So we wrapped her, brown silk dress and yellowed laces, and long black hair, in the strip of canvas, and gave her to the earth. The last thing we saw, thank God! before the blanket fell over her for the last time, was the silver crucifix shining out of the roses in her hands.
Daoud and Achmet, their spades over their shoulders, left the cemetery, the latter the strangest, quaintest, most outlandish figure ever seen on a Carolina road. Mr. Jelnik and I, with Boris close beside us, walked more slowly.
"Shall you go on with the search?" I ventured presently.
"But where shall I begin now?" he wondered. "I have searched everything and every place searchable."
"If Shooba hid them anywhere outside of that room, it must have been in some place that Jessamine herself knew and could get at if she wished; some particular place where nobody would dream of looking for them. Women always choose hiding-places like that, and the notion would suit Shooba's grim humor," I said.
"They who knew every nook and cranny of the house searched it pretty thoroughly at the time," he reminded me. "I have fine-combed it myself."
"I am so sorry! I wanted you to find them. But the fact that you didn't surely couldn't make very much difference to you. One's happiness doesn't depend upon anything so problematical."
He hesitated. "Aside from their value, which is by no means inconsiderable, I—well, they would have made certain things easier for me. I should then have been in a better position to do what I want to do."
"Oh! You had some definite plan which hinged upon your finding them?"
He was silent for a space, as if considering within himself just how far he could admit me into his confidence.
"At first, it was a matter of family pride with me to clear up this mystery. Later—I wanted to have the Hynds jewels in my possession, that I might ask the woman I love to marry me." His voice vibrated like a violin string.
I took the blow standing. I did not wince, though it had come unexpectedly. Of course I had known all along that there must be some lady whom he loved, a woman of that world to which he himself belonged. But I couldn't for the life of me imagine how the finding or the not finding of the Hynds jewels could have any bearing upon the case. I couldn't understand how any woman, any real woman, could let such a thing come between her and Nicholas Jelnik.
When we had walked a little farther: "Doesn't she know you care for her?"
"Who knows what any woman knows or thinks? She may really care for another man."
"There is another man?"
"There is always another man. Her feeling for me may be nothing but pure kindness, for she is kindness itself."
"Still, I think you should tell her," I said, with such a heavy heart!
He shook his head. "There are reasons why my faith might be questioned, my motives doubted; and I couldn't bear that."
"But if you are perfectly sure of your own feelings, if there is absolutely no doubt in your mind that you love her—"
"Love her? I never thought," he said, "that any woman could mean so much to a man! I never dreamed that just one woman could be in herself all that a man needs to hold fast to! Love her? I have been all over the world and I have seen many women in many lands, but never any woman of them all, save that one, for me! It was a revelation to me, that I could care so much. Ah! I wish I could make it plain just how much I do care!"
I had not known until that moment how much the heart can bear of anguish and not break.
"I hope she loves you just as much in return, Mr. Jelnik. I hope with all my heart you will be happy, both of you."
"I hope she does! I hope we shall!" he cried, with ardor. "Why, if I could be sure she cares for me, like that, if I could know that all other men counted as little with her as all other women count with me! But I am not sure. And I do not take it lightly, for my woman must be more to me than most women mean to most men. Well, it is on the knees of the gods."
I stole a covert glance at him as he walked beside me. It seemed to me he had never been so beautiful. But his beauty hurt me. I felt old, very, very old, and sad, and tired. The salt taste of tears was in my mouth. My feet dragged.
We entered that strip of land which on a time old Sophronisba barb-wired and barricaded against her neighbors, and which touched the Jelnik grounds in the rear. We were to cut through his garden and enter mine by the gap in the hedge behind the spring-house and I hoped to get into the house and up-stairs to my own room unperceived.
The gray cottage lay dark and silent, but there were lights in Hynds House although the night was upon the verge of morning. A gray light, upon which was stealing a primrose tinge, was already in the sky. It was, in fact, four o'clock. I was so mortally tired that for a moment I sat down on his steps.
"It's been pretty rough on you, Sophy. One woman in a thousand could have gone through this night's experience without going to pieces," said Mr. Jelnik, with feeling. And then:
"Sophy!" cried a frightened and hysterical voice. "Oh, is that you, at last, Sophy?" And turning a corner of the gray cottage, Alicia, Doctor Geddes, and The Author confronted us. They were still in costume, and the Mephistophelian effect of The Author was such as would turn any actor green with envy. Ensued a pregnant pause. It was a lovely situation! It reduced me, for one, to idiocy.
"Sophy! Jelnik!" exploded Doctor Geddes, with a gesture of rage and astonishment.
"Yes. It is I. What is the matter? Why aren't you home and in bed? What are you doing here, at this hour?" I asked, stupidly.
Here The Author, all in red tights, cape, and doublet, snatched his red cap with the cock's feather in it off his head, and bowed diabolically:
"Let us ask you that same question: Why aren't you home and in bed? What are you doing here at this hour?"
"After everybody had gone home, I ran up to your room, Sophy—and—and you were gone. You weren't in the house. I looked everywhere; and you'd disappeared, as if the earth had opened and swallowed you." Alicia's voice was trembling.
"Oh, Sophy, I was so frightened, so horribly frightened! I kept thinking every minute you must come. I kept looking and waiting, and still you didn't come. I telephoned Doctor Geddes, when I couldn't stand it any longer. And then The Author came down-stairs. And oh, Sophy, there was such an unearthly, clammy, waiting sort of feeling in the house—all those lights, all those empty rooms—I felt as if something terrible must be happening!" She clung to me as she spoke, kissing me, and shook, and wept. "And when you still didn't come, and we couldn't find you anywhere, The Author suggested that we should come over here and enlist Mr. Jelnik.
"When we got here, there wasn't a soul in this house. Not even the dog. We went back to Hynds House, and walked through our garden, and then came back here, because we didn't know what else to do. Oh, Sophy!" I patted her shoulders, mumbling that she mustn't cry, it was ail right.
"Miss Gaines, I am dreadfully sorry you should have been frightened. But there really wasn't the least occasion for alarm. Because Miss Smith was with me," said Mr. Jelnik calmly.
Alicia looked at him, trying to read his face in the wan light. Her world, as it were, was rocking under her feet. She looked at me; and I said nothing. To save my life I couldn't speak of Jessamine Hynds then, nor talk coherently of that night's experience. I couldn't betray Nicholas Jelnik's secrets, nor mention the Watcher in the Dark, nor that dreadful red-walled room. So I merely patted Alicia's shoulder, while she held fast to me as if I might again disappear.
"That is exactly what we should like you to explain, Mr. Jelnik, if you please," said The Author, with deadly politeness. "You must pardon us if we disagree with your assertion that Miss Gaines had no real occasion for alarm."
"Miss Smith and I," said Mr. Jelnik, stiffening, at the tone, "found it absolute necessary to leave Hynds House for a short while to-night, to attend to—an affair of some importance to us both, but which concerns no one else on earth." Under the grave politeness his voice had an edge of irritation. "I repeat that I am sincerely sorry Miss Alicia was frightened. For my share in that, I crave her pardon. I ask all of you to accept this apology as an explanation which is final."
"I for one shall do no such thing!" cried The Author, hotly. "Are we impertinent children to be thus lightly dismissed? Of course, if Miss Smith herself—"
"You have neither right nor authority to cross-question Miss Smith," interposed Mr. Jelnik, sharply. But Doctor Geddes broke in, with mounting anger and astonishment:
"Of course we've got the right and the reason to question both of you! You might just as well come off your high horse; you've behaved very badly, Jelnik! To induce Sophy to scuttle off in the middle of the night, without a word to anybody, and go wild-goose-chasing with you, was an unworthy action. I wouldn't have believed it of you, Jelnik; I thought you had more common sense—not to speak of Sophy herself. Gad, I'd like to shake the pair of you!" And he stamped his feet.
"Doctor Richard Geddes," said Mr. Jelnik, in dangerously low and honeyed tones, "I find you insufferable. You have the instincts and the manners of a navvy."
"Mr. Jelnik!" cried The Author. "Mr. Jelnik, honor me, please, by considering my instincts and manners infinitely worse than Doctor Geddes's. I, Mr. Jelnik, at this instant feel within me the instincts of a cave man and I hone for the thigh-bone of an aurochs to prove it to you. Do you know what I think of you, Mr. Jelnik? I consider you a man without conscience and without scruples, sir!"
"My faith! The man even talks like a serial!" said Mr. Jelnik, weariedly. "My dear, good sir, while we're by way of indulging in personalities permit me to inform you that you annoy me by existing. As to your behavior to Miss Smith—"
"My behavior to Miss Smith?" shrieked The Author, stamping with fury, "my behavior to Miss Smith? You had better set about explaining your behavior to Miss Smith! You're a rascal, Mr. Jelnik!"
"You, my dear sir, are worse: you're an ass," said Mr. Jelnik, and fetched a sigh of tiredness. "Would to heaven somebody would fetch you a halter!"
"Jelnik," choked Doctor Geddes, "a man who behaves as you're behaving to-night runs the risk of getting himself shot. You're my own cousin, but—"
Mr. Jelnik turned at bay.
"Doctor Geddes," said he, in a razor-edged voice, "it is no light affliction to be kin to the Hyndses!—What do you want me to explain? I have already told you it was necessary for Miss Smith and me to attend to a matter that is none of your business. In return, you hold us up like brigands. Would it make a dent in your armor of righteous meddling, if I were to remind you that you are seriously annoying Miss Smith?"
"Not a dent!" roared the doctor. "And if it annoys Sophy to be asked a straight question by those who have her interest at heart, let her be annoyed and take shame to herself!"
Alicia began to cry.
"Oh, Sophy!" wailed Alicia, "whatever is the matter with us, anyhow? What is wrong, Sophy? Why are we quarreling? What are we quarreling about, Sophy?"
I put my hands to my head. "I don't know. That is. I can't tell. I mean. I can't think, at all!
"Doctor Geddes has spoken like an honest man," said The Author, standing flat-footed in his pointed red shoes. "Mr. Jelnik, I ask you plainly: Why do I find Miss Smith here at this hour? Why and wherefore the mystery? Let me remind you that I have asked Miss Smith to marry me, and that she hasn't as yet given me her answer," he finished, significantly.
"Why, Sophy!" gasped Alicia. "Why, Sophy Smith!"
"Holy Moses!" gasped Doctor Geddes. "What, man, you too? Well, then, if it comes to that, I can call you to account, Jelnik, because I asked Sophy to marry me, too. In my case she had sense enough to say 'No' at once."
"You know he did, Sophy!" Alicia corroborated him tearfully. "You told me so yourself, though you never so much as opened your mouth about The Author; and I don't think that was a bit like you, Sophy. And why you refused the doctor, I can't for the life of me imagine!"
"Can't you? Well, I can," snorted the doctor, and drew Alicia closer to him. She put both her hands around his arm.
"What!" gulped The Author, rocking on his red toes, and wrinkling his nose until his waxed mustache stood out with infernal effect, and his corked eyebrows climbed into his hair. "What! You, Geddes? My sainted aunt! Why, man alive, I thought that you—that is I'd have sworn that you—" Here The Author's breath mercifully failed him.
I was dumb as a sheep in the hands of the slayers. I could only blink at these dear people who were tormenting me. I thought of Jessamine Hynds in her brown silk frock, with the crucifix in her skeleton fingers and the earth fresh over her. And I couldn't say a word. And while I stood thus silent, Mr. Nicholas Jelnik walked up and took my hand in his warm and comforting clasp, and looked at me with kindling, starry eyes, and laughed a deep-chested laugh.
"Gentlemen and Miss Gaines," said Mr. Jelnik, in a ringing and vibrant voice, "permit me to inform you that I also have asked Miss Smith to marry me. And she has done me the honor to accept me."
THE GREATEST GIFT
The Author threw his short cape backward, laid one hand upon the hilt of his sword, doffed his cap, and made a sweeping courtesy.
"Prettily played, Mr. Jelnik!" said he, admiringly. "May one be permitted to congratulate you, upon your indubitably dramatic instinct?"
"All things are permitted; but not all things are expedient," Mr. Jelnik replied evenly.
"Oh, we know who can quote scripture!" cried The Author; and looked longingly at the other's naked throat.
At which point Doctor Geddes, coming as it were out of a trance, took the situation in hand.
"Have done with this nonsense!" he ordered sharply. "Alicia, get Sophy home; she looks more dead than alive. Jelnik, your declaration puts a new complexion on this affair; but let me tell you flatly I don't like your method of announcing engagements."
"Suppose you waive criticism and look after Sophy," suggested Mr. Jelnik. He walked up to his cousin and looked straight in his eyes: "Richard, you're not such a fool as to dare doubt us?"
"Eh?" blinked the doctor, "what? Doubt Sophy? I should say not! And you—oh, well, you're a bit of a fool yourself at times, Jelnik, and this seems to be one of the times; but I don't doubt you. However," said the doctor, grimly, "I should like to whale some sense into you with a club!"
"An ax would be more to the point," murmured The Author, regretfully.
"In the meantime, Richard," said Mr. Jelnik, with a faint smile, "take Sophy home, please."
I have a vague recollection of swallowing something that the doctor told me to swallow. Then came blessed oblivion, a sleep so profound that I didn't even dream, and didn't awake until that afternoon; to find the tender face of Alicia again bent over me.
I waited for her to ask at least one of the many questions she must have been longing to ask. But Alicia shook her head.
"Sophy," said she, loyally, "you haven't got to tell me one single, solitary thing unless you really want to. But—isn't this just a bit sudden? I was—surprised."
"So was I."
"You see, Sophy, I never once dreamed—"
"That he cared for me? Neither did I."
"No. That you cared for him," Alicia puckered her brows.
"My dear girl," I was trying to feel my way toward letting her have the truth, "listen: whether or not he is engaged to me, Mr. Nicholas Jelnik really loves some lady that neither you nor I know. He told me so himself."
It took Alicia some moments to recover from that!
"And yet you're going to marry him, Sophy?"
"You heard him announce our engagement."
"I can't understand!" sighed Alicia. "Oh, Sophy, sometimes I could wish we had never come to Hynds House!"
"It had to be," I said dully.
"And—The Author?" ventured Alicia, after a pause. "He thinks you belong to him by right of discovery. He doesn't accept Mr. Jelnik's announcement as final. He told me this morning that his offer stood until you actually married somebody else. The Author isn't used to being crossed, and he doesn't quite know how to take it."
"It is on the knees of the gods," I repeated, weariedly.
Came a gentle tap at the door, and following it the fresh, kind face of Miss Emmeline.
"Are you trying to rival the Seven Sleepers?" she asked, gaily, and laid a bunch of carnations on my knees by way of offering. "Judge Gatchell sent them to me this morning," she explained, with an October blush. For the sallow old jurist had taken so great a liking to the Boston reincarnation of a Theban vestal, and was in consequence so rejuvenated, himself, that all Hyndsville was holding up the hands of astonishment and biting the finger of conjecture.
"My dears," said Miss Emmeline, presently, "I want to tell you the singular dream I had last night, or rather this morning. I was quite tired, for I do not often dance," admitted Miss Emmeline, who had nevertheless danced with a zest that rivaled that of the youngest, "so I must have fallen asleep immediately upon retiring. Well, then, I dreamed that all those old Hyndses whose portraits are down-stairs were gathered together in the library, to bid farewell to a member of the family who was going away—that beautiful creature who disappeared and was never afterward found. Now, aren't dreams absurd? She was setting out upon a long journey dressed in a low-necked, short-sleeved brown silk dress trimmed with quantities of fine lace. And for goodness' sake what do you think that woman wore over it for a traveling-cloak? Nothing more or less than a gray army blanket, a corner of which was thrown over her head like a hood and quite concealed her face.
"She moved away slowly, holding her blanket as an Indian does. And as she passed me by—for I was standing in the door—a fold slipped, and what do you think she was holding to her breast? A pearl-and-silver crucifix. You can't imagine how I felt when I saw it!"
I knew how I felt when I had seen it, but that I couldn't tell Miss Emmeline. Instead, I held the carnations to my face, to hide my whitening lips. For once the Boston lady had come into actual contact with the occult and the unknown.
"She went out by the back door," continued Miss Emmeline, "and I ran to the window and saw her gray-blanketed figure disappear down the lane, behind the hedge that separates Mr. Jelnik's grounds from yours. And all the Hyndses called: 'Jessamine, good-by!' But she never turned her head once, nor spoke, nor gave a sign that she heard. She just went, leaving me staring after her. I stared so hard that I woke myself up. Now, my dears, wasn't that an odd sort of dream? And so vivid, too! Why, I can hear those voices yet!"
"Well, I'm glad she went," said Alicia. "Ladies that do up their heads in blankets and won't answer when they're spoken to, ought to go."
Mrs. Scarboro, Judge Gatchell, and one of my old ladies were dining with us that night, for which I thanked Heaven. Judge Gatchell discovered in himself a fund of sly humor that astonished everybody, and Miss Emmeline was like a November rose, sweet with a shy and belated girlishness, rarer for a touch of frost. And The Author was in a fairly good humor because they let him alone.
Mr. Nicholas Jelnik dutifully put in his appearance after dinner. The Author was balefully polite to him, Alicia shyly friendly. I had on a new frock, and the knowledge that it was becoming gave me a courage I should otherwise have lacked. A new frock, pink powder, and a smile, have saved many a fainting feminine soul where prayer and fasting had failed.
The gentleman who had blandly announced my engagement to himself only last night assumed no airs of proprietorship, but was placidly content to let me sit and talk to Mr. Johnson, who was holding forth on the merits of our Rhode Island Reds as against either barred Plymouth Rocks or White Leghorns, and the variety of vegetables and small fruits in our kitchen-garden, so admirably planned by Schmetz, so carefully and neighborly looked after both by him and Riedriech. From gardens, Mr. Johnson went to cattle; he had a delight in cows, and our cow was a Jersey with a cream-colored complexion, large black eyes, and the sentimental temperament. We called her the Kissing Cow, because she couldn't see the secretary without trying to bestow upon him slobbering salutes.
He paused in his homely talk to smile at something The Author had just said. Then his eyes strayed to Mr. Nicholas Jelnik, being talked to by Mrs. Scarboro and an apple-faced Confederate with pellucid blue eyes and a renowned trigger-finger.
"That is the most gifted—and detached—human being I have ever known," said the secretary. "But it is his misfortune to have no saving responsibilities. What he needs is to fall in love with the right woman and marry her."
"You mean he should marry some great lady, some dazzling beauty? Naturally."
"Heaven forbid!" said the secretary, with unexpected vigor. "No, no, Miss Smith, that is not what such a man as Nicholas Jelnik needs!"
"But it may be what he wants," said I.
"I should never think so, myself," Mr. Johnson replied thoughtfully; "and I have seen a good deal of him. No, Jelnik doesn't want great beauty; he has enough of it himself. For the same reason, he doesn't want brilliant qualities. He needs quiet, dependable goodness, the changeless and unswerving affection of a steadfast heart."
But I could not agree with this simple-minded young man, who had in himself the qualities he named. Why, if Nicholas Jelnik asked only for a changeless love, I could have given him full measure, even to the running over thereof!
"What was Johnson talking to you about, that you both looked so earnest?" Mr. Jelnik wanted to know presently.
"Oh, just things; flowers and fruits and animals."
"People always end by talking about people."
"Johnson's opinions are generally sound, because he himself is sound to the core," said Mr. Jelnik, quietly.
"Miss Emmeline says he has got a limpid soul. The Author says it's really a sound liver. However that may be, one couldn't live in the same house with him without conceiving a real affection for him. He is a very easy person to love."
Mr. Jelnik's eyebrows went up. "Don't love him too much, please, Sophy. If you feel that you really ought to love somebody, love me." The golden lights were in his eyes.
At that moment I both loved and hated him.
"Mr. Jelnik," said I, in as low a tone as his own, "it isn't fair to talk to me like this. You did what you did to save me from annoyance—and—and—misunderstanding. But you are perfectly free: I have no idea of holding you to such an engagement, no, nor of feeling myself bound by it, either."
"I understand, perfectly, Sophy," he said, after a pause. "And now, may I ask you one or two plain questions, please?"
"I think you may."
"You never cared for Geddes?"
"Good heavens, no! Besides, he—"
"Wants Alicia? That's obvious. But what about The Author? I'm not enamored of him, myself, but he's an immensely able and clever man. How many brilliant social lights would be willing to shine at the head of his table! What are you going to do about The Author, Sophy?"
"What are you going to do about the lady you are really in love with?" I countered.
"I'm waiting to find out," said he, coolly. "Answer my question, please: Do you imagine you love him, Sophy?"
"It is not unpleasant to me that he should wish me to do so," I admitted.
"I see. You are trying to persuade yourself that you should accept him."
"I am not growing younger," I said, with an effort. "Remember, too, that Alicia will be leaving me presently, and I shall then be utterly alone. That is not a pleasing prospect—not to a woman."
"Nor to a man, either, but better that than a loveless marriage." He reflected for a moment. "If you are sure you care for the man, tell him truthfully every incident of last night. Otherwise, I do not feel like sharing my affairs with him; I do not want to drag Jessamine Hynds out of her grave to gratify his curiosity. For he has the curiosity of a cat, along with the obstinacy of a mule."
I smiled, wanly. "I gather that I'm not to tell him anything. What further?" I wanted to know, not without irony.
"This, then: that you keep on being engaged to me."
I looked at him incredulously.
"For the time being, Sophy, submit to my tentative claim. If you decide to let your—ah—common sense induce you to make what must be called a brilliant marriage, tell me, and I will go at once. In the meantime, Sophy, I am your friend, to whom your happiness is as dear as his own. Will you believe that?"
It was not in me to doubt him. "Yes," I said. "And if—the lady you told me about—you understand—you will tell me, too, will you not? I should like to know, for your happiness is as much to me as mine could possibly be to you."
"That's the most promising thing you've said yet," he said. "All right, Sophy: the minute I find out she cares more for me than she does for anybody else, I shall certainly let you know. In the meanwhile, don't let being engaged bear too heavily on your spirits. I find it very pleasant and exhilarating!"
"I don't think you ought to talk like that," I demurred.
"I can't help it: I never was engaged before, and it goes to my tongue."
"I never was, either. But it doesn't go to mine," I reminded him, with dignity.
"Sophy, you are the only woman in the world who can reproach a man with her nose and get away with it," he said irrelevantly. "You have the most eloquent little nose, Sophy!"
I looked at him reprovingly.
"I adore being engaged to you, Sophy," said he, unabashed. "Being engaged to you has a naive freshness that enchants me. It's romantic, it has the sharp tang of uncertainty, the zest of high adventure. Think how exciting it's going to be to wake o' mornings thinking: 'Here is a whole magic day to be engaged to Sophy in!' By the way, would you mind addressing me as 'Nicholas'? It is customary under the circumstances, I believe."
"I do not like the name of Nicholas."
"I feared so, seeing the extreme care with which you avoid it. That is why I suggest that you should immediately begin to use it. Practice makes perfect. Observe with what ease I manage to say 'Sophy' already," he said airily. "I'm glad your hair's just that blonde, and soft, Sophy. I couldn't possibly be engaged to a woman who didn't have hair like yours."
I looked at his, and said with conviction:
"How absurd! Black hair is incomparably more beautiful!"
His eyes danced.
"Sophy!" said he, in a thrilling whisper, "Sophy, The Author's hair is brindle!"
I got up and incontinently left him. And I saw with stern joy how Mrs. Scarboro again seized upon and made him listen to tales of his grandfather, until in desperation he fled to the piano, and played Hungarian music with such effect that even The Author was moved to rapture.
"Jelnik!" said The Author, enthusiastically, "I shall put you in my next book. Gad, man, what a magnificent scoundrel I shall make of you!" A remark which scandalized Mrs. Scarboro and startled my dear old lady, but didn't phase Mr. Jelnik.
I found myself growing more and more confounded and confused. Was I, or wasn't I, engaged to a man who had never asked me to marry him? In the vernacular, I didn't know where I was at any more.
Alicia added to this confusion.
"Sophy," said she, some time later, "isn't it just possible you misunderstood Mr. Jelnik? About his being in love with somebody else, I mean."
"I don't know what makes you think so."
"Don't you? I'll show you," she said, and swung me around to face a mirror. "That's what makes me think so. Sophy Smith, unless he's a liar—and Peacocks and Ivory couldn't be a liar to save his life—the woman Nicholas Jelnik loves looks back at you every time you look in the glass."
I shook my head. I have never been able to tell pleasant lies to myself.
"Well, we'll see what we'll see! I told you once before that you hadn't caught up with the change in yourself." And she kissed me and laughed. It came to me that she couldn't have cared much for him, herself, to be able to laugh that light-heartedly.
* * * * *
When Miss Emmeline and the English folk were leaving Hynds House, everybody in Hyndsville turned out to say "Good-by." Even our lanky old Judge was on hand, with a great bunch of carnations and a huge box of bonbons for Miss Emmeline.
"Sophy," Miss Emmeline said, smiling, "I don't see anything left for me to do but come back to Hyndsville, do you?"
"No, I don't. And come soon. Hynds House won't feel the same without you. I thought of all she had taught me by just being her fine, frank self, and looked at her gratefully. She looked back at me quizzically, and of a sudden she slipped her arm around my shoulders.
"Sophy Smith," said she, softly, "I have met many women in my time, many far more brilliant and beautiful, and what the world calls gifted, than you. But I have met none with a greater capacity for unselfish loving. It's easy enough to win love, a harder thing to keep it, but divinest of all to give it and keep on giving it. And there's where your great gift lies, Sophy." And she kissed me, with misty eyes, and such a tender face!
That put such a friendly, warm glow in my heart that I was sorry to part even with the Englishman's daughter, Athena though she was, and I mortally afraid of her. As for her father, he was bewailing the parting with Alicia, whose Irishness was a manna in the wilderness to him.
"It's like saying good-by to the Fountain of Youth," he lamented. "You're more than a pretty girl: you're the eternal feminine in Irish!"
"She's the Eternal Irish in proper English, that's what she is!" said The Author darkly, and looked so wise that everybody looked respectful, though nobody knew what he meant. Perhaps he didn't know, himself.
After the train had gone, Doctor Geddes hustled us into his waiting car.
"I'm going to take you for a quiet spin in the country, to make the better acquaintance of Madame Spring-in-Carolina," he said. A few minutes later he swung the car into a lonesome and lovely road edged with pines, and sassafras, and sumach, and cassena bushes, and festooned with vines. Madame Spring-in-Carolina had coaxed the green things to come out and grow, and the people of the sky to try their jeweled wings in her fine new sunlight. The Judas-tree was red, the dogwood white, the honey-locust a breath from Eden. A blossomy wind came out of the heart of the world, and there were birds everywhere, impudently eloquent.
We didn't want to talk, or even to think; we just wanted to be alive and glad with everything else. The very car seemed to feel something of this intoxication, for as it went flying down the road it hummed and purred and sang snatches of the Song of Speed to itself. We turned a corner, I remember. And then there was a frightful lurch and jar, and the big car bounded into the air, and turned over in the ditch. I remember the rear wheels turning with a grinding, spitting noise.
When I woke up, Alicia was sitting by the side of the road, with the doctor's head in her lap, and I was lying on the grass near by. Her eyes were big and blank in a bloodless face, and the curling ends of her long bright hair hung in the dust. There was a cruel red mark on her forehead. Otherwise she was quite uninjured. I wasn't conscious of any pain myself—not then, at least.
"Sophy," Alicia said, impersonally, "Doctor Geddes is dead." And she fell to stroking his cheek lightly, with one finger; "quite dead. Without one word to me, Sophy!"
The figure on the ground looked dreadfully still and helpless. There was something ghastly wrong in seeing so strong a man lie so still and helpless. And the road, an unfrequented one, was unutterably lonesome. There was nothing, nobody in sight—nothing but the buzzard, black against the blue sky, tipping his wings to the wind.
"You must go for help," I mumbled.
"I dare not leave him. I know he's dead, Sophy. But—he might open his eyes, just once more. You see, he didn't know, before he—died, that I was very much in love with him—oh, terribly in love with him, Sophy!—from the first time I saw him standing in our door. I thought you cared for him, too, Sophy dear—and I sent him away from me— And now he has gotten himself killed." With a gentle touch she pushed back the thick reddish hair from his forehead. She looked at me imploringly: "Don't let him be dead, Sophy! For God's sake, Sophy, don't let him be dead! Make him open his eyes, Sophy!"
A negro teamster came upon us, recognized the doctor, shrieked, and set off for help, lashing his mules into a mad run. But Alicia never moved, and I huddled beside her, numb and silent, looking at the white face upon her knees. With all the impatience wiped out, it was a fine face, at once strong and sweet.
"Richard," said Alicia, "Richard, if I had been killed, and you begged and prayed me from your breaking heart to listen to you, to understand that you'd cared for me, only me, all along, somehow I'd manage to let you know I understood. Richard, listen to me! Open your eyes, Richard. Please, please, Richard, open your eyes!"
Her voice was so piteous that I fell to weeping. And, by the mercy of God, Richard opened his eyes and stared with blue blankness straight into Alicia's quivering, anguished face.
"Richard," said she, bending down to him, "my dear, dear love, keep your eyes open just a little longer, until I can make you understand. Oh, Richard, I cared! Indeed, indeed, I cared!"
The blue stare never wavered. It gathered intensity.
"Don't, don't look at me like that, Richard!" cried Alicia, beginning to sob wildly. "Don't—don't look so—so angelic, dear. Look like your own self at me, Richard! Oh, darling, for our dear God's mercy's sake, please, please try to look bad-tempered just once more!"
His pale lips twitched curiously. He sighed. Then he murmured something that sounded like "not sure."
"Not sure?" wept Alicia. "Oh, my heart, my heart!"
"I think—could die in peace—say 'I love you, Richard,'" murmured the doctor.
"Oh, I do, I do love you, Richard—frightfully!" sobbed Alicia. "I love you with all my heart!"
The corpse sat up, and for a dead man he showed considerable life. Painfully he rose, and stood staggering on his feet, big, pale, shaken, with a bump the size of an egg on the side of his head, but with such shining blue eyes! He put out a big hand and lifted Alicia from the ground.
"Leetchy," said Doctor Geddes, "if you ever take back what you've said I shall be sorry I wasn't killed. But I don't mind staying alive if you'll keep on loving me. If I stay alive, will you marry me, Leetchy?"
"If you don't, I can't m-m-marry any-anybody at all!" wailed Alicia.
"Amen!" said the doctor. "Now stop crying, and put your hand into my pocket, and you'll find something that's been owing you this long time, Leetchy."
Alicia blinked, and rubbed her eyes, then slipped her hand into his breast pocket and drew forth a small, square, satin-lined box; an inviting box.
"Richard!" she exclaimed, "why, Richard!" Then: "Of all the impudence!" cried Alicia, scandalized. "Why, you haven't even asked me! Whoever in this world heard of buying a girl's ring before she's said 'Yes'?"
"Alicia," said Doctor Richard Geddes, "I'm your Man, and you know it. And you're my Girl, and I know it. Here, let's see if this thing fits."
Meekly Alicia, the impudent, the flirt, held out her slim hand.
"That's settled, thank God!" said the doctor. And he swept her clear off her feet, and kissed her with thoroughness and enthusiasm.
"Richard! People are coming! They'll see you!"
I sat there quietly, and stared at the two of them with a sort of vacant watchfulness. My hat was gone, my hairpins had taken unto themselves wings, and my hair, covered with dust, hung about me like a veil. I was just beginning to be conscious of pain. It was a shuddering pain, new and cruel, and I winced. The next minute Alicia was kneeling beside me, and her face had again become quite colorless.
"Sophy!" her voice sounded shrill and far off. "Sophy, you said you were all right!—Richard, look at Sophy!"
I felt the doctor's swift, deft hands upon me. And more pain. People were arriving now. Cars stopped, and excited men and women surrounded us. One tall figure leaped from the first car and reached us ahead of all others.
"Geddes!" cried a voice. "Thank God, Geddes! We were told you'd been killed outright! Alicia all right, too?" Then: "Sophy!" This time it was a cry of terror. "Never tell me it's Sophy!"
I saw his face bent over me. Then a red mist came, and then everything went dark.
Somewhere, far, far off, a faint and feeble little light glimmered, one small point of light in vast blackness. In the whole universe there wasn't anything or anybody but just that tiny light, and swift black water, and drowning me. Something deep within me—I think occultists call it the body-spirit—was clamoring frantically to hold fast to the light, because if that went under I should go under, too. I tried to keep my eyes upon the trembling spark.
Whereupon the light changed to a sound, the monotonous insistence of which forced me to be worriedly aware of it. It was—why, it was a voice, calling, over and over and over again, "Sophy! Sophy!"
Somebody was calling me. With an immense effort I managed to raise my eyelids. I was lying in a bed, and caught a drowsy, fleeting glimpse of four posts.
Four posts upon my bed, Four angels for my head, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Bless the bed that I lie on!
Granny used to say that for me at night; only she had said "four hangels for my 'ead," at which I used to giggle into my pillows. I hadn't felt so close to Granny since I was little Sophy, in the rooms over our shop in Boston. She was somewhere around me; if I went to sleep now, she'd be there when I woke up in the morning. But the sound that was a calling voice wouldn't let me go to sleep. Slowly, heavily, I managed to get my eyes open again.
"Look at me!" said the voice imperiously. Two large dark eyes caught my wavering glance and held it, as in a vise. "Sophy! Sophy! I need you."
Said another voice, then, brokenly: "For mercy's sake, Jelnik, let her go in peace!"
"No, she sha'n't die. I won't have it!—Sophy, come back! It is I who call you, Sophy. Come back!"
My stiff lips moved. "Must go—sleep," I tried to say.
"No, I forbid you to go to sleep, Sophy!" His dark eyes, full of life and compelling power, held my tired and dimmed ones, his firm, warm hands held my cold and inert fingers. "My love, my dear love, stay. You have got to stay, Sophy. Don't you understand? You can't go, Sophy!"
My dulled brain stumblingly laid hold upon a thought: Nicholas Jelnik was calling me. He was calling me because he loved me. One simply can't go down into sleep and darkness, when a miracle like that is climbing like the morning-star into one's skies.
"Stay!" he said, his lips against my ear. "Sophy! My love, my dear love, stay!"
But although he held me close, I could feel myself being drawn away. There must have been that in my straining glance that made him aware, for of a sudden he cried out, lifted me bodily in his arms, and kissed me on the mouth.
My heart quite stopped beating, as a spent runner pauses, that he may gather new strength to go on. With a sigh I fell back; but not into the water and the dark.
"By God, you've pulled her through, Jelnik!" cried the voice of Richard Geddes.
Came vague sounds, stirs, movements, hands upon me. Then oblivion again.
I woke up one pleasant forenoon to find a brisk and capable young woman in white sitting in my room, her head bent over the piece of linen she was hemming. She was a healthy, handsome young woman, with hard, firm cheeks, hard, firm lips, and professional eyes and glasses. She glanced up and met my wan stare.
"What are you doing here, if you please?" I asked politely.
"I have been nursing you, Miss Smith. You have been quite ill, you know."
I lay there looking at that self-contained, trained young woman, with feelings of almost ludicrous astonishment. I remembered the skidding car; and Richard Geddes lying with his head on Alicia's knees, and how we had both thought him dead; and myself sitting in the dust; and then the pain. But it was astounding news that I had been very badly hurt full three weeks ago!
Alicia stole in and, seeing me awake, tried to smile, but cried instead, with a wet cheek against my hand. A few minutes later Doctor Geddes himself appeared. It was enough to scandalize any self-contained nurse to see a six-foot-three doctor behave in the most abandoned and unbedside manner!
"Sophy!" gulped the doctor, "oh, deuce take you, Sophronisba Two, what do you mean by scaring honest folks half out of their wits?"
The nurse was destined to receive another shock. Richard of the Lion Heart dropped down on his knees beside Alicia, and laid his bearded cheek against my wan one, and for a while couldn't speak. Alicia tried to get her slender arms around him, and couldn't.
"I think," ventured the nurse, in level tones, "that the patient had better not be excited. Shall I give her a stimulant, doctor?"
"The patient's on the highroad to getting well," said the doctor. "And we're the best of all stimulants, aren't we, Sophy?"
When I began to get stronger, the dream which had haunted my illness came back with astonishing vividness and haunted my waking hours. I knew it was a dream, for of course I hadn't been in black water, I hadn't strained toward a light upon the flood, and of course, I hadn't really heard Nicholas Jelnik calling my name; and the kiss was part of the fantasy. I watched him stealthily, this cool, collected, impersonal young man, to whom even the efficient nurse was astonishingly respectful, and pure laughter seized me at the idea of his crying aloud, being as agitated, as passionate, as fiercely insistent, as he had been in the vision.
I ventured to put a part of the vagary to the acid test:
"Alicia, I wasn't thrown out again, into water, was I?"
"No. That was delirium, dear. You were frightfully ill for a while, Sophy." Her face paled. "So ill that The Author fled, because he wouldn't stay in the house and see—what we expected to see. He said it would permanently shatter his nerves. But he has wired every day since."
"It was sensible of him to go. And it's kind of him to wire." I said no more about the water.
"Everybody has been kind. And it wasn't duty kindness, either. It was kind kindness!" said Alicia, lucidly. "Do you know what they're saying in Hyndsville now? They're saying old Sophronisba played a joke on herself." She left me to digest that as best I might.
It isn't pleasant to be ill anywhere. But it isn't altogether unpleasant to be on the sick list in South Carolina. Everybody is anxious about you. Old ladies with palm-leaf fans in their tireless hands come and sit with you. They aren't brilliant old ladies, you understand. I know some whose secular library consists of the Complete Works of John Esten Cooke, Gilmore Simms's War Poems of the South, and a thumbed copy of Father Ryan. But add to these the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Imitation of Christ, and it doesn't make such a bad showing. It's astonishing how soothing the companionship of women fed upon this pabulum can be, when the things of the world are of necessity set aside for a space, and the simpler things of the spirit draw near.
Old gentlemen in well-brushed clothes and immaculate, exquisitely darned linen, call daily with small gifts of fruit and flowers, and send you messages from which you infer that the sun won't be able to shine properly until you come outside again. And there isn't a housekeeper of your acquaintance who hasn't got you on her mind: there are sent to you steaming bowls of perfect soup, flaky rolls and golden cake, jeweled jellies, and cool, enticing, trembly things in glass dishes. And when you can sit up for more than an hour or two at a time, why, then you know what it really means to have South Carolina neighbors.
Doctor Geddes made me spend my days in the garden that Schmetz had labored upon with such loving-kindness, and that in consequence was become a marvel of bloom and scent. Every butterfly in South Carolina must have visited that garden. I hadn't known there were that many butterflies in the world. All the florist-shop windows in New York, that I had once paused before with envy and longing, were stinted and poor and pale before the living, out-o'-doors wonder of it. Florist shops haven't any bees, nor birds, nor butterflies, nor trees that wave their green branches at you like friendly hands.
A flowering vine festooned the marble Love, and one great scarlet spray of bloom flamed upon his marble torch, "so lyrically," Miss Martha Hopkins said, that she was moved to write a poem about it. I thought it a very nice poem, and I said so, when she read it to us. But Doctor Geddes, who doesn't care for poetry, except Robert Burns's, rubbed his nose.
"Oh, well, your grandmother and your aunts used to make antimacassars and wall-pockets and paper flowers," he ruminated. "Why shouldn't you make poetry if you feel like it?"
"You are to be pitied, Richard," said Miss Martha, with crushing charity. "Such a disposition! And the older you grow the worse it gets."
"Confound it, Martha!—"
"I do," said she.
Alicia looked at Richard with impersonal eyes. She looked at the ruffled center of culture.
"Don't pay any attention to him, Miss Martha," she said, with a charming smile. "Your poem is very pretty, and he knows it."
"He means well," said Miss Martha, resignedly.
"Now, you look here, Martha!" the doctor said angrily, "I won't have anybody telling me to my face I mean well. You might as well call me a fool outright."
"You are far from being a fool, Richard. And you do mean well. Everybody knows that."
He turned appealingly to his dear Leetchy, and received his first lesson in Domestic Science.
"Miss Martha is right, Richard," she decided.
"Leetchy," the doctor asked, when the mollified Miss Hopkins had departed, "why did Martha go off grinning?"
"How should I know?" wondered Alicia, innocently. Then she looked at him with Irish eyes: "Have you had your lunch, dear?" she asked.
"Lunch?" He looked bewildered.
"Because I'm going to fix Sophy's lunch now, and you may have yours with her, if you like. I love to wait on you, Richard," she added, and a beautiful color flooded her face.
He caught his breath. When she went back to the house, his eyes followed her adoringly.
"Sophy," he said, huskily, "what does she see in me? Do you think I'm good enough for her, Sophy?"
"I think you are quite good enough even for Alicia."
When he had gone, Alicia sat with her head against my knees. Of late a touching gravity, a sweet seriousness, had settled upon her. Her love for the big doctor was singularly clear-eyed and far-seeing. There were going to be times when every ounce of skill, tact, patience, love itself, would be called upon, for the reins must be gossamer-light, invisible, but always firm and sure, that should guide and tone down so impatient and fiery a nature as his. It was very easy to love him; it wasn't always going to be easy to live with him, and Alicia knew it. But she also knew, with a faith beyond all failing, that this was her high, destined, heaven-ordained job.
"Sophy darlin', I'm deplorably young, am I not?" she sighed.
"You'll get over it."
"Do you think I'll make him a good wife, Sophy?"
"I am absolutely certain," I said, "that you'll make him a good husband. Which is far more important."
Alicia hugged my knees, and laughed. Then, seeing Mr. Nicholas Jelnik approaching, she scrambled to her feet, picked up the tray of empty dishes, and went back to the house.
Neither she nor the doctor had asked me so much as one question about Mr. Jelnik. As if by tacit understanding that subject was avoided. And because I hadn't anything to tell them, I, too, held my peace.
He raised my hand to his lips, dropped into a chair, and bared his forehead to the soft wind.
"How good that feels!" he sighed. "Fraeulein, may one smoke?" And receiving permission he smoked for a while, comfortably, leaning back with half-closed eyes.
"Achmet salaams to you, hanoum," he said presently. "You have won his heart of a true believer. Even Daoud demands daily news of you."
"I particularly like The Jinnee. I should like to have him around me. And Daoud is highly ornamental."
"When is The Author coming back? Or is he coming back?" he asked abruptly.
"Oh, yes. He will be here for the wedding. So will Miss Emmeline."
After a long pause, and with an evident effort:
"I have been thinking," he said, "that perhaps it was unfortunate I came between you and The Author. Perhaps," he added deliberately, "it would have been better had you let your common sense gain the day."
I don't know why, but just at that moment the dear and haunting dream of having been lifted out of deep waters and kissed back to life, cradled in this man's arms, came to me with peculiar poignancy. Of a sudden I laughed aloud.
"Oh, I'm just remembering a dream I had, when I was ill," I told him, in answer to his look of surprise.
"It must have been a very amusing dream," said he, staring at me thoughtfully.
"Oh, very! Quite absurd. But go on. You were by way of advising me to marry The Author, were you not?"
His hands on the arms of the wicker chair clenched. He half rose, thought better of it, and sank back.
"I was saying that it might have been better for you," he said, breathing quickly. "In all probability you would have accepted him, had I not been here to—blunder into the affair."
"He mightn't have asked me, if you hadn't been here to blunder into the affair," said I, composedly. "Let us drop the subject, please. I shall never marry The Author." It gave me a sense of relief and freedom to hear myself say that. "I can't marry The Author."
He went pale. "Sophy—you can't marry me, either," he said.
"Of course not." I wondered at myself for being so calm and collected. "I knew that all along. You care for another woman. You told me so, you know."
"I told you no such thing," he said. "I told you I cared for a woman, but that there was another man. Now I've just been told she has no idea of accepting the other man. In spite of all he has to offer, she isn't going to marry him." His face was at once ecstatic and tortured. "Why won't you marry the other man, Sophy?"
"Because of a dream I dreamed, when I was sick," I said noncommittally.
"Ah! And did you dream that somebody called you—and held you—and wouldn't let you go?"
"I never told you!" I cried.
"No need, Sophy. It was to me you came back." Of a sudden his head drooped. "And now I can't marry you!"
"Why can't you?"
"Because I'm a beggar."
Nicholas Jelnik a beggar couldn't find lodgment in my brain. I could only stare at him incredulously.
"I learned some time ago that things were not altogether right over yonder, but I hadn't the ghost of an idea that my entire estate was involved; that while I'd been 'tramping'—I'll use Judge Gatchell's word—the men in whose hands I placed too much power had taken advantage of it. A very common, every-day story, you see.
"Remains the fact that I'm stripped to the bone. The estate's wiped out. And," he added, with a grave smile, "I haven't even discovered the mythical Hynds jewels. Now you see, Sophy, why I can't marry you."
"I see why you think you can't."
He flushed to the roots of his black hair. Hynds-Jelnik pride rose in arms.
"I should cut rather a sorry figure marrying the owner of Hynds House, in the present circumstances," he said curtly. "You will remember that The Author called me an adventurer! I have told you I have nothing."
"Aren't you forgetting your profession?"
"No. But I neglected that, too, Sophy. The Wanderlust had me in its grip."
"What do you propose to do?"
"I shall leave here, put in some months of hard study, and then fight my way upward. My father was the greatest alienist of his generation, and I was trained under his eye. But in the meantime—"
"Yes. In the meantime, what of me?" I asked.
He winced as if he had been struck. "You are free," he said, in a whisper.
"I am free to be free, and you're free to set me free. You never asked me to marry you, in the first place," I agreed quietly.
Stupefaction seized him. He put his hands to his head.
"Why, Sophy! Why, Sophy!" he stammered. Of a sudden he straightened his shoulders, and stood erect: "Miss Smith," he said, with grave politeness, "will you do me the honor to marry me?" and he waited.
"It is rather a belated request, Mr. Jelnik. Besides, you haven't told me why you want to marry me," said I, sedately.
"You are well aware that I love you, Sophy. And I think you care for me in return. Why did you turn that coin when it meant 'Go,' and bid me, instead, 'Stay'? Was it because you cared, Sophy?"
"Yes, Mr. Jelnik: it was because I cared. I cared enough to tell a—a lie. And—I shall say yes to your other question, Mr. Jelnik."
But he shook his head. "Ah, no, my dear! You'd be called upon to make too many sacrifices. I couldn't bear that!"
"A man needn't be worried about the sacrifices a woman makes for him when she knows he loves her."
"Not in normal circumstances; not when he can give as much as he takes."
"Hynds House," I said, "is costing me a steep and bitter price, Mr. Jelnik!"
"Do I not also pay?" he asked fiercely.
"Oh, you have your pride!" said I, wearily; "Hynds pride!"
"A poor enough possession, Sophy, but all that remains to me," he said gently. "Is it a light thing for Nicholas Jelnik to say to the woman he loves, 'I cannot marry you: I am a beggar'? Is it such a small sacrifice to give you up, Sophy?"
"It would appear so."
"You crucify me!" he said, in a choking voice. "Good God, don't you understand that I love you?"
"I don't understand anything, except that you are going away from me. And I have waited for you all my life," I said.
"And I for you! and I for you!" he said passionately. "Don't make it too hard for me, Sophy!"
"If you go away from me," I gasped, "I think I shall die. Nicholas—I can't bear it! It was easier for me when I thought you loved somebody else. But now that I know you love me" and I paused.
He took a step forward, but stopped. His arms fell to his sides.
"Not as a beggar!" he said. "Not as a beggar! Never that, for Nicholas Jelnik! I love you too much for that, Sophy. I love you not only for yourself, but for my own best self, too, my dearest."
For a moment he stood there, regarding me fixedly. It was a long look, of suffering, of love, of pride, of unyielding resolve. Then he lifted my hand to his lips, bowed, and left me.
I sat staring over the garden. I wondered if, somewhere on the other side of things, Great-Aunt Sophronisba wasn't snickering.
"My faith, but I'm glad you're entirely well again, Sophy!" wrote The Author, in his small, fine, hypercritical script. "You make the world a pleasanter place by being alive in it. People like you should inculcate in themselves the fixed and unalterable habit of being alive. They should firmly refuse to be anything else. I call this to your attention, in the hope that you will see your bounden duty and do it.
"When I thought you were going to quit, I ran away. That was a calamity I could not stand by and witness, without disaster. However, Jelnik stayed!
"Your nurse (I do not like Miss Ransome, though I respect, admire, and fear her. Her emotions are carbolized, her heart is sterilized, her personality has the mathematical perfection of something turned out by a super-machine: like, say, the last word in machine-guns. None of the divine imperfection of your hand-wrought, artist-stuff there! I forgive her for existing, because she is intelligent and useful, two things that, without lying like a Christian and a gentleman, one may not say of many women, and seldom of one woman at the same time), your nurse gave me a highly interesting, impersonal, scientific account of what happened after my flight. Her testimony was all the more valuable in that she was, as she said, only 'psychologically interested.' She reminded me that Empedocles is said to have recalled a young woman from death by the same means, i.e., the insistent repetition of her name; which proved to Miss Ransome that the poor old ancients had 'anticipated, though of course unscientifically, some of the principles of modern psychology.' Eheu!
"It proved something else to me, Sophy—that I had too willingly underestimated Mr. Nicholas Jelnik. There is very much more to that young man than I like to admit.
"He would have made such a perfect villain: I could have made a work of art of him, as a villain! And now I can't, because he isn't. This chagrins me. It upsets my notions of the fitness of things. More yet: he loves you, Sophy, more than I do, or ever could.
"Does this astound you? Come and let us reason together: the spirit moves me to speak out in meeting.
"You are the only woman I have ever been willing to marry. That I should wish to marry you astonished me far, far more than it did you. At the same time it delighted me by its very unexpectedness. It gave me a brand-new emotion, and brand-new emotions aren't every-day affairs, let me tell you! You brought something naive, unusual, fresh, perplexing, into a bored existence. And then you refused to spoil it! That added to the quality of the unusualness. The ninety and nine would have subjected me to the acid test of matrimony, with the later and inevitable alimony. The saving hundredth sees to it that I shall keep my illusions! O rare dear wise Sophy! How shall I repay you?
"For I shall be able to indulge in day-dreams now. I shall not grow old cynically. There are unselfish, true-hearted, valiant women. There are women who will not marry men for position, name, fame, power, money; no, nor for anything but love. How do I know? Because you don't love me, my dear. But you do love Nicholas Jelnik. You had not come back from the gates of death else, Sophy.
"Marry him. You will bring him the quiet strength and sureness he needs. A temperamental man, a finely organized, highly gifted, sensitive, and intellectual man needs just such affection as yours, as unshakable as the sun, as faithful as the fixed stars. That you should love him almost makes me believe in the direct intervention of divine Providence in his behalf. My own innate and troublesome decency forces me to add that he is worth it. He has altogether too much, confound him!
"Do you know that while you lay ill, he came and told me about the finding of Jessamine Hynds, showed me her statement, told me, in short, the whole story? I was consumed with envy, malice, and all uncharitableness; to think that such a thing should or could happen right under my nose, and I all unwitting! And you, too, Sophy, went through such an experience! I'd give a year of my life to have been with you.
"When Jelnik had finished, and I'd caught my breath, I apologized for having been a dam' nuisance. He explained, delicately, soothingly, with exquisite politeness, that literary folks of consequence have to be dam' nuisances at times. It's the price they pay.
"And now let me speak to you, my little Sophy, as your loving and loyal friend: Hold fast to Jelnik. I knew his father. The position he occupied wasn't exactly royal, but the elect addressed him as 'thou.' And you have learned somewhat of the Hyndses. In consequence, your Jelnik is a mixture of South-Carolina-Viennese-Hynds-Jelnik pride, beside which Satan's is as mild, meek, and innocuous as a properly raised Anglican curate. Don't meet his pride with pride. Meet it with you, Sophy. Most of us have been loved in our time, but how few of us have been permitted really to love! That you have in full measure this heavenliest of all powers, is your hope and his.
"There are times I'm almost sorry you didn't love me, Sophy. I should then have passed my days in a state of pleasant bewilderment, trying to figure out how the deuce it happened. Or should I, though? H'm! I might have gotten used to being married to you, and that would have spelled boredom. The thought makes me shudder.
"Johnson and I are coming down for Leetchy's wedding, of course. That pink-and-white piece of Irishry will rule Geddes to perfection. There's the steel under the velvet, the cat's claws under that satin paw of hers—more power to it! I have two prints and a piece of Cloisonne for her that I am sorely tempted to keep for myself. I have more than once bought things to give to friends, and then found myself unable to do so. I shouldn't be able to give these to anybody but one of the ladies of Hynds House.
"Johnson mopes. The youngest Meade girl, she with the dimples, the pink cheeks, the fluffy hair, and the fluffier brains, is the cause. He sighs for everything and everybody. For Mary Magdalen's batter cakes. For the Black family. For the Kissing Cow, and for Beautiful Dog. Hynds House is a fatal place!
"So we are coming back to it, as soon as we may. I kiss your hand, Madame, and beg you to understand that so long as we two live you are never going to be able, for any considerable length of time, to get rid of, Your affectionate friend, THE AUTHOR."
I was able to read between the lines, and my heart warmed to The Author. At the same time the letter saddened me, in so far as it referred to Mr. Jelnik.
Refuse to let him go? But I couldn't keep him. I knew now that he had to go, that it was the best thing, the only thing. Doctor Geddes helped me to see that. The doctor tried, at first, to keep his cousin in Hyndsville. Why shouldn't Nicholas go into partnership with him? Why shouldn't Nicholas share everything the open-hearted, open-handed doctor had?
Mr. Jelnik smiled, thanked him, and put the offer by. And I knew he was right.
* * * * *
It had been a rainy day and was now one of those afternoons that have the rawness of autumn, though summer is still present. It was so chilly that a fire burned in the library fireplace, before which I was sitting. The wind was from the northeast, and the trees and bushes slanted before it. Potty Black and I had the library all to our alone-selves, for Alicia was spending the day with Mary Meade, one of her bridesmaids.
The wedding was less than six weeks off, and preparations were under way. It was to be a home wedding, the first to take place in Hynds House since Richard's day, and somehow that lent the occasion the rose color of romance. It was thus a part of Hynds House history, something Hyndsville couldn't take lightly. Alicia's wedding was a town affair, in which everybody was delightfully interested.
Besides, the bridegroom himself was a Hynds on his mother's side, as Hyndsville ladies remembered, when they sat on our front porch working on wonderful bits of embroidered things for the bride. It was then I learned in fullest detail the whole history of Hyndsville, of the Hyndses, and of Great-Aunt Sophronisba in particular. I fancy that the Witch of Endor's neighbors must have had just such an opinion of her as these Hyndsville folk had of Great-Aunt Sophronisba.
South Carolina people always talk in terms of three generations. When they say something about you, they remember something about your mother or your grandfather at the same time, and they tell that, too. There is a fearsome frankness about the conversation of the born South Carolinian that The Author says is only to be matched in an English country house when the county families are gathered together. Like this, for instance:
"No, my dear, I can't say I'm surprised at Sally's running away and getting married. Let's see: her grandfather was a Dampier, wasn't he? Didn't one of the Dampiers murder somebody, or something like that? It seems to me I have heard dear Mama relate some such circumstance."
"Oh, no, Mary! It wasn't murder! He shot one of the Abercrombies in a duel, that's all. He was really a very fine man! They had a dispute about a horse, and Mr. Abercrombie struck Mr. Dampier's little negro groom over the head with his crop. After that, of course, there was nothing to do but challenge him. You must be thinking of Barton Bailey, Eliza DuFour's grandfather on her mother's side. He was a complete scoundrel. His poor wife (she was a Garrett; very dull, poor thing, like all the Garretts, but at least the Garretts were honest, which is more than even charity can say for the Baileys) his wife led a martyr's life with him. Or maybe you're thinking of Tiger Bill Pendarvis. A most awful person!—almost an out-law!"
Mrs. Scarboro looked up, bit off a thread, and said placidly:
"Oh, awful! He was a cousin of mine on dear Papa's side of the family. Papa and Mama used to say that they never could understand why Cousin Sophronisba Hynds didn't pick out Tiger Bill instead of pouncing upon a perfectly innocent little Englishman."
I sat and listened. One thing was joyously clear and plain to me. They liked and trusted me enough now to talk about their own people before me, which is the high sign of fellowship in South Carolina. But learn, O outsider, that silence is golden, so far as you are concerned. Wisely did I hold my peace, and devoutly thank the Lord that times had changed for the better.
For a great deal of that change I had to thank my dear girl, so much more clever and tactful than I. And so I would not cloud her last days with me by letting her see that I was unhappy. Only, I was glad this afternoon to be by myself for a breathing-space. It rests one's face occasionally to take off one's smile. I took off mine, then, and let down the corners of my mouth.
The door leading to the hall was half open. The house was full of blue-gray shadows, and had a drowsy hush upon it, a pleasanter hush than it used to know. One heard the rushing wind outside, and above it Mary Magdalen singing one of her interminable "speretuals."
A slinking shadow stole through the hall, a wary yellow head appeared in the door, and Beautiful Dog sneaked into the room. Beautiful Dog had not known a happy day since the departure of Mr. Johnson. Not all the coddlings of the cook, nor the blandishments of sympathetic housemaids consoled him for the absence of his god. He grew thinner, if that could be possible. His tail hung at half-mast, his ears were a signal of mourning. Queenasheeba said he looked like "sumpin' 'at happened to a dawg."
One hope sustained Beautiful Dog's drooping spirit—the hope that he might suddenly turn a corner, or enter a room, and find the adored Johnson smiling kindly at him. Wherefore he dared the to-be-shunned presence of other white people. He nerved himself to enter tabooed domains. Love sustained him. He knew he had no business there, just as our cats knew it and, whenever they caught him at it, visited swift and dire punishment upon him. Beautiful Dog dared even the cats, those black nightmares of his existence.
He met my glance, paused, and cringed. But as I made no hostile movement, and seemed disposed to be friendly, Beautiful Dog grinned half-heartedly, wagged his rope of a tail dejectedly, and advanced farther. Then he paused again, head on one side, ears forlornly flopping, and made an awkward motion with his fore paws, expressive of doubtful trust and painful inquiry. His god had been wont to choose this particular room by preference. Did I know where he was? When he was coming back?
Beautiful Dog glanced wistfully at the empty chair over by the window. Once or twice his god had allowed him to lie beside that chair while he read, and if Beautiful Dog happened to raise his head, a kind hand happened to fall upon it. He hadn't forgotten. His desire now was to sneak over to the chair and sniff at it. Perhaps by some exquisite miracle his man might suddenly appear in his old place. Can't miracles happen for Beautiful Dogs as well as for other folks, when times and seasons are propitious?
Beautiful Dog took another step toward the chair. And then there paced into the library, and caught him in the rear, his arch enemy—Sir Thomas More Black. The great cat took one look at the nigger dog trespassing upon forbidden ground. You could see Sir Thomas More swell with rage and astonishment, and then lengthen out like an accordion. Without a sound he launched himself upon the intruder. And at the same instant and actuated by the same motive, Potty Black, who had been sweetly and peacefully dozing on my lap, rose up with slitted eyes, bottle-brushed her tail, and hurled herself into the fray.
Attacked front and rear, Beautiful Dog was at hideous disadvantage. He launched himself sidewise; he didn't even have time to howl. He fell over his own splay feet as he ran, butted into chairs and tables, twisted, turned, whirled, dodged, but always presented just the right spot to be clawed. He couldn't dash to the door and escape: the cats were too swift for him. They kept their bewildered victim circling around the middle of the room.
I was sorry for Beautiful Dog, for my sleek, petted, purring pussies had turned into raging black tornadoes edged with a lightning of claws. If the aristocratic Black Family had been raised in Hooligan's Alley itself, on the soft side of the ash-bins, they couldn't have behaved more villainously. Alas! they were cats, just as people are people.
I snatched up the brass-headed poker, the readiest thing to my hand. I merely wished to shoo off the Blacks with it. But as I rose from my chair with a scat! upon my lips, Beautiful Dog, seeing out of the tail of his eye a chance to escape, dashed headlong into me. He came with such force that I fell backward, and the poker flew out of my hand and came crack! upon the sacred tiles of Hynds House library. There was an ominous clatter, for no less than the Father of his Country himself had fallen out of his place. At the same instant Beautiful Dog gained the door, with both cats upon his hind quarters; with one prolonged yell of terror he made for safety and Mary Magdalen.
I picked myself and the tile up. Thank Heaven, it wasn't broken. The blow had loosened the cement that held it in place, and where it had been was a small square hole.
I looked at that hole doubtfully. There oughtn't to be any hole there at all. That was a curious way to fix tiles, such precious tiles as ours. I slipped my hand in and tentatively tested the black wall, and discovered that the other tiles, as might be expected, had been properly put in; that is, against a solid background.
I put my hand farther into the aperture. It was larger than might be expected, and most cunningly contrived—a hollow space some ten inches in width, and possibly a foot deep. There was something in it.
Now I am mortally afraid of rats and mice, and what I had touched had the sleazy feel of frayed silk. It might be a rat's nest! I took a sliver of lightwood from the fire, and with this examined the black interior, before I ventured my fingers again. It wasn't a rat's nest in the corner. It was a package. A package, or rather a sizable buckskin bag carefully tied together with thongs of the same material, and this wrapped in a piece of silk that tore and went to pieces even as I fingered it.
Even then I didn't guess! I thought it was, perhaps, a Revolutionary hoard, maybe such another collection of old coins as we had found in the room without windows.
The silk dropped away like rotting leaves, but the buckskin bag was stout and in perfect condition. So many and so hard were the knots in the thongs that I had to use my penknife to cut them. And having done so, I poured the contents of the bag on the library table.
It was, as I have said, a gray day. But the fires of a century's sunsets flamed and flashed in that library! Ruby, sapphire, diamond, emerald, pearl—how they glowed and glimmered! How they shone and sparkled! For the moment there fell upon me that madness that jewels bring upon women, a sort of wild delight in their hard, bright beauty, an ecstasy, an intoxication. I poured them from one hand to the other, I held the greatest to my cheek. The loveliness of them went to my head. "I did chap them atween my hands, as children chap chaff. They did glow like the Devill his rainbow," Jessamine had said. And remembering her, the delight vanished.
With stunning force the meaning of this discovery came home to me. I had found the unfindable! This, this was where Shooba had hidden them between a night and a morning, Shooba the "skilfullest workman on Hynds place." One fancied him here, in the dead of night, while all Hynds House slept a drugged sleep. It would suit his sardonic humor, his impish malice, to hide them where the Hyndses must pass them daily; and, himself a slave, to hide them behind the pictured semblance of Washington. The grim irony of the thing! And not the cunning of man, but the antics of a cur, a yellow nigger dog, had outwitted the cunning of the old witch doctor! Beautiful Dog had brought to light that which Jessamine had died alone in the dark rather than reveal.
There was one thing more in the buckskin bag, wrapped separately. When I got this separate package open, I found three frayed, black feathers bound together with a strand of black hair, a piece of yellow wax with two slivers of what I think was bone thrust through it crosswise, and a small semblance of a snake, rudely carved out of wood. There was, too, some dust, or powder, that must once have been leaves, or perhaps roots. These unchancy things and the bag that held them I dropped into the fire, breathing a sigh of relief to see its red tooth seize upon them. The wax made a hissing noise, and the dust of leaves, or whatever it was, burned with a bright, fierce flame.
Then with feverish haste I got the Hynds jewels back into the buckskin bag. I hadn't the faintest notion as to their actual value, though I knew it must be considerable—enough to make up to Nicholas Jelnik the losses he had sustained; enough to decide his fate—and mine. Even now he was packing to go; even now there were "For Sale" signs on the gray cottage.
I ran into our living-room, snatched my sewing-bag from the sewing-stand, and dropped the heavy bag into it. That looked more commonplace.
The clamor from the kitchen, incident upon Beautiful Dog's having taken refuge under Mary Magdalen's skirts, had died down. I knew that Beautiful Dog was licking his wounds after defeat, and the Black cats, sedate and mild-mannered, were licking their paws after victory. I determined that from that afternoon Beautiful Dog should become an honored and important institution in Hynds House. If I had to choose a new family escutcheon, I think I should insist upon having Beautiful Dog rampant upon it!
When I went outside, the garden was a gray-green gloom of flying leaves and twisting tree-branches bending before the stiff northeast gale. It was wild weather—weather that sent the blood tingling through the veins and whipped red into one's cheeks.
I got into Mr. Jelnik's grounds through the hedge behind the spring-house, and ran like a hare through his garden. I had to hammer upon his door before I could make Achmet hear me, so loud and surf-like was the noise of the wind in the trees.
The Jinnee stepped back and salaamed, his hands upon his breast. Then he laid a finger upon his lips, for from up-stairs came the wailing outcry of a violin.
The Jinnee looked thin and old. His garments hung loose upon his shrunken frame. There was trouble in that house, he told me. The master had wished to send Daoud away. Daoud had refused to go. To leave one's lord when calamity came upon him was to shame one's beard. It was the act of the infidel, not the behavior of the faithful, and Daoud had threatened to shave his beard, put on the dress of a pilgrim, and beg his way from Hyndsville to Mecca. He was even now kneeling upon a prayer-mat reciting a four-bow prayer. As for the master, for two days he had not eaten; he merely swallowed a cup of coffee in the morning because Achmet wept. This afternoon he had fled to his violin for relief. Verily, God was afflicting them! "The bad fortune of the good turns his face to heaven, even as the good fortune of the bad bends his head to the earth. It is the will of God: Islam!" said The Jinnee, simply.
"I must see Mr. Jelnik, now, this minute! I have news for him," I said hastily.
The Jinnee looked doubtful. Plainly, he didn't want his master disturbed, even by me. "I have never seen him like this before," he told me. "Listen!"
Came the cries of the violin, heart-rending cries of regret and despair, followed by furious protests; then a nobler grief, and love, and longing.
"After a while it will pray for him. Then Satan the stoned, whom may God confound, will depart from him," said Achmet.
"But in the meantime I must see him, immediately."
"He goes to-morrow. That is why he is afflicted to-day," said The Jinnee. "I think, hanoum, he would go without seeing you again. It is a grievous thing to say to one's beloved, 'I leave you.' I have said it. I was young then. I am old now, but I have not forgotten."
I unfastened the chain from my neck. A half-coin swung from it as a pendant.
"Place this in his hand. It is a sign. It has power to lay the evil spirit which troubles this house," I told him gravely.
He seized upon it with an eager hand. "In the name of God!" said The Jinnee, and fairly flew out of the room.
A minute later, his violin grasped in one hand, my chain in the other, Nicholas Jelnik appeared. His appearance shocked me. The mask was off; here was stark and naked misery.
"Nicholas!" I said, "Nicholas!"
"You should not have come!" he said roughly. "Why have you come? I did not want you to see me—thus. Is it not enough for me to suffer?" And he made an impatient, imploring gesture. His lips quivered.
"Put aside the violin, Ariel," I said. "But keep the coin."
He stiffened, as if he braced himself for further blows. But he laid aside the violin, and with a supreme effort of will got himself in hand. That early training in self-control worked a miracle now. Here was no longer the wild, white-lipped musician, but a pale, proud young man who faced me with stately politeness.
"I have another gift for you, Nicholas Jelnik." To save my life I couldn't keep my voice from shaking, my eyes from glittering, my cheeks from flaming. "Do not go, old Jinnee. Stay and see what gift I bring the master."
Then it occurred to me that it would be dangerous should strange or greedy eyes look upon what my sewing-bag hid. The thought frightened me."
"You are sure there is none to see? Achmet, there is no stranger around?"
"We are alone," said the black man, quietly. Both of them seemed astonished and concerned.
Reassured, I drew forth the heavy buckskin bag and placed it in Nicholas Jelnik's hands.
"From Hynds House—and me—and oh, Nicholas, from Beautiful Dog, too!" I said, and laughed and cried.
For the moment he didn't understand. He thought it some loving woman-foolishness of Sophy's, some woman-gift she had made for him. I knew, for he gave me a glance of tenderness. And then he opened the bag, and staggered like a drunken man, and sank into the nearest chair, trembling like a leaf in the wind. The Hynds fortune had come back to the last of Richard's blood.
When the mist cleared from my eyes, I saw old Achmet on the floor, with his hands upraised and tears running down his black cheeks like rain, unashamedly and unaffectedly pouring out praises and thanksgivings to his Creator.
"Hold out your skirts, Sophy!" cried Nicholas Jelnik, and poured the glittering things into my lap, boyishly. He was beautiful again, radiant and young-eyed as the choiring cherubim. There were two exquisite, pear-shaped ear-ring drops among the Hynds jewels, and these he took, threaded upon my chain on either side the broken coin, and hung around my neck. He held a ruby against my lip and turquoises near my eyes, and laughed.
"These for Hynds House, Sophy!" he cried, and laughed again to see my lips tremble. "What? It is not these you want? Choose for yourself, then. I promised you the best of them, you know."
"I want none of them," I said.
"No? Take them, then, Achmet, and put them away," said Mr. Jelnik, in a matter-of-fact voice. "You will guard them for me, for the time being. And tell Daoud I have changed my mind about sending him away. He can change his about shaving his beard, and save himself the trouble of begging his way to Mecca."
I stood up in silence, and held out my skirt apron-wise, while The Jinnee as silently removed the Hynds jewels. Then he tied the buckskin bag, concealed it in a fold of his robe, and left the room.
"Now, Sophy," said Mr. Jelnik, facing me, "you offered Hynds House to me once, and I refused it because I didn't have the price. I told you at the time that if ever I had the Hynds jewels in my possession, I might be tempted to make you an offer of exchange. I am going to make you an offer now. I should like to live in Hynds House, Sophy. I don't think I could be happy anywhere else. You see, Sophy, I'm going to spend the rest of my life here in America, become an American citizen. Now, what about Hynds House?"
"You may have it," I said.
"At my own price?" he demanded.
"At your own price. Did you think I would haggle with you?"
"No. It's I who intend to haggle with you. I'm going to make a tremendous bargain. There's something that must go with the house. Something that's worth more than all the Hyndses ever had in all their lives. You, Sophy. My sweetheart, come!" And he stood there shining-eyed, and held out his arms.
"Once I sent for you. Once I called you. And both times you came to me, Sophy. You came because you are mine. Come!" said Nicholas Jelnik. And the golden lights danced in and out of his eyes that were like brown mountain water when the sun is upon it, and his hair was like Absalom's.
In all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.
And caught by the surge and power, as it were of the very wave of life itself, I was swept into those outstretched arms.