"Mr. Van Berg, I'm astonished you are an artist."
"Because of the character of my work?"
"No, indeed. But such a wonderful taste for solving problems suggests a metaphysician. I think you would become discouraged with such tasks. Just think how many ladies there are in the world, and I'm sure any one of them is a more abstruse problem than I am."
The artist looked up at her in surprise and bit his lip with a faint trace of embarrassment, but he said, after a moment, "But it does not follow that they are interesting problems."
"You don't know," she replied.
"And never shall," he added. "I do know, however, that you are a very interesting one."
"I didn't agree to come here to be solved as a problem," she said demurely, but with a mirthful twinkle in her eyes; "I only promised you a sitting for the sake of Mr. Eltinge."
"Two sittings, Miss Mayhew."
"Well, yes, if two are needful."
"By all the nine muses! you do not expect me to make a good picture from only two sittings?"
"You know how slight is my acquaintance with any of those superior divinities, and in this sacred haunt of theirs I feel that I should express all my opinions with bated breath; but truly, Mr. Van Berg, I thought you could make a picture from the sketch you made in the garden."
"Yes, I could make A picture, but every sitting you will give enables me to make a better picture, and you know how much we both owe to Mr. Eltinge."
"I'm learning every day how much, how very much, I owe to him," she said, earnestly.
"Then for his sake you will promise to come as often as I wish you to," was his eager response, and it was so eager that she looked up at him in surprise.
"Really, Mr. Van Berg, I am becoming bewildered as to what that little sketch I asked you to make may involve."
"Will it be so wearisome for you to come here?" he asked, with a look of disappointment that surprised her still more.
"I didn't say that," was her quick reply; "and I promise to come to-morrow. Perhaps you will find that sufficient."
"I know it won't be sufficient."
"Cousin Ik has told me that you are very painstaking and conscientious in your work."
"Thanks to Cousin Ik. When I get a chance to paint such a picture as this I do, indeed, wish to make the most of it."
"But how long must Mr. Eltinge wait for it?"
"I think we can send it to him as a Christmas present."
"We? You, rather, will send it."
"No, WE; or rather, in giving me the sittings you give Mr. Eltinge all that makes the picture valuable to him."
Ida's cheeks began to burn, for the artist's words suggested a powerful temptation that; in accordance with her impetuous nature, came in the form of an impulse rather than an insidious and lurking thought. The impulse was to accept of the opportunities he pressed upon her, and, if possible, win him away from Jennie Burton. At first it seemed a mean and dishonorable thing to do, and her face grew crimson with shame at the very thought. Van Berg looked at her with surprise. Conscious himself that while he meant that Mr. Eltinge should profit richly from her visits, it was not by any means for the sake of the old gentleman only that he had been requesting her to come so often, his own color began to rise.
"She begins to see that my motives are a little mixed, and that is what is embarrassing her," he thought as he bent over his work to hide his own confusion.
"Mr. Van Berg, I'm getting tired of sitting still," Ida exclaimed. "It's contrary to my restless disposition. May I not make an exploring tour around your studio? You have no idea what a constraint I've been putting on my feminine curiosity."
"I give you a 'carte-blanche' to do as you please. Have you much curiosity?"
"I'm a daughter of Eve."
"Well, I'm coming to the conclusion that there is a good deal of 'old Adam' in me," and he felt that as she then appeared she could tempt him to almost anything.
Now that her back was towards him she felt safer, and her mellow laugh trilled out as she said, "We may have to dub this place a confessional rather than a studio of you talk in that way."
"If I confessed all my sins against you, Miss Mayhew, it would, indeed, be a confessional." He spoke so earnestly that she gave him a quick glance of surprise.
"There is no need," she said, hesitatingly, "since I have given you full absolution," and she suddenly became interested in something in the farthest corner of the apartment. After a moment she added, "If I am to come here I must say to you again, as I did on the day I so disgusted you by my behavior in the stage—you must let by-gones be by-gones."
It was now the artist's turn to laugh, and his merriment was so hearty and prolonged that she turned a vexed and crimson face towards him and said, "I think it's too bad in you to laugh at me so."
"Miss Mayhew, I assure you I'm not laughing at you at all. But your words suggest a good omen. Didn't that stage teach you that fate means us to be good friends in spite of all you can do? Before we met in that car of fortune I had been trying for a week or more to make your acquaintance, and made a martyr of myself in the effort. I played the agreeable to nearly every lady in the hotel, and perspired on picnics and boating parties that I did not enjoy. I played croquet and other games till I was half bored to death, and all in the effort to produce such a genial atmosphere of enjoyment and good-feeling that you would thaw a little towards me; but you wouldn't speak to me, nor even look at me. At last I gave up in despair and went off among the hills with my sketch-book, and when returning that blessed old stage overtook me. Wasn't I pleased when I found you were a fellow-passenger! and let me now express my thanks that you looked so resolutely away from me, for it gave me a chance to contrast a profile in which I could detect no fault with the broad, sultry visage of the stout woman opposite me. And then, thank heaven, the horses ran away. Whoever heard of stage horses running away before? It was a smile of fortune—a miracle. Submit to destiny, Miss Mayhew, for it's decreed that we should be good friends," and he laughed again in huge enjoyment of the whole scene.
In spite of herself Ida found his humor contagious and irresistible, and she laughed also till the tears came into her eyes.
"Mr. Van Berg," she exclaimed, "I ought to be indignant, or I ought to be ashamed to look you in the face. I don't know what I ought to do, only I'm sure it isn't the proper thing at all for me to be laughing in this way. I think I'll go home at once, for I'm only wasting your time.
His answer was not very relevant, for he said impetuously, "Oh, Miss Ida, I would give five years of my life to be able to paint your portrait as you now appear, for the picture would cure old melancholy himself and fill a prison-cell with light."
"I won't come here any more if you laugh at me so," she said, putting on her hat.
"See," he said, "I'm as grave as a judge. I will never laugh AT you, but I hope to laugh WITH you many a time, for to tell you the truth the experience has reminded me of the 'inextinguishable laughter of the Gods.' Please don't go yet."
"If I must come so often my visits must be brief."
"Then you will come?"
"I haven't promised anything except for to-morrow. Good-morning."
"Let me walk home with you."
"No, positively. You have wasted too much time already."
"You will at least shake hands in token of peace and amity before we part?"
"Oh, certainly, if you think it worth the while when we are to meet so soon again. Oh! you hurt me. You did that once before."
His face suddenly became grave and even tender in its expression, as he said, in a low, deep voice, "More than once, Miss Ida. Don't think I forget or forgive myself because you treat me so generously."
She would not look up and meet his eyes, but replied, in tones that trembled with repressed feeling, "I could forgive anything after your manner towards father this morning. Never think I can forget such favors," and then she snatched away her hand and went swiftly out. Her tears fell fast as she sought her home by quiet streets with bowed head and vail drawn tightly down, and she murmured:
"I cannot give him up—I cannot, indeed, I cannot. If I lose him it must be because there is no help for it."
Then conscience uttered its low, faint protest and her tears fell faster still.
When reaching her room she threw herself on the sofa and sobbed, "Would it be so very, very wrong to win him if I could? she can't love him as much as I do. Why, I was ready to die even to win his respect, and now in these visits he gives me a chance to win his love. Is he pledged to Miss Burton yet? If he is, I do not know it. He does seem to care for me—there is often something in his face and tone that whispers hope. If he loves her as I love him he could not be here in New York all this week. But it's her love that troubles me—I've seen it in her eyes when he was not observing, and I fear she just worships him. Alas, he gave her reason. His manner has been that of a lover, and no one—he least of all—would think of flirting with Jennie Burton. But does he lover her so deeply that I could not win him if I had a chance? Would it be very wicked if I did? Must I give up my happiness for her happiness? I came to New York to get away from danger and temptation and here I am right in the midst of it. What shall I do! Oh, my Saviour, I'm half afraid to speak to thee about this."
"If I could only see Mr. Eltinge," she murmured, after an hour of distracted thought and indecision. "There is no time to write—indeed, I could not write on such a subject, and—and—I'm afraid he'd advise me against it. He can't understand a woman's feelings in a case like this, at least he could not understand a passionate, faulty girl like me. I've no patience—no fortitude. I could die for my love—I think, I hope, I could for my faith,—but I feel no power within me to endure patiently year after year. I would be like the poor, weak women they shut up in the Inquisition and who suffered on to the end only through remorseless compulsion, because the walls were too thick for escape, and the tormentor's hands and the rack were irresistible. My soul would succumb as well as my body. This would seem wild, wicked talk to Mr. Eltinge; it would seem weak and irrational to any man. But I'm only Ida Mayhew, and such is my nature. I've been made all the more incapable of patient self-sacrifice by self-indulgence from my childhood up. Oh, will it be very, very wrong to win him if I can?" and the passionate tears and sobs that followed these words would seem to indicate that she understood her nature only too well.
At last she concluded, in weariness and exhaustion, "I'm too weak and distracted to think any more. I hardly know whether it's right or wrong. I hope it isn't very wrong. I won't decide now. Let matters take their own course as they have done and I may see clearer by and by."
But deep in her heart she felt that this was about the same as yielding to the temptation.
She bathed her eyes, tried to think how she could spend the intervening hours before they would meet again. Then with a sense of dismay she began to consider, "If we are to meet so often what are we to talk about? He once tried to converse with me and found me so ignorant he couldn't. It seemed to me I didn't know anything that evening, and he'll soon grow disgusted with me again as he sees my poor little pack of knowledge is like a tramp's bundle that he carries around with him. I must read—I must study every moment, or I haven't the remotest chance of success. Success! Oh, merciful heaven! it's the same as if I were setting about it all deliberately and there's no use of deceiving myself. I hope it isn't very, very wrong."
She went to her father's library with flushed cheeks and hesitating steps, as if it were the tree from which she might pluck the fruit of forbidden knowledge. The long rows of ponderous and neglected books appalled her; she took down two or three and they seemed like unopened mines, deep and rocky. She felt instinctively that there was not time for her to transmute their ores into graceful and natural mental adornments.
"Methuselah himself couldn't read them all," she exclaimed. "By the powers! if here isn't more books than I can carry, on one subject. I suppose cartloads have been written about art. I've no doubt he's read them all, but I never can; I fear my attempt to read up is like trying to get strong by eating a whole ox at once. Oh, why did I waste my school-days, and indeed all my life as I have!" and she stamped her foot in her impatience and irritation.
"Well," she sighed at last, with a grim sort of humor; "I must do the best I can. It's the same as if I were on a desert island. I must tie together some sort of a raft in order to cross the gulf that separates us, for I never can stand it to stay here alone. Since I have not time to spare I may as well commence with that encyclopaedia, and learn a little about as many things as possible; then if he introduces a subject he shall at least see that I know what he is talking about." And during the afternoon the poor girl plodded through sever articles, often recalling her wandering thoughts by impatient little gestures, and by the time her father returned she was conscious of knowing a very little indeed about a number of things. "No matter," she thought, compressing her lips, "I won't give up till I must. It's my one chance for happiness in this world, and I'll cling to it while there is a shred of hope left."
It was with an eager and resolute face that she confronted her father that evening, as they sat down to dinner. He thought she would descant on her experiences of the morning, and he was anxious for a chance to say how truly he appreciated Mr. Van Berg's cordial manner, but she surprised him by asking abruptly:
"Father, when do we elect another president?"
He told her, and then followed a rapid fire of questions about the general and state government, and the names and characters of the men who held the chief offices. At last Mr. Mayhew laid down his knife and fork in his astonishment, and asked sententiously:
"How long is it since you decided to go into politics?"
Ida's laugh was very reassuring, and she said, "Poor father! I don't wonder you think I've lost my wits, now that I'm trying to use the few I have. Don't you see? I don't know anything that's worth knowing. I wasted my time at school, for my head was full of beaux, dress, and nonsense. Besides, I don't think my teachers took much pains to make me understand anything. At any rate, my dancing-master, and perhaps my music-teacher—a little bit—are the only ones that have any reason to be proud of the result. Now I want you to brush up your ideas about everything, so you can answer the endless questions I am going to ask you."
"Why bless you, child, you take away my breath. Rome wasn't built in a day."
"The way they built Rome will never answer for me. I must grow like one of our Western cities that has a mayor and opera-house almost before the Indians and wolves are driven out of town. Speaking of Rome reminds me how little I know of that city, and it's a burning shame, too, for I spent a month there."
"Well," said Mr. Mayhew, with kindling interest, "suppose we take up a course of reading about Rome for the winter."
"For the winter! That won't do at all. Can't you tell me something of interest about Rome this evening?"
"I've already mentioned the interesting fact—that it wasn't built in a day. I think that's the most important thing that you need to know about Rome and everything else this evening. Why, Ida, you can't become wise as an ostrich makes its supper—by swallowing everything that comes in its way. You are not a bit like an ostrich."
"An ostrich is a silly bird that puts its head under the sand and thins its whole great body hidden because it can't see itself, isn't it, father?"
"I've heard that story told of it," replied Mr. Mayhew, laughing.
"Anything but an ostrich, then. Come, I'll read the evening paper to you on condition you tell me the leading questions of the day. What is just now the leading question of the day?"
"Well," said Mr. Mayhew, demurely, but with a sparkle of humor in his eye, "one of the leading questions of this day with me has been whether Mr. Van Berg would not enjoy dining with us to-morrow evening now that he is here alone in the city?"
Ida instantly held the newspaper before her crimson face and said:
"Father, you ought to be ashamed thus to divert my mind from the pursuit of useful knowledge."
Her father came to her side and said very kindly: "Ida, darling, you are a little bit like an ostrich now."
She sprang up, and, hiding her face on his shoulder, trembled like a leaf. "Oh, father," she whispered, "I would not have him know for the world. Is it so very plain?"
"Not to him, my child, but the eyes of a love like mine are very keen. So you needn't be on your guard before your old father as you must be before him and the world. You shall have only rest and sympathy at home as far as I can give them. Indeed, if you will let me, I'll become a very unobtrusive, but perhaps, useful ally. At any rate, I'll try not to make any stupid, ignorant blunders. I have like Mr. Van Berg from the first hour of our meeting, and I would thank God from the depths of my heart if this could be."
"Dear, good father, how little I understood you. I've been living in poverty over a gold mine. But father, I'm so ignorant and Mr. Van Berg knows everything."
"Not quite, you'll find. He's only a man, Ida. But you can never win him through politics or by discussing with him the questions of the day. These are not in your line nor his."
"What can I do, father. Indeed, it does not seem to me maidenly to do anything."
"It would not be maidenly, Ida, to step one hair's breadth beyond the line of scrupulous, womanly delicacy, and by any such course you would only defeat and thwart yourself. A woman must always be sought; and as a rule, she loses as she seeks. But I strust to your instincts to guide you here. You have only to be simple and true, as you have been since the happy miracle that transformed you. Unless a man is infatuated as I—but no matter. A man that keeps his sense welcomes truthfulness—a high delicate sense of honor—above all things in a woman, for it gives him a sense of security and rest. By truthfulness I do not mean the indiscreet blurting out of things that good taste would leave unsaid, but clear-eyed integrity that hides no guile. Then, again, unless a man is blinded by passion or some kind of infatuation he knows that the chief need of his life is a home lighted and warmed by an unwavering love. With these his happiness and success are secured, as far as they can be in this world, unless he is a brute and a fool, and has no right to exist at all. But I am growing preachy. Let me suggest some things that I have observed in this artist. He is a high-toned pagan and worships beauty; but with this outward perfection he also demands spiritual loveliness, for with him mind and honor are in the ascendant. He admired you immensely from the first, and since your character has been growing in harmony with your face he has sought your society. So, be simple, true, and modest, and you will win him if the thing is possible. You will never win him by being anything else, and you might lose your own respect and his too."
"I'll suffer anything rather than that, father. I think you had better not invite him to-morrow evening."
"I'll be governed by what I see to-morrow," he replied, musingly. "Both my business and my habit of mind have taught me to observe and study men's motives and impulses very closely. You could order a suitable dinner after leaving the studio, could you not?"
"Well, then, my Princess Ida, I'll be your grand vizier, and I'll treat with this foreign power with such a fine diplomacy that he shall appreciate all the privileges he obtains. But we will keep our self-respect hereafter, Ida, and then we can look the world in the face and ask no odds of it."
"Yes, father, let us keep that at all events. And yet I'm only a woman."
"You are the woman that has made me happy, and I think there is another man who will want to be made happy also. And now we will defer all other questions of the day, for I must go out for a time. Do not think I undervalue your craving for information, and you shall have it as fast as you can take care of it. You have grown pale and thin this summer, but I do not expect you to become plump and rosy again in a day."
"Oh, I'm rosy too often as it is. Why is it that girls must blush so ridiculously when they don't want to? That's the question of the day for me. I could flirt desperately in old times, and yet look as demure and cool as if I were an innocent. But now, oh! I'm fairly enraged with myself at times."
"They say blushes are love's trail," said Mr. Mayhew with a laugh, "and since he is around I suppose he must leave his tracks. If you wish for a more scientific reason let me add that physiology teaches us that the blood comes from the heart. I can assure you, however, that there are but few gentlemen who admire ladies that cannot blush, and Mr. Van Berg is not one of them."
Ida spent the evening at her piano instead of over the encyclopaedia, but she sighed again and again.
"Simple and true! I fear Jennie Burton and Mr. Eltinge would say I was neither if they knew what was in my heart. But I can't help it—I can't give him up after what has happened since I came to the city, unless I must."
But the music she selected was simple and true. Tossing her brilliant and florid pieces impatiently aside, she played or sang only that which was plaintive, low, and in harmony with her thoughts. It also seemed to have a peculiar attractiveness to a tall gentleman who lingered some moments beneath the windows, and even took one or two steps up towards the door, and then turned and strode away as if conscious that he must either enter or depart at once.
Chapter XLIX. The Blind God.
The Miss Mayhew that crossed the artist's threshold the following morning might have been taken as a model of graceful self-possession, but she disguised a maiden with as fluttering a heart and trembling a soul as ever faced one of the supreme moments of destiny. Her father, however, proved a faithful and intelligent ally, and his manner towards Van Berg was a fine blending of courtesy and dignity, suggesting a man as capable of conferring as of receiving favors. His host would indeed have been blind and stupid if he had tried to patronize Mr. Mayhew that morning.
Although unconscious of the fact, Van Berg was for a time subjected to the closest scrutiny. Love had deep if not dark designs against him, and the glances he bent on Ida might suggest that he was only too ready to become a victim. He had welcomed to his study two conspirators who were committed to their plot by the strongest of motives, and yet they were such novel conspirators that a word, a glance, an expression even of "ennui" or indifference would have so touched their pride that they would have abandoned their wiles at every cost to themselves. Were they trying to ensnare him? Never were such films and gossamer threads used in like entanglement before. He could have brushed them all away by one cold sweep of his eyes, and the maiden who had not scrupled at death to gain merely his respect, would have left the studio with a colder glance than his, nor would her womanly strength have failed her until she reached a refuge which his eye could not penetrate; but then—God pity her. The tragedies over which the angels weep are the bloodless wounds of the spirit.
But it would seem that the atmosphere of Van Berg's studio that summer morning was not at all conducive to tragedy of any kind, nor were there in his face or manner any indications of comedy, which to poor Ida would have been far worse; for an air of careless "bonhomie" on his part when she was so desperately in earnest would have made his smiles and jests like heartless mockery.
And yet, in spite of his manner the previous day, the poor girl had come to the studio fearing far more than she hoped, and burdened also with a troubled conscience. She was almost sure she was not doing right, and yet the temptation was too strong to be resisted. But when he took her hand in greeting that morning, and said with a smile that seemed to flash out from the depths of his soul, "I won't hurt you any more if I can help it," all scruples, all hesitancy vanished for a time, like frostwork in the sun. His magnetism was irresistible, and she felt that it would require all her tact and resolution to keep him by some careless, random word or act, from brushing aside the veil behind which shrank her trembling, and as yet, unsought love.
But Van Berg was even a rarer study than the maiden, and his manner towards both Ida and her father might well lead one to think that he was inclined to become the chief conspirator in the design against himself. He had scarcely been conscious of time or place since parting the previous day with the friend he was so bent on securing, and when at last he slept in the small hours of the morning he dreamt that he had been caught by a mighty tidal wave that was bearing him swiftly towards heaven on its silver crest. When he awoke, the wave, so far from being a bubble, seemed a grand spiritual reality, and he felt as if he had already reached a seventh heaven of vague, undefined exhilaration. Never before had life appeared so rich a possession and so full of glorious possibilities. Never in the past had he felt his profession to be so noble and worthy of his devotion, and never had the fame he hoped to grasp by means of it seemed so near. Beauty became to him so infinitely beautiful and divine that he felt he could worship it were it only embodied, and then with a strange and exquisite thrill of exultation he exclaimed: "Right or wrong, to my eye it is embodied in Ida Mayhew, and she will fill my studio with light again to-day and many days to come. If ever an artist was fortunate in securing as a friend, as an inspiration, a perfect and budding flower of personal and spiritual loveliness, I am that happy man."
The Van Berg of other days would have called the Van Berg that waited impatiently for his guests that morning a rhapsodical fool, and the greater part of the world would offer no dissent. The world is very prone to call every man who is possessed by a little earnestness or enthusiasm a fool, but it is usually an open question which is the more foolish—the world or the man; and perhaps we shall all learn some day that there was more of sanity in our rhapsodies than in the shrewd calculations that verged towards meanness. Be this as it may in the abstract, Van Berg regarded himself as the most rational man in the city that morning. He did not try to account for his mental state by musty and proverbial wisdom or long-established principles of psychology. The glad, strong consciousness of his own soul satisfied him and made everything appear natural. Since he HAD this strong and growing friendship for this maiden, who was evidently pleased to come again to his studio, though so coy and shy in admitting it, why should he not have it? There was nothing in his creed against such a friendship, and everything for it. Men of talent, not to mention genius, had ever sought inspiration from those most capable of imparting it, and this girl's beauty and character were kindling his mind to that extent that he began to hope he could now do some of the finest work of his life. The fact that he felt towards her the strongest friendly regard was in itself enough, and Van Berg was too good a modern thinker to dispute with facts, especially agreeable ones.
The practical outcome of the friendship which he lost no chance of manifesting that morning, was that Mr. Mayhew, in an easy, informal manner, extended his invitation, and the artist accepted in a way that proved he was constrained by something more than courtesy or a sense of duty, and Conspirator Number Two walked down Broadway muttering (as do all conspirators): "Those young people are liable to stumble into paradise at any moment."
"How did you manage to get through a hot August day in town after you were released from durance here?" asked Van Berg.
"I do not know that it required any special management," replied Ida demurely. "I suppose YOU took a nap after your severe labors of the morning."
"Now you are satirical. My labor was all in the afternoon, for I worked from the time you left me till dusk."
"Didn't you stop for lunch or dinner?" exclaimed Ida, with surprise.
"Not a moment."
"Why, Mr. Van Berg, what was the matter with you? It will never do for me to come here and waste your forenoons if you try to make up so unmercifully after I'm gone."
"You were indeed altogether to blame. Some things, like fine music or a great painting or—it happened to be yourself yesterday—often cause what I call my working moods, when I feel able to do the best things of which I'm capable. Not that they are wonderful or ever will be—they are simply my best efforts—and I assure you I'm not foolish enough to waste such moments in the prosaic task of eating."
"I'm only a matter-of-fact person. Plain food at regular intervals is very essential to me."
He looked up at her quickly and said: "Now you are mentally laughing at me again. I assure you I ate like an ostrich after my work was over. I even upset the dignity of an urbane Delmonico waiter."
Ida bit her lip as she recalled certain resemblances on her own part to that suggestive bird, but she said sympathetically: "It must be rather stupid to dine alone at a restaurant."
"I found it insufferably stupid, and I'm more grateful to your father for his invitation than you would believe."
Ida could scarcely disguise her pleasure, and with mirthful eyes she said:
"Really, Mr. Van Berg, you place me in quite a dilemma. I find that in one mood you do not wish to eat at all, and again you say you have the rather peculiar appetite of the bird you named. Now I'm housekeeper at present, and scarcely know how to provide. What kind of viands are best adapted to artists and poets, and—-"
"And idiots in general, you might conclude," said Van Berg, laughing. "After sitting so near me at the table all summer you must have noticed that nothing but ambrosia and nectar will serve my purpose."
Ida's laughing eyes suddenly became deep and dreamy as she said: "That time seems ages ago. I cannot realize that we are the same people that met so often in Mr. Burleigh's dining-room, and in circumstances that to me were often so very dismal."
"Please remember that I am not the same person. I will esteem it a great favor if you will leave the man you saw at that time in the limbo of the past—the farther off the better."
"You were rather distant then," Ida remarked with a piquant smile.
"But am I now? Answer me that," he said so eagerly that she was again mentally enraged at her tell-tale color, and she said hastily: "But where am I to find the ambrosia and nectar that you will expect this evening?"
"Any market can furnish the crude materials. It is the touch of the hostess that transmutes them."
"Alas," said Ida, "I never learned how to cook. If I should prepare your dinner, you would have an awful mood to-morrow, and probably send for the doctor."
"I would need a nurse more than a doctor."
"I know of an ancient woman—a perfect Mrs. Harris," said Ida, gleefully.
"Wouldn't you come and see me if I were very ill?"
"I might call at the door and ask how you were," she replied, hesitatingly.
"Now, Miss Ida, the undertaker would do as much as that."
"Our motives might differ just a little," she said, dropping her eyes.
"Well," said the artist, laughing, "if you will prepare the dinner, I'll risk undertaker, ancient woman, and all, rather than spend such another long stupid evening as I did last night. I expected to meet you at the concert garden again."
"That's strange," she said.
"I should say rather that I hoped to meet you and your father there. Would you have gone if I had asked you?"
"I'll set that down as one of the lost opportunities of life."
"Why didn't you listen to the music?"
"Well, I didn't. I thought I'd inflict my stupidity on you for awhile, and came as far as your doorsteps before I remembered that I had not been invited; so you see what a narrow escape you had."
In spite of herself Ida could not help appearing disappointed as she said, a little reproachfully, "Would a friend have waited for a formal invitation?"
"A friend did," replied Van Berg regretfully; "but he won't again."
"I'm not so sure about that; my music must have frightened you away."
"I listened until I feared the police might think I had designs against the house. I didn't know you were a musician. Miss Mayhew, I'm always finding out something new about you, and I'm going to ask you this evening to sing again for me a ballad the melody of which reminded me of a running brook. It took hold on my fancy and has been running in my head ever since."
"Oh, you won't like that; it's a silly, sentimental little thing. I don't wonder you paused and retreated."
"Spare me, Miss Ida; I already feel that it was a faint-hearted retreat, in which I suffered serious loss. I have accounted for myself since we parted; how did YOU spend the time? Of course you yawned over your morning's fatigue, and took a long nap."
"Indeed I did not sleep a wink. Why should I be any more indolent than yourself? I read most of the afternoon, and drummed on the piano in the evening."
"I know that I like your drumming, but am not yet sure about your author; but he must be an exceedingly interesting one, to hold your attention a long hot afternoon."
Ida colored in sudden embarrassment, but said, after a moment: "I shall not gratify your curiosity any further, for you would laugh at me again if I told you."
"Now, indeed, you have piqued my curiosity."
"Since you, a man, admit having so much of this feminine weakness, I who am only a woman may be pardoned for showing just a little. What work was it that so absorbed you yesterday afternoon that you ceased to be human in your needs?"
"Miss Mayhew, you have been laughing at me in your sleeve ever since you came this morning. I shall take my revenge on you at once by heaping coals of fire on your head," and he turned towards her a large picture, all of which was yet in outline, save Mr. Eltinge's bust and face.
Ida sprang down on her knees before it, exclaiming: "O! my dear, kind old friend! He's just speaking to me. Mr. Van Berg, I'll now maintain you are a genius against all the world. You have put kindness, love, fatherhood into his face. You have made it a strong and noble, and yet tender and gentle as the man himself. I never knew it was possible for a portrait to express so much," and tears of strong, grateful feeling filled her eyes.
Was it success in his art or praise from her lips that gave her listener such an exquisite thrill of pleasure? He did not stop to consider, for he was not in an analytical mood at that time. He was on the crest of the spiritual wave that was sweeping him heavenward, or towards some beatific state of which he had not dreamt before. His face glowed with pleasure as he said:
"Since it pleases you, it's no more than justice that you should know that your visit was the cause of my success. Either your laugh or your kind parting words brushed the cobwebs from my mind, and I was able to do better work in a few hours than I might have accomplished in weeks."
She tried to look at the picture more closely, but fast-coming tears blinded her. Then she rose, and averting her face hastily, wiped her eyes, as she said in a low tone: "I can't understand it at all, and the memory of Mr. Eltinge's kindness always overcomes me. Please pardon my weakness. There, I won't waste any more of your time," and she returned to her chair. But her face still wore the uncertainty of an April day.
"Your affection for Mr. Eltinge," he said gently, "is as beautiful as it is natural. No manifestation of it needs any apology, and least of all to me, for I owe to him far more than life. But I am paining you by recalling the past," he said regretfully, as Ida's tears began to gather again. "Let me try to make amends by returning at once to the present and to my work. Before I go on any farther with your portrait I want you to put this rose-bud in your hair," and from a hidden nook he brought a little vase containing only one exquisite bud. Ida had barely time to see that it was in color and size precisely like the emblem of herself that he had thrown away, and for a few minutes she utterly lost her self-control. She buried her face in her hands, and her low, stifled sobs filled Van Berg with the keenest distress and perplexity.
"Miss Ida," he said earnestly, "I would rather every tear you are shedding were a drop of my blood," but his words only made them flow faster still.
Suddenly she sprang up, and turning her back upon him, dashed away her tears almost fiercely. "Oh! this is shameful!" she exclaimed, in low, indignant tones. "Mr. Van Berg, what must you think of me? Please turn Mr. Eltinge's face away, for he is looking at me just as he did when my heart was breaking, and—and—I've lost my self-control, and I had better not come here till I can cease being so weak and foolish."
"Is it weak to be grateful?" he asked, gently. "Is it foolish to love one so thoroughly entitled to your love? I honor you for your deep and tender affection for Mr. Eltinge, and every tear you have shed proves to me that in this perfect flower I am now finding the true emblem of yourself."
"No," she said, almost passionately, "I have no right to it. The other one that you threw away is true of me, and always will be. This but mocks me with its perfection. I would be a hypocrite if I should put it in my hair, and smile complacently while you painted it. My heart clings to the other emblem, and I know I must develop as best I can, as that would have done after its destroyer was taken away. No, Mr. Van Berg. I have seen myself in the strong, sharp light of truth. If you are willing to be my friend, please be an honest one. My faithful old friend in the country would scarcely take my portrait if this perfect flower were introduced with any such meaning as you attach to it, and I certainly would be ashamed to give it to him. Mr. Van berg, we MUST let bygones by bygones, or we never can get on. See how absurdly I have acted both yesterday and to-day, and all through recalling the past. Indeed, indeed, it will never do for me to come here again, and if you can make such a marvellous likeness of Mr. Eltinge as you have, I scarcely think there will be any need."
"My success with Mr. Eltinge's portrait is the result of a few happy strokes that I might not be able to give again if I tried a year. Believe me, Miss Mayhew, I not only wish to be an honest friend, but a very considerate one. I promise never to urge you to do anything that will cause you pain. I can understand how the features of your kind friend have touched the tenderest chords of your heart, and I respect your study fidelity to your conscience in refusing to let me paint this bud in your hair; but you must also do me the justice to believe that I meant no hollow compliment when I searched for it among the florists. Must I throw this one away, too?" he asked, with a glance that was very ardent for a friend; "for since I obtained it for you, it must receive its fate at your hands only."
"I'll wear it, simply as your gift, with pleasure," and she fastened it in her breastpin, so that its crimson blush rested against the snowy whiteness of her neck.
He looked her full in the eyes and said, with low, sad emphasis: "I do not deserve such respect." Then the knowledge that she was harboring a purpose which troubled her conscience, but which she could not abandon, became the cause of a trace of her old recklessness of manner. She assumed a sudden gayety, as if she had stepped out of shadows into too strong a light, as she said:
"Mr. Van Berg, you may well hesitate to bring the appetite you say had last night to our house this evening, and if I stay a moment longer, you will get no dinner at all. I have not been after the crude material—as you call it—yet, and I'm told that there is not a man living so amiable and philosophical, but that a poor dinner provokes martyr-like expression, if nothing worse;" and with a smile and a piquancy of manner that seemed peculiarly brilliant against the background of her deep and repressed feeling, she again left him.
He tried to return to his work, but found himself once more possessed by the demon of unrest and impatience. The spiritual wave that had been lifting him higher and higher was changing its character and becoming a smoothly gliding current. It was so irresistible that he never thought of resisting. "Why should he resist?" he asked himself. Circumstances had interested him in this rare Undine before she received a woman's soul; circumstances had entangled his life and hers in what had almost been an awful tragedy; and now circumstances, or something far beyond, were swiftly developing before his eyes a spiritual loveliness that was the counterpart of her outward beauty, and he assured himself that it would be the greatest folly of his life to lose a trace of the exquisite process that he might be privileged to see. What artist or poet has not pictured himself the fair face of Eve as God first breathed into her perfect clay the breath of life, or has not, in imagination, seen the closed eyes opening in surprise and intelligence or kindling with the light of love? And yet the change in Ida Mayhew seemed to Van Berg far more wonderful and interesting; and to his fancy if, instead of lying in the beauty of her breathless, statuesque preparation for life, Eve had been possessed by a legion of distorting imps, she would have been the type of the maiden he first had recognized. But he had seen these evil spirits exorcised, and in their place was coming a noble, womanly soul—sweet, tender, and strong—and the perfect form and features seemed but a transparent mould, a crystal vase into which heaven was pouring a new and divine life. Why should he not long to escape from the dusty matter-of-fact world and witness this spiritual repetition of the most beautiful story of the past? Thus his philosophical mind was able once more to reason the whole matter out clearly and prove that his wish to annihilate the intervening hours before he could dare to present himself to Ida Mayhew, was the most natural and proper desire imaginable. He concluded that a walk through Central Park might banish his disquietude, and leave time for a careful toilet, since for some occult reason the occasion seemed to him to require unusual preparation.
He knew he was unfashionably early when he rang Mr. Mayhew's door-bell, but he had found it impossible to curb his impatience to see in what new aspect Ida would present herself that evening. A hundred times he had queried how she would appear in her own home, how she would preside as hostess, and whether the taste of the florid and fashionable mother would not be so apparent as to annoy him like a bad tone in the picture. yes, that was Mrs. Mayhew's parlor into which he was shown. It did not suggest the maiden who had come to visit, nor the quiet, dignified gentleman Mr. Mayhew was seen to be when at the touch of love's wand a degrading vice fell away from him. But the artist could find no fault with the host who greeted him promptly, and when, a few moments later, there was a breezy rustle on the stairs and he turned to greet his hostess, his face flushed with admiration and pleasure. It became evident that the worshipper of beauty was in the presence of his divinity, and his every glance burned incense to her honor. She had twined a few rose-leaves in her hair, but wore no other ornament save the rose he had given her in the morning, which evidently had been kept carefully for the occasion, for it was unchanged, with the exception that it revealed its heart a little more openly, as did Ida herself. And yet she did her best to insure that her manner should be no more cordial than her character of hostess demanded.
But in spite of all she could do, the light of exultation and intense joy would flash into her eyes and tremble in her tones that evening. A maiden would have been blind indeed had she not been able to read the riddle of Van Berg's ardent friendship now, and Ida had seen that expression too often not to know its meaning well. In the morning she had strongly hoped, now she believed. She no longer walked by faith but in full vision, and she trod with the grace of a queen who knows her power in the realm that woman loves best. The glow of her eyes, her repressed excitement, that vitalized everything she said or did, mystified while they charmed her guest. "She has become true to nature," he thought, "and like nature is full of mysterious changes, for which we know not the cause. At one time it is a sharp north wind, again the south wind. This morning there was a sudden shower of tears, and before it was over the sunlight of smiles flashed through them. Now she appears like a June morning, and I pray the weather holds."
"Oh," thought Ida, in the wild, mad glee of her heart, "how can I behave myself and look innocent and unconscious, seeing what I do? He is my very good friend is he? I wish for only one such friend in the world. It wouldn't be proper to have another. Oh, but isn't it rich to see how unconscious he is of himself! He is passing into an exceedingly acute attack of my own complaint, and the poor man doesn't know what is the matter. I don't believe he ever looked at Jennie Burton as he looks at me. Ah, Jennie Burton!" The joyousness suddenly faded out of her face and she sighed deeply. It seemed to Van Berg for a time that his June morning might become clouded after all, but while his face was turned towards her with the expression it now wore no sad thoughts or misgivings could shadow Ida very long.
Chapter L. Swept Away.
There was no vulgar profusion in the dinner which Ida had ordered, nor were its courses interminable; and as she gracefully and quietly directed everything, the thought would keep insinuating itself in Van Berg's mind, that the home over which she might eventually preside would be a near suburb of Paradise. He heartily seconded Ida's purpose that her father should take part in their conversation, and it was another deep source of her gladness that the one whom she had seen so depressed and despairing, now looked as she would always wish him to appear. "Oh, it's too good to last," she sighed, as her heart fairly ached with its excess of joy.
After dinner Mr. Mayhew asked Van Berg to light a cigar with him in his study, but the artist declined and followed Ida to the parlor.
"Mr. Van Berg," she said, with a great show of surprise, "how is it you don't smoke this evening? It seemed to me that you and Cousin Ik were drawn to a certain corner of Mr. Burleigh's piazza with the certainty of gravitation after dinner, and then you were lost in the clouds."
"On this occasion I have taken my choice of pleasures and have followed you."
"This is a proud moment for me," she said, with a mirthful twinkle in her eyes. "I never expected to rival a gentleman's cigar, and I don't think I ever did before."
"Another proof of my friendship, Miss Ida."
"Yes," she replied demurely, "an act like this goes a good way towards making me believe you are sincere."
"Miss Ida, you are always laughing at me. I wish I could find some way to get even with you, and I will too."
"You do me injustice. I, in turn, will lay an offering on the altar of friendship and will go with you this evening to the concert garden."
"I think you exceedingly, but will leave the offering on the altar, if you will permit me. I would much rather remain in your parlor."
"Why, Mr. Van Berg, you are bent on being a martyr for my sake this evening."
"Yes, wholly bent upon it."
"How amiable gentlemen are after dinner!" she exclaimed. "But where was your appetite this evening? Clearly our cook knows nothing of the preparation of ambrosia nor I of nectar, although I made the coffee myself."
"Did you? That accounts for its divine flavor. Don't you remember I took two cups?"
"I saw that your politeness led you to send me your cup a second time. I suppose you accomplished a vast deal again to-day after you were once finally rid of an embodiment of April weather?"
"I would lose your respect altogether if I should tell you how I have spent the afternoon. You would think me an absurd jumble of moods and tenses. I may as well own up, I suppose. I have done nothing but kill time, and to that end I took a walk through Central Park."
"This hot afternoon! Mr. Van Berg, what possessed you?"
"A demon of impatience. It seemed as if old Joshua had commanded the sun to stand still again."
"You must indeed by a genius, Mr. Van Berg, for I've always heard that the peculiarly gifted were full of unaccountable moods."
"I understand the satire of your expression 'PECULIARLY gifted,' but my turn will come before the evening is over," and he leaned luxuriously back against the sofa cushion with a look of infinite content with the prospect before him. "Bless me, what is this over which I have half broken my back," he exclaimed, and he dragged out of its partial concealment a huge volume.
"Please let me take that out of your way," said Ida, stepping hastily forward with crimson cheeks.
"Don't trouble yourself, Miss Mayhew; fortune is favoring me once more, and I am on the point of discovering the favorite author you would not mention this morning. An encyclopedia, as I live! from A to B, with a hair-pin inserted sharply at the word Amsterdam. Really, Miss Ida, I can't account for your absorbing interest in Amsterdam."
"Mr. Van Berg, there is no use in trying to hide anything from you. You find me out every time and I'm really growing superstitious about it."
"I wish your words were true; but, for the life of me, I can't understand why you should crave encyclopaedias as August reading, nor can I see the remotest connection between the exquisite color of your face and the old Dutch city of Amsterdam."
"Well, the Fates are against me once more. Why I left that book there I don't know, for I'm not usually so careless. Mr. Van Berg, I scarcely need to remind you of a fact that you discovered long ago—I don't know anything. Do you not remember how you tried to talk with me one evening? You touched on almost as many subjects as that huge volume contains, and my face remained as vacant through them all as the blank pages in that book before the printed matter begins."
"But now, Miss Ida, your face is to me like this book after the printed matter begins, only I read there that which interests me far more than anything which this bulky tome contains, even under the word Amsterdam."
"You imagine far more than you see. I think artists are like poets, and are given to great flights. Besides, you are becoming versed in my small talk. When you tried it on the evening I referred to, you were just a trifle ponderous."
"Yes, I can now see myself performing like a lame elephant. Did you propose to read this encyclopaedia entirely through?"
"I might have skipped art as a subject far too deep for me."
"When you come to that let me take the place of the encyclopaedia. I will sit just here where you keep your book and give you a series of familiar lectures."
"I never enjoyed being lectured, sir!"
"Then I'll teach you after the Socratic method, and ask you questions."
"I fear some of them might be too personal. You have such a mania for solving everything."
"And did you fear that at some of the many sittings I shall need this fall I might again broach every subject under the sun, and so you were led to read an encyclopaedia to be prepared?"
"Is that what you mean by the Socratic method? I decline any lessons concerning art or anything else on that plan, for you would find out everything."
"I shall, anyway. How long ago it seems since we took that stupid walk together on Mr. Burleigh's piazza! We are nearer together now, Miss Ida, than we were then."
"Oh! no, indeed," she replied quickly; "I had your arm on that occasion."
"But you have my sincere friendship and respect now. I can't tell you how pleased I was when I saw how you had honored the little emblematic flower I gave you this morning. That you wear it to-night as your only ornament gives me hope that you do value my respect and regard."
"I think I had better let the rose-bud answer you, and I confess I like to think how perfect it is when I remember the meaning you gave to it, though how you can respect me at all I cannot understand. Still, I am like father—next to God's favor the respect of those I esteem does most to sustain and reassure me. But, oh! Mr. Van Berg, you can't know what an honest sense of ill-desert I have. It is so hard just to do right, no matter what the consequences may be."
"The trouble with me is that I am not trying as you are. But I know, with absolute certainty, that the strongest impulse of true friendship, or at least of mine, in this instance, is to render some service to my friend. You will make me very happy if you will tell me something I can do for you."
"You are helping me very much in your manner towards father, and I do thank you from the very depths of my heart. In no way could you have won from me a deeper gratitude. And—well—your kindness almost tempts me to ask for another favor, Mr. Van Berg."
He sprang to her side and took her hand.
Quickly withdrawing it, she said with a little decisive node: "You must sit down and sit still, for I have along, tiresome story to tell, and a very prosaic favor to ask;" for she had resolved, "he shall go forward now with his eyes open, and he shall never say I won him by seeming what I was not. If I can't deal right by Jennie Burton, I will by him."
"I shall find no service prosaic; see, I'm all attention," and he did look very eager indeed.
"That encyclopaedia suggests my story, and I may have to refer incidentally to myself."
"Leave the book out; I'll listen for ages."
"I should be out of breath before that. Mr. Van Berg, I'm in earnest; I don't know anything worth knowing. My life has been worse than wasted, and the only two things I understand well are dancing and flirting. Now I know you are disgusted, but its the truth. My old, fashionable life seems to me like the tawdry scenes of a second-rate theatre, where everything is for effect and nothing is real. I have hosts of acquaintances, but I haven't any friends except Mr. Eltinge."
"And Harold Van Berg," put in the artist, promptly.
"It's good of you to say that after such confessions," she continued, with a shy glance. "I hope it wasn't out of politeness. Well, I've waked up at last. I think you first startled me out of my insufferable stupidity and silliness at the concert garden, and I'm very much obliged to you for the remark you made to Cousin Ik on that occasion."
"Yes, I remember," Van Berg groaned. "I waked you up as if I were trying to put your shoulder out of joint. Well, I'm waking up also."
"You have no idea what a perfect sham of a life I led," and she told him frankly of her wasted school days and of her trip abroad, for which she had no preparation of mind or character. "A butterfly might have flown over the same ground and come back just as wise," she said. "But I have suddenly entered a new world of truth and duty, and I am bewildered; I am anxious to fit myself for the society of sensible, cultivated people, and I am discouraged by the task before me. I went to father's library yesterday and was perfectly appalled by the number of books and subjects that I know nothing about. The fact that I stumbled into that encyclopaedia, which gave you the laugh against me, shows how helpless I am. Indeed, I'm like a little child trying to find its way through a wilderness of knowledge. I blundered on as far as Amsterdam, and there I stopped in despair. I didn't know what was before me, and I was getting everything I had been over confused and mixed up in my mind. And now, Mr. Van Berg, with your thorough education and wide experience you can tell me what to read and how to read."
Van Berg's face was fairly alive with interest, and he said eagerly: "The favor you ask suggests a far greater one on my part. Let me go with you through this wilderness of knowledge. We can take up courses of reading together."
At this moment Mr. Mayhew entered, and the artist hesitated to go on with his far-reaching offers, and, indeed, he suddenly began to realize, with some embarrassment, how much they did involve.
But Ida maintained her presence of mind, and said, simply: "That would be impossible, though no doubt exceedingly helpful to me. Here, as in the instance of the pictures, your good-nature and kindness carry you far beyond what I ever dreamed of asking. I merely thought that in some of your moments of leisure you could jot down some books and subjects that would be the same as if you had pointed out smooth and shady paths. You see, in my ignorance, I've tried to push my way through the wilderness straight across everything. Last evening I pestered my father with so many questions about politics and the topics of the day, that he thought I had lost my wits."
Mr. Mayhew leaned back in his chair and laughed heartily, as he mentally ejaculated: "Well done, little girl!"
"I will brush up my literary ideas, and do the best I can, very gladly," said Van Berg. "But you greatly underrate yourself and overrate my ability. I am still but on the edge of this wilderness of knowledge myself, and in crossing a wilderness one likes company."
"Oh, I could never keep up with your manly strides," said Ida, with a sudden trill of laughter. "Having secured my wish, I shall now reward you with some very poor music, which will suggest my need of lessons in that direction also."
Van Berg was not long in discovering that she would never become a great musician, no matter how many lessons she had. But she played with taste and a graceful rhythm, which proved that music in its simplest forms might become a language by which she could express her thought and feeling.
"Ida," said Mr. Mayhew, a little abruptly, "I wish to see a friend at the club. I'll be back before the evening is over."
"Please don't stay long," Ida answered, looking wistfully after him.
Then they found some ballad-music that they could sing together, and Van Berg expressed great pleasure in finding how well their voices blended.
"You have modestly kept quite all summer, and I am just finding out that you play and sing," he said.
"I would not have the confidence to do either at a hotel. I shall never be able to do any more than furnish a little simple home music to friends, not critics."
"I'm content with that arrangement, for I have finally dropped my character of critic."
"But true friends never flatter," she said. "If you won't help me overcome my faults I shall have to find another friend."
"As you recommended an ancient woman as nurse, so I will recommend the venerable friend you have already found, and ask you to let him do all the fault-finding."
She turned to him and said earnestly: "Mr. Van Berg, are you not a sufficiently sincere friend to tell me my faults?"
"Yes, Miss Ida, if you ask me to."
"Only as you do so can you keep my respect."
"You are very much in earnest. I never saw greater fidelity to conscience before; and I should be very sorry if, for any cause, your conscience were arrayed against me."
She suddenly buried her face in her hands and trembled. Then turning from him to her piano again she faltered: "I disregarded conscience once and I suffered deeply," and in the depths of her soul she added, "and I fear I shall again."
"Miss Ida," he said impetuously, "I cannot tell you what a fascination your new, beautiful life has for me as seen against the dark background of memories which neither you nor I can ever wholly banish. But I am causing you pain now," for she became very pale, as was ever the case when there was the faintest allusion to the awful crime which she had contemplated. "Forgive me," he added earnestly, "and sing, please, that little meadow brook song, of which I caught a few bars last evening. That, I think, must contain an antidote against all morbid thoughts."
"You are mistaken," she said. "It's very silly and sentimental; you won't like it."
"Nevertheless please sing it, for if not to my taste, you will prevent it from running in my head any longer, as it has ever since I heard it."
"You will never ask for it again," she said, and she sang the following words to a low-gliding melody designed to suggest the murmur of a small stream:
'Twas down in a meadow, close by a brook, A violet bloomed in a shadowy nook. She gazed at the rill with a wistful eye—- "He cares not for me, he's hastening by," She sighed. In sunshine and shade the brook sped along, Nor ceased for a moment his gurgling song. "'Twould sing all the same were I withered and dead"—- And the blue-eyed violet bowed her head And died.
But the rill and the song went on the same Till the pitiless frost of winter came, When the song was hushed in an icy chill, And the gay little brook at last stood still And thought—- "Oh, could I now see the violet blue that looked at me once with eyes of dew, I'd spring to her feet and lingering stay Till sure I was bearing her love away, Well sought."
The song seemed to disturb the artist somewhat. "The stupid brook!" he exclaimed. "It was so stupid as to be almost human."
"I knew you wouldn't like it," she said, looking up at him in surprise.
"I like your singing and the music, but that brook provokes me, the little idiot! Why didn't it stop before?"
"I take the brook's part," said Ida. "Because the violet gazed at it in a lackadaisical way was no reason for its stopping unless it wanted to. Indeed, if I were the violet I should want the brook to go on, unless it couldn't help stopping."
"It did stop when it couldn't help itself, and then it was too late," said Van Berg, with a frown.
Ida trilled out one of her sudden laughs, as she said, "Don't take the matter so to heart, Mr. Van Berg. When spring came the brook went on as merrily as ever, and was well contented to have other violets look at it."
"Miss Ida, you are a witch," said the artist, and with an odd, involuntary gesture he passed his hand across his brow as if to brush away a mist or film from his mind.
"Oh!" thought Ida, with passionate longing, "may my spells hold, or else I may feel like following the example of the silly little violet." But she pirouetted up to her father, who was just entering, and said: "It's time you came, father. Mr. Van berg has begun calling me names."
"I shall follow his example by calling you my good fairy. Mr. Van Berg, I have been in paradise all the week."
"I shall not join this mutual admiration society, and I insist that you two gentlemen talk in a sensible way."
But Van Berg seemed to find it difficult to come down to a matter-of-fact conversation with Mr. Mayhew, and soon after took his leave. Before going he tried to induce Ida to come to the studio again, but she declined, saying:
"Mother has entrusted to me several commissions, and I must attend to them to-morrow morning. As it is, my conscience troubles me very much that I have left her alone all the week, and I shall try to make all the amends I can by getting what she wishes."
"Oh! your terrible conscience!" he said.
"Yes, it has been scolding me all day for wasting so much of your time. Now don't burden yours with any denials. Good-night."
He turned eagerly to protest against her words, but she was retreating rapidly; she gave him a smile over her shoulder, however, that was at once full of mirth and something more—something that he could not explain or grasp any more than he could the soft, silvery light of the moon that filled the sky, and was as real as it was intangible. He walked away as if in a dream; he continued his aimless wanderings for hours, but swift as were his strides a swifter current of passion, deep and strong, was sweeping him away from Jennie Burton and the power to make good his open pledge to win her if he could. He still was dreaming, he still was lost in the luminous mists of his own imagination. But the hour of waking and clear vision was drawing near, and Harold Van Berg would learn anew that the cool, well-balanced reason on which he had once so prided himself was scarcely equal to all the questions which complex human life presents.
Chapter LI. From Deep Experience.
With the night dreams began to vanish and the prose of reality gradually to take form and outline in Van Berg's mind. He was compelled to admit that the plausible theories by which he had hitherto satisfied himself scarcely accounted for his moods and sensations the past few days, and memory quietly informed him that it had never had any consciousness of such a friendship as he now was forming. But like many another man in the process of conviction against his will, he became irritable and angrily blind to a truth that would place him in an intolerable dilemma. He went to his studio, and worded with dogged obstinacy on the picture designed for Ida, giving his time to those details which required only artistic skill, for his perturbed mind was in no mood for any nice creative work.
He had agreed to meet Ida and her father on the afternoon boat; and his impatience, and the early hour he started to keep the appointment, was another straw which he was compelled to see in spite of himself; nor could he fail to note which way the current was bearing him.
"Well," he muttered, with the fatuity common in all strong temptations, "I'll spend a few more hours with this rare Undine, this genuine woman, who—infinitely more beautiful than Venus—is rising out of the dark waters of sorrow, shame, and despair, and then if I find that it will be wiser and safer to be only a somewhat unobtrusive and distant friend, showing my good-will more by deeds than by seeking her society, I can gradually take this course without wounding her feelings or exciting suspicion of the cause. She was right, although she little imagines the reason; we could never have those readings together, and I fear I must manage with far fewer visits to my studio than I had hoped for. What an accursed chaotic old world it is anyway! How grateful she is because I merely treat her father politely! It would be impossible to do anything else, now that he is himself again, and yet, by this simple, easy method, I have won a friendlier regard than I could by any other means. Like an idiot, I once thought she would have to withdraw from her father to develop her new and beautiful life. If even in faintest suggestion I had revealed that thought to her, I don't believe she would have spoken to me again; and I foresee that I shall have to be exceedingly polite to Mrs. Mayhew also, for my Undine is developing a conscience that might become a man's implacable enemy. But what am I thinking about! If I do not intend to see much of the daughter, I shall not waste any time on the mother. I wonder if Miss Mayhew meant anything by that odd little ballad last evening. Could she have intended to remind me of blue-eyed Jennie Burton? No, for she was singing it by herself, when she did not know I was listening. The idiotic brook! If I had given my whole heart to the effort I might have won Jennie Burton by this time. Ida Mayhew was right; no woman that I wish to win will show a lover any favor till he cannot help stopping and staying, too."
A moment later he stopped short in the street. "Great God!" muttered he, "do I wish to win Jennie Burton? Whither am I drifting? Would to heaven I had not made this appointment this afternoon. Well, I'm in for it now," and he strode along as if he were going to battle, resolving to be guarded to the last degree, lest Ida should suspect his weakness.
He saw her come on the boat with her father at the last moment, her cheeks flushed with the heat and her eyes aglow with the hurry and excitement of the occasion. He saw one and another of her young gentlemen acquaintances step eagerly forward to speak to her and admiring eyes turning towards her on every side. "She won't lack for friends and companions now, and I soon will be little missed," he thought bitterly. One gentleman, in his impatience for her society, sought to obtain her small travelling-bag, ad was assuring her that he could obtain seats for herself and father on the crowded boat, when, by her timid glance around, she showed that she was expecting some one, and Van Berg hastened forward and said quietly, "I have seats reserved in the pilot-house."
She gave him a glad smile of welcome; but almost instantly her face became grave and questioning in its expression; and she looked at him keenly as he cordially shook hands with her father. As they went away with him, as if by a prearrangement several guests of the Lake House looked at each other and nodded their heads significantly.
While on the way to the pilot-house, and during their conversation after arriving there, Ida often turned a quick, questioning glance towards Van Berg, and her expression reminded him of some children's faces he had seen as they tried to read the thoughts or intentions of those who had their interests in keeping. He tried his best to be cordial and natural in manner—to be, in brief, the sincere friend that he had professed himself—and Mr. Mayhew did not notice anything amiss; but even at some inflection of his voice, or at a pause in the conversation, Ida would turn towards him this sudden, questioning, child-like look, which touched him deeply while it puzzled him. But she gradually began to grow "distrait" and quiet, and to look less and less often. Van Berg had a deep affection for the noble river on which they were sailing, and had familiarized himself with its history and legends. By means of these he sought to entertain Ida and her father, and with the latter he succeeded abundantly; but he often doubted whether Ida heard him, for her eyes and thoughts seemed to be wandering beyond the blue Highlands which they now were entering. At last Mr. Mayhew left them for a while, and Van Berg turned and said gently:
"Miss Ida, you are not in good spirits this afternoon."
She did not answer for a moment, but averted her face still further from him. At last she said, in a low tone: "Mr. Van Berg, did you ever have a presentiment of evil?"
"I don't believe in such things," he replied promptly.
"Of course not; you are a man. But I have such a presentiment this afternoon, and it will come true."
"What do you fear, Miss Ida?"
"What does a woman always fear? Earthquakes, political changes, disturbances in the world at large, of course."
"I have heard that a woman's kingdom was her heart," Van Berg was indiscreet enough to say.
"It is a pity," Ida replied with one of her reckless laughs, "for it so often happens that she cannot keep it, and those who wrest it from her do not care to keep it, and so it comes to be what the geographies used to call one of the 'waste places of the earth.' As the world goes, I think I had better retain my kingdom, small as it is."
He turned very pale, and swift as light he thought: "Has she, by the aid of her woman's intuition, read my thoughts? Has she seen the beginnings of a regard for her far warmer than my professed friendship, and, remembering my suit to Jennie Burton, is she learning to despise me as fickle, or, worse, as a hypocritical specimen of that meanest type of human vermin—a male flirt?" and his face grew so white that Ida in her turn was not only perplexed, but alarmed.
But after a moment he said quietly: "It is not the size of the kingdom that makes its value, but what it contains. I hope you will keep treasures of yours till you find some one worthy to receive them, and I can scarcely imagine that such an idiot exists that he would not retain them if he could. That is Fort Montgomery yonder," and he resolutely continued the story of its defence and capture, until her father returned saying it was time to come down ad prepare to land.
Ida had scarcely heard a word. Her heart almost stood still with dread and foreboding, and like a dreary refrain the words kept repeating themselves, "Oh, I'm punished, I'm punished. I thought to win him from Jennie Burton, and my reckless words will now make him true to her at every cost to himself. He knows that I must have seen how he won the kingdom of her heart, and he'll keep it now in spite of my love and something I thought love that I saw in his face. Oh, my punishment is greater than I can bear; but it is deserved, well deserved. If he had won my love first, what would I think of the woman who tried to win him from me? She would have suffered what I now must suffer. My bright but guilty dream is over forever."
Van Berg assisted her down to the gangway and out on the wharf with a grave and scrupulous politeness, but she felt even more than she saw that her words had stung his very soul. It was their apparent truth which he could never explain away that gave them their power to wound so deeply, and every moment brought to him a clearer realization of the fact that he had tried to win, and was pledged to win a woman whom to wrong even unwittingly would be an act for which he could never forgive himself. And yet his heart sank at the thought of meeting her; indeed, so guilty and embarrassed did he become in his feelings that he decided he would not meet her before others, and sprang out of the stage, saying to the driver that he preferred walking the remainder of the way. Mr. Mayhew looked at him in some surprise, for his manner had changed so now as to attract his attention and excite disagreeable surmises.
To Ida's great relief Stanton had come down to meet her with his light-wagon. He had seen Van Berg at her side again with surprise, and, after his fast horses had whirled them well away by themselves, he asked a little abruptly:
"Ida, have you seen Van this week?"
She hesitated a moment, and then said briefly: "Yes. We met at the concert-garden again, and he dined with us last evening."
Stanton turned and looked at her earnestly, and her color rose swiftly under his questioning eyes.
"My poor little Ida, we are in the same boat, I fear," he said compassionately.
She hid her face on his shoulder. "Oh, Ik, spare me," she faltered.
"It's just as I feared," Stanton resumed, with a deep sigh. "Maledictions on such a world as ours! The devil rules it, sure enough."
"Oh, hush, hush," Ida sobbed.
"I see it all, now; indeed, I've thought it all out this past week. You Sibley used only as a blind, poor child."
"Yes, Ik, I loathed and detested him almost from the first."
"And in the meantime the sagacious Van Berg and myself were trampling on you like a couple of long-eared beasts. How did you ever forgive us!"
"Oh, Ik, Ik, my heart is breaking. I've had such dreams the last two weeks. I've dared to think I had learned a little of God's love, and oh—was I blinded by my wishes, by my hopes, by the passionate longing of my heart?—I thought I saw love in his eyes, and heard it in his tones, last evening. Everything now is slipping from me—happiness, hope, and even my faith. But I deserve it all," she added in her heart. "I could almost curse the woman who tried to win him from me."
Stanton turned his horses off into a shady and unfrequented side road where they would not be apt to meet any one. "Good heavens!" he thought; "this is just the condition of mind that Van warned me to guard against, and, confound him, he is the cause of the evils he feared, and in their worst form. I be hanged if I can understand him. All through July he was Jennie Burton's open suitor—at least he made no secret of it to me, although his cool head enabled him to throw the people of the house off the scent—and now he follows another lady to New York, and leaves his first love on very flimsy pretexts. By Jove! I don't like it, even though it were possible for me to profit by his folly."
"My poor little Ida," he said gently, putting his arms around her, "you and I must stand by each other, for we are like to have rough weather ahead for awhile. It's no kindness to you now to hide the truth. I do not know that Van Berg has formally proposed to Miss Burton, but, as an honorable man, he is committed to her, and I believe he has won her affections, although I confess I don't understand her very well. She has evidently had very deep sorrows in the past, and I am satisfied that she has felt his absence keenly this week."
"I deserve it all," Ida murmured again, but so low he could not hear her, and she gave way to another outburst of grief.
"It will pain even your heart, Ida, to see how slight and pale Miss Burton is becoming. She also appears strangely restless, and takes long walks that are far beyond her strength."
"It's all plain," groaned Ida. "How can she act otherwise! Well, she will be comforted now, no matter what becomes of me."
"You will be a brave woman, Ida, and pull through all right."
"No, Ik, I'm not brave. I could easily die for those I love; but I can't just suffer and be patient, at least I don't see how I can; but I suppose I must."
His arm tightened about her waist, and she felt it trembling. "Ida," he said, in a low solemn tone, "promise me before God that whatever happens you will never—-"
"Hush!" she gasped, shuddering, "I will die in God's own way. I will endure as best I can."
He stooped down and kissed her tenderly as he said: "Ida, dear, from this hour I'm no longer your cousin merely, but a brother, and your companion in misfortune. I'm going to stand by you and see you through this trouble. Just count on me to shield you in every possible way. I don't care what the world thinks of me, but never a tongue shall wag against you again, or there will be a heavy score to settle with me. Van and I have been good friends, but he's on ticklish ground now. He'll find he can't play fast and loose with two such women as you and Jennie Burton. Curse it all! it isn't like him to do it either. But the world is topsy-turvey, anyhow."
"Ik, I plead with you, say nothing, do nothing. Be blind and deaf to everything of which we have spoken. Only help me hide my secret and get away from this place to some other where I am not known."
"Has your father any idea of all this?"
Ida explained in part her father's knowledge.
"We can easily manage it then," he said. "I had decided to leave next week. Miss Burton leaves for her college duties very soon also. The idea of that fragile flower being trampled on nine months of the year by a crowd of thoughtless, heedless girls! And so our disastrous summer comes to an end. And yet I'm wrong in applying that term to my own experience. I wish you felt as I do, Ida. I haven't a particle of hope, and yet I would not give up my love for Jennie Burton for all the world; and I don't believe I ever shall give it up. I think she is beginning to understand me a little better now, although she does not give me much thought. One day, while you have been gone, I met her returning from one of her walks, and she looked so faint and sad that I could not endure it, and I went straight to her and took her hand as I said: 'Miss Burton, is there anything Ik Stanton can do to make you happier? It's none of my business, I suppose, but it's breaking my heart to see you becoming so sad and pale. I may seem to you very foolish and Quixotic, but there is no earthly think I would not do or suffer for you.' She did not withdraw her hand as she replied, very gently: 'Mr. Stanton, please do me the kindness to be happy yourself, and forget me.' I could only say, in honesty: 'You have asked just the two things which are utterly impossible.' Tears came into her eyes as she replied, with emphasis: 'Then, my FRIEND, you can understand me. There is one whom I can never forget.' She was kind enough to say some words about my having been generous and considerate of her feelings, etc., but no matter about them. We parted, and it's all over as far as she is concerned. When I left town last June I thought I'd be a bachelor always, because I loved my jolly ease. I've a better reason now, Ida. Of course Van must be the one referred to by Miss Burton. You have seen how she looks at him at times when thinking herself unobserved!"
"Yes," sighed Ida, "it's all right. God is just, and there is no use of trying to thwart his will."
"Well, Ida, I don't know. It's all a snarl to me. Sometimes I think the world goes on the toss-up-a-penny plan, and again it seems almost as if Old Nick himself was behind the scenes.
"Dear Brother Ik, don't talk to me that way. If I do lose ALL my faith now, I don't know what will happen."
"Forgive me, Ida, I will try to do better by you though I fear I shall prove one of Job's comforters. We'll stop in the village, get some supper there, and, thus you won't have to face anybody to-night, and by to-morrow you will be your own brave self."
"Oh," moaned Ida, "I am almost as sorry for father's sake as for my own. How can I keep him up when I am sinking myself?"
Mr. Mayhew stood on the piazza, waiting for Ida and wondering why she did not come, as Van Berg mounted the steps. The majority of the people had gone in to supper, but Miss Burton, who was a little late, recognized him from the hallway, and she came swiftly out to greet him. Her very cordiality was another stab, and he exerted the whole power of his manhood to meet her in like spirit.
"I did not know I should miss you so much," she said, her eyes growing a little moist from her strong feeling. "I suppose we never value our friends as we ought till taught their worth to us by absence. But if you have been successful in your work I shall be well content."
"Yes, Miss Jennie," he replied, "I think I have been successful. The picture is far from being complete, but I've been able to obtain a much better likeness of Mr. Eltinge than I even hoped to catch."
"Mr. Van Berg, you have been working too hard. You look exceedingly weary. What possessed you to walk all these miles? Leave us women to do the unreasonable things, and least of all are they becoming in you; come at once and get a good supper."
He could not disguise the pain and humiliation that her words caused him, and said hurriedly, "I will join you in a few moments," and then hastened to his room.
Mr. Mayhew, with the delicacy of a gentleman, had withdrawn out of earshot as they conversed, but the warmth of Miss Burton's greeting had suggested a thought that was exceedingly disquieting. As if from a sudden impulse he went directly to the supper table, and his quiet courtesy masked the closest observation.
Van Berg stood in his room a moment and fairly trembled with shame and rage at himself. Then, with a bitter imprecation, he made the brief toilet the dust of his walk required, and his face was so stern and white one might think he was about to face an executioner instead of Jennie Burton's blue eyes beaming with friendship at least. The thought of discovering anything warmer in their expression sent a mortal chill to her former wooer's heart. He expected to meet Ida at the table, and the ordeal of meeting the woman to whom he was pledged in the presence of the woman he loved was like the ancient Trial by Fire.
"Curse it all," he muttered, "they both can read one's thoughts as if they were printed on sign-boards. I was scarcely conscious of what my ardent friendship for Miss Mayhew meant before she looked me in the face and saw the whole truth, and she almost the same as charged me with winning Jennie Burton's heart then throwing it away, while in the same breath she hinted that I need not attempt any such folly and meanness in her case. If ever a man's pride and self-respect received a mortal wound mine has to-day. And now I feel with instinctive certainty, that Miss Burton will see the truth just as clearly, and then my burden for life will be the contempt of the two women whom I honor as I do my mother's name. Well, there is no help for it now, my ship is on the rocks already."
He was greatly relieved to find that Ida was not at the table, but, in spite of his best efforts, Miss Burton soon saw that something was amiss, and that it was difficult for him to sustain his part of the conversation. With her graceful tact, however, she was blind to all she imagined he would not have her notice, and tried to enliven both Mr. Mayhew and himself with her cheery talk—a vain effort in each instance now.
"How slight and spirit-like she is becoming!" groaned Van Berg, inwardly. "Great God! if I have wronged her, how awful will be my punishment!"
"She loves him," was Mr. Mayhew's conclusion, "and from his manner I fear he has given her reason. At any rate, for some cause, he is in great perplexity and trouble."
After supper Van Berg stood near the main stairway, still conversing with Miss Burton, when a light, quick step caused him to look up and he saw Ida who had entered by a side door. He knew she must have seen him and Miss Burton also, but she passed him with veiled and downcast face, and went swiftly up the stairway to her room. It seemed to him a cut direct. "she and Stanton have been comparing notes," he said to himself, and he crimsoned at the thought of what he must now appear to her. Miss Burton had been standing with her back towards the stairway and had not seen Ida at first, but Van Berg's hot flush caused her to glance around and see the cause, and then she understood his manner better. But it was her creed that people manage such things best without interference, even from the kindliest motives, and she therefore made no allusion to Miss Mayhew that evening.
"Miss Jennie," said Van Berg, yielding to what he now felt had become a necessity, "I may seem more of a heathen to you to-morrow than ever. There is a distant mountain and lake that I wish to visit before I return to town, and I shall start early to-morrow. So if I do not come back very early you need not think that the earth has swallowed me up or that I have fallen a prey to wild beasts. Good night," and he pressed her hand warmly.
She looked at him wistfully and seemed about to speak, for she was vaguely conscious of his deep trouble. She checked the impulse, however, and parted from him with a kindly smile that suggested sympathy rather than reproach.