"A very good sermon, didn't you think?" I said to her, as we walked home.
"Oh, very!" she replied demurely.
"Ah, if we followed all we heard in church!" I sighed.
Miss Trix walked in silence for a few yards. By dint of never becoming anything else, we had become very good friends; and presently she remarked, quite confidentially:
"He's very silly, isn't he?"
"Then you ought to snub him," I said severely.
"So I do—sometimes. He's rather amusing, though."
"Of course, if you're prepared to make the sacrifice involved——"
"Oh, what nonsense!"
"Then you've no business to amuse yourself with him."
"Dear, dear! how moral you are!" said Trix.
The next development in the situation was this: My cousin Dora received a letter from the Marquis of Newhaven, with whom she was acquainted, praying her to allow him to run down to Poltons for a few days; he reminded her that she had once given him a general invitation; if it would not be inconvenient—and so forth. The meaning of this communication did not, of course, escape my cousin, who had witnessed the writer's attentions to Trix in the preceding season, nor did it escape the rest of us (who had talked over the said attentions at the club) when she told us about it, and announced that Lord Newhaven would arrive in the middle of the next day. Trix affected dense unconsciousness; her mother allowed herself a mysterious smile—which, however, speedily vanished when the curate (he was taking lunch with us) observed in a cheerful tone:
"Newhaven! Oh, I remember the chap at the House—plowed twice in Smalls—stumpy fellow, isn't he? Not a bad chap, though, you know, barring his looks. I'm glad he's coming."
"You won't be soon, young man," Lady Queenborough's angry eye seemed to say.
"I remember him," pursued Jack; "awfully smitten with a tobacconist's daughter in the Corn—oh, it's all RIGHT, Lady Queenborough—she wouldn't look at him."
This quasi apology was called forth by the fact of Lady Queenborough pushing back her chair and making for the door. It did not at all appease her to hear of the scorn of the tobacconist's daughter. She glanced sternly at Jack and disappeared. He turned to Trix and reminded her—without diffidence and coram populo, as his habit was—that she had promised him a stroll in the west wood.
What happened on that stroll I do not know; but meeting Miss Trix on the stairs later in the afternoon, I ventured to remark:
"I hope you broke it to him gently, Miss Queenborough?"
"I don't know what you mean," replied Trix haughtily.
"You were out nearly two hours," said I.
"Were we?" asked Trix, with a start. "Good gracious! Where was mamma, Mr. Wynne?"
"On the lawn—watch in hand."
Miss Trix went slowly upstairs, and there is not the least doubt that something serious passed between her and her mother, for both of them were in the most atrocious of humors that evening. Fortunately, the curate was not there; he had a Bible class.
The next day Lord Newhaven arrived. I found him on the lawn when I strolled up, after a spell of letter-writing, about four o'clock. Lawn tennis was the order of the day, and we were all in flannels.
"Oh, here's Mark!" cried Dora, seeing me. "Now, Mark, you and Mr. Ives had better play against Trix and Lord Newhaven. That'll make a very good set."
"No, no, Mrs. Polton," said Jack Ives. "They wouldn't have a chance. Look here, I'll play with Miss Queenborough against Lord Newhaven and Wynne."
Newhaven—whose appearance, by the way, though hardly distinguished, was not quite so unornamental as the curate had led us to expect—looked slightly displeased, but Jack gave him no time for remonstrance. He whisked Trix off and began to serve all in a moment. I had a vision of Lady Queenborough approaching from the house with face aghast. The set went on; and, owing entirely to Newhaven's absurd chivalry in sending all the balls to Jack Ives instead of following the well-known maxim to "pound away at the lady," they beat us. Jack wiped his brow, strolled up to the tea table with Trix, and remarked in exultant tones:
"We make a perfect couple, Miss Queenborough; we ought never to be separated."
Dora did not ask the curate to dinner that night, but he dropped in about nine o'clock to ask her opinion as to the hymns on Sunday; and finding Miss Trix and Newhaven in the small drawing room, he sat down and talked to them. This was too much for Trix; she had treated him very kindly and had allowed him to amuse her; but it was impossible to put up with presumption of that kind. Difficult as it was to discourage Mr. Ives, she did it, and he went away with a disconsolate, puzzled expression. At the last moment, however, Trix so far relented as to express a hope that he was coming to tennis to-morrow, at which he brightened up a little. I do not wish to be uncharitable—least of all to a charming young lady—-but my opinion is that Miss Trix did not wish to set the curate altogether adrift. I think, however, that Lady Queenborough must have spoken again, for when Jack did come to tennis, Trix treated him with most freezing civility and a hardly disguised disdain, and devoted herself to Lord Newhaven with as much assiduity as her mother could wish. We men, over our pipes, expressed the opinion that Jack Ives' little hour of sunshine was past, and that nothing was left to us but to look on at the prosperous, uneventful course of Lord Newhaven's wooing. Trix had had her fun (so Algy Stanton bluntly phrased it) and would now settle down to business.
"I believe, though," he added, "that she likes the curate a bit, you know."
During the whole of the next day—Wednesday—Jack Ives kept away; he had, apparently, accepted the inevitable, and was healing his wounded heart by a strict attention to his parochial duties. Newhaven remarked on his absence with an air of relief, and Miss Trix treated it as a matter of no importance; Lady Queenborough was all smiles; and Dora Polton restricted herself to exclaiming, as I sat by her at tea, in a low tone and a propos of nothing in particular, "Oh, well—poor Mr. Ives!"
But on Thursday there occurred an event, the significance of which passed at the moment unperceived, but which had, in fact, most important results. This was no other than the arrival of little Mrs. Wentworth, an intimate friend of Dora's. Mrs. Wentworth had been left a widow early in life; she possessed a comfortable competence; she was not handsome, but she was vivacious, amusing, and, above all, sympathetic. She sympathized at once with Lady Queenborough in her maternal anxieties, with Trix on her charming romance, with Newhaven on his sweet devotedness, with the rest of us in our obvious desolation—and, after a confidential chat with Dora, she sympathized most strongly with poor Mr. Ives on his unfortunate attachment. Nothing would satisfy her, so Dora told me, except the opportunity of plying Mr. Ives with her soothing balm; and Dora was about to sit down and write him a note, when he strolled in through the drawing room window, and announced that his cook's mother was ill, and that he should be very much obliged if Mrs. Polton would give him some dinner that evening. Trix and Newhaven happened to enter by the door at the same moment, and Jack darted up to them, and shook hands with the greatest effusion. He had evidently buried all unkindness—and with it, we hoped, his mistaken folly. However that might be, he made no effort to engross Trix, but took his seat most docilely by his hostess—and she, of course, introduced him to Mrs. Wentworth. His behavior was, in fact, so exemplary that even Lady Queenborough relaxed her severity, and condescended to cross-examine him on the morals and manners of the old women of the parish. "Oh, the vicar looks after them," said Jack; and he turned to Mrs. Wentworth again.
There can be no doubt that Mrs. Wentworth had a remarkable power of sympathy. I took her in to dinner, and she was deep in the subject of my "noble and inspiring art" before the soup was off the table. Indeed, I'm sure that my life's ambitions would have been an open book to her by the time that the joint arrived, had not Jack Ives, who was sitting on the lady's other side, cut into the conversation just as Mrs. Wentworth was comparing my early struggles with those of Mr. Carlyle. After this intervention of Jack's I had not a chance. I ate my dinner without the sauce of sympathy, substituting for it a certain amusement which I derived from studying the face of Miss Trix Queenborough, who was placed on the opposite side of the table. And if Trix did look now and again at Mrs. Wentworth and Jack Ives, I cannot say that her conduct was unnatural. To tell the truth, Jack was so obviously delighted with his new friend that it was quite pleasant—and, as I say, under the circumstances, rather amusing—to watch them. We felt that the squire was justified in having a hit at Jack when Jack said, in the smoking room, that he found himself rather at a loss for a subject for his next sermon.
"What do you say," suggested my cousin, puffing at his pipe, "to taking constancy as your text?"
Jack considered the idea for a moment, but then he shook his head.
"No. I think," he said reflectively, "that I shall preach on the power of sympathy."
That sermon afforded me—I must confess it, at the risk of seeming frivolous—very great entertainment. Again I secured a place by Miss Trix—on her left, Newhaven being on her right, and her face was worth study when Jack Ives gave us a most eloquent description of the wonderful gift in question. It was, he said, the essence and the crown of true womanliness, and it showed itself—well, to put it quite plainly, it showed itself, according to Jack Ives, in exactly that sort of manner and bearing which so honorably and gracefully distinguished Mrs. Wentworth. The lady was not, of course, named, but she was clearly indicated. "Your gift, your precious gift," cried the curate, apostrophizing the impersonation of sympathy, "is given to you, not for your profit, but for mine. It is yours, but it is a trust to be used for me. It is yours, in fact, to share with me." At this climax, which must have struck upon her ear with a certain familiarity, Miss Trix Queenborough, notwithstanding the place and occasion, tossed her pretty head and whispered to me, "What horrid stuff!"
In the ensuing week Jack Ives was our constant companion; the continued illness of his servant's mother left him stranded, and Dora's kind heart at once offered him the hospitality of her roof. For my part I was glad, for the little drama which now began was not without its interest. It was a pleasant change to see Jack genially polite to Trix Queenborough, but quite indifferent to her presence or absence, and content to allow her to take Newhaven for her partner at tennis as often as she pleased. He himself was often an absentee from our games. Mrs. Wentworth did not play, and Jack would sit under the trees with her, or take her out in the canoe. What Trix thought I did not know, but it is a fact that she treated poor Newhaven like dirt beneath her feet, and that Lady Queenborough's face began to lose its transiently pleasant expression. I had a vague idea that a retribution was working itself out, and disposed myself to see the process with all the complacency induced by the spectacle of others receiving punishment for their sins.
A little scene which occurred after lunch one day was significant. I was sitting on the terrace, ready booted and breeched, waiting for my horse to be brought round. Trix came out and sat down by me.
"Where's Newhaven?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't always want Lord Newhaven!" she exclaimed petulantly. "I sent him off for a walk—I'm going out in the Canadian canoe with Mr. Ives."
"Oh, you are, are you?" said I, smiling. As I spoke, Jack Ives ran up to us.
"I say, Miss Queenborough," he cried, "I've just got your message saying you'd let me take you on the lake."
"Is it a great bore?" asked Trix, with a glance—a glance that meant mischief.
"I should like it awfully, of course," said Jack; "but the fact is I've promised to take Mrs. Wentworth—before I got your message, you know."
Trix drew herself up.
"Of course, if Mrs. Wentworth——" she began.
"I'm very sorry," said Jack.
Then Miss Queenborough, forgetting—as I hope—or choosing to disregard my presence, leaned forward and asked, in her most coaxing tones:
"Don't you ever forget a promise, Mr. Ives?"
Jack looked at her. I suppose her dainty prettiness struck him afresh, for he wavered and hesitated.
"She's gone upstairs," pursued the tempter, "and we shall be safe away before she comes down again."
Jack shuffled with one foot on the gravel.
"I tell you what," he said; "I'll ask her if she minds me taking you for a little while before I——"
I believe he really thought that he had hit upon a compromise satisfactory to all parties. If so, he was speedily undeceived. Trix flushed red and answered angrily:
"Pray don't trouble. I don't want to go."
"Perhaps afterward you might," suggested the curate, but now rather timidly.
"I'm going out with Lord Newhaven," said she. And she added, in an access of uncontrollable annoyance. "Go, please go. I—I don't want you."
Jack sheered off, with a look of puzzled shamefacedness. He disappeared into the house. Nothing passed between Miss Trix and myself. A moment later Newhaven came out.
"Why, Miss Queenborough," said he, in apparent surprise, "Ives is going with Mrs. Wentworth in the canoe!"
In an instant I saw what she had done. In rash presumption she had told Newhaven that she was going with the curate—and now the curate had refused to take her—and Ives had met him in search of Mrs. Wentworth. What could she do? Well, she rose—or fell—to the occasion. In the coldest of voices she said:
"I thought you'd gone for your walk."
"I was just starting," he answered apologetically, "when I met Ives. But, as you weren't going with him——" He paused, an inquiring look in his eyes. He was evidently asking himself why she had not gone with the curate.
"I'd rather be left alone, if you don't mind," said she. And then, flushing red again, she added. "I changed my mind and refused to go with Mr. Ives. So he went off to get Mrs. Wentworth instead."
I started. Newhaven looked at her for an instant, and then turned on his heel. She turned to me, quick as lightning, and with her face all aflame.
"If you tell, I'll never speak to you again," she whispered.
After this there was silence for some minutes.
"Well?" she said, without looking at me.
"I have no remark to offer, Miss Queenborough," I returned.
"I suppose that was a lie, wasn't it?" she asked defiantly.
"It's not my business to say what it was," was my discreet answer.
"I know what you're thinking."
"I was thinking," said I, "which I would rather be—the man you will marry, or the man you would like——"
"How dare you! It's not true. Oh Mr. Wynne, indeed it's not true!"
Whether it were true or not I did not know. But if it had been, Miss Trix Queenborough might have been expected to act very much in the way in which she proceeded to act: that is to say, to be extravagantly attentive to Lord Newhaven when Jack Ives was present, and markedly neglectful of him in the curate's absence. It also fitted in very well with the theory which I had ventured to hint that her bearing toward Mrs. Wentworth was distinguished by a stately civility, and her remarks about that lady by a superfluity of laudation; for if these be not two distinguishing marks of rivalry in the well-bred, I must go back to my favorite books and learn from them—more folly. And if Trix's manners were all that they should be, praise no less high must be accorded to Mrs. Wentworth's; she attained an altitude of admirable unconsciousness and conducted her flirtation (the poverty of language forces me to the word, but it is over-flippant) with the curate in a staid, quasi-maternal way. She called him a delightful boy, and said that she was intensely interested in all his aims and hopes.
"What does she want?" I asked Dora despairingly. "She can't want to marry him." I was referring to Trix Queenborough, not to Mrs. Wentworth.
"Good gracious, no!" answered Dora, irritably. "It's simple jealousy. She won't let the poor boy alone till he's in love with her again. It's a horrible shame!"
"Oh, well, he has great recuperative power," said I.
"She'd better be careful, though. It's a very dangerous game. How do you suppose Lord Newhaven likes it?"
Accident gave me that very day a hint how little Lord Newhaven liked it, and a glimpse of the risk Miss Trix was running. Entering the library suddenly, I heard Newhaven's voice raised above his ordinary tones.
"I won't stand it!" he was declaring. "I never know how she'll treat me from one minute to the next."
My entrance, of course, stopped the conversation very abruptly. Newhaven had come to a stand in the middle of the room, and Lady Queenborough sat on the sofa, a formidable frown on her brow. Withdrawing myself as rapidly as possible, I argued the probability of a severe lecture for Miss Trix, ending in a command to try her noble suitor's patience no longer. I hope all this happened, for I, not seeing why Mrs. Wentworth should monopolize the grace of sympathy, took the liberty of extending mine to Newhaven. He was certainly in love with Trix, not with her money, and the treatment he underwent must have been as trying to his feelings as it was galling to his pride.
My sympathy was not premature, for Miss Trix's fascinations, which were indubitably great, began to have their effect. The scene about the canoe was re-enacted, but with a different denouement. This time the promise was forgotten, and the widow forsaken. Then Mrs. Wentworth put on her armor. We had, in fact, reached this very absurd situation, that these two ladies were contending for the favors of, or the domination over, such an obscure, poverty-stricken, hopelessly ineligible person as the curate of Poltons undoubtedly was. The position seemed to me then, and still seems, to indicate some remarkable qualities in that young man.
At last Newhaven made a move. At breakfast, on Wednesday morning, he announced that, reluctant as he should be to leave Poltons Park, he was due at his aunt's place, in Kent, on Saturday evening, and must, therefore, make his arrangements to leave by noon on that day. The significance was apparent. Had he come down to breakfast with "Now or Never!" stamped in fiery letters across his brow, it would have been more obtrusive, indeed, but not a whit plainer. We all looked down at our plates, except Jack Ives. He flung one glance (I saw it out of the corner of my left eye) at Newhaven, another at Trix; then he remarked kindly:
"We shall be uncommonly sorry to lose you, Newhaven."
Events began to happen now, and I will tell them as well as I am able, supplementing my own knowledge by what I learned afterward from Dora—she having learned it from the actors in the scene. In spite of the solemn warning conveyed in Newhaven's intimation, Trix, greatly daring, went off immediately after lunch for what she described as "a long ramble" with Mr. Ives. There was, indeed, the excuse of an old woman at the end of the ramble, and Trix provided Jack with a small basket of comforts for the useful old body; but the ramble was, we felt, the thing, and I was much annoyed at not being able to accompany the walkers in the cloak of darkness or other invisible contrivance. The ramble consumed three hours—full measure. Indeed, it was half-past six before Trix, alone, walked up the drive. Newhaven, a solitary figure, paced up and down the terrace fronting the drive. Trix came on, her head thrown back and a steady smile on her lips. She saw Newhaven; he stood looking at her for a moment with what she afterward described as an indescribable smile on his face, but not, as Dora understood from her, by any means a pleasant one. Yet, if not pleasant, there is not the least doubt in the world that it was highly significant, for she cried out nervously: "Why are you looking at me like that? What's the matter?"
Newhaven, still saying nothing, turned his back on her, and made as if he would walk into the house and leave her there, ignored, discarded, done with. She, realizing the crisis which had come, forgetting everything except the imminent danger of losing him once for all, without time for long explanation or any round-about seductions, ran forward, laying her hand on his arm and blurting out:
"But I've refused him."
I do not know what Newhaven thinks now, but I sometimes doubt whether he would not have been wiser to shake off the detaining hand, and pursue his lonely way, first into the house, and ultimately to his aunt's. But (to say nothing of the twenty thousand a year, which, after all, and be you as romantic as you may please to be, is not a thing to be sneezed at) Trix's face, its mingled eagerness and shame, its flushed cheeks and shining eyes, the piquancy of its unwonted humility, overcame him. He stopped dead.
"I—I was obliged to give him an—an opportunity," said Miss Trix, having the grace to stumble a little in her speech. "And—and it's all your fault."
The war was thus, by happy audacity, carried into Newhaven's own quarters.
"My fault!" he exclaimed. "My fault that you walk all day with that curate!"
Then Miss Trix—and let no irrelevant considerations mar the appreciation of fine acting—dropped her eyes and murmured softly:
"I—I was so terribly afraid of seeming to expect YOU."
Wherewith she (and not he) ran away lightly up the stairs, turning just one glance downward as she reached the landing. Newhaven was looking up from below with an "enchanted" smile—the word is Trix's own; I should probably have used a different one.
Was then the curate of Poltons utterly defeated—brought to his knees, only to be spurned? It seemed so; and he came down to dinner that night with a subdued and melancholy expression. Trix, on the other hand, was brilliant and talkative to the last degree, and the gayety spread from her all around the table, leaving untouched only the rejected lover and Mrs. Wentworth; for the last named lady, true to her distinguishing quality, had begun to talk to poor Jack Ives in low, soothing tones.
After dinner Trix was not visible; but the door of the little boudoir beyond stood half-open, and very soon Newhaven edged his way through. Almost at the same moment Jack Ives and Mrs. Wentworth passed out of the window and began to walk up and down the gravel. Nobody but myself appeared to notice these remarkable occurrences, but I watched them with keen interest. Half an hour passed, and then there smote on my watchful ear the sound of a low laugh from the boudoir. It was followed almost immediately by a stranger sound from the gravel walk. Then, all in a moment, two things happened. The boudoir door opened, and Trix, followed by Newhaven, came in, smiling; from the window entered Jack Ives and Mrs. Wentworth. My eyes were on the curate. He gave one sudden, comprehending glance toward the other couple; then he took the widow's hand, led her up to Dora, and said, in low yet penetrating tones.
"Will you wish us joy, Mrs. Polton?"
The squire, Rippleby, and Algy Stanton were round them in an instant. I kept my place, watching now the face of Trix Queenborough. She turned first flaming red, then very pale. I saw her turn to Newhaven and speak one or two urgent, imperative words to him. Then, drawing herself up to her full height, she crossed the room to where the group was assembled round Mrs. Wentworth and Jack Ives.
"What's the matter? What are you saying?" she asked.
Mrs. Wentworth's eyes were modestly cast down, but a smile played round her mouth. No one spoke for a moment. Then Jack Ives said:
"Mrs. Wentworth has promised to be my wife, Miss Queenborough."
For a moment, hardly perceptible, Trix hesitated; then, with the most winning, touching, sweetest smile in the world, she said:
"So you took my advice, and our afternoon walk was not wasted, after all?"
Mrs. Polton is not used to these fine flights of diplomacy; she had heard before dinner something of what had actually happened in the afternoon; and the simple woman positively jumped. Jack Ives met Trix's scornful eyes full and square.
"Not at all wasted," said he, with a smile. "Not only has it shown me where my true happiness lies, but it has also given me a juster idea of the value and sincerity of your regard for me, Miss Queenborough."
"It is as real, Mr. Ives, as it is sincere," said she.
"It is like yourself, Miss Queenborough," said he, with a little bow; and he turned from her and began to talk to his fiancee.
Trix Queenborough moved slowly toward where I sat. Newhaven was watching her from where he stood alone on the other side of the room.
"And have you no news for us?" I asked in low tones.
"Thank you," she said haughtily; "I don't care that mine should be a pendent to the great tidings about the little widow and curate."
After a moment's pause she went on:
"He lost no time, did he? He was wise to secure her before what happened this afternoon could leak out. Nobody can tell her now."
"He asked me to marry him this afternoon."
"And you refused?"
"Well, his behavior is in outrageously bad taste, but——"
She laid a hand on my arm, and said in calm, level tones.
"I refused him because I dared not have him; but I told him I cared for him, and he said he loved me. And I let him kiss me. Good-night, Mr. Wynne."
I sat still and silent. Newhaven came across to us. Trix put up her hand and caught him by the sleeve.
"Fred," she said, "my dear, honest old Fred; you love me, don't you?"
Newhaven, much embarrassed and surprised, looked at me in alarm. But her hand was in his now, and her eyes imploring him.
"I should rather think I did, my dear," said he.
I really hope that Lord and Lady Newhaven will not be very unhappy, while Mrs. Ives quite worships her husband, and is convinced that she eclipsed the brilliant and wealthy Miss Queenborough.
Perhaps she did—perhaps not.
There are, as I have said, great qualities in the curate of Poltons, but I have not quite made up my mind precisely what they are. I ought, however, to say that Dora takes a more favorable view of him and a less lenient view of Trix than I.
That is perhaps natural. Besides, Dora does not know the precise manner in which the curate was refused. By the way, he preached next Sunday on the text, "The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light."
WHICH SHALL IT BE?
It was a charmingly mild and balmy day. The sun shone beyond the orchard, and the shade was cool inside. A light breeze stirred the boughs of the old apple tree under which the philosopher sat.
None of these things did the philosopher notice, unless it might be when the wind blew about the leaves of the large volume on his knees, and he had to find his place again. Then he would exclaim against the wind, shuffle the leaves till he got the right page, and settle to his reading. The book was a treatise on ontology; it was written by another philosopher, a friend of this philosopher's; it bristled with fallacies, and this philosopher was discovering them all, and noting them on the fly leaf at the end. He was not going to review the book (as some might have thought from his behavior), or even to answer it in a work of his own. It was just that he found a pleasure in stripping any poor fallacy naked and crucifying it.
Presently a girl in a white frock came into the orchard. She picked up an apple, bit it, and found it ripe. Holding it in her hand she walked up to where the philosopher sat, and looked at him. He did not stir. She took a bite out of the apple, munched it, and swallowed it. The philosopher crucified a fallacy on the fly leaf. The girl flung the apple away.
"Mr. Jerningham," said she, "are you very busy?"
The philosopher, pencil in hand, looked up.
"No, Miss May," said he, "not very."
"Because I want your opinion."
"In one moment," said the philosopher apologetically.
He turned back to the fly leaf and began to nail the last fallacy a little tighter to the cross. The girl regarded him, first with amused impatience, then with a vexed frown, finally with a wistful regret. He was so very old for his age, she thought; he could not be much beyond thirty; his hair was thick and full of waves, his eyes bright and clear, his complexion not yet divested of all youth's relics.
"Now, Miss May, I am at your service," said the philosopher, with a lingering look at his impaled fallacy. And he closed the book, keeping it, however, on his knee.
The girl sat down just opposite to him.
"It's a very important thing I want to ask you," she began, tugging at a tuft of grass, "and it's very—difficult, and you mustn't tell anyone I asked you; at least, I'd rather you didn't."
"I shall not speak of it; indeed, I shall probably not remember it," said the philosopher.
"And you mustn't look at me, please, while I'm asking you."
"I don't think I was looking at you, but if I was I beg your pardon," said the philosopher apologetically.
She pulled the tuft of grass right out of the ground and flung it from her with all her force.
"Suppose a man——" she began. "No, that's not right."
"You can take any hypothesis you please," observed the philosopher, "but you must verify it afterward, of course."
"Oh, do let me go on. Suppose a girl, Mr. Jerningham—I wish you wouldn't nod."
"It was only to show that I followed you."
"Oh, of course you 'follow me,' as you call it. Suppose a girl had two lovers—you're nodding again—or, I ought to say, suppose there were two men who might be in love with a girl."
"Only two?" asked the philosopher. "You see, any number of men MIGHT be in love with——"
"Oh, we can leave the rest out," said Miss May, with a sudden dimple; "they don't matter."
"Very well," said the philosopher. "If they are irrelevant, we will put them aside."
"Suppose, then, that one of these men was—oh, AWFULLY in love with the girl—and—and proposed, you know——"
"A moment!" said the philosopher, opening a notebook. "Let me take down his proposition. What was it?"
"Why, proposed to her—asked her to marry him," said the girl, with a stare.
"Dear me! How stupid of me! I forgot that special use of the word. Yes?"
"The girl likes him pretty well, and her people approve of him and all that, you know."
"That simplifies the problem," said the philosopher, nodding again.
"But she's not in—in love with him, you know. She doesn't REALLY care for him—MUCH. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly. It is a most natural state of mind."
"Well, then, suppose that there's another man—what are you writing?"
"I only put down (B.)—like that," pleaded the philosopher, meekly exhibiting his notebook.
She looked at him in a sort of helpless exasperation, with just a smile somewhere in the background of it.
"Oh, you really are——" she exclaimed. "But let me go on. The other man is a friend of the girl's; he's very clever—oh, fearfully clever; and he's rather handsome. You needn't put that down."
"It is certainly not very material," admitted the philosopher, and he crossed out "handsome." "Clever" he left.
"And the girl is most awfully—she admires him tremendously; she thinks him just the greatest man that ever lived, you know. And she—she——" The girl paused.
"I'm following," said the philosopher, with pencil poised.
"She'd think it better than the whole world if—if she could be anything to him, you know."
"You mean become his wife?"
"Well, of course I do—at least suppose I do."
"You spoke rather vaguely, you know."
The girl cast one glance at the philosopher as she replied:
"Well, yes. I did mean, become his wife."
"But," continued the girl, starting on another tuft of grass, "he doesn't think much about those things. He likes her. I think he likes her——"
"Well, doesn't dislike her?" suggested the philosopher. "Shall we call him indifferent?"
"I don't know. Yes, rather indifferent. I don't think he thinks about it, you know. But she—she's pretty. You needn't put that down."
"I was not about to do so," observed the philosopher.
"She thinks life with him would be just heaven; and—and she thinks she would make him awfully happy. She would—would be so proud of him, you see."
"I see. Yes!"
"And—I don't know how to put it, quite—she thinks that, if he ever thought about it all, he might care for her; because he doesn't care for anybody else; and she's pretty——"
"You said that before."
"Oh, dear! I dare say I did. And most men care for somebody, don't they? Some girl, I mean."
"Most men, no doubt," conceded the philosopher.
"Well, then, what ought she to do? It's not a real thing, you know, Mr. Jerningham. It's in—in a novel I was reading." She said this hastily, and blushed as she spoke.
"Dear me! And it's quite an interesting case! Yes, I see. The question is, Will she act most wisely in accepting the offer of the man who loves her exceedingly, but for whom she entertains only a moderate affection——"
"Yes. Just a liking. He's just a friend."
"Exactly. Or in marrying the other, whom she loves ex——"
"That's not it. How can she marry him? He hasn't—he hasn't asked her, you see."
"True. I forgot. Let us assume, though, for the moment, that he has asked her. She would then have to consider which marriage would probably be productive of the greater sum total of——"
"Oh, but you needn't consider that."
"But it seems the best logical order. We can afterward make allowance for the element of uncertainty caused by——"
"Oh, no! I don't want it like that. I know perfectly well which she'd do if he—the other man, you know—asked her."
"You apprehend that——"
"Never mind what I 'apprehend.' Take it just as I told you."
"Very good. A has asked her hand, B has not."
"May I take it that, but for the disturbing influence of B, A would be a satisfactory—er—candidate?"
"Ye—es. I think so."
"She, therefore, enjoys a certainty of considerable happiness if she marries A?"
"Ye—es. Not perfect, because of—B, you know."
"Quite so, quite so; but still a fair amount of happiness. Is it not so?"
"I don't—well, perhaps."
"On the other hand, if B did ask her, we are to postulate a higher degree of happiness for her?"
"Yes, please, Mr. Jerningham—much higher."
"For both of them?"
"For her. Never mind him."
"Very well. That again simplifies the problem. But his asking her is a contingency only?"
"Yes, that's all."
The philosopher spread out his hands.
"My dear young lady," he said, "it becomes a question of degree. How probable or improbable is it?"
"I don't know. Not very probable—unless—unless——"
"Unless he did happen to notice, you know."
"Ah, yes. We supposed that, if he thought of it, he would probably take the desired step—at least that he might be led to do so. Could she not—er—indicate her preference?"
"She might try—no, she couldn't do much. You see, he—he doesn't think about such things."
"I understand precisely. And it seems to me, Miss May, that in that very fact we find our solution."
"Do we?" she asked.
"I think so. He has evidently no natural inclination toward her—perhaps not toward marriage at all. Any feeling aroused in him would be necessarily shallow and in a measure artificial—and in all likelihood purely temporary. Moreover, if she took steps to arouse his attention, one of two things would be likely to happen. Are you following me?"
"Yes, Mr. Jerningham."
"Either he would be repelled by her overtures—which you must admit is not improbable—and then the position would be unpleasant, and even degrading, for her. Or, on the other hand, he might, through a misplaced feeling of gallantry——"
"Through a mistaken idea of politeness, or a mistaken view of what was kind, allow himself to be drawn into a connection for which he had no genuine liking. You agree with me that one or other of these things would be likely?"
"Yes, I suppose they would, unless he did come to care for her."
"Ah, you return to that hypothesis. I think it's an extremely fanciful one. No. She needn't marry A, but she must let B alone."
The philosopher closed his book, took off his glasses, wiped them, replaced them, and leaned back against the trunk of the apple tree. The girl picked a dandelion in pieces. After a long pause she asked:
"You think B's feelings wouldn't be at all likely to—to change?"
"That depends on the sort of man he is. But if he is an able man, with intellectual interests which engross him—a man who has chosen his path in life—a man to whom women's society is not a necessity——"
"He's just like that," said the girl, and she bit the head off a daisy.
"Then," said the philosopher, "I see not the least reason for supposing that his feelings will change."
"And would you advise her to marry the other—A?"
"Well, on the whole, I should. A is a good fellow (I think we made A a good fellow); he is a suitable match; his love for her is true and genuine——"
"Yes—and—er—extreme. She likes him. There is every reason to hope that her liking will develop into a sufficiently deep and stable affection. She will get rid of her folly about B and make A a good wife. Yes, Miss May, if I were the author of your novel, I should make her marry A, and I should call that a happy ending."
A silence followed. It was broken by the philosopher.
"Is that all you wanted my opinion about, Miss May?" he asked, with his finger between the leaves of the treatise on ontology.
"Yes, I think so. I hope I haven't bored you?"
"I've enjoyed the discussion extremely. I had no idea that novels raised points of such psychological interest. I must find time to read one."
The girl had shifted her position till, instead of her full face, her profile was turned toward him. Looking away toward the paddock that lay brilliant in sunshine on the skirts of the apple orchard, she asked, in low, slow tones, twisting her hands in her lap:
"Don't you think that perhaps, if B found out afterward—when she had married A, you know—that she had cared for him so very, very much, he might be a little sorry?"
"If he were a gentleman, he would regret it deeply."
"I mean—sorry on his own account; that—that he had thrown away all that, you know?"
The professor looked meditative.
"I think," he pronounced, "that it is very possible he would. I can well imagine it."
"He might never find anybody to love him like that again," she said, gazing on the gleaming paddock.
"He probably would not," agreed the philosopher.
"And—and most people like being loved, don't they?"
"To crave for love is an almost universal instinct, Miss May."
"Yes, almost," she said, with a dreary little smile. "You see, he'll get old and—and have no one to look after him."
"And no home."
"Well, in a sense none," corrected the philosopher, smiling. "But really, you'll frighten me. I'm a bachelor myself, you know, Miss May."
"Yes," she whispered just audibly.
"And all your terrors are before me."
"Oh, we needn't have that 'unless,'" laughed the philosopher cheerfully. "There's no 'unless' about it, Miss May."
The girl jumped to her feet; for an instant she looked at the philosopher. She opened her lips as if to speak, and, at the thought of what lay at her tongue's tip, her face grew red. But the philosopher was gazing past her, and his eyes rested in calm contemplation on the gleaming paddock.
"A beautiful thing, sunshine, to be sure," said he.
Her blush faded away into paleness; her lips closed. Without speaking she turned and walked slowly away, her head drooping. The philosopher heard the rustle of her skirt in the long grass of the orchard; he watched her for a few moments.
"A pretty, graceful creature," said he, with a smile. Then he opened his book, took his pencil in his hand, and slipped in a careful forefinger to mark the fly leaf.
The sun had passed mid-heaven, and began to decline westward before he finished the book. Then he stretched himself and looked at his watch.
"Good gracious, two o'clock! I shall be late for lunch!" and he hurried to his feet.
He was very late for lunch.
"Everything's cold," wailed his hostess. "Where have you been, Mr. Jerningham?"
"Only in the orchard—reading."
"And you've missed May!"
"Missed Miss May? How do you mean? I had a long talk with her this morning—a most interesting talk."
"But you weren't here to say goodby. Now, you don't mean to say that you forgot that she was leaving by the two o'clock train? What a man you are!"
"Dear me! To think of my forgetting it!" said the philosopher shamefacedly.
"She told me to say good-by to you for her."
"She's very kind. I can't forgive myself."
His hostess looked at him for a moment; then she sighed, and smiled, and sighed again.
"Have you everything you want?" she asked.
"Everything, thank you," said he, sitting down opposite the cheese, and propping his book (he thought he would just run through the last chapter again) against the loaf; "everything in the world that I want, thanks."
His hostess did not tell him that the girl had come in from the apple orchard, and run hastily upstairs lest her friend should see what her friend did see in her eyes. So that he had no suspicion at all that he had received an offer of marriage—and refused it. And he did not refer to anything of that sort when he paused once in his reading and exclaimed:
"I'm really sorry I missed Miss May. That was an interesting case of hers. But I gave the right answer. The girl ought to marry A."
And so the girl did.
MARRIAGE BY COMPULSION.
"It is a most anxious thing to be an absolute ruler," said Duke Deodonato, "but I have made up my mind. The Doctor has convinced me [here Dr. Fusbius, Ph. D., bowed very low] that marriage is the best, noblest, wholesomest, and happiest of human conditions."
"Your Highness will remember——" began the President of the Council.
"My lord, I have made up my mind," said Duke Deodonato.
Thus speaking, the Duke took a large sheet of foolscap paper, and wrote rapidly for a moment or two.
"There," he said, pushing the paper over to the President, "is the decree."
"The decree, sir?"
"I think three weeks afford ample space," said Duke Deodonato.
"Three weeks, sir?"
"For every man over twenty-one years of age in this Duchy to find himself a wife."
"Your Highness," observed Dr. Fusbius, with deference, "will consider that between an abstract proposition and a practical measure——"
"There is to the logical mind no stopping place," interrupted Duke Deodonato.
"But, sir," cried the President, "imagine the consternation which this——"
"Let it be gazetted to-night," said Duke Deodonato.
"I would venture," said the President, "to remind your Highness that you are yourself a bachelor."
"Laws," said Duke Deodonato, "do not bind the Crown unless the Crown is expressly mentioned."
"True, sir; but I humbly conceive that it would be pessimi exempli——"
"You are right; I will marry myself," said Duke Deodonato.
"But, sir, three weeks! The hand of a princess cannot be requested and granted in——"
"Then find me somebody else," said Deodonato; "and pray leave me. I would be alone;" and Duke Deodonato waved his hand to the door.
Outside the door the President said to the Doctor:
"I could wish, sir, that you had not convinced his Highness."
"My lord," rejoined the Doctor, "truth is my only preoccupation."
"Sir," said the President, "are you married?"
"My lord," answered the Doctor, "I am not."
"I thought not," said the President, as he folded up the decree and put it in his pocket.
It is useless to deny that Duke Deodonato's decree caused considerable disturbance in the Duchy. In the first place, the Crown lawyers raised a puzzle of law. Did the word "man" as used in the decree, include "woman"? The President shook his head, and referred the question to his Highness.
"It seems immaterial," observed the Duke. "If a man marries, a woman marries."
"Ex vi terminorum," assented the Doctor.
"But, sir," said the President, "there are more women than men in the Duchy."
Duke Deodonato threw down his pen.
"This is very provoking," said he. "Why was it allowed? I'm sure it happened before I came to the throne."
The Doctor was about to point out that it could hardly have been guarded against, when the President (who was a better courtier) anticipated him.
"We did not foresee that your Highness, in your Highness' wisdom, would issue this decree," he said humbly.
"True," said Duke Deodonato, who was a just man.
"Would your Highness vouchsafe any explanation——"
"What are the Judges for?" asked Duke Deodonato. "There is the law—let them interpret it."
Whereupon the Judges held that a "man" was not a "woman," and that although every man must marry, no woman need.
"It will make no difference," said the President.
"None at all," said Dr. Fusbius.
Nor, perhaps, would it, seeing that women are ever kind and in no way by nature averse from marriage, had it not become known that Duke Deodonato himself intended to choose a wife from the ladies of his own dominions, and to choose her (according to the advice of Dr. Fusbius, who, in truth, saw little whither his counsel would in the end carry the Duke) without regard to such adventitious matters as rank or wealth, and purely for her beauty, talent, and virtue.
Which resolve being proclaimed, straightway all the ladies of the Duchy, of whatsoever station, calling, age, appearance, wit, or character, conceiving each of them that she, and no other, should become the Duchess, sturdily refused all offers of marriage (although they were many of them as desperately enamored as virtuous ladies may be), and did nought else than walk, drive, ride, and display their charms in the park before the windows of the ducal palace. And thus it fell out that when a week had gone by, no man had obeyed Duke Deodonato's decree, and they were, from sheer want of brides, like to fall into contempt of the law and under the high displeasure of the Duke.
Upon this the President and Dr. Fusbius sought audience of his Highness and humbly laid before him the unforeseen obstacle which had occurred.
"Woman is ever ambitious," said Dr. Fusbius.
"Nay," corrected the President, "they have seen his Highness' person as his Highness has ridden through the city."
Duke Deodonato threw down his pen.
"This is very tiresome," said he, knitting his brows. "My lord, I would be further advised on this matter. Return at the same hour to-morrow."
The next day, Duke Deodonato's forehead had regained its customary smoothness, and his manner was tranquil and assured.
"Our pleasure is," said he to the President, "that, albeit no woman shall be compelled to marry if so be that she be not invited thereunto; yet, if bidden, she shall in no wise refuse, but straightway espouse that man who first after the date of these presents shall solicit her hand."
The President bowed in admiration.
"It is, if I may humbly say so, a practical and wise solution, sir," he said.
"I apprehend that it will remedy the mischief," said Duke Deodonato, not ill pleased.
And doubtless it would have had an effect as altogether satisfactory, excellent, beneficial, salutary, and universal as the wisdom of Duke Deodonato had anticipated from it, had it not fallen out that, on the promulgation of the decree, all the aforesaid ladies of the Duchy, of whatsoever station, calling, age, appearance, wit, or character, straightway, and so swiftly that no man had time wherein to pay his court to them, fled to and shut and bottled and barricaded themselves in houses, castles, cupboards, cellars, stables, lofts, churches, chapels, chests, and every other kind of receptacle whatsoever, and there remained beyond reach of any man, be he whom he would, lest haply one, coming, should ask their hand in marriage, and thus they should lose all prospect of wedding the Duke.
When Duke Deodonato was apprised of this lamentable action on the part of the ladies of the Duchy, he frowned and laid down his pen.
"This is very annoying," said he. "There appears to be a disposition to thwart Our endeavors for the public good."
"It is gross contumacy," said Dr. Fusbius.
"Yet," remarked the President, "inspired by a natural, if ill-disciplined, admiration for his Highness' person."
"The decree is now a fortnight old," observed Duke Deodonato. "Leave me. I will consider further of this matter."
Now even as his Highness spoke a mighty uproar arose under the palace windows, and Duke Deodonato, looking out of the window (which, be it remembered, but for the guidance of Heaven he might not have done), beheld a maiden of wonderful charms struggling in the clutches of two halberdiers of the guard, who were haling her off to prison.
"Bring hither that damsel," said Deodonato.
Presently the damsel, still held by the soldiers, entered the room. Her robe was disheveled and rent, her golden hair hung loose on her shoulders, and her eyes were full of tears.
"At whose suit is she arrested?" asked Deodonato.
"At the suit of the most learned Dr. Fusbius, may it please your Highness."
"Sir," said Dr. Fusbius, "it is true. This lady, grossly contemning your Highness' decree, has refused my hand in marriage."
"Is it true, damsel?" asked Duke Deodonato.
"Hear me, your Highness!" answered she. "I left my dwelling but an instant, for we were in sore straits for——"
"Bread?" asked Deodonato, a touch of sympathy in his voice.
"May it please your Highness, no—pins wherewith to fasten our hair. And, as I ran to the merchant's, this aged man——"
"I am but turned of fifty," interrupted Fusbius.
"And have not yet learned silence!" asked Deodonato severely. "Damsel, proceed!"
"Caught me by my gown as I ran, and——"
"I proposed marriage to her," said Fusbius.
"Nay, if you proposed marriage, she shall marry you," said Deodonato. "By the crown of my fathers, she shall marry you! But what said he, damsel?"
"May it please your Highness, he said that I had the prettiest face in all the Duchy, and that he would have no wife but me; and thereupon he kissed me; and I would have none of him, and I struck him and escaped."
"Send for the Judges," said Duke Deodonato. "And meanwhile keep this damsel and let no man propose marriage to her until Our pleasure be known."
Now, when the Judges were come, and the maiden was brought in and set over against them on the right hand, and the learned Doctor took his stand on the left, Deodonato prayed the Judges that they would perpend carefully and anxiously of the question—using all lore, research, wisdom, discretion, and justice—whether Dr. Fusbius had proposed marriage unto the maiden or no.
"Thus shall Our mind be informed, and we shall deal profitably with this matter," concluded Duke Deodonato.
Upon which arose great debate. For there was one part of the learned men which leaned upon the letter and found no invitation to marriage in the words of Dr. Fusbius; while another part would have it that in all things the spirit and mind of the utterer must be regarded, and that it sorted not with the years, virtues, learning, and position of the said most learned Doctor to suppose that he had spoken such words and sealed the same with a kiss, save under the firm impression, thought, and conviction that he was offering his hand in marriage; which said impression, thought, and conviction were fully and reasonably declared and evident in his actions, manner, bearing, air, and conduct.
"This is very perplexing," said Duke Deodonato, and he knit his brows; for as he gazed upon the beauty of the damsel, it seemed to him a thing unnatural, undesirable, unpalatable, unpleasant, and unendurable, that she should wed Dr. Fusbius.
Yet if such were the law—Duke Deodonato sighed, and he glanced at the damsel: and it chanced that the damsel glanced at Duke Deodonato, and, seeing that he was a proper man and comely, and that his eye spoke his admiration of her, she blushed; and her cheek that had gone white when those of the judges who favored the learned Doctor were speaking, went red as a rose again, and she strove to order her hair, and to conceal the rent that was in her robe. And Duke Deodonato sighed again.
"My lord," he said to the President, "we have heard these wise and erudite men; and, for as much as the matter is difficult, they are divided among themselves, and the staff whereon we leaned is broken. Speak, therefore, your mind."
Then the President of the Council looked earnestly at Duke Deodonato, but the Duke veiled his face with his hand.
"Answer truly," said he, "without fear or favor. So shall you fulfill Our pleasure."
And the President, looking round upon the company, said:
"It is, your Highness, by all reasonable, honest, just, proper, and honorable intendment, as good, sound, full, and explicit an offer of marriage as hath ever been had in this duchy."
"So be it," said Duke Deodonato; and Dr. Fusbius smiled in triumph, while the maiden grew pale again.
"And," pursued the President, "it binds, controls, and rules every man, woman, and child in these your Highness' dominions, and hath the force of law over all."
"So be it," said Deodonato again.
"Saving," added the President, "your Highness only."
There was a movement among the company.
"For," pursued the President, "by the ancient laws, customs, manners, and observances of the Duchy, no decree or law shall in any way whatsoever impair, alter, lessen, or derogate from the high rights, powers, and prerogatives of your Highness, whom may Heaven long preserve. Although, therefore, it be, by and pursuant to your Highness' decree, the sure right of every man in this Duchy to be accepted in marriage of any damsel whom he shall invite thereunto, yet is this right in all respects subject to and controlled by the natural, legal, inalienable, unalterable, and sovereign prerogative of your Highness to marry what damsel soever it shall be your pleasure to bid share your throne. Hence I, in obedience to your Highness' commands, pronounce and declare that this damsel is lawfully and irrevocably bound and affianced to the learned Dr. Fusbius, unless and until it shall please your Highness yourself to demand her hand in marriage. May what I have spoken please your Highness!" And the President sat down.
Duke Deodonato sat a while in thought, and there was silence in the hall. Then he spoke:
"Let all withdraw, saving the damsel only."
And they one and all withdrew, and Duke Deodonato was left alone with the damsel.
Then he arose and gazed long on the damsel; but the damsel would not look on Duke Deodonato.
"How are you called, lady?" asked Duke Deodonato.
"I am called Dulcissima," said she.
"Well named!" said Deodonato softly, and he went to the damsel, and he laid his hand, full gently, on her robe, and he said:
"Dulcissima, you have the prettiest face in all the Duchy, and I will have no wife but you;" and Duke Deodonato kissed the damsel.
The damsel forbore to strike Duke Deodonato, as she had struck Dr. Fusbius. Again her cheek went red, and again pale, and she said:
"I wed no man on compulsion."
"Madam, I am your Sovereign," said Duke Deodonato; and his eyes were on the damsel.
"If you were an Archangel——" cried the damsel.
"Our house is not wont to be scorned of ladies," said Deodonato. "Am I crooked, or baseborn, or a fool?"
"This day in your Duchy women are slaves, and men their masters by your will," said she.
"It is the order of nature," said Deodonato.
"It is not my pleasure," said the damsel.
Then Deodonato laid his hand on his silver bell, for he was very angry.
"Fusbius waits without," said he.
"I will wed him and kill him," cried Dulcissima.
Deodonato gazed on her.
"You had no chance of using the pins," said he, "and the rent in your gown is very sore."
And upon this the eyes of the damsel lost their fire and sought the floor; and she plucked at her girdle, and would not look on Deodonato. And they said outside:
"It is very still in the Hall of the Duke."
Then said Deodonato:
"Dulcissima, what would you?"
"That you repeal your decrees," said she.
Deodonato's brow grew dark; he did not love to go back.
"What I have decreed, I have decreed," said he.
"And what I have resolved, I have resolved," said she.
Deodonato drew near to her.
"And if I repeal the decrees?" said he.
"You will do well," said she.
"And you will wed——"
"Whom I will," said she.
Deodonato turned to the window, and for a space he looked out; and the damsel smoothed her hair and drew her robe, where it was whole, across the rent; and she looked on Deodonato as he stood, and her bosom rose and fell. And she prayed a prayer that no man heard, or, if he heard, might be so base as to tell. But she saw the dark locks of Deodonato's hair and his form, straight as an arrow and tall as a six-foot wand, in the window. And again, outside, they said:
"It is strangely still in the Hall of the Duke."
Then Deodonato turned, and he pressed with his hand on the silver bell, and straightway the Hall was filled with the Councilors, the Judges, and the halberdiers, attentive to hear the will of Deodonato and the fate of the damsel. And the small eyes of Fusbius glowed, and the calm eyes of the President smiled.
"My Cousins, Gentlemen, and my faithful Guard," said Deodonato, "Time, which is Heaven's mighty Instrument, brings counsel. Say! what the Duke has done, shall any man undo?"
Then cried they all, save one:
And the President said:
"Saving the Duke."
"The decrees which I made," said Deodonato, "I unmake. Henceforth let men and maidens in my Duchy marry or not marry as they will, and God give them joy of it."
And all, save Fusbius, cried "Amen!" But Fusbius cried:
"Your Highness, it is demonstrated beyond cavil; ay, to the satisfaction of your Highness——"
"This is very tedious," said Deodonato. "Let him speak no more!"
And again he drew near to Dulcissima, and there, before them all, he fell on his knee. And a murmur ran through the hall.
"Madam," said Deodonato, "if you love me, wed me. And, if you love me not, depart in peace and in honor; and I, Deodonato, will live my life alone."
Then the damsel trembled, and barely did Deodonato catch her words:
"There are many men here," said she.
"It is not given to Princes," said Deodonato, "to be alone. Nevertheless, if you will, leave me alone." And the damsel bent low, so that the breath of her mouth stirred the hair on Deodonato's head, and he shivered as he knelt.
"My Prince and my King!" said she.
And Deodonato shot to his feet, and before them all he kissed her, and, turning, spoke:
"As I have wooed, let every man in this Duchy woo. As I have won, let every man that is worthy win. For, unless he so woo, and unless he so win, vain is his wooing, and vain is his winning, and a fig for his wedding, say I, Deodonato! I, that was Deodonato, and now am—Deodonato and Dulcissima."
And a great cheer rang out in the Hall, and Fusbius fled to the door; and they tore his gown as he went and cursed him for a knave. But the President raised his voice aloud and cried:
"May Heaven preserve your Highnesses—and here's a blessing on all windows!"
And that is the reason why you will find (if you travel there, as I trust you may, for nowhere are the ladies fairer or the men so gallant) more windows in the Duchy of Deodonato than anywhere in the wide world besides. For the more windows, the wider the view; and the wider the view, the more pretty damsels do you see; and the more pretty damsels you see, the more jocund a thing is life—and that is what the men of the Duchy love—and not least, Duke Deodonato, whom, with his bride Dulcissima, may Heaven long preserve!
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL.
There was once—the date is of no moment—a Sultan, and he had a Vizier named Ashimullah. This minister was a wise man, much trusted by his master; but he was held in some suspicion and dislike at the court because he had been born—or, if that be doubtful, had at least been bred—a Christian, and had been originally a prisoner of the Sultan's armies.
But Ashimullah, for reasons which intimately concerned his own head, but need not concern anybody else's, promptly found the true path; and, having professed a ready conversion to the tenets of Islam, rose rapidly to a high place in the service of the Sultan, so that his promotion never ceased until he was installed in the office of Grand Vizier. Yet, remembering his discreditable past, the Sultan was accustomed to exact from him the fullest and most minute observance of his religious duties. To such observance Ashimullah submitted, comforting himself with the example of Naaman the Syrian; for Ashimullah was still, in secret, a Christian, and his adherence to Islam was only a polite concession to public feeling. But there was one point on which his conscience struck him sorely, and this was no other than the question of wives. Ashimullah had one wife, a lady of great beauty and remarkable accomplishments, and for the life of him he could not see how, consistently with the religion which he held in his heart and with the honor that he owed to the lady, he could take any other wife. Such an act appeared to him to be a deadly sin, for it was most plainly held and laid down by the rules of his religion, and had moreover been amply proved by experience, that one wife was enough for any man. Therefore when the Sultan, hearing that Ashimullah had but one wife, and considering the thing very suspicious and unnatural, sent for him, and required him to order his establishment on a scale more befitting his present exalted position, Ashimullah was in sad perplexity. To obey was to sin, to refuse was likely to cost him his life; for if his master suspected the sincerity of his conversion, his shrift would be short. In this quandary Ashimullah sought about for excuses.
"O Commander of the Faithful, I am a poor man, and wives are sources of expense," said Ashimullah.
"My treasury is open to the most faithful of my servants," said the Sultan.
"A multitude of women in a house breeds strife," urged Ashimullah.
"He who governs an empire should be able to govern his own house," remarked the Sultan.
"I have no pleasure in the society of women," pleaded Ashimullah.
"It is not a question of pleasure," said the Sultan solemnly, and Ashimullah thought that he saw signs of suspicion on his master's august face. Therefore he prostrated himself, crying that he submitted to the imperial will, and would straightway take another wife.
"I do not love a grudging obedience," said the Sultan.
"I will take two!" cried Ashimullah.
"Take three," said the Sultan; and with this he dismissed Ashimullah, giving him the space of a week in which to fulfill the command laid upon him.
"Surely I am a most unhappy man," mused Ashimullah. "For if I do not obey, I shall be put to death; and if I do obey, I fear greatly that I shall be damned." And he went home looking so sorrowful and perplexed that all men conceived that he was out of favor with the Sultan.
Now Ashimullah, being come to his house, went immediately to his wife, and told her of the Sultan's commands, adding that the matter was a sore grief to him, and not less on her account than on his own. "For you know well, Star of my Heart," said he, "that I desire no wife but you!"
"I know it well, Ashimullah," answered Lallakalla tenderly.
"Moreover, I fear that I shall be damned," whispered Ashimullah.
"I'm sure you would," said Lallakalla.
Three days later it was reported through all the city, on the authority of Hassan, the chief and confidential servant of the Vizier, that Ashimullah, having procured three slaves of great beauty at an immense cost, had wedded them all, and thus completed the number of wives allowed to him by the Law of the Prophet. The first was rosy-cheeked with golden hair; the second's complexion was olive, and her locks black as night; the third had a wonderful pallor, and tresses like burnished gold.
"Thus," added Hassan, "since my lady Lallakalla's hair is brown, his Highness the Vizier enjoys, as is his most just due, all varieties of beauty."
When these things came to the ears of the Sultan, he was greatly pleased with the prompt obedience of Ashimullah, and sent him a large sum of money and his own miniature, magnificently set in diamonds. Moreover, he approved highly of the taste that Ashimullah had displayed in his choice, and regretted very deeply that he could not behold the charms of the wives of the Vizier. Nay, so great was his anxiety concerning them that he determined to send one of his Sultanas to pay a visit to the harem of Ashimullah, in order that, while seeming to render honor to Ashimullah, she might report to him of the beauty of Ashimullah's wives.
"We must make ready for the visit of the Sultana," observed Lallakalla, with a smile.
When the Sultana returned from her visit, the Sultan came to her without delay, and she said:
"O Most Translucent Majesty, wonderful indeed are the wives of Ashimullah! For as they came before me, one after another, I did not know which of them to call most beautiful; for the brown hair, the golden, the black, and the ruddy are all most fair to see. I would that your Majesty could behold them!"
"I would that I could!" said the Sultan, stroking his beard.
"Yet, O Sultan, since all men are mortal, and it is not given to any to be perfectly happy in this world, know that there is an alloy in the happiness of Ashimullah the Vizier. For these most lovely ladies have, each and all of them, so strong and vehement a temper and so great a reciprocal hatred, that Ashimullah is compelled to keep them apart, each in her own chamber, and by no means can they be allowed to come together for an instant. Not even my presence would have restrained them, and therefore I saw each alone."
"I do not object to a little temper," observed the Sultan, stroking his beard again. "It is a sauce to beauty, and keeps a man alive."
"It is only toward one another that they are fierce," said the Sultana. "For all spoke with the greatest love of Ashimullah, and with the most dutiful respect."
"I do not see on what account they are so fond of Ashimullah," said the Sultan, frowning.
That night the Sultan did not once close his eyes, for he could think of nothing save the marvelous and varied beauty of the wives of the Vizier; and between the rival charms of the black, the brown, the ruddy, and the golden, his Majesty was so torn and tossed about that, when he rose, his brow was troubled and his cheek pale. And being no longer able to endure the torment that he suffered, he sent the Sultana again to visit the house of Ashimullah, bidding her observe most carefully which of the ladies was in truth most beautiful. But the Sultana, having returned, professed herself entirely unable to set any one of Ashimullah's wives above any other in any point of beauty. "For they are all," said she, "and each in her own way, houris for beauty."
"And this man was a Christian dog once!" murmured the Sultan. Then his brow suddenly grew smooth, and he observed:
"Ashimullah himself will know; and, indeed, it is time that I gave a new sign of my favor to my trusted servant Ashimullah."
Therefore he sent for Ashimullah, and spoke to him with unbounded graciousness.
"Ashimullah, my faithful servant," said he, "I am mindful to confer upon you a great and signal favor; desiring to recognize not only your services to my throne, but also and more especially your ready and willing obedience in the matter of your wives. Therefore I have decided to exalt you and your household in the eyes of all the Faithful, and of the whole world, by taking from your house a wife for myself."
When Ashimullah heard this he went very pale, although, in truth, what the Sultan proposed to do was always held the highest of honors.
"And since so good and loyal a servant," pursued the Sultan, "would desire to offer to his Sovereign nothing but the best of all that he has, tell me, O Ashimullah, which of your wives is fairest, that I may take her and exalt her as I have proposed."
Ashimullah was now in great agitation, and he stammered in his confusion:
"My wives are indeed fair; but, O Most Potent and Fearful Majesty, they have, one and all, most diabolical tempers."
"Surely by now I have learned how to deal with the tempers of women," said the Sultan, raising his brows. "Come, Ashimullah; tell me which is fairest."
Then Ashimullah, being at his wits' end, and catching at any straw in order to secure a little delay, declared that it was utterly impossible to say that any one of his wives was fairer than any other, for they were all perfectly beautiful.
"But describe them to me, one by one," commanded the Sultan.
So Ashimullah described his wives one by one to the Sultan, using most exalted eloquence, and employing every simile, metaphor, image, figure, and trope that language contains, in the vain attempt to express adequately the surpassing beauty of those ladies; yet he was most careful to set no one above any other and to distribute the said similes, metaphors, images, figures, and tropes, with absolute impartiality and equality among them.
"By Allah, it is difficult!" said the Sultan, pulling his beard fretfully. "I will consider your several descriptions, and send for you again in a few days, Ashimullah."
So Ashimullah went home and told Lallakalla all that had passed between the Sultan and himself, and how the Sultan proposed to take one of his wives, but could not make up his mind which lady he should prefer.
"But, alas! it is all one to me, whichever he chooses," cried Ashimullah, in despair.
"It is all one to me also," cried Lallakalla. "But, be sure, dear Ashimullah, that the Sultan has some purpose in this delay. Let us wait and see what he does. It may be that we need not yet despair."
But Ashimullah would not be comforted, and cried out that he had done better never to forswear his religion, but to have died at once, as a holy martyr.
"It is too late to think of that," said Lallakalla.
Now, had not the Sultan been most lamentably bewildered and most amazingly dazzled by the conflicting charms of the wives of Ashimullah, beyond doubt he would not have entertained nor carried out a project so impious and irreligious as that which his curiosity and passion now led him into. But being unable to eat or drink or rest until he was at ease on the matter, he determined, all piety and law and decorum to the contrary notwithstanding, to look upon the faces of Ashimullah's wives with his own eyes, and determine for himself to whom the crown of beauty belonged, and whether the brown or the black, or the golden or the ruddy, might most properly and truthfully lay claim to it. But this resolution he ventured to communicate to nobody, save to the faithful and dutiful wife whom he had sent before to visit the house of Ashimullah. She, amazed, tried earnestly to dissuade him, but seeing he was not to be turned, at last agreed to second his designs, and enable him to fulfill his purpose. "Though I fear no good will come of it," she sighed.
"I wonder which is in truth the fairest!" murmured the Sultan. And he sent word to Ashimullah that the Sultana would visit his wives on the evening of that day.
"All will be ready for her," said Lallakalla, when she received the message from her husband.
But in the afternoon the Sultan sent men into the bazaar, and these men caught Hassan, Ashimullah's servant, as he came to make his daily purchases, and carried him to the Sultan, with whom he was closeted for hard on an hour. When he came out Hassan returned home, shaking his head sorrowfully, but patting his purse comfortably; whence it appears that he suffered from a conflict of feelings, his mind being ill at ease, but his purse heavier. And when in the evening the Sultana came, attended only by one tall, formidable, and inky-black attendant, Hassan ushered her into the reception room of the harem, telling her that Lallakalla, the first wife of his master, would attend her immediately. Then he went out, and, having brought in the big black slave very secretly, set him in the antechamber of the room where the Sultana was, and hid him there, behind a high screen. And Hassan pierced a hole in the screen, so that the big slave could see what passed in the antechamber without being seen himself. Then Hassan, still shaking his head, but also patting his purse, went to summon Lallakalla. But the big black slave lay quiet behind the screen.
Presently Lallakalla passed through and entered the room where the Sultana was. A few moments later Ashimullah came in, carrying over one arm several robes of silk and in the other a large box or trunk. Ashimullah looked round cautiously, but saw nobody; the big black slave held his breath, but laid his hand on the scimitar that he wore. Ashimullah waited. Then Lallakalla came out.
"Yes, of a truth this brown-haired one is most lovely," thought the big slave. "It would seem impossible that the others can be so lovely. Moreover, she looks amiable enough. Yet I must see the others. Which will come next?" And he composed himself to wait for the next, not caring whether she were the ruddy, the golden, or the black, so that she came quickly.
But, to the amazement of the slave, Lallakalla tore off the silken robe she wore and cried to her husband, "Give me the blue robe—yes, and the golden hair." And, having put on the blue robe, she took from Ashimullah's hand something that he had taken from the square box, and put it on her head. Then Ashimullah gave her a smaller box, and, taking out paints and brushes and a mirror, she made a complexion for herself. And thus she was transformed into a golden-haired lady with cheeks of rosy red, and in this guise she passed in to the Sultana's presence.
"The dog!" thought the slave. "Then he took only two wives more!"
Presently Lallakalla came forth; and all happened as before, save that she stained her face to an olive tint and put on a wig of coal-black hair.
"By the Prophet!" thought the slave, "he took but one wife more!"
Yet again Lallakalla came out from visiting the Sultana, and on this occasion she hastily donned a robe of red, sprinkled white powder over her cheeks, and set on her head a most magnificent structure of ruddy hair. Thus arrayed she went again into the room where the Sultana was.
"By Allah, the dog took no other wife at all!" thought the slave, and, looking through his spy-hole, he saw Ashimullah making off in great haste, carrying the box and the robes with him. Then Hassan came and led the slave back by the way they had come to the place where he awaited the Sultana.
"This wife of Ashimullah is a wonderful woman," said the Sultan to himself, as he lay awake that night. "Behold, she is in herself a multitude!"
Early the next morning Ashimullah was summoned to the palace, and at once ushered into the presence of the Sultan.
"O Ashimullah, I have reflected," said the Sultan, "and I desire that you will send me that wife of yours who has ruddy hair. For although the choice is difficult, yet I think that she must be the fairest of them all."
Ashimullah, knowing not what to say, prostrated himself and promised obedience; then, having withdrawn from the presence, he ran back home as fast as he could lay his feet to the ground, and sought out Lallakalla. With her he talked for some time; then he returned to the palace, weeping and wringing his hands.
"What ails you, Ashimullah?" asked the Sultan.
"Alas! O Light of the World, a pestilence has fallen on my house, and my wife with the ruddy hair lies dead."
"We must resign ourselves to the will of Heaven," said the Sultan. "Yet I will not recall the favor I had destined for you. Send me the wife that has coal-black hair, Ashimullah."
"Alas! Most Mighty One, misfortunes crowd upon me. That graceless wife has fled from me in company with a fishmonger," groaned Ashimullah.
"You are well quit of her, and so also am I," remarked the Sultan. "Yet I am not to be turned from my benevolent purpose, and rather than fail in doing you honor, I will accept the wife with the golden hair."
"Alas! and alas! High and Potent Majesty, Heaven has set its wrath upon me. As she rowed this morning, the boat upset, and she, my golden-haired beauty, was drowned!" And Ashimullah laid his head on the ground and sobbed pitifully.
"Of a truth you are afflicted. Yet do not despair, I will comfort you, my good Ashimullah," said the Sultan. "Weep no more. Send me the wife with the brown hair, and all shall be well. By Allah! I am a man that hears reason, and does not exact more than Fate will allow! A man can give only what he has. I shall be well pleased with her of the brown hair, Ashimullah."
Then Ashimullah crawled to the feet of the Sultan, and said:
"Ruler of the World, great is the honor that you purpose for the meanest of your servants. Yet behold, if I send my wife with the brown hair, I shall have no wife at all; for the others are gone, and my house will be altogether desolate."
The Sultan smiled down at Ashimullah. Then he bent and took him by the hands and raised him up. And he spoke to him in a tone of most tender and friendly reproach:
"Indeed, Ashimullah," said he, "you wrong me in your thoughts, supposing that I would leave your house desolate, or that I would receive without bestowing. Such is not the custom of great princes, nor is it my custom. But where we take we give fourfold of what is given to us. Be of good cheer, and grieve no more either for the wives who are dead or for the brown-haired wife whom it is my gracious pleasure to accept from you. For I will send you four wives; and thus you shall be as you were before your misfortunes, and before you gave me your brown-haired wife. And if the color of their hair does not please you (for it seems that you are curious in these matters, O Ashimullah), I think that you have means to set right what is wrong, and to array the head of each in the color that you love best." And, as he said this, the Sultan looked very full and significantly in the face of Ashimullah.
But Ashimullah turned and went out, full of fear; for he perceived that the Sultan had discovered his secret and that he had been betrayed by Hassan his servant, and he feared for his life, because of the trick that he had played upon the Sultan, besides being greatly afflicted to think that now indeed there was no escape, but he must have four wives. Moreover, although this could not stand beside the question of his salvation, he regretted greatly the losing of Lallakalla, whom the Sultan took from him. And as he told Lallakalla all that had passed, he wept; but she bade him be of good cheer, and, having comforted him, withdrew to her apartments, and was very busy there all the afternoon.
In the evening came a litter from the palace, and with it a letter from the Sultan, commanding that Lallakalla should come, and bidding Ashimullah to expect his four wives the next day. Accordingly Ashimullah, having divorced Lallakalla according to the formalities of the law, set her in the litter, and she, being brought to the palace, was soon visited by the Sultan, who was full of curiosity to see her. But, when he entered, he gave a loud cry of surprise. For, behold, the hair on Lallakalla's head was red. But then he smiled and said to her:
"Take off the wig, my daughter."
"I obey," said she, "but I pray you to look away while I obey."
So the Sultan looked away, and, when he turned again, her hair was golden.
"Take that off also," said the Sultan, turning his head away. And when he looked again her hair was coal-black.
"Take that off also," said the Sultan.
"I obey," said Lallakalla, and the Sultan turned away.
"Now," said he, "I will behold your own brown hair," and he turned to her. But again he cried out in surprise and horror. For there was no brown hair on Lallakalla's head, but her head was bare and shaven as clean as the ball of ivory on the staff that the Sultan carried.
"Heaven forbid," said Lallakalla meekly, "that I should come to the Light of the Universe with hair of the color that he hates; for he chose every color sooner than my poor color. Therefore I have left the brown hair for Ashimullah, for he loves it, and I have brought my lord the colors that my lord loves." And with this she laid the three wigs of black hair, of golden, and of ruddy at the Sultan's feet, and stood herself before him with her shaven poll.
Then the Sultan, seeing that Lallakalla looked very ludicrous with her shaven poll, burst out laughing. And he came and took her by the hand, and said to her:
"Behold a woman who loves her husband better than her beauty, and to be his wife rather than mine! Return, then, to Ashimullah and be his wife again."
"My lord," said she, "suffer me also to take back with me the other wives of Ashimullah," and she pointed to the heads of hair that lay upon the ground.
"Take them," said he, laughing. "And since Ashimullah has already four wives and yet will give me no wife, why, neither will I give Ashimullah any wives. But he shall have the four wives that he had before, and all the city shall hear of the beauty and the virtue of Ashimullah's wives."
So Lallakalla went home in great joy, and put on her own hair, which she had fashioned into a wig, and went in to Ashimullah. And they dwelt happily together, there being no differences in their household, save in the color of Lallakalla's hair from day to day. But the Sultan raised a pillar of many-colored marble, black and gold, brown and red, and inscribed it, "To the Virtues of the Wives of Ashimullah the Vizier." And henceforward none troubled Ashimullah concerning his wives.
Hassan, however, was most justly put to death.