"One touch of nature"

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By Edward S. Van Zile

SHE was so heartily weary of it all! Often, during the triumphant years following the historic furor that she had created as a débutante the small hours had found her physically exhausted by the strain that is part of the price paid by a woman, in these mad days, for social success. "There is no royal road to pleasure," she had reflected again and again, after she had dismissed her maid and sat waiting in her boudoir for sleep to tempt her toward her bedroom. But heretofore there had been nothing of protest in her musings, nothing of revolt against the exactions made by what the work-a-day world erroneously calls a life of leisure. At two o'clock in the morning she had felt, many a time, a bodily lassitude that was not wholly unpleasant, a physical depression that had been frequently accompanied by great mental exhilaration. After her marriage, even more than before it, there had been keen delight in recalling, in the silence and privacy of her lonely apartments, the social victories that the day's campaign had vouchsafed to her. The tribute to her beauty that a man had paid by word or glance, the homage to her leadership that a woman had reluctantly displayed, a whisper of admiration caught from the throng, an invitation extended to her that offered a promise of further triumphs; these had been among the mental confections on which her mind had been wont to feast in the small hours.

But to-night, to her amazement and disquietude, she had found that she was not merely weary in body, but depressed in spirit. She had caught a glimpse of a gleaming planet in the Winter sky, as she had rolled homeward at the end of the first half of the cotillion, and, somehow, there had flashed into her soul a revelation that was both hideous and fascinating. The cosmic method of comparison had of a sudden conflicted with her perfect egotism, and the steady, mocking glare of that remote, glowing world—Jupiter or Saturn or Venus, or some other planetary marvel—had seemed to bring to her reluctant comprehension the astounding pettiness and insignificance of her own achievements, hopes, fears, ambitions, aspirations, regrets. Then she had laughed aloud, drawing back from the window of the coupé and readjusting her opera-cloak about her shoulders. She would start a new fad! What the inner circle needed to regain its sanity and poise was a novel point of view. The study of astronomy would restore society to a more reasonable attitude toward the cosmos. How ludicrous it was for a few lucky people to imagine that the centre of gravity of the universe was to be found this morning at Sherry's! Ash Wednesday was at hand. She would give a series of illustrated astronomical lectures in her drawing-room presently, as a kind of Lenten antidote to the abnormal egotism of metropolitan society.

As she sat, en négligé, beside a table covered with novels and magazines, outstretched in graceful relaxation upon a reclining chair, she smiled wearily at the absurd fancies that a fleeting glimpse of stellar splendor had begotten. She wondered vaguely if her husband had returned from his club. What would he think of her quixotic plan to restore society to a less self-satisfied, self-assertive frame of mind? She could recall the time when he had not been indifferent to her mental vagaries, unsympathetic, remote; when such fancies as had come to her to-night would have awakened his keenest interest. But despite many mental and temperamental affinities, they had drifted apart; well-mated, so far as the world could see, but living separate existences that came together only on the surface. If they had had children, would it not have all been very different? He had longed, she knew, for fatherhood, and there had been times when she had felt a vague misgiving, a faint suspicion that she had sacrificed their truest happiness upon the altar of ambition. But does not the nursery render the kind of social supremacy that she had won an impossibility? Surely.

Of what avail were these morbid musings? She would read for a while, and then sleep until ten. A day of great activity confronted her, for Lent was close at hand. Presently, to her mingled surprise and satisfaction, she found herself absorbed in a magazine story, a homely tale told in the dialect of the New England fisher-folk, a patois that came to her like the echo of a Summer breeze playing across a tumbling sea. With delicate art the writer had awakened her interest at the outset in the woman who sat at midnight beside the cradle of her sick child, listening for the footsteps of a belated fisherman. Would the baby live until her husband's return? Would he ever come back to her? Since sunset the storm had raged, and even now the winds were growing wilder as the breathing of the child waxed louder, and the sea and the sick one tossed ever more restlessly upon their respective beds. The mother prayed, more reproachfully than pleadingly, that God would not take them both from her, her child and her man; would not abandon her in this the hour of her sorest need.

The very simplicity of the motif, threadbare from its long literary service, had saved it from failure in the hands of a master craftsman. The element of suspense had been well maintained. Here sat a mondaine, sated with the luxuries and triumphs of an exalted social career, but with her vanity still unsatisfied, following with utter self-forgetfulness the struggle of a humble woman's soul to find God in the darkness of despair, to discover a gleam of hope in the blackness of impending doom. There was no hysteria, no striving after lurid effects in this realistic tale of human love and sorrow. The simple remedies that were the fisherwoman's only weapons in her fight against death for the possession of her child, the howling of the wind outside the cottage, the broken words of supplication and endearment that fell from her white lips, the baby's flushed face, with the tousled yellow hair against the rumpled pillow, the mother's straining eyes as she turned them from the bed to gaze at the outer door, while she listened for a heavy tread that should overcome the raucous uproar of the tempest—all these the reader saw and heard, forgetful, for the moment, of aught else but the great, universal mother-love that stirred within her world-weary soul.

And when he came—the fisherman saved from the perils of the deep—came with cheer and hope in his bronzed face and husky voice, and the child, roused by his presence, looked up at him and smiled, the crisis of the fever safely passed, there were tears in eyes that the world, despite their beauty, had called cold; new lines of softness around a mouth that, with all its voluptuous symmetry, had been growing hard of late.

She closed the magazine and replaced it by the night-lamp upon the table beside her. There had come a flush to her wan cheeks, and her eyes were no longer heavy from lack of sleep. For a time she sat there, gazing dreamily at the shadows that haunted the hangings at the further end of the room. Presently she arose, brushing the hair, that her maid had released, back from her forehead with a hand that trembled slightly. She stood for a moment before a full-length mirror, rejoicing in the beauty of the picture that it framed. "The child had its mother's face." A half-mocking smile came to her lips as she recalled those words of the tale that she had read, but there was no mockery in her eyes as they met her own gaze in the glass.

Turning from the mirror she crossed the room hurriedly toward the hall door, as one who doubted her own stability of purpose. The hall, dimly lighted, seemed to check her steps for a moment as she stood motionless upon the threshold of her room, gazing into its shadow-filled depths. She could hear the ticking of a tall clock, the strange sighs and creakings that always beset a great house in the darker hours. Then, quickly, noiselessly, one slender hand pressed against her throbbing heart, she sped down the corridor and rapped gently at her husband's door.


His voice came to her through the darkness:

"Elinor! What is it? Are you——?"

"I am very lonely, Arthur," she murmured, her arms about his neck, her lips close to his. Then she drew away from him for a moment.

"I have been reading a story, Arthur. It is a wonderful bit of work. I want your opinion of it."

"What? now? to-night?" he asked, a note of amazement echoing through his voice.

"No, my dear; not to-night; to-morrow will do," she replied. But again her arms wreathed his neck, and gently, tenderly, her lips sought his.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1931, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.