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"Do you mean to tell me, Bessie John, that you think Cordelia Wheaton should live with a man she is not married to?"
Mrs. John regarded her caller with open mouth. Then she began to giggle. The giggle grew on her, turned to an hysterical laugh. It was a moment or two before she could speak. Mrs. Williston had never recovered from the glare, and now the glare showed signs of intensifying itself. Bessie John put up a hand to plead for silence until she was fit to speak.
"Why—why—Aunt Blanche!" she cried feebly. "Do you mean to tell me that you think there is anything shocking in that? Why, they're both on the edge of the grave."
"So am I on the edge of the grave, as you so politely put it, Bessie. But I think you would be shocked if I went to live with Walter Leaven."
Mrs. John's newly won gravity forsook her. She giggled again. "So I should, Aunt Blanche. Awfully shocked. I should think you were Messalina, no less. You must admit that, when you've appeared to hate him so many years, it would give rise to the gravest suspicions —clandestine meetings no longer to be borne: all that sort of thing. I should get out a warrant at once and hurry you off to do light housekeeping with old Miss Bean."
"You have a very unpleasant vein of humor, Bessie."
"So I have. So I have. Forgive me, Aunt Blanche." Mrs. John wiped her eyes in sign of contrition. "But I think it would dry up without you. . . . Only, seriously, why can't you put all that silly stuff out of your head?"
Mrs. Williston's reply was unexpectedly mild. "I don't say there is anything urong, Bessie. I sincerely hope there isn't. But I do not believe in defying the laws of God and man. I should suppose they were both past the temptations of youth. But what reason is there, except human perversity, for their not marrying?"
"About a hundred, I should imagine, Aunt Blanche. In the first place, it would look so silly. In the second, there's Miss Wheaton's religion, isn't there? And in the third place, who in the world
knows or cares? I think it's quite delightful of them."
"I shouldn't have expected you to find three immoral reasons for defending them, Bessie."
Mrs. John shook herself together and spoke seriously. "I'm not immoral, as you well know. I merely think it's awfully unimportant. Miss Wheaton weighs three hundred pounds, and she's slowly dying. As for Mr. Leaven, he's not a man, in that sense: he's a very well executed bronze. I think it's too bad of you to worry. It's just because they have so little, either of them, to do with the world, the flesh, and the devil that they are so touching. For I find them touching. So does Philip, even more than I do. And Phil is six times as moral as any of us. Cheer up! I know you've taken a perverted sort of pleasure in thinking how unconventional they are, but a woman of your worldly experience knows there's nothing in it. I wouldn't bother with Miss Wheaton, if I were you. I'd go for Liberia with both hands and both feet. I dare say it does shock you a little" —she relented to that extent—"but you've really only to put your mind on it to see that there are other things that need your mind more."
Mrs. Williston gathered up her furs for departure. "I came to ask if you wouldn't call on Cordelia with me," she began, "but I don't think you are in the mood to go."
"No, I couldn't go "with you to-day. I will sometime, perhaps. But I want to say one thing." She leaned forward. "If you go and insult that poor old lady, you'll be doing a very unkind thing. I truly hope you won't. I believe she's hardly aware of this world at all. Don't you go poking it in her face." She put a caressing tone into her voice that redeemed her speech from impertinence.
"It is always the business of a Christian woman—•" began Mrs. Williston.
Mrs. John stood up and folded her arms, looking down on her visitor. "Umph! Let's get rid of this," she muttered. "Aunt Blanche, answer me one question. Why didn't you make some protest when Mr. Reid first told you? That was the time to stop it—before it had happened. You didn't say a word, then, about the laws either of God or of man."
"I was bewildered, Bessie. I was hurt that my advice was scorned. For the moment I was helpless."
"You uere rdie'xd, Aunt Blanche." The words came quietly, like a verdict. "We all were, for we were all in the same boat. You were so glad to be ordered off the premises that you didn't dare open your lips for fear they would say 'Thank God!' It's only now—now that you know that Walter Leaven wouldn't let one of us touch Cordelia Wheaton if he had to poison us on the threshold—that you let yourself think of such things. If you really think them, you ought to move heaven and earth to take her away. Nothing would induce you to take her away, even if she'd come. Therefore you ought to be silent. I don't blame you for being willing to leave her where she is, but as long as you do you'll have to let scandal alone."
"I will offer to take her away, if you think that right." Mrs. Wilh'ston was spurred to self-defense.
Mrs. John shook her head. "Too cheap and easy, Aunt Blanche. She's going to die where she is. You wouldn' t offer if you thought they'd listen to you. No: that doesn't let you out It's got to stop."
"Do you think I would spread such a thing?"
"Wouldn't trust you a bit, my dear," (Bessie's voice was honey, with a taint of aloes) "if you once got the bit in your teeth. But I think you'll presently see that you'd only get yourself laughed at— or perhaps very, very severely criticised." Then Bessie John condescended to imitate the augurs. "Aunt Blanche, Walter Leaven has saved all our faces. You and I may know we were right; but he is making it possible for us to look pretty. Don't spoil it."
"I don't feel pretty—letting one of my oldest friends do such an extraordinary thing. It is bound to reflect on me, when people come to realize. For I shall always keep up with Cordelia," she finished austerely.
"You are brave, Aunt Blanche. You trust in God and keep your powder dry, don't you?" Bessie asked irrelevantly. "But whether you think you look pretty
or not, I can tell you that you would have looked downright ugly if Miss Wheaton were starving on Miss Bean's light housekeeping. So should I. And I'm very grateful for not having to look ugly. We should have had perfectly good consciences, both of us; but it is very pleasant to have Walter Leaven preserve our complexions as well."
Mrs. Willis ton so obviously made no headway with the metaphor that Mrs. John changed the subject.
"It's perfectly all right, so long as you don't mix up in it," she declared. "Of course, it will be a great relief when Miss Wheaton dies"
"Bessie!" Mrs. Williston was on very intimate terms with death in the abstract, but she was incapable of mentioning the demise of an individual save with proper deprecation.
"Well, won't it? When she's got to suffer as she probably has? Do you suppose it's very gay for her—or for him, either? Oh, well, let's not discuss it further. ... I really can't go with you to-day, Aunt Blanche. But I'll pay my respects some time along. The twins have had whooping-cough, you know. I've been very much occupied at home."
Mrs. Williston rose. "I shouldn't have wanted you in any case, Bessie. Not after the light way you have been talking. You didn't talk that way about your friend—the little artist-girl."
"Oh, Julie Fort? No, I didn't. But there's all the difference in the world, you see. Miss Wheaton has done nothing. The very idea is too grotesque. Only your Gothic mind could harbor it. Whereas, Julie has done—everything."
"Is all her money gone?" Mrs. Williston hovered ghoulishly on the threshold.
"So I heard. The man she ran off with had a little, I believe."
"Are they married? Was there a child?"
But Bessie John's patience was outworn. "No, there was no child. I heard that they had quarrelled. I heard a lot of horrid things. I don't want to discuss Julie, Aunt Blanche. It's all too unpleasant."
"Does Cordelia know?" The ghoul would not go.
"Why should she? And if you tell her" —Bessie John threw her head back— "then I'll tell."
"Tell what?" Mrs. Williston's voice was sharp.
"Your family—about your annuity."
"My annuity? What do you mean?"
Mrs. John folded her arms and stood very straight. "I admit that it's only a shrewd guess. But I have put a lot of things together, and I'm pretty sure. Anyhow, your family could jolly well find out—and they would."
She loathed such talk, really; but, most of all just then, she loathed Aunt Blanche.
"All I mean is that Miss Wheaton is to be left in peace." The words were firm, but she ended with a tired sigh.
"If you think it would grieve Cordelia . . ."
"I see you get me, Aunt Blanche. Good-bye." And this time Bessie turned her back. But she rang for the parlormaid, and saw, across the twilight of the big room, the servant go with Mrs. Williston to her cab.
"Woo-oof!" she murmured as she saw the cab drive away. There was immeasurable disgust in her tone.
"Philip!" He loomed at the top of the staircase as*she mounted. "Next time, I will let you come down. Or rather, if Annie can't learn always to say 'out' to Aunt Blanche, she'll have to go. New York might as well have open sewers as to have that woman at large."
Arm in arm they went back into Bessie's room.
"What's the trouble?"
"She wants to start a scandal about poor old Miss Wheaton."
"Miss Wheaton? But—" Philip John burst into laughter.
"That's what I told her. But I had to threaten her in the end."
"How did you manage it?"
"Told her I'd accuse her, to her family, of an annuity."
"But you don't know if she has one."
"I didn't. But I do now. Because she crumbled at once. And I hinted to her that we all had good cause to be grateful to Walter Leaven. She ended by wanting to know all about Julie Fort— that little rotter."
"Did you tell her the girl had gone utterly to the bad?"
"Not precisely. That is, I didn't ravish her ears with any details. I simply couldn't: they would have delighted the old woman so. Her mouth was the greediest thing, while she waited."
"You know I don't believe, Bess"— John meditated amid smoke-spirals— "that your delightful Aunt Blanche really has pornographic tastes. I don't understand you: you 'Aunt Blanche' her, and then you call her the devil in person."
"Pornographic tastes? Um—perhaps not. She'd be just as pleased with delirium tremens. That's why I hate reformers: they have such catholic lusts. Any evil, almost, will satisfy them. Of course, if the world weren't rotten, they'd lose their blessed jobs, and they know it. Aunt Blanche isn't capable of anything except reforming the world. I never saw a reformer yet who would be trusted to do.anything in a world that was decent already. They'd be supported by the state as incompetents. Aunt Blanche couldn't make herself normally useful in any capacity whatever: she hasn't -the wit. Therefore she is given the thunderbolts of Jove to play with."
"As usual, my dear girl, you're far too sweeping."
"Of course I am. No fun, if you don't state your position with violence. . . . But I told her she ought to get down on her knees to old Walter Leaven," Bessie finished resolutely.
"Why?" Philip John was quiet and curious. ,
"Because"—Bessie drew a deep breath of effort—"because he saved our faces."
"Yes, Philip. I always meant to say that to you. That's all I mean, by the way. I was right, and I should have stuck to it. I would never have done one bit more than I planned to do that day in Mr. Reid's office. Never. But it wouldn't have looked nice. No, it wouldn't. I can't agree with you any farther than that. But just so far, I do. Thank heaven, it isn't an issue now. But probably I owe it to you to say that, to that extent—it isn't very far, by the way —I'm with you. I don't want to discuss it—not ever, Philip. Not now, even. We'll drop it right there."
John searched her eyes with his own. "Right there? Sure you don't want to go a little farther?"
"Perfectly sure. So sure that I'm inordinately grateful to Mr. Leaven. It would have been beastly for both of us."
"Why isn't it still rather beastly, if we don't agree?"
"Because we don't have to discuss it. And on every other point in the world we do agree, don't we? So we can drop it out of sight—like Catholics who marry Protestants and live happily ever after. Some do, you know."
Philip John smiled, very gently and tolerantly. Then he let the whole question slip forever into the limbo of events that never come to birth.
"It would make me very miserable to quarrel with you, Bess. I'm with you in hoping we shall never have to. After all, married folk can't afford it."
"And 'after all'"—she pleaded with him a little—"is there any honor in human relations more vital than the honor of marriage and of parenthood? If there is, I can't see it, that's all."
Philip John patted her hand gently, but did not reply. Bessie, too, hushed her instinct for perfection, swathing it in a rich robe of compromise. That was all she could do, she saw quite clearly. And who should say the richness of the robe was not, in its way, true homage to the sleeping creature? Well—so far as she could contrive it, the sleeping creature should lie in state. She returned the pressure of her husband's hand. "I'm going up to the nursery," she said. "Better come along."
The view from Walter Leaven's rooms grew, in a sense, more sordid as spring advanced. The windows of the poor, hermetically sealed in winter, opened as the cold moderated. Heads and mattresses, milk bottles and green groceries, peopled the window-sills anew. Here and there, through larger openings, machinery and its servants were revealed to him. But he found his repayment in a lifted sky, remoter, bluer, and in a freer air, friendly,1 not yet grown brutal with heat.
He had rented a third room, across the hall, to go with his own two—a cheerless
little apartment that never held a tenant long. Of this he made his own bedroom, furnishing his former chamber for Cordelia Wheaton. When he learned from Jim Huntingdon's long cablegram that Miss Wheaton was really ill, he had gone about his feverish arrangements. He did not know in what shape he might find her, but he took it that he was to receive her from Huntingdon at San Francisco, and to bring her home to die of her slow heartaffection—without, he hoped, too much pain. Leaven had told Mr. Reid, on the very day of the abortive conference, that Cordelia's support was to be his affair and his only. She might be given to understand what Mr. Reid liked, but not a penny should come to her from any of that crew.
"Of course, I should have given most of it myself," Reid had growled, "but I wasn't going to tell them so." '"I know, I know. I should have been sure of it. But this is exclusively my affair," Leaven had replied quietly. The lawyer knew a resolve when he saw one, and he did not attempt to change Leaven's mind. That was a mineral substance, not easily impressed.
When Leaven received Cordelia from Huntingdon's kind, impatient hands, he saw how well he had guessed. It was plain that Cordelia must be accompanied through the remaining months; that her vagueness must find guiding hands on every side. The shred of her wealth that he possessed (though he had kept it intact, like a relic) would not suffice to such a household as she would need if the guiding hands were to be mercenary ones. Still less should the hands be those of the old sempstress Mrs. Williston had mentioned—irreverent, with claws inset. . . . Yes, he would take her to himself. He would bring her home, with no flourish, with a quiet taking for granted of the situation which must convince. Luckily —he had time to learn, in the few hours between Huntingdon's arrival and his return, by another ship, to the passionate and sacred continent—Miss Wheaton was aware of her own physical condition. An American doctor in Hong Kong had looked her over and reported explicitly. He had only to provide for her comfort as relentlessly and uncommunicatively as a trained nurse.
He had brought her, then, to his highperched rooms, but not as a burden; as if, rather, the rooms had been merely waiting through her exile; as if the'crowded objects had been heirlooms of her own. A little maid-servant came in by day to wait on Cordelia and fetch and serve her food. It was like purveying for a crippled bird: a little water, a few grains of corn. Leaven stuck to his dreary boardinghouse. A nurse slept at night in the big sitting-room.
And what of Cordelia Wheaton? Leaven himself could not guess what lay beneath her quietness. Not once had she questioned; not once had she protested; and he hardly knew whether she had cynically grasped the situation, or whether she was too sunk in fatalism to wonder—or whether she merely had the finest manners in the world. Whichever it was, it was clear that she trusted him; that she was willing, if not content, to let him be her go-between with the world. Did the gray hue of death strike inward to her very heart? He could not say. He drew her sometimes to talk of life in Benares: its strange mingling of conventual and private mysticism; but she was unready with detail, over-dainty, it seemed, for concreteness4 Faint implications of a point of view were there; hints of hierarchies no Occidental could recognize, and yet of a democracy positively biologic, which ignored not only classes but species. She did not preach; she only assumed and, ever so faintly, alluded. "Snake and man"—thus he had once summed up her blasphemy against civilization. Yet how gracefully she avoided insulting his humanism, save with the deep crease of her smile! She was a very great lady, in spite of all. Sometimes they drifted into reminiscence: like a pedlar, he would pull something out of the pack of their past and try to catch her eye with its glitter. But her effort was too painful: chronology fretted her like a lie not to be borne. She had already pricked the fallacy of time; soon she would have done with that of space. Her heart .grew weaker as the spring came on, as if justifiably revolting against the burden of flesh it must vitalize. Leaven gave sharp directions to the doctor to save her pain. He suspected too vividly what she thought of pain! Moreover, for him, it
was the arch-enemy. He wished her to float out on a stream of diffused consciousness—which should widen to unconsciousness at the last, as a river widens to the sea. He craved for her all possible amenities of dissolution. He did not even ask her to welcome the spring as it floated in through their wide-flung windows. He only hugged to himself the fitness of her dying in a gentler air. He conspired with nurse and physician for opiates cunningly spaced, that there should be no agonies, that she should slip from one oblivion of pain into the next. Cordelia sat in her great chair, pillowed and propped into the semblance of antediluvian bulk, an object so monstrous as to take his breath away when he entered after an absence: vast, shapeless, white, like a primeval foreshadowing of the human race to be. Yet her voice, when it came, was sweet, and her eyes kind as no other eyes had ever been.
It was not the way he had dreamed of having Cordelia, in the days when he had dreamed and his heart was not sapless or his face like burnt-out slag. (Not bronze, as Bessie John had said, since bronze has blood within.) Yet Walter Leaven was happier to have her thus than he could have been to have her any time these thirty years. He had forgotten now the long ache of empty hands. It had been vouchsafed him, before she died, to serve her: to appease a lifelong craving, long since grown formal, yet still there as a sense of incompleteness, of a step in the dance not taken. His relation to her was all piety and old convention; as empty of passion as the beautiful genuflections of an acolyte.
Suddenly, one afternoon in mid-March, she spoke to him very shyly. "You loved me, didn't you, Walter?"
"I have always loved you."
"But not now?" she asked anxiously.
And she closed her eyes, reassured.
The little passage was not grotesque to Walter Leaven, for he understood.
It had been months now since any one had been admitted to Cordelia except the doctor and the nurses. Mr. Reid, Mrs. John, Mrs. Williston, Miss Bean—all of them had been turned away and now came no more. Cordelia asked no questions about her beneficiaries. It caressed