Thérèse possessed an independence of thought exceptional enough when considered in relation to her life and its surrounding conditions. But as a woman who lived in close contact with her fellow-beings she was little given to the consideration of abstract ideas, except in so far as they touched the individual man. If ever asked to give her opinion of divorce, she might have replied that the question being one which did not immediately concern her, its remoteness had removed it from the range of her inquiry. She felt vaguely that in many cases it might be a blessing; conceding that it must not infrequently be a necessity, to be appealed to however only in an extremity beyond which endurance could scarcely hold. With the prejudices of her Catholic education coloring her sentiment, she instinctively shrank when the theme confronted her as one having even a remote reference to her own clean existence. There was no question with her of dwelling upon the matter; it was simply a thing to be summarily dismissed and as far as possible effaced from her remembrance.
Thérèse had not reached the age of thirty-five without learning that life presents many insurmountable obstacles which must be accepted, whether with the callousness of philosophy, the revolt of weakness or the dignity of self-respect. The following morning, the only sign which she gave of her mental disturbance, was an appearance that might have succeeded a night of unrefreshing sleep.
Hosmer had decided that his interview with Mrs. Lafirme should not be left further to the caprice of accident. An hour or more before noon he rode up from the mill knowing it to be a time when he would likely find her alone. Not seeing her he proceeded to make inquiry of the servants; first appealing to Betsy.
“I don’ know whar Miss T’rèse,” with a rising inflection on the “whar.” “I yain’t seed her sence mornin’, time she sont Unc’ Hi’um yonda to old Morico wid de light bread an’ truck,” replied the verbose Betsy. “Aunt B’lindy, you know whar Miss T’rèse?”
“How you want me know? standin’ up everlastin’ in de kitchen a bakin’ light-bread fu’ lazy trash det betta be in de fiel’ wurkin’ a crap like people, stid o’ ’pendin’ on yeda folks.”
Mandy, who had been a silent listener, divining that she had perhaps better make known certain information that was exclusively her own piped out:—
“Miss T’rèse shet up in de parla; ’low she want we all lef ’er ’lone.”
Having as it were forced an entrance into the stronghold where Thérèse had supposed herself secure from intrusion, Hosmer at once seated himself beside her.
This was a room kept for the most part closed during the summer days when the family lived chiefly on the verandas or in the wide open hall There lingered about it the foreign scent of cool clean matting, mingled with a faint odor of rose which came from a curious Japanese jar that stood on the ample hearth. Through the green half-closed shutters the air came in gentle ripples, sweeping the filmy curtains back and forth in irregular undulations. A few tasteful pictures hung upon the walls, alternating with family portraits, for the most part stiff and unhandsome, except in the case of such as were of so remote date that age gave them a claim upon the interest and admiration of a far removed generation.
It was not entirely clear to the darkies whether this room were not a sort of holy sanctuary, where one should scarce be permitted to breathe, except under compulsion of a driving necessity.
“Mrs. Lafirme,” began Hosmer, “Melicent tells me that she made you acquainted last night with the matter which I wished to talk to you about to-day.”
“Yes,” Thérèse replied, closing the book which she had made a pretense of reading, and laying it down upon the window-sill near which she sat; adding very simply, “Why did you not tell me long ago, Mr. Hosmer?”
“God knows,” he replied; the sharp conviction breaking upon him, that this disclosure had some how changed the aspect of life for him. “Natural reluctance to speak of a thing so painful—native reticence—I don’t know what. I hope you forgive me; that you will let it make no difference in whatever regard you may have for me.”
“I had better tell you at once that there must be no repetition of—of what you told me last night.”
Hosmer had feared it. He made no protest in words; his revolt was inward and showed itself only in an added pallor and increased rigidity of face lines. He arose and went to a near window, peering for a while aimlessly out between the partly open slats.
“I hadn’t thought of your being a Catholic,” he said, finally turning towards her with folded arms.
“Because you have never seen any outward signs of it. But I can’t leave you under a false impression: religion doesn’t influence my reason in this.”
“Do you think then that a man who has had such misfortune, should be debarred the happiness which a second marriage could give him?”
“No, nor a woman either, if it suit her moral principle, which I hold to be something peculiarly one’s own.”
“That seems to me to be a prejudice,” he replied. “Prejudices may be set aside by an effort of the will,” catching at a glimmer of hope.
“There are some prejudices which a woman can’t afford to part with, Mr. Hosmer,” she said a little haughtily, “even at the price of happiness. Please say no more about it, think no more of it.”
He seated himself again, facing her; and looking at him all her sympathetic nature was moved at sight of his evident trouble.
“Tell me about it. I would like to know every thing in your life,” she said, feelingly.
“It’s very good of you,” he said, holding a hand for a moment over his closed eyes. Then looking up abruptly, “It was a painful enough experience, but I never dreamed that it could have had this last blow in reserve for me.”
“When did you marry?” she asked, wishing to start him with the story which she fancied he would feel better for the telling.
“Ten years ago. I am a poor hand to analyze character: my own or another’s. My reasons for doing certain things have never been quite clear to me; or I have never schooled myself to inquiry into my own motives for action. I have been always thoroughly the business man. I don’t make a boast of it, but I have no reason to be ashamed of the admission. Socially, I have mingled little with my fellow-beings, especially with women, whose society has had little attraction for me; perhaps, because I have never been thrown much into it, and I was nearly thirty when I first met my wife.”
“Was it in St. Louis?” Thérèse asked.
“Yes. I had been inveigled into going on a river excursion,” he said, plunging into the story, “Heaven knows how. Perhaps I was feeling unwell—I really can’t remember. But at all events I met a friend who introduced me early in the day to a young girl—Fanny Larimore. She was a pretty little thing, not more than twenty, all pink and white and merry blue eyes and stylish clothes. Whatever it was, there was something about her that kept me at her side all day. Every word and movement of hers had an exaggerated importance for me. I fancied such things had never been said or done quite in the same way before.”
“You were in love,” sighed Thérèse. Why the sigh she could not have told.
“I presume so. Well, after that, I found myself thinking of her at the most inopportune moments. I went to see her again and again—my first impression deepened, and in two weeks I had asked her to marry me. I can safely say, we knew nothing of each other’s character. After marriage, matters went well enough for a while.” Hosmer here arose, and walked the length of the room.
“Mrs. Lafirme,” he said, “can’t you understand that it must be a painful thing for a man to disparage one woman to another: the woman who has been his wife to the woman he loves? Spare me the rest.”
“Please have no reservations with me; I shall not misjudge you in any case,” an inexplicable something was moving her to know what remained to be told.
“It wasn’t long before she attempted to draw me into what she called society,” Hosmer continued. “I am little versed in defining shades of distinction between classes, but I had seen from the beginning that Fanny’s associates were not of the best social rank by any means. I had vaguely expected her to turn from them, I suppose, when she married. Naturally, I resisted anything so distasteful as being dragged through rounds of amusement that had no sort of attraction whatever for me. Besides, my business connections were extending, and they claimed the greater part of my time and thoughts.
“A year after our marriage our boy was born.” Here Hosmer ceased speaking for a while, seemingly under pressure of a crowding of painful memories.
“The child whose picture you have at the office?” asked Thérèse.
“Yes,” and he resumed with plain effort: “It seemed for a while that the baby would give its mother what distraction she sought so persistently away from home; but its influence did not last and she soon grew as restless as before. Finally there was nothing that united us except the child. I can’t really say that we were united through him, but our love for the boy was the one feeling that we had in common. When he was three years old, he died. Melicent had come to live with us after leaving school. She was a high-spirited girl full of conceits as she is now, and in her exaggerated way became filled with horror of what she called the mésalliance I had made. After a month she went away to live with friends. I didn’t oppose her. I saw little of my wife, being often away from home; but as feebly observant as I was, I had now and again marked a peculiarity of manner about her that vaguely troubled me. She seemed to avoid me and we grew more and more divided.
“One day I returned home rather early. Melicent was with me. We found Fanny in the dining-room lying on the sofa. As we entered, she looked at us wildly and in striving to get up grasped aimlessly at the back of a chair. I felt on a sudden as if there were some awful calamity threatening my existence. I suppose, I looked helplessly at Melicent, managing to ask her what was the matter with my wife. Melicent’s black eyes were flashing indignation. ‘Can’t you see she’s been drinking. God help you,’ she said. Mrs. Lafirme, you know now the reason which drove me away from home and kept me away. I never permitted my wife to want for the comforts of life during my absence; but she sued for divorce some years ago and it was granted, with alimony which I doubled. You know the miserable story now. Pardon me for dragging it to such a length. I don’t see why I should have told it after all.”
Thérèse had remained perfectly silent; rigid at times, listening to Hosmer often with closed eyes.
He waited for her to speak, but she said nothing for a while till finally: “Your—your wife is still quite young—do her parents live with her?”
“Oh no, she has none. I suppose she lives alone.”
“And those habits; you don’t know if she continues them?”
“I dare say she does. I know nothing of her, except that she receipts for the amount paid her each month.”
The look of painful thought deepened on Thérèse’s face but her questions having been answered, she again became silent.
Hosmer’s eyes were imploring her for a look, but she would not answer them.
“Haven’t you a word to say to me?” he entreated.
“No, I have nothing to say, except what would give you pain.”
“I can bear anything from you,” he replied, at a loss to guess her meaning.
“The kindest thing I can say, Mr. Hosmer, is, that I hope you have acted blindly. I hate to believe that the man I care for, would deliberately act the part of a cruel egotist.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“I have learned one thing through your story, which appears very plain to me,” she replied. “You married a woman of weak character. You furnished her with every means to increase that weakness, and shut her out absolutely from your life and yourself from hers. You left her then as practically without moral support as you have certainly done now, in deserting her. It was the act of a coward.” Thérèse spoke the last words with intensity.
“Do you think that a man owes nothing to himself?” Hosmer asked, in resistance to her accusation.
“Yes. A man owes to his manhood, to face the consequences of his own actions.”
Hosmer had remained seated. He did not even with glance follow Thérèse who had arisen and was moving restlessly about the room. He had so long seen himself as a martyr; his mind had become so habituated to the picture, that he could not of a sudden look at a different one, believing that it could be the true one. Nor was he eager to accept a view of the situation that would place him in his own eyes in a contemptible light. He tried to think that Thérèse must be wrong; but even admitting a doubt of her being right, her words carried an element of truth that he was not able to shut out from his conscience. He felt her to be a woman with moral perceptions keener than his own and his love, which in the past twenty-four hours had grown to overwhelm him, moved him now to a blind submission.
“What would you have me do, Mrs. Lafirme?”
“I would have you do what is right,” she said eagerly, approaching him.
“O, don’t present me any questions of right and wrong; can’t you see that I’m blind?” he said, self accusingly. “What ever I do, must be because you want it; because I love you.”
She was standing beside him and he took her hand.
“To do a thing out of love for you, would be the only comfort and strength left me.”
“Don’t say that,” she entreated. “Love isn’t everything in life; there is something higher.”
“God in heaven, there shouldn’t be!” he exclaimed, passionately pressing her hand to his forehead, his cheek, his lips.
“Oh, don’t make it harder for me,” Thérèse said softly, attempting to withdraw her hand.
It was her first sign of weakness, and he seized on it for his advantage. He arose quickly—unhesitatingly—and took her in his arms.
For a moment that was very brief, there was danger that the task of renunciation would not only be made harder, but impossible, for both; for it was in utter blindness to everything but love for each other, that their lips met.
The great plantation bell was clanging out the hour of noon; the hour for sweet and restful enjoyment; but to Hosmer, the sound was like the voice of a derisive demon, mocking his anguish of spirit, as he mounted his horse, and rode back to the mill.