McClure's Magazine/Volume 38/Number 4/Alexander's Masquerade
“ALEXANDER SWITCHED ON THE LIGHTS AND STOOD IN THE ARCHWAY, GLOWING WITH STRENGTH AND CORDIALITY”
by Willa Sibert Cather
Author of “The Troll-Garden,” “On the Gulls' Road,” etc.
Illustration by F. Graham Cootes
LATE one brilliant April afternoon Professor Lucius Wilson stood at the head of Chestnut Street, looking about him with the pleased air of a man of taste who does not very often get to Boston. He had lived there as a student, but for twenty years and more, since he had been Professor of Philosophy in a Western university, he had seldom come East except to take a steamer for some foreign port. Wilson was standing quite still, contemplating with a whimsical smile the slanting, worn street, with its irregular, gravely colored houses and the row of naked gray trees on which the thin sunlight was still shining. The gleam of the river at the foot of the hill made him blink a little, not so much because it was too bright as because he found it so pleasant. The few passers-by glanced at him unconcernedly, and even the children who hurried along with their school-bags under their arms seemed to find it perfectly natural that a tall brown gentleman should be standing there, looking up through his glasses at the gray housetops.
The sun sank rapidly; the silvery light had faded from the bare boughs and the watery twilight was setting in when Wilson at last walked down the hill, descending into cooler and cooler depths of grayish shadow. His nostril, long unused to it, was quick to detect the smell of wood smoke in the air, blended with the odor of moist spring earth and the saltiness that came up the river with the tide. He crossed Charles Street between jangling street cars and shelving lumber drays, and after a moment of uncertainty wound into Brimmer Street. The street was quiet, deserted, and hung with a thin bluish haze. He had already fixed his sharp eye upon the house which he reasoned should be his objective point, when he noticed a woman approaching rapidly from the opposite direction. Always an interested observer of women, Wilson would have slackened his pace anywhere to follow this one with his impersonal, appreciative glance. She was a person of distinction he saw at once, and, moreover, very handsome. She was tall, carried her beautiful head proudly, and moved with ease and certainty. One immediately took for granted the costly privileges and fine spaces that must lie in the background from which such a figure could emerge with this rapid and elegant gait. Wilson noted her dress, too,—for, in his way, he had an eye for such things,—particularly her brown furs and her hat. He got a blurred impression of her fine color, the violets she wore, her white gloves, and, curiously enough, of her veil, as she turned up a flight of steps in front of him and disappeared.
Wilson was able to enjoy lovely things that passed him on the wing, as completely and deliberately as if they had been dug-up marvels, long anticipated, and definitely fixed at the end of a railway journey. For a few pleasurable seconds he quite forgot where he was going, and only after the door had closed behind her did he realize that the young woman had entered the house to which he had directed his trunk from the South Station that morning. He hesitated a moment before mounting the steps. “Can that,” he murmured in amazement, “can that possibly have been Mrs. Alexander?”
When the servant admitted him, Mrs. Alexander was still standing in the hallway. She heard him give his name, and came forward, holding out her hand.
“Is it you indeed, Professor Wilson? I was afraid that you might get here before I did. I was detained at a concert, and Bartley telephoned that he would be late. Thomas will show you your room. Had you rather have your tea brought to you there, or will you have it down here with me while we wait for Bartley?”
Wilson was pleased to find that he had been the cause of her rapid walk, and with her he was even more vastly pleased than before. He followed her through the drawing-room into the library, where the wide back windows looked out upon the garden and the sunset and a fine stretch of silver-colored river. A harp-shaped elm stood stripped against the pale-colored evening sky, with ragged last year's birds' nests in its forks, and through the bare branches the evening star quivered in the misty air. The long brown room breathed the peace of a rich and amply guarded quiet. Tea was brought in immediately and placed in front of the wood fire. Mrs. Alexander sat down in a high-backed chair and began to pour it, while Wilson sank into a low seat opposite her and took his cup with a great sense of ease and harmony and comfort.
“You have had a long journey, haven't you?” said Mrs. Alexander, after showing gracious concern about his tea. “And I am so sorry Bartley is late. He's apt to be tired when he's late. He flatters himself that it is a little on his account that you have come to this Congress of Psychologists.”
“It is,” Wilson assented, selecting his muffin carefully, “and I hope he won't be tired. But, on my own account, I'm glad to have a few moments alone with you, before Bartley comes. I was somehow afraid that my knowing him so well would not put me in the way of getting to know you.”
“That's very nice of you.” She nodded at him above her cup and smiled, but there was a little formal tightness in her tone which had not been there when she greeted him in the hall.
Wilson leaned forward. “Have I said something awkward? I live very far out of the world, you know. But I didn't mean that you would exactly fade dim, even if Bartley were here.”
Mrs. Alexander laughed relentingly. “Oh, I'm not so vain! How terribly discerning you are.” She looked straight at Wilson, and he felt that this quick, frank glance brought about an understanding between them.
He liked everything about her, he told himself, but he particularly liked her eyes; when she looked at one directly for a moment they were like a glimpse of fine windy sky that may bring all sorts of weather.
“Since you noticed something,” Mrs. Alexander went on, “it must have been a flash of the distrust I have come to feel whenever I meet people who knew Bartley when he was a boy. It is always as if they were talking of some one I had never met. Really, Professor Wilson, it would seem that he grew up among the strangest people. They usually say that he has turned out very well, or remark that he always was a fine fellow. I never know what reply to make.”
Wilson chuckled and leaned back in his chair, shaking his left foot gently. “I expect the fact is that we none of us knew him very well, Mrs. Alexander. Though I will say for myself that I was always confident he'd do something extraordinary.”
Mrs. Alexander's shoulders gave a slight movement, suggestive of impatience. “Oh, I should think that might have been a safe prediction. Another cup, please?”
“Yes, thank you. But predicting, in the case of boys, is not so easy as you might imagine, Mrs. Alexander. Some get a bad hurt early and lose their courage; and some never get a fair wind. Bartley”—he dropped his chin on the back of his long hand and looked at her admiringly—“Bartley caught the wind early, and it has sung in his sails ever since.”
Mrs. Alexander sat looking into the fire with intent preoccupation, and Wilson studied her half-averted face. He liked the suggestion of stormy possibilities in the proud curve of her lip and nostril. Without that, he reflected, she would be too cold.
“I should like to know what he was really like when he was a boy. I don't believe he remembers,” she said suddenly. “Won't you smoke, Professor?”
Wilson lit a cigarette. “No, I don't suppose he does. He was never introspective. He was simply the most tremendous response to stimuli I have ever known. We didn't know exactly what to do with him.”
A servant came in and noiselessly removed the tea-tray. Mrs. Alexander screened her face from the firelight, which was beginning to throw wavering bright spots on her dress and hair as the dusk deepened. “Of course,” she said, “I now and again hear stories about things that happened when he was in college.”
“But that isn't what you want.” Wilson wrinkled his brows and looked at her with the smiling familiarity that had come about so quickly. “What you want is a picture of him, standing back there at the other end of twenty years. You want to look down through my memory.”
She dropped her hands in her lap. “Yes, yes; that's exactly what I want.”
At this moment they heard the front door shut with a jar, and Wilson laughed as Mrs. Alexander rose quickly. “There he is. Away with perspective! No past, no future for Bartley; just the fiery moment. The only moment that ever was or will be in the world!”
The door from the hall opened, a voice called “Winifred?” hurriedly, and a big man came through the drawing-room with a quick, heavy tread, bringing with him a smell of cigar smoke and chill out-of-doors air. When Alexander reached the library door, he switched on the lights and stood six feet and more in the archway, glowing with strength and cordiality and rugged, blond good looks. There were other bridge-builders in the world, certainly, but it was always Alexander's picture that the Sunday Supplement men wanted, because he looked as a tamer of rivers ought to look. Under his tumbled sandy hair his head seemed as hard and powerful as a catapult, and his shoulders looked strong enough in themselves to support a span of any one of his ten great bridges that cut the air above as many rivers.
After dinner Alexander took Wilson up to his study. It was a large room over the library, and looked out upon the black river and the row of white lights along the Cambridge Embankment. The room was not at all what one might expect of an engineer's study. Wilson felt at once the harmony of beautiful things that have lived long together without obtrusions of ugliness or change. It was none of Alexander's doing, of course; those warm consonances of color had been blending and mellowing before he was born. But the wonder was that he was not out of place there—that it all seemed to glow like the inevitable background for his vigor and vehemence. He sat before the fire, his shoulders deep in the cushions of his chair, his powerful head upright, his hair rumpled above his broad forehead. He sat heavily, a cigar in his large, smooth hand, a flush of after-dinner color in his face, which wind and sun and exposure to all sorts of weather had left fair and clear-skinned.
“You are off for England on Saturday, Bartley, Mrs. Alexander tells me.”
“Yes, for a few weeks only. There's a meeting of British engineers, and I'm doing another bridge in Canada, you know.”
“Oh, every one knows about that. And it was in Canada that you met your wife, wasn't it?”
“Yes, at Allway. She was visiting her great-aunt there. A most remarkable old lady. I was working with MacKeller then, an old Scotch engineer who had picked me up in London and taken me back to Quebec with him. He had the contract for the Allway Bridge, but before he began work on it he found out that he was going to die, and he advised the committee to turn the job over to me. Otherwise I'd never have got anything good so early. MacKeller was an old friend of Mrs. Pemberton, Winifred's aunt. He had mentioned me to her, so when I went to Allway she asked me to come to see her. She was a wonderful old lady.”
“Like her niece?” Wilson queried.
Bartley laughed. “She had been very handsome, but not in Winifred's way. When I knew her she was little and fragile, very pink and white, with a splendid head and a face like fine old lace, somehow—but perhaps I always think of that because she wore a lace scarf on her hair. She had such a flavor of life about her. She had known Gordon and Livingstone and Beaconsfield when she was young—every one. She was the first woman of that sort I'd ever known. You know how it is in the West—old people are poked out of the way. Aunt Eleanor fascinated me as few young women have ever done. I used to go up from the works to have tea with her, and sit talking to her for hours. It was very stimulating, for she couldn't tolerate stupidity.”
“That must have been when your luck began, Bartley,” said Wilson, flicking his cigar ash with his long finger. “It's curious, watching boys,” he went on reflectively. “I'm sure I did you justice on the side of ability. Yet I always used to feel that there was a weak spot where some day strain would tell. Even after you began to climb, I stood down in the crowd and watched you with—well, not with confidence. The more dazzling the front you presented, the higher your façade rose, the more I expected to see a big crack zigzagging from top to bottom,”—he indicated its course in the air with his forefinger,—“then a crash and clouds of dust. It was curious. I had such a clear picture of it. And another curious thing, Bartley,”—Wilson spoke with deliberateness and settled deeper into his chair,—“is that I don't feel it any longer. I am sure of you.”
Alexander laughed. “Nonsense! It's not I you feel sure of; it's Winifred. People often make that mistake.”
“No, I'm serious, Alexander. You've changed. You have decided to leave some birds in the bushes. You used to want them all.”
Alexander's chair creaked. “I still want a good many,” he said rather gloomily. “After all, life doesn't offer a man much. You work like the devil and think you're getting on, and suddenly you discover that you've only been getting yourself tied up. A million details swallow you. Your life keeps going for things you don't want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don't care arap about. I sometimes wonder what sort of chap I'd have been if I hadn't been this sort; I want to go and live out his potentialities, too. I haven't forgotten that there are birds in the bushes.” Bartley stopped and sat frowning into the fire, his shoulders thrust forward as if he were about to spring at something. Wilson watched him, wondering. His old pupil always stimulated him at first, and then vastly wearied him. The machinery was always pounding away in this man, and Wilson preferred companions of a more reflective habit of mind. He could not help feeling that there were unreasoning and unreasonable activities going on in Alexander all the while; that even after dinner, when most men achieve a decent impersonality, Bartley had merely closed the door of the engine-room and come up for an airing. The machinery itself was still pounding on.
Bartley's abstraction and Wilson's reflections were cut short by a rustle at the door, and almost before they could rise Mrs. Alexander was standing by the hearth. Alexander brought a chair for her, but she shook her head.
“No, dear, thank you. I only came in to see whether you and Professor Wilson were quite comfortable. I am going down to the music-room.”
“Why not practise here? Wilson and I are growing very dull. We are tired of talk.”
“Yes, I beg you, Mrs. Alexander,” Wilson began, but he got no further.
“Why, certainly, if you won't find me too noisy. I am working on the Schumann 'Carnival,' and, though I don't practise a great many hours, I am very methodical,” Mrs. Alexander explained, as she crossed to an upright piano that stood at the back of the room, near the windows. Wilson followed, and, having seen her seated, dropped into a chair behind her. She played brilliantly and with great musical feeling. Wilson could not imagine her permitting herself to do anything badly, but he was surprised at the cleanness of her execution. He wondered how a woman with so many duties had managed to keep herself up to a standard really professional. It must take a great deal of time, certainly, and Bartley must take a great deal of time. Wilson reflected that he had never before known a woman who had been able, for any considerable while, to support both a personal and an intellectual passion. Sitting behind her, he watched her with perplexed admiration, shading his eyes with his hand. In her dinner-dress she looked even younger than in street-clothes, and, for all her composure and self-sufficiency, she seemed to him strangely alert and vibrating, as if in her, too, there were something never altogether at rest. He felt that he knew pretty much what she demanded in people and what she demanded from life, and he wondered how she squared Bartley. After ten years she must know him; and however one took him, however much one admired him, one had to admit that he simply wouldn't square. He was a natural force, certainly, but beyond that, Wilson felt, he was not anything very really or for very long at a time.
Wilson glanced toward the fire, where Bartley's profile was still wreathed in smoke that curled up more and more slowly. His shoulders were sunk deep in the cushions and one hand hung large and passive over the arm of his chair. He had slipped on a purple velvet smoking-coat. His wife, Wilson surmised, had chosen it. She was clearly very proud of his good looks and his fine color. But, with the glow of an immediate interest gone out of it, the engineer's face looked tired, even a little haggard. The three lines in his forehead, directly above the nose, deepened as he sat thinking, and his powerful head drooped forward heavily. Although Alexander was only forty-three, Wilson thought that beneath his vigorous color he detected the dulling weariness of oncoming middle age.
The next afternoon, at the hour when the river was beginning to redden under the declining sun, Wilson again found himself facing Mrs. Alexander at the tea-table in the library.
“Well,” he remarked, when he was bidden to give an account of himself, “there was a long morning with the psychologists, luncheon with Bartley at his club, more psychologists, and here I am. I've looked forward to this hour all day.”
Mrs. Alexander smiled at him across the vapor from the kettle. “And do you remember where we stopped yesterday?”
“Perfectly. I was going to show you a picture. But I doubt whether I have color enough in me. Bartley makes me feel a faded monochrome. You can't get at the young Bartley except by means of color.” Wilson paused and deliberated. Suddenly he broke out: “He wasn't a remarkable student, you know, though he was always strong in higher mathematics. His work in my own department was quite ordinary. It was as a powerfully equipped nature that I found him interesting. That is the most interesting thing a teacher can find. It has the fascination of a scientific discovery. We come across other pleasing and endearing qualities so much oftener than we find force.”
“And, after all,” said Mrs. Alexander, “that is the thing we all live upon. It is the thing that takes us forward.'” Wilson thought she spoke a little wistfully.
“Exactly,” he assented warmly. “It builds the bridges into the future, over which the feet of every one of us will go.”
“How interested I am to hear you put it in that way. The bridges into the future—I often say that to myself. Bartley's bridges always seem to me like that. Have you ever seen his first suspension bridge in Canada, the one he was doing when I first knew him? I hope you will see it sometime. We were married as soon as it was finished, and you will laugh when I tell you that it always has a rather bridal look to me. It is over the wildest river, with mists and clouds always battling about it, and it is as delicate as a cobweb hanging in the sky. It really was a bridge into the future. You have only to look at it to feel that it meant the beginning of a great career. But I have a photograph of it here.” She drew a portfolio from behind a bookcase. “And there, you see, on the hill, is my aunt's house.”
Wilson took up the photograph. “Bartley was telling me something about your aunt last night. She must have been a delightful person.”
Winifred laughed. “The bridge, you see, was just at the foot of the hill, and the noise of the engines annoyed her very much at first. But after she met Bartley she pretended to like it, and said it was a good thing to be reminded that there were things going on in the world. She loved life, and Bartley brought a great deal of it in to her when he came to the house. Aunt Eleanor was very worldly in a frank, early-Victorian manner. She liked men of action and disliked young men who were careful of themselves and who, as she put it, were always trimming their wick as if they were afraid of their oil giving out. MacKeller, Bartley's first chief, was an old friend of my aunt, and he told her that Bartley was a wild, ill-governed youth, which really pleased her very much. I remember we were sitting alone in the dusk after Bartley had been there for the first time. I knew that Aunt Eleanor had found him much to her taste, but she hadn't said anything. Presently she came out, with a chuckle: 'MacKeller found him sowing wild oats in London, I believe. I hope he didn't stop him too soon. Life coquets with dashing fellows. The coming men are always like that. We must have him to dinner, my dear.' And we did. She grew to be much fonder of Bartley than she was of me. I had been studying in Vienna, and she thought that absurd. She was interested in the army and in politics, and she had a great contempt for music and art and philosophy. She used to declare that the Prince Consort had brought all that stuff over out of Germany. She always sniffed when Bartley asked me to play for him. She considered that a newfangled way of making a match of it.”
When Alexander came in a few moments later, he found Wilson and his wife still confronting the photograph. “Oh, let us get that out of the way,” he said, laughing. “Winifred, Thomas can bring my trunk down. I've decided to go over to New York to-morrow night and take a fast boat. I shall save two days.”
On the night of his arrival in London, Bartley went immediately to the hotel on the Embankment at which he always stopped, and in the lobby he was accosted by an old acquaintance, Maurice Mainhall, who fell upon him with effusive cordiality and indicated a willingness to dine with him. Bartley never dined alone if he could help it, and Mainhall was a good gossip who always knew what had been going on in town; especially, he knew everything that was not printed in the newspapers. The nephew of one of the standard Victorian novelists, Mainhall bobbed about among the various literary cliques of London and its outlying suburbs, careful to lose touch with none of them. He had written a number of books himself, among them a “History of Dancing,” a “History of Costume,” a “Key to Shakespeare's Sonnets,” a “Study of the Poetry of Ernest Dowson,” etc. Although Mainhall's enthusiasm was often tiresome, and although he was often unable to distinguish between facts and the vivid figments of his imagination, his imperturbable good nature overcame even the people whom he bored most, so that they ended by becoming, in a reluctant manner, his friends. In appearance Mainhall was astonishingly like the conventional stage Englishman of American drama: tall, thin, stooped, with high, hitching shoulders and a small head glistening with closely brushed yellow hair. He spoke with an extreme Oxford accent, and, when he was talking well, his face sometimes wore the rapt expression of a very emotional man listening to music. Mainhall liked Alexander because he was an engineer. He had preconceived ideas about everything, and his idea about Americans was that they should be engineers or mechanics. He hated them when they presumed to be anything else.
While they sat at dinner Mainhall acquainted Bartley with the fortunes of his old friends in London, and as they left the table he proposed that they should go to see Hugh MacConnell's new comedy, “Bog Lights.”
“It's really quite the best thing MacConnell's done,” he explained as they got into a hansom. “It's tremendously well put on, too. Florence Merrill and Cyril Henderson. But Hilda Burgoyne's the hit of the piece. Hugh's written a delightful part for her, and she's quite inexpressible. It's been on only two weeks, and I've been half a dozen times already. I happen to have MacConnell's box for to-night or there'd be no chance of our getting places. There's everything in seeing Hilda while she's fresh in a part. She's apt to grow a bit stale after a time. The ones who have any imagination do.”
“Hilda Burgoyne!” Alexander exclaimed mildly. “Why, I haven't heard of her for—years.”
Mainhall laughed. “Then you can't have heard much at all, my dear Alexander. It's only lately, since MacConnell and his set have got hold of her, that she's come up. Myself, I always knew she had it in her. If we had one real critic in London—but what can one expect? Do you know, Alexander,”—Mainhall looked with perplexity up into the top of the hansom and rubbed his pink cheek with his gloved finger,—“do you know, I sometimes think of taking to criticism seriously myself. In a way, it would be a sacrifice; but, dear me, we do need some one.”
Just then they drove up to the Duke of York's, so Alexander did not commit himself upon this point, but followed Mainhall into the theater. When they entered the stage-box on the left the first act was well under way, the scene being the interior of a cabin in the south of Ireland. As they sat down, a burst of applause drew Alexander's attention to the stage. Miss Burgoyne and her donkey were thrusting their heads in at the half door. “After all,” he reflected, “there's small probability of her recognizing me. She doubtless hasn't thought of me for years.” He felt the enthusiasm of the house at once, and in a few moments he was caught up by the current of MacConnell's irresistible comedy. The audience had come forewarned, evidently, and whenever the ragged slip of a donkey-girl ran upon the stage there was a deep murmur of approbation, every one smiled and glowed, and Mainhall hitched his heavy chair a little nearer the brass railing.
“You see,” he murmured in Alexander's ear, as the curtain fell on the first act, “one almost never sees a part like that done without smartness or mawkishness. Of course Hilda is Irish—the Burgoynes have been stage people for generations—and she has the Irish voice. It's delightful to hear it in a London theater. That laugh, now, when she doubles over at the hips—who ever heard it out of Galway? She saves her hand, too. She's at her best in the second act. She's really MacConnell's poetic motif, you see, and she makes the whole thing a fairy tale.”
The second act opened before Philly Doyle's underground still, with Peggy and her battered donkey come in to smuggle a load of potheen across the bog, and to bring Philly word of what was doing in the world without, and of what was happening along the roadsides and ditches with the first gleam of fine weather. Alexander, annoyed by Mainhall's sighs and exclamations, watched her with keen, half-skeptical interest. As Mainhall had said, she was the second act; the plot and feeling alike depended upon her lightness of foot, her lightness of touch, upon the shrewdness and daft fancifulness that played alternately, and sometimes together, in her mirthful brown eyes. When she began to dance, by way of showing the gossoons what she had seen in the fairy-rings at night, the house broke into a prolonged uproar. After her dance she withdrew from the dialogue and retreated to the ditch wall back of Philly's burrow, where she sat singing “The Rising of the Moon” and making a wreath of primroses for her donkey.
When the act was over Alexander and Mainhall strolled out into the corridor. They met a good many acquaintances; Mainhall, indeed, knew almost every one, and he babbled on incontinently, screwing his small head about over his high collar. Presently he hailed a tall, bearded man, grim-browed and rather battered-looking, who had his opera-cloak on his arm and his hat in his hand, and who seemed to be on the point of leaving the theater.
“I say, MacConnell, let me introduce Mr. Bartley Alexander. It's going famously to-night, Mac. And what a house! You'll never do anything like this again, mark me. A man writes to the top of his bent only once.”
The playwright gave Mainhall a curious look out of his deep-set faded eyes and made a wry face. “And have I done anything so fool as that, now?” he asked.
“That's what I was saying,”—Mainhall lounged a little nearer and dropped into a tone even more conspicuously confidential. “And you'll never bring Hilda out like this again. Dear me, Mac, the girl couldn't possibly be better, you know.”
MacConnell grunted. “She'll do well enough if she keeps her pace and doesn't go off on us in the middle of the season, as she's more than like to do.” He nodded curtly and made for the door, dodging acquaintances as he went.
“Poor old Hugh,” Mainhall murmured. “He's terribly hard hit. He's been wanting to marry Hilda these three years and more. She doesn't take up with anybody, you know. Irene Burgoyne, one of her family, told me in confidence that there was a romance somewhere back in the beginning. One of your countrymen, Alexander, by the way; an American student whom she met in Paris, I believe. I dare say it's quite true there's never been any one else.” Mainhall vouched for her constancy with a loftiness that made Alexander smile, though a kind of rapid excitement was tingling through him. Blinking up at the lights, Mainhall added in his luxurious, worldly way: “She's an elegant little person, and quite capable of an extravagant bit of sentiment like that. Here comes Sir Harry Towne. He's another who's quite upset about her. Let me introduce you. Sir Harry Towne, Mr. Bartley Alexander, the American engineer.”
Sir Harry Towne bowed gravely and mentioned having met Mr. Alexander and his charming wife in Tokyo. But Mainhall was averse to general topics of conversation.
“I say, Sir Harry, the little girl's going famously to-night, isn't she?”
Sir Harry wrinkled his brows judiciously. “Do you know, I thought the dance a bit conscious to-night, for the first time. The fact is, she's feeling rather seedy, poor child. Westmere and I were back after the first act, and we thought she seemed quite uncertain of herself. A little attack of nerves, possibly.”
He bowed as the warning bell rang, and Mainhall whispered: “You know Lord Westmere, of course—the stooped man with the long gray mustache, talking to Lady Dowle. Lady Westmere is very fond of Hilda.”
When they reached their box the house was darkened and the orchestra was playing “The Cloak of Old Gaul.” In a moment Peggy was on the stage again, and Alexander applauded vigorously with the rest. He even leaned forward over the rail a little. For some reason he felt pleased and flattered by the enthusiasm of the audience. In the half-light he looked about at the stalls and boxes and smiled a little consciously, recalling with amusement Sir Harry's judicial frown. He was beginning to feel a keen interest in the slender, barefoot donkey-girl who slipped in and out of the play, singing, like some one winding through a hilly field. He leaned forward and beamed felicitations as warmly as Mainhall himself when, at the end of the play, she came again and again before the curtain, panting a little and flushed, her eyes dancing and her eager, nervous little mouth tremulous with excitement.
When Alexander returned to his hotel—he shook Mainhall at the door of the theater—he had some supper brought up to his room, and it was late before he went to bed. He had not thought of Hilda Burgoyne for years; indeed, he had almost forgotten her. He had last written to her from Canada, after he first met Winifred, telling her that everything was changed with him—that he had met a woman whom he would marry if he could; if he could not, then everything was changed for him all the more. Hilda had never replied to his letter. He felt guilty and unhappy about her for a time, but after Winifred promised to marry him he really forgot Hilda altogether. When he wrote her that everything was changed for him, he was telling the truth. After he met Winifred Pemberton he seemed to himself like a different man. One night when he and Winifred were sitting together on the bridge, he told her that things had happened while he was studying abroad that he was sorry for,—one thing in particular,—and he asked her whether she thought she ought to know about them. She considered a moment and then said: “No, I think not, though I am glad you ask me. You see, one can't be jealous about things in general; but about particular, definite, personal things,”—here she had thrown her hands up to his shoulders with a quick, impulsive gesture,—“oh, about those I should be very jealous. I should torture myself—I couldn't help it.” After that it was easy to forget, actually to forget. He wondered to-night, as he poured his wine, how many times he had thought of Hilda in the last ten years. He had been in London more or less, but he had never happened to hear of her. “All the same,” he lifted his glass, “here's to you, little Hilda. You've made things come your way, and I never thought you'd do it.
“Of course,” he reflected, “she always had that combination of something homely and sensible and something utterly wild and daft. But I never thought she'd do anything. She hadn't much ambition then, and she was too fond of trifles. She must care about the theater a great deal more than she used to. Perhaps she has me to thank for something, after all. Sometimes a little jolt like that does one good. She was a daft, generous little thing. I'm glad she's held her own since. After all, we were awfully young. It was youth and poverty and proximity, and everything was young and kindly. I shouldn't wonder if she could laugh with me about it now. I shouldn't wonder—— But they've probably spoiled her, so that she'd be tiresome if one met her.” Bartley smiled and yawned and went to bed.
Next evening Alexander dined alone at a club, and at about nine o'clock he dropped in at the Duke of York's. The house was sold out and he stood through the second act. When he returned to his hotel he examined the new directory, and found Miss Burgoyne's address still given as off Bedford Square, though at a new number. He remembered that, in so far as she had been brought up at all, she had been brought up in Bloomsbury. Her father and mother played in the provinces most of the year, and she was left a great deal in the care of an old aunt who was crippled by rheumatism and who had had to leave the stage altogether. When he knew her, Hilda always managed to have a lodging of some sort about Bedford Square, because she clung tenaciously to such scraps and shreds of memories as were connected with it. The mummy room of the British Museum had been one of the chief delights of her childhood. That forbidding pile was the goal of her truant fancy, and she was sometimes taken there for a treat, as other children are taken to the theater. It was long since Alexander had thought of any of these things, but now they came back to him quite fresh, and had a significance they did not have when they were first told him in his restless twenties. So she was still in the old neighborhood, near Bedford Square. The new number probably meant increased prosperity. He hoped so. He would like to know that she was snugly settled. He looked at his watch. It was a quarter past ten; she would not be home for a good two hours yet, and he might as well walk over and have a look at the place. He remembered the shortest way.
It was a warm, smoky evening, and there was a grimy moon. He went through Covent Garden to Oxford Street, and as he turned into Museum Street he walked more slowly, smiling at his own nervousness as he approached the sullen gray mass at the end. He had not been inside the Museum, actually, since he and Hilda used to meet there; sometimes to set out for gay adventures at Twickenham or Richmond, sometimes to linger about the place for a while and to ponder by Lord Elgin's marbles upon the lastingness of some things, or, in the mummy room, upon the awful brevity of others. Since then Bartley had always thought of the British Museum as the ultimate repository of mortality, where all the dead things in the world were assembled to make one's hour of youth the more precious. One trembled lest before he got out it might somehow escape him, lest he might drop the glass from over-eagerness and see it shivered on the stone floor at his feet. How one hid his youth under his coat and hugged it! And how good it was to turn one's back upon all that vaulted cold and to take Hilda's arm and hurry out of the great door and down the steps through the sunlight and the pigeons—to know that the warm and vital thing within him was still there and had not been snatched away to flush Caesar's lean cheek or to feed the veins of some bearded Assyrian king. They in their day had carried the flaming liquor, but to-day was his! So the song used to run in his head those summer mornings a dozen years ago. Alexander walked by the place very quietly, as if he were afraid of waking some one.
He crossed Bedford Square and found the number he was looking for. The house, a comfortable, well-kept place enough, was dark except for the four front windows on the second floor, where a low, even light was burning behind the white muslin sash-curtains. Outside there were window-boxes, painted white and full of flowers. Bartley was making a third round of the Square when he heard the far-flung hoof- beats of a hansom-cab horse, driven rapidly. He looked at his watch, and was astonished to find that it was a few minutes after twelve. He turned and walked back along the iron railing as the cab came up to Hilda's number and stopped. The hansom must have been one that she employed regularly, for she did not stop to pay the driver. She stepped out quickly and lightly. He heard her cheerful “Good night, cabby,” as she ran up the steps and opened the door with a latch-key. In a few moments the lights flared up brightly behind the white curtains, and as he walked away he heard a window raised. But he had gone too far to look up without turning round. He went back to his hotel feeling that he had had a good evening, and he slept well.
For the next few days Alexander was very busy. He took a desk in the office of a Scotch engineering firm on Henrietta Street, and was at work almost constantly. He avoided the clubs and usually dined alone at his hotel. One afternoon, after he had had his tea, he started for a walk down the Embankment toward Westminster, intending to end his stroll at Bedford Square and to ask whether Miss Burgoyne would let him take her to the theater. But he did not go so far. When he reached the Abbey, he turned back and crossed Westminster Bridge and sat down to watch the trails of smoke behind the Houses of Parliament catch fire with the sunset. The slender towers were washed by a rain of golden light and licked by little flickering flames; Somerset House and the bleached gray pinnacles about Whitehall were floated in a luminous haze. The yellow light poured through the trees and the leaves seemed to burn with soft fires. There was a smell of acacias in the air everywhere, and the laburnums were dripping gold over the walls of the gardens. It was a sweet, lonely kind of summer evening. Remembering Hilda as she used to be, was more restful than seeing her as she might be now—and, after all, Alexander asked himself, what was it but his own young years that he was remembering?
He crossed back to Westminster, went up to the Temple, and sat down to smoke in the Middle Temple gardens, listening to the thin voice of the fountain and smelling the spice of the sycamores that came out heavily in the damp air of the evening. He thought, as he sat there, about a great many things: about his own youth and Hilda's; above all, he thought of how glorious it was, and how quickly it had passed; and, when it had passed, how little worth while anything was. None of the things he had gained in the least compensated. In the last six years his reputation had become, as the saying is, popular. Four years ago he had been called to Japan to deliver, at the Emperor's request, a course of lectures at the Imperial University, and had instituted reforms not only in the practice of bridge-building but in drainage and road-making throughout the islands. On his return he had undertaken the bridge at Moorlock, in Canada, the most important piece of bridge-building going on in the world—a test, indeed, of how far the latest practice in bridge structure could be carried. It was a spectacular undertaking by reason of its very size, and Bartley realized that, whatever else he might do, he would probably always be known as the engineer who designed the great Moorlock Bridge, the longest cantilever in existence. Yet it was to him the least satisfactory thing he had ever done. He was cramped in every way by a niggardly commission, and was using lighter structural material than he thought proper. He had vexations enough, too, with his work at home. He had several bridges under way in the United States, and they were always being held up by strikes and delays resulting from a general industrial unrest.
Though Alexander often told himself he had never put more into his work than he had done in the last few years, he had to admit that he had never got so little out of it. He was paying for success, too, in the demands made on his time by boards of civic enterprise and committees of public welfare. His wife's fortune and position had always made distracting complications for a man who followed his exacting profession, and he was expected to be interested in a great many worthy endeavors on her account as well as on his own. His existence was becoming a network of great and little details. He had expected that success would bring him freedom and power; but it had brought only power that was in itself another kind of restraint. He had always meant to keep his personal liberty at all costs, as old MacKeller, his first chief, had done, and not, like so many American engineers, to become a part of a professional movement, a cautious board member, a Nestor de pontibus. He happened to be engaged in work of public utility, but he was not willing to become what is called a public man. He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape. What, he asked himself, did he want with these genial honors and substantial comforts? Hardships and difficulties he had carried lightly; overwork had not exhausted him; but this dead calm of middle life which confronted him—of that he was afraid. He was not ready for it. It was like being buried alive. In his youth he would not have thought such a thing possible. The one thing he had really wanted all his life was to be free; and there was still something unconquered in him, something besides the strong work-horse that his profession had made of him. He seemed to-night to have found again that unstultified survival; and, in the light of his experience, it was more precious than honors or achievement. In all those busy, successful years there was nothing so good as this hour of wild light-heartedness. This feeling was the only happiness that was real to him, and such hours were the only ones in which he could feel his own identity—feel the boy he had been in the rough days of the old West, feel the youth who had worked his way across the ocean on a cattle-ship and gone to study in Paris without a dollar in his pocket. The man who sat in his offices in Boston was only a powerful machine. Under the activities of that machine the person whom, at such moments as this, he felt to be himself, was fading and dying. He remembered how, when he was a little boy and his father called him in the mornning, he used to leap from his bed into the full consciousness of himself. That consciousness was Life itself. Whatever took its place, action, reflection, the power of concentrated thought, were only functions of a mechanism useful to society; things that could be bought in the market. There was just one thing that had an absolute value for each individual, and it was just that original impulse, that internal heat, that feeling of one's self in one's own breast.
When Alexander walked back to his hotel, the red and green lights were blinking along the docks on the farther shore, and the soft white stars were shining in the wide sky above the river.
The next night, and the next, Alexander repeated this same foolish performance. It was always Miss Burgoyne whom he started out to find, and he got no farther than the Temple gardens and the Embankment. It was a pleasant kind of loneliness. To a man who was so little given to reflection, whose dreams always took the form of definite ideas, reaching into the future, there was a seductive excitement in renewing old experiences in imagination. He started out upon these walks half guiltily, with a curious longing and expectancy which were wholly gratified by solitude. Solitude, but not solitariness; for he walked shoulder to shoulder with a shadowy companion—not little Hilda Burgoyne, by any means, but some one vastly dearer to him than she had ever been—his own young self, the youth who had waited for him upon the steps of the British Museum that night, and who, though he had tried to pass so quietly, had known him and come down and linked an arm in his.
It was not until long afterward that Alexander learned that for him this youth was the most dangerous of companions.
One Sunday evening, at Lady Walford's, Alexander did at last meet Hilda Burgoyne. Mainhall had told him that she would probably be there. He looked about for her rather nervously, and finally found her at the farther end of the large drawing-room, the center of a circle of men, young and old. She was apparently telling them a story. They were all laughing and bending toward her. When she saw Alexander, she rose quickly and put out her hand. The other men drew back a little to let him approach.
“Mr. Alexander! I am delighted. Have you been in London long?”
Bartley bowed, somewhat laboriously, over her hand. “Long enough to have seen you more than once. How fine it all is!”
She laughed as if she were pleased. “I'm glad you think so. I like it. Won't you join us here?”
“Miss Burgoyne was just telling us about a donkey-boy she had in Galway last summer,” Sir Harry Towne explained as the circle closed up again. Lord Westmere stroked his long white mustache with his bloodless hand and looked at Alexander blankly. Hilda was a good story-teller. She was sitting on the edge of her chair, as if she had alighted there for a moment only. Her primrose satin gown seemed like a soft sheath for her slender, supple figure, and its delicate color suited her white Irish skin and brown hair. Whatever she wore, people felt the charm of her active, girlish body with its slender hips and quick, eager shoulders. Alexander heard but little of the story, but he watched her intently. She must certainly, he reflected, be thirty, and he was honestly delighted to see that the years had treated her so indulgently. If her face had changed at all, it was in a slight hardening of the mouth—still eager enough to be very disconcerting at times, he felt—and in an added air of self-possession and self-reliance. She carried her head, too, a little more resolutely.
When the story was finished, Miss Burgoyne turned pointedly to Alexander, and the other men drifted away.
“T thought I saw you in MacConnell's box with Mainhall one evening, but I supposed you had left town before this.” She looked at him frankly and cordially, as if he were indeed merely an old friend whom she was glad to meet again.
“No, I've been mooning about here.”
Hilda laughed gaily. “Mooning! I see you mooning! You must be the busiest man in the world. Time and success have done well by you, you know. You're handsomer than ever and you've gained a grand manner.”
Alexander blushed and bowed. “Time and success have been good friends to both of us. Aren't you tremendously pleased with yourself?”
She laughed again and shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, so-so But I want to hear about you. Several years ago I read such a lot in the papers about the wonderful things you did in Japan, and how the Emperor decorated you. What was it, Commander of the Order of the Rising Sun? That sounds like 'The Mikado.' And what about your new bridge—in Canada, isn't it, and it's to be the longest in the world and has some queer name I can't remember.”
Bartley shook his head and smiled drolly. “Since when have you been interested in bridges? Or have you learned to be interested in everything? And is that a part of success?”
“Why, how absurd! As if I were not always interested!” Hilda exclaimed indignantly.
“Well, I think we won't talk about bridges here, at any rate.” Bartley looked down at the toe of her yellow slipper which was tapping the rug impatiently under the hem of her gown. “But I wonder whether you'd think me impertinent if I asked you to let me come to see you sometime and tell you about them?”
“Why should I? Ever so many people come on Sunday afternoons.”
“I know. Mainhall offered to take me. But you must know that I've been in London several times within the last few years, and you might very well think that just now is a rather inopportune time——”
She cut him short. “Nonsense. One of the pleasantest things about success is that it makes people want to look one up, if that's what you mean. I'm like every one else—more agreeable to meet when things are going well with me. Don't you suppose it gives me any pleasure to do something that people like?”
“Does it? Oh, how fine it all is, your coming on like this! But I didn't want you to think it was because of that I wanted to see you.” He spoke very seriously and looked down at the floor.
Hilda studied him in wide-eyed astonishment for a moment, and then broke into a low, amused laugh. “My dear Mr. Alexander, you have strange delicacies. If you please, that is exactly why you wish to see me. We understand that, do we not?”
Bartley looked ruffled and turned the seal-ring on his little finger about awkwardly. Hilda leaned back in her chair, watching him indulgently out of her shrewd eyes. “Come, don't be angry, but don't try to pose for me, or to be anything but what you are. If you care to come, it's yourself I'll be glad to see, and you thinking well of yourself. Don't try to wear a cloak of humility; it doesn't become you. Stalk in as you are and don't make excuses. I'm not accustomed to inquiring into the motives of my guests. That would hardly be safe, even for Lady Walford in a great house like this.”
“Sunday afternoon, then,” said Alexander, as she rose to join her hostess. “How early may I come?”
“I'm at home after four, and I'll be glad to see you, Bartley.” She gave him her hand and flushed and laughed. He bent over it a little stiffly. She went away on Lady Walford's arm, and as he stood watching her yellow train glide down the long floor he felt rather sullen and got the better of.