"Indeed, I shall have occasion to remember it," was her ambiguous answer; "but Mondays in the country are always blue, and I'll do my repenting then. If I were a good Catholic I'd hunt up a priest to-morrow."
"I'll be your father-confessor to-day," said a black-eyed young man, twirling his mustache.
"You, Mr. Sibely? You would lead me into more naughtiness than you would help me out of, twice over. For my confessor I would choose an ancient man who had had his dinner. What a comfortable belief it is, to be sure! All one has to do is to buzz one's sins through a grating (that is like an indefinite number of key-holes) to a dozing old gentleman inside, and then away with a heart like a feather, to load up again. I'd bless the man who could convert me to a Papist."
But she hated the man who had made her feel the need of absolution, and who seemed an inseparable part of all her disagreeable experiences. Although he appeared to avoid any locality in which she remained, she observed his eyes turned towards her more than once before the day closed, and it exasperated her almost beyond all endurance to believe that their expression was only that of contempt.
She might have been a little better pleased, perhaps, if she had known that she made the artist almost as uncomfortable as herself. Never before had there seemed to him so great a contrast between her beauty and herself, her features and her face. The latter could not fail to excite his increased disgust, while the former was so great that he found himself becoming resolutely bent on redeeming them from what seemed a horrid profanation. In accordance with one of his characteristics, the more difficult the project seemed, the more obstinately fixed became his purpose to discover whether she had a mind of sufficient calibre to transform her into what she might be, in contrast with what she was. The more he saw of her the more his interest as an artist, and, indirectly, as a student of character, was deepened. If she had no mind worth naming he would give the problem up to the solution of time, which, however, promised nothing but a gradual fading away of all beauty, and the intensifying of inward deformity until fully reproduced in outward ugliness.
Chapter VII. Another Feminine Problem.
Early on Monday morning, Mr. Mayhew hastened from the breakfast-table to the stage. His wife and daughter were not down to see him off, and he seemed desirous of shunning all recognition. With the exception that that his eyes were heavy and bloodshot from his debauch, his face had the same dreary, apathetic expression which Van Berg had noted on his arrival. And so he went back to his city office, where, fortunately for him, mechanical routine brought golden rewards, since he was in no state for business enterprise.
From his appearance, Van Berg could not help surmising what had been his condition the previous day. Indeed Stanton, with a contemptuous shrug, had the same as said on Sabbath evening, that his uncle had "dropped into the old slough." Although neither of the young men knew how great an impetus Ida had given her father towards such degradation, they both felt that if his wife and daughter had had the tact to detect and appreciate his better mood, produced by the morning ramble, they might have sustained him, and given him at least one day that he could remember without shame and discouragement.
Van Berg found something pathetic in Mr. Mayhew's weary and disheartened manner. It was like that of a soldier who has suffered defeat, but who goes on with his routine in a mechanical, spiritless manner, because there is nothing else to do. He seemed to have no hope, nor even a thought of retrieving the past and of reasserting his own manhood. Accustomed as the young artist had ever been to a household in which affection, allied to high-bred courtesy and mutual respect, made even homely daily life noble and beautiful, he could not look on the discordant Mayhew family with the charity, or the indifference, of those who have seen more of the wrong side of life. Had there been only poor, besmirched Mr. Mayhew, and stout, dressy, voluble Mrs. Mayhew, he would never have glanced towards them the second time; but his artist's eyes had fallen on the contradictory being that linked them together. Morally and mentally she seemed one with her parent stock; but her beauty, in some of its aspects, was so marvellous, that the desire to redeem it from its hateful and grotesque associations grew stronger every hour.
Instead, therefore, of going off upon solitary rambles, as he had done hitherto, he mingled more frequently in the amusements of the guests of the house, with the hope he would thus be brought so often in contact with the subject of his experiment, that her pique would wear away sufficiently to permit them to meet on something like friendly terms.
As far as the other guests were concerned, he had not trouble. They welcomed him to croquet, to walking and boating excursions, and to their evening games and promenades. Such of the ladies as danced were pleased to secure him as a partner. Indeed, from the dearth of gentlemen during the week, he soon found himself more in demand than he cared to be, and saw that even the landlord was beginning to rely upon him to keep up a state of pleasurable effervescence among his patrons. His languid friend, Stanton, was not a little surprised, and at last remarked:
"Why, Van, what has come over you? I never saw you in the role of a society fellow before!"
But his unwonted courtesies seemed wholly in vain. He propitiated and won all save one, and that one was the sole object of his effort. While all others smiled, her face remained cold and averted. Indeed she took such pains to ignore and avoid him, that it was generally recognized that there was a difference between them, and of course there was an endless amount of gossiping surmise. As the hostility seemed wholly on the lady's side, Van Berg appeared to the better advantage, and Ida was all the more provoked as she recognized the fact.
She now began to wish that she had taken a different course. As Van Berg pursued his present tactics, her feminine intuition was not so dull but that she was led to believe he wished to make her acquaintance. Of course there was, to her mind, but one explanation of this fact—he was becoming fascinated, like so many others.
"If I were only on speaking and flirting terms," she thought (the two relations were about synonymous in her estimation), "I might draw him on to a point which would give me a chance of punishing him far more than is now possible by sullenly keeping aloof. As it is, it looks to these people here as if he had jilted me instead of I him, and that I am sulking over it."
But she had entangled herself in the snarl of her own previous words and manner. She had charged her mother and cousin to permit no overtures of peace; and once or twice, when mine host, in his good-natured, off-hand manner, had sought to introduce them, she had been so blind and deaf to his purpose as to appear positively rude. Her repugnance to the artist had become a generally recognized fact; and she had built up such a barrier that she could not break it down without asking for more help than was agreeable to her pride. But she chafed inwardly at her false position, and at the increasing popularity of the object of her spite.
Even her mother at last formed his acquaintance; and, as the artist listened to the garrulous lady for half an hour with scarcely an interruption, she pronounced him one of the most entertaining of men.
As Mrs. Mayhew was chanting his praises that evening, Ida broke out petulantly:
"Was there ever such a gad-fly as this artist! He pesters me from morning till night."
"Pesters you! I never saw a lady so severely let alone as you are by him. Whatever is the cause of your spite it seems to harm only yourself, and I should judge from your remark that it disturbs you much more than you would have it appear—certainly far more than it does him."
There was no soothing balm in these words, as may well be supposed; and yet the impression grew upon Ida that the artist would be friendly if he could; and the belief strengthened with him also that she took far too much pains to manifest what she would have others think to be mere indifference and dislike, and he intercepted besides, with increasing frequency, furtive glances towards himself. So much ice had accumulated between them, however that neither knew how it was to be broken.
One day, about the middle of the week, Van Berg found a stranger seated opposite to him at the dinner table. His first impression was, that the lady was not very young and that her features were quite plain; but before the meal was over he concluded that her face was decidedly interesting, and that the suggestion of age had been made by maturity of character and the impress which some real and deep experience gives to the countenance, rather than by the trace of years.
While yet a stranger, the expression of her blue eyes, as she glanced around, was so kindly that she at once won the good-will of all who encountered them. This genial, friendly light in her eyes seemed a marked characteristic. It was so different from the obtrusive, forward manner with which some seek to make acquaintances, that it would not have suggested a departure from modest reserve, even to the most cynical. It rather indicated a heart aglow with gentle feeling and genial good-will, like a maple-wood fire on a hospitality hearth, that warms all who come within the sphere of its influence.
Van Berg was naturally reserved, and slow to make new acquaintances. But before he had stolen many glances of the face opposite him he began to wish for the privilege of speaking to her—a wish that was increased by the fact that they were alone at the table, the other guests who usually occupied the chairs not having returned from their morning drive. she did not look at him in particular, nor appear to be in the least struck by his "distingue" air, as Ida had been before she was blinded by prejudice; but she looked out upon the world at large with such a friendly aspect that he was sure she had something pleasant to say. He was therefore well pleased when at last the landlord bustled up in his brusque way and said:
"Mr. Van Berg, permit me to make you acquainted with Miss Burton. She has had the faith to put herself under my charge for a few weeks, and I shall reward her by sharing the responsibility with you, who seem blessed with the benevolent desire of giving us all a good time," and then he bustled off to look after some other matter which required his attention during the critical hour of dinner.
Miss Burton acknowledged the young man's bow without a trace of affectation or reserve.
"I shall try not to prove a burden to either of you," she said, with a smile.
"I have already discovered that you will not be," said Van Berg, "and was wishing for an introduction."
"I hope your wishes may always find so ready a fulfillment."
"That's a kindly wish, Miss Burton, but a vain one."
"Were we misanthropical people, Mr. Van Berg, we might sigh, 'and such are human wishes generally.'"
"One is often tempted to do that anyway, even when not especially prone to look askance at fortune."
"There is an easy way of escaping that temptation."
"Do not form many wishes."
"Have you very few wishes?"
With a slight and piquant motion of her head she replied, "I was only giving a bit of trite advice. It's asking a great deal to require that one should both preach and practice."
"I think you are possessed by one wish which swallows up most others," said Van Berg, a little abruptly.
A visible pallor overspread her face, and she drew back perceptibly as one might shrink from a blow.
"You know how strong first impressions are," resumed Van Berg hastily, "and the thought has passed through my mind that you might be so preoccupied in wishing good things for others as to quite forget yourself."
"If one could be completely occupied in that way," she said, with a faint smile which suggested rather than revealed a vista of her past experience, "one might have little occasion to wish for anything for self. But, Mr. Van Berg, only we poor unreasoning women put much faith in first impressions; and you know how often they mislead even us, who are supposed to have safe instincts."
"Do they often mislead you?"
"Indeed, sir," she replied, with a merry twinkle in her eye, "I think you must have learned the questions in the catechism, if not the answers."
Van Berg bit his lip. Here was a suggestion of a thorn in the sweetbrier he believed he had discovered.
"Now see how far I am astray," she resumed with a frankness which had in it no trace of familiarity. "It is my impression you are a lawyer."
At this Van Berg laughed outright and said: "You are indeed mistaken. I have no connection with the influential class whose business it is to make and evade the laws. I am only one among the humble masses who aim to obey them. But perhaps you think your intuition goes deeper than surface facts and that I OUGHT to have been a cross-questioner."
"I am quite sure my intuition is correct in thinking that you would not be very cross about it."
"Perhaps not, if disarmed by so smiling a face as yours."
The others, who had been delayed by a longer ride than usual, now entered and took the vacant chairs around the table. Van Berg felt sufficiently acquainted with them to introduce Miss Burton, for he was curious to observe whether she would make the same impression on them as he had been conscious of himself.
They bowed with the quiet, well-bred manner of society people, but were at first inclined to pay little heed to the plainly dressed and rather plain appearing young stranger. As one and another, however, glanced towards her, something about her seemed to linger in their memories and cause them to look again. The lady next to her offered a commonplace remark, chiefly out of politeness, and received so pleasant a reply in return that she turned her thoughts as well as her eyes to see who it really was that had made it. Then another spoke, and the response led her to speak again and again; and soon the entire party were describing their drive and living over its pleasantest features; and before the meal ended they were all gathered, metaphorically, around the mystical, maple-wood fire that burned on the hearth of a nature that seemed so hospitable and kindly as to have no other mission than to cheer and entertain.
"Who is that little brown thrush of a woman that you were so taken with at dinner?" asked Stanton, as they were enjoying a quiet smoke in their favorite corner of the piazza.
"Good for you, Stanton. I never knew you to be so appreciative before. Your term quite accurately describes her. She is both shy and reserved, but not diffident or awkward in the least. Indeed her manner might strike some as being peculiarly frank. But there is something back of it all; for young as she undoubtedly is, her face suggests to me some deep and unusual experience."
"Jupiter Ammon! What an abyss of mystery, surmise, and metaphysics you fell into while I was eating my dinner! I used the phrase 'brown thrush,' only in reference to her dress and general homeliness."
"Oh, I beg your pardon! I take all back about your nice appreciation of character. I now grasp the whole truth—your attention wandered sufficiently from your dinner to observe that she wore a brown dress, and the one fact about the thrush that has impressed you is that it is brown. 'Here be truths' which leave nothing more to be said."
"You imaginative fellows are often ridiculously astray on the other tack, and see a thousand-fold more than exists. But it's a pity you could not read all there was in this young woman's face, for it was certainly PLAIN enough. At this rate you will be asking our burly landlord to unbosom himself, insisting that he has a 'silent sorrow' tucked away somewhere under his ample waistcoat."
"His troubles, like yours, are banished by the dinner hour. I recognize your feeble witticism about her plain face, and forgive you because I thought it plain also at first, but when she came to speak and smile it ceased to be plain. I do not say she has had trouble, but she has had some experience in her past history which neither you nor I could understand."
"Quite likely; the measles, for instance, which I never had to my knowledge. Possibly she has had a lover who was not long in finding a prettier face, and so left her, but not so disconsolate that she could not smile bewilderingly upon you."
"Come now, Stanton, I'll forewarn and forearm you. I confidently predict that the voice of this brown thrush will lure you out of a life which, to put it mildly, is a trifle matter-of-fact and material. You have glanced at her, but you have not seen her yet. Mark my words; your appetite will flag before many weeks pass."
"I wish I could pin you down to a large wager on this absurdity."
"I agree to paint you a picture if my prediction fails."
"And to finish it within a natural lifetime?" said Stanton, with much animation.
"To finish as promptly as good work can be done."
"Pardon me, Van. You had too much wine for dinner; I don't want to take advantage of you."
"I did not have any."
"In order to carry out this transaction honestly, am I expected to make conscious and patient effort to come under the influence of this maiden in brown, who has had some mysterious complaint in the past, about which 'neither you, nor I, nor anybody knows,' as the poet saith: or, like the ancient mariner, will she 'hold me with her glittering eye?'"
"You have only to jog on in your old ways until she wakes you up and makes a man of you."
"I surely am dreaming; for never did the level-headed Van Berg talk such arrant nonsense before. If she seems to you such a marvel, why don't you open your own mouth and let the ripe cherry drop into it."
"One reason will answer, were there no others—she wouldn't drop. If you ever win her, my boy, you will have to bestir yourself."
"I'd rather win the picture. Let me see—I know the very place in my room where I shall hang it."
"You are a little premature. That chicken is not yet hatched, and you may feel like hanging yourself in the place of the picture before the summer is over."
"Let me wrap your head in ice-water, Van. There's mine host—O, Mr. Burleigh!" he cried to the landlord, who at that moment happened to cross the piazza; "please step here. My friend Mr. Van Berg has been strangely fascinated by the stranger in brown whom you, with some deep and malicious design, placed opposite to him at the table. What are her antecedents, and who are her uncles? I take a friendly interest in this young man. Indeed, I'm sort of a guardian angel to him, having saved his life many a time."
"Saved his life!" ejaculated the landlord. "How?"
"By quenching his consuming genius with good dinners. But come—solve for me this riddle in brown. My friend usually gives but little heed to the feminine conundrums that smilingly ask to be answered, but for some occult reason he is in a state of sleepless interest over this one, and I know that his waistcoat is selling with gratitude to me for having the courage to ask these questions."
"He is speaking several words for himself to one for me," said Van Berg; "and yet I admit that her face and manner struck me very pleasantly."
"Well, she has a pleasant little phiz, now hasn't she, Mr. Van Berg? I don't wonder Mr. Stanton was taken by her, for I was myself. It's but little I can tell you, save that she is a teacher in one of the New England female colleges, and that she brings letters to me from the most respectable parties, who introduce her as a lady in the best sense of the word. Further than that nothing was written, nor do I know anything concerning her. But any one who can't see that she's a perfect lady is no judge of the article."
"I will stake any amount on that, basing my belief only on the first impression of one interview," added Van Berg, decidedly.
"You now see how deeply my friend is impressed," said Stanton, with a satirical smile. "Thanks, Mr. Burleigh; we will not detain you any longer."
When alone again, he resumed, with an expression of disgust:
"A 'New England FEMALE college!' How aptly he words it. If there's any region on the face of the earth that I detest, it's New England; and if there is one type of women that I'd shun as I would 'ever angry bears,' it's a New England school-ma'am."
"'But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea' of a restless, all-absorbing passion, 'Thou'dst meet the bear I' the mouth,' as you will try to in this case. You will be ready to barter your ears for a kiss before very long."
"It will be after they have grown prodigiously long and hairy in some transformation scene like that in which the immortal Bottom was the victim."
"Your illustration tells against you, for it was only after his appropriate transformation that Bottom saw the fairy queen; but in your case the desire to 'munch' will be banned."
"Come, Van, we have had enough chaff on this topic, already worn threadbare. I now know all about the mysterious complaint, the impress of which on the face of the school-ma'am has so dazed you. It's a New England female college—a place where they give a razor-like edge to the wits of Yankee women, already too sharp, and develop in attenuated maidens the hatchet faces of their sires. You may as well set about that picture at once, whenever you feel in the mood for work."
"I admit that I have been speaking nonsense, and yet you may find many grains of truth in my chaff, nevertheless."
"But is my picture to end in chaff?"
"I will stand by my promise. If I lose, perhaps I'll paint you the school-ma'am's portrait."
"Then we would both lose, for I would have no earthly use for that."
"Well, I will paint what you wish, within reason."
"I'm content, and with good reason, for never did I have such absurd good luck before."
"Ha! look yonder—quick!"
Both the young men started to their feet, but before they could spring forward, the event, which had so suddenly aroused them, was an accomplished fact.
Both drew a long breath of relief as they looked at each other, and Van Berg remarked, with some emphasis:
"Act first, scene first, and it does not open like a comedy either."
Chapter VIII. Glimpses of Tragedy.
Stanton threw away his half-burned cigar—an act which proved him strongly moved—and strode rapidly towards the main entrance near which a little group had already gathered, and among the others, Ida Mayhew. Not a hair of anybody's head was hurt, but an event had almost occurred which would have more than satisfied Stanton's spite against 'Yankee school-ma'ams,' and would also have made him very miserable for months to come.
He had ordered his bays to the farther end of the piazza where they were smoking, as he proposed to take Van Berg out for a drive. His coachmen liked to wheel around the corner of the hotel and past the main entrance in a dashing showy style, and thus far had suffered no rebuke from his master for this habit. But on this occasion a careless nursery maid, neglectful of her charge, had left a little child to toddle to the centre of the carriage drive and there it had stood, balancing itself with the uncertain footing characteristic of first steps. Even if it could have seen the rapidly approaching carriage that was hidden by the angle of the building, its baby feet could not have carried it out of harm's way in time, and it is more than probable that its inexperience would have prevented any sense of danger.
But help was at hand in the person of one who never seemed so preoccupied with self as to lose an opportunity to serve others.
Two of the ladies, who had casually formed Miss Burton's acquaintance at dinner, still lingered in the door-way to talk with her, wondering in the mean time why they remained so long, and meaning to break away every moment, but the expression of the young lady's eyes was so pleasant, and her manner, more than anything she said, so like spring sunshine that they were still standing in the door-way when the rumble and rush of the carriage was heard. The others did not notice these sounds, but Miss Burton, whose eyes had been following the child with an amused interest, suddenly broke off in the midst of a sentence, listened a second, then swiftly springing down the steps, darted towards the child.
Quick as she had been it seemed as if she would be too late, for, with cries of horror, the startled ladies on the piazza saw the horses coming so rapidly that it appeared that both the maiden and the child must be trampled under their feet. And so they would have been, had Miss Burton sought to snatch up the child and return, but with rare presence of mind she carried the child across the carriage track to its farther side, thus making the most of the impetus with which she had rushed to the rescue.
The exclamations of the ladies drew many eyes to the scene, and all held their breath as the horses dashed past, the driver vainly endeavoring to pull them up in time. Having passed, even Stanton was compelled to admit that the "school-ma'am" appeared to very great advantage as she stood panting, and with heightened color, holding in her arms the laughing child that seemed to think that the whole excitement was created for its amusement. She was about to restore the child to its nurse quietly, who now came bustling up with many protestations, when she was arrested by a loud voice exclaiming:
"Don't let that hateful creature touch my child again—give him to me," and a lady, who had been drawn to the scene by the outcry, ran down the steps, and snatching the child, almost devoured him with kisses. Then, turning to the trembling nurse, she said harshly:
"Begone; I never wish to see your face again. Had it not been for this lady, my child would have been killed through your carelessness. Excuse me, Miss—Miss—"
"Miss Burton," said the young lady quietly.
"Excuse my show of feeling; but you can't realize the service you have done us. Bertie is our only child, and we just idolize him. I'm so agitated, I must go to my room."
When the lady had disappeared, Miss Burton turned to the sobbing nurse and said:
"Will you promise me to be careful in the future if I intercede for you?"
"Dade, Miss, an' I will."
"Come to me, then, after supper. In the mean time remain where your mistress can summon you should she need your services, or be inclined to forgive you of her own accord," and leaving the crude and offending jumble of humanity much comforted, she returned to the piazza again.
Of course many pressed around her with congratulations and words of commendation. Van Berg was much interested in observing how she would receive this sudden gush of mingled honest praise and extravagant flattery, for he recognized that the occasion would prove a searching and delicate test of character for which there was no time to prepare. She did not listen to their words with deprecatory smirk, nor with the pained expression of those sensitive souls to whom hearty words and demonstrations are like rough winds; nor was there a trace of exultation and self-complacency in her bearing. Van Berg thought that her manner was peculiarly her own, for she looked into the faces around her with frank gladness, and her unconsciousness of herself can be, perhaps, best suggested by her own words.
"How fortunate it was," she said, "that I stood where I did, and happened to be looking at the child. If somebody had not been at hand it might have gone hard with the little fellow. Not that I think he would have been killed, but he might have been maimed or disfigured in a way that would have caused him pain and mortification all his life."
"Miss Burton, I take my hat to you," said Van Berg, laughing. "Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you all appreciate the force of Miss Burton's phrase, 'somebody,' since it implies that any one of us would have shown like courage and presence of mind if we had only been 'at hand,' or had stood where she did. Really Miss Burton, you are like smiling fortune, and 'thrust upon' us 'greatness' and heroism."
"Mr. Van Berg, you are laughing at me, and your quotation suggests that other Shakespearean words are in your mind—to wit, 'much ado about nothing.' Now if YOU had had the opportunity you would have achieved the rescue in a way that would have been heroic and striking. Instead of scrambling out of the way with the child, like a timid woman, you would have rushed upon the horses, seized them by their heads, thrown them back upon their haunches, and while posing in that masterful attitude, you would have called out in stentorian tones—'Remove the child.'"
All laughed at this unexpected sally, and no one enjoyed it more than Stanton, who, a little before, had been excessively angry at his coachman, and, like the mother of the child, had summarily dismissed the poor fellow from his service. Quite forgetful of his uncomplimentary words concerning "Yankee school-ma'ams" in general, and this one in particular, he now stood near, and was regarding her not only with approval but with admiration. Her ready reply to Van Berg pleased him exceedingly, especially as the rising color in the face of his self-possessed friend indicated a palpable hit. But the artist was equal to the occasion, and quickly replied as one who had felt a slight spur.
"I fear you are in part correct, Miss Burton. Instead of deftly saving the child and taking both it and myself out of harm's way, after your quiet womanly fashion, I should, no doubt, have 'rushed upon the horses and seized them by their heads.' But I fear your striking tableau, in which I appeared to such advantage, would have been wholly wanting. I could not have stopped the horses in time; the child would have been run over and killed; the big, fat coroner would have come and sat on it and have made us all, who witnessed the scene, swear over the matter; the poor mother would have gone to the lunatic asylum; the father would have committed suicide; the nursery maid would have—obtained another place and been the death of an indefinite number of other innocent babies; and last, but not least, I should have been dragged and trampled upon, my legs and arms broken, and perhaps my head, and so you would all have had to take care of me—and you know a cross bear is a pleasanter subject than a sick man."
"Oh, what a chapter of horrors!" exclaimed several ladies in chorus.
"Nevertheless, we would have been equal to the occasion, even if you had been so dreadfully fractured," said Miss Burton. "We all would have become your devoted nurses, and each one of us would have had a separate and infallible remedy, which, out of courtesy, you would have been compelled to use."
"Oh, bless my soul!" exclaimed Van Berg; "I have had a greater escape than the child. In being 'at hand' as you express it, Miss Burton, I am beginning to feel that you have saved me from death by torture."
"What a compliment to us!" said Miss Burton, appealing to the ladies; "he regards our ministrations as equivalent to death by torture."
"Oh, pardon me, I referred to the numberless 'separate and infallible remedies,' the very thought of which curdles my blood."
"I cannot help thinking that my friend's prospects would have been very dismal," put in Stanton; "for with broken legs and arms and head he would have been very badly fractured indeed to begin with, and then some one of his fair nurses might have broken his heart."
"My friend probably thinks, from a direful experience," said Van Berg, "that this would be worse than all the other fractures put together; and perhaps it would. An additional cause for gratitude, Miss Burton, that you, and not I, were 'at hand.'"
"My reasons for gratitude to Miss Burton," said Stanton, "do not rest on what undoubtedly would have happened had my friend attempted the rescue, but on what has happened; and if Mr. Van Berg will introduce me I will cordially express my thanks."
"With all my heart. Miss Burton, permit me to present to you Mr. Stanton, whose only fault is a slight monomania for New England and her institutions."
The lady recognized Stanton with her wonted smiling and pleasant manner, which seemed so frank and open, but behind which some present eventually learned the real woman was hiding, and said:
"I am inclined to think that Mr. Van Berg's English, like Hebrew, reads backwards. I warn you Mr. Stanton, not to express any indebtedness to me, or I shall straightway exhibit one of the Yankee traits which you undoubtedly detest, and attempt a bargain."
"Although assured that I shall get the worst of this bargain, I shall nevertheless heartily thank you that you were not only 'at hand,' but that you acted so promptly and courageously that the child was saved. What pleasure could I have taken with my horses if their feet had trampled that little boy?"
"I see my opportunity," replied Miss Burton, with a decisive little nod. "Your afternoon drives might have been marred by unpleasant thoughts as one's sleep is sometimes disturbed by bad dreams. You have no idea what a delight it is to the average New England mind, Mr. Stanton, to secure the vantage ground in a bargain. In view of your own voluntary admissions, you can scarcely do otherwise than let me have my own way."
With the exception of the two or three who had formed Miss Burton's acquaintance at dinner, those who at first had gathered around her had by this time dwindled away. Ida Mayhew sat near in an open window of the parlor, ostensibly reading a novel, but in reality observant of all that occurred. Both she and Van Berg had been amused by the fact that Stanton, usually so languid and nonchalant, had been for once thoroughly aroused. Between anger at his coachmen, alarm for the child, and interest in its preserver, he was quite shaken out of his wonted equanimity, which was composed equally of indolent good-nature, self-complacency, and a disposition to satirize the busy, earnest world around him. It was apparent that he was somewhat nonplussed by Miss Burton's manner and words, and those who knew him well enjoyed his perplexity, although at a loss themselves to imagine what object Miss Burton could have in view. Half unconsciously Van Berg turned his smiling, interested face towards Ida Mayhew, who was regarding her cousin with a similar expression, but the moment she caught the artist's eyes she coldly dropped her own to her book again.
"Well, Miss Burton," said Stanton, with a slightly embarrassed laugh, "I admit that I am cornered, so you can make your own terms."
"They shall be grievous, I assure you. Do you see that rueful face in your carriage yonder?"
"That of my coachman? Bad luck to his ill-omened visage! Yes."
"No need of wishing bad luck to any poor creature—it will come only too soon without. In view of the indebtedness—which you have so gracefully acknowledged—to one of that trading and thrifty race that never loses an opportunity to turn, if not a penny more or less honest, why, something else, to their advantage, I stipulate that you give your dependent there another chance. I heard you dismiss him from your service a short time since, and he evidently does not wish to go. His disconsolate face troubles me; so please banish his dismal looks, and he'll be more careful hereafter."
"And have you had time to see and think about him?" said Stanton, with a little surprise in his tone. "You shall banish his dismal looks yourself. Barney," he called, "drive close to the piazza here. This lady has probably saved you from arrest, and she now intercedes in your behalf. In compliance with her request, I will keep you in my service, but I wish you to thank her and not me."
Barney took off his hat and ejaculated: "May yees shadder niver grow less, me leddy, an' may the Powers grant that yees bright eyes may see no trouble o' their own, bain they're so quick to see a poor man's bad luck."
The smiling manner with which she acknowledged his good wishes seemed to warm the man all over, and he looked as if transformed as he drove back to his stand.
"How is this, Miss Burton?" said Stanton. "I feel as if I had had the best of this bargain."
"That impression is wholly due to my Yankee shrewdness; and now, having gained my point," she added, with a graceful inclination, "I will not keep you from your drive any longer."
"My conscience will not permit me to complete this transaction until I have assured you that my horses and carriage are at your service at any time."
"Be careful; I may take advantage of you again."
"Please do so," replied Stanton, lifting his hat; and then he went to his carriage more surprised at himself than at anything else that had occurred. Miss Burton returned to the doorway and quietly resumed the conversation that had been interrupted by the peril of the child.
Van Berg was about to follow his friend, but an acquaintance coming up the steps, detained him a few moments.
"Oh, Harold, come!" cried Stanton, impatiently.
Miss Burton started violently. The sentence upon her lips was never finished, and her face became ashen in color. She looked at Van Berg with a strange expression as he, unconscious of her agitation, answered:
"Yes, I'm coming," and moved away.
"My dear Miss Burton," said the lady with whom she was speaking, "you are ill; you look ready to faint. This excitement has been a greater strain upon you than you have realized."
"Perhaps I had better go to my room," faltered the young lady; and she fled with a precipitancy that her companion could not understand.
Ida Mayhew also witnessed this unexpected bit of mystery, and it puzzled her not a little. She had left the parlor and was standing in the hall-way when her cousin's voice summoned his friend after his familiar fashion. Why should this stranger look at Mr. Van Berg as if the sound of his Christian name were a mortal wound? Or was that a mere coincidence—and in reaction from excitement and unwonted effort had she suddenly taken ill? For a wonder, she thought more about Miss Burton than herself that afternoon. She had decided from the first that she did not like this new-comer. That point had been settled by the fact that the artist's first impressions concerning her had evidently been favorable, and she remembered that his earliest glances and words in regard to herself had been anything but complimentary.
Chapter IX. Unexpectedly Thrown Together.
"I suppose you are satisfied by this time, Stanton," began Van Berg, as they drove away, "that I was very safe in offering you that picture on the conditions named, and that you have not the ghost of a chance of obtaining it."
"Nonsense," replied Stanton. "The picture is practically won already. I admit that Miss Burton is an exception to all her species; and, now that I have seen her, I prove how little I am under the influence of prejudice by acknowledging the fact, and by giving her credit for her courage and agreeable manners. But how absurd to imagine that this plain little stranger can ever be to me more than she is to-day—a summer acquaintance at a summer resort! She will soon drop from our memories and leave no more trace than these rustling leaves overhead after they have fulfilled their brief purpose."
"Here's a symptom already," cried Van Berg. "My matter-of-fact friend is already in the subtle current, and unconsciously drops into sentiment, and expresses himself in poetic trope. I foresee that the 'rustling leaves' will end in a rustling wedding-robe and gorgeous apparel; for when you cage the 'brown thrush' you will have the bad taste to insist on a change of plumage."
"I begin to understand you at last," retorted Stanton. "You have been smitten yourself, and this is your strategy to conceal the fact. The trouble is that you have overdone the matter, and revealed your transfixed heart long before I should have suspected the wound. Had you not better commence on the picture soon, for this matter may disable you for a season?"
"I won't swear that I will not become your rival, for our little heroine interests me hugely. There is something back of her smiling face. Her manner seems like crystal in its frankness, and yet I think few in the house will ever become better acquainted with her than they are to-day."
"I shall take more than a languid interest in watching you progress with this smiling sphinx," said Stanton, "and in the mean time shall gloat over my picture."
"Well, Barney," said Van Berg, as they drove up to the stables on their return, "you did have a streak of good luck this afternoon. I hope you are grateful to the lady who secured it for you."
"Faix, sur, an' I niver seed the likes o' her afore. The smilin' look she gave me jist warmed the very core o' me heart, and her swate eyes seemed to say, 'Nary a bit o' ill-luck would ye have again, Barney, had I me way.' What's more, she's a goin' to intercade for the nurse-maid. They nadn't tell me that all the heretics will stay in purgatory."
"Look here, Stanton, were I a theologian I'd make a note of that. Miss Burton has discovered a logic that routs superstition."
Van Berg quite longed for the supper hour, that he might resume conversation with the interesting stranger, and he was promptly in his place at the table. But she did not appear. The lady with whom she had been conversing, remarked:
"She was taken suddenly ill, just as you and your friend drove away this afternoon. Learning from Mr. Burleigh that she is here alone and without friends, I knocked at her door before I came down, and asked if I could do anything for her. She said that she would be better in the morning, and that all she needed was perfect quiet. It's strange how suddenly she was taken ill! She seemed perfectly well one moment, and then she fled to her room as if the ghost were in pursuit. I suppose it was reaction from excitement; or she may have some form of heart disease."
"Are heart difficulties so serious as that with ladies?" asked Van Berg with a smile.
"I never had acute symptoms of any kind," the lady replied. "Indeed I think I am a trifle cold and matter-of-fact in my disposition, but I began to thaw so perceptibly under Miss Burton's influence that I became quite interested in her. I think I deserve some credit for saving the child also, for it was I who kept her talking in the doorway. Most people are a weariness to me, and I was surprised to find so marked an exception."
It must not be supposed that Van Berg's interest in the new arrival had led him to forget the motive which had brought him to the Lake House. This would not be in accordance with his character, and as far as possible, he had been closely observant of Miss Mayhew during the scenes of the afternoon. He had been rewarded by discovering, for the first time, that she was at least capable of a good and generous impulse, for her face had been expressive of genuine admiration and gladness when she saw Miss Burton with the rescued child in her arms after the carriage swept by. In this expression he obtained a clearer hint than he had ever before received of the beauty that might be her constant possession could the mean and marring traits of her character be exchanged for qualities in harmony with her perfect features. But while this gleam, this flash of ideal beauty increased his desire for success in his experiment, the young lady's bearing towards him was as discouraging as ever. If he had not been at Miss Burton's side, he believed that she would have come forward and offered her congratulations as had several other ladies. It would seem that her vanity had been so severely wounded she would never forgive him, and he determined he would no longer make a martyr of himself by playing the agreeable to all in the hotel in the hope that, by pouring so much oil on the waters, even her asperity might be removed. He half believed that she recognized his effort to form her acquaintance, and found a malicious pleasure in thwarting him. Therefore, he decided to take his sketch-book and go off upon the hills in the morning, thus enjoying a little respite from his apparently philanthropic labors.
Before he left the breakfast table the following day, Miss Burton appeared. He thought he detected an ominous redness about her eyes, as well as the pallor which would be the natural result of illness; but she seemed to have recovered her spirits, and the rather quiet and self-absorbed little group that had hitherto seriously devoted themselves to steak and coffee, speedily brightened up under her pleasantries. Indeed she kept them lingering so long that the Mayhews and Stanton passed out before them, the latter casting a wistful glance at the cheerful party, for he had been having a stupid time.
When, much later than he expected, he started on his brief sketching excursion he found that his mind was kindled and aglow with pleasant thoughts, and that the summer landscape had been made sunnier by the sunny face he had just left.
But as he plodded his way back late in the afternoon, the sunbeams, no longer genial, became oppressive, and he was glad to hail one of the hotel stages that was returning from a neighboring village.
The vehicle already contained two adult passengers. One was a stout, red-faced woman with a baby and an indefinite number of parcels, and the other was—Ida Mayhew, who was returning from a brief shopping excursion.
As the latter saw Van Berg enter she colored, bit her lip, half frowned, and looked steadfastly away from him. Thus the stage lumbered on with its oddly assorted inmates, that, although belonging to the same human family, seemed to have as little in common as if each had come from a different planet. That Miss Mayhew looked so resolutely away from him was rather to Van Berg's advantage, for it gave him a chance to compare her exquisite profile with the expanse, slightly diversified, of the broad red face opposite.
The stout woman held her baby as if it were a bundle, and stared straight before her. As far as Van Berg could observe, not a trace of an idea or a change of expression flitted across the wide area of her sultry visage, and he found himself speculating as to whether the minds of these two women differed as greatly as their outward appearance. Indeed he questioned whether one had any more mind than the other, and was inclined to think that despite their widely separated spheres of life they were equally dwarfed.
While he was thus amusing himself with the contrasts, physical and metaphysical, which the two passengers opposite him presented, the stout woman suddenly looked out of the window at her side, and then, in a tone that would startle the quietest nerves, shouted to the driver:
Miss Mayhew half rose from her seat and looked around with something like dismay; but as she only encountered Van Berg's slightly humorous expression, she colored more deeply than before, and recalled her eyes to the farther angle of the stage with a fixedness and rigidity as great as if it had contained the head of Medusa.
Meantime the driver drew up to a small cottage by the road-side, and scrambled down from his seat that he might assist the stout woman with her accumulation of bundles. She handed him out the baby, preferring to look after the more precious parcels herself. Van Berg politely held the door open for her; but just as she was squeezing through the stage entrance with her arms full and had her foot on the last step, her cottage door flew open with something to the effect of an explosion, and out burst three or four children with a perfect din of cries and shouts. Two vociferous dogs joined in the sudden uproar; the hitherto drowsy horses started as if a bomb-shell had dropped under their noses, and speedily broke into a mad gallop, leaving the stout woman prostrate upon her bundles in the road, and the driver helplessly holding her baby.
Miss Mayhew's cold rigidity vanished at once. Indeed dignity was impossible in the swaying, bounding vehicle. There was a momentary effort to ignore her companion, and then terror overcame all scruples. Turning her white face towards him, she exclaimed:
"Are we not in great danger?"
"I admit I would rather be in my chair on Mr. Burleigh's piazza. With your permission, I will come to your end of the stage and speak to the horses through the open window."
"Oh, come—do anything under heaven to stop these horrid beasts."
Van Berg edged his way up a little past Miss Mayhew, and began speaking to the frightened horses in firm, quiet tones. At first they paid no heed to him, and as the stage made a sudden and desperate lurch, the young lady commenced to scream.
"If you do that you will insure the breaking of both our necks," said Van Berg, sharply. "If you will keep quiet I think I can stop them. See, we have quite a stretch of level road beyond us, before we come to a hill. Give me a chance to quiet them."
The terror-stricken girl kept still for a moment, and then started up, saying
"I shall spring out."
"No, Miss Mayhew, you must not do that," said Van Berg, decidedly. "You must be greatly injured, and you would with almost certainty be disfigured for life if you sprang out upon the stony road. You could not help falling on your face."
"Oh, horrible!" she exclaimed.
At the next heavy lurch of the stage she half-rose again to carry out her rash purpose, but the artist seized her hand and held her in her place, at the same time speaking kindly and firmly to the horses. They now began to heed his voice, and to recover from their panic.
"See, Miss Mayhew," he said, "you have only to control yourself a few moments longer, and our danger is over."
"Oh, do stop them, quick," she gasped, clinging to his hand as if he were her only hope, "and I'll never forget your kind—oh, merciful heaven!"
At this favorable moment, when the horses were fast coming under control, a spiteful cur came tearing out after them, renewing their panic with tenfold intensity. As the dog barked on one side they sheered off on the other, until they plunged down the side of the road. The stage was nearly overturned, and then it stopped with a sudden and heavy thump. Miss Mayhew was precipitated into Mr. Van Berg's arms, and she clung to him for a moment in a paroxysm of terror. His wits had not so far deserted him but that he perceived that the stage had struck against a tree, that the horses had broken away, and that he and his companion were perfectly safe. If the whole truth must be told, it cannot be said that he endured the young lady's embrace with only cold and stoical philosophy. He found it wholly novel and not a painful experience. Indeed he was conscious of a temptation to delay the information of their escape, but a second's thought taught him that he must at once employ all his tact in the delicate and difficult task of reconciling the frightened girl to herself and her own conduct; otherwise her pride, and also her sense of delicacy, would now receive a new and far deeper wound, and a more hopeless estrangement follow. He therefore promptly lifted her up, and placed her limp form on the opposite seat.
"I assure you we are now perfectly safe, Miss Mayhew," he said; "and let me congratulate you that your self-control prevented you from leaving the stage, for if you had done so you would undoubtedly have been greatly injured."
"Where—where are—the horses?" she faltered.
"I really do not know! They have disappeared. The stage struck a tree, and the brutes broke away. They will probably gallop home to the alarm and excitement of every one about the hotel. Pray compose yourself. The house is not far away, and we can soon reach it if you are not very much hurt."
"Are you sure the danger is all over?"
"Yes; this is now not the slightest chance of a tragedy."
There must have been a faint twinkle in his eye, for she exclaimed, passionately:
"The whole thing has been a comedy to you, and I half believe you brought it all about to annoy me."
"You do me great injustice, Miss Mayhew," said Van Berg, warmly.
"Here we are sitting in this horrid old stage by the roadside," she resumed, in tones of strong vexation. "Was there ever anything more absurd and ridiculous than it has all been! I am mortified beyond expression, and suppose I shall never hear the last of it," and she burst into a hysterical passion of tears.
"Miss Mayhew," said Van Berg hastily, "you certainly must realize that we have passed through very great peril together, and if you think me capable of saying a word about this episode that is not to your credit, you were never more mistaken in your life."
At this assurance she became more calm.
"I know you dislike me most heartily," Van Berg continued; "but you have less reason to do so than you think—-"
"I have good reason to dislike you. You despise me; and now that I have been such a coward you are comparing me with Miss Burton who acted so differently yesterday."
"I have not even thought of Miss Burton," protested Van Berg, at the same time conscious, now that her name had been recalled to his memory, that she would have acted a much better part. "I am only sincerely glad that our necks were not broken, and I hope that you have not suffered any severe bruises. As to my despising you, if you will honor me with your acquaintance you may discover that you are greatly in error."
"Then you truly think that we have been in danger?" she asked, wiping her eyes.
"Most assuredly. When you come to think the matter over calmly, you will realize that we were in very great danger. I think the affair has ended most happily rather than absurdly."
"Really, sir, when I remember how the 'affair,' as you term it, actually did end, I feel as if I never wished to see you again."
"Miss Mayhew, I appeal to your generosity. Was I to blame for that which was so disagreeable to you? Surely you will not be so unfair as to punish me for what neither you nor I could help. I think fate means we shall be friends, and has employed this unexpected episode to break the ice between us. If you are now sufficiently composed I will assist you to alight, in order that the driver, who is approaching, may be relieved of all fears on our account."
"Oh, certainly. As it is, I suppose he will have a ridiculous story to tell."
"There is nothing that he, or the others who are following him can tell, save that the horses ran away and that we most fortunately escaped all injury. Ah! I see that you are a little lame. Please take my arm; the hotel is but a quarter of a mile away. Or perhaps you would prefer that I should send the driver for a carriage. You could wait in yonder cottage, or here, in the shade of the trees."
"I am not very lame, and if I were I would not mind it. My wish is that the horrid affair may occasion as little remark as possible. I can reach my room by a side entrance, and so come quietly down to dinner. I suppose that I must take your arm since I cannot walk very well without it."
They therefore turned their backs on the breathless driver and his eager questions, and proceeded slowly towards the hotel. After a brief examination of the shattered stage, the man ran panting past them in search of his horses; and they were again left alone.
Chapter X. Phrases too Suggestive.
For a few moments Miss Mayhew and Van Berg walked on in silence, each very doubtful of the other. At last the artist began:
"I am well aware, Miss Mayhew, that this unexpected episode and this enforced companionship give me no rights whatever. I do not propose to annoy you, after seeing you safely to the hotel, by assuming that we are acquainted, nor do I intend to subject myself to the mortification of being informed publicly, by your manner, that we are not on speaking terms. I would be glad to have this question settled now. I ask your pardon for anything that I may have said or done to hurt your feelings, and having thus gone more than half-way it would be ungenerous on your part not to respond in like spirit."
"You apologize, then?"
"No; I ask your pardon for anything that may have hurt your feelings."
"You have said very disagreeable things about me, Mr. Van Berg."
"I did not know you then."
"I do not think you have changed your opinion of me in the least."
"I evidently have a much higher opinion of you than you of me, and I am seeking your acquaintance with a persistence such as I never manifested in the case of any other lady. Thus the odds are all in your favor. Having been so unexpectedly thrown together—-"
"'Thrown together,' indeed—Mr. Van Berg, you ARE mocking me," and her eyes again filled with tears of vexation.
"I assure you I am not," said Van Berg earnestly. "I could not be so mean as to twit you with an accident which you could not help, and with an act which was wholly involuntary on your part. Can we not both let by-gones by by-gones and commence anew?"
Miss Mayhew bit her lip and hesitated a few moments.
"I think that will be the better way," she said. "We will both let by-gones, especially this ridiculous episode in the stage. I'll put you on your good behavior."
"Thank you, Miss Mayhew. I would take our late risk twenty times for such a result."
"I would not take it again on any account whatever. Please refer to it no more. I declare, there comes Cousin Ik and Mr. Burleigh to meet us. Was one's fortune ever so exasperating! Ik will teaze me out of all comfort for weeks to come."
"Say little and leave all to my discretion," said Van Berg, reassuringly; "and, by the way, you might limp a little more decidedly," which she immediately did.
"My dear Miss Mayhew, I trust you are not seriously hurt," began Mr. Burleigh while still several yards off.
Stanton's face was a study as he approached. Indeed he seemed half ready to explode with suppressed merriment, but before he could speak a warning glance from Van Berg checked him.
"Miss Mayhew might have been seriously and possibly fatally injured," said the artist gravely, "had it not been for her self-control. Although it seemed that the stage would be dashed to pieces every moment, I told her that in my judgement it would be safer to remain within it than to spring out upon the hard and stony road, and I am very glad that the final event confirmed my opinion."
As they were by this time near to the hotel, others who had been alarmed by seeing the horses tearing up to the stable door, now hastily joined them; and last, but not least, Mrs. Mayhew came panting upon the scene. Van Berg felt the hand of the young lady trembling in nervous apprehension upon his arm, from which, in her embarrassment, she forgot to remove it. But the artist did not fail her, and in answer to Mr. Burleigh's eager questions as to the cause of the accident, explained all so plausibly, and in such a matter-of-fact manner as left little more even to be surmised. His brief and prosaic history of the affair concluded with the following implied tribute to his companion, which still further relieved her from fear of ridicule:
"Miss Mayhew," he said, "instead of jumping out, after the frantic terror-blinded manner of most people, remained in the stage and so has escaped, I trust, with nothing worse than a slight lameness caused by the violent motion of the vehicle. I will now resign her to your care, Mr. Stanton, and I am glad to believe that the occasion will require the services of the wheelwright and harness-maker only, and not those of a surgeon," and lifting his hat to Mrs. Mayhew and her daughter he bowed himself off the scene.
Ida, leaning on the arm of her cousin, limped appropriately to her room, whither she had her dinner sent to her, more for the purpose of gaining time to compose her nerves than for any other reason.
The impression that she had behaved courageously in peril was rapidly increased as the story was repeated by one and another, and she received several congratulatory visits in the afternoon from her lady acquaintances; and when she came down to supper she found that she was even a greater heroine than Miss Burton had been. In answer to many sympathetic inquiries, she said that she "felt as well as ever," and she tried to prove it by her gayety and careful toilet.
But she was decidedly ill at ease. Her old self-complacency was ebbing away faster than ever. From the time that it had first been disturbed by the artist's frown in the concert garden, she had been conscious of a secret and growing self-dissatisfaction.
It seemed to be this stranger's mission to break the spell vanity and flattery had woven about her. The congratulations she was now receiving were secured by a fraudulent impression, if not by actual falsehood, and she permitted this impression to remain and grow. The one, who above all others she most feared and disliked, knew this. In smilingly accepting the compliments showered upon her from all sides she felt that she must appear to him as if receiving stolen goods, and she believed that in his heart he despised her more thoroughly than ever.
To the degree that he caused her disquietude and secret humiliation, her desire to retaliate increased, and she resolved, before the day closed, to use her beauty as a weapon to inflict upon him the severest wound possible. If it were within the power of her art she would bring him to her feet and keep him there until she could, in the most decided and public manner, spurn his abject homage. She would have no scruple in doing this in any case, but, in this instance, success would give her the keenest satisfaction.
His very desire for her acquaintance, as she understood it, was humiliating, and, in a certain sense, demoralizing. Her other suitors had imagined that she had good traits back of her beauty, and hitherto she had been carelessly content to believe that she could display such traits in abundance should the occasion require them. Here was one, however, who, while despising the woman, was apparently seeking her for the sake of her beauty merely; and her woman's soul, warped and dwarfed as it was, resented an homage that was seemingly sensuous and superficial, and would, of necessity, be transient. In her ignorance of Van Berg's motives, and in the utter impossibility of surmising them, she could scarcely come to any other conclusion; and she determined to punish him to the utmost extent of her ability.
Thus it came to pass that Miss Mayhew had designs against Van Berg that were not quite as amiable as those of the artist in regard to herself.
Stanton, in a low tone, remarked to her at the supper table, "Now that fate has throw you and Van Berg together in such a remarkable manner" (the young lady colored deeply at this unfortunate expression and looked at him keenly), "I trust that you will yield gracefully to destiny and treat him with ordinary courtesy when you meet. Otherwise you may occasion surmises that will not be agreeable to you."
"Has he been telling you anything about this morning?" she asked quickly.
"Nothing more than he said in your presence. Why, was there anything more to tell?"
"Certainly not, but he made ill-natured remarks about me once—that is, you said he did—and why should he not again?"
"Well, he has not. I think he spoke very handsomely of you this morning. I hope he didn't exaggerate your good behavior."
"If you prefer to believe ill of me you are welcome to do so. For my part, I believe you exaggerate what Mr. Van Berg said at the concert, and that he never meant to be so rude. As far as I can judge, he has shown no such unmannerly disposition since coming here."
"Indeed, you are right. I think his disposition has compared favorably with your own."
"Well," she replied, with a peculiar smile, "we are on speaking terms for the present."
"That smile bodes no good-will towards my friend, but for once you will find a man who will not fall helplessly in love with your mere beauty."
"If you will glance at yonder table you can see that Miss Burton has already so absorbed him that he has eyes for no one else."
"They have jolly good times at that table. I wish we were there."
"Indeed! are you bewitched also? I can't see what it is that people find so attractive in that plain-looking girl."
"Well, for one thing, she has a mind. Beauty without mind is like salad without dressing."
"And do you mean to say that I have no mind?" Ida asked, with a sudden flush.
"My dear Coz, we were speaking solely of Miss Burton. Indeed, I think you have a very decided will of your own."
"I understand you. Well, in what other respects is Miss Burton my superior?"
"I doubt if Miss Burton ever thinks of herself as superior to any one, and that's another very amiable trait in her."
"Can you not sum up her perfections a little more rapidly? Life is short," remarked Ida, acidly.
"Come, Coz, let me get you some sweet-oil before you finish your supper. You know you are the handsomest girl in the State, and that's distinction enough for one woman. To you, Miss Burton is only a plain school-teacher. Why should you envy her?"
"I do not envy her, nor can I see why people are so carried away with her."
"It IS remarkable to see what an impression she has made in two brief days. Of course her courage in saving the child served as a general and favorable introduction, but it does not by any means explain her growing popularity. For some reason or other those about her always seem to be having a good time. See how animated and pleased is the expression of all the faces at her table yonder. It was the same on the croquet-ground this morning. She effervesced like champagne, and before we knew it we were all in a state of exhilaration and the morning had gone."
"I hate these bold, forward women who are quick to become acquainted with every one. A man of this type is bad enough, but a woman is unendurable."
"I agree with you in the abstract most heartily; but the only bold thing that I have seen Miss Burton do was to run under the feet of my horses. You might as well call a ray of sunshine bold and forward; and people like sunshine when it is as nicely tempered as her manner is. I confess that when I first learned who she was, and before I had met her personally, I was greatly prejudiced against her, but one would have to be a churl indeed to remain proof against her genial good-nature. For my part I intend to enjoy it, as I do all the other good things the gods throw in my way."
"The gods would indeed be careless to leave any good things within your reach, unless they were meant for you," snapped Ida.
"Good for you, Coz; your ride with Van Berg has already brightened you up. There is no telling what you might not become if you would only associate with men who had sufficient brains not to grow spooney over your pretty face."
As Ida and her mother passed out on the piazza, Van Berg joined them and said:
"I am glad to see that you have so fully recovered, Miss Mayhew. You prove again that you possess good strong nerves."
"Thank you," said the young lady, laconically, and with a sudden accession of color.
"Mr. Van Berg," began Mrs. Mayhew with great animation, "I'm excessively thankful that you happened to be on the road, and that the stage overtook you this morning. It was so fortunate that I almost think it providential. How dreadful it would have been if Ida had been alone in such frightful peril! I cannot tell you also how delighted I am that my daughter behaved so beautifully. Indeed, I must confess that I am agreeably surprised, for Ida was never famous for her courage. Your own manner must have inspired confidence in her; and now that you have been so fortunately THROWN TOGETHER, I trust you may be better friends in the future."
Miss Mayhew's rising color deepened into an intense scarlet, and, as she turned away to hide her confusion, she could not forbear shooting a wrathful glance at the artist. He had sufficient self-control not to change a muscle, or to appear in the slightest degree aware of the embarrassment caused by her mother's words, and especially the use of the phrase—grown to be most hateful from its associations—that so vividly recalled to the incensed maiden the anomalous position in which she found herself at the end of her perilous morning ride.
"You ladies differ favorably from us men," said Van Berg, quietly. "You rise to meet an emergency by an innate quality of your sex, whereas, in our case, if our native strength is not equal to the occasion we fall below it as a matter of course."
"Oh, that accounts for Ida's coming off with such flying colors—she rose to meet the emergency. I hope, however, she will EMBRACE no more such opportunities of showing her courage—why! Ida, what IS the matter? what have I said?" but the young lady, with face inflamed, vanished in the direction of her room.
"Well, this IS strange," remarked the lady with a sharp glance of inquiry at the artist, who still managed to maintain an expression of lamb-like innocence. "I do believe the poor child is ill, and, now I think of it, she has not acted like herself for several days;" and she sought her daughter with hasty steps.
But the young lady did not go to her room, being well aware that her mother would soon follow for the explanation which she could not give. Therefore, taking a side corridor, she joined some acquaintances on another piazza.
Chapter XI. A "Tableau Vivant."
"Miss Mayhew, will you please step here?" said a very fashionably dressed lady.
Turning, Ida saw near her the mother of the child that had been rescued the previous day. She, with her husband, had been talking very earnestly to Mr. Burleigh, the proprietor of the house, who seemed in rather a dubious state of mind over some proposition of theirs.
"Miss Mayhew, we want your opinion in regard to a certain matter," began the lady volubly. "Of course I and my husband feel very grateful to the young woman who saved our child from your cousin's horses yesterday. Indeed, my husband feels so deeply indebted that he wishes to make some return and I have suggested that he present her with a check for five hundred dollars. I learn from Mr. Burleigh that she is a teacher, and therefore, of course, she must be poor. Now, in my view, if my husband or some other gentleman should present this check in the parlor, with an appropriate little speech, it would be a nice acknowledgment of her act. Don't you think so?"
"I do not think I am qualified to give an opinion," said Ida, "as I have no acquaintance with the lady whatever."
"I'm sure it will be just the thing to do," said the lady, becoming more infatuated with her project every moment. "Do you think your cousin would be willing to make the speech?"
At this suggestion Ida laughed outright. "The idea," she said, "of my cousin making a speech of any kind, or in any circumstances!"
"Now I think of it," persisted the lady, "Miss Burton and Mr. Van Berg sit at the same table, and he seems better acquainted with her than any of the gentlemen. He's the one to make the speech, only I do not feel that I know him well enough to ask him. Do you, Miss Mayhew?"
"Indeed I do not," said the young lady, decisively; "I am the last one in the house to ask any favors of Mr. Van Berg."
"Well, then, Mr. Burleigh can explain everything and ask him."
"Really now, Mrs. Chints"—for such was the lady's name—"I don't quite believe that Mr. Van Berg would approve of giving Miss Burton money in public, and before anything further is done I would like to ask his judgement. It all may be eminently proper, as you say, and I would not like to stand in the way of the young lady's receiving so handsome a present, and would not for the world if I thought it would be agreeable to her; but there is something about her that—-"
"I have it," interrupted the positive-minded lady, unheeding and scarcely hearing Mr. Burleigh's dubious circumlocution, and she put her finger to her forehead for a moment in an affected stage-like manner, as if her ideas of the "eternal fitness of things" had been obtained from the sensational drama. "I have it: the child himself shall hand her the gift from his own little hand, and you, Mr. Chints, can say all that need be said. It will be a pretty scene, a 'tableau vivant.' Mr. Chints, come with me before the young woman leaves her present favorable position near the parlor door. Mr. Burleigh, your scruples are sentimental and groundless. Of course the young woman will be delighted to receive in one evening as much, and perhaps more, than her whole year's salary amounts to. Come, Mr. Chints, Mr. Burleigh, if you wish, you may group some of your friends near;" and away she rustled, sweeping the floor with her silken train.
Mr. Chints lumbered after her with a perplexed and martyr-like expression. He was a mighty man in Washington Market, but in a matter like this he was as helpless as a stranded whale. The gift of five hundred dollars did not trouble him in the least; he could soon make that up; but taking part in a "tableau vivant" under the auspices of his dramatic wife was like being impaled.
"Well," said Mr. Burleigh, shaking his head, "I wash my hands of the whole matter. Five hundred dollars is a snug sum, but I doubt if that little woman takes it. I'm more afraid she'll be offended and hurt. What do you think, Miss Mayhew?"
"I've no opinion to offer, Mr. Burleigh. These people are all comparative strangers to me. Mrs. Chints is determined to have her own way, and nothing that you or I can say would make any difference. My rule is to let people alone, and if they get into scrapes it sometimes does them good;" and she left him that she might witness the Chints' tableau.
"That's just the difference between you and Miss Burton," muttered Mr. Burleigh, nodding his head significantly after her. "She'd help a fellow out of a scrape and you'd help him into one. Well, if the old saying's true, 'Handsome is that handsome does,' the little school-teacher would be the girl for me were I looking for my mate."
On her way to the entrance of the main parlor, Ida stopped a moment at an open window near the corner where Stanton and Van Berg were smoking.
"Cousin Ik," she said, 'sotto voce.'
He rose and joined her.
"If you wish to see a rich scene, hover near the entrance of the main parlor."
"What do you mean?"
"I've learned that Mr. and Mrs. Chints, and possibly your favorite new performer, Miss Burton, are going to act a little comedy together: come and see;" and she vanished.
"Van," said Stanton in a vexed tone, "there's some mischief on foot;" and he mentioned what his cousin had said, adding: "Can Ida have been putting that brassy Mrs. Chints up to some absurd performance that will hurt Miss Burton's feelings?"
They rose and sauntered down the piazza, Van Berg trying to imagine what was about to take place and how he could shield the young lady from any annoyance.
She sat inside the entrance of the main parlor facing the open windows, and a little group had gathered around her, including the ladies who sat at her table, with whom she had already become a favorite. Ida had demurely entered by one of the open windows and was apparently reading a novel under one of the gas jets not far away. Groups of people were chatting near or were seated around card-tables; others were quietly promenading in the hall-ways and on the piazza. There was not an indication of any expected or unexpected "scene." Only Ida's conscious, observant expression and the absence of Mrs. Chints foreboded mischief.
"What enormity can that odious family be about to perpetrate?" whispered Stanton.
"I cannot surmise," answered Van Berg; "something in reference to the rescue of her child, I suppose. I wish I could thwart them, for Miss Burton's position will place her full in the public eye, and I do not wish her to be the victim of their vulgarity."
After a little further hesitation and thought he stepped in, and approaching Miss Burton, said:
"Pardon me for interrupting you, but I wish to show you something on the piazza that will interest you."
She rose to follow him, but before she could take a step Mrs. Chints swept in on the arm of her husband, followed by the nurse—who had been retained at Miss Burton's intercession—bearing in her arms the little boy, that stared at the lights and people with the round eyes of childish wonder.
Every one looked up in surprise at the sudden appearance of the little group, that suggested a christening more than anything else.
Planting themselves before Miss Burton, thus barring all egress, Mr. Chints fumbled a moment in his pocket and drew out an envelope, and with a loud, prefatory "Ahem!" began:
"My dear Miss Burton—that is the way Mrs. Chints says I should address you, thought it strikes me as a trifle familiar and affectionate; but I mean no harm—we're under pecul—very great obligations to YOU. We learn—my wife has—that you are engaged—engaged—in—I mean that you—teach. I'm sure that's a lawful calling—I mean a laudable one, and no one can deny that it's useful. In my view it's to your credit that you are engaged—in—that you teach. I work myself, and always mean to. In fact I enjoy it more than making speeches. But feeling that we were under wonderful obligations to YOU, and learning—my wife did—that you were dependent on—on your own labor, we thought that if this little fellow that you saved so handsomely should hand you this check for five hundred dollars it wouldn't be amiss." And here, according to rehearsal, the nurse with great parade handed the child to Mrs. Chints, who now, with much 'empressement,' advanced to a position immediately before Miss Burton; meanwhile the poor, perspiring Mr. Chints put the envelope into the child's chubby hand, saying:
"Give it to the lady, Augustus."
But the small Augustus, on the contrary, stared at the lady and put the envelope in his mouth, to the great mortification of Mrs. Chints, who had been so preoccupied with the Chints side of the affair, and the impression they were making on the extemporized audience, that she had no eyes for Miss Burton.
And that young lady's face was, in truth, a study. An expression of surprise was followed quickly by one of resentment. Even Stanton was obliged to admit that for a moment the little "school-ma'am" looked formidable. But as Mr. Chints floundered on in his speech, as some poor wretch who could not swim might struggle to get out of the deep water into which he had been thrown, the expression of her face softened, and one might imagine the thought passing through her mind—"They don't know any better;" and when, at last, the child, instead of carrying out the climax that Mrs. Chints had intended, began vigorously to munch the envelope containing the precious check, there was even a twinkle of humor in the young lady's eyes. But she responded gravely:
"Mr. Chints, I was at first inclined to resent this scene, but time has been given me to perceive that neither you nor your wife wish to hurt my feelings, and that you are in part, at least, actuated by feelings of gratitude for the service that I was so fortunate as to render you. But I fear you do not quite understand me. You are right in one respect, however. I do labor for my own livelihood, and it is a source of the deepest satisfaction to me that I can live from my own work and not from gifts. If your hearts prompt this large donation, there are hundreds of poor little waifs in the city to whom this money will bring a little of the care and comfort which blesses your child. As for myself, this is all the reward that I wish or can receive," and she stooped and kissed the child on both cheeks. Then taking Van Berg's arm, she gladly escaped to the cool and dusky piazza.
Mr. Chints looked at Mrs. Chints in dismay. Mrs. Chints handed the baby to the nurse, and beat an undramatic and hasty retreat, her husband following in a dazed sort of manner, treading on her train at every other step.
As Van Berg passed out of the parlor, he saw Ida Mayhew vanishing from its farther side, with Stanton in close pursuit. When Miss Burton ended the disagreeable affair by kissing the child, there had been a slight murmur of applause. Significant smiles and a rising him of voices descanting on the affair in a way not at all complimentary to the crestfallen Chints family, followed the disappearances of all the actors in the unexpected scene.
Chapter XII. Miss Mayhew is Puzzled.
"Miss Burton," said Van Berg, as soon as they were alone, "I wish I could have saved you from this disagreeable experience. I tried to do so, but was not quick enough. I much blame my slow wits that I was not more prompt."
"I wish it might have been prevented," she replied, "for their sakes as well as my own."
"I have no compunctions on their account whatever," said Van Berg, "and feel that you let them off much too kindly. I think, however, that they and all others here will understand you much better hereafter. I cannot express too strongly to you how thoroughly our brief acquaintance has taught me to respect you, and if you will permit me to give an earnest meaning to Mr. Burleigh's jesting offer to share with me the responsibility of your care, I will esteem it an honor."
"I sincerely thank you, Mr. Van Berg, and should I ever need the services of a gentleman,"—she laid a slight emphasis upon the term—"I shall, without any hesitancy, turn to you. But I have long since learned to be my own protectress, as, after all, one must be, situated as I am."
"You seem to have the ability, not only to take care of yourself, but of others, Miss Burton. Nevertheless I shall, with your permission, establish a sort of protectorate over you which shall be exceedingly unobtrusive and undemonstrative, and not in the least like that which some powers make the excuse for exactions, until the protected party is ready to cry out in desperation to be delivered from its friends. I hesitated too long this evening from the fear of being forward; and yet I did not know what was coming, and had learned only accidentally but a few moments before that anything was coming."
"Well," replied Miss Burton with a slight laugh, "it's a comfortable thought that there's a fort near, to which one can run should an enemy appear; and a pleasanter thought still, that the fort is strong and staunch. but, to change the figure, I have a great fancy for paddling my own light canoe, and such small craft will often float, you know, where a ship of the line would strike."
"I will admit, Miss Burton, that ships of the line are often unwieldy and clumsily deep in the water; but if you ever do need a gunboat with a howitzer or two on deck, may I hope to be summoned?"
"I could ask for no better champion. I fairly tremble at the broadside that would follow."
"Are you thinking of the discharge or the recoil?"
"Both might involve danger," said Miss Burton, laughing; "but I have concluded to keep on your side through such wars as may rage at the Lake House during my sojourn. I cannot help thinking of poor Mr. and Mrs. Chints. I feel almost as sorry for such people as I do for the blind and deaf. They seem to lack a certain sense which, if possessed, would teach them to avoid such scenes."
"I detest such people and like to snub them unmercifully," said Van Berg, heartily.
"That may be in accordance with a gunboat character; but is it knightly?"
"Why not? What does snobbishness and rich vulgarity deserve at any man's hands?"
"Nothing but sturdy blows. But what do weak, imperfect, half-educated men and women, who have never had a tithe of your advantages, NEED at your hands? Can we not condemn faults, and at the same time pity and help the faulty? The gunboat sends its shot crashing too much at random. It seems to me that true knighthood would spare weakness of any kind."
"I'm glad you have not spared mine. You have demolished me as a gunboat, but I would fain be your knight."
"It is Mrs. Chints who needs a knight at present, and not I. It troubles me to think of her worriment over this foolish little episode, and with your permission I will go and try to banish the cloud."
As she turned she was intercepted by Stanton, who said:
"Miss Burton, let my present to you my cousin, Miss Mayhew."
A ray from a parlor lamp fell upon Ida's face, and Van Berg saw at once that it was clouded and unamiable in its expression. Stanton had evidently been reproaching her severely.
Miss Burton held out her hand cordially and said; "I wish to thank you for maintaining the credit of our sex this morning. These superior men are so fond of portraying us as hysterical, clinging creatures whose only instinct in peril is to throw themselves on man's protection, that I always feel a little exultation when one of the 'weaker and gentler sex,' as we are termed, show the courage and presence of mind which they coolly appropriate as masculine qualities."
"Are you an advocate of woman's rights, Miss Burton?" asked Miss Mayhew, stung by the unconscious sarcasm of the lady's words, to reply in almost as resentful a manner as if a wound had been intended.
"Not of woman's, particularly," was the quiet answer; "I would be glad if every one had their rights."
"You philanthropy is very wide, certainly."
"And therefore very thin, perhaps you think, since it covers so much ground. I agree with you, Miss Mayhew, that general good-will is as cold and thin as moonshine. One ray of sunlight that warms some particular thing into life is worth it all."
"Indeed! I think I prefer moonlight."
"There are certain absorbing avocations in life to which moonshine is better adapted then sunlight, is probably the thought in my cousin's mind," said Stanton, satirically.
"And what are they?" asked Miss Burton.
"Flirtation, for instance."
"My cousin is speaking for himself," said Ida, acidly; "and knows better what is in his own mind than in mine."
"If some ladies themselves never know their own minds, how can another know?" Stanton retorted.
"Well," said Miss Burton, with a laugh, "if we accept a practical philosophy much in vogue—that of taking the world as we find it—flirting is one of the commonest pursuits of mankind."
"I'm quite sure, Miss Burton," said Van Berg, "that your philosophy of life is the reverse of taking the world as we find it."
"Indeed, you are mistaken, sir; I am exceedingly prosaic in my views, and cherish no Utopian dreams and theories. I do indeed take the old matter-of-fact world as I find it, and try to make the best of it."
"Ah, your last is a very saving clause. Too many are seemingly trying to make the worst of it, and unfortunately they succeed."