A Fragment of a Play: With a Chorus

by Mary Tappan Wright

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THE sun had gone down in a red ball, like an angry moon, leaving the west glowing with fiery, transparent rose. The quiet sea gleamed with stripes of delicate azure and faintest amber, and, outlined sharply against it in miniature capes and bays, the wet beach spread out in an even expanse of dark, metallic blue, a color resembling that of tarnished steel, with neither lights nor shadow. In the east enormous trails of cloud reached from the hills high into the sky, bending and curling like great plumes, reflecting in pink the deeper rose of the sunset.
     But of all this four people on the shore were apparently quite unconscious. The two younger absorbed in each other were sitting on the rocks, talking earnestly, while the two older, resting after tea on their own verandah, were compelled by circumstances and the rights of property to take a passive share in the conversation going on below; and yet but one voice came up to them—the woman’s, for the man, who was slightly deaf, spoke softly, almost beneath his breath.
     With the air of one signing a cartel the man on the verandah drew a match along the railing:
     “I have warned, I have reproved; I have reminded Sordello over and over again that if he will persist in carrying on his little affairs under our noses he must expect to be overheard. And now,” lighting his pipe, defiantly, “I mean to stay where I am and enjoy my smoke in peace.”
     “I should think he might see how absurd it is!” said his wife, impatiently.
     “As far as seeing goes he is all right, this time,” said the master of the house, judicially, “for that is a very pretty girl, quite the best of the assortment. And if she enjoys speaking in tones that are distinctly audible at a distance of forty feet, let her alone. Beauty has its privileges.”
     “It is frightfully dishonorable to listen!”
     “Great heavens!” said he, irritably, “how can we help listening? Does she expect us to sit in the kitchen? She must know that there is a house in this direction. Hear that now!”

     “If I had thought that you would begin all this over again,” said the girl, in a clear, slow voice, “I should not have come.”
     The man threw his head back and made some fractious reply, at which she laughed.
     “Well, then, if I thought you were going on with it I should not have
     come. — Yes!” — responding to some query accompanied by an impatient gesture. “Of course I knew that you were here. But it by no means follows that because I came you are at liberty to reopen a subject that long since had been—”
     He interrupted her, and spoke at some length, while the girl sat looking out over the water. The color was changing in the sky and the sea was beginning to fade into gray; her profile against it was like that of a head on a Roman coin, the hair knotted low at the back of the neck, and waving in tight, curly waves from the forehead.

     “Sordello is in earnest—I firmly believe,” said the master of the house.
     The mistress nodded and answered, “Hush!”

     “To how many girls have you said the very same thing already this summer?” asked the young lady, with tranquil sarcasm.

     The master of the house began to laugh.
     “It is evident that she knows him well,” said his wife.

     “Oh, yes! I am convinced that I am different,” returned the girl, “quite convinced. So were they! Now, really, Harold, we might as well go back to the hotel. There is no wisdom in beginning this over again, or in ‘going on with it’—anything you choose to call it.”

     “She calls him Harold,” said the master of the house.
     “It must be his cousin Grace—the one that is on the stage.”
     “That accounts for her indifference to an audience!” he remarked, moving his chair nearer the railing.
     “Don’t make such a noise,” she cautioned impatiently.
     “Come now,” said he. “I think we ought to make a noise. It is really outrageous for us to sit up here and never let them know. Some one ought to cough.”
     “Well, then, cough.”
     He did so, weakly.
     “Bah!” said she.

     The girl on the rocks looked up magnificently, and went on with her conversation.
     “It is just possible,” she was saying, “that my own profession may hold out to me as many attractions as yours seems to have for you!”
     The young man made an eager gesture of denial.
     “And yet you are asking me to give it up,” the girl continued. “It amounts, practically, to that. If you can’t work in the city, and I can’t follow my profession out of it, in case we marry there is nothing left for me to do but to go off the stage, and I am just beginning to make it successful. Why should I throw away all my training any more than you?”

     “She is right,” said the mistress.
     “Nonsense!” said the master. “Women who love don’t reason. She doesn’t care a pin for him.”

     “Oh, you need not fear!” went on the girl’s voice. “I shall not break down. I am strong, and young, and healthy, and I like it—all! even the hardships. Why, Harold, I make twice as much a year as you do!”
     The man leaped to his feet and ran a short distance down the rocks; gathering a handful of pebbles, he returned, and standing near her began to skim them out over the water, jerking forth a curt remark as he did so.
     “You do not make enough for two,” she asserted positively, “at least not the kind of enough that I like.”
     He leaned forward and looked down into her eyes.
     “No,” she said. “We shouldn’t be one at all, at least if you mean that one to be the half of two. If we had my money and yours together we might do it. But that is out of the question. Still—Harold—don’t you think you could risk a little, and try to live in the city during the winter?”

     “Now, isn’t that just like a woman?” began the master of the house. “She knows he can’t get on without his position in that country school at Essex.”
     “If he cared anything about her at all he would go back to the practice of medicine,” answered his wife.
     “I tell you it would be the ruin of him.”
     “Nonsense. He is fonder a good deal of his art than of his lady-love.”
     “As far as I can see, she is fonder of her ease than he is of his art. What is to prevent her going and living quietly and modestly at Essex?”
     “Ease! Do you call it ease to slave day and night on the stage to amuse other people?”
     “Do be quiet,” he answered, impatiently. “I can’t hear a word she’s saying.”

     The western sky had turned a deep orange, and glowed far up toward the zenith; but the east had darkened and the water was streaked with lines of shadow.
     “No,” said the girl, in clear, gentle tones. “No; I could not let you return to the practice of medicine for my sake. It is too much of a sacrifice, in spite of everything you can say to the contrary. We should not have let this come up again. The whole thing was settled—”
     He had remained standing, and now, resting one hand on his right knee, he bent toward her, talking long and eagerly. The glow in the heavens died completely away, and their figures began to blend with the gray around them; in the seclusion of the twilight the girl spoke with greater freedom.
     “But I do care for you,” she said. “I care too much to allow you to sacrifice all your best prospects of success. I could never make up to you what you had resigned.”
     There was something like an angry growl in return.
     “But I couldn’t! I should be only a burden and a worry. I couldn’t manage. I couldn’t do anything.”
     Again he argued earnestly; but the girl shook her head.
     “I know it is a simple life; but I don’t like simplicity; it doesn’t agree with me! Let me alone, Harold. I have been all through the struggle once, and I cannot go over it. It is better for us both that I cannot.”
     For a few moments there was silence and the twilight deepened rapidly. Then one of the gray figures rose and ran down the side of the rocks toward the shore; it was Sordello.
     “Harold!” she called softly; but he did not heed. “Harold!” a little louder. He turned his head: she beckoned him to return, but he slowly walked along the beach, and was soon lost to view.

     “Well!” said the master of the house, “that girl deserves a whipping. Of all the selfish, artful—”
     The girl was slowly climbing the steep path that ran by the house. It was now very nearly dark, and as she passed the verandah and turned into the road, they heard a little sob.
     “Poor child, I knew she cared for him,” sighed the mistress, sympathetically.
     “She cares for herself,” said the master, hardening his heart.

     IT chanced a few days later that the master and mistress of the house were sitting together in the Pine Woods, where he was making a sketch of a convenient sunny rock that lay on the hillside some distance below them. Suddenly the mistress looked up from her novel in dismay. A clear voice sounded on the other side of the boulder against which she was leaning.
     “You are not fair to me,” it said. “It is because I care too much for you, not because I do not care enough.”

     “This is unendurable,” said the master, indignantly. “I am going to walk around this rock and let Sordello know that I do not intend to be made the victim of his misplaced affections twice in one week.”
     “If you interfere with them now,” whispered his wife, “you will ruin their last chance of happiness.”
     “Nonsense!” he said, rudely. “There are chances of happiness lying around loose by the hundred all over the place! Why can’t they row out on the bay, or go over to the Lighthouse Rocks? And there are the Sand Hills, and the Little Pine Woods—”
     “Very well,” said his wife, tranquilly, “do as you please; it is nothing to me. She is sorry for her last Tuesday’s decision; but give her another three days to review the situation, and she will begin to realize what she has escaped.”
     “So much the better!”
     “For her you mean? Yes; but how about Sordello? Let her once think the matter over, and she will be very cautious as to allowing her regrets to get the better of her judgment a second time.”
     “That was the case with you?”
     There was just then no opportunity for further speech, as Sordello and his cousin were rapidly approaching.
     “Now, if that isn’t impudence!” said the master of the house, softly, as the two appeared further down the hill and seated themselves on the very rock that he was sketching.
     “They must have seen us.”
     “Sordello didn’t; he was looking at her.”
     “She did, for she turned and stared directly in our faces. One would think we were dust or stones!” said the mistress, indignantly.
     “Well, when you consider the insignificance of the larger and the hard-heartedness of the smaller, she is not far wrong,” said the master, philosophically. “However, as a balm to your wounded pride, I don’t mind letting you know that she is short-sighted. Sordello told me. What a gorgeous red head!”
     And he resumed his painting with sudden enthusiasm. The girl had taken off her large hat and was using it as a fan; the sun-flecks falling through the thin pine foliage shone like spots of burnished copper on the coils of her waving hair.

     “As for ‘anxiety’ and ‘suspense,’” she announced, distinctly, “you must confess that however painful your sufferings may have seemed to you, they have been admirably disguised. You have spent three evenings in succession down on those rocks with a different girl every time.”
     Sordello had been looking intently down the hill where the straight trunks of the pine-trees extended in a long vista of pinkish columns, and now as she spoke he made a telescope of his hands, and replied apparently at random.
     “Ye—es,” said his cousin, with a little show of offence, “I suppose it is. Perhaps you would like to go back and get your colors now.”
     He let himself slide down on the soft bed of pine-needles at her feet, and leaning back looked up at her, smiling mischievously.

     “I wish he wouldn’t make her move her head!” muttered the master of the house, not looking up from his work. The mistress rose and glanced over his shoulder.
     “You are not going to sketch her in!” she whispered, disapprovingly.
     “Yes, I am! going to do that very thing,” he defiantly answered. “I haven’t seen hair like that in the last ten years, and if she does not want to be sketched she can move on.”
     “Why, we are talking in whispers!” said the mistress, taking care, however, not to raise her voice. “Disgraceful! I will not be a party to anything so flagrant.”
     “Hadn’t you better cough?” suggested the master, with malicious memories of a former occasion.
     She coughed—discreetly.
     “What is the use of coughing in a whisper?” he asked.
     “Do hush,” said his wife.

     “Did you ever know me to be jealous? Me?” the girl was saying, indignantly. “Of what should I be jealous?” and the mistress saw the mischievous smile on Sordello’s face deepen, while the nature of his reply was far from soothing.
     “I really believe,” retorted the girl, “that you have sufficient self-complacency to think that what you are saying is true!”
     Poking with his stick among the needles at his feet Sordello made another short inquiry.
     “No!” she cried, inconsistently. “It isn’t true, and you know it. No one is jealous nowadays. People may be hurt, or displeased, or surprised, or disgusted even, but there is no such a thing as jealousy.”
     Sordello looked up at her inquiringly, and boldly ventured another remark.
     “I may act it well, and I may not,” she answered, indifferently. “No one can tell: I do it by tradition. The glaring, tearing emotions of the old plays are a thing of the past.”

     “It is a relief,” said the master of the house, “to think of jealousy as a passion entirely obsolete. Does this apply generally, among painters and musicians, or is its decadence restricted to lovers alone?”
     “Don’t talk,” said his wife. “I want to listen.”
     “But you ought not to want to listen. I wonder now which she is? Hurt, or disgusted, or surprised? Disgusted, I suppose, judging by that ugly girl he had down on the rocks last night. I didn’t give Sordello credit for so much ingenuity.”
     “It seems to me that he was even more ‘ingenious’”—with a spiteful little stress on the word—”before she came.”
     “Oh, well, this is no time for discussion. How women love to rake up things! What if he was? He is in earnest now.”
     “Sordello?” elevating her eyebrows.
     “Sordello,” with severe certainty.
     “She’s in earnest, I’ll grant you.”
     “She?” elevating his eyebrows.
     “She—but this is no time for discussion!”

     Sordello, in the meantime, was resting both his arms on the rock and explaining something seriously. His cousin leaned toward him and listened: there was evident apprehension in the earnestness of her attitude.
     “Harold! You have not! How could you? Such a terrible sacrifice!” she cried at last. “And you know how I abominate a doctor.”
     Sordello removed his arms, and thrusting his hands into his pockets, half turned his back, making some retort with the sullen air of a man who on doing his best to please finds it a failure.
     “There is no other career but art,” answered the girl, passionately; “at least there is not for you. And you sit there and sulk because I am not radiant with delight at seeing you persist in making yourself unendurable.”

     “For rank ingratitude and absolute deficiency of heart,” began the master of the house—and was suppressed.

     “I said un-en-durable, and I mean it. When you were studying at the medical college you were a cross, tiresome, pessimistic prig!”
     Sordello took his hands from his pockets and reaching forward picked up a small cone which he placed carefully on his thumb-nail held in the hollow of his bent forefinger; taking an accurate aim he shot it at a little tree near, and as it hit the mark he shrugged his shoulders, saying something without turning his head.
     “I may have thought I was fond of you then, Harold; but now that I look back at it I am quite sure I could not have been. You have no idea how different you are; for the last five years you have been quite another man, so gay and so happy, and even—in a certain feeble way—witty and agreeable—not a bit like yourself!”
     He turned his face to look up at her, laughing softly.

     “Sordello is handsome,” said the mistress of the house.
     “He knows it,” said the master.
     “When such knowledge has a justifiable foundation, it is not to be condemned. Now, there are men—”
     “Listen!” said he, impatiently. “What are they saying now?”

     “There is but one thing to do, Harold; send immediately and say that you have reconsidered. Nothing more will be necessary. They cannot afford to lose you at that Essex school, and you might as well keep the place until you are able to do without it. It will not be long—and—and until then—” She stopped, looked carefully into the trimming of her hat for a moment, and then went on: “Harold, I wrote a letter to my manager this morning, declining to sign a new engagement for next winter.”
     Sordello sprang to his feet, and standing before her, apparently poured out a torrent of objections.
     “I know that I shall miss it,” she said, listening dejectedly to his further protests.
     “Yes. I never was so happy as I have been since they let me go into it: and I suppose—as you gratefully intimate—that I am good for nothing else.” She spoke sadly, mournfully even, but Sordello was not to be appeased; genuine dismay was printed on his every feature, and he spoke with an amount of energy that almost made itself audible.
     “You needn’t take the responsibility of it,” said his cousin, a little impatiently. “I have taken it myself, although I confess to some consternation at your reception of the announcement. Still—it is not like your case. I never cared for you when you were a doctor. I can’t endure doctors! It is since you have become an artist that I have liked you. You have no right to ask me to marry anything else.”
     Sordello threw himself moodily on the ground again.
     “You are very unjust as usual,” she went on. “If I cared for the artist more than for the man, I should marry Pinxit. He is certainly a better artist than you are!”

     “Had him there!” said the master, impartially.
     “It is a mean, ungenerous thing of her to say,” said the mistress, hotly. “Pinxit is not by any means—”
     “Do stop where you are! If you once get to running on Pinxit—” He did not finish his sentence, for the girl was again speaking.

     “It is not the same thing! In renouncing my own career I do you no injustice. You have been fond of me ever since I was three feet high. Off the stage, or on—it made no difference to you. You begged and implored me to marry you, and give it all up as much as six years ago, and you were going to cut your throat when I would not consent.”
     She waited as Sordello answered her, his back still turned.
     “I am not disappointed because you didn’t do it then, and as for doing it now, you might just as well have cut your throat as send such a letter as you sent this morning!”
     He gave her one swift glance over his shoulder.

     “A—ah!” said the mistress of the house, softly, “she would do well to consider. If he can look like that now—”
     “These things work by contraries,” said the master of the house; “at least that has been my experience!”
     “True,” she answered, with composure.
     “My dear,” remonstrated the master of the house, painting diligently all the time, “how often have I tried to show you that tu quoque is not wit?”
     But the mistress of the house was not paying attention.
     “What has Sordello done now?” she murmured.

     “I am not as bad as you are!” his cousin was saying, angrily. “I never in my life was guilty of anything so hasty and ill-considered. Here, immediately following our Tuesday evening’s talk, you go and straightway give up a position that means everything to you, without ever consulting anybody or—”
     Sordello interrupted her with what seemed to be a pertinent question.
     “The cases are entirely different,” she cried, hotly. “Of course I did not consult you. With me there is no alternative. If you had given up the Essex position for the sake of taking a studio in the city—”
     He made a gesture of impatient repudiation.
     “You could do it, if you wished,” she answered, “and as for this, it is simply another of the head-over-heels performances by which you usually have decided the momentous questions of your life.”
     The young man had risen slowly, as she was speaking, and stood looking down at her.
     “Nonsense!” she returned, in answer to what he now said. “I defy you to mention a single occasion when you have given yourself an opportunity for second thought.”
     A startled smile lit Sordello’s face like a flash and was gone; then with an odd mixture of triumph and indecision, he put his hand inside of his coat and drew out a flat Russia leather pocket-book; selecting from it an oblong yellow envelope he threw it on the rock beside her.
     “A letter?” She lifted it very close to her eyes to read the address, but suddenly dropped it on the rock again. “Your resignation? And you have not sent it!”

     “He has played an ace!” said the master of the house, sitting up straight on his camp-stool, and swelling with satisfaction.
     “I told you he wasn’t in earnest,” said his wife.
     “He looks as if he were not!” said the master, ironically. “What a pity that the more furious he gets the more softly he talks.”
     For Sordello, self-convicted of temporizing, was trying apparently to restore the balance of disparagement by a little recrimination.

     “No real faith in you! No affection!” cried the girl, at last. “Harold, have I not set aside my ambition, thrown away years of preparation, and an almost absolute certainty of success, for your sake? What better proof of faith and affection could you have? Am I not willing to go and live in Essex?
     His answer was manifestly satisfactory to himself alone, for his cousin continued, defensively:
     “I know you don’t ask me to go there. Neither do you wish me, as you say, to give up my profession. But you certainly must see that as matters are you leave me no choice.”
     Sordello answered, shrugging his shoulders.
     “And why should I defer to your judgment?” replied she, with increasing impatience. “Has it ever proved to be so much superior to my own? Look at your opposition to my studying for the stage.”
     Sordello remonstrated energetically.
     “To be sure you came around,” she said, scornfully. “But who doesn’t come around when success is before him to justify it? You make as much of that as if you had stood by me when everything looked ugly and uncertain. Did I wait for you to succeed before giving you a word of encouragement? Am I not willing to sacrifice everything to your advancement?”
     Sordello’s handsome face was beginning to look sulky.
     “I wish you wouldn’t bring money into the discussion!” she replied, wearily, in answer to some short and manifestly practical suggestions. “It is not a question of money.”

     “She knows very well that it is a question of money,” said the master of the house. “If he goes back to the practice of medicine and is once reconciled with that artist-hating old father of his, matters will be smooth enough.”

     Sordello had himself, probably, said something of the same kind, for his cousin answered:
     “But I tell you there is no need for you to go back to medicine; You can either come and live with mamma and me in the city—”
     With a gesture of patient despair, Sordello commenced what seemed to be another labored exposition.
     “That is the way you look at things,” said the girl. “But as far as money goes, you have as good a right to what I earn as I have. Didn’t your father pay the expenses of all my preparations for the stage?”
     He smiled but did not seem convinced.
     “Very well, then,” she said, “let mamma and me come to Essex.”
     Again he shook his head, and counting off the fingers of his left hand with the forefinger of his right, began a reckoning in detail.
     “But I can do without those things,” said the girl, almost pleadingly. “Where did you ever see people who lived in greater simplicity than did mamma and I while I was studying? And we were cheerful and gay; there was never a happier house than ours.”

     Sordello looked puzzled; so did the master of the house.
     “I thought simplicity did not agree with her,” he whispered. “I do not understand.”
     “Men never do!” returned his wife.

     “Oh, but there are different kinds of simplicity,” said the girl, ingenuously. “Now an artistic simplicity is one thing, but a medical simplicity”—she shuddered—“is quite another! Don’t send the letter!”
     Sordello turned away and walked a short distance down the hill, as if searching for a spot wherein to think his own thoughts impartially, uninfluenced by her presence. Then, with renewed decision of manner, he returned and said his say without interruption.
     “It amounts to this, then—” she replied, at last—“that you utterly refuse to recognize any third course, and insist upon reducing matters to a situation in which you leave me no alternative between either unnecessarily ruining your artistic career, or sacrificing my own. Of course I have nothing to do but accept the latter. I made this clear to you the other day.”

     “A pretty way to make sacrifices,” growled the master of the house. “If she is going to do it, why doesn’t she do it pleasantly?”
     The mistress made no verbal reply, but taking out a small note-book labelled Sauce for the Goose, she entered this speech with the date, and then turned her attention elsewhere.

     “You might as well acknowledge,” the girl was saying, “that the person who lacks faith in you is neither more nor less than yourself. As long as there is firm ground beneath your feet, you swim beautifully, but you will never venture a stroke beyond your depth. It is just as it used to be when we were children. I could always ‘stump’ you, Harold.”
     Sordello threw up his head, and spoke from a haughty distance.
     “I never used to do foolhardy things one minute and have to back out of them the next,” she answered. “Never!” but there was in this “never” a perceptible tremor of uncertainty.
     Sordello answered, looking at her keenly.
     “I do not regard marrying you in the same way I should playing the game of ‘follow my leader,’” she said. “For one thing, you never were the leader; for another—”
     Again Sordello interrupted her, the boyish pride in his expression hardening into resentment.
     “I have not made a frivolous, hasty decision,” returned she, passionately. “I have been thinking of doing this for weeks. And as for the mortification of retracting it, and begging to be taken back again, I am happy in being able to show you that no such retraction will be needful!” She drew an envelope from her pocket and threw it down, a square of white, on top of the long yellow one that Sordello had left lying upon the stone.

     “She has trumped that ace!” exclaimed the mistress of the house, triumphantly.
     “Bah! You might have known it,” said the master.

     Sordello and his cousin seemed to be dumfounded; they looked at the letters and then at each other, a long incredulous gaze. Their little storm of ill-temper and resentment had cleared the atmosphere. The girl began to laugh. It rippled out at first in an irrepressible little gush, followed by another and then another. Everything awoke with it, and the sleepy noon-day woods were suddenly filled with the jocund gurgle of birds and the joyous tinkle of clear brown streamlets. The contagion of laughter overcame them all, the master and mistress joining discreetly from a distance, while Sordello, ruefully at first, apologetically afterward, finally gave way to it with pure boyish abandon. Seizing his cousin about the waist, he whirled her from her seat, and hand in hand together they raced down the hill, the peals of their mirth returning more and more faintly to the astonished spectators, who, caught in the vortex of irresistible merriment, now found themselves stranded, wiping their eyes.
     “Well—but—” hesitated the master of the house. “How did it end?”
     His wife looked at him in dismay.
     “I’m sure I don’t know,” she faltered.
     “I’ve got her sketched in, anyhow,” he said, complacently.
     “You will be in honor bound to give it to them for a wedding present.”
     “Hum!” said the master, who strongly objected to giving away his sketches, “I am very uncertain as to its ever being called for. Marriage is by no means an inevitable conclusion.”

“A Fragment of a Play: With a Chorus” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in Scribner’s Magazine v. 9, no. 5, May 1891; reprinted in A Truce, and Other Stories by Mary Tappan Wright, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, June 1895; second edition edited by Brian Kunde, Mountain House, Fleabonnet Press, 2008.

The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is ©2008 by Brian Kunde.

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1st web edition posted 11/11/2008
This page last updated 11/11/2008.

Published by Fleabonnet Press.