I didn't know what she meant, perhaps merely a protest against the tyranny of things, but I saw the effect her speech produced on her auditor. Perhaps she saw it too, for presently she added: “Oh, yes! I have one.”

And she went away, and came back carrying a beautiful old silver loving cup. I knew it well. It came from Julian's forebears. Anne had always loved it, and I was delighted that she should have it now. She set it on a table before a mirror, and here it did a double share to make the room possible.

When we were alone I expressed my opinion of her choice of lodgings.

“This sunless cavern!” I said. “This parlour-car furniture!”

She looked a little hurt. “You don't like it?” she said.

“Do you?” I snapped back.

After a time I had recourse to the old argument that it didn't look well; that it wasn't fair to Julian. But she had been expecting this.

“My dear Walter,” she answered, “you must try to be more consistent. In Paris you told me that I must cease to regulate my life by Julian. You were quite right. This place pleases me, and I don't intend to go to a hotel, which I hate, or to take a house, which is a bother, in order to soothe Julian's feelings. I have begun to lead my life to suit myself.”

The worst of it was, I could think of no answer.

A few evenings afterward we dined at the same house. Anne arrived with a scarf on her head, under the escort of a maid. She had come in a trolley car. Nobody's business but her own, perhaps, if she would have allowed it to remain so, but when she got up to go, and other people were talking of their motors' being late, Anne had to say: “Mine is never late; it goes past the corner every minute.”

I could almost hear a sigh, “Poor angel!” go round the room.

The next thing that happened was that Julian sent for me. He was in what we used to call in the nursery “a state.”

“What's this I hear about Anne's being hard up?” he said. “Living in a nasty flat, and going out to dinner in the cars?” And he wouldn't listen to an explanation. “She must take more; she must be made to take more.”

I had one of my most unfortunate inspirations. I thought I saw an opportunity for Julian to make an impression.

“I don't think she would listen to me,” I said. “Why don't you get Mr. Granger to speak to her?”

The idea appealed to Julian. He admired Mr. Granger, and remembered that he and Anne had been friends. Whereas I thought, of course, that Mr. Granger would thus be made to see that the fault, if there were a fault, was not of Julian's generosity. Stupidly enough I failed to see that if Julian's offer was graceful Anne's gesture of refusal would be upon a splendid scale.

And it must have been very large, indeed, to stir old Granger as it did. He told me there had been tears in his eyes while she spoke of her husband's kindness. Kindness! He could not but compare her surroundings with the little house, all geraniums and muslin curtains, in which the new Mrs. Chelmsford was lodged. Anne had refused, of course. In the circumstances she could not accept. She said she had quite enough for a single woman. The phrase struck Granger as almost unbearably pathetic.

One day I noticed the loving cup—which was always on Anne's table, which was admired by everyone who came to the apartment, and was said to recall her, herself, so pure and graceful and perfect—one day the loving cup was gone.

I was so surprised when my eye fell on its vacant place that I blurted out: “Goodness, Anne, where's your cup?”

The next moment I could have bitten out my tongue. Anne stood still in the middle of the room, twisting her hands a little, and everyone—there were three or four of us there—stopped talking.

“Oh,” she said, “oh, Walter, I know you'll scold me for being officious and wrong-headed, but I have sent the cup back to Julian's son. I think he ought to have it.”

Everyone else thought the deed extremely noble. I took my hat and went to Rose. Rose was not very enthusiastic. A beautiful letter had accompanied the cup. We discussed the advisability of sending it back; but of course that would have done no good. The devilish part of a favour is that to accept or reject it is often equally incriminating. Anne held the situation in the hollow of her hand. Besides, as Rose pointed out, we couldn't very well return it without asking Julian, and we had both agreed that for the present Julian had better remain in ignorance of the incident. He would have thought it mean-spirited to allow any instance of Anne's generosity to remain concealed from the public. Rose and I were willing to allow it to drop.

I was sorry, therefore, when I found, soon after, not only that everyone knew of the gift but that phrases of the beautiful letter itself were current, with marks of authenticity upon them. It was not hard to trace them to Anne's intimates.

I have no idea to this day whether Anne was deliberately trying to ruin the man for whom she had sacrificed so much; or whether one of those large, unconscious, self-indulgent movements of our natures was carrying her along the line of least resistance. There are some people, I know, who can behave well only so long as they have the centre of the stage, and are driven by a necessity almost moral to regain such a place at any cost, so that they may once again begin the exercise of their virtues.

Anne's performance was too perfect, I thought, for conscious art, and she was not a genius. She was that most dangerous of all engines, a good person behaving wickedly. All her past of high-mindedness and kindness protected her now like an armour from the smallest suspicion. All the grandeur of her conduct at the time of the divorce was remembered as a proof that she at least had a noble soul. Who could doubt that she wished him well?

If so, she soon appeared to be the only person who did. For, as we all know, pity is one of the most dangerous passions to unloose. It demands a victim. We rise to pathos, only over the dead bodies of our nearest and dearest.

Every phrase, every gesture of Anne's stirred one profoundly, and it was inevitable, I suppose, that Julian should be selected as the sacrifice. I noticed that people began to speak of him in the past, though he was still moving among us—“As Julian used to say.”

He and Anne fortunately never met, but she and the new Mrs. Julian had one encounter in public. If even then Anne would have shown the slightest venom all might still have been well. But, no, the worn, elderly woman, face to face with the young beauty who had possessed herself of everything in the world, showed nothing but a tenderness so perfect that every heart was wrung. I heard Rose criticized for not receiving her in the same spirit.

The next day Julian was blackballed at a philanthropic club at which he had allowed himself to be proposed merely from a sense of civic duty.

Over the incident I know Anne wept. I heard her tears.

“Oh, if I could have spared him that!” she said.

My eyes were cold, but those of Mr. Granger, who came in while her eyelids were still red, were full of fire.

She spent a week with the Grangers that summer. The whole family—wife, sons and daughters—had all yielded to the great illusion.

It must not be supposed that I had failed to warn Julian. The supineness of his attitude was one of the most irritating features of the case. He answered me as if I were violating the dead; asked me if by any chance I didn't see he deserved all he was getting.

No one was surprised when in the autumn he resigned from his firm. There had been friction between the partners for some time. Soon afterward he and Rose sailed for Italy, where they have lived ever since. He had scarcely any income except that which he made in his profession; his capital had gone to Anne. He probably thought that what he had would go further abroad.

I do not know just how Anne took his departure, except that I am sure she was wonderful about it. I had ceased to see her. She has, however, any number of new friends, whose fresh interest in her story keeps it continually alive. She has given up her ugly flat and taken a nice little house, and in summer I notice she has red geraniums in the window boxes. I often see a nice little motor standing before her door—the result doubtless of a year's economy.

Whenever her friends congratulate her on the improvement in her finances she says she owes it all to me—I am such an excellent man of business.

“I admire Walter so much,” I am told she says, “though I'm afraid I have lost him as a friend. But then, in the last few years I have lost so much.” And she smiles that brave sad smile of hers.