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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTogether - Part Two - Chapter 22
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Together - Part Two - Chapter 22 Post by :Jay_White Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :May 2012 Read :1975

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Together - Part Two - Chapter 22

PART TWO CHAPTER XXII

The calm male observer might marvel at Bessie's elation over the prospect of sitting in Mrs. Anstruthers Leason's box at the performance of "Faust" given by the French Opera Company on tour. But no candid woman will. It could be explained partly by the natural desire to associate with entertaining, well-dressed folk, who were generally considered to be "the best," "the leaders" of local society. Sitting there in the stuffy box, which was a poor place for seeing or hearing, Bessie felt the satisfaction of being in the right company. She had discovered in one of the serried rows of the first balcony Kitty Sanders, whom she had known as a girl in Kansas City, where Bessie had once lived in the peregrinations of the Bissell family. Kitty had married a prosperous dentist and enjoyed with him an income nearly twice that of Rob Falkner. Kitty, scanning the boxes closely, also spied Bessie, and exclaimed to her husband:--

"Why, there's Bessie Bissell in that box! You know she married a young fellow, an engineer or something." And she added either aloud or to herself, "They seem to be _in it_,--that's the Leason box." While the alluring strains of the overture floated across the house, she mused at the strange mutations of fortune, which had landed Bessie Bissell there and herself here beside the dentist,--with some envy, in spite of three beloved children at home and a motorcar....

To the dispassionate male observer this state of mind might be more comprehensible if Bessie had appeared in Mrs. Corporation's box on a gala night at the Metropolitan, or in the Duchess of Thatshire's box at Covent Garden. But the strange fact of democracy is that instead of discouraging social desires it has multiplied them ten thousand fold. Every city in the land has its own Mrs. Anstruthers Leason or Mrs. Corporation, to form the local constellation, towards which the active-minded women of a certain type will always strive or gravitate, as you choose to put it. This being so, the American husband, one might suppose, would sigh for an absolute monarchy, where there is but one fixed social firmament, admission to which is determined by a despot's edict. Then the great middle class could rest content, knowing that forever, no matter what their gifts might be, their wives could not aspire to social heights. With us the field is clear, the race open to money and brains, and the result? Each one can answer for himself.

Isabelle, returning to her home that fall, with a slight surplus of vitality, was eager for life. "I have been dead so long," she said to her husband. "I want to see people!" Born inside the local constellation, as she had been, that was not difficult. Yet she realized soon enough that the Prices, prominent as they were, had never belonged to the heart of the constellation. It remained for her to penetrate there, under the guidance of the same Nannie Lawton whom as a girl she had rather despised. For every constellation has its inner circle, the members of which touch telepathically all other inner circles. The fact that Nannie Lawton called her by her first name would help her socially more, than the Colonel's record as a citizen or her husband's position in the railroad or their ample means. Before her second winter of married life had elapsed, she had begun to exhaust this form of excitement, to find herself always tired. After all, although the smudge of St. Louis on the level alluvial plains of America was a number of times larger than the smudge of Torso, the human formula, at least in its ornamental form, remained much the same. She was patroness where she should be patroness, she was invited where she would have felt neglected not to be invited, she entertained very much as the others she knew entertained, and she and her husband had more engagements than they could keep. She saw this existence stretching down the years with monotonous iteration, and began to ask herself what else there was to satisfy the thirst for experience which had never been assuaged.

Bessie, with a keener social sense, kept her eye on the game,--she had to, and her little triumphs satisfied her. Nan Lawton varied the monotony of "the ordinary round" by emotional dissipations that Isabelle felt herself to be above. Other women of their set got variety by running about the country to New York or Washington, to a hotel in Florida or in the mountains of Carolina, or as a perpetual resource to Paris and Aix and Trouville and London....

Isabelle was too intelligent, too much the daughter of her father, to believe that a part of the world did not exist outside the social constellation, and an interesting part, too. Some of those outside she touched as time went on. She was one of the board of governors for the Society of Country Homes for Girls, and here and on the Orphanage board she met energetic and well-bred young married women, who apparently genuinely preferred their charities, their reading clubs, the little country places where they spent the summers, to the glory of Mrs. Anstruthers Leason's opera box or dinner dance. As she shot about the city on her errands, social and philanthropic, Isabelle sometimes mused on the lives of the "others,"--all those thousands that filled the streets and great buildings of the city. Of course the poor,--that was simple enough; the struggle for life settled how one would live with ruthless severity. If it was a daily question how you could keep yourself housed and fed, why it did not matter what you did with your life. In the ranks above the poor, the little people who lived in steam-heated apartments and in small suburban boxes had their small fixed round of church and friends, still closely circumscribed and to Isabelle, in her present mood,--simply dreadful. When she expressed this to Fosdick, whom she was taking one morning to a gallery to see the work of a local artist that fashionable people were patronizing, he had scoffed at her:--

"_Madame la princesse_," he said, waving his hand towards the throng of morning shoppers, "don't you suppose that the same capacity for human sensation exists in every unit of that crowd bent towards Sneeson's as in you?"

"No," protested Isabelle, promptly; "they haven't the same experience."

"As thrilling a drama can be unrolled in a twenty-five dollar flat as in a palace."

"Stuff! There isn't one of those women who wouldn't be keen to try the palace!"

"As you ought to be to try the flat, in a normally constituted society."

"What do you mean by a normally constituted society?"

"One where the goal of ease is not merely entertainment."

"You are preaching now, aren't you?" demanded Isabelle. "Society has always been pretty much the same, hasn't it? First necessities, then comforts, then luxuries, and then--"

"Well, what?"

"Oh, experience, art, culture, I suppose."

"Isabelle," the big man smilingly commented, "you are the same woman you were six years ago."

"I am not!" she protested, really irritated. "I have done a lot of thinking, and I have seen a good deal of life. Besides I am a good wife, and a mother, which I wasn't six years ago, and a member of the Country Homes Society and the Orphanage, and a lot more." They laughed at her defence, and Isabelle added as a concession: "I know that there are plenty of women not in society who lead interesting lives, are intelligent and all that. But I am a good wife, and a good mother, and I am intelligent, and what is more, I see amusing people and more of them than the others,--the just plain women. What would you have me do?"

"Live," Fosdick replied enigmatically.

"We all live."

"Very few do."

"You mean emotional--heart experiences, like Nan's affairs? ... Sometimes I wonder if that wouldn't be--interesting. But it would give John such a shock! ... Well, here are the pictures. There's Mrs. Leason's portrait,--flatters her, don't you think?"

Fosdick, leaning his fat hands on his heavy stick, slowly made the round of the canvasses, concluding with the portrait of Mrs. Leason.

"Got some talent in him," he pronounced; "a penny worth. If he can only keep away from this sort of thing," pointing with his stick to the portrait, "he might paint in twenty years."

"But why shouldn't he do portraits? They all have to, to live."

"It isn't the portrait,--it's the sort of thing it brings with it. You met him, I suppose?"

"Yes; dined with him at Mrs. Leason's last week."

"I thought so. That's the beginning of his end."

"You silly! Art has always been parasitic,--why shouldn't the young man go to pleasant people's houses and have a good time and be agreeable and get them to buy his pictures?"

"Isabelle, you have fallen into the bad habit of echoing phrases. 'Art has always been parasitic.' That's the second commonplace of the drawing-room you have got off this morning."

"Come over here and tell me something.... I can't quarrel with you, Dickie!" Isabelle said, leading the way to a secluded bench.

"If I were not modest, I should say you were flirting with me."

"I never flirt with any man; I am known as the Saint, the Puritan,--I might try it, but I couldn't--with you.... Tell me about Vick. Have you seen him?"

"Yes," Fosdick replied gravely. "I ran across him in Venice."

"How was he?"

"He looked well, has grown rather stout.... The first time I saw him was on the Grand Canal; met him in a smart gondola, with men all togged out, no end of a get-up!"

"You saw them _both_?"

"Of course,--I looked him up at once. They have an old place on the Giudecca, you know. I spent a week with them. He's still working on the opera,--it doesn't get on very fast, I gather. He played me some of the music,--it's great, parts of it. And he has written other things."

"I know all that," Isabelle interrupted impatiently. "But is he happy?"

"A man like Vickers doesn't tell you that, you know."

"But you can tell--how did they seem?"

"Well," Fosdick replied slowly, "when I saw them in the gondola the first time, I thought--it was too bad!"

"I was afraid so," Isabelle cried. "Why don't they marry and come to New York or go to London or some place and make a life?--people can't live like that."

"I think he wants to marry her," Fosdick replied.

"But she won't?"

"Precisely,--not now."

"Why--what?"

Fosdick avoided the answer, and observed, "Vick seems awfully fond of the little girl, Delia."

"Poor, poor Vick!" Isabelle sighed. "He ought to leave that creature."

"He won't; Vick was the kind that the world sells cheap,--it's best kind. He lives the dream and believes his shadows; it was always so. It will be so until the end. Life will stab him at every corner."

"Dear, dear Vick!" Isabelle said softly; "some days I feel as if I would have done as he did."

"But fortunately there is John to puncture your dream with solid fact."

"John even might not be able to do it! ... I am going over to see Vick this summer."

"Wouldn't that make complications--family ones?"

Isabelle threw up her head wilfully.

"Dickie, I think there is something in me deeper than my love for John or for the child,--and that is the feeling I have about Vick!"

Fosdick looked at her penetratingly.

"You ought not to have married, Isabelle."

"Why? Every one marries--and John and I are very happy.... Come; there are some people I don't want to meet."

As they descended the steps into the murky light of the noisy city, Isabelle remarked:--

"Don't forget to-night, promptly at seven,--we are going to the theatre afterwards. I shall show you some of our smart people and let you see if they aren't more interesting than the mob."

She nodded gayly and drove off. As she went to a luncheon engagement, she thought of Vickers, of Fosdick's remarks about living, and a great wave of dissatisfaction swept over her. "It's this ugly city," she said to herself, letting down the window. "Or it's nerves again,--I must do something!" That phrase was often on her lips these days. In her restlessness nothing seemed just right,--she was ever trying to find something beyond the horizon. As Fosdick would have said, "The race vitality being exhausted in its primitive force, nothing has come to take its place." But at luncheon she was gay and talkative, the excitement of human contact stimulating her. And afterwards she packed the afternoon with trivial engagements until it was time to dress for her guests.

The dinner and the theatre might have passed off uneventfully, if it had not been for Fosdick. That unwieldy social vessel broke early in the dinner. Isabelle had placed him next Mrs. Leason because the lady liked celebrities, and Fosdick, having lately been put gently but firmly beyond the confines of the Tzar's realm for undue intimacy with the rebellious majority of the Tzar's subjects, might be counted such. For the time being he had come to a momentary equilibrium in the city of his birth. Fosdick and Mrs. Leason seemed to find common ground, while the other men, the usual speechless contingent of tired business men, allowed themselves to be talked at by the women. Presently Fosdick's voice boomed forth:--

"Let me tell you a story which will illustrate my point, Mrs. Leason. Some years ago I was riding through the Kentucky mountains, and after a wretched luncheon in one of the log-and-mud huts I was sitting on the bench in front of the cabin trying to make peace with my digestion. The ground in that spot sloped down towards me, and on the side of this little hill there lay a large hog, a razor-back sow. There were eight little pigs clustered in voracious attitudes about her, and she could supply but six at a time,--I mean that she was provided by nature with but six teats."

Mrs. Leason visibly moved away from her neighbor, and for the rest of his story Fosdick had a silent dinner table.

"The mother was asleep," Fosdick continued, turning his great head closer to Mrs. Leason, "probably attending to her digestion as I was to mine, and she left her offspring to fight it out among themselves for the possession of her teats. There was a lively scrap, a lot of hollerin' and squealin' from that bunch of porkers, grunts from the ins and yaps from the outs, you know. Every now and then one of the outs would make a flying start, get a wedge in and take a nip, forcing some one of his brothers out of the heap so that he would roll down the hill into the path. Up he'd get and start over, and maybe he would dislodge some other porker. And the old sow kept grunting and sleeping peacefully in the sun while her children got their dinner in the usual free-fight fashion.

"Now," Fosdick raised his heavy, square-pointed finger and shook it at the horrified Mrs. Leason and also across the table, noticing what seemed to him serious interest in his allegory, "I observed that there was a difference among those little porkers,--some were fat and some were peaked, and the peaked fellers got little show at the mother. Now what I ask myself is,--were they weak because they couldn't manage to get a square feed, or were they hustled out more than the others because they were naturally weak? I leave that to my friends the sociologists to determine--"

"Isabella," Lane interposed from his end of the table, "if Mr. Fosdick has finished his pig story, perhaps--"

Isabelle, divided between a desire to laugh and a very vivid sense of Mrs. Leason's feelings, rose, but Fosdick had not finished and she sat down again.

"But what I meant to say was this, madam,--there's only one difference between that old sow and her brood and society as it is run at present, and that is there are a thousand mouths to every teat, and a few big, fat fellows are getting all the food."

He looked up triumphantly from his exposition. There was a titter at Mrs. Lawton's end of the table. This lady had been listening to an indecent story told in French-English when Fosdick had upset things. Now she remarked in an audible tone:--

"Disgusting, I say!"

"Eh! What's the matter? Don't you believe what I told you?" Fosdick demanded.

"Oh, yes, Dickie,--anything you say,--only don't repeat it!" Isabelle exclaimed, rising from the table.

"Does he come from a farm?" one woman murmured indignantly. "Such _gros mots_!" She too had been listening to the story of adultery at Mrs. Lawton's end of the table. Isabelle, who had taken in the whole situation from her husband's shocked face, Nan Lawton's sly giggle over the salacious tidbit, and Mrs. Leason's offended countenance, felt that she must shriek to relieve her feelings.

The party finally reached the theatre and saw a "sex" play, which caused a furious discussion among the women. "No woman would have done that." "The man was not worth the sacrifice," etc. And Fosdick gloomily remarked in Isabelle's ears: "Rot like this is all you see on the modern stage. And it's because women want it,--they must forever be fooling with sex. Why don't they--"

"Hush, Dickie! you have exploded enough to-night. Don't say that to Mrs. Leason!"

Her world appeared to her that night a harlequin tangle, and, above all, meaningless--yes, dispiritedly without sense. John, somehow, seemed displeased with her, as if she were responsible for Dickie's breaks. She laughed again as she thought of the sow story, and the way the women took it. "What a silly world,--talk and flutter and gadding, all about nothing!"

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