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HERMIA did not join us at breakfast, but I had no need to account for her absence upon that theory of extreme fatigue from her journey, which Mrs. Faulkner urged with so much superfluous apology. I began to have my reluctances about that old lady, to wish to escape from her, because I had refused to oblige her in that little matter of interviewing Nevil, and I was afraid she would recur to it. I made an excuse of wanting to look about the town, and I went out as soon as I could get away after breakfast.
Now that I was there, and had come so far, I was willing to see all I could of the place, and of several people in it whom I remembered as very charming; and I felt exasperated by the terms of my presence. I reviled myself for going to the Faulkners', though I knew I could not help it; but being their guest I could not leave them except to leave town. I strolled about harassed with the notion that I would go on the night express, and denying myself in the interest of this early departure all those little lapses into sentiment concerning the past which I had always expected to indulge when I returned to its scenes. I found myself unwilling to meet my old friends, with the burden on me of having to say that I was there only for the day, and to explain that I had come on with Mrs. Faulkner, and was her guest. I hated the air of mystery the affair would have; but there was one person whom I could not really think of going away without seeing. As a young man I used to come and go in her house as freely as in my own home, at any time between nine in the morning and twelve at night; she had been kind to me, and helpful and inspiring, as only a brilliant woman of the world, who is also good, can be to an ambitious, shy, awkward young fellow of twenty-two; and I decided to make hers stand for all the friendships of the past.
She made me so sweetly welcome that in a moment we had broken through the little web of alienation that the spider years had been spinning between us; and found ourselves exactly in the old relations again. I had been a little curious, after seeing so much of the world, to see whether she would appear as clever and accomplished as she used to seem; and I was glad to find she bore the test of my mature experience perfectly. After all, it is such women who make the polite world, wherever we find it; not the world them. Her tact divined, without any motion of mine, all the external points of the case, and made it seem even to me the most natural thing possible that I should have seized the occasion of Mrs. Faulkner's being in Boston to run out with her to my old home, if only for a day, and give my old friends a glimpse of me. She supposed that I must be devoted to the Faulkners for the short time I staid, and she would merely insist upon my lunching with her; she would make my peace with Mrs. Faulkner. Was not she exquisite? Had I ever met any one just like her? And what a life of self-devotion, and then of sorrow! No, no one could understand what she had been through, unless they had seen something of it day by day. But I had seen something; the most tragical thing of all, perhaps; and my wife had been so good! Mrs. Faulkner had told her about Mrs. March.
The talk naturally confined itself to Mrs. Faulkner for a time, and it naturally returned to her from whatever excursions it made in other directions. After a while, it began, somehow, to include Nevil, whom I found to be another of my friend's enthusiasms; she celebrated him with the fervor that is rather characteristic of hero and heroine worship in small places, where people almost have their noses against the altar. I trembled inwardly for the secret I was guarding, for I felt that my friend would have it out of me in an instant if she suspected me of its custody, but apparently she knew nothing of the engagement. She asked me if I had heard of that horrid affair out West which had given poor Mr. Nevil back to them again; and she said she supposed he would never think of marrying, now. She wished that he would marry Hermia Faulkner; it would be more than appropriate, it would be ideal; they were exactly suited to each other; and she could help him in his work as no other woman could. She deserved some happiness; but it would be like her to go on dedicating her whole existence to the memory of a man who was really her inferior, and who had nothing to commend him to her constancy except his love for her. Of his love for her you could not say enough; but my friend reminded me that she had never considered him the wonderful person that some people thought him; and she scouted the notion of his having married beneath him in marrying Hermia Winter. Her people were very nice people, though they were so poor; they were idealists; and her father had come West and settled on Pawpaw Creek after the failure of one of those communities in New England, which he had been connected with. As for Hermia herself, whom my friend remembered in her Bell's Institute days, she was a girl of the rarest intelligence and character; a being quite supernally above a ward politician and a pretentious dilettante like Douglas Faulkner, whose "three times skimmed sky-blue" Virginia blood was full of the barbaric pride of a race of slave-holders. As my friend went on she characterized poor Faulkner with a violent excess which would have satisfied even Mrs. March the day when she first met him at Swampscott, and he betrayed his defective tastes in literature and art. Of course, I said that this was exactly the way in which he had impressed my wife; and I defended him. But she told me I might spare my breath; that she knew I really thought just as my wife and she did about him; and that if James Nevil had not been a saint upon earth he never could have endured the man.
"We are both saints," I suggested. "I endured him."
"Oh, no, you're not. Nevil really loved him, and I believe he loves his memory to this day."
"Well, at any rate Faulkner's out of the story," I urged.
"I'm not so sure of that!" cried my friend. "I'm afraid it's their foolish constancy to him that keeps those two from thinking of each other."
"Are you, really?" I asked, and I found a perverse amusement in playing with her shrewd ignorance so near my knowledge, which it could so easily have penetrated. "It seems to me that if they were inclined to each other, their allegiance to the dead would have very little effect. I suspect that conscience, or the moral sentiments, or whatever we call the supersensuous equipment, has nothing to do with people's falling in love, except to find reasons and justifications for it, and to add a zest to it."
"I will write that to Mrs. March," said my friend, "and ask her if those are her ideas, too."
"Oh, I know!" I answered airily. "You ladies like to pretend that it's an affair of the soul, or if possible, of the intellect; and as your favor is the breath of the novelists' nostrils, they all flatter you up in your pretension, till you get to believing in it yourselves. But at the bottom of your hearts, you know, as we do, that it's a plain, earthly affair, for this life, for this trip and train only."
"Shocking! shocking!" said my friend, shaking her head, which had grown charmingly gray, in a marquise manner, and evincing her delight in the boldness with which I handled the matter.
"You may be sure," I concluded, "that if these two people have not fallen in love, it's because they don't fancy each other. If they did, there would be no consideration of sentiment, no air-woven tie of fealty to a love or a friendship of the past, which would hold them in the leash. If Faulkner's ghost rose between them, they would plunge through it into each other's arms."
"Ah, now you are talking atrociously!" said my friend.
I had indeed been hurried a little beyond myself by a sudden realization of the fact that so far as Hermia was concerned, the past was obliterated by her determination to leave everything to Nevil; and that as soon as Nevil knew everything, he would decide, as I should have decided, that every consideration of honor and delicacy and duty, as well as of love, bound him to her. An added impulse had been given to my words by the consciousness that I was the only means of making her determination known to him, that whether she had inspired her mother to ask this service of me or not, she tacitly hoped it, and that in the end I should probably somehow render it.
But I instinctively fought off from it as long as I could, and I resolved to leave town without rendering it if possible. I spent most of the afternoon with my friend; and she sent a late embassy to the Faulkners to know if she might keep me to dinner. They consented, as they must; Hermia herself wrote that she consented only because she was so completely prostrated that she could not hope to see me at dinner, and her mother was not well; they counted upon having me several days with them, and they would not be selfish.