Other people’s sons were coming home for the three or four days’ leave. The first gigantic struggle—furious onslaught and grim resistance—was over. Paris, pale, and slightly shuddering still, stood safe. Calais was not taken, and, dug into their trenches, it was evident that the opposing armies would lie face to face, with no decisive encounter possible until the spring.
There was, with all their beauty and terror, an element of the facetious in these unexpected holidays, of the matter-of-factness, the freedom from strain or sentiment that was the English oddity and the English strength. Men who had known the horrors of the retreat from Mons or the carnage of Ypres, who had not taken off their clothes for ten days at a stretch or slept for four nights, came home from trenches knee-deep in mud, from battlefields heaped with unburied dead, and appeared immaculate and cheerful at breakfast; a little sober and preoccupied, perhaps; touched, perhaps, with strangeness; but ready for the valorous family jest, and alluding to the war as if, while something too solemn for adequate comment, it were yet something that lent itself to laughter. One did such funny things, and saw them; of the other things one did not speak; and there was the huge standing joke of an enemy who actually hated one. These grave and cheerful young men hated nobody; but they were very eager to go back again; and they were all ready, not only to die but to die good-humoredly. From the demeanor of mothers and wives and sisters it was evident that nothing would be said or done to make this readiness difficult; but Mrs. Bradley, who showed serenity to the world and did not, even when alone, allow herself to cry, suspected that the others, beneath their smiles, carried hearts as heavy with dread as her own.
It had been heavy, with hope now as well as with dread, for the past week. It was a week since she had last heard from Jack. Mrs. Crawley, over the hill, had had her wire, and her husband was now with her; and Lady Wrexham expected her boy to-morrow. There was no certainty at all as regarded herself; yet at any moment she might have a wire; and feeling to-day the stress of waiting too great to be borne in passivity, she left her books and letters, and put on her gardening shoes and gloves, and went out to her borders.
For weeks now the incessant rain had made the relief and solace of gardening almost an impossibility; but to-day was mild and clear. There was no radiance in the air; curtains of pearly mist shut out the sky; yet here and there a soft opening in the white showed a pale, far blue, gentle and remote as the gaze of a wandering goddess, and the hills seemed to smile quietly up at the unseen sun. Mrs. Bradley, as she went along the river-path, could look across at the hills; the river-path and the hills were the great feature of Dorrington—the placid, comely red brick house to which she and Jack had come fifteen years ago, after the death of her husband in India. Enclosed by woods, and almost catching sight of the road,—from its upper windows and over its old brick wall,—the house could have seemed to her too commonplace and almost suburban, in spite of the indubitably old oak-paneling of the drawing-room, had it not been for the river and the hills. Stepping out on to the lawn from the windows of the drawing-room, she and Jack, on that April day, had found themselves confronting both—the limpid, rapid little stream, spanned near the house by its mossy bridge, and the hills, beyond the meadows, streaked with purple woodlands and rising, above the woods, to slopes russet, fawn, and azure. Jack, holding her by the hand, had pointed at once with an eager ‘Isn’t it pretty, mummy!’—even at eight he had cared almost as much as she, and extraordinarily in the same way, for the sights of the country; and if the hills had not settled the question, it was settled, quite finally, ten minutes later, by the white hepaticas.
They had come upon them suddenly, after their tour of the walled kitchen garden and their survey of the lawn with its ugly shrubberies,—now long forgotten,—penetrating a thicket of hazels and finding themselves in an opening under trees where neighboring woods looked at them over an old stone wall, and where, from an old stone bench, one could see the river. The ground was soft with the fallen leaves of many an autumn; a narrow path ran, half obliterated, down to the river; and among the faded brown, everywhere, rose the thick clusters, the dark leaves, and the snowy flowers—poignant, amazing in their beauty.
She and Jack had stopped short to gaze. She had never seen such white hepaticas, or so many, or so placed. And Jack, presently, lifting his dear nut-brown head and nut-brown eyes, had said, gazing up at her as he had gazed at the flowers, ‘They are just like you, mummy.’
She had felt at once that they were like her; more like than the little boy’s instinct could grasp. He had thought of the darkness and whiteness; her widow’s weeds and pale face had suggested that; but he could not know the sorrow, the longing, the earthly sense of irreparable loss, the heavenly sense of a possession unalterably hers, that the dark, melancholy leaves and celestial whiteness of the flowers expressed to her. Tears had risen to her eyes and she had stooped and kissed her child,—how like her husband’s that little face!—and had said, after a moment, ‘We must never leave them, Jack.’
They had never left them. Dorrington had been their home for fifteen years, and the hepaticas the heart of it, it had always seemed to them both; the loveliest ritual of the year that early spring one when, in the hazel copse, they would find the white hepaticas again in flower. And of all the autumnal labors none were sweeter than those which cherished and divided and protected the beloved flowers.
Mrs. Bradley, to-day, worked in her long border, weeding, troweling, placing belated labels. She was dressed in black, her straw hat bound beneath her chin by a ribbon and her soft gardening gloves rolling back from her firm, white wrists. Her gestures expressed a calm energy, an accurate grace. She was tall, and when she raised herself to look over the meadows at the hills, she showed small, decisive features, all marked, in the pallor of her face, as if with the delicate, neutral emphasis of an etching: the gray, scrutinizing eyes, the charming yet ugly nose, the tranquil mouth which had, at the corners, a little drop, half sweet, half bitter, as if with tears repressed or a summoned smile. Squared at brow and chin, it would, but for the mildness of the gaze, have been an imperious face; and her head, its whitened hair drawn back and looped in wide braids behind, had an air at once majestic and unworldly.
She had worked for over an hour and the last label was set beside a precious clump of iris. The hazel copse lay near by; and gathering up her tools, drawing off her wet gloves, she followed the path under the leafless branches and among the hepaticas to the stone bench, where, sinking down, she knew that she was very tired. She could see, below the bank, the dark, quick stream; a pale, diffused light in the sky showed where the sun was dropping toward the hills.
Where was Jack at this moment, this quiet moment of a monotonous English winter day?—so like the days of all the other years that it was impossible to think of what was happening a few hours’ journey away across the Channel. Impossible to think of it; yet the thick throb of her heart spoke to the full of its significance. She had told herself from the beginning,—passionate, rebellious creature as, at bottom, she knew herself to be, always in need of discipline and only in these later years schooled to a control and submission that, in her youth, she would have believed impossible to her,—she had told herself, when he had gone from her, that, as a soldier’s widow, she must see her soldier son go to death. She must give him to that; be ready for it; and if he came back to her it would be as if he were born again—a gift, a grace, unexpected and unclaimed. She must feel, for herself as well as for her country, that these days of dread were also days of a splendor and beauty unmatched by any in England’s history, and that a soldier’s widow must ask for no more glorious fate for her son than death in such a cause. She had told herself all this many times; yet, as she sat there, her hands folded on her lap, her eyes on the stream below, she felt that she was now merely motherhood, tense, huddled, throbbing and longing, longing for its child.
Then, suddenly, she heard Jack’s footsteps. They came, quick and light, along the garden path; they entered the wood; they were near, but softened by the fallen leaves. And, half rising, afraid of her own joy, she hardly knew that she saw him before she was in his arms; and it was better to meet thus, in the blindness and darkness of their embrace, her cheek pressed against his hair, his head buried close between her neck and shoulder.
‘Jack!—Jack!’ she heard herself say.
He said nothing, holding her tightly to him, with quick breaths; and even after she had opened her eyes and could look down at him,—her own, her dear, beautiful Jack,—could see the nut-brown head, the smooth brown cheek, the firm brown hand which grasped her, he did not for a long time raise his head and look at her. When, at last, he did look up, she could not tell, through her tears, whether, like herself, he was trying to smile.
They sat down together on the bench. She did not ask him why he had not wired. That question pressed too sharply on her heart; to ask might seem to reproach.
‘Darling, you are so thin,—so much older,—but you look—strong and well.’
‘We’re all of us extraordinarily fit, mummy. It’s wholesome, living in mud.’
‘And wholesome living among bursting shells? I had your last letter telling of that miraculous escape.’
‘There have been a lot more since then. Every day seems a miracle—that one’s alive at the end of it.’
‘But you get used to it?’
‘All except the noise. That always seems to daze me still. Some of our fellows are deaf from it.—You heard of Toppie, mother?’ Jack asked.
Toppie was Alan Thorpe, Jack’s nearest friend. He had been killed ten days ago.
‘I heard it, Jack. Were you with him?’
‘Yes. It was in a bayonet charge. He didn’t suffer. A bullet went right through him. He just gave a little cry and fell.’ Jack’s voice had the mildness of a sorrow which has passed beyond the capacity for emotion. ‘We found him afterwards. He is buried out there.’
‘You must tell Frances about it, Jack. I went to her at once.’ Frances was Toppie’s sister. ‘She is bearing it so bravely.’
‘I must write to her. She would be sure to be plucky.’
He answered all her questions, sitting closely against her, his arm around her; looking down, while he spoke, and twisting, as had always been his boyish way, a button on her coat. He was at that enchanting moment of young manhood when the child is still apparent in the man. His glance was shy, yet candid; his small, firm lips had a child’s gravity. With his splendid shoulders, long legs, and noble little head, he was yet as endearing as he was impressive. His mother’s heart ached with love and pride and fear as she gazed at him.
And a question came, near the sharp one, yet hoping to evade it:—
‘Jack, dearest, how long will you be with me? How long is the leave?’
He raised his eyes then and looked at her; a curious look. Something in it blurred her mind with a sense of some other sort of fear.
‘Only till to-night,’ he said.
It seemed confusion rather than pain that she felt. ‘Only till to-night, Jack? But Richard Crawley has been back for three days already. I thought they gave you longer?’
‘I know, mummy.’ His eyes were dropped again and his hand at the button—did it tremble?—twisted and untwisted. ‘I’ve been back for three days already.—I’ve been in London.’
‘In London?’ Her breath failed her. The sense of alien fear became a fog, horrible, suffocating. ‘But—Jack—why?’
‘I didn’t wire, mummy, because I knew I’d have to be there for most of my time. I felt that I couldn’t wire and tell you. I felt that I had to see you when I told you. Mother—I’m married.—I came back to get married.—I was married this morning.—O mother, can you ever forgive me?’
His shaking hands held her and his eyes could not meet hers.
She felt the blood rush, as if her heart had been divided with a sword, to her throat, to her eyes, choking her, burning her; and as if from far away she heard her own voice saying, after a little time had passed, ‘There’s nothing I couldn’t forgive you, Jack. Tell me. Don’t be afraid of hurting me.’
He held her tightly, still looking down as he said, ‘She is a dancer, mother, a little dancer. It was in London, last summer. A lot of us came up from Aldershot together. She was in the chorus of one of those musical comedies. Mother, you can never understand. But it wasn’t just low and vulgar. She was so lovely,—so very young,—with the most wonderful golden hair and the sweetest eyes.—I don’t know.—I simply went off my head when I saw her. We all had supper together afterwards. Toppie knew one of the other girls, and Dollie was there. That’s her name—Dollie Vaughan—her stage name. Her real name was Byles. Her people, I think, were little tradespeople, and she’d lost her father and mother, and an aunt had been very unkind. She told me all about it that night. Mother, please believe just this: it wasn’t only the obvious thing.—I know I can’t explain. But you remember, when we read War and Peace,’—his broken voice groped for the analogy,—’you remember Natacha, when she falls in love with Anatole, and nothing that was real before seems real, and she is ready for anything. It was like that. It was all fairyland, like that. No one thought it wrong. It didn’t seem wrong. Everything went together.’
She had gathered his hand closely in hers and she sat there, quiet, looking at her hopes lying slain before her. Her Jack. The wife who was, perhaps, to have been his. The children that she, perhaps, should have seen. All dead. The future blotted out. Only this wraith-like present; only this moment of decision; Jack and his desperate need the only real things left.
And after a moment, for his laboring breath had failed, she said, ‘Yes, dear?’ and smiled at him.
He covered his face with his hands. ‘Mother, I’ve ruined your life.’
He had, of course, in ruining his own; yet even at that moment of wreckage she was able to remember, if not to feel, that life could mend from terrible wounds, could marvelously grow from compromises and defeats. ‘No, dearest, no,’ she said. ‘While I have you, nothing is ruined. We shall see what can be done. Go on. Tell me the rest.’
He put out his hand to hers again and sat now a little turned away from her, speaking on in his deadened, bitter voice.
‘There wasn’t any glamour after that first time. I only saw her once or twice again. I was awfully sorry and ashamed over the whole thing. Her company left London, on tour, and then the war came, and I simply forgot all about her. And the other day, over there, I had a letter from her. She was in terrible trouble. She was ill and had no money, and no work. And she was going to have a child—my child; and she begged me to send her a little money to help her through, or she didn’t know what would become of her.’
The fog, the horrible confusion, even the despair, had passed now. The sense of ruin, of wreckage almost irreparable, was there; yet with it, too, was the strangest sense of gladness. He was her own Jack, completely hers, for she saw now why he had done it; she could be glad that he had done it; she could be glad that he had done it. ‘Go on, dear,’ she said. ‘I understand; I understand perfectly.’
‘O mother, bless you!’ He put her hand to his lips, bowing his head upon it for a moment. ‘I was afraid you couldn’t. I was afraid you couldn’t forgive me. But I had to do it. I thought it all over—out there. Everything had become so different after what one had been through. One saw everything differently. Some things didn’t matter at all, and other things mattered tremendously. This was one of them. I knew I couldn’t just send her money. I knew I couldn’t bear to have the poor child born without a name and with only that foolish little mother to take care of it. And when I found I could get this leave, I knew I must marry her. That was why I didn’t wire. I thought I might not have time to come to you at all.’
‘Where is she, Jack?’ Her voice, her eyes, her smile at him, showed him that, indeed, she understood perfectly.
‘In lodgings that I found for her; nice and quiet, with a kind landlady. She was in such an awful place in Ealing. She is so changed, poor little thing. I should hardly have known her. Mother, darling, I wonder, could you just go and see her once or twice? She’s frightfully lonely; and so very young.—If you could—if you would just help things along a little till the baby comes, I should be so grateful. And, then, if I don’t come back, will you, for my sake, see that they are safe?’
‘But, Jack,’ she said, smiling at him, ‘she is coming here, of course. I shall go and get her to-morrow.’
He stared at her and his color rose. ‘Get her? Bring her here, to stay?’
‘Of course, darling. And if you don’t come back, I will take care of them, always.’
‘But, mother,’ said Jack, and there were tears in his eyes, ‘you don’t know, you don’t realize. I mean—she’s a dear little thing—but you couldn’t be happy with her. She’d get most frightfully on your nerves. She’s just—just a silly little dancer who has got into trouble.’
Jack was clear-sighted. Every vestige of fairyland had vanished. And she was deeply thankful that they should see alike, while she answered, ‘It’s not exactly a time for considering one’s nerves, is it, Jack? I hope I won’t get on hers. I must just try and make her as happy as I can.’
She made it all seem natural and almost sweet. The tears were in his eyes, yet he had to smile back at her when she said, ‘You know that I am good at managing people. I’ll manage her. And perhaps when you come back, my darling, she won’t be a silly little dancer.’
They sat now for a little while in silence. While they had talked, a golden sunset, slowly, had illuminated the western sky. The river below them was golden, and the wintry woodlands bathed in light. Jack held her hands and gazed at her. Love could say no more than his eyes, in their trust and sorrow, said to her; she could never more completely possess her son. Sitting there with him, hand in hand, while the light slowly ebbed and twilight fell about them, she felt it to be, in its accepted sorrow, the culminating and transfiguring moment of her maternity.
When they at last rose to go it was the hour for Jack’s departure, and it had become almost dark. Far away, through the trees, they could see the lighted windows of the house which waited for them, but to which she must return alone.
With his arms around her shoulders, Jack paused a moment, looking about him. ‘Do you remember that day—when we first came here, mummy?’ he asked.
She felt in him suddenly a sadness deeper than any he had yet shown her. The burden of the past she had lifted from him; but he must bear now the burden of what he had done to her, to their life, to all the future. And, protesting against his pain, her mother’s heart strove still to shelter him while she answered, as if she did not feel his sadness, ‘Yes, dear, and do you remember the hepaticas on that day?’
‘Like you,’ said Jack in a gentle voice. ‘I can hardly see the plants. Are they all right?’
‘They are doing beautifully.’
‘I wish the flowers were out,’ said Jack. ‘I wish it were the time for the flowers to be out, so that I could have seen you and them together, like that first day.’ And then, putting his head down on her shoulder, he murmured, ‘It will never be the same again. I’ve spoiled everything for you.’
But he was not to go from her uncomforted. She found the firmest voice in which to answer him, stroking his hair and pressing him to her with the full reassurance of her resolution. ‘Nothing is spoiled, Jack, nothing. You have never been so near me—so how can anything be spoiled? And when you come back, darling, you’ll find your son, perhaps, and the hepaticas may be in flower, waiting for you.’
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Mrs. Bradley and her daughter-in-law sat together in the drawing-room. They sat opposite each other on the two chintz chesterfields placed at right angles to the pleasantly blazing fire, the chintz curtains drawn against a rainy evening. It was a long, low room, with paneled walls; and, like Mrs. Bradley’s head, it had an air at once majestic, decorated, and old-fashioned. It was a rather crowded room, with many deep chairs and large couches, many tables with lamps and books and photographs upon them, many porcelains, prints, and pots of growing flowers. Mrs. Bradley, her tea-table before her, was in her evening black silk; lace ruffles rose about her throat; she wore her accustomed necklace of old enamel, blue, black, and white, set with small diamonds, and the enamel locket which had within it Jack’s face on one side and his father’s on the other; her white hands, moving gently among the teacups, showed an ancient cluster of diamonds above the slender wedding-ring.
From time to time she lifted her eyes and smiled quietly over at her daughter-in-law. It was the first time that she had really seen Dollie, that is, in any sense that meant contemplative observation. Dollie had spent her first week at Dorrington in bed, sodden with fatigue rather than ill. ‘What you need’ Mrs. Bradley had said, ‘is to go to sleep for a fortnight’; and Dollie had almost literally carried out the prescription.
Stealing carefully into the darkened room, with its flowers and opened windows and steadily glowing fire, Mrs. Bradley had stood and looked for long moments at all that she could see of her daughter-in-law,—a flushed, almost babyish face lying on the pillow between thick golden braids, sleeping so deeply, so unconsciously,—her sleep making her mother-in-law think of a little boat gliding slowly yet steadily on and on, between new shores; so that, when she was to awake and look about her, it would be as if, with no bewilderment or readjustment, she found herself transformed, a denizen of an altered world. That was what Mrs. Bradley wanted, that Dollie should become an inmate of Dorrington with as little effort or consciousness for any of them as possible; and the drowsy days and nights of infantine slumbers seemed indeed to have brought her very near.
She and Pickering, the admirable woman who filled so skillfully the combined positions of lady’s maid and parlormaid in her little establishment, had braided Dollie’s thick tresses, one on either side—Mrs. Bradley laughing a little and both older women touched, almost happy in their sense of something so young and helpless to take care of. Pickering understood, nearly as well as Jack’s mother, that Master Jack, as he had remained to her, had married very much beneath him; but at this time of tragic issues and primitive values, she, nearly as much as Jack’s mother, felt only the claim, the pathos of youth and helplessness. It was as if they had a singularly appealing case of a refugee to take care of: social and even moral appraisals were inapplicable to such a case, and Mrs. Bradley felt that she had never so admired Pickering as when seeing that for her, too, they were in abeyance. It was a comfort to feel so fond of Pickering at a time when one was in need of any comfort one could get; and to feel that, creature of codes and discriminations as she was, to a degree that had made her mistress sometimes think of her as a sort of Samurai of service, a function rather than a person, she was even more fundamentally a kind and Christian woman. Between them, cook intelligently sustaining them from below and the housemaids helpful in their degree, they fed and tended and nursed Dollie, and by that eighth day she was more than ready to get up and go down and investigate her new surroundings.
She sat there now, in the pretty tea-gown her mother-in-law had bought for her, leaning back against her cushions, one arm lying along the back of the couch and one foot in its patent-leather shoe, with its sparkling buckle and alarming heel, thrusting forward a carefully arched instep. The attitude made one realize, however completely tenderer preoccupations held the foreground of one’s consciousness, how often and successfully she must have sat to theatrical photographers. Her way of smiling, too, very softly, yet with the effect of a calculated and dazzling display of pearly teeth, was impersonal, and directed, as it were, to the public via the camera rather than to any individual interlocutor. Mrs. Bradley even imagined, unversed as she was in the methods of Dollie’s world, that of allurement in its conscious and determined sense, she was almost innocent. She placed herself, she adjusted her arm and her foot, and she smiled gently; intention hardly went further than that wish to look her best.
Pink and white and gold as she was, and draped there on the chesterfield in a profusion of youth and a frivolity that was yet all passivity, she made her mother-in-law think, and with a certain sinking of the heart, of a Dorothy Perkins rose, a flower she had never cared for; and Dollie carried on the analogy in the sense she gave that there were such myriads more just like her. On almost every page of every illustrated weekly paper, one saw the ingenuous, limpid eyes, the display of eyelash, the lips, their outline emphasized by just that touch of rouge, those copious waves of hair. Like the Dorothy Perkins roses on their pergolas, so these pretty faces seemed—looped, draped, festooned—to climb over all the available spaces of the modern press.
But this, Mrs. Bradley told herself, was to see Dollie with a dry, hard eye, was to see her superficially, from the social rather than from the human point of view. Under the photographic creature must lie the young, young girl—so young, so harmless that it would be very possible to mould her, with all discretion, all tenderness, into some suitability as Jack’s wife. Dollie, from the moment that she had found her, a sodden, battered rose indeed, in the London lodging-house, had shown herself grateful, even humble, and endlessly acquiescent. She had not shown herself at all abashed or apologetic, and that had been a relief; had counted for her, indeed, in her mother-in-law’s eyes, as a sort of innocence, a sort of dignity. But if Dollie were contented with her new mother, and very grateful to her, she was also contented with herself; Mrs. Bradley had been aware of this at once; and she knew now that, if she were being carefully and commendingly watched while she poured out the tea, this concentration did not imply unqualified approval. Dollie was the type of young woman to whom she herself stood as the type of the ‘perfect lady’; but with the appreciation went the proviso of the sharp little London mind,—versed in the whole ritual of smartness as it displayed itself at theatre or restaurant,—that she was a rather dowdy one. She was a lady, perfect but not smart, while, at the same time, the quality of her defect was, she imagined, a little bewildering and therefore a little impressive. Actually to awe Dollie and to make her shy, it would be necessary to be smart; but it was far more pleasant and perhaps as efficacious merely to impress her, and it was as well that Dollie should be impressed; for anything in the nature of an advantage that she could recognize would make it easier to direct, protect, and mould her.
She asked her a good many leisurely and unstressed questions on this first evening, and drew Dollie to ask others in return; and she saw herself stooping thoughtfully over a flourishing young plant which yet needed transplanting, softly moving the soil about its roots, softly finding out if there were any very deep tap-root that would have to be dealt with. But Dollie, so far as tastes and ideas went, hardly seemed to have any roots at all; so few that it was a question if any change of soil could affect a creature so shallow. She smiled, she was at ease; she showed her complete assurance that a young lady so lavishly endowed with all the most significant gifts, need not occupy herself with mental adornments.
‘You’re a great one for books, I see,’ she commented, looking about the room. ‘I suppose you do a great deal of reading down here to keep from feeling too dull’; and she added that she herself, if there was ‘nothing doing,’ liked a good novel, especially if she had a box of sweets to eat while she read it.
‘You shall have a box of sweets to-morrow,’ Mrs. Bradley told her, ‘with or without the novel, as you like.’
And Dollie thanked her, watching her cut the cake, and, as the rain lashed against the windows, remarking on the bad weather and cheerfully hoping that ‘poor old Jack’ wasn’t in those horrid trenches. ‘I think war’s a wicked thing, don’t you, Mrs. Bradley?’ she added.
When Dollie talked in this conventionally solicitous tone of Jack, her mother-in-law could but wish her upstairs again, merely young, merely the tired and battered refugee. She had not much tenderness for Jack, that was evident, nor much imaginativeness in regard to the feelings of Jack’s mother. But she soon passed from the theme of Jack and his danger. Her tea was finished and she got up and went to the piano, remarking that there was one thing she could do. ‘Poor mother used to always say I was made of music. From the time I was a mere tot I could pick out anything on the piano.’ And placing herself, pressing down the patent-leather shoe on the loud pedal, she surged into a waltz as foolish and as conventionally alluring as her own eyes. Her inaccuracy was equaled only by her facility. Smiling, swaying over the keys with alternate speed and languor, she addressed her audience with altogether the easy mastery of a music-hall artiste: ‘It’s a lovely thing—one of my favorites. I’ll often play, Mrs. Bradley, and cheer us up. There is nothing like music for that, is there? it speaks so to the heart.’ And, whole-heartedly indeed, she accompanied the melody by a passionate humming.
The piano was Jack’s and it was poor Jack who was made of music. How was he to bear it, his mother asked herself, as she sat listening. Dollie, after that initiation, spent many hours at the piano every day—so many and such noisy hours, that her mother-in-law, unnoticed, could shut herself in the little morning-room that overlooked the brick wall at the front of the house and had the morning sun.
It was difficult to devise other occupations for Dollie. She earnestly disclaimed any wish to have proper music lessons; and when her mother-in-law, patiently persistent, arranged for a skillful mistress to come down twice a week from London, Dollie showed such apathy and dullness that any hope of developing such musical ability as she possessed had to be abandoned. She did not like walking, and the sober pageant of the winter days was a blank book to her. Sewing, she said, had always given her frightful fidgets; and it was with the strangest sense of a privilege, a joy unhoped-for and now thrust upon her, that Mrs. Bradley sat alone working at the little garments which meant all her future and all Jack’s. The baby seemed already more hers than Dollie’s.
Sometimes, on a warm afternoon, Dollie, wrapped in her fur cloak, would emerge for a little while and watch her mother-in-law at work in her borders. The sight amused and surprised, but hardly interested her, and she soon went tottering back to the house on the preposterous heels which Mrs. Bradley had, as yet, found no means of tactfully banishing. And sometimes, when the piano again resounded, Mrs. Bradley would leave her borders and retreat to the hazel copse, where, as she sat on the stone bench, she could hear, through the soft sound of the running water, hardly more than the distant beat and hum of Dollie’s waltzes; and where, with more and more the sense of escape and safety, she could find a refuge from the sight and sound and scent of Dollie—the thick, sweet, penetrating scent which was always to be indelibly associated in her mother-in-law’s mind with this winter of foreboding, of hope, and of growing hopelessness.
In her letters to Jack, she found herself, involuntarily at first, and then deliberately, altering, suppressing, even falsifying. While Dollie had been in bed, when so much hope had been possible of a creature so unrevealed, she had written very tenderly, and she continued, now, to write tenderly, and it was not false to do that; she could feel no hardness or antagonism against poor Dollie. But she continued to write hopefully, as, every day, hope grew less.
Jack, himself, did not say much of Dollie, though there was always the affectionate message and the affectionate inquiry. But what was difficult to deal with were the hints of his anxiety and fear that stole among the terse, cheerful descriptions of his precarious days. What was she doing with herself? How were she and Dollie getting on? Did Dollie care about any of the things she cared about?
She told him that they got on excellently well, that Dollie spent a good deal of time at the piano, and that when they went out to tea people were perfectly nice and understanding. She knew, indeed, that she could depend on her friends to be that. They accepted Dollie on the terms she asked for her. From friends so near as Mrs. Crawley and Lady Wrexham she had not concealed the fact that Dollie was a misfortune; but if others thought so, they were not to show it. She still hoped, by degrees, to make Dollie a figure easier to deal with at such neighborly gatherings. She had abandoned any hope that Dollie would grow: anything so feeble and so foolish could not grow; there was no other girl under the little dancer; she was simply no more and no less than she showed herself to be; but, at this later stage of their relationship, Mrs. Bradley essayed, now and then, a deliberate if kindly severity—as to heels, as to scents, as to touches of rouge.
‘Oh, but I’m as careful, just as careful, Mrs. Bradley!’ Dollie protested. ‘I can’t walk in lower heels. They hurt my instep. I’ve a very high instep and it needs support.’ She was genuinely amazed that any one could dislike her scent and that any one could think the rouge unbecoming. She seemed to acquiesce, but the acquiescence was followed by moods of mournfulness and even by tears. There was no capacity in her for temper or rebellion, and she was all unconscious of giving a warning as she sobbed, ‘It’s nothing—really nothing, Mrs. Bradley. I’m sure you mean to be kind. Only—it’s rather quiet and lonely here. I’ve always been used to so many people—to having everything so bright and jolly.’
She was not rapacious; she was not dissolute; she could be kept respectable and even contented if she were not made too aware of the contrast between her past existence and her present lot. With an air only of pensive pride she would sometimes point out to Mrs. Bradley, in the pages of those same illustrated weeklies with which her mother-in-law associated her, the face of some former companion. One of these young ladies had recently married the son of a peer. ‘She is in luck, Floss,’ said Dollie. ‘We always thought it would come to that. He’s been gone on her for ages, but his people were horrid.’
Mrs. Bradley felt that, at all events, Dollie had no ground for thinking her ‘horrid’; yet she imagined that there lay drowsing at the back of her mind a plaintive little sense of being caught and imprisoned. Floss had stepped, triumphant, from the footlights to the registrar’s office, and apparently had succeeded in uniting the radiance of her past and present status. No, Dollie could be kept respectable and contented only if the pressure were of the lightest. She could not change, she could only shift; and although Mrs. Bradley felt that for herself, her life behind her, her story told, she could manage to put up with a merely shifted Dollie, she could not see how Jack was to manage it. What was Jack to do with her? was the thought that pressed with a growing weight on her mother’s heart. She could never be of Jack’s life; yet here she was, in it, planted there by his own generous yet inevitable act, and by hers—in its very centre, and not to be evaded or forgotten.
And the contrast between what Jack’s life might have been and what it now must be was made more poignantly apparent to her when Frances Thorpe came down to stay from a Saturday to Monday: Frances in her black, tired and thin from Red-Cross work in London; bereaved in more, her old friend knew, than dear Toppie’s death; yet with her leisurely, unstressed cheerfulness almost unaltered, the lightness that went with so much tenderness, the drollery that went with so much depth. Dearest, most charming of girls,—but for Jack’s wretched stumble into ‘fairyland’ last summer, destined obviously to be his wife,—could any presence have shown more disastrously, in its contrast with poor Dollie, how Jack had done for himself?
She watched the two together that evening—Frances with her thick, crinkled hair and clearly curved brow and her merry, steady eyes, leaning, elbow on knee, to talk and listen to Dollie; and Dollie, poor Dollie, flushed, touched with an unbecoming sulkiness, aware, swiftly and unerringly, of a rival type. Frances was of the type that young men married when they did not ‘do for themselves.’ There was now no gulf of age or habit to veil from Dollie her disadvantage. She answered shortly, with now and then a dry, ironic little laugh; and, getting up at last, she went to the piano and loudly played.
‘He couldn’t have done differently. It was the only thing he could do,’ Frances said that night before her bedroom fire. She did not hide her recognition of Jack’s plight, but she was staunch.
‘I wouldn’t have had him do differently. But it will ruin his life,’ said the mother. ‘If he comes back, it will ruin his life.’
‘No, no,’ said Frances, looking at the flames. ‘Why should it? A man does n’t depend on his marriage like that. He has his career.’
‘Yes. He has his career. A career isn’t a life.’
‘Isn’t it?’ The girl gazed down. ‘But it’s what so many people have to put up with. And so many haven’t even a career.’ Something came into her voice and she turned from it quickly. ‘He’s crippled, in a sense, of course. But you are here. He will have you to come back to always.’
‘I shall soon be old, dear, and she will always be here. That’s inevitable. Some day I shall have to leave her to Jack to bear with alone.’
‘She may become more of a companion.’
‘No; no, she won’t.’
The bitterness of the mother’s heart expressed itself in the dry, light utterance. It was a comfort to express bitterness, for once, to somebody.
‘She is a harmless little thing,’ Frances offered after a moment.
‘Harmless?’ Mrs. Bradley turned it over dryly and lightly.’ I can’t feel her that. I feel her blameless if you like. And it will be easy to keep her contented. That is really the best that one can say of poor Dollie. And then, there will be the child. I am pinning all my hopes to the child, Frances.’
Frances understood that.
Dollie, as the winter wore on, kept remarkably well. She had felt it the proper thing to allude to Jack and his danger; and so, now, she more and more frequently felt it the proper thing to allude, humorously, if with a touch of melancholy, to ‘baby.’ Her main interest in baby, Mrs. Bradley felt, was an alarmed one. She was a good deal frightened, poor little soul, and in need of constant reassurances; and it was when one need only pet and pity Dollie that she was easier to deal with. Mrs. Bradley tried to interest her in plans for the baby; what it should be named, and how its hair should be done if it were a little girl—for only on this assumption could Dollie’s interest be at all vividly roused; and Mrs. Bradley hoped more than ever for a boy when she found Dollie’s idle yet stubborn thoughts fixed on the name of Gloria.
She was able to evade discussion of this point, and when the baby came, fortunately and robustly, into the world on a fine March morning, she could feel it as a minor but very real cause for thanksgiving that Dollie need now never know what she thought of Gloria as a name. The baby was a boy, and now that he was here, Dollie seemed as well pleased that he should be a commonplace Jack, and that there should be no question of tying his hair with cockades of ribbon over each ear. Smiling and rosy and languid, she lay in her charming room, not at all more maternal,—though she showed a bland satisfaction in her child and noted that his eyes were just like Jack’s,—yet subtly more wifely. Baby, she no doubt felt, with the dim instinct that did duty for thought with her, placed and rooted her and gave her final rights. She referred now to Jack with the pensive but open affection of their shared complacency, and made her mother-in-law think, as she lay there, of a soft and sleepy and tenacious creeper, fixing tentacle after tentacle in the walls of Jack’s house of life.
If only one could feel that she had furnished it with a treasure. Gravely, with a sad fondness, the grandmother studied the little face, so unfamiliar, for signs of Jack. She was a helplessly clear-sighted woman, and remembrance was poignantly vivid in her of Jack’s face at a week old. Already she loved the baby since its eyes, indubitably, were his; but she could find no other trace of him. It was not a Bradley baby; and in the dreamy, foreboding flickers of individuality that pass uncannily across an infant’s features, her melancholy and steady discernment could see only the Byles ancestry.
She was to do all she could for the baby: to save him, so far as might be, from his Byles ancestry, and to keep him, so far as might be, Jack’s and hers. That was to be her task. But with all the moulding that could, mercifully, be applied from the very beginning, she could not bring herself to believe that this was ever to be a very significant human being.
She sent Jack his wire: ‘A son. Dollie doing splendidly.’ And she had his answer: ‘Best thanks. Love to Dollie.’ It was curious, indeed, this strange new fact they had now, always, to deal with; this light little ‘Dollie’ that must be passed between them. The baby might have made Jack happy, but it had not solved the problem of his future.
A week later the telegram was brought to her telling her that he had been killed in action.
It was a beautiful spring day, just such a day as that on which she and Jack had first seen Dorrington, and she had been working in the garden. When she had read, she turned and walked down the path that led to the hazel copse. She hardly knew what had happened to her; there was only an instinct for flight, concealment, secrecy; but, as she walked, there rose in her, without sound, as if in a nightmare, the terrible cry of her loneliness. The dark wet earth that covered him seemed heaped upon her heart.
The hazel copse was tasseled thickly with golden green, and as she entered it she saw that the hepaticas were in flower. They seemed to shine with their own celestial whiteness, set in their melancholy green among the fallen leaves. She had never seen them look so beautiful.
She followed the path, looking down at them, and she seemed to feel Jack’s little hand in hers and to see, at her side, his nut-brown head. It had been on just such a morning. She came to the stone bench; but the impulse that had led her here was altered. She did not sink down and cover her face, but stood looking around her at the flowers, the telegram still open in her hand; and slowly, with stealing calm, the sense of sanctuary fell about her.
She had lost him, and with him went all her life. He was dead, his youth and strength and beauty. Yet what was this strange up-welling of relief, deep, deep relief, for Jack; this gladness, poignant and celestial, like that of the hepaticas? He was dead and the dark earth covered him; yet he was here, with her, safe in his youth and strength and beauty forever. He had died the glorious death, and no future, tangled, perplexed, fretful with its foolish burden, lay before him. There was no loss for Jack—no fading, no waste. The burden was for her, and he was free.
Later, when pain should have dissolved thought, her agony would come to her unalleviated; but this hour was hers, and his. She heard the river and the soft whisperings of spring. A bird dropped lightly, unafraid, from branch to branch of a tree near by. From the woods came the rapid, insistent tapping of a woodpecker; and, as in so many springs, she seemed to hear Jack say, ‘Hark, mummy,’ and his little hand was always held in hers. And, everywhere, telling of irreparable loss, of a possession unalterable, the tragic, the celestial hepaticas.
She sat down on the stone bench now and closed her eyes for a little while, so holding them more closely—Jack and the hepaticas—together