"And now, before we do anything more," she said, "I want you to tell me about that excessively handsome young man that I saw with you yesterday in Madison Square."
Weil was delighted at this introduction of his young friend. He began a most flattering account of Shirley Roseleaf, describing him as a genuine paragon among men, both in talent and goodness. He drew heavily on his imagination as he proceeded, feeling that he was "in for it," and might as well do his best at once. And he could see the cheek of the young listener taking on a new and more enticing color as he went farther and farther into his subject.
"If I have to rearrange my novel—the one Mr. Gouger rejected—I shall draw my hero after that model," she cried, when he paused for breath. "I never saw a man who came so near my ideal."
"But—you would have to alter your hero's character, in that case?" he said. "I have read your MSS., and your description does not tally with my young friend at all."
Miss Fern reddened.
"You don't mean to claim, do you," she replied, "that physical beauty and moral goodness always go hand in hand?"
"They should," he answered, in a tone that was meant to be impressive.
"Ah, that is another question! Do they? that is all the novelist needs to know. Did you ever read Ouida's 'Sigma?' There are the two sisters, one as pure as can be, the other quite the opposite, and the beauty belongs to the depraved one. I know Oscar Wilde takes a different view in 'Dorian Grey,' but he is wrong. I am sure that the worst man or woman in the world—reckoning by what are called the 'amiable vices'—might be the most lovely to look upon, the most delightful to associate with. Eve found the serpent attractive, remember."
Where did she learn all these things? Weil looked at her with increasing astonishment. "Amiable vices." He liked the appellation.
"Perhaps you are right," he assented, as if slowly convinced. "If you wish to be acquainted with Mr. Roseleaf, I will bring him here with pleasure. My only fear is that he will not interest you. He seems almost too perfect for earth. Think of a young man who knows nothing of women, who says he has no idea what it is to be in love, who does not understand why the ladies who pass down Fifth Avenue turn their heads to look at him! He, like yourself, is a novelist, but his characters are beautiful images that lack life. He carves marble figures and attempts to palm them off as flesh and blood. He really thinks they are, because he has never known the difference. If you could take him, Miss Fern, and teach him what love really is—"
The young lady blushed more than before.
"I—" she stammered.
"In a strictly literary way," he explained. "But," he added, thinking he was getting upon the edge of a quicksand, "we must not forget the object of my visit."
He took the parcel containing her MSS. that he had obtained from Mr. Gouger, and began to untie the string. Manlike he soon had it in a hard knot, and Miss Millicent, coming to his rescue, her young hands touched his and made his heart beat faster.
"There," she said, when the knot had given way to their joint endeavors. "It is all right, now. But, before we begin on this, tell me a little more about Mr. Roseleaf. What has he written? Where was it published? I will send to-morrow morning and buy a copy."
Her enthusiasm was agreeable under the circumstances, but the truth had to be explained to her.
"What he has written I will let you see, one of these days," he replied. "As for publishing, he ran upon the same rock that you did—that of Mr. Lawrence Gouger."
The beautiful eyes opened wider.
"So he rejected his work, too! And yet you say that it was well done?"
"Exquisitely. Shirley's lines are as symmetrical as his face and figure. His people are dead, that is all the trouble. Gouger scented the difficulty under which he labors, in a moment. 'Go and fall in love!' he said to him, 'and you will write a story at which the world will marvel!'"
Miss Fern arranged one of her locks of Titian red that had fallen down.
"And hasn't he taken the advice?" she inquired, in a low voice.
"Not yet," smiled the other. "He says, like a very child, that 'he cannot find any one to love.' I walked up the avenue with him to-day, and afterwards rode in the Park. There were hundreds of the prettiest creatures, all looking their eyes out at him. And he hadn't the courage to return one glance, not one. Ah, Miss Fern, it will be genuine love with Shirley Roseleaf, if any. The imitations one finds in the fashionable world will never answer for him."
The young lady breathed a gentle sigh, as her thoughts dwelt on the handsome figure she had seen in front of the Hoffman House.
"You may bring him here—yes, I should be glad to have you," she said, slowly. "But I must ask one favor; do not tell him what I said so thoughtlessly about his being my ideal. Let me talk with him on fair terms. It may be, as you suggest, that we shall be of advantage to each other. When can you arrange it?"
"Almost any day," smiled Weil. "I will let you know, by mail or otherwise. And now, this story of yours," he added, thinking it a shrewd plan to divert her attention from the other matter while it was still warm in her mind. "Though I have read it through, and think I understand it fairly well, I am all the more anxious to hear it from your lips. You will put into the text new meanings, I have no doubt, that have escaped my observation."
Miss Fern flushed pleasantly and inquired with a show of anxiety whether Mr. Weil had found its construction as bad as his friend, Mr. Gouger, had intimated.
"To be perfectly honest, it might be improved," he replied. "But the germ is there, Miss Fern—that necessary thing for a good novel—an interest that will hold the reader in spite of himself. I disagree with Lawrence in his essential point. I am sure that a good writer of English with a taste for fiction could make all the necessary alterations without in the least detracting from the value of the story. For instance, I believe if Mr. Roseleaf would take hold of it I could guarantee to get you a publisher this winter."
"And do you think he would?" she cried.
"I think so."
The authoress was so delighted with this announcement that she conquered the slight wound to her pride. It would be herself still who had drawn the picture, who had put the coloring into it; all that the other would have to do might be described as varnishing. She took up the first sheet of her writing, and turned up an oil lamp that stood upon the table at her elbow, the better to see the lines.
"Are you ready?" she asked.
"Quite ready," smiled Mr. Weil.
In a voice that trembled a little, and yet not unpleasantly to the listener, Miss Fern began to read her manuscript. The opening chapter introduced the heroine and two gentlemen, either one of whom might be the hero. As the book is now so well known it is needless to transfer its features to these pages.
Presently the authoress paused and seemed to wait for her guest's criticism.
"That is one chapter," she said.
"Yes. I remember. And the second one is where Algernon begins to disclose a very little of his true nature. Shall we not have that now?"
"As you like. I thought perhaps you would give me advice as we proceeded, some fault-finding here and there, a suggestion of alterations."
He shook his head affably.
"Not yet," he answered. "Up to this point I see nothing that requires condemnation."
"Nor praise, perhaps?" she said, in a low tone.
"That might be true, also," he replied. "The first chapter of a novel is only the laying of the cloth and the placing of a few dishes. The viands that form the meal are still in the kitchen."
She smiled at the simile.
"But even the laying of the cloth is important," she said.
"Your cloth is laid most admirably," he answered. "And now we will have the castor, which in this case, I believe, contains a certain quantity of mustard and red pepper."
At this she laughed the more, and glanced through a few of the sheets in her hands before she spoke again.
"Did you form any opinion about—about me—from this story?" she asked, constrainedly. "Did you, in brief, think it had taken a bold girl to write it?"
He hesitated a moment.
"Yes," he said, at last. "A bold girl, a daring girl, a brave girl. Not one, however, whose own conduct would necessarily be like that of the woman she has delineated."
She was so pleased that she put down the MSS. and leaned toward him with both hands clasped together.
"You are very, very kind," she said, impressively.
"No, merely truthful," he replied. "With your permission I want to retain that last quality in all my conversations with you. When you ask me a question I wish to be perfectly free to answer according to my honest convictions."
"It is what I especially desire," she said, brightening. "No one able to judge has heard anything of this story except your friend, Mr. Gouger. I know it is bold, sometimes I think it is brazen. I can conceive that there are excellent people who would say it never should have been written. To my mind, the moral I have drawn more than justifies the plainness of my speech. You can tell better than I where I have overstepped the proper bounds, if there be such places. You are, of course, a man of the world—"
The protesting expression on the face of her companion arrested her at this point.
"That depends on what you mean by 'a man of the world?'"
"It is a common expression."
"And has many definitions. Before I plead guilty to it, I want to know just how much you intend by it."
Miss Fern put down the page she had taken up and a puzzled look crossed her pretty face.
"You make it hard for me to explain myself," she said. "I suppose I meant—"
"Now, be as honest as you asked me to be," he interrupted.
"Well, then, I suppose you are a man like—like other men."
"But there are many kinds of other men."
The young lady tried several times to make herself clearer, and then asked, with a very pathetic pout, that she might be permitted to proceed with her reading, as the hour was growing later. It was not a very important point, any way, she said.
"I cannot entirely agree with you," replied Archie. "If you are to be a writer of fiction, you should not consider any time wasted which informs you in reference to your fellow creatures. It is from them that you must draw your inspiration; it is their figures you must put, correctly or incorrectly, on your canvas. Don't understand me as dictating to you, my dear Miss Fern. I only wish, as long as you have referred to me, to know of what I am accused."
To this Miss Fern answered, with many pauses, that she had not intended to accuse her visitor of anything. And once more—with evident distress—she begged to be permitted to drop the matter and return to her reading.
"Very well," he assented, thinking he had annoyed her as much as was advisable for the present. "As they say in parliamentary bodies, we will lay the question on the table, from which it can be taken at some more fitting time. I am as anxious as you can be to get into Chapter II."
She read this chapter to the end, and paused a few seconds to see if he had any comments to make, but he shook his head without breaking silence, and she went on with the story. He pursued the same plan till the end of the fifth chapter.
"It is interesting, exciting and true," he remarked, referring to the closing scene. "And I cannot help feeling arise in my brain the question that Mr. Gouger put when he read it: How could a young, innocent girl like you depict that situation with such absolute fidelity."
He had come to the point with a vengeance. But to Miss Fern his manner was far more agreeable than if he had approached it by stealth, or in an insinuating way. She had anticipated something of the sort and had tried to prepare herself to meet it.
"Does not nature teach us some things?" she asked, speaking straightforwardly, though her color heightened in spite of her efforts. "Given a certain condition, an intelligent mind can prophesy results."
He shook his head in mild disagreement with her.
"Gouger is an expert, and he denies this, as a regular rule, at least. You should have heard him argue it with Roseleaf. 'Either throw yourself into a love affair,' he said, 'or never try to depict one.' Excuse me, Miss Fern, you bade me be frank—"
She assented, with a grave nod of her shapely head.
"You may have been in love—I do not ask you whether you have or not—but you cannot have known personally of the sort of love that you have depicted in these pages. I call it little less than miraculous that you should draw the scene so accurately."
She colored again, this time partly with pleasure, for she was very susceptible to compliments.
"Perhaps your statement may explain to you," she said, pointedly, "what I meant a few minutes ago by calling you 'a man of the world.' You recognize at a glance what I had to construct from my imagination."
Archie Weil's face changed as he realized how deftly he had been caught. He had meant to pretend to this girl that he was more than usually ignorant of the nether side of life.
"Don't think too badly of me because I happen to know what is clear to every man," he said, impressively.
"To every one?" she answered. "To your friend, Mr. Roseleaf?"
"Ah! He is an exception to all rules. And yet, Gouger says he can never write a successful book till he is more conversant with life than he is at present."
She looked troubled.
"With life?" she echoed. "With sin, do you mean?"
"With the ordinary things that men know, and that most of them at some time experience."
Her bright eyes were temporarily clouded.
"What a pity!" she exclaimed.
"Yes," he said, for it was his humor to agree with her. "It is a pity."
There was a pause of a minute, and then she asked if she had read enough for one evening. He answered that as it was now past ten o'clock it would not be easy to get much farther and that he would come again whenever she chose to set the time.
"You do not say much about my work," she said, anxiously, as he prepared to go.
"Silence is approval," he responded. "I can talk it over with you better when you have reached the end. I have things to say, and I shall not hesitate to say them then."
"When is it most convenient to you to come?" she inquired.
"Any time," he answered. "I don't do much that is really useful. But wait till you see Shirley. He will atone for the shortcomings you find in me."
She repeated the word "Shirley," as if to test its sound.
"You are your father's only child, are you not?" he asked, thoughtfully.
"No. I have a sister, Daisy, a little younger than I."
"And has she a literary turn, also?"
"Not in the least."
Archie arose, and Miss Millicent accompanied him to the front door. The tall negro came to open the portal, but Miss Fern told him, with the same quality of dislike in her tone which Weil had noticed before, that he need not wait.
"He is really a magnificent piece of humanity," said Archie, when the man had disappeared. "I never saw anything quite like him."
"You admire negroes, then?" said the young lady, almost impolitely.
"I like representatives of every race," he answered, as if not noticing her. "There are interesting specimens in all. I number among my acquaintances several Chinamen, a Moor, a Mexican, Jews, Portuguese and Russians innumerable. If that fellow was not in your employ I would engage him to-morrow, merely as a study."
Miss Fern took the hand he held out to her and set the next meeting for Saturday evening. Then she said:
"If you want Hannibal, perhaps papa would oblige you. I certainly would do all I could to persuade him."
"HOW THE WOMEN STARE!"
The next day Archie Weil lunched with Lawrence Gouger. He wanted to talk with his friend about the young author and authoress. Gouger listened with interest to the story he had to relate, and nodded approval when it appeared that Archie had behaved admirably thus far in relation to Miss Millicent.
"Do you know anything about Mr. Fern?" he asked, when the other had reached a period.
"Well, neither did I, a week ago, but I have taken pains to inform myself. He is a highly respectable elderly party, who deals in wool. He married a very beautiful lady, who has now been dead eight or ten years and he lives altogether in the society of his two daughters. If you succeed in getting Millicent's book on the counters you will earn his everlasting gratitude. They say he is not literary enough himself to be a judge of its merits, and if she has fifty copies to present to the family friends it will probably be all he will ask."
Mr. Weil uttered a low whistle.
"I don't know what the family friends will say of it," he replied, "but I call it pretty warm stuff. If the list includes many prudes they will hardly thank the girl for sending such a firebrand into their houses."
"Pshaw!" said Gouger. "The world is getting used to that sort of thing, and they won't mind it a bit. Besides, they will be so lost in admiration of their cousin's name on the cover that they will think of nothing else. What did you make out of her? Is she as innocent as I predicted?"
Archie poured out a glass of Bass' ale and sipped it slowly.
"Quite," he said, as he put it down on the table. "And she's no dunce, either." He went on to tell of the trap he had fallen into. "I'm dying with impatience to get her and Roseleaf together. They'd make an idealic couple."
Mr. Gouger inquired what he was waiting for.
"Oh, I want to do the thing right," said Weil. "I want to learn her as thoroughly as I can, before I bring him upon the stage. It will take three or four evenings more to hear the rest of her novel, and another to discuss it. I shall get around to him in about a fortnight, at the rate things are going. He will keep. What do you suppose he is doing now? Writing poetry! He sent a piece a few days ago to the Century, and they accepted it."
"He will be gray when it appears," said the critic. "It takes a long time for anything to see the light in that publication."
"But in this case an exception will be made," said Weil. "They have assured him that it will come out in their very next issue. He will be so proud to see his name in print that I expect to find difficulty in holding him back. A poet who appears in the Century has certainly stepped a little higher on the ladder."
The critic agreed to this, and remarked that such a man as Roseleaf should give his whole attention to poetry.
"Wait!" cried Archie. "Give him time. See him after he has fallen head over ears in love with charming Millicent Fern. There is something in him, I feel sure, and between that dear girl and myself we will bring it out. By-the-way, there is a character I want you to meet," he added, as Mr. Walker Boggs came into the room. "You have never had the pleasure, I think, though you have heard me speak of him."
Mr. Boggs had his attention attracted by a waiter who was sent for the purpose and came with great willingness to occupy a seat with Mr. Weil and his friend.
"We were talking of a New York merchant just now," said Archie, when the introductions were over, "and it occurs to me that you, who know almost everybody, may have some knowledge of him. He is in the wool business, I hear, and I think you once told me you had done something in that way. His name is Wilton Fern, and he lives at Midlands."
"Do I know anything about him?" echoed Mr. Boggs. "I should say so. He was my partner for seven years, and I still have a little stake left in the concern, on which I am drawing interest."
Mr. Weil showed his astonishment at this statement. What a very small world it was, after all! Then, after pledging his friend not to mention that he had ever discussed the matter with him, he went guardedly into the particulars of Miss Millicent's book, and of his having called at the house for the purpose of passing judgment upon it.
"I didn't know that was in your line," replied Boggs.
"Well, it was this way," answered Archie. "Mr. Gouger's decision didn't exactly suit the young lady, as it was not very favorable. Mine will be quite to her taste, as I view her abilities in a more favorable light. Now tell us all about the family, as the only one of them I have met is Miss Millicent. Why, this is a regular find, old man! You should have told me a week ago that you possessed all this information that I have been aching to get hold of."
Thus adjured, Mr. Boggs entered upon his story. From which it appeared that he knew the Ferns, root and branch, and had dined with them dozens of times.
"What sort of a chap is the pater?" asked Weil.
"A very well-kept man of nearly seventy, with a great deal of what is called 'breeding' in his manner, and a face like the portrait of a French marquis cut out of a seventeenth century frame. He doesn't look like a business man at all, and between ourselves he's not much of a one. All the money he ever made—saving my apparent egotism—was when I was in the concern. I've heard he's got a big mortgage on his residence and is going down hill generally. Too bad; nice fellow; sorry for him; such is life."
Archie asked if Boggs would do him a personal and particular favor, if it would not cause him much trouble; and on being answered in the affirmative, said he would esteem it a great honor if he could be introduced to Mr. Fern by that gentleman's former business associate.
"I suppose I shall run across him at Midlands, some evening," he said, "and get one of those presentations that are the most aggravating things in the world. I don't want that to happen, and the best way, to use an elegant phrase, is to take the bull by the horns, or in this case, the sheep by the tail. Will you make an accidental call on him to-morrow afternoon and let me be of the party?"
Mr. Boggs responded that he would be delighted. And this matter being settled, all parties could give more direct attention to their lunch than they had been doing for the preceding ten minutes.
"You must have heard of my friend Boggs, in the days when he was a figure on the streets of this town," said Weil, presently, returning to what he knew was the favorite subject of that personage. "You've lived here for twenty years, and of course the name of Walker Boggs is familiar to you."
Mr. Gouger looked a good counterfeit of complete mystification for some seconds, and then a gleam as of sudden recollection shot across his face.
"Certainly, certainly!" he said. "Mr. Boggs was what is popularly known as a lady killer, if I am not mistaken. You got married, did you not, Mr. Boggs, some ten or eleven years ago?"
The party addressed acknowledged the practical correctness of the date.
"Why, it comes back as plain as day," said the critic. "The Herald had a page about you, including your portrait and some verses by a well known poet. It said your marriage had cast a gloom over Manhattan Island and some of the up-river counties."
Mr. Boggs gloomily nodded, to show that the statement was true. Then he touched his most rotund portion with a significant look.
"I'm a widower now," he said, "and nothing but this—this—stands in my way. As Shakespeare says, ''Tis not as deep as a well, nor as wide as a church door, but—' The ladies never look at me now, and all on account of this d—d flesh, which hangs like a millstone around my neck."
Cutt & Slashem's critic, ignoring the peculiar character of the metaphor used, remarked politely that he thought no lady of sense would put great stress on such an insignificant matter.
"Insignificant!" echoed Boggs. "I'll bet it's fifty inches around, come! And it's not the 'ladies of sense' I'm after. Quite the contrary."
One of Archie Weil's explosive laughs followed this statement, which caused an expression of mild injury to settle over the countenance of Mr. Boggs.
"You're getting on toward forty, and you ought to quit," said Weil. "Confound the women! Let them go."
"That's well enough to talk about," replied Boggs, gruffly. "How would you like to follow your own advice?"
Weil uttered an exclamation.
"I? I have precious little to do with them, I assure you. For a man of my correct habits I have the worst name of any one I know. Everybody insinuates things about me, and they can prove nothing."
"We'll ask Isaac Leveson about that," sneered Boggs. "By-the-way, that wouldn't be a bad place to take young Roseleaf to, when you get to instructing him in earnest. I met the young fellow on the avenue last night and walked around with him for a couple of hours. He's a darling!"
"Roseleaf?" cried both the other gentlemen, in one breath.
"To be sure. How the women stared at him! I couldn't blame them; his waist isn't over thirty, and he's as handsome as—as I was at his age. I told him he could have all the loveliness in New York at his feet, if he liked."
Weil smiled significantly at Gouger.
"What did he reply to that?" he asked.
"Oh, he had an ideal in his head, and none of those we saw quite came up to it; for I did get him to raise his eyes and look at the prettiest ones. I drew out of him slowly that he would have nothing to do with a girl unless she had red hair; that—"
Mr. Weil uttered a laugh so hearty that it attracted the attention of everybody in the room. Mr. Boggs paused to inquire the cause of this outbreak, but Archie assured him that something entirely out of the present discussion had just occurred to him, which was to blame for his impoliteness.
"A girl must have Titian hair," repeated Mr. Boggs, accepting the explanation, "or he would not consider her. He ruled out all the striking blondes and brunettes, saying that he liked only those of a medium shade. We came across one that answered these descriptions, an exquisite little creature who looked as if she would swallow him could she get the chance. And then there came out another idea. He would not think of this fairy because she was so short. 'I want a woman five feet, four inches tall,' he said, as if the article could be made to order, in case the size did not happen to be in stock. Then, would you believe it, he found a girl embracing every attribute he had mentioned. Her hair was just the right shade, her height must have hit the mark exactly, her complexion was medium. But no. She was too heavy. She would weigh a hundred and forty-five, he said, quite twenty pounds too much. If we had found a girl that filled all his description he would have invented something new to bar her out of the race."
Mr. Weil remarked that he was not so sure of Roseleaf's insincerity. He believed the right woman would yet be discovered, and that a case of the most intense affection would then spontaneously develop.
"In fact," he added, "I have the identical creature in mind. It is clear to us—to myself and Mr. Gouger here—that Shirley will never write a thrilling romance till he has fallen wildly, passionately in love."
Mr. Boggs smiled slightly, and then sobered again.
"Shall you have him marry, also?" he inquired, pointedly.
"Because it will finish him; that's why. The romance in a modern marriage lasts six weeks. At the end of that time he will be useless for literary purposes, or anything else."
Mr. Weil shook his head in opposition to this rash statement.
"My theory is," said he, "that a novelist should know everything. To write of love he should have been in love; to tell of marriage he should have had a wife—a real one, no mere imitation; to talk of fatherhood intelligently he should become a father. How can he know his subjects otherwise?"
The stout man smiled significantly.
"And if he wishes to write of murder, he must kill some one. And if he wants to depict the sensations of a robber he must take a pistol and ask people to stand, on the highway."
"Now you are becoming absurd," said Archie.
"No more than you," said Boggs. "You go too far, and you will find it out. Let your novelist fall in love. That will do him good. But don't let him marry, or you will lose him, mark my word. Let him contemplate matrimony at a distance. Let him reflect on the glory of seeing his children about his knees. So far, so good. But when you have shelved him with a wife of the present era, when you have kept him up nights for a month with a baby that screams—his literary capacity will be gone. Make no mistake!"
Mr. Weil, half convinced, and much surprised to hear such wisdom from this unexpected source, made an effort to maintain his ground.
"Nearly all the modern novelists are married," he remarked.
"Yes, and nice stuff they write, don't they? Namby-pamby, silly-billy stories, misleading in every line! They are the most unsafe pilots on the shores of human life. They start, without exception, from false premises. Their chart is wrong, their compass unreliable, their reckoning ridiculous from beginning to end. Where did you ever see a bit of real life that resembled these abortions? Do lovers usually fall on their knees when they propose? Is the modern girl an idiot, knowing less of the facts of nature than an oyster? Is the conversation between men and women filled exclusively with twaddle? You would think so, from reading these books; and why? They are written by married people, most of them, people who don't dare step over the line of the commonplace any more than a woman would dare order her dressmaker to put pockets in her gown!"
Archie looked at Mr. Gouger, who nodded a partial approval of these statements. Mr. Boggs betook himself with more interest to his chops. And the other two gentlemen, remarking that time pressed, bade him good-by for the day.
"I see you agree with him that I shouldn't marry Roseleaf?" said Archie, with a rising inflection.
"There is certainly point in what he says," replied Mr. Gouger.
"But—confound it! With the boy's disposition, it will be a delicate business," retorted Weil. "I don't know as I can carry him to the point of passionate love for pretty Miss Fern, and then shut off the steam when it suits me."
This matter was discussed for the next ten minutes, as the friends walked along toward the office of Cutt & Slashem.
"I think you are foolish to delay so long introducing him to her," said Gouger, finally. "I don't see that you are making any progress whatever."
"Ah, but I am," replied Weil. "I am making both of them more and more anxious for the meeting. Shirley walks the street feverishly impatient, and I have no doubt mutters her name in his dreams. Millicent talks about her ideal of manly beauty. When they get together failure will be impossible."
Mr. Gouger laughed at the idea that Roseleaf was "feverishly impatient" to meet any girl, and ventured to predict that the young man would have to be put in irons to get him to the residence of the Ferns when the time came; or at least to keep him there.
"Just the point I am working on," replied Weil. "Under ordinary circumstances I would have to handcuff his wrists to mine, but I am making such a strong impression on his imagination that he is crazy to go. And once she gets him under her influence—I tell you, Lawrence, she is no ordinary girl."
"She certainly does not write like one," smiled the critic, "either in her subject or her English. You may make something of him—I rather think you will—but not of her. Her ideas are wild, and her realism a little too pronounced even for the present age."
"She has truth on her side, you admit," said Archie.
"Yes, to a remarkable degree."
"Well, that ought to be something, if Boggs' estimate of the modern liar is correct. Shirley will help her to style, give her his own, if necessary. I am going to land both of these fish, if only to spite you, Lawrence. You tossed them away with that fine contempt of yours, and you will weep hot tears for it before you die."
At the door of Cutt & Slashem's they met the two members of that firm, who paused to say a word to Mr. Gouger. They were anxious for a new book to bring out as soon as possible, and were regretting with him that nothing worth publishing seemed to present itself.
"You may strain matters, it necessary," said Mr. Cutt. "We can't keep up on reprints forever. I hope you made no mistake in rejecting that book of Mrs. Hotbox. I hear it is selling well."
Mr. Gouger's face was, as ever, immovable before his employers.
"What 'Fire and Brimstone?'" he inquired. "The authorities seized the entire edition this morning."
Mr. Cutt looked at Mr. Slashem, with a startled expression.
"In that case, I am glad we escaped it," he said. "We shouldn't like that sort of an affair, of course."
Mr. Weil, who knew both the gentlemen well, inquired what they thought of Mrs. Hotbox's production.
"I have never seen it," said Mr. Slashem.
"Nor I," said Mr. Cutt.
The partners disappeared into the counting-room, where they had an interview with a binder who had offered to do their work at one-tenth of a cent a hundred copies less than the concern with which they were then dealing. Archie said good-by to Gouger, and went off to find Roseleaf, with whom he had engaged to take, later in the day, a ride through the Park.
"How soon am I to see your paragon?" sighed the young man, as they were making the grand round of that famous drive.
"Within a week, I hope. Are you getting uneasy?"
"I am getting lonesome," was the gloomy reply. "And I want to begin work."
"Well, it will soon pass now. To-morrow evening I am to hear another installment of her novel. Two more sittings after that will finish it, I should say. And the next thing will be—you. But have you seen no one else in all this time that you care for?"
The young man looked aimlessly at the fleecy clouds that hung low on the horizon.
"No," he answered.
"And you think you are ready for a passionate affection, if the right person is found?"
"I will try," he said, simply.
Mr. Weil roused himself and touched his horse with the whip.
"Try!" he echoed. "You will not have to try. She will carry you off your feet, at the first go. Shirley, I have found you a superb woman, that you must love. All I want to feel sure of is, that you can control yourself enough to behave in a reasonable manner."
Roseleaf looked up inquiringly.
"She belongs to an eminently respectable family," explained Archie. "Her father is a gentleman of the most honorable type. She has a young sister, who—"
Roseleaf, slow at all times, had at last begun to comprehend.
"You surely don't think—" he began.
"Ah, that is the question! A novelist must learn so very much—a novelist who is to depict the truth, as you are to do. Where should he stop? What experience should he refuse, provided it may be utilized in his work? A responsibility that is no light one will rest on me, my dear boy, when I have introduced you to this family, and left you to your own devices."
Roseleaf's eyes opened wider at these mysterious suggestions, but he did not like to make any more inquiries. Weil changed the conversation, calling attention to the women they met, who turned their handsome heads to look at the young man, as their equipages almost touched his.
"What an awfully wide swath you are cutting!" was Archie's exclamation, as the throng increased.
A DINNER AT MIDLANDS.
True to his appointment Walker Boggs met Mr. Weil on the following afternoon, and set out with him for Wilton Fern's office. Though engaged, as has been already stated, in the wool trade, Mr. Fern did not have on the premises to which these worthies repaired a very large assortment of that product. His warehouses were in another part of the city, and all the wool that was visible to his customers was arranged in sample lots that would easily have gone into a barrel. Mr. Weil, notwithstanding the description that Boggs had given of his ex-partner, was not prepared to see such an exceedingly fine specimen of humanity as the one introduced to him. The word "gentleman" was written in large characters on his broad forehead and in every word he spoke. It certainly was not often, said Archie to himself, that one encountered that sort of man in business.
"I have already heard something of you, sir," said Mr. Fern, affably, but with the dignity that was a part of his nature, no more to be discarded than his eyes. "That is, if you are the same gentleman that has kindly offered to assist my daughter in arranging a story she has written."
Mr. Weil admitted the correctness of the supposition, but disclaimed any special credit for what he had done. He explained briefly how he was drawn into the case. The visit lasted upwards of an hour, during which the conversation wandered from literature to business and politics, and all sorts of things.
Mr. Weil could not tell from Mr. Fern's manner of alluding to his daughter's work whether he had a very high idea of its value or not. Indeed, there was very little to be learned from this grave gentleman that was not expressed in the language he used. He was inclined, Archie thought, to reticence, for when there was a lull in the conversation it was always one of the others who had to start it going. The thing that might be counted a substantial gain, out of the whole affair, was an invitation to dinner for the following Wednesday, in which Mr. Roseleaf was included, and Mr. Boggs also.
Before the Wednesday set for the formal dinner at the Ferns', Mr. Weil had heard the whole of Miss Millicent's novel read by the lips of that charming young woman. There was certainly something very strong in it, in spite of its grammatical faults. It would be a very good story when "Dr." Roseleaf had put it into a little better English.
The meeting between Roseleaf and Millicent was most interesting to the one who had been the means of bringing them together. The girl put out her hand with a straightforward motion of welcome, and it was accepted with something resembling timidity by the young man, who did not even raise his eyes to hers. The talk that followed was nearly all her own, Shirley's part in it being largely monosyllabic replies to her statements and suggestions.
When Miss Daisy was presented to both the gentlemen, for the first time—Mr. Boggs she remembered very well—she drew their attention for a few moments from her sister, but soon relapsed into the more insignificant place which she seemed to prefer. She was not as large in any way, as Millicent, and did not seem likely to become so. Her hair was of a soft shade of light brown, and her eyes a decided blue. In the presence of her sister she did not expect to shine, and was evidently relieved when she could go into a corner and talk over times long past with Walker Boggs.
Mr. Fern came in rather late, but still before the hour announced for dinner. He had his habitual look of quiet elegance, but withal an expression of care about his face, that Weil attributed to the business troubles of which Boggs had spoken. The manner of the daughters toward him was marked by the watchful eyes of the chief conspirator. Millicent merely looked up and said, "Papa, this is Mr. Roseleaf, of whom we have spoken," and then when the greetings that followed were exchanged, went on talking with those about her as if there had been no interruption. Daisy, on the other hand, crept softly to her father's side, and putting an arm around his neck, kissed him when she thought no one observed her.
"You are tired, papa," she whispered.
"No, no!" he said, brightening. "I am very well."
It was at the table that Mr. Fern had his first conversation with Roseleaf, and the two men got along nicely together. Shirley acquitted himself creditably. Weil, who saw everything, noticed that the negro, Hannibal, in superintending the service in the dining-room, lingered more about Miss Daisy's chair than any other, and took extra pains to see that her wants were anticipated. In spite of this, however, Mr. Fern frequently asked his younger daughter to have more of certain dishes, as if his mind was constantly turned in that direction.
"How long do you think it will require to do the work you have so generously undertaken?" asked Mr. Fern of Roseleaf, when the dessert was reached.
"It is impossible to say," stammered the young man. "Some weeks, at least."
"So I supposed," said Mr. Fern. "That being the case I wish to tender you the hospitality of my home. It would be a great deal of trouble for you to come every day from the city, and I know we could make you comfortable here."
Roseleaf was about to decline the offer with thanks, when Mr. Weil spoke to him in a low tone.
"Take it, by all means," he said. "It's a chance in a lifetime. You know nothing of family life. Don't dream of refusing."
The delay allowed Miss Millicent to add her request to that of her father, and fearing to let his protege answer, Mr. Weil boldly spoke for him.
"It is a good idea," he said. "He will have his baggage brought up to-morrow. There's nothing like being on the ground, when there's work to be done. And, with the general permission, I am going to run out pretty often myself, to see how things progress."
The bright, off-hand way of the last speaker seemed to please Mr. Fern, for he heartily seconded this suggestion. When the table was vacated, Mr. Fern asked if he might be excused for a few minutes, while he wrote a couple of important letters, and requested Walker Boggs to show the guests through the grounds, where they could smoke their cigars till he returned.
Accordingly Weil and Roseleaf accompanied their new guide out of doors and across an extensive lawn to an arbor at the further end, where a handsome prospect of the Hudson unfolded itself. As Archie was wishing for some feasible way of getting rid of Boggs, temporarily, that gentleman espied an acquaintance in the adjacent road and went off to speak to him.
"Are you in love yet, you dog?" asked Archie, as soon as he and his young friend were alone. "What! You're not! Don't let an hour pass, then, before you are. The best of all proverbs is, 'Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day.'"
"How can I do this to-day?" was the doleful response.
"How can you help it, you mean? There she was at the table—Titian hair, hazel-grey eyes, lovely waist—everything. Love! I could fall in love with that girl, marry her, get a divorce and commit suicide, within forty-eight hours."
Even Roseleaf had to smile at this extravagant statement.
"Do you want me to do all of those things?" he asked.
"Only the first one, at present. If you can't do that, give up all ideas of being a novelist and secure a place in some factory or counting-room. Everything is ready for you. You are persona grata here. Nothing can come in your way. Oh, don't exasperate me!"
Roseleaf haltingly said he would do his best; and the next day he came to Midlands, prepared to spend a month or longer.
HOLDING HER HAND.
For the first three days Roseleaf gave most of his time to reading the MSS. that Miss Fern had written. He could not say that he liked it, exactly, but that was not necessary. To fill in the time, he consented to let the girl read his own story that Gouger had rejected, though he did this with trepidation, having a dread that she would think it insipid. When she had finished it, however, her delight was unbounded.
"It is lovely!" she exclaimed, in response to his inquiring eyes. "I cannot see why they refused it. I haven't been so interested in a story in years."
When he had read her story through he began to rewrite it, departing as little as possible from the original. As soon as he had a chapter finished he would give it to her, for comparison, and criticism, if she chose to make any. She proved, however, a most charming critic, her shafts falling mainly upon herself, for she declared that her novel seemed unworthy of its elegant new dress. She conceived a shyness toward this quiet youth, and blushed when the striking situations and bold language of her tale came into the conversation. It was so different from his own work!
"It is too bold. I am sure it is," she said, repeatedly. "I ought to begin again. My plot has too much freedom, too little conventionality. People will say a very strange girl must have written it."
And he would tell her that he did not think so; that the strength of her ideas was very great, and that the public would find excuses enough for anything that interested and entertained it. He even added that he wished he possessed her knowledge, her insight into life, her fearlessness to tread on any ground that her subject made desirable.
Between them they were doing very good work, without doubt. Mr. Weil took some of the completed chapters to Lawrence Gouger, who returned them with a smile that spoke volumes. Cutt & Slashem would take the story when it was ready, if the subsequent pages kept up to the mark of the first ones.
"Don't forget your own book," said Gouger, in a note he enclosed for Roseleaf.
Mr. Weil was not backward in accepting the cordial invitation he had had to join the Ferns at dinner whenever he could make it convenient. Besides this he called frequently at the wool office, and ingratiated himself into Mr. Fern's good graces in many ways. Within a fortnight he knew all there was to be known about wool, in which he seemed to have conceived a great interest. In his talks with Roseleaf he spoke learnedly on this subject, referring to the foreign and domestic staples, like one who had made the matter a life study.
"What a queer thing trade is!" he exclaimed, on one of these occasions. "Here we find a man who ought to adorn an atelier, or a seat in Congress, and yet is obliged to guide his entire existence by the price of such a confoundedly dull thing as the hair on a sheep's back. He votes a certain political ticket on account of the attitude of the party on Wool; he dines off mutton and lambs' tongues; he casts his lot with the Sheep at church. I don't know but he would feel a genuine pleasure in having Wool pulled over his eyes. And still I am convinced that he never ought to have been in the Wool business at all, and that Boggs—what a drop—is right in his impression that it will eventually swamp him."
Roseleaf asked how Mr. Fern got into the trade in the first place.
"Well, as I understand it, Boggs was looking for a partner. Mrs. Fern had some cash and her husband wanted to put it into a good thing, from a financial standpoint. They did well while they were together. When Boggs pulled out they had a clear $200,000 apiece. Boggs—confound him!—has his yet; Fern hasn't. He's proud as the devil, and didn't tell me this, by any means. It would break him up completely to have to go into bankruptcy. Really, I wish I could do something for him."
Roseleaf looked up inquiringly.
"Why, I've got a fair amount of money," explained Archie, "and perhaps a lift over these hard times might be the making of him. I'm not particularly a philanthropist, but I like this fellow wonderfully well for such a new acquaintance. I shall give him a delicate hint in a day or two, and if I can fix things without too much risk—we have to protect ourselves, you know—I am willing to do so."
This struck Shirley Roseleaf as rather odd. He had never thought about Mr. Weil in that way. Whether he was rich or poor had never entered his head. He began to wonder if he was very wealthy. He certainly lived well, and had no visible occupation of the sort the census takers call "gainful."
"It is an interesting family, though," pursued Archie, in his rambling way. "I wish I could get into it as you did, you rascal, and observe it at shorter range. Even the servants are worth studying. Look at that Hannibal; who can say that the African race is inferior when it produces such marvels! I can hardly take my eyes off the black paragon when he is present. How he passes the soup—as if it were some heavenly decoction, made by the gods themselves and sent to earth by their favorite messenger! With what grace he opens the carriage door! with what majesty he mounts to his seat by the driver! I wonder if he has a sister. She would be worth a journey to see. I have met such women on their native soil, statuesque, slender, full-breasted, square-shouldered, with jars of water on their heads and clinking silver anklets. What a cursed thing is our American prejudice against color! No other people carries it to such an extent. In the Latin Quarter the West India blacks are prime favorites with the pretty grisettes."
The young man could not help a slight shiver at this information. He did not in the least agree with the sentiments his friend was advancing, but neither did he think it wise to contradict him.
"Then there is the little one—Miss Daisy"—continued Weil, branching suddenly into that topic. "So quiet, so self-abased, as if she would not for the world attract one glance that might be claimed by her elder sister, who is perfectly willing to be a monopolist of attention. A nice girl, sweet as a fresh-plucked lily. There must be treasures hidden under all that reticence. Still waters run deep, the silent swine devour the milk. I think I ought to investigate the child. If you are to have that aggregation of beauty known as Millicent, what prevents me from securing a slight hold in the affections of the junior?"
Roseleaf shook his head in a way that might have meant almost anything. He never could tell how much in earnest his friend was when he took up a vein like this. Neither could he imagine little Daisy in the role of an entertainer for such a very wise man as Archie, not only much her senior but a thousand times her superior in knowledge and acquaintance with things that people talk about.
"Keep your eye on her—she will be worth watching," said Weil, with one of his laughs at the sober face before him. "She is worth almost as much to a rising author as the negro—not quite, but nearly. Then there is the pater-familias; is there anything in him? No, he will be of no service to you. And that brings us back to our superb Millicent, with whom you must now be wildly infatuated."
Roseleaf shook his head again.
"No—not yet," he said.
"But, what do you do all the time? How can you sit by the side of a pretty girl, and kiss her cheeks, and put your arm around her, and yet keep from falling in love?"
The younger man gasped at each of these suggestions, like one who has stepped into icy water and feels it gradually creeping upward.
"I have done none of those things," he faltered.
"None of them! Then I shall not let you stay here!" cried Archie. "What does the girl expect? That we are going to make her reputation in the literary world and get nothing for ourselves? I never heard such effrontery! She refuses to give you the least opportunity, does she—the jade!"
More and more confused grew the other at these expressions.
"You don't understand—you are quite in error," he articulated. "She—she has refused me nothing, because—because I have asked nothing."
Mr. Weil uttered a disheartened groan.
"But this will not do, my dear fellow!" he said. "How can you accomplish anything unless you make a beginning? Rewriting the story that she has written will not advance you one step on the path you profess such anxiety to tread. That is only an excuse—a make-believe—a pretence under which you have been given quarters in this house and allowed every chance in creation to learn your lesson. Are you afraid of her, or what is the matter? Does she overpower you with her beauty? Tell me where your difficulty lies."
But Shirley could hardly answer these apparently simple questions. He said he feared the trouble might be in the formality of the situation. How could Mr. Weil expect, he asked, that a spontaneous case of love-making would develop from such a condition of things.
"Stuff!" cried Archie, with a grimace. "If you and she were members of a theatrical company, and were cast as a pair of lovers, you wouldn't find so many pitfalls. You would go ahead and repeat the lines of your part, wouldn't you? All you want is to do the same now."
"But what are the 'lines of my part?'" inquired the other, dolefully.
"Take her hand once in yours and they will come to you," retorted Weil.
Roseleaf reddened so much that Archie regretted the severity of his tone, and hastened to turn the conversation to something more agreeable. He made up his mind, however, to have a talk with Miss Fern, and at the first opportunity he did so. It was on an afternoon when he knew Roseleaf was in the city, and he came to the point at once, after his own fashion.
"How are you and my young friend getting along?" he asked her.
"Oh, as well as possible," she responded. "I am learning to like him more and more. I really shall be sorry when his task is done."
Mr. Weil shrugged his shoulders.
"There's a bit of selfishness in your words, Miss Fern," he said. "Have you forgotten that he is not here to be useful to you alone; that you agreed to do what you could for him, as well?"
The girl cast down her pretty eyes in confusion.
"I am sure I have tried to be agreeable," she replied, gently.
"That is not enough," replied Archie, gravely. "What he needs is something—some one—to stir his blood, to awaken his fancy. I told you in the first place that you ought to make him fall in love with you—for literary reasons. He must feel a sensation stronger than mere friendship for a woman before he can write such a story as will bring him fame."
Miss Millicent did not grow more comfortable under this suggestion. She remarked, after a long wait, that she did not see how the end sought was to be accomplished. Love, she said, was not a mere expression, it was a deep, actual entity. Two people, playing at love with each other, might afterwards find that they were experimenting with fire.
"I have heard," she continued, her fair cheeks growing crimson, "that there are women—"
Then she paused and could go no further. But he understood.
"There are women—thousands of them," he admitted, "who would willingly do what I ask. If it is necessary, he must go to them."
She wanted to say that she hoped it would not come to that—she wanted to convey to her companion the horror she felt for what she supposed his words implied—but she could not. It was so much easier to write of things than to talk of them to a man like him.
"Do you call it quite fair," he asked, "to claim all and give nothing? He does not require much. Could you not let him take your hand, and—"
"Possibly, touch your lips with his?"
Miss Fern rose to her feet with a fierce gesture.
"Sir!" she exclaimed.
"Very well," replied Mr. Weil, shortly, turning away.
The girl resumed her seat, with rapidly rising and falling bosom. She was in a quandary. The suggestion she had heard would have sounded from any other lips like a premeditated insult. Coming from this man the venom seemed to have vanished.
Roseleaf felt somewhat discouraged after his latest talk with Weil. He wanted to make a start, to do something, no matter how little, toward the object he fully believed was to be attained. That evening while walking with Miss Fern (for it was their frequent habit to go out of doors unchaperoned) he found himself unconsciously taking her hand—that hand for which he had until now felt a genuine fright. And she, after all her resolutions never to permit anything of the sort, gave it to him, as they strolled together along an unfrequented byway.
"I want so much to make a Name," he was saying fervently. "I have tried and tried to begin such a book as Mr. Gouger wants, but I cannot. Won't you help me, dear Miss Fern? Won't you show me what I lack? I know you can, if you will. They tell me I have had no experiences, and that I must have—not a real affair, you know, but an inkling of what it is like. I have tried to say things to you and have been in fear that you would not like them, and have held my peace. But now, I can wait no longer."
In his exuberance Roseleaf spoke at last with ardor, and even went so far as to attempt to put one of his arms around the waist of the fair creature by his side. On her part Miss Fern was nearly overcome by surprise.
In one instant the timid young gentleman had changed into the similitude of a most ardent swain; but in the next he became again his natural self, with the added confusion resulting from his excited and mortified state.
"Let me take you home," he said, when he saw that she could find no words even to chide him. "Let me take you home; and to-morrow I will go away."
Go away! She did not like that idea! Her book was not yet finished, for one thing; and besides he was a nice young fellow, and had meant no offense.
"There is no reason why you should go," she stammered. "I forgive you, I am sure."
"Do you!" cried Roseleaf, grasping her hand again in his joy. "You are kindness itself to say so. I must appear very stupid" (here he half put his arm around her again, checking himself with difficulty from completeing the movement) "and dull, and wanting in manners, but you are the only young lady I have ever known on terms of the least intimacy."
Miss Fern replied that she did not mind what had occurred, and hoped he would forget it. She added that she would do anything she could for him, and had the most earnest wish that they should be friends.
At the gate they paused, and in some way their eyes were looking into each other. The girl laughed, a relief to feelings that had been for the past ten minutes somewhat overcharged.
"Well, you have made a beginning," she said, mischievously, for she wanted to drive the sober expression from his clouded face.
"A beginning?" he echoed.
"Yes," she said. "You have held my hand."
"You said you would forgive me," he murmured.
"With all my heart," she responded, putting the hand in his again.
He felt a thrill go through him, but it was a pleasant sensation.
"I came very near putting my arm around you," said he, looking away from her. "Do you forgive that, too?"
She took the hand away and struck him playfully on the cheek with the palm of it.
Then, before he surmised what she intended, she ran brightly up the steps of the house and vanished.
"DAISY, MY DARLING!"
It was Roseleaf's full intention to say something about this adventure to his instructor in the art of love, Mr. Archie Weil, but somehow he was not able to summon the requisite courage. He had a delicate sense that such a thing ought not to be repeated, where it might by any possibility bring a laugh. And about this time the novelist's attention began to be attracted toward the younger sister, who had till then almost entirely escaped his observation.
He noticed particularly the ceaseless devotion that the black servant of the family exhibited toward her. She might have been a goddess and he a devotee; a queen and he her slave. Hannibal moved about the girl like her very shadow, ready to anticipate her slightest wants, while Daisy seemed to take this excess of attention as a matter of course.
Millicent constantly showed her dislike for the servant.
"I don't see how you can endure to have him touch you," she said to Daisy. "He knows better than to lay his hands on me. I have told papa often that I want him discharged, and he ought to consider my wishes a little."
To this Daisy answered that the boy, as she persisted in calling the giant, meant well and was certainly intelligent. Her father did not like to change servants, for it took him a long time to get used to new ones. So Millicent tossed her head, returned to her collaboration with Mr. Roseleaf, and things went on as usual.
Imperceptibly Shirley began to take an interest in Daisy. She did not run away from him, and he discovered, much to his surprise, that she was worth talking to. She was not exactly the child he had supposed, and she had the full value of her eighteen years in her pretty head. He got into the habit of taking short strolls with her, on evenings when Millicent was occupied with Archie, and when, as often happened, Mr. Fern was away with Hannibal in the city. There was a sequestered nook at the far end of the lawn, in which the pair found retreat. Before he realized it, Roseleaf had developed a genuine liking for these rambles, and was pleased when the evenings came that brought Mr. Weil to dinner.
Daisy was ingenuous, to a degree, if surface indications counted for anything. The words that flowed from her red lips were as unstudied as the pretty attitudes she assumed, or the exceedingly plain but very becoming dresses that she wore. After she once got "used" to Roseleaf she treated him quite as if she had been five years his senior.
"Are you a rich man?" she asked him, on one of those early autumn evenings that they passed together.
Her manner was as simple as if she had said that it looked like rain, and his answer was hardly less so.
"No, Daisy. I have not much property, but I intend to earn more, by-and-by. Did you think, because I seem so idle, that I was a millionaire?"
"No," she answered, a shade of disappointment in her face. "I only wanted, in case you had plenty of money, to get you to lend me some."
He stared at her through the half-light. Her features were turned in a direction that did not reveal them very well. What did she want of money!
"How much do you need?" he inquired, wondering if it was within his power to oblige her.
"Oh, too much, I am afraid. And I cannot answer any questions, because the object I have is a secret. I don't think my plan very feasible, for it might be years and years before I could pay it back. You won't mind my speaking of it, will you?"
Curiosity grew stronger, and as politely as possible he renewed his question as to how much the girl needed to carry out her plan.
"I don't know, exactly," she said, thoughtfully. "Perhaps a thousand dollars a year for five or six years; it might take less."
"It is a great deal," he admitted. "Does your father know what you contemplate?"
The girl changed color at once.
"Oh, no. I should not like to have him, either. He would say it was very foolish. And yet I am sure it would not be. The money would do much good—yes, ever so much."
The young man thought hard for a few moments. A desire to see a brighter light flash into those young eyes possessed him. He debated seriously the idea of handing her his patrimony, as he would have given her a pound of candy if she had wanted it.
"I might give you part," he said, after a pause. "Perhaps your thousand for the first year or two."
She looked him full in the face, and put both her hands in his impulsively.
"You are too good," she exclaimed, with fervor. "But you cannot afford so large a gift. No, I would only take it if you had a very large sum, and could not possibly miss it. I asked carelessly. I should not have done so—I was selfish to think of such a thing."
"I want to speak to you about something, also," said Roseleaf, after a strained pause. "I have noticed of late that your father has some trouble on his mind."
She started suddenly.
"Ah!" was all she said.
"And I have wondered if there was anything I could do to—to aid him—to relieve him. Because, I would like it very much if I could, on account of—of—"
She looked up inquiringly.
"I have been so much a member of your family, in a certain way, that a grief like this appeals strongly to me," he said, haltingly.
She paled slightly as she repeated his words.
"Well, distress, annoyance, whatever it may be called. If there is anything I can do, I shall be more than happy."
The girl sat for some moments with her eyes on the ground.
"He is troubled," she said, finally. "I am glad to talk with you, for I cannot get him to tell me anything. He is greatly troubled, and I am worried beyond expression. I can't understand it. He has always confided in me so thoroughly, but now he shakes his head and says it is nothing, trying to look brighter even when the tears are almost ready to fall. What can it be, Mr. Roseleaf? He has no companions outside of his office and this house? He sits by himself, and isn't a bit like he used to be and every day I think he grows worse."
Roseleaf asked if Daisy had talked much with her sister about it.
"No," she said, with a headshake. "I don't believe Millie has noticed anything. She is so occupied with her literary matters"—there was a sarcastic touch upon the word, that did not escape the listener—"she has no time for such things. I hope you won't think I mean to criticise her," added the young girl, with a blush. "I know you care a great deal for my sister, and—"
She stopped in the midst of the sentence, leaving it unfinished. And Roseleaf thought how interesting this girl had become.
"Let me confide in you, Daisy," he said, in his softest tone. "I do not care 'a great deal,' nor even a very little for your sister. You see," he went on, in response to the startled look that greeted him, "I am to be a novelist. To be successful in writing fiction, I have been told that I ought to be in love—just once—myself. And I came here and tried very hard to fall in love with Miss Millicent; and I simply cannot."
Daisy's fresh young laugh rang out on the air of the evening.
"Poor man!" she cried, with mock pity. "And hasn't she tried to help you?"
"No. She hasn't. And as soon as I get the work done I have commenced for her, I am going away."
The child—she was scarcely more than that—grew whiter, but the shadows of the evening hid the fact from her companion.
"You ought not to go," she said, slowly, and rather faintly, "until you have made another trial."
"Oh! It is useless!" he replied.
"Is it that you cannot love—Millie—or that you cannot love—any one?"
He hesitated, puzzled, himself, at the question.
"I never did love any one—any woman," he confessed, "and perhaps I never shall. But your sister seems peculiarly hard to love. Yet she is a very handsome girl and equipped with a mind of unusual calibre."
Daisy acknowledged this description of her sister's charms. She remarked that it was strange that such a combination did not suffice to accomplish the desired result.
"There are people who do find her entertaining," she added. "Mr. Weil is one of them."
"Oh, Archie!" said Roseleaf. "He finds everything entertaining. It is nothing worth remarking. She is the exact description of his ideal in feminine face and form. He once gave me the list of the excellencies of a 'perfect woman,' and your sister has them all."
The younger Miss Fern had her own opinions about this matter. She thought the innocent man at her side had not quite gauged the interest that Mr. Weil took in her family.
"I will make a proposition," she said, with a light laugh, when they had talked longer upon the subject. "I am afraid it won't seem worth much to you, and perhaps you can do better; but why can't you stay here, and—if Millie won't do—make love to me?"
Darkness is responsible for many things. In the light, Daisy could not have uttered those words, even in jest. There, when the sun had set and the stars were not yet on duty, she found the courage to make that suggestion.
"You are very kind," he stammered, when he grasped her meaning. "But I do not think it will answer. I am afraid love cannot be pushed to any point without its own initiative."
"That is probably the case with real love," replied the girl, "but an imitation that would serve your purpose might be evolved in the way I have indicated. For instance, you could take my hand in yours—like this—and I could lean toward you in—this way. And then, if you had sufficient courage—"
Before he dreamed of doing it, it was done! He had kissed her on her tempting lips, placed within an inch of his own.
"You are too good a scholar," she pouted, rising to her feet in some confusion. "I did not give you leave to do that."
"I beg your pardon most humbly," he answered, with intense contrition. "May I assure you that the act was wholly involuntary and that I am very sorry for it?"
She turned and surveyed him in the shadow.
"Are—you—very—sorry?" she repeated.
"Because I have made you angry."
"Do I seem angry?"
"At least, I have injured your feelings."
Her face was close to his again.
"Well, I forgive you. There, let us make up."
She raised herself on the tips of her toes and kissed him twice.
All the blood in this young man's body seemed to rush to his head and then back with violence to his heart.
"Daisy!" he stammered. "Daisy!"
But she sprang away as he tried to embrace her, and standing two yards off, tauntingly cried that he did not know what love was, and that no one could ever teach him. Taking up the challenge he started toward her. She ran away, he in pursuit. She had gone but a few steps when she tripped over an object in the path and went down. In trying to stop himself Roseleaf fell by her side.
"Daisy!" he cried. "Are you injured?"
She did not answer. In the darkness he saw her lying there so still that he was frightened. He caught her passionately in his arms, and knew no better way to bring her to consciousness than to rain kisses on her cheeks. As might be expected this only served to prolong her swoon, which was not a very genuine one, if the truth must be told, and it was some seconds before she opened her eyes and caught him, as one might say, in the act.
"How dare you!" she demanded, shrinking away from him.
"Daisy, my darling!" he answered, his voice tremulous. "I thought you were dead, and I knew for the first time how dearly, how truly I loved you!"
She laughed, not very heartily. She had hurt herself truly in her fall, and her feminine nerves were jarred.
"You are doing nicely," she said. "For a beginner, one could ask nothing better. And now, if you will help to rise, I think it would be more proper."
"No." He spoke with force and passion. "You must not think I am trifling. I love you! Yes, I love you! I worship you!"
"I do not see," she remarked, insisting in spite of him that she must assume a standing position, "how you differ in your expressions from the lovers I have read of in novels. It is quite time that we returned to the house. To-morrow, if you like, I will give you another lesson."
Shirley was a picture of utter despair. His new sensations almost overwhelmed him. In one second the dead arteries in his body had leaped into the fullest life. The touch of that young maiden's lips had galvanized him. He could not bear to leave her with those mocking words. But at that moment a voice was heard in the direction of the residence.
It was Hannibal, who had returned from a drive with Mr. Fern. They could see him dimly coming across the lawn with the girl's cloak in his hand. Daisy, with one quick grasp of the fingers that hung close to hers, said good-night to her companion, and started in the direction of the servant. If she intended—as seemed probable—to pretend she was out alone, Roseleaf did not mean to share in that deception, and he followed close behind her.
"Here I am, Hannibal," called Daisy. "Ah, you have my coat. It was very kind of you. Has papa come home? I am coming in. I did not think how late it was."
The negro stopped as he saw the strollers, and knew that they had undoubtedly been together. What more he suspected no one can say with certainty. But he threw the cloak upon the grass that bordered the pathway and turned on his heel without a word.
"Confound his impudence!" exclaimed Roseleaf, when he had recovered sufficiently from his surprise to speak. "I have a good notion to follow him and box his ears."
The soft hand of the girl was on his sleeve in a moment.
"Say nothing to him—please!" she answered. "He—he is very thoughtful for me—of my health—and I was careless. Papa must have sent him."
The touch on his arm mollified the young man at once. He tried to make out the lines of the pretty face that was so near him and yet so far away.
"We are to study again to-morrow, then," he said, taking up her statement with an assumed air of gayety. "At what hour?"
But she broke away from him abruptly, and ran into the house without a word. Hannibal stood in the doorway and Roseleaf thought he distinguished harsh sounds from the negro's lips; but this seemed so incredible that he conceived his senses at fault.
Looking at his watch the novelist saw that it was still early enough to take a stroll by himself and ponder over his new happiness—or misery, which was it?—under the open sky. It was two hours later that his latchkey turned in the door, and in that time he had resolved either to make Daisy Fern his wife or commit suicide in the most expeditious fashion.
"OH, SO MANY, MANY MAIDS!"
The only disagreeable thing about falling in love with Daisy was that Roseleaf felt compelled to reveal the truth to Archie Weil. He believed he was bound to do this by a solemn contract which he had no moral right to ignore. Perhaps Weil might claim that he had no business to fall in love with one sister when his "manager" had picked out the other for this operation. Be that as it may, there was no use in evading the question. It must be talked over, be the result what it might.
"Well, I know what love is now," was the abrupt way in which the young man opened the subject on the following afternoon.
He had ridden to the city, as Weil was not expected at the residence of Mr. Fern that day. The hope he had formed the previous evening of getting another interview with Daisy had not materialized, she having gone on some short journey before he could intercept her.
"You do!" was the equally abrupt reply, uttered in a tone that betrayed undoubted astonishment. "What do you mean?"
"It came to me all at once, last evening," he said, avoiding the gaze of his companion. "We were down at the end of the lawn, you know—"
Archie interrupted him with a sudden shout.
"You are in love with Daisy!"
"Upon my word!"
There was nothing in any of these expressions that conveyed the information which the younger man craved, namely, whether his friend approved what he had announced, but he stole a look at him and saw that he appeared more astounded than angry.
"You dear boy," he said, "I don't know what to say to you. You blush like a maiden over the acknowledgment. I am half inclined to believe you are the girl in the case, and your partner in love some great, strapping fellow on whose bosom you intend to pillow your coy head. So it is Daisy, eh? And last night it came to you? Tell me how it happened."
Comforted in a measure by the good nature of his friend, Roseleaf proceeded to give the outlines of what had occurred, suppressing the more intimate facts with which the luckier reader is acquainted. He admitted the touch of hands, but did not mention the pressure of lips to lips. He told of the girl's swoon, but said nothing of the extraordinary measures adopted to bring her to her senses. But, while he made no insinuations, nor pretended to see through the meshes in this net, the experience of Mr. Weil served him in good stead. He could fill in the vacant places in the story with substantial correctness.
"I don't know what Miss Millicent will say to all this," he remarked, when the recital came to a pause.
"I think she was just beginning to like you a little herself. Most of our talk last evening was about you, and when I mentioned, as I took my leave, that you were probably out walking with Daisy, I could see distinct traces of jealousy. I want to be fair with my client. I told her that you came there to learn love from her, not from her little sister. If all this should result in breaking her heart, I don't see how I could excuse myself. And the other one, she seems such a child, I never thought of her in that connection. Why, how old is she—not over eighteen, I think."
Roseleaf answered that Daisy would be nineteen on her next birthday, an ingenious way of stating age that was not original with him.
"All right," said Archie, digesting this statement slowly. "And now, what is your programme?"
Roseleaf looked surprised at the business-like nature of the question.
"I mean to secure her consent to marry me, as soon as possible," he said.
"Why, see her father, I suppose. Isn't that the most important thing to do?"
Mr. Weil shook his head decidedly.
"Not by any means. You must not act with undue haste. Mr. Fern would say she was too young to think of matrimony, a proposition you could not successfully dispute. Besides, should he happen to give his consent and appoint a week from Wednesday for the happy occasion, see what a mess it would put you in."
The suggestion caused the brightest of smiles to illumine the countenance of the listener.
"It would make me the happiest of mortals!" he cried. "There is nothing that could prevent my summoning the clergyman and securing the prize I desire."
Mr. Weil grunted.
"H—m! And in the meanwhile what would become of your great novel?"
This question brought a sober pause to the young novelist.
"I could write it after my wedding," he answered, finally.
"Could you? You could write nothing at all then—nothing that any one would pay a cent to read. I have told you from the start that what you want is a grande passion, something to stir your soul to its depths. You are on the verge of that experience. Already you have had a glimpse of what it will be like. For the first time the touch of a woman's fingers has driven sleep from your eyelids. No, you didn't tell me you laid awake all night, but I saw it by looking at you. You can shut yourself up in your room now, and rhapsodize over the dear face, the lovely mouth, the soft voice of your beloved. In another week, if this keeps on, you can write like a combination of George Eliot (after she met Lewes) and Amelie Rives (before her marriage). A month later, Gouger might rave over your productions, for you will be on the Matterhorn of bliss unsatisfied."
A slight laugh, at his own excess of description, issued from the lips of Mr. Weil, but the countenance of his companion was as firm as a rock.
"You are right," said Roseleaf, gravely. "Already I see the vast difference between this sensation of love and the thing I imagined it to be when I wrote those silly pages that Cutt & Slashem did so well to reject. But I am torn between two desires. I want to write my novel—until yesterday I thought no wish could be so great. And I also want my wife." He breathed the word with a simple reverence that affected even the flinty heart of his hearer. "I shall never rest easy until I find her wholly mine, to love, honor and cherish while God gives me breath!"
The hand of the elder man dropped heavily on the table by his side.
"Good!" he exclaimed. "Very good! You could not have said it better. There is an opportunity before you to accomplish both of these things. I only wish to impress upon you the fact that they must come in the order I have indicated, or one of them will never come at all. Write your story while the fever of passion is on you. The dead calm of married life would only bring the sort of novel that the shelves are already piled with, nauseating to the public and a drug in the hands of the publishers."
Roseleaf doubted the full correctness of these conclusions. He thought, with that dear girl by his side, he could write with all the fervor of a sweetheart, for his affection was to have no boundary, no limit, no end. But he had a high opinion of the abilities of Mr. Weil, and he had no idea of disputing the conclusions of that wise guide.
"Do you think she will accept me?" he asked, wistfully, returning to the main question. "It came so sudden, and there was very little said, and it was late; and then Hannibal came after her, and she went into the house. Everything was left in a state of uncertainty."
"Did nothing show whether you were indifferent to her?" was the wily interrogation that followed. "Usually I believe something conveys the sweet word 'hope' to the waiting one. And what do you say about Hannibal? That he came to call your charmer and took her away from you?"
Without reserve the young man repeated what had happened. Archie seemed deeply interested, but whatever his thoughts he did not express them at the time.
"And that reminds me of another thing," said Roseleaf. "Have you noticed anything strange about Mr. Fern?"
"Yes," said Mr. Weil, "I have noticed. I wondered if you had done the same. Have you discovered what the trouble is?"
"No, and Daisy doesn't know, either. Indeed, she is much distressed about it. Remember, this is a secret between us, for perhaps I had no right to talk of their affairs. He is in a state of great depression, and as he is so regular in his habits I can't imagine what to lay it to. You are so shrewd, couldn't you find out?"
Mr. Weil rose and took a few paces up and down the room.
"You are the fellow to do that, not I," he said, presently. "Yes, hear me out. You are in a sense a member of his family, and would have a natural right to allude to the state of his health. Then, if you were to put in a word about Miss Daisy—why, you might kill several birds with one stone."
Roseleaf looked much puzzled.
"I thought," he said, "that you wanted me to postpone the matter of my marriage as long as possible."
"Your marriage, yes. But not the preliminaries. They may require a dozen bouts with the old gentleman. The first time he will probably laugh you out of the room as a silly young noodle; the second he will say that he has nothing against you personally, but that his 'baby' is too infantile to think of such things for ten years yet; the third he will begin to see the situation in its right light, and after that it will be only a matter of detail. All these things will be of the greatest value to you in the novel you are going to write, and you must not on your life miss a single one of them.
"Drop into the wool shop, catch his royal highness there, and for the first thing express solicitude for his health. Unless he is on his guard more than is likely you ought to catch some slight straw to show what ails him. Then follow it up with a word or two about Miss Daisy, and you will have spent a good afternoon, even if he doesn't smile on your suit at first hand, and take you to his manly breast as his long-lost son-in-law."
The reasonings set forth in these propositions were so evidently correct that Roseleaf resolved to adopt them just as soon as he could bring himself into the proper mood. In the meantime, however, he wanted to have a little further talk with Daisy, for he could hardly ask her father for her hand without the semblance of permission on her part. He tried to remember all she had said to him at the foot of the lawn, and was compelled to admit that it was very little indeed. The only things he was certain of were the kisses, but his experiences were so slight that he could not tell how much weight to give even these.
That evening he tried his best to get a word with her alone, but she eluded him, and he was obliged to go to the boudoir of her sister and read over that young lady's MSS. as it stood revised by his careful hands.
"Well, another chapter will finish it," said Miss Fern, when he put down the pages. "And then Mr. Gouger will decide whether Cult & Slashem consider it worth printing."
"Yes," he answered, gravely. "They will print your story now, without doubt. But I am as far as ever from satisfying their requirements."
Millicent thought how supremely selfish she must seem, talking always of her own hopes and doing nothing to help the one who had made her success possible. She saw that he wore a dejected look, and she began to sincerely pity him. When our own ships are safely in sight of the harbor we have more time to dwell on the derelicts in which the property of our friends is embarked.
"Perhaps, when we get this disposed of, I can help you," she suggested.
It was nearly a week before Roseleaf could get another talk with Daisy, a week that tried him to the utmost, for he could think of nothing but her, and could not understand her reasons for treating him so strangely. At last he wrote her a letter, giving it to Hannibal to deliver, in which he said that he was about to return to his city lodging and wanted to know if she meant him to leave without a kind word at parting. He thought the negro looked peculiar as he took the note, half as if he did not intend to accept the commission to deliver it; but he concluded that this must be imagination. He wondered why Archie Weil took such a fancy to Hannibal. If Roseleaf was lucky enough to claim Daisy as his wife, he would never have that figure darken his door.
The letter must have been taken to its destination without delay, for an answer was brought in the course of an hour, stating in the briefest language that Miss Daisy would await him in the parlor, after lunch.
At the table Miss Fern was present, as usual, but not her father, his business in the city keeping him away at that hour. At meals it was Daisy's habit to say little, leaving the conversation to her sister and whoever else happened to be there. At the end of this particular lunch Millicent went up stairs to her chamber and Daisy betook herself to the parlor, followed a few minutes later by the young man.
"Why have you treated me so coldly?" were his first words, when he found himself alone with her.
"Oh, dear, that is a very bad beginning!" she said, smiling. "I shall have to instruct you in some of the simplest things, I see already. When you wish to make friends with a woman, don't begin by scolding her. I am here because you wrote that you wished a kind word. Don't give me too many cross ones, please."
He sighed impatiently.
"Daisy," he exclaimed. "I hope you are not going to make fun of me! I have passed a most miserable week. After the glimpse of heaven you gave me, that evening—"
She put on an air of mock surprise.
"Did I do that! It was much more than I intended, then. I fear you are inclined to use extravagant metaphors, Mr. Roseleaf. But, never mind. You are going away, and I am very, very sorry. However, as you came here on Millie's account, and not on mine, I suppose I have no right to say so."
The fair brow of the young man was a mass of wrinkles.
"I can't understand why you speak so lightly," he answered. "You know—I told you—that I love you—that there is nothing in all the world so dear to me—that I want your promise to be my wife. I can't go from here without that consolation. Daisy, I ask you, in all sincerity, to say that as soon as your father's consent is obtained, you will name a day when you will marry me."
The smile faded from the girl's lips. Something brought to her mind a very sad reflection.
"You ask a great deal," she said. "Much more, I think, than you realize. Until a week ago I was nothing to you. We lived under the same roof, we took our evening strolls together, we talked like the commonest acquaintances, and that was all. Then, in a moment, you discovered that your heart was on fire. I have not ascertained what made the marvellous change. I am sure you cannot tell yet if it be a genuine and lasting one. Were I inclined to believe I ever should be willing to go to the lengths of which you speak, I should assuredly want time for the maturest reflection. In the first place, I know almost nothing about you. One would not engage a—a coachman—without more inquiry. How can a girl promise to trust her entire future to a man with whom she has but a casual acquaintance? Such things need consideration. I know my father would say so. And if he heard only the nicest things about you, I doubt if he would like to have you take me from him—especially now, when his heart is heavy and he leans so much on my love and care. No, you are in too great haste."
His impatience grew to boiling heat as he listened. How could she find so many reasons, and (he was obliged to confess) such sensible ones, to bring against him?
"There is one thing you can do," he said, with an attitude of deep dejection. "You can tell me if you love me."
She tossed her head with a feminine movement that was wholly charming.
"Yes, I could tell you that, but it would be a very improper thing, under the circumstances, provided I was able to give you the answer you seem to wish. If I did care for you, would I like to say so in definite words when anything further might turn out to be impossible? A girl would not wish to have a man that she was never to marry going about with the recollection that she said, 'I love you.'"