Mrs. Ambrose Dale--forty, slender, still young--sits in her drawing-room
at the tea-table. The winter twilight is falling, a lamp has been lit,
there is a fire on the hearth, and the room is pleasantly dim and
flower-scented. Books are scattered everywhere--mostly with autograph
inscriptions "From the Author"--and a large portrait of_ Mrs. Dale,
_at her desk, with papers strewn about her, takes up one of the
wall-panels. Before_ Mrs. Dale _stands_ Hilda, _fair and twenty,
her hands full of letters_.
_Mrs. Dale_. Ten more applications for autographs? Isn't it strange
that people who'd blush to borrow twenty dollars don't scruple to beg for
_Hilda (reproachfully)_. Oh--
_Mrs. Dale_. What's the difference, pray?
_Hilda_. Only that your last autograph sold for fifty--
_Mrs. Dale (not displeased)_. Ah?--I sent for you, Hilda, because I'm
dining out to-night, and if there's nothing important to attend to among
these letters you needn't sit up for me.
_Hilda_. You don't mean to work?
_Mrs. Dale_. Perhaps; but I sha'n't need you. You'll see that my
cigarettes and coffee-machine are in place, and: that I don't have to crawl
about the floor in search of my pen-wiper? That's all. Now about these
_Hilda (impulsively)_. Oh, Mrs. Dale--
_Mrs. Dale_. Well?
_Hilda_. I'd rather sit up for you.
_Mrs. Dale_. Child, I've nothing for you to do. I shall be blocking
out the tenth chapter of _Winged Purposes_ and it won't be ready for
you till next week.
_Hilda_. It isn't that--but it's so beautiful to sit here, watching
and listening, all alone in the night, and to feel that you're in there
_(she points to the study-door)_ _creating_--._(Impulsively.)_
What do I care for sleep?
_Mrs. Dale (indulgently)_. Child--silly child!--Yes, I should have
felt so at your age--it would have been an inspiration--
_Hilda (rapt)_. It is!
_Mrs. Dale_. But you must go to bed; I must have you fresh in the
morning; for you're still at the age when one is fresh in the morning!
_(She sighs.)_ The letters? _(Abruptly.)_ Do you take notes of
what you feel, Hilda--here, all alone in the night, as you say?
_Hilda (shyly)_. I have--
_Mrs. Dale (smiling)_. For the diary?
_Hilda (nods and blushes)_.
_Mrs. Dale (caressingly)_. Goose!--Well, to business. What is there?
_Hilda_. Nothing important, except a letter from Stroud & Fayerweather
to say that the question of the royalty on _Pomegranate Seed_ has been
settled in your favor. The English publishers of _Immolation_ write
to consult you about a six-shilling edition; Olafson, the Copenhagen
publisher, applies for permission to bring out a Danish translation of
_The Idol's Feet_; and the editor of the _Semaphore_ wants a new
serial--I think that's all; except that _Woman's Sphere_ and _The
Droplight_ ask for interviews--with photographs--
_Mrs. Dale_. The same old story! I'm so toed of it all. _(To
herself, in an undertone.)_ But how should I feel if it all stopped?
_(The servant brings in a card.)_
_Mrs. Dale (reading it)_. Is it possible? Paul Ventnor? _(To the
servant.)_ Show Mr. Ventnor up. _(To herself.)_ Paul Ventnor!
_Hilda (breathless)_. Oh, Mrs. Dale--_the_ Mr. Ventnor?
_Mrs. Dale (smiling)_. I fancy there's only one.
_Hilda_. The great, great poet? _(Irresolute.)_ No, I don't
_Mrs. Dale (with a tinge of impatience)_. What?
_Hilda (fervently)_. Ask you--if I might--oh, here in this corner,
where he can't possibly notice me--stay just a moment? Just to see him come
in? To see the meeting between you--the greatest novelist and the greatest
poet of the age? Oh, it's too much to ask! It's an historic moment.
_Mrs. Dale_. Why, I suppose it is. I hadn't thought of it in that
light. Well _(smiling)_, for the diary--
_Hilda_. Oh, thank you, _thank you_! I'll be off the very instant
I've heard him speak.
_Mrs. Dale_. The very instant, mind. _(She rises, looks at herself
in the glass, smooths her hair, sits down again, and rattles the
tea-caddy.)_ Isn't the room very warm?--_(She looks over at her
portrait.)_ I've grown stouter since that was painted--. You'll make a
fortune out of that diary, Hilda--
_Hilda (modestly)_. Four publishers have applied to me already--
_The Servant (announces)_. Mr. Paul Ventnor.
_(Tall, nearing fifty, with an incipient stoutness buttoned into a
masterly frock-coat, Ventnor drops his glass and advances vaguely, with a
_Ventnor_. Mrs. Dale?
_Mrs. Dale_. My dear friend! This is kind. _(She looks over her
shoulder at Hilda, mho vanishes through the door to the left.)_ The
papers announced your arrival, but I hardly hoped--
_Ventnor (whose short-sighted stare is seen to conceal a deeper
embarrassment)_. You hadn't forgotten me, then?
_Mrs. Dale_. Delicious! Do _you_ forget that you're public
_Ventnor_. Forgotten, I mean, that we were old friends?
_Mrs. Dale_. Such old friends! May I remind you that it's nearly
twenty years since we've met? Or do you find cold reminiscences
_Ventnor_. On the contrary, I've come to ask you for a dish of
them--we'll warm them up together. You're my first visit.
_Mrs. Dale_. How perfect of you! So few men visit their women friends
in chronological order; or at least they generally do it the other way
round, beginning with the present day and working back--if there's time--to
_Ventnor_. But when prehistoric woman has become historic woman--?
_Mrs. Dale_. Oh, it's the reflection of my glory that has guided you
_Ventnor_. It's a spirit in my feet that has led me, at the first
opportunity, to the most delightful spot I know.
_Mrs. Dale_. Oh, the first opportunity--!
_Ventnor_. I might have seen you very often before; but never just in
the right way.
_Mrs. Dale_. Is this the right way?
_Ventnor_. It depends on you to make it so.
_Mrs. Dale_. What a responsibility! What shall I do?
_Ventnor_. Talk to me--make me think you're a little glad to see me;
give me some tea and a cigarette; and say you're out to everyone else.
_Mrs. Dale_. Is that all? _(She hands him a cup of tea.)_ The
cigarettes are at your elbow--. And do you think I shouldn't have been glad
to see you before?
_Ventnor_. No; I think I should have been too glad to see you.
_Mrs. Dale_. Dear me, what precautions! I hope you always wear
goloshes when it looks like rain and never by any chance expose yourself
to a draught. But I had an idea that poets courted the emotions--
_Ventnor_. Do novelists?
_Mrs. Dale_. If you ask _me_--on paper!
_Ventnor_. Just so; that's safest. My best things about the sea have
been written on shore. _(He looks at her thoughtfully.)_ But it
wouldn't have suited us in the old days, would it?
_Mrs. Dale (sighing)_. When we were real people!
_Ventnor_. Real people?
_Mrs. Dale_. Are _you_, now? I died years ago. What you see
before you is a figment of the reporter's brain--a monster manufactured out
of newspaper paragraphs, with ink in its veins. A keen sense of copyright
is _my_ nearest approach to an emotion.
_Ventnor (sighing)_. Ah, well, yes--as you say, we're public property.
_Mrs. Dale_. If one shared equally with the public! But the last shred
of my identity is gone.
_Ventnor_. Most people would be glad to part with theirs on such
terms. I have followed your work with immense interest. _Immolation_
is a masterpiece. I read it last summer when it first came out.
_Mrs. Dale (with a shade less warmth)_. _Immolation_ has been out
_Ventnor_. Oh, by Jove--no? Surely not--But one is so overwhelmed--one
loses count. (_Reproachfully_.) Why have you never sent me your books?
_Mrs. Dale_. For that very reason.
_Ventnor (deprecatingly)_. You know I didn't mean it for you! And
_my_ first book--do you remember--was dedicated to you.
_Mrs. Dale_. _Silver Trumpets_--
_Ventnor (much interested)_. Have you a copy still, by any chance? The
first edition, I mean? Mine was stolen years ago. Do you think you could
put your hand on it?
_Mrs. Dale (taking a small shabby book from the table at her side)_.
_Ventnor (eagerly)_. May I have it? Ah, thanks. This is _very_
interesting. The last copy sold in London for £40, and they tell me the
next will fetch twice as much. It's quite _introuvable_.
_Mrs. Dale_. I know that. _(A pause. She takes the book from him,
opens it, and reads, half to herself--)_
_How much we two have seen together,
Of other eyes unwist,
Dear as in days of leafless weather
The willow's saffron mist,
Strange as the hour when Hesper swings
A-sea in beryl green,
While overhead on dalliant wings
The daylight hangs serene,
And thrilling as a meteor's fall
Through depths of lonely sky,
When each to each two watchers call:
I saw it!--So did I._
_Ventnor_. Thin, thin--the troubadour tinkle. Odd how little promise
there is in first volumes!
_Mrs. Dale (with irresistible emphasis)_. I thought there was a
distinct promise in this!
_Ventnor (seeing his mistake)_. Ah--the one you would never let me
fulfil? _(Sentimentally.)_ How inexorable you were! You never
dedicated a book to _me_.
_Mrs. Dale_. I hadn't begun to write when we were--dedicating things
to each other.
_Ventnor_. Not for the public--but you wrote for me; and, wonderful as
you are, you've never written anything since that I care for half as much
_Mrs. Dale (interested)_. Well?
_Ventnor_. Your letters.
_Mrs. Dale (in a changed voice)_. My letters--do you remember them?
_Ventnor_. When I don't, I reread them.
_Mrs. Dale (incredulous)_. You have them still?
_Ventnor (unguardedly)_. You haven't mine, then?
_Mrs. Dale (playfully)_. Oh, you were a celebrity already. Of course I
kept them! _(Smiling.)_ Think what they are worth now! I always keep
them locked up in my safe over there. _(She indicates a cabinet.)
Ventnor (after a pause)_. I always carry yours with me.
_Mrs. Dale (laughing)_. You--
_Ventnor_. Wherever I go. _(A longer pause. She looks at him
fixedly.)_ I have them with me now.
_Mrs. Dale (agitated)_. You--have them with you--now?
_Ventnor (embarrassed)_. Why not? One never knows--
_Mrs. Dale_. Never knows--?
_Ventnor (humorously)_. Gad--when the bank-examiner may come round.
You forget I'm a married man.
_Mrs. Dale_. Ah--yes.
_Ventnor (sits down beside her)_. I speak to you as I couldn't to
anyone else--without deserving a kicking. You know how it all came about.
_(A pause.)_ You'll bear witness that it wasn't till you denied me all
_Mrs. Dale (a little breathless)_. Yes, yes--
_Ventnor_. Till you sent me from you--
_Mrs. Dale_. It's so easy to be heroic when one is young! One doesn't
realize how long life is going to last afterward. _(Musing.)_ Nor what
weary work it is gathering up the fragments.
_Ventnor_. But the time comes when one sends for the china-mender, and
has the bits riveted together, and turns the cracked side to the wall--
_Mrs. Dale_. And denies that the article was ever damaged?
_Ventnor_. Eh? Well, the great thing, you see, is to keep one's self
out of reach of the housemaid's brush. _(A pause.)_ If you're married
you can't--always. _(Smiling.)_ Don't you hate to be taken down and
_Mrs. Dale (with intention)_. You forget how long ago my husband died.
It's fifteen years since I've been an object of interest to anybody but the
_Ventnor (smiling)_. The only one of your admirers to whom you've ever
given the least encouragement!
_Mrs. Dale_. Say rather the most easily pleased!
_Ventnor_. Or the only one you cared to please?
_Mrs. Dale_. Ah, you _haven't_ kept my letters!
_Ventnor (gravely)_. Is that a challenge? Look here, then! _(He
drams a packet from his pocket and holds it out to her.)_
_Mrs. Dale (taking the packet and looking at him earnestly)_. Why have
you brought me these?
_Ventnor_. I didn't bring them; they came because I came--that's all.
_(Tentatively.)_ Are we unwelcome?
_Mrs. Dale (who has undone the packet and does not appear to hear
him)_. The very first I ever wrote you--the day after we met at the
concert. How on earth did you happen to keep it? _(She glances over
it.)_ How perfectly absurd! Well, it's not a compromising document.
_Ventnor_. I'm afraid none of them are.
_Mrs. Dale (quickly)_. Is it to that they owe their immunity? Because
one could leave them about like safety matches?--Ah, here's another I
remember--I wrote that the day after we went skating together for the first
time. _(She reads it slowly.)_ How odd! How very odd!
_Mrs. Dale_. Why, it's the most curious thing--I had a letter of this
kind to do the other day, in the novel I'm at work on now--the letter of a
woman who is just--just beginning--
_Ventnor_. Yes--just beginning--?
_Mrs. Dale_. And, do you know, I find the best phrase in it, the
phrase I somehow regarded as the fruit of--well, of all my subsequent
discoveries--is simply plagiarized, word for word, from this!
_Ventnor (eagerly)_. I told you so! You were all there!
_Mrs. Dale (critically)_. But the rest of it's poorly done--very
poorly. _(Reads the letter over.)_ H'm--I didn't know how to leave
off. It takes me forever to get out of the door.
_Ventnor (gayly)_. Perhaps I was there to prevent you! _(After a
pause.)_ I wonder what I said in return?
_Mrs. Dale (interested)_. Shall we look? _(She rises.)_ Shall
we--really? I have them all here, you know. _(She goes toward the
_Ventnor (following her with repressed eagerness)_. Oh--all!
_Mrs. Dale (throws open the door of the cabinet, revealing a number of
packets)_. Don't you believe me now?
_Ventnor_. Good heavens! How I must have repeated myself! But then you
were so very deaf.
_Mrs. Dale (takes out a packet and returns to her seat. Ventnor extends
an impatient hand for the letters)_. No--no; wait! I want to find your
answer to the one I was just reading. _(After a pause.)_ Here it
is--yes, I thought so!
_Ventnor_. What did you think?
_Mrs. Dale (triumphantly)_. I thought it was the one in which you
_Ventnor_. Mercy! Did I _quote_ things? I don't wonder you were
_Mrs. Dale_. Ah, and here's the other--the one I--the one I didn't
answer--for a long time. Do you remember?
_Ventnor (with emotion)_. Do I remember? I wrote it the morning after
we heard _Isolde_--
_Mrs. Dale (disappointed)_. No--no. _That_ wasn't the one I
didn't answer! Here--this is the one I mean.
_Ventnor (takes it curiously)_. Ah--h'm--this is very like unrolling a
mummy--_(he glances at her)_--with a live grain of wheat in it,
perhaps?--Oh, by Jove!
_Mrs. Dale_. What?
_Ventnor_. Why, this is the one I made a sonnet out of afterward! By
Jove, I'd forgotten where that idea came from. You may know the lines
perhaps? They're in the fourth volume of my Complete Edition--It's the
_Love came to me with unrelenting eyes--_
one of my best, I rather fancy. Of course, here it's very crudely put--the
values aren't brought out--ah! this touch is good though--very good. H'm, I
daresay there might be other material. _(He glances toward the
_Mrs. Dale (drily)_. The live grain of wheat, as you said!
_Ventnor_. Ah, well--my first harvest was sown on rocky
ground--_now_ I plant for the fowls of the air. _(Rising and walking
toward the cabinet.)_ When can I come and carry off all this rubbish?
_Mrs. Dale_. Carry it off?
_Ventnor (embarrassed)_. My dear lady, surely between you and me
explicitness is a burden. You must see that these letters of ours can't be
left to take their chance like an ordinary correspondence--you said
yourself we were public property.
_Mrs. Dale_. To take their chance? Do you suppose that, in my keeping,
your letters take any chances? _(Suddenly.)_ Do mine--in yours?
_Ventnor (still more embarrassed)_. Helen--! _(He takes a turn
through the room.)_ You force me to remind you that you and I are
differently situated--that in a moment of madness I sacrificed the only
right you ever gave me--the right to love you better than any other
woman in the world. _(A pause. She says nothing and he continues, with
increasing difficulty--)_ You asked me just now why I carried your
letters about with me--kept them, literally, in my own hands. Well, suppose
it's to be sure of their not falling into some one else's?
_Mrs. Dale_. Oh!
_Ventnor (throws himself into a chair)_. For God's sake don't pity me!
_Mrs. Dale (after a long pause)_. Am I dull--or are you trying to say
that you want to give me back my letters?
_Ventnor (starting up)_. I? Give you back--? God forbid! Your letters?
Not for the world! The only thing I have left! But you can't dream that in
_Mrs. Dale (suddenly)_. You want yours, then?
_Ventnor (repressing his eagerness)_. My dear friend, if I'd ever
dreamed that you'd kept them--?
_Mrs. Dale (accusingly)_. You _do_ want them. _(A pause. He
makes a deprecatory gesture.)_ Why should they be less safe with me than
mine with you? _I_ never forfeited the right to keep them.
_Ventnor (after another pause)_. It's compensation enough, almost,
to have you reproach me! _(He moves nearer to her, but she makes no
response.)_ You forget that I've forfeited _all_ my rights--even
that of letting you keep my letters.
_Mrs. Dale_. You _do_ want them! _(She rises, throws all the
letters into the cabinet, locks the door and puts the key in her
pocket.)_ There's my answer.
_Mrs. Dale_. Ah, I paid dearly enough for the right to keep them, and
I mean to! _(She turns to him passionately.)_ Have you ever asked
yourself how I paid for it? With what months and years of solitude, what
indifference to flattery, what resistance to affection?--Oh, don't smile
because I said affection, and not love. Affection's a warm cloak in cold
weather; and I _have_ been cold; and I shall keep on growing colder!
Don't talk to me about living in the hearts of my readers! We both know
what kind of a domicile that is. Why, before long I shall become a classic!
Bound in sets and kept on the top book-shelf--brr, doesn't that sound
freezing? I foresee the day when I shall be as lonely as an Etruscan
museum! _(She breaks into a laugh.)_ That's what I've paid for the
right to keep your letters. _(She holds out her hand.)_ And now give
_Mrs. Dale (haughtily)_. Yes; I claim them.
_Ventnor (in the same tone)_. On what ground?
_Mrs. Dale_. Hear the man!--Because I wrote them, of course.
_Ventnor_. But it seems to me that--under your inspiration, I admit--I
also wrote mine.
_Mrs. Dale_. Oh, I don't dispute their authenticity--it's yours I
_Mrs. Dale_. You voluntarily ceased to be the man who wrote me those
letters--you've admitted as much. You traded paper for flesh and blood. I
don't dispute your wisdom--only you must hold to your bargain! The letters
are all mine.
_Ventnor (groping between two tones)_. Your arguments are as
convincing as ever. _(He hazards a faint laugh.)_ You're a marvellous
dialectician--but, if we're going to settle the matter in the spirit of an
arbitration treaty, why, there are accepted conventions in such cases. It's
an odious way to put it, but since you won't help me, one of them is--
_Mrs. Dale_. One of them is--?
_Ventnor_. That it is usual--that technically, I mean, the
letter--belongs to its writer--
_Mrs. Dale (after a pause)_. Such letters as _these_?
_Ventnor_. Such letters especially--
_Mrs. Dale_. But you couldn't have written them if I hadn't--been
willing to read them. Surely there's more of myself in them than of you.
_Ventnor_. Surely there's nothing in which a man puts more of himself
than in his love-letters!
_Mrs. Dale (with emotion)_. But a woman's love-letters are like her child.
They belong to her more than to anybody else--
_Ventnor_. And a man's?
_Mrs. Dale (with sudden violence)_. Are all he risks!--There, take
them. _(She flings the key of the cabinet at his feet and sinks into a
Ventnor (starts as though to pick up the key; then approaches and bends
over her)_. Helen--oh, Helen!
_Mrs. Dale (she yields her hands to him, murmuring:)_ Paul!
_(Suddenly she straightens herself and draws back illuminated.)_ What
a fool I am! I see it all now. You want them for your memoirs!
_Ventnor (disconcerted)_. Helen--
_Mrs. Dale (agitated)_. Come, come--the rule is to unmask when the
signal's given! You want them for your memoirs.
_Ventnor (with a forced laugh)_. What makes you think so?
_Mrs. Dale (triumphantly)_. Because _I_ want them for mine!
_Ventnor (in a changed tone)_. Ah--. _(He moves away from her and
leans against the mantelpiece. She remains seated, with her eyes fixed on
_Mrs. Dale_. I wonder I didn't see it sooner. Your reasons were lame
_Ventnor (ironically)_. Yours were masterly. You're the more
accomplished actor of the two. I was completely deceived.
_Mrs. Dale_. Oh, I'm a novelist. I can keep up that sort of thing for
five hundred pages!
_Ventnor_. I congratulate you. _(A pause.)_
_Mrs. Dale (moving to her seat behind the tea-table)_. I've never
offered you any tea. _(She bends over the kettle.)_ Why don't you take
_Ventnor_. Because you've been clever enough to make it impossible for
me. _(He picks up the key and hands it to her. Then abruptly)_--Was it
all acting--just now?
_Mrs. Dale_. By what right do you ask?
_Ventnor_. By right of renouncing my claim to my letters. Keep
them--and tell me.
_Mrs. Dale_. I give you back your claim--and I refuse to tell you.
_Ventnor (sadly)_. Ah, Helen, if you deceived me, you deceived
_Mrs. Dale_. What does it matter, now that we're both undeceived? I
played a losing game, that's all.
_Ventnor_. Why losing--since all the letters are yours?
_Mrs. Dale_. The letters? _(Slowly.)_ I'd forgotten the letters--
_Ventnor (exultant)_. Ah, I knew you'd end by telling me the truth!
_Mrs. Dale_. The truth? Where _is_ the truth? _(Half to
herself.)_ I thought I was lying when I began--but the lies turned into
truth as I uttered them! _(She looks at Ventnor.)_ I _did_ want
your letters for my memoirs--I _did_ think I'd kept them for that
purpose--and I wanted to get mine back for the same reason--but now _(she
puts out her hand and picks up some of her letters, which are lying
scattered on the table near her)_--how fresh they seem, and how they
take me back to the time when we lived instead of writing about life!
_Ventnor (smiling)_. The time when we didn't prepare our impromptu
effects beforehand and copyright our remarks about the weather!
_Mrs. Dale_. Or keep our epigrams in cold storage and our adjectives
under lock and key!
_Ventnor_. When our emotions weren't worth ten cents a word, and a
signature wasn't an autograph. Ah, Helen, after all, there's nothing like
the exhilaration of spending one's capital!
_Mrs. Dale_. Of wasting it, you mean. _(She points to the
letters.)_ Do you suppose we could have written a word of these if we'd
known we were putting our dreams out at interest? _(She sits musing, with
her eyes on the fire, and he watches her in silence.)_ Paul, do you
remember the deserted garden we sometimes used to walk in?
_Ventnor_. The old garden with the high wall at the end of the village
street? The garden with the ruined box-borders and the broken-down arbor?
Why, I remember every weed in the paths and every patch of moss on the
_Mrs. Dale._ Well--I went back there the other day. The village is
immensely improved. There's a new hotel with gas-fires, and a trolley in
the main street; and the garden has been turned into a public park, where
excursionists sit on cast-iron benches admiring the statue of an
_Ventnor_. An Abolitionist--how appropriate!
_Mrs. Dale_. And the man who sold the garden has made a fortune that
he doesn't know how to spend--
_Ventnor (rising impulsively)_. Helen, _(he approaches and lays his
hand on her letters)_, let's sacrifice our fortune and keep the
_Mrs. Dale (with a responsive movement)_. Paul, do you really mean it?
_Ventnor (gayly)_. Mean it? Why, I feel like a landed proprietor
already! It's more than a garden--it's a park.
_Mrs. Dale_. It's more than a park, it's a world--as long as we keep
it to ourselves!
_Ventnor_. Ah, yes--even the pyramids look small when one sees a
Cook's tourist on top of them! _(He takes the key from the table, unlocks
the cabinet and brings out his letters, which he lays beside hers.)_
Shall we burn the key to our garden?
_Mrs. Dale_. Ah, then it will indeed be boundless! _(Watching him
while he throws the letters into the fire.)_
_Ventnor (turning back to her with a half-sad smile)_. But not too big
for us to find each other in?
_Mrs. Dale_. Since we shall be the only people there! _(He takes
both her hands and they look at each other a moment in silence. Then he
goes out by the door to the right. As he reaches the door she takes a step
toward him, impulsively; then turning back she leans against the
chimney-piece, quietly watching the letters burn.)_