by Douglass Sherley




There had been a brilliant reception at the house of Mrs. Adrian Colburn in honor of her guest—a most attractive young woman—from the East. The hours were brief, from five to seven. I had gone late and left early, but while there had made an engagement with Miss Caddington for the large ball to be given that night by the Boltons.

Miss Caddington was a debutante. She had been educated abroad, but had not lost either love of country or naturalness of manner. During the short but fiercely gay season from October to Christmas she had made many friends, and found that two or three lovers were hard to handle with much credit to herself or any real happiness to them.

She was not painfully conscientious, nor was she an intentional trifler; therefore she was good at that social game of lead on and hold off.

"Call at nine," she said, "and I will be ready."

But she was not ready at nine. The room where I waited was most inviting. There were several low couches laden with slumber-robes and soft, downy pillows, all at sweet enmity with insomnia. The ornaments were few but pleasing to the eye. Art and her hand-maiden, Good Taste, had decorated the walls. But there was a table, best of all, covered with good books, and before it, drawn in place, an easy-chair. An exquisite china lamp, with yellow shade, shed all the light that was needed. Everywhere there were feminine signs—touches that were delightful and unmistakable.

From somewhere there came a rich oriental odor. It intoxicated me with its subtle perfume. I picked up "After-Dinner Stories" (Balzac), then a translation from Alfred de Musset, an old novel by Wilkie Collins, "The Guilty River;" but still that mysterious perfume pervaded my senses and unfitted me for the otherwise tempting feast spread before me. I looked at the clock; it was nine thirty. I turned again to the table, and carelessly reached out for a pair of dainty, pale tan-colored gloves. Then I seized them eagerly and brushed them against my face; I had found the odor. The gloves were perfumed. They had been worn for the first time to the reception, and had been thrown there into a plate of costly percelain, to await her ladyship's pleasure and do further and final service at the ball. They bore the imprint of her dainty fingers, and they were hardly cold from the touch and the warmth of her pretty white hands. They seemed, as they rested there, like something human; and if they had reached out toward me, or even spoken a word of explanation regarding their highly perfumed selves, I should indeed have been delighted, but neither surprised nor dismayed.

But while the gloves did not speak, did not move, something else made mute appeal. Tossed into that same beautiful plate, hidden at first by the gloves, was a bunch, a very small bunch of Russian violets. Evidently they had been worn to the reception, and while I was wondering if she would wear them to the ball I heard a light step, the rustle of silken skirts, and I knew that my wait was ended.

She looked resplendent in evening dress, and swept toward me with the grace, the charm, the ease of a woman of many seasons instead of one hardly half finished.

"Here are your gloves," I said. She quickly drew them on and made them fast with almost a single movement.

"And your Russian violets," I added. She looked at them hesitatingly, but slightly shrugged her shoulders, that were bare and gleamed in the half glow of lamp and fire like moonlight on silvered meadow, and, turning, looked up at me and said:

"I am ready at last; pray pardon my long delay."

While we were driving to the ball I asked her about the perfumed gloves with an odor like sandal-wood or like ottar of roses. She said they had been sent her from Paris, but they were in all the shops, were pleasant, but not rare. She said nothing about the violets, nor did I mention them again. Yielding to an impulse, I had before we left the house thrust them into my waistcoat pocket when she had turned to take up the flowing silk of her train.

All the evening I could catch the odor of those Russian violets that had been lightly worn, indifferently cast aside, and smothered by those artificial creatures, the perfumed gloves, for they were jealous of the natural fragrance and would have killed it if they could.

All the evening I found myself nervously looking about for Russian violets, but there were none to be seen. Miss Bolton wore violets, but not the deep, dark, wide and sad-eyed violet known as the Russian.

We had a curious talk, driving home, about the responsibility of human action—hardly the kind of conversation for "after the ball." Miss Caddington astonished me by saying that she considered it useless to strive against the current of that which is called "Destiny;" that it was better to yield gracefully than to awkwardly, unsuccessfully struggle against the tide. I was deeply interested, and asked her what she meant, what association of ideas had produced the speech.

"For instance," she said, "if a man who fancies himself in love with me deliberately dictates a certain course of action which I do not care to follow, and grows angry with me, and finally breaks with me altogether, I certainly do not in any way feel responsible for any of his subsequent movements. Am I right?"

In parting with her, and in answer to her question, I made, as we so often make in reply to real questions, a foolish answer:

"I will tell you on New Year's night."

I drove to the club. I was aglow with my enjoyment of the evening, and wanted to talk it over with some congenial fellow. I found John Hardisty, a man that I had known for many years, and who always seemed to enjoy my rambling accounts—even of a ball.

Hardisty was a quiet man, keenly observant of people, but himself free almost entirely from observation. In the financial world he held a clerical but valuable position; in the social world, being a gentleman and a club man, he was invited everywhere; and, being very punctilious about his calls and social obligations, he was always invited again. People in recounting those who had been at balls, dinners, and the like, always named the guests, then added, "And Hardisty, I believe." No one was ever very sure. He had no intimate friends and no enemies—he was not noticed enough to inspire dislike. But he was a man of positive opinion, which he generally kept to himself. He had settled convictions, which he never used to unsettle others. I had known him in his old home, Virginia; so perhaps he felt more friendly toward me and talked more freely with me.

He was a man of a fine sentiment and a sensitive nature. He ought to have been a poet instead of a clerical expert. He was intensely fond of flowers, but never wore them. He used to say that it was heresy for a man to wear a flower, and sacrilege for a woman to let them die on her breast.

When I told him about those Russian violets he seemed interested, but, when I finished, astonished and grieved me by yawning in my face and calmly stating that he considered the story trivial, far-fetched, and, in short, stupid.

"There is," he said, "only one thing for us to do—have a drink and go to bed—for the club closes in ten minutes." He ordered a small bottle of wine, something I had never seen him drink, and talked in a light, nonsensical strain, for him a most unusual thing. In telling the story I had drawn out the little bunch of Russian violets and placed them on the table. They were very much wilted, but the odor seemed stronger and sweeter than ever. When we parted for the night I forgot the violets. The next day, the twenty-ninth of December, I did not see John Hardisty, although he was at his office and in the club that night, and insisted on paying his account for December and his dues to April first. December thirtieth he was at his office, where he remained until nearly midnight. He went to his room, which was near the club, and was found by his servant, early the next morning, the last of the old year, dead. He was lying on the bed, dressed and at full length. His right hand clenched a pistol with one empty barrel; gently closed in his left hand they found a little bunch of faded violets—that was all.

Not a line, not a scrap of paper to tell the story. His private letters had been burned—their ashes were heaped upon the hearth. There were no written instructions of any kind. There were no mementoes, no keepsakes. Yes, there was a little Bible on the candle-stand at the head of his bed, but it was closed. On the fly-leaf, written in the trembling hand of an old woman, was his name, the word "mother," and the date of a New Year time in old Virginia when he was a boy.

There was money, more than enough to cause quarrel and heart-burnings among a few distant relatives in another State, but there was absolutely no record of why he had with his own hand torn aside the veil which hangs between life and death.

When the others were not there I slipped into his room and reverently unclosed his fingers and read the story written there—written over and above those Russian violets which she had worn—for they were the same. There they remained.

On the lid of his casket we placed a single wreath of Russian violets. But all the strength and all the sweetness came from those dim violets faded, but not dead, shut within the icy cold of his lifeless palm.

Miss Caddington and many of those who had known him went to the New Year reception the next night and chattered and danced and danced and chattered. They spoke lightly of the dead man; how much he was worth; the cut of his dress suit; the quiet simplicity of his funeral; the refusal of one minister to read the office for the dead, and the charity of another—the one who did.

And then—they forgot him.

That New Year's night I sat in my study and thought of the woman who had worn those Russian violets, and asked me if she were right in her ideas about responsibility for human action.

Nowadays I frequently see her—she is always charming; sometimes brilliant. Once I said to her:

"I have an answer for your question about responsibility."

"About responsibility?" she said, inquiringly; then quickly added: "Oh, yes; that nonsense we talked coming home from the Bolton ball. Never mind your answer, I am sure it is a good one, and perhaps clever, but it is hardly worth while going back so far and for so little. Do you think so? Are you going to the Athletic Club german next week? No? I am sorry, for, as you are one of the few men who do not dance, I always miss a chat with you."

Miss Caddington goes everywhere. Her gowns are exquisite and her flowers are always beautiful and rare, because out of season. But neither in season nor out of season does she ever wear a bunch—no matter how small—of those Russian violets.