The Romance at Hollywood College
THE ROMANCE AT HOLLYWOOD COLLEGE
By Anne O'Hagan
MISS TORRINGTON, on a day when wisdom had been born with great travail in her soul, had determined so to apportion the activities of her life as to leave no desire for remembrances. A strong constitution had enabled her to do this without paying for forgetfulness by physical collapse, and several generations of good breeding had saved her from the appearance of feverishness and bustle which crowded days deplorably produce in most women. At Hollywood College, to whose renown she contributed by being the earliest prophet of a certain comet, she was regarded as the luckiest possible model for the students. The quality of her mind was fine, her industry notable; moreover, she was beautiful after a rather statuesque, un-aging fashion, and her clothes and her manner had a distinction which was held to be not only worthy of emulation, but provocative of it as well. To be sure, an observer who piqued himself upon his cleverness once described her as a woman whose face was saved from acknowledged tragedy only by means as strenuous as those which save some women's from the admission of age. But for the most part the cleverness of Hollywood was not psychologic.
On this particular Thursday evening in April an unusual failure to dovetail her engagements had left Miss Torrington with an unscheduled hour upon her hands. By no chance could the Thursday evening influx of visitors begin before eight; even the most eager of freshmen had learned by April that Miss Torrington's "eight until eleven" was to be interpreted accurately. Her dinner guest had failed her and her own appetite had rebelled against more than twenty minutes at the table. She had wandered aimlessly through her small establishment—the elegance of her housekeeping on the first floor of Mrs. West's square, old, colonial house was one of the joys of Hollywood—she had retouched the flowers in the bowls of brass and iridescent glass, she had poked the aromatic wood upon the hearth, she had snuffed the candles and readjusted the curtains, until her unaccustomed fidgeting disgusted her. She had cut the pages of the new review and stared at them unseeingly. She had begun to play upon the piano, but some impish attendant of memory had made her sound the notes of a measure she had forbidden her fingers for a long time.
With a sudden gesture of determination she went into her study. She would face her situation, not try to evade it. Above the panel in the centre of her old mahogany desk there was a little illuminated text characteristic of her. "Resolve, and you are free," she read, and nodded. Nevertheless her hands shook a little as she inserted a key into one of the locked compartments. She drew forth a letter, stiff, heavy, new, unworn in its creases.
It was a proposal of marriage, dignified, honest, admiring, from the president of the big university in the State. She stared at it a long time, considering what it meant as she had half considered all day—an honest admiration, a dignified affection, an intellectual companionship stimulating and delightful, a fuller human experience than any unmarried woman might have, an existence in the aristocracy of scholarship. She held her empty hand out as though to weigh against the letter all that a refusal would mean to her. Then her eyes turned grudgingly toward a panel in her desk and dwelt for a rebellious second upon an inlaid rose that did not match the others in the border. Then she yielded and, with lips a little gray, leaned forward and pressed the rose. The secret panel that some old artificer in woods had pleased himself to make two centuries before slid back, and the past that Miss Torrington had arranged her whole life to ignore fell forward in a packet of letters and papers.
Her own picture was there, showing a face as proud as the one Hollywood knew, but brilliant with an ardor and a sweetness that the college had never seen. The man's face that had lain against it in the recess was eager, winning; the young head was poised debonairly as if its owner had set forth to conquer the world with a laugh and a lute and a rose; the eager eyes, the young mouth, smiled confidently, contagiously. She held the card away from her at arm's length and she groaned. The letters she did not touch, but some newspaper clippings she unfolded and looked at bitterly. The roughly engraved caricature of the young face looked back at her; beside it was printed a woman's, supercilious and pretty: it seemed to Miss Torrington that she could see in the reproduced photograph all the mingling of cold vanity and tempestuous impulse which made some women the inspiration of the sin and misery of the whole world.
The printed story she knew by heart—how the great Western senator had been doubly deceived by his young secretary and protégé. Oh, it was a hideous story enough of a forged signature, of a woman's shamed, hard-wrung confession of a half-guilty intrigue—ugh! Alma Torrington shook with the rage and the repulsion which had driven her nearly mad ten years before when the newspapers one morning had opened upon her unprepared eyes that tale of the treachery of the man to whom she was engaged.
She pushed the papers back into the recess and slid the panel forward; again the inlaid rose hid the record of misery and shame. She drew a sheet of her crested paper out of a pigeon-hole and began to write.
"Dear Doctor Donald." She paused to dally half shrinkingly with the notion of a more intimate beginning. Then she heard the heavy fall of the knocker against the door; she glanced at the clock—it was not yet quite eight. She turned again to her writing, but heavy steps followed the maid's light, tapping ones down the corridor. A breathless presentiment of horror came upon her, and she rose to meet whatever was to appear. The curtains slid back, the servant's voice mumbled a name and a man stood staring at her across the orderly, spacious beauty of the room—a man whose pallor was the unmistakable white of cells, whose face was deeply lined, but from whose eyes glowed some unquenchable, sullen fire of pride and resentment.
They looked at each other, and silence seemed to smother them until, with a plash like a heavy stone falling into some rippleless pool, her name fell from his lips:
Still she did not speak nor move. Then the knocker fell heavily once more and the clock began to chime the hour. She looked wildly about. A hooded cape she sometimes wore in crossing the campus lay on the sofa. She caught it, threw open the long window upon the back piazza, and made a frantic gesture toward it. And while the servant drew near to announce the first of the evening visitors, two stumbling figures fled through the soft, dark April night across the garden, through the hedge and out into the quiet village road.
There was a low stone wall about one of the great Hollywood estates on which, during the ten months of the year when the owners were testing the merits of their other residences, much of the humbler courtship of the town proceeded. Often on her late afternoon walks Miss Torrington had smiled with amused tolerance upon the couples perched along it, like birds upon a telegraph wire. Now she paused in her breathless flight at a spot where the darkness seemed densest and the equidistant arc lights only intensified the circle of blackness.
"Now tell me," she whispered fiercely as she sank upon the broad top of the wall, "tell me—why did you come?"
The hood of her cloak fell back; her lifted face shone white and wild in the darkness; the tragedy that her eyes had veiled so long stared nakedly forth in her upward look.
"I came," he answered doggedly, unemotionally, "to tell you that I never did that thing. I will not go away until you believe me. It has kept me going all these years in prison—don't shrink at the word, I've been through the thing—he thought that I should make you listen and believe. I tell you I did not do it!"
"You mean—?" Her whisper broke and floated away among the spring odors.
"I did not forge that signature. I did not do it. Do you hear me? You've got to believe me—got to! Me, mind you, and because I tell you it. Just my word you've got to take. I did not forge that signature!"
Rough, insistent, monotoned, his voice carried a fierce emotion which no vehemence could have conveyed. The tense attitude of the woman, her eyes strained upward through the darkness, suddenly relaxed.
"That!" she cried, with a gesture of repudiation, of contempt. "That! What do I care for that?"
He stared stupidly down upon her for an instant. Then, as though suddenly unnerved, he sank down beside her.
"What do you mean? What do you mean?"
"Do you suppose I believed that?" she cried. "Do you suppose I care about that? What difference—? Oh, you dull, you dull—you Man! Crime? If you had told me you were innocent, would I not have believed you? If you had told me you were guilty, would I not have striven for you, helped you, waited—saved you at last? Oh, dull, dull——"
"Then in God's name, Alma," he entreated her, "why did you make no sign? No sign, not a word, not a line, not a look! Oh, that was bitter, that was the hell of it. And I would have suffered twenty hells rather than plead with you then, rather than tell you I was innocent. You should have known it, I said, as I would have known the truth of you; and so you should have, so you should have. I—a forger? Why, why did you treat me so?"
"You seem to forget"—her voice was cold, controlled again, like the voice her idle pupils sometimes knew—"that the same paper which announced your arrest told of your—your—affair with that woman!"
It was his turn to look at her with amazement, to echo her "that!"
"That! What else? You—engaged to me, and your letters to her published there in that same paper. She your 'dear lady,' she your 'royal mistress,' she your 'madame most gracious and well beloved'—oh, did you think that I could forget that? From you? And you made no sign, gave no explanation. I dare say I might have believed you!"
"And for an idle, silly flirtation, masquerade of hearts, a flower or two, a hand pressure, a conservatory-set scene to flatter a woman's vanity—oh, have the worst! a kiss to flutter a man's pulse—for that you threw me over, let me go through that damnation without one sign? You, so pitiful! Oh, it's unbelievable—and you pretend you would have forgiven the black dishonor, the disgrace, the crime, if I had been guilty of it! For I was not, I tell you. Tomorrow you'll know—tomorrow all the world will know for whom she ruined me, to shield whom she condemned me to those years, that shame. But tonight you must believe me, me myself!"
She brushed aside his earnestness.
"And I would have, I would have forgiven the crime," she cried. "What was that to me? But the other—Oh, I loved you and you could play at love with another woman!"
They had risen and stood looking at each other, man and woman, the irreconcilable. Their mutually incomprehensible standards of honor lay balanced in the great scales of destiny. Pride, loneliness, the desolation of life, waited to engulf them. Then nature broke something in the woman's heart; she threw out her hands with a sob.
"I cannot bear it," she whispered. "I cannot bear it. I am so lonely!"
And nature woke the protector in the man.
"Alma!" he cried, and drew her, shaken and defeated, into the circle of his arms.