She had walked with her friend to the top of the wide steps of the Museum, those that descended from the galleries of painting, and then, after the young man had left her, smiling, looking back, waving all gayly and expressively his hat and stick, had watched him, smiling too, but with a different intensity—had kept him in sight till he passed out of the great door. She might have been waiting to see if he would turn there for a last demonstration; which was exactly what he did, renewing his cordial gesture and with his look of glad devotion, the radiance of his young face, reaching her across the great space, as she felt, in undiminished truth. Yes, so she could feel, and she remained a minute even after he was gone; she gazed at the empty air as if he had filled it still, asking herself what more she wanted and what, if it didn’t signify glad devotion, his whole air could have represented.
She was at present so anxious that she could wonder if he stepped and smiled like that for mere relief at separation; yet if he desired in that degree to break the spell and escape the danger why did he keep coming back to her, and why, for that matter, had she felt safe a moment before in letting him go? She felt safe, felt almost reckless—that was the proof—so long as he was with her; but the chill came as soon as he had gone, when she took the measure, instantly, of all she yet missed. She might now have been taking it afresh, by the testimony of her charming clouded eyes and of the rigor that had already replaced her beautiful play of expression. Her radiance, for the minute, had “carried” as far as his, travelling on the light wings of her brilliant prettiness—he, on his side, not being facially handsome, but only sensitive, clean and eager. Then, with its extinction, the sustaining wings dropped and hung.
She wheeled about, however, full of a purpose; she passed back through the pictured rooms, for it pleased her, this idea of a talk with Mr. Pitman—as much, that is, as anything could please a young person so troubled. It happened indeed that when she saw him rise at sight of her from the settee where he had told her five minutes before that she would find him, it was just with her nervousness that his presence seemed, as through an odd suggestion of help, to connect itself. Nothing truly would be quite so odd for her case as aid proceeding from Mr. Pitman; unless perhaps the oddity would be even greater for himself—the oddity of her having taken into her head an appeal to him.
She had had to feel alone with a vengeance—inwardly alone and miserably alarmed—to be ready to “meet,” that way, at the first sign from him, the successor to her dim father in her dim father’s lifetime, the second of her mother’s two divorced husbands. It made a queer relation for her; a relation that struck her at this moment as less edifying, less natural and graceful than it would have been even for her remarkable mother—and still in spite of this parent’s third marriage, her union with Mr. Connery, from whom she was informally separated. It was at the back of Julia’s head as she approached Mr. Pitman, or it was at least somewhere deep within her soul, that if this last of Mrs. Connery’s withdrawals from the matrimonial yoke had received the sanction of the court (Julia had always heard, from far back, so much about the “Court”) she herself, as after a fashion, in that event, a party to it, would not have had the cheek to make up—which was how she inwardly phrased what she was doing—to the long, lean, loose, slightly cadaverous gentleman who was a memory, for her, of the period from her twelfth to her seventeenth year. She had got on with him, perversely, much better than her mother had, and the bulging misfit of his duck waistcoat, with his trick of swinging his eye-glass, at the end of an extraordinarily long string, far over the scene, came back to her as positive features of the image of her remoter youth. Her present age—for her later time had seen so many things happen—gave her a perspective.
Fifty things came up as she stood there before him, some of them floating in from the past, others hovering with freshness: how she used to dodge the rotary movement made by his pince-nez while he always awkwardly, and kindly, and often funnily, talked—it had once hit her rather badly in the eye; how she used to pull down and straighten his waistcoat, making it set a little better, a thing of a sort her mother never did; how friendly and familiar she must have been with him for that, or else a forward little minx; how she felt almost capable of doing it again now, just to sound the right note, and how sure she was of the way he would take it if she did; how much nicer he had clearly been, all the while, poor dear man, than his wife and the court had made it possible for him publicly to appear; how much younger, too, he now looked, in spite of his rather melancholy, his mildly jaundiced, humorously determined sallowness and his careless assumption, everywhere, from his forehead to his exposed and relaxed blue socks, almost sky-blue, as in past days, of creases and folds and furrows that would have been perhaps tragic if they hadn’t seemed rather to show, like his whimsical black eyebrows, the vague, interrogative arch.
Of course he wasn’t wretched if he wasn’t more sure of his wretchedness than that! Julia Bride would have been sure—had she been through what she supposed he had! With his thick, loose black hair, in any case, untouched by a thread of gray, and his kept gift of a certain big-boyish awkwardness — that of his taking their encounter, for instance, so amusedly, so crudely, though, as she was not unaware, so eagerly too—he could by no means have been so little his wife’s junior as it had been that lady’s habit, after the divorce, to represent him. Julia had remembered him as old, since she had so constantly thought of her mother as old; which Mrs. Connery was indeed now—for her daughter — with her dozen years of actual seniority to Mr. Pitman and her exquisite hair, the densest, the finest tangle of arranged silver tendrils that had ever enhanced the effect of a preserved complexion.
Something in the girl’s vision of her quondam stepfather as still comparatively young—with the confusion, the immense element of rectification, not to say of rank disproof, that it introduced into Mrs. Connery’s favorite picture of her own injured past—all this worked, even at the moment, to quicken once more the clearness and harshness of judgment, the retrospective disgust, as she might have called it, that had of late grown up in her, the sense of all the folly and vanity and vulgarity, the lies, the perversities, the falsification of all life in the interest of who could say what wretched frivolity, what preposterous policy; amid which she had been condemned so ignorantly, so pitifully to sit, to walk, to grope, to flounder, from the very dawn of her consciousness. Didn’t poor Mr. Pitman just touch the sensitive nerve of it when, taking her in with his facetious, cautious eyes, he spoke to her, right out, of the old, old story, the everlasting little wonder of her beauty?
“Why, you know, you’ve grown up so lovely—you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen!” Of course she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen; she was the prettiest girl people much more privileged than he had ever seen; since when hadn’t she been passing for the prettiest girl any one had ever seen? She had lived in that, from far back, from year to year, from day to day and from hour to hour—she had lived for it and literally by it, as who should say; but Mr. Pitman was somehow more illuminating than he knew, with the present lurid light that he cast upon old dates, old pleas, old values, and old mysteries, not to call them old abysses: it had rolled over her in a swift wave, with the very sight of him, that her mother couldn’t possibly have been right about him—as about what in the world had she ever been right?—so that in fact he was simply offered her there as one more of Mrs. Connery’s lies. She might have thought she knew them all by this time; but he represented for her, coming in just as he did, a fresh discovery, and it was this contribution of freshness that made her somehow feel she liked him. It was she herself who, for so long, with her retained impression, had been right about him; and the rectification he represented had all shone out of him, ten minutes before, on his catching her eye while she moved through the room with Mr. French. She had never doubted of his probable faults—which her mother had vividly depicted as the basest of vices; since some of them, and the most obvious (not the vices, but the faults) were written on him as he stood there: notably, for instance, the exasperating “business slackness” of which Mrs. Connery had, before the tribunal, made so pathetically much. It might have been, for that matter, the very business slackness that affected Julia as presenting its friendly breast, in the form of a cool loose sociability, to her own actual tension; though it was also true for her, after they had exchanged fifty words, that he had as well his inward fever and that, if he was perhaps wondering what was so particularly the matter with her, she could make out not less that something was the matter with him. It had been vague, yet it had been intense, the mute reflection, “Yes, I’m going to like him, and he’s going somehow to help me!” that had directed her steps so straight to him. She was sure even then of this, that he wouldn’t put to her a query about his former wife, that he took to-day no grain of interest in Mrs. Connery; that his interest, such as it was—and he couldn’t look quite like that, to Julia Bride’s expert perception, without something in the nature of a new one—would be a thousand times different.
It was as a value of disproof that his worth meanwhile so rapidly grew: the good sight of him, the good sound and sense of him, such as they were, demolished at a stroke so blessedly much of the horrid inconvenience of the past that she thought of him; she clutched at him, for a general saving use, an application as sanative, as redemptive as some universal healing wash, precious even to the point of perjury if perjury should be required. That was the terrible thing, that had been the inward pang with which she watched Basil French recede: perjury would have to come in somehow and somewhere — oh so quite certainly! — before the so strange, so rare young man, truly smitten though she believed him, could be made to rise to the occasion, before her measureless prize could be assured. It was present to her, it had been present a hundred times, that if there had only been some one to (as it were) “deny everything” the situation might yet be saved. She so needed some one to lie for her—ah, she so need some one to lie! Her mother’s version of everything, her mother’s version of anything, had been at the best, as they said, discounted; and she herself could but show, of course, for an interested party, however much she might claim to be none the less a decent girl—to whatever point, that is, after all that had both remotely and recently happened, presumptions of anything to be called decency could come in.
After what had recently happened—the two or three indirect but so worrying questions Mr. French had put to her—it would only be some thoroughly detached friend or witness who might effectively testify. An odd form of detachment certainly would reside, for Mr. Pitman’s evidential character, in her mother’s having so publicly and so brilliantly—though, thank the powers, all off in North Dakota!—severed their connection with him; and yet mightn’t it do her some good, even if the harm it might do her mother were so little ambiguous? The more her mother had got divorced—with her dreadful cheap-and-easy second performance in that line and her present extremity of alienation from Mr. Connery, which enfolded beyond doubt the germ of a third petition on one side or the other—the more her mother had distinguished herself in the field of folly the worse for her own prospect with the Frenches, whose minds she had guessed to be accessible, and with such an effect of dissimulated suddenness, to some insidious poison.
It was very unmistakable, in other words, that the more dismissed and detached Mr. Pitman should have come to appear, the more as divorced, or at least as divorcing, his before-time wife would by the same stroke figure—so that it was here poor Julia could but lose herself. The crazy divorces only, or the half-dozen successive and still crazier engagements only—gathered fruit, bitter fruit, of her own incredibly allowed, her own insanely fostered frivolity—either of these two groups of skeletons at the banquet might singly be dealt with; but the combination, the fact of each party’s having been so mixed-up with whatever was least presentable for the other, the fact of their having so shockingly amused themselves together, made all present steering resemble the classic middle course between Scylla and Charybdis.
It was not, however, that she felt wholly a fool in having obeyed this impulse to pick up again her kind old friend. She at least had never divorced him, and her horrid little filial evidence in court had been but the chatter of a parrakeet, of precocious plumage and croak, repeating words earnestly taught her, and that she could scarce even pronounce. Therefore, as far as steering went, he must for the hour take a hand. She might actually have wished in fact that he shouldn’t now have seemed so tremendously struck with her; since it was an extraordinary situation for a girl, this crisis of her fortune, this positive wrong that the flagrancy, what she would have been ready to call the very vulgarity, of her good looks might do her at a moment when it was vital she should hang as straight as a picture on the wall. Had it ever yet befallen any young woman in the world to wish with secret intensity that she might have been, for her convenience, a shade less inordinately pretty? She had come to that, to this view of the bane, the primal curse, of their lavish physical outfit, which had included everything and as to which she lumped herself resentfully with her mother. The only thing was that her mother was, thank goodness, still so much prettier, still so assertively, so publicly, so trashily, so ruinously pretty. Wonderful the small grimness with which Julia Bride put off on this parent the middle-aged maximum of their case and the responsibility of their defect. It cost her so little to recognize in Mrs. Connery at forty-seven, and in spite, or perhaps indeed just by reason, of the arranged silver tendrils which were so like some rare bird’s-nest in a morning frost, a facile supremacy for the dazzling effect—it cost her so little that her view even rather exaggerated the lustre of the different maternal items. She would have put it all off if possible, all off on other shoulders and on other graces and other morals than her own, the burden of physical charm that had made so easy a ground, such a native favoring air, for the aberrations which, apparently inevitable and without far consequences at the time, had yet at this juncture so much better not have been.
She could have worked it out at her leisure, to the last link of the chain, the way their prettiness had set them trap after trap, all along—had foredoomed them to awful ineptitude. When you were as pretty as that you could, by the whole idiotic consensus, be nothing but pretty; and when you were nothing “but” pretty you could get into nothing but tight places, out of which you could then scramble by nothing but masses of fibs. And there was no one, all the while, who wasn’t eager to egg you on, eager to make you pay to the last cent the price of your beauty. What creature would ever for a moment help you to behave as if something that dragged in its wake a bit less of a lumbering train would, on the whole, have been better for you? The consequences of being plain were only negative—you failed of this and that; but the consequences of being as they were, what were these but endless? though indeed, as far as failing went, your beauty too could let you in for enough of it. Who, at all events, would ever for a moment credit you, in the luxuriance of that beauty, with the study, on your own side, of such truths as these? Julia Bride could, at the point she had reached, positively ask herself this even while lucidly conscious of the inimitable, the triumphant and attested projection, all round her, of her exquisite image. It was only Basil French who had at last, in his doubtless dry, but all distinguished way—the way surely, as it was borne in upon her, of all the blood of all the Frenches—stepped out of the vulgar rank. It was only he who, by the trouble she discerned in him, had made her see certain things. It was only for him—and not a bit ridiculously, but just beautifully, almost sublimely—that their being “nice,” her mother and she between them, had not seemed to profit by their being so furiously handsome.
This had, ever so grossly and ever so tiresomely, satisfied every one else; since every one had thrust upon them, had imposed upon them, as by a great cruel conspiracy, their silliest possibilities; fencing them in to these, and so not only shutting them out from others, but mounting guard at the fence, walking round and round outside it, to see they didn’t escape, and admiring them, talking to them, through the rails, in mere terms of chaff, terms of chucked cakes and apples—as if they had been antelopes or zebras, or even some superior sort of performing, of dancing, bear. It had been reserved for Basil French to strike her as willing to let go, so to speak, a pound or two of this fatal treasure if he might only have got in exchange for it an ounce or so more of their so much less obvious and Jess published personal history. Yes, it described him to say that, in addition to all the rest of him, and of his personal history, and of his family, and of theirs, in addition to their social posture, as that of a serried phalanx, and to their notoriously enormous wealth and crushing respectability, she might have been ever so much less lovely for him if she had been only—well, a little prepared to answer questions. And it wasn’t as if quiet, cultivated, earnest, public-spirited, brought up in Germany, infinitely travelled, awfully like a high-caste Englishman, and all the other pleasant things, it wasn’t as if he didn’t love to be with her, to look at her, just as she was; for he loved it exactly as much, so far as that footing simply went, as any free and foolish youth who had ever made the last demonstration of it. It was that marriage was, for him—and for them all, the serried Frenches—a great matter, a goal to which a man of intelligence, a real shy, beautiful man of the world, didn’t hop on one foot, didn’t skip and jump, as if he were playing an urchins’ game, but toward which he proceeded with a deep and anxious, a noble and highly just deliberation.
For it was one thing to stare at a girl till she was bored with it, it was one thing to take her to the Horse Show and the Opera, and to send her flowers by the stack, and chocolates by the ton, and “great” novels, the very latest and greatest, by the dozen; but something quite other to hold open for her, with eyes attached to eyes, the gate, moving on such stiff silver hinges, of the grand square forecourt of the palace of wedlock. The state of being “engaged” represented to him the introduction to this precinct of some young woman with whom his outside parley would have had the duration, distinctly, of his own convenience. That might be cold-blooded if one chose to think so; but nothing of another sort would equal the high ceremony and dignity and decency, above all the grand gallantry and finality, of their then passing in. Poor Julia could have blushed red, before that view, with the memory of the way the forecourt, as she now imagined it, had been dishonored by her younger romps. She had tumbled over the wall with this, that, and the other raw playmate, and had played “tag” and leap-frog, as she might say, from corner to corner. That would be the “history” with which, in case of definite demand, she should be able to supply Mr. French: that she had already, again and again, any occasion offering, chattered and scuffled over ground provided, according to his idea, for walking the gravest of minuets. If that then had been all their kind of history, hers and her mother’s, at least there was plenty of it: it was the superstructure raised on the other group of facts, those of the order of their having been always so perfectly pink and white, so perfectly possessed of clothes, so perfectly splendid, so perfectly idiotic. These things had been the “points” of antelope and zebra; putting Mrs. Connery for the zebra, as the more remarkably striped or spotted. Such were the data Basil French’s inquiry would elicit: her own six engagements and her mother’s three nullified marriages—nine nice distinct little horrors in all. What on earth was to be done about them?
It was notable, she was afterward to recognize, that there had been nothing of the famous business slackness in the positive pounce with which Mr. Pitman put it to her that, as soon as he had made her out “for sure,” identified her there as old Julia grown-up and gallivanting with a new admirer, a smarter young fellow than ever yet, he had had the inspiration of her being exactly the good girl to help him. She certainly found him strike the hour again, with these vulgarities of tone—forms of speech that her mother had anciently described as by themselves, once he had opened the whole battery, sufficient ground for putting him away. Full, however, of the use she should have for him, she wasn’t going to mind trifles. What she really gasped at was that, so oddly, he was ahead of her at the start. “Yes, I want something of you, Julia, and I want it right now: you can do me a turn, and I’m blest if my luck—which has once or twice been pretty good, you know—hasn’t sent you to me.” She knew the luck he meant—that of her mother’s having so enabled him to get rid of her; but it was the nearest allusion of the merely invidious kind that he would make. It had thus come to our young woman on the spot and by divination: the service he desired of her matched with remarkable closeness what she had so promptly taken into her head to name to himself—to name in her own interest, though deterred as yet from having brought it right out. She had been prevented by his speaking, the first thing, in that way, as if he had known Mr. French—which surprised her till he explained that every one in New York knew by appearance a young man of his so-quoted wealth (“What did she take them all in New York then for?”) and of whose marked attention to her he had moreover, for himself, round at clubs and places, lately heard. This had accompanied the inevitable free question “Was she engaged to him now?”—which she had in fact almost welcomed as holding out to her the perch of opportunity. She was waiting to deal with it properly, but meanwhile he had gone on, and to such effect that it took them but three minutes to turn out, on either side, like a pair of pickpockets comparing, under shelter, their day’s booty, the treasures of design concealed about their persons.
“I want you to tell the truth for me—as you only can. I want you to say that I was really all right—as right as you know; and that I simply acted like an angel in a story-book, gave myself away to have it over.”
“Why, my dear man,” Julia cried, “you take the wind straight out of my sails! What I’m here to ask of you is that you’ll confess to having been even a worse fiend than you were shown up for; to having made it impossible mother should not take proceedings.” There!—she had brought it out, and with the sense of their situation turning to high excitement for her in the teeth of his droll stare, his strange grin, his characteristic “Lordy, lordy! What good will that do you?” She was prepared with her clear statement of reasons for her appeal, and feared so he might have better ones for his own that all her story came in a flash. “Well, Mr. Pitman, I want to get married this time, by way of a change; but you see we’ve been such fools that, when something really good at last comes up, it’s too dreadfully awkward. The fools we were capable of being—well, you know better than any one: unless perhaps not quite so well as Mr. Connery. It has got to be denied,” said Julia ardently—”it has got to be denied flat. But I can’t get hold of Mr. Connery—Mr. Connery has gone to China. Besides, if he were here,” she had ruefully to confess, “he’d be no good—on the contrary. He wouldn’t deny anything—he’d only tell more. So thank heaven he’s away—there’s that amount of good! I’m not engaged yet,” she went on—but he had already taken her up.
“You’re not engaged to Mr. French?” It was all, clearly, a wondrous show for him, but his immediate surprise, oddly, might have been greatest for that.
“No, not to any one—for the seventh time!” She spoke as with her head held well up both over the shame and the pride. “Yes, the next time I’m engaged I want something to happen. But he’s afraid; he’s afraid of what may be told him. He’s dying to find out, and yet he’d die if he did! He wants to be talked to, but he has got to be talked to right. You could talk to him right, Mr. Pitman—if you only would! He can’t get over mother—that I feel: he loathes and scorns divorces, and we’ve had first and last too many. So if he could hear from you that you just made her life a hell—why,” Julia concluded, “it would be too lovely. If she had to go in for another—after having already, when I was little, divorced father—it would ‘sort of’ make, don’t you see? one less. You’d do the high-toned thing by her: you’d say what a wretch you then were, and that she had had to save her life. In that way he mayn’t mind it. Don’t you see, you sweet man?” poor Julia pleaded. “Oh,” she wound up as if his fancy lagged or his scruple looked out, “of course I want you to lie for me!”
It did indeed sufficiently stagger him. “It’s a lovely idea for the moment when I was just saying to myself—as soon as I saw you—that you’d speak the truth for me!”
“Ah, what’s the matter with ‘you’?” Julia sighed with an impatience not sensibly less sharp for her having so quickly scented some lion in her path.
“Why, do you think there’s no one in the world but you who has seen the cup of promised affection, of something really to be depended on, only, at the last moment, by the horrid jostle of your elbow, spilled all over you? I want to provide for my future too as it happens; and my good friend who’s to help me to that—the most charming of women this time—disapproves of divorce quite as much as Mr. French. Don’t you see,” Mr. Pitman candidly asked, “what that by itself must have done toward attaching me to her? She has got to be talked to—to be told how little I could help it.”
“Oh, lordy, lordy!” the girl emulously groaned. It was such a relieving cry. “Well, I won’t talk to her!” she declared.
“You won’t, Julia?” he pitifully echoed. “And yet you ask of me—!”
His pang, she felt, was sincere; and even more than she had guessed, for the previous quarter of an hour he had been building up his hope, building it with her aid for a foundation. Yet was he going to see how their testimony, on each side, would, if offered, have to conflict? If he was to prove himself for her sake—or, more queerly still, for that of Basil French’s high conservatism—a person whom there had been no other way of dealing with, how could she prove him, in this other and so different interest, a mere gentle sacrifice to his wife’s perversity? She had, before him there, on the instant, all acutely, a sense of rising sickness—a wan glimmer of foresight as to the end of the fond dream. Everything else was against her, everything in her dreadful past—just as if she had been a person represented by some “emotional actress,” some desperate erring lady “hunted down” in a play; but was that going to be the case too with her own very decency, the fierce little residuum deep within her, for which she was counting, when she came to think, on so little glory or even credit? Was this also going to turn against her and trip her up—just to show she was really, under the touch and the test, as decent as any one; and with no one but herself the wiser for it meanwhile, and no proof to show but that, as a consequence, she should be unmarried to the end? She put it to Mr. Pitman quite with resentment: “Do you mean to say you’re going to be married—?”
“Oh, my dear, I too must get engaged first!”—he spoke with his inimitable grin. “But that, you see, is where you come in. I’ve told her about you. She wants awfully to meet you. The way it happens is too lovely—that I find you just in this place. She’s coming,” said Mr. Pitman—and as in all the good faith of his eagerness now; “she’s coming in about three minutes.”
“Yes, Julia—right here. It’s where we usually meet”; and he was wreathed again, this time as if for life, in his large slow smile. “She loves this place—she’s awfully keen on art. Like you, Julia, if you haven’t changed—I remember how you did love art.” He looked at her quite tenderly, as to keep her up to it. “You must still of course—from the way you’re here. Just let her feel that,” the poor man fantastically urged. And then with his kind eyes on her and his good ugly mouth stretched as for delicate emphasis from ear to ear: “Every little helps!”
He made her wonder for him, ask herself, and with a certain intensity, questions she yet hated the trouble of; as whether he were still as moneyless as in the other time—which was certain indeed, for any fortune he ever would have made. His slackness, on that ground, stuck out of him almost as much as if he had been of rusty or “seedy” aspect—which, luckily for him, he wasn’t at all: he looked, in his way, like some pleasant eccentric, ridiculous, but real gentleman, whose taste might be of the queerest, but his credit with his tailor none the less of the best. She wouldn’t have been the least ashamed, had their connection lasted, of going about with him: so that what a fool, again, her mother had been—since Mr. Connery, sorry as one might be for him, was irrepressibly vulgar. Julia’s quickness was, for the minute, charged with all this; but she had none the less her feeling of the right thing to say and the right way to say it. If he was after a future financially assured, even as she herself so frantically was, she wouldn’t cast the stone. But if he had talked about her to strange women she couldn’t be less than a little majestic. “Who then is the person in question for you—?”
“Why, such a dear thing, Julia—Mrs. David E. Drack. Have you heard of her?” he almost fluted.
New York was vast, and she had not had that advantage. “She’s a widow—?”
“Oh yes: she’s not—” He caught himself up in time. “She’s a real one.” It was as near as he came. But it was as if he had been looking at her now so pathetically hard. “Julia, she has millions.”
Hard, at any rate—whether pathetic or not—was the look she gave him back. “Well, so has—or so will have—Basil French. And more of them than Mrs. Drack, I guess,” Julia quavered.
“Oh, I know what they’ve got!” He took it from her—with the effect of a vague stir, in his long person, of unwelcome embarrassment. But was she going to give up because he was embarrassed? He should know at least what he was costing her. It came home to her own spirit more than ever, but meanwhile he had found his footing. “I don’t see how your mother matters. It isn’t a question of his marrying her.”
“No; but, constantly together as we’ve always been, it’s a question of there being so disgustingly much to get over. If we had, for people like them, but the one ugly spot and the one weak side; if we had made, between us, but the one vulgar kind of mistake: well, I don’t say!” She reflected with a wistfulness of note that was in itself a touching eloquence. “To have our reward in this world we’ve had too sweet a time. We’ve had it all right down here!” said Julia Bride. “I should have taken the precaution to have about a dozen fewer lovers.”
“Ah, my dear, ‘lovers’—!” He ever so comically attenuated.
“Well they were!” She quite flared up. “When you’ve had a ring from each (three diamonds, two pearls, and a rather bad sapphire: I’ve kept them all, and they tell my story!) what are you to call them?”
“Oh, rings—!” Mr. Pitman didn’t call rings anything. “I’ve given Mrs. Drack a ring.”
Julia stared. “Then aren’t you her lover?”
“That, dear child,” he humorously wailed, “is what I want you to find out! But I’ll handle your rings all right,” he more lucidly added.
“You’ll ‘handle’ them?”
“I’ll fix your lovers. I’ll lie about them, if that’s all you want.”
“Oh, about ‘them’—!” She turned away with a sombre drop, seeing so little in it. “That wouldn’t count—from you!” She saw the great shining room, with its mockery of art and “style” and security, all the things she was vainly after, and its few scattered visitors who had left them, Mr. Pitman and herself, in their ample corner, so conveniently at ease. There was only a lady in one of the far doorways, of whom she took vague note and who seemed to be looking at them. “They’d have to lie for themselves!”
“Do you mean he’s capable of putting it to them?”
Mr. Pitman’s tone threw discredit on that possibility, but she knew perfectly well what she meant. “Not of getting at them directly, not, as mother says, of nosing round himself; but of listening—and small blame to him!—to the horrible things other people say of me.”
“But what other people?”
“Why, Mrs. George Maule, to begin with—who intensely loathes us, and who talks to his sisters, so that they may talk to him: which they do, all the while, I’m morally sure (hating me as they also must). But it’s she who’s the real reason—I mean of his holding off. She poisons the air he breathes.”
“Oh well,” said Mr. Pitman, with easy optimism, “if Mrs. George Maule’s a cat—!”
“If she’s a cat she has kittens—four little spotlessly white ones, among whom she’d give her head that Mr. French should make his pick. He could do it with his eyes shut—you can’t tell them apart. But she has every name, every date, as you may say, for my dark ‘record’—as of course they all call it: she’ll be able to give him, if he brings himself to ask her, every fact in its order. And all the while, don’t you see? there’s no one to speak for me.”
It would have touched a harder heart than her loose friend’s to note the final flush of clairvoyance witnessing this assertion and under which her eyes shone as with the rush of quick tears. He stared at her, and at what this did for the deep charm of her prettiness, as in almost witless admiration. “But can’t you—lovely as you are, you beautiful thing!—speak for yourself?”
“Do you mean can’t I tell the lies? No, then, I can’t—and I wouldn’t if I could. I don’t lie myself, you know—as it happens; and it could represent to him then about the only thing, the only bad one, I don’t do. I did—’lovely as I am’!—have my regular time; I wasn’t so hideous that I couldn’t! Besides, do you imagine he’d come and ask me?”
“Gad, I wish he would, Julia!” said Mr. Pitman, with his kind eyes on her.
“Well then, I’d tell him!” And she held her head again high. “But he won’t.”
It fairly distressed her companion. “Doesn’t he want, then, to know—?”
“He wants not to know. He wants to be told without asking—told, I mean, that each of the stories, those that have come to him, is a fraud and a libel. Qui s’excuse s’accuse, don’t they say?—so that do you see me breaking out to him, unprovoked, with four or five what-do-you-call-’ems, the things mother used to have to prove in court, a set of neat little ‘alibis’ in a row? How can I get hold of so many precious gentlemen, to turn them on? How can they want everything fished up?”
She paused for her climax, in the intensity of these considerations; which gave Mr. Pitman a chance to express his honest faith. “Why, my sweet child, they’d be just glad—!”
It determined in her loveliness almost a sudden glare. “Glad to swear they never had anything to do with such a creature? Then I’d be glad to swear they had lots!”
His persuasive smile, though confessing to bewilderment, insisted. “Why, my love, they’ve got to swear either one thing or the other.”
“They’ve got to keep out of the way—that’s their view of it, I guess,” said Julia. “Where are they, please—now that they may be wanted? If you’d like to hunt them up for me you’re very welcome.” With which, for the moment, over the difficult case, they faced each other helplessly enough. And she added to it now the sharpest ache of her despair. “He knows about Murray Brush. The others”—and her pretty white-gloved hands and charming pink shoulders gave them up—”may go hang!”
“Murray Brush—?” It had opened Mr. Pitman’s eyes.
“Yes—yes; I do mind him.”
“Then what’s the matter with his at least rallying—?”
“The matter is that, being ashamed of himself, as he well might, he left the country as soon as he could and has stayed away. The matter is that he’s in Paris or somewhere, and that if you expect him to come home for me—!” She had already dropped, however, as at Mr. Pitman’s look.
“Why, you foolish thing, Murray Brush is in New York!” It had quite brightened him up.
“He has come back—?”
“Why, sure! I saw him—when was it? Tuesday!—on the Jersey boat.” Mr. Pitman rejoiced in his news. “He’s your man!”
Julia too had been affected by it; it had brought, in a rich wave, her hot color back. But she gave the strangest dim smile. “He was!”
“Then get hold of him, and—if he’s a gentleman—he’ll prove for you, to the hilt, that he wasn’t.”
It lighted in her face, the kindled train of this particular sudden suggestion, a glow, a sharpness of interest, that had deepened the next moment, while she gave a slow and sad head-shake, to a greater strangeness yet. “He isn’t a gentleman.”
“Ah, lordy, lordy!” Mr. Pitman again sighed. He struggled out of it but only into the vague. “Oh, then, if he’s a pig—!”
“You see there are only a few gentlemen—not enough to go round—and that makes them count so!” It had thrust the girl herself, for that matter, into depths; but whether most of memory or of roused purpose he had no time to judge—aware as he suddenly was of a shadow (since he mightn’t perhaps too quickly call it a light) across the heaving surface of their question. It fell upon Julia’s face, fell with the sound of the voice he so well knew, but which could only be odd to her for all it immediately assumed.
“There are indeed very few—and one mustn’t try them too much!” Mrs. Drack, who had supervened while they talked, stood, in monstrous magnitude—at least to Julia’s reimpressed eyes—between them: she was the lady our young woman had descried across the room, and she had drawn near while the interest of their issue so held them. We have seen the act of observation and that of reflection alike swift in Julia—once her subject was within range—and she had now, with all her perceptions at the acutest, taken in, by a single stare, the strange presence to a happy connection with which Mr. Pitman aspired and which had thus sailed, with placid majesty, into their troubled waters. She was clearly not shy, Mrs. David E. Drack, yet neither was she ominously bold; she was bland and “good,” Julia made sure at a glance, and of a large complacency, as the good and the bland are apt to be—a large complacency, a large sentimentality, a large innocent, elephantine archness: she fairly rioted in that dimension of size. Habited in an extraordinary quantity of stiff and lustrous black brocade, with enhancements, of every description, that twinkled and tinkled, that rustled and rumbled with her least movement, she presented a huge, hideous, pleasant face, a featureless desert in a remote quarter of which the disproportionately small eyes might have figured a pair of rash adventurers all but buried in the sand. They reduced themselves when she smiled to barely discernible points—a couple of mere tiny emergent heads—though the foreground of the scene, as if to make up for it, gaped with a vast benevolence. In a word Julia saw—and as if she had needed nothing more; saw Mr. Pitman’s opportunity, saw her own, saw the exact nature both of Mrs. Drack’s circumspection and of Mrs. Drack’s sensibility, saw even, glittering there in letters of gold and as a part of the whole metallic coruscation, the large figure of her income, largest of all her attributes, and (though perhaps a little more as a luminous blur beside all this) the mingled ecstasy and agony of Mr. Pitman’s hope and Mr. Pitman’s fear.
He was introducing them, with his pathetic belief in the virtue for every occasion, in the solvent for every trouble, of an extravagant, genial, professional humor; he was naming her to Mrs. Drack as the charming young friend he had told her so much about and who had been as an angel to him in a weary time; he was saying that the loveliest chance in the world, this accident of a meeting in those promiscuous halls, had placed within his reach the pleasure of bringing them together. It didn’t indeed matter, Julia felt, what he was saying: he conveyed everything, as far as she was concerned, by a moral pressure as unmistakable as if, for a symbol of it, he had thrown himself on her neck. Above all, meanwhile, this high consciousness prevailed—that the good lady herself, however huge she loomed, had entered, by the end of a minute, into a condition as of suspended weight and arrested mass, stilled to artless awe by the fact of her vision. Julia had practised almost to lassitude the art of tracing in the people who looked at her the impression promptly sequent; but it was a striking point that if, in irritation, in depression, she felt that the lightest eyes of men, stupid at their clearest, had given her pretty well all she should ever care for, she could still gather a freshness from the tribute of her own sex, still care to see her reflection in the faces of women. Never, probably, never would that sweet be tasteless—with such a straight grim spoon was it mostly administered, and so flavored and strengthened by the competence of their eyes. Women knew so much best how a woman surpassed—how and where and why, with no touch or torment of it lost on them; so that as it produced mainly and primarily the instinct of aversion, the sense of extracting the recognition, of gouging out the homage, was on the whole the highest crown one’s felicity could wear. Once in a way, however, the grimness beautifully dropped, the jealousy failed: the admiration was all there and the poor plain sister handsomely paid it. It had never been so paid, she was presently certain, as by this great generous object of Mr., Pitman’s flame, who without optical aid, it well might have seemed, nevertheless entirely grasped her—might in fact, all benevolently, have been groping her over as by some huge mild proboscis. She gave Mrs. Brack pleasure in short; and who could say of what other pleasures the poor lady hadn’t been cheated?
It was somehow a muddled world in which one of her conceivable joys, at this time of day, would be to marry Mr. Pitman—to say nothing of a state of things in which this gentleman’s own fancy could invest such a union with rapture. That, however, was their own mystery, and Julia, with each instant, was more and more clear about hers: so remarkably primed in fact, at the end of three minutes, that though her friend, and though his friend, were both saying things, many things and perhaps quite wonderful things, she had no free attention for them and was only rising and soaring. She was rising to her value, she was soaring with it—the value Mr. Pitman almost convulsively imputed to her, the value that consisted for her of being so unmistakably the most dazzling image Mrs. Brack had ever beheld. These were the uses, for Julia, in fine, of adversity; the range of Mrs. Brack’s experience might have been as small as the measure of her presence was large: Julia was at any rate herself in face of the occasion of her life, and, after all her late repudiations and reactions, had perhaps never yet known the quality of this moment’s success. She hadn’t an idea of what, on either side, had been uttered—beyond Mr. Pitman’s allusion to her having befriended him of old: she simply held his companion with her radiance and knew she might be, for her effect, as irrelevant as she chose. It was relevant to do what he wanted—it was relevant to dish herself. She did it now with a kind of passion, to say nothing of her knowing, with it, that every word of it added to her beauty. She gave him away in short, up to the hilt, for any use of her own, and should have nothing to clutch at now but the possibility of Murray Brush.
“He says I was good to him, Mrs. Drack; and I’m sure I hope I was, since I should be ashamed to be anything else. If I could be good to him now I should be glad—that’s just what, a while ago, I rushed up to him here, after so long, to give myself the pleasure of saying. I saw him years ago very particularly, very miserably tried—and I saw the way he took it. I did see it, you dear man,” she sublimely went on—”I saw it for all you may protest, for all you may hate me to talk about you! I saw you behave like a gentleman—since Mrs. Drack agrees with me, so charmingly, that there are not many to be met. I don’t know whether you care, Mrs. Drack”—she abounded, she revelled in the name—”but I’ve always remembered it of him: that under the most extraordinary provocation he was decent and patient and brave. No appearance of anything different matters, for I speak of what I know. Of course I’m nothing and nobody; I’m only a poor frivolous girl, but I was very close to him at the time. That’s all my little story—if it should interest you at all.” She measured every beat of her wing, she knew how high she was going and paused only when it was quite vertiginous. Here she hung a moment as in the glare of the upper blue; which was but the glare—what else could it be?—of the vast and magnificent attention of both her auditors, hushed, on their side, in the splendor she emitted. She had at last to steady herself, and she scarce knew afterward at what rate or in what way she had still inimitably come down—her own eyes fixed all the while on the very figure of her achievement. She had sacrificed her mother on the altar—proclaimed her as false and cruel: and if that didn’t “fix” Mr. Pitman, as he would have said—well, it was all she could do. But the cost of her action already somehow came back to her with increase; the dear gaunt man fairly wavered, to her sight, in the glory of it, as if signalling at her, with wild gleeful arms, from some mount of safety, while the massive lady just spread and spread like a rich fluid a bit helplessly spilt. It was really the outflow of the poor woman’s honest response, into which she seemed to melt, and Julia scarce distinguished the two apart even for her taking gracious leave of each. “Good-bye, Mrs. Drack; I’m awfully happy to have met you”—like as not it was for this she had grasped Mr. Pitman’s hand. And then to him or to her, it didn’t matter which, “Good-bye, dear good Mr. Pitman—hasn’t it been nice after so long?”
Julia floated even to her own sense swan-like away—she left in her wake their fairly stupefied submission: it was as if she had, by an exquisite authority, now placed them, each for each, and they would have nothing to do but be happy together. Never had she so exulted as on this ridiculous occasion in the noted items of her beauty. Le compte y était, as they used to say in Paris—every one of them, for her immediate employment, was there; and there was something in it after all. It didn’t necessarily, this sum of thumping little figures, imply charm—especially for “refined” people: nobody knew better than Julia that inexpressible charm and quotable “charms” (quotable like prices, rates, shares, or whatever, the things they dealt in down-town) are two distinct categories; the safest thing for the latter being, on the whole, that it might include the former, and the great strength of the former being that it might perfectly dispense with the latter. Mrs. Drack was not refined, not the least little bit; but what would be the case with Murray Brush now—after his three years of Europe? He had done so what he liked with her—which had seemed so then just the meaning, hadn’t it? of their being “engaged”—that he had made her not see, while the absurdity lasted (the absurdity of their pretending to believe they could marry without a cent), how little he was of metal without alloy: this had come up for her, remarkably, but afterward—come up for her as she looked back. Then she had drawn her conclusion, which was one of the many that Basil French had made her draw. It was a queer service Basil was going to have rendered her, this having made everything she had ever done impossible, if he wasn’t going to give her a new chance. If he was it was doubtless right enough. On the other hand, Murray might have improved, if such a quantity of alloy, as she called it, were, in any man, reducible, and if Paris were the place all happily to reduce it. She had her doubts—anxious and aching on the spot, and had expressed them to Mr. Pitman: certainly, of old, he had been more open to the quotable than to the inexpressible, to charms than to charm. If she could try the quotable, however, and with such a grand result, on Mrs. Drack, she couldn’t now on Murray—in respect to whom everything had changed. So that if he hadn’t a sense for the subtler appeal, the appeal appreciable by people not vulgar, on which alone she could depend, what on earth would become of her? She could but yearningly hope, at any rate, as she made up her mind to write to him immediately at his club. It was a question of the right sensibility in him. Perhaps he would have acquired it in Europe.
Two days later indeed—for he had promptly and charmingly replied, keeping with alacrity the appointment she had judged best to propose for a morning hour in a sequestered alley of the Park—two days later she was to be struck well-nigh to alarm by everything he had acquired: so much it seemed to make that it threatened somehow a complication, and her plan, so far as she had arrived at one, dwelt in the desire above all to simplify. She wanted no grain more of extravagance or excess of anything—risking as she had done, none the less, a recall of ancient license in proposing to Murray such a place of meeting. She had her reasons—she wished intensely to discriminate: Basil French had several times waited on her at her mother’s habitation, their horrible flat which was so much too far up and too near the East Side; he had dined there and lunched there and gone with her thence to other places, notably to see pictures, and had in particular adjourned with her twice to the Metropolitan Museum, in which he took a great interest, in which she professed a delight, and their second visit to which had wound up in her encounter with Mr. Pitman, after her companion had yielded, at her urgent instance, to an exceptional need of keeping a business engagement. She mightn’t, in delicacy, in decency, entertain Murray Brush where she had entertained Mr. French—she was given over now to these exquisite perceptions and proprieties and bent on devoutly observing them; and Mr. French, by good-luck, had never been with her in the Park: partly because he had never pressed it, and partly because she would have held off if he had, so haunted were those devious paths and favoring shades by the general echo of her untrammelled past. If he had never suggested their taking a turn there this was because, quite divinably, he held it would commit him further than he had yet gone; and if she on her side had practised a like reserve it was because the place reeked for her, as she inwardly said, with old associations. It reeked with nothing so much perhaps as with the memories evoked by the young man who now awaited her in the nook she had been so competent to indicate; but in what corner of the town, should she look for them, wouldn’t those footsteps creak back into muffled life, and to what expedient would she be reduced should she attempt to avoid all such tracks? The Museum was full of tracks, tracks by the hundred—the way really she had knocked about!—but she had to see people somewhere, and she couldn’t pretend to dodge every ghost.
All she could do was not to make confusion, make mixtures, of the living; though she asked herself enough what mixture she mightn’t find herself to have prepared if Mr. French should, not so very impossibly, for a restless, roaming man—her effect on him!—happen to pass while she sat there with the mustachioed personage round whose name Mrs. Maule would probably have caused detrimental anecdote most thickly to cluster. There existed, she was sure, a mass of luxuriant legend about the “lengths” her engagement with Murray Brush had gone; she could herself fairly feel them in the air, these streamers of evil, black flags flown as in warning, the vast redundancy of so cheap and so dingy social bunting, in fine, that flapped over the stations she had successively moved away from and which were empty now, for such an ado, even to grotesqueness. The vivacity of that conviction was what had at present determined her, while it was the way he listened after she had quickly broken ground, while it was the special character of the interested look in his handsome face, handsomer than ever yet, that represented for her the civilization he had somehow taken on. Just so it was the quantity of that gain, in its turn, that had at the end of ten minutes begun to affect her as holding up a light to the wide reach of her step. “There was never anything the least serious between us, not a sign or a scrap, do you mind? of anything beyond the merest pleasant friendly acquaintance; and if you’re not ready to go to the stake on it for me you may as well know in time what it is you’ll probably cost me.”
She had immediately plunged, measuring her effect and having thought it well over; and what corresponded to her question of his having become a better person to appeal to was the appearance of interest she had so easily created in him. She felt on the spot the difference that made—it was indeed his form of being more civilized: it was the sense in which Europe in general and Paris in particular had made him develop. By every calculation—and her calculations, based on the intimacy of her knowledge, had been many and deep—he would help her the better the more intelligent he should have become; yet she was to recognize later on that the first chill of foreseen disaster had been caught by her as, at a given moment, this greater refinement of his attention seemed to exhale it. It was just what she had wanted—”if I can only get him interested—!” so that, this proving quite vividly possible, why did the light it lifted strike her as lurid? Was it partly by reason of his inordinate romantic good looks, those of a gallant, genial conqueror, but which, involving so glossy a brownness of eye, so manly a crispness of curl, so red-lipped a radiance of smile, so natural a bravery of port, prescribed to any response he might facially, might expressively, make a sort of florid, disproportionate amplitude? The explanation, in any case, didn’t matter; he was going to mean well—that she could feel, and also that he had meant better in the past, presumably, than he had managed to convince her of his doing at the time: the oddity she hadn’t now reckoned with was this fact that from the moment he did advertise an interest it should show almost as what she would have called weird. It made a change in him that didn’t go with the rest—as if he had broken his nose or put on spectacles, lost his handsome hair or sacrificed his splendid mustache: her conception, her necessity, as she saw, had been that something should be added to him for her use, but nothing for his own alteration.
He had affirmed himself, and his character, and his temper, and his health, and his appetite, and his ignorance, and his obstinacy, and his whole charming, coarse, heartless personality, during their engagement, by twenty forms of natural emphasis, but never by emphasis of interest. How in fact could you feel interest unless you should know, within you, some dim stir of imagination? There was nothing in the world of which Murray Brush was less capable than of such a dim stir, because you only began to imagine when you felt some approach to a need to understand. He had never felt it; for hadn’t he been born, to his personal vision, with that perfect intuition of everything which reduces all the suggested preliminaries of judgment to the impertinence—when it’s a question of your entering your house—of a dumpage of bricks at your door? He had had, in short, neither to imagine nor to perceive, because he had, from the first pulse of his intelligence, simply and supremely known: so that, at this hour, face to face with him, it came over her that she had, in their old relation, dispensed with any such convenience of comprehension on his part even to a degree she had not measured at the time. What therefore must he not have seemed to her as a form of life, a form of avidity and activity, blatantly successful in its own conceit, that he could have dazzled her so against the interest of her very faculties and functions? Strangely and richly historic all that backward mystery, and only leaving for her mind the wonder of such a mixture of possession and detachment as they would clearly to-day both know. For each to be so little at last to the other when, during months together, the idea of all abundance, all quantity, had been, for each, drawn from the other and addressed to the other—what was it monstrously like but some fantastic act of getting rid of a person by going to lock yourself up in the sanctum sanctorum of that person’s house, amid every evidence of that person’s habits and nature? What was going to happen, at any rate, was that Murray would show himself as beautifully and consciously understanding—and it would be prodigious that Europe should have inoculated him with that delicacy. Yes, he wouldn’t claim to know now till she had told him—an aid to performance he had surely never before waited for, or been indebted to, from any one; and then, so knowing, he would charmingly endeavor to “meet,” to oblige and to gratify. He would find it, her case, ever so worthy of his benevolence, and would be literally inspired to reflect that he must hear about it first.
She let him hear then everything, in spite of feeling herself slip, while she did so, to some doom as yet incalculable; she went on very much as she had done for Mr. Pitman and Mrs. Drack, with the rage of desperation and, as she was afterward to call it to herself, the fascination of the abyss. She didn’t know, couldn’t have said at the time, why his projected benevolence should have had most so the virtue to scare her: he would patronize her, as an effect of her vividness, if not of her charm, and would do this with all high intention, finding her case, or rather their case, their funny old case, taking on of a sudden such refreshing and edifying life, to the last degree curious and even important; but there were gaps of connection between this and the intensity of the perception here overtaking her that she shouldn’t be able to move in any direction without dishing herself. That she couldn’t afford it where she had got to—couldn’t afford the deplorable vulgarity of having been so many times informally affianced and contracted (putting it only at that, at its being by the new lights and fashions so unpardonably vulgar): he took this from her without turning, as she might have said, a hair; except just to indicate, with his new superiority, that he felt the distinguished appeal and notably the pathos of it. He still took it from her that she hoped nothing, as it were, from any other alibi—the people to drag into court being too many and too scattered; but that, as it was with him, Murray Brush, she had been most vulgar, most everything she had better not have been, so she depended on him for the innocence it was actually vital she should establish. He flushed or frowned or winced no more at that than he did when she once more fairly emptied her satchel and, quite as if they had been Nancy and the Artful Dodger, or some nefarious pair of that sort, talking things over in the manner of Oliver Twist, revealed to him the fondness of her view that, could she but have produced a cleaner slate, she might by this time have pulled it off with Mr. French. Yes, he let her in that way sacrifice her honorable connection with him—all the more honorable for being so completely at an end—to the crudity of her plan for not missing another connection, so much more brilliant than what he offered, and for bringing another man, with whom she so invidiously and unflatteringly compared him, into her greedy life.
There was only a moment during which, by a particular lustrous look she had never had from him before, he just made her wonder which turn he was going to take; she felt, however, as safe as was consistent with her sense of having probably but added to her danger, when he brought out, the next instant: “Don’t you seem to take the ground that we were guilty—that you were ever guilty—of something we shouldn’t have been? What did we ever do that was secret, or underhand, or any way not to be acknowledged? What did we do but exchange our young vows with the best faith in the world—publicly, rejoicingly, with the full assent of every one connected with us? I mean of course,” he said with his grave kind smile, “till we broke off so completely because we found that—practically, financially, on the hard worldly basis—we couldn’t work it. What harm, in the sight of God or man, Julia,” he asked in his fine rich way, “did we ever do?”
She gave him back his look, turning pale. “Am I talking of that? Am I talking of what we know? I’m talking of what others feel—of what they have to feel; of what it’s just enough for them to know not to be able to get over it, once they do really know it. How do they know what didn’t pass between us, with all the opportunities we had? That’s none of their business—if we were idiots enough, on the top of everything! What you may or mayn’t have done doesn’t count, for you; but there are people for whom it’s loathsome that a girl should have gone on like that from one person to another and still pretend to be—well, all that a nice girl is supposed to be. It’s as if we had but just waked up, mother and I, to such a remarkable prejudice; and now we have it—when we could do so well without it!—staring us in the face. That mother should have insanely let me, should so vulgarly have taken it for my natural, my social career—that’s the disgusting, humiliating thing: with the lovely account it gives of both of us! But mother’s view of a delicacy in things!” she went on with scathing grimness; “mother’s measure of anything, with her grand ‘gained cases’ (there’ll be another yet, she finds them so easy!) of which she’s so publicly proud! You see I’ve no margin,” said Julia; letting him take it from her flushed face as much as he would that her mother hadn’t left her an inch. It was that he should make use of the spade with her for the restoration of a bit of a margin just wide enough to perch on till the tide of peril should have ebbed a little, it was that he should give her that lift—!
Well, it was all there from him after these last words; it was before her that he really took hold. “Oh, my dear child, I can see! Of course there are people—ideas change in our society so fast!—who are not in sympathy with the old American freedom and who read, I dare say, all sorts of uncanny things into it. Naturally you must take them as they are—from the moment,” said Murray Brush, who had lighted, by her leave, a cigarette, “your life-path does, for weal or for woe, cross with theirs.” He had every now and then such an elegant phrase. “Awfully interesting, certainly, your case. It’s enough for me that it is yours—I make it my own. I put myself absolutely in your place; you’ll understand from me, without professions, won’t you? that I do. Command me in every way! What I do like is the sympathy with which you’ve inspired him. I don’t, I’m sorry to say, happen to know him personally,” — he smoked away, looking off; “but of course one knows all about him generally, and I’m sure he’s right for you, I’m sure it would be charming, if you yourself think so. Therefore trust me and even—what shall I say?—leave it to me a little, won’t you?” He had been watching, as in his fumes, the fine growth of his possibilities; and with this he turned on her the large warmth of his charity. It was like a subscription of a half-a-million. “I’ll take care of you.”
She found herself for a moment looking up at him from as far below as the point from which the school-child, with round eyes raised to the wall, gazes at the parti-colored map of the world. Yes, it was a warmth, it was a special benignity, that had never yet dropped on her from any one; and she wouldn’t for the first few moments have known how to describe it or even quite what to do with it. Then, as it still rested, his fine improved expression aiding, the sense of what had happened came over her with a rush. She was being, yes, patronized; and that was really as new to her—the freeborn American girl who might, if she had wished, have got engaged and disengaged not six times but sixty—as it would have been to be crowned or crucified. The Frenches themselves didn’t do it—the Frenches themselves didn’t dare it. It was as strange as one would: she recognized it when it came, but anything might have come rather—and it was coming by (of all people in the world) Murray Brush! It overwhelmed her; still she could speak, with however faint a quaver and however sick a smile. “You’ll lie for me like a gentleman?”
“As far as that goes till I’m black in the face!” And then while he glowed at her and she wondered if he would pointedly look his lies that way, and if, in fine, his florid, gallant, knowing, almost winking intelligence, common as she had never seen the common vivified, would represent his notion of “blackness”: “See here, Julia; I’ll do more.”
“Everything. I’ll take it right in hand. I’ll fling over you—”
“Fling over me—?” she continued to echo as he fascinatingly fixed her.
“Well, the biggest kind of rose-colored mantle!” And this time, oh, he did wink: it would be the way he was going to wink (and in the grandest good faith in the world) when indignantly denying, under inquisition, that there had been “a sign or a scrap” between them. But there was more to come; he decided she should have it all. “Julia, you’ve got to know now.” He hung fire but an instant more. “Julia, I’m going to be married.” His “Julias” were somehow death to her; she could feel that even through all the rest. “Julia, I announce my engagement.”
“Oh, lordy, lordy!” she wailed: it might have been addressed to Mr. Pitman.
The force of it had brought her to her feet, but he sat there smiling up as at the natural tribute of her interest. “I tell you before any one else; it’s not to be ‘out’ for a day or two yet. But we want you to know; she said that as soon as I mentioned to her that I had heard from you. I mention to her everything, you see!”—and he almost simpered while, still in his seat, he held the end of his cigarette, all delicately and as for a form of gentle emphasis, with the tips of his fine fingers. “You’ve not met her, Mary Lindeck, I think: she tells me she hasn’t the pleasure of knowing you, but she desires it so much—particularly longs for it. She’ll take an interest too,” he went on; “you must let me immediately bring her to you. She has heard so much about you and she really wants to see you.”
“Oh mercy me!” poor Julia gasped again—so strangely did history repeat itself and so did this appear the echo, on Murray Brush’s lips, and quite to drollery, of that sympathetic curiosity of Mrs. Drack’s which Mr. Pitman had, as they said, voiced. Well, there had played before her the vision of a ledge of safety in face of a rising tide; but this deepened quickly to a sense more forlorn, the cold swish of waters already up to her waist and that would soon be up to her chin. It came really but from the air of her friend, from the perfect benevolence and high unconsciousness with which he kept his posture — as if to show he could patronize her from below upward quite as well as from above down. And as she took it all in, as it spread to a flood, with the great lumps and masses of truth it was floating, she knew inevitable submission, not to say submersion, as she had never known it in her life; going down and down before it, not even putting out her hands to resist or cling by the way, only reading into the young man’s very face an immense fatality and, for all his bright nobleness his absence of rancor or of protesting pride, the great gray blankness of her doom. It was as if the earnest Miss Lindeck, tall and mild, high and lean, with eye-glasses and a big nose, but “marked” in a noticeable way, elegant and distinguished and refined, as you could see from a mile off, and as graceful, for common despair of imitation, as the curves of the “copy” set of old by one’s writing-master—it was as if this stately well-wisher, whom indeed she had never exchanged a word with, but whom she had recognized and placed and winced at as soon as he spoke of her, figured there beside him now as also in portentous charge of her case.
He had ushered her into it in that way as if his mere right word sufficed; and Julia could see them throne together, beautifully at one in all the interests they now shared, and regard her as an object of almost tender solicitude. It was positively as if they had become engaged for her good—in such a happy light as it shed. That was the way people you had known, known a bit intimately, looked at you as soon as they took on the high matrimonial propriety that sponged over the more or less wild past to which you belonged, and of which, all of a sudden, they were aware only through some suggestion it made them for reminding you definitely that you still had a place. On her having had a day or two before to meet Mrs. Drack and to rise to her expectation she had seen and felt herself act, had above all admired herself, and had at any rate known what she said, even though losing, at her altitude, any distinctness in the others. She could have repeated later on the detail of her performance—if she hadn’t preferred to keep it with her as a mere locked-up, a mere unhandled treasure. At present, however, as everything was for her at first deadened and vague, true to the general effect of sounds and motions in water, she couldn’t have said afterward what words she spoke, what face she showed, what impression she made—at least till she had pulled herself round to precautions. She only knew she had turned away, and that this movement must have sooner or later determined his rising to join her, his deciding to accept it, gracefully and condoningly—condoningly in respect to her natural emotion, her inevitable little pang—for an intimation that they would be better on their feet.
They trod then afresh their ancient paths; and though it pressed upon her hatefully that he must have taken her abruptness for a smothered shock, the flare-up of her old feeling at the breath of his news, she had still to see herself condemned to allow him this, condemned really to encourage him in the mistake of believing her suspicious of feminine spite and doubtful of Miss Lindeck’s zeal. She was so far from doubtful that she was but too appalled at it and at the officious mass in which it loomed, and this instinct of dread, before their walk was over, before she had guided him round to one of the smaller gates, there to slip off again by herself, was positively to find on the bosom of her flood a plank by the aid of which she kept in a manner and for the time afloat. She took ten minutes to pant, to blow gently, to paddle disguisedly, to accommodate herself, in a word, to the elements she had let loose; but as a reward of her effort at least she then saw how her determined vision accounted for everything. Beside her friend on the bench she had truly felt all his cables cut, truly swallowed down the fact that if he still perceived she was pretty—and how pretty!—it had ceased appreciably to matter to him. It had lighted the folly of her preliminary fear, the fear of his even yet to some effect of confusion or other inconvenience for her, proving more alive to the quotable in her, as she had called it, than to the inexpressible. She had reckoned with the awkwardness of that possible failure of his measure of her charm, by which his renewed apprehension of her grosser ornaments, those with which he had most affinity, might too much profit; but she need have concerned herself as little for his sensibility on one head as on the other. She had ceased personally, ceased materially—in respect, as who should say, to any optical or tactile advantage—to exist for him, and the whole office of his manner had been the more piously and gallantly to dress the dead presence with flowers. This was all to his credit and his honor, but what it clearly certified was that their case was at last not even one of spirit reaching out to spirit. He had plenty of spirit—had all the spirit required for his having engaged himself to Miss Lindeck, into which result, once she had got her head well up again, she read, as they proceeded, one sharp meaning after another. It was therefore toward the subtler essence of that mature young woman alone that he was occupied in stretching; what was definite to him about Julia Bride being merely, being entirely—which was indeed thereby quite enough—that she might end by scaling her worldly height. They would push, they would shove, they would “boost,” they would arch both their straight backs as pedestals for her tiptoe; and at the same time, by some sweet prodigy of mechanics, she would pull them up and up with her.
Wondrous things hovered before her in the course of this walk; her consciousness had become, by an extraordinary turn, a music-box in which, its lid well down, the most remarkable tunes were sounding. It played for her ear alone, and the lid, as she might have figured, was her firm plan of holding out till she got home, of not betraying—to her companion at least—the extent to which she was demoralized. To see him think her demoralized by mistrust of the sincerity of the service to be meddlesomely rendered her by his future wife—she would have hurled herself publicly into the lake there at their side, would have splashed, in her beautiful clothes, among the frightened swans, rather than invite him to that ineptitude. Oh, her sincerity, Mary Lindeck’s—she would be drenched with her sincerity, and she would be drenched, yes, with his; so that, from inward convulsion to convulsion, she had, before they reached their gate, pulled up in the path. There was something her head had been full of these three or four minutes, the intensest little tune of the music-box, and it made its way to her lips now; belonging—for all the good it could do her!—to the two or three sorts of solicitude she might properly express.
“I hope she has a fortune, if you don’t mind my speaking of it: I mean some of the money we didn’t in our time have—and that we missed, after all, in our poor way and for what we then wanted of it, so quite dreadfully.”
She had been able to wreathe it in a grace quite equal to any he himself had employed; and it was to be said for him also that he kept up, on this, the standard. “Oh, she’s not, thank goodness, at all badly off, poor dear. We shall do very well. How sweet of you to have thought of it! May I tell her that too?” he splendidly glared. Yes, he glared—how couldn’t he, with what his mind was really full of? But, all the same, he came just here, by her vision, nearer than at any other point to being a gentleman. He came quite within an ace of it—with his taking from her thus the prescription of humility of service, his consenting to act in the interest of her avidity, his letting her mount that way, on his bowed shoulders, to the success in which he could suppose she still believed. He couldn’t know, he would never know, that she had then and there ceased to believe in it—that she saw as clear as the sun in the sky the exact manner in which, between them, before they had done, the Murray Brushes, all zeal and sincerity, all interest in her interesting case, would dish, would ruin, would utterly destroy her. He wouldn’t have needed to go on, for the force and truth of this; but he did go on—he was as crashingly consistent as a motorcar without a brake. He was visibly in love with the idea of what they might do for her and of the rare “social” opportunity that they would, by the same stroke, embrace. How he had been offhand with it, how he had made it parenthetic, that he didn’t happen “personally” to know Basil French—as if it would have been at all likely he should know him, even im personally, and as if he could conceal from her the fact that, since she had made him her overture, this gentleman’s name supremely baited her hook! Oh, they would help Julia Bride if they could—they would do their remarkable best; but they would at any rate have made his acquaintance over it, and she might indeed leave the rest to their thoroughness. He would already have known, he would already have heard; her appeal, she was more and more sure, wouldn’t have come to him as a revelation. He had already talked it over with her, with Miss Lindeck, to whom the Frenches, in their fortress, had never been accessible, and his whole attitude bristled, to Julia’s eyes, with the betrayal of her hand, her voice, her pressure, her calculation. His tone, in fact, as he talked, fairly thrust these things into her face. “But you must see her for yourself. You’ll judge her. You’ll love her. My dear child”—he brought it all out, and if he spoke of children he might, in his candor, have been himself infantine—”my dear child, she’s the person to do it for you. Make it over to her; but,” he laughed, “of course see her first! Couldn’t you,” he wound up—for they were now near their gate, where she was to leave him — “couldn’t you just simply make us meet him, at tea say, informally; just us alone, as pleasant old friends of whom you’d have so naturally and frankly spoken to him: and then see what we’d make of that?”
It was all in his expression; he couldn’t keep it out of that, and his shining good looks couldn’t: ah, he was so fatally much too handsome for her! So the gap showed just there, in his admirable mask and his admirable eagerness; the yawning little chasm showed where the gentleman fell short. But she took this in, she took everything in, she felt herself do it, she heard herself say, while they paused before separation, that she quite saw the point of the meeting, as he suggested, at her tea. She would propose it to Mr. French and would let them know; and he must assuredly bring Miss Lindeck, bring her “right away,” bring her soon, bring them, his fiancée and her, together somehow, and as quickly as possible—so that they should be old friends before the tea. She would propose it to Mr. French, propose it to Mr. French: that hummed in her ears as she went—after she had really got away; hummed as if she were repeating it over, giving it out to the passers, to the pavement, to the sky, and all as in wild discord with the intense little concert of her music-box. The extraordinary thing too was that she quite believed she should do it, and fully meant to; desperately, fantastically passive—since she almost reeled with it as she proceeded—she was capable of proposing anything to any one: capable too of thinking it likely Mr. French would come, for he had never on her previous proposals declined anything. Yes, she would keep it up to the end, this pretence of owing them salvation, and might even live to take comfort in having done for them what they wanted. What they wanted couldn’t but be to get at the Frenches, and what Miss Lindeck above all wanted, baffled of it otherwise, with so many others of the baffled, was to get at Mr. French—for all Mr. French would want of either of them!—still more than Murray did. It was not till after she had got home, got straight into her own room and flung herself on her face, that she yielded to the full taste of the bitterness of missing a connection, missing the man himself, with power to create such a social appetite, such a grab at what might be gained by them. He could make people, even people like these two and whom there were still other people to envy, he could make them push and snatch and scramble like that—and then remain as incapable of taking her from the hands of such patrons as of receiving her straight, say, from those of Mrs. Drack. It was a high note, too, of Julia’s wonderful composition that, even in the long, lonely moan of her conviction of her now certain ruin, all this grim lucidity, the perfect clearance of passion, but made her supremely proud of him.