The White Shield
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"Heart of mine," he whispered, "haven't you guessed it?"
From a Human Standpoint
"Will the madam please walk in to supper?"
Carroll stood in the doorway with a napkin over his arm, the very picture of servile obedience. Katherine sprang from the sofa, saying laughingly, "Indeed the madam will!"
His obsequious manner changed at once, and he put his arm around her waist with a happy sense of proprietorship.
The table was cosily laid for two, linen and china were of the daintiest, and the tiny kettle swung and bubbled merrily over the alcohol lamp.
"How dear and homey it all is!" Katherine exclaimed, as she sat down.
"And how primitive," suggested Robert. "But our respective professions are not worth much if our imaginations can't change our tea into a banquet. Will you have a little of the quail?" He poised a mutton chop on his fork and looked inquiringly at Katherine.
"I'm afraid quail is too rich for me to-night," she answered, "but I will take a little of the toast which is commonly supposed to go with it, and some of the nectar which I shall brew myself."
"Lucky thing you don't like cream with your nectar," he responded, "for the cat got into it this afternoon. I'm afraid I neglect my housewifely duties for my art."
"That doesn't matter, as long as art progresses. Did Mickey behave to-day?"
Mickey was the name Katherine had given to Carroll's model, who was posing for his "Aurora." She had the fair skin and blue eyes with which Ireland compensates her daughters for a somewhat unlovely mouth, and her hair was a flaming auburn glory which he tried in vain to paint. It was a little startling until you knew Mickey. People who could pass hundreds without noting age, colour, or condition of servitude, would stop and gasp as she went by. But those who were privileged to know her intimately became so absorbed in contemplation of her manifold character that mere externals were passed unnoticed.
"Mickey did pretty well to-day," he said. "She put on your best hat while I was out, and I found her strutting before the mirror when I came back. I declare to you, solemnly, Katherine, that the effect of your violets against that hair was absolutely fortissimo. She will wear it to church some day if we don't watch her. But she didn't cut my brushes into scallops, nor assist in the painting when my back was turned. No, on the whole Mickey has been angelic. How did things go with you?"
"About as usual, though I believe more than the usual number of freaky people have been in. They ask for everything from money and advice, up to a letter of introduction to the managing editor. They seem to think that a woman tied down to a newspaper desk, has only to beckon and the universe hastens to do her bidding. You remember I told you about the woman who came in last week with a yearning to do 'lit'ery work'?"
"She was in again to-day. She is doing 'lit'ery work' and likes it very much.What do you suppose it is?"
"Give it up."
"Addressing envelopes! Did you ever?"
"Great idea," said Robert, "I'll tell Mickey, and perhaps she'll clean my brushes. Mickey shall be an artist."
Together they washed up the dishes, then Robert hung the dish-towel out of the window to dry, and took off his apron.
In the studio was an open fire, the single extravagance which the Carrolls allowed themselves. Perhaps it was not so extravagant after all, since it saved gas, and Robert picked up most of the wood in his daily walks along the lake shore.
"Let's sit on the rug," said Katherine, and they curled up like two children before the fire. Robert rested his head upon his elbow, and looked up contentedly into her face. The sweetness of it was half hidden, half revealed, by the dancing firelight, but there were lines around the mouth, and faint marks of worry on the forehead. Yet, it was a patient face – one to teach a man strength and kindliness.
The hand that wore the wedding ring was thin, so thin that the ring slipped when she moved her fingers. He touched it tenderly.
"Dear, are you sorry?"
"Sorry! For what?"
"For all you left behind to marry a poor artist."
"We leave nothing behind when we gain happiness. Don't you think I'd rather be here to-night with you, than to have the money without you?"
Katherine's father had proved himself the equal if not the superior of any stern parent in fiction. A stormy scene followed the announcement of her determination to marry the man of her own choice, rather than his, so they had slipped away to Milwaukee – that haven of the fond and foolish – and set up housekeeping immediately on their return.
Robert had objected a little to the announcement cards, since they were not in a position to entertain, but they were sent out. Upon the receipt of his, Katherine's father had written a single line: "Any time you may repent of this foolishness, your home is open to you."
The avalanche of gifts had followed the wedding instead of preceding it. The usual miscellany of the very rich had been showered upon them, and Katherine had often thought of the exquisite irony involved in the possession of gold candlesticks, real laces, a Royal Worcester chocolate set, and a genuine Corot, while her shoes were out at the toes and Robert's clothes were sadly frayed.
Still, eight months had passed and she had not repented of her foolishness. He still seemed more desirable than money, and she looked fondly at the Corot which hung in the place of honour.
"I cleaned all the silver to-day," he said, "and put our cut glass punch bowl safely out of Mickey's reach."
She patted his cheek affectionately.
"You're a dear good boy, and an admirable housekeeper."
"Katherine, I can't stand it any longer," he blurted out. "I simply won't stay here and paint while you work your dear fingers to the bone in that confounded old office. It's my business to take care of you, not yours of me, and here you are, working like a slave, while I do the elegant leisure at home. It's simply infamous!"
"Hubby, dear," and Katherine's tone was commanding. "I won't let you abuse yourself like that. In the first place you are working just as hard as I am, with your painting and keeping things cosy here, and accomplishing just as much. And it's only for a little while. As soon as your picture is done, you'll sell it, and I'll resign and do the housekeeping myself. You know how gladly you would do the same for me; why won't you let me do it for you? Don't you love me well enough to let me help you?"
"Katherine! Katherine!" he cried, "don't say that! Don't question my love for you."
"I don't, dear heart, nor should you question mine for you."
Long after Katherine had gone to bed, he lay on the rug and watched the fire. Outside, cold, gray Michigan beat against the North Shore with the sound of the sea. In these last days of despondency the lake had grown into a companion with seeming sympathy for every mood of his. The vast expanse of water seemed to broaden his horizon. Whenever he looked at it, it suggested a letting-go of all but the vital things. There was only one thing that was vital, and she slept in the little room beyond. Even his art counted for nothing beside her, but she believed in it, and he must make something of it to please her. The shadows deepened until even the gold candlesticks ceased to shine, and he went to the window. Slow, sombre, and restless, old Michigan chafed against the shore. At times those cold arms beckoned him with compelling strength, and it was so to-night. Katherine would go home to her father, and, in time, forget him. He pulled down the shade, shuddering as he did so, and at last fell asleep with a consciousness of utter defeat.
"It's busy I am these days. Misther Carroll, do be afther wantin' to paint me."
"Paint you, Carrot-Top! And thin may the blessed saints injuce him to make the hid of yez, some other colour."
"Ah, go on wid yez! What is the likes of yez to know about art?"
It was Mickey in the yard below, blarneying with the milk boy. The voices awoke Carroll, and he discovered it was very late, indeed, and that Katherine had gone down-town without waking him. There was a line pinned to the cushion: "Good-bye, dearest. K."
Mickey appeared at the back door while he was finishing his breakfast. With unheard-of kindness, she offered to put things right in the studio, and he left her in charge with some misgivings. But the marketing had to be done, and it would be impossible to work rightly without a breath of fresh air.
When he returned every chair was set demurely and properly against the wall and Mickey sat on the floor with his cherished portfolio of Gibson pictures in her lap. He repressed an angry exclamation, and ordered her, somewhat sternly, to put them back.
She complied readily. "It's cross yez are this morning, Misther Carroll. Thim pictures ain't got no paint on 'em, but I'm thinkin' they do be better wans than thim ye're afther makin'!"
Carroll made no reply. It was quite true that the Gibson pictures were better than his, even without paint, but he did not relish her impartial announcement of the fact.
The light was good, and he worked steadily for an hour, at the end of which time Mickey announced the necessity for her immediate departure. In vain he protested and pleaded. The picture was nearly done, and only a few more sittings would be needed. But Mickey was "goin' to the theayter wid a coosin – " and she went.
So he put the house in order and decided he would make a cake for supper. He had never done anything of the kind, and Katherine found him still deep in the problem when she returned. He couldn't find the cook-book, he said, so he just threw a few things in, the way she did when she made cake. It was going to be light too, for he had put in half a cupful of baking powder. Katherine laughed until the tears rolled down her cheeks. It was a mean woman, Robert said, who would go down-town and leave her husband with no cook-book! She pointed it out to him on the corner of the shelf, and he twisted his mustache thoughtfully, forgetting the flour with which his hand was covered. It took them both to make him presentable again, and then Katherine threw the cake away, and in a very few minutes made the lightest, most wonderful biscuit that ever gave a man the dyspepsia.
Mickey was faithful during the following week, and the "Aurora" was finished almost to his satisfaction. It was placed on sale in a Wabash Avenue gallery, and they anxiously watched the newspapers for notices. None came, however, and Robert became despondent. An idea came to Katherine, and she went with fear and trembling to the art critic of the Express, whose judgment was accepted as law and gospel.
Unlike most women she came to the point at once: "Mr. Lester," she said, "my husband has a picture on exhibition at Stanley & Brown's, and a favourable notice would mean much to us both. None of the papers have spoken of it, and I have been wondering if you could not help us a little."
Philosophers have not yet determined why a woman feels free to ask anything of a rejected lover, nor why men so willingly grant favours to women whom they have loved in vain.
"Mrs. Carroll," Lester replied, "I should be only too glad to be of service to either you or your husband, but I have seen the picture, and I cannot conscientiously speak favourably of it. In fact, I had written a roast, and out of consideration to you burned it up."
Katherine's face fell and her eyes filled. He was afraid she was going to cry, and he went on – "But I'll tell you what I will do. I am called out of the city to-morrow, and it is the day for my notes; I'll ask Carleton to let you do my work. You can write what you please."
She clutched the friendly straw gladly. "You are very, very good. But please tell me what is the matter with the picture."
"Only one thing, Mrs. Carroll; it lacks humanity. Pictures must be painted from a human standpoint. No doubt you will see what I mean if you will look at it critically. I haven't time to stop any longer now, but I'll tell Carleton."
An hour later, Katherine was summoned to the office of the managing editor. "Mrs. Carroll," he said, "Lester tells me he is called out of the city and suggests you as the proper person to do his work. I believe it is a little out of your line, but you can try. Miss Scott will do your department to-day, and you can take this afternoon to look around."
So the newly fledged art critic went out to find her copy. There were several pictures to be noted and she spoke as kindly as she could of all, trying to mingle helpful criticism with discerning praise. None were condemned, for she knew what a picture might mean to the artist, and to the woman who loved him.
Unconsciously, she imitated Lester's style; his full, well-rounded periods, and sharp, incisive sentences. Very different it was from the chatty, gossipy way in which she filled the "Woman's Kingdom," on the back page of the Express.
She was afraid to say too much of Robert's work, and toned down her enthusiasm three successive times. The last note satisfied her and she sent it up-stairs with the rest.
When the paper came in the morning, he turned feverishly to the page which contained the "Art of the Week." His shout of joy woke Katherine and together they laughed and cried over the "good notice."
She felt wicked, but his pleasure was full compensation for her pangs of conscience. "Lester's approval is worth a thousand dollars," he said. "I can go to work in earnest now."
Her face changed mysteriously. An overwhelming sense of the wrong she had done, came upon her, and he looked at her steadily. There was a queer note in his voice when he spoke: "Katherine Carroll, I believe you wrote that notice."
It was useless to dissemble longer and she told the whole story. He was deeply touched by this proof of her devotion, but he shook his head sadly over Lester's own comment.
"It won't help any, little girl; you can't make fame for me in that way. My work must stand or fall on its own merits – and – it seems likely to fall."
She tried to comfort him, but he put her away. "No, it's all wrong. I'm going to give it up, and try something else."
After she had gone, he put his easel and paints away, and set the house in order. Then he went into the city, as so many have done before, to find work, which seems little enough to ask in so great a world. At five he returned, utterly tired and cast down. He had tramped the streets for hours and had found absolutely nothing to do.
Half unconsciously, he turned to the window – to the vision of the lake which had meant strength before, but it brought only weakness now. "Come, – come – come – " the waves seemed to say – instead of being cold and cruel, they were promising infinite rest. And it meant a luxurious home for Katherine.
His decision was quickly made, and he wrote a tender note to leave for her. He sobbed over that – for it wasn't like painting – he was putting his heart into it. Then down to the inland sea he went, those impatient arms beckoning him still.
But Katherine had felt in the office that something was wrong with Robert. A pang of sudden fear made it impossible for her to work any longer, and she hurried home. She found the note at once, and seeing only the "good-bye" at the end she hastened to the door.
"Robert, Robert!" she called, but he was too far away to hear her. And Katherine ran, crying as she went, "Dear God, make me in time!"
He stood at the end of the pier, old and decayed as it was, and looked at the sea and sky for the last time. The sunset gates behind him, royally beautiful with purple and gold, seemed a glimpse of the heaven he hardly hoped to reach, for though he knew that God was infinitely merciful, he knew that He was also infinitely just. He took off his coat and laid it on the pier, just as Katherine, breathless, excited, her face tense with appeal, appeared beside him.
His eyes lighted for a moment at the sight of her, then returned to their dull, hopeless look. "It's no use, Katherine," he said unsteadily, "go back, darling."
"Not alone, dearest."
"Yes, Katherine," he kissed her sadly.
For minutes which seemed like hours, she stood there arguing, pleading, begging in vain. It was best for her – that was his one thought. He was a dull, dead weight upon her; it was right to make her free. And the blue arms beckoned still.
Suddenly she drew his face down to hers and whispered to him. What she said seemed to rouse him from himself.
"Yes, really. Can you leave me now?"
Something more than the glory of the sunset shone in Katherine's face as she stood between him and the water. She was subtly beautiful, with the infinite motherhood, which lives in every woman's heart, and as he looked at her, the shackles of his dead cowardly self fell away. A great resolve within him slowly swelled into a controlling power – he would be worthy of her who stood beside him, cost what it might. His voice was tender and caressing when he spoke again.
"Leave you? No, Katherine, no."
They walked home together and spoke of other things. There was a stronger bond between them, and the water seemed cold and bitter now – very different from the eerie, half-human thing that had tempted him an hour ago.
He tossed restlessly through the night, thinking of what Lester had said about painting from a human standpoint. Perhaps he meant that he should paint men and women, instead of goddesses.
The vision of Katherine came into his mind as she stood with the blue water behind her and the sunset upon her face and hair; her eyes full of earthly longing, and more than earthly appeal. He would paint her like that, and he roused from his cowardly lethargy into high resolve.
Her salary was raised and she worked happily at the office, while Robert painted at home. In the evening she sat and sewed on tiny garments for the human secret, which spring was to reveal. He sat and looked at her, seldom speaking, content to watch the holy joy in her face, and either that or his coming fatherhood, sometimes thrilled him with a tenderness so great that his love was almost joy.
The "Aurora" had been sold, not for a large sum, it is true, but for enough to take care of them both until the new picture should be finished. It was done at last and placed on sale. Painted from a human standpoint it undoubtedly was, and it drew many admirers but no purchaser. For four weeks it had been at the gallery and Robert began to grow despondent again.
A fall morning dawned, gray and dull, and the lake seemed to tremble with portent of coming disaster. At night the wind rose and lashed the water into seething foam. The sound of the storm made Katherine afraid, but she sank into a fitful slumber at last, while Robert kept a light in the window, hoping none were at sea.
But at half-past eleven there was a terrific rap at the door. It was Mickey, disheveled and breathless.
"There do be a wreck, Misther Carroll," she cried, "there's sky-rockets goin' off and the life crew be ordered out, and I thought ye'd be afther wantin' to see it."
The thing was evidently a circus for Mickey; we hold life so lightly at the age of sixteen.
Katherine, trembling and afraid, was already at the door. She wrung her hands, crying piteously, "Oh, Robert! Robert! don't go."
"I must go, sweetheart, they may need me."
"Then I am going too." And she began to hurry into her clothes.
"Dress warmly, dear," he called.
"Yes, I will, and we must take some blankets with us."
Once outside they had no difficulty in locating the wreck. The northern sky was aflame with rockets, and people from all directions were hurrying northward.
The Northwestern University life crew was already on the beach trying to shoot a line to the sinking ship, half a mile from the shore. The boat had been ordered back, for it was certain death in such a sea. The fourth attempt was successful and a shout of joy went up, dimly heard above the storm.
Mickey danced about excitedly as they tied rope after rope of greater strength to the slender cord, that had been shot to the upper deck, but Katherine felt faint, even with her husband's arm around her, when they made preparations to pull the ship's life-boat ashore.
It required almost superhuman strength, but the rush of water westward aided them materially. Katherine never forgot that time of waiting – human lives on shore struggling to save the human lives at sea, and the tense cruel crash of the cold waves.
Lifted high upon an angry crest, the boat was dashed heavily upon the beach. The captain of the stranded vessel, eight seamen and one passenger, were helped out with eager hands.
The passenger was a middle-aged man, who appeared dignified and prosperous, in spite of his damp and disheveled condition. His first remark was in the nature of a recapitulation.
"Well, of all the excitin' trips!"
Robert and Katherine laughed in spite of themselves, and hastened to extend to the stranger the hospitality of their little home for the remainder of the night. It was barely one o'clock, and the Honourable Mr. Marchand accepted gladly, if not gratefully.
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