The benediction dissolved the paralysis which held all but Saunders McClellan; but stupefaction remained. Astounding crises are generally attended with little fuss, from the inability of the human intellect to grasp their enormous significance. As John "Death" McKay afterward put it, "Man, 'twas so extraordin'ry as to seem ordin'ry." Of course neither Dunlopers nor "Twenty-One's" were in a position to challenge the election, and if the Duncanites growled as they pawed over the ballots, their grumbling was presently silenced by a greater astonishment.
For out of such evenings history is made. While the minister had held forth on the rights and duties of eldership, Saunders McClellan's gaze had wandered over to Margaret McDonald—a healthy, red-cheeked girl—and he had done a little moralizing on his own account. In the presence of such an enterprising spinsterhood, bachelorhood had become an exceedingly hazardous existence, and if a man must marry, be might as weel ha' something young an' fresh! Margaret, too, was reputed industrious as pretty! Of Janet's decision, Saunders had no doubts. Between himself and Jeannie, and Timmins—meek, mild, and unencumbered—there could be no choice. Still there was nothing like certainty; 'twas always best to be off wi' the old, an' so forth!
Rising, he headed for Janet, who, with her father, Jeannie, Timmins, and the minister, stood talking at the vestry door. As he made his way forward, he reaped a portion of the Devil's promised fame. As they filed sheepishly down the aisle, the Dunlopers gave him the cold shoulder, and when he joined the group, Elder McCakeron returned a stony stare to his greeting.
"But ye needna mind that," the Devil encouraged. "He daurna tell, for his own share i' the business."
So Saunders brazened it out. "Ye ha' my congratulations, Mr. McCakeron. I hear you're to get a son-in-law oot o' this?"
If Elder McCakeron had given Saunders the tempter the glare which he now bestowed on Saunders the successfully wicked, he had not been in such lamentable case.
"Why, what is this?" the minister exclaimed. "Cause for further congratulation, Brother Timmins?"
Saunders now shone as Cupid's assistant. "He was to ha' Janet on condeetion that he made the eldership," he fulsomely explained.
The minister's glance questioned the elder.
"Well," he growled, "I'm no going back on my word."
Saunders glowed all over, and in exuberance of spirit actually winked at Margaret McDonald across the kirk. Man, but she was pretty!
"It's to your credit, Mr. McCakeron, that you should hold til a promise," Jeannie was saying. "But ye'll no be held. A man may change his mind, and since you refused Joshua, he's decided to marry on me."
Saunders blenched. He half turned to flee, but Janet's strong fingers closed on his sleeve; and as her lips moved to claim him before minister and meeting, he thought that he heard the Devil chuckling, a great way off.
IN THE INTERESTS OF CHRISTOPHER
BY MAY HARRIS
Mrs. Manstey's big country-house was temporarily empty of the guests she had gathered for a week-end in June when the two Eversley girls reached it, Saturday at noon. Their hostess met them at the door when the carriage wheels crunched on the gravelled curve of the drive before the house—a charming gray-haired woman of sixty, with a youthful face and a delicate girlish color.
"I've sent everybody away to explore—to ravage the country," she gayly explained the emptiness of the large hall, where the grouped chairs seemed recently vacated and pleasantly suggestive of suspended tete-a-tete. "I've had Rose before," Mrs. Manstey pursued, taking them up the stairs to their rooms, "but not you!" She gave Edith's shoulder an affectionate little pat. She thought the younger girl extremely beautiful—which she was, with a vivid, piquant face and charming eyes.
"I've had my day," Rose Eversley acknowledged, with her usual air of jesting gravity, that, almost ironic, made one always a little unsure of her. "Dear Mrs. Manstey, you perfectly see—don't you?—that Edith is papa's image, and—"
"And he was my old sweetheart!" Mrs. Manstey completed, with humorous appreciation of her own repetition of an old story.
"Was he, really?" Edith wondered. "Mamma says you were her friend."
Mrs. Manstey laughed. "Couldn't I have been—both?" she gayly put it. "Friends are better than sweethearts—they last longer. Though of course you won't agree, at your age, to such heresy."
"Sweethearts?" the girl pondered as she lifted her hands to take off her hat. "I—don't know. It's such a pretty word, but it doesn't mean much these days—there aren't any!" She shrugged her shoulders with a petulant pessimism her youth made amusing. "Papa was the last of the kind—he's a love!—and you let mamma have him!"
"I didn't 'let.'" Mrs. Manstey enjoyed it. "When he met your mother he forgot all about me. Think of it! I haven't seen either him or your mother in years, years, years!"
"My years!" Edith said. "I was a baby, mamma says, when she saw you last."
"So you were."
A servant knocked, with a note for Mrs. Manstey. As she took it and turned to leave the room, her smile, caressingly including Rose, went past her and lingered a thought longer—as people's smiles had a way of doing—with Edith.
"I know you're tired," she added to her smile. "Five hours of train—Get into something cool and rest. Luncheon isn't until two."
She disappeared, and Rose looked at her sister, who, with her hat in her hand, was going into her room.
"Well—?" Rose lifted her voice in its faint drawl of interrogation.
Edith looked at her absently. "I don't know," she said, drawing her straight brows into a puzzled frown. "I'm as far away as ever—I'm so perplexed."
"Well—you'll have to decide, you know."
Edith shook her head impatiently and went into her room, closing the door. She hurried out of her dusty travelling things into cool freshness, and, settled in the most comfortable chair, gave herself up to an apparently endless fit of musing. She was so physically content that her mind refused to respond with any vigorous effort; to think at all was a crumpled rose-leaf.
From the lower hall the clock chimed one with musical vibrations. Edith leaned forward with her chin on her hand, driving her thoughts into a definite path. The curtains stirred in a breeze from the out-of-doors whose domain swept with country greenness and adventitious care away from the window under the high brilliance of the sun.
Close to the window a writing-table, with blotter, pens, and ink, made a focal-point for her gaze. At first a mere detail in her line of vision, it attained by degrees, it seemed, a definite relevancy to her train of thought. She looked in her portmanteau for her desk, and getting out some note-paper, went to the table and began to write a letter.
What she had to say seemed difficult to decide. She wrote a line, stared out of the window with fixity, and then wrote again—a flurry of quick, decisive strokes as if at determinate pressure. But a sigh struck across her mood, and almost against her will the puzzled crinkle returned to her brow. The curtain blew against her face, disarranging her hair, and as she lifted her hand to put back a straggling lock, the wind tossed the sheet of the letter she was writing out of the window. Her eyes, as she sprang up, followed its flight, but it whirled around the corner of the house and was lost to her desperate gaze.
Neglige, even of the most-becoming description, was not to be thought of in pursuing the loss, for the silence of the house had stirred to the sound of gay voices, the movement of feet.
Rose, also in neglige, opened the door between them and found her madly tearing off her pale-blue kimono. "What's the matter?" She paused, staring.
"Heavens! My shoes—please!—there by the table." She kicked off her ridiculous blue slippers and pulled on the small colonials her sister in open wonder handed her. "If you had only been dressed," she almost wailed, "you might have been able to get it."
"My letter!" Tragic, in spite of a mouthful of pins—which is a woman's undoubted preference, no matter how many befrilled pincushions entreat a division of spoils,—she turned her face with its import of sudden things to her sister in explanation. "I was writing a letter and it blew out of the window!"
"Well, if it did—"
"But, don't you see?—I was writing to Christopher! I had been thinking and thinking, and at last I screwed up my courage to answer his letter. I had all but signed my name!"
Rose Eversley began to laugh helplessly; heartlessly, her sister thought.
"If you hadn't signed it—" she at last comforted her sister's indignant face that was reflected from the mirror, where she stood as she fastened the white stock at her throat and snapped the clasp of her belt.
"Signed it!" She was almost in tears. "What difference will that make when I claim the letter? I must find it! But of course some one who knows me will be sure to find it. And that letter, of all letters!"
"If I were you, Edith," Rose advised, calmly, "I shouldn't—"
"Well?"—with her hand on the door-knob.
"—try to find it. It will be impossible to trace it to you, in that case."
"But don't you see—"
"Wait!" Rose caught and pulled her back. "How could they know? You'll get in much deeper. What had you written?"
"I said, 'Dear Christopher'—"
Rose laughed. "I'm glad you didn't say 'Dear Mr. Brander.' In that case you'd have given him away. But 'Christopher' is such an unusual name, they might—Sherlock Holmes could trace him by it alone."
"You are a Job's comforter—a perfect Eliphaz the Temanite! Oh, oh!" Her soft crescendo was again tragic.
"In effect you said: 'Dear Christopher, as you have so often entreated, I have at last decided to be thine. The tinkle of thy shekels, now that I am so nearly shekelless myself, has done its fatal worst. I am thine—'"
"Oh, let me go!" Edith cried, in a fury close to tears. "You haven't any feeling. You are not going to sacrifice yourself!"
"To a good-looking young man who loves me exceedingly, and to something over a million? No, I am not!" Rose said, dryly.
"Oh, it's dreadful! Perfectly!" Edith cried, and on her indecision Rose hung another bit of wisdom:
"Why don't you go down in a leisurely way and investigate? You know the direction it blew away; follow it. If you meet any one, be admiring the scenery!"
Again Edith's look deserved the foot-lights, but Rose shrugged her shoulders and withdrew her detaining hand. Edith caught up her parasol and ran down the stairs. The big hall was empty. From a room on the right came a click of billiard-balls.
"Perhaps they are all in the house!" she thought, and drew a small breath of relief.
On the door-step she paused, with her parasol open, and considered. The house faced the west; her room was to the south, and the letter had disappeared to the east. She chose her line of advance carefully careless.
The lawn on the eastern side of the house sloped to an artificial pond, and near it a vine-covered summer-house made a dim retreat from the June sun. Look as she would, though, no faintest glimpse of white paper rewarded her gaze.
She strolled on—daunted, but still persistent, with the wind blowing her hair out of order—to the door of the summer-house. Within it a young man was standing, reading her letter. He looked up and took off his hat hastily, crumpling the letter in his hand. She saw he was quite ugly, with determined-looking eyes, and the redemption of a pleasant mouth.
She hesitated, the words "That is my letter!" absolutely frozen on her lips. He had been reading it! It seemed impossible for her to claim it, and so for a moment's silence she stood, with the green vines of the doorway—
Half light, half shade—
framing herself and her white umbrella.
"You are looking for a cool spot?"—he deprecatingly took the initiative. "This is a good choice. There's a wind—"
"Horrid!" she interrupted, so vehemently that she caught his involuntary surprise. "I don't like the wind," she added.
"'It's an ill wind,' you know, 'that doesn't blow some one good.'"
"I assure you this is an ill wind! It has blown me all of the ill it could."
"Do come out of it," he begged. "The vines keep it off. It's a half-hour until luncheon," he added, "unless they've changed since I was here last." He put up his watch. "We're fellow guests. You came this morning, didn't you?—while we were out. I came last night."
She seated herself provisionally on the little bench by the door, and dug the point of her umbrella into the ground. Her mind was busy. He still held the letter. She had had a forlorn hope that he would throw down the sheet; but he did not. Was there any strategy, she wondered. But none suggested itself; and indeed, as if divining her thought, he put the crumpled sheet in his pocket. Her eyes followed despairingly the "Dear Christopher," in her clear and, she felt, unfortunately individual writing, as it disappeared in his capacious blue serge pocket.
Different ideas wildly presented themselves, but none would do. Could she ask him to climb a tree? Of course in that case he would have to take off his coat and put it down, and give her the opportunity to recover the horrible letter from his pocket. But one cannot ask a stranger to climb a tree simply to exhibit his acrobatic powers. And trees!—there were none save saplings in a radius of fifty yards! Could she tumble in the pond? It would be even less desirable, and he would simply wade in and pull her out, with no need to remove his coat.
"Mrs. Manstey," he was saying, a little tentatively, upholding the burden of conversation, "sent some of us out riding this morning, and Ralph Manstey raced us home by a short cut cross country. That is, he took the short cut. We gave it the cut direct and looked for gaps."
"If I had been out, I'd have taken every fence," she said, boastfully, and then laughed. He laughed too.
"If I—if you were my sister, I shouldn't let you follow Ralph Manstey on horseback. He's utterly reckless."
"So am I," she came in, with spirit. "At home I ride anything and jump everything."
"Well, you shouldn't if you were my sister," he repeated, decisively.
"I'm sorry for your sister," she declared.
"Well, you see, I haven't one," he said, gayly, and smiled down at her lifted face. Remembering the letter, she corrected her expression to colder lines.
"There's no one to introduce us,"—he broke the pause. "Mayn't I—" He colored and put his hand into his pocket, and taking out her letter, folded the blank sheet out and produced a pencil. "It's hard to call one's own name," he continued. "Suppose we write our names?"
As he was clumsy in finesse, she understood his idea, and her eyes flashed. But she said nothing as he scribbled and handed the paper to her. She read, "C.K. Farringdon," and played with the pencil.
"Mr. Farringdon,"—she said it over meditatively. "How plainly you write! My name's Edith Eversley," she added, tranquilly, and, because she must, per force, returned the sheet to him. She had a wicked delight in the defeat of his strategy which she could cleverly conceal.
"I wish," he deprecated, gently, but with persistence, "that you would write your name here—won't you, as a souvenir?"
But she shook her head and rose—angry, which she hid, but also amused at his pertinacity.
"I can't write decently with a pencil," she said, carelessly, and her eyes followed his hand putting the letter back into his pocket. That she should have actually had the letter in her hand, and had to give it back! But no quick-witted pretext had occurred to help her. Rose would think her stupid—utterly lacking in expedients.
She left the summer-house, unfurling her umbrella, and Farringdon followed instantly, his failure apparently forgotten.
They passed the tennis-court on their way to the house, and—
"Do you play?" he asked.
"A little." Her intonation mocked the formula.
"Might we, then, this afternoon—"
She gave him a side glance. "If you don't mind losing," she suggested.
"But I play to win," he modestly met it, and again they laughed.
Rose Eversley looked with curiosity at her sister when she entered the dining-room for luncheon, followed by Farringdon, but Edith's face was non-committal. She was bright and vivacious, and made herself very pleasant to Farringdon, who sat by her. After luncheon they went to the tennis-court together.
"A delightful young man," Mrs. St. Cleve commented, putting up her lorgnette as she stood at the window with Rose, watching their disappearing figures, "but so far as money is concerned, a hopeless detrimental. Don't let your pretty sister get interested in him. He hasn't a cent except what he makes—he's an architect."
"Edith is to be depended upon," Rose said, enigmatically. She was five years older than her sister, and had drawn the inference of her own plainness, comparatively, ever since Edith had put on long dresses.
"Have you written to Christopher?" she asked, that night, invading Edith's room with her hair-brushes.
"No, I haven't," Edith said, thoughtfully. "I tried just now. It seems—I don't know how, exactly, but I just can't write it over again! If I had the letter I wrote this morning, I suppose I would send it; but to write it all over again—it's too horrible!"
"'Horrible'!" Rose repeated. "Very few people would think it that! He's rich, thoroughly good, and devoted to you."
"You put the least last," Edith said, slowly, "and you're right. I'm not sure Christopher is so devoted to me, after all. He may only fancy that I like him, and from his high estate—"
"Nonsense!" Rose said, warmly. "He isn't, as you know, that sort of a man. I've known him for years—" She paused.
Edith said nothing; she brushed her hair with careful slowness.
"He is so sincere—so straight-forward," Rose went on, in an impersonal tone; "and as papa has had so much ill luck and our circumstances have changed—they are changed, you know, though we are still able to keep up a certain appearance—he has been unchanged. You ought to consider—"
"You consider Christopher's interests altogether," Edith said. "I've some, too."
"Oh no! You needn't think of them with Christopher," Rose said, seriously. "That's just it! He would so completely look after yours! It's his, in this regard, that need consideration."
"Well—I'll consider Christopher's interests," Edith said, quietly.
She remembered perfectly the letter she had written—which was in an ugly young man's pocket! It had been
"DEAR CHRISTOPHER,—Do you think you really want me? If you are very sure, I am willing. I don't care for anybody else, so perhaps I can learn to care for you.
"The only thing is, you will spoil me, and they've done that at home already! and Rose says I need a strong hand! So in your interests—" and then it had blown away!
When Rose, after some desultory talk, went back to her room, Edith wrote another letter:
"DEAR CHRISTOPHER,—I know you have made a mistake. I don't care for you—to marry you—a bit, but I like you, oh, a quantity! We have always been such friends, and we always will be, won't we? but not that way.
"Some day you will be very happy with some one else who will suit you better. Then you will know how right I am.
With kindest wishes,
She took this letter down the next morning to put in the bag, but the postman had come and gone. As she stood in the hall holding the letter, Farringdon came up.
"Good morning," he said. "You've missed the postman? I will be very happy to post it for you on my way to church."
"Thank you. But if it's on the way to church, I'm going myself, so I needn't trouble you."
Farringdon merely bowed, without saying anything banal about the absence of trouble. She was demurely conscious beneath his courtesy of the effort he was making to see her handwriting, and she wondered if he thought her refusal rude and a confirmation of his suspicion, or simply casual.
Whatever he thought, it did not prevent the steps as she came out a few hours later in the freshness of white muslin, with her umbrella, prayer-book, and an unobtrusive white envelope in her hands.
They were going together down then drive—under his umbrella—before she quite grasped the situation.
"We seem to be the only ones," she hazarded.
"We are," he nodded.
"Mrs. Manstey has a headache," Edith said, "but the others—"
"The sun is too hot!"—he smiled.
"But you—I shouldn't have thought—" She paused, a little embarrassed.
"Yes?" he helped her. "That I was one of those who go to church, you mean?"
"Oh no!" she protested; but it was what she had meant.
"You are right," he said, without heeding the protest, and his ugly but compellingly attractive face was turned to hers. "I'm not in the least a scoffer, though; pray believe that. It's just that I—" he hesitated. "Do you remember a little verse:
'Although I enter not, Yet round about the spot Sometimes I hover, And at the sacred gate With longing eyes I wait, Expectant of her.'"
Her face flushed. "But," she reverted, with naivete, "you said you were going to church—"
"But because I knew you were one of the women who would be sure to go!" he said, positively.
She rebelled. "I don't look devotional at all!"
"But your eyes do," he declared. "They're suggestive of cathedrals and beautiful dimness, and a voice going up and up, like the 'Lark' song of Schubert's, don't you know!"
"No, I don't!" she said, wilfully; but she was conscious of his eyes on her face, and angry that her cheeks flushed.
They both were silent for a little, and when they left Mrs. Manstey's grounds for the uneven country road, that became shortly, by courtesy, the village street, they had a view of the little church with its tiny tower.
"The post-office," Farringdon explained, "is at the other end of the street. Service is beginning, I dare say. Shall we wait until it is over, or post the letter now?"
"No; after service," she agreed, and inopportunely the letter slipped from her hand and fell, with the address down, on the grass. She stooped hurriedly, but he was before her, and picking it up, returned it scrupulously, with the right side down, as it had fallen. She slipped it quickly, almost guiltily, into her prayer-book.
The church was small, the congregation smaller, and the clergyman a little weary of the empty benches. But the two faces in the Manstey pew were so bright, so vivid with the vigor of youth, that his jaded mind freshened to meet the interest of new hearers.
But neither Edith nor Farringdon listened attentively to the sermon, for their minds were busy with other things. He was thinking of the girl beside him, whose hymnal he was sharing, and whose voice, very sweet and clear, if of no great compass, blended with his own fine tenor. Her thoughts could not stray far from the letter and—from other things!
The benediction sent them from the cool dimness into the sunlight, and she looked down the street toward the post-office.
"It's quite at the other end of the street," Farringdon said, opening his umbrella and tentatively discouraging the effort. "By the way, your letter won't leave, I remember, until the seven-o'clock train. The Brathwaites are leaving by that train; you can send your letter down then."
She found herself accepting this proposition, for the blaze of the sun on the length of the dusty street was deterring. They walked back almost in silence the way they had come; but with his hand on Mrs. Manstey's gate and the house less than two hundred yards away, Farringdon paused.
"You have been writing to 'Christopher,'" he said, quietly. "I don't want you to send the letter." He was quite pale, but she did not notice it or the tensity of his face; his audacity made her for the moment dumb.
"You don't want me to—!" She positively gasped. "I never heard of such—"
"Impertinence," he supplied, gravely. "It looks that way, I know, but it isn't. I can't stand on conventions—I've too much at stake. I don't mean to lose you—as you lost your letter!"
She thought she was furious. "You knew it was my letter!" she accused.
They had paused just within the gate, in the shade of a great mulberry-tree that stood sentinel.
"Forgive me," he said. "Not at first—but I guessed it. My name," he added, "is Christopher, too."
He took a crumpled sheet, that had been smoothed and folded carefully, from his pocket. "Do you remember what you wrote?" he asked, in a low voice.
Her face was crimson.
"It blew to me. Such things don't happen every day." He had taken off his hat, and, bareheaded, he bent and looked questioningly into her eyes. "My name is Christopher," he repeated. "I can't—it isn't possible—that I can let another Christopher have that letter."
Her eyes fell before his.
"I"—he paused—"I play tennis very well, you said. I play to win! What I give to the interest of a game—"
"Is nothing to what you give to the interests of Christopher!"
As she mockingly spoke, Farringdon caught a glimpse of one or two people strolling down from the house. "That letter," he hastily said,—"you can't take it from me! Do you remember that wind? It blew you to me! Dearest, darling, don't be angry. You can't take yourself away."
A little smile touched her lips—mutinous, but tremulous, too, and something in her look made his heart beat fast.
"I didn't—The last letter wasn't like the first," she said, incoherently, but it seemed he understood.
"I knew you were you as soon as I saw you," he said, idiotically.
"And," she murmured, as they walked perforce to meet the people coming toward them down the drive, "after all, you were Christopher!"
THE WRONG DOOR
BY FRANCIS WILLING WHARTON
The stairs were long and dark; they seemed to stretch an interminable length, and she was too tired to notice the soft carpet and wonder why Mrs. Wilson had departed from her iron-clad rules and for once considered the comfort of her lodgers. The rail of the banisters lay cold but supporting under the pressure of her weary hand, and, at her own door at last, she fitted the key in the lock. Something was wrong; it would not turn; she drew it out and tried the handle. The door opened, and entering, she stood rooted to the spot.
Had her poor little room doubled its size and trebled its furniture? Her imagination, always active, for one wild moment suggested that old Grandaunt Crosbie from over the seas had remembered her poor relatives and worked the miracle; she always had Grandaunt Crosbie as a possible trump in the hand of fate. And then the dull reality shattered her foolish castle—she was in the wrong room. All this comfort had a legitimate possessor, whose Aunt Crosbie did her proper part in life.
She walked mechanically to a window and looked down; yes, there was the bleak yard she usually found below her, four houses off; she had come into the wrong door, and now to retrace her useless steps.
She paused a moment, and slowly revolving, made bitter inventory of the charming interior. Soft, bright stuffs at the windows, on the chairs; pictures; books; flowers even; a big bunch of holly on the mantelpiece. A sitting-room—no obnoxious bed behind an inadequate screen, no horrid white china pitcher in full view! What woman owned all this? She stared about for characteristic traces. No sewing! Pipes! It belonged to a man.
She must go. She moved toward the door, and dropped her eyes on the little hard-coal fire in the grate; it tempted her, and, with a sort of defiance, she moved over to it and warmed her chilled fingers. A piano, too, and not to teach children on! To play upon, to enjoy! When was her time to come? Every dog has his day! Where was hers? Here some man was surrounded with comforts and pleasures, and she slaved all day at her teaching, and came home at night tired, cold, to a miserable little half-furnished room—alone.
Resting her arms on the mantelpiece, she dropped her face a moment on them and rebelled, kicking hard against the pricks; and sunk in that profitless occupation, heard vaguely the sound of rapid steps and suddenly realized what they might mean.
She straightened her young form and stared, fascinated, at the door. Good heavens! What should she do? What should she say? If she appeared confused, she would be thought a thief; she must have some excuse: she had come—to—find a lady—was waiting! She sank into a little chair and tried not to tremble visibly to the most unobservant eye, and the door opened, shut, and the owner of the room stood before her.
"How do you do?" said Amory, and coming forward, he shook hands warmly. "Please forgive me for being late, but I could not get away a moment before. Where" he looked about the room—"where is Mrs. White?"
The girl had risen nervously, and stood with her fingers clasped, looking at him; she answered, stammering, "She—I—she—couldn't come."
"Couldn't come?" repeated the young man. "I'm awfully sorry. Do sit down."
She still stood, holding to the back of her chair. "She said she would come if she could, and I was to—but I had better go."
Amory laughed. "Not a bit of it. Now I've got you, I sha'n't let you go. It was very brave of you to come alone. You know brothers-in-law are presumptuous sometimes." He smiled down into the soft, shy, dark eyes raised to his, and looked at his watch. "You must have waited a half-hour; I said four o'clock. I'm so sorry."
Her eyes dropped. "I was late, too," she answered, and felt a horrible weight lifted from her. (They surely could not be coming; she could go in a moment; he would never know until she was beyond his reach. But she reckoned without her host.)
"Draw up to the fire," he began, and wheeled up a big armchair, and gently made her sit in it. "Put your feet on the fender and let's have a long talk. You know I sha'n't see you before the wedding, and I'd like to know something of my brother's wife. Tom said I must see you once before you and he got off to Paris, and I may not be able to get West for the wedding; so this is the one chance I shall have." He drew his chair near, and looked down at her with friendly, pleasant eyes.
She must say something. She rested her head on the high back of her chair, and felt a sensation of bewildered happiness. It was dangerous; she must get away in a moment; but for a moment she might surely enjoy this extraordinary situation that fortune had thrust upon her—the charm of the room, the warmth, and something more wonderful still—companionship. She looked at him; she must say something.
"You think you can't come to the wedding?" she said, and blushed.
Amory shook his head. "I'm afraid not, though of course I shall try. Now"—he stared gravely at her—"now tell me how you came to know Tom and why you like him. I wonder if it is for my reasons or ones of your own."
He was surprised by the deep blush which answered his words. What a wonderful wild-rose color on her rather pale cheek!
"Don't you think it very warm in here?" said the girl.
Amory got up, and going to the window, opened it a little; then, stopping at his desk, picked up a note and brought it to the fire.
"Why, here is a note from Mrs. White," he said. "Why didn't you tell me?"
She had risen, and laid her hand an instant on his arm. "Don't open it—yet," she said. Her desperation lent her invention; just in this one way he must not find her out. She gave him a look, half arch, half pleading. "I'll explain later," she said.
Amory felt a stir of most unnecessary emotion; he understood Tom.
"Of course," he said, dropping it on the mantelpiece,—"just as you like. Now let's go back to Tom. You see,"—he sat down, and tipping his chair a little, gave her a rather curious smile,—"Tom and I have been enigmas to each other always, deeply attached and hopelessly incomprehensible, and I had my own ideas of what Tom would marry—and—you are not it;—not in the least!" He leant forward and brought his puzzled gaze to bear upon her.
She settled deeply into her chair, half to get farther away from those searching gray eyes, half because she was taking terrible risks, and she might as well enjoy it; the chair was so comfortable, and the fire so cheerful, and Amory—it occurred to her with a sort of exhilaration what it would be to please him. She had pleased other people, why not him? Her lids drooped; she looked down at her shabby gloves.
"What did you expect?" she said.
He leant back and laughed. "What did I expect? Well, frankly, a silly little blond thing, all curls and furbelows!"
She raised those heavy lids of hers and gazed straight at him. "Was that Tom's description?" she asked, and raised her eyebrows. They were delicately pencilled, and Amory watched her and noted them.
"No," he answered; "he didn't describe you, but I thought that was his taste. Now, you are neither silly nor little; no blonde; you have no curls and no furbelows. In fact"—he smiled with something delightfully intimate in his eyes—"in fact, you are much more the kind of girl I should like to marry."
It gave her an absurd little thrill. She sat up, rebellious. "If I would have liked you," she returned.
Amory laughed and put his hands in his pockets. "Of course," he said; "but you would, you know!"
"Why?" she demanded, opening her eyes very wide; and again he inwardly complimented her on her eyebrows, and above them her hair grew in a charming line on her forehead. The little points are all pretty, he thought, and it is the details that count in the long run. How much one could grow to dislike blurry eyebrows and ugly ears, even if a woman had rosy cheeks and golden hair!
"Why? Because I should bully you into it. I'm an obstinate kind of creature, and get things by hanging on. Women give in if you worry them long enough. But tell me more about Tom," he went on. "Did he dance and shoot his way into your heart? I wish I'd been there to see! You take a very bad tintype, by the way. Tom sent me that." He got up, and taking a picture from the mantelpiece, tossed it into her lap, and leaning over the back of her chair, looked down on it. "Have you a sentiment about it?" he added, smiling. "It does look like Tom."
She held it and gravely studied it. She colored, and, still looking at the picture, felt her way suddenly open. "Yes, it does look like him," she said, and putting it down, leant forward and looked into the fire. "Do you want to know why I accepted Tom?" she added, slowly. She was fully launched on a career of deception now, and felt a desperate exultation.
Amory stared at her and nodded.
She kept her eyes on the fire. "I wanted—a home."
Amory sat motionless, then spoke. "Why—why, weren't you happy with your aunt and uncle?"
She shook her head. "No; and Tom was good and kind and very—"
Amory got up and shook himself. "Oh, but that's an awful mistake," he said.
"I know," said the girl, and turning, looked at him a moment. "Well, I've come to tell you that I have—" She hesitated.
Amory slid down into the chair beside her. "Changed your mind?"
"That note of your aunt's?"
He sat back and folded his arms. "I see," he said, and there followed a long silence.
The girl began buttoning and unbuttoning her glove. She must go; she was frightened, elated, amused. She did not want to go, but go she must. Would he ever forgive her?
"Don't—don't hate me!" she said.
Amory awoke from his stunned meditation. "My dear young lady, of course not," he began; "only, Tom will be terribly broken up. It's the only thing to do now, I suppose, but why did you do the other?"
She looked at him. As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, she thought. "I was unhappy and foolish." She hesitated. "But you needn't be troubled about Tom. He—" Again she hesitated.
"Not troubled about old Tom!" expostulated Amory.
"Wait." She put up her hand. "He made a mistake, too; he doesn't care so very much, and he has already flirted—"
Amory laid his hand on her chair. "Tom!"
"Yes," she repeated; "he really is rather a flirt, and—"
She nodded. "Yes; really, it did hurt me a little, only—"
She faced him. "Yes, Tom. What do you think Tom is—blind and deaf and dumb? Any man worth his salt can flirt."
Amory stared at her. "Oh, he can, can he?"
She nodded. "He was very good and kind, but I saw that he was changing; and then he met a little fair-haired, blue-eyed—"
Amory interposed. "I told you."
She gave him a curious smile. "Yes, a silly little blond thing, just that."
But his satisfaction in his perspicacity was short-lived; he walked up and down the room in his perplexity. "I can't get over it," he murmured. "I thought it a mad love-match, all done in a few weeks; and to have it turn out like this! You—"
"Mercenary," she interjected, with a sad little smile.
He looked at her. "Yes; and Tom—"
"Fickle," she ended again.
"Yes, and Tom fickle. Why, it shakes the foundations!"
The girl felt a sudden wave of shame and weariness. She must go. She hadn't been fair, but it had been so sudden, so difficult. She looked at him, and getting up, wondered if she would ever see him again.
"I must go," she said. "I came—" She hesitated, and a sudden desire to have him know her as herself swept over her. It needed only another lie or two in the beginning, and then some truth would come through to sustain her. She went on: "I came because I wanted to know what you were like; Tom had talked so much of you, and I wanted some one to understand and perhaps explain; and now I must go and leave your warm, delightful room for the comfortless place I live in. Don't think too hardly of me."
Amory shook his head. "You don't leave me until you have had your tea." He rang the bell. "But what do you mean by a comfortless home? Does Mrs. White neglect you?"
She looked at the fire. "I don't live with her—now; I live alone; I work for my living."
Amory got up as the maid brought in the tea-tray, and setting it beside them, he poured out her tea; as he handed her the cup, he brought his brows together sternly, as though making out her very mysterious words.
"You work for your living?" he repeated. "I thought you lived with Mrs. White, and that they were well off."
"I did, but now I've come back to my real life, which I would have left had I married Tom."
He nodded. "I see. I had heard awfully little about it all; I was away, and then it was so quickly done."
"I know," she went on, hurriedly; "but let me tell you, and you will understand me better later—that is, if you want to understand me."
"Most certainly I do." Amory sustained the strange sad gaze of her charming, heavy-lidded eyes in a sort of maze. Her mat skin looked white, now that her blushes were gone, and her delicate, irregular features a little pinched. He drank his tea and watched her while she talked.
"I teach music," she began; "to do it I left my relations in the country and came to this horrible great city. I have one dreary, cold room, as unlike this as two rooms can be. I have tried to make it seem like a home, but when I saw this I knew how I had failed."
"Poor little girl!" said Amory.
"I have the ordinary feelings of a girl," she went on, "and yet I see before me the long stretch of a dreary life. I love music; I hear none but the strumming of children. I like pictures, books, people; I see none. I like to laugh, to talk; there is no one to laugh with, to talk to. I am very—unhappy." The last words were spoken very low, but the misery in them touched Amory deeply.
"Poor little girl!" he said again, and gently laid his hand on the arm of her chair. "But how can Tom know this and let you go? You are mistaken in Tom, I am sure, and—"
The girl straightened her slender figure and rose. "Oh no! it is all right. He doesn't love me, your Tom; and so the world goes—I must go, too. I—"
"Don't go," said Amory. "Let me—" She shook her head. "You have no more to do; you have comforted and warmed and fed a hungry wanderer, and she must make haste home. Thank you for everything; thank you."
Amory felt a pang as she stood up. Not to see her again—why, that was absurd! Why should he not see her? She had quarrelled with Tom, yes, and perhaps the family might be hard on her; but he—he understood, and why should he shake off her acquaintance? She was not for Tom. Well, it was just as well. How could any one think this girl would suit Tom—big-bearded, clumsy, excellent fellow that he was?
He put out his hand. "Mary," he said. The girl stared at him with eyes suddenly wide open; he smiled into them.
"I have a right to call you that," he proceeded, "haven't I? I might have been your brother." He took her hand, and then laughed a little. "I am almost glad I am not. You wouldn't have suited Tom, and as a sister, somehow, you wouldn't have suited me!" He laughed again. "But"—he hesitated; she still stared straight up at him with her soft, dark eyes, and he thought them very beautiful—"but why shouldn't I see you—not as a brother, but an acquaintance—friend? You say you need them. Tell me where you have this room of yours?"
The vivid beauty of her blush startled him, and she drew her hand quickly from his.
"Oh no!" she said, hurriedly. "Let things drop between us; here—forever."
Amory stood before her with an expression which reminded her of his description of himself—obstinate; yes, he looked it.
"Why?" he urged. "Just because you are not to marry Tom, is there any reason why we should not like each other—is there? That is—if we do! I do," he laughed. "Do you?"
Her lids had dropped; she looked very slim, and young, and shy. "Yes," she said.
It gave Amory a good deal of pleasure for a monosyllable.
"Well, then, your number?" he said.
She shook her head.
"I'll ask Tom," he retorted. "He will tell me."
He was baffled and curiously charmed by the smile that touched her sharply curved young mouth.
"Tom may," she said.
"I was ready to accept you as a sister," he persisted, "and you won't even admit me as a casual visitor!"
She took a step toward the door. "Wait till you hear Tom's story," she said.
Amory stared curiously at her. "Do you think he will be vindictive, after all?" he said. "Why should he be, if what you say is just?"
She paused. "Wait till you see Tom and Mrs. White; then if you want to know me, why—" She was blushing again.
"Well," Amory demanded, "what shall I do?"
She looked up with a sort of childish charm, curling her lip, lighting her eyes with something of laughter and mischief. "Why, look for me and you'll find me."
"Find you?" repeated Amory, bewildered.
She nodded. "Yes, if you look. To-morrow will be Sunday; every one will be going to church, and I with them. Stand on the steps of this house at 10.30 precisely, and look as far as you can, and you will see—me. Goodnight."
"Good night." Amory took her hand. "Let me see you home; it's dark."
She laughed. "You don't lack persistency, do you?" she said, with a sweetness which gave the words a pleasant twist. "But don't come, please. I'm used to taking care of myself; but—before I go let me write my note also." She went to the desk and scratched a line, and folding it, handed it to him. "There," she said; "read Mrs. White's note and then that, but wait till you hear the house door bang. Promise not before."
"Please—" began Amory.
"Promise," she repeated.
"I promise," he said, and again they shook hands for good-by.
"That's three times," thought the girl as she went to the door, and turning an instant, she smiled at him. "Good-by." The door closed softly behind her, and Amory waited a moment, then went to it, and opening it, listened; the house door shut lightly, and seizing his notes, he stood by the window in the twilight and read them. The first was as follows:
"DEAR MR. AMORY,—Mary and I had to return unexpectedly to Cleveland. Forgive our missing this chance of meeting you, but Mr. White's note is urgent, as his sister is very ill. Mary regrets greatly not seeing you before the wedding.
Amory threw the paper down. "Do I see visions?" he cried, and hastily unfolded the second; it ran as follows:
"Forgive me; I got into the wrong house, the wrong room. I was very tired, and my latch-key fitted, and I didn't know until I saw your fire, and then you came. Don't think me a very bold and horrid girl, and forgive me. Your fire was so warm and bright, and—you were kind.
Amory stared at the paper a moment; then, catching his hat and flying down the stairs, opened the outer door.
The night was bitter cold, with a white frost everywhere; but in the twilight no solitary figure was in view; the long street was empty. He ran the length of it, then back to his room, and throwing down his hat, he lit his pipe. It needed thought.
WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS
We had ordered our dinners and were sitting in the Turkish room at the club, waiting to be called, each in his turn, to the dining-room. With its mixture of Oriental appointments in curtains, cushions, and little tables of teak-wood the Turkish room expressed rather an adventurous conception of the Ottoman taste; but it was always a cozy place whether you found yourself in it with cigars and coffee after dinner, or with whatever liquid or solid appetizer you preferred in the half-hour or more that must pass before dinner after you had made out your menu. It intimated an exclusive possession in the three or four who happened first to find themselves together in it, and it invited the philosophic mind to contemplation more than any other spot in the club.
Our rather limited little down-town dining club was almost a celibate community at most times. A few husbands and fathers joined us at lunch; but at dinner we were nearly always a company of bachelors, dropping in an hour or so before we wished to dine, and ordering from a bill of fare what we liked. Some dozed away the intervening time; some read the evening papers, or played chess; I preferred the chance society of the Turkish room. I could be pretty sure of finding Wanhope there in these sympathetic moments, and where Wanhope was there would probably be Rulledge, passively willing to listen and agree, and Minver ready to interrupt and dispute. I myself liked to look in and linger for either the reasoning or the bickering, as it happened, and now seeing the three there together, I took a provisional seat behind the painter, who made no sign of knowing I was present. Rulledge was eating a caviar sandwich, which he had brought from the afternoon tea-table near by, and he greedily incited Wanhope to go on, in the polite pause which the psychologist had let follow on my appearance, with what he was saying. I was not surprised to find that his talk related to a fact just then intensely interesting to the few, rapidly becoming the many, who were privy to it; though Wanhope had the air of stooping to it from a higher range of thinking.
"I shouldn't have supposed, somehow," he said with a knot of deprecation between his fine eyes, "that he would have had the pluck."
"Perhaps he hadn't," Minver suggested.
Wanhope waited for a thoughtful moment of censure eventuating in toleration. "You mean that she—"
"I don't see why you say that, Minver," Rulledge interposed chivalrously, with his mouth full of sandwich.
"I didn't say it," Minver contradicted.
"You implied it; and I don't think it's fair. It's easy enough to build up a report of that kind on the half-knowledge of rumor which is all that any outsider can have in the case."
"So far," Minver said, with unbroken tranquillity, "as any such edifice has been erected, you are the architect, Rulledge. I shouldn't think you would like to go round insinuating that sort of thing. Here is Acton," and he now acknowledged my presence with a backward twist of his head, "on the alert for material already. You ought to be more careful where Acton is, Rulledge."
"It would be great copy if it were true," I owned.
Wanhope regarded us all three, in this play of our qualities, with the scientific impartiality of a bacteriologist in the study of a culture offering some peculiar incidents. He took up a point as remote as might be from the personal appeal. "It is curious how little we know of such matters, after all the love-making and marrying in life and all the inquiry of the poets and novelists." He addressed himself in this turn of his thought, half playful, half earnest, to me, as if I united with the functions of both a responsibility for their shortcomings.
"Yes," Minver said, facing about toward me. "How do you excuse yourself for your ignorance in matters where you're always professionally making such a bluff of knowledge? After all the marriages you have brought about in literature, can you say positively and specifically how they are brought about in life?"
"No, I can't," I admitted. "I might say that a writer of fiction is a good deal like a minister who continually marries people without knowing why."
"No, you couldn't, my dear fellow," the painter retorted. "It's part of your swindler to assume that you do know why. You ought to find out."
Wanhope interposed abstractly, or as abstractly as he could: "The important thing would always be to find which of the lovers the confession, tacit or explicit, began with."
"Acton ought to go round and collect human documents bearing on the question. He ought to have got together thousands of specimens from nature. He ought to have gone to all the married couples he knew, and asked them just how their passion was confessed; he ought to have sent out printed circulars, with tabulated questions. Why don't you do it, Acton?"
I returned, as seriously as could have been expected: "Perhaps it would be thought rather intimate. People don't like to talk of such things."
"They're ashamed," Minver declared. "The lovers don't either of them, in a given ease, like to let others know how much the woman had to do with making the offer, and how little the man."
Minver's point provoked both Wanhope and myself to begin a remark at the same time. We begged each other's pardon, and Wanhope insisted that I should go on.
"Oh, merely this," I said. "I don't think they're so much ashamed as that they have forgotten the different stages. You were going to say?"
"Very much what you said. It's astonishing how people forget the vital things, and remember trifles. Or perhaps as we advance from stage to stage what once seemed the vital things turn to trifles. Nothing can be more vital in the history of a man and a woman than how they became husband and wife, and yet not merely the details, but the main fact, would seem to escape record if not recollection. The next generation knows nothing of it."
"That appears to let Acton out," Minver said. "But how do you know what you were saying, Wanhope?"
"I've ventured to make some inquiries in that region at one time. Not directly, of course. At second and third hand. It isn't inconceivable, if we conceive of a life after this, that a man should forget, in its more important interests and occupations, just how he quitted this world, or at least the particulars of the article of death. Of course, we must suppose a good portion of eternity to have elapsed." Wanhope continued, dreamily, with a deep breath almost equivalent to something so unscientific as a sigh: "Women are charming, and in nothing more than the perpetual challenge they form for us. They are born defying us to match ourselves with them."
"Do you mean that Miss Hazelwood—" Rulledge began, but Minver's laugh arrested him.
"Nothing so concrete, I'm afraid," Wanhope gently returned. "I mean, to match them in graciousness, in loveliness, in all the agile contests of spirit and plays of fancy. There's something pathetic to see them caught up into something more serious in that other game, which they are so good at."
"They seem rather to like it, though, some of them, if you mean the game of love," Minver said. "Especially when they're not in earnest about it."
"Oh, there are plenty of spoiled women," Wanhope admitted. "But I don't mean flirting. I suppose that the average unspoiled woman is rather frightened than otherwise when she knows that a man is in love with her."
"Do you suppose she always knows it first?" Rulledge asked.
"You may be sure," Minver answered for Wanhope, "that if she didn't know it, he never would." Then Wanhope answered for himself:
"I think that generally she sees it coming. In that sort of wireless telegraphy, that reaching out of two natures through space towards each other, her more sensitive apparatus probably feels the appeal of his before he is conscious of having made any appeal."
"And her first impulse is to escape the appeal?" I suggested.
"Yes," Wanhope admitted after a thoughtful reluctance.
"Even when she is half aware of having invited it?"
"If she is not spoiled she is never aware of having invited it. Take the case in point; we won't mention any names. She is sailing through time, through youthful space, with her electrical lures, the natural equipment of every charming woman, all out, and suddenly, somewhere from the unknown, she feels the shock of a response in the gulfs of air where there had been no life before. But she can't be said to have knowingly searched the void for any presence."
"Oh, I'm not sure about that, professor," Minver put in. "Go a little slower, if you expect me to follow you."
"It's all a mystery, the most beautiful mystery of life," Wanhope resumed. "I don't believe I could make out the case, as I feel it to be."
"Braybridge's part of the case is rather plain, isn't it?" I invited him.
"I'm not sure of that. No man's part of any case is plain, if you look at it carefully. The most that you can say of Braybridge is that he is rather a simple nature. But nothing," the psychologist added with one of his deep breaths, "is so complex as a simple nature."
"Well," Minver contended, "Braybridge is plain, if his case isn't."
"Plain? Is he plain?" Wanhope asked, as if asking himself.
"My dear fellow, you agnostics doubt everything!"
"I should have said picturesque. Picturesque, with the sort of unbeautifulness that takes the fancy of women more than Greek proportion. I think it would require a girl peculiarly feminine to feel the attraction of such a man—the fascination of his being grizzled, and slovenly, and rugged. She would have to be rather a wild, shy girl to do that, and it would have to be through her fear of him that she would divine his fear of her. But what I have heard is that they met under rather exceptional circumstances. It was at a house in the Adirondacks, where Braybridge was, somewhat in the quality of a bull in a china-shop. He was lugged in by the host, as an old friend, and was suffered by the hostess as a friend quite too old for her. At any rate, as I heard (and I don't vouch for the facts, all of them), Braybridge found himself at odds with the gay young people who made up the hostess's end of the party, and was watching for a chance to—"
Wanhope cast about for the word, and Winver supplied it: "Pull out."
"Yes. But when he had found it Miss Hazelwood took it from him."
"I don't understand," Rulledge said.
"When he came in to breakfast, the third morning, prepared with an excuse for cutting his week down to the dimensions it had reached, he saw her sitting alone at the table. She had risen early as a consequence of having arrived late, the night before; and when Braybridge found himself in for it, be forgot that he meant to go away, and said good-morning, as if they knew each other. Their hostess found them talking over the length of the table in a sort of mutual fright, and introduced them. But it's rather difficult reporting a lady verbatim at second hand. I really had the facts from Welkin, who had them from his wife. The sum of her impressions was that Braybridge and Miss Hazelwood were getting a kind of comfort out of their mutual terror because one was as badly frightened as the other. It was a novel experience for both. Ever seen her?"
We others looked at each other. Minver said: "I never wanted to paint any one so much. It was at the spring show of the American Artists. There was a jam of people; but this girl—I've understood it was she—looked as much alone as if there were nobody else there. She might have been a startled doe in the North Woods suddenly coming out on a twenty-thousand-dollar camp, with a lot of twenty-million-dollar people on the veranda."
"And you wanted to do her as The Startled Doe," I said. "Good selling name."
"Don't reduce it to the vulgarity of fiction. I admit it would be a selling name."
"Go on, Wanhope," Rulledge puffed impatiently. "Though I don't see how there could be another soul in the universe as constitutionally scared of men as Braybridge is of women."
"In the universe nothing is wasted, I suppose. Everything has its complement, its response. For every bashful man, there must be a bashful woman," Wanhope returned.
"Or a bold one," Minver suggested.
"No; the response must be in kind, to be truly complemental. Through the sense of their reciprocal timidity they divine that they needn't be afraid."
"Oh! That's the way you get out of it!"
"Well?" Rulledge urged.
"I'm afraid," Wanhope modestly confessed, "that from this point I shall have to be largely conjectural. Welkin wasn't able to be very definite, except as to moments, and he had his data almost altogether from his wife. Braybridge had told him overnight that he thought of going, and he had said he mustn't think of it; but he supposed Braybridge had spoken of it to Mrs. Welkin, and he began by saying to his wife that he hoped she had refused to hear of Braybridge's going. She said she hadn't heard of it, but now she would refuse without hearing, and she didn't give Braybridge any chance to protest. If people went in the middle of their week, what would become of other people? She was not going to have the equilibrium of her party disturbed, and that was all about it. Welkin thought it was odd that Braybridge didn't insist; and he made a long story of it. But the grain of wheat in his bushel of chaff was that Miss Hazelwood seemed to be fascinated by Braybridge from the first. When Mrs. Welkin scared him into saying that he would stay his week out, the business practically was done. They went picnicking that day in each other's charge; and after Braybridge left he wrote back to her, as Mrs. Welkin knew from the letters that passed through her hands, and—Well, their engagement has come out, and—" Wanhope paused with an air that was at first indefinite, and then definitive.
"You don't mean," Rulledge burst out in a note of deep wrong, "that that's all you know about it?"
"Yes, that's all I know," Wanhope confessed, as if somewhat surprised himself at the fact.
Wanhope tried to offer the only reparation in his power. "I can conjecture—we can all conjecture—"
He hesitated; then, "Well, go on with your conjecture," Rulledge said forgivingly.
"Why—" Wanhope began again; but at that moment a man who had been elected the year before, and then gone off on a long absence, put his head in between the dull-red hangings of the doorway. It was Halson, whom I did not know very well, but liked better than I knew. His eyes were dancing with what seemed the inextinguishable gayety of his temperament, rather than any present occasion, and his smile carried his little mustache well away from his handsome teeth. "Private?"
"Come in, come in!" Minver called to him. "Thought you were in Japan?"
"My dear fellow," Halson answered, "you must brush up your contemporary history. It's more than a fortnight since I was in Japan." He shook hands with me, and I introduced him to Rulledge and Wanhope. He said at once: "Well, what is it? Question of Braybridge's engagement? It's humiliating to a man to come back from the antipodes, and find the nation absorbed in a parochial problem like that. Everybody I've met here to-night has asked me, the first thing, if I'd heard of it, and if I knew how it could have happened."
"And do you?" Rulledge asked.
"I can give a pretty good guess," Halson said, running his merry eyes over our faces.
"Anybody can give a good guess," Rulledge said. "Wanhope is doing it now."
"Don't let me interrupt." Halson turned to him politely.
"Not at all. I'd rather hear your guess. If you know Braybridge better than I," Wanhope said.
"Well," Halson compromised, "perhaps I've known him longer." He asked, with an effect of coming to business, "Where were you?"
"Tell him, Rulledge," Minver ordered, and Rulledge apparently asked nothing better. He told him in detail, all we knew from any source, down to the moment of Wanhope's arrested conjecture.
"He did leave you at an anxious point, didn't he?" Halson smiled to the rest of us at Rulledge's expense, and then said: "Well, I think I can help you out a little. Any of you know the lady?"
"By sight, Minver does," Rulledge answered for us. "Wants to paint her." "Of course," Halson said, with intelligence. "But I doubt if he'd find her as paintable as she looks, at first. She's beautiful, but her charm is spiritual."
"Sometimes we try for that," the painter interposed.
"And sometimes you get it. But you'll allow it's difficult. That's all I meant. I've known her—let me see—for twelve years, at least; ever since I first went West. She was about eleven then, and her father was bringing her up on the ranche. Her aunt came along, by and by, and took her to Europe; mother dead before Hazelwood went out there. But the girl was always homesick for the ranche; she pined for it; and after they had kept her in Germany three or four years they let her come back, and run wild again; wild as a flower does, or a vine—not a domesticated animal."
"Go slow, Halson. This is getting too much for the romantic Rulledge."
"Rulledge can bear up against the facts, I guess, Minver," Halson said, almost austerely. "Her father died two years ago, and then she had to come East, for her aunt simply wouldn't live on the ranche. She brought her on, here, and brought her out; I was at the coming-out tea; but the girl didn't take to the New York thing at all; I could see it from the start; she wanted to get away from it with me, and talk about the ranche."
"She felt that she was with the only genuine person among those conventional people."
Halson laughed at Minver's thrust, and went on amiably: "I don't suppose that till she met Braybridge she was ever quite at her ease with any man or woman, for that matter. I imagine, as you've done, that it was his fear of her that gave her courage. She met him on equal terms. Isn't that it?"
Wanhope assented to the question referred to him with a nod.
"And when they got lost from the rest of the party at that picnic—"
"Lost?" Rulledge demanded.
"Why, yes. Didn't you know? But I ought to go back. They said there never was anything prettier than the way she unconsciously went for Braybridge, the whole day. She wanted him, and she was a child who wanted things frankly, when she did want them. Then his being ten or fifteen years older than she was, and so large and simple, made it natural for a shy girl like her to assort herself with him when all the rest were assorting themselves, as people do at such things. The consensus of testimony is that she did it with the most transparent unconsciousness, and—"
"Who are your authorities?" Minver asked; Rulledge threw himself back on the divan, and beat the cushions with impatience.
"Is it essential to give them?"
"Oh, no. I merely wondered. Go on."
"The authorities are all right. She had disappeared with him before the others noticed. It was a thing that happened; there was no design in it; that would have been out of character. They had got to the end of the wood-road, and into the thick of the trees where there wasn't even a trail, and they walked round looking for a way out, till they were turned completely. They decided that the only way was to keep walking, and by and by they heard the sound of chopping. It was some Canucks clearing a piece of the woods, and when she spoke to them in French, they gave them full directions, and Braybridge soon found the path again."
Halson paused, and I said, "But that isn't all?"
"Oh, no." He continued thoughtfully silent for a little while before he resumed. "The amazing thing is that they got lost again, and that when they tried going back to the Canucks, they couldn't find the way."
"Why didn't they follow the sound of the chopping?" I asked.
"The Canucks had stopped, for the time being. Besides, Braybridge was rather ashamed, and he thought if they went straight on they would be sure to come out somewhere. But that was where he made a mistake. They couldn't go on straight; they went round and round, and came on their own footsteps—or hers, which he recognized from the narrow tread and the dint of the little heels in the damp places."
Wanhope roused himself with a kindling eye. "That is very interesting, the movement in a circle of people who have lost their way. It has often been observed, but I don't know that it has ever been explained. Sometimes the circle is smaller, sometimes it is larger; but I believe it is always a circle."
"Isn't it," I queried, "like any other error in life? We go round and round; and commit the old sins over again."
"That is very interesting," Wanhope allowed.
"But do lost people really always walk in a vicious circle?" Minver asked.
Rulledge would not let Wanhope answer. "Go on, Halson," he said.
Halson roused himself from the reverie in which he was sitting with glazed eyes. "Well, what made it a little more anxious was that he had heard of bears on that mountain, and the green afternoon light among the trees was perceptibly paling. He suggested shouting, but she wouldn't let him; she said it would be ridiculous, if the others heard them, and useless if they didn't. So they tramped on till—till the accident happened."
"The accident!" Rulledge exclaimed in the voice of our joint emotion.
"He stepped on a loose stone and turned his foot," Halson explained. "It wasn't a sprain, luckily, but it hurt enough. He turned so white that she noticed it, and asked him what was the matter. Of course that shut his mouth the closer, but it morally doubled his motive, and he kept himself from crying out till the sudden pain of the wrench was over. He said merely that he thought he had heard something, and he had—an awful ringing in his ears; but he didn't mean that, and he started on again. The worst was trying to walk without limping, and to talk cheerfully and encouragingly, with that agony tearing at him. But he managed somehow, and he was congratulating himself on his success, when he tumbled down in a dead faint."
"Oh, come, now!" Minver protested.
"It is like an old-fashioned story, where things are operated by accident instead of motive, isn't it?" Halson smiled with radiant recognition.
"Fact will always imitate fiction, if you give her time enough," I said.
"Had they got back to the other picnickers?" Rulledge asked with a tense voice.
"In sound, but not in sight of them. She wasn't going to bring him into camp in that state; besides she couldn't. She got some water out of the trout-brook they'd been fishing—more water than trout in it—and sprinkled his face, and he came to, and got on his legs, just in time to pull on to the others, who were organizing a search-party to go after them. From that point on, she dropped Braybridge like a hot coal, and as there was nothing of the flirt in her, she simply kept with the women, the older girls, and the tabbies, and left Braybridge to worry along with the secret of his turned ankle. He doesn't know how he ever got home alive; but he did somehow manage to reach the wagons that had brought them to the edge of the woods, and then he was all right till they got to the house. But still she said nothing about his accident, and be couldn't; and he pleaded an early start for town the next morning, and got off to bed, as soon as he could."
"I shouldn't have thought he could have stirred in the morning," Rulledge employed Halson's pause to say.
"Well, this beaver had to," Halson said. "He was not the only early riser. He found Miss Hazelwood at the station before him."
"What!" Rulledge shouted. I confess the fact rather roused me, too; and Wanhope's eyes kindled with a scientific pleasure.
"She came right towards him. 'Mr. Braybridge,' says she, 'I couldn't let you go without explaining my very strange behavior. I didn't choose to have these people laughing at the notion of my having played the part of your preserver. It was bad enough being lost with you; I couldn't bring you into ridicule with them by the disproportion they'd have felt in my efforts for you after you turned your foot. So I simply had to ignore the incident. Don't you see?' Braybridge glanced at her, and he had never felt so big and bulky before, or seen her so slender and little. He said, 'It would have seemed rather absurd,' and he broke out and laughed, while she broke down and cried, and asked him to forgive her, and whether it had hurt him very much; and said she knew he could bear to keep it from the others by the way he had kept it from her till he fainted. She implied that he was morally as well as physically gigantic, and it was as much as he could do to keep from taking her in his arms on the spot."
"It would have been edifying to the groom that had driven her to the station," Minver cynically suggested.
"Groom nothing!" Halson returned with spirit. "She paddled herself across the lake, and walked from the boat-landing to the station."
"Jove!" Rulledge exploded in uncontrollable enthusiasm.
"She turned round as soon as she had got through with her hymn of praise—it made Braybridge feel awfully flat—and ran back through the bushes to the boat-landing, and—that was the last he saw of her till he met her in town this fall."
"And when—and when—did he offer himself?" Rulledge entreated breathlessly. "How—"
"Yes, that's the point, Halson," Minver interposed. "Your story is all very well, as far as it goes; but Rulledge here has been insinuating that it was Miss Hazelwood who made the offer, and he wants you to bear him out."
Rulledge winced at the outrage, but he would not stay Halson's answer even for the sake of righting himself.
"I have heard," Minver went on, "that Braybridge insisted on paddling the canoe back to the other shore for her, and that it was on the way that he offered himself." We others stared at Minver in astonishment. Halson glanced covertly toward him with his gay eyes. "Then that wasn't true?"
"How did you hear it?" Halson asked.
"Oh, never mind. Is it true?"
"Well, I know there's that version," Halson said evasively. "The engagement is only just out, as you know. As to the offer—the when and the how—I don't know that I'm exactly at liberty to say."
"I don't see why," Minver urged. "You might stretch a point for Rulledge's sake."
Halson looked down, and then he glanced at Minver after a furtive passage of his eye over Rulledge's intense face. "There was something rather nice happened after—But really, now!"
"Oh, go on!" Minver called out in contempt of his scruple.
"I haven't the right—Well, I suppose I'm on safe ground here? It won't go any farther, of course; and it was so pretty! After she had pushed off in her canoe, you know, Braybridge—he'd followed her down to the shore of the lake—found her handkerchief in a bush where it had caught, and he held it up, and called out to her. She looked round and saw it, and called back: 'Never mind. I can't return for it, now.' Then Braybridge plucked up his courage, and asked if he might keep it, and she said 'Yes,' over her shoulder, and then she stopped paddling, and said 'No, no, you mustn't, you mustn't! You can send it to me.' He asked where, and she said, 'In New York—in the fall—at the Walholland.' Braybridge never knew how he dared, but he shouted after her—she was paddling on again—'May I bring it?' and she called over her shoulder again, without fully facing him, but her profile was enough, 'If you can't get any one to bring it for you.' The words barely reached him, but he'd have caught them if they'd been whispered; and he watched her across the lake, and into the bushes, and then broke for his train. He was just in time."
Halson beamed for pleasure upon us, and even Minver said, "Yes, that's rather nice." After a moment he added, "Rulledge thinks she put it there."
"You're too bad, Minver," Halson protested. "The charm of the whole thing was her perfect innocence. She isn't capable of the slightest finesse. I've known her from a child, and I know what I say."
"That innocence of girlhood," Wanhope said, "is very interesting. It's astonishing how much experience it survives. Some women carry it into old age with them. It's never been scientifically studied—"
"Yes," Minver allowed. "There would be a fortune for the novelist who could work a type of innocence for all it was worth. Here's Acton always dealing with the most rancid flirtatiousness, and missing the sweetness and beauty of a girlhood which does the cheekiest things without knowing what it's about, and fetches down its game whenever it shuts its eyes and fires at nothing. But I don't see how all this touches the point that Rulledge makes, or decides which finally made the offer."
"Well, hadn't the offer already been made?"
"Oh, in the usual way."
"What is the usual way?"
"I thought everybody knew that. Of course, it was from Braybridge finally, but I suppose it's always six of one and half a dozen of the other in these cases, isn't it? I dare say he couldn't get any one to take her the handkerchief. My dinner?" Halson looked up at the silent waiter who had stolen upon us and was bowing toward him.
"Look here, Halson," Minver detained him, "how is it none of the rest of us have heard all those details?"
"I don't know where you've been, Minver. Everybody knows the main facts," Halson said, escaping.
Wanhope observed musingly: "I suppose he's quite right about the reciprocality of the offer, as we call it. There's probably, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, a perfect understanding before there's an explanation. In many cases the offer and the acceptance must really be tacit."
"Yes," I ventured, "and I don't know why we're so severe with women when they seem to take the initiative. It's merely, after all, the call of the maiden bird, and there's nothing lovelier or more endearing in nature than that."
"Maiden bird is good, Acton," Minver approved. "Why don't you institute a class of fiction, where the love-making is all done by the maiden birds, as you call them—or the widow birds? It would be tremendously popular with both sexes. It would lift a tremendous responsibility off the birds who've been expected to shoulder it heretofore if it could be introduced into real life."
Rulledge fetched a long, simple-hearted sigh. "Well, it's a charming story. How well he told it!"
The waiter came again, and this time signalled to Minver.
"Yes," he said, as he rose. "What a pity you can't believe a word Halson says."
"Do you mean—" we began simultaneously.
"That be built the whole thing from the ground up, with the start that we had given him. Why, you poor things! Who could have told him how it all happened? Braybridge? Or the girl? As Wanhope began by saying, people don't speak of their love-making, even when they distinctly remember it."
"Yes, but see here, Minver!" Rulledge said with a dazed look. "If it's all a fake of his, how came you to have heard of Braybridge paddling the canoe back for her?"
"That was the fake that tested the fake. When he adopted it, I knew he was lying, because I was lying myself. And then the cheapness of the whole thing! I wonder that didn't strike you. It's the stuff that a thousand summer-girl stories have been spun out of. Acton might have thought he was writing it!"
He went away, leaving us to a blank silence, till Wanhope managed to say: "That inventive habit of mind is very curious. It would be interesting to know just how far it imposes on the inventor himself—how much he believes of his own fiction."
"I don't see," Rulledge said gloomily, "why they're so long with my dinner." Then he burst out, "I believe every word Halson said. If there's any fake in the thing, it's the fake that Minver owned to."
THE RUBAIYAT AND THE LINER
ELIA W. PEATTIE
That was the liner, and it had been saying the same thing for two nights and two days. Therefore nobody paid any attention to it—except Chalmers Payne, the moodiest of the passengers, who noticed it and said to himself that, for his part, it did as well as any other sound, and was much better than most persons' conversation.
It will be guessed that Mr. Chalmers Payne was in an irritable frame of mind. He was even retaliative, and to the liner's continued iteration of its innocent remark he retorted in the words of old Omar:
"Perplext no more with Human or Divine, To-morrow's tangle to the winds resign, And lose your fingers in the tresses of The cypress-slender Minister of Wine.
"And if the wine you drink, the Lip you press, End in what All begins and ends in—Yes; Think then you are To-day what Yesterday You were—To-morrow you shall not be less.
"So when the Angel of the Darker Drink At last shall find you by the River-brink, And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul Forth to your Lips to quaff—you shall not shrink."
To these melancholy mutterings, the liner, insouciant, and not caring a peg for any philosophy—save that of the open road—shouldered along through jewel-green waves, and remarked, "Chug-chug, chug-chug!"
Mr. Payne was inclined to quarrel with the Tent-Maker on one score only. He did not think that he was to-day what he was yesterday. Yesterday—figuratively speaking—he had hope. He was conscious of his youth. A fine, buoyant egotism sustained him, and he believed that he was about to be crowned with a beautiful joy.
He had sauntered up to his joy, so to speak, cocksure, hands in pockets, and as he smiled with easy assurance, behold the joy turned into a sorrow. The face of the dryad smiling through the young grape leaves was that of a withered hag, and the leaves of the vine were dead and flapped on sapless stems!
Well, well, there was always a sorry fatalism to comfort one in joy's despite.
"Then to the rolling Heav'n itself, I cried, Asking, 'What Lamp had Destiny to guide Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?'"
The answer was old as patience—as old as courage. But to theorize about it was really superfluous! Why think at all? Why not say chug-chug like the liner?
"We are no other than a moving row Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go—"
Dinner! Was it possible? The day had been a blur! Well, probably all the rest of life would be a blur. Anyway, one could still dine, and he recollected that the puree of tomatoes at last night's dinner had been rather to his liking. He seated himself deliberately at the board, congratulating himself that he would be allowed to go through the duty of eating without interruption. The place at his right had been vacant ever since they left Southampton. At his left was a gentleman of uncertain hearing and a bullet-proof frown.
As the seat at his right had been vacant so long, he took the liberty of laying it his gloves, his sea-glass, a book with uncut leaves, and a crimson silk neck-scarf.
"I beg your pardon," said the waiter, "but the lady who is to sit here is coming, sir."
"The devil she is!" thought Payne. "Will the creature expect me to talk? Will she require me to look after her in the matter of pepper and salt? Why couldn't I have been left in peace?"
He gathered up his possessions, and arose gravely with an automatic courtesy, and lifted eyes with a wooden expression to stare at the intruder.
He faced the one person in the world whom it was most of pain and happiness to meet—the woman between whom and himself he meant to put a good half of the round world; and he read in her troubled gray eyes the confession that if there was anything or anybody from which she would willingly have been protected it was he—Chalmers Payne.
Conscious of their neighbors, they bowed. Payne saw her comfortably seated. He sat down and slowly emptied his glass of ice-water. He preserved his wooden expression of countenance and turned towards her.
"The old man on my right is deaf," he said.
"So am I," she retorted.
"Not so deaf, I hope, that you won't hear me explain that I had no more notion of your being on this ship than of Sappho being here!"
"You refer to—the Greek Sappho, Mr. Payne?"
"Assuredly. You told me—'fore Heaven, why are women so inconsistent?—you told me you were going anywhere rather than to America—that you were at the beginning of your journeyings—that you had an engagement with some Mahatmas on the top of the Himal—"
"And you—you were going to South Africa."
"I said nothing of the sort. I—"
"Well, I couldn't go about another day. No matter whether I was consistent or inconsistent! I was worn out and ill. I've been seeing too much—"
"You told me you could never see enough!"
"Well, never mind all that. I acted impulsively, I confess. My aunt was shocked. She thought I was ungrateful—particularly when I openly rejoiced that she was not able to find a chaperon for me."
"It's none of my business, anyway. I was stupid to show my surprise. I ought never to be surprised at anything you do, I know that. As for me, I'm tired of imitating the Wandering Jew. Besides, my father's old partner—mine he is now, I suppose, though I can't get used to that idea—wants me to come home. He says I'm needed. So I'm rolling up my sleeves, figuratively speaking. But I should certainly have delayed my journey if I had guessed you were to be on this boat."
"It's very annoying altogether," she said, with open vexation. "It looks so silly! What will my aunt say?"
"I don't think she'll say anything. You are on an Atlantic liner, with nine hundred and ninety-nine souls who are nothing to you, and one who is less than nothing. I believe that was the expression you used the other day—less than nothing?"
The girl's delicate face flushed hotly.
"I'm not so strong," she murmured. "It's true that I am worn out, and my voyage has done nothing so far towards restoring me. On the contrary, I have been suffering. I fainted again and again yesterday, and it took a great deal of courage for me to venture out to-day. So you must be merciful for a little while. Your enemy is down, you see."
"My enemy!" He gave the words an accent at once bitter and humorous. "I'll not say another personal word," he murmured, contritely. "Tell me if you feel faint at any moment, and let me help you. Please treat me as if I were your—your uncle!"
She smiled faintly.
"You are asking a great deal," she couldn't help saying, somewhat coquettishly, and then he remembered how he had seen her hanging about her uncle's neck, and he flushed too.
There was quite a long silence. She picked at her food delicately, and Payne suggested some claret. Her face showed that she would have preferred not to accept any favor from him, no matter how trifling, but she evidently considered it puerile to refuse.
"It is mighty awkward for you!" he burst out, suddenly, "my being here. I suppose you actually find it hard to believe that it was an accident—"
"I haven't the least occasion to doubt your word, Mr. Payne. Have I ever done anything to make you suppose that I didn't respect you?"
"Oh, I didn't mean that! Heavens! what a cad you must think me! I have a faculty for being stupid when you are around, you know. It's my misfortune. But—behold my generosity!—I shall have a talk with the purser, Miss Curtis, and get him to change my place for me. Some good-natured person will consent to make the alteration"
"You mean you will put some one else here in your place beside me?"
"It's the least I can do, isn't it? Now, whom would you suggest? Pick out somebody. There's that motherly-looking German woman over there. She's a baroness—"
"She? She'll tell me twice every meal that American girls are not brought up with a knowledge of cooking. She will tell me how she has met them at Kaffeeklatsches, and how they confessed that they didn't cook! No, no; you must try another one!"
"Well, if you object to her, there's that quiet gentleman who is eating his ice with the aid of two pairs of spectacles. That gentleman is a specialist in bacilli. He has little steel-bound bottles in his room which, if you were to break them among this ship-load of passengers, would depopulate the ship. I think he is taking home the bacilli of the bubonic plague as a present to our country. Remember, if you got on the right side of him, that you would have a vengeance beyond the dreams of the Borgias at your command!"
"Oh, the terrible creature! Mr. Payne, how could you mention him? What if he were to take me for a guinea-pig or a rabbit? No, I prefer the English-looking mummy over there."
"Who? Miss Hull? She's not half bad. She's a great traveller. She has been almost everywhere, and is now hastening to make it everywhere. She carries her own tea with her, and steeps it at five exactly every afternoon. She tells me that once, being shipwrecked, she grasped her tea-caddy, her alcohol-stove, and a large bottle of alcohol, and prepared for the worst. They drifted four days on a raft, and she made five-o'clock tea every day, to the great encouragement of the unfortunates. Miss Hull is an English spinster, who has a fortune and no household, and who is going about to see how other folks keep house—Feejee-Islanders, and Tagals, and Kafirs. She likes them all, I believe. Indeed, she says she likes everything—except the snug English village where she was brought up. She says that when she lived there she did exactly the same thing between sunup and sundown for eight years. For example, she had the curate to tea every Wednesday evening during that entire time, and when possible she had periwinkles."