by Edith Wharton
It is not often that youth allows itself to feel undividedly happy:
the sensation is too much the result of selection and elimination to be
within reach of the awakening clutch on life. But Kate Orme, for once,
had yielded herself to happiness; letting it permeate every faculty as
a spring rain soaks into a germinating meadow. There was nothing to
account for this sudden sense of beatitude; but was it not this
precisely which made it so irresistible, so overwhelming? There had
been, within the last two months—since her engagement to Denis
Peyton—no distinct addition to the sum of her happiness, and no
possibility, she would have affirmed, of adding perceptibly to a total
already incalculable. Inwardly and outwardly the conditions of her life
were unchanged; but whereas, before, the air had been full of flitting
wings, now they seemed to pause over her and she could trust herself to
Many influences had combined to build up the centre of brooding
peace in which she found herself. Her nature answered to the finest
vibrations, and at first her joy in loving had been too great not to
bring with it a certain confusion, a readjusting of the whole scenery
of life. She found herself in a new country, wherein he who had led her
there was least able to be her guide. There were moments when she felt
that the first stranger in the street could have interpreted her
happiness for her more easily than Denis. Then, as her eye adapted
itself, as the lines flowed into each other, opening deep vistas upon
new horizons, she began to enter into possession of her kingdom, to
entertain the actual sense of its belonging to her. But she had never
before felt that she also belonged to it; and this was the feeling
which now came to complete her happiness, to give it the hallowing
sense of permanence.
She rose from the writing-table where, list in hand, she had been
going over the wedding-invitations, and walked toward the drawing-room
window. Everything about her seemed to contribute to that rare harmony
of feeling which levied a tax on every sense. The large coolness of the
room, its fine traditional air of spacious living, its outlook over
field and woodland toward the lake lying under the silver bloom of
September; the very scent of the late violets in a glass on the
writing-table; the rosy-mauve masses of hydrangea in tubs along the
terrace; the fall, now and then, of a leaf through the still air—all,
somehow, were mingled in the suffusion of well-being that yet made them
seem but so much dross upon its current.
The girl's smile prolonged itself at the sight of a figure
approaching from the lower slopes above the lake. The path was a short
cut from the Peyton place, and she had known that Denis would appear in
it at about that hour. Her smile, however, was prolonged not so much by
his approach as by her sense of the impossibility of communicating her
mood to him. The feeling did not disturb her. She could not imagine
sharing her deepest moods with any one, and the world in which she
lived with Denis was too bright and spacious to admit of any sense of
constraint. Her smile was in truth a tribute to that clear-eyed
directness of his which was so often a refuge from her own
Denis Peyton was used to being met with a smile. He might have been
pardoned for thinking smiles the habitual wear of the human
countenance; and his estimate of life and of himself was necessarily
tinged by the cordial terms on which they had always met each other. He
had in fact found life, from the start, an uncommonly agreeable
business, culminating fitly enough in his engagement to the only girl
he had ever wished to marry, and the inheritance, from his unhappy
step-brother, of a fortune which agreeably widened his horizon. Such a
combination of circumstances might well justify a young man in thinking
himself of some account in the universe; and it seemed the final touch
of fitness that the mourning which Denis still wore for poor Arthur
should lend a new distinction to his somewhat florid good looks.
Kate Orme was not without an amused perception of her future
husband's point of view; but she could enter into it with the tolerance
which allows for the inconscient element in all our judgments. There
was, for instance, no one more sentimentally humane than Denis's
mother, the second Mrs. Peyton, a scented silvery person whose lavender
silks and neutral-tinted manner expressed a mind with its blinds drawn
down toward all the unpleasantness of life; yet it was clear that Mrs.
Peyton saw a “dispensation” in the fact that her step-son had never
married, and that his death had enabled Denis, at the right moment, to
step gracefully into affluence. Was it not, after all, a sign of
healthy-mindedness to take the gifts of the gods in this religious
spirit, discovering fresh evidence of “design” in what had once seemed
the sad fact of Arthur's inaccessibility to correction? Mrs. Peyton,
beautifully conscious of having done her “best” for Arthur, would have
thought it unchristian to repine at the providential failure of her
efforts. Denis's deductions were, of course, a little less direct than
his mother's. He had, besides, been fond of Arthur, and his efforts to
keep the poor fellow straight had been less didactic and more
spontaneous. Their result read itself, if not in any change in Arthur's
character, at least in the revised wording of his will; and Denis's
moral sense was pleasantly fortified by the discovery that it very
substantially paid to be a good fellow.
The sense of general providentialness on which Mrs. Peyton reposed
had in fact been confirmed by events which reduced Denis's mourning to
a mere tribute of respect—since it would have been a mockery to
deplore the disappearance of any one who had left behind him such an
unsavory wake as poor Arthur. Kate did not quite know what had
happened: her father was as firmly convinced as Mrs. Peyton that young
girls should not be admitted to any open discussion of life. She could
only gather, from the silences and evasions amid which she moved, that
a woman had turned up—a woman who was of course “dreadful,” and whose
dreadfulness appeared to include a sort of shadowy claim upon Arthur.
But the claim, whatever it was, had been promptly discredited. The
whole question had vanished and the woman with it. The blinds were
drawn again on the ugly side of things, and life was resumed on the
usual assumption that no such side existed. Kate knew only that a
darkness had crossed her sky and left it as unclouded as before.
Was it, perhaps, she now asked herself, the very lifting of the
cloud—remote, unthreatening as it had been—which gave such new
serenity to her heaven? It was horrible to think that one's deepest
security was a mere sense of escape—that happiness was no more than a
reprieve. The perversity of such ideas was emphasized by Peyton's
approach. He had the gift of restoring things to their normal
relations, of carrying one over the chasms of life through the closed
tunnel of an incurious cheerfulness. All that was restless and
questioning in the girl subsided in his presence, and she was content
to take her love as a gift of grace, which began just where the office
of reason ended. She was more than ever, to-day, in this mood of
charmed surrender. More than ever he seemed the keynote of the accord
between herself and life, the centre of a delightful complicity in
every surrounding circumstance. One could not look at him without
seeing that there was always a fair wind in his sails.
It was carrying him toward her, as usual, at a quick confident pace,
which nevertheless lagged a little, she noticed, as he emerged from the
beech-grove and struck across the lawn. He walked as though he were
tired. She had meant to wait for him on the terrace, held in check by
her usual inclination to linger on the threshold of her pleasures; but
now something drew her toward him, and she went quickly down the steps
and across the lawn.
“Denis, you look tired. I was afraid something had happened.”
She had slipped her hand through his arm, and as they moved forward
she glanced up at him, struck not so much by any new look in his face
as by the fact that her approach had made no change in it.
“I am rather tired.—Is your father in?”
“Papa?” She looked up in surprise. “He went to town yesterday. Don't
“Of course—I'd forgotten. You're alone, then?” She dropped his arm
and stood before him. He was very pale now, with the furrowed look of
extreme physical weariness.
“Denis—are you ill? Has anything happened?”
He forced a smile. “Yes—but you needn't look so frightened.”
She drew a deep breath of reassurance. He was safe, after
all! And all else, for a moment, seemed to swing below the rim of her
“Your mother—?” she then said, with a fresh start of fear.
“It's not my mother.” They had reached the terrace, and he moved
toward the house. “Let us go indoors. There's such a beastly glare out
He seemed to find relief in the cool obscurity of the drawing-room,
where, after the brightness of the afternoon light, their faces were
almost indistinguishable to each other. She sat down, and he moved a
few paces away. Before the writing-table he paused to look at the
neatly sorted heaps of wedding-cards.
“They are to be sent out to-morrow?”
He turned back and stood before her.
“It's about the woman,” he began abruptly—“the woman who pretended
to be Arthur's wife.”
Kate started as at the clutch of an unacknowledged fear.
“She was his wife, then?”
Peyton made an impatient movement of negation. “If she was, why
didn't she prove it? She hadn't a shred of evidence. The courts
rejected her appeal.”
“Well, she's dead.” He paused, and the next words came with
difficulty. “She and the child.”
“The child? There was a child?”
Kate started up and then sank down. These were not things about
which young girls were told. The confused sense of horror had been
nothing to this first sharp edge of fact.
“And both are dead?”
“How do you know? My father said she had gone away—gone back to the
“So we thought. But this morning we found her.”
He motioned toward the window. “Out there—in the lake.”
She drooped before him shudderingly, her eyes hidden, as though to
exclude the vision. “She had drowned herself?”
“Oh, poor thing—poor thing!”
They paused awhile, the minutes delving an abyss between them till
he threw a few irrelevant words across the silence.
“One of the gardeners found them.”
“It was sufficiently horrible.”
“Horrible—oh!” She had swung round again to her pole. “Poor Denis!
You were not there—you didn't have to—?”
“I had to see her.” She felt the instant relief in his voice. He
could talk now, could distend his nerves in the warm air of her
sympathy. “I had to identify her.” He rose nervously and began to pace
the room. “It's knocked the wind out of me. I—my God! I couldn't
foresee it, could I?” He halted before her with outstretched hands of
argument. “I did all I could—it's not my fault, is it?”
“Your fault? Denis!”
“She wouldn't take the money—” He broke off, checked by her
“The money? What money?” Her face changed, hardening as his relaxed.
“Had you offered her money to give up the case?”
He stared a moment, and then dismissed the implication with a laugh.
“No—no; after the case was decided against her. She seemed hard up,
and I sent Hinton to her with a cheque.”
“And she refused it?”
“What did she say?”
“Oh, I don't know—the usual thing. That she'd only wanted to prove
she was his wife—on the child's account. That she'd never wanted his
money. Hinton said she was very quiet—not in the least excited—but
she sent back the cheque.”
Kate sat motionless, her head bent, her hands clasped about her
knees. She no longer looked at Peyton.
“Could there have been a mistake?” she asked slowly.
She raised her head now, and fixed her eyes on his, with a strange
insistence of observation. “Could they have been married?”
“The courts didn't think so.”
“Could the courts have been mistaken?”
He started up again, and threw himself into another chair. “Good
God, Kate! We gave her every chance to prove her case—why didn't she
do it? You don't know what you're talking about—such things are kept
from girls. Why, whenever a man of Arthur's kind dies, such—such women
turn up. There are lawyers who live on such jobs—ask your father about
it. Of course, this woman expected to be bought off—”
“But if she wouldn't take your money?”
“She expected a big sum, I mean, to drop the case. When she found we
meant to fight it, she saw the game was up. I suppose it was her last
throw, and she was desperate; we don't know how many times she may have
been through the same thing before. That kind of woman is always trying
to make money out of the heirs of any man who—who has been about with
Kate received this in silence. She had a sense of walking along a
narrow ledge of consciousness above a sheer hallucinating depth into
which she dared not look. But the depth drew her, and she plunged one
terrified glance into it.
“But the child—the child was Arthur's?”
Peyton shrugged his shoulders. “There again—how can we tell? Why, I
don't suppose the woman herself—I wish to heaven your father were here
She rose and crossed over to him, laying her hands on his shoulders
with a gesture almost maternal.
“Don't let us talk of it,” she said. “You did all you could. Think
what a comfort you were to poor Arthur.”
He let her hands lie where she had placed them, without response or
“I tried—I tried hard to keep him straight!”
“We all know that—every one knows it. And we know how grateful he
was—what a difference it made to him in the end. It would have been
dreadful to think of his dying out there alone.”
She drew him down on a sofa and seated herself by his side. A deep
lassitude was upon him, and the hand she had possessed herself of lay
in her hold inert.
“It was splendid of you to travel day and night as you did. And then
that dreadful week before he died! But for you he would have died alone
He sat silent, his head dropping forward, his eyes fixed. “Among
strangers,” he repeated absently.
She looked up, as if struck by a sudden thought. “That poor
woman—did you ever see her while you were out there?”
He drew his hand away and gathered his brows together as if in an
effort of remembrance.
“I saw her—oh, yes, I saw her.” He pushed the tumbled hair from his
forehead and stood up. “Let us go out,” he said. “My head is in a fog.
I want to get away from it all.”
A wave of compunction drew her to her feet.
“It was my fault! I ought not to have asked so many questions.” She
turned and rang the bell. “I'll order the ponies—we shall have time
for a drive before sunset.”
With the sunset in their faces they swept through the keen-scented
autumn air at the swiftest pace of Kate's ponies. She had given the
reins to Peyton, and he had turned the horses' heads away from the
lake, rising by woody upland lanes to the high pastures which still
held the sunlight. The horses were fresh enough to claim his undivided
attention, and he drove in silence, his smooth fair profile turned to
his companion, who sat silent also.
Kate Orme was engaged in one of those rapid mental excursions which
were forever sweeping her from the straight path of the actual into
uncharted regions of conjecture. Her survey of life had always been
marked by the tendency to seek out ultimate relations, to extend her
researches to the limit of her imaginative experience. But hitherto she
had been like some young captive brought up in a windowless palace
whose painted walls she takes for the actual world. Now the palace had
been shaken to its base, and through a cleft in the walls she looked
out upon life. For the first moment all was indistinguishable
blackness; then she began to detect vague shapes and confused gestures
in the depths. There were people below there, men like Denis, girls
like herself—for under the unlikeness she felt the strange
affinity—all struggling in that awful coil of moral darkness, with
agonized hands reaching up for rescue. Her heart shrank from the horror
of it, and then, in a passion of pity, drew back to the edge of the
abyss. Suddenly her eyes turned toward Denis. His face was grave, but
less disturbed. And men knew about these things! They carried this
abyss in their bosoms, and went about smiling, and sat at the feet of
innocence. Could it be that Denis—Denis even—Ah, no! She remembered
what he had been to poor Arthur; she understood, now, the vague
allusions to what he had tried to do for his brother. He had seen
Arthur down there, in that coiling blackness, and had leaned over and
tried to drag him out. But Arthur was too deep down, and his arms were
interlocked with other arms—they had dragged each other deeper, poor
souls, like drowning people who fight together in the waves! Kate's
visualizing habit gave a hateful precision and persistency to the image
she had evoked—she could not rid herself of the vision of anguished
shapes striving together in the darkness. The horror of it took her by
the throat—she drew a choking breath, and felt the tears on her face.
Peyton turned to her. The horses were climbing a hill, and his
attention had strayed from them.
“This has done me good,” he began; but as he looked his voice
changed. “Kate! What is it? Why are you crying? Oh, for God's sake,
don't!” he ended, his hand closing on her wrist.
She steadied herself and raised her eyes to his.
“I—I couldn't help it,” she stammered, struggling in the sudden
release of her pent compassion. “It seems so awful that we should stand
so close to this horror—that it might have been you who—”
“I who—what on earth do you mean?” he broke in stridently.
“Oh, don't you see? I found myself exulting that you and I were so
far from it—above it—safe in ourselves and each other—and then the
other feeling came—the sense of selfishness, of going by on the other
side; and I tried to realize that it might have been you and I who—who
were down there in the night and the flood—”
Peyton let the whip fall on the ponies' flanks. “Upon my soul,” he
said with a laugh, “you must have a nice opinion of both of us.”
The words fell chillingly on the blaze of her self-immolation. Would
she never learn to remember that Denis was incapable of mounting such
hypothetical pyres? He might be as alive as herself to the direct
demands of duty, but of its imaginative claims he was robustly
unconscious. The thought brought a wholesome reaction of thankfulness.
“Ah, well,” she said, the sunset dilating through her tears, “don't
you see that I can bear to think such things only because they're
impossibilities? It's easy to look over into the depths if one has a
rampart to lean on. What I most pity poor Arthur for is that, instead
of that woman lying there, so dreadfully dead, there might have been a
girl like me, so exquisitely alive because of him; but it seems cruel,
doesn't it, to let what he was not add ever so little to the value of
what you are? To let him contribute ever so little to my happiness by
the difference there is between you?”
She was conscious, as she spoke, of straying again beyond his reach,
through intricacies of sensation new even to her exploring
susceptibilities. A happy literalness usually enabled him to strike a
short cut through such labyrinths, and rejoin her smiling on the other
side; but now she became wonderingly aware that he had been caught in
the thick of her hypothesis.
“It's the difference that makes you care for me, then?” he broke
out, with a kind of violence which seemed to renew his clutch on her
He lashed the ponies again, so sharply that a murmur escaped her,
and he drew them up, quivering, with an inconsequent “Steady, boys,” at
which their back-laid ears protested.
“It's because I'm moral and respectable, and all that, that you're
fond of me,” he went on; “you're—you're simply in love with my
virtues. You couldn't imagine caring if I were down there in the ditch,
as you say, with Arthur?”
The question fell on a silence which seemed to deepen suddenly
within herself. Every thought hung bated on the sense that something
was coming: her whole consciousness became a void to receive it.
“Denis!” she cried.
He turned on her almost savagely. “I don't want your pity, you
know,” he burst out. “You can keep that for Arthur. I had an idea women
loved men for themselves—through everything, I mean. But I wouldn't
steal your love—I don't want it on false pretenses, you understand. Go
and look into other men's lives, that's all I ask of you. I slipped
into it—it was just a case of holding my tongue when I ought to have
spoken—but I—I—for God's sake, don't sit there staring! I suppose
you've seen all along that I knew he was married to the woman.”
The housekeeper's reminding her that Mr. Orme would be at home the
next day for dinner, and did she think he would like the venison with
claret sauce or jelly, roused Kate to the first consciousness of her
surroundings. Her father would return on the morrow: he would give to
the dressing of the venison such minute consideration as, in his
opinion, every detail affecting his comfort or convenience quite
obviously merited. And if it were not the venison it would be something
else; if it were not the housekeeper it would be Mr. Orme, charged with
the results of a conference with his agent, a committee-meeting at his
club, or any of the other incidents which, by happening to himself,
became events. Kate found herself caught in the inexorable continuity
of life, found herself gazing over a scene of ruin lit up by the
punctual recurrence of habit as nature's calm stare lights the morrow
of a whirlwind.
Life was going on, then, and dragging her at its wheels. She could
neither check its rush nor wrench loose from it and drop out—oh, how
blessedly—into darkness and cessation. She must go bounding on,
racked, broken, but alive in every fibre. The most she could hope was a
few hours' respite, not from her own terrors, but from the pressure of
outward claims: the midday halt, during which the victim is unbound
while his torturers rest from their efforts. Till her father's return
she would have the house to herself, and, the question of the venison
despatched, could give herself to long lonely pacings of the empty
rooms, and shuddering subsidences upon her pillow.
Her first impulse, as the mist cleared from her brain, was the
habitual one of reaching out for ultimate relations. She wanted to know
the worst; and for her, as she saw in a flash, the worst of it was the
core of fatality in what had happened. She shrank from her own way of
putting it—nor was it even figuratively true that she had ever felt,
under faith in Denis, any such doubt as the perception implied. But
that was merely because her imagination had never put him to the test.
She was fond of exposing herself to hypothetical ordeals, but somehow
she had never carried Denis with her on these adventures. What she saw
now was that, in a world of strangeness, he remained the object least
strange to her. She was not in the tragic case of the girl who suddenly
sees her lover unmasked. No mask had dropped from Denis's face: the
pink shades had simply been lifted from the lamps, and she saw him for
the first time in an unmitigated glare.
Such exposure does not alter the features, but it lays an ugly
emphasis on the most charming lines, pushing the smile to a grin, the
curve of good-nature to the droop of slackness. And it was precisely
into the flagging lines of extreme weakness that Denis's graceful
contour flowed. In the terrible talk which had followed his avowal, and
wherein every word flashed a light on his moral processes, she had been
less startled by what he had done than by the way in which his
conscience had already become a passive surface for the channelling of
consequences. He was like a child who had put a match to the curtains,
and stands agape at the blaze. It was horribly naughty to put the
match—but beyond that the child's responsibility did not extend. In
this business of Arthur's, where all had been wrong from the
beginning—where self-defence might well find a plea for its
casuistries in the absence of a definite right to be measured by—it
had been easy, after the first slip, to drop a little lower with each
struggle. The woman—oh, the woman was—well, of the kind who prey on
such men. Arthur, out there, at his lowest ebb, had drifted into living
with her as a man drifts into drink or opium. He knew what she was—he
knew where she had come from. But he had fallen ill, and she had nursed
him—nursed him devotedly, of course. That was her chance, and she knew
it. Before he was out of the fever she had the noose around him—he
came to and found himself married. Such cases were common enough—if
the man recovered he bought off the woman and got a divorce. It was all
a part of the business—the marriage, the bribe, the divorce. Some of
those women made a big income out of it—they were married and divorced
once a year. If Arthur had only got well—but, instead, he had a
relapse and died. And there was the woman, made his widow by mischance
as it were, with her child on her arm—whose child?—and a scoundrelly
black-mailing lawyer to work up her case for her. Her claim was clear
enough—the right of dower, a third of his estate. But if he had never
meant to marry her? If he had been trapped as patently as a rustic
fleeced in a gambling-hell? Arthur, in his last hours, had confessed to
the marriage, but had also acknowledged its folly. And after his death,
when Denis came to look about him and make inquiries, he found that the
witnesses, if there had been any, were dispersed and undiscoverable.
The whole question hinged on Arthur's statement to his brother.
Suppress that statement, and the claim vanished, and with it the
scandal, the humiliation, the life-long burden of the woman and child
dragging the name of Peyton through heaven knew what depths. He had
thought of that first, Denis swore, rather than of the money. The
money, of course, had made a difference,—he was too honest not to own
it—but not till afterward, he declared—would have declared on his
honour, but that the word tripped him up, and sent a flush to his
Thus, in broken phrases, he flung his defence at her: a defence
improvised, pieced together as he went along, to mask the crude
instinctiveness of his act. For with increasing clearness Kate saw, as
she listened, that there had been no real struggle in his mind; that,
but for the grim logic of chance, he might never have felt the need of
any justification. If the woman, after the manner of such baffled
huntresses, had wandered off in search of fresh prey, he might, quite
sincerely, have congratulated himself on having saved a decent name and
an honest fortune from her talons. It was the price she had paid to
establish her claim that for the first time brought him to a startled
sense of its justice. His conscience responded only to the concrete
pressure of facts.
It was with the anguish of this discovery that Kate Orme locked
herself in at the end of their talk. How the talk had ended, how at
length she had got him from the room and the house, she recalled but
confusedly. The tragedy of the woman's death, and of his own share in
it, were as nothing in the disaster of his bright irreclaimableness.
Once, when she had cried out, “You would have married me and said
nothing,” and he groaned back, “But I have told you,” she felt
like a trainer with a lash above some bewildered animal.
But she persisted savagely. “You told me because you had to; because
your nerves gave way; because you knew it couldn't hurt you to tell.”
The perplexed appeal of his gaze had almost checked her. “You told me
because it was a relief; but nothing will really relieve you—nothing
will really help you—till you have told some one who—who will
“Who will hurt me—?”
“Till you have told the truth as—as openly as you lied.”
He started up, ghastly with fear. “I don't understand you.”
“You must confess, then—publicly—openly—you must go to the judge.
I don't know how it's done.”
“To the judge? When they're both dead? When everything is at an end?
What good could that do?” he groaned.
“Everything is not at an end for you—everything is just beginning.
You must clear yourself of this guilt; and there is only one way—to
confess it. And you must give back the money.”
This seemed to strike him as conclusive proof of her irrelevance. “I
wish I had never heard of the money! But to whom would you have me give
it back? I tell you she was a waif out of the gutter. I don't believe
any one knew her real name—I don't believe she had one.”
“She must have had a mother and father.”
“Am I to devote my life to hunting for them through the slums of
California? And how shall I know when I have found them? It's
impossible to make you understand. I did wrong—I did horribly
wrong—but that is not the way to repair it.”
“What is, then?”
He paused, a little askance at the question. “To do better—to do my
best,” he said, with a sudden flourish of firmness. “To take warning by
“Oh, be silent,” she cried out, and hid her face. He looked at her
At last he said: “I don't know what good it can do to go on talking.
I have only one more thing to say. Of course you know that you are
He spoke simply, with a sudden return to his old voice and accent,
at which she weakened as under a caress. She lifted her head and gazed
at him. “Am I?” she said musingly.
“Kate!” burst from him; but she raised a silencing hand.
“It seems to me,” she said, “that I am imprisoned—imprisoned with
you in this dreadful thing. First I must help you to get out—then it
will be time enough to think of myself.”
His face fell and he stammered: “I don't understand you.”
“I can't say what I shall do—or how I shall feel—till I know what
you are going to do and feel.”
“You must see how I feel—that I'm half dead with it.”
“Yes—but that is only half.”
He turned this over for a perceptible space of time before asking
slowly: “You mean that you'll give me up, if I don't do this crazy
thing you propose?”
She paused in turn. “No,” she said; “I don't want to bribe you. You
must feel the need of it yourself.”
“The need of proclaiming this thing publicly?”
He sat staring before him. “Of course you realize what it would
mean?” he began at length.
“To you?” she returned.
“I put that aside. To others—to you. I should go to prison.”
“I suppose so,” she said simply.
“You seem to take it very easily—I'm afraid my mother wouldn't.”
“Your mother?” This produced the effect he had expected.
“You hadn't thought of her, I suppose? It would probably kill her.”
“It would have killed her to think that you could do what you have
“It would have made her very unhappy; but there's a difference.”
Yes: there was a difference; a difference which no rhetoric could
disguise. The secret sin would have made Mrs. Peyton wretched, but it
would not have killed her. And she would have taken precisely Denis's
view of the elasticity of atonement: she would have accepted private
regrets as the genteel equivalent of open expiation. Kate could even
imagine her extracting a “lesson” from the providential fact that her
son had not been found out.
“You see it's not so simple,” he broke out, with a tinge of doleful
“No: it's not simple,” she assented.
“One must think of others,” he continued, gathering faith in his
argument as he saw her reduced to acquiescence.
She made no answer, and after a moment he rose to go. So far, in
retrospect, she could follow the course of their talk; but when, in the
act of parting, argument lapsed into entreaty, and renunciation into
the passionate appeal to give him at least one more hearing, her memory
lost itself in a tumult of pain, and she recalled only that, when the
door closed on him, he took with him her promise to see him once again.
She had promised to see him again; but the promise did not imply
that she had rejected his offer of freedom. In the first rush of misery
she had not fully repossessed herself, had felt herself entangled in
his fate by a hundred meshes of association and habit; but after a
sleepless night spent with the thought of him—that dreadful bridal of
their souls—she woke to a morrow in which he had no part. She had not
sought her freedom, nor had he given it; but a chasm had opened at
their feet, and they found themselves on different sides.
Now she was able to scan the disaster from the melancholy vantage of
her independence. She could even draw a solace from the fact that she
had ceased to love Denis. It was inconceivable that an emotion so
interwoven with every fibre of consciousness should cease as suddenly
as the flow of sap in an uprooted plant; but she had never allowed
herself to be tricked by the current phraseology of sentiment, and
there were no stock axioms to protect her from the truth.
It was probably because she had ceased to love him that she could
look forward with a kind of ghastly composure to seeing him again. She
had stipulated, of course, that the wedding should be put off, but she
had named no other condition beyond asking for two days to herself—two
days during which he was not even to write. She wished to shut herself
in with her misery, to accustom herself to it as she had accustomed
herself to happiness. But actual seclusion was impossible: the subtle
reactions of life almost at once began to break down her defences. She
could no more have her wretchedness to herself than any other emotion:
all the lives about her were so many unconscious factors in her
sensations. She tried to concentrate herself on the thought as to how
she could best help poor Denis; for love, in ebbing, had laid bare an
unsuspected depth of pity. But she found it more and more difficult to
consider his situation in the abstract light of right and wrong. Open
expiation still seemed to her the only possible way of healing; but she
tried vainly to think of Mrs. Peyton as taking such a view. Yet Mrs.
Peyton ought at least to know what had happened: was it not, in the
last resort, she who should pronounce on her son's course? For a moment
Kate was fascinated by this evasion of responsibility; she had nearly
decided to tell Denis that he must begin by confessing everything to
his mother. But almost at once she began to shrink from the
consequences. There was nothing she so dreaded for him as that any one
should take a light view of his act: should turn its irremediableness
into an excuse. And this, she foresaw, was what Mrs. Peyton would do.
The first burst of misery over, she would envelop the whole situation
in a mist of expediency. Brought to the bar of Kate's judgment, she at
once revealed herself incapable of higher action.
Kate's conception of her was still under arraignment when the actual
Mrs. Peyton fluttered in. It was the afternoon of the second day, as
the girl phrased it in the dismal re-creation of her universe. She had
been thinking so hard of Mrs. Peyton that the lady's silvery
insubstantial presence seemed hardly more than a projection of the
thought; but as Kate collected herself, and regained contact with the
outer world, her preoccupation yielded to surprise. It was unusual for
Mrs. Peyton to pay visits. For years she had remained enthroned in a
semi-invalidism which prohibited effort while it did not preclude
diversion; and the girl at once divined a special purpose in her
Mrs. Peyton's traditions would not have permitted any direct method
of attack; and Kate had to sit through the usual prelude of ejaculation
and anecdote. Presently, however, the elder lady's voice gathered
significance, and laying her hand on Kate's she murmured: “I have come
to talk to you of this sad affair.”
Kate began to tremble. Was it possible that Denis had after all
spoken? A rising hope checked her utterance, and she saw in a flash
that it still lay with him to regain his hold on her. But Mrs. Peyton
went on delicately: “It has been a great shock to my poor boy. To be
brought in contact with Arthur's past was in itself inexpressibly
painful; but this last dreadful business—that woman's wicked act—”
“Wicked?” Kate exclaimed.
Mrs. Peyton's gentle stare reproved her. “Surely religion teaches us
that suicide is a sin? And to murder her child! I ought not to speak to
you of such things, my dear. No one has ever mentioned anything so
dreadful in my presence: my dear husband used to screen me so carefully
from the painful side of life. Where there is so much that is beautiful
to dwell upon, we should try to ignore the existence of such horrors.
But nowadays everything is in the papers; and Denis told me he thought
it better that you should hear the news first from him.”
Kate nodded without speaking.
“He felt how dreadful it was to have to tell you. But I tell
him he takes a morbid view of the case. Of course one is shocked at the
woman's crime—but, if one looks a little deeper, how can one help
seeing that it may have been designed as the means of rescuing that
poor child from a life of vice and misery? That is the view I want
Denis to take: I want him to see how all the difficulties of life
disappear when one has learned to look for a divine purpose in human
Mrs. Peyton rested a moment on this period, as an experienced
climber pauses to be overtaken by a less agile companion; but presently
she became aware that Kate was still far below her, and perhaps needed
a stronger incentive to the ascent.
“My dear child,” she said adroitly, “I said just now that I was
sorry you had been obliged to hear of this sad affair; but after all it
is only you who can avert its consequences.”
Kate drew an eager breath. “Its consequences?” she faltered.
Mrs. Peyton's voice dropped solemnly. “Denis has told me
everything,” she said.
“That you insist on putting off the marriage. Oh, my dear, I do
implore you to reconsider that!”
Kate sank back with the sense of having passed again into a region
of leaden shadow. “Is that all he told you?”
Mrs. Peyton gazed at her with arch raillery. “All? Isn't it
“Did he give you my reason, I mean?”
“He said you felt that, after this shocking tragedy, there ought, in
decency, to be a delay; and I quite understand the feeling. It does
seem too unfortunate that the woman should have chosen this particular
time! But you will find as you grow older that life is full of such sad
Kate felt herself slowly petrifying under the warm drip of Mrs.
“It seems to me,” the elder lady continued, “that there is only one
point from which we ought to consider the question—and that is, its
effect on Denis. But for that we ought to refuse to know anything about
it. But it has made my boy so unhappy. The law-suit was a cruel ordeal
to him—the dreadful notoriety, the revelation of poor Arthur's
infirmities. Denis is as sensitive as a woman; it is his unusual
refinement of feeling that makes him so worthy of being loved by you.
But such sensitiveness may be carried to excess. He ought not to let
this unhappy incident prey on him: it shows a lack of trust in the
divine ordering of things. That is what troubles me: his faith in life
has been shaken. And—you must forgive me, dear child—you will
forgive me, I know—but I can't help blaming you a little—”
Mrs. Peyton's accent converted the accusation into a caress, which
prolonged itself in a tremulous pressure of Kate's hand.
The girl gazed at her blankly. “You blame me—?”
“Don't be offended, my child. I only fear that your excessive
sympathy with Denis, your own delicacy of feeling, may have led you to
encourage his morbid ideas. He tells me you were very much shocked—as
you naturally would be—as any girl must be—I would not have you
otherwise, dear Kate! It is beautiful that you should both feel
so; most beautiful; but you know religion teaches us not to yield too
much to our grief. Let the dead bury their dead; the living owe
themselves to each other. And what had this wretched woman to do with
either of you? It is a misfortune for Denis to have been connected in
any way with a man of Arthur Peyton's character; but after all, poor
Arthur did all he could to atone for the disgrace he brought on us, by
making Denis his heir—and I am sure I have no wish to question the
decrees of Providence.” Mrs. Peyton paused again, and then softly
absorbed both of Kate's hands. “For my part,” she continued, “I see in
it another instance of the beautiful ordering of events. Just after
dear Denis's inheritance has removed the last obstacle to your
marriage, this sad incident comes to show how desperately he needs you,
how cruel it would be to ask him to defer his happiness.”
She broke off, shaken out of her habitual placidity by the abrupt
withdrawal of the girl's hands. Kate sat inertly staring, but no answer
rose to her lips.
At length Mrs. Peyton resumed, gathering her draperies about her
with a tentative hint of leave-taking: “I may go home and tell him that
you will not put off the wedding?”
Kate was still silent, and her visitor looked at her with the mild
surprise of an advocate unaccustomed to plead in vain.
“If your silence means refusal, my dear, I think you ought to
realize the responsibility you assume.” Mrs. Peyton's voice had
acquired an edge of righteous asperity. “If Denis has a fault it is
that he is too gentle, too yielding, too readily influenced by those he
cares for. Your influence is paramount with him now—but if you turn
from him just when he needs your help, who can say what the result will
The argument, though impressively delivered, was hardly of a nature
to carry conviction to its hearer; but it was perhaps for that very
reason that she suddenly and unexpectedly replied to it by sinking back
into her seat with a burst of tears. To Mrs. Peyton, however, tears
were the signal of surrender, and, at Kate's side in an instant she
hastened to temper her triumph with magnanimity.
“Don't think I don't feel with you; but we must both forget
ourselves for our boy's sake. I told him I should come back with your
The arm she had slipped about Kate's shoulder fell back with the
girl's start. Kate had seen in a flash what capital would be made of
“No, no, you misunderstand me. I can make no promise,” she declared.
The older lady sat a moment irresolute; then she restored her arm to
the shoulder from which it had been so abruptly displaced.
“My dear child,” she said, in a tone of tender confidence, “if I
have misunderstood you, ought you not to enlighten me? You asked me
just now if Denis had given me your reason for this strange
postponement. He gave me one reason, but it seems hardly sufficient to
explain your conduct. If there is any other,—and I know you well
enough to feel sure there is,—will you not trust me with it? If my boy
has been unhappy enough to displease you, will you not give his mother
the chance to plead his cause? Remember, no one should be condemned
unheard. As Denis's mother, I have the right to ask for your reason.”
“My reason? My reason?” Kate stammered, panting with the exhaustion
of the struggle. Oh, if only Mrs. Peyton would release her! “If you
have the right to know it, why doesn't he tell you?” she cried.
Mrs. Peyton stood up, quivering. “I will go home and ask him,” she
said. “I will tell him he had your permission to speak.”
She moved toward the door, with the nervous haste of a person
unaccustomed to decisive action. But Kate sprang before her.
“No, no; don't ask him! I implore you not to ask him,” she cried.
Mrs. Peyton turned on her with sudden authority of voice and
gesture. “Do I understand you?” she said. “You admit that you have a
reason for putting off your marriage, and yet you forbid me—me,
Denis's mother—to ask him what it is? My poor child, I needn't ask,
for I know already. If he has offended you, and you refuse him the
chance to defend himself, I needn't look farther for your reason: it is
simply that you have ceased to love him.”
Kate fell back from the door which she had instinctively barricaded.
“Perhaps that is it,” she murmured, letting Mrs. Peyton pass.
* * * * *
Mr. Orme's returning carriage-wheels crossed Mrs. Peyton's indignant
flight; and an hour later Kate, in the bland candle-light of the
dinner-hour, sat listening with practised fortitude to her father's
comments on the venison.
She had wondered, as she awaited him in the drawing-room, if he
would notice any change in her appearance. It seemed to her that the
flagellation of her thoughts must have left visible traces. But Mr.
Orme was not a man of subtle perceptions, save where his personal
comfort was affected: though his egoism was clothed in the finest
feelers, he did not suspect a similar surface in others. His daughter,
as part of himself, came within the normal range of his solicitude; but
she was an outlying region, a subject province; and Mr. Orme's was a
highly centralized polity.
News of the painful incident—he often used Mrs. Peyton's
vocabulary—had reached him at his club, and to some extent disturbed
the assimilation of a carefully ordered breakfast; but since then two
days had passed, and it did not take Mr. Orme forty-eight hours to
resign himself to the misfortunes of others. It was all very nasty, of
course, and he wished to heaven it hadn't happened to any one about to
be connected with him; but he viewed it with the transient annoyance of
a gentleman who has been splashed by the mud of a fatal runaway.
Mr. Orme affected, under such circumstances, a bluff and hearty
stoicism as remote as possible from Mrs. Peyton's deprecating evasion
of facts. It was a bad business; he was sorry Kate should have been
mixed up with it; but she would be married soon now, and then she would
see that life wasn't exactly a Sunday-school story. Everybody was
exposed to such disagreeable accidents: he remembered a case in their
own family—oh, a distant cousin whom Kate wouldn't have heard of—a
poor fellow who had got entangled with just such a woman, and having
(most properly) been sent packing by his father, had justified the
latter's course by promptly forging his name—a very nasty affair
altogether; but luckily the scandal had been hushed up, the woman
bought off, and the prodigal, after a season of probation, safely
married to a nice girl with a good income, who was told by the family
that the doctors recommended his settling in California.
Luckily the scandal was hushed up: the phrase blazed out
against the dark background of Kate's misery. That was doubtless what
most people felt—the words represented the consensus of respectable
opinion. The best way of repairing a fault was to hide it: to tear up
the floor and bury the victim at night. Above all, no coroner and no
She began to feel a strange interest in her distant cousin. “And his
wife—did she know what he had done?”
Mr. Orme stared. His moral pointed, he had returned to the
contemplation of his own affairs.
“His wife? Oh, of course not. The secret has been most admirably
kept; but her property was put in trust, so she's quite safe with him.”
Her property! Kate wondered if her faith in her husband had also
been put in trust, if her sensibilities had been protected from his
“Do you think it quite fair to have deceived her in that way?”
Mr. Orme gave her a puzzled glance: he had no taste for the by-paths
of ethical conjecture.
“His people wanted to give the poor fellow another chance; they did
the best they could for him.”
“And—he has done nothing dishonourable since?”
“Not that I know of: the last I heard was that they had a little
boy, and that he was quite happy. At that distance he's not likely to
bother us, at all events.”
Long after Mr. Orme had left the topic, Kate remained lost in its
contemplation. She had begun to perceive that the fair surface of life
was honeycombed by a vast system of moral sewage. Every respectable
household had its special arrangements for the private disposal of
family scandals; it was only among the reckless and improvident that
such hygienic precautions were neglected. Who was she to pass judgment
on the merits of such a system? The social health must be preserved:
the means devised were the result of long experience and the collective
instinct of self-preservation. She had meant to tell her father that
evening that her marriage had been put off; but she now abstained from
doing so, not from any doubt of Mr. Orme's acquiescence—he could
always be made to feel the force of conventional scruples—but because
the whole question sank into insignificance beside the larger issue
which his words had raised.
In her own room, that night, she passed through that travail of the
soul of which the deeper life is born. Her first sense was of a great
moral loneliness—an isolation more complete, more impenetrable, than
that in which the discovery of Denis's act had plunged her. For she had
vaguely leaned, then, on a collective sense of justice that should
respond to her own ideas of right and wrong: she still believed in the
logical correspondence of theory and practice. Now she saw that, among
those nearest her, there was no one who recognized the moral need of
expiation. She saw that to take her father or Mrs. Peyton into her
confidence would be but to widen the circle of sterile misery in which
she and Denis moved. At first the aspect of life thus revealed to her
seemed simply mean and base—a world where honour was a pact of silence
between adroit accomplices. The network of circumstance had tightened
round her, and every effort to escape drew its meshes closer. But as
her struggles subsided she felt the spiritual release which comes with
acceptance: not connivance in dishonour, but recognition of evil. Out
of that dark vision light was to come, the shaft of cloud turning to
the pillar of fire. For here, at last, life lay before her as it was:
not brave, garlanded and victorious, but naked, grovelling and
diseased, dragging its maimed limbs through the mud, yet lifting
piteous hands to the stars. Love itself, once throned aloft on an altar
of dreams, how it stole to her now, storm-beaten and scarred, pleading
for the shelter of her breast! Love, indeed, not in the old sense in
which she had conceived it, but a graver, austerer presence—the
charity of the mystic three. She thought she had ceased to love
Denis—but what had she loved in him but her happiness and his? Their
affection had been the garden enclosed of the Canticles, where
they were to walk forever in a delicate isolation of bliss. But now
love appeared to her as something more than this—something wider,
deeper, more enduring than the selfish passion of a man and a woman.
She saw it in all its far-reaching issues, till the first meeting of
two pairs of young eyes kindled a light which might be a high-lifted
beacon across dark waters of humanity.
All this did not come to her clearly, consecutively, but in a series
of blurred and shifting images. Marriage had meant to her, as it means
to girls brought up in ignorance of life, simply the exquisite
prolongation of wooing. If she had looked beyond, to the vision of
wider ties, it was as a traveller gazes over a land veiled in golden
haze, and so far distant that the imagination delays to explore it. But
now through the blur of sensations one image strangely persisted—the
image of Denis's child. Had she ever before thought of their having a
child? She could not remember. She was like one who wakens from a long
fever: she recalled nothing of her former self or of her former
feelings. She knew only that the vision persisted—the vision of the
child whose mother she was not to be. It was impossible that she should
marry Denis—her inmost soul rejected him ... but it was just because
she was not to be the child's mother that its image followed her so
pleadingly. For she saw with perfect clearness the inevitable course of
events. Denis would marry some one else—he was one of the men who are
fated to marry, and she needed not his mother's reminder that her
abandonment of him at an emotional crisis would fling him upon the
first sympathy within reach. He would marry a girl who knew nothing of
his secret—for Kate was intensely aware that he would never again
willingly confess himself—he would marry a girl who trusted him and
leaned on him, as she, Kate Orme—the earlier Kate Orme—had done but
two days since! And with this deception between them their child would
be born: born to an inheritance of secret weakness, a vice of the moral
fibre, as it might be born with some hidden physical taint which would
destroy it before the cause should be detected.... Well, and what of
it? Was she to hold herself responsible? Were not thousands of children
born with some such unsuspected taint?... Ah, but if here was one that
she could save? What if she, who had had so exquisite a vision of
wifehood, should reconstruct from its ruins this vision of protecting
maternity—if her love for her lover should be, not lost, but
transformed, enlarged, into this passion of charity for his race? If
she might expiate and redeem his fault by becoming a refuge from its
consequences? Before this strange extension of her love all the old
limitations seemed to fall. Something had cleft the surface of self,
and there welled up the mysterious primal influences, the sacrificial
instinct of her sex, a passion of spiritual motherhood that made her
long to fling herself between the unborn child and its fate....
She never knew, then or after, how she reached this mystic climax of
effacement; she was only conscious, through her anguish, of that lift
of the heart which made one of the saints declare that joy was the
inmost core of sorrow. For it was indeed a kind of joy she felt, if old
names must serve for such new meanings; a surge of liberating faith in
life, the old credo quia absurdum which is the secret cry of all
“Does it look nice, mother?”
Dick Peyton met her with the question on the threshold, drawing her
gaily into the little square room, and adding, with a laugh with a
blush in it: “You know she's an uncommonly noticing person, and little
things tell with her.”
He swung round on his heel to follow his mother's smiling inspection
of the apartment.
“She seems to have all the qualities,” Mrs. Denis Peyton
remarked, as her circuit finally brought her to the prettily appointed
“All,” he declared, taking the sting from her emphasis by his
prompt adoption of it. Dick had always had a wholesome way of thus
appropriating to his own use such small shafts of maternal irony as
were now and then aimed at him.
Kate Peyton laughed and loosened her furs. “It looks charmingly,”
she pronounced, ending her survey by an approach to the window, which
gave, far below, the oblique perspective of a long side-street leading
to Fifth Avenue.
The high-perched room was Dick Peyton's private office, a retreat
partitioned off from the larger enclosure in which, under a north light
and on a range of deal tables, three or four young draughtsmen were
busily engaged in elaborating his architectural projects. The outer
door of the office bore the sign: Peyton and Gill, Architects;
but Gill was an utilitarian person, as unobtrusive as his name, who
contented himself with a desk in the workroom, and left Dick to lord it
alone in the small apartment to which clients were introduced, and
where the social part of the business was carried on.
It was to serve, on this occasion, as the scene of a tea designed,
as Kate Peyton was vividly aware, to introduce a certain young lady to
the scene of her son's labours. Mrs. Peyton had been hearing a great
deal lately about Clemence Verney. Dick was naturally expansive, and
his close intimacy with his mother—an intimacy fostered by his
father's early death—if it had suffered some natural impairment in his
school and college days, had of late been revived by four years of
comradeship in Paris, where Mrs. Peyton, in a tiny apartment of the Rue
de Varennes, had kept house for him during his course of studies at the
Beaux Arts. There were indeed not lacking critics of her own sex who
accused Kate Peyton of having figured too largely in her son's life; of
having failed to efface herself at a period when it is agreed that
young men are best left free to try conclusions with the world. Mrs.
Peyton, had she cared to defend herself, might have said that Dick, if
communicative, was not impressionable, and that the closeness of
texture which enabled him to throw off her sarcasms preserved him also
from the infiltration of her prejudices. He was certainly no knight of
the apron-string, but a seemingly resolute and self-sufficient young
man, whose romantic friendship with his mother had merely served to
throw a veil of suavity over the hard angles of youth.
But Mrs. Peyton's real excuse was after all one which she would
never have given. It was because her intimacy with her son was the one
need of her life that she had, with infinite tact and discretion, but
with equal persistency, clung to every step of his growth, dissembling
herself, adapting herself, rejuvenating herself in the passionate
effort to be always within reach, but never in the way.
Denis Peyton had died after seven years of marriage, when his boy
was barely six. During those seven years he had managed to squander the
best part of the fortune he had inherited from his step-brother; so
that, at his death, his widow and son were left with a scant
competence. Mrs. Peyton, during her husband's life, had apparently made
no effort to restrain his expenditure. She had even been accused by
those judicious persons who are always ready with an estimate of their
neighbours' motives, of having encouraged poor Denis's improvidence for
the gratification of her own ambition. She had in fact, in the early
days of their marriage, tried to launch him in politics, and had
perhaps drawn somewhat heavily on his funds in the first heat of the
contest; but the experiment ending in failure, as Denis Peyton's
experiments were apt to end, she had made no farther demands on his
exchequer. Her personal tastes were in fact unusually simple, but her
outspoken indifference to money was not, in the opinion of her critics,
designed to act as a check upon her husband; and it resulted in leaving
her, at his death, in straits from which it was impossible not to
deduce a moral.
Her small means, and the care of the boy's education, served the
widow as a pretext for secluding herself in a socially remote suburb,
where it was inferred that she was expiating, on queer food and in
ready-made boots, her rash defiance of fortune. Whether or not Mrs.
Peyton's penance took this form, she hoarded her substance to such good
purpose that she was not only able to give Dick the best of schooling,
but to propose, on his leaving Harvard, that he should prolong his
studies by another four years at the Beaux Arts. It had been the joy of
her life that her boy had early shown a marked bent for a special line
of work. She could not have borne to see him reduced to a mere
money-getter, yet she was not sorry that their small means forbade the
cultivation of an ornamental leisure. In his college days Dick had
troubled her by a superabundance of tastes, a restless flitting from
one form of artistic expression to another. Whatever art he enjoyed he
wished to practise, and he passed from music to painting, from painting
to architecture, with an ease which seemed to his mother to indicate
lack of purpose rather than excess of talent. She had observed that
these changes were usually due, not to self-criticism, but to some
external discouragement. Any depreciation of his work was enough to
convince him of the uselessness of pursuing that special form of art,
and the reaction produced the immediate conviction that he was really
destined to shine in some other line of work. He had thus swung from
one calling to another till, at the end of his college career, his
mother took the decisive step of transplanting him to the Beaux Arts,
in the hope that a definite course of study, combined with the stimulus
of competition, might fix his wavering aptitudes. The result justified
her expectation, and their four years in the Rue de Varennes yielded
the happiest confirmation of her belief in him. Dick's ability was
recognized not only by his mother, but by his professors. He was
engrossed in his work, and his first successes developed his capacity
for application. His mother's only fear was that praise was still too
necessary to him. She was uncertain how long his ambition would sustain
him in the face of failure. He gave lavishly where he was sure of a
return; but it remained to be seen if he were capable of production
without recognition. She had brought him up in a wholesome scorn of
material rewards, and nature seemed, in this direction, to have
seconded her training. He was genuinely indifferent to money, and his
enjoyment of beauty was of that happy sort which does not generate the
wish for possession. As long as the inner eye had food for
contemplation, he cared very little for the deficiencies in his
surroundings; or, it might rather be said, he felt, in the sum-total of
beauty about him, an ownership of appreciation that left him free from
the fret of personal desire. Mrs. Peyton had cultivated to excess this
disregard of material conditions; but she now began to ask herself
whether, in so doing, she had not laid too great a strain on a
temperament naturally exalted. In guarding against other tendencies she
had perhaps fostered in him too exclusively those qualities which
circumstances had brought to an unusual development in herself. His
enthusiasms and his disdains were alike too unqualified for that happy
mean of character which is the best defence against the surprises of
fortune. If she had taught him to set an exaggerated value on ideal
rewards, was not that but a shifting of the danger-point on which her
fears had always hung? She trembled sometimes to think how little love
and a lifelong vigilance had availed in the deflecting of inherited
Her fears were in a measure confirmed by the first two years of
their life in New York, and the opening of his career as a professional
architect. Close on the easy triumphs of his studentships there came
the chilling reaction of public indifference. Dick, on his return from
Paris, had formed a partnership with an architect who had had several
years of practical training in a New York office; but the quiet and
industrious Gill, though he attracted to the new firm a few small jobs
which overflowed from the business of his former employer, was not able
to infect the public with his own faith in Peyton's talents, and it was
trying to a genius who felt himself capable of creating palaces to have
to restrict his efforts to the building of suburban cottages or the
planning of cheap alterations in private houses.
Mrs. Peyton expended all the ingenuities of tenderness in keeping up
her son's courage; and she was seconded in the task by a friend whose
acquaintance Dick had made at the Beaux Arts, and who, two years before
the Peytons, had returned to New York to start on his own career as an
architect. Paul Darrow was a young man full of crude seriousness, who,
after a youth of struggling work and study in his native northwestern
state, had won a scholarship which sent him abroad for a course at the
Beaux Arts. His two years there coincided with the first part of Dick's
residence, and Darrow's gifts had at once attracted the younger
student. Dick was unstinted in his admiration of rival talent, and Mrs.
Peyton, who was romantically given to the cultivation of such
generosities, had seconded his enthusiasm by the kindest offers of
hospitality to the young student. Darrow thus became the grateful
frequenter of their little salon; and after their return to New
York the intimacy between the young men was renewed, though Mrs. Peyton
found it more difficult to coax Dick's friend to her New York
drawing-room than to the informal surroundings of the Rue de Varennes.
There, no doubt, secluded and absorbed in her son's work, she had
seemed to Darrow almost a fellow-student; but seen among her own
associates she became once more the woman of fashion, divided from him
by the whole breadth of her ease and his awkwardness. Mrs. Peyton,
whose tact had divined the cause of his estrangement, would not for an
instant let it affect the friendship of the two young men. She
encouraged Dick to frequent Darrow, in whom she divined a persistency
of effort, an artistic self-confidence, in curious contrast to his
social hesitancies. The example of his obstinate capacity for work was
just the influence her son needed, and if Darrow would not come to them
she insisted that Dick must seek him out, must never let him think that
any social discrepancy could affect a friendship based on deeper
things. Dick, who had all the loyalties, and who took an honest pride
in his friend's growing success, needed no urging to maintain the
intimacy; and his copious reports of midnight colloquies in Darrow's
lodgings showed Mrs. Peyton that she had a strong ally in her invisible
It had been, therefore, somewhat of a shock to learn in the course
of time that Darrow's influence was being shared, if not counteracted,
by that of a young lady in whose honour Dick was now giving his first
professional tea. Mrs. Peyton had heard a great deal about Miss
Clemence Verney, first from the usual purveyors of such information,
and more recently from her son, who, probably divining that rumour had
been before him, adopted his usual method of disarming his mother by
taking her into his confidence. But, ample as her information was, it
remained perplexing and contradictory, and even her own few meetings
with the girl had not helped her to a definite opinion. Miss Verney, in
conduct and ideas, was patently of the “new school”: a young woman of
feverish activities and broad-cast judgments, whose very versatility
made her hard to define. Mrs. Peyton was shrewd enough to allow for the
accidents of environment; what she wished to get at was the residuum of
character beneath Miss Verney's shifting surface.
“It looks charmingly,” Mrs. Peyton repeated, giving a loosening
touch to the chrysanthemums in a tall vase on her son's desk.
Dick laughed, and glanced at his watch.
“They won't be here for another quarter of an hour. I think I'll
tell Gill to clean out the work-room before they come.”
“Are we to see the drawings for the competition?” his mother asked.
He shook his head smilingly. “Can't—I've asked one or two of the
Beaux Arts fellows, you know; and besides, old Darrow's actually
“Impossible!” Mrs. Peyton exclaimed.
“He swore he would last night.” Dick laughed again, with a tinge of
self-satisfaction. “I've an idea he wants to see Miss Verney.”
“Ah,” his mother murmured. There was a pause before she added: “Has
Darrow really gone in for this competition?”
“Rather! I should say so! He's simply working himself to the bone.”
Mrs. Peyton sat revolving her muff on a meditative hand; at length
she said: “I'm not sure I think it quite nice of him.”
Her son halted before her with an incredulous stare. “Mother!” he exclaimed.
The rebuke sent a blush to her forehead. “Well—considering your
“Everything? What do you mean by everything? The fact that he had
more ability than I have and is therefore more likely to succeed? The
fact that he needs the money and the success a deuced sight more than
any of us? Is that the reason you think he oughtn't to have entered?
Mother! I never heard you say an ungenerous thing before.”
The blush deepened to crimson, and she rose with a nervous laugh.
“It was ungenerous,” she conceded. “I suppose I'm jealous for
you. I hate these competitions!”
Her son smiled reassuringly. “You needn't. I'm not afraid: I think I
shall pull it off this time. In fact, Paul's the only man I'm afraid
of—I'm always afraid of Paul—but the mere fact that he's in the thing
is a tremendous stimulus.”
His mother continued to study him with an anxious tenderness. “Have
you worked out the whole scheme? Do you see it yet?”
“Oh, broadly, yes. There's a gap here and there—a hazy bit,
rather—it's the hardest problem I've ever had to tackle; but then it's
my biggest opportunity, and I've simply got to pull it off!”
Mrs. Peyton sat silent, considering his flushed face and illumined
eye, which were rather those of the victor nearing the goal than of the
runner just beginning the race. She remembered something that Darrow
had once said of him: “Dick always sees the end too soon.”
“You haven't too much time left,” she murmured.
“Just a week. But I shan't go anywhere after this. I shall renounce
the world.” He glanced smilingly at the festal tea-table and the
embowered desk. “When I next appear, it will either be with my heel on
Paul's neck—poor old Paul—or else—or else—being dragged lifeless
from the arena!”
His mother nervously took up the laugh with which he ended. “Oh, not
lifeless,” she said.
His face clouded. “Well, maimed for life, then,” he muttered.
Mrs. Peyton made no answer. She knew how much hung on the
possibility of his whining the competition which for weeks past had
engrossed him. It was a design for the new museum of sculpture, for
which the city had recently voted half a million. Dick's taste ran
naturally to the grandiose, and the erection of public buildings had
always been the object of his ambition. Here was an unmatched
opportunity, and he knew that, in a competition of the kind, the newest
man had as much chance of success as the firm of most established
reputation, since every competitor entered on his own merits, the
designs being submitted to a jury of architects who voted on them
without knowing the names of the contestants. Dick, characteristically,
was not afraid of the older firms; indeed, as he had told his mother,
Paul Darrow was the only rival he feared. Mrs. Peyton knew that, to a
certain point, self-confidence was a good sign; but somehow her son's
did not strike her as being of the right substance—it seemed to have
no dimension but extent. Her fears were complicated by a suspicion
that, under his professional eagerness for success, lay the knowledge
that Miss Verney's favour hung on the victory. It was that, perhaps,
which gave a feverish touch to his ambition; and Mrs. Peyton, surveying
the future from the height of her material apprehensions, divined that
the situation depended mainly on the girl's view of it. She would have
given a great deal to know Clemence Verney's conception of success.
Miss Verney, when she presently appeared, in the wake of the
impersonal and exclamatory young married woman who served as a
background to her vivid outline, seemed competent to impart at short
notice any information required of her. She had never struck Mrs.
Peyton as more alert and efficient. A melting grace of line and colour
tempered her edges with the charming haze of youth; but it occurred to
her critic that she might emerge from this morning mist as a dry and
metallic old woman.
If Miss Verney suspected a personal application in Dick's
hospitality, it did not call forth in her the usual tokens of
self-consciousness. Her manner may have been a shade more vivid than
usual, but she preserved all her bright composure of glance and speech,
so that one guessed, under the rapid dispersal of words, an undisturbed
steadiness of perception. She was lavishly but not indiscriminately
interested in the evidences of her host's industry, and as the other
guests assembled, straying with vague ejaculations through the
labyrinth of scale drawings and blue prints, Mrs. Peyton noted that
Miss Verney alone knew what these symbols stood for.
To his visitors' requests to be shown his plans for the competition,
Peyton had opposed a laughing refusal, enforced by the presence of two
fellow-architects, young men with lingering traces of the Beaux Arts in
their costume and vocabulary, who stood about in Gavarni attitudes and
dazzled the ladies by allusions to fenestration and entasis. The party
had already drifted back to the tea-table when a hesitating knock
announced Darrow's approach. He entered with his usual air of having
blundered in by mistake, embarrassed by his hat and great-coat, and
thrown into deeper confusion by the necessity of being introduced to
the ladies grouped about the urn. To the men he threw a gruff nod of
fellowship, and Dick having relieved him of his encumbrances, he
retreated behind the shelter of Mrs. Peyton's welcome. The latter
judiciously gave him time to recover, and when she turned to him he was
engaged in a surreptitious inspection of Miss Verney, whose dusky
slenderness, relieved against the bare walls of the office, made her
look like a young St. John of Donatello's. The girl returned his look
with one of her clear glances, and the group having presently broken up
again, Mrs. Peyton saw that she had drifted to Darrow's side. The
visitors at length wandered back to the work-room to see a portfolio of
Dick's water-colours; but Mrs. Peyton remained seated behind the urn,
listening to the interchange of talk through the open door while she
tried to coordinate her impressions.
She saw that Miss Verney was sincerely interested in Dick's work: it
was the nature of her interest that remained in doubt. As if to solve
this doubt, the girl presently reappeared alone on the threshold, and
discovering Mrs. Peyton, advanced toward her with a smile.
“Are you tired of hearing us praise Mr. Peyton's things?” she asked,
dropping into a low chair beside her hostess. “Unintelligent admiration
must be a bore to people who know, and Mr. Darrow tells me you are
almost as learned as your son.”
Mrs. Peyton returned the smile, but evaded the question. “I should
be sorry to think your admiration unintelligent,” she said. “I like to
feel that my boy's work is appreciated by people who understand it.”
“Oh, I have the usual smattering,” said Miss Verney carelessly. “I
think I know why I admire his work; but then I am sure I see more
in it when some one like Mr. Darrow tells me how remarkable it is.”
“Does Mr. Darrow say that?” the mother exclaimed, losing sight of
her object in the rush of maternal pleasure.
“He has said nothing else: it seems to be the only subject which
loosens his tongue. I believe he is more anxious to have your son win
the competition than to win it himself.”
“He is a very good friend,” Mrs. Peyton assented. She was struck by
the way in which the girl led the topic back to the special application
of it which interested her. She had none of the artifices of prudery.
“He feels sure that Mr. Peyton will win,” Miss Verney
continued. “It was very interesting to hear his reasons. He is an
extraordinarily interesting man. It must be a tremendous incentive to
have such a friend.”
Mrs. Peyton hesitated. “The friendship is delightful; but I don't
know that my son needs the incentive. He is almost too ambitious.”
Miss Verney looked up brightly. “Can one be?” she said. “Ambition is
so splendid! It must be so glorious to be a man and go crashing through
obstacles, straight up to the thing one is after. I'm afraid I don't
care for people who are superior to success. I like marriage by
capture!” She rose with her wandering laugh, and stood flushed and
sparkling above Mrs. Peyton, who continued to gaze at her gravely.
“What do you call success?” the latter asked. “It means so many
“Oh, yes, I know—the inward approval, and all that. Well, I'm
afraid I like the other kind: the drums and wreaths and acclamations.
If I were Mr. Peyton, for instance, I'd much rather win the competition
than—than be as disinterested as Mr. Darrow.”
Mrs. Peyton smiled. “I hope you won't tell him so,” she said half
seriously. “He is over-stimulated already; and he is so easily
influenced by any one who—whose opinion he values.”
She stopped abruptly, hearing herself, with a strange inward shock,
re-echo the words which another man's mother had once spoken to her.
Miss Verney did not seem to take the allusion to herself, for she
continued to fix on Mrs. Peyton a gaze of impartial sympathy.
“But we can't help being interested!” she declared.
“It's very kind of you; but I wish you would all help him to feel
that his competition is after all of very little account compared with
other things—his health and his peace of mind, for instance. He is
looking horribly used up.”
The girl glanced over her shoulder at Dick, who was just reentering
the room at Darrow's side.
“Oh, do you think so?” she said. “I should have thought it was his
friend who was used up.”
Mrs. Peyton followed the glance with surprise. She had been too
preoccupied to notice Darrow, whose crudely modelled face was always of
a dull pallour, to which his slow-moving grey eye lent no relief except
in rare moments of expansion. Now the face had the fallen lines of a
death-mask, in which only the smile he turned on Dick remained alive;
and the sight smote her with compunction. Poor Darrow! He did look
horribly fagged out: as if he needed care and petting and good food. No
one knew exactly how he lived. His rooms, according to Dick's report,
were fireless and ill kept, but he stuck to them because his landlady,
whom he had fished out of some financial plight, had difficulty in
obtaining other lodgers. He belonged to no clubs, and wandered out
alone for his meals, mysteriously refusing the hospitality which his
friends pressed on him. It was plain that he was very poor, and Dick
conjectured that he sent what he earned to an aunt in his native
village; but he was so silent about such matters that, outside of his
profession, he seemed to have no personal life.
Miss Verney's companion having presently advised her of the lapse of
time, there ensued a general leave-taking, at the close of which Dick
accompanied the ladies to their carriage. Darrow was meanwhile
blundering into his greatcoat, a process which always threw him into a
state of perspiring embarrassment; but Mrs. Peyton, surprising him in
the act, suggested that he should defer it and give her a few moments'
“Let me make you some fresh tea,” she said, as Darrow blushingly
shed the garment, “and when Dick comes back we'll all walk home
together. I've not had a chance to say two words to you this winter.”
Darrow sank into a chair at her side and nervously contemplated his
boots. “I've been tremendously hard at work,” he said.
“I know: too hard at work, I'm afraid. Dick tells me you have
been wearing yourself out over your competition plans.”
“Oh, well, I shall have time to rest now,” he returned. “I put the
last stroke to them this morning.”
Mrs. Peyton gave him a quick look. “You're ahead of Dick, then.”
“In point of time only,” he said smiling.
“That is in itself an advantage,” she answered with a tinge of
asperity. In spite of an honest effort for impartiality she could not,
at the moment, help regarding Darrow as an obstacle in her son's path.
“I wish the competition were over!” she exclaimed, conscious that
her voice had betrayed her. “I hate to see you both looking so fagged.”
Darrow smiled again, perhaps at her studied inclusion of himself.
“Oh, Dick's all right,” he said. “He'll pull himself together
in no time.”
He spoke with an emphasis which might have struck her, if her
sympathies had not again been deflected by the allusion to her son.
“Not if he doesn't win,” she exclaimed.
Darrow took the tea she had poured for him, knocking the spoon to
the floor in his eagerness to perform the feat gracefully. In bending
to recover the spoon he struck the tea-table with his shoulder, and set
the cups dancing. Having regained a measure of composure, he took a
swallow of the hot tea and set it down with a gasp, precariously near
the edge of the tea-table. Mrs. Peyton rescued the cup, and Darrow,
apparently forgetting its existence, rose and began to pace the room.
It was always hard for him to sit still when he talked.
“You mean he's so tremendously set on it?” he broke out.
Mrs. Peyton hesitated. “You know him almost as well as I do,” she
said. “He's capable of anything where there is a possibility of
success; but I'm always afraid of the reaction.”
“Oh, well, Dick's a man,” said Darrow bluntly. “Besides, he's going
“I wish he didn't feel so sure of it. You mustn't think I'm afraid
for him. He's a man, and I want him to take his chances with other men;
but I wish he didn't care so much about what people think.”
“Miss Verney, then: I suppose you know.”
Darrow paused in front of her. “Yes: he's talked a good deal about
her. You think she wants him to succeed?”
“At any price!”
He drew his brows together. “What do you call any price?”
“Well—herself, in this case, I believe.”
Darrow bent a puzzled stare on her. “You mean she attached that
amount of importance to this competition?”
“She seems to regard it as symbolical: that's what I gather. And I'm
afraid she's given him the same impression.”
Darrow's sunken face was suffused by his rare smile. “Oh, well,
he'll pull it off then!” he said.
Mrs. Peyton rose with a distracted sigh. “I half hope he won't, for
such a motive,” she exclaimed.
“The motive won't show in his work,” said Darrow. He added, after a
pause probably devoted to the search for the right word: “He seems to
think a great deal of her.”
Mrs. Peyton fixed him thoughtfully. “I wish I knew what you
think of her.”
“Why, I never saw her before.”
“No; but you talked with her to-day. You've formed an opinion: I
think you came here on purpose.”
He chuckled joyously at her discernment: she had always seemed to
him gifted with supernatural insight. “Well, I did want to see her,” he
“And what do you think?”
He took a few vague steps and then halted before Mrs. Peyton. “I
think,” he said, smiling, “that she likes to be helped first, and to
have everything on her plate at once.”
At dinner, with a rush of contrition, Mrs. Peyton remembered that
she had after all not spoken to Darrow about his health. He had
distracted her by beginning to talk of Dick; and besides, much as
Darrow's opinions interested her, his personality had never fixed her
attention. He always seemed to her simply a vehicle for the
transmission of ideas.
It was Dick who recalled her to a sense of her omission by asking if
she hadn't thought that old Paul looked rather more ragged than usual.
“He did look tired,” Mrs. Peyton conceded. “I meant to tell him to
take care of himself.”
Dick laughed at the futility of the measure. “Old Paul is never
tired: he can work twenty-five hours out of the twenty-four. The
trouble with him is that he's ill. Something wrong with the machinery,
“Oh, I'm sorry. Has he seen a doctor?”
“He wouldn't listen to me when I suggested it the other day; but
he's so deuced mysterious that I don't know what he may have done
since.” Dick rose, putting down his coffee-cup and half-smoked
cigarette. “I've half a mind to pop in on him tonight and see how he's
“But he lives at the other end of the earth; and you're tired
“I'm not tired; only a little strung-up,” he returned, smiling. “And
besides, I'm going to meet Gill at the office by and by and put in a
night's work. It won't hurt me to take a look at Paul first.”
Mrs. Peyton was silent. She knew it was useless to contend with her
son about his work, and she tried to fortify herself with the
remembrance of her own words to Darrow: Dick was a man and must take
his chance with other men.
But Dick, glancing at his watch, uttered an exclamation of
annoyance. “Oh, by Jove, I shan't have time after all. Gill is waiting
for me now; we must have dawdled over dinner.” He went to give his
mother a caressing tap on the cheek. “Now don't worry,” he adjured her;
and as she smiled back at him he added with a sudden happy blush: “She
doesn't, you know: she's so sure of me.”
Mrs. Peyton's smile faded, and laying a detaining hand on his, she
said with sudden directness: “Sure of you, or of your success?”
He hesitated. “Oh, she regards them as synonymous. She thinks I'm
bound to get on.”
“But if you don't?”
He shrugged laughingly, but with a slight contraction of his
confident brows. “Why, I shall have to make way for some one else, I
suppose. That's the law of life.”
Mrs. Peyton sat upright, gazing at him with a kind of solemnity. “Is
it the law of love?” she asked.
He looked down on her with a smile that trembled a little. “My dear
romantic mother, I don't want her pity, you know!”
* * * * *
Dick, coming home the next morning shortly before daylight, left the
house again after a hurried breakfast, and Mrs. Peyton heard nothing of
him till nightfall. He had promised to be back for dinner, but a few
moments before eight, as she was coming down to the drawing-room, the
parlour-maid handed her a hastily pencilled note.
“Don't wait for me,” it ran. “Darrow is ill and I can't leave him.
I'll send a line when the doctor has seen him.”
Mrs. Peyton, who was a woman of rapid reactions, read the words with
a pang. She was ashamed of the jealous thoughts she had harboured of
Darrow, and of the selfishness which had made her lose sight of his
troubles in the consideration of Dick's welfare. Even Clemence Verney,
whom she secretly accused of a want of heart, had been struck by
Darrow's ill looks, while she had had eyes only for her son. Poor
Darrow! How cold and self-engrossed he must have thought her! In the
first rush of penitence her impulse was to drive at once to his
lodgings; but the infection of his own shyness restrained her. Dick's
note gave no details; the illness was evidently grave, but might not
Darrow regard her coming as an intrusion? To repair her negligence of
yesterday by a sudden invasion of his privacy might be only a greater
failure in tact; and after a moment of deliberation she resolved on
sending to ask Dick if he wished her to go to him.
The reply, which came late, was what she had expected. “No, we have
all the help we need. The doctor has sent a good nurse, and is coming
again later. It's pneumonia, but of course he doesn't say much yet. Let
me have some beef-juice as soon as the cook can make it.”
The beef-juice ordered and dispatched, she was left to a vigil in
melancholy contrast to that of the previous evening. Then she had been
enclosed in the narrow limits of her maternal interests; now the
barriers of self were broken down, and her personal preoccupations
swept away on the current of a wider sympathy. As she sat there in the
radius of lamp-light which, for so many evenings, had held Dick and
herself in a charmed circle of tenderness, she saw that her love for
her boy had come to be merely a kind of extended egotism. Love had
narrowed instead of widening her, had rebuilt between herself and life
the very walls which, years and years before, she had laid low with
bleeding fingers. It was horrible, how she had come to sacrifice
everything to the one passion of ambition for her boy....
At daylight she sent another messenger, one of her own servants, who
returned without having seen Dick. Mr. Peyton had sent word that there
was no change. He would write later; he wanted nothing. The day wore on
drearily. Once Kate found herself computing the precious hours lost to
Dick's unfinished task. She blushed at her ineradicable selfishness,
and tried to turn her mind to poor Darrow. But she could not master her
impulses; and now she caught herself indulging the thought that his
illness would at least exclude him from the competition. But no—she
remembered that he had said his work was finished. Come what might, he
stood in the path of her boy's success. She hated herself for the
thought, but it would not down.
Evening drew on, but there was no note from Dick. At length, in the
shamed reaction from her fears, she rang for a carriage and went
upstairs to dress. She could stand aloof no longer: she must go to
Darrow, if only to escape from her wicked thoughts of him. As she came
down again she heard Dick's key in the door. She hastened her steps,
and as she reached the hall he stood before her without speaking.
She looked at him and the question died on her lips. He nodded, and
walked slowly past her.
“There was no hope from the first,” he said.
The next day Dick was taken up with the preparations for the
funeral. The distant aunt, who appeared to be Darrow's only relation,
had been duly notified of his death; but no answer having been received
from her, it was left to his friend to fulfil the customary duties. He
was again absent for the best part of the day; and when he returned at
dusk Mrs. Peyton, looking up from the tea-table behind which she
awaited him, was startled by the deep-lined misery of his face.
Her own thoughts were too painful for ready expression, and they sat
for a while in a mute community of wretchedness.
“Is everything arranged?” she asked at length.
“And you have not heard from the aunt?”
He shook his head.
“Can you find no trace of any other relations?”
“None. I went over all his papers. There were very few, and I found
no address but the aunt's.” He sat thrown back in his chair,
disregarding the cup of tea she had mechanically poured for him. “I
found this, though,” he added, after a pause, drawing a letter from his
pocket and holding it out to her.
She took it doubtfully. “Ought I to read it?”
She saw then that the envelope, in Darrow's hand, was addressed to
her son. Within were a few pencilled words, dated on the first day of
his illness, the morrow of the day on which she had last seen him.
“Dear Dick,” she read, “I want you to use my plans for the museum if
you can get any good out of them. Even if I pull out of this I want you
to. I shall have other chances, and I have an idea this one means a lot
Mrs. Peyton sat speechless, gazing at the date of the letter, which
she had instantly connected with her last talk with Darrow. She saw
that he had understood her, and the thought scorched her to the soul.
“Wasn't it glorious of him?” Dick said.
She dropped the letter, and hid her face in her hands.
The funeral took place the next morning, and on the return from the
cemetery Dick told his mother that he must go and look over things at
Darrow's office. He had heard the day before from his friend's aunt, a
helpless person to whom telegraphy was difficult and travel
inconceivable, and who, in eight pages of unpunctuated eloquence, made
over to Dick what she called the melancholy privilege of winding up her
Mrs. Peyton looked anxiously at her son. “Is there no one who can do
this for you? He must have had a clerk or some one who knows about his
Dick shook his head. “Not lately. He hasn't had much to do this
winter, and these last months he had chucked everything to work alone
over his plans.”
The word brought a faint colour to Mrs. Peyton's cheek. It was the
first allusion that either of them had made to Darrow's bequest.
“Oh, of course you must do all you can,” she murmured, turning alone
into the house.
The emotions of the morning had stirred her deeply, and she sat at
home during the day, letting her mind dwell, in a kind of retrospective
piety, on the thought of poor Darrow's devotion. She had given him too
little time while he lived, had acquiesced too easily in his growing
habits of seclusion; and she felt it as a proof of insensibility that
she had not been more closely drawn to the one person who had loved
Dick as she loved him. The evidence of that love, as shown in Darrow's
letter, filled her with a vain compunction. The very extravagance of
his offer lent it a deeper pathos. It was wonderful that, even in the
urgency of affection, a man of his almost morbid rectitude should have
overlooked the restrictions of professional honour, should have implied
the possibility of his friend's overlooking them. It seemed to make his
sacrifice the more complete that it had, unconsciously, taken the form
of a subtle temptation.
The last word arrested Mrs. Peyton's thoughts. A temptation? To
whom? Not, surely, to one capable, as her son was capable, of rising to
the height of his friend's devotion. The offer, to Dick, would mean
simply, as it meant to her, the last touching expression of an
inarticulate fidelity: the utterance of a love which at last had found
its formula. Mrs. Peyton dismissed as morbid any other view of the
case. She was annoyed with herself for supposing that Dick could be
ever so remotely affected by the possibility at which poor Darrow's
renunciation hinted. The nature of the offer removed it from practical
issues to the idealizing region of sentiment.
Mrs. Peyton had been sitting alone with these thoughts for the
greater part of the afternoon, and dusk was falling when Dick entered
the drawing-room. In the dim light, with his pallour heightened by the
sombre effect of his mourning, he came upon her almost startlingly,
with a revival of some long-effaced impression which, for a moment,
gave her the sense of struggling among shadows. She did not, at first,
know what had produced the effect; then she saw that it was his
likeness to his father.
“Well—is it over?” she asked, as he threw himself into a chair
“Yes: I've looked through everything.” He leaned back, crossing his
hands behind his head, and gazing past her with a look of utter
She paused a moment, and then said tentatively: “Tomorrow you will
be able to go back to your work.”
“Oh—my work,” he exclaimed, as if to brush aside an ill-timed
“Are you too tired?”
“No.” He rose and began to wander up and down the room. “I'm not
tired.—Give me some tea, will you?” He paused before her while she
poured the cup, and then, without taking it, turned away to light a
“Surely there is still time?” she suggested, with her eyes on him.
“Time? To finish my plans? Oh, yes—there's time. But they're not
“Not worth it?” She started up, and then dropped back into her seat,
ashamed of having betrayed her anxiety. “They are worth as much as they
were last week,” she said with an attempt at cheerfulness.
“Not to me,” he returned. “I hadn't seen Darrow's then.”
There was a long silence. Mrs. Peyton sat with her eyes fixed on her
clasped hands, and her son paced the room restlessly.
“Are they so wonderful?” she asked at length.
She paused again, and then said, lifting a tremulous glance to his
face: “That makes his offer all the more beautiful.”
Dick was lighting another cigarette, and his face was turned from
her. “Yes—I suppose so,” he said in a low tone.
“They were quite finished, he told me,” she continued, unconsciously
dropping her voice to the pitch of his.
“Then they will be entered, I suppose?”
“Of course—why not?” he answered almost sharply.
“Shall you have time to attend to all that and to finish yours too?”
“Oh, I suppose so. I've told you it isn't a question of tune. I see
now that mine are not worth bothering with.”
She rose and approached him, laying her hands on his shoulders. “You
are tired and unstrung; how can you judge? Why not let me look at both
Under her gaze he flushed abruptly and drew back with a
“Oh, I'm afraid that wouldn't help me; you'd be sure to think mine
best,” he said with a laugh.
“But if I could give you good reasons?” she pressed him.
He took her hand, as if ashamed of his impatience. “Dear mother, if
you had any reasons their mere existence would prove that they were
His mother did not return his smile. “You won't let me see the two
designs then?” she said with a faint tinge of insistence.
“Oh, of course—if you want to—if you only won't talk about it now!
Can't you see that I'm pretty nearly dead-beat?” he burst out
uncontrollably; and as she stood silent, he added with a weary fall in
his voice, “I think I'll go upstairs and see if I can't get a nap
* * * * *
Though they had separated upon the assurance that she should see the
two designs if she wished it, Mrs. Peyton knew they would not be shown
to her. Dick, indeed, would not again deny her request; but had he not
reckoned on the improbability of her renewing it? All night she lay
confronted by that question. The situation shaped itself before her
with that hallucinating distinctness which belongs to the midnight
vision. She knew now why Dick had suddenly reminded her of his father:
had she not once before seen the same thought moving behind the same
eyes? She was sure it had occurred to Dick to use Darrow's drawings. As
she lay awake in the darkness she could hear him, long after midnight,
pacing the floor overhead: she held her breath, listening to the
recurring beat of his foot, which seemed that of an imprisoned spirit
revolving wearily in the cage of the same thought. She felt in every
fibre that a crisis in her son's life had been reached, that the act
now before him would have a determining effect on his whole future. The
circumstances of her past had raised to clairvoyance her natural
insight into human motive, had made of her a moral barometer responding
to the faintest fluctuations of atmosphere, and years of anxious
meditation had familiarized her with the form which her son's
temptations were likely to take. The peculiar misery of her situation
was that she could not, except indirectly, put this intuition, this
foresight, at his service. It was a part of her discernment to be aware
that life is the only real counsellor, that wisdom unfiltered through
personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissues. Love
such as hers had a great office, the office of preparation and
direction; but it must know how to hold its hand and keep its counsel,
how to attend upon its object as an invisible influence rather than as
an active interference.
All this Kate Peyton had told herself again and again, during those
hours of anxious calculation in which she had tried to cast Dick's
horoscope; but not in her moments of most fantastic foreboding had she
figured so cruel a test of her courage. If her prayers for him had
taken precise shape, she might have asked that he should be spared the
spectacular, the dramatic appeal to his will-power: that his
temptations should slip by him in a dull disguise. She had secured him
against all ordinary forms of baseness; the vulnerable point lay
higher, in that region of idealizing egotism which is the seat of life
in such natures.
Years of solitary foresight gave her mind a singular alertness in
dealing with such possibilities. She saw at once that the peril of the
situation lay in the minimum of risk it involved. Darrow had employed
no assistant in working out his plans for the competition, and his
secluded life made it almost certain that he had not shown them to any
one, and that she and Dick alone knew them to have been completed.
Moreover, it was a part of Dick's duty to examine the contents of his
friend's office, and in doing this nothing would be easier than to
possess himself of the drawings and make use of any part of them that
might serve his purpose. He had Darrow's authority for doing so; and
though the act involved a slight breach of professional probity, might
not his friend's wishes be invoked as a secret justification? Mrs.
Peyton found herself almost hating poor Darrow for having been the
unconscious instrument of her son's temptation. But what right had she,
after all, to suspect Dick of considering, even for a moment, the act
of which she was so ready to accuse him? His unwillingness to let her
see the drawings might have been the accidental result of lassitude and
discouragement. He was tired and troubled, and she had chosen the wrong
moment to make the request. His want of readiness might even be due to
the wish to conceal from her how far his friend had surpassed him. She
knew his sensitiveness on this point, and reproached herself for not
having foreseen it. But her own arguments failed to convince her. Deep
beneath her love for her boy and her faith in him there lurked a
nameless doubt. She could hardly now, in looking back, define the
impulse upon which she had married Denis Peyton: she knew only that the
deeps of her nature had been loosened, and that she had been borne
forward on their current to the very fate from which her heart
recoiled. But if in one sense her marriage remained a problem, there
was another in which her motherhood seemed to solve it. She had never
lost the sense of having snatched her child from some dim peril which
still lurked and hovered; and he became more closely hers with every
effort of her vigilant love. For the act of rescue had not been
accomplished once and for all in the moment of immolation: it had not
been by a sudden stroke of heroism, but by ever-renewed and
indefatigable effort, that she had built up for him the miraculous
shelter of her love. And now that it stood there, a hallowed refuge
against failure, she could not even set a light in the pane, but must
let him grope his way to it unaided.
Mrs. Peyton's midnight musings summed themselves up in the
conclusion that the next few hours would end her uncertainty. She felt
the day to be decisive. If Dick offered to show her the drawings, her
fears would be proved groundless; if he avoided the subject, they were
She dressed early in order not to miss him at breakfast; but as she
entered the dining-room the parlour-maid told her that Mr. Peyton had
overslept himself, and had rung to have his breakfast sent upstairs.
Was it a pretext to avoid her? She was vexed at her own readiness to
see a portent in the simplest incident; but while she blushed at her
doubts she let them govern her. She left the dining-room door open,
determined not to miss him if he came downstairs while she was at
breakfast; then she went back to the drawing-room and sat down at her
writing-table, trying to busy herself with some accounts while she
listened for his step. Here too she had left the door open; but
presently even this slight departure from her daily usage seemed a
deviation from the passive attitude she had adopted, and she rose and
shut the door. She knew that she could still hear his step on the
stairs—he had his father's quick swinging gait—but as she sat
listening, and vainly trying to write, the closed door seemed to
symbolize a refusal to share in his trial, a hardening of herself
against his need of her. What if he should come down intending to
speak, and should be turned from his purpose? Slighter obstacles have
deflected the course of events in those indeterminate moments when the
soul floats between two tides. She sprang up quickly, and as her hand
touched the latch she heard his step on the stairs.
When he entered the drawing-room she had regained the writing-table
and could lift a composed face to his. He came in hurriedly, yet with a
kind of reluctance beneath his haste: again it was his father's step.
She smiled, but looked away from him as he approached her; she seemed
to be re-living her own past as one re-lives things in the distortion
“Are you off already?” she asked, glancing at the hat in his hand.
“Yes; I'm late as it is. I overslept myself.” He paused and looked
vaguely about the room. “Don't expect me till late—don't wait dinner
She stirred impulsively. “Dick, you're overworking—you'll make
“Nonsense. I'm as fit as ever this morning. Don't be imagining
He dropped his habitual kiss on her forehead, and turned to go. On
the threshold he paused, and she felt that something in him sought her
and then drew back. “Good-bye,” he called to her as the door closed on
She sat down and tried to survey the situation divested of her
midnight fears. He had not referred to her wish to see the drawings:
but what did the omission signify? Might he not have forgotten her
request? Was she not forcing the most trivial details to fit in with
her apprehensions? Unfortunately for her own reassurance, she knew that
her familiarity with Dick's processes was based on such minute
observation, and that, to such intimacy as theirs, no indications were
trivial. She was as certain as if he had spoken, that when he had left
the house that morning he was weighing the possibility of using
Darrow's drawings, of supplementing his own incomplete design from the
fulness of his friend's invention. And with a bitter pang she divined
that he was sorry he had shown her Darrow's letter.
It was impossible to remain face to face with such conjectures, and
though she had given up all her engagements during the few days since
Darrow's death, she now took refuge in the thought of a concert which
was to take place at a friend's house that morning. The music-room,
when she entered, was thronged with acquaintances, and she found
transient relief in that dispersal of attention which makes society an
anesthetic for some forms of wretchedness. Contact with the pressure of
busy indifferent life often gives remoteness to questions which have
clung as close as the flesh to the bone; and if Mrs. Peyton did not
find such complete release, she at least interposed between herself and
her anxiety the obligation to dissemble it. But the relief was only
momentary, and when the first bars of the overture turned from her the
smiles of recognition among which she had tried to lose herself, she
felt a deeper sense of isolation. The music, which at another time
would have swept her away on some rich current of emotion, now seemed
to island her in her own thoughts, to create an artificial solitude in
which she found herself more immitigably face to face with her fears.
The silence, the recueillement, about her gave resonance to the
inner voices, lucidity to the inner vision, till she seemed enclosed in
a luminous empty horizon against which every possibility took the sharp
edge of accomplished fact. With relentless precision the course of
events was unrolled before her: she saw Dick yielding to his
opportunity, snatching victory from dishonour, winning love, happiness
and success in the act by which he lost himself. It was all so simple,
so easy, so inevitable, that she felt the futility of struggling or
hoping against it. He would win the competition, would marry Miss
Verney, would press on to achievement through the opening which the
first success had made for him.
As Mrs. Peyton reached this point in her forecast, she found her
outward gaze arrested by the face of the young lady who so dominated
her inner vision. Miss Verney, a few rows distant, sat intent upon the
music, in that attitude of poised motion which was her nearest approach
to repose. Her slender brown profile with its breezy hair, her quick
eye, and the lips which seemed to listen as well as speak, all
betokened to Mrs. Peyton a nature through which the obvious energies
blew free, a bare open stretch of consciousness without shelter for
tenderer growths. She shivered to think of Dick's frail scruples
exposed to those rustling airs. And then, suddenly, a new thought
struck her. What if she might turn this force to her own use, make it
serve, unconsciously to Dick, as the means of his deliverance? Hitherto
she had assumed that her son's worst danger lay in the chance of his
confiding his difficulty to Clemence Verney; and she had, in her own
past, a precedent which made her think such a confidence not unlikely.
If he did carry his scruples to the girl, she argued, the latter's
imperviousness, her frank inability to understand them, would have the
effect of dispelling them like mist; and he was acute enough to know
this and profit by it. So she had hitherto reasoned; but now the girl's
presence seemed to clarify her perceptions, and she told herself that
something in Dick's nature, something which she herself had put there,
would resist this short cut to safety, would make him take the more
tortuous way to his goal rather than gain it through the privacies of
the heart he loved. For she had lifted him thus far above his father,
that it would be a disenchantment to him to find that Clemence Verney
did not share his scruples. On this much, his mother now exultingly
felt, she could count in her passive struggle for supremacy. No, he
would never, never tell Clemence Verney—and his one hope, his sure
salvation, therefore lay in some one else's telling her.
The excitement of this discovery had nearly, in mid-concert, swept
Mrs. Peyton from her seat to the girl's side. Fearing to miss the
latter in the throng at the entrance, she slipped out during the last
number and, lingering in the farther drawing-room, let the dispersing
audience drift her in Miss Verney's direction. The girl shone
sympathetically on her approach, and in a moment they had detached
themselves from the crowd and taken refuge in the perfumed emptiness of
The girl, whose sensations were always easily set in motion, had at
first a good deal to say of the music, for which she claimed, on her
hearer's part, an active show of approval or dissent; but this
dismissed, she turned a melting face on Mrs. Peyton and said with one
of her rapid modulations of tone: “I was so sorry about poor Mr.
Mrs. Peyton uttered an assenting sigh. “It was a great grief to
us—a great loss to my son.”
“Yes—I know. I can imagine what you must have felt. And then it was
so unlucky that it should have happened just now.”
Mrs. Peyton shot a reconnoitring glance at her profile. “His dying,
you mean, on the eve of success?”
Miss Verney turned a frank smile upon her. “One ought to feel that,
of course—but I'm afraid I am very selfish where my friends are
concerned, and I was thinking of Mr. Peyton's having to give up his
work at such a critical moment.” She spoke without a note of
deprecation: there was a pagan freshness in her opportunism.
Mrs. Peyton was silent, and the girl continued after a pause: “I
suppose now it will be almost impossible for him to finish his drawings
in time. It's a pity he hadn't worked out the whole scheme a little
sooner. Then the details would have come of themselves.”
Mrs. Peyton felt a contempt strangely mingled with exultation. If
only the girl would talk in that way to Dick!
“He has hardly had time to think of himself lately,” she said,
trying to keep the coldness out of her voice.
“No, of course not,” Miss Verney assented; “but isn't that all the
more reason for his friends to think of him? It was very dear of him to
give up everything to nurse Mr. Darrow—but, after all, if a man is
going to get on in his career there are times when he must think first
Mrs. Peyton paused, trying to choose her words with deliberation. It
was quite clear now that Dick had not spoken, and she felt the
responsibility that devolved upon her.
“Getting on in a career—is that always the first thing to be
considered?” she asked, letting her eyes rest musingly on the girl's.
The glance did not disconcert Miss Verney, who returned it with one
of equal comprehensiveness. “Yes,” she said quickly, and with a slight
blush. “With a temperament like Mr. Peyton's I believe it is. Some
people can pick themselves up after any number of bad falls: I am not
sure that he could. I think discouragement would weaken instead of
Both women had forgotten external conditions in the quick reach for
each other's meanings. Mrs. Peyton flushed, her maternal pride in
revolt; but the answer was checked on her lips by the sense of the
girl's unexpected insight. Here was some one who knew Dick as well as
she did—should she say a partisan or an accomplice? A dim jealousy
stirred beneath Mrs. Peyton's other emotions: she was undergoing the
agony which the mother feels at the first intrusion on her privilege of
judging her child; and her voice had a flutter of resentment.
“You must have a poor opinion of his character,” she said.
Miss Verney did not remove her eyes, but her blush deepened
beautifully. “I have, at any rate,” she Said, “a high one of his
talent. I don't suppose many men have an equal amount of moral and
“And you would cultivate the one at the expense of the other?”
“In certain cases—and up to a certain point.” She shook out the
long fur of her muff, one of those silvery flexible furs which clothe a
woman with a delicate sumptuousness. Everything about her, at the
moment, seemed rich and cold—everything, as Mrs. Peyton quickly noted,
but the blush lingering under her dark skin; and so complete was the
girl's self-command that the blush seemed to be there only because it
had been forgotten.
“I dare say you think me strange,” she continued. “Most people do,
because I speak the truth. It's the easiest way of concealing one's
feelings. I can, for instance, talk quite openly about Mr. Peyton under
shelter of your inference that I shouldn't do so if I were what is
called 'interested' in him. And as I am interested in him, my
method has its advantages!” She ended with one of the fluttering laughs
which seemed to flit from point to point of her expressive person.
Mrs. Peyton leaned toward her. “I believe you are interested,” she
said quietly; “and since I suppose you allow others the privilege you
claim for yourself, I am going to confess that I followed you here in
the hope of finding out the nature of your interest.”
Miss Verney shot a glance at her, and drew away in a soft subsidence
of undulating furs.
“Is this an embassy?” she asked smiling.
“No: not in any sense.”
The girl leaned back with an air of relief. “I'm glad; I should have
disliked—” She looked again at Mrs. Peyton. “You want to know what I
mean to do?”
“Then I can only answer that I mean to wait and see what he does.”
“You mean that everything is contingent on his success?”
“I am—if I'm everything,” she admitted gaily.
The mother's heart was beating in her throat, and her words seemed
to force themselves out through the throbs.
“I—I don't quite see why you attach such importance to this special
“Because he does,” the girl returned instantly. “Because to him it
is the final answer to his self-questioning—the questioning whether he
is ever to amount to anything or not. He says if he has anything in him
it ought to come out now. All the conditions are favourable—it is the
chance he has always prayed for. You see,” she continued, almost
confidentially, but without the least loss of composure—“you see he
has told me a great deal about himself and his various experiments—his
phrases of indecision and disgust. There are lots of tentative talents
in the world, and the sooner they are crushed out by circumstances the
better. But it seems as though he really had it in him to do something
distinguished—as though the uncertainty lay in his character and not
in his talent. That is what interests, what attracts me. One can't
teach a man to have genius, but if he has it one may show him how to
use it. That is what I should be good for, you see—to keep him up to
Mrs. Peyton had listened with an intensity of attention that left
her reply unprepared. There was something startling and yet half
attractive in the girl's avowal of principles which are oftener lived
by than professed.
“And you think,” she began at length, “that in this case he has
fallen below his opportunity?”
“No one can tell, of course; but his discouragement, his
abattement, is a bad sign. I don't think he has any hope of
The mother again wavered a moment. “Since you are so frank,” she
then said, “will you let me be equally so, and ask how lately you have
The girl smiled at the circumlocution. “Yesterday afternoon,” she
“And you thought him—”
“Horribly down on his luck. He said himself that his brain was
Again Mrs. Peyton felt the throb in her throat, and a slow blush
rose to her cheek. “Was that all he said?”
“About himself—was there anything else?” said the girl quickly.
“He didn't tell you of—of an opportunity to make up for the time he
“An opportunity? I don't understand.”
“He didn't speak to you, then, of Mr. Darrow's letter?”
“He said nothing of any letter.”
“There was one, which was found after poor Darrow's death. In
it he gave Dick leave to use his design for the competition. Dick says
the design is wonderful—it would give him just what he needs.”
Miss Verney sat listening raptly, with a rush of colour that
suffused her like light.
“But when was this? Where was the letter found? He never said a word
of it!” she exclaimed.
“The letter was found on the day of Darrow's death.”
“But I don't understand! Why has he never told me? Why should he
seem so hopeless?” She turned an ignorant appealing face on Mrs.
Peyton. It was prodigious, but it was true—she felt nothing, saw
nothing, but the crude fact of the opportunity.
Mrs. Peyton's voice trembled with the completeness of her triumph.
“I suppose his reason for not speaking is that he has scruples.”
“He feels that to use the design would be dishonest.”
Miss Verney's eyes fixed themselves on her in a commiserating stare.
“Dishonest? When the poor man wished it himself? When it was his last
request? When the letter is there to prove it? Why, the design belongs
to your son! No one else had any right to it.”
“But Dick's right does not extend to passing it off as his own—at
least that is his feeling, I believe. If he won the competition he
would be winning it on false pretenses.”
“Why should you call them false pretenses? His design might have
been better than Darrow's if he had had time to carry it out. It seems
to me that Mr. Darrow must have felt this—must have felt that he owed
his friend some compensation for the time he took from him. I can
imagine nothing more natural than his wishing to make this return for
your son's sacrifice.”
She positively glowed with the force of her conviction, and Mrs.
Peyton, for a strange instant, felt her own resistance wavering. She
herself had never considered the question in that light—the light of
Darrow's viewing his gift as a justifiable compensation. But the
glimpse she caught of it drove her shuddering behind her retrenchments.
“That argument,” she said coldly, “would naturally be more
convincing to Darrow than to my son.”
Miss Verney glanced up, struck by the change in Mrs. Peyton's voice.
“Ah, then you agree with him? You think it would be
Mrs. Peyton saw that she had slipped into self-betrayal. “My son and
I have not spoken of the matter,” she said evasively. She caught the
flash of relief in Miss Verney's face.
“You haven't spoken? Then how do you know how he feels about it?”
“I only judge from—well, perhaps from his not speaking.”
The girl drew a deep breath. “I see,” she murmured. “That is the
very reason that prevents his speaking.”
“Your knowing what he thinks—and his knowing that you know.”
Mrs. Peyton was startled at her subtlety. “I assure you,” she said,
rising, “that I have done nothing to influence him.”
The girl gazed at her musingly. “No,” she said with a faint smile,
“nothing except to read his thoughts.”
Mrs. Peyton reached home in the state of exhaustion which follows on
a physical struggle. It seemed to her as though her talk with Clemence
Verney had been an actual combat, a measuring of wrist and eye. For a
moment she was frightened at what she had done—she felt as though she
had betrayed her son to the enemy. But before long she regained her
moral balance, and saw that she had merely shifted the conflict to the
ground on which it could best be fought out—since the prize fought for
was the natural battlefield. The reaction brought with it a sense of
helplessness, a realization that she had let the issue pass out of her
hold; but since, in the last analysis, it had never lain there, since
it was above all needful that the determining touch should be given by
any hand but hers, she presently found courage to subside into
inaction. She had done all she could—even more, perhaps, than prudence
warranted—and now she could but await passively the working of the
forces she had set in motion.
For two days after her talk with Miss Verney she saw little of Dick.
He went early to his office and came back late. He seemed less tired,
more self-possessed, than during the first days after Darrow's death;
but there was a new inscrutableness in his manner, a note of reserve,
of resistance almost, as though he had barricaded himself against her
conjectures. She had been struck by Miss Verney's reply to the anxious
asseveration that she had done nothing to influence Dick—“Nothing,”
the girl had answered, “except to read his thoughts.” Mrs. Peyton
shrank from this detection of a tacit interference with her son's
liberty of action. She longed—how passionately he would never know—to
stand apart from him in this struggle between his two destinies, and it
was almost a relief that he on his side should hold aloof, should, for
the first time in their relation, seem to feel her tenderness as an
Only four days remained before the date fixed for the sending in of
the designs, and still Dick had not referred to his work. Of Darrow,
also, he had made no mention. His mother longed to know if he had
spoken to Clemence Verney—or rather if the girl had forced his
confidence. Mrs. Peyton was almost certain that Miss Verney would not
remain silent—there were times when Dick's renewed application to his
work seemed an earnest of her having spoken, and spoken convincingly.
At the thought Kate's heart grew chill. What if her experiment should
succeed in a sense she had not intended? If the girl should reconcile
Dick to his weakness, should pluck the sting from his temptation? In
this round of uncertainties the mother revolved for two interminable
days; but the second evening brought an answer to her question.
Dick, returning earlier than usual from the office, had found, on
the hall-table, a note which, since morning, had been under his
mother's observation. The envelope, fashionable in tint and texture,
was addressed in a rapid staccato hand which seemed the very imprint of
Miss Verney's utterance. Mrs. Peyton did not know the girl's writing;
but such notes had of late lain often enough on the hall-table to make
their attribution easy. This communication Dick, as his mother poured
his tea, looked over with a face of shifting lights; then he folded it
into his note-case, and said, with a glance at his watch: “If you
haven't asked any one for this evening I think I'll dine out.”
“Do, dear; the change will be good for you,” his mother assented.
He made no answer, but sat leaning back, his hands clasped behind
his head, his eyes fixed on the fire. Every line of his body expressed
a profound physical lassitude, but the face remained alert and guarded.
Mrs. Peyton, in silence, was busying herself with the details of the
tea-making, when suddenly, inexplicably, a question forced itself to
“And your work—?” she said, strangely hearing herself speak.
“My work—?” He sat up, on the defensive almost, but without a
tremor of the guarded face.
“You're getting on well? You've made up for lost time?”
“Oh, yes: things are going better.” He rose, with another glance at
his watch. “Time to dress,” he said, nodding to her as he turned to the
It was an hour later, during her own solitary dinner, that a ring at
the door was followed by the parlour-maid's announcement that Mr. Gill
was there from the office. In the hall, in fact, Kate found her son's
partner, who explained apologetically that he had understood Peyton was
dining at home, and had come to consult him about a difficulty which
had arisen since he had left the office. On hearing that Dick was out,
and that his mother did not know where he had gone, Mr. Gill's
perplexity became so manifest that Mrs. Peyton, after a moment, said
hesitatingly: “He may be at a friend's house; I could give you the
The architect caught up his hat. “Thank you; I'll have a try for
Mrs. Peyton hesitated again. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “it would be
better to telephone.”
She led the way into the little study behind the drawing-room, where
a telephone stood on the writing-table. The folding doors between the
two rooms were open: should she close them as she passed back into the
drawing-room? On the threshold she wavered an instant; then she walked
on and took her usual seat by the fire.
Gill, meanwhile, at the telephone, had “rung up” the Verney house,
and inquired if his partner were dining there. The reply was evidently
affirmative; and a moment later Kate knew that he was in communication
with her son. She sat motionless, her hands clasped on the arms of her
chair, her head erect, in an attitude of avowed attention. If she
listened she would listen openly: there should be no suspicion of
eavesdropping. Gill, engrossed in his message, was probably hardly
conscious of her presence; but if he turned his head he should at least
have no difficulty in seeing her, and in being aware that she could
hear what he said. Gill, however, as she was quick to remember, was
doubtless ignorant of any need for secrecy in his communication to
Dick. He had often heard the affairs of the office discussed openly
before Mrs. Peyton, had been led to regard her as familiar with all the
details of her son's work. He talked on unconcernedly, and she
Ten minutes later, when he rose to go, she knew all that she had
wanted to find out. Long familiarity with the technicalities of her
son's profession made it easy for her to translate the stenographic
jargon of the office. She could lengthen out all Gill's abbreviations,
interpret all his allusions, and reconstruct Dick's answers from the
questions addressed to him. And when the door closed on the architect
she was left face to face with the fact that her son, unknown to any
one but herself, was using Darrow's drawings to complete his work.
* * * * *
Mrs. Peyton, left alone, found it easier to continue her vigil by
the drawing-room fire than to carry up to the darkness and silence of
her own room the truth she had been at such pains to acquire. She had
no thought of sitting up for Dick. Doubtless, his dinner over, he would
rejoin Gill at the office, and prolong through, the night the task in
which she now knew him to be engaged. But it was less lonely by the
fire than in the wide-eyed darkness which awaited her upstairs. A
mortal loneliness enveloped her. She felt as though she had fallen by
the way, spent and broken in a struggle of which even its object had
been unconscious. She had tried to deflect the natural course of
events, she had sacrificed her personal happiness to a fantastic ideal
of duty, and it was her punishment to be left alone with her failure,
outside the normal current of human strivings and regrets.
She had no wish to see her son just then: she would have preferred
to let the inner tumult subside, to repossess herself in this new
adjustment to life, before meeting his eyes again. But as she sat
there, far adrift on her misery, she was aroused by the turning of his
key in the latch. She started up, her heart sounding a retreat, but her
faculties too dispersed to obey it; and while she stood wavering, the
door opened and he was in the room.
In the room, and with face illumined: a Dick she had not seen since
the strain of the contest had cast its shade on him. Now he shone as in
a sunrise of victory, holding out exultant hands from which she hung
“Mother! I knew you'd be waiting for me!” He had her on his breast
now, and his kisses were in her hair. “I've always said you knew
everything that was happening to me, and now you've guessed that I
wanted you to-night.”
She was struggling faintly against the dear endearments. “What
has happened?” she murmured, drawing back for a dazzled look at
He had drawn her to the sofa, had dropped beside her, regaining his
hold of her in the boyish need that his happiness should be touched and
“My engagement has happened!” he cried out to her. “You stupid dear,
do you need to be told?”
She had indeed needed to be told: the surprise was complete and
overwhelming. She sat silent under it, her hands trembling in his, till
the blood mounted to his face and she felt his confident grasp relax.
“You didn't guess it, then?” he exclaimed, starting up and moving
away from her.
“No; I didn't guess it,” she confessed in a dead-level voice.
He stood above her, half challenging, half defensive. “And you
haven't a word to say to me? Mother!” he adjured her.
She rose too, putting her arms about him with a kiss. “Dick! Dear
Dick!” she murmured.
“She imagines you don't like her; she says she's always felt it. And
yet she owns you've been delightful, that you've tried to make friends
with her. And I thought you knew how much it would mean to me, just
now, to have this uncertainty over, and that you'd actually been trying
to help me, to put in a good word for me. I thought it was you who had
made her decide.”
“By your talk with her the other day. She told me of your talk with
His mother's hands slipped from his shoulders and she sank back into
her seat. She felt the cruelty of her silence, but only an inarticulate
murmur found a way to her lips. Before speaking she must clear a space
in the suffocating rush of her sensations. For the moment she could
only repeat inwardly that Clemence Verney had yielded before the final
test, and that she herself was somehow responsible for this fresh
entanglement of fate. For she saw in a flash how the coils of
circumstance had tightened; and as her mind cleared it was filled with
the perception that this, precisely, was what the girl intended, that
this was why she had conferred the crown before the victory. By
pledging herself to Dick she had secured his pledge in return: had put
him on his honour in a cynical inversion of the term. Kate saw the
succession of events spread out before her like a map, and the
astuteness of the girl's policy frightened her. Miss Verney had
conducted the campaign like a strategist. She had frankly owned that
her interest in Dick's future depended on his capacity for success, and
in order to key him up to his first achievement she had given him a
foretaste of its results.
So much was almost immediately clear to Mrs. Peyton; but in a moment
her inferences had carried her a point farther. For it was now plain to
her that Miss Verney had not risked so much without first trying to
gain her point at less cost: that if she had had to give herself as a
prize, it was because no other bribe had been sufficient. This then, as
the mother saw with a throb of hope, meant that Dick, who since
Darrow's death had held to his purpose unwaveringly, had been deflected
from it by the first hint of Clemence Verney's connivance. Kate had not
miscalculated: things had happened as she had foreseen. In the light of
the girl's approval his act had taken an odious look. He had recoiled
from it, and it was to revive his flagging courage that she had had to
promise herself, to take him in the meshes of her surrender.
Kate, looking up, saw above her the young perplexity of her boy's
face, the suspended happiness waiting to brim over. With a fresh touch
of misery she said to herself that this was his hour, his one
irrecoverable moment, and that she was darkening it by her silence. Her
memory went back to the same hour in her own life: she could feel its
heat in her pulses still. What right had she to stand in Dick's light?
Who was she to decide between his code and hers? She put out her hand
and drew him down to her.
“She'll be the making of me, you know, mother,” he said, as they
leaned together. “She'll put new life in me—she'll help me get my
second wind. Her talk is like a fresh breeze blowing away the fog in my
head. I never knew any one who saw so straight to the heart of things,
who had such a grip on values. She goes straight up to life and catches
hold of it, and you simply can't make her let go.”
He got up and walked the length of the room; then he came back and
stood smiling above his mother.
“You know you and I are rather complicated people,” he said. “We're
always walking around things to get new views of them—we're always
rearranging the furniture. And somehow she simplifies life so
tremendously.” He dropped down beside her with a deprecating laugh.
“Not that I mean, dear, that it hasn't been good for me to argue things
out with myself, as you've taught me to—only the man who stops to talk
is apt to get shoved aside nowadays, and I don't believe Milton's
archangels would have had much success in active business.”
He had begun in a strain of easy confidence, but as he went on she
detected an effort to hold the note, she felt that his words were being
poured out in a vain attempt to fill the silence which was deepening
between them. She longed, in her turn, to pour something into that
menacing void, to bridge it with a reconciling word or look; but her
soul hung back, and she had to take refuge in a vague murmur of
“My boy! My boy!” she repeated; and he sat beside her without
speaking, their hand-clasp alone spanning the distance which had
widened between their thoughts.
* * * * *
The engagement, as Kate subsequently learned, was not to be made
known till later. Miss Verney had even stipulated that for the present
there should be no recognition of it in her own family or in Dick's.
She did not wish to interfere with his final work for the competition,
and had made him promise, as he laughingly owned, that he would not see
her again till the drawings were sent in. His mother noticed that he
made no other allusion to his work; but when he bade her good-night he
added that he might not see her the next morning, as he had to go to
the office early. She took this as a hint that he wished to be left
alone, and kept her room the next day till the closing door told her
that he was out of the house.
She herself had waked early, and it seemed to her that the day was
already old when she came downstairs. Never had the house appeared so
empty. Even in Dick's longest absences something of his presence had
always hung about the rooms: a fine dust of memories and associations,
which wanted only the evocation of her thought to float into a palpable
semblance of him. But now he seemed to have taken himself quite away,
to have broken every fibre by which their lives had hung together.
Where the sense of him had been there was only a deeper emptiness: she
felt as if a strange man had gone out of her house.
She wandered from room to room, aimlessly, trying to adjust herself
to their solitude. She had known such loneliness before, in the years
when most women's hearts are fullest; but that was long ago, and the
solitude had after all been less complete, because of the sense that it
might still be filled. Her son had come: her life had brimmed over; but
now the tide ebbed again, and she was left gazing over a bare stretch
of wasted years. Wasted! There was the mortal pang, the stroke from
which there was no healing. Her faith and hope had been marsh-lights
luring her to the wilderness, her love a vain edifice reared on
In her round of the rooms she came at last to Dick's study upstairs.
It was full of his boyhood: she could trace the history of his past in
its quaint relics and survivals, in the school-books lingering on his
crowded shelves, the school-photographs and college-trophies hung among
his later treasures. All his successes and failures, his exaltations
and inconsistencies, were recorded in the warm huddled heterogeneous
room. Everywhere she saw the touch of her own hand, the vestiges of her
own steps. It was she alone who held the clue to the labyrinth, who
could thread a way through the confusions and contradictions of his
past; and her soul rejected the thought that his future could ever
escape from her. She dropped down into his shabby college armchair and
hid her face in the papers on his desk.
The day dwelt in her memory as a long stretch of aimless hours:
blind alleys of time that led up to a dead wall of inaction.
Toward afternoon she remembered that she had promised to dine out
and go to the opera. At first she felt that the contact of life would
be unendurable; then she shrank from shutting herself up with her
misery. In the end she let herself drift passively on the current of
events, going through the mechanical routine of the day without much
consciousness of what was happening.
At twilight, as she sat in the drawing-room, the evening paper was
brought in, and in glancing over it her eye fell on a paragraph which
seemed printed in more vivid type than the rest. It was headed, The
New Museum of Sculpture, and underneath she read: “The artists and
architects selected to pass on the competitive designs for the new
Museum will begin their sittings on Monday, and tomorrow is the last
day on which designs may be sent in to the committee. Great interest is
felt in the competition, as the conspicuous site chosen for the new
building, and the exceptionally large sum voted by the city for its
erection, offer an unusual field for the display of architectural
She leaned back, closing her eyes. It was as though a clock had
struck, loud and inexorably, marking off some irrecoverable hour. She
was seized by a sudden longing to seek Dick out, to fall on her knees
and plead with him: it was one of those physical obsessions against
which the body has to stiffen its muscles as well as the mind its
thoughts. Once she even sprang up to ring for a cab; but she sank back
again, breathing as if after a struggle, and gripping the arms of her
chair to keep herself down.
“I can only wait for him—only wait for him—” she heard herself
say; and the words loosened the sobs in her throat.
At length she went upstairs to dress for dinner. A ghostlike self
looked back at her from her toilet-glass: she watched it performing the
mechanical gestures of the toilet, dressing her, as it appeared,
without help from her actual self. Each little act stood out sharply
against the blurred background of her brain: when she spoke to her maid
her voice sounded extraordinarily loud. Never had the house been so
silent; or, stay—yes, once she had felt the same silence, once when
Dick, in his school-days, had been ill of a fever, and she had sat up
with him on the decisive night. The silence had been as deep and as
terrible then; and as she dressed she had before her the vision of his
room, of the cot in which he lay, of his restless head working a hole
in the pillow, his face so pinched and alien under the familiar
freckles. It might be his death-watch she was keeping: the doctors had
warned her to be ready. And in the silence her soul had fought for her
boy, her love had hung over him like wings, her abundant useless
hateful life had struggled to force itself into his empty veins. And
she had succeeded, she had saved him, she had poured her life into him;
and in place of the strange child she had watched all night, at
daylight she held her own boy to her breast.
That night had once seemed to her the most dreadful of her life; but
she knew now that it was one of the agonies which enrich, that the
passion thus spent grows fourfold from its ashes. She could not have
borne to keep this new vigil alone. She must escape from its sterile
misery, must take refuge in other lives till she regained courage to
face her own. At the opera, in the illumination of the first
entr'acte, as she gazed about the house, wondering through the numb
ache of her wretchedness how others could talk and smile and be
indifferent, it seemed to her that all the jarring animation about her
was suddenly focussed in the face of Clemence Verney. Miss Verney sat
opposite, in the front of a crowded box, a box in which, continually,
the black-coated background shifted and renewed itself. Mrs. Peyton
felt a throb of anger at the girl's bright air of unconcern. She forgot
that she too was talking, smiling, holding out her hand to newcomers,
in a studied mimicry of life, while her real self played out its
tragedy behind the scenes. Then it occurred to her that, to Clemence
Verney, there was no tragedy in the situation. According to the girl's
calculations, Dick was virtually certain of success; and unsuccess was
to her the only conceivable disaster.
All through the opera the sense of that opposing force, that
negation of her own beliefs, burned itself into Mrs. Peyton's
consciousness. The space between herself and the girl seemed to vanish,
the throng about them to disperse, till they were face to face and
alone, enclosed in their mortal enmity. At length the feeling of
humiliation and defeat grew unbearable to Mrs. Peyton. The girl seemed
to flout her in the insolence of victory, to sit there as the visible
symbol of her failure. It was better after all to be at home alone with
As she drove away from the opera she thought of that other vigil
which, only a few streets away, Dick was perhaps still keeping. She
wondered if his work were over, if the final stroke had been drawn. And
as she pictured him there, signing his pact with evil in the loneliness
of the conniving night, an uncontrollable impulse possessed her. She
must drive by his windows and see if they were still alight. She would
not go up to him,—she dared not,—but at least she would pass near to
him, would invisibly share his watch and hover on the edge of his
thoughts. She lowered the window and called out the address to the
The tall office-building loomed silent and dark as she approached
it; but presently, high up, she caught a light in the familiar windows.
Her heart gave a leap, and the light swam on her through tears. The
carriage drew up, and for a moment she sat motionless. Then the
coachman bent down toward her, and she saw that he was asking if he
should drive on. She tried to shape a yes, but her lips refused it, and
she shook her head. He continued to lean down perplexedly, and at
length, under the interrogation of his attitude, it became impossible
to sit still, and she opened the door and stepped out. It was equally
impossible to stand on the sidewalk, and her next steps carried her to
the door of the building. She groped for the bell and rang it, feeling
still dimly accountable to the coachman for some consecutiveness of
action, and after a moment the night watchman opened the door, drawing
back amazed at the shining apparition which confronted him. Recognizing
Mrs. Peyton, whom he had seen about the building by day, he tried to
adapt himself to the situation by a vague stammer of apology.
“I came to see if my son is still here,” she faltered.
“Yes, ma'am, he's here. He's been here most nights lately till after
“And is Mr. Gill with him?”
“No: Mr. Gill he went away just after I come on this evening.”
She glanced up into the cavernous darkness of the stairs.
“Is he alone up there, do you think?”
“Yes, ma'am, I know he's alone, because I seen his men leaving soon
after Mr. Gill.”
Kate lifted her head quickly. “Then I will go up to him,” she said.
The watchman apparently did not think it proper to offer any comment
on this unusual proceeding, and a moment later she was fluttering and
rustling up through the darkness, like a night-bird hovering among
rafters. There were ten flights to climb: at every one her breath
failed her, and she had to stand still and press her hands against her
heart. Then the weight on her breast lifted, and she went on again,
upward and upward, the great dark building dropping away from her, in
tier after tier of mute doors and mysterious corridors. At last she
reached Dick's floor, and saw the light shining down the passage from
his door. She leaned against the wall, her breath coming short, the
silence throbbing in her ears. Even now it was not too late to turn
back. She bent over the stairs, letting her eyes plunge into the nether
blackness, with the single glimmer of the watchman's lights in its
depths; then she turned and stole toward her son's door.
There again she paused and listened, trying to catch, through the
hum of her pulses, any noise that might come to her from within. But
the silence was unbroken—it seemed as though the office must be empty.
She pressed her ear to the door, straining for a sound. She knew he
never sat long at his work, and it seemed unaccountable that she should
not hear him moving about the drawing-board. For a moment she fancied
he might be sleeping; but sleep did not come to him readily after
prolonged mental effort—she recalled the restless straying of his feet
above her head for hours after he returned from his night work in the
She began to fear that he might be ill. A nervous trembling seized
her, and she laid her hand on the latch, whispering “Dick!”
Her whisper sounded loudly through the silence, but there was no
answer, and after a pause she called again. With each call the hush
seemed to deepen: it closed in on her, mysterious and impenetrable. Her
heart was beating in short frightened leaps: a moment more and she
would have cried out. She drew a quick breath and turned the
The outer room, Dick's private office, with its red carpet and
easy-chairs, stood in pleasant lamp-lit emptiness. The last time she
had entered it, Darrow and Clemence Verney had been there, and she had
sat behind the urn observing them. She paused a moment, struck now by a
fault sound from beyond; then she slipped noiselessly across the
carpet, pushed open the swinging door, and stood on the threshold of
the work-room. Here the gas-lights hung a green-shaded circle of
brightness over the great draughting-table in the middle of the floor.
Table and floor were strewn with a confusion of papers—torn
blue-prints and tracings, crumpled sheets of tracing-paper wrenched
from the draughting-boards in a sudden fury of destruction; and in the
centre of the havoc, his arms stretched across the table and his face
hidden in them, sat Dick Peyton.
He did not seem to hear his mother's approach, and she stood looking
at him, her breast tightening with a new fear.
“Dick!” she said, “Dick!—” and he sprang up, staring with dazed
eyes. But gradually, as his gaze cleared, a light spread in it, a
mounting brightness of recognition.
“You've come—you've come—” he said, stretching his hands to her;
and all at once she had him in her breast as in a shelter.
“You wanted me?” she whispered as she held him.
He looked up at her, tired, breathless, with the white radiance of
the runner near the goal.
“I had you, dear!” he said, smiling strangely on her; and her
heart gave a great leap of understanding.
Her arms had slipped from his neck, and she stood leaning on him,
deep-suffused in the shyness of her discovery. For it might still be
that he did not wish her to know what she had done for him.
But he put his arm about her, boyishly, and drew her toward one of
the hard seats between the tables; and there, on the bare floor, he
knelt before her, and hid his face in her lap. She sat motionless,
feeling the dear warmth of his head against her knees, letting her
hands stray in faint caresses through his hair.
Neither spoke for awhile; then he raised his head and looked at her.
“I suppose you know what has been happening to me,” he said.
She shrank from seeming to press into his life a hair's-breadth
farther than he was prepared to have her go. Her eyes turned from him
toward the scattered drawings on the table.
“You have given up the competition?” she said.
“Yes—and a lot more.” He stood up, the wave of emotion ebbing, yet
leaving him nearer, in his recovered calmness, than in the shock of
their first moment.
“I didn't know, at first, how much you guessed,” he went on quietly.
“I was sorry I'd shown you Darrow's letter; but it didn't worry me much
because I didn't suppose you'd think it possible that I should—take
advantage of it. It's only lately that I've understood that you knew
everything.” He looked at her with a smile. “I don't know yet how I
found it out, for you're wonderful about keeping things to yourself,
and you never made a sign. I simply felt it in a kind of nearness—as
if I couldn't get away from you.—Oh, there were times when I should
have preferred not having you about—when I tried to turn my back on
you, to see things from other people's standpoint. But you were always
there—you wouldn't be discouraged. And I got tired of trying to
explain things to you, of trying to bring you round to my way of
thinking. You wouldn't go away and you wouldn't come any nearer—you
just stood there and watched everything that I was doing.”
He broke off, taking one of his restless turns down the long room.
Then he drew up a chair beside her, and dropped into it with a great
“At first, you know, I hated it most awfully. I wanted to be let
alone and to work out my own theory of things. If you'd said a word—if
you'd tried to influence me—the spell would have been broken. But just
because the actual you kept apart and didn't meddle or pry, the
other, the you in my heart, seemed to get a tighter hold on me. I don't
know how to tell you,—it's all mixed up in my head—but old things
you'd said and done kept coming back to me, crowding between me and
what I was trying for, looking at me without speaking, like old friends
I'd gone back on, till I simply couldn't stand it any longer. I fought
it off till to-night, but when I came back to finish the work there you
were again—and suddenly, I don't know how, you weren't an obstacle any
longer, but a refuge—and I crawled into your arms as I used to when
things went against me at school.”
His hands stole back into hers, and he leaned his head against her
shoulder like a boy.
“I'm an abysmally weak fool, you know,” he ended; “I'm not worth the
fight you've put up for me. But I want you to know that it's your
doing—that if you had let go an instant I should have gone under—and
that if I'd gone under I should never have come up again alive.”