It′s evidently a great thing in life to have got hold of a convenient expression, and a sign of our inordinate habit of living by words. I have sometimes flattered myself that I live less exclusively by them than the people about me; paying with them, paying with them only, as the phrase is (there I am at it, exactly, again!) rather less than my companions, who, with the exception, perhaps, a little-sometimes!-of poor Mother, succeed by their aid in keeping away from every truth, in ignoring every reality, as comfortably as possible. Poor Mother, who is worth all the rest of us put together, and is really worth two or three of poor Father, deadly decent as I admit poor Father mainly to be, sometimes meets me with a look, in some connection, suggesting that, deep within, she dimly understands, and would really understand a little better if she weren′t afraid to: for, like all of us, she lives surrounded by the black forest of the “facts of life” very much as the people in the heart of Africa live in their dense wilderness of nocturnal terrors, the mysteries and monstrosities that make them seal themselves up in the huts as soon as it gets dark. She, quite exquisite little Mother, would often understand, I believe, if she dared, if she knew how to dare; and the vague, dumb interchange then taking place between us, and from the silence of which we have never for an instant deviated, represents perhaps her wonder as to whether I mayn′t on some great occasion show her how.
The difficulty is that, alas, mere intelligent useless wretch as I am, I′ve never hitherto been sure of knowing how myself; for am I too not as steeped in fears as any of them? My fears, mostly, are different, and of different dangers-also I hate having them, whereas they love them and hug them to their hearts; but the fact remains that, save in this private precinct of my overflow, which contains, under a strong little brass lock, several bad words and many good resolutions, I have never either said or done a bold thing in my life. What I seem always to feel, doubtless cravenly enough, under her almost pathetic appeal, has been that it isn′t yet the occasion, the really good and right one, for breaking out; than which nothing could more resemble of course the inveterate argument of the helpless. ANY occasion is good enough for the helpful; since there′s never any that hasn′t weak sides for their own strength to make up. However, if there COULD be conceivably a good one, I′ll be hanged if I don′t seem to see it gather now, and if I sha′n′t write myself here “poor” Charles Edward in all truth by failing to take advantage of it, (They have in fact, I should note, one superiority of courage to my own: this habit of their so constantly casting up my poverty at me-poverty of character, of course I mean, for they don′t, to do them justice, taunt me with having “made” so little. They don′t, I admit, take their lives in their hands when they perform that act; the proposition itself being that I haven′t the spirit of a fished-out fly.)
My point is, at any rate, that I designate THEM as Poor only in the abysmal confidence of these occult pages: into which I really believe even my poor wife-for it′s universal!-has never succeeded in peeping. It will be a shock to me if I some day find she has so far adventured-and this not on account of the curiosity felt or the liberty taken, but on account of her having successfully disguised it. She knows I keep an intermittent diary-I′ve confessed to her it′s the way in which I work things in general, my feelings and impatiences and difficulties, off. It′s the way I work off my nerves-that luxury in which poor Charles Edward′s natural narrow means-narrow so far as ever acknowledged-don′t permit him to indulge. No one for a moment suspects I have any nerves, and least of all what they themselves do to them; no one, that is, but poor little Mother again-who, however, again, in her way, all timorously and tenderly, has never mentioned it: any more than she has ever mentioned her own, which she would think quite indecent. This is precisely one of the things that, while it passes between us as a mute assurance, makes me feel myself more than the others verily HER child: more even than poor little Peg at the present strained juncture.
But what I was going to say above all is that I don′t care that poor Lorraine-since that′s my wife′s inimitable name, which I feel every time I write it I must apologize even to myself for!-should quite discover the moments at which, first and last, I′ve worked HER off. Yet I′ve made no secret of my cultivating it as a resource that helps me to hold out; this idea of our “holding out,” separately and together, having become for us-and quite comically, as I see-the very basis of life. What does it mean, and how and why and to what end are we holding? I ask myself that even while I feel how much we achieve even by just hugging each other over the general intensity of it. This is what I have in mind as to our living to that extent by the vain phrase; as to our really from time to time winding ourselves up by the use of it, and winding each other. What should we do if we didn′t hold out, and of what romantic, dramatic, or simply perhaps quite prosaic, collapse would giving in, in contradistinction, consist for us? We haven′t in the least formulated that-though it perhaps may but be one of the thousand things we are afraid of.
At any rate we don′t, I think, ever so much as ask ourselves, and much less each other: we′re so quite sufficiently sustained and inflamed by the sense that we′re just doing it, and that in the sublime effort our union is our strength. There must be something in it, for the more intense we make the consciousness-and haven′t we brought it to as fine a point as our frequently triumphant partnership at bridge?-the more it positively does support us. Poor Lorraine doesn′t really at all need to understand in order to believe; she believes that, failing our exquisite and intimate combined effort of resistance, we should be capable together of something-well, “desperate.” It′s in fact in this beautiful desperation that we spend our days, that we face the pretty grim prospect of new ones, that we go and come and talk and pretend, that we consort, so far as in our deep-dyed hypocrisy we do consort, with the rest of the Family, that we have Sunday supper with the Parents and emerge, modestly yet virtuously shining, from the ordeal; that we put in our daily appearance at the Works-for a utility nowadays so vague that I′m fully aware (Lorraine isn′t so much) of the deep amusement I excite there, though I also recognize how wonderfully, how quite charitably, they manage not to break out with it: bless, for the most part, their dear simple hearts! It is in this privately exalted way that we bear in short the burden of our obloquy, our failure, our resignation, our sacrifice of what we should have liked, even if it be a matter we scarce dare to so much as name to each other; and above all of our insufferable reputation for an abject meekness. We′re really not meek a bit-we′re secretly quite ferocious; but we′re held to be ashamed of ourselves not only for our proved business incompetence, but for our lack of first-rate artistic power as well: it being now definitely on record that we′ve never yet designed a single type of ice-pitcher-since that′s the damnable form Father′s production more and more runs to; his uncanny ideal is to turn out more ice-pitchers than any firm in the world-that has “taken” with their awful public. We′ve tried again and again to strike off something hideous enough, but it has always in these cases appeared to us quite beautiful compared to the object finally turned out, on their improved lines, for the unspeakable market; so that we′ve only been able to be publicly rueful and depressed about it, and to plead practically, in extenuation of all the extra trouble we saddle them with, that such things are, alas, the worst we can do.
We so far succeed in our plea that we′re held at least to sit, as I say, in contrition, and to understand how little, when it comes to a reckoning, we really pay our way. This actually passes, I think for the main basis of our humility, as it′s certainly the basis of what I feel to be poor Mother′s unuttered yearning. It almost broke her heart that we SHOULD have to live in such shame-she has only got so far as that yet. But it′s a beginning; and I seem to make out that if I don′t spoil it by any wrong word, if I don′t in fact break the spell by any wrong breath, she′ll probably come on further. It will glimmer upon her-some day when she looks at me in her uncomfortable bewildered tenderness, and I almost hypnotize her by just smiling inscrutably back-that she isn′t getting all the moral benefit she somehow ought out of my being so pathetically wrong; and then she′ll begin to wonder and wonder, all to herself, if there mayn′t be something to be said for me. She has limped along, in her more or less dissimulated pain, on this apparently firm ground that I′m so wrong that nothing will do for either of us but a sweet, solemn, tactful agreement between us never to mention it. It falls in so richly with all the other things, all the “real” things, we never mention.
Well, it′s doubtless an odd fact to be setting down even here; but I SHALL be sorry for her on the day when her glimmer, as I have called it, broadens-when it breaks on her that if I′m as wrong as this comes to, why the others must be actively and absolutely right. She has never had to take it quite THAT way-so women, even mothers, wondrously get on; and heaven help her, as I say, when she shall. She′ll be immense-“tactfully” immense, with Father about it-she′ll manage that, for herself and for him, all right; but where the iron will enter into her will be at the thought of her having for so long given raison, as they say in Paris-or as poor Lorraine at least says they say-to a couple like Maria and Tom Price. It comes over her that she has taken it largely from THEM (and she HAS) that we′re living in immorality, Lorraine and I: ah THEN, poor dear little Mother-! Upon my word I believe I′d go on lying low to this positive pitch of grovelling-and Lorraine, charming, absurd creature, would back me up in it too-in order precisely to save Mother such a revulsion. It will be really more trouble than it will be worth to her; since it isn′t as if our relation weren′t, of its kind, just as we are, about as “dear” as it can be.
I′d literally much rather help her not to see than to see; I′d much rather help her to get on with the others (yes, even including poor Father, the fine damp plaster of whose composition, renewed from week to week, can′t be touched anywhere without letting your finger in, without peril of its coming to pieces) in the way easiest for her-if not easiest TO her. She couldn′t live with the others an hour-no, not with one of them, unless with poor little Peg-save by accepting all their premises, save by making in other words all the concessions and having all the imagination. I ask from her nothing of this-I do the whole thing with her, as she has to do it with them; and of this, au fond, as Lorraine again says, she is ever so subtly aware-just as, FOR it, she′s ever so dumbly grateful. Let these notes stand at any rate for my fond fancy of that, and write it here to my credit in letters as big and black as the tearful alphabet of my childhood; let them do this even if everything else registers meaner things. I′m perfectly willing to recognize, as grovellingly as any one likes, that, as grown-up and as married and as preoccupied and as disillusioned, or at least as battered and seasoned (by adversity) as possible, I′m in respect to HER as achingly filial and as feelingly dependent, all the time, as when I used, in the far-off years, to wake up, a small blubbering idiot, from frightening dreams, and refuse to go to sleep again, in the dark, till I clutched her hands or her dress and felt her bend over me.
She used to protect me then from domestic derision-for she somehow kept such passages quiet; but she can′t (it′s where HER ache comes in!) protect me now from a more insidious kind. Well, now I don′t care! I feel it in Maria and Tom, constantly, who offer themselves as the pattern of success in comparison with which poor Lorraine and I are nowhere. I don′t say they do it with malice prepense, or that they plot against us to our ruin; the thing operates rather as an extraordinary effect of their mere successful blatancy. They′re blatant, truly, in the superlative degree, and I call them successfully so for just this reason, that poor Mother is to all appearance perfectly unaware of it. Maria is the one member of all her circle that has got her really, not only just ostensibly, into training; and it′s a part of the general irony of fate that neither she nor my terrible sister herself recognizes the truth of this. The others, even to poor Father, think they manage and manipulate her, and she can afford to let them think it, ridiculously, since they don′t come anywhere near it. She knows they don′t and is easy with them; playing over Father in especial with finger-tips so lightly resting and yet so effectively tickling, that he has never known at a given moment either where they were or, in the least, what they were doing to him. That′s enough for Mother, who keeps by it the freedom other soul; yet whose fundamental humility comes out in its being so hidden from her that her eldest daughter, to whom she allows the benefit of every doubt, does damnably boss her.
This is the one case in which she′s not lucid; and, to make it perfect, Maria, whose humility is neither fundamental nor superficial, but whose avidity is both, comfortably cherishes, as a ground of complaint-nurses in fact, beatifically, as a wrong-the belief that she′s the one person without influence. Influence?-why she has so much on ME that she absolutely coerces me into making here these dark and dreadful remarks about her! Let my record establish, in this fashion, that if I′m a clinging son I′m, in that quarter, to make up for it, a detached brother. Deadly virtuous and deadly hard and deadly charmless-also, more than anything, deadly sure I-how does Maria fit on, by consanguinity, to such amiable characters, such REAL social values, as Mother and me at all? If that question ceases to matter, sometimes, during the week, it flares up, on the other hand, at Sunday supper, down the street, where Tom and his wife, overwhelmingly cheerful and facetious, contrast so favorably with poor gentle sickly (as we doubtless appear) Lorraine and me. We can′t meet them-that is I can′t meet Tom-on that ground, the furious football-field to which he reduces conversation, making it echo as with the roar of the arena-one little bit.
Of course, with such deep diversity of feeling, we simply loathe each other, he and I; but the sad thing is that we get no good of it, none of the TRUE joy of life, the joy of our passions and perceptions and desires, by reason of our awful predetermined geniality and the strange abysmal necessity of our having so eternally to put up with each other. If we could intermit that vain superstition somehow, for about three minutes, I often think the air might clear (as by the scramble of the game of General Post, or whatever they call it) and we should all get out of our wrong corners and find ourselves in our right, glaring from these positions a happy and natural defiance. Then I shouldn′t be thus nominally and pretendedly (it′s too ignoble!) on the same side or in the same air as my brother-in-law; whose value is that he has thirty “business ideas” a day, while I shall never have had the thirtieth fraction of one in my whole life. He just hums, Tom Price, with business ideas, whereas I just gape with the impossibility of them; he moves in the densest we carry our heads here on August evenings, each with its own thick nimbus of mosquitoes. I′m but too conscious of how, on the other hand, I′m desolately outlined to all eyes, in an air as pure and empty as that of a fine Polar sunset.
It was Lorraine, dear quaint thing, who some time ago made the remark (on our leaving one of those weekly banquets at which we figure positively as a pair of social skeletons) that Tom′s facetae multiply, evidently, in direct proportion to his wealth of business ideas; so that whenever he′s enormously funny we may take it that he′s “on” something tremendous. He′s sprightly in proportion as he′s in earnest, and innocent in proportion as he′s going to be dangerous; dangerous, I mean, to the competitor and the victim. Indeed when I reflect that his jokes are probably each going to cost certain people, wretched helpless people like myself, hundreds and thousands of dollars, their abundant flow affects me as one of the most lurid of exhibitions. I′ve sometimes rather wondered that Father can stand so much of him. Father who has after all a sharp nerve or two in him, like a razor gone astray in a valise of thick Jager underclothing; though of course Maria, pulling with Tom shoulder to shoulder, would like to see any one NOT stand her husband.
The explanation has struck me as, mostly, that business genial and cheerful and even obstreperous, without detriment to its BEING business, has been poor Father′s ideal for his own terrible kind. This ideal is, further, that his home-life shall attest that prosperity. I think it has even been his conception that our family tone shall by its sweet innocence fairly register the pace at which the Works keep ahead: so that he has the pleasure of feeling us as funny and slangy here as people can only be who have had the best of the bargains other people are having occasion to rue. We of course don′t know-that is Mother and Grandmamma don′t, in any definite way (any more than I do, thanks to my careful stupidity) how exceeding small some of the material is consciously ground in the great grim, thrifty mill of industrial success; and indeed we grow about as many cheap illusions and easy comforts in the faintly fenced garden of our little life as could very well be crammed into the space.
Poor Grandmamma-since I′ve mentioned her-appears to me always the aged wan Flora of our paradise; the presiding divinity, seated in the centre, under whose pious traditions, REALLY quite dim and outlived, our fond sacrifices are offered. Queer enough the superstition that Granny is a very solid and strenuous and rather grim person, with a capacity for facing the world, that we, a relaxed generation, have weakly lost. She knows as much about the world as a tin jelly-mould knows about the dinner, and is the oddest mixture of brooding anxieties over things that don′t in the least matter and of bland failure to suspect things that intensely do. She lives in short in a weird little waste of words-over the moral earnestness we none of us cultivate; yet hasn′t a notion of any effective earnestness herself except on the subject of empty bottles, which have, it would appear, noble neglected uses. At this time of day it doesn′t matter, but if there could have been dropped into her empty bottles, at an earlier stage, something to strengthen a little any wine of life they were likely to contain, she wouldn′t have figured so as the head and front of all our sentimentality.
I judge it, for that matter, a proof of our flat “modernity” in this order that the scant starch holding her together is felt to give her among us this antique and austere consistency. I don′t talk things over with Lorraine for nothing, and she does keep for me the flashes of perception we neither of us waste on the others. It′s the “antiquity of the age of crinoline,” she said the other day a propos of a little carte-de-visite photograph of my ancestress as a young woman of the time of the War; looking as if she had been violently inflated from below, but had succeeded in resisting at any cost, and with a strange intensity of expression, from her waist up. Mother, however, I must say, is as wonderful about her as about everything else, and arranges herself, exactly, to appear a mere contemporary illustration (being all the while three times the true picture) in order that her parent shall have the importance of the Family Portrait. I don′t mean of course that she has told me so; but she cannot see that if she hasn′t that importance Granny has none other; and it′s therefore as if she pretended she had a ruff, a stomacher, a farthingale and all the rest-grand old angles and eccentricities and fine absurdities: the hard white face, if necessary, of one who has seen witches burned.
She hasn′t any more than any one else among us a gleam of fine absurdity: that′s a product that seems unable, for the life of it, and though so indispensable (say) for literary material, to grow here; but, exquisitely determined she shall have Character lest she perish-while it′s assumed we still need her-Mother makes it up for her, with a turn of the hand, out of bits left over from her own, far from economically as her own was originally planned; scraps of spiritual silk and velvet that no one takes notice of missing. And Granny, as in the dignity of her legend, imposes, ridiculous old woman, on every one-Granny passes for one of the finest old figures in the place, while Mother is never discovered. So is history always written, and so is truth mostly worshipped. There′s indeed one thing, I′ll do her the justice to say, as to which she has a glimmer of vision-as to which she had it a couple of years ago; I was thoroughly with her in her deprecation of the idea that Peggy should be sent, to crown her culture, to that horrid co-educative college from which the poor child returned the other day so preposterously engaged to be married; and, if she had only been a little more actively with me we might perhaps between us have done something about it. But she has a way of deprecating with her long, knobby, mittened hand over her mouth, and of looking at the same time, in a mysterious manner, down into one of the angles of the room-it reduces her protest to a feebleness: she′s incapable of seeing in it herself more than a fraction of what it has for her, and really thinks it would be wicked and abandoned, would savor of Criticism, which is the cardinal sin with her, to see all, or to follow any premise to it in the right direction.
Still, there was the happy chance, at the time the question came up, that she had retained, on the subject of promiscuous colleges, the mistrust of the age of crinoline: as to which in fact that little old photograph, with its balloon petticoat and its astonishingly flat, stiff “torso,” might have imaged some failure of the attempt to blow the heresy into her. The true inwardness of the history, at the crisis, was that our fell Maria had made up her mind that Peg should go-and that, as I have noted, the thing our fell Maria makes up her mind to among us is in nine cases out of ten the thing that is done. Maria still takes, in spite of her partial removal to a wider sphere, the most insidious interest in us, and the beauty of her affectionate concern for the welfare of her younger sisters is the theme of every tongue. She observed to Lorraine, in a moment of rare expansion, more than a year ago, that she had got their two futures perfectly fixed, and that as Peggy appeared to have “some mind,” though how much she wasn′t yet sure, it should be developed, what there was of it, on the highest modern lines: Peggy would never be thought generally, that is physically, attractive anyway. She would see about Alice, the brat, later on, though meantime she had her idea-the idea that Alice was really going to have the looks and would at a given moment break out into beauty: in which event she should be run for that, and for all it might be worth, and she, Maria, would be ready to take the contract.
This is the kind of patronage of us that passes, I believe, among her more particular intimates, for “so sweet” of her; it being of course Maria all over to think herself subtle for just reversing, with a “There-see how original I am?” any benighted conviction usually entertained. I don′t know that any one has ever thought Alice, the brat, intellectual; but certainly no one has ever judged her even potentially handsome, in the light of no matter which of those staggering girl-processes that suddenly produce features, in flat faces, and “figure,” in the void of space, as a conjurer pulls rabbits out of a sheet of paper and yards of ribbon out of nothing. Moreover, if any one SHOULD know, Lorraine and I, with our trained sense for form and for “values,” certainly would. However, it doesn′t matter; the whole thing being but a bit of Maria′s system of bluffing in order to boss. Peggy hasn′t more than the brain, in proportion to the rest of her, of a small swelling dove on a window-sill; but she′s extremely pretty and absolutely nice, a little rounded pink-billed presence that pecks up gratefully any grain of appreciation.
I said to Mother, I remember, at the time-I took that plunge: “I hope to goodness you′re not going to pitch that defenceless child into any such bear garden!” and she replied that to make a bear-garden you first had to have bears, and she didn′t suppose the co-educative young men could be so described. “Well then,” said I, “would you rather I should call them donkeys, or even monkeys? What I mean is that the poor girl-a perfect little DECORATIVE person, who ought to have iridescent-gray plumage and pink-shod feet to match the rest of her-shouldn′t be thrust into any general menagerie-cage, but be kept for the dovecote and the garden, kept where we may still hear her coo. That′s what, at college, they′ll make her unlearn; she′ll learn to roar and snarl with the other animals. Think of the vocal sounds with which she may come back to us!” Mother appeared to think, but asked me, after a moment, as a result of it, in which of the cages of the New York Art League menagerie, and among what sort of sounds, I had found Lorraine-who was a product of co-education if there ever had been one, just as our marriage itself had been such a product.
I replied to this-well, what I could easily reply; but I asked, I recollect, in the very forefront, if she were sending Peg to college to get married. She declared it was the last thing she was in a hurry about, and that she believed there was no danger, but her great argument let the cat out of the bag. “Maria feels the want of it-of a college education; she feels it would have given her more confidence”; and I shall in fact never forget the little look of strange supplication that she gave me with these words. What it meant was: “Now don′t ask me to go into the question, for the moment, any further: it′s in the acute stage-and you know how soon Maria can BRING a question to a head. She has settled it with your Father-in other words has settled it FOR him: settled it in the sense that we didn′t give HER, at the right time, the advantage she ought to have had. It would have given her confidence-from the want of which, acquired at that age, she feels she so suffers; and your Father thinks it fine of her to urge that her little sister shall profit by her warning. Nothing works on him, you know, so much as to hear it hinted that we′ve failed of our duty to any of you; and you can see how it must work when he can be persuaded that Maria-!”
“Hasn′t colossal cheek?”-I took the words out of her mouth. “With such colossal cheek what NEED have you of confidence, which is such an inferior form-?”
The long and short was of course that Peggy went; believing on her side, poor dear, that it might for future relations give her the pull of Maria. This represents, really, I think, the one spark of guile in Peggy′s breast: the smart of a small grievance suffered at her sister′s hands in the dim long-ago. Maria slapped her face, or ate up her chocolates, or smeared her copy-book, or something of that sort; and the sound of the slap still reverberates in Peg′s consciousness, the missed sweetness still haunts her palate, the smutch of the fair page (Peg writes an immaculate little hand and Maria a wretched one-the only thing she can′t swagger about) still affronts her sight. Maria also, to do her justice, has a vague hankering, under which she has always been restive, to make up for the outrage; and the form the compunction now takes is to get her away. It′s one of the facts of our situation all round, I may thus add, that every one wants to get some one else away, and that there are indeed one or two of us upon whom, to that end, could the conspiracy only be occult enough-which it can never!-all the rest would effectively concentrate.
Father would like to shunt Granny-it IS monstrous his having his mother-in-law a fixture under his roof; though, after all, I′m not sure this patience doesn′t rank for him as one of those domestic genialities that allow his conscience a bolder and tighter business hand; a curious service, this sort of thing, I note, rendered to the business conscience throughout our community. Mother, at any rate, and small blame to her, would like to “shoo” off Eliza, as Lorraine and I, in our deepest privacy, call Aunt Elizabeth; the Tom Prices would like to extirpate US, of course; we would give our most immediate jewel to clear the sky of the Tom Prices; und so weiter. And I think we should really all band together, for once in our lives, in an unnatural alliance to get rid of Eliza. The beauty as to THIS is, moreover, that I make out the rich if dim, dawn of that last-named possibility (which I′ve been secretly invoking, all this year, for poor Mother′s sake); and as the act of mine own right hand, moreover, without other human help. But of that anon; the IMMEDIATELY striking thing being meanwhile again the strange stultification of the passions in us, which prevents anything ever from coming to an admitted and avowed head.
Maria can be trusted, as I have said, to bring on the small crisis, every time; but she′s as afraid as any one else of the great one, and she′s moreover, I write it with rapture, afraid of Eliza. Eliza is the one person in our whole community she does fear-and for reasons I perfectly grasp; to which moreover, this extraordinary oddity attaches, that I positively feel I don′t fear Eliza in the least (and in fact promise myself before long to show it) and yet don′t at all avail by that show of my indifference to danger to inspire my sister with the least terror in respect to myself. It′s very funny, the DEGREE of her dread of Eliza, who affects her, evidently, as a person of lurid “worldly” possibilities-the one innocent light in which poor Maria wears for me what Lorraine calls a weird pathos; and perhaps, after all, on the day I shall have justified my futile passage across this agitated scene, and my questionable utility here below every way, by converting our aunt′s lively presence into a lively absence, it may come over her that I AM to be recognized. I in fact dream at times, with high intensity, that I see the Prices some day quite turn pale as they look at each other and find themselves taking me in.
I′ve made up my mind at any rate that poor Mother shall within the year be relieved in one way or another of her constant liability to her sister-in-law′s visitations. It isn′t to be endured that her house should be so little her own house as I′ve known Granny and Eliza, between them, though after a different fashion, succeed in making it appear; and yet the action to take will, I perfectly see, never by any possibility come from poor Father. He accepts his sister′s perpetual re-arrivals, under the law of her own convenience, with a broad-backed serenity which I find distinctly irritating (if I may use the impious expression) and which makes me ask myself how he sees poor Mother′s “position” at all. The truth is poor Father never does “see” anything of that sort, in the sense of conceiving it in its relations; he doesn′t know, I guess, but what the prowling Eliza HAS a position (since this is a superstition that I observe even my acute little Lorraine can′t quite shake off). He takes refuge about it, as about everything, truly, in the cheerful vagueness of that general consciousness on which I have already touched: he likes to come home from the Works every day to see how good he really is, after all-and it′s what poor Mother thus has to demonstrate for him by translating his benevolence, translating it to himself and to others, into “housekeeping.” If he were only good to HER he mightn′t be good enough; but the more we pig together round about him the more blandly patriarchal we make him feel.
Eliza meanwhile, at any rate, is spoiling for a dose-if ever a woman required one; and I seem already to feel in the air the gathering elements of the occasion that awaits me for administering it. All of which it is a comfort somehow to maunder away on here. As I read over what I have written the aspects of our situation multiply so in fact that I note again how one has only to look at any human thing very straight (that is with the minimum of intelligence) to see it shine out in as many aspects as the hues of the prism; or place itself, in other words, in relations that positively stop nowhere. I′ve often thought I should like some day to write a novel; but what would become of me in that case-delivered over, I mean, before my subject, to my extravagant sense that everything is a part of something else? When you paint a picture with a brush and pigments, that is on a single plane, it can stop at your gilt frame; but when you paint one with a pen and words, that is in ALL the dimensions, how are you to stop? Of course, as Lorraine says, “Stopping, that′s art; and what are we artists like, my dear, but those drivers of trolley-cars, in New York, who, by some divine instinct, recognize in the forest of pillars and posts the white-striped columns at which they may pull up? Yes, we′re drivers of trolley-cars charged with electric force and prepared to go any distance from which the consideration of a probable smash ahead doesn′t deter us.”
That consideration deters me doubtless even a little here-in spite of my seeing the track, to the next bend, so temptingly clear. I should like to note for instance, for my own satisfaction (though no fellow, thank God, was ever less a prey to the ignoble fear of inconsistency) that poor Mother′s impugnment of my acquisition of Lorraine didn′t in the least disconcert me. I did pick Lorraine-then a little bleating stray lamb collared with a blue ribbon and a tinkling silver bell-out of our New York bear-garden; but it interests me awfully to recognize that, whereas the kind of association is one I hate for my small Philistine sister, who probably has the makings of a nice, dull, dressed, amiable, insignificant woman, I recognize it perfectly as Lorraine′s native element and my own; or at least don′t at all mind her having been dipped in it. It has tempered and plated us for the rest of life, and to an effect different enough from the awful metallic wash of our Company′s admired ice-pitchers. We artists are at the best children of despair-a certain divine despair, as Lorraine naturally says; and what jollier place for laying it in abundantly than the Art League? As for Peg, however, I won′t hear of her having anything to do with this; she shall despair of nothing worse than the “hang” of her skirt or the moderation other hat-and not often, if I can help her, even of those.That small vow I′m glad to register here: it helps somehow, at the juncture I seem to feel rapidly approaching, to do the indispensable thing Lorraine is always talking about-to define my position. She′s always insisting that we′ve never sufficiently defined it-as if I′ve ever for a moment pretended we have! We′ve REfined it, to the last intensity-and of course, now, shall have to do so still more; which will leave them all even more bewildered than the boldest definition would have done. But that′s quite a different thing. The furthest we have gone in the way of definition-unless indeed this too belongs but to our invincible tendency to refine-is by the happy rule we′ve made that Lorraine shall walk with me every morning to the Works, and I shall find her there when I come out to walk home with me. I see, on reading over, that this is what I meant by “our” in speaking above of our little daily heroism in that direction. The heroism is easier, and becomes quite sweet, I find, when she comes so far on the way with me and when we linger outside for a little more last talk before I go in.
It′s the drollest thing in the world, and really the most precious note of the mystic influence known in the place as “the force of public opinion”-which is in other words but the incubus of small domestic conformity; I really believe there′s nothing we do, or don′t do, that excites in the bosom of our circle a subtler sense that we′re “au fond” uncanny. And it′s amusing to think that this is our sole tiny touch of independence! That she should come forth with me at those hours, that she should hang about with me, and that we should have last (and, when she meets me again, first) small sweet things to say to each other, as if we were figures in a chromo or a tableau vwant keeping our tryst at a stile-no, this, quite inexplicably, transcends their scheme and baffles their imagination. They can′t conceive how or why Lorraine gets out, or should wish to, at such hours; there′s a feeling that she must violate every domestic duty to do it; yes, at bottom, really, the act wears for them, I discern, an insidious immorality, and it wouldn′t take much to bring “public opinion” down on us in some scandalized way.
The funniest thing of all, moreover, is that that effect resides largely in our being husband and wife-it would be absent, wholly, if we were engaged or lovers; a publicly parading gentleman friend and lady friend. What is it we CAN have to say to each other, in that exclusive manner, so particularly, so frequently, so flagrantly, and as if we hadn′t chances enough at home? I see it′s a thing Mother might accidentally do with Father, or Maria with Tom Price; but I can imagine the shouts of hilarity, the resounding public comedy, with which Tom and Maria would separate; and also how scantly poor little Mother would permit herself with poor big Father any appearance of a grave leave-taking. I′ve quite expected her-yes, literally poor little Mother herself-to ask me, a bit anxiously, any time these six months, what it is that at such extraordinary moments passes between us. So much, at any rate, for the truth of this cluster of documentary impressions, to which there may some day attach the value as of a direct contemporary record of strange and remote things, so much I here super-add; and verily with regret, as well, on behalf of my picture, for two or three other touches from which I must forbear.
There has lately turned up, on our scene, one person with whom, doors and windows closed, curtains drawn, secrecy sworn, the whole town asleep and something amber-colored a-brewing-there has recently joined us one person, I say, with whom we might really pass the time of day, to whom we might, after due deliberation, tip the wink. I allude to the Parents′ new neighbor, the odd fellow Temple, who, for reasons mysterious and which his ostensible undertaking of the native newspaper don′t at all make plausible, has elected, as they say, fondly to sojourn among us. A journalist, a rolling stone, a man who has seen other life, how can one not suspect him of some deeper game than he avows-some such studious, surreptitious, “sociological” intent as alone, it would seem, could sustain him through the practice of leaning on his fence at eventide to converse for long periods with poor Father? Poor Father indeed, if a real remorseless sociologist were once to get well hold of him! Lorraine freely maintains that there′s more in the Temples than meets the eye; that they′re up to something, at least that HE is, that he kind of feels us in the air, just as we feel him, and that he would sort of reach out to us, by the same token, if we would in any way give the first sign. This, however, Lorraine contends, his wife won′t let him do; his wife, according to mine, is quite a different proposition (much more REALLY hatted and gloved, she notes, than any one here, even than the belted and trinketed Eliza) and with a conviction of her own as to what their stay is going to amount to. On the basis of Lorraine′s similar conviction about ours it would seem then that we ought to meet for an esoteric revel; yet somehow it doesn′t come off. Sometimes I think I′m quite wrong and that he can′t really be a child of light: we should in this case either have seen him collapse or have discovered what inwardly sustains him. We ARE ourselves inwardly collapsing-there′s no doubt of that: in spite of the central fires, as Lorraine says somebody in Boston used to say somebody said, from which we′re fed. From what central fires is Temple nourished? I give it up; for, on the point, again and again, of desperately stopping him in the street to ask him, I recoil as often in terror. He may be only plotting to MAKE me do it-so that he may give me away in his paper!
“Remember, he′s a mere little frisking prize ass; stick to that, cling to it, make it your answer to everything: it′s all you now know and all you need to know, and you′ll be as firm on it as on a rock!” This is what I said to poor Peg, on the subject of Harry Goward, before I started, in the glorious impulse of the moment, five nights ago, for New York; and, with no moment now to spare, yet wishing not to lose my small silver clue, I just put it here for one of the white pebbles, or whatever they were, that Hop o′ my Thumb, carried off to the forest, dropped, as he went, to know his way back. I was carried off the other evening in a whirlwind, which has not even yet quite gone down, though I am now at home and recovering my breath; and it will interest me vividly, when I have more freedom of mind, to live over again these strange, these wild successions. But a few rude notes, and only of the first few hours of my adventure, must for the present suffice. The mot, of the whole thing, as Lorraine calls it, was that at last, in a flash, we recognized what we had so long been wondering about-what supreme advantage we′ve been, all this latter time in particular, “holding out” for.
Lorraine had put it once again in her happy way only a few weeks previous; we were “saving up,” she said-and not meaning at all our poor scant dollars and cents, though we′ve also kept hold of some of THEM-for an exercise of strength and a show of character that would make us of a sudden some unmistakable sign. We should just meet it rounding a corner as with the rush of an automobile-a chariot of fire that would stop but long enough to take us in, when we should know it immediately for the vehicle of our fate. That conviction had somehow been with us, and I had really heard our hour begin to strike on Peg′s coming back to us from her co-educative adventure so preposterously “engaged.” I didn′t believe in it, in such a manner of becoming so, one little bit, and I took on myself to hate the same; though that indeed seemed the last thing to trouble any one else. Her turning up in such a fashion with the whole thing settled before Father or Mother or Maria or any of us had so much as heard of the young man, much less seen the tip of his nose, had too much in common, for my taste, with the rude betrothals of the people, with some maid-servant′s announcement to her employer that she has exchanged vows with the butcher-boy.
I was indignant, quite artlessly indignant I fear, with the college authorities, barbarously irresponsible, as it struck me; for when I broke out about them to poor Mother she surprised me (though I confess she had sometimes surprised me before), by her deep fatalism. “Oh, I suppose they don′t pretend not to take their students at the young people′s own risk: they can scarcely pretend to control their affections!” she wonderfully said; she seemed almost shocked, moreover, that I could impute either to Father or to herself any disposition to control Peggy′s. It was one of the few occasions of my life on which I′ve suffered irritation from poor Mother; and yet I′m now not sure, after all, that she wasn′t again but at her old game (even then, for she has certainly been so since) of protecting poor Father, by feigning a like flaccidity, from the full appearance, not to say the full dishonor, of his failure ever to meet a domestic responsibility. It came over me that there would be absolutely nobody to meet this one, and my own peculiar chance glimmered upon me therefore on the spot. I can′t retrace steps and stages; suffice it that my opportunity developed and broadened, to my watching eyes, with each precipitated consequence of the wretched youth′s arrival.
He proved, without delay, an infant in arms; an infant, either, according to circumstances, crowing and kicking and clamoring for sustenance, or wailing and choking and refusing even the bottle, to the point even, as I′ve just seen in New York, of imminent convulsions. The “arms” most appropriate to his case suddenly announced themselves, in fine, to our general consternation, as Eliza′s: but it was at this unnatural vision that my heart indeed leaped up. I was beforehand even with Lorraine; she was still gaping while, in three bold strokes, I sketched to her our campaign. “I take command-the others are flat on their backs. I save little pathetic Peg, even in spite of herself; though her just resentment is really much greater than she dares, poor mite, recognize (amazing scruple!). By which I mean I guard her against a possible relapse. I save poor Mother-that is I rid her of the deadly Eliza-forever and a day! Despised, rejected, misunderstood, I nevertheless intervene, in its hour of dire need, as the good genius of the family; and you, dear little quaint thing, I take advantage of the precious psychological moment to whisk YOU off to Europe. We′ll take Peg with us for a year′s true culture; she wants a year′s true culture pretty badly, but she doesn′t, as it turns out, want Mr. Goward a ′speck.′ And I′ll do it all in my own way, before they can recover breath; they′ll recover it-if we but give them time-to bless our name; but by that moment we shall have struck for freedom!”
Well, then, my own way-it was “given me,” as Lorraine says-was, taking the night express, without a word to any one but Peg, whom it was charming, at the supreme hour, to feel glimmeringly, all-wonderingly, with us: my own way, I say, was to go, the next morning, as soon as I had breakfasted, to the address Lorraine had been able, by an immense piece of luck, to suggest to me as a possible clue to Eliza′s whereabouts. “She′ll either be with her friends the Chataways, in East Seventy-third Street-she′s always swaggering about the Chataways, who by her account are tremendous ′smarts,′ as she has told Lorraine the right term is in London, leading a life that is a burden to them without her; or else they′ll know where she is. That′s at least what I HOPE!” said my wife with infinite feminine subtlety. The Chataways as a subject of swagger presented themselves, even to my rustic vision, oddly; I may be mistaken about New York “values,” but the grandeur of this connection was brought home to me neither by the high lopsided stoop of its very, very East Side setting, nor by the appearance of a terrible massive lady who came to the door while I was in quite unproductive parley with an unmistakably, a hopelessly mystified menial, an outlandish young woman with a face of dark despair and an intelligence closed to any mere indigenous appeal. I was to learn later in the day that she′s a Macedonian Christian whom the Chataways harbor against the cruel Turk in return for domestic service; a romantic item that Eliza named to me in rueful correction of the absence of several indeed that are apparently prosaic enough.
The powder on the massive lady′s face indeed transcended, I rather thought, the bounds of prose, did much to refer her to the realm of fantasy, some fairy-land forlorn; an effect the more marked as the wrapper she appeared hastily to have caught up, and which was somehow both voluminous and tense (flowing like a cataract in some places, yet in others exposing, or at least denning, the ample bed of the stream) reminded me of the big cloth spread in a room when any mess is to be made. She apologized when I said I had come to inquire for Miss Talbert-mentioned (with play of a wonderfully fine fat hand) that she herself was “just being manicured in the parlor”; but was evidently surprised at my asking about Eliza, which plunged her into the question-it suffused her extravagant blondness with a troubled light, struggling there like a sunrise over snow-of whether she had better, confessing to ignorance, relieve her curiosity or, pretending to knowledge, baffle mine. But mine of course carried the day, for mine showed it could wait, while hers couldn′t; the final superiority of women to men being in fact, I think, that we are more PATIENTLY curious.
“Why, is she in the city?”
“If she isn′t, dear madam,” I replied, “she ought to be. She left Eastridge last evening for parts unknown, and should have got here by midnight.” Oh, how glad I was to let them both in as far as I possibly could! And clearly now I had let Mrs. Chataway, if such she was, in very far indeed.
She stared, but then airily considered. “Oh, well-I guess she′s somewheres.”
“I guess she is!” I replied.
“She hasn′t got here yet-she has so many friends in the city. But she always wants US, and when she does come-!” With which my friend, now so far relieved and agreeably smiling, rubbed together conspicuously the pair of plump subjects of her “cure.”
“You feel then,” I inquired, “that she will come?”
“Oh, I guess she′ll be round this afternoon. We wouldn′t forgive her-!”
“Ah, I′m afraid we MUST forgive her!” I was careful to declare. “But I′ll come back on the chance.”
“Any message then?”
“Yes, please say her nephew from Eastridge-!”
“Oh, her nephew-!”
“Her nephew. She′ll understand. I′ll come back,” I repeated. “But I′ve got to find her!”
And, as in the fever of my need, I turned and sped away.
I roamed, I quite careered about, in those uptown streets, but instinctively and confidently westward. I felt, I don′t know why, miraculously sure of some favoring chance and as if I were floating in the current of success. I was on the way to our reward, I was positively on the way to Paris, and New York itself, vast and glittering and roaring, much noisier even than the Works at their noisiest, but with its old rich thrill of the Art League days again in the air, was already almost Paris for me-so that when I at last fidgeted into the Park, where you get so beautifully away from the town, it was surely the next thing to Europe, and in fact HAD to be, since it′s the very antithesis of Eastridge. I regularly revelled in that sense that Eliza couldn′t have done a better thing for us than just not be, that morning, where it was supremely advisable she should have been. If she had had two grains of sense she would have put in an appearance at the Chataways′ with the lark, or at least with the manicure, who seems there almost as early stirring. Or rather, really, she would have reported herself as soon as their train, that of the “guilty couple,” got in; no matter how late in the evening. It was at any rate actually uplifting to realize that I had got thus, in three minutes, the pull of her in regard to her great New York friends. My eye, as Lorraine says, how she HAS, on all this ground of those people, been piling it on! If Maria, who has so bowed her head, gets any such glimpse of what her aunt has been making her bow it to-well, I think I shall then entertain something of the human pity for Eliza, that I found myself, while I walked about, fairly entertaining for my sister.
What were they, what ARE they, the Chataways, anyhow? I don′t even yet know, I confess; but now I don′t want to-I don′t care a hang, having no further use for them whatever. But on one of the Park benches, in the golden morning, the wonderment added, I remember, to my joy, for we hadn′t, Lorraine and I, been the least bit overwhelmed about them: Lorraine only pretending a little, with her charming elfish art, that she occasionally was, in order to see how far Eliza would go. Well, that brilliant woman HAD gone pretty far for us, truly, if, after all, they were only in the manicure line. She was a-doing of it, as Lorraine says, my massive lady was, in the “parlor” where I don′t suppose it′s usually done; and aren′t there such places, precisely, AS Manicure Parlors, where they do nothing else, or at least are supposed to? Oh, I do hope, for the perfection of it, that this may be what Eliza has kept from us! Otherwise, by all the gods, it′s just a boarding-house: there was exactly the smell in the hall, THE boarding-house smell, that pervaded my old greasy haunt of the League days: that boiled atmosphere that seems to belong at once, confusedly, to a domestic “wash” and to inferior food-as if the former were perhaps being prepared in the saucepan and the latter in the tubs.
There also came back to me, I recollect, that note of Mrs. Chataway′s queer look at me on my saying I was Eliza′s nephew-the droll effect of her making on her side a discovery about ME. Yes, she made it, and as against me, of course, against all of us, at sight of me; so that if Eliza has bragged at Eastridge about New York, she has at least bragged in New York about Eastridge. I didn′t clearly, for Mrs. Chataway, come up to the brag-or perhaps rather didn′t come down to it: since I dare say the poor lady′s consternation meant simply that my aunt has confessed to me but as an unconsidered trifle, a gifted child at the most; or as young and handsome and dashing at the most, and not as-well, as what I am. Whatever I am, in any case, and however awkward a document as nephew to a girlish aunt, I believe I really tasted of the joy of life in its highest intensity when, at the end of twenty minutes of the Park, I suddenly saw my absurd presentiment of a miracle justified.
I could of course scarce believe my eyes when, at the turn of a quiet alley, pulling up to gape, I recognized in a young man brooding on a bench ten yards off the precious personality of Harry Goward! There he languished alone, our feebler fugitive, handed over to me by a mysterious fate and a well-nigh incredible hazard. There is certainly but one place in all New York where the stricken deer may weep-or even, for that matter, the hart ungalled play; the wonder of my coincidence shrank a little, that is, before the fact that when young ardor or young despair wishes to commune with immensity it can ONLY do so either in a hall bedroom or in just this corner, practically, where I pounced on my prey. To sit down, in short, you′ve GOT to sit there; there isn′t another square inch of the whole place over which you haven′t got, as everything shrieks at you, to step lively. Poor Goward, I could see at a glance, wanted very much to sit down-looked indeed very much as if he wanted never, NEVER again to get up.
I hovered there-I couldn′t help it, a bit gloatingly-before I pounced; and yet even when he became aware of me, as he did in a minute, he didn′t shift his position by an inch, but only took me and my dreadful meaning, with his wan stare, as a part of the strange burden of his fate. He didn′t seem even surprised to speak of; he had waked up-premising his brief, bewildered delirium-to the sense that something NATURAL must happen, and even to the fond hope that something natural WOULD; and I was simply the form in which it was happening. I came nearer, I stood before him; and he kept up at me the oddest stare-which was plainly but the dumb yearning that I would explain, explain! He wanted everything told him-but every single thing; as if, after a tremendous fall, or some wild parabola through the air, the effect of a violent explosion under his feet, he had landed at a vast distance from his starting-point and required to know where he was. Well, the charming thing was that this affected me as giving the very sharpest point to the idea that, in asking myself how I should deal with him, I had already so vividly entertained.