The Transgression of Andrew Vane/Chapter XI

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The Transgression of Andrew Vane by Guy Wetmore Carryl
Chapter XI. Some After-dinner Conversation
Chapter XI. Some After-dinner Conversation.

Night in the garden of the Villa Rossignol was as night is nowhere else. The cool dusk softened the somewhat stilted formality of the flower-beds and winding walks, and mercifully blurred the uncompromising stiffness of the paved terrace, flanked by marble urns, and giving, in three broad steps, upon the lawn. At this season the air was neither warm nor chill, but so deliciously adjusted that, as it moved, its touch on the cheeks and forehead was like that of a woman’s fingers. The stillness was emphasized rather than disturbed by a tiny tinkle of water, falling from ledge to ledge of a rockery hidden in the trees, and the sound, hardly less liquid, of a nightingale, rehearsing, pianissimo, snatches of the melody that midnight would hear in full. The darkness seemed to drip perfume: for the little seats and summer-houses, cunningly hidden here and there among the bosquets, were veritable bowers of roses, and the new grass and foliage had that fresh June smell which July, with its dust and scorching suns, so soon turns stale.

The women were on the terrace now; the men inside. Through the windows of the west wing, open from floor to ceiling to the soft night air, the big dining-table gleamed with linen, silver, and crystal, in not ungraceful disarray, and above it hung a thin haze of blue-gray smoke, through which the shirt-bosoms and white waistcoats of the men stood oddly out, seeming to have no relation to their owners, whose faces were cut off by the deep-red candle-shades from the light, and so from the view of those outside. Now and again their laughter came out through the windows in rollicking little gusts, and immediately thereafter the haze of smoke was reinforced.

“What an amusing time they always seem to have, once they’re rid of us!” said Mrs. Ratchett, almost resentfully. “If one could be a fly, now, and perch in comfort, upside down, upon the ceiling—”

“One would get a vast deal of tobacco-smoke into one’s lungs,” put in Mrs. Carnby, “and a vast store of unrepeatable anecdotes into one’s memory. I really can’t approve of your project, Ethel, and I’m convinced that, to your particular style of beauty, it would be most unbecoming to perch — particularly upside down!”

“Oh, the men!” exclaimed old Mrs. Lister, with a kind of ecstatic wriggle. “What do you suppose? — but of course we shall never know — I dare say we’d be quite shocked — but it sounds entertaining — and they say, you know, that the cleverest stories — and Mr. Radwalader must be an adept— if only we could —!”

“For my part,” observed Madame Palffy majestically, “I have no desire to overhear anything in the nature of double entendre.”

“Oh, shade of Larousse!” murmured Mrs. Carnby into her coffee-cup. “Where did the creature learn her French? Shall we take a little walk?” she added aloud, turning to Margery.

“Why, yes — with pleasure, Mrs. Carnby,” answered the girl, with a quick start. Her eyes had been fixed upon an indistinct form beyond the window of the dining-room, which was the person of Mr. Andrew Vane.

For a few moments they trod the winding gravel path in silence. Then, as a clump of shrubbery hid the house from view, she stopped impulsively, and laid her hand on the arm of her hostess. “Fairy godmother—” she began. “Now, my dear girl,” interrupted Mrs. Carnby, “don’t say anything you’ll be sorry for afterwards. I’m a very vain, weak, silly, gossipy old woman — but I am a woman, Margery, and that means that I often see things I’m not meant to see, and which I wish I hadn’t. Don’t give me your confidence just because you feel that I may have guessed—”

“I know you’ve guessed, Mrs. Carnby!” broke in Margery, “and, after all, it’s just as well, because I must speak to some one. I feel, somehow, as if I’d lost my way, and I think I’m a little frightened. I’ve always been very sure of myself till now, very confident of my ability to judge what was the right thing to do, and to get on without advice. But now — it’s different. I’m unhappy.”

Mrs. Carnby slid her arm across the girl’s shoulders.

“Go on, my dear,” she said. “I didn’t mean that I wasn’t willing to listen — only that I wouldn’t like to feel that I was surprising your confidence.”

“First of all,” said Margery, “and in spite of everybody’s kindness to me, I’m afraid I hate this new life, which is so different from everything I’ve learned to know and love. I hate all this pretence and posing which we’re carrying on, day after day, among people who smirk before our faces and ridicule us behind our backs; and I’m coming to hate myself worst of all. I want my life to be better than that of a butterfly among a lot of wasps! In America I hadn’t time to stop and think whether I was happy or not, and I’ve read somewhere that that is just what true happiness means. Everything was very natural and simple over there. I used to wake up wanting to sing, and life seemed to begin all over again every morning. And then, without the least warning, came to me — what you’ve guessed, you know. I was sure of it at once. There was nothing said, but one feels such things, don’t you think? — feels them coming, just as one feels the dawn sometimes, even while it’s still quite dark? I had a little hint or two — just enough to make me confident and happier than ever. I knew there were reasons for his not speaking: I guessed at his grandfather, and a very little thought showed me that it could do no harm to wait. I wanted him to be sure, just as sure as I was. I was even content to come away and leave him. I knew, you see, and I saw it was only a question of time. I never doubted for a moment how it would end, and so I wasn’t the least bit surprised when he came through the salon door, that Sunday in Paris. I thought — I was sure he’d come for me. I could have shouted, I was so happy, Mrs. Carnby! I had to turn away and pretend to be admiring some roses, I remember, because I felt that I was smiling — no, grinning — and just at nothing! Well—”

She paused, with a catch in her throat, and then went on determinedly.

“I’ve — I’ve been waiting ever since. We’re good friends, almost too good friends, but there’s something missing, something gone. I’m afraid you’ll hardly understand me if I say that ever since last summer in Beverly I’ve felt that he belonged to me — all of him — every bit. Now — well, I can’t feel that way any longer. It is just as if I were sharing him with somebody or something, and not getting the better or even the larger part. I’ve heard — well, you know how gossip goes! I’ve heard that there was another girl. He’s been seen with her, often and often. People might have spared me, if they’d known: but of course they didn’t; and so I’ve picked up fragments and fragments of talk, and every one has cut me like a knife. In the midst of all this, he came to me and asked me — no! he asked me nothing, but I knew what he meant. I put him off. I felt that I must have time to think. But the moment for decision has come. He may ask me again at any time. What shall I say? Fairy godmother, what shall I say? I want to trust him! I want to stake my confidence in him against all the gossip in the world. And yet if he’s only asking me because he thinks I expect it, if he really doesn’t want me—”

“He does want you!” said Mrs. Carnby. “I could shake you, Margery. You’re so far off the track, and at the same time you make it so hard to show you why. Let me see.”

She hesitated, biting her lips.

“Look here,” she continued suddenly. “Suppose you had a baby brother, for example, and you loved him better than all the world, and you knew that, in his baby way, he felt the same love for you, and you should carry him, all of a jump, into the next room, and plant him down in front of a ten-foot Christmas-tree, all blazing with candles and glass balls and whatchercallems — cornucopias — would you be surprised if he hadn’t any use for you for at least an hour? No, you wouldn’t — not a bit of it! You’d think it quite natural. Well, there you are! You are yourself, and baby brother’s Andrew Vane, and the Christmas tree’s Paris: and you’ll just have to wait, that’s all, till he’s through blinking and sucking his thumb!”

“Oh, Mrs. Carnby!” said Margery, laughing in spite of herself. “Can’t you see that, much as I am afraid of Paris for my own sake, I’m more afraid of it for his?”

“My dear,” said Mrs. Carnby, with a change of tone, “nowadays one’s forced to take rather a liberal view of things. There are only a few delusions left, and love’s not one of them — more’s the pity! The best flowers, Margery — and I grant you love is one of the very best — are brought to perfection by methods which it’s not always pleasant to follow in detail. There’s a deal of hacking and pruning and fertilizing and cross-breeding with ignobler growths to be gone through with before one obtains a satisfactory result. It’s like the most inviting dishes served up by one’s chef: if we had the dangerous curiosity to pry into all the stages of their preparation, I doubt if very many of them would stand the test and prove so tempting, after all. That’s the way with a man. When he brings us his love, we have to accept it, without inquiring too closely how it has come to be. You won’t think me vain if I say all men can’t be Jeremy Carnbys? When they know how to love, more often than not it’s because they’ve learned; and as to how they learned, it’s for our own good not to be too inquisitive. Usually, my dear, it means another woman, and not a woman one would be apt to call upon, at that.”

“Mrs. Carnby!”

“Yes. Don’t be provincial, Margery. I’ve no patience with the whitewash business. It’s better at all times to look things squarely in the face, even if doing so makes — er — your eyes water! There’s hardly a woman happily married to-day who hasn’t been preceded, and rather profitably preceded, I venture to say, by another woman — and not a very good woman either. She’s there in the background, but we have to ignore her, and by the time we notice her at all it’s more than likely she has ceased to be important. She’s been the method of preparing the dish, that’s all, the fertilizer which has made the rose of love possible. She has taught the man what neither you nor any girl in the least like you could teach him — the things which are not worth while! We get the better part. She has burned up the chaff. We get the wheat.”

Margery had tightly locked her hands.

“Fairy godmother,” she said, “you don’t want me to believe that, do you? You don’t want me to be only the whim of a man’s changed fancy, the thing on which he practises all he has learned from — from—”

“I would to Heaven I could make a man fit for you!” answered Mrs. Carnby, drawing the girl close to her, “but, since I can’t do that, I want you to see things in their true light, and to learn that charity begins in the same place which is called a woman’s sphere, and that love, from her standpoint, is little more than forgiveness on the endless instalment plan!”

“But Andrew—” said Margery eagerly.

“Andrew Vane is only a man,” said Mrs. Carnby sententiously. “He can’t be made out a seraph even by the fact that you — er—”

“Love him,” supplemented the girl brokenly. “I see what you mean. I would have given anything in the world to have saved him from this, and — it’s too late, already.”

“Nothing of the sort!” exclaimed Mrs. Carnby. “Now’s the time when he needs you most. If you couldn’t win him away from any woman that ever lived, good or bad, you wouldn’t be Margery Palffy! Bless me! I must be getting back to the others, my dear. Now don’t take this too much to heart. It’s all coming out right in the end. These things are only temporary, at worst. Be brave, Margery.”

“Oh — brave!” answered Margery, flinging up her chin. “Yes, I shall be that. Don’t fear but that I shall know how to handle the situation now. And — thank you, fairy godmother. I’ll wait here a few minutes, if you don’t mind, and just — think!”

As she walked toward the villa again, Mrs. Carnby compressed her lips.

“Now there’s a deal of common sense in that girl,” she said to herself. “She must have inherited it from her grandparents!”

But, with all her shrewdness, she had never more hopelessly complicated a situation

For a time Margery lingered, compelled by the need of reflection and the beauty of the night. All about her the blue-black darkness, eloquent with the breath of the roses and the fluting of the now-emboldened nightingale, sighed and turned in its sleep, as if it dreamed of pleasant things. Paris, with its frivolities, its sins, its sorrows, and its snares, was like some uneasy, half-forgotten dream. The brand had touched the girl, but as yet it had no more than stung, it had not seared. The sword quivered, but the thread yet held. The merciful garment of the calm, sweet night yet smothered, like sleep before awakening, the bitterness of full reality. The moment was one of those oases in the desert of disillusion which, with the crystal clamour of falling water, the cool shade of wide-spread foliage, and the odour of fresh, moist earth, alone make tolerable the journey of the caravan.

So it was that Margery was able to speak naturally, with the knowledge of having herself well in hand, as a step crunched on the gravel near by, and Andrew flung his cigarette upon the path, where it spawned in a quantity of tiny points of light, which gloomed immediately into nothingness.

“How extravagant you are! Surely you must know by this time that I don’t mind smoke in the least. I was just about to go in.”

“Not yet for a moment, please,” said Andrew. “Let’s come into this little arbour. There’s something I want to say.”

He pointed, as he spoke, to a small marble-columned seat in the shrubbery, buried under a great hood of climbing rose-vines in full bloom. For an instant only the girl hesitated. Then she led the way resolutely, gathering her light shawl more closely about her shoulders, with something like a shiver, despite the warmth of the still June evening. For a little they sat in silence. When Andrew spoke, it was with an abruptness which told of embarrassment.

“You remember, perhaps, what you said to me the other day in Paris — about fighting a good fight, and keeping the faith? Will you tell me just what you meant by that? It’s been haunting me, lately. When you said that the influence of Paris made you afraid for those — for those for whom you might care, did you mean — me?”

He laid his hand on hers, as he asked the question, but she drew away slightly, and he straightened himself again, with a little puzzled frown.

“Please don’t ask me to answer that,” she said, after a moment. “Whatever I meant, it can make no difference now.”

“No difference, Margery? Do you want me to understand that you were not in earnest — that you really didn’t care?”

“I haven’t said that,” answered the girl wearily. “I said it could make no difference now, now that the mischief’s done.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand you,” said Andrew slowly.

“Oh, pray don’t let’s discuss it. I’ve no right to question you.”

“No right?”

“No right at all, and, as a matter of fact, when I said that I didn’t mean to. Perhaps I was thinking of you, in part. I’m sorry I presumed. Only one doesn’t like to see one’s friends make fools of themselves — and that’s what most men do in Paris, isn’t it? Never mind. It’s like our golf at Beverly. I prefer to have you play the game, and keep your own tally.”

“The game?” demanded Andrew. “What game? What do you mean?”

“Oh, the game that all men play — the game in which we have no part, of which we must not even speak or hear, we women who respect ourselves. Don’t let’s talk of it. We’re supposed to be friends, and for that reason I’ll overlook what you don’t absolutely force me to see. That’s my part, isn’t it? — to pretend I don’t understand, even when I do? And I do — I do! I’m not cynical, but neither am I a fool. I’ve lived in Paris only a little while, but long enough to know that when one says ‘boys will be boys’ it sometimes means — oh, more than putty-blowers, and coming indoors with wet feet, and pulling out the parrot’s tail-feathers!”

She stopped abruptly, with a perception that she was overdoing her assumption of unconcern, that she was talking wildly, that her voice had taken on an unnatural strain.

“I don’t understand you in the least,” said Andrew deliberately, “or at least I’m sure that what you seem to be saying isn’t what you really mean. I can’t believe that after all that has been — after all I have hoped was going to be — why, Margery, I came out here — no, I came all the way from America, to ask you—”

“Don’t!”

Margery had risen with the word, and now, leaning against one of the marble columns of the little arbour, was looking away into the gloom.

“I want to believe in you,” she added. “Leave me that, at least. Play the game, Andy — play the game!”

“The game — the game — the game!” exclaimed Andrew. “What is all this you’re saying, Margery? What are you accusing me of? Is it possible you don’t know I love you — that I’ve always loved you, ever since first I saw you? I’d have asked you long ago, at Beverly, but my grandfather begged me, almost commanded me, to wait. We were both so young. He wanted me to make sure. And, although I knew that I should never change, I felt he was right. I wanted you to have your chance, to come out, to see a little bit of life, before I tried to bind you to any promise. And when I heard that you were not coming back to America this year, that you had come out, and were the beauty and the belle of the Colony here, I knew that it was time to make a try for you, unless I was to lose you forever. So I came over here to tell you this — to ask you to marry me. And now — in Heaven’s name; what is it, Margery? What has changed you? What do you mean by all this? If there is anything I can explain—”

The girl turned to him, with a little, piteous gesture.

“Have I asked you for an explanation?” she said. “Do I need one — since I know? You say you’d have asked me long ago. Well, then, I ask you — why didn’t you? Why didn’t you ask me before it was too late? Why didn’t you ask me while yet you had something to offer me which I could have accepted gratefully — your innocence, your purity, the best of all that was in you, and to which I had a right, do you hear? — a right! Why didn’t you speak then, before you’d thrown all these away, sold your birthright, and become like all the rest? Do you come to me now — now, with another woman’s kisses on your lips, and God only knows what of the impurity she has taught you in your heart? Do you come to me like that, and expect me to welcome you, to accept the fact that I am your second choice after a woman whose name you would not mention to me—”

“Margery — Margery!”

“Do you deny it? Do you deny that you were with her — when? — yesterday? Oh, be true at least to one thing, whatever it be — if not to the faith you owed me, if all you’ve been telling me is true, then to the woman you’ve preferred before me — to your mistress, to your mistress, Andrew Vane!”

Andrew fell back a step, putting up his hands as if to ward off a blow.

“It was for this,” he faltered, “that you told me to come here — to ask you anything I chose?”

“You know better than that!” said Margery firmly.

“Then Mrs. Carnby has been telling you—”

“Mrs. Carnby has told me nothing except what I knew — or, rather, tried not to know — before. It isn’t from her I learned. The truth has come to me bit by bit, and I’ve fought against it as it came, trying to believe in you to the very last.”

“And you think—”

“Yes — yes! I think — I know! How quick you were to refer to Mrs. Carnby! She knows, of course — everybody knows — even I! Well, I don’t want to criticise you or blame you. You’ve forced me into it by making me part of all this. Now, all I ask of you is to respect me, to leave me out of what you choose to do in future, and not to mock the name of love, with this pitiful fancy for me — a fancy so trivial and so idle that it couldn’t even hold you back from transgression. I ask you to go back to her, or, if you’re tired of her already, at least not to come to me. I’m different from these other women, who can laugh at such things, and gloss them over, and forget them. I demand of the man who asks me to marry him the selfsame thing that he demands of me. I demand that he shall be pure!”

The girl’s voice broke suddenly, and she pressed her cheek against one of the marble columns of the little arbour, battling against the insistence of her tears.

“You must forgive me,” she said presently. “I have no right to speak as I have done, but — if you’ve guessed the reason, that is part of my humiliation and my shame. Will you go now? I want to be alone.”

“How can I?” said Andrew slowly. “How can I leave you, even for an hour, while you think as you do? It would mean that all was over between us forever.”

“All is over,” answered Margery, “as much over as if you or I had been dead for twenty years!”

“Listen to me!” exclaimed Andrew hotly. “And you shall have the truth, if that’s what you want. There is such a woman — yes! But she is no more a part of my life than that bird out there. She has been an incident, nothing more. You had only to ask me, and I would never have seen her again. You have only to ask me now—”

“Ah, stop!” broke in Margery. “Don’t make me despise you!”

“Margery!”

He had stumbled forward blindly into this abortive explanation, remembering for the moment nothing but his own knowledge of the truth. Now, as she checked him, a sickening sense of what his words must signify to her swept down upon him, and he covered his face with his hands.

“I don’t know how to put it,” he murmured. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You have said quite enough,” replied Margery. Her voice was quite cool, quite steady now. “I have asked you once to leave me. Will you please go now — at once?”

Andrew dropped his hands, and searched her face with his eyes. There was no trace in it of any emotion beyond a slight contempt.

“Do you mean,” he asked, “that this is the end?”

“The end?” she repeated. “The end — er — of what?”

With that he left her.