Oh, a crime will do
As well, I reply, to serve for a test,
As a virtue, golden through and through.
FOR a long time Cunliffe had been trying to remember something—searching vainly as he lay upon his bed through dim somnolent nights and lingering, restless days, for the lost clew to some tormenting memory, and questioning himself incessantly with a painful sense of harm impending.
In the retrospect the days seemed gray, but the nights, like this one, were shot with fire, which even now was beginning to dance upon the walls and redden the folds of the thin white curtains. He drew a slow breath through his teeth as he watched it, bracing himself anew for the dumb contention with pain that had lasted—how long? Forever it seemed, and yet it could scarcely have been more than a week, two at the most, since he and Florence Macgregor—
Was that what he had been trying to remember?
“Wait a minute,” he whispered, as if the fleeting impression might hear in passing. Then, frowning with the effort of concentration, he looked upward. On the shadowy yellow surface of the ceiling directly over his head two enormous spirals, like great curling horns of ruddy purple, were twisting and turning tormentingly. Almost unconsciously, as their wavering outlines caught his eye, the half-grasped recollection slipped from the weakened hold of his memory and another train of thoughts presented itself. Was that a fire on the hearth after all, not a fire of the brain, which flickered in the corners and caused those hideous grotesques to threaten and deride him from the ceiling? Why had it not struck him before—their strong family resemblance to the wrought-iron tops of Edith’s last tasteful acquisition in andirons?
“Ah!” He started violently, his hand pressed hard upon his side. Preceded by a sudden thud, a half-burned log had fallen from the andirons and was rolling, crackling, to the front of the fireplace, where it brought up finally against the fender. Cunliffe sat up in bed.
It was a fire on the hearth then, after all! A good honest blaze of sound, hard maple—no glimmering Jack o’ Lantern of a fevered imagination. If he had only known it long ago! Relieved, but panting, he fell back upon the pillow.
How peaceful the room felt now! With the exception of a dull glow from the bed of coals behind the andirons, there was very little light left, and down in the lower hall a leisurely clock was ticking almost inaudibly. “They have neglected to wind it,” Cunliffe said to himself, and closed his eyes, still listening. The long, slow sweep of the pendulum seemed to take him with it, swinging idly to and fro, from side to side; until, somewhere between its going and its coming, he lightly fell asleep.
From the smouldering log at the front of the hearth a thin line of smoke crept out for an inch or two and then curled sluggishly upward, filling the air with a faintly acrid odor, and widening Cunliffe’s dreamy horizons to those yellow days when the fires in distant forests make incense for half a continent, and, all unconscious, men walk in one vast autumnal cathedral echoing with aspirations and regrets.
In the tender pain of that October melancholy a memory returned to him, a memory of two people in a rough garden that sloped toward the west. It was after sunset. One beyond the other, a dark succession of wooded hills stretched out before them; the far-off valleys were shimmering with mist; but the sky was still clear and light, shading from the crimson, that formed the background of a distant range of purple mountains, through orange and yellow to a faint cold green that darkened overhead in star-flecked blue. Below them, half way down the rocky slope, a great pile of brush, quivering violet and darting red, blazed against the gloomy twilight of the landscape.
“Our summer is ending in an apotheosis of flowers,” said the woman, as a tongue of flame shot upward, feathering to a stream of sparks.
“Better—in a holocaust of dreams!” said the man.
She turned her head, smiling slightly at the bitterness of his tone. “A touch of frost was all that was needed,” she said, and jumping from the bowlder upon which she had been seated, she moved toward the entrance of the enclosure and waited for him to let down the bars.
“And then, what happened?” he whispered, his light, uneasy slumber gliding without conscious break into a drowsy wakefulness. “What happened?”
Something—and something that imperiously demanded recall. All day long it had been about him; even now it was close upon him; a touch, a scent, a sound, and from out of the chaos of suffering in which it had been lost to him the memory of it would spring forth clear and persistent. If he could but rest undisturbed to follow out the clew that had come to him in his sleep.
“‘A holocaust of dreams,’” he murmured. “Did that end it?” What had he said to Florence Macgregor when, after putting up the bars, they had turned toward the black shadows of the narrow avenue with its overarching boughs of elm and maple?
But the hissing swish of their own footsteps in the drifts of fallen leaves was the only sound that echoed back to him.
At the fork of the road Edith and Macgregor were waiting for them. Perhaps it had ended there, when, as in a decorous quadrille, the music ceasing, each had turned away with his legitimate partner. The Macgregors were to leave on the following day. He could hear Florence’s laughing good-by as she hurried down the hill with her husband. Edith said she was glad to go; in fact, Edith had said nothing else all the way home. Edith never approved of people who did not like the country in winter. She had resumed the subject at dinner, by way of rubbing it in—and then, did he lose his temper?
Ah! he had it at last. He remembered now: he had gone off in a rage and shut himself up in his study; and had he written something? What had he written?
A sharp blast of keen, cold air blew in from the hall; someone had opened the front door. Cunliffe felt his whole frame relax; he had lost the clew again, and he was too weak to care.
“That is Macgregor himself,” he muttered, as a rough, Scottish voice came grumbling up the stairs. “What is he coming here for at this time of night? Now that I come to think of it, he has been in off and on all along.” Cunliffe looked troubled. “Is it possible,” he murmured, “that in addition to his enormous practice Macgregor has been taking this thirty-mile journey every day on my account? He is not a young man by any means. What is that he is saying about catching the one o’clock train back to the city? Here they are now.”
The knob of the door which led into the adjoining room turned softly, there was a flood of light, and the doctor entered with Mrs. Cunliffe, who hurried toward the fireplace with an exclamation of annoyance.
“The room is full of smoke!” she said, taking up the tongs and trying to move the heavy log, which escaped her hold and overturned the andirons.
The doctor, who had gone to the bedside, frowned as the pulse under his fingers leaped in response to the crash.
“Let that alone,” he said, impatiently; but with another ring of metal the andirons were dragged into place and the log adjusted.
“I seldom relinquish anything I once undertake,” she whispered, complacently.
“An’ it’s a verra disagree’ble trait o’ character,” muttered Macgregor.
Cunliffe’s eyes, full of laughter, opened upon him for an instant, but immediately closed as Mrs. Cunliffe turned toward him. Releasing the wrist he had continued to hold, the doctor motioned to her to follow him into the next room.
Cunliffe watched them go with an unaccountable feeling of dull shame and self-reproach. “For the life of me,” he muttered, “I can’t see what I have done, and yet I feel like a felon. How old and worn Macgregor was looking.”
“Well, I’m off,” he heard him say in the hall. “I’m glad you telegraphed about the nurse, an’ I’ll send another by seven in the morning. It isn’t safe to be without. Be careful about the nourishment, an’ mind ye give him the brandy every two hours. Keep your temperance principles for some more auspeecious occasion. We’ll pull him through yet. To all intents and purposes, the man’s on the high road to recovery.”
“I am glad you do not feel anxious,” Cunliffe heard his wife say, placidly.
“Um-m-anxious,” said the doctor, dubiously; “no, I’m not exactly anxious, but at the same time I can’t say I’m any too easy about him either.”
Cunliffe raised his head in order to hear more clearly, for they were descending the stairs.
“So long as he keeps himself quiet,” the doctor continued, “ he’s as safe as ye are yourself, but if he took it into his head to go downstairs, as he insisted on doin’ last week, he’d kill himself. Yes, madam, he’d kill himself—dead as a herrin’.”
“Downstairs?” repeated Cunliffe. “Downstairs?” But the doctor was speaking more distinctly than ever, and he turned toward the door again to listen.
“Yes, beyond a doubt he’s a strong man, an’, as you say, he’s got a sound constitution; but nevertheless, in his present state he’s at the mercy o’ the slightest exertion. The least little shock or strain an’, by Garge, he’d snuff out like the wick o’ a can’le! An’ I don’t care if he hears me say so!”
The front door slammed upon this parting shot, and Cunliffe looked thoughtful as he let himself down upon the pillows.
“So that confounded Argus-eyed nurse has gone. And the next one will not arrive until seven—over six hours—and Edith on guard—sure to fall asleep. Why did I wish to go downstairs? I should be a fool to try it after what he has just said—and yet—What was that?”
A long, low, rumbling sound seemed to come from the hall below. Cunliffe’s heart struck against his breast with a violent thud, followed by a strange breathless flutter. Edith was cautiously trying to open the sliding door of his study, a small room directly beneath and seldom used by anyone except himself.
What was she searching for?
What might she find?
Clear, persistent, terrible, memory at last confronted him.
“That letter!” he whispered, every faculty concentrated in an agony of listening. “I left it in my desk.”
Edith was coming. How heavily her foot-fall dragged upon the stairs! Had she found it, then? How could he meet her? What should he say to her? Oh, the folly, the folly of it all!
He closed his eyes as she came into the room in order not to see her face, and then he opened them because he could no longer endure suspense.
She was carrying a quantity of writing materials in one hand, and the light from a lamp which she held in the other shone upward, accentuating her usual expression of severe, unmoved, delicate serenity.
She had not seen the letter.
A choking rose in Cunliffe’s throat. In his great and sudden relief an astonishing inclination toward tears and laughter almost overcame him, but his wife’s presence forced him to self-control.
Putting down her burdens she opened a small cabinet on the mantel-shelf. Cunliffe knew that she was looking for his keys, and his heart sank with apprehension; but after searching drawer after drawer without success she turned away. “I shall be compelled to copy it to-morrow morning,” she said, impatiently. “He must have left them in one of his pockets.”
Cunliffe understood: she had wanted to get some of the foolscap paper upon which she usually presented the reports of certain public charities in which she was interested. In the morning she would hunt up the keys, open the desk, and—that letter to Florence Macgregor was lying unfolded just inside the flap. He remembered clearly enough now.
Feigning to be asleep, he watched her through his half-closed eyelids as she moved about the room, her every foot-fall causing the bottles on the table at his bedside to rattle together with a gentle, irritating click.
“Never mind,” he said at last, when after throwing a fresh log upon the fire she drew aside the chair which screened his eyes from the blaze. “Never mind.”
“But it is no trouble at all,” she answered, putting away a large fan that had been placed upon the bureau to hide from him his own reflection in the mirror, “ and you will sleep so much better when things are in order.”
Cunliffe uttered a half-suppressed groan as his dark, cadaverous face and the sharp, suggestive folds of the bedclothes above the gaunt outlines of his figure were dimly returned to him from the opposite wall
“Is there anything more I can do? “ she asked, coming to his side and looking down at him anxiously.
“No,” said Cunliffe. “No, my dear, I do not think a single thing remains undone.”
She hesitated a moment; then, with a little sigh, moved toward the door.
“Good-night,” said Cunliffe, gently.
She turned back swiftly, and stooping, kissed him on the forehead. “Get well,” she said, in the half-conscious, awkward tone of a person who seldom expresses any emotion. “Oh, get well.” Then taking up her lamp and writing-materials she went away, leaving the door open behind her.
By raising himself slightly upon his elbow, Cunliffe could see her as she arranged her books and papers upon her desk at the far end of the next room. The little wrinkles at the corners of his tired eyes deepened slightly as he smiled, noting her flowing silk wrapper and full lace ruffles.
“Poor dear,” he thought with a sort of impatient compassion. “ She seems to have gone and got herself up expressly for the occasion. I dare say that is the conventional costume for a ministering angel—an obstinate angel, and—an angel with a touch of temper,” reflectively noting the slight tinge of pink that, as she stood above the lamp, distinctly tipped her straight, fine nose. “Pray Heaven that the reports prove not too interesting,” he added, anxiously, as she seated herself at her desk and began writing.
For a time her steady pen moved mechanically over the paper, and Cunliffe, following, in imagination, the well-ordered sentences, shrugged his shoulders over their probable facile conventionality.
“What a relief it must be to her,” he thought, “to have me safely shelved, and be able to revel in copy-book maxims unrebuked. Nevertheless, when she gets before that committee she will carry her point, and the resentful pauper will be aided in the manner at once best for his welfare and least agreeable to his susceptibilities. She has done the same before, by—other poor devils not so obviously indigent—and yet —”
He did not finish, but bent forward and noiselessly drawing a fur-lined dressing-gown from the foot of the bed put it around his shoulders. Then resting his chin upon his elbow, he stared at the flickering blaze that leaped around the fresh log in the fireplace.
As if in corollary to his thoughts there rose before him the memory of a flying boat; and clinging to its slanting taffrail, facing the dash of the waves, a woman stood fearless and keen-eyed, her wet, dark hair curling from under her close brown felt hat, and a faint red warming the tan on her cheeks. Full of life and health, full of resource and intelligence, she cleated a sheet or gave the skipper a hand at the tiller while he let out a reef in the sail; and then, as they sped along before the wind, standing in the bow with one arm flung around the mast, her reckless figure defined, now in splendid coloring against the deep blue of the sea and again in dark gray silhouette high on the cloud-flecked sky, he watched her, and listened, as she told strange tales, quoted queer books, and flung forth daring philosophies—and the joy of living filled the universe.
“And yet,” persisted Cunliffe, with uncompromising justice—“and yet, if there is any good in me, it is due to Edith’s influence, and to Edith’s alone. There is something in her bitter honesty and tactless truthfulness that calls out one’s best, one’s very best. With all her conventionality, too, she cares for me, cares for me a good deal—almost enough to keep herself awake. And she trusts me, absolutely. Would to God that letter had never been written!”
Suddenly he sat up and put his hand to his side, with difficulty suppressing a groan. What a wretched wrench in the region of the heart! A twinge like that meant something serious. What if he should “snuff out,” as Macgregor said, then and there?
And the letter?
Decidedly, the sooner he went downstairs and destroyed it the better; that was one of the things you could not leave to chance.
Turning slowly, with a caution born of the fear of increasing his pain, Cunliffe looked eagerly into the adjoining room. Edith was leaning back with her eyes closed, her arm resting upon her desk. She was not asleep, for her right hand, slightly raised in the air, still held the pen suspended.
Cunliffe looked at her a moment judicially, and then quite silently made a heap of all the pillows, and half reclining leaned back upon them, keeping her still in view.
“I give her a quarter of an hour longer,” he said to himself. “She is thinking, and thought is fatal—to both of us, by the way. Thank Heaven, that torment is decreasing. I wish I had less faith in Macgregor’s medical opinion—I’m really not particularly anxious to die just yet. If there were only someone to send—the new nurse, for example. I couldn’t trust the other, but this one perhaps— Ah! how tired I get.”
He shifted the heavy gown wearily from one shoulder to the other. It was a picturesque garment, and Cunliffe took pleasure in the fact that in it he did not look repulsive. A feeling of personal fitness was so essential to his comfort that he had even insisted upon sending for the barber the previous morning. But there was nothing fatuous in the face he turned toward the lighted doorway of the other room; on the contrary, it was full of a certain rough force and vigor, and, in spite of its slight touch of cynicism, was not without sweetness. Although he was a short man, his frame was that of an athlete; his thin hands had the square look and negligent hang characteristic of powerful muscle; he sat very still too, for the habits of strength were those of his lifetime.
At last he shook his head. To send the nurse was out of the question: the risk of her discovery was too great and the prospect of her discretion too dubious. He called himself a fool for thinking of it. “And yet—if I go myself —”
For awhile his thoughts outran their idle expression; then he sighed. “And so men have died,” he resumed, dreamily, “and the worms have eaten them—but not for love. There are certain large verities lurking in the background of life that at crucial moments stalk silently to the front, whether we would or no. And love—or shall we call it folly?—goes to the wall. Sometimes, also, it takes us with it, for man’s most powerful affinity in this world is an affinity for being a fool. Foreordained for each of us and destined for his destruction is one colossal piece of idiocy which, perhaps, he may never encounter; but if he does, then crash! Everything goes! It is in this respect that folly so strongly resembles love. In fact”—Cunliffe’s eyes softened to a smile—“there are times when man cannot tell the two apart; but this is because of his blindness. For we none of us know what love is, although in the course of a long and varied term of years we believe that we have often found it. We pay our vows to the right of it and sigh our sighs to the left of it; we may even die for it, ignorant that since the beginning it has waited directly in front of us.” He raised himself farther upon the pillows, and, looking in at his wife, laughed gently. “Such grim jokes do the Ulterior Fates delight in,” he murmured.
Just then her hand slid along the desk and fell into her lap; the penholder rolled from her relaxed fingers and fell noisily to the floor, but she did not heed—only turned her head a little and settled herself more comfortably in her chair.
Cunliffe waited a few minutes longer, and then, raising his hand, deliberately knocked a teaspoon off the table at the head of his bed. It struck upon some metallic substance with a loud ring, and on reaching the ground spun wildly around, rattling a sharp tattoo on the bare boards. Cunliffe leaned forward eagerly; Edith did not stir. “ I thought so,” he said; “she is safe now for at least three hours, if not longer.”
He had always considered this heavy slumber a stupid, somewhat plebeian, trait; but now the pink color he so often criticised had died out of her face, which was of that clear and dainty type usually accompanying an abundance of reddish golden hair. Her straight, refined nose and delicate, severe mouth showed as if cut in ivory against the dark cushions of her high-backed chair. She looked so white, so remote and helpless, that Cunliffe was seized with sudden ruth. “I feel as if I were playing her a shabby trick,” he whispered; “ but there is no time to waste now in splitting hairs.—Better a dead lion than a live dog!”
He pulled the dressing-gown farther over his shoulders, and after struggling with the sleeves, sprang up alertly, only to rock helplessly to and fro the moment he landed upon his feet. Catching hold of the foot-board of the bed as a support, he walked more cautiously toward the closet, where he was sure his clothing must have been placed the first morning of his illness. As he let himself in, he was struck with surprise by the icy coldness of the air that met him.
“Nothing like two weeks in bed to make a man tender,” he muttered impatiently, as he felt among the hanging garments, and by sheer good-fortune found the pocket in which he had left his keys. As he drew them out he chanced to loosen a heavy overcoat, which fell upon him and bore him to the ground with such force and weight that he could not find strength to rise again.
Creeping laboriously he made his way out of the closet and, with a growing sense of the absurdity of his position, began slowly to cross the floor, the keys in one hand and the coat still pressing upon his shoulders; all at once, throwing it off with a furious motion, he staggered to his feet, and reeling forward to the foot of the bed, lay there breathing deep and painfully, like a spent swimmer. “Man is a vain savage,” he muttered.
For awhile he remained quiet, nerving himself for the fresh exertion of descending into the lower hall, and trying to conquer the sick tremor of dizziness that assailed him at every thought of the sharp turn at the head of the stairs and the narrow edges of the steps just above the landing.
It was characteristic of Cunliffe that the thought of foregoing his purpose at no time occurred to him. His habit of making up his mind rapidly and surely, and of always keeping his object resolutely in view, had not been in the least affected by his bodily weakness. “I must take something to steady my nerves,” he muttered, and turning to the table at the head of his bed, he poured himself a stiff glass of brandy and drank it. The effect was almost magical; rising, he walked securely from the room, and descending the stairs, passed the sharp turn with scarcely a thought of dizziness; reaching the landing in safety, he sat down to rest for a moment on the broad cushioned seat built into the large window that lighted the lower hall.
With an indifferent turn of the hand he drew aside the curtain, and then started with amazement. The ground in every direction was covered deep with snow.
“Winter! “ he murmured. “ How long have I been ill?”
The light from the moon, already sinking to the west, glittered on the lower half of the window-panes through every fantastic device that frost could create. The sky arched upward in an infinite depth of dark clear blue, from which the great stars, double their ordinary size, hung spheroidal, pulsing slowly like drops of liquid gold about to fall. The shadows of the fir-trees lay sharp-edged and black in gigantic pointed fronds along the lawn, and all between the delicate branches of the elms were traced upon the snow with the fineness of an etching. There was not a breath of wind in the dry, frozen air; but on turning his eyes eastward, Cunliffe noted a gray indistinctness in the outlines of the hills, blending them by imperceptible gradations with the leaden heaviness of the lower sky. It was a sign of intense cold. He shivered, and rose to continue his way downstairs.
From the wide fireplace of the lower hall a great bed of coals shed a cheerful glow upon the ceiling, gleamed in the brasses, and flickered in the polish of the furniture. Cunliffe crossed the floor and stood in front of the tall clock. Its expressionless face told him many things: the hour, the year, the phase of the moon, the day of the week, the day of the month.
“January!” he murmured. “January? No wonder I have forgotten how to walk. Well, that settles me, I suppose.”
He turned feebly in the direction of the study, relieved to find that his wife had not closed the heavy door. Clutching a chair here, a curtain there, steering warily like a man in strange waters with an eye always ahead for the next obstacle, he made his way to his desk, and unlocking the flap, took out the letter. Then slipping the key into his pocket, with his last remnant of energy he floundered into an easy-chair by the window and held the letter up before his eyes. “I mean to read this, whatever happens,” he said to himself.
His writing was bold and black, very large and plainer than print; in the bright moonlight, aided by the reflections from the snow, he read with ease. It was not a long letter, and as he finished it his hand dropped in his lap, and he sat looking out of the window.
“Folly again,” he murmured, and a great temptation assailed him; for in those lines there pulsed a living something that for the moment would not be denied; a folly so splendid, so dominant, that its imperious beauty annihilated all sense of shame or of compunction.
Once more he raised the letter and read it through. He would leave it in the desk. He still had strength to seal it. If he put a request upon the envelope that it should be sent privately, he knew that Edith would deliver it unread and alone.
“And I should like Florence Macgregor to know me as I really am,” he thought, and then laughed. For his wish was granted. What he really was she knew already. Only what had been hidden, dormant, denied, she knew not.
With a quick sigh, he kissed the paper, then deliberately tore it in two; and forgetting himself completely, rose and walked boldly to the middle of the floor; but here his strength deserted him. He did not fall headlong, but sank slowly to his knees, and then after resting a moment on the palm of his hand slipped gradually sidewise until he lay motionless, his head upon his arm, the torn pages of the letter grasped close to his heart.
The moon dropped down behind the fir-trees, and the light passed from the window. With a soft, rustling crackle the fire died out in the hall. The forgotten clock ticked listlessly, more and more slowly, until it stopped. Sound like a tide ebbed away in the distance, and a gray darkness filled the room with shadows.
Gasping through successive depths of cold and misery Cunliffe returned at last to the consciousness of an insurmountable weakness that left no space for vanity as he painfully dragged himself to the door. Thence it seemed an endless journey before he reached his goal at the foot of the stairway and saw, pale and clear above him, the starlit window on the landing. Drawing long sobs of exhaustion he climbed laboriously up the steps, and supporting himself against the wainscoting, crept along the upper hall. Hitherto, although he had had no conscious aim but that of finding himself again in his own room, he had never once relaxed his vice-like grasp upon the crumpled papers in his hand. Now, as lie stood in his doorway, the faint red glow in the fire-place opposite caught his eye; crossing toward it as if in pursuance of some well-laid plan, he dropped the letter on the smouldering log and then staggered almost senseless to his bed.
There he lay and shivered, battling silently with a sickening sense of sinking and falling through the air, his face turned with a sort of mute appeal toward the door of the room where Edith was sleeping; but although he believed that he was dying, the thought of calling for help did not present itself to his benumbed intelligence. Still, when finally he heard her stir uneasily and push back her chair from the desk, a stinging spray of hot tears burned suddenly on his eyelids, testifying to his desperate relief.
She moved quietly at first, and then with the abrupt decision of a person fully awake and startled at the passage of time. Her lamp had gone out, and Cunliffe heard the sharp crackle of a match. The next minute she came into the room; he could see that she was frightened; her hand trembled as she held the candle. In spite of the doctor’s warning she had forgotten the stimulant.
Stumbling over the heavy gown which he had slipped off at the side of the bed, she let fall a little drop of burning grease on his cheek.
“Eros and Psyche,” he muttered faintly. “I shall disappear before daylight!”
She shook her head, but he could see that she was slightly encouraged to find in him the mockery of his characteristic mood.
“How could I be so careless?” she murmured.
“Do not be troubled. I drank nearly all there was there about an hour ago.”
She turned to the table and lifted the flask. It was very light; Cunliffe saw the relief leap to her eyes. “There is just enough left for this time,” she said. “Can you sit up?”
He could not, but he looked at her lazily and smiled, as if only the will to move and not the strength were lacking. She slipped her arm behind him and, helping him gently to a reclining posture, gave him the brandy. Then propping him up with the pillows she left him a moment while she lighted another lamp and went in search of the nourishment about which the doctor had been so strenuous.
Cunliffe was very weak. He lay moving his hand nervously to and fro along the linen sheet that lay across his lap; suddenly it clinched, and he sat up rigid, with eyes wide open and aghast.
His letter had not burned:—it lay there, still on the log, but not as he had thrown it; gradually uncurling in the heat, both pieces were opened fully to the gaze of the earliest comer. Even from that distance he could see the form of the bold black writing in the first short line. Any line but that! for Edith was returning.
Carefully closing the door into the hall, she sat down upon the bed-side and fed him the steaming bouillon with evident pleasure in the opportunity.
In spite of his frightful exhaustion Cunliffe talked on and on, feebly but incessantly, in order to retain her attention. Plying her with gentle gibes he kept her eyes upon his until she passed through the doorway into her own room, her face wearing a look of timid hopefulness that softened its every asperity.
“Now if I do snuff out,” he said to himself, “she will have no cause for self-reproach: I am so evidently better.” But his strength was ebbing with every breath he took.
“I may be mistaken,” he thought, fingering his oddly fluttering pulse with strange, impersonal curiosity, “but I am afraid I have broken something inside. Well—it justifies my faith in Macgregor; and—also his mistrust of me. That speechifying in the lower hall last night was not without its object. I wonder what he suspected? Between a woman and a doctor, especially one of Macgregor’s experience, the best place for a man who means to keep something to himself is a certain grisly bourne toward which I am rapidly tending. How tired the traveller gets! Fortunately, he is not called upon to return. Am I going to sleep? I cannot go to sleep now—with that letter lying there!” He made a feeble effort to rise, but his eyelids were closing.
“And Edith,” he murmured drowsily, “whose favorite boast has always been that we had positively no secrets from each other!” The next instant, mastered by unconquerable languor, he fell into a dull, torpid slumber.
In the shock of bad news and in the haste of her departure the evening before, the nurse had neglected to close the shutters of the window opposite the foot of Cunliffe’s bed; later on his wife had drawn up the shade also, forgetting to pull it down again. And now, in the colorless winter’s dawn, a dark grayish triangle, bounded by the black, sweeping lines of the curtains, began to gather shape at the sash. Slowly it paled, and as the light increased a hazy net-work of bare twigs and branches formed against the whiteness without.
In the other room Edith noiselessly extinguished her lamp and stretched herself upon the lounge. Everything about was lifeless, pallid, forlorn; she hid her head in the pillows to escape that moment of profound revolt with which the soul instinctively recoils from the first dreary call of coming day.
For awhile it seemed as if both were sleeping. Then translucent, crystalline, a splendid yellow spread and deepened in the sky. Cunliffe opened his eyes, and looked thoughtfully at the window. The black, clear reticulations of the branches seemed to inclose the living heavens like a jewel in an oriental carving.
“‘No secrets from each other! No . . . other!’”
Hitherto he had always heard this statement of Edith’s with a comfortable persuasion of his own magnanimity in allowing her to cherish any idea whatever that happened to please her; now, the persistence of its repetition struck him in. a new light. Had she wished to stifle a doubt? In the grim widening of his horizon the tolerant amusement of his old attitude seemed mean and small beside the large, determined trustfulness of hers.
He closed his eyes; and, wrought by an invisible sculptor, the gaunt, stern outlines of his face momentarily deepened.
“I cannot go until I get that letter,” he whispered; but when he tried to rise his head seemed riveted to the pillow. For a moment he struggled, and then things grew black before him.
Was someone standing in the doorway? Edith, of course; she was always inopportune, poor girl! Was it time for that brandy again?
And the letter, the letter!
He moaned feebly and turned away his head. There was a pause, a little clink of glass, and then she stole softly from the room. She had gone downstairs to refill the empty flask.—One chance left!
With a terrible effort he succeeded in dragging himself up upon his elbow, and was trying to slip to the floor in the vain hope of finding strength to crawl to the fire-place, when shrill and noisy, from somewhere in the house, came the long, disturbing rattle of an electric bell; the next instant Macgregor’s loud, cheery voice sounded in anxious inquiries from below.
Cunliffe’s heart gave a fierce, painful bound and then began to flutter violently. Striking his clinched fist upon his forehead with a gesture of despair, he made a last frantic attempt to leave his bed.
Someone in the hall was trying to open his door.
“Do not come in,” he called, without ceasing his struggles or even glancing over his shoulder. But the knob continued softly to turn, and the new nurse appeared, terrified, on the threshold; the next instant she was gone, forgetting to close the door behind her.
But Cunliffe heeded neither her advent nor her departure. Abruptly he had ceased all effort, and resting upon his elbow, was staring at the fireplace.
With the opening of the door a light flame had shot up at the base of the smouldering log upon which the hot yellow papers were lying.
Cunliffe held his breath. Unconscious of weakness he rose, inch by inch, as if drawn by some outward power, until, propping himself on one trembling arm, he sat upright—waiting.
A puff of smoke—a fierce, short blaze—the letter was gone!
“Oh, man, man!” cried the doctor, running into the room. “Why didn’t ye heed my warning?”
Cunliffe did not answer. His eyes were fixed upon the flakes of soft, black ash that were lazily floating up the chimney. In front of the window the red, clear disk of the sun was slowly climbing among the bare, graceful boughs of the elm-tree. A moment of peace, of utter gladness, had come to Cunliffe.
“Things have turned out pretty well after all,” he murmured, and then fell back among the pillows.
Self-possessed and resourceful, the new nurse stole forward, seconding the doctor’s vain efforts as one after another he tried his ineffectual remedies. At the foot of the bed stood Edith, breathless, her arms bent, her hands drawn rigidly to her sides, in the tense attitude of one about to run a race.
At last, straightening himself from his stooping posture, Macgregor looked across at his assistant and shook his head; almost imperceptibly, assenting, the woman bent hers in return.
Grave and thoughtful, never so wonted to death as to see it without awe, and yet too familiar to meet it with amazement, these two, whose profession was the healing of the living, waited in silent acknowledgment of the end of their usefulness. There was not a sound in the room.
Then Edith threw her hands above her head with a long, mourning cry. “Oh, what shall I do?” she wailed. “I am a widow, a widow indeed! He was all that I had!”
Her voice rang on her ears querulous and self-conscious, rebuked by the mute, austere sincerity of Death.
She wished that she had not spoken. She was glad that Cunliffe could not hear.
“Cunliffe” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in
Scribner's Magazine v. 20, no. 3, September 1896; reprinted in
Pro Tempore, and Other Stories by Mary Tappan Wright, edited by Brian Kunde, Mountain House, Fleabonnet Press, 2007.
The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is
©2007-2008 by Brian Kunde.