If you should look through the files of old magazines for the first years of the present century you would find, sandwiched in between the stories of Richard Harding Davis and Frank Norris and others long since dead, the work of one Jeffrey Curtain: a novel or two, and perhaps three or four dozen short stories. You could, if you were interested, follow them along until, say, 1908, when they suddenly disappeared.
When you had read them all you would have been quite sure that here were no masterpieces—here were passably amusing stories, a bit out of date now, but doubtless the sort that would then have whiled away a dreary half hour in a dental office. The man who did them was of good intelligence, talented, glib, probably young. In the samples of his work you found there would have been nothing to stir you to more than a interest in the whims of life—no deep interior laughs, no sense of futility or hint of tragedy.
After reading them you would yawn and put the number back in the files, and perhaps, if you were in some library reading-room, you would decide that by way of variety you would look at a newspaper of the period and see whether the Japs had taken Port Arthur. But if by any chance the newspaper you had chosen was the right one and had crackled open at the theatrical page, your eyes would have been arrested and held, and for at least a minute you would have forgotten Port Arthur as quickly as you forgot Chateau Thierry. For you would, by this fortunate chance, be looking at the portrait of an exquisite woman.
Those were the days of “Florodora” and of sextets, of pinched-in waists and blown-out sleeves, of almost bustles and absolute ballet skirts, but here, without doubt, disguised as she might be by the unaccustomed stiffness and old fashion of her costume, was a butterfly of butterflies. Here was the gayety of the period—the soft wine of eyes, the songs that flurried hearts, the toasts and the bouquets, the dances and the dinners. Here was a Venus of the hansom cab, the Gibson girl in her glorious prime. Here was…
… here was, you find by looking at the name beneath, one Roxanne Millbank, who had been chorus girl and understudy in “The Daisy Chain”, but who, by reason of an exellent performance when the star was indisposed, had gained a leading part.
You would look again—and wonder. Why you had never heard of her. Why did her name not linger in popular songs and vaudeville jokes and cigar bands, and the memory of that gay old unkle of yours along with Lillian Russel and Stella Mayhew and Anna Held? Roxanne Millbank—whither had she gone? What dark trap-door had opened suddenly and swallowed her up? Her name was certainly not in last Sunday’s supplement of that list of actresses married to English noblemen. No doubt she was dead—poor beautiful young lady—and quite forgotten.
I’m hoping too much. I am having you stumble on Jeffrey Curtain’s stories and Roxanne Millbank’s pictures. It would be incredible that you should find a newspaper item six months later, a single item two inches by four, which informed the public of the marriage, very quietly, of Miss Roxanne Millbank, who had been on tour with “The Daisy Chain,” to Mr. Jeffrey Curtain, the popular author. “Mrs. Curtain,” it added dispassionately, “will retire the stage.”
It was a marriage of love. He was sufficiently spoiled to be charming; she was ingenuous enough to be irresistible. Like two floating logs they met in a head-on rush, caught, and sped along together. Yet had Jeffrey Curtain kept at scrivening for twoscore years he could not have put a quirk into one of his stories weirder than the quirk that came into his own life. Had Roxanne Milbank played three dozen parts and filled five thousand houses she could never have had a role with more happiness and more despair than were in the fate prepared for Roxanne Curtain.
For a year they lived in hotels, travelled to California, to Alaska, to Florida, to Mexico, loved and quarrelled gently, and gloried in the golden triflings of his wit with her beauty—they were young and gravely passionate; they demanded everything and then yielded everything again in ecstasies of unselfishness and pride. She loved the swift tones of his voice and his frantic, unfounded jealousy. He loved her dark radiance, the white irises of her eyes, the warm, lustrous enthusiasm of her smile.
“Don’t you like her?” he would demand rather excitedly and shyly. “Isn’t she wonderful? Did you ever see—”
“Yes,” they would answer, grinning. “She’s a wonder. You’re lucky—”
The year passed. They tired of hotels. They bought an old house and twenty acres near the town of Marlowe, half an hour from Chicago; bought a little car, and moved out riotously with a pioneering hallucination that would have confounded Balboa.
“Your room will be here!” they cried in turn.
“And my room here!”
“And the nursery hcre wheh we have children.”
“And we’ll build a sleeping porch—oh, next year.”
They moved out in April, in July Jeffrey’s closest friend, Harry Cromwell, came to spend a week—they met him at the end of the long lawn and hurried him proudly to the house.
Harry was married also. His wife had had a baby some six months before and was still recuperating at her mother’s in New York. Roxanne had gathered from Jeffrey that Harry’s wife was not as attractive as Harry—Jeffrey had met her once and considered her—“shallow.” But Harry had been married nearly two years and was apparently happy, so Jeffrey guessed that she was probably all right.
“I’m making biscuits,” chattered Roxanne gravely. “Can your wife make biscuits? The cook is showing me how. I think every woman should now how to make biscuits. It sounds so utterly disarming. A woman who can make biscuits can surely do no—”
“You’ll have to come out here and live,” said Jeffrey. “Get a place out in the country like us, for you and Kitty.”
“You don’t know Kitty. She hates the country. She’s got to have her theatres and vaudevilles.”
“Bring her out,” repeated Jeffrey. “We’ll have a colony. There’s an awfully nice crowd here already. Bring her out!”
They were at the porch steps now and Roxanne made a brisk gesture toward a dilapidated structure on the right.
“The garage,” she announced. “It will also be Jeffrey’s writing-room within the month. Meanwhile dinner is at seven. Meanwhile to that I will mix a cocktail.”
The two men ascended to the second floor—that is, they ascended half-way, for at the first landing Jeffrey dropped his guest’s suitcase, and in a cross between a query and a cry exclaimed:
“For God’s sake, Harry, how do you like her?”
“We will go up-stairs,” answered his guest, “and we will shut the door.”
Half an hour later as they were sitting together in the library Roxanne reissued from the kitchen, bearing before her a pan of biscuits. Jeffrey and Harry rose.
“They’re beautful, dear,” said the husband, intensely.
“Exquisite,” murmured Harry.
“Taste one, I couldn’t bear to touch them before you’d seen them all and I can’t bear to take them back until I find what they taste like.”
“Like manna, darling.”
Simultaneously the two men raised the biscuits to their lips, nibbled tentatively. Simultaneously they tried to change the subject. But Roxanne undeceived, set down the pan and seized a biscuit. After a second her comment rang out with lugubrious finality:
“Why, I didn’t notice—”
“Oh, I’m useless,” she cried laughing. “Turn me out, Jeffrey— I’m a parasite; I’m no good—”
Jeffrey put his arm around her.
“Darling, I’ll eat your biscuits.”
“They’re beautiful, anyway,” insisted Roxanne.
“They’re— they’re decorative,” suggested Harry.
Jeffrey took him up wildly.
“That’s the word. They are decorative; they are masterterpieces. We’ll use them.”
He rushed to the kitchen and returned with a hammer and a handful of nails.
“We’ll use them, by golly, Roxanne! We’ll make a frieze out of them.”
“Don’t!” wailed Roxanne. “Our beautiful house.”
“Never mind. We’re going to have the library repapered in October. Don’t you remember?”
Bang! The first biscuit was impaled to the wall, where it quivered for a moment like a live thing.
When Roxanne returned with a second round of cocktails the biscuits were in a row, twelve of them, like a collection of primitive spear-heads.
“Roxanne,” exclaimed Jeffrey, “you’re an artist! Cook?—nonsense! You shall illustrate my books!”
During dinner the twilight faltered into dusk, and later it was a starry dark outside, filled and permeated with the frail gorgeousness of Rosanne’s white dress and her tremulous, low laugh.
—Such a little girl she is, thought Harry. Not as old as Kitty.
He compared the two. Kitty—nervous without being sensitive, temperamental without temperament, a woman who seemed to flit and never light—and Roxanne, who was as young as spring night, and summed up in her own adolescent laughter.
—A good match for Jeffrey, he thought again. Two very young people, the sort who’ll stay very young until they suddenly find themselves old.
Harry thought these things between his constant thoughts about Kitty. He was depressed about Kitty. It seemed to him that she was well enough ta come back to Chicago and bring his little son. He was thinking vaguely of Kitty when he said good-night to his friend’s wife and his friend at the foot of tlie stairs.
“You’re our first real house guest,” called Roxanne after him. “Aren’t you thrilled and proud?”
When he was out of sight around the stair corner she turned to Jeffrey, who was standing beside her resting his hand on the end of the banister.
“Are you tired, my dearest?”
Jeffrey rubbed the centre of his forehead with his fingers.
“A little. How did you know?”
“Oh, how could I help knowing about you?”
“It’s a headache,” he said moodily. “Splitting, I’ll take some aspirin.”
She reached over and snapped out the light, and with his arm tight about her waist they walked up the stairs together.
Harry’s week passed. They drove about the dreaming lanes or idled in cheerful inanity upon lake or lawn. In the evening Roxanne, sitting inside, played to them while the ashes whitened on the glowing ends of their cigars. Than came a telegram from Kitty saying that she wanted Harry to come East and get her, so Roxanne and Jeffrey were left alone in that privacy of which they never seemed to tire.
“Alone” thrilled them again. They wandered about the house, each feeling intimately the presence of the other; they sat on the same side of the table like honey-mooners; they were intensely absorbed, intensely happy.
The town of Marlowe, though a comparatively old settlement, had only recently acquired a “society.” Five or six years before, alarmed at the smoky swelling of Chicago, two or three young married couples, “bungalow people,” had moved out; their friends had followed. The Jeffrey Curtains found an already formed “set” , prepared to welcome them; a country club, ballroom, and golf links yawned for them, and there were bridge parties, and poker parties, and parties where they drank beer, and parties where they drank nothing at all.
It was at a poker party that they found themselves a week after Harry’s departure. There were two tables, and a good proportion of the young wives were smoking and shouting their bets, and being very daringly mannish for those days.
Roxanne had left the game early and taken to perambulation; she wandered into the pantry and found herself some grape juice—beer gave her a headache—and then passed from table to table, looking over shoulders at the hands, keeping an eye on Jeffrey and being pleasantly unexcited and content. Jeffrey, with intense concentration, was raising a pile of chips of all colors, and Roxanne knew by the deepened wrinkle between his eyes, that he was interested. She liked to see him interested in small things.
She crossed over quietly and sat down on the arm of his chair.
She sat there five minutes, listening to the sharp intermittent comments of the men and the chatter of the women, which rose from the table like soft smoke—and yet scarcely hearing either. Then quite innocently she reached out her hand, intending to place it on Jeffrey’s shoulder—as it touched him he started of a sudden, gave a short grunt, and, sweeping back his arm furiously caught her a glancing blow on her elbow.
There was a general gasp. Roxanne regained her balance, gave a little cry, and rose quickly to her feet. It had been the greatest shock of her life.This, from Jeffrey, the heart of kindness, of consideration—this instinctively brutal gesture.
The gasp became a silence. A dozen eyes were turned on Jeffrey, who looked up as though seeing Roxanne for the first time. An expression of bewilderment settled on his face.
“Why—Roxanne—” he said haltingly.
Into a dozen minds entered a quick suspicion, a rumor of scandal. Could it be that behind the scenes with this couple, apparently so in love, lurked some curious antipathy? Why else this streak of fire across such a cloudless heaven?
“Jeffrey!”—Roxanne’s voice was pleading—startled and horrified, she yet knew that it was a mistake. Not once did it occur to her to blame him or to resent it. Her word was a trembling supplication—“Tell me, Jeffrey,” it said, “tell Roxanne, your own Roxanne.”
“Why, Roxanne—” began Jeffrey again. The bewildered look changed to pain. He was clearly as startled as she. “I didn’t intend that,” he went on; “you startled me. You— I felt as if some one were attacking me. I—how—why, how idiotic!’’
“Jeffrey!” Again the word was a prayer, incense offered up to a high God through this new and unfathomable darkness.
They were both on their feet, they were saying good-by, faltering, apologizing, explaining. There was no attempt to pass it off easily. That way lay sacrilege. Jeffrey had not been feeling well, they said. He had become nervous. Back of both their minds was the unexplained horror of that blow— the marvel that there had been for an instant something between them—his anger and her fear—and now to both a sorrow, momentarily, no doubt, but to be bridged at once, at once, while there was yet time. Was that swift water lashing under their feet—the fierce glint of some uncharted chasm?
Out in their car under the harvest moon he talked brokenly. It was just—incomprehensible to him, he said. He had been thinking of the poker game—absorbed—and the touch on his shoulder had seemed like an attack. An attack! He clung to that word, flung it up as a shield. He bad hated what touched him. With the impact of his hand it had gone, that—nervousness. That was all he knew.
Both their eyes filled with tears and they whispered love there under the broad night as the serene streets of Marlowe sped by. Later, when they went to bed, they were quite calm. Jeffrey was to take a week off all work—was simply to loll, and sleep, and go on long walks until this nervousness left him. When they had decided this safety settled down upon Roxanne. The pillows underhead became soft and friendly; the bed on which they lay seemed wide, and white, and sturdy beneath the radiance that streamed in at the window.
Five days later, in the first cool of late afternoon, Jeffrey picked up an oak chair and sent it crashing through his own front window. Then he lay down on the couch like a child, weeping piteously and bagging to die. A blood dot the size of a marble had broken in his brain.
There is a sort of waking nightmare that sets in sometimes when one has missed a sleep or two, a feeling that comes with extreme fatigue and a new sun, that the quality of the life around has changed. It is a fully articulate conviction that somehow the existence one is then leading is a branch shoot of life and is related to life only as a moving picture or a mirror—that the people, and streets, and houses are only projections from a very dim and chaotic past. It was in such a state that Roxanne found herself during the first months of Jeffrey’s illness. She slept only when she was utterly exhausted; she awoke under a cloud. The long, sober-voiced consultations, the faint aura of medicine in the halls, the sudden tiptoeing in a house that had echoed to many cheerful footsteps, and, most of all, Jeffrey’s white face amid the pillows of the bed they had shared—these things subdued her and made her indelibly older. The doctors held out hope, but that was all. A long rest, they said, and quiet. So responsibility came to Roxanne. It was she who paid the bills, pored over his bank-book, corresponded with his publishers. She was in the kitchen constantly. She learned from the nurse how to prepare his meals and after the first month took complete charge of the sick-room. She had had to let the nurse go for reasons of economy. One of the two colored girls left at the same time. Roxanne was realizing that they had been living from a short story to short story.
The most frequent visitor was Harry Cromwell. He had been shocked and depressed by the news, and though his wife was now living with him in Chicago he found time to come out several times a month. Roxanne found his sympathy welcome—there was some quality of suffering in the man, some inherent pitifulness that made her comfortable when he was near. Roxanne’s nature had suddenly deepened. She felt sometimes that with Jeffrey she was losing her children also, those children that now most of all she needed and should have had.
It was six months after Jeffrey’s collapse and when the nightmare had faded, leaving not the old world but a new one, grayer and colder, that she went to see Harry’s wife. Finding herself in Chicago with an extra hour before train time, she decided out of courtesy to call.
As she stepped inside the door she had an immediate impression that the apartment was very like some place she had seen before—and almost instantly she remembered a round-the-corner bakery of her childhood, a bakery full of rows and rows of pink frosted cakes—a stuffy pink, pink as a food, pink triumphant, vulgar, and odious.
And this apartment was like that. It was pink. It smelled pink!
Mrs. Cromwell, attired in a wrapper of pink and black, opened the door. Her hair was yellow, heightened, Roxanne imagened, by a dash of peroxide in the rinsing water every week. Her eyes were a thin waxen blue—she was pretty and too consciously graceful. Her cordiality was strident and intimate, hostility melted so quietly to hospitality that it seemed they were both purely in the face and voice—never touching nor touched:by the deep core of egotism beneath.
But to Roxanne these things were secondary; her eyes vere caught and held in uncanny fascination by the wrapper. It was vilely unclean. From its lowest hem up four inches it was sheerly dirty with the blue dust of the floor; for the next three inches it was gray—then it shaded off into its natural color, which was—pink. It was dirty at the sleeves, too, and at the collar—and when the woman turned to lead the way into the parlor, Roxanne was sure that her neck was dirty.
A one-sided rattle of conversation began. Mrs. Cromwell became explicit about her likes and dislikes, her head, her stomach, her teeth, her apartment—avoiding with a sort of insolent meticulousness any inclusion of Roxanne with life, as if presuming that Roxainne, having been dealt a blow, wished life to be carefully skirted.
Roxanne smiled. That kimono! That neck!
After five minutes a little boy toddled into the parlor—a dirty little boy clad in dirty pink rompers. His face was smudgy—Roxanne wanted to take him into her lap and wipe his nose; other parts in the vicinity of his head needed attention, his tiny shoes were kicked out at the toes. Unspeakable!
“What a darling little boy!” exclaimed Roxanne, smiling radiantly. “Come here to me.”
Mrs. Cromwell looked coldly at her son.
“He will get dirty. Look at that face!” She held her head on one side and regarded it critically.
“Isn’t he a darling?” repeated Roxanne.
“Look at his rompers,” frowned Mrs. Cromwell.
“He needs a change, don’t you, George?”
George stared at her curiously. To his mind the word rompers connotated a garment extraneously smeared, as this one.
“I tried to make him look respectable this morning,” complained Mrs. Cromwell as one whose patience had been sorely tried, “and I found he didn’t have any more rompers—so rather than have him go round without any I put him back in those—and his face—”
“How many pairs has he?” Roxanne’s voice was pleasantly curious, “How many feather fans have you?” she might have asked.
“Oh,—”Mrs. Cromwell considered, wrinkling her pretty brow. “Five, I think. Plenty, I know.”
“You can get them for fifty cents a pair.”
Mrs. Cromwell’s eyes showed surprise—and the faintest superiority. The price of rompers!
“Can you really? I had no idea. He ought to have plenty, but I haven’t had a minute all week to send the laundry out.” Then, dismissing the subject as irrelevant—“I must show you some things—”
They rose and Roxanne followed her past an open bathroom door whose garment-littered floor showed indeed that the laundry hadn’t been sent out for some time, into another room that was, so to speak, the quintessence of pinkness. This was Mrs. Cromwell’s room.
Here the hostess opened a:closet door and displayed before Roxanne’s eyes an amazing collection of lingerie. There were dozens of filmy marvels of lace and silk, all clean, unruffled, seemingly not yet touched. On hangers beside them were three new evening dresses.
“I have some beautiful things,” said Mrs. Cromwell, “but not much of a chance to wear them. Harry doesn’t care about going out.” Spite crept into her voice. “He’s perfectly content to let me play nursemaid and housekeeper all day and loving wife in the evening.”
Roxanne smiled again.
“You’ve got some beautiful clothes here.”
“Yes, I have. Let me show you—”
“Beiautiful,” repeated Roxanne, interrupting, “but I’ll have to run if I’m going to catch my train.”
She felt that her hands were trembling. She wanted to put them on this woman and shake her—shake her. She wanted her locked up somewhere and set to scrubbing floors.
“Beautiful,” she repeated, “and I just came in for a moment”
“Well, I’m sorry Harry isn’t here.”
They moved toward the door.
“—and, oh,” said Roxanne with an effort—yet her voice was still gentle and her lips were smiling—“I think it’s Argile’s where you can get those rompers. Good-by.”
It was not until she had reached the station and bought her ticket to Marlowe that Roxanne realized it was the first five minutes in six months that her mind had been off Jeffrey.
A week later Harry appeared at Marlowe, arrived unexpectedly at five o’clock, and coming up the walk sank into a porch chair in a state of exhaustion. Roxanne herself had had a busy day and was worn out. The doctors were coming at five-thirty, bringing a celebrated nerve specialist from New York. She was excited and thoroughly depressed, but Harry’s eyes made her sit down beside him,
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Roxanne,” he denied, “I came to see how Jeff was doing. Don’t you bother about me.”
“Harry,” insisted Roxanne, “there’s something the matter.”
“Nothing,” he repeated. “How’s Jeff?”
Anxiety darkened her face.
“He’s a little worse, Harry. Doctor Jewett has come on from New York. They thought he could tell me something definite. He’s going to try and find whether this paralysis has anything to do with the original blood clot.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said jerkily. “I didn’t know you expected a consultation. I wouldn’t have come, I thought I’d just rock on your porch for an hour—”
“Sit down,” she commanded.
“Sit down, Harry, dear boy.” Her kindness fiooded out now—enveloped him. “I know there’s something the matter. You’re white as a sheet. I’m going to get you a cool bottle of beer.”
All at once he collapsed into his chair and covered his face with his hands.
“I can’t make her happy,” he said slowly. “I’ve tried and I’ve tried. This morning we had some words about breakfast—I’d been getting my breakfast down town—and—well, just after I went to the office she left the house, went East to her mother’s with George and a suitcase full of lace underwear.”
“And I don’t know—”
There was a crunch on the gravel, a car turning into the drive. Roxanne uttered a little cry.
“It’s Doctor Jewett.”
“You’ll wait, won’t you?” she interrupted abstracttedly. He saw that his problem had already died on the troubled surface of her mind.
There was an embarrassing minute of vague, elided introductions and then Harry followed tie party inside and watched them disappear up the stairs. He went into the library and sat down on the big sofa.
For an hour he watched the sun creep up the patterned folds of the chintz curtains. In the deep quiet a trapped wasp buzzing on the inside of the window pane assumed the proportions of a clamor. From time to time another buzzing drifted down from upstairs, resembling several more larger wasps caught on larger window-panes. He heard low footfalls, the chink of bottles, the clamor of pouring water.
What had he and Roxanne done that life should deal these crashing blows to them? Up-stairs there was taking place a living inquest on the soul of his friend; he was sitting here in a quiet room listening to the plaint of a wasp, just as when he was a boy he had been compelled by a strict aunt to sit hour-long on a chair and atone for some misbehavior. But who had put him here? What ferocious aunt had leaned out of the sky to make hirn atone for—what?
About Kitty he felt a great hopelessness. She was too expensive—that was the irremediable difficulty. Suddenly he hated her. He wanted to throw her down and kick at her—to tell her she was a cheat and a leech—that she was dirty. Moreover, she must give him his boy.
He rose and began pacing up and down the room. Simultaneously he heard some one begin walking along the hallway up-stairs in exact time with him. He found himself wondering if they would walk in time until the person reached the end of the hall.
Kitty had gone to her mother. God help her, what a mother to go to! He tried to imagine the meeting: the abused wife collapsing upon the mother’s breast. He could not. That Kitty was capable of any deep grief was unbelievable. He had gradually grown to think of her as something unapproachable and callous. She would get a divorce, of course, and eventually she would marry again. He began to consider this. Whom would she marry? He laughed bitterly, stopped; a picture flashed before him—of Kitty’s arms around some man whose face he could not see, of Kitty’s lips pressed close to other lips in what was surely passion.
“God!” he cried aloud. “God! God! God!”
Then the pictures came thick and fast. The Kitty of this morning faded; the soiled kimono rolled up and disappeared; the pouts and rages, and tears all were washed away. Again she was Kitty Carr—Kitty Carr with yellow hair and great baby eyes. Ah, she had loved him, she had loved him.
After a while he perceived that something was amiss with him, something that had nothing to do with Kitty or Jeff, something of a different genre. Amazingly it burnt on him at last; he was hungry. Simple enough! He would go into the kitchen in a moment and ask the colored cook for a sandwich. After that he must go back to the city.
He paused at the wall, jerked at something round, and, fingering it absently, put it to his mouth and tasted it as a baby tastes a bright toy. His teeth closed on it—Ah!
She’d left that damn kimono, that dirty pink kimono. She might have had the decency to take it with her, he thought. It would hang in the house like the corpse of their sick alliance. He would try to throw it away, but he would never be able to bring himself to move it. It would be like Kitty, soft and pliable, withal impervious. You couldn’t move Kitty; you couldn’t reach Kitty. There was nothing there to reach. He understood that perfectly—he had understood it all along.
He reached to the wall for another biscuit and with an effort pulled it out, nail and all. He carefully removed the nail from the centre, wondering idly if he had eaten the nail with the first biscuit. Preposterous! He would have remembered—it was a huge nail. He felt his stomach. He must be very hungry. He considered—remembered—yesterday he had had no dinner. It was the girl’s day out and Kitty had lain in her room eating chocolate drops. She had said she felt “smothery”and couldn’t bear having him near her. He had given George a bath and put him to bed, and then lain down on the couch intending to rest a minute before getting his own dinner. There he had fallen asleep and awakened about eleven, to find that there was nothing in the ice-box except a spoonful of potato salad. This he had eaten, together with some chocolate drops that he found on Kitty’s bureau. This morning he had breakfasted hurriedly down town before going to the office. But at noon, beginning to worry about Kitty, he had decided to go home and take her out to lunch. After that there had been the note on his pillow. The pile of lingerie in the closet was gone—and she had left instructions for sendmg her trunk.
He had never been so hungry, he thought.
At five o’clock, when the visiting nurse tiptoed down-stairs, he was sitting on the sofa staring at the carpet.
“Oh, Mrs. Curtain won’t be able to see you at dinner. She’s not well. She told me to tell you that the cook will fix you something and that there’s a spare bedroom.”
“She’s sick, you say?”
“She’s lying down in her room. The consultation is just over.”
“Did they—did they decide anything?”
“Yes,” said the nurse softly. “Doctor Jewett says there’s no hope. Mr. Curtain may live indefinitely, but he’ll never see again or move again or think. He’ll just breathe.”
For the first time the nurse noted that beside the writing-desk where she remembered that she had seen a line of a dozen curious round objects she had vaguely imagined to be some exotic form of decoration, there was now only one. Where the others had been, there was now a series of little nail-holes.
Harry followed her glance dazedly and then rose to his feet.
“I don’t believe I’ll stay. I believe there’s a train.”
She nodded. Harry picked up his hat.
“Good-by,” she said pleasantly.
“Good-by,” he answered, as though talking to himself and, evidently moved by some involuntary necessity, he paused on his way to the door and she saw him pluck the last object from the wall and drop it into his pocket.
Then he opened the screen door and, descending the porch steps, passed out of her sight.
After a while the coat of clean white paint on the Jeffrey Curtain house made a definite compromise with the suns of many Julys and showed its good faith by turning’ gray. It scaled—huge peelings of very brittle old paint leaned over backward like aged men practising grotesque gymnastics and finally dropped to a moldy death in the overgrown grass beneath. The paint on the front pillars became streaky; the white ball was knocked off the left-hand door-post; the green blinds darkened, then lost all pretense of color.
It began to be a house that was avoided by the tender-minded—some church bought a lot diagonally opposite for a graveyard, and this, combined with “the—place where Mrs Curtain stays with that living corpse,” was enough to throw a ghostly aura over that quarter of the road. Not that she was left alone. Men and women came to see her, met her down town, where she went to do her marketing, brought her home in their cars—and came in for a moment to talk and to rest, in the glamour that still played in her smile. But men who did not know her no longer followed her with admiring glances in the street; a diaphanous veil had come down over her beauty, destroying its vividness, yet bringing neither wrinkles nor fat.
She acquired a character in the village—a group of little stories were told of her: how when the country was frozen over one winter so that no wagons nor automobiles could travel, she taught herself to skate so that she could make quick time to the grocer and druggist, and not leave Jeffrey alone for long. It was said that every night since his paralysis she slept in a small bed beside his bed, holding his hand.
Jeffrey Curtain was spoken of as though he were already dead. As the years dropped by those who had known him died or moved away—there were but half a dozen of the old crowd who had drunk cocktails together, called each other’s wives by their first names, and thought that Jeff was about the wittiest and most talented fellow that Marlowe had ever known. Now, to the casual visitor, he was merely the reason that Mrs. Curtain excused herself sometimes and hurried up-stairs; he was a groan or a sharp cry borne to the silent parlor on the heavy air of a Sunday afternoon.
He could not move; he was stone blind, dumb, and totally unconscious. All day he lay in his bed, except for a shift to his wheel-chair every morning while she straightened the room. His paralysis was creeping slowly toward his heart. At first—for the first year —Roxanne had received the faintest answering pressure sometimes when she held his hand—then it had gone, ceased one evening and never come back, and through two nights Roxanne lay wide-eyed, staring into the dark and wondering what had gone, what fraction of his soul had taken flight, what last grain of comprehension those shattered broken nerves still carried to the brain.
After that hope died. Had it not been for her unceasing care the last spark would have gone long before. Every morning she shaved and bathed him, shifted him with her own hands from bed to chair and back to bed. She was in his room constantly, bearing medicine, straightening a pillow, talking to him almost as one talks to a nearly human dog, without hope of response or appreciation, but with the dim persuasion of habit, a prayer when faith has gone.
Not a few people, one celebrated nerve specialist among them, gave her a plain impression that it was futile to exercise so much care, that if Jeffrey had been conscious he would have wished to die, that if his spirit were hovering in some wider air it would agree to no such sacrifice from her, it would fret only for the prison of its body to give it full release.
“But you see,” she replied, shaking her head gently, “when I married Jeffrey it was—until I ceased to love him.”
“But,” was protested, in effect, “you can’t love that.”
“I can love what it once was. What else is there for me to do?”
The specialist shrugged his shoulders and went away to say that Mrs. Curtain was a remarkable woman and just about as sweet as an angel—but, he added, it was a terrible pity,
“There must be some man, or a dozen, just crazy to take care of her. …”
Casually—there were. Here and there some one began in hope—and ended in reverence. There was no love in the woman except, strangely enough, for life, for the people in the world, from the tramp to whom she gave food she could ill afford, to the butcher who sold het a cheap cut of steak across the meaty board. The other phase was sealed up somewhere in that expressionless mummy who lay with his face turned ever toward the light as mechanically as a compass needle and waited dumbly for the last wave to wash over his heart.
After eleven years he died in the middle of a May night, when the scent of the syringa hung upon the window-sill and a breeze wafted in the shrillings of the frogs`and cicadas outside. Roxanne awoke at two, and realized with a start she was alone in the house at last.
After that she sat on her weather-beaten porch through many afternoons, gazing down across the fields that undulated in a slow descent to the white and green town. She was wondering what she would do with her life. She was thirty-six—handsome, strong, and free. The years had eaten up Jeffrey’s insurance; she had reluctantly parted with the acres, to right and left of her, and had even placed a small mortgage on the house.
With her husband’s death had come a great physical restlessness. She missed having to care for him in the morning, she missed her rush to town, and the brief and therefore accentuated neighborly meetings in the butcher’s and grocer’s; she missed the cooking for two, the preparation of delicate liquid food for him. One day, consumed with energy, she went out and spaded up the whole garden, a thing that had not been done for years.
And she was alone at night in the room that had seen the glory of her marriage and then the pain. To meet Jeff again she went back in spirit to that wonderful year, that intense, passionate absorption and companionship, ratter than looked forward to a problematical meeting hereafter; she awoke often to lie and wish for that presence beside her—inanimate yet breathing—still Jeff.
One afternoon six months after his death she was sitting on the porch, in a black dress which took away the faintest suggestion of plumpness from her figure. It was Indian summer—golden brown all about her; a hush broken by the sighing of leaves; westward a four o’clock sun dripping streaks of red and yellow over a flaming sky. Most of the birds had gone—only a sparrow that had built itself a nest on the cornice of a pillar kept up an intermittent cheeping varied by occasional fluttering sallies overhead. Roxanne moved her chair to where she could watch him and her mind idled drowsily on the bosom of the afternoon.
Harry Cromwell was coming out from Chicago to dinner. Since his divorce over eight years before he had been a frequent visitor. They had kept up what amounted to a tradition between them: when he arrived they would go to look at Jeff; Harry would sit down on the edge of the bed and in a hearty voice ask:
“Well, Jeff, old man, how do you feel to-day?”
Roxanne, standing beside, would look intently at Jeff; dreaming that some shadowy recognition of this former friend had passed across that broken mind—but the head, pale, carven, would only move slowly, in its sole gesture toward the light as if something behind the blind eyes were groping for another light long since gone out.
These visits stretched over eight years—at Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and on many a Sunday Harry had arrived, paid his call on Jeff, and then talked for a long while with Roxanne on the porch. He was devoted to her. He made no pretense of hiding, no attempt to deepen, this relation. She was his best friend as the mass of flesh on the bed there had been his best friend. She was peace, she was rest; she was the past. Of his own tragedy she alone knew.
He had been at the funeral, but since then the company for which he worked had shifted him to the East and only a business trip had brought him to the vicinity of Chicago. Roxanne had written him to come when he could—after a night in the city he had caught a train out.
They shook hands and he helped her move two rockers together.
“He’s fine, Roxanne. Seems to like school.”
“Of course it was the only thing to do, to send him.”
“You miss him horribly, Harry?”
“Yes—I do miss him. He’s a funny boy—”
He talked a lot about George. Roxanne was interested. Harry must bring him out on his next vacation. She had only seen him once in her life—a child in dirty rompers.
She left him with the newspaper while she prepared dinner—she had four chops to-night and some late vegetables from her own garden. She put it all on and then called him and sitting down together they continued their talk about George.
“If I had a child—” she would say.
Afterward, Harry having given her what slender advice he could about investments, they walked through the garden, pausing here and there to recognize what had once been a cement bench or where the tennis court had lain …
“Do you remember—”
Then they were off on a flood of reminiscences: the day they had taken all the snap-shots and Jeff had photographed astride the calf; and the sketch Harry had made of Jeff and Roxanne, lying sprawled in the grass, their heads almost touching. There was to have been a covered lattice connecting the barn-studio with the house, so that Jeff could get there on wet days—the lattice had been started, but nothing remained except a broken triangular piece that still adhered to the house and resembled a battered chicken coop.
“And those mint juleps!”
“And Jeff’s note-book! Do you remember how we’d laugh, Harry, when we’d get it out of his pocket and read aloud a page of material. And how frantic he used to get?”
“Wild! He was such a kid about his writing.”
They were both silent a moment, and then Harry said:
“We were to have a place out here, too. Do you remember? We were to buy the adjoining twenty acres. And the parties we were going to have!”
Again there was a pause, broken this time by a low question from Roxanne.
“Do you ever hear of her, Harry?”
“Why—yes,” he admitted placidly. “She’s in Seattle. She’s married again to a man named Horton, a sort of lumber king. He’s a great deal older than she is, I believe.”
“And she’s behaving?”
“Yes—that is, I’ve heard so. She has everything, you see. Nothing much to do except dress up for this fellow at dinner-time.”
Without effort he changed the subject.
“Are you going to keep the house?”
“I think so,” she said, nodding. “I’ve lived here so long, Harry, it’d seem terrible to move. I thought of trained nursing, but of course that’d mean leaving. I’ve about decided to be a boarding-house lady.”
“Live in one?”
“No. Keep one. Is there such an anomaly as a boarding-house lady? Anyway I’d have a negress and keep about eight people in the summer and two or three, if I can get them, in the winter. Of course I’ll have to have the house repainted and gone over inside.”
“Roxanne, why—naturally you know best what you can do, but it does seem a shock, Roxanne. You came here as a bride.”
“Perhaps,” she said, “that’s why I don’t mind remaining here as a boarding-honse lady.”
“I remember a certain batch of biscuits.”
“Oh, those biscuits,” she cried. “Still, from all I heard about the way you devoured them, they couldn’t have been so bad. I was so low that day, yet somehow I laughed when the nurse told me about those biscuits.”
“I noticed that the twelve nail-holes are still in the library wall where Jeff drove them.”
It was getting very dark now, a crispness settled in the air; a litlle gust of wind sent down a last spray of leaves. Roxanne shivered slightly.
“We’d better go in.”
He looked at his watch.
“It’s late. I’ve got to be leaving. I go East tomorrow.”
They lingered for a moment just below the stoop, watching a moon that seemed full of snow float out of the distance where the lake lay. Summer was gone and now Indian summer. The grass was cold and there was no mist and no dew. After he left she would go in and light the gas and close the shutters, and he would go down the path and on to the village. To these two life had come quickly and gone, leaving not bitterness, but pity; not disillusion, but oniy pain. There was already enough moonlight when they shook hands for each to see the gathered kindness in the other’s eyes.
Published in Chicago Sunday Tribune newspaper (Blue Ribbon Fiction Section - 12 December 1920).
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