Esther by Henry Adams. - HTML preview
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"Don't make it a hard one."
"You shall forget that I said you had no soul."
"Oh!" said Catherine greatly relieved; "if I have one, you were the first to see it."
She carried the sketch away with her, nor has any one caught sight of it since she rolled it up. She refused to show it or talk of it, until even Strong was forced to drop the subject, and leave her to dream in peace of the romance that could give such a light to her eyes.
Strong was one of the few persons allowed to climb up to their perch and see their work. When he next came, Esther told him of Wharton's lecture, and of Catherine's sudden rebellion. Delighted with this new flight of his prairie bird, Strong declared that as they were all bent on taking likenesses of Catherine, he would like to try his own hand at it, and show them how an American Saint ought to look when seen by the light of science. He then set to work with Esther's pencils, and drew a portrait of Catherine under the figure of a large Colorado beetle, with wings extended. When it was done he pinned it against the wall.
"Now, Esther!" said he. "Take my advice. No one wants European saints over here; they are only clerical bric-à-brac, and what little meaning they ever had is not worth now a tolerable Japanese teapot; but here is a national saint that every one knows; not an American citizen can come into your church from Salt Lake City to Nantucket, who will not say that this is the church for his money; he will believe in your saints, for he knows them. Paint her so!"
"Very well!" said Catherine. "If Mr. Wharton will consent, I have no objection."
Wharton took it with his usual seriousness. "I believe you are right," said he sadly. "I feel more and more that our work is thrown away. If Hazard and the committee will consent, Miss Dudley shall paint what she likes for all me."
No one dared carry die joke so far as to ask Mr. Hazard's consent to canonize this American saint, and Strong after finishing his sketch, and labelling it: "_Sta. Catarina 10-Lineata_ (Colorado)," gave it to Catherine as a companion to Wharton's. For some time she was called the beetle. Wharton's conscience seemed to smite him for his rudeness, and Catherine was promoted to the position of favorite. While Esther toiled over the tiresome draperies of her picture, Catherine would wander off with Wharton on his tours of inspection; she listened to all the discussions, and picked up the meaning of his orders and criticisms; in a short time she began to maintain opinions of her own. Wharton liked to have her near him, and came to get her when she failed to appear at his rounds. They became confidential and sympathetic.
"Are you never homesick for your prairie?" he asked one day.
"Not a bit!" she answered. "I like the East. What is the use of having a world to one's self?"
"What is the use of any thing?" asked Wharton.
"I give it up," she replied. "Does art say that a woman is no use?"
"I know of nothing useful in life," said he, "except what is beautiful or creates beauty. You are beautiful, and ought to be most so on your prairie."
"Am I really beautiful?" asked Catherine with much animation. "No one ever told me so before."
This was coquetry. The young person had often heard of the fact, and, even had she not, her glass told her of it several times a day. She meant only that this was the first time the fact came home to her as a new and exquisite sensation.
"You have the charm of the Colorado hills, and plains," said he. "But you won't keep it here. You will become self-conscious, and self-consciousness is worse than ugliness."
"Nonsense!" said Catherine boldly. "I know more art than you, if that is your notion. Do you suppose girls are so savage in Denver as not to know when they are pretty? Why, the birds are self-conscious! So are horses! So are antelopes! I have seen them often showing off their beauties like New York women, and they are never so pretty as then."
"Don't try it," said he. "If you do, I shall warn you. Tell me, do you think my figure of St. Paul here self-conscious? I lie awake nights for fear I have made him so."
Catherine looked long at the figure and then shook her head. "I could tell you if it were a woman," she said.
"All women are more or less alike; but men are quite different, and even the silly ones may have brains somewhere. How can I tell?"
"A grain of self-consciousness would spoil him," said Wharton.
"Then men must be very different from women," she replied. "I will give you leave to paint me on every square inch of the church, walls and roof, and defy you to spoil any charm you think I have, if you will only not make me awkward or silly; and you may make me as self-conscious as Esther's St. Cecilia there, only she calls it modesty."
Catherine was so pulled about and put to such practical uses in art as to learn something by her own weary labors. A quick girl soon picks up ideas when she hears clever men talking about matters which they understand. Esther began to feel a little nervous. Catherine took so kindly to every thing romantic that Wharton began to get power over her. He had a queer imagination of his own, which she could not understand, but which had a sort of fascination for her. She ran errands for him, and became a sort of celestial messenger about the church. As for Wharton, he declared that she stood nearer nature than any woman he knew, and she was in sympathy with his highest emotions. He let her ask innumerable questions, which he answered or not, as happened to suit his mood. He paid no attention to Esther's remonstrances at being deprived of her model, but whenever he wanted Catherine for any purpose, he sent for her, and left Esther to her own resources. Catherine had her own reasons for being docile and for keeping him in good humor. She started with the idea that she did not intend to be painted, if she could help it, as a first century ascetic, without color, and clothed in a hair-cloth wrapper; and having once begun the attempt to carry her own object, she was drawn on without the power to stop.
Her intimacy with Wharton began to make Esther uneasy, so that one day, when Strong came up, and, missing Esther
Catherine, asked what had become of her, she consulted him on the subject.
"Catherine has gone off with Mr. Wharton to inspect," she said. "He comes for her or sends for her every day.
What can I do about it?"
"Where is the harm?" asked Strong. "If she likes to pass an hour or two doing that sort of thing, I should think it was good for her."
"But suppose she takes a fancy to him?"
"Oh! No woman could marry Wharton," said Strong. "He would forget her too often, and she would lose patience with him before he thought of her again. Give her her head! He will teach her more that is worth her knowing than she would learn in a life-time in Aunt Sarah's parlor."
"I wish I could give her something else to amuse her."
"Well!" replied Strong. "We will invent something." Catherine returned a few minutes later, and he asked her how she got on with the task-master, and whether he had yet recovered her favor.
"Since the beetle turned on him," said Catherine, "we have got on like two little blind mice. He has been as kind to me as though I were his mother; but why is he so mysterious? He will not tell me his history."
"He is the same to us all," said Strong. "Some people think he is ashamed of his origin. He was picked out of the gutters of Cincinnati by some philanthropist and sent abroad for an education. The fact is that he cares no more about his origin than you do for being a Sioux Indian, but he had the misfortune to marry badly in Europe, and hates to talk of it."
"Then he has a wife already, when he is breaking my young heart?" exclaimed Catherine.
"I would like to calm your fears, my poor child," said Strong; "but the truth is that no one knows what has become of his wife. She may be alive, and she may be dead. Do you want me to find out?"
"I am dying to know," said Catherine; "but I will make him tell me all about it one of these days."
"Never!" replied Strong. "He lives only in his art since the collapse of his marriage. He eats and drinks paint."
"Does he really paint so very well?" asked Catherine thoughtfully. "Is he a great genius?"
"Young woman, we are all of us great geniuses. We never say so, because we are as modest as we are great, but just look into my book on fossil batrachians."
"I don't feel the least interest in you or your batrachiums; but I adore Mr. Wharton."
"What is the good of your adoring Wharton?" asked the professor. "Short's very good as far as he goes, but the real friend is Codlin, not Short."
"I shall hate you if you always make fun of me. What do you mean by your Codlins and Shorts?"
"Did you never read Dickens?" cried Strong.
"I never read a novel in my life, if that is what you are talking about," answered Catherine.
"Ho! Cousin Esther! The Sioux don't read Dickens. You should join the tribe."
"I always told you that sensible people never read," said Esther, hard at work on her painting. "Do you suppose St. Cecilia ever read Dickens or would have liked him if she had?"
"Perhaps not," said Strong. "I take very little stock in saints, and she strikes me as a little of a humbug, your Cecilia; but I would like to know what the effect of the 'Old Curiosity Shop' would be on a full-blooded Indian squaw. Catherine, will you try to read it if I bring you a copy here?"
"May I?" asked Catherine. "You know I was taught to believe that novels are sinful."
Strong stared at her a moment with surprise that any new trait in her could surprise him, and then went on solemnly: "Angel, you are many points too good for this wicked city. If you remain here unperverted, you will injure our trade. I must see to it that your moral tone is lowered. Will you read a novel of this person named Dickens if Mr. Hazard will permit you to do so in his church?"
"If Mr. Hazard says I must, I shall do so with pleasure," replied Catherine with her best company manners; and the Reverend Mr. Hazard, having been taken into Esther's confidence on the subject, decided, after reflection, that Miss Brooke's moral nature would not be hurt by reading Dickens under such circumstances; so the next day Catherine was plunged into a new world of imagination which so absorbed her thoughts that for the time Wharton himself seemed common-place. High on her scaffolding which looked sheer down into the empty, echoing church, with huge saints and evangelists staring at her from every side, and martyrs admiring each other's beatitude, Catherine, who was already half inclined to think life unreal, fell into a dream within a dream, and wondered which was untrue.
Esther's anxiety about Catherine was for the time put at rest by the professor's little maneuver, but she had some rather more serious cause for disquiet about herself, in regard to which she did not care to consult her cousin or any one else. Wharton and Strong were not the only men who undertook to enliven her path of professional labor. Every day at noon, the Reverend Stephen Hazard visited his church to see how Wharton was coming forward, and this clerical duty was not neglected after Esther joined the work-people. Much as Mr. Hazard had to do, and few men in New York were busier, he never forgot to look in for a moment on the artists, and Esther could not help noticing that this moment tended to lengthen. He had a way of joining Wharton and Catherine on their tour of inspection, and then bringing Catherine back to Esther's work-place, and sitting down for an instant to rest and look at the St. Cecilia. Time passed rapidly, and once or twice it had come over Esther's mind that, for a very busy man, Mr. Hazard seemed to waste a great deal of time. It grew to be a regular habit that between noon and one o'clock, Esther and Catherine entertained the clergyman of the parish.
The strain of standing in a pulpit is great. No human being ever yet constructed was strong enough to offer himself long as a light to humanity without showing the effect on his constitution. Buddhist saints stand for years silent, on one leg, or with arms raised above their heads, but the limbs shrivel, and the mind shrivels with the limbs. Christian saints have found it necessary from time to time to drop their arms and to walk on their legs, but they do it with a sort of apology or defiance, and sometimes do it, if they can, by stealth. One is a saint or one is not; every man can choose the career that suits him; but to be saint and sinner at the same time requires singular ingenuity. For this reason, wise clergymen, whose tastes, though in themselves innocent, may give scandal to others, enjoy their relaxation, so far as they can, in privacy. Mr. Hazard liked the society of clever men and agreeable women; he was bound to keep an eye on the progress of his own church; he stepped not an inch outside the range of his clerical duty and privilege; yet ill-natured persons, and there were such in his parish, might say that he was carrying on a secular flirtation in his own church under the pretense of doing his duty. Perhaps he felt the risk of running into this peril. He invited no public attention to the manner in which he passed this part of his time, and never alluded to the subject in other company.
To make his incessant attention still more necessary, it happened that Hazard's knowledge and his library were often drawn upon by Wharton and his workmen. Not only was he learned in all matters which pertained to church arrangement and decoration, but his collection of books on the subject was the best in New York, and his library touched the church wall. Wharton had a quantity of his books in constant use, and was incessantly sending to consult about points of doubt. Hazard was bent upon having every thing correct, and complained sadly when he found that his wishes were not regarded. He lectured Wharton on the subject of early Christian art until he saw that Wharton would no longer listen, and then he went off to Miss Dudley, and lectured her.
Esther was not a good subject for instruction of this sort. She cared little for what the early Christians believed, either in religion or art, and she remembered nothing at all of his deep instruction on the inferences to be drawn from the contents of crypts and catacombs. The more earnest he became, the less could she make out his meaning. She could not reconcile herself to draw the attenuated figures and haggard forms of the early martyrs merely because they suited the style of church decoration; and she could see no striking harmony of relation between these ill-looking beings and the Fifth Avenue audience to whom they were supposed to have some moral or sentimental meaning. After one or two hesitating attempts to argue this point, she saw that it was useless, and made up her mind that as a matter of ordinary good manners, the least she could do was to treat Mr. Hazard civilly in his own church, and listen with respect to his lectures on Christian art. She even did her best to obey his wishes in all respects in which she understood them, but here an unexpected and confusing play of cross-purposes came in to mislead her. Wharton suddenly found that Hazard let Miss Dudley have her own way to an extent permitted to no one else. Esther was not conscious that the expression of a feeling or a wish on her part carried any special weight, but there could be no doubt that if Miss Dudley seemed to want any thing very much, Mr. Hazard showed no sense of shame in suddenly forgetting his fixed theories and encouraging her to do what she pleased. This point was settled when she had been some ten days at work trying to satisfy Wharton's demands, which were also Mr. Hazard's, in regard to the character and expression of St. Cecilia. Catherine was so earnest not to be made repulsive, and Esther's own tastes lay so strongly in the same direction, that when it came to the point, she could not force herself to draw such a figure as was required; she held out with a sort of feminine sweetness such as cried aloud for discipline, and there was no doubt that Wharton was quite ready to inflict it. In spite of Catherine, and Esther too, he would have carried his point, had Esther not appealed to Mr. Hazard; but this strenuous purist, who had worried Wharton and the building committee with daily complaints that the character of their work wanted spiritual earnestness, now suddenly, at a word from Miss Dudley, turned about and encouraged her, against Wharton's orders, to paint a figure, which, if it could be seen, which was fortunately not the case, must seem to any one who cared for such matters, out of keeping with all the work which surrounded it.
"Do you know," said Esther to Mr. Hazard, "that Mr. Wharton insists on my painting Catherine as though she were forty years old and rheumatic?"
"I know," he replied, glancing timidly towards the procession of stern and elderly saints and martyrs, finished and unfinished, which seemed to bear up the church walls. "Do you think she would feel at home here if she were younger or prettier?"
"No! Honestly, I don't think she would," said Esther, becoming bold as he became timid. "I will paint Cecilia eighty years old, if Mr. Wharton wants her so. She will have lost her touch on the piano, and her voice will be cracked, but if you choose to set such an example to your choir, I will obey. But I can't ask Catherine to sit for such a figure. I will send out for some old woman, and draw from her."
"I can't spare Miss Brooke," said Hazard hastily. "The church needs her. Perhaps you can find some middle way with Wharton."
"No! If I am to paint her at all, I must paint her as she is. There is more that is angelic in her face now, if I could only catch it, than there is in all Mr. Wharton's figures put together, and if I am to commit sacrilege, I would rather be untrue to Mr. Wharton, than to her."
"I believe you are right, Miss Dudley. There is a little look of heaven in Miss Brooke's eyes. If you think you can put it into the St. Cecilia, why not try? If the experiment fails you can try again on another plan. After all, the drapery is the only part that needs to be very strictly in keeping."
Thus this despotic clergyman gave way and irritated Wharton, who, having promised to let him decide the dispute, was now suddenly overruled. He shrugged his shoulders and told Esther in private that he had struggled hard to get permission to do what she was doing, but only the sternest, strongest types would satisfy the church then. "It was all I could do to get them down to the thirteenth century," he said; "whenever I begged for beauty of form, they asked me whether I wanted the place to look like a theater."
"You know they're quite right," said Esther. "It has a terribly grotesque air of theater even now."
"It is a theater," growled Wharton. "That is what ails our religion. But it is not the fault of our art, and if you had come here a little earlier, I would have made one more attempt. I would like now, even as it is, to go back to the age of beauty, and put a Madonna in the heart of their church. The place has no heart."
"I never could have given you help enough for that, Mr. Wharton; but what does it matter about my poor Cecilia? She does no harm up here. No one can see her, and after all it is only her features that are modern!"
"No harm at all, but I wish I were a woman like you. Perhaps I could have my own way."
Esther liked to have her own way. She had the instinct of power, but not the love of responsibility, and now that she found herself allowed to violate Wharton's orders and derange his plans, she became alarmed, asked no more favors, stuck closely to her work, and kept Catherine always at her side. She even tried to return on her steps and follow Wharton's wishes, until she was stopped by Catherine's outcry. Then it appeared that Wharton had gone over to her side. Instead of supporting Esther in giving severity to the figure, he wanted it to be the closest possible likeness of Catherine herself. Esther began to think that men were excessively queer and variable; the more she tried to please them, the less she seemed to succeed; but Mr. Wharton certainly took more interest in the St. Cecilia as it advanced towards completion, although it was not in the least the kind of work which he liked or respected.
Mr. Hazard took not so much interest in the painting. His pleasure in visiting their gallery seemed to be of a different sort. As Esther learned to know him better, she found that he was suffering from over-work and responsibility, and that the painters' gallery was a sort of refuge, where he escaped from care, for an entire change of atmosphere and thought. In this light Esther found him a very charming fellow, especially when he was allowed to have his own way without question or argument. He talked well; drew well; wrote well, and in case of necessity could even sing fairly well. He had traveled far and wide, and had known many interesting people. He had a sense of humor, except where his church was concerned. He was well read, especially in a kind of literature of which Esther had heard nothing, the devotional writings of the church, and the poetry of religious expression. Esther liked to pick out plums of poetry, without having to search for them on her own account, and as Hazard liked to talk even better than she to listen, they babbled on pleasantly together while Catherine read novels which Hazard chose for her, and which he selected with the idea of carrying her into the life of the past. There was an atmosphere of romance about her novels, and not about the novels alone.
While this ecclesiastical idyl was painting and singing itself in its own way, blind and deaf to the realities of life, this life moved on in its accustomed course undisturbed by idyls. The morning's task was always finished at one o'clock. At that hour, if the weather was fine, Mr. Dudley commonly stopped at the church door to take them away, and the rest of the day was given up to society. Esther and Catherine drove, made calls, dined out, went to balls, to the theater and opera, without interrupting their professional work. Under Mrs. Murray's potent influence, Catherine glided easily into the current of society and became popular without an effort. She Esther
soon had admirers. One young man, of an excellent and very old Dutch family, Mr. Rip Van Dam, took a marked fancy for her. Mr. Van Dam knew nothing of her, except that she was very pretty and came from Colorado where she had been brought up to like horses, and could ride almost any thing that would not buck its saddle off. This was quite enough for Mr. Van Dam whose taste for horses was more decided than for literature or art. He took Catherine to drive when the sleighing was good, and was flattered by her enthusiastic admiration of his beautiful pair of fast trotters. His confidence in her became boundless when he found that she could drive them quite as well as he. His success in winning her affections would have been greater if Catherine had not found his charms incessantly counteracted by the society of the older and more intelligent men, whom she never met at balls, but whom she saw every morning at the church, and whose tastes and talk struck her imagination. She liked Mr. Van Dam, but she laughed at him, which proved a thoughtless mind, for neither artists, clergymen nor professors were likely to marry her, as this young man might perhaps have done, under sufficient encouragement. When, towards the first of January, Catherine left Mrs. Murray, in order to stay with Esther, for greater convenience in the church work, Mr. Van Dam's attentions rather fell off. He was afraid of Esther, whom he insisted on regarding as clever, although Esther took much care never to laugh at him, for fear of doing mischief.
Catherine learned to play whist in order to amuse Mr. Dudley. They had small dinners, at which Hazard was sometimes present, and more often Strong, until he was obliged to go West to deliver a course of lectures at St. Louis. In spite of Mr. Dudley's supposed dislike for clergymen, he took kindly to Hazard and made no objection to his becoming a tame cat about the house. To make up a table at whist, Hazard did not refuse to take a hand; and said it was a part of his parochial duty. Mr. Dudley laughed and told him that if he performed the rest of his parochial duties equally ill, the parish should give him a year's leave of absence for purposes of study. Mr. Dudley disliked nothing so much as to be treated like an invalid, or to be serious, and Hazard gratified him by laughing at the doctors. They got on wonderfully well together, to the increasing amazement of Esther.
Card-playing and novel-reading were not the only cases in which Mr. Hazard took a liberal view of his functions. His theology belonged to the high-church school, and in the pulpit he made no compromise with the spirit of concession, but in all ordinary matters of indifference or of innocent pleasure he gave the rein to his instincts, and in regard to art he was so full of its relations with religion that he would admit of no divergence between the two. Art and religion might take great liberties with each other, and both be the better for it, as he thought.
His thirteenth-century ideas led him into a curious experiment which was quite in the thirteenth-century spirit.
Catherine's insatiable spirit of coquetry was to blame, although it was not with him that she coquetted. Ready enough to try her youthful powers on most men, she had seemed to recognize by instinct that Mr. Hazard did not belong to her. Yet she could not rest satisfied without putting even him to some useful purpose of her own.
During Hazard's visits to the scaffold, he sometimes took up a pencil and drew. Once he drew a sketch of Wharton in the character of a monk with his brush and pallet in his hands. Catherine asked what connection there was between Mr. Wharton and a monastery.
"None!" replied Mr. Hazard; "but I like to think of church work as done by churchmen. In the old days he would have been a monk and would have painted himself among these figures on the walls."
Esther ventured to criticise Wharton's style; she thought it severe, monotonous, and sometimes strained.
"Wharton's real notion of art," said Hazard, "is a volcano. You may be a volcano at rest, or extinct, or in full eruption, but a volcano of some kind you have got to be. In one of his violent moods he once made me go over to Sicily with him, and dragged me to the top of Etna. It fascinated him, and I thought he meant to jump into it and pull me after him, but at that time he was a sort of used-up volcano himself."
"Then there is really something mysterious about his life?" asked Catherine.
"Only that he made a very unhappy marriage which he dislikes to think about," replied Hazard. "As an artist it did him good, but it ruined his peace and comfort, if he ever had any. He would never have made the mistake, if he had not been more ignorant of the world than any mortal that ever drew breath, but, as I was saying, a volcano was like a rattlesnake to him, and the woman he married was a volcano."
"What has become of her?" asked Esther.
"I have not dared to ask for years. No one seems to know whether she is living or dead."
"Did he leave her?"
"No; she left him. He was to the last fascinated by her, so much so that, after she left him, when I persuaded him to quit Paris, he insisted on going to Avignon and Vaucluse, because Petrarch had been under the same sort of fascination, and Wharton thought himself the only man in the world who could understand Petrarch. If you want to insult him and make him bitterly hate you, tell him that Laura was a married woman with a dozen children."
"Who was Laura?" asked Catherine; "and why should she not have a dozen children?"
"Laura was a beautiful girl with golden hair and a green dress whom Petrarch first saw in a church at Avignon," answered Hazard. "She was painted among the frescoes of the cathedral, as you are being painted now, Miss Brooke; and Petrarch wrote some hundreds of sonnets about her which Wharton undertook to translate, and made me help him. We were both poets then."
"I want to hear those sonnets," said Catherine, quite seriously, as though the likeness between herself and Laura had struck her as the most natural thing in the world. "Can you remember them?"
"I think I could. Don't find fault with me if you dislike the moral. I approve it because, like Petrarch, I am a bit of a churchman, but I don't know what you may think of a lover who begins by putting his mistress on the same footing with his deity and ends by groaning over the time he has thrown away on her."
"Not to her face?" said Esther.
"Worse! He saw her in church and wrote to her face something like this:
'As sight of God is the eternal life, Nor more we ask, nor more to wish we dare, So, lady, sight of thee,'
and so on, or words to that effect. Yet after she was dead he said he had wasted his life in loving her. I remember the whole of the sonnet because it cost me two days' labor in the railway between Avignon and Nice. It runs like this:--
'For my lost life lamenting now I go, Which I have placed in loving mortal thing, Soaring to no high flight, although the wing Had strength to rise and loftier sweep to show. Oh! Thou that seest my mean life and low!
Invisible! Immortal! Heaven's king! To this weak, pathless spirit, succor bring, And on its earthly faults thy grace bestow! That I, who lived in tempest and in fear, May die in port and peace; and if it be That life was vain, at least let death be dear! In these few days that yet remain to me, And in death's terrors, may thy hand be near! Thou knowest that I have no hope but thee!'
In the Italian this is very great poetry, Miss Brooke, and if you don't think it so in my English, try and see if you can do better."
"Very well," said Catherine, coolly. "I've no doubt we can do it just as well as you and Mr. Wharton. Can't we, Esther?"
"You are impudent enough to make St. Cecilia blush," said Esther, who happened to be wondering whether she might dare to put a little blush into the cheeks of the figure on which she was painting. "You never read a word of Italian in your little life."
"No! But you have!" replied Catherine, as though this were final.
"The libretto of Lucia!" said Esther with scorn.
"No matter!" resumed Catherine. "Bring me the books, Mr. Hazard, and I will translate one of those sonnets if I have to shut up Esther in a dark closet."
"Catherine! Don't make me ridiculous!" said Esther; but Catherine was inspired by an idea, and would not be stopped.
"Bring me the volume now, Mr. Hazard! You shall have your sonnet for Sunday's sermon."
"Don't do it, Mr. Hazard!" exhorted Esther solemnly. "It is one of her Colorado jokes. She does not know what a sonnet is. She thinks it some kind of cattle-punching."
"If I do not give you that sonnet," cried Catherine, "I will give you leave to have me painted as much like an old skeleton as Mr. Wharton chooses."
"Done!" said Hazard, who regarded this as at least one point worth gaining. "You shall have the books. I want to see Wharton's triumph."
"But if I do poetry for you," continued Catherine, "you must do painting for me."
"Very well!" said Hazard. "What shall it be?"
"If I am Laura," said Catherine, "I must have a Petrarch. I want you to put him up here on the wall, looking at me, as he did in the church where he first saw me."
"But what will Wharton and the committee say?" replied Hazard, startled at so monstrous a demand.
"I don't believe Mr. Wharton will object," answered Catherine. "He will be flattered. Don't you see? He is to be Petrarch."
"Oh!" cried Hazard, with a stare. "Now I understand. You want me to paint Wharton as a scriptural character looking across to Miss Dudley's Cecilia."
"You are very slow!" said Catherine. "I think you might have seen it without making me tell you."
To a low-church evangelical parson this idea might have seemed inexpressibly shocking, but there was something in it which, after a moment's reflection, rather pleased Hazard. It was the sort of thing which the Florentines did, and there was hardly an early church in Italy about whose walls did not cling the colors of some such old union of art and friendship in the service of religion. Catherine's figure was already there. Why not place Wharton's by its side and honor the artist who had devoted so large a share of his life to the service of the church, with, it must be confessed, a very moderate share of worldly profit. The longer Hazard thought of it, the less he saw to oppose. His tastes were flattered by the idea of doing something with his own hand Esther
that should add to the character and meaning of the building. His imagination was so pleased with the notion that at last he gave his consent:--"Very well, Miss Brooke! I will draw a figure for this next vacant space, and carry it as far as I know how. If Wharton objects he can efface it. But Miss Dudley will have to finish it for me, for I can't paint, and Wharton would certainly stop me if I tried."
Although this pretty bargain which seemed so fair, really threw on Esther the whole burden of writing sonnets and painting portraits for the amusement of Catherine and Mr. Hazard, Catherine begged so hard that she at last consented to do her best, and her consent so much delighted Hazard that he instantly searched his books for a model to work from, and as soon as he found one to answer his purpose, he began with Esther's crayons to draw the cartoon of a large figure which was to preserve under the character of St. Luke the memory of Wharton's features. When Wharton came next to inspect Esther's work, he was told that Mr. Hazard wished to try his hand on designing a figure for the vacant space, and he criticised and corrected it as freely as the rest.
For such a task Hazard was almost as competent as Wharton, from the moment the idea was once given, and in this dark corner it mattered little whether a conventional saint were more or less correct.
Meanwhile Catherine carried off a copy of Petrarch, and instantly turned it over to Esther, seeming to think it a matter of course that she should do so trifling a matter as a sonnet with ease. "It won't take you five minutes if you put your mind to it," she said. "You can do any thing you like, and any one could make a few rhymes."
Esther, willing to please her, tried, and exhausted her patience on the first three lines. Then Catherine told the story to Mr. Dudley, who was so much amused by her ambition that he gave his active aid, and between them they succeeded in helping Esther to make out a sonnet which Mr. Dudley declared to be quite good enough for Hazard. This done, Esther refused to mix further in the matter, and made Catherine learn her verses by heart.
The young woman found this no easy task, but when she thought herself perfect she told Mr. Hazard, as she would have told a schoolmaster, that she was ready with her sonnet.
"I have finished the sonnet, Mr. Hazard," she said one morning in a bashful voice, as though she were again at school.
"Where is it, Miss Brooke?"
Then Catherine, drawing herself up, with her hands behind her, began to recite:
"Oh, little bird! singing upon your way, Or mourning for your pleasant summer-tide, Seeing the night and winter at your side, The joyous months behind, and sunny day! If, as you know your own pathetic lay, You knew as well the sorrows that I hide, Nestling upon my breast, you would divide Its weary woes, and lift their load away. I know not that our shares would then be even, For she you mourn may yet make glad your sight, While against me are banded death and heaven; But now the gloom of winter and of night With thoughts of sweet and bitter years for leaven, Lends to my talk with you a sad delight."
Esther laughed till the tears rolled down her face at the droll effect of these tenderly sentimental verses in Catherine's mouth, but Hazard took it quite seriously and was so much delighted with Catherine's recitation that he insisted on her repeating it to Wharton, who took it even more seriously than he. Hazard knew that the verses were Esther's, and was not disposed to laugh at them. Wharton saw that Catherine came out with new beauties in every _rôle_ she filled, and already wanted to use her as a model for some future frescoed Euterpe.
Esther was driven to laugh alone.
Petrarch and Laura are dangerous subjects of study for young people in a church. Wharton and Hazard knew by heart scores of the sonnets, and were fond of repeating verses either in the original or in their own translations, and Esther soon picked up what they let fall, being quick at catching what was thrown to her. She caught verse after verse of Hazard's favorites, and sometimes he could hear her murmuring as she painted:
"Siccome eterna vita è veder dio, Nè più si brama, nè bramar piu lice;"
and at such moments he began to think that he was himself Petrarch, and that to repeat to his Laura the next two verses of the sonnet had become the destiny of his life.
So the weeks ran on until, after a month of hard work, the last days of January saw the two figures nearly completed. When in due time the meaning of St. Luke became evident, Esther and Catherine waited in fear to see how Wharton would take the liberty on which they had so rashly ventured. As the likeness came out more strongly, he stopped one morning before it, when Esther, after finishing her own task, was working on Mr.
"By our lady of love!" said Wharton, with a start and a laugh; "now I see what mischief you three have been at!"
"The church would not have been complete without it," said Esther timidly.
For several minutes Wharton looked in silence at the St. Cecilia and at the figure which now seemed its companion; then he said, turning away: "I shall not be the first unworthy saint the church has canonized."
Esther drew a long breath of relief; Catherine started up, radiant with delight; and thus it happens that on the walls of St. John's, high above the world of vanities beneath them, Wharton stands, and will stand for ages, gazing at Catherine Brooke.
Now that the two saints were nearly finished, Esther became a little depressed. This church life, like a bit of religious Bohemianism and acted poetry, had amused her so greatly that she found her own small studio dull.
She could no longer work there without missing the space, the echoes, the company, and above all, the sense of purpose, which she felt on her scaffolding. She complained to Wharton of her feminine want of motive in life.
"I wish I earned my living," she said. "You don't know what it is to work without an object."
"Much of the best work in the world," said he, "has been done with no motive of gain."
"Men can do so many things that women can't," said she. "Men like to work alone. Women cannot work without company. Do you like solitude?"
"I would like to own a private desert," he answered, "and live alone in the middle of it with lions and tigers to eat intruders."
"You need not go so far," said she. "Take my studio!"
"With you and Miss Brooke in the neighborhood? Never!"
"We will let you alone. In a week you will put your head out of the door and say: 'Please come and play jack-straws with me!'"
Catherine was not pleased at the thought that her usefulness was at an end. She had no longer a part to play unless it were that of duenna to Esther, and for this she was not so well fitted as she might have been, had providence thought proper to make her differently. Indeed, Esther's anxiety to do her duty as duenna to Catherine was becoming so sharp that it threatened to interfere with the pleasure of both. Catherine did her best to give her friend trouble.
"Please rub me all out, Mr. Wharton," said she; "and make Esther begin again. I am sure she will do it better the next time."
Wharton was quite ready to find an excuse for pleasing her. If it was at times a little annoying to have two women in his way whom he could not control as easily as ordinary work-people, he had become so used to the restraint as not to feel it often, and not to regard it much. Esther thought he need not distress himself by thinking that he regarded it at all. Had not Catherine been so anxious to appear as the most docile and obedient of hand-maids besides being the best-tempered of prairie creatures, she would long ago have resented his habit of first petting, then scolding, next ignoring, and again flattering her, as his mood happened to prompt. He was more respectful with Esther, and kept out of her way when he was moody, while she made it a rule never to leave her own place of work unless first invited, but Catherine, who was much by his side, got used to ill-treatment which she bore with angelic meekness. When she found herself left forgotten in a corner, or unanswered when she spoke, or unnoticed when she bade him good-morning, she consoled herself with reflecting that after every rudeness, Wharton's regard for her seemed to rise, and he took her more and more into his confidence with every new brutality.
"Some day he will drag you to the altar by the hair," said Esther; "and tell you that his happiness requires you to be his wife."
"I wish he would try," said Catherine with a little look of humor; "but he has one wife already."
"She mysteriously disappeared," replied Esther. "Some day you will find her skeleton, poor thing!"
"Do you think so?" said Catherine gravely. "How fascinating he is! He makes me shiver!"
When Catherine begged to have every thing begun again, Wharton hesitated. Esther's work was not to his taste, but he was not at all sure that she would do equally well if she tried to imitate his own manner.
"You know I wanted Miss Dudley to put more religious feeling and force into her painting," said he, "but you all united and rode me down."
"I will look like a real angel this time," said Catherine. "Now I know what it is you want."
"I am more than half on her side," went on Wharton. "I am not sure that she is wrong. It all comes to this: is religion a struggle or a joy? To me it is a terrible battle, to be won or lost. I like your green dress with the violets. Whose idea was that?"
"Petrarch's. You know I am Laura. St. Cecilia has the dress which Laura wore in church when Petrarch first saw her."
"No!" said Wharton, after another pause, and long study of the two figures. "Decidedly I will not rub you out; but I mean to touch up Petrarch."
"O! You won't spoil the likeness!"
"Not at all! But if I am going to posterity by your side I want some expression in my face. Petrarch was a man of troubles."
"You promise not to change the idea?"
"I promise to look at you as long as you look at me," said Wharton gloomily.
Meanwhile Esther had a talk with Mr. Hazard which left her more in doubt than ever as to what she had best do. He urged her to begin something new and to do it in a more strenuous spirit.
"You are learning from Wharton," said he. "Why should you stop at the very moment when you have most to gain?"
"I am learning nothing but what I knew before," she answered sadly. "He can teach only grand art and I am fit only for trifles."
"Try one more figure!"
Esther shook her head.
"My Cecilia is a failure," she went on. "Mr. Wharton said it would be, and he was right. I should do no better next time, unless I took his design and carried it out exactly as he orders."
"One's first attempt is always an experiment. Try once more!"
"I should only spoil your church. In the middle of your best sermon your audience would see you look up here and laugh."
"You are challenging compliments."
"What I could do nicely would be to paint squirrels and monkeys playing on vines round the choir, or daisies and buttercups in a row, with one tall daisy in each group of five. That is the way for a woman to make herself useful."
"I feel more solemn than Mr. Wharton's great figure of John of Patmos. I am going home to burn my brushes and break my palette. What is the use of trying to go forward when one feels iron bars across one's face?"
"Be reasonable, Miss Dudley! If Wharton is willing to teach, why not be willing to learn? You are not to be the judge. If I think your work good, have I not a right to call on you for it?"
"Oh, yes! You have a right to call, and I have a right to refuse. I will paint no more religious subjects. I have not enough soul. My St. Cecilia looks like a nursery governess playing a waltz for white-cravated saints to dance by." There was a tone of real mortification in Esther's voice as she looked once more at the figure on the wall, and felt how weak it seemed by the side of Wharton's masculine work. Then she suddenly changed her mind and did just what he asked: "If Mr. Wharton will consent, I will begin again, and paint it all over."
A woman could easily have seen that she was torn in opposite directions by motives of a very contrary kind, but Mr. Hazard did not speculate on this subject; he was glad to carry his point, and let the matter rest there. It was agreed that the next morning Wharton should decide upon the proper course to be taken, and if he chose to reject her figure, she should begin it again. Esther and Catherine went home, but Esther was ill at ease. That her St. Cecilia did not come up to the level of her ambition was a matter of course, and she was prepared for the disappointment. Whose first attempt in a new style ever paired with its conception? She felt that Mr.
Hazard would think her wayward and weak. She could not tell him the real reason of her perplexity. She would have liked to work on patiently under Wharton's orders without a thought of herself, but how could she do so when Hazard was day by day coming nearer and nearer until already their hands almost touched. If she had not liked him, the question could easily have been settled, but she did like him, and when she said this to herself she turned scarlet at the thought that he liked her, and--what should she do?
With a heavy heart she made up her mind that there was but one thing to be done; she must retreat into her own house and bar the doors. If he did not see that such an intimacy was sure to make trouble for him, she, Esther
who felt, if she did not see, the gulf that separated them, must teach him better.
Whether she would have held to this wise and prudent course against his entreaties and Wharton's commands will never be known, for the question, which at the moment seemed to her so hard to decide, was already answered by fates which left her no voice in the matter. The next morning when the two girls, rather later than usual, reached the south door of the church where a stern guardian always stood to watch lest wolves entered under pretense of business, they saw a woman standing on the steps and gazing at them as they approached from the avenue. In this they found nothing to surprise them, but as they came face to face with her they noticed that the stranger's dress and features were peculiar and uncommon even in New York, the sink of races. Although the weather was not cold, she wore a fur cap, picturesque but much worn, far from neat, and matching in dirt as in style a sort of Polish or Hungarian capote thrown over her shoulders. Her features were strong, coarse and bloated; her eyes alone were fine. When she suddenly spoke to Esther her voice was rough, like her features; and though Esther had seen too little of life to know what depths of degradation such a face and voice meant, she drew back with some alarm. The woman spoke in French only to ask whether this was the church of St. John. Replying shortly that it was, Esther passed in without waiting for another question; but as she climbed the narrow and rough staircase to her gallery, she said to Catherine who was close behind:
"Somewhere I have seen that woman's eyes."
"So have I!" answered Catherine, in a tone of suppressed excitement so unusual that Esther stopped short on the step and turned round.
"Don't you know where?" asked Catherine without waiting to be questioned.
"Where was it?"
"In my picture! Mr. Wharton gave me her eyes. I am sure that woman is his wife."
"Catherine, you shall go back to Colorado. You have been reading too many novels. You are as romantic as a man."
Catherine did not care whether she were romantic or not; she knew the woman was Wharton's wife.
"Perhaps she means to kill him," she ran on in a blood-curdling tone. "Wouldn't it be like Mr. Wharton to be stabbed to the heart on the steps of a church, just as his great work was done? Do you know I think he would like it. He is dying to be tragic like the Venetians, and have some one write a poem about him." Then after a moment's pause, she added, in the same indifferent tone of voice: "All the same, if he's not there, I mean to go back and look out for him. I'm not going to let that woman kill him if I can help it!"
A warm dispute arose between the two girls which continued after they reached their scaffold and found that Wharton was not there. Esther declared that Catherine should not go back; it was ridiculous and improper; Mr.
Wharton would laugh in her face and think her bold and impertinent; the woman was probably a beggar who wanted to see Mr. Hazard; and when all this was of no avail Esther insisted that Catherine should not go alone. Catherine, on her part, declared that she was not afraid of the woman, or of any woman, or man either, or of Mr. Wharton, and that she meant to walk down the avenue and meet him, and tell him that this person was there. She was on the point of doing what she threatened when they saw Wharton himself cross the church beneath and slowly climb the stairs.
The two girls, dismissing their alarm as easily as they had taken it up, turned to their own affairs again. In a few minutes Wharton appeared on the scaffolding and went to his regular work-place. After a time they saw him coming to their corner. He looked paler than usual and more abstracted, and, what was unusual, he carried a brush in his hand, as though he had broken off his work without thinking what he was doing. He hardly Esther
noticed them, but sat down, holding the brush with both hands, though it was wet. For some time he looked at the Cecilia without a word; then he began abruptly:
"You're quite right! It's not good! It's not handled in a large way or in keeping with the work round it. You might do it again much better. But it is you and it is she! I would leave it. I will leave it! If necessary I could in a few days paint it all over and make it harmonize, but I should spoil it. I can draw better and paint better, but I can't make a young girl from Colorado as pure and fresh as that. To me religion is passion. To reach Heaven, you must go through hell, and carry its marks on your face and figure. I can't paint innocence without suggesting sin, but you can, and the church likes it. Put your own sanctity on the wall beside my martyrdom!"
Esther thought it would be civil on her part to say something at this point, but Wharton's remarks seemed to be made to no one in particular, and she was not quite certain that they were meant for her in spite of the words.
He did not look at her. She was used to his peculiar moods and soliloquies, and had learned to be silent at such times. She sat silent now, but Catherine, who took greater liberties with him, was bolder.
"Why can't you paint innocence?" she asked.
"I am going to tell you," he replied, with more quickness of manner. "It is to be the subject of my last lecture.
Ladies, school must close to-day."
Esther and Catherine glanced at each other. "You are going to send us away?" asked Catherine in a tone of surprise.
"You must go for the present," answered Wharton. "I mean to tell you the reason, and then you will see why I can't paint innocence as you can. As a lecture on art, my life is worth hearing, but don't interrupt the story or you will lose it. Begin by keeping in your mind that twenty years ago I was a ragged boy in the streets of Cincinnati. The drawing master in a public school to which I went, said I had a natural talent for drawing, and taught me all he knew. Then a little purse was made up for me and I was sent to Paris. Not yet twenty years old, I found myself dropped into that great sewer of a city, a shy, ill-clothed, ill-fed, ill-educated boy, knowing no more of the world above me than a fish knows of the birds. For two years I knocked about in a studio till my money was used up, and then I knew enough to be able to earn a few francs to keep me alive. Then I went down to Italy and of course got a fever. I came back at last to Paris, half-fed, dyspeptic and morbid. I had visions, and the worst vision of my life I am going to tell you.
"It was after I had been some years at work and had got already a little reputation among Americans, that I was at my worst. Nothing seemed real. What earned me my first success was an attempt I made to paint the strange figures and fancies which possessed me. I studied nothing but the most extravagant subjects. For a time nothing would satisfy me but to draw from models at moments of intense suffering and at the instant of death. Models of that kind do not offer themselves and are not to be bought. I made friends with the surgeons and got myself admitted to one of the great hospitals. I happened to be there one day when a woman was brought in suffering from an overdose of arsenic. This was the kind of subject I wanted. She was fierce, splendid, a priestess of the oracle! Tortured by agony and clinging to it as though it were a delight! The next day I came back to look for her: she was then exhausted and half dead. She was a superb model, and I took an interest in her. When she grew better I talked with her and found that she was a sort of Parisian Pole with a strange history. She had been living as an actress at one of the small theaters, and had attempted suicide in sheer disgust with life. I had played with the same idea for years. We had both struggled with the world and hated it. Her imagination was more morbid than my own, and in her quieter moments, when her affections were roused, she was wonderfully tender and devoted. When she left the hospital she put herself under my protection. I believe she loved me, and no one had ever loved me before. I know she took possession of me, body and soul. I married her. I would just as willingly have jumped into the Seine with her if she had preferred it. For three months we lived together while I finished the picture which I called the Priestess of Delphi, painted from my drawings of her in her agony. The picture made a great noise in Paris, and brought Esther
me some new friends, among the rest one who, I think, really saved me from Charenton. Hazard called at my studio just as my troubles were beginning to tear me to pieces. My wife had the temper of a fury, and all the vices of Paris. Excitement was her passion; she could not stand the quiet of an artist's life; yet her Bohemian instincts came over her only in waves, and when they left her in peace she still had splendid qualities that held me to her. Hazard came in upon us one day in the middle of a terrible scene when she was threatening again to take her own life, and trying, or pretending to try to take mine. When he came in, she disappeared. The next I heard of her, she was back on the stage--lost! I was worn out; my nervous system was all gone. Then Hazard came to my help and took me off with him to the south of Europe. Our first stage was to Avignon and Vaucluse, and there I found how curiously my experience had affected my art. I had learned to adore purity and repose, but I could never get hold of my ideal. Fifty times I tried to draw Laura as I wanted to realize her and every time I failed. I knew the secret of Petrarch and I could not tell it. My wife came between me and my thought. All life took form in my hands as a passion. If I could learn again to paint a child, or any thing that had not the world in its eyes, I should be at peace at last."
As he paused here, and seemed again to be musing over St. Cecilia, Esther's curiosity made her put in a word,
"And your wife?"--she asked.
"My wife?" he repeated in his abstracted tone, "I never saw her again till this morning when I met her on the steps of the church."
"Then it was your wife?" cried Catherine.
"You saw her?" he asked with a touch of bitterness. "I won't ask what you thought of her."
"I knew her by her eyes," cried Catherine. "I thought she meant to shoot you, and when you came in I was just going to warn you. Now you see, Esther, I was right."
Wharton leaned over and took Catherine's hand. "Thank you," said he. "I believe you are my good angel. But you remind me of what I came to say. The woman is quite capable of that or of any other scandal, and of course Hazard's church must not be exposed to such a risk. I shall come here no longer for the present, neither must you. I am bound to take care of my friends."
"But you!" said Esther. "What are you going to do?"
"I? Nothing! What can I do?"
"Do you mean," said Catherine, with a comical fierceness in her voice as though she wanted herself to take the French actress in hand, "do you mean to let that woman worry you how she likes?"
"The fault was mine," replied Wharton. "I gave her my life. After all she is my wife and I can't help it. I have promised to meet her this afternoon at my studio."
Even to these two girls there was something so helpless in Wharton's ideas of life that they protested against his conduct. Catherine was speechless with inability to understand what he meant. Esther boldly interfered.
"You must do nothing without advice," said she. "Wait till Mr. Hazard comes and consult him. If you can't see him, promise me to go to my uncle, Mr. Murray, and let him take charge of this woman. You will ruin your whole life if you let her into it again."
"It is ruined already," answered Wharton gloomily. "I had that one chance of happiness and I can never have another."
Nevertheless he promised to wait for Hazard, and the two girls obediently bade him good-by. Catherine's eyes were full of tears as he held her hand and begged her pardon for his rudeness. A little romance was passing out of her life. She went down the stairs after Esther without a word. As they left the church they saw the woman on the pavement outside, still walking up and down; Catherine passed her with a glance of repulsion and defiance that made the woman turn and watch her till they disappeared down the avenue.
An hour afterwards a quick step hurried up the stair, and Hazard, evidently much disturbed, appeared on the scaffolding. He found Wharton where the two girls had left him, sitting alone before St. Cecilia, the broken brush still in his hands, and his left hand red with the wet paint. His face was paler than ever, and over the left temple was a large red spot, as though he had been pressing his hands to his forehead. Hazard looked for a moment at the white face, contrasting painfully with its ghastly spot of intense red, and then spoke with assumed indifference:
"So she has turned up again!"
Wharton returned his look with a weak smile which made his face still more horrible, and slowly answered:
"I have worse news than that!"
"More bad news!" said Hazard.
"Tell me what you think," continued Wharton in the same dreamy tone. "You see that Cecilia there?"
Hazard glanced at the figure and back to Wharton without speaking. Presently Wharton added with a smile of inexpressible content:
"Well! I love her."
Esther's regrets on quitting her work at the church lasted not so long as Catherine's, though they were more serious. She had already begun to feel alarmed about her father's condition, and nothing but his positive order had induced her to leave him even for a few hours every day. She had seen that his strength steadily failed; he suffered paroxysms of pain; he lost consciousness more than once; and although he insisted to the last on acting as though he were well, his weakness increased until he could no longer sit out a game of whist, but was forced to lie on the sofa in his library where he liked to see every visitor who came to the house. He required that every thing about him should go on as usual, and not only made Esther go regularly to her work, but took keen interest in hearing from her and Catherine all that was said and done at the church. He delighted in laughing at Catherine about her romantic relations with Wharton, but he made no jokes about Mr. Hazard.
He thought from the first that this intimacy might be a serious matter for Esther, but he would not again interfere in her affairs, and feared making things worse by noticing them. He watched Hazard sharply, until Esther had the uncomfortable sense of feeling that her father's eyes were never far away from the clergyman when he came to the house. She knew, or fancied she knew, every thought in her father's mind, and his silence embarrassed her more than criticism could have done. She asked herself in vain why her father, disliking the clergy as she knew he did, should suddenly admit a clergyman into his intimacy. In truth, Mr. Dudley looked on himself as no longer having a right to speak; his feelings and prejudices were to be kept out of her life; but he could watch, and the longer he watched, the more intense his interest became.
When Esther and Catherine returned from the church with their account of Wharton's wife, their first act was to tell the story to Mr. Dudley, who lay on his sofa and listened with keen interest.
"I suppose you meant to come back for my revolver," said he to Catherine, whose little explosions of courage always amused him. "I think I could almost have crawled round to see you take a shot at your French friend as she started for you."
"Oh, no!" said Catherine modestly. "I would have given the revolver to Mr. Wharton."
"Don't do it, Catherine! Wharton could not hit the church door with it. Suppose he had shot you instead of the other woman!"
"Of course!" said Catherine reflectively. "He wouldn't know how to use a revolver, would he? I suppose I ought to teach him."
"Better not!" said Mr. Dudley. "Keep him under. You may have to talk with him one of these days, after you have settled your little misunderstanding with his wife."
Catherine took chaff with such gravity that even Mr. Dudley could not always make out whether she was in jest or earnest. She had a quaint, serious way of accepting any sort of challenge and going it better, as Strong expressed it, which left her assailants wholly in the dark. Mr. Dudley wanted to stop any romantic nonsense between her and Wharton, but could never quite make out whether she cared for him or not. Esther thought not.
That evening they all hoped that Hazard would come in to tell them what other scenes had occurred, and, under this little excitement, Mr. Dudley felt strong enough to appear like himself, although he dared not rise from his sofa. At about eight o'clock they were gratified. Mr. Hazard appeared, and was received with such cordiality and intimacy as went far to make him feel himself a member of the family.
"Thank you," said Mr. Dudley. "We have done nothing but run to the watch-tower to see if you were coming.
Tell us quickly the ghastly news. We are prepared for the worst."
"If you read Turgenieff," replied Hazard, "you can imagine the kind of experience we have had. I feel as though I had stolen a chapter from one of his stories."
"No matter! Spoil it promptly! We never read any thing."
"May I have first a cup of tea, Miss Dudley? Thank you! That woman has left a taste on my palate that all the tea in China will never wash off. Where shall I begin?"
"Where we left off," said Esther. "We left Mr. Wharton in the church at eleven o'clock, and the woman marching up and down outside."
"At noon I found her there, and knew her at once, though it is ten years since I last saw her. She is a person whom one does not forget. I asked her what she wanted. It seemed that Wharton, in his confusion, had told her to come to his studio without saying where it was; and she was waiting for him to come out again. I gave her the address and sent her away. Then I went up to Wharton whom I found in a strange state of mind; he seemed dazed and showed no interest in the affair. He would not talk of his wife at all until I forced him. At length, after a struggle, as he said that Miss Dudley had told him to go to her uncle, Mr. Murray, I got him into a carriage and we drove to Mr. Murray's office. The upshot was that Mr. Murray and I took the matter into our hands and decided to meet the woman ourselves in his company. At the hour fixed, we went, all three of us, to the studio.
"It needed at least three of us to deal with that one woman. When I saw her in Paris she was still young and handsome, with superb eyes and a kind of eastern tread. You could imagine her, when she did not speak, as Esther
Semiramis, Medea, Clytemnestra! Except that when you saw a little more of her, you felt that she was only a heroine of a cheap theater. Wharton could not have been fascinated by her, if, at that time of his life, he had ever known a refined woman or mixed at all in the world; but she certainly had a gypsy charm, and seemed to carry oceans of Sahara and caravans of camels about with her. When she was in one of her furies, it was an echo of the whole Greek drama. This, you must recollect, was ten years ago, and even then she was spoiled by being coarse and melodramatic, but now she is a horror. She suggests nothing but the penitentiary. When she saw that there were three of us, she flew into a whirlwind of passion, and screamed French that I was glad to find I could not wholly understand. Her dialect must come from the worst class of Parisian thieves. I should have been glad to understand less than I did. Every now and then she interrupted this Billingsgate, and seemed to think that her dignity required a loftier style, and she poured out on us whole pages of cheap melodrama.
She began by flinging her fur cap and cloak on the floor and striking a stage attitude. She wanted to know who we were; by what right did we mix ourselves in this affair and come between a villain and his victim! Then she turned on Wharton and began gesticulating and throwing herself into contortions like a Maenad, repeating again and again that he was her husband, an 'infâme,' a 'lâche,' and that she would take his life if she were not given her rights. She drew herself up in all her height, and growled in her deepest voice: 'Je vais t'écr-r-r-raser!' Then she changed her tone and sobbed violently that on second thoughts she preferred to kill herself, and finally tore a small stage dagger from her breast and proposed to kill us all and herself too."
"How many did she manage in the end?" asked Mr. Dudley.
"How did Mr. Wharton bear it?" asked Esther.
"Wharton stood it very well," replied Hazard. "He was sitting near her, and now and then she made a rush at him as though she really meant to strike him. He never moved, or spoke, or took his eyes away from her. I think he was overcome by association; he thought himself back in Paris ten years ago."
"Doubtless this excellent woman has faults, owing to a defective education," said Mr. Dudley with his usual dry, half-smile. "We must make allowances for them. I am more curious to know whether she got the better of my astute brother-in-law."
"Mr. Murray took an unfair advantage over her," said Hazard. "He had taken the precaution to post a police officer in the next room, and after the woman had exhausted herself, and I think too had worn off the effects of the brandy she reeked with, he told her that she would go instantly to the police station if she did not behave herself. I think her imagination must have taught her that an American police station might be something very terrible, for in a few minutes she quieted down and was only eager for money."
"I suppose Murray means to terrify this poor creature into a sacrifice of her rights?" said Mr. Dudley.
"Wharton will have to settle an annuity on her, in order to get her back to Europe and keep her there. In return, she has got to consent to a divorce. Mr. Murray insists on this as his first condition. Wharton began to say that she was his wife, and that he was bound to take care of her, until at last Mr. Murray told him to take himself off or he would have no more to do with the case. So the woman, on receiving some money on the spot, consents to deal with Mr. Murray directly, on his terms, and Wharton leaves town till the papers are drawn up and the woman packed off. He has had a shock which will prevent his working for some time."
"He may not feel like painting saints," said Mr. Dudley, "but I should think he was in good form for painting sinners. Is there no room for a Jezebel in your portrait gallery?"
Mr. Dudley was too weak for late hours and Hazard went away early. As he went he said he would come again to tell them the next chapter, if there was one.
"Be quick about it!" said Mr. Dudley. "I am like the Sultan who cut off his wives' heads because they would Esther
not tell him stories fast enough. It is not convenient for me to wait."
To Esther this evening was the last when the stars shone bright and clear. The next morning her glimpse of blue sky had vanished and the rigor of the storm began.
She was waked by the news that in the night her father had been seized by another paroxysm, and that although better, he was excessively weak. He had forbidden his attendants to call her, on the cool calculation that he should probably pull through this attack, and that she would need all her strength for the next. When Esther came down to his room, she found him in a state of complete prostration, so that his doctors had forbidden him to speak or even to listen. They no longer talked with him, but gave their orders to her, and she took charge of the sick-room at once with all its responsibilities and fatigues. After a consultation of very few moments, the physicians told her plainly that there was no hope; her father might linger a short time, but any sudden emotion would kill him on the spot.
During the day he rallied a little and in the evening was stronger. Esther, who had been all day in his room, rested till midnight and then took her regular watch by his side. She knew that there was no hope and that her father himself was only anxious for the end, yet to see him suffer and slowly fade out was terrible. At such moments, tears are forbidden. Esther had been told that she must not give way to agitation, under the risk of killing her father, who lay dozing, half-conscious, with his face turned towards her. Whenever his eyes opened they rested on hers. In the dim light she watched his motions, and it seemed to her that he was also watching hers. She wondered whether he could feel stronger because she was near him. Was he afraid? He, who had never to her knowledge shrunk from any danger, and who in the army had shown reckless indifference even when he supposed his wounds to be mortal, was now watching her as though he feared to have her leave his side. In his extreme weakness, unable to lift his head, his mind evidently beginning to wander, perhaps he felt the need of her companionship, and dreaded solitude and death as she did. For half the night she pondered over this weakening of the will in the face of omnipotence crushing out the last spark of life, and was doubly startled when, the nurse coming to relieve her at six o'clock, she leaned over to kiss her father's forehead and found him looking at her in his old humorous way, while, in a low whisper, speaking slowly, as though he would not yield to the enemy that clutched his heart, he said:
"It's not so bad, Esther, when you come to it."
The tears started into Esther's eyes. It was only with an effort more violent than she had thought was in her power, that she forced herself to smile. Now that she had come to it, she thought it was very bad; worse than any thing she had ever imagined; she wanted to escape, to run away, to get out of life itself, rather than suffer such pain, such terror, such misery of helplessness; but after an instant's pause, her father whispered again, though his voice died away in weakness:
"Laugh, Esther, when you're in trouble! Say something droll! then you're safe. I saw the whole regiment laugh under fire at Gettysburg."
This was more than she could bear, and she had to hurry out of the room. She had fancied him yielding to fear and finding courage in her companionship. Suddenly she became aware that, with death's hand on his throat and a brain reeling in exhaustion, he was trying to teach her how to meet what life had to bring. The lesson was one she could not easily forget.
So she went to her bed, in the cold, gray dawn of a winter's day, with the tears still running down her face.
When she woke again the day was already waning, a dripping, wasting thaw, when smoking and soot-defiled snow added sadness to the sad sky. Esther, on opening her eyes, saw Catherine sitting quietly before the fire, reading, or pretending to read. She was keeping guard lest Esther should be disturbed.
"He is no worse," she said, when Esther raised her head. "I was at his door five minutes ago. Mrs. Murray is Esther
there and so is the doctor. You are not wanted and they sent word that you were not to be disturbed."
Esther was glad to lie still a few minutes and collect her strength. It was pleasant to look at Catherine, the healthiest and most cheery of girls, after having under one's eyes a long night of terror.
"Professor Strong has been here this morning and I saw him," ran on Catherine. "He sent for me because he would not have you disturbed. He got back from St. Louis last night, and will come round here again this afternoon. Mr. Hazard has been here, too, and says he shall stop again in the evening."
This report required no answer. Esther felt the stronger for knowing that her friends were at her side, and that she could count on their help. Catherine ran on in the same vein.
"Mr. Hazard says that Mr. Wharton has left town and will not return until Mr. Murray sends for him. I think he might have left some message for me, to ask me to be true to him or something, but Mr. Hazard says he just went off to Boston without a word to any body. I have more than half a mind to desert him and go back to Colorado."
"If you leave me now, Catherine--"
"Oh! I don't mean to leave you, but I must earn my living. Let me take my watch with your father to-night!
You will think you have struck a professional."
Esther refused, but Catherine did rather more than her share of work notwithstanding, and more than once Mr.
Dudley, opening his eyes, found her at the head of his bed and greeted her with a faint smile.
He passed the day without much sign of change. Esther was repeatedly called from his side to see persons whom she could not send away. Her aunt was with her till night. Strong came in and sat with her while she tried to dine. So long as day-light lasted she felt no sense of loneliness or desertion, and her courage remained fairly steady; but when she had sent home her aunt and cousin in order to begin her watch earlier than the previous night, her fears returned, her heart sank, and she begged Catherine to stay with her. The two girls began their watch together. Mr. Dudley seemed pleased to have them with him.
Presently a nurse came with a message that Mr. Hazard was below, and had asked to see Esther for a moment.
Mr. Dudley overheard the message, and whispered to his daughter:
"Tell him I am sorry not to see him! Say I am just going out!"
He spoke dreamily, as though half asleep, and Esther, as she leaned over him, trying to catch his words, doubted whether he was quite conscious. He muttered a few more words: "I won't interfere, but the church--."
She caught no more, and he dozed off again into silence. After watching him a few moments, Esther beckoned to Catherine to take her chair, and slipped out of the room. She wanted to see Hazard, for, strange as it seemed to her, he had become her most intimate friend, and she could not send him away at such a moment.
She found him at the foot of the stairs, and there they remained standing for a few moments, talking in low tones, by the light of a dim gas-burner.
"I want to help you," he said. "I am used to such scenes and you are not. You need help though you may not ask for it."
She shook her head: "I am a miserable coward," she said; "but we are beyond help now, and I must learn endurance."
"You will over-tax your strength," he urged. "Remember, there is no excitement so great as to stand for the first time in face of eternity, as you are doing."
"I suppose it must be so," she answered. "Every thing seems unreal. I can't even realize my father's illness.
Your voice sounds far-off, as though you were calling to me out of the distance and darkness. I hardly know what we are saying, or why we are here. I never felt so before."
"It is over-excitement and fatigue," he replied soothingly. "Do you feel afraid, too?"
"Terribly!" she answered; "I want to run away. But I think death excites almost more than it frightens. My father laughs at it even now."
"I am more concerned about you," continued Hazard. "I can do nothing for him, and you may feel sure that for him all the worst is over. Will you let me stay here on the chance of your needing help?"
"I have already sent away my aunt and George Strong," she said. "Do not feel alarmed about me. Women have more strength than men."
As he left the house, he thought to himself that this woman at least had more strength than most men. He could not forget her pale face, or her dreamy voice and far-off eyes as she had told him her feelings. Most women would have asked him for religious help and consolation. She had gently put his offers aside. She seemed to him like a wandering soul, lost in infinite space, but still floating on, with her quiet air of confidence as though she were a part of nature itself, and felt that all nature moved with her.
"I almost think," said Hazard to himself, "that she could give a lesson in strength to me. It seems rather unnecessary, my offering to give one to her."
Yet Esther felt little like giving strength to any one. As she returned to the sick-room and slipped back into the chair which Catherine quitted, the image of Hazard faded from her mind, and the idea that he could help her, except by his sympathy and friendship, never entered it. After a time her father opened his eyes again and looked at her. She bent over him, and he whispered: "Give me your hand!" She took his hand, and for some time he lay with his eyes open, as though watching her. She could only wonder what was in his mind; perhaps disconnected dreams with intervals of partial consciousness, as now, followed by more vague visions and hurrying phantasms; but she imagined that he had meant not so much to ask for the strength of her hand as to give her die will and courage of his own, and she felt only the wish that he might not doubt her answer to the call. Although he soon dozed again, she did not alter her position, but sat hour after hour, only making way for the nurse who came to give him stimulants which had less and less effect. Her watch ended at two o'clock, when she sent Catherine to bed, but remained herself until the gray dawn had passed and the sun was high in the heavens. She meant her father to know, as long as he knew any thing, that her hand was in his. Not until the doctor assured her that he was no longer conscious, did her long walk into the shadow of death at last end.
When Mrs. Murray came, she found Esther still there, her face paler than ever, with dark rings round her eyes, and looking worn and old. As she spoke, her eyes constantly filled with tears, and her nerves were strung up to a tension which made her aunt promptly intervene and insist on her taking rest. Esther obeyed like a worn-out child.
So died William Dudley, and was buried under the ice and snow of winter, while his daughter went on alone to meet the buffets of life. It was in the first days of February that Esther looked about her and seemed to feel that the world had changed. She said to herself that youth was gone. What was she to do with middle-life? At twenty-six to be alone, with no one to interpose as much as a shadow across her path, was a strange sensation; it made her dizzy, as though she were a solitary bird flying through mid-air, and as she looked ahead on her aërial path, could see no tie more human than that which bound her to Andromeda and Orion.
To this moral strain was added the reaction from physical fatigue. For a week or two after her father's death, Esther felt languid, weary and listless. She could not sleep. A voice, a bar of music, the sight of any thing unusual, affected her deeply. She could not get back to her regular interests. First came the funeral with its inevitable depression and fatigue; then came days of vacancy, with no appetite for work and no chance for amusement. She took refuge in trifles, but the needle and scissors are terrible weapons for cutting out and trimming not so much women's dresses as their thoughts. She had never been a reader, and perhaps for that reason her mind had all the more run into regions of fancy and imagination. She caught half an idea in the air, and tossed it for amusement. In these days of unrest she tossed her ideas more rapidly than ever. Most women are more or less mystical by nature, and Esther had a vein of mysticism running through a practical mind.
The only person outside her family whom she saw was Hazard. He was either at the house or in some way near her almost every day. He took charge of the funeral services, and came to make inquiries, to bring messages, or to suggest an occupation, until he was looked upon as one of the household. Once or twice, the week after the funeral, he came in the evening, and asked for a cup of tea. Then Catherine sat by and dozed while Esther talked mysticism with Hazard, who was himself a mystic of the purest water. By this time Esther had learned to look on the physical life, the daily repetition of breakfast and dinner, as the unreal part of existence, and apologized to herself for conceding so much to habit, or put it down to Catherine's account. Her illusions were not serious; perhaps she had for this short instant a flash of truth, and by the light of her father's deathbed, saw life as it is; but, while the mood lasted, nothing seemed real except the imagination, and nothing true but the spiritual. In this atmosphere Hazard was always happy, for he reveled in the voluptuousness of poetry, and found peace in the soul of a dandelion; but to share his subtlest fancies with a woman who could understand and feel them, was to reach a height of poetry that trembled on the verge of realizing heaven. His great eyes shone with the radiance of paradise, and his delicate thin features expressed beatitude, as he discussed with Esther the purity of the soul, the victory of spirit over matter, and the peace of infinite love.
Of her regular occupations Esther kept up only such as were duties, but among them she was true to her little hospital, and went once or twice a week to see the children who clamored for her visits. She went alone, for she liked solitude, and was glad to give Catherine an excuse for escaping to gayer houses and seeing brighter society. About a fortnight after her father's death, one Saturday afternoon when she felt more solitary than ever, and more restless because her long quiet had begun to bring back her strength, she went to the hospital where the children welcomed her with delight. She took her old seat and looked through the yellow eyes of the fire-dogs for inspiration; opened a package and distributed small presents, little Japanese umbrellas, fans, doll's shoes and such small change of popularity; and, at last, obeying the cries for more story, she went on with the history of Princess Lovely in her Cocoanut Island, besieged by whales and defended by talking elephants and monkeys. She had hardly begun when the door opened and again Mr. Hazard entered. This time Esther blushed.
Hazard sat down, and finding that she soon tired of story-telling, he took it up, and gave a chapter of his own which had wild success, so that the children begged for more and more, until five o'clock was past and twilight coming on. As Esther was on foot, Mr. Hazard said he would see her to her door, and they walked away together.
"Do you know that Wharton has come back?" said he as they reached the street. "His affair is settled; the woman sailed yesterday for Europe, and he is to have a divorce. Your uncle has managed it very well."
"Will Mr. Wharton go to work again at the church?" asked Esther.
"He begins at once. He asked me to find out for him whether you would begin with him."
"Did he say whether he wanted me or Catherine?" asked Esther with a laugh.
Hazard laughed in reply. "I think myself he would be satisfied to get Miss Brooke, but you must not underrate your own merits. He wants you both."
"I am afraid he must give us up," said Esther, with a little sigh. "Certainly I can't come, and if he wants Catherine, he will have to come himself and get her; but he will find Catherine not easy to get."
They discussed Wharton and his affairs till they reached Esther's house, and she said: "It is not yet six o'clock.
I can give you a cup of tea if you will come in?"
She could not do less than offer him this small hospitality, and yet--Catherine was not at home. They went up to the library, and Esther ordered tea to be brought. She took off her bonnet and cloak, and threw them on a chair. She sat down before the fire, and he stood on the hearth-rug looking at her while she made tea in the twilight. At this moment he was more hopelessly in love than any other Church of England clergyman within the diocese of New York.
"What are then your plans for the future?" he asked, after they had chatted for some time on the subject of Esther's painting. "If you will not return to help us, what do you look forward to doing?"
"I want to take Catherine and go abroad," answered Esther. "If I can get my uncle and aunt to go, we shall start in the spring."
At this announcement Hazard seemed to receive a shock. He turned suddenly to her, his eyes sparkling with passion: "Take me with you! What shall I do without you!" He seized her hand and poured out a torrent of broken protests: "I love you with all my heart and soul! Don't leave me alone in this horrible city! I shall die of disgust if you desert me! You are the only woman I ever loved! Ah! You must love me!"
Esther, trembling, bewildered, carried away by this sudden and violent attack, made at first a feeble effort to withdraw her hand and to gasp a protest, but the traitor within her own breast was worse than the enemy without. For the moment all her wise resolutions were swept away in a wave of tenderness; she seemed to come suddenly on a summer sea, sparkling with hope and sunshine, the dreary sand-banks of her old life vanishing like a dream. She shut her eyes and found herself in his arms. Then in terror at what she had done, she tried again to draw back.
"No, no!" she said rapidly, trying to free herself. "You must not love me! You must let me go!"
"I love you! I adore you! I will never let you go!"
"You must! You do not know what you are doing! Ah! Let me go!"
"Tell me first that you love me!"
"No, no! I am not good enough for you. You must love some one who has her heart in your work."
"Tell me that you love me!" repeated Hazard.
"You do not know me! You must not love me! I shall ruin your life! I shall never satisfy you!"
Hazard caressed her only the more tenderly as he answered with the self-confidence which he put into all he did: "If my calling is so poor a thing that it cannot satisfy both our lives, I will have nothing more to do with it. I have more faith in us both. Promise to love me and I will take care of the rest."
"Ah!" gasped Esther, carried away by her own feelings and the vehemence of his love: "I am getting in deeper Esther
and deeper! What shall I do? Do not make me promise!"
"Then I will promise for both!" he said; and poor Esther ceased to struggle.