He suppressed something with a gulp: I think it was not an expression of gratitude or affection. "Confound you, Bob; one never knows how to take you. In the name of Satan and all the devils, what are you after now?"
"I'm not after anything in the name of the gentlemen you mention; they are no friends of mine, nor objects of my regard. Put a better name on it, and I'm after getting you to say what you mean, as we agreed—though it seems to be hard work. Who's playing tricks upon travellers, and misleading a confiding friend now? I never knew such a man for beating about the bush, and talking nonsense." (I remembered this apothegm of Jane's, which sounded well, and fitted in nicely just here.)
He appeared to take himself to pieces, shake them well, and put them together carefully, before he spoke. "Perhaps my language was obscure, or even enigmatical; but I thought you might understand. Forgive me if I have been harsh, Bob, not to say uncivil: I have gone through a good deal, until I hardly know myself. It is base enough for a man to be thus at the mercy of mere externals—and I used to think I could practice the Stoic doctrine! But to be human is to be a pitiable, and, if you like, a despicable creature. I knew a case that may serve in a way to explain—not to justify—my treatment of you. Say it was years ago; the man met, in a friend's house, a lady who showed him the utmost kindness. She was used to all deference, till she and every one regarded it as her right—as it was. And he—it's not pleasant to tell—he ended by insulting her. I always understood how that fellow never could bear to mention her name, nor to hear it; how any reminder of her, or contact with the friends through whom he met her, would upset him. He would get confused, and some of his self-reproaches would fall on the wrong heads. I suppose you never knew how that could be, Bob."
"I never was in exactly such a scrape as that; but I've been near enough to imagine, and make allowances. Your friend must have thought a good deal of the lady, in spite of his insulting her. He apologized, of course?"
"Certainly, and then took himself off, and kept out of her way ever after. It was all he could do."
"Just how did he insult her? It could hardly have been intentional."
"O no. He had had misfortunes, or something of the kind, and she took a humane interest in him—tried to help him, no doubt. Women often do such things, I believe; it is very creditable to them, but liable to be dangerous in a case like this, for men are sometimes fools enough to misinterpret it. Well, this particular beast took it into his wooden head that she cared for him—in a personal way, you know; and—you wouldn't think a man could be such an infernal ape, would you?—he told her so."
"He planned beforehand to tell her so—thought that was the right card to play, the proper way of wooing?"
"You make him worse than he was. It came out unawares—he was surprised into it. The conversation took a certain turn, and he misunderstood for a moment. That was all, and it was quite enough."
"What did the lady do then?"
"She was naturally and properly indignant and contemptuous; made him see his place. He took it, and took his departure."
"Did it never enter your friend's wise head that he might have mismanaged the affair in some other way than the one you mention; for instance, in going off so speedily?"
"No other course was possible. Enough of this, Bob: he bore the penalty of his offence."
"Excuse me: it's a curious case, and as a student of human nature I like to study such, and master all the facts. You say it never occurred to him that the worst part of his offence might be his levanting in such haste? that it might have been a more appropriate act of penitence to wait a day, or five minutes, and give the lady a chance to forgive him?"
"How can you make such low suggestions? The man was not a scoundrel at heart: at least he had always passed for a gentleman before, and thought himself such."
"For one who goes about insulting ladies, he was a singularly modest youth. So he never thought afterwards that there might have been a basis of fact for the fancy that made the trouble?"
"Drop the subject, will you? I brought it in merely as an illustration, that you might see how a man can be affected—even his character changed—by the recollection of such a blunder. It would destroy his self-respect."
"Naturally. But self-respect is too good a thing to lose forever, and this illustration of yours may serve to pass the time till you are ready to talk of your own affairs, which you say it somehow illustrates. Did your friend never think that the girl might have led him on, either seriously or for mere amusement? If she did, that would be some excuse for him."
"I tell you he was not that kind of a blackguard. All sorts of thoughts will offer themselves to a man in such a state of mind, I suppose; but he knew her too well to admit any that lowered her. O no, he saw the fault was all his. At the moment he was bewildered, and could not realize the sudden change, nor what he had done; so his apology (if I remember that part of his story) may have been inadequate in manner, however suitable in words. Apart from that, which could not be mended afterwards, he did all he possibly could."
"I beg to differ, Jim. I think this fellow did much worse than you seem to realize. Stare as much as you like: if he is still a friend of yours, I am sorry for him, as for one who has committed a most outrageous blunder and a nearly unpardonable wrong. What right had he to think of himself alone? You say the girl had shown goodness of heart, and a real interest in him? Then suppose the interest went no further than he thought: what business had he to burden her mind with a broken friendship and the feeling that she had helped to spoil his life? Or suppose the interest in him did go further. What do you and he know about a woman's feelings?"
He was pale now, and wild in the eyes. "Your last supposition is impossible. For the other—you may possibly be right. He never thought she would care—or that he could do anything but what he did."
"A nice lot he is then. If I were you, I would write to him to-morrow and give him a lecture—supposing they are both alive and free. And if this affair was anyway parallel to your own, of which you won't talk, I hope it may be a lesson to you—a warning, if you need one. Do you suppose women, of the high-minded and superior sort, have no hearts, no consciences, no sense of the duties of humanity? They have a blanked sight more than you and your friend seem to have, I can tell you. You'd better sleep on this, and wake with some enlarged ideas. As you decline to tell me anything of yourself, and so I can't help you there, I'm going to bed."
Next day Jim was haggard and restless, and wanted to potter about the house. I took him to the largest stream in those parts, when our rods came in play; and there he did some of the worst fishing I ever saw—worse than I did in May, when I had him on my mind. He has himself on his mind now, and some one else too. He kept trying to talk, which is impossible when you are wading. After he had lost a two-pounder and fallen into a deep hole, I got out on the bank to avoid a place where the water went down hill too fast—something between rapids and a cascade. He came and sat on a log by me, looking disconsolate.
"Jim," I said, "You're pretty wet. Perhaps you'd better go home and write that letter."
"I don't see my way yet. How can you be so positive?"
"Because I've heard the story before, and know more about it than you do. I had a friend who was there at the time too. O, it caused some talk, I can tell you. Did your hero suppose it would interest nobody but himself?"
"Yes, as I told you. Good heavens! You don't mean—"
"O, no public talk; only the family, and people who knew the facts and could be trusted. They were all sorry for him too; they thought he was such an ass. You see a performance like his can't end where it begins; it has consequences."
"You say, 'for him too.' They couldn't be sorry for the lady—why should they?"
"You are pigheaded, Jim. What did I tell you last night? This thing put its mark on her, in a way no man has a right to mark a woman without her consent. See that trout jump, in the pool down yonder? I must get him."
"Wait a moment. What I told you about could not have been known unless the lady told it; and she was not of that sort. I don't understand."
"Decidedly you don't. I can't waste a day like this on second-hand gossip, Jim; as you said yesterday, the evening is the time for talk. You go home and change your clothes and rest your brain. I know my way here, and I want to fill my basket. I'll get back in time for supper. Here, you can take these."
And so I sent him off. He is biddable and humble now, and will be more so presently; in a kind of transition state, he is. He came back in the afternoon, and sat on the bank while I pulled out the biggest fish yet. I carried home the best basket we've had; not so many specimens, but far finer ones, than from that Devil's Brook in the Land Accursed. In fishing, as in other things, a good deal depends on your state of mind.
That evening I dressed for dinner, as far as I could, like a gentleman; not that any visitors were likely to drop in, but I thought it due to the occasion. Jim, having plenty of leisure at command, and noting my manoeuvres, did the same. He ate little, but I paid due attention to the trout and claret, and took my time to it; though we do not have a lot of courses and ceremony at meals up here, nor are such necessary. Then we settled ourselves in easy chairs before the great fireplace, where pine logs were roaring: the nights are cold now, and this is one comfort of these out-of-the-way places, where fuel is plenty.
As soon as he had a chance, he began. "There is some mystery about this, Bob. You wouldn't answer my question this morning."
"Now that I have dined, James, I'll answer any questions you like—provided they are such as may fitly be put to the father of a family. So fire away."
"First then, how do you come to know so much about this?"
"Because I was there. O, not eavesdropping, not as a spy—that is out of my line; but purely, and luckily as it proves, by accident." And I told him all about it. I will not say that his jaw dropped, but his facial apparatus elongated.
"Then Cl—she knows that you know?"
"Not a word. What do you take me for? How could I tell her?"
"But—the others know?"
"Certainly not. You have the most extraordinary notions, Hartman. It was her secret, not theirs. If you had been in my place, perhaps you would have written to the papers, or told the story at family prayers. Can't you see that it was impossible for me to let her know till I had had it out with you?"
"And you have stood by me, knowing all this—you are still my friend?"
"Well, if I had had merely myself to consider, my natural loathing and contempt for the beast, ape, idiot and scoundrel who was capable of such conduct might have led me to extremities. O, I endorse all the compliments you have paid yourself. But there is my interesting family; the twins have quite a regard for you, and Herbert. And so has my wife; she doesn't know you as well as I do. And my sister—a superior person, though too soft-hearted, whom I cherish with a deep fraternal affection—she has been besieging me with intercessions, and melting my obduracy with her tears; and that for one who has made all this coil, and whose qualities have been too well enumerated by himself."
"I will try to be more deserving of her kindness, Bob: I told you she was the right sort. But you said just now they did not know."
"Only by surmise, and inference from your hasty departure, and from—subsequent developments. Women are not wholly fools, Jim: they are just as good as we; perhaps better, and sometimes wiser. O, they are very well in their way. Let us bear with them, James, and allow for their redeeming traits."
"Don't hit a man with his own words when he is down, Bob. But—there is Another, whom you've not mentioned."
"So there is: you didn't mention her, either. Come to think of it, there is another member of my household, whom we have overlooked in this discussion, yet to whom I owe some sort of consideration."
"Of course I know who is first with you: I am content to come in a bad second. You haven't—I suppose—any word—from Her?"
"What do you take her for? Ladies can't do that sort of thing. See here, Hartman, don't get on that line again. She is used to due respect."
His face fell. "I know: I mean nothing else. What have you to say to me then?"
"Say? Haven't I said enough? Confound you, it's your turn to say things now."
"I thought I had said a good deal. O, I am ready to make my submission, if it will do any good. Imagine the rest, can't you? Don't be playing your games on me now, Bob."
There was a tone of pathos in this: I took a good look at him, and saw that he was doing the contrite as well as I could expect. He will do it better without a middleman when he gets the chance; he'll hardly lapse into the other style again soon. All I have to do is to secure her position meanwhile.
"Well, what comes next? I believe I am on the witness-stand now."
"Tell me about Her, Bob."
"She is changed. Of old, one never knew what to expect of her. Now she is different. No stale customs about her, my boy."
"'Nor custom stale her infinite variety,' I suppose you mean. Yes, so I found—but that was my own fault. Some might prefer your version. But you don't imply—"
"No, I don't. You must find out for yourself about that. I thought you knew that she is chary of her confidences, and that none of us is given to seeking them. She has mentioned your name once in all this time, and then to say that you and I were great clumsy things—which is true; measurably of me, of you most eminently."
"What chance is there for me then?" He was discouraged again. Jim is so foolish; he gets exalted and depressed on the slightest provocation. Perhaps I was like that once, but it was long ago.
"Well, she knows I am here; do you suppose I would have come if she objected? Make what you can out of that.—You needn't make too much of it either: go slow, now. You see she doesn't like to be thwarted in her benevolent plans; and you were a wild man, to be reclaimed and civilized. Instead of submitting like a decent savage, you broke loose all at once, and left her to feel that she had done you harm instead of good. You are the only fellow who ever gave her any trouble: I can't see how you had the cheek to do it. Why, man, you have got to learn manners if you want to associate with that kind. She could do better than you any day; but a wilful woman must have her way, and a gentleman usually lets her have it.—Now there you go again. I didn't say what her way might be in this case, did I? How should I know what she wants of you? Probably just to smooth you down, and be friends, and see you behave. The other supposition, as you said last night, is too wildly impossible. You ought to be glad to meet her on any terms she may choose to make, and thankful and proud to undergo any penance of her imposing, after your conduct, and the annoyance it has caused her and all of us. Most women, in her place, would let you stay in the woods and eat your heart out. Perhaps she will yet; you needn't look so pleased. All I know is that you owe her reparation. You ought to go on your knees from here to the avenue, even if you have to come back on foot."
"You have gained in insight since August, Bob. You express my views with accuracy—though one can hardly talk of these matters to another man. I always honored you for holding Her in such esteem. But practically, what am I to do?"
"That is not easy to say, James: it can hardly be plain sailing. If women were not more forgiving than we, bless their little hearts, you would have no chance to do anything. And the finer grain they are of, the more embarrassing it becomes; with her sort it is peculiarly difficult. I know, from long and trying experience; I have to mind my p's and q's, I tell you. If you had taken up with one of these farmers' daughters, as you nearly led me to believe last night—there's nothing to get mad about—it would have been much simpler and easier for you. If it were that other man, I should say to him, Write to the lady, if you think that safe: I don't advise it. But if you had a friend who knew her well, and was a person of capacity and resource and great tact and approved discretion, and willing to employ all these qualities in your service—"
"O, I'll leave the affair in your hands: I don't see what else I can do. I'm everlastingly obliged to you, of course."
"Yes, I should think you would be; a nice mess you'd make of it by yourself. You have no idea how this thing has weighed on my mind ever since you left us at Newport; nor how awkward it is, even for me, to approach a girl of her sensitive pride and highminded delicacy on such a subject. But I'm ready to go on suffering in your cause, James, even if it be for years."
"I hope it won't take as long as that. Hurry it up, old man, now you've got a start. Don't let the injury to Her and the weight on my conscience go on accumulating. What you do, do quickly."
"So you'd like me to rush off to-morrow? There's gratitude. No, sir; I must think the matter over, and I may have to consult you about details. Besides, they are all exercised about my health, and expect me to make my week out. Your case is not a strong one, James; all depends on the way it is put. I will not ruin it by indecent pressure or undue haste. Leave it to me, and let sweet sleep revisit the weary head whence she has fled so long. In simpler language, keep still and do as I tell you, and don't bother."
I took pen and ink to my room, and indited a home epistle. It informed Mabel that I was progressing toward recovery, and expected to ship some large trout, carefully packed in ice; also that she was a true prophet, and the other business in hand was moving just as she had foretold. I enclosed a brief note to Clarice, which said simply, "O. K. Ever thine," and signed it with my initials and Jim's: and a cartoon for Jane, which I sat up late to design and execute. It represented a small lover, transfixed with a large arrow, prostrating himself before a Haughty Damsel of High Degree. This work of art, with the subjoined effusions, will keep up their spirits till I get home.
I will not tell you what more we did that week, nor how many wagonloads of big game we bagged when we sallied forth with guns to make war upon the monarchs of the forest: perhaps their hides and horns are on view in my library, and perhaps not. Nor will you expect any more scenery of me, seeing how I have groaned and sweated to produce the pen-pictures you have already enjoyed: I don't desire to advertise Jim's retreat too much, and spoil its seclusion. He was impatient and restive, but feeling much better than when I came, and ready to do anything I wished—of course. But he wanted to talk all the time, and ask questions: he kept me busy pacifying him, till I was tired. Rational conversation on serious subjects is good, but to be thus forever harping on small personal feelings and relations makes one realize that Silence is Golden. Clarice never acts in that way: I wish Jim would have some occasional flashes of taciturnity, like Macaulay.
The day before I left, while we were burying a calf I had shot by mistake, he said, "Bob, do you remember my asking you once, in a purely suppositious way, what you would do if I were to quarrel with—Her?"
"O yes. But the farmer that owned this late lamented beast ought to be paid for it."
"Never mind that. I'll attend to it after you're gone, and save your feelings. Well, you said you'd stand by both of us."
"Hang my feelings: do you suppose I expend feelings on a misguided heifer? It got in the bushes where you said I might look for a deer, and here's a ten on account; you can write me if it costs more. My sympathies, James, are reserved for nobler animals when they make worse mistakes."
"Yes, as I have proved. You've kept your word; but you were pretty rough on me."
"Your conduct was pretty rough on all of us. I had to open your eyes; and I don't want you to try those tricks again. If you do, I may have to shoot you by mistake."
"You would have been welcome to shoot me last week. Why did you leave me so long in the dark, Bob?"
"O, the deuce! Were explanations due from our side? It's true you need somebody to take care of you; but, you see, I have others to look after, and so can't devote myself exclusively to you: you'd better get a keeper. It was Jane who urged my coming up here. I always meant to, but I couldn't till Clarice suggested it."
"She suggested it, did she? You never told me that before."
"I ought not to have told you now, if it makes you fly off the handle in this way. She merely said to Mabel, no doubt in all sincerity, that I looked badly and needed a change; she said nothing about my coming here. She has a regard for me; whether you are anybody in her eyes remains to be seen. Don't jump to conclusions, now. The Princess is not a person to take liberties with, as I've learned by repeated lessons."
"I know it, Bob: one lesson is enough for me. I suppose it would hardly do for me to go back with you?"
"Hardly. Personally I should be delighted, and so would some others; but—you know as well as I do. I have got to feel somebody's pulse, and proceed very gingerly. Possess your soul in what patience you can till you hear from me. See here, Hartman; with your views, and your well-grounded aversion to domestic and even social life, a little of this sort of thing ought to go a long way. I should think you'd be unwilling to risk contact with the world again. A child that will play about the cars, you know, after it's once been run over—"
"O, but you have opened my eyes to a sacred duty. Honor is above self-preservation. I want to purge my conscience, you see."
"Then do that and pause there. It was your vaulting ambition which overleaped all bounds before. If you get into another row, you may have to stay in it. I have full power of attorney, you say; well, I may have to make all sorts of promises for you before I can get you leave to return to duty, and you'll be expected to keep them. You don't know how difficult that will be for your unbridled inexperience; you'll be cabined, cribbed, confined within the dull limits of Propriety. It would be much better for you to be content with a correspondence, if you can get as far as that. You could expound your penitence and changed views by mail, and have time to think what you were saying, and get it in shape; whereas, if you plunge into the cold and heartless world again, you'll probably get into more trouble, and I can't come up here to set you straight again—not before next May. You were right, James: there is nothing in common between you and the world. Why expose yourself to its temptations, its dangers, its hollow and soul-wearying forms? This atmosphere is so much purer; there is less of Vanity and Woe up here. Stay where you are well off. Clarice can write a pretty good letter when she chooses; I'll try to fix it that way for you." But he would not accept this reasonable view, and insisted on my getting permission for him to come down before Christmas, and as much sooner as possible.
So nobody but he could drive me to the cars; he filled the fifteen miles with charges and reminders. As the train moved off, he was waving his hat, his face radiant with hope and pathetic with confidence. He looks ten years younger than he did last week. A pretty fellow he is to call himself a Pessimist.
I reached home in the early evening. The servant told me at the door that Mrs. T. was in attendance on Master Herbert, who had fallen over the banisters and injured his nasal organ. I rushed upstairs: Mabel met me with no demonstrations of grief or anxiety. "I see by your face that it is all right—as I always said it would be. Go to Clarice; she is in the library. O, Herbert? He fell on his nose, of course; he always does. It is not at all serious. The dear child has been feeling better since we heard from you, and taking more exercise. Clarice has the first right to your news."
I found her, and dropped on my knees. She looked at me, not so sweetly as of late. "Get up, Robert, I thought I had cured you of your bad habit of untimely jesting."
"You have. I realize the solemnity of the occasion, if you do not. My name is James—no, that's not it. I am a representative, an envoy. You see before you a banished man who has justly incurred his sovereign's displeasure, and has repented day and night. This posture, perhaps unseemly in the father of a family, expresses the other fellow's state of mind. He's afraid to come himself, and so he sent me."
She looked at me again, and saw that I was serious. You see, these delicate matters have to be managed delicately. I can't do the unmitigated tragedy business as well as Hartman might, and yet I had to meet the requirements of the situation, and the Princess' expectations, which are always high. People who have their own affairs of this kind to conduct might sometimes avoid painful failures by taking a leaf out of my book, and mixing the difficult passages with a little—a very little—chastened and judicious humor; then they would avoid overdoing it, and sending the lady off disgusted.
"Does he take all the blame?"
"Absolutely: he did from the first moment. He can't come here to say so till he's allowed, and he can't get up till you give him a token of forgiveness."
She gave it: it was inexpensive to her, and soothing to the penitent—or would have been if he had been there to get it in person. I took it simply on his account.
"Keep still now, and let me think."
I kept still. The attitude of prayer, while well suited to the lighter forms of ladies, is inconvenient to a man of my size, and deeply distressing when I am obliged to maintain it for more than five minutes; for that reason I don't go to church as much as I might. But I had to keep quiet while she did her thinking. May it be recorded to my credit! I would bear a good deal for Clarice, and sometimes I have to.
At last she finished her cogitations. "O, get up, Robert; I forgot. What else have you to tell me? But don't you want some supper?"
I was as hungry as a bison, but that was a secondary consideration.
"The supper can wait while I have your work to do. I'll tell you anything you care to know: he wants to have no secrets from you. But it has all been graphically summed up already. A famous orator of old told a young fellow who went to him to learn how to speak a piece, 'Act it.' That's what I've been doing the last half hour: I didn't think it would take so long."
I rubbed my knees, which were still sore: the library carpet is reasonably thick, but it was not built for devotional uses, "I suppose Hartman would be glad to stay down there all night if he had the chance. But he'd be awkward about it—infernally awkward. You see, he has had no practice in this kind of thing; he doesn't know your ways as I do. I wonder if you will ever get him into as good training as you have me."
I put in this light badinage to relieve any embarrassment she might feel—not that she could show any such if she tried, but for what you and I know even she might feel it—and to let her get used to the situation. But she did not seem to care for it. "That's enough for now, Robert. Go and get your supper." She said this in a weary tone. My heart sank.
"Princess dear, have I offended you? I meant it all right. Have I done anything wrong, and made a mess of this as usual?"
She gave me her hand. "O no, Bob. But go now. I'll talk more to you to-morrow."
Now I thought I had done this up in the most superior style, and that she would be pleased for once. But the ways of women are past man's understanding.
Jane awaited me in the dining-room with viands and an anxious brow, and would scarcely let me appease the cravings of exhausted nature. She sent the servant out, and ministered to my wants herself.
"Brother, you look downcast. Have you returned with empty hands?"
"I have brought some of the finest trout you ever saw—not in mere size perhaps, but in flavor, colors, and gaminess. You didn't expect me to carry 'em on a string over my shoulder, did you? And I would have brought some venison, but you don't care for it. You told me once that their eyes were so pretty and plaintive, it was a shame to kill them. I always try to please you, so I thought I would let them live.—Yes, thank you, I have brought back more health than I took away: I may be able now to stand the fatigues of business till Thanksgiving.—O, Hartman? I couldn't bring him along, you know: where is your sense of propriety? I advised him to stay up there where he is safe, and not tempt the shafts and arrows any more. What, I 'haven't done anything then, after all?' O, haven't I! Jane, you are worse than a serpent's tooth: if Lear had been in my place, he would have talked about a thankless sister. It has been a weary, toilsome, painful task, and few men could have carried it through to so happy an end. And when I come back hungering for sympathy—I told you what my nature was—you meet me with cold words and suspicious looks. It is enough to make one weep, and long for the silent grave. If it were Hartman, you would do the weeping, no doubt. Yet that man, whom you thus unnaturally set above your brother—you have no idea of his harshness, his violence, his embittered prejudice and obstinacy; nor of the patience and gentleness and persuasive force with which I expelled the demons that possessed him, and brought him to his right mind. O, he has had an overhauling; he will take care how he does it again. But he is all right now."
"I wonder at that, after his being in your hands for a week. Your tender mercies were cruel, I fear. What does Clarice say to this? Is she satisfied?"
"She ought to be, but she says nothing at all; couldn't take in the magnitude of my news at once, most likely. Yet I took pains to break it to her delicately, and with light touches of humor, to relieve any strain there might be."
"Yes, soothed her nerves as with a nutmeg-grater, no doubt. You will serenade her next with tin pans and fish-horns, and think that a delicate attention. Brother, Clarice does not share your peculiar view of humor, nor do I. Mabel tries to comprehend it and to catch your tone, as is her melancholy duty; but it is hard work for her. Well, what does Mr. Hartman say?—Don't tell me anything that is private, or belongs to Clarice alone."
"O, you may hear most of it. He says all sorts of things—anything you like. You see he can't be trusted, or trust himself, any longer, so I have full power to represent him."
"That is definite, and convenient for you, whatever it may be to others. Of course a man will promise anything when he has an object to gain. I suppose you left him in the depths of despair and on a pinnacle of ecstasy at once."
"That is about it. Let us be thankful that you and I are well beyond these follies.—My dear, I wasn't alluding to your age; upon my honor I wasn't. I only meant that your elevation of mind and dignity of character lift you far above such idiotic transports, and give you a right to despise weak creatures like Jim, and in some degree even myself. No man is worthy of you, Jane: you know you never would look at any of them. What did I tell you about your looks? Except Clarice, and perhaps I ought to say Mabel, and a few on the cars, you are by far the handsomest woman I've seen since I left home."
"After your week among the belles of Wayback, that compliment seems strained. O, I see: Clarice was not in the right mood just now, and your tide of geniality rolled back upon itself, so that it has to break loose on some one else: or you are to see her again to-morrow, and must practice smooth things meantime to say then.—Ah, it is both, is it?"
"Sister, you are an external conscience—except that you won't approve when I have done the right thing, and done it well. You would be invaluable to Jim. I doubt whether he and Clarice will get on; and he thinks a heap of you. If he don't suit her on further inspection, or makes any more blunders, you might take him in hand and make a man of him."
"So as to keep him in reach as material for you? Robert, if you want me to comfort you when Clarice is gone, you will have to make your light humor much lighter yet, and let me select subjects for its exercise."
"Now, now—do you think I would offer you secondhand goods? If I had known him then as I do to-day, I would have let her go off in June as she proposed, and fixed it the other way. It would have saved no end of bother."
"And deprived you of a source of huge amusement, and an unprecedented field for the display of your peculiar talents. Do you think men and women are mere puppets for you to play with? You would make but a poor tenth-rate Providence—though you may have succeeded in this case. Tell me how you did it."
"I showed him that he was all wrong. He knew that already, but thought she didn't care. I told him she did."
"Robert! You have not betrayed her? Is this your diplomacy?"
"Of course not: how you talk, Jane. I said her interest in him was philanthropic, and he had behaved with brutal ingratitude—like a charity patient in the hospital, or a bad boy at Sunday School; so he ought to yearn to come back—if she will kindly allow—and give her a chance to go on reforming him or not, just as she pleases. I admitted the purely speculative possibility that it might be otherwise—of a more personal and commonplace description—just to encourage him a little; but as he had said at the start that this chance was practically nonexistent, I let him think so and dwelt on the other view, which was new to him, and impressive. O, I preserved her dignity; that was the first necessity. If he is cherishing any hopes of the vulgar, everyday sort, he did not get them from me."
"And did he believe all that? If so, I must have been mistaken in the man."
"He had to believe it. It was the simple truth: I merely arranged the colors properly on his mental canvas. He thinks I am Solon and Rhadamanthus and Nehemiah in one. How would you have done it perhaps, when you had to hook your fish without letting him get the bait—induce him to commit himself, and yet not commit her at all?"
"I don't know, brother. You could not have thrown her on his generosity, of course; she would have killed herself and him and all of us, rather than take happiness at such a price—and I can't blame her. Yet she despises a subterfuge. I would not tell her the details if I were you; she will not ask for them, nor want to hear them. It is a queer world: when such things have to be done—sacrificing your best friend to insure his welfare, deceiving him in the interest of one who abhors deception—your eccentricities may be of more use than I had hitherto supposed possible."
I pretended to be deeply pained at this; but in my heart I knew it was high praise, coming from Jane. She is not like Clarice; she asked all manner of questions, and kept me answering them three mortal hours. Fortunately Mabel has less curiosity, or I should not have got much sleep that night, after all my ill-appreciated labors. But I don't regret what I did for Hartman; he believes what you tell him.
Clarice was not at breakfast next day; but as I was going out, she met me in the hall. "Robert, can you come back at four?"
"At any hour you wish, Princess; or I will stay now."
"No, that will be early enough. I will be in the library."
Now that is Clarice all over: she is herself again. No eagerness, no petty curiosity, but a grand indifference, a statuesque calm, a goddess-like withdrawal from the affairs and atmosphere of common mortals. Indeed it is not she who will ask for details that any other woman would burn to know: a single question as to the vital point, and then "what else have you to tell me?" The rest might keep a day, a week, a month. Her taste was always for large outlines, her mind has breadth and grasp and comprehension; when she seemed to care for little things, she was at play. In a matter like this, her secret thoughts are the main element; what others may think or say or do need be noticed only as contributing material for them to work with. What has vexed her all this time has been that the sacrilege of events had put one factor in the problem out of reach, beyond her control: she has been used to having all she wanted of the earth, and deigning to want but little of it and to value that little but lightly. Now that she cares for something at last, and it is at her call again, she will weigh and measure the situation, and all its aspects and possibilities, in the silent council chamber of her soul, and the decision will go forth before any one ventures to ask what it may be. Stay in your cave, hermit of Wayback, and say your Ave Clarissa as patiently as you can: when the edict calls you to court, your part will be cast for you, and you will have nothing to do but say the lines. If you break bounds again and stray from your proper posture before the throne, or put in any more of your irreverent gags, I am done with you.
I have wrought your will, my Princess, and brought back your pretty toy, for you to mend or break: you hardly mean to break it. Yet it is a pity to see you descend to common uses, to ordering a house and taking care of poor old Jim; you were born to shine apart in solitary state, and have men gaze at you wistfully from far below. No man can rate more highly than I the domestic relations, affections, virtues; but I don't like to see you put yourself in the category of mere human beings, as if marriage and a man were good enough for you. You will have your way, now as always, and use me at your will: it is you who have the ordering of this funeral, not I.
As she did not seem to like my style last night, I had better be sober and plain this afternoon; sort of Quaker thee and thou, without artistic embellishments. Yes, by Jove, I'll have to be, for there's the guilty secret to be unloaded. There is no excuse for keeping it to myself any longer, now Jim has it; sooner or later she must know that I've known all along what was not meant for me, and it may as well be done now, whatever the result. It will not please her, but I can't help that. I will not break my word and keep a thing from her, except as there is reason; to tell it can do no great harm now, unless to me—and that is a minor matter.
At the hour appointed I was on deck: no one ever interrupts the Princess, and we were undisturbed. "Robert, I had better hear your report. Cut it short, please; give me a condensed outline merely."
What did I tell you? This was said with an air as if she were discharging an unwelcome duty, so that I might not feel neglected. She evidently resents the impertinence of circumstances in forcing her to allow me to have a hand in her private matters: it will be as much as I can expect if she forgives me for meddling. Obeying orders, I endeavored to be brief and business-like.
"He has had a bad time of it, Clarice. He was a changed man when I got there—rough and morose and unmanageable; kept hinting at some mysterious crime he had committed. It was a day or two before I could bring him to book, by methods on which I need not dwell. Detective work is not a nice business; the means has to take its justification from the end. He made his confession as if it were another's; said how superior you were, and how basely he had repaid your condescension. He thought that ended the affair, except for his lifelong remorse; hoped he might die soon; impossible to be forgiven, or regarded by you in any light but that of a loathsome object—regular stage part, you know, but perfectly sincere: if you like innocence, he can supply a first-class article. I put a head on him by saying his behavior had been much more flagrant than he realized, and the worst part of it was interfering with your plans and going off in such a hurry; that ladies like to be consulted in such cases, and sometimes to administer divine forgiveness, or at least punish the transgressor in their own way, and not leave it all to him.—You need not look at me like that, Princess. I know nothing of your feelings, and told him so. Of course I maintained your dignity: what else was I there for? And so, to do him justice, did he, as far as he knows how. He is just where you like to have them—or would if you cared enough about them. After I had enlightened him as to his duty, it was all simple. I gave him just sufficient hope—of pardon, I mean—to keep him alive, and turn his despair to active penitence. The game is entirely in your hands now. He was on fire to come back with me, or to write at once. I said he must take no more liberties, but wait for permission. If I may venture a suggestion, you might let me tell him to write you; then you can graciously allow him to come when you are ready for him."
That I may call a succinct and lucid narrative. She listened to it with clear eyes like Portia, as if she were a judge and had to hear such cases every day. Now for questions: I bet odds there will not be more than three, and those straight to the heart of my discourse—nothing irrelevant, or secondary, or sentimental.
"Did he say what had been his offence?"
"Presumption. He insulted you—though of course he didn't mean to—and you very properly resented it and withered him with contempt. He never understood, till I made him see it, that what he did next was worse than this, as emphasizing the wrong and making it—for a while—irrevocable."
Her eyes were like judgment lightnings now, that might burn through the darkness and bring out all hidden things. Luckily I had nothing to hide; or rather I was about to make a clean breast of it.
"How were you able to speak so positively?"
"That is what he asked me, and therein lay such power as I had to master him; at least it was the chief weapon in my arsenal. I answer you as I answered him: By knowing more about the matter than he did. Princess, I have deceived you all along, and broken my promise to tell you everything. I saw and overheard the quarrel." And then I told her all about it.
She looked at me silently, with an expression I never saw before. I turned away, as one turns from the sun in his strength. I was sitting on a stool beside her, and I suppose my head went down. Suddenly a hand was on my forehead, pushing it back. "Robert, look at me. What was your motive in keeping this from me?"
"O, the motives were mixed; they always are. There was my dread of offending you; that was selfish. And more than that, I did not want to hurt you, if it could be avoided. And most, I was not willing to complicate the trouble, and all but certainly make it worse. It seemed to me that you would be shocked, and disgusted, and enraged to know that a third person had intruded on so private a scene, and surprised a secret that belonged to you. Don't fancy that I was blaming you; that was my rough guess at how any woman would feel, most of all you: perhaps I was wrong. I thought that for you to know might widen the breach, and destroy all chance of reconciliation. I had to think of him, as well as of you. Not as well, no; not as much—you know that; but of him too. I could not tell you till I had told him, and made the matter right—if you will have it so. You will not let it turn you against him now—this fact that I was there? It was not his fault: it was an accident, and I am the only one to blame. I did the best I could, after such lights as I had."
Still the great eyes kept burning into mine; but they did not hurt so much as I had expected. "Did you tell Mabel and Jane of this?"
"How could I? It was your secret. What do you take me for, Clarice? I never breathed a word of it, of course, until I had it out with Jim a week ago, and brought him to his senses: after that I thought you ought to know. Mabel and Jane never dreamed that I knew anything beyond what little you might have told me, or let me see."
Her arms were round my neck now. There was a minute or two of silence: I really did not know what to say next. Then she looked up, tears in her eyes, a tone I never could describe in her voice.
"And you have done all this for me, Robert!"
I made a feeble attempt to unloose her hands and draw myself up. "Don't talk that way, Clarice; it hurts me. You make too much of this; it was a matter of course, and there is nothing new in it. I thought you knew I was always ready to do anything I could for you: that is an old story, as you used to say."
The effort at dignity was not successful, for her head drooped again. Soon she raised it, a smile chasing the tears away.
"You can triumph over Jane now. She used to say you never could keep a secret. Did you enjoy keeping this one, Bob?"
"Not exactly. I will keep some more if you insist on it, but it would be more enjoyable if they were of another sort. No more like this, if it is the same to you."
"You said you used this as a weapon to master him with. Why didn't you use it on me? It might have been good for me to be mastered and overruled."
I had to laugh now. "Jim can try that by and by—if he dares. Other men may overrule other women, perhaps; I know my place too well. Clarice, it is not like you to talk nonsense. If I could have consulted you about this—how to keep the secret, and what to do with it—it would have made things easier for me, but unhappily that was not feasible. You don't mean it would have done good instead of harm if I had told you earlier?"
"I doubt it. No, you were right. Brother, there is so much more of you than any of us thought!"
"So Hartman has found. But I don't want to be unduly exalted. Love is better than pride, and this trouble of yours has brought us all closer together, I believe. There is only one thing to be done yet."
"No; two at least. Robert, you deserve to know everything. I will tell you what we were talking about that wretched day, so that you may see what excuse there was for him, and how wrong I was. And then you can tell Jane and Mabel."
"I don't want to know, my dear, nor is there any need to tell them anything. None of us desire to pry into your affairs, but only to see them set right. It was plain that something led up to poor Jim's blunder, and that is enough. You can tell Mabel and Jane what you like before he comes back,—though they won't ask it.—I will overrule you for once, as you insist. You want to put a force upon yourself for my sake, and I will not have it; not another word of that. But—and in this case I am not overruling, but only suggesting—Jim is waiting all this time. May I tell him that he can write to you?"
"Not just yet. You have opened my eyes as well as his, Bob; you've revealed so many masculine virtues that I must take them in by degrees. You've been keeping yourself in the background and putting him forward, as if I could be interested in one person only. Now let him wait a day or two, while I think about you."
There may have been more of these exchanges, which I do not care to repeat. What goes on in the domestic circle is essentially of a private nature, too intimate and sacred to be whispered into the general ear. There are persons who will violate these holy confidences, and tell you what he said and she said when the doors were shut. I am not like them. If I appear at times to break my own rule and treat you as a member of the household, it is merely for your improvement, that you may see (as I told Jim last summer) how things are arranged in a christian family: and especially that, when any trouble of this kind invades your own humble roof, you may know how to slay the lion and extract strength and sweetness from his carcass, as I have done. Should these pages instruct but a single brother, whether by nature or adoption, how to unwind his sister's tangled affairs and bring them to a prosperous conclusion, I shall not have penned them in vain.
A FAMILY CONCLAVE.
I had written to Hartman more than once since my return, telling him to keep up his spirits and bide his time. Before long came the permission to open a correspondence with a more important person than I. What he wrote I know not; he is probably able to do that well enough, whatever blunders he may commit when face to face. I have reason to believe his outpouring was answered, with excessive brevity but to the purpose, in the one word, 'Come.' In fact, the Princess declined (and very properly) to expend a postage-stamp on him, or to gratify him with an envelope of her own inditing, but told me to enclose this minute but inflammatory document in non-explosive wrappings of my own.
He was to arrive on a certain day in late November. The evening previous, as we were sitting together, Clarice—who generally prefers her own society, and I can't blame her—appeared, in our midst (if that expression is allowable), with an aspect of grim determination. I rose to give her a chair in the corner, but she sat down where she could see us and we could look at her. We did so, anxiously expectant, for this was a most unusual proceeding; and I inwardly resolved to make it easier for her than she meant to have it. She began with the air of an orator who reluctantly emerges from seclusion at his country's call, constrained to deliver matter of pith and moment.
"It is no news that you all have shown me kindness such as passes all acknowledgment—"
She was not allowed to proceed without hindrance. Jane put forth an interrupting hand, which the speaker seized and imprisoned in her own: not that Clarice's is bigger than Jane's, but it possesses some muscular force. Mabel opened her lips, and one of us—I will not say which—was obliged to remind her that Miss Elliston had the floor.
"It is not in me to be demonstrative, and I have seemed cold and thankless—"
"We knew you better than that, dear," came from both.
"—But I knew, I felt it all. Never did a girl without natural protectors—"
"But you can have a natural protector whenever you like," cried Mabel. "You might have had any number of them, for years past."
"Well, with or without, no girl ever had, or could have had, more faithful affection and delicate consideration shown her than I. I have given you a great deal of trouble, and you never complained. I have come between you and friends—"
"My dear," Mabel interposed again, "that is all right. Our friends will come back." And she nodded and looked like a female Solomon, while Jane whispered something and put her disengaged arm around the orator.
"Don't interrupt me any more, please. You know it is not easy for me to talk of these matters—"
"That is so," said I. "It is rarely we get a speech from Clarice on any subject. Do keep quiet, all of you, and let the poor girl go on."
"But now I must tell you something you have no idea of."
Here the female portion of the audience pricked up their ears, and I began to be nervous. "It is about Mr. Hartman's going away in August. That was all my fault."
"Don't you believe her," said I. "He says it was all his fault."
"Do be quiet, Robert. He is coming to-morrow, and justice must be done him. I treated him very badly, and—"
"She didn't," said I. "Clarice, we don't want to be dragged into all your private squabbles, but if you will tell this disreputable story you have got to tell it straight. Jim says you merely showed a proper spirit, and so you did."
"Why, what do you know about it, Robert?" cried Mabel and Jane together.
"He was there, hidden in the bushes, like a villain in a cloak and slouched hat."
Here came a chorus of exclamations and reproaches, till one of us had to say, "You may as well give it up, Clarice. These women will never let you go on; they don't know how to listen. If you were talking only to me, now—"
"Jane, you can never twit him again with not being able to keep a secret; he kept this one sacredly for three months."
"Of course he did," said Mabel: "I always knew it."
"Why, Robert, you told me—," Clarice exclaimed, and "O no, you didn't, my dear," some one else put in, while Jane looked triumphant.
"No, I didn't know this secret, of course," Mabel admitted: "I only meant that I always knew Robert could keep a secret, if it were of very extraordinary importance, and if he were certain it would ruin everything to let it out. Poor Robert, what a hard time you have had!"
"But how did he come to overhear your conversation?" said Jane. "What business had he there?"
"It was all through his pipe. Mabel, you must never object to his pipe again."
"There now, Mabel," remarked another of the company, "you wouldn't believe that the pipe was good for my health, and now you see it has preserved the whole family."
"I don't see that," said the troublesome Jane: "what was the use of your being there intermeddling?"
"Jane," said one severely, "if you will be still, you will probably learn. How can you expect to hear anything when you keep on interrupting Clarice like this?"
"I am coming to that now, Jane. What he thus saw and heard he most patiently, and heroically, and from the noblest motives—"
"Excuse me, ladies," said I. "My pipe is not handy, but I must go out and smoke a cigar. I want to see a man—"
"Let the man smoke the cigar, and that will provide for both of them. You will sit down, Robert, and hear me out; I am not to be overruled this time."
"It would give me the greatest pleasure to hear you out, my dear, but you know your health is delicate, and you are not accustomed to public speaking. This is the longest oration you ever made: Jane's constant interruptions are trying, and you must be fatigued. If I were you, I would rest now, and finish this up to-morrow."
"Now isn't that exactly like him?" cried the irrepressible Jane. "He is afraid of your exposures, as well he may be. Go on, Clarice, and tell us what other iniquities he has committed, besides deceiving Mabel and me about this, while he was questioning us all the time, and pretending to impart all he knew."
"He deceived me too. Yes, you may well stare; he kept this absolutely to himself, till he could use it for his own deep purposes; and"—she blushed a little—"that is why things are as they are."
I saw she wanted to be helped out, so I said.
"Yes, that is the cause of this thusness. You see, Mabel, what great results may spring from a little pipe. Jane, you will have to admit that I am the guardian angel and protecting genius of you all."
"Well, Clarice," said Jane, "I will own that my estimate of his talents has risen lately; but then my confidence in his moral character has fallen in the same degree. He does tell such dreadful falsehoods."
"It is not quite as if he told them for love of them, simply for the pleasure he takes in falsehood itself. You must allow for his motives."
"Yes," said Mabel, "his motives are always excellent, whatever his words and actions may be. You remember the man in the Bible, who was delivered to Satan for his soul's sake; and I have heard Robert himself say that in ascending a mountain you often have to go down hill."
"She means," I explained, "that on the rare occasions when I employ fiction, I do it purely in the interests of Truth. That goddess is imperfectly provided with garments—excuse me for stating so scandalous a fact, but it is so. Now this might have been well enough in Eden before the fall, but it will not do now; so we have to make the poor creature presentable, and pay her milliner's bills, which are often high. It would have been far more congenial to my candid nature to tell you all at once what I saw and heard that day in August; but such a course might have been attended with unpleasant consequences. If you will all forgive me, I will try not to do it again."
"I do not see my way to forgive you, brother," said Jane with a judicial air, "unless Clarice does; and that appears doubtful. I will be guided entirely by her."
"I have managed my own affairs so well without help, that you will naturally all wish to be guided by me. It is a good deal for me to do; but since Robert's misconduct has done no great harm, and rather than come between brother and sister, I will—yes, I will forgive him." She rose majestically, signed to me to do the same, and gave me both hands, with the air of a sovereign conferring knighthood; we made an impressive tableau. "And since you are all so quiet at last, I may finish my speech, and state the reason for this act of leniency. As Mr. Hartman's conversion is to be completed this time without fail, it is plainly necessary that he should find us a united family."
TO PERSONS ABOUT TO MARRY.
I would have liked to celebrate Jim's arrival by sundry pleasant and appropriate remarks; but impressive warnings and entreaties had reached me privately from three distinct quarters, urging me to efface myself on this occasion, and keep in the background. I complied with these suggestions, and there were no tumultuous rejoicings over the returning prodigal. Mabel and Jane greeted him with unobtrusive warmth: Clarice was rather stately and very calm; to look at her, you would have thought this was an ordinary call. When they talk about my duplicity, they mean that they want a monopoly of the article themselves. The visitor flushed and trembled like a boy, till I felt sorry for him, and would have offered him something to drink if they had given me a chance. Women are so queer about such matters: instead of letting the poor man go off with me, they pretended not to notice his confusion, and talked about the weather and mountains and trout, as if he wanted to discuss such frivolities. This soon got to be a bore, and I went to the new smoking-room, inviting him to follow when he needed rational conversation. He did not come at all, and I found afterwards that my wife and sister had gone away presently, and left him alone with Clarice—and they such sticklers for Propriety.
I expected to have some fun watching this tender pair; but I was disappointed. There never is anything sensational to see when the Princess is in action: she carries an atmosphere of quietness about with her, and imposes it on those who come within her circle. Hartman broke rules and bounds once last summer, but he seems unlikely to do it again. The rest of us kept out of the way as much we could, and gave them scope. I said to Jane that we ought to get up a torchlight procession, or a big dinner, or something, in Jim's honor, but she scornfully told me to wait at least till the engagement was announced. When he was with me—which was little, for his time seemed to be much occupied, and his weakness for tobacco nearly cured—he once or twice attempted some drivel about disinterested friendship and undying gratitude; but I stopped that. If there be one thing for which I profess no sympathy, it is puling sentiment. He apparently did not care to discuss the progress of his affair, which was a relief; it is a dreadful nuisance to have to listen to lovers' talk, and I had enough of that at Wayback, when I could not help myself. At our time of life a man ought to be occupied with serious pursuits. But Jim is as if he had been asleep in a cave for ten years, and waked up with his beard well grown and a large stock of emotional aptitudes abnormally developed. I suppose Clarice likes this kind of thing, but I wonder at her taste.
They had been at it a week or so when I stumbled upon them unawares one day in the library. I tried to retreat, but they both called to me to stop.
"Robert," said she, "we have quarrelled again. That is, he has."
"Yes, Bob," said Jim, "and you'll have to straighten it out for us as you did before."
"This is too much," said I. "You had better take the next train for home, and by next May my health will need another change and I'll come up and attend to your case."
"This needs to be settled right away. Clarice wants to go to the woods and live there the year round, and I can't permit such a sacrifice."
"Robert, he wants to live in the world like other people, just for my sake, and I can't permit such a sacrifice either."
"You must both prepare to be sacrificed, my lambs. Each of you will have to bear and forbear, and get used to the other's repulsive selfishness and hidebound eccentricities, to forego the sweet privacy and freedom of self-indulgence which have marked your innocent lives hitherto. When the glamour of young romance has faded, when the bloom is rubbed off the peach and the juice is crushed out of the strawberry, there will remain only the hard reality of daily duty, which is continual self-immolation. You are wise to commence practising this virtue at once."
"You must instruct us how to do it, Bob. It would be as you say, no doubt—with her—if she had to live at Wayback as she proposes. You have been there enough to know that it is no place for her; tell her so. She has confidence in you, and she won't believe me."
"It would be as you say, Robert—with him—if he had to live among the constraints and shams which his soul abhors. You know it, and you have great influence over him. Tell him so."
"You are both right, and it is clear there is no place where you can live—together. James, she is a fragile flower; transplanted to your sterile soil, she would soon wither and drop from the stalk. Clarice, he is fastidious, critical, and intense; made a part of the things he despises, the torturing contact with pomps and vanities would soon strike his knell. My little dears, your paths were never meant to unite, and the best thing you can do is to part in peace. James, this is all imagination, and you know it; a milliner's lay-figure, or that rural nymph at Wayback, would do just as well, and be much less exacting and expensive. Clarice, you are pushing philanthropy too far: the picturesqueness of this hermit, and his alleged romantic woes, have misled you as to the nature of your interest in him. I don't think matrimony would suit you at all: you had much better stay with us, whom you can leave whenever you please. You could not do that so easily with a husband, and you don't like divorce. My children, pause: you will soon have had enough of each other, and then you can go your several ways in peace."
"See here, old man; it is too late for this kind of wisdom, after all the pains you have taken to bring us together when we were parted indeed. You ought to be proud of your work, and ready to give us your blessing."
"Don't mind Robert, James. You must take him as you find him, and it encourages him to go on if you seem to pay attention. All you need is to give him time—generally a great deal of it, to be sure. When you have known him twenty years or so as I have, you will understand that he usually has some tolerably good sense at the bottom of his mind, underneath a mountain of foolishness; he would say it is like the beer after he has blown the froth off.—Get to the sense as soon as you can, dear, for we can't well wait more than a month or two for it: we have to make our plans."
"I was going to say that you had better leave the engagement unlimited as to time and say nothing about it, for then you can get tired of one another at leisure, and part without embarrassment. But if you are in such indecent haste, and seriously bent on ruin, I will assist you over the precipice as gently as may be. You will have to compromise, and humor each other a little. Go abroad for awhile, or to Florida or the Pacific, till you feel less exclusive; then come back to us. The house is big enough, and you can make your winter home here: we can't let you have her on any other terms, Jim. You can enlarge your place when the weather opens, and put in the spring and fall there: some of us will come up, or I will anyway, after trout. Perhaps I'll bring Jane: she wanted to catch some. It would not be safe for Herbert; he is too fond of bears. If you find the whole summer there too much bliss, as you will, you can divide with us at Newport. That is fair to all parties, isn't it?"
"It will do nicely, for a rough sketch at least, and give us time to think. But there is a more serious difficulty, as you will see. Robert, he wants to give up his well-considered principles of so many years, and just for me—however he may deny it. Now I say he was mainly right. Take Life in the large view, and it is not a grand or beautiful thing. Have we any right to overlook the misery of millions, because a few of us like each other and are outwardly comfortable? I will not have him do so weak a thing as change his standards from no better reason than—well, that you went up to him for the fall fishing."
"My dear Clarice, if you set up as a Pessimist apostle, you will convert all the town, and that will never do.—You hear her, Jim? A wise man sometimes has to take his sentiments from a wiser woman. But seriously, I am ashamed of you. Having used your eyes and brains long ago and received a true impression, what right have you to cast it away, and be misled by a narrow prejudice in behalf of Life—or of some particular section of it? If he that loves a coral cheek and a ruby lip is but a redhot donkey, what shall we say of him who makes these his weatherguage to test the universe by?"
"Well, Bob, perhaps I have received a new impression, which is truer than the other—and deeper. As you told me last summer, a world with Clarice in it is quite different from a world without her. Princess—if I may use his term—Bob thinks a good deal of you too; at least he used to. You entered into his scheme of things as well as mine. Such is his duplicity, perhaps you never suspected the fact."
"That is strange, when he has taken such pains to get me off his hands. I could hardly believe it of you, Robert, on any less authority; it was an unworthy weakness, in such a philosopher. But really now, are you going to uphold him in this—against me?"
"Far from it: you will make him think what you please—only your own opinion on this point, though so strongly held and stated, is somewhat recent. Let us have a middle ground to start from, on which all parties can meet, as in the other case. When things go to suit us, let us call it a good world: when they don't, of course it is a bad one. O, we can consider the suffering millions too; but then we ourselves are somebody, and have our own point of view. So when you two look at each other, and contemplate your own bliss, you will be optimists; and when you read the suicides in the papers, and think of the Siberian exiles and my labors in Water Street, it will be the other way. Why, I am often a pessimist in the morning, and the reverse at night. It depends on the impression you receive, as Jim says; and there are a good many impressions, and not all alike. Often you can be betwixt and between. Let us fix it that way: I am sure that ought to suit anybody."
Jim agreed that it would do very well, but Clarice seemed undecided. "It seems so frivolous to look at Life in this easy way, just because we—well, are not unhappy, and not without friends. You never do yourself justice, Robert—or very rarely. If we have been favored beyond others, we ought to be earnest and serious."
"My dear, Time will check your frivolity, and mitigate the morbid bitterness of Jim's gloomy contempt of life—or vice versa. If I have got you mixed up, I beg pardon: you have changed positions so, it confuses me. But as we are to be earnest and serious, we should seek to communicate our happiness to others. Hadn't I better call them in?"
The lovers consented, and I called. Mabel and Jane came with eager smiles and effusive congratulations. It is curious, the stress which the feminine intellect lays on a mere point of time, or external event, like the celebration of a union between two young people, or the first statement that such a union is to be formed; whereas we all know that the real event is mental, or at most resides in the clash and concurrence of two minds, assisted by the bodies they inhabit. Our friends had probably come to a sufficient understanding the night of Jim's arrival, a week ago: in fact the thing was practically settled when I brought back his submission, and even he must have had sense enough to know it was when she wrote him that one word, 'Come.' So what on earth is the use of making a fuss about it now? But I will not press this view, which may be too rarefied and lofty for the vulgar mind.
There were kisses, and laughter, and tears I believe—but not of the Princess' shedding—just as if something had really happened. I was sorry for Jim, he looked so sheepish. Then he, or Clarice, or both of them, to cover the awkwardness of the moment, began to extol my virtues and services—in which there was no sense at all; for suppose you have done a good thing, you don't want to be everlastingly cackling about it: the thing is done, let it stand on its own merits or demerits. To stop this, I proposed a division of the honors. "There is Herbert, who is unhappily in bed now: he set the ball rolling. He was the only one of us all who dared ask Clarice what she had done to you, Jim. And here is Clarice herself, who discovered that my health was failing and needed the air that blows over troutbrooks; give her a benefit. And here is Jane, who urged me on—drove me, I may say. But for her, I might never have had courage to beard you two dreadful people, and ask you what you meant by such conduct."
Jane was receiving due attention, when Mabel spoke. "You must not overlook me, as if I had had no hand in it. I approved and encouraged it from the start: you know I did. And when you went away, Mr. Hartman, and they all felt so badly and thought you would never come back, I always said it would be right—always."