There was a rough stone age and a smooth stone age and a bronze age, and many years afterward a cut-glass age. In the cut-glass age, when young ladies had persuaded young men with long, curly mustaches to marry them, they sat down several months afterward and wrote thank-you notes for all sorts of cut-glass presents—punch-bowls, finger-bowls, dinner-glasses, wine-glasses, ice-cream dishes, bonbon dishes, decanters, and vases—for, though cut glass was nothing new in the nineties, it was then especially busy reflecting the dazzling light of fashion from the Back Bay to the fastnesses of the Middle West.
After the wedding the punch-bowls were arranged in the sideboard with the big bowl in the centre; the glasses were set up in the china-closet; the candlesticks were put at both ends of things—and then the struggle for existence began. The bonbon dish lost its little handle and became a pin-tray upstairs; a promenading cat knocked the little bowl off the sideboard, and the hired girl chipped the middle-sized one with the sugar-dish; then the wine-glasses succumbed to leg fractures, and even the dinner-glasses disappeared one by one like the ten little niggers, the last one ending up, scarred and maimed as a tooth-brush holder among other shabby genteels on the bathroom shelf. But by the time all this had happened the cut-glass age was over, anyway.
It was well past its first glory on the day the curious Mrs. Roger Fairboalt came to see the beautiful Mrs. Harold Piper.
“My dear,” said the curious Mrs. Roger Fairboalt, “I love your house. I think it’s quite artistic.”
“I’m so glad,” said the beautiful Mrs. Harold Piper, lights appearing in her young, dark eyes; “and you must come often. I’m almost always alone in the afternoon.”
Mrs. Fairboalt would have liked to remark that she didn’t believe this at all and couldn’t see how she’d be expected to—it was all over town that Mr. Freddy Gedney had been dropping in on Mrs. Piper five afternoons a week for the past six months. Mrs. Fairboalt was at that ripe age where she distrusted all beautiful women——
“I love the dining-room most,” she said, “all that marvellous china, and that huge cut-glass bowl.”
Mrs. Piper laughed, so prettily that Mrs. Fairboalt’s lingering reservations about the Freddy Gedney story quite vanished.
“Oh, that big bowl!” Mrs. Piper’s mouth forming the words was a vivid rose petal. “There’s a story about that bowl——”
“You remember young Carleton Canby? Well, he was very attentive at one time, and the night I told him I was going to marry Harold, seven years ago in ninety-two, he drew himself way up and said: ‘Evylyn, I’m going to give a present that’s as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through.’ He frightened me a little—his eyes were so black. I thought he was going to deed me a haunted house or something that would explode when you opened it. That bowl came, and of course it’s beautiful. Its diameter or circumference or something is two and a half feet—or perhaps it’s three and a half. Anyway, the sideboard is really too small for it; it sticks way out.”
“My dear, wasn’t that odd! And he left town about then didn’t he?” Mrs. Fairboalt was scribbling italicized notes on her memory—”hard, beautiful, empty, and easy to see through.”
“Yes, he went West—or South—or somewhere,” answered Mrs. Piper, radiating that divine vagueness that helps to lift beauty out of time.
Mrs. Fairboalt drew on her gloves, approving the effect of largeness given by the open sweep from the spacious music-room through the library, disclosing a part of the dining-room beyond. It was really the nicest smaller house in town, and Mrs. Piper had talked of moving to a larger one on Devereaux Avenue. Harold Piper must be coining money.
As she turned into the sidewalk under the gathering autumn dusk she assumed that disapproving, faintly unpleasant expression that almost all successful women of forty wear on the street.
If _I_ were Harold Piper, she thought, I’d spend a little less time on business and a little more time at home. Some friend should speak to him.
But if Mrs. Fairboalt had considered it a successful afternoon she would have named it a triumph had she waited two minutes longer. For while she was still a black receding figure a hundred yards down the street, a very good-looking distraught young man turned up the walk to the Piper house. Mrs. Piper answered the door-bell herself, and with a rather dismayed expression led him quickly into the library.
“I had to see you,” he began wildly; “your note played the devil with me. Did Harold frighten you into this?”
She shook her head.
“I’m through, Fred,” she said slowly, and her lips had never looked to him so much like tearings from a rose. “He came home last night sick with it. Jessie Piper’s sense of duty was to much for her, so she went down to his office and told him. He was hurt and—oh, I can’t help seeing it his way, Fred. He says we’ve been club gossip all summer and he didn’t know it, and now he understands snatches of conversation he’s caught and veiled hints people have dropped about me. He’s mighty angry, Fred, and he loves me and I love him—rather.”
Gedney nodded slowly and half closed his eyes.
“Yes,” he said “yes, my trouble’s like yours. I can see other people’s points of view too plainly.” His gray eyes met her dark ones frankly. “The blessed thing’s over. My God, Evylyn, I’ve been sitting down at the office all day looking at the outside of your letter, and looking at it and looking at it——”
“You’ve got to go, Fred,” she said steadily, and the slight emphasis of hurry in her voice was a new thrust for him. “I gave him my word of honor I wouldn’t see you. I know just how far I can go with Harold, and being here with you this evening is one of the things I can’t do.”
They were still standing, and as she spoke she made a little movement toward the door. Gedney looked at her miserably, trying, here at the end, to treasure up a last picture of her—and then suddenly both of them were stiffened into marble at the sound of steps on the walk outside. Instantly her arm reached out grasping the lapel of his coat—half urged, half swung him through the big door into the dark dining-room.
“I’ll make him go up-stairs,” she whispered close to his ear; “don’t move till you hear him on the stairs. Then go out the front way.”
Then he was alone listening as she greeted her husband in the hall.
Harold Piper was thirty-six, nine years older than his wife. He was handsome—with marginal notes: these being eyes that were too close together, and a certain woodenness when his face was in repose. His attitude toward this Gedney matter was typical of all his attitudes. He had told Evylyn that he considered the subject closed and would never reproach her nor allude to it in any form; and he told himself that this was rather a big way of looking at it—that she was not a little impressed. Yet, like all men who are preoccupied with their own broadness, he was exceptionally narrow.
He greeted Evylyn with emphasized cordiality this evening.
“You’ll have to hurry and dress, Harold,” she said eagerly; “we’re going to the Bronsons’.”
“It doesn’t take me long to dress, dear,” and, his words trailing off, he walked on into the library. Evylyn’s heart clattered loudly.
“Harold——” she began, with a little catch in her voice, and followed him in. He was lighting a cigarette. “You’ll have to hurry, Harold,” she finished, standing in the doorway.
“Why?” he asked a trifle impatiently; “you’re not dressed yourself yet, Evie.”
He stretched out in a Morris chair and unfolded a newspaper. With a sinking sensation Evylyn saw that this meant at least ten minutes—and Gedney was standing breathless in the next room. Supposing Harold decided that before he went upstairs he wanted a drink from the decanter on the sideboard. Then it occurred to her to forestall this contingency by bringing him the decanter and a glass. She dreaded calling his attention to the dining-room in any way, but she couldn’t risk the other chance.
But at the same moment Harold rose and, throwing his paper down, came toward her.
“Evie, dear,” he said, bending and putting his arms about her, “I hope you’re not thinking about last night——” She moved close to him, trembling. “I know,” he continued, “it was just an imprudent friendship on your part. We all make mistakes.”
Evylyn hardly heard him. She was wondering if by sheer clinging to him she could draw him out and up the stairs. She thought of playing sick, asking to be carried up—unfortunately she knew he would lay her on the couch and bring her whiskey.
Suddenly her nervous tension moved up a last impossible notch. She had heard a very faint but quite unmistakable creak from the floor of the dining room. Fred was trying to get out the back way.
Then her heart took a flying leap as a hollow ringing note like a gong echoed and re-echoed through the house. Gedney’s arm had struck the big cut-glass bowl.
“What’s that!” cried Harold. “Who’s there?”
She clung to him but he broke away, and the room seemed to crash about her ears. She heard the pantry-door swing open, a scuffle, the rattle of a tin pan, and in wild despair she rushed into the kitchen and pulled up the gas. Her husband’s arm slowly unwound from Gedney’s neck, and he stood there very still, first in amazement, then with pain dawning in his face.
“My golly!” he said in bewilderment, and then repeated: “My golly!”
He turned as if to jump again at Gedney, stopped, his muscles visibly relaxed, and he gave a bitter little laugh.
“You people—you people——” Evylyn’s arms were around him and her eyes were pleading with him frantically, but he pushed her away and sank dazed into a kitchen chair, his face like porcelain. “You’ve been doing things to me, Evylyn. Why, you little devil! You little devil!”
She had never felt so sorry for him; she had never loved him so much.
“It wasn’t her fault,” said Gedney rather humbly. “I just came.” But Piper shook his head, and his expression when he stared up was as if some physical accident had jarred his mind into a temporary inability to function. His eyes, grown suddenly pitiful, struck a deep, unsounded chord in Evylyn—and simultaneously a furious anger surged in her. She felt her eyelids burning; she stamped her foot violently; her hands scurried nervously over the table as if searching for a weapon, and then she flung herself wildly at Gedney.
“Get out!” she screamed, dark eves blazing, little fists beating helplessly on his outstretched arm. “You did this! Get out of here—get out—get out! get out!”
Concerning Mrs. Harold Piper at thirty-five, opinion was divided—women said she was still handsome; men said she was pretty no longer. And this was probably because the qualities in her beauty that women had feared and men had followed had vanished. Her eyes were still as large and as dark and as sad, but the mystery had departed; their sadness was no longer eternal, only human, and she had developed a habit, when she was startled or annoyed, of twitching her brows together and blinking several times. Her mouth also had lost: the red had receded and the faint down-turning of its corners when she smiled, that had added to the sadness of the eyes and been vaguely mocking and beautiful, was quite gone. When she smiled now the corners of her lips turned up. Back in the days when she revelled in her own beauty Evylyn had enjoyed that smile of hers—she had accentuated it. When she stopped accentuating it, it faded out and the last of her mystery with it.
Evylyn had ceased accentuating her smile within a month after the Freddy Gedney affair. Externally things had gone an very much as they had before. But in those few minutes during which she had discovered how much she loved her husband, Evylyn had realized how indelibly she had hurt him. For a month she struggled against aching silences, wild reproaches and accusations—she pled with him, made quiet, pitiful little love to him, and he laughed at her bitterly—and then she, too, slipped gradually into silence and a shadowy, impenetrable barrier dropped between them. The surge of love that had risen in her she lavished on Donald, her little boy, realizing him almost wonderingly as a part of her life.
The next year a piling up of mutual interests and responsibilities and some stray flicker from the past brought husband and wife together again—but after a rather pathetic flood of passion Evylyn realized that her great opportunity was gone. There simply wasn’t anything left. She might have been youth and love for both—but that time of silence had slowly dried up the springs of affection and her own desire to drink again of them was dead.
She began for the first time to seek women friends, to prefer books she had read before, to sew a little where she could watch her two children to whom she was devoted. She worried about little things—if she saw crumbs on the dinner-table her mind drifted off the conversation: she was receding gradually into middle age.
Her thirty-fifth birthday had been an exceptionally busy one, for they were entertaining on short notice that night, as she stood in her bedroom window in the late afternoon she discovered that she was quite tired. Ten years before she would have lain down and slept, but now she had a feeling that things needed watching: maids were cleaning down-stairs, bric-à-brac was all over the floor, and there were sure to be grocery-men that had to be talked to imperatively—and then there was a letter to write Donald, who was fourteen and in his first year away at school.
She had nearly decided to lie down, nevertheless, when she heard a sudden familiar signal from little Julie down-stairs. She compressed her lips, her brows twitched together, and she blinked.
“Julie!” she called.
“Ah-h-h-ow!” prolonged Julie plaintively. Then the voice of Hilda, the second maid, floated up the stairs.
“She cut herself a little, Mis’ Piper.”
Evylyn flew to her sewing-basket, rummaged until she found a torn handkerchief, and hurried downstairs. In a moment Julie was crying in her arms as she searched for the cut, faint, disparaging evidences of which appeared on Julie’s dress.
“My thu-umb!” explained Julie. “Oh-h-h-h, t’urts.”
“It was the bowl here, the he one,” said Hilda apologetically. “It was waitin’ on the floor while I polished the sideboard, and Julie come along an’ went to foolin’ with it. She yust scratch herself.”
Evylyn frowned heavily at Hilda, and twisting Julie decisively in her lap, began tearing strips of the handkerchief.
“Now—let’s see it, dear.”
Julie held it up and Evelyn pounced.
Julie surveyed her swathed thumb doubtfully. She crooked it; it waggled. A pleased, interested look appeared in her tear-stained face. She sniffled and waggled it again.
“You precious!” cried Evylyn and kissed her, but before she left the room she levelled another frown at Hilda. Careless! Servants all that way nowadays. If she could get a good Irishwoman—but you couldn’t any more—and these Swedes——
At five o’clock Harold arrived and, coming up to her room, threatened in a suspiciously jovial tone to kiss her thirty-five times for her birthday. Evylyn resisted.
“You’ve been drinking,” she said shortly, and then added qualitatively, “a little. You know I loathe the smell of it.”
“Evie,” he said after a pause, seating himself in a chair by the window, “I can tell you something now. I guess you’ve known things haven’t beep going quite right down-town.”
She was standing at the window combing her hair, but at these words she turned and looked at him.
“How do you mean? You’ve always said there was room for more than one wholesale hardware house in town.” Her voice expressed some alarm.
“There was,” said Harold significantly, “but this Clarence Ahearn is a smart man.”
“I was surprised when you said he was coming to dinner.”
“Evie,” he went on, with another slap at his knee, “after January first ‘The Clarence Ahearn Company’ becomes ‘The Ahearn, Piper Company’—and ‘Piper Brothers’ as a company ceases to exist.”
Evylyn was startled. The sound of his name in second place was somehow hostile to her; still he appeared jubilant.
“I don’t understand, Harold.”
“Well, Evie, Ahearn has been fooling around with Marx. If those two had combined we’d have been the little fellow, struggling along, picking up smaller orders, hanging back on risks. It’s a question of capital, Evie, and ‘Ahearn and Marx’ would have had the business just like ‘Ahearn and Piper’ is going to now.” He paused and coughed and a little cloud of whiskey floated up to her nostrils. “Tell you the truth, Evie, I’ve suspected that Ahearn’s wife had something to do with it. Ambitious little lady, I’m told. Guess she knew the Marxes couldn’t help her much here.”
“Is she—common?” asked Evie.
“Never met her, I’m sure—but I don’t doubt it. Clarence Ahearn’s name’s been up at the Country Club five months—no action taken.” He waved his hand disparagingly. “Ahearn and I had lunch together to-day and just about clinched it, so I thought it’d be nice to have him and his wife up to-night—just have nine, mostly family. After all, it’s a big thing for me, and of course we’ll have to see something of them, Evie.”
“Yes,” said Evie thoughtfully, “I suppose we will.”
Evylyn was not disturbed over the social end of it—but the idea of “Piper Brothers” becoming “The Ahearn, Piper Company” startled her. It seemed like going down in the world.
Half an hour later, as she began to dress for dinner, she heard his voice from down-stairs.
“Oh, Evie, come down!”
She went out into the hall and called over the banister:
“What is it?”
“I want you to help me make some of that punch before dinner.”
Hurriedly rehooking her dress, she descended the stairs and found him grouping the essentials on the dining-room table. She went to the sideboard and, lifting one of the bowls, carried it over.
“Oh, no,” he protested, “let’s use the big one. There’ll be Ahearn and his wife and you and I and Milton, that’s five, and Tom and Jessie, that’s seven: and your sister and Joe Ambler, that’s nine. You don’t know how quick that stuff goes when you make it.”
“We’ll use this bowl,” she insisted. “It’ll hold plenty. You know how Tom is.”
Tom Lowrie, husband to Jessie, Harold’s first cousin, was rather inclined to finish anything in a liquid way that he began.
Harold shook his head.
“Don’t be foolish. That one holds only about three quarts and there’s nine of us, and the servants’ll want some—and it isn’t strong punch. It’s so much more cheerful to have a lot, Evie; we don’t have to drink all of it.”
“I say the small one.”
Again he shook his head obstinately.
“No; be reasonable.”
“I am reasonable,” she said shortly. “I don’t want any drunken men in the house.”
“Who said you did?”
“Then use the small bowl.”
He grasped the smaller bowl to lift it back. Instantly her hands were on it, holding it down. There was a momentary struggle, and then, with a little exasperated grunt, he raised his side, slipped it from her fingers, and carried it to the sideboard.
She looked at him and tried to make her expression contemptuous, but he only laughed. Acknowledging her defeat but disclaiming all future interest in the punch, she left the room.
At seven-thirty, her cheeks glowing and her high-piled hair gleaming with a suspicion of brilliantine, Evylyn descended the stairs. Mrs. Ahearn, a little woman concealing a slight nervousness under red hair and an extreme Empire gown, greeted her volubly. Evelyn disliked her on the spot, but the husband she rather approved of. He had keen blue eyes and a natural gift of pleasing people that might have made him, socially, had he not so obviously committed the blunder of marrying too early in his career.
“I’m glad to know Piper’s wife,” he said simply. “It looks as though your husband and I are going to see a lot of each other in the future.”
She bowed, smiled graciously, and turned to greet the others: Milton Piper, Harold’s quiet, unassertive younger brother; the two Lowries, Jessie and Tom; Irene, her own unmarried sister; and finally Joe Ambler, a confirmed bachelor and Irene’s perennial beau.
Harold led the way into dinner.
“We’re having a punch evening,” he announced jovially—Evylyn saw that he had already sampled his concoction—”so there won’t be any cocktails except the punch. It’s m’ wife’s greatest achievement, Mrs. Ahearn; she’ll give you the recipe if you want it; but owing to a slight”—he caught his wife’s eye and paused —”to a slight indisposition; I’m responsible for this batch. Here’s how!”
All through dinner there was punch, and Evylyn, noticing that Ahearn and Milton Piper and all the women were shaking their heads negatively at the maid, knew she had been right about the bowl; it was still half full. She resolved to caution Harold directly afterward, but when the women left the table Mrs. Ahearn cornered her, and she found herself talking cities and dressmakers with a polite show of interest.
“We’ve moved around a lot,” chattered Mrs. Ahearn, her red head nodding violently. “Oh, yes, we’ve never stayed so long in a town before—but I do hope we’re here for good. I like it here; don’t you?”
“Well, you see, I’ve always lived here, so, naturally——”
“Oh, that’s true,” said Mrs. Ahearn and laughed. Clarence always used to tell me he had to have a wife he could come home to and say: “Well, we’re going to Chicago to-morrow to live, so pack up.”
“I got so I never expected to live anywhere.” She laughed her little laugh again; Evylyn suspected that it was her society laugh.
“Your husband is a very able man, I imagine.”
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Ahearn assured her eagerly. “He’s brainy, Clarence is. Ideas and enthusiasm, you know. Finds out what he wants and then goes and gets it.”
Evylyn nodded. She was wondering if the men were still drinking punch back in the dining-room. Mrs. Ahearn’s history kept unfolding jerkily, but Evylyn had ceased to listen. The first odor of massed cigars began to drift in. It wasn’t really a large house, she reflected; on an evening like this the library sometimes grew blue with smoke, and next day one had to leave the windows open for hours to air the heavy staleness out of the curtains. Perhaps this partnership might . . . she began to speculate on a new house . . .
Mrs. Ahearn’s voice drifted in on her:
“I really would like the recipe if you have it written down somewhere——”
Then there was a sound of chairs in the dining-room and the men strolled in. Evylyn saw at once that her worst fears were realized. Harold’s face was flushed and his words ran together at the ends of sentences, while Tom Lowrie lurched when he walked and narrowly missed Irene’s lap when he tried to sink onto the couch beside her. He sat there blinking dazedly at the company. Evylyn found herself blinking back at him, but she saw no humor in it. Joe Ambler was smiling contentedly and purring on his cigar. Only Ahearn and Milton Piper seemed unaffected.
“It’s a pretty fine town, Ahearn,” said Ambler, “you’ll find that.”
“I’ve found it so,” said Ahearn pleasantly.
“You find it more, Ahearn,” said Harold, nodding emphatically “‘f I’ve an’thin’ do ‘th it.”
He soared into a eulogy of the city, and Evylyn wondered uncomfortably if it bored every one as it bored her. Apparently not. They were all listening attentively. Evylyn broke in at the first gap.
“Where’ve you been living, Mr. Ahearn?” she asked interestedly. Then she remembered that Mrs. Ahearn had told her, but it didn’t matter. Harold mustn’t talk so much. He was such an ass when he’d been drinking. But he plopped directly back in.
“Tell you, Ahearn. Firs’ you wanna get a house up here on the hill. Get Stearne house or Ridgeway house. Wanna have it so people say: ‘There’s Ahearn house.’ Solid, you know, tha’s effec’ it gives.”
Evylyn flushed. This didn’t sound right at all. Still Ahearn didn’t seem to notice anything amiss, only nodded gravely.
“Have you been looking——” But her words trailed off unheard as Harold’s voice boomed on.
“Get house—tha’s start. Then you get know people. Snobbish town first toward outsider, but not long—after know you. People like you”—he indicated Ahearn and his wife with a sweeping gesture—”all right. Cordial as an’thin’ once get by first barrer-bar-barrer—” He swallowed, and then said “barrier,” repeated it masterfully.
Evylyn looked appealingly at her brother-in-law, but before he could intercede a thick mumble had come crowding out of Tom Lowrie, hindered by the dead cigar which he gripped firmly with his teeth.
“Huma uma ho huma ahdy um——”
“What?” demanded Harold earnestly.
Resignedly and with difficulty Tom removed the cigar—that is, he removed part of it, and then blew the remainder with a whut sound across the room, where it landed liquidly and limply in Mrs. Ahearn’s lap.
“Beg pardon,” he mumbled, and rose with the vague intention of going after it. Milton’s hand on his coat collapsed him in time, and Mrs. Ahearn not ungracefully flounced the tobacco from her skirt to the floor, never once looking at it.
“I was sayin’,” continued Tom thickly, “‘fore ‘at happened,”—he waved his hand apologetically toward Mrs. Ahearn—”I was sayin’ I heard all truth that Country Club matter.”
Milton leaned and whispered something to him.
“Lemme ‘lone,” he said petulantly; “know what I’m doin’. ‘Ats what they came for.”
Evylyn sat there in a panic, trying to make her mouth form words. She saw her sister’s sardonic expression and Mrs. Ahearn’s face turning a vivid red. Ahearn was looking down at his watch-chain, fingering it.
“I heard who’s been keepin’ y’ out, an’ he’s not a bit better’n you. I can fix whole damn thing up. Would’ve before, but I didn’t know you. Harol’ tol’ me you felt bad about the thing——”
Milton Piper rose suddenly and awkwardly to his feet. In a second every one was standing tensely and Milton was saying something very hurriedly about having to go early, and the Ahearns were listening with eager intentness. Then Mrs. Ahearn swallowed and turned with a forced smile toward Jessie. Evylyn saw Tom lurch forward and put his hand on Ahearns shoulder—and suddenly she was listening to a new, anxious voice at her elbow, and, turning, found Hilda, the second maid.
“Please, Mis’ Piper, I tank Yulie got her hand poisoned. It’s all swole up and her cheeks is hot and she’s moanin’ an’ groanin’——”
“Julie is?” Evylyn asked sharply. The party suddenly receded. She turned quickly, sought with her eyes for Mrs. Ahearn, slipped toward her.
“If you’ll excuse me, Mrs.—” She had momentarily forgotten the name, but she went right on: “My little girl’s been taken sick. I’ll be down when I can.” She turned and ran quickly up the stairs, retaining a confused picture of rays of cigar smoke and a loud discussion in the centre of the room that seemed to be developing into an argument.
Switching on the light in the nursery, she found Julie tossing feverishly and giving out odd little cries. She put her hand against the cheeks. They were burning. With an exclamation she followed the arm down under the cover until she found the hand. Hilda was right. The whole thumb was swollen to the wrist and in the centre was a little inflamed sore. Blood-poisoning! her mind cried in terror. The bandage had come off the cut and she’d gotten something in it. She’d cut it at three o’clock—it was now nearly eleven. Eight hours. Blood-poisoning couldn’t possibly develop so soon.
She rushed to the ‘phone.
Doctor Martin across the street was out. Doctor Foulke, their family physician, didn’t answer. She racked her brains and in desperation called her throat specialist, and bit her lip furiously while he looked up the numbers of two physicians. During that interminable moment she thought she heard loud voices down-stairs—but she seemed to be in another world now. After fifteen minutes she located a physician who sounded angry and sulky at being called out of bed. She ran back to the nursery and, looking at the hand, found it was somewhat more swollen.
“Oh, God!” she cried, and kneeling beside the bed began smoothing back Julie’s hair over and over. With a vague idea of getting some hot water, she rose and stared toward the door, but the lace of her dress caught in the bed-rail and she fell forward on her hands and knees. She struggled up and jerked frantically at the lace. The bed moved and Julie groaned. Then more quietly but with suddenly fumbling fingers she found the pleat in front, tore the whole pannier completely off, and rushed from the room.
Out in the hall she heard a single loud, insistent voice, but as she reached the head of the stairs it ceased and an outer door banged.
The music-room came into view. Only Harold and Milton were there, the former leaning against a chair, his face very pale, his collar open, and his mouth moving loosely.
“What’s the matter?”
Milton looked at her anxiously.
“There was a little trouble——”
Then Harold saw her and, straightening up with an effort, began to speak.
“Sult m’own cousin m’own house. God damn common nouveau rish. ‘Sult m’own cousin——”
“Tom had trouble with Ahearn and Harold interfered,” said Milton. “My Lord Milton,” cried Evylyn, “couldn’t you have done something?”
“I tried; I——”
“Julie’s sick,” she interrupted; “she’s poisoned herself. Get him to bed if you can.”
Harold looked up.
Paying no attention, Evylyn brushed by through the dining-room, catching sight, with a burst of horror, of the big punch-bowl still on the table, the liquid from melted ice in its bottom. She heard steps on the front stairs—it was Milton helping Harold up—and then a mumble: “Why, Julie’s a’righ’.”
“Don’t let him go into the nursery!” she shouted.
The hours blurred into a nightmare. The doctor arrived just before midnight and within a half-hour had lanced the wound. He left at two after giving her the addresses of two nurses to call up and promising to return at half past six. It was blood-poisoning.
At four, leaving Hilda by the bedside, she went to her room, and slipping with a shudder out of her evening dress, kicked it into a corner. She put on a house dress and returned to the nursery while Hilda went to make coffee.
Not until noon could she bring herself to look into Harold’s room, but when she did it was to find him awake and staring very miserably at the ceiling. He turned blood-shot hollow eyes upon her. For a minute she hated him, couldn’t speak. A husky voice came from the bed.
“What time is it?”
“I made a damn fool——”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said sharply. “Julie’s got blood-poisoning. They may”—she choked over the words—”they think she’ll have to lose her hand.”
“She cut herself on that—that bowl.”
“Oh, what does it matter?” see cried; “she’s got blood-poisoning. Can’t you hear?” He looked at her bewildered—sat half-way up in bed.
“I’ll get dressed,” he said.
Her anger subsided and a great wave of weariness and pity for him rolled over her. After all, it was his trouble, too.
“Yes,” she answered listlessly, “I suppose you’d better.”
If Evylyn’s beauty had hesitated an her early thirties it came to an abrupt decision just afterward and completely left her. A tentative outlay of wrinkles on her face suddenly deepened and flesh collected rapidly on her legs and hips and arms. Her mannerism of drawing her brows together had become an expression—it was habitual when she was reading or speaking and even while she slept. She was forty-six.
As in most families whose fortunes have gone down rather than up, she and Harold had drifted into a colorless antagonism. In repose they looked at each other with the toleration they might have felt for broken old chairs; Evylyn worried a little when he was sick and did her best to be cheerful under the wearying depression of living with a disappointed man.
Family bridge was over for the evening and she sighed with relief. She had made more mistakes than usual this evening and she didn’t care. Irene shouldn’t have made that remark about the infantry being particularly dangerous. There had been no letter for three weeks now, and, while this was nothing out of the ordinary, it never failed to make her nervous; naturally she hadn’t known how many clubs were out.
Harold had gone up-stairs, so she stepped out on the porch for a breath of fresh air. There was a bright glamour of moonlight diffusing on the sidewalks and lawns, and with a little half yawn, half laugh, she remembered one long moonlight affair of her youth. It was astonishing to think that life had once been the sum of her current love-affairs. It was now the sum of her current problems.
There was the problem of Julie—Julie was thirteen, and lately she was growing more and more sensitive about her deformity and preferred to stay always in her room reading. A few years before she had been frightened at the idea of going to school, and Evylyn could not bring herself to send her, so she grew up in her mother’s shadow, a pitiful little figure with the artificial hand that she made no attempt to use but kept forlornly in her pocket. Lately she had been taking lessons in using it because Evylyn had feared she would cease to lift the arm altogether, but after the lessons, unless she made a move with it in listless obedience to her mother, the little hand would creep back to the pocket of her dress. For a while her dresses were made without pockets, but Julie had moped around the house so miserably at a loss all one month that Evylyn weakened and never tried the experiment again.
The problem of Donald had been different from the start. She had attempted vainly to keep him near her as she had tried to teach Julie to lean less on her—lately the problem of Donald had been snatched out of her hands; his division had been abroad for three months.
She yawned again—life was a thing for youth. What a happy youth she must have had! She remembered her pony, Bijou, and the trip to Europe with her mother when she was eighteen——
“Very, very complicated,” she said aloud and severely to the moon, and, stepping inside, was about to close the door when she heard a noise in the library and started.
It was Martha, the middle-aged servant: they kept only one now.
“Why, Martha!” she said in surprise.
Martha turned quickly.
“Oh, I thought you was up-stairs. I was jist——”
“Is anything the matter?”
“No; I——” She stood there fidgeting. “It was a letter, Mrs. Piper, that I put somewhere.
“A letter? Your own letter?” asked Evylyn.
“No, it was to you. ‘Twas this afternoon, Mrs. Piper, in the last mail. The postman give it to me and then the back door-bell rang. I had it in my hand, so I must have stuck it somewhere. I thought I’d just slip in now and find it.”
“What sort of a letter? From Mr. Donald?”
“No, it was an advertisement, maybe, or a business letter. It was a long narrow one, I remember.”
They began a search through the music-room, looking on trays and mantelpieces, and then through the library, feeling on the tops of rows of books. Martha paused in despair.
“I can’t think where. I went straight to the kitchen. The dining-room, maybe.” She started hopefully for the dining-room, but turned suddenly at the sound of a gasp behind her. Evylyn had sat down heavily in a Morris chair, her brows drawn very close together eyes blanking furiously.
“Are you sick?”
For a minute there was no answer. Evylyn sat there very still and Martha could see the very quick rise and fall of her bosom.
“Are you sick?” she repeated.
“No,” said Evylyn slowly, “but I know where the letter is. Go ‘way, Martha. I know.”
Wonderingly, Martha withdrew, and still Evylyn sat there, only the muscles around her eyes moving—contracting and relaxing and contracting again. She knew now where the letter was—she knew as well as if she had put it there herself. And she felt instinctively and unquestionably what the letter was. It was long and narrow like an advertisement, but up in the corner in large letters it said “War Department” and, in smaller letters below, “Official Business.” She knew it lay there in the big bowl with her name in ink on the outside and her soul’s death within.
Rising uncertainly, she walked toward the dining-room, feeling her way along the bookcases and through the doorway. After a moment she found the light and switched it on.
There was the bowl, reflecting the electric light in crimson squares edged with black and yellow squares edged with blue, ponderous and glittering, grotesquely and triumphantly ominous. She took a step forward and paused again; another step and she would see over the top and into the inside—another step and she would see an edge of white—another step—her hands fell on the rough, cold surface—
In a moment she was tearing it open, fumbling with an obstinate fold, holding it before her while the typewritten page glared out and struck at her. Then it fluttered like a bird to the floor. The house that had seemed whirring, buzzing a moment since, was suddenly very quiet; a breath of air crept in through the open front door carrying the noise of a passing motor; she heard faint sounds from upstairs and then a grinding racket in the pipe behind the bookcases-her husband turning of a water-tap——
And in that instant it was as if this were not, after all, Donald’s hour except in so far as he was a marker in the insidious contest that had gone on in sudden surges and long, listless interludes between Evylyn and this cold, malignant thing of beauty, a gift of enmity from a man whose face she had long since forgotten. With its massive, brooding passivity it lay there in the centre of her house as it had lain for years, throwing out the ice-like beams of a thousand eyes, perverse glitterings merging each into each, never aging, never changing.
Evylyn sat down on the edge of the table and stared at it fascinated. It seemed to be smiling now, a very cruel smile, as if to say:
“You see, this time I didn’t have to hurt you directly. I didn’t bother. You know it was I who took your son away. You know how cold I am and how hard and how beautiful, because once you were just as cold and hard and beautiful.”
The bowl seemed suddenly to turn itself over and then to distend and swell until it became a great canopy that glittered and trembled over the room, over the house, and, as the walls melted slowly into mist, Evylyn saw that it was still moving out, out and far away from her, shutting off far horizons and suns and moons and stars except as inky blots seen faintly through it. And under it walked all the people, and the light that came through to them was refracted and twisted until shadow seamed light and light seemed shadow—until the whole panoply of the world became changed and distorted under the twinkling heaven of the bowl.
Then there came a far-away, booming voice like a low, clear bell. It came from the centre of the bowl and down the great sides to the ground and then bounced toward her eagerly.
“You see, I am fate,” it shouted, “and stronger than your puny plans; and I am how-things-turn-out and I am different from your little dreams, and I am the flight of time and the end of beauty and unfulfilled desire; all the accidents and imperceptions and the little minutes that shape the crucial hours are mine. I am the exception that proves no rules, the limits of your control, the condiment in the dish of life.”
The booming sound stopped; the echoes rolled away over the wide land to the edge of the bowl that bounded the world and up the great sides and back to the centre where they hummed for a moment and died. Then the great walls began slowly to bear down upon her, growing smaller and smaller, coming closer and closer as if to crush her; and as she clinched her hands and waited for the swift bruise of the cold glass, the bowl gave a sudden wrench and turned over—and lay there on the side-board, shining and inscrutable, reflecting in a hundred prisms, myriad, many-colored glints and gleams and crossings and interlaces of light.
The cold wind blew in again through to front door, and with a desperate, frantic energy Evylyn stretched both her arms around the bowl. She must be quick—she must be strong. She tightened her arms until they ached, tauted the thin strips of muscle under her soft flesh, and with a mighty effort raised it and held it. She felt the wind blow cold on her back where her dress had come apart from the strain of her effort, and as she felt it she turned toward it and staggered under the great weight out through the library and on toward the front door. She must be quick—she must be strong. The blood in her arms throbbed dully and her knees kept giving way under her, but the feel of the cool glass was good.
Out the front door she tottered and over to the stone steps, and there, summoning every fibre of her soul and body for a last effort, swung herself half around—for a second, as she tried to loose her hold, her numb fingers clung to the rough surface, and in that second she slipped and, losing balance, toppled forward with a despairing cry, her arms still around the bowl . . . down . . .
Over the way lights went on; far down the block the crash was heard, and pedestrians rushed up wonderingly; up-stairs a tired man awoke from the edge of sleep and a little girl whimpered in a haunted doze. And all over the moonlit sidewalk around the still, black form, hundreds of prisms and cubes and splinters of glass reflected the light in little gleams of blue, and black edged with yellow, and yellow, and crimson edged with black.