In the summer of his fortieth year the
apartment had been closed, and his wife and children were in the
He himself was going to the country in a day or two, as soon as he had
cleared up those matters, whatever they are, that keep bankers in town
in August. He stayed at his club until one evening on an impulse
he went down to an out-of-the-way little street near Washington Square,
in the hope of hearing some talk from a man who lived there, and whom
had been thinking of at intervals all day.
He was thinking of this man because he had read the night before, at the club, a story of his in a magazine. This man was a writer of stories and lived in what was called Greenwich Village; and this particular story was one of romantic adventure in the South Seas. The story writer's wife and the banker's wife had been friends from girlhood, and the story writer and the banker were acquaintances of a sort. The banker was always a little aware in the other's presence of his own secret and foolish past. He was embarrassed when he talked of financial conditions by a fear and perhaps a hope that the other would somehow see through him. Also he kept wondering if a writer imagined all his romantic adventures or if some of them had really happened. He particularly wondered this about the story he had read the night before at the club, for it gave such a vivid description of a South Sea island that it seemed as though it could only have been written by one who had lived there.
The story writer was at home. His wife, he explained, was at the seashore with the children, and he was staying in town to do a story or two to pay their summer bills. He sat down again in his study, cocking up his feet on the typrewriter desk and lighting a fresh cigarette.
"No, you're not interrupting me," he said. "Don't worry about that. I never get started to work till after midnight, and I want somebody to talk with while this new South Sea yarn ferments in my head. Have a cigarette." He started to talk. Again the banker had the feeling of guarding a secret.
It was nearly midnight when the conversation took a turn that promised to satisfy the banker's curiosities.
"It's odd," said the story writer, and paused. "It's very odd. I'm supposed to be a respectable citizen. But consider these stories of mine. The hero, who is me, meets a beautiful girl; just now she's a dusky maiden with flowers in her hair. I suppose I've met and made love to more than a hundred girls in the course of my literary career. To be sure, I always ask them to marry me; but I never tell them of all the other beautiful heroines I have loved and left behind me. And yet nobody thinks I'm a scoundrel. Not even my wife!"
"Of couse not," said the banker. "That would be absurd."
"Yes, it would be unthinkable," said the story writer. "For when I have finished one of my adventures, I mail it to an editor and get a check for it. And that's exactly why my wife doesn't object. It pays the rent; and so it's perfectly all right for me to spend my life in extra-matrimonial love scenes. But why do I get paid for these adventures?" he went on meditatively. "Because people want adventures. When a man reads one of my romantic yarns, he becomes the hero, he makes love to the beautiful, strange girls. And yet no one has thought of proposing laws to forbid married men to read love stories."
"After all," said the banker, ironically, "there is a slight differrence between reading a love adventure and going out and having one."
"No," said the story writer; "the difference is not slight; it is considerable. But just what is that difference? A love adventure in story form is guaranteed to be complete in itself, to be over when it is finished, and to leave behind it nothing but a pleasant memory in the reader's mind. In all these ways it differs from a love adventure in reality, concerning which no safe guarantees can be offered. We try to live orderly lives, and while the love adventures of reality may upset the well-considered plans of a lifetime, the other kind leaves everything exactly as it was. The heroine may swoon with ecstasy in your arms tonight; but she will not call you up on the tekephone in the morning or write you passionate and compromising letters."
"Poor girl -- she can't!" said the banker.
"She doesn't want to. It is only women of the real world who want love to be part of life. She belongs to the world of romance, which has laws of its own."
"The world of fancy," said the banker.
"Don't pretend to despise the world of fancy," said the story writer. "Fond as we are of the real world, it is far from satisfying all our demands. It is too inexorable. The phantom world of fancy is in many respects a more agreeable place. And everybody goes to it for solace. The sober triumphs of reality are never able for long to satisfy us; always we turn from those four-square actualities to live for a delightful hour in that extravagant land where our most impossible wishes can come true. It is a need of our human nature."
"Oh, no doubt," said the banker. "But nevertheless--"
The story teller interrupted him.
"Have you thought of this? That the self which goes out adventuring in the land of fancy is not a part of this real life of ours at all? It is a kind of phantom, existing joyously and iresponsibly in a phantom world."
"I hadn't thought of it just like that," said the banker, reflectively.
"But here is the real question. These adventurers in the phantom realm of fancy, why do they never meet?"
The banker stared.
"I'm not sure that I understand you."
"Suppose a man and a girl, unknown to each other, reading the same story at the same time; their phantom selves are sharing the same adventure, one that some writer has created for them. But suppose they dispense with the writer's assistance. Suppose these phantom selves should meet and create their own adventures. Why not?"
The banker stirred uneasily in his chair.
The story writer laughed.
"It might happen."
"It might," said the banker.
"I wonder," said the story writer, "what my wife would say if I told her of such an adventure. It would be like all my other adventures, more beautiful, perhaps, than any of the others. And yet--"
"I hope," said the banker, frowning, "that you--"
"Go to bed," said the story writer, suddenly. "You'll find the guest room on the top floor. I'm going to get to work on my South Sea story. I'll wake you up for coffee in the morning."
He took his feet down from the typewriter desk and threw away his cigarette. His hands hovered over the keyboard, and already he had forgotten the outer world, including his guest, who rose and wandered uncertainly from the room.
He found the guest room upstairs. But whether it was the faint clicking of the typewriter below that disturbed him, or his own thoughts, he was disinclined to sleep.
There was a pile of magazines on the table, and he began to read a story. It was the kind of story he had been fond of all his life, an adventure and a strange meeting with a beautiful girl.
But he let the magazine slip to the floor. He was thinking of old times in San Francisco. He remembered that he had wanted to build a boat and sail to the South Seas.
"But I didn't!" he said to himself triumphantly.
No, -- a mocking thought came to remind him, -- he had stayed on shore and listened to cafe yarns.
But since then he had been sensible. He had been sensible for twelve years. Twelve years! In a sudden panic he wondered if his youth had slipped by and vanished with those years. He went over and gazed at himself in the mirror. He saw a man in the prime of life, strong and clear-eyed.
He did not want to go to bed; but perhaps a walk to the club would make him sleepy. He debated whether to disturb the man at work below to tell him, and decided he would not. He went downstairs quietly.
On the second floor he looked out to reassure himself as to the weather. The sky was a little cloudy, that was all. And then, as he stood there looking out of the hall window, he saw below him a little garden in the moonlight. He looked away quickly, but not in time, for he remembered a moonlit garden perched on one of the hills of San Francisco, where as a young man he had walked night after night dreaming impossible things. That memory was painful, and he hurried downstairs and took his hat to leave the house. But the pain of that memory was strangely sweet, and afflicted him with a kind of nostalgia. He wanted to go out into this garden and be again the young fool he had been. He walked up and down the hall with his hat in his hand, wanting to go away and wanting to stay and dream in his garden. It was a queer thing. He had stopped drinking, and he had stopped dreaming, years ago; the desire for drink had never come back, but the desire for dreaming was upon him again. He felt that his whole life of triumphant common sense was at stake. But no, it couldn't be. An hour in a moonlit garden could not undo the solid achievement of twelve years. He put his hat back on the stand. With a guilty sense of having yielded to a weakness, he went quietly out, past the door from behind which came the inspired click of typewriter keys fashioning some strange adventure.
In the garden he stood and looked about. There was a full moon above, dimmed with clouds and casting that half-light which transforms the accustomed world into the realm of fancy. On such a night as this -- Odd bits of poetry, remembered from his youth, came into his mind.
Across from where he stood was a high board fence, and in it a gate, painted ivory white. He had an impulse to go over and open it. But instead he stood still, mockingly analyzing that impulse. "In a story," he said to himself, "there would be an adventure waiting in the next garden. But in real life, as I well know, there is only another garden, like this, with no one there. People do not moon about in gardens."
But then he reflected, "I am mooning about in a garden." Realizing that bankers do not do such things, it seemed to him that he was not a banker, but, as his friend had said, a phantom in a phantom world where impossible things come true.
He surrendered himself for a moment to this feeling, and began to think foolish thoughts, such as he had not thought for twelve years.
"What if there should be an adventure waiting for me on the other side of that gate? What if there were a girl in that garden, waiting?" These thoughts were frightening, and nevertheless they made him happy.
Then his common sense reasserted itself. There was nothing in that other garden, and he was being a damn fool. He reflected gratefully that no one would ever know what a damn fool he was. The depositors at the bank could never guess, nor could his wife. And since there was nothing on the other side of the gate, he might as well go and open it and look into the garden, and then go back to bed.
He walked over to the gate, and there he paused. Why trouble himself to prove what he already knew? Why not keep intact the memory of this absurd fancy and have the pleasure of thinking that perhaps, after all, there had been an adventure waiting beyond that gate.
He realized that if he opened the gate and nothing happened, it would hurt. He put his hand on the latch in a mood curiously like the mood of prayer. If he had had a God to whom such a prayer could be addressed, he might have prayed that just this once-- But his was no pagan diety, and so he did not pray. Lacking the courage that prayer sometimes gives, he took his hand from the latch.
Then he remembered how he had gone down to the waterfront every morning and looked out over the bay and never set sail for the islands of romance; and he felt that this was a test. It didn't make any difference what happened: he couldn't turn back.
He pushed open the gate softly.
Seated on a little wooden bench was a girl; her face was turned away from him, but he could see the languid sweep of a slender arm, bare and beautiful.
One last reminder of his ordinary self intruded into his mind, the façade of the bank on Fifth Avenue, symbol of twelve years of sturdy effort in the realm of common sense. But it seemed to have no relation whatever to this moment, and it faded and was gone.
He stood looking at the girl for the space of a breath; then he walked over to her through a tangle of moonlight that broke through the branches of an elm.
The milk wagons were rattling over the
when he went back through the ivory gate, and he could hear the
still clattering within the house. He went silently to the
undressed, and flung himself on the bed. The adventure was over,
and now he had to think about its relation to actuality. But he
not think; he fell asleep.
At the bank there were other matters to occupy his mind. On the train to the country that afternoon there was a neighbor who talked about financial conditions. At the end of the ride there was his wife's welcome and the children climbing into his arms. It wasn't until after dinner that he had any time to think.
He was rather surprised at his thoughts. They were, first of all, thoughts of relief at being back at home. It was as if he had strayed for a few hours out of time and space, and was happy to find himself again safely within the cozy contours of the familiar. He was glad to be back in a world that had a meaning beyond the moment, a world that reached back in memory and forward in hope, the world of reality.
As a happy citizen of this comfortable world, he was natrually concerned with the inquiry whether his position in it had been endangered by last night's adventure. And it seemed to him that he need have no fear. That adventure was a thing utterly apart from all the rest of his life-- a thing complete and perfect in itself, with no sequel to be feared or hoped for; they did not even know each other's names. She herself had preferred that it should be so.
"And," she had said, "you needn't fear that it will ever be made commonplace by our meeting at a tea somewhere; you will never see me again." And he had said, laughing:
"You speak as though you were going to die or going on a very long journey!"
"Yes," she said, "something like that. You musn't ask me about it, only take my word for it."
And he strangely believed her. Why, he did not know. But today he was glad to be so sure that their adventure was ended and that no one but themselves could ever know about it. He had left his friend and gone up to bed; he had sat down to read a magazine before he went to sleep; and in the morning he had been awakened for coffee. Over the coffee he had asked:
"Who lives in the little white house next door, a writer?" and was told, "A school teacher, I believe." Evidently his friend did not know of the school teacher's guest. No; so far as all the world was concerned, there had been no midnight adventure. It was as detached from reality, as immaterial from any common sense point of view, as if it had been merely a story he had read in a magazine that night. He might, if he wished, think of it as that.
He was a little startled, as by an odd coincidence, when his wife asked, "Shall I read you a story? The new magazines have come." But really it was no coincidence at all, for she knew that he liked magazine stories and enjoyed being read to in the evenings. The thing had happened many times before; nevertheless, it was a little strange to be listening to such a story, while in and out of his mind there flashed bright memories of another story.
"Why always the South Seas, I wonder?" his wife paused to remark, looking up from the big chair where she sat with the magazine in her lap. "I suppose it is a more romantic place."
"Yes, perhaps," he said.
He had talked to that girl last night about the South Seas; he had said he would like to take her there to see the strange birds and flowers. And she had told him about Venice. And while they talked of sail boats and gondolas, they were sitting on a garden bench in Greenwich Village.
"He gets the romantic atmosphere rather well, doesn't he?" said his wife. "I think I can guess which one of the girls he is going to fall in love with, the one with the red hibiscus flower in her hair. What do you think?"
"Very likely," he agreed.
Who was she, the girl of last night's story? He couldn't guess. She wasn't young, as girls in stories are; there were even tragic lines marring the beauty of what had been a lovely face. But her eyes were incredibly young -- the eyes of a child, full of wild dreams. Perhaps, in her ordinary life, she was some one quite different from what she had been that night -- as different as he had been from his ordinary self. None of his friends would have recognized him as the romantic wanderer whom she had held for a moment in her arms. He had even quoted poetry to her. On such a night as this -- Well, he didn't care; it had not been sham. It was another part of himself. And she? It did not matter what she was to her firends. Last night she had been his strange and lovely playmate.
His wife looked up from the magazine.
"A little improbable, don't you think?"
Many things were improbable, he reflected. That room last night, with its flowers and tall candles.
"This isn't my place, you know," she had said. "Shall I tell you a story? It belongs to a school teacher, a queer little old-maidish person one would have thought if one had seen her in her school room, no doubt. She invested all her savings in oil stock; and contrary to what you might expect, she made a fortune,-- oh, just a little fortune, but enough to last her for the rest of her life. And she bought this house in Greenwich Village, and fitted up this room as a place for romantic things to happen in. But nothing romantic happened. So yesterday, when we met,-- she was going away on a visit, and I was in town for a day and a night, on my way somewhere else, -- well, we became very quickly acquainted, and she wanted me to stay here. I was thinking of her when you walked into her garden tonight. Shall I tell you? I think that she believed I was the sort of person to whom romantic things do happen, and that if I were here, this room of hers would fulfill its destiny. Is it shameless of me to tell you that?"
"It's beautiful of you to tell me that," and he took her in his arms, no longer wondering how this adventure would end.
"I don't like her." It was his wife, speaking of the heroine of the story she was reading.
"She isn't real."
He looked at his wife. She was real. And that was better than being the phantom creature of a lovely moment. Why should she bedrudge the other kind of girl her moment?
It was odd; he wasn't in the least ashamed. Men, he remembered, sometimes had bad consciences over things like this, they were driven to confession by remorse. But he had nothing to be sorry for. Why should he confess?
His wife laid the magazine aside a little petulantly.
"Oh, well," she said. "it's just a story."
"Yes," he said absently, "just a story."
It was a fortnight before he went back to town. That evening he invited his friend the story writer to dinner, and they talked. And as it seemed by accident, their talk touched upon the subject of neighbors.
"Is Greenwich Village any different in that way from uptown? Do you know your school teacher neighbor in the little white house next door, for instance?" Surely, he thought, it could not be rash to ask that. Certainly his friend would not suspect him of a personal interest in an old-maid school teacher. So he was thinking when he heard, "She died there today."
Afterward he could hardly believe what had happened, except that a wild conviction came into his mind, whirling him out of his chair, out of the restaurant. He wandered somewhere, with one thought in his mind:
He must see that dead face.
Then he found himself in a house, in that house, among a fluttered group of school teachers who talked to him about the woman who had died. They took him for one of her family. He did not talk to them. He went up a stairway and into a room with faded flowers and tall candles ranged about a high bed like an altar. A dead woman lay there, with a sheet drawn over her face. He lifted the cloth and looked at her face and went away silently.
It was queer, he knew, this impulse to confess that haunted him day and night. When she had been alive he had never wished to speak the words that might set him free to seek again the strange solace of her lips and and arms. But now that she was forever out of reach, he felt this mad compulsion to make known their shadowy love.
To speak now would be to risk losing all the happiness he had built up for himself in the real world, out of an inexplicable loyalty to the memory of his dead playmate. But he could not think of such things now. He could think only of the dreamer who had decked a room for a beautiful adventure that did not come, and who sat in a garden waiting, wondering whether death would come before the adventure; and of a gate that swung open one moonlit night to make her dream come true, and of two adventurers happy for an uncalendared hour in the phantom world of fancy. The time would come, his reason urged, when this memory would be a thing remote and forgotten, when it would no longer hold for him even the ache of regret, when its pathos even would be faded, as its bright joys were already fading in his thoughts. He would be sorry to have spoken. He would know that he had been a fool to speak. But now, though he lost everything that would one day be dear to him again, he did not care.
He fought against that mad impulse while he could. Then, lest he blurt the thing out suddenly, he began to plan the manner of his confession.
He remembered a fantastic idea uttered that night by the story writer and he thought, "It will be easier to tell it to her first as a story."
He began haltingly enough, constrained as he was to present to her imagination these two nameless figures of a man and a woman who had wished rashly for a happiness not to be had within the solid confines of reality, but as he talked, he forgot all else, and his confession became a passionate vindication of the rights of that phantom self for which the workaday world has so little use, and which can achieve only a pitiful and momentary freedom in which the world calls folly. Then, for he had come to the end of his tale, in that picture of a room with its faded flowers and spent candles and a face whose eyes were no longer bright with wild dreams, abruptly he ceased speaking. And it seemed to him that even without as yet naming himself, he had confessed his crime of secret rebellion against the wisdom of the world.
He looked up and saw that there were tears in his wife's eyes.
"It's true," she said. "Women do feel like that."
He was bewildered.
"All women," she went on. "But I didn't think men knew. How did you know?"
He was about to tell her how he knew, when she spoke again, softly.
"I'm glad she found so beautiful a lover."
Then he was ashamed, of what, he hardly knew, unless it was of what he seemed to his wife. He realized that he was to her merely what he had labored for twelve years to seem to all the world. Not the foolish adventurer of his tale; no, she could never believe that. He imagined how it would sound to her if he pretended to be that man in the story. It would be the strangest argument in the annals of marriage. He could prove nothing; his secret was fatally secure. She would say, "You have dreamed it, dear."
And seeing himself with her eyes, he was shaken by a doubt. Perhaps it had been just a dream.
But presently a thought of bitter comfort
he would tell his friend the story-writer, who would do what was after
all the only sensible thing to do with a dream in this world, sell it
And after a time that was what happened.
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