BUT Lena did not respond right away. Instead, she allowed a fortnight to elapse, during which her state of mind was one of indecision and her continuous emotion a sharp irritation; both of these symptoms being manifest in an interview she had with her brother George, one day, when she finally decided to consult him. “It’s so indecently unfair!” she complained. “It is forcing me; and his letter was a perfectly abject confession of it. He admits himself he’s compelling me to go out to that awful place and live with him.”
“How do you know it’s awful?” George inquired mildly. “He’s the most likable chap I ever knew, and he comes from there. Doesn’t that look as if——”
“No, it doesn’t. Just think of being compelled to listen to everybody speaking with that awful Western accent! I can stand it in him because I like his voice, and he’s only one; but imagine hearing nothing else!” Lena shivered, flinging out her beautiful little hands in a despairing gesture, illuminated by tiny stars of fire from her rings. “Just imagine having hundreds of ’em talking about ‘waturr’ and ‘butturr’ all day long!”
“Oh, I dare say they speak of other matters at intervals,” George said. “If that’s the supremest agony you have to face, Lena, I don’t see why you’re kicking up such a row with yourself. I’d rather like to go out there, myself.”
“What in the world for?”
“Well, for one reason,” he answered seriously, “because I like Dan, but principally because I’d do well to get away from New York.”
“To live?” she cried incredulously. “I could understand that, if you meant you’d like to get away in order to live in Paris, but to want to go out and bury yourself in one of those awful Western——”
“Paris!” George exclaimed. “For me? I suppose your idea is a short life but a merry one!”
“Why not? It might be better than living to a hundred on ‘watturr’ and ‘butturr!’ What’s the matter with you and New York?”
“Nothing’s the matter with New York except that it’s got so many sides it can be whatever one chooses to make it, so that a weak character like me gets too many chances to increase his weaknesses here. There’s no question about it, Lena; I’m a weak character. I’ve proved it to myself too many times to doubt it. A smaller city is pretty much one thing, but New York is anything because it’s everything. The trouble is with me I’ve slid into making a New York for myself that I can’t break away from unless I emigrate. My New York is Uncle Nick’s offices for as few hours a day as I can fool ’em with; and after that it’s three clubs and the Waldorf, the Holland House, Martin’s, Jack’s, two or three roulette holes, incidental bars, and sometimes the stage door of the Casino. The rest of the time I live in a hansom cab. A pretty thing, isn’t it!”
“Then why don’t you change it?”
“Because I can’t. I can’t get myself away from the crowd I’ve picked up, and that’s the life they lead. Funny, too, I don’t really like one of ’em, yet I can’t keep away from ’em because I’m in the same ruts and talk the same lingo and drink the same drinks. That’s the real trouble, I suppose, and there’s a certain future ahead of me—a pleasant one to look forward to!”
“Drunken stockbroker,” George replied with laconic despondency. “That’s me, if I live to forty.”
“I’d rather be one than buried in a mudhole on the prairie,” said Lena. “I’d rather be anything than that; yet it’s precisely what my thoughtful fiancé informs me I have no choice about. I think perhaps he’ll learn whether I have or not, though!”
“Better think it over,” George advised, with a thoughtful glance at his sister’s flushed and petulant face. “It might be the best thing for you.”
“It might,” he insisted. “You’ve made a pretty quick-stepping New York of your own, Lena. Tea at Sherry’s means mighty little tea for you, my dear. A man told me the other day he’d never met a human being who could survive as many Benedictines in the afternoon as you can. Besides that, you get too much music.”
“You’re crazy!” Lena cried. “I live on music!”
“No, you don’t,” he said. “You keep yourself woozy with it. You go on music debauches, Lena. You don’t take it as an art; you take it as an excitement. You keep your emotions frothing with it, and that’s why you can’t get along without it. If you hadn’t been in the habit of getting yourself woozy with music, that Venable affair would never have happened.”
“George!” she said sharply, and her eyes, already angry, grew more brilliant with increased emotion. “Shame on you!”
“Oh, well——” he said placatively.
“It’s a thing you have no right to make me remember.”
“Other people remember it,” he said, with a brother’s grimness. “You needn’t think because nobody outside the family ever speaks of it to you it isn’t thought of and referred to when you’re spoken of.”
She looked pathetic at this, and reproached him in a broken voice. “Unmanly! One would think my own—my own brother——”
“Your own brother is about the only person that could speak of it to you in a friendly way, Lena. You know how the rest of the family speak of it to you—when they do.”
“It’s so unfair!” she moaned. “Nobody ever understood——”
“We needn’t to go into that,” George said gently. “I think myself it was your musical emotions on top of a constitutional lack of discretion. Oh, I don’t blame you! I’ve spent too much time trying to cover my own indiscretions from the family. I’m really more the family black sheep than you are, only you had worse luck; that’s all. I only mention it to get you to think a little before you talk of throwing Dan Oliphant over rather than to go and live in the town he’s so proud of.”
She wiped her eyes, choked a little, and protested feebly: “But the two things haven’t any connection. What—what’s Venable got to do with——”
“Well, you make me say it,” George remarked as she paused. “I think you understand as well as I do; but if you want me to be definite, I will.”
“Not too definite, please, George!”
“How can I be anything else? There isn’t any tactful way to say some things, Lena. You may get proposals from some of these men you meet at parties and father don’t know about——”
“Never mind, please, George. Do you have to be quite so——”
“Yes,” he said decisively. “Quite. The family have made it clear what they’ll do, if you ever try again to marry one of the wrong sort, like Venable.”
“ ‘The wrong sort!’ ” she echoed pathetically, though with some bitterness toward her brother. “He was the most interesting man I ever knew, and a great artist. He was——”
“Unfortunate in his domestic experiences,” George interrupted, concluding the sentence for her dryly. “And you were unfortunate in overlooking—well, to put it tactlessly, in seeming to have no objection to what I’m afraid I must call his somewhat bigamous tendencies, Lena.”
“My dear, I’m trying to say something helpful. Eligibles of our own walk in life enjoy dancing with you or buying Benedictines for you, but after Venable, none of ’em would be likely to——”
“That’s enough, please, George!”
“No,” he said, “I’m explaining that Dan’s the best thing in sight. The family weren’t too pleased about him, I admit; but they couldn’t help seeing that. For my part, I think it might be the making of you.”
“I don’t care to be made, thanks.”
“I mean you might have a chance to improve, living somewhere else,” he explained calmly. “But more than that, Dan Oliphant looks up to you so worshipfully—he pictures you as such spotless perfection—it seems to me you’d just have to live up to his idea of you. If you want to know the truth, I took such a fancy to him I wasn’t too delighted on his account when I saw he was getting serious about you; but when he seemed to be so much so, I thought maybe it might turn out pretty well for both of you. It’s good sometimes for a man to have such ideals, and it’s always good for a woman to live up to ’em. Besides, you do care about him, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said. “I wouldn’t have said I’d marry him if I didn’t. I really did fall a lot in love with him, but that’s not being in love with spending my life in some terrible place, is it? And besides I’m not going to live up to his ideals; nothing bores me more than pretending to be somebody I’m not. I get enough of that with the family, thanks!”
“You think you won’t try to be the girl he believes you are?” George asked gravely.
“Don’t be silly! Why on earth should I pretend to be anybody but myself?”
“In that case,” George said, “I hope you’ll write poor Dan that you refuse to be compelled and have decided to break your engagement. He’ll be pretty sick over it, I’m afraid, but I think you’d both live happier—and longer!”
With this brotherly tribute, spoken in a rueful humour, he departed, leaving her at her small French desk, where the sheet of blue-tinted note paper before her remained blank, except for a few teardrops. In spite of his parting advice, George had relieved neither her indecision nor her conviction that she was being ill-treated by her lover. Nevertheless, except for one thing, she was inclined to accept that advice.
The one deterrent was the group of people defined by George and herself, in tones never enthusiastic, as “the family.” Aunts, uncles, and cousins were included, all of them persons of weight, and some of them of such prodigious substance in wealth as to figure as personages in the metropolis; though all McMillans were personages to themselves, on the score of what they believed to be clan greatness due to historical descent and hereditary merit. To their view, New York was a conglomerate background for the McMillans and a not extensive additional gentry, principally English and Dutch in origin. Beyond the conglomerate background, the McMillans permitted themselves to be aware of certain foreigners as gentry, and also of some flavourings of gentry, similar to their own, in Philadelphia, Boston, and one or two smaller cities, but there perfected civilization ended. All else they believed to be a kind of climbing barbarism, able to show forth talent or power, perhaps, in a spasmodic way, or even isolated greatness, as in Abraham Lincoln, but never gentry, except in imitations laughably pinchbeck.
To the McMillan view, Lena’s adventure with that dashing sculpture, half genius and half Grecian-shaped meat, Perry Venable, had placed her gentryship in jeopardy, damaged her as a McMillan;—in fact, her infatuation for so conspicuous a baritone could not avoid being itself conspicuous; it “made talk,” and in answer to the talk she had announced her engagement to him. Then, in the face of the family’s formidable opposition, she made preparations for a clandestine wedding, which Mr. Venable was unable to attend on account of his wife’s arrival from Poland. Thereupon, standing alone against the shock of heavy McMillan explosives, Lena’s impulsive loyalty in defending the godlike baritone led her to make an unfortunate statement: great artists were not to be bound by the ordinary fetters upon conduct, she said;—and this prelude not being accepted as of any great force and originality, she followed it hotly with the declaration that she had long been aware of the Polish lady’s existence.
It was in great part to this admission of hers that the unwitting Dan Oliphant owed the family’s consent to his suit for the hand of a McMillan. A McMillan who got herself talked about, and then confessed, not in the manner of confession but with anger, that she had not been deceived—such a McMillan would conceivably do such a thing again, and a respectable barbarian bridegroom might be the best substitute for those unfortunately obsolete family resources in times of youthful revolt, lettres de cachet and the enforced taking of veils. But, in good truth, Dan may have owed to Lena’s celebrated admission more than the family’s consent, for the family’s austerity of manner toward Lena became so protracted an oppression that she was the readier to be pleased with anything as cheerfully different from that family as Dan was.
Without doubt, too, he owed it to this McMillan austerity that she did not write to him now and break her engagement with him. The Venable affair was two years past, but the austerity went on, unabated. Dan was at least an avenue of escape, and, as Lena had said to her brother, she was “a lot in love” with him. Yet she hesitated, angry with him because he could not offer what she wanted, and half convinced that escape from what she hated might be an escape into what she would hate more. So she wrote to him finally:
You said you loved me! That isn’t quite easy to believe just now. Why did you let me go on counting upon our having a year abroad? I’m afraid I’ll never be able to understand it. I don’t know what to say or what to do. I think the best thing you could do would be to come East at once. Maybe I could understand better if we talked it over together. It seems to me that you couldn’t have cared for me with any depth or you wouldn’t have allowed things to be as you say they are. A man can always do anything he really wants to, and if you had really wanted—oh, I know it’s futile to be writing of that! You simply didn’t care enough, and I thought you did! The only thing for you to do is to come at once. We must settle what’s to be done, because I can’t go on in the state of unhappiness I’ve suffered since your last letter. Maybe you can convince me that you do care a little in spite of having forced me to give up what I counted on. If you do convince me, I suppose there’s no use putting off things—I don’t want a large, fussy wedding. If we are going ahead with it, we might as well get it over. I don’t know what to do, I admit that; but I’m still