THE THREAD OF FLAME

Author of "The City of Comrades,’' “The High Heart," "The Inner Shrine,” etc.

BASIL KING April 15 1920

THE THREAD OF FLAME

Author of "The City of Comrades,’' “The High Heart," "The Inner Shrine,” etc.

BASIL KING April 15 1920

CHAPTER XX—Continued

"RELEVANT to what?”

“I mean that you can’t sum up such a situation as this by being either glad or sorry. We’ve other things to consider.”

“But surely that comes first.”

“Neither first nor second. The only question we’ve got to ask for the minute is what we’re to do.”

“But I thought that was settled—that you wanted me to come back."

“It’s settled in the way that getting up in the morning is settled; but that doesn’t tell you the duties of the day.”

“I suppose one can only meet the duties of the day by going on and seeing what they are.”

“Exactly; and isn’t that our first consideration—the going on? It doesn’t matter whether we’re glad or sorry, since we mean to go on—or try to go on—anyhow.”

Releasing her hands I dropped back into my own corner of the sofa, scanning the refined features more at my ease for the reason that her face was slightly averted and her eyes turned to the floor.

“I don’t want you to go on, Vio, if—”

“I’ve thought everything over,” she declared in her imperious way, “and made up my mind that it was the only thing for me to do.”

“Then you had thought that—that perhaps you—you couldn’t.”

She nodded slowly, without looking up.

“You'd made other—plans.”

“It wasn’t that so much; it was—it was thinking of you.”

“Thinking of me—from what point of view?”

“From the point of view of—of what you’ve done.” She glanced at me now, quickly, furtively, as if trying to spare me the pain of scrutiny. “Oh, Billy, I’m so sorry for—for my share in it.”

“And what do you take your share to be?”

“The share of responsibility. When I urged you to go—”

“As it happened I should have gone anyhow. When this country had entered the war I should have been under the same obligation as any other man.”

“That would have been different. When our men were taken there was discrimination. Each was selected for what he was best fitted to do. A great deal of pains was given to that, and I can’t tell you how I suffered when I saw that if I’d only left you alone you could have contributed the thing you knew most about. That’s why I feel so strongly that, now you’ve come back—even in this sort of disguise—”

“I’m not in disguise, Vio. The way you see me—”

The motion of her long slender hand was partly of appeal and partly of dismissal.

"I don’t want to hear about that, Billy. If we’re to begin again there are things we mustn’t talk about. Since you’ve done this extraordinary thing, and I may be said to have driven you into it, I want to stand by you. Isn’t that enough?”

There was so much in this little speech that I couldn’t do it justice at once. All I found myself able to say was: “Tell me, Vio, is the extraordinary thing my staying away—or my coming back?”

Again there was that pleading, commanding gesture.

“Oh, Billy, don’t. I’m willing to try to pick up the past; but it must be the past—not what’s happened in the meantime.” She rose with that supple grace which suggested the Zuloaga pose. "Go back to the hotel and get your things. I—I can’t bear to see you looking as you are. When you’re more like yourself—”

I tried to smile, but I know the effort was no more than a twisted quivering.

“You’ll have to see me looking as I am for a few days yet, Vio. My kit doesn’t offer me much variety.”

“Oh, well—!”

She accepted this as part of the inevitable strangeness in which she had become enveloped, making silent, desperate concessions. Because of this mood I was tempted to ask for five minutes’ grace in order to look over the old house.

“You’ll find things rather run down,” she said, indifferently. “I’ve no good servants any more. They said that when the war was over it would be easier to get them; but it’s a month now since the armistice was signed, and it’s just as bad as ever.”

“From that point of view it will probably be worse,” I remarked, when about to pass from the library into the hall. “The world isn’t going back to what it was before the war. You can’t stop an avalanche once it has begun to slide.”

She watched me from where she stood before the fire, reproducing almost exactly the attitude of the fascinating woman overhead.

“Does that mean you’ve come back a revolutionist, Billy?—as well as everything else?”

“N-no; I haven’t come back anything in particular. I’m just like you and all the rest of the world—a snowflake in the avalanche. I suppose I shall go tumbling with the mass.”

A SENSE of something outlived came to me as I roamed through the house which Vio allowed me to visit by myself. After two years spent in a squint-eyed room of which the only decoration was three painted fungi this mellow beauty stirred me to a vague irritation. It was not a real dwelling for real people in the real world as the real world had become. It was too rich and soft and long established in its place. Three or four generations of Soameses and Torrances had stored its rooms with tapestries, portraits, old porcelains, and mahoganies; and for America that is much.

Over the landing where the stairway turned hung the famous Copley of Jasper Soames. For a good two minutes he and I faced each other in unspeakable communion. There was nothing between us but this stairway acquaintance, formed during the three years Vio and I had lived together; and yet somehow his being had stamped itself into mine.

On the floors above there was the same well chosen abundance of everything, sufficiently toned down by use and time to merit the word shabby. That was the note that struck me first—and surprised me. Vio had never been what is commonly known as a good house-keeper; but she had commanded and been obeyed. What the house betrayed now was a diminution of the power of command. Doubtless money didn't go as far as it used to; and there was a new spirit in the world as to taking orders. I thought again of the garden re-visited in autumn. The old house might be said to have fulfilled its long mission, and to be ready to pass away with the age of which it was a type.

To go into my own room and find it empty and swept of every trace of my habitation would have been a stranger experience than it was if every experience that day had not been strange. I looked into the wardrobes; I pulled open the drawers. There was not a garment, not a scrap of paper, to indicate that I had ever been alive. Not till I saw this did I realize the completeness with which Vio had buried me.

AND not till I saw this did I realize that Vio herself was up against the first big struggle of her life. She had never hitherto faced what might be called a moral situation. Her history had been that of any other well-off girl in a city like Boston, where money and position entitled her to whatever was best in the small realm. American civilization, like that of the Italy of the Middle Ages, being civic and not national, the boundaries of Boston, with its suburbs and seaside resorts, had formed the limits of Vio’s horizon. True, she had spent a good deal of time in Europe—but always as a Bostonian. She had made periodical visits to, Newport, Bar Harbor, Palm Beach, and White Sulphur Springs—but always as a Bostonian. Once she had travelled as far on the American continent as California—but still as a Bostonian.

Boston sufficed for Vio, seeing that it was big enough to give her variety, and small enough to permit her to shine with little competition. Competition irked her for the reason that she despised taking trouble. With the exception of a toilet exact to the last detail of refinement her life was always at loose ends. She rarely answered letters, she rarely returned calls, she never kept accounts, if she began a book she didn't finish it. Adoring little Bobby during the months of his brief life, she found the necessities of motherhood unbearable. That she was as a rule picturesquely unhappy was due to the fact of having nothing on which to whet her spiritual mettle. Like a motor working while the motor-car stands still she churned herself into action that got nowhere as a result.

But now for the first time in her life she was face to face with a great big personal problem. How big and great the problem was I didn’t at the time understand. All I could see was that she was meeting her baptism of fire, and that I was the means of the ministration.

Pushing open the door between her room and mine I received again the impression of almost awesome privilege I had got on our return from our honeymoon. I had never been at my ease in this room; it was Vio’s sanctuary, her fastness. It was a Soames and Torrance sanctuary and fastness, and to it I had only been admitted, not given its freedom as a right. Possibly the feeling that always came to me on crossing its threshold, that I stepped out of my own domain, betokened the missing strand in the tie that had bound Vio and me together.

It had been a trial to me that she should be so much better off than I. Not only did it leave the less for me to do for her, but it created in her a spirit of detachment against which I chafed in vain. Out of the common fund of our marriage she made large reserves of herself, as she might have made reserves which she did not of her income. Our beings were allied, but they were not fused. For fusion she had too much that she prized to give away. In such quantity as I could give she made return to me; but having so much more than I to give her reserves became conspicuous. Of what she withheld this room was the symbol. It was never my room. My comings and goings there had been made with a kind of reverence, as if the place were a shrine.

The only abiding note of my personality had been my photograph at the head of Vio’s bed. There was a photograph there now, but I saw that the frame was different. Mine had been in a silver frame; this was in red-brown leather. If it was still mine....

But it was not mine. It was that of a colonel in an American uniform, wearing British and French decorations. Big, portly, handsome, bluff, with an empty sleeve, he revealed himself as a hero. He was a hero, while I.... It occurred to me that death was not the only means of giving Vio her freedom, and that I ought to tell her so.

To do that I was making my way downstairs, with the words framing themselves on my lips.

“Vio,” I meant to say, “if you don’t want me back—if anything has happened to make it best for me to go away forever—you’ve only to say the word and I’ll do it.”

BUT while I was still descending she swept into the hall. Her movements were always rapid, with a careless, commanding ease. She was once more the Zuloaga woman, all on fire within.

“How long do you think it will be, Billy, before your tailor can make you look as you ought to?”

I paused where I was, some three steps above her.

“It may hardly be worth while to consider that, Vio—”

“Oh, but it is,” she interrupted. “If we're going to put this thing through we must do it with some dash. That’s essential.”

“Why—why the dash?”

“Because there’s no other way of doing it. Don’t you see? If you just come in by the back door—” She left this sentiment to continue in her own way. “Alice Mountney is going to give a big dinner and invite all your old friends.”

My heart sank.

“Is that necessary?”

“Of course it's necessary. It isn’t a matter of preference. As far as that goes it will be as hard for me as for you. If I took my own way I should never—” Once more she left me to divine her thought while she added, firmly; “It has simply got to be done. We must make people think—”

“What?” I challenged, when she paused, not apparently from lack of words but from fear of using them. A suspicion impelled me to say in addition: “How much did Wolf repeat to you of the story I told him?”

Her answer was made with the storm in the eyes that was always my warning of danger.

“As much as I’d let him. I didn’t want to hear any more. I never shall. That part of it is closed. I’ve told you already that I accept the responsibility—and I do. You mayn't think it, but I have a conscience of a kind; and I know that if it hadn’t been for me you wouldn’t have done this thing; and so.... But there we are again. There we shall always be if we allow ourselves to discuss it. You're my husband, Billy; I'm your wife. We can’t get away from that, whatever has happened—”

“We could get away from it—if you preferred.”

What I prefer,” she declared, with her old-time hauteur, “is what I’m asking you to do. If I didn’t prefer it I shouldn’t ask for it. Go back to the hotel and get your things. Go to the tailor and get more. Your room is waiting for you. It will be the next room to mine, just as before, with only the door—”

“The closed door, Vio?”

“Between us,” she finished, ignoring my question. “If other things arrange themselves we can—we can re-open it—in time.”

SO we left it, since it was useless to go on. That she should consider my mental lapse so terrible a disgrace was a surprise to me; but as I so considered it myself I could not blame another for taking the same point of view. After all, a man should show a man’s nerve. Thousands, millions of men, had shown it—to the limit and beyond. I hadn’t; that was all that could be said about it. How could Vio, how could anyone else, regard me as other than abnormal?

As she was making so brave an attempt to put all this behind her it became my duty to help her. This I could do most easily by deflecting the conversation to the large family connection as to which I was without news. She gave me this news as we stood at the foot of the stairway, or while I got ready to go out again.

It was a relief to learn that none of my brothers or sisters was in Boston. George, who was older than myself, was on General Pershing’s staff, and had just been heard of from Luxembourg. Dan, my junior, had the rank of lieutenant-commander and was somewhere in European waters. Tom Cantley, who had married my sister Minna, was working on the War Trade Board in Washington, and he and Minna had a house there. Their eldest boy, Harrowby, had been killed at Chateau-Thierry, but as far as anyone ever saw Minna hadn’t shed a tear. Ernestine, my unmarried sister, being one of the founders of the Flag Raising League, had patriotic duties which took her all over the United States. Her last letter had been from Oklahoma or Spokane, Vio was not sure which, but it was “one of those places out there.” At any rate they were all a credit to a name the traditions of which I alone hadn’t had the spirit to live up to. Vio didn’t say this, of course; but it was the inference.

It was the inference too with regard to a host of cousins of the first, second, and third degrees, by blood and by marriage, who would have made a small army in themselves. Some were Vio’s kin, and some were mine; some by the chances of Boston intermarriage were related to us both. Not one of them but had been modestly heroic, the women not less than the men. Some had given their lives; some their limbs or eyesight; all their time and money. Even Wolf and Vio had subscribed to funds till reduced to what they considered indigence. It was a distinguished clan; and I its one pitiable member.

CHAPTER XXI

GOING back to the hotel I had my first pang of regret for having waked up on that midnight at Bourg-la-Comtesse. It was the same reflection; the dead were so much wiser in staying dead. I guessed that during the weeks when I was missing Vio had mourned for me with a grief into which a new element had come when my clothes were found on the bank of the Padrille. That was a mistake, that my clothes should be found there. A missing man should be traced to a prison or a hospital—or remain gloriously missing. He should have no interval of safety in which to go in bathing, a hundred miles from the spot on which he had last been seen alive, not even to be drowned. There was a mystery in that which might easily become a flaw in a soldier’s record, and which to a woman as proud as Vio would be equivalent to dishonor. That there should be a question of the kind with regard to her own husband....

So I began to do justice to the courage she displayed. Rising to the occasion in a way I could only call magnificent, she sank herself, her opinions, and her plans—I called them plans to avoid a more definite word—to meet the imperative in the situation. What lay in the back of her mind I didn’t dare inquire, notwithstanding the signs that betrayed her.

And yet the more splendid her gesture the deeper my humility at having to call it forth. It made me like a man, once strong and active, reduced to living on the doles of the compassionate. I could never be independent again; I could never again have the mental freedom of one around whom there is nothing unexplained. By a process of bluff I might carry the thing off; but to that I felt an unspeakable aversion. It was not that I was unwilling to second Vio; it was incapacity. Having been guilty of the indiscretion of waking at Bourg-la-Comtesse I began to regret the long, dull, peaceful routine of Creed and Creed’s.

I do not assert that these things were as clear in my mind on that day as they are on this; but they were confusedly. Every impression I received that afternoon was either confused and painful or strikingly vivid, as to one waking from an anaesthetic.

Of those more vivid one in particular stands out in my recollection.

Returning from the hotel with my suitcase and bag—the same with which I had landed from the Auvergne—I heard a man’s voice in the drawing-room upstairs. The deep soft tones told me it was not Wolf’s.

“Mrs. ’Arrowby said as you was to go right up, sir,” Boosey informed me, relieving me of my bags. “I ’ear as you was a prisoner in Germany, sir,” he continued, while making his way to the coat-closet with my coat. “That’s why I didn’t know as it’d be you when you come this afternoon. Might I ask, sir, if they throwed beer in your face, or anythink like that?”

With one foot on the stairs I looked after the waddling figure retreating down the hall.

“Who told you that I was a prisoner?”

“Mr. Wolf’s man, sir; but—” I am sure there was a veiled taunt in what followed—“but if you wasn’t, sir, or if it’s a secret—” I lost the rest as he became engulfed in the closet, but I had heard enough. Wolf had taken his own way to protect the honor of the family.

IT was not easy to enter the drawing-room and face one of Vio’s friends; but it was the sort of thing to which I must learn to steel myself. Moreover, it might be one of my own friends come to welcome me back. Vio had informed me that Wolf had taken steps to keep any mention of my “discovery” and return out of the papers; but we were too well known in Boston not to have the word passed privately. To any friend’s welcome there would be unspoken reserves; but that I must take for granted and become accustomed to.

But, as it happened, it was not a friend of mine; it was the colonel of the photograph, who had apparently dropped in for a cup of tea—and something more. What that something more might be I could only surmise from Vio’s way of saying, “Here’s Mr. Harrowby now.” They had seemingly discussed me—it had seemingly been necessary for them to discuss me—and taken a definite attitude toward me. That my wife should do this with a man who was a stranger to me, that the circumstances should be such that it was a duty for them to do it, was the extraordinary cup of gall given me to drain. I drained it while Vio went on, with that ease which no one knew better than I to be sustained on nerve:

“Billy, I want you to know Colonel Stroud. He’s just got back from France, and has been explaining to me how the allies are to occupy the Rhineland. Our men are already reaching Mayence and Coblenz, and he has heard too that the President arrived this morning at Brest. I suppose it will be in the evening papers.”

So we were launched in talk that couldn’t hurt anyone; and if my feelings were wounded it was only by drawing conclusions. They were the easier to draw from the fact, as I guessed, that Vio directed the talk in such a way that I could read between the lines.

What I gleaned from the give and take of banalities that dealt on the surface with the current gossip of the armistice was that Vio and her colonel had been intimate before he went to France, and now that he was back with medals and only a right arm the friendship had taken the turn to which such friendships are liable. That he was one of the Strouds of the famous Stroud Valley in Northern New York put him into the class with which people like ourselves made social alliances. When Vio, in the early days of her supposed widowhood, had met him at Palm Beach there was nothing to prevent their being sympathetic to each other. How far that sympathy had gone I could only conjecture; but it was easy to see it had gone pretty far.

As to what did not come so directly to the surface vague recollections began to form themselves in my mind. I seemed to remember the Stroud Valley Strouds as a family with a record. Of the type which in America most nearly resembles the English or Irish country gentleman they made the marrying of heiresses and the spending of the money thus acquired almost a profession. Horsey, convivial, and good-looking they carried themselves with the cheery liveliness that acknowledges no account to be given to anyone; and when they got into the divorce courts, as they did somewhat often, women as well as men, they came out of it with aplomb, I seemed to recall a scandal that a few years before had diverted all the clubs....

But I couldn’t be sure that was the man, or of anything beyond the fact that the central figure of that romance had been a Stroud Valley Stroud. That this particular instance of the race had had a history was stamped all over him; but it was the kind of history which, to a man of the world, imparts fascination. It was easy to see that he had “done things” in many lines of life. A little the beau male of the French lady novelist, and a little the Irish sporting squire, he was possibly too conscious of his looks and his power of killing ladies. A bronzed floridness, due partly to the open air and partly to good living, was thrown into striking relief by the silver hair and moustache not incompatible with relative youth. He couldn’t have been much over forty.

HIS reception to me was as perfect as if regulated by a protocol and rehearsed to the last shade. There was nothing in it I could complain of—and yet there was everything. A gentleman ignoring a disgraceful situation of which everyone is conscious would have carried himself with just this air of bland and courteous contempt.

Perhaps it was to react against this and to assert myself a little that I ventured once to cross swords with him. We had exhausted the movements of troops on the Rhine, the possible reception of the President in Paris, and he had given the Peace Conference six months in which to prepare the treaty for signature.

“Then we shall see,” he laughed, in his rich, velvety bass.

He brought out the statement so emphatically that I was moved to ask: “What shall we see?”

“What Mrs. Harrowby and I have been talking about, the end of all this rot as to the war having created a new world.”

“That’s putting the cart before the horse, isn’t it?” I asked maliciously. “The war didn’t create the new world; the new world created the war.”

Vio’s exquisite eyebrows went up a shade.

“Does that mean anything?”

“Only that the volcano creates the explosion; not the explosion the volcano. Given all the repressions and suppressions and injustices the eruption had to come.”

“The eruption had to come,” the Colonel declared, hotly, “because the Germans planned it."

“Oh, that was only a detail.”

“You might call the whole war only a detail—”

“I do.”

“I don’t get you,” he said, stiffly, leaning forward to place an empty cup on the table in front of Vio.

In her I read something surprised that didn’t, however, disapprove of me. Thus encouraged I went on. If I hadn’t thought these things out in the monotonous, unoccupied hours at Creed and Creed's my stunned brain would not have been master of them now.

“I only meant that the war was but one of the forces—one of the innumerable forces—which the new world in the making—it isn’t made yet by any means—has put into operation. If a house collapses it shatters all the windows; but you can’t say that the shattering of the windows made the house collapse."

I could see he was literally minded by his stare.

“But what—what house is collapsing?”

“The house all round us—the house of this particular form of civilization. It’s sliding down. It’s been sliding down for years. You might say that it began to slide down as soon as it was put up because it was wrongly constructed. A building full of flaws begins to settle before they get the roof on, and though it may stand for years the ultimate crash is only a question of time. War came as soon as our building began to split; the building didn’t begin to split because the war came. It was splitting anyhow.”

“That seems to me—” He sought for a sufficiently condemnatory word—“That seems to me sheer socialism.”

“Oh, I don’t think it is. The socialists wouldn’t say so. It isn’t anything in particular. It’s just—just fact.”

“Only?” Vio smiled, with her delicate, penetrating sarcasm.

“Only,” I echoed. “But as we belong to a world that doesn’t like fact it isn’t of much importance.”

BEWILDERMENT brought a pained expression to the handsome, rather stupid countenance.

“What the—what on earth do you mean by that?”

“Only that we’ve a genius for dodging issues, and shutting our eyes to what’s straight before us.”

“Do you mean the ruin straight before us?”

“Not necessarily, Vio. The collapse of this particular form of civilization wouldn’t mean ruin, because we’d get a better form. I suppose it’s coming into existence now.”

“I don’t know about that,” the Colonel objected. “As far as I see things are pretty much the same as they’ve always been, and they’re getting more so.”

“I suppose none of us sees more than we have our eyes open to. Things of the greatest importance to us happen, and we don’t know that they’re going on.”

“I hope that that kind of song and dance isn’t going on—the breakdown of our civilization. It wasn’t for that we gave ’em hell at Chateau-Thierry.”

“Oh, none of us knows what anything is for—except in the vaguest way. All we can do is to plod ahead and follow the thread of flame.”

“Follow the thread of what?”

I was sufficiently master of myself to indulge in a mild laugh.

“That’s just an expression that’s been in my mind during the time when I’ve been—been floundering about. Name I invented for—for a principle.”

In this, however, he was not interested. “Yes, but your collapsing house—"

“It may not come down altogether. I’m neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son. All I can see is what I suppose everybody sees—that our civilization has been rotten. It couldn’t hold together. It hadn’t the cohesive strength. Perhaps I was wrong in saying that it was falling down; it’s more as if we were pulling it down, to build up something better. It’s our blind instinct toward perfection—”

But refusing to listen to any more he got up to go. A brave man in the presence of enemies of flesh and blood, intellectual foes frightened him. At the first sound of their shells he rushed for his mental dugout, which he burrowed in the ground of denial. “I don’t believe that,” and “All tommy-rot” seemed to him shelters from any kind of danger.

But the main point to me was that I had in a measure not only held my own but got on to superior ground. I had been able to talk; in doing so I had got him at a slight disadvantage. The bit of self-respect inspired by this achievement enabled me to play the host and accompany him to the door with the kind of informal formality to which I had been so long unaccustomed.

And in performing this small duty I made a discovery. As he preceded me downstairs I remembered seeing the back of his head once before. It was the kind of head not easily forgotten. Moreover, I had seen it in circumstances that had caused me to note it in particular. Where and when and how were details that did not at once return to me; but I knew that the association was sinister.

AS I returned from my mission in showing him to the door I heard Vio speaking.

“Come in here, Billy. There’s something I want to say.”

She was still behind the tea-table, pensive rather than subdued, resolute rather than unhappy.

“I liked your talking like that,” she began at once, without looking up at me. “It’s—it’s the way we shall have to play the game.”

A box of cigarettes stood on the tea-table. I took one and struck a match—the usual stage-trick for gaining a little time.

“What game do you mean?” I asked, when I had carefully blown out the match and deposited it in an ash-tray.

“What game can I mean but—but that of your coming back?”

“Oh, is that a game?”

“Only in the sense of giving us something to play. We can’t just—just live it.”

“Why can’t we?”

With a quick movement she was on her feet, flinging out her hands.

“For all the reasons that I should think you’d see.” She came and stood on the hearthrug, confronting me. “Billy, I wonder if you have the faintest idea of what I’m doing for your sake?”

“I’ve more than the faintest idea, Vio. Some day, when we’re able to talk more easily than we are as yet I shall tell you how grateful I am. Just now I’m—I’m rather dazed. I have to get my bearings—”

She too had taken a cigarette, lighting it nervously, carelessly, puffing rapidly at the thing, and moving about the room.

“And there’s another thing,” she began, taking no notice of what I was trying to say. “I don’t mind your talking as you did just now so long as it’s—as it’s through your hat; but if it isn’t—”

"I can’t say that it is.”

“That’s just what I was afraid of. In the places where you’ve been.... I don’t want to know anything about them,” she interjected, with a passionate gesture of the hand that held the cigarette—“but in such places men do pick up revolutionary ideas, just as they do in prisons—”

"I don’t know that it’s a question of getting revolutionary ideas, Vio, so much as it’s one of living in a revolutionary

“And that’s what I want to warn you against. It won’t go down, Billy—not from you.”

“Why not from me—in particular?”

“Oh, why do you make me explain things? Isn’t it perfectly clear? If you’re coming back among your old friends you’ll have to be—after what’s happened—more—how shall I put it?—more conservative—more like everybody else—than anyone. You can’t afford to have wild ideas, because people will only say that you’re trying to drag us along the way you went yourself.”

I renounced this discussion to ask the question that was chiefly on my mind.

“Vio, who’s that man that just went out?”

She threw me a look from the other side of the room.

“You heard. He’s—where can you catch on?—he’s Emmy Fairborough’s brother.”

“Wasn’t there—wasn’t there a divorce?”

“Emmy’s? Yes; Lord Fairborough and she are divorced; but what difference does that make?”

“I wasn’t thinking of Lady Fairborough. I forgot she had been a Stroud. I meant—I meant him.”

“Oh, he? Yes, I think he was.”

“Divorced?”

“Yes—divorced. What of it?”

“To whom had he been married?”

“How should I know? It was to—to some low creature—an actress or something—the sort of thing men do when they’re young and—and—”

“And wild?”

“Wild, if you like. Why are you asking?”

BUT I was not sure of being ready to tell her, so many things had to be formulated first. To gain more time I lighted another cigarette, and she spoke while I was doing it. Holding her own cigarette delicately, as if examining its spark, she said, with a staccato intonation that emphasized each word:

“Billy, you remember what I said earlier this afternoon? I can go back to our past and try to pick it up. I can’t go back to anything that comes after that past and—and before to-day. Do you understand? It’s more than three years since they told me your Section was blown to pieces at Bourg-la-Comtesse. Most of your comrades were found—and buried. You were missing; but missing with very little hope. As the weeks went by that little hope dwindled till there was none. Then came the news that—that all that time you had been—alive.”

“And I suppose that Wolf told you—”

“He told me a story—or as much of it as I could listen to. But that’s not what I meant to speak about now. I want to say that—that I bury all that—deep—deep—only that I can’t do it unless you consent to bury—”

“Everything there’s been on your side. Is that it, Vio?”

“I shall ask you no question—”

“Not even if I’m ready to answer them?”

“Not even if you’re ready to answer them; but I shall expect you not to ask questions of me.”

“So that between us there will be a gulf of silence.”

She inclined her head, without speaking. “But why, Vio?—why?”

She swept up to me, throwing away her cigarette, and laying both her hands on my shoulders.

“Because, old boy, I’m your wife, and I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to help you because—because—”

Her nearness, the scent of her person, the black-opal mystery and fire were like hypnotic enchantment.

“Because you used to—to care for me a little, Vio? Is it possible that—that I can think that?”

She nodded.

“That’s part of it, of course. I don’t forget it. But what I remember more is what I’ve told you already, that whatever you did I sent you to do it. Now—if there’s expiation to be made—-I come in for that as well as you.”

“So that we make it together?”

“So that we make it together.”

Having already been bold I grew bolder. Lifting my hands to my shoulders I laid them on hers.

“And will you—will you let me kiss you on that, Vio?”

“Once,” she consented; “but—but don’t—don’t touch me.”

CHAPTER XXII

SO we began what she called the expiation, and what to me was no more than the attempt to persuade our friends that they didn’t know what they knew. This according to Vio’s calculations could be best achieved by never for an instant showing the white feather of an uncomfortable conscience. Our assurance was to be something like the Stroud aplomb on emerging from the courts of bankruptcy or divorce. To be unaware of anything odd in one’s conduct helped others to be unaware of it too. A high spirit, a high head, a high hand carried one through difficult situations regardless of the strife of tongues.

I didn’t think it necessary to remind Vio that the strife of tongues could go on even if we didn’t hear it. Nothing else was possible when Wolf’s fatuity blew the trumpet and beat the drum if the clamor showed signs of dying down. It wasn’t that he told the truth, but that he told lies so easy of detection. Alice Mountney did tell the truth as far as she knew it, but where she didn’t know it she supplied the deficiency by invention. That those so near us should be in conflict naturally called for comment, especially when Vio refused to let me speak.

For the first few weeks I was too busily occupied to think of what anyone was saying, seeing that the details I had to arrange were so unusual. Of the steps taken to become a living citizen again, and get back my property from my heirs, I give no account further than to say that they absorbed my attention. My standing in the community I was thus unable to compute till we were into the new year.

By this time I had taken part in a number of family events on which I shall touch briefly. At Christmas we had gone to Washington to spend the festival with Minna and Tom Cantley. There we had met Ernestine, in one of the intervals of her flag raising, and on the way back to Boston my brother Dan’s ship had unexpectedly arrived in New York. A series of domestic gatherings had therefore taken place, at all of which Vio had worked heroically. As she had generally hitherto ignored my family’s existence this graciousness was not without its effect. Where she did so much for my rehabilitation those close to me in blood could hardly do less than follow her example.

They followed it almost to the letter. That is to say, none of them asked me any questions, presumably wishing to spare both themselves and me embarrassment. Once or twice when I attempted to speak of my experiences the readiest plunged in with some topic that would lead us away from dangerous ground. If I yielded to this it was because speaking of myself at all was the deliberate exposure of nerves still raw and quivering. I could do it, but I couldn’t do it willingly.

Between Minna and myself there had never been much sympathy, largely because I was of the dreamy temperament and she of the sharp and practical. That I should make beauty a career in life, and take advantage of the fact that our father had left me a modest sufficiency to give my services to a Museum of Fine Arts shocked her to the heart. A man should do a man’s work, she said, not that of an old Miss Nancy. When I pointed out that many of the manufacturers in New England, whose work had to do with textiles, came to me for advice she replied that she didn’t believe it. Her attitude now was that I had done no worse than she had always foretold and anyone might have expected.

Ernestine, to do her justice, was as tolerant of me as she was of anyone who wasn’t a flag. The Flag having become her idol and she its high-priestess she could talk of nothing else. The nation had apparently gone to war in order that the cult of the Flag should be the more firmly established; and all other matters passed outside the circle of her consideration. She knew I had been dead and had somehow become alive again; but as the detail didn’t call for the raising of a flag she couldn’t give her mind to it. As she could give her mind in no greater measure to Minna’s canteen work or Vio’s clothes I profited by the generous nature of her exclusions.

FOR Dan, when I met him, I hardly existed, but that might have been so in any case, as we had never been really intimate. Recently he had been working with English naval officers and had taken on their manners and form of speech.

“Hello, old dear. Top-hole to see you looking so fit. I say, where can I find a barber? Got a mane on me like a lion."

That was our greeting, and the extent to which our confidences went. He sailed for Hampton Roads without a word as to my adventures.

This he did, I am sure, in a spirit of kindness. They were all moved by the spirit of kindness, and the axiom of the less said the better. I confess that I was mystified by this forbearance, and a little hurt. Though I had been a fool I had not been a traitor; yet everyone treated me as one. I should never have spoken of my two years of aberration of my own accord; yet when all avoided the subject as if it opened the cupboard of the family dishonor I resented the implication.

It was Tom Cantley with whom I was most at ease, perhaps because he was not a blood relation. A big, genial, boresome fellow he found me useful as a listener. His rambling accounts of the doings and shortcomings of the War Trade Board, and what he would have accomplished there if given a free hand, I pretended to follow because it left me free to pursue my own thoughts. As he never asked for comments on my part, being content when he could dribble out his own, the plan worked well.

And yet it was Tom who awakened me to the true meaning of my situation. That was on the day we left Washington—in the station—as Vio and I were about to take our train. Vio was ahead with Minna, when Tom suddenly clutched me by the arm.

“Say, old sport; what about clubs?—Boston clubs I mean. I suppose you’re a member of the Shawmut and the Beacon Hill just as before you went away. No action has ever been taken in the matter as far as I’ve heard. But I wouldn’t press the point, if I were you, not for a while yet. Later—when everything blows over—we can—we can see.”

I nodded, speechlessly. It was the most significant thing that had been said to me yet.

“Yes,” I assented, weakly. “When everything blows over we can see.”

What I saw at the minute was that if I attempted to resume my membership in either of my clubs there would be opposition. My case was as grave as that; though why it should be I hadn’t an adequate idea. Annoyed hitherto I became deeply troubled and perplexed.

Nevertheless when we arrived in Boston again it was to experience nothing but the same widespread kindness. True, it was largely from relatives or from such friends of Vio’s as admired her pluck. The tragedy of her life being plain those who appreciated it were eager to stand by her; and to stand by her meant courtesy to me. I could be invited to a dinner to which I went under my wife’s banner; but I couldn’t be admitted to a club where I should stand on my merit as a man. The distinction was galling.

EQUALLY so I found my position with regard to Colonel Stroud. He made himself our social protector, filling in what might be considered unoccupied ground and defending anything open to attack. He did this even in our own house. Without usurping my place as host he fulfilled those duties which a companion performs for an invalid lady, passing the cigars and cigarettes after dinner, and seeing that our guests had their favorite liqueurs. Though our friends came nominally to lunch or dine with Vio and me it seemed in effect to be with Vio and him. Everyone knew apparently that he and she had been on the eve of a romantic act, which my coming back had frustrated. Something was due them therefore in the way of compensation; and considering what I had done they had the public sympathy.

That my mind was chiefly on this situation, however, I cannot truthfully say. I thought of it more than incidentally, and yet not so much as to make it a sole preoccupation. More engrossing than anything personal to myself was the plight of the world and the future immediately before us. With the gathering of the Conference round the table of the Quai d’Orsay the new world of which one of the phases had been war was entering on still another phase even more momentous. To the mere onlooker—supposing oneself to be an onlooker and no more—it would be an exhibition of the grandeur and impotence of man on a scale of spectacular magnificence.

The January of the Armistice will be remembered as a month of dramatic occurrences illustrating the yearnings, passions, and fatalities of the human race with an almost theatrical vividness. In its very first days the old era sighed itself out in the death of Theodore Roosevelt, while on the soil over which the Caesars had ridden in their triumphs a New World citizen and President was hailed as the herald of an epoch altogether new. Almost at the same moment blood was flowing in the streets of Berlin, working up about the middle of the month to the assassination of Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg. The Americans in Paris having secured on one day the right of way for their League of Nations the antiphon of opposition burst forth from Washington on the next.

Events like these, and they were many, were as geysers springing from a cauldron in which the passions and ideals of mankind were seething incoherently. The geysers naturally caught the eye, but if there had been no boiling sea they would not have spouted up. More than the geysers I watched the boiling sea, and that I saw all around me.

That others didn’t see it, or saw it as less ebullient, made no difference to me for the reason that I had been in its depths. Vio didn’t see it; Wolf didn’t see it; Stroud didn’t see it. Of my family only Tom Cantley had vague apprehensions of what he called “labor unrest,” but this he regarded as no more than a whirlpool in an ocean relatively smooth. In Boston generally, as probably throughout the Union, the issue was definite and concrete, expressing itself in the question as to whether America would back a League of Nations or would not. That was the burning topic of debate; but to me it seemed like concentrating on the relative merits of a raft or a lifeboat when the ship is drifting on the rocks. That our whole system of labor, pleasure, religion, finance, and government was in process of transformation I had many reasons for believing; but I couldn’t speak of that without being scouted as a Bolshevist, or laughed down as pessimistic.

I mention these circumstances in order that you may see that nothing personal could be wholly absorbing. His exact social status means little to a man on the deck of a ship that any minute may go down. His chief concern is to save himself and his fellow-passengers, with natural speculation as to the haven they will find when the rescued have scrambled to the

THUS during that month of January I saw myself as the victim of circumstances that mattered less than they might have done had we not been on the eve of well nigh universal change. The life I was leading with Vio was not satisfactory, but even that was not permanent. The thread of flame, I was convinced, had not led me thus far without meaning to lead me farther still, and I counted on that to show me the way. I counted on that not merely in my own affairs but in those of our disintegrating world. We should not be impelled to pull down our present house till the materials were at hand for building up a better one. Vio, Wolf, Stroud, and the bulk of the American people were right in not fearing disaster, though wrong in not anticipating a radical shifting of bases. Their desperate clinging to worn-out phases of existence might be futile; but the futility would become apparent in the ripeness of time. It was not an aspect of the case that troubled me.

What did trouble me was Vio’s relation to Stroud. It troubled me the more for the reason that in proportion as the vapors cleared from my intelligence I saw myself with my old rights as her husband. The old passion was back with me, with the old longings and claims, even though she disregarded them. According to the judgment I was beginning to form she disregarded them the more for seeing that her efforts to re-establish me in Boston hadn’t been successful. As far as she could positively carry me I went; but I could cover no ground by myself. The minute I was alone I was let alone, simply, courteously, but unanimously dropped. It was the sort of general action it is useless to reason with or fight against; and Vio saw it. There came a day when I drew the conclusion that she was giving up the struggle, and that the offer I had meant to make on the first afternoon of my return would be accepted if renewed. I was not sure; she was not communicative; and the signs were all too obscure to give me more than a vacillating sense of guidance. My general impression was that she didn’t know the way she was taking, while Stroud was sure of it. As an adroit player of a game of which she didn’t know the elementary principles he was leading her on to a point at which she would have to acknowledge herself beaten.

This, in the main, I could only stand by and watch, because I was under a cloud. It was a cloud that settled on me heavier and blacker as January passed and February came in. The world-seething had its counterpart in the seething within myself. There were days when my inner anguish was not less frenzied than that of Germany or Russia, in spite of my outward calm. I was still following Vio from house to house, with Stroud as our guide or showman; but the conviction was growing that I must soon have done with it. Not a day nor an hour but seared my consciousness with the fact that he was the man whom Vio loved.

“This is not a life,” I began to tell myself bitterly.

It became my favorite comment. I made it when I got up in the morning, and when I went to bed at night. I made it when Vio and I engaged in polite conversation, and when she informed me of our engagements for the day. I made it when I entered other people’s drawing-rooms, and when other people entered ours. A life was a reality; a life was work; a life involved above all what Mildred Averill called production. When one didn’t produce there was no place for one. There was no place for me here. With Pelly, Bridget, and the Finn I had touched the genuine, the foundational; in lugging carpets I had done work of which the usefulness was in no wise diminished by the fact that any other man could have done it just as well. In my room with the fungi, on my eighteen dollars a week, I had slept soundly and lived complacently, in harmony with whatever was basic and elemental. It began to dawn in me as a hope that perhaps the windings of the thread of flame would lead me back to what was a life, with a new appreciation of its value.

And then one day when I was on the stairs of our own house, coming down from the third to the second storey, I saw Lydia Blair standing on the landing, outside of Vio’s door. Boosey was beside her, and she was taking a parcel from his hands.

“Hello, kid,” she said, nodding in my direction. “Thought I should see you round here some day. Wonder I didn’t do it before.” She addressed Boosey, with another nod toward me. “He and me were at school together. Weren’t we?” she continued, with her enchanting smile, as I reached the lowest step.

“Yes,” I managed to gasp; “the school of adversity.”

To be Continued