― 187 ―

A Book of Verses.

When Richard Branch told his wife that he would be obliged to spend the summer at one of their northern stations instead of accompanying her to town as usual, she found herself incapable of expressing surprise. For a long time she had known that they were approaching a crisis, and this announcement had so startling an air of finality that it could not pass without definite explanation.

She remembered that of late Richard had worked with a feverish energy, and that she had found him practising little futile economies as though he knew the necessity for retrenchment, and hoped that his own care might meet the situation. She had waited for a suggestion of retrenchment in the household, but none came; and so, with a silence stubborn as his own, she, too, had economised in ways which would make things lighter for him when the crisis came.

Now she felt that she was to know something definite of the trouble. Her heart rose to the knowledge courageously, with relieved expectation of certainty instead of suspense.

For once, however, her husband was singularly blind to the needs of the moment. In reply to Hester's helpful “Why?” he would only say that the Ten-Mile property had been going down lately, and needed his personal attention. Therefore he had decided to spend the summer there.

“Then, if it is really necessary for you to go to Ten-Mile, Richard,” she said, “of course I shall change my plans and accompany you. It will certainly be far more economical than going to the Bay.”

She had the satisfaction of seeing his eyelids flutter in momentary surprise, but when he answered her it was with the habitual half-humorous courtesy that characterised their intercourse.

“Indeed, you must do nothing of the kind,” he said. “A summer at Ten-Mile would bore you to death, and the heat would be very bad for you, I am sure. As for economy, I don't know that that was mentioned.”

“No,” said Hester, facing him desperately, “that's just it. It is not mentioned, but, of course, I know it must be at the bottom of this necessity. Why not admit it?”

He smiled. “If it comes to that,” he said, “economy is at the bottom of most things in this world; and, of course, it is economy of a kind for me to look after my property rather than allow it to go to wrack and ruin in the hands of a stranger.”

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Hester gasped. She had to admit that the evasion was peculiarly praise-worthy, and she had never known Richard advance beyond the bounds of obvious platitudes before. She found herself wondering if he was at all conscious of the avenues of thought to which that remark of his might lead. Yet the evasion, as an evasion, irritated her to argument, and she pointed out to Richard that he would be uncomfortable without a woman to look after him, that she would enjoy the experience, and, finally, that she really wished to accompany him to Ten-Mile. But for once Richard was so versatile in excuses as to make argument useless. Hester soon recognised it and gave in; but the conversation, and its sequel in Richard's departure, left behind, besides the old suspense, an inexplicable soreness in Hester's heart. She was hurt that he had not confided in her, yet she recognised the consideration of his silence. He was shielding her, and unreasonably she resented it.

Their marriage, three years before, had been purely one of convenience—a dangerous precedent, yet, in this instance, undeniably successful. Hester was 25, alone in the world, brought up to wealth, and suited for the life of social triumph that she coveted before all else; he was alone, too, but with the means to satisfy all her desires and himself yearning for someone to entertain for him and make a home of his beautiful empty house. From the beginning they were quite frank with each other. Neither was in the least sentimental, neither very young, and that was a safeguard against possible regrets by-and-bye. Thus, after three years they were both outwardly satisfied while little more intimate than at the time of their marriage.

In their very difference from other people they made a possibility of the position. Each had a pride that taught them to recognise and avoid the dangers of the situation, the worst being a too frequent companionship, that ruin of much married happiness in ordinary cases. Both were workers of the strenuous sort, Hester as much socially as Richard with brain and pen; and therein lay their greatest safeguard against each other. The very difficulties of the situation appealed to Hester's fighting spirit, and she rose to the occasion valiantly, with something of that brilliance of resource which made her virtual leader of her world.

Before he had recovered from the surprise of it all, Richard suddenly awakened to the fact that, out of its uninhabited gloom, his home had risen to be a veritable storehouse of beautiful things, and that his wife was the best-dressed woman and the most popular hostess in town.

Nor was he for a moment relegated to the background. True, he saw comparatively little of Hester, but she always had her brightest smile for him. After a little, he came to feel that he had a part in all her social triumphs.

Always beautiful, always charmingly elusive, no wonder she dazzled him so that he came in his slow way to love her tenderly. No wonder, either, that she—since he did not speak his love for fear of hurting or disturbing her—believed that each fresh kindness on his part was but the result of an obligation like her own.

So the third summer came, and Richard departed to Ten-Mile. Hester commenced her preparations for the summer flitting to the Bay, but somehow

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this year the prospect was less alluring than usual, and she felt rather bored at the thought of it. It was the first time Richard had gone away for any length of time since their marriage, and she laughed at herself when it occurred to her that it was his absence that was making her so very unsettled.

Before everything else, however, that old suspense of portending trouble weighed upon her. She began to feel a personal responsibility for it that made the thought of the gay summer at the Bay intolerable. In sudden revolt against the rush and gaiety of her life, she longed for quiet and the uneventful days her youth had chafed at. She was suddenly tired, and she wanted to be alone.

It happened that the summer had come earlier than usual, and already the long, hot days made any thought of activity unbearable. Hester, passing through the darkened, silent house and shady garden, had an inspiration—she would spend a long, peaceful summer here. With a delightful feeling of quixotism she dismissed the servants as usual, keeping only the gardener and his wife for her personal needs. Then she opened the trunks, all neatly packed for the summer holidays, and threw the contents far and wide over her room in a glad confusion.

Once she had the house to herself, she began to feel a new childish interest in it, as though only now she was beginning to recognise her ownership. The first day she made a detour of all the rooms, finding in their linen summer garb something simple and refreshing after the solemn grandeur of ordinary times. She tried every chair, and lounged in the library, peered under the covered pictures and into the book-shelves, as though she had never entered the room before. Then, with a sudden impulse, she passed on to her husband's study.

This room at least she did not know. It had pleased her at the time of her marriage to insist that it should be Richard's stronghold against all invaders, even herself, and she had always carefully avoided it. Now, as she opened the door and peered into the dim recesses, she felt like a discoverer entering on an unknown country. She pushed up the window, threw the shutters wide, and saw without a space of lawn and garden in the shadow of the late afternoon.

Quite near the house there were tall trees with hammocks swung between them. Through the framework of the interlaced boughs she could see shifting sun and shadow, and cool vistas of buffalo-grass and blooming flowers. She drank in the beauty of it all with a contented smile, then turned, half-sighing, back into the room. She was thinking of him who sat day by day at that very window, preoccupied, unseeing, prosaic to the end. She commenced her travels round the study then, and went with a delighted sense of her own frivolity from chair to table, from table to writing-desk, from desk to picture, in the true ardour of discovery.

By-and-bye to Richard's book-shelves she came, smiling a little with amused expectation. Richard's literary tastes were very obvious to Hester, and she, who was something of an epicure on the subject, had always fastidiously avoided it, levelling her conversations to his requirements in her intercourse with him. Now, as her eye ranged over the long rows of scientific

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volumes, she felt for the first time a throb of admiration for one who could find interest and amusement here.

The next moment she caught sight of a familiar cover, and stooped with an exclamation. Down on a lower shelf she found a copy of Omar, a Keats, Lamb, Alexander Smith, and half a dozen others—almost a duplicate of her own little shelf of favourites upstairs. Hester dropped on to the floor and examined them eagerly.

“Keats!” she exclaimed, “and frivolous Omar! What a sacrifice to the conventions, Richard. And all uncut, of course!”

She pulled out the Omar and carried it to the window, pausing on the way for a paper-knife, because she was so sure that it would be uncut. But when she came into the broader light she noticed that the edges of the book were worn, as though with much handling, and that the binding was slack, so that it fell apart of its own accord. Involuntarily Hester began to read. It was Fitzgerald's Omar, second edition, and presently she found herself giving a smile for the unknown owner of it, whose tactics coincided so evidently with her own.

For here and there were lines lightly scored under, marked for comparison with other editions, a hundred and one signs that gave a fleeting glimpse of the characteristics of the possessor. In one place Hester found a pencilled line or two of criticism, written in a small, eminently conventional handwriting. She laughed, and with a gay impulse seized a pencil from the table and wrote: “Et ego in Arcadia vixi.” The marked quatrain was one over which she had had many an argument in the days when there had been leisure for such things, and again she fell to wondering who he might be—this eminently desirable person who regarded his Omar with a devotion equal to her own.

She put the book down on the window-sill, gazing half-absently at the neat inscription that stood in such startling contrast to her own characteristic writing underneath. Presently the shaping of the letters seemed to take on a certain individuality which puzzled her, as though she had seen them before, but could not quite remember in what circumstances. Then all at once the remembrance flashed upon her. The writing was Richard's, and it was part of her unfamiliarity with him that she had not recognised it at once.

That was an afternoon of revelations to Hester Branch, revelations and the readjustment of all her thoughts of the man she had married and had so little known.

An hour passed. Outside in the garden the shadows grew and deepened, and a little wind blew up. It set the hammocks swinging lazily, and, blowing in through the study window, ruffled the hair of the woman sitting there. But she did not notice.

Wih bright eyes and cheeks flushed girlishly, she gazed into the distance, smiling sometimes, at others frowning a little in a puzzled way, but always with that new light of expectancy in her face, as though there had suddenly been opened to her illimitable possibilities of pleasant things.

All her life Hester had loved books and art and music, the finer appurtenances of existence, and this love had brought her unscathed through certain crises and given her a delicate humour that preserved her youth and kept her utterly unspoiled. It hurt her vanity now to remember that her instincts

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had so failed her with regard to Richard, and yet the situation appealed irresistibly to her sense of the unusual. It was so pathetically absurd that they two should thus have hidden so carefully from each other that which in reality would have been proved a strong bond of fellowship between them.

For they had hidden it. Hester remembered now, with a flush, how many times she had checked quotation or epigram on her lips in her conversation with Richard, believing he would neither understand nor appreciate it. And he—how very superficial he must have thought her! She laughed at the ease with which she had been able to deceive him so completely. Even at this moment it was the artistic side of the situation that appealed to her first of all. Then, still absently, she arose and closed the window and went out of the room, with a little odd smile of determination in her eyes.

Next day Hester received her first letter from Richard since his departure, and with a laugh of anticipation she carried it into his study to answer it. She expended all her art upon the composition of that reply, and penned three and a half pages of light gossip with a practised hand. Then she added:

“How very dull you must find it at that outlandish place, and of course you have nothing to read up there. Couldn't I send you something.—one or two new novels or magazines, for instance, or some of your old favourites from the study. Let me know what you would like and I will see to it.”

She signed the letter, sealed it, and sent it away, and then set herself, as patiently as she could, to wait for a reply. But the days of a week went by before that came. For Richard had promised to write her a weekly letter, and, fearful of boring her by a more frequent correspondence, he held to his promise rigidly. Exactly in a week the letter came, and its first words reassured her. It was another point of difference between them that, whereas Hester made elaborate preamble, and artfully threw in the most important part of her letter at the end, Richard went straight to the subject that most nearly touched him, and so fell headlong into her trap.

“It is so good of you to think about the books,” he wrote in his ceremonious way, “and if you are quite sure it will not trouble you I should be very glad of one or two. With novels and magazines I am amply supplied, but there are two books in my study that I intended to bring away with me, and forgot in the hurry of departure. I don't think you will have any difficulty in finding them. One is Mills's ‘Political Economy,’ the other a small volume of poetry called ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,’ which you will find on the lowest shelf of the bookcase, about the third from the right-hand side. If by any chance you are unable to get them, promise me you will not bother, as it was part of my usual stupidity that I forgot them when I came away.”

“Was it?” said Hester, pausing at this point, and laughing softly. For once she had reason to be grateful for his stupidity, since it had assuredly given her this revelation of him. That he had so guilelessly met the occasion, and asked for his Omar, did not surprise Hester in the least. That was the eternal fitness of things. But his description of where it could be found was too superb. “I wonder what you would think, my friend,” she said to herself,

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“if you knew where that little book of poetry called ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ had been lodging for the last week.”

Next day Hester sent the books to Richard, and two days later she wrote him three more pages of light gossip. At the end she carelessly added a postscript, that eternal friend of woman. “By the way,” she said, “I hope the books reached you safely and in good condition. I packed them carefully, because I know how horrid it is to have one's books destroyed. I see that your Omar is the same edition as mine, and am rejoiced to find a fellow-sinner. I confess to an obstinate affection for the second edition that nothing has been able to change, and I have been much censured for bad taste in consequence. Hereafter I shall be doubly obstinate, remembering that I have someone to uphold me.”

In due time this letter came to Richard at Ten-Mile, and that one little personal reference at the end of it played sad havoc with his well-balanced mind, and made the week of waiting before he might reply to it interminable. He wrote twelve incoherent pages to Hester, then tore them up in favour of a more ordered epistle, over which, nevertheless, his joy was writ large.

Hester read both joy and letter with a smile for the success of her ruse. For she thought that Richard's joy and her own that echoed it were born of the discovery of a fellow-bookworm. Hester was very clever, but love needs spectacles.

That was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted through the summer, and grew in volume as the days went by. At first Richard held to his weekly letters valiantly, and Hester spent all her brilliant wiles to draw him from his righteous way. But when at last he threw discretion to the wind, and wrote two letters in a week, she kept him waiting ten days before she answered him. That was too much for Richard. Again he fell headlong into the trap prepared for him, and in his immediate reply showed how anxious, how perturbed he had been, how he had looked vainly day after day for her letter. And that was exactly what Hester wanted to know.

After that the correspondence grew to be a daily one, and far too interesting to both of them to be relinquished. Their talk was in personal ways, and always of books—that safe, new vantage ground they had discovered. All manner of strange delightful by-ways of literature they explored together, comparing, discussing, arguing with the ardour that was theirs. And, strange to say, it was always the man who was leader on these excursions—he whom, scarcely a month ago, Hester had believed ignorant of the very outskirts of that wondrous country through which he had suddenly become her guide.

It was significant that it was Hester upon whom these daily letters had the most disquieting effect. Richard was a modest person, thankful for small mercies, and it was enough for him that Hester, in her goodness, spared a few minutes every day to write to him. To take advantage of that goodness to inflict his unwelcome love upon her would have seemed to him unpardonably unfair. But she, with her woman's want of logic, and having much leisure to think of these things, came to long for that personal note which in the beginning she had so carefully excluded from their correspondence. The excitement and intrigue of the first letters had passed by, and she and Richard

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were growing day by day to know each other, but her nature, awakened to interest, unconsciously pleaded for more.

So the summer passed away, and gradually town became alive again. There was the old glad rush of footsteps along city streets, the old swirl of cool autumn winds about the garden, where all day the leaves fell silently to earth. And still no word of Richard's coming.

At length Hester grew impatient.

“Down here in town it is already autumn,” she wrote suggestively, “early as summer came this year. Almost everybody is back in town at last, and out in the garden, beyond your study window, the trees are shifting colour every day. Richard, when are you coming home? Surely that wilderness cannot claim you any longer, and your world requires you here. Let Ten-Mile go to rack and ruin, if it must, but don't bury yourself alive any longer. Let me hear that you will soon come home.”

Richard did write soon—at once—but his letter told other news, the confirmation of an old suspicion of hers that lately she had put behind her.

“Dear,” he said (for distance had made him brave), “I am afraid I cannot come home for some time yet. Do you remember asking me one day if economy was at the bottom of my coming here? I didn't tell you then, because I hoped against hope that the need would pass. But it has not. For years I have lost heavily on this property, until I am somewhat seriously involved. But since I have been on the spot I have become hopeful, and believe that with great care the difficulty may be tided over. But it will take time, and I must superintend things myself, which means staying at Ten-Mile till the end of the year, at least. I cannot tell you how sorry I am, because it distresses me to leave you alone; but I know that you are too resourceful to be lonely, and during the season you will have plenty to occupy and amuse you. Enjoy yourself as usual, and write to me when you have leisure; and please do not worry yourself with the thought that I am buried alive. Up here we have the season's changes, too, and the sunlight on the young grass is wonderful. I am out of doors all day in the crisp autumnal air—a healthy, active life. So you see there is really nothing to complain about.”

So he was not coming home. Hester told herself unreasonably that she had known as much all along—that he did not want to come—economy was all an excuse. And so he thought that he was going to stay up there and work and slave while she gave parties and entertained her friends. Nice way people would talk, indeed: say they had quarrelled and separated, and all manner of unpleasant things. Really, Richard was too absurd. She had a vision of the new grass bathed in sunlight that was wonderful, of the long rides and outdoor life, and wished she had a part in them. But Richard had not mentioned that, and, of course, she would be in the way. Men were such selfish beings. Well, there was no help for it, she supposed.

She set the reinstated maids to turn the house back to its old splendour, and while they were doing that she wandered from room to room in an aimless way that did not speak well for her resource. Then it occurred to her that she would attend to Richard's study herself, for the pleasant hours she had spent there in the summer. So she had the room brushed thoroughly, and set

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to work, lingering over it with an impulse she did not understand. Finally, when it was all in order, she bethought herself of the book-shelves, and set about taking the books down one by one, dusting and rearranging them. She had scarcely commenced upon the second shelf when she knocked a slender parcel standing between two books, and before she could save it it fell to the ground. Hastily jumping down to see that no damage was done, she found that the wrappings had fallen off, disclosing the back of a photograph and some withered flowers.

For quite two minutes Hester stood staring straight in front of her, consternation, fear, and a sudden knowledge of herself in her eyes. Then she stooped resolutely and picked up the photograph.

Her own face looked back at her from a picture taken six months ago, but that was not all. Under it someone had written: “My beloved”—and this time she knew the writing very well.

Late that night Hester turned to her desk from the open study window and a vision of scented Northern dawns. Drawing pen and paper to her, she wrote:

A book of verses underneath a bough,
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness,
Ah! wilderness were Paradise enow.

This she put in an envelope and sent to her husband.

Two days later she was on her way to Ten-Mile.