After her came Mr. Anstice, looking busily in every corner for the book he had in his hand. This the mimic followed by a representation of Ben Bradford, with hand propped on knee and chin on hand, glooming from his corner upon Winifred Anstice, when she ventured to address some one else.
"I cannot do Miss Anstice," Brady confessed one evening. It was October then, and the two friends were sitting together in Flint's room. "She has too much humor. The more humor there is in an original poem, for instance, the harder it is to parody, and so with people. The grand, gloomy, and peculiar are easy enough, let them be ever so august; but the light, delicately ironical manner is a difficult thing to exaggerate."
"Yes," assented Flint, "the heaviness of touch necessary to caricature spoils the effect."
"Precisely," said Brady, "and it is as difficult to take off her looks as her manner. Her expression is too changeable to leave any characteristic fixed in the mind. The fact is, Miss Anstice is almost a beauty at times."
"You think so?" responded Flint, with half-closed eyes.
"Yes, I do really—in a way—not like that Madonna-type of Nora Costello."
"No, certainly not like her."
"But still she has a style of her own."
"Oh, yes, quite so—as you say, she has a style of her own."
"You are very cool on the subject; but you should have heard a man at the club go on about her, when he heard that we had spent our vacation at Nepaug."
"I should scarcely think," said Flint, opening and closing his match-box with a quick, nervous movement, "that you would have allowed her name to come up at the club."
"Oh, hang it, Flint, that is going pretty far! I don't know that Miss Anstice's name is too sacred to be mentioned in general society; and as for the club,—why, if it is not made up of gentlemen, what did you put me up for?"
It was seldom that Brady got off so much of a speech, and he felt a little elated by seeing his friend without an answer for the moment.
"Besides," he continued, "nothing was said, except about what a stunning girl she was. 'Handsomer than ever,' Livingston said, 'since she came home.'"
"So the Anstices are at home?"
"Yes, and Cousin Susan is coming down next week to visit them. She wrote me to be sure to call."
"I shall try to go before Miss Standish arrives."
"You and Cousin Susan never did hit it off very well."
"Excuse me, I think she hit me off very well; the fact is, the femme sole after fifty becomes either pious or pugnacious. Miss Standish is both."
"You are prejudiced, as usual, and malicious, too, under the guise of impartiality. Miss Standish is a benevolent woman, with an irresistible bent towards doing people good even against their will."
Flint groaned assent. "Alas, yes," he muttered.
"She is a fine woman," continued Brady, "and a fine-looking one too, as Dr. Cricket will testify, for on my soul I think the old duffer wants to marry her."
"I wish he would, and rid the world of an officious old maid."
"'Old maid' is an opprobrious term. Miss Standist is a well-preserved single woman."
"Hold there, Brady! She is really not sugary enough for a preserve; I should say rather well canned. But never mind, I can forgive her some acidity toward myself, in consideration of her sweetness to Nora Costello. She has really been good to that girl."
"Who could help it!" exclaimed Brady, unguardedly. Then he cleared his throat with a nervous little cough, and began again with would-be unconcern: "By the way, I don't know whether I told you, that the day after you left Nepaug, Jimmy Anstice picked up a gold brooch on the beach, just where you came ashore after the wreck. It was a homely, old-fashioned thing, with a gold-stone centre big enough for a tombstone; but Jim brought it to me with all the pride of a discoverer. I turned it over, and on the back I saw engraved in the gold, 'To Nora from her Mother, on her birthday, November tenth,' Of course I knew in an instant that it belonged to Nora Costello. Then it came to me how the girl spent most of the day while she was at Nepaug wandering up and down on the beach. Of course she was looking for her brooch; but she was afraid, if she said anything, it would look like accusing somebody; and besides, very likely with her queer ideas she felt that she ought not to have kept any piece of jewelry, even if it was her mother's."
"You seem to have studied her feelings rather closely."
"Why, of course, when one meets a pretty girl like that—and really you know she is the prettiest I ever saw—"
"How long is it since you said the same of Miss Anstice?"
"Ah! that was before I met Nora Costello. 'Time's noblest offspring is his last.' But if you will keep still and listen, instead of interrupting all the time, you will hear something about the little plot which Miss Anstice and Cousin Susan and I have laid among us."
"I should say it was well. Just you wait and see. Cousin Susan is to write to Nora."
"Nora?" commented Flint, with raised eyebrows.
"Yes, Nora," repeated Brady, somewhat defiantly. "If I said Captain Costello you would not know whether I was talking of her or her brother."
"Oh, yes, I should," said Flint, "for you never talk of him at all; but never mind that—go on with your revelations of this deep conspiracy."
"You don't deserve to hear; but as it gives me pleasure to tell you, I will. Cousin Susan writes to the Costellos to come to the Anstices' house on the evening of November tenth. They arrive. We are there already. Tableau—old Nepaug minus Dr. Cricket and Ben Bradford—and a bouquet for Mistress Nora, with her brooch hanging from it in a little bag which Miss Standish was manufacturing when I came away. Now isn't that a scheme?"
"The tenth of November," responded Flint, as though the latter part of the sentence had escaped him—"and am I to be invited?"
"Why, of course!" exclaimed Brady, impatiently. "Weren't you the one to save her life? Worse luck to you for having the honor fall to your share!"
"Then," said Flint, with that curious obliviousness of the important parts of his companion's remarks,—"then in common civility I ought to call there beforehand."
"Ah! Flint, I'm glad to see you waking up to some decent sense of social observances."
"What time is it?" asked his friend, absently, oblivious of the watch in his pocket.
"Quarter before eight," Brady answered.
"Then out of my room with you, for I have just time to dress and get down there. If one must do these things, the sooner they are out of the way the better."
An Extract from the Journal of Miss Susan Standish, New York, November 12.
It is nearly two weeks since I left Oldburyport, and in spite of the Anstices' hospitality I have been homesick ever since. When we reach middle age nothing suits us so well as village life. The small events occupy and divert our minds without wearying them with the bewildering whirl of the city. The interest of our neighbors in us and our affairs, which is annoying in youth, becomes more grateful as life goes on, and we discover how little real thoughtfulness and interest in others the world contains. As for the narrowing influences of village life, I don't see that people in Oldburyport are any more provincial or prejudiced than they are in New York,—not so much so, I really think, for they are forced by the very smallness of their circle to find their interests in the affairs of the great world, and the lack of social excitements gives them so much more time for reading. To be sure, when people are unhappy there is less to divert their minds, and when they are irritable they feel more at liberty to vent their tempers, because they know folks cannot get away from them so easily. I confess I was not sorry to take leave of Cousin John, though I did feel sorry for him, as he sat there all alone with his gouty foot up on the chair in front of the Franklin stove in the sitting-room. He is not satisfied with Philip, and seems to hold me responsible. He would like to have Phil come home to live and be cashier of the bank.
Cousin John thinks the world revolves round the Oldbury bank; and I suppose it is natural he should, seeing how long he has been president, and what a fine reputation it has the country round.
Of course Philip does not see it in the same light, and it seems he made some ill-advised speech,—said he would rather turn sexton and bury other people than be buried alive himself in a hole like that, which was not a nice thing for him to say to his father,—but that was no reason why Cousin John should swear at him, and tell him he was sick of his capitalist airs, and he for one should not be surprised if he came some day to beg for aid from the bank he thought too insignificant to be worthy of his attention.
Philip was furious. "Bankrupt I may be some day," he answered, "but I promise you I will go to the poorhouse before ever I ask help of you and your infernal bank."
This was the state of mind in which they parted, when Philip had come home for his first visit in years. I could have shaken them both for their obstinacy and lack of common sense; but it is always so when men live alone. They need a woman about the house to accustom them to being contradicted. Now if Philip married a girl like Winifred, she would soon straighten things out. I can see now how Cousin John would dote on her and pretend not to care very much, and scold sometimes when he had the gout; but all the while be her slave and spend his life trying to give her pleasure. That is what ought to happen, so of course it won't. Instead, Philip will go and marry some uncomfortable sort of person with a mission. Oh, dear! what if it should be—? There, I will not allow my mind to turn in that direction. I have a sort of superstition that thinking too much about any unfortunate thing helps to bring it about. I think it must be this city life which makes me feel so blue and discouraged. The fact is, I do not like New York. In the first place, because it is not Boston; and in the second place, because it is New York. There is too much of everything here—too much money, too much show, too many lamps, and sofa-pillows, and courses at dinner. Then everybody seems to be everlastingly at work getting ready to live. Here is Winifred, for instance, tearing up and down for hours after upholsterers and paper-hangers, toiling about from shop to shop, and from Broadway to Sixth Avenue, matching samples and trying aesthetic effects which no one but herself cares anything for when they are accomplished. And by the end of the day she is so tired that she falls asleep when I read aloud to her in the evening.
"Why do you fuss so about everything?" I asked her the other day. "We don't fuss in Boston."
"That accounts," she answered,—which was not very civil, I thought. She has certainly grown very queer this fall. She told me this morning that she thought the Unitarians were as bigoted as anybody. Now she never would have said a thing like that this summer when she was living in the open air. It's my opinion that two things are telling upon her,—furnace heat and the influence of that Mr. Flint—especially the last. Why, it just seems to me as if she were trying to make herself over into the kind of woman he would be likely to like. She has dropped her old hoidenish ways and goes about as prim as a Puritan. She says she is always like that in the city, and that her Nepaug ways are only a reaction; but I don't believe it. He comes here a great deal, that is certain; and I don't think it is very gentlemanly, after her begging him, as I heard her with my own ears, to go away. But he is too selfish to care what any one wants but himself. For some reason or other it suits his plans just now to try to please Winifred.
The first night I was here Winifred was telling him about Maria Polonati, the little Italian girl who sells flowers at the corner of the Square, and how she had made friends with her, and learned all about her "padre" and her "madre" and the playmates she had left behind her in the "bella Napoli." Winifred knows how to tell a thing so it seems to stand right out like the old Dutch women in the pictures, and I could see that Mr. Flint was taking it all in, for all he said so little; and so he was, for the next time he came he walked right up to Winifred's chair and dropped a great bunch of violets into her lap.
"The little girl at the corner sent you these," he said; and Winifred smiled as if it were the most natural thing in the world for that cross-grained egotist to do a thing like that. He did it rather gracefully, I admit; but a Boston man would have done it just as well, if he had only thought of it.
Of late Mr. Flint has taken to dropping in once or twice a week of an evening to play whist,—he and Winifred against her father and me. Now I like to beat as well as any one; but I do like some show of organized resistance, and this young man's playing is what I call impertinently poor, as if he did not think it worth while to try. Winifred seems just as well satisfied to be beaten as to beat, and the Professor takes a guileless and childlike satisfaction in his triumph which is quite pitiable. I take pains to let Mr. Flint see that I at least am not taken in; but he only smiles in that exasperatingly non-committal way of his, as if it mattered little enough to him what I thought one way or the other. After the game is over he gets a chance for a few minutes' talk with Winifred while I am hunting up my knitting and her father his pipe, and it is my belief that it's just those few minutes that he looks forward to all the evening, while he is ignoring his partner's trump-signal and leading from his weak suit.
Winifred has caught a very annoying trick of turning to him on all occasions, as if waiting to know what he thought before making up her mind. Altogether I don't like the look of things at all.
Of course there was no getting out of inviting Mr. Flint to the little birthday party which we were planning for Nora Costello. To tell the truth, nobody but me seemed to want to get out of it. Professor Anstice says he is the most agreeable man that comes to the house, and when I confided to him that I was afraid Winifred would fall in love with him, he answered: "She might do worse. She might do much worse." That was all the consolation I got in that quarter, and with Winifred herself it was as bad. I thought it might do good to recall some of her early impressions, which seem to have changed so mightily of late.
"Don't you remember," I said, "how you called him a refrigerator?"
"Did I?" she said with a little laugh. "Well, he was rather frigid in those days."
"Yes, and you said how disagreeable his manners were, and how thoughtless he was of every one but himself."
At this Winifred colored up as if they hadn't been her own very words. "If I said it," she answered with a little toss of her head, "or if anybody else said it, it was a stupid slander, which grows stupider every time it is repeated."
I was a little nettled myself at her answering me like that. "You didn't think so," I said, "when you begged him to go away from Nepaug."
At this Winifred jumped straight up from her chair, running her hand through her hair in a way she has when she is excited—"Did you hear that? Then you must have been listening," she cried out, as if she were accusing me of chicken-stealing.
"If you think that of me, Winifred, the sooner my trunk is packed the better," I answered, as stiff as the Captain's monument on Duxbury Hill.
In an instant Winifred was on her knees by my side, and had thrown her arms around my neck.
"No, no, dear Miss Standish, I do not think it, and I ought not to have said it. It only made me feel so badly to think of any one's having overheard my secret, which after all was not my own."
Now here was my chance to find out the very thing which had been bothering my old head all these weeks. I had only to pretend to know and I should hear it all, for Winifred was in one of her rare confidential moods. But that inconvenient New England conscience of mine not only would not let me pretend, but it pricked me a little with Winifred's accusation of having listened. Perhaps if my ears had not been strained just a trifle, I should not have caught as much as I did of the conversation at Flying Point. Anyway, I felt bound to confess now.
"I did not hear anything but just your asking him to go away, and his answering rather reluctantly that he did not want to, but he would."
"Then," said Winifred, "you are bound to take my word for the meaning of the snatch of talk you heard, and I tell you that he acted like a gentleman and a very honorable gentleman; moreover, that from that good hour I began to be ashamed of my rash estimate of him (I always do jump in overhead in my judgments) and am only waiting for a chance to tell him so frankly, and to ask him to forget all my rude speeches."
After this there was no more to be said. I only pray to be kept from arguing. The habit of making comments has brought me into more trouble than all my other vices put together. Well, this time grace was given me to hold my tongue. When I saw a note addressed in Winifred's hand to "J. Edwards Flint, Esq.," I did not even observe that it would have been as well to let her father write it, nor did I say what I think,—that I hate to see a man chop off his first name with a capital and write his middle name in full. It always looks like an alias. The man who does it is either trying to attract attention or trying to get rid of it.
Everything else about the birthday scheme ran as smooth as a ribbon from Jordan & Marsh's. I begged leave to make the cake, and it came out of the oven done to a turn, white as snow inside and a golden brown on the crust. Nora Costello and her brother came at eight o'clock just as they had promised, with unfashionable promptness. They looked somewhat surprised to see the house so lighted up, and Nora gave a timid little glance at Winifred's rose-colored waist (a woman doesn't forget how clothes look just because she joins the Salvation Army); but she herself was a picture in spite of her dress—perhaps because of it, for the close-fitting blue gown, with its plain band at the neck and sleeves, set off her fine features and the noble carriage of her head. The chief decoration of her dress was a scarlet ribbon coming diagonally from the shoulder to the belt, marked "Jesus is My Helper." I did wish she had not felt called to make a guy of herself with that thing; but she seemed so unconscious of it herself that I should have forgotten it too if Mr. Flint had not been coming; but I hate to see a scoffer like him get hold of anything ridiculous in religion. Now we Unitarians stand midway between scepticism and superstition. I wonder everybody can't see it as we do.
I am bound to say, however, that Mr. Flint behaved exceedingly well. A thorough acquaintance with the world seems to give pleasanter manners sometimes than a religious nature. Anyway, he came forward and greeted her very handsomely. He handed her a little volume of Thomas a Kempis, "For those leisure hours which you never have," he said. The girl looked mightily pleased but a little bewildered, and still more so when Philip Brady followed with a great bunch of the reddest of red roses (trust men for always picking out red flowers—I don't believe they know there is any other color). Tied by a satin ribbon to the flowers was the little blue bag which I made at Nepaug, and inside it lay the lost brooch. I never saw any such delight as shone on Nora Costello's face when she drew out the pin. She looked from one to another of us, then at the pin in her hand, which she turned about and about, crying over it softly. At length she brushed away her tears and smiled a real child's smile of pure pleasure. "Look, Angus!" she exclaimed, holding out her treasure to her brother, "the lost is found. Do you mind the day Mither gave it me, and how she bade me have a care, for that I was a heedless lass and like to lose it?"
"Ay, I mind it," answered her brother, a flush of gratified pride and affection mounting to his high cheekbones. "How can we thank these kind folks?"
"How indeed!" echoed Nora. "Oh, how good it is to have it back!" she exclaimed, fondling the brooch as though it had life and could feel. "But where did you find it, and why—Ah! I see," she added, as she turned it in her hand—"you dear, good folks—and here it was only this morning I thought the Lord had clean forgot 't was my birthday."
I wish I could recall on paper the little foreign accent of the Scotch girl which seemed to add so much to the charm of her simple speech. Her big drooping eyes were wet with tears, and the little homesick note in her voice made an irresistible appeal to the hearts of those who heard it,—at least it did to mine, and I sneaked away behind the lid of the grand piano, which was open, to get out my pocket handkerchief, for I did not choose to make a spectacle of myself, and I don't know how to cry prettily, like Nora Costello. My nose gets red, and my eyes look as if I were addicted to the use of intoxicating liquors.
When I emerged from behind the screen of the piano, I saw Philip Brady standing over Nora Costello, and looking down at her in a way that made my heart jump. She is a sweet girl, and a good girl, and a beautiful girl; but really this wouldn't do at all. Fancy Cousin John's son going round with a drum, keeping company with a tambourine. Shades of Dr. Charming forbid! Now why couldn't it have been Mr. Flint? That would have been poetic justice. Conversion of an atheist—marriage on the platform in presence of the Army. She is too good for him; but still I would have given my blessing—but here everything is snarled up and getting worse all the time.
The surprises of the evening were not over yet, for the most remarkable remains to tell. While we were all sitting at table (Winifred did look startlingly handsome under the pink candle-shades) the bell rang, and a messenger boy appeared.
Could he not leave the package? Professor Anstice asked, when he had signed the ticket the boy took out of his hat, where for some inscrutable reason New York messengers carry everything.
No, he was ordered to give it to Miss Anstice herself.
"Very well," said Winifred, "bring it in by all means. Perhaps some one has mixed things a little, and fancies that it is my birthday that we are celebrating."
So in came the package, and with it a great bunch of violets, and a card which said, "The little girl at the corner sends you these."
I saw Winifred's hands tremble as she untied the ends of the package. The wrappings fell off and she saw a picture.
"What—who is it?" Winifred asked, turning from one to another of us with bewilderment in her eyes.
"A relative of yours, I believe," Mr. Flint answered quietly. "Her name is Ruth. She formed the habit of eloping in her youth, and had not the heart to refuse my entreaties to run away with me when I left Nepaug."
Then in an instant it flashed across Winifred and all of us that this was the portrait for which she had been searching all summer (any one might have recognized it, for the resemblance to Winifred about the eyes and mouth is unmistakable), and she knew of course that Mr. Flint had been the one to find it. Her way of taking the affair was very characteristic. There was no tearful tremulous gratitude like Nora Costello's, but a great overflow of pride and gladness. Rising, with her just filled wine glass in her hand, and her head thrown back a little as if in a pride which had a shade of defiance in it, she called out, "A health!—a health! Here's to my great-great-grandmother, the runaway bride, and to the generous man who restored her to the bosom of her family!"
Every one looked bewildered, but all laughed and drank the toast (I noticed that the Costellos drank theirs in water), and then began to ask questions as fast as they could talk. The health broke up the feast, and every one crowded about the portrait. As Winifred and Mr. Flint stood close behind me, I overheard, this time without intention, upon my honor, an exchange of remarks between them.
"You have shown yourself very generous, Mr. Flint," Winifred remarked. "You will not surely be so ungenerous as not to let us make some little return for your gift. I am not ignorant that such a portrait has a value besides that of sentiment."
"You touch me there on a sore point, Miss Anstice," Mr. Flint answered. "I am afraid the person to whom you are really indebted is old Marsden, for I knew if I offered him anything like the real value of the picture, he would hold it for the price of a Raphael. So I made him set his own price, which the sly old dog thought a staggering one, and which I found so absurdly low that I shall feel bound to remember him handsomely at Christmas."
"You are jesting," Winifred answered, speaking lower; "but I am in earnest. Can we not persuade you to let us pay for this picture? For the pleasure you have given us we never could repay you."
"If it is a question of payment," said Mr. Flint, sinking his voice still lower, "I am so deep in your debt that it would bankrupt me to straighten our accounts. If it is a question of generosity, and I should come to you some day and ask—"
"Did you say it was a Copley?"
This question from Philip broke in upon Mr. Flint's aside. He answered with some asperity, "No, it was painted in England before Copley's time. It is unsigned, but the artist, I should say, was first-rate."
After this response Mr. Flint turned his head in an instant; but the charm was snapped. Winifred had slipped away, and the company was breaking up. How the man would hate me if he knew that it was I who set Brady on to ask that question!
Winifred is tired to-day, and took her breakfast in bed. I wonder—Pshaw, what good does it do to wonder?
YES OR NO
"A man's homage may be delightful until he asks straight for love, by which a woman renders homage."
The Anstices' house stood on the sunny side of Stuyvesant Square. It belonged to the type common in the lower part of the city fifty years ago,—a type borrowed from Beacon Street, as Miss Standish was fond of pointing out, and never improved upon for comfort. Its red-brick front swelled outward, not in the awkward proportions of the modern bay-window, which suggests some uncomfortable protuberance; but with a gracious sweep from the front door to the limits of the next property. In front ran a balcony with a finely wrought iron balustrade, over which clambered a wistaria vine hung with purple clusters in the spring, and green with foliage throughout the summer.
The front door was framed by glass side-lights set in delicate oval mouldings, and above, the colonial fan-light lined with silk fluted in a rising-sun pattern, gave additional cheerfulness to the hall within.
This hall was of generous proportions, and suggestive of land sold by the foot rather than by the inch. At the back a white staircase railed with mahogany wound its way to the second story, and at the right a broad silver-knobbed mahogany door opened invitingly into the drawing-room.
The charm of the Anstice drawing-room lay in its being no drawing-room at all, but just a living-room, reflecting the taste and habits of the people who occupied it. Jim's parrot usurped the window, where he chattered in the sun all day, and flew about at his will, much to the injury of the curtains. Between the windows and the white casing of the mahogany door, stood an old desk strewn with papers in some confusion; for Professor Anstice was fond of bringing his writing from the study on the upper floor to Winifred's domain. The piano occupied the opposite side of the room, the coffin-like gloom of its polished rosewood enlivened by a tall vase brilliant now with the chrysanthemums which autumn had brought. A shaded lamp glowed on a table loaded with books and drawn cosily to the side of a deep couch, and on the other side of the fire, which shot out little hisses of heat on this chilly afternoon, stood the tea-table, with its delicate old-fashioned silver, its transparent china cups, and the plates of hot toasted muffins and ethereally thin bread-and-butter sandwiches which McGregor brought in punctually at five every day.
The old butler was the one extravagance of the Anstice menage, and as Winifred said, she saved his wages out of the china that he didn't break,—which was one way of looking at it,—and then, McGregor was so much more than a butler! He was housekeeper and parent's assistant and family counsellor all in one. He advised Professor Anstice as to the weight of overcoat called for by the temperature outside. He reminded Jimmy of his mittens and rubbers, and his respectful but significant glances informed Winifred of the exact estimation in which he held her guests.
Flint was a special favorite, and the bow he accorded him was equivalent to a benediction.
"Yes, sir," he said this afternoon, "Miss Anstice is in the parlor. I am just taking in the tea." Having relieved the visitor of his hat and coat, he ushered him in with the air of a protector, and then, after drawing the curtains and lighting the alcohol lamp under the silver kettle, he withdrew noiselessly and deferentially.
"What a treasure that man is!" said Flint, looking after him as he disappeared. "He is better than forty coats of arms as a guarantee of respectability, and the welcome which he extends to callers is a perpetual testimonial to the hospitality of the household."
"Ah," Winifred answered, smiling, "you say that because you belong to the most favored nations. You might not think him so genial if you saw the frigidity with which he receives some of our guests."
"Then I suppose I have only to be thankful that McGregor has not yet caught a hint of my real character, as set forth last summer so vividly by his mistress, and I think I have one more friend in the household; what do you say to that, Paddy?"
The dog had risen from his comfortable doze in front of the fire, and stood stretching himself, with two shaggy paws thrust out in front. When he heard his name called he wagged his tail and came up to Flint's chair, by which he squatted, laying his tawny head cosily across the visitor's lap.
"Come here, Paddy; don't make yourself a nuisance!"
The dog listened calmly to his mistress's invitation, wagged his tail again, and winked his sleepy eyes, but made no motion to obey.
Flint patted the dog's head.
"This is too bad!" Winifred exclaimed, in assumed indignation. "Jimmy has already learned to oppose my opinions by quotations from what Mr. Flint thinks and says; but I will not have Paddy taught to defy my authority."
"Go, Paddy!" said Flint, moving his chair further back. "Your mistress regards me as a dangerous character, and considers it her solemn duty to remove every one in her charge from the risk of the injurious effects of my society."
In spite of Flint's jesting tone there was a hint of bitterness in his voice. The dog, in some surprise at the sudden withdrawal of his head-rest, stood up, looking from one to the other, apparently in doubt as to the rival claims. At length old habits of allegiance asserted themselves, and he seated himself in the angle between the tea-table and his mistress's chair.
Winifred's mood suddenly seemed to have changed from gay to grave. She sat for a moment or two in silence, her hand softly playing with Paddy's long ear, and her head bent ever so little to one side.
"Mr. Flint," she said at last, somewhat abruptly, "I want to tell you a little story; but first let me make your tea. Do you take lemon?"
"Yes, if you please."
"One lump—no, thanks—no more."
"Try this brown-bread sandwich. Now, lean back in your chair and listen. Once there was a girl—"
"Yes, there was, and she was a very stupid girl, and all the stupider that she thought herself rather clever. She fancied that she was very acute in reading character, and she trusted a great deal to instinct, and first impressions, and all that sort of rubbish by which women excuse themselves from taking the trouble to use their reason. Well, once upon a time, this girl met a man whom she did not like. Her vanity was touched, in the first place, because he disapproved of her and showed his disapproval."
"What a cad he must have been!" Flint put in.
"Now you are no better than the girl I am telling you about—going off like that on insufficient evidence. The girl made up her mind at once that the man must be at fault, since he failed to appreciate her,—all our estimates are based on vanity, you see in the last analysis,—so she proceeded to fit him out with a character to match her ideal of him. He was to be selfish and cold, and regardless of everybody but himself, and supercilious and domineering, and endowed with all the other agreeable qualities which go with those engaging epithets. This answered very well for a while, and I am bound to admit that at first you—I mean he—seemed to play the part which she had assigned to him very satisfactorily; but presently little things began to come to her knowledge which refused to fit into the picture she had made of him. He had a friend who let slip stories of inconsistently kind things he had done for a man whom he had known in college, pooh-poohing them all the time as folly."
"Exactly what the girl said. They didn't go with the character of the kind of man that she had made up her mind this was to be, so she would not believe them, and kept repeating every disagreeable thing she had ever heard him say as an antidote against any change of impression. But stupid as she was, she was not quite dishonest, even with herself, and when gradually her eyes were opened to the wrong which she had done him in her own mind, she longed for an opportunity to make him some amends; but all the opportunities came to him, and the coals of fire were heaped on her head till she began to feel them quite too hot for comfort. So at last she resolved, on the first occasion when she saw him alone, to ask his pardon very humbly for all her misdoings and misthinkings. Now, if she did, what do you think the man would say?"
Flint had set down his tea untasted, and sat staring steadily into the fire, yet no detail of Winifred's dress or attitude escaped him. He noted the glint of the firelight playing on the buckle of her little slipper; he watched it climb over the sheen of the gray-silk dress, higher, higher, till it reached the bare throat, and flushed the already flushed cheek to a deeper carnation. He felt the appeal in the girl's attitude as she leaned ever so little towards him. He caught the tremulous note in her voice. His own was less steady than its wont as he answered:—
"How do you know that the girl was not right in her first estimate? For my part, I think a man who presumed to show the disapproval you speak of, and to say disagreeable things on slight acquaintance, fully justified her opinion of him; and if he seemed to change later, I should think it probable that something in her had shamed him out of his coldness and his selfishness. As for the superciliousness, I should be inclined to set down the appearance of that to the charge of an unconquerable shyness masquerading in the guise of self-assertion,—I have known men like that,—but the other qualities I believe were there. I suspect it was a reversal of the old story of Pygmalion and Galatea, as if he were slowly turning from stone to flesh, yet still held back by the old chill of stony habit,—an imprisonment which could only be broken by a word from her. Is there any chance that you will ever speak it—Winifred?"
"Oh, no—no!" the girl answered brokenly. "Don't say anything more!"
"I love you," Flint continued, as if the statement were necessary to his vindication.
"Oh, but why do you tell me?"
"Because I choose to have you know,—because I must tell it. I love you. I love you." He repeated the words with a persistence not to be put aside. Winifred was inwardly furious with herself for her own stupidity in giving him such an opening; but then, as she told herself, who could have foreseen it, with this man of all men! The shock of the surprise took her breath away, and robbed her of her usual self-command. She still strove to take the situation lightly, to treat it picturesquely, like a love-scene on a Watteau fan.
"Here is another proof of your generosity," she said, with a half tremulous, wholly adorable little smile. "I asked for pardon and you offer love."
Flint would not be put off so. "Ah, but I ask for so much more than I offer," he said.
"And—if I cannot give it?"
"Why, then," he answered steadily, "I shall still carry with me through life something you cannot take away if you would,—the ideal which these weeks have held up before me. If it is not for your best happiness to marry me, loving you as I do, I would not have you do it. The matter is in your hands—a simple 'Yes' or 'No' is all I ask."
"But life is too complicated to be settled by a word like that. It could not be 'Yes'—but what if it is 'No'?"
She paused a moment, and then, hurried on by a tidal wave of feeling, she burst out: "Oh, I don't suppose you can understand it; but much as I like you,—and I do like you now,—I feel as though if I promised to marry you, I might absolutely hate you."
"Oh, yes," Flint answered quietly, "I can quite understand it; I think I should feel in the same way if I were not perfectly sure I loved a person."
Winifred felt herself touched by his quick response and perfect comprehension of her state of mind; but her feeling was too intense, too direct and too importunate, to be stayed in its utterance.
"I cannot marry you. I never could promise. I am sure of it. Forgive me!"
Flint rose and stood by the mantel, toying absently with a bronze model of the Praxiteles Faun which rested on its shelf.
"It is all right," he said, "and I shall always thank you for it all, and say God bless you, whatever happens; only for a while I must go away and make my life over a bit in the light of all this."
"Why must you go away?"
"Because—" Here Flint paused, and began to walk the floor impatiently. "Oh, if you can ask that, I could not make you understand. It is useless to go on talking."
"No," said Winifred, now with fuller command of herself, "it is not useless; it is necessary. We must make each other understand. If we cannot do it now, how much less afterward! It always seems to me as if it were selfish folly in men and women to act as if their love were the only reality in the world, so that they forget everything that they owe to other people. Yes," she added, gathering strength as she went on, "I think it would be selfish in you to consider only yourself, or even yourself and me, in this matter, and I think it would be foolish if—if you really care for me, as you say you do, to throw away all my interest and regard and sympathy just because I do not consent to marry you. If you would only put that idea out of your head, I think I could be of some service to you. I know you could be of great service to me."
As Winifred uttered these words she sat looking up at him with wide-open, childlike eyes, a hint of pathetic appeal in her voice.
Flint paused a moment, as one who counted the cost of his words. Then he said slowly: "It shall be as you wish; but on your own head lie the risks. When a man has once said, 'I love you,' the woman to whom he says it sees it in his eyes and hears it in his voice forever after. I tell you," he went on, setting down the faun hard on the mantel, "love is like the spirit which the Arabian fisherman let out of the shell. It can never be shut up again—never—never—never!"
Winifred stirred a little, but did not lift her eyes.
"You shall try this precious scheme of friendship," Flint continued hotly. "It is not a new experiment. It is well worn, and so far in the world's history it has not proved a great success; but try it if you will, only you shall make me one return. I shall never ask you again for your love. It is not a plaything to be teased for in such childish fashion. You tell me you will not give it to me. Well and good. But if ever—" here he paused and shut his eyes for an instant, as if upon some inward vision,—"if ever you should come to feel differently, I demand it as my right that you shall tell me so honestly. You know me too well to think I could ever change."
"I accept the risk," Winifred answered steadily. "You shall never regret this concession, and by-and-by, when we both grow old, you will look back and see that such a friendship is the best thing that could befall you and me."
The girl spoke with quick decision of manner. It was characteristic of her not to question for a moment the wisdom of her decision, the infallibility of her own judgment, or her power to regulate the life and destiny of those around her.
Flint smiled, as one smiles at the eager illusions of a child. He was going to speak further; but the ringing of the door-bell warned him that the interview was at an end.
"So be it!" he said, coming over to the side of the fireplace where Winifred stood,—for she too had risen. "Since it is not to be good-bye, then, I will bid you good-night."
He took the hand which she extended, and raised its slender finger-tips to his lips. "That is for friendship," he murmured; then turning it, he laid a swift kiss upon the delicate pink palm,—"and that is for love," he whispered, and was gone.
On his way out he passed Miss Standish, who had just come in from a concert. She gave a little nod of scant civility, suggestive of disapproval, and instead of turning in at the parlor door, made her way directly to her room.
As the hall door closed after Flint, Winifred Anstice felt as if some door had closed also in her life. She sat for some time in her low chair, leaning forward, with her hands clasped about her knees, and her pretty brows knit, gazing into the embers. At length, with a little vexed shake of the head, she rose, and paced the long room; but the whirl and rush of thought were too importunate for her present mood, and she paused in her walk at last, and betook herself to the table, with its litter of new books and magazines. She picked up the "Fortnightly Review," and opened mechanically where a silver book-mark pointed to an article on "Balzac and his Followers" marked with emphatic notes of assent or protest. It was another reminder. She impatiently shut the covers sharply together and returned to her vigils before the fire.
There is no woman living who is not somewhat shaken by a proposal of marriage. It is a peremptory challenge, which forces her, for the moment at least, to consider a certain man not as one of a class,—as a member of the conventional, calling, smiling, chaffing circle,—but as an individual, passing suddenly from all this surface trifling to a life and death reality—saying as Jonathan Flint had said this night: "Give me all or nothing. I will have no half loaves. Let us have an end of pretences and evasions. For once at least you shall listen, and be told the truth flowing at lava heat out of a man's heart." It was by no means a new experience to Winifred Anstice. As a younger girl, although no coquette, she had found a certain charm of romance in finding herself the heroine of a love-affair in real life; but as she grew older she felt more and more shrinking from such sentimental crises, and a more and more genuine regret as she saw the candid comradeship of one friendship after another sacrificed to the absorbing egotism of passion.
One by one she had let these lovers slip out of her life, and acknowledged to herself that it was better so; but when it came to Jonathan Flint, she had found herself impelled to the impetuous protest for which she already half blamed herself in her heart. But in self-exculpation she argued with the embers, which seemed to wink at her from the hearth, that there were more considerations than one in the matter; that as she had told Mr. Flint, modern life was too complex to be compressed into a "Yes" or "No."
As she was pondering, her eyes fell upon the portrait,—Ruth's portrait, hanging there over the mantel.
"I wish you were here, Grandmamma," Winifred exclaimed, looking up at it, "to help me clear up the muddle in my mind! I have a kind of feeling that you would understand."
The girl's sentimental musings were rudely interrupted by a race between Jimmy and Paddy, who came rushing through the room, regardless of tea-tables or rugs.
"Jump for it, Paddy!" cried Jim, snatching a piece of cake from the tray, and holding it high in air.
"Don't, Jimmy! You will upset the table."
"Come on then, Paddy, we'll jump in the hall, where there is no girl to be nervous—I hate nervous people."
"Whose cane is that, McGregor?" he asked, as he saw an unfamiliar walking-stick on the hall table.
"It belongs to Mr. Flint—he must have forgot it," the butler answered.
"I say, Fred, has Mr. Flint been here?" Jimmy called out from the baluster, over which he was leaning at imminent risk to life and limb.
"He has," Winifred answered repressively.
"Did he say anything about seats for the football game on Thanksgiving Day?"
"He did not."
"Then I think I'd better sit right down and write to him, for he told me not to let him forget about it, and all the best seats will be taken if he does not attend to it soon."
"Papa," appealed Winifred to her father, who had come in and was taking off his coat in the hall, "you won't let Jimmy write to Mr. Flint, will you?"
"I will write," said the voice from the stairs, "and I'll tell him how cross you are. I did once, and he only laughed."
"Yes, I did. It was that day when you would not let me go fishing with him. I told him you were quite nice sometimes, but you could be horrid to people when they did things that didn't suit you, and he said that was just the way you struck him."
"Papa!" cried Winifred, now thoroughly out of temper, "will you forbid Jimmy to talk me over with strangers? It is really too much, the way that boy's tongue runs on."
"You understand him, don't you?" the Professor asked mildly, looking over his gold-bowed spectacles.
"Yes, but other people don't."
"Are they so much less clear-sighted than you?" With this gentle sarcasm her father slowly mounted the stairs, leaving Jimmy making faces of triumph through the open door.
It is often a curious experience in the contrasts of life for a girl to see herself from the family point of view, after catching the rose-colored reflections which the admiration of an outsider throws upon her character.
A LITTLE DINNER
"Wreathe the bowl with flowers of soul."
The suppressed excitement of the afternoon lent an added flush and sparkle to Winifred's face as she entered the study where her father and Miss Standish were playing chess together after the family dinner. Self-absorbed as she was at the moment, she found leisure to be struck with the picture of the two sitting there; her father's head, with its austere profile outlined against the green curtain, which cast softened reflections over his white hair, and Miss Standish, crisp and dainty as a sprig of dried lavender, her gray curls quivering with the excitement, and her white hands hovering anxiously over rooks and pawns.
Miss Standish looked up as Winifred came in, radiant in her new evening gown, for she was to dine with the Hartington Grahams, who had recently returned from England and opened their town house for the season.
"I thought it was to be a little dinner," said Miss Standish, looking with some disapproval at the bare shoulders rising above the billowy ruffles of rose-colored chiffon.
"It is—'just a small affair,' Mrs. Graham wrote me. Besides, it is too early in the season for anything formal. In fact, she would hardly ask her most fashionable friends at this time of year. But she must get round somehow," Winifred finished with a little laugh.
"In Boston," said Miss Standish, "you would be overdoing it to wear that kind of a gown to such an affair, but here people seem to have no sense of gradation. They take literally Longfellow's advice to the young poet seeking success: 'Do your best every time.'"
"I don't see," said Winifred, "why the advice is not just as good for dress as for poetry,—except that gowns wear out and poems don't. Is the carriage there, McGregor, and Maria ready? Well, good-night, Papa; look out for your queen, and don't let Miss Standish checkmate you with any of her Boston tricks!"
"I think," Jimmy called out after her from the corner of the big sofa, where he lay curled up like a dormouse, "if you would do your best on my dress, instead of making me wear this old suit, it would strike a better average in the family."
As McGregor closed the carriage door, Winifred was conscious of a certain satisfaction that she was not to spend the evening at home with the family. Her restlessness craved a vent, and she wanted to postpone all opportunity for reflection.
There was something about the Grahams which always appealed to the girl. Their environment suited her aesthetically. For themselves,—why, one could not have everything—and then they were never alone.
The carriage stopped before Mrs. Graham's house, and the door opened almost before she had mounted the steps.
As she passed along the hall, a wave of fragrance from lavishly disposed flowers floated out to her through the drawn portieres, and she caught a glimpse of the softened light of many lamps-shaded to the eye but festive to the fancy. "Decidedly," thought Winifred, "it is agreeable to be rich, and next to being rich one's self, the best thing is to associate with rich people. Money is such a smoother of rough ways! and then the vast opportunities of being nice to other people that come of a purse at leisure from itself to soothe and sympathize." She smiled to herself at her bold adaptation of the poet's sentiments, and mounted the stairs with a quickened step, reflecting suddenly that she had not marked the time accurately and might be late. Her glance in at the door of the dressing-room reassured her. At least she was not the last, for in front of the mirror stood a portly, bediamonded dame, gazing intently into the glass and putting the last touches to her toilet with stolid equanimity.
"Want to come here?" she asked, pausing in her elaboration of her water-waves, and nodding affably to Winifred.
"No, I thank you," Winifred answered, seating herself in the low easy-chair, while the maid pulled off her velvet overshoes.
"Chilly to-night, isn't it?" the lady continued pleasantly, desirous of putting the new-comer at her ease.
Winifred acquiesced in the views of the weather expressed, and a hint of the chilliness seemed to have crept into the interior. Her agreeable anticipations of the evening were vaguely dampened, and she could not quite forgive the innocent cause. "Why will women with red necks wear light blue and diamonds!" she wondered, "and what can reconcile her to looking in the glass?"
With a little shake of the head to make sure that her hairpins were firmly anchored, and a futile effort to smooth the rebellious curls at her neck, Winifred glided past the lady in front of the mirror, who seemed no nearer the completion of her toilet than when she had entered. At the door of the rear room stood a short, bald-headed man with a patient expression on his face, as of one who had spent a large share of his life waiting for his wife. He glanced with some surprise at the swift reappearance of the girl whom he had watched as she came up the stairs so short a time before.
"That girl beats the ticker," he said to himself as she passed him; "she'll make some man happy if she keeps it up."
The clock was striking eight as Winifred entered the drawing-room. "It is quite a feat to be on time in this city of long distances," said her hostess.
"How delightful to be appreciated!" responded Winifred, with a brilliant smile. "I was just pluming myself on being so prompt, but I see the others are still more so." Here she swept a rapid glance over a seated group at the other end of the room.
"I suppose it is hardly more prompt to be too early than too late, so you are still entitled to the palm."
The voice which came from close beside her drew the blood to her cheek; but as the words went on, her nervous tremor subdued itself, for the tone said to her as clearly as words, "Everything is to be ignored. We are on the social stage, and must play our parts. You may trust me."
Winifred felt a wave of relief sweep over her. She thanked the speaker with her eyes. To her hostess she said lightly, "Mr. Flint is as much of a purist as ever—no; don't leave us together. He and I have been quarrelling over the tea-cups this afternoon. I will let you take up the defence, while I go over to speak to your sister, Miss Wabash, in the corner—and isn't that Captain Blathwayt with her?"
"Yes, he crossed with us on the 'Lucania'; remembered meeting you in Cheyenne or some other outlandish Western town—thinks you the most charming American he ever met."
"How clever of you!" said Winifred over her shoulder, as she moved away. "Reflected flattery is the most alluring kind."
As Mrs. Graham turned to greet two newcomers, Flint was left alone, with no hindrance to the occupation of watching Winifred Anstice. She stood with her back toward him and her head slightly turned, so that his eye took in the delicate line of cheek and chin, broken by the shadows of a dimple, the curve of the neck, and the soft little curls that nestled at the base of the hair. A woman is always much handsomer or much plainer than usual in evening dress.
As Flint looked at Winifred, he felt an absurd jealousy of the monocled Englishman who presumed to show his admiration so plainly. His reflections were ended for the time being by the voice of his hostess saying, "Will you take my sister in to dinner?" As he moved across the room, Winifred and Captain Blathwayt passed out together, just ahead of Miss Wabash and himself. He scarcely knew whether to feel regret or relief to find that the width of the table was to be between him and Winifred. It certainly had the advantage of shutting off all necessity for the conversation farcie of the conventional dinner, which he felt would be an impossibility between him and her to-night.
With Miss Wabash the vol-au-vent of talk seemed the most natural thing; and Flint dashed at once into a jesting, somewhat daring tone, which she took quite in good part, and when her attention was claimed by the bald-headed broker on the other side, his neighbor on the left, a double-chinned dowager, with a pearl necklace half hidden in the creases of her neck and a diamond aigrette in her hair, proved no less garrulous if somewhat less sprightly.
She had much to tell of the loss of her diamonds by a burglary last week, and of their recovery through the agency of detectives whose charges were exorbitant. She acquainted Flint with every detail of the conduct of the family and the servants, the police and the detectives. As she went on, people began to listen, and the talk around the table, which had lagged a little, started up more briskly than before.
"I have noticed," said Winifred to Captain Blathwayt, "that there are two subjects which will make even dull people lively,—burglaries and mind-cure."
"Aw, I don't know much about burglaries,—never had one in the family; but I think a lot about mind-cure and all that sort of thing."
"Confirmation of my theory!" said Winifred, with an impertinence which felt safe in banking on the lack of perception in the person whose dignity was assailed.
"Do you believe in the mind-cure?" asked Miss Wabash, who had caught the phrase across the table.
"It depends on the mind," Flint answered.
"Oh, no, it doesn't; not at all. That's the first principle of the science. You only need to resign yourself and let the influence flow over you."
"Does it make any difference whose influence it is?"
"Oh, I suppose so. It must be trained influence, and it seems to work better when it is paid for."
"Most things do," observed Flint.
"My cousin says—"
Flint never knew exactly what Miss Wabash's cousin did say, for at that point in the conversation his attention was irresistibly attracted by the talk of his opposite neighbors.
"Now there's a lot in it, I'm sure," the man of the monocle was saying, bending toward Winifred with what Flint considered objectionable propinquity,—"telepathy, don't you know, and—and all that sort of thing. I had no idea I was to meet you to-night, but as I was standing on the doorstep I remembered how you looked at that dinner out in Cheyenne, and a remark you made to me—do you recollect?"
"The dinner, perfectly; the remark, not at all."
"Well, I sha'n't repeat it, for it was deucedly severe on the English. Really, you know, we're not half bad; but you don't care for your cousins over the water, I am afraid. Do you?"
"I think the cousins over the water are much like those on this side,—the relationship is simply an opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Some Englishmen are the most charming of their sex; others are—well, quite the reverse."
"To which do I belong?" asked the Captain, turning toward her more openly and leaving his terrapin untasted, which meant much with Blathwayt.
"Can you doubt?" Winifred responded with a radiant but wholly non-committal smile. Self-possessed as she was outwardly, however, she felt Flint's eyes upon her, and experienced a sense of annoyance at the attitude of both men.
Her host on the other side came to her relief at the moment.
"Blathwayt," he said, leaning over, "you must try this wine. It is some my wine-merchant in Paris sent over ten years ago,—a special vintage,—and don't let the terrapin go by, for there's nothing else worth while before the canvas-backs. I'll let you into the secret too, Miss Anstice," he added with an expression closely approaching a wink.
"Thanks," said Winifred, rather wearily, "I am not an epicure."
"Oh, but you can be trained to be!" Graham answered encouragingly. "It is mainly a question of practice, though I must say that I was born with the taste,—inherited from my father, I believe; and I've heard him tell how once when I was five years old I scolded the butler for sending up the Burgundy iced."
"How precocious!" murmured Winifred.
"Well, of course, that was unusual; but if children were taken young and had half the attention paid to their palates that folks give to their eyes and ears, with their fool drawing-teachers and music-masters in the attempt to enable them to bore somebody with their twopenny accomplishments, we should soon have a race of gourmets; and gourmets make cooks. No chef can do his best without appreciation. For the matter of that, a cook must be born,—he must have the feeling for his business. Now there was a fellow in England—My dear," he called out to his wife at the other end of the table, "was it Windermere or Grassmere where we had those excellent breaded trout?"
"I forget," Mrs. Graham answered; "but I know it was the one where Wordsworth lived. Which was that, Mr. Flint?"
"Now don't interrupt us," Miss Wabash said in her loud, unshaded tones; "Mr. Flint has just consented to let me tell his fortune by his hand."
Flint looked rather foolish. He was in that awkward position where it seemed equally fatuous to assent or decline; but deciding on the former course, he held out his hand, saying, "Spare my character as far as you conscientiously can, Miss Wabash, and remember in extenuation of my shortcomings that I did not have the advantage of being brought up in Chicago."
All tete-a-tete conversation now ceased, and the attention of the company was riveted upon Flint and his neighbor. Winifred felt herself growing intensely nervous. She had no fear of Miss Wabash's extraordinary power of divination, but she had still less confidence in the delicacy of her perceptions, and she dreaded some remark which would embarrass her through Flint's embarrassment.
In her present high-strung condition, her apprehension made her a little faint for a moment. The centrepiece of orchids and roses seemed a vague mass of rather oppressive color and perfume. The women's faces and necks looked like reddish blobs with flashes of light where the jewels came. The broad white expanse of the men's shirt fronts alone retained a certain steadiness. Hastily she grasped her glass of champagne and drained it dry. It was the first wine she had tasted that night, and it braced her nerves at once. Fortunately no one observed her paleness, for everybody's attention was fixed upon Miss Wabash as she bent over Flint's open palm.
"A surprising hand!" that young lady was saying; "really in some ways quite the most interesting I ever came across. I must report it to Chiro. The fingers very pointed—that ought to indicate idealism, but the knots on the joints imply practical critical sense. It looks as though the mind were always grasping at some ideal and were held back by the critical faculty."
"Don't blink your points, Mamie!" called out the host, facetiously. At this allusion to sporting reminiscences, all the men laughed, but the women rather resented the interruption, as a frivolous treatment of a serious subject.
"You have learned your profession thoroughly," said Flint, coloring a little in spite of himself. "I shall begin to be afraid of you in earnest, if you are so discerning."
"Oh, I have only begun!" answered Miss Wabash, kindled by success to greater vivacity. "That thumb shows marked firmness (see, I can scarcely bend it back at all); perhaps, if I knew you better, I should say obstinacy."
Every one laughed.
"The fingers," she went on, "show more sensitiveness; and the mounds—oh, those mean a great deal! Mars is firm and prominent—what you undertake you will carry through, if it kills you and everybody else."
"What a fellow to buy on margin!" said the broker.
"He doesn't seem to have succeeded in getting married for all his perseverance," laughed Mr. Graham.
Winifred, in spite of her emotion, found time to reflect on the vulgarity of the phrase, and shivered a little. Flint colored, though he held his hand quite steady.
"Perhaps he'll buy her sixty," chuckled the broker, pleased with his technical wit.
"He'd better hurry up," said Miss Wabash, "for his life-line is short. He's had experiences though. May I tell them, Mr. Flint?"
"I give you permission."
"Well, then, you were in love once a long time ago, but there were reasons why you couldn't marry, and so you gave up the affair and have never really cared for any one since; but two or three women have been desperately in love with you."
"Mademoiselle, respect the seal of the confessional!" said Flint, smiling, but drawing away his hand with a quick instinctive motion which did not escape Winifred.
"Ho! ho!" called out Graham, "perhaps there is more in palmistry than I thought. Go on, Mamie, and give us the history of the Salvation Army episode and the Hallelujah lassie!"
Flint cursed inwardly, cursed everything and almost everybody, himself most of all. What was he here for? What if Graham was the chief stockholder in the "Trans-Continental," he was a coarse-grained sensualist, with whom no gentleman should associate. (This estimate by no means did Graham justice, but Flint was not in a judicial mood.) Then this crack-brained girl with her foolish fake of a theory—and he had been idiot enough to fall into this trap, and now Winifred would think he had boasted of Nora Costello as a conquest, perhaps bragged about saving her life. Oh, the whole thing was past endurance! Meanwhile everything around moved on mechanically. He heard his host say impatiently, "My dear, if you keep that epigramme of lamb waiting much longer, we'd better give up dining and take to holding hands all round."
At this there was a general taking up of forks and a subdued buzz of conversation. It was rather a relief when the candle-shade took fire and Flint had an excuse for rising to seize it before the butler could reach it.
The dinner ended at last, though it seemed as if it never would. As he held aside the velvet curtains for the ladies to pass, Flint strove to catch Winifred's eyes, to judge, if he might, what impression Graham's remark had made; but Blathwayt held her in talk till the threshold was reached, and the curtain dropped behind her without a glance in Flint's direction.
She held her head a little higher than usual as she moved beside Mrs. Graham into the music-room. A wave of contempt was sweeping over her, as she reviewed the dinner, its gilding, its gluttony, and its unspeakable dulness, and she felt that she had sold her birthright of self-respect for a mess of pottage.
Miss Wabash sat down at the piano and sang "Oh, Promise Me," and one or two other gems from DeKoven's latest opera, and then the ladies adjourned once more to the library.
The Grahams' library was a large square room, diversified by two shallow bay-windows such as only a corner house permits. It was ceiled and finished in heavy Flemish oak, and the walls above the low bookcases were hung with tapestry. Easy-chairs and softly upholstered divans filled every nook and corner. It was really, Winifred decided, an ideal library,—or would have been if there had been any books behind the silk curtains hung over the shelves.
As they entered the room Miss Wabash drew Winifred to a seat near herself on the sofa.
"Green mint or Chartreuse?" the hostess asked, as the little ice-filled glasses were set on the low table by her side.
Winifred declined the cordials, but sat sipping the coffee out of the tiny Dresden cup, while she listened to the wearisome platitudes of Mrs. Graham and her guests. From time to time her eye was caught by the flashing of the jewelled pendulum of the clock on the mantel, in the drawing-room across the hall, and her mind dwelt ironically on some lines she had read somewhere:—
"Ah! who with clear account remarks The ebbing of Time's glass, When all his sands are diamond sparks That dazzle as they pass!"
She smiled a derisive little smile, all to herself, as she thought how small a power lay in jewelled pendulums to make a brilliant evening, and she felt a certain thrill of pride at the thought that her associations lay in a world removed from all this smothering materialism. The lavish sumptuousness which till now had appealed to her rather strongly, seemed suddenly tainted with vulgarity, and her thoughts wandered half unconsciously to the bare little room where she had gone to see Nora Costello. The name brought a slight quickening of her pulses, and she wanted time to think over things alone.
As the men came in from the dining-room Miss Anstice's carriage was announced, and she rose to bid her hostess good-night.
"Must you run away so early, my dear?"
"Thank you, yes; I promised Papa to come home early. He likes to see me before he goes to bed, and to hear an account of my evening."
"You will be at home at five to-morrow, and I may bring Captain Blathwayt?"
"Any friend of yours, of course," murmured Winifred, in a tone which could hardly have proved encouraging to the vanity or incipient sentiment of the guardsman.
"If you will permit me," said Flint to Graham as Winifred came down the stairs, "I will put Miss Anstice into her carriage, and then come back for that last cigar."
Never in his life had Flint so raved against his own lack of readiness as now, when he felt the passing moments slipping by, and could find no words to set himself right in the eyes of the woman he loved,—the woman whose little gloved hand rested on his arm. Judge then of his feeling when, smiling up into his eyes with perfect friendliness, Winifred said under her breath, "Why do we go there—you and I? They really aren't our kind at all."
The remark carried with it full assurance that no words uttered by Hartington Graham had power to shake for an instant her faith in the man whom she had called her friend; but beyond that her confident use of the word our, as if their interests and associations were the same, thrilled him with a sort of intoxication.
"Oh, thank you!" was all that he could find to say to express his complicated state of mind.
"I do not deserve any thanks at all," Winifred answered. "I ought to be well scolded for speaking slightingly of people whom I have just been visiting. I do not often do such ill-mannered things, and I should not have said it to any one but you."
Again Flint thrilled at the unconscious flattery.
"Will you come in to-morrow afternoon?" she asked, as he shut the carriage door.
"To meet Captain Blathwayt? No, thank you."
"The day after then."
"So be it—till then, farewell!"
Flint re-entered the house with his heart beating like a trip-hammer.
A MAIDEN'S VOW
"A maiden's vow, old Calham spoke, Is lightly made and lightly broke."
As the cab rattled down the avenue, Winifred sank back against the cushions. She sat in the corner in a sort of daze, marking the glimmer of the electric lights, which seemed so many milestones in her life, as she passed them one after another. After all, it is experience which marks time, and in this day Winifred Anstice had tasted more of life than in many a year before. Crashing into her world of calm commonplace had fallen the dynamite bomb of an overwhelming emotion. Her present, with all its preoccupying trifles, lay in wrecks about her. For the future—it was too tumultuous to be faced.
She was like a person who has been walking in the darkness along a familiar road, and suddenly feels himself plunging over an unsuspected precipice. She was conscious of nothing but a gasping sense of dizziness—all control of herself and her life seemed passing out of her hands into those of another, and she scarcely knew whether to be glad or sorry. Was it only this afternoon that she had looked upon a marriage with Jonathan Flint as impossible? If she had thought so a few hours ago, why not now? Nothing had occurred since. No transcendent change had come over him or her—why should it all look so different to her now? Perhaps, she told herself, this mood too would pass like its precursor. She dared not feel sure of anything—she who had swung round the whole compass of feeling like a weather-vane before a thunder-storm.
These introspective reflections brought back irresistibly the feelings with which she had read Flint's letter, little dreaming that it was his,—the letter so full of wise and friendly counsel. She remembered how, as she read, she had been filled with a yearning desire to rise to the ideal her unknown counsellor had set before her, and filled too with a longing that Fate might send it in her way, to be something to him, to return in some measure the spiritual aid and comfort which she had received at his hands.
"Well," she told herself gloomily, "the opportunity had come, and this was how she had used it—not only by denying his petition,—that, of course, was inevitable, feeling as she did,—but by accusing him of selfishness, by insisting that he should accept her terms of friendship. Friendship, bah!—how stale and flat it sounded! Could she not have devised some newer way of wounding an honorable man who had offered her his heart?"
It seemed to her excited consciousness that she must appear to him a vain and empty coquette, eager to retain a homage for which she intended no return. When once he awoke to that view, his love would die out, for he was not a man to continue devotion where he had lost respect; and so it was all over, or as good as over, between her and him.
The cab lurched sharply across the tracks at Twenty-Third Street, jostling Winifred's flowers and fan out of her lap. The maid stooped to pick them up. As she returned them she caught a glimpse of the set look in the face of her mistress.
"Are you feelin' bad?" she asked.
"No, no, I am quite well, Maria, only a little tired—are we near home?"
"Yes'm, we've passed Gramercy Park, and there's the steeples of St. George's that you see from your windows."
"Yes, yes, I see. Here we are close at home. You may go to bed, Maria, after you have lighted the lamp in my room. I shall not need you to-night."
"Well, well," thought the maid, "something's the matter sure. I never knew no one more fussy about the unhooking of her gown. She can't do much herself, but she does know how things ought to be done, and that's what I calls a real lady."
"Winifred, my dear, is that you?" Professor Anstice called, as the rustle of his daughter's dress caught his ear on the stair.
"Oh, Papa, are you awake still?"
"Still! Why it is not so very late!" said her father, as Winifred entered the study and threw herself into the deep upholstered chair beside the fire, which was just graying into ashes in the grate.
Her father was sitting in his cane-seated study-chair with a conglomeration of volumes piled about the table. His face, perhaps from the reflection of the green-shaded student-lamp, looked pale and worn. His shoulders, too, seemed to Winifred's abnormally quickened perception to have caught a new stoop. The fact forced itself upon her consciousness with a sudden, swift pang, that her father was growing old. She had never thought of age in connection with him before. To her he had been simply and sufficiently "my father," without thought of other relations or conditions; but now it rushed upon her with a wave of insistent remorse, that his life was slipping by, while she was doing so little for his happiness. A rather bare and dreary life it seemed to her now, as she contemplated its monotony; for Winifred had no appreciation of "the still air of delightful studies." Her world was peopled with live, active figures, always pushing forward, seeking, striving, loving. And her father had loved once. Yes, that too struck her now, almost with a shock of surprise. He, too, had asked for some one's love as ardently, perhaps, as Jonathan Flint for hers. More than that, he had won the love he sought. Won it and lost it again. Could it ever come to that for her? The thought smote her with an intolerable sharpness.
Mr. Anstice was a strange man to be the parent and guardian of such a girl as Winifred. The world for him was bounded by the walls of his study. Even his teaching seemed an interruption to the real business of his life, and he turned his back upon his class-room with a sensation of relief.
He was not a popular professor among the body of the students; but the unfailing courtesy of his manner, and the solidity of his scholarship, won the respect of the many, and the esteem and warm admiration of the few.
His bearing, in spite of the scholar's stoop, was marked by a certain distinction, and the lines of his worn face curiously suggested the fresh curves which marked his daughter's brow and cheek. The beauty of youth is an ivorytype; the beauty of age is an etching, bitten out by the burin and acid of thought, experience, and sorrow.
The prevailing mood with James Anstice was one of gentle weariness. He felt that his life was ended, and that the years were going on in a sort of monotonous anti-climax. Yet, in spite of this undertone of depression, his manner was responsive, genial, even gay at times, and he lived much in the reflected light of Winifred's youth and energy.
If it caused him some surprise that any one should want anything as much as Winifred wanted everything for which she cared at all, he treated her enthusiasms with amused toleration, and made as much effort to secure for her the successive desires of her heart as though they had assumed the same importance in his own mind as in hers.
To-night he forced himself away from his own train of thought with an effort, to throw himself into Winifred's evening experiences. He watched her for some time as she sat in silence, with head bent forward and gloved hands clasped about her knee.
"Well, little girl," he said at last, "you seem to have fallen into a brown study. Was the dinner so dull?"
"No, Papa, not dull exactly; rather brilliant in some ways."
"I understand—brilliant materially, dull spiritually, like the mantles those fellows wore in the Inferno—gilt on the outside, and lead within. 'Oh, everlastingly fatiguing mantle!' I am gladder than ever that I stayed at home."
"I am glad too, for I think you would have been bored, and when you are bored you make no concealment of the fact."
"Of course not,—why should I? If I seemed to be having a good time, I should be compelled to go through it again. No, society is organized for people under twenty-five. They really enjoy it. For the rest of the world it is a sham."
Winifred smiled absently.
"Who was there?" Professor Anstice asked at length, pushing away his books as if bidding them a reluctant good-night.
"Oh, no one whom you know, I think, except Mr. Flint."
"Flint? Does he go to such things?"
"Yes, and appears to find them sufficiently entertaining, though I fancy he must be decidedly over twenty-five. By the way," she added, with an elaborately careless aside, "what do you think of Mr. Flint, on the whole?"
"I think, for a clever man, he plays the worst game of whist I ever saw."
"Yes, yes," admitted Winifred, with light mockery in her tone; "but what do you think of him in lesser matters,—general character, for instance?"
The Professor looked at his daughter with a little quizzical sadness in his faded gray eyes. He began to perceive the drift of her banter.
"It would be difficult to state exactly what I think of him when you put it so broadly as that," he answered. "Flint's character is complex. He has in him the making of a fine man; but the question is, will it ever be made? He seems to me abnormally lacking in personal ambition,—does not seem to care whether he is heard of or not,—has a sort of contempt for the little neighborhood notorieties which give most men pleasure. It is as if he were taking a bird's-eye view of himself, and every one else, and they all looked so small that the trifling variations in prominence did not matter."
Winifred looked at her father in silent surprise. She had no idea that he had made such a study of the younger man. He paused for a moment; but meeting his daughter's absorbed gaze, he continued: "The thing which gives me most hope of Flint is his genuine devotion to truth. Positive or negative truth—it is all the same to him. Now, many a man is loyal to his convictions; but very few are loyal to their doubts. He will 'come into port greatly or sail with God the seas.' Fine line that, isn't it? The sound is quite majestic if you say it over aloud—'Come into port—'"
"But, Papa," interrupted Winifred a little impatiently, "you were talking of Mr. Flint."
"To be sure, so we were,—at least I was; but I should like to hear a little of your opinion of him. A woman's estimate of a man is always worth having, though not always worth heeding. You see too much in high lights and deep shadows, not enough by clear daylight; still, I should like to know how Flint strikes you. I remember at first you found him absolutely disagreeable."
"But of late you have seemed to change your mind, or at least to feel less prejudice against him."
A silence fell between them after this. At length Winifred rose and turned down the lights. Then she drew a low stool to the side of her father's chair, and sitting down by his knee began to rub her hand gently up and down over the broadcloth.
"Papa," she said after a while, "I haven't been very nice to you; have I?"
"Nonsense, child,—what put such an idea into your head? As if I had had any happiness in all these years since—since your mother died—except through my children!"
"Oh, yes, I know you have found your happiness in taking care of us, but I have found my happiness in being taken care of; and I have enjoyed having my own way and doing the things I liked, and now I would give—oh, so much!—if I had been different."
"What does this mean?" exclaimed Professor Anstice, anxiously fumbling about Winifred's wrist in the vain effort to find her pulse. "Are you ill? You have not had a hemorrhage or anything, have you?"
"Don't worry about me, dear! I shall live to plague you for many a year yet. I'm as well as can be, except for the mind ache." Here she gave a nervous little laugh. The Professor looked down at her, sitting there on the stool, her head drooping to the side as he remembered to have seen it years ago when she was a little chidden child. The waving hair hid her face from his sight,—all but the delicate oval of the cheek and the curve of the full, rounded chin.
"Winifred," he said gently, "I think you have something to tell me."
"Yes, I have, only I don't know how to begin."
"Is it, perhaps, about Mr. Flint?"
"Yes, about Mr. Flint," Winifred admitted.
"He has been asking you to marry him?"
"Yes, asking me to marry him," Winifred repeated, still like a child reciting her catechism.
"And you promised."
"No, I did not," Winifred answered with sudden energy; "I told him I never could, would, or should marry him,—that I would go on being friends with him as long as he liked, but on condition that he gave up the other idea entirely."
Professor Anstice reached out his thin white scholarly fingers and stroked the rebellious waves of his daughter's hair.
"Winifred," he said, "you are always acting on impulse. You never take time to consider anything, but jump and plunge like a broncho. Now let us talk this matter over calmly: I am afraid you have made a mistake—a serious mistake, my dear, though it may not be too late to remedy it."