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The Transgression of Andrew Vane: A Novel, Page 2

Guy Wetmore Carryl


  For months past, she had felt that she was weakening, that the crescentwretchedness of five long years--an uninterrupted descent from level tolevel, on each of which the thorns of disillusion caught at, and torefrom her, some shred of hope or self-respect--had done its work at last.Her courage and her faith, inherited, the one from the mental, the otherfrom the moral, vigour of a rigid and uncompromising Puritan ancestry,were slipping from her. What the end was to be, she did not dare to ask;but it lay there ahead, grim and ominous, gradually taking form, throughthe mist of the immediate future. Its very suggestion of divergence fromall that was familiar to her, of being even a degree more monstrous thanwhat she had already suffered, sickened and appalled her, who had neverknown a dread of mere death, but drew back with unspeakable fear beforethe looming of this unknown, ultimate degradation.

  John Vane had wooed his wife with the easy confidence born of adequateposition, adequate means, and more than adequate ability. Four years ofHarvard had taught him to believe life in the little Western town whichhad been his birthplace, to be, for a man of literary bent, a practicalimpossibility; and when he stepped easily from the halls of his AlmaMater into the offices of a Boston magazine, it was a practicalrenunciation of his early environment, and an expression of his resolveto follow in the actual as well as the metaphorical footprints of someof the greatest figures in American literature.

  Six months later, he announced his engagement to Helen Sterling, theonly daughter of a pioneer in copper, whose character had long sincebuilt him up a reputation, to which, later, the five figures of hisincome lent an added lustre. From first to last, from the occasion ofthe young collegian's presentation to the reigning belle of her seasonto the moment when she said, "I, Helen, do take thee, John"--and therest of it--there was, by way of proving the rule, never astumbling-block in the exceptionally smooth course of their love. Theywere made for each other, people said, and no one subscribed moreconfidently to this opinion than themselves.

  But--and does ever a honeymoon pass without the uneasy awakening of thatlatent 'But'?--Helen was not a month older before she was forced to theunwilling conclusion that there was a singular, intangible somethinglacking in her husband's character. It was not that he was not gifted;for that, his most casual acquaintance knew him to be;--or in love withher; for of that he gave evidence almost as conclusive as would havebeen furnished by the ceaseless reiteration of that spoken devotionwhich a woman craves, without hope of receiving, from the man she loves.But things had come to him so easily, so independent of any effort ofhis own, that he was become the chief of optimists, imbued with theserene and confident _laisser aller_ of the clan; and, now thatassociation was making her intimate with his methods of work, she foundthem to be wholly haphazard, inspired merely by the whim of the moment,unregulated by any remotest evidence of system. His performances werethe meaningless flashes and snaps of Chinese crackers, not the steadyand purposeful, if less imposing, fire of a skilfully laid fuse, leadingon to great results. His confidence in his own ability, in the certaintyof his ultimate triumph, was so absolute that he was content with theminimum of endeavor, oblivious to the fact that only statues can remainthus passive with the assurance that laurel wreaths will be laid beforethem. He did not realize that the living must pluck their laurels forthemselves.

  Lacking the initiative which is its indispensable ally, Vanenevertheless possessed all the impatience of restraint or routinecharacteristic of the creative faculty. A year of editorial work wassufficient to convince him that it was not possible for such atemperament as his to be trammelled by fixed hours, and strait-jacketedby observance of detail. He resigned his position, on the plea ofdevoting himself entirely to writing, and there ensued a period duringwhich he sunned himself in society's favour, and received his share offlattery in return for several trifles contributed to the magazines, butcreated nothing worthy even of the infinitesimal effort which he made. Aman had to think, to arrange, to compose, he told his wife. Rome was notbuilt in a day, and the mere manual act of transferring his thoughts topaper was a trifle, when contrasted with the process of incubation. Somonth after month dragged by, and little by little, as his novelty woreoff, John Vane dropped out of society's consideration as a literarypotentiality, and came to be regarded as nothing more than one of manygood-looking, agreeable men-about-town, to whom, in the matter of hiswife and his worldly weal, the Fates had been generous beyond theordinary.

  One of the first unmistakable signs of degeneration was his now constantcomplaint that he was unappreciated. The average man's share of applauseis in strict proportion to his deserts. In Vane's case the allowance hadbeen appreciably in excess of his due, but it was exhausted at last; andflattery is a drug which, with indulgence, becomes, a necessity.Deprived of it, he grew fretful and impatient, made occasional abortiveefforts at performance of the great things formerly expected of him, andtalked savagely of prejudice when his manuscripts came back from theeditors, accompanied by polite notes wherein the pill ofnon-availability was sugar-coated with reference to the pleasure ofexamining his work, and the regret with which it was returned.

  For a time he had his wife's most loyal support and sympathy. She likedto believe that what he said was true, that literary excellence countedfor nothing in a commercial age, and that a man who would not conform tosilly superficial standards had no chance of recognition. But Helen wasa woman to whom a goose was a goose, and a swan a swan, at all times,and regardless of ownership. Moreover, she had been a lover of the bestin literature since first she had been given the run of her father'slibrary, and sat for entire afternoons curled into a big arm-chair,skipping the long words of Thackeray or Charles Lamb. Her criticalsense, thus perfected, was now too alert to allow of any treachery tostandard. Intensely loyal she was, but intensely just, as well; and allher eagerness to believe her husband what he claimed to be could notblind her to the mediocrity, often the utter worthlessness, of his laterwork. With revelation arose, naturally, an ardent desire to aid him, andstrict sincerity, which was her most admirable quality, pointed tocandour as the only adequate means. With his resentment of her counselcame her first disheartening insight into the shallowness and perversityof his nature. That he could accuse her of attempting to belittle him,rank her as at one with those who misunderstood him, hurt her morekeenly than if he had turned and cursed her. It was the parting oftheir ways, the first decisive step on the road which she was to followwearily for five years of discouragement and disillusion.

  With the waning of his popularity Vane renounced Boston, as he hadrenounced his birthplace, and they moved to New York. Here, for a time,he contributed listlessly to the humorous weeklies and the lesspretentious magazines; but reputation of the kind he sought was not tobe won by mere facility in rhyming or in writing around a dozenillustrations; and, presently, he reverted to his old complaint ofprejudice and non-appreciation. Then a chance acquaintance led him intospeculation. Where abler men failed, John Vane was swept into completedisaster. In a transient panic, he was caught long of a big line ofstocks, tried to average too soon, and was finally forced to let go hisholdings at about the bottom of the market.

  It was ruin, absolute and utter; but Helen almost welcomed it, in thebelief that the spur of a necessity he had never known before would goadhim to the achievement of better things. But the character of John Vanewas not the stuff whereof is made the moral phoenix. He shrivelledbefore the fire of defeat, and sank hopelessly into the ashes ofsurrender.

  They moved from their luxurious apartment to a cheap hotel, thence to acheaper one, thence to a boarding-house. The backward path was strewnwith unsettled bills, and loans never to be repaid. Vane wrotespasmodically for the daily papers, and for such of the magazines aswould still accept his work, and, on the pittance thus earned, and thegenerosity of Helen's father, they contrived to exist, in a fashion, forsomething over two years.

  But, given the temperament of John Vane, the next development wasinevitable. At first Helen sturdily refused to
believe that a new demonhad entered the hell which he was making of her life. She met him, atnight, with an attempt at a smile, deliberately ignoring his unsteadygait, his sodden face, his hot, rank breath. But the evidence was plain,constant, incontestable. Drink had gripped him, and she knew too wellthat whatever of weakness laid hand upon her husband never relinquishedhold.

  So another year went by, the gulf between them widening and widening.Finally, he struck her--and then, or the first time, that finaldegradation, that ominous, unknowable end of hope and self-respect,loomed, hideous and shadowy, through the fog before her. Unable tointerpret its significance, she told herself, nevertheless, that it wasvery near.

  They were living in Kingsbridge, in a little frame house into which aman who had known her husband in his Wall Street days had come, insettlement of a bad debt, and which he had offered them, for charity'ssake, at a paltry annual rental. The same Samaritan had given Vane asmall position in his office, and the latter now went to and fro,between the city and its gruesome little neighbour on the Harlem, takingleave of his wife with a curt, contemptuous nod, and returning, bloatedand foul-breathed, to pass the evenings in a semi-stupor.

  The chance had been too good to be disregarded, but life under suchconditions was no better than sheer existence. The cottage was one of asquat, ill-favoured row on a side street, within a stone's throw of therailway station. They had found it equipped, in a way, with cheap,yellowish furniture, worn and faded carpets, and kitchen utensilsdistinguished by the grime of many meals and the musty inheritance ofinsufficient washings. About the house there was a stale, moist smell ofplaster, and the plot of turf in the little front yard was dry anddiscoloured, like the mats of imitation grass in the establishment of acountry photographer. Helen had striven to redeem the desolation of thetiny living-room with the few pictures and articles of furniture whichshe had contrived to save from the wreck of their former fortunes; butthe attempt was not successful. The rare prints were out of placeagainst the tawdry wall-paper, and the few pieces of Sheraton andChippendale to which she had clung took on, in such surroundings, theshabbiness of what was already there.

  She was obliged to do her own marketing and cooking and housework, sincea servant, in their straitened circumstances, was out of the question:and not the least part of her martyrdom was the purchase of scrawnyyellow fowls, and vegetables of a freshness past, and their preparationin the dingy little kitchen, which left an odour of frying lard on thevery clothes she wore.

  Vane had left her, an hour before, on his way to the city; and now, asthe weight of depression became intolerable, she took her hat, lockedthe door behind her, and started for a long walk over the hill-roadsback of the town. This had lately come to be her habit. It was somethingto escape, even for half a day, from the dispirited little suburb, withits sallow frame houses, its patched fences, and its cinder-strewnroadways, along which lean cats slunk guiltily, and dishevelled fowlspicked their way in search of food. Up on the hills, the air of lateNovember was keen and chill, and grayed with a drifting smoke-mist fromdistant fires of dried leaves. The brown grass was veiled here and therewith thin patches of snow, stippled with faint shadows, cast by thefilial oak-leaves, which cling longer than any other to the maternalbough. As Helen passed, squirrels darted nimbly away to a safe distance,and then sat up to watch her, with their fore paws held coquettishlyagainst their breasts. It was all very sane and healthy, all inwonderful contrast to her morbid life in the shadow of John Vane'spersonality.

  There had been no children--a fact which, in happier hours, she haddeplored, but for which she was now profoundly grateful. There arethings which it is easier to bear alone. To share with another--andthat other her child--the humiliation of her ill-starred associationwith her husband, would but have been to double the burden's weight. Inher own case the period of martyrdom was well-nigh done. For his son andhers it would simply be at its beginning, tragic in its boundlesspossibilities of shame.

  As the thought came of the motherhood thus denied her, she wondered whyshe had been faithful to John Vane. Once she had believed in him, and sostrong had been this faith that some shreds of it yet remained, to bindher to him through all the unspeakably humiliating days of his gradualbut inevitable degradation. Nor was her fidelity of the negative,meaningless kind which is strong simply because unassailed. As a womanof the world, she had, more than once, been brought into contact withmen lax in their scrupulosity, but scrupulous in their laxity. She hadhad her temptations, her chances of escape; and the price to be paid wasnot exorbitant, in view of the relief to be obtained. But upon these shehad resolutely turned her back, hoping against hope for the miraclewhich never came. Even now, her father's door stood wide to her, andevery instinct of reason impelled her to a separation. But Vane had notonly killed her love for him; he had destroyed her very taste for lifeitself, under any circumstances whatever. She clung to him now, notbecause she loved him, not because it was impossible to do without him,but because he had sapped her youth, her faith, her craving foranything short of oblivion.

  She stood for a long time, motionless, at a point where a little streamtinkled pleasantly over the stones beneath its first thin sheathing ofice. The trees, saving only the oaks, were bare, and stood stiffly, inclose proximity, in the weird, white brilliance of _contre-lumiere_; andfor a few moments the barren tranquillity of the scene was indescribablyrestful. Then the light changed, as a slow cloud crept across the sun,and, with the coming of the resultant shadow, Helen, always exquisitelysensible to the moods of nature, returned suddenly to a consciousness ofher extremity. It was not real, then, this negative beauty, this serenesimplicity of nun-like, early winter; it was not real, her own unwontedcalm! What _was_ actual, material, inevitable, was the personality ofthe man who dominated her life like an evil spirit, using her as hischattel, abusing her as his slave. Abruptly, the whole course of theirassociation spread itself before her, up to her last glimpse of him,that morning, shambling on his way to the miserable daily duty to whichhe had sunk. And this was the life which she had been so eager to sharewith him, the life which, in those early days, his promises had made toseem so fair! Together, they were to have seen the world--the wonderful,great world, that had shone in the distance, like a Promised Land, fromthe Pisgah of her girlish imaginings: London, Paris, Rome, the Nile,Greece, India, and Japan. They were to have seen them all--drunk, incompany, of the wine of beauty and inspiration, doubling theirindividual pleasures with the magic wand of mutual comprehension, as heshould turn the treasures found along their enchanted way into suchwords as men preserve to praise, and she stand at his side, the first toread and reverence. And now? For the first time, the full splendour ofthe dream, the full squalor of the reality, swept down upon her. She sawhim, diverted from his own ideals, and ignorant of hers, taking theinitial step upon his downward way, no foot of which was ever to beretraced: drunken, debauched, impotent to write one worthy word,skulking, shamefaced and sodden, through a world of sunlight and manlyendeavour, like some noisome prowler of the night, surprised, far fromits lair, by the dawn of sweet young day. She was no more than a girl,and already it was too late. The blitheness of life was gone, never toreturn. For a moment she stood with her worn hands crushed against herface, and then she stretched her arms upward to their full length, andcried aloud, "Ah, God! Ah, _God_!" to the chill, clear sky of theNovember day.

  A voice at her side aroused her before she realized that she was notalone. At the sound she turned guiltily, and found herself face to facewith a man she had never seen. He stood quite near, hat in hand,surveying her with cool, steel-blue eyes. In that first instant, with aperception sharpened by her mental anguish, she became suddenly asfamiliar with every detail of his appearance as if they had beenintimates for years. He was tall and slender, and unmistakably young;and, in singular contrast to his pallid complexion, his lips, under thethin mustache, were full and red, with a strange, sensual crookednessthat was half a smile and half a sneer. There was about him a curious,compellant air of mastery and se
lf-possession, as of one sure ofhimself, and accustomed to control; and his first words, under theirveneer of polite solicitude, were, in their total lack of surprise oridle curiosity, significant of the trained man of the world, while thequaint, foreign flavour of the title by which he addressed her wasequally suggestive of the cosmopolite.

  "You are in distress, _madame_?"

  Helen paused before replying. With the instinctive delicacy of her sex,she realized that in the approach of a stranger who had surprised her ina betrayal of extreme emotion there was something which she would dowell to resent; and yet she was come to one of those crises which everywoman knows; when the need of sympathy, even the most casual, wasimperative--when, albeit at the sacrifice of conventionality, she wasfain to seek support, to grasp a firm hand, to hear a friendly, thoughan unknown, voice. Pride, her stanch ally through all the bitter hoursof her despair, had weakened at this the most crucial point, and, like afrightened child, she would have run for reassurance into the arms ofthe veriest passer-by.

  "Perhaps," she answered presently. "But, believe me, the expression ofmy feeling was purely involuntary. I thought myself alone. There are,ordinarily, few passers by this road."

  He had replaced his hat now, and was no longer looking at her, but downacross the shelving slope of hillside, spiked with slender trees, asclose-set as the bristles of a giant brush. When he spoke again, histone had curiously assumed the existence of a relation between them, asif, instead of total strangers, they had been old acquaintances, cometogether at this spot, and exchanging impressions of the scene beforethem.

  "Strange," he said slowly, "that you should be in distress, when Nature,which always seems to me the most sympathetic of companions, is wrappedin so great repose. In my dealings with humanity, I've frequently metwith misunderstanding; but never, in the attitude of Nature, a lack ofwhat I felt to be completest comprehension of my mood. She always seemsto divine our difficulties, and to have some little helpful hint, somesmall parable, which, if we read it aright, will point out the solutionof our problem, or at least serve to soothe the momentary pang. Thislittle stream at our feet, for example: how it preaches the lesson thatwhile we must meet with days that are cold, unsympathetic, drear, it'snot only possible, but best, to preserve, under the ice in whichadversity wraps our hearts, the life and laughter which friendlier sunshave taught us! I wonder if that is not the secret of all humancontentment--to resign oneself to the chilling touch of the wintry daysof life, secure in the knowledge that summer will return, thecompensation be made manifest, and the wrong turned to right."

  The rebuff which was on Helen's lips an instant before was never spoken.It was one of those moments when the intuitive assertion of dignity andself-reliance lays down its arms before the need of comfort andcompanionship. She did not look at him, but in her silence there wasthat which encouraged him to continue.

  "You don't resent my speaking to you in this way?" he asked. "After all,why should you? You are a bubble on this strange, erratic stream oflife, and I another. Bubble does not ask bubble the reason of theirmeeting, at some predestined spot between source and sea. Instead, theytouch, perhaps to drift apart again after a moment; perhaps, as oneoften sees them, to unite in one larger, better, brighter bubble thaneither had been before. Neither cares a tittle for its chancecompanion's previous history, or for what the other bubbles say.Curiosity as to another's past is the prerogative of small-spirited man,as is also the dread of adverse criticism. Now the commingling bubblesare one of Nature's little parables, and my conception of idealsympathy."

  His eyes were upon her now, and, strangely impelled, her own came roundto meet them.

  "I'm not wholly sure that I get your meaning," she said, feeling that heexacted a reply. "Is it that association and sympathy are merely theresult of chance?"

  "Chance is only a word that we use to express the workings of a forcebeyond our understanding." He stooped and picked up a little stone,weighed it momentarily in his palm, and then, reversing his hand, let itfall. "One would hardly be apt to call it chance," he added, "that,after leaving my hand, that pebble reached the ground. If we understooddestiny as we understand gravitation, we should not say that our presentmeeting was due to chance, but rather that it was the logical outcome ofa natural law."

  There was a long pause, during which he glanced at her more than once,with the seemingly careless but actually keenly observant air of askilled physician studying a nervous patient. She was a littlefrightened, she confessed to herself, as she gathered her wits, staringat the bit of river which was visible from where they stood, and theslopes beyond. For weeks she had been prey to an apathy which was onlybroken, at intervals, by an outburst of passionate revolt. Now, in someinexplicable fashion, the burden seemed to have slipped from hershoulders, and the feeling of depression was replaced by one ofuplifting, of unreasonable exhilaration. The sensation was vaguelyfamiliar to her, and, groping for a clue, she found its parallel in thepreliminary action of ether, which she had taken a year or so before.Through the growing, not unpleasurable, dizziness which came upon herthus, the man's voice made its way.

  "Let me try to explain myself more clearly," he was saying."Something--God, or chance, or destiny, or whatever you choose to callit--led me around that last turn of the road at a moment when, if I'mnot mistaken, a fellow being came to the snapping-point of self-control.I can't think our meeting without significance. I believe I was sent tohelp you. The question is, whether you're broad and generous andcourageous enough to take for granted a formal introduction, and thegradual evolution of acquaintance into intimacy, up to the moment whenyou would naturally turn to me, as your most loyal friend, for sympathy.And I think you will do that."

  Once more Helen looked at him. Her mind was curiously clouded, but thesensation gave her no uneasiness. Instead, she felt that she wassmiling.

  "I think you will do it," he repeated.

  He was holding out his hand with the confidence of one who knows it willbe accepted, and, after a moment, she laid her own within it. Hisfingers closed firmly on hers, and, of a sudden, the world drew in abouther, graying, as under the touch of fog. Her last perception was of hiseyes fixed full on hers with an expression of quiet amusement.

  "I'm faint," she murmured, "I am--faint--"

  When she came to herself, his eyes still held her.

  "In the strange, unknowable book of Fate," he said, "it was written,from the beginning of time, that you and I should meet upon a dullhillside in late November, and--and that all that has been should be!"

  Before she had time to answer, he had left her.

  Briefly she stood, dizzy and perplexed, and then, after one great leap,her heart seemed to shudder and stand still. _She was in the sordidlittle living-room of the Kingsbridge cottage, and outside the day wasglooming into twilight!_

  Without power to move, she watched from the window the man who had justgone, pass down the path and through the gate, and, turning, wave afarewell, before he hurried away in the direction of the station. Thenshe was fully aroused by the entrance of the postman, and went slowly tomeet him at the door. There was only one letter, but this was directedin her husband's unsteady hand, and, as she opened it, the contentsleapt at her like a blow:


  "Let me be as brief as you will think me brutal. When this reaches you I shall already be far at sea--with another woman. I have seen how you despised me, and I think that you know this, and that I hate you for it. I shall not ask you to forgive me, for I, too, have many things to forgive. If you had understood me, much that has happened might never have been. But what is past is past. Let us bury it and have done."


  For minutes, which seemed an eternity, Helen stood, fingering thewretched sheet, and gazing straight before her with blank, unwinkingeyes. Then, with a rush, came remembrance, and with it a great wave ofrelief. Before she fully comprehended her intention, she was at the gateof the cottage. But there she halted, with a nameless sense of
loss anddesperation. From the distance had come the yelp of a signalledlocomotive, and then a dozen short, choking pants, as it dragged thereluctant train into motion. He had gone!

  "But he will come back!" she murmured, "and, that he may come sooner, Iwill write."

  It was only towards the end of her black, sleepless night that sheremembered that she did not even know his name.

  Late autumn slid gloomily into winter, and winter into spring, beforeshe realized that he would never come. To her father she had writtennothing of Vane's desertion. For a year past, his name had not beenmentioned in their letters, so the omission was no longer noted, and Mr.Sterling's remittances enabled her to live in material comfort. Sheclung to the forlorn little cottage with a vague feeling that by italone could she be traced when He should come back for her; but took aservant, a slovenly little wench, who moved in a circumambient odour ofcarbolic acid, and amassed dust under beds and sofas as a miser hoardshis gold.

  Helen herself saw nothing, heeded nothing. Save in the impulse whichfollowed her reading of Vane's letter, her mind was never wholly clearfrom the shadow which had descended upon it at the moment of thathand-grip on the hillside. Hour after hour, day after day, week afterweek, she sat at the window, motionless, listening for the creak of thegate, the crunch of footsteps on the gravel path, which would tell herthat He had returned.

  With spring the disillusion came, and she crept back to the shelter ofher father's house, but to no change, save slow and listless surrenderto the inevitable. Sometimes they heard her whispering to herself, asshe sat, with some book which they had brought her, unopened on herknee--odd scraps of sentences, and broken phrases, without apparentrelevancy or connection. The family physician, a friend from boyhood ofAndrew Sterling, tapped his forehead significantly at such times asthese, and the hands of the two men would meet in a grasp of mutualunderstanding.

  One night in late August her child was born, and the west wind thatbrought a new soul to the Sterling door, pausing an instant in itspassing, gathered up, and in its kind arms bore away, on its pathlessflight into the Great Unknown, the tired spirit of Helen Vane.