An Exception

by Mary Tappan Wright

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“Ah me! for aught that I could ever read,       
Could ever hear by tale or history,               
The course of true love never did run smooth.”

THE sun was brimming to the very edge, quaking far out like an overfilled beaker, shining with the many colored radiance of some pale gem and pulsing as from a heart of light. It did not sparkle, as it does on days when the careless wind blows diamonds in the sun; nor did it shine, as when on stilly nights the moon takes soundings, dropping her pallid disks far down one upon the other into the clear depths below. No, It was none of these; reflecting no mood for once, it was itself, conscious, sentient, powerful.
     A deep vault of blue stretched overhead and extended far down in the east, where a great moon shone almost full, and in the west the afterglow arched high up the sky. The waves rolled in joyously but broke foamless, dark, lustrous, shot with gold and crimson at the foot of the rocks, and everywhere sounded the splash and tumult of dashing water, living water, held in a cup of granite shore and sand-hill whose outlines, across the bay, were cut clear and black against the golden horizon.
     For some time a man had been standing on the rocky bluff looking at it. Be was an artist, but young enough still to enjoy things from a point of view irrespective of paint; he was profoundly moved, consequently resentful, and so, hearing some one come clambering up the rocks behind him, he squared his back on the invader in determined unsociability.
     “Now that’s a scene for you painters, Loring! If you are going to paint, why don’t you take something worth while? You’re willing enough to try pretty little copy-book bits of rock or bridge, but there’s not one of you who isn’t afraid to tackle the ocean. Put more sea into your pictures, man, more sea! ‘the multitudinous seas incarnadine’—Shakespeare has the idea!”
     Loring’s was one of those attractive bad tempers which, while it keeps the number of a man’s friends strictly limited, incites them so to spoil him that he becomes intolerable to his enemies; and now, instead of answering the big voice which continued to boom behind him, he swore a quiet but vicious little oath and climbed down to the water’s edge. Turning there he sprang along the rocks and further up regained the road. From that moment the hitherto scrambling course of Loring’s life was destined to run smoothly, and success turned to meet him in the way.
     Still, uncheered by any mysterious consciousness of change, he plodded homeward to his boarding-house in gloomy disgust. He was poor, he was out of luck, he was desperately in love, and absolutely hopeless—so he told himself; but the last was fortunately untrue, for if Loring had not hoped, and hoped with all the life and soul in him, a great many beautiful things would have died in his heart. He would not have been by the shore that night nor have forgotten the world in his love for the sea. He would not have scouted at precious advice nor rudely retreated with impious tongue. Nor from a hidden niche in the rocks below would a little old gentleman with a snowy mustache have heard him with wicked content; and so success would never have turned in the way.
     In certain circles the gentleman with the white mustache was something very important. He directed directors, and mitigated—so far as can be—the untrustworthiness of trustees. He was in search of a man competent to fill a position of much honor, and as this man must necessarily be an artist he had come to a place where only artists were expected to be found. Now, he had never seen Loring before, and, so far as he remembered, had never heard of him; yet practically, by the time the young man had disappeared from view, that appointment had been made; Loring was Permanent Director of the National Institute of Art!
     This decision, however, was wholly an act of unconscious cerebration, and being, as the newspapers said the day before, “a man deeply sensible of the gravity of the responsibility which had devolved upon him,” the little old gentleman rose from his hidden seat, and, confronting the person with the big voice, plied him with a volley of questions concerning Loring.
     “Everything you tell me, Crosscroft,” he said at last, after having given close attention to the detailed answers to all his inquiries, “everything you tell me about this Loring goes to confirm my first impressions!” And he took leave with most punctilious courtesy.
     They knew each other, these two elderly men, knew each other thoroughly—at least so they were in the habit of assuring people with most uncomplimentary emphasis—and now, in spite of having heard nothing good, the little gentleman walked off up the road twirling his mustache in order to hide a smile of indubitable satisfaction. “The fellow must have fine qualities,” he reasoned, “very fine qualities—Crosscroft hates him so!”
     This talk with Crosscroft had been by no means brief, but feeling that further information was necessary he determined to visit a house where all the artists were usually to be found in the evenings. “I might as well look them over,” he said to himself, “and make up my mind deliberately. These things can’t be done in a hurry!”
     He continued on his way until he came to a corner that turned again toward the sea; at the gate of the second of a little row of cottages he stood a moment undecided. “Nonsense!” he thought, “what If I do hear something bad of him? Because he considers Crosscroft a fool, a decided fool,” he chuckled retrospectively, “is no sign that he is competent to undertake this work. Still, still, I own frankly that if he will not do I shall be disappointed.”
     He opened the gate an inch or two, hesitated, and then closing it softly crossed the road and leaned his elbows on a stone wall that ran along the low bluff above the beach.
     The narrow bay lay before him dotted with sleeping craft; a little river wound mistily away in the moonlight between softly rounded dusky clumps of trees; some slowly drifting sails were coming down with the outgoing tide, and as he stopped to look the old gentleman heaved a sigh so sudden and impatient that it might almost have been taken for a groan. “If thirty years ago I had had a chance like this,” he said, “I might have married—” he stopped abruptly. “What am I saying! I might have married—my wife ten years earlier than I did—she would have been just nine,” and going back to the cottage he resolutely mounted the steps and, crossing a wide porch, knocked at a door standing hospitably ajar. He felt that that sigh had been blameworthy; he ought to have been ashamed of it, and the sooner he effaced its memory in the presence of his fellow men the better for the peace of his conscience.
     The master of the house opened to him from within, leaning back negligently on the hind legs of his chair to do so, but, on recognizing who stood before him, he leaped to his feet so suddenly that the chair fell over backward and the hum of talk in the room was silenced.
     In truth, the little old gentleman was a very great man. Every one there either knew him or wanted to know him, and not from interested motives; in honest admiration for what he could do they quite forgot how much he could bestow, and all the artists had come that evening—not one was absent but Loring. “It’s a piece of his usual luck,” the men assured each other, with an undefined feeling that unless something were done Loring would have to be given up; he was getting to be too much of a drain on their sympathies besides becoming a source of embarrassment to the fortunate; so all at once an unpremeditated stream of praise poured forth in his direction. Men joined the current in spite of themselves; the longer they tried to keep out of it the more enthusiastically they waded in at the end. And thus the old gentleman’s assiduous though diplomatic inquiries resulted in anything but disappointment “Still, the matter is by no means decided,” he assured himself as he left the house.
     All this time Loring sat in the darkest and narrowest corner of the veranda of his boarding-house, his fortune made—and utterly wretched!
     The lady of his choice knew where he was, but let him stay there: for while she was by no means unversed in dignified methods whereby men may be drawn unobtrusively from sulky corners, she did not choose to exert her skill. She was doing her duty. Those in authority had conveyed to her quite distinctly, though not in words, that it behooved her to exhibit a proper pride, and she sat on the wide side of the veranda in the moonlight, where a great many people could observe it. As she laughed and talked her good fortune seemed without bounds; she was the center of an adoring circle, the life of the house, the envy and the admiration of all other maidens; yet, she also—was utterly wretched!
     She had made up her mind not to go near Loring. I.oring had made up his mind to keep away from her. She thought him unwilling to risk his liberty in marrying a poor girl; he thought her unwilling to risk her comfort by encouraging a poor man. Each regarded the other as a serious disappointment; they entertained—as is not unusual with people who are what is called in love—the lowest possible estimate of each other’s generosity and singleness of heart.
     But as time went on they found their positions in this world quite unendurable. Loring left his dark corner precipitately, determined to go down to the wharf, away from the unmeaning babble with which his lady had so unworthily been surrounded, and the lady herself withdrew from the crowd, displeased that Loring had not joined it. They met on the step—it seemed a heaven-directed chance! So they went down to the wharf together.
     As they descended the irregular terraces of the old-fashioned garden, the bright moon was swinging clear in the sky. Far off a robin called in the woods, and was answered close at hand with sudden exquisite melody so sweet, so unearthly, that it thrilled the girl with terrified joy.
     “What is it?” she whispered, clinging to his arm.
     “I do not know,” he answered softly, “a bird—or an angel—hark!”
     The call from across the river came to them more faintly; they listened, but nothing followed. The answer was In Loring’s heart, tender, soaring with celestial jubilance! Was it the moonlight? or the luck in the air? Something was making him light-headed.
     There was an old sloop moored near the wharf. It had been there a year. They were going to sell it for something—”something Chinese,” Loring’s lady-love said, by way of conversation.
     “Junk? Is that what you mean?” asked Loring.
     “Yes,” she answered innocently, and Loring laughed aloud. Fortune had been so unkind to him that a single favorable turn of the wheel, even so small a boon as the causeless lightening of his savage despondency, made him giddy. He laughed for the sake of laughing, and to his lady-love it sounded as the crackling of thorns.
     Now, how is a man to know when laughter is folly? And how is a man’s sweetheart to divine whether he is happy or only rude? There are some who believe in intuitions, but they have forgotten—or else have never known. The real thing is not only essentially but wilfully blind.
     Loring was making a mistake; he was conscious of it, but he kept on laughing out of wounded feeling and idiotic self-assertion. Cannot a man laugh when he wishes without being misunderstood?
     Such Calibans as we sometimes are! If he had only been that bird calling from the dappled moonlit woods!
     Thus Loring’s lady-love was confirmed in the serious disappointment she had felt a while before. It was well, she reflected, that she had recognized her mistake in time; how little it takes to open a person’s eyes! Talking of other things she walked across the wharf and sat down on the stone coping at the edge. Long ago ships came in there to anchor; innumerable ladders ran down to the many little skiffs and dories attached to the mooring-rings; all the hard gravel of the space between the granite walls used from time to time to be covered with barrels and bales; and costly curios and frail china came home in the captain’s queer old hair trunk; but now the dories were gone, the mooring-rings were rusty, and the ladders had fallen to pieces from long disuse. The big ships no longer sailed in at high tide past the rough stone beacon at the mouth of the inlet, and the old wharf, deserted, ran out into the water, a sunken grass-covered square, framed in by rough gray battlements of granite. Across it the rattling boom of the worn-out sloop stretched white, a ghostly reminder of other days.
     When Loring’s lady-love dropped his arm she had crept under this boom, and seated herself with her back to the little harbor. She could see the tall mast of the sloop reaching far upward, and with the loose rigging making black lines against the sky. A fitful breeze moved the ropes and set the dangling chain to clanking faintly. The water, left behind in the rotten hold, gurgled out after the ebbing tide with a querulous, hurrying murmur.
     Loring had grown suddenly grave. He came up and rested his elbows on the end of the boom which swung a little under his weight, and leaning across it looked down at her. She was smiling, and his heart sank. It was a detached, unsympathetic, emancipated smile of the remote kind, harder to bear than many sneers.
     “I am done for now!” thought Loring. “That unlucky laugh!”
     For this is the way that lovers feel about their life-enduring, death-defying passion; a laugh prolonged, a breath too much, a smile whose motive is not clear—and love has perished! Oh, strong love!
     “If that is all her affection can stand,” he concluded silently, “it is well for me that I am not so far gone but that I may recover.” And yet his face, as the moon shone full upon it, looked haggard and worn, while from the girl’s lips the smile had slowly faded. The white light struck through the curling tangled hair about her forehead and made an aureole.
     Yes, her eyes had been opened! The process was curiously like martyrdom!
     And he, who might so easily recover, seemed as one struck by death!
     Yet they said nothing; only, to steady himself, he leaned against the long white boom and bent his head lower and lower to see her in the shadow. The dim pathetic face was not turned away, then—the boom did it!—it swung him toward her, and he kissed her!
     He asked for nothing, she promised nothing; they did not even speak to each other as they came up the steep grassy hill, but the people on the veranda saw them coming and said, some of them, that it was a shame for that girl to keep Loring dangling about her all summer; while others affirmed that Loring, in the present hand-to-mouth condition of his affairs, had no business to pay such exclusive attention to anybody. So earnestly did they discuss it that you might have imagined their opinion to be of weight and moment.
     Back in Loring’s deserted comer was one woman to whom all this talk was weariness. She yawned a little as fragments of it reached her ear, but suddenly, as he and his lady-love came from behind the shrubbery and stood on the moonlit steps, she sat up in her chair and watched them with interest. To the rest their coming was as all other comings; but to this woman—people of Loring’s age called her old—there was a difference. She gave a little sigh and then laughed unsteadily. “Oh the wisdom of folly!” she murmured.
     Earlier in the evening an old gentleman had been there—a charming old gentleman with a white mustache. She had known him in his younger days before he had turned his back once for all upon an ungrateful art, and those days were hard, so hard that even the prosperity of his later years could not obliterate this bitterness.
     “It is better for a man to fail in the thing he loves than to succeed in the thing he chooses,” he had said to her as he bade her good-by that evening, and she had smiled at him in sudden recognition of more than his words, one of those smiles that prove to a man he is not forgotten. He had turned away, convinced that in her eyes thirty years had wrought in him but little change, and had stepped oft jauntily, feeling far from old. But she, left alone in the twilight, had sat looking across the inlet into the eastern sky; it was slowly turning pink, the moon came up into it large and round. She was thinking of long ago, and into her clear blue eyes crept the look that, after we are fifty, stands for tears.
     For in those far off days she had promised nothing, and he had asked nothing. There had been no mysterious intimations of luck in the air, perverting common-sense; he had looked down upon her upturned face in the moonlight and had sighed and—gone away. And when later Loring and his lady-love came up from the wharf the beautiful lady had sighed also—and remembered.
     The next morning the little old gentleman arose with an Irresistible inclination to go and prove to somebody that he had never made a mistake in his life. He wanted, also, to talk about his wife. She was the wittiest, prettiest, youngest-looking little woman of her age he had ever seen. He could hardly wait to finish his breakfast so anxious was he to make this manifest.
     As a preliminary step toward finding a sympathetic listener he went over to the boarding-house and inquired for Loring, who—as he very well knew—would be sure to be out sketching. Had any one accused him of this subterfuge be would have de¬nied it, but on being informed of Loring’s probable whereabouts he exhibited an indifference hardly decent, and sauntered around the veranda, continuing his search for a confidant.
     He found one, sitting in the green shade of the sun-flecked grapevines. Her white hair was piled in snowy coils at the top of her head, her eyes were blue as the patches of sky seen through the diamond shaped openings between the leaves, and as she rose to greet him—the faint color coming and going in her perfect face—he marveled that he should have so forgotten her most majestic hight. No wonder, he thought to himself, that in days gone by he had been ready, not to live for her, but to die for her. Alas, so much the easier thing!
     And he could not check the reflection that in spite of the charm of perpetual youth there was yet something harmonious and just in a fulfilment of all conditions. What this woman was, she was; and that in itself was perfection!
     The big home-like house on this sunny, breezy day was quite deserted, and as he sat there alone with this beautiful, stately, imperial old love of his, the fiery little man felt a bewildered sense of peace and repose. Softly they talked, dropping a sentence here and there with pleasant unhurried ease, glancing half unheeding at the sky, at the hills or at the water of the inlet sparkling and rippling in the sun and wind; but all the while an imperceptible tide was drifting them back to a different scene in a long past time when they sat together, afraid to turn the page of life lest they find their story ended.
     They saw a cool low room darkened against the summer heat; a soft wind rattled the half closed blinds and swayed the thin white curtains sleepily. The air was sweet with the perfume of the petunia and mignonette which loomed in the sunlit garden, and outside the window the breeze in the pine tree hummed monotonously all day long a melody in tune with the bees.
     They spoke of none of these things, they only remembered, and the beautiful lady who had been intending to tell her old friend of the success of her boys in college, completely forgot their four stalwart existences; and as for the little old gentleman’s inclination to talk about his wife—it was no longer irresistible! Memory, in blowing away the ashes of every-day life, had played them a trick; for on beholding that which was left they discovered that the cinders were burning coals.
     “Great heavens!” thought he with a sort of terrified exultation. “To think that I’ve not got over it! At my age, too! There must be something real about it after all. And what the dickens shall I talk of?”
     Then straightway, with tactful ease, the beautiful lady fell to discussing Loring and his lady-love, and if unconsciously in the telling of their story past experience supplied the place of present facts, and observation was made to bend to inference, who shall blame her? Not the little old gentleman surely, who, recognizing this with joyous acumen, felt himself in the mood to infer also, to limitless extent.
     Never were lovers so well understood, nor lovers’ trials rehearsed with more delicate sympathy. With what tender irony were their weaknesses condoned, with what gentle envy was their strength made clear! How adorable their rashness, and yet how reasonable had been their fears.
     And all the while, blown by treacherous memory, the coals glowed incandescent, lighting all the shadowy corners of the past. In the lady’s cheeks the soft pink burned rosy red, and the little old gentleman felt a dreamy enchanted uncertainty as to what was the year or the date. So they parted, at last—understanding.
     In the meantime Loring was down in the garden painting a gate. A smoke-tree arched over it, and the holly-hocks with tall pink stems pointed upward close by; little downy puff-balls of poppies grew white near the ground, and in the shadows a girl stood waiting. It was a wonderful picture. The little old gentleman on his way home stepped aside to look at it, and sighed, and looked, and sighed again.
     “You’ll never do that a second time,” he said abruptly. “You may do better. You’ll very likely do worse; but just that you will never repeat! For heaven’s sake don’t spoil it—whatever happens!” He called the last over his shoulder as he hurried off.
     “The old duffer’s crazy,” said Loring to his sweetheart. “What could happen?”
     “Nothing could happen,” she answered confidently.
     And contrary to all precedent in “tale or history” nothing, in the sense she intended, did happen. Loring received the appointment. He had not dreamed of such a possibility, and after doing all they could to procure it for him his friends united in declaring that it was preposterous that he should have it; but when it came he took it, and kept it with no doubt or searchings of conscience as to his fitness to hold it—wherein he displayed an element of strength not wholly unexpected by those who knew him.
     And so he became famous; he also grew rich. Moreover, in the course of his true love there was never so much as a ripple of mischance; but he might live an hundred years, even a thousand, and never would he know a morning of such keen, strange pleasure as was experienced by the beautiful lady and the little old gentleman when the success of his future was finally decided by the memory of their failure in the past!

“An Exception” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in The Independent v. 51, no. 2616, January 19, 1899; reprinted in Massachusetts Ploughman and New England Journal of Agriculture v. 58, no. 20, February 11, 1899, and in Dead Letters, and Other Pieces by Mary Tappan Wright, 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 4/2/2008
This page last updated 4/2/2008.

Published by Fleabonnet Press.