The Transgression of Andrew Vane/Chapter XII

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Chapter XII. Reaction.

Noon of the following day found Andrew once more in the Rue Boissière. He had not seen Margery from the moment when he had left her in the arbour. She had come in while the men were playing billiards, and gone directly to her room, pleading a headache, an excuse which was also made to cover her non-appearance in the morning. The two hours immediately following breakfast passed laboriously, the whole party hanging together with that kind of helpless attraction which characterizes the bubbles in a cup of tea. There was a general sense of relief when the big Panhard purred up the driveway, and Andrew, Radwalader, and Kennedy whirled off in it to Paris. Monsieur and Madame Palffy and the Listers were to follow almost immediately by train, and Mrs. Carnby was talking a continuous stream of the most unmitigated gossip.

“If I had stopped to think that in an hour they would all be gone,” she told Jeremy, that night “I would first have screamed the General Thanksgiving at the top of my lungs, and then had the vapours — whatever they may be!”

It was something the same feeling which had prompted Radwalader to remark, as they rolled away from the villa:

“I wonder if General Sherman had ever been to a house-party with the Listers when he made that remark about war.”

Then, as Andrew made no reply, he relapsed into silence. He possessed that most precious gift of the Gods — the knowledge of when not to talk.

But it was when Andrew was once more alone in his familiar quarters, and had flung himself moodily into a chair, that the full force of his situation returned upon him. In twelve hours the whole world had changed. He realized for the first time that, as a matter of fact, there had never been in his mind the shadow of a doubt that the way lay clear before him, that the attainment of his wishes had been, in his calculations, no more than a matter of time. He had relied upon Margery’s constancy like a mariner upon that of the North Star, and it was as if that luminary had suddenly flung away from him into some new and wholly unfamiliar constellation. The man who offers his hand in friendship and is stabbed in reply is not more aghast than was he. He was bitterly hurt, bitterly resentful. He had taken Mrs. Carnby’s reprimand as something to which, if it was not wholly deserved, he had at least laid himself open: but that was a very different matter from the scornful and passionate rebuff which he had received from Margery herself. The first had almost afforded him a sense of relief. Like a child who is conscious of some slight transgression, the rebuke had seemed to set things square, to wipe out his fault, and give him absolution and a chance for a fresh start. But what followed, so wholly out of proportion to his knowledge of the truth, left him only conscious of a monstrous and unpardonable injustice. Complete innocence is never so jealous or so resentful as is the half-innocence in which lurks a hint of self-accusation, a suspicion of actual guilt. He had stood ready, with a kind of fierce and proud submission, to accept such blame as could be rightly laid at his door, but this very attitude of partial contrition flamed into anger the moment the scale was tipped too far in his disfavour. He did not see that the main factor in his revolt was the same as that in his acceptance of Mrs. Carnby’s words — a sense of disloyalty, that is, to what he knew in his heart to be the true and manly course. He was very young, and moreover he had fallen, to at least an appreciable extent, from the high estate of his best ideals. Conscience impelled him to accept with humility as much of censure as he conceived that he deserved, but the savage pride of youth commanded him not to yield a single foot of ground beyond that which, by his folly, he had forfeited. He had been wrong; that he was willing to acknowledge: but his punishment had fallen too suddenly and too hard. Other men had done worse — infinitely worse — and had prospered. As for him, it was already too late to turn back. He was learning, albeit rebelliously, that standards of conduct are the boomerangs of the moral armament. The expert may juggle with them with comparative security; but the novice who recklessly flings them into space and then seeks to resume his hold upon them is apt to suffer a rude blow in the attempt. Facilis descensus — but the way of retreat is choked with briers and strewn with boulders, and never wholly retraceable.

Essentially, Andrew Vane was very clean, with an instinctive revulsion from whatever savoured of animalism or sensuality. Among a certain class of men at Harvard he had been called, for a time, “Galahad” Vane; with that impulse to sneer which is irrepressible in those who resent what they find themselves forced to respect. There was something peculiarly appropriate, however, about the name thus bestowed in ridicule: for that fine sense of nicety which is a safeguard more sure than abstract principle had held him instinctively aloof from whatever was simply sordid or unclean. Temptation of the baser sort, which left its furrows on the sand of natures less refined, washed harmlessly over the sturdy rock of his self-respect. The illicit was inseparably associated in his mind with vulgarity. To seek a pleasure which necessitated keeping one eye on the police and the other on one’s purse smote him, even in suggestion, with a sickening sense of degradation He passed by, with the sniff of a thoroughbred terrier, the carrion in which his fellows rolled.

But it was to this very fastidiousness that Mirabelle had appealed: and because she so fully satisfied it he at first misunderstood the situation utterly. It came to him clothed in a refinement, a daintiness, an atmosphere of soft lights and flowers and savoir faire et vivre which spoke eloquently to all that was sensuous in his nature, and stirred nothing of what was merely sensual. That was the French of it. The national deftness which is able to make plain women beautiful, and ordinary viands, delicacies, finds its parallel in the national ability to smother the first approach of impropriety in disguises infinitely varied. And Mirabelle herself was more than content not to urge the issue. For the first time in her experience, she was unable to scent an ulterior motive in a man’s admiration. She appreciated the simplicity of Andrew’s attitude, without fully comprehending its significance. Back of it, no doubt, lay the as yet undeveloped progressions in a routine all too familiar: but she was grateful for the respite.

But a chance word, now and again, had stirred of late the serenity of their curious relation. He put away the thought which forced itself upon him, but it returned invariably, and each time with a suggestion of more eloquent appeal. The subtle influence of Paris, which undermines the bulwarks of principle and prejudice by insensible degrees, was at work. Daily he heard the things which he had instinctively avoided treated as inevitable and by no means unjustified accessories of life; daily the insinuating tooth of epigrammatic banter gnawed at the stability of his former convictions; while the very offences which had always repelled him by their sordid vulgarity were now accomplished all about him, light-heartedly, to the clink of crystal glasses, the soft pulse of waltz music, the ripple of laughter, and the ring of gold. All that is most lavish and most ingenious in the imaginative power and the executive ability of man had been laid under contribution to produce the effect which now enthralled his senses. None of the ordinary restrictions and limitations of life raised a finger to check this pagan prodigality of license. Economy, responsibility, and every more serious consideration stood aside from the path of sovereign pleasure. The world had given of its best with a lavish hand, for here was not only the gold to pay for, but the wit to appreciate, perfection. The labels on these cobweb-covered vintages, the dishes they enhanced, the flowers they rivalled in perfume, the music, the lights, the laughter, all spoke one language — a language forgetful of the past, heedless of the future, but eloquent as the tongue of Circe of the present joy of living. These men and women were civilization’s latest work — the best, in the sense of ultra-elaboration, that the experience of the ages had enabled her to accomplish. They had been prodigally dowered with the extremes of sensuous refinement; they were clothed, fed, housed, and diverted by the ultimate attainments of human invention and skill; they demanded that life should be a festival, and every detail of existence the child of a most cunning imagination and a consummate faculty of execution: and this was the spot where was given them what they asked. The goddess of luxury, in whose ears their prayers were poured, and at whose feet their gold was piled, could do no more. They had climbed the capstone of her pyramid, her sun had touched its zenith, and her last word was said!

So, as Andrew considered his present state, he was aware of the force of Radwalader’s remark that in Paris a man had something for which, instead of merely something on which, to live. Life took on a new aspect. In Boston it had been wholesome, monotonous, gray, silver, and brown: in Paris it was heady, infinitely varied, gold, purple, and rose-pink. In another of his fanciful moods, Radwalader had described it as a sapiently ordered dinner: and this, too, now that his eyes were opened, Andrew understood. There were the soups and solid courses — the architecture, history, and artistic associations of the great city: there were, by way of whetting the appetite, the clean little hors d’œuvres, radishes, anchovies, and olives — the tea-tables of the Colony, the theatres, the talks with Mrs. Carnby and the women of her set: but there were, as well, the wines and sauces piquantes — the races, the restaurants at midnight, the Allée at noon, and Mirabelle Tremonceau! The beauty and luxury of it all continually charmed his senses; the fever of it stirred hotly in his blood.

Lately, he had been conscious of noticing things about Mirabelle which had never been part of his analysis of another woman. To him, with one exception, a girl had been a face or a form, to be associated with, or brought back to memory by, a snatch of waltz-music, a perfume, or a particular effect of moonlight on water, or sunlight upon foliage. Margery Palffy was the exception, but it was not she who had taught him the faculty of observation which, of late, he had applied to her. Not from her had he learned to remark details — how the skin crinkled along her nose before a laugh came and after it had gone, how her chin cut in under sharply, and then swelled softly again before it met her throat. Now, for the first time, he was conscious that a woman is never wholly silent — that a whisper of lace or a lisp of silk speaks the movement that is unapparent to the eye. Already he had found that her frown can be mirth-provoking, and her smile of a sadness beyond description. Already he was become weatherwise in his understanding of the ripples of expression blown by the shifting winds of inner thought across her eyes. He knew when she was bored, by the barely perceptible compression of her lower lip, which told of a skilfully smothered yawn; when she was secretly amused, by the little curving line which showed for an instant on either cheek; when she was troubled or puzzled, by the tiniest contraction of her eyebrows. In his recollection dwelt such trifles as the nicking of a full instep by the edge of a slipper, the falling away of lace from a lifted wrist, the sudden swell of rounded muscles beneath the ear when the head is turned aside, and the imprint of pointed nails and the jewels of rings on the fingers of a discarded glove. If he had remembered the noses, eyes, and mouths of other women, his memory now caressed the veins in her wrists, the little wisps of hair low in her neck, the interlinking of her long lashes, the shadow from chin to ear, and the silvering touch of sunlight on the down of her averted cheek. Such things had his study of her taught him. Trifles, all! Yet does a man ever forget that woman, through his intimacy with whom these perceptions were first born, like golden threads newly discovered in the warp and woof of some familiar fabric? And that woman was Mirabelle Tremonceau.

So it was this — all this— Paris, and her luxury, charm, and infinite, bewildering appeal — with which he had merely toyed, because, at the back of his appreciation, lay ever the thought of what Margery Palffy meant to him, and what he had come to ask of her! What had been his reward? Because he had been neither one thing nor the other he was treated as the outcast he had not dared to be. He had no more than fingered the nettle, instead of grasping it boldly, like a man, and so — it had stung! He had relied, throughout, upon something which did not exist — the loyalty of those for whose sake he had striven to keep himself, in all essentials, clean. When he came to them, prepared to admit his little follies, they had slammed the gate of injustice in his face!

Of a sudden, the scene in the garden at Poissy leaped back at him, and he rose and began to pace the room. They trusted hearsay, did they? They gossiped about him, each to each, among themselves? They cast him off, as he had been a pariah, without a chance to justify himself, to give them the explanation which he had been ready to offer, but they unprepared to believe? Well, then, they should have their fill! He had tried to enter what he supposed was a friendly port, and had been torpedoed, raked fore and aft at the very haven’s mouth, and sent about his business like the veriest privateer. But there were friendly harbours! There was still Radwalader — his friend! There was still Mirabelle! How ready they were to believe her guilty, between whom and himself there existed nothing but a friendship wholly pure!

Now, the curious chivalry of youth had him firmly in its grasp — the curious, unreasoning, treacherous chivalry which has not learned to discriminate as yet, but which cloaks its own essential selfishness in a fierce allegiance to the thing of the moment, blind to all larger issues, lance in rest to tilt at wind-mills, hotly insistent upon the immaterial present, scornful of the future, contemptuous of the past. This girl at whom they were all so eager to cast a stone, this girl who was his friend, and whose only friend he seemed to be — was it not to her that he owed his utmost loyalty, rather than to her who had so readily rejected him upon no better pretence than that of hearsay? Because others refused to grant him the confidence in his integrity which they fully owed him, was that any reason for his proving uncharitable, too? — for siding against Mirabelle and with them?

Andrew clenched his fingers savagely.

“She is my friend!” he said aloud, “my friend! As for the rest, if they want proof of my depravity, by the Lord they shall have it to the full!”

The Tempter was very near now, glorying in the preliminary moves of Vanity, his stanch ally.

The bell whirred sharply, as Andrew paced the salon to and fro, and, a moment later, his servant tapped and entered.

“Well, Jules?”

“Une dame, monsieur,” announced Vicot suavely, and then — Andrew found her hand in his. There was a suggestion of challenge in her eyes as she lifted them to his, and, before she spoke, her eyebrows went up questioningly and her even white teeth nicked her lower lip.

“You’re not angry?”

“Angry?” said Andrew. “Why should I be? I’m surprised, perhaps: I wasn’t expecting you. But angry? — no, certainly not. I’m very pleased.”

But, for the moment, there was no conviction in his tone. Her coming smote him with a vague uneasiness. It was something new, this — something for which he found himself wholly unprepared. He seemed to divine that a significant development was imminent, and that, in some sense not fully clear, his threshold was a Rubicon — which she had crossed!

In the antichambre Monsieur Vicot was scribbling his master’s name and his own initials in the receipt-book of a little, domino-shaped messenger-boy. Then, as young Mercury went whistling down the stairs, he turned the blue missive over and over in his fingers.

“I’ll be damned if Radwalader sees it!” he ejaculated, and thrust it in his pocket, where, for a vitally important period, it remained — forgotten!