The Golden Slipper/Chapter 9
"IT has been too much for you?"
"I am afraid so."
It was Roger Upjohn who had asked the question; it was Violet who answered. They had withdrawn from a crowd of dancers to a balcony, half-shaded, half open to the moon,—a balcony made, it would seem, for just such stolen interviews between waltzes.
Now, as it happened, Roger's face was in the shadow, but Violet's in the full light. Very sweet it looked, very ethereal, but also a little wan. He noticed this and impetuously cried:
"You are pale; and your hand! see, how it trembles!"
Slowly withdrawing it from the rail where it had rested, she sent one quick glance his way and, in a low voice, said:
"I have not slept since that night."
"Four days!" he murmured. Then, after a moment of silence, "You bore yourself so bravely at the time, I thought, or rather, I hoped, that success had made you forget the horror. I could not have slept myself, if I had known——"
"It is part of the price I pay," she broke in gently. "All good things have to be paid for. But I see—I realize that you do not consider what I am doing good. Though it helps other people—has helped you—you wonder why, with all the advantages I possess, I should meddle with matters so repugnant to a woman's natural instincts."
Yes, he wondered. That was evident from his silence. Seeing her as she stood there, so quaintly pretty, so feminine in look and manner—in short, such a flower—it was but natural that he should marvel at the incongruity she had mentioned.
"It has a strange, odd look," she admitted, after a moment of troubled hesitation. "The most considerate person cannot but regard it as a display of egotism or of a most mercenary spirit. The cheque you sent me for what I was enabled to do for you in Massachusetts (the only one I have ever received which I have been tempted to refuse) shows to what extent you rated my help and my—my expectations. Had I been a poor girl struggling for subsistence, this generosity would have warmed my heart as a token of your desire to cut that struggle short. But taken with your knowledge of my home and its luxuries, it has often made me wonder what you thought."
"Shall I tell you?"
He had stepped forward at this question and his countenance, hitherto concealed, became visible in the moonlight. She no longer recognized it. Transformed by feeling, it shone down upon her, instinct with all that is finest and best in masculine nature. Was she ready for this revelation of what she had nevertheless dreamed of for many more nights than four? She did not know, and instinctively drew herself back till it was she who now stood in the semi-obscurity made by the drooping vines. From this retreat, she faltered forth a very tremulous No, which in another moment was disavowed by a Yes so faint it was little more than a murmur, followed by a still fainter, Tell me.
But he did not seem in any haste to obey, sweetly as her low-toned injunction must have sounded in his ears. On the contrary, he hesitated to speak, growing paler every minute as he sought to catch a glimpse of her downcast face so tantalizingly hidden from him. Did she recognize the nature of the feelings which held him back, or was she simply gathering up sufficient courage to plead her own cause? Whatever her reason, it was she, not he, who presently spoke saying as if no time had elapsed:
"But first, I feel obliged to admit that it was money I wanted, that I had to have. Not for myself. I lack nothing and could have more if I wished. Father has never limited his generosity in any matter affecting myself, but—" She drew a deep breath and, coming out of the shadow, lifted a face to him so changed from its usual expression as to make him start. "I have a cause at heart—one which should appeal to my father and does not; and for that purpose I have sacrificed myself, in many ways, though—though I have not disliked my work up to this last attempt. Not really. I want to be honest and so must admit that much. I have even gloried (quietly and all by myself, of course) over the solution of a mystery which no one else seemed able to penetrate. I am made that way. I have known it ever since—but that is a story all by itself. Some day I may tell it to you, but not now."
"No, not now." The emphasis sent the colour into her cheek but did not relieve his pallor. "Miss Strange, I have always felt, even in my worst days, that the man who for selfish ends brought a woman under the shadow of his own unhappy reputation was a man to be despised. And I think so still, and yet—and yet—nothing in the world but your own word or look can hold me back now from telling you that I love you—love you notwithstanding my unworthy past, my scarring memories, my all but blasted hopes. I do not expect any response; you are young; you are beautiful; you are gifted with every grace; but to speak,—to say over and over again, 'I love you, I love you!' eases my heart and makes my future more endurable. Oh, do not look at me like that unless—unless——"
But the bright head did not fall, nor the tender gaze falter; and driven out of himself, Roger Upjohn was about to step passionately forward, when, seized by fresh compunction, he hoarsely cried:
"It is not right. The balance dips too much my way. You bring me everything. I can give you nothing but what you already possess abundance—love, and money. Besides, your father——"
She interrupted him with a glance at once arch and earnest.
"I had a talk with Father this morning. He came to my room, and—and it was very near being serious. Someone had told him I was doing things on the sly which he had better look into; and of course he asked questions and—and I answered them. He wasn't pleased—in fact he was very displeased,—I don't think we can blame him for that—but we had no open break for I love him dearly, for all my opposing ways, and he saw that, and it helped, though he did say after I had given my promise to stop where I was and never to take up such work again, that—" here she stole a shy look at the face bent so eagerly towards her—"that I had lost my social status and need never hope now for the attentions of—of—well, of such men as he admires and puts faith in. So you see," her dimples all showing, "that I am not such a very good match for an Upjohn of Massachusetts, even if he has a reputation to recover and an honourable name to achieve. The scale hangs more evenly than you think."
A mutual look, a moment of perfect silence, then a low whisper, airy as the breath of flowers rising from the garden below: "I have never known what happiness was till this moment. If you will take me with my story untold——"
"Take you! take you!" The man's whole yearning heart, the loss and bitterness of years, the hope and promise of the future, all spoke in that low, half-smothered exclamation. Violet's blushes faded under its fervency, and only her spirit spoke, as leaning towards him, she laid her two hands in his, and said with all a woman's earnestness:
"I do not forget little Roger, or the father who I hope may have many more days before him in which to bid good-night to the sea. Such union as ours must be hallowed, because we have so many persons to make happy besides ourselves."
The evening before their marriage, Violet put a dozen folded sheets of closely written paper in his hand. They contained her story; let us read it with him.
I could not have been more than seven years old, when one night I woke up shivering, at the sound of angry voices. A conversation which no child should ever have heard, was going on in the room where I lay. My father was talking to my sister—perhaps, you do not know that I have a sister; few of my personal friends do,—and the terror she evinced I could well understand but not his words nor the real cause of his displeasure.
There are times even yet when the picture, forced upon my infantile consciousness at that moment of first awakening, comes back to me with all its original vividness. There was no light in the room save such as the moon made; but that was enough to reveal the passion burningly alive in either face, as, bending towards each other, she in supplication and he in a tempest of wrath which knew no bounds, he uttered and she listened to what I now know to have been a terrible arraignment.
I may have an interesting countenance; you have told me so sometimes; but she—she was beautiful. My elder by ten years, she had stood in my mother's stead to me for almost as long as I could remember, and as I saw her lovely features contorted with pain and her hands extended in a desperate plea to one who had never shown me anything but love, my throat closed sharply and I could not cry out though I wanted to, nor move head or foot though I longed with all my heart to bury myself in the pillows.
For the words I heard were terrifying, little as I comprehended their full purport. He had surprised her talking from her window to someone down below, and after saying cruel things about that, he shouted out: "You have disgraced me, you have disgraced yourself, you have disgraced your brother and your little sister. Was it not enough that you should refuse to marry the good man I had picked out for you, that you should stoop to this low-down scoundrel—this—" I did not hear what else he called him, I was wondering so to whom she had been stooping; I had never seen her stoop except to tie my little shoes.
But when she cried out as she did after an interval, "I love him! I love him!" then I listened again, for she spoke as though she were in dreadful pain, and I did not know that loving made one ill and unhappy. "And I am going to marry him," I heard her add, standing up, as she said it, very straight and tall.
Marry! I knew what that meant. A long aisle in a church; women in white and big music in the air behind. I had been flower-girl at a wedding once and had not forgotten. We had had ice cream and cake and——
But my childish thoughts stopped short at the answer she received and all the words which followed—words which burned their way into my infantile brain and left scorched places in my memory which will never be eradicated. He spoke them—spoke them all; she never answered again after that once, and when he was gone did not move for a long time and when she did it was to lie down, stiff and straight, just as she had stood, on her bed alongside mine.
I was frightened; so frightened, my little brass bed rattled under me. I wonder she did not hear it. But she heard nothing; and after awhile she was so still I fell asleep. But I woke again. Something hot had fallen on my cheek. I put up my hand to brush it away and did not know even when I felt my fingers wet that it was a tear from my sister-mother's eye.
For she was kneeling then; kneeling close beside me and her arm was over my small body; and the bed was shaking again but not this time with my tremors only. And I was sorry and cried too until I dropped off to sleep again with her arm still passionately embracing me.
In the morning, she was gone.
It must have been that very afternoon that Father came in where Arthur and I were trying to play,—trying, but not quite succeeding, for I had been telling Arthur, for whom I had a great respect in those days, what had happened the night before, and we had been wondering in our childish way if there would be a wedding after all, and a church full of people, and flowers, and kissing, and lots of good things to eat, and Arthur had said No, it was too expensive; that that was why Father was so angry; and comforted by the assertion, I was taking up my doll again, when the door opened and Father stepped in.
It was a great event—any visit from him to the nursery—and we both dropped our toys and stood staring, not knowing whether he was going to be nice and kind as he sometimes was, or scold us as I had heard him scold our beautiful sister.
Arthur showed at once what he thought, for without the least hesitation he took the one step which placed him in front of me, where he stood waiting with his two little fists hanging straight at his sides but manfully clenched in full readiness for attack. That this display of pigmy chivalry was not quite without its warrant is evident to me now, for Father did not look like himself or act like himself any more than he had the night before.
However, we had no cause for fear. Having no suspicion of my having been awake during his terrible interview with Theresa, he saw only two lonely and forsaken children, interrupted in their play.
Can I remember what he said to us? Not exactly, though Arthur and I often went over it choked whispers in some secret nook of the dreary old house; but his meaning—that we took in well enough. Theresa had left us. She would never come back. We were not to look out of the window for her, or run to the door when the bell rang. Our mother had left us too, a long time ago, and she lay in the cemetery where we sometimes carried flowers. Theresa was not in the cemetery, but we must think of her as there; though not as if she had any need of flowers. Having said this, he looked at us quietly for a minute. Arthur was trying very hard not to cry, but I was sobbing like the lost child I was, with my cheek against the floor where I had thrown myself when he said that awful thing about the cemetery. She there! my sister-mother there! I think he felt a little sorry for me; for he half stooped as if to lift me up. But he straightened again and said very sternly:
"Now, children, listen to me. When God takes people to heaven and leaves us only their cold, dead bodies we carry flowers to their graves and talk about them some if not very much. But when people die because they love dark ways better than light, then we do not remember them with gifts and we do not talk about them. Your sister's name has been spoken for the last time in this house. You, Arthur, are old enough to know what I mean when I say that I will never listen to another word about her from either you or Violet as long as you and I live. She is gone and nothing that is mine shall she ever touch again. You hear me, Arthur; you hear me, Violet. Heed me, or you go too."
His aspect was terrible, so was his purpose; much more terrible than we realized at the time with our limited understanding and experience. Later, we came to know the full meaning of this black drop which had been infused into our lives. When we saw every picture of her destroyed which had been in the house; her name cut out from the leaves of books; the little tokens she had given us surreptitiously taken away, till not a vestige of her once beloved presence remained, we began to realize that we had indeed lost her.
But children as young as we were then do not long retain the poignancy of their first griefs. Gradually my memories of that awful night ceased to disturb my dreams and I was sixteen before they were again recalled to me with any vividness, and then it was by accident. I had been strolling through a picture gallery and had stopped short to study more particularly one which had especially taken my fancy. There were two ladies sitting on a bench behind me and one of them was evidently very deaf, for their talk was loud, though I am sure they did not mean for me to hear, for they were discussing my family. That is, one of them had said:
"That's Violet Strange. She will never be the beauty her sister was; but perhaps that's not to be deplored. Theresa made a great mess of it."
"That's true. I hear that she and the Signor have been seen lately here in town. In poverty, of course. He hadn't even as much go in him as the ordinary singing-master."
I suppose I should have hurried away, and left this barbed arrow to rankle where it fell. But I could not. I had never learned a word of Theresa's fate and that word poverty, proving that she was alive and suffering, held me to my place to hear what more they might say of her who for years had been for me an indistinct figure bathed in cruel moonlight.
"I have never approved of Peter Strange's conduct at that time," one of the voices now went on. "He didn't handle her right. She had a lovely disposition and would have listened to him had he been more gentle with her. But it isn't in him. I hope this one——"
I didn't hear the end of that. I had no interest in anything they might say about myself. It was of her I wanted to hear, of her. Weren't they going to say anything more about my poor sister? Yes; it was a topic which interested both and presently I heard:
"He'll never do anything for her, no matter what happens; I've heard him say so. And Laura has vowed the same." (Laura is our aunt.) "Besides, Theresa has a pride of her own quite equal to her father's. She wouldn't take anything from him now. She'd rather struggle on. I'm told—I don't know how true it is—that she's working in a department store; one of the Sixth Avenue ones. Oh, there's Mrs. Vandegraff! Don't you want to speak to her?"
They moved off, leaving me still gazing with unseeing eyes at the picture before which I stood planted, and saying over and over in monotonous iteration, "One of the department stores in Sixth Avenue! One of the department stores in Sixth Avenue!"
Which department store?
I meant to find out.
I do not know whether up till then I had had the least consciousness of possessing what is called the detective instinct. But, at the prospect of this quest, so much like that of the proverbial needle in a haystack, as I did not even know my sister's married name and something within me forbade my asking it, I experienced an odd sense of elation followed by a certainty of success which in five minutes changed me from an irresponsible girl to a woman with a deliberate purpose in life.
I am not going to write down here all the details of that search. Some day I may relate them to you, but not now. I looked first for a beautiful woman, for the straight, slim, and exquisite creature I remembered. I did not find her. Then I tried another course. Her figure might have changed in the ten years which had elapsed; so might her expression. I would look for a woman with beautiful dark eyes; time could not have altered them. I had forgotten the effect of constant weeping. And I saw many eyes, but not hers; not the ones I had seen smiling upon me as I lay in my crib before the days I was lifted to the dignity of the little brass bed. So I gave that up too and listened to the inner voice which said, "You must wait for her to recognize you. You can never hope to recognize her." And it was by following this plan that I found her. I had arranged to have my name spoken aloud at every counter where I bargained; and oh, the bargains I sought, and the garments I had tried on! But I made little progress until one day, after my name had been uttered a little louder than usual I saw a woman turn from rearranging gowns on a hanger, and give me one look.
I uttered a low cry and sprang impetuously, forward. Instantly she turned her back and went on hanging, or trying to hang up, gowns on the rack before her. Had I been mistaken? She was not the sister of my dreams, but there was something fine in her outline; something distinguished in the way she carried her head which——
Next minute my last doubt fled! She had fallen her length on the floor and lay with her face buried in her hands in a dead faint.
Oh, Roger, Roger, Roger! I had that dear head on my breast in a moment. I talked to her, I whispered prayers in her unconscious ear. I did everything I should not have done till they all thought me demented. When she came to, as she did under other ministrations than mine, I was for carrying her off in my limousine. But she shook her head with a gesture of such disapproval, that I realized I could not do that. The limousine was my father's, and nothing of his was ever to be used for her again. I would call a cab; but she told me that she had not the money to pay for it and she would not take mine. Carfare she had; five cents would take her home. I need not worry.
She smiled as she said this and for an instant I saw my dream-sister again in this weary half-disheartened woman. But the smile was a fleeting one, for this was to be her last day in the store; she had no talent as a saleswoman and was merely working out her week.
I felt my heart sink heavily at this, for the evidences of poverty were plainly to be seen in her clothes and the thinness of her face and figure. How could I help? What could I do? I took her to a restaurant for food and talk, and before she would order, she looked into her purse, with the result that we had only a little toast and tea. It was all she could afford and I, with a hundred dollars in bills at that moment in my bag, could not offer her anything more though she was needing nourishment and dishes piled with savoury meats were going by us every moment.
I think, if she had let me, I would have dared my father's displeasure and been disobedient to his wishes by giving her one wholesome meal. But she was as resolute of mind as he, and, as she said afterwards, had chosen her course in life and must abide by it. My love she would accept. It took nothing from Father and gave her what her heart was pining for—had pined for for years. But nothing more—not another thing more. She would not even let me go home with her; and I knew why when her eyes fell at the searching look I gave her. Something would turn up, and when her husband's health was better and she had found another position she would send me her address and then I could come and see her. As we walked out of the restaurant we ran against a gentleman I knew. He stopped me for a passing word and in that minute she disappeared. I did not try to follow her. I could get her street and number from the store where she had worked.
But when I had done this and embraced the first opportunity which offered to visit her, I found that she had moved away in the interim, leaving everything behind in payment of her rent, except such small things as she and her husband could carry. This was discouraging as it left me without any clue by which to follow them. But I was determined not to yield to her desire for concealment in the difficult and disheartening task I now saw before me.
Seeking advice from the man who has since become my employer, I entered upon this second search with a quiet resolution which admitted of no defeat. It took me six months, but I finally found her, and satisfied with knowing where she was, desisted from rushing in upon her, till I had caught one glimpse of her husband whom, in the last six months, I had heard described but had never seen. To understand her, it was perhaps necessary to understand him, and if I could not hope to do this offhand, I could not fail to get some idea of the man from even the most casual look.
He was, as I soon learned, the fetcher and carrier of the small ménage; and the day came when I met him face to face in the street where they lived. Did he disappoint me; or did I see something in his appearance to justify her desertion of her father's home and her present life of poverty? If I say Yes to the first question, I must also say it to the last. If handsome once, he was not handsome now; but with a personality such as his, this did not matter. He had that better thing—that greatest gift of the gods—charm. It was in his bearing, his movement, the regard of his weary eye; more than that it was in his very nature or it would have vanished long ago under disappointment and privation.
But that was all there was to the man,—a golden net in which my sister's youthful fancy had been caught and no doubt held meshed to this very day. I felt less like blaming her for her folly, after that instant's view of him as we passed each other in the street. But, as I took time to think, I found myself growing sorrier and sorrier for her and yet, in a way, gladder and gladder, for the man was a physical wreck and would soon pass out of her life leaving her to my love and possibly to our father's forgiveness.
But I did not know Theresa. After her husband's death, which occurred very soon, she let me come to her and we had a long talk. Shall I ever forget it or the sight of her beauty in that sordid room? For, account for it as you will, the loveliness which had fled under her sense of complete isolation had slowly regained its own with the recognition that she still had a place in the heart of her little sister. Not even the sorrow she felt for the loss of her suffering husband—and she did mourn him; this I am glad to say—could more than temporarily stay this. Six months of ease and wholesome food would make her—I hardly dared to think what. For I knew, without asking her, or she telling me, that she would accept neither; that she was as determined now, as ever that nothing which came directly or indirectly from Father should go to the rebuilding of her life. That she intended to start anew and work her way up to a place where I should be glad to see her she did say. But nothing more. She was still the sister-mother, loving, but sufficient to herself, though she had but ten dollars left in the world, as she showed me with a smile that made her beautiful as an angel.
I can see that shabby little purse yet with its one poor greasy bill;—a sum to her but to me the price of a luncheon or a gift of flowers. How I longed, as I looked at it to tear every jewel from my poor, bedecked body and fling them one and all into her lap. I had worn them in profusion, though carefully hidden under my coat, in the hope that she would accept one of them at least, But she refused all, even such as had been gifts of friends and schoolmates, only humouring me this far, that she let me hang them for a few minutes about her neck and in her hair and then pull them all off again. But this one vision of her in the splendour she was born to comforted me. Henceforth in wearing them it would be of her and not of myself I should think.
Well, I had to leave her and go home to my French and Italian lessons, my music-masters and all the luxuries of our father's house. Should I ever see her again? I did not know; she had not promised. I could not go often into the quarter where she lived, without rousing suspicion; and she had bidden me not to come again for a month. So I waited, half fearing she would flit again before the month was up. But she did not. She was still there when——
But I am going too fast. The meeting I was about to mention was a very memorable one to me, and I must describe it from the beginning. I had ridden in my own car as near as I dared to the street where she lived; the rest of the way I went on foot with one of the servants—a new one—following close behind me. I was not exactly afraid, but the actions of some of the people I had encountered at my former visit warned me to be a little careful for my father's sake if not for my own. Her room—she had but one —was high up in a triangular court it was no pleasure to enter. But love and loyalty heed nothing but the object sought, and I was hunting about for the dark doorway which opened upon the staircase leading to her room when—and this was the great moment of my life—a sudden stream of melody floated down into that noisome court, which from its clearness, its accuracy, its richness, and its feeling startled me as I had never before been startled even by the first notes of the world's greatest singers. What a voice for a place like this! What a voice for any place! Whose could it be? With a start, I stopped short, in the middle of that court, heedless of the crowd of pushing, shouting children who at once gathered about me. I had been struck by an old recollection. My sister used to sing. I remembered where her piano had stood in the great drawing-room. It had been carted away during those dreadful weeks and her music all burned; but the vision of her graceful figure bending over the keyboard was one not to be forgotten even by a thoughtless child. Could it be—oh, heaven! if this voice were hers! Her future was certain; she had but to sing.
In a transport of hope I rushed for the dim entrance the children had pointed out and flew up to her room. As I reached it, I heard a trill as perfect as Tetrazzini's. The singer was Theresa; there could be no more doubt. Theresa! exercising a grand voice as only a great artist would or could.
The joy of it made me almost faint. I leaned against her door and sobbed. Then when I thought I could speak quite calmly, I went in.
Roger, you must understand me now,—my desire for money and the means I have taken to obtain it. My sister had the makings of a prima-donna. Her husband, of whose ability I had formed so low an estimate, had trained her with consummate skill and judgment. All she needed was a year with some great maestro in the foreign atmosphere of art. But this meant money—not hundreds but thousands, and the one sure source to which we might rightfully look for any such amount was effectually closed to us. It is true we had relatives—an aunt on our mother's side, and I mentioned her to Theresa. But she would not listen to the suggestion. She would take nothing from any one whom she would find it hard to face in case of failure. Love must go with an advance involving so much risk; love deep enough and strong enough to feel no loss save that of a defeated hope. In short, to be acceptable, the money must come from me, and as this was manifestly impossible, she considered the matter closed and began to talk of a position she had been offered in some choir. I let her talk, listening and not listening; for the idea had come to me that if in some way I could earn money, she might be induced to take it. Finally, I asked her. She laughed, letting her kisses answer me. But I did not laugh. If she had capabilities in one way, I had them in another.
I went home to think.
Two weeks later, I began, in a very quiet way to do certain work for the man who had helped me in my second search for Theresa. The money I have earned has been immense; since it was troubles of the rich I was given to settle, and I was almost always successful. Every cent has gone to her. She has been in Europe for a year and last week she made her début. You read about it in the papers, but neither you nor any one else in this country but myself knew that under the name she chosen to assume, Theresa Strange, the long forgotten beauty, has recovered that place in the world, to which her love and genius entitle her.
This is my story and hers. From now on, you are the third in the secret. Some day, my father will be the fourth. I think then, a new dawn of love will arise for us all, which will stay the whitening of his dear head—for I believe in him after all. Yesterday when he passed the wall where her picture once hung—no other has ever hung there—I saw him stop and look up, and, Roger, when he passed me a minute later, there was a tear in his hard eye.