The gardener was not altogether happy when he saw these two ladies coming toward him. He felt sure that they were coming for a story, for when the elder lady came to the garden it was not her habit to bring her daughter with her; and neither of them was likely, on ordinary occasions, to walk along in a straightforward way, loitering neither here nor there. Their manner and their pace denoted a purpose.
John Gayther had never dug into a garden-bed as earnestly and anxiously as he now dug into his mind. These ladies were coming for a story. The younger one had doubtless told her mother that there had been stories told in the garden, and now another one was wanted, and it was more than likely that he was expected to tell it. But he did not feel at all easy about telling a story to the Mistress of the House. He knew her so well, and the habits of her mind, that he was fully assured if his fancies should blossom too luxuriantly she would ruthlessly pull them up and throw them on the path. Still he believed she would like fancies, and highly colored ones; but he must be very careful about them. They must be harmonious; they must not interfere with each other; they might be rare and wonderful, but he must not give them long Latin names which meant nothing.
One thing which troubled him was the difficulty of using the first person when telling a story to the Mistress of the House. He could tell his stories best in that fashion, but he did not believe that this hearer would be satisfied with them; she would not be likely to give them enough belief to make them interesting. He had a story all ready to tell to the Daughter of the House, for he had been sure she would want one some day soon, and this one, told in a manner which would please him, he thought would please her; but it was very different with her mother. He must be careful.
When the two ladies came to the bed where the beans were to be planted, the gardener found that he had not mistaken their errand.
"John," said the Mistress of the House, "I hear you tell a very good story, and I want you to tell me one. Let us find a shady place."
There was a pretty summer-house on the upper terrace, a shady place where the air was cool and the view was fine; and there they went: but there was no need of John Gayther's making any pretence of trimming up pea-sticks this time.
"I have a story," said he, his stool at a respectful distance from the two ladies, who were seated on a bench outside the little house.
"Is it about yourself?" asked the Daughter of the House.
"No, miss, not this time," he answered.
"I am sorry for that," she said, "for I like to think of people doing the things they tell about. But I suppose we can't have that every time."
"Oh, no," said her mother; "and if John has an interesting story about anybody else, let him tell it."
The gardener began promptly. "The name of this story is 'The Lady in the Box,'" said he, "and, with the exception of the lady, the principal personage in it was a young man who lived in Florence toward the end of the last century."
"And how did you come to know the story?" asked the Daughter of the House. "Has it ever been told before?"
Now there was need to assert himself, if John Gayther did not wish to lose grace with his hearers, and he was equal to the occasion. "It has never been printed," said he, quietly but boldly. "It came to me in the most straightforward way, step by step."
"Very good," said the Mistress of the House; "I like a story to come in that way."
"The young man, whose name was Jaqui," continued John Gayther, "was of good parts, but not in very good circumstances. He was a student of medicine, and was the assistant of a doctor, which means that he did all the hard work, such as attending to the shop, mixing the drugs, and even going out to see very poor patients in bad weather. Jaqui's employer—master, in fact—was Dr. Torquino, an elderly man of much reputation in his town. The doctor expected Jaqui to be his successor, and as the years went on the younger man began to visit patients in good circumstances who fell sick in fine weather. At last Dr. Torquino made a bargain with Jaqui by which the latter was to pay certain sums of money to the old man's heirs, and then the stock and good-will of the establishment were formally made over to him; and, shortly afterwards, the old doctor died. But before his death he told Jaqui everything that it was necessary for him to know in regard to the property and the business to which he had succeeded.
"Torquino's house was a very good one, consisting of three floors. On the ground floor were the shop, the private office, and the living-rooms. The old doctor and Jaqui lodged on the third floor. The second floor was very handsomely furnished, but was not then occupied—at least, not in the ordinary way. It belonged to Dr. Paltravi, the old doctor's former partner; a somewhat younger man, and married. He had been greatly attached to his wife, and had furnished these rooms to suit her fancy. He was a scientific man, and much more devoted to making curious experiments than he was to the ordinary practice of medicine and surgery. In a small room on this floor, at the very back of the house, was Donna Paltravi, in a box."
"Was she dead?" exclaimed the Daughter of the House.
"It was believed by Dr. Torquino that she was not, but he could not be sure of it."
"And her husband?" asked the elder lady. "Was he dead?"
"No," replied the gardener; "at least, there was no reason to suppose so. About forty years before the time of this story he had left Florence, and this was the way of it: Donna Paltravi was a young and handsome woman, but her health was not as satisfactory as it might have been, for she had a tendency to fall into swoons, and to remain in them, sometimes for many hours, coming out of a trance as lively as before she went into it. Now this disposition had a powerful effect upon her husband, and he studied her very closely, with an interest which almost devoured the other powers of his mind. He experimented upon her, and became so expert that he not only could bring her out of her trances whenever he chose, but he could keep her in them; and this he did, sometimes as long as a week, in order to prove to himself that he could do it."
"Shame upon him!" exclaimed the Daughter of the House.
"Never mind," said her mother; "let John go on."
"Well," continued the gardener, "the old doctor told Jaqui a great many things about Paltravi and his wife, and how she came to be at that time in the box. Paltravi had conceived a great scheme, one which he had believed might have immense influence on the happiness of the world. He determined that when his wife next went into a trance he would try to keep her so for fifty years, and then revive her, in the midst of her youth and beauty, to enjoy the world as she should find it."
"There was nothing new about that," said the Mistress of the House. "That is a very old story, and the thing has been written about again and again and again."
"That is very true, madam," answered John Gayther, "and Dr. Paltravi had heard many such stories, but most of them were founded upon traditions and myths and the vaguest kind of hearsay, and some were no more than the fancies of story-tellers. But the doctor wanted to work on solid and substantial ground, and he believed that his wife's exceptional opportunities should not be sacrificed."
"Sacrificed!" exclaimed the Daughter of the House. "I like that!"
"Of course I will not attempt to explain the doctor's motives, or try to excuse him," said the gardener. "I can only tell what he did. He protracted one of his wife's trances, and when it had continued for a month he determined to keep it up for half a century, if it could be done; and he went earnestly to work for the purpose. The old doctor had not altogether approved of his partner's action, but I don't believe he disapproved very much, for he also possessed a good deal of the spirit of scientific investigation. When everything had been arranged, and the lady had been placed in a large and handsome box which had been designed with great care by her husband and constructed under his careful supervision, she was carried into the little room which had been her boudoir; and there her husband watched and guarded her for nearly a year. In all that time there was not the slightest change in her so far as mortal eye could see, but there came a change over her husband. He grew uneasy and restless, and could not sleep at night; and, at last, he told Dr. Torquino he would have to go away; he could not stay any longer and see his beautiful wife lying motionless before him. The desire to revive her had become so great he found it impossible to withstand it, and therefore, in the interest of science and for the advantage of the world, he must put it out of his power to interfere with the success of his own great experiment.
"He wrote down on parchment everything that was necessary for the person to know who had charge of this great treasure, and he made Dr. Torquino swear to guard and to protect Donna Paltravi for forty-nine years, if he should live so long, and, if he did not, that he would deliver his charge into the hands of some worthy and reliable person. If, at the end of the lady's half-century of inanimation, Paltravi should not make his appearance, on account of having died, (for nothing else would keep him away), then the person in charge of the lady was to animate her in the manner which was fully and minutely described on the parchment. Paltravi then departed, and since that time nothing had been heard of him.
"When Jaqui came into possession of Dr. Torquino's house, he felt he owned the contents of only two floors, and that the second floor, especially the little room in the rear, was a great responsibility which he did not desire at all, and of which he would have rid himself if Dr. Torquino had not made him swear that he would guard it sacredly for the ten years which still remained of the intended period of inanimation.
"He had seen the lady in the box, for the old doctor had taken him into her room, and they had removed the top of the box and had looked at her through the great plate of glass which covered her. She was very beautiful and richly dressed, and seemed as if she were merely asleep. But, in spite of her beauty and the interest which attached to her, he wished very much somebody else had her to take care of. Such thoughts, however, were of no use; she went with the business and the property, and he had nothing to say about it.
"Jaqui did not have a very good time after the old doctor's death," continued John Gayther. "It was not even as good as he had expected it to be. For nearly fifteen years he had been living in that house with Dr. Torquino, and in all that time the lady in the box had never troubled him; but now she did trouble him. Various legal persons came to attend to the transfer of the property, and, although they found everything all straight and right so far as the old doctor's possessions were concerned, they were not so well satisfied in regard to the contents of the second floor, some of them thinking the government should have something to say in regard to the property of a man who had been away for forty years; but as Paltravi had made Torquino his heir when he left Florence, and Jaqui had the papers to show, this matter was settled. But, for all that, Jaqui was troubled, and it was about the box of the lady. It was such a peculiar-looking box that several questions were asked as to its contents; and when Jaqui boldly asserted that it contained anatomical preparations, he was asked why it happened to be in that handsome little room. But by the help of money and his generally good reputation Jaqui got rid of the legal people.
"But after this he had to face the neighbors. These heard of the box, and it revived memories, in the minds of some of the elders, of strange stories about Dr. Paltravi. His wife had died several times, according to some of them, and she had at last been carried to her native town in Lombardy for burial. But nobody knew the name of that town, and there were one or two persons who said she never had been buried, but that her husband had preserved her skeleton, and had had it gilded, he was so very fond of her. Jaqui had a good deal of trouble with these people, who had never dared to trouble old Dr. Torquino with their idle curiosity, for he was a man with a high temper and would stand no meddling.
"But when the neighbors had ceased to talk, at least to him, there came a third class of troublers, worse than either of the others. These were some scientific people who long ago had heard of the experiment Dr. Paltravi had been making with his wife. Several of these wrote to Jaqui, and two of them came to see him. These insisted on looking at the lady in the box, and Jaqui was obliged to show her. The two scientists were very much interested—extremely so; but they did not in the least believe the lady was alive. They considered the beautiful figure the most admirable specimen of the preservation of the human body after death that they had ever seen, and that Paltravi was entitled to the greatest credit for the success of his experiment. They were anxious to be informed of the methods by which this wonderful result had been obtained. But this, Jaqui firmly informed them, was now his secret and his property, and he would not divulge it. The scientists acknowledged the justice of this position, and did not urge their point; but each of them, when he went away, resolved that in the course of a few years he would come back, and if the body of the lady was still in good preservation, he would buy it if he could. Jaqui might be poor by that time, or dead.
"Jaqui now thought his troubles were over; but he was mistaken. A new persecutor appeared, who belonged to a fourth class, fortunately not a very large one. This person was a young man who was not only a fool but a poet."
"Unfortunate creature!" exclaimed the Mistress of the House.
"I don't know, madam," said John Gayther. "He was very happy. It was the people with whom he associated in this world who were unfortunate. This young man, whose name was Florino, lived in Milan, and it would have been much better for Jaqui if he had lived in Patagonia. By great bad luck he had overheard one of the scientists who had visited Jaqui talking about what he had seen at his house, and the poet instantly became greatly interested in the story. He plied the learned man with all manner of questions, and very soon made up his mind that he would go to Florence to see the lady in the box. He believed she would make a most admirable subject for a poem from his pen.
"When Florino presented himself to Jaqui he came as the general of an army who settles down before a town to invest it and capture it, if he shall live long enough. At first Jaqui tried to turn him away in the usual manner; but the poet was not to be turned away. He had no feelings which could be hurt, and Jaqui was afraid to hurt his body on account of the police. The young man begged, he argued, he insisted, he persisted. All he wanted was to see, just once, the face of the beautiful lady who had been so wonderfully preserved. He visited the unfortunate Jaqui by day and by night; and at last, when Florino solemnly promised that if he should be given one opportunity of seeing the lady he would go away and never trouble Dr. Jaqui any more, the latter concluded that to agree to this proposition would be the best way to get rid of the youth, and so consented to allow him to gaze upon the face which forty years before had been animated by the soul of Donna Paltravi.
"When the upper part of the lid of the box had been removed and the face of the lady appeared under the plate of glass, the soul of the young poet who tremblingly bent over it was filled with rapturous delight. Never in his life had he seen anything so beautiful, and, more than this, he declared he had never dreamed of features so lovely. For a time it interested Jaqui to listen to the rhapsodies and observe the exaltation of the fool-poet, but he soon had enough of this amorous insanity, and prepared to close the box. Then Florino burst into wild entreaties—only ten minutes more, five minutes, three minutes, anything! So it went on until the poet had been feasting his eyes on the lady for nearly half an hour. Then Jaqui forcibly put him out of the room, closed the box, and locked the door.
"Florino had no more idea of keeping his word than he had of becoming a blacksmith. He persecuted Jaqui more than he had before, and when his solicitations to see the lady again were refused he went so far as to attempt to climb up to her window. Of course Jaqui could have called in the aid of the police, but it would have made it very unpleasant for him to bring the whole affair into court, and Florino knew this as well as he did. After a short time the poet tried a new line of tactics, and endeavored to persuade Jaqui that it was his duty to revive the lady; when this idea once got well into the head of the young man he became a worse lunatic than before. Jaqui attempted to reason with him; but Florino would listen to nothing he had to say, and went on being a fool, and a poet, and a lover, at the same time; and Jaqui began to be afraid that some day he would get into the room by foul means, break open the box, seize upon the sealed parchment which lay under the lid, and try to revive the lady himself.
"It is quite possible this might have happened had not something very unexpected occurred. Dr. Paltravi came back to his old home. Jaqui recognized him immediately from the description which Torquino had given of him. He was now nearly seventy years old, but he was in good health and vigor; his tall form was still upright, and the dark eyes, which the old doctor had particularly described, were as bright and as piercing as ever they had been.
"He told Jaqui he had hoped to postpone the revival of his wife until the expiration of the fifty years, but that of late his resolution had been weakening. It had become very hard for him to think he must wait ten years more before he came back to his home and his wife. Science was a great thing, but the love of a man for a woman such as he loved was still greater; and when he heard of the death of Dr. Torquino he had instantly made up his mind he would not leave his wife in the custody of any one but his old friend and partner. So here he was, fully resolved to lose no time in reviving his wife and in spending his life here with her in their old home so long as they might survive.
"Jaqui was now a happy man. Here was the owner of the lady, ready to take her off his hands and relieve him of all the perplexing responsibility and misery which her possession had caused him. As he looked at the stalwart figure of the returned husband it made him laugh to think of the fool-poet.
"Dr. Paltravi and Jaqui were both practical men, and that evening they laid out the whole plan for the revivification of the lady in the box. Jaqui was so glad to be rid of her that he willingly undertook to do anything to assist Paltravi in starting out on his new career of domestic happiness.
"It was agreed that it was most important that when she woke again to life Donna Paltravi should not be too much surprised, and her husband did everything he could to prevent anything of the kind. He had her old bedroom swept and garnished and made to look as much as possible as it had been when she last saw it. Then he went out into the town, and was fortunate enough to engage as maid a young girl who was the daughter of the woman who had been his wife's maid forty years before. Then it was decided that this girl, having been well instructed as to what was expected of her, should be the first to see the lady when she should revive; and that after that, when it should be deemed a suitable moment, Jaqui should have an interview with her in the capacity of physician, and explain the state of affairs so that she should not be too greatly excited and shocked by the change in the appearance of her husband. Then, when everything had been made plain, Paltravi was to go to her."
"Those two were a couple of brave men," remarked the Mistress of the House.
"They were very fortunate men, I think," said her daughter. "What would I not give to be the first to talk to a woman who had slept for forty years!"
"Perhaps she is going to sleep indefinitely," answered the Mistress of the House. "But we will let John go on with his story."
"All these plans were carried out," continued John Gayther. "The next day the lady was taken out of the box, removed to her own chamber, and placed upon a couch. The garments she wore were just as fresh and well preserved as she was, and as Dr. Paltravi stood and looked at her, his heart swelling with emotion, he could see no reason why she should not imagine she had fallen asleep forty minutes before instead of forty years. The two doctors went to work, speaking seldom and in whispers, their faces pale and their hearts scarcely beating, so intense was their anxiety regarding the result of this great experiment. Jaqui was almost as much affected as Dr. Paltravi, and, in fact, his fears were greater, for he was not supported by the faith of the other. He could not help thinking of what would follow if everything did not turn out all right.
"But there was no need of anxiety. In a little while respiration was established; the heart began to beat gently; the blood slowly circulated; there was a little quiver about the lips—Donna Paltravi was alive! Her husband, on his knees beside her, lifted his eyes to heaven, and then, his head falling forward, he sank upon the floor."
"Oh," ejaculated the Daughter of the House, "I hope he did not die. That would have been good tragedy, but how dreadful!"
"No," answered the gardener, "he did not die; and Jaqui, his excitement giving him the strength of a giant, took the insensible man in his arms and carried him out of the room."
The Mistress of the House gave a little sigh of relief. "I am so glad he did," said she; "I was actually beginning to be afraid. I really do not want to be present when she first sees him."
John Gayther perfectly understood this remark, and took it to heart. It implied a little lack of faith in his dramatic powers, but it made things a great deal easier for him.
"Without reentering the room," continued he, "Jaqui partly closed the door, and gazed at the lady through a little crack."
"I do not know about that," said the Mistress of the House; "he should have gone in boldly."
"Excuse me," said John Gayther, "but I think not. This was a very important moment. Nobody knew what would happen. She must not be shocked by seeing a stranger. At the same time, the eye of a professional man was absolutely necessary. Donna Paltravi slightly moved and sighed; then she opened her eyes and gazed for a few minutes at the ceiling; after which she turned her head upon the cushion of the couch, and in a clear, soft voice called out, 'Rita!' This was the name of the girl now in waiting, as it had been the name of her mother, and she instantly appeared from the adjoining room. She had seen all that had happened, and was trembling so much she could scarcely stand; but she was a girl of nerve, and approached and stood by her mistress. 'Rita,' said the lady, without looking at her, 'I am hungry; bring me some wine and a few of those cakes you bought yesterday.'
"Dr. Paltravi had remembered everything that had pleased his wife; he had thought of the little cakes, and had scoured the town early in the morning to get some which resembled them; he knew her favorite wine, and had given Rita her instructions. Without delay the maid brought the refreshments, and in a few minutes the lady was sitting on the couch, a glass of wine in her hand. 'Rita,' said she, after eating and drinking a little, 'you are dressed very awkwardly this morning. Have you been trying to make your own clothes?'
"The doctor had searched diligently in his wife's closets for some garments belonging to her former maid, and he had thought he had succeeded in getting Rita to dress as her mother had dressed; but he did not remember these things as accurately as his wife remembered them. 'You know I do not like carelessness in dress,' continued Donna Paltravi, 'and now that I look at you more closely—'
"'She is truly alive,' said Jaqui, 'and in full possession of her senses.' And with this he closed the door.
"When the doctor recovered, both he and Jaqui were very glad to take some wine, for they had been under a dreadful strain."
"Had been!" exclaimed the Mistress of the House, who understood the heart of woman, and knew very well that the great strain had not yet come. "But what happened next, John?"
"The next thing happened too soon," replied the gardener. "In less than fifteen minutes the maid came to the two doctors and told them her lady demanded to see her husband; and if he were not in the house he must be sent for immediately. This greatly disturbed Jaqui, and he turned pale again. If he could have had his own way at that moment he would have put the lady back in her box and locked the door of the little room. He did not feel ready to tell the story he had to tell; but there was no help for it: he must do it, and that immediately. 'Go in, Jaqui,' said Dr. Paltravi; 'prepare her mind as well as you can, and then I will see her.'
"'Hurry, please, sir,' said the maid; 'she is very impatient, and I cannot explain to her.'
"Thus reassured, Jaqui followed the maid."
"The quick temper of Donna Paltravi reminds me of Edmond About's story of 'The Man with the Broken Ear,'" said the Mistress of the House. "The hero of that story was a soldier who had been preserved in a dried condition for many years, and who proved to be a very bad subject when he had been dampened and revived."
"I have read that novel," said John Gayther, considerably to the surprise of both his hearers, "and it belongs to the same class as mine,—of course you know all stories are arranged in classes,—but the one I am telling you is much more natural and true to life than the one written by the Frenchman."
"I am quite ready to believe that," said the Mistress of the House. "Now please go on."
The Daughter of the House did not say anything, but she looked very earnestly at the gardener; the conviction was forcing itself upon her that John Gayther himself had a story, and she hoped that some day she might hear it.
"Jaqui was very much surprised when he saw Donna Paltravi. He had seen her face so often that he was perfectly familiar with it, but now he found it had changed. In color it was not as lifelike as it had been in the box. She was pale, and somewhat excited. 'My maid tells me you are a doctor, sir,' said she. 'But why do you come to me? If I need a doctor, and my husband is away, why is not Dr. Torquino here?'
"'Madam,' said Jaqui, his voice faltering a little, 'you will excuse the intrusion of a stranger when I tell you that Dr. Torquino is dead.'"
"Rather abrupt," said the Mistress of the House.
"He could not help it, madam," said John Gayther; "it popped out of his head. But it did not matter; Donna Paltravi had a quick perception. 'Oh,' she exclaimed, 'and I not know it!' Then she stopped and looked steadfastly at Jaqui. 'I see,' she said slowly; 'I have been in one of my trances.' Then she grew still paler. 'But my husband, he is not dead? Tell me he is not dead!' she cried.
"'Oh, no,' exclaimed Jaqui; 'he is alive and well, and will be with you very soon.' Donna Paltravi's face lighted with an expression of great happiness; her color returned; and she looked almost as handsome as when she had been lying in the box. 'Blessed be the holy Mary!' said she. 'If he is well it does not matter what has happened. How long have I been in a trance?'
"'I cannot say exactly,' replied Jaqui, very much afraid to speak the truth; 'in fact, I was not here when you went into it: but—'
"'Oh, never mind, never mind!' she exclaimed. 'My husband will tell me everything. I would much rather he should do so. But what ugly-fashioned clothes you are wearing, sir! Does everybody dress in that way now, or is it only doctors? I am sure I must have been asleep for a good while, and that I shall see some wonderful things. It is quite delightful to think of it. I can scarcely wait until my husband comes. I want him to tell me everything.'
"When the greatly relieved Jaqui returned with this news he threw Dr. Paltravi into a state of rapture. His wife knew what had happened; she had not been shocked; she understood; and, above everything else, she longed to see him! After all these forty years he was now—this minute—to be with her again! She was longing to see him! With all the vigor of youth he bounded up the stairs.
"Now," said John Gayther, "we will pass over an interval of time."
"I think that will be very well indeed!" the Mistress of the House said approvingly.
"Not a long one, I hope," said her daughter, "for this is a breathless point in the story. I have worked it out in my own mind in three different ways already."
The gardener smiled with pleasure. He had a high regard for the mind of the Daughter of the House.
"Well," said he, "the interval is very short; it is really not more than twenty minutes. At the end of that brief space of time Jaqui was surprised to see Dr. Paltravi reenter the room he had so recently left in all the wild excitement of an expectant lover. But what a changed man he was! Pale, haggard, wild-eyed, aged, he sank into a chair and covered his face with his hands."
"I was afraid of that! I was afraid of that!" exclaimed the Mistress of the House.
"And I, too," said her daughter, with tears in her eyes; "that was one of the ways in which I worked it out. But it is too dreadful. John Gayther, don't you think you have made a mistake? If you were to consider it all carefully don't you really believe it could not be that, at least not quite that?"
"I am sorry," said the gardener, "but I am sure this story could not have happened in any other way, and I think if you will wait until it is finished you will agree with me.
"For a few minutes the distressed husband could not speak, and then in faltering tones he told Jaqui what had happened. His wife had been so shocked and horrified at his appearance that she had come near fainting. What made it worse was that it was evident she did not regard him as some strange old man. She had recognized him instantly. His form, his features, his carriage were perfectly familiar to her. She had known them all in her young dark-haired husband of forty years before; and here was that same husband gray-headed, gray-bearded, and repulsively old! She had turned away her head; she would not look at him. As soon as she could speak she had demanded to know how long she had been in her trance, and when the matter was explained her anger was unbounded.
"Dr. Paltravi never told Jaqui all that she said, but she must have used very severe language. She declared he had used her shamefully and wickedly in keeping her asleep for so long, and then wakening her to be the wife of a miserable old man just ready to totter into the grave. But she would not be his wife. She vowed she would have nothing to do with him. He had deserted her; he had treated her cruelly; and the holy father, the Pope, would look upon it in that light, and would separate her from him. With bitter reproaches she had told him to go away, and never to let her see him again."
"She ought to have been ashamed of herself," said the Daughter of the House. "I have no sympathy with her. Instead of upbraiding him she ought to have been grateful to him for the wonderful opportunities he had given her."
"But, John," said the Mistress of the House, "I do not believe the Pope could have separated them. The Roman Catholic Church does not sanction divorce."
"Not as a rule, madam," replied the gardener; "but I will touch on this point again. There was a good deal to be said on her side, it is true; but I am not going to take sides with any of the persons in my story. She had driven away the poor doctor, and declared she would have nothing to do with him; and so the unhappy man told Jaqui he was going back to Milan, where he had been living, and would trouble his wife no more. Then up jumped Jaqui in a terrible state of mind. Was he never to get rid of this lady? He declared to Paltravi he could not accept the responsibility. When she had been in the box it had been bad enough, but now it was impossible. He would go away to some place unknown. He would depart utterly and leave everything behind him.
"But on his knees Dr. Paltravi implored Jaqui to stay where he was, and to protect his wife for a time at least. He would send money, he would do everything he could, and perhaps, after a time, some arrangement could be made; but now he must go. He had been ordered to leave, and he must do so. It had not been two days since Paltravi and Jaqui had met, but already it seemed to them that they were old friends. Strange circumstances had bound them together, and Jaqui now found he could not refuse the charge which was thrust upon him; and Dr. Paltravi departed.
"Donna Paltravi did not allow her anger to deprive her of her opportunities. There were so many new things she wanted to see that she set about seeing them with great earnestness and industry, and she enjoyed her new world very much indeed. The news of her revivification spread abroad rapidly, for such a thing could not be concealed; and many people came to see her. She was beautiful and popular, and adopted new fashions as soon as she learned them. Jaqui had nothing to say to all this; he had no right now to keep people from seeing her.
"Very soon there came to her the fool-poet. Now Jaqui began to hope. He had been assured by his priest that, under the circumstances, the church would dissolve this young lady's marriage with Paltravi, and if Florino would marry her Jaqui might look forward to a peaceful life. Now whether the priest had a right to say this I will not take it on myself to say; but he did say it: and so Jaqui did not feel called upon to interfere with the courtship of the fool-poet. He decided that as soon as possible he would go away from that house. He had a dislike for houses with three floors, and his next habitation should be carefully selected; if so much as a preserved bug or a butterfly in a box should be found on the premises, that symbol of evil should be burned and its ashes scattered afar.
"Jaqui had every reason to hope. Florino literally threw himself at the feet of the fair Donna Paltravi; and she was delighted with him. He was somewhat younger than she was, but that had been the case with her first lover, and she had not objected. The two young people got on famously together, although there was now a duenna as well as a maid on the second floor. Jaqui was greatly comforted. He spent a good deal of his spare time going about Florence looking for a desirable house with two floors. The courtship went on merrily, and there was talk of the wedding; and, while Jaqui could not help pitying the poor old man in Milan, he could not altogether blame the gay young woman in Florence, who was now generally looked upon as a lady who had lost her husband.
"It was nearly three weeks after the lady had come out of her box when a strange thing happened: four days elapsed without Florino coming to the house! Jaqui was greatly disturbed and nervous. Suppose the young man had found some other lady to love, or suppose his parents had shut him up! Such suspicions were very disquieting, and Jaqui went to see Florino. He found the fool-poet in a fit of the doleful dumps. At first the young man refused to talk: but, when Jaqui pressed him, he admitted that he had not quarrelled with the lady; that she did not know why he was staying away; that he had received several notes from her, and that he had not answered them. Then Jaqui grew very angry and half drew his sword. This was a matter in which he was concerned. The lady's husband had placed her in his charge, and he would not stand tamely by and see her deserted by her lover, who had given everybody reason to believe that he intended to make her his own.
"But Jaqui put back his sword, for the fool-poet showed no signs of fight, and then he used argument. Just as earnestly as he had formerly tried to keep these two apart did he now endeavor to bring them together. But Florino would listen to no reason, and at last, when driven to bay, he declared he would not marry an old woman—that Donna Paltravi had dozens of gray hairs on each temple, and there were several wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. He was a young man, and wanted a young woman for his wife.
"Jaqui was utterly astounded by what he heard. His mind was suddenly permeated by a conviction which rendered him speechless. He rose, and without another word he hurried home. As soon as he could he made a visit to Donna Paltravi. He had not seen her for a week or more, and the moment his eyes fell upon her he saw that Florino was right. She was growing old! He spent some time with her, but as she did not allude to any change in herself, of course he did not; but just as he was leaving he made a casual remark about Florino. 'Oh, he has not been here for some time,' said the lady. 'I missed him at first, but now I am glad he does not come. He is very frivolous, and I have a small opinion of his poetry. I think most of it is copied, and he shows poor judgment in his selections.'
"That evening, sitting in his private room, Jaqui thought he saw through everything. Up-stairs on the second floor was a lady who was actually seventy-one years old! Her natural development had been arrested by artificial influences, but as these influences had ceased to operate, there could be no reason to doubt that nature was resuming her authority over the lady, and that she was doing her best to make up for lost time. Donna Paltravi appeared now to be about forty-five years old."
"This is getting to be very curious, John," said the Mistress of the House. "I have often heard of bodies which, on being exhumed, after they have been buried a long time, presented a perfectly natural appearance, but which crumbled into dust when exposed to the air and the light. Would not this lady's apparent youth have crumbled into dust all at once when it was exposed to light and air?"
"I cannot say, madam," said the gardener, respectfully, "what might have happened in other cases, but in this instance the life of youth remained for a good while, and when it did begin to depart the change was gradual."
"You forget, mamma," said the younger lady, "that this is real life, and that it is a story with one thing coming after another, like steps."
"I did forget," said the other, "and I beg your pardon, John."
The gardener bowed his head a little, and went on: "Jaqui was greatly interested in this new development. He made frequent visits to Donna Paltravi, and found, to his surprise, that she was not the vain and frivolous woman he had supposed her to be, but was, in reality, very sensible and intelligent. She talked very well about many things, and even took an interest in science. Jaqui lost all desire to put her back in her box, and spent the greater part of his leisure time in her company."
At this the Mistress of the House smiled, but her daughter frowned.
"Of course," continued the gardener, "he soon fell in love with her."
"Which was natural enough," said the Mistress of the House.
"Whether it was natural enough or not," cried her daughter, "it was not right."
John Gayther looked upon her with pride. He knew that in her fair young mind that which ought to be rose high above thoughts of what was likely to be, which came into the more experienced mind of her mother.
"But you see, miss," said John Gayther, "Jaqui was human. Here was a lady very near his own age, still beautiful, very intelligent, living in the same house with him, glad to see him whenever he chose to visit her. It was all as clear as daylight, and it was not long before he was in such a state of mind that he would have fallen upon Florino with a drawn sword if the fool-poet had dared to renew his addresses to Donna Paltravi."
"I must say," remarked the Mistress of the House, "that although his action was natural enough, he was in great danger of becoming a prose-fool."
"You are right, madam," said the gardener, "and Jaqui had some ideas of that kind himself. But it was of no use. She was an uncommonly attractive lady now that her mind came to the aid of her body. He knew that nature was still working hard to make this blooming middle-aged lady look like the old woman she really was. But love is a powerful antidote to reason, and this was the first time Jaqui had ever been in love. When he thought of it at all, he persuaded himself that it did not matter how old this lady might come to be; he would love her all the same. In fact, he was sure that if she were to turn young again and become frivolous and beautiful, his love would not change. It was getting stronger and stronger every time he saw her."
"What I am thinking about," exclaimed the Daughter of the House, "is that poor old gentleman in Milan. No matter what the others were doing, or what they were thinking, they were treating him shamefully, and Jaqui was not his friend at all."
"You may be right," said her mother; "but, don't you see, this is real life. You must not forget that, my dear."
John Gayther smiled and went on, and the young lady listened, although she did not approve. "Jaqui was a handsome man, and could make himself very agreeable; and it is not surprising that Donna Paltravi became very much attached to him. He could not fail to see this, and as he was a man of method, he declared to himself one day that upon the next day, at the first moment he could find the lady alone, he would propose marriage to her. He had ceased to think about increase in age and all that. He was perfectly satisfied with her as she was, and he troubled his mind about nothing else.
"But early the next day, before he had a chance to carry out his plans, he received a letter from Dr. Paltravi urging him to come immediately to Milan. The poor gentleman was sick in his bed, and greatly longed to see his friend Jaqui. The letter concluded with the earnest request that Jaqui should not tell Donna Paltravi where he was going, or that he had heard from the unfortunate writer. Jaqui set off at once, for fear he should not find his friend alive, and on the way his emotions were extremely conflicting."
"And very wicked, I have no doubt," said the Daughter of the House. "He hoped that old man would die."
"There is some truth in what you say, miss," answered John Gayther, with a proud glance at the Mistress of the House, who was not ashamed to return it, "for Jaqui could not help thinking that if old Dr. Paltravi, who could not expect any further happiness in this life, and who must die before very long anyhow, owing to his age and misfortunes, should choose to leave the world at this time, it would not only be a good thing for him, but it would make matters a great deal easier for some people he would leave behind him. In real life you cannot help such thoughts as this, miss, unless you are very, very good, far above the average.
"Jaqui found the old doctor very sick indeed, and he immediately set about doing everything he could to make him feel better; but Dr. Paltravi did not care anything about medical treatment. It was not for that he had sent for Jaqui. What he desired was to make arrangements for the future of Donna Paltravi, and he wanted Jaqui to carry out his wishes. In the first place, he asked him to take charge of the lady's fortune and administer it to her advantage; and secondly, he desired that he would marry her. 'If I die knowing that the dear woman who was once my wife is to marry you,' said the sick man, 'and thus be protected and cared for, I shall leave this world grateful and happy. I can never do anything for her myself; but if you will take my place, my friend,—and I am sure Donna Paltravi will easily learn to like you,—that will be the next best thing. Now will you promise me?' Jaqui knelt by the side of the bed, took his friend's hand, and promised. There were tears in his eyes, but whether they were tears of joy or of sorrow it is not for me to say."
"It is for me, though," said the Daughter of the House, very severely. "I know that man thoroughly."
The gardener went on with his story: "Jaqui remained several days with Dr. Paltravi, but he could not do his poor friend any good. The sick man was nervous and anxious; he was afraid that some one else might get ahead of Jaqui and marry Donna Paltravi; and he urged his friend not to stay with him, where he could be of no service, but to go back to Florence and prepare to marry Donna Paltravi when she should become a widow. As Jaqui was also getting nervous, being possessed of the same fears, he at last consented to carry out the old doctor's wishes,—and his own at the same time,—and he returned to Florence.
"In the meantime Donna Paltravi had been somewhat anxious about Jaqui. She had conceived a high regard for him, and she could think of no satisfactory reason why he should go away without saying anything to her, and stay away without writing. She hoped nothing had occurred which would interfere with the very agreeable sentiments which appeared to be springing up between them. This disturbed state of mind was very bad for a lady in the physical condition of Donna Paltravi. If I may use the simile of a clock in connection with her apparent age, I should say that worrying conjecture, had caused some cogs to slip, and that the clock of her age had struck a good many years since Jaqui's absence.
"When he met her she greeted him warmly, plainly delighted to see him; but for a moment he was startled. This lady was really very much older than when he had left her; her hair was nearly gray."
"Served him right!" said the Daughter of the House.
"But when he began to talk to her," continued John Gayther, "his former feelings for her returned. She was charming, and he forgot about her hair. Her conversation greatly interested him; and now that his conscience came to the assistance of his affection (for he was doing exactly what Dr. Paltravi desired him to do), he was quite happy and spent a pleasant evening. But in the morning, as he looked at himself in the mirror, he remembered her gray hair."
At the word "conscience" an indication of a sneer had appeared on the face of the young lady, but she did not interrupt.
"It was about a week after this that Donna Paltravi sat alone in the little room on the second floor, and Dr. Jaqui sat alone in the little room on the first floor. She was waiting for him to come to her, and he was not intending to go. He believed, with reason, that she was expecting him to propose marriage to her, and he did not intend to offer himself. He was very willing to marry a middle-aged lady, but he did not wish to espouse an old one—at least, an old one who looked her age; and that Donna Paltravi was going to look her full age in a very short time Jaqui had now no doubt whatever. Her face was beginning to show a great many wrinkles, and her hair was not only gray but white in some places. But these changes did not in the least interfere with her good looks, for in some ways she was growing more handsome and stately than she had been before; but our good friend Jaqui—"
"Not my good friend Jaqui, please," interrupted the Daughter of the House.
"Said to himself," continued John Gayther, "that he did not want a mother, but a wife. A few weeks before he would have supposed such a thing impossible, but now a certain sympathy for Florino rose in his heart. So he did not go up-stairs that evening, and the lady was very much disturbed and did not sleep well.
"In a few days Jaqui got ready to go away again, and this time he went to bid the lady good-by. She had heard he was about to take a journey, and as he greeted her he saw she had been weeping but was quite composed now. 'Farewell, my friend,' said she. 'I know what is happening to me, and I know what is happening to you. It will be well for you to stay away for a time, and when you return you will see that we are to be very good friends, greatly interested in the progress of science and civilization.' Then she smiled and shook hands with him.
"Jaqui went to Rome and to Naples, wandering about in an objectless sort of way. He dreaded to go to Milan, because he had not heard that Dr. Paltravi was dead, and it would have been very hard for him to have to explain to the sick man why he had decided not to carry out his wishes. Apart from the disappointment he would feel when he heard that Donna Paltravi was not to have the kind guardianship he had planned for her, the old doctor would be grieved to the soul when he heard his wife had lost the youth he had taken from her, but which he had expected to return in full measure. What made it worse for Jaqui was that he could administer no comfort with the news. He could not sacrifice himself to please the old man; promise or no promise, this was impossible. He had not consented to marry an old lady. Again, from the very bottom of his heart, did Jaqui wish there never had been a lady in a box.
"At last, when he could put it off no longer, he went to Milan; and there he found Dr. Paltravi still alive, but very low and very much troubled because he had not heard from Jaqui. The latter soon perceived it would be utterly useless to try to deceive or in any way to mislead the old man, who, although in sad bodily condition, still preserved his acuteness of mind. Jaqui had to tell him everything, and he began with Florino and ended with himself, not omitting to tell how the lady had recognized the situation, and what she had said. Then, fearing the consequences of this revelation, he put his hand into his leathern bag to take out a bottle of cordial. But Dr. Paltravi waved away medicine, and sat up in bed.
"'Did you say,' he cried, 'she is growing old, and that you believe she will continue to do so until she appears to be the lady of threescore and ten she really is?'
"'Yes,' said Jaqui; 'that is what I said, and that is what I believe.'
"'Then, by all the holy angels,' cried Dr. Paltravi, jumping out of bed, 'she shall be my wife, and nobody else need concern himself about her.'"
"Hurrah!" cried the Daughter of the House, involuntarily springing to her feet. "I was so afraid you would not come to that."
"I was bound to come to that, miss," said John Gayther.
"And did they really marry again?" asked the Mistress of the House.
"No," was the reply; "they did not. There was no need of it. The priests assured them most emphatically that there was not the slightest need of it. And so they came together again after this long interval, which had been forty years to him, but which she had lived in forty days. If they had been together all the time they could not have loved each other more than they did now. To her eyes, so suddenly matured, there appeared a handsome, stately old gentleman seventy years of age; to his eyes, from which the visions of youth had been so suddenly removed, there appeared a beautiful, stately old lady seventy-one years of age. It was just as natural as if one of them had slept all day while the other had remained awake; it was all the same to them both in the evening.
"She soon ceased to think how cruelly she had sent him away from her, for she had been so young when she did it. And he now gave no thought to what she had done, remembering how young she was when she did it. They were as happy as though she had had all the past that rightfully belonged to her, for he had had enough for both of them."
"And Jaqui?" asked the Mistress of the House.
"Oh, Jaqui was the happiest of the three of them, happy himself, and happy in their happiness. Never again did he wish the lady in her box. He looked no further for a smaller house which should contain but two floors; he was as glad to stay where he was as they were to have him. They were three very happy people, all of them greatly interested in the progress of scientific investigation."
"And not one of them deserved to be happy," said the Daughter of the House.
"But you must remember, miss, this is a story about realities," said the gardener.
She sighed a little sigh; she knew that where realities are concerned this sort of thing generally happens.
"That is a very good story, John," said the Mistress of the House, rising from her seat; "but it seems to me that while you were talking you sometimes thought of yourself as Jaqui."
"There is something in that, madam," answered the gardener; "it may have been that during the story I sometimes did think that I myself might have been Jaqui."
"Mamma," said the Daughter of the House, as the two walked out of the garden, "don't you think that John Gayther is very intelligent?"
"I have always thought him remarkably intelligent," her mother replied. "I have noticed that gardeners generally are a thoughtful, intelligent race of men."
"I don't think it is so much the garden as because he has travelled so much," said the young lady, "and I have a strange feeling that he has a story of his own in the past. I wonder if he will ever tell it to me."
"If he has such a story," said the elder lady, "he will never tell it to you."
THIS STORY IS TOLD BY
THE MISTRESS OF THE HOUSE
AND IS CALLED
THE COT AND THE RILL
THE COT AND THE RILL
A week or so later the Daughter of the House came skipping down one of the broad paths. John Gayther stood still and looked at her, glad to see her coming, as he always was, no matter on what errand she came.
"John," she cried, before she reached him, "you are to stop work!" Then, as she came up to him, she continued: "Yes; there is to be story-telling this morning. We have told papa about it, and he is coming to what he calls the story-telling place with us, and mamma feels inspired to tell the story. So you may take that troubled look out of your face. Please put the big easy garden-chair in the shade of the summer-house. Papa does so like to be comfortable. And the view from there is so fine, you know—a beautiful land view. Papa must be tired of sea views and shore views, and here he will enjoy the mountains!"
Having delivered all this very volubly, the Daughter of the House skipped away. And as John Gayther busied himself in making the "story-telling place" attractive he felt glad that there were others besides himself who liked to tell stories. There was such a thing as overworking a mine. He was that rare thing, a story-teller who is also a good listener. Moreover, John felt very diffident about telling one of his stories before the Master of the House, who was a man prone to speak his mind. Not that John disliked the Master of the House. Far from it. He, with the family, was pleased when the Master of the House returned from a long cruise and proceeded immediately to make himself very much at home. For the Master of the House was a captain in the navy, and as hearty, bluff, and good-natured as a captain should be.
The captain had been at home some days, and had been in the garden several times, and now John Gayther was filled with admiration as he saw this fine, sturdy figure, clad all in white, approach the summer-house. With an air of supreme content this figure partly stretched itself in the big garden-chair, while the two ladies seated themselves on the bench. John Gayther stood respectfully until the Master of the House motioned to him to sit on his stool.
"Good morning, John," he cried heartily. "We've piped all hands to yarns. I have heard what you can do in this line, and we shall call upon you before long. This time you are privileged to listen. You can let somebody else cut your asparagus and dig your potatoes this morning."
"Papa," said his daughter, "it is too late for asparagus and too early for potatoes. I am afraid you forget about these things when you are at sea."
"Not at all," said her father. "On shipboard we cut our asparagus at any time of the year. The steward does it with a big knife, which he jabs through the covers of the tin cans. As for potatoes, they are always with us."
The Mistress of the House was now prepared to tell her story.
"I am going to tell my story in the first person," she began.
"There is no better person," interrupted the Master of the House.
"I do not intend to describe my hero who is to tell the story," continued his wife. "I will only say that he is moderately young and moderately handsome. Various other things about him you will find out as the story goes on. Now, then, he begins thus: I was driving my wife in a buggy in a mountainous region, and when we reached the top of a little rise in the road, Anita put her hand on my arm. 'Stop,' she said; 'look down there! That is what I like! It is a cot and a rill. You see that cot—not much of a house, to be sure, but it would do. And there, just near enough for the water to tumble over rocks and gurgle over stones to soothe one to sleep on summer nights, is the rill—not much of a rill, perhaps, but I think it could be arranged with a shovel. And then, all the rest is enchanting. I had been looking at it for some time before I spoke. There is a smooth meadow stretching away to a forest, and behind that there are hills, and in the distance you can just see the mountains. Now this is the place where I should like to live. Isn't there any way of making those horses stand still for a minute?'
"I tried my persuasive powers on the animals, and succeeded moderately. 'To live?' I asked. 'And for how long?'
"'Until about the 3d of August,' she replied. 'That will be about three weeks.'
"'You mean,' I said in surprise, 'something like this.'
"'I do not,' answered Anita. 'I mean this very spot. To find something like it would require months. What I want, as I have told you over and over again, is a real cot with a real rill, to which we can go now and live for a little while that unsophisticated life for which my soul is longing.'
"Anita and I were taking a summer outing together, and were trying to get into free nature, away from people we knew, and had been several days at a mountain hotel, and were driving about the country. My black cobs now declined to stand any longer.
"'Drive them down into the valley. There must be a road to that house,' said Anita.
"I drove on for a short distance, and soon came to a wagon-track which descended to the little house. 'Anita,' said I, 'I cannot go down that road; it is too rough and rocky, and we should break something. But why do you want to go down there, anyhow? You are not in earnest about living in such a place as that?'
"'But I am in earnest,' she answered sweetly but decisively. 'I want to stay in this region and explore it. We both of us hate hotels, and I could be very happy in a cot like that (a little arranged, perhaps) until the 3d of August, when we have to go North. But I won't ask you to go down that road, of course. Suppose we come again to-morrow with some quieter horses.'
"'I am sorry,' said I, 'but I cannot do that. Mr. Baxter comes to-morrow. You know it was planned that he should always come Tuesdays.'
"She sighed. 'I suppose everything must give way to business,' she said, 'and I shall have to wait until Wednesday. But one thing must certainly be agreed upon: when we get to that cot there must be no more Mr. Baxter; you can certainly plan for that, can't you?'
"I made no immediate reply, because I was busy turning the horses in rather an awkward place; but when we were on the smooth highway and were trotting gayly back to the hotel, I discussed the matter more fully with Anita, and I found that what she had been talking about was not a mere fancy. Before coming to this picturesque mountain region she had set her heart upon some sort of camping out in the midst of real nature, and this cot-and-rill business seemed to suit her exactly.
"'I want to go there and live,' she said; 'but I do not mean any Marie Antoinette business, with milk-pails decked with ribbons, and dainty little straw hats. I want to live in a cot like a cotter—that is, for us to live like two cotters. As for myself, I need it; my moral and physical natures demand it. I must have a change, an absolute change, and this is just what I want. I would shut out entirely the world I live in, and it is only in a real and true cot that this can be done as I want to do it.'
"She talked a great deal more on the same subject, and then I told her that if it suited her it suited me, and that on the day after to-morrow we would drive out again and examine the cot. For the rest of the day and the greater part of the evening Anita talked of nothing but her projected life in the valley; and before I went to sleep I was quite as much in love with it as she was. The next day it rained, but Mr. Baxter came all the same; weather never interfered with him."
"Who in the name of common sense is Mr. Baxter?" asked the Master of the House. "I like to know who people are when I am being told what they do."
"I had hoped," said the Mistress of the House, "that I should be able to tell my story so you would find out for yourselves all about the characters, just as in real life if you see a man working in a garden you know he is a gardener."
"But he may not be," said her husband; "he may be a coachman pulling carrots for his horses."
"But, as you wish it," continued the Mistress of the House, "I do not mind telling you that Mr. Baxter was my hero's right-hand man and business manager. And now he will go on:
"After Baxter and I had finished our business I told him about the cot, for if we carried out Anita's plan it would be necessary for him to know where we were. Then, putting on waterproof coats, we rode over to the place which had excited my wife's desire to become a cotter. We found the house small but in good order, with four rooms and an adjunct at one end. There were vines growing over it, and at the side of it a garden—a garden with an irregular hedge around two sides; it was a poor sort of a garden, mostly weeds, I thought, as I glanced at it. The stream of water was a pretty little brook, and Baxter, who rode to the head of it, said he thought it could be made much better.
"The house was the home of a widow with a grown-up daughter and a son about fifteen. We talked to them, asking a great many questions about the surrounding country, and then retired to consult. We did not consider long; in less than ten minutes I had ordered Baxter to buy the house and everything in it, if the people were willing to sell; and then to purchase as much land around it as would be necessary to carry out my plans, which I then and there imparted to him in a general way, leaving him to attend to the details."
"Your nameless hero," said the Master of the House, "must have been in very comfortable circumstances."
"I am glad to see that my story is explaining itself," remarked his wife, and she continued:
"Baxter looked serious for a moment, and said it was a big piece of work; but he did not decline it. Baxter never declined anything.
"'How much time can you give me?' he asked.
"'My wife will want to look at the place to-morrow,' I replied; 'that is, if it does not rain: for she says she does not want to see it first in bad weather.'
"'That's a help,' said Baxter. 'The Weather Bureau promises east winds and rains for to-morrow and perhaps the next day. And, anyway, I know now what you want. I will go back to town by the one-o'clock train and start things going.'
"'There is one thing I object to,' said I, when we were on the country road from which Anita had first seen the cot and the rill: 'the house is in full view from this road. Before we know it we will be making ourselves spectacles to parties from the hotel who happen to discover us and drive out to see how we are getting on.'
"Baxter reflected. 'Oh, I can arrange that,' said he. 'I know this road; it turns again into the highway not far below here. It is really a private road for the benefit of this house and two others nearly a mile farther on. I will include those places in the purchase, and close up the road. Then I will make it a private entrance to this place, with a locked gate. Will that do?'
"'Very well,' said I, laughing. 'But I suppose people could cut across the country and come in at the other end of the road if they really wanted to look into the valley?'
"'Not after I have finished the job,' said Baxter; and I asked no further questions."
"May I inquire," said the captain, "if that Mr. Baxter is in want of a position?"
"I am afraid, papa," said the Daughter of the House, "that you would have to own a navy before you could employ him."
The gardener smiled. A story built upon these lines interested him. The Mistress of the House went on without regard to the interruptions:
"I found Anita in earnest consultation with her maid Maria and the mistress of the hotel, and it was at least an hour before she could see me. When I told her I had secured the cot, or at least arranged to do so, she was pleased and grateful, especially as I had had to go out into the rain to do it. 'I knew, of course,' she said, 'that Baxter would settle that all right, and so I have been making my arrangements. But there is one favor I want you to grant me: I don't want you to ask me anything about how I am going to manage matters. I don't want to deceive you in any possible way, and so if you do not ask me any questions it will make it easier for me.'
"'Very good,' I replied; 'and I shall ask a similar favor of you.'
"'All right,' said Anita. 'And now that matter is settled.'
"The prophecies of the weather were correct. The next day, Wednesday, it rained, and it also rained on Thursday and Friday; but on Saturday it looked as if it might clear in the afternoon.
"'I am not going to-day,' said Anita. 'I have been working very hard lately, and to-morrow I will take a good rest, and we will start in on Monday.'
"Baxter was very glad of the four days of delay occasioned by the stormy weather, and said that without working on Sunday he could finish everything to his satisfaction. I went down to the cot the next day to see how he was getting on; but Anita asked me no questions, and I asked none of her. I had never known her to be so continuously occupied. As I stood with Baxter in front of the cottage, where there was a fine view of the surrounding country, I asked him how much land he had thought it desirable to purchase.
"'Over there,' he said, 'I bought just beyond that range of trees, about half a mile, I should say. But to the west a little more, just skirting the highroad. To the north I bought to the river, which is three quarters of a mile. But over there to the south I included that stretch of forest-land which extends to the foot-hills of the mountains; the line must be about a mile from here.'
"'That is a very large tract,' said I. 'How did you manage to buy it so quickly?'
"'I had nine real-estate agents here on Thursday morning,' he replied, 'and the sales were all consummated this morning. They all went to work at once, each on a separate owner. We bought for cash, and no one knew his neighbor was selling.'
"I laughed, and asked him how he was going to keep this big estate private for our use. 'We want to wander free, you know, anywhere and everywhere.'
"'That is what I thought,' said he, 'and that is why I took in such a variety of scenery. Nobody will interfere with you. There will be no inhabited house on the place except your own, and I am putting up a fence of chicken-yard wire around the whole estate. There is nothing like chicken-yard wire. It is six feet high and very difficult to climb over, and it is also troublesome to cut.'
"I exclaimed in amazement: 'That will take a long time!'
"'I have contracted to have it done by Saturday morning,' replied Baxter. 'The train with the wire fence and posts is scheduled to arrive here at eleven o'clock to-night, and work will begin immediately. Paulo Montani, the Italian boss who has worked for me before, has taken this contract, and will put twelve hundred men on.'
"'The train will arrive here?' said I. 'What do you mean?'
"'The M. B. & T. line runs within a mile and a half of this place, and my trains will all be switched off at a convenient place near here.'
"'I would not have supposed there was a side-track there,' I remarked.
"'Oh, no,' he replied, 'there was none; but I am now having two built. All the different gangs of men will sleep on the freight-cars, which have been fitted up with bunks. The wood-cutters and the landscape-men, hedgers, sodders, and all that arrived about an hour ago, and I am expecting the mechanics' train late this afternoon. The gardeners will not arrive until to-morrow; but if it keeps on raining, that will give them time enough. They want wet weather for their work.'"
"Excuse me," said the Master of the House, who had now finished his cigar and was sitting upright in his chair, "but didn't you omit to state that your hero was the King of Siam?"
"I have nothing of the kind to state," answered his wife. "He is merely an American gentleman.
"When I heard of the great works that were going on, I exclaimed: 'Look here, Baxter, you must be careful about what you are doing. If you make this place look like a vast cemetery, all laid out in smooth grass and gravelled driveways, my wife won't like it. She wants to live in a cot, and she wants everything to be cottish and naturally rural.'
"'That is just what I am going to make it,' said he. 'The highest grade of true naturalism is what I am aiming at in house and grounds. To-morrow afternoon you can look at the house. Everything will be done then, and the furniture will all be in place, and if you want any change there will be time enough.'
"The next day I went to the cot; but before I reached it I stopped. 'Baxter,' I said, 'you have done very well with this rill; it is quite a roaring little torrent.'
"'Yes,' said he; 'and down below they are working on some waterfalls, but they are not quite finished.'
"When I reached the house I did not exactly comprehend what I saw; it was the same house, and yet it was entirely different. It seemed to have grown fifty years older than it was when I first saw it. Its color was that of wood beautifully stained by age. There was a low piazza I had not noticed, which was covered with vines. Bright-colored old-fashioned flowers were growing in beds close to the house, and there was a pathway, bordered by box bushes, which led from the front door to a gateway in a stone wall which partly surrounded the green little yard. I had not noticed before the gateway or the stone wall, on which grew bitter-sweet vines and Virginia creeper.
"'Now, you see,' said Baxter, 'this grass here is not smooth green turf, fresh from the lawn-mower. It is natural grass, with wild flowers in it here and there. Nearly all of it was brought from a meadow about a mile away from here. But now step inside a minute. Everything there is of the period of 1849: horsehair, you see, lots of black walnut, color all toned down, and all the ornaments covered with netting to keep the flies off.'
"I was interested and amused; but I told Baxter I did not want to see everything now; I wished to enjoy the place with my wife when we should come to it. He was doing admirably, and I would leave everything to him. As I stood on the little portico and looked over the valley, I saw what seemed to be a regiment of men coming out of the woods and crossing a field.
"'That is the first division of the wire-fence men,' said Baxter, 'going to supper. They are divided into three sections, and one gang relieves another, so that the work is kept going all night by torchlight.'
"As I went away Baxter called my attention to the gate at the entrance of our road. It was of light iron, and it could be opened into a clump of bushes where it was not likely to be noticed. 'If this gate is locked,' said I, 'it might make trouble; it may be necessary for some one to go in or out.'
"'Oh,' said Baxter, 'I have provided for all that. You know Baldwin, who used to superintend your Lake George gardens? I have put him in charge of this gate, and have lodged him in a tent over there in the woods. He will know who to let in.'
"On Monday morning Anita rose very early, and was dressed and ready for breakfast before I woke. The day was a fine one, and her spirits were high. 'You have not the slightest idea,' she said, 'how I am going to surprise you when we get to the cot.' I told her I had no doubt her surprise would be very pleasant, and there I let the matter drop. Soon after breakfast we drove over to the cot, this time with a coachman on the box. When we arrived at the gate, which was open and out of sight, I proposed to Anita that she should send the carriage back and walk to the cot.
"'Good,' said she; 'I do not want to see a carriage for two weeks.'
"I have not time to speak of Anita's delight at everything she saw. She was amazed that plain people such as I had told her owned the house should have lived in such a simple, natural way. 'Everything exactly suits everything else,' she said. 'And it is all so cheap and plain. There is absolutely nothing that does not suit a cot.' She was wild with excitement, and ran about like a girl; and when I followed her into the garden, which I had not seen, I found her in one of the box-bordered paths, clapping her hands. The place was indeed very pretty, filled with old-fashioned flowers and herbs and hop-poles, and all sorts of country plants and blossoms.
"At last we returned to the house. 'Now, Anita,' said I, 'we are here in our little cot—'
"'Where we are going to be as happy as two kittens,' she interrupted.
"'And as I want everything to suit you,' I continued, 'I am going to leave the whole matter of the domestic arrangements in your hands. You have seen the house, and you will know what will be necessary to do. Mention what servants you want, and I will send for them.'
"'First tell me,' said Anita, 'what you did with the people who were here? You said there were three of them.'
"I could not very well answer this question, for I did not know exactly what Baxter had done with them. I was inclined to think, however, that he had sent them to the hotel until arrangements could be made for them to go somewhere else. But I was able to assure Anita that they had gone away.
"'Good,' said she. 'I have been thinking about them, and I was afraid they might find some reason or other to stay about the place, and that would interfere with my plans. And now I will tell you what servants I want. I don't want any. I am going to do the work of this house myself. Now don't open your mouth so wide. There is nothing to frighten you in what I have said. I am thirty-two years old, and although I am not very large, I am perfectly strong and healthy, and I cannot imagine anything in this world that would give me more pleasure than to live in this cot with you for two weeks, and to cook our meals and do everything that is necessary to be done. There are thousands and hundreds of thousands of women who do all that and are just as happy as they can be. That is the kind of happiness I have never had, and I want it now.'
"I sat upright in my slippery horsehair chair and spoke no word. Surely Anita had astonished me more than I could possibly astonish her! Before me sat my beautiful wife: the mistress of my great house in town, with its butlers and footmen, its maids and its men, its horses, its carriages, its grand company, and its stately hospitality; the lady of my famous country estate, with more butlers and footmen and gardeners and stewards and maids and men and stables and carriages and herds and flocks, its house-parties of distinguished guests—here was this wife of mine, so well known in so many fashionable centres; a social star at home and abroad; a delicately reared being, always surrounded by servitors of every grade, who had never found it necessary to stoop to pick up so much as a handkerchief or a rosebud; and here was this superfine lady of high degree, who had just announced to me that she intended to cook our meals, to pare our potatoes, to wash our dishes, and, probably, to sweep our floors. No wonder I opened my mouth.
"'I hope, now,' said Anita, putting her feet out in front of her to keep herself from slipping off the horsehair sofa, 'that you thoroughly understand. I do not want any assistance while we are in this cot. I have sent away Maria, who has gone to visit her parents, and no woman in service is to come on this place while I am here. I have been studying hard with Mrs. Parker at the hotel, who seems to be an excellent housekeeper and accustomed to homely fare, and I have learned how to make and to cook a great many things which are simple and nutritious; I have had appropriate dresses made, and Maria has gone to town and bought me a great variety of household linen, all good and plain, for our damask table-cloths would look perfectly ridiculous here. I have also laid in a great many other things which you will see from time to time.'"
"What a wonderful moment this would have been for a great slump in stocks!" remarked the Master of the House. "Everything swept away but the cot and the rill and the dear little wife with her coarse linen and her determination to keep no servant. The husband of your Anita would have been the luckiest fellow on Wall Street. If I were working on this story I would have the blackest of Black Fridays just here."
"'Now, Harold,' said Anita, 'I do not in the least intend to impose upon you. Because I choose to work is no reason why you should be compelled to do so.'
"'I am glad to hear that,' said I.
"'I knew you would be,' continued Anita. 'But of course neither of us will want very much done for us if we live a cotter's life with these simple surroundings, and so I think one man will be quite enough to do for you all you will want done. But of course if you think it necessary to have two I shall not object.'
"'One will be enough,' said I, 'and I will see about sending for him this afternoon.'
"'I am so glad,' said Anita, 'that you have not got him now, for we can have our first meal in the cot all by ourselves. I'll run up-stairs and dress, and then I will come down and do my first cooking.'
"In a very short time Anita appeared in a neat dress of coarse blue stuff, a little short in the skirts, with a white apron over it.
"'Come, now,' said she, gayly, 'let us go into the kitchen and see what we shall have for dinner. Shall it be dinner or lunch? Cotters dine about noon.'
"'Oh, make it lunch,' said I. 'I am hungry, and I do not want to wait to get up a dinner.' Anita agreed to this, and we went to work to take the lid off a hamper which she told me had been packed by Mrs. Parker and contained everything we should want for several days.
"'Besides,' she said, 'that widow woman has left no end of things, all in boxes and cans, labelled. She must have been a very thrifty person, and it was an excellent piece of business to buy the house just as it stood, with everything in it.'
"Anita found it difficult to make a choice of what she should cook for luncheon. 'Suppose we have some tea?'
"'Very good,' said I, for I knew that was easy to make.
"'Then,' said she, on her knees beside the hamper, with her forefinger against her lips, 'suppose—suppose we have some croquettes. I know how to make some very plain and simple croquettes out of—'
"'Oh, don't let us do that,' said I; 'they will take too long, and I am hungry.'
"'Very well, then,' said Anita. 'Let us have some boiled eggs; they are quick.'
"I agreed to this.
"'The next thing,' said Anita, 'is bread and butter. Would you like some hot soda-biscuit?'
"'No,' said I; 'you would have to make some dough and find the soda, and—isn't there anything ready baked?'
"'Oh, yes,' she answered; 'we have Albert biscuit and—'
"'Albert biscuit will do,' I interrupted.
"'Now,' said she, 'we will soon have our first meal in the cot.'
"'This is a very unassuming lunch,' she said, when we were at last seated at the table, 'but I am going to give you a nice dinner. If you want more than three eggs I will cook you some in a few minutes. I put another stick of wood in the fire so as to keep the water hot.'
"I was in considerable doubt as to what sort of man it would be best for us to have. I would have been very glad to have my special valet, because he was an extremely handy man in many ways; but I thought it better to consider a little before sending for him: he might be incongruous. I had plenty of time to consider, for Anita occupied nearly the whole afternoon in getting up our dinner. She was very enthusiastic about it, and did not want me to help her at all, except to make a fire in the stove. After that, she said, everything would be easy. The wood was all in small pieces and piled up conveniently near. As I glanced around the kitchen I saw that Baxter had had this little room fitted up with every possible culinary requirement.
"We had dinner a little before eight. Anita sat down, hot, red, but radiant with happiness.
"'Now, then,' said she, 'you will find I have prepared for you a high-grade cotter's dinner; by which I mean that it is a meal which all farmers or country people might have every day if they only knew enough, or were willing to learn. I have looked over several books on the subject, and Mrs. Parker told me a great deal. Maria told me a great many things also. They were both poor in early life, and knew what they were talking about. First we will have soup—a plain vegetable soup. I went into the garden and picked the vegetables myself.'
"'I wish you had asked me to do that,' said I.
"'Oh, no,' she answered; 'I do not intend to be inferior to any countrywoman. Then there is roast chicken. After that a lettuce salad with mayonnaise dressing; I do not believe cotters have mayonnaise dressing, nor shall we every day; but this is an exceptional meal. For the next course I have made a pie, and then we shall have black coffee. If you want wine you can get a bottle from the wine-hamper; but I shall not take any: I intend to live consistently through the whole of this experience.'
"There was something a little odd about the soup: it tasted as if a variety of vegetables had been washed in it and then the vegetables thrown away. I removed the soup-plates while Anita went out to get the next course. When she put the dish on the table she said something had given way while the fowl was cooking, and it had immediately stuck its legs high in the air. 'It looks funny,' she remarked, 'but in carving you can cut the legs off first.'
"I found one side of the fowl much better cooked than the other,—in fact, I should have called it kiln-dried,—and the other side had certainly been warmed. The mayonnaise was very peculiar and made me think of the probable necessity of filling the lamps, and I hoped Baxter had had this attended to. The pie was made of gooseberry jam, the easiest pie in the world to make, Anita told me. 'You take the jam just as it is, and put it between two layers of dough, and then bake it.' The coffee was very like black writing-ink, and, having been made for a long time, was barely tepid.
"Strange as it may appear, however, I ate a hearty dinner. I was very hungry.
"'Now,' said Anita, as she folded her napkin, 'I do not believe you have enjoyed this dinner half as much as I enjoyed the cooking of it, and I am not going to wash up anything, for I will not deprive myself of the pleasure of sitting with you while you smoke your after-dinner cigar on the front porch. These dishes will not be wanted until to-morrow, and if you will take hold of one end of the table we will set it against the wall. There is a smaller table which will do for our breakfast.'
"I drank several glasses of wine as I smoked, but I did not feel any better. If I had known what was going to happen I should have preferred to go hungry. I did not tell Anita I was not feeling well, for that would have made her suffer in mind more than I was suffering in body; but when I had finished my smoke, and she had gone into the house to light the parlor lamp, I hurried over to the barn, where Baxter had had a telephone put up, and I called him up in town, and told him to send me a chef who could hoe and dig a little in the garden.
"'I thought you would want a man of that kind,' Baxter telephoned. 'Will Isadore do? He is at your town house now, and can leave by the ten-o'clock train.'
"I knew Isadore. He was the second chef in my town house, a man of much experience, and good-natured. I told Baxter to make him understand what sort of place he was coming to, and to send him on without delay.
"'Do you want him to live in the house?' asked Baxter. And I replied that I did not.
"'Very good,' said he; 'I will have a tent put up for him near Baldwin's.'
"When I went to the house I told Anita I had engaged a man.
"'I am glad,' said she; 'but I have just thought of something: I cannot possibly cook for a man.'
"'Oh, you won't have to do that,' I answered. 'He will live near here, just the other side of the road.'
"'That will do very well,' said she. 'I do not mind being your servant, Harold, but I cannot be a servant's servant.'"
"Do you know," said the Master of the House, "as this story goes on I feel poorer and poorer every minute—I suppose by comparison. In fact, I do not know that I can afford to light another cigar. But one thought comforts me," he continued: "if I had been living in that cot with my wife I would not have had the stomach-ache; so that balances things somewhat."
The lady smiled.
"The next morning a little after eight o'clock I came down to open the house, and there, standing by the porch, hat in hand, I saw Isadore. He was a middle-aged man, large and solid, with very flat feet and a smoothly shaven face, twinkling eyes, and a benevolent smile. I was very glad to see him, especially before breakfast. I took him away from the house, so that Anita might not overhear our conversation, and then I laid the whole case before him. He was an Alsatian, but his English was perfectly easy to understand.
"'I know precisely what it is that is wanted,' said he, 'and Mr. Baxter has made the arrangements with me. It is that madame shall not suppose anything, but that what she wishes to be done shall be done.'
"'That is the idea,' said I. 'Don't interfere with her, but have everything done all right.'
"'And I am to be man of all work. I like that. You shall see that I am charmed. Now I will go and change my clothes.' And this well-dressed man turned away toward Baldwin's tent.
"When Anita came down the servant I had engaged was at the kitchen door waiting for orders. He was a plainly dressed man, his whole appearance neat but humble. 'He looks like a foreigner,' said Anita.
"'You are right,' I replied; 'he is an Alsatian.'
"'And his name?'
"I was about to tell her Isadore, but I stopped myself. It was barely possible that she might have heard the name of the man who for two years had composed the peculiar and delicious ices of which she was so fond; she might even have seen him, and the name might call up some recollection. 'Did you say your name was Isaac?' I called out to the man.
"'Yes, sir,' he answered; 'it is that. I am Isaac.'
"'I am going to get breakfast,' said Anita. 'Do you suppose he can build a fire?'
"'Oh, yes,' I replied; 'that is what he is engaged for—to be the man of all work.'
"Prompted by curiosity, I shortly afterwards looked in at the kitchen door. 'While you prepare the table, madame,' the man of all work was saying, 'shall I arrange the coffee for the hot water?'
"'Do you know how to do it?' she asked.
"'Oh, yes, madame,' the good Isaac replied. 'In a little hut in Alsace, where I was born, I was obliged to learn to do all things. My father and my mother had no daughter, and I had to be their daughter as well as their son. I learn to cook the simple food. I milk the cow, I rub the horse, I dig in the garden, I pick the berries in the woods.' As he talked Isaac was not idle; he was busy with the coffee.
"'That is very interesting,' said Anita to me; 'where there are no daughters among the poor the sons must learn a great deal.'
"I remained at the kitchen door to see what would happen next. There was a piece of dough upon a floury board, and when Anita went to lay the table the Alsatian fairly flew upon the dough. It was astonishing to see with what rapidity he manipulated it. When Anita came back she took the dough and divided it into four portions. 'There will be two rolls apiece for us,' she said. 'And now, Isaac, will you put them into the stove? The back part is where we bake things. We are going to have some lamb chops and an omelet,' she said to me as she approached the hamper.
"'Ah, madame,' cried the Alsatian, 'allow me to lift the chops. The raw meat will make your fingers smell.'
"'That is true,' said Anita; 'you may take them out.' And then she went back to the dining-room.
"Isaac knelt by the hamper. Then he lifted his eyes to the skies and involuntarily exclaimed: 'Oh, tonnerre! They were not put by the ice.' And he gave a melancholy sniff. 'But they will be all right,' he said, turning to me. 'Have trust.' The man of all work handled the chops, and offered to beat the omelet; but Anita would not let him do this: she made it herself, a book open beside her as she did so. Then she told Isaac to put it on the stove, and asked if I were ready for breakfast. As she turned to leave the room I saw her assistant whip her omelet off the stove and slip on it another one. When or where he had made it I had no idea; it must have been while she was looking for the sugar.
"'A most excellent breakfast,' said I, when the meal was over; and I spoke the exact truth.
"'Yes,' said Anita; 'but I think I shall do better after I have had more practice. I wonder if that man really can wash dishes.' On being questioned, Isaac declared that in the humble cot in which he was born he had been obliged to wash dishes; there were no daughters, and his mother was infirm.
"'That is good; and if any of the plates need a little rubbing up afterwards I can do them,' said Anita. 'Now we will take a walk over the place, which we have not done yet.'