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The High Cost of Conscience by Beatrice Ravenel

From Harper's Magazine

“Any woman who can accept money from a gentleman who is in no way related to her—” Miss Fowler delivered judgment.

“My dear Aunt Maria, you mean a gentleman's disembodied spirit,” Hugh's light, pleasant tones intervened.

“A legacy, Maria, is not quite the same thing. Mr. Winthrop Fowler's perfect intonation carried its usual implication that the subject was closed.

“——is what I call an adventuress,” Miss Fowler summed up. She had a way of ignoring objections, of reappearing beyond them like a submarine with the ultimate and detonating answer. “And now she wants to reopen the matter when the whole thing's over and done with. After three years. Extraordinary taste.” She hitched her black-velvet Voltaire arm-chair a little away from the fire and spread a vast knitting-bag of Chinese brocade over her knees. “I suppose she isn't satisfied; she wants more.”

“Naturally. I cannot imagine what other reason she could have for insisting on a personal interview,” her brother agreed, dryly. He retired into the Transcript as a Trappist withdraws into his vows. A chastened client of Mr. Fowler's once observed that a half-hour's encounter with him resulted in a rueful of asphyxiated topics.

Miss Maria, however, preferred disemboweling hers, “I shouldn't have consented,” she snapped. “Hugh, if you would be so good as to sit down. You are obstructing the light. And the curtain-cord. If you could refrain from twisting it for a few moments.”

Hugh let his long, high-shouldered figure lapse into the window-seat. “And besides, we're all dying to know what she looks like,” he suggested.

“Speak for yourself, please,” said Miss Fowler, with the vivacity of the lady who protests too much.

“I do, I do! Good Lord! I'm just as bad as the rest of you. All my life I've been consumed to know what Uncle Hugh could have seen in a perfectly obscure little person to make him do what he did. There must have been something.” His eyes travelled to a sketch in pencil of a man's head which hung in the shadow of the chimneypiece, a sketch whose uncanny suggestion might have come from the quality of the sitter or merely from a smudging of the medium. “Everything he did always seemed to me perfectly natural,” he went on, as though conscious of new discovery. “Even those years when he was knocking about the world, hiding his address. Even when he had that fancy that people were persecuting him. Most people did worry him horribly.”

A glance flashed between the two middle-aged listeners. It was a peculiar glance, full of a half-denied portent. Then Miss Fowler's fingers, true to their traditions, loosened their grip on her needles and casually smoothed out her work.

“I have asked you not to speak of that,” she mentioned, quietly.

“I know. But of course there was no doubt at all that he was sa—was entirely recovered before his death. Don't you think so, sir?”

His uncle laid down the paper and fixed the young man with the gray, unsheathed keenness that had sent so many witnesses grovelling to the naked truth. “No doubt whatever. I always held, and so did both the physicians, that his lack of balance was a temporary and sporadic thing, brought on by overwork—and certain unhappy conditions of his life. There has never been any such taint in our branch of the family.”

“No-o, so they say,” Hugh agreed. “One of our forebears did see ghosts, but that was rather the fashion. And his father, that old Johnnie over the fireplace—you take after him, Aunt Maria—he was the prize witch-smeller of his generation, and he condemned all the young and pretty ones. That hardly seems well-balanced.”

“Collaterals on the distaff side,” Mr. Fowler put in hastily. “If you would read Mendel—”

“Mendel? I have read about him.” He raised the forefinger of his right hand. “Very suggestive. If your father was a black rabbit”—he raised the forefinger of his left—“and your mother was a white rabbit, then your male children would be”—he raised all the other fingers and paused as though taken aback by the size of the family—“would be blue guinea-pigs, with a tendency to club-foot and astigmatism, but your female children might only be rather clumsy tangoists with a weakness for cutting their poor relations. That's all I remember, but I do know that because I studied the charts.”

“Very amusing,” said Mr. Fowler, indulgently.

Hugh flushed.

“I am sure it can't be that way.” Miss Maria flapped her knitting over. “But everything has changed since my day, and not for the better. The curtain-cord.”

“Beg pardon,” muttered Hugh. His mind went on churning nonsense. “There are two days it is useless to flee from—the day of your death and the day when your family doesn't care for your jokes.

  “For a joke is an intellectual thing,
  And a mot is the sword of an angel king.

“Good old Blake. Why do the best people always see jokes? Why does a really good one make a whole frozen crowd feel jolly and united all of a sudden?” He pondered on the beneficence of the comic spirit. Hugh was a born Deist. It gave him no trouble at all to believe that since the paintings of Velasquez and the great outdoors which he had seen, were beautiful, so much the more beautiful must be that God whom he had not seen. It seemed reasonable. As for the horrors like Uncle Hugh's affair—well, they must be put in for chiaroscuro. A thing couldn't be all white without being blank. The thought of the shadows, however, always made him profoundly uncomfortable, and his instinct right-about-faced to the lighter surface of life. “Anyhow,” he broke silence, “the daughter of Heth must be game. Three to one, and on our native heath.”

He looked appraisingly about the room, pausing at the stiff, distinguished, grey-haired couple, one on either side of the fire. The effect was of a highly finished genre picture: the rich wainscot between low book-shelves, the brooding portraits, the black-blue rug bordered by a veiled Oriental motive, the black-velvet cushions that brought out the watery reflections of old Sheraton as even the ancient horsehair had not done; the silver candlesticks, the miniatures, and on the mantel those two royal flower-pots whose precarious existence was to his aunt a very fearful joy. Even the tortoise-shell cat, sprawled between the two figures like a tiny tiger-skin, was in the picture. It was a room that gently put you into your place. Hugh recalled with a faint grin certain meetings here of philanthropic ladies whose paths had seldom turned into the interiors of older Beacon Street. The state of life to which it had pleased their Maker to call them, he reflected, would express itself preferably in gilding and vast pale-tinted upholstery and pink bibelots—oh, quite a lot of pink. This place had worried them into a condition of disconcerted awe.

He tried to fancy what it was going to do to the unbidden, resented guest. A queer protest against its enmity, an impulse to give her a square deal, surged up in him from nowhere. After all, whatever else she might be, she was Uncle Hugh's girl. Like all the world, Hugh loved the dispossessed lover. He knew what it felt like. One does not reach the mature age of twenty-four without having at least begun the passionate pilgrimage. His few tindery and tinselly affairs suspected of following the obvious formula: three parts curiosity, three parts the literary sense, three parts crude young impulse, one part distilled moonshine. The real love of his life had been Uncle Hugh.

He sprang up with an abruptness to which his elders seemed to be used. He stopped before a brass-trimmed desk and jerked at the second drawer. “Where are those letters, sir?”

“You mean—”

“Yes, the one you wrote her about the money, and her answer. You put them with his papers, didn't you? Where's the key?”

The older man drew from his waistcoat pocket a carved bit of brass. “What do you want with them?” he asked, cautiously.

“I want to refresh my memory—and Aunt Maria's.” He took out a neat little pile of papers and began to sort them intently. “Here they are on top.” He laid out a docketed envelope on the desk. “And here are the essays and poems that you wouldn't publish. I considered them the best things he ever did.”

“You were not his literary executor,” said his uncle, coldly. Another stifled glance passed between the seniors, but this time Miss Maria made no effort to restore the gloss of the surface. She sat idle, staring at the papers with a sort of horror.

“Put them back,” she said. “Winthrop, I do think you might burn them. If you keep things like that too long the wrong people are sure to get them.”

“Wait a bit. I haven't seen them for years, not since you published the collected works—with Hamlet left out.” The young man lifted a worn brown-morocco portfolio tied with a frazzled red ribbon. “And here”—his voice dropped—“here is It—the letters he wrote to her and never sent. It was a sort of diary, wasn't it, going on for years? What a howling pity we couldn't print that!”

“Hugh!”

“Don't faint, Aunt Maria. You wouldn't catch me doing anything so indecent. But suppose Dante's dear family had suppressed the Vita Nuova. And it ought to be one of the most extraordinary human documents in the world, perfectly intimate, all the bars down, full of those flashes of his. Just the man, ipsissimus, that never happened but that once. Uncle Winthrop, don't you think that I might read it?”

“Do you think so? I never did.”

“Oh, if you put it up to me like that! Of course I can't. But what luck that he didn't ask you to send it to her—supposing she's the wrong kind—wasn't it ...” His voice trailed off, leaving his lips foolishly open. “You don't mean—he did?”

“Yes, at the end, after you had left the room,” said Mr. Fowler, firmly.

“And you—didn't? Why not?”

“As you said, for fear she was the wrong kind”

“It was too much to hope that she would be anything else,” his aunt broke in, harshly. “Shut your mouth, Hugh; you look like a fool. Think what she might have done with them—she and some of those unspeakable papers.”

“Oh, I see! I see!” groaned the young man. “But how awful not to do the very last thing he wanted! Did you ever try to find out what kind of a person she was?”

“She took the money. That was enough,” cried Miss Fowler. “She got her share, just as though she had been his legal wife.”

Hugh gave her a dazed look. “You don't mean that she was his illegal one? I never—”

“Oh no, no!” Mr. Fowler interposed. “We have no reason to think that she was otherwise than respectable. Maria, you allow most unfortunate implications to result from your choice of words. We know very little, really.”

“He met her in Paris when he gave that course of lectures over there. We know that much. And she was an American student—from Virginia, wasn't it? But that was over twenty years ago. Didn't he see her after that?”

“I am sure he did not.”

“She wasn't with him when he was knocking about Europe?”

“Certainly not. She came home that very year and married. As her letter states, she was a widow with three children at the time of his death.”

“I have always considered it providential that he didn't know she was a widow,” observed Miss Maria, primly.

Her nephew shot her a look that admitted his intermittent amusement in his aunt Maria, but definitely gave her up. He carefully leaned the portfolio inside the arm of the sofa that neighboured the desk, and picked up the long envelope.

“A copy of my letter,” said Mr. Fowler.

To his sister, watching him as he watched Hugh, came the unaccountable impression that his sure and chiselled surface covered a nervous anxiety. Then Miss Maria, being a product of the same school, dismissed the idea as absurd.

Hugh raised bewildered eyes from the letters. “I can't exactly remember,” he said. “I was so cut up at the time. Did I ever actually read this before or was I merely told about it? I went back for Midyear's, you know, almost at once. I know my consent was asked, but—”

“You—did not see it.”

“And you, Aunt Maria, of course you knew about it!”

“Certainly,” said Miss Fowler, on the defensive. “As usual in business matters, your uncle decided for me. We have been accustomed to act as a family always. To me the solidarity of the family it more than the interest of any member of it.”

“Oh, I know that the Fowler family is the noblest work of God.” The young man looked from one to the other as he might have regarded two strangers whose motives it was his intention to find out. “I've been brought up on that. But what I want to know now is the whyness of this letter.”

“What do you mean?” Mr. Fowler's voice cut the pause like a trowel executing the middle justice on an earthworm.

“Why—why—” Hugh began, desperately. “I mean, why wasn't the money turned over to her at once—all of it?”

“It is customary to notify legatees.”

“And she wasn't even a legatee,” added Miss Maria, grimly. He never made a will.”

“No,” said Hugh, with an ugly laugh, “he merely trusted to our promises.”

There was a brief but violent silence.

“I think, Winthrop,” Miss Maria broke it, “that instead of questioning the propriety of my language, you might do well to consider your nephew's.”

Hugh half-tendered the letter. “You're so confoundedly clever. Uncle Winthrop. You—you just put the whole thing up to the poor woman. I can't pick out a word to show where you said it, but the tone of your letter is exactly this, 'Here's the money for you, and if you take it you're doing an unheard-of thing.' She saw it right enough. Her answer is just defence of why she has to take it—some of it. She's a mother with three children, struggling to keep above water. She's a human animal fighting for her young. So she takes, most apologetically, most unhappily, a part of what he left her, and she hates to take that. It's the most pitiful thing—”

“Piteous,” corrected Miss Maria, in a tone like a bite.

Mr. Fowler laid the tips of his fingers very delicately on his nephew's knee. “Will you show me the place or places where I make these very damaging observations?”

“That's just it. I can't pick them out, but—”

“I am sure that you cannot, because they exist only in your somewhat—shall we say, lyrical imagination? I laid the circumstances before the woman and she acted as she saw fit to act. Hugh, my dear boy, I wish that you would try to restrain your—your growing tendency to excitability. I know that this is a trying day for all of us.”

“O Lord, yes! It brings it all back,” said Hugh, miserably. “I'm sorry if I said anything offensive sir, but—” He gave it up. “You know I have a devil, sometimes.” He gave a half-embarrassed laugh.

“Offensive—if you have said anything offensive?” Miss Fowler boiled over. “Is that all you are going to say, Winthrop? If so—”

Mr. Fowler lifted a warning hand. The house door was opening. Then the discreet steps of Gannett came up the hall, followed by something lighter and more resilient.

“At least don't give me away to the lady the very first thing,” said Hugh, lightly. He shoved the papers into the drawers and swung it shut. His heart was beating quite ridiculously. He would know at last—What wouldn't he know? “Uncle Hugh's girl, Uncle Hugh's girl,” he told himself, and his temperamental responsiveness to the interest and the mystery of life expanded like a sea-anemone in the Gulf Stream.

Gannett opened the door, announced in his impeccable English, “Mrs. Shirley,” and was not.

       * * * * *

A very small, very graceful woman hesitated in the doorway. Hugh's first impression was surprise that there was so little of her. Then his always alert subconsciousness registered:

“A lady, yes, but a country lady; not de par le monde. Pleasantly rather than well dressed; those veils are out.” He had met her at once with outstretched hand and the most cordial, “I am glad to see you, Mrs. Shirley.” Then he mentioned the names of his aunt and uncle. He did not dare to leave anything to Aunt Maria.

That lady made a movement that might or might not have been a gesture of recognition. Mr. Fowler, who had risen, inclined his handsome head with a polite murmur and indicated a chair which faced the light. Mrs. Shirley sat, instead, upon the edge of the sofa, which happened to be nearer. With her coming Hugh's expansiveness had suffered a sudden rebuff. A feeling of dismal conventionality permeated the room like a fog. He plumbed it in vain for the wonder and the magic that ought to have been the inescapable aura of Uncle Hugh's girl. Was this the mighty ocean, was this all? She was a little nervous, too. That was a pity. Nervousness in social relations was one of the numerous things that Aunt Maria never forgave.

Then the stranger spoke, and Hugh's friendliness went out to the sound as to something familiar for which he had been waiting.

“It is very good of you to let me come,” she said.

“But she must be over forty,” Hugh told himself, “and her voice is young. So was his always.” It was also very natural and moving and not untinged by what Miss Fowler called the Southern patois. “And her feet are young.”

Mr. Fowler uttered another polite murmur. There was no help from that quarter. She made another start.

“It seemed to me—” she addressed Miss Fowler, who looked obdurate. She cast a helpless glance at the cat, who opened surprising topaz eyes and looked supercilious. Then she turned to Hugh. “It seemed to me,” she said, steadily, “that I could make you understand—I mean I could express myself more clearly if I could see you, than I could by writing, but—it is rather difficult.”

The overheated, inclement room waited. Hugh restrained his foot from twitching. Why didn't Aunt Maria say something? She was behaving abominably. She was still seething with her suppressed outburst like a tea-kettle under the cozy of civilization. And it was catching.

“I explained at the time, three years ago,” Mrs. Shirley made the plunge, “why I took the—money at all.” The hard word was out, and Hugh relaxed. “I don't know what you thought of me, but at the time it seemed like the mercy of Heaven. I had to educate the children. We were horribly poor. I was almost in despair. And I felt that if I could take it from any one I could take it from him ...”

“Yes,” said Hugh, unhappily. The depression that dropped on him at intervals seemed waiting to pounce. He glanced at his uncle's judicial mask, knowing utterly the distaste for sentimental encounters that it covered. He detested his aunt's aloofness. He was almost angry with this little woman's ingenuousness that put her so candidly at their cynical mercy.

“But now,” she went on, “some land we have that seemed worth nothing at the time has become very valuable. The town grew out in that direction. And my eldest boy is doing very well indeed, and my daughter is studying for a library position.”

“The short and simple annals of the poor,” sighed Hugh to Hugh.

“And so,” said little Mrs. Shirley, with astounding simplicity, “I came to ask you please to take it back again.” She gave an involuntary sigh of relief, as though she had returned a rather valuable umbrella. Mr. Fowl's eyeglasses dropped from his nose as his eyebrows shot up.

“Good Lord!” ejaculated Miss Maria with all the unexpectedness of Galatea. “You don't really mean it?” Her bag slid to the floor and the cat became thoroughly intrigued.

“Do I understand you to say”—Mr. Fowler's voice was almost stirred—“that you wish to return my brother's legacy to the family?”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Shirley, “only, it wasn't a legacy. It was merely kindness that let me have it. You never can know how kind it was. But we can get on without it now.”

Mr. Fowler cleared his throat. To Hugh his manner faintly suggested the cat busy with the yarn, full of a sort of devout curiosity. “Pardon me,” he said, gently, “but are you sure—have you given this matter sufficient thought? The sum is a considerable one. Your children—”

“I have talked it over with them. They feel just as I do.”

“A very proper feeling,” said Miss Fowler, approvingly. “I must say that I never expected it. I shall add part of my share of it to the Marian Fowler Ward in the Home for Deficient Children. A most worthy charity. Perhaps I could interest you—”

“Oh, that would be lovely!” cried Mrs. Shirley. “Anything for children.... I've already spoken to my cousin, who is a lawyer, about transferring the securities back to you.”

“I shall communicate with him at once,” said Mr. Fowler. His court-room manner had bourgeoned into his best drawing-room blend of faintly implied gallantry and deep consideration. One almost caught Winter getting out of the lap of Spring. Then the three heads which had unconsciously leaned together suddenly straightened up and turned in the same direction.

Hugh stood almost over them. In one hand he held his aunt's knitting, which he had mechanically rescued from the cat. Now he drew out one of the ivory needles and snapped it into accurate halves. “This is atrocious!” he said, with care and precision. His voice shook. “I shall not touch a cent of it and”—he embraced his uncle and aunt in the same devastating look—“neither will you if you have any sense of decency.”

“I think—”

“It doesn't matter remotely what you—we think sir. What matters is what Uncle Hugh thought.” He turned to Mrs. Shirley with an extraordinary softening of tone. “Couldn't you keep it? When he died ... in the room over this”—with a little gasp her glance flew to the ceiling as though this topographical detail had brought her a sharp realization of that long-past scene—“he made us promise that you should have it, all of it. He felt that you needed it; he worried about it.”

“Oh, how kind of him—how kind!” cried the little woman. The poignancy of her voice cut into his disappointment like a sharp ray of light. “Even then—to think of me. But don't you understand that he wouldn't want me to—to take anything that I felt I ought not to take?”

“That's the way out,” rippled across Mr. Fowler's face. He was experiencing a variety of mental disturbances, but this came to the surface just in time for Hugh to catch it.

“Oh well,” he murmured, wearily. “Only, none for this deficient child, thank you.” He walked to the window and stood looking out into the blown spring green of the elm opposite. His ebbed anger had left a residuum of stubbornness. There was still an act of justice to be consummated and the position of grand-justicer offered a certain righteous attraction. As he reminded himself, if you put your will to work on a difficult action you were fain to commit, after a while the will worked automatically and your mind functioned without aid from you, and the action bloomed of itself. This kinetic process was a constant device of the freakish impulse that he called his devil. He deliberately laid the train.

“There is one more thing,” the alien was saying. Her voice had gained a wonderful fluency amid the general thaw. “I didn't dare to ask before, but if we thought of me then—I have always hoped he left some message for me ... a letter, perhaps.”

Hugh smiled agreeably. “In just a moment,” he considered, “I am going to do something so outrageous that I can't even imagine how my dear families are going to take it.” He was about to hurt them severely, but that was all right. His uncle was a tempered weapon of war that despised quarter; and as for Aunt Maria, he rather wanted to hurt Aunt Maria for her own good.

Into the eloquent and mendacious silence that was a gift of their caste the voice fell humbly: “So there wasn't? I suppose I oughtn't to have expected it.”

“Any time now, Gridley,” Hugh signalled to his familiar. Like a response, a thin breeze tickled the roots of his hair. He swung around with the pivot of a definite purpose. With an economy of movement that would have contented an efficiency expert he set a straight fiddle-backed chair squarely in front of Uncle Hugh's girl and settled himself in it with his back to his own people.

“Mrs. Shirley,” he began, quietly, “will you talk to me, please? I hope I shan't startle you, but there are things I absolutely have to know, and this is my one chance. I am entirely determined not to let it slip. Talk to me, please, not to them. As you have doubtless noticed, though excellent people where the things not flatly of this world are concerned, my uncle is a graven image and my aunt is a deaf mute. As for me, I am just unbalanced enough to understand anything.” He was aware of the rustle of consternation behind him and hurried on, ignoring that and whatever else might be happening there. “That's what I'm banking on now. I intend to say my say and they are going to allow it, because it is dangerous to thwart queer people—very dangerous indeed. You know, they thwarted Uncle Hugh in every possible way. My grandfather was a composite of those two, and all of them adored my uncle and contradicted him and watched him until he went over the border. And they're so dead scared that I'm going to follow him some day that they let me do quite as I please.” He passed his hand across his eyes as though brushing away cobwebs. “Will you be so good as to put your veil up.”

“Why—why, certainly!” Mrs. Shirley faltered. She uncovered her face and Hugh nodded to the witness within.

“Yes, he'd have liked that,” he told himself. “Lots of expression and those beautiful haunted shadows about the eyes.” He laughed gently. “Don't look so frightened. I don't bite. Just humour me, as Uncle Winthrop is signalling you to do. You understand, don't you, that Uncle Hugh was the romance and the adventure of my life? I'm still saturated with him, but there was lots of him that I could never get through to. There never was a creature better worth knowing, and he couldn't show me, or else I had blind spots. There were vast tracts of undiscovered country in him, as far as I was concerned—lands of wonder, east of the sun and west of the moon—that sort of thing. But I knew that there was a certain woman who must have been there, who held the heart of the mystery, and to-day, when this incredible chance came—when you came—I made up my mind that I was not going to be restrained nor baffled by the customs of my tribe. I want the truth and I'm prepared to give it. From the shoulder. If you will tell me everything you know about him I promise to tell you everything I know. You'll want to—” The sound of the closing door made him turn. The room behind him was empty. His manner quieted instantly. “That's uncommonly tactful of them.... You won't think that they meant any discourtesy by leaving?” he added, anxiously. “They wouldn't do that.”

“Oh, I'm sure not! Your uncle made me understand,” faltered Mrs. Shirley. “They knew you could speak more freely without them.”

“He's wonderful with the wireless,” Hugh agreed. “But they were in terror, anyway, as to how freely I was about to speak before them. They can't stand this. Everything really human seems pretty well alien to Uncle Winthrop. He's exhibit A of the people who consider civilization a mistake. And my aunt Maria is a truly good woman—charities and all that—but if you put a rabbit in her brain it would incontinently curl up and die in convulsions.”

She laughed helplessly, and Hugh reported an advance.

“Nevertheless,” he added quaintly, “we don't really dislike each other.”

“I'm the last of the family, you see; I'm the future.... Can't we skip the preliminaries?” he broke out. “You don't feel that I am a stranger, do you?” He halted on the verge of the confidence that he found no barrier in her advanced age. He knew plenty of women of forty who had never grown up much and who met him on perfectly equal terms. This, however, was a case by itself. He plunged back into the memories of Uncle Hugh. He spoke of his charm, his outlook on life, sometimes curiously veiled, often uncannily clairvoyant; his periods of restless suffering tending to queer, unsocial impulses; then the flowering of an interval of hard work and its reward of almost supernatural joy.

“He used to go around in a rainbow,” said Hugh, “a sort of holy soap bubble. I hardly dared to speak to him for fear of breaking it. It came with a new inspiration, and while it lasted nothing on earth was so important. Then when it was finished he never wanted to see the thing again.”

“Go on,” said his listener. Her grey eyes plumbed his with a child's directness. He was conscious of his will playing on her. He was keeping his part of the contract, but he was also breaking the way for hers. He must not let them go for a moment, those grey eyes like a girl's that grew absent-minded so easily. Only a little more and his mood would curve around both them, a glamorous mist of feeling.

“You go on,” he murmured. “Can't you see how much I want you to? Can't you feel how much I'm the right person to know?”

“I could never tell any one. You want—”

“Anything, everything. You must have known him better than anybody in he world did.”

“I think so,” she said, slowly “And I saw him alone only twice in my life.”

For some time he had sat with his long fingers over his mouth, afraid of checking her by an untimely word.

“Of course I was in his classes. You know he had an extraordinary success; he struck twelve at once, as they say there. The French really discovered him as a poet, just as Mallarme discovered Poe; some of them used that parallel. And the girls—he was a matinee idol and a cult—even the French girls. We went into that classroom thrilling as we never went to any ball. I worked that winter for him harder than I had ever worked in my life, and about Easter he began to single me out for the most merciless fault-finding. That was his way of showing that he considered you worth while. He had a habit of standing over you in class, holding your paper like a knout. And once or twice—I called myself a conceited little idiot—but once or twice—”

Hugh nodded. His pulses were singing like morning stars at the spectacle of a new world.

“He used to say of a certain excited, happy feeling, a sort of fey feeling, that you seemed to have swallowed a heavenly pigeon. And—well, he looked like that. But I knocked my vanity on the head and told it, 'Down to the other dogs.' I was used to young men; I knew how little such manifestations could mean. But after that I used to set little lines in the things I wrote for him, very delicately, and sometimes I fancied I had caught a fish. It was most exciting.”

Hugh again impersonated a Chinese mandarin.

“You see, he allowed so few people to know him, he moved with such difficulty in that formally laid-out small, professional world, with its endless leaving of cards and showing yourself on the proper days. I think they considered him a sort of Huron afflicted with genius, and forgave him. He ran away from them, he fought them off. And to feel that there was a magic spiderweb between this creature and me, new every day and invisible to everybody else and dripping with poetry like dewdrops! Can't you fancy the intoxication? I was nineteen.... I had engaged myself to be married to Beverly Shirley. I had known him all my life—before I left home—but I had absolutely no conviction of disloyalty. This was different; this was another life.”

“Another you,” agreed Hugh, as one who took exotic states of mind for granted.

“Well, yes.... It was one of the awful at-homes of Madame Normand's. She took American girls en pension, and she was supposed to look after us severely; but as she was an American herself, of course she gave us a great deal of liberty. She was the wife of a professeur, and she had rather an imposing salon, so she received just so often, and you had to go or she never stopped asking you why. You have been to those French receptions?”

“Where they serve music and syrup and little hard cakes, and you carry away the impression of a lordly function because of the scenery and the manners? Indeed yes!”

“I slid away after a while, out upon the iron balcony, filled with new lilacs, that overhung the garden. Something had hurt my little feelings; a letter hadn't come, perhaps. I remember how dark and warm the night was, like a gulf under me, and the stars and the lights of Paris seemed very much alike and rather disappointing. Then I heard his voice behind me, and I was as overwhelmed as—as Daphne or Danae or one of those pagan ladies might have been when the god came.

“He said, 'What are you doing, hanging over this dark, romantic chasm?' And I just had presence of mind enough to play up.

“'Naturally, I'm waiting for a phantom lover.' Then the answer to that flashed on me and I said in a hurry, 'I thought you never came to these things.'

“'I came to see you'—he really said it—and then, 'And—am I sufficiently demoniacal?' And he had swallowed a pigeon.

“'Oh dear, no!' said I. 'You are much too respectable. You are from Boston.'

“'And you from Virginia,' said he. 'I hear that a certain Stewart once unjustifiably claimed kinship with your branch of the family and has since been known as the Pretender.'

“'That is quite true,' said I. 'And I hear that once when the Ark ran aground a little voice was heard piping: 'Save me! save me! I am a Fowler of Boston!'

“That was the silly way we began. Isn't it incredible?”

“He could be silly—that was one of the lovable things,” Hugh mused. “And he could say the most nakedly natural things. But he generally used the mandarin dialect. He thought in it, I suppose.”

“No,” the stranger corrected him. “He thought in thoughts. Brilliant people always do. The words just wait like a—a—”

“Layette,” said Hugh. “What else did he say?”

“The next I remember we were leaning together, all but touching. And he was telling me about the little green gate.”

Hugh's hand shut. “He always called it that. Was he thinking of it even then?”

“Oh yes!”

“He never was like a person of this world,” said Hugh, under his breath.

“The loneliest creature I ever knew.”

They fell silent, like two old friends whose sorrow is the same.

“He believed,” Hugh went on, after a moment, “that when life became intolerable you had a perfect right to take the shortest way out. And he thought of it as a little green gate, swinging with its shadow in the twilight so that a touch would let you into the sweetest, dimmest old garden.”

“But he loved life.”

“Sometimes. The colour of it and the unexpectedness. He believed the word didn't have any definite plan, but just wandered along the road and picked up adventures. And he loved that. He said God made a new earth every day and he rather fancied a new heaven oftener. But he got so dead tired at the end, homesick for the underground.... I wonder ...”

The little woman was looking past him, straight into an evocation of a vanished presence that was so real, so nearly tangible, that Hugh was forced to lay violent hands upon his absurd impulse to glance over his shoulder “I wouldn't let him,” she said, in a tone the young man had never heard before.

“You mean ...”

“I couldn't bear it. I made him promise me that he wouldn't. I can't tell you that. We talked for a long time and the night was full of doom. He was tired then, but that wasn't all. He felt what was coming—the Shadow ... and he was in terror. What he dreaded most was that it might change him in some way, make him something beastly and devilish—he who had always loved whatever was lovely and merciful and of good report.”

Hugh got up with a shudder. “Hush!” he said, sharply. “It's too ghastly. Don't tell me any more about it.” He wandered across the room, pulling a leaf from the azaleas, stopping at the window for a long look out. The wind was blowing some riotous young clouds over the sky like inarticulate shouts. There was an arrogant bird in the elm; there were pert crocus-buds in the window-boxes. The place was full of foolhardy little dare-devils who trusted their fate and might never find it out. After all, that was the way to live—as long as one was allowed. He turned suddenly with his whimsical smile. “I look out o' window quite a bit,” he explained, “well, because of my aunt Maria.” When he sat down again in the Sheraton chair Mrs. Shirley shifted her story to the plane of the smile.

“I don't know how late it was when Madame Normand popped her head out of the balcony door.”

“'Who was then surprised? It was the lady,' as dear old Brantome says?”

“It was everybody. The company had gone and Melanie the bonne was putting out the candles.

“'Miss Stewart and I have just discovered that we are very nearly related,' said he.

“'But how delightful,' said Madame, thoroughly annoyed.”

“And the other time,” Hugh hinted. What he wanted to say was, “So you prevented it, you kept him here, God bless you!” His natural resilience had asserted itself. Vistas were opening. The Hugh who accepted life for what it was worth was again in the ascendant, but he found a second to call up the other Hugh, whose legal residence was somewhere near the threshold of consciousness, to take notice. He had always known that there must have been something in Uncle Hugh's girl.

“That was a few days later, the afternoon before I left Paris. I went quite suddenly. Somebody was sick at home, and I had the chance to travel with some friends who were going. He had sent me flowers—no, not roses.”

“Narcissus?”

“Yes. Old Monsieur Normand was scandalized; it seems one doesn't send yellow flowers to a jeune fille. To me it was the most incredibly thoughtful and original thing. All the other girls had gone with Madame to a very special piano recital, in spite of a drizzling rain. It had turned cool, too, I remember, because there was a wood fire in the little sitting-room—not the salon, but the girls' room. Being an American, Madame was almost lavish about fires. And it was a most un-French room, the most careless little place, where the second-best piano lived, and the lilacs, when they were taken in out of the cold. There were sweet old curtains, and a long sofa in front of the fireplace instead of the traditional armchairs. Anybody's books and bibelots lay about. I was playing.”

“What?” This was important.

“What would a girl play, over twenty years ago, in Paris? In the crepuscule, with the lilacs that embaument, as they say there, and with a sort of panic in her mind? Because, after all, the man to whom one is engaged is a man whom one knows very slightly.”

“Absolutely,” said Hugh.

“And I didn't want to leave Paris.... Of course I was playing Chopin bits, with an ache in my heart to match, that I couldn't bear and was enjoying to the utmost. What do girls play now? Then all of us had attacks of Chopin. Madame used to laugh and say, 'I hear the harbour bar still moaning,' and order that particular girl's favourite dessert. She spoiled us. And Monsieur would say something about si jeunesse savait. He was a nice old man, not very successful; his colleagues patronized him. Oh yes he was obvious!

“And then Melanie opened the door and announced, 'Monsieur, le cousin de Mademoiselle.' I don't know what made her do it except a general wish to be kind. She remembered from the other night, and, besides, she hated to attempt English names; she made salmi of them.”

Hugh had ceased to hold her eyes long ago. They looked into the window's square of light. He had no wish to intrude his presence. She was finding it natural to tell him, just as he had acknowledged her right to explore the intimate places of his soul. Things simply happened that way sometimes, and one was humbly thankful.

“'Go on,' he said. 'Don't stop.' He sat in a corner of the sofa, and for a while the impetus of my start carried me on. Then the bottom dropped out of Chopin. I went over and sat in the other corner. It was a long sofa; it felt as long as the world.

“Do you remember that heart-breakingly beautiful voice of his that could make you feel anything he was feeling? It was like magic. He said at last:

“'So you are going home to be married?'

“I nodded.

“'Betty,' he said, 'are you happy, quite happy, about—everything?'

“'Oh yes!' I said. 'Oh yes, Professor Fowler!' The curious thing about it was that I spoke the truth when I considered it seriously.

“He said, 'Then that's all right.' Then he laughed a little and said, 'Do you always call me Professor Fowler, even when you shut your door on the world at night and are all alone with God and the silence?'

“'And Claudia Jones,' I added, stupidly.

“He considered that seriously and said, 'I didn't know about Claudia Jones; she may inhibit even the silence and the other ingredient. I suppose you call me Teacher.'

“I cried out at that. 'I might call you cher maitre, as they do her.'

“He said, 'That may do for the present.'

“'We looked into the fire and the lilacs filled the pause as adequately as Chopin could have done. All at once he got up and came over to me—it seemed the most natural thing in the world—across that wilderness of sofa.

“'I suppose,' he said, 'that you won't let me off that promise.'

“'No, no!' I cried, all my old panic flooding over me again. I threw my hands out, and suddenly he had caught them in his and was holding me half away from him, and he was saying, in that tragic voice of his:

“'No, no! But give me something to make it bearable.'“

“Allah, the compassionate!” sighed Hugh, in ecstasy. He had never dared hope for all this. His very being went on tiptoe for fear of breathing too loud.

“We sat there for ages and ages, gazing into the fire, not saying a word. Then he spoke ... every now and then. He said:

“'The horrible thing would have been never to have known you. Now that I've touched you I'm magnetized for life. I can't lose you again.'

“'It isn't I,' I told him. 'It's only what you think me.'

“'You are the only creature outside of myself that I ever found myself in,' he said. 'And I could look into you like Narcissus until I died. You are home and Nirvana. That's what you are. When I look at you I believe in God. You gallantest, most foolhardy, little, fragile thing, you, you're not afraid of anything. You trust this rotten life, don't you? You expect to find lovely things everywhere, and you will, just because they'll spring up around your feet. You'll save your world like all redeemers simply by being in it.'

“No woman ever had such things said to her as he said to me. But most of the time we said nothing. There wasn't any past or future; there was only the touch of his shoulder and his hands all around mine. It was like coming in out of the cold; it was like being on a hill above the sea, and listening to the wind in the pines until you don't know which is the wind and which is you....

“It couldn't last forever. After a while something like a little point of pain began worrying my mind.

“'But there won't be.... This is good-bye,' I cried.

“'Don't you believe it,' he said. 'God Himself couldn't make us say good-bye again.' He got up and drew me with him. It was quite dark now except for the fire, and his eyes ... they were like those of the Djinns who were made out of elemental fire instead of earth. 'You'll come to me in the blessed sunshine,' he said, 'and in music, and in the best impulses of my own soul. If I were an old-fashioned lover I should promise to wait for you in heaven.... Betty, Betty, I have you in heaven now and forever!' ... I felt his cheek on mine. Then he was gone. That was all; that was every bit of all.”

“And he had that to live on for the rest of his life.” Hugh broke the silence under his breath. “Well, thank God he had something!”

The little woman fumbled in her bag for a handkerchief and shamelessly dried her eyes. As she moved, a brown object fell from the corner of the couch across her lap. Hugh held his hand out for the morocco portfolio.

“It seems to have the homing instinct,” he observed; then, abruptly, “Wait a moment; I'm going to call them back.” He paused, as usual, before his favourite confidant, the window. “The larger consciousness, the Universal Togetherness,” he muttered. “I really believe he must have touched it that once. O Lord! how—” His spacious vocabulary gave it up.

When he followed his uncle and aunt into the room Mrs. Shirley came forward, her thin veil again covering her face.

“I must go,” she said. “Thank you once more for letting me come.”

With a curious young touch of solemnity Hugh laid the brown case in her hands. “This belongs to you,” he said, “and I wanted them to see you receive it.”

       * * * * *

“And you intend to permit this, Winthrop?”

Miss Fowler turned on her brother. She had suppressed her emotions before the intruder; she had even said some proper things without unduly speeding the parting guest. But if you can't be hateful to your own family, to whom, in the name of the domestic pieties, can you be hateful?

Mr. Fowler swiveled on her the glassy eye of one who does not suffer fools gladly. “I permit anything,” he responded, icily, “that will keep that boy ... sane.” He retired anew behind the monastic newspaper and rattled it.

Miss Maria received a sudden chill apprehension that Winthrop was looking much older lately. “But—” she faltered. Then she resolutely returned to the baiting. “I suppose you recall her saying that she has a daughter. Probably,” admitted Miss Maria, grudgingly, “an attractive daughter.”

“It might be a very good thing,” said the world-weary voice, and left her gasping. “Two excellent Virginia families.” He faced his sister's appalled expression. “He might do something much more impossible—marry a cheap actress or go into a monastery. His behaviour to-day prepares me for anything. And”—a note of difficulty came into what Hugh had once called his uncle's chiselled voice—“you do not appear to realize, Maria, that what Mrs. Shirley has done is rather a remarkable thing, a thing that you and I, with our undoubted appreciation of the value of money, should probably have felt that we could not afford to do.”

Hugh came in blithely, bringing a spring-smelling whiff of outdoors with him. “I got her a taxi,” he announced, “and she asked me to come down to their place for Easter. There's a hunting club. Oh cheer up, Aunt Maria! At least she left the money behind.”

“Look at my needle!” cried the long-suffering lady. “You did that. I must say, Hugh, I find your conduct most disrespectful.”

“All right, I grovel,” Hugh agreed, pleasantly. He picked up the cat and rubbed her tenderly the wrong way.

“As for the money, I don't see how her conscience could have allowed her to accept everything. And she married somebody else, too.”

“So did Dante's girl. That doesn't seem to make all the difference. Conscience?” Hugh went on, absently. “Conscience? Haven't I heard that word somewhere before? You are the only person I know, Aunt Maria, who has a really good, staunch, weather-proof one, because, like the laws of the Medes and Persians, it altereth not.”

“I should hope not, indeed,” said Miss Fowler, half mollified.

Hugh smiled sleepily. The cat opened one yellow eye and moved mystified whiskers. She profoundly distrusted this affectionate young admirer. Was she being stroked the wrong way or ruffled the right way?

“Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” murmured Hugh. “Puzzle, Kitty: find the Adventuress.”