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A FAILURE IN TACTICS
Miss Eleanor Stanley Maxwell Elliot, home from her wanderings, stretched her hammock and herself in it between two trees in a rose-sweet nook at Greenvale, and gave herself up to a reckoning of assets and liabilities. Decidedly the balance was on the wrong side. Miss Esmé could not dodge the unseemly conclusion that she was far from pleased with herself. This was perhaps a salutary frame of mind, but not a pleasant one. If possible, she was even less pleased with the world in which she lived. And this was neither salutary nor pleasant. Furthermore, it was unique in her experience. Hitherto she had been accustomed to a universe made to her order and conducted on much the same principle. Now it no longer ran with oiled smoothness.
Her trip on the Pierce yacht had been much less restful than she had anticipated. For this she blamed that sturdy knight of the law, Mr. William Douglas. Mr. Douglas's offense was that he had inveigled her into an engagement. (I am employing her own term descriptive of the transaction.) It was a crime of brief duration and swift penalty. The relation had endured just four weeks. Possibly its tenure of life might have been longer had not the young-middle-aged lawyer accepted, quite naturally, an invitation to join the cruise of the Pierce family and his fiancée. The lawyer's super-respectful attitude toward his principal client disgusted Esmé. She called it servile.
For contrast she had the memory of another who had not been servile, even to his dearest hope. There were more personal contrasts of memory, too; subtler, more poignant, that flushed in her blood and made the mere presence of her lover repellent to her. The status became unbearable. Esmé ended it. In plain English, she jilted the highly eligible Mr. William Douglas. To herself she made the defense that he was not what she had thought, that he had changed. This was unjust. He had not changed in the least; he probably never would change from being the private-secretary type of lawyer. Toward her, in his time of trial, he behaved not ill. Justifiably, he protested against her decision. Finding her immovable, he accepted the prevailing Worthingtonian theory of Miss Elliot's royal prerogative as regards the male sex, and returned, miserably enough, to his home and his practice.
Another difficulty had arisen to make distasteful the Pierce hospitality. Kathleen Pierce, in a fit of depression foreign to her usually blithe and easy-going nature, had become confidential and had blurted out certain truths which threw a new and, to Esmé, disconcerting light upon the episode of the motor accident. In her first appeal to Esmé, it now appeared, the girl had been decidedly less than frank. Therefore, in her own judgment of Hal and the "Clarion," Esmé had been decidedly less than just. In her resentment, Esmé had almost quarreled with her friend. Common honesty, she pointed out, required a statement to Harrington Surtaine upon the point. Would Kathleen write such a letter? No! Kathleen would not. In fact, Kathleen would be d-a-m-n-e-d, darned, if she would. Very well; then it remained only (this rather loftily) for Esmé herself to explain to Mr. Surtaine. Later, she decided to explain by word of mouth. This would involve her return to Worthington, which she had come to long for. She had become sensible of a species of homesickness.
In some ill-defined way Harrington Surtaine was involved in that nostalgia. Not that she had any desire to see him! But she felt a certain justifiable curiosity--she was satisfied that it was justifiable--to know what he was doing with the "Clarion," since her established sphere of influence had ceased to be influential. Was he really as unyielding in other tests of principle as he had shown himself with her? Already she had altered her attitude to the extent of admitting that it was principle, even though mistaken. Esmé had been subscribing to the "Clarion," and studying it; also she had written, withal rather guardedly, to sundry people who might throw light on the subject; to her uncle, to Dr. Hugh Merritt, her old and loyal friend largely by virtue of being one of the few young men of the place who never had been in love with her (he had other preoccupations), to young Denton the reporter, who was a sort of cousin, and to Mrs. Festus Willard, who, alone of the correspondents, suspected the underlying motive. From these sundry informants she garnered diverse opinions; the sum and substance of which was that, on the whole, Hal was fighting the good fight and with some success. Thereupon Esmé hated him harder than before--and with considerably more difficulty.
On a late May day she had slipped quietly back into Worthington. That small portion of the populace which constituted Worthington society was ready to welcome her joyously. But she had no wish to be joyously welcomed. She didn't feel particularly joyous, herself. And society meant going to places where she would undoubtedly meet Will Douglas and would probably not meet Hal Surtaine. Esmé confessed to herself that Douglas was rather on her conscience, a fact which, in itself, marked some change of nature in the Great American Pumess. She decided that society was a bore. For refuge she turned to her interest in the slums, where the Reverend Norman Hale, for whom she had a healthy, honest respect and liking, was, so she learned, finding his hands rather more than full. Always an enthusiast in her pursuits, she now threw herself into this to the total exclusion of all other interests.
To herself she explained this on the theory that she needed something to occupy her mind. Something else she really meant, for Mr. Harrington Surtaine was now occupying it to an inexcusable extent. She wished very much to see Harrington Surtaine, and, for the first time in her life, she feared what she wished. What she had so loftily announced to Kathleen Pierce as her unalterable determination toward the editor of the "Clarion" wasn't as easy to perform as to promise. Yet, the explanation of the partial error, into which the self-excusatory Miss Pierce had led her, was certainly due him, according to her notions of fair play. If she sent for him to come, he would, she shrewdly judged, decline. The alternative was to beard him in his office. In the strengthening and self-revealing solitude of her garden, this glowing summer day, Esmé sat trying to make up her mind. A daring brown thrasher, his wings a fair match for the ruddy-golden glow in the girl's eyes, hopped into her haunt, and twittered his counsel of courage.
"I'll do it NOW," said Esmé, and the bird, with a triumphant chirp of congratulation, swooped off to tell the news to the world of wings and flowers.
To the consequent interview there was no witness. So it may best be chronicled in the report made by the interviewer to her friend Mrs. Festus Willard, who, in the cool seclusion of her sewing-room, was overwhelmed by a rush of Esmé to the heart, as she put it. Not having been apprised of Miss Elliot's conflicting emotions since her departure, Mrs. Willard's mind was as a page blank for impressions when her visitor burst in upon her, pirouetted around the room, appropriated the softest corner of the divan, and announced spiritedly:
"You needn't ask me where I've been, for I won't tell you; or what I've been doing, for it's my own affair; anyway, you wouldn't be interested. And if you insist on knowing, I've been revisiting the pale glimpses of the moon--at three o'clock P.M."
"What do you mean, moon?" inquired Mrs. Willard, unconsciously falling into a pit of slang.
"The moon we all cry for and don't get. In this case a haughty young editor."
"You've been to see Hal Surtaine," deduced Mrs. Willard.
"You have guessed it--with considerable aid and assistance."
"On a matter of journalistic import," said Miss Elliot solemnly.
"But you don't cry for Hal Surtaine," objected her friend, reverting to the lunar metaphor.
"Don't I? I'd have cried--I'd have burst into a perfect storm of tears--for him--or you--or anybody who so much as pointed a finger at me, I was so scared."
"Scared? You! I don't believe it."
"I don't believe it myself--now," confessed Esmé, candidly. "But it felt most extremely like it at the time."
"You know I don't at all approve of--"
"Of me. I know you don't, Jinny. Neither does he."
"What did you do to him?"
"Me? I cooed at him like a dove of peace.
"But he was very stiff and proud He said, 'You needn't talk so loud,'"
chanted Miss Esmé mellifluously.
"Well, if he didn't, he meant it. He wanted to know what the big, big D-e-v, dev, I was doing there, anyway."
"Norrie Elliot! Tell me the truth."
"Very well," said Miss Elliot, aggrieved. "You report the conversation, then, since you won't accept my version."
"If you would give me a start--"
"Just what he wouldn't do for me," interrupted Esmé. "I went in there to explain something and he pointed the finger of scorn at me and accused me of frequenting low and disreputable localities."
"Well," replied the girl brazenly, "he said he'd seen me about the Rookeries district; and if that isn't a low--"
"Nothing more probable, though I didn't happen to see him there."
"What were you doing there?"
"Precisely what he wanted to know. He said it rather as if he owned the place. So I explained in words of one syllable that I went there to pick edelweiss from the fire escapes. Jinny, dear, you don't know how hard it is to crowd 'edelweiss' into one syllable until you've tried. It splutters."
"So do you," said the indignant Mrs. Willard. "You do worse; you gibber. If you weren't just the prettiest thing that Heaven ever made, some one would have slain you long ago for your sins."
"Pretty, yourself," retorted Esmé. "My real charm lies in my rigid adherence to the spirit of truth. Your young friend Mr. Surtaine scorned my floral jest. He indicated that I ought not to be about the tenements. He said there was a great deal of sickness there. That was why I was there, I explained politely. Then he said that the sickness might be contagious, and he muttered something about an epidemic and then looked as if he wished he hadn't."
"I've heard some talk of sickness in the Rookeries. Ought you to be going there?" asked the other anxiously.
"Mr. Surtaine thinks not. Quite severely. And in elderly tones. Naturally I asked him what kind of an epidemic it was. He said he didn't know, but he was sure the place was dangerous, and he was surprised that Uncle Guardy hadn't warned me. Uncle Guardy had, but I don't do everything I'm warned about. So then I asked young Mr. Editor why, as he knew there was a dangerous epidemic about, he should warn little me privately instead of warning the big public, publicly."
"Meddlesome child! Can you never learn to keep your hands off?"
"I was spurring him to his editorial duties.
"But he was very proud and stiff ... He said that he would tell me, if--"
lilted Miss Esmé, rising to do a pas seul upon the Willards' priceless Anatolian rug.
"Sit down," commanded her hostess. "If--what?"
"If nothing. Just if. That's the end of the song. Don't you know your Lewis Carroll?
"I sent a message to the fish, I told them, 'This is what I wish.' The little fishes of the sea, They sent an answer--"
"I don't want to know about the fish," disclaimed Mrs. Willard vehemently. "I want to know what happened between you and Hal Surtaine."
"And you the Vice-President of the Poetry Club!" reproached Esmé. "Very well. He was very proud and--Oh, I said that before. But he really was, this time. He said, 'Our last discussion of the policy of the "Clarion" closed that topic between us.' Somebody called him away before I could think of anything mean and superior enough to answer, and when he came back--always supposing he isn't still hiding in the cellar--I was no longer present."
"Then you didn't give him the message you went for."
"No. Didn't I say I was scared?"
Mrs. Willard excused herself, ostensibly to speak to a maid; in reality to speak to a telephone. On her return she made a frontal attack:--
"Norrie, what made you break your engagement to Will Douglas?"
"Why? Don't you approve?"
"Did you break it for the same reason that drove you into it?"
"What reason do you think drove me into it?"
"He didn't!" she denied furiously.
"And you didn't break it because of him?"
"No! I broke it because I don't want to get married," cried the girl in a rush of words. "Not to Will Douglas. Or to--to anybody. Why should I? I don't want to--I won't," she continued, half laughing, half sobbing, "go and have to bother about running a house and have a lot of babies and lose my pretty figure--and get fat--and dowdy--and slow-poky--and old. Look at Molly Vane: twins already. She's a horrible example. Why do people always have to have children--"
She stopped, abruptly, herself stricken at the stricken look in the other's face. "Oh, Jinny, darling Jinny," she gasped; "I forgot! Your baby. Your little, dead baby! I'm a fool; a poor little silly fool, chattering of realities that I know nothing about."
"You will know some day, my dear," said the other woman, smiling valiantly. "Don't deny the greatest reality of all, when it comes. Are you sure you're not denying it now?"
The sunbeams crept and sparkled, like light upon ruffled waters, across Esmé's obstinately shaken head.
"Perhaps you couldn't help hurting him. But be sure you aren't hurting yourself, too."
"That's the worst of it," said the girl, with one of her sudden accesses of sweet candor. "I needn't have hurt him at all. I was stupid." She paused in her revelation. "But he was stupider," she declared vindictively; "so it serves him right."
"How was he stupider?"
"He thought," said Esmé with sorrowful solemnity, "that I was just as bad as I seemed. He ought to have known me better."
The older woman bent and laid a cheek against the sunny hair. "And weren't you just as bad as you seemed?"
"Worse! Anyway, I'm afraid so," said the confessional voice, rather muffled in tone. "But I--I just got led into it. Oh, Jinny, I'm not awfully happy."
Mrs. Willard's head went up and she cocked an attentive ear, like an expectant robin. "Some one outside," said she. "I'll be back in a moment. You sit there and think it over."
Esmé curled back on the divan. A minute later she heard the curtains part at the end of the dim room, and glanced up with a smile, to face, not Jeannette Willard, but Hal Surtaine.
"You 'phoned for me, Lady Jinny," he began: and then, with a start, "Esmé! I--I didn't expect to find you here."
"Nor I to see you," she said, with a calmness that belied her beating heart. "Sit down, please. I have something to tell you. It's what I really came to the office to say."
"About Kathleen Pierce."
Hal frowned. "Do you think there can be any use--"
"Please," she begged, with uplifted eyes of entreaty. "She--she didn't tell me the truth about that interview with your reporter. It was true; but she made me think it wasn't. She confessed to me, and she feels very badly. So do I. I believed that you had deliberately made that up, about her saying that she didn't turn back because she wanted to catch a train. I believed, too, that the editorial was written after our--our talk. I'm sorry."
Hal stood above her, looking rather stern, and a little old and worn, she thought.
"If that is an apology, it is accepted," he said with surface politeness.
To him she was, in that moment, a light-minded woman apologizing for the petty misdeed, and paying no heed to the graver wrong that she had done him. Jeannette Willard could have set him right in a word; could have shown him what the girl felt, unavowedly to herself but with underlying conviction, that for so great an offense no apology could suffice; nothing short of complete surrender. But Mrs. Willard was not there to help out. She was waiting hopefully, outside.
"And that is all?" he said, after a pause, with just a shade of contempt in his voice.
"All," she said lightly, "unless you choose to tell me how the 'Clarion' is getting on."
"As well as could be expected. We pay high for our principles. But thus far we've held to them. You should read the paper."
"To expect your approval would be too much, I suppose."
"No. In many ways I like it. In fact, I think I'll renew my subscription."
It was innocently said, without thought of the old playful bargain between them, which had terminated with the mailing of the withered arbutus. But to Hal it seemed merely a brazen essay in coquetry; an attempt to reconstitute the former relation, for her amusement.
"The subscription lists are closed, on the old terms," he said crisply.
"Oh, you couldn't have thought I meant that!" she whispered; but he was already halfway down the room, on the echo of his "Good-afternoon, Miss Elliot."
As before, he turned at the door. And he carried with him, to muse over in the depths of his outraged heart once more, the mystery of that still and desperate smile. Any woman could have solved it for him. Any, except, possibly, Esmé Elliot.
"It didn't come out as I hoped, Festus," said the sorrowful little Mrs. Willard to her husband that evening. "I don't know that Hal will ever believe in her again. How can he be so--so stupidly unforgiving!"
"Always the man's fault, of course," said her big husband comfortably.
"No. She's to blame. But it's the fault of men in general that Norrie is what she is; the men of this town, I mean. No man has ever been a man with Norrie Elliot."
"What have they been?"
"Mice. It's a tradition of the place. They lie down in rows for her to trample on. So of course she tramples on them."
"Well, I never trampled on mice myself," observed Festus Willard. "It sounds like uncertain footing. But I'll bet you five pounds of your favorite candy against one of your very best kisses, that if she undertakes to make a footpath of Hal Surtaine she'll get her feet hurt."
"Or her heart," said his wife. "And, oh, Festus dear, it's such a real, warm, dear heart, under all the spoiled-childness of her."
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