THE BLAZE OF THE TINDER
The misfortune of the Hurstwood household was due to the fact that jealousy, having been born of love, did not perish with it. Mrs. Hurstwood retained this in such form that subsequent influences could transform it into hate. Hurstwood was still worthy, in a physical sense, of the affection his wife had once bestowed upon him, but in a social sense he fell short. With his regard died his power to be attentive to her, and this, to a woman, is much greater than outright crime toward another. Our self-love dictates our appreciation of the good or evil in another. In Mrs. Hurstwood it discoloured the very hue of her husband's indifferent nature. She saw design in deeds and phrases which sprung only from a faded appreciation of her presence.
As a consequence, she was resentful and suspicious. The jealousy that prompted her to observe every falling away from the little amenities of the married relation on his part served to give her notice of the airy grace with which he still took the world. She could see from the scrupulous care which he exercised in the matter of his personal appearance that his interest in life had abated not a jot. Every motion, every glance had something in it of the pleasure he felt in Carrie, of the zest this new pursuit of pleasure lent to his days. Mrs. Hurstwood felt something, sniffing change, as animals do danger, afar off.
This feeling was strengthened by actions of a direct and more potent nature on the part of Hurstwood. We have seen with what irritation he shirked those little duties which no longer contained any amusement of satisfaction for him, and the open snarls with which, more recently, he resented her irritating goads. These little rows were really precipitated by an atmosphere which was surcharged with dissension. That it would shower, with a sky so full of blackening thunderclouds, would scarcely be thought worthy of comment. Thus, after leaving the breakfast table this morning, raging inwardly at his blank declaration of indifference at her plans, Mrs. Hurstwood encountered Jessica in her dressing-room, very leisurely arranging her hair. Hurstwood had already left the house.
"I wish you wouldn't be so late coming down to breakfast," she said, addressing Jessica, while making for her crochet basket. "Now here the things are quite cold, and you haven't eaten."
Her natural composure was sadly ruffled, and Jessica was doomed to feel the fag end of the storm.
"I'm not hungry," she answered.
"Then why don't you say so, and let the girl put away the things, instead of keeping her waiting all morning?"
"She doesn't mind," answered Jessica, coolly.
"Well, I do, if she doesn't," returned the mother, "and, anyhow, I don't like you to talk that way to me. You're too young to put on such an air with your mother."
"Oh, mamma, don't row,"; answered Jessica. "What's the matter this morning, anyway?"
"Nothing's the matter, and I'm not rowing. You mustn't think because I indulge you in some things that you can keep everybody waiting. I won't have it."
"I'm not keeping anybody waiting," returned Jessica, sharply, stirred out of a cynical indifference to a sharp defence. "I said I wasn't hungry. I don't want any breakfast."
"Mind how you address me, missy. I'll not have it. Hear me now; I'll not have it!"
Jessica heard this last while walking out of the room, with a toss of her head and a flick of her pretty skirts indicative of the independence and indifference she felt. She did not propose to be quarrelled with.
Such little arguments were all too frequent, the result of a growth of natures which were largely independent and selfish. George, Jr., manifested even greater touchiness and exaggeration in the matter of his individual rights, and attempted to make all feel that he was a man with a man's privileges--an assumption which, of all things, is most groundless and pointless in a youth of nineteen.
Hurstwood was a man of authority and some fine feeling, and it irritated him excessively to find himself surrounded more and more by a world upon which he had no hold, and of which he had a lessening understanding.
Now, when such little things, such as the proposed earlier start to Waukesha, came up, they made clear to him his position. He was being made to follow, was not leading. When, in addition, a sharp temper was manifested, and to the process of shouldering him out of his authority was added a rousing intellectual kick, such as a sneer or a cynical laugh, he was unable to keep his temper. He flew into hardly repressed passion, and wished himself clear of the whole household. It seemed a most irritating drag upon all his desires and opportunities.
For all this, he still retained the semblance of leadership and control, even though his wife was straining to revolt. Her display of temper and open assertion of opposition were based upon nothing more than the feeling that she could do it. She had no special evidence wherewith to justify herself--the knowledge of something which would give her both authority and excuse. The latter was all that was lacking, however, to give a solid foundation to what, in a way, seemed groundless discontent. The clear proof of one overt deed was the cold breath needed to convert the lowering clouds of suspicion into a rain of wrath.
An inkling of untoward deeds on the part of Hurstwood had come. Doctor Beale, the handsome resident physician of the neighbourhood, met Mrs. Hurstwood at her own doorstep some days after Hurstwood and Carrie had taken the drive west on Washington Boulevard. Dr. Beale, coming east on the same drive, had recognised Hurstwood, but not before he was quite past him. He was not so sure of Carrie--did not know whether it was Hurstwood's wife or daughter.
"You don't speak to your friends when you meet them out driving, do you?" he said, jocosely, to Mrs. Hurstwood.
"If I see them, I do. Where was I?"
"On Washington Boulevard." he answered, expecting her eye to light with immediate remembrance.
She shook her head.
"Yes, out near Hoyne Avenue. You were with your husband."
"I guess you're mistaken," she answered. Then, remembering her husband's part in the affair, she immediately fell a prey to a host of young suspicions, of which, however, she gave no sign.
"I know I saw your husband," he went on. "I wasn't so sure about you. Perhaps it was your daughter."
"Perhaps it was," said Mrs. Hurstwood, knowing full well that such was not the case, as Jessica had been her companion for weeks. She had recovered herself sufficiently to wish to know more of the details.
"Was it in the afternoon?" she asked, artfully, assuming an air of acquaintanceship with the matter.
"Yes, about two or three."
"It must have been Jessica," said Mrs. Hurstwood, not wishing to seem to attach any importance to the incident.
The physician had a thought or two of his own, but dismissed the matter as worthy of no further discussion on his part at least.
Mrs. Hurstwood gave this bit of information considerable thought during the next few hours, and even days. She took it for granted that the doctor had really seen her husband, and that he had been riding, most likely, with some other woman, after announcing himself as BUSY to her. As a consequence, she recalled, with rising feeling, how often he had refused to go to places with her, to share in little visits, or, indeed, take part in any of the social amenities which furnished the diversion of her existence. He had been seen at the theatre with people whom he called Moy's friends; now he was seen driving, and, most likely, would have an excuse for that. Perhaps there were others of whom she did not hear, or why should he be so busy, so indifferent, of late? In the last six weeks he had become strangely irritable--strangely satisfied to pick up and go out, whether things were right or wrong in the house. Why?
She recalled, with more subtle emotions, that he did not look at her now with any of the old light of satisfaction or approval in his eye. Evidently, along with other things, he was taking her to be getting old and uninteresting. He saw her wrinkles, perhaps. She was fading, while he was still preening himself in his elegance and youth. He was still an interested factor in the merry-makings of the world, while she--but she did not pursue the thought. She only found the whole situation bitter, and hated him for it thoroughly.
Nothing came of this incident at the time, for the truth is it did not seem conclusive enough to warrant any discussion. Only the atmosphere of distrust and ill-feeling was strengthened, precipitating every now and then little sprinklings of irritable conversation, enlivened by flashes of wrath. The matter of the Waukesha outing was merely a continuation of other things of the same nature.
The day after Carrie's appearance on the Avery stage, Mrs. Hurstwood visited the races with Jessica and a youth of her acquaintance, Mr. Bart Taylor, the son of the owner of a local house-furnishing establishment. They had driven out early, and, as it chanced, encountered several friends of Hurstwood, all Elks, and two of whom had attended the performance the evening before. A thousand chances the subject of the performance had never been brought up had Jessica not been so engaged by the attentions of her young companion, who usurped as much time as possible. This left Mrs. Hurstwood in the mood to extend the perfunctory greetings of some who knew her into short conversations, and the short conversations of friends into long ones. It was from one who meant but to greet her perfunctorily that this interesting intelligence came.
"I see," said this individual, who wore sporting clothes of the most attractive pattern, and had a field-glass strung over his shoulder, "that you did not get over to our little entertainment last evening."
"No?" said Mrs. Hurstwood, inquiringly, and wondering why he should be using the tone he did in noting the fact that she had not been to something she knew nothing about. It was on her lips to say, "What was it?" when he added, "I saw your husband."
Her wonder was at once replaced by the more subtle quality of suspicion.
"Yes," she said, cautiously, "was it pleasant? He did not tell me much about it."
"Very. Really one of the best private theatricals I ever attended. There was one actress who surprised us all."
"Indeed," said Mrs. Hurstwood.
"It's too bad you couldn't have been there, really. I was sorry to hear you weren't feeling well."
Feeling well! Mrs. Hurstwood could have echoed the words after him open-mouthed. As it was, she extricated herself from her mingled impulse to deny and question, and said, almost raspingly:
"Yes, it is too bad."
"Looks like there will be quite a crowd here to-day, doesn't it?" the acquaintance observed, drifting off upon another topic.
The manager's wife would have questioned farther, but she saw no opportunity. She was for the moment wholly at sea, anxious to think for herself, and wondering what new deception was this which caused him to give out that she was ill when she was not. Another case of her company not wanted, and excuses being made. She resolved to find out more.
"Were you at the performance last evening?" she asked of the next of Hurstwood's friends who greeted her as she sat in her box.
"Yes. You didn't get around."
"No," she answered, "I was not feeling very well."
"So your husband told me," he answered. "Well, it was really very enjoyable. Turned out much better than I expected."
"Were there many there?"
"The house was full. It was quite an Elk night. I saw quite a number of your friends--Mrs. Harrison, Mrs. Barnes, Mrs. Collins."
"Quite a social gathering."
"Indeed it was. My wife enjoyed it very much."
Mrs. Hurstwood bit her lip.
"So," she thought, "that's the way he does. Tells my friends I am sick and cannot come."
She wondered what could induce him to go alone. There was something back of this. She rummaged her brain for a reason.
By evening, when Hurstwood reached home, she had brooded herself into a state of sullen desire for explanation and revenge. She wanted to know what this peculiar action of his imported. She was certain there was more behind it all than what she had heard, and evil curiosity mingled well with distrust and the remnants of her wrath of the morning. She, impending disaster itself, walked about with gathered shadow at the eyes and the rudimentary muscles of savagery fixing the hard lines of her mouth.
On the other hand, as we may well believe, the manager came home in the sunniest mood. His conversation and agreement with Carrie had raised his spirits until he was in the frame of mind of one who sings joyously. He was proud of himself, proud of his success, proud of Carrie. He could have been genial to all the world, and he bore no grudge against his wife. He meant to be pleasant, to forget her presence, to live in the atmosphere of youth and pleasure which had been restored to him.
So now, the house, to his mind, had a most pleasing and comfortable appearance. In the hall he found an evening paper, laid there by the maid and forgotten by Mrs. Hurstwood. In the dining-room the table was clean laid with linen and napery and shiny with glasses and decorated china. Through an open door he saw into the kitchen, where the fire was crackling in the stove and the evening meal already well under way. Out in the small back yard was George, Jr., frolicking with a young dog he had recently purchased, and in the parlour Jessica was playing at the piano, the sounds of a merry waltz filling every nook and corner of the comfortable home. Every one, like himself, seemed to have regained his good spirits, to be in sympathy with youth and beauty, to be inclined to joy and merry-making. He felt as if he could say a good word all around himself, and took a most genial glance at the spread table and polished sideboard before going upstairs to read his paper in the comfortable armchair of the sitting-room which looked through the open windows into the street. When he entered there, however, he found his wife brushing her hair and musing to herself the while.
He came lightly in, thinking to smooth over any feeling that might still exist by a kindly word and a ready promise, but Mrs. Hurstwood said nothing. He seated himself in the large chair, stirred lightly in making himself comfortable, opened his paper, and began to read. In a few moments he was smiling merrily over a very comical account of a baseball game which had taken place between the Chicago and Detroit teams.
The while he was doing this Mrs. Hurstwood was observing him casually through the medium of the mirror which was before her. She noticed his pleasant and contented manner, his airy grace and smiling humour, and it merely aggravated her the more. She wondered how he could think to carry himself so in her presence after the cynicism, indifference, and neglect he had heretofore manifested and would continue to manifest so long as she would endure it. She thought how she should like to tell him--what stress and emphasis she would lend her assertions, how she should drive over this whole affair until satisfaction should be rendered her. Indeed, the shining sword of her wrath was but weakly suspended by a thread of thought.
In the meanwhile Hurstwood encountered a humorous item concerning a stranger who had arrived in the city and became entangled with a bunco-steerer. It amused him immensely, and at last he stirred and chuckled to himself. He wished that he might enlist his wife's attention and read it to her.
"Ha, ha," he exclaimed softly, as if to himself, "that's funny."
Mrs. Hurstwood kept on arranging her hair, not so much as deigning a glance.
He stirred again and went on to another subject. At last he felt as if his good-humour must find some outlet. Julia was probably still out of humour over that affair of this morning, but that could easily be straightened. As a matter of fact, she was in the wrong, but he didn't care. She could go to Waukesha right away if she wanted to. The sooner the better. He would tell her that as soon as he got a chance, and the whole thing would blow over.
"Did you notice," he said, at last, breaking forth concerning another item which he had found, "that they have entered suit to compel the Illinois Central to get off the lake front, Julia?" he asked.
She could scarcely force herself to answer, but managed to say "No," sharply.
Hurstwood pricked up his ears. There was a note in her voice which vibrated keenly.
"It would be a good thing if they did," he went on, half to himself, half to her, though he felt that something was amiss in that quarter. He withdrew his attention to his paper very circumspectly, listening mentally for the little sounds which should show him what was on foot.
As a matter of fact, no man as clever as Hurstwood--as observant and sensitive to atmospheres of many sorts, particularly upon his own plane of thought--would have made the mistake which he did in regard to his wife, wrought up as she was, had he not been occupied mentally with a very different train of thought. Had not the influence of Carrie's regard for him, the elation which her promise aroused in him, lasted over, he would not have seen the house in so pleasant a mood. It was not extraordinarily bright and merry this evening. He was merely very much mistaken, and would have been much more fitted to cope with it had he come home in his normal state.
After he had studied his paper a few moments longer, he felt that he ought to modify matters in some way or other. Evidently his wife was not going to patch up peace at a word. So he said:
"Where did George get the dog he has there in the yard?"
"I don't know," she snapped.
He put his paper down on his knees and gazed idly out of the window. He did not propose to lose his temper, but merely to be persistent and agreeable, and by a few questions bring around a mild understanding of some sort.
"Why do you feel so bad about that affair of this morning? he said, at last. "We needn't quarrel about that. You know you can go to Waukesha if you want to."
"So you can stay here and trifle around with some one else?" she exclaimed, turning to him a determined countenance upon which was drawn a sharp and wrathful sneer.
He stopped as if slapped in the face. In an instant his persuasive, conciliatory manner fled. He was on the defensive at a wink and puzzled for a word to reply.
"What do you mean?" he said at last, straightening himself and gazing at the cold, determined figure before him, who paid no attention, but went on arranging herself before the mirror.
"You know what I mean," she said, finally, as if there were a world of information which she held in reserve--which she did not need to tell.
"Well, I don't," he said, stubbornly, yet nervous and alert for what should come next. The finality of the woman's manner took away his feeling of superiority in battle.
She made no answer.
"Hmph!" he murmured, with a movement of his head to one side. It was the weakest thing he had ever done. It was totally unassured.
Mrs. Hurstwood noticed the lack of colour in it. She turned upon him, animal-like, able to strike an effectual second blow.
"I want the Waukesha money to-morrow morning," she said.
He looked at her in amazement. Never before had he seen such a cold, steely determination in her eye--such a cruel look of indifference. She seemed a thorough master of her mood-- thoroughly confident and determined to wrest all control from him. He felt that all his resources could not defend him. He must attack.
"What do you mean?" he said, jumping up. "You want! I'd like to know what's got into you to-night."
"Nothing's GOT into me," she said, flaming. "I want that money. You can do your swaggering afterwards."
"Swaggering, eh! What! You'll get nothing from me. What do you mean by your insinuations, anyhow?"
"Where were you last night?" she answered. The words were hot as they came. "Who were you driving with on Washington Boulevard? Who were you with at the theatre when George saw you? Do you think I'm a fool to be duped by you? Do you think I'll sit at home here and take your 'too busys' and 'can't come,' while you parade around and make out that I'm unable to come? I want you to know that lordly airs have come to an end so far as I am concerned. You can't dictate to me nor my children. I'm through with you entirely."
"It's a lie," he said, driven to a corner and knowing no other excuse.
"Lie, eh!" she said, fiercely, but with returning reserve; "you may call it a lie if you want to, but I know."
"It's a lie, I tell you," he said, in a low, sharp voice. "You've been searching around for some cheap accusation for months and now you think you have it. You think you'll spring something and get the upper hand. Well, I tell you, you can't. As long as I'm in this house I'm master of it, and you or any one else won't dictate to me--do you hear?"
He crept toward her with a light in his eye that was ominous. Something in the woman's cool, cynical, upper-handish manner, as if she were already master, caused him to feel for the moment as if he could strangle her.
She gazed at him--a pythoness in humour.
"I'm not dictating to you," she returned; "I'm telling you what I want."
The answer was so cool, so rich in bravado, that somehow it took the wind out of his sails. He could not attack her, he could not ask her for proofs. Somehow he felt evidence, law, the remembrance of all his property which she held in her name, to be shining in her glance. He was like a vessel, powerful and dangerous, but rolling and floundering without sail.
"And I'm telling you," he said in the end, slightly recovering himself, "what you'll not get."
"We'll see about it," she said. "I'll find out what my rights are. Perhaps you'll talk to a lawyer, if you won't to me."
It was a magnificent play, and had its effect. Hurstwood fell back beaten. He knew now that he had more than mere bluff to contend with. He felt that he was face to face with a dull proposition. What to say he hardly knew. All the merriment had gone out of the day. He was disturbed, wretched, resentful. What should he do? "Do as you please," he said, at last. "I'll have nothing more to do with you," and out he strode.