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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVirginia - Book 3. The Adjustment - Chapter 6. The Future
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Virginia - Book 3. The Adjustment - Chapter 6. The Future Post by :cloudsifter Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :648

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Virginia - Book 3. The Adjustment - Chapter 6. The Future

BOOK III. THE ADJUSTMENT CHAPTER VI. THE FUTURE

A chill rain was falling when Virginia got out of the train the next morning, and the raw-boned nags hitched to the ancient "hacks" in the street appeared even more dejected and forlorn than she had remembered them. Then one of the noisy negro drivers seized her bag, and a little later she was rolling up the long hill in the direction of her home. Dinwiddie was the same; nothing had altered there since she had left it--and yet what a difference! The same shops were unclosing their shutters; the same crippled negro beggar was taking his place at the corner of the market; the same maids were sweeping the sidewalks with the same brooms; the same clerk bowed to her from the drug store where she bought her medicines; and yet something--the only thing which had ever interested her in these people and this place--had passed out of them. Just as in New York yesterday, when she had watched the sunrise, so it seemed to her now that the spirit of reality had faded out of the world. What remained was merely a mirage in which phantoms in the guise of persons made a pretence of being alive.

The front door of her house stood open, and on the porch one of the coloured maids was beating the dust out of the straw mat. "As if dust makes any difference when one is dead," Virginia thought wearily; and an unutterable loathing passed over her for all the little acts by which one rendered tribute to the tyranny of appearances. Then, as she entered the house, she felt that the sight of the familiar objects she had once loved oppressed her as though the spirit of melancholy resided in the pieces of furniture, not in her soul. This weariness, so much worse than positive pain, filled her with disgust for all the associations and the sentiments she had known in the past. Not only the house and the furniture and the small details of housekeeping, but the street and the town and every friendly face of a neighbour, had become an intolerable reminder that she was still alive.

In her room, where a bright fire was burning, and letters from the girls lay on the table, she sat down in her wraps and gazed with unseeing eyes at the flames. "The children must not know. I must keep it from the children as long as possible," she thought dully, and it was so natural to her to plan sparing them, that for a minute the idea took her mind away from her own anguish. "If I could only die like this, then they need never know," she found herself reflecting coldly a little later, so coldly that she seemed to have no personal interest, no will to choose in the matter. "If I could only die like this, nobody need be hurt--except Harry," she added.

For the first time, with the thought of Harry, her restraint suddenly failed her. "Yes, it would hurt Harry. I must live because Harry would want me to," she said aloud; and as though her strength were reinforced by the words, she rose and prepared herself to go downstairs to breakfast--prepared herself, too, for the innumerable little agonies which would come with the day, for the sight of Susan, for the visits from the neighbours, for the eager questions about the fashions in New York which Miss Willy would ask. And all the time she was thinking clearly, "It can't last forever. It must end some time. Who knows but it may stop the next minute, and one can stand a minute of anything."

The day passed, the week, the month, and gradually the spring came and went, awakening life in the trees, in the grass, in the fields, but not in her heart. Even the dried sticks in the yard put out shoots of living green and presently bore blossoms, and in the borders by the front gate, the crocuses, which she had planted with her own hands a year ago, were ablaze with gold. All nature seemed joining in the resurrection of life, all nature, except herself, seemed to flower again to fulfilment. She alone was dead, and she alone among the dead must keep up this pretence of living which was so much harder than death.

Once every week she wrote to the children, restrained yet gently flowing letters in which there was no mention of Oliver. It had been so long, indeed, since either Harry or the girls had associated their parents together, that the omission called forth no question, hardly, she gathered, any surprise. Their lives were so full, their interests were so varied, that, except at the regular intervals when they sat down to write to her, it is doubtful if they ever seriously wondered about her. In July, Jenny came home for a month, and Lucy wrote regretfully that she was "so disappointed that she couldn't join mother somewhere in the mountains"; but beyond this, the girls' lives hardly appeared to touch hers even on the surface. In the month that Jenny spent in Dinwiddie, she organized a number of societies and clubs for the improvement of conditions among working girls, and in spite of the intense heat (the hottest spell of the summer came while she was there), she barely allowed herself a minute for rest or for conversation with her mother.

"If you would only go to the mountains, mother," she remarked the evening before she left. "I am sure it isn't good for you to stay in Dinwiddie during the summer."

"I am used to it," replied Virginia a little stubbornly, for it seemed to her at the moment that she would rather die than move.

"But you ought to think of your health. What does father say about it?"

A contraction of pain crossed Virginia's face, but Jenny, whose vision was so wide that it had a way of overlooking things which were close at hand, did not observe it.

"He hasn't said anything," she answered, with a strange stillness of voice.

"I thought he meant to take you to England, but I suppose his plays are keeping him in New York."

Rising from her chair at the table--they had just finished supper--Virginia reached for a saucer and filled it with ice cream from a bowl in front of her.

"I think I'll send Miss Priscilla a little of this cream," she remarked. "She is so fond of strawberry."

The next day Jenny went, and again the silence and the loneliness settled upon the house, to which Virginia clung with a morbid terror of change. Had her spirit been less broken, she might have made the effort of going North as Jenny had urged her to do, but when her life was over, one place seemed as desirable as another, and it was a matter of profound indifference to her whether it was heat or cold which afflicted her body. She was probably the only person in Dinwiddie who did not hang out of her window during the long nights in search of a passing breeze. But with that physical insensibility which accompanies prolonged torture of soul, she had ceased to feel the heat, had ceased even to feel the old neuralgic pain in her temples. There were times when it seemed to her that if a pin were stuck into her body she should not know it. The one thing she asked--and this Life granted her except during the four weeks of Jenny's visit--was freedom from the need of exertion, freedom from the obligation to make decisions. Her housekeeping she left now to the servants, so she was spared the daily harassing choices of the market and the table. There remained nothing for her to do, nothing even for her to worry about, except her broken heart. Her friends she had avoided ever since her return from New York, partly from an unbearable shrinking from the questions which she knew they would ask whenever they met her, partly because her mind was so engrossed with the supreme fact that her universe lay in ruins, that she found it impossible to lend a casual interest to other matters. She, who had effaced herself for a lifetime, found suddenly that she could not see beyond the immediate presence of her own suffering.

Usually she stayed closely indoors through the summer days, but several times, at the hour of dusk, she went out alone and wandered for hours about the streets which were associated with her girlhood. In High Street, at the corner where she had first seen Oliver, she stood one evening until Miss Priscilla, who had caught sight of her from the porch of the Academy (which, owing to the changing fashions in education and the infirmities of the teacher, was the Academy no longer), sent out her negro maid to beg her to come in and sit with her. "No, I'm only looking for something," Virginia had answered, while she hurried back past the church and down the slanting street to the twelve stone steps which led up the terraced hillside at the rectory. Here, in the purple summer twilight, spangled with fireflies, she felt for a minute that her youth was awaiting her; and opening the gate, she passed as softly as a ghost along the crooked path to the two great paulownias, which were beginning to decay, and to the honeysuckle arbour, where the tendrils of the creeper brushed her hair like a caress. Under the light of a young moon, it seemed to her that nothing had changed since that spring evening when she had stood there and felt the wonder of first love awake in her heart. Nothing had changed except that love and herself. The paulownias still shed their mysterious shadows about her, the red and white roses still bloomed by the west wing of the house, the bed of mint still grew, rank and fragrant, beneath the dining-room window. When she put her hand on the bole of the tree beside which she stood, she could still feel the initials V. O. which Oliver had cut there in the days before their marriage. A light burned in the window of the room which had been the parlour in the days when she lived there, and as she gazed at it, she almost expected to see the face of her mother, with its look of pathetic cheerfulness, smiling at her through the small greenish panes. And then the past in which Oliver had no part, the past which belonged to her and to her parents, that hallowed, unforgettable past of her childhood, which seemed bathed in love as in a flood of light--this past enveloped her as the magic of the moonbeams enveloped the house in which she had lived. While she stood there, it was more living than the present, more real than the aching misery in her heart.

The door of the house opened and shut; she heard a step on the gravelled path; and bending forward out of the shadow, she waited breathlessly for the sound of her father's voice. But it was a young rector, who had recently accepted the call to Saint James' Church, and his boyish face, rising out of the sacred past, awoke her with a shock from the dream into which she had fallen.

"Good-evening, Mrs. Treadwell. Were you coming to see me?" he asked eagerly, pleased, she could see, by the idea that she was seeking his services.

"No, I was passing, and the garden reminded me so of my girlhood that I came in for a minute."

"It hasn't changed much, I suppose?" His alert, business-like gaze swept the hillside.

"Hardly at all. One might imagine that those were the same roses I left here."

"An improvement or two wouldn't hurt it," he remarked with animation. "These old trees make such a litter in the spring that my wife is anxious to get them down. Women like tidiness, you know, and she says, while they are blooming, it is impossible to keep the yard clean."

"I remember. Their flowers cover everything when they fall, but I always loved them."

"Well, one does get attached to things. I hope you have had a pleasant summer in spite of the heat. It must have been a delight to have your daughter at home again. What a splendid worker she is. If we had her in Dinwiddie for good it wouldn't be long before the old town would awaken. Why, I'd been trying to get those girls' clubs started for a year, and she took the job out of my hands and managed it in two weeks."

"The dear child is very clever. Is your wife still in the mountains?"

"She's coming back next week. We didn't feel that it was safe to bring the baby home until that long spell of heat had broken." Then, as she turned towards the step, he added hastily, "Won't you let me walk home with you?"

But this, she felt, was more than she could bear, and making the excuse of an errand on the next block, she parted from him at the gate, and hurried like a shadow back along High Street.

Until October there was no word from Oliver, and then at last there came a letter, which she threw, half read, into the fire. The impulsive act, so unlike the normal Virginia, soothed her for an instant, and she said over and over to herself, while she moved hurriedly about the room, as though she were seeking an escape from the moment before her, "I'm glad I didn't finish it. I'm glad I let it burn." Though she did not realize it, this passionate refusal to look at or to touch the thing that she hated was the last stand of the Pendleton idealism against the triumph of the actuality. It is possible that until that moment she had felt far down in her soul that by declining to acknowledge in words the fact of Oliver's desertion, by hiding it from the children, by ignoring the processes which would lead to his freedom, she had, in some obscure way, deprived that fact of all power over her life. But now while his letter, blaming himself and yet pleading with her for his liberty, lay there, crumbling slowly to ashes, under her eyes, her whole life, with its pathos, its subterfuge, its losing battle against the ruling spirit of change, seemed crumbling there also, like those ashes, or like that vanished past to which she belonged. "I'm glad I let it burn," she repeated bitterly, and yet she knew that the words had never really burned, that the flame which was consuming them would never die until she lay in her coffin. Stopping in front of the fire, she stood looking down on the last shred of the letter, as though it were in reality the ruins of her life which she was watching. A dull wonder stirred in her mind amid her suffering--a vague questioning as to why this thing, of all things, should have happened? "If I could only know why it was--if I could only understand, it might be easier," she thought. "But I tried so hard to do what was right, and, whatever the fault was, at least I never failed in love. I never failed in love," she repeated. Her gaze, leaving the fire, rested for an instant on a little alabaster ash-tray which stood on the end of the table, and a spasm crossed her face, which had remained unmoved while she was reading his letter. Every object in the room seemed suddenly alive with memories. That was his place on the rug; the deep chintz-covered chair by the hearth was the one in which he used to sit, watching the fire at night, before going to bed; the clock on the mantel was the one he had selected; the rug, which was threadbare in places, he had helped her to choose; the pile of English reviews on the table he had subscribed to; the little glass water bottle on the candle-stand by the bed, she had bought years ago because he liked to drink in the night. There was nothing in which he did not have a part. Every trivial incident of her life was bound up with the thought of him. She could no more escape the torment of these associations than she could escape the fact of herself. For so long she had been one with him in her thoughts that their relationship had passed, for her, into that profound union of habit which is the strongest union of all. Even the years in which he had grown gradually away from her had appeared to her to leave untouched the deeper sanctities of their marriage.

A knock came at the door, and the cook, with a list of groceries in her hand, entered to inquire if her mistress were going to market. With the beginning of the autumn Virginia had tried to take an interest in her housekeeping again, and the daily trip to the market had relieved, in a measure, the terrible vacancy of her mornings. Now it seemed to her that the remorseless exactions of the material details of living offered the only escape from the tortures of memory. "Yes, I'll go," she said, reaching out her hand for the list, and her heart cried, "I cannot live if I stay in this room any longer. I cannot live if I look at these things." As she turned away to put on her hat, she was seized by a superstitious feeling that she might escape her suffering by fleeing from these inanimate reminders of her marriage. It was as though the chair and the rug and the clock had become possessed with some demoniacal spirit. "If I can only get out of doors I shall feel better," she insisted; and when she had hurriedly pinned on her hat and tied her tulle ruff at her throat, she caught up her gloves and ran quickly down the stairs and out into the street. But as soon as she had reached the sidewalk, the agony, which she had thought she was leaving behind her in the closed room upstairs, rushed over her in a wave of realization, and turning again, she started back into the yard, and stopped, with a sensation of panic, beside the bed of crimson dahlias at the foot of the steps. Then, while she hesitated, uncertain whether to return to her bedroom or to force herself to go on to the market, those hated familiar objects flashed in a blaze of light through her mind, and, opening the gate, she passed out on the sidewalk, and started at a rapid step down the deserted pavement of Sycamore Street. "At least nobody will speak to me," she thought; but while the words were still on her lips, she saw a door in the block open wide, and one of her neighbours come out on his way to his business. Turning hastily, she fled into a cross street, and then gathering courage, went on, trembling in every limb, towards the old market, which she used because her mother and her grandmother had used it before her.

The fish-carts were still there just as they had been when she was a girl, but the army of black-robed housekeepers had changed or melted away. Here, also, the physical details of life had survived the beings for whose use or comfort they had come into existence. The meat and the vegetable stalls were standing in orderly rows about the octagonal building; wilted cabbage leaves littered the dusty floor; flies swarmed around the bleeding forms hanging from hooks in the sunshine; even Mr. Dewlap, hale and red-cheeked, offered her white pullets out of the wooden coop at his feet. So little had the physical scene changed since the morning, more than twenty-five years ago, of her meeting with Oliver, that while she paused there beside Mr. Dewlap's stall, one of the older generation might have mistaken her for her mother.

"My dear Virginia," said a voice at her back, and, turning, she found Mrs. Peachey, a trifle rheumatic, but still plump and pretty. "I'm so glad you come to the old market, my child. I suppose you cling to it because of your mother, and then things are really so much dearer uptown, don't you think so?"

"Yes, I dare say they are, but I've got into the habit of coming here."

"One does get into habits. Now I've bought chickens from Mr. Dewlap for forty years. I remember your mother and I used to say that there were no chickens to compare with his white pullets."

"I remember. Mother was a wonderful housekeeper."

"And you are too, my dear. Everybody says that you have the best table in Dinwiddie!" Her small rosy face, framed in the shirred brim of her black silk bonnet, was wrinkled with age, but even her wrinkles were cheerful ones, and detracted nothing from the charming archness of her expression. Unconquerable still, she went her sprightly way, on rheumatic limbs, towards the grave.

"Have you seen dear Miss Priscilla?" asked Virginia, striving to turn the conversation away from herself, and shivering with terror lest the other should ask after Oliver, whom she had always adored.

"I stopped to inquire about her on my way down. She had had a bad night, the maid said, and Doctor Fraser is afraid that the cold she got when she went driving the other day has settled upon her lungs."

"Oh, I am so sorry!" exclaimed Virginia, but she was conscious of an immeasurable relief because Miss Priscilla's illness was absorbing Mrs. Peachey's thoughts.

"Well, I must be going on," said the little lady, and though she flinched with pain when she moved, the habitual cheerfulness of her face did not alter. "Come to see me as often as you can, Jinny. I can't get about much now, and it is such a pleasure for me to have somebody to chat with. People don't visit now," she added regretfully, "as much as they used to."

"So many things have changed," said Virginia, and her eyes, as she gazed up at the blue sky over the market, had a yearning look in them. So many things had changed--ah, there was the pang!

On her way home, overcome by the fear that Miss Priscilla might die thinking herself neglected, Virginia stopped at the Academy, and was shown into the chamber behind the parlour, which had once been a classroom. In the middle of her big tester bed, the teacher was lying, propped among pillows, with her cameo brooch fastening the collar of her nightgown and a purple wool shawl, which Virginia had knit for her, thrown over her shoulders.

"Dear Miss Priscilla, I've thought of you so often. Are you better to-day?"

"A little, Jinny, but don't worry about me. I'll be out of bed in a day or two." Though she was well over eighty-five, she still thought of herself as a middle-aged woman, and her constant plans for the future amazed Virginia, whose hold upon life was so much slighter, so much less tenacious. "Have you been to market, dear? I miss so being able to sit by the window and watch people go by. Then I always knew when you and Susan were on your way to Mr. Dewlap."

"Yes, I've begun to go again. It fills in the day."

"I never approved of your letting your servants market for you, Jinny. It would have shocked your mother dreadfully."

"I know," said Virginia, and her voice, in spite of her effort to speak cheerfully, had a weary sound, which made her add with sudden energy, "I've brought you a partridge. Mr. Dewlap had such nice ones. You must try to eat it for supper."

"How like you that was, Jinny. You are your mother all over again. I declare I am reminded of her more and more every time that I see you."

Tears sprang to Virginia's eyes, while her thin blue-veined hands gently caressed Miss Priscilla's swollen and knotted fingers.

"You couldn't tell me anything that would please me more," she answered.

"I used to think that Lucy would take after her, but she grew up differently."

"Yes, neither of the girls is like her. They are dear, good children, but they are very modern."

"Have you heard from them recently?"

"A few days ago, and they are both as well as can be."

"And what about Harry? I've always believed that Harry was your favourite, Jinny."

For an instant Virginia hesitated, with her eyes on the pot of red geraniums blooming between the white muslin curtains at the window. In his little cage in the sunlight, Miss Priscilla's canary, the last of many generations of Dickys, burst suddenly into song.

"I believe that Harry loves me more than anybody else in the world does," she answered at last. "He'd come to me to-morrow if he thought I needed him."

Lying there in her great white bed, with her enormous body, which she could no longer turn, rising in a mountain of flesh under the linen sheet, the old teacher closed her eyes lest Virginia should see her soul yearning over her as it had yearned over Lucy Pendleton after the rector's death. She thought of the girl, with the flower-like eyes and the braided wreath of hair, flitting in white organdie and blue ribbons, under the dappled sunlight in High Street, and she said to herself, as she had said twenty-five years ago, "If there was ever a girl who looked as if she were cut out for happiness, it was Jinny Pendleton."

"They say that Abby Goode is going to be married at last," remarked Virginia abruptly, for she knew that such bits of gossip supplied the only pleasant excitement in Miss Priscilla's life.

"Well, it's time. She waited long enough," returned the teacher, and she added, "I always knew that she was crazy about Oliver by the way she flung herself at his head." She had never liked Abby, and her prejudices, which had survived the shocks of life, were not weakened by the approaching presence of Death. It was characteristic of her that she should pass into eternity with both her love and her scorn undiminished.

"She was a little boisterous as a girl, but I never believed any harm of her," answered Virginia mildly; and then as Miss Priscilla's lunch was brought in on a tray, she kissed her tenderly, with a curious feeling that it was for the last time, and went out of the door and down the gravelled walk into High Street. An exhaustion greater than any she had ever known oppressed her as she dragged her body, which felt dead, through the glorious October weather. Once, when she passed Saint James' Church, she thought wearily, "How sorry mother would be if she knew," while an intolerable pain, which seemed her mother's pain as well as her own, pierced her heart. Then, as she hurried on, with that nervous haste which she could no longer control, the terrible haunted blocks appeared to throng with the faded ghosts of her youth. A grey-haired woman leaning out of the upper window of an old house nodded to her with a smile, and she found herself thinking, "I rolled hoops with her once in the street, and now she is watching her grandchild go out in its carriage." At any other moment she would have bent, enraptured, over the perambulator, which was being wheeled, by a nurse and a maid, down the front steps into the street; but to-day the sight of the soft baby features, lovingly surrounded by lace and blue ribbons, was like the turn of a knife in her wound. "And yet mother always said that she was never so happy as she was with my children," she reflected, while her personal suffering was eased for a minute by the knowledge of what her return to Dinwiddie had meant to her mother. "If she had died while I lived away, I could never have got over it--I could never have forgiven myself," she added, and there was an exquisite relief in turning even for an instant away from the thought of herself.

When she reached home luncheon was awaiting her; but after sitting down at the table and unfolding her napkin, a sudden nausea seized her, and she felt that it was impossible to sit there facing the mahogany sideboard, with its gleaming rows of silver, and watch the precise, slow-footed movements of the maid, who served her as she might have served a wooden image. "I took such trouble to train her, and now it makes me sick to look at her," she thought, as she pushed back her chair and fled hastily from the room into Oliver's study across the hall. Here her work-bag lay on the table, and taking it up, she sat down before the fire, and spread out the centrepiece, which she was embroidering, in an intricate and elaborate design, for Lucy's Christmas. It was almost a year now since she had started it, and into the luxuriant sprays and garlands there had passed something of the restless love and yearning which had overflowed from her heart. Usually she was able to work on it in spite of her suffering, for she was one of those whose hands could accomplish mechanically tasks from which her soul had revolted; but to-day even her obedient fingers faltered and refused to keep at their labour. Her eyes, leaving the needle she held, wandered beyond the window to the branches of the young maple tree, which rose, like a pointed flame, toward the cloudless blue of the sky.

In the evening, when Susan came in, with a newspaper in her hand, and a passionate sympathy in her face, Virginia was still sitting there, gazing at the dim outline of the tree and the strip of sky which had faded from azure to grey.

"Oh, Jinny, my darling, you never told me!"

Taking up the piece of embroidery from her lap, Virginia met her friend's tearful caress with a frigid and distant manner. "There was nothing to tell. What do you mean?" she asked.

"Is--is it true that Oliver has left you? That--that----" Susan's voice broke, strangled by emotion, but Virginia, without looking up from the rose on which she was working in the firelight, answered quietly:

"Yes, it is true. He wants to be free."

"But you will not do it, darling? The law is on your side."

With her eyes on the needle which she held carefully poised for the next stitch, Virginia hesitated while the muscles of her face quivered for an instant and then grew rigid again.

"What good would it do," she asked, "to hold him to me when he wishes to be free?" And then, with one of those flashes of insight which came to her in moments of great emotional stress, she added quietly, "It is not the law, it is life."

Putting her arms around her, Susan pressed her to her bosom as she might have pressed a suffering child whom she was powerless to help or even to make understand.

"Jinny, Jinny, let me love you," she begged.

"How did you know?" asked Virginia, as coldly as though she had not heard her. "Has it got into the papers?"

For an instant Susan's pity struggled against her loyalty. "General Goode told me that there had been a good deal about Oliver and--and Miss Oldcastle in the New York papers for several days," she answered, "and this morning a few lines were copied in the Dinwiddie _Bee_. Oliver is so famous it was impossible to keep things hushed up, I suppose. But you knew all this, Jinny darling."

"Oh, yes, I knew that," answered Virginia; then, rising suddenly from her chair, she said almost irritably: "Susan, I want to be alone. I can't think until I am alone." By her look Susan knew that until that minute some blind hope had kept alive in her, some childish pretence that it might all be a dream, some passionate evasion of the ultimate outcome.

"But you'll let me come back? You'll let me spend the night with you, Jinny?"

"If you want to, you may come. But I don't need you. I don't need anybody. I don't need anybody," she repeated bitterly; and this bitterness appeared to change not only her expression, but her features and her carriage and that essential attribute of her being which had been the real Virginia.

Awed in spite of herself, Susan put on her hat again, and bent over to kiss her. "I'll be back before bed-time, Jinny. Don't shut me away, dear. Let me share your pain with you."

At this something that was like a smile trembled for an instant on Virginia's face.

"You are good, Susan," she responded, but there was no tenderness, no gratitude even, in her voice. She had grown hard with the implacable hardness of grief.

When the door had closed behind her friend, she stood looking through the window until she saw her pass slowly, as though she were reluctant to go, down Sycamore Street in the direction of her home. "I am glad she has gone," she thought coldly. "Susan is good, but I am glad she has gone." Then, turning back to the fire, she took up the piece of embroidery and mechanically folded it before she laid it away. While her hands were still on the bag in which she kept it, a shiver went through her body, and a look of resolution passed over her features, making them appear as if they were sculptured in marble.

"He will be sorry some day," she thought. "He will be sorry when it is too late, and if I were there now--if I were to see him, it might all be prevented. It might all be prevented and we might be happy again." In her distorted mind, which worked with the quickness and the intensity of delirium, this idea assumed presently the prominence and the force of an hallucination. So powerful did it become that it triumphed over all the qualities which had once constituted her character--over the patience, the sweetness, the unselfish goodness--as easily as it obscured the rashness and folly of the step which she planned. "If I could see him, it might all be prevented," she repeated obstinately, as though some one had opposed her; and, going upstairs to her bedroom, she packed her little handbag and put on the travelling dress which she had worn in New York. Then, very softly, as though she feared to be stopped by the servants, she went down the stairs and out of the front door; and, very softly, carrying her bag, she passed into the street and walked hurriedly in the direction of the station. And all the way she was thinking, "If I can only see him again, this may not happen and everything may be as it was before when he still loved me." So just and rational did this idea appear to her, that she found herself wondering passionately why she had not thought of it before. It was so easy a way out of her wretchedness that it seemed absurd of her to have overlooked it. And this discovery filled her with such tremulous excitement, that when she opened her purse to buy her ticket, her hands shook as if they were palsied, and the porter, who held her bag, was obliged to count out the money. The whole of life, which had looked so dark an hour ago, had become suddenly illuminated.

Once in the train, her nervousness left her, and when an acquaintance joined her after they had started, she was able to talk connectedly of trivial occurrences in Dinwiddie. He was a fat, apoplectic looking man, with a bald head which shone like satin, and a drooping moustache slightly discoloured by tobacco. His appearance, which she had never objected to before, seemed to her grotesque; but in spite of this, she could smile almost naturally at his jokes, which she thought inconceivably stupid.

"I suppose you heard about Cyrus Treadwell's accident," he said at last when she rose to go to her berth. "Got knocked down by an automobile as he was getting off a street car at the bank. It isn't serious, they say, but he was pretty well stunned for a while."

"No, I hadn't heard," she answered, and thought, "I wonder why Susan didn't tell me." Then she said good-night and disappeared behind the curtains of her berth, where she lay, without undressing, until morning.

"This is the way--there is no other way to stop it," she thought, and all night the rumble of the train and the flashing of the lights in the darkness outside of her window kept up a running accompaniment to the words. "It is a sin--and there is no other way to stop it. He is committing a sin, and when I see him he will understand it, and it will be as it was before." This idea, which was as fixed as an obsession of delirium, seemed to occupy some central space in her brain, leaving room for a crowd of lesser thoughts which came and went fantastically around it like the motley throng of a circus. She thought of Cyrus Treadwell's accident, of the stupid jokes the man from Dinwiddie had told her, of the noises of the train, which would not let one sleep, of the stations which blazed out, here and there, in the darkness. But in the midst of this confusion of images and impressions, a clear voice was repeating somewhere in her brain: "This is the way--there is no other way to stop it before it is too late."

In the morning, when she got out in New York, and gave the driver the name of the little hotel at which she had stopped on her first visit, this glowing certainty faded like the excitement of fever from her mind, and she relapsed into the stricken hopelessness of the last six months. The bleakness of her spirits fell like a cloud on the brilliant October day, and the sunshine, which lay in golden pools on the pavements, appeared to increase the sense of universal melancholy which had followed so sharply on the brief exaltation of the night. "I must see him--it is the only way," her brain still repeated, but the ring of conviction was gone from the words. Her flight from Dinwiddie showed to her now in all the desperate folly with which it might have appeared to a stranger. The impulse which had brought her had ebbed away, and with the impulse had passed also the confidence and the energy of her resolve.

At the hotel, where the red bedroom into which they ushered her appeared to have waited unaltered for the second tragedy of her life, she bathed and dressed herself, and after a cup of black coffee, taken because a sensation of dizziness had alarmed her lest she should faint in the street, she put on her hat again and went out into Fifth Avenue. She remembered the name of the hotel at the head of Oliver's letter, and she directed her steps towards it now with an automatic precision of which her mind seemed almost unconscious. All thought of asking for him had vanished, yet she was drawn to the place where he was by a force which was more irresistible than any choice of the will. An instinct stronger than reason was guiding her steps.

In Fifth Avenue the crowd was already beginning to stream by on the sidewalks, and as she mingled with it, she recalled that other morning when she had moved among these people and had felt that they looked at her kindly because she was beautiful and young. Now the kindness had given way to indifference in their eyes. They no longer looked at her; and when a shop window, which she was passing, showed her a reflection of herself, she saw only a commonplace middle-aged figure, with a look of withered sweetness in the face, which had grown suddenly wan. And the sight of this figure fell like a weight on her heart, destroying the last vestige of courage.

Before the door of the hotel in which Oliver was staying, she stood so long, with her vacant gaze fixed on the green velvet carpet within the hall, that an attendant in livery came up at last and inquired if she wished to see any one. Arousing herself with a start, she shook her head hurriedly and turned back into the street, for when the crucial moment came her decision failed her. Just as she had been unable to make a scene on the night when they had parted, so now it was impossible for her to descend to the vulgarity of thrusting her presence into his life. Unless the frenzy of delirium seized her again, she knew that she should never have the strength to put the desperation of thought into the desperation of action. What she longed for was not to fight, not to struggle, but to fall, like a wounded bird, to the earth, and be forgotten.

At the crossing, where there was a crush of motor cars and carriages, she stopped for a moment and thought how easy it would be to die in the crowded street before returning to Dinwiddie. "All I need do is to slip and fall there, and in a second it would be over." But so many cars went by that she knew she should never be able to do it, that much as she hated life, something bound her to it which she lacked the courage to break. There shot through her mind the memory of a soldier her father used to tell about, who was always first on the field of battle, but had never found the courage to charge. "He was like me--for I might stand here forever and yet not find the courage to die."

A beggar came up to her and she thought, "He is begging of me, and yet I am more miserable than he is." Then, while she searched in her bag for some change, it seemed to her that the faces gliding past her became suddenly distorted and twisted as though the souls of the women in the rapidly moving cars were crucified under their splendid furs. "That woman in the sable cloak is beautiful, and yet she, also, is in torture," she reflected with an impersonal coldness and detachment. "I was beautiful, too, but how did it help me?" And she saw herself as she had been in her girlhood with the glow of happiness, as of one flying, in her face, and her heart filled with the joyous expectancy of the miracle which must happen. "I am as old now as Miss Willy was then--and how I pitied her!" Tears rushed to her eyes, which had been so dry a minute before, while the memory of that lost gaiety of youth came over her in a wave that was like the sweetness of the honeysuckle blooming in the rectory garden.

A policeman, observing that she had waited there so long, held up the traffic until she had crossed the street, and after thanking him, she went on again towards the hotel in which she was staying. "He was kind about helping me over," she said to herself, with an impulse of gratitude; and this casual kindness seemed to her the one spot of light in the blackness which surrounded her.

As she approached the hotel, her step flagged, and she felt suddenly that even that passive courage which was hers--the courage of endurance--had deserted her. She saw the dreadful hours that must ensue before she went back to Dinwiddie, the dreadful days that would follow after she got there, the dreadful weeks that would run on into the dreadful years. Silent, grey, and endless, they stretched ahead of her, and through them all she saw herself, a little hopeless figure, moving towards that death which she had not had the courage to die. The thoughts of the familiar streets, of the familiar faces, of the house, of the furniture, of the leaf-strewn yard in which her bed of dahlias was blooming--all these aroused in her the sense of spiritual nausea which she had felt when she went back to them after her parting from Oliver. Nothing remained except the long empty years, for she had outlived her usefulness.

At the door of the hotel, the hall porter met her with a cheerful face, and she turned to him with the instinctive reliance on masculine protection which had driven her to the friendly shelter of the policeman at the crossing in Fifth Avenue. In reply to her helpless questions, he looked up the next train to Dinwiddie, which left within the hour, and after buying her ticket, assisted her smilingly into the taxicab. While she sat there, in the middle of the seat, with her little black bag rocking back and forth as the cab turned the corners, all capacity for feeling, all possibility of sensation even, seemed to have passed out of her body. The impulse which was carrying her to Dinwiddie was the physical impulse which drives a wounded animal back to die in its shelter. Even the flaring advertisements of Oliver's play, which was still running in a Broadway theatre, aroused no pain, hardly any thought of him or of the past, in her mind. She had ceased to suffer, she had ceased even to think; and when, a little later, she followed the station porter down the long platform, she was able to brush aside the memory of her parting from Oliver as lightly as though it were the trivial sting of a wasp. When she remembered the agony of the last year, of yesterday, of the morning through which she had just lived, it appeared almost ridiculous. That death which she had lacked the courage to die seemed creeping over her soul before it reached the outer shell of her body.

In the train, she was attacked by a sensation of faintness, and remembering that she had eaten nothing all day, she went into the dining-car, and sat down at one of the little tables. When her luncheon was brought, she ate almost ravenously for a minute. Then her sudden hunger was followed by a disgust for the look of the dishes and the cinders on the table-cloth, and after paying her bill, for which she waited an intolerable time, she went back to her chair in the next coach, and watched, with unseeing eyes, the swiftly moving landscape, which rushed by in all the brilliant pageantry of October. Several seats ahead of her, two men were discussing politics, and one of them, who wore a clerical waistcoat, raised his voice suddenly so high that his words penetrated the wall of blankness which surrounded her thoughts, "I tell you it is the greatest menace to our civilization!" and then, as he controlled his excitement, his speech dropped quickly into indistinctness.

"How absurd of him to get so angry about it," thought Virginia with surprise, "as if a civilization could make any difference to anybody on earth." And she watched the clergyman for a minute, as if fascinated by the display of his earnestness. "What on earth can it matter to him?" she wondered mildly, "and yet to look at him one would think that his heart was bound up in the question." But in a little while she turned away from him again, and lying back in her chair, stared across the smooth plains to the pale golden edge of the distant horizon. Through the long day she sat, without moving, without taking her eyes from the landscape, while the sunlight faded slowly away from the fields and the afterglow flushed and waned, and the stars shone out, one by one, through the silver web of the twilight. Once, when the porter had offered her a pillow, she had looked round to thank him; once when a child, toddling along the aisle, had fallen at her feet, she had bent over to lift it, but beyond this, she had stirred only to hand her ticket to the conductor when he aroused her by touching her arm. Where the sunset and the afterglow had been, she saw at last only the lights of the train reflected in the smeared glass of the window, but so unconscious was she of any change in that utter vacancy at which she looked, that she could not have told whether it was an hour or a day after leaving New York that she came back to Dinwiddie. Even then she would still have sat there, speechless, inert, unseeing, had not the porter taken her bag from the rack over her head and accompanied her from the glare of the train out into the dimness of the town, where the crumbling "hacks" hitched to the decrepit horses still waited. Here her bag was passed over to a driver, whom she vaguely remembered, and a few minutes later she rolled, in one of the ancient vehicles, under the pale lights of the street which led to her home. In the drug store at the corner she saw Miss Priscilla's maid buying medicines, and she wondered indifferently if the teacher had grown suddenly worse. Then, as she passed John Henry's house, she recognized his large shadow as it moved across the white shade at the window of the drawing-room. "Susan was coming to spend last night with me," she said aloud, and for the first and last time in her life, an ironic smile quivered upon her lips.

With a last jolt the carriage drew up at the sidewalk before her home; the driver dismounted, grinning, from his box; and in the lighted doorway, she saw the figure of her maid, in trim cap and apron, waiting to welcome her. Not a petal had fallen from the bed of crimson dahlias beside the steps; not a leaf had changed on the young maple tree, which rose in a spire of flame toward the stars. Inside, she knew, there would be the bright fire, the cheerful supper table, the soft bed turned down--and the future.

On the porch she stopped and looked back into the street as she might have looked back at the door of a prison. The negro driver, having placed her bag in the hall, stood waiting expectantly, with his hat in his hand, and his shining black eyes on her face; and opening her purse, she paid him, before walking past the maid over the threshold. Ahead of her stretched the staircase which she would go up and down for the rest of her life. On the right, she could look into the open door of the dining-room, and opposite to it, she knew that the lamp was lit and the fire burning in Oliver's study. Then, while a wave of despair, like a mortal sickness, swept over her, her eyes fell on an envelope which lay on the little silver card-tray on the hall table, and as she tore it open, she saw that it contained but a single line:


"Dearest mother, I am coming home to you,
"HARRY."


(THE END)
Ellen Glasgow's Novel: Virginia

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