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Gwynne, between the fog and the story, felt congealed to the marrow. He leaned his elbows on his knees and stared at the bottom of the boat. It was the second time that the dark and carefully guarded recesses of the human soul had been opened to him, but Zeal's at least were a man's, and he had listened to him with a certain passive acceptance cut with lightning-like visions of his own ruined future. He had never been invited into a woman's crypts before, and he hardly knew whether he were gratified or repelled. She had been as brutally truthful as he would have expected her to be if she spoke at all, but he doubted if he understood her as well as he had expected. He had been assured that she had once at least possessed the capacity for intense feeling, but what was the result? And were the depths frozen solid? Or merely buried alive?
He remarked after a moment: "I cannot think of anything appropriate to say, so perhaps it is as well to say nothing. I certainly do not feel that you are in any need of my sympathies, for you are quite terribly strong. When did all this happen?"
"About eight months before I went to England."
"What did you do with yourself in the interval?"
"I climbed in the Alps a bit, then went to Rome and studied the Campagna, then travelled somewhat in Spain. By that time the desire for California had grown insistent. The novelty of Europe had worn thin. I was tired of playing at doing things, and only at home could I really accomplish anything. I suddenly made up my mind to pay the long-delayed visit to England, stopping in Paris by the way for frocks. I doubt if I ever enjoyed anything more than those three weeks in Paris, where I completely forgot every unpleasant association. It was my first fine wardrobe, my first opportunity to experience to the full the delight of clothes. I have felt quite happy here. California is so far from every other place that it is almost like living on a detached planet. You forget the rest of the world for months at a time. For days after I returned I wandered about out-of-doors in a gay irresponsible mood, and carolled all over the house. Of course it was nothing but the electricity of the climate and that I was in my own State once more and took an insane pride in it. You do not even need to be born here for that; it comes with the inevitable sense of isolation. You will feel it in time. If I had not known that so certainly I should never have dared to urge you to come."
Gwynne smiled with a pardonable cynicism; but while he was not unwilling the conversation should turn upon himself, his curiosity was not satisfied. The fog had gone and the moon had risen. He could see Isabel quite plainly. She had turned her head and was gazing out over the great expanse desolated by the moonlight, and he studied her profile for the first time, often as he had observed it. To-night with the moonlight on it and against the dark hills it was almost repellently unmodern in its sharply cut regularity, the classic modelling of the eye-socket and chin, the nose with its slight arch. Her hair had fallen from its pins and hung in a braid, its length concealed by her position, and making the effect of a queue. She had long since taken off her hat and wrapped its veil about her head. The veil had slipped and might easily have been mistaken for a ribbon confining the queue at the base of the head. For an instant Gwynne's senses swam. He recalled the portraits of their Revolutionary ancestors in the house on Russian Hill. It might have been a medallion suspended before him. He drew in his breath; then his eye fell to the short thin sensitive upper lip, rarely quiet for all her extraordinary repose; to the full enticing under lip, and the little black moles. Then his gaze wandered down to the rough shooting-jacket, to the rubber boots reaching to her waist, and he only restrained himself from laughing aloud because he feared to rush down the curtain before that secretive nature.
"Then you have no faith in love as the best thing in the world?" he asked.
She turned upon him her clear dreaming eyes. "I have faith enough in love, as I have faith in death, or any other of the uncontrovertible facts, as well as in its mission. But not as the best thing in life; not for my sort at least. Not for even the domestic, for that matter, unless they are utterly brainless. I believe that from the beginning of time the misery of the world has been caused by the superstition that love was all. It must continue to be the fate of the child-bearing woman, I suppose—for a while at least; but others have blundered upon the fact that it is a mere incident, and are far happier in consequence. To women like Anabel freedom means an indulgent husband and plenty of money. To others it means something of which the Anabels know the bare nomenclature: an absolute freedom of the soul, of which the outer independence is but the symbol. As I said, we only find it when we have finished with the bogie of love. It is a modern enough discovery. Think of the poor old maids of the generations behind us, who, failing to marry, collapsed into insignificance instead of revelling in their deliverance. And what humiliation to know that in your youth you are really wooed for the sake of the race alone, no matter what the delusions. If any one doubts it let him compare the matrimonial opportunities of the ugly maternal girl and the ugly clever girl. When clever women realize that they are a sex apart and wait until their first youth at least is over before selecting a companion of the sex that I am quite willing to concede must always interest us more than our own, and no doubt is necessary to our completion, then will the world have taken its first step towards real happiness."
Gwynne repressed his gorge and answered practically: "Not a bad idea if two were really suited, for no doubt companionship is one of the best things in life, and a woman is more useful in many ways to a man than a partner of his own sex. It is even apparent that she does equally well in certain varieties of sport. I suppose the more experience a man has had of life the more he hesitates to define what love really is. One has attacks of such a severity and one recovers so completely! Doubtless Schopenhauer was right: it is merely the furious determination of the race to persist. Spencer tells us that it is 'absolutely antecedent to all relative experience whatever.' Companionship—yes—perhaps——"
"It is necessary to a man; but by no means to all women——"
"Not for yourself, you mean. You are still blunted and somewhat disgusted—"
"I have dismissed the question. You cannot imagine how happy I feel every morning when I wake up, and every night when I go, always rather tired, into my comfortable little bed, knowing that I shall sleep like an infant. I love work. I love out-door life. I love the long evenings with my books and my thoughts, and my plans for the future—all my own. I revel in the thought that I can never be unhappy again, because now I love no one. I loved my poor father, and suffered with him in his fits of repentance and shame. I loved, of course, that man. I have absolutely nothing in common with Paula, and my mother is merely a pretty memory. I am fond of Anabel and perhaps several other friends—Mr. and Mrs. Leslie; but that sort of affection does not go very deep. Love is synonymous with selfishness and slavery—slavery because you no longer own yourself. My brother-in-law adores my sister, makes a great point of his fidelity, because before his marriage he was always flaunting some painted female, without which possession, a few years ago, a San Franciscan felt that he would lose the respect of his fellow-citizens. But Lyster's reform makes him as exacting as a Turk. If my poor silly little sister smiles at some fugitive thought he demands to know what it is, and if she cannot remember he sulks for a day. He would possess her very thoughts. She dares not have a man friend, talk to a man for half an hour at a time. He won't let her belong to a club—clubs are all very well for other women, but his wife is not as other women. On the other hand, he has long since let her persuade him that he is the most marvellous of men, and, in consequence, permits her to make every sort of mean little sacrifice while he spends his money on himself. Her eyes are in a measure open now, but it is too late, and she rebels in the usual futile feminine way. There are millions like them. You will meet Anne Montgomery. She is thirty-five now, quite plain, and makes a living as a sort of itinerant housekeeper and caterer. She was a most lovely girl, with a wild-rose complexion and starlike eyes, and full of life and buoyant hope. Her great talent was for the violin, and she dreamed of conquering the world. Teachers told her that with the proper study she could at least become a professional of the first rank, although she lacked the genius of creation. Her parents and an older sister—one of the plain, domestic, unselfish kind, whose pleasure is in living for others—were horrified at the bare suggestion. Not only because they were old-fashioned—some of the most old-fashioned people on earth are in San Francisco—but because it would mean separation from their idol. They surrounded her like a flaming belt, not even a man could get at her. They worshipped her as if she was a being of another world, devoured her; all the treasures of life were centred in her. That there might be the less temptation, they never took her to Europe; and gradually induced her to lay aside the instrument altogether. She was very sweet and gentle, and she loved them and submitted (I would have throttled them all). But she faded rapidly, lost her lovely coloring and animation, and she had no other beauty. Then her father speculated and failed. While they were undergoing real privations the influenza swooped down upon them and carried off the three older members of the family in a week. Anne Montgomery is the most conspicuous victim of what are generally supposed to be the higher affections that I know. They were just commonplace animals—those three—nothing more."
"Real happiness may lie in forgetting that love is selfish, and in overlooking the bitter in the sweet."
Isabel shrugged her shoulders. "If one can be happy without love why run the risks?"
They felt that they had exhausted the subject for the present and there was a long silence. Gwynne's eyes wandered over the inexpressibly desolate and sinister landscape. The intense brilliancy of the moon seemed to press darkness down upon the earth. It was true that every object was as sharp of outline as if cut against crystal, but they were a hard dark brown: the hills that jutted out into the windings of the marsh, the marsh itself, the more distant mountains. It looked like a landscape upon which the sun had set for ever, smitten with death—or not yet born into the solar system; some terrible formless menacing globe on the edge of the Universe. As he had approached San Francisco on the afternoon of his arrival, standing on the forward deck of the boat in a high wind, he had thought it the most stranded lonely city he had ever seen. He recalled the impression now, and in a flash he appreciated the Californian's attitude to the rest of the world, the effect of such isolation upon the character of a people that had created a great and important city out of the wilderness, and in half a century. In spite of the obstinate aloofness of his ego he felt an involuntary thrill of pride in his connection with such a people; and hoped it might be premonitory. But again the eerie landscape claimed him and he became aware of the weird night sounds that broke out with violent abruptness after intervals of throbbing quiet: the loud honk-honk of geese, the shriek of loons, the noisy capricious serenade of the frogs. He experienced a feeling of such utter isolation that he almost started when Isabel spoke.
"These waste places in California are almost terrifying by moonlight," said she. "They always look as if they were brooding, crouching, concentrating their energies for a convulsion. No earthquake country can be quite normal in any of its aspects, nor quite beautiful. Here comes the tide. How Mac will grumble at us! But he is sure to have kept the fire going, and you shall have a cup of hot coffee before you start for home."
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