The White Shield
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"Of what are you thinking, Madonna?" he asked tenderly.
"Of this – of what it must be for a man and woman who love each other to go away like this – because it isn't right for them to be together – never to see each other again." Then she read once more those four lines which have in them all the strength of loving and all the pain of parting.
Something tightened around his heart and he took her cold fingers into his own. "There's nothing in all the world that hurts like that, Madonna. God keep you from knowing about it, little girl."
An older woman would have taken warning from his words, but she did not. The caressing way in which he said "little girl" filled her soul with strange joy. She had a childish, unquestioning faith in him. Some day when he was better – but further than this her maiden thought refused to go. She simply waited, as a queen might wait for her coronation day.
He was planning to repay her kindness if it were in any way possible. He knew she would not take money from him, but there were other ways. Flowers – for he knew she loved them – the books that she liked best, and perhaps something for the unfortunates to whom she gave herself so unreservedly.
The winter was over, and April, warm with May's promise, came in through the open window. Even the sullen roar of the city streets could not drown the cheering song of two or three stray birds.
The week before Easter she brought home a tall slender lily in a pot, with a single bud showing at the top of the green shaft. "They told me it would blossom for Easter," she said happily, but she did not tell him she had saved her carfare for days in order to buy it for him.
He was able to sit up now, but she would not let him go until it was quite safe for him to walk. She seemed to cling, hungrily, to her last days with him. "After Easter," she said bravely, "I won't keep you."
He was watching the lily with impatience almost equal to her own, and tiny lines of white appeared on the green sheath. One day, it seemed as if it would blossom too soon, and again, they feared that it would be after Easter when the perfect flower opened.
"It had to climb up through a pretty dark place to find the light, didn't it, Madonna?" he asked. "I suppose that's the way people do, and God knows I've had my share of the dark."
Her eyes filled with tender pity and he went on. "You know, Madonna, there's a pretty theory to the effect that you must suffer before you amount to anything. A man can't write nor paint, and a woman can't sing nor play before a cruel hurt. I don't mean the kind that makes a few tears and is followed by forgetfulness – It's the kind that goes right down where you live and cuts and stings and burns.You never think of it without a shudder, even when the place heals up, if it ever does. If it's lost friendship, you never have such a friend again – if it's a lost love, you never can care again. Suffering would make a saint of you, but I don't want you hurt like that – dear little girl."
He spoke no more, but the questioning maiden eyes sought his. It was the day before Easter, and on the day following it he was to leave her.
For almost two months, she had been unfailingly kind to him; reading to him night and day, caring for him as though he were a child, and soothing him with her unspoken sympathy. Memory brought it all to him with peculiar distinctness, and a new impulse came to him – an impulse to lay bare his heart before the deep peaceful eyes of this child.
"Dear little Madonna of the Tambourine," he began, "there's a lot of things I want to tell you before we say good-bye.
"I saw your sweet face at a curbstone meeting once, in the days when I wasn't an outcast, and it's haunted me ever since. I wanted to find the peace which made you so secure and happy – to get at your secret of life. I wanted to be more worthy of – " He stopped and looked at her. Her eyes were shining like stars and with a little catch in his voice, he went on.
"There's a woman, Madonna, and worthless as I am she loved me, and married me. We were happy for a little while, but I couldn't keep away from the cursed drink. That's what put me into the slums. At last her patience and her love gave out, and she sent me away from her. She told me to come back to her, either with my shield, or on it, and thanks to you, I'm going back to her to-morrow – with my shield."
No sound escaped her, but her hand grew cold as ice. Turning, he looked for those starry eyes once more and, in a sudden flash of understanding, he read her secret.
He started to his feet. "Can it be possible that you – that you – I never dreamed – Oh, Madonna! Forgive me – if you can."
There was a long silence, then she said trying to speak steadily, "You are not in the least to blame. I have had no thought of you she could not know."
For a moment they looked into each other's eyes. "I am not worthy of it, Madonna," he said huskily, "I do not deserve the love of any good sweet woman."
"Would – would you go away to-day?" she asked almost in a whisper; then with a brave little smile that went straight to his heart, she added: "It's better, I think, to be quite alone."
He made his simple preparations, and she helped him as best she could with trembling hands, but it was dark when he was ready to go. Neither could frame the words they were wont to speak at parting, so they stood in silence, hand clasping hand.
With only pity and understanding in his heart, he wanted to take her into his arms for a moment, but she moved away from him. "No," she said brokenly, "it must be like this. Be what she would have you be – she and I."
She stood as he had left her until the street door closed below. She watched him on the sidewalk, walking with slow uncertain steps, until he was lost in the crowd. Then, stretching out in the dark, her empty hands, she dropped on her knees beside the window. Her shoulders shook with sobs, but there are no tears for such as she. She was far beyond the blessed flow which blinds some eyes to the reality of pain. The inner depths, bare and quivering, are healed by no such balm as this.
She voiced only the simple question which women of all ages have asked in the midst of a cruel hurt – "Why? Dear God, why must it be?"
Some of the last lines of "A Denial" came to her, seemingly in pitiful comment —
"If only she can care again," she said to herself, "it will not be so hard for me – if 'one beloved woman feels thee dear!'"
The grey dawn broke at last and found her still upon her knees.
With the brightening east the signs of life began again in the street below. After a little she stood up and looked far across the irregular lines of roofs and chimney tops to the glowing tapestry of the morning spread like a promise in the dull grey of the sky.
"He didn't want me hurt like this," she said aloud. "He told me he didn't want me hurt like this."
The first rays of the sun shot into the little room and rested with loving touch upon her face. The old childish look was gone, but in the eyes of the woman who had wrought and suffered, something of the old peace still lay. She turned back to her bare cheerless room, ready to face the world again, and then a little cry escaped her. White, radiant, glorified, her Easter lily had bloomed.
A Mistress of Art
"You're not going out again this evening, are you, George?" Pretty Mrs. Carson seemed on the point of dissolving in tears, but her liege lord buttoned his coat indifferently, and began the usual search for his hat. Having found it, he hesitated for a moment, then came and stood before her. "See here, Kitty," he began, not unkindly; "we might just as well understand this thing first as last. There's no use in your speaking to me in that tone just because I choose to go out in the evening. When I married you, I didn't expect to be tied to your apron string, and I don't intend to be. I consider myself as free as I was before I was married, and I am perfectly willing to accord the same freedom to you. When you go out, I never ask you where you've been, nor what time you came home, and I'd be glad to have you equally considerate of me. Let's be sensible, Kitty. I hate tears and heroics. See?" He stooped to kiss her, and then went off, whistling a jaunty air meant to indicate extreme cheerfulness.
For three evenings of that week Mr. George Carson had sought relaxation and entertainment away from his own fireside. This made the fourth, and the wife of only six months' standing, had a heavy and joyless heart.
Twice before she had spoken of it, – the first time to be answered by a laugh, the second time by very visible irritation, and to-night by the very cool "understanding" chronicled above.
Kitty had made a marriage vow which was not in the ceremony, but which was none the less sincerely meant. "Whatever happens," she said to herself, "I simply will not nag."
She had read the journals for women, written and edited by men, and this seemed to be the corner-stone of every piece of advice; moreover, she believed in pretty gowns, good dinners, and bright conversation with sentiment omitted.
"I can't think what it is," she meditated, during the long cheerless evening. Mr. Carson's appetite had proved beyond question that the dinner was good, and her pretty house gown was certainly becoming – and then Kitty broke down and wept, for the gown was a new one and George had not noticed it. On such trifles does the happiness of women depend!
In the journals for women, written and edited by men, great stress was laid on the fact that after a woman was married, she must keep her troubles to herself. She believed this, too, but the next day, her old school friend, Helen Everett, happened in, and she sobbed out her woes in the customary place – on the shoulder of a spinster – forgetting the deterrent effect on the marriage license business.
"My dear," said that wise young person, "men simply will go out nights. I shouldn't care myself – it leaves a nice long evening to read or study, or embroider, or practice, and if Mr. Helen Everett didn't want to stay with me, I'd be the last one to hint that I wanted him to."
"You're a man-hater, Helen," said Mrs. Carson, trying to smile, "but I'm not. I want George to stay at home a part of the time. Of course I'm willing for him to go out occasionally, for of all things, I despise a 'sissy-man', but four or five evenings a week – is – too – much!"
The dainty handkerchief came into use again.
"Philosophy teaches us," said Helen, reminiscently, "that people, especially men, always want what they can't get." Kitty was reminded of the scholarly tone in which Helen had delivered her thesis at commencement. "To quote a contemporary essayist, 'If a mortal knows that his mate cannot get away, he is often severe and unreasonable.' There is also a good old doctrine to the effect that 'like cures like.'"
"Well?" said Kitty, enquiringly.
"I never put my fingers into anybody's matrimonial pie," resumed Helen, "so I'll let you think out your own schemes to keep the charming Mr. Carson under his own vine and fig tree, but you know I live only three blocks away, and there are no followers in my camp. My brother would take you home, any time you might care to come."
Kitty was silent.
"Think it over, dear," said Helen as she rose to go.
After several minutes of hard thought, Kitty arrived at Helen's meaning. "This evening shall decide it," she said to herself. "If he stays at home, I shall think that he cares just a little bit; but if he doesn't, I'll make him care." There was a smouldering fire in Kitty's brown eyes, that might at any time leap into a flame.
The pretty house gown appeared at dinner again, but George, seemingly, took no notice of it. Moreover, immediately after the meal he found his hat, and merely saying: "Bye-bye, Kitty," began the jaunty whistle. She heard it as it grew fainter, and at last, only lost it in the distant sound of a street car.
The emancipated husband had no particular place to go, and his present nocturnal pilgrimage was undertaken purely in the interest of wifely discipline. He dropped into his club, but found it dull; and perhaps the thought of Kitty's sad little face tugged remorsefully at his heartstrings, for he went home early.
The lights were low in the drawing-room, she always left them so for him. "Must have gone to bed about nine," he mused. He went up-stairs, expecting to hear her say: "Is that you, dear?" But no sound of any sort greeted him. The house was as silent as a tomb. After a few minutes, it became evident that she was not at home, and he sat down with a book to await her arrival.
It seemed strange, someway, without her, – perhaps because her gown hung from the back of a chair. It was a soft pretty thing of pinky-yellow – he mentally decided that must be the colour – trimmed with creamy lace and black velvet ribbon. It was a very pretty gown – a most adorable gown.
It was half-past eleven, when Kitty came home humming the chorus of a popular song. She started in apparent surprise when she saw him. "Oh, it's you, is it?" she said indifferently.
"Certainly it's me," he responded irritably. "Whom did you expect to see here?"
Kitty laughed pleasantly, and drew off her gloves. Her tailor-made gown fitted her to perfection, it was his favorite colour, too, and her collar and cuffs were irreproachable.
"Where have you been, Kitty?" he asked in a different tone.
"Oh, just out," she responded with a yawn. "Where have you been?"
"Humph," responded Mr. Carson.
The following evening, she appeared at dinner in the same severe gown. She was very pleasant and chatted on topics of current interest quite as if he were a casual acquaintance. She watched him with evident uneasiness afterward, and he was certain that he detected a faint shade of relief on her face when he commenced hunting for his hat.
Before ten he came home, and as he half suspected, Kitty was out. His irritation grew until he was afraid to trust himself to speak, so he pretended to be asleep, when she came home.
The cloud on the matrimonial horizon grew larger. Outwardly Kitty was kind and considerate, and her vigilant care for his comfort was in no way lessened. His things were kept in order and something he particularly liked was always on the table, but the old confidence was gone and in its place was something that he hesitated to analyse.
She went out every night, now. More than once she had left him with a laconic "Bye-bye," and he had spent a miserable evening before an unsympathetic fire. He learned to detest the severely correct gowns that she always wore now.
"I say, Kit," he said as he rose from the table, "don't you want to go to the theatre to-night?"
"Can't," she returned shortly, "much obliged for the 'bid' though."
George Carson's hair rose "like quills upon the fretful porcupine." He had a horror of slang from feminine lips, and he had been drawn to Kitty in the first place, because she never used it. "Bid!" Oh, Heavens!
He paid no attention to her cheerful farewell when she left him. He poked the fire morosely, smoked without enjoying it, and at last cast about for something to read. One of the Journals for women, written and edited by men, lay on the table, and he grasped it as the proverbial drowning man is wont to clutch the proverbial straw.
He consulted the pages of the oracle anxiously, and he learned that it was not wise to marry a man who had served a term in the penitentiary, that it was harmless enough for either man or woman to kiss a lady cousin, but that a man cousin must be kept at a fixed and rigid distance – that it was wrong for cousins to marry, and that it was not only immoral, but very dangerous to bleach or dye the hair.
No rule of conduct was specified for the man whose wife went out nights, and he wandered aimlessly into the street. The light and cheer of the club house seemed inopportune, like mirth at a funeral, and he retired into a distant corner to think. His intimates hailed him joyously, but were met with marked coldness. One of them, more daring than the rest, laid a sympathetic hand upon his shoulder.
"What's the matter, old man?"
"Oh, the deuce," growled George, "can't you let a fellow alone?"
He was glad that he got home before Kitty did, for he could pretend to be asleep when she came in. He knew it would be only a pretence, and until midnight he listened for her latch-key in the door. It was long after twelve, when a carriage stopped at the door, and then he heard a manly voice say: "Good night, Mrs. Carson."
"Good night, Johnnie," she returned, "and thank you for a pleasant evening."
"Johnnie!" Who in creation was "Johnnie?"
But there was no time to wonder, for Kitty's foot was on the stair, and in a frame of mind not usually favourable to repose, he simulated sleep.
There was a beautiful bracelet at her plate the following evening.
"Oh, how sweet!" she said, with evident pleasure in her eyes.
"Aren't you going to put it on?" he asked, when she laid it aside.
"Oh, yes," she answered brightly, "only I can't wear it with this gown. Bracelets don't go well with linen cuffs."
She didn't even take it from the table after dinner, as he noted with a pang. Almost immediately she came in with her hat on and stood leisurely drawing on her gloves.
"You're not going out again to-night, are you Kitty?" he asked.
"See here, George," she returned, "we might just as well understand this thing, first as last. There's no use in you speaking to me in that tone, just because I choose to go out in the evening. When I married you, I didn't intend to be tied to your apron string – I suppose, I should say, suspender, and I don't intend to be. I consider myself as free as I was before I was married, and I am perfectly willing to accord the same freedom to you. When you go out I never ask you where you have been, or what time you came home, and I'd be glad to have you equally considerate of me. See?"
Without other farewell, she slammed the outer door. He was petrified with astonishment. Were such words ever before addressed by a tyrannical wife to a devoted husband? In the midst of his trouble, the door-bell rang. Friends of his and of Kitty's had come to call.
"Where's Kit?" asked Mrs. Clay, after they had chatted a moment.
"She's gone out a minute – yes – no – that is – I don't know," returned George incoherently.
Mr. Clay's ready tact came to the rescue and he picked up a program which lay on the table, half hidden by a magazine.
"Tannhauser," he said cheerfully, "with Gadski as Elizabeth! So you went Tuesday night? We wanted to go, but there were no seats left. How early did you get yours?"
"I – ah – yes – Gadski as Elizabeth – that is – rather early. Yes, she was very fine," said George miserably. The stunning revelation had come to him that on Tuesday night – the evening in which he had heard the carriage and the voices, Kitty had been to the opera with another man! And it seemed to fairly paralyse his powers of speech. After a little while the guests politely departed, wondering what in the world was the matter with the Carsons.
"Is he crazy?" asked Mrs. Clay.
"Looks like it," answered her husband concisely.
Carson went up-stairs and searched the closet until he found the pinky-yellow gown with the black velvet bows. He sat down with the pretty fluffy thing in his hands. A delicate odour of violets clung to it – Kitty always had violets around her – and the scent seemed like a haunting memory of a happy past, when he had a wife who wore soft womanly things – who loved to have him kiss her, and never went out nights.
With a sudden rush of tenderness he held the little gown close, but it yielded him no caress in return, and he flung it bitterly aside, feeling as he did so, that he sat among the ashes of a desolate and forsaken home.
He grew white and worn in the days that followed. He knew dimly what a grave might mean, since he felt the hurt of a living loss.
He wandered through the lonely rooms evening after evening. The sight of her dainty fluffy things made him suffer keenly, and a tiny jewelled slipper he found on the floor almost unmanned him.
He no longer went to the club, but sat at home among Kitty's things while she went out as usual. One evening, after saying "good-bye" she caught her gown on a rocker, and turned back to free herself.
He was sitting before the fire, his elbow resting on his knee, and his chin in the palm of his hand. It was a saddened face that Kitty saw, with all the joy and youth gone out of it. The flickering light made the lines of pain very distinct, and her heart smote her at the realisation of what she had done. Quickly she ran up-stairs and took off her tailor-made costume. When she came down, he was sitting as she had left him, unhearing, unseeing and unheeding.
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