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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVirginia - Book 3. The Adjustment - Chapter 3. Middle-Age
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Virginia - Book 3. The Adjustment - Chapter 3. Middle-Age Post by :cloudsifter Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :1734

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Virginia - Book 3. The Adjustment - Chapter 3. Middle-Age

BOOK III. THE ADJUSTMENT CHAPTER III. MIDDLE-AGE

Jenny had promised to come home a week before Lucy's wedding, but at the last moment, while they waited supper for her, a telegram announced with serious brevity that she was "detained." Twenty-four hours later a second telegram informed them that she would not arrive until the evening before the marriage, and at six o'clock on that day, Virginia, who had been packing Lucy's trunks ever since breakfast, looked out of the window at the sound of the door-bell, and saw the cab which had contained her second daughter standing beside the curbstone.

"Mother, have you the change to pay the driver?" asked a vision of stern loveliness floating into the room. With the winter's glow in her cheeks and eyes and the bronze sheen on her splendid hair, which was brushed in rippling waves from her forehead and coiled in a severely simple knot on her neck, she might have been a wandering goddess, who had descended, with immortal calm, to direct the affairs of the household. Her white shirtwaist, with its starched severity, suited her austere beauty and her look of almost superhuman composure.

"Take off your hat, darling, and lie down on the couch while I finish Lucy's packing," said Virginia, when she had sent the servant downstairs to pay the cabman. Her soul was in her eyes while she watched Jenny remove her plain felt hat, with its bit of blue scarf around the crown--a piece of millinery which presented a deceptive appearance of inexpensiveness--and pass the comb through the shining arch of her hair.

"I am so sorry, mother dear, I couldn't come before, but there were some important lectures I really couldn't afford to miss. I am specializing in biology, you know."

Her manner, calm, sweet, and gently condescending, was such as she might have used to a child whom she loved and with whom she possessed an infinite patience. One felt that while talking, she groped almost unconsciously for the simplest and shortest words in which her meaning might be conveyed. She did not lie down as Virginia had suggested, but straightening her short skirt, seated herself in an upright chair by the table and crossed her slender feet in their sensible, square-toed shoes. While she gazed at her, Virginia remembered, with a smile, that Harry had once said his sister was as flawless as a geometrical figure, and he couldn't look at her without wanting to twist her nose out of shape. In spite of her beauty, she was not attractive to men, whom she awed and intimidated by a candid assumption of superiority. For Lucy's conscienceless treatment of the male she had unmitigated contempt. Her sister, indeed, had she not been her sister, would have appeared to her as an object for frank condemnation--"one of those women who waste themselves in foolish flirtations." As it was, loving Lucy, and being a loyal soul, with very scientific ideas of her own responsibility for her sister as well as for that abstract creature whom she classified as "the working woman," she thought of Lucy tenderly as a "dear girl, but simple." Her mother, of course, was, also, "simple"; but, then, what could one expect of a woman whose only education had been at the Dinwiddie Academy for Young Ladies? To Jenny, education had usurped the place which the church had always occupied in the benighted mind of her mother. All the evils of our civilization--and these evils shared with the working woman the first right to her attention--she attributed to the fact that the former generations of women had had either no education at all, or worse even than that, had had the meretricious brand of education which was supplied by an army of Miss Priscillas. For Miss Priscilla herself, entirely apart from the Academy, which she described frankly, to Virginia's horror, as "a menace," she entertained a sincere devotion, and this ability to detach her judgments from her affections made her appear almost miraculously wise to her mother, who had been born a Pendleton.

"No, I'm not tired. Is there anything I can help you about, mother?" she asked, for she was a good child and very helpful--the only drawback to her assistance being that when she helped she invariably commanded.

"Oh, no, darling, I'll be through presently--just as soon as I get this trunk packed. Lucy's things are lovely. I wish you had come in time to see them. Miss Willy and I spent all yesterday running blue ribbons in her underclothes, and though we began before breakfast, we had to sit up until twelve o'clock so as to get through in time to begin on the trunks this morning."

Her eyes shone as she spoke, and she would have enjoyed describing all Lucy's clothes, for she loved pretty things, though she never bought them for herself, finding it impossible to break the habit of more than twenty years of economy; but Jenny, who was proud of her sincerity, looked so plainly bored that she checked her flowing descriptions.

"I hope you brought something beautiful to wear to-morrow, Jenny?" she ventured timidly, after a silence.

"Of course I had to get a new dress, as I'm to be maid of honour, but it seemed so extravagant, for I had two perfectly good white chiffons already."

"But it would have hurt Lucy, dear, if you hadn't worn something new. She even wanted me to order my dress from New York, but I was so afraid of wounding poor little Miss Willy--she has made my clothes ever since I could remember--that I persuaded the child to let her make it. Of course, it won't be stylish, but nobody will look at me anyway."

"I hope it is coloured, mother. You wear black too much. The psychological effect is not good for you."

With her knees on the floor and her back bent over the trunk into which she was packing a dozen pairs of slippers wrapped in tissue paper, Virginia turned her head and stared in bewilderment at her daughter, whose classic profile showed like marble flushed with rose in the lamplight.

"But at my time of life, dear? Why, I'm in my forty-sixth year."

"But forty-six is still young, mother. That was one of the greatest mistakes women used to make--to imagine that they must be old as soon as men ceased to make love to them. It was all due to the idea that men admired only schoolgirls and that as soon as a woman stopped being admired she had stopped living."

"But they didn't stop living really. They merely stopped fixing up."

"Oh, of course. They spent the rest of their lives in the storeroom or the kitchen slaving for the comfort of the men they could no longer amuse."

This so aptly described Virginia's own situation that her interest in Lucy's trousseau faded abruptly, while a wave of heartsickness swept over her. It was as if the sharp and searching light of truth had fallen suddenly upon all the frail and lovely pretences by which she had helped herself to live and to be happy. A terror of the preternatural insight of youth made her turn her face away from Jenny's too critical eyes.

"But what else could they do, Jenny? They believed that it was right to step back and make room for the young," she said, with a pitiful attempt at justification of her exploded virtues.

"Oh, _mother_!" exclaimed Jenny still sweetly, "whoever heard of a man of that generation stepping back to make room for anybody?"

"But men are different, darling. One doesn't expect them to give up like women."

"Oh, mother!"--this time the sweetness had borrowed an edge of irony. It was Science annihilating tradition, and the tougher the tradition, the keener the blade which Science must apply.

"I can't help it, dear, it is the way I was taught. My darling mother felt like that"--a tear glistened in her eye--"and I am too old to change my way of thinking."

"Mother, mother, you silly pet!" Rising from her chair, Jenny put her arms about her and kissed her tenderly. "You can't help being old-fashioned, I know. You are not to blame for your ideas; it is Miss Priscilla." Her voice grew stern with condemnation as she uttered the name. "But don't you think you might try to see things a little more rationally? It is for your own sake I am speaking. Why should you make yourself old by dressing as if you were eighty simply because your grandmother did so?"

She was right, of course, for the trouble with Science is not its blindness, but its serene infallibility. As useless to reject her conclusions as to deny the laws and the principles of mathematics! After all manner of denials, the laws and the principles would still remain. Virginia, who had never argued in her life, did not attempt to do so with her own daughter. She merely accepted the truth of Jenny's inflexible logic; and with that obstinate softness which is an inalienable quality of tradition, went on believing precisely what she had believed before. To have made them think alike, it would have been necessary to melt up the two generations and pour them into one--a task as hopeless as an endeavour to blend the Dinwiddie Young Ladies' Academy with a modern college. Jenny's clearly formulated and rather loud morality was unintelligible to her mother, whose conception of duty was that she should efface herself and make things comfortable for those around her. The obligation to think independently was as incomprehensible to Virginia as was that wider altruism which had swept Jenny's sympathies beyond the home into the factory and beyond the factory into the world where there were "evils." Her own instinct had always been the true instinct of the lady to avoid "evil," not to seek it, to avoid it, honestly if possible, and, if not honestly--well, to avoid it at any cost. The love of truth for truth's sake was one of the last of the virtues to descend from philosophy into a working theory of life, and it had been practically unknown to Virginia until Jenny had returned, at the end of her first year, from college. To be sure, Oliver used to talk like that long ago, but it was so long ago that she had almost forgotten it.

"You are very clever, dear--much too clever for me," she said, rising from her knees. "I wonder if Lucy has anything else she wants to go into this trunk? It might be packed a little tighter."

In response to her call, the door opened and Lucy entered breathlessly, with her hair, which she had washed and not entirely dried, hanging over her shoulders.

"What is it, mother? Oh, Jenny, you have come! I'm so glad!"

The sisters kissed delightedly. In spite of their lack of sympathy, they were very fond of each other.

"Do you want to put anything else in this trunk before I lock it, Lucy?"

"Could you find room for my blue flannel bath robe? I'll want it on top where I can get it out without unpacking, and, oh, mother, won't you please put my alcohol stove and curling irons in my travelling bag?"

She was prettily excited, and during the last few days she had shown an almost child-like confidence in her mother's opinions about the trivial matters of packing.

"Mother, I don't want to come down yet--my hair isn't dry. Will you send supper up to me? I'll dress about nine o'clock when Bertie and the girls are coming."

"Of course I will, darling. I'll go straight downstairs and fix your tray. Is there anything you can think of that you would like?"

At this Jenny broke into a laugh: "Why, anybody would think she was dying instead of being married!"

"Just a cup of coffee. I really couldn't swallow a morsel," replied Lucy, whose single manifestation of sentiment had been a complete loss of appetite. "You needn't laugh, Jenny. Wait until you are going to be married, and see if you are able to eat anything."

Putting the tray back into the trunk, Virginia closed it almost caressingly. For twenty-four hours, as Lucy's wedding began to draw nearer, she had been haunted by the feeling that she was losing her favourite child, and though her reason told her that this was not true--that Lucy was, in fact, less fond of her than either of the others, and far less dear to her heart than Harry--still she was unable wholly to banish the impression. It seemed only yesterday that she had sat waiting, month after month, week after week, day after day, for her to be born. Only yesterday that she had held her, a baby, in her arms, and now she was packing the clothes which that baby would carry away when she went off with her husband! Something of the hushed expectancy of those long months of approaching motherhood enveloped her again with the thought of Lucy's wedding to-morrow. After all, Lucy was her first child--neither of the others had been awaited with quite the same brooding ecstasy, with quite the same radiant dreams. To neither of the others had she given herself at the hour of birth with such an abandonment of her soul and body. And she had been a good child--all day with a lump in her throat Virginia had assured herself again and again that no child could have been better. A hundred little charming ways, a hundred bright delicious tricks of expression and of voice, followed her from room to room, as though Lucy had indeed, as Jenny said, been dying upstairs instead of waiting to be married. And all the time, while she arranged the supper tray and attended to the making of the coffee so that it might be perfect, she was thinking, "Mother must have felt like this when I was married and I never knew it, I never suspected." She saw her little bedroom at the rectory, with her own figure, in the floating tulle veil, reflected in the mirror, and her mother's face, that face from which all remembrance of self seemed to have vanished, looking at her over the bride's bouquet of white roses. If only she had told her then that she understood! If only she had ever really understood until to-night! If only it was not too late to turn back now and gather that plaintive figure, waiting with the white roses, into her arms!

The next morning she was up at daybreak, finishing the packing, preparing the house before leaving for church, making the final arrangements for the wedding breakfast. When at last Lucy, with reddened eyes and tightly curled hair, appeared in the pantry while her mother was helping to wash a belated supply of glass and china which had arrived from the caterer's, Virginia felt that the parting was worse even than Harry's going to college.

"Mother, I've the greatest mind on earth not to do it."

"My pet, what is the matter?"

"I can't imagine why I ever thought I wanted to marry! I don't want to do it a bit. I don't want to go away and leave you and father. And, mother, I really don't believe that I love him!"

It was so like Lucy after months of cool determination, of perfect assurance, of stubborn resistance to opposition--it was so exactly like her to break down when it was too late and to begin to question whether she really wanted her own way after she had won it. And it was so like Virginia that at the first sign of weakness in her child she should grow suddenly strong and efficient.

"My darling, it is only nervousness. You will be better as soon as you begin to dress. Come upstairs and I will fix you a dose of aromatic ammonia."

"Do you really think it's too late to stop it?"

"Not if you feel you are going to regret it, but you must be very sure that it isn't merely a mood, Lucy."

At the first sign that the step was not yet irrevocable, the girl's courage returned.

"Well, I suppose I'll have to get married now," she said, "but if I don't like it, I'm not going to live with him."

"Not live with your husband! Why, Lucy!"

"It's perfectly absurd to think I'll have to live with a man if I find I don't love him. Ask Jenny if it isn't."

Ask Jenny! This was her incredible suggestion! This was her reverence for authority, for duty, for the thundering admonitions of Saint Paul! As far as Saint Paul was concerned, he might as well have been the ponderous anecdotal minister in the brick Presbyterian church around the corner.

"But Jenny is so--so----" murmured Virginia, and stopped because words failed her. Had Jenny been born in any family except her own, she would probably have described her as "dangerous," but it was impossible to brand her daughter with so opprobrious an epithet. The word, owing to the metaphorical yet specific definition of it which she had derived from the rector's sermons in her childhood, invariably suggested fire and brimstone to her imagination.

"Well, I'm not going to do it unless I want to," returned Lucy positively. "And you may look as shocked as you please, mother, but you needn't pretend that you wouldn't be glad to see me."

The difference between the two girls, as far as Virginia could see, was that Jenny really believed her awful ideas were right, and Lucy merely believed that they might help her the more effectively to follow her wishes.

"Of course I'd be glad to see you, but, Lucy, it pains me so to hear you speak flippantly of your marriage. It is the most sacred day in your life, and you treat it as lightly as if it were a picnic."

"Do I? Poor little day, have I hurt its feelings?"

They were on the way upstairs, following a procession of wedding presents which had just arrived by express, and glancing round over the heads of the servants, she made a laughing face at her mother. Clearly, she was incorrigible, and her passing fear, which had evidently been entirely due, as Virginia had suspected, to one of her rare attacks of nervousness, had entirely disappeared. In her normal mood she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself not only within the estate of matrimony, but in an African jungle. She would in either situation inevitably get what she wanted, and in order to get it she would shrink as little from sacrificing a husband as from enslaving a savage.

And yet a few hours later, when she stood beneath her bridal veil and gazed at her image in the cheval-glass in her bedroom, she presented so enchanting a picture of virgin innocence, that Virginia could hardly believe that she harboured in her breast, under the sacred white satin of her bride's gown, the heretical opinions which she had uttered downstairs in the pantry. Her charming face had attuned its expression so perfectly to the dramatic values of the moment that she appeared, in the words of that sentimental soul, Miss Priscilla, to be listening already to "The Voice that Breathed o'er Eden."

"Doesn't mother look sweet?" she asked, catching sight of Virginia's face in the mirror. "I love her in pale grey--only she ought to have some flowers."

"I told father to order her a bunch of violets," answered Jenny. "I wonder if he remembered to do it."

A look of pleasure, the first she had worn for days, flitted over Virginia's face. She had all her mother's touching appreciation of insignificant favours, and, perhaps because her pleasure was so excessive, people shrank a little from arousing it. Like most persons who thought perpetually of others, she was not accustomed to being thought of very often in return.

But Oliver had remembered, and when the purple box was brought up to her, and Jenny pinned the violets on her dress, a blush mantled her thin cheeks, and she looked for a moment almost as young and lovely as her daughters. Then Oliver came after Lucy, and gathering up her train, the girl smiled at her mother and hurried out of the room. At the last minute her qualms appeared suddenly to depart. Whatever happened in the months and years that came afterwards, she had determined to get all she could out of the excitement of the wedding. She had cast no loving glance about the little room, where she was leaving her girlhood behind her; but Virginia, lingering for an instant after the others had gone out, looked with tear-dimmed eyes at the small white bed and the white furniture decorated in roses. She suffered in that minute with an intensity and a depth of feeling that Lucy had never known in the past--that she would never know in the future--for it is given to mothers to live not once, but twice or thrice or as many times as they have children to live for. And the sunlight, entering through the high window, fell very gently on the anxious love in her eyes, on the fading white rose-leaves of her cheeks, and on the silvery mist of curls framing her forehead.

* * * * *

That afternoon, when Lucy had motored off with her husband, and Oliver and Jenny had gone riding together, Virginia went back again into the room and put away the scattered clothes the girl had left. On the bed was the little pillow, with the embroidered slip over a cover of pink satin Virginia had made, and taking it from the bed she put it into one of the boxes which had been left open until the last minute. As she did so, it was as if a miraculous wand was waved over her memory, softening Lucy's image until she appeared to her in all the angelic sweetness and charm of her childhood. Her egoism, her selfishness, her lack of consideration and of reverence, all those faults of an excessive individualism embodied in the girl, vanished so completely that she even forgot they had ever existed. Once again she felt in her breast the burning rapture of young motherhood; once again she gathered her first-born child--hers alone, hers out of the whole world of children!--into her arms. A choking sensation rose in her throat, and, dropping a handful of photographs which she had started to put away, she hurried from the room, as though she were leaving something dead there that she loved.

Downstairs, the caterers and the florists were in possession, carting away glass and china, dismantling decorations, and ejecting palms as summarily as though they had come uninvited. The servants were busy sweeping floors and moving chairs and sofas back into place, and in the kitchen the negro cook was placidly beginning preparations for supper. For a time Virginia occupied herself returning the ornaments to the drawing-room mantelpiece, and the illustrated gift books to the centre table. When this was over she looked about her with the nervous expectancy of a person who has been overwhelmed for months by a multitude of exigent cares, and realized, with a start, that there was nothing for her to do. To-morrow Oliver and Jenny were both going away--he to New York to attend the rehearsals of his play, and she back to finish her year at college--and Virginia would be left in an empty house with all her pressing practical duties suddenly ended.

"You will have such a nice long rest now, mother dear," Lucy had said as she clung to her before stepping into the car, and Virginia had agreed unthinkingly that a rest for a little while would, perhaps, do her good. Now, turning away from the centre table, where she had laid the last useless volume in place, she walked slowly through the library to the dining-room, and then from the dining-room into the pantry. Here, the dishes were all washed, the cup-towels were drying in an orderly row beside the sink, and the two maids and the butler were "drawing a breath" in wooden chairs by the stove.

"There was enough chicken salad and ice cream left for supper, wasn't there, Wotan?"

On being assured that there was enough for a week, she gave a few directions about the distribution of the other food left from the wedding breakfast, and then went out again and into Oliver's study. A feeling of restlessness more acute than any she had ever known kept her walking back and forth between the door and the window, which looked out into a square of garden, where a few lonely sticks protruded out of the discoloured snow on the grass. She had lived for others so long that she had at last lost the power of living for herself.

There was nothing to do to-day; there would be nothing to do to-morrow; and, unless Jenny came home to be married, there would be nothing to do next year or the years after that. While Oliver was in Dinwiddie, she had, of course, the pleasure of supplying his food and of watching him eat it; but beyond that, even when he sat in the room with her, there was little conversation between them. She herself loved to talk, for she had inherited her mother's ability to keep up a honeyed flow of sound about little things; but she had learned long ago that there were times when her voice, rippling on about nothing, only irritated him, and with her feminine genius for adaptability, she had made a habit of silence. He never spoke to her of his work except in terms of flippant ridicule which pained her, and the supreme topic of the children's school reports had been absent now for many years. Companionship of a mental sort had always been lacking between them, yet so reverently did she still accept the traditional fictions of marriage, that she would have been astonished at the suggestion that a love which could survive the shocks of tragedy might at last fade away from a gradual decline of interest. Nothing had happened. There had been no scenes, no quarrels, no jealousies, no recriminations--merely a gentle, yet deliberate, withdrawal of personalities. He had worshipped her at twenty-two, and now, at forty-seven, there were moments when she realized with a stab of pain that she bored him; but beyond this she had felt no cause for unhappiness, and until the last year no cause even for apprehension. The libertine had always been absent from his nature; and during all the years of their marriage he had, as Susan put it, hardly so much as looked at another woman. Whatever came between them, it would not be physical passion, but a far subtler thing.

Going to his desk, she took up a photograph of Margaret Oldcastle and studied it for a moment--not harshly, not critically, but with a pensive questioning. It was hardly a beautiful face, but in its glowing intellectuality, it was the face of a woman of power. So different was the look of noble reticence it wore from that of the conventional type of American actress, that while she gazed at it Virginia found herself asking vaguely, "I wonder why she went on the stage?" The woman was not a pretty doll--she was not a voluptuous enchantress--the coquetry of the one and the flesh of the other were missing. If the stories Virginia had heard of her were to be trusted, she had come out of poverty not by the easy steps of managers' favours, but by hard work, self-denial, and discipline. Though Virginia had never seen her, she felt instinctively that she was an "honest woman."

And yet why did this face, which had in it none of the charms of the seductress, disturb her so profoundly? She was too little given to introspection, too accustomed to think always in concrete images, to answer the question; but her intuition, rather than her thought, made her understand dimly that the things she feared in Margaret Oldcastle were the qualities in which she herself was lacking. Whatever power the woman possessed drew its strength and its completeness from a source which Virginia had never recognized as being necessary or even beneficent to love. After all, was it not petty and unjust in her to be hurt by Oliver's friendship for a woman who had been of such tremendous assistance to him in his work? Had he not said a hundred times that she had succeeded in making his plays popular without making them at the same time ridiculous?

Putting the photograph back in its place on the desk, she turned away and began walking again over the strip of carpet which led from the door to the window. In the yard the dried stalks of last year's flowers looked so lonely in the midst of the dirty snow, that she felt a sudden impulse of sympathy. Poor things, they had outlived their usefulness. The phrase occurred to her again, and she remembered how often her father had applied it to women whose children had all married and left them.

"Poor Matilda! She is restless and dissatisfied, and she doesn't understand that it is because she has outlived her usefulness." At that time "poor Matilda" had seemed to her an old woman--but, perhaps, she wasn't in reality much over forty. How soon women grew old a generation ago! Why, she felt as young to-day as she did the morning on which she was married. She felt as young, and yet her hair was greying, her face was wrinkled, and, like poor Matilda, she had outlived her usefulness. While she stood there that peculiar sensation which comes to women when their youth is over--the sensation of a changed world--took possession of her. She felt that life was slipping, slipping past her, and that she was left behind like a bit of the sentiment or the law of the last century. Though she still felt young, it was not with the youth of to-day. She had no part in the present; her ideals were the ideals of another period; even her children had outgrown her. She saw now with a piercing flash of insight, so penetrating, so impersonal, that it seemed the result of some outside vision rather than of her own uncritical judgment, that life had treated her as it treats those who give, but never demand. She had made the way too easy for others; she had never exacted of them; she had never held them to the austerity of their ideals. Then the illumination faded as if it had been the malicious act of a demon, and she reproached herself for allowing such thoughts to enter her mind for an instant.

"I don't know what can be the matter with me. I never used to brood. I wonder if it can be my time of life that makes me so nervous and apprehensive?"

For so long she had waited for some definite point of time, for the children to begin school, for them to finish school, for Harry to go off to college, for Lucy to be married, that now, when she realized that there was nothing to expect, nothing to prepare for, her whole nature, with all the multitudinous fibres which had held her being together, seemed suddenly to relax from its tension. To be sure, Oliver would come home for a time at least after his rehearsals were over, Jenny would return for as much of the holidays as her philanthropic duties permitted, and, if she waited long enough, Harry would occasionally pay her a visit. They all loved her; not one of them, she told herself, would intentionally neglect her--but not one of them needed her! She had outlived her usefulness!

The next afternoon, when Oliver and Jenny had driven off to the station, she put on her street clothes, and went out to call on Susan, who lived in a new house in High Street. Mrs. Treadwell, having worn out everybody's patience except Susan's, had died some five years before, and the incorrigible sentimentalists of Dinwiddie--there were many of them--expressed publicly the belief that Cyrus had never been "the same man since his wife's death." As a matter of fact, Cyrus, who had retired from active finance in the same year that he lost Belinda, had missed his business considerably more than he had missed his wife, whose loss, if he had ever analyzed it, would have resolved itself into the absence of somebody to bully. But on the very day that he had retired from work he had begun to age rapidly, and now, standing on Susan's porch, he suggested to Virginia an orange from which every drop of juice had been squeezed. Of late he had taken to giving rather lavishly to churches, with a vague, superstitious hope, perhaps, that he might buy the salvation he had been too busy to work out in other ways. And so acute had become his terror of death, Virginia had heard, that after every attack of dyspepsia he dispatched a check to the missionary society of the church he attended.

Upstairs, in her bedroom, Susan, who had just come in, was "taking off her things," and she greeted Virginia with a delight which seemed, in some strange way, to be both a balm and a stimulant. One thing, at least, in her life had not altered with middle-age, and that was Susan's devotion. She was a large, young, superbly vigorous woman of forty-five, with an abundant energy which overflowed outside of her household in a dozen different directions. She loved John Henry, but she did not love him to the exclusion of other people; she loved her children, but they did not absorb her. There was hardly a charity or a public movement in Dinwiddie in which she did not take a practical interest. She had kept her mind as alert as her body, and the number of books she read had always shocked Virginia a little, who felt that time for reading was obliged to be time subtracted from more important duties.

"I've thought of you so much, Jinny, darling. You mustn't let yourself begin to feel lonely."

Virginia shook her head with a smile, but in spite of her effort not to appear depressed, there was a touching wistfulness in her eyes.

"Of course I miss the dear children, but I'm so thankful that they are happy."

"I wish Jenny would come back home to stay with you."

"She would if I asked her, Susan"--her face showed her pleasure at the thought of Jenny's willingness for the sacrifice--"but I wouldn't have her do it for the world. She's so different from Lucy, who was quite happy as long as she could have attention and go to parties. Of course, it seems to me more natural for a girl to be like that, especially a Southern girl, but Jenny says that she is obliged to have something to think about besides men. I wonder what my dear father would have thought of her?"

"She'll take you by surprise some day, and marry as suddenly as Lucy did."

"That's what Oliver says, but Miss Priscilla is sure she'll be an old maid, because she's so fastidious. It's funny how much more women exact of men now than they used to. Don't you remember what a heroine the women of Miss Priscilla's generation thought Mrs. Tom Peachey was because she supported Major Peachey by taking boarders while he just drank himself into his grave? Well, somebody mentioned that to Jenny the other day and she said it was 'disgusting.'"

"I always thought so," said Susan, "but, Jinny, I'm more interested in you than I am in Mrs. Peachey. What are you going to do with yourself?" Almost unconsciously both had eliminated Oliver as the dominant figure in Virginia's future.

"I don't know, dear. I wish my children were as young as yours. Bessie is just six, isn't she?"

"You ought to have had a dozen children. Didn't you realize that Nature intended you to do it?"

"I know"--a pensive look came into her face--"but we were very poor, and after the three came so quickly, and the little one that I lost, Oliver felt that we could not afford to have any others. I've so often thought that I was never really happy except when I had a baby in my arms."

"It's a devilish trick of Nature's that she makes them stop coming at the very time that you want them most. Forty-five is not much more than half a lifetime, Jinny."

"And when one has lived in their children as I have done, of course, one feels a little bit lost without them. Then, if Oliver were not obliged to be away so much----"

Her voice broke, and Susan, leaning forward impulsively, put her arms about her.

"Jinny, darling, I never saw you depressed before."

"I was never like this until to-day. It must be the weather--or my age. I suppose I shall get over it."

"Of course you will get over it--but you mustn't let it grow on you. You mustn't be too much alone."

"How can I help it? Oliver will be away almost all winter, and when he is at home, he is so absorbed in his work that he sometimes doesn't speak for days. Of course, it isn't his fault," she added hastily; "it is the only way he can write."

"And you're alone now for the first time for twenty-five years. That's why you feel it so keenly."

The look of unselfish goodness which made Virginia's face almost beautiful at times passed like an edge of light across her eyes and mouth. "Don't worry about me, Susan. I'll get used to it."

"You will, dear, but it isn't right. I wish Harry could have stayed in Dinwiddie. He would have been such a comfort to you."

"But I wouldn't have had him do it! The boy is so brilliant. He has a future before him. Already he has had several articles accepted by the magazines"--her face shone--"and I hope that he will some day be as successful as Oliver has been without going through the long struggle."

"Can't you go to England to see him in the summer?"

"That's what I want to do." It was touching to see how her animation and interest revived when she began talking of Harry. "And when Oliver's play is put on in February, he has promised to take me to New York for the first night."

"I am glad of that. But, meanwhile, you mustn't sit at home and think too much, Jinny. It isn't good for you. Can't you find an interest? If you would only take up reading again. You used to be fond of it."

"I know, but one gets out of the habit. I gave it up after the children came, when there was so much that was really important for me to do, and now, to save my life, I can't get interested in a book except for an hour or two at a time. I'm always stopping to ask myself if I'm not neglecting something, just as I used to do while the children were little. You see, I'm not a clever woman like you. I was made just to be a wife and mother, and nothing else."

"But you're obliged to be something else now. You are only forty-five. There may be forty more years ahead of you, and you can't go on being a mother every minute of your time. Even if you have grandchildren, they won't be like your own. You can't slave over them in the way you used to do over yours. The girls' husbands and Harry's wife would have something to say about it."

"Do you know, Susan, I try not to be little and jealous, but when you said 'Harry's wife' so carelessly just now it brought a lump to my throat."

"He will marry some day, darling, and you might as well accustom yourself to the thought."

"I know, and I want him to do it. I shall love his wife as if she were my daughter--but--but it seems to me at this minute as if I could not bear it!"

The grey twilight, entering through the high window above her head, enveloped her as tenderly as if it were the atmosphere of those romantic early eighties to which she belonged. The small aristocratic head, with its quaint old-fashioned clusters of curls on the temples, the delicate stooping figure, a little bent in the chest, the whole pensive, exquisite personality which expressed itself in that manner of gentle self-effacement--these things spoke to Susan's heart, through the softness of the dusk, with all the touching appeal of the past. It was as if the inscrutable enigma of time waited there, shrouded in mystery, for a solution which would make clear the meaning of the blighted promises of life. She saw herself and Virginia on that May afternoon twenty-five years ago, standing with eager hearts on the edge of the future; she saw them waiting, with breathless, expectant lips, for the miracle that must happen! Well, the miracle had happened, and like the majority of miracles, it had descended in the act of occurrence from the zone of the miraculous into the region of the ordinary. This was life, and looking back from middle-age, she felt no impulse to regret the rapturous certainties of youth. Experience, though it contained an inevitable pang, was better than ignorance. It was good to have been young; it was good to be middle-aged; and it would be good to be old. For she was one of those who loved life, not because it was beautiful, but because it was life.

"I must go," said Virginia, rising in the aimless way of a person who is not moving toward a definite object.

"Stay and have supper with us, Jinny. John Henry will take you home afterward."

"I can't, dear. The--the servants are expecting me."

She kissed Susan on the cheek, and taking up her little black silk bag, turned to the door.

"Jinny, if I come by for you to-morrow, will you go with me to a board meeting or two? Couldn't you possibly take an interest in some charity?" It was a desperate move, but at the moment she could think of no other to make.

"Oh, I am interested, Susan--but I have no executive ability, you know. And--and, then, poor dear father used to have such a horror of women who were always running about to meetings. He would never even let mother do church work--except, of course, when there was a cake sale or a fair of the missionary society."

Susan's last effort had failed, and as she followed Virginia downstairs and to the front door, a look almost of gloom settled on her large cheerful face.

"Try to pay some calls every afternoon, won't you, dear?" she said at the door. "I'll come in to see you in the morning when we get back from marketing."

Then she added softly, "If you are ever lonesome and want me, telephone for me day or night. There's nothing on earth I wouldn't do for you, Jinny."

Virginia's eyes were wonderful with love and gratitude as they shone on her through the twilight. "We've been friends since we were two years old, Susan, and, do you know, there is nobody in the world that I would ask anything of as soon as I would of you."

A look of unutterable understanding and fidelity passed between them; then turning silently away, Virginia descended the steps and walked quickly along the path to the pavement, while Susan, after watching her through the gate, shut the door and went upstairs to the nursery.

The town lay under a thin crust of snow, which was beginning to melt in the chill rain that was falling. Raising her umbrella, Virginia picked her way carefully over the icy streets, and Miss Priscilla, who was looking in search of diversion out of her front window, had a sudden palpitation of the heart because it seemed to her for a minute that "Lucy Pendleton had returned to life." So one generation of gentle shades after another had moved in the winter's dusk under the frosted lamps of High Street.

Through the windows of her house a cheerful light streamed out upon the piles of melting snow in the yard, and at the door one of her coloured servants met her with the news that a telegram was on the hall table. Before opening it she knew what it was, for Oliver's correspondence with her had taken this form for more than a year.

"Arrived safely. Very busy. Call on John Henry if you need anything."

She put it down and turned hastily to letters from Harry and Jenny. The first was only a scrawl in pencil, written with that boyish reticence which always overcame Harry when he wrote to one of his family; but beneath the stilted phrases she could read his homesickness and his longing for her in every line.

"Poor boy, I am afraid he is lonely," she thought, and caressed the paper as tenderly as if it had been the letter of a lover. He had written to her every Sunday since he had first gone off to college and several times she knew that he had denied himself a pleasure in order to send her her weekly letter. Already, she had begun to trust to his "sense of responsibility" as she had never, even in the early days of her marriage, trusted to Oliver's.

Opening the large square envelope which was addressed in Jenny's impressive handwriting, she found four closely written pages entertainingly descriptive of the girl's journey back to college and of the urgent interests she found awaiting her there. In this letter there was none of the weakness of implied sentiment, there was none of the plaintive homesickness she had read in Harry's. Jenny wrote regularly and affectionately because she felt that it was her duty to do so, for, unlike Lucy, who was heard from only when she wanted something, she was a girl who obeyed sedulously the promptings of her conscience. But if she loved her mother, she was plainly not interested in her. Her attitude towards life was masculine rather than feminine; and Virginia had long since learned that in the case of a man it is easier to inspire love than it is to hold his attention. Harry was different, of course--there was a feminine, or at least a poetic, streak in him which endowed him with that natural talent for the affections which is supposed to be womanly--but Jenny resembled Oliver in her preference for the active rather than for the passive side of experience.

Going upstairs, Virginia took off her hat and coat, and, without changing her dress, came down again with a piece of fancy-work in her hands. Placing herself under the lamp in Oliver's study, she took a few careful stitches in the centrepiece she was embroidering for Lucy, and then letting her needle fall, sat gazing into the wood-fire which crackled softly on the brass andirons. From the lamp on the desk an amber glow fell on the dull red of the leather-covered furniture, on the pale brown of the walls, on the rich blending of oriental colours in the rug at her feet. It was the most comfortable room in the house, and for that reason she had fallen into the habit of using it when Oliver was away. Then, too, his personality had impressed itself so ineffaceably upon the surroundings which he had chosen and amid which he had worked, that she felt nearer to him while she sat in his favourite chair, breathing the scent of the wood-fire he loved.

She thought of the "dear children," of how pleased she was that they were all well and happy, of how "sweet" Harry and Jenny were about writing to her; and so unaccustomed was she to thinking in the first person, that not until she took up her embroidery again and applied her needle to the centre of a flower, did she find herself saying aloud: "I must send for Miss Willy to-morrow and engage her for next week. That will be something to do."

And looking ahead she saw days of endless stitching and basting, of endless gossip accompanied by the cheerful whirring of the little dressmaker's machine. "I used to pity Miss Willy because she was obliged to work," she thought with surprise, "but now I almost envy her. I wonder if it is work that keeps her so young and brisk? She's never had anything in her life, and yet she is so much happier than some people who have had everything."

The maid came to announce supper, and, gathering up her fancy-work, Virginia laid it beside the lamp on the end of Oliver's writing table. As she did so, she saw that her photograph, taken the year of her marriage, which he usually carried on his journeys, had been laid aside and overlooked when he was packing his papers. It was the first time he had forgotten it, and a little chill struck her heart as she put it back in its place beside the bronze letter rack. Then the chill sharpened suddenly until it became an icy blade in her breast, for she saw that the picture of Margaret Oldcastle was gone from its frame.

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