The Be-Still Tree
The story of a woman in search of romance who found that a safe haven is better than a dangerous paradise
CLARA WALLACE OVERTON
AFTER she had dressed for dinner Anne Wilson wrote out a cablegram to Hugh, her husband. Because of the difference in time, she thought of sending it to his office, but she decided against that and addressed it to their house in the suburbs. With her friends, Natalie and Bob Green, she had arrived at the Island late this afternoon. Now she wrote without hesitation: “Everything Enchanting Wish You Were Here Love Anne.” She read it over, then slowly tore it across. The amended message read: “Everything Enchanting Love Anne.”
She folded the slip of paper and put it in her white evening bag. She was ready to go down for dinner whenever Natalie called. In the eight years of her married life she had seldom kept Hugh waiting; every evening she was at the station promptly. A little restlessly now she walked toward the windows of her room, the fan-pleated white evening dress moving with the lovely rhythm she gave it. It was a new dress and she had been pleased with it, although she had no word for the drama it made with her dark hair and black-fringed grey eyes. Before she left home she had tried it on to show Hugh.
“Pretty,” he said as he had looked up briefly from the paper.
Their marriage was set in the firm mold of routine by now. It was orderly and standard except that as yet they had no children. She had never spoken to Hugh about adopting a child. Perhaps she might do so when she went home. Standing by the windows that overlooked the tropical gardens of the hotel, she thought about her home. They could give a child a pleasantly safe background. A good life. Anne had the sense to know it was a good life. She was a fortunate woman. She made friends and kept them. She had made friends for Hugh, a good list of them. Some of them, like Natalie and Bob, were wealthy, and Hugh’s law firm had profited by the association. Plugh had taken on more and more in the firm. He was no longer in love with her, but he was a faithful busy husband. Indifferently indulgent. “Why don’t you go on the trip with the Greens? I’ll be tied up on this Johnson case for a month at least...”
She had taken shorter vacations without him, and she had the impression that everything went on as satisfactorily for Hugh when she was away. When she went home they merely doubled back into their usual habits. Anne had learned not to bother Hugh with domestic detail, not to bore him with the recital of her days. She had become self-contained, but the beauty of the island as she had seen it on arrival this afternoon was threatening to selfcontainment, grew more threatening with twilight.
Outside her windows the wall of the pink stucco hotel burned coral in the last of the daylight, while beyond, fireflies of lights began to wink in the dark green of the low hills. The sea was on the other side of the hotel, but Anne did not miss it. She was captivated by the lush perfumed garden beneath her windows, by its crimson unabashed blossoms. Evening flowed in as she stood there, but the garden remained unsubdued. Rather its scent stirred and moved deliciously on the light air. No one ought to come here who isn’t in love, thought Anne.
She was glad for Natalie’s knock on the door. Natalie was somewhat older than Anne. She was not beautiful, but her cleanly brushed blond looks stood out with distinguished simplicity. lier pale blue dinner dress was almost as tailored as her golf shirts, but the short fur coat on her arm was sable. She threw it carelessly at the bed. “Bob’s gone on down,” she said. “Stuart Ellsworth called our room a half hour ago. He was full of apologies for not meeting the boat. Bob asked him to stay for dinner u'ith us, but he couldn’t do that tonight, so Bob went on down with him. We’re probably missing a lot of old college reunion stuff.”
“How long has he lived out here?” Anne asked.
“Oh, quite a while. Ten years perhaps. Bob says he owns a cannery.”
“Perhaps he knows Valerie Simmons,” said Anne. “I’ve been wondering if by any chance she is still here. I had one letter after her husband died. 1 answered that, but I never heard anything more from her.”
"Oh, did he die out here?” asked Natalie.
“Yes. He was an army officer. They had been out just a few months when it happened—pneumonia. I wrote asking Valerie to visit us and she said that she would, but as far as I know she never came back. 1 would love to see her.”
“That’s the girl whose picture you have on your desk?”
“Yes. It doesn’t do her justice. She was lovely. All the men were crazy about her. She had hair the color of champagne.”
“Fragile-looking girl, rather tense, I should say,” observed Natalie from her memory of a picture.
"She was the most fastidious person—” Anne began, but the telephone cut her off. It was Bob Green and he wanted to know if they were ready to come down. Stuart Ellsworth was waiting to speak to them.
IN THE elevator a smiling native boy greeted them politely. “Good evening, Mrs. Green. Good evening, Mrs. Wilson.”
“How did he know our names?” Anne enquired of Natalie as they walked down the long palm-lined promenade of the hotel.
“That’s part of the system. It shows up on the bill later.”
“It’s charming anyway—all of it. I’m in love with it.” “You ought to play more golf,” said Natalie. “I don’t want you to be lonely all day.”
“I won’t be,” Anne assured her. Besides she might find Valerie.
"There they are,” said Natalie of her husband and Stuart Ellsworth.
Anne appraised the slight, well-built, very dark man during the exchange of greeting. He was permanently sunburned, permanently at ease, she decided, with a fluid attention to all that went on around him. His eyes were dark and alert. Unreadable. He had been at one of the other islands for a few days, he told them, had returned too late this afternoon to meet their boat, and he seemed genuinely sorry that he couldn’t spend the evening with them. They must all come to his house for luncheon tomorrow. He would send the car.
He had an effortless charm and consideration of manner that circled them all. Once, later, he told Anne that he had seen no one but her in that fifteen minutes of conversation, but at the time she felt herself to be only one of a group of delightful people whose arrival had given Stuart Ellsworth a great deal of pleasure. The warmth of his invitation stayed with them as they finally sat down for dinner in the dining room that seemed to have enclosed part of the garden. There were other people whom they had met on the boat stopping to speak to them, and it was not until they were having coffee in the lounge that Anne remembered she hadn’t enquired about Valerie Simmons. She was sure that Stuart Ellsworth would know of her, for even in the short time he had spent with them it was evident that he knew everyone out here.
“Get your cablegram off to Hugh?” enquired Bob Green paternally.
Anne opened the white evening bag in a little confusion. “I wrote it out, but I forgot to leave it at the desk,” she said.
“Nice wife,” said Bob teasingly. “He will probably be sound asleep when they deliver this to him.”
“Hugh will be awake,” Anne told him confidently. “Since he’s been working on this Johnson case he is up most of the night.”
“Hugh needs a vacation too.” said Natalie definitely. “He should have come along. That would have made the trip perfect.”
“He is tired,” admitted Anne. Now that she was away from him she could somehow see him more clearly as he had looked these past months. Thinner, older, strained. The senior partner of the law firm had been ill, and that had meant more responsibility for Hugh. Night after night at home he had shut himself up in his study to work, and
Anne had gone out to play bridge without him. There were no quarrels, no sarcasms, no hurts. But a kind of weariness was woven between them, a web of it that would not support the old habit of confidence and endearments. It had troubled Anne, but now on this luxuriously languid evening she reviewed it dispassionately. Married people fell out of love and went along from force of habit unless one of them became interested in someone else. They were not the kind of people to do that.
The inevitable bridge game took her mind away from Hugh for the next two hours, and at bedtime she was so delightfully sleepy that she had but two brief reflections before going to sleep. One was that after a week on the boat it was pleasant to have the bed resting upon a stationary floor, and the other was a determination to find Valerie .Simmons tomorrow if possible.
CHE THOUGHT of asking Stuart Ellsworth about her ^ the next day while they waited for luncheon, but she did not do so immediately because his house had taken possession of them at once. It was high above the sea, a wide low house with terraces dropping away from the satin blue sky. Anne had glimpsed a lavish flower garden from the hall as they came in, but from the lanai where they were sitting stretched a long rectangle of green, cool in the heat of the day.
“I tried to have a green garden once,” said Natalie, “but the gardener put in some red flowers that looked like feather dusters.”
“I don’t know one flower from another,” said Bob Green comfortably. “They all look all right to me.”
Stuart Ellsworth smiled at Anne. “Here in the islands we have so much color that I walled up this little bit of grass. It rests my eyes.”
“But you left the little tree in the corner of the wall,” Anne reminded him. “And it is covered with flowers.” She had been wondering what kind of tree it was, with those ruffled golden blossoms.
“Oh, that,” said Stuart. “It was here when the wall was built and 1 left it, not realizing it was going to throw out flowers so profusely. I think I’ll have it dug out some day.”
“But it is lovely,” murmured Anne.
“It looks like a yellow oleander, although I’ve never seen a yellow oleander. What do you call it, Stuart?” asked Natalie.
“It’s not a real oleander,” he told them. “There is some resemblance to one, but this tree is even more dangerous —the sap is. I don’t know any name for it except the one the natives use. They call it the Be-Still Tree.”
Bob wanted to know what they meant by that. “It isn’t still at all.” he said. “Look at the leaves quiver.” “Perhaps it means they should be still around it,” suggested Natalie. “Sort of a do-not-touch signal.”
Anne looked at the tree with a little wonder. It was hard to believe anything so beautifully gay could be sinister.
“If it’s poison I’d have it out of here,” Natalie went on firmly. “It’s too convenient. If the soufflé falls, the cook might decide to come out here and end it all.”
“One can always get a new cook,” said Stuart. “Poisonous things should be ugly,” Anne spoke suddenly.
No one answered her because the Oriental boy had come to announce luncheon. It was an excellent meal and perfectly served. Anne decided that Stuart Ellsworth, like so many bachelors, ran his household better than most women. And there wasn’t the just too-long delay for coffee afterward that Anne often suffered in her own house. The boy set it on a teakwood table before Stuart almost as soon as they were back on the lanai. Hot, black, and clear, the coffee was surprisingly tonic in the} lassitude of the midday heat. Natalie was aroused to an interest in Stuart’s collection of Chinese porcelain, and she persuaded Bob to go inside to look at it.
“Would you like to see the lower garden?” Stuart suggested to Anne. Together they wandered across the lawn to the steps that led to the terrace below. In the centre of that a fountain splashed over brightly colored tiles. Anne began to wonder why they were content with the somewhat dull efficient beauty of the house she and Hugh had built. She sat down on the rim of the pool, and Stuart sat beside her. He answered her questions about the tiles. There were plenty like them to be had if she was interested.
“But they wouldn’t fit in with our place,” she admitted. “Do you live near Natalie and Bob?”
“Yes. But in a much smaller place.” She smiled at him, liking him suddenly. He was easy to talk to, listened as if he had time, as if he was interested. She described the place a little. “The only garden I have is a flower border that blooms in spots and dies down when company is coming.” “I take it you are not a gardening woman.”
“No. I’m not any special kind of woman I haven’t any particular talents. Sometimes it worries me.”
“I shouldn’t let it.” he told her. “A beautiful woman doesn’t need to worry about her other accomplishments.” Anne flushed a little. She knew as a woman usually does
know when a man has found her attractive. She had been aware of his particular unspoken attention today. Not that he had neglected the others. He was the perfect host. Hugh so often depended on her to carry off the entertaining. “I think everyone should do something,” she said with an earnestness that made the commonplace remark one of her own thoughts.
“So do I—enjoy life,” said Stuart. He smiled into her clear candid eyes.
“That comes from living in such a lovely spot. It is”— she looked around—“the loveliest place I’ve ever seen.”
“I hope you will see a lot of it.”
HIS VOICE was warm, lustrous. The moment itself seemed lustrous to Anne. They had walked back to the higher garden and again crossed the green lawn. The softness of the air was more than sea and sun. It was scented, beckoning. Sweet. Then she became aware that the sweet breath of the air came from the golden tree just above her head. The Be-Still Tree. She put up her hand and touched one of the tubular tumbling blossoms. It was delicate and soft, caressed her fingers as Stuart spoke.
“I’m driving over to the canning plant tomorrow. It’s on the other side of the island. Would you care to ride over with me?”
“I should like it very much.”
He was telling her something about the plantation and its near-by cannery when Natalie strolled Unvard them. “Did you ask Stuart about Valerie?” she enquired. “Anne thought you might have met a friend of hers out here,” she explained. “Valerie Simmons—”
“She was married to an army officer who died out here about three years ago. I thought if you had met Valerie you would remember: she is so unusual looking. Very lovely pale hair ...” Anne’s old admiration for Valerie was in her voice as she went on describing her to Stuart. He listened politely, as people often manage to listen to other people’s enthusiasms for their friends. “Of course she may have left a long time ago,” Anne decided.
“I don't suppose you meet all the army people?” said Natalie.
“It’s a rather rapid turnover.” Stuart retrieved the handkerchief that Natalie had lost on the lawn, and they went in to look at Stuart's pipe collection which interested Bob more than the porcelain. Later v’hen they were riding back to the hotel, Anne and Natalie compared their observations of the perfection of Stuart’s house. There was nothing that seemed to need adjusting or banishing. As housekeepers, they marvelled at the complete smoothness of the service. Natalie was inclined to think she might try Oriental servants.
“That's silly,” observed her husband.
Anne guessed that Bob had not enjoyed the day as much as they had. There seemed to be little left of whatever he and Stuart had once had in common. Stuart had gone
beyond the business and old Grad anecdote kind of conversation that Bob enjoyed.
“Has Stuart ever been married?” Anne asked.
“I don’t know,” said Natalie. “Has he, Bob?”
“Yes. Right after we came out of college. I never saw his wife. They were divorced later, I think.”
“Well, she missed a nice luncheon today,” said Natalie. At the hotel Anne found a cablegram from Hugh. It read: “Everything Fine Love.” She crumpled it. She had intended to write him before dinner, but she did not even get a letter started. There was more unpacking to do. She wanted her yellow sport suit to wear tomorrow. She found it and tried it on with various hats. She was still debating the best hat w’hen Natalie came in just before dinner.
“What are you having, a rehearsal for something?” she enquired w’ith amusement.
That w-as the evening they saw Valerie Simmons. With some acquaintances from the boat, they had gone to one of the island night clubs. But it was obviously just a tourist place, and after a while they all tired of it. Someone had heard about a real native spot. When they got there Anne was beginning to be sleepy and bored with the evening. She didn’t like this kind of uncertain atmosphere, real or arranged. She doubted that it was real, but there were a lot of natives about. The men looked curiously childlike, good-natured and unworried by anything.
The atmosphere of the whole place seemed one of harmless pretense and that made a sudden tumult down the long room all the more astonishing. Without any warning, a young woman had risen from a table and thrown a glass toward the wall. It splintered startlingly as it struck the floor, shocked the room into a brief space of silence. Then everyone began to talk at once, and someone laughed. The girl had pulled a cape around her and was walking rapidly toward the door, followed by the handsome young native with whom she had been sitting. They had disappeared before Anne caught her breath.
Valerie! She was unmistakable in spite of the strange brittleness of her face. Its queer hardness refused to dissolve before Anne’s eyes. It was intense, distrait, yet curiously empty. In shocked amazement Anne tried to call up the old Valerie, the delicate fastidious features. She felt herself trembling a little. What had happened to Valerie out here? She said nothing to Natalie of her recognition. She wanted to protect Valerie from a quick judgment that wasn’t tempered by an old affection. Perhaps her husband’s death had been loo much of a shock. Perhaps she had flung herself into forgetfulness.
Anne could not sleep. She made up her mind that she was going to find Valerie before she left the Islands. Whether she could be of help or not, she felt a compulsion beyond curiosity to know the reason behind the woman who had thrown the glass tonight. Tomorrow . . .
BUT THE morning, with its clear golden light and its shape of expectation of the day, pushed Valerie away a little. In any case she couldn’t hunt for Valerie today because she was leaving early with Stuart. Natalie and Bob went off to play golf. “Better take your coat,” Natalie advised practically. “And bring back a pineapple.”
Anne promised to do that. She was looking forward to an agreeable day. Showing the island to another visitor was probably only a matter of routine to Stuart Ellsworth, a matter-of-fact courtesy. But she knew better when she saw him standing in the lobby waiting for her. His dark alert eyes told her that he had wanted to spend this day with her. She had known that yesterday. She could not deny it now. The necessary trip to the plantation was an excuse that served them—that was to serve again and again.
But he put nothing of that into words on that trip. He was again the delightful companion, the thoughtful host, but he wasted no charm on the natives working at the plantation. Nor words. To his foreman he was direct, brief, uncompromising. “Throw him out,” he directed when the foreman spoke of one of the native boys who was discontented. Hugh would have talked to the boy, kept him on, but as the day unfolded Anne decided that Stuart Ellsworth knew this way of life perfectly. He got results, and unlike Bob Green and Hugh he dropped the business attitude when he was through with business. He did not talk about it on the way home at all. He told Anne some of the legends of the Island as they drove home in a rainbowed late afternoon.
“It was a lovely day,” she said.
For an instant then, his hand dropped over hers on the leather seat. “I thought so, too.”
Later she made her account of the day to Natalie pleasantly literal. They had had luncheon at the cannery. She made it sound both delightful and unimportant. After all it had been just that. But life was unexpectedly exciting tonight. Suddenly lovely.
Stuart told her that about herself the next evening as they danced together at the hotel. “You’re lovely, Anne.” “It’s the moon and the music,” said Anne. “Everything seems lovely out here. And so untroubled.” But immediately she remembered Valerie. The incident of the café stood up sharply again, impelled her to tell Stuart about it now.
“Before I leave here I’m going to see hersomehow. She’s not listed in the telephone book, but I’ll find her.” She was very earnest.
After a while Stuart said, “I don’t think I would.”
“But she was one of my best friends. Just because she may have changed . . .” She said it quickly, incompletely, and waited for his approval of her kind of friendship.
“She might not like to see you,” said Stuart quietly. “If she has changed as much as you seem to think, a meeting would probably be painful for both of you.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps you are right.”
She wasn’t altogether sure that she had given up the idea, although Stuart’s feeling about it was, no doubt, wise. Actually she did nothing about finding Valerie as the pleasant days wove a chain of flowers and music and sun and little rains like drops of perfume. Of long hours with Stuart. Presently she neglected to mention seeing Stuart each time when Natalie and Bob were off playing golf. Not that there was any reason for concealment. It was rather, she felt, of no importance to explain that Stuart had dropped in, or that they had had luncheon together. Wouldn’t that put too much emphasis on their friendship?
The truth was that she couldn’t share it with Natalie because Stuart was not the same person to them. With Natalie he had remained the smoothly pleasant selfsufficient man who had entertained them for luncheon: to herself he had given gradual gentleness and understanding and confidence. She had been able to talk to him about Hugh, about her own restlessness, her feeling that life should be more like this. “There are no timetables out here.” she told him once, and he had smiled as he often did at her reactions. “I would like to stay here a year.”
“It would make me very happy if you did.”
“But I shall go back with Natalie and Bob, of course.”
SHE FELT a sense of something like relief that he did not urge her to stay. He was never importunate, but she knew the silent compulsion that his presence alone gave her. It strengthened like the tide of the sea, deflected the whorls of her fife with Hugh as the insistent waves shifted the sand. But she belonged to Hugh, to the vows they had made each other. She would go back to him with a harmless memory. This hadn’t changed anything . . .
“Five days more,” said Natalie, not uncontentedly, that evening as the four of them sat together after dinner, watching the dancers. “I believe I shall be glad to get home at that.”
“What do you say we cut out the stopovers and fly straight back?” suggested Bob for Natalie’s approval.
“Sounds as though they are practically on the plane,” said Stuart, smiling at Anne. “I guess we better make the most of this dance.”
But they did not dance long. Almost at once they strolled away from the floor out into the shadowed garden, stopped as if it had been planned. In his arms Anne said nothing. There were no words for this escape from reason and conviction. She needed none, wanted none. She asked nothing. It was enough that the magic of the garden had surrendered to her for this instant, unbelievable but fully realized. This was hers. The richness of life was not lost to her, it was here in Stuart’s arms. With his kiss on her lips she made no con-
ventional protest. Oddly she was conscious of the low moon, the shadows, the stillness.
“Five days,” whispered Stuart; “We only have five days—”
“Yes,” she said, and wasastonishedatthe simpleness of her decision. But after a moment she pulled away from him, “We must go in. Natalie and Bob will be wondering.” Already it was necessary to simulate naturalness, to plan quickly while they were alone.
“Will you come to the house for luncheon tomorrow? I’ll send the car for you.”
“Don’t send the car. I’ll come in a taxi.” When they went back in, she wondered if her face showed anything to Natalie. Bob wouldn’t notice, but Natalie might. She was careful to make her good night to Stuart very casual. His response was casual, too, but his eyes told her there was tomorrow.
That was the first morning Natalie did not go out to play golf. “I think I’ll start packing,” she told Anne at breakfast. “Come in and talk to me.”
Anne took a sip of coffee. Then she had the answer. “I can’t, dear. I’m getting my hair done.”
“So soon again?”
“Why does she question me this morning?” Anne thought uneasily. She decided to avoid the hotel beauty shop. If she went outside and then directly to Stuart’s house, Natalie would not have an opportunity to ask more questions. Immediately after breakfast she made an excuse about writing a letter to Hugh.
“Have you heard from him this week?” Anne said she hadn’t. She didn’t say she had not as yet answered Hugh’s last letter. She ought to get one off on the Clipper today. But she couldn’t write Hugh now, not this morning. She didn’t want to think of Hugh.
In her room she dressed with hurried fastidiousness. Her best-looking print dress and an enormous upsweeping straw brim, one of those exaggerated things she could carry off well. In it she looked younger than her twenty-eight years. It was a hat to make people look at her, and today she felt conscious of that as she walked out of the lobby through a side door. She told herself she wanted to avoid the confusion up front caused by the arrival of this morning’s Clipper passengers, but she really wanted to escape any guests in the hotel she knew.
She crossed the still wet garden of the hotel, for it had rained this morning. There was one rather decrepit taxi standing idle across the street. She fancied that the driver looked at her with surprise as she directed him to drive down into the city. Guests at this hotel didn’t usually wander around looking for taxis; he drew his trade from smaller places. He was a talkative driver. “Gets you, out here,” he said. “You can’t live no other fife after this. It kinda changes everything.”
When her hair had been done, Anne put on her hat in front of the beauty shop mirror. She was nervous about her appearance today, for some instinct warned her that Stuart would never forgive a lapse of beauty in a woman. She added more lipstick to her already rose lips. Was it too much? Even so it did something for her. Deliberately she added a little more.
ON THE street again she was careful to get a taxi with a native driver. She gave him the directions and leaned back. The soft air curled on her cheeks. That other driver had been right; life was different here. The same rules didn’t hold. This was an oasis of enchantment in the long stretch of sensible living, the multicolored dream to warm the colder, sterner years.
The car had begun to climb wheezily. Now they were making the last quick turn, and here was Stuart’s house, sharp, modern, bright in the noon sun. Anne wait up the steps, and at once the door was opened noiselessly by the Oriental boy whh the smiling, inscrutable face.
'Mr. Ellsworth is busy for little while. Wil Mrs. Wilson please to wait in library?”
He led the way down three steps into a room Anne had not seen before. Politely tht boy handed her a magazine. “Mr. Ellsworth be through very soon.”
Et reminded Anne of Hugh, who was so often talking business when guests arrived. Ore of the younger lawyers at the office would have come out with something that needed immediate attention. Businessmen were all alike that way. She turned the pajes of the magazine quickly, put it down. She wished Stuart hadn’t been tied upright now; she didn’t want to sit here and think. Or reason. Casually she waidered to the open door of this room and sav that it looked out on the terrace where the fountain was. It was running with a limpid quiet splashing that drew her across the flagged stones.
She wondered if the time would ever cone when she would feel that she had only dreamed this garden, this house, for in thk instant she recognized the unreality of hei being here alone, waiting for Stuart’s caler to go. If she herself went now, the dream would be forever intact. Without reáization she had walked onto the steps dovn which she and Stuart had come that first day from the green garden above. She had already gone up one step when the abmpt thrust of a woman’s tense voice stepped her short.
“... and I tell you that I’m not going to leave. I don’t care if you have guests coming. I should like to meet your guests for a change.”
Anne stood fixed in dreadful recognition. Valerie—it was her voice. It was Valerie facing Stuart under the Be-Still Tree.
Almost without knowing what she did, Anne came up another step so that she saw them, Valerie bareheaded, her stillamazing hair her only claim to beauty. In the strong sunlight her face kept no memory of sweetness. It was not even tragic, but rather bitterly resentful. “Just who are these so important guests?”
Stuart’s rigid shoulders did not move. His voice came back to Anne clearly as he had spoken to the foreman on the plantation.
“I said get out of here and stay out, Valerie. I’m not going to say it again.”
Even as he spoke, Anne saw the Oriental boy moving quickly, noiselessly across the grass. Her heart leaped with some unknown fear as she saw Stuart’s grim watchfulness. He knew the boy was coming. He knew why. Swiftly Anne walked up onto the terrace, came toward them with steadiness. Once it was done she accepted her cool poise without surprise.
“Hello, Stuart—hello, Valerie. It’s so nice to see you, Valerie. I’ve wanted to look you up, but I didn’t know where you were living.” Under the dark red anger of Stuart’s face she smiled at Valerie. “Have I changed so much?”
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Valerie stared at her unbelievingly fora moment. When she did speak, it was hardly a greeting. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been out here a few weeks on a vacation.” Over Valerie’s shoulder she watched the boy slide back toward the house, was aware that Stuart hated her at this moment scarcely less than he hated Valerie. Not that it mattered. “I’ve really wanted to see you, Valerie.”
Valerie laughed unpleasantly. “You’ll be telling me next that is why you came here today, but I think I understand why I was not invited to stay for luncheon. Why Stuart wanted to throw me out. .He does sometimes.” Her slender shoulders shrugged that off, and she laughed again as she saw how it had shocked Anne. “I knew you were here,” she went on. “I saw your name in the paper. Mrs. Hugh Wilson. And I just didn’t want to see you and hear all about your pretty, pretty life.” “We can do without the dramatics,” Stuart interrupted her coldly He turned to Anne. “I’m sure Valerie will excuse us if we join our friends for luncheon.”
Anne saw that he was too seasoned to unpleasant encounters to be apologetic. He intended to carry it off by leaving Valerie here. But she shook her head. “I’m sorry. I just stopped in to tell you that we had made other plans for the day. Natalie is expecting me at the hotel now.” She watched his face set impassively. Coldly. “Good-by,” she said quietly. “Good-by, Valerie.”
SHE COULD not have told whether they answered or not, for she went too quickly down the steps that had brought her up to the terrace. The charm of the place was suddenly hateful to her. Even the fountain. She went straight out from the lower garden to the road, without entering the house again. It was a fairly long walk back to the hotel, but she did not heed it. Motion was a relief from the shamed turmoil of her thoughts.
The memory of Valerie standing sullenly triumphant under the Be-Still Tree was like a hard mirror in which she saw herself reaching out for excitement without boundaries, for beauty that hid poison enough to destroy. Suddenly she knew all about Stuart and his philosophy of enjoyment, of his perhaps unwilling tiring of it as he tired of the rich island flowers. Now she knew what lay back of his measuring alert eyes, and knowing him, she was not afraid. She was ashamed. She had been looking for a cheap experience, one that cost her nothing. How could she have believed that would have any value?
Suddenly she wanted to run, to fly to Hugh. Not to the safety of their suburban walls, but to the struggle and imperfections of their life together, to the small seconds of happiness that came their way out of a busy, useful life. Why had her vanity ever demanded more than that?
The rough, dusty road on which she walked widened gradually and became smoother as she neared the hotel. And somewhere along that she lost her panic, her sense of defeat. There was nothing to be gained by passing on to Hugh the burden of this experience. That must remain hers, but what she had learned would be his forever. Already she knew that to have given Hugh the devotion she wanted from him would have ended her boredom and self-pity and the search for another meaning. From now on she would never fail him. But it would be two weeks before she reached home, before she saw Hugh.
Then in the great filled lobby of the hotel he was the first person she saw. He was sitting near the entrance, his eyes on the door through which she came.
“I missed you,” he said simply, “so I flew to the coast and took the Clipper. Got in a little while ago.”
He didn’t embroider it. Probably he never would. She smiled at him. He would never need to.