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    Chapter 16

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    Chapter 16
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    XVI.

    When Archer walked down the sandy main street
    of St. Augustine to the house which had been
    pointed out to him as Mr. Welland's, and saw May
    Welland standing under a magnolia with the sun in her
    hair, he wondered why he had waited so long to come.

    Here was the truth, here was reality, here was the life
    that belonged to him; and he, who fancied himself so
    scornful of arbitrary restraints, had been afraid to break
    away from his desk because of what people might
    think of his stealing a holiday!

    Her first exclamation was: "Newland--has anything
    happened?" and it occurred to him that it would have
    been more "feminine" if she had instantly read in his
    eyes why he had come. But when he answered: "Yes--I
    found I had to see you," her happy blushes took the
    chill from her surprise, and he saw how easily he
    would be forgiven, and how soon even Mr. Letterblair's
    mild disapproval would be smiled away by a tolerant
    family.

    Early as it was, the main street was no place for any
    but formal greetings, and Archer longed to be alone
    with May, and to pour out all his tenderness and his
    impatience. It still lacked an hour to the late Welland
    breakfast-time, and instead of asking him to come in
    she proposed that they should walk out to an old
    orange-garden beyond the town. She had just been for
    a row on the river, and the sun that netted the little
    waves with gold seemed to have caught her in its
    meshes. Across the warm brown of her cheek her blown
    hair glittered like silver wire; and her eyes too looked
    lighter, almost pale in their youthful limpidity. As she
    walked beside Archer with her long swinging gait her
    face wore the vacant serenity of a young marble athlete.

    To Archer's strained nerves the vision was as soothing
    as the sight of the blue sky and the lazy river. They
    sat down on a bench under the orange-trees and he put
    his arm about her and kissed her. It was like drinking
    at a cold spring with the sun on it; but his pressure
    may have been more vehement than he had intended,
    for the blood rose to her face and she drew back as if
    he had startled her.

    "What is it?" he asked, smiling; and she looked at
    him with surprise, and answered: "Nothing."

    A slight embarrassment fell on them, and her hand
    slipped out of his. It was the only time that he had
    kissed her on the lips except for their fugitive embrace
    in the Beaufort conservatory, and he saw that she was
    disturbed, and shaken out of her cool boyish composure.

    "Tell me what you do all day," he said, crossing his
    arms under his tilted-back head, and pushing his hat
    forward to screen the sun-dazzle. To let her talk about
    familiar and simple things was the easiest way of carrying
    on his own independent train of thought; and he
    sat listening to her simple chronicle of swimming, sailing
    and riding, varied by an occasional dance at the
    primitive inn when a man-of-war came in. A few pleasant
    people from Philadelphia and Baltimore were
    picknicking at the inn, and the Selfridge Merrys had
    come down for three weeks because Kate Merry had
    had bronchitis. They were planning to lay out a lawn
    tennis court on the sands; but no one but Kate and
    May had racquets, and most of the people had not
    even heard of the game.

    All this kept her very busy, and she had not had time
    to do more than look at the little vellum book that
    Archer had sent her the week before (the "Sonnets
    from the Portuguese"); but she was learning by heart
    "How they brought the Good News from Ghent to
    Aix," because it was one of the first things he had ever
    read to her; and it amused her to be able to tell him
    that Kate Merry had never even heard of a poet called
    Robert Browning.

    Presently she started up, exclaiming that they would
    be late for breakfast; and they hurried back to the
    tumble-down house with its pointless porch and unpruned
    hedge of plumbago and pink geraniums where
    the Wellands were installed for the winter. Mr.
    Welland's sensitive domesticity shrank from the discomforts
    of the slovenly southern hotel, and at immense
    expense, and in face of almost insuperable difficulties,
    Mrs. Welland was obliged, year after year, to improvise
    an establishment partly made up of discontented
    New York servants and partly drawn from the local
    African supply.

    "The doctors want my husband to feel that he is in
    his own home; otherwise he would be so wretched that
    the climate would not do him any good," she
    explained, winter after winter, to the sympathising
    Philadelphians and Baltimoreans; and Mr. Welland, beaming
    across a breakfast table miraculously supplied with the
    most varied delicacies, was presently saying to Archer:
    "You see, my dear fellow, we camp--we literally camp.
    I tell my wife and May that I want to teach them how
    to rough it."

    Mr. and Mrs. Welland had been as much surprised
    as their daughter by the young man's sudden arrival;
    but it had occurred to him to explain that he had felt
    himself on the verge of a nasty cold, and this seemed to
    Mr. Welland an all-sufficient reason for abandoning
    any duty.

    "You can't be too careful, especially toward spring,"
    he said, heaping his plate with straw-coloured griddle-
    cakes and drowning them in golden syrup. "If I'd only
    been as prudent at your age May would have been
    dancing at the Assemblies now, instead of spending her
    winters in a wilderness with an old invalid."

    "Oh, but I love it here, Papa; you know I do. If only
    Newland could stay I should like it a thousand times
    better than New York."

    "Newland must stay till he has quite thrown off his
    cold," said Mrs. Welland indulgently; and the young
    man laughed, and said he supposed there was such a
    thing as one's profession.

    He managed, however, after an exchange of telegrams
    with the firm, to make his cold last a week; and
    it shed an ironic light on the situation to know that
    Mr. Letterblair's indulgence was partly due to the
    satisfactory way in which his brilliant young junior partner
    had settled the troublesome matter of the Olenski
    divorce. Mr. Letterblair had let Mrs. Welland know that
    Mr. Archer had "rendered an invaluable service" to the
    whole family, and that old Mrs. Manson Mingott had
    been particularly pleased; and one day when May had
    gone for a drive with her father in the only vehicle the
    place produced Mrs. Welland took occasion to touch
    on a topic which she always avoided in her daughter's
    presence.

    "I'm afraid Ellen's ideas are not at all like ours. She
    was barely eighteen when Medora Manson took her
    back to Europe--you remember the excitement when
    she appeared in black at her coming-out ball? Another
    of Medora's fads--really this time it was almost
    prophetic! That must have been at least twelve years ago;
    and since then Ellen has never been to America. No
    wonder she is completely Europeanised."

    "But European society is not given to divorce: Countess
    Olenska thought she would be conforming to American
    ideas in asking for her freedom." It was the first
    time that the young man had pronounced her name
    since he had left Skuytercliff, and he felt the colour rise
    to his cheek.

    Mrs. Welland smiled compassionately. "That is just
    like the extraordinary things that foreigners invent about
    us. They think we dine at two o'clock and countenance
    divorce! That is why it seems to me so foolish to
    entertain them when they come to New York. They
    accept our hospitality, and then they go home and
    repeat the same stupid stories."

    Archer made no comment on this, and Mrs. Welland
    continued: "But we do most thoroughly appreciate your
    persuading Ellen to give up the idea. Her grandmother
    and her uncle Lovell could do nothing with her; both
    of them have written that her changing her mind was
    entirely due to your influence--in fact she said so to
    her grandmother. She has an unbounded admiration
    for you. Poor Ellen--she was always a wayward child.
    I wonder what her fate will be?"

    "What we've all contrived to make it," he felt like
    answering. "if you'd all of you rather she should be
    Beaufort's mistress than some decent fellow's wife you've
    certainly gone the right way about it."

    He wondered what Mrs. Welland would have said if
    he had uttered the words instead of merely thinking
    them. He could picture the sudden decomposure of her
    firm placid features, to which a lifelong mastery over
    trifles had given an air of factitious authority. Traces
    still lingered on them of a fresh beauty like her daughter's;
    and he asked himself if May's face was doomed
    to thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincible
    innocence.

    Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of
    innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against
    imagination and the heart against experience!

    "I verily believe," Mrs. Welland continued, "that if
    the horrible business had come out in the newspapers it
    would have been my husband's death-blow. I don't
    know any of the details; I only ask not to, as I told
    poor Ellen when she tried to talk to me about it.
    Having an invalid to care for, I have to keep my mind
    bright and happy. But Mr. Welland was terribly upset;
    he had a slight temperature every morning while we
    were waiting to hear what had been decided. It was the
    horror of his girl's learning that such things were
    possible--but of course, dear Newland, you felt that
    too. We all knew that you were thinking of May."

    "I'm always thinking of May," the young man
    rejoined, rising to cut short the conversation.

    He had meant to seize the opportunity of his private
    talk with Mrs. Welland to urge her to advance the date
    of his marriage. But he could think of no arguments
    that would move her, and with a sense of relief he saw
    Mr. Welland and May driving up to the door.

    His only hope was to plead again with May, and on
    the day before his departure he walked with her to the
    ruinous garden of the Spanish Mission. The background
    lent itself to allusions to European scenes; and May,
    who was looking her loveliest under a wide-brimmed
    hat that cast a shadow of mystery over her too-clear
    eyes, kindled into eagerness as he spoke of Granada
    and the Alhambra.

    "We might be seeing it all this spring--even the
    Easter ceremonies at Seville," he urged, exaggerating
    his demands in the hope of a larger concession.

    "Easter in Seville? And it will be Lent next week!"
    she laughed.

    "Why shouldn't we be married in Lent?" he
    rejoined; but she looked so shocked that he saw his
    mistake.

    "Of course I didn't mean that, dearest; but soon
    after Easter--so that we could sail at the end of April. I
    know I could arrange it at the office."

    She smiled dreamily upon the possibility; but he
    perceived that to dream of it sufficed her. It was like
    hearing him read aloud out of his poetry books the
    beautiful things that could not possibly happen in real
    life.

    "Oh, do go on, Newland; I do love your descriptions."

    "But why should they be only descriptions? Why
    shouldn't we make them real?"

    "We shall, dearest, of course; next year." Her voice
    lingered over it.

    "Don't you want them to be real sooner? Can't I
    persuade you to break away now?"

    She bowed her head, vanishing from him under her
    conniving hat-brim.

    "Why should we dream away another year? Look at
    me, dear! Don't you understand how I want you for
    my wife?"

    For a moment she remained motionless; then she
    raised on him eyes of such despairing dearness that he
    half-released her waist from his hold. But suddenly her
    look changed and deepened inscrutably. "I'm not sure
    if I DO understand," she said. "Is it--is it because
    you're not certain of continuing to care for me?"

    Archer sprang up from his seat. "My God--perhaps--I
    don't know," he broke out angrily.

    May Welland rose also; as they faced each other she
    seemed to grow in womanly stature and dignity. Both
    were silent for a moment, as if dismayed by the unforeseen
    trend of their words: then she said in a low voice:
    "If that is it--is there some one else?"

    "Some one else--between you and me?" He echoed
    her words slowly, as though they were only half-
    intelligible and he wanted time to repeat the question
    to himself. She seemed to catch the uncertainty of his
    voice, for she went on in a deepening tone: "Let us
    talk frankly, Newland. Sometimes I've felt a difference
    in you; especially since our engagement has been
    announced."

    "Dear--what madness!" he recovered himself to
    exclaim.

    She met his protest with a faint smile. "If it is, it
    won't hurt us to talk about it." She paused, and added,
    lifting her head with one of her noble movements: "Or
    even if it's true: why shouldn't we speak of it? You
    might so easily have made a mistake."

    He lowered his head, staring at the black leaf-pattern
    on the sunny path at their feet. "Mistakes are always
    easy to make; but if I had made one of the kind you
    suggest, is it likely that I should be imploring you to
    hasten our marriage?"

    She looked downward too, disturbing the pattern
    with the point of her sunshade while she struggled for
    expression. "Yes," she said at length. "You might want--
    once for all--to settle the question: it's one way."

    Her quiet lucidity startled him, but did not mislead
    him into thinking her insensible. Under her hat-brim he
    saw the pallor of her profile, and a slight tremor of the
    nostril above her resolutely steadied lips.

    "Well--?" he questioned, sitting down on the bench,
    and looking up at her with a frown that he tried to
    make playful.

    She dropped back into her seat and went on: "You
    mustn't think that a girl knows as little as her parents
    imagine. One hears and one notices--one has one's
    feelings and ideas. And of course, long before you told
    me that you cared for me, I'd known that there was
    some one else you were interested in; every one was
    talking about it two years ago at Newport. And once I
    saw you sitting together on the verandah at a dance--
    and when she came back into the house her face was
    sad, and I felt sorry for her; I remembered it afterward,
    when we were engaged."

    Her voice had sunk almost to a whisper, and she sat
    clasping and unclasping her hands about the handle of
    her sunshade. The young man laid his upon them with
    a gentle pressure; his heart dilated with an inexpressible relief.

    "My dear child--was THAT it? If you only knew the
    truth!"

    She raised her head quickly. "Then there is a truth I
    don't know?"

    He kept his hand over hers. "I meant, the truth
    about the old story you speak of."

    "But that's what I want to know, Newland--what I
    ought to know. I couldn't have my happiness made out
    of a wrong--an unfairness--to somebody else. And I
    want to believe that it would be the same with you.
    What sort of a life could we build on such foundations?"

    Her face had taken on a look of such tragic courage
    that he felt like bowing himself down at her feet. "I've
    wanted to say this for a long time," she went on. "I've
    wanted to tell you that, when two people really love
    each other, I understand that there may be situations
    which make it right that they should--should go against
    public opinion. And if you feel yourself in any way
    pledged . . . pledged to the person we've spoken of . . .
    and if there is any way . . . any way in which you can
    fulfill your pledge . . . even by her getting a divorce
    . . . Newland, don't give her up because of me!"

    His surprise at discovering that her fears had
    fastened upon an episode so remote and so completely of
    the past as his love-affair with Mrs. Thorley Rushworth
    gave way to wonder at the generosity of her view.
    There was something superhuman in an attitude so
    recklessly unorthodox, and if other problems had not
    pressed on him he would have been lost in wonder at
    the prodigy of the Wellands' daughter urging him to
    marry his former mistress. But he was still dizzy with
    the glimpse of the precipice they had skirted, and full
    of a new awe at the mystery of young-girlhood.

    For a moment he could not speak; then he said:
    "There is no pledge--no obligation whatever--of the
    kind you think. Such cases don't always--present themselves
    quite as simply as . . . But that's no matter . . . I
    love your generosity, because I feel as you do about
    those things . . . I feel that each case must be judged
    individually, on its own merits . . . irrespective of stupid
    conventionalities . . . I mean, each woman's right
    to her liberty--" He pulled himself up, startled by the
    turn his thoughts had taken, and went on, looking at
    her with a smile: "Since you understand so many things,
    dearest, can't you go a little farther, and understand
    the uselessness of our submitting to another form of
    the same foolish conventionalities? If there's no one
    and nothing between us, isn't that an argument for
    marrying quickly, rather than for more delay?"

    She flushed with joy and lifted her face to his; as he
    bent to it he saw that her eyes were full of happy tears.
    But in another moment she seemed to have descended
    from her womanly eminence to helpless and timorous
    girlhood; and he understood that her courage and
    initiative were all for others, and that she had none for
    herself. It was evident that the effort of speaking had
    been much greater than her studied composure betrayed,
    and that at his first word of reassurance she had dropped
    back into the usual, as a too-adventurous child takes
    refuge in its mother's arms.

    Archer had no heart to go on pleading with her; he
    was too much disappointed at the vanishing of the new
    being who had cast that one deep look at him from her
    transparent eyes. May seemed to be aware of his
    disappointment, but without knowing how to alleviate it;
    and they stood up and walked silently home.
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