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Cope awakened at seven. After an early interval of happy lightness, there came suddenly and heavily the crushing sense of his predicament. How monstrous it was that one instant of time, one ill-considered action, one poorly-chosen word could clamp a repellent burden on a man for the rest of his life!
Well, he must expect telephone messages and letters. They came. That afternoon Mrs. Peck had "a lady's voice" to report: "It sounded like a young lady's voice," she added. And she looked at Cope with some curiosity: a "young lady" asking for him over the wire was the rarest thing in the world.
Next day came the first note. The handwriting was utterly new to him; but his intuition, applied instantly to the envelope, told him of the source. The nail, driven, was now to be clinched. She had the right to ask him to come; and she did ask him to come--"soon."
Cope's troubled eyes sought the calendar above his table. How many days to Christmas? How much time might he spend in Freeford? How long before Christmas might he arrange to leave Churchton? The holidays at home loomed as a harbor of refuge. By shortening as far as possible the interval here and by lengthening as far as possible the stay with his family, he might cut down, in some measure, the imminent threatenings of awkwardness and constraint; then, beyond the range of anything but letters, he might study the unpleasant situation at his leisure and determine a future course.
He set himself to answer Amy's note. He hoped, he said, to see her in a few days, but he was immensely busy in closing the term-work before the holidays; he also suggested that their affair--"their" affair!--be kept quiet for the present. Yet he had all too facile a vision of beatific meditations that were like enough to give the situation away to all the household; and he was nervously aware of Amy Leffingwell as continually on the verge of bubbling confidences.
He also wrote to Lemoyne. His letter was less an announcement than a confession.
"I like this!" began Lemoyne's reply, with abrupt, impetuous sarcasm. "You have claimed, more than once," he went on, "to have steadied me and kept me out of harm's way; but I've never yet made any such demands on you as you are making on me. This thing can't go on, and you know it as well as I do. Nip it. Nip it now. Don't think that our intimacy is to end in any such fashion as this, for it isn't--especially at this particular time."...
Lemoyne proceeded to practical matters. "If that room is still free, engage it from the first of January. I will have a few things sent down. Father is weakening a little. Anyhow, I've got enough money for a couple of months. I will join you in Freeford between Christmas and New Year's (nearer the latter, probably), and we will go back together."...
Cope rather took heart from these rough, outspoken lines. Lemoyne was commonly neither rough nor outspoken; but here was an emergency, involving his own interests, which must be dealt with decisively. Cope seemed to feel salvation on the way. Perhaps that was why he still did so little to save himself. He took the new room; he had one meeting with Amy; and he left for home at least two days before he was strictly entitled to do so.
The meeting took place in Mrs. Phillips' drawing-room; he would trust himself to no more strolls on the campus, to no more confabs in college halls. There was protection in numbers, and numbers seldom failed beneath Medora Phillips' roof. They failed this time, however. Mrs. Phillips and Hortense were away at a reading; only Amy and Carolyn were at home. Cope seized on Carolyn as at a straw. He thanked her warmly again for her halting offices in the matter of that last song, and he begged that he might hear some of her recent verse. His appeal was vehement, almost boisterous: Carolyn, surprised, felt that he was ready at last to grant her a definite personality.
Amy tried in vain to remove Carolyn from the board. But Carolyn, like Hortense, had finally joined the ranks of the "recognized"; she was determined (being still ignorant, Cope was glad to see, regarding Amy's claims) to make this recognition so marked as to last beyond the moment. She played a little--not well. She read. She even accompanied Amy to the door at the close of Cope's short stay. He shook hands with them both. He had decided that he would do no more than this with Amy, in any event, and Carolyn's presence made his predetermined course easy, even obligatory. Yet he went out into the night feeling, somehow, that he had acted solely on his resolution and that he might consider himself a man of some decisiveness, after all. Amy had looked disappointed, but had contrived to whisper that she would write from Iowa. That, of course, was to be looked for, and would represent the combined efforts of herself and her home circle; yet he had a fortnight for consideration and counsel.
Cope, during his first few days at home, was moody and abstracted: his parents found him adding little to the Christmas cheer. His mother, always busy over domestic cares and now busier than ever, thought that he must have been working too hard. She would stand in the kitchen door with a half-trimmed pie on one hand and ponder him as he sat in the dining-room, staring absorbedly at the Franklin stove. His father, who saw him chiefly in the evening, by the gas-light of the old-fashioned house, found his face slightly pinched: was his pocket pinched too, and would he be likely, before leaving, to ask help toward making up a deficit? His sister Rosalys, who lived a life of dry routine, figured him as deep in love. He let several days pass without hinting what the real situation was.
There was interest all round when, the day before Christmas, the postman came along the bleak and flimsy street and left a letter for him. Cope was away from the house, and Rosalys, studying the envelope's penmanship and even its postmark, found vague confirmation of her theory: some college girl--one of his own students, probably--was home on vacation just as he was. If so, a "small town" person of caste and character like themselves; not brilliant, but safe. She set up the letter edgewise on the back parlor mantelpiece.
When Cope came in at noon and saw the letter, his face fell. He put it in his pocket, sat silent at table, and disappeared as soon as the meal was over. Rosalys, whose pupils were off her mind for a few days and who had thought to spare, began to shade her theory.
Cope read the letter in the low-ceiled back bedroom (the ceiling sloped away on one side) which had been his for so many years. Those years of happy boyhood--how far away they seemed now, and how completely past! Surely he had never thought to come back to these familiar walls to such effect as this.... Well, what did it say?
It said, in its four pages (yes, Amy had really limited herself thus), how joyous she was that the dear Christmas season had brought her such a beautiful love-gift; it said that mother was so pleased and happy--and even mentioned a sudden aunt; it said how willingly she would wait on until....
That evening Cope made his announcement. They were all seated round the reading-lamp in the back parlor, where the old Brussels carpet looked dim and where only venerated age kept the ornate French clock from seeming tawdry. Cope looked down at the carpet and up at the clock, and spoke.
Yes, they must have it.
His mother took the shock first and absorbed most of it. She led a humdrum life and she was ready to welcome romance. To help adjust herself she laid her hands, with a soft, sweeping motion, on the two brown waves that drew smoothly across her temples, and then she transferred them to his, held his head, and gave him a kiss. Rosalys took his two hands warmly and smiled, and he tried to smile back. His father twisted the tip of his short gray beard, watched his son's mien, and said little. Day after to-morrow, with the major part of their small Christmas festivities over, he would ask how this unexpected and unwarranted situation had come about, and how, in heaven's name, the thing was to be carried through: by what means, with whose help?... In his complex of thought the word "thesis" came to his tongue, but he kept from speaking it. He had been advised that his son had at last struck out definitely into some bookish bypath--just what bypath mattered little, he gathered, if it were but followed to the end. Yet the end was still far--and the boy evidently realized this. He was glad that Bertram was sober over the prospect and over his present plan--which was a serious undertaking, just now, in truth.
Cope had to adjust himself to all this, and to endure, besides, the congratulations--or the comments--of a number of tiresome relatives; and it was a relief when, on the twenty-ninth, Arthur Lemoyne finally arrived.
Lemoyne had been heralded as a young man of parts, and as the son of a family which enjoyed, in Winnebago, some significant share of worldly prosperity, and, therefore, of social consideration. The simpler Copes, putting him in the other back bedroom, the ceiling of which sloped the opposite way, wondered if they were quite giving him his just dues. When Rosalys came to set away his handbag and to rearrange, next morning, his brushes on the top of the dresser, she gathered from various indications supplied by his outfit that the front chamber, at whatever inconvenience to whomever, would have been more suitable. But, "Never mind," said her mother; "they'll do very well as they are--side by side, with the door conveniently between. Then Bert can look after him a little more and we a little less."
Lemoyne presented himself to the combined family gaze as a young man of twenty-seven or so, with dark, limpid eyes, a good deal of dark, wavy hair, and limbs almost too plumply well-turned. In his hands the flesh minimized the prominence of joints and knuckles, and the fingers (especially the little fingers) displayed certain graceful, slightly affected movements of the kind which may cause a person to be credited--or taxed--with possessing the "artistic temperament." To end with, he carried two inches of short black stubble under his nose. He was a type which one may admire--or not. Rosalys Cope found in him a sort of picturesque allure. Rather liking him herself, she found a different reason for her brother's liking. "If Bert cares for him," she remarked, "I suppose it's largely by contrast--he's so spare and light-colored himself."
It was evident that, on this first meeting, Lemoyne meant to ingratiate himself--to make himself attractive and entertaining. He had determined to say a thing or two before he went away, and it would be advantageous to consolidate his position.
He had had five or six hours of cross-country travel, with some tedious waits at junctions, and at about ten o'clock, after some showy converse, he acknowledged himself tired enough for bed. Cope saw him up, and did not come down again. The two talked till past eleven; and even much later, when light sleepers in other parts of the house were awake for a few minutes, muffled sounds from the same two voices reached their ears.
But Cope's words, many as they were, told Lemoyne nothing that he did not know, little that he had not divined. The sum of all was this: Cope did not quite know how he had got into it; but he knew that he was miserable and wanted to get out of it.
Lemoyne had asked, first of all, to see the letter from Iowa. "Oh, come," Cope had replied, half-bashful, half-chivalrous, "you know it wasn't written for anybody but me."
"The substance of it, then," Lemoyne had demanded; and Cope, reluctant and shame-faced, had given it. "You've never been in anything of this sort, you know," he submitted.
"I should say not!" Lemoyne retorted. "Nor you, either. You're not in it now,--or, if you are, you're soon going to be out of it. You would help me through a thing like this, and I'm going to help you."
The talk went on. Lemoyne presented the case for a broken engagement. Engagements, as it was well known to human experience, might, if quickly made, be as quickly unmade: no novelty in that. "I had never expected to double up with an engaged man," Lemoyne declared further. "Nothing especially jolly about that--least of all when the poor wretch is held dead against his will." As he went on, he made Cope feel that he had violated an entente of long standing, and had almost brought a trusting friend down from home under false pretenses.
But phrases from Amy's letter continued to plague Cope. There was a confiding trust, a tender who-could-say-just-what?...
"Well," said Lemoyne, at about two o'clock, "let's put it off till morning. Turn over and go to sleep."
But before he fell asleep himself he resolved that he would make the true situation clear next day. He would address that sympathetic mother and that romantic sister in suitably cogent terms; the father, he felt sure, would require no effort and would even welcome his aid with a strong sense of relief.
So next day, Lemoyne, deploying his natural graces and his dramatic dexterities, drew away the curtain. He did not go so far as to say that Bertram had been tricked; he did not even go so far as to say that he had been inexpert: he contented himself with saying that his friend had been over-chivalrous and that his fine nature had rather been played upon. The mother took it all with a silent, inexpressive thoughtfulness, though it was felt that she did not want her boy to be unhappy. Rosalys, if she admired Lemoyne a little more, now liked him rather less. Her father, when the declaration reached him by secondary impact, did feel the sense of relief which Lemoyne had anticipated, and came to look upon him as an able, if somewhat fantastic, young fellow.
Cope himself, when his father questioned him, said with frank disconsolateness, "I'm miserable!" And, "I wish to heaven I were out of it!" he added.
"Get out of it," his father counselled; and when Cope's own feelings were clearly known through the household there was no voice of dissent. "And then buckle down for your degree," the elder added, to finish.
"If I only could!" exclaimed Cope, with a wan face,--convinced, youthfully, that the trouble through which he was now striving must last indefinitely. "I should be glad enough to get my mind on it, I'm sure."
He walked away to reconstruct a devastated privacy. "Arthur, I'm not quite sure that I thank you," he said, later.
"H'm!" replied Lemoyne non-committally. "I hope," he added, more definitely articulate, "that we're going to have a pleasanter life in our new quarters. I'm getting mighty little pleasure--if you'll just understand me --here!"
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