as first published in
Harper's Monthly, December 1903
It was on an impulse hardly needing the arguments he found
himself advancing in its favor, that Thursdale, on his way to the
club, turned as usual into Mrs. Vervain's street.
The "as usual" was his own qualification of the act; a convenient
way of bridging the interval--in days and other sequences--that
lay between this visit and the last. It was characteristic of
him that he instinctively excluded his call two days earlier,
with Ruth Gaynor, from the list of his visits to Mrs. Vervain:
the special conditions attending it had made it no more like a
visit to Mrs. Vervain than an engraved dinner invitation is like
a personal letter. Yet it was to talk over his call with Miss
Gaynor that he was now returning to the scene of that episode;
and it was because Mrs. Vervain could be trusted to handle the
talking over as skilfully as the interview itself that, at her
corner, he had felt the dilettante's irresistible craving to take
a last look at a work of art that was passing out of his
On the whole, he knew no one better fitted to deal with the
unexpected than Mrs. Vervain. She excelled in the rare art of
taking things for granted, and Thursdale felt a pardonable pride
in the thought that she owed her excellence to his training.
Early in his career Thursdale had made the mistake, at the outset
of his acquaintance with a lady, of telling her that he loved her
and exacting the same avowal in return. The latter part of that
episode had been like the long walk back from a picnic, when one
has to carry all the crockery one has finished using: it was the
last time Thursdale ever allowed himself to be encumbered with
the debris of a feast. He thus incidentally learned that the
privilege of loving her is one of the least favors that a
charming woman can accord; and in seeking to avoid the pitfalls
of sentiment he had developed a science of evasion in which the
woman of the moment became a mere implement of the game. He owed
a great deal of delicate enjoyment to the cultivation of this
art. The perils from which it had been his refuge became naively
harmless: was it possible that he who now took his easy way along
the levels had once preferred to gasp on the raw heights of
emotion? Youth is a high-colored season; but he had the
satisfaction of feeling that he had entered earlier than most
into that chiar'oscuro of sensation where every half-tone has its
As a promoter of this pleasure no one he had known was comparable
to Mrs. Vervain. He had taught a good many women not to betray
their feelings, but he had never before had such fine material to
work in. She had been surprisingly crude when he first knew her;
capable of making the most awkward inferences, of plunging
through thin ice, of recklessly undressing her emotions; but she
had acquired, under the discipline of his reticences and
evasions, a skill almost equal to his own, and perhaps more
remarkable in that it involved keeping time with any tune he
played and reading at sight some uncommonly difficult passages.
It had taken Thursdale seven years to form this fine talent; but
the result justified the effort. At the crucial moment she had
been perfect: her way of greeting Miss Gaynor had made him regret
that he had announced his engagement by letter. It was an
evasion that confessed a difficulty; a deviation implying an
obstacle, where, by common consent, it was agreed to see none; it
betrayed, in short, a lack of confidence in the completeness of
his method. It had been his pride never to put himself in a
position which had to be quitted, as it were, by the back door;
but here, as he perceived, the main portals would have opened for
him of their own accord. All this, and much more, he read in the
finished naturalness with which Mrs. Vervain had met Miss Gaynor.
He had never seen a better piece of work: there was no over-
eagerness, no suspicious warmth, above all (and this gave her art
the grace of a natural quality) there were none of those damnable
implications whereby a woman, in welcoming her friend's
betrothed, may keep him on pins and needles while she laps the
lady in complacency. So masterly a performance, indeed, hardly
needed the offset of Miss Gaynor's door-step words--"To be so
kind to me, how she must have liked you!"--though he caught
himself wishing it lay within the bounds of fitness to transmit
them, as a final tribute, to the one woman he knew who was
unfailingly certain to enjoy a good thing. It was perhaps the
one drawback to his new situation that it might develop good
things which it would be impossible to hand on to Margaret
The fact that he had made the mistake of underrating his friend's
powers, the consciousness that his writing must have betrayed his
distrust of her efficiency, seemed an added reason for turning
down her street instead of going on to the club. He would show
her that he knew how to value her; he would ask her to achieve
with him a feat infinitely rarer and more delicate than the one
he had appeared to avoid. Incidentally, he would also dispose of
the interval of time before dinner: ever since he had seen Miss
Gaynor off, an hour earlier, on her return journey to Buffalo, he
had been wondering how he should put in the rest of the
afternoon. It was absurd, how he missed the girl. . . . Yes,
that was it; the desire to talk about her was, after all, at the
bottom of his impulse to call on Mrs. Vervain! It was absurd, if
you like--but it was delightfully rejuvenating. He could recall
the time when he had been afraid of being obvious: now he felt
that this return to the primitive emotions might be as
restorative as a holiday in the Canadian woods. And it was
precisely by the girl's candor, her directness, her lack of
complications, that he was taken. The sense that she might say
something rash at any moment was positively exhilarating: if she
had thrown her arms about him at the station he would not have
given a thought to his crumpled dignity. It surprised Thursdale
to find what freshness of heart he brought to the adventure; and
though his sense of irony prevented his ascribing his intactness
to any conscious purpose, he could but rejoice in the fact that
his sentimental economies had left him such a large surplus to
Mrs. Vervain was at home--as usual. When one visits the cemetery
one expects to find the angel on the tombstone, and it struck
Thursdale as another proof of his friend's good taste that she
had been in no undue haste to change her habits. The whole house
appeared to count on his coming; the footman took his hat and
overcoat as naturally as though there had been no lapse in his
visits; and the drawing-room at once enveloped him in that
atmosphere of tacit intelligence which Mrs. Vervain imparted to
her very furniture.
It was a surprise that, in this general harmony of circumstances,
Mrs. Vervain should herself sound the first false note.
"You?" she exclaimed; and the book she held slipped from her
It was crude, certainly; unless it were a touch of the finest
art. The difficulty of classifying it disturbed Thursdale's
"Why not?" he said, restoring the book. "Isn't it my hour?" And
as she made no answer, he added gently, "Unless it's some one
She laid the book aside and sank back into her chair. "Mine,
merely," she said.
"I hope that doesn't mean that you're unwilling to share it?"
"With you? By no means. You're welcome to my last crust."
He looked at her reproachfully. "Do you call this the last?"
She smiled as he dropped into the seat across the hearth. "It's
a way of giving it more flavor!"
He returned the smile. "A visit to you doesn't need such
She took this with just the right measure of retrospective
"Ah, but I want to put into this one a very special taste," she
Her smile was so confident, so reassuring, that it lulled him
into the imprudence of saying, "Why should you want it to be
different from what was always so perfectly right?"
She hesitated. "Doesn't the fact that it's the last constitute a
"The last--my last visit to you?"
"Oh, metaphorically, I mean--there's a break in the continuity."
Decidedly, she was pressing too hard: unlearning his arts
"I don't recognize it," he said. "Unless you make me--" he
added, with a note that slightly stirred her attitude of languid
She turned to him with grave eyes. "You recognize no difference
"None--except an added link in the chain."
"An added link?"
"In having one more thing to like you for--your letting Miss
Gaynor see why I had already so many." He flattered himself that
this turn had taken the least hint of fatuity from the phrase.
Mrs. Vervain sank into her former easy pose. "Was it that you
came for?" she asked, almost gaily.
"If it is necessary to have a reason--that was one."
"To talk to me about Miss Gaynor?"
"To tell you how she talks about you."
"That will be very interesting--especially if you have seen her
since her second visit to me."
"Her second visit?" Thursdale pushed his chair back with a start
and moved to another. "She came to see you again?"
"This morning, yes--by appointment."
He continued to look at her blankly. "You sent for her?"
"I didn't have to--she wrote and asked me last night. But no
doubt you have seen her since."
Thursdale sat silent. He was trying to separate his words from
his thoughts, but they still clung together inextricably. "I saw
her off just now at the station."
"And she didn't tell you that she had been here again?"
"There was hardly time, I suppose--there were people about--" he
"Ah, she'll write, then."
He regained his composure. "Of course she'll write: very often,
I hope. You know I'm absurdly in love," he cried audaciously.
She tilted her head back, looking up at him as he leaned against
the chimney-piece. He had leaned there so often that the
attitude touched a pulse which set up a throbbing in her throat.
"Oh, my poor Thursdale!" she murmured.
"I suppose it's rather ridiculous," he owned; and as she remained
silent, he added, with a sudden break--"Or have you another
reason for pitying me?"
Her answer was another question. "Have you been back to your
rooms since you left her?"
"Since I left her at the station? I came straight here."
"Ah, yes--you COULD: there was no reason--" Her words passed
into a silent musing.
Thursdale moved nervously nearer. "You said you had something to
"Perhaps I had better let her do so. There may be a letter at
"A letter? What do you mean? A letter from HER? What has
His paleness shook her, and she raised a hand of reassurance.
"Nothing has happened--perhaps that is just the worst of it. You
always HATED, you know," she added incoherently, "to have things
happen: you never would let them."
"Well, that was what she came here for: I supposed you had
guessed. To know if anything had happened."
"Had happened?" He gazed at her slowly. "Between you and me?"
he said with a rush of light.
The words were so much cruder than any that had ever passed
between them that the color rose to her face; but she held his
"You know girls are not quite as unsophisticated as they used to
be. Are you surprised that such an idea should occur to her?"
His own color answered hers: it was the only reply that came to
Mrs. Vervain went on, smoothly: "I supposed it might have struck
you that there were times when we presented that appearance."
He made an impatient gesture. "A man's past is his own!"
"Perhaps--it certainly never belongs to the woman who has shared
it. But one learns such truths only by experience; and Miss
Gaynor is naturally inexperienced."
"Of course--but--supposing her act a natural one--" he floundered
lamentably among his innuendoes--"I still don't see--how there
"Anything to take hold of? There wasn't--"
"Well, then--?" escaped him, in crude satisfaction; but as she
did not complete the sentence he went on with a faltering laugh:
"She can hardly object to the existence of a mere friendship
"But she does," said Mrs. Vervain.
Thursdale stood perplexed. He had seen, on the previous day, no
trace of jealousy or resentment in his betrothed: he could still
hear the candid ring of the girl's praise of Mrs. Vervain. If
she were such an abyss of insincerity as to dissemble distrust
under such frankness, she must at least be more subtle than to
bring her doubts to her rival for solution. The situation seemed
one through which one could no longer move in a penumbra, and he
let in a burst of light with the direct query: "Won't you explain
what you mean?"
Mrs. Vervain sat silent, not provokingly, as though to prolong
his distress, but as if, in the attenuated phraseology he had
taught her, it was difficult to find words robust enough to meet
his challenge. It was the first time he had ever asked her to
explain anything; and she had lived so long in dread of offering
elucidations which were not wanted, that she seemed unable to
produce one on the spot.
At last she said slowly: "She came to find out if you were really
Thursdale colored again. "Free?" he stammered, with a sense of
physical disgust at contact with such crassness.
"Yes--if I had quite done with you." She smiled in recovered
security. "It seems she likes clear outlines; she has a passion
"Yes--well?" he said, wincing at the echo of his own subtlety.
"Well--and when I told her that you had never belonged to me, she
wanted me to define MY status--to know exactly where I had stood
Thursdale sat gazing at her intently; his hand was not yet on the
clue. "And even when you had told her that--"
"Even when I had told her that I had HAD no status--that I had
never stood anywhere, in any sense she meant," said Mrs. Vervain,
slowly--"even then she wasn't satisfied, it seems."
He uttered an uneasy exclamation. "She didn't believe you, you
"I mean that she DID believe me: too thoroughly."
"Well, then--in God's name, what did she want?"
"Something more--those were the words she used."
"Something more? Between--between you and me? Is it a
conundrum?" He laughed awkwardly.
"Girls are not what they were in my day; they are no longer
forbidden to contemplate the relation of the sexes."
"So it seems!" he commented. "But since, in this case, there
wasn't any--" he broke off, catching the dawn of a revelation in
"That's just it. The unpardonable offence has been--in our not
He flung himself down despairingly. "I give it up!--What did you
tell her?" he burst out with sudden crudeness.
"The exact truth. If I had only known," she broke off with a
beseeching tenderness, "won't you believe that I would still have
lied for you?"
"Lied for me? Why on earth should you have lied for either of
"To save you--to hide you from her to the last! As I've hidden
you from myself all these years!" She stood up with a sudden
tragic import in her movement. "You believe me capable of that,
don't you? If I had only guessed--but I have never known a girl
like her; she had the truth out of me with a spring."
"The truth that you and I had never--"
"Had never--never in all these years! Oh, she knew why--she
measured us both in a flash. She didn't suspect me of having
haggled with you--her words pelted me like hail. 'He just took
what he wanted--sifted and sorted you to suit his taste. Burnt
out the gold and left a heap of cinders. And you let him--you
let yourself be cut in bits'--she mixed her metaphors a little--
'be cut in bits, and used or discarded, while all the while every
drop of blood in you belonged to him! But he's Shylock--and you
have bled to death of the pound of flesh he has cut out of you.'
But she despises me the most, you know--far the most--" Mrs.
The words fell strangely on the scented stillness of the room:
they seemed out of harmony with its setting of afternoon
intimacy, the kind of intimacy on which at any moment, a visitor
might intrude without perceptibly lowering the atmosphere. It
was as though a grand opera-singer had strained the acoustics of
a private music-room.
Thursdale stood up, facing his hostess. Half the room was
between them, but they seemed to stare close at each other now
that the veils of reticence and ambiguity had fallen.
His first words were characteristic. "She DOES despise me,
then?" he exclaimed.
"She thinks the pound of flesh you took was a little too near the
He was excessively pale. "Please tell me exactly what she said
"She did not speak much of you: she is proud. But I gather that
while she understands love or indifference, her eyes have never
been opened to the many intermediate shades of feeling. At any
rate, she expressed an unwillingness to be taken with
reservations--she thinks you would have loved her better if you
had loved some one else first. The point of view is original--
she insists on a man with a past!"
"Oh, a past--if she's serious--I could rake up a past!" he said
with a laugh.
"So I suggested: but she has her eyes on his particular portion
of it. She insists on making it a test case. She wanted to know
what you had done to me; and before I could guess her drift I
blundered into telling her."
Thursdale drew a difficult breath. "I never supposed--your
revenge is complete," he said slowly.
He heard a little gasp in her throat. "My revenge? When I sent
for you to warn you--to save you from being surprised as I was
"You're very good--but it's rather late to talk of saving me."
He held out his hand in the mechanical gesture of leave-taking.
"How you must care!--for I never saw you so dull," was her
answer. "Don't you see that it's not too late for me to help
you?" And as he continued to stare, she brought out sublimely:
"Take the rest--in imagination! Let it at least be of that much
use to you. Tell her I lied to her--she's too ready to believe
it! And so, after all, in a sense, I sha'n't have been wasted."
His stare hung on her, widening to a kind of wonder. She gave
the look back brightly, unblushingly, as though the expedient
were too simple to need oblique approaches. It was extraordinary
how a few words had swept them from an atmosphere of the most
complex dissimulations to this contact of naked souls.
It was not in Thursdale to expand with the pressure of fate; but
something in him cracked with it, and the rift let in new light.
He went up to his friend and took her hand.
"You would do it--you would do it!"
She looked at him, smiling, but her hand shook.
"Good-by," he said, kissing it.
"Good-by? You are going--?"
"To get my letter."
"Your letter? The letter won't matter, if you will only do what
He returned her gaze. "I might, I suppose, without being out of
character. Only, don't you see that if your plan helped me it
could only harm her?"
"To sacrifice you wouldn't make me different. I shall go on
being what I have always been--sifting and sorting, as she calls
it. Do you want my punishment to fall on HER?"
She looked at him long and deeply. "Ah, if I had to choose
"You would let her take her chance? But I can't, you see.
I must take my punishment alone."
She drew her hand away, sighing. "Oh, there will be no
punishment for either of you."
"For either of us? There will be the reading of her letter for me."
She shook her head with a slight laugh. "There will be no
Thursdale faced about from the threshold with fresh life in his
look. "No letter? You don't mean--"
"I mean that she's been with you since I saw her--she's seen you
and heard your voice. If there IS a letter, she has recalled it--
from the first station, by telegraph."
He turned back to the door, forcing an answer to her smile. "But
in the mean while I shall have read it," he said.
The door closed on him, and she hid her eyes from the dreadful
emptiness of the room.