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The Wrong Door by Francis Willing Wharton

 

The stairs were long and dark; they seemed to stretch an interminable length, and she was too tired to notice the soft carpet and wonder why Mrs. Wilson had departed from her iron-clad rules and for once considered the comfort of her lodgers. The rail of the banisters lay cold but supporting under the pressure of her weary hand, and, at her own door at last, she fitted the key in the lock. Something was wrong; it would not turn; she drew it out and tried the handle. The door opened, and entering, she stood rooted to the spot.

Had her poor little room doubled its size and trebled its furniture? Her imagination, always active, for one wild moment suggested that old Grandaunt Crosbie from over the seas had remembered her poor relatives and worked the miracle; she always had Grandaunt Crosbie as a possible trump in the hand of fate. And then the dull reality shattered her foolish castle—she was in the wrong room. All this comfort had a legitimate possessor, whose Aunt Crosbie did her proper part in life.

She walked mechanically to a window and looked down; yes, there was the bleak yard she usually found below her, four houses off; she had come into the wrong door, and now to retrace her useless steps.

She paused a moment, and slowly revolving, made bitter inventory of the charming interior. Soft, bright stuffs at the windows, on the chairs; pictures; books; flowers even; a big bunch of holly on the mantelpiece. A sitting-room—no obnoxious bed behind an inadequate screen, no horrid white china pitcher in full view! What woman owned all this? She stared about for characteristic traces. No sewing! Pipes! It belonged to a man.

She must go. She moved toward the door, and dropped her eyes on the little hard-coal fire in the grate; it tempted her, and, with a sort of defiance, she moved over to it and warmed her chilled fingers. A piano, too, and not to teach children on! To play upon, to enjoy! When was her time to come? Every dog has his day! Where was hers? Here some man was surrounded with comforts and pleasures, and she slaved all day at her teaching, and came home at night tired, cold, to a miserable little half-furnished room—alone.

Resting her arms on the mantelpiece, she dropped her face a moment on them and rebelled, kicking hard against the pricks; and sunk in that profitless occupation, heard vaguely the sound of rapid steps and suddenly realized what they might mean.

She straightened her young form and stared, fascinated, at the door. Good heavens! What should she do? What should she say? If she appeared confused, she would be thought a thief; she must have some excuse: she had come—to—find a lady—was waiting! She sank into a little chair and tried not to tremble visibly to the most unobservant eye, and the door opened, shut, and the owner of the room stood before her.

“How do you do?” said Amory, and coming forward, he shook hands warmly. “Please forgive me for being late, but I could not get away a moment before. Where” he looked about the room—“where is Mrs. White?”

The girl had risen nervously, and stood with her fingers clasped, looking at him; she answered, stammering, “She—I—she—couldn't come.”

“Couldn't come?” repeated the young man. “I'm awfully sorry. Do sit down.”

She still stood, holding to the back of her chair. “She said she would come if she could, and I was to—but I had better go.”

Amory laughed. “Not a bit of it. Now I've got you, I sha'n't let you go. It was very brave of you to come alone. You know brothers-in-law are presumptuous sometimes.” He smiled down into the soft, shy, dark eyes raised to his, and looked at his watch. “You must have waited a half-hour; I said four o'clock. I'm so sorry.”

Her eyes dropped. “I was late, too,” she answered, and felt a horrible weight lifted from her. (They surely could not be coming; she could go in a moment; he would never know until she was beyond his reach. But she reckoned without her host.)

“Draw up to the fire,” he began, and wheeled up a big armchair, and gently made her sit in it. “Put your feet on the fender and let's have a long talk. You know I sha'n't see you before the wedding, and I'd like to know something of my brother's wife. Tom said I must see you once before you and he got off to Paris, and I may not be able to get West for the wedding; so this is the one chance I shall have.” He drew his chair near, and looked down at her with friendly, pleasant eyes.

She must say something. She rested her head on the high back of her chair, and felt a sensation of bewildered happiness. It was dangerous; she must get away in a moment; but for a moment she might surely enjoy this extraordinary situation that fortune had thrust upon her—the charm of the room, the warmth, and something more wonderful still—companionship. She looked at him; she must say something.

“You think you can't come to the wedding?” she said, and blushed.

Amory shook his head. “I'm afraid not, though of course I shall try. Now”—he stared gravely at her—“now tell me how you came to know Tom and why you like him. I wonder if it is for my reasons or ones of your own.”

He was surprised by the deep blush which answered his words. What a wonderful wild-rose color on her rather pale cheek!

“Don't you think it very warm in here?” said the girl.

Amory got up, and going to the window, opened it a little; then, stopping at his desk, picked up a note and brought it to the fire.

“Why, here is a note from Mrs. White,” he said. “Why didn't you tell me?”

She had risen, and laid her hand an instant on his arm. “Don't open it—yet,” she said. Her desperation lent her invention; just in this one way he must not find her out. She gave him a look, half arch, half pleading. “I'll explain later,” she said.

Amory felt a stir of most unnecessary emotion; he understood Tom.

“Of course,” he said, dropping it on the mantelpiece,—“just as you like. Now let's go back to Tom. You see,”—he sat down, and tipping his chair a little, gave her a rather curious smile,—“Tom and I have been enigmas to each other always, deeply attached and hopelessly incomprehensible, and I had my own ideas of what Tom would marry—and—you are not it;—not in the least!” He leant forward and brought his puzzled gaze to bear upon her.

She settled deeply into her chair, half to get farther away from those searching gray eyes, half because she was taking terrible risks, and she might as well enjoy it; the chair was so comfortable, and the fire so cheerful, and Amory—it occurred to her with a sort of exhilaration what it would be to please him. She had pleased other people, why not him? Her lids drooped; she looked down at her shabby gloves.

“What did you expect?” she said.

He leant back and laughed. “What did I expect? Well, frankly, a silly little blond thing, all curls and furbelows!”

She raised those heavy lids of hers and gazed straight at him. “Was that Tom's description?” she asked, and raised her eyebrows. They were delicately pencilled, and Amory watched her and noted them.

“No,” he answered; “he didn't describe you, but I thought that was his taste. Now, you are neither silly nor little; no blonde; you have no curls and no furbelows. In fact”—he smiled with something delightfully intimate in his eyes—“in fact, you are much more the kind of girl I should like to marry.”

It gave her an absurd little thrill. She sat up, rebellious. “If I would have liked you,” she returned.

Amory laughed and put his hands in his pockets. “Of course,” he said; “but you would, you know!”

“Why?” she demanded, opening her eyes very wide; and again he inwardly complimented her on her eyebrows, and above them her hair grew in a charming line on her forehead. The little points are all pretty, he thought, and it is the details that count in the long run. How much one could grow to dislike blurry eyebrows and ugly ears, even if a woman had rosy cheeks and golden hair!

“Why? Because I should bully you into it. I'm an obstinate kind of creature, and get things by hanging on. Women give in if you worry them long enough. But tell me more about Tom,” he went on. “Did he dance and shoot his way into your heart? I wish I'd been there to see! You take a very bad tintype, by the way. Tom sent me that.” He got up, and taking a picture from the mantelpiece, tossed it into her lap, and leaning over the back of her chair, looked down on it. “Have you a sentiment about it?” he added, smiling. “It does look like Tom.”

She held it and gravely studied it. She colored, and, still looking at the picture, felt her way suddenly open. “Yes, it does look like him,” she said, and putting it down, leant forward and looked into the fire. “Do you want to know why I accepted Tom?” she added, slowly. She was fully launched on a career of deception now, and felt a desperate exultation.

Amory stared at her and nodded.

She kept her eyes on the fire. “I wanted—a home.”

Amory sat motionless, then spoke. “Why—why, weren't you happy with your aunt and uncle?”

She shook her head. “No; and Tom was good and kind and very—”

Amory got up and shook himself. “Oh, but that's an awful mistake,” he said.

“I know,” said the girl, and turning, looked at him a moment. “Well, I've come to tell you that I have—” She hesitated.

Amory slid down into the chair beside her. “Changed your mind?”

“Yes.”

“That note of your aunt's?”

“Yes”

He sat back and folded his arms. “I see,” he said, and there followed a long silence.

The girl began buttoning and unbuttoning her glove. She must go; she was frightened, elated, amused. She did not want to go, but go she must. Would he ever forgive her?

“Don't—don't hate me!” she said.

Amory awoke from his stunned meditation. “My dear young lady, of course not,” he began; “only, Tom will be terribly broken up. It's the only thing to do now, I suppose, but why did you do the other?”

She looked at him. As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, she thought. “I was unhappy and foolish.” She hesitated. “But you needn't be troubled about Tom. He—” Again she hesitated.

“Not troubled about old Tom!” expostulated Amory.

“Wait.” She put up her hand. “He made a mistake, too; he doesn't care so very much, and he has already flirted—”

Amory laid his hand on her chair. “Tom!”

“Yes,” she repeated; “he really is rather a flirt, and—”

“Tom!”

She nodded. “Yes; really, it did hurt me a little, only—”

“Tom!”

She faced him. “Yes, Tom. What do you think Tom is—blind and deaf and dumb? Any man worth his salt can flirt.”

Amory stared at her. “Oh, he can, can he?”

She nodded. “He was very good and kind, but I saw that he was changing; and then he met a little fair-haired, blue-eyed—”

Amory interposed. “I told you.”

She gave him a curious smile. “Yes, a silly little blond thing, just that.”

But his satisfaction in his perspicacity was short-lived; he walked up and down the room in his perplexity. “I can't get over it,” he murmured. “I thought it a mad love-match, all done in a few weeks; and to have it turn out like this! You—”

“Mercenary,” she interjected, with a sad little smile.

He looked at her. “Yes; and Tom—”

“Fickle,” she ended again.

“Yes, and Tom fickle. Why, it shakes the foundations!”

The girl felt a sudden wave of shame and weariness. She must go. She hadn't been fair, but it had been so sudden, so difficult. She looked at him, and getting up, wondered if she would ever see him again.

“I must go,” she said. “I came—” She hesitated, and a sudden desire to have him know her as herself swept over her. It needed only another lie or two in the beginning, and then some truth would come through to sustain her. She went on: “I came because I wanted to know what you were like; Tom had talked so much of you, and I wanted some one to understand and perhaps explain; and now I must go and leave your warm, delightful room for the comfortless place I live in. Don't think too hardly of me.”

Amory shook his head. “You don't leave me until you have had your tea.” He rang the bell. “But what do you mean by a comfortless home? Does Mrs. White neglect you?”

She looked at the fire. “I don't live with her—now; I live alone; I work for my living.”

Amory got up as the maid brought in the tea-tray, and setting it beside them, he poured out her tea; as he handed her the cup, he brought his brows together sternly, as though making out her very mysterious words.

“You work for your living?” he repeated. “I thought you lived with Mrs. White, and that they were well off.”

“I did, but now I've come back to my real life, which I would have left had I married Tom.”

He nodded. “I see. I had heard awfully little about it all; I was away, and then it was so quickly done.”

“I know,” she went on, hurriedly; “but let me tell you, and you will understand me better later—that is, if you want to understand me.”

“Most certainly I do.” Amory sustained the strange sad gaze of her charming, heavy-lidded eyes in a sort of maze. Her mat skin looked white, now that her blushes were gone, and her delicate, irregular features a little pinched. He drank his tea and watched her while she talked.

“I teach music,” she began; “to do it I left my relations in the country and came to this horrible great city. I have one dreary, cold room, as unlike this as two rooms can be. I have tried to make it seem like a home, but when I saw this I knew how I had failed.”

“Poor little girl!” said Amory.

“I have the ordinary feelings of a girl,” she went on, “and yet I see before me the long stretch of a dreary life. I love music; I hear none but the strumming of children. I like pictures, books, people; I see none. I like to laugh, to talk; there is no one to laugh with, to talk to. I am very—unhappy.” The last words were spoken very low, but the misery in them touched Amory deeply.

“Poor little girl!” he said again, and gently laid his hand on the arm of her chair. “But how can Tom know this and let you go? You are mistaken in Tom, I am sure, and—”

The girl straightened her slender figure and rose. “Oh no! it is all right. He doesn't love me, your Tom; and so the world goes—I must go, too. I—”

“Don't go,” said Amory. “Let me—” She shook her head. “You have no more to do; you have comforted and warmed and fed a hungry wanderer, and she must make haste home. Thank you for everything; thank you.”

Amory felt a pang as she stood up. Not to see her again—why, that was absurd! Why should he not see her? She had quarrelled with Tom, yes, and perhaps the family might be hard on her; but he—he understood, and why should he shake off her acquaintance? She was not for Tom. Well, it was just as well. How could any one think this girl would suit Tom—big-bearded, clumsy, excellent fellow that he was?

He put out his hand. “Mary,” he said. The girl stared at him with eyes suddenly wide open; he smiled into them.

“I have a right to call you that,” he proceeded, “haven't I? I might have been your brother.” He took her hand, and then laughed a little. “I am almost glad I am not. You wouldn't have suited Tom, and as a sister, somehow, you wouldn't have suited me!” He laughed again. “But”—he hesitated; she still stared straight up at him with her soft, dark eyes, and he thought them very beautiful—“but why shouldn't I see you—not as a brother, but an acquaintance—friend? You say you need them. Tell me where you have this room of yours?”

The vivid beauty of her blush startled him, and she drew her hand quickly from his.

“Oh no!” she said, hurriedly. “Let things drop between us; here—forever.”

Amory stood before her with an expression which reminded her of his description of himself—obstinate; yes, he looked it.

“Why?” he urged. “Just because you are not to marry Tom, is there any reason why we should not like each other—is there? That is—if we do! I do,” he laughed. “Do you?”

Her lids had dropped; she looked very slim, and young, and shy. “Yes,” she said.

It gave Amory a good deal of pleasure for a monosyllable.

“Well, then, your number?” he said.

She shook her head.

“I'll ask Tom,” he retorted. “He will tell me.”

He was baffled and curiously charmed by the smile that touched her sharply curved young mouth.

“Tom may,” she said.

“I was ready to accept you as a sister,” he persisted, “and you won't even admit me as a casual visitor!”

She took a step toward the door. “Wait till you hear Tom's story,” she said.

Amory stared curiously at her. “Do you think he will be vindictive, after all?” he said. “Why should he be, if what you say is just?”

She paused. “Wait till you see Tom and Mrs. White; then if you want to know me, why—” She was blushing again.

“Well,” Amory demanded, “what shall I do?”

She looked up with a sort of childish charm, curling her lip, lighting her eyes with something of laughter and mischief. “Why, look for me and you'll find me.”

“Find you?” repeated Amory, bewildered.

She nodded. “Yes, if you look. To-morrow will be Sunday; every one will be going to church, and I with them. Stand on the steps of this house at 10.30 precisely, and look as far as you can, and you will see—me. Goodnight.”

“Good night.” Amory took her hand. “Let me see you home; it's dark.”

She laughed. “You don't lack persistency, do you?” she said, with a sweetness which gave the words a pleasant twist. “But don't come, please. I'm used to taking care of myself; but—before I go let me write my note also.” She went to the desk and scratched a line, and folding it, handed it to him. “There,” she said; “read Mrs. White's note and then that, but wait till you hear the house door bang. Promise not before.”

“Please—” began Amory.

“Promise,” she repeated.

“I promise,” he said, and again they shook hands for good-by.

“That's three times,” thought the girl as she went to the door, and turning an instant, she smiled at him. “Good-by.” The door closed softly behind her, and Amory waited a moment, then went to it, and opening it, listened; the house door shut lightly, and seizing his notes, he stood by the window in the twilight and read them. The first was as follows:

“DEAR MR. AMORY,—Mary and I had to return unexpectedly to Cleveland. Forgive our missing this chance of meeting you, but Mr. White's note is urgent, as his sister is very ill. Mary regrets greatly not seeing you before the wedding.

Yours sincerely,

BARBARA WHITE.”

Amory threw the paper down. “Do I see visions?” he cried, and hastily unfolded the second; it ran as follows:

“Forgive me; I got into the wrong house, the wrong room. I was very tired, and my latch-key fitted, and I didn't know until I saw your fire, and then you came. Don't think me a very bold and horrid girl, and forgive me. Your fire was so warm and bright, and—you were kind.

M.”

Amory stared at the paper a moment; then, catching his hat and flying down the stairs, opened the outer door.

The night was bitter cold, with a white frost everywhere; but in the twilight no solitary figure was in view; the long street was empty. He ran the length of it, then back to his room, and throwing down his hat, he lit his pipe. It needed thought.