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At Mrs. Belloc's a telephone message from Jennings was awaiting her; he would call at a quarter-past eight and would detain Miss Stevens only a moment. And at eight fifteen exactly he rang the bell. This time Mildred was prepared; she refused to be disconcerted by his abrupt manner and by his long sharp nose that seemed to warn away, to threaten away, even to thrust away any glance seeking to investigate the rest of his face or his personality. She looked at him candidly, calmly, and seeingly. Seeingly. With eyes that saw as they had never seen before. Perhaps from the death of her father, certainly from the beginning of Siddall's courtship, Mildred had been waking up. There is a part of our nature--the active and aggressive part-- that sleeps all our lives long or becomes atrophied if we lead lives of ease and secure dependence. It is the important part of us, too--the part that determines character. The thing that completed the awakening of Mildred was her acquaintance with Mrs. Belloc. That positive and finely-poised lady fascinated her, influenced her powerfully--gave her just what she needed at the particular moment. The vital moments in life are not the crises over which shallow people linger, but are the moments where we met and absorbed the ideas that enabled us to weather these crises. The acquaintance with Mrs. Belloc was one of those vital moments; for, Mrs. Belloc's personality--her look and manner, what she said and the way she said it--was a proffer to Mildred of invaluable lessons which her awakening character eagerly absorbed. She saw Jennings as he was. She decided that he was of common origin, that his vanity was colossal and aquiver throughout with sensitiveness; that he belonged to the familiar type of New-Yorker who succeeds by bluffing. Also, she saw or felt a certain sexlessness or indifference to sex--and this she later understood. Men whose occupation compels them constantly to deal with women go to one extreme or the other--either become acutely sensitive to women as women or become utterly indifferent, unless their highly discriminated taste is appealed to--which cannot happen often. Jennings, teaching only women because only women spending money they had not earned and could not earn would tolerate his terms and his methods, had, as much through necessity as through inclination, gone to the extreme of lack of interest in all matters of sex. One look at him and the woman who had come with the idea of offering herself in full or part payment for lessons drooped in instinctive discouragement.
Jennings hastened to explain to Mildred that she need not hesitate about closing with Mrs. Brindley. "Your lessons are arranged for," said he. "There has been put in the Plaza Trust Company to your credit the sum of five thousand dollars. This gives you about a hundred dollars a week for your board and other personal expenses. If that is not enough, you will let me know. But I estimated that it would be enough. I do not think it wise for young women entering upon the preparation for a serious career to have too much money."
"It is more than enough," murmured the girl. "I know nothing about those things, but it seems to me--"
"You can use as little of it as you like," interrupted Jennings, rising.
Mildred felt as though she had been caught and exposed in a hypocritical protest. Jennings was holding out something toward her. She took it, and he went on:
"That's your check-book. The bank will send you statements of your account, and will notify you when any further sums are added. Now, I have nothing more to do with your affairs--except, of course, the artistic side--your development as a singer. You've not forgotten your appointment?"
"No," said Mildred, like a primary school-child before a formidable teacher.
"Be prompt, please. I make no reduction for lessons wholly or partly missed. The half-hour I shall assign to you belongs to you. If you do not use it, that is your affair. At first you will probably be like all women--careless about your appointments, coming with lessons unprepared, telephoning excuses. But if you are serious you will soon fall into the routine." "I shall try to be regular," murmured Mildred.
Jennings apparently did not hear. "I'm on my way to the opera-house," said he. "One of my old pupils is appearing in a new role, and she is nervous. Good night."
Once more that swift, quiet exit, followed almost instantaneously by the sound of wheels rolling away. Never had she seen such rapidity of motion without loss of dignity. "Yes, he's a fraud," she said to herself, "but he's a good one."
The idea of a career had now become less indefinite. It was still without any attraction--not because of the toil it involved, for that made small impression upon her who had never worked and had never seen anyone work, but because a career meant cutting herself off from everything she had been brought up to regard as fit and proper for a lady. She was ashamed of this; she did not admit its existence even to herself, and in her talks with Baird about the career she had professed exactly the opposite view. Yet there it was--nor need she have been ashamed of a feeling that is instilled into women of her class from babyhood as part of their ladylike education. The career had not become definite. She could not imagine herself out on a stage in some sort of a costume, with a painted face, singing before an audience. Still, the career was less indefinite than when it had no existence beyond Stanley Baird's enthusiasm and her own whipped-up pretense of enthusiasm.
She shrank from the actual start, but at the same time was eager for it. Inaction began to fret her nerves, and she wished to be doing something to show her appreciation of Stanley Baird's generosity. She telephoned Mrs. Brindley that she would come in the morning, and then she told her landlady.
Mrs. Belloc was more than regretful; she was distressed. Said she: "I've taken a tremendous fancy to you, and I hate to give you up. I'd do most anything to keep you."
Mildred explained that her work compelled her to go.
"That's very interesting," said Mrs. Belloc. "If I were a few years younger, and hadn't spent all my energy in teaching school and putting through that marriage, I'd try to get on the stage, myself. I don't want to lose sight of you."
"Oh, I'll come to see you from time to time."
"No, you won't," said Mrs. Belloc practically. "No more than I'd come to see you. Our lives lie in different directions, and in New York that means we'll never have time to meet. But we may be thrown together again, some time. As I've got a twenty years' lease on this house, I guess you'll have no trouble in finding me. I suppose I could look you up through Professor Jennings?"
"Yes," said Mildred. Then impulsively, "Mrs. Belloc, there's a reason why I'd like to change without anyone's knowing what has become of me--I mean, anyone that might be--watching me."
"I understand perfectly," said Mrs. Belloc with a ready sympathy that made Mildred appreciate the advantages of the friendship of unconventional, knock- about people. "Nothing could be easier. You've got no luggage but that bag. I'll take it up to the Grand Central Station and check it, and bring the check back here. You can send for it when you please."
"But what about me?" said Mildred.
"I was coming to that. You walk out of here, say, about half an hour after I go in the taxi. You walk through to the corner of Lexington Avenue and Thirty- seventh Street--there aren't any cabs to be had there. I'll be waiting in the taxi, and we'll make a dash up the East Side and I can drop you at some quiet place in the park and go on--and you can walk to your new address. How does that strike you?"
Mildred expressed her admiration. The plan was carried out, as Mrs. Belloc--a born genius at all forms of intrigue--had evolved it in perfection on the spur of the moment. As they went up the far East Side, Mrs. Belloc, looking back through the little rear window, saw a taxi a few blocks behind them. "We haven't given them the slip yet," said she, "but we will in the park." They entered the park at East Ninetieth Street, crossed to the West Drive. Acting on Mrs. Belloc's instructions, the motorman put on full speed-- with due regard to the occasional policeman. At a sharp turning near the Mall, when the taxi could be seen from neither direction, he abruptly stopped. Out sprang Mildred and disappeared behind the bushes completely screening the walk from the drive. At once the taxi was under-way again. She, waiting where the screen of bushes was securely thick, saw the taxi that had followed them in the East Side flash by--in pursuit of Mrs. Belloc alone.
She was free--at least until some mischance uncovered her to the little general. At Mrs. Brindley's she found a note awaiting her--a note from Stanley Baird:
I'm of for the Far West, and probably shall not be in town again until the early summer. The club forwards my mail and repeats telegrams as marked. Go in and win, and don't hesitate to call on me if you need me. No false pride, please! I'm getting out of the way because it's obviously best for the present.
As she finished, her sense of freedom was complete. She had not realized how uneasy she was feeling about Stanley. She did not doubt his generosity, did not doubt that he genuinely intended to leave her free, and she believed that his delicacy was worthy of his generosity. Still, she was constantly fearing lest circumstances should thrust them both--as much against his will as hers--into a position in which she would have to choose between seeming, not to say being, ungrateful, and playing the hypocrite, perhaps basely, with him. The little general eluded, Stanley voluntarily removed; she was indeed free. Now she could work with an un- troubled mind, could show Mrs. Brindley that intelligent and persistent work--her "biggest if in all the world"--was in fact a very simple matter.
She had not been settled at Mrs. Brindley's many hours before she discovered that not only was she free from all hindrances, but was to have a positive and great help. Mrs. Brindley's talent for putting people at their ease was no mere drawing-room trick.
She made Mildred feel immediately at home, as she had not felt at home since her mother introduced James Presbury into their house at Hanging Rock. Mrs. Brindley was absolutely devoid of pretenses. When Mildred spoke to her of this quality in her she said:
"I owe that to my husband. I was brought up like everybody else--to be more or less of a poser and a hypocrite. In fact, I think there was almost nothing genuine about me. My husband taught me to be myself, to be afraid of nobody's opinion, to show myself just as I was and to let people seek or avoid me as they saw fit. He was that sort of man himself."
"He must have been a remarkable man," said Mildred.
"He was," replied Mrs. Brindley. "But not attractive--at least not to me. Our marriage was a mistake. We quarreled whenever we were not at work with the music. If he had not died, we should have been divorced." She smiled merrily. "Then he would have hired me as his musical secretary, and we'd have got on beautifully."
Mildred was still thinking of Mrs. Brindley's freedom from pretense. "I've never dared be myself," confessed she. "I don't know what myself really is like. I was thinking the other day how for one reason and another I've been a hypocrite all my life. You see, I've always been a dependent--have always had to please someone in order to get what I wanted."
"You can never be yourself until you have an independent income, however small," said Mrs. Brindley. "I've had that joy only since my husband died. It's as well that I didn't have it sooner. One is the better for having served an apprenticeship at self-repression and at pretending to virtues one has not. Only those who earn their freedom know how to use it. If I had had it ten or fifteen years ago I'd have been an intolerable tyrant, making everyone around me unhappy and therefore myself. The ideal world would be one where everyone was born free and never knew anything else. Then, no one being afraid or having to serve, everyone would have to be considerate in order to get himself tolerated."
"I wonder if I really ever shall be able to earn a living?" sighed Mildred.
"You must decide that whatever you can make shall be for you a living," said the older woman. "I have lived on my fixed income, which is under two thousand a year. And I am ready to do it again rather than tolerate anything or anybody that does not suit me."
"I shall have to be extremely careful," laughed Mildred. "I shall be a dreadful hypocrite with you."
Mrs. Brindley smiled; but underneath, Mildred saw --or perhaps felt--that her new friend was indeed not one to be trifled with. She said:
"You and I will get on. We'll let each other alone. We have to be more or less intimate, but we'll never be familiar."
After a time she discovered that Mrs. Brindley's first name was Cyrilla, but Mrs. Brindley and Miss Stevens they remained to each other for a long time--until circumstances changed their accidental intimacy into enduring friendship. Not to anticipate, in the course of that same conversation Mildred said:
"If there is anything about me--about my life-- that you wish me to explain, I shall be glad to do so."
"I know all I wish to know," replied Cyrilla Brindley. "Your face and your manner and your way of speaking tell me all the essentials."
"Then you must not think it strange when I say I wish no one to know anything about me."
"It will be impossible for you entirely to avoid meeting people," said Cyrilla. "You must have some simple explanation about yourself, or you will attract attention and defeat your object."
"Lead people to believe that I'm an orphan--perhaps of some obscure family--who is trying to get up in the world. That is practically the truth."
Mrs. Brindley laughed. "Quite enough for New York," said she. "It is not interested in facts. All the New-Yorker asks of you is, `Can you pay your bills and help me pay mine?' "
Competent men are rare; but, thanks to the advantage of the male sex in having to make the struggle for a living, they are not so rare as competent women. Mrs. Brindley was the first competent woman Mildred had ever known. She had spent but a few hours with her before she began to appreciate what a bad atmosphere she had always breathed--bad for a woman who has her way to make in the world, or indeed for any woman not willing to be content as mere more or less shiftless, more or less hypocritical and pretentious, dependent and parasite. Mrs. Brindley--well bred and well educated--knew all the little matters which Mildred had been taught to regard as the whole of a lady's education. But Mildred saw that these trifles were but a trifling incident in Mrs. Brindley's knowledge. She knew real things, this woman who was a thorough-going housekeeper and who trebled her income by giving music lessons a few hours a day to such pupils as she thought worth the teaching. When she spoke, she always said something one of the first things noticed by Mildred, who, being too lazy to think except as her naturally good mind insisted on exercising itself, usually talked simply to kill time and without any idea of getting anywhere. But while Cyrilla--without in the least intending it--roused her to a painful sense of her own limitations, she did not discourage her. Mildred also began to feel that in this new atmosphere of ideas, of work, of accomplishment, she would rapidly develop into a different sort of person. It was extremely fortunate for her, thought she, that she was living with such a person as Cyrilla Brindley. In the old atmosphere, or with any taint of it, she would have been unable to become a serious person. She would simply have dawdled along, twaddling about "art" and seriousness and careers and sacrifice, content with the amateur's methods and the amateur's results--and deluding herself that she was making progress. Now-- It was as different as public school from private school --public school where the mind is rudely stimulated, private school where it is sedulously mollycoddled. She had come out of the hothouse into the open.
At first she thought that Jennings was to be as great a help to her as Cyrilla Brindley. Certainly if ever there was a man with the air of a worker and a place with the air of a workshop, that man and that place were Eugene Jennings and his studio in Carnegie Hall. When Mildred entered, on that Saturday morning, at exactly half-past ten, Jennings--in a plain if elegant house-suit--looked at her, looked at the clock, stopped a girl in the midst of a burst of tremulous noisy melody.
"That will do, Miss Bristow," said he. "You have never sung it worse. You do not improve. Another lesson like this, and we shall go back and begin all over again."
The girl, a fattish, "temperamental" blonde, burst into tears.
"Kindly take that out into the hall," said Jennings coldly. "Your time is up. We cannot waste Miss Stevens's time with your hysterics."
Miss Bristow switched from tears to fury. "You brute! You beast!" she shrieked, and flung herself out of the room, slamming the door after her. Jennings took a book from a pile upon a table, opened it, and set it on a music-stand. Evidently Miss Bristow was forgotten--indeed, had passed out of his mind at half-past ten exactly, not to enter it again until she should appear at ten on Monday morning. He said to Mildred:
"Now, we'll see what you can do. Begin."
"I'm a little nervous," said Mildred with a shy laugh. "If you don't mind, I'd like to wait till I've got used to my surroundings."
Jennings looked at her. The long sharp nose seemed to be rapping her on the forehead like a wood- pecker's beak on the bark of the tree. "Begin," he said, pointing to the book.
Mildred flushed angrily. "I shall not begin until I can begin," said she. The time to show this man that he could not treat her brutally was at the outset.
Jennings opened the door into the hall. "Good day, Miss Stevens," he said with his abrupt bow.
Mildred looked at him; he looked at her. Her lip trembled, the hot tears flooded and blinded her eyes. She went unsteadily to the music-stand and tried to see the notes of the exercises. Jennings closed the door and seated himself at the far end of the room. She began--a ridiculous attempt. She stopped, gritted her teeth, began again. Once more the result was absurd; but this time she was able to keep on, not improving, but maintaining her initial off-key quavering. She stopped.
"You see," said she. "Shall I go on?"
"Don't stop again until I tell you to, please," said he.
She staggered and stumbled and somersaulted through two pages of do-re-me-fa-sol-la-si. Then he held up his finger.
"Enough," said he.
Silence, an awful silence. She recalled what Mrs. Belloc had told her about him, what Mrs. Brindley had implied. But she got no consolation. She said timidly:
"Really, Mr. Jennings, I can do better than that. Won't you let me try a song?"
"God forbid!" said he. "You can't stand. You can't breathe. You can't open your mouth. Naturally, you can't sing."
She dropped to a chair.
"Take the book, and go over the same thing, sitting," said he.
She began to remove her wraps.
"Just as you are," he commanded. "Try to forget yourself. Try to forget me. Try to forget what a brute I am, and what a wonderful singer you are. Just open your mouth and throw the notes out."
She was rosy with rage. She was reckless. She sang. At the end of three pages he stopped her with an enthusiastic hand-clapping. "Good! Good!" he cried. "I'll take you. I'll make a singer of you. Yes, yes, there's something to work on."
The door opened. A tall, thin woman with many jewels and a superb fur wrap came gliding in. Jennings looked at the clock. The hands pointed to eleven. Said he to Mildred:
"Take that book with you. Practice what you've done to-day. Learn to keep your mouth open. We'll go into that further next time." He was holding the door open for her. As she passed out, she heard him say:
"Ah, Mrs. Roswell. We'll go at that third song first."
The door closed. Reviewing all that had occurred, Mildred decided that she must revise her opinion of Jennings. A money-maker he no doubt was. And why not? Did he not have to live? But a teacher also, and a great teacher. Had he not destroyed her vanity at one blow, demolished it?--yet without discouraging her. And he went straight to the bottom of things-- very different from any of the teachers she used to have when she was posing in drawing-rooms as a person with a voice equal to the most difficult opera, if only she weren't a lady and therefore not forced to be a professional singing person. Yes, a great teacher--and in deadly earnest. He would permit no trifling! How she would have to work!
And she went to work with an energy she would not have believed she possessed. He instructed her minutely in how to stand, in how to breathe, in how to open her mouth and keep it open, in how to relax her throat and leave it relaxed. He filled every second of her half-hour; she had never before realized how much time half an hour was, how use could be made of every one of its eighteen hundred seconds. She went to hear other teachers give lessons, and she understood why Jennings could get such prices, could treat his pupils as he saw fit. She became an extravagant admirer of him as a teacher, thought him a genius, felt confident that he would make a great singer of her. With the second lesson she began to progress rapidly. In a few weeks she amazed herself. At last she was really singing. Not in a great way, but in the beginnings of a great way. Her voice had many times the power of her drawing-room days. Her notes were full and round, and came without an effort. Her former ideas of what constituted facial and vocal expression now seemed ridiculous to her. She was now singing without making those dreadful faces which she had once thought charming and necessary. Her lower register, always her best, was almost perfect. Her middle register--the test part of a voice--was showing signs of strength and steadiness and evenness. And she was fast getting a real upper register, as distinguished from the forced and shrieky high notes that pass as an upper register with most singers, even opera singers. After a month of this marvelous forward march, she sang for Mrs. Brindley--sang the same song she had essayed at their first meeting. When she finished, Mrs. Brindley said:
"Yes, you've done wonders. I've been noticing your improvement as you practiced. You certainly have a very different voice and method from those you had a month ago," and so on through about five minutes of critical and discriminating praise.
Mildred listened, wondering why her dissatisfaction, her irritation, increased as Mrs. Brindley praised on and on. Beyond question Cyrilla was sincere, and was saying even more than Mildred had hoped she would say. Yet-- Mildred sat moodily measuring off octaves on the keyboard of the piano. If she had been looking at her friend's face she would have flared out in anger; for Cyrilla Brindley was taking advantage of her abstraction to observe her with friendly sympathy and sadness. Presently she concealed this candid expression and said:
"You are satisfied with your progress, aren't you, Miss Stevens?"
Mildred flared up angrily. "Certainly!" replied she. "How could I fail to be?"
Mrs. Brindley did not answer--perhaps because she thought no answer was needed or expected. But to Mildred her silence somehow seemed a denial.
"If you can only keep what you've got--and go on," said Mrs. Brindley.
"Oh, I shall, never fear," retorted Mildred.
"But I do fear," said Mrs. Brindley. "I think it's always well to fear until success is actually won. And then there's the awful fear of not being able to hold it."
After a moment's silence Mildred, who could not hide away resentment against one she liked, said: "Why aren't you satisfied, Mrs. Brindley?"
"But I am satisfied," protested Cyrilla. "Only it makes me afraid to see you so well satisfied. I've seen that often in people first starting, and it's always dangerous. You see, my dear, you've got a straight-away hundred miles to walk. Can't you see that it would be possible for you to become too much elated by the way you walked the first part of the first mile?"
"Why do you try to discourage me?" said Mildred.
Mrs. Brindley colored. "I do it because I want to save you from despair a little later," said she. "But that is foolish of me. I shall only irritate you against me. I'll not do it again. And please don't ask my opinion. If you do, I can't help showing exactly what I think."
"Then you don't think I've done well?" cried Mildred.
"Indeed you have," replied Cyrilla warmly.
"Then I don't understand. What do you mean?"
"I'll tell you, and then I'll stop and you must not ask my opinion again. We live too close together to be able to afford to criticize each other. What I meant was this: You have done well the first part of the great task that's before you. If you had done it any less well, it would have been folly for you to go on."
"That is, what I've done doesn't amount to anything? Mr. Jennings doesn't agree with you."
"Doubtless he's right," said Mrs. Brindley. "At any rate, we all agree that you have shown that you have a voice."
She said this so simply and heartily that Mildred could not but be mollified. Mrs. Brindley changed the subject to the song Mildred had sung, and Mildred stopped puzzling over the mystery of what she had meant by her apparently enthusiastic words, which had yet diffused a chill atmosphere of doubt.
She was doing her scales so well that she became impatient of such "tiresome child's play." And presently Jennings gave her songs, and did not discourage her when she talked of roles, of getting seriously at what, after all, she intended to do. Then there came a week of vile weather, and Mildred caught a cold. She neglected it. Her voice left her. Her tonsils swelled. She had a bad attack of ulcerated sore throat. For nearly three weeks she could not take a single one of the lessons, which were, nevertheless, paid for. Jennings rebuked her sharply.
"A singer has no right to be sick," said he.
"You have a cold yourself," retorted she.
"But I am not a singer. I've nothing that interferes with my work."
"It's impossible not to take cold," said Mildred. "You are unreasonable with me."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Go get well," he said.
The sore throat finally yielded to the treatment of Dr. Hicks, the throat-specialist. His bill was seventy- five dollars. But while the swelling in the tonsils subsided it did not depart. She could take lessons again. Some days she sang as well as ever, and on those days Jennings was charming. Other days she sang atrociously, and Jennings treated her as if she were doing it deliberately. A third and worse state was that of the days when she in the same half-hour alternately sang well and badly. On those days Jennings acted like a lunatic. He raved up and down the studio, all but swearing at her. At first she was afraid of him-- withered under his scorn, feared he would throw open his door and order her out and forbid her ever to enter again. But gradually she came to understand him-- not enough to lose her fear of him altogether, but enough to lose the fear of his giving up so profitable a pupil.
The truth was that Jennings, like every man who succeeds at anything in this world, operated upon a system to which he rigidly adhered. He was a man of small talent and knowledge, but of great, persistence and not a little common sense. He had tried to be a singer, had failed because his voice was small and unreliable. He had adopted teaching singing as a means of getting a living. He had learned just enough about it to enable him to teach the technical elements--what is set down in the books. By observing other and older teachers he had got together a teaching system that was as good--and as bad--as any, and this he dubbed the Jennings Method and proceeded to exploit as the only one worth while. When that method was worked out and perfected, he ceased learning, ceased to give a thought to the professional side of his profession, just as most professional men do. He would have resented a suggestion or a new idea as an attack upon the Jennings Method. The overwhelming majority of the human race--indeed, all but a small handful--have this passion for stagnation, this ferocity against change. It is in large part due to laziness; for a new idea means work in learning it and in unlearning the old ideas that have been true until the unwelcome advent of the new. In part also this resistance to the new idea arises from a fear that the new idea, if tolerated, will put one out of business, will set him adrift without any means of support. The coachman hates the automobile, the hand-worker hates the machine, the orthodox preacher hates the heretic, the politician hates the reformer, the doctor hates the bacteriologist and the chemist, the old woman hates the new--all these in varying proportions according to the degree in which the iconoclast attacks laziness or livelihood. Finally we all hate any and all new ideas because they seem to imply that we, who have held the old ideas, have been ignorant and stupid in so doing. A new idea is an attack upon the vanity of everyone who has been a partisan of the old ideas and their established order.
Jennings, thoroughly human in thus closing his mind to all ideas about his profession, was equally human in that he had his mind and his senses opened full width to ideas on how to make more money. If there had been money in new ideas about teaching singing Jennings would not have closed to them. But the money was all in studying and learning how better to handle the women--they were all women who came to him for instruction. His common sense warned him at the outset that the obviously easygoing teacher would not long retain his pupils. On the other hand, he saw that the really severe teacher would not retain his pupils, either.
Who were these pupils? In the first place, they were all ignorant, for people who already know do not go to school to learn. They had the universal delusion that a teacher can teach. The fact is that a teacher is a well. Some wells are full, others almost dry. Some are so arranged that water cannot be got from them, others have attachments of various kinds, making the drawing of water more or less easy. But not from the best well with the latest pump attachment can one get a drink unless one does the drinking oneself. A teacher is rarely a well. The pupil must not only draw the water, but also drink it, must not only teach himself, but also learn what he teaches. Now we are all of us born thirsty for knowledge, and nearly all of us are born both capable of teaching ourselves and capable of learning what we teach, that is, of retaining and assimilating it. There is such a thing as artificially feeding the mind, just as there is such a thing as artificially feeding the body; but while everyone knows that artificial feeding of the body is a success only to a limited extent and for a brief period, everyone believes that the artificial feeding of the mind is not only the best method, but the only method. Nor does the discovery that the mind is simply the brain, is simply a part of the body, subject to the body's laws, seem materially to have lessened this fatuous delusion.
Some of Jennings's pupils--not more than two of the forty-odd were in genuine earnest; that is, those two were educating themselves to be professional singers, were determined so to be, had limited time and means and endless capacity for work. Others of the forty-- about half-thought they were serious, though in fact the idea of a career was more or less hazy. They were simply taking lessons and toiling aimlessly along, not less aimlessly because they indulged in vague talk and vaguer thought about a career. The rest--the other half of the forty--were amusing themselves by taking singing lessons. It killed time, it gave them a feeling of doing something, it gave them a reputation of being serious people and not mere idlers, it gave them an excuse for neglecting the domestic duties which they regarded as degrading--probably because to do them well requires study and earnest, hard work. The Jennings singing lesson, at fifteen dollars a half-hour, was rather an expensive hypocrisy; but the women who used it as a cloak for idleness as utter as the mere yawners and bridgers and shoppers had rich husbands or fathers.
Thus it appears that the Jennings School was a perfect microcosm, as the scientists would say, of the human race--the serious very few, toiling more or less successfully toward a definite goal; the many, compelled to do something, and imagining themselves serious and purposeful as they toiled along toward nothing in par- ticular but the next lesson--that is, the next day's appointed task; the utterly idle, fancying themselves busy and important when in truth they were simply a fraud and an expense.
Jennings got very little from the deeply and genuinely serious. One of them he taught free, taking promissory notes for the lessons. But he held on to them because when they finally did teach themselves to sing and arrived at fame, his would be part of the glory--and glory meant more and more pupils of the paying kinds. His large income came from the other two kinds of pupils, the larger part of it from the kind that had no seriousness in them. His problem was how to keep all these paying pupils and also keep his reputation as a teacher. In solving that problem he evolved a method that was the true Jennings's method. Not in all New York, filled as it is with people living and living well upon the manipulation of the weaknesses of their fellow beings--not in all New York was there an adroiter manipulator than Eugene Jennings. He was harsh to brutality when he saw fit to be so--or, rather, when he deemed it wise to be so. Yet never had he lost a paying pupil through his harshness. These were fashionable women--most delicate, sensitive ladies--at whom he swore. They wept, stayed on, advertised him as a "wonderful serious teacher who won't stand any nonsense and doesn't care a hang whether you stay or go--and he can teach absolutely anybody to sing!" He knew how to be gentle without seeming to be so; he knew how to flatter without uttering a single word that did not seem to be reluctant praise or savage criticism; he knew how to make a lady with a little voice work enough to make a showing that would spur her to keep on and on with him; he knew how to encourage a rich woman with no more song than a peacock until she would come to him three times a week for many years--and how he did make her pay for what he suffered in listening to the hideous squawkings and yelpings she inflicted upon him!
Did Jennings think himself a fraud? No more than the next human being who lives by fraud. Is there any trade or profession whose practitioners, in the bottom of their hearts, do not think they are living excusably and perhaps creditably? The Jennings theory was that he was a great teacher; that there were only a very few serious and worth-while seekers of the singing art; that in order to live and to teach these few, he had to receive the others; that, anyhow, singing was a fine art for anyone to have and taking singing lessons made the worst voice a little less bad--or, at the least, singing was splendid for the health. One of his favorite dicta was, "Every child should be taught singing-- for its health, if for nothing else." And perhaps he was right! At any rate, he made his forty to fifty thousand a year--and on days when he had a succession of the noisy, tuneless squawkers, he felt that he more than earned every cent of it.
Mildred did not penetrate far into the secret of the money-making branch of the Jennings method. It was crude enough, too. But are not all the frauds that fool the human race crude? Human beings both cannot and will not look beneath surfaces. All Mildred learned was that Jennings did not give up paying pupils. She had not confidence enough in this discovery to put it to the test. She did not dare disobey him or shirk-- even when she was most disposed to do so. But gradually she ceased from that intense application she had at first brought to her work. She kept up the forms. She learned her lessons. She did all that was asked. She seemed to be toiling as in the beginning. In reality, she became by the middle of spring a mere lesson-taker. Her interest in clothes and in going about revived. She saw in the newspapers that General Siddall had taken a party of friends on a yachting trip around the world, so she felt that she was no longer being searched for, at least not vigorously. She became acquainted with smart, rich West Side women, taking lessons at Jennings's. She amused herself going about with them and with the "musical" men they attracted--amateur and semi-professional singers and players upon instruments. She drew Mrs. Brindley into their society. They had little parties at the flat in Fifty-ninth Street--the most delightful little parties imaginable--dinners and suppers, music, clever conversations, flirtations of a harmless but fascinating kind. If anyone had accused Mildred of neglecting her work, of forgetting her career, she would have grown indignant, and if Mrs. Brindley had overheard, she would have been indignant for her. Mildred worked as much as ever. She was making excellent progress. She was doing all that could be done. It takes time to develop a voice, to make an opera-singer. Forcing is dangerous, when it is not downright useless.
In May--toward the end of the month--Stanley Baird returned. Mildred, who happened to be in unusually good voice that day, sang for him at the Jennings studio, and he was enchanted. As the last note died away he cried out to Jennings:
"She's a wonder, isn't she?"
Jennings nodded. "She's got a voice," said he.
"She ought to go on next year."
"Not quite that," said Jennings. "We want to get that upper register right first. And it's a young voice--she's very young for her age. We must be careful not to strain it."
"Why, what's a voice for if not to sing with?" said Stanley.
"A fine voice is a very delicate instrument," replied the teacher. He added coldly, "You must let me judge as to what shall be done."
"Certainly, certainly," said Stanley in haste.
"She's had several colds this winter and spring," pursued Jennings. "Those things are dangerous until the voice has its full growth. She should have two months' complete rest."
Jennings was going away for a two months' vacation. He was giving this advice to all his pupils.
"You're right," said Baird. "Did you hear, Mildred?"
"But I hate to stop work," objected Mildred. "I want to be doing something. I'm very impatient of this long wait."
And honest she was in this protest. She had no idea of the state of her own mind. She fancied she was still as eager as ever for the career, as intensely interested as ever in her work. She did not dream of the real meaning of her content with her voice as it was, of her lack of uneasiness over the appalling fact that such voice as she had was unreliable, came and went for no apparent reason.
"Absolute rest for two months," declared Jennings grimly. "Not a note until I return in August."
Mildred gave a resigned sigh.
There is much inveighing against hypocrisy, a vice unsightly rather than desperately wicked. And in the excitement about it its dangerous, even deadly near kinsman, self-deception, escapes unassailed. Seven cardinal sins; but what of the eighth?--the parent of all the others, the one beside which the children seem almost white?
During the first few weeks Mildred had been careful about spending money. Economy she did not understand; how could she, when she had never had a lesson in it or a valuable hint about it? So economy was impossible. The only way in which such people can keep order in their finances is by not spending any money at all. Mildred drew nothing, spent nothing. This, so long as she gave her whole mind to her work. But after the first great cold, so depressing, so subtly undermining, she began to go about, to think of, to need and to buy clothes, to spend money in a dozen necessary ways. After all, she was simply borrowing the money. Presently, she would be making a career, would be earning large sums. She would pay back everything, with interest. Stanley meant for her to use the money. Really, she ought to use it. How would her career be helped by her going about looking a dowd and a frump? She had always been used to the comforts of life. If she deprived herself of them, she would surely get into a frame of mind where her work would suffer. No, she must lead the normal life of a woman of her class. To work all the time--why, as Jennings said, that took away all the freshness, made one stale and unfit. A little distraction--always, of course, with musical people, people who talked and thought and did music--that sort of distraction was quite as much a part of her education as the singing lessons. Mrs. Brindley, certainly a sensible and serious woman if ever there was one--Mrs. Brindley believed so, and it must be so.
After that illness and before she began to go about, she had fallen into several fits of hideous blues, had been in despair as to the future. As soon as she saw something of people--always the valuable, musical sort of people--her spirits improved. And when she got a few new dresses--very simple and inexpensive, but stylish and charming--and the hats, too, were successful-- as soon as she was freshly arrayed she was singing better and was talking hopefully of the career again. Yes, it was really necessary that she live as she had always been used to living.
When Stanley came back her account was drawn up to the last cent of the proportionate amount. In fact, it might have been a few dollars--a hundred or so-- overdrawn. She was not sure. Still, that was a small matter. During the summer she would spend less, and by fall she would be far ahead again--and ready to buy fall clothes. One day he said:
"You must be needing more money."
"No indeed," cried she. "I've been living within the hundred a week--or nearly. I'm afraid I'm frightfully extravagant, and--"
"Extravagant?" laughed he. "You are afraid to borrow! Why, three or four nights of singing will pay back all you've borrowed."
"I suppose I will make a lot of money," said she. "They all tell me so. But it doesn't seem real to me." She hastily added: "I don't mean the career. That seems real enough. I can hardly wait to begin at the roles. I mean the money part. You see, I never earned any money and never really had any money of my own."
"Well, you'll have plenty of it in two or three years," said Stanley, confidently. "And you mustn't try to live like girls who've been brought up to hardship. It isn't necessary, and it would only unfit you for your work."
"I think that's true," said she. "But I've enough-- more than enough." She gave him a nervous, shy, almost agonized look. "Please don't try to put me under any heavier obligations than I have to be."
"Please don't talk nonsense about obligation," retorted he. "Let's get away from this subject. You don't seem to realize that you're doing me a favor, that it's a privilege to be allowed to help develop such a marvelous voice as yours. Scores of people would jump at the chance."
"That doesn't lessen my obligation," said she. And she thought she meant it, though, in fact, his generous and plausible statement of the case had immediately lessened not a little her sense of obligation.
On the whole, however, she was not sorry she had this chance to talk of obligation. Slowly, as they saw each other from time to time, often alone, Stanley had begun--perhaps in spite of himself and unconsciously --to show his feeling for her. Sometimes his hand accidentally touched hers, and he did not draw it away as quickly as he might. And she--it was impossible for her to make any gesture, much less say anything, that suggested sensitiveness on her part. It would put him in an awkward position, would humiliate him most unjustly. He fell into the habit of holding her hand longer than was necessary at greeting or parting, of touching her caressingly, of looking at her with the eyes of a lover instead of a friend. She did not like these things. For some mysterious reason--from sheer perversity, she thought--she had taken a strong physical dislike to him. Perfectly absurd, for there was nothing intrinsically repellent about this handsome, clean, most attractively dressed man, of the best type of American and New-Yorker. No, only perversity could explain such a silly notion. She was always afraid he would try to take advantage of her delicate position--always afraid she would have to yield something, some trifle; yet the idea of giving anything from a sense of obligation was galling to her. His very refraining made her more nervous, the more shrinking. If he would only commit some overt act--seize her, kiss her, make outrageous demands--but this refrain- ing, these touches that might be accidental and again might be stealthy approach-- She hated to have him shake hands with her, would have liked to draw away when his clothing chanced to brush against hers.
So she was glad of the talk about obligation. It set him at a distance, immediately. He ceased to look lovingly, to indulge in the nerve-rasping little caresses. He became carefully formal. He was evidently eager to prove the sincerity of his protestations--too eager perhaps, her perverse mind suggested. Still, sincere or not, he held to all the forms of sincerity.
Some friends of Mrs. Brindley's who were going abroad offered her their cottage on the New Jersey coast near Seabright, and a big new touring-car and chauffeur. She and Mildred at once gave up the plan for a summer in the Adirondacks, the more readily as several of the men and women they saw the most of lived within easy distance of them at Deal Beach and Elberon. When Mildred went shopping she was lured into buying a lot of summer things she would not have needed in the Adirondacks--a mere matter of two hundred and fifty dollars or thereabouts. A little additional economy in the fall would soon make up for such a trifle, and if there is one time more than another when a woman wishes to look well and must look well, that time is summer--especially by the sea.
When her monthly statement from the bank came on the first of July she found that five thousand dollars had been deposited to her credit. She was moved by this discovery to devote several hours--very depressed hours they were--to her finances. She had spent a great deal more money than she had thought; indeed, since March she had been living at the rate of fifteen thousand a year. She tried to account for this amazing extravagance. But she could recall no expenditure that was not really almost, if not quite, necessary. It took a frightful lot of money to live in New York. How did people with small incomes manage to get along? Whatever would have become of her if she had not had the good luck to be able to borrow from Stanley? What would become of her if, before she was succeeding on the stage, Stanley should die or lose faith in her or interest in her? What would become of her! She had been living these last few months among people who had wide-open eyes and knew everything that was going on--and did some "going-on" themselves, as she was now more than suspecting. There were many women, thousands of them--among the attractive, costily dressed throngs she saw in the carriages and autos and cabs--who would not like to have it published how they contrived to live so luxuriously. No, they would not like to have it published, though they cared not a fig for its being whispered; New York too thoroughly understood how necessary luxurious living was, and was too completely divested of the follies of the old-fashioned, straight-laced morality, to mind little shabby details of queer conduct in striving to keep up with the procession. Even the married women, using their husbands--and letting their husbands use them--did not frown on the irregularities of their sisters less fortunately married or not able to find a permanent "leg to pull." As for the girls--Mildred had observed strange things in the lives of the girls she knew more or less well nowadays. In fact, all the women, of all classes and conditions, were engaged in the same mad struggle to get hold of money to spend upon fun and finery--a struggle matching in recklessness and resoluteness the struggle of the men down-town for money for the same purposes. It was curious, this double mania of the men and the women--the mania to get money, no matter how; the instantly succeeding mania to get rid of it, no matter how. Looking about her, Mildred felt that she was peculiar and apart from nearly all the women she knew. She got her money honorably. She did not degrade herself, did not sell herself, did not wheedle or cajole or pretend in the least degree. She had grown more liberal as her outlook on life had widened with contact with the New York mind--no, with the mind of the whole easy-going, luxury-mad, morality-scorning modern world. She still kept her standard for herself high, and believed in a purity for herself which she did not exact or expect in her friends. In this respect she and Cyrilla Brindley were sympathetically alike. No, Mildred was confident that in no circumstances, in no circumstances, would she relax her ideas of what she personally could do and could not do. Not that she blamed, or judged at all, women who did as she would not; but she could not, simply could not, however hard she might be driven, do those things-- though she could easily understand how other women did them in preference to sinking down into the working class or eking out a frowsy existence in some poor boarding-house. The temptation would be great. Thank Heaven, it was not teasing her. She would resist it, of course. But--
What if Stanley Baird should lose interest? What if, after he lost interest, she should find herself without money, worse of than she had been when she sold herself into slavery--highly moral and conventionally correct slavery, but still slavery--to the little general with the peaked pink-silk nightcap hiding the absence of the removed toupee--and with the wonderful pink-silk pajamas, gorgeously monogramed in violet-- and the tiny feet and ugly hands--and those loathsome needle-pointed mustaches and the hideous habit of mumbling his tongue and smacking his lips? What if, moneyless, she should not be able to find another Stanley or a man of the class gentleman willing to help her generously even on any terms? What then?
She was looking out over the sea, her bank-book and statements and canceled checks in her lap. Their cottage was at the very edge of the strand; its veranda was often damp from spray after a storm. It was not storming as she sat there, "taking stock"; under a blue sky an almost tranquil sea was crooning softly in the sunlight, innocent and happy and playful as a child. She, dressed in a charming negligee and looking forward to a merry day in the auto, with lunch and dinner at attractive, luxurious places farther down the coast-- she was stricken with a horrible sadness, with a terror that made her heart beat wildly.
"I must be crazy!" she said, half aloud. "I've never earned a dollar with my voice. And for two months it has been unreliable. I'm acting like a crazy person. What will become of me?"
Just then Stanley Baird came through the pretty little house, seeking her. "There you are!" he cried. "Do go get dressed."
Hastily she flung a scarf over the book and papers in her lap. She had intended to speak to him about that fresh deposit of five thousand dollars--to refuse it, to rebuke him. Now she did not dare.
"What's the matter?" he went on. "Headache?"
"It was the wine at dinner last night," explained she. "I ought never to touch red wine. It disagrees with me horribly."
"That was filthy stuff," said he. "You must take some champagne at lunch. That'll set you right."
She stealthily wound the scarf about the papers. When she felt that all were secure she rose. She was looking sweet and sad and peculiarly beautiful. There was an exquisite sheen on her skin. She had washed her hair that morning, and it was straying fascinatingly about her brow and ears and neck. Baird looked at her, lowered his eyes and colored.
"I'll not be long," she said hurriedly.
She had to pass him in the rather narrow doorway. From her garments shook a delicious perfume. He caught her in his arms. The blood had flushed into his face in a torrent, swelling out the veins, giving him a distorted and wild expression.
"Mildred!" he cried. "Say that you love me a little! I'm so lonely for you--so hungry for you!"
She grew cold with fear and with repulsion. She neither yielded to his embrace nor shook it off. She simply stood, her round smooth body hard though corsetless. He kissed her on the throat, kissed the lace over her bosom, crying out inarticulately. In the frenzy of his passion he did not for a while realize her lack of response. As he felt it, his arms relaxed, dropped away from her, fell at his side. He hung his head. He was breathing so heavily that she glanced into the house apprehensively, fearing someone else might hear.
"I beg pardon," he muttered. "You were too much for me this morning. It was your fault. You are maddening!"
She moved on into the house.
"Wait a minute!" he called after her.
She halted, hesitating.
"Come back," he said. "I've got something to say to you."
She turned and went back to the veranda, he retreating before her and his eyes sinking before the cold, clear blue of hers.
"You're going up, not to come down again," he said. "You think I've insulted you--think I've acted outrageously."
How glad she was that he had so misread her thoughts --had not discovered the fear, the weakness, the sudden collapse of all her boasted confidence in her strength of character.
"You'll never feel the same toward me again," he went fatuously on. "You think I'm a fraud. Well, I'll admit that I am in love with you--have been ever since the steamer--always was crazy about that mouth of yours--and your figure, and the sound of your voice. I'll admit I'm an utter fool about you--respect you and trust you as I never used to think any woman deserved to be respected and trusted. I'll even admit that I've been hoping--all sorts of things. I knew a woman like you wouldn't let a man help her unless she loved him."
At this her heart beat wildly and a blush of shame poured over her face and neck. He did not see. He had not the courage to look at her--to face that expression of the violated goddess he felt confident her face was wearing. In love, he reasoned and felt about her like an inexperienced boy, all his experience going for nothing. He went on:
"I understand we can never be anything to each other until you're on the stage and arrived. I'd not have it otherwise, if I could. For I want you, and I'd never believe I had you unless you were free."
The color was fading from her cheeks. At this it flushed deeper than before. She must speak. Not to speak was to lie, was to play the hypocrite. Yet speak she dared not. At least Stanley Baird was better than Siddall. Anyhow, who was she, that had been the wife of Siddall, to be so finicky?
"You don't believe me?" he said miserably. "You think I'll forget myself sometime again?"
"I hope not," she said gently. "I believe not. I trust you, Stanley."
And she went into the house. He looked after her, in admiration of the sweet and pure calm of this quiet rebuke. She tried to take the same exalted view of it herself, but she could not fool herself just then with the familiar "good woman" fake. She knew that she had struck the flag of self-respect. She knew what she would really have done had he been less delicate, less in love, and more "practical." And she found a small and poor consolation in reflecting, "I wonder how many women there are who take high ground because it costs nothing." We are prone to suspect everybody of any weakness we find in ourselves--and perhaps we are not so far wrong as are those who accept without question the noisy protestations of a world of self-deceivers.
Thenceforth she and Stanley got on better than ever --apparently. But though she ignored it, she knew the truth--knew her new and deep content was due to her not having challenged his assertion that she loved him. He, believing her honest and high minded, assumed that the failure to challenge was a good woman's way of admitting. But with the day of reckoning-- not only with him but also with her own self- respect--put off until that vague and remote time when she should be a successful prima donna, she gave herself up to enjoyment. That was a summer of rarely fine weather, particularly fine along the Jersey coast. They --always in gay parties--motored up and down the coast and inland. Several of the "musical" men-- notably Richardson of Elberon--had plenty of money; Stanley, stopping with his cousins, the Frasers, on the Rumson Road, brought several of his friends, all rich and more or less free. As every moment of Mildred's day was full and as it was impossible not to sleep and sleep well in that ocean air, with the surf soothing the nerves as the lullaby of a nurse soothes a baby, she was able to put everything unpleasant out of mind. She was resting her voice, was building up her health; therefore the career was being steadily advanced and no time was being wasted. She felt sorry for those who had to do unpleasant or disagreeable things in making their careers. She told herself that she did not deserve her good fortune in being able to advance to a brilliant career not through hardship but over the most delightful road imaginable--amusing herself, wearing charming and satisfactory clothes, swimming and dancing, motoring and feasting. Without realizing it, she was strongly under the delusion that she was herself already rich--the inevitable delusion with a woman when she moves easily and freely and luxuriously about, never bothered for money, always in the company of rich people. The rich are fated to demoralize those around them. The stingy rich fill their satellites with envy and hatred. The generous rich fill them with the feeling that the light by which they shine and the heat with which they are warm are not reflected light and heat but their own.
Never had she been so happy. She even did not especially mind Donald Keith, a friend of Stanley's and of Mrs. Brindley's, who, much too often to suit her, made one of the party. She had tried in vain to discover what there was in Keith that inspired such intense liking in two people so widely different as expansive and emotional Stanley Baird and reserved and distinctly cold Cyrilla Brindley. Keith talked little, not only seemed not to listen well, but showed plainly, even in tete-a-tete conversations, that his thoughts had been elsewhere. He made no pretense of being other than he was--an indifferent man who came because it did not especially matter to him where he was. Sometimes his silence and his indifference annoyed Mildred; again--thanks to her profound and reckless contentment--she was able to forget that he was along. He seemed to be and probably was about forty years old. His head was beautifully shaped, the line of its profile--front, top, and back--being perfect in intellectuality, strength and symmetry. He was rather under the medium height, about the same height as Mildred herself. He was extremely thin and loosely built, and his clothes seemed to hang awry, giving him an air of slovenliness which became surprising when one noted how scrupulously neat and clean he was. His brown hair, considerably tinged with rusty gray, grew thinly upon that beautiful head. His skin was dry and smooth and dead white. This, taken with the classic regularity of his features, gave him an air of lifelessness, of one burnt out by the fire of too much living; but whether the living had been done by Keith himself or by his immediate ancestors appearances did not disclose. This look of passionless, motionless repose, like classic sculpture, was sharply and startlingly belied by a pair of really wonderful eyes-- deeply and intensely blue, brilliant, all seeing, all comprehending, eyes that seemed never to sleep, seemed the ceaselessly industrious servants of a brain that busied itself without pause. The contrast between the dead white calm of his face, the listlessness of his relaxed figure, and these vivid eyes, so intensely alive, gave to Donald Keith's personality an uncanniness that was most disagreeable to Mildred.
"That's what fascinates me," said Cyrilla, when they were discussing him one day.
"Fascinates!" exclaimed Mildred. "He's tiresome-- when he isn't rude."
"Not actively rude but, worse still, passively rude."
"He is the only man I've ever seen with whom I could imagine myself falling in love," said Mrs. Brindley.
Mildred laughed in derision. "Why, he's a dead man!" cried she.
"You don't understand," said Cyrilla. "You've never lived with a man." She forgot completely, as did Mildred herself, so completely had Mrs. Siddall returned to the modes and thoughts of a girl. "At home--to live with--you want only reposeful things. That is why the Greeks, whose instincts were unerring, had so much reposeful statuary. One grows weary of agitating objects. They soon seem hysterical and shallow. The same thing's true of persons. For permanent love and friendship you want reposeful men-- calm, strong, silent. The other kind either wear you out or wear themselves out with you."
"You forget his eyes," put in Stanley. "Did you ever see such eyes!"
"Yes, those eyes of his!" cried Mildred. "You certainly can't call them reposeful, Mrs. Brindley."
Mrs. Brindley did not seize the opportunity to convict her of inconsistency. Said she:
"I admit the eyes. They're the eyes of the kind of man a woman wants, or another man wants in his friend. When Keith looks at you, you feel that you are seeing the rarest being in the world--an absolutely reliable person. When I think of him I think of reliable, just as when you think of the sun you think of brightness."
"I had no idea it was so serious as this," teased Stanley.
"Nor had I," returned Cyrilla easily, "until I began to talk about him. Don't tell him, Mr. Baird, or he might take advantage of me."
The idea amused Stanley. "He doesn't care a rap about women," said he. "I hear he has let a few care about him from time to time, but he soon ceased to be good-natured. He hates to be bored."
As he came just then, they had to find another subject. Mildred observed him with more interest. She had learned to have respect for Mrs. Brindley's judgments. But she soon gave over watching him. That profound calm, those eyes concentrating all the life of the man like a burning glass-- She had a disagreeable sense of being seen through, even to her secretest thought, of being understood and measured and weighed --and found wanting. It occurred to her for the first time that part of the reason for her not liking him was the best of reasons--that he did not like her.
The first time she was left alone with him, after this discovery, she happened to be in an audacious and talkative mood, and his lack of response finally goaded her into saying: "Why don't you like me?" She cared nothing about it; she simply wished to hear what he would say--if he could be roused into saying anything. He was sitting on the steps leading from the veranda to the sea--was smoking a cigarette and gazing out over the waves like a graven image, as if he had always been posed there and always would be there, the embodiment of repose gazing in ineffable indifference upon the embodiment of its opposite. He made no answer.
"I asked you why you do not like me," said she. "Did you hear?"
"Yes," replied he.
She waited; nothing further from him. Said she:
"Well, give me one of your cigarettes."
He rose, extended his case, then a light. He was never remiss in those kinds of politeness. When she was smoking, he seated himself again and dropped into the former attitude. She eyed him, wondering how it could be possible that he had endured the incredible fatigues and hardships Stanley Baird had related of him--hunting and exploring expeditions into tropics and into frozen regions, mountain climbs, wild sea voyages in small boats, all with no sign of being able to stand anything, yet also with no sign of being any more disturbed than now in this seaside laziness. Stanley had showed them a picture of him taken twenty years and more ago when he was in college; he had looked almost the same then--perhaps a little older.
"Well, I am waiting," persisted she.
She thought he was about to look at her--a thing he had never done, to her knowledge, since they had known each other. She nerved herself to receive the shock, with a certain flutter of expectancy, of excitement even. But instead of looking, he settled himself in a slightly different position and fixed his gaze upon another point in the horizon. She noted that he had splendid hands--ideal hands for a man, with the same suggestion of intense vitality and aliveness that flashed from his eyes. She had not noted this before. Next she saw that he had good feet, and that his boots were his only article of apparel that fitted him, or rather, that looked as if made for him.
She tossed her cigarette over the rail to the sand. He startled her by speaking, in his unemotional way. He said:
"Now, I like you better."
"I don't understand," said she.
No answer from him. The cigarette depending listlessly from his lips seemed--as usual--uncertain whether it would stay or fall. She watched this uncertainty with a curious, nervous interest. She was always thinking that cigarette would fall, but it never did. Said she:
"Why did you say you liked me less?"
"Better," corrected he.
"We used to have a pump in our back yard at home," laughed she. "One toiled away at the handle, but nothing ever came. And it was a promising-looking pump, too."
He smiled--a slow, reluctant smile, but undeniably attractive. Said he:
"Because you threw away your cigarette."
"You object to women smoking?"
"No," said he. His tone made her feel how absurd it was to suspect him of such provincialism.
"You object to my smoking?" suggested she; laughing, "Pump! Pump!"
"No," said he.
"Then your remark meant nothing at all?"
He was silent.
"You are rude," said she coldly, rising to go into the house.
He said something, what she did not hear, in her agitation. She paused and inquired:
"What did you say?"
"I said, I am not rude but kind," replied he.
"That is detestable!" cried she. "I have not liked you, but I have been polite to you because of Stanley and Mrs. Brindley. Why should you be insulting to me?"
"What have I done?" inquired he, unmoved. He had risen as she rose, but instead of facing her he was leaning against the post of the veranda, bent upon his seaward vigil.
"You have insinuated that your reasons for not liking me were a reflection on me."
"You insisted," said he.
"You mean that they are?" demanded she furiously. She was amazed at her wild, unaccountable rage.
He slowly turned his head and looked at her--a glance without any emotion whatever, simply a look that, like the beam of a powerful searchlight, seemed to thrust through fog and darkness and to light up everything in its path. Said he:
"Do you wish me to tell you why I don't like you?"
"No!" she cried hysterically. "Never mind--I don't know what I'm saying." And she went hastily into the house. A moment later, in her own room upstairs, she was wondering at herself. Why had she become confused? What did he mean? What had she seen--or half seen--in the darkness and fog within herself when he looked at her? In a passion she cried:
"If he would only stay away!"
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
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