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A Coward
by [?]

“My daughter Irene,” said Mrs. Carstyle (she made it rhyme with tureen), “has had no social advantages; but if Mr. Carstyle had chosen–” she paused significantly and looked at the shabby sofa on the opposite side of the fire-place as though it had been Mr. Carstyle. Vibart was glad that it was not.

Mrs. Carstyle was one of the women who make refinement vulgar. She invariably spoke of her husband as Mr. Carstyle and, though she had but one daughter, was always careful to designate the young lady by name. At luncheon she had talked a great deal of elevating influences and ideals, and had fluctuated between apologies for the overdone mutton and affected surprise that the bewildered maid-servant should have forgotten to serve the coffee and liqueurs as usual.

Vibart was almost sorry that he had come. Miss Carstyle was still beautiful–almost as beautiful as when, two days earlier, against the leafy background of a June garden-party, he had seen her for the first time–but her mother’s expositions and elucidations cheapened her beauty as sign-posts vulgarize a woodland solitude. Mrs. Carstyle’s eye was perpetually plying between her daughter and Vibart, like an empty cab in quest of a fare. Miss Carstyle, the young man decided, was the kind of girl whose surroundings rub off on her; or was it rather that Mrs. Carstyle’s idiosyncrasies were of a nature to color every one within reach? Vibart, looking across the table as this consolatory alternative occurred to him, was sure that they had not colored Mr. Carstyle; but that, perhaps, was only because they had bleached him instead. Mr. Carstyle was quite colorless; it would have been impossible to guess his native tint. His wife’s qualities, if they had affected him at all, had acted negatively. He did not apologize for the mutton, and he wandered off after luncheon without pretending to wait for the diurnal coffee and liqueurs; while the few remarks that he had contributed to the conversation during the meal had not been in the direction of abstract conceptions of life. As he strayed away, with his vague oblique step, and the stoop that suggested the habit of dodging missiles, Vibart, who was still in the age of formulas, found himself wondering what life could be worth to a man who had evidently resigned himself to travelling with his back to the wind; so that Mrs. Carstyle’s allusion to her daughter’s lack of advantages (imparted while Irene searched the house for an undiscoverable cigarette) had an appositeness unintended by the speaker.

“If Mr. Carstyle had chosen,” that lady repeated, “we might have had our city home” (she never used so small a word as town) “and Ireen could have mixed in the society to which I myself was accustomed at her age.” Her sigh pointed unmistakably to a past when young men had come to luncheon to see her.

The sigh led Vibart to look at her, and the look led him to the unwelcome conclusion that Irene “took after” her mother. It was certainly not from the sapless paternal stock that the girl had drawn her warm bloom: Mrs. Carstyle had contributed the high lights to the picture.

Mrs. Carstyle caught his look and appropriated it with the complacency of a vicarious beauty. She was quite aware of the value of her appearance as guaranteeing Irene’s development into a fine woman.

“But perhaps,” she continued, taking up the thread of her explanation, “you have heard of Mr. Carstyle’s extraordinary hallucination. Mr. Carstyle knows that I call it so–as I tell him, it is the most charitable view to take.”

She looked coldly at the threadbare sofa and indulgently at the young man who filled a corner of it.

“You may think it odd, Mr. Vibart, that I should take you into my confidence in this way after so short an acquaintance, but somehow I can’t help regarding you as a friend already. I believe in those intuitive sympathies, don’t you? They have never misled me–” her lids drooped retrospectively–“and besides, I always tell Mr. Carstyle that on this point I will have no false pretences. Where truth is concerned I am inexorable, and I consider it my duty to let our friends know that our restricted way of living is due entirely to choice–to Mr. Carstyle’s choice. When I married Mr. Carstyle it was with the expectation of living in New York and of keeping my carriage; and there is no reason for our not doing so–there is no reason, Mr. Vibart, why my daughter Ireen should have been denied the intellectual advantages of foreign travel. I wish that to be understood. It is owing to her father’s deliberate choice that Ireen and I have been imprisoned in the narrow limits of Millbrook society. For myself I do not complain. If Mr. Carstyle chooses to place others before his wife it is not for his wife to repine. His course may be noble–Quixotic; I do not allow myself to pronounce judgment on it, though others have thought that in sacrificing his own family to strangers he was violating the most sacred obligations of domestic life. This is the opinion of my pastor and of other valued friends; but, as I have always told them, for myself I make no claims. Where my daughter Ireen is concerned it is different–“