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VII 


MARTIN BATTLES WITH DUST

THE human animal is a strange spectacle to behold, let alone comprehend. Not infrequently he goes along for years developing a state of mind, a consistent attitude, and then having got it thoroughly established does something in distinct contradiction to it. Martin had never cared for music, but when one evening, a little more than a week after Rose's arrival, she suggested, with a laughing lilt, her fondness for it, he agreed that he had missed it in his home and, to Bill's and Mrs. Wade's unbelieving surprise, dwelt at length upon his enjoyment of Fallon's band and his longing to blow a cornet. A little later, finding an excuse to leave, he drove into town on a mission so foreign to his iron-clad character that it seemed to cry against his every instinct, but which, for all that, he did with such simplicity as to indicate that it was the most natural step imaginable. He actually bought a two-hundred-dollar mahogany Victrola and an assortment of records, bringing both home with him in his car and, assisted eagerly by Bill, carrying them into the front room with an air that said it was a purchase he had been intending to make for a long time. Rose rewarded him with her bubbling delight and her aunt noticed with an odd constriction about her heart how Bill revelled at last in the new treasure, until now so hopelessly coveted. Martin had never shone to better advantage than this evening as he helped select and put on different pieces, lending himself to the mood of each. It was while a foot-stirring dance was on that Rose asked suddenly:

"Oh, Uncle Martin, do you know how?"

He shook his head. "You'll have to teach me to square up for learning to drive the car."

"That's a bargain; and I'll teach Bill too," she added with native tact. But Mrs. Wade, ill at ease in her own parlor, caught the afterthought quality of Rose's tone. There was no question but that it was for Martin she sparkled, sweet and spontaneous as she was. Decidedly, the time had come when definite action should not be delayed.

It was nearly twelve o'clock when they finally broke up and husband and wife found themselves alone in their own room. As they undressed, Mrs. Wade acted nervously, confused as to how to begin, while Martin whistled lightly and kept time by a slight bobbing of his head. She shot a meaning look in his direction.

"You seem happy, don't you?"

He stopped whistling instantly and assumed his more normal look of set sternness. This was the man she knew and she preferred him that way, rather than buoyant because of some other woman, even though that other was as lovable and innocent of any deliberate mischief as her niece. Not that she was jealous so much as she was hurt. When a woman has fortified herself, after years of the existence to which Mrs. Wade had submitted, with the final conviction that undoubtedly her husband's is a nature that cannot be other than it is, and then learns there are emotional potentialities not yet plumbed, not to mention a capacity for pleasant comradeship of which he has never vouchsafed her an inkling, she finds herself being ground between the millstones of an aching admission of her own deficiencies and a tattered, but rebellious, pride.

Martin, when her remark concerning his apparent happiness had registered, let his answer be a sober inspection of the garment he had just removed.

"I don't suppose you can talk to me now after such a strenuous evening," she went on more emphatically. And as he maintained his silence, she continued with: "Oh, don't think I'm blind, Martin Wade. I know exactly how far this has gone and I know how far it can go."

"What are you driving at?"

"You know perfectly well what I mean--the way you are behaving toward Rose."

"Are you trying to imply that I'm carrying on with her?"

"I certainly am. I'm not angry, Martin. I never was calmer than I am right now, and I don't intend to say things just for the sake of saying them. I only want you to know that I have eyes, and that I don't want to be made a fool of."

To her surprise, Martin came over to her and, looking at her steadily, returned with amazing candidness: "I'm not going to lie to you. You're perfectly welcome to know what's in my mind. I love her with every beat of my heart--she has brought something new into my life, something sacred--you've always thought I cared for nothing but work, that all I lived for was to plan and scheme how to make money. Haven't you? I don't blame you. It's what I've always believed, but tonight I've learned something." Mrs. Wade could see his blood quicken. "She has been in this house only a few days and already I am alive with a new fire. It seems as if these hours are the only ones in which I have ever really lived--nothing else matters. Nothing! If there could be the slightest chance of my winning her love, of making her feel as I am feeling now, I'd build my world over again even if I had to tear all of the old one down." Martin was now talking to himself, oblivious to his wife's presence, indifferent to her. "Happiness is waiting for me with her, with my little flower."

"Your Rose of Sharon?" Her tone was biting.

"If only I could say that! My Rose of Sharon!" It seemed to Mrs. Wade that the very room quivered with his low cry that was almost a groan. "I know what you're thinking," he went on, "but you know I have never loved you. You knew it when I married you, you must have." The twisting agony of it--that he could make capital out of the very crux of all her suffering. "I have never deceived you and I never intend to. My life with you hasn't been a Song of Solomon, but I'm not complaining."

"You're not complaining! I hope I won't start complaining, Martin."

"Well, now you know how I feel. I'll go on with the present arrangement between us, but I'm playing square with you--it's because there's no hope for me. If I thought she cared for me, I would go to her, right now, tonight, and pour out my heart to her, wife or no wife. Oh, Rose, have pity! It can't do you any harm if I drink a little joy--don't spoil her faith in me! Don't frighten her away. I can't bear the thought of her going out into the world to work. She's like a gentle little doe feeding on lilies--she doesn't dream of the pitfalls ahead of her. And she will never know--she doesn't even suspect how I feel towards her. She will meet some young fellow in town and marry. I'm too old for her--but Rose, you don't understand what it means to me to have her in the same house, to know that she is sleeping so near, so beautiful, so ready for love; that when I wake up tomorrow she will still be here."

Disarmed and partly appeased by the frankness of his confession, Mrs. Wade sat silently taking in each word, studying him with wet eyes, her lips almost blue, her breath a little short. The fire in his voice, the reality of his strange, terrible love, the eyes that gazed so sadly and so unexpectantly into space, the hands that seemed to have shed their weight of toil and clutched, too late, for the bright flowers of happiness--all filled her with compassion. Never had he looked so splendid. He seemed, in casting off his thongs, to have taken on some of the Herculean quality of his own magnificent gesture. It was as if their barnyard well had burst into a mighty, high-shooting geyser. To her dying day would she remember that surge of passion. To have met it with anger would have been of as little avail as the stamp of a protesting foot before the tremors of an earthquake.

She offered him the comforting directness which she might have given Bill. "I didn't know you felt so deeply, Martin. Life plays us all tricks; it's played many with me, and it's playing one of its meanest with you, for whatever happens you are going to suffer--far more than I am. You can believe it or not, but I'm sorry."

Martin felt oddly grateful to her; he had not expected this sense of understanding. She might have burst into wild tears. Instead, she was pitying him. More possessed of his usual immobility, he remarked:

"I must be a fool, a great, pathetic fool. I look into a girl's eyes and immediately see visions. I say a few words to her and she is kind enough to say a few to me and I see pictures of new happiness. I should have more sense. I don't know what is the matter with me."

Although countless answers leaped to his wife's tongue she made none but the cryptic: "Well, it's no use to discuss it any more tonight. We both need rest." But all the while that she was undressing with her usual sure, swift movements, and after she had finally slipped between the sheets, her mind was racing.

She was soon borne so completely out on the current of her own thoughts that she forgot Martin's actual presence. She remembered as if it were yesterday, the afternoon he came to the office and asked her to marry him. She wondered anew, as she had wondered a thousand times, if anything other than a wish for a housekeeper had prompted him. She remembered her misgivings--how she had read into him qualities which she had believed all these years were not there. But hadn't her intuition been justified, after all, by the very man she had seen tonight? Yes, her first feeling, that he was something finer, still in the rough, had been correct. She had thought it was his shyness, his unaccustomedness to women that had made him such a failure as a lover--and all the while it had been simply that she was not the right woman. When love touched him, he became a veritable white light.

All these years when he had been so cold, so hard toward her, it simply was because he disliked her. She remembered the day she was hurt, and the night her first baby came. Martin's brutality even now kindled in her a dull blazing anger, and as she realized what depths of feeling were in him, his callousness seemed intensified an hundred-fold. Well, she was having her revenge. All his life he had thwarted her, stolen from her, used her as one could not use even a hired hand, worked her more as a slave-driver hurries his underlings that profits may mount; now, by her mere existence, she was thwarting him. She saw him again as he had flashed before her when he had talked of Rose and she admitted bitterly to herself, what in her heart she had known all along--that if Martin could have loved her, she could have worshipped him. Instead, he had slowly smothered her, but she had at least a dignity in the community. He should not harm that. If they were unhappy, at least no one knew it. Her pride was her refuge. If that were violated she felt life would hold no sanctuary, that her soul would be stripped naked before the world.

But why was she afraid? Didn't Martin have his own position to think of? What if he had said nothing was to be compared to his new-found love for Rose. What stupidity on his part not to realize that it was his very position, power and money that commanded her respect. Did he command anything else from her? Mrs. Wade reviewed the evening. Yes, response had been in Rose's laugh, in every movement. Hadn't she always adored Martin, even as a tiny girl? Hadn't there always been some mystic bond between them? How she had envied them then. But if Martin were to go to her with only his love? From the depths of her observations of people she took comfort. He might stir his lovely Rose of Sharon to the uttermost, had he been free he might have won her for his wife--but would it be possible for fifty-four to hold the attention of twenty for long if he had nothing but his love to offer?

Such thoughts were hurrying through her heated mind as Martin slowly laid himself beside her. He said nothing, but lost himself in a flood of ceaseless ponderings. After stretching some of the tiredness out of his throbbing muscles, he relaxed and lay quietly, trying to recall exactly what he had said. Did his wife suspect that there might be no truth in the remark that Rose would never know how he felt toward her? At moments he felt that the girl already divined it, again he was not so sure. It was hard to be certain, but the more he thought about it the more hope he began to feel that she would yet be wholly his. Her admiration and trust belonged to him now, but there might be moral scruples which he would have to overcome. There would be the difficulty of convincing her that she would be doing her aunt no wrong. She would gain courage, however, from his own heedlessness. That same daring which he had just shown with the older Rose and which had impressed her into silence would eventually move his flower to him. He had thrown down the bars. Secrecy was now out of the question and it was well that he was moving thus in the open. Rose might shrink at first from the plain-spokenness of the situation, but this phase would soon pass and then the fact that she knew he was not hiding his love for her even from his wife would make it far easier to press his suit and possibly to bring it to a swift consummation.

He must win her! He must. He had been mad to admit to himself, much less to his Rag-weed, that there was any doubt of this outcome. It might take a few more days, a week, not longer than that. But what should he do when Rose gave the message to him? Could he go away with her? This bothered him for a while. Of course, he would have to. He could not send his wife away. The community would not tolerate this. Martin knew his neighbors. He did not care a snap for their good opinion, but he realized exactly how much they could hurt him if he violated their prejudices beyond a certain point. Fortunately, there are millions of communities in the world. This one would rise against him and denounce, another would accept them as pleasant strangers. He might be taken for Rose's father! He would fight this with tireless care. Yes, he would have to go away. But his business interests --what about his farm, his cattle, his machinery, his bank stock, his mortgages, his municipal bonds? How wonderful it would be if he could go with her to the station--his securities in a grip, his other possessions turned into a bank draft! But this woman lying at his side--the law gave her such a large share.

Cataclysmic changes were taking place in the soul of Martin Wade. The very thing which, without being able to name, he had dreaded a short week ago in the garage, was hovering over him, casting its foreboding shadow of material destruction. His whole system of values was being upset. He felt an actual revulsion against property. What was it all compared to his Rose? He would throw it at his wife's feet--his wife's feet and Bill's. Let them take every penny of it--no, not every penny. He would need a little--just a thousand or two to start with and then the rest would come easily, for he knew how to make money. And how liberal that would be.

He could see himself as he would go forth with Rose, leaving behind the woman he had never loved and all that he had toiled so many years to amass. It seemed fair--the property for which he had lusted so mercilessly left for the woman with whom he had lived so dully, left as the ransom to be paid for his liberty. So he and his Rose of Sharon would walk away--walk, because even the car would be surrendered--and he would be free with the only woman for whom he had ever yearned.

Would she be happy for long? His pride answered "yes," but against his will he pictured himself being dumped ruthlessly into the pitiless sixties while Rose still lingered in the glorious twenties. This was a most unpleasant reflection and Martin preferred to dismiss it. That belonged to tomorrow. He would wait until then to fight tomorrow's battles. His mind came back to the property again. Wasn't it rather impetuous to surrender all? Wouldn't it be unfair to Rose to be so generous to his wife? She had Bill. In a few years he would be old enough to run the farm. Until then, with his help and good hired hands, she could do it herself. Why not leave it and the goods on it to her and take the mortgages and bonds with him? Rose was joy. He could hold her more securely with comforts added to his great love. Her happiness had to be thought of, had to be protected.

He could tell that his wife was still awake. He might begin to talk and maybe they could arrange a settlement. But he was getting too tired for a discussion that might invite tears and even a fit of hysterics, like the one she had gone through before their first child came dead. He could see her still as she looked that morning in the barn crying: "You'll be punished for this some day--you will--you will. You don't love me, but some time you will love some one. Then you'll understand what it is to be treated like this--" It gave him the creeps now to remember it. It was like one of those old incantations; almost like a curse. What if some day his Rose should grow to be as indifferent, feel as little tenderness toward him as he had felt toward his wife at that moment. The pain of it made him break out into a fine sweat. But he hadn't understood. What had he understood until this love had come into his life! He would never do a thing as cruel as that now. Come to think of it, the older Rose wasn't acting like a bad sort. But then, when it came to a show-down she might not be so magnanimous as she had appeared tonight.

Mrs. Wade was still thinking. She also was measuring possibilities and clairvoyantly sensing what was going on in her husband's mind. She, too, was sure that Rose would capitulate to him. She felt a deep sympathy for the girl. Martin had said it himself--he was too old for her. Her happiness lay with youth. And yet, how could one be so certain? Love was so illusive, so capricious! Did it really bow to the accident of years? Had she, Rose Wade, the right to snatch from anyone's hands the most precious gift of life? Wouldn't she have sold her very soul, at one time, to have had Martin care for her like this? Oh, if the child were wise she would not hesitate! She would drink her cup of joy while it was held out to her brimming full. A strange conclusion for a staid churchwoman like Mrs. Wade, but her rich humanity transcended all her training. She wondered if there could be anything in the belief that there was waiting somewhere for each soul just one other. There were people, she knew, who thought that. Rose had drawn out all that was finest in Martin--she had transformed him into a lover, and if she wanted the man, himself, she could have him. But, decided his wife, he could not take with him the things which her sweat and blood had helped to create. She would give him a divorce, but her terms would be as brutal as the Martin with whom she had lived these twenty years, and who now took it for granted that she would let him do whatever he chose. She was to be made to step aside, was she, with no weapon with which to strike back and no armor with which to protect herself? Well, there was one way she might hit him --one. She would strike him in his weakest point --his belongings. Yes, Martin Wade might leave her but all his property must be left behind--every cent of it. There should be a contract to that effect; otherwise, she would fight as only a frenzied woman can fight.

The two of them, lying there side by side as quietly as if in death, each considered the issue settled. She would let him go without his property; Martin would leave with half of it. And through all the long wordless controversy, their little Rose of Sharon, a few yards away, slept as only a tired child can sleep.

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