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Many a time he had pitied a woman for letting him get away from her, when she obviously wished to hold him and failed solely because she did not understand her business. Like every other man, he no sooner began to be attracted by a woman than he began to invest her with a mystery and awe which she either could dissipate by forcing him to see the truth of her commonplaceness or could increase into a power that would enslave him by keeping him agitated and interested and ever satisfied yet ever baffled. But no woman had shown this supreme skill in the art of love--until Dorothy Hallowell. She exasperated him. She fascinated him. She kept him so restless that his professional work was all but neglected. Was it her skill? Was it her folly? Was she simply leading him on and on, guided blindly by woman's instinct to get as much as she could and to give as little as she dared? Or was she protected by a real indifference to him--the strongest, indeed the only invulnerable armor a woman can wear? Was she protecting herself? Or was it merely that he, weakened by his infatuation, was doing the protecting for her?
Beside these distracting questions, the once all-important matter of professional and worldly ambition seemed not worth troubling about. They even so vexed him that he had become profoundly indifferent as to Josephine. He saw her rarely. When they were alone he either talked neutral subjects or sat almost mute, hardly conscious of her presence. He received her efforts at the customary caressings with such stolidity that she soon ceased to annoy him. They reduced their outward show of affection to a kiss when they met, another when they separated. He was tired--always tired--worn out--half sick--harassed by business concerns. He did not trouble himself about whether his listless excuses would be accepted or not. He did not care what she thought--or might think--or might do.
Josephine was typical of the women of the comfortable class. For them the fundamentally vital matters of life--the profoundly harassing questions of food, clothing, and shelter--are arranged and settled. What is there left to occupy their minds? Little but the idle emotions they manufacture and spread foglike over their true natures to hide the barrenness, the monotony. They fool with phrases about art or love or religion or charity--for none of those things can be vivid realities to those who are swathed and stupefied in a luxury they have not to take the least thought to provide for themselves. Like all those women, Josephine fancied herself complex--fancied she was a person of variety and of depth because she repeated with a slight change of wording the things she read in clever books or heard from clever men. There seemed to Norman to be small enough originality, personality, to the ordinary man of the comfortable class; but there was some, because his necessity of struggling with and against his fellow men in the several arenas of active life compelled him to be at least a little of a person. In the women there seemed nothing at all--not even in Josephine. When he listened to her, when he thought of her, now--he was calmly critical. He judged her as a human specimen--judged much as would have old Newton Hallowell to whom the whole world was mere laboratory.
She bored him now--and he made no effort beyond bare politeness to conceal the fact from her. The situation was saved from becoming intolerable by that universal saver of intolerable situations, vanity. She had the ordinary human vanity. In addition, she had the peculiar vanity of woman, the creation of man's flatteries lavished upon the sex he alternately serves and spurns. In further addition, she had the vanity of her class--the comfortable class that feels superior to the mass of mankind in fortune, in intellect, in taste, in everything desirable. Heaped upon all these vanities was her vanity of high social rank--and atop the whole her vanity of great wealth. None but the sweetest and simplest of human beings can stand up and remain human under such a weight as this. If we are at all fair in our judgments of our fellow men, we marvel that the triumphant class--especially the women, whose point of view is never corrected by the experiences of practical life--are not more arrogant, more absurdly forgetful of the oneness and the feebleness of humanity.
Josephine was by nature one of the sweet and simple souls. And her love for Norman, after the habit of genuine love, had destroyed all the instinct of coquetry. The woman--or, the man--has to be indeed interesting, indeed an individuality, to remain interesting when sincerely in love, and so elevated above the petty but potent sex trickeries. Josephine, deeply in love, was showing herself to Norman in her undisguised natural sweet simplicity--and monotony. But, while men admire and reverence a sweet and simple feminine soul--and love her in plays and between the covers of a book and when she is talking highfaluting abstractions of morality--and wax wroth with any other man who ignores or neglects her--they do not in their own persons become infatuated with her. Passion is too much given to moods for that; it has a morbid craving for variety, for the mysterious and the baffling.
The only thing that saves the race from ruin through passion is the rarity of those by nature or by art expert in using it. Norman felt that he was paying the penalty for his persistent search for this rarity; one of the basest tricks of destiny upon man is to give him what he wants--wealth, or fame, or power, or the woman who enslaves. Norman felt that destiny had suddenly revealed its resolve to destroy him by giving him not one of the things he wanted, but all.
The marriage was not quite two weeks away. About the time that the ordinary plausible excuses for Norman's neglect, his abstraction, his seeming indifference were exhausted, Josephine's vanity came forward to explain everything to her, all to her own glory. As the elysian hour approached--so vanity assured her--the man who loved her as her complex soul and many physical and social advantages deserved was overcome with that shy terror of which she had read in the poets and the novelists. A large income, fashionable attire and surroundings, a carriage and a maid--these things gave a woman a subtle and superior intellect and soul. How? Why? No one knew. But everyone admitted, indeed saw, the truth. Further, these beings--these great ladies--according to all the accredited poets, novelists, and other final authorities upon life--always inspired the most awed and worshipful and diffident feelings in their lovers. Therefore, she--the great lady--was getting but her due. She would have liked something else--something common and human--much better. But, having always led her life as the conventions dictated, never as the common human heart yearned, she had no keen sense of dissatisfaction to rouse her to revolt and to question. Also, she was breathlessly busy with trousseau and the other arrangements for the grand wedding.
One afternoon she telephoned Norman asking him to come on his way home that evening. "I particularly wish to see you," she said. He thought her voice sounded rather queer, but he did not take sufficient interest to speculate about it. When he was with her in the small drawing room on the second floor, he noted that her eyes were regarding him strangely. He thought he understood why when she said:
"Aren't you going to kiss me, Fred?"
He put on his good-natured, slightly mocking smile. "I thought you were too busy for that sort of thing nowadays." And he bent and kissed her waiting lips. Then he lit a cigarette and seated himself on the sofa beside her--the sofa at right angles to the open fire. "Well?" he said.
She gazed into the fire for full a minute before she said in a voice of constraint, "What became of that--that girl--the Miss Hallowell----"
She broke off abruptly. There was a pause choked with those dizzy pulsations that fill moments of silence and strain. Then with a sob she flung herself against his breast and buried her face in his shoulder. "Don't answer!" she cried. "I'm ashamed of myself. I'm ashamed--ashamed!"
He put his arm about her shoulders. "But why shouldn't I answer?" said he in the kindly gentle tone we can all assume when a matter that agitates some one else is wholly indifferent to us.
"Because--it was a--a trap," she answered hysterically. "Fred--there was a man here this afternoon--a man named Tetlow. He got in only because he said he came from you."
Norman laughed quietly. "Poor Tetlow!" he said. "He used to be your head clerk--didn't he?"
"And one of my few friends."
"He's not your friend, Fred!" she cried, sitting upright and speaking with energy that quivered in her voice and flashed in her fine brown eyes. "He's your enemy--a snake in the grass--a malicious, poisonous----"
Norman's quiet, even laugh interrupted. "Oh, no," said he. "Tetlow's a good fellow. Anything he said would be what he honestly believed--anything he said about me."
"He pleaded that he was doing it for your good," she went on with scorn. "They always do--like the people that write father wicked anonymous letters. He--this man Tetlow--he said he wanted me for the sake of my love for you to save you from yourself."
Norman glanced at her with amused eyes. "Well, why don't you? But then you are doing it. You're marrying me, aren't you?"
Again she put her head upon his shoulder. "Indeed I am!" she cried. "And I'd be a poor sort if I let a sneak shake my confidence in you."
He patted her shoulder, and there was laughter in his voice as he said, "But I never professed to be trustworthy."
"Oh, I know you used to--" She laughed and kissed his cheek. "Never mind. I've heard. But while you were engaged to me--about to marry me--why, you simply couldn't!"
"Couldn't what?" inquired he.
"Do you want me to tell you what he said?"
"I think I know. But do as you like."
"Maybe I'd better tell you. I seem to want to get rid of it."
"It was about that girl." She sat upright and looked at him for encouragement. He nodded. She went on: "He said that if I asked you, you would not dare deny you were--were--giving her money."
"Her and her father."
She shrank, startled. Then her lips smiled bravely, and she said, "He didn't say anything about her father."
"No. That was my own correction of his story."
She looked at him with wonder and doubt. "You aren't--doing it, Fred!" she exclaimed.
He nodded. "Yes, indeed." He looked at her placidly. "Why not?"
"You are supporting her?"
"If you wish to put it that way," said he carelessly. "My money pays the bills--all the bills."
"Yes? What is it? Why are you so agitated?" He studied her face, then rose, took a final pull at the cigarette, tossed it in the fire. "I must be going," he said, in a cool, even voice.
She started up in a panic. "Fred! What do you mean? Are you angry with me?"
His calm regard met hers. "I do not like--this sort of thing," he said.
"But surely you'll explain. Surely I'm entitled to an explanation."
"Why should I explain? You have evidently found an explanation that satisfies you." He drew himself up in a quiet gesture of haughtiness. "Besides, it has never been my habit to allow myself to be questioned or to explain myself."
Her eyes widened with terror. "Fred!" she gasped. "What do you mean?"
"Precisely what I say," said he, in the same cool, inevitable way. "A man came to you with a story about me. You listened. A sufficient answer to the story was that I am marrying you. That answer apparently does not content you. Very well. I shall make no other."
She gazed at him uncertainly. She felt him going--and going finally. She seized him with desperate fingers, cried: "I am content. Oh, Fred--don't frighten me this way!"
He smiled satirically. "Are you afraid of the scandal--because everything for the wedding has gone so far?"
"How can you think that!" cried she--perhaps too vigorously, a woman would have thought.
"What else is there for me to think? You certainly haven't shown any consideration for me."
"But you told me yourself that you were false to me."
She forgot her fear in a gush of rage rising from sudden realization of what she was doing--of how leniently and weakly and without pride she was dealing with this man. "Didn't you admit----"
"Pardon me," said he, and his manner might well have calmed the wildest tempest of anger. "I did not admit. I never admit. I leave that to people of the sort who explain and excuse and apologize. I simply told you I was paying the expenses of a family named Hallowell."
"But why should you do it, Fred?"
His smile was gently satirical. "I thought Tetlow told you why."
"I don't believe him!"
"Then why this excitement?"
One could understand how the opposition witnesses dreaded facing him. "I don't know just why," she stammered. "It seemed to me you were admitting--I mean, you were confirming what that man accused you of."
"And of what did he accuse me? I might say, of what do you accuse me?" When she remained silent he went on: "I am trying to be reasonable, Josephine. I am trying to keep my temper."
The look in her eyes--the fear, the timidity--was a startling revelation of character--of the cowardice with which love undermines the strongest nature. "I know I've been foolish and incoherent, Fred," she pleaded. "But--I love you! And you remember how I always was afraid of that girl."
"Just what do you wish to know?"
"Nothing, dear--nothing. I am not sillily jealous. I ought to be admiring you for your generosity--your charity."
"It's neither the one nor the other," said he with exasperating deliberateness.
She quivered. "Then what is it?" she cried. "You are driving me crazy with your evasions." Pleadingly, "You must admit they are evasions."
He buttoned his coat in tranquil preparation to depart. She instantly took alarm. "I don't mean that. It's my fault, not asking you straight out. Fred, tell me--won't you? But if you are too cross with me, then--don't tell me." She laughed nervously, hiding her submission beneath a seeming of mocking exaggeration of humility. "I'll be good. I'll behave."
A man who admired her as a figure, a man who liked her, a man who had no feeling for her beyond the general human feeling of wishing well pretty nearly everybody--in brief, any man but one who had loved her and had gotten over it would have deeply pitied and sympathized with her. Fred Norman said, his look and his tone coolly calm:
"I am backing Mr. Hallowell in a company for which he is doing chemical research work. We are hatching eggs, out of the shell, so to speak. Also we are aging and rejuvenating arthropods and the like. So far we have declared no dividends. But we have hopes."
She gave a hysterical sob of relief. "Then it's only business--not the girl at all!"
"Oh, yes, it's the girl, too," replied he. "She's an officer of the company. In fact, it was to make a place for her that I went into the enterprise originally." With an engaging air of frankness he inquired, "Anything more?"
She was gazing soberly, almost somberly, into the fire. "You'll not be offended if I ask you one question?"
"Is there anything between you and--her?"
"You mean, am I having an affair with her?"
She hung her head, but managed to make a slight nod of assent.
He laughed. "No." He laughed again. "No--not thus far, my dear." He laughed a third time, with still stronger and stranger mockery. "She congratulated me on my engagement with a sincerity that would have piqued a man who was interested in her."
"Will you forgive me?" Josephine said. "What I've just been feeling and saying and putting you through--it's beneath both of us. I suppose a woman--no woman--can help being nasty where another woman is concerned."
With his satirical good-humored smile, "I don't in the least blame you."
"And you'll not think less of me for giving way to a thing so vulgar?"
He kissed her with a carelessness that made her wince But she felt that she deserved it--and was grateful. He said: "Why don't you go over and see for yourself? No doubt Tetlow gave you the address--and no doubt you have remembered it."
She colored and hastily turned her head. "Don't punish me," she pleaded.
"Punish you? What nonsense! . . . Do you want me to take you over? The laboratory would interest you--and Miss Hallowell is lovelier than ever. She has an easier life now. Office work wears on women terribly."
Josephine looked at him with a beautiful smile of love and trust. "You wish to be sure I'm cured. Well, can't you see that I am?"
"I don't see why you should be. I've said nothing one way or the other."
She laughed gayly. "You can't tempt me. I'm really cured. I think the only reason I had the attack was because Mr. Tetlow so evidently believed he was speaking the truth."
"No doubt he did think he was. I'm sure, in the same circumstances, I'd think of anyone else just what he thinks of me."
"Then why do you do it, Fred?" urged she with ill-concealed eagerness. "It isn't fair to the girl, is it?"
"No one but you and Tetlow knows I'm doing it."
"You're mistaken there, dear. Tetlow says a great many people down town are talking about it--that they say you go almost every day to Jersey City to see her. He accuses you of having ruined her reputation. He says she is quite innocent. He blames the whole thing upon you."
Norman, standing with arms folded upon his broad chest, was gazing thoughtfully into the fire.
"You don't mind my telling you these things?" she said anxiously. "Of course, I know they are lies----"
"So everyone is talking about it," interrupted he, so absorbed that he had not heard her.
"You don't realize how conspicuous you are."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, it can't be helped."
"You can't afford to be mixed up in a scandal," she ventured, "or to injure a poor little creature--I'm afraid you'll have to--to stop it."
"Stop it." His eyes gleamed with mirth and something else. "It isn't my habit to heed gossip."
"But think of her, Fred!"
He smiled ironically. "What a generous, thoughtful dear you are!" said he.
She blushed. "I'll admit I don't like it. I'm not jealous--but I wish you weren't doing it."
"So do I!" he exclaimed, with sudden energy that astonished and disquieted her. "So do I! But since it can't be helped I shall go on."
Never had she respected him so profoundly. For the first time she had measured strength with him and had been beaten and routed. She fancied herself enormously proud; for she labored under the common delusion which mistakes for pride the silly vanity of class, or birth, or wealth, or position. She had imagined she would never lower that cherished pride of hers to any man. And she had lowered it into the dust. No wonder women had loved him, she said to herself; couldn't he do with them, even the haughtiest of them, precisely as he pleased? He had not tried to calm, much less to end her jealousy; on the contrary, he had let it flame as high as it would, had urged it higher. And she did not dare ask him, even as a loving concession to her weakness, to give up an affair upon which everybody was putting the natural worst possible construction! On the contrary, she had given him leave to go on--because she feared--yes, knew--that if she tried to interfere he would take it as evidence that they could not get on together. What a man!
* * * * * * *
But there was more to come that day. As he was finishing dressing for dinner his sister Ursula knocked. "May I come, Frederick?" she said.
"Sure," he cried. "I'm fixing my tie."
Ursula, in a gown that displayed the last possible--many of the homelier women said impossible--inch of her beautiful shoulders, came strolling sinuously in and seated herself on the arm of the divan. She watched him, in his evening shirt, as he with much struggling did his tie. "How young you do look, Fred!" said she. "Especially in just that much clothes. Not a day over thirty."
"I'm not exactly a nonogenarian," retorted he.
"But usually your face--in spite of its smoothness and no wrinkles--has a kind of an old young--or do I mean young old?--look. You've led such a serious life."
"Um. That's the devil of it."
"You're looking particularly young to-night."
"Same to you, Urse."
"No, I'm not bad for thirty-four. People half believe me when I say I'm twenty-nine." She glanced complacently down at her softly glistening shoulders. "I've still got my skin."
"And a mighty good one it is. Best I ever saw--except one."
She reflected a moment, then smiled. "I know it isn't Josephine's. Hers is good but not notable. Eyes and teeth are her strongholds. I suppose it's--the other lady's."
"I mean the one in Jersey City."
He went on brushing his hair with not a glance at the bomb she had exploded under his very nose.
"You're a cool one," she said admiringly.
"I thought you'd jump. I'm sure you never dreamed I knew."
He slid into his white waistcoat and began to button it.
"Though you might know I'd find out," she went on, "when everyone's talking."
"Everyone's always talking," said he indifferently.
"And they rattle on to beat the band when they get a chance at a man like you. Do you know what they're saying?"
"Certainly. Loosen these straps in the back of my waistcoat--the upper ones, won't you?"
As she fussed with the buckles she said: "But you don't know that they say you're going to pieces--neglecting your cases--keeping away from your office--wasting about half of your day with your lady love. They say that you have gone stark mad--that you are rushing to ruin."
"A little looser. That's better. Thanks."
"And everyone's wondering when Josephine will hear and go on the rampage. She's so proud and so stuck on herself that they're betting she'll give you the bounce."
"Well--" getting into his coat--"you'd delight in that. For you don't like her."
"Oh--so--so," replied Ursula. "She's all right, as women go. You know we women don't ever think any too well of each other. We're 'on.' Now, I'm frank to admit I'm not worth the powder to blow me up. I can't do anything worth doing. I don't know anything worth knowing--except how to dress and make a fool of an occasional man. I'm not a good house-keeper, nor a good wife--and I'd as lief go to jail for two years as have a baby. But I admit I'm n. g. Most women are as poor excuses as I am, yet they think they're grand!"
Norman, standing before his sister and smiling mysteriously, said: "My dear Urse, let me give you a great truth in a sentence. The value of anything is not its value to itself or in itself, but its value to some one else. A woman--even as incompetent a person as you----"
"--or Josephine--may seem to some man to be pricelessly valuable. And if she happens to seem so to him, why, she is so."
His eyes glittered curiously. "Meaning Jersey City," he said.
A long silence. Then Ursula: "But suppose Josephine hears?"
He stood beside the doorway, waiting for her to pass out. His face expressed nothing. "Let's go down. I'm hungry. We were talking about it this afternoon."
"You and Jo!"
"Josephine and I."
"And it's all right?"
"You fooled her?"
"I don't stoop to that sort of thing."
"No, indeed," she laughed. "You rise to heights of deception that would make anyone else giddy. Oh, I'd give anything to have heard."
"There's nothing to deceive about," said he.
She shook her head. "You can't put it over me, Fred. You've never before made a fool of yourself about a woman. I'd like to see her. I suppose I'd be amazed. I've observed that the women who do the most extraordinary things with men are the most ordinary sort of women."
"Not to the men," said he bitterly. "Not while they're doing it."
"Does she seem extraordinary to you still?"
He thrust his hands deep in his pockets. "What you heard is true. I'm letting everything slide--work--career--everything. I think of nothing else. Ursula, I'm mad about her--mad!"
She threw back her head, looked at him admiringly. Never had she so utterly worshiped this wonderful, powerful brother of hers. He was in love--really--madly in love--at last. So he was perfect! "How long do you think it will hold, Fred?" she said, all sympathy.
"Yet--caring for her you can go on and marry another woman!"
He looked at his sister cynically. "You wouldn't have me marry her, would you?"
"Of course not," protested she hastily. Her passion for romance did not carry her to that idiocy. "You couldn't. She's a sort of working girl--isn't she?--anyhow, that class. No, you couldn't marry her. But how can you marry another woman?"
"How could I give up Josephine?--and give her up probably to Bob Culver?"
Ursula nodded understandingly. "But--what are you going to do?"
"How should I know? Perhaps break it off when I marry--if you can call it breaking off, when there's nothing to break but--me."
"You don't mean--" she cried, stopping when her tone had carried her meaning.
He laughed. "Yes--that's the kind of damn fool I've been."
"You must have let her see how crazy you were about her."
"Was anyone ever able to hide that sort of insanity?"
Ursula gazed wonderingly at him, drew a long breath. "You!" she exclaimed. "Of all men--you!"
"Let's go down."
"She must be a deep one--dangerous," said Ursula, furious against the woman who was daring to resist her matchless brother. "Fred, I'm wild to see her. Maybe I'd see something that'd help cure you."
"You keep out of it," he replied, curtly but not with ill humor.
"It can't last long."
"It'd do for me, if it did."
"The marriage will settle everything," said Ursula with confidence.
"It's got to," said he grimly.
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