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With Eyes of Flesh

By Agnes Boulton

He was one of those young men, tall and straight and clean, who come in from the country and work their way into positions of trust.

The son of a poor farmer, he had an inborn respect and admiration for the upper classes, and, being frank and not a hypocrite, he did not hide this under a pretended scorn, as do so many who are secretly envious. He admired the fine linen and dignified yet easy manners of the men. The softness and quiet delicacy of the women fascinated him.

Being clean and straightforward, liked and trusted, he advanced himself into a very good position in one of the smaller city banks. His salary was good; but he worked hard for it.

When he became engaged to the daughter of a chief justice, knowing he had her love and the respect and admiration of her parents, he was astounded with Fate.

The exquisite girl that had been given to him he adored; he stood her upon a pedestal, and worshiped blindly. Her clothes, with their dainty fineness, her little affected ways, were a revelation to him. That she should have loved him, she at whose tiny feet men of wealth and position worshiped, that she should become his wife, was to him the miracle perpetual.

Before the marriage her father had said to him: "We give you Hilda freely, Dan. She loves you. But remember that, compared to her past life, you will be poor, and try to give her the things she deserves—and needs."

Dan had acquiesced, bowing his head, his heart too full for utterance.

One day before her father's fire Hilda herself had spoken jokingly on the subject.

"Won't it be fun, Dan, you and I, a poor young couple, struggling along?" she had whispered, laughing. And then, at Dan's hurt, silent look, she had changed the subject; for Hilda was, before everything, a very tactful girl.

Their engagement had lasted six months. During that time, Dan, without telling Hilda, whom he wished to surprise, took enough of his money from the bank to rent and furnish an exquisite little apartment. Her mother helped him in the decorations, of which he knew little, having only a blind, passionate desire that they should be an appropriate 'setting for his beautiful Hilda. Her mother entered into the spirit of the idea, and, being artistic, made the little apartment a joy. The dining-room and library were in buff and cream, the sitting-room in a darker tone. The kitchen was perfect, and her own little boudoir a fairy place, fitted with a toilet set from Tiffany's, tiny gilt chairs and silken draperies. The room they were to share together was simpler; but that, too, held that wonderful spirit of harmony that seemed to pervade the whole place.

Dan took her there to see it two days before the wedding. Her mother had accompanied them. Dan experienced a wonderful, heart-tearing sensation when he first showed it to her—almost as he had felt when, years ago, he had brought a back-rest he had made to his dying mother.

Somehow it had seemed to surprise Hilda even more than he had expected. She had stared at him blankly, perhaps even a little wildly.

''But—I thought—I never knew—this—" she had stammered, until Dan silenced her with kisses. Then she had become so enthusiastic over it, so brightly flushed, that he had felt recompensed beyond measure.

"You shall have everything, my queen," he had said quite sincerely; and then become confused and self-conscious over his new poetical tendencies.

After their marriage, in the revelation of new intimacies, he had marveled more and more at her fineness and delicacy. More and more she became an exquisite goddess, to be worshiped and slaved for. It became almost a passion with him.

They had a maid, of course—a competent colored girl. Hilda had pretended surprise at this; she had thought, she said, to do her own housework.

One evening Dan, returning home tired and hungry, had found a particularly nice dinner waiting for him. In fact, it was so appetizing that he had remarked upon it to his wife.

Hilda had blushed and dimpled delightfully. Her face was very flushed that evening and Dan had thought that she looked a little tired.

"Do you like it, really?" she exclaimed. "I'm so glad, because—guess. I cooked it all myself."

"You cooked it?" He had been amazed. "I didn't know you could cook like this." Then, as he looked at her flushed face, his eyes had grown grave. He went around to her and, kissing her gently, said:

"Dear, it was a splendid dinner. But I want you to promise me you won't do this sort of thing any more. Oh, Hilda—" his voice became pleading, "you're not used to this sort of thing, dear. You're not strong enough for it. See how flushed you are now. You're not the big, husky sort of woman made to do housework, dear. Will you promise me?"

Hilda never tried cooking after that; instead, she would spend her time in making the table appointments look as pretty as possible.

Months passed. They were very happy. But the unrelenting strain of trying to give Hilda the same luxuries she had been used to in her father's house began to tell on Dan Harrow physically.

He kept perpetually grinding at his work, afraid to allow himself one moment's respite, lest the heavy expenses they were under bear him down. It was his joy during the first year of their married life to see how this labor of his kept his wife all he thought she should be—idle, beautiful, surrounded by luxury.

They had been married a little over a year when his father had died, leaving him, as only child, the farm. This he had rented as soon as possible, without saying any more than was necessary of the matter to his wife.

Then, gradually, as the glamour of first married love began to wear away, Dan began, without being conscious of it, to feel that something, some vague, essential element was absent from his home life. He would not have admitted it, and he noticed it only at times, brought about by incidents. Perhaps it could be called, more definitely, a certain sense of disappointment in life—a failing of things to be what he had expected.
 

He still worshiped Hilda. Often when she seemed fretful and peevish he blamed himself for not giving her enough.

The flat was as perfectly appointed as ever. Dinner each night was excellent. They always faced each other across cut flowers, in the soft light of pink-shaded candles. Hilda ate listlessly, occasionally chatting with something of her old vivacity, asking him about things at the bank or talking of the play they had seen. They went to the theatre twice a week. It was one of the things to which she had been used.

But Dan, although he tried his best to talk entertainingly, was usually too tired to be very bright company. And in truth, although they neither admitted it, there were few subjects on which they could meet. Except, of course, their love for one another. But even that, after a while, is quietly dropped by married couples. Dan's best topic, like so many business men, was business, and, aware that this would bore her, he seldom allowed himself to mention it. They had, it is true, a certain light, superficial table talk that served to cover deficiencies.

They had been married nearly two years when Dan went to his chief for a raise. He did not get it; but the manager called to him as he was leaving the office:

"Better look out for your health, Harrow. You look sort of run down."

So, instead of his raise, he took home that night a bundle of papers. It was. extra work—account work—for which, he would be well paid.

He wrapped it up well and slipped it in his overcoat pocket. He had said nothing to Hilda about asking for more pay, and it never occurred to him to let her know of the night work. She would worry, perhaps. But expenses must be met.

As he let himself into the flat it struck him with a sense of pride how well he had kept up the thing he had set himself to do at their marriage. And although he was tired, his shoulders, which had stooped just a little coming up in the elevator, straightened. A very sudden strong love for Hilda and pride in his home came over him. With a smile—the tired, wistful smile of a man who has been all day away from home—he entered the sitting-room.

Hilda was there, as usual, sitting in the big leather chair beneath the soft shaded electric light, reading a novel. Dan paused a moment to look at the exquisite picture she made, leaning back a trifle, daintily shod feet resting on the little footstool, the creamy satin gleams of her dinner gown showing to perfection the tints of her skin and hair.

"Hello, Hilda," he said softly. His voice sounded almost reverent. Her beauty, as usual, struck him with a sense of his own unworthiness.

"Hello, Dan!" she replied. Not for one short moment were her eyes raised from the book. Her tone in greeting did not express unkindness—merely indifference. For a moment Dan stood perfectly still in the room. One of those strange flashes of loneliness gripped him.. He felt that somehow things should be different from this. And yet—

Quietly he went down the hall, into the library. She was tired, no doubt. He was quite used to such welcomes as this. He had never, from the first, offered to kiss his wife on his arrival in the evenings. He was dusty then, from the ride in the subway and the day's work, and undoubtedly she, cool and calm in her dinner gown, would not care to be kissed. So he always waited until he had bathed and dressed for dinner.

And yet, somehow to-night he felt hurt about it.

When he returned to the sitting-room again, in evening clothes—he always dressed for dinner—Hilda was still reading. He spoke to her and she laid the novel aside, languidly, and bent her head for the kiss.

"You beauty!" he said. He had trained himself to be quite the ideal husband, "I have some roses coming for you to-night, dear."

"Thanks," said Hilda. Dan was in the habit of sending her flowers. "You are good to me, Dannie." She yawned and pensively recrossed her feet. "Do you know, when we were married I had no idea things would be so—comfortable. How is it you are making so much money?"

"Don't bother your little head about money, Hilda," her husband retorted abruptly. So used was Hilda to his most amiable manner that she resented this petulantly.

"You needn't be so disagreeable about it," she cried. "So long as it's so plentiful, please let me have fifty this week. I know it's a lot to ask for in a bunch, but I saw one of those brocade bags—" Dan stared hard at the floor. His eyes began to ache desperately.

"Do you want it right away?" he asked noncommittally. He kept all interest so well from his voice that Hilda flamed.

"Oh, certainly not!" she exclaimed sarcastically. "I thought you always made such a fuss about giving me the things I want. Do I ask you for much?"

"You shall have it to-morrow, Hilda," Dan replied at length. He vainly tried to brighten his countenance, but it was a lame effort. "You're looking remarkably well to-night, dear."

But Hilda sulked all through dinner and Dan, being merely mortal, despite his high intentions, grew exasperated, and after dinner went into the library and worked on the accounts.

The next morning he gave her the fifty dollars, penitently.

"I am sorry I was so disagreeable last night, dear," he said.

Hilda kissed him lightly and began a description of the brocade bag she wanted. And, although Dan would not acknowledge it, her indifference hurt.

So gradual, so unmarked by large events, was their drifting apart that Dan, forced at last to admit it, was unable at any point to put his finger on the cause. It staggered him, this realization of how very little he and Hilda meant to each other. Conscientiously he went over every detail of his treatment of her, trying to see where he had failed; and it was a vain search. He had done his best. Now, thinking things over, it seemed that there was only one thing very clear before him—duty. So he worked harder, staying in the library sometimes until late at night with the accounts.

From a tall and strong man, full of suppressed energy, he became tired and much older looking, with a slight stoop coming to his shoulders. He spoke very seldom, and in the morning, instead of rising refreshed from sleep, he seemed as tired as when he had gone to bed.

Four years had passed, when one day at the office he had a slight attack of bleeding from the lungs. It left him horribly shaken, full of an awful terror of things unknown.

He went to the doctor.

After much testing with apparatus, causing him to draw deep breaths, tapping on the chest, the doctor said:

"You've got to go to the country, man—that's imperative. Fresh air, eggs and milk—"

He paused. Dan looked at him quietly and asked:

"Can't I get rid of it here, Doctor? Medicine or something?"

The doctor pounded his fist on the desk.

"No. Do as I tell you, and you'll get well. There is no chance any other way."

Dan said nothing of this to Hilda; a wall, gray and blank, through which there was no passing, seemed to have grown before him. There was no thinking it over for Dan. Blindly he tried to convince himself that he would get better; doctors were often mistaken. Yet, as he argued, he knew how futile were his hopes.

But one thing, like an obsession, remained before him—Hilda's comfort. He had taken her from a home of luxuries. He had led her into this, he, who had promised with all the strength of his heart and soul to take care of her. There could be no going back now. Not a cent had been saved, living as they had lived. His salary was necessary every week to meet current expenses.

Fervently he thanked God that there was a heavy insurance on his life.

Day by day he went to the bank. Day by day he fought against the dragon that had him in its grip. Imperceptibly paler and weaker, he suffered agonies of mental and physical torture. Almost he wished for his death. The world seemed to have become a prison house, in which he slaved at some terrible task.

Hilda went to teas and concerts. She grew to take a great interest in cards. And as her husband was so busy in the evenings, she went to a great many card parties.

Sometimes she would remark that he did not look as well as in the old days. Dan would pass it off lightly. One did not stay forever young, he said.

Sometimes, as in a dream, the memory of his father's little farm, with its garden patch for vegetables, came to him. How clear the air was out there—full of golden sunshine. Then he would deliberately force the vision from his mind and continue with the tedious work.

Several times he noticed that his fellow employees looked at him strangely. One of them, a particular friend of his, kept urging him to take a long vacation in the country.

Winter passed, and with the coming of spring Dan began to vaguely hope for a return of health.

Early in April he was called into the president's office and told of his dismissal in two weeks. The president was kindly, but he explained to Dan that for some time his work had not been satisfactory and that, besides, they were making several alterations in the office force. Then he told Dan, very frankly, that he was too ill to work as they required their men to work.

Fate had been against him. For while, as he mechanically put away the books and straightened the articles on his desk, his mind seemed incapable of action. Then, gradually, a bitter regret and despair overcame him. And foremost in his mind was the dreadful fact of his having to tell Hilda.

Poor little Hilda! Tragic and worn, he stared into the night, waiting for a street car; the subway was too crowded for to-night. Poor Hilda! She would have to go back again to her father's house.

And he—he'd get away somewhere and try for another job. He gave a bitter laugh as he thought of it.

He rode home in the car, staring in an abstracted manner straight before him. The world seemed oblivion; only flaring letters burned into his brain; he must tell Hilda.

Then the solution of a pistol shot occurred to him, and he put it by quickly. He was no coward. Should her life be spoiled?

Like dreams, all the happy people of the world seemed to surge against his brain, mocking him, the failure.

Again, enhanced a thousand times by his present agony, he remembered the happy dreams of the joy he and Hilda were to be to each other. Over and over in his brain he kept repeating:

"I did my best. I did my best."

When he reached the apartment it much later than usual, owing to his having taken the surface car. He let himself in quietly; it was the beginning of the end.

The place was softly lighted, as usual. Women's voices came from the sitting room.

Dan paused in the hallway, listening. From the somewhat high and varied conversation he judged it to be the conclusion of one of Hilda's card parties.

He had to pass the open door to go to the library. Doing so, he glimpsed a brilliantly variegated group of women, bidding adieu to their hostess, chatting and laughing.

Then he heard Hilda's voice above the others, evidently in reply to a question:

"That was only my husband."

He went into the library and sat down in one of the big chairs, looking at the luxurious surroundings with the look of a beaten dog. When the last guest had departed he still sat there; then, after a time, he went into the sitting-room to face Hilda.

She was sitting in her favorite chair, looking over a pile of little bronze and silver ornaments that lay in her lap. As he entered he noticed, dully, how discontented her face looked—almost peevish.

"You're late again," was her greeting. As Dan made no reply, she sharply said: "Can't you answer me?"

Dan explained; he stood beside the mantel, directly before her; but his head was bent and his eyes sought the ground. His wife did not look at him. The favors in her lap occupied her.

"Hilda!" he ejaculated sharply. It cost him an effort to speak.

"Well?" Her voice was still sharp; evidently she was dissatisfied with the afternoon.

"Dear, I have something to tell you," said Dan wearily. "You must go home to your people next week. We'll have to let the flat go. They will take care of you for a while—" His voice sank.

"Go home to my people—" Hilda let her hands drop in her lap. She stared at him with large eyes. "What do you mean?"

Dan winced, and when he spoke his voice was very low.

"I've lost my job, dear," he said. "I'm no good—it's consumption, I guess. It's got me now—they said they—didn't have use for sick men around the office—"

Good—God!" Hilda stared at him. She did not move; only, very slowly, the color faded from her face.

"I am sorry I have brought you to this," Dan continued. His voice sounded dead and even, devoid of emotion, while in reality emotion struggled so powerfully within him that he feared a breakdown. "You will have the furniture, of course—everything is in your name. But —I haven't been able to save a cent. We've been living well, you know—but there is the insurance on my life—"

"Dan!"

"I am going to-morrow over to Darlington's. They may be able to give me some work—that's all, dear. I'm sorry."

He went and sat on one of the sofas. It was done now. Hilda had been told—poor little, queenly Hilda!

She sat perfectly still, gazing at the ornaments. Every trace of color had left her face; no word, no sign of emotion.

Dan put his elbow on his knee and his face in his hand. He tried to shut out the pretty, glowing room, the face of his wife.

Then a voice sounded in his ear, that ended in kisses and sobbing; two arms circled his neck desperately; a little creature, trembling, crying, turbulent, clung to him. He lifted his dazed eyes and gathered her in his arms.

"Oh, Dannie!" she cried. "Oh, Dan!" And he looked at her sorrowfully; but instead of despair, he saw her eyes gleam like two lovely stars from her wet face. And as she sobbed she smiled, beautifully, tremulously.

"Oh, don't you see?" she cried. "I'm glad, Dan—I'm glad! We'll be happy now. I'm glad you are sick, because I can nurse you back to health. I didn't want all this when I married you, Dan. I used to think all the time that we were going to be poor. I was tired of all this, because I'd been used to it all my life. I can cook, and you wouldn't let me. You wouldn't let me bring you your old slippers when you came home nights, and look after you. You treated me just like a big doll—and then, when I saw what it was like, I was afraid to let you see I didn't want so much waiting on—because I was afraid you wouldn't like me that way. And then, after a while—it got so I didn't care much."

"Great God!" said Dan slowly. She was weeping now, and laughing.

"I didn't want to play lady, dear. I wanted to be poor. I wanted to help you, and work with you. I wanted to have children, Dan. I wanted to—" Her voice broke in a paroxysm of weeping. Dan, trembling, smoothed her hair. A great light shone in his face—the light of love rewarded.

"There's that farm—" he began, then hesitated.

"We'll go there—" Hilda was trembling, too, as she lay in his arms; her face shone—"you and I, Dan, and we'll raise things, and I shall cook. Maybe you could get a job in the village, if you wanted to—outdoor work—or maybe you had better just work the farm. And you will get well—"

A trim-capped maid discreetly announced dinner.

We shall be happy there, my darling," Hilda said as she stood up and wiped her wet cheeks. Dan kissed her. He could not trust himself to speak. Then, together, arm in arm, they went into the dining-room.

Young's Magazine, May, 1913.

 

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