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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDestiny - Part 2. The Book Of Life - It Might Have Been - Chapter 27
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Destiny - Part 2. The Book Of Life - It Might Have Been - Chapter 27 Post by :Odilia_Paula Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Neville Buck Date :May 2012 Read :2662

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Destiny - Part 2. The Book Of Life - It Might Have Been - Chapter 27


For a while they were content to remain silent; and afterward the man said, "I've been needing you, Marcia."

The fingers that he held tightened a little on his own. Now she thought he would tell her that he had given his problem the test of bold reflection and could come to her with his mind made up--and the decision was that he needed her. In the hope her loneliness saw an opening vista of happiness, but his next words were not of that.

"You have read the papers?" he questioned. "You know what has happened?"

Of course she knew and her heart had been full of grief for him in these days of distress. Had she not written him--and torn up unmailed--a score of letters in which she had told him tenderly and unreservedly all she felt? But when she had seen him tonight she had forgotten that, remembering only that he had searched for her and found her and come to her.

Now that he spoke of misfortune to himself and his family she wanted to give him only sympathy and comfort and love--yet coming like a sudden, chilling draught, a conviction struck in upon her heart and left it shuddering--with all its tender new hopes shattered.

For as he spoke she realized with the finality of revelation that the Paul Burton of whom she thought in her dreams had not come at all; only the Paul Burton who, too weak to bear his own sorrows, came to share them with her. He had not come offering her strength and companionship in loneliness--but asking them for himself. He had not come to offer marriage. She had, in the face of the old warnings, dreamed again--falsely idealized once more--and his mission was to waken in her anew the dreary reality of her life. Yet that same maternal instinct which made her love a thing more of giving than of asking endowed him with a greater dearness, as she realized the truth.

"Yes, dear," she said in a low voice, "I know--and I've been thinking of you all the while."

Then for a quarter of an hour he recited his griefs and forgot hers. She was there near him; his arms were about her and she was comforting him. That, for him, was all that was necessary. But at the end of it all she rose and turned half from him and her face was pale.

"If there was a single thing I could do," she said from her heart, "I would do it at any cost--" Her voice questioned him tensely. "You know that, don't you, dear? You believe it."

"You are doing something now," he declared. "You are giving me your own strength."

To herself she said bitterly that to make a mistake once is an accident with which life may ambush the most wary, but to walk twice into the same snare stamps the victim as a fool. She was paying the price now of that folly. She was indeed giving him, as he enthusiastically declared, her own strength for his adversities, and he was accepting it, using it, burning it up with no thought of how little of that particular capital she had to squander in the sharing.

Even at that moment with his self-pitying voice in her ears, reciting his Iliad of reflected troubles, her mind found a whimsical parallel for his self-absorption. He was like some unheroic wanderer in desert places who had stumbled upon another equally unfortunate, but more stalwart of heart. He had greedily fallen upon the depleted water-supply, drinking deep and never pausing to consider that the tongue of the wayfarer who offered him a flask was more parched than his own. He was a minstrel and a troubadour who held himself immune from the need of meeting stress with combat. His mission in life was to sing and accept, and now it pleased him to sing sadly of himself.

Yet the one way she could not go on helping him was the particular way he elected to be helped. He chose to let himself drift and vacillate, and the aid that he asked of her was that she should drift near enough for him to have her companionship. He was like a wakeful child who required that she, too, should be sleepless that he might escape loneliness.

"And so," she said, forcing a smile, which concealed all that was in her heart, "you were lonely, and you came to me."

"Yes, dear." His voice was eager. "I had to see you. To stay in exile any longer was unendurable. I was thinking of you always, wanting you always, and so I came. You forgive me, don't you?"

Marcia laughed. "It's very nice to be wanted," she answered, "but sit over there across the hearth and light your cigar. It's gone out."

Paul looked down resentfully at the cigar and lifted his hand to toss it away, but the girl laid her fingers on his wrist and laughed.

"No," she commanded. "Smoke it. Tobacco is soothing and I like the fragrance. It's a Romney panatella, isn't it?"

"How do you manage to remember details like that?" Paul inquired with boyish pleasure. "Other women don't carry in mind the brand of tobacco that a man prefers."

"I'm not other women," she reminded him lightly. "I have a genius for minute and trivial things. The others flatter you by burning incense to your music--and I remember that you take two lumps of sugar in your coffee and one slice of lemon in your tea and that you must have your Martini extra dry."

To herself she was saying, with a lump in her throat which waged war on the bright smile in her eyes, "I hoped that he might have come differently. I hoped that he might have made an end of vacillation. Now it's all going to be harder. I must send him away again--"

One hand which fell over the arm of her chair and which he could not see clutched its fingers convulsively, squeezing the handkerchief it held into a small wad of linen.

"You are wonderful, Marcia," he told her softly as he comfortably exhaled a cloud of blue smoke, and his delicate lips fell into a smile of contentment. His troubles were for the moment being assuaged in the effortless indolence of the lotus-eaters. He looked at her through half-closed lids, studying the face that smiled at him. Yes, she was giving him her strength. He would go back tomorrow appeased and soothed.

Then he suggested with the suddenness of a newly discovered thought: "But we've been talking about my troubles all the while. Tell me something about yourself. It must be proving a hard trip, isn't it? A bit of a trial at times?"

A hard trip! A bit of a trial at times! For an instant the smile died and the lips stiffened. She wanted to answer him with a stormy burst of words. She wanted to say that it had been sheer hell.

In the face of such callous complacency an indignant anger stirred deep in her breast. He had fled to her with his troubles, which after all were only the shadows of deeper troubles, of which other members of his household were bearing, unaided, the more direct brunt. He was asking her, whose life had known chapters of tragedy, to give him such sympathy as a woman has the right to give in exchange for a man's whole love. Had he no sense of fairness, even the fairness of good sportsmanship? But close on the heels of that realization came another which banished the wrath. God had chosen to paint him in soft and tender colors. God had given to his soul-pattern a certain beauty, and if there had gone into the design no bold strokes, he himself was no more to blame than he would have been for the failure to see, had he been born blind. His weakness doubtless carried its own penalty of suffering. Perhaps had the guidance been there, the wanted qualities might have been trained into him. Hamilton had seen that, but Hamilton's hand had not had the light touch for the delicacy of the task's beginnings.

Her mind flashed back to her girlhood. She was standing at the paddock fence of her grandfather's stock-farm in Kentucky.

Even in her childish heart there had been a mighty pride for the old gold and blue that were the colors of her grandfather's stables. They were silks that raced true to tradition, for no mere gambler's venturing, but for the gentleman's pride in his horse-flesh and his inherent love of sport. Much of the stamina that had kept her heart from breaking had been instilled in those lessons of the gallantry of the long struggle and the endurance of the home-stretch.

She remembered a certain chestnut colt whose name had gone down in turf history. She had known that colt from a weanling and to her he had not been an animal, but a personality.

Yet that splendid-hearted creature which could out-game his fields in a smothering drive when his heart was near bursting had been a disappointment in two-year-old form because he had seemed to sulk and falter and lack courage. Under the whip his speed died and his petulance cropped out. It had only been when a jockey was found whose soft touch of the reins nursed the head and held it up and encouraged, that the horse had come in to his own and made his name great. Might it not be so with a man as well as with a horse?

"Yes," she said, "it has been a bit of a trial, but it has been funny, too," and straightway she launched into a flow of anecdote that touched up with whimsical and delightful humor every bit of poor comedy that had tinged the days of the tour. And as she talked the man laughed with sheer delight and amusement.

But it was growing late, and Marcia was exhausted with the outflow of spirits. He might be comforted, but tomorrow she must again take up the dull thread of her routine. It would not be easier for tonight's disappointment; for the coming of the rescuing knight who upon arrival had only clamored mournfully for assistance.

After all she could only stand so much, and just now she felt that the margin of endurance was narrow. Yet there was to be said the most important thing of all, and the most trying.

"Paul," she began slowly, but in a voice of finality, "when you go back tomorrow, you mustn't come to see me again. At least not for a long while."

His face became a mask of tragic disappointment, and his voice was pleading.

"You are not going to reinstate your sentence of banishment, Marcia? You can't know what this evening has meant to me. A man must have in his life that comfort that only a woman like you can give. Surely you will give it."

"But, Paul," she said as gently as she would have argued with a child, "you must remember. There is a woman: a woman to whom you regard yourself pledged. Are you being very loyal to her? Are you being very loyal to either of us?"

To herself she added: "A woman whom I have never seen and whose battles I am called upon to fight."

"She's in Europe." Paul spoke rather sullenly, and though he said no more his voice intimated that so far as he was concerned she might remain there.

Marcia nodded her bend. "She is there to get a divorce--so that she can marry you. No, Paul, you know why I sent you away in the first place. Since then nothing has changed--unless it is that I see more clearly the fatality of drifting. I can't do it."

"And you--" he spoke somewhat brokenly--"doesn't it mean anything to you?"

Suddenly and momentarily her self-restraint broke.

"Mean anything to me!" she exclaimed passionately as her eyes widened and her whole attitude relaxed into a posture of collapse in her chair. "Mean anything--!" Then suddenly she straightened up and passed a hand across her brow as though to brush away a cloud that rested there. In a composed voice she added: "It means so much that you must do as I say, not merely until you feel like disobeying again, but always." After a long silence she rose. "I must get up early," she said, remembering that tomorrow brought its program of a train journey, a matinee and an evening performance.

"Paul," said Marcia as they walked back, "I have to leave a call for seven and catch a train at eight-thirty. There's no use in your getting up. No, please don't, and please don't hunt me out again." At the door of the hotel she said enigmatically, "What a wonderful balance Nature might have struck between your brother's strength and your--winning personality. Good-night."

* * * * *

The Duke de Metuan's failure to rehabilitate his impaired fortunes with Burton gold had left a more durable scar upon his optimism than any of the similar scars of the past. Mary Burton had been such a splendid combination of charm and opulence that a marriage with her would have made a pleasure of necessity. The Duke in his earlier stages of disappointment had felt first the pangs of a lover, and only in secondary degree the chagrin of a depleted exchequer. Several months had found him inconsolable, and when desperation had closed upon him he had wedded an estimable lady whose wealth was less dazzling than Mary's, but ample none the less. Her personal paucity of allurement was a handicap which his philosophy ignored as much as possible. In private he sometimes made a fastidious grimace, and accepted the inevitable.

Yet the duke had long been an epicure in life's pleasures, and though he must yield to the demands of his creditors, much as a young prince must yield to the edicts of his chancellery in making a required marriage, he did so with mental reservations. He had no intention of permitting that necessity to cast a perpetual cloud over his days and nights.

He had found it possible to leave his estate in Andalusia, where his duchess elected to remain with an imaginary malady from which she derived much melancholy pleasure, and in Nice he had been overjoyed to meet a charming acquaintance in the person of Loraine Haswell.

Loraine, too, was willing to have these hours which hung heavy alleviated with companionship, and Nice is a place where hours lend themselves to the process of being lightened.

There was a waiter at one of the esplanade cafes where the tables look out over the whiteness of the sea-front and the sapphire of the bay, who regarded his grace and madame as his regular clients. He knew without telling what _hors d'oeuvres and vintages the dark gentleman affected and at what pastries the beautiful lady preferred to nibble. She nibbled decoratively between peals of soft laughter and snatches of small talk.

The garcon in question noted--and officially ignored--that the lady, who had at first worn a preoccupied, almost troubled, expression about her dark eyes, now smiled more often, and that into the black pupils of Carlos de Metuan there came frequently a glow which was akin to ardor.

In the same way he noticed that occasionally their hands met and lingered, as the lady formed the habit of losing her handkerchief and the gentleman habituated himself to its retrieving. A legal separation cannot be established in a day, and if one must remain away from one's friends at home, one may surely console oneself with friends abroad.

The duke was lavish in his entertainment. His wife's fortune permitted that, as well as his wife's ignorance of the disbursements, and of late Loraine's supply of money from America had arrived on a scale of diminuendo. Entertainment was welcome.

Half-jokingly and veiled in phrases which she was at liberty to construe as she wished, there had of late been an insidious vein of suggestion in the duke's conversation.

"Were I not married and were you not married and were I able to convince you with an eloquence which I lack, I think I might be happy," he informed her one night as he studied his cigarette end in the dark. Then he laughed and his hand sought hers as he added: "Yet, thank God a thousand times, we live in a day when friendship need not go shackled by dark-age absurdities." That had been the beginning.

"Friendship," she replied demurely, "has never had to be shackled, has it?"

He leaned forward and she caught the glint of his eyes and a flash of white teeth, as he answered:

"When friendship between man and woman is a feeble little fellow, he goes free, but when he grows very strong, then his lot was not so easy in other days. You understand me?"

"I'm sure I don't, but what matter?" she laughed. Carlos shrugged his shoulders.

"Yes, what matter?" he murmured. "As long as we can be together, why should we seek names for our companionship? It is--what it is."

Yet Loraine, still sure of her future, spelling a congenial and luxurious life with Paul, understood what she pretended not to understand. The Duke de Metuan was not a riddle to her; not even a figure tinged with mystery. His wife was an unlovely invalid. Her sole value was monetary, and the duke's hints and thoughts had all to do with an arrangement wherein life should yield him the compensating delights which his family denied.

Loraine's fastidiousness rather shuddered at this idea, yet perhaps a certain sort of character disintegration had set in, with her first cutting loose the moorings of preconceived standards. Possibly it was working a more rapid atrophy than she knew. She told herself that, in her exile, Carlos made a rather diverting companion, and that since she understood his purpose she could with ease control the situation. He should amuse and no more. If his hints became less ambiguous than she found agreeable, she would send him packing, but meanwhile she would permit his luncheons and his motors to serve her. The food and roads about Nice are excellent--and expensive.

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