We talked together, and Grant Harlson looked on gratified, and she seemed to like me. She made me feel, in her own way, that she liked me because she knew of me, and as we were talking I felt that she was paying, unconsciously, the greatest compliment she could to the man beside us. I knew it was because of the other, and of something that he had said of me, that she was so readily on terms of comradeship. And I knew, in the same connection, and from the same reasoning, that she had already begun to care as much for him as he for her—the man who, the night before, had so comported himself with me. Of course, it appears absurd that I could reach such a conclusion upon so little basis, but to tell when people are interested in each other is not difficult sometimes, even for so dull a man as I.
"You have known Mr. Harlson many years, I believe," she said, and added smilingly: "What kind of a man is he?"
"A very bad man," I replied, gravely.
She turned to him in a charming, judicial way:
"If your friends so describe you, Mr. Harlson, what must your enemies say? And what have you to say in your own defense? What you yourself have owned to me in the past is recognition of the soundness of the authority."
"I haven't a word to say. Of course, I had not expected this unfriendly villain to be what he has proved himself, but what he says is, no doubt, true. I'm going to reform, though. In fact, I've already begun."
"When was the revolution inaugurated?"
He looked at her so earnestly that there came a faint flush to her cheek. "Since my eyes were opened, and I saw the light," he answered.
She diverted the conversation by turning to me, and saying that, while the information I had given her was no doubt valuable, and that she should regulate her course accordingly, and advise all her friends to do the same, yet she felt it her duty to reprimand me for telling the truth so bluntly. She knew that I had done it for the best, but if there were really any hope for this wicked man, if he had really decided upon a new life, we ought to encourage him. Did I think him in earnest?
I told her that it hurt me to say it, but that I had no great confidence in Mr. Harlson's protestations. He was of the earth, earthy. A friend, it was true, should bear a friend's infirmities, but he should not ask other people to bear them, nor should he testify to anything but the truth. Mr. Harlson might or might not be in earnest in what he had declared, but, even if in earnest, there was the matter of persistency. I doubted seriously his ability to overcome the habits of a lifetime.
She was becoming really interested in the chaffing.
"What is the nature of Mr. Harlson's great iniquity?"
"There, Miss Cornish, I am justified in drawing the line in my reply. I have conscientiously explained that he was, in a general way, a villain of the deepest dye, but to make specifications would be unfriendly, and I know you wouldn't have me that."
Harlson said that he was very much obliged for my toleration, or would be until he got me alone, and Miss Cornish showed a proper spirit, and so I left them. But I had no evidence that she believed what I had said.
As we walked home together in the early morning, Harlson told me more of the young lady. She was living with an aunt, he said, and was, otherwise, alone in the world. She had but a little income, barely enough to live on, but she had courage unlimited, and tact, and was not insignificant as a social factor. She had the sturdiness of her ancestry, in which the name of Jean ran.
"I like it," Harlson said; "it fits her—'Jean Cornish'—little brown 'Jean Cornish'—little leopardess, little, wise, good woman."
I told him that he was mixing his similes, and that in a broad, comprehensive way he had become a fool.
"I tell you I'm in love with her already," he blurted out, "and somehow, some day, I will have her, and wear her and care for her!"
"But, my dear boy, don't be insane. There is the problem we were discussing last night. Have you a solution of it? And first catch your hare. Have you caught your pretty hare yet? I'll admit it's possible. Women are fools over such fellows as you when they should be adhesive to good, plodding members of society, like the friend who is now advising you, but Miss Cornish is not a fool, you see, and I don't think you deserve her."
"For that matter, neither do I," he answered; "but I will deserve her yet. I must do more of many things, and cease to do many things. I believe I comprehend better now than I ever did the words in the service, 'We have done those things and left undone,' and all that. But you'll see a difference. I'll make her proud of me. That's the right way to become clean, isn't it, old man?"
I said I thought it a wholesome and commendable resolution, on general principles, and, of course, the idol would gradually disintegrate. All idols were of clay. But it didn't matter about the idol, so long as the effect was produced. He might count on me any time for good advice. He only glared at me, and called me hard names, and we dropped in at the club and finished our cigars, and separated.
And Grant Harlson made love to Jean Cornish and won her heart.
But all the time, unconsciously, he was a man of false pretensions, one dishonorable and unworthy of her. His friends knew of his marriage and its sequel. He had never concealed nor thought of concealing his condition, and it never occurred to him that Jean Cornish was not aware of it. He had supposed her, if she cared for him as he hoped, to be somewhat troubled, but to understand that he would do no mean thing, and that all would be well in time. Then came the sorrow of it, for Jean Cornish learned, quite accidentally, that Grant Harlson was a man with a living wife.
She would not believe it at first, and, when convinced, was dazed and could not understand. No such shock had ever before come into her life. This man, of whom she had made a hero, a trickster and a liar! It seemed as if the world were gone! There was a meeting and an explanation, and she learned how wrong she had been, in one way.
He put the case earnestly and desperately. He would not yield her. He knew she loved him, and he knew she was too good and wise to suffer forever herself or let him suffer because, in society, there were blunders. There was a way out—a clean, right way—and they must take it. He could get a divorce on grounds of mere desertion, and three people, at least, would be better off. It was pitiful, the scene, one afternoon. He had called to see her, and was pleading with her. It was in the drawing-room, and there were stained windows they both remembered in later years. He had talked of his bondage and of his hopes. She was not quite herself; she was suffering too much. I know what happened. Grant told me once of the wrench of him then, and of all the scene. There had been a fierce appeal from him. He had become almost enraged.
"And so," he said, "you would have a man's marriage like the black biretta of Spain that is drawn over the prisoner's head before they garrote him?"
She did not move nor speak, but stood straight and silent, her hands hanging at her sides with the palms loosely open, the very abandonment of pathetic helplessness.
Such a little woman, to withstand a storm of passion!
As he wondered at her curiously blended strength and weakness, a sun-shaft blazed through the crimson glass of the upper window. The reddened light, falling on her up-springing almost coppery locks, seemed to the man's excited fancy a crown, of thorns, crimsoned with blood, and there was, oddly enough, a cross in the window.
The thought of another vicarious sacrifice awed him. Must this be one, too?
"Mistakes, dear, are not crimes. Can you not understand? I have been mistaken, have suffered, have atoned for my error. Is that enough?"
"But," she said, and her voice seemed to have suddenly grown old and thin, "you have no right to talk of mistakes. She is your wife."
"The biretta, that ends all, again! No, not so. It is as insane and inhuman to force two people to remain in wedlock after it has become odious to them, as it would be to force them into that marriage at first. Oh, my tender-hearted little one, can you not see that the bondage is more humiliating, more craven than is the idea of the veriest chattel mortgage? Yet you refuse to let the injured one go free, as you would not refuse the poorest prodigal whose one chance for home and happiness was passing from his sight."
"I cannot answer you when you discuss learnedly on such questions," she said, with a weary dignity, "for I have never thought about them. Why should I? It has always seemed to me that a man with more than one wife was a—a—Mormon. It is all so dreadful. Surely, if a marriage is anything, it is a vow before God."
"It is you that make the mistake now," he said, "for the mere form of marriage is nothing but the outward evidence of a union that has already taken place. The first is the vow before God—not the latter. I understand why you think all this; clergymen have so long been called upon to officiate at marriage rites that, with the fatherly assumption notable in the order all the world over, they have grown to regard themselves as the especial and heaven-appointed guardians of the institution. It is all so grotesque when one remembers how ready they are to 'solemnize'—save the mark!—marriage, no matter what the conditions. Have the candidates to be known as right and fitting persons? Is there even the simplest formula of preparatory examination? None! Two wholly unsuited people may rush into marriage—and misery—any day by simply presenting themselves before a sleek-faced person who mumbles drowsily over their clasped hands, and calls it a vow before God!—as he hurries back to his dinner!"
Still she was silent.
An errand boy trudging by whistled a few bars of the wedding march, doubtless heard that day at some open church door.
"Dear, there is a higher, holier law of the great Power, who made us what we are, than this one of slavish obedience to a tradition. Why must our feet go in the burning ruts?"
"It is not the well-worn ruts that burn, but the by-paths," she answered, "and oh! how they burn!"
"Let me lift you in my arms and carry you over them, then, that your feet may not touch. Do not be unjust to yourself. Cannot you see how right, how good it is? It is not as if I came to you from another woman——"
The girl faced around on him almost fiercely.
"No, you could not be so bad as that! To have felt the morning kiss of another woman, to have watched her good-night smile, and then to have come to me—that would have been too base, too degrading—I should have hated you because I despised you. I should have loathed you instead——"
"Of loving me! Be honest and true, little Jean—you do care."
"Yes, I have cared."
"And do still?"
Her tone was as cold and as clear as the sound of an icicle striking the frozen earth in the fall. It angered him, and his voice shook roughly.
"A man who binds up his life in the love of a woman is a fool! Because she is all the world to him, all he works to receive praise from, all he fears in the blaming, he thinks her capable of as much love as himself. And even as he watches, he sees her pass from fervor into apathy. Her affection is but the dry husks of what he hoped to find. You never cared!"
"Grant," she said, earnestly, "you have told me to be honest. I will be. I think"—with a little laugh—"that if I had been a man I should not have been a coward. I shall not be now. You wrong me and yourself when you say that I never cared. It is because my caring has been so much a part of myself that I have never been able to stand aloof and look and comment upon it. It was just me. When I lived, it lived; when I die——"
"When—no. I do not believe it can die even then! I think it is a part of my soul, and will outstand all time."
She hesitated as if devising words to express herself with even more sweet abandon. There was a certain loving recklessness in what she uttered now:
"Not care? I wish you, too, would understand! Perhaps it is because we care in such different ways. I don't know, but to me it has been all! There is no joy, no pleasure, however petty, through all the day, but it brings with it the swift desire to share it with you. Every morning I waken with your half-uttered name on my lips, as though, when I slipped hack through the portals of consciousness into the world of reality, I came only to find you, as a timid child awakes and calls feebly for its mother. Once, not long ago, in a street accident, such as you know of in our busy city, I seemed very close to death, and in an instant my spirit seemed to have overleaped the peril and the terrible scene, and was with you. Afterward, one who sat near me said that, while some screamed or prayed, I said only 'Grant,' and he asked, lightly, now that danger was over: 'Is the great general your patron saint?' And I—I did not know that I had said it, since the name can never be as near to my lips as it is to my heart."
Harlson did not reply. He could not then. His head was bent.
"And when you were ill—ah! then it was the hardest of all! I dreamed of the little things I could do for you—how your dear head could rest on my shoulders, and it might help to ease the pain; how I could save you from annoyances; how I could—love you!"
"Then come, love of me; I need you—we need each other."
"No, I think a woman who loves a man could scarcely bear that he had ever been bound to another still living, or even dead."
"No. It is not right."
It is not always that even he who is right and strong in the consciousness of it, and resolute toward the end he is seeking may express himself as he would in protest against the object yielding to what is in the social world, though it be wrong. Grant Harlson looked down upon the slender figure and into the earnest face and was helpless for the time. Yet he was fixed of mind.
He was very tender with her, but this was not a man to give up easily what was his. He pleaded with her further, but in vain. She would not yield.
And so the weeks passed, with the problem yet unsolved. They were still much together, for she could not turn him away, and he would not stay away. There was more pleading on his part, and more anger sometimes. It seemed to him absurd that lives should be blighted because of a legend.
And she was unhappy, and, it may be, gradually attaining to broader views and moral bravery. Jean Cornish was courageous, but there was the legend.
And suddenly all was changed, the problem finding a solution not expected. Grant Harlson's wife was, as has been said, a woman of reason and of force, and she had her own life, with its objects. She chafed under the bond which still connected her with Harlson, and she broke it cleanly. It was she, not he, who sought divorce, and the simple logical ground of incompatibility of temperament was all that was required, in the State where she resided. There was no defense. Grant Harlson became free, and Jean Cornish, since his freedom came in this way, promised, at last, to become his wife.
They loved. They were to marry, but there were the conventionalities to be observed, and they could not be wed at once. That was understood by Grant Harlson, though he chafed at it a little.
There were certain months to be passed before the two would be as one completely, and those months were very sweet months to the twain. They were much together, this man and woman who were plighted to each other, for why should they not be, since they were to become man and wife, and since neither was so happy under other circumstances? They were not what a profound, unsentimental person would consider models of common-sense, but they were not depending upon the opinions of profound, unsentimental persons for anything in particular; so this did not affect them.
They exhibited no great interest in society, though each commanded a place there, but they would go to church or theater together, and they were much addicted to luncheons. She would come down town at noon to meet him, and then—what banquets! Sometimes they would visit the restaurants where there were fine things, and he would seek to make of her a gourmet. He taught her the beauties of the bobolink in his later attractive form, the form he assumes when, after having been transformed into a reed bird, he comes back on ice to the region where, in the midsummer, he disported himself, and stirs the heart of the good liver, as in June he did the heart of the poet. He taught her the difference between Roquefort cheese, that green garden of toothsome fungi, that crumbly, piquant apotheosis of the best that comes from curd, and all other cheeses, and taught, too, the virtues of each in its own way. She learned the adjuncts of black coffee and hard crackers. She even learned to criticise a claret, and once, with Harlson, she tested a pousse cafe, but only once. He didn't approve of it, he said, for ladies. And, besides, a pousse cafe was not of merit in itself. It was but a thing spectacular.
And in the matter of made dishes from the man about town she acquired much wisdom.
The man in his great happiness was buoyant and fantastic, and well it was that the woman, too, possessed the sense of humor which makes the world worth occupancy, and that the two could understand together. He was but a foolish boy in this, his delicious period of probation.
And she was but a loving woman who had given her heart to him, who understood him, and who, in a woman's way, was of his mood. It was an idyl of the clever.
At the more modest restaurants were the lunches of these two the most delightful. He would, somehow, find queer little places where all was clean and the cooking good, but far away from the haunts of men, that is, far away from the haunts of the men and women they knew, and there the two would have great feasts. At one unpretending place he had one day found pork and beans,—not the molasses-colored abomination ordinarily sold in town, but the white beans, baked in a deep pan, with the slashed piece of pork browned in the middle of the dish,—and this place became a great resort for them. They would sit at a small table, and have the beans brought on, and mustard of the sharpest and shrewdest, and dishes such as formed a halo about the beans, which were the central figure, and then would they eat, being healthy, and look into each other's face, and riot in present happiness, having certain brains and being in love. The very rudeness of it pleased him mightily.
One evening they had dined together. She had been shopping or doing what it is that women do down town of afternoons, and he had met her at the close of business, and they had eaten together as usual, and when they emerged into the open air it was but to learn that the mercury had dropped some few degrees, and that the jacket she wore was light for the occasion. She became cold before her home was reached, and he was troubled.
"I wish it were months later," he said.
"Because then I could care for you, and see to it that you did not suffer from the chill. I don't know though, even with the admirable supervision I'd have over you then, whether you would take proper care of yourself, my Brownie. What would you do?"
"I don't know quite," she answered. "I think I should want to get pretty near the grate. I'd pull one of the tiger-skins or bear-skins on the rug, very close to the fire, and I'd curl down on the fur and turn about a little, and get very warm."
He assumed a lofty air, and announced that he was under the impression that, when chilled, she would do nothing of the sort! He had his own ideas regarding the treatment of chills of small, brown women. What would really occur, what the solid, tangible fact of the occasion would be, required no effort to describe. He should merely draw a great easy-chair before the grate. Then some one would be picked up and turned about before the fire until thoroughly warmed and with full circulation of the blood again. She should be simply, but scientifically, toasted:
"I'd hold you thus before the brand, To catch caloric blisses, And you should be my muffin and I'd butter you with kisses."
She responded that the gift of doggerel was not one to be desired, and, furthermore, that she was not a muffin, nor anything in the culinary way.
All of which, of course, served but as provocation to further flippancy, and, for days later, the lady was referred to as his own sweetest soda biscuit, his bun, his precious fruit-cake, and so on, until a bakery's terms were so exhausted. All this was, no doubt, silliness.
The woman, in her way, was not less inexcusable than the man. She was as much in love as he, and the strictly personal equation was as strong within her. She would watch him when they were at lunch together, and if her gaze was not so bold and feeding as was his, it was at heart as earnest.
She wanted to do something, because of the passionately loving mood within her. She wanted to "hurt" him just a little, and one day occurred an odd thing.
They were chatting across a little table in a restaurant almost vacant save for them, and he had made some grotesque sweetheart comment which had pleased her fancy, lovingly alert, and she suddenly straightened in her seat and looked at him with eyes which were becoming dewy, but said never a word.
She looked all about the room in one swift, comprehensive glance, and then, leaning over, with her small right hand she smote him hardly upon the cheek. There was no occasion for such demonstration. It was but the outpouring, the sweet, barbaric fancy of the woman, in line with the man's grotesquerie, and not one whit less affectionate. And he, thus smitten, made no remonstrance nor defense, further than to refer incidentally to his slender sweet assailant as "a burly ruffian."
That evening, at her home, he suddenly, just before leaving, picked up the woman, as if she were a baby, and threatened to carry her away with him. She did not appear alarmed, at least to the extent of hysteria, though she struggled feebly, and said that somebody was a big, brutal gorilla, and that she did not propose to be snatched from the bosom of her tribe to be conveyed to some tree-top refuge, and there become a monster's bride.
He would assert at times, and the idea was one he clung to with great persistency, that the person with him was not even of the race, but had been substituted in the cradle for a white child stolen by an Indian woman with some great wrong to avenge. He would call her his Chippewa Changeling, and at lunch would be most solicitous as to whether or not the Wild Rose would have a little more of the chicken salad. Would the Flying Pawn try the celery? Some of the jelly, he felt confident, would please the palate of the Brown Dove. Might the white hunter help her to a little more of this or that? Only once she rebelled. She was laughing at something he had said, and he referred to her benignantly as his Minnegiggle, which was, admittedly, an outrage.
A great fancy of these two it was to imagine themselves a couple apart from the crowd, and unversed in city ways, and just from the country. Not from the farm would they come, but from some town of moderate size, for they prided themselves on not being altogether ignorant. Far from it. Was there not a city hall in Blossomville, and a high-school, and were there not social functions there? But, of course, it was a little different in a great city, and it would be well not to mingle too recklessly with the multitude.
They would even visit the circus when one of those "aggregations" made the summer hideous, and he would buy her peanuts and observe all the conventional rules laid down for rural deportment on such occasions. The whimsicality, the childishness of it all, gave it a charm. They appreciated anything together. Harlson said, one day:
"I believe that an old proverb should be changed. 'He laughs best who laughs last,' is incorrect. It should be: 'He laughs best who laughs with some one else.' And that is what will make us strong in life, my love. Some trying times may come, but we shall be brave. We'll just look at each other, and laugh, because we shall understand. We know. We, somehow, comprehend together. Don't you see? Of course you do, because, if you didn't understand, what I am saying would be nonsense."
She understood well enough. She understood his very heart-beats. It had grown that way.
"I am getting very much like you, I think," she said, "and I want you to understand, sir, that I do not regret it. I'm afraid I'm lost totally. I'm not alarmed that it is as if your blood were in my veins. What can a poor girl do?"
"You might as well abandon yourself," he answered. "What is it they do in a part of Africa, when something to last forever is intended? I think they drink a little of another's blood. Could you do that?"
She laughed. "I could drink yours."
He bared his arm in an instant, and sank the point of a pen-knife into a small vein. The red current came out upon the smooth skin prettily. She looked at Harlson's act in astonishment, and turned a little pale; then, all at once, with a great resolve in her eyes, she bent swiftly forward and applied the red of her lips to that upon the arm. She raised her head proudly, and he looked at her delightedly.
"How did it taste?"
"Salty"—with a pucker of her lips and a desperate effort to keep from fainting.
"Yes, there is much saline matter in blood. Even such admirable blood as that you have just tasted is, no doubt, a little salty. Are you sorry you did it?"
"No," she said, bravely, but she was pallid still.
"Allow me to remind you that science has learned many things, and that you will have, literally, some of my blood in your veins. Not much, it is true, but there will be a little."
She replied that she was glad of it.
And henceforth, when her moods most pleased his lordship, he would comment on the good effect of the experiment, and when they differed he would regret that she had not taken more of him.
They were two fools.
"MY LITTLE RHINOCEROS-BIRD."
It was not all sweet nonsense, though, with this man and woman. Some practical things of life became theirs soon, because of the love which was theirs.
A curious thing, and to me a pleasant thing, occurred one night. I was with Grant Harlson in his room, and he was lying on a sofa smoking, while I lounged in an easy-chair. Harlson was pretty well fagged out, for it was the end of a hard day for him, as, for that matter, it had been for me. There was a ward to be carried against a ring, and Harlson was in the midst of the fray for half a hundred reasons, and I was aiding him. He headed the more reputable faction, but in the opposition were many shrewd men and men of standing.
It was no simple task we had before us, and we had been working hard, and we were not quite satisfied with the condition of things. The relations of two men of prominence we wanted to know particularly. Had there, or had there not, been a coalition between them? If there had, it would change Harlson's policy, naturally, but work so far had been conducted on the supposition that an ancient political feud between the two was not yet ended, and that upon the support of one against the other he could count with reasonable certainty. We were discussing this very matter when there came a ring at the door, and a cab-driver entered.
"There is a lady in my cab," said he, "who wants to see Mr. Harlson."
Harlson was puzzled.
"I don't know what it means," he said. "Come down with me and we'll solve the mystery," and we went to where the cab was drawn close to the sidewalk.
The door was opened with some energy, and a woman's head appeared—a head with brown hair.
"Jean! What is the matter? What brings you here at such a time? My poor child."
She laughed. "There is nothing the matter, you big baby. Only I heard something I thought you would care to know, and which I thought you should know at once, so I came to tell you."
"Yes, tell me."
"It was this way, you see." All this impetuously. "I was at Mrs. Carlson's party, and among the guests were Mr. Gordon and Mr. Mason, with their wives. I didn't listen intentionally, of course, but Mr. Mason and Mr. Gordon came close to where I was sitting and I heard your name mentioned, and I suppose that made my hearing suddenly acute, and I heard in two sentences enough to know that those two gentlemen are working together against you in something political. So, sir, knowing your foolish interest in such things, and actuated by my foolish interest in you, I told aunt I'd like to go home early, and a cab was called and I was put into it, and I told the driver to come here, and—you know the rest, you staring personage."
Women can read men's faces, and Jean Cornish must have been repaid for what she had done by the mere look of the man before her. He said nothing for a moment, and then uttered only these words softly:
"My little rhinoceros-bird."
"Will you kindly explain the meaning of that extraordinary phrase?"
He did not answer just then, but got into the cab with her and directed the driver to her home.
She had removed her wraps in the drawing-room when she turned to him and demanded further information as to the term applied to her. He made comment on some people's general ignorance of natural history, took a big arm-chair, placed the young lady in a low seat close beside him, and, assuming a ponderous, pedagogical air, began:
"The rhinoceros, my child, as you may possibly be aware, is a huge beast of uncouth appearance, with a horn on its nose, and inhabiting the wild regions of certain wild countries, notably Africa. It is a dangerous animal, and has enemies galore and friends but few. The hunter counts it a noble prize, and steals upon it in its fastnesses, and even a rhinoceros may not withstand the explosive bullet of modern science. Somewhat sluggish and dull, at times, is the rhinoceros, and it is in his careless, listless moods that he is liable to fall a victim. Well for him is it on such occasions that he has a friend, a guardian, a tiny lover. Well for him that the rhinoceros-bird exists! The rhinoceros-bird is a little thing which never deserts the mighty beast. It perches upon his head or back, and flutters about him, and makes of him its world. To the rhinoceros-bird the rhinoceros is all there is of earth. And well is the brute repaid for liking the bird about him. Though the monster may have stupid periods, the bird has none, and, hovering about bushes, fluttering over openings, ever alert, watchful and solicitous, naught may escape its eye, and, danger once discovered, swift is the warning to the slumbering giant, and then woe to the intruder on his domain! And such, dear pupil, is the rhinoceros-bird. And you are my rhinoceros-bird."
She understood, of course. The look in her eyes told that, but her words belied her.
She said that, in a general way, the simile had application, the rhinoceros being a huge beast of uncouth appearance.
And, so far as this conversation was concerned, he perished miserably.
But that was only the beginning of a practical exhibition of the woman's earnestness and acuteness, and her great love. It was but evidence that she was to be, what she became in time, his rhinoceros-bird in all things, his right hand, prompter in such relations as a woman's wit and woman's way best serve. She was of him. But with two who blended, so there must be many added intervals of delicious nonsense before the reality of marriage came.
They made odd names for things. They ate lobster together one day, and he, in some mood, kept misquoting and distorting passages from the Persian poet, and thenceforth broiled lobster was known to the two as "a Rubaiyat." And there were a score or two of other bizarre titles they had made for things or for localities, with the instinct of so embalming a perfect recollection. And each had certain tricks of speech, of course, as have all human beings, and these two, so living in each other, caught all these, and mocked and gibed and imitated, until there was little difference in their pronunciations. To some one overhearing them they might have been deemed as of unsound mind, though they were only talking in love's volapuk.
They resembled each other, these two beings, as nearly in bodily fancies as in other ways. Each, for instance, was a great water lover, each addicted to the bath and perfumes, he perhaps because of his long gymnasium training, and she from the instinct of all purity which appertains to all women worth the owning.
One afternoon they had fled from the city and were walking on the beach, beside the lake, with no one near them. For a mile in either direction, they could look up and down and see that no intruder was in sight. He sent flat stones skipping and galloping over the waves with some whirling trick of underthrow, and tried to teach her the device of it, and they sat upon the sand and ate the luncheon he had secured preparatory to this great excursion, a luncheon devised with great skill by a great caterer, and packed in a paper box which would go in a coat-pocket, and they talked of many things and delighted in being together, and alone. And he, floundering in the sand, must needs get much of it inside his shoe. And then this reckless person, having removed the shoe to rid himself of the sand, must needs step in a treacherous spot and wet his stocking dismally. And the sensible thing to do was to remove the stocking and dry it in the sun.
There should be, so far as its relation to society is concerned, no difference between the human hand and the human foot, but, somehow, the average man is not, as a rule, ready to exhibit his bare feet carelessly to the one woman, and to the average woman a similar revelation would seem a thing indelicate; but these two were not of the common sort. Harlson pulled off his stocking as carefully as he would have done a glove, and spread it on the sand where it might dry, and, laughing at his disaster, he dabbled with his foot in the sand.
She looked at him curiously. She looked at the foot, too, being a woman, and this being the man above all others to her, and then she laughed out joyously and frankly.
"I don't believe any one but you would have done that, Grant. And what a foot you have!"
He replied, with much pomposity, that it was the far-famed Arabian foot, the instep of which arched so beautifully that water could flow beneath it without wetting the skin. Just at present, though, he thought a little water might run over it to advantage, instead of under, the sand being a trifle mucky. And why would no one else have done such a thing? And he was glad she liked his foot; in fact, he was glad she liked anything about him, and rather wondered that she did, and the world had become to him a good place to live in.
All of which was but the sentimentalism which appertains to a man and a woman in love with each other, but the drift of thought continued in the direction suggested by his action and her comment. They looked at the lake, with its shifting coloring of green and blue and purple, and he told her how, some day, he would teach her to swim like a Sandwich Island beauty, and she said she would like to learn. She liked the water.
"I'm very glad of that," he commented; "I like it myself. I am a great bather. I admire the English for the 'tubbing' which is made such a subject of jest against them by other people. There must be water into which I may tumble when I rise in the morning, or water in abundance in some way, else I should be a trifle uncomfortable all day long. I don't mean just a mild lavatory business, you know, but a plunge or a cataract, or something of that sort. It is barely possible, my dear, that you are going to marry a man whose remote ancestors were the product of evolution from otters, instead of monkeys. Think of that!"
And she confessed, half-blushingly, her own regard for water, and that she had been laughed at by other women for what they deemed a fancy carried to an extreme. And she said she was very glad that a great big Somebody was dainty in his ways. While in many respects she could not approve of him, it was a comfort, at least, to be enabled to think of him as ever clean and wholesome, and as having one weakness of which she could condone.
He looked at her majesty, as she sat enthroned upon a little mound, but to her small oration made no reply. He was worshiping her bodily. And from this conversation came a sequel, a day or two later, which was but the worshiping put into things material. Of his love and the bath he would have fancies, and he wanted what touched her to be from him. She was surprised by a cumbrous package which, opened, revealed great things for a woman's dalliance with water—the soft Turkish towel, vast enough to envelop her, the perfumed soaps, and even the bath-mittens. And she was a little frightened, maybe, at the personality of it all, but she recognized the nature of his fancy, and but loved him the more because he had it. It was an odd gift, it is true, but they were odd people. They were very close together.
An eventful day in other respects, that is, from a lover's point of view, was this one of the outing by the lake. The stocking dried, and in its proper place upon the foot, and inside the shoe again, and the lunch dispatched, there was more idle rambling by the lakeside, and, of course, more lovers' talk. At one place there was a little wood which extended to the water's edge, and there she perched herself in a seat formed by the bent limb of an upturned tree, and he produced from his coat-pocket a paper of macaroons for her dessert, and she sat there munching them like a monkey, while he sprawled, again upon the sand. She made a pretty picture, this small, brown woman, thus exalted; to him a wonderful one. Suddenly she ceased her munching and spoke to him imperiously:
"Come here, sir."
He rose and went to her, standing before her, obedient and waiting. She reached up and took his face between her hands, and pulled his face gently downward until the faces of the two were close together. She looked into his eyes.
"I merely called you up, sir," she said, "to impart a certain piece of information. I am in love with you."
TWO FOOLS STILL.
When a woman, who is all there is in the world to a man, falls into the deliciously generous mood of abandonment, and is revealing what is in her heart, the man, I understand from various excellent authorities, gets about as near heaven as he may ever do in the flesh. And Harlson formed no exception to the rule. The small personage on the limb of the fallen tree owned him as absolutely and completely as ever Cleopatra owned a slave, or Elizabeth a servitor.
"I don't know what to say," he murmured. "There aren't any words—but—you understand."
She pulled his face still closer and kissed him on the lips, though blushing as she did so, for this young woman had fancies regarding lips and regarding kisses which should be entertained by a greater number of the women of the land. Then she told him to lie upon the sand again; that she wanted to look at him. And he obeyed, machine-like.
She was in a fantastic mood assuredly. She watched him, her cheek resting upon one little hand for a long time, a thoughtful look upon her face. Then she broke out impetuously:
"How smooth and clean your face is! Do you—do you go to—you know what I mean. Do you go to a barber every day?"
He answered that he shaved himself.
"Is it very hard?" she asked.
"Well, that depends."
She studied once more for a long time, then spoke again, on this occasion blushing furiously:
"Grant, dear, I want to do things for you always. I want to take care of you. It seems to me that, some time, I might learn, you know. It seems to me that some time I might almost"—with a little gasp—"shave you."
He wanted to gather her up in his arms and smother and caress her, after that climax of tender admission, but she waved her hand as she saw him rising. He fell back then upon his ignoble habit of talking vast science to her.
"My dear, that dream may, I hope, be realized. I'd rather have my face slashed by you than be shaved by the most careful, conscientious and silent barber in all Christendom, but shaving is a matter of much gravity. It is not the removal of the beard which tests the intellect; it is the sharpening of the razors."
"How is that, sir?"
"All razors are feminine, and things of moods. The razor you sharpen to-day may not be sharp, though manipulated upon hone or strap with all persistence and all skill. The razor you sharpen to-morrow may be far more tractable. Furthermore, the razor which is comparatively dull to-day may be sharp to-morrow, without further treatment."
She said that, in her opinion, that was nonsense, and that he was trying to impose upon a friendless girl, because the topic was one of which men would, ordinarily, have a monopoly, and regarding which they would assume all wisdom, and, perhaps, make jests.
"I am in earnest," he said. "Razors have moods, and are known to sulk. But science has solved the conundrum of their antics. It has been discovered that whetting changes the location of the molecules of metal, that there is frequently left what is not a perfect edge after the supposed sharpening, but that, given time, the molecules will readjust themselves, and the edge return. My dear, you are now, or at least should be, a woman rarely learned in one great mystery. Is there no reward for merit?"
She scorned reply to such a screed, but slid down from her perch with the remark that she had "et hearty." A man who had eaten near them in a restaurant had used the expression, and they had both promptly adopted it.
He rose, went to her side, and leaned over, and inhaled the perfume of her hair.
She looked up mischievously. "You are a big black animal!"
As already remarked, these two were very foolish.
That same evening, when Grant Harlson reached his office, he found a note awaiting him. It was a pretty, perfumed thing, and he knew the handwriting upon it well. He had not seen the writer for three months. He had almost forgotten her existence, yet she had been one with whom his life had been, upon a time, closely associated. He opened the envelope and read the note:
MY DEAR GRANT: Yon know I am philosophical—for a woman—and that I have never been exacting. I have formed habits, though, and have certain foolish ways. One of these ways was to be much with Grant Harlson, not very long ago. I lost him, somehow, but still have a curiosity to see his face again, to note if it has changed. I have something to say to him, too. Please call upon me to-night. ADA.
The effect of the note upon the man was not altogether pleasant. He felt a certain guiltiness at his own indifference. This clever woman of the social world he knew was not to be trifled with by one unarmored or irresolute. He had hoped she would forget him, that his own indifference would breed the same feeling upon her part, and now he knew he was mistaken, as men have been mistaken before. There was an interview to be faced, and one promising interesting features. He started on the mission with a grimace.
JUST A PANG.
Mrs. Gorse was at home, the servant said, and Harlson found her awaiting him in a room which was worth a visit, so luxurious were its appointments and so delicate its colorings and its perfumes. A woman of admirable taste was Mrs. Gorse, and one who knew how to produce dramatic effect. But dramatic effects as between her and Grant Harlson were things of the past. People sometimes know each other so well that the introduction of anything but reality is absurd. Mrs. Gorse attempted nothing as Harlson entered. She was not posed. She was standing, and met him at the door smilingly.
"How do you do, Grant?"
"I'm well," he said, "and how are you? Certainly you are looking well."
"I am not ill. I think I am not plumper nor more thin than usual. I imagine my weight is normal."
"And how much is that?"
The woman flushed a little.
"It is hardly worth the telling, since you do not remember. There was a time, you know, when you had some whim about it, and when I had to report to you. You professed to be solicitous about my health or personal appearance, or whatever it was that led you to the demand. And you have forgotten."
He was uneasy. "That is true, Ada. I did have that fad, didn't I? Well, I forget the figures, but I see that you are still yourself, and as you should be."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Take the big chair. It's the one you like best. You see I don't forget certain trifles" (this with a slight trembling inflection). "And tell me about yourself. I haven't seen you for three months and over. Haven't you been out of town. Couldn't you have written me a note."
"I've not been out of town. I might have written you a note, but I didn't suppose it mattered."
"Yet there is a legend to the effect that men and women sometimes get to be such friends, and have such relations, that a sudden unexplained absence of three months matters a great deal."
"That is so. But—what is the use, Ada? It doesn't matter with us, does it? Are we not each capable of taking care of ourselves? Were we ever of the conventionally sentimental?"
She sighed. "I suppose not. But it grew that way a little, didn't it, Grant? Has it all been nothing to you?"
"I won't say that," he answered. "It has been a great deal to me, but isn't it wiser to make all in the past tense now? What have we to gain?"
She tried to smile. "Nothing, I suppose." Then breaking out fiercely: "You are a strange man! You are like the creature Margrave, in Bulwer's hard 'Strange Story,' with mind and body, but with no soul nor sympathy."
The man in his turn became almost angry. He spoke more grimly:
"You are not just! Have I broken any pledge or violated any promise, even an implied one? Have we not known each other on even terms? It was but a pact for mutual enjoyment until either should be weary. We have no illusions. You a Lilith of the red earth, not of Adam; you a woman sweet and passionate and kind, but soulless, too, and fickle; and I a trained man, made as soulless by experience, we met and agreed, without words, to break a lance in a flirtation. And that both lances were splintered doesn't matter now. We had joy in the encounter, didn't we, and more after each surrendered captive? But it has been only mimic warfare. It has not been the real thing."
"Evidently not—to you! Unfortunately one forgets sometimes, and then one is endangered."
He was troubled. He rose and came to her side, and put his hand upon her head, the usually proudly carried head of a handsome woman, now bowed in the effort to hide a face which told too much. "It is all unfortunate. It is unfortunate that we met, if you care as you profess. I had counted us as equal; that you were, with me, caring for the day and never for the morrow, so far as we two were concerned."
She raised her face. "Do you love me?" she said.
He hesitated. "I am fond of you."
"Do you love me?"
"In the sense that I suppose you mean, no."
She did not look at him for a moment; then she rose swiftly to her feet and looked squarely in his face.
"Is there some one else?"
He did not answer.
"Is there some one else?"
"Then it is unfortunate, as you say—and for her."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I will not endure to be dropped by you as a child drops a toy of which it is weary. I mean that I will not surrender you to some new creature who has intervened! What does it matter that there has been no pledge between us? You have made me love you! You know it! The very being to each other what you and I have been is a pledge for the future. Oh, Grant!"
The woman's eyes were full of tears, and her voice was a moan. The man was suffering both shame and agony. He knew that, careless as he had been, the relations had grown to imply a permanency. The woman was at least justified in her claims that words are not always necessary to a contract. What could he do? Then came the thought of Jean. One hair of her brown head was more to him than this woman, or any other woman he had ever known. He was decided.
"I am a brute, Ada," he said, "or, at least, I have to be brutal. We do care for each other in a certain way, and we have found together many of the good things in living, but we are not lovers in the greater sense. We never could be. It means much. It means a knitting together of lives, a oneness, a confluence of soul and heart and passions, and a disposition to sacrifice, if need be. We have not been that way, and are not. We have been more like two chess-players. We have had a mutual pleasure in the game, but we have been none the less antagonists. The playing is over, that is all. It doesn't matter who has won the game. We will call it drawn, or you may have it. But it is ended!"
She stood with one hand upon her breast. There came a shadow of pain to her face, and a hard look followed.
"It is nonsense talking about the game. The playing ended a year ago, and you were the winner. Now you are careless about the prize! Well" (bitterly), "it may not be worth much—to you."
"It is worth a great deal. It has been worth a great deal to me. But I must relinquish it."
"Why did you make me care for you?" she demanded, fiercely, again.
"I did not do more than you did. As I said before, we played the game together. It is but the usual way of a flirting man and woman. We should have each been more on guard."
The woman was silent for a little time, and it was evident that she was making an effort at self-control. She succeeded. She had half-turned her back to Harlson, and when she again faced him, she had assumed her dignity.
"You are right, after all," she said. "I did not consider your own character well enough. You tire of things. You will tire of the woman you love now. And you will come back to me, just because I have been less sentimental, and, so, less monotonous than some others. Whether or not I shall receive you time will determine. Is that the way you want me to look at it?"
He bowed. "That is perhaps as good a way as any. It doesn't matter. Will you shake hands, Ada?"
She reached out her hand listlessly, and he took it. A minute later and he was on the street. And so the last link of one sort with the past was broken. It was long—though he had no concealments from her—before he told Jean of this interview. And then he did not tell the woman's name, nor did she care to know.
AS TO THOSE OTHERS.
Time passes, even with an impatient lover, and so there came an end at last to Grant Harlson's season of probation. There was nothing dramatic about the wedding.
To him the ceremony was merely the gaining of the human title-deed to the fortune which was his on earth, and to Jean Cornish it was but the giving of herself fully to the man—that which she wished to do with herself. There were few of us present, but we were the two's closest friends. They were a striking pair as they stood together and plighted their faith calmly: he big and strong, almost to the point of burliness, and she slight, sweet and lissom. There was no nervousness apparent in either, perhaps because there was such earnestness. And then he carried her away from us.
They had not been long away, this newly wedded couple, when they returned to the home he had prepared. As he remarked half grimly to me, in comment on lost years, they had met so late in the nesting season that time should not be wasted. Of that home more will be told in other pages, but it is only of the two people I am talking now.
I noted a difference in their way when I first dined with them, which I did, of course, as soon as they had returned. I had thought them very close together before in thought and being, but I saw that there was more. The sweet, sacred intimacy which marriage afforded had given the greater fullness to what had seemed to me already perfect. But I was one with much to learn of many things. And yet these two were to come closer still—closer through a better mutual understanding and new mutual hopes. It was long afterward when I understood.
It was after dinner one day, and in the sitting-room, which was a library as well. They were going out that evening, but it was early still, and he was leaning back in a big chair smoking the post-prandial cigar, and she coiled upon a lower seat very near him, so near that he could put his hand upon her head, and they were talking lightly of many things. She looked up more earnestly at last.
"Will you ever tire of it, Grant?"
He laughed happily.
"Tire of what, Brownie?"
"Of this, of me, and of it all; will you never weary of the quietness of it and want some change? You must care very much, indeed, if you will not."
He spoke slowly.
"It seems to me that though we were to live each a thousand years, I would never tire of this as it is. But, of course, it will not be just this way. We could not keep it so if we would, and would not if we could."
"Why should it change?"
He drew her close to him and placed his hand upon her face and kissed her on the forehead.
"I shall be more in the fray again. I must be. You would not have your husband a sluggard among men, and that will sometimes take me from you, though never for long, because I'm afraid I shall be selfish and have you with me when there are long journeys. And it will change, too, you know—because you see, dear, there may be the—the others. You hope so, with me, do you not?"
Her face remained hidden for a little time. When she raised it, there was a blush upon her cheeks, but her eyes had not the glance he had anticipated.
"No!" she said.
He did not reply, because he could not comprehend. He looked at her, astonished, and she broke forth recklessly:
"I love you so, Grant! I love you so! I want you, just you, and no one else. Are we not happy as we are? Are you not satisfied with me, just me? You are like all men! You are selfish! You—oh, love! You love me so—I know that—but you think of me—it seems so, anyhow—as but part of a scheme of life, of the life which will make you happy. My love, my husband! why need it be that way? Why am I not enough? Why may we not be one, just one, and be that way? I want nothing more. Why should you? Are we not all our own world? I will be everything to you. Oh, Grant!" And she ceased, sobbingly.
The man said nothing. He could not understand at first; then came upon him, gradually, a comprehension of how different had been their dreams in some ways. It was inexplicable. He thought of the mother instinct which gives even to the little girl a doll. He had supposed that his own fancies were but weak reflections of what was in the innermost heart of the woman he loved so. He blurted out, almost roughly:
"'Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife.'" Then added, bitterly, "It is the man who is saying it this time, you see."
A second later, shame-faced and repentant, he had caught the slender figure in his arms and was holding it close to him.
"I'm a brute, dear," he said, "and there is no excuse for me. I understand, I think. We dreamed differently. That was all. Had you loved me less, dear heart, you would have been more like other women. But it doesn't matter. It shall be as you say, as you may wish or fancy. We thought unlike, yet you were as much the pivot of my thought as I of yours. It was of you, for you, and because of you, I had my visions. That is all. And we will not talk more of it."
She nestled closer to him, and he stroked the brown mass of her hair and remained silent. Some moments passed that way. Then she roused herself and sat up squarely, and looked him bravely in the face.
"I have been thinking," she said, "and I can think very well when I am so close to you, with my head where it is now. I have been thinking, and it has occurred to me that I was not a wise, good woman, and I want you to forgive me."
His answer involved no words at all, but it was meet for every purpose. She pushed him away from her, and spoke gravely:
"Will you do something for me, Grant?"
"Will you do it now?"
"Yes—if it be good for you."
"I want you to do this. I want you to imagine me some one else, some one you regard, but for whom you do not care particularly. And then I want you to tell me what you think, what you would think best about the—'the others'"—blushing more fairly than any rose that ever grew on stem. "Will you do that?"
His face was very earnest. "I will try," he said, "but it will be difficult to imagine you someone else. How can I do that when I can look into your eyes, my little wife? I'll try, though."
"Then talk to me, now."
He was troubled. He did not know how to express himself in the spirit asked of him, and he did not look at her in the beginning.
"Sweetheart, you are a part of me, and you are the greatest of what there is of my life. It is about you that all my thoughts converge. I do not suppose there will be any happier, any dearer time ever than this we are passing together, with none to molest us, or divert us from each other. You know me well now. I am what I am, and never was a man of stronger personal moods or one who so hungered for the one woman. And you are the one woman, the one physical object in the world, I worship. There is no need that I tell you anything. And you have learned, too, how I care for you in all greater, and, it may be, purer ways. We are happy together. But, love of me, we are a man and wife, an American man and wife, of the social grade—for there are social grades, despite all our democracy—where, it seems to me, a family has come to be esteemed almost a disgrace, as something vulgar and annoying. And it seems to me this is something unnatural, and all wrong. Whatever nature indicates is best. To do what nature indicates is to secure the greatest happiness. Trials may come, new sorrows and incumbrances be risked, but nature brings her recompense. I want you the mother of our child, of our children, as it may be. I know what your thought has been, I understand it now, but how can children separate us? When a man and woman look together upon a child, another human being, a part of each of them, a being who would never have existed had they not found each other, a being with the traits of each combined, it seems to me as if their souls should blend somehow as never before. They are one then, to a certainty. They have become a unit in the great scheme of existence. And so, darling, I have thought and thought much. I have dreamed of you as the little mother, the one who would not be of the silly modern type, the one who, with me, would not be ashamed any more than were our sturdy ancestors of a sturdy family, should we be blessed so. The one who would be glad with me in the womanhood and manhood of it. And, as I said, it could never part us. It would but make me more totally your own, more watchful, if that were possible, more tender, if that could be, more worshipful of you in the greater life of us two together, us two more completely. And that is all. It shall be as you say, and I will not complain, for I know your impulse in what you said and all its lovingness."
She had listened to each word intently, and her face had flushed and paled alternately. When he had done she snuggled more closely to him, and still said nothing. When she did speak, this is what she said, and she said it earnestly:
"I was wrong, my husband; I was a selfish, infatuated woman, who loved with one foolish idea which marred its fullness. You have taught me something, dear. You could not give me the thought I had again, even were you to try yourself, for I see it now. And——"
She put her arms about his neck and buried her fair face upon the pillow which afforded her such convenient shelter. As for the man, there was something like a lump in his throat, but he spoke with an effort at playfulness, though his voice wavered a little:
"It is right, my love. And we will visit this nature of ours together. It is the season now, and next week we go camping. I want to show old friends of mine, the spirits of the forest, how fair a wife I've won."
And, a few days later, there was a pretty little scene down town. "Sportsmen's Goods," the sign above the doorway said, and in the windows were numerous wooden ducks and dainty rods of split bamboo, and glittering German silver reels and gaudy flies, and a thousand things to delight the heart of a fisherman or hunter. Enter, a broad-shouldered gentleman and a haughty wisp of a woman, the latter a trifle embarrassed, despite her stateliness.
"How are you, Jack?"
This to the proprietor of the place, as he comes forward.
"How are you, Harlson?"
"This is Mrs. Harlson." The ceremony takes place. "Now, Jack, here's a grave matter of business. Have you a private room? And I want you to send in a lot of light wading-boots—the smallest sizes. And I want some other things." And the list is given.
And the lady and gentleman disappear into a small room assigned them, and a lot of wading-boots are taken in, and time elapses. And, eventually, lady and gentleman emerge again, the man's eyes full of laughter, and the woman's eyes full of laughter and confusion, and a package is made up.
"Send it to my house, Jack," says the man, and the couple leave the place.
Michigan is divided into two peninsulas, the apexes of which meet.
The State is shaped like an hour-glass, with the upper portion twisted to the left. About all the two peninsulas lie blue waters, the inland seas, lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron. Upon the upper peninsula are great mineral ranges, copper and iron, a stunted but sturdy forest growth, and hundreds of little lakelets. The lower peninsula, at its apex, is yet largely unclaimed from nature, but, toward the south, broadens out into the great area of grain and apple blossoms, and big, natty towns, once the country of oak openings, the haunt of Pontiac and of Tecumseh, braided and crossed by one of Cooper's romances.
It is with the crest of the lower peninsula that this description deals. There exist not the rigors of the northern peninsula; there the timber has not tempted woodland plunderers, nor have dried brook-beds followed shorn forests, nor the farmer invaded the region of light soil. There is the dense but stunted growth of the hard maple and pine and beech and fir, and there are windfalls and slashes which sometimes bridge the creeks. There are still black ash swales and dry beech ridges, but they are not as massive as further south. There are still the haunting deer and the black bear and the ruffed grouse, the "partridge" in the idiom of the country, the "pheasant" of the South and Southwest. There are scores of tiny lakes, deep and pure and tenanted, and babbling streams, and there are the knighted speckled trout, the viking black bass and that rakish aristocrat, the grayling.
One way to cross from Michigan to Huron is in a canoe, threading one's way from woodland lake to woodland lake, through brush-hidden brooklets, without a portage. In this region the liverwort blooms fragrantly beside the snow-bank in early spring, and here the arbutus exists as in New England. The adder-tongues and violets and anemones are here in rare profusion in their time, and the wandering gray wolf, last of his kind, almost, treads softly over knolls carpeted with wintergreen and decorated with scarlet berries. It is a country of blue water and pure air, of forest depths and long alleys arching above strong streams.
This is the southern peninsula of Michigan in its northern part, and here came, as the first suspicion of a tinge of yellow came to the leaves of certain trees, as the hard maple trees first flashed out in faint red, two people.
There were three of them who came at first, for there was the man with the wagon, engaged in the outlying settlement, who brought them fifteen miles into the depths of the woodland. They came lumbering through an archway over an old trail, the homesteader sitting jauntily, howbeit uncertainly, upon the front seat—for the roadway tilted in spots—and behind him a couple from the town, a man and a woman, the man laughing and supporting his companion as the wagon swayed, and the woman wondering and plucky, and laughing, too, at the oddness of it all. The forest amazed her a little, and awed her a little, but from awe of it soon came, as they plunged along, much friendliness. She was receptive, this game woman, and knew Nature when she met her.
In the rear of the wagon crouched or stood upright, or laid down, as the mood came upon his chestnut-colored grandness, a great Irish setter, loved of the man because of many a day together in stubble or over fallow, loved of the woman because he, the setter, had already learned to love and regard the woman as an arbitrator, as queen of something he knew not what.
And so the wagon rumbled on and pitched and tilted, and finally, in mid-afternoon, reached a place where the road seemed to end. There was a little open glade, but a few yards across, and there was dense forest all around, and, just beyond the glade, the tree-tops seemed to all be lowered, because there was a descent and a lake half a mile long, as clear as crystal and as blue as the sky. A little way beyond the glade could be heard the gurgling and ruffling of a creek, which, through a deep hollow, came athwart the forest and plunged into the lake most willingly. This was the place where these two people, this man and woman, were to end their present journey, for the man had been there before and knew what there to seek and what to find.
And there was a creaky turn of the wagon, a disembarkment, and an unloading of various things. There was all the kit for a hunter of the northern woods, and there were things in addition which indicated that the hunter was not alone this time. There was a tent which had more than ordinarily selected fixtures to it, and there were two real steamer-chairs with backs, and there were four or five of what in the country they call "comforts," or "comforters," great quilts, thickly padded, generally covered with a design in white of stars or flowers on beaming red, and there were rods and guns and numerous utensils for plain cooking.
The wagon with its horses and its driver turned about and tumbled along the roadway on its return, and there were left alone in the forest, miles from civilization, miles from any human being save the driver fast leaving them, the man and woman and the setter dog.
They did not appear depressed or alarmed by the circumstance.
The load from the wagon had been left in a heap. The man pulled from it a camp-chair with a back, and opened it, and set it up on the grass very near the edge of the glade, and announced that the throne was ready for the Empress, not of Great Britain and India, nor of any other part of the earth, but of the World; it was ready, and would she take her seat?
He explained that, as, at present, there were some things she didn't know anything about, she might as well sit in state. So the Empress, who was not very big, sat in state.
The dog had pursued a rabbit, and was making a fool of himself. The man selected from among the baggage left an ax, heavy and keen, and attacked a young spruce tree near. It soon fell with a crash, and the Empress leaped up, but to sit down again and look interestedly at what was going on.
The man, the tree fallen, sheared off its wealth of fragrant tips, and laid the mass of it by the side of the great tree. Then from out the wagon's leavings he dragged a tent, a simple thing, and, setting up two crotched sticks with a cross-pole, soon had it in its place. He carried the mass of spruce-tips by armfuls to the tent and dumped them within it until there was a great heap of soft, perfumed greenness there. Then, over all, he spread a quilt or two, and announced, with much form, to her majesty, that her couch was prepared for her, and that she could sit in the front of the tent if she wished.
And he cut and put in place two more forked stakes, with a cross-bar, and hung a kettle and built a fire beneath, and brought water and got out a frying-pan and bread and prepared for supper. All articles not demanded for immediate use were stowed away just back of the tent. "And," he remarked, "there you are."
The Empress rose from her camp-chair and investigated.
"Are we to sleep in the tent, Grant?"
"What will we do if it rains?"
"Stay in the tent."
"But we'll get wet, won't we?"
"No; we'll be upon the spruce-tops; the water will run under us."
"Aren't there animals in the wood?"
"What will you do if they come about?"
"I think I'll kiss you."
The Empress of the World did not seem to fully enter into the spirit of his carelessness.
She had her imaginings, after all. She knew that she was all right, somehow, yet she did not quite comprehend. But she knew her royalty.
She rose and went to the entrance of the tent, and stepped in daintily, and sat down in another chair which had been placed there for her reception, and then inhaled all the sweetness of the spruce-tips, and pitched herself down upon the quilts, and curled herself up there for a moment or two, and then rose and came out again into the open, where her husband stood watching her.
"Do you like the woods, dear?" he said.
"Don't you see?"
He said nothing, but led her majesty to a seat for a time, while he got ready for the evening meal—of food from the town for this first time—and then, in a courtier's way, of course, suggested, that she aid him.
They cooked and ate the strips of bacon with the soft stale bread he had brought, and drank the tea, and the shadows of the trees lengthened across the glade, and the chestnut-hued setter came back to camp and was gravely reprimanded by his master, and it soon became night, and time passed, and the fire flashed against the greenery strangely, and the man took the woman by the hand and led her to the entrance to the tent, and said:
"We must rise early."
She entered the tent, and not long later he entered, also, or thought to do so. He lifted the flap, which he had let down, and looked inside.
She lay there upon the cushioned spruce-tips, and, as he raised the white curtain, the moonlight streamed in upon her.
She looked up at him, and smiled.
The loving face of her was all he saw—the face of the one woman.
He spoke to her. He tried to tell her what she was to him, and failed. She answered gently and in few words. They understood.
He entered the tent and sat upon the couch beside her as she was lying there, and took her small hand in his, but said no more. From the wood about them—for it was into the night now—came many sounds, known of old, and wonderfully sweet to him, but all new and strange to her.
"Ah-rr-oomp, ah-rr-oomp, ba-rr-oomp," came from the edge of the water the deep cry of the bullfrog; from the further end of the lake came the strange gobble, gurgle and gulp of the shitepoke, the small green heron which is the flitting ghost of shaded creeks and haunting thing of marshy courses everywhere. Night-hawks, far above, cried with a pleasant monotony, then swooped downward with a zip and boom. It was not so late in the season that the call of the whippoorwill might not be heard, and there were odd notes of tree-toads and katydids from the branches. There came suddenly the noise of a squall and scuffle from the marshy edge of the lake, where 'coons were wrangling, and the weird cry of the loon re-echoed up and down. The air was full of the perfumes of the wood. The setter just outside the tent became uneasy, and dashed into a thicket near, and there was a snort and the measured, swift thud of feet flying in the distance. A deer had been attracted by the fire-light. An owl hooted from a dead tree near by. There was the hum of many insects of the night, and the soft sighing of the wind through boughs. It was simply night in the northern woods.
The man rose and went outside, and stood with one hand upon the tent-pole at the front. He seemed to himself to be in a dream. He looked up at the moon and stars, and then at the glittering greenery deepening further out into blackness about him. He looked down toward the grass at his feet, and there appeared near him a flash of gold.
What Harlson saw was but a dandelion. That most home-like and steadfast flower blooms in early springtime and later in the season, with no regard to the chronology of the year. It was one of the vagrant late gladdeners of the earth that his eye chanced to light upon.
It held him, somehow. It was wide open—so wide that there was a white spot in its yellow center—and close above it drooped, a beech-tree's branch, so close that one long green leaf hung just above the petals. And upon this green leaf the dew was gathering.
The man looked at the flower.
"Is all the world golden?" he said to himself. And he straightened and moved and went from the tent to where the open was. He stood in the glade in the moonlight, and wondered at it all.
Here he was—he could not comprehend it—here, all alone, save for her, in the forest, miles away from any other human being! He had wholly loved but two things all his life—her and nature—and the three of them—she, nature and he—were here together! It was wonderful!
And there in that preposterous covering of canvas, half hid in the forest's edge, was Jean Cor—no, Jean Harlson, belonging to him—all his—away from all the world, just part of him, in this solitude!
He wondered why he had deserved it. He wondered how he had won it. He looked up at the pure sky, with the moon defined so clearly, and all the stars, and was grateful, and reached out his hands and asked the Being of it to tell him, if it might be, how to do something as an offset.
The night passed, and the sun rose clearly over the forest. The chestnut setter roused himself from behind the tent, and came in front of it, and barked joyously at a yellow-hammer which had chosen a great basswood tree with deadened spaces for an early morning experiment toward a breakfast.
There issued from the white tent a man, who looked upward toward all the greenness and all the glory, and was glad.
He looked downward at the sward, and there was the little flower. And the dew had run its course, and had gathered in a jewel at the leaf's tip, and there, fallen in the midst of the disk of yellow, was the product from the skies. There, in the flower's heart, was the perfect gem—a diamond in a setting of fine gold!
"I've et hearty," said the woman, saucily, as the breakfast, for which the birds furnished the music, was done. And then he initiated her into the brief art of washing tin things in the gravel at the water's edge. Then he informed her that target practice was about to begin, and brought out four guns from their cases.
Two of the pieces were rifles, and of each kind one was a light and dainty piece. He said they would practice with the rifles; that when she became an expert rifle-shot the rest would all be easy, and then upon the boll of a tree at one side of the opening he pinned a red scrap of paper, and shot at it.
With the report half the scrap was torn away, and then he taught her how to hold the piece and how to aim.
She expressed, at last, a desire to shoot, and he gave her the little rifle loaded. She aimed swiftly and desperately, and pressed the trigger, and the echoes had not died away when she let fall the gun upon the grass.
"I'm hurt," she said.
He sprang to her side, pale-faced, as she raised her hand to her shoulder, but he brightened a moment later. He opened the dress at her neck, and turned it down on one side, and there, on the round, white shoulder, was a slight ruddy bruise. He kissed it, and laughed.
"It'll be all right in no time. Now, do as I tell you."
He put a cartridge in the piece again.
"Try it once more," he said; "aim more deliberately and hold the stock of the gun very tightly against your shoulder as you fire."
"But it will hurt me."
"No, it won't. Do as I tell you."
She would have obeyed him had he told her to leap into the lake, and the lake was deep.
She set her lips firmly, held the gun hard against her shoulder, aimed carefully and fired.
The red spot flew from the gray trunk of the oak. She looked up amazed.
"Why, it didn't hurt me a bit!"
"Of course not. There is a law of impact, and you are learning it. The strongest man in the world could not hurt you pushing you against nothing. He could kill you with a blow. With the first shot your gun gave you a blow. In the second it could only push you. Listen to the wisdom of your consort!"
She made a mouth at him, and he told her she'd had her "baptism of fire," and soon they sallied into the forest, hunting.
She was very pretty and piquant in her kilted dress and shooting jacket and high boots. It was a formidable army of two.
There were myriads of bees in the openings, and the fall flowers were yielding up the honey to be stored, in the hearts of great trees, and at noon-time they sat down in one of the openings for luncheon.
He had shot only a couple of ruffed grouse, for it was a ramble rather than a real hunt, this first mid-wood excursion of the pair, and she had shot at various things, a grouse or two and squirrels, and missed with regularity, and was piqued over it, but he had noted her increasing courage and confidence and resolution with each successive shot, and knew that he had with him, for the future, a "little sportsman," as he called her.
They built a fire, just for the fun of it, and a grouse was plucked and broiled with much ado, and never was greater feast. And, the meal over, he produced a cigar and—which was not really good form for the woods—lay on the grass and smoked it, looking at her and talking nonsense.
She sat upon a log and delighted in the fragrance and the light, and the droning sounds and bird-cries, and the new world of it to her. All at once, her gaze became fixed upon some object a little distance away. She reached out her hand to him appealingly.
"What is that?"
He rose and looked where she pointed.
Years of decay had made of the trunk of a fallen tree but a long ridge of crumbling, brown chips, and, upon this ridge, where the sun streamed down hotly, lay something coiled in a black mass, and there was a flat, hideous head resting upon it all with beady eyes which seemed, to leer.
Harlson looked at it carelessly.
"Big one, isn't it?" he said.
"What is it?" she gasped.
"What is it, you small ignoramus! It's a blacksnake and a monster. It is one of the dreads of the small life of the wood, and it was one of the dreads of my youth, and its days are numbered."
He reached for his gun, then checked himself.
She picked up the little rifle and raised it to her shoulder, as calmly as any Leather-Stocking in the land.
The report came like a whip-crack, and up from the dead log leaped a great writhing mass, which coiled and twisted and thrashed about, and finally lay still.
Harlson walked up and examined what he called the "remains." Half the serpent's ugly head had been torn away by the bullet.
"It was a great shot! 'And the woman shall bruise the serpent's head!'" he quoted. "Egad, you've done it with a vengeance, my huntress! And you are a markswoman among many, and thy price is above rubies! Hooray!"
She informed him, with much dignity, that she never missed such monsters as were blacksnakes, and that her undoubted skill with the rifle was due to the quality of the tutor she had owned, and, at the same time, would he mind moving to some other place to finish his cigar, for the sight of the dead monster was not a pleasant thing?
And so was accomplished the woman's first feat with the gun; but on that same day, before they had returned to camp, she had slain, at a fair distance, a grouse which, when flushed, had sailed away with lofty contempt for but a score of yards, and, alighting upon a limb close beside the body of a tree, had stood awaiting, jauntily and ignorantly, his doom.
She was a proud woman when the bird came plunging to the ground, and of that particular fowl he remarked, subsequently, when they were eating it, that its flavor was a little superior to anything in the way of game he had ever tasted, and he was more than half in earnest.
And the nights were poems and the days were full of life, and the brown cheeks of the woman became browner still, and she was referred to more frequently than even in the ante-wedded days as merely of the tribe of Chippewas.
In one respect, too, she excelled in deserving that same title, for your Chippewa, of either sex, takes to the water like a duck, as becomes a tribe of the lake regions. He took her to the lake and taught her not to fear it, and they frolicked in its waves together, and she learned to swim as well as he, and to dive as smoothly as a loon or otter, and was a water nymph such as the creatures of the wood had never seen. He was very vain of her art acquired so swiftly, though in conversation he gave vast credit to her teacher. And in the catching of the black bass there came eventually to the nine-ounce split bamboo in her little hands as many trophies as to his heavier lancewood. One day, after she had become at home in the water, and had better luck than he, and was lofty in her demeanor, he upset the boat in deep water, and her majesty was compelled to swim about it with him and assist at one end while he was at the other, in righting it. So mean of spirit was he.
All other things, though, were but the veriest trifle compared with the adventure which came at last. He had made her wise in woodcraft, and she could tell at the lake's margin or along the creek's bed the tracks of the 'coon, like the prints of a baby's foot, the mink's twin pads, or the sharp imprint of the hoofs of the deer. One day another track was noted near the camp, a track resembling that of a small man, shoeless, and Harlson informed her that a bear had been about.
She asked if the black bear of Michigan were dangerous, and he said the black bear of Michigan ate only very bad people, or very small ones.
One afternoon they were some distance from the camp. They had been shooting with fair success, and, returning, had seated themselves in idle mood upon one end of a great fallen trunk, upon which they had just crossed the gully, at the bottom of which a little creek tumbled toward the lake. The gleam of a maple's leaves near by, already turning scarlet, had caught her eye; she had expressed a wish for some of the gaudy beauties, and he had climbed the tree and was plucking the leaves for her, when, suddenly, the woods resounded with the fierce barking of the dog in the direction from which they had just come. He called to her to be ready to shoot, that a deer might have been started, when there was a crashing through the bushes and the quarry burst into sight.
Lumbering into the open, turning only to growl at the dog which was yelping wildly in its rear, but keeping wisely out of its reach, was a black bear. The beast did not see the woman opposite him, but rushed at the log and was half way across it when she screamed. Then it paused. Behind was the dog, before the woman; it advanced slowly, growling.
Harlson, in the tree, saw it all, and, as a fireman drops with a rush down the pole in the engine-house, he came down the maple's boll and bounded toward the log. The bear hesitated.
"Shoot! you little fool, shoot!" shouted the man, as he ran.
Her courage returned in a moment, at least did partial presence of mind. She raised the gun desperately, and the report rang out. The bear clutched wildly at the log, then rolled off, and fell to the rocky bottom, twenty feet below. Harlson seized his own gun and looked down. The beast was motionless, and from a little hole in its head the blood was trickling.
And the woman—well, the woman was sitting on the grass, very pale of face and silent.
The man seized her, and half smothered her with kisses, and shouted aloud to the forest and all its creatures that great was Diana of the Ephesians!
THE HOUSE WONDERFUL.
And the bear's skin was tanned with the glossy black fur still upon it, the head with the white-fanged jaws still attached and made natural with all the skill of an artist in such things, and it lay, a great, soft, black rug, upon a couch in the House Wonderful, or, at least, the house to which Harlson gave that name. It seemed to him the House Wonderful, indeed.
Therein was held all there was in the world for him, and he was satisfied with it all, and content, save that he felt, at seasons, how little man is worthy of the happiness which may come to him sometimes, even in this world. Yet it was not all poetry in the House Wonderful; there were many practical happenings, and many droll ones.
The House Wonderful, it is needless to say, was in the city. The bear-skin was but one of many such soft trophies of the chase which were spread upon the floors or upon soft lounges and divans. Over this particular skin there was much said, at times, when there were guests.
Jean would explain to some curious person, that she herself had shot the original wearer of the skin, and that her husband was up a tree at the time, and there would be odd looks, and he would explain nothing, and then she, woman-like, must needs spoil the mystery by telling all about it, as if any one would not comprehend some jest in the matter! It was a home of rugs and books, and very restful. I liked to go there, where they both spoiled me, and where the softness and the perfume of it all made me useless and dissatisfied after I had come away. There is no reason in the average man. But in the Eden was one great serpent—not a real serpent, but a glittering one, like the toy snakes sold at Christmas time.
There is some weakness in our American training of girls. Visibly and certainly the woman who marries a man engages herself to conduct his household—to relieve him of all troubles there—because he is the bread-winner. But very few girls seem trained with such idea, though all girls look forward to a marriage and such mutually helpful compact between two human beings. It is, of course, the fault of a social growth, the fault of mothers, the fault of many conditions. And Jean did not know how to cook! She was a woman of keen intelligence, of all sweetness and all faithfulness, yet she found herself almost helpless when she became the chatelaine of the castle where Grant was to come to dinner.
It is needless to tell of all that happened. The woman was adroit in the engagement of domestics, and there were dinners certainly, and, possibly, good ones, but the knowingness of it all was wanting. He felt it, and wondered a little, but did not fret. He knew the woman. One evening they were together, after dinner again, just as they had been when he told her he would take her to the woods, and she lay coiled up upon a divan, while he sat beside her. It was their after-dinner way. She spoke up abruptly and very bravely:
"Grant, I'm a humbug."
"Certainly, dear; what of it?"
"I mean—and it's something serious—I really am, you know, and I want to tell you."
"Go ahead, midget."
She did not seem altogether reassured, but plunged in gallantly:
"You thought I would be a good wife to you. You thought I knew everything a woman should know who agreed to live together with the man she loved, and make the most of life. But, Grant, I was and am really a humbug! I don't know how to manage a house; I have to leave it to the servants, and I can see enough, at least, to know that it isn't what it should be. There are a thousand little fancies of yours I don't know how to gratify, and I want to do it so, Grant! What shall I do?"
He responded by saying that he was very fond of his little Dora Copperfield and that he would buy her a poodle dog. He added, though, that she mustn't die—he needed her!
There was a laugh in his eyes, and he was but the tyrant man enjoying the discomfort of the one being to him; but when she curled a little closer and looked up in earnestness, he relented.
"That is nothing, dear," he said, "save that I'm afraid you have a little work ahead. Yes, it is right that you should know what you do not. You must learn. It is nothing for a clever woman, such as the one I have gained. I look to you, love, for the home and all the sweetness of it, and I wouldn't do that if I did not think that in the end there would be all pride and comfort for you. Down East they call this or that woman 'house-proud.' I want you to be 'house-proud.' No wife who is that but is doing very much for all about her, and I won't say any more, except that you must let me help you."
And thenceforth ensued strange things. There were experiments, and there was even a cooking-school episode, Harlson, at this period, professing great weariness, and sometimes, after meals, simulating pains which required much attention, though drugs were vigorously refused. All he wanted was strictly personal care. It is to be feared that he was not honest as to details, though honest as a whole. And he would go marketing with the brown woman, who had become so practical, and they became critical together, and the gourmands, wise old men about town, whom he brought, occasionally, to dine with him, began to wonder how it was that they found such perfection at a private table. And, as for the woman, well, she passed so far beyond her clumsy Mentor that he became but as the babe which doesn't know, and had nothing to say in her august presence. He might talk about a cheese or a wine or some such trifle, but how small a portion of living are cheese and wine!
The first year of wedded life is experimental, though it be with the pair best mated since the world began. There is an unconscious dropping of all surface traits and all disguises, and a showing of heart and brain to the one other. Never lived the woman so self-contained and tactful that, at the end of a year, her husband, if he were a man of ordinary intelligence, did not know her for what she was worth; never the man so thoughtful and discreet that he was not estimated at his value by the one so near him. This I have been told by men and women who should know. I lack the trial which should give wisdom to myself, but I am inclined to accept the dictum of these others. It must be so, from force of circumstances.
It was pleasant to me to watch this man and woman. It seemed to me that the hard lines in Grant Harlson's face became, week by week and month by month, less harshly and clearly defined, while upon the face of his wife grew that new look of a content and ownership which marks the woman who sleeps in some man's arms, the one who owns her—the same look which Grant, with his broader experience and keener insight, used to recognize when he puzzled me so in telling whimsically, in the street cars, who were wedded, without looking at their rings. It may have been a fancy, but it seemed to me the two grew very much to look alike. It was in no feature, in nothing I can describe, but in something beyond words, in a certain way which cannot be defined. It may have been but the unconscious imitation by each of some trick of the other's speech, or manner, but it appeared a deeper thing. I cannot explain it.