But it was as a lover that his role most engrossed him, in many dreams wherein he bore for Ettarre such adoration as he had always wistfully hoped he might entertain toward some woman some day, and had not ever known in his waking hours. It was sober tru th he had spoken at Storisende: "There is no woman like you in my country, Ettarre. I can find no woman anywhere resembling you whom dreams alone may win to." But now at last, even though it were only in dreams, he loved as he had always dimly felt he was capable of loving.... Even the old lost faculty of verse-making seemed to come back to him with this change, and he began again to fashion rhymes, elaborating bright odd vignettes of foiled love in out-of-the-way epochs and surroundings. These were the verses included, later, under the general title of "Dramatis personae," in his Chimes at Midnight.
He wrote of foiled love necessarily, since not even as a lover might he win to success. It was the cream of some supernal jest that he might not touch Ettarre; that done, though but by accident, the dream ended, and the universe seemed to fold about him, just as a hand closes. He came to understand the reason of this. "Love must look toward something not quite accessible, something not quite understood," he had said at Storisende: and this phrase, so lightly despatched, came home to him now as pregnan t truth. For it was this fact which enabled him to love Ettarre, and had always prevented his loving any other woman.
All mortal women either loved some other man, and went with him somewhither beyond the area of your daily life, and so, in time were forgotten; or, else, they loved you, and laid bare to you their minds and bodies--neither of these possessions ever proved so remarkable, when calmly viewed, as to justify continued infatuation therewith. Such at least Felix Kennaston had always found to be the case: love did not live, as lovers do, by feeding; but, paradoxically, got strength by hungering. It should be r emembered however, that Felix Kennaston was a poet....
He would sometimes think of the women who had loved him; and would specualate, with some wistfulness, if it was invariably true, as with his own amorous traffic, that love both kept and left its victims strangers to each other? He knew so little of these soft-lipped girls and women, when everything was said....
Yet there had been--he counted--yes, time had known eight chaste and comely gentlewoman, in all, who had "given themselves to him." as the hackneyed phrase was. These eight affairs, at any event, had conformed to every tradition, and had been as through- going as might romantically be expected: but nothing much seemed to have come of them; and he did not feel in the upshot very well acquainted with their heroines. His sole emotion toward them nowadays was that of mild dislike. But six of them--had "dec eived their husbands" for the caresses of impecunious Kennaston; and the other two had anticipatorily "decieved" the husbands they took later: so that they must, he reflected, have loved Felix Kennaston sincerely. He was quite certain, though, that he h ad never loved any one of them as he had always wanted to love. No one of these women had given him what he sought in vain. Kennaston had felt this lack of success dispiritedly when, with soft arms about him, it was necessary to think of what he would s ay next. He had always in such circumstances managed to feign high rapture, to his temporary companion's entire satisfaction, as he had believed; but each adventure left him disappointed. It had not roused in him the overwhelming emotions lovers had in books, nor anything resembling these emotions; and that was what he had wanted, and had not ever realized, until the coming of Ettarre....
He had made love, as a prevalent rule, to married women--allured, again, by bookish standards, which advanced the commerce of Lancelot with Guinevere, or of Paolo Malatesta with his brothers wife, as the supreme type of romantic passion. On more practica l grounds, Kennaston preferred married women, partly because they were less stupid to converse with in general, and in particular did not bring up the question of marrying you; and in part because the husband in the background helped the situation pictori ally--this notion also now seemed to be of literary orgin--becides furnishing an unfailing topic of conversation. For unfaithful or wavering wives, to Kennaston's finding, peculiarly delighted in talking about their husbands; an in such prattle failed ei ther to exhibit the conventional remorse toward, or any very grave complaint against, the discussed better-half. The inconsistency would have worried Kennaston's sense of justice, had not these husbands always been so transparently certain of Kennaston's insignificance.... Although judgeing of necessity only from his own experience Kennaston was unable conscientiously to approve of adulterous love-affairs: they tended too soon toward tediousness; and married women seemed horribly quick to become matter -of-fact in the details of a liaison, and ready almost to confuse you with the husband.
The giggle and chatter of young girls Kennaston had always esteemed unalluring, even in his own youth. He had admired a number of them extravagantly, but only as ornamental objects upon which very ill-advisedly had been conferred the gift of speech. To- day he looked back wistfully at times, as we must all do, to that girl who first had asked him if he was sure that he respected her as much as ever: but it was with the mental annotation that she had seven children now, and, as Kathleen put it, not a ray of good looks left. And he would meditate that he had certainly been fond of Margaret Hugonin, even though in the beginning it was her money which attracted him; and that Marian Winwood, despite her underhanded vengeance in publishing his letters, had b een the most delectable of company all that ancient summer when it had rained so persistently. Then there had been tall Agnes Faroy, like a statue of gold and ivory; Kitty Provis, with those wonderful huge green eyes of hers; and Celia Reindan, she who w ore that curious silver band across her forhead; and Helen Strong; and Blanche Druro; and Muriel.... In memory they arose like colorful and gracious phantoms, far more adorable then they had ever been on earth, when each of these had loaned, for a season , the touch of irresolute soft hands and friendly lips to a half-forgotten Felix Kennaston. All these, and others had been, a long while since, the loveliest creatures that wore tender human flesh: and so, they had kissed, and they had talked time-hallo wed nonsence, and they had shed the orthodox tears; and--also a long while since--they had died or they had married the conventional some one else: and it did not matter the beard of an onion to the pudgy pasty man that Felix Kennaston had come to be. H e had possessed, or else of his own violation he had refrained from possessing, all these brightly-colored moth-brained girls: but he had loved none of them as he had always known he was capable of loving: and at best, these girls were dead now, or at wo rst, they had been converted into unaccountable people....
Kathleen was returning from the South that day, and Kennaston had gone into Lichfield to meet her train. The Florida Express was late by a full hour; so he sat in their motor-car, waiting, turning over some verses in his torpid mind, and just half-notici ng persons who were gathering on the station platform to take the noon train going west. He was reflecting how ugly and trivial people's faces appear when a crowd is viewed collectively--and wondering if the Author, looking down into a hot thronged stree t, was never tempted to obliterate the race as an unsuccessful experiment--when Kennaston recognized Muriel Allardyne.
"I simply will not see her," he decided. He turned his back that way, picked up the morning paper on the seat beside him, and began to read an editorial on immigration. What the deuce was she doing in Lichfield any way? She lived in St. Louis now. She was probably visiting Avis Blagden. Evidently, she was going west on the noon train. If Kathleen's train arrived before midday he would have to get out of the car to meet her, and all three would come together on the platform. If Muriel spied him ther e, in the open car, it would not be uncharacteristic of her to join him. And he could not go away, because Kathleen's train was apt to arrive any minute. It was perfectly damnable. Why could the woman not stay in St. Louis where she belonged, instead o f gadding about the country? Thus Kennaston, as he re-read the statistics as to Poles and Magyers.
"I think there's two ladies trying to speak to you, sir," the chauffeur hazarded.
"Eh?--oh, yes!" said Kennaston. he looked, perforce, and saw that across the railway track both Muriel Allardyce and Avis Blagden were regarding him with idiotic grins and waving. He lifted his hat, smiled, waved his own hand, and retired between the pa ges of the Lichfield Courier-Herald. Muriel was wearing a light traveling veil, he reflected; he could pretend not to know who she was. With recognition, of course, he would be expected to come over and speak to her. He must remember to ask Avis , the very next time he saw her, who had been that familiar-looking person with her, and to express regret for his short-sightedness....
He decided to step out of the car, by way of the farther door, and buy a package of cigarettes on the other side of the street. He could loaf there and pray the Murial's train left before Kathleen's arrived....
"I don't believe you recognized us," said Avis Blagden, at his elbow. "Or else you are trying to cut your old playmates." The two women had brazenly pursued him. They were within a yard of him. It was indelicate. It was so perfectly unnecessary. He cordially wished some friendly engine had run them both down when they were crossing the tracks....
"Why, bless my soul!" he was saying, "this is indeed a delightful suprise. I had no idea you were in town, Mrs. Allardyce. I didn't recognize you, with that veil on--"
"There's Peter, at last," said Avis. "I really must speak to him a moment." And she promptly left them. Kennaston reflected that the whole transaction was self-evidently pre-arranged. And Muriel was, as if abstractedly, but deliberately, walking beyon d earshot of the chauffeur. And there was nothing for it save to accompany her.
"It's awfully jolly to see you again," he observed, with fervor.
"Is it? Honestly, Felix, it looked almost as if you were trying to avoid me." Kennaston wondered how he could have ever loved a woman of so little penetration.
"No, I didn't recognize you, with that veil on," he repeated. "And I had no idea you were in Lichfield. I do hope you are going to pay us all a nice long visit--"
"But, no, I am leaving on this train--"
"Oh, I say, but that's too bad! And I never knew you were here!" he lanented.
"I only stopped overnight with Avis. I am on my way home--"
"To Leonard?" And Kennaston smiled. "How do you get on with him nowadays?"
"We are--contented, I suppose. He has his business--and politics. He is doing perfectly splendidly now, you know. And I have my memories." Her voice changed. "I have my memories, Felix! Nothing--nothing can take that from me!"
"Good God, Muriel, there are a dozen people watching us--"
"What does that matter!"
"Well, it matters a lot to me. I live here, you know."
She was silent for a moment. "You look you latest role in life so well, too, Felix. You are the respectable married gentleman to the last detail. Why, you are an old man now, Felix," she said wistfully. "Your hair is grey about the ears, and you are f at, and there are wrinkles under you eyes--But are you happy, dear?" she asked, with the grave tender speech that he remembered. And momentarily the man forgot the people about them, and the fact that his wife's train was due any minute.
"Happier than I deserve to be, Muriel." His voice had quavered--had quavered in fact very nicely, it appeared to him.
"That's true, at least," the woman said, as in reflection. "You treated me rather abominably, you know--like an old shoe."
"I am not altogether sorry you take that view of it. For I wouldn't want you to regret--anything--not even that which, to me at least, is very sacred. But there was really nothing else to do save just let things end. It was as hard," he said, with a co ntinuous flight of imagination, "it was as hard on me as you."
"Sometimes I think it was simply because you were afraid of Leonard. I put that out of my mind, though, always. You see I like to keep my memories. I have nothing else now, Felix--" She opened the small leather bag she carried, took out a handkerchief , and brushed her lips. "I am a fool of course. Oh, it is funny to see your ugly little snub nose again! And I couldn't help wanting to speak to you, once more--"
"It has been delightful. And some day I certainly do hope--But there's your train, I think. The gates are going down."
"And here is Avis coming. So good-by, Felix, it is really forever this time, I think--"
It seemed to him that she held in her left hand the sigil of Scoteia.... He stared at the gleaming thing, then raised his eyes to hers. She was smiling. Her eyes were the eyes of Ettarre. All the beauty of the world seemed gathered in this woman's fac e....
"Don't let it be forever! Come with me, Felix! There is only you--even now, there is only you. It is not yet too late--" Astounding as were the words, they came quite clearly, in a pleading frightened whisper.
The man was young for just that one wonderful moment of inexplicable yearning and self-loathing. Then, "I am afraid my wife would hardly like it," he said equably. "So good-by, Muriel. It has been very delightful to see you again."
"I was mistaken, though, of course. It was the top of a vanity-box, or of a toilet-water flask, or of something else, that she took out of the bag, when she was looking for her handkerchief. It was just a silly concidence. I was mistaken, of course.... And here is Kathleen's train. Thank goodness, it was late enough...."
Thus Kennaston, as he went to receive his wife's cool kiss. And--having carefully mentioned as a matter of no earthly importance that he had just seen Muriel Allardyce, and that she had gone off terribly in looks, and that none of them seem to hold their own like you, dear--he debarred from mind that awkward momen t's delusion, and tried not to think of it any more.