The Griswold Divorce Case
As Morgan Griswold emerged from the solemn-fronted cross-town block and made his way northward along the dwelling side of Central Park West, he felt, as he had foreseen he would, the overwhelming surge of his homelessness. Throughout the dragging progress of the suit, instinct had bade him shun the scene of his fool's paradise, the places still haunted by the spell of Natalie. Beyond the sphere of old associations, he could delude himself with the pretense that it was all a waking dream, the leaden ache of a persistent nightmare. From the grim hour that now seemed limitlessly remote, when jealous fear had leaped to merciless certainty, he had lived in a state of numb detachment. It was all so incredibly, so preposterously unreal: the first blind madness of his lust for vengeance; the well-meant cruelty of friends who tried to intercede; the crude, unsparing phrases of the formal complaint; the endless hearings before the referee; the tireless hurry of the stenographer's pencil. They were phantasms, not flesh and blood, those stern-faced lawyers, those glib, unshaken witnesses, whose presence he had himself evoked to testify to facts that he would have given his soul to prove untrue. That was not Natalie, that haggard, pallid woman who faced him, day by day, across the narrow width of the law office, proudly unflinching, piteously frail, strangely girlish in the severity of her black frock. That was not Brandon Dana, that shifty-eyed and flabby craven who groveled under the attorney's lash; who hedged and dodged and tripped on his own words. And he was not himself, sitting there quiescent, dumbly clenching his hands to keep his fingers from closing around the other's throat, listening to evidence that all his manhood urged him to denounce as lies, and that, nevertheless,—God help him!—he was driven to accept as truth.
But now that the strain was over, now that the referee's report had been confirmed, the decree signed and judgment entered, there was no longer any danger that memory might make a coward of him, no longer any reason why he should shirk the final readjustments. Throughout the trial he had not crossed the threshold of the apartment that, from the beginning of their married life, had stood for home. When the break came, he had flung himself-forth, empty-handed, leaving her in possession. She should be free to remain, if she chose, until the courts had decided. What difference did it make whether she stayed or went? In any event, the place had become impossible for him; for, in his thoughts, he would always see her there. But when his man had returned, the next day, to gather the few things that he needed, she was already gone, the servants dismissed, the curtains drawn, the whole place given over to the reign of solitude and dust. And whether, like him, she had shrunk from going back, or whether she had already removed her own possessions, he had not troubled to inquire. Such matters seemed infinitely petty beside the wreckage of two lives.
With every step that brought him nearer, the sting of actualities became more keen. That was the window, on the seventh floor, where, in the morning, she had always stood to watch him go, waving a gay good-by, with a swift, odd little turn of the wrist that was like no other woman's in the world. He suddenly felt bitterly resentful of the soft, mild air of early spring, the glad gold sunshine that was out of harmony with his mood and with his mission. Boys at the exit from the subway station had been selling daffodils; the first pale, new-born foliage on the trees showed in a shimmer of green throughout the park. That other day, which seemed an eternity ago, had been bleak and stormy; a fine chill rain had been falling; and fitful gusts had swept over the park wall swirls of yellow leaves that formed a sodden carpet underfoot. Was it only last year? He had lost a sense of the passing of time. Through all the springtide gladness, he seemed still to smell the mournful redolence of decay that heralds the death of autumn; he seemed still to see, as if it were yesterday, that rain-lashed window, with Natalie's white face seen in a blur behind it. He marveled to this day at the strange whim that drove her, that last time, to watch his going.
He felt an absurd relief when he found that James, the impudent Jamaican negro whose free-tongued evidence had carried weight, was gone and a new hall-boy reigned in his stead. The experience of naming his own floor, and of naming it too late, of being swept past it upward to the eighth, and then returning with a slide and jerk, all helped to accentuate his growing sense of intrusion. He admitted himself to the apartment, noting mechanically, as he turned the serrated side of the key downward, how odd and unwonted the familiar notches had become to his touch. He groped his way down the hall and across the dim front rooms, musty from long closing, and flung back the drawn curtains and raised the shades and sashes, to let in the fresh spring air and morning sunshine.
Now that he was here, it was difficult to credit the actuality of the severance. The whole place retained a torturing air of the intimacy of a home in which the daily routine had barely been suspended. In the hall still hung his last summer's straw hat and her opera cloak, the one with the pink lining. In the parlor, the piano stood mutely open, the keyboard gathering dust; and the score of a musical comedy on the rack added a farcical touch to the grimness of a broken home. On a little table lay a fan, and a pair of long suede gloves, hastily stripped off, wrong side out; the fingers still partly retained the roundness hers had given them. He could almost believe that she was in the adjoining room; that any moment she might enter, clad in her morning gown of saffron yellow, shimmering like sunshine; that she would lean toward him until he could catch the redolence of her hair—hair like dusk that retained the glint of sunset; that she would utter the tender, foolish, intimate name she had for him—the name that was a secret between them, the name that she had never uttered before others. Why, in Heaven's name, must a man's brain insist upon evoking images against his will? Why would it never let him forget the other man? Why would it obtrude the devilish question, what secret, intimate, tender name had she also coined for him?
Morgan Griswold crossed to the window, his hands clenching, his face working painfully. He was a fool to come here and torture himself with the sight of all those dead but yet unburied memories! Of course, the apartment must be dismantled, and the sooner the better. The whole place seemed filled with impalpable swarms of ghosts, as all-pervading as the thickly gathered dust. As for Natalie, she must be notified to arrange at once for the removal of such effects as belonged to her—the wedding presents, the piano, the pretty ornaments, each one of which evoked a separate pang. His eye traveled involuntarily over the walls; each picture had its own particular memory, each had been acquired because it had counted, or so he then believed, for something of real moment in their joint lives.
He entered the bedroom. Above the musty closeness there still hung, faint and evanescent, a suggestion of perfume, a persistent yet elusive fragrance of her. A silken skirt trailed from the brass footrail of the bedstead; a disorder of ribbons and veils and gloves bespoke the haste of a parting toilet. Upon the bureau, in the midst of a litter of combs and hairpins, stood two photographs, hers in her wedding dress, his taken shortly before their marriage. He contrasted the youth and gladness of her picture with the white, drawn face that, day by day, had confronted him at the hearing, outlined against a wall of serried volumes—41 Hun, 17 New York, titles that had oddly and permanently photographed themselves upon his brain, just as he had glimpsed them over her shoulder, beside the soft waves of her dusky hair.
He found himself unable to lay the picture down, but stood there, gazing hungrily, torturing himself with memories, confessing, as he had never quite confessed before, the extent to which he also had been to blame. Countless small matters, with which he had vaguely reproached himself, suddenly became distinct, concrete, unified in the one word, neglect, he had neglected her! Odd paradox, when she had formed the motive power of everything he thought or said or did! The very ambitions cherished for her sake had formed the entering wedge between them. In his blind haste to win the world's prizes for her, he had made the blunder of leaving her alone; he had not learned that a woman's love demands the services of play as well as of work. He saw, now that it was too late, how, by his own fault, she had been flung back on other companionship, not always wisely chosen—men whom he ought to have shielded her from knowing, men of the type of Brandon Dana. That was the incomprehensible, the unpardonable part of their story. He might have found it in his heart to forgive; he might have been weakling enough to take her back, had the man been any other than the one she had so strangely, so incredibly preferred. He had believed, in blind security, that he knew Natalie through and through—knew how fine she was by nature, how fastidious in her tastes, how scornful of frailty in others. Yet there was the damnable, black, proved fact of Brandon Dana. He sickened at the monstrous hypocrisy.
The sound of a key in the outer door, turned with the old familiar quickness, thrilled him with a pain that left him dizzy. He could almost see, through lath and plaster, the swift, impulsive turn of the slim wrist. There was nothing strange in her coming to the apartment. Sooner or later, she would have had to come. And yet, the possibility that he had least foreseen was that of their meeting, face to face, in their old surroundings, in the incongruous gladness of April sunshine.
But, as the door opened to admit her, he became aware of voices. She was evidently accompanied by a man; and that man's voice was, of all voices, the one most hateful to him. He had already become schooled to the thought that, when once the need of keeping up the farce was over, Natalie and Brandon Dana would be seen together publicly; but the sight was one that he himself was not yet ready to bear. Instinctively, he recoiled behind the heavy portiere that screened the bedroom from the parlor before he realized that their tones were the opposite of friendly. Natalie's was vibrant with anger.
"How dare you! How dare you!" she flung at the man with her, from between set teeth. "It was cowardly to follow me here! Go—please go at once. You cannot come in. Don't you understand? You cannot come in!"
Apparently the man's foot prevented the door from closing. There was an exasperating assurance in the easy familiarity of his reply: "Come, now, Natalie, don't be foolish. I had rather not raise a row here in the hall, but I've get to have a talk with you, and I've got to come in. It'll be your own fault if you advertise the fact to the whole house."
Morgan felt rather than heard the swift, unequal struggle, the cautious closing of the door, and the man's step preceding the woman's across the polished flooring of hall and parlor. Every nerve, as he listened, was goading him to commit the folly of interference; but, when she next spoke, Natalie's recovered self-control restrained him.
"It was rather brutal, don't you think, to use force? If I must listen, kindly be as brief as possible, and then go."
"Oh, I say, Natalie, don't be foolish. You can't afford to fling over the best friend you've got."
"The-best friend I've got? Oh, no, Mr. Dana; I deny your right to call yourself that. There was a time when I thought you were a friend, but a real friend would have stood by me in a better way than yours. A real friend would not force himself on me now, or speak with a familiarity that is insulting. Oh, if you had one little bit of the friendship you pretend, you would do me the only favor I have asked—you would stay away."
"But you ask the one thing that is impossible, my dear Natalie! Two people tangled up as we are! I simply had to see you; can't you understand that? And yet, you have forbidden me to call, refused to see me, sent back my letters. You left me nothing else to do but to spy upon you, follow you through the street, force myself in here, brutally, as you call it. Well, perhaps that's so. But what's the use of pretense between you and me? You know—you have known from the very beginning—that I love you, just as I have known from the beginning that you love me!"
Morgan Griswold was unconscious of the movement that brought him into a position to see as well as to hear. He had room for no other thought except his own amazement at the consuming scorn that blazed from Natalie's eyes. Her answer came in a stinging hail of words that gave no chance for interruption.
"That is a lie, Brandon Dana—a cruel, insulting, stupid lie! Neither you nor I have ever known anything of the kind! I never gave you the least little cause to think I cared for you; I never even dreamed that you would dare to forget that I was Morgan's wife. Wait—let me finish! It was you, and not I, who insisted upon coming to an understanding. Well, now that you are here, you are going to listen, and it shall not be my fault if you don't understand! I knew you loved me, did I? How was I to know it? Was there ever a word, a look, an indiscretion that might have told me? No; you are much too clever for that! Your pose was that of a friend, such a good, kind friend! You knew that I was lonely; that I had begun to fear that Morgan didn't care as he used to; that I was grateful to have you—no, not you, not you, but any one, any one who would take the trouble to help me fill in the empty hours. I must have been blind! I never guessed people were talking; I didn't realize that they had anything to talk about till the day of Morgan's dreadful mistake—the day he disbelieved me!"
To Griswold, standing mute and rigid behind the curtain, it seemed as if he were witnessing some play, in which the actors had suddenly gone mad, and lost their lines, and were uttering fantastic and meaningless jargon. They were strangers, that man and that woman, not his wife and his wife's lover. Or else, if they had not gone mad, if they meant what they were saying, if this was the terrible, unalterable truth, then he had done the crudest wrong that any man could do to the woman he had vowed to cherish. Yet, through the surge of his emotions, some instinct stronger than his will held him silent, shaken with a great dread of further knowledge. And still the woman's words poured on, as if, now that the floodgates of speech were opened, the pent-up misery of months must run its course.
"Love you? Why, if I had ever loved you, do you think I could love you now? Don't you understand that I can't even be quite just to you, that I can't help blaming you for all that I have suffered, all that I have lost? Oh, the shame of it, the utter helplessness! To know that it was all a mistake, to know that I had done no wrong, and yet to explain and explain, and feel that I was pounding against a dead wall of unbelief! And not only the injustice, but the notoriety; the friends that dropped away, one by one; the flaunting headlines in the paper! For months I have not gone in the street without being pointed at, with a knowing glance and a whispered word that set my cheeks flaming. But I bore it all, because of the certainty that it could end only one way. We had only to tell the truth, the simple, literal truth. I never dreamed that justice could become so monstrous a farce. Yet, as I sat there day by day, and saw the net they were weaving around me, the tangle of misstatements, slips, and contradictions, there were times when I doubted my own brain, times when I wanted to cry out, 'This isn't I, Natalie Griswold! It is some poor, wretched creature who must have done all these nameless things and is too miserable and too tired to remember!' And there were lies, too, deliberate, malicious lies. You know as well as I do, Brandon, how that hall-boy, James, lied. I wonder what I had ever done to make him hate me so! And you yourself, Brandon—why, it ought to have been so simple, so very, very simple to prove just where you were those nights they gave the dates of. It was the turning-point of the whole case. I felt as if I were going mad when you swore that you couldn't remember where you were! Why, if all they said about us had been true, if I had been the very worst woman in the world, even then it ought to have been impossible for you to make such an inane answer! Think of it, Brandon! Five whole days and nights—nearly a week—and you couldn't remember where you were! Even if you could not tell the truth, you might at least have prepared a plausible lie, something better than that self-evident pretense that you could not remember! I have tried to be just; I have tried to believe that you meant well, that you were nothing worse than a clumsy blunderer. But it's no use, I simply can't! There is just one possible excuse for you, and that is that you were protecting the name of some other woman, at no matter what cost to me. Oh, the shame of it, Brandon! Robbing me of honor, love, happiness, in order to shield some other woman with real sins on her soul! And, after that, you come here and pay me the crowning insult of pretending that you love me!"
The man laughed, a slow, amused, self-satisfied laugh. " So that's the trouble, is it? You're jealous! Jealous of a woman who doesn't even exist! Jove, but you're handsome when you're angry! So you thought I was off with another woman? I wonder what you would give to know where I really was?"
If the woman was aware of the imminence of his self-betrayal, she at least gave no sign. It was apparent that she must make no slip, in word or act, if he was to be led into complete revelation.
"That is something I never can krtow," she retorted. "I should not believe you, even if you told the truth. I refuse, once for all, to listen!"
"Oh, come now, Natalie, I can read you like a book! You're still thinking of the other woman, and I tell you there isn't any other woman—there can't be any other woman so long as I know you. You don't have to take my word for it; I can prove it easy enough—I can find people who remember where I was, all right. Jove, who'd have thought you'd be jealous!"
Instantly the woman's manner changed. "So it was perjury?" she accused him, with deadly calm. "You wanted the divorce to go against me? You deliberately planned for it? And yet God lets you live!"
Dana laughed again, this time uncomfortably. "That's about the size of it," he conceded brazenly, "but you're the last person that ought to blame me. You've got your freedom, haven't you? Got rid of a jealous husband who was tired of you! It's none of his business now how much or how little you see of me. You don't appreciate your blessings, my dear girl!"
She shrank from his approach, with open loathing. "Don't touch me! Your very contact is unclean. My blessings? You have robbed me of the only man I ever loved, the man—God pity me!—that I can't help loving, even now. But I know you now, and if there is any way the law can reach you, I mean to find it.
"See here, Natalie, cut that out! Threats don't go with me. Perhaps you know me, and then again, perhaps you don't. What can you prove? That's the point, what can you prove? Nothing! Just nothing at all! My word is as good as yours—perhaps a little better since the verdict. Let well enough alone, my dear, and when a fellow wants to treat you right, try to meet him half way!"
It seemed to Morgan Griswold as if there had never been a moment in his life when his thoughts were so lucid, his purpose so deliberately planned. With automatic calm, he drew the curtain aside and stood revealed. The swift clicking of brass rings along the pole was the first warning the others had that they were not alone. For the moment, Morgan did not look at Natalie; he scarcely even heard her one low cry—a cry full of wonder blended with something else that might be fear or gladness, perhaps both. For the moment, he had no room for thought of any other thing than Brandon Dana. The anger that he felt was unlike any anger he had ever conceived—a white-hot, silent ecstasy of hate, an irresistible longing to feel his crooking fingers sink into the other's flaccid, beefy throat. Dana's florid, puffy features were almost grotesque with discomfiture, fear, and the sullen rage of defeat.
"So you laid a trap for me!" he snarled at Natalie—then choked and gurgled as Morgan gripped his collar.
As he strained and swayed in the powerful grasp, raining ineffectual blows that Morgan scarcely felt, a rug suddenly slid beneath his feet, and the two went down together in a disordered heap, a table with a lamp overturning with them, the lamp-shade crashing as it struck. Splintered glass gashed their hands as they rolled and struggled. All at once, the pressure on Dana's windpipe took effect: the fighting strength went out of him, the face turned purple, the eyes bulged. Not a minute too soon, the madness passed from Morgan Griswold. With heartfelt reluctance, he freed his victim, jerked him to a sitting posture, and began energetically to rouse him from his collapse. "God! To think I've got to let you live!" he groaned. "To think a cur like you is too valuable to kill!"
Dana, looking white and sick, staggered painfully to his feet, his breath coming brokenly through his bruised throat. A crimson trickle from his cut hand had splashed across his necktie and fancy waistcoat.
"Damn you both!" he blustered, as he turned to go. But the fingers he had learned to fear relentlessly jerked him back. Morgan was speaking again, in words that, short and simple as they were, nevertheless went through him like the prod of sharp steel.
"Not so fast! Sit down. I meant to kill you—I may do it yet. I didn't kill you, because I'm going to make you useful. You're going to tell the world what a dirty cur you are. There is a pen; there is paper. Now, begin: 'I, Brandon Dana———' Goon—be quick about it! Write what I dictate, word for word, and sign it, or, as sure as there is a hell waiting for you, I'll send you there now!"
With the relentless monotony of slow clockwork, Morgan's voice droned out the servile confession, in time to the nervous rasping of a shaky pen. He had leisure now to study, above the sunken head of the creature taking his dictation, the attitude of the woman who, throughout the conflict, had remained aloof, silent, non-committal. It was hopeless to try to guess what thoughts were passing through the averted head. His suspense became intolerable. He could hardly wait until the last word was down in black and white, and the sprawling signature added, before he unceremoniously bundled his limp antagonist from the room, and cast him into the outer hall.
For a time, utter silence held the room. The woman who until yesterday had been his wife continued motionless, as if carved, her face still half averted, the sunlight awakening coppery glints in her dusky hair. He noted the weariness of her attitude, the thin cheek, the lines in her face, the havoc that the months had wrought. A rush of mad words rose to his lips, choking into incoherence. What was the use? He was beyond all pardon. With an effort, he mastered himself and spoke quite simply and with forced calm:
"Natalie—I have no right to speak to you ever again. I have forfeited my right—I know that—all my rights but one: the right to make atonement, so far as is still possible. I have done the unpardonable thing. You cannot despise me more utterly than I despise myself. But, listen, Natalie: this horrible wrong must be set right. God! As if anything ever could set it right, now or hereafter! But you must and shall take my name again. We must be remarried, when and where you will, as quietly or as publicly as you see fit. We must decide how best to make the world understand the whole colossal blunder. Then—then I will go away, Natalie; I will pass out of your life. You need not fear that I shall ever trouble you again. I have forfeited all right to look you in the face, all right to speak to you any more."
He stood for a moment in the doorway. He did not know why he waited, or whether, in some dumb way, he dared to hope. He only knew that it was infinite pain to pass out from her presence.
Suddenly she turned. Tears were coursing down her cheeks, openly and unregarded; but in her eyes was a radiance as of sunshine through soft rain. Her arms rose slowly, reached forward. Her lips parted, framed a single word, low, tremulous, yet distinct. It was just a name, a foolish, intimate, tender name—the name that she had never uttered in the presence of others.
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).|