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Tuesday June 28, 2022

Fiction: On the Brink

Edwin Lefèvre short story illustration
The Four Seasons of Life Youth The Season of Love. Artist Currier and Ives.

I

Suddenly it dawned upon them that they loved one another. They had been talking about mind-reading, and he had looked long and steadily into her eyes when she had challenged him to read her thoughts. They realized simultaneously what had happened. She had known that she loved him, and he, that he loved her. But each had sought to keep that knowledge from the other. Now they could hide it no longer.

They remained silent for a long time, avoiding each other’s gaze. At last their eyes met.

He said, “Well?” His voice expressed nothing; in his eyes there was sorrow and—hope!

She shook her head, and he turned away his eyes; there was disappointment in them that he would not show. Then she said, very quietly, “You have read my thoughts?”

“Yes,” he said, still without looking at her; “and you—”

“I have read yours.”

Tears were in her eyes. If his, too, were wet, she could not see, for he was looking fixedly at a little pebble at her feet. At last he said, passionately, “Oh, why did I meet you! Why should I suffer so?”

“And I?” she said. “Is it not worse for me? Is not my sin greater, and therefore my punishment heavier, than yours? Oh,”—in answer to an impatient gesture of denial,—“you will meet some woman whom it will not be a sin to love, and you will—”

“You know I will not,” he interrupted.

“Yes, you will,” she said, very gently; “and then—”

He raised his head and gazed steadily at her. Then he said, challengingly, “You wish me to love another?”

She looked away from him and was silent. Gradually there crept into his eyes a look of hope; and hope was slowly turning into exultation when she spoke, so softly that he barely could hear her, “Yes.”

Then he said, altogether too calmly, in too commonplace a manner, “Oh, very well, since you wish it—”

And she said, very firmly, “I wish it!”

Slowly they returned to the house. The sun was setting, and there was gold and nacre and glowing blood in the sky. In the garden the wind stirred the leaves gently, and there was sorrow in their song.

Her husband awaited them. “Is n’t it a beautiful sunset?” he said to them from the piazza. “I suppose you’ve been looking at it. You might write a sonnet about it, my boy.”

She went up to the gray-haired man and kissed him on the lips, and leaned against him, until he wound his arm about her waist, and she rested her head on his shoulder caressingly; and then she looked defiantly at the young man, who had drawn near.

The young man’s hands closed tightly, and in his eyes there was disappointment and anger and some contempt. “Yes, John, I believe I could write a few elegies on the death of this Sun, who has shed his blood in his fight with Night, and has spattered it all over the sky, so that the angels will have to wash it off with their tears. Sunsets are my forte, anyway—”

“I have never seen any of your verses,” she said.

“Then you may congratulate yourself upon your lucky escape.”

The gray-haired man smiled good-naturedly and patted her cheek; and she held it up to be kissed, and nestled closer to him. Then she looked at the young man, and in her eyes there was still defiance, and, though she would not have shown it, some interest. She said, “I have heard so much about them that I should like to read them.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“You are reckless.” And the bantering tone did not hide from her the significance that lay behind his words.

“You must show some of them to her,” said the gray-haired man to him.

“All right. I’ll hunt them up, some time, and send them to you,” said the young man to her.

“Have n’t you any here?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied; “but they are all love songs, and therefore not worth the reading.”

“Indeed!” she said. The gray-haired man patted her cheek indulgently. This time she did not upturn her face for a kiss. And in her voice there was an unnecessary indifference as she said to the young man, “Will you let me read them to-night?”

“Oh, no,” he replied, laughingly, though his eyes were serious.

“Why not?” she persisted.

“In the first place, because they are not worth anything; and then you might get an impression that I really meant what I wrote, and that I am deeply in love with some one.”

“And you are not in love?” There was a challenge in her voice. The gray-haired man smiled at her girlish, artless curiosity.

“Certainly not!” the young man said decidedly.

“But were you in love when you wrote them?”

“I really don’t know,” he answered. “Perhaps I was.”

“Well, I am,” she said, looking at him steadily. And when his eyes had shown astonishment and had begun to shine with irrepressible hope, she continued: “Indeed I am,—with my own dearest husband, who is so good to me. Am I not, darling?” And she entwined her arms about the gray-haired man’s neck and kissed him on the lips twice. And the gray-haired man laughed and looked pleased.

The young man’s face was rigid and very pale. In the dusk they could not see that his lips were twitching. But she had grown strangely quiet.

A great stillness had fallen upon the world. The evening star was shining very brightly now, and in the east a little lone star was blinking tremulously.

Presently she said, “I am afraid,” and shivered.

The gray-haired man drew her closer to him, kissed her, and said: “Afraid of what, little coward? But come, it is time to go in, my child.”

The young man’s thoughts had been many during the brief spell of silence that had preceded her words, and now he said: “Yes, little sister, you ought to go in now.”

The gray-haired man laughed good-naturedly at this jest of his young brother’s. But she drew a quick breath and went into the house hurriedly.

II

The gray-haired man was nodding over his newspaper in the library. She had just ceased to hold the latest novel upside down in her hands. She hesitated for a moment; then she arose, saying: “It is so warm here; I am going on the piazza.”

The gray-haired man started. “What ‘s that, my dear?” he asked, shamefacedly. He feared that she might think he had been asleep. They had been married but four months.

“I am going to sit on the piazza; it’s cooler,” she said.

“Is Dick there?”

“Yes.”

“All right, then. But don’t stay too long; the night air is not good for you.” It certainly was not good for him, so he remained in the library nodding over his newspaper.

She went to the piazza. Sitting on the veranda-rail, the young man was smoking. At the sound of her steps he started up eagerly; but when she was near him, his eyes showed nothing, his face was calm.

“A beautiful night, is n’t it?” said she.

“Yes,” he acquiesced. He stifled a yawn ostentatiously. Then, as though the thought had just struck him, “Shall I fetch you a chair?”

“Oh, no, thanks; I am going upstairs shortly,” she said, with indifference.

“Shall I fetch you a chair?” This in another tone.

“Yes,” she answered.

He did so, and then resumed his seat on the veranda and smoked in silence.

Overhead, the sky was as molten sapphire and the stars seemed more numerous than ever before, and brighter and nearer to the earth.

“Lovely, is n’t it?” she said at last.

“What is?”

“The sky, of course.”

“Yes.”

After a silence she said: “I’ve never seen so many stars before; have you?”

“Yes,” he said, slowly, “there was one more last night,—mine!”

“Yours?”

“Yes.”

There was another pause,—a long one. She was looking at a little star that was shining very faintly low in the sky. Finally she said, softly, “Show me your verses.”

“I cannot,” he said, almost in a whisper.

“Why not?” She avoided his gaze.

“You know very well,” he answered.

“But if I ask you as a great favor—”

“I should still refuse,” he said, wearily.

“You are very rude.”

“And you are very cruel,” he returned, monotonously.

“But not so cruel as you,—to arouse a woman’s curiosity, and then to refuse, absolutely, to gratify it!”

“Oh, so it is merely curiosity?” His voice trembled slightly.

She hesitated; her foot was tapping on the ground nervously. Then, as if she had weighed the consequences, she said: “Of course, merely curiosity.”

“Then you lied this afternoon, and you are only a coquette? I might have known it!” He spoke with difficulty for his teeth were clinched tightly.

“How dare you speak to me so?” she said, angrily.

And then he answered in a low voice, as if fearful of being overheard: “And how dare you forget that you are my brother’s wife?”

She gave a half-smothered cry of pain, as though he had struck her. Then she buried her head in her hands and sobbed softly.

“Don’t!—Please don’t—Oh, don’t—Gladys—” he said. It was the first time he had called her thus, by name, and she said, between her sobs: “Oh, I am so unhappy, so unhappy!”

She raised her head and looked at him. Her eyes were filled with tears. He went toward her hesitatingly. By her side he paused; his hands were clinched and held close to his face. He said hoarsely: “Don’t. Don’t make—me—forget—” He drew nearer; she held up her arms as if to ward off a blow, and then the gray-haired man’s voice called out sleepily from a window on the other side of the cottage: “Gladys! Dick!”

“Yes?” said the young man.

“You had better come in now.”

“Yes. Coming.”

III

At breakfast the next morning the young man said: “I am going back to the city this morning, John.”

“Are you? When will you return?” said the gray-haired man. He did not think his honeymoon had waned yet; but it never shines very brightly on three people at once, and—

“I don’t know,” answered the young man. “I shall go to Jack Livingston’s first; I promised to spend a week or two with him. And then I think I’ll go to Maine. I am told the fishing is exceptionally good this season.”

She said nothing. The gray-haired man began to talk about the anxious cares of a floriculturist.

After breakfast she disappeared. The gray-haired man said good-bye to his younger brother, to whom he had been as a father, and went out to consult with his head gardener about a new variety of orchids which he had just received from the Isthmus of Panama.

All that morning the young man wondered if she would not bid him farewell. At last the groom came to tell him that the cart awaited him.

He was in the hallway, deliberating whether he should seek her, when she came down the stairs slowly. Her face wore a look it had never known before. Occasionally it is seen on some women when they wear the widow’s garb for the first time,—a blending of sorrow and yearning, and, withal, resignation. She halted at the foot of the stairs, her hand resting upon the carved post. “So you are going?” she said, monotonously.

“Yes.” His voice was low.

“For a long time?”

“Yes.” He dared not look at her.

“It is for the best,” she said. He answered nothing.

The groom came to the door and said: “I beg your pardon, sir, but the train is due now, sir.”

“Very well, I’m coming.”

She gave two sharp little indrawn gasps. Then, speaking very quickly, she said: “Wear this. My mother gave it to me when I was confirmed. When she died I took it off because it reminded me of her and it made me cry. It is sacred to me. It is all I can give you. I am sure she would not blame me—” She paused and looked at him questioningly.

“No,” he answered, reverently.

“Take it!” She held a little ring, a plain gold band, toward him, and he took it and with some difficulty placed it on his little finger.

“Good-bye!” she said.

He looked at her imploringly. His lips dared not utter what his eyes told so plainly. It was a request, nothing more, but she shook her head.

“Good-bye,” she repeated, extending her hand.

He took it and held it tightly.

“Good-bye,” he said. Her hand remained in his. She could not withdraw it and there were tears in her eyes as she said, gently, for the last time: “Good-bye.”

“Good-bye,” he said again. He bent over to kiss her hand, but she drew it back quickly. Then she went up the stairs slowly.

He had resolved not to look back, but before the little cart had gone two hundred yards he turned his head. There was no one on the piazza, and her windows being curtained he could not tell whether she was looking at him from her room. He gazed long towards the little cottage. Then, as he heard the whistle of the approaching train, he turned his eyes to the front, and his face took on a calm, resolute look.

Originally published in ‘Chap-Book Stories’ 1896, By Herbert S. Stone & Co

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