Read CHAPTER VII of The Brimming Cup, free online book, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, on ReadCentral.com.

THE NIGHT-BLOOMING CEREUS

An Evening in the Life of Mrs. Neale Crittenden

April 20.

Nowadays she so seldom spoke or acted without knowing perfectly well what she was about, that Marise startled herself almost as much as her callers by turning over that leaf in the photograph album quickly and saying with abruptness, “No, never mind about that one. It’s nothing interesting.”

Of course this brought out from Paul and little Mark, hanging over her shoulder and knee, the to-be-expected shouts of, “Oh, let’s see it! What is it?”

Marise perceived that they scented something fine and exciting such as Mother was always trying to keep from them, like one man choking another over the edge of a cliff, or a woman lying on her back with the blood all running from her throat. Whenever pictures like that were in any of the magazines that came into the house, Marise took them away from the little boys, although she knew helplessly that this naturally made them extremely keen not to miss any chance to catch a glimpse of such a one. She could see that they thought it queer, there being anything so exciting in this old album of dull snapshots and geographical picture-postcards of places and churches and ruins and things that Father and Mother had seen, so long ago. But you never could tell. The way Mother had spoken, the sound of her voice, the way she had flapped down the page quick, the little boys’ practised ears and eyes had identified all that to a certainty with the actions that accompanied pictures she didn’t want them to see. So, of course, they clamored, “Oh yes, Mother, just one look!”

Elly as usual said nothing, looking up into Mother’s face. Marise was extremely annoyed. She was glad that Elly was the only one who was looking at her, because, of course, dear old Mr. Welles’ unobservant eyes didn’t count. She was glad that Mr. Marsh kept his gaze downward on the photograph marked “Rome from the Pincian Gardens,” although through the top of his dark, close-cropped head she could fairly feel the racing, inquiring speculations whirling about. Nor had she any right to resent that. She supposed people had a right to what went on in their own heads, so long as they kept it to themselves. And it had been unexpectedly delicate and fine, the way he had come to understand, without a syllable spoken on either side, that that piercing look of his made her uneasy; and how he had promised her, wordlessly always, to bend it on her no more.

Why in the world had it made her uneasy, and why, a thousand times why, had she felt this sudden unwillingness to look at the perfectly commonplace photograph, in this company? Something had burst up from the subconscious and flashed its way into action, moving her tongue to speak and her hand to action before she had the faintest idea it was there . . . like an action of youth! And see what a silly position it had put her in!

The little boys had succeeded with the inspired tactlessness of children in emphasizing and exaggerating what she had wished could be passed over unnoticed, a gesture of hers as inexplicable to her as to them. Oh well, the best thing, of course, was to carry it off matter-of-factly, turn the leaf back, and let them see it. And then refute them by insisting on the literal truth of what she had said.

“There!” she said carelessly; “look at it then.”

The little boys bent their eager faces over it. Paul read out the title as he had been doing for the other photographs, “’View of the Campagna from the top of the cable-railway at Rocca di Papa. Rome in the distance.’”

She had to sustain, for an instant, an astonished and disconcerted look from all those eyes. It made her quite genuinely break into a laugh. It was really a joke on them. She said to the little boys mischievously, “What did Mother say? Do you find it very interesting?”

Paul and Mark stared hard at the very dull photograph of a cliff and a plain and not even a single person or donkey in it, and gave up the riddle. Mother certainly had spoken to them in that hide-it-away-from-the-children voice, and yet there was nothing there.

Marise knew that they felt somehow that Mother had unfairly slipped out between their fingers, as grown-ups are always doing. Well, it wasn’t fair. She hated taking advantage of them like that. It was a sort of sin against their awakening capacity to put two and two together and make a human total, and understand what went on about them.

But it hadn’t been against their capacity to put two and two together that she had instinctively thrown up that warding-off arm, which hadn’t at all warded off attention, but rather drawn it hard and scrutinizing, in spite of those down-dropped sharp eyes. Well, there was no sum he could do with only two, and slight probability he would ever get the other two to put with it . . . whatever the other two might be.

Mr. Welles’ pleasant old voice said, “It’s a very pretty picture, I’m sure. They certainly have very fine views about the Eternal City. I envy you your acquaintance with all those historic spots. What is the next one?”

Dear old Mr. Welles! What a restful presence! How unutterably sweet and uncomplicated life could be with a good big dose of simplicity holding everything in a clear solution, so that it never occurred to you that what things seemed was very different from what they were.

“Ready to turn over, dears?” she asked the little boys. This time she was in her usual control of the machine, regulated what she did from the first motion to the last, made her voice casual but not elaborately so, and put one arm around Mark’s slim little shoulder with just the right degree of uninterest in those old and faded photographs.

Very deep down, at the edge of consciousness, something asked her, “Why did you try to hide that photograph?”

She could not answer this question. She didn’t know why, any more than the little boys did. And it wouldn’t do now, with the need to be mistress-of-the-house till a call ended, to stop to try to think it out. Later on, tonight, after the children were in bed, when she was brushing her hair . . . oh, probably she’d find as you so often did, when you went after the cause of some unexpected little feeling, that it came from a meaningless fortuitous association of ideas, like Elly’s hatred of grape-jelly because she had once taken some bitter medicine in it.

“‘View of the Roman Aqueduct, taken from the tramway line to Tivoli,’” read out Paul.

“Very pretty view,” said Mr. Welles.

Mr. Marsh’s silences were as abysmal as his speech was Niagara-like on occasion. He said nothing.

Elly stirred and looked toward the doorway. Toucle stood there, her shoe-button eyes not blinking in the lamp-light although she probably had been sitting on the steps of the kitchen, looking out into the darkness, in the long, motionless vigil which made up Toucle’s evenings. As they all turned their faces towards her, she said, “The cereus is going to bloom tonight,” and disappeared.

Marise welcomed this diversion. Ever since that absurd little gesture about the photograph, she had felt thickening about her . . . what? What you call “depression” (whatever that meant), the dull hooded apparition that came blackly and laid its leaden hand on your heart. This news was just the thing. It would change what was threatening to stand stagnant and charge it with fresh running currents. She got up briskly to her feet.

“Come on, children,” she said. “I’ll let you sit up beyond bed-time tonight. Scatter quick, and put on your things. We’ll all go down the road to the Powers house and see the cereus in bloom.”

The children ducked quickly out of the room, thudding along softly in their felt slippers. Scramblings, chatterings, and stamping sounded back from the front hall, as they put on their boots and wraps.

“Wouldn’t you like to come, too?” she asked the men, rescuing them from the rather high-and-dry position in which this unexpected incident had left them. It was plainly, from their faces, as inexplicable as unexpected. She explained, drawing a long, plain, black silk scarf closely about her head and shoulders, “Why, yes, do come. It’s an occasion as uniquely Ashleyian as pelota is Basque. You, Mr. Marsh, with your exhaustive inquiries into the habits and manners of Vermont mountaineers, your data won’t be complete unless you’ve seen Nelly Powers’ night-blooming cereus in its one hour of glory. Seriously, I assure you, you won’t encounter anything like it, anywhere else.”

As Marsh looked at her, she noted with an inward amusement that her words had lighted a smouldering glow of carefully repressed exasperation in his eyes. It made her feel quite gay and young to be teasing somebody again. She was only paying him back in his own coin. He himself was always telling everybody about his deep interest in the curious quaint ways of these mountaineers. And if he didn’t have a deep interest in their curious quaint ways, what else could he give as a reason for staying on in the valley?

The men turned away to get their hats. She settled the folds of her heavy black silk mantilla more closely about her head, glancing at herself in the mirror. She smiled back with sympathy at the smiling face she saw there. It was not so often since the war that she saw her own face lighted with mirth.

Gravely, something deep on the edge of the unconscious called up to her, “You are talking and feeling like a coquette.”

She was indignant at this, up in arms to defend human freedom. “Oh, what a hateful, little-villagey, prudish, nasty-minded idea!” she cried to herself. “Who would have thought that narrowness and priggishness could rub off on a person’s mind like that! Mrs. Bayweather could have thought that! Mercy! As if one civilized being can’t indulge in a light touch or two in human intercourse with another!”

The two men were ready now and all the party of six jostled each other cheerfully as they went out of the front door. Paul had secured the hand of old Mr. Welles and led him along with an air of proprietary affection.

“Don’t you turn out the lamp, or lock the door, or anything?” asked the old man, now.

“Oh no, we won’t be gone long. It’s not more than half a mile to the Powers’. There’s not a soul in the valley who would think of going in and rummaging . . . let alone taking anything. And we never have tramps. We are too far from the railroad,” said Marise.

“Well!” exclaimed the other, looking back as they went down the path, “it certainly looks queer to me, the door standing open into this black night, and the light shining in that empty room.”

Elly looked back too. She slipped her hand out of her mother’s and ran towards the house. She darted up to the door and stood there, poised like a swallow, looking in.

“What does she want?” asked Mr. Welles with the naïve conviction of the elderly bachelor that the mother must know everything in the child’s mind.

“I don’t know,” admitted Marise. “Nobody ever knows exactly what is in Elly’s mind when she does things. Maybe she is looking to see that her kitten is safe.”

The little girl ran back to them.

“What did you want, dear?” asked her mother.

“I just wanted to look at it again,” said Elly. “I like it, like that, all quiet, with nobody in it. The furniture looks as though it were having a good rest from us.”

“Oh, listen to the frogs!” screamed Mark, out of the darkness where he had run to join Toucle.

Elly and Paul sprang forward to join their little brother.

“What in the world are we going to see?” asked Marsh. “You forget you haven’t given us the least idea.”

“You are going to see,” Marise set herself to amuse them, “you’re going to see a rite of the worship of beauty which Ashley, Vermont, has created out of its own inner consciousness.”

She had succeeded in amusing at least one of them, for at this Mr. Marsh gave her the not disagreeable shock of that singular, loud laugh of his. It was in conversation like something-or-other in the orchestra . . . the cymbals, that must be it . . . made you jump, and tingle with answering vibrations.

“Ashleyians in the rôle of worshipers of beauty!” he cried, out of the soft, moist, dense darkness about them.

“None so blind as those who won’t see,” she persisted. “Just because they go to it in overalls and gingham aprons, instead of péplums and sandals.”

“What is a night-blooming cereal?” asked Mr. Welles, patient of the verbose by-play of his companions that never got anybody anywhere.

What an old dear Mr. Welles was! thought Marise. It was like having the sweetest old uncle bestowed on you as a pendant to dear Cousin Hetty.

“. . . -eus, not -eal,” murmured Marsh; “not that I know any more than you what it is.”

Marise felt suddenly wrought upon by the mildness of the spring air, the high, tuneful shrillness of the frogs’ voices, the darkness, sweet and thick. She would not amuse them; no, she would really tell them, move them. She chose the deeper intonations of her voice, she selected her words with care, she played upon her own feeling, quickening it into genuine emotion as she spoke. She would make them feel it too.

“It is a plant of the cactus family, as native to America as is Ashley’s peculiar sense of beauty which you won’t acknowledge. It is as ugly to look at, the plant is, all spines and thick, graceless, fleshy pads; as ugly as Ashley life looks to you. And this crabbed, ungainly plant-creature is faithfully, religiously tended all the year around by the wife of a farmer, because once a year, just once, it puts forth a wonderful exotic flower of extreme beauty. When the bud begins to show its color she sends out word to all her neighbors to be ready. And we are all ready. For days, in the back of our minds as we go about our dull, routine life, there is the thought that the cereus is near to bloom. Nelly and her grim husband hang over it day by day, watching it slowly prepare for its hour of glory. Sometimes when they cannot decide just the time it will open, they sit up all through a long night, hour after hour of darkness and silence, to make sure that it does not bloom unseen. When they see that it is about to open, they fling open their doors, wishing above everything else to share that beauty with their fellows. Their children are sent to announce, as you heard Toucle say tonight, ‘The cereus is going to bloom.’ And all up and down this end of the valley, in those ugly little wooden houses that look so mean and dreary to you, everywhere people tired from their day’s struggle with the earth, rise up and go their pilgrimage through the night . . . for what? To see something rare and beautiful.”

She stopped speaking. On one side of her she heard the voice of the older man say with a quiver, “Well, I can understand why your neighbors love you.”

With entire unexpectedness Marsh answered fiercely from the other side, “They don’t love her! They’re not capable of it!”

Marise started, as though a charged electric wire had fallen across her arm. Why was there so often a note of anger in his voice?

For a moment they advanced silently, pacing forward, side by side, unseen but not unfelt by each of the others.

The road turned now and they were before the little house, every window alight, the great pine somber and high before it. The children and Toucle were waiting at the door. They all went in together, shaking hands with the mistress of the house, neatly dressed, with a clean, white flounced apron. “Nelly’s garment of ceremony!” thought Marise.

Nelly acknowledged, with a graceful, silent inclination of her shining blonde head, the presence of the two strangers whom Marise presented to her. What an inscrutable fascination Nelly’s silence gave to her! You never knew what strange thoughts were going on behind that proud taciturnity. She showed the guests to chairs, of which a great many, mostly already filled, stood about the center table, on which sprawled the great, spiny, unlovely plant. Marise sat down, taking little Mark on her knees. Elly leaned against her. Paul sat close beside old Mr. Welles. Their eyes were on the big pink bud enthroned in the uncomeliness of the shapeless leafpads.

“Oh!” said Elly, under her breath, “it’s not open yet! We’re going to see it open, this time!” She stared at it, her lips parted. Her mother looked at her, tenderly aware that the child was storing away an impression to last her life long. Dear, strangely compounded little Elly, with her mysticism, and her greediness and her love of beauty all jumbled together! A neighbor leaned from her chair to say to Mrs. Crittenden, “Warm for this time of year, ain’t it?” And another remarked, looking at Mark’s little trousers, “That material come out real good, didn’t it? I made up what I got of it, into a dress for Pearl.” They both spoke in low tones, but constrained or sepulchral, for they smiled and nodded as though they had meant something else and deeper than what they had said. They looked with a kindly expression for moment at the Crittenden children and then turned back to their gaze on the flower-bud.

Nelly Powers, walking with a singular lightness for so tall a woman, ushered in another group of visitors a tall, unshaven farmer, his wife, three little children clumping in on shapeless cow-hide boots, and a baby, fast asleep, its round bonneted head tucked in the hollow of its mother’s gingham-clad shoulder. They sat down, nodding silent greetings to the other neighbors. In turning to salute them, Marise caught a glimpse of Mr. Marsh, fixing his brilliant scrutiny first on one and then on another of the company. At that moment he was gazing at Nelly Powers, “taking her in” thought Marise, from her beautiful hair to those preposterously high-heeled shoes she always would wear on her shapely feet. His face was impassive. When he looked neutral like that, the curious irregularity of his features came out strongly. He looked like that bust of Julius Cæsar, the bumpy, big-nosed, strong-chinned one, all but that thick, closely cut, low-growing head of dark hair.

She glanced at Mr. Welles, and was surprised to find that he was looking neither at the people nor the plant. His arm was around his favorite Paul, but his gaze seemed turned inward, as though he were thinking of something very far away. He looked tired and old, it seemed to her, and without that quietly shining aspect of peace which she found so touching. Perhaps he was tired. Perhaps she ought not to have brought him out, this evening, for that long walk over rough country roads. How much older he was than his real age in years! His life had used him up. There must have been some inner maladjustment in it!

There was a little stir in the company, a small inarticulate sound from Elly. Marise saw everyone’s eyes turn to the center of the room and looked back to the plant. The big pink bud was beginning visibly to swell.

A silence came into the room. No one coughed, or stirred, or scraped a chair-leg. It was as though a sound would have wounded the flower. All those human souls bowed themselves. Almost a light shone upon them . . . a phrase from Dante came to Marise’s mind . . . “la mia menta fu percossa da un fulgore . . .”

With a quick involuntary turn she looked at Marsh, fearing his mockery of her, “quoting the Paradiso, about Vermont farmers!” as though he could know, for all those sharp eyes of his, what was going on hidden in her mind!

All this came and went in an instant, for she now saw that one big, shining petal was slowly, slowly, but quite visibly uncurling at the tip. From that moment on, she saw nothing, felt nothing but the opening flower, lived only in the incredibly leisurely, masterful motion with which the grotesquely shaped protecting petals curled themselves back from the center. Their motion was so slow that the mind was lost in dreaminess in following it. Had that last one moved? No, it stood still, poised breathlessly . . . and yet, there before them, revealed, exultant, the starry heart of the great flower shimmered in the lamp-light.

Then she realized that she had not breathed. She drew in a great marveling aspiration, and heard everyone about her do the same. They turned to each other with inarticulate exclamations, shaking their heads wonderingly, their lips a little apart as they drew long breaths.

Two very old women, rubbing their age-dimmed eyes, stood up, tiptoed to the table, and bent above the miraculously fine texture of the flower their worn and wrinkled faces. The petals cast a clear, rosy reflection upon their sallow cheeks. Some of the younger mothers took their little children over to the table and lifting them up till their round shining eyes were on a level with the flower, let them gaze their fill at the mysterious splendor of stamen and pistil.

“Would you like to go quite close and look at it, children?” Marise asked her own brood.

The little boys stepped forward at once, curiously, but Elly said, “No, oh no!” and backed off till she stood leaning against Toucle’s knee. The old woman put her dark hand down gently on the child’s soft hair and smiled at her. How curious it was to see that grim, battered old visage smile! Elly was the only creature in the world at whom the old Indian ever smiled, indeed almost the only thing in the house which those absent old eyes ever seemed to see. Marise remembered that Toucle had smiled when she first took the baby Elly in her arms.

A little murmur of talk arose now, from the assembled neighbors. They stood up, moved about, exchanged a few laconic greetings, and began putting their wraps on. Marise remembered that Mr. Welles had seemed tired and as soon as possible set her party in motion.

“Thank you so much, Nelly, for letting us know,” she said to the farmer’s wife, as they came away. “It wouldn’t seem like a year in our valley if we didn’t see your cereus in bloom.”

She took Elly’s hand in one of hers, and with Mark on the other side walked down the path to the road. The darkness was intense there, because of the gigantic pine-tree which towered above the little house. “Are you there, Paul?” she called through the blackness. The little boy’s voice came back, “Yes, with Toucle, we’re ahead.” The two men walked behind.

Elly’s hand was hot and clasped her mother’s very tightly. Marise bent over the little girl and divined in the darkness that she was crying. “Why, Elly darling, what’s the matter?” she asked.

The child cried out passionately, on a mounting note, “Nothing, nothing! Nothing!” She flung her arms around her mother’s neck, straining her close in a wild embrace. Little Mark, on the other side, yawned and staggered sleepily on his feet. Elly gave her mother a last kiss, and ran on ahead, calling over her shoulder, “I’m going to walk by myself!”

“Well!” commented the old gentleman.

Mr. Marsh had not been interested in this episode and had stood gazing admiringly up at the huge pine-tree, divining its bulk and mass against the black sky.

“Like Milton’s Satan, isn’t it?” was his comment as they walked on, “with apologies for the triteness of the quotation.”

For a time nothing was said, and then Marsh began, “Now I’ve seen it, your rite of the worship of beauty. And do you know what was really there? A handful of dull, insensitive, primitive beings, hardened and calloused by manual toil and atrophied imaginations, so starved for any variety in their stupefyingly monotonous life that they welcome anything, anything at all as a break . . . only if they could choose, they would infinitely prefer a two-headed calf or a bearded woman to your flower. The only reason they go to see that is because it is a curiosity, not because of its beauty, because it blooms once a year only, at night, and because there is only one of them in town. Also because everybody else goes to see it. They go to look at it only because there aren’t any movies in Ashley, nor anything else. And you know all this just as well as I do.”

“Oh, Mr. Welles,” Marise appealed to him, “do you think that is the truth of the facts?”

The old man pronounced judgment gently. “Well, I don’t know that anything is the truth. I should say that both of you told the truth about it. The truth’s pretty big for any one person to tell. Isn’t it all in the way you look at it?” He added, “Only personally I think Mrs. Crittenden’s the nicest way.”

Marsh was delighted with this. “There! I hope you’re satisfied. You’ve been called ‘nice.’ That ought to please any good American.”

“I wonder, Mr. Welles,” Marise said in an ostentatiously casual tone, “I wonder if Mr. Marsh had been an ancient Greek, and had stood watching the procession going up the Acropolis hill, bearing the thank-offerings from field and loom and vineyard, what do you suppose he would have seen? Dullness and insensitiveness in the eyes of those Grecian farmer-lads, no doubt, occupied entirely with keeping the oxen in line; a low vulgar stare of bucolic curiosity as the country girls, bearing their woven linen, looked up at the temple. Don’t you suppose he would have thought they managed those things a great deal more artistically in Persia?”

“Well, I don’t know much about the ancient Greeks,” said Mr. Welles mildly, “but I guess Vincent would have been about the same wherever he lived.”

“Who is satisfied with the verdict now?” triumphed Marise.

But she noticed that Marsh’s attack, although she considered that she had refuted it rather neatly, had been entirely; efficacious in destroying the aura of the evening. Of the genuine warmth of feeling which the flower and the people around it had roused in her heart, not the faintest trace was left. She had only a cool interested certainty that her side had a perfectly valid foundation for arguing purposes. Mr. Marsh had accomplished that, and more than that, a return from those other centers of feeling to her preoccupation with his own personality.

He now went on, “But I’m glad to have gone. I saw a great deal else there than your eccentric plant and the vacancy of mind of those sons of toil, cursed, soul-destroying toil. For one thing, I saw a woman of very great beauty. And that is always so much gained.”

“Oh yes,” cried Marise, “that’s so. I forgot that you could see that. I’ve grown so used to the fact that people here don’t understand how splendidly handsome Nelly Powers is. Their taste doesn’t run to the statuesque, you know. They call that grand silent calm of her, stupidness! Ever since ’Gene brought her here as a bride, a year after we came to live in Crittenden’s, I have gone out of my way to look at her. You should see her hanging out the clothes on a windy day. One sculptured massive pose after another. But even to see her walk across the room and bend that shining head is thrilling.”

“I saw something else, too,” went on Marsh, a cool voice speaking out of the darkness. “I saw that her black, dour husband is furiously in love with her and furiously jealous of that tall, ruddy fellow with an expressive face, who stood by the door in shirt-sleeves and never took his eyes from her.”

Marise was silent, startled by this shouting out of something she had preferred not to formulate.

“Vincent, you see too much,” said Mr. Welles resignedly. The phrase ran from his tongue as though it were a familiar one.

Marise said slowly, “I’ve sometimes thought that Frank Warner did go to the Powers’ a good deal, but I haven’t wanted to think anything more.”

“What possible reason in the world have you for not wanting to?” asked Marsh with the most authentic accent of vivid and astonished curiosity.

“What reason . . . ?” she repeated blankly.

He said dispassionately, “I don’t like to hear you make such a flat, conventional, rubber-stamp comment. Why in the world shouldn’t she love a fine, ardent, living man, better than that knotty, dead branch of a husband? A beautiful woman and a living, strong, vital man, they belong together. Whom God hath joined . . . Don’t try to tell me that your judgment is maimed by the Chinese shoes of outworn ideas, such as the binding nature of a mediaeval ceremony. That doesn’t marry anybody, and you know it. If she’s really married to her husband, all right. But if she loves another man, and knows in her heart that she would live a thousand times more fully, more deeply with him . . . why, she’s not married to her husband, and nothing can make her. You know that!”

Marise sprang at the chance to turn his own weapons of mockery against him. “Upon my word, who’s idealizing the Yankee mountaineer now?” she cried, laughing out as she spoke at the idea of her literal-minded neighbors dressed up in those trailing rhetorical robes. “I thought you said they were so dull and insensitive they could feel nothing but an interest in two-headed calves, and here they are, characters in an Italian opera. I only wish Nelly Powers were capable of understanding those grand languages of yours and then know what she thought of your idea of what’s in her mind. And as for ’Gene’s jealousy, I’ll swear that it amounts to no more than a vague dislike for Frank Warner’s ’all the time hanging around and gassin’ instead of stickin’ to work.’ And you forget, in your fine modern clean-sweep, a few old-fashioned facts like the existence of three Powers children, dependent on their mother.”

“You’re just fencing, not really talking,” he answered imperturbably. “You can’t pretend to be sincere in trying to pull that antimacassar home-and-mother stuff on me. Ask Bernard Shaw, ask Freud, ask Mrs. Gilman, how good it is for children’s stronger, better selves, to live in the enervating, hot-house concentration on them of an unbalanced, undeveloped woman, who has let everything else in her personality atrophy except her morbid preoccupation with her own offspring. That’s really the meaning of what’s sentimentally called ‘mothering.’ Probably it would be the best thing in the world for the Powers children if their mother ran away with that fine broth of a lad.”

“But Nelly loves her children and they love her!” Marise brought this out abruptly, impulsively, and felt, as she heard the words, that they had a flat, naïve sound, out of key with the general color of this talk, like a C Major chord introduced into Debussy nuances.

“Not much she doesn’t, nor they her. Any honest observer of life knows that the only sincere relation possible between the young and the old (after the babies are weaned) is hostility. We hated our elders, because they got in our way. And they’ll hate us as soon as they get the strength to, because we’ll be in their way. And we will hate them because they will want to push us off the scene. It’s impossible to ignore the gulf. Most human tragedies come from trying to pretend it’s not there.”

“Why, Mr. Welles,” cried Marise again, “what do you say to such talk? Don’t you find him perfectly preposterous?”

Mr. Welles answered a little absently. “Oh, I’m pretty well used to him, by now. And all his friends in the city are talking like that now. It’s the fashion. I’m so old that I’ve seen a good many fashions in talk come and go. I never could see that people acted any differently, no matter which way they talk.” As he finished, he drew a long sigh, which had obviously no connection with what he had been saying. With the sigh, came an emanation from him of dispirited fatigue. Marise wished she dared draw his hand upon her arm and ask him to lean on her as they walked.

Nothing more was said for a time. Marise lost herself in the outdoor wideness of impression that always came to her under a night sky, where she felt infinity hovering near. She was aware of nothing but the faint voice of the pines, the distant diminuendo of the frog’s song, the firm elastic quality of the ground under her feet, so different from the iron rigidity of the winter earth, and the cool soft pressure of the night-air on her cheeks, when, like something thrust into her mind from the outside, there rose into her consciousness, articulate and complete, the reason why she had shrunk from looking at the photograph of Rocca di Papa. It was because it was painful to her, intimately painful and humiliating to remember how she and Neale had felt there, the wild, high things they had said to each other, that astounding flood of feeling which had swept them away at the last. What had become of all that? Where now was that high tide?

Of course she loved Neale, and he loved her; there was nobody like Neale, yes, all that; but oh! the living flood had been ebbing, ebbing out of their hearts. They were not alive as they had been alive when they had clung to each other, there on that age-old rock, and felt the tide of all the ages lift them high.

It must have been ebbing for a long time before she realized it because, hurried, absorbed, surrounded incessantly by small cares as she was, hustled and jostled in her rôle of mother and mistress-of-the-house in servantless America, with the primitive American need to do so much with her own hands, she had not even had the time to know the stupid, tragic thing that was happening to her . . . that she was turning into a slow, vegetating plant instead of a human being. And now she understood the meaning of the strange dejection she had felt the day when little Mark went off to school with the others. How curiously jaded and apprehensive she had felt that morning, and when she had gone downstairs to see the callers who arrived that day. That was the first time she had felt that the tide was ebbing.

All this went through her mind with the cruel swiftness of a sword-flash. And the first reaction to it, involuntary and reflex, was to crush it instantly down, lest the man walking at her side should be aware of it. It had come to her with such loud precision that it seemed it must have been audible.

As she found herself still on the dark country road, cloaked and protected by the blackness of the starless night, she was struck with wonder, as though she had never thought of it before, at the human body, its opaque, inscrutable mystery, the locked, sealed strong-box of unimaginable secrets which it is. There they were, the three of them, stepping side by side, brushing each other as they moved; and as remote from each other as though they were on different stars. What were the thoughts, powerful, complex, under perfect control, which were being marshaled in that round, dark head? She felt a little afraid to think; and turned from the idea to the other man with relief. She knew (she told herself) as though she saw inside, the tired, gentle, simple, wistful thoughts that filled the white head on her other side.

With this, they were again at the house, where the children and Toucle had preceded them. Paul was laughing and saying, “Elly’s the looniest kid! She’s just been saying that Father is like . . .” Elly, in a panic, sprang up at him, clapping her hand over his mouth, crying out, “No, Paul, you shan’t tell! Don’t!”

The older, stronger child pulled himself away and, holding her at arm’s length, continued, “She said Father was like the end of her hair that’s fastened into her head, and Mother was the end that flaps in the wind, and Mr. Marsh was like the Eagle Rock brook, swirly and hurrying the way it is in the spring.”

Elly, half crying, came to her mother. “Mother, it’s nasty-horrid in Paul to tell when I didn’t want him to.”

Marise began taking off the little girl’s coat. “It wasn’t very kind in Paul, but there was nothing in those funny little fancies to hide, dear.”

“I didn’t care about you and Father!” explained the child. “Only . . .” She looked at Mr. Marsh from under downbent brows.

“Why, Elly, I am very much complimented, I’m sure,” Marsh hastened to tell her, “to be compared with such a remarkably nice thing as a brook in spring-time. I didn’t suppose any young lady would ever have such a poetic idea about me.”

“Oh . . .” breathed Elly, relieved, “well . . .”

“Do you suppose you little folks can get yourselves to bed without me?” asked Marise. “If one of you big children will unbutton Mark in the back, he can manage the rest. I must set a bread-sponge before I go upstairs.”

They clung to her imploringly. “But you’ll be upstairs in time to kiss us good-night in our beds,” begged Elly and Mark together. Paul also visibly hung on his mother’s answer.

Marise looked down into their clear eyes and eager faces, reaching out to her ardently, and she felt her heart melt. What darlings they were! What inestimable treasures! How sweet to be loved like that!

She stooped over them and gathered them all into a great armful, kissing them indiscriminately. “Yes, of course, I will . . . and give you an extra kiss now!” she cried.

She felt Marsh’s eyes on her, sardonically.

She straightened herself, saying with affectionate roughness, “There, that’s enough. Scamper along with you. And don’t run around with bare feet!”

She thought to herself that she supposed this was the sort of thing Marsh meant when he spoke about hot-house enervating concentration. She had been more stung by that remark of his than she had been willing to acknowledge to Marsh or to herself.

But for the moment, any further reflection on it was cut short by the aspect of Mr. Welles’ face. He had sunk into a chair near the lamp, with an attitude and an expression of such weariness, that Marise moved quickly to him. “See here, Mr. Welles,” she said impulsively, “you have something on your mind, and I’ve got the mother-habit so fastened on me that I can’t be discreet and pretend not to notice it. I want to make you say what the trouble is, and then flu it right, just as I would for one of mine.”

The old man looked up at her gratefully and reaching out one of his wrinkled hands took hers in it. “It does me good to have you so nice to me,” he said, “but I’m afraid even you can’t fix it right. I’ve had a rather distressing letter today, and I can’t seem to get it out of my mind.”

“Schwatzkummerer can’t send the gladioli,” conjectured Marsh.

For the first time since he had entered the house, Marise felt a passing dislike for him. She had often felt him to be hard and ruthless, but she had never seen anything cheap in him, before, she thought.

“What was your letter?” she asked the older man.

“Oh, nothing in the least remarkable, nothing new,” he said heavily. “I’ve got a cousin whom I haven’t seen since she was a little little girl, though she must be somewhere near my age, now. She has been a teacher in a school for Negroes, down in Georgia, for years, most of her life. But I had sort of lost track of her, till I had to send her some little family trinkets that were left after my old aunt died. Her letter, that I received today, is in answer to that. And while she was writing, she gave me her news, and told me a good deal about conditions down there. Pretty bad, I should think it, pretty bad.”

A little spasm crossed his face. He shook his head, as though to shake off a clinging filament of importunate thought.

“What’s the trouble? Do they need money, the school?” asked Marise with a vague idea of getting up a contribution.

“No, my cousin didn’t say anything about that. It’s not so simple. It’s the way the Negroes are treated. No, not lynchings, I knew about them. But I knew they don’t happen every day. What I hadn’t any idea of, till her letter came, was how every day, every minute of every day, they’re subject to indignity that they can’t avoid, how they’re made to feel themselves outsiders and unwelcome in their own country. She says the Southern white people are willing to give them anything that will make good day-laborers of them, almost anything in fact except the thing they can’t rise without, ordinary human respect. It made a very painful impression on my mind, her letter, very. She gave such instances. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. For instance, one of the small things she told me . . . it seems incredible . . . is that Southern white people won’t give the ordinary title of respect of Mr. or Mrs. or Dr. even to a highly educated Negro. They call them by their first names, like servants. Think what an hourly pin-prick of insult that must be. Ever since her letter came, I’ve been thinking about it, the things she told me, about what happens when they try to raise themselves and refine themselves, how they’re made to suffer intimately for trying to be what I thought we all wanted all Americans to be.” He looked at Marise with troubled eyes. “I’ve been thinking how it would feel to be a Negro myself. What a different life would be in front of your little Elly if she had Negro blood!”

Marise had listened to him in profound silence. Sheer, unmixed astonishment filled her mind, up to the brim. Of all the totally unexpected things for Mr. Welles to get wrought up about!

She drew a long breath. How eternally disconcerting human beings are! There she had been so fatuously sure, out there on the walk home, that she knew exactly what was in that old white head. And all the time it had been this. Who could have made the faintest guess at that? It occurred to her for the first time that possibly more went on under Mr. Welles’ gently fatigued exterior than she thought.

She found not a word to say, so violent and abrupt was the transition of subject. It was as though she had been gazing down through a powerful magnifying glass, trying to untangle with her eyes a complicated twist of moral fibers, inextricably bound up with each other, the moral fibers that made up her life . . . and in the midst of this, someone had roughly shouted in her ear, “Look up there, at that distant cliff. There’s a rock on it, all ready to fall off!”

She could not be expected all of a sudden, that way, to re-focus her eyes. And the rock was so far away. And she had such a dim sense of the people who might be endangered by it. And the confusion here, under the microscope of her attention, was so vital and immediate, needing to be understood and straightened before she could go on with her life.

She looked at the old man in an astonishment which she knew must seem fairly stupid to him, but she could not bring out anything else. What was it to her, whether a Negro physician was called Dr. or “Jo”?

Mr. Welles patted her hand, released it, smiled at her kindly, and stood up. “I’m pretty tired. I guess we’d better be getting along home, Vincent and I.”

“Well, I should say we would better be getting along home to bed!” agreed the other man, coming forward and slipping his arm under the older man’s. “I’ll tuck you up, my old friend, with a good hot toddy inside you, and let you sleep off this outrageously crazy daylight nightmare you’ve cooked up for yourself. And don’t wake up with the fate of the Japanese factory-hand sitting on your chest, or you’ll get hard to live with.”

Mr. Welles answered this with literal good faith. “Oh, the Japanese factory-hands, they’re not on the conscience of Americans.”

“But, when I see an aged and harmless inhabitant of Ashley, Vermont, stretching his poor old protesting conscience till it cracks, to make it reach clear down to the Georgia Negroes, how do I know where he’s going to stop?”

The old man turned to their hostess. “Well, good-night, Mrs. Crittenden. I enjoyed seeing that wonderful flower very much. I wonder if I could grow one like it? It would be something to look forward to, to have the flower open in your own house.”

To Marise he looked so sweet and good, and like a tired old child, that she longed to kiss him good-night, as she had her own. But even as she felt the impulse, she had again a startled sense of how much more goes on under the human surface than ever appears. Evidently Mr. Welles, too, was a locked and sealed strong-box of secrets.

In the doorway Marsh stopped abruptly and said, looking at the dense, lustreless black silk wrap about Marise’s head and shoulders, “What’s that thing? I meant to ask you when you put it on.”

She felt as she often did when he spoke to her, as startled as though he had touched her. What an extraordinarily living presence he was, so that a word from him was almost like an actual personal contact. But she took care not to show this. She looked down casually at the soft, opaque folds of her wrap. “Oh, this is a thousand years old. It dates from the Bayonne days. It’s Basque. It’s their variation, I imagine, on the Spanish mantilla. They never wear hats, the Basque women. The little girls, when they have made their first communion, wear a scarf of light net, or open transparent lace. And when they marry they wear this. It’s made of a special sort of silk, woven just for this purpose. As far away as you can see a woman in the Basque country, if she wears this, you know she’s married.”

“Oh, you do, do you?” said Marsh, going out after his companion.

They were very far from the Negroes in Georgia.