ALICE HEATH was dying of something far subtlef f\ than "the White Death," to which Haney so often referred. Tortured by Ben's studied tenderness when at her side, she suffered doubly when he was away, knowing all too well that his keenest pleasure now lay in Bertha's companionship. Her doubt darkened into despair. In certain moments of exaltation she rose to such heights of impersonal passion as to acknowledge fully, generously, the claims of youth and health—admitting that she and Marshall Haney were the offenders and not the young lovers, whose desire for happiness was but an irresistible manifestation of the mystic force which binds the generations together.
"Why do we not quietly take ourselves off and make them happy ?" she asked herself. " Of what selfish quality is our love? Here am I only a spiteful, hopeless invalid—I hate myself, I despise my body and everything I am. I loathe my wrinkled face, my shrivelled hands, my flat chest. I am fit only to be bride to death. I'm tired of the world—tired of everything—and yet I do not die. Why can't I die?"
These moods never soared high enough (or sank quite low enough) to permit the final severing stroke, and she ended each of them in a flood of tears, filled with ever-greater longing for the beautiful young lover whose heart had wandered away from her. It was hard not to welcome him when he came, but infinitely harder to send him away, for life held no other solace, the day no other aim.
In her saner moments she was aware of her own misdemeanor. She knew that her morbid questioning, her ceaseless grievings were wearing away her vital force, and that no doctor could ever again medicine her to sweet sleep, that no wind or cloud would bring coolness to her burning brain. "I am no longer worthy of any man's love," she admitted to her higher self.
She did not question Ben's honor—he was of those who keep faith. "He has no hope of ever being other than the distant lover of Bertha Haney, and he is ready to fulfil his word to me, but I will not permit him to bind himself to me. It would be a crime to lay upon him the burden of a wife old before her time, sterile and doomed to a slow decline." She revolted, too, at the thought of having a husband whose heart was elsewhere, whose restless desire could not be held within the circuit of his wife's arms—and yet she could not give him up.
As her flesh lost its weight and her blood its warmth, her mind burned with even more mysterious brightness, sending out rays of such perilous sublimation that she was able to perceive, as no earthly inhabitant should do, the jealously guarded secrets of those surrounding her, and on the night of Bertha's struggle against her fate she divined in some supersensuous way the tumult in the young wife's mind.
She laughed at first with a cruel, bitter delight, but at last her nobler self conquered and she resolved to have private speech with Haney. She perceived a danger in the ever-deepening passion of the young lovers. She began to fear that their love might soon break over all barriers, and this she was still sane enough of thought and generous enough of soul to wish to prevent.
Her decision to act was hastened by a slurring paragraph in the morning paper wherein veiled allusion was made to "a developing scandal." She lay abed all the forenoon brooding over it, and when she rose it was to dress for her visit to Haney. Sick as she was and almost hysterical with her mood, she ordered a carriage and drove to the gambler's house, hoping to find him alone, determined upon an interview.
It chanced that he was sitting in his place upon the porch watching the gardener spraying a tree. He greeted his visitor most cordially, inviting her to a seat. "Bertie is down town, but she'll be back soon."
"I'm glad she is away, Captain Haney, for I have something to say to you alone."
"Have you, indeed? Very well, I've nothing to do but listen—'tis not for me to boss the gardener."
She looked about with uneasy eyes, finding it very difficult to begin her attack. "How much you've improved the place," she remarked, irrelevantly, her voice betraying the deepest agitation.
He looked at her white face in astonishment. "How are ye, the day, miss?"
"I'm better, thank you, but a little out of breath—I walked too fast, I think."
"Does the altitude make your heart jump, too?" he asked, solicitously.
"No, my trouble is all in my mind—I mean my lungs," she answered. Then, with a ghastly attempt at sprightliness, she added: "Now let's have a nice long talk about symptoms—it's so comforting. How are you feeling these days?"
Haney answered with unwonted dejection. "I'm not so well to-day, worse luck. This is me day for thinkin' the doctors are right. They all agree that me heart's overworked up here." His dejection was really due to Bertha's moody silence.
"I'm sorry to hear that. Do they think you may live safely at sea-level?"
"They say so. Me own feeling is that the climate is not to blame. 'Tis age. I'm like a hollow-hearted tree, ready to fall with the first puff of ill wind. I've never been a man since that devil blew me to pieces."
She put her right hand upon his arm. "Is it not a shame that you and I should stand in the way of two fine, wholesome, young people—shutting them off from happiness?"
He turned a glance upon her quite too penetrating to be borne. " You mane—what ?—who ?" "I mean Bertha."
"Do I stand in the way of her happiness?"
She met the question squarely, speaking with tense, drawn lips. "Yes, just as I do in Ben's way. We're neither of us fit to be married, and they are."
His eyes wavered. "That's true. I'm no mate for her—and yet I think I've made her happy." He was silent a moment, then faltered: "Ye lay your hand on a sore spot—ye do, surely. 'Tis true I've tried to have the money make up for me other shortcomings." He ended almost humbly.