Слике страница
[merged small][merged small][graphic]

On his face was the luok of a man who has just been struck a blow he cannot return.—Page 503.

the Carstons' garden, had been very quiet and dark. An Italian man servant, whom I remembered from my previous visits, had answered my ring and had asked me to wait outside, as the main part of the house was stripped for packing. The little garden, under a thick sky, heavy with stars, lay odorous and strangely remote from the encompassing city. There was a smell of grass, of flowering bushes;

But in a minute or two Alice Carston had come down to me and had invited me up to the studio, and, although in the light of the hallway stairs I had studied her face, I could see about it nothing exceptional. Perhaps she was a trifle graver; perhaps she smiled more with her lips and less with her eyes. I could not tell; there were a good many shadows about.

"Mannie is not walking much as yet," she said, "or he would have come down himself to welcome you. He will be so glad to see you."

How silly of Pritchard! And how silly of me to allow myself to be disturbed by his vague imaginings! As if necessarily a man's wounds would be where anybody could see and diagnose them! I found myself resenting Pritchard and the whole tribe of whispering, conjecturing, "social detectives." I laughed aloud, greatly, I am sure, to Alice Carston's astonishment. "How is his wound getting along?" I asked. "Where did he get it?"

I blamed my fancy that I imagined that there was a perceptible pause before she answered and that, as she turned toward me on the landing opposite the studio door, a veiling of her eyes, like a sudden wind over calm water, took place. She laid her hand on my arm; I thought her fingers unnecessarily tense.

"He—?" she said. "Oh, yes! He is much better, thanks. But don't mention it to him, please. Not a word of it." We opened the door and went in.

The odd, fascinating, bazaar-like smell of a place where men paint pictures met us. The room was mostly in shadow. In one corner, by a table on which stood a lamp with a crimson shade, Carston was sitting in a high-backed chair. His face and figure were indistinct.

"Here's Walter, Mannie," said his wife.

Carston did not get up. "Ah, my dear fellow!" he said. "My dear fellow! The one person in New York I really wanted to see! Come here and shake hands with me. I can't quite come to you—but some day I'll be able to. Very soon, I hope. Alice, tell Emmanuel to bring some whiskey and biscuits."

I lit a cigarette and took one of Carston's big, enveloping chairs, a chair on the other side of the table from where he was sitting, one of the chairs with gorgeous, faded brocade covers I so well remembered. I looked about the room with warm satisfaction. It was nice to be back; to be back here again; to be again with these two dear people. I recalled a night, not so many weeks before, when I had snow-shoed from sundown to sunup through the strangling cold of zero weather. That had been to westward; and eastward were all the scarred battle

fields that Carston had so recently left. I smiled at Alice Carston as she sat down opposite me and picked up some needlework. She smiled back.

I cannot tell when first I began to alter my impression of relief; when first began a return of the uneasiness, the anxiety of a short while before. Such a state of mind grows upon you imperceptibly; is the result of silences, gestures, indefinable mental attitudes. You come from entire unconsciousness to full-fledged certainty. Perhaps in this case it was Alice Carston's evident desire to avoid talking about the war; perhaps it was Carston's vagueness as to his future plans; perhaps it was— and here was the only definite thing I could lay hold of—the sudden, extraordinary, unlike-herself anger with which Alice Carston rebuked the servant when he placed the whiskey decanter and biscuits on the table near her husband and away from me.

"Never do that!" she commanded, a high, metallic quality in her voice. "I have told you before. Put the tray beside Mr. Harbison!"

In itself the speech was entirely unimportant and natural, but the tone that accompanied it was not in the least unimportant and natural when it fell on the ears of a person who knew Alice Carston and knew her gentleness and her definite philosophy of gentleness where inferiors were concerned. "One may, possibly, be harsh with the powerful," she had once told me, "but with the humble? Oh, no, never! That's dulling your own heart." And now, here she was doing this very same detested thing. There were only three possible explanations: either her nerves were bad, or she was angry, or she was frightened. The first, in view of her calmness, her clear, if somewhat thin, look of health, seemed preposterous; the remaining two had back of them certainly no obvious reasons. At all events, whatever the reason, my perplexity and discomfort increased. I felt myself even growing a little angry, as one does under circumstances of the kind where people with whom one is intimate are concerned. I objected to this sudden closing me out of their lives on the part of the Carstons. Friendship is too rare a thing for one to allow, without struggle, the curtain of

misunderstanding to cut off frankness. In the darkness I heard Alice Carston

Andthe curtain drops so readily. Pritch- cross to the electric switch, and in

ard had been right, after all. I finished stantly the room was again illuminated,

my drink and stood up. This first visit When I looked around Carston was back

should not be too long. once more in his chair, but not as he

"Good-by," I said, and held out my hand.

If you remember, I had been sitting in a chair on the other side of the table from Carston. Between us was the lamp with the crimson shade, and now, in order to reach him, I had to step a little to one side. I had expected him to remain where he was; I had fixed in my mind by now the idea that his wound prevented him from rising; but there must have been a temporary forgetfulness on his part, an accession of cordiality that for the time being obliterated caution, for he sprang to his feet without the slightest trace of infirmity and, the

next moment, did an unbelievable thing—
put out his hand, that is, and put it acted automatically
straight through the lamp that separated
us. The gesture was direct; there was no
fumbling, no weakness to account for it.

The lamp tottered and fell. I reached over and caught it. The light went out.

[ocr errors]

had been be-
fore, for his
chin was sunk
forward on his
breast and—
for now I could
see it plainly
—on his face
was the look
of a man who
has just been
struck a blow
he cannot re-
turn. Only for
a moment,
however, did •
he sit this
way, for the
next he raised
his head and
shook it with
an odd, de-
fiant gesture.
He laughed.
"Rotten!" he
said. "Can't
be done, can
it? I'm still
too weak.
Come and see
us soon again,
Wally." Per-
haps if he
hadn't laughed
I would not
have known
what was
wrong, but
when people
laugh their
eyes — Car-
ston, you un-
derstand, was

During the few minutes that followed I I heard my voice, calm, controlled, but as if belonging to another person, bidding the Carstons good-by, and suggesting that I come to see them soon again, and I heard Carston answering: "Yes, come at night. That's

I answered.

better. I'm not painting as yet, y' see, but I've a lot of letters to attend to, and this packing up takes my days. Yes, come at night." And then I found myself out on the landing, the studio door closed behind me, and Alice Carston facing me, one hand on her breast.

"So you know!" she whispered.

"Yes," I answered. "I know."

After that we looked at each other for a while without speaking, then her -arm dropped wearily to her side, where her fingers began to twist between them a fold of her skirt.

"I suppose you understand," she asked. "If you don't"

"Not quite. Perhaps—in a way. It isn't altogether clear."

She raised her head and came closer to me, and her voice had in it the curious, dry, strained note that voices have when they have choked too much over tears. "It's so simple," she said, "if you remember what he is—how proud and unbeatable. He's always looked on life as some fine, laughing adventure; something to be surmounted—and now!" She drew herself up and her eyes widened and grew starry. "He's still fighting, you see, but he's fighting so horribly in the dark. And for a while, at least, he must not know that any one is helping him— no, not even I."

She searched my face. "He's never met fate before," she continued, "when it was implacable, and he doesn't know how, you understand—doesn't know how to meet it. He has been so used to bending life entirely to his own design. If it was anything else but his eyes—but his eyes are what made the whole world for him. You don't wonder, do you, that as yet he won't admit it; won't admit defeat? Some day, of course, but now—" It was as if she was pleading with me to understand Carston.

"No," I said. "I don't wonder."

I left her standing where she was, her eyes thoughtful and fixed on the shadows in front of her.

The little garden, as I passed through it again, seemed even more sibilant than before, filled with a score of whispering, confused voices. Then I went back to my club; my holiday was over.

Friendship is one of the liabilities with

which we complicate an already overcomplicated existence. The man who is busy with his affections is very busy indeed. Selfish burdens are comparatively easy to bear; it is only when we see a friend encompassed and cannot render him aid that we reach that folly of despair where life seems to us a stupid matter of an unfair giant striking little people into the dust. I reached that point^several times during the next two weeks. I walked constantly with dissatisfaction as a companion. The thought of Carston followed me wherever I went, obtruding itself into whatever I did, and always I saw him as I had seen him that moment after the lamp had been upset, sitting wearily back in his chair, a look on his face as if he had been struck a blow he could not return. Sometimes the apparent idiocy of the thing changed dull dissatisfaction into rage. Why, with a hundred million eyes to be put out, should two eyes filled with beauty be blinded? I continued to go to the Carstons' studio frequently, although I made my visits short, for I was torn between a desire to be of help and the knowledge that, just at the moment anyhow, my presence was not altogether a source of pleasure. Now that I knew Carston's secret, however, it was not difficult to pretend that I didn't. Our talk limped along like a gay and desperate cripple. And then, quite suddenly, I realized, what I should have realized long before, realized, that is, that my discovery on the fateful night in question, far from being a climax, was merely an incident in the drama I was witnessing.

Underneath Alice Carston's quiet, underneath Mansfield Carston's somewhat feverish cheerfulness, were hidden matters the presence of which I was just beginning to perceive. I began to perceive a grim, unrelenting struggle of wills; I began to perceive a vigilance; I began to perceive —how does one describe the intangible, the indescribable without making it too definite; without making it appear as if one had seen it clearly and not, as is always the case, dimly?—an atmosphere of expectancy. All very vague, you understand; nothing I could lay my finger on. Openly the Carstons were going forward placidly with their plans for leaving New York; but there was, for instance, the curious way Alice Carston watched her husband when she thought I was not looking, and there was, for instance, the curious feeling you had when you entered the studio, as if you had interrupted a discussion—a silent discussion, a discussion between mind and mind; a discussion in which not a word was spoken. There were many other curious things as well: for one, the manner with which Alice Carston, with cleverness, with sophistry, prevented the conversation ever from taking the turn of easy cynicism, of the lively descent to a despairing reductio ad absurdum that conversation between Carston and myself had been in the habit of taking. It had always been our delight to prove buoyantly the ultimate worthlessness of life, the ultimate folly of mankind, knowing all the while, of course, that neither of us thought anything of the kind. And Alice Carston had invariably made an excellent third. Unlike most women, she appreciated the mental exercise of argument for argument's sake. But now she was quite different, oddly different; she discouraged any opening along such lines; she was immensely practical and to the point and healthily matter-offact. But perhaps all this would have gone unnoticed on my part, or at the most would have been assigned by me to the ordinary solicitude under the circumstances, had it not been for the incident of the automatic pistol. It was a disturbing incident; yet there is not much to tell about it.

The pistol had lain on the centre-table of the studio ever since the night of my first visit. I had noticed it frequently— a big, blunted thing, brutal as modern war. One evening I picked it up casually and took out the chamber. The top cartridge fell into my hand. I started to replace it, when its shape attracted my attention.

"Why—" I began; and then I knew, in the unexplainable way in which you do know such things, that Alice Carston was staring at me. I raised my head. Her hand was extended and as I looked she brought her finger up to her lips. On her face was a look of terror. "Why," I continued, "this is something I never saw before—this gun of yours," I hurriedly added. "It's the one you used in France, isn't it?" Vol. LXIL—51

Carston laughed. "Yes," he said. "Ugly, isn't it?"

"Very ugly," I agreed.

I was not surprised when the next morning I received a note from Alice Carston. "I must thank you," she said, "for your quickness of mind last night. Indeed, I can never thank you enough for all you have done—or, rather, for all you have been kind enough and wise enough not to do; for your consideration in not asking questions; for your consideration in waiting, as I have had to do, in patience. My very dear friend, I wonder if you will ever know how you have helped me? Yes, the cartridges were blank, as you perceived. But I wonder if you also perceive why I cannot merely put— somehow I cannot bear to give it its name —put 'the thing' where it will be safe? I feel now that wherever possible explanations are due you. You see, I must leave it there—leave it where he knows it is. If I hid it he would realize my reason for so doing; would realize that I am afraid; and he must never realize that; never realize it for a moment. But I can't be with him every minute of the day, and so —you understand now, don't you?"

Yes, I understood, and, from now on, I, too, watched. I fell into the habit of going frequently to the Carstons' instead of for only a few minutes hi the evening; I fell into the habit of staying there a long while. Alice Carston accepted this gratefully. To Carston I confessed loneliness and boredom and a desire to read. I do not see how he imagined that I suspected nothing of his pitiful, so easily detected secret; I do not know what he thought must be going on in my mind about the hours he spent by the open window, staring—apparently staring— down into the by-now gay verdure of the garden. But men fighting shadows, men with fixed ideas, overlook the obvious, imagine a world as they themselves insist upon its being.

The little garden was catching up with June. The flowering bushes had shed their blossoms and were taking on the thick greenness of summer. Against the wall espaliered roses of red and white were beginning to show. There was a drowsy sunshine, in which the fountain trickled pleasantly and a few bees, deceiving them

« ПретходнаНастави »