The Second Generation


Sometimes, in a moment of sharp experience, comes that vivid flash of

insight that makes a platitude suddenly seem a revelation--its full

content is abruptly realized. "Ten years is a long time, yes," he

thought, as he walked up the drive to the great Kensington house where

she still lived.

Ten years--long enough, at any rate, for her to have married and f
r her

husband to have died. More than that he had not heard, in the outlandish

places where life had cast him in the interval. He wondered whether

there had been any children. All manner of thoughts and questions,

confused a little, passed across his mind. He was well-to-do now, though

probably his entire capital did not amount to her income for a single

year. He glanced at the huge, forbidding mansion. Yet that pride was

false which had made of poverty an insuperable obstacle. He saw it now.

He had learned values in his long exile.

But he was still ridiculously timid. This confusion of thought, of

mental images rather, was due to a kind of fear, since worship ever is

akin to awe. He was as nervous as a boy going up for a viva voce; and

with the excitement was also that unconquerable sinking--that horrid

shrinking sensation that excessive shyness brings. Why in the world had

he come? Why had he telegraphed the very day after his arrival in

England? Why had he not sent a tentative, tactful letter, feeling his

way a little?

Very slowly he walked up the drive, feeling that if a reasonable chance

of escape presented itself he would almost take it. But all the windows

stared so hard at him that retreat was really impossible now and though

no faces were visible behind the curtains, all had seen him, possibly

she herself--his heart beat absurdly at the extravagant suggestion. Yet

it was odd--he felt so certain of being seen, and that someone watched

him. He reached the wide stone steps that were clean as marble, and

shrank from the mark his boots must make upon their spotlessness. In

desperation, then, before he could change his mind, he touched the bell.

But he did not hear it ring--mercifully; that irrevocable sound must

have paralyzed him altogether. If no one came to answer, he might still

leave a card in the letter-box and slip away. Oh, how utterly he

despised himself for such a thought! A man of thirty with such a chicken

heart was not fit to protect a child, much less a woman. And he recalled

with a little stab of pain that the man she married had been noted for

his courage, his determined action, his inflexible firmness in various

public situations, head and shoulders above lesser men. What presumption

on his own part ever to dream!... He remembered, too, with no apparent

reason in particular, that this man had a grown-up son already, by a

former marriage.

And still no one came to open that huge, contemptuous door with its so

menacing, so hostile air. His back was to it, as he carelessly twirled

his umbrella, but he felt its sneering expression behind him while it

looked him up and down. It seemed to push him away. The entire mansion

focused its message through that stern portal: Little timid men are not

welcomed here.

How well he remembered the house! How often in years gone by had he not

stood and waited just like this, trembling with delight and

anticipation, yet terrified lest the bell should be answered and the

great door actually swung wide! Then, as now, he would have run, had he

dared. He was still afraid--his worship was so deep. But in all these

years of exile in wild places, farming, mining, working for the position

he had at last attained, her face and the memory of her gracious

presence had been his comfort and support, his only consolation, though

never his actual joy. There was so little foundation for it all, yet her

smile and the words she had spoken to him from time to time in friendly

conversation had clung, inspired, kept him going--for he knew them all

by heart. And more than once in foolish optimistic moods, he had

imagined, greatly daring, that she possibly had meant more....

He touched the bell a second time--with the point of his umbrella. He

meant to go in, carelessly as it were, saying as lightly as might be,

"Oh, I'm back in England again--if you haven't quite forgotten my

existence--I could not forego the pleasure of saying 'How-do-you-do?'

and hearing that you are well ...," and the rest; then presently bow

himself easily out--into the old loneliness again. But he would at least

have seen her; he would have heard her voice, and looked into her

gentle, amber eyes; he would have touched her hand. She might even ask

him to come in another day and see her! He had rehearsed it all a

hundred times, as certain feeble temperaments do rehearse such scenes.

And he came rather well out of that rehearsal, though always with an

aching heart, the old great yearnings unfulfilled. All the way across

the Atlantic he had thought about it, though with lessening confidence

as the time drew near. The very night of his arrival in London he wrote,

then, tearing up the letter (after sleeping over it), he had telegraphed

next morning, asking if she would be in. He signed his surname--such a

very common name, alas! but surely she would know--and her reply,

"Please call 4:30," struck him as rather oddly worded. Yet here he was.

There was a rattle of the big door knob, that aggressive, hostile knob

that thrust out at him insolently like a fist of bronze. He started,

angry with himself for doing so. But the door did not open. He became

suddenly conscious of the wilds he had lived in for so long; his clothes

were hardly fashionable; his voice probably had a twang in it, and he

used tricks of speech that must betray the rough life so recently left.

What would she think of him, now? He looked much older, too. And how

brusque it was to have telegraphed like that! He felt awkward, gauche,

tongue-tied, hot and cold by turns. The sentences, so carefully

rehearsed, fled beyond recovery.

Good heavens--the door was open! It had been open for some minutes. It

moved noiselessly on big hinges. He acted automatically; he heard

himself asking if her ladyship was at home, though his voice was nearly

inaudible. The next moment he was standing in the great, dim hall, so

poignantly familiar, and the remembered perfume almost made him sway. He

did not hear the door close, but he knew. He was caught. The butler

betrayed an instant's surprise--or was it over-wrought imagination

again?--when he gave his name. It seemed to him--though only later did

he grasp the significance of that curious intuition--that the man had

expected another caller instead. The man took his card respectfully and

disappeared. These flunkeys were so marvellously trained. He was too

long accustomed to straight question and straight answer, but here, in

the Old Country, privacy was jealously guarded with such careful ritual.

And almost immediately the butler returned, still expressionless, and

showed him into the large drawing-room on the ground floor that he knew

so well. Tea was on the table--tea for one. He felt puzzled. "If you

will have tea first, sir, her ladyship will see you afterwards," was

what he heard. And though his breath came thickly, he asked the question

that forced itself out. Before he knew what he was saying he asked it,

"Is she ill?" "Oh, no, her ladyship is quite well, thank you, sir. If

you will have tea first, sir, her ladyship will see you afterwards." The

horrid formula was repeated, word for word. He sank into an armchair and

mechanically poured out his own tea. What he felt he did not exactly

know. It seemed so unusual, so utterly unexpected, so unnecessary, too.

Was it a special attention, or was it merely casual? That it could mean

anything else did not occur to him. How was she busy, occupied--not

here to give him tea? He could not understand it. It seemed such a farce

having tea alone like this--it was like waiting for an audience, it was

like a doctor's or a dentist's room. He felt bewildered, ill at ease,

cheap.... But after ten years in primitive lands perhaps London usages

had changed in some extraordinary manner. He recalled his first

amazement at the motor-omnibuses, taxicabs, and electric tubes. All were

new. London was otherwise than when he left it. Piccadilly and the

Marble Arch themselves had altered. And, with his reflection, a shade

more confidence stole in. She knew that he was there and presently she

would come in and speak with him, explaining everything by the mere fact

of her delicious presence. He was ready for the ordeal, he would see

her--and drop out again. It was worth all manner of pain, even of

mortification. He was in her house, drinking her tea, sitting in a chair

she used herself perhaps. Only he would never dare to say a word or make

a sign that might betray his changeless secret. He still felt the boyish

worshipper, worshipping in dumbness from a distance, one of a group of

many others like himself. Their dreams had faded, his had continued,

that was the difference. Memories tore and raced and poured upon him.

How sweet and gentle she had always been to him! He used to wonder

sometimes.... Once, he remembered, he had rehearsed a declaration, but

while rehearsing the big man had come in and captured her, though he had

only read the definite news long after by chance in an Arizona paper.

He gulped his tea down. His heart alternately leaped and stood still. A

sort of numbness held him most of that dreadful interval, and no clear

thought came at all. Every ten seconds his head turned towards the door

that rattled, seemed to move, yet never opened. But any moment now it

must open, and he would be in her very presence, breathing the same

air with her. He would see her, charge himself with her beauty once more

to the brim, and then go out again into the wilderness--the wilderness

of life--without her, and not for a mere ten years but for always. She

was so utterly beyond his reach. He felt like a backwoodsman, he was a


For one thing only was he duly prepared, though he thought about it

little enough--she would, of course, have changed. The photograph he

owned, cut from an illustrated paper, was not true now. It might even be

a little shock perhaps. He must remember that. Ten years cannot pass

over a woman without--

Before he knew it the door was open, and she was advancing quietly

towards him across the thick carpet that deadened sound. With both hands

outstretched she came, and with the sweetest welcoming smile upon her

parted lips he had seen in any human face. Her eyes were soft with joy.

His whole heart leaped within him; for the instant he saw her it all

flashed clear as sunlight--that she knew and understood. She had always

known, had always understood. Speech came easily to him in a flood, had

he needed it, but he did not need it. It was all so adorably easy,

simple, natural, and true. He just took her hands--those welcoming,

outstretched hands--in both of his own, and led her to the nearest sofa.

He was not even surprised at himself. Inevitably, out of depths of

truth, this meeting came about. And he uttered a little foolish

commonplace, because he feared the huge revulsion that his sudden glory

brought, and loved to taste it slowly:

"So you live here still?"

"Here, and here," she answered softly, touching his heart, and then her

own. "I am attached to this house, too, because you used to come and

see me here, and because it was here I waited so long for you, and still

wait. I shall never leave it--unless you change. You see, we live

together here."

He said nothing. He leaned forward to take and hold her. The abrupt

knowledge of it all somehow did not seem abrupt--it was as though he had

known it always; and the complete disclosure did not seem disclosure

either--rather as though she told him something he had inexplicably left

unrealized, yet not forgotten. He felt absolutely master of himself,

yet, in a curious sense, outside of himself at the same time. His arms

were already open--when she gently held her hands up to prevent. He

heard a faint sound outside the door.

"But you are free," he cried, his great passion breaking out and

flooding him, yet most oddly well controlled, "and I--"

She interrupted him in the softest, quietest whisper he had ever heard:

"You are not free, as I am free--not yet."

The sound outside came suddenly closer. It was a step. There was a faint

click on the handle of the door. In a flash, then, came the dreadful

shock that overwhelmed him--the abrupt realization of the truth that was

somehow horrible--that Time, all these years, had left no mark upon her

and that she had not changed. Her face was as young as when he saw her


With it there came cold and darkness into the great room. He shivered

with cold, but an alien, unaccountable cold. Some great shadow dropped

upon the entire earth, and though but a second could have passed before

the handle actually turned, and the other person entered, it seemed to

him like several minutes. He heard her saying this amazing thing that

was question, answer, and forgiveness all in one--this, at least, he

divined before the ghastly interruption came--"But, George--if you had

only spoken--!"

With ice in his blood he heard the butler saying that her ladyship would

be "pleased" to see him if he had finished his tea and would be "so good

as to bring the papers and documents upstairs with him." He had just

sufficient control of certain muscles to stand upright and murmur that

he would come. He rose from a sofa that held no one but himself. All at

once he staggered. He really did not know exactly what happened, or how

he managed to stammer out the medley of excuses and semi-explanations

that battered their way through his brain and issued somehow in definite

words from his lips. Somehow or other he accomplished it. The sudden

attack, the faintness, the collapse!... He vaguely remembered

afterwards--with amazement too--the suavity of the butler as he

suggested telephoning for a doctor, and that he just managed to forbid

it, refusing the offered glass of brandy as well, remembered contriving

to stumble into the taxicab and give his hotel address with a final

explanation that he would call another day and "bring the papers." It

was quite clear that his telegram had been attributed to someone else,

someone "with papers"--perhaps a solicitor or architect. His name was

such an ordinary one, there were so many Smiths. It was also clear that

she whom he had come to see and had seen, no longer lived here in the


And just as he left the hall he had the vision--mere fleeting glimpse it

was--of a tall, slim, girlish figure on the stairs asking if anything

was wrong, and realized vaguely through his atrocious pain that she was,

of course, the wife of the son who had inherited....