The Ghost by Max Brand
Note: Along with the eulogy I posted yesterday about Max Brand, I wanted to do something with one of his public domain stories. I didn't read this story before clipping it from the scan, and had assumed it was a ghost story. If it had been, I would have recorded it for the podcast. It is not. It is a romantic drama. By the time I figured that out while reading and correcting the OCRed text, I figured I'd go ahead and finish. It was originally published in the July 24th, 1920 issue of The Argosy. Thus, it is now in the public domain.
by Max Brand
Her name was Valerie Eloise St. Vincent and she married John Smith. The names tell the story, but it may be expanded.
Valerie St. Vincent was a masterpiece; like a Greek tragedy or a Chopin prelude she gave that classic feeling of completeness—which means that every detail of her was finished. Every one has seen beautiful French women with large ankles, and beautiful English women who become flabby at thirty, and beautiful American women with bony hands, but Valerie St. Vincent was perfect. Her manicurist, for instance, said that her finger-nails had a natural lustre; and when she wore evening dress there was that curve which in our dreams we see running from finger-tips to shoulders and throat and chin; and there were her arms, impossible of description, for they were that peculiar rounded sort which are lithe without being sharp at the elbows. You felt the curves of her body through her clothes. Her hair was that accurate blue-black which has lustre without metallic gloss, and there were masses and masses of it, incredibly silky and fine. Her eyebrows were the rare, slim, unfaltering lines which could truly be called penciled; and the eyes beneath them were a deep blue continually varying as the sky varies between evening and night.
Such was Valerie St. Vincent.
When she came out of course Mrs. Gregory Sloan looked her over, carefully, for the whole evening. Mrs. Gregory Sloan never made mistakes, and therefore Valerie’s mother was on pins and needles until she heard the judgment
"My dear," said Mrs. Gregory Sloan, “Valerie will be a tremendous success. She belongs to the first class.”
"And that?" asked Valerie’s mother.
"Of course you know there are three classes," smiled Mrs. Gregory Sloan. "There are women who are woed, women who have been woed, and women who might have been woed. Valerie is like you, my dear!"
At which Mrs. St. Vincent flushed in her own delightful way and disappeared into a crowd—of men.
The rush to get Valerie, which began that night, lasted three seasons and was of historic density throughout. The first season she threw away a title; the second season she laughed at a hundred millions; the third season—
Well, in the third season two men stood out above the crowd, and they were Lloyd Gandil Maury and George Swain Van Siebert 2nd. They both had enough money, family, and all that sort of thing, though there had been others far better equipped in all respects than these two; but by this time it was apparent that Valerie was out for a man, not for the
trimmings which may surround a man. As the vulgar phrased it, Valerie was not hunting for a letterhead. So in the third season these two splendid fellows were running neck and neck, and even Valerie could not help but show her partiality toward them. Toward the spring she went up into the mountains, and every one said: "When she comes down she’ll have made up her mind." They were perfectly right. When she came down from the mountains she had made up her mind; she was married; and she was married to John Smith.
People naturally gasped at first, but society is much more tolerant than we are told in the Sunday papers, and now society said nothing, but sat down to await developments. By a little rummaging about in the past it learned that John Smith was worth a few millions in Western copper stocks and it also learned that he had been a football player in college. That was promising. Here was the young Lochinvar come out of the West with big hands and a square jaw and eyes of fire—a self-made millionaire, a hero of many a battle on the gridiron, a man who did things and who would sweep Valerie along to Rockfellerian heights. So society stepped out and met John Smith half-way. It smiled upon him cordially, it took him by the arm, it drew him aside, it opened the fifty-year-old Burgundy and drank to his eyes and waited for him to speak.
But John Smith did not speak. He smiled in a rather vague way. Some men are "strongly silent"; but John Smith was merely "expectantly hushed." Society shook its head, but still it refused to be disillusionized. Was it not looking upon the man who had married Valerie Eloise St. Vincent? It examined John Smith more in detail.
His hands, to be sure, were large, and so were his shoulders, but several layers of fat had gathered over his muscles since his college days, and while his chin was square enough it showed terrible tendencies toward doubling itself. Neither were his jests stale, when he told them, nor was his voice overwhelming; nor was he painfully self-conscious; nor did he wreck his dancing-partners; nor did he light cigars with bills of large denominations; in a word, he did none of the crude things which shock society into delighted attention. And the world gradually realized the depressing truth that John Smith was exactly like his name. He was just a good-natured, kind-hearted, rather stupid, commonplace. His football days had been spent in a little Middle Western college; and, worst of all, his money had been inherited.
Mrs. Sloan, of course, gave judgment at last. She said: "He is never in the way, and on account of Valerie he will never be out of the way." Society swallowed hard and agreed with Mrs. Sloan, as usual.
But it was impossible to bury Valerie Eloise St. Vincent in the chasm of “Mrs. Smith." Nature rebelled at the boundary. She had not wrought this perfect flower in order to waste it on the desert air of social oblivion. Flowers do not bloom unseen in the twentieth century.
Not while roses are nine dollars a dozen.
In truth, marriage did not change her in the least. She was just as accessible as ever; she was just as uncompromised by attentions; she was just as far from being monopolized; neither did she wilt. Valerie Eloise—Smith—wilt? By no means! She blossomed still more delicately. What a complexion was hers! It was not like the lily. No, but have you ever looked inside the lily at noon of a bright day and seen how the deep-yellow of the stamen is reflected and gives the rarest glow of gold to the inside of the cup? Ah, that was the complexion of Valerie which defied time!
So George Swain Van Siebert told her this day at Wandermere—that was John Smith’s place up the river. They were alone on the little porch off the breakfast room, and they were about to follow the beagles over the hills. The costume hit off Valerie in rare style—the rough colorful Tweed of the short skirt, the loose blouse with the tie making a splash of color, and the tam-o’-shanter making more color above.
"You’re like the soul of the morning, Valerie,” he concluded, "absolutely—like —the freshness—of the morning.”
It wasn’t hunting for words that made him stumble in this manner; it was the struggle to keep himself from saying too much, and the effort made his lips tremble and his eyes bright. And she watched him with concern, her fingers fumbling in the pockets of her dress as though she were about to draw something out.
"There—the beagles are out,” she said. “We mustn’t keep them waiting." He stopped her with a gesture.
"I’ve got to see you and have a chance to talk," he said earnestly.
She said rapidly in alarm: "Pull yourself together, George; you’re letting yourself go."
"Valerie, you cool-headed, enticing, delightful—"
"If you are heard—" she suggested.
"Then promise me a chance to talk soon."
"I’ll manage it while we’re following the beagles."
He drew a long breath and then followed her out to the front of the house. There were the beagles, little, active dogs with sad eyes and sweeping ears. John Smith, his cheeks flushed by the crisp morning, held half a dozen of them in leash, and they strained futilely against his big, fleshy hands and raised the chiming chorus of the hunt. There were a dozen other guests come out for the week-end to follow the beagles and see Valerie. They stood about yawning—for the hour was early—until Valerie appeared, and then they started into life, with a smile here, a jest there, then laughter, and there was never a merrier hunt than that which scurried across the hills at Wandermere.
George Swain Van Siebert watched Valerie with a careful eye, but she showed no intention of lagging behind. In fact, she was up there at the very heels of the hounds, with the crowd clustering closely around her. So, she was putting him off again. He waited until the hunt entered a wood and there he sat down on a stump under pretence of tying a loose shoe-lace. Almost instantly the crowd was out of sight among the trees, but when he started up to go back to the house he found himself standing face to face with Valerie. Van Siebert blinked, as if the eye of an electric flashlight had suddenly glared at him.
“You’re awfully impatient and just a little sullen, aren’t you?” said Valerie.
He took off his cap and stood twisting it between his hands; so that the slant morning sun set fire to his hair, for it was a sort of bronze-red and curled thick and short and close to his head. Usually when Van Siebert tried to be grave he was only boyishly wistful, but now he was different— Valerie recognized the change at once.
Yet he began, lightly enough: "How in the world did you manage to get from that crowd and come back here—all in a moment?"
"I saw you were angry—and I just managed it Sit down again and I’ll take this hump of turf."
"I’d rather stand for what I have to say."
It was characteristic of Valerie that she made no attempt to evade the issue. She merely nodded, as much as to say: "I know!"
"But, after all," said Van Siebert, "there’s no use in a lot of words. Only, I have to know what the end is going to be—and I have to know it now!”
She had picked up a little switch during the hunt and now she held it between her extended hands and turning it slowly.
"I’d tell you this minute, if I could."
"Is it fair to dodge?"
"You know that I never dodge. I’m merely trying to make up my mind."
"Valerie, it’s desperately hard to be about you like this, month after month. I’ve held myself in check till my muscles ache and my head swims, and it makes me sick at heart to think of all the times I’ve talked to you with one eye watching for an intruder and one ear cocked to hear an approaching step. It can’t go on!"
"It can’t go on," she agreed. "You’re growing worse every day—your eyes follow me about in such a way. Only yesterday Mrs. Redding said: ‘I don’t know which is the more patient, George or your husband.’ Yes, if we don’t come to a decision we’ll come to a scandal. Every one is beginning to watch; they’re hungry to make misconstructions. John is the only one who sees nothing. Can’t you give me a little more time?”
"Time?" cried Van Siebert. "My God, Valerie! Can’t you say yes or no? Take me or send me away!"
"I don’t want to send you away, but the other thing—give me a little more time. I’ve never been the sort to jump to conclusions. You know that."
"But this will run on forever, and every day is a distinct and separate hell for me. I can’t stand it!"
"It’s as hard for me as it is for you. Whenever you’re near me I’m in a panic and it seems to me that some one is bound to see. When you shake hands it’s ages before you let my fingers go, and even then your eyes follow me and take hold of me and possess me. George, you throw your attentions around me."
He stepped closer to her and looked down into her face, for he was a big fellow of the build which has weight without heavy-footedness, and now he stood poised and eager as a young crusader ready for battle.
"I don’t know what keeps me from it, Valerie," he said in a low voice.
"Your fine gentleness," she answered.
"Do you think it’s that? Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and sat before the window. The sky was very dark, but after a time I could make out the dark, pointed tops of the trees wavering against it and I could hear the wind going through the branches like a far-off sea. That sounds—mushy—like poetry, eh? But I didn’t feel that way. I wanted to have you somewhere out in that forest where I could break the damned chain of convention that keeps you here at Wandermere, unhappy.”
"But I’m not unhappy. I suppose I should be, but somehow it’s impossible for me to be unhappy long. Just when I’m about to become properly blue and think about life and death and such things, I’m sure to hear some one laugh, or see how yellow the sunshine is-and then away I go and forget everything."
"Valerie—oh, confound it!"
"Me, you mean."
But her smile seemed to spur him. He gave a little sharp cry and caught her close to him. He pressed her head against his shoulder and kissed her.
"Valerie, dear, my dearest, do you care? Are you afraid?"
"Because you love me!"
"No, because I don’t!"
He freed her with a groan and struck the back of his hand across his eyes, as if he tried to clear his vision.
"Do you want me to lie to you, George?"
"No—yes—I don’t care whether it’s true or not. I only want you to say you care for me."
"You know that I like you tremendously. I’d rather be with you than with any one."
"Damn the liking! It isn’t that I want. Valerie, you stone-hearted, beautiful image of a woman, haven’t you ever been touched by that feeling of emptiness that grows stronger when you’re with the person you love; and a pain that grows in you till your eyes are misty?"
"It’s somewhere between homesickness and seasickness, isn’t it?"
He stiffened a little.
"Don’t you see?" she said quickly. "It’s because I do know what it is that I tell you I won’t go with you."
"Who was the man? John Smith?"
"Don’t be ironical. He was the man. You see, if this love that you talk about so much is to live, it has to be an exchange. It can’t come entirely from one side. I know. Just before we were married and just after, it was the real thing. I loved him; he loved me; and that changed the world. To see him was happiness—that sharp kind with the hurt in it. I was so happy that the tears used to come into my eyes."
She paused, and then glanced slowly toward Van Siebert with a rather twisted smile.
"It didn’t last long. It went out in me, suddenly, one day, as a wind will snuff a candle; and ever since I’ve been like some one in the dark. But John still cares for me; he lives with the great illusion. No, I don’t pretend with him, any more, but he takes me for granted and he’s happy as I used to be. Do you think I could rob him of that? I’d rather commit murder! When the thing dies in him—then I’ll go and we'll try the big adventure together. It won’t be the old star-storming joy, but at least I could never be weary of life with you.”
Van Siebert was afire.
"You’re waiting for it to die in him? Good heavens, Valerie, don’t you know that it’s- been dead in him these many long months?"
"That isn’t the white sort of fib, George."
“Come, come, Valerie, you know I wouldn’t misrepresent. I’ll tell you exactly what I know. Gad! to think that you’ve been blind to it! Well it was a good month ago that I walked in on John in the library. I had on a pair of English walking-shoes— the rubber-soled kind, you know—and I suppose I didn’t make much sound. He was half turned away from me, with his head resting on one hand and the fingers digging into his hair, and I heard him sigh. When I stepped closer I saw that he held a picture on his knee, and it was a girl’s face—"
There was a joyous cry from Valerie.
"It’s true! It’s true! It’s true!" she said. "Those absent-minded moods of his lately! Wasn’t I blind not to guess! Dear old John, I know he’ll be happy with her. Still—it may not have meant anything."
"But it did, most certainly," urged Van Siebert. "When he saw me he caught up the picture and slipped it back into his breast pocket. And then I saw the picture was in that old pigskin case which he carries about with him always—you know the one?”
"Yes, yes! He’s never without it!"
"Also he tried to cover his embarrassment by making conversation; and you know that’s rare in John."
"Think of it! Here I’ve been torturing myself to keep from hurting John; and John has been in misery to keep from hurting me, and all the time—" She broke off into a merry laughter.
"Then you’ll go?" cried Van Siebert, though his voice lowered to a stealthy murmur.
"Go? Yes, now, this moment! Go? Will a prisoner go from a prison? Go? I’ve only to slip the leash, George, and I could love you with all my heart. I’ve known it, but I’ve fought to keep away from it I’ve only to take a single step— see!—and you can be all the world to me!"
She was in his arms again as she spoke, dinging, and a tremor underlay her voice like the quiver of the harp-string long after it has been plucked—an undercurrent of music. Van Sibert shook like a leaf.
"Valerie, oh, my dear," he murmured to her, "you’ve been like a lovely flower—a cut flower without life—but now there’s the blossom and the perfume together, and the fragrance runs through me. Tell me— again—you love me!"
"With all my heart."
"This moment is worth all the waiting. Shall we go? Now?"
She had slipped away from him again. And her voice and her flush and her eyes— she was like a crystal-clear river that runs bright with the reflection of a gay sunset.
"Not now. It must be perfect from the start. To-night, at twelve, if you have your car waiting—”
It’s a rare child that will give up even a broken toy to another without a struggle, and that evening, to the astonishment of Van Siebert, Valerie had not a glance or a word for him. She concentrated entirely on her husband. He watched the results rather anxiously, but John Smith could not have answered better if he had been coached to the purpose. He was as conversationally impregnable as a walrus on a cake of ice. The climax came when Valerie, in the drawing-room, threw open the French windows and stood in the night wind.
She called over her shoulder to her husband: "It’s a ripping night, John—perfectly dear and a big yellow moon coming up through the woods. Sha’n’t we jump into our togs and take a canter?"
John Smith stirred the logs in the fireplace and cast a hesitant glance toward Valerie.
"It’s a little chilly out, isn’t it?" he asked. "And rather snug right here by the fire, eh?"
"I suppose you’d be happier here," she said, and closed the window again.
"You don’t mind?" queried John Smith guiltily.
"Not the least bit It was just a fancy."
"Glad of that," sighed John Smith, and, sliding somewhat lower in his chair, he stretched his legs to the blaze. But Valerie turned for the first time that evening to Van Siebert and sent him such a bright and steadfast look that it brought his heart to his throat and he glanced about him afterward, to see if any one had noted it. But no one dared attach significance to Valerie’s glances and smiles; it might be a man’s necktie which pleased her-or the cut of his hair.
One retired early at Wandermere, for the host set the pace, and by eleven the house was dark and noiseless. It was then that Valerie slipped out of the bed into which her maid had seen her retire and dressed hastily, humming while she worked. She turned on only the light at her derssing-table, for a greater illumination might attract attention. In that glass she studied herself with satisfaction; she had never looked so well, she thought There was that color in her cheek and that touch of a smile at the comers of her mouth which only one thing could put there. Finally she put on a snug tailored hat and an overcoat with a great collar of red fox. Van Siebert had admired that coat, on a day. She was smiling at the memory while she glanced about the room for a mute farewell. All was as it lay printed indelibly in her mind; nothing ever changed at Wandermere—nothing except Valerie. She switched out the light, and so doing her eyes traveled through the window and far out across the moonlit forest. Freedom!
She began at once shudderingly eager to leave the place and hurried into the hall. There she heard—or rather felt—a faint vibration with something familiar in it. Then she remembered and chuckled softly. For John Smith was a famous sleeper and his snoring was proverbial. There was that story of Mrs. Philip Askworth and the earthquake at her country house—Valerie followed a sudden impulse, opened the door, and was in her husband’s room. She was not sorry to look her last upon him while he slept.
The slant moonlight cut across the room and struck full upon his face, round, rosy from the chill air, with the mouth stupidly open. And his snoring filled the room. Valerie made a little moue at the sleeper— surely without malice in it—and laid her hand upon the door to retreat.
It was then that she remembered the picture, and Valerie, being a woman, decided to see it for herself.
It was not hard to do. The closet door opened without squeak or groan and she found the clothes he had worn that day. John Smith would never let his man take anything from the pockets of his clothes; neither would he change his suit more than twice a week, for such attention he called "society nonsense." So Valerie found the pigskin case in his breast pocket and carried it over to the window.
When she opened it, she was looking at herself.
It was a miniature Sarrony painted shortly after Valerie came out. In fact, a published copy of that picture had brought John Smith east to their meeting. Unquestionably it was a masterpiece, and even by that dim light Valerie caught the color and the flowerlike charm that was hers and the peculiar golden tint of her skin. And this was the woman John Smith loved in secret.
"It’s Pandora’s Box with reverse English," whispered Valerie to herself. "First out fly a crowd of hopes and happiness and then a sting at the end."
If she were to wake the sleeper now and ask him what it meant, he would not be able to tell her, but he would stammer and grow confused. Yet she knew. She put the pigskin case back in its place, listened for another moment to the snoring of the sleeper, and then went thoughtfully back to her own room.
This time she lighted both the globes beside her dressing-table and she sat down to stare. Not at herself. But she was trying to find in herself and Behind her own face, the face of the girl who was still loved by John Smith. At first she could make no distinction, but by degrees that other, younger face grew out like a ghost, the face which Sarrony had painted with those long, dexterous fingers and those questing eyes which had eaten into her soul. What he saw he painted, and he had seen everything.
It is possible for us to separate ourselves into a mind which sees and a mind which feels and Valerie became the mind which sees everything, as Sarrony had seen it She had to shut out the vision with a cold hand. But when she did this she began to see those mountains where John Smith had first met her, and the light which had come in his eyes when he looked at her. It had been only a reflection of herself that made that light. Now the light was no longer in the eyes of John Smith because fire had burned out in her. He was a lumpish figure in clay. But what was she?
She went down to the side entrance of the house and there, as she opened the door, Van Siebert stepped out from behind a pillar and the moonlight was brilliant around his curly head.
"Valerie!" he called softly.
"Hush!" whispered Valerie. "Put your car back. I can’t go."
“You don’t mean you’re going to stay in this dungeon?"
"You’ve found you can’t care for me?"
"Oh, my dear," she said, "I love you truly for the first time."
"Are you mad? Will you stay here with—"
"With a ghost," said Valerie.
See the latest StoryHack publication, Sidearm & Sorcery Volume Two.