1. Chapter I
With but one exception, everybody in the upper layer of life in that placid Vermont village was sure that Jane Vail was going to marry Martin Wetherby. The one exception was Jane herself; she was not sure--not entirely.
There were many sound and sensible reasons why she should, and only two or three rather inconsequent ones why she should not. To begin with, he was a Wetherby, and the family went steadily back in an unbroken line to Colonial days; it was their grave old house with the fanlight over its dignified door which had given Wetherby Ridge its name. He was doing remarkably well at the bank; it was conceded that he would be assistant cashier at the first possible moment; his habits were exemplary and he was the most carefully dressed young man in the community. His mother freely admitted at the Ladies' Aid and the Tuesday Club that he was as perfect a son as any woman ever had, and that he would one day make some girl a perfect husband.
Jane, after long and rebellious thought, could find nothing to set down on the other side of the ledger beyond the fact that he was just a little too good-looking, that he was already beginning, at twenty-six, to put on the flesh which had always been intended for him, that his hands were softer than hers, with fingers which widened puffily at the base, and that she nearly always knew what he was going to say before he said it.
She was twenty-four years old, and the immemorial custom of that village gave her a scant remaining year in which to make up her mind. All girls who ran true to pattern were either snugly married or serenely teaching by the time they were twenty-five, and the choice was not always their own. There had been more marriageable maidens than eligible youths in the set, and it was rather, Jane told herself grimly, like a game of Musical Chairs--a gay, excited scramble, and some one always left out. Now, with the exodus of a few and the marrying of many, it had narrowed down to three of them--herself, Martin Wetherby, and Sarah Farraday, who was her best friend during childhood and girlhood; and Sarah, an earnest, blonde girl with nearsighted eyes and insistent upper front teeth, had, so to speak, stopped playing. She had converted her dead father's old stable into a studio by means of art burlap and framed photographs of famous composers, and was giving piano lessons daily from ten to four. This left the field entirely to Jane, and Jane was carrying about with her an increasing conviction that she was not going to do the thing every one expected her to do.
It came curiously to a crisis on a mild and unimportant day in November. Jane spent a footless forenoon in her own room in the green-shuttered, elm-shaded house where she lived with her adoring Aunt Lydia Vail, trying to start a story. Miss Vail took great care to tiptoe whenever she passed her door, and refrained from summoning her to the telephone, but her pleasant old voice, explaining why her niece could not come, was clearly audible.
"Yes, dear, she's at home, but she's at work at her writing, and you know I never disturb her.... Yes, she's been shut away in her room since right after breakfast.... Yes, it's a new story, but I don't know what it's about. I'll ask her at dinner.... How's your mother, dear?... Oh, that's good; That's what I always use and it never fails to relieve me. You give her my love, won't you? I'll have Jane call you up when she comes out for dinner."
The story simply would not start. It lay inert in the back of her brain, listening for the telephone and Aunt Lydia's softly padding footfalls, and at last she gave it up and got out the paper she was to read on "The Modern Irish Dramatists" before the Tuesday Club that afternoon and went carefully over its typed pages.
"Oh," said Aunt Lydia at the dinner table, her plump face clouding over, "I'm sorry the story didn't go well! It wasn't because you were interrupted, was it, dear? I was especially careful this morning. You know, I believe, without realizing it, you're just the least mite nervous about your program. I know I am myself, though I know, of course, you're going to do just beautifully."
Three and a half hours later, thirty-four matrons and spinsters were warmly asserting that she had. They smiled up at her where she stood on the shallow little platform with approval and affection, and the Chairman of the Program Committee said she was sure they were all deeply indebted to Miss Vail for a most enlightening little lecture. "I am free to confess," she said, smiling, "that it is a subject upon which I, personally, have been ignorant, and I believe many of our club ladies would say the same."
Jane, looking down into their pleasant, best-family faces knew this was the fact. The word "Irish" conveyed to most of them only the red-armed minions in their kitchens; the boys who ran noisily up alleyways with butchers' parcels; the short-tempered dames in battered hats who came--or distressingly did not come--to them on Monday mornings, and who frequently bore away with them bars of perfectly new soap; and the chuckles and sobs and moonlit whimsies of Yeats and Synge and Lady Gregory did not, in their minds, connect up at all.
"And now," said the President, in her sweet New England voice, "I know you will all wish to express your appreciation both to the Chairman of our Program Committee, who has arranged so many literary treats for us, and to Miss Vail for her delightful paper by a rising vote of thanks." Then the thirty-four ladies of the Tuesday Club clutched at their gloves and handbags and came to their feet with soft rustlings of new foulards and taffetas and rich old silks, and the President declared the meeting adjourned but trusted that every one would remain for a cup of tea and a social hour.
Martin Wetherby's handsome mother took brisk and proprietary charge of Jane and shared her laurels happily. "Yes, indeed," she beamed, her gray crêpe arm through the girl's, "I can tell you, we're pretty proud of her!" She had clearly cast herself already for the rôle of adoring and devoted mother-in-law, and the Tuesday Club was just as clearly taking the same view of it.
Jane, in her wine-red velvet and her glowing, gipsy beauty against the sober blacks and grays and faded cheeks of the gathering, looking like a Kentucky cardinal alighted in a henyard, felt her smile stiffening. Sudden and inexplicable panic and rebellion descended upon her; it seemed certain that if she heard Mrs. Wetherby say "proud of this dear girl of ours" once again she would scream. She disengaged her arm and declined tea and little frosted cakes.
"I'm so sorry--it looks so tempting, doesn't it?--but I really must fly!" She looked earnestly at her wrist watch. "This very minute! Thank you all so much! You've been wonderful--quite turned my head! But I must hurry!"
Out in the quiet, pretty street the sense of pursuit fell away from her and she was smiling derisively at herself when she reached Sarah Farraday's house and passed through the side garden to the studio. An hour with old Sally would be good for her.
Sarah was tenderly dusting her severe-looking upright piano and putting away a pile of lesson books, and turned gladly to greet her. "Jane, dear! Why, how did you get away so early? Didn't they serve tea? I was just sick about not going, but the little Macey girl has had so many interruptions and is so far behind, and she does want to play at my recital, so that I felt I couldn't put her off again. How did your paper go?"
"Oh, well enough. They were very nice about it."
"I know they loved it. I want to read it!" She closed the music cabinet and came to take the typed manuscript. "Why, Jane; What's the matter?"
"I don't know, Sally--Yes, I do know! It's--it's Mrs. Wetherby, and every one else! She acts as if--every one acts--" it made her angrier still to feel the color mounting hotly in her cheeks.
"Well, Jane, dear," a faint, sympathetic flush warmed her small, pale face, "isn't that perfectly natural? Of course, I suppose it teases you, but you know how happy every one is about it."
"But there isn't anything to be happy about--yet!"
"Then it's just because you have--have held things off, dear, that's all. And I think Marty has been awfully faithful and patient--for years; Ever since you were tiny kiddies!" She looked anxiously at her best friend's mutinous face. "I'll tell you," she said, brightly, "let's run around to Nannie's for a moment! She'll just be giving the 'Teddy-bear' his oil rub. I'll run through the house and get my things--you wait out in front!"
Nannie Slade Hunter (Mrs. Edward R.) was their second-best friend and they had been among her bridesmaids two years earlier. A few minutes of brisk footing through the fading November afternoon delivered them at the Hunters' new, little house and in the nursery of their little son. Sarah's knowledge of schedule had been correct. Nannie, in an enveloping pinafore, her sleeves rolled high, her hands glistening, was anointing her infant with the most expensive olive oil on the market. The house was furnace heated and a small electric stove was radiating fierce warmth, and her cheeks were blazing. Jane and Sarah flung off their wraps and gave themselves whole-heartedly over to the business of worship and praise.
Little Mrs. Hunter, on whom matronhood and maternity sat with the effect of large spectacles on a small child, inquired indulgently into the activities of her friends. "Paper go nicely, Janey? Sorry I couldn't go.--Yes, he was his muzzie's lamby-lamby-boy! Yes, he was!--And how many pupils have you now, Sally?"
"Seventeen," said Sarah, thankfully, "and if everything goes well I'll have my baby-grand in four years!"
Edward R. Hunter, unmistakable father of the glistening infant, came into the room as she spoke and at once propounded a conundrum.
"Here's a good one, Jane! What's the difference between Nannie and Sally? Give it up? Why, Sally'll have a baby-grand, but Nannie has a grand baby!" The hot and breathless nursery rang with mirth; it seemed to Jane that the very pink room was growing hotter and hotter, and it smelt stiflingly of moist varnish and talcum powder and warm olive oil and expensive soap, and the baby, sitting solemnly erect for his powdering, a steadying hand at his fat back, looked like a pink celluloid Kewpie leering at her knowingly. She heard herself saying with unconsidered mendacity that she had an errand to run for her Aunt Lydia, and that Sally mustn't hurry away on her account, and presently she was down in the dim street again, with Edward R.'s jocose reproach that old Marty Wetherby was fading away to skin and bone echoing in her ears. She went dutifully for a magazine Miss Vail had mentioned and went home the "long way 'round," so that she was barely in time for supper, which consisted of three slices of cold boiled ham, shaved to a refined thinness and spread upon an ancient and honorable platter of blue willow pattern ware, hot biscuit, a small pot of honey and two kinds of preserves, delicate cups of not-too-strong tea, sugar cookies and a pallid custard.
Her aunt was fond and proud over the afternoon's triumph but didn't quite understand her having gone away so abruptly, and feared that Mrs. Wetherby had been "just the least mite hurt about it."
"But then," she hastened to add, at Jane's impatient movement, "it'll be all right, dear! You're going to see her to-night, and I know you can--sort of smooth it over."
"I was thinking," said her niece, dark eyes on her plate, "that perhaps I wouldn't go this evening, Aunt Lyddy."
"Not go? Not go to Mrs. Wetherby's? Why,--Jane;" Miss Vail laid down her fork and stared, her mild eyes wide with astonishment. "You aren't sick, are you?"
"I think I'm sick of always and always going to the same places with the same person, and hearing the same people say the same things!" Instantly she wished she might recall the sharp words, satisfying as they were to herself, for little Miss Lydia was regarding her much as the aunt of the wretched girl in the fairy tale might have done,--the girl out of whose mouth a frog jumped every time she opened it. Indeed, the sentence seemed actually visible between them, like a squat and ugly small beast on the shining white cloth. "Sorry, Aunt Lyddy," said Jane, penitently. "I'm a crosspatch to-night, and I ought to sit by the fire and spin, instead of gamboling."
Miss Vail's face cleared. "No, indeed, dearie, it'll be much better for you to go and have a merry time with your young companions. That paper was a nervous strain, that's all! Now you just eat a good supper and then run upstairs and make yourself as pretty as you can!" Her plump face broke up into sly lines and she nodded happily. "Marty'll come for you at quarter before eight; he telephoned before you got home."
Martin Wetherby was even better than his word, which was one of his most sterling traits. He arrived at twenty-five minutes before eight and waited contentedly in converse with her aunt until Jane came down. "I didn't bring the car," he said. "I thought we'd like to walk." When they reached the sidewalk he lifted her right forearm in a warm, moist grasp and held it firmly close against him. "The car's too quick, Janey," he said, huskily. "Gets us there too soon!"
"Well," said Jane, brightly, "we mustn't be late, your mother likes people to be prompt, you know!" She managed to tug her arm away the fraction of an inch.
"She likes you, any old time," he said, blissfully. He always got husky and thick sounding in emotion, Jane reflected, and breathed heavily.
"Aren't we going to stop by for Sally?"
"No; I asked Edward R. and Nannie to pick her up in their little old boat. No, we aren't going to have anybody--but just--us;" He squeezed her arm against him again. "Janey, I guess you know all right how I----"
"Oh!" cried Jane,--"here they are, now! Hello, people!"
"Hello yourselves!" said Edward R. Hunter, bringing his machine to a stop beside them. "Want to hop in? Plenty room."
"No, of course they don't want to hop in, goose!" said his wife, reprovingly. "Edward R. Hunter, I wonder at you! Were you never young yourself?"
"Oh, but we do!" Jane was capably opening the front door of the little car. "We're late! I kept Marty waiting! I'm going to ride with the chauffeur, and Marty can sit with the girls. When Mrs. Wetherby says 'eight o'clock' she means it, not quarter past." She was chatty and intensely friendly with them all during the brief drive. She even produced the proper degree of articulate mirth for the young father's painstaking jest about his son's nickname being Teddy b-a-r-e, bear, most of the time.
When they stopped before the Wetherby house Martin was out of the automobile with heavy swiftness and lifted Jane bodily to the sidewalk and hurried her up the walk. "All right for you, girlie," he chuckled, "all right for you! But you just wait! Wait till going home to-night!"
Jane drew Sarah Farraday aside when they were in Mrs. Wetherby's phrase, "taking off their things in the north chamber,"--a solid and dependable-looking room. "Sally, I want you to come home with me and stay over night."
"Oh, Jane, I don't believe I could,--not to-night! If I'd known sooner--I haven't anything with me."
"I'll loan you everything you need. Please, Sally! You can telephone your mother now."
"But Edward and Nannie brought me, and it seems sort of----"
"Sally, don't be a nuisance! I want you. I--need you!"
Sarah Farraday peered closely at her through her nearsighted eyes. "Jane! You haven't quarreled with Marty, have you? Oh, Jane!"
"No, but I shall if you don't come home with me!"
Her best friend looked long and anxiously at her and then went with a sigh to telephone her mother, and the evening, which Mrs. Wetherby described as "a little gathering of the young folks," got under way. Jane played cards sedately for the earlier part of it and joined with conscientious liveliness in the games which came later, just before Mrs. Wetherby's conception of "light refreshments" was served,--pineapple and banana salad with whipped cream and maraschino cherries on it, three kinds of exceptionally sweet and sticky cake, thick chocolate with melted marshmallows floating on its surface, and large quantities of home-made fudge in crystal bonbon dishes.
To Martin Wetherby, watching her contentedly out of his small, bright eyes, Jane Vail was what he and his mother termed the life of the party, but although she played an unfaltering part in the comedy of, "Well, partner; Didn't you get my signal? Now who's asleep?" and the sprightly games which followed, and exclaimed prettily over the decked supper table, deep under the high-piled masses of her dark hair, dark thoughts were stirring. She seemed to herself to be marching inexorably to the crossroads, which was silly, because she had spent exactly that sort of day and evening hundreds of times before and would again, she told herself impatiently, but the feeling was not to be eluded. She held herself up to her own high scorn. Why this dramatizing of the pleasant and placid course of Wetherby Ridge events? Why shouldn't she do as the other girls of the set had done? Was she, then, so much finer clay? If she didn't want to be another Nannie--hot pink nursery in a shining little new house--expensive olive oil--home-coming husband in punning mood--pink celluloid Kewpie--half a dozen of everything in flat silver and two really good rugs to start with--then why couldn't she cast herself serenely for the Sarah Farraday sort of thing, substituting a typewriter for a piano? There was nothing so bleak and dreadful about that; old Sally was busily happy, toiling hopefully for her baby-grand. She was enormously lucky, as a matter of fact, lucky beyond her deserts. She could be, it appeared, a Nannie or a Sarah, as she chose, and the time for choosing had arrived. And presently the girls were exclaiming that it was twenty minutes past eleven and they really must go, but it was Mrs. Wetherby's fault for always giving them such a perfectly wonderful time that they forgot to watch the clock, and Mrs. Wetherby was beaming back at them and insisting that she had enjoyed it all just as much as they had, and that she hoped she could always keep young at heart.
Sally lagged behind as they went down the steps. "Come along!" Jane called back to her. "I know you'll talk half of what's left of the night, and I want to get you started as soon as possible."
"She going to stay all night with you?" There was sulky surprise in Martin's voice.
"Yes," said Jane. "But isn't 'stay all night' a silly expression? As if she might rise and stalk home in the middle of it! I wonder why we don't say, 'stay over night'?" She ran on, ripplingly, but her escort at one side and Sarah Farraday at the other were maintaining, respectively, a sullen and an uncomfortable silence. When they were passing her own house Sarah broke away from them with a little gasp.
"Oh,--do you mind waiting just a minute? I believe I'll just run up and get my things, Jane. You know what a fussbudget I am about my own things. And I'll just slip into another dress so I won't have to put this on for breakfast. It won't take me two minutes--" She flew up the front steps and let herself softly in with her latch key, and instantly ill humor fell from Martin Wetherby.
"Sally's all right," he chuckled. "I'm for Sally!" He swept Jane out of the circle of light from the street lamp, into the black shadow of the Farraday shrubbery, and into a breathless embrace. "You--little--rascal--" he said, huskily, gasping a trifle as he always did in moments of high emotion. "You--little--witch! Now I've got you--and I'm going to keep you! Now I guess you'll listen to what I've got to say and--and answer me!" His broad, warm face was coming inexorably nearer; life--the pleasant and placid pattern of Wetherby Ridge--was coming inexorably nearer; life with melted marshmallows floating on its surface!
"Oh, Marty, please!" She was fatally calm and earnest about it. "I'm so sorry--sorrier than I can tell you,--but you mustn't say it! You mustn't make me answer you."
He was busily getting both her cool hands into the hot grasp of one of his own, and the fingers of his other hand, a little moist, were forcing themselves beneath her chin, but there was something in the honest sorriness of her tone which made him pause even in that triumphant and satisfying moment. "Why? You little----"
"Because," said Jane, steadily, "I do like you such a lot, Marty dear, and I wish you wouldn't ask me, and make me tell you that I don't--I can't----"
Then with a swift and amazing sense of rescue, of sanctuary, she heard herself saying, "Besides, you see, I'm going away!"