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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Beloved Woman - Chapter 33
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The Beloved Woman - Chapter 33 Post by :gefsmith Category :Long Stories Author :Kathleen Thompson Norris Date :May 2012 Read :3198

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The Beloved Woman - Chapter 33

CHAPTER XXXIII

The evening moved through its dark and sombre hours unchanged; Joseph's assistants opened and opened and opened the door. More flowers--more flowers--and more. Notes, telephone messages, black-clad callers murmuring in the dimness of the lower hall, maids coming noiselessly and deferentially, the clergyman, the doctor, the choir-master, old Judge Lee tremulous and tedious, all her world circled about the lifeless form of the old mistress of the house. Certain persons went quietly upstairs, women in rich furs, and bare-headed, uncomfortable-looking men, entered the front room, and passed through with serious faces and slowly shaking heads.

Chris spoke to Norma in the hall, just after she had said good-night to some rather important callers, assuring them that Annie and Leslie were well, and had been kissed herself as their representative. He extended her a crushed document in which she was alarmed to recognize Wolf's letter.

"Oh--I think I dropped that in Aunt Annie's dressing-room!" Norma said, turning scarlet, and wondering what eyes had seen it.

"There was no envelope; a maid brought it to her, and Annie read it," Chris said. Norma's eyes were racing through it.

"There are no names!" she said, thankfully.

"It would have been a most unfortunate--a--a horrible thing, if there had been," Chris commented. Something in his manner said as plainly as words that dropping the letter had been a breach of good manners, had been extremely careless, almost reprehensible. Norma felt herself unreasonably antagonized.

"Oh, I don't know! It's true," she said, recklessly.

"Annie is a very important person in your plans, Norma," Chris reminded her. "It would be most regrettable for you to lose your head now, to give everyone an opportunity of criticizing you. I should advise you to enlist your Aunt Annie's sympathies just as soon as you can. She is, of all the world, the one woman who can direct you--help you equip yourself--tell you what to get, and how to establish yourself. If Annie chose to be unfriendly, to ignore you----"

"I don't see Annie von Behrens ignoring me--now!" Norma said, with anger, and throwing her head back proudly. They were in a curtained alcove on the landing of the angled stairway, completely hidden by the great curtain and by potted palms. "When my revered aunt realizes----"

"Your money will have absolutely no effect on Annie," Chris said, quickly.

"No, but what I _am will!" Norma answered, breathing hard.

"Not while we keep it to ourselves, as of course we must," Chris answered, in displeasure. "No one but ourselves will ever know----"

"The whole world will know!" Norma said, in sudden impatience with smoothing and hiding and pretending. Chris straightened his eyeglasses on their ribbon, and gave her his scrutinizing, unruffled glance.

"That would be foolish, I think, Norma!" he told her, calmly. "It would be a most unnecessary piece of vulgarity. Old families are constantly hushing up unfortunate chapters in their history; there is no reason why the whole thing should not be kept an absolute secret. My dear girl, you have just had a most extraordinary piece of good fortune--but you must be very careful how you take it! You will be--you are--a tremendously wealthy woman--and you will be in the public eye. Upon how you conduct yourself now your future position largely depends. Annie can--and I believe will--gladly assist you. Acton and Leslie will go abroad, I suppose--they can't live here. But a breath of scandal--or an ill-advised slip on your part--would make us all ridiculous. You must play your cards carefully. If you could stay with Annie, now----"

"I _hate Aunt Annie!" Norma interrupted, childishly.

"My dear girl--you're over-tired, you don't mean what you say!" Chris said, putting his hand on her arm. Under the light touch she dropped her eyes, and stood still. "Norma, do be advised by me in this," he urged her earnestly. "It is one of the most important crises in your life. Annie can put you exactly where you want to be, introduced and accepted everywhere--a constant guest in her house, in her opera box, or Annie can drop you--I've seen her do it!--and it would take you ten years to make up the lost ground!"

"It didn't take Annie ten years to be a--a--social leader!" Norma argued, resentfully.

"Annie? Ah, my dear, a woman like Annie isn't born twice in a hundred years! She has--but you know what she has, Norma. Languages, experiences, friends--most of all she has the grand manner--the _belle aire_."

Norma was fighting to regain her composure over almost unbearable hurt and chagrin.

"But, Chris," she argued, desperately, "you've always said that you had no particular use for Annie's crowd--that you'd rather live in some little Italian place--or travel slowly through India----"

"I said I would like to do that, and so I would!" he answered. "But believe me, Norma, your money makes a very different sort of thing possible now, and you would be mad--you would be _mad_!--to throw it away. Put yourself in Annie's hands," he finished, with the first hint of his old manner that she had seen for forty-eight hours, "and have your car, your maids, your little establishment on the upper East Side, and then--then"--and now his arm was about her, and he had tipped up her face close to his own--"and then you and I will break our little surprise to them!" he said, kindly. "Only be careful, Norma. Don't let them say that you did anything ostentatious or conspicuous----"

She freed herself, her heart cold and desolate almost beyond bearing, and Chris answered her as if she had spoken.

"Yes--and I must go, too! To-morrow will be a terrible day for us all. Oh, one thing more, Norma! Annie asked me if I had any idea of who the man was--the man Wolf speaks of there in that note--and I had to say someone, just to quiet her. So I said that I thought it was Roy Gillespie--you don't mind?--I knew he liked you tremendously, and I happened to think of him! Is that all right?"

She made no audible answer, almost immediately leaving him, and going upstairs. There was nothing to do, in her room, and she knew that she could really be of use downstairs, among the intimate old friends who were protecting Annie and Leslie from annoyance, but she felt in no mood for that. She hated herself and everybody; she was half-mad with fatigue and despondency.

Oh, what was the use of living--what was the use of living! Chris despised her; that was quite plain. He had advised her to-night as he would have advised an ignorant servant--an inexperienced commoner who might make the family ridiculous--who might lose her head, and descend to "unnecessary pieces of vulgarity!" Leslie had always "made allowances for Norma"; Annie considered her an "outsider." Wolf was going to California without her, and even Aunt Kate--even Aunt Kate had scolded her, reminded her that the Melroses had always been kind to her!

Norma's tears flowed fast, there seemed to be no end to the flood. She sopped them away with the black-bordered handkerchief, and tried walking about, and drinking cold water, but it was of no use. Her heart seemed broken, there was no avenue for her thoughts that did not lead to loneliness and grief. They had all pretended to love her--but not one of them did--not one of them did! She had never had a father, and never had a mother, she had never had a fair chance!

Money--she thought darkly. But what was the use of money if everyone hated her, if everyone thought she was selfish and stupid and ignorant and superfluous! Why find a beautiful apartment, and buy beautiful clothes, if she must flatter and cajole her way into Annie's favour to enjoy them, and bear Chris's superior disdain for her stumbling literary criticisms and her amateurish Italian?

And she was furious at Chris. How dared he--how dared he insult her by coupling her name with that of Roy Gillespie, to quiet Annie and to protect himself! She was a married woman; she had never given him any reason to take such liberties with her dignity! Roy Gillespie, indeed! Annie was to amuse herself by fancying Norma secretly enamoured of that big, stupid, simple Gillespie boy, who was twenty-two years old, and hardly out of college! And it was for him that Norma was presumably leaving her husband!

It was insufferable. It was insufferable. She would go straight to Annie--but no, she couldn't do that. She couldn't tell Annie, on the night before Annie's sister was buried, that that same sister's husband loved and was beloved by another woman.

"Still, it's true," Norma mused, darkly. "Only we seem unable to speak the truth in this house! Well, I'm stifling here----"

She had been leaning out of the open window, the night was soft and warm. Norma looked at her wrist watch; it was nine o'clock. A sudden mad impulse took her: she would go over to Jersey, and see Rose. It was not so very late, the babies kept Rose and Harry up until almost eleven. She thirsted suddenly for Rose, for Rose's beautiful, pure little face, her puzzled, earnest blue eyes under black eyebrows, her pleasant, unready words that were always so true and so kind.

Rapidly Norma buttoned the new black coat, dropped the filmy veil, fled down the back stairway, and through a bright, hot pantry, where maids were laughing and eating gaily. She explained to their horrified silence that she was slipping out for a breath of air, went through doorways and gratings, and found herself in the blessed coolness and darkness of the side street.

Ah--this was delicious! She belonged here, flying along inconspicuous and unmolested in light and darkness, just one of the hurrying and indifferent millions. The shop windows, the subways, the very gum-machines and the chestnut ovens with their blowing lamps looked friendly to Norma to-night; she loved every detail of blowing newspapers and yawning fellow-passengers, in the hot, bright tube.

On the other side she was hurrying off the train with the plunging crowd when her heart jumped wildly at the sight of a familiar shabby overcoat some fifty feet ahead of her, topped by the slightly tipped slouch hat that Wolf always wore. Friday night! her thoughts flashed joyously, and he was coming to New Jersey to see his mother and Rose! Of all fortunate accidents--the one person in the world she wanted to see--and must see now!

Norma fled after the coat, dodging and slipping through every opening, and keeping the rapidly moving slouch hat before her. She was quite out of breath when she came abreast of the man, and saw, with a sickening revulsion, that it was not Wolf.

What the man thought Norma never knew or cared. The surprising blankness of the disappointment made her almost dizzy; she turned aside blindly, and stumbled into the quiet backwater behind a stairway, where she could recover her self-possession and endure unobserved the first pangs of bitterness. It seemed to her that she would die if she could not see Wolf, if she had to endure another minute of loneliness and darkness and aimless wandering through the night.

Rose's house was only three well-lighted blocks from the station; Norma almost ran them. Other houses, she noted, were still brightly lighted at quarter to eleven o'clock, and Rose's might be. Aunt Kate was there, and she and Rose might well be sitting up, with the restless smaller baby, or to finish some bit of sewing.

It was a double house, and the windows that matched Rose's bedroom and dining-room were lighted in the wrong half. But all Rose's side was black and dark and silent.

Norma, for the first time in her life, needed courage for the knocking and ringing and explaining. If they would surely be kind to her, she might chance it, she thought. But if Aunt Kate was angry with her vacillations in regard to Wolf, and if Rose had also taken Wolf's side, then she knew that she, Norma, would begin to cry, and disgrace herself, and have good-natured simple old Harry poking about and wondering what was the matter----

No, she didn't dare risk it. So she waited in the little garden, looking up at the windows, praying that little Harry would wake up, or that the baby's little acid wail would drift through the open window, and then the dim light bloom suddenly, and show a silhouette of Rose, tall and sweet in her wrapper, with a great rope of braid falling over one shoulder.

But moments went by, and there was no sound. Norma went to the street lamp a hundred feet away and looked at her wrist watch. Quarter past eleven; it was useless to wait any longer; it had been a senseless quest from the beginning.

She went back to the city by train and boat, crying desolately in the darkness above the ploughing of the invisible waters. She cried with pity for herself, for it seemed to her that life was very unfair to her.

"Is it _my fault that I inherit all that money?" she asked the dark night angrily. "Is it my fault that I love Chris Liggett? Isn't it better to be honest about it than live with a man I don't love? Isn't that the worst thing that woman can endure--a loveless marriage?

"But that's just the High School Debating Society!" she interrupted herself, suddenly, using a phrase that she and Wolf had coined long ago for glib argument that is untouched by actual knowledge of life. "Loveless marriage--and wife in name only! I wonder if I am getting to be one of the women who throw those terms about as an excuse for just sheer selfishness and stupidity!"

And her aunt's phrases came back to her, making her wonder unhappily just where the trouble lay, just what sort of a woman she was.

"I think you will be whatever you want to be, Norma," Mrs. Sheridan had said, "you're a woman now--you're Wolf's wife----"

But that was just what she did not feel herself, a woman and Wolf's wife. She was a girl--interested in shaggy sport coats and lace stockings; she did not want to be any one's wife! She wanted to punish Leslie and Aunt Annie, and to have plenty of money, and to have a wonderful little apartment on the east side of the Park, and delicious clothes; she wanted to become a well-known figure in New York society, at Palm Beach and the summer resorts, and at the opera and the big dining-rooms of the hotels.

"And I could do it, too!" Norma thought, walking through the cool, dark night restlessly. "In two years--in three or four, anyway, I would be where Aunt Annie is; or at least I would if Chris and I were married--he could do anything! I suppose," she added, with youthful recklessness, "I suppose there are lots of old fogies who would never understand my getting separated from Wolf, but it isn't as if _he didn't understand, for I know he does! Wolf has always known that it took just _certain things to make me happy!"

Something petty, and contemptible, and unworthy, in this last argument smote her ears unpleasantly, and she was conscious of flushing in the dark.

"Well, people have to be happy, don't they?" she reasoned, with a rising inflection at the end of the phrase that surprised and a trifle disquieted her. "Don't they?" she asked herself, thoughtfully, as she crept in at the side door of the magnificent, cumbersome old house that was her own now. No one but an amazed-looking maid saw her, as she regained her room, and fifteen minutes later she was circulating about the dim and mournful upper floor again. Annie called her into her room.

"You look fearfully tired, Norma! Do get some sleep," her aunt said, with unusual kindness. "I'm going to try to, although my head is aching terribly, and I know I can't. To-morrow will be hard on us all. I shall go home to-morrow night, and I'm trying to persuade Leslie to come with me."

"No, I shan't! I'm going to stay here," Leslie said, with a sort of weary pettishness. "My house is closed, and poor Chris is going to begin closing Aunt Alice's house, and he doesn't want to go to a club--he'd much rather be here, wouldn't he, Norma?"

Something in the tired way that both aunt and niece appealed to her touched Norma, and she answered sympathetically:

"Truly, I think he would, Aunt Annie. And if little Patricia and the nurse get here on Sunday, she won't be lonely."

"Norma, why don't you stay here, too--your husband's in Philadelphia," Leslie asked her. "Do! We shall have so much to do----"

"We haven't seen the will, but I believe Judge Lee is going to bring it on Wednesday," Annie said, "and Chris said that Mama left you--well, I don't know what! I wish you could arrange to stay the rest of the week, at least!"

"I will!" Norma agreed. She had been feeling neglected and lonely, and this unexpected friendliness was heartwarming.

"You've been a real comfort," Annie said, good-naturedly. "You're such a sensible child, Norma. I hope one of these days--afterward"--and Annie faintly indicated with her eyebrows the direction of the front room from which the funeral procession would start to-morrow--"afterward, that you'll let us know your husband better. And now it's long past midnight, girls, and you ought to be in bed!"

It was mere casual civility on Annie's part, as accidental as had been her casual unkindness a few hours before. But it lifted Norma's heart, and she went out into the hall in a softer frame of mind than she had known for a long time. She managed another word with Chris before going to her room for almost nine hours of reviving and restoring sleep.

"Chris, I feel terribly about breaking this news to Aunt Annie and Leslie while they feel so badly about Aunt Alice and Aunt Marianna!" she said. Again Chris gave the hallway, where she had met him, a quick, uneasy scrutiny before he answered her:

"Well, of course! But it can't be helped."

"But do you think that we could put it off until Wednesday, Chris, when the will is to be read? Everyone will be here then, and it would seem a good time to do it!"

"Yes," he consented, after a moment's thought, "I think that is a good idea!" And so they left it.

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CHAPTER XXXIIMoving automatically through the solemn scenes of the next two days, that, mused Norma, must be the solution. Wolf must go alone to California. Not because she did not love him--who could help loving him indeed?--but because she loved Chris more--or differently, at least, and she belonged to Chris's world now, by every right of birth, wealth, and position. "Of course you must stay here," Chris said, positively, on the one occasion when they spoke of her plans. "In the first place, there is the estate to settle, we shall need you. Then there are books--pictures--all that sort of thing
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