Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
If you should look through the files of old magazines for the first
years of the present century you would find, sandwiched in between the
stories of Richard Harding Davis and Frank Norris and others long
since dead, the work of one Jeffrey Curtain: a novel or two, and
perhaps three or four dozen short stories. You could, if you were
interested, follow them along until, say, 1908, when they suddenly
When you had read them all you would have been quite sure that here
were no masterpieces--here were passably amusing stories, a bit out of
date now, but doubtless the sort that would then have whiled away a
dreary half hour in a dental office. The man who did them was of good
intelligence, talented, glib, probably young. In the samples of his
work you found there would have been nothing to stir you to more than
a faint interest in the whims of life--no deep interior laughs, no
sense of futility or hint of tragedy.
After reading them you would yawn and put the number back in the
files, and perhaps, if you were in some library reading-room, you
would decide that by way of variety you would look at a newspaper of
the period and see whether the Japs had taken Port Arthur. But if by
any chance the newspaper you had chosen was the right one and had
crackled open at the theatrical page, your eyes would have been
arrested and held, and for at least a minute you would have forgotten
Port Arthur as quickly as you forgot Château Thierry. For you would,
by this fortunate chance, be looking at the portrait of an exquisite
Those were tie days of "Florodora" and of sextets, of pinched-in
waists and blown-out sleeves, of almost bustles and absolute ballet
skirts, but here, without doubt, disguised as she might be by the
unaccustomed stiffness and old fashion of her costume, was a butterfly
of butterflies. Here was the gayety of the period--the soft wine of
eyes, the songs that flurried hearts, the toasts and tie bouquets, the
dances and the dinners. Here was a Venus of the hansom, cab, the
Gibson girl in her glorious prime. Here was...
...here was you. Find by looking at the name beneath, one Roxanne
Milbank, who had been chorus girl and understudy in "The Daisy Chain,"
but who, by reason of an excellent performance when the star was
indisposed, had gained a leading part.
You would look again--and wonder. Why you had never heard of her. Why
did her name not linger in popular songs and vaudeville jokes and
cigar bands, and the memory of that gay old uncle of yours along with
Lillian Russell and Stella Mayhew and Anna Held? Roxanne
Milbank-whither had she gone? What dark trap-door had opened suddenly
and swallowed her up? Her name was certainly not in last Sunday's
supplement on the list of actresses married to English noblemen. No
doubt she was dead--poor beautiful young lady--and quite forgotten.
I am hoping too much. I am having you stumble on Jeffrey Curtains's
stories and Roxanne Milbank's picture. It would be incredible that you
should find a newspaper item six months later, a single item two
inches by four, which informed the public of the marriage, very
quietly, of Miss Roxanne Milbank, who had been on tour with "The Daisy
Chain," to Mr. Jeffrey Curtain, the popular author. "Mrs. Curtain," it
added dispassionately, "will retire from the stage."
It was a marriage of love. He was sufficiently spoiled to be charming;
she was ingenuous enough to be irresistible. Like two floating logs
they met in a head-on rush, caught, and sped along together. Yet had
Jeffrey Curtain kept at scrivening for twoscore years he could not
have put a quirk into one of his stories weirder than the quirk that
came into his own life. Had Roxanne Milbank played three dozen parts
and filled five thousand houses she could never have had a role with
more happiness and more despair than were in the fate prepared for
For a year they lived in hotels, travelled to California, to Alaska,
to Florida, to Mexico, loved and quarrelled gently, and gloried in the
golden triflings of his wit with her beauty--they were young and
gravely passionate; they demanded everything and then yielded
everything again in ecstasies of unselfishness and pride. She loved
the swift tones of his voice and his frantic, if unfounded jealousy.
He loved her dark radiance, the white irises of her eyes, the warm,
lustrous enthusiasm of her smile.
"Don't you like her?" he would demand rather excitedly and shyly.
"Isn't she wonderful? Did you ever see--"
"Yes," they would answer, grinning. "She's a wonder. You're lucky."
The year passed. They tired of hotels. They bought an old house and
twenty acres near the town of Marlowe, half an hour from Chicago;
bought a little car, and moved out riotously with a pioneering
hallucination that would have confounded Balboa.
"Your room will be here!" they cried in turn.
"And my room here!"
"And the nursery here when we have children."
"And we'll build a sleeping porch--oh, next year."
They moved out in April. In July Jeffrey's closest friend, Harry
Cromwell same to spend a week--they met him at the end of the long
lawn and hurried him proudly to the house.
Harry was married also. His wife had had a baby some six months before
and was still recuperating at her mother's in New York. Roxanne had
gathered from Jeffrey that Harry's wife was not as attractive as
Harry--Jeffrey had met her once and considered her--"shallow." But
Harry had been married nearly two years and was apparantly happy, so
Jeffrey guessed that she was probably all right.
"I'm making biscuits," chattered Roxanne gravely. "Can you wife make
biscuits? The cook is showing me how. I think every woman should know
how to make biscuits. It sounds so utterly disarming. A woman who can
make biscuits can surely do no----"
"You'll have to come out here and live," said Jeffrey. "Get a place
out in the country like us, for you and Kitty."
"You don't know Kitty. She hates the country. She's got to have her
theatres and vaudevilles."
"Bring her out," repeated Jeffrey. "We'll have a colony. There's an
awfully nice crowd here already. Bring her out!"
They were at the porch steps now and Roxanne made a brisk gesture
toward a dilapidated structure on the right.
"The garage," she announced. "It will also be Jeffrey's writing-room
within the month. Meanwhile dinner is at seven. Meanwhile to that I
will mix a cocktail."
The two men ascended to the second floor--that is, they ascended
half-way, for at the first landing Jeffrey dropped his guest's
suitcase and in a cross between a query and a cry exclaimed:
"For God's sake, Harry, how do you like her?"
"We will go up-stairs," answered his guest, "and we will shut the
Half an hour later as they were sitting together in the library
Roxanne reissued from the kitchen, bearing before her a pan of
biscuits. Jeffrey and Harry rose.
"They're beautiful, dear," said the husband, intensely.
"Exquisite," murmured Harry.
"Taste one. I couldn't bear to touch them before you'd seen them all
and I can't bear to take them back until I find what they taste like."
"Like manna, darling."
Simultaneously the two men raised the biscuits to their lips, nibbled
tentatively. Simultaneously they tried to change the subject. But
Roxanne undeceived, set down the pan and seized a biscuit. After a
second her comment rang out with lugubrious finality:
"Why, I didn't notice----"
"Oh, I'm useless," she cried laughing. "Turn me out, Jeffrey--I'm a
parasite; I'm no goal----"
Jeffrey put his arm around her.
"Darling, I'll eat your biscuits."
"They're beautiful, anyway," insisted Roxanne.
"They're-they're decorative," suggested Harry.
Jeffrey took him up wildly.
"That's the word. They're decorative; they're masterpieces. We'll use
He rushed to the kitchen and returned with a hammer and a handful of
"We'll use them, by golly, Roxanne! We'll make a frieze out of them."
"Don't!" wailed Roxanne. "Our beautiful house."
"Never mind. We're going to have the library repapered in October.
Don't you remember?"
Bang! The first biscuit was impaled to the wall, where it quivered for
a moment like a live thing.
When Roxanne returned, with a second round of cocktails the biscuits
were in a perpendicular row, twelve of them, like a collection of
"Roxanne," exclaimed Jeffrey, "you're an artist! Cook?--nonsense! You
shall illustrate my books!"
During dinner the twilight faltered into dusk, and later it was a
starry dark outside, filled and permeated with the frail gorgeousness
of Roxanne's white dress and her tremulous, low laugh.
--Such a little girl she is, thought Harry. Not as old as Kitty.
He compared the two. Kitty--nervous without being sensitive,
temperamental without temperament, a woman who seemed to flit and
never light--and Roxanne, who was as young as spring night, and summed
up in her own adolescent laughter.
--A good match for Jeffrey, he thought again. Two very young people,
the sort who'll stay very young until they suddenly find themselves
Harry thought these things between his constant thoughts about Kitty,
He was depressed about Kitty. It seemed to him that she was well
enough to come back to Chicago and bring his little son. He was
thinking vaguely of Kitty when he said good-night to his friend's wife
and his friend at the foot of the stairs.
"You're our first real house guest," called Roxanne after him. "Aren't
you thrilled and proud?"
When he was out of sight around the stair corner she turned to
Jeffrey, who was standing beside her resting his hand on the end of
"Are you tired, my dearest?"
Jeffrey rubbed the centre of his forehead with his fingers.
"A little. How did you know?"
"Oh, how could I help knowing about you?"
"It's a headache," he said moodily. "Splitting. I'll take some
She reached over and snapped out the light, and with his arm tight
about her waist they walked up the stairs together.
Harry's week passed. They drove about the dreaming lanes or idled in
cheerful inanity upon lake or lawn. In the evening Roxanne, sitting
inside, played to them while the ashes whitened on the glowing ends of
their cigars. Then came a telegram from Kitty saying that she wanted
Harry to come East and get her, so Roxanne and Jeffrey were left alone
in that privacy of which they never seemed to tire.
"Alone" thrilled them again. They wandered about the house, each
feeling intimately the presence of the other; they sat on the same
side of the table like honeymooners; they were intensely absorbed,
The town of Marlowe, though a comparatively old settlement, had only
recently acquired a "society." Five or six years before, alarmed at
the smoky swelling of Chicago, two or three young married couples,
"bungalow people," had moved out; their friends had followed. The
Jeffrey Curtains found an already formed "set" prepared to welcome:
them; a country club, ballroom, and golf links yawned for them, and
there were bridge parties, and poker parties, and parties where they
drank beer, and parties where they drank nothing at all.
It was at a poker party that they found themselves a week after
Harry's departure. There were two tables, and a good proportion of the
young wives were smoking and shouting their bets, and being very
daringly mannish for those days.
Roxanne had left the game early and taken to perambulation; she
wandered into the pantry and found herself some grape juice--beer gave
her a headache--and then passed from table to table, looking over
shoulders at the hands, keeping an eye on Jeffrey and being pleasantly
unexcited and content. Jeffrey, with intense concentration, was
raising a pile of chips of all colors, and Roxanne knew by the
deepened wrinkle between his eyes that he was interested. She liked to
see him interested in small things.
She crossed over quietly and sat down on the arm of his chair.
She sat there five minutes, listening to the sharp intermittent
comments of the men and the chatter of the women, which rose from the
table like soft smoke--and yet scarcely hearing either. Then quite
innocently she reached out her hand, intending to place it on
Jeffrey's shoulder--as it touched him he started of a sudden, gave a
short grunt, and, sweeping back his arm furiously, caught her a
glancing blow on her elbow.
There was a general gasp. Roxanne regained her balance, gave a little
cry, and rose quickly to her feet. It had been the greatest shock of
her life. This, from Jeffrey, the heart of kindness, of
consideration--this instinctively brutal gesture.
The gasp became a silence. A dozen eyes were turned on Jeffrey, who
looked up as though seeing Roxanne for the first time. An expression
of bewilderment settled on his face.
"Why--Roxanne----" he said haltingly.
Into a dozen minds entered a quick suspicion, a rumor of scandal.
Could it be that behind the scenes with this couple, apparently so in
love, lurked some curious antipathy? Why else this streak of fire,
across such a cloudless heaven?
"Jeffrey!"--Roxanne's voice was pleading--startled and horrified, she
yet knew that it was a mistake. Not once did it occur to her to blame
him or to resent it. Her word was a trembling supplication--"Tell me,
Jeffrey," it said, "tell Roxanne, your own Roxanne."
"Why, Roxanne--" began Jeffrey again. The bewildered look changed to
pain. He was clearly as startled as she. "I didn't intend that," he
went on; "you startled me. You--I felt as if some one were attacking
me. I--how--why, how idiotic!"
"Jeffrey!" Again the word was a prayer, incense offered up to a high
God through this new and unfathomable darkness.
They were both on their feet, they were saying good-by, faltering,
apologizing, explaining. There was no attempt to pass it off easily.
That way lay sacrilege. Jeffrey had not been feeling well, they said.
He had become nervous. Back of both their minds was the unexplained
horror of that blow--the marvel that there had been for an instant
something between them--his anger and her fear--and now to both a
sorrow, momentary, no doubt, but to be bridged at once, at once, while
there was yet time. Was that swift water lashing under their feet--the
fierce glint of some uncharted chasm?
Out in their car under the harvest moon he talked brokenly. It was
just--incomprehensible to him, he said. He had been thinking of the
poker game--absorbed--and the touch on his shoulder had seemed like an
attack. An attack! He clung to that word, flung it up as a shield. He
had hated what touched him. With the impact of his hand it had gone,
that--nervousness. That was all he knew.
Both their eyes filled with tears and they whispered love there under
the broad night as the serene streets of Marlowe sped by. Later, when
they went to bed, they were quite calm. Jeffrey was to take a week off
all work--was simply to loll, and sleep, and go on long walks until
this nervousness left him. When they had decided this safety settled
down upon Roxanne. The pillows underhead became soft and friendly; the
bed on which they lay seemed wide, and white, and sturdy beneath the
radiance that streamed in at the window.
Five days later, in the first cool of late afternoon, Jeffrey picked
up an oak chair and sent it crashing through his own front window.
Then he lay down on the couch like a child, weeping piteously and
begging to die. A blood clot the size of a marble had broken his
There is a sort of waking nightmare that sets in sometimes when one
has missed a sleep or two, a feeling that comes with extreme fatigue
and a new sun, that the quality of the life around has changed. It is
a fully articulate conviction that somehow the existence one is then
leading is a branch shoot of life and is related to life only as a
moving picture or a mirror--that the people, and streets, and houses
are only projections from a very dim and chaotic past. It was in such
a state that Roxanne found herself during the first months of
Jeffrey's illness. She slept only when she was utterly exhausted; she
awoke under a cloud. The long, sober-voiced consultations, the faint
aura of medicine in the halls, the sudden tiptoeing in a house that
had echoed to many cheerful footsteps, and, most of ail, Jeffrey's
white face amid the pillows of the bed they had shared--these things
subdued her and made her indelibly older. The doctors held out hope,
but that was all. A long rest, they said, and quiet. So responsibility
came to Roxanne. It was she who paid the bills, pored over his
bank-book, corresponded with his publishers. She was in the kitchen
constantly. She learned from the nurse how to prepare his meals and
after the first month took complete charge of the sick-room. She had
had to let the nurse go for reasons of economy. One of the two colored
girls left at the same time. Roxanne was realizing that they had been
living from short story to short story.
The most frequent visitor was Harry Cromwell. He had been shocked and
depressed by the news, and though his wife was now living with him in
Chicago he found time to come out several times a month. Roxanne found
his sympathy welcome--there was some quality of suffering in the man,
some inherent pitifulness that made her comfortable when he was near.
Roxanne's nature had suddenly deepened. She felt sometimes that with
Jeffrey she was losing her children also, those children that now most
of all she needed and should have had.
It was six months after Jeffrey's collapse and when the nightmare had
faded, leaving not the old world but a new one, grayer and colder,
that she wait to see Harry's wife. Finding herself in Chicago with an
extra hour before train time, she decided out of courtesy to call.
As she stepped inside the door she had an immediate impression that
the apartment was very like some place she had seen before--and almost
instantly she remembered a round-the-corner bakery of her childhood, a
bakery full of rows and rows of pink frosted cakes--a stuffy pink,
pink as a food, pink triumphant, vulgar, and odious.
And this apartment was like that. It was pink. It smelled pink!
Mrs. Cromwell, attired in a wrapper of pink and black, opened the
door. Her hair was yellow, heightened, Roxanne imagined by a dash of
peroxide in the rinsing water every week. Her eyes were a thin waxen
blue--she was pretty and too consciously graceful. Her cordiality was
strident and intimate, hostility melted so quickly to hospitality that
it seemed they were both merely in the face and voice--never touching
nor touched by the deep core of egotism beneath.
But to Roxanne these things were secondary; her eyes were caught and
held in uncanny fascination by the wrapper. It was vilely unclean.
From its lowest hem up four inches it was sheerly dirty with the blue
dust of the floor; for the next three inches it was gray--then it
shaded off into its natural color, which, was--pink. It was dirty at
the sleeves, too, and at the collar--and when the woman turned to lead
the way into the parlor, Roxanne was sure that her neck was dirty.
A one-sided rattle of conversation began. Mrs. Cromwell became
explicit about her likes and dislikes, her head, her stomach, her
teeth, her apartment--avoiding with a sort of insolent meticulousness
any inclusion of Roxanne with life, as if presuming that Roxanne,
having been dealt a blow, wished life to be carefully skirted.
Roxanne smiled. That kimono! That neck!
After five minutes a little boy toddled into the parlor--a dirty
little boy clad in dirty pink rompers. His face was smudgy--Roxanne
wanted to take him into her lap and wipe his nose; other parts in the
of his head needed attention, his tiny shoes were kicked out at the
"What a darling little boy!" exclaimed Roxanne, smiling radiantly.
"Come here to me."
Mrs. Cromwell looked coldly at her son.
"He will get dirty. Look at that face!" She held her head on one side
and regarded it critically.
"Isn't he a _darling?_" repeated Roxanne.
"Look at his rompers," frowned Mrs. Cromwell.
"He needs a change, don't you, George?"
George stared at her curiously. To his mind the word rompers
connotated a garment extraneously smeared, as this one.
"I tried to make him look respectable this morning," complained Mrs.
Cromwell as one whose patience had been sorely tried, "and I found he
didn't have any more rompers--so rather than have him go round without
any I put him back in those--and his face--"
"How many pairs has he?" Roxanne's voice was pleasantly curious, "How
many feather fans have you?" she might have asked.
"Oh,--" Mrs. Cromwell considered, wrinkling her pretty brow. "Five, I
think. Plenty, I know."
"You can get them for fifty cents a pair."
Mrs. Cromwell's eyes showed surprise--and the faintest superiority.
The price of rompers!
"Can you really? I had no idea. He ought to have plenty, but I haven't
had a minute all week to send the laundry out." Then, dismissing the
subject as irrelevant--"I must show you some things--"
They rose and Roxanne followed her past an open bathroom door whose
garment-littered floor showed indeed that the laundry hadn't been sent
out for some time, into another room that was, so to speak, the
quintessence of pinkness. This was Mrs. Cromwell's room.
Here the Hostess opened a closet door and displayed before' Roxanne's
eyes an amazing collection of lingerie.
There were dozens of filmy marvels of lace and silk, all clean,
unruffled, seemingly not yet touched. On hangers beside them were
three new evening dresses.
"I have some beautiful things," said Mrs. Cromwell, "but not much of a
chance to wear them. Harry doesn't care about going out." Spite crept
into her voice. "He's perfectly content to let me play nursemaid and
housekeeper all day and loving wife in the evening."
Roxanne smiled again.
"You've got some beautiful clothes here."
"Yes, I have. Let me show you----"
"Beautiful," repeated Roxanne, interrupting, "but I'll have to run if
I'm going to catch my train."
She felt that her hands were trembling. She wanted to put them on this
woman and shake her--shake her. She wanted her locked up somewhere and
set to scrubbing floors.
"Beautiful," she repeated, "and I just came in for a moment."
"Well, I'm sorry Harry isn't here."
They moved toward the door.
"--and, oh," said Roxanne with an effort--yet her voice was still
gentle and her lips were smiling--"I think it's Argile's where you can
get those rompers. Good-by."
It was not until she had reached the station and bought her ticket to
Marlowe that Roxanne realized it was the first five minutes in six
months that her mind had been off Jeffrey.
A week later Harry appeared at Marlowe, arrived unexpectedly at five
o'clock, and coming up the walk sank into a porch chair in a state of
exhaustion. Roxanne herself had had a busy day and was worn out. The
doctors were coming at five-thirty, bringing a celebrated nerve
specialist from New York. She was excited and thoroughly depressed,
but Harry's eyes made her sit down beside him.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing, Roxanne," he denied. "I came to see how Jeff was doing.
Don't you bother about me."
"Harry," insisted Roxanne, "there's something the matter."
"Nothing," he repeated. "How's Jeff?"
Anxiety darkened her face.
"He's a little worse, Harry. Doctor Jewett has come on from New York.
They thought he could tell me something definite. He's going to try
and find whether this paralysis has anything to do with the original
"Oh, I'm sorry," he said jerkily. "I didn't know you expected a
consultation. I wouldn't have come. I thought I'd just rock on your
porch for an hour--"
"Sit down," she commanded.
"Sit down, Harry, dear boy." Her kindness flooded out now--enveloped
him. "I know there's something the matter. You're white as a sheet.
I'm going to get you a cool bottle of beer."
All at once he collapsed into his chair and covered his face with his
"I can't make her happy," he said slowly. "I've tried and I've tried.
This morning we had some words about breakfast--I'd been getting my
breakfast down town--and--well, just after I went to the office she
left the house, went East to her mother's with George and a suitcase
full of lace underwear."
"And I don't know---"
There was a crunch on the gravel, a car turning into the drive.
Roxanne uttered a little cry.
"It's Doctor Jewett."
"You'll wait, won't you?" she interrupted abstractedly. He saw that
his problem had already died on the troubled surface of her mind.
There was an embarrassing minute of vague, elided introductions and
then Harry followed the party inside and watched them disappear up the
stairs. He went into the library and sat down on the big sofa.
For an hour he watched the sun creep up the patterned folds of the
chintz curtains. In the deep quiet a trapped wasp buzzing on the
inside of the window pane assumed the proportions of a clamor. From
time to time another buzzing drifted down from up-stairs, resembling
several more larger wasps caught on larger window-panes. He heard low
footfalls, the clink of bottles, the clamor of pouring water.
What had he and Roxanne done that life should deal these crashing
blows to them? Up-stairs there was taking place a living inquest on
the soul of his friend; he was sitting here in a quiet room listening
to the plaint of a wasp, just as when he was a boy he had been
compelled by a strict aunt to sit hour-long on a chair and atone for
some misbehavior. But who had put him here? What ferocious aunt had
leaned out of the sky to make him atone for--what?
About Kitty he felt a great hopelessness. She was too expensive--that
was the irremediable difficulty. Suddenly he hated her. He wanted to
throw her down and kick at her--to tell her she was a cheat and a
leech--that she was dirty. Moreover, she must give him his boy.
He rose and began pacing up and down the room. Simultaneously he heard
some one begin walking along the hallway up-stairs in exact time with
him. He found himself wondering if they would walk in time until the
person reached the end of the hall.
Kitty had gone to her mother. God help her, what a mother to go to! He
tried to imagine the meeting: the abused wife collapsing upon the
mother's breast. He could not. That Kitty was capable of any deep
grief was unbelievable. He had gradually grown to think of her as
something unapproachable and callous. She would get a divorce, of
course, and eventually she would marry again. He began to consider
this. Whom would she marry? He laughed bitterly, stopped; a picture
flashed before him--of Kitty's arms around some man whose face he
could not see, of Kitty's lips pressed close to other lips in what was
"God!" he cried aloud. "God! God! God!"
Then the pictures came thick and fast. The Kitty of this morning
faded; the soiled kimono rolled up and disappeared; the pouts, and
rages, and tears all were washed away. Again she was Kitty Carr--Kitty
Carr with yellow hair and great baby eyes. Ah, she had loved him, she
had loved him.
After a while he perceived that something was amiss with him,
something that had nothing to do with Kitty or Jeff, something of a
different genre. Amazingly it burst on him at last; he was hungry.
Simple enough! He would go into the kitchen in a moment and ask the
colored cook for a sandwich. After that he must go back to the city.
He paused at the wall, jerked at something round, and, fingering it
absently, put it to his mouth and tasted it as a baby tastes a bright
toy. His teeth closed on it--Ah!
She'd left that damn kimono, that dirty pink kimono. She might have
had the decency to take it with her, he thought. It would hang in the
house like the corpse of their sick alliance. He would try to throw it
away, but he would never be able to bring himself to move it. It would
be like Kitty, soft and pliable, withal impervious. You couldn't move
Kitty; you couldn't reach Kitty. There was nothing there to reach. He
understood that perfectly--he had understood it all along.
He reached to the wall for another biscuit and with an effort pulled
it out, nail and all. He carefully removed the nail from the centre,
wondering idly if he had eaten the nail with the first biscuit.
Preposterous! He would have remembered--it was a huge nail. He felt
his stomach. He must be very hungry. He considered--remembered--
yesterday he had had no dinner. It was the girl's day out and Kitty
had lain in her room eating chocolate drops. She had said she felt
"smothery" and couldn't bear having him near her. He had given
George a bath and put him to bed, and then lain down on the couch
intending to rest a minute before getting his own dinner. There
he had fallen asleep and awakened about eleven, to find that
there was nothing in the ice-box except a spoonful of potato salad.
This he had eaten, together with some chocolate drops that he found on
Kitty's bureau. This morning he had breakfasted hurriedly down town
before going to the office. But at noon, beginning to worry about
Kitty, he had decided to go home and take her out to lunch. After that
there had been the note on his pillow. The pile of lingerie in the
closet was gone--and she had left instructions for sending her trunk.
He had never been so hungry, he thought.
At five o'clock, when the visiting nurse tiptoed down-stairs, he was
sitting on the sofa staring at the carpet.
"Oh, Mrs. Curtain won't be able to see you at dinner. She's not well
She told me to tell you that the cook will fix you something and that
there's a spare bedroom."
"She's sick, you say?"
"She's lying down in her room. The consultation is just over."
"Did they--did they decide anything?"
"Yes," said the nurse softly. "Doctor Jewett says there's no hope. Mr.
Curtain may live indefinitely, but he'll never see again or move again
or think. He'll just breathe."
For the first time the nurse noted that beside the writing-desk where
she remembered that she had seen a line of a dozen curious round
objects she had vaguely imagined to be some exotic form of decoration,
there was now only one. Where the others had been, there was now a
series of little nail-holes.
Harry followed her glance dazedly and then rose to his feet.
"I don't believe I'll stay. I believe there's a train."
She nodded. Harry picked up his hat.
"Good-by," she said pleasantly.
"Good-by," he answered, as though talking to himself and, evidently
moved by some involuntary necessity, he paused on his way to the door
and she saw him pluck the last object from the wall and drop it into
Then he opened the screen door and, descending the porch steps, passed
out of her sight.
After a while the coat of clean white paint on the Jeffrey Curtain
house made a definite compromise with the suns of many Julys and
showed its good faith by turning gray. It scaled--huge peelings of
very brittle old paint leaned over backward like aged men practising
grotesque gymnastics and finally dropped to a moldy death in the
overgrown grass beneath. The paint on the front pillars became
streaky; the white ball was knocked off the left-hand door-post; the
green blinds darkened, then lost all pretense of color.
It began to be a house that was avoided by the tender-minded--some
church bought a lot diagonally opposite for a graveyard, and this,
combined with "the place where Mrs. Curtain stays with that living
corpse," was enough to throw a ghostly aura over that quarter of the
road. Not that she was left alone. Men and women came to see her, met
her down town, where she went to do her marketing, brought her home in
their cars--and came in for a moment to talk and to rest, in the
glamour that still played in her smile. But men who did not know her
no longer followed her with admiring glances in the street; a
diaphanous veil had come down over her beauty, destroying its
vividness, yet bringing neither wrinkles nor fat.
She acquired a character in the village--a group of little stories
were told of her: how when the country was frozen over one winter so
that no wagons nor automobiles could travel, she taught herself to
skate so that she could make quick time to the grocer and druggist,
and not leave Jeffrey alone for long. It was said that every night
since his paralysis she slept in a small bed beside his bed, holding
Jeffrey Curtain was spoken of as though he were already dead. As the
years dropped by those who had known him died or moved away--there
were but half a dozen of the old crowd who had drunk cocktails
together, called each other's wives by their first names, and thought
that Jeff was about the wittiest and most talented fellow that Marlowe
had ever known. How, to the casual visitor, he was merely the reason
that Mrs. Curtain excused herself sometimes and hurried upstairs; he
was a groan or a sharp cry borne to the silent parlor on the heavy air
of a Sunday afternoon.
He could not move; he was stone blind, dumb and totally unconscious.
All day he lay in his bed, except for a shift to his wheel-chair every
morning while she straightened the room. His paralysis was creeping
slowly toward his heart. At first-for the first year--Roxanne had
received the faintest answering pressure sometimes when she held his
hand--then it had gone, ceased one evening and never come back, and
through two nights Roxanne lay wide-eyed, staring into the dark and
wondering what had gone, what fraction of his soul had taken flight,
what last grain of comprehension those shattered broken nerves still
carried to the brain.
After that hope died. Had it not been for her unceasing care the last
spark would have gone long before. Every morning she shaved and bathed
him, shifted him with her own hands from bed to chair and back to bed.
She was in his room constantly, bearing medicine, straightening a
pillow, talking to him almost as one talks to a nearly human dog,
without hope of response or appreciation, but with the dim persuasion
of habit, a prayer when faith has gone.
Not a few people, one celebrated nerve specialist among them, gave her
a plain impression that it was futile to exercise so much care, that
if Jeffrey had been conscious he would have wished to die, that if his
spirit were hovering in some wider air it would agree to no such
sacrifice from her, it would fret only for the prison of its body to
give it full release.
"But you see," she replied, shaking her head gently, "when I married
Jeffrey it was--until I ceased to love him."
"But," was protested, in effect, "you can't love that."
"I can love what it once was. What else is there for me to do?"
The specialist shrugged his shoulders and went away to say that Mrs.
Curtain was a remarkable woman and just about as sweet as an
angel--but, he added, it was a terrible pity.
"There must be some man, or a dozen, just crazy to take care of
Casually--there were. Here and there some one began in hope--and ended
in reverence. There was no love in the woman except, strangely enough,
for life, for the people in the world, from the tramp to whom she gave
food she could ill afford to the butcher who sold her a cheap cut of
steak across the meaty board. The other phase was sealed up somewhere
in that expressionless mummy who lay with his face turned ever toward
the light as mechanically as a compass needle and waited dumbly for
the last wave to wash over his heart.
After eleven years he died in the middle of a May night, when the
scent of the syringa hung upon the window-sill and a breeze wafted in
the shrillings of the frogs and cicadas outside. Roxanne awoke at two,
and realized with a start she was alone in the house at last.
After that she sat on her weather-beaten porch through many
afternoons, gazing down across the fields that undulated in a slow
descent to the white and green town. She was wondering what she would
do with her life. She was thirty-six--handsome, strong, and free. The
years had eaten up Jeffrey's insurance; she had reluctantly parted
with the acres to right and left of her, and had even placed a small
mortgage on the house.
With her husband's death had come a great physical restlessness. She
missed having to care for him in the morning, she missed her rush to
town, and the brief and therefore accentuated neighborly meetings in
the butcher's and grocer's; she missed the cooking for two, the
preparation of delicate liquid food for him. One day, consumed with
energy, she went out and spaded up the whole garden, a thing that had
not been done for years.
And she was alone at night in the room that had seen the glory of her
marriage and then the pain. To meet Jeff again she went back in spirit
to that wonderful year, that intense, passionate absorption and
companionship, rather than looked forward to a problematical meeting
hereafter; she awoke often to lie and wish for that presence beside
her--inanimate yet breathing--still Jeff.
One afternoon six months after his death she was sitting on the porch,
in a black dress which took away the faintest suggestion of plumpness
from her figure. It was Indian summer--golden brown all about her; a
hush broken by the sighing of leaves; westward a four o'clock sun
dripping streaks of red and yellow over a flaming sky. Most of the
birds had gone--only a sparrow that had built itself a nest on the
cornice of a pillar kept up an intermittent cheeping varied by
occasional fluttering sallies overhead. Roxanne moved her chair to
where she could watch him and her mind idled drowsily on the bosom of
Harry Cromwell was coming out from Chicago to dinner. Since his
divorce over eight years before he had been a frequent visitor. They
had kept up what amounted to a tradition between them: when he arrived
they would go to look at Jeff; Harry would sit down on the edge of the
bed and in a hearty voice ask:
"Well, Jeff, old man, how do you feel to-day?"
Roxanne, standing beside, would look intently at Jeff, dreaming that
some shadowy recognition of this former friend had passed across that
broken mind--but the head, pale, carven, would only move slowly in its
sole gesture toward the light as if something behind the blind eyes
were groping for another light long since gone out.
These visits stretched over eight years--at Easter, Christmas,
Thanksgiving, and on many a Sunday Harry had arrived, paid his call on
Jeff, and then talked for a long while with Roxanne on the porch. He
was devoted to her. He made no pretense of hiding, no attempt to
deepen, this relation. She was his best friend as the mass of flesh on
the bed there had been his best friend. She was peace, she was rest;
she was the past. Of his own tragedy she alone knew.
He had been at the funeral, but since then the company for which he
worked had shifted him to the East and only a business trip had
brought him to the vicinity of Chicago. Roxanne had written him to
come when he could--after a night in the city he had caught a train
They shook hands and he helped her move two rockers together.
"He's fine, Roxanne. Seems to like school."
"Of course it was the only thing to do, to send him."
"You miss him horribly, Harry?"
"Yes--I do miss him. He's a funny boy---"
He talked a lot about George. Roxanne was interested. Harry must bring
him out on his next vacation. She had only seen him once in her
life--a child in dirty rompers.
She left him with the newspaper while she prepared dinner--she had
four chops to-night and some late vegetables from her own garden. She
put it all on and then called him, and sitting down together they
continued their talk about George.
"If I had a child--" she would say.
Afterward, Harry having given her what slender advice he could about
investments, they walked through the garden, pausing here and there to
recognize what had once been a cement bench or where the tennis court
"Do you remember--"
Then they were off on a flood of reminiscences: the day they had taken
all the snap-shots and Jeff had been photographed astride the calf;
and the sketch Harry had made of Jeff and Roxanne, lying sprawled in
the grass, their heads almost touching. There was to have been a
covered lattice connecting the barn-studio with the house, so that
Jeff could get there on wet days--the lattice had been started, but
nothing remained except a broken triangular piece that still adhered
to the house and resembled a battered chicken coop.
"And those mint juleps!"
"And Jeff's note-book! Do you remember how we'd laugh, Harry, when
we'd get it out of his pocket and read aloud a page of material. And
how frantic he used to get?"
"Wild! He was such a kid about his writing."
They were both silent a moment, and then Harry said:
"We were to have a place out here, too. Do you remember? We were to
buy the adjoining twenty acres. And the parties we were going to
Again there was a pause, broken this time by a low question from
"Do you ever hear of her, Harry?"
"Why--yes," he admitted placidly. "She's in Seattle. She's married
again to a man named Horton, a sort of lumber king. He's a great deal
older than she is, I believe."
"And she's behaving?"
"Yes--that is, I've heard so. She has everything, you see. Nothing
much to do except dress up for this fellow at dinner-time."
Without effort he changed the subject.
"Are you going to keep the house?"
"I think so," she said, nodding. "I've lived here so long, Harry, it'd
seem terrible to move. I thought of trained nursing, but of course
that'd mean leaving. I've about decided to be a boarding-house lady."
"Live in one?"
"No. Keep one. Is there such an anomaly as a boarding-house lady?
Anyway I'd have a negress and keep about eight people in the summer
and two or three, if I can get them, in the winter. Of course I'll
have to have the house repainted and gone over inside."
"Roxanne, why--naturally you know best what you can do, but it does
seem a shock, Roxanne. You came here as a bride."
"Perhaps," she said, "that's why I don't mind remaining here as a
"I remember a certain batch of biscuits."
"Oh, those biscuits," she cried. "Still, from all I heard about the
way you devoured them, they couldn't have been so bad. I was _so_
low that day, yet somehow I laughed when the nurse told me about those
"I noticed that the twelve nail-holes are still in the library wall
where Jeff drove them."
It was getting very dark now, a crispness settled in the air; a little
gust of wind sent down a last spray of leaves. Roxanne shivered
"We'd better go in."
He looked at his watch.
"It's late. I've got to be leaving. I go East tomorrow."
They lingered for a moment just below the stoop, watching a moon that
seemed full of snow float out of the distance where the lake lay.
Summer was gone and now Indian summer. The grass was cold and there
was no mist and no dew. After he left she would go in and light the
gas and close the shatters, and he would go down the path and on to
the village. To these two life had come quickly and gone, leaving not
bitterness, but pity; not disillusion, but only pain. There was
already enough moonlight when they shook hands for each to see the
gathered kindness in the other's eyes.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.