A Cup of Cold Water
by Edith Wharton
It was three o’clock in the morning, and the cotillion was at its height, when Woburn left the over-heated splendor of the Gildermere ballroom, and after a delay caused by the determination of the drowsy footman to give him a ready-made overcoat with an imitation astrachan collar in place of his own unimpeachable Poole garment, found himself breasting the icy solitude of the Fifth Avenue. He was still smiling, as he emerged from the awning, at his insistence in claiming his own overcoat: it illustrated, humorously enough, the invincible force of habit. As he faced the wind, however, he discerned a providence in his persistency, for his coat was fur-lined, and he had a cold voyage before him on the morrow.
It had rained hard during the earlier part of the night, and the carriages waiting in triple line before the Gildermeres’ door were still domed by shining umbrellas, while the electric lamps extending down the avenue blinked Narcissus-like at their watery images in the hollows of the sidewalk. A dry blast had come out of the north, with pledge of frost before daylight, and to Woburn’s shivering fancy the pools in the pavement seemed already stiffening into ice. He turned up his coat-collar and stepped out rapidly, his hands deep in his coat-pockets.
As he walked he glanced curiously up at the ladder-like door-steps which may well suggest to the future archaeologist that all the streets of New York were once canals; at the spectral tracery of the trees about St. Luke’s, the fretted mass of the Cathedral, and the mean vista of the long side-streets. The knowledge that he was perhaps looking at it all for the last time caused every detail to start out like a challenge to memory, and lit the brown-stone house-fronts with the glamor of sword-barred Edens.
It was an odd impulse that had led him that night to the Gildermere ball; but the same change in his condition which made him stare wonderingly at the houses in the Fifth Avenue gave the thrill of an exploit to the tame business of ball-going. Who would have imagined, Woburn mused, that such a situation as his would possess the priceless quality of sharpening the blunt edge of habit?
It was certainly curious to reflect, as he leaned against the doorway of Mrs. Gildermere’s ball-room, enveloped in the warm atmosphere of the accustomed, that twenty-four hours later the people brushing by him with looks of friendly recognition would start at the thought of having seen him and slur over the recollection of having taken his hand!
And the girl he had gone there to see: what would she think of him? He knew well enough that her trenchant classifications of life admitted no overlapping of good and evil, made no allowance for that incalculable interplay of motives that justifies the subtlest casuistry of compassion. Miss Talcott was too young to distinguish the intermediate tints of the moral spectrum; and her judgments were further simplified by a peculiar concreteness of mind. Her bringing-up had fostered this tendency and she was surrounded by people who focussed life in the same way. To the girls in Miss Talcott’s set, the attentions of a clever man who had to work for his living had the zest of a forbidden pleasure; but to marry such a man would be as unpardonable as to have one’s carriage seen at the door of a cheap dress-maker. Poverty might make a man fascinating; but a settled income was the best evidence of stability of character. If there were anything in heredity, how could a nice girl trust a man whose parents had been careless enough to leave him unprovided for?
Neither Miss Talcott nor any of her friends could be charged with formulating these views; but they were implicit in the slope of every white shoulder and in the ripple of every yard of imported tulle dappling the foreground of Mrs. Gildermere’s ball-room. The advantages of line and colour in veiling the crudities of a creed are obvious to emotional minds; and besides, Woburn was conscious that it was to the cheerful materialism of their parents that the young girls he admired owed that fine distinction of outline in which their skilfully-rippled hair and skilfully-hung draperies cooeperated with the slimness and erectness that came of participating in the most expensive sports, eating the most expensive food and breathing the most expensive air. Since the process which had produced them was so costly, how could they help being costly themselves? Woburn was too logical to expect to give no more for a piece of old Sevres than for a bit of kitchen crockery; he had no faith in wonderful bargains, and believed that one got in life just what one was willing to pay for. He had no mind to dispute the taste of those who preferred the rustic simplicity of the earthen crock; but his own fancy inclined to the piece of pate tendre which must be kept in a glass case and handled as delicately as a flower.
It was not merely by the external grace of these drawing-room ornaments that Woburn’s sensibilities were charmed. His imagination was touched by the curious exoticism of view resulting from such conditions; He had always enjoyed listening to Miss Talcott even more than looking at her. Her ideas had the brilliant bloom and audacious irrelevance of those tropical orchids which strike root in air. Miss Talcott’s opinions had no connection with the actual; her very materialism had the grace of artificiality. Woburn had been enchanted once by seeing her helpless before a smoking lamp: she had been obliged to ring for a servant because she did not know how to put it out.
Her supreme charm was the simplicity that comes of taking it for granted that people are born with carriages and country-places: it never occurred to her that such congenital attributes could be matter for self- consciousness, and she had none of the nouveau riche prudery which classes poverty with the nude in art and is not sure how to behave in the presence of either.
The conditions of Woburn’s own life had made him peculiarly susceptible to those forms of elegance which are the flower of ease. His father had lost a comfortable property through sheer inability to go over his agent’s accounts; and this disaster, coming at the outset of Woburn’s school-days, had given a new bent to the family temperament. The father characteristically died when the effort of living might have made it possible to retrieve his fortunes; and Woburn’s mother and sister, embittered by this final evasion, settled down to a vindictive war with circumstances. They were the kind of women who think that it lightens the burden of life to throw over the amenities, as a reduced housekeeper puts away her knick-knacks to make the dusting easier. They fought mean conditions meanly; but Woburn, in his resentment of their attitude, did not allow for the suffering which had brought it about: his own tendency was to overcome difficulties by conciliation rather than by conflict. Such surroundings threw into vivid relief the charming figure of Miss Talcott. Woburn instinctively associated poverty with bad food, ugly furniture, complaints and recriminations: it was natural that he should be drawn toward the luminous atmosphere where life was a series of peaceful and good-humored acts, unimpeded by petty obstacles. To spend one’s time in such society gave one the illusion of unlimited credit; and also, unhappily, created the need for it.
It was here in fact that Woburn’s difficulties began. To marry Miss Talcott it was necessary to be a rich man: even to dine out in her set involved certain minor extravagances. Woburn had determined to marry her sooner or later; and in the meanwhile to be with her as much as possible.
As he stood leaning in the doorway of the Gildermere ball-room, watching her pass him in the waltz, he tried to remember how it had begun. First there had been the tailor’s bill; the fur-lined overcoat with cuffs and collar of Alaska sable had alone cost more than he had spent on his clothes for two or three years previously. Then there were theatre- tickets; cab-fares; florist’s bills; tips to servants at the country- houses where he went because he knew that she was invited; the Omar Khayyam bound by Sullivan that he sent her at Christmas; the contributions to her pet charities; the reckless purchases at fairs where she had a stall. His whole way of life had imperceptibly changed and his year’s salary was gone before the second quarter was due.
He had invested the few thousand dollars which had been his portion of his father’s shrunken estate: when his debts began to pile up, he took a flyer in stocks and after a few months of varying luck his little patrimony disappeared. Meanwhile his courtship was proceeding at an inverse ratio to his financial ventures. Miss Talcott was growing tender and he began to feel that the game was in his hands. The nearness of the goal exasperated him. She was not the girl to wait and he knew that it must be now or never. A friend lent him five thousand dollars on his personal note and he bought railway stocks on margin. They went up and he held them for a higher rise: they fluctuated, dragged, dropped below the level at which he had bought, and slowly continued their uninterrupted descent. His broker called for more margin; he could not respond and was sold out.
What followed came about quite naturally. For several years he had been cashier in a well-known banking-house. When the note he had given his friend became due it was obviously necessary to pay it and he used the firm’s money for the purpose. To repay the money thus taken, he increased his debt to his employers and bought more stocks; and on these operations he made a profit of ten thousand dollars. Miss Talcott rode in the Park, and he bought a smart hack for seven hundred, paid off his tradesmen, and went on speculating with the remainder of his profits. He made a little more, but failed to take advantage of the market and lost all that he had staked, including the amount taken from the firm. He increased his over- draft by another ten thousand and lost that; he over-drew a farther sum and lost again. Suddenly he woke to the fact that he owed his employers fifty thousand dollars and that the partners were to make their semi- annual inspection in two days. He realized then that within forty-eight hours what he had called borrowing would become theft.
There was no time to be lost: he must clear out and start life over again somewhere else. The day that he reached this decision he was to have met Miss Talcott at dinner. He went to the dinner, but she did not appear: she had a headache, his hostess explained. Well, he was not to have a last look at her, after all; better so, perhaps. He took leave early and on his way home stopped at a florist’s and sent her a bunch of violets. The next morning he got a little note from her: the violets had done her head so much good–she would tell him all about it that evening at the Gildermere ball. Woburn laughed and tossed the note into the fire. That evening he would be on board ship: the examination of the books was to take place the following morning at ten.
Woburn went down to the bank as usual; he did not want to do anything that might excite suspicion as to his plans, and from one or two questions which one of the partners had lately put to him he divined that he was being observed. At the bank the day passed uneventfully. He discharged his business with his accustomed care and went uptown at the usual hour.
In the first flush of his successful speculations he had set up bachelor lodgings, moved by the temptation to get away from the dismal atmosphere of home, from his mother’s struggles with the cook and his sister’s curiosity about his letters. He had been influenced also by the wish for surroundings more adapted to his tastes. He wanted to be able to give little teas, to which Miss Talcott might come with a married friend. She came once or twice and pronounced it all delightful: she thought it so nice to have only a few Whistler etchings on the walls and the simplest crushed levant for all one’s books.
To these rooms Woburn returned on leaving the bank. His plans had taken definite shape. He had engaged passage on a steamer sailing for Halifax early the next morning; and there was nothing for him to do before going on board but to pack his clothes and tear up a few letters. He threw his clothes into a couple of portmanteaux, and when these had been called for by an expressman he emptied his pockets and counted up his ready money. He found that he possessed just fifty dollars and seventy-five cents; but his passage to Halifax was paid, and once there he could pawn his watch and rings. This calculation completed, he unlocked his writing-table drawer and took out a handful of letters. They were notes from Miss Talcott. He read them over and threw them into the fire. On his table stood her photograph. He slipped it out of its frame and tossed it on top of the blazing letters. Having performed this rite, he got into his dress-clothes and went to a small French restaurant to dine.
He had meant to go on board the steamer immediately after dinner; but a sudden vision of introspective hours in a silent cabin made him call for the evening paper and run his eye over the list of theatres. It would be as easy to go on board at midnight as now.
He selected a new vaudeville and listened to it with surprising freshness of interest; but toward eleven o’clock he again began to dread the approaching necessity of going down to the steamer. There was something peculiarly unnerving in the idea of spending the rest of the night in a stifling cabin jammed against the side of a wharf.
He left the theatre and strolled across to the Fifth Avenue. It was now nearly midnight and a stream of carriages poured up town from the opera and the theatres. As he stood on the corner watching the familiar spectacle it occurred to him that many of the people driving by him in smart broughams and C-spring landaus were on their way to the Gildermere ball. He remembered Miss Talcott’s note of the morning and wondered if she were in one of the passing carriages; she had spoken so confidently of meeting him at the ball. What if he should go and take a last look at her? There was really nothing to prevent it. He was not likely to run across any member of the firm: in Miss Talcott’s set his social standing was good for another ten hours at least. He smiled in anticipation of her surprise at seeing him, and then reflected with a start that she would not be surprised at all.
His meditations were cut short by a fall of sleety rain, and hailing a hansom he gave the driver Mrs. Gildermere’s address.
As he drove up the avenue he looked about him like a traveller in a strange city. The buildings which had been so unobtrusively familiar stood out with sudden distinctness: he noticed a hundred details which had escaped his observation. The people on the sidewalks looked like strangers: he wondered where they were going and tried to picture the lives they led; but his own relation to life had been so suddenly reversed that he found it impossible to recover his mental perspective.
At one corner he saw a shabby man lurking in the shadow of the side street; as the hansom passed, a policeman ordered him to move on. Farther on, Woburn noticed a woman crouching on the door-step of a handsome house. She had drawn a shawl over her head and was sunk in the apathy of despair or drink. A well-dressed couple paused to look at her. The electric globe at the corner lit up their faces, and Woburn saw the lady, who was young and pretty, turn away with a little grimace, drawing her companion after her.
The desire to see Miss Talcott had driven Woburn to the Gildermeres’; but once in the ball-room he made no effort to find her. The people about him seemed more like strangers than those he had passed in the street. He stood in the doorway, studying the petty manoeuvres of the women and the resigned amenities of their partners. Was it possible that these were his friends? These mincing women, all paint and dye and whalebone, these apathetic men who looked as much alike as the figures that children cut out of a folded sheet of paper? Was it to live among such puppets that he had sold his soul? What had any of these people done that was noble, exceptional, distinguished? Who knew them by name even, except their tradesmen and the society reporters? Who were they, that they should sit in judgment on him?
The bald man with the globular stomach, who stood at Mrs. Gildermere’s elbow surveying the dancers, was old Boylston, who had made his pile in wrecking railroads; the smooth chap with glazed eyes, at whom a pretty girl smiled up so confidingly, was Collerton, the political lawyer, who had been mixed up to his own advantage in an ugly lobbying transaction; near him stood Brice Lyndham, whose recent failure had ruined his friends and associates, but had not visibly affected the welfare of his large and expensive family. The slim fellow dancing with Miss Gildermere was Alec Vance, who lived on a salary of five thousand a year, but whose wife was such a good manager that they kept a brougham and victoria and always put in their season at Newport and their spring trip to Europe. The little ferret-faced youth in the corner was Regie Colby, who wrote the Entre- Nous paragraphs in the Social Searchlight: the women were charming to him and he got all the financial tips he wanted from their husbands and fathers.
And the women? Well, the women knew all about the men, and flattered them and married them and tried to catch them for their daughters. It was a domino-party at which the guests were forbidden to unmask, though they all saw through each other’s disguises.
And these were the people who, within twenty-four hours, would be agreeing that they had always felt there was something wrong about Woburn! They would be extremely sorry for him, of course, poor devil; but there are certain standards, after all–what would society be without standards? His new friends, his future associates, were the suspicious-looking man whom the policeman had ordered to move on, and the drunken woman asleep on the door-step. To these he was linked by the freemasonry of failure.
Miss Talcott passed him on Collerton’s arm; she was giving him one of the smiles of which Woburn had fancied himself sole owner. Collerton was a sharp fellow; he must have made a lot in that last deal; probably she would marry him. How much did she know about the transaction? She was a shrewd girl and her father was in Wall Street. If Woburn’s luck had turned the other way she might have married him instead; and if he had confessed his sin to her one evening, as they drove home from the opera in their new brougham, she would have said that really it was of no use to tell her, for she never could understand about business, but that she did entreat him in future to be nicer to Regie Colby. Even now, if he made a big strike somewhere, and came back in ten years with a beard and a steam yacht, they would all deny that anything had been proved against him, and Mrs. Collerton might blush and remind him of their friendship. Well–why not? Was not all morality based on a convention? What was the stanchest code of ethics but a trunk with a series of false bottoms? Now and then one had the illusion of getting down to absolute right or wrong, but it was only a false bottom–a removable hypothesis–with another false bottom underneath. There was no getting beyond the relative.
The cotillion had begun. Miss Talcott sat nearly opposite him: she was dancing with young Boylston and giving him a Woburn-Collerton smile. So young Boylston was in the syndicate too!
Presently Woburn was aware that she had forgotten young Boylston and was glancing absently about the room. She was looking for some one, and meant the some one to know it: he knew that Lost-Chord look in her eyes.
A new figure was being formed. The partners circled about the room and Miss Talcott’s flying tulle drifted close to him as she passed. Then the favors were distributed; white skirts wavered across the floor like thistle-down on summer air; men rose from their seats and fresh couples filled the shining parquet.
Miss Talcott, after taking from the basket a Legion of Honor in red enamel, surveyed the room for a moment; then she made her way through the dancers and held out the favor to Woburn. He fastened it in his coat, and emerging from the crowd of men about the doorway, slipped his arm about her. Their eyes met; hers were serious and a little sad. How fine and slender she was! He noticed the little tendrils of hair about the pink convolution of her ear. Her waist was firm and yet elastic; she breathed calmly and regularly, as though dancing were her natural motion. She did not look at him again and neither of them spoke.
When the music ceased they paused near her chair. Her partner was waiting for her and Woburn left her with a bow.
He made his way down-stairs and out of the house. He was glad that he had not spoken to Miss Talcott. There had been a healing power in their silence. All bitterness had gone from him and he thought of her now quite simply, as the girl he loved.
At Thirty-fifth Street he reflected that he had better jump into a car and go down to his steamer. Again there rose before him the repulsive vision of the dark cabin, with creaking noises overhead, and the cold wash of water against the pier: he thought he would stop in a cafe and take a drink. He turned into Broadway and entered a brightly-lit cafe; but when he had taken his whisky and soda there seemed no reason for lingering. He had never been the kind of man who could escape difficulties in that way. Yet he was conscious that his will was weakening; that he did not mean to go down to the steamer just yet. What did he mean to do? He began to feel horribly tired and it occurred to him that a few hours’ sleep in a decent bed would make a new man of him. Why not go on board the next morning at daylight?
He could not go back to his rooms, for on leaving the house he had taken the precaution of dropping his latch-key into his letter-box; but he was in a neighborhood of discreet hotels and he wandered on till he came to one which was known to offer a dispassionate hospitality to luggageless travellers in dress-clothes.
He pushed open the swinging door and found himself in a long corridor with a tessellated floor, at the end of which, in a brightly-lit enclosure of plate-glass and mahogany, the night-clerk dozed over a copy of the Police Gazette. The air in the corridor was rich in reminiscences of yesterday’s dinners, and a bronzed radiator poured a wave of dry heat into Woburn’s face.
The night-clerk, roused by the swinging of the door, sat watching Woburn’s approach with the unexpectant eye of one who has full confidence in his capacity for digesting surprises. Not that there was anything surprising in Woburn’s appearance; but the night-clerk’s callers were given to such imaginative flights in explaining their luggageless arrival in the small hours of the morning, that he fared habitually on fictions which would have staggered a less experienced stomach. The night-clerk, whose unwrinkled bloom showed that he throve on this high-seasoned diet, had a fancy for classifying his applicants before they could frame their explanations.
“This one’s been locked out,” he said to himself as he mustered Woburn.
Having exercised his powers of divination with his accustomed accuracy he listened without stirring an eye-lid to Woburn’s statement; merely replying, when the latter asked the price of a room, “Two-fifty.”
“Very well,” said Woburn, pushing the money under the brass lattice, “I’ll go up at once; and I want to be called at seven.”
To this the night-clerk proffered no reply, but stretching out his hand to press an electric button, returned apathetically to the perusal of the Police Gazette. His summons was answered by the appearance of a man in shirt-sleeves, whose rumpled head indicated that he had recently risen from some kind of makeshift repose; to him the night-clerk tossed a key, with the brief comment, “Ninety-seven;” and the man, after a sleepy glance at Woburn, turned on his heel and lounged toward the staircase at the back of the corridor.
Woburn followed and they climbed three flights in silence. At each landing Woburn glanced down, the long passage-way lit by a lowered gas-jet, with a double line of boots before the doors, waiting, like yesterday’s deeds, to carry their owners so many miles farther on the morrow’s destined road. On the third landing the man paused, and after examining the number on the key, turned to the left, and slouching past three or four doors, finally unlocked one and preceded Woburn into a room lit only by the upward gleam of the electric globes in the street below.
The man felt in his pockets; then he turned to Woburn. “Got a match?” he asked.
Woburn politely offered him one, and he applied it to the gas-fixture which extended its jointed arm above an ash dressing-table with a blurred mirror fixed between two standards. Having performed this office with an air of detachment designed to make Woburn recognize it as an act of supererogation, he turned without a word and vanished down the passage- way.
Woburn, after an indifferent glance about the room, which seemed to afford the amount of luxury generally obtainable for two dollars and a half in a fashionable quarter of New York, locked the door and sat down at the ink- stained writing-table in the window. Far below him lay the pallidly-lit depths of the forsaken thoroughfare. Now and then he heard the jingle of a horsecar and the ring of hoofs on the freezing pavement, or saw the lonely figure of a policeman eclipsing the illumination of the plate-glass windows on the opposite side of the street. He sat thus for a long time, his elbows on the table, his chin between his hands, till at length the contemplation of the abandoned sidewalks, above which the electric globes kept Stylites-like vigil, became intolerable to him, and he drew down the window-shade, and lit the gas-fixture beside the dressing-table. Then he took a cigar from his case, and held it to the flame.
The passage from the stinging freshness of the night to the stale overheated atmosphere of the Haslemere Hotel had checked the preternaturally rapid working of his mind, and he was now scarcely conscious of thinking at all. His head was heavy, and he would have thrown himself on the bed had he not feared to oversleep the hour fixed for his departure. He thought it safest, instead, to seat himself once more by the table, in the most uncomfortable chair that he could find, and smoke one cigar after another till the first sign of dawn should give an excuse for action.
He had laid his watch on the table before him, and was gazing at the hour- hand, and trying to convince himself by so doing that he was still wide awake, when a noise in the adjoining room suddenly straightened him in his chair and banished all fear of sleep.
There was no mistaking the nature of the noise; it was that of a woman’s sobs. The sobs were not loud, but the sound reached him distinctly through the frail door between the two rooms; it expressed an utter abandonment to grief; not the cloud-burst of some passing emotion, but the slow down-pour of a whole heaven of sorrow.
Woburn sat listening. There was nothing else to be done; and at least his listening was a mute tribute to the trouble he was powerless to relieve. It roused, too, the drugged pulses of his own grief: he was touched by the chance propinquity of two alien sorrows in a great city throbbing with multifarious passions. It would have been more in keeping with the irony of life had he found himself next to a mother singing her child to sleep: there seemed a mute commiseration in the hand that had led him to such neighborhood.
Gradually the sobs subsided, with pauses betokening an effort at self- control. At last they died off softly, like the intermittent drops that end a day of rain.
“Poor soul,” Woburn mused, “she’s got the better of it for the time. I wonder what it’s all about?”
At the same moment he heard another sound that made him jump to his feet. It was a very low sound, but in that nocturnal silence which gives distinctness to the faintest noises, Woburn knew at once that he had heard the click of a pistol.
“What is she up to now?” he asked himself, with his eye on the door between the two rooms; and the brightly-lit keyhole seemed to reply with a glance of intelligence. He turned out the gas and crept to the door, pressing his eye to the illuminated circle.
After a moment or two of adjustment, during which he seemed to himself to be breathing like a steam-engine, he discerned a room like his own, with the same dressing-table flanked by gas-fixtures, and the same table in the window. This table was directly in his line of vision; and beside it stood a woman with a small revolver in her hands. The lights being behind her, Woburn could only infer her youth from her slender silhouette and the nimbus of fair hair defining her head. Her dress seemed dark and simple, and on a chair under one of the gas-jets lay a jacket edged with cheap fur and a small travelling-bag. He could not see the other end of the room, but something in her manner told him that she was alone. At length she put the revolver down and took up a letter that lay on the table. She drew the letter from its envelope and read it over two or three times; then she put it back, sealing the envelope, and placing it conspicuously against the mirror of the dressing-table.
There was so grave a significance in this dumb-show that Woburn felt sure that her next act would be to return to the table and take up the revolver; but he had not reckoned on the vanity of woman. After putting the letter in place she still lingered at the mirror, standing a little sideways, so that he could now see her face, which was distinctly pretty, but of a small and unelastic mould, inadequate to the expression of the larger emotions. For some moments she continued to study herself with the expression of a child looking at a playmate who has been scolded; then she turned to the table and lifted the revolver to her forehead.
A sudden crash made her arm drop, and sent her darting backward to the opposite side of the room. Woburn had broken down the door, and stood torn and breathless in the breach.
“Oh!” she gasped, pressing closer to the wall.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said; “I saw what you were going to do and I had to stop you.”
She looked at him for a moment in silence, and he saw the terrified flutter of her breast; then she said, “No one can stop me for long. And besides, what right have you–“
“Every one has the right to prevent a crime,” he returned, the sound of the last word sending the blood to his forehead.
“I deny it,” she said passionately. “Every one who has tried to live and failed has the right to die.”
“Failed in what?”
“In everything!” she replied. They stood looking at each other in silence.
At length he advanced a few steps.
“You’ve no right to say you’ve failed,” he said, “while you have breath to try again.” He drew the revolver from her hand.
“Try again–try again? I tell you I’ve tried seventy times seven!”
“What have you tried?”
She looked at him with a certain dignity.
“I don’t know,” she said, “that you’ve any right to question me–or to be in this room at all–” and suddenly she burst into tears.
The discrepancy between her words and action struck the chord which, in a man’s heart, always responds to the touch of feminine unreason. She dropped into the nearest chair, hiding her face in her hands, while Woburn watched the course of her weeping.
At last she lifted her head, looking up between drenched lashes.
“Please go away,” she said in childish entreaty.
“How can I?” he returned. “It’s impossible that I should leave you in this state. Trust me–let me help you. Tell me what has gone wrong, and let’s see if there’s no other way out of it.”
Woburn had a voice full of sensitive inflections, and it was now trembling with profoundest pity. Its note seemed to reassure the girl, for she said, with a beginning of confidence in her own tones, “But I don’t even know who you are.”
Woburn was silent: the words startled him. He moved nearer to her and went on in the same quieting tone.
“I am a man who has suffered enough to want to help others. I don’t want to know any more about you than will enable me to do what I can for you. I’ve probably seen more of life than you have, and if you’re willing to tell me your troubles perhaps together we may find a way out of them.”
She dried her eyes and glanced at the revolver.
“That’s the only way out,” she said.
“How do you know? Are you sure you’ve tried every other?”
“Perfectly sure, I’ve written and written, and humbled myself like a slave before him, and she won’t even let him answer my letters. Oh, but you don’t understand”–she broke off with a renewal of weeping.
“I begin to understand–you’re sorry for something you’ve done?”
“Oh, I’ve never denied that–I’ve never denied that I was wicked.”
“And you want the forgiveness of some one you care about?”
“My husband,” she whispered.
“You’ve done something to displease your husband?”
“To displease him? I ran away with another man!” There was a dismal exultation in her tone, as though she were paying Woburn off for having underrated her offense.
She had certainly surprised him; at worst he had expected a quarrel over a rival, with a possible complication of mother-in-law. He wondered how such helpless little feet could have taken so bold a step; then he remembered that there is no audacity like that of weakness.
He was wondering how to lead her to completer avowal when she added forlornly, “You see there’s nothing else to do.”
Woburn took a turn in the room. It was certainly a narrower strait than he had foreseen, and he hardly knew how to answer; but the first flow of confession had eased her, and she went on without farther persuasion.
“I don’t know how I could ever have done it; I must have been downright crazy. I didn’t care much for Joe when I married him–he wasn’t exactly handsome, and girls think such a lot of that. But he just laid down and worshipped me, and I was getting fond of him in a way; only the life was so dull. I’d been used to a big city–I come from Detroit–and Hinksville is such a poky little place; that’s where we lived; Joe is telegraph- operator on the railroad there. He’d have been in a much bigger place now, if he hadn’t–well, after all, he behaved perfectly splendidly about that.
“I really was getting fond of him, and I believe I should have realized in time how good and noble and unselfish he was, if his mother hadn’t been always sitting there and everlastingly telling me so. We learned in school about the Athenians hating some man who was always called just, and that’s the way I felt about Joe. Whenever I did anything that wasn’t quite right his mother would say how differently Joe would have done it. And she was forever telling me that Joe didn’t approve of this and that and the other. When we were alone he approved of everything, but when his mother was round he’d sit quiet and let her say he didn’t. I knew he’d let me have my way afterwards, but somehow that didn’t prevent my getting mad at the time.
“And then the evenings were so long, with Joe away, and Mrs. Glenn (that’s his mother) sitting there like an image knitting socks for the heathen. The only caller we ever had was the Baptist minister, and he never took any more notice of me than if I’d been a piece of furniture. I believe he was afraid to before Mrs. Glenn.”
She paused breathlessly, and the tears in her eyes were now of anger.
“Well?” said Woburn gently.
“Well–then Arthur Hackett came along; he was travelling for a big publishing firm in Philadelphia. He was awfully handsome and as clever and sarcastic as anything. He used to lend me lots of novels and magazines, and tell me all about society life in New York. All the girls were after him, and Alice Sprague, whose father is the richest man in Hinksville, fell desperately in love with him and carried on like a fool; but he wouldn’t take any notice of her. He never looked at anybody but me.” Her face lit up with a reminiscent smile, and then clouded again. “I hate him now,” she exclaimed, with a change of tone that startled Woburn. “I’d like to kill him–but he’s killed me instead.
“Well, he bewitched me so I didn’t know what I was doing; I was like somebody in a trance. When he wasn’t there I didn’t want to speak to anybody; I used to lie in bed half the day just to get away from folks; I hated Joe and Hinksville and everything else. When he came back the days went like a flash; we were together nearly all the time. I knew Joe’s mother was spying on us, but I didn’t care. And at last it seemed as if I couldn’t let him go away again without me; so one evening he stopped at the back gate in a buggy, and we drove off together and caught the eastern express at River Bend. He promised to bring me to New York.” She paused, and then added scornfully, “He didn’t even do that!”
Woburn had returned to his seat and was watching her attentively. It was curious to note how her passion was spending itself in words; he saw that she would never kill herself while she had any one to talk to.
“That was five months ago,” she continued, “and we travelled all through the southern states, and stayed a little while near Philadelphia, where his business is. He did things real stylishly at first. Then he was sent to Albany, and we stayed a week at the Delavan House. One afternoon I went out to do some shopping, and when I came back he was gone. He had taken his trunk with him, and hadn’t left any address; but in my travelling-bag I found a fifty-dollar bill, with a slip of paper on which he had written, ‘No use coming after me; I’m married.’ We’d been together less than four months, and I never saw him again.
“At first I couldn’t believe it. I stayed on, thinking it was a joke–or that he’d feel sorry for me and come back. But he never came and never wrote me a line. Then I began to hate him, and to see what a wicked fool I’d been to leave Joe. I was so lonesome–I thought I’d go crazy. And I kept thinking how good and patient Joe had been, and how badly I’d used him, and how lovely it would be to be back in the little parlor at Hinksville, even with Mrs. Glenn and the minister talking about free-will and predestination. So at last I wrote to Joe. I wrote him the humblest letters you ever read, one after another; but I never got any answer.
“Finally I found I’d spent all my money, so I sold my watch and my rings– Joe gave me a lovely turquoise ring when we were married–and came to New York. I felt ashamed to stay alone any longer in Albany; I was afraid that some of Arthur’s friends, who had met me with him on the road, might come there and recognize me. After I got here I wrote to Susy Price, a great friend of mine who lives at Hinksville, and she answered at once, and told me just what I had expected–that Joe was ready to forgive me and crazy to have me back, but that his mother wouldn’t let him stir a step or write me a line, and that she and the minister were at him all day long, telling him how bad I was and what a sin it would be to forgive me. I got Susy’s letter two or three days ago, and after that I saw it was no use writing to Joe. He’ll never dare go against his mother and she watches him like a cat. I suppose I deserve it–but he might have given me another chance! I know he would if he could only see me.”
Her voice had dropped from anger to lamentation, and her tears again overflowed.
Woburn looked at her with the pity one feels for a child who is suddenly confronted with the result of some unpremeditated naughtiness.
“But why not go back to Hinksville,” he suggested, “if your husband is ready to forgive you? You could go to your friend’s house, and once your husband knows you are there you can easily persuade him to see you.”
“Perhaps I could–Susy thinks I could. But I can’t go back; I haven’t got a cent left.”
“But surely you can borrow money? Can’t you ask your friend to forward you the amount of your fare?”
She shook her head.
“Susy ain’t well off; she couldn’t raise five dollars, and it costs twenty-five to get back to Hinksville. And besides, what would become of me while I waited for the money? They’ll turn me out of here to-morrow; I haven’t paid my last week’s board, and I haven’t got anything to give them; my bag’s empty; I’ve pawned everything.”
“And don’t you know any one here who would lend you the money?”
“No; not a soul. At least I do know one gentleman; he’s a friend of Arthur’s, a Mr. Devine; he was staying at Rochester when we were there. I met him in the street the other day, and I didn’t mean to speak to him, but he came up to me, and said he knew all about Arthur and how meanly he had behaved, and he wanted to know if he couldn’t help me–I suppose he saw I was in trouble. He tried to persuade me to go and stay with his aunt, who has a lovely house right round here in Twenty-fourth Street; he must be very rich, for he offered to lend me as much money as I wanted.”
“You didn’t take it?”
“No,” she returned; “I daresay he meant to be kind, but I didn’t care to be beholden to any friend of Arthur’s. He came here again yesterday, but I wouldn’t see him, so he left a note giving me his aunt’s address and saying she’d have a room ready for me at any time.”
There was a long silence; she had dried her tears and sat looking at Woburn with eyes full of helpless reliance.
“Well,” he said at length, “you did right not to take that man’s money; but this isn’t the only alternative,” he added, pointing to the revolver.
“I don’t know any other,” she answered wearily. “I’m not smart enough to get employment; I can’t make dresses or do type-writing, or any of the useful things they teach girls now; and besides, even if I could get work I couldn’t stand the loneliness. I can never hold my head up again–I can’t bear the disgrace. If I can’t go back to Joe I’d rather be dead.”
“And if you go back to Joe it will be all right?” Woburn suggested with a smile.
“Oh,” she cried, her whole face alight, “if I could only go back to Joe!”
They were both silent again; Woburn sat with his hands in his pockets gazing at the floor. At length his silence seemed to rouse her to the unwontedness of the situation, and she rose from her seat, saying in a more constrained tone, “I don’t know why I’ve told you all this.”
“Because you believed that I would help you,” Woburn answered, rising also; “and you were right; I’m going to send you home.”
She colored vividly. “You told me I was right not to take Mr. Devine’s money,” she faltered.
“Yes,” he answered, “but did Mr. Devine want to send you home?”
“He wanted me to wait at his aunt’s a little while first and then write to Joe again.”
“I don’t–I want you to start tomorrow morning; this morning, I mean. I’ll take you to the station and buy your ticket, and your husband can send me back the money.”
“Oh, I can’t–I can’t–you mustn’t–” she stammered, reddening and paling. “Besides, they’ll never let me leave here without paying.”
“How much do you owe?”
“Very well; I’ll pay that for you; you can leave me your revolver as a pledge. But you must start by the first train; have you any idea at what time it leaves the Grand Central?”
“I think there’s one at eight.”
He glanced at his watch.
“In less than two hours, then; it’s after six now.”
She stood before him with fascinated eyes.
“You must have a very strong will,” she said. “When you talk like that you make me feel as if I had to do everything you say.”
“Well, you must,” said Woburn lightly. “Man was made to be obeyed.”
“Oh, you’re not like other men,” she returned; “I never heard a voice like yours; it’s so strong and kind. You must be a very good man; you remind me of Joe; I’m sure you’ve got just such a nature; and Joe is the best man I’ve ever seen.”
Woburn made no reply, and she rambled on, with little pauses and fresh bursts of confidence.
“Joe’s a real hero, you know; he did the most splendid thing you ever heard of. I think I began to tell you about it, but I didn’t finish. I’ll tell you now. It happened just after we were married; I was mad with him at the time, I’m afraid, but now I see how splendid he was. He’d been telegraph operator at Hinksville for four years and was hoping that he’d get promoted to a bigger place; but he was afraid to ask for a raise. Well, I was very sick with a bad attack of pneumonia and one night the doctor said he wasn’t sure whether he could pull me through. When they sent word to Joe at the telegraph office he couldn’t stand being away from me another minute. There was a poor consumptive boy always hanging round the station; Joe had taught him how to operate, just to help him along; so he left him in the office and tore home for half an hour, knowing he could get back before the eastern express came along.
“He hadn’t been gone five minutes when a freight-train ran off the rails about a mile up the track. It was a very still night, and the boy heard the smash and shouting, and knew something had happened. He couldn’t tell what it was, but the minute he heard it he sent a message over the wires like a flash, and caught the eastern express just as it was pulling out of the station above Hinksville. If he’d hesitated a second, or made any mistake, the express would have come on, and the loss of life would have been fearful. The next day the Hinksville papers were full of Operator Glenn’s presence of mind; they all said he’d be promoted. That was early in November and Joe didn’t hear anything from the company till the first of January. Meanwhile the boy had gone home to his father’s farm out in the country, and before Christmas he was dead. Well, on New Year’s day Joe got a notice from the company saying that his pay was to be raised, and that he was to be promoted to a big junction near Detroit, in recognition of his presence of mind in stopping the eastern express. It was just what we’d both been pining for and I was nearly wild with joy; but I noticed Joe didn’t say much. He just telegraphed for leave, and the next day he went right up to Detroit and told the directors there what had really happened. When he came back he told us they’d suspended him; I cried every night for a week, and even his mother said he was a fool. After that we just lived on at Hinksville, and six months later the company took him back; but I don’t suppose they’ll ever promote him now.”
Her voice again trembled with facile emotion.
“Wasn’t it beautiful of him? Ain’t he a real hero?” she said. “And I’m sure you’d behave just like him; you’d be just as gentle about little things, and you’d never move an inch about big ones. You’d never do a mean action, but you’d be sorry for people who did; I can see it in your face; that’s why I trusted you right off.”
Woburn’s eyes were fixed on the window; he hardly seemed to hear her. At length he walked across the room and pulled up the shade. The electric lights were dissolving in the gray alembic of the dawn. A milk-cart rattled down the street and, like a witch returning late from the Sabbath, a stray cat whisked into an area. So rose the appointed day.
Woburn turned back, drawing from his pocket the roll of bills which he had thrust there with so different a purpose. He counted them out, and handed her fifteen dollars.
“That will pay for your board, including your breakfast this morning,” he said. “We’ll breakfast together presently if you like; and meanwhile suppose we sit down and watch the sunrise. I haven’t seen it for years.”
He pushed two chairs toward the window, and they sat down side by side. The light came gradually, with the icy reluctance of winter; at last a red disk pushed itself above the opposite house-tops and a long cold gleam slanted across their window. They did not talk much; there was a silencing awe in the spectacle.
Presently Woburn rose and looked again at his watch.
“I must go and cover up my dress-coat”, he said, “and you had better put on your hat and jacket. We shall have to be starting in half an hour.”
As he turned away she laid her hand on his arm.
“You haven’t even told me your name,” she said.
“No,” he answered; “but if you get safely back to Joe you can call me Providence.”
“But how am I to send you the money?”
“Oh–well, I’ll write you a line in a day or two and give you my address; I don’t know myself what it will be; I’m a wanderer on the face of the earth.”
“But you must have my name if you mean to write to me.”
“Well, what is your name?”
“Ruby Glenn. And I think–I almost think you might send the letter right to Joe’s–send it to the Hinksville station.”
“Of course I promise.”
He went back into his room, thinking how appropriate it was that she should have an absurd name like Ruby. As he re-entered the room, where the gas sickened in the daylight, it seemed to him that he was returning to some forgotten land; he had passed, with the last few hours, into a wholly new phase of consciousness. He put on his fur coat, turning up the collar and crossing the lapels to hide his white tie. Then he put his cigar-case in his pocket, turned out the gas, and, picking up his hat and stick, walked back through the open doorway.
Ruby Glenn had obediently prepared herself for departure and was standing before the mirror, patting her curls into place. Her eyes were still red, but she had the happy look of a child that has outslept its grief. On the floor he noticed the tattered fragments of the letter which, a few hours earlier, he had seen her place before the mirror.
“Shall we go down now?” he asked.
“Very well,” she assented; then, with a quick movement, she stepped close to him, and putting her hands on his shoulders lifted her face to his.
“I believe you’re the best man I ever knew,” she said, “the very best– except Joe.”
She drew back blushing deeply, and unlocked the door which led into the passage-way. Woburn picked up her bag, which she had forgotten, and followed her out of the room. They passed a frowzy chambermaid, who stared at them with a yawn. Before the doors the row of boots still waited; there was a faint new aroma of coffee mingling with the smell of vanished dinners, and a fresh blast of heat had begun to tingle through the radiators.
In the unventilated coffee-room they found a waiter who had the melancholy air of being the last survivor of an exterminated race, and who reluctantly brought them some tea made with water which had not boiled, and a supply of stale rolls and staler butter. On this meagre diet they fared in silence, Woburn occasionally glancing at his watch; at length he rose, telling his companion to go and pay her bill while he called a hansom. After all, there was no use in economizing his remaining dollars.
In a few moments she joined him under the portico of the hotel. The hansom stood waiting and he sprang in after her, calling to the driver to take them to the Forty-second Street station.
When they reached the station he found a seat for her and went to buy her ticket. There were several people ahead of him at the window, and when he had bought the ticket he found that it was time to put her in the train. She rose in answer to his glance, and together they walked down the long platform in the murky chill of the roofed-in air. He followed her into the railway carriage, making sure that she had her bag, and that the ticket was safe inside it; then he held out his hand, in its pearl-coloured evening glove: he felt that the people in the other seats were staring at them.
“Good-bye,” he said.
“Good-bye,” she answered, flushing gratefully. “I’ll never forget–never. And you will write, won’t you? Promise!”
“Of course, of course,” he said, hastening from the carriage.
He retraced his way along the platform, passed through the dismal waiting- room and stepped out into the early sunshine. On the sidewalk outside the station he hesitated awhile; then he strolled slowly down Forty-second Street and, skirting the melancholy flank of the Reservoir, walked across Bryant Park. Finally he sat down on one of the benches near the Sixth Avenue and lit a cigar. The signs of life were multiplying around him; he watched the cars roll by with their increasing freight of dingy toilers, the shop-girls hurrying to their work, the children trudging schoolward, their small vague noses red with cold, their satchels clasped in woollen- gloved hands. There is nothing very imposing in the first stirring of a great city’s activities; it is a slow reluctant process, like the waking of a heavy sleeper; but to Woburn’s mood the sight of that obscure renewal of humble duties was more moving than the spectacle of an army with banners.
He sat for a long time, smoking the last cigar in his case, and murmuring to himself a line from Hamlet–the saddest, he thought, in the play–
For every man hath business and desire.
Suddenly an unpremeditated movement made him feel the pressure of Ruby Glenn’s revolver in his pocket; it was like a devil’s touch on his arm, and he sprang up hastily. In his other pocket there were just four dollars and fifty cents; but that didn’t matter now. He had no thought of flight.
For a few minutes he loitered vaguely about the park; then the cold drove him on again, and with the rapidity born of a sudden resolve he began to walk down the Fifth Avenue towards his lodgings. He brushed past a maid- servant who was washing the vestibule and ran up stairs to his room. A fire was burning in the grate and his books and photographs greeted him cheerfully from the walls; the tranquil air of the whole room seemed to take it for granted that he meant to have his bath and breakfast and go down town as usual.
He threw off his coat and pulled the revolver out of his pocket; for some moments he held it curiously in his hand, bending over to examine it as Ruby Glenn had done; then he laid it in the top drawer of a small cabinet, and locking the drawer threw the key into the fire.
After that he went quietly about the usual business of his toilet. In taking off his dress-coat he noticed the Legion of Honor which Miss Talcott had given him at the ball. He pulled it out of his buttonhole and tossed it into the fire-place. When he had finished dressing he saw with surprise that it was nearly ten o’clock. Ruby Glenn was already two hours nearer home.
Woburn stood looking about the room of which he had thought to take final leave the night before; among the ashes beneath the grate he caught sight of a little white heap which symbolized to his fancy the remains of his brief correspondence with Miss Talcott. He roused himself from this unseasonable musing and with a final glance at the familiar setting of his past, turned to face the future which the last hours had prepared for him.
He went down stairs and stepped out of doors, hastening down the street towards Broadway as though he were late for an appointment. Every now and then he encountered an acquaintance, whom he greeted with a nod and smile; he carried his head high, and shunned no man’s recognition.
At length he reached the doors of a tall granite building honey-combed with windows. He mounted the steps of the portico, and passing through the double doors of plate-glass, crossed a vestibule floored with mosaic to another glass door on which was emblazoned the name of the firm.
This door he also opened, entering a large room with wainscotted subdivisions, behind which appeared the stooping shoulders of a row of clerks.
As Woburn crossed the threshold a gray-haired man emerged from an inner office at the opposite end of the room.
At sight of Woburn he stopped short.
“Mr. Woburn!” he exclaimed; then he stepped nearer and added in a low tone: “I was requested to tell you when you came that the members of the firm are waiting; will you step into the private office?”