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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Cost - Chapter 17. Two And The Barrier
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The Cost - Chapter 17. Two And The Barrier Post by :Jigger Category :Long Stories Author :David Graham Phillips Date :May 2012 Read :1960

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The Cost - Chapter 17. Two And The Barrier


Scarborough often rode with Gladys and Pauline, sometimes with Gladys alone. One afternoon in August he came expecting to go out with both. But Gladys was not well that day. She had examined her pale face and deeply circled eyes in her glass; she had counseled with her maid--a discreetly and soothingly frank French woman. Too late to telephone him, she had overruled her longing to see him and had decided that at what she hoped was his "critical stage" it would be wiser not to show herself to him thus even in her most becoming tea-gown, which compelled the eyes of the beholder to a fascinating game of hide and seek with her neck and arms and the lines of her figure.

"And Mrs. Dumont?" inquired Scarborough of the servant who brought Gladys' message and note.

"She's out walking, sir."

Scarborough rode away, taking the long drive through the grounds of the Eyrie, as it would save him a mile of dusty and not well-shaded highway. A few hundred yards and he was passing the sloping meadows that lay golden bronze in the sun, beyond the narrow fringe of wood skirting and shielding the drive. The grass and clover had been cut. Part of it was spread where it had fallen, part had been raked into little hillocks ready for the wagons. At the edge of one of these hillocks far down the slope he saw the tail of a pale blue skirt, a white parasol cast upon the stubble beside it. He reined in his horse, hesitated, dismounted, tied his bridle round a sapling. He strode across the field toward the hillock that had betrayed its secret to him.

"Do I interrupt?" he called when he was still far enough away not to be taking her by surprise.

There was no answer. He paused, debating whether to call again or to turn back.

But soon she was rising--the lower part of her tall narrow figure hid by the hillock, the upper part revealing to him the strong stamp of that vivid individuality of hers which separated her at once from no matter what company. She had on a big garden hat, trimmed just a little with summer flowers, a blouse of some soft white material, with even softer lace on the shoulders and in the long, loose sleeves. She gave a friendly nod and glance in his direction, and said: "Oh, no--not at all. I'm glad to have help in enjoying this."

She was looking out toward the mists of the horizon hills. The heat of the day had passed; the woods, the hillocks of hay were casting long shadows on the pale-bronze fields. A breeze had sprung up and was lifting from the dried and drying grass and clover a keen, sweet, intoxicating perfume--like the odor which classic zephyrs used to shake from the flowing hair of woodland nymphs.

He stood beside her without speaking, looking intently at her. It was the first time he had been alone with her since the afternoon at Battle Field when she confessed her marriage and he his love.

"Bandit was lame," she said when it seemed necessary to say something.

She rode a thoroughbred, Bandit, who would let no one else mount him; whenever she got a new saddle she herself had to help put it on, so alert was he for schemes to entrap him to some other's service. He obeyed her in the haughty, nervous way characteristic of thoroughbreds--obeyed because he felt that she was without fear, and because she had the firm but gentle hand that does not fret a horse yet does not let him think for an instant that he is or can be free. Then, too, he had his share of the universal, fundamental vanity we should probably find swelling the oyster did we but know how to interpret it; and he must have appreciated what an altogether harmonious spectacle it was when he swept along with his mistress upon his back as light and free as a Valkyr.

"I was sorry to miss the ride," Pauline went on after another pause--to her, riding was the keenest of the many physical delights that are for those who have vigorous and courageous bodies and sensitive nerves. Whenever it was possible she fought out her battles with herself on horseback, usually finding herself able there to drown mental distress in the surge of physical exultation.

As he still did not speak she looked at him--and could not look away. She had not seen that expression since their final hour together at Battle Field, though in these few last months she had been remembering it so exactly, had been wondering, doubting whether she could not bring it to his face again, had been forbidding herself to long to see it. And there it was, unchanged like all the inflexible purposes that made his character and his career. And back to her came, as it had come many and many a time in those years, the story he had told her of his father and mother, of his father's love for his mother--how it had enfolded her from the harshness and peril of pioneer life, had enfolded her in age no less than in youth, had gone down into and through the Valley of the Shadow with her, had not left her even at the gates of Death, but had taken him on with her into the Beyond. And Pauline trembled, an enormous joy thrilling through and through her.

"Don't!" she said uncertainly. "Don't look at me like that, PLEASE!"

"You were crying," he said abruptly. He stood before her, obviously one who had conquered the respect of the world in fair, open battle, and has the courage that is for those only who have tested their strength and know it will not fail them. And the sight of him, the look of him, filled her not with the mere belief, but with the absolute conviction that no malign power in all the world or in the mystery round the world could come past him to her to harass or harm her. The doubts, the sense of desolation that had so agitated her a few minutes before now seemed trivial, weak, unworthy.

She lowered her eyes--she had thought he would not observe the slight traces of the tears she had carefully wiped away. She clasped her hands meekly and looked--and felt--like a guilty child. The coldness, the haughtiness were gone from her face.

"Yes," she said shyly. "Yes--I--I--" She lifted her eyes--her tears had made them as soft and luminous as the eyes of a child just awake from a long, untroubled sleep. "But--you must not ask me. It's nothing that can be helped. Besides, it seems nothing--now." She forced a faint smile. "If you knew what a comfort it is to cry you'd try it."

"I have," he replied. Then after a pause he added: "Once." Something in his tone--she did not venture to look at him again--made her catch her breath. She instantly and instinctively knew when that "once" was. "I don't care to try it again, thank you," he went on. "But it made me able to understand what sort of comfort you were getting. For--YOU don't cry easily."

The katydids were clamoring drowsily in the tops of the sycamores. From out of sight beyond the orchard came the monotonous, musical whir of a reaper. A quail whistled his pert, hopeful, careless "Bob White!" from the rail fence edging the wheat field. A bumblebee grumbled among a cluster of swaying clover blossoms which the mower had spared. And the breeze tossed up and rolled over the meadow, over the senses of the young man and the young woman, great billows of that perfume which is the combined essence of all nature's love philters.

Pauline sank on the hay, and Scarborough stretched himself on the ground at her feet. "For a long time it's been getting darker and darker for me," she began, in the tone of one who is talking of some past sorrow which casts a retreating shadow over present joy to make it the brighter by contrast. "To-day--this afternoon it seemed as if the light were just about to go out--for good and all. And I came here. I found myself lying on the ground--on the bosom of this old cruel--kind mother of ours. And--" She did not finish--he would know the rest. Besides, what did it matter--now?

He said: "If only there were some way in which I could help."

"It isn't the people who appear at the crises of one's life, like the hero on the stage, that really help. I'm afraid the crises, the real crises of real life, must always be met alone."

"Alone," he said in an undertone. The sky was blue now--cloudless blue; but in that word alone he could hear the rumble of storms below the horizon, storms past, storms to come.

"The real helpers," she went on, "are those who strengthen us day by day, hour by hour. And when no physical presence would do any good, when no outside aid is possible--they--it's like finding a wall at one's back when one's in dread of being surrounded. I suppose you don't realize how much it means to--to how many people--to watch a man who goes straight and strong on his way--without blustering, without trampling anybody, without taking any mean advantage. You don't mind my saying these things?"

She felt the look which she did not venture to face as he answered: "I needed to hear them to-day. For it seemed to me that I, too, had got to the limit of my strength."

"But you hadn't." She said this confidently.

"No--I suppose not. I've thought so before; but somehow I've always managed to gather myself together. This time it was the work of years apparently undone--hopelessly undone. They"--she understood that "they" meant the leaders of the two corrupt rings whose rule of the state his power with the people menaced--"they have bought away some of my best men--bought them with those 'favors' that are so much more disreputable than money because they're respectable. Then they came to me"--he laughed unpleasantly--"and took me up into a high mountain and showed me all the kingdoms of the earth, as it were. I could be governor, senator, they said, could probably have the nomination for president even,--not if I would fall down and worship them, but if I would let them alone. I could accomplish nearly all that I've worked so long to accomplish if I would only concede a few things to them. I could be almost free. ALMOST--that is, not free at all."

She said: "And they knew you no better than that!"

"Now," he continued, "it looks as if I'll have to build all over again."

"I think not," she replied. "If they weren't still afraid of you they'd never have come to you. But what does it matter? YOU don't fight for victory, you fight for the fight's sake. And so"--she looked at him proudly--"you can't lose."

"Thank you. Thank you," he said in a low voice.

She sighed. "How I envy you! You LIVE. I can simply be alive. Sometimes I feel as if I were sitting in a railway station waiting to begin my journey--waiting for a train that's late--nobody knows how late. Simply alive--that's all."

"That's a great deal," he said. He was looking round at the sky, at the horizon, at the fields far and near, at her. "A great deal," he repeated.

"You feel that, too?" She smiled. "I suppose I should live on through anything and everything, because, away down under the surface, where even the worst storms can't reach, there's always a sort of tremendous joy--the sense of being alive--just alive." She drew a long breath. "Often when I've been--anything but happy--a little while ago, for instance--I suddenly have a feeling of ecstasy. I say to myself: Yes, I'm unhappy, but--I'm ALIVE!"

He made a sudden impulsive movement toward her, then restrained himself, pressed his lips together and fell back on his elbow.

"I suppose I ought to be ashamed of myself,' she added.

"You mustn't say that." He was sitting up, was speaking with all his energy. "All that you were telling me a while ago to encourage me applies to you, too--and more--more. You DO live. You ARE what you long to be. That ideal you're always trying to grasp--don't you know why you can't grasp it, Pauline? Because it's your own self, your own image reflected as in a mirror."

He broke off abruptly, acutely conscious that he was leaning far over the barrier between them. There was a distant shout, from vigorous, boyish lungs. Gardiner, mad with the joy of healthy seven, came running and jumping across the field to land with a leap astride the hillock, scattering wisps of hay over his mother and Scarborough. Pauline turned without getting up, caught her boy by the arms and with mock violence shook and thrust him deep down into the damaged hillock. She seemed to be making an outlet for some happiness too great to be contained. He laughed and shouted and struggled, pushed and pulled her. Her hat fell off, her hair loosened and the sun showered gold of many shades upon it. She released him and stood up, straightening and smoothing her hair and breathing quickly, the color high in her cheeks.

Scarborough was already standing, watching her with an expression of great cheerfulness.

"Good-by," he now said. "The caravan"--his tone was half-jesting, half-serious--"has been spending the heat and dust of the day on the oasis. It makes night journeys only. It must push on."

"Night journeys only," repeated Pauline. "That sounds gloomy."

"But there are the stars--and the moon."

She laughed. "And other oases ahead. Good-by--and thank you!"

The boy, close to his mother and facing Scarborough, was looking from her to him and back again--curiously, it almost seemed suspiciously. Both noticed it; both flushed slightly. Scarborough shook hands with her, bowed to the little boy with a formality and constraint that might have seemed ludicrous to an onlooker. He went toward his horse; Gardiner and his mother took the course at right angles across the field in the direction in which the towers of the Eyrie could be seen above the tree-tops. Suddenly the boy said, as if it were the conclusion of a long internal argument: "I like Mr. Scarborough."

"Why not?" asked his mother, amused.

"I--I don't know," replied the boy. "Anyhow, I like him. I wish he'd come and stay with us and Aunt Gladys."

Gladys! The reminder made her uncomfortable, made her feel that she ought to be remorseful. But she hastened on to defend herself. What reason had she to believe that Gladys cared for him, except as she always cared for difficult conquest? Hadn't Gladys again and again gone out of her way to explain that she wasn't in love with him? Hadn't she said, only two days before: "I don't believe I could fall in love with any man. Certainly I couldn't unless he had made it very clear to me that he was in love with me."

Pauline had latterly been suspecting that these elaborations of superfluous protestation were Gladys' efforts to curtain herself. Now she dwelt upon them with eager pleasure, and assured and reassured herself that she had been supersensitive and that Gladys had really been frank and truthful with her.

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