The early Monday morning train which brought Verrian up to town was so very early that he could sit down to breakfast with his mother only a little later than their usual hour.
She had called joyfully to him from her room, when she heard the rattling of his key as he let himself into the apartment, and, after an exchange of greetings, shouted back and forth before they saw each other, they could come at once to the history of his absence over their coffee. "You must have had a very good time, to stay so long. After you wrote that you would not be back Thursday, I expected it would be Saturday till I got your telegram. But I'm glad you stayed. You certainly needed the rest."
"Yes, if those things are ever a rest." He looked down at his cup while he stirred the coffee in it, and she studied his attitude, since she could not see his face fully, for the secret of any vital change that might have come upon him. It could be that in the interval since she had seen him he had seen the woman who was to take him from her. She was always preparing herself for that, knowing that it must come almost as certainly as death, and knowing that with all her preparation she should not be ready for it. "I've got rather a long story to tell you and rather a strange story," he said, lifting his head and looking round, but not so impersonally that his mother did not know well enough to say to the Swedish serving-woman:
"You needn't stay, Margit. I'll give Mr. Philip his breakfast. Well!" she added, when they were alone.
"Well," he returned, with a smile that she knew he was forcing, "I have seen the girl that wrote that letter."
"Not Jerusha Brown?"
"Not Jerusha Brown, but the girl all the same."
"Now go on, Philip, and don't miss a single word!" she commanded him, with an imperious breathlessness. "You know I won't hurry you or interrupt you, but you must—you really must-tell me everything. Don't leave out the slightest detail."
"I won't," he said. But she was aware, from time to time, that she was keeping her word better than he was keeping his, in his account of meeting Miss Shirley and all the following events.
"You can imagine," he said, "what a sensation the swooning made, and the commotion that followed it."
"Yes, I can imagine that," she answered. But she was yet so faithful that she would not ask him to go on.
He continued, unasked, "I don't know just how, now, to account for its coming into my head that it was Miss Andrews who was my unknown correspondent. I suppose I've always unconsciously expected to meet that girl, and Miss Andrews's hypothetical case was psychologically so parallel—"
"And I've sometimes been afraid that I judged it too harshly—that it was a mere girlish freak without any sort of serious import."
"I was sometimes afraid so, Philip. But—"
"And I don't believe now that the hypothetical case brought any intolerable stress of conscience upon Miss Shirley, or that she fainted from any cause but exhaustion from the general ordeal. She was still weak from the sickness she had been through—too weak to bear the strain of the work she had taken up. Of course, the catastrophe gave the whole surface situation away, and I must say that those rather banal young people behaved very humanely about it. There was nothing but interest of the nicest kind, and, if she is going on with her career, it will be easy enough for her to find engagements after this."
"Why shouldn't she go on?" his mother asked, with a suspicion which she kept well out of sight.
"Well, as well as she could explain afterwards, the catastrophe took her work out of the category of business and made her acceptance in it a matter of sentiment."
"She explained it to you herself?"
"Yes, the general sympathy had penetrated to Mrs. Westangle, though I don't say that she had been more than negatively indifferent to Miss Shirley's claim on her before. As it was, she sent for me to her room the next morning, and I found Miss Shirley alone there. She said Mrs. Westangle would be down in a moment."
Now, indeed, Mrs. Verrian could not govern herself from saying, "I don't like it, Philip."
"I knew you wouldn't. It was what I said to myself at the time. You were so present with me that I seemed to have you there chaperoning the interview." His mother shrugged, and he went on: "She said she wished to tell me something first, and then she said, 'I want to do it while I have the courage, if it's courage; perhaps it's just desperation. I am Jerusha Brown.'"
His mother began, "But you said—" and then stopped herself.
"I know that I said she wasn't, but she explained, while I sat there rather mum, that there was really another girl, and that the other girl's name was really Jerusha Brown. She was the daughter of the postmaster in the village where Miss Shirley was passing the summer. In fact, Miss Shirley was boarding in the postmaster's family, and the girls had become very friendly. They were reading my story together, and talking about it, and trying to guess how it would come out, just as the letter said, and they simultaneously hit upon the notion of writing to me. It seemed to them that it would be a good joke—I'm not defending it, mother, and I must say Miss Shirley didn't defend it, either—to work upon my feelings in the way they tried, and they didn't realize what they had done till Armiger's letter came. It almost drove them wild, she said; but they had a lucid interval, and they took the letter to the girl's father and told him what they had done. He was awfully severe with them for their foolishness, and said they must write to Armiger at once and confess the fact. Then they said they had written already, and showed him the second letter, and explained they had decided to let Miss Brawn write it in her person alone for the reason she gave in it. But Miss Shirley told him she was ready to take her full share of the blame, and, if anything came of it, she authorized him to put the whole blame on her."
Verrian made a pause which his mother took for invitation or permission to ask, "And was he satisfied with that?"
"I don't know. I wasn't, and it's only just to Miss Shirley to say that she wasn't, either. She didn't try to justify it to me; she merely said she was so frightened that she couldn't have done anything. She may have realized more than the Brown girl what they had done."
"The postmaster, did he regard it as anything worse than foolishness?"
"I don't believe he did. At any rate, he was satisfied with what his daughter had done in owning up."
"Well, I always liked that girl's letter. And did they show him your letter?"
"It seems that they did."
"And what did he say about that?"
"I suppose, what I deserved. Miss Shirley wouldn't say, explicitly. He wanted to answer it, but they wouldn't let him. I don't know but I should feel better if he had. I haven't been proud of that letter of mine as time has gone on, mother; I think I behaved very narrow-mindedly, very personally in it."
"You behaved justly."
"Justly? I thought you had your doubts of that. At any rate, I had when it came to hearing the girl accusing herself as if she had been guilty of some monstrous wickedness, and I realized that I had made her feel so."
"She threw herself on your pity!"
"No, she didn't, mother. Don't make it impossible for me to tell you just how it was."
"I won't. Go on."
"I don't say she was manly about it; that couldn't be, but she was certainly not throwing herself on my pity, unless—unless—"
"Unless you call it so for her to say that she wanted to own up to me, because she could have no rest till she had done so; she couldn't put it behind her till she had acknowledged it; she couldn't work; she couldn't get well."
He saw his mother trying to consider it fairly, and in response he renewed his own resolution not to make himself the girl's advocate with her, but to continue the dispassionate historian of the case. At the same time his memory was filled with the vision of how she had done and said the things he was telling, with what pathos, with what grace, with what beauty in her appeal. He saw the tears that came into her eyes at times and that she indignantly repressed as she hurried on in the confession which she was voluntarily making, for there was no outward stress upon her to say anything. He felt again the charm of the situation, the sort of warmth and intimacy, but he resolved not to let that feeling offset the impartiality of his story.
"No, I don't say she threw herself on your mercy," his mother said, finally. "She needn't have told you anything."
"Except for the reason she gave—that she couldn't make a start for herself till she had done so. And she has got her own way to make; she is poor. Of course, you may say her motive was an obsession, and not a reason."
"There's reality in it, whatever it is; it's a genuine motive," Mrs. Verrian conceded.
"I think so," Verrian said, in a voice which he tried to keep from sounding too grateful.
Apparently his mother did not find it so. She asked, "What had been the matter with her, did she say?"
"In her long sickness? Oh! A nervous fever of some sort."
"From worrying about that experience?"
Verrian reluctantly admitted, "She said it made her want to die. I don't suppose we can quite realize—"
"We needn't believe everything she said to realize that she suffered. But girls exaggerate their sufferings. I suppose you told her not to think of it any more?"
Verrian gave an odd laugh. "Well, not unconditionally. I tried to give her my point of view. And I stipulated that she should tell Jerusha Brown all about it, and keep her from having a nervous fever, too."
"That was right. You must see that even cowardice couldn't excuse her selfishness in letting that girl take all the chances."
"And I'm afraid I was not very unselfish myself in my stipulations," Verrian said, with another laugh. "I think that I wanted to stand well with the postmaster."
There was a note of cynical ease in this which Mrs. Verrian found morally some octaves lower than the pitch of her son's habitual seriousness in what concerned himself, but she could not make it a censure to him. "And you were able to reassure her, so that she needn't think of it any more?"
"What would you have wished me to do?" he returned, dryly. "Don't you think she had suffered enough?"
"Oh, in this sort of thing it doesn't seem the question of suffering. If there's wrong done the penalty doesn't right it."
The notion struck Verrian's artistic sense. "That's true. That would make the 'donnee' of a strong story. Or a play. It's a drama of fate. It's Greek. But I thought we lived under another dispensation."
"Will she try to get more of the kind of thing she was doing for Mrs. Westangle at once? Or has she some people?"
"No; only friends, as I understand."
"Where is she from? Up country?"
"No, she's from the South."
"I don't like Southerners!"
"I know you don't, mother. But you must honor the way they work and get on when they come North and begin doing for themselves. Besides, Miss Shirley's family went South after the war—"
"Oh, not even a REAL Southerner!"
"I know! I'm not fair. I ought to beg her pardon. And I ought to be glad it's all over. Shall you see her again?"
"It might happen. But I don't know how or when. We parted friends, but we parted strangers, so far as any prevision of the future is concerned," Verrian said.
His mother drew a long breath, which she tried to render inaudible. "And the girl that asked her the strange questions, did you see her again?"
"Oh yes. She had a curious fascination. I should like to tell you about her. Do you think there's such a thing as a girl's being too innocent?"
"It isn't so common as not being innocent enough."
"But it's more difficult?"
"I hope you'll never find it so, my son," Mrs. Verrian said. And for the first time she was intentionally personal. "Go on."
"About Miss Andrews?"
"Whichever you please."
"She waylaid me in the afternoon, as I was coming home from a walk, and wanted to talk with me about Miss Shirley."
"I suppose Miss Shirley was the day's heroine after what had happened?"
"The half-day's, or quarter-day's heroine, perhaps. She left on the church train for town yesterday morning soon after I saw her. Miss Andrews seemed to think I was an authority on the subject, and she approached me with a large-eyed awe that was very amusing, though it was affecting, too. I suppose that girls must have many worships for other girls before they have any worship for a man. This girl couldn't separate Miss Shirley, on the lookout for another engagement, from the psychical part she had played. She raved about her; she thought she was beautiful, and she wanted to know all about her and how she could help her. Miss Andrews's parents are rich but respectable, I understand, and she's an only child. I came in for a share of her awe; she had found out that I was not only not Verrian the actor, but an author of the same name, and she had read my story with passionate interest, but apparently in that unliterary way of many people without noticing who wrote it; she seemed to have thought it was Harding Davis or Henry James; she wasn't clear which. But it was a good deal to have had her read it at all in that house; I don't believe anybody else had, except Miss Shirley and Miss Macroyd."
Mrs. Verrian deferred a matter that would ordinarily have interested her supremely to an immediate curiosity. "And how came she to think you would know so much about Miss Shirley?"
Verrian frowned. "I think from Miss Macroyd. Miss Macroyd seems to have taken a grandmotherly concern in my affairs through the whole week. Perhaps she resented having behaved so piggishly at the station the day we came, and meant to take it out of Miss Shirley and myself. She had seen us together in the woods, one day, and she must have told it about. Mrs. Westangle wouldn't have spoken of us together, because she never speaks of anything unless it is going to count; and there was no one else who knew of our acquaintance."
"Why, my son, if you went walking in the woods with the girl, any one might have seen you."
"I didn't. It was quite by accident that we met there. Miss Shirley was anxious to keep her presence in the house a secret from everybody."
Mrs. Verrian would not take any but the open way, with this. She would not deal indirectly, with it, or in any wise covertly or surreptitiously. "It seems to me that Miss Shirley has rather a fondness for secrecy," she said.
"I think she has," Verrian admitted. "Though, in this case, it was essential to the success of her final scheme. But she is a curious study. I suppose that timidity is at the bottom of all fondness for secrecy, isn't it?"
"I don't know. She doesn't seem to be timid in everything."
"Say it out, mother!" Verrian challenged her with a smile. "You're not timid, anyway!"
"She had the courage to join in that letter, but not the courage to own her part in it. She was brave enough to confess that she had been sick of a nervous fever from the answer you wrote to the Brown girl, but she wouldn't have been brave enough to confess anything at all if she had believed she would be physically or morally strong enough to keep it."
"Perhaps nobody—nobody but you, mother—is brave in the right time and place."
She knew that this was not meant in irony. "I am glad you say that, Philip."
"It's only your due. But aren't you a little too hard upon cowards, at times? For the sort of person she is, if you infer the sort from the worst appearance she has made in the whole business, I think she has done pretty well."
"Why had she left the Brown girl to take all your resentment alone for the last six or eight months?"
"She may have thought that she was getting her share of the punishment in the fever my resentment brought on?"
"Philip, do you really believe that her fever, if she had one, came from that?"
"I think she believes it, and there's no doubt but she was badly scared."
"Oh, there's no doubt of that!"
"But come, mother, why should we take her at the worst? Of course, she has a complex nature. I see that as clearly as you do. I don't believe we look at her diversely, in the smallest particular. But why shouldn't a complex nature be credited with the same impulses towards the truth as a single nature? Why shouldn't we allow that Miss Shirley had the same wish to set herself right with me as Miss Andrews would have had in her place?"
"I dare say she wished to set herself right with you, but not from the same wish that Miss Andrews would have had. Miss Andrews would not have wished you to know the truth for her own sake. Her motive would have been direct-straight."
"Yes; and we will describe her as a straight line, and Miss Shirley as a waving line. Why shouldn't the waving line, at its highest points, touch the same altitude as the straight line?"
"It wouldn't touch it all the time, and in character, or nature, as you call it, that is the great thing. It's at the lowest points that the waving line is dangerous."
"Well, I don't deny that. But I'm anxious to be just to a person who hasn't experienced a great deal of mercy for what, after all, wasn't such a very heinous thing as I used to think it. You must allow that she wasn't obliged to tell me anything about herself."
"Yes, she was, Philip. As I said before, she hadn't the physical or moral strength to keep it from you when she was brought face to face with you. Besides—" Mrs. Verrian hesitated.
"Out with it, mother! We, at least, won't have any concealments."
"She may have thought, she could clinch it in that way."
"You know. Is she pretty?"
"That can always be managed. Is she tall?"
"NO, I think she's rather out of style there; she's rather petite."
"And what's her face like?"
"Well, she has no particular complexion, but it's not thick. Her eyes are the best of her, though there isn't much of them. They're the 'waters on a starry night' sort, very sweet and glimmering. She has a kind of ground-colored hair and a nice little chin. Her mouth helps her eyes out; it looks best when she speaks; it's pathetic in the play of the lips."
"I see," Mrs. Verrian said.