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

MARISE LOOKS DOWN ON THE STARS

July 22.

She passed out from the office into the yellow glare of the sun, her feet moving steadily forward, with no volition of hers, along the dusty road. And as steadily, with as little volition of hers, march, march, came . . . first what Eugenia had said, the advance from that to Mrs. Powers’ words, from that to the stenographer’s, to the name on the envelope . . . and then like the door to a white-hot blast-furnace thrown open in her face, came the searing conception of the possibility that it might be true, and all the world lost.

The extremity and horror of this aroused her to a last effort at self-preservation so that she flung the door shut by a fierce incapacity to believe any of those relentless facts which hung one from another with their horrible enchaining progression. No, she had been dreaming. It was all preposterous!

The heat wavered up from the hot earth in visible pulsations and there pulsed through her similar rhythmic waves of feeling; the beginning . . . what Eugenia had said, had said that Neale had told her . . . what Mrs. Powers had said, “Lots of men that run mills do that sort of thing” . . . what the stenographer had said . . . the name on the envelope . . . suppose it should be true.

She was at Cousin Hetty’s door now; a give-and-take of women’s voices sounding within. “Here’s Mrs. Crittenden back. Come on, Nelly, we better be going. There’s all the work to do.”

Marise went in and sat down, looking at them with stony indifference, at ’Gene this time as well as at the women. The drawn sickness of his ashy face did not move her in the least now. What did she care what he did, what anyone did, till she knew whether she had ever had Neale or not? The women’s chatter sounded remote and foolish in her ears.

If Neale had done that . . . if that was the man he was . . . but of course it was preposterous, and she had been dreaming. What was that that Eugenia had said? The descent into hell began again step by step.

The Powers went out, the old woman still talking, chattering, as if anything mattered now.

After they were gone, Agnes ran to the door calling, “Mis’ Powers! You forgot your pan and towel after all!” And there was Mrs. Powers again, talking, talking.

She had been saying something that needed an answer apparently, for now she stood waiting, expectant.

“What was that, Mrs. Powers? I was thinking of something else.”

“I was just tellin’ you that there’s going to be a big change over to our house. ’Gene, he told Nelly, as he was setting here waiting for you, how he was going to cut down the big pine one of these days, like she always wanted him to. You know, the one that shades the house so. ’Gene’s grandfather planted it, and he’s always set the greatest store by it. Used to say he’d just as soon cut his grandmother’s throat as chop it down. But Nelly, she’s all housekeeper and she never did like the musty way the shade makes our best room smell. I never thought to see the day ’Gene would give in to her about that. He’s gi’n in to her about everything else though. Only last night he was tellin’ her, he was going to take something out’n the savings-bank and buy her an organ for Addie to learn to play on, that Nelly always hankered after. Seems ’sthough he can’t do enough for Nelly, don’t it?”

Marise looked at her coldly, incapable of paying enough attention to her to make any comment on what she said. Let them cut down all the trees in the valley, and each other’s throats into the bargain, if Neale had . . . if there had never been her Neale, the Neale she thought she had been living with, all these years.

Mrs. Powers had gone finally, and the house was silent at last, so silent that she could now hear quite clearly, as though Eugenia still sat there, what the sweet musical voice was saying over and over. Why had they gone away and left her alone to face this deadly peril which advanced on her step by step without mercy, time after time? Now there was nothing to do but to wait and stand it off.

She was sitting in the same chair, her umbrella still in her hand, waiting, when Agnes came in to say that she had lunch ready. She turned eyes of astonished anger and rebuke on her. “I don’t want anything to eat,” she said in so strange a voice that Agnes crept back to the kitchen, shuffling and scared.

She was still sitting there, looking fixedly before her, and frowning, when Agnes came to the door to say timidly that the gentleman had come about using his car to meet the train, and wanted to know if he could see Mrs. Crittenden.

Marise looked at her, frowning, and shook her head. But it was not until late that night that she understood the words that Agnes had spoken.

She was still sitting there, rigid, waiting, when Agnes brought in a lighted lamp, and Marise saw that evening had come. The light was extremely disagreeable to her eyes. She got up stiffly, and went outdoors to the porch, sitting down on the steps.

The stars were beginning to come out now. The sight of them suggested something painful, some impression that belonged to that other world that had existed before this day, before she had conceived the possibility that Neale might not be Neale, might never have been Neale, that there was no such thing for her as human integrity. Was it she who had leaned out from the window and felt herself despised by the height and vastness of the stars? From the height and vastness of her need, she looked down on them now, and found them nothing, mere pin-pricks in the sky, compared to this towering doubt of her, this moral need which shouted down all the mere matter on the earth and in the heavens above the earth. Something eternal was at stake now, the faith in righteousness of a human soul.

She had thought childishly, shallowly last night that she had had no faith, and could live with none. That was because she had not conceived what it would be to try to live without faith, because she had not conceived that the very ground under her feet could give way. At that very moment she had had a faith as boundless as the universe, and had forgotten it. And now it was put in doubt. She could not live without it. It was the only vital thing for her.

Was she the woman who had felt forced into acquiescing when Vincent Marsh had said so boldly and violently, that she loved her husband no more, that he was nothing to her now? It seemed to her at this moment that it was a matter of the utmost unimportance whether she loved him or not; but she could not live without believing him. That was all. She could not live without that. Life would be too utterly base . . .

Neale nothing to her? She did not know what he was to her, but the mere possibility of losing her faith in him was like death. It was a thousand times worse than death, which was merely material. This mattered a great deal more than the physical death of someone’s body . . . it was the murder, minute by minute, hour by hour, month by month, year by year of all her married life, of all she had found lovable and tolerable and beautiful and real in life.

Of course this could not be true . . . of course not . . . but if it were true, she would find the corrosive poison of a false double meaning in every remembered hour. She did not believe any of those hideously marshaled facts, but if they were true, she would go back over all those recollections of their life together and kill them one by one, because every hour of her life had been founded on the most unthinking, the most absolute, the most recklessly certain trust in Neale. To know that past in peril, which she had counted on as safe, more surely than on anything in life, so surely that she had almost dismissed it from her mind like a treasure laid away in a safe hiding-place . . . to know those memories in danger was a new torture that had never before been devised for any human being. No one had the safe and consecrated past taken from him. Its pricelessness shone on her with a blinding light. What if it should be taken away, if she should find she had never had it, at all . . . ?

The idea was so acute an anguish to her that she startled herself by a cry of suffering.

Agnes’ voice behind her asked tremblingly, “Did you call me, Miss Marise?”

Marise shifted her position, drew a breath, and answered in a hard tone, “No.”

She knew with one corner of her mind that Agnes must be terrified. What if she were? Marise’s life-long habit of divining another’s need and ministering to it, vanished like a handful of dust in a storm. What did she care about Agnes? What did she care about anything in the world but that she should have back again what she had valued so little as to lose it from her mind altogether? All of her own energy was strained in the bitterness of keeping her soul alive till Neale should come. She had not the smallest atom of strength to care about the needs of anyone else.

She looked up at the stars, disdainful of them. How small they were, how unimportant in the scheme of things, so much less able to give significance to the universe, than the presence of integrity in a human soul.

If she could have Neale back again, as she had always had him without thinking of it, if she could have her faith in him again, the skies might shrivel up like a scroll, but something eternal would remain in her life.

It seemed to her that she heard a faint sound in the distance, on the road, and her strength ran out of her like water. She tried to stand up but could not.

Yes, it was the car, approaching. The two glaring headlights swept the white road, stopped, and went out. For an instant the dark mass stood motionless in the starlight. Then something moved, a man’s tall figure came up the path.

“Is that you, Marise?” asked Neale’s voice.

She had not breath to speak, but all of her being cried out silently to him the question which had had all the day such a desperate meaning for her, “Is that you, Neale?”