EACH IN HIS GENERATION
BY MAXWELL STRUTHERS BURT
Every afternoon at four o'clock, except when the weather was very
bad—autumn, winter, and spring—old Mr. Henry McCain drove up to
the small, discreet, polished front door, in the small, discreet,
fashionable street in which lived fairly old Mrs. Thomas Denby; got
out, went up the white marble steps, rang the bell, and was admitted
into the narrow but charming hall—dim turquoise-blue velvet
panelled into the walls, an etching or two: Whistler, Brangwyn—by a
trim parlour-maid. Ten generations, at least, of trim parlour-maids
had opened the door for Mr. McCain. They had seen the sparkling
victoria change, not too quickly, to a plum-coloured limousine; they
had seen Mr. McCain become perhaps a trifle thinner, the colour in
his cheeks become a trifle more confined and fixed, his white hair
grow somewhat sparser, but beyond that they had seen very little
indeed, although, when they had left Mr. McCain in the drawing-room
with the announcement that Mrs. Denby would be down immediately, and
were once again seeking the back of the house, no doubt their
eyebrows, blonde, brunette, or red, apexed to a questioning angle.
In the manner of youth the parlour-maids had come, worked, fallen in
love and departed, but Mr. McCain, in the manner of increasing age,
had if anything grown more faithful and exact to the moment. If he
were late the fraction of five minutes, one suspected that he
regretted it, that it came near to spoiling his entire afternoon. He
was not articulate, but occasionally he expressed an idea and the
most common was that he "liked his things as he liked them";
his eggs, in other words, boiled just so long, no more—after
sixty years of inner debate on the subject he had apparently
arrived at the conclusion that boiled eggs were the only kind of eggs
permissible—his life punctual and serene. The smallest manifestation
of unexpectedness disturbed him. Obviously that was one reason why,
after a youth not altogether constant, he had become so utterly
constant where Mrs. Denby was concerned. She had a quality of
perenniality, charming and assuring, even to each strand of her
delicate brown hair. Grayness should have been creeping upon her,
but it was not. It was doubtful if Mr. McCain permitted himself,
even secretly, to wonder why. Effects, fastidious and constant, were
all he demanded from life.
This had been going on for twenty years—this afternoon call; this
slow drive afterward in the park; this return by dusk to the shining
small house in the shining small street; the good-by, reticently
ardent, as if it were not fully Mr. McCain's intention to return
again in the evening. Mr. McCain would kiss Mrs. Denby's hand—slim,
lovely, with a single gorgeous sapphire upon the third finger.
"Good-by, my dear," he would say, "you have given me the most
delightful afternoon of my life." For a moment Mrs. Denby's hand
would linger on the bowed head; then Mr. McCain would straighten up,
smile, square his shoulders in their smart, young-looking coat, and
depart to his club, or the large, softly lit house where he dwelt
alone. At dinner he would drink two glasses of champagne. Before he
drained the last sip of the second pouring he would hold the glass
up to the fire, so that the bronze coruscations at the heart of the
wine glowed like fireflies in a gold dusk. One imagined him saying
to himself: "A perfect woman! A perfect woman—God bless her!"
Saying "God bless" any one, mind you, with a distinct warming of the
heart, but a thoroughly late-Victorian disbelief in any god to bless….
At least, you thought as much.
And, of course, one had not the slightest notion whether he—old
Mr. Henry McCain—was aware that this twenty years of devotion on
his part to Mrs. Denby was the point upon which had come to focus
the not inconsiderable contempt and hatred for him of his nephew
It was an obvious convergence, this devotion of all the traits which
composed, so Adrian imagined, the despicable soul that lay beneath
his uncle's unangled exterior: undeviating self-indulgence; secrecy;
utter selfishness—he was selfish even to the woman he was supposed
to love; that is, if he was capable of loving any one but himself—a
bland hypocrisy; an unthinking conformation to the dictates of an
unthinking world. The list could be multiplied. But to sum it up,
here was epitomized, beautifully, concretely, the main and minor
vices of a generation for which Adrian found little pity in his heart;
a generation brittle as ice; a generation of secret diplomacy; a
generation that in its youth had covered a lack of bathing by a vast
amount of perfume. That was it—! That expressed it perfectly! The
just summation! Camellias, and double intentions in speech, and
unnecessary reticences, and refusals to meet the truth, and a
deliberate hiding of uglinesses!
Most of the time Adrian was too busy to think about his uncle at
all—he was a very busy man with his writing: journalistic writing;
essays, political reviews, propaganda—and because he was busy he
was usually well-content, and not uncharitable, except professionally;
but once a month it was his duty to dine with his uncle, and then,
for the rest of the night, he was disturbed, and awoke the next
morning with the dusty feeling in his head of a man who has been
slightly drunk. Old wounds were recalled, old scars inflamed; a
childhood in which his uncle's figure had represented to him the
terrors of sarcasm and repression; a youth in which, as his guardian,
his uncle had deprecated all first fine hot-bloodednesses and
enthusiasms; a young manhood in which he had been told cynically
that the ways of society were good ways, and that the object of life
was material advancement; advice which had been followed by the
stimulus of an utter refusal to assist financially except where
absolutely necessary. There had been willingness, you understand, to
provide a gentleman's education, but no willingness to provide
beyond that any of a gentleman's perquisites. That much of his early
success had been due to this heroic upbringing, Adrian was too
honest not to admit, but then—by God, it had been hard! All the
colour of youth! No time to dream—except sorely! Some warping, some
perversion! A gasping, heart-breaking knowledge that you could not
possibly keep up with the people with whom, paradoxically enough,
you were supposed to spend your leisure hours. Here was the making
of a radical. And yet, despite all this, Adrian dined with his uncle
once a month.
The mere fact that this was so, that it could be so, enraged him. It
seemed a renunciation of all he affirmed; an implicit falsehood. He
would have liked very much to have got to his feet, standing firmly
on his two long, well-made legs, and have once and for all delivered
himself of a final philippic. The philippic would have ended
something like this:
"And this, sir, is the last time I sacrifice any of my good hours to
you. Not because you are old, and therefore think you are wise, when
you are not; not because you are blind and besotted and damned—a
trunk of a tree filled with dry rot that presently a clean wind will
blow away; not because your opinions, and the opinions of all like
you, have long ago been proven the lies and idiocies that they are;
not even because you haven't one single real right left to live—I
haven't come to tell you these things, although they are true; for
you are past hope and there is no use wasting words upon you; I have
come to tell you that you bore me inexpressibly. (That would be the
most dreadful revenge of all. He could see his uncle's face!) That
you have a genius for taking the wrong side of every question, and I
can no longer endure it. I dissipate my time. Good-night!"
He wouldn't have said it in quite so stately a way, possibly, the
sentences would not have been quite so rounded, but the context
would have been the same.
Glorious; but it wasn't said. Instead, once a month, he got into his
dinner-jacket, brushed his hair very sleekly, walked six blocks,
said good-evening to his uncle's butler, and went on back to the
library, where, in a room rich with costly bindings, and smelling
pleasantly of leather, and warmly yellow with the light of two
shaded lamps, he would find his uncle reading before a crackling
wood fire. What followed was almost a formula, an exquisite
presentation of stately manners, an exquisite avoidance of any topic
which might cause a real discussion. The dinner was invariably gentle,
persuasive, a thoughtful gastronomic achievement. Heaven might
become confused about its weather, and about wars, and things like
that, but Mr. McCain never became confused about his menus. He had a
habit of commending wine. "Try this claret, my dear fellow, I want
your opinion…. A drop of this Napoleonic brandy won't hurt you a
bit." He even sniffed the bouquet before each sip; passed, that is,
the glass under his nose and then drank. But Adrian, with a
preconceived image of the personality back of this, and the memory
of too many offences busy in his mind, saw nothing quaint or amusing.
His gorge rose. Damn his uncle's wines, and his mushrooms, and his
soft-footed servants, and his house of nuances and evasions, and his
white grapes, large and outwardly perfect, and inwardly sentimental
as the generation whose especial fruit they were. As for himself, he
had a recollection of ten years of poverty after leaving college; a
recollection of sweat and indignities; he had also a recollection of
some poor people whom he had known.
Afterward, when the dinner was over, Adrian would go home and awake
his wife, Cecil, who, with the brutal honesty of an honest woman,
also some of the ungenerosity, had early in her married life flatly
refused any share in the ceremonies described. Cecil would lie in
her small white bed, the white of her boudoir-cap losing itself in
the white of the pillow, a little sleepy and a little angrily
perplexed at the perpetual jesuitical philosophy of the male.
"If you feel that way," she would ask, "why do you go there, then?
Why don't you banish your uncle utterly?" She asked this not without
malice, her long, violet, Slavic eyes widely open, and her red mouth,
a trifle too large, perhaps, a trifle cruel, fascinatingly
interrogative over her white teeth. She loved Adrian and had at times,
therefore, the right and desire to torture him. She knew perfectly
well why he went. He was his uncle's heir, and until such time as
money and other anachronisms of the present social system were done
away with, there was no use throwing a fortune into the gutter, even
if by your own efforts you were making an income just sufficiently
large to keep up with the increased cost of living.
Sooner or later Adrian's mind reverted to Mrs. Denby. This was
usually after he had been in bed and had been thinking for a while
in the darkness. He could not understand Mrs. Denby. She affronted
his modern habit of thought.
"The whole thing is so silly and adventitious!"
Adrian was aware that his wife knew exactly of what he was talking,
but he had come to expect the question. "Mrs. Denby and my uncle."
He would grow rather gently cross. "It has always reminded me of
those present-day sword-and-cloak romances fat business men used to
write about ten years ago and sell so enormously—there's an
atmosphere of unnecessary intrigue. What's it all about? Here's the
point! Why, if she felt this way about things, didn't she divorce
that gentle drunkard of a husband of hers years ago and marry my
uncle outright and honestly? Or why, if she couldn't get a
divorce—which she could—didn't she leave her husband and go with
my uncle? Anything in the open! Make a break—have some courage of
her opinions! Smash things; build them up again! Thank God nowadays,
at least, we have come to believe in the cleanness of surgery rather
than the concealing palliatives of medicine. We're no longer—we
modern people—afraid of the world; and the world can never hurt for
any length of time any one who will stand up to it and tell it
courageously to go to hell. No! It comes back and licks hands."
"I'll tell you why. My uncle and Mrs. Denby are the typical moral
cowards of their generation. There's selfishness, too. What a
travesty of love! Of course there's scandal, a perpetual scandal;
but it's a hidden, sniggering scandal they don't have to meet face
to face; and that's all they ask of life, they, and people like
them—never to have to meet anything face to face. So long as they
can bury their heads like ostriches! … Faugh!" There would be a
moment's silence; then Adrian would complete his thought. "In my
uncle's case," he would grumble in the darkness, "one phase of the
selfishness is obvious. He couldn't even get himself originally, I
suppose, to face the inevitable matter-of-fact moments of marriage.
It began when he was middle-aged, a bachelor—I suppose he wants the
sort of Don Juan, eighteen-eighty, perpetual sort of romance that
doesn't exist outside the brains of himself and his like….
Usually he tried to stir up argument with his wife, who in these
matters agreed with him utterly; even more than agreed with him,
since she was the escaped daughter of rich and stodgy people, and
had insisted upon earning her own living by portrait-painting.
Theoretically, therefore, she was, of course, an anarchist. But at
moments like the present her silent assent and the aura of slight
weariness over an ancient subject which emanated from her in the dusk,
affronted Adrian as much as positive opposition.
"Why don't you try to understand me?"
"I do, dearest!"—a pathetic attempt at eager agreement.
"Well, then, if you do, why is the tone of your voice like that? You
know by now what I think. I'm not talking convention; I believe
there are no laws higher than the love of a man for a woman. It
should seek expression as a seed seeks sunlight. I'm talking about
honesty; bravery; a willingness to accept the consequences of one's
acts and come through; about the intention to sacrifice for love
just what has to be sacrificed. What's the use of it otherwise?
That's one real advance the modern mind has made, anyhow, despite
all the rest of the welter and uncertainty."
"Of course, dearest."
He would go on. After a while Cecil would awake guiltily and inject
a fresh, almost gay interest into her sleepy voice. She was not so
unfettered as not to dread the wounded esteem of the unlistened-to
male. She would lean over and kiss Adrian.
"Do go to sleep, darling! What's the sense? Pretty soon your uncle
will be dead—wretched old man! Then you'll never have to think of
him again." Being a childless woman, her red, a trifle cruel mouth
would twist itself in the darkness into a small, secretive, maternal
But old Mr. Henry McCain didn't die; instead he seemed to be caught
up in the condition of static good health which frequently
companions entire selfishness and a careful interest in oneself. His
butler died, which was very annoying. Mr. McCain seemed to consider
it the breaking of a promise made fifteen or so years before. It was
endlessly a trouble instructing a new man, and then, of course,
there was Adlington's family to be looked after, and taxes had gone
up, and Mrs. Adlington was a stout woman who, despite the fact that
Adlington, while alive, had frequently interrupted Mr. McCain's
breakfast newspaper reading by asserting that she was a person of no
character, now insisted upon weeping noisily every time Mr. McCain
granted her an interview. Also, and this was equally unexpected,
since one rather thought he would go on living forever, like one of
the damper sort of fungi, Mr. Denby came home from the club one
rainy spring night with a slight cold and died, three days later,
with extraordinary gentleness.
"My uncle," said Adrian, "is one by one losing his accessories.
After a while it will be his teeth."
Cecil was perplexed. "I don't know exactly what to do," she
complained. "I don't know whether to treat Mrs. Denby as a bereaved
aunt, a non-existent family skeleton, or a released menace. I dare
say now, pretty soon, she and your uncle will be married. Meanwhile,
I suppose it is rather silly of me not to call and see if I can help
her in any way. After all, we do know her intimately, whether we
want to or not, don't we? We meet her about all the time, even if
she wasn't motoring over to your uncle's place in the summer when we
So she went, being fundamentally kindly and fundamentally curious.
She spoke of the expedition as "a descent upon Fair Rosamund's tower."
The small, yellow-panelled drawing-room, where she awaited Mrs.
Denby's coming, was lit by a single silver vase-lamp under an orange
shade and by a fire of thin logs, for the April evening was damp
with a hesitant rain. On the table, near the lamp, was a silver vase
with three yellow tulips in it, and Cecil, wandering about, came
upon a double photograph frame, back of the vase, that made her gasp.
She picked it up and stared at it. Between the alligator edgings,
facing each other obliquely, but with the greatest amity, were
Mr. Thomas Denby in the fashion of ten years before, very handsome,
very well-groomed, with the startled expression which any definite
withdrawal from his potational pursuits was likely to produce upon
his countenance, and her uncle-in-law, Mr. Henry McCain, also in the
fashion of ten years back. She was holding the photographs up to the
light, her lips still apart, when she heard a sound behind her, and,
putting the frame back guiltily, turned about. Mrs. Denby was
advancing toward her. She seemed entirely unaware of Cecil's
malfeasance; she was smiling faintly; her hand was cordial, grateful.
"You are very good," she murmured. "Sit here by the fire. We will
have some tea directly."
Cecil could not but admit that she was very lovely; particularly
lovely in the black of her mourning, with her slim neck, rising up
from its string of pearls, to a head small and like a delicate
white-and-gold flower. An extraordinarily well-bred woman, a sort of
misty Du Maurier woman, of a type that had become almost non-existent,
if ever it had existed in its perfection at all. And, curiously
enough, a woman whose beauty seemed to have been sharpened by many
fine-drawn renunciations. Now she looked at her hands as if expecting
Cecil to say something.
"I think such calls as this are always very useless, but then—"
"Exactly—but then! They mean more than anything else in the world,
don't they? When one reaches fifty-five one is not always used to
kindness…. You are very kind…." She raised her eyes.
Cecil experienced a sudden impulsive warmth. "After all, what did
she or any one else know about other peoples' lives? Poor souls!
What a base thing life often was!"
"I want you to understand that we are always so glad, both Adrian
and myself…. Any time we can help in any way, you know—"
"Yes, I think you would. You—I have watched you both. You don't mind,
do you? I think you're both rather great people—at least, my idea
Cecil's eyes shone just a little; then she sat back and drew
together her eager, rather childish mouth. This wouldn't do! She had
not come here to encourage sentimentalization. With a determined
effort she lifted her mind outside the circle of commiseration which
threatened to surround it. She deliberately reset the conversation
to impersonal limits. She was sure that Mrs. Denby was aware of her
intention, adroitly concealed as it was. This made her uncomfortable,
ashamed. And yet she was irritated with herself. Why should she
particularly care what this woman thought in ways as subtle as this?
Obvious kindness was her intention, not mental charity pursued into
tortuous by-paths. And, besides, her frank, boyish cynicism, its
wariness, revolted, even while she felt herself flattered at the
prospect of the confidences that seemed to tremble on Mrs. Denby's
lips. It wouldn't do to "let herself in for anything"; to "give
herself away." No! She adopted a manner of cool, entirely reflective
kindliness. But all along she was not sure that she was thoroughly
successful. There was a lingering impression that Mrs. Denby was
penetrating the surface to the unwilling interest beneath. Cecil
suspected that this woman was trained in discriminations and
half-lights to which she and her generation had joyfully made
themselves blind. She felt uncomfortably young; a little bit smiled
at in the most kindly of hidden ways. Just as she was leaving, the
subversive softness came close to her again, like a wave of too much
perfume as you open a church-door; as if some one were trying to
embrace her against her will.
"You will understand," said Mrs. Denby, "that you have done the very
nicest thing in the world. I am horribly lonely. I have few women
friends. Perhaps it is too much to ask—but if you could call again
sometime. Yes … I would appreciate it so greatly."
She let go of Cecil's hand and walked to the door, and stood with
one long arm raised against the curtain, her face turned toward the
"There is no use," she said, "in attempting to hide my husband's life,
for every one knows what it was, but then—yes, I think you will
understand. I am a childless woman, you see; he was infinitely
Cecil felt that she must run away, instantly. "I do—" she said
brusquely. "I understand more than other women. Perfectly! Good-by!"
She found herself brushing past the latest trim parlour-maid, and
out once more in the keen, sweet, young dampness. She strode briskly
down the deserted street. Her fine bronze eyebrows were drawn down
to where they met. "Good Lord! Damn!"—Cecil swore very prettily and
modernly—"What rotten taste! Not frankness, whatever it might seem
outwardly; not frankness, but devious excuses! Some more of Adrian's
hated past-generation stuff! And yet—no! The woman was
sincere—perfectly! She had meant it—that about her husband. And
she was lovely—and she was fine, too! It was impossible to deny it.
But—a childless woman! About that drunken tailor's model of a
husband! And then—Uncle Henry! …" Cecil threw back her head; her
eyes gleamed in the wet radiance of a corner lamp; she laughed
without making a sound, and entirely without amusement.
But it is not true that good health is static, no matter how
carefully looked after. And, despite the present revolt against the
Greek spirit, Time persists in being bigotedly Greek. The
tragedy—provided one lives long enough—is always played out to its
logical conclusion. For every hour you have spent, no matter how
quietly or beautifully or wisely, Nemesis takes toll in the end. You
peter out; the engine dulls; the shining coin wears thin. If it's
only that it is all right; you are fortunate if you don't become
greasy, too, or blurred, or scarred. And Mr. McCain had not spent
all his hours wisely or beautifully, or even quietly, underneath the
surface. He suddenly developed what he called "acute indigestion."
"Odd!" he complained, "and exceedingly tiresome! I've been able to
eat like an ostrich all my life." Adrian smiled covertly at the
simile, but his uncle was unaware that it was because in Adrian's
mind the simile applied to his uncle's conscience, not his stomach.
It was an odd disease, that "acute indigestion." It manifested
itself by an abrupt tragic stare in Mr. McCain's eyes, a whiteness of
cheek, a clutching at the left side of the breast; it resulted also
in his beginning to walk very slowly indeed. One day Adrian met
Carron, his uncle's physician, as he was leaving a club after
luncheon. Carron stopped him. "Look here, Adrian," he said,
"is that new man of your uncle's—that valet, or whatever he is—a
Adrian smiled. "I didn't hire him," he answered, "and I couldn't
discharge him if I wanted—in fact, any suggestion of that kind on my
part, would lead to his employment for life. Why?"
"Because," said Carron, "he impresses me as being rather young and
flighty, and some day your uncle is going to die suddenly. He may
last five years; he may snuff out to-morrow. It's his heart." His
lips twisted pityingly. "He prefers to call it by some other name,"
he added, "and he would never send for me again if he knew I had
told you, but you ought to know. He's a game old cock, isn't he?"
"Oh, very!" agreed Adrian. "Yes, game! Very, indeed!"
He walked slowly down the sunlit courtway on which the back door of
the club opened, swinging his stick and meditating. Spring was
approaching its zenith. In the warm May afternoon pigeons tumbled
about near-by church spires which cut brown inlays into the soft
blue sky. There was a feeling of open windows; a sense of unseen
tulips and hyacinths; of people playing pianos…. Too bad, an old
man dying that way, his hand furtively seeking his heart, when all
this spring was about! Terror in possession of him, too! People like
that hated to die; they couldn't see anything ahead. Well, Adrian
reflected, the real tragedy of it hadn't been his fault. He had
always been ready at the slightest signal to forget almost
everything—yes, almost everything. Even that time when, as a
sweating newspaper reporter, he had, one dusk, watched in the park
his uncle and Mrs. Denby drive past in the cool seclusion of a
shining victoria. Curious! In itself the incident was small, but it
had stuck in his memory more than others far more serious, as
concrete instances are likely to do…. No, he wasn't sorry; not a
bit! He was glad, despite the hesitation he experienced in saying to
himself the final word. He had done his best, and this would mean
his own release and Cecil's. It would mean at last the blessed
feeling that he could actually afford a holiday, and a little
unthinking laughter, and, at thirty-nine, the dreams for which, at
twenty-five, he had never had full time. He walked on down the
courtway more briskly.
That Saturday night was the night he dined with his uncle. It had
turned very warm; unusually warm for the time of year. When he had
dressed and had sought out Cecil to say good-by to her he found her
by the big studio window on the top floor of the apartment where
they lived. She was sitting in the window-seat, her chin cupped in
her hand, looking out over the city, in the dark pool of which
lights were beginning to open like yellow water-lilies. Her white
arm gleamed in the gathering dusk, and she was dressed in some
diaphanous blue stuff that enhanced the bronze of her hair. Adrian
took his place silently beside her and leaned out. The air was very
soft and hot and embracing, and up here it was very quiet, as if one
floated above the lower clouds of perpetual sound.
Cecil spoke at last. "It's lovely, isn't it?" she said. "I should
have come to find you, but I couldn't. These first warm nights! You
really understand why people live, after all, don't you? It's like a
pulse coming back to a hand you love." She was silent a moment.
"Kiss me," she said, finally. "I—I'm so glad I love you, and we're
He stooped down and put his arms about her. He could feel her tremble.
How fragrant she was, and queer, and mysterious, even if he had
lived with her now for almost fifteen years! He was infinitely glad
at the moment for his entire life. He kissed her again, kissed her
eyes, and she went down the stairs with him to the hall-door. She
was to stop for him at his uncle's, after a dinner to which she was
Adrian lit a cigarette and walked instead of taking the elevator. It
was appropriate to his mood that on the second floor some one with a
golden Italian voice should be singing "Louise." He paused for a
moment. He was reminded of a night long ago in Verona, when there
had been an open window and moonlight in the street. Then he looked
at his watch. He was late; he would have to hurry. It amused him
that at his age he should still fear the silent rebuke with which
his uncle punished unpunctuality.
He arrived at his destination as a near-by church clock struck the
half-hour. The new butler admitted him and led him back to where his
uncle was sitting by an open window; the curtains stirred in the
languid breeze, the suave room was a little penetrated by the night,
as if some sly, disorderly spirit was investigating uninvited. It
was far too hot for the wood fire—that part of the formula had been
omitted, but otherwise each detail was the same. "The two hundredth
time!" Adrian thought to himself. "The two hundredth time, at least!
It will go on forever!" And then the formula was altered again, for
his uncle got to his feet, laying aside the evening paper with his
usual precise care. "My dear fellow," he began, "so good of you! On
the minute, too! I——" and then he stumbled and put out his hand.
"My glasses!" he said.
Adrian caught him and held him upright. He swayed a little.
"I——Lately I have had to use them sometimes, even when not reading,"
he murmured. "Thank you! Thank you!"
Adrian went back to the chair where his uncle had been sitting. He
found the glasses—gold pince-nez—but they were broken neatly in
the middle, lying on the floor, as if they had dropped from
someone's hand. He looked at them for a moment, puzzled, before he
gave them back to his uncle.
"Here they are, sir," he said. "But—it's very curious. They're
broken in such an odd way."
His uncle peered down at them. He hesitated and cleared his throat.
"Yes," he began; then he stood up straight, with an unexpected twist
of his shoulders. "I was turning them between my fingers," he said,
"just before you came in. I had no idea—no, no idea! Shall we go in?
I think dinner has been announced."
There was the sherry in the little, deeply cut glasses, and the
clear soup, with a dash of lemon in it, and the fish, and afterward
the roast chicken, with vegetables discreetly limited and designed
not to detract from the main dish; and there was a pint of champagne
for Adrian and a mild white wine for his uncle. The latter twisted
his mouth in a dry smile. "One finds it difficult to get old," he
said. "I have always been very fond of champagne. More aesthetically
I think than the actual taste. It seems to sum up so well the
evening mood—dinner and laughter and forgetting the day. But now——"
he flicked contemptuously the stem of his glass—"I am only allowed
this uninspired stuff." He stopped suddenly and his face twisted
into the slight grimace which Adrian in the last few weeks had been
permitted occasionally to see. His hand began to wander vaguely over
the white expanse of his shirt.
Adrian pushed back his chair. "Let me—!" he began, but his uncle
waved a deprecating hand. "Sit down!" he managed to say. "Please!"
Adrian sank back again. The colour returned to his uncle's cheeks
and the staring question left his eyes. He took a sip of wine.
"I cannot tell you," he observed with elaborate indifference,
"how humiliating this thing is becoming to me. I have always had a
theory that invalids and people when they begin to get old and infirm,
should be put away some place where they can undergo the unpleasant
struggle alone. It's purely selfish—there's something about the
sanctity of the individual. Dogs have it right—you know the way
they creep off? But I suppose I won't. Pride fails when the body
weakens, doesn't it, no matter what the will may be?" He lifted his
wine-glass. "I am afraid I am giving you a very dull evening, my
dear fellow," he apologized. "Forgive me! We will talk of more
pleasant things. I drink wine with you! How is Cecil? Doing well
with her painting?"
Adrian attempted to relax his own inner grimness. He responded to
his uncle's toast. But he wished this old man, so very near the
mysterious crisis of his affairs, would begin to forego to some
extent the habit of a lifetime, become a little more human. This
ridiculous "façade"! The dinner progressed.
Through an open window the night, full of soft, distant sound, made
itself felt once more. The candles, under their red shades,
flickered at intervals. The noiseless butler came and went. How old
his uncle was getting to look, Adrian reflected. There was a
grayness about his cheeks; fine, wire-like lines about his mouth.
And he was falling into that sure sign of age, a vacant
absent-mindedness. Half the time he was not listening to what he,
Adrian, was saying; instead, his eyes sought constantly the shadows
over the carved sideboard across the table from him. What did he see
there? What question was he asking? Adrian wondered. Only once was
his uncle very much interested, and that was when Adrian had spoken
of the war and the psychology left in its train. Adrian himself had
not long before been released from a weary round of training-camps,
where, in Texas dust, or the unpleasant resinous summer of the South,
he had gone through a repetition that in the end had threatened to
render him an imbecile. He was not illusioned. As separate
personalities, men had lost much of their glamour for him; there had
been too much sweat, too much crowding, too much invasion of dignity,
of everything for which the world claimed it had been struggling and
praying. But alongside of this revolt on his part had grown up an
immense pity and belief in humanity as a mass—struggling, worm-like,
aspiring, idiotic, heroic. The thought of it made him uncomfortable
and at the same time elate.
His uncle shook a dissenting head. On this subject he permitted
himself mild discussion, but his voice was still that of an old,
wearied man, annoyed and bewildered. "Oh, no!" he said. "That's the
very feature of it that seems to me most dreadful; the vermicular
aspect; the massed uprising; the massed death. About professional
armies there was something decent—about professional killing. It
was cold-blooded and keen, anyway. But this modern war, and this
modern craze for self-revelation! Naked! Why, these books—the young
men kept their fingers on the pulses of their reactions. It isn't
clean; it makes the individual cheap. War is a dreadful thing; it
should be as hidden as murder." He sat back, smiled. "We seem to
have a persistent tendency to become serious to-night," he remarked.
Serious! Adrian saw a vision of the drill-grounds, and smiled
sardonically; then he raised his head in surprise, for the new
butler had broken all the rules of the household and was summoning
his uncle to the telephone in the midst of dessert. He awaited the
expected rebuke, but it did not come. Instead, his uncle paused in
the middle of a sentence, stared, and looked up. "Ah, yes!" he said,
and arose from his chair. "Forgive me, Adrian, I will be back shortly."
He walked with a new, just noticeable, infirmness toward the door.
Once there he seemed to think an apology necessary, for he turned
and spoke with absent-minded courtesy.
"You may not have heard," he said, "but Mrs. Denby is seriously ill.
Her nurse gives me constant bulletins over the telephone."
Adrian started to his feet, then sat down again. "But—" he
stuttered—"but—is it as bad as all that?"
"I am afraid," said his uncle gently, "it could not be worse." The
curtain fell behind him.
Adrian picked up his fork and began to stir gently the melting ice
on the plate before him, but his eyes were fixed on the wall opposite,
where, across the shining table, from a mellow gold frame, a
portrait of his grandfather smiled with a benignity, utterly belying
his traditional character, into the shadows above the candles. But
Adrian was not thinking of his grandfather just then, he was
thinking of his uncle—and Mrs. Denby. What in the world——!
Dangerously ill, and yet here had been his uncle able to go through
with—not entirely calmly, to be sure; Adrian remembered the lack of
attention, the broken eye-glasses; and yet, still able to go through
with, not obviously shaken, this monthly farce; this dinner that in
reality mocked all the real meaning of blood-relationship. Good Lord!
To Adrian's modern mind, impatient and courageous, the situation was
preposterous, grotesque. He himself would have broken through to the
woman he loved, were she seriously ill, if all the city was cordoned
to keep him back. What could it mean? Entire selfishness on his
uncle's part? Surely not that! That was too inhuman! Adrian was
willing to grant his uncle exceptional expertness in the art of
self-protection, but there was a limit even to self-protection.
There must be some other reason. Discretion? More likely, and yet
how absurd! Had Mr. Denby been alive, a meticulous, a fantastic
delicacy might have intervened, but Mr. Denby was dead. Who were
there to wound, or who left for the telling of tales? A doctor and
the servants. This was not altogether reasonable, despite what he
knew of his uncle. Here was some oddity of psychology he could not
follow. He heard the curtains stir as his uncle reentered. He looked
up, attentive and curious, but his uncle's face was the mask to
which he was accustomed.
"How is Mrs. Denby?" he asked.
Mr. McCain hesitated for the fraction of a second. "I am afraid,
very ill," he said. "Very ill, indeed! It is pneumonia. I—the
doctor thinks it is only a question of a little time, but—well, I
shall continue to hope for the best." There was a metallic harshness
to his concluding words. "Shall we go into the library?" he continued.
"I think the coffee will be pleasanter there."
They talked again of the war; of revolution; of the dark forces at
large in the world.
Through that hour or two Adrian had a nakedness of perception
unusual even to his sensitive mind. It seemed to him three spirits
were abroad in the quiet, softly-lit, book-lined room; three
intentions that crept up to him like the waves of the sea, receded,
crept back again; or were they currents of air? or hesitant, unheard
feet that advanced and withdrew? In at the open windows poured at
times the warm, enveloping scent of the spring; pervading, easily
overlooked, lawless, persistent, inevitable. Adrian found himself
thinking it was like the presence of a woman. And then, overlapping
this, would come the careful, dry, sardonic tones of his uncle's
voice, as if insisting that the world was an ordinary world, and
that nothing, not even love or death, could lay disrespectful
fingers upon or hurry for a moment the trained haughtiness of the
will. Yet even this compelling arrogance was at times overtaken,
submerged, by a third presence, stronger even than the other two; a
presence that entered upon the heels of the night; the ceaseless
murmur of the streets; the purring of rubber tires upon asphalt; a
girl's laugh, high, careless, reckless. Life went on. Never for a
moment did it stop.
"I am not sorry that I am getting old," said Mr. McCain. "I think
nowadays is an excellent time to die. Perhaps for the very young,
the strong—but for me, things are too busy, too hurried. I have
always liked my life like potpourri. I liked to keep it in a china
jar and occasionally take off the lid. Otherwise one's sense of
perfume becomes satiated. Take your young girls; they remain
faithful to a love that is not worth being faithful to—all noise,
and flushed laughter, and open doors." Quite unexpectedly he began
to talk in a way he had never talked before. He held his cigar in
his hand until the ash turned cold; his ringers trembled just a
"You have been very good to me," he said. Adrian raised startled eyes.
"Very good. I am quite aware that you dislike me"—he hesitated and
the ghost of a smile hovered about his lips—"and I have always
disliked you. Please!" He raised a silencing hand. "You don't mind
my saying so? No. Very well, then, there is something I want to tell
you. Afterward I will never mention it again. I dare say our mutual
dislike is due to the inevitable misunderstanding that exists
between the generations. But it is not important. The point is that
we have always been well-bred toward each other. Yes, that is the
point. You have always been a gentleman, very considerate, very
courteous, I cannot but admire you. And I think you will find I have
done the best I could. I am not a rich man, as such things go
nowadays, but I will hand you on the money that will be yours quite
unimpaired, possibly added to. I feel very strongly on that subject.
I am old-fashioned enough to consider the family the most important
thing in life. After all, we are the only two McCains left." He
hesitated again, and twisted for a moment his bloodless hands in his
lap, then he raised his eyes and spoke with a curious hurried
embarrassment. "I have sacrificed a great deal for that," he said.
"Yes, a great deal."
The soft-footed butler stood at his elbow, like an actor in comedy
suddenly cast for the role of a portentous messenger.
"Miss Niles is calling you again, sir," he said.
"On, yes!—ah—Adrian, I am very sorry, my dear fellow. I will
finish the conversation when I come back."
This time the telephone was within earshot; in the hall outside.
Adrian heard his uncle's slow steps end in the creaking of a chair
as he sat down; then the picking up of the receiver. The message was
a long one, for his uncle did not speak for fully a minute; finally
his voice drifted in through the curtained doorway.
"You think … only a few minutes?"
"… Ah, yes! Conscious? Yes. Well, will you tell her, Miss Niles?—yes,
please listen very carefully—tell her this. That I am not there
because I dared not come. Yes; on her account. She will understand.
My heart—it's my heart. She will understand. I did not dare. For her
sake, not mine. Tell her that. She will understand. Please be very
careful in repeating the message, Miss Niles. Tell her I dared not
come because of my heart…. Yes; thank you. That's it…. What? Yes,
I will wait, Miss Niles."
Adrian, sitting in the library, suddenly got to his feet and crossed
to the empty fireplace and stood with his back to it, enlightenment
and a puzzled frown struggling for possession of his face. His
uncle's heart! Ah, he understood, then! It was discretion, after all,
but not the kind he thought—a much more forgiveable discretion. And,
yet, what possible difference could it make should his uncle die
suddenly in Mrs. Denby's house? Fall dead across her bed, or die
kneeling beside it? Poor, twisted old fool, afraid even at the end
that death might catch him out; afraid of a final undignified gesture.
A motor blew its horn for the street crossing. Another girl laughed;
a young, thin, excited girl, to judge by her laughter. The curtains
stirred and again there was that underlying scent of tulips and
hyacinths; and then, from the hall outside, came the muffled thud of
a receiver falling to the floor. Adrian waited. The receiver was not
picked up. He strode to the door. Crumpled up over the telephone was
old Mr. McCain.
Cecil came later. She was very quick and helpful, and jealously
solicitous on Adrian's account, but in the taxicab going home she
said the one thing Adrian had hoped she wouldn't say, and yet was
sure she would. She belonged to a sex which, if it is honest at all,
is never reticently so. She believed that between the man she loved
and herself there were no possible mental withdrawals. "It is very
tragic," she said, "but much better—you know it is better. He
belonged to the cumberers of the earth. Yes, so much better; and this
In the darkness her hand sought his. Adrian took it, but in his
heart was the same choked feeling, the same knowledge that something
was gone that could not be found again, that, as a little boy, he had
had when they sold, at his father's death, the country place where
he had spent his summers. Often he had lain awake at night, restless
with the memory of heliotrope, and phlox, and mignonette, and
afternoons quiet except for the sound of bees.