An exchange of good-bys, low-voiced but with a decided note of hilarity, took place at the door, and two women entered the car, one looking back and nodding a final smiling farewell before she gave her mind to the matter in hand. They were attractive women, of late middle age, perhaps, not yet to be called old. One was large, with fine curves, gray bands of hair under her autumnal bonnet, and a dignity of bearing which suited her ample figure and melodious, rather deep voice; the other was paler, more fragile, her light hair only streaked with gray, and her blue eyes still shaded with a half-wistful uncertainty of what might be before her, which the years had not been able to turn altogether into self-confidence.
"You go on, Lucy," said the former, in her full, decided tones, pausing at the first vacant seat, "and see if there's a place for us to sit together farther down. I'll hold this for one of us. You take up less room than I do, you know, and it's easier for you to slip about;" and she laughed a little. There was a suggestion of laughter in the eyes and around the mouth of each of them. It indicated a subdued exhilaration unusual in the setting forth of women of their years and dignity. Lucy hesitated a moment, and then moved on somewhat timidly; but she had taken only a step when the man near whom they stood rose, and, lifting his hat, said: "Allow me, madam, to give you this seat for yourself and your friend. I can easily find another."
"Thank you; you are very good," replied the larger of the two women, her kindly gray eyes meeting his with an expression that led him to pause and put their umbrellas in the rack and depart, wondering what it was about some women that made a man always glad to do anything for them,—and it didn't make any difference how old they were, either.
"How nice people are!" said the one who had already spoken as they settled themselves. "That man, now—there wasn't any need of his doing that."
"He seemed to really want to," rejoined Lucy. "People always like to do things for you, Mary Leonard, I believe," she added, looking at her companion with affectionate admiration.
"I like to hear you talk," returned Mary Leonard, laughing. "If there ever was anybody that just went through the world having people do things for 'em, it's you, Lucy Eastman, and you know it."
"Oh, but I know so few people," said the other, hastily. "I'm not ungrateful—I'm sure I've no call to be; but I know so few people, and they've known me all my life; it's not like strangers."
"That hasn't anything to do with it," affirmed Mary Leonard, stoutly; "if there were more, it would be the same way. But I will say," she went on, "that I never could see why a woman travelling alone should ever have any trouble—officials and everybody are so polite about telling you the same thing over. I don't know why it is, but I always seem to expect the next one I ask to tell me something different about a train; and then everybody you meet seems just as pleasant as can be."
"Yes," assented Lucy Eastman, "like that baggageman. Did you notice how polite the baggageman was?"
"Notice it! Why, of course I did. And our trunks were late, and it was my fault, and so I told him, and he just hurried to pull them around and check them, and I was so confused, you know, that I made him check the wrong ones twice."
"Well, they were just like ours," said Lucy Eastman, sympathetically.
"Well, they were, weren't they? But of course I ought to have known. And he never swore at all. I was dreadfully afraid he'd swear, Lucy."
"Oh, dear!" exclaimed Lucy Eastman, distressed, "what would you have done if he'd sworn?"
"I'm sure I don't know," asserted Mary Leonard, with conviction, "but fortunately he didn't."
"He got very warm," said Lucy, reminiscently. "I saw him wiping his brow as we came away."
"I don't blame him the least in the world. I think he was a wonderfully nice baggageman, for men of that class are so apt to swear when they get very warm,—at least, so I've heard. And did you hear—"
"Tickets, ma'am," observed the conductor.
"There, I didn't mean to keep you waiting a minute;" and Mary Leonard opened her pocketbook, "but I forgot all about the tickets. Oh, Lucy, I gave you the tickets, and I took the checks."
"Yes, to be sure," said Lucy, opening her pocketbook.
"I'll put them in the seat for you, ladies, like this," said the conductor, smiling, "and then you won't have any more trouble."
"Oh, yes, thank you," said Lucy Eastman.
"What a nice conductor!" observed Mary Leonard.
"Did I hear what, Mary?—you were telling me something."
"Oh, about the baggageman. I heard him say to his assistant, 'Don't you ever git mad with women, Bobby. It ain't no use. If it was always the same woman and the same trunk, perhaps you could learn her sometime; but it ain't, and you've got to take 'em just as they come, and get rid of 'em the best way you can—they don't bear instruction.'"
Mary Leonard and Lucy Eastman threw back their heads and laughed; it was genuine, low, fresh laughter, and a good thing to hear. After that there was silence for a few moments as the train sped on its way.
"I declare," said Mary Leonard, at last, "I don't know when I've been in the cars before."
"I was just thinking I haven't been in the cars since Sister Eliza died, and we all went to the funeral," said Lucy Eastman.
"Why, that's—let me see—eight years ago, isn't it?"
"Eight and a half."
"Well, I'm glad you'll have a pleasanter trip to look back on after this."
"So am I; and I am enjoying this—every minute of it. Only there's so much to see. Just look at the people looking out of the windows of that manufactory! Shouldn't you think they'd roast?"
"Yes, they must be hotter than a fritter such a day as this."
"How long is it since you've been to Englefield, Mary?" asked Lucy Eastman, after another pause.
"Why, that's what I meant to tell you. Do you know, after I saw you, and we decided to go there for our holiday, I began to think it over, and I haven't been there since we went together the last time."
"Why, Mary Leonard! I had an idea you'd been there time and again, though you said you hadn't seen the old place for a long time."
"Well, I was surprised myself when I realized it. But the next year my cousins all moved away, and I've thought of it over and over, but I haven't been. I dare say if we'd lived in the same town we'd have gone together before this, but we haven't, and there it is."
"That's thirty-five years ago, Mary," said Lucy Eastman, thoughtfully.
"Thirty-five years! I declare, it still makes me jump to hear about thirty-five years—just as if I hadn't known all about 'em!" and Mary Leonard laughed her comfortable laugh again. "You don't say it's thirty-five years, Lucy! I guess you're right, though."
There was a moment's pause, and the laugh died away into a little sigh.
"We didn't think then—we didn't really think—we'd ever be talking about what happened thirty-five years ago, did we, Lucy? We didn't think we'd have interest enough to care."
"No," said Lucy, soberly, "we didn't."
"And I care just as much as I ever did about things," went on the other, thoughtfully, "only there seem more doors for satisfaction to come in at nowadays. It isn't quite the same sort of satisfaction, perhaps, that it used to be, not so pressed down and running over, but there's more of it, after all, and it doesn't slip out so easily."
"No, the bottom of things doesn't fall out at once, as it used to, and leave nothing in our empty hands."
"That sounds almost sad. Don't you be melancholy, Lucy Eastman."
"I'm not, Mary—I'm not a bit. I'm only remembering that I used to be."
"We used to go to the well with a sieve instead of a pitcher; that's really the difference," said Mary Leonard. "We've learned not to be wasteful, that's all."
"What fun we used to have," said Lucy, her eyes shining, "visiting your cousins!"
"It was fun!" said the other. "Do you remember the husking party at the Kendals' barn?"
"Of course I do, and the red ears that that Chickering girl was always finding! I think she picked them out on purpose, so that Tom Endover would kiss her. It was just like those Chickerings!" There was a gentle venom in Lucy Eastman's tones that made Mary Leonard laugh till the tears came into her eyes.
"Minnie Chickering wasn't the only girl that Tom Endover kissed, if I remember right," she said, with covert intention.
"Well, he put the red ear into my hands himself, and I just husked it without thinking anything about it," retorted Lucy Eastman, with spirit.
"Of course you did, of course you did," asseverated Mary Leonard, whereupon the other laughed too, but with reservation.
"And do you remember old Miss Pinsett's, where we used to go to act charades?"
"Yes, indeed, in the old white house at the foot of the hill, with a cupola. She seemed so old; I wonder how old she was?"
"Perhaps we shouldn't think her so old to-day. People used to wear caps earlier then than they do now. I think when they were disappointed in love they put on caps! Miss Pinsett had been disappointed in love, so they said."
"They will have old maids disappointed in love," said Lucy, with some asperity. "They will have me—some people—and I never was."
"I know you weren't. But I don't think it's as usual as it was to say that about old maids. It's more the fashion now to be disappointed in marriage."
There had been several stops at the stations along the road. The day was wearing on. Suddenly Lucy Eastman turned to her companion.
"Mary," she said, "let's play we were girls again, and going to Englefield just as we used to go—thirty-five years ago. Let's pretend that we're going to do the same things and see the same people and have the same fun. We're off by ourselves, just you and I, and why shouldn't we? We're the same girls, after all," and she smiled apologetically.
"Of course we are. We'll do it," said Mary Leonard, decidedly; "let's pretend."
But, having made the agreement, it was not so easy to begin. The stream of reminiscence had been checked, and a chasm of thirty-five years is not instantly bridged, even in thought.
"I hope they won't meet us at the station," said Mary Leonard, after a while, in a matter-of-fact voice. "We know the way so well there is no need of it."
"I hope not. I feel just like walking up myself," answered Lucy. "We can send our trunks by the man that comes from the hotel, just as usual, and it'll be cool walking toward evening."
"I'm glad we put off coming till the fall. The country's beautiful, and there isn't so much dust in case we"—she hesitated a moment—"in case we go on a picnic."
"Yes," replied Lucy, readily; "to the old fort. I hope we'll have a picnic to the old fort. I guess all the girls will like to go. It's just the time to take that drive over the hill."
"If we go," said Mary Leonard, slowly and impressively, "you'll have to drive with Samuel Hatt."
"Oh, I went with him last time," broke in Lucy, apprehensively. "It's your turn."
"But you know I just won't," said Mary Leonard, her eyes sparkling, and the dimples that, like Miss Jessie Brown, she had not left off, appearing and disappearing. "And somebody has to go with him."
"Perhaps they won't ask him."
"Oh, but they will. They always do, on account of his horses. It wouldn't be a picnic without Samuel Hatt."
Just then the train drew up at a small station. Lucy Eastman started as she read the name of the place as it passed before her eyes.
"Mary," said she, "this is where Mr. Hatt always used to get on the train. There are the Hatt Mills, and he goes up and down every day,—don't you remember? And how we were—we are—always afraid we'll meet him on the train."
"Of course," said Mary Leonard, leaning forward and scanning the platform with its row of idlers and its few travellers. "Well, he isn't here now. We are going to escape him this time. But my heart was in my mouth! I don't want Samuel Hatt to be the first Englefield person we meet."
They looked up with careless curiosity at the people who entered the train. There was a little girl with a bunch of common garden flowers following close behind a tired-looking woman, who had been, obviously, "spending the day;" a florid old gentleman with gold spectacles, who revealed a bald head as he removed his hat and used it for a fan,—they had seen him hurrying to the platform just before the train moved out; a commercial traveller, and a schoolboy.
"No," said Mary Leonard, "he isn't here this time."
The florid old gentleman took a seat in front of them and continued to fan himself. The conductor came through the car.
"Warm spell we're having for October, Mr. Hatt," he said, as he punched the commutation-ticket that was offered him.
Mary Leonard and Lucy Eastman gazed spellbound at the back of Mr. Hatt's bald head. They were too amazed to look away from it at each other.
"It—it must be his father," gasped Lucy Eastman. "He looks—a little—like him."
"Then it's his father come back!" returned Mary in an impatient whisper. "His father died before we ever went to Englefield; and, don't you remember, he was always fanning himself?"
Their fascinated gaze left the shiny pink surface of Samuel Hatt's head, and their eyes met.
"I hope he won't see us," giggled Lucy.
"I hope not. Let's look the other way."
In a few minutes Mr. Hatt rose slowly and portentously, and, turning, made a solemn but wavering way down the car to greet a man who sat just across the aisle from Mary Leonard. Both the women avoided his eyes, blushing a little and with the fear of untimely mirth about their lips.
As he talked with their neighbor, however, they ventured to look at him, and as he turned to go back his slow, deliberate glance fell upon them, rested a moment, and, without a flicker of recognition, passed on, and he resumed his place.
There was almost a shadow in the eyes that met again, as the women turned towards one another.
"I—I know it's funny," said Lucy, a little tremulously, "but I don't quite like it that we look to him just as he does to us."
"We have hair on our heads," said Mary Leonard. "But," she added, less aggressively, "we needn't have worried about his speaking to us."
"Englefield," shouted the brakeman, and the train rumbled into a covered station. Mary Leonard started to her feet, and then paused and looked down at her companion. This Englefield! This the quiet little place where the man from the hotel consented to look after their trunks while their cousins drove them up in the wagon—this noisy station with two or three hotel stages and shouting drivers of public carriages!
"Lucy," said she, sitting down again in momentary despair, "we've gone back thirty-five years, but we forgot to take Englefield with us!"
It did not take long, however, to adapt themselves to the new conditions. They arranged to stay at the inn that was farthest from the centre of things, and the drive out restored some of the former look of the place. It was near sunset; the road looked pink before them as they left the city. The boys had set fire to little piles of early fallen leaves along the sides of the streets, and a faint, pungent smoke hung about and melted into the twilight, and the flame leaped forth vividly now and then from the dusky heaps. As they left the paved city for the old inn which modern travel and enterprise had left on the outskirts, the sky showed lavender through a mistiness that was hardly palpable enough for haze. The browns and reds of the patches of woods in the near distance seemed the paler, steadier reproduction of the flames behind them. Low on the horizon the clouds lay in purple waves, deepening and darkening into brown.
"Mary," said Lucy Eastman, in a low tone, laying her hand on her companion's arm, "it's just the way it looked when we came the first time of all; do you remember?"
"Remember? It's as if it were yesterday! Oh, Lucy, I don't know about a new heaven, but I'm glad, I'm glad it isn't a 'new earth' quite yet!" There was a mistiness in the eyes of the women that none of the changes they had marked had brought there. They were moved by the sudden sweet recognition that seemed sadder than any change.
The next morning they left the house early, that they might have long hours in which to hunt up old haunts and renew former associations. Again the familiar look of things departed as they wandered about the wider, gayer streets. The house in which Mary Leonard's cousins had lived had been long in other hands, and the occupants had cut down the finest of the old trees to make room for an addition, and a woman whose face seemed provokingly foreign to the scene came out with the air of a proprietor and entered her carriage as they passed.
At another place which they used to visit on summer afternoons, and which had been approached by a little lane, making it seem isolated and distant, the beautiful turf had been removed to prepare a bald and barren tennis court, and they reached it by an electric car. Even the little candy-shop had become a hardware store.
"Of course, when one thinks of the Gibraltars and Jackson balls, it does not seem such a revolution," said Mary Leonard; but she spoke forlornly, and did not care much for her own joke. It looked almost as if their holiday was to be turned into a day of mourning; there was depression in the air of the busy, bustling active streets, through which the gray-haired women wandered, handsome, alert, attentive, but haunted by the sense of familiarity that made things unfamiliar and the knowledge of every turn and direction that yet was not knowledge, but ignorance.
"Look here, Lucy Eastman," said Mary Leonard at last, stopping decisively in front of what used to be the Baptist Church, but which was now a business block and a drug-store where you could get peach phosphate, "we can't stand this any longer. Let's get into a carriage right away and go to the old fort; that can't have changed much; it used to be dismantled, and I don't believe they've had time, with all they've done here, to—to mantle it again."
They moved towards a cab-stand—of course it was an added grievance that there was a cab-stand—but the wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way.
"Mary," said Lucy Eastman, detaining her, "wait a minute. Do you think we might—it's a lovely day—and—there's a grocer right there—and dinner is late at the hotel"—She checked her incoherence and looked wistfully at Mary Leonard.
"Lucy, I think we might do anything, if you don't lose your mind first. What is it, for pity's sake, that you want to do?"
"Take our luncheon; we always used to, you know. And we can have a hot dinner at the hotel when we come back."
Without replying, Mary Leonard led the way to the grocer's, and they bought lavish supplies there and at the bakery opposite. Then they called the cab.
"Do you remember, Lucy, we used to have to think twice about calling a cab, when we used to travel together, on account of the expense," said Mary Leonard, as they waited for it to draw up at the curbstone.
"Yes," answered Lucy; "we don't have to now." And then they both sighed a little.
But their smiles returned as they drove into the enclosure of the old fort. There they lay in the peaceful sun—the gray stones, the few cannon-balls, sunk in the caressing grass, with here and there a rusty gun, like a once grim, sharp-tongued, cruel man who has fallen somehow into an amiable senility.
"I read an article in one of the magazines about our coast defences," said Lucy Eastman, breathlessly; "how they ought to be strengthened and repaired and all, and I was quite excited about it and wanted to give a little money towards it, but I wouldn't for anything now, enemy or no enemy."
"Nor I, either," said Mary Leonard, after she had dismissed the driver with orders to call for them later in the day. They walked on over the crisp dry grass, and seated themselves on a bit of the fallen masonry. The reaches of the placid river lay before them, and the hum of the alert cricket was in their ears. Now and then a bird flew surreptitiously from one bush to another, with the stealthy, swift motion of flight in autumn, so different from the heedless, fluttering, hither-and-yon vagaries of the spring and early summer. The time for frivolity is over; the flashes of wings have a purpose now; the possibility of cold is in the air, and what is to be done must be done quickly.
"We almost always used to come in summer," said Lucy Eastman, "but I think it's every bit as pretty in the fall."
"So do I," assented Mary Leonard, as she looked down into a hollow where the purple asters grew so thick that in the half-dusk of the shadow they looked like magnified snowflakes powdered thickly on the sward. "And it hasn't changed an atom," she went on, as her eyes roamed over the unevenness of this combination of man's and nature's handiwork. "It's just as quiet and disorderly and upset and peaceful as it was then."
"Yes, look up there;" and Lucy Eastman pointed to the higher ramparts, on the edge of which the long grass wavered in the wind with the glancing uncertainty of a conflagration. "The last time I was here I remember saying that that looked like a fire."
After they had eaten their luncheon, which brought with it echoes of the laughter which had accompanied the picnic supper eaten in that very corner years ago, they seated themselves in a sheltered spot to wait. It really seemed as if the old gray walls retained some of the spirit of those earlier days, so gentle, so mirth-inspiring was the sunshine that warmed them.
"I'm so glad we came," said Mary,—they had both said it before,—as the sunny peace penetrated their very souls.
Four o'clock brought the cab, and they drove down the long hills, looking back often for a final glimpse of the waving grass and the gray stones. As they turned a sharp corner and lost sight of the old fort, Mary Leonard glanced furtively at her companion. Her own eyes for the second time that day were not quite clear, and she was not sorry to detect an added wistfulness in Lucy Eastman's gaze.
"Lucy," said she, and her voice shook a little, "I'm tired."
"So am I," murmured Lucy.
"And I don't ever remember to have been tired after a picnic at the old fort before."
"No more do I," said Lucy; and it was a moment before their sadness, as usual, trembled into laughter.
"Lucy Eastman," said Mary Leonard, suddenly, "this is the street that old Miss Pinsett used to live on—lives on, I mean. What do you say? Shall we stop and see Miss Pinsett?" The dimples had come back again, and her eyes danced.
Lucy caught her breath.
"Oh, Mary, if only she—" her sentence was left unfinished.
"I'll find out," said Mary Leonard, and put her head out of the window. "Driver," she called out, "stop at Miss Pinsett's."
The driver nodded and drove on, and she sank back pleased with her own temerity.
The cab stopped in front of the same square white house, with the cupola, and the same great trees in the front yard. Mary Leonard and Lucy Eastman clasped each other's hands in silent delight as they walked up the box-bordered path.
"Tell Miss Pinsett that Lucy Eastman and—and Mary Greenleaf have come to see her," they said to the elderly respectable maid. Then they went into the dim shaded parlor and waited. There were the old piano and the Japanese vases, and the picture of Washington which they had always laughed at because he looked as if he were on stilts and could step right across the Delaware, and they could hear their hearts beat, for there was a rustle outside the door—old Miss Pinsett's gowns always rustled—and it opened.
"Why, girls!" exclaimed old Miss Pinsett as she glided into the room.
Mary Leonard and Lucy Eastman declared, then and afterward, that she wasn't a day older than when they said good-by to her thirty-five years ago. She wore the same gray curls and the same kind of cap. Also, they both declared that this was the climax, and that they should have wept aloud if it had not been so evident that to Miss Pinsett there was nothing in the meeting but happiness and good fortune, so they did not.
"Why, girls," said old Miss Pinsett again, clasping both their hands, "how glad I am to see you, and how well you are both looking!"
Then she insisted on their laying off their things, and they laid them off because they always had when she asked them.
"You've grown stout, Mary Greenleaf," said old Miss Pinsett.
"I know I have," she answered, "and I'm not Mary Greenleaf, though I sent that name up to you—I'm Mary Leonard."
"I wondered if neither of you were married."
"I'm a widow, Miss Pinsett," said Mary Leonard, soberly. "My husband only lived three years."
"Poor girl, poor girl!" said Miss Pinsett, patting her hand, and then she looked at the other.
"I'm Lucy Eastman still," she said; "just the same Lucy Eastman."
"And a very good thing to be, too," said Miss Pinsett, nodding her delicate old head kindly. "But," and she scanned her face, "but, now that I look at you, not quite the same Lucy Eastman—not quite the same."
"Older and plainer," she sighed.
"Of all the nonsense!" exclaimed old Miss Pinsett. "You're not quite so shy, that's all, my dear."
"I'm shy now," asserted Lucy.
"Very likely, but not quite so shy as you were, for all that. Don't tell me! I've a quick eye for changes, and so I can see changes in you two when it may be another wouldn't."
Before the excitement of her welcome had been subdued into mere gladness, there was a discreet tap at the door, and the respectable maid came in with a tray of sherry-glasses and cake. Mary Leonard and Lucy Eastman looked at each other brimming over with smiles. It was the same kind of cake, and might have been cut off the same loaf.
"Never any cake like yours," said Mary Leonard.
"I remember you like my cake," said old Miss Pinsett, smiling; "take a bigger piece, child."
They wanted to know many things about the people and the town, all of which Miss Pinsett could tell them.
The shadows grew longer, the room dimmer, and Miss Pinsett had the maid throw open the blinds to let in the western sunlight. A shaft of illumination fell across one of the Japanese vases, and a dragon blinked, and the smooth round head of a mandarin gleamed. There was an old-fashioned trumpet-creeper outside the window.
"But we must go," exclaimed Mary Leonard at last, rising and taking up her bonnet. "Oh, no, thank you, we must not stay. Miss Pinsett; we are going to-morrow, and we are tired with all the pleasure of to-day, and we have so much—so much to talk over. We shall talk all night, as we used to, I am afraid."
"But before you go, girls," said Miss Pinsett, laying a fragile, white slender hand on each, "you must sing for me some of the songs you used to sing—you know some very pretty duets."
Mary Leonard and Lucy Eastman paused, amazed, and looked into each other's faces in dismay. Sing?—had they ever sung duets? They had not sung a note for years, except in church.
"But I don't know any songs, Miss Pinsett," stammered Mary Leonard.
"I have forgotten all I ever knew," echoed Lucy Eastman.
"No excuses, now—no excuses! You were always great for excuses, but you would always sing for me. I want 'County Guy,' to begin with."
By a common impulse the visitors moved slowly towards the piano; they would try, at least, since Miss Pinsett wanted them to. Lucy seated herself and struck a few uncertain chords. Possibly the once familiar room, Mary Leonard at her side, Miss Pinsett listening in her own high-backed chair, the scent of the mignonette in the blue bowl—possibly one or all of these things brought back the old tune.
"Ah, County Guy, The hour is nigh, The sun has left the lea."
The sweet, slender voice floated through the room, and Mary Leonard's deeper contralto joined and strengthened it.
"Now, I will have 'Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,'" said Miss Pinsett, quite as if it were a matter of course. And they sang "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton." It was during the last verse that the parlor door opened softly, and a tall, fine-looking man, erect, with beautiful silver curling hair, and firm lines about the handsome, clean-shaven mouth, appeared on the threshold and stood waiting. As the singing finished, Miss Pinsett shook her head at him.
"You were always coming in and breaking up the singing, Tom Endover," she said.
The two women left the piano and came forward.
"You used to know Mary Greenleaf,—she's Mrs. Leonard now,—and Lucy Eastman, Tom," she went on.
Apparently Mr. Endover was not heeding the introduction, but was coming towards them with instant recognition and outstretched hand. They often discussed afterward if he would have known them without Miss Pinsett. Mary Leonard thought he would, but Lucy Eastman did not always agree with her.
"You don't have to tell me who they are," he said, grasping their hands cordially. "Telling Tom Endover who Mary Greenleaf and Lucy Eastman are, indeed!" There was a mingling of courteous deference and frank, not to be repressed, good comradeship in his manner which was delightful. Mary Leonard's dimples came and went, and delicate waves of color flowed and ebbed in Lucy Eastman's soft cheeks.
"I'm too old always to remember that there's no telling a United States senator anything," retorted Miss Pinsett, with a keen glance from her dimmed but penetrating eyes.
"As to that, I don't believe I'd ever have been a United States senator if it wasn't for what you've told me, Miss Pinsett," laughed Endover. "I'm always coming here to be taken down, Mary," he went on; "she does it just as she used to."
Mary Leonard caught her breath a little at the sound of her Christian name, but "I didn't know there was any taking you down, Tom Endover," she retorted before she thought; and they all laughed.
They found many things to say in the few minutes longer that they stayed, before Mr. Endover took them out and put them in their cab. He insisted upon coming the next morning to take them to the station in his own carriage, and regretted very much that his wife was out of town, so that she could not have the pleasure of meeting his old friends.
"He's just the same, isn't he?" exclaimed Mary Leonard, delightedly, as they drove away.
"Yes," assented Lucy Eastman, slowly; "I think he is; and yet he's different."
"Oh, yes, he's different," replied Mary Leonard, readily. Both were quite unconscious of any discrepancy in their statements as they silently thought over the impression he had made. He was the same handsome, confident Tom Endover, but there was something gone,—and was there not something in its place? Had that gay courtesy, that debonair good fellowship, changed into something more finished, but harder and more conscious? Was there a suggestion that his old careless charm had become a calculated and a clearly appreciated facility? Lucy Eastman did not formulate the question, and it did not even vaguely present itself to Mary Leonard, so it troubled the pleasure of neither.
"What a day we have had!" they sighed in concert as they drove up again to the entrance of the inn.
"Lucy," called Mary Leonard, a little later, from one of their connecting rooms to the other, "I'm going to put on my best black net, because Tom Endover may call to-night." Then she paused to catch Lucy Eastman's prompt reply.
"And I shall put on my lavender lawn, but it'll be just our luck to have it Samuel Hatt."
The next morning Mr. Endover called for them, and they were driven to the station in his brougham.
He put them on the train, and bought the magazines for them, and waved his hand to the car window.
"You know, Lucy," said Mary Leonard, as the train pulled out, "Tom Endover always used to come to see us off."
"Of course he did," said Lucy.
"Do you know, I'm rather glad his wife was out of town," went on Mary Leonard, after a pause. "I should like to have seen her well enough, but you know she wasn't an Englefield girl."
"What can she know about old Englefield!" said Lucy, with mild contempt. "I'm very glad she was out of town."
As they left the city behind them, the early morning sun shone forth with vivid brilliancy. Against the western sky the buildings stood out with a peculiar distinctness, as if the yellow light shining upon them was an illumination inherent in themselves, singling them out of the landscape, and leaving untouched the cold gray behind them. The lines of brick and stone had the clearness and precision of a photograph, and yet were idealized, so that in the yellow, mellow, transparent light a tall, smoke-begrimed chimney of a distant furnace looked airy and delicate as an Italian tower.
The "Daily Morning Chronicle"
THE village lay still and silent under the observant sun. The village street stretched in one direction down the hill to the two-miles-off railway station, and in the other to the large white house with pillared portico, from which there was a fine view of the sunset, and beyond which it still continued, purposeful but lonely, until it came suddenly upon half a dozen houses which turned out to be another village.
Not a man, woman, or child crossed from one house to another; not a dog or a cat wandered about in the sunshine. The white houses looked as if no one lived in them; the white church, with its sloping approach, looked as if no one ever preached in it and no one ever came to it to listen. It seemed to Lucyet Stevens, as she sat at the little window of the post-office, behind which her official face looked so much more important than it ever did anywhere else, as if the village street itself were listening for the arrival of the noon mail. For it was nearly time for the daily period of almost feverish activity. By and by from the station would come Truman Hanks with the leather bag which, in village and city alike, is the outward and visible sign of the fidelity of the government. It is probable that he will bring it up in a single carriage, for though sometimes he takes the two-seated one, in case there should be a human arrival who would like to be driven up, this possibility was so slight a one at this time of year that it was hardly worth considering. Then the village will awake; the two little girls who live down below the saw-mill will come up together, confiding on the way a secret or two, for which the past twenty-four hours would seem to have afforded slender material. Then old John Thomas will come limping across from his small house back of the church, to see if there is a letter for "her,"—she being his wife, and in occasional communication with their daughter in the city. Then the good-looking, roughly clad young farmer who takes care of the fine place with the pillared portico on the hill will saunter down to see if "the folks have sent any word about coming up for the summer." Then Miss Granger, who lives almost next door, will throw a shawl over her head and run in to see who has letters and, incidentally, if she has any herself; and then one or two wagons will draw up in front of the little store, and the men will come in for their daily papers.
As Lucyet came around to the daily papers she flushed and looked impatiently out of the door down the street. Not that the thought of the daily paper had not been all the time in the background of her mind, but having allowed her fancy to wander towards the attitude of the village and its prospective disturbance, she returned to the imminence of the daily paper again with a thrill of emotion. It was not one of the metropolitan journals which, as a body, the village subscribed for, nor was it one of the more widely known of those issued in smaller cities; it was an unpretentious sheet, neither very ably edited nor extensively circulated,—the chief spokesman of the nearest county town. But with all its limitations, its readers represented to Lucyet the great harsh, unknowing, and yet irresistibly attractive public.
It was not the first time that she had thus watched for it with mute excitement. Such episodes, though infrequent, had marked her otherwise uneventful existence at irregular intervals for more than a year. It would be more correct to say that they had altered its entire course; that such episodes had given to her life a double character,—one side of calmness, secrecy, indifference, and the other of delight, absorption, thrilled with a breathless excitement and uncertainty. But this time there was a greater than ordinary interest. The verses that she had sent last were more ambitious in conception; they had description in them, and mental analysis, and several other things which very likely she would not have called by their right names, though she felt their presence: her other contributions had belonged rather to the poetry of comment. She was sure, almost sure, that they had accepted these.
Unsophisticated Lucyet never dreamed of enclosing postage for return, so she could only breathlessly search the printed page to discover whether her lines were there or in the waste-basket. Friday's edition of the "Daily Morning Chronicle" was more or less given over to the feeble claims of general literature. To-day was Friday. Lucyet glanced through her little window—the tastefully disposed corner of which was dedicated to the postal service—at the tin of animal crackers, the jar of prunes, the suspended bacon, and the box of Spanish licorice, and pondered, half contemptuously, half pitifully, on what had been her life before she had written poems and sent them to the "Daily Morning Chronicle." Then her outlook had seemed scarcely wider than that of the animal crackers with their counterfeit vitality; now it seemed extended to the horizon of all humanity.
There was the sound of horses' feet coming over the hill. Was it the mail wagon? No, it was a heavier vehicle; and the voice of the farmer, slow and lumbering as the animals it encouraged, sounded down the village street. Over the crest of the hill appeared the summit of a load of hay going to the scales in front of the tavern to be weighed. So silent were the place and the hour, that it was like a commotion when the cart drew up, and the horses were unhitched and weighed, and then the load driven on, and the owner and the hotel-keeper exchanged observations of a genial nature. Finally the horses and the wagon creaked along the hot street down the road which led by the pillared white house, and again the village was at peace. Lucyet glanced at the clock. Was the mail going to be late this morning? No. The creaking of the hay wagon had but just lost itself in the silence, when her quick ear caught the rattle of the lighter carriage. Her first impulse was to step to the door and wait for it there, but she did not yield to it; she would do just as usual, neither more nor less. She would not for worlds have Truman Hanks suspect any special interest on her part. He might try to find out its cause; and a hot blush enveloped Lucyet as she contemplated the possibility of his assigning it to the true one. Only one person in all the village knew that Lucyet Stevens wrote poetry.
"Most time for the mail to be gittin' heavy," said Truman, as he handed over the limp receptacle; "the summer boarders'll be along now, before long."
"Yes, I s'pose they will," answered Lucyet, her fingers trembling as they unlocked the bag.
"It's a backward season, though," he went on, watching her.
"Yes, it is uncommon backward; the apple blossoms aren't but just beginning to come out."
It seemed to her that there was suspicion in his observation. He leaned lazily over the counter, while she took out the mail within the little office with its front of letter-boxes.
"This hot spell'll bring 'em out. It's the first hot spell we've had."
"Yes," she assented, blushing again, "it will."
She had spoken of the tardy apple blossoms in her poem,—it was entitled "Spring." Two or three people, having seen the mail go by, dropped in and disposed themselves in various attitudes to wait for it to be distributed. She hurried through the work, her fingers tingling to open each copy of the newspaper as she laid it in its place. At last it was done; the little window which had been shut to produce official seclusion was reopened; and the people came up, one by one, without much haste, and received the papers and now and then a letter. It did not take long; and afterward they stood about and talked and traded a little, their papers unopened in their hands. It was not likely that the news from outside was going to affect any one of them very much; they could wait for it; and reading matter was for careful attention at home, not for skimming over in public places.
Lucyet found their indifference phenomenal; they did not know what might be waiting for them in the first column of the third page. Was it waiting for them? The suspense was almost overwhelming; and yet she did not like to open the copy which lay at her disposal until the store was empty; she had a nervous feeling that they would all know what she was looking for. Slowly the group melted away, till there was no one left except the proprietor, who had gone into the back room to look after some seed corn, and Silas, the young farmer, who had thrown himself down into a chair to read his paper at his leisure, and was not noticing Lucyet. Eagerly she opened the printed sheet. She caught her breath in the joy of assurance. There it was—"Spring." It stood out as if it were printed all in capitals. After a furtive look out at the quiet street, where, in a rusty wagon, an old man was just picking up his reins and preparing to jog away from the post-office door, and a side glance at Silas's broad back over by the farther window, Lucyet read over her own lines. How different they looked from the copy in her own distinct, formal little handwriting! They had gained something,—but they had lost something too. They seemed unabashed, almost declamatory, in their sentiment. They had acquired a new and positive importance; it was as if the assertions they made had all at once become truths, had ceased to be tentative. She read them over again. No, they did not tell it all, all that she meant to say; but they brought back the day, and she was glad she had written them,—glad with an agitated, inexpressible gladness. She would like to know what people said of them; for a moment it seemed to her that she would not mind if they knew that she wrote them.
"Well," said Silas, laying down his paper and standing up, "there isn't a blamed thing in that paper!"
Lucyet looked up at him startled. Had she heard aright? Then the color slowly receded from her face and left it pale. Silas was quite unconscious of having made an unusual statement.
"Well, Lucyet," he went on, "going to the Christian Endeavor to-night?"
"I don't know," she stammered. "No," she added suddenly, "I am not." All endeavor was a mockery to her stunned soul.
"I dunno as I will either," he observed carelessly as he lounged out.
It was nothing to her whether he went or not, though once it might have been. She sat still for some minutes after he had gone, looking blankly at the paper. The page which a few minutes ago had seemed fairly to glow with interest had become mere columns of print concerning trivial things; for an instant she saw it with Silas's eyes. John Thomas came limping for his mail. He had been detained on the way, he explained, and was late. She handed him his paper through the window, dully, indifferently. She was suffering a measure of that disappointment which comes with what we have grown to believe attainment, and is so much more bitter than that of failure. But the revolt against this unnatural state of mind came before long. The elasticity of her own enthusiasm reasserted itself. It could not be that there was nothing in her poem. She read the lines over again. Two or three were not quite what they ought to be, somehow; but the rest of them the world would lay hold of,—that big sympathetic world which knew so much more than Silas Stevens.
When the hour came to close the office at noon, she locked the drawer and passed out of the door to the footpath with a sense of triumph under the habitual shyness of her manner. She still shrank from the publicity she had achieved, but she was conscious of an undercurrent of desire that her achievement, since it was real, should be recognized.
When the old postmaster died, leaving Lucyet, his only child, alone in the world, and interest in official quarters had procured for her the appointment in her father's place, a home had also been offered her at Miss Flood's; and it was thither that Lucyet now went for her noonday meal. Miss Delia Flood was of most kindly disposition and literary tastes. That these tastes were somewhat prescribed in their manifestation was no witness against their genuineness. It must be confessed that Miss Delia's preference was for the sentimental,—though she would have modestly shrunk from hearing it thus baldly stated,—and, naturally, for poetry above prose. The modern respect for "strength" in literature would have impressed her most painfully had she known of it. The mind turns aside from the contemplation of the effect that a story or two of Kipling's would have produced upon her could she have grasped their vocabulary; she would probably have taken to her bed in sheer fright, as she did in a thunderstorm. Poetry of the heart and emotions, which never verged, even most distantly, upon what her traditions and her susceptibilities told her was the indecorous, satisfied her highest demands, and the less said about nature, except by way of an occasional willow, or the sad, sweet scent of a jasmine flower, the better. Miss Delia had fostered Lucyet's love for literature; and it was to Miss Delia that Lucyet hastened with the great news of the publication of her poem. It was for this acute pleasure that she had hitherto kept the knowledge of her attempt from her,—and, too, that her joy might be full, and that she would not have to suffer the alternating phases of hope and fear through which Lucyet herself had passed.
As she entered the room where dinner stood on the table and Miss Delia waited to eat it with her, she suppressed the trembling excitement which threatened to make itself visible in her manner now that the words were upon her very lips. They seated themselves at the table. Miss Delia was small and wiry and grave, and never spilled anything on the tablecloth when helping.
"Miss Delia," said Lucyet, "I've written a poem."
Her companion looked at her and smiled a shrewd little smile. "I've guessed as much before now," she said.
"But," said Lucyet, laying down her knife and fork, "it has been printed."
"Printed, child!" exclaimed Miss Delia, almost dropping hers. At last the cup of satisfaction was at Lucyet's lips; at least she had not overestimated the purport of the event to one human being.
"Printed," repeated Lucyet, smiling softly. "Here it is in the paper."
Miss Delia pushed aside her plate, seized the paper, and, opening it, searched its columns. She had not to look long; there was but one poem. Lucyet watched with shining eyes. This is what it meant; this was the realization of her dreams—to see the reader pass over the rest of the page as trivial, to be arrested with spellbound interest at the word "Spring," to know that the words that held that absorbed attention were her words—her own.
As Miss Delia read, gradually her expression changed; from eagerness it faded into perplexity. Lucyet watched her breathlessly, her hands clasped, her thin arms and somewhat angular elbows resting on the coarse tablecloth. From perplexity Miss Delia's look was chilled into what the observant girl recognized, with a dull pain at her heart, as disappointment. Lucyet averted her gaze to a dish of ill-shaped boiled potatoes; there was no need of watching longer the face opposite. Miss Delia read it all through again, dwelling on certain lines, which she indicated by her forefinger, with special attention; then she looked up timidly. She met Lucyet's unsmiling eyes for a moment; then she, too, looked away, hurriedly, helplessly, to the dish of boiled potatoes.
"I'm sure it is very nice—very nice indeed, Lucyet," she said.
"But you don't like it," said Lucyet.
"Oh, yes, I do," poor Miss Delia hastened to say. "I do like it; the rhymes are in the right places, and all, and it looks so nice in the column." Mechanically she pulled her plate back again, and Lucyet did the same. "I'm proud of you, Lucyet," she went on with a forced little smile, "that you can write real poetry like that."
"But what if it isn't real poetry?" said Lucyet.
The doubt was wrung from her by the overwhelming bitterness of her disappointment. A rush of tears was smarting behind her rather inexpressive eyes; but she held them back. Miss Delia was thoroughly distressed. She put aside her own serious misgivings.
"But it must be," she argued eagerly, "or they wouldn't have printed it."
Lucyet shook her head as she forced herself to eat a morsel of bread. How unconvincing sounded the argument from another's lips! and yet she knew now that secretly it had carried with it more weight than she had realized. Miss Delia glanced apprehensively at the folded paper as it lay on the table. She herself was disappointed, deeply disappointed; she had expected much, and this,—why, this was, most of it, just what any one could find out for herself. But she must say something more. Lucyet's patient silence as she went on with her dinner, never raising the eyes which had so shone when she first spoke, demanded speech from her more urgently than louder claims.
"I suppose I thought perhaps there would be more about—about misfortune, and scattered leaves, and dells,"—poor Miss Delia smiled deprecatingly, while she felt wildly about for more tangible reminiscences of her favorite poets, that she might respond to the unuttered questioning of Lucyet,—"and"—she dropped her eyes—"lovers."
"I don't know anything about dells and lovers," said Lucyet, simply; "how should I?"
Miss Delia started a little. It had never occurred to her that one must know about things personally in order to write poetry about them. If it had, she would never have dreamed of mentioning lovers.
"No, of course not," she said hastily; "but writing about a thing isn't like knowing about it."
Lucyet was not experienced enough to detect any fallacy in this, and she dumbly acquiesced.
"You have in all the grass and trees and—and such things as you have in—very nicely, I'm sure," went on Miss Delia; "only next time"—and she smiled brightly—"next time you must put in what we don't see every day—like islands and reefs and such things. I know you could write a beautiful poem about a reef—a coral reef."
Lucyet tried to smile hopefully in return, but the attempt was a failure. She had finished her dinner, and she longed to get away; she was so hurt that she must be alone to see how it was to be borne. She helped Miss Delia clear the table and wash the dishes, almost in silence. Two or three times they exchanged words on indifferent subjects; Miss Delia asked who had had letters, and Lucyet told her, but it was hard work for both. When it was over, Lucyet paused in the doorway, putting on her straw hat to go back to the post-office.
Miss Delia stood a moment irresolute, and then stepped to her side. "Lucyet," she said, her voice trembling, "I don't understand it exactly. It isn't like the poetry I've been used to. There are things in it that I don't know what they mean. To be sure, that's so with all poetry that we do like,"—the tears were in her eyes; it is not an easy thing to disappoint one's best friend and to be conscious of it,—"but it isn't like what I thought it was going to be, just about what we see out of the window. But it's my fault, just as likely as not,"—she laid her hand on Lucyet's arm,—"that's what I want to say; you mustn't take it to heart—just 's likely 's not, it's my fault."
Miss Delia did not believe a word of what she was saying, which made it difficult for her to articulate; but she was making a brave effort in her sensitive loyalty.
"I know," said Lucyet, gently; "but I guess it isn't your fault;" and she slipped out to the road on her way to the post-office. Miss Delia went back, picked up the paper, and, seating herself at the window, she read "Spring" all through again, word by word; then she laid it aside again, shaking her head sadly.
Lucyet went quietly behind her little window. Her disappointment amounted to actual physical pain. She found no comfort, as a wiser person might have done, in certain of Miss Delia's expressions; she only realized that her best friend and her most generous critic could find nothing good in what she had done. Her duty this afternoon was only to make up the mail for the down train; then her time was her own till the next mail train came up at half-past five. At two o'clock she closed the office again and started on a long walk. She longed for the comfort of the solitary hillsides, where warm patches of sunlight lay at the foot of ragged stone walls, and there were long stretches of plain and meadow to be looked over, and rolling hills to comfort the soul. As she climbed a hill just before the place where a weedy untravelled road turned off from the highway leading between closely growing underbrush and stone walls, where now and then a shy bird rustled suddenly and invisibly among last year's dried leaves, she saw three countrymen standing by the wayside and talking with as near an approach to earnestness as ever visits the colloquies of the ordinary unemotional New Englander. One of them held a copy of the "Daily Chronicle," gesturing with it somewhat jerkily as he spoke.
For a moment the hope that it is hard to make away with revived in Lucyet's breast. Were they talking of the poem, she wondered, with a certain weary interest. She dreaded a fresh disappointment so keenly that it pained her to speculate much on the chance of it. It was not impossible that they were saying such meaningless stuff ought never to have been printed. As the pale girl drew near with the plodding, patient step which so often proclaims that walking is not a pleasure, but a necessity, of country life, the men did not lower their voices, which she heard distinctly as she passed.
"Wal, I tell you, 't was that," said one of them. "He didn't live more'n a little time after he took it."
"Mebbe he wouldn't have lived anyhow."
"Wal, mebbe he wouldn't. 'T ain't for me to say," responded the first speaker, evincing a certain piety, which, however, was not to be construed as at variance with his first statement.
"Wal, 't wa'n't this he took, was it?" demanded the man with the "Chronicle," waving it wildly.
"Wal, no, 't wa'n't," responded the other, reasonably. The third member of the party maintained an air of not being in a position to judge, and regarded Lucyet stolidly as she approached.
"Do, Lucyet?" he observed, unnoticed of the other two.
"I tell you this'll cure him. It'll cure anybody. Just read them testimonies,"—and he pressed the paper into the other's meagre hand. "Read that one, 'Rheumatiz of thirty years' standin',—it'll interest ye."
Lucyet went on up the hill, and turned into the weedy road. She had not a keen sense of the ridiculous. It did not strike her as funny that they should have been discussing a patent medicine instead of the verses on "Spring;" but her shrinking sense of defeat was deepened, and she felt, with an unconscious resentment, that most people cared very little about poetry. She wondered, without bitterness, and with a saddened distrust of her own power, if she could write an advertisement. Once within the precincts of the tangled road, her disquieted soul rejoiced in the freedom from observation. She felt as bruised and sore from the unsympathetic contact of her world as if it had been a larger one; and with the depression had come a startled sense of the irrevocableness of what she had done. Those printed words seemed so swift, so tangible. They would go so far, and afford such opportunity for the grasp of indifference, of ridicule! If she could only have them again, spoken, perhaps, but unheard!
Yet here, at least, where the enterprising grass grew in the rugged cart track, and the branches drooped impertinently before the face of the wayfarer, no one but herself need know that she was very near to tears. And as she came out of the shut-in portion of the road to a stretch of open country, where the warm light lay on the hillsides, and the air was sweetened by the breath of pines, her depression gave way to a keen sense of elation. She turned aside and, crossing a bit of elastic, dry grass, climbed to the top of the stone wall and looked about her. Her heart throbbed with confidence, doubly grateful for the previous distrust. Her own lines came back to her; it was this that somehow, imperfectly, but somehow, she had put into words. It was still spring, a late New England spring, though the unseasonable warmth of the day made it seem summer. The landscape bore the coloring of autumn rather than that of the earlier year. The trees were red and brown and yellow in their incipient leafage. Now and then, among the sere fields, there was a streak of vivid green, or a mound of rich brown, freshly turned earth; but for the most part they were bare. Here and there was the crimson of a new maple; in the distance were the reds and brown of new, not old, life. Only the birds sang as they never sing in autumn, a burst of clear, joyous anticipation—the trill of the meadowlark, the "sweet, sweet, piercing sweet" of the flashing oriole, the call of the catbird, and the melody of the white-bosomed thrush. And here and there a fountain of white bloom showed itself amid the sombreness of the fields, a pear or cherry tree decked from head to foot in bridal white, like a bit of fleecy cloud dropped from the floating masses above to the discouraged earth; along the wayside the white stars of the anemone, the wasteful profusion of the eyebright, and the sweet blue of the violet; and in solemn little clusters, the curled up fronds of the ferns, uttering a protest against longer imprisonment—let wind and sun look out! they would uncurl to-morrow! All these things set the barely blossomed branches, the barely clothed hillsides, at defiance. It was the beginning, not the end, the promise, not the regret—it was life, not death. Summer was afoot, not winter.
It was worth a longer walk, that half hour on the hillside; for it restored, in a measure, her sense of enjoyment, and substituted for the burden of defeat the exultation of expression, however faulty and however limited. But like other moods, this one was temporary; and as she retraced her steps and turned into the village street, she felt again the lassitude which follows the extinction of hope and the inexorable narrowing of the horizon which she had fancied extended.
It was usual for her at this hour to stop at the tavern for the mail which might be ready there, and herself take it to the post-office. In midsummer this mail was quite an important item, but at this time of year it amounted to little; nevertheless, she followed what had become the custom. She found one of the daughters of the house in the throes of composition.
"Oh, Lucyet," she exclaimed, "you don't say that's you! I want this to go to-night the worst way. Ain't you early?"
"Yes, I guess I am," said Lucyet, rather wearily.
"If you'll set on the piazzer and wait, I'll finish up in just a minute. You see we had to get dinner for two gentlemen as came down to go fishin' to-morrer, and it sorter put me back. I wish you'd wait."
"Well, I guess I can wait a few minutes," said Lucyet, the line between her personal and her official capacity being sometimes a difficult one to maintain rigidly. She seated herself on the piazza, not observing that she was just outside of the window of the room within which the two fishermen were smoking and talking in a desultory fashion. Later their voices fell idly on her ear, speaking a language she only half understood, blending with the few lazy sounds of the afternoon. The conversation was really extremely desultory, being chiefly maintained by the younger man of the two, who lounged on the sofa of unoriental luxury with a thorough-going perversion of the maker's plan,—his head being where his feet ought to have been and his feet hanging over the portion originally intended for the back of his head. The other man wore the frown of absorption as, a pencil in his hand, he worried through some pages of manuscript.
"Oh, I say," observed the idler, "ain't you 'most through slaughtering the innocents? I want to take that walk."
"I told you half an hour ago that if I could have a few uninterrupted minutes I'd be with you," answered the other man, without looking up. "They haven't fallen in my way yet."
"It's pity that moves me to speech," rejoined the first speaker, rising and sauntering to the window,—not that one outside of which Lucyet was sitting,—"pity for those young souls throbbing with the consciousness of power who may have forgotten to enclose a stamp for return. I feel when I interrupt you as if I were holding back the remorseless wheel of fate."
His companion allowed this speculative remark to pass without reply. The idler sauntered back to the table.
"What'll you bet, now, before you go any further, that it'll go into the waste-basket?"
"Stamped and addressed envelope enclosed," observed the patient editor, absently.
"Well, what odds will you give me of its being not necessarily devoid of literary merit, but unfitted for the special uses of your magazine?"
The other was still silent as he laid aside another page.
"Half the time," continued the idler, "to look at you, you wouldn't believe that you speak the truth when you express your thanks for the pleasure of reading their manuscripts. It would seem that that, too, was simulated."
The older man picked up a soft felt hat and threw it across the room at his companion, without taking his eyes from the page.
"Oh, well," went on the other, "I can read the newspaper. I can read what is printed, while you're reading what ought to be. Of course you and I know the things are never the same."
Picking up the paper, he resumed, approximately, his former attitude, and applied himself to its columns for a few moments of silence. Outside Lucyet sat quietly, her head resting against the white wooden wall of the house; and the editor made a mark or two.
"Now this is what the public want to know," resumed the idler, with a gratuitous air of having been pressed for his opinion. "You editors have a ridiculous way of talking about the public—"
"It strikes me that it is not I who have been making myself ridiculous talking about anything."
"The public! You just tell the great innocent public that you are giving them the sort of thing they like, and half the time they believe you, and half the time they don't. Now this man"—and he tapped the "Chronicle"—"knows an editor's business."
"Which is more than you do," interpolated the goaded man.
"'The frame for William Brown's new house is up. William may be trusted to finish as well as he has begun,'" read the idler, imperturbably. "'Miss Sophie Brown is visiting friends in Albany. The boys will be glad to see her back.' 'Fruit of all kinds will be scarce, though berries will be abundant.'"
The older man stood up, his pencil in his mouth. "Confound you, Richards! Either you keep still or I go to my room and lock the door."
"Oh, I'll keep still," said Richards, as if it was the first time it had been suggested. Again there was a silence.
The letter must be to Ada's young man, who was doing a good business in cash registers, it took so long to write it. It was within five minutes of the time Lucyet should be at the office. She moved to leave the piazza, when a not loud exclamation from Richards fell on her ear with unusual distinctness.
"By Jove! I say, just listen to this."
The editor looked up threateningly, and went back to his work again without a word.
"No, but really—it's quite in your line. Listen."
Lucyet had moved forward a step or two, when she stood motionless. The words that floated through the window were her own. Richards had an unusually sweet voice, and he was reading in a way entirely different from that in which he had rattled off the "personals." There seemed a new sweetness in every syllable; the warmth of the hillside, the perfume of opening apple blossoms, breathed between the lines. He read slowly, and the words fell on the still air that seemed waiting breathless to hear them. When he finished, Lucyet was leaning against the side of the house, her hand on her heart, her eyes shining,—and the editor was looking at the reader.
"There," he concluded, "ain't there something of the 'blackbird's tune and the beanflower's boon' in that?"
"Copied, of course?" inquired the editor, briefly.
"No. 'Written for the Daily Chronicle,' and signed 'L.' Not bad, are they? Of course I don't know," Richards scoffed, "and the public wouldn't know if it read them, but you know—"
"Read 'em again."
A second time, with increased expression, half mischievous now in its fervor, the lines on Spring fell in musical tones from Richards's lips. Still Lucyet stood breathless, her whole being thrilled with an impulse of exultant, inexpressible delight, listening as she had never listened before. It was as if she stood in the midst of a shining mist.
"She's got it in her, hasn't she?" Richards added, after a pause.
"Yes," said his companion, slowly. "She's got it in her fast enough;" and he returned to his page of manuscript. "Much good may it do her!" he added, with weary cynicism.
Richards laughed, and pulled a pack of cards out of his pocket. "I'll play solitaire," he said.
"Thank Heaven!" murmured the other, devoutly.
Ada arrived breathless. "Here 'tis," said she. "Did you think I was never comin'? You've got time enough; they ain't very prompt. There ain't anythin' the matter, is there?" she asked.
Lucyet took the letter mechanically. "No," she said, "there isn't anything the matter."
As she went swiftly toward the little post-office the rhythm of those lines was in her ears; the assured, incisive tones of that man's voice pulsed through her very soul. She was conscious of no hope for the future; she had no regret for the past; the present was a glory. In that moment Lucyet had taken a long, dizzying draught from the cup of success.
THE observation train wound its way in clumsy writhings along the bank of the river, upon which the afternoon light fell in modified brilliancy as the west kindled towards the sunset. But if the sheen and sparkle of the earlier day had passed into something more subdued and less exhilarating, the difference was made up in the shifting action and color that moved and glowed and flashed on, above and beside the soft clearness of the stream. The sunlight caught the turn of the wet oars and outlined the brown muscular backs of the young athletes who were pulling the narrow shells. The Yale blue spread itself in blocks and patches along the train, and the Harvard crimson burned in vivid stretches by its side, and all the blue and crimson seemed instinct with animation as they floated, quivered, and waved in the thrilled interest of hundreds of men and women who followed with eager eyes the knife-blades of boats cleaving the water in a quick, silent ripple of foam. The crowd of launches, tugs, yachts, and steamers pushed up the river, keeping their distance with difficulty, and from them as well as from the banks sounded the fluctuating yet unbroken cheers of encouragement and exhortation, rising and falling in rhythmic measure, guided by public-spirited enthusiasts, or breaking out in purely individual tribute to the grand chorus of partisanship. It had been a close start, and the furor of excitement had spent itself, somewhat, during the first seconds, and now made itself felt more like the quick heart-beats of restrained emotion as the issue seemed to grow less doubtful, though reaching now and then climaxes of renewed expression.
"Alas for advancing age!" sighed a woman into the ear of her neighbor, as their eyes followed the crews, but without that fevered intensity which marked some other glances.
"By all means," he answered. "But why, particularly, just now? I was beginning to fancy myself young under the stress of present circumstances."
"Because even if one continues to keep one's emotions creditably—effervescent—one loses early the single-minded glow of contest."
"A single-minded glow is a thing that should be retained, even at considerable cost."
"And what is worse yet, one grows critical about language," she continued calmly, "and gives free rein to a naturally unpleasant disposition under cover of a refined and sensitive taste."
Ellis Arnold smiled tolerantly.
"They are pretty sure to keep their lead now," he said. "The other boat is more than a length behind, and losing. They are not pulling badly, either," he added. "You were saying?"—and he turned towards her for the first time since the start.
She was a handsome blonde-haired woman, perfectly dressed, with the seal of distinction set upon features, figure, and expression.
"That was what I was saying," she replied, "that the ones that are behind are not pulling badly."
"More sphinx-like than ever," he murmured. "I perceive that you speak in parables."
Miss Normaine laughed a little. The conversation was decidedly intermittent. They dropped it entirely at times, and then took it up as if there had been no pause. It was after a brief silence that she went on: "But you and I can see both boats—the success, and the disappointment too. And we can't, for the life of us, help feeling that it's hard on those who have put forth all their strength for defeat."
"But it isn't so bad as if it were our boat that was behind," he said sensibly.
"Oh, no; of course not. But I maintain that it injures the fine fleur of enjoyment to remember that there are two participants in a contest."
"I suppose it is useless to expect you to be logical—"
"Quite. I know enough to be entirely sure I'd rather be picturesque."
"But let me assure you, that in desiring that there should be but one participant in a contest, you are striking at the very root of all successful athletic exhibitions."
She shrugged her shoulders a little.
"Oh, well, if you like to air your powers of irony at the expense of such painful literalness!"
"The exuberance of my style has been pruned down to literalness by the relentless shears of a cold world. With you, of course,"—but he was interrupted by the shouts of the crowd, as the winning boat neared the goal. The former enthusiasm had been the soft breathings of approval compared to this outbreak of the victorious. Flags, hats, handkerchiefs rose in the air, and the university cheer echoed, re-echoed, and began again.
Arnold cheered also, with an energy not to be deduced from his hitherto calm exterior, standing up on the seat and shouting with undivided attention; and Miss Normaine waved her silk handkerchief and laughed in response to the bursts of youthful joy from the seat in front of her.
"Oh, well," said Arnold, sitting down again, "sport is sport for both sides, whoever wins—or else it isn't sport at all."
"Ah, how many crimes have been committed in thy name!" murmured Miss Normaine.
"Katharine, I think you have turned sentimentalist."
"No, it's age, I tell you. I'm thinking more now of the accessories than I am of the race. That's a sure sign of age, to have time to notice the accessories."
"There's compensation in it, though. If we lose a little of the drama of conflict on these occasions, we gain something in recognizing the style of presentation."
"Yes," and she glanced down at her niece, whose pretty eyes were making short work of the sunburned, broad-shouldered, smooth-faced, handsome boy, who was entirely willing to close the festivities of Commencement week subjected to the ravages of a grand, even if a hopeless, passion.
From her she looked out upon the now darkening river. There had been some delay before the train could begin to move back, and the summer twilight had fallen; for the race had been at the last available moment. Though it was far from quiet, the relief from the tension of the previous moments added to the placidity of the scene. The opposite banks were dim and shadowy, and the water was growing vague; there were lights on some of the craft; a star came out, and then another; there were no hard suggestions, no sordid reminders. It was a beautiful world, filled with happy people, united in a common healthy interest; the outlines of separation were softened into ambiguity and the differences veiled by good breeding.
"It is only a mimic struggle, after all," she said at last. "The stage is well set, and now that the curtain is down, there is no special bitterness at the way the play ended."
"There you exaggerate, as usual," he replied, "and of course in another direction from that in which you exaggerated last time."
"The pursuit of literature has made you not only precise but didactic," she observed.
"There is a good deal, if not of bitterness, of very real disappointment, and some depression."
"Which will be all gone long before the curtain goes up for the next performance."
"Ah, yes, to be sure; but nevertheless you underrate the disappointments of youth,—because they are not tragic you think they are not bitter,—you have always underrated them."
She met his eyes calmly, though he had spoken with a certain emphasis.
"We are talking in a circle," she replied. "That was what I said in the first place—that as we grow older we have more sympathy with defeat."
"You are incorrigible," he said, smiling; "you will accept neither consolation nor reproof."
"Life brings enough of both," she answered; "it does not need to be supplemented by one's friends."
The train was moving very slowly; people were laughing and talking gayly all about them; more lights had come out on the water, and a gentle breeze had suddenly sprung up.
"Just what do you mean by that, I wonder?" he said slowly.
"Not much," she answered lightly. "But I do mean," she added, as he looked away from her, "that, whether it be the consequence of the altruism of the day, or of advancing age, as I said at first, it has grown to be provokingly difficult to ignore those who lose more serious things than a college championship. Verestchagin and such people have spoiled history for us. Who cares who won a great battle now?—it is such a small thing to our consciousness compared to the number of people who were killed—and on one side as well as the other."
"Except, of course, where there is a great principle, not great possessions, at stake?"
"Yes," she assented, but somewhat doubtfully, "yes, of course."
"But it shows a terrible dearth of interest when we get down to principles."
"Yes," she said again, laughing. Meanwhile Miss Normaine's niece was pursuing her own ends with that directness which, though lacking the evasive subtlety of maturer years, is at once effective and commendable.
"It was nothing but a box of chocolate peppermints," she insisted. "I'd never be so reckless as to wager anything more without thinking it over. I have an allowance, and I'm obliged to be careful what I spend."
He looked her over with approval.
"You spend it well," he asserted.
"I have to," she returned, "or else boys like you would never look at me twice."
"I don't know about that." He spoke as one who, though convinced, is not a bigot.
"It's fortunate that I do," she replied decidedly. "I'm mortifyingly dependent on my clothes. There's my Aunt Katharine now,—she has an air in anything."
"I like you better than your aunt," he confessed.
"Of course you do. I've taken pains to have you. But it was just as much as ever that you looked at me twice last night."
"I was afraid of making you too conspicuous."
"A lot you were!" she retorted rudely. "Who was that girl you danced with?"
He smiled wearily.
"Tommy Renwick's cousin from the West."
"She is pretty."
"Very good goods."
"Is she as nice as Tommy?"
"No. There are not many girls as nearly right as Tommy."
"Well, perhaps, except you."
"But then, I'm not many."
"No, separate wrapper, only one in a box," he admitted handsomely.
Miss Normaine's niece had dark eyes, brown hair that curled in small inadvertent rings, and a rich warm complexion through which the crimson glowed in her round cheeks. She was so pretty that she ought to have been suppressed, and had a way of speaking that made her charming all over again.
"It was not chocolate peppermints, and you know quite well it wasn't," he said, with the finished boldness compatible with hair parted exactly in the middle and a wide experience. Miss Normaine's niece opened her eyes wide.
"What was it?"
"Nothing but your heart."
She considered the matter seriously.
"Was it really?"
"It was really."
"And I've lost," she pondered aloud.
"And you've lost."
She raised her eyes with a glance in which he could read perfect faith, glad acknowledgment, and entire surrender.
"Do you want me to keep telling you?" she demanded with adorable petulance.
"There is Henry Donald!" exclaimed Miss Normaine. "I didn't see him before. He has grown stout, hasn't he?"
"Yes, and bald."
"Isn't he young to be bald and stout too? Do tell me that he is," urged Miss Normaine with pathos. "He seems just out of college to me, and I don't like to think that I've lost all sense of proportion."
"Oh, no, you haven't," said Arnold, consolingly. "It's only he that has lost his. He doesn't take exercise enough. He's coming this way to speak to you. You had better think of something more flattering to say."
"I never thought Harry Donald would get stout and bald," went on Miss Normaine, to herself. "There was a period when I let my fancy play about him, most of the time too, but I never thought of that."
"Who's that man squeezing through the crowd to speak to Aunt Katharine?" asked Alice.
"That? Oh, that's one of the old boys."
"I can see that for myself."
"He's a Judge Donald of Wisconsin. He's pretty well on, but he's a Jim-dandy after-dinner speaker. Made a smooth speech at his class reunion."
"They still like to come to the race and things, don't they?"
"Oh, yes, and they're right into it all while they're here too."
Unhappily unconscious of the kindly feeling being extended to him from the bench in front, Judge Donald seated himself by Katharine, just as they drew slowly into the station.
"You haven't been on for some years, have you?" she asked him.
"No," he answered, "I've been busy."
"Oh, we know you've been busy," she interpolated, smiling.
"You're the same Katharine Normaine," he rejoined. "I thought you were, by the looks, and now I'm sure. You don't really know that I've ever had a case, but you make me feel that my name echoes through two worlds at the very least."
"And you are still Harry Donald, suspicious of the gifts that are tossed into your lap," and they both laughed.
"This is the man of the class," went on Judge Donald, turning to Ellis, who had taken a seat above them. "Your books have gotten out to Wisconsin, and that's fame enough for any man."
"Have they really?" said Arnold. "I supposed they only wrote notices of them in the papers."
"Oh, yes," murmured Miss Normaine. "Ellis has turned out clever,—one never knows."
"I guess they're good, too," went on Donald; "I tell 'em I used to think you wrote well in college."
"I thought I did, too," answered Arnold. "I don't believe we're either of us quite so sure I write well now."
They had delayed their steps to keep out of the crowd, for the people were leaving the train, some hurrying to catch other trains, some stopping to greet friends and acquaintances; there was a general rushing to and fro, the clamor of well-bred voices, the calling out of names in surprised accost, the frou-frou of gowns and the fragrance of flowers, in the bare and untidy station.
At last the party of which Miss Normaine was one left the car, and with the two men she made her way down the platform, through the midst of the hubbub, which waxed more insistent every moment.
"It is with a somewhat fevered anxiety that I am keeping my eye on Alice," she said.
"She is with a young man," said Judge Donald.
"That statement has not the merit of affording information. She has been with a young man ever since we left home."
"It isn't the same one, either," supplemented Arnold.
"It never is the same one," said Miss Normaine, somewhat impatiently. "I am under no obligation to look after or even differentiate the young men. I simply have to see that the child doesn't get lost with any one of them."
"She won't get lost with one," said Arnold, reassuringly, as they were separated by a cross-current of determined humanity. "She has three now, and they are all shaking hands at a terrible rate."
Judge Donald departed on a tour of investigation, and returned to say that there was no chance just at present of their getting away. It was a scene of confusion which only patience and time could elucidate. The omniscience of officials had given place to a less satisfactory if more human ignorance; last come was first served, and a seat in a train seemed by no means to insure transportation. It was as well to wait for a while outside as in; so with many others they strolled up and down, until their car should be more easily accessible.
"Alice is an example of the profound truths we have been enunciating, Ellis," said Miss Normaine. "She has an ardent admirer on the defeated crew. At one time I did not know but his devotion might shake her lifelong allegiance to the other university; but now that victory has fairly perched, you observe she has small thought for the bearers of captured banners. We were saying, Mr. Arnold and I," she explained to Donald, "that it is at our time of life that people begin to remember that when somebody beats, there is somebody else beaten."
Donald grew grave,—as grave as a man can be with the feathers of an unconscious girl tickling one ear and a fleeting chorus of the latest "catchy" song penetrating the other.
"Arnold and I can appreciate it better than you, I guess," he said, "because there have been times when we thought it highly probable we might get beaten ourselves."
"Highly," assented Arnold.
"But you, Miss Normaine, you've never had any difficulty in getting in on the first floor," went on the other. "You've quaffed the foam of the beaker and eaten the peach from the sunniest side of the wall right along—I'm quite sure of it just to look at you."
"The Scripture moveth us in sundry places," said Katharine, with a lightness that did not entirely veil something serious, "not to put too much faith in appearances. Even I am not above learning a lesson now and then."
He looked at her curiously.
"I'd like to know by what right you haven't changed more," he said.
"Did you expect to find me in ruins, after—let me see, how many years?" she laughed. "The hand of Time is heavy, but not necessarily obliterating. What has become of Alice?"
"She can't have gone far," said Arnold. "She was with us a moment ago."
"There she is with some of the rest of your party—I caught a glimpse of her just now," added Donald. "She's quite safe."
Alice stood talking with a girl of her own age and two or three undergraduates, on the outskirts of the crowd. One of the youths wore in his buttonhole the losing color, but he bore himself with a proud dignity that forbade casual condolences. Alice's eyes were bright, and her pretty laugh rippled forth with readily communicated mirth, while the very roses of her hat nodded with the spirit of unthinking gayety.
"There's the car that belongs to our fellows," said, half to himself, the person of sympathies alien to those of his present companions. "They must be about—yes, they're getting on," he added, as a car which had been propelled from a neighboring switch stopped at the farther end of the station. Alice's head turned with a swiftness of motion that set the roses vibrating as if a sudden breeze had ruffled their petals.
"The crew?" she asked.
"Yes," assented the young man.
She turned more definitely towards him, away from the rest of the group, whose attention was called in another direction.
"Will you do something for me, Mr. Francis?"
"Why, of course."
Alice had not anticipated refusal, and her directions were prompt and lucid.
"Please go into that car and ask Mr. Herbert to come out to the platform, at the other end, to speak to me. There isn't much time to lose, so please be quick."
As he lifted his hat and moved away, she joined in the conversation of the others, which seemed to be largely metaphorical.
"So he got it that time," one of the young men was explaining, "where Katy wore the beads."
"Well, it served him quite right," said Alice, with the generosity of ignorance. Her whole attention was apparently given to the matter in hand, but she was standing so that she could see the somewhat vague vestibule of the brilliant but curtained car.
"Oh, yes, but it wasn't on the tintype that the other fellow should have been there at all."
"No, to be sure, but that made it all the better," said Alice's friend, with sympathetic vision.
"Why, there's Eugene Herbert!" exclaimed Alice. "I really must go and tell him that he pulled beautifully, if he didn't win, and comforting things like that! Don't go off without me."
Before comment could be framed upon their lips, she had left her companions and was slipping quickly down the platform.
"She knows him very well," said the other girl; "she'll be back in a minute."
"She must have sharp eyes," said another of the group, as he looked after her. But too many people were about for fixed attention to be bestowed upon a single figure. There was but one light under the roof of that part of the station where a young man was standing, looking rather sulkily up and down. Alice was a little breathless with her rapid walk when she reached him.
"I thought Francis was giving me a song and dance," he said, as he grasped the hand she held out.
"No, I sent him," she explained hurriedly. "And I wanted to say—" She paused an instant as she looked up at him.
He was serious, and wore a look of fatigue, in spite of the superb physical health of his whole appearance. The light fell across her face under the dark brim of her hat, and touched its beauty into something vividly apart from the shadows and sordidness of the place, yet paler than its sunlit brilliancy.
"I wanted to say," she went on bravely, "that I've changed my mind. At least, I didn't really have any mind at all. And if you still want me to—" she paused again, but something in his eyes reassured her—"I will—I'd really like to, you know, and please be quiet, there isn't but a minute to say it in—and I'd never have told you—at least not for years and years—if you had won the race. Now let go of my hand—there are hundreds of people all about—and you can come and see me to-morrow."
It was all over in a moment. She had snatched her hand away, and was speeding back with a clear-eyed look of conscious rectitude, and he had responded to the exhortations of divers occupants of the car, backed by a disinterested brakeman, and stepped aboard.
"Oh, well, there's another race next year," he said to somebody who spoke to him as he sat down in the end seat. It was early for such optimism, and they thought Herbert had a disgustingly cheerful temperament.
Alice returned just as Miss Normaine and Arnold came up, and they all went back together, collecting the rest of the party as they went to their train. It was a vivacious progress along the homeward route. Paeans of victory and the flash of Roman candles filled the air. At one time, when some particular demonstration was absorbing the attention of the men, Miss Normaine found her niece at her side.
"Aunt Katharine, you know I've always adored you," she said, with a repose of manner that disguised a trifle of apprehension.
"Yes, I know, Alice, but I really can't promise to take you anywhere to-morrow. I—"
"I don't want you to—I only want to confide in you."
"Oh, dear, what have you been doing now?"
"I think," replied Alice, while the chorus of sound about them swelled almost to sublimity, "that I've been getting engaged—to Eugene Herbert, you know."
"Only to Eugene Herbert," breathed Miss Normaine. "I'm glad it occurred to you to mention it. But why didn't you say so before?"
"It didn't—it wasn't—before," said Alice, faltering an instant under the calmly judicial eye of her aunt. "You see," she went on quickly, "it was because they lost the race. It wouldn't have been at all—not anyway for a long time,"—and again her mental glance swept the vista of the years she had mentioned to Herbert himself,—"if it hadn't been for that; but I couldn't let him go back without either the race or—or me," she concluded ingenuously.