Superficially, the affairs of 'Every Other Week' settled into their wonted form again, and for Fulkerson they seemed thoroughly reinstated. But March had a feeling of impermanency from what had happened, mixed with a fantastic sense of shame toward Lindau. He did not sympathize with Lindau's opinions; he thought his remedy for existing evils as wildly impracticable as Colonel Woodburn's. But while he thought this, and while he could justly blame Fulkerson for Lindau's presence at Dryfoos's dinner, which his zeal had brought about in spite of March's protests, still he could not rid himself of the reproach of uncandor with Lindau. He ought to have told him frankly about the ownership of the magazine, and what manner of man the man was whose money he was taking. But he said that he never could have imagined that he was serious in his preposterous attitude in regard to a class of men who embody half the prosperity of the country; and he had moments of revolt against his own humiliation before Lindau, in which he found it monstrous that he should return Dryfoos's money as if it had been the spoil of a robber. His wife agreed with him in these moments, and said it was a great relief not to have that tiresome old German coming about. They had to account for his absence evasively to the children, whom they could not very well tell that their father was living on money that Lindau disdained to take, even though Lindau was wrong and their father was right. This heightened Mrs. March's resentment toward both Lindau and Dryfoos, who between them had placed her husband in a false position. If anything, she resented Dryfoos's conduct more than Lindau's. He had never spoken to March about the affair since Lindau had renounced his work, or added to the apologetic messages he had sent by Fulkerson. So far as March knew, Dryfoos had been left to suppose that Lindau had simply stopped for some reason that did not personally affect him. They never spoke of him, and March was too proud to ask either Fulkerson or Conrad whether the old man knew that Lindau had returned his money. He avoided talking to Conrad, from a feeling that if he did he should involuntarily lead him on to speak of his differences with his father. Between himself and Fulkerson, even, he was uneasily aware of a want of their old perfect friendliness. Fulkerson had finally behaved with honor and courage; but his provisional reluctance had given March the measure of Fulkerson's character in one direction, and he could not ignore the fact that it was smaller than he could have wished.
He could not make out whether Fulkerson shared his discomfort or not. It certainly wore away, even with March, as time passed, and with Fulkerson, in the bliss of his fortunate love, it was probably far more transient, if it existed at all. He advanced into the winter as radiantly as if to meet the spring, and he said that if there were any pleasanter month of the year than November, it was December, especially when the weather was good and wet and muddy most of the time, so that you had to keep indoors a long while after you called anywhere.
Colonel Woodburn had the anxiety, in view of his daughter's engagement, when she asked his consent to it, that such a dreamer must have in regard to any reality that threatens to affect the course of his reveries. He had not perhaps taken her marriage into account, except as a remote contingency; and certainly Fulkerson was not the kind of son-in-law that he had imagined in dealing with that abstraction. But because he had nothing of the sort definitely in mind, he could not oppose the selection of Fulkerson with success; he really knew nothing against him, and he knew, many things in his favor; Fulkerson inspired him with the liking that every one felt for him in a measure; he amused him, he cheered him; and the colonel had been so much used to leaving action of all kinds to his daughter that when he came to close quarters with the question of a son-in-law he felt helpless to decide it, and he let her decide it, as if it were still to be decided when it was submitted to him. She was competent to treat it in all its phases: not merely those of personal interest, but those of duty to the broken Southern past, sentimentally dear to him, and practically absurd to her. No such South as he remembered had ever existed to her knowledge, and no such civilization as he imagined would ever exist, to her belief, anywhere. She took the world as she found it, and made the best of it. She trusted in Fulkerson; she had proved his magnanimity in a serious emergency; and in small things she was willing fearlessly to chance it with him. She was not a sentimentalist, and there was nothing fantastic in her expectations; she was a girl of good sense and right mind, and she liked the immediate practicality as well as the final honor of Fulkerson. She did not idealize him, but in the highest effect she realized him; she did him justice, and she would not have believed that she did him more than justice if she had sometimes known him to do himself less.
Their engagement was a fact to which the Leighton household adjusted itself almost as simply as the lovers themselves; Miss Woodburn told the ladies at once, and it was not a thing that Fulkerson could keep from March very long. He sent word of it to Mrs. March by her husband; and his engagement perhaps did more than anything else to confirm the confidence in him which had been shaken by his early behavior in the Lindau episode, and not wholly restored by his tardy fidelity to March. But now she felt that a man who wished to get married so obviously and entirely for love was full of all kinds of the best instincts, and only needed the guidance of a wife, to become very noble. She interested herself intensely in balancing the respective merits of the engaged couple, and after her call upon Miss Woodburn in her new character she prided herself upon recognizing the worth of some strictly Southern qualities in her, while maintaining the general average of New England superiority. She could not reconcile herself to the Virginian custom illustrated in her having been christened with the surname of Madison; and she said that its pet form of Mad, which Fulkerson promptly invented, only made it more ridiculous.
Fulkerson was slower in telling Beaton. He was afraid, somehow, of Beaton's taking the matter in the cynical way; Miss Woodburn said she would break off the engagement if Beaton was left to guess it or find it out by accident, and then Fulkerson plucked up his courage. Beaton received the news with gravity, and with a sort of melancholy meekness that strongly moved Fulkerson's sympathy, and made him wish that Beaton was engaged, too.
It made Beaton feel very old; it somehow left him behind and forgotten; in a manner, it made him feel trifled with. Something of the unfriendliness of fate seemed to overcast his resentment, and he allowed the sadness of his conviction that he had not the means to marry on to tinge his recognition of the fact that Alma Leighton would not have wanted him to marry her if he had. He was now often in that martyr mood in which he wished to help his father; not only to deny himself Chianti, but to forego a fur-lined overcoat which he intended to get for the winter, He postponed the moment of actual sacrifice as regarded the Chianti, and he bought the overcoat in an anguish of self-reproach. He wore it the first evening after he got it in going to call upon the Leightons, and it seemed to him a piece of ghastly irony when Alma complimented his picturesqueness in it and asked him to let her sketch him.
"Oh, you can sketch me," he said, with so much gloom that it made her laugh.
"If you think it's so serious, I'd rather not."
"No, no! Go ahead! How do you want me?"
"Oh, fling yourself down on a chair in one of your attitudes of studied negligence; and twist one corner of your mustache with affected absence of mind."
"And you think I'm always studied, always affected?"
"I didn't say so."
"I didn't ask you what you said."
"And I won't tell you what I think."
"Ah, I know what you think."
"What made you ask, then?" The girl laughed again with the satisfaction of her sex in cornering a man.
Beaton made a show of not deigning to reply, and put himself in the pose she suggested, frowning.
"Ah, that's it. But a little more animation—
"'As when a great thought strikes along the brain,
And flushes all the cheek.'"
She put her forehead down on the back of her hand and laughed again. "You ought to be photographed. You look as if you were sitting for it."
Beaton said: "That's because I know I am being photographed, in one way. I don't think you ought to call me affected. I never am so with you; I know it wouldn't be of any use."
"Oh, Mr. Beaton, you flatter."
"No, I never flatter you."
"I meant you flattered yourself."
"Oh, I don't know. Imagine."
"I know what you mean. You think I can't be sincere with anybody."
"Oh no, I don't."
"What do you think?"
"That you can't—try." Alma gave another victorious laugh.
Miss Woodburn and Fulkerson would once have both feigned a great interest in Alma's sketching Beaton, and made it the subject of talk, in which they approached as nearly as possible the real interest of their lives. Now they frankly remained away in the dining-room, which was very cozy after the dinner had disappeared; the colonel sat with his lamp and paper in the gallery beyond; Mrs. Leighton was about her housekeeping affairs, in the content she always felt when Alma was with Beaton.
"They seem to be having a pretty good time in there," said Fulkerson, detaching himself from his own absolute good time as well as he could.
"At least Alma does," said Miss Woodburn.
"Do you think she cares for him?"
"Quahte as moch as he desoves."
"What makes you all down on Beaton around here? He's not such a bad fellow."
"We awe not all doan on him. Mrs. Leighton isn't doan on him."
"Oh, I guess if it was the old lady, there wouldn't be much question about it."
They both laughed, and Alma said, "They seem to be greatly amused with something in there."
"Me, probably," said Beaton. "I seem to amuse everybody to-night."
"Don't you always?"
"I always amuse you, I'm afraid, Alma."
She looked at him as if she were going to snub him openly for using her name; but apparently she decided to do it covertly. "You didn't at first. I really used to believe you could be serious, once."
"Couldn't you believe it again? Now?"
"Not when you put on that wind-harp stop."
"Wetmore has been talking to you about me. He would sacrifice his best friend to a phrase. He spends his time making them."
"He's made some very pretty ones about you."
"Like the one you just quoted?"
"No, not exactly. He admires you ever so much. He says" She stopped, teasingly.
"He says you could be almost anything you wished, if you didn't wish to be everything."
"That sounds more like the school of Wetmore. That's what you say, Alma.
Well, if there were something you wished me to be, I could be it."
"We might adapt Kingsley: 'Be good, sweet man, and let who will be clever.'" He could not help laughing. She went on: "I always thought that was the most patronizing and exasperating thing ever addressed to a human girl; and we've had to stand a good deal in our time. I should like to have it applied to the other 'sect' a while. As if any girl that was a girl would be good if she had the remotest chance of being clever."
"Then you wouldn't wish me to be good?" Beaton asked.
"Not if you were a girl."
"You want to shock me. Well, I suppose I deserve it. But if I were one-tenth part as good as you are, Alma, I should have a lighter heart than I have now. I know that I'm fickle, but I'm not false, as you think I am."
"Who said I thought you were false?"
"No one," said Beaton. "It isn't necessary, when you look it—live it."
"Oh, dear! I didn't know I devoted my whole time to the subject."
"I know I'm despicable. I could tell you something—the history of this day, even—that would make you despise me." Beaton had in mind his purchase of the overcoat, which Alma was getting in so effectively, with the money he ought to have sent his father. "But," he went on, darkly, with a sense that what he was that moment suffering for his selfishness must somehow be a kind of atonement, which would finally leave him to the guiltless enjoyment of the overcoat, "you wouldn't believe the depths of baseness I could descend to."
"I would try," said Alma, rapidly shading the collar, "if you'd give me some hint."
Beaton had a sudden wish to pour out his remorse to her, but he was afraid of her laughing at him. He said to himself that this was a very wholesome fear, and that if he could always have her at hand he should not make a fool of himself so often. A man conceives of such an office as the very noblest for a woman; he worships her for it if he is magnanimous. But Beaton was silent, and Alma put back her head for the right distance on her sketch. "Mr. Fulkerson thinks you are the sublimest of human beings for advising him to get Colonel Woodburn to interview Mr. Dryfoos about Lindau. What have you ever done with your Judas?"
"I haven't done anything with it. Nadel thought he would take hold of it at one time, but he dropped it again. After all, I don't suppose it could be popularized. Fulkerson wanted to offer it as a premium to subscribers for 'Every Other Week,' but I sat down on that."
Alma could not feel the absurdity of this, and she merely said, "'Every
Other Week' seems to be going on just the same as ever."
"Yes, the trouble has all blown over, I believe. Fulkerson," said Beaton, with a return to what they were saying, "has managed the whole business very well. But he exaggerates the value of my advice."
"Very likely," Alma suggested, vaguely. "Or, no! Excuse me! He couldn't, he couldn't!" She laughed delightedly at Beaton's foolish look of embarrassment.
He tried to recover his dignity in saying, "He's 'a very good fellow, and he deserves his happiness."
"Oh, indeed!" said Alma, perversely. "Does any one deserve happiness?"
"I know I don't," sighed Beaton.
"You mean you don't get it."
"I certainly don't get it."
"Ah, but that isn't the reason."
"That's the secret of the universe," She bit in her lower lip, and looked at him with eyes, of gleaming fun.
"Are you never serious?" he asked.
"With serious people always."
"I am serious; and you have the secret of my happiness—" He threw himself impulsively forward in his chair.
"Oh, pose, pose!" she cried.
"I won't pose," he answered, "and you have got to listen to me. You know I'm in love with you; and I know that once you cared for me. Can't that time—won't it—come back again? Try to think so, Alma!"
"No," she said, briefly and seriously enough.
"But that seems impossible. What is it I've done what have you against me?"
"Nothing. But that time is past. I couldn't recall it if I wished. Why did you bring it up? You've broken your word. You know I wouldn't have let you keep coming here if you hadn't promised never to refer to it."
"How could I help it? With that happiness near us—Fulkerson—"
"Oh, it's that? I might have known it!"
"No, it isn't that—it's something far deeper. But if it's nothing you have against me, what is it, Alma, that keeps you from caring for me now as you did then? I haven't changed."
"But I have. I shall never care for you again, Mr. Beaton; you might as well understand it once for all. Don't think it's anything in yourself, or that I think you unworthy of me. I'm not so self-satisfied as that; I know very well that I'm not a perfect character, and that I've no claim on perfection in anybody else. I think women who want that are fools; they won't get it, and they don't deserve it. But I've learned a good. deal more about myself than I knew in St. Barnaby, and a life of work, of art, and of art alone that's what I've made up my mind to."
"A woman that's made up her mind to that has no heart to hinder her!"
"Would a man have that had done so?"
"But I don't believe you, Alma. You're merely laughing at me. And, besides, with me you needn't give up art. We could work together. You know how much I admire your talent. I believe I could help it—serve it; I would be its willing slave, and yours, Heaven knows!"
"I don't want any slave—nor any slavery. I want to be free always. Now do you see? I don't care for you, and I never could in the old way; but I should have to care for some one more than I believe I ever shall to give up my work. Shall we go on?" She looked at her sketch.
"No, we shall not go on," he said, gloomily, as he rose.
"I suppose you blame me," she said, rising too.
"Oh no! I blame no one—or only myself. I threw my chance away."
"I'm glad you see that; and I'm glad you did it. You don't believe me, of course. Why do men think life can be only the one thing to women? And if you come to the selfish view, who are the happy women? I'm sure that if work doesn't fail me, health won't, and happiness won't."
"But you could work on with me—"
"Second fiddle. Do you suppose I shouldn't be woman enough to wish my work always less and lower than yours? At least I've heart enough for that!"
"You've heart enough for anything, Alma. I was a fool to say you hadn't."
"I think the women who keep their hearts have an even chance, at least, of having heart—"
"Ah, there's where you're wrong!"
"But mine isn't mine to give you, anyhow. And now I don't want you ever to speak to me about this again."
"Oh, there's no danger!" he cried, bitterly. "I shall never willingly see you again."
"That's as you like, Mr. Beaton. We've had to be very frank, but I don't see why we shouldn't be friends. Still, we needn't, if you don't like."
"And I may come—I may come here—as—as usual?"
"Why, if you can consistently," she said, with a smile, and she held out her hand to him.
He went home dazed, and feeling as if it were a bad joke that had been put upon him. At least the affair went so deep that it estranged the aspect of his familiar studio. Some of the things in it were not very familiar; he had spent lately a great deal on rugs, on stuffs, on Japanese bric-a-brac. When he saw these things in the shops he had felt that he must have them; that they were necessary to him; and he was partly in debt for them, still without having sent any of his earnings to pay his father. As he looked at them now he liked to fancy something weird and conscious in them as the silent witnesses of a broken life. He felt about among some of the smaller objects on the mantel for his pipe. Before he slept he was aware, in the luxury of his despair, of a remote relief, an escape; and, after all, the understanding he had come to with Alma was only the explicit formulation of terms long tacit between them. Beaton would have been puzzled more than he knew if she had taken him seriously. It was inevitable that he should declare himself in love with her; but he was not disappointed at her rejection of his love; perhaps not so much as he would have been at its acceptance, though he tried to think otherwise, and to give himself airs of tragedy. He did not really feel that the result was worse than what had gone before, and it left him free.
But he did not go to the Leightons again for so long a time that Mrs.
Leighton asked Alma what had happened. Alma told her.
"And he won't come any more?" her mother sighed, with reserved censure.
"Oh, I think he will. He couldn't very well come the next night. But he has the habit of coming, and with Mr. Beaton habit is everything—even the habit of thinking he's in love with some one."
"Alma," said her mother, "I don't think it's very nice for a girl to let a young man keep coming to see her after she's refused him."
"Why not, if it amuses him and doesn't hurt the girl?"
"But it does hurt her, Alma. It—it's indelicate. It isn't fair to him; it gives him hopes."
"Well, mamma, it hasn't happened in the given case yet. If Mr. Beaton comes again, I won't see him, and you can forbid him the house."
"If I could only feel sure, Alma," said her mother, taking up another branch of the inquiry, "that you really knew your own mind, I should be easier about it."
"Then you can rest perfectly quiet, mamma. I do know my own mind; and, what's worse, I know Mr. Beaton's mind."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that he spoke to me the other night simply because Mr.
Fulkerson's engagement had broken him all up."
"What expressions!" Mrs. Leighton lamented.
"He let it out himself," Alma went on. "And you wouldn't have thought it was very flattering yourself. When I'm made love to, after this, I prefer to be made love to in an off-year, when there isn't another engaged couple anywhere about."
"Did you tell him that, Alma?"
"Tell him that! What do you mean, mamma? I may be indelicate, but I'm not quite so indelicate as that."
"I didn't mean you were indelicate, really, Alma, but I wanted to warn you. I think Mr. Beaton was very much in earnest."
"Oh, so did he!"
"And you didn't?"
"Oh yes, for the time being. I suppose he's very much in earnest with
Miss Vance at times, and with Miss Dryfoos at others. Sometimes he's a
painter, and sometimes he's an architect, and sometimes he's a sculptor.
He has too many gifts—too many tastes."
"And if Miss Vance and Miss Dryfoos—"
"Oh, do say Sculpture and Architecture, mamma! It's getting so dreadfully personal!"
"Alma, you know that I only wish to get at your real feeling in the matter."
"And you know that I don't want to let you—especially when I haven't got any real feeling in the matter. But I should think—speaking in the abstract entirely—that if either of those arts was ever going to be in earnest about him, it would want his exclusive devotion for a week at least."
"I didn't know," said Mrs. Leighton, "that he was doing anything now at the others. I thought he was entirely taken up with his work on 'Every Other Week.'"
"Oh, he is! he is!"
"And you certainly can't say, my dear, that he hasn't been very kind—very useful to you, in that matter."
"And so I ought to have said yes out of gratitude? Thank you, mamma! I didn't know you held me so cheap."
"You know whether I hold you cheap or not, Alma. I don't want you to cheapen yourself. I don't want you to trifle with any one. I want you to be honest with yourself."
"Well, come now, mamma! Suppose you begin. I've been perfectly honest with myself, and I've been honest with Mr. Beaton. I don't care for him, and I've told him I didn't; so he may be supposed to know it. If he comes here after this, he'll come as a plain, unostentatious friend of the family, and it's for you to say whether he shall come in that capacity or not. I hope you won't trifle with him, and let him get the notion that he's coming on any other basis."
Mrs. Leighton felt the comfort of the critical attitude far too keenly to abandon it for anything constructive. She only said, "You know very well, Alma, that's a matter I can have nothing to do with."
"Then you leave him entirely to me?"
"I hope you will regard his right to candid and open treatment."
"He's had nothing but the most open and candid treatment from me, mamma. It's you that wants to play fast and loose with him. And, to tell you the truth, I believe he would like that a good deal better; I believe that, if there's anything he hates, it's openness and candor." Alma laughed, and put her arms round her mother, who could not help laughing a little, too.
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