It was still May and the North Carolina
mountain-side that John Wollaston looked out upon
was at the height of its annual debauch of azalea blooms,
a symphonic romance in the key of rose-color with modulations
down to strawberry and up to a clear singing white.
For him though, the invalid, cushioned and pillowed
in an easy chair, a rug over his knees, these splendors
and the perfume of the soft bright air that bathed
them had an ironic significance.
He had arrived with Paula at this
paradise early in the week, pretty well exhausted
with the ordinary fatigues of less than a day’s
journey in the train. They were feeding him bouillon,
egg-nogs and cream. On Paula’s arm he had
managed this afternoon, his first walk, a matter of
two or three hundred yards about the hotel gardens,
and at the end of it had been glad to subside, half
reclining into this easy chair, placed so that through
the open door and the veranda it gave upon, he could
enjoy the view of the color-drenched mountain-side.
He had dismissed Paula peremptorily
for a real walk of her own. He had told her,
in simple truth, that he would enjoy being left to
himself for a while. She had taken this assurance
for an altruistic mendacity, but she had yielded at
last to his insistence and gone, under an exacted
promise not to come back for at least an hour.
It offered some curious compensations
though, this state of helplessness a limpidity
of vision, clairvoyant almost. For a fortnight
he had been like a spectator sitting in the stalls
of a darkened theatre watching the performances upon
a brilliantly lighted stage, himself himselves
among the characters, for there was a past and a future
self for him to look at and ponder upon. The present
self hardly counted. All the old ambitions, desires,
urgencies, which had been his impulsive forces were
gone quiescent anyhow. He was as sexless,
as cool, as an image carved in jade.
And he was here in this lover’s
paradise this was what drew the tribute
of a smile to the humor of the high gods with
Paula. And Paula was more ardently in love with
him than she had ever been before.
The quality of that smile must have
carried over to the one he gave her when she came
back, well within her promised hour, from her walk.
One couldn’t imagine anything lovelier or more
inviting than the picture she made framed in that
doorway, coolly shaded against the bright blaze that
came in around her. She looked at him from there,
for a moment, thoughtfully.
“I don’t believe you have
missed me such a lot after all,” she said.
“What have you been doing all the while?”
“Crystal-gazing,” he told her.
She came over to him and took his
hands, a caress patently enough through the nurse’s
pretext that she was satisfying herself that he had
not got cold sitting there. She relinquished
them suddenly, readjusted his rug and pillows, then
kissed him and told him she was going to the office
to see if there were any letters and went out again.
She was gone but a moment or two; returning, she dropped
the little handful which were addressed to him into
his lap and carried one of her own to a chair near
He dealt idly with the congratulatory
and well-wishing messages which made up his mail.
There was but one of them that drew even a gleam of
clearly focused intelligence from him. He gave
most of his attention to Paula. She was a wonderful
person to watch, the expressiveness of her,
that every nerve and muscle of her body seemed to have
a part in. She had opened that letter of hers
with nothing but clear curiosity. The envelope
evidently had told her nothing. She had frowned,
puzzled, over the signature and then somehow, darkened,
sprung to arms as she made it out. She didn’t
read it in an orderly way even then; seemed to be trying
to worry the meaning out of it, like one stripping
off husks to get down to some sort of kernel inside.
Satisfied that she had got it at last, she dropped
the letter carelessly on the floor, subsided a little
deeper into her chair and turned a brooding face toward
the outdoor light and away from him.
“Are you crystal-gazing, too?”
he asked. Unusually, she didn’t turn at
his voice and her own was monotonous with strongly
“I don’t need to.
I spent more than a week staring into mine.”
That lead was plain enough, but he
avoided, deliberately though rather idly, following
it up. The rustle of paper told her that he had
turned back to his letters.
“Anything in your mail?” she asked.
“I think not. You can look
them over and see if I’ve missed anything.
To a man in my disarticulate situation people don’t
write except to express the kindness of their hearts.
Here’s a letter from Mary designed to prevent
me from worrying about her. Full of pleasant little
anecdotes about farm life. It’s thoroughly
Arcadian, she says. A spot designed by Heaven
for me to rusticate in this summer when when
we go back to town. Somehow, I never did inhabit
Arcady. There’s a letter from Martin Whitney,
too, that’s almost alarmingly encouraging in
its insistence that I mustn’t worry. If
only they knew how little I did these days!”
“Well, that’s all right
then,” she said. “Because those were
Doctor Darby’s orders. You weren’t
to be excited or worried about anything. But,
John, is it really true that you don’t?
Not about anything?”
The fact that her face was still turned
away as she asked that question gave it a significance
which could not be overlooked.
“It’s perfectly true,”
he asserted. “I don’t believe I could
if I tried. But there’s something evidently
troubling you. Let’s have it. Oh,
don’t be afraid. You’ve no idea what
an Olympian position one finds himself
in when he has got half-way across the Styx and come
back. Tell me about it.”
“You know all about it already.
I told you the first day you could talk that
I was going to give up singing altogether except just
for you, when you wanted me to. I
knew I’d been torturing you about it. I
thought perhaps you’d get well quicker, want
to get well more if you knew that the torture
wasn’t to go on. It was true and it is true.
Perhaps you thought it was just one of those lies that
people tell invalids one of those don’t-worry
things. Well, is wasn’t.
“But you made me promise I wouldn’t
do anything wouldn’t break my Ravinia
contract until we could talk it all out
together. Your temperature went up a little that
afternoon and when Doctor Darby asked me why, I told
him. He said I mustn’t, on any account,
speak again to you about it until you brought the
subject up yourself. I don’t know whether
he’d call this bringing it up or not, but anyway
that’s it. I’ve kept my promise to
you though,” she concluded. “I haven’t
written. They still think I am going to sing
“I am very glad of that,”
he said quietly. “I thought the thing was
settled by our first talk. I didn’t realize
that you had taken it merely as an adjournment.”
She was still turned rigidly away
from him, but the grip of one of her hands upon the
arm of a chair betrayed the excitement she was laboring
under, while it showed the effort she was making to
hold it down.
“I didn’t think, though,”
he went on, “that that resolution of yours to
give up your whole career, make ducks and
drakes of it, in obedience to my whim was
nothing more than one of those pious lies that invalids
are fed upon. I knew you meant it, my dear.
I knew you’d have done it then without
a falter or a regret.”
“Then or now,” she said.
“It’s all the same. No, it isn’t!
Now more than then. With less regret. Without
a shadow of a regret, John, if it would
bring you back to me.”
The last words were muffled, for she
had buried her face in her hands.
He had heard the ring of undisguised
passion in her voice without an answering pulse-beat,
sat looking at her thoughtfully, tenderly. The
reflection that occupied his mind was with what extravagant
joy he would have received such an assurance only
a few weeks ago. On any one of those last days
before his illness fastened upon him; the
Sunday he had gone to Hickory Hill alone because Paula
had found she must work with March that day; the evening
when he had made his last struggle against the approaching
delirium of fever in order to telephone for an ambulance
to get him out of that hated house. What a curious
compound of nerve ends and gland activities a man’s
dreams that he lived by, or died for were!
She pulled him out of his reverie
by a deliberate movement of resolution, taking her
hands away from her face, half rising and turning her
chair so that she faced him squarely.
“I want to know in so many words,”
she said, “why you’re glad that I’m
still bound to that Ravinia thing. You seem to
want me to sing there this summer, as much as you
hated the idea of my doing it before. Well, why?
Or is it something you can’t tell me? And
if I sing and make a success, shall you want me to
go on with it, following up whatever opening it offers;
just as if just as if you didn’t count
any more in my life at all?”
Before he could answer she added rather
dryly, “Doctor Darby would kill me for talking
to you like this. You needn’t answer if
it’s going to hurt you.”
“No,” he said, “it
isn’t hurting me a bit. But I’ll answer
one question at a time, I think. The first thing
that occurred to me when you spoke of the Ravinia
matter was that I didn’t want you to break your
word. You had told them that they could count
on you and I didn’t want you, on my account,
to be put in a position where any one could accuse
you of having failed him. My own word was involved,
for that matter. I told LaChaise I wouldn’t
put any obstacles, in your way. Of course, I didn’t
contract lobar pneumonia on purpose,” he added
with a smile.
The intensity of her gaze did not
relax at this, however. She was waiting breathlessly.
“The other question isn’t
quite so easy to answer,” he went on, “but
I think I would wish you to follow the
path of your career wherever it leads. I shall
always count for as much as I can in your life, but
not if I can help it as an obstacle.”
“Why?” she asked.
“What has made the perfectly enormous difference?”
It was not at all an unanswerable
question; nor one, indeed, that he shrank from.
But it wanted a little preliminary reflection.
She interrupted before he was ready to speak.
“Of course, I really know.
Have known all along. You haven’t forgiven
He echoed that word with a note of helplessness.
“No,” she conceded.
“That isn’t it, exactly. I can’t
talk the way you and Mary can. I suppose you
have forgiven me, as far as that goes. That’s
the worst of it. If you hadn’t there’d
be more to hope for. Or beg for. I’d
do that if it were any good. But this is something
you can’t help. You’re kind and sweet
to me, but you’ve just stopped caring. For
me. What used to be there has just gone
snap. It’s not your fault. I did it
“No,” he said quickly.
“That’s where you’re altogether wrong.
You didn’t do it. You had nothing to do
with the doing of it.”
She winced, visibly, at the implication
that, whoever was responsible, the thing was done.
“Paula, dearest!” he cried,
in acute concern. “Wait! There are
things that can’t be dealt with in a breath.
That’s why I was trying to think a little before
Even now he had to marshal his thoughts
for a moment before he could go on. It was too
ridiculous, that look of tragic desperation she wore
while she waited! He averted his eyes and began
“You are dearer to me now at
this moment, as we sit here than ever you’ve
been before. I think that’s the simple literal
truth. This matter of forgiveness of
your having done something to forfeit or to destroy
my love for you... Oh, it’s too
wildly off the facts to be dealt with rationally!
I owe you my life. That’s not a sentimental
exaggeration. Even Steinmetz says so. And
you saved it for me at the end of a period of weeks months
I guess when I had been devoting most of
my spare energies to torturing you. Myself, incidentally,
but there was nothing meritorious about that.
In an attempt to assert a proprietary right
in you that you had never even pretended to give me.
That I’d once promised you I never would assert.
The weight of obligation I’m under to you would
be absolutely crushing if it weren’t
for one thing that relieves me of it altogether.
The knowledge that you love me. That you did it
all for the love of me.”
She moved no nearer him. These
were words. There was no reassurance for her
in them. One irrepressible movement of his hands
toward her, the mere speaking of her name in a voice
warmed by the old passion, would have brought her,
rapturous, to his knees.
“There’s no such thing
as a successful pretense between us, I know,”
he said. “So I’ll talk plainly.
I’m glad to. I know what it is you miss
in me. It’s gone. Temporarily I suppose,
but gone as if it had never been. That’s
a physiological fact, Paula.”
She flushed hotly at that and looked away from him.
“I don’t know exactly
what a soul is,” he went on. “But
I do know that a body the whole of the
body is the temple of it. It impenetrates
everything; is made up of everything. Well, this
illness of mine has, for these weeks, made an old
man of me. And I’m grateful to it for giving
me a chance to look ahead, before it’s too late.
I want to make the most of it. Because you see,
my dear, in ten years or thereabouts the
course of nature will have made of me what this pneumonia
has given me a foretaste of. Ten years.
You will be forty, then.”
She was gazing at him now, fascinated,
in unwilling comprehension. “I hate you
to talk like that,” she said. “I wish
he told her crisply. “You’ll see that
in a minute, if you will wait. Before very long in
a month or so, perhaps I shall be, I suppose,
pretty much the same man I was three months
ago. Busy at my profession again. In love
with you again. All my old self-assurance back;
the more arrogant if it isn’t quite the real
thing. So now’s the time, when the fogs
one moves about in have lifted and the horizon is sharp,
to take some new bearings. And set a new course
by them. For both of us.
“There is one fact sitting up
like a lighthouse on a rock. I’m twenty-four
years older than you. Every five years that we
live together from now on will make that difference
more important. When you’re forty-five and
you’ll be just at the top of your powers by then I
shall be one year short of seventy. At the end,
you see, even of my professional career. And
that’s only fifteen years away. Even with
good average luck, that’s all I can count on.
It’s strange how one can live along, oblivious
to a simple sum in arithmetic like that.”
She had been on her feet moving distractedly
about the room. Now she came around behind his
chair and gripped his body in her strong arms.
“You shan’t talk like
that!” she said. “You shan’t
think like that! I won’t endure it.
It’s morbid. It’s horrible.”
“Oh, no, it’s not,”
he said easily. “The morbidity is in being
afraid to look at it. It was morbid to struggle
frantically, the way I did all the spring, trying
to resist the irresistible thing that was drawing
you along your true path. It was a cancerous egotism
of mine that was trying to eat you up, live you up
into myself. That, thank God, has been cut out
of me! I think it has. Don’t misunderstand
me, though. I’m not going to relinquish
anything of you that I can keep; that I
ever had a chance to keep.”
He took her hands and gently coolly kissed
“Then don’t relinquish
anything,” she said. “It’s all
yours. Can’t you believe that, John?”
He released her hands and sank back
slackly in his chair. “Victory!” he
said, a note of inextinguishable irony in his voice.
“A victory I’d have given five years of
my life for last March. Yet I could go on winning
them a whole succession of them and
they could lead me to nothing but disaster.”
She left him abruptly and the next
moment he heard her fling herself down upon his bed.
When he rose and disengaged himself from his rug, she
said, over an irrepressible sob or two, that he wasn’t
to mind nor come to her. She wasn’t going
to cry-not more than a minute.
He came, nevertheless, settled himself
on the edge of the bed and took possession of her
“I wouldn’t have told
you all this,” he said “for
you don’t need any lessons in arithmetic, child if
I dared trust myself to remember, after the other
thing had come back. Now I’m committed don’t
you see? not to play the fool, tragically
or ludicrously, as the case might be, trying to dispute
the inevitable. And I shall contrive to keep a
lot, my dear. More than you think.”
Later, the evening of that same day,
he asked her what was in the letter that had provoked
their talk. Did they want her back in Chicago
for rehearsals or consultations? Because if they
did there was no reason in the world why she should
not go. At the rate at which he was gaining strength
there would not be the slightest reason he
gave her his professional word of honor why
she should not go back in a day or two.
“I should have to go back,”
she said, “if I were going to sing March’s
opera. There is such a lot of work about a new
production that there would be no time to spare.”
“But,” he asked, “isn’t
March’s opera precisely what you are going to
“No,” she said rebelliously.
“It’s not. There wasn’t anything
in the contract about that. I’ll carry
out the contract this summer. I’ll keep
my word and yours, since that is what you want me to
do. But I won’t sing ‘Dolores’
He did not press her for the reason.
After a little silence, she said,
“Lucile thought I’d fallen in love with
him. So did Rush, I guess, and poor
old Nat. Did you, John?”
“I tried to, hard enough,” he confessed.
She stared. “Tried to!”
“That would have been the easier
thing to fight,” he said. “There’s
nothing inevitable about a man, any man.
I’d have stood a chance at least, of beating
him, even though he had a twenty-year handicap or so.
But the other thing, well, that was like
the first bar of the Fifth Symphony, you know; Fate
knocking at the door. Clear terror that is until
one can get the courage to open the door and invite