The play that night appalled her by its fury of passion, its mockery of woman, its cynical disbelief in man. With startling abruotness and in most colloquial method it delineated the beginning of a young wife's wrong-doing, and when the lover caught the innocent, ensnared woman to his bosom a flaming sword seemed to have been plunged into Bertha's own breast. She quivered and flushed. And when the actress displayed the awakened conscience of the erring one, putting into words as well as into facial expression her feeling of guilt and remorse, the girl-wife in the box shrank and whitened, her big eyes fixed upon the sobbing, suffering character before her, defending herself against the dramatist as against an enemy. He Was a liarl There was no wrong in Ben's kiss and no remorse in her own heart as she remembered the caress. "Even if he loves me, that doesn't make him horrible!"
The dramatist went remorselessly on. He showed the husband—old, coarse, brutal. He put him in sharpest relief in order that the woman should be tempted to her ruin, and in the end the lover—virile, handsome and unscrupulous—wins the tortured woman's soul— and they flee, leaving the usual note behind.
"What can you expect ?" remarked the cynical friend of the injured husband. "Given a young and lovely wife like Rose and an old limping warrior like you, and an elopement follows as a matter of course, Q. E. D." And so the curtain fell.
Relentless realist in the first act, the dramatist in the second act began to hedge. He made the life of the erring woman conventionally miserable. Her lover beat her, neglected her, and finally deserted her. And in the last act she crawled back into her husband's home like a starved cat to die, while he, scarred old beast, cried out: "The wages of sin is death!" Whether the writer intended this scene to be ironical or not, the effect was to awaken a murmur of laughter among the ill-restrained of the auditors. But Bertha, hot with anger towards both author and players, could not join in Mrs. Brent's smiling comment: "Isn't that comical!"
The doctor coolly said: "A good conventional British ending. Why didn't he clap a pair of wings on the old reprobate and run him up on a wire, the way they used to do in translating little Eva in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'?"
Afterwards Mrs. Brent proposed that they go to a German restaurant and have some beer and skittles; but this struck harshly on Bertha, who still palpitated with the passion of the play. "I reckon we'd better not. The Captain is pretty tired, and, if you don't mind, we'll quit now."
Without saying "I've had a lovely time," she shook hands all round, and, taking her husband's arm, moved off into the street, leaving her hostess a little uneasy and wholly perplexed. Mrs. Brent's joke about the Captain and his wife had, as the doctor expressed it, " queered the whole affair."
"But how did she know?"
"She's a good deal sharper than you gave her credit for being," he replied. "You Easterners never can learn to take diamonds in the rough."
Bertha's mind was in tumult, and she wished to be alone. Mart irritated her. She refused to talk to him about the play or the dinner, and, turning him over to Lucius, went at once to her own bed. Thus far she had not attempted to closely analyze her relationship to Marshall Haney. He had been to her a good friend rather than a husband, a companion who needed her, and who had given her everything she asked for. Keenly forward, almost precocious on the calculative side, she had remained singularly untroubled on the emotional side. She knew that certain problems of sex existed in the world, and she was only mentally aware of temptations—she had never really felt them. Now all at once her whole nature awoke. Her mind engaged a legion of vaguely defined enemies. Out of the shadow stepped words of no weight, of no significance hitherto, encircling her, panoplied with meaning. The half-heard comment of the camp, the dimly perceived gossip of the Springs, the flattering looks of the artists—all helped her to see herself as she was: a handsome young girl, like that on the stage, married to a crippled middle-aged man of evil history.
"But he is good to me," she argued against her new self. "I was poor, and he has made me rich; and all I've done is to nurse him and keep house for him." With this thought came a realization that she had never been a full and complete wife to him. And with a flush of shame and repulsion she added: "And now I never can be. No matter if he were to become as straight, as strong, and as handsome as he was in those days, I cannot love him as a wife should."
Once having admitted this feeling of repulsion, once having clearly perceived the vast distance between herself and her husband, the repulsion deepened, the separating space widened. He seemed ten years older as they met next morning, and his face was heavy and his frame lax. Her pity had not lessened, but it was mixed now with a qualifying emotion which she had not yet acknowledged to be disgust. His skin was waxy white and his jowls drooping. "I'm not at all up to the work," he said, with a return of his humor. "'Tis a killing pace we've struck, Bertie, and the old man must take the flag if you keep it up."
"I don't intend to keep it up," she answered, shortly. "I think we'd better go home." At the word "home" a little thrill went through her. It was so bright and big and desirable, that mansion under the purple peaks.
"No; I must go trail up me old dad, and leave him provided for. Fan doesn't even know his address (the more shame to her), but I'll find him. If ye're tired and would rather go home, I'll go on alone."
"Oh no, you mustn't do that!" she exclaimed instantly, feeling the sincerity of his desire to please her. "I'll go, but we mustn't stay long." And she took up the direction of his life again. The mood of the night had passed away, leaving only a clearer perception of his growing age and helplessness.
"You must let Dr. Brent examine you," she said, a little later. "He don't think your lameness is caused by your wound. He says you're out of condition."
He looked at her with shadowed face and sorrowful eyes. "I'm only a poor old skate, wind-broken and lazy. Ye have the right to cut me loose any time."
"You mustn't talk like that," she said, sharply. "When I want to cut loose I'll let you know."
"I hold ye to that," he answered, with intent look.