Over, however, the episode was not, and after a few days Martie realized with a sort of shame that she did not wish it to be over. She could not keep her memory away from the enchanted hours when John's presence had lent a glory to the dark old house and the prosaic village. She said with a pang: "It was only yesterday--it was only two--only three--days ago, that he was here, that all the warmth and delight of it was mine!"
The burning lightness and dryness seemed still to possess her: she was hardly conscious of the days she was living, for the poignancy and power of the remembered days. The blue taffeta dress had lost its charm, everything had grown strangely dull and poor.
She passed the lumber-yard with a quickened heart; she climbed the hill alone, and leaned on the fence where they had leaned, and let the full, splendid recollection sweep across her. She knelt in church and prayed that there would be a letter from Dean Silver, saying that Adele was dead--
A little cottage on a river bank in Connecticut became her Heaven. She gave it an old flag-stone walk, she sprinkled the green new grass of an Eastern spring with daisies. She dreamed of a simple room, where breezes and sunshine came by day, and the cool moon by night, and where she and John laughed over their bread and cheese.
So far it was more joy than pain. But there swiftly came a time when pain alone remained. Life became almost intolerable.
Clifford, coming duly to see her every evening, never dreamed of the thoughts that were darkening her blue eyes. He sat in the big chair opposite Malcolm's, and they talked about real estate, and about the various business ventures of the village. At nine o'clock Malcolm went stiffly upstairs, attended by Lydia, and then Martie took her father's seat, and Clifford hitched his chair nearer.
He would ask her what she was sewing, and sometimes she laughed, spreading the ruffle of a petticoat over her knee, and refused to consider his questions. They talked of little things pertaining to their engagement: Martie was sure somebody suspected it, Clifford had been thinking of the Yellowstone for a wedding trip, and had brought folders to study. Rarely they touched upon politics, or upon the questions of the day.
His opinions were already stiff-jointed, those of an elderly man. He did not believe in all this prohibition agitation, he believed that a gentleman always knew where to stop in the matter of wine. What right had a few temperance fanatics to vote that seven hundred acres of his, Clifford Frost's property, should be made valueless because they happened to be planted to grapes?
He disapproved of this agitation concerning the social evil. There had always been women in that life, and there always would be. They were in it because they liked it. They didn't have to choose it. Why didn't they go into somebody's kitchen, and save money, and have good homes, if they wanted to? He told Martie a little story that he thought was funny of one of these women. It was the sort of story that a man might tell the widow who was to be his wife. It made Martie want to cry.
She had always felt herself too ignorant to form an opinion of these things. But she found herself rapidly forming opinions now, and they were not Clifford's opinions.
Three days after his departure, Dean Silver wrote her briefly. John was "taking it very quietly, but didn't seem to know just what had happened." He, Dean, hoped to get the younger man safely on board the vessel before this mood broke. He had therefore engaged passage on the Nippon Maru, for Thursday, four days ahead. They were all in San Francisco, Mrs. Silver and the little girl had come down with them, and John was interested in the steamer, and seemed perfectly docile. He never mentioned Martie.
This letter threw her into an agony of indecision. There were a few moments when she planned to go down to the city herself, and see him--hear him again. Just a few minutes of John's eyes and his voice, of the intoxication of being so passionately loved--!
She put aside this impulse, and went to write a telegram. But her hand trembled as she did so, and her soul sickened. What could she offer him, what but pain and fresh renunciation?
She had made many mistakes in her life. But through them all a certain underlying principle had kept her safe. Could she fling that all aside now; that courage that had made her, a frightened girl of twenty, come with her unborn baby, away from the man whose marriage to her was in question, the faith that had helped her to kneel calm and brave beside the child who had gone?
To do that would make it all wasted and wrong. To do that would be to lose the little she had brought from the hard years. She knew that she would not do it. She put it all away, when the constant thought of it arose, as weakness and madness.
Thursday came, and Martie, walking toward Sally's house, where she and Teddy always had their Thursday supper, bought a paper, and read that the Nippon Maru had duly sailed.
On the way she met Teddy himself--he had been to the store for Aunt Sally--with 'Lizabeth and Billy; he was happy, chattering and curveting about her madly in the warm twilight. He was happy here, and safe, she told herself. And the Nippon Maru had sailed--
Sally was in her kitchen, her silky hair curled in damp rings on her forehead. She had on her best gown, a soft blue gingham, for Sally had just been elected to the club, and had been there this afternoon. She had turned up the skirt of her dress, and taken off the frilled white collar, laying it on a shelf until the dinner fuss and hurry should be over. Mary was sitting in the high-chair, clean and expectant, Jim was hammering nails in porch.
The children put down their bread and butter, Sally kissed her sister. Martie began to butter swiftly, and spread it with honey.
"San Francisco paper, Mart?"
"Yes." Martie did not look up. "Mr. Dryden and Mr. Silver sailed this morning," she said.
"Oh, really?" Sally turned a flushed face from the stove. "Lyd was talking about him to-day, and the way he acted, carrying you off for a walk, or something," Sally pursued cheerfully. "And until she happened to say that his wife is living, I declare I was frightened to death for fear he was in love with you, Mart!"
Martie stared at her in simple bewilderment. Could it be possible that Sally had seen nothing of the fevers and heartaches of this memorable week? Her innocent allusion to the night of their walk-- only a week ago!--brought Martie an actual pang.
For just one other such evening, for just one more talk, Martie was beginning to feel she would go mad. They had said so little then, they had known so little what this new separation would mean!
And Sally knew nothing of it. A sudden lonely blankness fell upon Martie's soul; it mattered nothing to Lydia and Rose and Sally that John Dryden loved her. It mattered more than life to her.
What use to talk of it? How flat the words would seem for that memory of everything high and splendid. Yet she felt the need of speech. She must talk of him to some one, now when it was too late: when he was out on the ocean: when she was perhaps never to see him again.
"Sis," she said, setting the filled plate in the centre of the table, "do you specially remember him?"
Sally had chanced to come to the old home for just a minute on the morning of her talk with John in the garden. Sally nodded now alertly.
"Certainly I do! He seemed a dear," she said cordially.
"I wish they had not come!" Martie said sombrely.
"You--wish--?" Sally's anxious eyes flashed to her face.
"That they had never come!"
"Oh, Mart! Oh, Mart, why?"
"Because--because I think perhaps I should not marry Cliff, feeling as I do to John!" Martie said desperately.
She had not quite meant it when she said it: her sick heart was merely trying to reach Sally's concern, it frightened her now to feel that it was almost true.
"What!" Sally whispered.
She was roused now: too much roused. Martie began hastily to reassure Sally, and herself, too.
"Oh, I will, Sally. Of course I will. And nobody will ever know this except you and me!"
"Martie, dear, he does care then?"
"Oh, yes, he cares!"
"But, Mart--that's terrible!"
Martie laughed ruefully.
"It's miserable!" she agreed, her eyes watering even while she smiled.
"He knew about Cliff?" Sally questioned.
"And his own wife is alive?"
"Well, then?" Sally concluded anxiously. "What does he want--what does he expect you to do?"
To this Martie only answered unhappily:
"I don't know."
Sally, staring at her in distress, was silent. But as Martie suddenly seemed to put the subject aside, and called the children for supper, she turned back to the stove in relief. Presently they were all gathered about the kitchen table, Martie encouraging the children, as usual, to launch into the conversation, and laughing in quite her usual merry manner at their observations. She took Mary into her lap, ruffling the curly little head with her kisses, and whispering endearments into the small ear. But Sally noticed that she was not eating.
Later, when they had put away the hot, clean dishes, and made the kitchen orderly for the night, Sally touched somewhat awkwardly upon the delicate topic.
"Too bad--about Mr. Dryden," Sally ventured. Martie, at the open doorway, gave no sign of hearing. Her splendid bronze head was resting against the jamb, she was looking down the shabby little littered backyard to the river. And suddenly it seemed to Sally that restless, lovely Martie did not really belong to Monroe, that this mysterious sister of hers never had belonged to Monroe, that Martie's well-groomed hair and hands were as little in place here as Martie's curious aloofness from the town affairs, as Martie's blue eyes through which her hungry soul occasionally looked. "I'm awfully sorry for him," Sally went on, a little uncertainly. "But what can you do? He must realize--"
"He realizes nothing!" Martie said, half-smiling, half-sighing.
"He's not a Catholic, then?"
"But you explained to him? And you told him about Cliff?"
"Yes; he knew about Cliff." But Martie's tone was so heavy, and the fashion in which she raised a hand to brush the hair from her white forehead was so suggestive of pain, that Sally felt a little tremor of apprehension.
"Martie--you don't--care, too?" she asked fearfully.
"With every fibre of my soul and body!" Martie answered, in a low, moody voice from the doorway. "Sally--Sally--Sally--to be free!" she went on, speaking, as Sally was vaguely aware, more for the relief of her own heart than for any effect on her sister. "To have him free! We always liked each other--loved each other, I think. What a life--what joy we would have! Oh, I can't bear it. I can't bear to have the days go by, and the years go by, and never--never see him or hear him again! I can't help Cliff; I can't help John's wife; I can't help it if he seems odd and boyish and different to other people--! That's what makes him John--what he is!"
"I never dreamed it," Sally marvelled.
"I never dreamed it myself, a week ago. I always had a sort of special feeling toward John, and I knew he had toward me. But I've been a romantic sort of fool all my life--my Prince Charming had to come dashing up on a white horse--I didn't recognize him because he was a little clerk in a furniture store, and married to the stupidest woman the Lord ever made!"
Sally laughed in spite of herself. Martie turned from the dimness of the doorway, and came into the hot, clean little room. She sat down at the table, and spread her arms across it, locking her white hands.
"It's all so funny. Sally," she said childishly. "A week ago, I was sailing along, humbly grateful and happy because Cliff loved me. To- day John Dryden sails for a year in the Orient. And between those few days he drifts in here just long enough to bring my plans all tumbling about my ears."
"I'm sorry!" Sally, busily setting bread, could say nothing more significant. But as Martie remained silent, brooding eyes on her own fingers, the older sister added timidly: "Do--do you think perhaps you'll get over that--that feeling?"
"That is my only hope!" Martie said courageously.
"And after all," Sally went on, eagerly, "what could he offer you? Cliff is--he's devoted to you, and he's steadiness itself! And I do believe you would be perfectly contented if you just put the other thing out of your mind, and tried to make the greatest happiness possible out of your new life! Lydia and Pa, and all of us, and Ruth and Teddy are all so happy about it And you know there's no safety like the safety of being married to a good man!"
"You're quite right, Sally! But," she added, her face growing serious again, "the terrible thing is this: If I marry Cliff, I do it--just a little--with other things in view. The children, as you say, and the good opinion of the town, and Pa's happiness, and Len's prosperity, and the pleasure of being mistress of the old house, and dear knows what! Of course I like Cliff--but I tell you frankly that I'm looking even now to the time when our honeymoon shall be over, and the first strangeness of--well, of belonging to him is over!"
Sally's face was flaming. She had stopped working, and both sisters faced each other consciously.
"In other words," smiled Martie, "I wish I had been married to him ten years ago, and by this time had little Sally and Cliffy--"
"Oh, dearest, I do hope there are children!" Sally said eagerly.
"I hope so, too!" Martie said simply. And with suddenly misting eyes Sally heard her say softly, half to herself, "I want another girl!" Then her lip trembled, and to the older sister's consternation she began to cry, with her shining head laid on her arms. "I don't know w-w-what to do, Sally!" she sobbed. "I don't know what is right! I know I'm desperately tired of worrying and fretting and being criticised! I don't see why it should be my life that is always being upset and disorganized, while other women go on placidly having children and giving dinners!"
"Perhaps because you are so different from other? women?" Sally suggested, somewhat timidly. She was not sure that Martie would like this.
But Martie gave her a grateful glance, and immediately dried her eyes with a brisk evidence of returning self-control.
"Well!" she said sensibly. "It is that way, anyhow, and I have to make the best of it. I married foolishly, in some ways, and I paid the price--nobody knows what it was! Then I came back here, and had really worked out a happy life for myself, when Cliff came along, and no sooner was I adjusted to Cliff--to the thought of marriage again, when John upset it all!"
"The happiness of the woman who marries Cliff ought to be pretty safe," offered Sally.
"Yes, I know it. But Sally," Martie said, looking at her sister questioningly, "sometimes I feel that I don't dare risk it! I can't marry John, but I can't seem to--to let him go, either. I know what madness that visit was, and yet--and yet every minute that we were together was like--I don't know--like swimming in a sea of gold! I didn't know what I wore or ate in those days! Pa and Lyd--other people didn't seem to exist! I never believed before that any one could feel as strange--as bewildered and excited and happy--as I did then. It was like being hungry and satisfied at the same time. It was just like being under a spell! His voice, Sally, and the way he speaks of men and books--so surely, and yet in that boyish way--and his hands, and the way he smiles through his lashes--I can't forget one instant of it! We got breakfast together; I can't go into the kitchen now without remembering it, and longing to have him there again, whipping eggs and hunting about for the butter, while all the time we were laughing and talking so wonderfully! It's that--loving that way, that makes life worth while, Sally. Nothing else counts! Nothing that we did together seemed insignificant, and nothing that I do without him is worth while--I can't--can't--can't let him go!"
Sally was frightened as her sister's head went down again. She could think of nothing to say. "I can't help thinking that our life would be that," Martie went on presently, raising her sombre face to rest it on one hand, her elbows propped on the table. "Everything would be wonderful, just because we love each other so! He writes, and I would write---"
"Feeling as you do," Sally said after a troubled silence, "I would really say that you oughtn't to marry any one else, Mart. But even if Cliff gave you up, how could you marry a divorced man?"
"Oh, Sally--don't keep reiterating that it's impossible!" Martie said with a flash of impatience. "I know it--I know it--but that doesn't make it any easier to bear! You women who have so much can't realize---"
"You have Teddy," Sally suggested, in the silence.
"Yes, I have Teddy--God bless him!" his mother said, with a sudden tender smile. And she seemed to see a line of little Teddies, playing with Grandma Curley's spools, glancing fearfully at the "Cold Lairs," walking sturdily beside Margar's shabby coach, chattering to a quiet, black-clad mother on the overland train. She had her gallant, gay little Teddy still. "I don't know why I talk so recklessly, Sally," she said sensibly. "It's only that I am so worried--and troubled. I don't know what I ought to do! Suppose I tell Cliff frankly, and we break the engagement? Then John will come back, and there'll be all that to go over and over!"
"But that's--just selfishness," said Sally, spreading a checked blue towel neatly over her pan of dough, and adding last touches to the now orderly kitchen.
"Oh, men are all selfish!" Martie conceded. "Every one's selfish! Cliff quite placidly broke Lydia's heart years ago; Rose and Rodney between them nearly broke mine. But now Cliff wants something from me, and Rose realizes that she has something to gain, and it's roses, roses all the way."
"Well, that's life, Mart," submitted the older sister.
"If I had it all to do over again," Martie mused, "I wouldn't come back after Wallace's death. Teddy and I could have made our way comfortably in New York. By coming, I have more or less obliged myself to accept the Monroe point of view---"
"Oh, but Mart, we've had such wonderful times together, and it means so much to me to have you like Joe and the children!" said Sally.
"Yes," Martie's arm went about her sister, "that's been the one definite gain, Sally, to see you so happy and prosperous, and to realize that life is going so pleasantly for you. As the years go by, Joe'll gain steadily; he's that sort; and Dr. Hawkes's children won't have to envy any children in Monroe. But, oh, Sis--if I could get away!"
The old cry, Sally thought, as she anxiously studied the beautiful, discontented face.
Presently Clifford came, to take his future wife home, and Joe came back from the hospital in the Ford, and there was much friendly talk and laughter. But Sally watched her sister a little wistfully that evening; didn't Martie think this was all pleasant--all worth while?