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Self-Sacrifice

A FARCE-TRAGEDY


I

MISS ISOBEL RAMSEY AND MISS ESTHER GARNETT


Miss Ramsey: "And they were really understood to be engaged?" Miss Ramsey is a dark-eyed, dark-haired girl of nearly the length of two lady's umbrellas and the bulk of one closely folded in its sheath. She stands with her elbow supported on the corner of the mantel, her temple resting on the knuckle of a thin, nervous hand, in an effect of thoughtful absent-mindedness. Miss Garnett, more or less Merovingian in a costume that lends itself somewhat reluctantly to a low, thick figure, is apparently poising for departure, as she stands before the chair from which she has risen beside Miss Ramsey's tea-table and looks earnestly up into Miss Ramsey's absent face. Both are very young, but aim at being much older than they are, with occasional lapses into extreme girlhood.

Miss Garnett: "Yes, distinctly. I knew you couldn't know, and I thought you ought to." She speaks in a deep conviction-bearing and conviction-carrying voice. "If he has been coming here so much."

Miss Ramsey, with what seems temperamental abruptness: "Sit down. One can always think better sitting down." She catches a chair under her with a deft movement of her heel, and Miss Garnett sinks provisionally into her seat. "And I think it needs thought, don't you?"

Miss Garnett: "That is what I expected of you."

Miss Ramsey: "And have some more tea. There is nothing like fresh tea for clearing the brain, and we certainly need clear brains for this." She pushes a button in the wall beside her, and is silent till the maid appears. "More tea, Nora." She is silent again while the maid reappears with the tea and disappears. "I don't know that he has been coming here so very much. But he has no right to be coming at all, if he is engaged. That is, in that way."

Miss Garnett: "No. Not unless—he wishes he wasn't."

Miss Ramsey: "That would give him less than no right."

Miss Garnett: "That is true. I didn't think of it in that light."

Miss Ramsey: "I'm trying to decide what I ought to do if he does want to get off. She said herself that they were engaged?"

Miss Garnett: "As much as that. Conny understood her to say so. And Conny never makes a mistake in what people say. Emily didn't say whom she was engaged to, but Conny felt that that was to come later, and she did not quite feel like asking, don't you know."

Miss Ramsey: "Of course. And how came she to decide that it was Mr. Ashley?"

Miss Garnett: "Simply by putting two and two together. They two were together the whole time last summer."

Miss Ramsey: "I see. Then there is only one thing for me to do."

Miss Garnett, admiringly: "I knew you would say that."

Miss Ramsey, dreamily: "The question is what the thing is."

Miss Garnett: "Yes!"

Miss Ramsey: "That is what I wish to think over. Chocolates?" She offers a box, catching it with her left hand from the mantel at her shoulder, without rising.

Miss Garnett: "Thank you; do you think they go well with tea?"

Miss Ramsey: "They go well with anything. But we mustn't allow our minds to be distracted. The case is simply this: If Mr. Ashley is engaged to Emily Fray, he has no right to go round calling on other girls—well, as if he wasn't—and he has been calling here a great deal. That is perfectly evident. He must be made to feel that girls are not to be trifled with—that they are not mere toys."

Miss Garnett: "How splendidly you do reason! And he ought to understand that Emily has a right—"

Miss Ramsey: "Oh, I don't know that I care about her—or not primarily. Or do you say primarily?"

Miss Garnett: "I never know. I only use it in writing."

Miss Ramsey: "It's a clumsy word; I don't know that I shall. But what I mean is that I must act from a general principle, and that principle is that when a man is engaged, it doesn't matter whether the girl has thrown herself at him, or not—"

Miss Garnett: "She certainly did, from what Conny says."

Miss Ramsey: "He must be shown that other girls won't tolerate his behaving as if he were not engaged. It is wrong."

Miss Garnett: "We must stand together."

Miss Ramsey: "Yes. Though I don't infer that he has been attentive to other girls generally."

Miss Garnett: "No. I meant that if he has been coming here so much, you want to prevent his trifling with others."

Miss Ramsey: "Something like that. But it ought to be more definite. He ought to realize that if another girl cared for him, it would be cruel to her, paying her attentions, when he was engaged to some one else."

Miss Garnett: "And cruel to the girl he is engaged to."

Miss Ramsey: "Yes." She speaks coldly, vaguely. "But that is the personal ground, and I wish to avoid that. I wish to deal with him purely in the abstract."

Miss Garnett: "Yes, I understand that. And at the same time you wish to punish him. He ought to be made to feel it all the more because he is so severe himself."

Miss Ramsey: "Severe?"

Miss Garnett: "Not tolerating anything that's the least out of the way in other people. Taking you up about your ideas and showing where you're wrong, or even silly. Spiritually snubbing, Conny calls it."

Miss Ramsey: "Oh, I like that in him. It's so invigorating. It braces up all your good resolutions. It makes you ashamed; and shame is sanative."

Miss Garnett: "That's just what I told Conny, or the same thing. Do you think another one would hurt me? I will risk it, anyway." She takes another chocolate from the box. "Go on."

Miss Ramsey: "Oh, I was just wishing that I had been out longer, and had a little more experience of men. Then I should know how to act. How do you suppose people do, generally?"

Miss Garnett: "Why, you know, if they find a man in love with them, after he's engaged to another girl, they make him go back to her, it doesn't matter whether they're in love with him themselves or not."

Miss Ramsey: "I'm not in love with Mr. Ashley, please."

Miss Garnett: "No; I'm supposing an extreme case."

Miss Ramsey, after a moment of silent thought: "Did you ever hear of anybody doing it?"

Miss Garnett: "Not just in our set. But I know it's done continually."

Miss Ramsey: "It seems to me as if I had read something of the kind."

Miss Garnett: "Oh yes, the books are full of it. Are those mallows? They might carry off the effects of the chocolates." Miss Ramsey passes her the box of marshmallows which she has bent over the table to look at.

Miss Ramsey: "And of course they couldn't get into the books if they hadn't really happened. I wish I could think of a case in point."

Miss Garnett: "Why, there was Peg Woffington—"

Miss Ramsey, with displeasure: "She was an actress of some sort, wasn't she?"

Miss Garnett, with meritorious candor: "Yes, she was. But she was a very good actress."

Miss Ramsey: "What did she do?"

Miss Garnett: "Well, it's a long time since I read it; and it's rather old-fashioned now. But there was a countryman of some sort, I remember, who came away from his wife, and fell in love with Peg Woffington, and then the wife follows him up to London, and begs her to give him back to her, and she does it. There's something about a portrait of Peg—I don't remember exactly; she puts her face through and cries when the wife talks to the picture. The wife thinks it is a real picture, and she is kind of soliloquizing, and asking Peg to give her husband back to her; and Peg does, in the end. That part is beautiful. They become the greatest friends."

Miss Ramsey: "Rather silly, I should say."

Miss Garnett: "Yes, it is rather silly, but I suppose the author thought she had to do something."

Miss Ramsey: "And disgusting. A married man, that way! I don't see any comparison with Mr. Ashley."

Miss Garnett: "No, there really isn't any. Emily has never asked you to give him up. And besides, Peg Woffington really liked him a little—loved him, in fact."

Miss Ramsey: "And I don't like Mr. Ashley at all. Of course I respect him—and I admire his intellect; there's no question about his being handsome; but I have never thought of him for a moment in any other way; and now I can't even respect him."

Miss Garnett: "Nobody could. I'm sure Emily would be welcome to him as far as I was concerned. But he has never been about with me so much as he has with you, and I don't wonder you feel indignant."

Miss Ramsey, coldly: "I don't feel indignant. I wish to be just."

Miss Garnett: "Yes, that is what I mean. And poor Emily is so uninteresting! In the play that Kentucky Summers does, she is perfectly fascinating at first, and you can see why the poor girl's fiancé should be so taken with her. But I'm sure no one could say you had ever given Mr. Ashley the least encouragement. It would be pure justice on your part. I think you are grand! I shall always be proud of knowing what you were going to do."

Miss Ramsey, after some moments of snubbing intention: "I don't know what I am going to do myself, yet. Or how. What was that play? I never heard of it."

Miss Garnett: "I don't remember distinctly, but it was about a young man who falls in love with her, when he's engaged to another girl, and she determines, as soon as she finds it out, to disgust him, so that he will go back to the other girl, don't you know."

Miss Ramsey: "That sounds rather more practical than the Peg Woffington plan. What does she do?"

Miss Garnett: "Nothing you'd like to do."

Miss Ramsey: "I'd like to do something in such a cause. What does she do?"

Miss Garnett: "Oh, when he is calling on her, Kentucky Summers pretends to fly into a rage with her sister, and she pulls her hair down, and slams everything round the room, and scolds, and drinks champagne, and wants him to drink with her, and I don't know what all. The upshot is that he is only too glad to get away."

Miss Ramsey: "It's rather loathsome, isn't it?"

Miss Garnett: "It is rather loathsome. But it was in a good cause, and I suppose it was what an actress would think of."

Miss Ramsey: "An actress?"

Miss Garnett: "I forgot. The heroine is a distinguished actress, you know, and Kentucky could play that sort of part to perfection. But I don't think a lady would like to cut up, much, in the best cause."

Miss Ramsey: "Cut up?"

Miss Garnett: "She certainly frisks about the room a good deal. How delicious these mallows are! Have you ever tried toasting them?"

Miss Ramsey: "At school. There seems an idea in it. And the hero isn't married. I don't like the notion of a married man."

Miss Garnett: "Oh, I'm quite sure he isn't married. He's merely engaged. That makes the whole difference from the Peg Woffington story. And there's no portrait, I'm confident, so that you wouldn't have to do that part."

Miss Ramsey, haughtily: "I don't propose to do any part, if the affair can't be arranged without some such mountebank business!"

Miss Garnett: "You can manage it, if anybody can. You have so much dignity that you could awe him into doing his duty by a single glance. I wouldn't be in his place!"

Miss Ramsey: "I shall not give him a glance. I shall not see him when he comes. That will be simpler still." To Nora, at the door: "What is it, Nora?"

II

NORA, MISS RAMSEY, MISS GARNETT

Nora: "Mr. Ashley, Miss Ramsey."

Miss Ramsey, with a severity not meant for Nora: "Ask him to sit down in the reception-room a moment."

Nora: "Yes, Miss Ramsey."

III

MISS RAMSEY, MISS GARNETT


Miss Garnett, rising and seizing Miss Ramsey's hands: "Oh, Isobel! But you will be equal to it! Oh! Oh!"

Miss Ramsey, with state: "Why are you going, Esther? Sit down."

Miss Garnett: "If I only could stay! If I could hide under the sofa, or behind the screen! Isn't it wonderful—providential—his coming at the very instant? Oh, Isobel!" She clasps her friend convulsively, and after a moment's resistance Miss Ramsey yields to her emotion, and they hide their faces in each other's neck, and strangle their hysteric laughter. They try to regain their composure, and then abandon the effort with a shuddering delight in the perfection of the incident. "What shall you do? Shall you trust to inspiration? Shall you make him show his hand first, and then act? Or shall you tell him at once that you know all, and— Or no, of course you can't do that. He's not supposed to know that you know. Oh, I can imagine the freezing hauteur that you'll receive him with, and the icy indifference you'll let him understand that he isn't a persona grata with! If I were only as tall as you! He isn't as tall himself, and you can tower over him. Don't sit down, or bend, or anything; just stand with your head up, and glance carelessly at him under your lashes as if nobody was there! Then it will gradually dawn upon him that you know everything, and he'll simply go through the floor." They take some ecstatic turns about the room, Miss Ramsey waltzing as gentleman. She abruptly frees herself.

Miss Ramsey: "No. It can't be as tacit as all that. There must be something explicit. As you say, I must do something to cure him of his fancy—his perfidy—and make him glad to go back to her."

Miss Garnett: "Yes! Do you think he deserves it?"

Miss Ramsey: "I've no wish to punish him."

Miss Garnett: "How noble you are! I don't wonder he adores you. I should. But you won't find it so easy. You must do something drastic. It is drastic, isn't it? or do I mean static? One of those things when you simply crush a person. But now I must go. How I should like to listen at the door! We must kiss each other very quietly, and I must slip out— Oh, you dear! How I long to know what you'll do! But it will be perfect, whatever it is. You always did do perfect things." They knit their fingers together in parting. "On second thoughts I won't kiss you. It might unman you, and you need all your strength. Unman isn't the word, exactly, but you can't say ungirl, can you? It would be ridiculous. Though girls are as brave as men when it comes to duty. Good-by, dear!" She catches Miss Ramsey about the neck, and pressing her lips silently to her cheek, runs out. Miss Ramsey rings and the maid appears.

IV

NORA, MISS RAMSEY


Miss Ramsey, starting: "Oh! Is that you, Nora? Of course! Nora!"

Nora: "Yes, Miss Ramsey."

Miss Ramsey: "Do you know where my brother keeps his cigarettes?"

Nora: "Why, in his room, Miss Ramsey; you told him you didn't like the smell here."

Miss Ramsey: "Yes, yes. I forgot. And has he got any cocktails?"

Nora: "He's got the whole bottle full of them yet."

Miss Ramsey: "Full yet?"

Nora: "You wouldn't let him offer them to the gentlemen he had to lunch, last week, because you said—"

Miss Ramsey: "What did I say?"

Nora: "They were vulgar."

Miss Ramsey: "And so they are. And so much the better! Bring the cigarettes and the bottle and some glasses here, Nora, and then ask Mr. Ashley to come." She walks away to the window, and hurriedly hums a musical comedy waltz, not quite in tune, as from not remembering exactly, and after Nora has tinkled in with a tray of glasses she lights a cigarette and stands puffing it, gasping and coughing a little, as Walter Ashley enters. "Oh, Mr. Ashley! Sorry to make you wait."

V

MR. ASHLEY, MISS RAMSEY


Mr. Ashley: "The time has seemed long, but I could have waited all day. I couldn't have gone without seeing you, and telling you—" He pauses, as if bewildered at the spectacle of Miss Ramsey's resolute practice with the cigarette, which she now takes from her lips and waves before her face with innocent recklessness.

Miss Ramsey, chokingly: "Do sit down." She drops into an easy-chair beside the tea-table, and stretches the tips of her feet out beyond the hem of her skirt in extremely lady-like abandon. "Have a cigarette." She reaches the box to him.

Ashley: "Thank you. I won't smoke, I believe." He stands frowning, while she throws her cigarette into a teacup and lights another.

Miss Ramsey: "I thought everybody smoked. Then have a cocktail."

Ashley: "A what?"

Miss Ramsey: "A cocktail. So many people like them with their tea, instead of rum, you know."

Ashley: "No, I didn't know." He regards her with amaze, rapidly hardening into condemnation.

Miss Ramsey: "I hope you don't object to smoking. Englishwomen all smoke."

Ashley: "I think I've heard. I didn't know that American ladies did."

Miss Ramsey: "They don't, all. But they will when they find how nice it is."

Ashley: "And do Englishwomen all drink cocktails?"

Miss Ramsey: "They will when they find how nice it is. But why do you keep standing? Sit down, if it's only for a moment. There is something I would like to talk with you about. What were you saying when you came in? I didn't catch it quite."

Ashley: "Nothing—now—"

Miss Ramsey: "And I can't persuade you to have a cocktail? I believe I'll have another myself." She takes up the bottle, and tries several times to pour from it. "I do believe Nora's forgotten to open it! That is a good joke on me. But I mustn't let her know. Do you happen to have a pocket-corkscrew with you, Mr. Ashley?"

Ashley: "No—"

Miss Ramsey: "Well, never mind." She tosses her cigarette into the grate, and lights another. "I wonder why they always have cynical persons smoke, on the stage? I don't see that the two things necessarily go together, but it does give you a kind of thrill when they strike a match, and it lights up their faces when they put it to the cigarette. You know something good and wicked is going to happen." She puffs violently at her cigarette, and then suddenly flings it away and starts to her feet. "Will you—would you—open the window?" She collapses into her chair.

Ashley, springing toward her: "Miss Ramsey, are you—you are ill!"

Miss Ramsey: "No, no! The window! A little faint—it's so close— There, it's all right now. Or it will be—when—I've had—another cigarette." She leans forward to take one; Ashley gravely watches her, but says nothing. She lights her cigarette, but, without smoking, throws it away. "Go on."

Ashley: "I wasn't saying anything!"

Miss Ramsey: "Oh, I forgot. And I don't know what we were talking about myself." She falls limply back into her chair and closes her eyes.

Ashley: "Sha'n't I ring for the maid? I'm afraid—"

Miss Ramsey, imperiously: "Not at all. Not on any account." Far less imperiously: "You may pour me a cup of tea if you like. That will make me well. The full strength, please." She motions away the hot-water jug with which he has proposed qualifying the cup of tea which he offers her.

Ashley: "One lump or two?"

Miss Ramsey: "Only one, thank you." She takes the cup.

Ashley, offering the milk: "Cream?"

Miss Ramsey: "A drop." He stands anxiously beside her while she takes a long draught and then gives back the cup. "That was perfect."

Ashley: "Another?"

Miss Ramsey: "No, that is just right. Now go on. Or, I forgot. You were not going on. Oh dear! How much better I feel. There must have been something poisonous in those cigarettes."

Ashley: "Yes, there was tobacco."

Miss Ramsey: "Oh, do you think it was the tobacco? Do throw the whole box into the fire! I shall tell Bob never to get cigarettes with tobacco in them after this. Won't you have one of the chocolates? Or a mallow? I feel as if I should never want to eat anything again. Where was I?" She rests her cheek against the side of her chair cushion, and speaks with closed eyes, in a weak murmur. Mr. Ashley watches her at first with anxiety, then with a gradual change of countenance until a gleam of intelligence steals into his look of compassion.

Ashley: "You asked me to throw the cigarettes into the fire. But I want you to let me keep them."

Miss Ramsey, with wide-flung eyes: "You? You said you wouldn't smoke."

Ashley, laughing: "May I change my mind? One talks better." He lights a cigarette. "And, Miss Ramsey, I believe I will have a cocktail, after all."

Miss Ramsey: "Mr. Ashley!"

Ashley, without noting her protest: "I had forgotten that I had a corkscrew in my pocket-knife. Don't trouble yourself to ring for one." He produces the knife and opens the bottle; then, as Miss Ramsey rises and stands aghast, he pours out a glass and offers it to her, with mock devotion. As she shakes her head and recoils: "Oh! I thought you liked cocktails. They are very good after cigarettes—very reviving. But if you won't—" He tosses off the cocktail and sets down the glass, smacking his lips. "Tell your brother I commend his taste—in cocktails and"—puffing his cigarette—"tobacco. Poison for poison, let me offer you one of my cigarettes. They're milder than these." He puts his hand to his breast pocket.

Miss Ramsey, with nervous shrinking: "No—"

Ashley: "It's just as well. I find that I hadn't brought mine with me." After a moment: "You are so unconventional, so fearless, that I should like your notion of the problem in a book I've just been reading. Why should the mere fact that a man is married to one woman prevent his being in love with another, or half a dozen others; or vice versa?"

Miss Ramsey: "Mr. Ashley, do you wish to insult me?"

Ashley: "Dear me, no! But put the case a little differently. Suppose a couple are merely engaged. Does that fact imply that neither has a right to a change of mind, or to be fancy free to make another choice?"

Miss Ramsey, indignantly: "Yes, it does. They are as sacredly bound to each other as if they were married, and if they are false to each other the girl is a wretch, and the man is a villain! And if you think anything I have said can excuse you for breaking your engagement, or that I don't consider you the wickedest person in the world, and the most barefaced hypocrite, and—and—I don't know what—you are very much mistaken."

Ashley: "What in the world are you talking about?"

Miss Ramsey: "I am talking about you and your shameless perfidy."

Ashley: "My shameless perf— I don't understand! I came here to tell you that I love you—"

Miss Ramsey: "How dare you! To speak to me of that, when— Or perhaps you have broken with her, and think you are free to hoodwink some other poor creature. But you will find that you have chosen the wrong person. And it's no excuse for you her being a little—a little—not so bright as some girls, and not so good-looking. Oh, it's enough to make any girl loathe her own looks! You mustn't suppose you can come here red-handed—yes, it's the same as a murder, and any true girl would say so—and tell me you care for me. No, Walter Ashley, I haven't fallen so low as that, though I have the disgrace of your acquaintance. And I hope—I hope—if you don't like my smoking, and offering you cocktails, and talking the way I have, it will be a lesson to you. And yes!—I will say it! If it will add to your misery to know that I did respect you very much, and thought everything—very highly—of you, and might have answered you very differently before, when you were free to tell me that—now I have nothing but the utmost abhorrence—and—disapproval of you. And—and— Oh, I don't see how you can be so hateful!" She hides her face in her hands and rushes from the room, overturning several chairs in her course toward the door. Ashley remains staring after her, while a succession of impetuous rings make themselves heard from the street door. There is a sound of opening it, and then a flutter of skirts and anxieties, and Miss Garnett comes running into the room.

VI

MISS GARNETT, MR. ASHLEY


Miss Garnett, to the maid hovering in the doorway: "Yes, I must have left it here, for I never missed it till I went to pay my fare in the motor-bus, and tried to think whether I had the exact dime, and if I hadn't whether the conductor would change a five-dollar bill or not, and then it rushed into my mind that I had left my purse somewhere, and I knew I hadn't been anywhere else." She runs from the mantel to the writing-desk in the corner, and then to the sofa, where, peering under the tea-table, she finds her purse on the shelf. "Oh, here it is, Nora, just where I put it when we began to talk, and I must have gone out and left it. I—" She starts with a little shriek, in encountering Ashley. "Oh, Mr. Ashley! What a fright you gave me! I was just looking for my purse that I missed when I went to pay my fare in the motor-bus, and was wondering whether I had the exact dime, or the conductor could change a five-dollar bill, and—" She discovers, or affects to discover, something strange in his manner. "What—what is the matter, Mr. Ashley?"

Ashley: "I shall be glad to have you tell me—or any one."

Miss Garnett: "I don't understand. Has Isobel—"

Ashley: "Miss Garnett, did you know I was engaged?"

Miss Garnett: "Why, yes; I was just going to congrat—"

Ashley: "Well, don't, unless you can tell me whom I am engaged to."

Miss Garnett: "Why, aren't you engaged to Emily Fray?"

Ashley: "Not the least in the world."

Miss Garnett, in despair: "Then what have I done? Oh, what a fatal, fatal scrape!" With a ray of returning hope: "But she told me herself that she was engaged! And you were together so much, last summer!" Desperately: "Then if she isn't engaged to you, whom is she engaged to?"

Ashley: "On general principles, I shouldn't know, but in this particular instance I happen to know that she is engaged to Owen Brooks. They were a great deal more together last summer."

Miss Garnett, with conviction: "So they were!" With returning doubt: "But why didn't she say so?"

Ashley: "I can't tell you; she may have had her reasons, or she may not. Can you possibly tell me, in return for my ignorance, why the fact of her engagement should involve me in the strange way it seems to have done with Miss Ramsey?"

Miss Garnett, with a burst of involuntary candor: "Why, I did that. Or, no! What's she been doing?"

Ashley: "Really, Miss Garnett—"

Miss Garnett: "How can I tell you anything, if you don't tell me everything? You wouldn't wish me to betray confidence?"

Ashley: "No, certainly not. What was the confidence?"

Miss Garnett: "Well— But I shall have to know first what she's been doing. You must see that yourself, Mr. Ashley." He is silent. "Has she—has Isobel—been behaving—well, out of character?"

Ashley: "Very much indeed."

Miss Garnett: "I expected she would." She fetches a thoughtful sigh, and for her greater emotional convenience she sinks into an easy-chair and leans forward. "Oh dear! It is a scrape." Suddenly and imperatively: "Tell me exactly what she did, if you hope for any help whatever."

Ashley: "Why, she offered me a cocktail—"

Miss Garnett: "Oh, how good! I didn't suppose she would dare! Well?"

Ashley: "And she smoked cigarettes—"

Miss Garnett: "How perfectly divine! And what else?"

Ashley, coldly: "May I ask why you admire Miss Ramsey's behaving out of character so much? I think the smoking made her rather faint, and—"

Miss Garnett: "She would have let it kill her! Never tell me that girls have no moral courage!"

Ashley: "But what—what was the meaning of it all?"

Miss Garnett, thoughtfully: "I suppose if I got her in for it, I ought to get her out, even if I betray confidence."

Ashley: "It depends upon the confidence. What is it?"

Miss Garnett: "Why— But you're sure it's my duty?"

Ashley: "If you care what I think of her—"

Miss Garnett: "Oh, Mr. Ashley, you mustn't think it strange of Isobel, on my bended knees you mustn't! Why, don't you see? She was just doing it to disgust you!"

Ashley: "Disgust me?"

Miss Garnett: "Yes, and drive you back to Emily Fray."

Ashley: "Drive me ba—"

Miss Garnett: "If she thought you were engaged to Emily, when you were coming here all the time, and she wasn't quite sure that she hated to have you, don't you see it would be her duty to sacrifice herself, and— Oh, I suppose she's heard everything up there, and—" She catches herself up and runs out of the room, leaving Ashley to await the retarded descent of skirts which he hears on the stairs after the crash of the street door has announced Miss Garnett's escape. He stands with his back to the mantel, and faces Miss Ramsey as she enters the room.

VII

MISS RAMSEY, ASHLEY


Miss Ramsey, with the effect of cold surprise: "Mr. Ashley? I thought I heard— Wasn't Miss Garnett—"

Ashley: "She was. Did you think it was the street door closing on me?"

Miss Ramsey: "How should I know?" Then, courageously: "No, I didn't think it was. Why do you ask?" She moves uneasily about the room, with an air of studied inattention.

Ashley: "Because if you did, I can put you in the right, though I can't restore Miss Garnett's presence by my absence."

Miss Ramsey: "You're rather—enigmatical." A ring is heard; the maid pauses at the doorway. "I'm not at home, Nora." To Mr. Ashley: "It seems to be very close—"

Ashley: "It's my having been smoking."

Miss Ramsey: "Your having?" She goes to the window and tries to lift it.

Ashley: "Let me." He follows her to the window, where he stands beside her.

Miss Ramsey: "Now, she's seen me! And you here with me. Of course—"

Ashley: "I shouldn't mind. But I'm so sorry if—and I will go."

Miss Ramsey: "You can't go now—till she's round the corner. She'll keep looking back, and she'll think I made you."

Ashley: "But haven't you? Aren't you sending me back to Miss Fray to tell her that I must keep my engagement, though I care nothing for her, and care all the world for you? Isn't that what you want me to do?"

Miss Ramsey: "But you're not engaged to her! You just—"

Ashley: "Just what?"

Miss Ramsey, desperately: "You wish me to disgrace myself forever in your eyes. Well, I will; what does it matter now? I heard you telling Esther you were not engaged. I overheard you."

Ashley: "I fancied you must."

Miss Ramsey: "I tried to overhear! I eavesdropped! I wish you to know that."

Ashley: "And what do you wish me to do about it?"

Miss Ramsey: "I should think any self-respecting person would know. I'm not a self-respecting person." Her wandering gaze seems to fall for the first time upon the tray with the cocktails and glasses and cigarettes; she flies at the bell-button and presses it impetuously. As the maid appears: "Take these things away, Nora, please!" To Ashley when the maid has left the room: "Don't be afraid to say what you think of me!"

Ashley: "I think all the world of you. But I should merely like to ask—"

Miss Ramsey: "Oh, you can ask anything of me now!"

Ashley, with palpable insincerity: "I should like to ask why you don't respect yourself?"

Miss Ramsey: "Was that what you were going to ask? I know it wasn't. But I will tell you. Because I have been a fool."

Ashley: "Thank you. Now I will tell you what I was really going to ask. Why did you wish to drive me back to Miss Fray when you knew that I would be false to her a thousand times if I could only once be true to you?"

Miss Ramsey: "Now you are insulting me! And that is just the point. You may be a very clever lawyer, Mr. Ashley, and everybody says you are—very able, and talented, and all that, but you can't get round that point. You may torture any meaning you please out of my words, but I shall always say you brought it on yourself."

Ashley: "Brought what on?"

Miss Ramsey: "Mr. Ashley! I won't be cross-questioned."

Ashley: "Was that why you smoked, and poured cocktails out of an unopened bottle? Was it because you wished me to hate you, and remember my duty, and go back to Miss Fray? Well, it was a dead failure. It made me love you more than ever. I am a fool too, as you call it."

Miss Ramsey: "Say anything you please. I have given you the right. I shall not resent it. Go on."

Ashley: "I should only repeat myself. You must have known how much I care for you, Isobel. Do you mind my calling you Isobel?"

Miss Ramsey: "Not in the least if you wish to humiliate me by it. I should like you to trample on me in every way you can."

Ashley: "Trample on you? I would rather be run over by a steam-roller than tread on the least of your outlying feelings, dearest. Do you mind my saying dearest?"

Miss Ramsey: "I have told you that you can say anything you like. I deserve it. But oh, if you have a spark of pity—"

Ashley: "I'm a perfect conflagration of compassion, darling. Do you object to darling?"

Miss Ramsey, with starting tears: "It doesn't matter now." She has let her lovely length trail into the corner of the sofa, where she desperately reclines, supporting her elbow on the arm of it, and resting her drooping head on her hand. He draws a hassock up in front of her, and sits on it.

Ashley: "This represents kneeling at your feet. One doesn't do it literally any more, you know."

Miss Ramsey, in a hollow voice: "I should despise you if you did, and"—deeply murmurous—"I don't wish to despise you."

Ashley: "No, I understand that. You merely wish me to despise you. But why?"

Miss Ramsey, nervously: "You know."

Ashley: "But I don't know—Isobel, dearest, darling, if you will allow me to express myself so fully. How should I know?"

Miss Ramsey: "I've told you."

Ashley: "May I take your hand? For good-by!" He possesses himself of it. "It seems to go along with those expressions."

Miss Ramsey, self-contemptuously: "Oh yes."

Ashley: "Thank you. Where were we?"

Miss Ramsey, sitting up and recovering her hand: "You were saying good-by—"

Ashley: "Was I? But not before I had told you that I knew you were doing all that for my best good, and I wish—I wish you could have seen how exemplary you looked when you were trying to pour a cocktail out of a corked bottle, between your remarks on passionate fiction and puffs of the insidious cigarette! When the venomous tobacco began to get in its deadly work, and you turned pale and reeled a little, and called for air, it made me mentally vow to go back to Miss Fray instantly, whether I was engaged to her or not, and cut out poor old Brooks—"

Miss Ramsey: "Was it Mr. Brooks? I didn't hear the name exactly."

Ashley: "When I was telling Miss Garnett? I ought to have spoken louder, but I wasn't sure at the time you were listening. Though as you were saying, what does it matter now?"

Miss Ramsey: "Did I say that?"

Ashley: "Words to that effect. And they have made me feel how unworthy of you I am. I'm not heroic—by nature. But I could be, if you made me—by art—"

Miss Ramsey, springing to her feet indignantly: "Now, you are ridiculing me—you are making fun of me."

Ashley, gathering himself up from his hassock with difficulty, and confronting her: "Do I look like a man who would dare to make fun of you? I am half a head shorter than you, and in moral grandeur you overtop me so that I would always have to wear a high hat when I was with you."

Miss Ramsey, thoughtfully: "Plenty of girls are that way, now. But if you are ashamed of my being tall—" Flashingly, and with starting tears.

Ashley: "Ashamed! I can always look up to you, you can always stoop to me!" He stretches his arms toward her.

Miss Ramsey, recoiling bewildered: "Wait! We haven't got to that yet."

Ashley: "Oh, Isobel—dearest—darling! We've got past it! We're on the home stretch, now."

William Dean Howells