Read CHAPTER XII of People of the Whirlpool, free online book, by Mabel Osgood Wright, on ReadCentral.com.

HIS MOTHER

July 1. It was several days after the festival before the news of the Latham divorce was made definitely public by a paragraph under the heading of “Society News,” in one of the New York papers, though of course the rumour had crept into every house on the Bluffs, by way of the back stairs.

Miss Lavinia was greatly distressed, and yet did not know exactly how to act in the matter; for though Mrs. Latham was seen driving by, as usual, Sylvia made no sign.

We may read of such cases often enough, and yet when the blow falls in the immediate neighbourhood, one must feel the reflex of the shock. While sympathy for Sylvia keeps the thing ever present, like a weight upon the chest, I find myself wondering if anything could have been done to avert the disaster, and we all rove about in a half unsettled condition. Half a dozen times a day Lavinia Dorman starts up with the determination of calling upon Sylvia, but this morning decided upon writing her a letter instead, and having sent it up by Timothy Saunders, is now sitting out in the arbour, while Martin Cortright is reading to her from his manuscript; but her attention is for the first time divided, and she is continually glancing up the road as if expecting a summons, a state of things that causes an expression of mild surprise and disappointment to cross Martin’s countenance at her random and inapropos criticisms. I see that in my recent confusion I have forgotten to record the fact that Miss Lavinia has fallen into the rôle of critic for Martin’s book, and that for the last ten days, as a matter of course, he reads to her every afternoon the result of his morning’s work, finding, as he says, that her power of condensation is of the greatest help in enabling him to eliminate much of the needless detail of his subject that blocked him, and to concentrate his vitality upon the rest.

This all looks promising, to my romantic mind; for the beginning of all kinds of affection, physical, mental, and spiritual, that are huddled together in varying proportions as component parts of love, has its origin in dependence. Father declares independence, selfishness, and aloofness to be the trinity of hell. Now Martin Cortright has come to depend upon Lavinia Dorman’s opinion, and she is beginning not only to realize and enjoy his dependence, but to aid and abet it. Is not this symptomatic?

When I approach father upon the Latham affair, he says that he thinks the rupture was inevitable from the point of view and conditions that existed. He feels, from the evidence that long experience with the inner life of households has given him, that though a thoughtless woman may be brought to realize, and a woman with really bad inherited instincts reclaimed, through love, the wholly selfish woman of Mrs. Latham’s type remains immovable to word of God or man, and is unreachable, save through the social code of the class that forms her world, and this code sanctions both the marriage and the divorce of convenience, and receives the results equally with open arms.

As to the effect upon Sylvia, father exhibits much concern, and no little anxiety, for he has read her as a nature in some respects old for her twenty-one years, and in others, the side of the feminine, wholly young and unawakened, so that this jar, he thinks, comes at a most critical moment.

He has a pretty theory that the untroubled heart of a young girl is like a vessel full of the fresh spring sap of the sugar maple that is being freed by slow fire from its crudities and condensed to tangible form. When a certain point is reached, it is ready to crystallize about the first object that stirs it ever so lightly, irrespective of its quality: this is first love. But if the condensing process is lingering, no jar disturbing it prematurely until, as it reaches perfection, the vital touch suddenly reaches its depths, then comes real love, perfected at first sight, clinging everlastingly to the object, love that endures by its own strength, not by mere force of habit; and this love belongs only to the heart’s springtime, before full consciousness has made it speculative.

When Horace Bradford drove homeward the afternoon of the fête, he was in a brown study, having no realization of time or place until the wise horse turned in at the barnyard gate, and after standing a moment by his usual hitching post, looked over his shoulder and gave a whinny to attract his master’s attention. Then Horace started up, shook off his lethargy, and hurried to the porch, where his mother stood waiting, to give her the roses, and Sylvia’s message.

Mrs. Bradford was, for one of her reserve, almost childishly eager to hear of the experiences of the afternoon, and was prepared to sit down comfortably on the porch and have her son give a full account of it; but instead, he gave her a few rather incoherent details, and leaving her standing with the splendid roses held close to her face, very much in Sylvia’s own attitude, he hurried up to his room, where she could hear him moving about as if unpacking his things, and opening and shutting drawers nervously.

“Never mind,” she said softly to herself, “he will tell me all about her when he is ready. Meanwhile, I’ll wait, and not get in his way, that is what mothers are for.” But by some strange impulse she loosened the string that bound the roses, and placed them in one of her few treasures, a silver bowl, in the centre of the supper table, and going to her bedchamber, which was, country fashion, back of the sitting room, arrayed herself in Horace’s gifts, the silk gown and fichu, with the onyx bar and butterflies to fasten it, and then returned to the porch to watch the twilight gently veil sunset.

Upstairs, Horace unpacked his trunks in a rebellious mood. In the morning he had felt in the proper sense self-sufficient and contented, the position, which a few months before he thought perhaps ten years ahead of him, had suddenly dropped at his feet, and he felt a natural elation, though it stopped quite short of self-conceit. He could afford to relax the grip with which he had been holding himself in check, and face the knowledge that he loved Sylvia; while the fact that fate had brought her to summer in his vicinity seemed but another proof that fortune was smiling upon him.

Now everything, though outwardly the same, was changed by the new point of view, which he realized that he had already tried to conceal from his mother, by his scanty account of the festival. He had been suddenly confronted by conditions that he never expected to meet outside of the pages of fiction, and felt himself utterly unable to combat them. Under the present circumstances even neighbourly friendship with Sylvia would be difficult. It was not that Mrs. Latham had overawed him in the least, but she had raised in him so fierce and blinding a resentment by her only half unconscious reference to his mother, that he resolved that under no circumstances should she run the risk of being equally rebuffed. He would protect her from a possible intercourse, where she could not be expected, at her age, to hold her own, at no matter what cost to himself.

“Egg woman!” Was it not his mother’s pride and endeavour, her thrift and courage to carry on the great farm alone, and the price of such things as those very eggs, that had carried through his dying father’s wish, and sent him to college, thus giving him his chance in the world? No regret at the fact, no false pride, dawned on him even for a second. All his rage was that such a woman as Sylvia’s mother should have the power to stir him so, and then his love for Sylvia herself, intensified by pity for the unknown trouble that he sensed rather than read in her face, cut into him like a wound. He felt as if he must pick her up in his strong arms and bear her away from all those clamouring people; and then the realization both of his inability and ignorance of her own attitude fell upon him like a chill, for she had never written or said a word to him that might not have passed between any two college friends. Such thoughts occupied him, until finally, as often fortunately happens in our mental crises, a humdrum, domestic voice, the supper bell, called him, and leaving his garments strewn about the room, he went downstairs.

His mother was still sitting in the porch, and he became at once conscious of a change in her appearance. As she looked up in pleased expectancy, he recognized the cause, and his sternness vanished instantly, as he said, “How fine we look to-night,” and half sitting on the little foot-bench beside her, and half kneeling, he touched the soft lace, and gently kissed the withered cheek whose blood was still not so far from the surface but that it could return in answer to the caress, while she looked yearningly into the eyes that even now were hardly on a level with hers, as if searching for the cause of what might be troubling him. Yet she only said, as they rose and went indoors, “I put on your gifts for you, at our first supper together,” adding with an unconsciousness that made Horace smile in spite of himself, “besides, I shouldn’t wonder if some of the neighbours might drop in to see us, for it must have got about by this time that you’ve come home; the mail carrier saw you drive out this morning, I’m quite sure.”

Neighbours did call; some from pure friendliness, others to see if “Horace acted set up by his new callin’ and fortune,” and still others, who had been to the Bluffs that afternoon, to tell of the wonders of the festival, their praise or condemnation varying according to age, until Mrs. Bradford was at a loss whether to think the affair a spectacle of fairyland or a vision of the bottomless pit, and Horace was in torment lest he should be appealed to for an opinion, which he was presently. “What did he think of the tea room? Was Mrs. Latham painted? Was she Sylvia’s mother, or step-mother, and if she was the former, didn’t she act dreadful giddy for the mother of grown children? And didn’t he think Sylvia was just sweet, so different from the rest, and sort of sad, as if she had a step-mother, as people said, and was sat on?” The questioner being the very woman for whom Sylvia had taken such pains in selecting the bouquet of specimen roses, who proved to be the new wife of a neighbour whom Horace had not met.

It seemed to Horace that his mother purposely looked away from him as he tried to pull himself together, and answer nonchalantly that he believed that Mrs. Latham was Sylvia’s own mother, though she did appear very young, and that of course she was acting the part of a Geisha girl, a tea-seller, which would account for her sprightly manner, etc., unconsciously putting what he wished in the place of what he knew, adding with a heartiness that almost made his voice tremble that Miss Sylvia certainly did seem different, and as if she was no kin of her mother’s.

“I guess, then, likely it isn’t her step-mother, but that she’s worried in her mind about her beau,” continued the loquacious woman, pleased at having such a large audience for her news. “I heard some folks say, when I was waitin’ about for my cream, and havin’ a good look at all the millionnaires, which they didn’t mind, but seemed to expect, the same bein’ fair enough, seein’ as it’s what I paid to go in for, that the man they call Mr. Bell, that’s been hangin’ around the Bluffs since spring, is courtin’ her steady, but she can’t seem to make up her mind. Thinks I to myself, I don’t wonder, for I’ve had a good look at him, and he’s well over forty, and though he dresses fine, from his eyes I wouldn’t trust him, if he was a pedler, even to weigh out my rags and change ’em for tin, without I’d shook the scales well first. The same folks was sayin’ that he’s a grass widower, anyway, and I shouldn’t think her folks would put up with that, fixed as they be, yet they do say,” and here her voice dropped mysteriously, “that Mrs. Latham’s a kind of grass widder herself, for her husband hasn’t turned up in all the year she’s been here, and nobody’s so much as seen his name to a check.”

At this point Mrs. Bradford made an effort to turn the conversation into other channels; for friendly as she always was with her neighbours of all degrees, she never allowed unkind gossip in her house, and only a newcomer would have ventured upon it. As it was, the loquacious one felt the rebuke in the air, and made hasty adieus on the plea of having to set bread, leaving the rest to talk to their host of themselves, their pleasure at his return, and the local interests of Pine Ridge.

When they had all gone, Horace locked the back door, after filling an old yellow and bronze glazed pitcher, which bric-a-brac hunters would have struggled for, at the well, as he had done every night during his boyhood, he left it on the hall table, and going out the front way to the garden, walked up and down the long straight walk, between the sweet peas and rose bushes, for more than an hour, until, having fought to no conclusion the battle into which a new foe had entered, he returned to the house and went noiselessly to his room.

Here, in place of the confusion he had left, quiet and order reigned. All his clothes were laid away in their old places. He had but to reach his hand inside the closet, the door of which hesitated before opening in its familiar way, to find his night gear; the sheets were turned down at the exact angle, and the pillows arranged one crosswise, one upright, as he liked them, his mother’s remembering touch was upon everything.

He undressed without striking a light, and lay down, only to look wakefully out at the dark lattice of tree branches against the moonlit sky. Presently a step sounded on the stairs and paused at his partly open door. He raised himself on his elbow, and peering through the crack saw his mother standing there in night-dress and short sack, shading the candle with her hand as she used when he was a little chap, to make sure that he was safe asleep and had not perhaps crept out the window to go coon hunting with the bigger boys, a proceeding his father always winked at, but which she feared would lead him to overdo and get a fever.

“I’m here, mother,” he said cheerfully.

“Are you quite comfortable, Horace? Is there nothing that you want?”

He hesitated a moment, and then said frankly, “Yes and no, mother.”

“Is it anything that I can do for you?” she asked, coming into the room and smoothing his hair as she spoke.

“Ah, that is the no of it, and the hard part,” he answered, capturing the hand and holding it tight between his own.

“And the hard part for your old mother too, when the one thing comes that she cannot give or do. Whatever it is, don’t shut me out from it, Horace, that is, unless you must,” and tucking the light summer quilt in Under the pillow by one of his hands, she kissed his forehead and went away.

Horace Bradford must have slept, for his next consciousness was of the fresh wind and light of morning, and as he drew his cramped hand from under his pillow, something soft and filmy came with it, a woman’s handkerchief edged with lace.

For a minute he held it in surprise, and then began to search the corners for the marking. There it was, two embroidered initials, S.L. Where had it dropped from? Who had put it there? Was it a message or an accident? Yet it was both and neither. His mother had found the dainty thing in the package from New York that held the gown and ornaments, where it had dropped from Sylvia’s waist that night, four months before, when she stood leaning on Miss Lavinia Dorman’s table, as the parcel was being tied.

Mrs. Bradford had pondered over it silently until, the day when I went to see her and chanced to mention Sylvia Latham’s name, its identity flashed upon her; and when gropingly she came to associate this name with something that troubled Horace, obliterating self and mother jealousy, she tucked the bit of linen underneath his pillow, with an undefined idea, knowing nothing, in the hope that it might comfort him. And so it did; for even when he learned the manner of its coming, he put it in his letter case as a reminder not to despair but wait.

When a week had passed and the matter of the divorce had been well aired, discussed, and was no longer a novelty to her neighbours on the Bluffs, Mrs. Latham’s plan of soon closing her cottage and transferring the servants to Newport, with the exception of the stable men and a couple of caretakers, was announced, as she was going abroad for the baths. The same day Lavinia Dorman received an urgent note from Sylvia, asking her “when and where she could see her alone, if, as she thought likely, she did not feel inclined to come to the house.” The tone of the brief note showed that Sylvia felt the whole matter to be a keen disgrace that not only compromised herself but her friends.

Of course Miss Lavinia went, and would have gone even if she had to combat Mrs. Latham, for whom she asked courteously at the door; but that lady, for some reason, did not choose to appear and run the gantlet, and sent an elaborate message about a sick headache by the now somewhat crestfallen Perkins. Presently Sylvia slipped into the morning room, and crouching by Miss Lavinia, buried her face in her friend’s lap, the tension at last giving way, and it was some time before she grew quiet enough to talk coherently, and tell her plan, which is this: she wishes Miss Lavinia to take the Alton cottage (which is furnished) at the foot of the Bluffs, for the rest of the season, and live there with her. Then as soon as Mrs. Latham has gone, and the poor girl has steadied herself, her father, to whom she has already written, will come, and what she will do in the autumn will be arranged. Everything is as yet vague; but one thing she has decided for herself under no circumstances will she again live with her mother, and she is now staying quietly in the house and taking her meals in her room, in order to give the scandalmongers and gossips as little material as possible.

Lavinia Dorman, who readily consented to do as she asked, says that Sylvia is brave and heartbroken at the same time, that all her girlish spontaneity has gone, and she is like a statue.

I am so sorry to have Miss Lavinia go, even a few hundred yards down the road, it has seemed so good to have an older woman in the house to whom I can say, “Would you, or wouldn’t you?” Martin is also quite upset, and has stopped writing and begun fumbling and pulling the reference books about again; but Miss Lavinia says that she is not going to give up the afternoon reading, for she thinks the history is a work of importance not to be slighted, and that Sylvia will doubtless take up her own reading and practising after a time; that while she herself has willingly consented to chaperon her, she does not intend to give up her own freedom, nor would it be good for Sylvia if she did.

Yesterday morning Miss Lavinia received a letter from Sylvester Latham, thanking her for the offer of temporary protection for his daughter, and telling her, in curt business terms, meant to be affable, to name her own price for the office.

I have never before seen the ladylike Lavinia Dorman so completely and ungovernably angry. I could do nothing with her, and last evening it took the united efforts of Martin, father, and Evan to convince her that it was not a real affront. Poor Mr. Latham, he has not yet gotten beyond money valuation of friendship; but then it is probably because he has had no chance. Perhaps but no, life is too serious just now in that quarter for me to allow myself remotely pleasant perhapses.

Miss Lavinia was too agitated to play piquet to-night, so she and Martin sat in the porch where the light from the hall lamp was sufficient to enable them to play a couple of games of backgammon, to steady her nerves, she said; and presently, as the dice ceased rattling, Evan gave me a nudge of intelligence, and looking over I found that they had reversed the board and were playing “Give away” with checkers.

“After this, what?” I whispered to Evan.

“Jackstraws,” he answered, shaking with silent laughter.

Horace Bradford turned his mind for the next few days to the many things about the place that needed his attention, resolving that he would let a week or so elapse before making any further attempt to see Sylvia, and in that time hoped to find Miss Lavinia at home, and from her possibly receive some light upon the gossip about Mr. Bell, as well as news of Sylvia herself.

The sinking-fund for repairs and rebuilding the house that he and his mother had been accumulating ever since he had made his own way, he found to be in a healthy condition. A new hay barn and poultry house was to be put up at once; and, as soon as practicable, his wish of many years, to restore the brick house, that had been marred by “lean-tos” in the wrong places, to its colonial simplicity, could be at least begun.

Every day until two or three o’clock in the afternoon he gave to these affairs, and then he went to his books. But here again he met with a strange surprise, a new sensation, he could neither fix his mind upon writing, nor take in what he read; the letters were as meaningless as fly specks on the pages. After a day or two he gave up the attempt. He had worked too closely during the last term, he thought; his sight did not register on his brain, he had heard of such cases; he would rest a week or so.

Then every afternoon he walked over the Ridge to the little river in the valley, carrying a book in his pocket, and his fishing-rod as a sort of excuse, and poling an old flatboat down-stream to a shady spot under the trees, propped his rod in place, where by a miracle he occasionally caught a perch or bass, sat looking idly into the water, the brim of an old felt hat turned down about his eyes. One day, near the week’s end, as he was lounging thus, his eye was attracted by a headline in a bit of newspaper in which he had wrapped his bait box to save his pocket. It was a semi-local paper from town, one that his mother took, but which they seldom either of them read, and the date was three days back. He turned it over idly, pausing as he did so to pull up the line which was being jerked violently, but only by a mud eel. Why did he return again to the scrap of paper when he had freed his hook? His eyes caught strange words, and his hands began to tremble as he read. It was the condensed report of the Latham divorce that was now going the rounds of the journals.

He paused a moment, then folded the paper, put it in his pocket, poled the boat with vigorous strokes to the landing-place, and strode through the woods and across the cornfields homeward, his heart beating tumultuously until he seemed almost to be struggling with suffocation.

He stopped at the barn and harnessed a horse to the old buggy, passing by the new one that he had recently ordered from town, and then went into the house, where, taking off his slouchy fishing clothes, he put on the same ceremonious afternoon wear that he would have worn at Northbridge if going to call, put Sylvia’s handkerchief in his inner pocket, and went in search of his mother.

He found her in the kitchen, tying the covers upon countless jars of currant jam. She looked surprised to see him back at such an hour, but said nothing, as Esther Nichols was close by, employed in wiping off the jars.

“I’m going over to Oaklands for a drive,” he said, handing her the scrap of newspaper with a gesture that meant silence.

“Shall I wait supper for you, or will you be late?” she said, touching his hand with a gesture almost of entreaty.

“I may be late, but yes, you may wait supper,” he replied, looking back at her in going out, as if he wanted to carry the picture well forward in his mind, against any forgetfulness.

The miles between Pine Ridge and the Bluffs seemed endless. He had at first intended to go to Oaklands village to see Miss Lavinia and gather such tidings as he could of the calamity that had overtaken Sylvia; for he never for a moment questioned but that the girl, who had been entirely straightforward, even in days of college pranks, should so regard the matter. But as he drove along, and the very fact that he was moving toward a definite end calmed him and clarified his judgment, he resolved to go directly to Sylvia herself. He would certainly do this if he had seen the announcement of her parents’ deaths; then why not now, when their love that gave her birth was officially and publicly declared extinct?

He drove through the wide gateway and left his horse standing by a stone pillar outside the porte-cochère, the beast would stand anywhere if there was a bar or post for him to look at, and walked up the steps with the air of one who is not to be gainsaid.

“Not at home,” replied the singsong voice of Perkins, in answer to Bradford’s demand for Miss Latham, Potts and Parker having already gone to open the Newport house for the renter, as a staff of servants was let with it, and then he added, as if conferring a favour, “and Mrs. Latham has gone on the coach to the station to meet some guests, the last ’ouse party before she sails.”

“Before she sails,” thought Bradford, numbly. Sylvia was going? Could he believe the man? Should he go through the formality of leaving a card that she might not get? No, he would go home and write a letter.

Sylvia kept the house until late in the afternoon, these days. Then she slipped out by the servants’ stairway, and through the garden, to walk in the wood lane that ran northward, joining the two parallel highroads; for her healthy body needed air, and she knew that if she did not have it, she could not control herself to keep peaceful silence for even the few days that remained. So it chanced this afternoon that she was walking to and fro in the quiet lane where the ferns crept down quite to the grassy wheel tracks, when Perkins said those repellent words, “Not at home.”

As Bradford turned out the gate and noticed that the sun was already setting, he thought to save time by cutting through the almost unused lane to the turnpike that led directly to Pine Ridge. He had driven but halfway across, when a flutter of light garments a little way ahead attracted him. Could it be? Yes, it was Sylvia, in truth, and at the moment that he recognized her and sprang to the ground she heard the approaching hoofs and turned. For a full minute neither spoke nor moved, then going quickly to her and stretching out both hands, he said, his heart breaking through his voice, “I have been to see you. I did not know until to-day.”

She gave her hands, and in another moment his strong arms held her fast and unresisting the purifying friendship of those unconscious years crystallized and perfected at love’s first touch.

They said but very little as they walked up and down the lane together, for half an hour; but as the shadows lengthened, the thought came equally to both “What should they do next? How could they part, and yet how stay together?” Horace, with man’s barbarian directness, would have liked to bear her home to safety and his mother; but the shadow of usage and her mother stood between, for in spite of the hollow mockery of it all, Sylvia was still of her household.

“I must take you home,” he said at last, “and to-morrow I will come all shall be arranged.”

“To-night,” she whispered, clasping his arm in nervous terror. “Come back with me and tell her to-night; then I shall feel sure, and not as if it was not real. And when you have told her, before whoever may be there, remember, go home; do not stop to listen to anything she may say.”

They drove slowly back, and went up the steps to the house, from which voices and laughter came, hand in hand, like two children; but they were children no longer when they crossed the threshold and saw Monty Bell in the group that loitered with Mrs. Latham in the reception hall, waiting for dinner to be announced.

Sylvia’s thin gown was wet with dew, her hair was tossed about, her eyes big with excitement, and a red spot burned in each cheek in startling contrast to her pallor all of which gave her a wild and unusual beauty that absolutely startled as well as shocked her mother, letting her think for a second that Sylvia was going to make a scene, had gone mad, perhaps, and run away, and that the tall man holding her by the hand had found her and brought her home.

Taking a few hasty steps forward, and dreading anything disagreeably tragic, she said: “Mr. Bradford, I believe. What is it? What has happened?”

“Only this, that Miss Sylvia has promised to be my wife, and that, as her mother, we have come to tell you of it before I go home to tell my own.” Horace Bradford drew himself up to every inch of his full height as he spoke, bowed to Mrs. Latham, then led Sylvia to the foot of the stairs, saying, “Until to-morrow,” and walked quietly out of the house.

No one spoke. Then Mrs. Latham, choking with rage, feeling herself helplessly at bay (Sylvia was of age, and she could not even assume authority under the circumstances), collapsed on a divan in modified hysterics, and Monty Bell, completely thunderstruck, finally broke the silence by his characteristic exclamation, “I’ll be damned!”

After their belated supper, when Esther Nichols had gone over to a neighbour’s, Horace, sitting by his mother’s side, out in the honeysuckled porch, where the sphinx moths whirred like humming-birds of night, holding her hands in his, told her all. And she, stifling the mother pain that, like a birth pang, expected yet dreaded, must come at first when the other woman, no matter how welcome, steps between, folded his hands close, as if she held him again a baby in her arms, and said, smiling through vague tears, “To-morrow we will go together to her, my blessed son.”

“I cannot ask you to do that; there are reasons I will bring Sylvia to you later, when her mother has gone,” he answered hastily, resolving that he would do anything to shield her self-respect from the possible shock of meeting that other mother.

“Horace, you forget yourself, and your father too,” she said almost sternly. “I am country bred, but still I know the world’s ways. Your father’s wife will go first to greet her who will be yours; you need not fear for me,” and he sat silent.

That next afternoon, when Horace’s first and last love met, they looked into each other’s hearts and saw the same image there, while Mrs. Latham lay on the lounge in her room, raging within, that again her tongue had failed her in her own house, and realizing that, woman of the world as she aimed to be, the “egg woman” had rendered her helpless by mere force of homely courtesy. Presently she rose, and railing and scolding the bewildered maid, sent a message to New York to transfer her passage, if possible, to an earlier steamer.