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Chapter 10

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Beaton lit his pipe when he found himself in his room, and sat down before the dull fire in his grate to think. It struck him there was a dull fire in his heart a great deal like it; and he worked out a fanciful analogy with the coals, still alive, and the ashes creeping over them, and the dead clay and cinders. He felt sick of himself, sick of his life and of all his works. He was angry with Fulkerson for having got him into that art department of his, for having bought him up; and he was bitter at fate because he had been obliged to use the money to pay some pressing debts, and had not been able to return the check his father had sent him. He pitied his poor old father; he ached with compassion for him; and he set his teeth and snarled with contempt through them for his own baseness. This was the kind of world it was; but he washed his hands of it. The fault was in human nature, and he reflected with pride that he had at least not invented human nature; he had not sunk so low as that yet. The notion amused him; he thought he might get a Satanic epigram out of it some way. But in the mean time that girl, that wild animal, she kept visibly, tangibly before him; if he put out his hand he might touch hers, he might pass his arm round her waist. In Paris, in a set he knew there, what an effect she would be with that look of hers, and that beauty, all out of drawing! They would recognize the flame quality in her. He imagined a joke about her being a fiery spirit, or nymph, naiad, whatever, from one of her native gas-wells. He began to sketch on a bit of paper from the table at his elbow vague lines that veiled and revealed a level, dismal landscape, and a vast flame against an empty sky, and a shape out of the flame that took on a likeness and floated detached from it. The sketch ran up the left side of the sheet and stretched across it. Beaton laughed out. Pretty good to let Fulkerson have that for the cover of his first number! In black and red it would be effective; it would catch the eye from the news-stands. He made a motion to throw it on the fire, but held it back and slid it into the table-drawer, and smoked on. He saw the dummy with the other sketch in the open drawer which he had brought away from Fulkerson's in the morning and slipped in there, and he took it out and looked at it. He made some criticisms in line with his pencil on it, correcting the drawing here and there, and then he respected it a little more, though he still smiled at the feminine quality—a young lady quality.

In spite of his experience the night he called upon the Leightons, Beaton could not believe that Alma no longer cared for him. She played at having forgotten him admirably, but he knew that a few months before she had been very mindful of him. He knew he had neglected them since they came to New York, where he had led them to expect interest, if not attention; but he was used to neglecting people, and he was somewhat less used to being punished for it—punished and forgiven. He felt that Alma had punished him so thoroughly that she ought to have been satisfied with her work and to have forgiven him in her heart afterward. He bore no resentment after the first tingling moments were-past; he rather admired her for it; and he would have been ready to go back half an hour later and accept pardon and be on the footing of last summer again. Even now he debated with himself whether it was too late to call; but, decidedly, a quarter to ten seemed late. The next day he determined never to call upon the Leightons again; but he had no reason for this; it merely came into a transitory scheme of conduct, of retirement from the society of women altogether; and after dinner he went round to see them.

He asked for the ladies, and they all three received him, Alma not without a surprise that intimated itself to him, and her mother with no appreciable relenting; Miss Woodburn, with the needlework which she found easier to be voluble over than a book, expressed in her welcome a neutrality both cordial to Beaton and loyal to Alma.

"Is it snowing outdo's?" she asked, briskly, after the greetings were transacted. "Mah goodness!" she said, in answer to his apparent surprise at the question. "Ah mahght as well have stayed in the Soath, for all the winter Ah have seen in New York yet."

"We don't often have snow much before New-Year's," said Beaton.

"Miss Woodburn is wild for a real Northern winter," Mrs. Leighton explained.

"The othah naght Ah woke up and looked oat of the window and saw all the roofs covered with snow, and it turned oat to be nothing but moonlaght. Ah was never so disappointed in mah lahfe," said Miss Woodburn.

"If you'll come to St. Barnaby next summer, you shall have all the winter you want," said Alma.

"I can't let you slander St. Barnaby in that way," said Beaton, with the air of wishing to be understood as meaning more than he said.

"Yes?" returned Alma, coolly. "I didn't know you were so fond of the climate."

"I never think of it as a climate. It's a landscape. It doesn't matter whether it's hot or cold."

"With the thermometer twenty below, you'd find that it mattered," Alma persisted.

"Is that the way you feel about St. Barnaby, too, Mrs. Leighton?" Beaton asked, with affected desolation.

"I shall be glad enough to go back in the summer," Mrs. Leighton conceded.

"And I should be glad to go now," said Beaton, looking at Alma. He had the dummy of 'Every Other Week' in his hand, and he saw Alma's eyes wandering toward it whenever he glanced at her. "I should be glad to go anywhere to get out of a job I've undertaken," he continued, to Mrs. Leighton. "They're going to start some sort of a new illustrated magazine, and they've got me in for their art department. I'm not fit for it; I'd like to run away. Don't you want to advise me a little, Mrs. Leighton? You know how much I value your taste, and I'd like to have you look at the design for the cover of the first number: they're going to have a different one for every number. I don't know whether you'll agree with me, but I think this is rather nice."

He faced the dummy round, and then laid it on the table before Mrs. Leighton, pushing some of her work aside to make room for it and standing over her while she bent forward to look at it.

Alma kept her place, away from the table.

"Mah goodness! Ho' exciting!" said Miss Woodburn. "May anybody look?"

"Everybody," said Beaton.

"Well, isn't it perfectly choming!" Miss Woodburn exclaimed. "Come and look at this, Miss Leighton," she called to Alma, who reluctantly approached.

"What lines are these?" Mrs. Leighton asked, pointing to Beaton's pencil scratches.

"They're suggestions of modifications," he replied.

"I don't think they improve it much. What do you think, Alma?"

"Oh, I don't know," said the girl, constraining her voice to an effect of indifference and glancing carelessly down at the sketch. "The design might be improved; but I don't think those suggestions would do it."

"They're mine," said Beaton, fixing his eyes upon her with a beautiful sad dreaminess that he knew he could put into them; he spoke with a dreamy remoteness of tone—his wind-harp stop, Wetmore called it.

"I supposed so," said Alma, calmly.

"Oh, mah goodness!" cried Miss Woodburn. "Is that the way you awtusts talk to each othah? Well, Ah'm glad Ah'm not an awtust—unless I could do all the talking."

"Artists cannot tell a fib," Alma said, "or even act one," and she laughed in Beaton's upturned face.

He did not unbend his dreamy gaze. "You're quite right. The suggestions are stupid."

Alma turned to Miss Woodburn: "You hear? Even when we speak of our own work."

"Ah nevah hoad anything lahke it!"

"And the design itself?" Beaton persisted.

"Oh, I'm not an art editor," Alma answered, with a laugh of exultant evasion.

A tall, dark, grave-looking man of fifty, with a swarthy face and iron-gray mustache and imperial and goatee, entered the room. Beaton knew the type; he had been through Virginia sketching for one of the illustrated papers, and he had seen such men in Richmond. Miss Woodburn hardly needed to say, "May Ah introduce you to mah fathaw, Co'nel Woodburn, Mr. Beaton?"

The men shook hands, and Colonel Woodburn said, in that soft, gentle, slow Southern voice without our Northern contractions: "I am very glad to meet you, sir; happy to make yo' acquaintance. Do not move, madam," he said to Mrs. Leighton, who made a deprecatory motion to let him pass to the chair beyond her; "I can find my way." He bowed a bulk that did not lend itself readily to the devotion, and picked up the ball of yarn she had let drop out of her lap in half rising. "Yo' worsteds, madam."

"Yarn, yarn, Colonel Woodburn!" Alma shouted. "You're quite incorrigible.

A spade is a spade!"

"But sometimes it is a trump, my dear young lady," said the Colonel, with unabated gallantry; "and when yo' mothah uses yarn, it is worsteds. But I respect worsteds even under the name of yarn: our ladies—my own mothah and sistahs—had to knit the socks we wore—all we could get in the woe."

"Yes, and aftah the woe," his daughter put in. "The knitting has not stopped yet in some places. Have you been much in the Soath, Mr. Beaton?"

Beaton explained just how much.

"Well, sir," said the Colonel, "then you have seen a country making gigantic struggles to retrieve its losses, sir. The South is advancing with enormous strides, sir."

"Too fast for some of us to keep up," said Miss Woodburn, in an audible aside. "The pace in Charlottesboag is pofectly killing, and we had to drop oat into a slow place like New York."

"The progress in the South is material now," said the Colonel; "and those of us whose interests are in another direction find ourselves—isolated —isolated, sir. The intellectual centres are still in the No'th, sir; the great cities draw the mental activity of the country to them, sir. Necessarily New York is the metropolis."

"Oh, everything comes here," said Beaton, impatient of the elder's ponderosity. Another sort of man would have sympathized with the Southerner's willingness to talk of himself, and led him on to speak of his plans and ideals. But the sort of man that Beaton was could not do this; he put up the dummy into the wrapper he had let drop on the floor beside him, and tied it round with string while Colonel Woodburn was talking. He got to his feet with the words he spoke and offered Mrs. Leighton his hand.

"Must you go?" she asked, in surprise.

"I am on my way to a reception," he said. She had noticed that he was in evening dress; and now she felt the vague hurt that people invited nowhere feel in the presence of those who are going somewhere. She did not feel it for herself, but for her daughter; and she knew Alma would not have let her feel it if she could have prevented it. But Alma had left the room for a moment, and she tacitly indulged this sense of injury in her behalf.

"Please say good-night to Miss Leighton for me," Beaton continued. He bowed to Miss Woodburn, "Goodnight, Miss Woodburn," and to her father, bluntly, "Goodnight."

"Good-night, sir," said the Colonel, with a sort of severe suavity.

"Oh, isn't he choming!" Miss Woodburn whispered to Mrs. Leighton when

Beaton left the room.

Alma spoke to him in the hall without. "You knew that was my design, Mr.

Beaton. Why did you bring it?"

"Why?" He looked at her in gloomy hesitation.

Then he said: "You know why. I wished to talk it over with you, to serve you, please you, get back your good opinion. But I've done neither the one nor the other; I've made a mess of the whole thing."

Alma interrupted him. "Has it been accepted?"

"It will be accepted, if you will let it."

"Let it?" she laughed. "I shall be delighted." She saw him swayed a little toward her. "It's a matter of business, isn't it?"

"Purely. Good-night."

When Alma returned to the room, Colonel Woodburn was saying to Mrs. Leighton: "I do not contend that it is impossible, madam, but it is very difficult in a thoroughly commercialized society, like yours, to have the feelings of a gentleman. How can a business man, whose prosperity, whose earthly salvation, necessarily lies in the adversity of some one else, be delicate and chivalrous, or even honest? If we could have had time to perfect our system at the South, to eliminate what was evil and develop what was good in it, we should have had a perfect system. But the virus of commercialism was in us, too; it forbade us to make the best of a divine institution, and tempted us to make the worst. Now the curse is on the whole country; the dollar is the measure of every value, the stamp of every success. What does not sell is a failure; and what sells succeeds."

"The hobby is oat, mah deah," said Miss Woodburn, in an audible aside to

Alma.

"Were you speaking of me, Colonel Woodburn?" Alma asked.

"Surely not, my dear young lady."

"But he's been saying that awtusts are just as greedy aboat money as anybody," said his daughter.

"The law of commercialism is on everything in a commercial society," the Colonel explained, softening the tone in which his convictions were presented. "The final reward of art is money, and not the pleasure of creating."

"Perhaps they would be willing to take it all oat in that if othah people would let them pay their bills in the pleasure of creating," his daughter teased.

"They are helpless, like all the rest," said her father, with the same deference to her as to other women. "I do not blame them."

"Oh, mah goodness! Didn't you say, sir, that Mr. Beaton had bad manners?"

Alma relieved a confusion which he seemed to feel in reference to her. "Bad manners? He has no manners! That is, when he's himself. He has pretty good ones when he's somebody else."

Miss Woodburn began, "Oh, mah-" and then stopped herself. Alma's mother looked at her with distressed question, but the girl seemed perfectly cool and contented; and she gave her mind provisionally to a point suggested by Colonel Woodburn's talk.

"Still, I can't believe it was right to hold people in slavery, to whip them and sell them. It never did seem right to me," she added, in apology for her extreme sentiments to the gentleness of her adversary.

"I quite agree with you, madam," said the Colonel. "Those were the abuses of the institution. But if we had not been vitiated on the one hand and threatened on the other by the spirit of commercialism from the North—and from Europe, too—those abuses could have been eliminated, and the institution developed in the direction of the mild patriarchalism of the divine intention." The Colonel hitched his chair, which figured a hobby careering upon its hind legs, a little toward Mrs. Leighton and the girls approached their heads and began to whisper; they fell deferentially silent when the Colonel paused in his argument, and went on again when he went on.

At last they heard Mrs. Leighton saying, "And have you heard from the publishers about your book yet?"

Then Miss Woodburn cut in, before her father could answer: "The coase of commercialism is on that, too. They are trahing to fahnd oat whethah it will pay."

"And they are right-quite right," said the Colonel. "There is no longer any other criterion; and even a work that attacks the system must be submitted to the tests of the system."

"The system won't accept destruction on any othah tomes," said Miss

Woodburn, demurely.

William Dean Howells