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MRS. MARCH dissembled her joy at the prospect when I opened it to her. She said she did not see how she entered into the affair. Faulkner was an old friend of mine; but she had nothing to do with him, and certainly nothing to do with his wife. They would not like each other; it would look patronizing; it would complicate matters; she did not see what good it would do for her to go. I constantly fell back upon the doctor's suggestion. In the end, she went. She professed to be governed entirely by Dr. Wingate's opinion of our duty in the case; I acknowledged a good deal of curiosity as well as some humanity, and I boldly proposed to gratify both. But in fact I felt rather ashamed of my motives when I met Faulkner, and I righted myself in my own regard by instantly shifting my visit to the ground of friendly civility. He seemed surprised and touched to see me, and he welcomed my wife with that rather decorative politeness which men of Southern extraction use toward women. He was not going to have any of my compassion as an invalid, that was clear; and he put himself on a level with me in the matter of health at once. He said it was very good of Dr. Wingate to send me so soon, and I was very good to come; he was rather expecting the doctor himself in the afternoon; he had been out of kilter for two or three years; but he was getting all right now. I knew he did not believe this, but I made believe not to know it, and I even said, when he asked me how I was, that I was so-so; and I left him to infer that everybody was out of kilter, and perhaps just in his own way.
"Well, let us go up to the house," he said, as if this gave him a pleasure, "and find Mrs. Faulkner. You never met my wife, March? Her people used to live just outside the city line, on Pawpaw Creek. They were of New England origin," he added to my wife; "but I don't know whether you'll find her very much of a Yankee. She has passed most of her life in the West. She will be very glad to see you; we have no acquaintances about here. Your Eastern people don't catch on to the homeless stranger quite so quickly as we do in the West. I dare say they don't let go so easily, either."
We had found Faulkner at the gate of his avenue, and we began to walk with him at once toward his cottage, under the arches of the sea-beaten, somewhat wizened elms, which all slanted landward, with a writhing fling of their gray and yellow lichened boughs. It was a delicious morning, and the cool sunshine dripped in through the thin leaves, here and there blighted at the edge and faded, and seemed to lie in pools in the road. The fine air was fresh, and brought from a distance apparently greater than it really came the plunge of the surf against the rocks, and the crash of the rollers along the beach. The ground fell away in a wide stretch of neglected lawn toward the water; and the autumnal dandelions lifted their stars on their tall slender stems from the long grass, which was full of late summer glint and sheen, and blowing with a delicate sway and tilt of its blades in the breeze that tossed the elms.
"What a lovely place!" sighed my wife.
"You haven't begun to see it," said Faulkner. "We've got twenty acres of land here, and all the sea and sky there are. Mrs. Faulkner will want to show you the whole affair. Did you walk up from the station? I'll send for your baggage from the house."
"That won't be necessary; I have it on my arm," said my wife, and she put her little shopping bag in evidence with a gay twirl.
"Why, but you're going to stay all night?"
"Oh, no, indeed! What would become of our children?"
"We'll send to Lynn for them."
"Thank you; it couldn't be managed. I won't try to convince you, Mr. Faulkner, but I'm sure your wife will be reasonable," she said, to forestall the protests which she saw hovering in his eyes.
I noticed that his eyes, once so beautiful, had a dull and suffering look, and the smokiness of his complexion had a kind of livid stain in it. His hair straggled from under his soft felt hat with the unkempt effect I remembered, and his dress had a sort of characteristic slovenliness. He carried a stick, and his expressive hands seemed longer and languider, as if relaxed from a nervous tension borne beyond the strength.
"Well, I'm sorry," said Faulkner. "But you're booked for the day, anyway."
My wife apparently did not think it worth while to dispute this; or perhaps she was waiting to have it out with Mrs. Faulkner. He put up his arm across my shoulders, and gave me a little pull toward him. "It's mighty pleasant to see you again, old fellow! I can't tell you how pleasant."
I was not to be outdone in civilities, and my cordiality in reply retrospectively established our former acquaintance on a ground of intimacy which it had never really occupied. My wife knew this and gave me a look of surprise, which I could see hardening into the resolution not to betray herself at least into insincerities.
"You'll find another old acquaintance of yours here," Faulkner went on. "You remember Nevil?"
"Your clerical friend? Yes, indeed! Is he here?" I put as much factitious rapture into my tone as it would hold.
"Yes; we were in Europe together, and he's spending a month with us here." Faulkner spoke gloomily, almost sullenly; he added, brightly, "You know I can't get along without Jim. He was in Europe with us, too, a good deal of the time. Yes, we've always been great friends."
"You remember I told you about Mr. Nevil, my dear," I explained to my wife.
"Oh, yes," she said, non-committally.
Faulkner slipped his hand from my shoulder into my arm, and gently stayed my pace a little. I perceived that he was leaning on me; but I made a feint of our being merely affectionate, and slowed my step as unconsciously as I could. He looked up under the downward slanted brim of his hat. "I expected them before this. Nevil went up to the house for my wife, and then we were going down on the rocks."
He stopped short, and rested heavily against me. I glanced round at his face: it was a lurid red, and, as it were, suffused with pain; his eyes seemed to stand full of tears; his lips were purple, and they quivered.
It was an odious moment: we could not speak or stir; we suffered too, and were cruelly embarrassed, for we felt that we must not explicitly recognize his seizure. In front of us I saw a gentleman and lady who seemed to be under something of our constraint. They were coming as swiftly as possible, without seeming to hurry, and they must have understood the situation, though they could not see his features. Before they reached us, Faulkner's face relaxed, and began to recover its natural color. He stirred, and I felt him urging me softly forward. By the time we encountered the others, he was able to say, in very much his usual tone, "My dear, this is Mrs. March, and my old friend March, that I've told you about. Nevil, you remember March? Let me present you to Mrs. March."
My astonishment that he could accomplish these introductions was lost in the interest that Mrs. Faulkner at once inspired in my wife, as I could see, equally with myself. She must then have been about thirty, and she had lost her girlish slenderness without having lost her girlish grace. Her figure, tall much above the wont of women, had a mature stateliness, while fitful gleams of her first youth brightened her face, her voice, her manner. There could be no doubt about her refinement, and none about her beauty; the one was as evident as the other. The beauty was of a usual American type; the refinement was from her eyes, which were angelic; deep and faithful and touching. I am sure this was the first impression of my wife as well as myself.
I shook hands with Nevil, whom I found looking not so much older as the past ten years should have made him. His dark golden hair had retreated a little on his forehead, and there were some faint, faint lines down his cheeks and his shaven lips. I saw the look of anxiety he cast furtively at Faulkner; but for that he seemed as young and high-hearted as when we first met. I searched his eyes for the clear goodness which once dwelt in them, and found it, a little saddened, a little sobered, a little more saintly, but all there, still. I cannot tell how my heart went out to him with a tenderness which nothing in his behavior toward me had ever invited. On the few occasions when we met, he had always loyally left me to Faulkner, who made all the advances and offered all the caresses, without winning any such return of affection from me as I now involuntarily felt for Nevil. Of course I looked at my wife to see what she thought of him. I saw that something in her being a woman, which drew her to Mrs. Faulkner, left her indifferent to Nevil.