CUSTER'S LAST STAND
In the Manner of Edith Wharton
It was already late afternoon and the gas street lamps of the Boul'
Mich' were being lighted for Paris, or at least for Paris in summer, by
a somewhat frigid looking
allumeur, when Philip Custer came to the end of his letter. He hesitated for an instant, wrote "Your——," then crossed that out and substituted "Sincerely." No,
decidedly the first ending, with its, as is, or, rather, as ordinarily is, the case in hymeneal epistles, somewhat possessive sense, would no longer suffice. "Yours
truly"—perhaps; "sincerely"—better; but certainly not "Your husband." He was done, thank God, with pretences.
Philip sipped his absinthe and gazed for an instant through the Café window; a solitary fiacre rattled by; he picked up the result of his afternoon's labor, wearily.
"Dear Mary," he read, "When I told you that
my employers were sending me to Paris, I lied to you. It was, perhaps,
the first direct lie that I ever told you;
it was, I know now, the last. But a falsehood by word of mouth mattered really very little in comparison with the enormous lie that my life with you had
Philip paused and smiled, somewhat bitterly, at that point in the letter.
Mary, with her American woman's intuition, would undoubtedly surmise that
he had run off with
Mrs. Everett; there was a certain ironical humor in the fact that Mary's mistaken guess would be sadly indicative of her whole failure to understand what her husband
was, to use a slang expression, "driving at."
"I hope that you will believe me when I say
that I came to Paris to paint. In the past four years the desire to do
that has grown steadily until it has
mastered me. You do not understand. I found no one in America who did. I think my mother might have, had she lived; certainly it is utterly
incomprehensible to father."
Philip stopped. Ay, there was the rub—General Custer, and all that he
stood for. Philip glimpsed momentarily those early boyhood days with his
father, spent mainly in
army posts; the boy's cavalry uniform, in which he had ridden old Bess about the camp, waving his miniature sabre; the day he had been thrown to the ground by a
strange horse which he had disobediently mounted, just as his father arrived on the scene. Philip had never forgotten his father's words that day. "Don't crawl,
son,—don't whine. It was your fault this time and you deserved what you got. Lots of times it won't be your fault, but you'll have to take your licking anyway. But
remember this, son—take your medicine like a man—always."
Philip groaned; he knew what the general would say when the news of
his son's desertion of his wife and four year old boy reached him. He knew
that he never could
explain to his father the absolute torture of the last four years of enervating domesticity and business mediocrity—the torture of the Beauty within him crying for
expression, half satisfied by the stolen evenings at the art school but constantly growing stronger in its all-consuming appeal. No, life to his father was a simple problem
in army ethics—a problem in which duty was "a", one of the known factors; "x," the unknown, was either "bravery" or "cowardice" when brought in contact with "a".
Having solved this problem, his father had closed the book; of the higher mathematics, and especially of those complex problems to which no living man knew the final
answer, he had no conception. And yet——
Philip resumed his reading to avoid the old endless maze of subtleties.
"It is not that I did not—or do not—love you.
It is, rather, that something within me is crying out—something which is
stronger than I, and which I cannot
resist. I have waited two years to be sure. Yesterday, as soon as I reached here, I took my work to the man who is considered the finest art critic in
Paris. He told me that there was a quality to my painting which he had seen in that of no living artist; he told me that in five years of hard work I should be
able to produce work which Botticelli would be proud to have done. Do you understand that, Mary—Botticelli!
"But no, forgive me. My paean of joy comes
strangely in a letter which should be of abject humility for what must
seem to you, to father, and to all, a
cowardly, selfish act of desertion—a whining failure to face life. Oh dear, dear Mary if you could but understand what a hell I have been through—"
Philip took his pen and crossed out the last line so that no one could read what had been there.
"Materially, of course, you and little George
will be better off; the foolish pride with which I refused to let your
parents help us now no longer stands in
their way. You should have no difficulty about a divorce.
"You can dispose of my things as you see fit; there is nothing I care about keeping which I did not bring.
"Again, Mary, I cannot ask you to forgive,
or even to understand, but I do hope that you will believe me when I say
that this act of mine is the most
honest thing I have ever done, and that to have acted out the tragi-comedy in the part of a happy contented husband would have made of both of our lives
a bitter useless farce.
He folded the pages and addressed the envelope.
"Pardon, Monsieur"—a whiff of sulphur came to his nose as the waiter
bent over the table to light the gas above him. "Would Monsieur like to
see the journal? There
is a most amusing story about—— The bill, Monsieur? Yes—in a moment."
Philip glanced nervously through the pages of the Temps. He was anxious
to get the letter to the post—to have done with indecision and worry. It
would be a blessed
relief when the thing was finally done beyond chance of recall; why couldn't that stupid waiter hurry?
On the last page of the newspaper was an item headlined "Recent News
from America." Below was a sub-heading "Horrible Massacre of Soldiers by
Stand of American Troopers." He caught the name "Custer" and read:
"And by his brave death at the hands of the Indians, this gallant American
general has made the name of Custer one which will forever be associated
with courage of
the highest type."
He read it all through again and sat quietly as the hand of Polyphemus closed over him. He even smiled a little—a weary, ironic smile.
"Monsieur desires something more, perhaps"—the waiter held out the bill.
Philip smiled. "No—Monsieur has finished—there is nothing more."
Then he repeated slowly, "There is nothing more."
* * * *
Philip watched his son George blow out the twelve candles on his birthday cake.
"Mother," said George, "when I get to be eighteen, can I be a soldier
just like grandfather up there?" He pointed to the portrait of Philip's
father in uniform which hung
in the dining room.
"Of course you can, dear," said his mother. "But you must be a brave boy".
"Grandfather was awful brave, wasn't he father?" This from little Mary between mouthfuls of cake.
"Yes, Mary," Philip answered. "He was very, very brave."
"Of course he was," said George. "He was an American."
"Yes," answered Philip, "That explains it.—he was an American."
Mrs. Custer looked up at the portrait of her distinguished father-in-law.
"You know Philip, I think it must be quite nice to be able to paint
a picture like that. I've often wondered why you never kept up your art."