Miss Corona pushed her way into the cherry-tree copse, and followed a tiny, overgrown path to a sunshiny corner beyond. She had not been there since last summer; the little path was getting almost impassable. When she emerged from the cherry trees, somewhat rumpled and pulled about in hair and attire, but attended, as if by a benediction, by the aromatic breath of the mint she had trodden on, she gave a little cry and stood quite still, gazing at the rosebush that grew in the corner. It was so large and woody that it seemed more like a tree than a bush, and it was snowed over with a splendour of large, pure white roses.
"Dear life," whispered Miss Corona tremulously, as she tiptoed towards it. "The bride roses have bloomed again! How very strange! Why, there has not been a rose on that tree for twenty years."
The rosebush had been planted there by Corona's great-grandmother, the lady of the green and yellow bowl. It was a new variety, brought out from Scotland by Mary Gordon, and it bore large white roses which three generations of Gordon brides had worn on their wedding day. It had come to be a family tradition among the Gordons that no luck would attend the bride who did not carry a white rose from Mary Gordon's rose-tree.
Long years ago the tree had given up blooming, nor could all the pruning and care given it coax a single blossom from it. Miss Corona, tinctured with the superstition apt to wait on a lonely womanhood, believed in her heart that the rosebush had a secret sympathy with the fortunes of the Gordon women. She, the last of them on the old homestead, would never need the bride roses. Wherefore, then, should the old tree bloom? And now, after all these years, it had flung all its long-hoarded sweetness into blossom again. Miss Corona thrilled at the thought. The rosebush had bloomed again for a Gordon bride, but Miss Corona was sure there was another meaning in it too; she believed it foretokened some change in her own life, some rejuvenescence of love and beauty like to that of the ancient rose-tree. She bent over its foam of loveliness almost reverently.
"They have bloomed for Juliet's wedding," she murmured. "A Gordon bride must wear the bride roses, indeed she must. And this—why, it is almost a miracle."
She ran, light-footedly as a girl, to the house for scissors and a basket. She would send Juliet Gordon the bride roses. Her cheeks were pink from excitement as she snipped them off. How lovely they were! How very large and fragrant! It was as if all the grace and perfume and beauty and glory of those twenty lost summers were found here at once in them. When Miss Corona had them ready, she went to the door and called, "Charlotte! Charlotte!"
Now Charlotta, having atoned to her conscience for the destruction of the green and yellow bowl by faithfully weeding the garden, a task which she hated above all else, was singing a hymn among the sweet peas, and her red braids were over her shoulders. This ought to have warned Miss Corona, but Miss Corona was thinking of other things, and kept on calling patiently, while Charlotta weeded away for dear life, and seemed smitten with treble deafness.
After a time Miss Corona remembered and sighed. She did hate to call the child that foolish name with its foreign sound. Just as if plain "Charlotte" were not good enough for her, and much more suitable to "Smith" too! Ordinarily Miss Corona would not have given in. But the case was urgent; she could not stand upon her dignity just now.
"Charlotta!" she called entreatingly.
Instantly Charlotta flew to the garden gate and raced up to the door.
"Yes'm," she said meekly. "You want me, Miss C'rona?"
"Take this box down to Miss Juliet Gordon, and ask that it be given to her at once," said Miss Corona, "Don't loiter, Charlotta. Don't stop to pick gum in the grove, or eat sours in the dike, or poke sticks through the bridge, or—"
But Charlotta had gone.
* * * * *
Down in the valley, the other Gordon house was in a hum of excitement. Upstairs Juliet had gone to her invalid mother's room to show herself in her wedding dress to the pale little lady lying on the sofa. She was a tall, stately young girl with the dark grey Gordon eyes and the pure creaminess of colouring, flawless as a lily petal. Her face was a very sweet one, and the simple white dress she wore became her dainty, flowerlike beauty as nothing elaborate could have done.
"I'm not going to put on my veil until the last moment," she said laughingly. "I would feel married right away if I did. And oh, Mother dear, isn't it too bad? My roses haven't come. Father is back from the station, and they were not there. I am so disappointed. Romney ordered pure white roses because I said a Gordon bride must carry nothing else. Come in"—as a knock sounded at the door.
Laura Burton, Juliet's cousin and bridesmaid, entered with a box.
"Juliet dear, the funniest little red-headed girl with the most enormous freckles has just brought this for you. I haven't an idea where she came from; she looked like a messenger from pixy-land."
Juliet opened the box and gave a cry.
"Oh, Mother, look—look! What perfect roses! Who could have sent them? Oh, here's a note from—from—why, Mother, it's from Cousin Corona."
"My dear child," ran the letter in Miss Corona's fine, old-fashioned script. "I am sending you the Gordon bride roses. The rose-tree has bloomed for the first time in twenty years, my dear, and it must surely be in honour of your wedding day. I hope you will wear them for, although I have never known you, I love you very much. I was once a dear friend of your father's. Tell him to let you wear the roses I send for old times' sake. I wish you every happiness, my dear.
"Your affectionate cousin, "Corona Gordon."
"Oh, how sweet and lovely of her!" said Juliet gently, as she laid the letter down. "And to think she was not even invited! I wanted to send her an invitation, but Father said it would be better not to—she was so hard and bitter against us that she would probably regard it as an insult."
"He must have been mistaken about her attitude," said Mrs. Gordon. "It certainly is a great pity she was not invited, but it is too late now. An invitation sent two hours before the ceremony would be an insult indeed."
"Not if the bride herself took it!" exclaimed Juliet impulsively. "I'll go myself to Cousin Corona, and ask her to come to my wedding."
"Go yourself! Child, you can't do such a thing! In that dress...."
"Go I must, Momsie. Why, it's only a three minutes' walk. I'll go up the hill by the old field-path, and no one will see me. Oh, don't say a word—there, I'm gone!"
"That child!" sighed the mother protestingly, as she heard Juliet's flying feet on the stairs. "What a thing for a bride to do!"
Juliet, with her white silken skirts caught up above grasses and dust, ran light-footedly through the green lowland fields and up the hill, treading for the first time the faint old field-path between the two homes, so long disused that it was now barely visible in its fringing grasses and star-dust of buttercups. Where it ran into the spruce grove was a tiny gate which Miss Corona had always kept in good repair, albeit it was never used. Juliet pushed up the rusty hasp and ran through.
Miss Corona was sitting alone in her shadowy parlour, hanging over a few of the bride roses with falling tears, when something tall and beautiful and white, came in like a blessing and knelt by her chair.
"Cousin Corona," said a somewhat breathless bride, "I have come to thank you for your roses and ask you to forgive us all for the old quarrel."
"Dear child," said Miss Corona out of her amazement, "there is nothing to forgive. I've loved you all and longed for you. Dear child, you have brought me great happiness."
"And you must come to my wedding," cried Juliet. "Oh, you must—or I shall think you have not really forgiven us. You would never refuse the request of a bride, Cousin Corona. We are queens on our wedding day, you know."
"Oh, it's not that, dear child—but I'm not dressed—I—"
"I'll help you dress. And I won't go back without you. The guests and the minister must wait if necessary—yes, even Romney must wait. Oh, I want you to meet Romney. Come, dear."
And Miss Corona went. Charlotta and the bride got her into her grey silk and did her hair, and in a very short time she and Juliet were hurrying down the old field-path. In the hollow Meredith Gordon met them.
"Cousin Meredith," said Miss Corona tremulously.
He took both her hands in his, and kissed her heartily. "Forgive me for misunderstanding you so long. I thought you hated us all."
Turning to Juliet, he said with a fatherly smile,
"What a terrible girl it is for having its own way! Who ever heard of a Gordon bride doing such an unconventional thing? There, scamper off to the house before your guests come. Laura has made your roses up into what she calls 'a dream of a bouquet,' I'll take Cousin Corona up more leisurely."
"Oh, I knew that something beautiful was going to happen when the old rose-tree bloomed," murmured Miss Corona happily.
The Josephs' Christmas
The month before Christmas was always the most exciting and mysterious time in the Joseph household. Such scheming and planning, such putting of curly heads together in corners, such counting of small hoards, such hiding and smuggling of things out of sight, as went on among the little Josephs!
There were a good many of them, and very few of the pennies; hence the reason for so much contriving and consulting. From fourteen-year-old Mollie down to four-year-old Lennie there were eight small Josephs in all in the little log house on the prairie; so that when each little Joseph wanted to give a Christmas box to each of the other little Josephs, and something to Father and Mother Joseph besides, it is no wonder that they had to cudgel their small brains for ways and means thereof.
Father and Mother were always discreetly blind and silent through December. No questions were asked no matter what queer things were done. Many secret trips to the little store at the railway station two miles away were ignored, and no little Joseph was called to account because he or she looked terribly guilty when somebody suddenly came into the room. The air was simply charged with secrets.
Sister Mollie was the grand repository of these; all the little Josephs came to her for advice and assistance. It was Mollie who for troubled small brothers and sisters did such sums in division as this: How can I get a ten-cent present for Emmy and a fifteen-cent one for Jimmy out of eighteen cents? Or, how can seven sticks of candy be divided among eight people so that each shall have one? It was Mollie who advised regarding the purchase of ribbon and crepe paper. It was Mollie who put the finishing touches to most of the little gifts. In short, all through December Mollie was weighed down under an avalanche of responsibility. It speaks volumes for her sagacity and skill that she never got things mixed up or made any such terrible mistake as letting one little Joseph find out what another was going to give him. "Dead" secrecy was the keystone of all plans and confidences.
During this particular December the planning and contriving had been more difficult and the results less satisfactory than usual. The Josephs were poor at any time, but this winter they were poorer than ever. The crops had failed in the summer, and as a consequence the family were, as Jimmy said, "on short commons." But they made the brave best of their small resources, and on Christmas Eve every little Joseph went to bed with a clear conscience, for was there not on the corner table in the kitchen a small mountain of tiny—sometimes very tiny—gifts labelled with the names of recipients and givers, and worth their weight in gold if love and good wishes count for anything?
It was beginning to snow when the small small Josephs went to bed, and when the big small Josephs climbed the stairs it was snowing thickly. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph sat before the fire and listened to the wind howling about the house.
"I'm glad I'm not driving over the prairie tonight," said Mr. Joseph. "It's quite a storm. I hope it will be fine tomorrow, for the children's sake. They've set their hearts on having a sleigh ride, and it will be too bad if they can't have it when it's about all the Christmas they'll have this year. Mary, this is the first Christmas since we came west that we couldn't afford some little extras for them, even if 'twas only a box of nuts and candy."
Mrs. Joseph sighed over Jimmy's worn jacket which she was mending. Then she smiled.
"Never mind, John. Things will be better next Christmas, we'll hope. The children will not mind, bless their hearts. Look at all the little knick-knacks they've made for each other. Last week when I was over at Taunton, Mr. Fisher had his store all gayified up,' as Jim says, with Christmas presents. I did feel that I'd ask nothing better than to go in and buy all the lovely things I wanted, just for once, and give them to the children tomorrow morning. They've never had anything really nice for Christmas. But there! We've all got each other and good health and spirits, and a Christmas wouldn't be much without those if we had all the presents in the world."
Mr. Joseph nodded.
"That's so. I don't want to grumble; but I tell you I did want to get Maggie a 'real live doll,' as she calls it. She never has had anything but homemade dolls, and that small heart of hers is set on a real one. There was one at Fisher's store today—a big beauty with real hair, and eyes that opened and shut. Just fancy Maggie's face if she saw such a Christmas box as that tomorrow morning."
"Don't let's fancy it," laughed Mrs. Joseph, "it is only aggravating. Talking of candy reminds me that I made a big plateful of taffy for the children today. It's all the 'Christmassy' I could give them. I'll get it out and put it on the table along with the children's presents. That can't be someone at the door!"
"It is, though," said Mr. Joseph as he strode to the door and flung it open.
Two snowed-up figures were standing on the porch. As they stepped in, the Josephs recognized one of them as Mr. Ralston, a wealthy merchant in a small town fifteen miles away.
"Late hour for callers, isn't it?" said Mr. Ralston. "The fact is, our horse has about given out, and the storm is so bad that we can't proceed. This is my wife, and we are on our way to spend Christmas with my brother's family at Lindsay. Can you take us in for the night, Mr. Joseph?"
"Certainly, and welcome!" exclaimed Mr. Joseph heartily, "if you don't mind a shakedown by the kitchen fire for the night. My, Mrs. Ralston," as his wife helped her off with her things, "but you are snowed up! I'll see to putting your horse away, Mr. Ralston. This way, if you please."
When the two men came stamping into the house again Mrs. Ralston and Mrs. Joseph were sitting at the fire, the former with a steaming hot cup of tea in her hand. Mr. Ralston put the big basket he was carrying down on a bench in the corner.
"Thought I'd better bring our Christmas flummery in," he said. "You see, Mrs. Joseph, my brother has a big family, so we are taking them a lot of Santa Claus stuff. Mrs. Ralston packed this basket, and goodness knows what she put in it, but she half cleaned out my store. The eyes of the Lindsay youngsters will dance tomorrow—that is, if we ever get there."
Mrs. Joseph gave a little sigh in spite of herself, and looked wistfully at the heap of gifts on the corner table. How meagre and small they did look, to be sure, beside that bulgy basket with its cover suggestively tied down.
Mrs. Ralston looked too.
"Santa Claus seems to have visited you already," she said with a smile.
The Josephs laughed.
"Our Santa Claus is somewhat out of pocket this year," said Mr. Joseph frankly. "Those are the little things the small folks here have made for each other. They've been a month at it, and I'm always kind of relieved when Christmas is over and there are no more mysterious doings. We're in such cramped quarters here that you can't move without stepping on somebody's secret."
A shakedown was spread in the kitchen for the unexpected guests, and presently the Ralstons found themselves alone. Mrs. Ralston went over to the Christmas table and looked at the little gifts half tenderly and half pityingly.
"They're not much like the contents of our basket, are they?" she said, as she touched the calendar Jimmie had made for Mollie out of cardboard and autumn leaves and grasses.
"Just what I was thinking," returned her husband, "and I was thinking of something else, too. I've a notion that I'd like to see some of the things in our basket right here on this table."
"I'd like to see them all," said Mrs. Ralston promptly. "Let's just leave them here, Edward. Roger's family will have plenty of presents without them, and for that matter we can send them ours when we go back home."
"Just as you say," agreed Mr. Ralston. "I like the idea of giving the small folk of this household a rousing good Christmas for once. They're poor I know, and I dare say pretty well pinched this year like most of the farmers hereabout after the crop failure."
Mrs. Ralston untied the cover of the big basket. Then the two of them, moving as stealthily as if engaged in a burglary, transferred the contents to the table. Mr. Ralston got out a small pencil and a note book, and by dint of comparing the names attached to the gifts on the table they managed to divide theirs up pretty evenly among the little Josephs.
When all was done Mrs. Ralston said, "Now, I'm going to spread that tablecloth carelessly over the table. We will be going before daylight, probably, and in the hurry of getting off I hope that Mr. and Mrs. Joseph will not notice the difference till we're gone."
It fell out as Mrs. Ralston had planned. The dawn broke fine and clear over a vast white world. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph were early astir; breakfast for the storm-stayed travellers was cooked and eaten by lamplight; then the horse and sleigh were brought to the door and Mr. Ralston carried out his empty basket.
"I expect the trail will be heavy," he said, "but I guess we'd get to Lindsay in time for dinner, anyway. Much obliged for your kindness, Mr. Joseph. When you and Mrs. Joseph come to town we shall hope to have a chance to return it. Good-bye and a merry Christmas to you all."
When Mrs. Joseph went back to the kitchen her eyes fell on the heaped-up table in the corner.
"Why-y!" she said, and snatched off the cover.
One look she gave, and then this funny little mother began to cry; but they were happy tears. Mr. Joseph came too, and looked and whistled.
There really seemed to be everything on that table that the hearts of children could desire—three pairs of skates, a fur cap and collar, a dainty workbasket, half a dozen gleaming new books, a writing desk, a roll of stuff that looked like a new dress, a pair of fur-topped kid gloves just Mollie's size, and a china cup and saucer. All these were to be seen at the first glance; and in one corner of the table was a big box filled with candies and nuts and raisins, and in the other a doll with curling golden hair and brown eyes, dressed in "real" clothes and with all her wardrobe in a trunk beside her. Pinned to her dress was a leaf from Mr. Ralston's notebook with Maggie's name written on it.
"Well, this is Christmas with a vengeance," said Mr. Joseph.
"The children will go wild with delight," said his wife happily.
They pretty nearly did when they all came scrambling down the stairs a little later. Such a Christmas had never been known in the Joseph household before. Maggie clasped her doll with shining eyes, Mollie looked at the workbasket that her housewifely little heart had always longed for, studious Jimmy beamed over the books, and Ted and Hal whooped with delight over the skates. And as for the big box of good things, why, everybody appreciated that. That Christmas was one to date from in that family.
I'm glad to be able to say, too, that even in the heyday of their delight and surprise over their wonderful presents, the little Josephs did not forget to appreciate the gifts they had prepared for each other. Mollie thought her calendar just too pretty for anything, and Jimmy was sure the new red mittens which Maggie had knitted for him with her own chubby wee fingers, were the very nicest, gayest mittens a boy had ever worn.
Mrs. Joseph's taffy was eaten too. Not a scrap of it was left. As Ted said loyally, "It was just as good as the candy in the box and had more 'chew' to it besides."
The Magical Bond of the Sea
A late September wind from the northwest was sweeping over the waters of Racicot Harbour. It blew in, strong with the tang of the salt seas, past the grim lighthouse rock on the one hand and the sandbars on the other, up the long, narrow funnel of darkly blue water, until it whistled among the masts of the boats at anchor and among the stovepipe chimneys of the fishing village. It was a wind that sang and piped and keened of many things—but what it sang to each listener was only what was in that listener's heart. And Nora Shelley, standing at the door of her father's bleached cottage on the grey sands, heard a new strain in it. The wind had sung often to her of the outer world she longed for, but there had never been the note of fulfilment in it before.
There's a new life beyond, Nora, whistled the wind. A good life—and it's yours for the taking. You have but to put out your hand and all you've wished for will be in your grasp.
Nora leaned out from the door to meet the wind. She loved that northwest gale; it was a staunch old friend of hers. Very slim and straight was Nora, with a skin as white as the foam flakes crisping over the sands, and eyes of the tremulous, haunting blue that deepens on the water after a fair sunset. But her hair was as black as midnight, and her lips blossomed out with a ripe redness against the uncoloured purity of her face. She was far and away the most beautiful of the harbour girls, but hardly the most popular. Men and women alike thought her proud. Even her friends felt themselves called upon to make excuses for her unlikeness to themselves.
Nora had dosed the door behind her to shut in the voices. She wanted to be alone with the wind while she made her decision. Before her the sandy shingle, made firm by a straggling growth of some pale sea-ivy, sloped down to the sapphire cup of the harbour. Around her were the small, uncouth houses of the village—no smaller or more uncouth than the one which was her home—with children playing noisily on the paths between them. The mackerel boats curtsied and nodded outside; beyond them the sharp tip of Sandy Point was curdled white with seagulls. Down at the curve of the cove a group of men were laughing and talking loudly in front of French Joe's fish-house. This was the life that she had always known.
Across the harbour, on a fir-fringed headland, stood Dalveigh. John Cameron, childless millionaire, had built a summer cottage on that point two years ago, and given it the name of the old ancestral estate in Scotland. To the Racicot fishing folk the house and grounds were as a dream of enchantment made real. Few of them had ever seen anything like it.
Nora Shelley knew Dalveigh well. She had been the Camerons' guest many times that summer, finding in the luxury and beauty of their surroundings something that entered with a strange aptness into her own nature. It was as if it were hers by right of fitness. And this was the life that might be hers, did she so choose.
In reality, her choice was already made, and she knew it. But it pleased her to pretend for a little time that it was not, and to dally tenderly with-the old loves and emotions that tugged at her heart and clamoured to be remembered.
Within, in the low-ceilinged living room, with its worn, uneven floor and its blackened walls hung with fish nets and oilskins, four people were sitting. John Cameron and his wife were given the seats of honour in the middle of the room. Mrs. Cameron was a handsome, well-dressed woman, with an expression that was discontented and, at times, petulant. Yet her face had a good deal of plain common sense in it, and not even the most critical of the Racicot folks could say that she "put on airs." Her husband was a small, white-haired man, with a fresh, young-looking face. He was popular in Racicot, for he mingled freely with the sailors and fishermen. Moreover, Dalveigh was an excellent market for fresh mackerel.
Nathan Shelley, in his favourite corner behind the stove, sat lurching forward with his hands on his knees. He had laid aside his pipe out of deference to Mrs. Cameron, and it was hard for him to think without it. He wished his wife would go to work; it seemed uncanny to see her idle. She had sat idle only once that he remembered—the day they had brought Ned Shelley in, dank and dripping, after the August storm ten years before. Mrs. Shelley sat by the crooked, small-paned window and looked out down the harbour. The coat she had been patching for her husband when the Camerons came still lay in her lap, and she had folded her hands upon it. She was a big woman, slow of speech and manner, with a placid, handsome face—a face that had not visibly stirred even when she had heard the Camerons' proposition.
They wanted Nora—these rich people who had so much in life wanted the blossom of girlhood that had never bloomed for them. John Cameron pleaded his cause well.
"We will look on her as our own," he said at last. "We have grown to love her this summer. She is beautiful and clever—she has a right to more than Racicot can give her. You have other children—we are childless. And we do not take her from you utterly. You will see her every summer when we come to Dalveigh."
"It won't be the same thing quite," said Nathan Shelley drily. "She'll belong to your life then—not ours. And no matter how many young ones folks has, they don't want to lose none of 'em. But I dunno as we ought to let our feelings stand in Nora's light. She's clever, and she's been hankering for more'n we can ever give her. I was the same way once. Lord, how I raged at Racicot! I broke away finally—went to a city and got work. But it wasn't no use. I'd left it too long. The sea had got into my blood. I toughed it out for two years, and then I had to come back. I didn't want to, mark you, but I had to come. Been here ever since. But maybe 'twill be different with the girl. She's younger than I was; if the hankering for the sea and the life of the shore hasn't got into her too deep, maybe she'll be able to cut loose for good. But you don't know how the sea calls to one of its own."
Cameron smiled. He thought that this dry old salt was a bit of a poet in his own way. Very likely Nora got her ability and originality from him. There did not seem to be a great deal in the phlegmatic, good-looking mother.
"What say, wife?" asked Shelley at last.
His wife had said in her slow way, "Leave it to Nora," and to Nora it was left.
When she came in at last, her face stung to radiant beauty by the northwest wind, she found it hard to tell them after all. She looked at her mother appealingly.
"Is it go or stay, girl," demanded her father brusquely.
"I think I'll go," said Nora slowly. Then, catching sight of her mother's face, she ran to her and flung her arms about her. "But I'll never forget you, Mother," she cried. "I'll love you always—you and Father."
Her mother loosened the clinging arms and pushed her gently towards the Camerons.
"Go to them," she said calmly. "You belong to them now."
The news spread quickly over Racicot. Before night everyone on the harbour shore knew that the Camerons were going to adopt Nora Shelley and take her away with them. There was much surprise and more envy. The shore women tossed their heads.
"Reckon Nora is in great feather," they said. "She always did think herself better than anyone else. Nate Shelley and his wife spoiled her ridiculous. Wonder what Rob Fletcher thinks of it?"
Nora asked her brother to tell the news to Rob Fletcher himself, but Merran Andrews was before him. She was at Rob before he had fairly landed, when the fishing boats came in at sunset.
"Have you heard the news, Rob? Nora's going away to be a fine lady. The Camerons have been daft about her all summer, and now they are going to adopt her."
Merran wanted Rob herself. He was a big, handsome fellow, and well-off—the pick of the harbour men in every way. He had slighted her for Nora, and it pleased her to stab him now, though she meant to be nice to him later on.
He turned white under his tan, but he did not choose to make a book of his heart for Merran's bold black eyes to read. "It's a great thing for her," he answered calmly. "She was meant for better things than can be found at Racicot."
"She was always too good for common folks, if that is what you mean," said Merran spitefully.
Nora and Rob did not meet until the next evening, when she rowed herself home from Dalveigh. He was at the shore to tie up her boat and help her out. They walked up the sands together in the heart of the autumn sunset, with the northwest wind whistling in their ears and the great star of the lighthouse gleaming wanly out against the golden sky. Nora felt uncomfortable, and resented it. Rob Fletcher was nothing to her; he never had been anything but the good friend to whom she told her strange thoughts and longings. Why should her heart ache over him? She wished he would talk, but he strode along in silence, with his fine head drooping a little.
"I suppose you have heard that I am going away, Rob?" she said at last.
He nodded. "Yes, I've heard it from a hundred mouths, more or less," he answered, not looking at her.
"It's a splendid thing for me, isn't it?" dared Nora.
"Well, I don't know," he said slowly. "Looking at it from the outside, it seems so. But from the inside it mayn't look the same. Do you think you'll be able to cut twenty years of a life out of your heart without any pain?"
"Oh, I'll be homesick, if that is what you mean," said Nora petulantly. "Of course I'll be that at first. I expect it—but people get over that. And it is not as if I were going away for good. I'll be back next summer—every summer."
"It'll be different," said Rob stubbornly, thinking as old Nathan Shelley had thought. "You'll be a fine lady—oh, all the better for that perhaps—but you'll not be the same. No, no, the new life will change you; not all at once, maybe, but in the end. You'll be one of them, not one of us. But will you be happy? That's the question I'm asking."
In anyone else Nora would have resented this. But she never felt angry with Rob.
"I think I shall be," she said thoughtfully. "And, anyway, I must go. It doesn't seem as if I could help myself if I wanted to. Something—out beyond there—is calling me, always has been calling me ever since I was a tiny girl and found out there was a big world far away from Racicot. And it always seemed to me that I would find a way to it some day. That was why I kept going to school long after the other girls stopped. Mother thought I'd better stop home; she said too much book learning would make me discontented and too different from the people I had to live along. But Father let me go; he understood; he said I was like him when he was young. I learned everything and read everything I could. It seems to me as if I had been walking along a narrow pathway all my life. And now it seems as if a gate were opened before me and I can pass through into a wider world. It isn't the luxury and the pleasure or the fine house and dresses that tempt me, though the people here think so—even Mother thinks so. But it is not. It's just that something seems to be in my grasp that I've always longed for, and I must go—Rob, I must go."
"Yes, if you feel like that you must go," he answered, looking down at her troubled face gently. "And it's best for you to go, Nora. I believe that, and I'm not so selfish as not to be able to hope that you'll find all you long for. But it will change you all the more if it is so. Nora! Nora! Whatever am I going to do without you!"
The sudden passion bursting out in his tone frightened her.
"Don't, Rob, don't! And you won't miss me long. There's many another."
"No, there isn't. Don't fling me that dry bone of comfort. There's no other, and never has been any other—none but you, Nora, and well you know it."
"I'm sorry," she said faintly.
"You needn't be," said Rob grimly. "After all, I'd rather love you than not, hurt as it will. I never had much hope of getting you to listen to me, so there's no great disappointment there. You're too good for me—I've always known that. A girl that is fit to mate with the Camerons is far above Rob Fletcher, fisherman."
"I never had such a thought," protested Nora.
"I know it," he said, casing himself up in his quietness again. "But it's so—and now I've got to lose you. But there'll never be any other for me, Nora."
He left her at her father's door. She watched his stalwart figure out of sight around the point, and raged to find tears in her eyes and a bitter yearning in her heart. For a moment she repented—she would stay—she could not go. Then over the harbour flashed out the lights of Dalveigh. The life behind them glittered, allured, beckoned. Nay, she must go on—she had made her choice. There was no turning back now.
* * * * *
Nora Shelley went away with the Camerons, and Dalveigh was deserted. Winter came down on Racicot Harbour, and the colony of fisher folk at its head gave themselves over to the idleness of the season—a time for lounging and gossipping and long hours of lazy contentment smoking in the neighbours' chimney corners, when tales were told of the sea and the fishing. The Harbour laid itself out to be sociable in winter. There was no time for that in summer. People had to work eighteen hours out of the twenty-four then. In the winter there was spare time to laugh and quarrel, woo and wed and—were a man so minded—dream, as did Rob Fletcher in his loneliness.
In a Racicot winter much was made of small things. The arrival of Nora Shelley's weekly letter to her father and mother was an event in the village. The post-mistress in the Cove store spread the news that it had come, and that night the Shelley kitchen would be crowded. Isobel Shelley, Nora's younger sister, read the letter aloud by virtue of having gone to school long enough to be able to pronounce the words and tell where the places named were situated.
The Camerons had spent the autumn in New York and had then gone south for the winter. Nora wrote freely of her new life. In the beginning she admitted great homesickness, but after the first few letters she made no further mention of that. She wrote little of herself, but she described fully the places she had visited, the people she had met, the wonderful things she had seen. She sent affectionate messages to all her old friends and asked after all her old interests. But the letters came to be more and more like those of a stranger and one apart from the Racicot life, and the father and mother felt it.
"She's changing," muttered old Nathan. "It had to be so—it's well for her that it is so—but it hurts. She ain't ours any more. We've lost the girl, wife, lost her forever."
Rob Fletcher always came and listened to the letters in silence while the others buzzed and commented. Rob, so the Harbour folk said, was much changed. He had grown unsociable and preferred to stay home and read books rather than go a-visiting as did others. The Harbour folk shook their heads over this. There was something wrong with a man who read books when there was a plenty of other amusements. Jacob Radnor had read books all one winter and had drowned himself in the spring—jumped overboard from his dory at the herring nets. And that was what came of books, mark you.
The Camerons came later to Dalveigh the next summer, on account of John Cameron's health, which was not good. It was the first of August before a host of servants came to put Dalveigh in habitable order, and a week later the family came. They brought a houseful of guests with them.
At sunset on the day of her arrival Nora Shelley looked out cross the harbour to the fishing village. She was tired after her journey, and she had not meant to go over until the morning, but now she knew she must go at once. Her mother was over there; the old life called to her; the northwest wind swept up the channel and whistled alluringly to her at the window of her luxurious room. It brought to her the tang of the salt wastes and filled her heart with a great, bitter-sweet yearning.
She was more beautiful than ever. In the year that had passed she had blossomed out to a gracious fulfilment of womanhood. Even the Camerons had wondered at her swift adaptation to her new surroundings. She seemed to have put Racicot behind her as one puts by an old garment. In everything she had held her own royally. Her adopted parents were proud of her beauty and her nameless, untamed charm. They had lavished every indulgence upon her. In those few short months she had lived more keenly and fully than in all her life before. The Nora Shelley who went away was not, so it would seem, the Nora Shelley who came back.
But when she looked from her window to the waves and saw the star of the lighthouse and the blaze of the sunset in the window of the fishing-houses and heard the summons of the wind, something broke loose in her soul and overwhelmed her, like a wave of the sea. She must go at once—at once—at once. Not a moment could she wait.
She was dressed for dinner, but with tingling fingers she threw off her costly gown and put on her dark travelling suit again. She left her hair as it was and knotted a crimson scarf about her head. She would slip away quietly to the boathouse, get Davy to launch the little sailboat for her—and then for a fleet skim over the harbour before that glorious wind! She hoped not to be seen, but Mrs. Cameron met her in the hall.
"Nora!" she said in astonishment.
"Oh, I must go, Aunty! I must go!" the girl cried feverishly. She was afraid Mrs. Cameron would try to prevent her going, and all at once she knew that she could not bear that.
"Must go? Where? Dinner is almost ready, and—"
"Oh, I don't want any dinner. I'm going home—I will sail over."
"My dear child, don't be foolish. It's too late to go over the harbour tonight. They won't be expecting you. Wait until the morning."
"No—oh, you don't understand. I must go—I must! My mother is over there."
Something in the girl's last sentence or the tone in which it was uttered brought a look of pain to Mrs. Cameron's face. But she made no further attempt to dissuade her.
"Well, if you must. But you cannot go alone—no, Nora, I cannot allow it. The wind is too high and it is too late for you to go over by yourself. Clark Bryant will take you."
Nora would have protested but she knew it would be in vain. She submitted somewhat sullenly and walked down to the shore in silence. Clark Bryant strode beside her, humouring her mood. He was a tall, stout man, with an ugly, clever, sarcastic face. He was as clever as he looked, and was one of the younger millionaires whom John Cameron drew around him in the development of his huge financial schemes. Bryant was in love with Nora. This was why the Camerons had asked him to join their August house party at Dalveigh, and why he had accepted. It had occurred to Nora that this was the case, but as yet she had never troubled to think the situation over seriously.
She liked Clark Bryant well enough, but just at the moment he was in the way. She did not want to take him over to Racicot—just why she could not have explained. There was in her no snobbish shame of her humble home. But he did not belong there; he was an alien, and she wished to go back to it for the first time alone.
At the boathouse Davy launched the small sailboat and Nora took the tiller. She knew every inch of the harbour. As the sail filled before the wind and the boat sprang across the upcurling waves, her brief sullenness fell away from her. She no longer resented Clark Bryant's presence—she forgot it. He was no more to her than the mast by which he stood. The spell of the sea and the wind surged into her heart and filled it with wild happiness and measureless content. Over yonder, where the lights gleamed on the darkening shore under the high-sprung arch of pale golden sky, was home. How the wind whistled to welcome her back! The lash of it against her face—the flick of salt spray on her lips—the swing of the boat as it cut through the racing crests—how glorious it all was!
Clark Bryant watched her, understanding all at once that he was nothing to her, that he had no part or lot in her heart. He was as one forgotten and left behind. And how lovely, how desirable she was! He had never seen her look so beautiful. The shawl had slipped down to her shoulders and her head rose out of it like some magnificent flower out of a crimson calyx. The masses of her black hair lifted from her face in the rush of the wind and swayed back again like rich shadows. Her lips were stung scarlet with the sea's sharp caresses, and her eyes, large and splendid, looked past him unseeing to the harbour lights of Racicot.
When they swung in by the wharf Nora sprang from the boat before Bryant had time to moor it. Pausing for an instant, she called down to him, carelessly, "Don't wait for me. I shall not go back tonight."
Then she caught her shawl around her head and almost ran up the wharf and along the shore. No one was abroad, for it was supper hour in Racicot. In the Shelley kitchen the family was gathered around the table, when the door was flung open and Nora stood on the threshold. For a moment they gazed at her as at an apparition. They had not known the precise day of her coming and were not aware of the Camerons' arrival at Dalveigh.
"It's the girl herself. It's Nora," said old Nathan, rising from his bench.
"Mother!" cried Nora. She ran across the room and buried her face in her mother's breast, sobbing.
When the news spread, the Racicot people crowded in to see Nora until the house was full. They spent a noisy, merry, whole-hearted evening of the old sort. The men smoked and most of the women knitted while they talked. They were pleased to find that Nora did not put on any airs. Old Jonas Myers bluntly told her that he didn't see as her year among rich folks had done her much good, after all.
"You're just the same as when you went away," he said. "They haven't made a fine lady of you. Folks here thought you'd be something wonderful."
Nora laughed. She was glad that they did not find her changed. Old Nathan chuckled in his dry way. There was a difference in the girl, and he saw it, though the neighbours did not, but it was not the difference he had feared. His daughter was not utterly taken from him yet.
Nora sat by her mother and was happy. But as the evening wore away she grew very quiet, and watched the door with something piteous in her eyes. Old Nathan noticed it and thought she was tired. He gave the curious neighbours a good-natured hint, and they presently withdrew. When they had all gone Nora went out to the door alone.
The wind had died down and the shore, gemmed with its twinkling lights, was very still, for it was too late an hour for Racicot folk to be abroad in the mackerel season. The moon was rising and the harbour was a tossing expanse of silver waves. The mellow light fell on a tall figure lurking at the angle of the road that led past the Shelley cottage. Nora saw and recognized it. She flew down the sandy slope with outstretched hands.
"Nora!" he said huskily, holding out his hand. But she flung herself on his breast and clung to him, half laughing, half crying.
"Oh, Rob! I've been looking for you all the evening. Every time there was a step I said to myself, 'That is Rob, now.' And when the door opened to let in another, my heart died within me. I dared not even ask after you for fear of what they might tell me. Why didn't you come?"
"I didn't know that I'd be welcome," he whispered, holding her closer to him. "I've been hanging about thinking to get a glimpse of you unbeknown. I thought maybe you wouldn't want to see me tonight."
"Not want to see you! Oh, Rob, this evening at Dalveigh, when I looked across to Racicot, it was you I thought of before all—even before Mother."
She drew back and looked at him with her soul in her eyes.
"What a splendid fellow you are—how handsome you are, Rob!" she cried. All the reserve of womanhood fell away from her in the inrush of emotions. For the moment she was a child again, telling out her thoughts with all a child's frankness. "I've been in a dream this past year—a lovely dream—a fair dream, but only a dream, after all. And now I've wakened. And you are part of the wakening—the best part! Oh, to think I never knew before!"
"Knew what, my girl?"
He had her close against his heart now; the breath of her lips mingled with his, but he would not kiss her yet.
"That I loved you," she whispered back. "Oh, Rob, you are all the world to me. I belong to you and the sea. But I never knew it until I crossed the harbour tonight. Then I knew—it came to me all at once, like a flood of understanding. I knew I could never go away again—that I must stay here forever where I could hear that call of wind and waves. The new life was good—good—but it could not go deep enough. And when you did not come I knew what was in my heart for you as well."
* * * * *
That night Nora lay beside her sisters in the tiny room that looked out on the harbour. The younger girls slept soundly, but Nora kept awake to listen to the laughter of the wind outside, and con over what she and Rob had said to each other. There was no blot on her happiness save a sorry wonder what the Camerons would say when they knew.
"They will think me ungrateful and fickle," she sighed. "They don't know that I can't help it even if I would. They will never understand."
Nor did they. When Nora told them that she was going back to Racicot, they laughed at her kindly at first, treating it as the passing whim of a homesick girl. Later, when they came to understand that she meant it, they were grieved and angry. There were scenes of pleading and tears and reproaches. Nora cried bitterly in Mrs. Cameron's arms, but stood rock-firm. She could never go back to them—never.
They appealed to Nathan Shelley finally, but he refused to say anything.
"It can't be altered," he told them. "The sea has called her and she'll listen to naught else. I'm sorry enough for the girl's own sake. It would have been better for her if she could have cut loose from it all and lived your life, I dare say. But you've made a fair trial and it's of no use. I know what's in her heart—it was in mine once—and I'll say no word of rebuke to her. She's free to go or stay as she chooses—just as free as she was last year."
Mrs. Cameron made one more appeal to Nora. She told the girl bitterly that she was ungrateful.
"I'm not that," said Nora with quivering lips. "I love you, and I'm grateful to you. But your life isn't for me, after all. I thought it was—I longed so for it. And I loved it, too—I love it yet. But there's something stronger in me that holds me here."
"I don't think you realize what you are doing, Nora. You have been a little homesick and you are glad to be back. But after we have gone and you must settle into the old Racicot life again, you will not be contented. You will find that your life with us will have unfitted you for this. There will be no real place for you here—nothing for you to do. You will be as a stranger here."
"Oh, no. I am going to marry Rob Fletcher," said Nora proudly.
"Marry Rob Fletcher! And you might have married Clark Bryant, Nora!"
Nora shook her head. "That could never have been. I thought it might once—but I know better now. You see, I love Rob."
There did not seem to be anything more to say after that. Mrs. Cameron did not try to say anything. She went away in sorrow.
Nora cried bitterly after she had gone. But there were no tears in her eyes that night when she walked on the shore with Rob Fletcher. The wind whistled around them, and the stars came out in the great ebony dome of the sky over the harbour. Laughter and song of the fishing folk were behind them, and the deep, solemn call of the sea before. Over the harbour gleamed the score of lights at Dalveigh. Rob looked from them to Nora.
"Do you think you'll ever regret yon life, my girl?"
"Never, Rob. It seems to me now like a beautiful garment put on for a holiday and worn easily and pleasantly for a time. But I've put it off now, and put on workaday clothes again. It is only a week since I left Dalveigh, but it seems long ago. Listen to the wind, Rob! It is singing of the good days to be for you and me."
He bent over and kissed her.
"My own dear lass!" he said softly.
The Martyrdom of Estella
Estella was waiting under the poplars at the gate for Spencer Morgan. She was engaged to him, and he always came to see her on Saturday and Wednesday evenings. It was after sunset, and the air was mellow and warm-hued. The willow trees along the walk and the tall birches in the background stood out darkly distinct against the lemon-tinted sky. The breath of mint floated out from the garden, and the dew was falling heavily.
Estella leaned against the gate, listening for the sound of wheels and dreamily watching the light shining out from the window of Vivienne LeMar's room. The blind was up and she could see Miss LeMar writing at her table. Her profile was clear and distinct against the lamplight.
Estella reflected without the least envy that Miss LeMar was very beautiful. She had never seen anyone who was really beautiful before—beautiful with the loveliness of the heroines in the novels she sometimes read or the pictures she had seen.
Estella Bowes was not pretty. She was a nice-looking girl, with clear eyes, rosy cheeks, and a pervading air of the content and happiness her life had always known. She was an orphan and lived with her uncle and aunt. In the summer they sometimes took a boarder for a month or two, and this summer Miss LeMar had come. She had been with them about a week. She was an actress from the city and had around her all the glamour of a strange, unknown life. Nothing was known about her. The Boweses liked her well enough as a boarder. Estella admired and held her in awe. She wondered what Spencer would think of this beautiful woman. He had not yet seen her.
It was quite dark when he came. Estella opened the gate for him, but he got out of his buggy and walked up the lane beside her with his arm about her. Miss LeMar's light had removed to the parlour where she was singing, accompanying herself on the cottage organ. Estella felt annoyed. The parlour was considered her private domain on Wednesday and Saturday night, but Miss LeMar did not know that.
"Who is singing?" asked Spencer. "What a voice she has!"
"That's our new boarder, Miss LeMar," answered Estella. "She's an actress and sings and does everything. She is awfully pretty, Spencer."
"Yes?" said the young man indifferently.
He was not in the least interested in the Boweses' new boarder. Indeed, he considered her advent a nuisance. He pressed Estella closer to him, and when they reached the garden gate he kissed her. Estella always remembered that moment afterwards. She was so supremely happy.
Spencer went off to put up his horse, and Estella waited for him on the porch steps, wondering if any other girl in the world could be quite so happy as she was, or love anyone as much as she loved Spencer. She did not see how it could be possible, because there was only one Spencer.
When Spencer came back she took him into the parlour, half shyly, half proudly. He was a handsome fellow, with a magnificent physique. Miss LeMar stopped singing and turned around on the organ stool as they entered. The little room was flooded with a mellow light from the pink-globed lamp on the table, and in the soft, shadowy radiance she was as beautiful as a dream. She wore a dress of crepe, cut low in the neck. Estella had never seen anyone dressed so before. To her it seemed immodest.
She introduced Spencer. He bowed awkwardly and sat stiffly down by the window with his eyes riveted on Miss LeMar's face. Estella, catching a glimpse of herself in the old-fashioned mirror above the mantel, suddenly felt a cold chill of dissatisfaction. Her figure had never seemed to her so stout and stiff, her brown hair so dull and prim, her complexion so muddy, her features so commonplace. She wished Miss LeMar would go out of the room.
Vivienne LeMar watched the two faces before her; a hard gleam, half mockery, half malice, flashed into her eyes and a smile crept about her lips. She looked straight in Spencer Morgan's honest blue eyes and read there the young man's dazzled admiration. There was contempt in the look she turned on Estella.
"You were singing when we came in," said Spencer. "Won't you go on, please? I am very fond of music."
Miss LeMar turned again to the organ. The gleaming curves of her neck and shoulders rose out of their filmy sheathings of lace. Spencer, sitting where he could see her face with its rose-leaf bloom and the ringlets of golden hair clustering about it, gazed at her, unheeding of aught else. Estella saw his look. She suddenly began to hate the black-eyed witch at the organ—and to fear her as well. Why did Spencer look at her like that? She wished she had not brought him in at all. She felt commonplace and angry, and wanted to cry.
Vivienne LeMar went on singing, drifting from one sweet love song into another. Once she looked up at Spencer Morgan. He rose quickly and went to her side, looking down at her with a strange fire in his eyes.
Estella got up abruptly and left the room. She was angry and jealous, but she thought Spencer would follow her. When he did not, she could not believe it. She waited on the porch for him, not knowing whether she were more angry or miserable. She would not go back into the room. Vivienne LeMar had stopped singing. She could hear a low murmur of voices. When she had waited there an hour, she went in and upstairs to her room with ostentatious footsteps. She was too angry to cry or to realize what had happened, and still kept hoping all sorts of impossible things as she sat by her window.
It was ten o'clock when Spencer went away and Vivienne LeMar passed up the hall to her room. Estella clenched her hands in an access of helpless rage. She was very angry, but under her fury was a horrible ache of pain. It could not be only three hours since she had been so happy! It must be more than that! What had happened? Had she made a fool of herself? Ought she to have behaved in any other way? Perhaps Spencer had come out to look for her after she had gone upstairs and, not finding her, had gone back to Miss LeMar to show her he was angry. This poor hope was a small comfort. She wished she had not acted as she had. It looked spiteful and jealous, and Spencer did not like people who were spiteful and jealous. She would show him she was sorry when he came back, and it would be all right.
She lay awake most of the night, thinking out plausible reasons and excuses for Spencer's behaviour, and trying to convince herself that she had exaggerated everything absurdly. Towards morning she fell asleep and awoke hardly remembering what had happened. Then it rolled back upon her crushingly.
But she rose and dressed in better spirits. It had been hardest to lie there and do nothing. Now the day was before her and something pleasant might happen. Spencer might come back in the evening. She would be doubly nice to him to make up.
Mrs. Bowes looked sharply at her niece's dull eyes and pale cheeks at the breakfast table. She had her own thoughts of things. She was a large, handsome woman with a rather harsh face.
"Did you go upstairs last night and leave Spencer Morgan with Miss LeMar?" she asked bluntly.
"Yes," muttered Estella.
"Did you have a quarrel with him?"
"What made you act so queer?"
"I couldn't help it," faltered the girl.
The food she was eating seemed to choke her. She wished she were a hundred miles away from everyone she ever knew.
Mrs. Bowes gave a grunt of dissatisfaction.
"Well, I think it is a pretty queer piece of business. But if you are satisfied, it isn't anyone else's concern, I suppose. He stayed with her till ten o'clock and when he left she did everything but kiss him—and she asked him to come back too. I heard."
"Aunt!" protested the girl.
She felt as if her aunt were striking her blow after blow on a sensitive, quivering spot. It was bad enough to know it all, but to hear it put into such cold, brutal words was more than she could endure. It seemed to make everything so horribly sure.
"I guess I had a right to listen, hadn't I, with such goings on in my own house? You're a little fool, Estella Bowes! I don't believe that LeMar girl is a bit better than she ought to be. I wish I'd never taken her to board, and if you say so, I'll send her packing right off and not give her a chance to make mischief atween folks."
Estella's suffering found vent in a burst of anger.
"You needn't do anything of the sort!" she cried.
"It's all nonsense about Spencer—it was my fault—and anyhow, if he is so easily led away as that, I am sure I don't want him! I wish to goodness, Aunt, you'd leave me alone!"
"Oh, very well!" returned Mrs. Bowes in an offended tone. "It was for your own good I spoke. You know best, I suppose. If you don't care, I don't know that anyone else need."
Estella went about her work like one in a dream. A great hatred had sprung up in her heart against Vivienne LeMar. The simple-hearted country girl felt almost murderous. The whole day seemed like a nightmare to her. When night came she dressed herself with feverish care, for she could not quell the hope that Spencer would surely come again. But he did not; and when she went up to bed, it did not seem as if she could live through the night. She lay staring wide-eyed through the darkness until dawn. She wished that she might cry, but no tears came to her relief.
Next day she went to work with furious energy. When her usual tasks were done, she ransacked the house for other employment. She was afraid if she stopped work for a moment she would go mad. Mrs. Bowes watched her with a grim pity.
At night she walked to prayer meeting in the schoolhouse a mile away. She always went, and Spencer was generally on hand to see her home. He was not there tonight. She wished she had not come. It was dreadful to have to sit still and think. She did not hear a word the minister said.
She had to walk home with a crowd of girls and nerve herself to answer their merry sallies that no one might suspect. She was tortured by the fear that everyone knew her shame and humiliation and was pitying her. She got hysterically gay, but underneath all she was constantly trying to assign a satisfactory reason for Spencer's nonappearance. He was often kept away, and of course he was a little cross at her yet, as was natural. If he had come before her then, she could have gone down in the very dust at his feet and implored his forgiveness.
When she reached home she went into the garden and sat down. The calm of the night soothed her. She felt happier and more hopeful. She thought over all that had passed between her and Spencer and all his loving assurances, and the recollection comforted her. She was almost happy when she went in.
Tomorrow is Sunday, she thought when she wakened in the morning. Her step was lighter and her face brighter. Mrs. Bowes seemed to be in a bad humour. Presently she said bluntly:
"Do you know that Spencer Morgan was here last night?"
Estella felt the cold tighten round her heart. Yet underneath it sprang up a wild, sweet hope.
"Spencer here! I suppose he forgot it was prayer meeting night. What did he say? Why didn't you tell him where I was?"
"I don't know that he forgot it was prayer meeting night," returned Mrs. Bowes with measured emphasis. "'Tisn't likely his memory has failed so all at once. He didn't ask where you was. He took good care to go before you got home too. Miss LeMar entertained him. I guess she was quite capable of it."
Estella bent over her dishes in silence. Her face was deadly white.
"I'll send her away," said Mrs. Bowes pityingly. "When she's gone, Spencer will soon come back to you."
"No, you won't!" said Estella fiercely. "If you do, she'll only go over to Barstows', and it would be worse than ever. I don't care—I'll show them both I don't care! As for Spencer coming back to me, do you think I want her leavings? He's welcome to go."
"He's only just fooled by her pretty face," persisted Mrs. Bowes in a clumsy effort at consolation. "She's just turning his head, the hussy, and he isn't really in his proper senses. You'll see, he'll be ashamed of himself when he comes to them again. He knows very well in his heart that you're worth ten girls like her."
Estella faced around.
"Aunt," she said desperately, "you mean well, I know, but you're killing me! I can't stand it. For pity's sake, don't say another word to me about this, no matter what happens. And don't keep looking at me as if I were a martyr! She watches us and it would please her to think I cared. I don't—and I mean she shall see I don't. I guess I'm well rid of a fellow as fickle as he is, and I've sense enough to know it."
She went upstairs then, tearing off her turquoise engagement ring as she climbed the steps. All sorts of wild ideas flashed through her head. She would go down and confront Vivienne LeMar—she would rush off and find Spencer and throw his ring at him, no matter where he was—she would go away where no one would ever see her again. Why couldn't she die? Was it possible people could suffer like this and yet go on living?
"I don't care—I don't care!" she moaned, telling the lie aloud to herself, as if she hoped that by this means she would come to believe it.
When twilight came she went out to the front steps and leaned her aching head against the honeysuckle trellis. The sun had just set and the whole world swam in dusky golden light. The wonderful beauty frightened her. She felt like a blot on it.
While she stood there, a buggy came driving up the lane and wheeled about at the steps. In it was Spencer Morgan.
Estella saw him and, in spite of the maddening throb of hope that seemed suddenly to transfigure the world for her, her pride rose in arms. Had Spencer come the night before, he would have found her loving and humble. Even now, had she but been sure that he had come to see her, she would have unbent. But was it the other? The torturing doubt stung her to the quick.
She waited, stubbornly resolved that she would not speak first. It was not in her place. Spencer Morgan flicked his horse sharply with his whip. He dared not look at Estella, but he felt her uncompromising attitude. He was miserably ashamed of himself, and he felt angry at Estella for his shame.
"Do you care to come for a drive?" he asked awkwardly, with a covert glance at the parlour windows.
Estella caught the glance and her jealous perception instantly divined its true significance. Her heart died within her. She did not care what she said.
"Oh," she cried with a toss of her head, "it's not me you want—it's Miss LeMar, isn't it? She's away at the shore. You'll find her there, I dare say."
Still, in spite of all, she perversely hoped. If he would only make any sign, the least in the world, that he was sorry—that he still loved her—she could forgive him everything. When he drove away without another word, she could not believe it again. Surely he would not go—surely he knew she did not mean it—he would turn back before he got to the gate.
But he did not. She saw him disappear around the turn of the road. She could not see if he took the shore lane further on, but she was sure he would. She was furious at herself for acting as she had done. It was all her fault again! Oh, if he would only give her another chance!
She was in her room when she heard the buggy drive up again. She knew it was Spencer and that he had brought Vivienne LeMar home. Acting on a sudden wild impulse, the girl stepped out on the landing and confronted her rival as she came up the stairs.
The latter paused at sight of the white face and anguished eyes. There was a little mocking smile on her lovely face.
"Miss LeMar," said Estella in a quivering voice, "what do you mean by all this? You know I'm engaged to Spencer Morgan!"
Miss LeMar laughed softly.
"Really? If you are engaged to the young man, my dear Miss Bowes, I would advise you to look after him more sharply. He seems very willing to flirt, I should say."
She passed on to her room with a malicious smile. Estella shrank back against the wall, humiliated and baffled. When she found herself alone, she crawled back to her room and threw herself face downward on the bed, praying that she might die.
But she had to live through the horrible month that followed—a month so full of agony that she seemed to draw every breath in pain. Spencer never sought her again; he went everywhere with Miss LeMar. His infatuation was the talk of the settlement. Estella knew that her story was in everyone's mouth, and her pride smarted; but she carried a brave front outwardly. No one should say she cared.
She believed that the actress was merely deluding Spencer for her own amusement and would never dream of marrying him. But one day the idea occurred to her that she might. Estella had always told herself that even if Spencer wanted to come back to her she would never take him back, but now, by the half-sick horror that came over her, she knew how strong the hope had really been and despised herself more than ever.
One evening she was alone in the parlour. She had lit the lamp and was listlessly arranging the little room. She looked old and worn. Her colour was gone and her eyes were dull. As she worked, the door opened and Vivienne LeMar walked or, rather, reeled into the room.
Estella dropped the book she held and gazed at her as one in a dream. The actress's face was flushed and her hair was wildly disordered. Her eyes glittered with an unearthly light. She was talking incoherently. The air was heavy with the fumes of brandy.
Estella laughed hysterically. Vivienne LeMar was grossly intoxicated. This woman whom Spencer Morgan worshipped, for whom he had forsaken her, was reeling about the room, laughing idiotically, talking wildly in a thick voice. If he could but see her now!
Estella turned white with the passion of the wild idea that had come to her. Spencer Morgan should see this woman in her true colours.
She lost no time. Swiftly she left the room and locked the door behind her on the maudlin, babbling creature inside. Then she flung a shawl over her head and ran from the house. It was not far to the Morgan homestead. She ran all the way, hardly knowing what she was doing. Mrs. Morgan answered her knock. She gazed in bewilderment at Estella's wild face.
"I want Spencer," said the girl through her white lips.
The elder woman stepped back in dumb amazement. She knew and rued her son's folly. What could Estella want with him?
The young man appeared in the doorway. Estella caught him by the arm and pulled him outside.
"Miss LeMar wants you at once," she said hoarsely. "At once—you are to come at once!"
"Has anything happened to her?" cried Spencer savagely. "Is she ill—is she—what is the matter?"
"No, she is not ill. But she wants you. Come at once."
He started off bareheaded. Estella followed him up the road breathlessly. Surely it was the strangest walk ever a girl had, she told herself with mirthless laughter. She pushed the key into his hand at the porch.
"She's in the parlour," she said wildly. "Go in and look at her, Spencer."
Spencer snatched the key and fitted it into the door. He was full of fear. Had Estella gone out of her mind? Had she done anything to Vivienne? Had she—
As he entered, the actress reeled to her feet and came to meet him. He stood and gazed at her stupidly. This could not be Vivienne, this creature reeking with brandy, uttering such foolish words! What fiend was this in her likeness?
He grew sick at heart and brain; she had her arms about him. He tried to push her away, but she clung closer, and her senseless laughter echoed through the room. He flung her from him with an effort and rushed out through the hall and down the road like a madman. Estella, watching him, felt that she was avenged. She was glad with a joy more pitiful than grief.
Vivienne LeMar left the cottage the next day. Mrs. Bowes, suspecting some mystery, questioned Estella sharply, but could find out nothing. The girl kept her own counsel stubbornly. The interest and curiosity of the village centred around Spencer Morgan, and his case was well discussed. Gossip said that the actress had jilted him and that he was breaking his heart about it. Then came the rumour that he was going West.
Estella heard it apathetically. Life seemed ended for her. There was nothing to look forward to. She could not even look back. All the past was embittered. She had never met Spencer since the night she went after him. She sometimes wondered what he must think of her for what she had done. Did he think her unwomanly and revengeful? She did not care. It was rather a relief to hear that he was going away. She would not be tortured by the fear of meeting him then. She was sure he would never come back to her. If he did, she would never forgive him.
One evening in early harvest Estella was lingering by the lane gate at twilight. She had worked slavishly all day and was very tired, but she was loath to go into the house, where her trouble always seemed to weigh on her more heavily. The dusk, sweet night seemed to soothe her as it always did.
She leaned her head against the poplar by the gate. How long Spencer Morgan had been standing by her she did not know, but when she looked up he was there. In the dim light she could see how haggard and hollow-eyed he had grown. He had changed almost as much as herself.
The girl's first proud impulse was to turn coldly away and leave him. But some strange tumult in her heart kept her still. What had he come to say?
There was a moment's fateful silence. Then Spencer spoke in a muffled voice.
"I couldn't go away without seeing you once more, Estella, to say good-bye. Perhaps you won't speak to me. You must hate me. I deserve it."
He paused, but she said no word. She could not. After a space, he went wistfully on.
"I know you can never forgive me—no girl could. I've behaved like a fool. There isn't any excuse to be made for me. I don't think I could have been in my right senses, Estella. It all seems like some bad dream now. When I saw her that night, I came to my right mind, and I've been the most miserable man alive ever since. Not for her—but because I'd lost you. I can't bear to live here any longer, so I am going away. Will you say good-bye, Estella?"
Still she did not speak. There were a hundred things she wanted to say but she could not say them. Did he mean that he loved her still? If she were sure of that, she could forgive him anything, but her doubt rendered her mute.
The young man turned away despairingly from her rigid attitude. So be it—he had brought his fate on himself.
He had gone but a few steps when Estella suddenly found her voice with a gasp.
"Spencer!" He came swiftly back. "Oh, Spencer—do—you—do you love me still?"
He caught her hands in his.
"Love you—oh, Estella, yes, yes! I always have. That other wasn't love—it was just madness. When it passed I hated life because I'd lost you. I know you can't forgive me, but, oh—"
He broke down. Estella flung her arms around his neck and put her face up to his. She felt as if her heart must break with its great happiness. He understood her mute pardon. In their kiss the past was put aside. Estella's martyrdom was ended.
The Old Chest at Wyther Grange
When I was a child I always thought a visit to Wyther Grange was a great treat. It was a big, quiet, old-fashioned house where Grandmother Laurance and Mrs. DeLisle, my Aunt Winnifred, lived. I was a favourite with them, yet I could never overcome a certain awe of them both. Grandmother was a tall, dignified old lady with keen black eyes that seemed veritably to bore through one. She always wore stiffly-rustling gowns of rich silk made in the fashion of her youth. I suppose she must have changed her dress occasionally, but the impression on my mind was always the same, as she went trailing about the house with a big bunch of keys at her belt—keys that opened a score of wonderful old chests and boxes and drawers. It was one of my dearest delights to attend Grandmother in her peregrinations and watch the unfolding and examining of all those old treasures and heirlooms of bygone Laurances.
Of Aunt Winnifred I was less in awe, possibly because she dressed in a modern way and so looked to my small eyes more human and natural. As Winnifred Laurance she had been the beauty of the family and was a handsome woman still, with brilliant dark eyes and cameo-like features. She always looked very sad, spoke in a low sweet voice, and was my childish ideal of all that was high-bred and graceful.
I had many beloved haunts at the Grange, but I liked the garret best. It was a roomy old place, big enough to have comfortably housed a family in itself, and was filled with cast-off furniture and old trunks and boxes of discarded finery. I was never tired of playing there, dressing up in the old-fashioned gowns and hats and practising old-time dance steps before the high, cracked mirror that hung at one end. That old garret was a veritable fairyland to me.
There was one old chest which I could not explore and, like all forbidden things, it possessed a great attraction for me. It stood away back in a dusty, cobwebbed corner, a strong, high wooden box, painted blue. From some words which I had heard Grandmother let fall I was sure it had a history; it was the one thing she never explored in her periodical overhaulings. When I grew tired of playing I liked to creep up on it and sit there, picturing out my own fancies concerning it—of which my favourite one was that some day I should solve the riddle and open the chest to find it full of gold and jewels with which I might restore the fortune of the Laurances and all the traditionary splendours of the old Grange.
I was sitting there one day when Aunt Winnifred and Grandmother Laurance came up the narrow dark staircase, the latter jingling her keys and peering into the dusty corners as she came along the room. When they came to the old chest, Grandmother rapped the top smartly with her keys.
"I wonder what is in this old chest," she said. "I believe it really should be opened. The moths may have got into it through that crack in the lid."
"Why don't you open it, Mother?" said Mrs. DeLisle. "I am sure that key of Robert's would fit the lock."
"No," said Grandmother in the tone that nobody, not even Aunt Winnifred, ever dreamed of disputing. "I will not open that chest without Eliza's permission. She confided it to my care when she went away, and I promised that it should never be opened until she came for it."
"Poor Eliza," said Mrs. DeLisle thoughtfully. "I wonder what she is like now. Very much changed, like all the rest of us, I suppose. It is almost thirty years since she was here. How pretty she was!"
"I never approved of her," said Grandmother brusquely. "She was a sentimental, fanciful creature. She might have married well but she preferred to waste her life pining over the memory of a man who was not worthy to untie the shoelace of a Laurance."
Mrs. DeLisle sighed softly and made no reply. People said that she had had her own romance in her youth and that her mother had sternly repressed it. I had heard that her marriage with Mr. DeLisle was loveless on her part and proved very unhappy. But he had been dead many years, and Aunt Winnifred never spoke of him.
"I have made up my mind what to do," said Grandmother decidedly. "I will write to Eliza and ask her if I may open the chest to see if the moths have got into it. If she refuses, well and good. I have no doubt that she will refuse. She will cling to her old sentimental ideas as long as the breath is in her body."
I rather avoided the old chest after this. It took on a new significance in my eyes and seemed to me like the tomb of something—possibly some dead and buried romance of the past.
Later on a letter came to Grandmother; she passed it over the table to Mrs. DeLisle.
"That is from Eliza," she said. "I would know her writing anywhere—none of your modern sprawly, untidy hands, but a fine lady-like script, as regular as copperplate. Read the letter, Winnifred; I haven't my glasses and I dare say Eliza's rhapsodies would tire me very much. You need not read them aloud—I can imagine them all. Let me know what she says about the chest."
Aunt Winnifred opened and read the letter and laid it down with a brief sigh.
"This is all she says about the chest. 'If it were not for one thing that is in it, I would ask you to open the chest and burn all its contents. But I cannot bear that anyone but myself should see or touch that one thing. So please leave the chest as it is, dear Aunt. It is no matter if the moths do get in.' That is all," continued Mrs. DeLisle, "and I must confess that I am disappointed. I have always had an almost childish curiosity about that old chest, but I seem fated not to have it gratified. That 'one thing' must be her wedding dress. I have always thought that she locked it away there."
"Her answer is just what I expected of her," said Grandmother impatiently. "Evidently the years have not made her more sensible. Well, I wash my hands of her belongings, moths or no moths."
It was not until ten years afterwards that I heard anything more of the old chest. Grandmother Laurance had died, but Aunt Winnifred still lived at the Grange. She was very lonely, and the winter after Grandmother's death she sent me an invitation to make her a long visit.
When I revisited the garret and saw the old blue chest in the same dusty corner, my childish curiosity revived and I begged Aunt Winnifred to tell me its history.
"I am glad you have reminded me of it," said Mrs. DeLisle. "I have intended to open the chest ever since Mother's death but I kept putting it off. You know, Amy, poor Eliza Laurance died five years ago, but even then Mother would not have the chest opened. There is no reason why it should not be examined now. If you like, we will go and open it at once and afterwards I will tell you the story."
We went eagerly up the garret stairs. Aunt knelt down before the old chest and selected a key from the bunch at her belt.
"Would it not be too provoking, Amy, if this key should not fit after all? Well, I do not believe you would be any more disappointed than I."
She turned the key and lifted the heavy lid. I bent forward eagerly. A layer of tissue paper revealed itself, with a fine tracing of sifted dust in its crinkles.
"Lift it up, child," said my aunt gently. "There are no ghosts for you, at least, in this old chest."
I lifted the paper up and saw that the chest was divided into two compartments. Lying on the top of one was a small, square, inlaid box. This Mrs. DeLisle took up and carried to the window. Lifting up the cover she laid it in my lap.
"There, Amy, look through it and let us see what old treasures have lain hidden there these forty years."
The first thing I took out was a small square case covered with dark purple velvet. The tiny clasp was almost rusted away and yielded easily. I gave a little cry of admiration. Aunt Winnifred bent over my shoulder.
"That is Eliza's portrait at the age of twenty, and that is Willis Starr's. Was she not lovely, Amy?"
Lovely indeed was the face looking out at me from its border of tarnished gilt. It was the face of a young girl, in shape a perfect oval, with delicate features and large dark-blue eyes. Her hair, caught high on the crown and falling on her neck in the long curls of a bygone fashion, was a warm auburn, and the curves of her bare neck and shoulders were exquisite.
"The other picture is that of the man to whom she was betrothed. Tell me, Amy, do you think him handsome?"
I looked at the other portrait critically. It was that of a young man of about twenty-five; he was undeniably handsome, but there was something I did not like in his face and I said so.
Aunt Winnifred made no reply—she was taking out the remaining contents of the box. There was a white silk fan with delicately carved ivory sticks, a packet of old letters and a folded paper containing some dried and crumpled flowers. Aunt laid the box aside and unpacked the chest in silence. First came a ball dress of pale-yellow satin brocade, made with the trained skirt, "baby" waist and full puffed sleeves of a former generation. Beneath it was a case containing a necklace of small but perfect pearls and a pair of tiny satin slippers. The rest of the compartment was filled with household linen, fine and costly but yellowed with age—damask table linen and webs of the uncut fabric.
In the second compartment lay a dress. Aunt Winnifred lifted it out reverently. It was a gown of rich silk that had once been white, but now, like the linen, it was yellow with age. It was simply made and trimmed with cobwebby old lace. Wrapped around it was a long white bridal veil, redolent with some strange, old-time perfume that had kept its sweetness all through the years.
"Well, Amy, this is all," said Aunt Winnifred with a quiver in her voice. "And now for the story. Where shall I begin?"
"At the very beginning, Aunty. You see I know nothing at all except her name. Tell me who she was and why she put her wedding dress away here."
"Poor Eliza!" said Aunt dreamily. "It is a sorrowful story, Amy, and it seems so long ago now. I must be an old woman. Forty years ago—and I was only twenty then. Eliza Laurance was my cousin, the only daughter of Uncle Henry Laurance. My father—your grandfather, Amy, you don't remember him—had two brothers, each of whom had an only daughter. Both these girls were called Eliza after your great-grandmother. I never saw Uncle George's Eliza but once. He was a rich man and his daughter was much sought after, but she was no beauty, I promise you that, and proud and vain to the last degree. Her home was in a distant city and she never came to Wyther Grange.
"The other Eliza Laurance was a poor man's daughter. She and I were of the same age and did not look unlike each other, although I was not so pretty by half. You can see by the portrait how beautiful she was, and it does her scant justice, for half her charm lay in her arch expression and her vivacious ways. She had her little faults, of course, and was rather over much given to romance and sentiment. This did not seem much of a defect to me then, Amy, for I was young and romantic too. Mother never cared much for Eliza, I think, but everyone else liked her. One winter Eliza came to Wyther Grange for a long visit. The Grange was a very lively place then, Amy. Eliza kept the old house ringing with merriment. We went out a great deal and she was always the belle of any festivity we attended. Yet she wore her honours easily; all the flattery and homage she received did not turn her head.