Art may be vital but there are things in Nature more vital still
LESLIE GORDON BARNARD
IT WAS on a Saturday afternoon that I ran into Lawrence Ashcroft on the street. He was hurrying along with that slightly bookish stoop to his shoulders that would be more pronounced if we, who were his intimates, had left him still more to his reading and writing, instead of insisting on occasional periods of recreation away from the city and his customary circles. For the holiday before last, I had been responsible—a glorious two months in northern Quebec; now, I remembered, with a slight inward uneasiness, but an outward smile, that he must have been back some time from his European honeymoon.
“The Art Gallery!” he replied, rather crisply, I thought, in answer to my question as to his immediate destination.
“Does Marie-Louise take kindly to the artistic life?” I asked him. I could have bitten my tongue out after it was said. His eyes shot to mine. He replied, quickly enough, parrying it with a smile: “One cannot expect everything! I take her to all the exhibitions!”
A great desire came upon me to see again the little rosecheeked Marie-Louise of our glorious Laurentian days. I hinted something of the kind. Perhaps he thought his non-committal silence would put me off, but it only increased my obstinacy, and I fell into step beside him, wittingly blind to any decencies involved. His slight stoop seemed to increase, as if I had, by my company, put an added burden on his shoulders. As we approached the broad steps of the gallery, he swung upon me.
“Look here,” he said, “ “you think I’m meeting MarieLouise. I’m not! It’s just—a friend. I’m sorry, old chap, but—”
He smiled again in dismissal. In a moment, I should have left him, but, suddenly, the smile on his face died and suffered a curious resurrection. This latter was not for me. I turned instinctively. A slim, autumn creature came gaily up; there was a little stirring of breeze behind her that seemed to carry her lightly to us; I thought of a scarlet leaf dancing in autumn wind and sunshine.
“Both of you!” she cried, offering a hand to each of us, but letting mine drop first.
“Mrs. Holling!” I cried, with due deference to the bridal state of one who was Patricia Ward.
“Pat to my friends, please!” she chided. “Come along, Lorry—I’m just famished to see some pictures with you!” Ashcroft hesitated, his eyes on me with an evasion natural, perhaps, in a newly-married man about to escort through the gallery a newly-married woman, and embarrassed by the unexpected presence of a mutual friend who knew how, having been as good as engaged, they had gone their respective ways and married elsewhere . . .
“You’ll come with us, of course!” suggested Ashcroft briefly, explaining to Patricia that I had thought of accompanying him.
“Of course!” she agreed, readily enough, but her eyes shot fire that her pretty lids were not quick enough to cover. With an impulsive movement she put a hand on Ashcroft’s arm; it was a possessive gesture. Remembering Marie-Louise, I felt suddenly chill. The high interior of the gallery was like a mausoleum after the brilliant sunshine of the street.
TT WAS not my purpose to force my society upon them, * even if my obstinacy had brought me this far. To do so, I felt, would be a disservice to our little MarieLouise. I became, ostensibly, interested in a group of paintings, and left them to their own devices. The real fact was that my mental chaos cast a blur over the pictures, and only gradually did they come into focus. And, there again, I must amend my statement, for it was one small thing in oils that had, almost subconsciously, attracted me, and that now held me to the exclusion of all others. ‘Spring in the Laurentians’ it was called, though I did not need the catalogue to tell me that. A simple enough composition: a French-Canadian house of the better sort, a thing of honest stone and broad mortar, of casements below and dormer windows above, unspoiled by any of the modern gew-gaws that a more flimsy and ornate and superficial taste has introduced. Set on a slight rise, the land sloped away from it in curious convolutions of brown earth, with snow in white patches, still, and, working through it all, a faint, ethereal green, so elusive yet so pervasive one caught one’s breath. This spring patchwork melted into soft haze at the foot of the low, encircling hills that formed the background. In the foreground, the April sun had stirred the little farmyard into activity; some hardy fowls scratched in the uncovered mud and straw, a few ducks waddled toward a muddy colored stream that ran in a depression to the
right, a tiny stream but grown big with spring and flooding the roots and lower trunks of a thin growth of trees on its banks—young poplars and one or two sugar maples, to catch whose sap cans were hung. As yet, the branches were bare, but some cloudy promise hung over and about them, and, as one looked, faint life seemed to stir, and one felt again that sense of an all-pervasive green . . .
I knew at once it was Brymner’s; nobody but Brymner could have done the subtle thing, and I remembered he was to have gone up the week-end and after we left. For this was the house of Paul Choquette, and one required little imagination to fancy that the figure, barely suggested in the doorway, was that of Marie-Louise herself. It induced in me a curious sensation, not wholly painful; I cared to see no other painting than this; I sat down on the leather-covered couch opposite and remained drinking it in . . . living, again, those holidays at St. Lemaire in the hills—those winter days with long, woodsy tramps,
while the surface remained unbroken save by our snowshoes, and then the sudden breakup of spring, the real ecstacy of seeing the first brown earth where a wheel of old Paul’s wagon rutted through, of hearing the gurgle of running water under the thinning ice of the stream, the cawing promise of a crow high up in the April sky, of watching the comradeship of my friend Ashcroft and little Marie-Louise, caught in the toils of spring themselves, their love affair as delicate and subtle as that pervasive green of Brymner’s picture. Mixed with it, was a fear, on my part, of heartbreak for MarieLouise, if this should pass and come to nothing, forgetting that a man, in a case like Lorry’s, may be caught on the rebound, and held ... at least as long as spring is in the air. Perhaps, I was a fool not to think further, not to consider the greater heartbreak that might follow any more permanent attachment.
His poetry was mixed up in it too. You may have read ‘Spring Hillsides’, by Lawrence Ashcroft? It was at St. Lemaire that he wrote the greater part of it—to me the finest thing he has done, for it smells of the soil, and touches the humanities, though he regards it more lightly. He used to read the stuff to Marie-Louise, whose English, for she was convent-bred for several formative years, is good.
Sitting there, I could picture the interior: the little ‘front-parlor’ especially opened for us; the window wide to admit the sweet spring air; Ashcroft sunk back in a deep horsehair-upholstered chair; Marie-Louise curled up, like a happy kitten, on an ancient sofa; and Ashcroft reading:
‘The crooked road that runs beside the b arn Is putting ÖD a garb of ragged brown—'
at which Marie-Louise would sigh happily, shaking her head that he should think of that which she had seen each year when spring came round; or again:
‘My window, growing weary of the white Of winter’s onslaughts, now rejoices in The slow, soft pulse of Spring that beats itself Against the panes in cloudy tints of green’—
when she would cry, her voice breaking a little, and her eyes eager almost to tears: “Oh, m’sieu! Oh, m’sieu!”
I thought then: “She will do! She understands!”— forgetting, of course, how Ashcroft had always said: “When I want real criticism I have to go to Pat for it. She’s not just gush and emotion—there’s a lot of solid in intellect and judgment to anchor it!”
But it was Spring, then, at the home of Marie-Louise,
at St. Lemaire in the hills. And he seemed well satisfied that she should cry in that eager, broken way of hers: “Oh, m’sieu! Oh, m’sieu!”
FTEN, during the winter that followed my autumn meeting with Lawrence Ashcroft and ' Patricia Holling at the Art Gallery, I thought of how they came upon me as I still sat there engrossed in Brymner’s picture.
“There’s a go, thing!” cried Pat, with her quick little way of forming as uri d opinions.
“Yes,” agreed Loiry gravely. “It’s good!”
His eyes, as if they could not help themselves, flashed to mine. How can I express the thing I saw in them? The most precious things of life are often the most elusive; to put finger on them is to lose them. What was it? I do not know. Something as haunting as that cloudy spring of which he wrote; more elusive, for Brymner managed to catch that with his brush. It was gone like a shimmering bubble touched by the eager finger of a child, for I tried, almost with anguish, to seize it, as if indeed I might hand it to Marie-Louise—a shred of happiness perhaps—but as I reached it, it disappeared.
“Better come along with us to tea!” Lorry said, and like a fool I went. Marie-Louise, tremblingly happy over putting her wedding tea-service and china of undreamt-of daintiness to use, and childishly clumsy at her task, poured for us and served us. - She was so glad, so glad to
have Madame Holling. Also, to have me, "comrade of happy, happy days,” she whispered in my ear, proud of the felicity of her English phrase! Patricia sat there, deep in a corner of the chesterfield, where the lampglow could burnish her red-gold hair to advantage, accepting the girl’s ministrations with sweet and dainty graciousness, her fingers like delicately painted ivory against the honest red, still showing on those of Marie-Louise, from her days of labor on the farm. Occasionally, at some trifling gaucherie of the girl’s, she would smile quickly at Lorry, her head a little on one side, as if to say‘ “But how quaint, my dear!” Ashcroft would fidget, and I found myself hating the crinkles about Pat’s keenly observant eyes.
Afterwards, while the two were busy over the reviews of a new book, I got Marie-Louise aside, asking how she liked married life.
Her eyes were like stars; tears welled up. “You will think me so silly,” she said, “but that is how it is with me —and him! He is so wonderful to me, m’sieu. One cannot speak of it.” She shook the tears brightly from her. “Oh, I can see how greatly he must have cared when there were —others—such as she. Others who are not—” She laughed gently. “But there, he will not have me say that I am, after all—just ordinary!”
No, I could understand that he would not. There are thoughts that will not bear expression in wordsl
“Besides,” agreed Marie-Louise, her big eyes gravely upon me, “it would be very terrible—would it not?—to be—just ordinary—to one’s beloved!”
NOT once, during that first winter of her married life, did Marie-Louise express, in words, any uneasiness or mistrust of her man. And I doubt if any was in her simple heart. She had exalted him to a pinnacle, and what he did up there, being right in his eyes, was right in hers. In some ways, this was the very worst attitude she could have taken. Especially, did her mention of his work irritate him, I could see. She had a way, when guests were in, for instance, of speaking with a certain awed breathlessness about it. Anything he wrote was wonderful in her eyes. And Ashcroft, more than at her incompetence of judgment, her lack of the finer discrimination in literary matters, was annoyed at such candor in circles accustomed to pose a little about the things they created.
When I say guests, I mean those occasional enlargements of his literary circle; ordinarily it was to Patricia Holling that he turned. You would think, sometimes, that it was her house, not Marie-Louise’s, the cool way she had of making herself at home. Holling himself had turned out no good at all. We heard of him in Europe— ostensibly on a business trip, but word drifted back of some entanglement in Paris. In justice to Ashcroft, it was I who, long before he had any inkling I believe, became aware of the subtle, desperate game Pat was playing for happiness. She was intensely modern, of course, and superior to old-fashioned ideas of marriage. Old Lorry and she both had made a ghastly mess of the business, and the sensible thing was to recognize it and retrieve the future. I wasn’t supposed to hear that. She chose an unfortunate time to be confidential with a woman friend; she caught my eye as I passed, saw I had heard, and flashed a quick defiance at me.
We met at tea next Saturday, at Ashcroft’s. He had just received advance copies from his publisher of a new edition of some of his ‘Collected Poems,’ and demanded the communion of a fellow artist in celebration.
I can imagine the tiger gleam in Pat’s eyes when I was announced that afternoon!
However, I left them to their rapt consideration of the new volume. Marie-Louise was coming from the kitchens, after some instructions to the maid—always an embarrassment to her who had been accustomed to all menial work —and I halted her in the hall. She drew me over to a corner where, through leaded panes, the sunshine of late afternoon was touching a plain black vase, from whose dark mouth a bundle of pussy-willows lifted themselves.
“This morning,” she informed me, “the baker’s boy brought them! He and I have such great talks! He also is from the country!” She was wearing a simple black dress; the sleeve fell back displaying a white arm as she reached up to stroke the gray, silky things. I thought: ‘She, too, is Spring in a black vase!’ She said: “You will hardly believe it, but I cried over them. Yes, like a great big baby, I cried!” Her eyes were brimming now, but with ecstacy. “Such a secret to tell you,” she confided. “Oh, my dear friend, how could I do without springtime in the country? But my dearest promised me, all winter he has promised me, we should go—as soon as spring breaks, and the sap is running, and the stream is waking, and the silly fowls are cackling their heads off! It is to be our second honeymoon, m’sieu!” She broke off. “Oh, dear! The tea has gone in and I am not there! Come along!”
We entered the living room, where a cheerful fire burned, and soft lights were agleam against the orange glow of the window. Patricia Holling, regal and composed in a rather audacious gown of jade green, was calmly
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pouring tea from Marie-Louise’s wedding silver teapot into Marie-Louise’s best wedding china! Through much travail, Marie-Louise had learned to perform this office with distinction: she was immensely proud of it. Ashcroft knew that, had himself praised her. It was a little thing, perhaps, but I heard Marie-Louise catch her breath, to see the girl there pouring tea as if she were the mistress. “Lorry was famished,” Pat explained coolly, “so we went ahead. How do you take yours, Mrs. Ashcroft?”
Poor Marie-Louise crimsoned; stumbled over words. I don’t believe she knew how she took her tea. It was always her delight to serve others; her own cup she filled mechanically if at all. “Mrs. Holling spoke to you!” said Ashcroft sharply. “Cream and two lumps, isn’t it?”
She nodded quickly. If he had said four lumps and no cream, she would have known no difference. Irritation showed in his eyes that his wife should appear so stupid before his guests; I rose and transferred the cup from Patricia to MarieLouise, drawing a small console-table near enough to her elbow to set the thing. Her hands were beyond the power of holding it, I felt.
You know how a little thing like that can create a most fearful abyss of silence, and how one is apt to topple unwise words into it;
“I was admiring the pussy-willows in the hall,” I began. “By jove, they make you feel the winter’s broken at last! I’d like to be going up with you to the old spot, Lorry!”
Pat’s eyes flashed up, to me and then to him.
“St. Lemaire,” said Ashcroft shortly. “Marie-Louise’s home. She hasn’t been home, you know, since we were married!”
Patricia nibbled at her toast.
“When did you say?”
“April!” nodded Marie-Louise eagerly, childishly snatched from her depths by this turn of conversation, and the joy of anticipation.
“April?” Pat turned to Ashcroft, brows puckered. “Oh, Lorry! How could you plan that—when you know my recitals are to be then?”
“But I didn’t know they were coming off that soon!”
“Well—they are!” She bit decisively into her toast. I knew, intuitively, that she had decided on the dates definitely at that moment. Marie-Louise looked small and frightened, forgetting to eat or drink, not understanding the subtleties of polite composure. Ashcroft did not look up from his cup. “We’ll have to see about it,” he said, non-committally, but I heard the quick intake of Marie-Louise’s breath.
The anger that blazed in me found vent when Marie-Louise accompanied the visitor to get her wraps. I suppose I spoke more harshly than I had business to, or than was wise. Ashcroft, as if fearing we might be overheard, drew me into the music-room adjoining. He listened silently; somewhere, a telephone was ringing and I wondered if it was to that rather than to me he was giving attention. But when I stopped, he swung upon me: “If it was anyone but you, old chap, I’d call you a damned meddler. You don’t understand—about Pat. She’s vital to my work!” He paced up and down twice. “I’ve got to have that sympathetic and yet critical understanding. You can’t just understand, of course!” I tried to stop him then, for a mirror behind him, which he could not see, showed me the door into the hall, and Marie-Louise approaching. He waved aside my words. "With Marie-Louise it’s awful—awful! Everything I do is good—as if I were a god creating—she doesn’t understand the first thing, the first thing in a critical sense. I tell you Pat is vital to me!”
It was then that he saw for himself what the mirror had betrayed to me: Marie-Louise trying now to escape from the doorway.
He called out: “What is it?”
“The telephone—for you!” she said. How she managed the words I do not know, nor where, for the moment, she disappeared to.
DATRICIA was in the living room, her outer wraps on, waiting. I had no desire for conversation, and halted at the entrance from the music-room. Ashcroft’s footfall sounded. He entered by the other door. She went swiftly to him.
“Lorry, you haven’t promised!” “What?”
He stood for a moment, stroking his face thoughtfully. She drew nearer.
“Lorry—don’t you care—enough for me—to do this much for me?”
When he answered, he said: “The kid would be so disappointed. She’s such a child that way!”
Pat drew her furs impatiently about her. She moved toward the table where the new edition of his poems lay, and picked it up. She looked up in her quick little way.
“Do you think it’s fair, Lorry? When we have our work to think about? I’ve tried to give you the best I had!”
He took the thin volume from her, fingering it. Eavesdropper though I was, I held to my place. The telephone rang again. Marie-Louise called him. He set the book down decisively.
“You’re right, Pat!” he said. “I’ll have to manage it some way!” He excused himself. She lifted the volume thoughtfully; her face being toward me and in the glow from the shaded light, I could see the nervous twitching of her lips. Her victory seemed bitter to her.
“Damn his old work!” she flared, and flung the book from her to the floor.
Ashcroft, returning, said from the doorway: “Meriden calling. You re-
member Meriden, chap who works in oils in the Japanese style? I’m going down to his hotel, and I’ll drop you anywhere you say!” She glanced quickly at the book o.i the floor, which he could not see, hesitated, caught her wraps about her, and went out with him. That was Ashcroft all over, forgetting any duty as host when something concerning art was afoot.
I was about to go and get my own things on, when I saw Marie-Louise slip into the room. She halted, then ran forward with a little cry, and picked up the fallen volume, smoothing, with infinite care, one page which had turned under. She kissed the thin volume, caught it to her breast almost crooningly, as if it were a child and hurt at this treatment. I coughed then, embarrassedly. She glanced up and saw me. There was a quite peculiar calmness about the way she said: “I do not understand —no, not as she! But I love—I love every word, every comma, because it is his!” She sprang up and came to me swiftly. “You must not tell him, m’sieu, what she did! To him, you understand, she is—how is it you say that which I am not?—vital?”
The broken sound of that last word tore at me. I think I looked away from the tragedy of her young face. I know that when I turned again, she had gone. The thin volume of Ashcroft’s poems, a new edition but containing much of his old work, lay in its place on the table. I went and picked it up. It opened, naturally, at the place where the page had been crushed by the fall. A curious wet blot had fallen upon the page.
lV/f ARIE-LOUISE made no complaint -‘A-*at all. Her manner to him did not change, unless indeed it was in a refinement of her watchfulness for his comfort, and a quietness above the ordinary.
Ashcroft, himself, was ousy aDout a new creative idea that enthused him enormously; and he noticed nothing, for he has since confessed as much to me, as he has told me quite frankly the part of his story to which I now must come. The utter tragedy in his eyes as he said: “Old man, it makes me think of some poor little animal that, being hurt, licks the hand of its owner but crawls away to suffer in solitude!” prevented me from amending his statement to do justice to a certain high pride that was also Marie-Louise’s. He did not notice that the black vase in the corner no longer held the slim, graytipped pussy-willows in its mouth. But her bedroom window gave upon the back area fringed with poplars, and their pollarded branches, that she could not put away, must have mocked her daily with their cloudy green. He was lost in his creation. He would work away at it, and, three afternoons or more a week, Pat would come, and they would go over what he had done. Between times he often telephoned her. Sometimes they would vary it by meeting downtown over the lunch table.
Holling had been back from Europe, and raised some sort of a scene; I don’t know the details, but they were useful to Patricia in dealing with a man like Lorry who was not to be browbeaten by a wastrel, and who scorned tea-table gossip. Holling did something else before returning to his Parisian widow—for so we understood her to be. He made it clear to Pat he wanted a divorce, and quickly. You may imagine the triumph of that for her; the zest it gave to her game with Lorry. And he, poor dupe, was too full of his creative fire, and too thrilled by her unstinted, but careful and immensely clever criticism, to understand what, really, she was after.
I believe he was too engrossed to notice the harrassed look that began to grow upon Patricia Holling. Partly, of course, it was the consummating of plans for her recitals, the first of which, now that March had blown itself out, was due in less than a week. “Pat,” he would say, realizing, at least, this much, “I can never forget what you’re doing for me, when you’re so confoundedly busy yourself!”
“You can do one thing!” she told him. “Bring me back here after the first of the beastly things is over. I’m all keyed up and fagged out after ’em, and I simply must have someone like you to talk to!”
The recital was a tremendous success. “By jove,” Ashcroft said in my ear, chancing upon me in the aisle as he went up toward the platform afterwards, “there’s an artist for you!”
She was tremendously fatigued by it. In the taxi, she lay back, her shoulder companionably against his; he was filled now with compunctions, and expressed himself. “You’ve been overdoing it! You shouldn’t have bothered with my stuff, Pat!”
She smiled, shaking her head. When they got home Ashcroft had Marie-Louise brew some strong coffee, the maid already having retired. Patricia put a hand on his wrist while the girl was making preparations.
“Just ourselves, Lorry, dear! Just you and me. I can’t stand—anyone— to-night!”
That was easy enough, of course. Marie-Louise quite understood that they were vital to each other’s art, and had learned self-effacement. I gather that the creative artist in Patricia did a quite tremendous thing then, with the stage cleared that way. It almost got Ashcroft; he has told me so since. Holling was out of the way now for good, apparently; not that it mattered, of course, but there it was. And they were made for each other. The touchstone of their art was too great to overthrow. I am putting it very badly; she did it with consummate finesse. She made it all so extremely logical, and modern, and sensible, and through her logic, she shot the golden darts of her femininity. They were both in a sensitive,
exalted mood after the recital—in a world, almost, of unreality. The room was soft with lights, heavy with the fragrance of narcissi and hyacinths. His latest manuscript lay on the table; she held it as she spoke, fondling it possessively.
He was pacing the room. Rising from the chesterfield where she had been half reclining, she went quickly to him.
“Lorry, I need you! I’ve no one but you! And, oh, I’m so tired, so tired!”
She staggered slightly; thinking her faint, he put a hand out to steady her; she clung to him fiercely. Her voice, perhaps, had been raised a little too high; Marie-Louise, thinking something was amiss, appeared in the entrance. She was gone again in a minute, so that Ashcroft whose face was turned toward her, was not sure if his imagination or his eyes had played him false. But, it was sufficient to restore to him his underlying whôlesome good sense. And that it was which saved him. He almost lifted her to the sofa.
“You’re overwrought, Pat!” His voice was very gentle. “We’re neither of us quite normal to-night.” He tried to laugh. “My manuscript and your old recital, you know. We’ve been too close to it. To-morrow, we’ll recover our perspective and see things normally again. It’s our work that draws us together, our common interest in creative art. Nothing else!”
She knew, of course, she was beaten for this time. She managed a smile as she asked him, like an old dear, to call a taxi.
A/Ï ARIE-LOUISE had fled to her room -*-*-*■ upstairs. She remembered, after a while, that she had left a light under the coffee. She went down again. Ashcroft was standing in the hall, hands deep in his pockets. He had just telephoned for the taxi. He did not turn to look at her. It was that, I think, that broke her finally: as if she were but a servant in the house of her beloved. She groped her way, blinded with tears, to the kitchen, and shut off the gas under the coffee. She piled up the few dishes and pots ready for washing; winning composure through this, and, thinking Patricia Holling had gone, she returned to the living room for the rest, knowing., only, that she must keep going or some terrible thing would happen inside her. She went by way of the music room, to escape Lorry’s attention, now.
Stepping inside the living room, she came to a sudden halt. Patricia Holling was there still! She did not hear nor see Marie-Louise. She was standing before the fire, and the light of it shone up on her evening gown, on her white, wonderful shoulders, on her red-gold hair with its coronet of pearls and diamonds. A little choking sob welled up in Marie-Louise. Never, never, could she be wonderful like this! Patricia was smoking a cigarette; that, Marie-Louise did not like, but refrained from criticism, as it was of a world she did not understand, and could never enter.
Patricia Holling tossed the cigarette into the fire, with a quick motion. She caught up the unfinished manuscript, that new creative work of Ashcroft’s, and glanced quickly through it again. A curious struggle was reflected in her piquant face; Marie-Louise watched in fascination. Then quickly Pat tore the precious thing, with the close, distinctive writing of Lorry upon it, rending it viciously in two. She hesitated, glanced at the fire. Marie-Louise stood stunned. She could not quite understand even when words began to spill fiercely from the lips of the girl by the fire.
“His work! It’s that. His work—not me, not me! I hate it. Oh, I hate it!”
She started to crumple the fragments, her gaze again upon the flames; that it was, which touched the spring in MarieLouise, enabling her to run forward with a cry of:
“Oh, no! Oh, no! Stop!”
The torn pages cascaded to the floor. Pat turned and went swiftly from the
room. Ashworth, unseeing and unhearing in the hallway, felt her hand on his shoulder.
“I thought I heard the car, Lorry! Oh, there it is now! You’ve been a dear to me—the flowers and everything!” She tapped his wrist; her laugh showed that she was still overwrought, he decided. “You mustn’t do too much of that kind of thing, Lorry . . . the Latin mind might not understand such—comradeship!”
He was immensely relieved at the word. There they were, on sensible terms again.
“Oh, Marie-Louise you mean,” he said. “My dear Pat, she quite understands how vital you are to my work. Thank God, she’s not the jealous kind!” He called after her: “You’ll not fail me when I get the next part completed? Good! I’ll’phoneyou!”
He went, whistling now, to fetch his cigarettes from the living room. He determined to work awhile on his manuscript while the ‘feel’ of it was upon him. After his manner, he thrust from him the idea that Marie-Louise had seen the incident of a few moments ago. Probably, just his fancy.
He stopped short. A frightened little figure, white-faced, knelt by the hearth, her hands full of torn pieces of his manuscript. She caught them to her, staring at him. He towered menacingly over her, shocked and stunned at the desecration.
“You—little—beast!” Ashcroft is not certain if that is the word he used; he fears it is; he was too upset to notice or to guard his speech.
Marie-Louise looked up at him again, as if uncertain of her hearing. Then, she stared at the pieces of torn paper in her hands, pieces she had been lovingly smoothing out, pieces she had been kissing because even his writing was dear, though alienation had come and she was no longer anything but a servant in his house. The pieces fluttered to the floor. She got up, and crept away from the awful look in his eyes. She must bear that; she must take the reproach; for was not the other who has done this—how would one say it?—‘vital to him?’
ASHCROFT sent for me first thing in the morning.
“She’s going home,” he told me, grayly, after he had given me the gist of the matter. “I don’t know that I should blame her so much. It’ll be better for her to get away, for a while at least. She was cut up, of course, at our not getting to St. Lemaire for the month, and then—I can’t be sure—but I fancy she saw us—that way!” He was enormously frank about it. “It’s a ghastly mess, old man,” he said. “I can’t tell you how I felt, seeing her there, with the torn manuscript, you know. There’s something—I can’t just express it—some virtue gone from life. It’s not a thing you can put your finger upon!”
My mind snapped back to that afternoon at the Art Gallery, and Brymner’s picture, and the elusive, haunting thing I’d seen in his eyes that retreated from me as I reached for it.
“I didn’t see it before,” he went on, “it was one of the things one accepted, like light and air. Once, old man, I was passing that vase there in the corner—the black one. She’d stuck those pussywillows in it, and I thought: ‘By jove, that’s Marie-Louise—that’s Spring!’ Another time, it was that white hyacinth on the sill there. You won’t understand, of course. I don’t myself. But there it is. And there’s that bit of a thing I wrote at St. Lemaire—I believe, subconsciously, I was writing of her. Y ou remember it:
“ ‘My window, growing weary of the white
Of winter’s onslaughts, now rejoices in
The slow, soft pulse of Spring that beats itself
Against the panes in cloudy tints of green.’
Old man, the pulse is gone. I never felt a springlike that spring. I didn’t—credit it—to Marie-Louise—that wayl”
“It’s not too late!’’ I said.
He shook his head.
“She’s not Spring now,” he said, gravely. “She’s Winter now. That’s my doing. Spring beat itself to death against my window. I didn’t understand—I didn’t open in time!”
The telephone rang, presently, as we sat there in silence. He roused himself to answer it. I heard his returning step at last. I saw, by his eyes, his whole demeanor, that something was up.
“It was she!” he said, jerkily, after a moment. “Pat, I mean! To apologize! Overfatigued last night, didn’t know what she was doing, what would I think of her? —that kind of thing. I didn’t understand at first!” He began pacing the floor, wringing one hand curiously with the other. Then his finger sprang at me, leading his words: “Why didn’t MarieLouise say? Why didn’t she tell me?”
My intuition leaped to it.
“Perhaps she cared too much,” I said, a little scorn creeping into my voice. “Perhaps she would not snap a link that was so—vital—to you!”
Ashcroft was shaking all over. He was utterly broken, and any anger I had for him, any scorn for his blindness, died in that moment.
He went over and touched the white hyacinth with his lips.
“Marie-Louise!” I heard him say. “Marie-Louise!” And then, thickly: “Open that window, will you? I’m suffocating.” I obeyed. He drew in great breaths. “By George,” he said, “that’s good!”
“It’s Spring!” I told him. “Tt’s just Spring, old man!”