Glass Houses

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Glass Houses  (1900) 
by Gelett Burgess

from Century Magazine, 1900




EVEN ties had been ruined in the knotting while Alden Brooks made himself ready for the Underhills' dinner. He had gone on abstractedly, taking another fresh tie as fast as one proved to be a hopeless failure, without realizing that the dinner-hour was dangerously near.

Whether Myrtle's photograph in the frame of the mirror, or his own image in the glass, more affected the trend of his soliloquy, it would be hard to say, but surely he thought he was thinking of Myrtle. The sight of the two faces so near together had sent him off into a reverie, however, that began and ended with the thought that she was decidedly pretty. There was no doubt whatever about that; she had, indeed, acknowledged it herself very candidly, for she had got into the way of calling the conventionally unconscious pose an affectation, and had made instead a fad of frankness.

Myrtle Leicester had, besides beauty, style and character, and at the fifth tie Alden had paused to class her mentally as between an "awfully nice girl" and a "thoroughbred," having neither the merely negative virtues of the one nor the supercivilized fiber of the other. She was the sort of girl that well became a divan and an after-dinner tête-à-tête. She was not "difficult"—that was one thing Alden thought he liked about her. She did not exhaust him in conversation, being rather a gentle tonic than a stimulant. She was agile enough, however, and always had an answer of the hit-or-miss sort ready, and she laughed merrily, if somewhat indiscriminately, at all his jokes.

They had got to be very good friends in the last few months, and had been together a great deal, indoors and out, for she was quite the sort of girl with whom a man—an Alden Brooks, at least—likes to be seen. And now he began to wonder where he was with her. The frontier between friendship and love, he thought, is a very dangerous and perplexing territory—a debatable land of ambuscades and precipices. Into this border-land he had rashly wandered, and having been unobservant of the landmarks, it had been some time before he had discovered that he was lost, and in no small danger of being surrounded by the enemy, with all escape cut off.

To put it very plainly, Alden had begun to wonder if he was in love with Myrtle Leicester. The mere fact of his wondering about it, he thought, was a symptom of the beginning of the end—a sad commentary on his inexperience. By the time he had begun on his seventh tie he had confessed that he was in danger, seeing that she was seldom out of his thoughts for many hours at a time; and yet, despite her fascination for him, there was something lacking in her that he could not, nor did he try to, formulate. If she were not so pretty, he thought, he might settle it easier; for he was not willing to admit that that was her chief attraction, yet it was by certain poses of her head that he always recalled her. He tried to analyze her charms and to think of her objectively,—rather a hard thing for an Alden Brooks to do,—but he invariably ended by deciding that he could live without her, which, he considered, was tantamount to not being in love.

He put down his brush at last, and gave the photograph a careful inspection under the gaslight. His farewell look, however, was directed toward the mirror, and was unedged with the sharp criticism of the other. "She is pretty," he admitted, and that seemed to be the only definite thing he could say on the subject.

His reverie had taken so long that he was barely on time at the Underhills', and as soon as he arrived the company was complete. After a few introductions he was taken up to Miss Ringgold, whose partnership he had been promised for dinner. He had heard of Miss Ringgold before, and he had looked forward with some little curiosity to the meeting. He had even taken the pains to buy a copy of "The Forty-Eleventh Way" the day before, and had read it with a great deal of interest and amusement, quite forgetting that his original purpose had been merely to attempt to "get at" her through her work. He had not succeeded in "getting at" her as much as he had hoped, and save the general feeling that she must be very clever, he had secured little bait for the conversational fishing that he anticipated.

Miss Ringgold was, in appearance, extremely disappointing to Alden, who, without being much too handsome a man himself, was exacting in his requirements of female loveliness. She was, in fact, painfully plain. He could see that with half a glance, and thought to himself that he should have expected it in a woman writer; but he had also to confess to himself that her face lighted up interestingly when she spoke. There was time for but little conversation till the general table-talk broke up into little dialogues, and during that interval Alden was in no very amiable mood, impolitely regretting that he had not Miss Leicester for a partner, instead of the bas bleu by his side.

Miss Ringgold, however, was of no mind to let him off from his share of the entertainment, and began a running fire of talk. She had not said half a dozen words before Alden turned and looked her full in the face with astonishment. For a moment he had fancied it was Myrtle Leicester that was speaking, and it needed a visual denial of her presence at his side to remove the impression. It was with the greatest effort that he concealed his surprise as phrase after phrase came from Miss Ringgold's lips. There was every trick of Myrtle's accent and inflection, the same little hurried gasp with which she began, the same pitch, and quality, and she even said "lenth" and "strenth"! There was something more than strange in this accidental resemblance, in that Alden discovered almost immediately that it gave him a distinctly pleasant sensation; for Miss Ringgold proved to be a very clever talker, and behind her talk he could see that she was a thinker. He had never thought of Myrtle as being a thinker, and yet it had not occurred to him to call her shallow. They were very fond of each other in a late-nineteenth-century way, and it had proved so interesting that he had never cared to go very far below that fact.

But now, to hear in Myrtle's voice replies and sallies so foreign to Myrtle's character gave him a queer feeling, the uncertainty of a masquerade. It began to amuse him hugely, and he turned the talk into the subjects he had frequently discussed with Myrtle, and he heard the most incongruous sentiments expressed with ingenuous vivacity. His double interest in sound and sense inspired him to exert himself, and he rose to the occasion. Miss Ringgold had, indeed, set a pretty swift pace, and he was forced to piece out his wit with audacity, though he found that somehow this did not serve as well as usual. Yet Miss Ringgold was not what he called difficult, though she certainly was stimulating. She treated his remarks as if he and she were mentally on an equality, and his opinions were ripped open and turned inside out in a novel way.

As they went deeper below the surface of things, the fascination of the dual personality struck Alden as one of the most subtly flavored excitements he had ever felt. He could not resist the temptation to keep his eyes averted from her as she talked, and to hold mentally the image of Myrtle Leicester before him. Every time he glanced at Miss Ringgold's face he received a shock, as if there had been a sudden and unpleasant transformation. She was, indeed, positively rather than negatively homely, and the imperfections of her face were such as almost to anger him, as if she had been wilfully guilty of them, as one makes an unpleasant face in derision.

After the ladies had left the table Alden lighted a cigar, and discovered, to his amusement, that his hand was trembling. It was, he thought, the queerest hoax that had ever been played on him. He felt as if he had seen a ghost, and he proceeded to try to reason himself out of the delusion, persuading himself that it was all imagination. It certainly could n't be as strange as he remembered it. It must be like those times when one fancies that one must have been shouting almost at the top of one's voice, and yet has been guilty of no more than an ordinary tone.

He made directly for Miss Ringgold as soon as it was possible to leave the room, anxious to have his doubts dispelled or confirmed. He found her alone, looking over some music, and at the first word, as she looked around to speak to him, the charm reasserted itself. There was no doubt about it: the resemblance to Myrtle's voice was extraordinary. But what was stranger still was to hear the things she said. "Good for you. Myrtle!" Alden found himself thinking, for Miss Ringgold did not follow his talk so much as keep ahead of it. And when, flushed with the intelligence of her appreciation, he made bold to mention his latest hobby, it gave him a little physical thrill to find her still interested. It seemed almost like skating on thin ice to speak of hyperspace to a girl,—as if it were a subject a little risqué,—for it was a forbidden topic with Myrtle; the very name bored her almost to the point of slumber. Alden had got into the way of trying not to talk with Myrtle of the subjects in which he was most interested, and to find a girl with whom he could talk about his own favorite themes would at any time have been pleasant, but now to be led on to talk verbosely of himself and his theories by Myrtle's own voice was as stimulating as it was unusual.

He left the Underhills with a sense of having been very much waked up. He thought to himself that if Miss Ringgold had only been good-looking, if she had been even fairly presentable, she would have finished his uncertainty as to his sentiment for Myrtle. He thought he understood now what it was the latter lacked. No; Myrtle certainly was not brilliant, she was all flash-in-the-pan, and he could imagine very well the way in which she would have carried the dialogue that evening, more with her eyes than with her lips. But then she would have looked perfectly stunning, he thought, in her evening gown; she would have taken no second place in that company.

Miss Ringgold, on the other hand, was one of those frankly impossible women as far as looks go, he thought. She seemed to have given herself up in despair, and to have made no attempt to improve in any way upon what little nature had given her. There were some unpleasant things about her face, which Alden knew were there, though he was too much of a gentleman to particularize. They were too definite imperfections for her smile to hide, and yet he fancied that they gave to her face a strength that Myrtle's lacked.

It was all he could do to keep from telling Myrtle of the resemblance the next time he met her, for it was uppermost in his mind all the time he was with her, and he found himself studying her very critically and comparing her with Miss Ringgold point for point. But even if the knowledge that no woman likes to be told that she resembles another had not restrained him from confiding in her, the delicate criticism of her wit that would be involved in the comparison would have prevented him from speaking of the singular rencounter. Myrtle Leicester, however, was nobody's fool, and he was surprised to find that what struck him most at this meeting was, not how much the superior Miss Ringgold was intellectually, but how much the more beautiful was Miss Leicester physically.

It is true Myrtle's shafts of wit had not the force behind them to carry them to the mark, but they were fairly well aimed. She was skilful enough to get from him, against his will, the fact that he had met the clever Miss Ringgold, and that she had made a considerable impression on him. Perhaps this was not a very difficult thing to do, after all, for Alden was not a little embarrassed by the cross-lights in which he was now forced to regard Myrtle. He could no longer treat her simply and naturally, but he was unconsciously weighing and measuring her by conflicting standards. If his situation with Miss Ringgold had been complicated, his relation toward Myrtle now was still more involved. Every remark she made was subjected by him to a mental dissection. He tried to imagine what Miss Ringgold would have said in its stead, and also how her remark would have sounded in Myrtle's voice. The same current of thought that had interested him so much at the Underhills' was now exactly reversed, and Myrtle's familiar opinions seemed incongruous even out of her own lips, for the thought of the widely different convictions Miss Ringgold would have expressed.

But his vagaries were dispelled as fast as they arose by sight of Myrtle's face. There was now small temptation to repeat his experiments at the dinner and to avoid looking at her, in order to fancy himself with Miss Ringgold. Myrtle was far too pretty for that. Indeed, the fact was rather that every time he glanced up he was relieved and delighted to find that it was Myrtle, and that Myrtle was lovely. He fell to associating, in his mind, particularly bright remarks with ugliness of feature, and if by chance Myrtle was guilty of a jest more subtle than usual, he was a little nonplussed to look up and find her face as fair as ever, and her smile as fascinating.

His habit of watching her in this way very soon developed the fact (which for some time he refused to admit, as being too surprising a complication) that there was also a certain similarity in the faces of the two girls. This was first suggested, perhaps, by the way that both used their lips more than by anything else. It was certainly not to be wondered at that if two spoke so much alike, their mouths should be somewhat the same; but at any rate he could not deny that the main lines of their faces showed the same model He was interested, too, to notice that it was particularly in those points where Miss Ringgold failed that Myrtle was most satisfactory. He almost wondered at the evenness of her white teeth, at the grace of her hair as it swept back from her neck, and at the level line of her brows. There were times when Myrtle's face, though losing none of its beauty, fell into an expression so strongly resembling one he had seen on Miss Ringgold's as to give him the sensation of a double or mixed personality as strongly as did the familiar sound of their voices.

Time, which usually dissipates resemblances and allows individuality to assert itself, did not erase the impression that the two women had first made on him. While he was with Miss Ringgold he could not help feeling how much more clever and interesting she was than Miss Leicester, and while he was with Miss Leicester he could not help comparing her beauty with Miss Ringgold's manifest inferiority in that direction. There was thus always this subtle charm about each, this queer condition superimposed upon the normal interest that each intrinsically possessed. And this condition, curiously enough, always heightened the attractiveness of the one he found himself with, so that each profited in turn by the contrast with the absent one. When he was alone, however, and compared the mental portraits of the two girls, Alden was at a loss to choose, for each had a positive charm, as well as a positive defect. He had come to think of them together whenever he thought of either at all, and his interest in both persisted vigorously. He suddenly woke up to the conviction that if he was in love, he was in love with neither one, nor with both of them, but with a composite of the two! Here was a complication unprovided for in the books of romance.

Alden Brooks was, however, a practical man. With him, to be in love—his metaphorical definition for the state now being "capture by circumvesture"—meant to be shortly married. Many a maid has thought the same. He was ripe for the sacrifice,—which aspect marriage often takes to a happy and contented man of twenty-seven, used to having his own way,—but upon which altar to prostrate himself was a delicate question. This uncertainty, however, be it understood, formed no part of his attitude en tête-à-tête. It was a symptom only of his solitary analyses and introspection, if, indeed, that may be called introspection which consists in looking inward without really seeing one's true self. When Alden was with either of the girls he was, by this time, always upon the point of making up his mind. Perhaps these complications had gradually affected his powers of estimating his altitude, so to speak,—his intensity of passion,—but he assured himself on Saturday that he was in love with Myrtle, and on Tuesday he decided that Miss Ringgold would make by far the better wife for him. She held the more delicate hold over him, a homely woman being always much more dangerous than a pretty one, on account of the additional weapons she has been forced to learn to use in self-defense (her word for rivalry), and he had invented and used fluently, without embarrassment, a pet name for her, "Fincko"—a fact which is, perhaps, as good a test as any of intimate acquaintanceship.

But with the ordinary conditions of life there was only one way for such indecision to end, and though wit may capture a man in the long chase, beauty must win in the dash, or when Fortune arranges the mise en scene. No young man is proof against a pretty girl whose hair curls in a salt breeze, whose color comes and goes rapidly, and who is game for a long walk by the shore. It was a stormy July afternoon when Alden found himself down at the Bay Beach for an over-Sunday outing and a visit with the Leicesters. There had been a wicked tumult overhead for three days, and now the surf was harrying the shore with vicious charges, the wind was loose in the west, the sky and the sea were masses of Payne's gray, and one could scarce tell which was which. It was a wild afternoon for a walk, for the wind was tearing at everything that was movable, and the spume flew with the sand, so that one had to fight for it to make any headway.

It was altogether the sort of weather for a girl like Myrtle to show at her best; for she was an outdoor creature, and the wind set her blood a-tingle. She proposed the tramp up the shore herself, and Alden, nothing loath after a muggy week in town, set out with her in high spirits. The wind had increased to a gale again, and it was all the two could do to stagger against it; but the exhilaration of the struggle and the sight of Myrtle's flagrant enthusiasm aroused all his primitive instincts. Well as he knew her, he had never seen her like this, and he felt a longing for her that seemed quite simple by comparison with his previous haggling. The foam rolled up the beach and was tossed into the air about them; the tide drove the breakers in and in, with unexpectedly violent charges upon the shore; the dunes shut off all the landscape, and the sea-view was blurred and thick with the mists. The two were alone in the storm, and fought it shoulder to shoulder.

They soon abandoned all attempt at conversation in the uproar, for the ocean boomed like an orchestra, and gave themselves up to the physical enjoyment of the gale, like two children. Myrtle's cheeks were in a fine glow with the exercise, and she bent forward, holding her hat on with one hand. As she looked up at him from under her brows, Alden caught her flashing smile, all her own now, for he could not think of Fincko with this expression of sauvagerie. Some women in the open air are really at one with nature, he thought, but others belong indoors. The efforts of their journeying seemed to him to draw them nearer together; it was all he could do himself to go freely, and he was proud of her energy and graceful strength. Even before they reached the West Cove he had made up his mind. Surely this was the girl for him; she would do him credit where another would be impossible, and fit into all his plans for the future. "My wife," he caught himself murmuring, "this is my wife!"

They made for the bath-house in the cove, and as they approached he took her hand to help her along. He kept it as they came into the lee of the building, where they could hear each other speak, and she made a small effort to withdraw it, and then abandoned it to him. They sat on the sand and were silent awhile from sheer fatigue; but Alden was well keyed up to his part, and resolved to end his doubts and suspicions, and making sure of Myrtle, make sure of himself also.

"You 're a girl after my own heart!" he said, admiring her frankly.

"Oh, no! Don't accuse me of that!" she said. This was the gage of Myrtle's subtlety; but if she always said the obvious thing, she could at least out with it so briskly that it often passed for wit, if one was not watching. Alden's eyes were, for once, too full of her to criticize.

"Seriously, Myrtle," he went on, "I feel as if we were both children again to-day, in this storm."

"Speak for yourself!" she protested.

"Indeed, that 's what I 'm going to do," he replied. "And you must listen, too. Will you promise?"

Myrtle glanced sharply at him, and saw what was coming. "Oh, dear, no!" she said quickly. "I guess we are mere children, after all, in this great, big storm, and it 's no time for grown-up discussions. Let 's just sit here and enjoy the rollers, or perhaps we 'd better be getting home. We 'll have the wind behind us, and we can simply tear back."

She rose to go, but he pulled her down, too intent upon his own mood to notice that she had given him the hint in time. "Don't go yet," he urged her; "don't go till we can go back together, hand in hand all the way! Mryrtle, I have never understood you, or loved you half as well as I have to-day, and I know I can't do without you."

"But we have hardly spoken a word. What nonsense! It 's impossible!" she said.

"Don't put me off, please; answer me now, dear," he pleaded. "Indeed, it is all true, and you must say yes." He stooped to kiss her as she looked at him with a queer look in her eyes, but she pushed him back firmly.

"No, Alden," she said slowly, submitting to the discussion he had forced on her; "no, dear. I was afraid of this, but not to-day, at such a glorious time as this, when we really are children, as you said. I have thought sometimes, when we were talking cozily at home, that you might be thinking things you should n't about me, but I am not really as clever as I know you think I am. Of course we have been awfully good chums, Alden, and all that, but I could n't marry you, dear." The strange look in her eyes still burned. She was looking across the sea as she went on, away off toward the horizon.

"But why not?" he insisted. He had nerved himself to this pitch without a thought that she too might have doubts and conflicting emotions. Indeed, he took no little credit of resolution to himself for having boldly cast Miss Ringgold out of his heart, and surrendering himself wholly and generously to Myrtle. "Why not?" he repeated weakly, for he could not quite believe her.

Myrtle had dropped his hand when he began to grow intense, but now she took it again simply. She was a young girl and a bit inexperienced, so that the situation hurt her not a little. She had not yet learned how unaccountably a man could bungle affairs of this kind, and she pitied Alden for his defeat.

"We 've been pretty good friends, Alden," she said; "and we shall be, I hope, whatever happens. But I made up my mind long ago, and if I had ever been conceited enough to suppose you could care in that way, I should have warned you. But I must marry a man who really does something, I don't exactly care what; perhaps one who writes, for instance, for I would like to help him in my way, as best I can, to accomplish something worth while with his genius; and to make a name for himself. I want to advise him and to plan with him, and to share all his work."

She had gone on, as if to herself, heedless of the irony of her words. It was an unconscious irony, and she did not feel the reflected criticism of Alden any more than did he, protected as he was by his conceit. He felt only that he had been refused, and his pride was very roughly jarred. The rest of her soliloquy only aroused his pity at her innocence.

"Surely it will always be true," he thought; "women have said, 'when I marry,' and men, 'if I marry,' since time began!"

The walk home was just a little uncomfortable for both of them; for Myrtle, because she had never refused any one before, and did n't know just how to manage it, and for Alden, who felt as if he had received a severe fall, and wanted time to feel if any bones were broken. He could conceive no adequate reason why Myrtle had rejected him, until, on thinking it over, the true significance of her words came painfully to him, and then her implied criticism of him angered him the more, because he had been too stupid to resent it at the time. He left her, feeling very uncomfortable at the change in their relations and at the childishness of her attitude.

There is nothing so sturdy as a good, healthy conceit, however, and its wounds are soon healed. Indeed, there were no bones broken. It was not two months from that day that Alden had succeeded in drowning in Miss Ringgold's society the memory of that unfortunate walk. He had soon realized how little beauty can do toward keeping a man contented, compared with the stimulus of an interesting mind. Myrtle Leicester once out of the running, he found an unalloyed delight in Fincko's society, and he indulged in it to excess. It came to the point at last when he could look her in the face without thinking of Myrtle, which, for a man of Alden Brooks's sensitive taste, meant that he was nearly "surrounded," to use his favorite metaphor. He had almost forgotten about the debatable ground until some involuntary criticism of Miss Ringgold's face came into his mind, and then finding that he forgave her misfortune very indulgently, he thought seriously that perhaps that meant that the "circumvesture" had begun, and he was to be really captured at last, falling into love.

He used to go out to her suburban place every week to discuss himself and a few other things with her, and there the end came on one starry night in September. It was too beautiful to remain indoors, so Fincko and Alden had ensconced themselves in two East Indian wicker chairs in a corner of the veranda early in the evening. The night had come on slowly and fragrantly, a night for confidences—dark and balmy, expansive, inspiring. They had talked more intimately than ever before, for Fincko was in vein—whimsical, encouraging, tactful, and sympathetic. Their conversation ranged wide, following the three main tracks of conduct, love, and religion into many confidential little byways. At last, at the mention of ideals, Alden's long indecision gave way. On such a night, with such an esprit as Fincko's, it was only a question of time, for she held all the trumps, especially when one remembers that the night was so dark that he could not see her face.

He was calm enough; for the impulse came from a long series of tiny pleasures rather than, as before, from the cogent strength of mere physical beauty, and he thought to himself that if he had not attempted to carry Myrtle by storm, with passion, it was surely unnecessary now, with the artistic and delicately refined temperament of Miss Ringgold. It was not in his philosophy that the woman who least inspires an ardent proposal often desires it most, and that nothing would suit her better than to have her calm invaded by one worthy and bold enough to break down the walls of her impersonality. He had grown more wary now, besides, and chose to feel his way.

"Do you know what my ideal of friendship is?" he asked.

"Go on," said Fincko; "there are many definitions."

"It is quite simple. A friend may attract by no matter how many charms; a friend may be beautiful, wise, witty, or good: but the sole test is the feeling that one is willing to ask any favor in the power of one's friend to grant. One would help an enemy, but one would never ask a favor of an enemy. But there are few enough that one would feel perfectly free to ask anything of."

"Indeed! then I trust you hold me as a friend," said Fincko.

"I don't quite know," Alden replied. "There is something I don't quite know that I 'd dare ask of you."

"But is n't there a difference between love and friendship?" she said. "One surely expects all that, and a great deal more besides—women do, at least."

"If one could depend on one's emotions, yes," said Alden. "But how can a man do that? If you know anything of men, you have seen how diffuse they may be, even a very decent man. I think the best of them have come to rely on instinct rather than emotion. A man may persuade himself many times that he is in love, but there is not likely to be more than one of whom he is perfectly sure he will never tire, who will exactly supplement him and help him to live his life well."

"Oh, Alden, I can't, I won't believe that," said Fincko, with a touch on his arm. "You don't understand women if you dare say that; you don't understand me, at any rate. One must have all that, but oh, so much more! I must tell you one thing that I never expected to confess to you, nor indeed to any but to one person. Some day, perhaps, I shall tell him, for I have seen the man, the only man that I could ever marry. It was more than a year ago, but I can see his face now as distinctly as I did then. You men are no judge of masculine beauty, you know. Perhaps you can judge of a girl's looks better than can her own sex. I don't quite know what 'a pretty woman' means, though I fancy you all prefer a doll; but it takes a woman to judge of men. This man is the only one that ever attracted me physically. There was everything in his face that a woman could desire if she lived five lives. He was absolutely beautiful! Don't think I 'm a fool about it, for such a face most mean something more than beauty; it means everything that I have ever longed for, and that 's what it means to be in love, is n't it, Alden?"

So, as this stone fell, the last wall of Alden Brooks's glass house of pride crashed in, and the grim humor of his own fusillade entered his unwilling mind.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1951, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 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.