At five o’clock the sombre egg-shaped room at the Ritz ripens to a subtle melody—the light clat-clat of one lump, two lumps, into the cup, and the ding of the shining teapots and cream-pots as they kiss elegantly in transit upon a silver tray. There are those who cherish that amber hour above all other hours, for now the pale, pleasant toil of the lilies who inhabit the Ritz is over—the singing decorative part of the day remains.
Moving your eyes around the slightly raised horseshoe balcony you might, one spring afternoon, have seen young Mrs. Alphonse Karr and young Mrs. Charles Hemple at a table for two. The one in the dress was Mrs. Hemple—when I say “the dress” I refer to that black immaculate affair with the big buttons and the red ghost of a cape at the shoulders, a gown suggesting with faint and fashionable irreverence the garb of a French cardinal, as it was meant to do when it was invented in the Rue de la Paix. Mrs. Karr and Mrs. Hemple were twenty-three years old, and their enemies said that they had done very well for themselves. Either might have had her limousine waiting at the hotel door, but both of them much preferred to walk home (up Park Avenue) through the April twilight.
Luella Hemple was tall, with the sort of flaxen hair that English country girls should have, but seldom do. Her skin was radiant, and there was no need of putting anything on it at all, but in deference to an antiquated fashion—this was the year 1920—she had powdered out its high roses and drawn on it a new mouth and new eyebrows—which were no more successful than such meddling deserves. This, of course, is said from the vantage-point of 1925. In those days the effect she gave was exactly right.
“I’ve been married three years,” she was saying as she squashed out a cigarette in an exhausted lemon. “The baby will be two years old to-morrow. I must remember to get——”
She took a gold pencil from her case and wrote “Candles” and “Things you pull, with paper caps,” on an ivory date-pad. Then, raising her eyes, she looked at Mrs. Karr and hesitated.
“Shall I tell you something outrageous?”
“Try,” said Mrs. Karr cheerfully.
“Even my baby bores me. That sounds unnatural, Ede, but it’s true. He doesn’t begin to fill my life. I love him with all my heart, but when I have him to take care of for an afternoon, I get so nervous that I want to scream. After two hours I begin praying for the moment the nurse’ll walk in the door.”
When she had made this confession, Luella breathed quickly and looked closely at her friend. She didn’t really feel unnatural at all. This was the truth. There couldn’t be anything vicious in the truth.
“It may be because you don’t love Charles,” ventured Mrs. Karr, unmoved.
“But I do! I hope I haven’t given you that impression with all this talk.” She decided that Ede Karr was stupid. “It’s the very fact that I do love Charles that complicates matters. I cried myself to sleep last night because I know we’re drifting slowly but surely toward a divorce. It’s the baby that keeps us together.”
Ede Karr, who had been married five years, looked at her critically to see if this was a pose, but Luella’s lovely eyes were grave and sad.
“And what is the trouble?” Ede inquired.
“It’s plural,” said Luella, frowning. “First, there’s food. I’m a vile housekeeper, and I have no intention of turning into a good one. I hate to order groceries, and I hate to go into the kitchen and poke around to see if the ice-box is clean, and I hate to pretend to the servants that I’m interested in their work, when really I never want to hear about food until it comes on the table. You see, I never learned to cook, and consequently a kitchen is about as interesting to me as a—as a boiler-room. It’s simply a machine that I don’t understand. It’s easy to say, ‘Go to cooking school,’ the way people do in books—but, Ede, in real life does anybody ever change into a model Hausfrau unless they have to?”
“Go on,” said Ede non-committally. “Tell me more.”
“Well, as a result, the house is always in a riot. The servants leave every week. If they’re young and incompetent, I can’t train them, so we have to let them go. If they’re experienced, they hate a house where a woman doesn’t take an intense interest in the price of asparagus. So they leave—and half the time we eat at restaurants and hotels.”
“I don’t suppose Charles likes that.”
“Hates it. In fact, he hates about everything that I like. He’s lukewarm about the theatre, hates the opera, hates dancing, hates cocktail parties—sometimes I think he hates everything pleasant in the world. I sat home for a year or so. While Chuck was on the way, and while I was nursing him, I didn’t mind. But this year I told Charles frankly that I was still young enough to want some fun. And since then we’ve been going out whether he wants to or not.” She paused, brooding. “I’m so sorry for him I don’t know what to do, Ede—but if we sat home, I’d just be sorry for myself. And to tell you another true thing, I’d rather that he’d be unhappy than me.”
Luella was not so much stating a case as thinking aloud. She considered that she was being very fair. Before her marriage men had always told her that she was “a good sport,” and she had tried to carry this fairness into her married life. So she always saw Charley’s point of view as clearly as she saw her own.
If she had been a pioneer wife, she would probably have fought the fight side by side with her husband. But here in New York there wasn’t any fight. They weren’t struggling together to obtain a far-off peace and leisure—she had more of either than she could use. Luella, like several thousand other young wives in New York, honestly wanted something to do. If she had had a little more money and a little less love, she could have gone in for horses or for vagarious amour. Or if they had had a little less money, her surplus energy would have been absorbed by hope and even by effort. But the Charles Hemples were in between. They were of that enormous American class who wander over Europe every summer, sneering rather pathetically and wistfully at the customs and traditions and pastimes of other countries, because they have no customs or traditions or pastimes of their own. It is a class sprung yesterday from fathers and mothers who might just as well have lived two hundred years ago.
The tea-hour had turned abruptly into the before-dinner hour. Most of the tables had emptied until the room was dotted rather than crowded with shrill isolated voices and remote, surprising laughter—in one corner the waiters were already covering the tables with white for dinner.
“Charles and I are on each other’s nerves.” In the new silence Luella’s voice rang out with startling clearness, and she lowered it precipitately. “Little things. He keeps rubbing his face with his hand—all the time, at table, at the theatre—even when he’s in bed. It drives me wild, and when things like that begin to irritate you, it’s nearly over.” She broke off and, reaching backward, drew up a light fur around her neck. “I hope I haven’t bored you, Ede. It’s on my mind, because to-night tells the story. I made an engagement for to-night—an interesting engagement, a supper after the theatre to meet some Russians, singers or dancers or something, and Charles says he won’t go. If he doesn’t—then I’m going alone. And that’s the end.”
She put her elbows on the table suddenly and, bending her eyes down into her smooth gloves, began to cry, stubbornly and quietly. There was no one near to see, but Ede Karr wished that she had taken her gloves off. She would have reached out consolingly and touched her bare hand. But the gloves were a symbol of the difficulty of sympathizing with a woman to whom life had given so much. Ede wanted to say that it would “come out all right,” that it wasn’t “so bad as it seemed,” but she said nothing. Her only reaction was impatience and distaste.
A waiter stepped near and laid a folded paper on the table, and Mrs. Karr reached for it.
“No, you mustn’t,” murmured Luella brokenly. “No, I invited you! I’ve got the money right here.”
The Hemples’ apartment—they owned it—was in one of those impersonal white palaces that are known by number instead of name. They had furnished it on their honeymoon, gone to England for the big pieces, to Florence for the bric-à-brac, and to Venice for the lace and sheer linen of the curtains and for the glass of many colors which littered the table when they entertained. Luella enjoyed choosing things on her honeymoon. It gave a purposeful air to the trip, and saved it from ever turning into the rather dismal wandering among big hotels and desolate ruins which European honeymoons are apt to be.
They returned, and life began. On the grand scale. Luella found herself a lady of substance. It amazed her sometimes that the specially created apartment and the specially created limousine were hers, just as indisputably as the mortgaged suburban bungalow out of The Ladies’ Home Journal and the last year’s car that fate might have given her instead. She was even more amazed when it all began to bore her. But it did….
The evening was at seven when she turned out of the April dusk, let herself into the hall, and saw her husband waiting in the living-room before an open fire. She came in without a sound, closed the door noiselessly behind her, and stood watching him for a moment through the pleasant effective vista of the small salon which intervened. Charles Hemple was in the middle thirties, with a young serious face and distinguished iron-gray hair which would be white in ten years more. That and his deep-set, dark-gray eyes were his most noticeable features—women always thought his hair was romantic; most of the time Luella thought so too.
At this moment she found herself hating him a little, for she saw that he had raised his hand to his face and was rubbing it nervously over his chin and mouth. It gave him an air of unflattering abstraction, and sometimes even obscured his words, so that she was continually saying “What?” She had spoken about it several times, and he had apologized in a surprised way. But obviously he didn’t realize how noticeable and how irritating it was, for he continued to do it. Things had now reached such a precarious state that Luella dreaded speaking of such matters any more—a certain sort of word might precipitate the imminent scene.
Luella tossed her gloves and purse abruptly on the table. Hearing the faint sound, her husband looked out toward the hall.
“Is that you, dear?”
She went into the living-room, and walked into his arms and kissed him tensely. Charles Hemple responded with unusual formality, and then turned her slowly around so that she faced across the room.
“I’ve brought some one home to dinner.”
She saw then that they were not alone, and her first feeling was of strong relief; the rigid expression on her face softened into a shy, charming smile as she held out her hand.
“This is Doctor Moon—this is my wife.”
A man a little older than her husband, with a round, pale, slightly lined face, came forward to meet her.
“Good evening, Mrs. Hemple,” he said. “I hope I’m not interfering with any arrangement of yours.”
“Oh, no,” Luella cried quickly. “I’m delighted that you’re coming to dinner. We’re quite alone.”
Simultaneously she thought of her engagement to-night, and wondered if this could be a clumsy trap of Charles’ to keep her at home. If it were, he had chosen his bait badly. This man—a tired placidity radiated from him, from his face, from his heavy, leisurely voice, even from the three-year-old shine of his clothes.
Nevertheless, she excused herself and went into the kitchen to see what was planned for dinner. As usual they were trying a new pair of servants, the luncheon had been ill-cooked and ill-served—she would let them go to-morrow. She hoped Charles would talk to them—she hated to get rid of servants. Sometimes they wept, and sometimes they were insolent, but Charles had a way with him. And they were always afraid of a man.
The cooking on the stove, however, had a soothing savor. Luella gave instructions about “which china,” and unlocked a bottle of precious chianti from the buffet. Then she went in to kiss young Chuck good night.
“Has he been good?” she demanded as he crawled enthusiastically into her arms.
“Very good,” said the governess. “We went for a long walk over by Central Park.”
“Well, aren’t you a smart boy!” She kissed him ecstatically.
“And he put his foot into the fountain, so we had to come home in a taxi right away and change his little shoe and stocking.”
“That’s right. Here, wait a minute, Chuck!” Luella unclasped the great yellow beads from around her neck and handed them to him. “You mustn’t break mama’s beads.” She turned to the nurse. “Put them on my dresser, will you, after he’s asleep?”
She felt a certain compassion for her son as she went away—the small enclosed life he led, that all children led, except in big families. He was a dear little rose, except on the days when she took care of him. His face was the same shape as hers; she was thrilled sometimes, and formed new resolves about life when his heart beat against her own.
In her own pink and lovely bedroom, she confined her attentions to her face, which she washed and restored. Doctor Moon didn’t deserve a change of dress, and Luella found herself oddly tired, though she had done very little all day. She returned to the living-room, and they went in to dinner.
“Such a nice house, Mrs. Hemple,” said Doctor Moon impersonally; “and let me congratulate you on your fine little boy.”
“Thanks. Coming from a doctor, that’s a nice compliment.” She hesitated. “Do you specialize in children?”
“I’m not a specialist at all,” he said. “I’m about the last of my kind—a general practitioner.”
“The last in New York, anyhow,” remarked Charles. He had begun rubbing his face nervously, and Luella fixed her eyes on Doctor Moon so that she wouldn’t see. But at Charles’s next words she looked back at him sharply.
“In fact,” he said unexpectedly, “I’ve invited Doctor Moon here because I wanted you to have a talk with him to-night.”
Luella sat up straight in her chair.
“A talk with me?”
“Doctor Moon’s an old friend of mine, and I think he can tell you a few things, Luella, that you ought to know.”
“Why—” She tried to laugh, but she was surprised and annoyed. “I don’t see, exactly, what you mean. There’s nothing the matter with me. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt better in my life.”
Doctor Moon looked at Charles, asking permission to speak. Charles nodded, and his hand went up automatically to his face.
“Your husband has told me a great deal about your unsatisfactory life together,” said Doctor Moon, still impersonally. “He wonders if I can be of any help in smoothing things out.”
Luella’s face was burning.
“I have no particular faith in psychoanalysis,” she said coldly, “and I scarcely consider myself a subject for it.”
“Neither have I,” answered Doctor Moon, apparently unconscious of the snub; “I have no particular faith in anything but myself. I told you I am not a specialist, nor, I may add, a faddist of any sort. I promise nothing.”
For a moment Luella considered leaving the room. But the effrontery of the suggestion aroused her curiosity too.
“I can’t imagine what Charles has told you,” she said, controlling herself with difficulty, “much less why. But I assure you that our affairs are a matter entirely between my husband and me. If you have no objections, Doctor Moon, I’d much prefer to discuss something—less personal.”
Doctor Moon nodded heavily and politely. He made no further attempt to open the subject, and dinner proceeded in what was little more than a defeated silence. Luella determined that, whatever happened, she would adhere to her plans for to-night. An hour ago her independence had demanded it, but now some gesture of defiance had become necessary to her self-respect. She would stay in the living-room for a short moment after dinner; then, when the coffee came, she would excuse herself and dress to go out.
But when they did leave the dining-room, it was Charles who, in a quick, unarguable way, vanished.
“I have a letter to write,” he said; “I’ll be back in a moment.” Before Luella could make a diplomatic objection, he went quickly down the corridor to his room, and she heard him shut his door.
Angry and confused, Luella poured the coffee and sank into a corner of the couch, looking intently at the fire.
“Don’t be afraid, Mrs. Hemple,” said Doctor Moon suddenly. “This was forced upon me. I do not act as a free agent——”
“I’m not afraid of you,” she interrupted. But she knew that she was lying. She was a little afraid of him, if only for his dull insensitiveness to her distaste.
“Tell me about your trouble,” he said very naturally, as though she were not a free agent either. He wasn’t even looking at her, and except that they were alone in the room, he scarcely seemed to be addressing her at all.
The words that were in Luella’s mind, her will, on her lips, were: “I’ll do no such thing.” What she actually said amazed her. It came out of her spontaneously, with apparently no co-operation of her own.
“Didn’t you see him rubbing his face at dinner?” she said despairingly. “Are you blind? He’s become so irritating to me that I think I’ll go mad.”
“I see.” Doctor Moon’s round face nodded.
“Don’t you see I’ve had enough of home?” Her breasts seemed to struggle for air under her dress. “Don’t you see how bored I am with keeping house, with the baby—everything seems as if it’s going on forever and ever? I want excitement; and I don’t care what form it takes or what I pay for it, so long as it makes my heart beat.”
It infuriated Luella that he claimed to understand. Her feeling of defiance had reached such a pitch that she preferred that no one should understand. She was content to be justified by the impassioned sincerity of her desires.
“I’ve tried to be good, and I’m not going to try any more. If I’m one of those women who wreck their lives for nothing, then I’ll do it now. You can call me selfish, or silly, and be quite right; but in five minutes I’m going out of this house and begin to be alive.”
This time Doctor Moon didn’t answer, but he raised his head as if he were listening to something that was taking place a little distance away.
“You’re not going out,” he said after a moment; “I’m quite sure you’re not going out.”
“I am going out.”
He disregarded this.
“You see, Mrs. Hemple, your husband isn’t well. He’s been trying to live your kind of life, and the strain of it has been too much for him. When he rubs his mouth——”
Light steps came down the corridor, and the maid, with a frightened expression on her face, tiptoed into the room.
Startled at the interruption, Luella turned quickly.
“Can I speak to—?” Her fear broke precipitately through her slight training. “Mr. Hemple, he’s sick! He came into the kitchen a while ago and began throwing all the food out of the ice-box, and now he’s in his room, crying and singing——”
Suddenly Luella heard his voice.
Charles Hemple had had a nervous collapse. There were twenty years of almost uninterrupted toil upon his shoulders, and the recent pressure at home had been too much for him to bear. His attitude toward his wife was the weak point in what had otherwise been a strong-minded and well-organized career—he was aware of her intense selfishness, but it is one of the many flaws in the scheme of human relationships that selfishness in women has an irresistible appeal to many men. Luella’s selfishness existed side by side with a childish beauty, and, in consequence, Charles Hemple had begun to take the blame upon himself for situations which she had obviously brought about. It was an unhealthy attitude, and his mind had sickened, at length, with his attempts to put himself in the wrong.
After the first shock and the momentary flush of pity that followed it, Luella looked at the situation with impatience. She was “a good sport”—she couldn’t take advantage of Charles when he was sick. The question of her liberties had to be postponed until he was on his feet. Just when she had determined to be a wife no longer, Luella was compelled to be a nurse as well. She sat beside his bed while he talked about her in his delirium—about the days of their engagement, and how some friend had told him then that he was making a mistake, and about his happiness in the early months of their marriage, and his growing disquiet as the gap appeared. Evidently he had been more aware of it than she had thought—more than he ever said.
“Luella!” He would lurch up in bed. “Luella! Where are you?”
“I’m right here, Charles, beside you.” She tried to make her voice cheerful and warm.
“If you want to go, Luella, you’d better go. I don’t seem to be enough for you any more.”
She denied this soothingly.
“I’ve thought it over, Luella, and I can’t ruin my health on account of you—” Then quickly, and passionately: “Don’t go, Luella, for God’s sake, don’t go away and leave me! Promise me you won’t! I’ll do anything you say if you won’t go.”
His humility annoyed her most; he was a reserved man, and she had never guessed at the extent of his devotion before.
“I’m only going for a minute. It’s Doctor Moon, your friend, Charles. He came to-day to see how you were, don’t you remember? And he wants to talk to me before he goes.”
“You’ll come back?” he persisted.
“In just a little while. There—lie quiet.”
She raised his head and plumped his pillow into freshness. A new trained nurse would arrive to-morrow.
In the living-room Doctor Moon was waiting—his suit more worn and shabby in the afternoon light. She disliked him inordinately, with an illogical conviction that he was in some way to blame for her misfortune, but he was so deeply interested that she couldn’t refuse to see him. She hadn’t asked him to consult with the specialists, though—a doctor who was so down at the heel….
“Mrs. Hemple.” He came forward, holding out his hand, and Luella touched it, lightly and uneasily.
“You seem well,” he said.
“I am well, thank you.”
“I congratulate you on the way you’ve taken hold of things.”
“But I haven’t taken hold of things at all,” she said coldly. “I do what I have to——”
“That’s just it.”
Her impatience mounted rapidly.
“I do what I have to, and nothing more,” she continued; “and with no particular good-will.”
Suddenly she opened up to him again, as she had the night of the catastrophe—realizing that she was putting herself on a footing of intimacy with him, yet unable to restrain her words.
“The house isn’t going,” she broke out bitterly. “I had to discharge the servants, and now I’ve got a woman in by the day. And the baby has a cold, and I’ve found out that his nurse doesn’t know her business, and everything’s just as messy and terrible as it can be!”
“Would you mind telling me how you found out the nurse didn’t know her business?”
“You find out various unpleasant things when you’re forced to stay around the house.”
He nodded, his weary face turning here and there about the room.
“I feel somewhat encouraged,” he said slowly. “As I told you, I promise nothing; I only do the best I can.”
Luella looked up at him, startled.
“What do you mean?” she protested. “You’ve done nothing for me—nothing at all!”
“Nothing much—yet,” he said heavily. “It takes time, Mrs. Hemple.”
The words were said in a dry monotone that was somehow without offense, but Luella felt that he had gone too far. She got to her feet.
“I’ve met your type before,” she said coldly. “For some reason you seem to think that you have a standing here as ‘the old friend of the family.’ But I don’t make friends quickly, and I haven’t given you the privilege of being so”—she wanted to say “insolent,” but the word eluded her—”so personal with me.”
When the front door had closed behind him, Luella went into the kitchen to see if the woman understood about the three different dinners—one for Charles, one for the baby, and one for herself. It was hard to do with only a single servant when things were so complicated. She must try another employment agency—this one had begun to sound bored.
To her surprise, she found the cook with hat and coat on, reading a newspaper at the kitchen table. “Why”—Luella tried to think of the name—”why, what’s the matter, Mrs.——”
“Mrs. Danski is my name.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to accommodate you,” said Mrs. Danski. “You see, I’m only a plain cook, and I’m not used to preparing invalid’s food.”
“But I’ve counted on you.”
“I’m very sorry.” She shook her head stubbornly. “I’ve got my own health to think of. I’m sure they didn’t tell me what kind of a job it was when I came. And when you asked me to clean out your husband’s room, I knew it was way beyond my powers.”
“I won’t ask you to clean anything,” said Luella desperately. “If you’ll just stay until to-morrow. I can’t possibly get anybody else to-night.”
Mrs. Danski smiled politely.
“I got my own children to think of, just like you.” It was on Luella’s tongue to offer her more money, but suddenly her temper gave way.
“I’ve never heard of anything so selfish in my life!” she broke out. “To leave me at a time like this! You’re an old fool!”
“If you’d pay me for my time, I’d go,” said Mrs. Danski calmly.
“I won’t pay you a cent unless you’ll stay!”
She was immediately sorry she had said this, but she was too proud to withdraw the threat.
“You will so pay me!”
“You go out that door!”
“I’ll go when I get my money,” asserted Mrs. Danski indignantly. “I got my children to think of.”
Luella drew in her breath sharply, and took a step forward. Intimidated by her intensity, Mrs. Danski turned and flounced, muttering, out of the door.
Luella went to the phone and, calling up the agency, explained that the woman had left.
“Can you send me some one right away? My husband is sick and the baby’s sick——”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hemple; there’s no one in the office now. It’s after four o’clock.”
Luella argued for a while. Finally she obtained a promise that they would telephone to an emergency woman they knew. That was the best they could do until to-morrow.
She called several other agencies, but the servant industry had apparently ceased to function for the day. After giving Charles his medicine, she tiptoed softly into the nursery.
“How’s baby?” she asked abstractedly.
“Ninety-nine one,” whispered the nurse, holding the thermometer to the light. “I just took it.”
“Is that much?” asked Luella, frowning.
“It’s just three-fifths of a degree. That isn’t so much for the afternoon. They often run up a little with a cold.”
Luella went over to the cot and laid her hand on her son’s flushed cheek, thinking, in the midst of her anxiety, how much he resembled the incredible cherub of the “Lux” advertisement in the bus.
She turned to the nurse.
“Do you know how to cook?”
“Why—I’m not a good cook.”
“Well, can you do the baby’s food to-night? That old fool has left, and I can’t get anyone, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Oh, yes, I can do the baby’s food.”
“That’s all right, then. I’ll try to fix something for Mr. Hemple. Please have your door open so you can hear the bell when the doctor comes. And let me know.”
So many doctors! There had scarcely been an hour all day when there wasn’t a doctor in the house. The specialist and their family physician every morning, then the baby doctor—and this afternoon there had been Doctor Moon, placid, persistent, unwelcome, in the parlor. Luella went into the kitchen. She could cook bacon and eggs for herself—she had often done that after the theatre. But the vegetables for Charles were a different matter—they must be left to boil or stew or something, and the stove had so many doors and ovens that she couldn’t decide which to use. She chose a blue pan that looked new, sliced carrots into it, and covered them with a little water. As she put it on the stove and tried to remember what to do next, the phone rang. It was the agency.
“Yes, this is Mrs. Hemple speaking.”
“Why, the woman we sent to you has returned here with the claim that you refused to pay her for her time.”
“I explained to you that she refused to stay,” said Luella hotly. “She didn’t keep her agreement, and I didn’t feel I was under any obligation——”
“We have to see that our people are paid,” the agency informed her; “otherwise we wouldn’t be helping them at all, would we? I’m sorry, Mrs. Hemple, but we won’t be able to furnish you with any one else until this little matter is arranged.”
“Oh, I’ll pay, I’ll pay!” she cried.
“Of course we like to keep on good terms with our clients——”
“So if you’ll send her money around to-morrow? It’s seventy-five cents an hour.”
“But how about to-night?” she exclaimed. “I’ve got to have some one to-night.”
“Why—it’s pretty late now. I was just going home myself.”
“But I’m Mrs. Charles Hemple! Don’t you understand? I’m perfectly good for what I say I’ll do. I’m the wife of Charles Hemple, of 14 Broadway——”
Simultaneously she realized that Charles Hemple of 14 Broadway was a helpless invalid—he was neither a reference nor a refuge any more. In despair at the sudden callousness of the world, she hung up the receiver.
After another ten minutes of frantic muddling in the kitchen, she went to the baby’s nurse, whom she disliked, and confessed that she was unable to cook her husband’s dinner. The nurse announced that she had a splitting headache, and that with a sick child her hands were full already, but she consented, without enthusiasm, to show Luella what to do.
Swallowing her humiliation, Luella obeyed orders while the nurse experimented, grumbling, with the unfamiliar stove. Dinner was started after a fashion. Then it was time for the nurse to bathe Chuck, and Luella sat down alone at the kitchen table, and listened to the bubbling perfume that escaped from the pans.
“And women do this every day,” she thought. “Thousands of women. Cook and take care of sick people—and go out to work too.”
But she didn’t think of those women as being like her, except in the superficial aspect of having two feet and two hands. She said it as she might have said “South Sea Islanders wear nose-rings.” She was merely slumming to-day in her own home, and she wasn’t enjoying it. For her, it was merely a ridiculous exception.
Suddenly she became aware of slow approaching steps in the dining-room and then in the butler’s pantry. Half afraid that it was Doctor Moon coming to pay another call, she looked up—and saw the nurse coming through the pantry door. It flashed through Luella’s mind that the nurse was going to be sick too. And she was right—the nurse had hardly reached the kitchen door when she lurched and clutched at the handle as a winged bird clings to a branch. Then she receded wordlessly to the floor. Simultaneously the door-bell rang; and Luella, getting to her feet, gasped with relief that the baby doctor had come.
“Fainted, that’s all,” he said, taking the girl’s head into his lap. The eyes fluttered. “Yep, she fainted, that’s all.”
“Everybody’s sick!” cried Luella with a sort of despairing humor. “Everybody’s sick but me, doctor.”
“This one’s not sick,” he said after a moment. “Her heart is normal already. She just fainted.”
When she had helped the doctor raise the quickening body to a chair, Luella hurried into the nursery and bent over the baby’s bed. She let down one of the iron sides quietly. The fever seemed to be gone now—the flush had faded away. She bent over to touch the small cheek.
Suddenly Luella began to scream.
Even after her baby’s funeral, Luella still couldn’t believe that she had lost him. She came back to the apartment and walked around the nursery in a circle, saying his name. Then, frightened by grief, she sat down and stared at his white rocker with the red chicken painted on the side.
“What will become of me now?” she whispered to herself. “Something awful is going to happen to me when I realize that I’ll never see Chuck any more!”
She wasn’t sure yet. If she waited here till twilight, the nurse might still bring him in from his walk. She remembered a tragic confusion in the midst of which some one had told her that Chuck was dead, but if that was so, then why was his room waiting, with his small brush and comb still on the bureau, and why was she here at all?
She looked up. The weary, shabby figure of Doctor Moon stood in the door.
“You go away,” Luella said dully.
“Your husband needs you.”
“I don’t care.”
Doctor Moon came a little way into the room.
“I don’t think you understand, Mrs. Hemple. He’s been calling for you. You haven’t any one now except him.”
“I hate you,” she said suddenly.
“If you like. I promised nothing, you know. I do the best I can. You’ll be better when you realize that your baby is gone, that you’re not going to see him any more.”
Luella sprang to her feet.
“My baby isn’t dead!” she cried. “You lie! You always lie!” Her flashing eyes looked into his and caught something there, at once brutal and kind, that awed her and made her impotent and acquiescent. She lowered her own eyes in tired despair.
“All right,” she said wearily. “My baby is gone. What shall I do now?”
“Your husband is much better. All he needs is rest and kindness. But you must go to him and tell him what’s happened.”
“I suppose you think you made him better,” said Luella bitterly.
“Perhaps. He’s nearly well.”
Nearly well—then the last link that held her to her home was broken. This part of her life was over—she could cut it off here, with its grief and oppression, and be off now, free as the wind.
“I’ll go to him in a minute,” Luella said in a far-away voice. “Please leave me alone.”
Doctor Moon’s unwelcome shadow melted into the darkness of the hall.
“I can go away,” Luella whispered to herself. “Life has given me back freedom, in place of what it took away from me.”
But she mustn’t linger even a minute, or Life would bind her again and make her suffer once more. She called the apartment porter and asked that her trunk be brought up from the storeroom. Then she began taking things from the bureau and wardrobe, trying to approximate as nearly as possible the possessions that she had brought to her married life. She even found two old dresses that had formed part of her trousseau—out of style now, and a little tight in the hips—which she threw in with the rest. A new life. Charles was well again; and her baby, whom she had worshipped, and who had bored her a little, was dead.
When she had packed her trunk, she went into the kitchen automatically, to see about the preparations for dinner. She spoke to the cook about the special things for Charles and said that she herself was dining out. The sight of one of the small pans that had been used to cook Chuck’s food caught her attention for a moment—but she stared at it unmoved. She looked into the ice-box and saw it was clean and fresh inside. Then she went into Charles’s room. He was sitting up in bed, and the nurse was reading to him. His hair was almost white now, silvery white, and underneath it his eyes were huge and dark in his thin young face.
“The baby is sick?” he asked in his own natural voice.
He hesitated, closing his eyes for a moment. Then he asked:
“The baby is dead?”
For a long time he didn’t speak. The nurse came over and put her hand on his forehead. Two large, strange tears welled from his eyes.
“I knew the baby was dead.”
After another long wait, the nurse spoke:
“The doctor said he could be taken out for a drive to-day while there was still sunshine. He needs a little change.”
“I thought”—the nurse hesitated—”I thought perhaps it would do you both good, Mrs. Hemple, if you took him instead of me.”
Luella shook her head hastily.
“Oh, no,” she said. “I don’t feel able to, to-day.”
The nurse looked at her oddly. With a sudden feeling of pity for Charles, Luella bent down gently and kissed his cheek. Then, without a word, she went to her own room, put on her hat and coat, and with her suitcase started for the front door.
Immediately she saw that there was a shadow in the hall. If she could get past that shadow, she was free. If she could go to the right or left of it, or order it out of her way! But, stubbornly, it refused to move, and with a little cry she sank down into a hall chair.
“I thought you’d gone,” she wailed. “I told you to go away.”
“I’m going soon,” said Doctor Moon, “but I don’t want you to make an old mistake.”
“I’m not making a mistake—I’m leaving my mistakes behind.”
“You’re trying to leave yourself behind, but you can’t. The more you try to run away from yourself, the more you’ll have yourself with you.”
“But I’ve got to go away,” she insisted wildly. “Out of this house of death and failure!”
“You haven’t failed yet. You’ve only begun.” She stood up.
“Let me pass.”
Abruptly she gave way, as she always did when he talked to her. She covered her face with her hands and burst into tears.
“Go back into that room and tell the nurse you’ll take your husband for a drive,” he suggested.
Once more Luella looked at him, and knew that she would obey. With the conviction that her spirit was broken at last, she took up her suitcase and walked back through the hall.
The nature of the curious influence that Doctor Moon exerted upon her, Luella could not guess. But as the days passed, she found herself doing many things that had been repugnant to her before. She stayed at home with Charles; and when he grew better, she went out with him sometimes to dinner, or the theatre, but only when he expressed a wish. She visited the kitchen every day, and kept an unwilling eye on the house, at first with a horror that it would go wrong again, then from habit. And she felt that it was all somehow mixed up with Doctor Moon—it was something he kept telling her about life, or almost telling her, and yet concealing from her, as though he were afraid to have her know.
With the resumption of their normal life, she found that Charles was less nervous. His habit of rubbing his face had left him, and if the world seemed less gay and happy to her than it had before, she experienced a certain peace, sometimes, that she had never known.
Then, one afternoon, Doctor Moon told her suddenly that he was going away.
“Do you mean for good?” she demanded with a touch of panic.
For a strange moment she wasn’t sure whether she was glad or sorry.
“You don’t need me any more,” he said quietly. “You don’t realize it, but you’ve grown up.”
He came over and, sitting on the couch beside her, took her hand.
Luella sat silent and tense—listening.
“We make an agreement with children that they can sit in the audience without helping to make the play,” he said, “but if they still sit in the audience after they’re grown, somebody’s got to work double time for them, so that they can enjoy the light and glitter of the world.”
“But I want the light and glitter,” she protested. “That’s all there is in life. There can’t be anything wrong in wanting to have things warm.”
“Things will still be warm.”
“Things will warm themselves from you.”
Luella looked at him, startled.
“It’s your turn to be the centre, to give others what was given to you for so long. You’ve got to give security to young people and peace to your husband, and a sort of charity to the old. You’ve got to let the people who work for you depend on you. You’ve got to cover up a few more troubles than you show, and be a little more patient than the average person, and do a little more instead of a little less than your share. The light and glitter of the world is in your hands.”
He broke off suddenly.
“Get up,” he said, “and go to that mirror and tell me what you see.”
Obediently Luella got up and went close to a purchase of her honeymoon, a Venetian pier-glass on the wall.
“I see new lines in my face here,” she said, raising her finger and placing it between her eyes, “and a few shadows at the sides that might be—that are little wrinkles.”
“Do you care?”
She turned quickly. “No,” she said.
“Do you realize that Chuck is gone? That you’ll never see him any more?”
“Yes.” She passed her hands slowly over her eyes. “But that all seems so vague and far away.”
“Vague and far away,” he repeated; and then: “And are you afraid of me now?”
“Not any longer,” she said, and she added frankly, “now that you’re going away.”
He moved toward the door. He seemed particularly weary to-night, as though he could hardly move about at all.
“The household here is in your keeping,” he said in a tired whisper. “If there is any light and warmth in it, it will be your light and warmth; if it is happy, it will be because you’ve made it so. Happy things may come to you in life, but you must never go seeking them any more. It is your turn to make the fire.”
“Won’t you sit down a moment longer?” Luella ventured.
“There isn’t time.” His voice was so low now that she could scarcely hear the words. “But remember that whatever suffering comes to you, I can always help you—if it is something that can be helped. I promise nothing.”
He opened the door. She must find out now what she most wanted to know, before it was too late.
“What have you done to me?” she cried. “Why have I no sorrow left for Chuck—for anything at all? Tell me; I almost see, yet I can’t see. Before you go—tell me who you are!”
“Who am I?—” His worn suit paused in the doorway. His round, pale face seemed to dissolve into two faces, a dozen faces, a score, each one different yet the same—sad, happy, tragic, indifferent, resigned—until threescore Doctor Moons were ranged like an infinite series of reflections, like months stretching into the vista of the past.
“Who am I?” he repeated; “I am five years.” The door closed.
At six o’clock Charles Hemple came home, and as usual Luella met him in the hall. Except that now his hair was dead white, his long illness of two years had left no mark upon him. Luella herself was more noticeably changed—she was a little stouter, and there were those lines around her eyes that had come when Chuck died one evening back in 1921. But she was still lovely, and there was a mature kindness about her face at twenty-eight, as if suffering had touched her only reluctantly and then hurried away.
“Ede and her husband are coming to dinner,” she said. “I’ve got theatre tickets, but if you’re tired, I don’t care whether we go or not.”
“I’d like to go.”
She looked at him.
“I really would.”
“We’ll see how you feel after dinner.”
He put his arm around her waist. Together they walked into the nursery where the two children were waiting up to say good night.