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THE

SUDDETH'S "EGERIA"

BY EDNA KENTON

Author of "Love Laughs at Lions," "A Prophet in his Country," etc.

I

HE critics at large had already spoken, but for Suddeth's Athens the final word was not uttered until Suddeth, in an address before the Doric club on its annual Guest Day, pronounced the "Letters of a Woman," published anonymously, to be the most remarkable compilation of wit and insight, revelation and admission, to be found in the world of modern belles-lettres. Suddeth was not given to untempered enthusiasms, but on this day he dropped the bridle upon the neck of his critical Pegasus, and let the winged creature soar. He devoted the latter fourth of his panegyrical tribute to a searching investigation into the identity of the author, a secret then known only to one member of The Sunrise Publishing Company. That the author of the "Letters" was sitting that afternoon in the fourth row, and that his eyes, during his address, rested often on her face, was a fact unknown at the time to Suddeth or to Athens.

Suddeth's Athens is a city set on a plain, lacking therefore mountains in the mass and the sweep of cliff and raging sea. But well-kept farms surround it; a pretty lake near by sways in its great cup alongside many acres of native forest that a wise Providence has preserved from the tasty hand of the landscape gardener; its streets are asphalted from limit to limit, and in spite of its two hundred thousand inhabitants, it has kept its wealth of trees. It is a city of homes, with vegetable gardens in the rear; of fine horses as well as motorcars; of two Country clubs; a University club; several fine hotels; two publishing houses; some world-famous canning factories; many Japanese servants; a number

of butlers and French governesses; a fiveo'clock tea hour that struggles still with a too extensive menu; a bitterly contested social leadership; two settlement houses; many Arts and Crafts shops; and a more or less nationally recognized "literary group." And this, in short, is Suddeth's Athens.

Vedder Suddeth was a native son of Athens, born of parents who had seen him safely through Harvard, with an extra two years in the law department. Then, to his parents' grief and the satisfied fulfilling of the prophecy of his father's law partner, he renounced the practice of law, and came home, to turn his hand to a little of everything but what the neighborhood pragmatists termed "honest work." He seemed to wish to write, and he did a little reporting for the Athens "Mail," and a little book reviewing for the Athens "Express," and, after a bit, quite a deal of dramatic criticism for the Athens "Sun." While at Harvard he had put in valuable time studying the drama from the front and rear of Boston stages, acquiring in the process some acquaintance among press-agents and minor members of casts an experience which in Athens, at that time, amounted to a knowledge of the world, and which raised him at last to the position of dramatic editor.

Some are born to the manner of omniscience-this was Suddeth's major heritage. It showed in his carriage, in his full, rotund tones, and in his smile, unsneering, altruistic. Naturally, while Suddeth was young, this smile did not take among his elders, and there were those of his own generation who when he approached frivolously said: "Go to; let the dogs be hushed in their kennels; for here comes Sir Oracle!"

But Suddeth was unruffled and kind, even behind turned backs. He praised generously and never damned with praise, big or little-till many years later! For he had his ambition, as who has not? And he never allowed, then or later, personal feeling to become a stumbling-block to the feet of it. Therefore no sun set that did not see that ambition at least a pace on its way to his goal-arbiter to all of Athens's

sons.

Unless his bridal sun had set in cloudsunless his marriage were a misstep! This question was threshed out by Suddeth's friends and enemies until it was frayed and worn. He married quite suddenly a girl who was a Wellesley graduate, and who, coming to Athens for a visit, remained to be married to Suddeth at his parents' home. If he mistook her for her cousin who was the daughter of a wealthy broker, and if she mistook him for her ideal, neither mistake was ever admitted to the world, but there were those in Athens who affirmed that both these things were true.

A

After his marriage, it became necessary for him to cut off many bachelor extravagances, for his salary was intermittent and small, and his parents' death left him nothing but the Suddeth homestead. Here one daughter was born, and here, some years later, Suddeth's salon was set up. salon is usually feminine, but for a long time Suddeth's salon was his. Mrs. Suddeth was an enigma to Athens. Every one conceded her cleverness and a certain charm, but unlike her husband, she did not fraternize with her peers, patronize her inferiors, nor run with the hounds of Athens's forty best families. She belonged to three of the city's forty-three clubsthese three musical organizations. "My wife is not literary in her tastes," Suddeth was fond of saying to visiting lions, the truth of the matter being that the Suddeth home could not hold at once two philoproteans. At all events Mrs. Suddeth kept to the musical side of the Suddeth fence, and left the dramatic-poeticcritical-fictional field to her spouse.

Velma Suddeth was fourteen when the Incident of the City Seal established her father at one bound as Athens's foremost critic and scholar. There has been great dissatisfaction with the old seal, which was in truth naught but an Indian's head and a

handful of ragged arrows, symbolical of the town's early struggles, and regardless of any of the gentle laws of heraldry. The new seal was an elaborate design by one of the Art Leaguers of Athens, introducing the civic goddess sitting with the lake on her right, the native forests on her left, the Two Forks creek parting in front of her right toe, and the University chapel, the Government building dome, the Art League façade, and a few smoke-stacks making the sky-line. About the circle ran the usual mixture of cannon-balls, sheaves, laurel, pens, oil lamps, and open books. And, surrounding all, scurried a Latin motto with a preposition followed by the ablative case.

Now every Latinist knows that the dative and ablative cases have differences not always clear to the careless mind. Suddeth, whose mind was of that woolly texture to which the most recondite and forgotten facts clung to be detached at his pleasure for the confusion of the scholar and the triumph of the scholiast, proved, the day after the hurrah of publication in the Athens "Mail," that in this instance the ablative was anathema, ergo, that its sponsors were beneath comment. Two weeks later, when interviewed concerning the resignation of the professor of Latin from Athens's University, Suddeth said that it was unfortunate that a man's career must be clouded by ignorance of a fundamental part of his subject, leaving unuttered his sympathy for the large Eastern University which was receiving the late professor of Latin at Athens with open arms.

Thus was Vedder Suddeth established at last as arbiter of Athens. Velma, aged fourteen, pursued her Gallic Wars with new ardor, and became her class's authority on all forms of the dative and ablative cases. Mrs. Suddeth received congratulations upon her husband's classic prowess with the equanimity that distinguished her at all times, and the lack of enthusiasm that she displayed for everything but her piano, Beethoven, Chopin, and Velma.

As for Suddeth, he became a member of the Beefsteak club of Athens, whose unconventional orgies with steaks and celery, sans knives, sans forks, filled with curiosity and envy all those who read the accounts of the club dinners; and he became a member of the Marathon club, limited in membership to Athens's forty best fami

lies. In other words Suddeth found himself the connecting link between convention and unconvention, between Olympus and Parnassus, between society and the Bohemia that existed in Athens. It was at this time that his salon bloomed in one night into the most interesting drawingroom of Athens-on that night when it was graced by Mrs. James Coyne, in the full flush of victory in the social leadership struggle; and this salon, at the time of his address on the "Letters of a Woman," was, with Velma, six years older.

II

As Mrs. Hale, stranger to Athens, slipped from the fourth row of chairs into the center aisle of Ionia Hall, she glanced back at Suddeth's distinguished figure descending the rostrum steps, and then at her friend, whose day guest she was.

"Dear Mrs. Coyne," she said simply, "you know Mr. Suddeth? I've told you of the little things I scribble now and then -I should like to meet him."

"Surely," smiled Mrs. Coyne. "He will come to me first of all, and anything he can do for you he will-Oh Veddie," as the arbiter approached, "what a stunning little talk! How strange it is that the woman will not let herself be known. Here is another unacknowledged genius however Mr. Suddeth, Mrs. Hale!who has come to Athens for a time and is staying at the Walton. Mrs. Hale writes."

Suddeth glanced appraisingly. Mrs. Hale was tall, slender, graceful, very lovely, and charmingly gowned. Their eyes met; hers were clear blue lakes, and he smiled charmingly.

"You 've published? No! But you write for technic, expression-what?"

"Because I must," Mrs. Hale said quietly. Her eyes looked through and beyond him. Suddenly she flushed. "That is what you said of the 'Letters' that they were written because they had to be-"

"It gave you a feeling of kinship," smiled Suddeth. "Well, frankly, those 'Letters' are the most wonderful expression of the mysterious feminine that has. been given out for many years. Touches here and there recall tricks of our few great women writers, but as a whole it

shows a new spirit in literature. I am tremendously interested in the personality behind it-that, of course, is what counts in intimate literature. The woman in the case-cherchez la femme! I want to find her-it seems to me that I've never understood a woman so well as I understand the author of the 'Letters.'"

As he talked, oratorically as he always must, he was conscious of the swift growth of a new interest that bid fair to bloom into one of his many tropical friendships with women. He realized also that his wife was coming slowly toward them, and as he caught her indifferent glance at him, and the equally indifferent comprehension that developed as it traveled from him to Mrs. Hale and back again, he resented the keenness that read him to the dregs of him. Suddeth never liked to admit that there were dregs; these friends of his later years did not find them; it annoyed him. beyond expression that his wife should make him conscious of his soul's muddy sediment. His friendships with women, to the rest of the world, were Platonic enough; it was perhaps his greatest source of annoyance with his wife that she too called them Platonic, and, with the world, encouraged them.

There

Resentful now of the intuition that caught with him the budding of a new flower in his garden of sensations, he covered it with a charming introduction of the two women that ended in a cordial invitation to the Suddeths' salon, and then Mrs. Suddeth passed slowly on, leaving her husband again alone with the new-comer. were all but constant interruptions, however, for all of literary Athens was clamoring for a chance to discuss the moot question of identity; but he found a moment alone with Mrs. Coyne, whose lips were curved in that delicately aloof smile, at once all-intelligent and entirely maddening in its promise of obmutescence, which had won her first place against the old, dethroned leader. Suddeth grinned. appreciatively at her smile, and asked a question.

"I don't know a thing about her," Mrs. Coyne answered succinctly. "We are staying at the Walton for a few months now as you know, and we met her through those pick-me-up Norrises the other evening. She knows good people in the East and evidently has been used to luxury.

I've a fancy she is establishing legal residence of some sort - I'm sure her husband is n't dead, and there seems so little rhyme or reason in settling here so detachedly and unattached. She seems a homeless little mystery, and a very clever woman, Veddie, with a mania for belles-lettres. Come over to dinner to-morrow night and meet her informally, you and Mrs. Suddeth."

Suddeth accepted the afterthought of his wife with a philosophic calm that his reply explained. "Mrs. Suddeth is going out to the Country Club for a day or two, but if you'll let me come, Margot, I'll be delighted."

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THAT Mrs. Hale herself was the author of the "Letters" came as a revelation not entirely unsuspected. Suddeth said in fact, on that memorable night when he introduced her openly, yet under seal of inviolable secrecy, to Athens's inner circle within the Suddeth salon, that from the moment that his eye first rested on her, as she sat beside Mrs. Coyne in the fourth row of the club auditorium, there was a "something" about her which, confirmed later by many clues, and finally by her forced. admission, made him trace the first seed of his suspicion to that illuminating moment of first sight of her.

Two months had elapsed between that moment and the first presenting of her to the salon, but for six weeks of that two months Suddeth had known that of her which he persisted in urging her to reveal, under his auspices, to Athens. There had been that first dinner with the Coynes and

Mrs. Hale at the Walton, during which they had played about the subject of identities. She had fenced cleverly-and had asked Suddeth to tea the next afternoon to look over a poem or two and a bit of prose. He had been frank with her about the poetry, which means that he had told her it was very bad; but he had waxed enthusiastic over her prose, which, he declared, reminded him of something rare, elusiveand wonderful. Three evenings later, when a slip of her tongue-that clever tongue!-revealed all, he knew that the prose bit held the elusive charm of the "Letters" themselves.

"How did you write them!-To whom could they have been written?- What of life have you lived, oh wonderful woman, to know life so well!"-These and other incoherencies were poured upon her in Suddeth's frenzy of admiration. She had sworn him to silence, but the secret was too big for him, and made his days and nights miserable. Finally she had consented, after hesitation that seemed to him absurd, to be presented before the smallest number of select spirits that his list could hold, as the woman who wrote the "Letters" on the strict condition that these would keep the secret inviolate until the ban of silence was lifted.

It was the most dramatic moment in Athens's entire literary life to date, when Suddeth, having solemnly sworn the little group about him to sacred secrecy, stepped from his place within the curve of Mrs. Suddeth's grand piano, and held out his hand to Florence Woolson Hale.

"This is she, dear friends," he said exultantly-"the still publicly unacknowledged author of the 'Letters'; the most wonderful creator of the most wonderful book since Héloïse!" And he bent his fine head and kissed her, in the spirit of Bohemia, where she stood.

Athens was conventional, but the salon was not. Suddeth had trained his players well, and they all acknowledged that the kiss was well within the spirit of the play. Yet not one of the comrades gathered there but stole his or her own swift glance at Suddeth's wife. Such pull-backs of an imperfectly drugged conventional sense are common enough in self-made and therefore self-conscious Bohemias, and are the joy of outside scoffers. But no scoffer sat beneath the roof that night, unless it were Mrs.

Suddeth. Athens was always doubtful about Mrs. Suddeth.

She sat through that moment, quite as much the victim of her own amazement as any salonist present. With the others she leaned forward in her chair, gazing at the man and woman. And Velma, her young daughter, just home from her last year at Wellesley, stared too, with a gasp of delighted surprise at the announcement that was choked in a gasp of shocked surprise at the kiss. She too took her swift glance at her mother's quickly masked face, but hers differed from the other furtive glances in that it was quite direct and honest. Velma had been away from home much in these six years of her father's waxing fame, and this was her first direct initiation into Platonic rites. But her Puritanic shock faded under her mother's indifference, and it was she, ardent and glowing, who first reached Mrs. Hale's side, and impressed her own young lips upon the other cheek.

"Why, all of the girls are wild about you!" she cried. "We 've done nothing all spring but read the 'Letters,' and wonder about the woman who wrote them. And to find you, here!"

The author of the "Letters" kissed her in return, impulsively.

"How I shall love to meet all your 'girls,' and talk to them!" And through all the maze of congratulations and voiced astonishment she kept close hold of the girl's hand.

Mrs. Suddeth was one of the last to come forward to remark upon her guest's achievement, and she did it with her slow grace and indolent voice that, coupled with her general aloofness, made her the resented enigma she was to Athens.

"You have done what few women of the world have had the courage to do, Mrs. Hale," she said sweetly. Doubtless she would have added more, but just then her husband spoke to the assembled roomful.

"I had occasion to write to The Sunrise Publishing Company," he remarked, "about my own unassuming little book of verse which is to appear next fall, the first book of mine, by the way, to bear the 'Sunrise' imprint. And I could not resist the temptation," with a little bow to Mrs. Hale, who turned suddenly from her hostess and stood at gaze, "to put it gently to

him that his treasured secret might be perhaps a secret no longer, at least to me. I was answered by Mr. Whitmore himself, to whom, of all the firm, the secret of the identity of the writer of their greatest triumph would most probably be known."

As he unfolded a letter Mrs. Hale stepped forward, her lips parted.

"And he said-" she breathed.

"What proves," said Suddeth, with another devoted bow, "that the world is small, and that the social affairs of Athens are not unknown in the East. He says, at the end, in a most guarded manner: 'It is not impossible that the most carefully kept secrets may escape into the open, a fact that does not lift the ban of silence from our lips. It is not improbable however that you are in the secret, since your possible part in it was a largely determining factor in our acceptance of your poems; one case, my dear sir, where personal influence overbalanced the undeniable fact that poems are a drug on the market. However we hope for unusual results in the end from your forthcoming book."

"All of which," Suddeth added, "makes me eager to admit the inspiration of the first poem, which, though written last, less than six weeks ago, is to be the title poem of the book: 'Egeria!' And when you read To Egeria' on the dedication page, you of this little group will know the inspiration is honored in the most fitting way."

Mrs. Suddeth, standing beside her daughter and her honored guest during this little scene, turned again to Mrs. Hale.

"It is a wonderful thing to have so farreaching an influence, my dear Mrs. Hale," she said cordially. "Persuade Vedder to read us his 'Egeria' on the chance that it may be as new to all of us as it is to me."

"And to me!" broke in Velma sturdily, a little of her mental shock surging back upon her, as she gazed honestly at her mother. But Mrs. Suddeth's face wore the bored expression habitual to her in public, and it did not change during Suddeth's reading of a poem which was one flame of delicate allusion to the "Letters," and to the enduring power of mental sympathy over all other human bonds. It was not a great poem-Suddeth could not write great poems-but it was a great attempt, and its

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