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Craig did not leave Margaret more precipitately than he had intended; that would have been impossible, as he always strove to make his departures seem as startling and mysterious as a dematerialization. But he did leave much sooner than he had intended, and with only a small part of what he had planned to say said. He withdrew to think it over; and in the long walk from the Severences to his lodgings in the Wyandotte he did think it over with his usual exhaustive thoroughness.
He had been entirely sincere in his talk with Margaret. He was a shrewd judge both of human nature and of situations, and he saw that a marriage between Margaret and Grant would be in every way admirable. He appreciated the fine qualities of both, and realized that they would have an uncommonly good chance of hitting it off tranquilly together. Of all their qualities of mutual adaptability the one that impressed him most deeply was the one at which he was always scoffing--what he called their breeding. Theoretically, and so far as his personal practice went, he genuinely despised "breeding"; but he could not uproot a most worshipful reverence for it, a reverence of which he was ashamed. He had no "breeding" himself; he was experiencing in Washington a phase of life which was entirely new to him, and it had developed in him the snobbish instincts that are the rankest weeds in the garden of civilization. Their seeds fly everywhere, are sown broadcast, threaten the useful plants and the flowers incessantly, contrive to grow, to flourish even, in the desert places. Craig had an instinct against this plague; but he was far too self-confident to suspect that it could enter his own gates and attack his own fields. He did not dream that the chief reason why he thought Grant and Margaret so well suited to each other was the reason of snobbishness; that he was confusing their virtues with their vices; and was admiring them for qualities which were blighting their usefulness and even threatening to make sane happiness impossible for either. It was not their real refinement that he admired, and, at times, envied; it was their showy affectations of refinement, those gaudy pretenses that appeal to the crude human imagination, like uniforms and titles.
It had not occurred to him that Margaret might possibly be willing to become his wife. He would have denied it as fiercely to himself as to others, but at bottom he could not have thought of himself as at ease in any intimate relation with her. He found her beautiful physically, but much too fine and delicate to be comfortable with. He could be brave, bold, insolent with her, in an impersonal way; but personally he could not have ventured the slightest familiarity, now that he really appreciated "what a refined, delicate woman is."
But the easiest impression for a woman to create upon a man--or a man upon a woman--is the impression of being in love. We are so conscious of our own merits, we are so eager to have them appreciated, that we will exaggerate or misinterpret any word or look, especially from a person of the opposite sex, into a tribute to them. When Craig pleaded for Grant and Margaret, moved by his eloquent sincerity, dropped her eyes and colored in shame for her plans about him, in such black contrast with his frank generosity, he noted her change of expression, and instantly his vanity flashed into his mind: "Can it be that she loves me?"
The more he reflected upon it the clearer it became to him that she did. Yes, here was being repeated the old story of the attraction of extremes. "She isn't so refined that appreciation of real manhood has been refined out of her," thought he. "And why shouldn't she love me? What does all this nonsense of family and breeding amount to, anyway?" His mind was in great confusion. At one moment he was dismissing the idea of such delicateness, such super-refined super-sensitiveness being taken with a man of his imperfect bringing-up and humble origin. The next moment his self- esteem was bobbing again, was jauntily assuring him that he was "a born king" and, therefore, would naturally be discovered and loved by a truly princess--"And, by Heaven, she is a princess of the blood royal! Those eyes, those hands, those slender feet!" Having no great sense of humor he did not remind himself here how malicious nature usually deprives royalty of the outward marks of aristocracy to bestow them upon peasant.
At last he convinced himself that she was actually burning with love for him, that she had lifted the veil for an instant--had lifted it deliberately to encourage him to speak for himself. And he was not repelled by this forwardness, was, on the contrary, immensely flattered. It is the custom for those of high station to reassure those of lower, to make them feel that they may draw near without fear. A queen seeking a consort among princes always begins the courting. A rich girl willing to marry a poor man lets him see she will not be offended if he offers to add himself to her possessions. Yes, it would be quite consistent with sex- custom, with maidenly modesty, for a Severence to make the first open move toward a Josh Craig.
"But do I want her?"
That was another question. He admired her, he would be proud to have such a wife. "She's just the sort I need, to adorn the station I'm going to have." But what of his dreams of family life, of easy, domestic undress, which she would undoubtedly find coarse and vulgar? "It would be like being on parade all the time--she's been used to that sort of thing her whole life, but it'd make me miserable." Could he afford a complete, a lifelong sacrifice of comfort to gratify a vanity?
He had devoted much thought to the question of marriage. On the one hand he wanted money; for in politics, with the people so stupid and so fickle, a man without an independence, at least, would surely find himself, sooner or later, in a position where he must choose between retiring and submitting himself to some powerful interest--either a complete sale, or a mortgage hardly less galling to pride, no less degrading to self-respect. On the other hand he wanted a home--a wife like his mother, domestic, attentive, looking out for his comfort and his health, herself taking care of the children. And he had arrived at a compromise. He would marry a girl out West somewhere, a girl of some small town, brought up somewhat as he had been brought up, not shocked by what Margaret Severance would regard as his vulgarities--a woman with whom he felt equal and at ease. He would select such a woman, provided, in addition, with some fortune--several hundred thousands, at least, enough to make him independent. Such had been his plan. But now that he had seen Margaret, had come to appreciate her through studying her as a possible wife for his unattached friend Arkwright, now that he had discovered her secret, her love for him--how could he fit her into his career? Was it possible? Was it wise?
"The best is none too good for me," said he to himself swaggeringly. No doubt about it--no, indeed, not the slightest. But--well, everybody wouldn't realize this, as yet. And it must be admitted that those mere foppish, inane nothings did produce a seeming of difference. Indeed, it must even be admitted that the way Margaret had been brought up would make it hard for her, with her sensitive, delicate nerves, to bear with him if she really knew him. A hot wave passed over his body at the thought. "How ashamed I'd be to have her see my wardrobe. I really must brace up in the matter of shirts, and in the quality of underclothes and socks." No, she probably would be shocked into aversion if she really knew him--she, who had been surrounded by servants in livery all her life; who had always had a maid to dress her, to arrange a delicious bath for her every morning and every evening, to lay out, from a vast and thrilling store of delicate clothing, the fresh, clean, fine, amazingly costly garments that were to have the honor and the pleasure of draping that aristocratic body of hers. "Why, her maid," thought he, "is of about the same appearance and education as my aunts. Old Williams is a far more cultured person than my uncles or brothers-in-law." Of course, Selina and Williams were menials, while his male kin were men and his female relatives women, "and all of them miles ahead of anything in this gang when it comes to the real thing--character." Still, so far as appearances went--"I'm getting to be a damned, cheap snob!" cried he aloud. "To hell with the whole crowd! I want nothing to do with them!"
But Margaret, in her beautiful garments, diffusing perfume just as her look and manner diffused the aroma of gentle breeding--The image of her was most insidiously alluring; he could not banish it. "And, damn it all, isn't she just a human being? What's become of my common-sense that I treat these foolish trifles as if they were important?"
Grant Arkwright came while the debate was still on. He soon noted that something was at work in Josh's mind to make him so silent and glum, so different from his usual voluble, flamboyant self. "What's up, Josh? What deviltry are you plotting now to add to poor old Stillwater's nervous indigestion?"
"I'm thinking about marriage," said Craig, lighting a cigarette and dropping into the faded magnificence of an ex-salon chair.
"Good business!" exclaimed Arkwright.
"It's far more important that you get married than that I do," explained Craig. "At present you don't amount to a damn. You're like one of those twittering swallows out there. As a married man you'd at least have the validity that attaches to every husband and father."
"If I could find the right girl," said Grant.
"I thought I had found her for you," continued Craig. "But, on second thoughts, I've about decided to take her for myself."
"Oh, you have?" said Arkwright, trying to be facetious of look and tone.
"Yes," said Josh, in his abrupt, decisive way. He threw the cigarette into the empty fireplace and stood up. "I think I'll take your advice and marry Miss Severance."
"Really!" mocked Grant; but he was red with anger, was muttering under his breath, "Insolent puppy!"
"Yes, I think she'll do." Craig spoke as if his verdict were probably overpartial to her. "It's queer about families and the kind of children they have. Every once in a while you'll find a dumb ass of a man whose brain will get to boiling with liquor or some other ferment, and it'll incubate an idea, a real idea. It's that way about paternity--or, rather, maternity. Now who'd think that inane, silly mother of Margaret's could have brought such a person as she is into the world?"
"Mrs. Severence is a very sweet and amiable lady," said Grant coldly.
"Pooh!" scoffed Craig. "She's a nothing--a puff of wind--a nit. Such as she, by the great gross, wouldn't count one."
"I doubt if it would be--wise--politically, I mean--for you to marry a woman of--of the fashionable set." Grant spoke judicially, with constraint in his voice.
"You're quite right there," answered Craig promptly. "Still, it's a temptation....I've been reconsidering the idea since I discovered that she loves me."
Grant leaped to his feet. "Loves you!" he shouted. Josh smiled calmly. "Loves me," said he. "Why not, pray?"
"I--I--I--don't know," answered Grant weakly.
"Oh, yes, you do. You think I'm not good enough for her--as if this were not America, but Europe." And he went on loftily: "You ought to consider what such thoughts mean, as revelations of your own character, Grant."
"You misunderstood me entirely," protested Grant, red and guilty. "Didn't I originally suggest her to you?"
"But you didn't really mean it," retorted Craig with a laugh which Grant thought the quintessence of impertinence. "You never dreamed she'd fall in love with me."
"Josh," said Grant, "I wish you wouldn't say that sort of thing. It's not considered proper in this part of the country for a gentleman to speak out that way about women."
"What's there to be ashamed of in being in love? Besides, aren't you my best friend, the one I confide everything to?"
"You confide everything to everybody."
Craig looked amused. "There are only two that can keep a secret," said he, "nobody and everybody. I trust either the one or the other, and neither has ever betrayed me."
"To go back to the original subject: I'd prefer you didn't talk to me in that way about that particular young lady."
"Why? ... Because you're in love with her, yourself?"
Grant silently stared at the floor.
"Poor old chap," said Craig sympathetically.
Arkwright winced, started to protest, decided it was just as well to let Craig think what he pleased at that juncture.
"Poor old chap!" repeated Josh. "Well, you needn't despair. It's true she isn't in love with you and is in love with me. But if I keep away from her and discourage her it'll soon die out. Women of that sort of bringing up aren't capable of any enduring emotion-- unless they have outside aid in keeping it alive."
"No, thank you," said Arkwright bitterly. "I decline to be put in the position of victim of your generosity. Josh, let me tell you, your notion that she's in love with you is absurd. I'd advise you not to go round confiding it to people, in your usual fashion. You'll make yourself a laughing stock."
"I've told no one but you," protested Craig.
"Have you seen any one else since you got the idea?"
"No, I haven't," he admitted with a laugh. "Now that you've told me the state of your heart I'll not speak of her feeling for me. I give you my word of honor on that. I understand how a chap like you, full of false pride, would be irritated at having people know he'd married a woman who was once in love with some one else. For of course you'll marry her."
"I'm not sure of that. I haven't your sublime self-confidence, you know."
"Oh, I'll arrange it," replied Craig, full of enthusiasm. "In fact, I had already begun, this very afternoon, when she let me see that she loved me and, so, brought me up standing."
"Damn it, man, don't say that!" cried Grant, all afire. "I tell you it's crazy, conceited nonsense."
"All right, all right, old chap," soothed Josh.
And it frenzied Arkwright to see that he said this merely to spare the feelings of an unrequited lover, not at all because he had begun to doubt Margaret's love. "Come down to dinner and let's talk no more about it," said Grant, with a great effort restraining himself. "I tell you, Josh, you make it mighty hard sometimes for me to remember what I owe you."
Craig wheeled on him with eyes that flashed and pierced. "My young friend," said he, "you owe me nothing. And let me say to you, once for all, you are free to break with me at any instant--you or any other man. Whenever I find I'm beginning to look on a man as necessary to me I drop him--break with him. I am necessary to my friends, not they to me. I like you, but be careful how you get impertinent with me."
Craig eyed him fiercely and steadily until Arkwright's gaze dropped. Then he laughed friendly. "Come along, Grant," said he. "You're a good fellow, and I'll get you the girl." And he linked his arm in Arkwright's and took up another phase of himself as the topic of his monologue.
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