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During the days immediately following George Eveleth's death the two women who loved him found themselves separated by the very quality of their grief. While Diane's heart was clamorous with remorse, the mother's was poignantly calm. It was generally remarked, in the Franco-American circles where the tragedy was talked of, that Mrs. Eveleth displayed unexpected strength of character. It was a matter of common knowledge that she shrank from none of the terrible details it was necessary to supervise, and that she was capable of giving her attention to her son's practical affairs.
It was not till a fortnight had passed that the two women came face to face alone. The few occasions on which they had met hitherto had been those of solemn public mourning, when the great questions between them necessarily remained untouched. The desire to keep apart was common to both, for neither was sufficiently mistress of herself to be ready for a meeting.
The first move came from Diane. During her long, speechless days of self-upbraiding certain thoughts had been slowly forming themselves into resolutions; but it was on impulse rather than reflection that, at last, she summoned up strength to knock at Mrs. Eveleth's door.
She entered timidly, expecting to find some manifestation of grief similar to her own. She was surprised, therefore, to see her mother-in-law sitting at her desk, with a number of businesslike papers before her. She held a pencil between her fingers, and was evidently in the act of adding up long rows of figures.
"Oh, come in," she said, briefly, as Diane appeared. "Excuse me a minute. Sit down."
Diane seated herself by an open window looking out on the garden. It was a hot morning toward the end of June, and from the neighboring streets came the dull rumble of Paris. Beyond the garden, through an opening, she could see a procession of carriages--probably a wedding on its way to Sainte-Clotilde. It was her first realizing glimpse of the outside world since that gray morning when she had driven home alone, and the very fact that it could be pursuing its round indifferent to her calamity impelled her to turn her gaze away.
It was then that she had time to note the changes wrought in Mrs. Eveleth; and it was like finding winter where she expected no more than the first genial touch of autumn. The softnesses of lingering youth had disappeared, stricken out by the hard, straight lines of gravity. Never having known her mother-in-law as other than a woman of fashion, Diane was awed by this dignified, sorrowing matron, who carried the sword of motherhood in her heart.
It was a long time before Mrs. Eveleth laid her pencil down and raised her head. For a few minutes neither had the power of words, but it was Diane who spoke at last.
"I can understand," she faltered, "that you don't want to see me; but I've come to tell you that I'm going away."
"You're going away? Where?"
The words were spoken gently and as if in some absence of mind. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Eveleth was scarcely thinking of Diane's words--she was so intent on the poor little, tear-worn face before her. She had always known that Diane's attractions were those of coloring and vivacity, and now that she had lost these she was like an extinguished lamp.
"I haven't made up my mind yet," Diane replied, "but I want you to know that you'll be freed from my presence."
"What makes you think I want to be--freed?"
"You must know that I killed George. You said that night that his blood would be on my head--and it is."
"If I said that, I spoke under the stress of terror and excitement--"
"You needn't try to take back the words; they were quite true."
"True in what sense?"
"In almost every sense; certainly in every sense that's vital. If it hadn't been for me, George would be here now."
"It's never wise to speculate on what might have happened if it hadn't been for us. There's no end to the useless torture we can inflict on ourselves in that way."
"I don't think there ought to be an end to it."
"Have you anything in particular to reproach yourself with?"
"That means, then, that there's no one incident--or person--I didn't know but--" She hesitated, and Diane took up the sentence.
"You didn't know but what I had given George specific reason for his act. I may as well tell you that I never did--at least not in the sense in which you mean it. George always knew that I loved him, and that I was true to him. He trusted me, and was justified in doing so. It wasn't that. It was the whole thing--the whole life. There was nothing worthy in it from the beginning to the end. I played with fire, and while George knew it was only playing, it was fire all the same."
"But you say you were never--burnt."
"If I wasn't, others were. I led men on till they thought--till they thought--I don't know how to say it--"
"Till they thought you should have led them further?"
"Precisely; and Bienville was one of them. It wasn't entirely his fault. I allowed him to think--to think--oh, all sorts of things!--and then when I was tired of him, I turned him into ridicule. I took advantage of his folly to make him the laughing-stock of Paris; and to avenge himself he lied. He said I had been his--No; I can't tell you."
"I understand. You needn't tell me. You needn't tell me any more."
"There isn't much more to tell that I can put into words. It was always--just like that--just as it was with Bienville. He wasn't the only one. I made coquetry a game--but a game in which I cheated. I was never fair to any of them. It's only the fact that the others were more honorable than Bienville that's kept what has happened now from having happened long ago. It might have come at any time. I thought it a fine thing to be able to trifle with passion. I didn't know I was only trifling with death. Oh, if I had been a good woman, George would have been with us still!"
"You mustn't blame yourself," the mother-in-law said, speaking with some difficulty, "for more than your own share of our troubles. I want to talk to you quite frankly, and tell you things you've never known. The beginning of the sorrows that have come to us dates very far back--back to a time before you were born."
Diane's brown eyes, swimming in tears, opened wide in a sort of mournful curiosity.
"I admit," Mrs. Eveleth continued, "that in the first hours of our--our bereavement I had some such thoughts about you as you've just expressed. It seemed to me that if you had lived differently, George might have been spared to us. It took reflection to show me that if you had lived differently, George himself wouldn't have been satisfied. The life you led was the one he cared for--the one I taught him to care for. The origin of the wrong has to be traced back to me."
"To you?" Diane uttered the words in increasing wonder. It was strange that a first role in the drama could be played by any one but herself.
"I've always thought it a little odd," Mrs. Eveleth observed, after a brief pause, "that you've never been interested to hear about our family."
"I didn't know there was anything to tell," Diane answered, innocently.
"I suppose there isn't, from your European point of view; but, as we Americans see things, there's a good deal that's significant. Foreigners care so little about who or what we are, so long as we have money."
Diane raised her hand in a gesture of deprecation, intimating that such was not her attitude of mind.
"And I've never wanted to bore you with what, after all, wasn't necessary for you to hear. I shouldn't do so now if it had not become important. There's a great deal to settle and arrange."
"I can understand that there must be business affairs," Diane murmured, for the sake of saying something.
"Exactly; and in order to make them clear to you, I must take you a little further back into our history than you've ever gone before. I want you to see how much more responsible I am than you for our calamity. You were born into this life of Paris, while I came into it of my own accord. You did nothing but yield naturally to the influences around you, while I accepted them after having been fully warned. If you knew a little more of our American ideals I should find it easier to explain."
"I should like to hear about them," Diane said, sympathetically. The new interest was beginning to take her out of herself.
"My husband and I," Mrs. Eveleth went on again, "belong to that New York element which dates back to the time when the city was New Amsterdam, and the State, the New Netherlands. To you that means nothing, but in America it tells much. I was Naomi de Ruyter; my husband, on his mother's side, was a Van Tromp."
"Really?" Diane murmured, feeling that Mrs. Eveleth's tone of pride required a response. "I know there's a Mr. van Tromp here--the American banker."
"He is of the same family as my husband's mother. For nearly three hundred years they've lived on the island of Manhattan, and seen their farms and pastures grow into the second city in the world. The world has poured in on them, literally in millions. It would have submerged them if there hadn't been something in that old stock that couldn't be kept down. However high the tide rose, they floated on the top. My people were thrifty and industrious. They worked hard, saved money, and lived in simple ways. They cared little for pleasure, for beauty, or for any of the forms of art; but, on the contrary, they lived for work, for religion, for learning, and all the other high and serious pursuits. It was fine; but I hated it."
"I longed to get away from it, and when I married I persuaded my husband to give up his profession and his home in order to establish himself here."
"But surely you can't regret that? You were free."
"Only the selfish and the useless are ever free. Those who are worth anything in this world are bound by a hundred claims upon them. They must either stay caught in the meshes of love and duty, or wrench themselves away--and that's what I did. Perhaps I suffered less than many people in doing the same thing; but I cannot say that I haven't suffered at all."
"But you've had a happy life--till now."
"I've had what I wanted--which may be happiness, or may not be."
"I've heard that you were very much admired. Madame de Nohant has told me that when you appeared at the Tuileries, no one was more graceful, not even the Empress herself."
"I had what I wanted," Mrs. Eveleth repeated, with a sigh. "I don't deny that I enjoyed it; and yet I question now if I did right. When my husband died, and George was a little boy, my friends made one last effort to induce me to take him back, and bring him up in his own country. I ignored their opinions, because all their views were so different from mine. I was young and independent, and enamoured of the life I had begun to lead. I had scruples of conscience from time to time; but when George grew up and developed the tastes I had bred in him, I let other considerations go. I was pleased with his success in the little world of Paris, just as I had been flattered by my own. When he fell in love with you I urged him to marry you, not because of anything in yourself, but because you were Mademoiselle de la Ferronaise, the last of an illustrious family. I looked upon the match as a useful alliance for him and for me. I encouraged George in extravagance. I encouraged him when he began to live in a style far more expensive than anything to which he had been accustomed. I encouraged him when he built this house. I wanted to impress you; I wanted you to see that the American could give you a more splendid home than any European you were likely to marry, however exalted his rank. I was not without fears that George was spending too much money; but we've always had plenty for whatever we wanted to do; and so I let him go on when I should have stopped him. It was my vanity. It wasn't his fault. He inherited a large fortune; and if I had only brought him up wisely, it would have been enough."
"And wasn't it enough?"
In spite of her growing dread, Diane brought out the question firmly. Mrs. Eveleth sat one long minute motionless, with hands clasped, with lips parted, and with suspended breath.
The monosyllable seemed to fill the room. It echoed and re-echoed in Diane's ears like the boom of a cannon. While her outward vision took in such details as the despair in Mrs. Eveleth's face, the folds of crape on her gown, the Watteau picture on the panel of moss-green and gold that formed the background, all the realities of life seemed to be dissolving into chaos, as the glories of the sunset sink into a black and formless mass. When Mrs. Eveleth spoke again, her voice sounded as though it came from far away.
"I want to take all the blame upon myself. If it hadn't been for me, George would never have gone to such extremes."
Diane spoke not so much from the desire to speak as from the necessity of forcing her reeling intelligence back to the world of fact.
"I'm afraid there's no other word for it."
"Do you mean that there are debts?"
"A great many debts."
"Can't they be paid?"
"Most of them can be paid--perhaps all; but when that is done I'm afraid there will be very little left."
"But surely we haven't lived so extravagantly as that. I know I've spent a great deal of money--"
"It hasn't been altogether the style of living. When my poor boy saw that he was going beyond his means he tried to recoup himself by speculation. Do you know what that is?"
"I know it's something by which people lose money."
"He had no experience of anything of the kind, and his men of business tell me he went into it wildly. He had that optimistic temperament which always believes that the next thing will be a success, even though the present one is a failure. Then, too, he fell into the hands of unscrupulous men, who made him think that great fortunes were to be made out of what they call wildcat schemes, when all the time they were leading him to ruin."
Ruin! The word appealed to Diane's memory and imagination alike. It came to her from her remotest childhood, when she could remember hearing it applied to her grandfather, the old Comte de la Ferronaise. After that she could recollect leaving the great chateau in which she was born, and living with her parents, first in one European capital, and then in another. Finally they settled for a few years in Ireland, her mother's country, where both her parents died. During all this time, as well as in the subsequent years in a convent at Auteuil, she was never free from the sense of ruin hanging over her. Though she understood well enough that her way of escape lay in making a rich marriage, it was impressed upon her that the meagreness of her dot would make her efforts in this direction difficult. When, within a few months of leaving the convent, she was asked by George Eveleth to become his wife, it seemed as if she had reached the end of her cares. She had the less scruple in accepting what he had to give in that she honestly liked the generous, easy-going man who lived but to gratify her whims. During the four years of her married life she had spent money, not merely for the love of spending, but from sheer joy in the sense that Poverty, the arch-enemy, had been defeated; and lo! he was springing at her again.
"Ruin!" she echoed, when Mrs. Eveleth had let fall the word. "Do you mean that we're--ruined?"
"It depends on how you look at it. You will always have your own small fortune, on which you can live with economy."
"But you will have yours, too."
Mrs. Eveleth smiled faintly.
"No; I'm afraid that's gone. It was in George's hands, and I can see he tried to increase it for me, by doing with it--as he did with his own. I'm not blaming him. The worst of which he can be accused is a lack of judgment."
"But there's this house!" Diane urged, "and all this furniture!--and these pictures!"
She glanced up at the Watteau, the Boucher, and the Fragonard, which gave the key to the decorations of the dainty boudoir. The faint smile still lingered on Mrs. Eveleth's lips, as it lingers on the face of the dead.
"There'll be very little left," she repeated.
"But I don't understand," Diane protested, with a perplexed movement of the hand across her brow. "I don't know much about business, but if it were explained to me I think I could follow."
"Come and sit beside me at the desk," Mrs. Eveleth suggested. "You will understand better if you see the figures just as they stand."
She went over the main points, one by one, using the same untechnical simplicity of language which George's men of business had employed with herself. The facts could be stated broadly but comprehensively. When all was settled the Eveleth estate would have disappeared. Diane would possess her small inheritance, which was a thing apart. Mrs. Eveleth would have a few jewels and other minor personal belongings, but nothing more. The very completeness of the story rendered it easy in the telling, though the largeness of the facts made it impossible for Diane to take them in. It was an almost unreasonable tax on credulity to attempt to think of the tall, fragile woman sitting before her, with luxurious nurture in every pose of the figure, in every habit of the mind, as penniless. It was trying to account for daylight without a sun.
"It can't be!" Diane cried, when she had done her best to weigh the facts just placed before her.
Mrs. Eveleth shook her head, the glimmering smile fixed on her lips as on a mask.
"It is so, dear, I'm afraid. We must do our best to get used to it."
"I shall never get used to it," Diane cried, springing to her feet--"never, never!"
"It will be hard for you to do without all you've had--when you've had so much--but--"
"Oh, it isn't that," Diane broke in, fiercely. "It isn't for me. I can do well enough. It's for you."
"Don't worry about me, dear. I can work."
The words were spoken in a matter-of-fact tone, but Diane recoiled at them as at a sword-thrust.
It was the last touch, not only of the horror of the situation, but of its ludicrous irony.
"I can work, dear," Mrs. Eveleth repeated, with the poignant tranquillity that smote Diane more cruelly than grief. "There are many things I could do--"
"Oh, don't!" Diane wailed, with pleading gestures of the hands. "Oh, don't! I can't bear it. Don't say such things. They kill me. There must be some mistake. All that money can't have gone. Even if it was only a few hundred thousand francs, it would be something. I will not believe it. It's too soon to judge. I've heard it took a long time to settle up estates. How can they have done it yet?"
"They haven't. They've only seen its possibilities--and impossibilities."
"I will never believe it," Diane burst out again. "I will see those men. I will tell them. I am positive that it cannot be. Such injustice would not be permitted. There must be laws--there must be something--to prevent such outrage--especially on you!" She spoke vehemently, striding to and fro in the little room, and brushing back from time to time the heavy brown hair that in her excitement fell in disordered locks on her forehead. "It's too wicked. It's too monstrous. It's intolerable. God doesn't allow such things to happen on earth, otherwise He wouldn't be God! No, no; you cannot make me think that such things happen. You work! The Mater Dolorosa herself was not called upon to bear such humiliation. If God reigns, as they say He does--"
"But, Diane dear," Mrs. Eveleth interrupted, gently, "isn't it true that we owe it to George's memory to bear our troubles bravely?"
"I'm ready to bear anything bravely--but this."
"But isn't this the case, above all others, in which you and I should be unflinching? Doesn't any lack of courage on our parts imply a reflection on him?"
"That's true," Diane said, stopping abruptly.
"I don't know how far you honor George's memory--?"
"George's memory? Why shouldn't I honor it?"
"I didn't know. Some women--after what you've just discovered--"
"I am not--some women! I am Diane Eveleth. Whatever George did I shared it, and I share it still."
"Then you forgive him?"
"Forgive him?--I?--forgive him? No! What have I to forgive? Anything he did he did for me and in order to have the more to give me--and I love him and honor him as I never did till now."
Mrs. Eveleth rose and stood unsteadily beside her desk.
"God bless you for saying that, Diane."
"There's no reason why He should bless me for saying anything so obvious."
"It isn't obvious to me, Diane; and you must let me bless you--bless you with the mother's blessing, which, I think, must be next to God's."
Then opening her arms wide, she sobbed the one word "Come!" and they had at last the comfort, dear to women, of weeping in each other's arms.
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