"Emily. Emily Starr."
Emily almost jumped. She had not seen Mrs. Kent in the gloom until they were face to face—at the little side path that led up to the Tansy Patch. She was standing there, bareheaded in the chill night, with outstretched hand.
"Emily, I want to have a talk with you. I saw you go past here at sunset and I've been watching for you ever since. Come up to the house."
Emily would much rather have refused. Yet she turned and silently climbed the steep, root-ribbed path, with Mrs. Kent flitting before her like a little dead leaf borne along by the wind. Through the ragged old garden where nothing ever grew but tansy, and into the little house that was as shabby as it had always been. People said Teddy Kent might fix up his mother's house a bit if he were making all the money folks said he was. But Emily knew that Mrs. Kent would not let him—would not have anything changed.
She looked around the little place curiously. She had not been in it for many years—not since the long-ago days when she and Ilse and Teddy had been children there. It seemed quite unchanged. As of yore, the house seemed to be afraid of laughter. Someone always seemed to be praying in it. It had an atmosphere of prayer. And the old willow to the west was still tap-tapping on the window with ghostly finger-tips. On the mantel was a recent photograph of Teddy—a good one. He seemed on the point of speaking—of saying something triumphant—exultant.
"Emily, I've found the rainbow gold. Fame—and love."
She turned her back on it and sat down. Mrs. Kent sat opposite—a faded, shrinking little figure with the long scar slanting palely across her bitter mouth and lined face—the face that must have been very pretty once. She was looking intently, searchingly at Emily; but, as Emily instantly realized, the old smouldering hatred had gone out of her eyes—her tired eyes that must once have been young and eager and laughter-lit. She leaned forward and touched Emily's arm with her slim, claw-like fingers.
"You know that Teddy is going to marry Ilse Burnley," she said.
"What do you feel about it?"
Emily moved impatiently.
"What do my feelings matter, Mrs. Kent? Teddy loves Ilse. She is a beautiful, brilliant, warmhearted girl. I am sure they will be very happy."
"Do you still love him?"
Emily wondered why she did not feel resentment. But Mrs. Kent was not to be judged by ordinary rules. And here was a fine chance to save her face by a cool little lie—just a few indifferent words. "Not any longer, Mrs. Kent. Oh, I know I once imagined I did—imagining things like that is one of my weaknesses unfortunately. But I find I don't care at all."
Why couldn't she say them? Well, she couldn't, that was all. She could never, in any words, deny her love for Teddy. It was so much a part of herself that it had a divine right to truth. And was there not, too, a secret relief in feeling that here at least was one person with whom she could be herself—before whom she need not pretend or hide?
"I don't think you have any right to ask that question, Mrs. Kent. But—I do."
Mrs. Kent laughed silently.
"I used to hate you. I don't hate you any longer. We are one now, you and I. We love him. And he has forgotten us—he cares nothing for us—he has gone to her."
"He does care for you, Mrs. Kent. He always did. Surely you can understand that there is more than one kind of love. And I hope—you are not going to hate Ilse because Teddy loves her."
"No, I don't hate her. She is more beautiful than you, but there is no mystery about her. She will never possess him wholly as you would have. It's quite different. But I want to know this—are you unhappy because of this?"
"No. Only for a few minutes now and then. Generally I am too much interested in my work to brood morbidly on what can't be mine."
Mrs. Kent had listened thirstily. "Yes—yes—exactly. I thought so. The Murrays are so sensible. Some day—some day—you'll be glad this has happened—glad that Teddy didn't care for you. Don't you think you will?"
"Oh, I am sure of it. It's so much better for you. Oh, you don't know the suffering and wretchedness you will be spared. It's madness to love anything too much. God is jealous. If you married Teddy he would break your heart—they always do. It is best—you will live to feel it was best."
Tap—tap—tap went the old willow.
"Need we talk of this any more, Mrs. Kent?"
"Do you remember that night I found you and Teddy in the graveyard?" asked Mrs. Kent, apparently deaf to Emily's question.
"Yes." Emily found herself remembering it very vividly—that strange wonderful night when Teddy had saved her from mad Mr. Morrison and said such sweet, unforgettable things to her.
"Oh, how I hated you that night!" exclaimed Mrs. Kent. "But I shouldn't have said those things to you. All my life I've been saying things I shouldn't. Once I said a terrible thing—such a terrible thing. I've never been able to get the echo of it out of my ears. And do you remember what you said to me? That was why I let Teddy go away from me. It was your doing. If he hadn't gone you mightn't have lost him. Are you sorry you spoke so?"
"No. If anything I said helped to clear the way for him I'm glad—glad."
"You would do it over again?"
"And don't you hate Ilse bitterly? She has taken what you wanted. You must hate her."
"I do not. I love Ilse dearly as I always did. She has taken nothing from me that was ever mine."
"I don't understand it—I don't understand it," half whispered Mrs. Kent. "My love isn't like that. Perhaps that is why it has always made me so unhappy. No, I don't hate you any longer. But oh, I did hate you. I knew Teddy cared more for you than he did for me. Didn't you and he talk about me—criticize me?"
"I thought you did. People were always doing that—always."
Suddenly Mrs. Kent struck her tiny hands together violently.
"Why didn't you tell me you didn't love him any longer? Why didn't you—even if it was a lie? That was what I wanted to hear. I could have believed you. The Murrays never lie."
"Oh, what does it matter?" cried tortured Emily again. "My love means nothing to him now. He is Ilse's. You need not be jealous of me any longer, Mrs. Kent."
"I'm not—I'm not—it isn't that." Mrs. Kent looked at her oddly. "Oh, if I only dared—but no—but no, it's too late. It would be no use now. I don't think I know what I'm saying. Only—Emily—will you come to see me sometimes? It's lonely here—very lonely—so much worse now when he belongs to Ilse. His picture came last Wednesday—no, Thursday. There is so little to distinguish the days here. I put it up there, but it makes things worse. He was thinking of her in it—can't you tell by his eyes he was thinking of the woman he loves? I am of no importance to him now. I am of no importance to anybody."
"If I come to see you—you mustn't talk of him—or of them," said Emily, pitingly.
"I won't. Oh, I won't. Though that won't prevent us from thinking of them, will it? You'll sit there—and I'll sit here—and we'll talk of the weather and think of him. How amusing! But—when you've really forgotten him—when you really don't care any more—you'll tell me, won't you?"
Emily nodded and rose to go. She could not endure this any longer. "And if there is ever anything I can do for you, Mrs. Kent—"
"I want rest—rest," said Mrs. Kent, laughing wildly. "Can you find that for me? Don't you know I'm a ghost, Emily? I died years ago. I walk in the dark."
As the door closed behind her Emily heard Mrs. Kent beginning to cry terribly. With a sigh of relief she turned to the crisp open spaces of the wind and the night, the shadows and the frosty moon. Ah, one could breathe here.