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A few days afterward--it was a Wednesday--Pauline came up to town early in the afternoon, as she had an appointment with the dressmaker and was going to the opera in the evening. At the dressmaker's, while she waited for a fitter to return from the workroom, she glanced at a newspaper spread upon the table so that its entire front page was in view. It was filled with an account of how the Woolens Monopoly had, in that bitter winter, advanced prices twenty to thirty-five per cent. all along the line. From the center of the page stared a picture of John Dumont--its expression peculiarly arrogant and sinister.
She read the head-lines only, then turned from the table. But on the drive up-town she stopped the carriage at the Savoy and sent the footman to the news-stand to get the paper. She read the article through--parts of it several times.
She had Langdon and Honoria Longview at dinner that night; by indirect questioning she drew him on to confirm the article, to describe how the Woolens Monopoly was "giving the country an old-fashioned winter." On the way to the opera she was ashamed of her ermine wrap enfolding her from the slightest sense of the icy air. She did not hear the singers, was hardly conscious of her surroundings. As they left the Metropolitan she threw back her wrap and sat with her neck bared to the intense cold.
"I say, don't do that!" protested Langdon.
She reluctantly drew the fur about her. But when she had dropped him and then Honoria and was driving on up the avenue alone, she bared her shoulders and arms again--"like a silly child," she said. But it gave her a certain satisfaction, for she felt like one who has a secret store of food in time of famine and feasts upon it. And she sat unprotected.
"Is Mr. Dumont in?" she asked the butler as he closed the door of their palace behind her.
"I think he is, ma'am."
"Please tell him I'd like to see him--in the library."
She had to wait only three or four minutes before he came--in smoking jacket and slippers. It was long since she had looked at him so carefully as she did then; and she noted how much grosser he was, the puffs under his eyes, the lines of cruelty that were coming out strongly with autocratic power and the custom of receiving meek obedience. And her heart sank. "Useless," she said to herself. "Utterly useless!" And the incident of the necklace and its reminders of all she had suffered from him and through him came trooping into her mind; and it seemed to her that she could not speak, could not even remain in the room with him.
He dropped into a chair before the open fire. "Horribly cold, isn't it?"
She moved uneasily. He slowly lighted a cigar and began to smoke it, his attitude one of waiting.
"I've been thinking," she began at last--she was looking reflectively into the fire--"about your great talent for business and finance. You formed your big combination, and because you understand everything about wool you employ more men, you pay higher wages, and you make the goods better than ever, and at less cost."
"Between a third and a half cheaper," he said. "We employ thirty thousand more men, and since we settled the last strike"--a grim smile that would have meant a great deal to her had she known the history of that strike and how hard he had fought before he gave in--"we've paid thirty per cent. higher wages. Yet the profits are--well, you can imagine."
"And you've made millions for yourself and for those in with you."
"I haven't developed my ideas for nothing."
She paused again. It was several minutes before she went on:
"When a doctor or a man of science or a philosopher makes a discovery that'll be a benefit to the world"--she looked at him suddenly, earnest, appealing--"he gives it freely. And he gets honor and fame. Why shouldn't you do that, John?" She had forgotten herself in her subject.
He smiled into the fire--hardly a day passed that he did not have presented to him some scheme for relieving him of the burden of his riches; here was another, and from such an unexpected quarter!
"You could be rich, too. We spend twenty, fifty times as much as we can possibly enjoy; and you have more than we could possibly spend. Why shouldn't a man with financial genius be like men with other kinds of genius? Why should he be the only one to stay down on the level with dull, money-grubbing, sordid kinds of people? Why shouldn't he have ideals?"
He made no reply. Indeed, so earnest was she that she did not give him time, but immediately went on:
"Just think, John! Instead of giving out in these charities and philanthropies--I never did believe in them--they're bound to be more or less degrading to the people that take, and when it's so hard to help a friend with money without harming him, how much harder it must be to help strangers. Instead of those things, why not be really great? Just think, John, how the world would honor you and how you would feel, if you used your genius to make the necessaries cheap for all these fellow-beings of ours who have such a hard time getting on. That would be real superiority--and our life now is so vain, so empty. It's brutal, John."
"What do you propose?" he asked, curious as always when a new idea was presented to him. And this was certainly new--apparently, philanthropy without expense.
"You are master. You can do as you please. Why not put your great combine on such a basis that it would bring an honest, just return to you and the others, and would pay the highest possible wages, and would give the people the benefit of what your genius for manufacturing and for finance has made possible? I think we who are so comfortable and never have to think of the necessaries of life forget how much a few cents here and there mean to most people. And the things you control mean all the difference between warmth and cold, between life and death, John!"
As she talked he settled back into his chair, and his face hardened into its unyielding expression. A preposterous project! Just like a good, sentimental woman. Not philanthropy without expense, but philanthropy at the expense both, of his fortune and of his position as a master. To use his brain and his life for those ungrateful people who derided his benefactions as either contributions to "the conscience fund" or as indirect attempts at public bribery! He could not conceal his impatience--though he did not venture to put it into words.
"If we--if you and I, John," she hurried on, leaning toward him in her earnestness, "had something like that to live for, it might come to be very different with us--and--I'm thinking of Gardiner most of all. This'll ruin him some day. No one, no one, can lead this kind of life without being dragged down, without becoming selfish and sordid and cruel."
"You don't understand," he said curtly, without looking at her. "I never heard of such--such sentimentalism."
She winced and was silent, sat watching his bold, strong profile. Presently she said in a changed, strange, strained voice: "What I asked to see you for was--John, won't you put the prices--at least where they were at the beginning of this dreadful winter?"
"Oh--I see!" he exclaimed. "You've been listening to the lies about me."
"Reading," she said, her eyes flashing at the insult in the accusation that she had let people attack him to her.
"Well, reading then," he went on, wondering what he had said that angered her. And he made an elaborate explanation--about "the necessity of meeting fixed charges" which he himself had fixed, about "fair share of prosperity," "everything more expensive," "the country better able to pay," "every one doing as we are," and so on.
She listened closely; she had not come ignorant of the subject, and she penetrated his sophistries. When he saw her expression, saw he had failed to convince her, into, his eyes came the look she understood well--the look that told her she would only infuriate him and bruise herself by flinging herself against the iron of his resolve.
"You must let me attend to my own business," he ended, his tone good-natured, his eyes hard.
She sat staring into the fire for several minutes--from her eyes looked a will as strong as his. Then she rose and, her voice lower than before but vibrating, said: "All round us--here in New York--all over this country--away off in Europe--I can see them--I can feel them--suffering! As you yourself said, it's horribly cold!" She drew herself up and faced him, a light in her eyes before which he visibly shrank. "Yes, it's your business. But it shan't be mine or my boy's!"
And she left the room. In the morning she returned to Dawn Hill and arranged her affairs so that she would be free to go. Not since the spring day, nearly nine years before, when she began that Vergil lesson which ended in a lesson in the pitilessness of consequences that was not yet finished, had her heart been so light, so hopeful. In vain she reminded herself that the doing of this larger duty, so imperative, nevertheless endangered her father and mother. "They will be proud that I'm doing it," she assured herself.
"For Gardiner's sake, as well as for mine, they'll be glad I separated him and myself from this debased life. They will--they must, since it is right!" And already she felt the easing of the bonds that had never failed to cut deeper into the living flesh whenever she had ventured to hope that she was at last growing used to them.
"Free!" she said to herself exultantly. She dared to exult, but she did not dare to express to herself the hopes, the wild, incredible hopes, which the very thought of freedom set to quivering deep down in her, as the first warmth makes the life toss in its slumber in the planted seed.
On Friday she came up to New York late in the afternoon, and in the evening went to the opera--for a last look round. As the lights were lowering for the rise of the curtain on the second act, Leonora and her husband entered the box. She had forgotten inviting them. She gave Leonora the chair in front and took the one behind--Millicent Rowland, whom she herself brought, had the other front seat. As her chair was midway between the two, she was seeing across Leonora's shoulders. Presently Dumont came in and took the chair behind Leonora's and leaned forward, his chin almost touching the slope of her neck as he talked to her in an undertone, she greatly amused or pretending to be.
The light from the stage fell across Leonora's bosom, fell upon a magnificent string of graduated pearls clasped with a huge solitaire beyond question the string the jeweler's clerk had blunderingly shown her. And there was Dumont's heavy, coarse profile outlined against Leonora's cheek and throat, her cynical, sensuous profile showing just beyond.
Open sprang a hundred doors of memory; into Pauline's mind was discharged avalanche after avalanche of dreadful thoughts. "No! No!" she protested. "How infamous to think such things of my best friend!" But she tried in vain to thrust suspicions, accusations, proofs, back into the closets. Instead, she sank under the flood of them--sick and certain.
When the lights went up she said: "I'm feeling badly all at once. I'm afraid I'll have to take you home, Milly."
"Are you ill, dear?" asked Leonora.
"Oh, no--just faint," she replied, in a voice which she succeeded in making fairly natural.
"Please don't move. Stay on--you really must."
The other man--Shenstone--helped her and Millicent with their wraps and accompanied them to their carriage. When she had set Millicent down she drew a long breath of relief. For the first time in seven years her course lay straight before her. "I must be free!" she said. "I must be entirely free--free before the whole world--I and my boy."
The next morning, in the midst of her preparations to take the ten-o'clock limited for the West, her maid brought a note to her--a copy of a National Woolens Company circular to the trade, setting forth that "owing to a gratifying easing in the prices for raw wool, the Company are able to announce and take great pleasure in announcing a ten per cent. reduction." On the margin Dumont had scrawled "To go out to-morrow and to be followed in ten days by fifteen per cent. more. Couldn't resist your appeal." Thus by the sheer luck that had so often supplemented his skill and mitigated his mistakes, he had yielded to her plea just in time to confuse the issue between her and him.
She read the circular and the scrawl with a sinking heart. "Nevertheless, I shall go!" she tried to protest. "True, he won't send out this circular if I do. But what does it matter, one infamy more or less in him? Besides, he will accomplish his purpose in some other way of which I shall not know." But this was only the beginning of the battle. Punishment on punishment for an act which seemed right at the time had made her morbid, distrustful of herself. And she could not conquer the dread lest her longing to be free was blinding her, was luring her on to fresh calamities, involving all whom she cared for, all who cared for her. Whichever way she looked she could see only a choice between wrongs. To stay under the same roof with him or at Dawn Hill--self-respect put that out of the question. To free herself--how could she, when it meant sacrificing her parents and also the thousands shivering under the extortions of his monopoly?
In the end she chose the course that seemed to combine the least evil with the most good. She would go to the Eyrie, and the world and her father and mother would think she was absenting herself from her husband to attend to the bringing up of her boy. She would see even less of Scarborough than she saw when she was last at Saint X.
That afternoon she wrote to Dumont:
Since we had our talk I have found out about Leonora. It is impossible for me to stay here. I shall go West to-morrow. But I shall not go to my father's; because of your circular I shall go to the Eyrie, instead--at least for the present.
Two weeks after she was again settled at the Eyrie, Langdon appeared in Saint X, alleging business at the National Woolens' factories there. He accepted her invitation to stay with her, and devoted himself to Gladys, who took up her flirtation with him precisely where she had dropped it when they bade each the other a mock-mournful good-by five months before. They were so realistic that Pauline came to the satisfying conclusion that her sister-in-law was either in earnest with Langdon or not in earnest with anybody. If she had not been avoiding Scarborough, she would probably have seen Gladys' real game--to use Langdon as a stalking horse for him.
"No doubt Scarborough, like all men, imagines he's above jealousy," Gladys had said to herself, casting her keen eyes over the situation. "But there never was a man who didn't race better with a pace-maker than on an empty track."
Toward the end of Langdon's first week Pauline's suspicions as to one of the objects of his winter trip West were confirmed by his saying quite casually: "Dumont's dropped Fanshaw, and Leonora's talking of the stage. In fact, she's gone abroad to study."
When he was leaving, after nearly three weeks, he asked her when she was coming back East.
"Never--I hope," she said, her fingers playing with the close-cropped curls of her boy standing beside her.
"I fancied so--I fancied so," replied Langdon, his eyes showing that he understood her and that he knew she understood for whom he had asked.
"You are going to stay on--at the Eyrie?"
"I think so, unless something--disquieting--occurs. I've not made up my mind. Fate plays such queer tricks that I've stopped guessing at to-morrow."
"What was it Miss Dumont's friend, Scarborough, quoted from Spinoza at Atwater's the other night? `If a stone, on its way from the sling through the air, could speak, it would say, "How free I am!'" Is that the way you feel?"
There came into Pauline's eyes a look of pain so intense that he glanced away.
"We choose a path blindfold," she said, her tone as light as her look was dark, "and we must go where it goes--there's no other ever afterward."
"But if it leads down?"
"All the paths lead up," she replied with a sad smile. "It's the precipices that lead down."
Gladys joined them and Langdon said to her:
"Well, good-by, Miss Dumont--don't get married till you see me." He patted the boy on the shoulder. "Good-by, Gardiner--remember, we men must always be brave, and gentle with the ladies. Good-by, Mrs. Dumont--keep away from the precipices. And if you should want to come back to us you'll have no trouble in finding us. We're a lot of slow old rotters, and we'll be just where you left us--yawning, and shying at new people and at all new ideas except about clothes, and gossiping about each other." And he was in the auto and off for the station.
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