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The Long Inheritance by Cornelia A. P. Comer

An Extract from Preliminaries


THE LONG INHERITANCE

                     I

My niece, Desire Withacre, wished to divorce her husband, Dr. Arnold Ackroyd,—the young Dr. Arnold, you understand,—to the end that she might marry a more interesting man.

Other men than I have noticed that in these latter days we really do not behave any better than other people when it comes to certain serious issues of life, notably the marital. “We” means to me people of an heredity and a training like my own,—Americans of the old stock, with a normal Christian upbringing, who presumably inherit from their forebears a reasonable susceptibility to high ideals of living. I grew {54} up with the impression that such a birth and rearing were a kind of moral insurance against the grosser human blunders and errors. Without vanity, I certainly did

  “Thank the goodness and the grace
  That on my birth had smiled.”

It puzzled me for a long while, the light-hearted, careless way in which some of the younger Withacres, Greenings, Raynies, Fordhams, and so on (I name them out of many, because they are all kin to me) kicked over the traces of their family responsibilities. I could understand it in others but not in them.

It was little Desire Withacre who finally illuminated the problem for me. I am about to tell what I know of Desire's fling. If it seems to be a story with an undue amount of moral, I must {55} refer the responsibility of that to Providence. The tale is of its making, not of mine.

I am afraid that, to get it all clearly before you, I shall have to prose for a while about the families involved.

I am Benjamin Stubbins Raynie, Desire's bachelor uncle, and almost the last of the big-nosed Raynies. My elder sister, Lucretia Stubbins Raynie, married Robert Withacre, one of the “wild Withacres” in whose blood there is a streak of genius and its revolts. The Withacres all have talent—mostly ineffectual—and keen aesthetic sensibilities. All of them can talk like angels from Heaven. By no stretch of the imagination can they be called thrifty. We considered it a very poor match for Lucretia. The Raynies are quiet people, not showy, but substantial and sensible; with a certain sentimental {56} streak out-cropping here and there, especially in the big-nosed branch; while the red-headed Raynies are the better money-makers.

I know now that Lucretia secretly believed her offspring were destined to unite Withacre talent and Raynie poise. She prayed in her heart that the world might be the richer by a man child of her race who should be both gifted and sane. But her children proved to be twin girls, Judith and Desire. Queer little codgers I thought them, big-eyed, curly-headed, subdued when on exhibition. Lucretia told long stories, to which I gave slight attention, intended to prove that Judith was a marvelous example of old-head-on-young-shoulders, and that Desire, demure, elfin Desire, was a miracle of cleverness and winning ways.

In view of Desire's career, I judge {57} that these maternal prepossessions were not wholly misplaced. As a small child she captivated her Uncle Greening as well as her aunt (our sister, Mary Stubbins Raynie, married Adam Greening of the well-known banking firm of Greening, Bowers & Co.). The Greenings were childless, and Desire spent much of her early life and nearly all her girlhood under Mary Greening's care and chaperonage. I confess to fondness for a bit of repartee with Desire now and then, myself. Perhaps I had my share in spoiling her. I take it a human being is spoiled when he grows up believing himself practically incapable of wrong-doing. That is what happened to Desire. Approval had followed her all of her days. How should she know, poor, petted little scrap, any thing about the predestined pitfalls of all flesh?

{58}

Of course the Robert Withacres were always as poor as poverty, and of course our family was always planning for and assisting them. Fortunately both the twins married early, and exceptionally well. Judith became engaged to a promising young civil engineer when visiting a school friend in Chicago. He said she reminded him of the New London girls. He was homesick, I think. At all events the engagement was speedy.

But our little Desire did better than that. She witched the heart out of young Arnold Ackroyd.

Do I need to explain the Ackroyds to any one? They are one of those exceptional families whose moral worth is so prominent that it even dims the lustre of their intellectual stability and their financial rating. They are so many other, better things that no one ever {59} thinks or speaks of them as “rich.” And in this day and generation that is real achievement.

Desire's marriage gratified me deeply, and for a wedding present I gave her the Queen Anne silver tea-set I inherited from great-aunt Abby. I believe in the Ackroyds, root and branch. They have, somehow or other, accomplished what all the rest of us are striving for. They have actually lifted an entire family connection to a plane where ability, worth, accomplishment, are matters of course. Nobody has ever heard of a useless, incompetent Ackroyd. Their consequent social preeminence, which possibly meant something to Mary Greening and which certainly counted with Desire, is merely incidental to their substantial merit. They are prominent for the rare reason that they deserve to be. They are the Real Thing.

{60}

Unless you happen to be in touch with them intellectually, however, this is not saying that you will always find all of them the liveliest of companions. The name connotes honor, ability, character; it does not necessarily imply humor, high spirits, the joy of life.

Desire herself told me of her engagement. I don't, somehow, forget how she looked when she came to tell me about it—shy, excited, radiant. She fluttered into my office and stood at the end of my desk, looking down at me. Desire was very pretty at twenty-one, with her pointed face and big expressive eyes, her white forehead shadowed by a heap of cloudy, curling, dark hair. Palpitating with life, she looked like some kind of a marvelous human hummingbird. It did not surprise me that Arnold Ackroyd found her

  “All a wonder and a wild desire.”

{61}

For all her excitement she spoke very softly.

“Uncle Ben, mother wants me to tell you something. I have n't told anybody else but her.”

“What is it, Desire?”

“I—why, Uncle Ben—I've promised to marry Arnold Ackroyd!”

“Well, well,” I said inadequately, “this is news!”

Desire nodded wistfully.

“It seems a little curious, does n't it? We're not a bit alike,” she said. “But he is splendid! I'm sure I shall never meet a finer man, nor one I trust more.”

“Very true, Desire, and I am glad you are going to marry such a man,” I observed, arising slowly to the occasion and to my feet, and offering a congratulatory hand.

“Mother says it's a wonderful {62} thought for a young woman that her future is as secure as the cycle of the seasons,” returned Desire, with her hand in mine, “and I suppose it is, but that is n't why I love him. Uncle Ben, he's really wonderful when you find out what he's thinking behind those quiet eyes. And then—do you know he's one of the few really meritorious persons I ever made like me. I've been afraid there was something queer about me, for freaks always take to me at once. But if Arnold Ackroyd likes me, I must be all right, mustn't I? It's such a relief to be sure of it!”

I took this for a touch of flippancy, having forgotten how long the young must grope and wonder, hopelessly, before they find and realize themselves. It was, I think, precisely because Arnold Ackroyd helped that vibrant temperament to feel itself resting on {63} solid ground that he became so easily paramount in Desire's life at this time. However it may have been afterward, during their brief engagement he was all things to my niece, while she to him was a creature of enchantment. I shall always maintain that they knew young love at its best.

Desire was wedded with more pomp and circumstance than Lucretia and I really cared for. That was her Aunt Greening's affair. Mary Greening always did like an effect of pageantry, and was willing to pay for it. They went abroad afterwards, and I remember as significant that Desire enjoyed the Musée de Cluny more than the lectures they heard at the Sorbonne. On their return they lived in dignity and comfort. They had a couple of pretty, unusual-looking children, who were provided with a French nurse at {64} twenty months, and other educational conveniences in due season, more in accordance with the standards of Grandmamma Ackroyd than with the demands of the Withacres and Raynies.

They were certainly as happy as most people. If Desire had any ungratified wishes, I never heard of them. I dined with them frequently, but now see that I knew absolutely nothing about them. I took it for granted that they would always walk, as they seemed to be doing, in ways of pleasantness and peace.

It never entered my head that anybody of my own blood and a decent bringing-up could do what Desire did presently. I had a simple-minded notion that we were above it. Which brings me back to my premise. After all, we of a long inheritance of upright {65} living do not always behave better than other people.

                     II

Lucretia was first to come.

The winter it all happened, I was house-bound with rheumatism and had no active part in the drama. By day I was wheeled into the little upstairs study and sat with my mind on chloroform liniment and flannels, while my family and friends came to me, bearing gifts. Sometimes they sought the house to amuse me, sometimes to relieve their minds.

Lucretia's burden was heaviest, so she was first.

The November morning was raw and hideous. There were flakes of snow on my sister's venerable and shabby sealskin. She laid back the {66} veil on the edge of her little black bonnet,—she had been a widow for two years,—brushed the snow from her slightly worn shopping-bag and sat down in front of the fire, pulling nervously at her gloves.

Lucretia is thin, sharp-featured ivory-skinned. Her aspect is both fatigued and ardent. Nothing that Mary and I were ever able to do for her lifted in the least from her own spirit the weight of her poverty-stricken, troublous, married life; and in her outer woman she persists in retaining that aspect of carefully brushed, valiantly borne adversity which is so trying to more prosperous and would-be-helpful kin.

I made a few comments on the weather, which Lucretia did not answer. Realizing suddenly that she was agitated, I became silent, hoping that {67} the quiet, comfortable room, the snapping fire, and my own inertness, would act as a sedative. It did not occur to me that any really serious matter could be afoot. I had ceased to expect that life would offer any of us anything worse than occasional physical discomfort.

Having regained her composure, my sister spoke without preface.

“I am in great trouble, Benjamin. Desire has made up her mind to leave her husband, and nothing I say has the slightest effect.”

“Good Heavens! Lucretia! What do you mean?”

“Just what I say. Desire declares she isn't satisfied as Arnold Ackroyd's wife. So she proposes to put an end to the relation. I judge she intends, later, to contract another marriage, though she is n't disposed to lay stress on that point.”

{68}

I continued to look at Lucretia wide-eyed, and possibly wide-mouthed. The things she was saying were so preposterous, so incredible, that I could not accept them. It was as if I had received a message that the full moon was not “satisfied” to climb the evening sky.

“Lord! Lord! Little Desire!” I muttered.

“She is a woman of thirty, Benjamin.”

“What does she say?” I exploded. “What is wrong in her married life? People don't do these things causelessly—not the people we are or know.”

“She says a great deal,” returned her mother dryly. “Did you ever know a Withacre to be lacking in words, Benjamin? Desire is very fluent. I might say she is eloquent.”

{69}

“But what does it all amount to, anyhow?” I demanded impatiently. Dazed though I was, my consciousness of being the head of the family was returning.

Lucretia lifted her left hand, which was trembling, and checked off the items on her fingers. Her hands were shapely, though dark and shrunken, with swollen veins across the back. The firelight struck the worn gold of her wedding ring.

“She demands a less hampered life; a more variegated self-expression; a chance to help the world in her own way; an existence that shall be a daily development; the opportunity to give perpetual stimulus and refreshment to an utterly congenial mate. Oh! I know her reasons by heart,” said Lucretia. “They sound like fine things, don't they, Benjamin?”

{70}

“Who is the other man?”

“Fortunately, none of us know him. He is a Westerner with one of those absurdly swollen fortunes. Desire would n't have thought it a wider life to marry a poorer man. Such women don't.”

“I wish you would n't put Desire in a class and call her such women, Lucretia,” I protested irritably.

My sister looked at me strangely.

“You, too? Can money buy you too?” she said.

She rose and steadied her trembling arms upon the low mantle. She stood, a black-clad figure, between me and the glowing hearth, looking down into the heart of the fire as she spoke. I had begun to perceive, vaguely, that here was no sister I had ever known before. In a way she was beside, or rather beyond, herself.

{71}

We Raynies are self-controlled people. Lucretia had always been a silent woman, keeping her emotions to her self. But they say earthquakes, vast convulsion of regions beneath the lowest seas, will sometimes force up to light of day strange flotsam from the ocean-bed. Things that the eyes of men have never seen, nor their busy minds conceived, float up to face the sun. From Lucretia's shaken soul arose such un-imagined things.

Her words came forth swiftly, almost with violence.

“Benjamin, my daughter proposes leaving for Reno, Nevada, next week to procure a divorce.—I'm not saying that plenty of divorces are n't justified. I know they are. Plenty of remarriages too, I make no doubt. I've lived long enough to know that extremes are always wrong, and the middle course {72} is almost always right. I will admit, if you like, that every case is a thing apart, and stands on its own merits, and that only God and a woman's conscience are the judges of what she should do. But Desire's case has no merits!

“I know Arnold, and I know Desire; he is a busy man and she is an indulged woman. She might have entered into his life and interests if she had chosen; the door was as much open as it can be between a man and a woman. I don't claim it is ever easy for them to see clearly into each other's worlds. But they do it, every day. Here is Arnold working himself to death, reducing fractures and removing appendixes, and trying to make the people who swarm to him into whole and healthy men and women. That's a good way to help the world if you do it with every ounce of {73} conscience there is in you. Here is Desire, fiddling with art and literature and civics and economics, and wanting to uplift the masses with Scandinavian dramas and mediaeval art and woman suffrage. If she really wants to enrich life for others, and she says she does, why, in Heaven's name, does n't she hold up Arnold Ackroyd's hands? There is work that is worth while, and it would take more brains and ability than she owns to do it well! It is her work; she chose it; she dedicated herself to it. Now she repudiates it for a whim.”

“How do you know it is just a whim, Lucretia?” I interrupted rather shame-facedly. “Mightn't it be—er—a very violent attachment?”

Lucretia shook her head.

“These women nowadays are simply crazy about themselves. Are {74} self-centred people ever capable of great passions?”

I made no protest, for I had thought the same thing myself.

“When they have dethroned their God and repudiated their families, what is there left to worship and work for but themselves?” she demanded grimly. “Half the women I meet are as mad for incense to their vanity as the men are mad for money.”

“Lucretia,” I said with all the firmness I could muster, “I do not think you ought to allow yourself to take this thing in this way. It is regrettable enough without working yourself up to such a pitch of agony.”

She looked into the fire as if she had not heard me, and went rapidly on:—

“Sixty years ago, such things were unheard-of; forty years ago, they were a disgrace; twenty years ago, they were {75} questioned; to-day, they are accepted. And yet they say the world advances! With all my troubles, Benjamin, I am just learning why men call death gracious—and my daughter is my teacher. Desire is at the restless age. I have seen a good many women between thirty and forty try to wreck their lives and other people's. You see, the dew is gone from the flowers. They have come to the heat and burden of the day. And they don't like it.”

“You mean,” I said, laboriously trying to follow her glancing thought in my own fashion, “that they miss the drama of early romance, and resent the fact that it has been replaced by the larger drama of responsibility and action?”

“That is a fine, sonorous way of putting it,” she said bitterly, “but there are more forcible ways.”

{76}

She laughed unpleasantly. I could feel the cruel words trembling on her lips, but she checked herself.

“Oh, what is the use of talking,” she cried, “or of casting stones at other women? It doesn't help me to bear Desire's falling away. Benjamin, I would have known how to forgive a child who had sinned. I don't know how to forgive one who has failed like this! Desire is throwing away a life, not because it is intolerable, not because it is hard, even; but just because it has ceased to be exciting and amusing enough. But it is her life that she throws away. She cannot make a new one that will be real and her very own. She says she has ceased to love. They always say that. But love comes and goes always. There is no such thing as perpetual joy. Love is the morning vision. We are meant to hide that {77} vision in our hearts and serve it on our knees. Good women know this and do it. That is what it means to be a wife. The vision is the thing we cherish and live for to the end. Desire is no cheated woman. She had young love at its best; she has her children's faces. There is such a thing as perpetual peace; life gives it to the loyally married. She might have had that, too. But she throws it all away—for novelty, for new sensations. My daughter is a wanton!”

“Lucretia!”

The energy of my ejaculation, the sight of my surprise, brought my sister back to her normal self. She dropped into her chair again, looking wan and shocked at her own violence of expression.

“You see how it is,” she said humbly. “I am not fit to trust myself to talk {78} about it. I ought to apologize for my language, Benjamin,—but that is the way I feel.”

I had regained somewhat of my poise and my authority.

“See here, Lucretia, if this thing is to be, you must n't be so bitter about it. Desire is your daughter. She belongs to us. She has always been a pretty good girl. We must n't be too hard on her now, even if she does n't conform to our ideas. Everybody must live their own lives, you know.”

Lucretia threw back her head; her deep-set eyes were burning, and the color suffused her face again.

“No!” she said sharply. “That must they not. Decent people accept some of the conclusions of their forebears and build upon the sure foundation reared by the convictions of their own people. You say she belongs to us. That is the {79} worst of it! You childless man! Can't you guess what it would mean to bear, to nourish, to train,—to endure and endure, to love and love,—and then to have the flesh of your flesh turn on you and trample on all your sacredest things? It is the ultimate outrage. God knows whether I deserve it! God forgive me if I do!”

There was silence in the room. I had nothing more to say. I recognized at last how far Lucretia in her lonely agony was beyond any trite placation of mine.

After what seemed an age, she spoke. She was herself again. The violently parted waves had closed over the life of those far gray depths, and she offered her accustomed surface to my observation.

“I did not sleep at all last night, Benjamin. Desire was with me during {80} the afternoon and we talked this thing out. I ought not to have seen any one so soon, but I came here with the intention of asking you to reason with her. I see it would do no good if you did. Things are as they are, and I must accept them. I will go home now. I am better off there.”

She rose, put down her veil, drew on her gloves, and picked up the shabby shopping-bag, quietly putting aside my hesitating protestations and suggestions of luncheon.

At the door she turned and proffered a last word of extenuation for herself. “You ought to understand, for it is our blood in me that rebels. I never thought when I married a Withacre that I might bring into the world a child that wasn't dependable—but I might have known!” she said.

{81}

                     III

Lucretia, departing, left me tremulous. The flame-like rush of her mind had scorched my consciousness; the great waves of her emotion had pounded and beaten me. I shared, and yet shrank from, her passionate apprehension of our little Desire's failure in the righteous life. For I was, and am, fond of Desire.

I spent a feverish and most miserable day. There were so many unhappy things to consider! The gossip that would rack the town apparently did not concern Lucretia at all. I am hide-bound, I dare say, and choked with convention. Certainly I shrank from the notoriety that would attach itself to us when young Mrs. Arnold Ackroyd took up her residence in Reno, as a first step toward the wider life. {82} Then there was the disruption of old ties of friendship and esteem. It would be painful to lose the Ackroyds from among our intimates, yet impossible to retain them on the old footing. I already had that curious feeling of having done the united clan vicarious injury.

Toward five o'clock my sister Mary, Mrs. Greening, tapped on the door.

Mary Greening and I are good friends for brother and sister. As children we were chums; we abbreviated for each other the middle name we all bore, Mary calling me Stub, and I calling her Stubby. We meant this to express exceptional fraternal fealty. It was like a mystic rite that bound us together.

She came in almost breezily. For a woman in late middle life Mary Greening is comely. There is at the bottom {83} of her nature an indomitable youthfulness, to which her complexion and movements bear happy witness.

“Well, Stub, has Lucretia been here?”

“Come and sit down, Mary. Yes, Lucretia has been here. Very much so,” I answered dejectedly.

Mary swept across the room almost majestically. Quite the type of a fine woman is Mary Greening, though perhaps a thought too plump. She threw back her sable stole and unfastened her braided violet coat; she prefers richly embellished garments, though they are thought garish by some of the matrons in her set.

“You keep it much too warm in here,” she said critically.

I made a grimace.

“Your hat is a little to one side, Stubby, as usual.”

{84}

She put her hand up tentatively to the confection of fur, yellow lace, and violet orchids.

“I don't think Lenore ballasts my hats properly,” she said plaintively. “It can't be my fault that they slide about so. But I did n't come to talk about hats.”

I sighed. “No, you came to talk about Desire. Mary, how long have you known about this deplorable affair?”

“Oh—ever since there has been anything to know! Desire has always talked to me more than to her mother. You know, Ben, one would n't choose Lucretia as a confidante in any kind of a heart affair.”

“Don't put on that worldly air with me, Mary Greening,” I said crossly. “Lucretia is a little austere, but it seems to me that austerity has its {85} advantages. For instance, it keeps one out of the newspapers. Am I to infer that you sympathize with Desire?”

“Not at all,” she protested. “You may not believe me, but I have suffered and suffered, over this thing. I can't count the nights I have lain awake thinking about it. At first it seemed to me I simply could not have it, and I thought I was going to influence Desire. But nobody ever influences people in matters of the heart. Of course this is an affair on the highest possible plane—so I thought they might be more reasonable. But I don't observe that they are.”

“On the highest possible plane,” I mused. “Mary, be candid with me. I would like a good woman's point of view on this. If a game of hearts ends in the courts, breaking up a home and smashing the lives concerned to {86} flinders, do you really think it matters whether that affair is on a high plane or a low one? Does it seem any better to you for being the finer variety?”

“Certainly it does,” returned Mary Greening promptly; “though,” she added reflectively, “judged by results, I see it is illogical to feel so.”

She cogitated a little longer.

“You put the thing too crudely. Here is the point, Ben. The Devil never makes the mistake of offering the coarser temptation to persons of taste. You couldn't have tempted Desire to break up her home with any temptation that did n't include her intellect, her spirit, and her aesthetic instincts. And when one gets up in that corner of one's nature, people like you or me or Desire are so used to regarding all the demands emanating from there as legitimate, as something to be {87} proud of, to be satisfied at almost any cost, that it takes a very clear sense of right and wrong to prevent confusion. And, nowadays, hardly anybody but old fogies and back numbers, and people who have lived the kind of life Lucretia has, possesses a clear sense of right and wrong. It has gone out.”

“What became of Desire's married happiness, Mary? I thought there was so much of it, and that it was of a durable variety.”

“Oh, it leaked away through small cracks, as happiness usually does. It is hard to explain to a man, but if Arnold were a woman, you might almost say that he nagged. He is too detailed, too exact, for Desire. If, for instance, she said in May, I believe I will have a green cloth, embroidered, for a fall suit, about the first of November, you {88} might expect Arnold to remark, I don't see that green cloth suit you said you were going to have. What made you change your mind? Desire delights to say things she does n't mean and lay plans she does n't expect to carry out, so a constant repetition of such incidents was really pretty wearing. I have seen her when she reminded me of a captive balloon in a high wind.

“A woman in your position ought not to make unconsidered speeches was one of his pet remarks. He is scientific, she is temperamental—and each of them expected the other one to be born again, and born different by virtue of mutual affection and requirements. Arnold will go on wondering to the end of his life why Desire can't be more accurate, more purposeful. As if he did n't fall in love with her the {89} way she is! And then along comes the Westerner—”

“Where did they meet?”

“Bessie Fleming introduced them—at some silly place like Atlantic City. It was after Desire had that nervous breakdown two years ago. I know they were both in wheeled chairs at the time, and they rode up and down together, talking, like long-separated twin souls, about the theory of aesthetics and kindred matters. They did n't require diagrams to see each other's jokes, and that is always a strong tie. He was a man used to getting what he wanted, and when he became bewitched—can't you see how it would all work together? I know Lucretia thinks there is no excuse for Desire. But I see this excuse for her. None of us ever trained her to know she could n't have everything she wanted. Of course, we never {90} expected her to want anything but the finest, the highest. But she is human, and when she found a most wonderful thing in her path that she wanted more than she had ever wanted anything before—she put out her hand to take it, as she had taken other things when we were all applauding her choice. And I will do her the justice to say that I don't believe she has the faintest notion Arnold will really fight to keep the children. You see, she still thinks the world is hers.”

“Perhaps it is,” I offered. The comfort of Mary's presence was beginning to rest and appease me, and I was a little less conscious of my aching conscience. “The Westerner—is he—is he—”

“Perfectly presentable. Quite a scholar. Collects pictures. Has all kinds of notions. He and Desire are {91} ideally congenial. Very properly he is keeping himself at long distance and entirely out of it. No one but ourselves surmises that he exists. And it really is an enormous fortune. I can imagine Desire doing all kinds of interesting things with it.”

“Do you know what Lucretia said to me, Mary?”

She shook her head.

“You, too? Can money buy you, too?” I quoted. “I shall never forget how Lucretia looked as she said it.”

“Stub—the world moves. It may be moving in the wrong direction, but if we don't move with it, we are bound to be left behind.”

“Mary Greening,” I retorted, “do you really mean that you detect in yourself a willingness to have an unjustified divorce and a huge, vulgar {92} fortune in the family, just because they are up to date?”

“Benjamin Raynie, if down at the bottom of my soul there is crawling and sneaking a microscopical acquiescence in the muddle Desire is making of life, it is probably due to the reason you mention. I am just as ashamed of it as I can be! I ought to be plunged in grief, like Lucretia. And I am—only—well, I want to help Desire, and I can't help her if I let myself feel like that. I suppose you'll think I'm an unmoral old thing, but I see it this way: if these affairs are going to happen in one's very own family, one might as well put them through with a high hand. I intend to stand by Desire. Of course the Ackroyds will do the same by Arnold. Desire will never be received in this town again with their consent. They are entirely in the right. But I shall {93} have to fight them for Desire's sake, just the same.”

“Stubby! Stubby! There is n't a particle of logic as big as a pin-head about you, and I don't approve of you at all—but I do like you tremendously!”

Mary Greening rose abruptly, crossed to the window, and stood looking out for a time. Then she came back and, dropping awkwardly beside my chair, buried her convulsed and quivering face in the woolly sleeve of my jacket, while the tears dripped fast from her overflowing eyes.

“Stub,” she brought out jerkily, between her sudden choking sobs, “I did n't make a long face and tell Desire 'whom God hath joined'—I—I tried to appeal to her common sense. Irreligious people often do have a great deal of common sense, you know. {94} But—I am the child of our fathers, too. I wish—I wish she would n't do it!”

                     IV

I certainly expected that Desire would come to me before she went away. I don't know what good I thought it would do. But we had always (or I supposed so) been such friends, this niece and I, that I could not believe she would take such an important step without an effort to gain my approval—my toleration would be more accurate. I—well, I thought she cared for my approval. But it seemed she did n't.

Of course, when one came to think it over, she could hardly enjoy such an interview. No doubt she was already sore in spirit from interviews she could not shirk,—with her mother, for {95} instance, not to mention her husband. And my views on promiscuous divorce are as well known in the family as are those of South Carolina. They are simple, those views, and old-fashioned, but also, I may add, cosmic; they run about as follows: it is hard that John and Mary should be unhappy, but better their discomfort than that society should totter to a fall, since all civilization rests upon the single institution of the marriage tie. I will admit that my bachelor state doubtless helps to keep my opinions uncomplicated.

When I came to think of it in the light of these convictions, it was n't remarkable that Desire stayed away. And yet the foolish old uncle in me was hurt that she did so. I felt that she ought to come and take her medicine. Did n't thirty years of affection {96} and indulgence give me some rights in her life?

Perhaps Mary Greening told her how I felt. At all events, in place of a call I received a letter:—

  DEAR UNCLE BEN,—

  The reason I'm not coming to say good-bye to you is that I think
  you'll love me better if I don't. My self-control is wearing quite
  thin in spots, and I'm so tired of explaining myself (when there's
  nothing to explain except that I am doing what seems right in my own
  eyes) that sometimes I think I shall just die before I get started.

  Uncle Ben, did n't you ever long for a life that fitted you exactly,—
  a life that was the flexible, soft garment of your very Self? I am
  laying aside a life that is somewhat cumbrous for me, and going to
  one that, fits me like a glove.

{97}

  And it is n't as if my case were like other people's, or as if
  Arthur Markham was n't the finest of the fine. He is as good in his
  widely different way as Arnold is. I think myself a highly fortunate
  woman that two such lives are offered me to choose from—but I must
  choose the one that belongs to me. Temperament is destiny. I am
  following mine. I am doing what I wish to do. But I don't like the
  way people hinder me with arguments that have nothing to do with the
  real content of the matter. So I am saying good-bye at arm's length
  to the dearest old make-believe cynic of an uncle that ever lived.
  Because you know, Uncle Ben, that if you had me there you could n't
  help preaching to me, and I am tired of preaching. It does n't get
  one anywhere. And it does n't keep one away—from Reno, Nevada.

{98}

  I suppose it's a queer thing to say but, really, you'll like Arthur
  just as well as you do Arnold—if only you can bring your mind to it!

  I am always, even in Nevada,

   Your loving niece,
               DESIRE.

I turned this letter over curiously in my hands, half expecting it to impart to me the secret of how it was that people could think and feel as if the very universe wheeled, glittering, about them and their desires. Also, how could Desire be so guiltless of all the thousand scruples and delicacies that were her birthright? How could she exhibit such poverty of spirit, bravely and unashamed? How did it happen that she, of all people, showed herself so ignorant of the things that cannot be learned?

{99}

                     V

That evening as I drowsed over the hearth after dinner, still holding Desire's letter in my hand and pondering over it, the card of young Dr. Arnold Ackroyd was brought up to me.

I awoke myself with a start. An interview with Desire's husband was the last thing in the world I wanted. The feeling that I had vicariously injured the Ackroyds was still strong upon me, and I shrank childishly from facing a man whom I could not think of otherwise than as a maimed and wantonly injured creature.

Feeling this, I naturally welcomed him with a mixture of embarrassment and effusion. Dr. Arnold smiled dryly, with perfect comprehension, and took his seat beside the fire in the same winged armchair that had sheltered {100} Lucretia and Mary previously. A fancy seized me that the cumbersome, comfortable piece of mahogany and old brocade might indeed be a veritable witness-seat, a Chair of Truth, that in some fashion impelled its occupant to speak out from the heart the thing he really thought. An apprehensive glance at Arnold's grave, clear-cut, sallow face reassured me. It held no threat of hysteric protest. Whatever he might say, I need not fear that he would break the inmost silence of a deeply humiliated man.

“It is a matter of business that I want to see you about, Mr. Raynie,” he said easily. “There is no one but you who can manage it for me.”

I expressed my desire to serve him.

“You see, it is just this: if Desire insists upon divorcing me the enterprise must be properly financed. I {101} prefer to pay her expenses myself. I am not going to have her hard up or—depending upon any one else.”

“Desire would never take money from any one but Mrs. Greening or me, Ackroyd.”

“No—I suppose not. Still, you never can tell how these confounded modern women are going to invert things in their minds. She'd not do it unless she could make it look high-minded and self-sacrificing, of course. But I would rather she ran no risk of doing it. And, if you don't mind my saying so, I would also prefer at present that even you and Mrs. Greening kept your hands out of your pockets. You see, Desire is my wife until she ceases to be so. It is unquestionably my right to provide for her, even in Reno, if I choose. Of course, she would say that, having left my bed and {102} board, she had renounced her claim upon my bank account—that is, she would say it if she thought about the matter at all. But she is so heedless she will probably not question the source of supplies, certainly not if they come through you. Will you do me this favor, Mr. Raynie?”

There was nothing for me to do but assent, but I did so a little irritably. It seemed to me at the moment that it would be excellent discipline to let the winds of heaven beat harshly upon Desire's delicately guarded head, for a short time at least. I intimated as much.

Arnold Ackroyd shook his head.

“It is too late for that kind of discipline to be effective,” he said. “I have meant that Desire should have everything that a man can give, but there is one point I will never yield. She shall not have my children!”

{103}

He took out his checkbook and his pen, and, writing on his knee, filled out a check rapidly and neatly.

As he handed it to me I noted that the sum was surprisingly large,— enough for a divorce de luxe. “Pardon me, but are n't you overdoing your generosity, Arnold?” I suggested.

He moved his shoulders very slightly, and I saw his fine, surgeon's fingers stir as though he were involuntarily washing his hands of the whole question of money.

“Desire is accustomed to beauty as well as to comfort,” he said. Then he dropped his head on his chest and stared gravely into the fire. “Mr. Raynie, what do the women want? What do they expect in this world, anyhow? If the sun had dropped out of the sky, it wouldn't have surprised me more than this thing has.”

{104}

“Nor me,” I confessed.

“I have been wondering if I unconsciously neglected Desire? People say that sometimes causes them to fly the track. I am a busy man. I work hard in an exacting profession. But, as I understand the marriage contract, my work is a part of what I endowed her with. It is my life, myself. We are not children. One does not marry for a playmate, does one? But perhaps women do. Do you think I can have been at fault in this matter?”

My only answer was an impatient snort of protest.

“I supposed she desired companionship with me as I am. Certainly that was what I thought I asked of her. She has such a way of making life seem vivid and interesting that her companionship was good to have,” he said.

{105}

Something clutched at my heart strings as I saw the look of inextinguishable longing in his eyes.

“We spoiled her between us, I suspect,” he said. “On our heads be it, for it is spoiled that she is. Mr. Raynie, I think of Desire as undisciplined, wayward—not as wanton.—Well, I have a dozen patients yet to see to-night. I must say good night, and thank you.”

As he closed the door, I spoke aloud to myself and the witness-chair.

“There goes a gentleman,” I said. “It seems they still exist. Confound that niece of mine!”

                     VI

After Desire departed for Reno, the winter dragged along, heavy-footed.

Mary Greening heard from her often, {106} and brought me the letters. She rented a cottage in Reno, and began housekeeping bravely, but, presently, the servant question drove her temporarily to a hotel.

Very shortly we saw in the papers an account of a fire in the same hotel. This was followed by a telegram from Desire to the effect that she was as right as possible, and had only suffered the loss of a few garments.

A week later as I sat in my usual place, the wheeled chair by the study fire, I heard a carriage stop at my door. It was ten o'clock of a wild January night, furious with wind and snow. There were voices in the hall below; surprised ejaculations from Lena, the housemaid; at last a rap on my door, which swung inward to admit—Desire!

“Will you take me in, Uncle Ben?” {107} she inquired cheerfully. “It is such a frightful night! The cabman won't try to get me to Aunt Mary. He wanted to leave me at a hotel. But this was no farther—and I wanted to talk with you, anyhow.”

I said the appropriate things, consumed meanwhile with wonder as to what this reappearance meant. Desire threw off her long wrap and her furs, vibrated about the room a little, then settled, like every one else, in the winged chair across the hearth, and smiled at me tremulously.

“Uncle Ben, something has happened to me.”

“I judge it is something important, Desire.”

“A big thing,” she said gravely. “So big I don't understand it. I can only tell you how it is.”

I waited quietly, but there was that {108} in her voice which made me catch my breath.

She seemed to find it hard to begin.

“I hated Reno,” she said at last, abruptly. “The streets were so full of plump, self-satisfied blonde women, overdressed and underbred. The town was overrun with types one did n't like. It was—horrid! But it did n't concern me, so I stayed in the little house and wrote a great many letters to Aunt Mary and—Arthur Markham, and read, and amused myself as best I could. Then I lost my maids and moved to the hotel until I could arrange matters.

“You heard about the fire? The hotel was a wooden building with two wings, and my room was in the wing that burned. It was all very exciting, but I got out with my valuables and most of my wardrobe tied {109} up in a sheet, and they put the fire out.

“The rest of the building was unhurt, so the occupants opened their doors to the people who had been burned out. The manager asked me if I would accept the hospitality of a Mrs. Marshall, 'a very nice lady from up North!' I said I would be thankful for shelter of any description, so he took me to her door and introduced us.”

Desire paused reflectively.

“I'd like to make it as clear as possible to you, Uncle Ben, if you don't mind my talking a lot. This Mrs. Marshall was just a girl, and very good-looking indeed in a way. She had well-cut features, a strong chin, blue eyes under dark lashes, and a great deal of vitality. So far as looks went, I might have met her anywhere.

{110}

“The big room was strewn with her things, for she had expected to be burned out, too; but she began to put them away at once, offering me closet room, and talking excitedly as she moved about.

“The place was full of department-store luxury, if you know what I mean. Her toilet-table was loaded with silver in a pattern of flamboyant, curly cupids,—I've often wondered who bought such things,—and there were gorgeous, gaudy garments lying about. Her belongings, all but a few frocks, were expensive and tasteless to the last degree. So much extravagance and so little beauty! It seemed so strange to me that it was interesting.

“She talked a good deal, showing me this and that. Her slangy speech had a certain piquancy, because she looked finer than her words. She was {111} absolutely sure of herself, and at ease. I made out that this was because she was conscious of no standards save those of money, and there, as she would have said, she could 'deliver the goods.' Were n't the evidences of her worth right under my eyes?

“I talked, too, as effusively as I knew how. I tried to meet her halfway. She was evidently a perfectly well-placed and admired person in her own world. I was excited and tired and lonely. It seemed good just to speak to some one.

“Presently the room was cleared, and we began to think of sleeping. I have n't forgotten a word of the conversation that followed.

“'It's very good of you to take me in. I hope I shan't disturb you very much,' I said.

“'Oh, I'm glad to have somebody to talk to. I think this living in Reno {112} is deadly, but it seems to be the easiest way to get results,' she answered. 'How long you been here?'

“I told her.

“'Well, I'm a good deal nearer my freedom than you are. Don't it seem perfectly ridiculous that when you want to shake a man you can't just shake him, without all this to-do?' she said. 'It makes me so mad to think I've got to stay down here six months by myself, just to get rid of Jim Marshall! Say, what does your husband do?'

“What could I say, Uncle Ben? It seemed sacrilegious to mention Arnold in that room, but I was her guest and dependent upon her for shelter and a bed.

“'He is a doctor,' I said.

“'That so? Jim's superintendent of a mine. Up in the mountains. It's {113} the lonesomest place you ever saw. Twenty miles from nowhere, with just a little track running down to the rail road, and nothing worth mentioning when you get there.

“'Jim was awfully gone on me. Put up a spiel that he could n't live without me, and all that. That was two years ago, and I was young and tender hearted. Father had just dropped a whole bunch of money, and I thought, 'Well, if any man wants to pay my bills as bad as that, I guess I'll let him.' It looked like easy meal-tickets to me. Say! There's no such thing as a soft snap in married life. You got to work for your living, whoever he is. And I got so bored up in the mountains I did n't know what to do. Any man's a bore if you see too much of him. Jim's awful soft—wants to be babied all the time. Thought I did n't love {114} him unless I looked just so and talked just so. Jerusalem! How can you love anybody when you're a hundred miles from a matinee? People have got to have what they're used to, even if they are married, and that's a cinch. I used to go down to the city by myself once in a while to visit Jim's sister, but there was n't anything in that. She and I did n't get on. She never took me to a show once all the time I was there. These in-laws are always looking at you through a microscope. Ain't it awful? I don't claim my complexion will stand that scrutiny. Did you have any in-laws?'

“'A few,' I said, thinking how Madam Ackroyd would look if she could hear this conversation.

“'Well, anybody can have mine!' she said. 'Gee! How I hate to be bored! I guess I'd be up on that mountain yet {115} if it hadn't been for that. Last spring the son of the man who owns the mine took to coming up to see about the output. I had him going in forty winks. I was just amusing myself, but Jim got frightfully jealous. “See here,” I says, “I ain't going to let no mining man dictate to me, see? I'll tell you that right now!” I was sore. To think he could n't let me have a bit of fun, after the stupid winter I'd put in, frying his bacon. It seemed plain selfish. So things ran along, and I got huffier and huffier. Finally, when Joe volunteered he'd like to put up for me to take this trip to Reno, I packed my suit-case and came away. It served Jim right for being such an old grouch. What'd you think?

“I just opened my mouth and gasped. I could n't help it. Such callousness!

“The girl looked at me queerly when {116} I did n't answer. 'What's got you that you did n't stay put?' she demanded. 'Here I've had a rush of words to the mouth and told you all I know and I don't know a thing about you.'

“I found my voice sufficiently to tell her my case was very different.

“'Huh!' she said, 'I may n't know much, but I'm wise to this; the folks that have real reasons for a smash-up don't have to come to Reno. They mostly can get their papers on the spot. I guess we're all in the same boat out here. We're just taking what we want.'

“I felt as if I had been struck with a sledge-hammer when she said that, and her eyes seemed to be boring through me like gimlets. I thought I should scream if she said another word.

“'Let's talk about it in the morning,' I said, 'if you'll excuse me. I'm so tired I simply can't keep my eyes open.'

{117}

“That was n't true. She went to sleep almost instantly, and slept like a baby. I lay beside her, wide awake for hours. What she was, and what she said, had turned a key in my brain. A host of thoughts I didn't know I had came trooping out of some hidden room, and they marched and counter-marched across my mind all night.”

Desire got up and began to walk about the room restlessly in her absorption as she recalled all this.

“It was wonderful, Uncle Ben. I wish I could make you understand. First of all, I recognized that what she said was absolutely true. I said to myself, Desire, you are a civilized, cultivated, mature, distinguished-looking person, well born and well reared—but what has it all done for you? It has, precisely, conducted you to Reno, Nevada. This girl beside you is {118} uncivilized, uneducated, crude, young, clearly of very common clay. And what has it all done for her but conduct her to Reno, Nevada,—where she finds you, daughter of the Pilgrims. Well met, sister!'

“It was very bitter to think that of myself,” said my niece, stopping by my chair. “It may sound foolish, Uncle Ben, but my friends have always insisted I was a schöne Seele. I, a beautiful soul! I, a soul at all! A white light that I could not shut my eyes against seemed to beat down into my brain. I saw that I was just like the girl beside me in her incredible callousness,—even like the fat, self-satisfied, blonde women I had seen in the town. Oh, those common, common people! I had thought myself as fine as silk, as tempered as steel, yes, and as pure as flame! But I, too, was a brute.

{119}

“I thought and thought. I thought of Arnold, Arthur, and myself; we are all proud, we are all fastidious, yet we had come to this. We had drifted on the rocks. Pride had n't saved us, nor training, nor intelligence. I had lived in and for these things, and they had not prevented my doing the commonest things like the commonest creatures. Uncle Ben, I seemed horrible to myself—I can't tell you.

“More doors opened in my mind, and I began to think of you, and mother, and Aunt Mary, and of all the stories you used to tell me of the good Raynies and the bad, the weak Withacres and the strong ones, and what good fighters there were among them. And it seemed to me that I could see and feel—like the flight of wings in the dark over my head— the passing of the struggling generations of my fathers, each one {120} achieving a little more; going from decency to good repute, and from repute to renown, keeping faith with one another and with God, from father to son.

“And all at once I saw that the dignity of my race did not consist in its honors, nor even in its character, but—forever and always—in its fight for character! It was the struggle that had made us. And I had never struggled—so—I was not made. I was still unformed, shapeless,—and a cheaper thing with all my pretensions than the girl asleep beside me.

“Then there came on me a great desire to be one with my own people. One life is nothing—somehow I saw it very clearly. Families build righteousness as coral insects build a reef. I felt the yearning to be built into a structure of honesty and honor. Even as I wished {121} this, I saw, in that fierce light beating down upon my brain, that there was something deep within me that forbade me to do the thing I had been planning. It lay at the core of being, dark and stern; it said No to my desires. And I knew it for the strength of every No my fathers ever uttered. It was my inheritance. And as I looked, it seized my will. It shook me free from my longing for Arthur, free from my impatience with Arnold, free from my wish to have my way!

“So—I have come back. It was strong enough to bring me back; it is strong enough to hold me here. I don't care what happens to me after this. I don't care. I may not be happy, but I don't seem to want to be happy: I want to do the seemly, fitting things, the decent things. I don't care if they are stupid; I don't care if I am bored! {122} I wish just what I say. I want to be one with my race. It is they who have brought me back. They held up the torch. I let it fall. Uncle Ben, do you think it has gone out? Suppose one of my children's children should stumble and then say, 'It is not my fault. I inherited this. There was grandmamma who went her willful way so long ago!' I know my dust would shiver in the ground. I can't add any more to the weaknesses and follies that will crush them down. Having my own way costs too much when they must pay. That's it. I have n't the price. I refuse to let them pay.—Will you help me, Uncle Ben? Will you ask Arnold to let me try again? I will be good. I will be humble—almost! For I must have my children if only that I may pass this on. The thing is to abolish our complacency. Why—it's {123} what the old religionists meant when they talked about getting down in the dust before their God! It really, really, is the thing we have to do. And— my children will never learn it here, among you, where everybody is so happy and self-satisfied. They will never learn it even from the righteous Arnold. If they know it, they will have to learn it from me— for I am the only repentant sinner of us all! So—I have come back.”

Desire's words stirred me strangely. I had sometimes suspected that I allowed my modest pride of descent to feed complacency rather than effort. As she talked, I, too, saw the long procession of the valiant men and women of my race moving forward through the years; I saw how I had lightly arrogated credit to myself for their hard-won excellencies, and reckoned {124} myself a finer gentleman for the battles they had fought. Where were my battles? Where my victories?

Then—I remembered that the Withacres always could talk like angels from heaven. But I looked into Desire's eyes, and that thought shriveled before the flame in them. They met mine exultantly, as steel meets steel. This was no lip eloquence. She was eager for her battles.

“So,” I said with wonder, “you have capitulated—to Them.”

“Yes—to Them. Oh, it is n't needful, Uncle Ben, that to show my kinship I should work as they did, live as plainly, think as narrowly. It is all here just the same. I am their child. I will not go against their will. Before ever I was born, they wrote their desires in my flesh. They made the blood to flow in my veins after their ways. {125} And—I am glad! For my children shall be their children.—Uncle Ben, will Arnold take me home?”

I looked at Desire's glowing face that seemed afire with aspiration for the life she had tossed aside. I thought of Arnold's grave lips, steady shoulders, and longing eyes. There fell upon me a vivid sense of the wonderful ingenuity and richness of life's long processes. This diverse pair had traveled devious ways to the end that, after all their married years, they might at last be not unequally mated. My elderly heart sang a canticle of rejoicing, but my speech was circumspect.

“I incline to believe that he will,” I admitted.