A Cup of Cold Water by Edith Wharton
It was three o'clock in the morning, and the cotillion was at its height,
when Woburn left the over-heated splendor of the Gildermere ballroom, and
after a delay caused by the determination of the drowsy footman to give
him a ready-made overcoat with an imitation astrachan collar in place of
his own unimpeachable Poole garment, found himself breasting the icy
solitude of the Fifth Avenue. He was still smiling, as he emerged from the
awning, at his insistence in claiming his own overcoat: it illustrated,
humorously enough, the invincible force of habit. As he faced the wind,
however, he discerned a providence in his persistency, for his coat was
fur-lined, and he had a cold voyage before him on the morrow.
It had rained hard during the earlier part of the night, and the carriages
waiting in triple line before the Gildermeres' door were still domed by
shining umbrellas, while the electric lamps extending down the avenue
blinked Narcissus-like at their watery images in the hollows of the
sidewalk. A dry blast had come out of the north, with pledge of frost
before daylight, and to Woburn's shivering fancy the pools in the pavement
seemed already stiffening into ice. He turned up his coat-collar and
stepped out rapidly, his hands deep in his coat-pockets.
As he walked he glanced curiously up at the ladder-like door-steps which
may well suggest to the future archaeologist that all the streets of New
York were once canals; at the spectral tracery of the trees about St.
Luke's, the fretted mass of the Cathedral, and the mean vista of the long
side-streets. The knowledge that he was perhaps looking at it all for the
last time caused every detail to start out like a challenge to memory, and
lit the brown-stone house-fronts with the glamor of sword-barred Edens.
It was an odd impulse that had led him that night to the Gildermere ball;
but the same change in his condition which made him stare wonderingly at
the houses in the Fifth Avenue gave the thrill of an exploit to the tame
business of ball-going. Who would have imagined, Woburn mused, that such a
situation as his would possess the priceless quality of sharpening the
blunt edge of habit?
It was certainly curious to reflect, as he leaned against the doorway of
Mrs. Gildermere's ball-room, enveloped in the warm atmosphere of the
accustomed, that twenty-four hours later the people brushing by him with
looks of friendly recognition would start at the thought of having seen
him and slur over the recollection of having taken his hand!
And the girl he had gone there to see: what would she think of him? He
knew well enough that her trenchant classifications of life admitted no
overlapping of good and evil, made no allowance for that incalculable
interplay of motives that justifies the subtlest casuistry of compassion.
Miss Talcott was too young to distinguish the intermediate tints of the
moral spectrum; and her judgments were further simplified by a peculiar
concreteness of mind. Her bringing-up had fostered this tendency and she
was surrounded by people who focussed life in the same way. To the girls
in Miss Talcott's set, the attentions of a clever man who had to work for
his living had the zest of a forbidden pleasure; but to marry such a man
would be as unpardonable as to have one's carriage seen at the door of a
cheap dress-maker. Poverty might make a man fascinating; but a settled
income was the best evidence of stability of character. If there were
anything in heredity, how could a nice girl trust a man whose parents had
been careless enough to leave him unprovided for?
Neither Miss Talcott nor any of her friends could be charged with
formulating these views; but they were implicit in the slope of every
white shoulder and in the ripple of every yard of imported tulle dappling
the foreground of Mrs. Gildermere's ball-room. The advantages of line and
colour in veiling the crudities of a creed are obvious to emotional minds;
and besides, Woburn was conscious that it was to the cheerful materialism
of their parents that the young girls he admired owed that fine
distinction of outline in which their skilfully-rippled hair and
skilfully-hung draperies coöperated with the slimness and erectness that
came of participating in the most expensive sports, eating the most
expensive food and breathing the most expensive air. Since the process
which had produced them was so costly, how could they help being costly
themselves? Woburn was too logical to expect to give no more for a piece
of old Sèvres than for a bit of kitchen crockery; he had no faith in
wonderful bargains, and believed that one got in life just what one was
willing to pay for. He had no mind to dispute the taste of those who
preferred the rustic simplicity of the earthen crock; but his own fancy
inclined to the piece of pâte tendre which must be kept in a glass
case and handled as delicately as a flower.
It was not merely by the external grace of these drawing-room ornaments
that Woburn's sensibilities were charmed. His imagination was touched by
the curious exoticism of view resulting from such conditions; He had
always enjoyed listening to Miss Talcott even more than looking at her.
Her ideas had the brilliant bloom and audacious irrelevance of those
tropical orchids which strike root in air. Miss Talcott's opinions had no
connection with the actual; her very materialism had the grace of
artificiality. Woburn had been enchanted once by seeing her helpless
before a smoking lamp: she had been obliged to ring for a servant because
she did not know how to put it out.
Her supreme charm was the simplicity that comes of taking it for granted
that people are born with carriages and country-places: it never occurred
to her that such congenital attributes could be matter for
self-consciousness, and she had none of the nouveau riche prudery
which classes poverty with the nude in art and is not sure how to behave
in the presence of either.
The conditions of Woburn's own life had made him peculiarly susceptible to
those forms of elegance which are the flower of ease. His father had lost
a comfortable property through sheer inability to go over his agent's
accounts; and this disaster, coming at the outset of Woburn's school-days,
had given a new bent to the family temperament. The father
characteristically died when the effort of living might have made it
possible to retrieve his fortunes; and Woburn's mother and sister,
embittered by this final evasion, settled down to a vindictive war with
circumstances. They were the kind of women who think that it lightens the
burden of life to throw over the amenities, as a reduced housekeeper puts
away her knick-knacks to make the dusting easier. They fought mean
conditions meanly; but Woburn, in his resentment of their attitude, did
not allow for the suffering which had brought it about: his own tendency
was to overcome difficulties by conciliation rather than by conflict. Such
surroundings threw into vivid relief the charming figure of Miss Talcott.
Woburn instinctively associated poverty with bad food, ugly furniture,
complaints and recriminations: it was natural that he should be drawn
toward the luminous atmosphere where life was a series of peaceful and
good-humored acts, unimpeded by petty obstacles. To spend one's time in
such society gave one the illusion of unlimited credit; and also,
unhappily, created the need for it.
It was here in fact that Woburn's difficulties began. To marry Miss
Talcott it was necessary to be a rich man: even to dine out in her set
involved certain minor extravagances. Woburn had determined to marry her
sooner or later; and in the meanwhile to be with her as much as possible.
As he stood leaning in the doorway of the Gildermere ball-room, watching
her pass him in the waltz, he tried to remember how it had begun. First
there had been the tailor's bill; the fur-lined overcoat with cuffs and
collar of Alaska sable had alone cost more than he had spent on his
clothes for two or three years previously. Then there were
theatre-tickets; cab-fares; florist's bills; tips to servants at the
country-houses where he went because he knew that she was invited; the Omar
Khayyám bound by Sullivan that he sent her at Christmas; the
contributions to her pet charities; the reckless purchases at fairs where
she had a stall. His whole way of life had imperceptibly changed and his
year's salary was gone before the second quarter was due.
He had invested the few thousand dollars which had been his portion of his
father's shrunken estate: when his debts began to pile up, he took a flyer
in stocks and after a few months of varying luck his little patrimony
disappeared. Meanwhile his courtship was proceeding at an inverse ratio to
his financial ventures. Miss Talcott was growing tender and he began to
feel that the game was in his hands. The nearness of the goal exasperated
him. She was not the girl to wait and he knew that it must be now or
never. A friend lent him five thousand dollars on his personal note and he
bought railway stocks on margin. They went up and he held them for a
higher rise: they fluctuated, dragged, dropped below the level at which he
had bought, and slowly continued their uninterrupted descent. His broker
called for more margin; he could not respond and was sold out.
What followed came about quite naturally. For several years he had been
cashier in a well-known banking-house. When the note he had given his
friend became due it was obviously necessary to pay it and he used the
firm's money for the purpose. To repay the money thus taken, he increased
his debt to his employers and bought more stocks; and on these operations
he made a profit of ten thousand dollars. Miss Talcott rode in the Park,
and he bought a smart hack for seven hundred, paid off his tradesmen, and
went on speculating with the remainder of his profits. He made a little
more, but failed to take advantage of the market and lost all that he had
staked, including the amount taken from the firm. He increased his
over-draft by another ten thousand and lost that; he over-drew a farther
sum and lost again. Suddenly he woke to the fact that he owed his
employers fifty thousand dollars and that the partners were to make their
semi-annual inspection in two days. He realized then that within
forty-eight hours what he had called borrowing would become theft.
There was no time to be lost: he must clear out and start life over again
somewhere else. The day that he reached this decision he was to have met
Miss Talcott at dinner. He went to the dinner, but she did not appear: she
had a headache, his hostess explained. Well, he was not to have a last
look at her, after all; better so, perhaps. He took leave early and on his
way home stopped at a florist's and sent her a bunch of violets. The next
morning he got a little note from her: the violets had done her head so
much good—she would tell him all about it that evening at the
Gildermere ball. Woburn laughed and tossed the note into the fire. That
evening he would be on board ship: the examination of the books was to
take place the following morning at ten.
Woburn went down to the bank as usual; he did not want to do anything that
might excite suspicion as to his plans, and from one or two questions
which one of the partners had lately put to him he divined that he was
being observed. At the bank the day passed uneventfully. He discharged his
business with his accustomed care and went uptown at the usual hour.
In the first flush of his successful speculations he had set up bachelor
lodgings, moved by the temptation to get away from the dismal atmosphere
of home, from his mother's struggles with the cook and his sister's
curiosity about his letters. He had been influenced also by the wish for
surroundings more adapted to his tastes. He wanted to be able to give
little teas, to which Miss Talcott might come with a married friend. She
came once or twice and pronounced it all delightful: she thought it so
nice to have only a few Whistler etchings on the walls and the simplest
crushed levant for all one's books.
To these rooms Woburn returned on leaving the bank. His plans had taken
definite shape. He had engaged passage on a steamer sailing for Halifax
early the next morning; and there was nothing for him to do before going
on board but to pack his clothes and tear up a few letters. He threw his
clothes into a couple of portmanteaux, and when these had been called for
by an expressman he emptied his pockets and counted up his ready money. He
found that he possessed just fifty dollars and seventy-five cents; but his
passage to Halifax was paid, and once there he could pawn his watch and
rings. This calculation completed, he unlocked his writing-table drawer
and took out a handful of letters. They were notes from Miss Talcott. He
read them over and threw them into the fire. On his table stood her
photograph. He slipped it out of its frame and tossed it on top of the
blazing letters. Having performed this rite, he got into his dress-clothes
and went to a small French restaurant to dine.
He had meant to go on board the steamer immediately after dinner; but a
sudden vision of introspective hours in a silent cabin made him call for
the evening paper and run his eye over the list of theatres. It would be
as easy to go on board at midnight as now.
He selected a new vaudeville and listened to it with surprising freshness
of interest; but toward eleven o'clock he again began to dread the
approaching necessity of going down to the steamer. There was something
peculiarly unnerving in the idea of spending the rest of the night in a
stifling cabin jammed against the side of a wharf.
He left the theatre and strolled across to the Fifth Avenue. It was now
nearly midnight and a stream of carriages poured up town from the opera
and the theatres. As he stood on the corner watching the familiar
spectacle it occurred to him that many of the people driving by him in
smart broughams and C-spring landaus were on their way to the Gildermere
ball. He remembered Miss Talcott's note of the morning and wondered if she
were in one of the passing carriages; she had spoken so confidently of
meeting him at the ball. What if he should go and take a last look at her?
There was really nothing to prevent it. He was not likely to run across
any member of the firm: in Miss Talcott's set his social standing was good
for another ten hours at least. He smiled in anticipation of her surprise
at seeing him, and then reflected with a start that she would not be
surprised at all.
His meditations were cut short by a fall of sleety rain, and hailing a
hansom he gave the driver Mrs. Gildermere's address.
As he drove up the avenue he looked about him like a traveller in a
strange city. The buildings which had been so unobtrusively familiar stood
out with sudden distinctness: he noticed a hundred details which had
escaped his observation. The people on the sidewalks looked like
strangers: he wondered where they were going and tried to picture the
lives they led; but his own relation to life had been so suddenly reversed
that he found it impossible to recover his mental perspective.
At one corner he saw a shabby man lurking in the shadow of the side
street; as the hansom passed, a policeman ordered him to move on. Farther
on, Woburn noticed a woman crouching on the door-step of a handsome house.
She had drawn a shawl over her head and was sunk in the apathy of despair
or drink. A well-dressed couple paused to look at her. The electric globe
at the corner lit up their faces, and Woburn saw the lady, who was young
and pretty, turn away with a little grimace, drawing her companion after
The desire to see Miss Talcott had driven Woburn to the Gildermeres'; but
once in the ball-room he made no effort to find her. The people about him
seemed more like strangers than those he had passed in the street. He
stood in the doorway, studying the petty manoeuvres of the women and the
resigned amenities of their partners. Was it possible that these were his
friends? These mincing women, all paint and dye and whalebone, these
apathetic men who looked as much alike as the figures that children cut
out of a folded sheet of paper? Was it to live among such puppets that he
had sold his soul? What had any of these people done that was noble,
exceptional, distinguished? Who knew them by name even, except their
tradesmen and the society reporters? Who were they, that they should sit
in judgment on him?
The bald man with the globular stomach, who stood at Mrs. Gildermere's
elbow surveying the dancers, was old Boylston, who had made his pile in
wrecking railroads; the smooth chap with glazed eyes, at whom a pretty
girl smiled up so confidingly, was Collerton, the political lawyer, who
had been mixed up to his own advantage in an ugly lobbying transaction;
near him stood Brice Lyndham, whose recent failure had ruined his friends
and associates, but had not visibly affected the welfare of his large and
expensive family. The slim fellow dancing with Miss Gildermere was Alec
Vance, who lived on a salary of five thousand a year, but whose wife was
such a good manager that they kept a brougham and victoria and always put
in their season at Newport and their spring trip to Europe. The little
ferret-faced youth in the corner was Regie Colby, who wrote the Entre-Nous
paragraphs in the Social Searchlight: the women were charming to
him and he got all the financial tips he wanted from their husbands and
And the women? Well, the women knew all about the men, and flattered them
and married them and tried to catch them for their daughters. It was a
domino-party at which the guests were forbidden to unmask, though they all
saw through each other's disguises.
And these were the people who, within twenty-four hours, would be agreeing
that they had always felt there was something wrong about Woburn! They
would be extremely sorry for him, of course, poor devil; but there are
certain standards, after all—what would society be without
standards? His new friends, his future associates, were the
suspicious-looking man whom the policeman had ordered to move on, and the
drunken woman asleep on the door-step. To these he was linked by the
freemasonry of failure.
Miss Talcott passed him on Collerton's arm; she was giving him one of the
smiles of which Woburn had fancied himself sole owner. Collerton was a
sharp fellow; he must have made a lot in that last deal; probably she
would marry him. How much did she know about the transaction? She was a
shrewd girl and her father was in Wall Street. If Woburn's luck had turned
the other way she might have married him instead; and if he had confessed
his sin to her one evening, as they drove home from the opera in their new
brougham, she would have said that really it was of no use to tell her,
for she never could understand about business, but that she did
entreat him in future to be nicer to Regie Colby. Even now, if he made a
big strike somewhere, and came back in ten years with a beard and a steam
yacht, they would all deny that anything had been proved against him, and
Mrs. Collerton might blush and remind him of their friendship. Well—why
not? Was not all morality based on a convention? What was the stanchest
code of ethics but a trunk with a series of false bottoms? Now and then
one had the illusion of getting down to absolute right or wrong, but it
was only a false bottom—a removable hypothesis—with another
false bottom underneath. There was no getting beyond the relative.
The cotillion had begun. Miss Talcott sat nearly opposite him: she was
dancing with young Boylston and giving him a Woburn-Collerton smile. So
young Boylston was in the syndicate too!
Presently Woburn was aware that she had forgotten young Boylston and was
glancing absently about the room. She was looking for some one, and meant
the some one to know it: he knew that Lost-Chord look in her eyes.
A new figure was being formed. The partners circled about the room and
Miss Talcott's flying tulle drifted close to him as she passed. Then the
favors were distributed; white skirts wavered across the floor like
thistle-down on summer air; men rose from their seats and fresh couples
filled the shining parquet.
Miss Talcott, after taking from the basket a Legion of Honor in red
enamel, surveyed the room for a moment; then she made her way through the
dancers and held out the favor to Woburn. He fastened it in his coat, and
emerging from the crowd of men about the doorway, slipped his arm about
her. Their eyes met; hers were serious and a little sad. How fine and
slender she was! He noticed the little tendrils of hair about the pink
convolution of her ear. Her waist was firm and yet elastic; she breathed
calmly and regularly, as though dancing were her natural motion. She did
not look at him again and neither of them spoke.
When the music ceased they paused near her chair. Her partner was waiting
for her and Woburn left her with a bow.
He made his way down-stairs and out of the house. He was glad that he had
not spoken to Miss Talcott. There had been a healing power in their
silence. All bitterness had gone from him and he thought of her now quite
simply, as the girl he loved.
At Thirty-fifth Street he reflected that he had better jump into a car and
go down to his steamer. Again there rose before him the repulsive vision
of the dark cabin, with creaking noises overhead, and the cold wash of
water against the pier: he thought he would stop in a café and take a
drink. He turned into Broadway and entered a brightly-lit café; but when
he had taken his whisky and soda there seemed no reason for lingering. He
had never been the kind of man who could escape difficulties in that way.
Yet he was conscious that his will was weakening; that he did not mean to
go down to the steamer just yet. What did he mean to do? He began to feel
horribly tired and it occurred to him that a few hours' sleep in a decent
bed would make a new man of him. Why not go on board the next morning at
He could not go back to his rooms, for on leaving the house he had taken
the precaution of dropping his latch-key into his letter-box; but he was
in a neighborhood of discreet hotels and he wandered on till he came to
one which was known to offer a dispassionate hospitality to luggageless
travellers in dress-clothes.
He pushed open the swinging door and found himself in a long corridor with
a tessellated floor, at the end of which, in a brightly-lit enclosure of
plate-glass and mahogany, the night-clerk dozed over a copy of the Police
Gazette. The air in the corridor was rich in reminiscences of
yesterday's dinners, and a bronzed radiator poured a wave of dry heat into
The night-clerk, roused by the swinging of the door, sat watching Woburn's
approach with the unexpectant eye of one who has full confidence in his
capacity for digesting surprises. Not that there was anything surprising
in Woburn's appearance; but the night-clerk's callers were given to such
imaginative flights in explaining their luggageless arrival in the small
hours of the morning, that he fared habitually on fictions which would
have staggered a less experienced stomach. The night-clerk, whose
unwrinkled bloom showed that he throve on this high-seasoned diet, had a
fancy for classifying his applicants before they could frame their
"This one's been locked out," he said to himself as he mustered Woburn.
Having exercised his powers of divination with his accustomed accuracy he
listened without stirring an eye-lid to Woburn's statement; merely
replying, when the latter asked the price of a room, "Two-fifty."
"Very well," said Woburn, pushing the money under the brass lattice, "I'll
go up at once; and I want to be called at seven."
To this the night-clerk proffered no reply, but stretching out his hand to
press an electric button, returned apathetically to the perusal of the Police
Gazette. His summons was answered by the appearance of a man in
shirt-sleeves, whose rumpled head indicated that he had recently risen
from some kind of makeshift repose; to him the night-clerk tossed a key,
with the brief comment, "Ninety-seven;" and the man, after a sleepy glance
at Woburn, turned on his heel and lounged toward the staircase at the back
of the corridor.
Woburn followed and they climbed three flights in silence. At each landing
Woburn glanced down, the long passage-way lit by a lowered gas-jet, with a
double line of boots before the doors, waiting, like yesterday's deeds, to
carry their owners so many miles farther on the morrow's destined road. On
the third landing the man paused, and after examining the number on the
key, turned to the left, and slouching past three or four doors, finally
unlocked one and preceded Woburn into a room lit only by the upward gleam
of the electric globes in the street below.
The man felt in his pockets; then he turned to Woburn. "Got a match?" he
Woburn politely offered him one, and he applied it to the gas-fixture
which extended its jointed arm above an ash dressing-table with a blurred
mirror fixed between two standards. Having performed this office with an
air of detachment designed to make Woburn recognize it as an act of
supererogation, he turned without a word and vanished down the
Woburn, after an indifferent glance about the room, which seemed to afford
the amount of luxury generally obtainable for two dollars and a half in a
fashionable quarter of New York, locked the door and sat down at the
ink-stained writing-table in the window. Far below him lay the
pallidly-lit depths of the forsaken thoroughfare. Now and then he heard
the jingle of a horsecar and the ring of hoofs on the freezing pavement,
or saw the lonely figure of a policeman eclipsing the illumination of the
plate-glass windows on the opposite side of the street. He sat thus for a
long time, his elbows on the table, his chin between his hands, till at
length the contemplation of the abandoned sidewalks, above which the
electric globes kept Stylites-like vigil, became intolerable to him, and
he drew down the window-shade, and lit the gas-fixture beside the
dressing-table. Then he took a cigar from his case, and held it to the
The passage from the stinging freshness of the night to the stale
overheated atmosphere of the Haslemere Hotel had checked the
preternaturally rapid working of his mind, and he was now scarcely
conscious of thinking at all. His head was heavy, and he would have thrown
himself on the bed had he not feared to oversleep the hour fixed for his
departure. He thought it safest, instead, to seat himself once more by the
table, in the most uncomfortable chair that he could find, and smoke one
cigar after another till the first sign of dawn should give an excuse for
He had laid his watch on the table before him, and was gazing at the
hour-hand, and trying to convince himself by so doing that he was still
wide awake, when a noise in the adjoining room suddenly straightened him
in his chair and banished all fear of sleep.
There was no mistaking the nature of the noise; it was that of a woman's
sobs. The sobs were not loud, but the sound reached him distinctly through
the frail door between the two rooms; it expressed an utter abandonment to
grief; not the cloud-burst of some passing emotion, but the slow down-pour
of a whole heaven of sorrow.
Woburn sat listening. There was nothing else to be done; and at least his
listening was a mute tribute to the trouble he was powerless to relieve.
It roused, too, the drugged pulses of his own grief: he was touched by the
chance propinquity of two alien sorrows in a great city throbbing with
multifarious passions. It would have been more in keeping with the irony
of life had he found himself next to a mother singing her child to sleep:
there seemed a mute commiseration in the hand that had led him to such
Gradually the sobs subsided, with pauses betokening an effort at
self-control. At last they died off softly, like the intermittent drops
that end a day of rain.
"Poor soul," Woburn mused, "she's got the better of it for the time. I
wonder what it's all about?"
At the same moment he heard another sound that made him jump to his feet.
It was a very low sound, but in that nocturnal silence which gives
distinctness to the faintest noises, Woburn knew at once that he had heard
the click of a pistol.
"What is she up to now?" he asked himself, with his eye on the door
between the two rooms; and the brightly-lit keyhole seemed to reply with a
glance of intelligence. He turned out the gas and crept to the door,
pressing his eye to the illuminated circle.
After a moment or two of adjustment, during which he seemed to himself to
be breathing like a steam-engine, he discerned a room like his own, with
the same dressing-table flanked by gas-fixtures, and the same table in the
window. This table was directly in his line of vision; and beside it stood
a woman with a small revolver in her hands. The lights being behind her,
Woburn could only infer her youth from her slender silhouette and the
nimbus of fair hair defining her head. Her dress seemed dark and simple,
and on a chair under one of the gas-jets lay a jacket edged with cheap fur
and a small travelling-bag. He could not see the other end of the room,
but something in her manner told him that she was alone. At length she put
the revolver down and took up a letter that lay on the table. She drew the
letter from its envelope and read it over two or three times; then she put
it back, sealing the envelope, and placing it conspicuously against the
mirror of the dressing-table.
There was so grave a significance in this dumb-show that Woburn felt sure
that her next act would be to return to the table and take up the
revolver; but he had not reckoned on the vanity of woman. After putting
the letter in place she still lingered at the mirror, standing a little
sideways, so that he could now see her face, which was distinctly pretty,
but of a small and unelastic mould, inadequate to the expression of the
larger emotions. For some moments she continued to study herself with the
expression of a child looking at a playmate who has been scolded; then she
turned to the table and lifted the revolver to her forehead.
A sudden crash made her arm drop, and sent her darting backward to the
opposite side of the room. Woburn had broken down the door, and stood torn
and breathless in the breach.
"Oh!" she gasped, pressing closer to the wall.
"Don't be frightened," he said; "I saw what you were going to do and I had
to stop you."
She looked at him for a moment in silence, and he saw the terrified
flutter of her breast; then she said, "No one can stop me for long. And
besides, what right have you—"
"Every one has the right to prevent a crime," he returned, the sound of
the last word sending the blood to his forehead.
"I deny it," she said passionately. "Every one who has tried to live and
failed has the right to die."
"Failed in what?"
"In everything!" she replied. They stood looking at each other in silence.
At length he advanced a few steps.
"You've no right to say you've failed," he said, "while you have breath to
try again." He drew the revolver from her hand.
"Try again—try again? I tell you I've tried seventy times seven!"
"What have you tried?"
She looked at him with a certain dignity.
"I don't know," she said, "that you've any right to question me—or
to be in this room at all—" and suddenly she burst into tears.
The discrepancy between her words and action struck the chord which, in a
man's heart, always responds to the touch of feminine unreason. She
dropped into the nearest chair, hiding her face in her hands, while Woburn
watched the course of her weeping.
At last she lifted her head, looking up between drenched lashes.
"Please go away," she said in childish entreaty.
"How can I?" he returned. "It's impossible that I should leave you in this
state. Trust me—let me help you. Tell me what has gone wrong, and
let's see if there's no other way out of it."
Woburn had a voice full of sensitive inflections, and it was now trembling
with profoundest pity. Its note seemed to reassure the girl, for she said,
with a beginning of confidence in her own tones, "But I don't even know
who you are."
Woburn was silent: the words startled him. He moved nearer to her and went
on in the same quieting tone.
"I am a man who has suffered enough to want to help others. I don't want
to know any more about you than will enable me to do what I can for you.
I've probably seen more of life than you have, and if you're willing to
tell me your troubles perhaps together we may find a way out of them."
She dried her eyes and glanced at the revolver.
"That's the only way out," she said.
"How do you know? Are you sure you've tried every other?"
"Perfectly sure, I've written and written, and humbled myself like a slave
before him, and she won't even let him answer my letters. Oh, but you
don't understand"—she broke off with a renewal of weeping.
"I begin to understand—you're sorry for something you've done?"
"Oh, I've never denied that—I've never denied that I was wicked."
"And you want the forgiveness of some one you care about?"
"My husband," she whispered.
"You've done something to displease your husband?"
"To displease him? I ran away with another man!" There was a dismal
exultation in her tone, as though she were paying Woburn off for having
underrated her offense.
She had certainly surprised him; at worst he had expected a quarrel over a
rival, with a possible complication of mother-in-law. He wondered how such
helpless little feet could have taken so bold a step; then he remembered
that there is no audacity like that of weakness.
He was wondering how to lead her to completer avowal when she added
forlornly, "You see there's nothing else to do."
Woburn took a turn in the room. It was certainly a narrower strait than he
had foreseen, and he hardly knew how to answer; but the first flow of
confession had eased her, and she went on without farther persuasion.
"I don't know how I could ever have done it; I must have been downright
crazy. I didn't care much for Joe when I married him—he wasn't
exactly handsome, and girls think such a lot of that. But he just laid
down and worshipped me, and I was getting fond of him in a way;
only the life was so dull. I'd been used to a big city—I come from
Detroit—and Hinksville is such a poky little place; that's where we
lived; Joe is telegraph-operator on the railroad there. He'd have been in
a much bigger place now, if he hadn't—well, after all, he behaved
perfectly splendidly about that.
"I really was getting fond of him, and I believe I should have realized in
time how good and noble and unselfish he was, if his mother hadn't been
always sitting there and everlastingly telling me so. We learned in school
about the Athenians hating some man who was always called just, and that's
the way I felt about Joe. Whenever I did anything that wasn't quite right
his mother would say how differently Joe would have done it. And she was
forever telling me that Joe didn't approve of this and that and the other.
When we were alone he approved of everything, but when his mother was
round he'd sit quiet and let her say he didn't. I knew he'd let me have my
way afterwards, but somehow that didn't prevent my getting mad at the
"And then the evenings were so long, with Joe away, and Mrs. Glenn (that's
his mother) sitting there like an image knitting socks for the heathen.
The only caller we ever had was the Baptist minister, and he never took
any more notice of me than if I'd been a piece of furniture. I believe he
was afraid to before Mrs. Glenn."
She paused breathlessly, and the tears in her eyes were now of anger.
"Well?" said Woburn gently.
"Well—then Arthur Hackett came along; he was travelling for a big
publishing firm in Philadelphia. He was awfully handsome and as clever and
sarcastic as anything. He used to lend me lots of novels and magazines,
and tell me all about society life in New York. All the girls were after
him, and Alice Sprague, whose father is the richest man in Hinksville,
fell desperately in love with him and carried on like a fool; but he
wouldn't take any notice of her. He never looked at anybody but me." Her
face lit up with a reminiscent smile, and then clouded again. "I hate him
now," she exclaimed, with a change of tone that startled Woburn. "I'd like
to kill him—but he's killed me instead.
"Well, he bewitched me so I didn't know what I was doing; I was like
somebody in a trance. When he wasn't there I didn't want to speak to
anybody; I used to lie in bed half the day just to get away from folks; I
hated Joe and Hinksville and everything else. When he came back the days
went like a flash; we were together nearly all the time. I knew Joe's
mother was spying on us, but I didn't care. And at last it seemed as if I
couldn't let him go away again without me; so one evening he stopped at
the back gate in a buggy, and we drove off together and caught the eastern
express at River Bend. He promised to bring me to New York." She paused,
and then added scornfully, "He didn't even do that!"
Woburn had returned to his seat and was watching her attentively. It was
curious to note how her passion was spending itself in words; he saw that
she would never kill herself while she had any one to talk to.
"That was five months ago," she continued, "and we travelled all through
the southern states, and stayed a little while near Philadelphia, where
his business is. He did things real stylishly at first. Then he was sent
to Albany, and we stayed a week at the Delavan House. One afternoon I went
out to do some shopping, and when I came back he was gone. He had taken
his trunk with him, and hadn't left any address; but in my travelling-bag
I found a fifty-dollar bill, with a slip of paper on which he had written,
'No use coming after me; I'm married.' We'd been together less than four
months, and I never saw him again.
"At first I couldn't believe it. I stayed on, thinking it was a joke—or
that he'd feel sorry for me and come back. But he never came and never
wrote me a line. Then I began to hate him, and to see what a wicked fool
I'd been to leave Joe. I was so lonesome—I thought I'd go crazy. And
I kept thinking how good and patient Joe had been, and how badly I'd used
him, and how lovely it would be to be back in the little parlor at
Hinksville, even with Mrs. Glenn and the minister talking about free-will
and predestination. So at last I wrote to Joe. I wrote him the humblest
letters you ever read, one after another; but I never got any answer.
"Finally I found I'd spent all my money, so I sold my watch and my rings—Joe
gave me a lovely turquoise ring when we were married—and came to New
York. I felt ashamed to stay alone any longer in Albany; I was afraid that
some of Arthur's friends, who had met me with him on the road, might come
there and recognize me. After I got here I wrote to Susy Price, a great
friend of mine who lives at Hinksville, and she answered at once, and told
me just what I had expected—that Joe was ready to forgive me and
crazy to have me back, but that his mother wouldn't let him stir a step or
write me a line, and that she and the minister were at him all day long,
telling him how bad I was and what a sin it would be to forgive me. I got
Susy's letter two or three days ago, and after that I saw it was no use
writing to Joe. He'll never dare go against his mother and she watches him
like a cat. I suppose I deserve it—but he might have given me
another chance! I know he would if he could only see me."
Her voice had dropped from anger to lamentation, and her tears again
Woburn looked at her with the pity one feels for a child who is suddenly
confronted with the result of some unpremeditated naughtiness.
"But why not go back to Hinksville," he suggested, "if your husband is
ready to forgive you? You could go to your friend's house, and once your
husband knows you are there you can easily persuade him to see you."
"Perhaps I could—Susy thinks I could. But I can't go back; I haven't
got a cent left."
"But surely you can borrow money? Can't you ask your friend to forward you
the amount of your fare?"
She shook her head.
"Susy ain't well off; she couldn't raise five dollars, and it costs
twenty-five to get back to Hinksville. And besides, what would become of
me while I waited for the money? They'll turn me out of here to-morrow; I
haven't paid my last week's board, and I haven't got anything to give
them; my bag's empty; I've pawned everything."
"And don't you know any one here who would lend you the money?"
"No; not a soul. At least I do know one gentleman; he's a friend of
Arthur's, a Mr. Devine; he was staying at Rochester when we were there. I
met him in the street the other day, and I didn't mean to speak to him,
but he came up to me, and said he knew all about Arthur and how meanly he
had behaved, and he wanted to know if he couldn't help me—I suppose
he saw I was in trouble. He tried to persuade me to go and stay with his
aunt, who has a lovely house right round here in Twenty-fourth Street; he
must be very rich, for he offered to lend me as much money as I wanted."
"You didn't take it?"
"No," she returned; "I daresay he meant to be kind, but I didn't care to
be beholden to any friend of Arthur's. He came here again yesterday, but I
wouldn't see him, so he left a note giving me his aunt's address and
saying she'd have a room ready for me at any time."
There was a long silence; she had dried her tears and sat looking at
Woburn with eyes full of helpless reliance.
"Well," he said at length, "you did right not to take that man's money;
but this isn't the only alternative," he added, pointing to the revolver.
"I don't know any other," she answered wearily. "I'm not smart enough to
get employment; I can't make dresses or do type-writing, or any of the
useful things they teach girls now; and besides, even if I could get work
I couldn't stand the loneliness. I can never hold my head up again—I
can't bear the disgrace. If I can't go back to Joe I'd rather be dead."
"And if you go back to Joe it will be all right?" Woburn suggested with a
"Oh," she cried, her whole face alight, "if I could only go back to Joe!"
They were both silent again; Woburn sat with his hands in his pockets
gazing at the floor. At length his silence seemed to rouse her to the
unwontedness of the situation, and she rose from her seat, saying in a
more constrained tone, "I don't know why I've told you all this."
"Because you believed that I would help you," Woburn answered, rising
also; "and you were right; I'm going to send you home."
She colored vividly. "You told me I was right not to take Mr. Devine's
money," she faltered.
"Yes," he answered, "but did Mr. Devine want to send you home?"
"He wanted me to wait at his aunt's a little while first and then write to
"I don't—I want you to start tomorrow morning; this morning, I mean.
I'll take you to the station and buy your ticket, and your husband can
send me back the money."
"Oh, I can't—I can't—you mustn't—" she stammered,
reddening and paling. "Besides, they'll never let me leave here without
"How much do you owe?"
"Very well; I'll pay that for you; you can leave me your revolver as a
pledge. But you must start by the first train; have you any idea at what
time it leaves the Grand Central?"
"I think there's one at eight."
He glanced at his watch.
"In less than two hours, then; it's after six now."
She stood before him with fascinated eyes.
"You must have a very strong will," she said. "When you talk like that you
make me feel as if I had to do everything you say."
"Well, you must," said Woburn lightly. "Man was made to be obeyed."
"Oh, you're not like other men," she returned; "I never heard a voice like
yours; it's so strong and kind. You must be a very good man; you remind me
of Joe; I'm sure you've got just such a nature; and Joe is the best man
I've ever seen."
Woburn made no reply, and she rambled on, with little pauses and fresh
bursts of confidence.
"Joe's a real hero, you know; he did the most splendid thing you ever
heard of. I think I began to tell you about it, but I didn't finish. I'll
tell you now. It happened just after we were married; I was mad with him
at the time, I'm afraid, but now I see how splendid he was. He'd been
telegraph operator at Hinksville for four years and was hoping that he'd
get promoted to a bigger place; but he was afraid to ask for a raise.
Well, I was very sick with a bad attack of pneumonia and one night the
doctor said he wasn't sure whether he could pull me through. When they
sent word to Joe at the telegraph office he couldn't stand being away from
me another minute. There was a poor consumptive boy always hanging round
the station; Joe had taught him how to operate, just to help him along; so
he left him in the office and tore home for half an hour, knowing he could
get back before the eastern express came along.
"He hadn't been gone five minutes when a freight-train ran off the rails
about a mile up the track. It was a very still night, and the boy heard
the smash and shouting, and knew something had happened. He couldn't tell
what it was, but the minute he heard it he sent a message over the wires
like a flash, and caught the eastern express just as it was pulling out of
the station above Hinksville. If he'd hesitated a second, or made any
mistake, the express would have come on, and the loss of life would have
been fearful. The next day the Hinksville papers were full of Operator
Glenn's presence of mind; they all said he'd be promoted. That was early
in November and Joe didn't hear anything from the company till the first
of January. Meanwhile the boy had gone home to his father's farm out in
the country, and before Christmas he was dead. Well, on New Year's day Joe
got a notice from the company saying that his pay was to be raised, and
that he was to be promoted to a big junction near Detroit, in recognition
of his presence of mind in stopping the eastern express. It was just what
we'd both been pining for and I was nearly wild with joy; but I noticed
Joe didn't say much. He just telegraphed for leave, and the next day he
went right up to Detroit and told the directors there what had really
happened. When he came back he told us they'd suspended him; I cried every
night for a week, and even his mother said he was a fool. After that we
just lived on at Hinksville, and six months later the company took him
back; but I don't suppose they'll ever promote him now."
Her voice again trembled with facile emotion.
"Wasn't it beautiful of him? Ain't he a real hero?" she said. "And I'm
sure you'd behave just like him; you'd be just as gentle about little
things, and you'd never move an inch about big ones. You'd never do a mean
action, but you'd be sorry for people who did; I can see it in your face;
that's why I trusted you right off."
Woburn's eyes were fixed on the window; he hardly seemed to hear her. At
length he walked across the room and pulled up the shade. The electric
lights were dissolving in the gray alembic of the dawn. A milk-cart
rattled down the street and, like a witch returning late from the Sabbath,
a stray cat whisked into an area. So rose the appointed day.
Woburn turned back, drawing from his pocket the roll of bills which he had
thrust there with so different a purpose. He counted them out, and handed
her fifteen dollars.
"That will pay for your board, including your breakfast this morning," he
said. "We'll breakfast together presently if you like; and meanwhile
suppose we sit down and watch the sunrise. I haven't seen it for years."
He pushed two chairs toward the window, and they sat down side by side.
The light came gradually, with the icy reluctance of winter; at last a red
disk pushed itself above the opposite house-tops and a long cold gleam
slanted across their window. They did not talk much; there was a silencing
awe in the spectacle.
Presently Woburn rose and looked again at his watch.
"I must go and cover up my dress-coat", he said, "and you had better put
on your hat and jacket. We shall have to be starting in half an hour."
As he turned away she laid her hand on his arm.
"You haven't even told me your name," she said.
"No," he answered; "but if you get safely back to Joe you can call me
"But how am I to send you the money?"
"Oh—well, I'll write you a line in a day or two and give you my
address; I don't know myself what it will be; I'm a wanderer on the face
of the earth."
"But you must have my name if you mean to write to me."
"Well, what is your name?"
"Ruby Glenn. And I think—I almost think you might send the letter
right to Joe's—send it to the Hinksville station."
"Of course I promise."
He went back into his room, thinking how appropriate it was that she
should have an absurd name like Ruby. As he re-entered the room, where the
gas sickened in the daylight, it seemed to him that he was returning to
some forgotten land; he had passed, with the last few hours, into a wholly
new phase of consciousness. He put on his fur coat, turning up the collar
and crossing the lapels to hide his white tie. Then he put his cigar-case
in his pocket, turned out the gas, and, picking up his hat and stick,
walked back through the open doorway.
Ruby Glenn had obediently prepared herself for departure and was standing
before the mirror, patting her curls into place. Her eyes were still red,
but she had the happy look of a child that has outslept its grief. On the
floor he noticed the tattered fragments of the letter which, a few hours
earlier, he had seen her place before the mirror.
"Shall we go down now?" he asked.
"Very well," she assented; then, with a quick movement, she stepped close
to him, and putting her hands on his shoulders lifted her face to his.
"I believe you're the best man I ever knew," she said, "the very best—except
She drew back blushing deeply, and unlocked the door which led into the
passage-way. Woburn picked up her bag, which she had forgotten, and
followed her out of the room. They passed a frowzy chambermaid, who stared
at them with a yawn. Before the doors the row of boots still waited; there
was a faint new aroma of coffee mingling with the smell of vanished
dinners, and a fresh blast of heat had begun to tingle through the
In the unventilated coffee-room they found a waiter who had the melancholy
air of being the last survivor of an exterminated race, and who
reluctantly brought them some tea made with water which had not boiled,
and a supply of stale rolls and staler butter. On this meagre diet they
fared in silence, Woburn occasionally glancing at his watch; at length he
rose, telling his companion to go and pay her bill while he called a
hansom. After all, there was no use in economizing his remaining dollars.
In a few moments she joined him under the portico of the hotel. The hansom
stood waiting and he sprang in after her, calling to the driver to take
them to the Forty-second Street station.
When they reached the station he found a seat for her and went to buy her
ticket. There were several people ahead of him at the window, and when he
had bought the ticket he found that it was time to put her in the train.
She rose in answer to his glance, and together they walked down the long
platform in the murky chill of the roofed-in air. He followed her into the
railway carriage, making sure that she had her bag, and that the ticket
was safe inside it; then he held out his hand, in its pearl-coloured
evening glove: he felt that the people in the other seats were staring at
"Good-bye," he said.
"Good-bye," she answered, flushing gratefully. "I'll never forget—never.
And you will write, won't you? Promise!"
"Of course, of course," he said, hastening from the carriage.
He retraced his way along the platform, passed through the dismal
waiting-room and stepped out into the early sunshine. On the sidewalk
outside the station he hesitated awhile; then he strolled slowly down
Forty-second Street and, skirting the melancholy flank of the Reservoir,
walked across Bryant Park. Finally he sat down on one of the benches near
the Sixth Avenue and lit a cigar. The signs of life were multiplying
around him; he watched the cars roll by with their increasing freight of
dingy toilers, the shop-girls hurrying to their work, the children
trudging schoolward, their small vague noses red with cold, their satchels
clasped in woollen-gloved hands. There is nothing very imposing in the
first stirring of a great city's activities; it is a slow reluctant
process, like the waking of a heavy sleeper; but to Woburn's mood the
sight of that obscure renewal of humble duties was more moving than the
spectacle of an army with banners.
He sat for a long time, smoking the last cigar in his case, and murmuring
to himself a line from Hamlet—the saddest, he thought, in the play—
For every man hath business and desire.
Suddenly an unpremeditated movement made him feel the pressure of Ruby
Glenn's revolver in his pocket; it was like a devil's touch on his arm,
and he sprang up hastily. In his other pocket there were just four dollars
and fifty cents; but that didn't matter now. He had no thought of flight.
For a few minutes he loitered vaguely about the park; then the cold drove
him on again, and with the rapidity born of a sudden resolve he began to
walk down the Fifth Avenue towards his lodgings. He brushed past a
maid-servant who was washing the vestibule and ran up stairs to his room.
A fire was burning in the grate and his books and photographs greeted him
cheerfully from the walls; the tranquil air of the whole room seemed to
take it for granted that he meant to have his bath and breakfast and go
down town as usual.
He threw off his coat and pulled the revolver out of his pocket; for some
moments he held it curiously in his hand, bending over to examine it as
Ruby Glenn had done; then he laid it in the top drawer of a small cabinet,
and locking the drawer threw the key into the fire.
After that he went quietly about the usual business of his toilet. In
taking off his dress-coat he noticed the Legion of Honor which Miss
Talcott had given him at the ball. He pulled it out of his buttonhole and
tossed it into the fire-place. When he had finished dressing he saw with
surprise that it was nearly ten o'clock. Ruby Glenn was already two hours
Woburn stood looking about the room of which he had thought to take final
leave the night before; among the ashes beneath the grate he caught sight
of a little white heap which symbolized to his fancy the remains of his
brief correspondence with Miss Talcott. He roused himself from this
unseasonable musing and with a final glance at the familiar setting of his
past, turned to face the future which the last hours had prepared for him.
He went down stairs and stepped out of doors, hastening down the street
towards Broadway as though he were late for an appointment. Every now and
then he encountered an acquaintance, whom he greeted with a nod and smile;
he carried his head high, and shunned no man's recognition.
At length he reached the doors of a tall granite building honey-combed
with windows. He mounted the steps of the portico, and passing through the
double doors of plate-glass, crossed a vestibule floored with mosaic to
another glass door on which was emblazoned the name of the firm.
This door he also opened, entering a large room with wainscotted
subdivisions, behind which appeared the stooping shoulders of a row of
As Woburn crossed the threshold a gray-haired man emerged from an inner
office at the opposite end of the room.
At sight of Woburn he stopped short.
"Mr. Woburn!" he exclaimed; then he stepped nearer and added in a low
tone: "I was requested to tell you when you came that the members of the
firm are waiting; will you step into the private office?"