These thoughts were busy in Rose's mind as she sat looking at the lovely silk and wondering what Charlie would say if she should some night burst upon him in a pale rosy cloud, like the Aurora to whom he often likened her. She knew it would please him very much and she longed to do all she honestly could to gratify the poor fellow, for her tender heart already felt some remorseful pangs, remembering how severe she had been the night before. She could not revoke her words, because she meant them every one, but she might be kind and show that she did not wholly shut him out from her regard by asking him to go with her to Kitty's ball and gratify his artistic taste by a lovely costume. A very girlish but kindly plan, for that ball was to be the last of her frivolities, so she wanted it to be a pleasant one and felt that "being friends" with Charlie would add much to her enjoyment.
This idea made her fingers tighten on the gleaming fabric so temptingly upheld, and she was about to take it when, "If ye please, sir, would ye kindly tell me where I'd be finding the flannel place?" said a voice behind her, and, glancing up, she saw a meek little Irishwoman looking quite lost and out of place among the luxuries around her.
"Downstairs, turn to the left," was the clerk's hasty reply, with a vague wave of the hand which left the inquirer more in the dark than ever.
Rose saw the woman's perplexity and said kindly, "I'll show you this way."
"I'm ashamed to be throublin' ye, miss, but it's strange I am in it, and wouldn't be comin' here at all, at all, barrin' they tould me I'd get the bit I'm wantin' chaper in this big shop than the little ones more becomin' the like o' me," explained the little woman humbly.
Rose looked again as she led the way through a well-dressed crowd of busy shoppers, and something in the anxious, tired face under the old woolen hood the bare, purple hands holding fast a meager wallet and a faded scrap of the dotted flannel little children's frocks are so often made of touched the generous heart that never could see want without an impulse to relieve it. She had meant only to point the way, but, following a new impulse, she went on, listening to the poor soul's motherly prattle about "me baby" and the "throuble" it was to "find clothes for the growin' childer when me man is out av work and the bit and sup inconvaynient these hard times" as they descended to that darksome lower world where necessities take refuge when luxuries crowd them out from the gayer place above.
The presence of a lady made Mrs. Sullivan's shopping very easy now, and her one poor "bit" of flannel grew miraculously into yards of several colors, since the shabby purse was no lighter when she went away, wiping her eyes on the corner of a big, brown bundle. A very little thing, and no one saw it but a wooden-faced clerk, who never told, yet it did Rose good and sent her up into the light again with a sober face, thinking self-reproachfully, "What right have I to more gay gowns when some poor babies have none, or to spend time making myself fine while there is so much bitter want in the world?"
Nevertheless the pretty things were just as tempting as ever, and she yearned for the opal silk with a renewed yearning when she got back. It is not certain that it would not have been bought in spite of her better self if a good angel in the likeness of a stout lady with silvery curls about the benevolent face, enshrined in a plain bonnet, had not accosted her as she joined Kitty, still brooding over the wedding gowns.
"I waited a moment for you, my dear, because I'm in haste, and very glad to save myself a journey or a note," began the newcomer in a low tone as Rose shook hands with the most affectionate respect. "You know the great box factory was burned a day or two ago and over a hundred girls thrown out of work. Some were hurt and are in the hospital, many have no homes to go to, and nearly all need temporary help of some sort. We've had so many calls this winter I hardly know which way to turn, for want is pressing, and I've had my finger in so many purses I'm almost ashamed to ask again. Any little contribution ah, thank you, I was sure you wouldn't fail me, my good child," and Mrs. Gardener warmly pressed the hand that went so quickly into the little porte-monnaie and came out so generously filled.
"Let me know how else I can help, and thank you very much for allowing me to have a share in your good works," said Rose, forgetting all about gay gowns as she watched the black bonnet go briskly away with an approving smile on the fine old face inside it.
"You extravagant thing! How could you give so much?" whispered Kitty, whose curious eye had seen three figures on the single bill which had so rapidly changed hands.
"I believe if Mrs. Gardener asked me for my head I should give it to her," answered Rose lightly, then, turning to the silks, she asked, "Which have you decided upon, the yellow white or the blue, the corded or the striped?"
"I've decided nothing; except that you are to have the pink and wear it at my ahem! ball," said Kitty, who had made up her mind, but could not give her orders till Mama had been consulted.
"No, I can't afford it just yet. I never overstep my allowance, and I shall have to if I get any more finery. Come, we ought not to waste time here if you have all the patterns you want." And Rose walked quickly away, glad that it was out of her power to break through two resolutions which hitherto had been faithfully kept one to dress simply for example's sake, the other not to be extravagant for charity's sake.
As Rosamond had her day of misfortunes, so this seemed to be one of small temptations to Rose. After she had set Kitty down at home and been to see her new houses, she drove about doing various errands for the aunts and, while waiting in the carriage for the execution of an order, young Pemberton came by.
As Steve said, this gentleman had been "hard hit" and still hovered mothlike about the forbidden light. Being the most eligible parti of the season, his regard was considered a distinction to be proud of, and Rose had been well scolded by Aunt Clara for refusing so honorable a mate. The girl liked him, and he was the suitor of whom she had spoken so respectfully to Dr. Alec because he had no need of the heiress and had sincerely loved Rose. He had been away, and she hoped had gotten over his disappointment as happily as the rest, but now when he saw her, and came hurrying up so hungry for a word, she felt that he had not forgotten and was too kind to chill him with the bow which plainly says "Don't stop."
A personable youth was Pemberton, and had brought with him from the wilds of Canada a sable-lined overcoat which was the envy of every masculine and the admiration of every feminine friend he had, and as he stood at her carriage window Rose knew that this luxurious garment and its stalwart wearer were objects of interest to the passersby. It chanced that the tide of shoppers flowed in that direction and, as she chatted, familiar faces often passed with glances, smiles, and nods of varying curiosity, significance, and wonder.
She could not help feeling a certain satisfaction in giving him a moment's pleasure, since she could do no more, but it was not that amiable desire alone which made her ignore the neat white parcels which the druggist's boy deposited on the front seat and kept her lingering a little longer to enjoy one of the small triumphs which girls often risk more than a cold in the head to display. The sight of several snowflakes on the broad shoulders which partially obstructed her view, as well as the rapidly increasing animation of Pemberton's chat, reminded her that it was high time to go.
"I mustn't keep you it is beginning to storm," she said, taking up her muff, much to old Jacob's satisfaction, for small talk is not exciting to a hungry man whose nose feels like an icicle.
"Is it? I thought the sun was shining." And the absorbed gentleman turned to the outer world with visible reluctance, for it looked very warm and cozy in the red-lined carriage.
"Wise people say we must carry our sunshine with us," answered Rose, taking refuge in commonplaces, for the face at the window grew pensive suddenly as he answered, with a longing look, "I wish I could." Then, smiling gratefully, he added, "Thank you for giving me a little of yours."
"You are very welcome." And Rose offered him her hand while her eyes mutely asked pardon for withholding her leave to keep it.
He pressed it silently and, shouldering the umbrella which he forgot to open, turned away with an "up again and take another" expression, which caused the soft eyes to follow him admiringly.
"I ought not to have kept him a minute longer than I could help, for it wasn't all pity; it was my foolish wish to show off and do as I liked for a minute, to pay for being good about the gown. Oh, me! How weak and silly I am in spite of all my trying!" And Miss Campbell fell into a remorseful reverie, which lasted till she got home.
"Now, young man, what brought you out in this driving storm?" asked Rose as Jamie came stamping in that same afternoon.
"Mama sent you a new book thought you'd like it. I don't mind your old storms!" replied the boy, wrestling his way out of his coat and presenting a face as round and red and shiny as a well-polished Baldwin apple.
"Much obliged it is just the day to enjoy it and I was longing for something nice to read," said Rose as Jamie sat down upon the lower stair for a protracted struggle with his rubber boots.
"Here you are, then no yes I do believe I've forgotten it, after all!" cried Jamie, slapping his pockets one after the other with a dismayed expression of countenance.
"Never mind, I'll hunt up something else. Let me help you with those your hands are so cold." And Rose good-naturedly gave a tug at the boots while Jamie clutched the banisters, murmuring somewhat incoherently as his legs flew up and down: "I'll go back if you want me to. I'm so sorry! It's very good of you, I'm sure. Getting these horrid things on made me forget. Mother would make me wear 'em, though I told her they'd stick like like gumdrops," he added, inspired by recollections of certain dire disappointments when the above-mentioned sweetmeat melted in his pockets and refused to come out.
"Now what shall we do?" asked Rose when he was finally extricated. "Since I've nothing to read, I may as well play."
"I'll teach you to pitch and toss. You catch very well for a girl, but you can't throw worth a cent," replied Jamie, gamboling down the hall in his slippers and producing a ball from some of the mysterious receptacles in which boys have the art of storing rubbish enough to fill a peck measure.
Of course Rose agreed and cheerfully risked getting her eyes blackened and her fingers bruised till her young receptor gratefully observed that "it was no fun playing where you had to look out for windows and jars and things, so I'd like that jolly book about Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, please."
Being gratified, he spread himself upon the couch, crossed his legs in the air, and without another word dived Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, where he remained for two mortal hours, to the general satisfaction of his relatives.
Bereft both of her unexpected playfellow and the much desired book, Rose went into the parlor, there to discover a French novel which Kitty had taken from a library and left in the carriage among the bundles. Settling herself in her favorite lounging chair, she read as diligently as Jamie while the wind howled and snow fell fast without.
For an hour nothing disturbed the cozy quiet of the house for Aunt Plenty was napping upstairs and Dr. Alec writing in his own sanctum; at least Rose thought so, till his step made her hastily drop the book and look up with very much the expression she used to wear when caught in mischief years ago.
"Did I startle you? Have a screen you are burning your face before this hot fire." And Dr. Alec pulled one forward.
"Thank you, Uncle. I didn't feel it." And the color seemed to deepen in spite of the screen while the uneasy eyes fell upon the book in her lap.
"Have you got the Quarterly there? I want to glance at an article in it if you can spare it for a moment," he said, leaning toward her with an inquiring glance.
"No, sir, I am reading." And, without mentioning the name, Rose put the book into his hand.
The instant his eye fell on the title he understood the look she wore and knew what "mischief" she had been in. He knit his brows, then smiled, because it was impossible to help it Rose looked so conscience-stricken in spite of her twenty years.
"How do you find it? Interesting?"
"Oh, very! I felt as if I was in another world and forgot all about this."
"Not a very good world, I fancy, if you were afraid or ashamed to be found in it. Where did this come from?" asked Dr. Alec, surveying the book with great disfavor. Rose told him, and added slowly, "I particularly wanted to read it, and fancied I might, because you did when it was so much talked about the winter we were in Rome."
"I did read it to see if it was fit for you."
"And decided that it was not, I suppose, since you never gave it to me!"
"Then I won't finish it. But, Uncle, I don't see why I should not," added Rose wistfully, for she had reached the heart of the romance and found it wonderfully fascinating.
"You may not see, but don't you feel why not?" asked Dr. Alec gravely.
Rose leaned her flushed cheek on her hand and thought a minute, then looked up and answered honestly, "Yes, I do, but can't explain it, except that I know something must be wrong, because I blushed and started when you came in."
"Exactly." And the doctor gave an emphatic nod, as if the symptoms pleased him.
"But I really don't see any harm in the book so far. It is by a famous author, wonderfully well written, as you know, and the characters so lifelike that I feel as if I should really meet them somewhere."
"I hope not!" ejaculated the doctor, shutting the book quickly, as if to keep the objectionable beings from escaping.
Rose laughed, but persisted in her defense, for she did want to finish the absorbing story, yet would not without leave.
"I have read French novels before, and you gave them to me. Not many, to be sure, but the best, so I think I know what is good and shouldn't like this if it was harmful."
Her uncle's answer was to reopen the volume and turn the leaves an instant as if to find a particular place. Then he put it into her hand, saying quietly: "Read a page or two aloud, translating as you go. You used to like that try it again."
Rose obeyed and went glibly down a page, doing her best to give the sense in her purest English. Presently she went more slowly, then skipped a sentence here and there, and finally stopped short, looking as if she needed a screen again.
"What's the matter?" asked her uncle, who had been watching her with a serious eye.
"Some phrases are untranslatable, and it only spoils them to try. They are not amiss in French, but sound coarse and bad in our blunt English," she said a little pettishly, for she felt annoyed by her failure to prove the contested point.
"Ah, my dear, if the fine phrases won't bear putting into honest English, the thoughts they express won't bear putting into your innocent mind! That chapter is the key to the whole book, and if you had been led up, or rather down, to it artfully and artistically, you might have read it to yourself without seeing how bad it is. All the worse for the undeniable talent which hides the evil so subtly and makes the danger so delightful."
He paused a moment, then added with an anxious glance at the book, over which she was still bending, "Finish it if you choose only remember, my girl, that one may read at forty what is unsafe at twenty, and that we never can be too careful what food we give that precious yet perilous thing called imagination."
And taking his Review, he went away to look over a learned article which interested him much less than the workings of a young mind nearby.
Another long silence, broken only by an occasional excited bounce from Jamie when the sociable cuttlefish looked in at the windows or the Nautilus scuttled a ship or two in its terrific course. A bell rang, and the doctor popped his head out to see if he was wanted. It was only a message for Aunt Plenty, and he was about to pop in again when his eye was caught by a square parcel on the slab.
"What's this?" he asked, taking it up.
"Rose wants me to leave it at Kitty Van's when I go. I forgot to bring her book from Mama, so I shall go and get it as soon as ever I've done this," replied Jamie from his nest.
As the volume in his hands was a corpulent one, and Jamie only a third of the way through, Dr. Alec thought Rose's prospect rather doubtful and, slipping the parcel into his pocket, he walked away, saying with a satisfied air: "Virtue doesn't always get rewarded, but it shall be this time if I can do it."
More than half an hour afterward, Rose woke from a little nap and found the various old favorites with which she had tried to solace herself replaced by the simple, wholesome story promised by Aunt Jessie.
"Good boy! I'll go and thank him," she said half aloud, jumping up, wide awake and much pleased.
But she did not go, for just then she spied her uncle standing on the rug warming his hands with a generally fresh and breezy look about him which suggested a recent struggle with the elements.
"How did this come?" she asked suspiciously.
"A man brought it."
"This man? Oh, Uncle! Why did you take so much trouble just to gratify a wish of mine?" she cried, taking both the cold hands in hers with a tenderly reproachful glance from the storm without to the ruddy face above her.
"Because, having taken away your French bonbons with the poisonous color on them, I wanted to get you something better. Here it is, all pure sugar, the sort that sweetens the heart as well as the tongue and leaves no bad taste behind."
"How good you are to me! I don't deserve it, for I didn't resist temptation, though I tried. Uncle, after I'd put the book away, I thought I must just see how it ended, and I'm afraid I should have read it all if it had not been gone," said Rose, laying her face down on the hands she held as humbly as a repentant child.
But Uncle Alec lifted up the bent head and, looking into the eyes that met his frankly, though either held a tear, he said, with the energy that always made his words remembered: "My little girl, I would face a dozen storms far worse than this to keep your soul as stainless as snow, for it is the small temptations which undermine integrity unless we watch and pray and never think them too trivial to be resisted."
Some people would consider Dr. Alec an overcareful man, but Rose felt that he was right, and when she said her prayers that night, added a meek petition to be kept from yielding to three of the small temptations which beset a rich, pretty, and romantic girl extravagance, coquetry, and novel reading.
Chapter 12 AT KITTY'S BALL
Rose had no new gown to wear on this festive occasion, and gave one little sigh of regret as she put on the pale blue silk refreshed with clouds of gaze de Chambery. But a smile followed, very bright and sweet, as she added the clusters of forget-me-not which Charlie had conjured up through the agency of an old German florist, for one part of her plan had been carried out, and Prince was invited to be her escort, much to his delight, though he wisely made no protestations of any sort and showed his gratitude by being a model gentleman. This pleased Rose, for the late humiliation and a very sincere desire to atone for it gave him an air of pensive dignity which was very effective.
Aunt Clara could not go, for a certain new cosmetic, privately used to improve the once fine complexion, which had been her pride till late hours impaired it, had brought out an unsightly eruption, reducing her to the depths of woe and leaving her no solace for her disappointment but the sight of the elegant velvet dress spread forth upon her bed in melancholy state.
So Aunt Jessie was chaperon, to Rose's great satisfaction, and looked as "pretty as a pink," Archie thought, in her matronly pearl-colored gown with a dainty trifle of rich lace on her still abundant hair. He was very proud of his little mama, and as devoted as a lover, "to keep his hand in against Phebe's return," she said laughingly when he brought her a nosegay of blush roses to light up her quiet costume.
A happier mother did not live than Mrs. Jessie as she sat contentedly beside Sister Jane (who graced the frivolous scene in a serious black gown with a diadem of purple asters nodding above her severe brow), both watching their boys with the maternal conviction that no other parent could show such remarkable specimens as these. Each had done her best according to her light, and years of faithful care were now beginning to bear fruit in the promise of goodly men, so dear to the hearts of true mothers.
Mrs. Jessie watched her three tall sons with something like wonder, for Archie was a fine fellow, grave and rather stately, but full of the cordial courtesy and respect we see so little of nowadays and which is the sure sign of good home training. "The cadets," as Will and Geordie called themselves, were there as gorgeous as you please, and the agonies they suffered that night with tight boots and stiff collars no pen can fitly tell. But only to one another did they confide these sufferings and the rare moments of repose when they could stand on one aching foot with heads comfortably sunken inside the excruciating collars, which rasped their ears and made the lobes thereof a pleasing scarlet. Brief were these moments, however, and the Spartan boys danced on with smiling faces, undaunted by the hidden anguish which preyed upon them "fore and aft," as Will expressed it.
Mrs. Jane's pair were an odd contrast, and even the stern disciplinarian herself could not help smiling as she watched them. Steve was superb, and might have been married on the spot, so superfine was his broad-cloth, glossy his linen, and perfect the fit of his gloves. While pride and happiness so fermented in his youthful bosom, there would have been danger of spontaneous combustion if dancing had not proved a safety valve, for his strong sense of the proprieties would not permit him to vent his emotions in any other way.
Kitty felt no such restraint, and looked like a blissful little gypsy, with her brunet prettiness set off by a dashing costume of cardinal and cream color and every hair on her head curled in a Merry Pecksniffian crop, for youth was her strong point, and she much enjoyed the fact that she had been engaged three times before she was nineteen.
To see her and Steve spin around the room was a sight to bring a smile to the lips of the crustiest bachelor or saddest spinster, for happy lovers are always a pleasing spectacle, and two such merry little grigs as these are seldom seen.
Mac, meantime, with glasses astride his nose, surveyed his brother's performances "on the light fantastic" very much as a benevolent Newfoundland would the gambols of a toy terrier, receiving with thanks the hasty hints for his guidance which Steve breathed into his ear as he passed and forgetting all about them the next minute. When not thus engaged Mac stood about with his thumbs in his vest pockets, regarding the lively crowd like a meditative philosopher of a cheerful aspect, often smiling to himself at some whimsical fancy of his own, knitting his brows as some bit of ill-natured gossip met his ear, or staring with undisguised admiration as a beautiful face or figure caught his eye.
"I hope that girl knows what a treasure she has got. But I doubt if she ever fully appreciates it," said Mrs. Jane, bringing her spectacles to bear upon Kitty as she whisked by, causing quite a gale with her flying skirts.
"I think she will, for Steve has been so well brought up, she cannot but see and feel the worth of what she has never had, and being so young she will profit by it," answered Mrs. Jessie softly, thinking of the days when she and her Jem danced together, just betrothed.
"I've done my duty by both the boys, and done it thoroughly, or their father would have spoilt them, for he's no more idea of discipline than a child." And Aunt Jane gave her own palm a smart rap with her closed fan, emphasizing the word "thoroughly" in a most suggestive manner.
"I've often wished I had your firmness, Jane but after all, I'm not sure that I don't like my own way best, at least with my boys, for plenty of love, and plenty of patience, seem to have succeeded pretty well." And Aunt Jessie lifted the nosegay from her lap, feeling as if that unfailing love and patience were already blooming into her life as beautifully as the sweet-breathed roses given by her boy refreshed and brightened these long hours of patient waiting in a corner.
"I don't deny that you've done well, Jessie, but you've been let alone and had no one to hold your hand or interfere. If my Mac had gone to sea as your Jem did, I never should have been as severe as I am. Men are so perverse and shortsighted, they don't trouble about the future as long as things are quiet and comfortable in the present," continued Mrs. Jane, quite forgetting that the shortsighted partner of the firm, physically speaking at least, was herself.
"Ah, yes! We mothers love to foresee and foretell our children's lives even before they are born, and are very apt to be disappointed if they do not turn out as we planned. I know I am yet I really have no cause to complain and am learning to see that all we can do is to give the dear boys good principles and the best training we may, then leave them to finish what we have begun." And Mrs. Jessie's eye wandered away to Archie, dancing with Rose, quite unconscious what a pretty little castle in the air tumbled down when he fell in love with Phebe.
"Right, quite right on that point we agree exactly. I have spared nothing to give my boys good principles and good habits, and I am willing to trust them anywhere. Nine times did I whip my Steve to cure him of fibbing, and over and over again did Mac go without his dinner rather than wash his hands. But I whipped and starved them both into obedience, and now I have my reward," concluded the "stern parent" with a proud wave of the fan, which looked very like a ferule, being as big, hard, and uncompromising as such an article could be.
Mrs. Jessie gave a mild murmur of assent, but could not help thinking, with a smile, that in spite of their early tribulations the sins for which the boys suffered had gotten a little mixed in their result, for fibbing Steve was now the tidy one, and careless Mac the truth teller. But such small contradictions will happen in the best-regulated families, and all perplexed parents can do is to keep up a steadfast preaching and practicing in the hope that it will bear fruit sometime, for according to an old proverb, Children pick up words as pigeons pease, To utter them again as God shall please.
"I hope they won't dance the child to death among them, for each one seems bound to have his turn, even your sober Mac," said Mrs. Jessie a few minutes later as she saw Archie hand Rose over to his cousin, who carried her off with an air of triumph from several other claimants.
"She's very good to him, and her influence is excellent, for he is of an age now when a young woman's opinion has more weight than an old one's. Though he is always good to his mother, and I feel as if I should take great comfort in him. He's one of the sort who will not marry till late, if ever, being fond of books and a quiet life," responded Mrs. Jane, remembering how often her son had expressed his belief that philosophers should not marry and brought up Plato as an example of the serene wisdom to be attained only by a single man while her husband sided with Socrates, for whom he felt a profound sympathy, though he didn't dare to own it.
"Well, I don't know about that. Since my Archie surprised me by losing his heart as he did, I'm prepared for anything, and advise you to do likewise. I really shouldn't wonder if Mac did something remarkable in that line, though he shows no sign of it yet, I confess," answered Mrs. Jessie, laughing.
"It won't be in that direction, you may be sure, for her fate is sealed. Dear me, how sad it is to see a superior girl like that about to throw herself away on a handsome scapegrace. I won't mention names, but you understand me." And Mrs. Jane shook her head, as if she could mention the name of one superior girl who had thrown herself away and now saw the folly of it.
"I'm very anxious, of course, and so is Alec, but it may be the saving of one party and the happiness of the other, for some women love to give more than they receive," said Mrs. Jessie, privately wondering, for the thousandth time, why brother Mac ever married the learned Miss Humphries.
"You'll see that it won't prosper, and I shall always maintain that a wife cannot entirely undo a mother's work. Rose will have her hands full if she tries to set all Clara's mistakes right," answered Aunt Jane grimly, then began to fan violently as their hostess approached to have a dish of chat about "our dear young people."
Rose was in a merry mood that night, and found Mac quite ready for fun, which was fortunate, since her first remark set them off on a droll subject.
"Oh, Mac! Annabel has just confided to me that she is engaged to Fun See! Think of her going to housekeeping in Canton someday and having to order rats, puppies, and bird's-nest soup for dinner," whispered Rose, too much amused to keep the news to herself.
"By Confucius! Isn't that a sweet prospect?" And Mac burst out laughing, to the great surprise of his neighbors, who wondered what there was amusing about the Chinese sage. "It is rather alarming, though, to have these infants going on at this rate. Seems to be catching, a new sort of scarlet fever, to judge by Annabel's cheeks and Kitty's gown," he added, regarding the aforesaid ladies with eyes still twinkling with merriment.
"Don't be ungallant, but go and do likewise, for it is all the fashion. I heard Mrs. Van tell old Mrs. Joy that it was going to be a marrying year, so you'll be sure to catch it," answered Rose, reefing her skirts, for, with all his training, Mac still found it difficult to keep his long legs out of the man-traps.
"It doesn't look like a painful disease, but I must be careful, for I've no time to be ill now. What are the symptoms?" asked Mac, trying to combine business with pleasure and improve his mind while doing his duty.
"If you ever come back I'll tell you," laughed Rose as he danced away into the wrong corner, bumped smartly against another gentleman, and returned as soberly as if that was the proper figure.
"Well, tell me 'how not to do it,'" he said, subsiding for a moment's talk when Rose had floated to and fro in her turn.
"Oh! You see some young girl who strikes you as particularly charming whether she really is or not doesn't matter a bit and you begin to think about her a great deal, to want to see her, and to get generally sentimental and absurd," began Rose, finding it difficult to give a diagnosis of the most mysterious disease under the sun.
"Don't think it sounds enticing. Can't I find an antidote somewhere, for if it is in the air this year I'm sure to get it, and it may be fatal," said Mac, who felt pretty lively and liked to make Rose merry, for he suspected that she had a little trouble from a hint Dr. Alec had given him.
"I hope you will catch it, because you'll be so funny."
"Will you take care of me as you did before, or have you got your hands full?"
"I'll help, but really with Archie and Steve and Charlie, I shall have enough to do. You'd better take it lightly the first time, and so won't need much care."
"Very well, how shall I begin? Enlighten my ignorance and start me right, I beg."
"Go about and see people, make yourself agreeable, and not sit in corners observing other people as if they were puppets dancing for your amusement. I heard Mrs. Van once say that propinquity works wonders, and she ought to know, having married off two daughters, and just engaged a third to 'a most charming young man.'?
"Good lack! The cure sounds worse than the disease. Propinquity, hey? Why, I may be in danger this identical moment and can't flee for my life," said Mac, gently catching her round the waist for a general waltz.
"Don't be alarmed, but mind your steps, for Charlie is looking at us, and I want you to do your best. That's perfect take me quite round, for I love to waltz and seldom get a good turn except with you boys," said Rose, smiling up at him approvingly as his strong arm guided her among the revolving couples and his feet kept time without a fault.
"This certainly is a great improvement on the chair business, to which I have devoted myself with such energy that I've broken the backs of two partners and dislocated the arm of the old rocker. I took an occasional turn with that heavy party, thinking it good practice in case I ever happen to dance with stout ladies." And Mac nodded toward Annabel, pounding gaily with Mr. Tokio, whose yellow countenance beamed as his beady eyes rested on his plump fiancee.
Pausing in the midst of her merriment at the image of Mac and the old rocking chair, Rose said reprovingly, "Though a heathen Chinee, Fun puts you to shame, for he did not ask foolish questions but went a-wooing like a sensible little man, and I've no doubt Annabel will be very happy."
"Choose me a suitable divinity and I will try to adore. Can I do more than that to retrieve my character?" answered Mac, safely landing his partner and plying the fan according to instructions.
"How would Emma do?" inquired Rose, whose sense of the ludicrous was strong and who could not resist the temptation of horrifying Mac by the suggestion.
"Never! It sets my teeth on edge to look at her tonight. I suppose that dress is 'a sweet thing just out,' but upon my word she reminds me of nothing but a Harlequin ice," and Mac turned his back on her with a shudder, for he was sensitive to discords of all kinds.
"She certainly does, and that mixture of chocolate, pea green, and pink is simply detestable, though many people would consider it decidedly 'chic,' to use her favorite word. I suppose you will dress your wife like a Spartan matron of the time of Lycurgus," added Rose, much tickled by his new conceit.
"I'll wait till I get her before I decide. But one thing I'm sure of she shall not dress like a Greek dancer of the time of Pericles," answered Mac, regarding with great disfavor a young lady who, having a statuesque figure, affected drapery of the scanty and clinging description.
"Then it is of no use to suggest that classic creature, so as you reject my first attempts, I won't go on but look about me quietly, and you had better do the same. Seriously, Mac, more gaiety and less study would do you good, for you will grow old before your time if you shut yourself up and pore over books so much."
"I don't believe there is a younger or a jollier-feeling fellow in the room than I am, though I may not conduct myself like a dancing dervish. But I own you may be right about the books, for there are many sorts of intemperance, and a library is as irresistible to me as a barroom to a toper. I shall have to sign a pledge and cork up the only bottle that tempts me my ink-stand."
"I'll tell you how to make it easier to abstain. Stop studying and write a novel into which you can put all your wise things, and so clear your brains for a new start by and by. Do I should so like to read it," cried Rose, delighted with the project, for she was sure Mac could do anything he liked in that line.
"First live, then write. How can I go to romancing till I know what romance means?" he asked soberly, feeling that so far he had had very little in his life.
"Then you must find out, and nothing will help you more than to love someone very much. Do as I've advised and be a modern Diogenes going about with spectacles instead of a lantern in search, not of an honest man, but a perfect woman. I do hope you will be successful." And Rose made her curtsey as the dance ended.
"I don't expect perfection, but I should like one as good as they ever make them nowadays. If you are looking for the honest man, I wish you success in return," said Mac, relinquishing her fan with a glance of such sympathetic significance that a quick flush of feeling rose to the girl's face as she answered very low, "If honesty was all I wanted, I certainly have found it in you."
Then she went away with Charlie, who was waiting for his turn, and Mac roamed about, wondering if anywhere in all that crowd his future wife was hidden, saying to himself, as he glanced from face to face, quite unresponsive to the various allurements displayed,
"What care I how fair she be, If she be not fair for me?"
Just before supper several young ladies met in the dressing room to repair damages and, being friends, they fell into discourse as they smoothed their locks and had their tattered furbelows sewed or pinned up by the neat-handed Phillis-in-waiting.
When each had asked the other, "How do I look tonight, dear?" and been answered with reciprocal enthusiasm, "Perfectly lovely, darling!" Kitty said to Rose, who was helping her to restore order out of the chaos to which much exercise had reduced her curls: "By the way, young Randal is dying to be presented to you. May I after supper?"
"No, thank you," answered Rose very decidedly.
"Well, I'm sure I don't see why not," began Kitty, looking displeased but not surprised.
"I think you do, else why didn't you present him when he asked? You seldom stop to think of etiquette why did you now?"
"I didn't like to do it till I had you are so particular I thought you'd say 'no,' but I couldn't tell him so," stammered Kitty, feeling that she had better have settled the matter herself, for Rose was very particular and had especial reason to dislike this person because he was not only a dissipated young reprobate himself but seemed possessed of Satan to lead others astray likewise.
"I don't wish to be rude, dear, but I really must decline, for I cannot know such people, even though I meet them here," said Rose, remembering Charlie's revelations on New Year's night and hardening her heart against the man who had been his undoing on that as well as on other occasions, she had reason to believe.
"I couldn't help it! Old Mr. Randal and Papa are friends, and though I spoke of it, brother Alf wouldn't hear of passing that bad boy over," explained Kitty eagerly.
"Yet Alf forbade you driving or skating with him, for he knows better than we how unfit he is to come among us."
"I'd drop him tomorrow if I could, but I must be civil in my own house. His mother brought him, and he won't dare to behave here as he does at their bachelor parties."
"She ought not to have brought him till he had shown some desire to mend his ways. It is none of my business, I know, but I do wish people wouldn't be so inconsistent, letting boys go to destruction and then expecting us girls to receive them like decent people." Rose spoke in an energetic whisper, but Annabel heard her and exclaimed, as she turned round with a powder puff in her hand: "My goodness, Rose! What is all that about going to destruction?"
"She is being strong-minded, and I don't very much blame her in this case. But it leaves me in a dreadful scrape," said Kitty, supporting her spirits with a sniff of aromatic vinegar.
"I appeal to you, since you heard me, and there's no one here but ourselves do you consider young Randal a nice person to know?" And Rose turned to Annabel and Emma with an anxious eye, for she did not find it easy to abide by her principles when so doing annoyed friends.
"No, indeed, he's perfectly horrid! Papa says he and Gorham are the wildest young men he knows, and enough to spoil the whole set. I'm so glad I've got no brothers," responded Annabel, placidly powdering her pink arms, quite undeterred by the memory of sundry white streaks left on sundry coat sleeves.
"I think that sort of scrupulousness is very ill-bred, if you'll excuse my saying so, Rose. We are not supposed to know anything about fastness, and wildness, and so on, but to treat every man alike and not be fussy and prudish," said Emma, settling her many-colored streamers with the superior air of a woman of the world, aged twenty.
"Ah! But we do know, and if our silence and civility have no effect, we ought to try something else and not encourage wickedness of any kind. We needn't scold and preach, but we can refuse to know such people and that will do some good, for they don't like to be shunned and shut out from respectable society. Uncle Alec told me not to know that man, and I won't." Rose spoke with unusual warmth, forgetting that she could not tell the real reason for her strong prejudice against "that man."
"Well, I know him. I think him very jolly, and I'm engaged to dance the German with him after supper. He leads quite as well as your cousin Charlie and is quite as fascinating, some people think," returned Emma, tossing her head disdainfully, for Prince Charming did not worship at her shrine and it piqued her vanity.
In spite of her quandary, Rose could not help smiling as she recalled Mac's comparison, for Emma turned so red with spiteful chagrin, she seemed to have added strawberry ice to the other varieties composing the Harlequin.
"Each must judge for herself. I shall follow Aunt Jessie's advice and try to keep my atmosphere as pure as I can, for she says every woman has her own little circle and in it can use her influence for good, if she will. I do will heartily, and I'll prove that I'm neither proud nor fussy by receiving, here or at home, any respectable man you like to present to me, no matter how poor or plain or insignificant he may be."
With which declaration Rose ended her protest, and the four damsels streamed downstairs together like a wandering rainbow. But Kitty laid to heart what she had said; Annabel took credit herself for siding with her; and Emma owned that she was not trying to keep her atmosphere pure when she came to dance with the objectionable Randal. So Rose's "little circle" was the better for the influence she tried to exert, although she never knew it.
At suppertime Charlie kept near her, and she was quite content with him, for he drank only coffee, and she saw him shake his head with a frown when young Van beckoned him toward an anteroom, from whence the sound of popping corks had issued with increasing frequency as the evening wore on.
"Dear fellow, he does try," thought Rose, longing to show how she admired his self-denial, but she could only say, as they left the supper room with the aunts, who were going early: "If I had not promised Uncle to get home as soon after midnight as possible, I'd stay and dance the German with you, for you deserve a reward tonight."
"A thousand thanks, but I am going when you do," answered Charlie, understanding both her look and words and very grateful for them.
"Really?" cried Rose, delighted.
"Really. I'll be in the hall when you come down." And Charlie thought the Fra Angelico angel was not half so bright and beautiful as the one who looked back at him out of a pale blue cloud as Rose went upstairs as if on wings.
When she came down again Charlie was not in the hall, however, and, after waiting a few minutes, Mac offered to go and find him, for Aunt Jane was still hunting a lost rubber above.
"Please say I'm ready, but he needn't come if he doesn't want to," said Rose, not wishing to demand too much of her promising penitent.
"If he has gone into that barroom, I'll have him out, no matter who is there!" growled Mac to himself as he made his way to the small apartment whither the gentlemen retired for a little private refreshment when the spirit moved, as it often did.
The door was ajar, and Charlie seemed to have just entered, for Mac heard a familiar voice call out in a jovial tone: "Come, Prince! You're just in time to help us drink Steve's health with all the honors."
"Can't stop, only ran in to say good night, Van. Had a capital time, but I'm on duty and must go."
"That's a new dodge. Take a stirrup cup anyway, and come back in time for a merry-go-rounder when you've disposed of the ladies," answered the young host, diving into the wine cooler for another bottle.
"Charlie's going in for sanctity, and it doesn't seem to agree with him," laughed one of the two other young men who occupied several chairs apiece, resting their soles in every sense of the word.
"Apron strings are coming into fashion the bluer the better hey, Prince?" added the other, trying to be witty, with the usual success.
"You'd better go home early yourself, Barrow, or that tongue of yours will get you into trouble," retorted Charlie, conscious that he ought to take his own advice, yet lingering, nervously putting on his gloves while the glasses were being filled.
"Now, brother-in-law, fire away! Here you are, Prince." And Steve handed a glass across the table to his cousin, feeling too much elated with various pleasurable emotions to think what he was doing, for the boys all knew Charlie's weakness and usually tried to defend him from it.
Before the glass could be taken, however, Mac entered in a great hurry, delivering his message in an abbreviated and rather peremptory form: "Rose is waiting for you. Hurry up!"
"All right. Good night, old fellows!" And Charlie was off, as if the name had power to stop him in the very act of breaking the promise made to himself.
"Come, Solon, take a social drop, and give us an epithalamium in your best Greek. Here's to you!" And Steve was lifting the wine to his own lips when Mac knocked the glass out of his hand with a flash of the eye that caused his brother to stare at him with his mouth open in an imbecile sort of way, which seemed to excite Mac still more, for, turning to his young host, he said, in a low voice, and with a look that made the gentlemen on the chairs sit up suddenly: "I beg pardon, Van, for making a mess, but I can't stand by and see my own brother tempt another man beyond his strength or make a brute of himself. That's plain English, but I can't help speaking out, for I know not one of you would willingly hurt Charlie, and you will if you don't let him alone."
"What do you pitch into me for? I've done nothing. A fellow must be civil in his own house, mustn't he?" asked Van good-humoredly as he faced about, corkscrew in hand.
"Yes, but it is not civil to urge or joke a guest into doing what you know and he knows is bad for him. That's only a glass of wine to you, but it is perdition to Charlie, and if Steve knew what he was about, he'd cut his right hand off before he'd offer it."
"Do you mean to say I'm tipsy?" demanded Steve, ruffling up like a little gamecock, for though he saw now what he had done and was ashamed of it, he hated to have Mac air his peculiar notions before other people.
"With excitement, not champagne, I hope, for I wouldn't own you if you were," answered Mac, in whom indignation was effervescing like the wine in the forgotten bottle, for the men were all young, friends of Steve's and admirers of Charlie's. "Look here, boys," he went on more quietly, "I know I ought not to explode in this violent sort of way, but upon my life I couldn't help it when I heard what you were saying and saw what Steve was doing. Since I have begun, I may as well finish and tell you straight out that Prince can't stand this sort of thing. He is trying to flee temptation, and whoever leads him into it does a cowardly and sinful act, for the loss of one's own self-respect is bad enough, without losing the more precious things that make life worth having. Don't tell him I've said this, but lend a hand if you can, and never have to reproach yourselves with the knowledge that you helped to ruin a fellow creature, soul and body."
It was well for the success of Mac's first crusade that his hearers were gentlemen and sober, so his outburst was not received with jeers or laughter but listened to in silence, while the expression of the faces changed from one of surprise to regret and respect, for earnestness is always effective and championship of this sort seldom fails to touch hearts as yet unspoiled. As he paused with an eloquent little quiver in his eager voice, Van corked the bottle at a blow, threw down the corkscrew, and offered Mac his hand, saying heartily, in spite of his slang: "You are a first-class old brick! I'll lend a hand for one, and do my best to back up Charlie, for he's the finest fellow I know, and shan't go to the devil like poor Randal if I can help it."
Murmurs of applause from the others seemed to express a general assent to this vigorous statement, and, giving the hand a grateful shake, Mac retreated to the door, anxious to be off now that he had freed his mind with such unusual impetuosity.
"Count on me for anything I can do in return for this, Van. I'm sorry to be such a marplot, but you can take it out in quizzing me after I'm gone. I'm fair game, and Steve can set you going."
With that, Mac departed as abruptly as he had come, feeling that he had "made a mess" of it, but comforting himself with the thought that perhaps he had secured help for Charlie at his own expense and thinking with a droll smile as he went back to his mother: "My romance begins by looking after other girls' lovers instead of finding a sweetheart for myself, but I can't tell Rose, so she won't laugh at me."
Chapter 13 BOTH SIDES
Steve's engagement made a great stir in the family a pleasant one this time, for nobody objected, everything seemed felicitous, and the course of true love ran very smoothly for the young couple, who promised to remove the only obstacle to their union by growing old and wise as soon as possible. If he had not been so genuinely happy, the little lover's airs would have been unbearable, for he patronized all mankind in general, his brother and elder cousins in particular.
"Now, that is the way to manage matters," he declared, standing before the fire in Aunt Clara's billiard room a day or two after the ball, with his hands behind his back. "No nonsense, no delay, no domestic rows or tragic separations. Just choose with taste and judgment, make yourself agreeable through thick and thin, and when it is perfectly evident that the dear creature adores the ground you walk on, say the word like a man, and there you are."
"All very easy to do that with a girl like Kitty, who has no confounded notions to spoil her and trip you up every time you don't exactly toe the mark," muttered Charlie, knocking the balls about as if it were a relief to hit something, for he was in a gloriously bad humor that evening, because time hung heavy on his hands since he had forsworn the company he could not keep without danger to himself.
"You should humor those little notions, for all women have them, and it needs tact to steer clear of them. Kitty's got dozens, but I treat them with respect, have my own way when I can, give in without growling when I can't, and we get on like a couple of—"
"Spoons," put in Charlie, who felt that he had not steered clear and so suffered shipwreck in sight of land.
Steve meant to have said "doves," but his cousin's levity caused him to add with calm dignity, "reasonable beings," and then revenged himself by making a good shot which won him the game.
"You always were a lucky little dog, Steve. I don't begrudge you a particle of your happiness, but it does seem as if things weren't quite fair sometimes," said Archie, suppressing an envious sigh, for, though he seldom complained, it was impossible to contrast his own and his cousin's prospects with perfect equanimity.
"His worth shines forth the brightest who in hope Always confides: the Abject soul despairs,"
observed Mac, quoting Euripides in a conversational tone as he lay upon a divan reposing after a hard day's work.
"Thank you," said Archie, brightening a little, for a hopeful word from any source was very comfortable.
"That's your favorite Rip, isn't it? He was a wise old boy, but you could find advice as good as that nearer home," put in Steve, who just then felt equal to slapping Plato on the shoulder, so elated was he at being engaged "first of all the lot," as he gracefully expressed it.
"Don't halloo till you are out of the wood, Dandy Mrs. Kit has jilted two men, and may a third, so you'd better not brag of your wisdom too soon, for she may make a fool of you yet," said Charlie, cynically, his views of life being very gloomy about this time.
"No, she won't, Steve, if you do your part honestly. There's the making of a good little woman in Kitty, and she has proved it by taking you instead of those other fellows. You are not a Solomon, but you're not spoilt yet, and she had the sense to see it," said Mac encouragingly from his corner, for he and his brother were better friends than even since the little scene at the Van Tassels'.
"Hear! Hear!" cried Steve, looking more than ever like a cheerful young cockerel trying to crow as he stood upon the hearth rug with his hands under his coat tails, rising and falling alternately upon the toes and heels of his neat little boots.
"Come, you've given them each a pat on the head haven't you got one for me? I need it enough, for if ever there was a poor devil born under an evil star, it is C. C. Campbell," exclaimed Charlie, leaning his chin on his cue with a discontented expression of countenance, for trying to be good is often very hard work till one gets used to it.
"Oh, yes! I can accommodate you." And, as if his words suggested the selection, Mac, still lying flat upon his back, repeated one of his favorite bits from Beaumont and Fletcher, for he had a wonderful memory and could reel off poetry by the hour together.
"Man is his own star; and the soul that can Render an honest and a perfect man Commands all light, all influence, all fate. Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are; or good or ill, Our fatal shadows that walk by us still."
"Confoundedly bad angels they are too," muttered Charlie ruefully, remembering the one that undid him.
His cousins never knew exactly what occurred on New Year's night, but suspected that something was amiss, for Charlie had the blues, and Rose, though as kind as ever, expressed no surprise at his long absences. They had all observed and wondered at this state of things, yet discreetly made no remark till Steve, who was as inquisitive as a magpie, seized this opportunity to say in a friendly tone, which showed that he bore no malice for the dark prophecy regarding his Kitty's faithfulness: "What's the trouble, Prince? You are so seldom in a bad humor that we don't know what to make of it and all feel out of spirits when you have the blues. Had a tiff with Rose?"
"Never you mind, little boy, but this I will say the better women are, the more unreasonable they are. They don't require us to be saints like themselves, which is lucky, but they do expect us to render an 'honest and a perfect man' sometimes, and that is asking rather too much in a fallen world like this," said Charlie, glad to get a little sympathy, though he had no intention of confessing his transgressions.
"No, it isn't," said Mac, decidedly.
"Much you know about it," began Charlie, ill pleased to be so flatly contradicted.
"Well, I know this much," added Mac, suddenly sitting up with his hair in a highly disheveled condition. "It is very unreasonable in us to ask women to be saints and then expect them to feel honored when we offer them our damaged hearts or, at best, one not half as good as theirs. If they weren't blinded by love, they'd see what a mean advantage we take of them and not make such bad bargains."
"Upon my word, the philosopher is coming out strong upon the subject! We shall have him preaching 'Women's Rights' directly," said Steve, much amazed at this outburst.
"I've begun, you see, and much good may it do you," answered Mac, laying himself placidly down again.
"Well, but look here, man you are arguing on the wrong side," put in Archie, quite agreeing with him, but feeling that he must stand by his order at all costs.
"Never mind sides, uphold the right wherever you find it. You needn't stare, Steve I told you I was going to look into this matter, and I am. You think I'm wrapped up in books, but I see a great deal more of what is going on around me than you imagine, and I'm getting on in this new branch, let me tell you, quite as fast as is good for me, I daresay."
"Going in for perfection, are you?" asked Charlie, both amused and interested, for he respected Mac more than he owned even to himself, and though he had never alluded to the timely warning, neither forgot.
"Yes, I think of it."
"How will you begin?"
"Do my best all-round keep good company, read good books, love good things, and cultivate soul and body as faithfully and wisely as I can."
"And you expect to succeed, do you?"
"Please God, I will."
The quiet energy of Mac's last words produced a momentary silence. Charlie thoughtfully studied the carpet; Archie, who had been absently poking the fire, looked over at Mac as if he thanked him again, and Steve, forgetting his self-conceit, began to wonder if it was not possible to improve himself a little for Kitty's sake. Only a minute, for young men do not give much time to thoughts of this kind, even when love stirs up the noblest impulses within them. To act rather than to talk is more natural to most of them, as Charlie's next question showed, for, having the matter much at heart, he ventured to ask in an offhand way as he laughed and twirled his cue: "Do you intend to reach the highest point of perfection before you address one of the fair saints, or shall you ask her to lend a hand somewhere short of that?"
"As it takes a long lifetime to do what I plan, I think I shall ask some good woman 'to lend a hand' when I've got anything worth offering her. Not a saint, for I never shall be one myself, but a gentle creature who will help me, as I shall try to help her, so that we can go on together and finish our work hereafter, if we haven't time to do it here."
If Mac had been a lover, he would not have discussed the subject in this simple and sincere fashion, though he might have felt it far more deeply, but being quite heart-free, he frankly showed his interest and, curiously enough, out of his wise young head unconsciously gave the three lovers before him counsel which they valued, because he practiced what he preached.
"Well, I hope you'll find her!" said Charlie heartily as he went back to his game.
"I think I shall." And while the others played, Mac lay staring at the window curtain as contentedly as if, through it, he beheld "a dream of fair women" from which to choose his future mate.
A few days after this talk in the billiard room, Kitty went to call upon Rose, for as she was about to enter the family she felt it her duty to become acquainted with all its branches. This branch, however, she cultivated more assiduously than any other and was continually running in to confer with "Cousin Rose," whom she considered the wisest, dearest, kindest girl ever created. And Rose, finding that, in spite of her flighty head, Kitty had a good heart of her own, did her best to encourage all the new hopes and aspirations springing up in it under the warmth of the first genuine affection she had ever known.
"My dear, I want to have some serious conversation with you upon a subject in which I take an interest for the first time in my life," began Miss Kitty, seating herself and pulling off her gloves as if the subject was one which needed a firm grasp.
"Tell away, and don't mind if I go on working, as I want to finish this job today," answered Rose, with a long-handled paintbrush in her hand and a great pair of shears at her side.
"You are always so busy! What is it now? Let me help I can talk faster when I'm doing something," which seemed hardly possible, for Kitty's tongue went like a mill clapper at all hours.
"Making picture books for my sick babies at the hospital. Pretty work, isn't it? You cut out, and I'll paste them on these squares of gay cambric then we just tie up a few pages with a ribbon and there is a nice, light, durable book for the poor dears to look at as they lie in their little beds."
"A capital idea. Do you go there often? How ever do you find the time for such things?" asked Kitty, busily cutting from a big sheet the touching picture of a parent bird with a red head and a blue tail offering what looked like a small boa constrictor to one of its nestlings, a fat young squab with a green head, yellow body, and no tail at all.
"I have plenty of time now I don't go out so much, for a party uses up two days generally one to prepare for it and one to get over it, you know."
"People think it is so odd of you to give up society all of a sudden. They say you have 'turned pious' and it is owing to your peculiar bringing-up. I always take your part and say it is a pity other girls haven't as sensible an education, for I don't know one who is as satisfactory on the whole as you are."
"Much obliged. You may also tell people I gave up gaiety because I value health more. But I haven't forsworn everything of the kind, Kit. I go to concerts and lectures, and all sorts of early things, and have nice times at home, as you know. I like fun as well as ever, but I'm getting on, you see, and must be preparing a little for the serious part of life. One never knows when it may come," said Rose, thoughtfully as she pasted a squirrel upside down on the pink cotton page before her.
"That reminds me of what I wanted to say. If you'll believe me, my dear, Steve has got that very idea into his head! Did you or Mac put it there?" asked Kitty, industriously clashing her shears.
"No, I've given up lecturing the boys lately they are so big now they don't like it, and I fancy I'd got into a way that was rather tiresome."
"Well, then, he is 'turning pious' too. And what is very singular, I like it. Now don't smile I really do and I want to be getting ready for the 'serious part of life,' as you call it. That is, I want to grow better as fast as I can, for Steve says he isn't half good enough for me. Just think of that!"
Kitty looked so surprised and pleased and proud that Rose felt no desire to laugh at her sudden fancy for sobriety but said in her most sympathetic tone: "I'm very glad to hear it, for it shows that he loves you in the right way."
"Is there more than one way?"
"Yes, I fancy so, because some people improve so much after they fall in love, and others do not at all. Have you never observed that?"
"I never learned how to observe. Of course I know that some matches turn out well and some don't, but I never thought much about it."
"Well, I have, for I was rather interested in the subject lately and had a talk with Aunt Jessie and Uncle about it."
"Gracious! You don't talk to them about such things, do you?"
"Yes, indeed. I ask any questions I like, and always get a good answer. It is such a nice way to learn, Kitty, for you don't have to pore over books, but as things come along you talk about them and remember, and when they are spoken of afterward you understand and are interested, though you don't say a word," explained Rose.
"It must be nice, but I haven't anyone to do so for me. Papa is too busy, and Mama always says when I ask question, 'Don't trouble your head with such things, child,' so I don't. What did you learn about matches turning out well? I'm interested in that, because I want mine to be quite perfect in all respects."
"After thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that Uncle was right, and it is not always safe to marry a person just because you love him," began Rose, trying to enlighten Kitty without betraying herself.
"Of course not if they haven't money or are bad. But otherwise I don't see what more is needed," said Kitty wonderingly.
"One should stop and see if it is a wise love, likely to help both parties and wear well, for you know it ought to last all one's lifetime, and it is very sad if it doesn't."
"I declare it quite scares me to think of it, for I don't usually go beyond my wedding day in making plans. I remember, though, that when I was engaged the first time you don't know the man; it was just after you went away, and I was only sixteen someone very ill-naturedly said I should 'marry in haste and repent at leisure,' and that made me try to imagine how it would seem to go on year after year with Gustavus who had a dreadful temper, by the way and it worried me so to think of it that I broke the engagement, and was so glad ever afterward."
"You were a wise girl and I hope you'll do it again if you find, after a time, that you and Steve do not truly trust and respect as well as love one another. If you don't, you'll be miserable when it is too late, as so many people are who do marry in haste and have a lifetime to repent it. Aunt Jessie says so, and she knows."
"Don't be solemn, Rose. It fidgets me to think about life-times, and respecting, and all those responsible things. I'm not used to it, and I don't know how to do it."
"But you must think, and you must learn how before you take the responsibility upon yourself. That is what your life is for, and you mustn't spoil it by doing a very solemn thing without seeing if you are ready for it."
"Do you think about all this?" asked Kitty, shrugging up her shoulders as if responsibility of any sort did not sit comfortably on them.
"One has to sometimes, you know. But is that all you wanted to tell me?" added Rose, anxious to turn the conversation from herself.
"Oh, dear, no! The most serious thing of all is this. Steve is putting himself in order generally, and so I want to do my part, and I must begin right away before my thoughts get distracted with clothes and all sorts of dear, delightful, frivolous things that I can't help liking. Now I wish you'd tell me where to begin. Shouldn't I improve my mind by reading something solid?" And Kitty looked over at the well-filled bookcase as if to see if it contained anything large and dry enough to be considered "solid."
"It would be an excellent plan, and we'll look up something. What do you feel as if you needed most?"
"A little of everything I should say, for when I look into my mind there really doesn't seem to be much there but odds and ends, and yet I'm sure I've read a great deal more than some girls do. I suppose novels don't count, though, and are of no use, for, goodness knows, the people and things they describe aren't a bit like the real ones."
"Some novels are very useful and do as much good as sermons, I've heard Uncle say, because they not only describe truly, but teach so pleasantly that people like to learn in that way," said Rose, who knew the sort of books Kitty had read and did not wonder that she felt rather astray when she tried to guide herself by their teaching.
"You pick me out some of the right kind, and I'll apply my mind to them. Then I ought to have some 'serious views' and 'methods' and 'principles.' Steve said 'principles,' good firm ones, you know." And Kitty gave a little pull at the bit of cambric she was cutting as housewives pull cotton or calico when they want "a good firm article."
Rose could not help laughing now, though much pleased, for Kitty was so prettily in earnest, and yet so perfectly ignorant how to begin on the self-improvement she very much needed, that it was pathetic as well as comical to see and hear her.
"You certainly want some of those, and must begin at once to get them, but Aunt Jessie can help you there better than I can, or Aunt Jane, for she has very 'firm' ones, I assure you," said Rose, sobering down as quickly as possible.
"Mercy on us! I should never dare to say a word about it to Mrs. Mac, for I'm dreadfully afraid of her, she is so stern, and how I'm ever to get on when she is my mother-in-law I don't know!" cried Kitty, clasping her hands in dismay at the idea.
"She isn't half as stern as she looks, and if you go to her without fear, you've no idea how sensible and helpful she is. I used to be frightened out of my wits with her, but now I'm not a bit, and we get on nicely. Indeed, I'm fond of her, she is so reliable and upright in all things."
"She certainly is the straightest woman I ever saw, and the most precise. I never shall forget how scared I was when Steve took me up to see her that first time. I put on all my plainest things, did my hair in a meek knob, and tried to act like a sober, sedate young woman. Steve would laugh at me and say I looked like a pretty nun, so I couldn't be as proper as I wished. Mrs. Mac was very kind, of course, but her eye was so sharp I felt as if she saw right through me, and knew that I'd pinned on my bonnet strings, lost a button off my boot, and didn't brush my hair for ten minutes every night," said Kitty in an awe-stricken tone.
"She likes you, though, and so does Uncle, and he's set his heart on having you live with them by and by, so don't mind her eyes but look straight up at her, and you'll see how kind they can grow."
"Mac likes me, too, and that did please me, for he doesn't like girls generally. Steve told me he said I had the 'making of a capital little woman in me.' Wasn't it nice of him? Steve was so proud, though he does laugh at Mac sometimes."
"Don't disappoint them, dear. Encourage Steve in all the good things he likes or wants, make friends with Mac, love Aunt Jane, and be a daughter to Uncle, and you'll find yourself a very happy girl."
"I truly will, and thank you very much for not making fun of me. I know I'm a little goose, but lately I've felt as if I might come to something if I had the right sort of help. I'll go up and see Aunt Jessie tomorrow. I'm not a bit afraid of her, and then if you'll just quietly find out from Uncle Doctor what I must read, I'll work as hard as I can. Don't tell anyone, please, they'll think it odd and affected, and I can't bear to be laughed at, though I daresay it is good discipline."
Rose promised, and both worked in silence for a moment, then Kitty asked rather timidly: "Are you and Charlie trying this plan too? Since you've left off going out so much, he keeps away also, and we don't know what to make of it."
"He has had what he calls an 'artistic fit' lately, set up a studio, and is doing some crayon sketches of us all. If he'd only finish his things, they would be excellent, but he likes to try a great variety at once. I'll take you in sometime, and perhaps he will do a portrait of you for Steve. He likes girls' faces and gets the likenesses wonderfully well."
"People say you are engaged but I contradict it, because, of course, I should know if you were."
"We are not."
"I'm glad of it, for really, Rose, I'm afraid Charlie hasn't got 'firm principles,' though he is a fascinating fellow and one can't scold him. You don't mind my saying so, do you, dear?" added Kitty, for Rose did not answer at once.
"Not in the least, for you are one of us now, and I can speak frankly and I will, for I think in one way you can help Steve very much. You are right about Charlie, both as to the principles and the fascination. Steve admires him exceedingly, and always from a boy liked to imitate his pleasant ways. Some of them are very harmless and do Steve good, but some are not. I needn't talk about it, only you must show your boy that you depend on him to keep out of harm and help him do it."
"I will, I will! And then perhaps, when he is a perfect model, Charlie will imitate him. I really begin to feel as if I had a great deal to do." And Kitty looked as if she was beginning to like it also.
"We all have and the sooner we go to work the better for us and those we love. You wouldn't think now that Phebe was doing anything for Archie, but she is, and writes such splendid letters, they stir him up wonderfully and make us all love and admire her more than ever."
"How is she getting on?" asked Kitty, who, though she called herself a "little goose," had tact enough to see that Rose did not care to talk about Charlie.
"Nicely, for you know she used to sing in our choir, so that was a good recommendation for another. She got a fine place in the new church at L——, and that gives her a comfortable salary, though she has something put away. She was always a saving creature and kept her wages carefully. Uncle invested them, and she begins to feel quite independent already. No fear but my Phebe will get on she has such energy and manages so well. I sometimes wish I could run away and work with her."
"Ah, my dear! We rich girls have our trials as well as poor ones, though we don't get as much pity as they do," sighed Kitty. "Nobody knows what I suffer sometimes from worries that I can't talk about, and I shouldn't get much sympathy if I did, just because I live in a big house, wear good gowns, and have lots of lovers. Annabel used to say she envied me above all created beings, but she doesn't now, and is perfectly absorbed in her dear little Chinaman. Do you see how she ever could like him?"
So they began to gossip, and the sober talk was over for that time, but when Kitty departed, after criticizing all her dear friends and their respective sweethearts, she had a helpful little book in her muff, a resolute expression on her bright face, and so many excellent plans for self-improvement in her busy brain that she and Steve bid fair to turn out the model couple of the century.
Chapter 14 AUNT CLARA'S PLAN
Being seriously alarmed by the fear of losing the desire of his heart, Charlie had gone resolutely to work and, like many another young reformer, he rather overdid the matter, for in trying to keep out of the way of temptation, he denied himself much innocent enjoyment. The "artistic fit" was a good excuse for the seclusion which he fancied would be a proper penance, and he sat listlessly plying crayon or paintbrush, with daily wild rides on black Brutus, which seemed to do him good, for danger of that sort was his delight.
People were used to his whims and made light of what they considered a new one, but when it lasted week after week and all attempts to draw him out were vain, his jolly comrades gave him up and the family began to say approvingly, "Now he really is going to settle down and do something." Fortunately, his mother let him alone, for though Dr. Alec had not "thundered in her ear" as he threatened, he had talked with her in a way which first made her very angry, then anxious, and, lastly, quite submissive, for her heart was set on the boy's winning Rose and she would have had him put on sackcloth and ashes if that would have secured the prize. She made light of the cause of Rose's displeasure, considering her extremely foolish and straitlaced, "for all young men of any spirit had their little vices, and came out well enough when the wild oats were sowed." So she indulged Charlie in his new vagary, as she had in all his others, and treated him like an ill-used being, which was neither an inspiring nor helpful course on her part. Poor soul! She saw her mistake by and by, and when too late repented of it bitterly.
Rose wanted to be kind, and tried in various ways to help her cousin, feeling very sure she should succeed as many another hopeful woman has done, quite unconscious how much stronger an undisciplined will is than the truest love, and what a difficult task the wisest find it to undo the mistakes of a bad education. But it was a hard thing to do, for at the least hint of commendation or encouragement, he looked so hopeful that she was afraid of seeming to promise too much, and, of all things, she desired to escape the accusation of having trifled with him.
So life was not very comfortable to either just then; and while Charlie was "mortifying soul and body" to please her, she was studying how to serve him best. Aunt Jessie helped her very much, and no one guessed, when they saw pretty Miss Campbell going up and down the hill with such a serious face, that she was intent upon anything except taking, with praiseworthy regularity, the constitutionals which gave her such a charming color.
Matters were in this state when one day a note came to Rose from Mrs. Clara.
MY SWEET CHILD, Do take pity on my poor boy and cheer him up with a sight of you, for he is so triste it breaks my heart to see him. He has a new plan in his head, which strikes me as an excellent one, if you will only favor it. Let him come and take you for a drive this fine afternoon and talk things over. It will do him a world of good and deeply oblige
Your ever loving
Rose read the note twice and stood a moment pondering, with her eyes absently fixed on the little bay before her window. The sight of several black figures moving briskly to and fro across its frozen surface seemed to suggest a mode of escape from the drive she dreaded in more ways than one. "That will be safer and pleasanter," she said, and going to her desk wrote her answer.
DEAR AUNTY, I'm afraid of Brutus, but if Charlie will go skating with me, I should enjoy it very much and it would do us both good. I can listen to the new plan with an undivided mind there, so give him my love, please, and say I shall expect him at three.
Punctually at three Charlie appeared with his skates over his arm and with a very contented face, which brightened wonderfully as Rose came downstairs in a sealskin suit and scarlet skirt, so like the one she wore years ago that he involuntarily exclaimed as he took her skates: "You look so like little Rose I hardly know you, and it seems so like old times I feel sixteen again."
"That is just the way one ought to feel on such a day as this. Now let us be off and have a good spin before anyone comes. There are only a few children there now, but it is Saturday, you know, and everybody will be out before long," answered Rose, carefully putting on her mittens as she talked, for her heart was not as light as the one little Rose carried under the brown jacket, and the boy of sixteen never looked at her with the love and longing she read in the eyes of the young man before her.
Away they went, and were soon almost as merry and warm as the children around them, for the ice was in good condition, the February sunshine brilliant, and the keen wind set their blood a-tingle with a healthful glow.
"Now tell me the plan your mother spoke of," began Rose as they went gliding across the wide expanse before them, for Charlie seemed to have forgotten everything but the bliss of having her all to himself for a little while.
"Plan? Oh, yes! It is simply this. I'm going out to Father next month."
"Really?" and Rose looked both surprised and incredulous, for this plan was not a new one.
"Really. You don't believe it, but I am, and mother means to go with me. We've had another letter from the governor, and he says if she can't part from her big baby to come along too, and all be happy together. What do you think of that?" he asked, eyeing her intently, for they were face to face as she went backward and he held both of her hands to steer and steady her.
"I like it immensely, and do believe it now only it rather takes my breath away to think of Aunty's going, when she never would hear of it before."
"She doesn't like the plan very well now and consents to go only on one condition."
"What is that?" asked Rose, trying to free her hands, for a look at Charlie made her suspect what was coming.
"That you go with us." And, holding the hands fast, he added rapidly, "Let me finish before you speak. I don't mean that anything is to be changed till you are ready, but if you go, I am willing to give up everything else and live anywhere as long as you like. Why shouldn't you come to us for a year or two? We've never had our share. Father would be delighted, mother contented, and I the happiest man alive."
"Who made this plan?" asked Rose as soon as she got the breath which certainly had been rather taken away by this entirely new and by no means agreeable scheme.
"Mother suggested it I shouldn't have dared even to dream of such richness. I'd made up my mind to go alone, and when I told her, she was in despair till this superb idea came into her head. After that, of course, it was easy enough for me to stick to the resolution I'd made."
"Why did you decide to go, Charlie?" And Rose looked up into the eyes that were fixed beseechingly on hers.
They wavered and glanced aside, then met hers honestly yet full of humility, which made her own fall as he answered very low: "Because I don't dare to stay."
"Is it so hard?" she said pitifully.
"Very hard. I haven't the moral courage to own up and face ridicule, and it seems so mean to hide for fear of breaking my word. I will keep it this time, Rose, if I go to the ends of the earth to do it."
"It is not cowardly to flee temptation, and nobody whose opinion is worth having will ridicule any brave attempt to conquer one's self. Don't mind it, Charlie, but stand fast, and I am sure you will succeed."
"You don't know what it is, and I can't tell you, for till I tried to give it up I never guessed what a grip it had on me. I thought it was only a habit, easy to drop when I liked, but it is stronger than I, and sometimes I feel as if possessed of a devil that will get the better of me, try as I may."
He dropped her hands abruptly as he said that, with the energy of despair; and, as if afraid of saying too much, he left her for a minute, striking away at full speed, as if in truth he would "go to the ends of the earth" to escape the enemy within himself.
Rose stood still, appalled by this sudden knowledge of how much greater the evil was than she had dreamed. What ought she to do? Go with her cousin, and by so doing tacitly pledge herself as his companion on that longer journey for which he was as yet so poorly equipped? Both heart and conscience protested against this so strongly that she put the thought away. But compassion pleaded for him tenderly, and the spirit of self-sacrifice, which makes women love to give more than they receive, caused her to feel as if in a measure this man's fate lay in her hands, to be decided for good or ill through her. How should she be true both to him and to herself?
Before this question could be answered, he was back again, looking as if he had left his care behind him, for his moods varied like the wind. Her attitude, as she stood motionless and alone with downcast face, was so unlike the cheerful creature who came to meet him an hour ago, it filled him with self-reproach, and, coming up, he drew one hand through his arm, saying, as she involuntarily followed him, "You must not stand still. Forget my heroics and answer my question. Will you go with us, Rose?"
"Not now that is asking too much, Charlie, and I will promise nothing, because I cannot do it honestly," she answered, so firmly that he knew appeal was useless.
"Am I to go alone, then, leaving all I care for behind me?"
"No, take your mother with you, and do your best to reunite your parents. You could not give yourself to a better task."
"She won't go without you."
"I think she will if you hold fast to your resolution. You won't give that up, I hope?"
"No I must go somewhere, for I can't stay here, and it may as well be India, since that pleases Father," answered Charlie doggedly.
"It will more than you can imagine. Tell him all the truth, and see how glad he will be to help you, and how sincerely he will respect you for what you've done."
"If you respect me, I don't care much about the opinion of anyone else," answered Charlie, clinging with a lover's pertinacity to the hope that was dearest.
"I shall, if you go manfully away and do the duty you owe your father and yourself."
"And when I've done it, may I come back to be rewarded, Rose?" he asked, taking possession of the hand on his arm as if it was already his.
"I wish I could say what you want me to. But how can I promise when I am not sure of anything? I don't love you as I ought, and perhaps I never shall so why persist in making me bind myself in this way? Be generous, Charlie, and don't ask it," implored Rose, much afflicted by his persistence.
"I thought you did love me it looked very like it a month ago, unless you have turned coquette, and I can't quite believe that," he answered bitterly.
"I was beginning to love you, but you made me afraid to go on," murmured Rose, trying to tell the truth kindly.
"That cursed custom! What can a man do when his hostess asks him to drink wine with her?" And Charlie looked as if he could have cursed himself even more heartily.
"He can say 'no.'"
"Ah, that's the trouble! You never learned to say it even to yourself, and now it is so hard, you want me to help you."
"And you won't."
"Yes, I will, by showing you that I can say it to myself, for your sake." And Rose looked up with a face so full of tender sorrow he could not doubt the words which both reproached and comforted him.
"My little saint! I don't deserve one half your goodness to me, but I will, and go away without one complaint to do my best, for your sake," he cried, touched by her grief and stirred to emulation by the example of courage and integrity she tried to set him.
Here Kitty and Steve bore down upon them; and, obeying the impulse to put care behind them, which makes it possible for young hearts to ache one minute and dance the next, Rose and Charlie banished their troubles, joined in the sport that soon turned the lonely little bay into a ballroom, and enjoyed the splendors of a winter sunset forgetful of separation and Calcutta.
Chapter 15 ALAS FOR CHARLIE!
In spite of much internal rebellion, Charlie held fast to his resolution, and Aunt Clara, finding all persuasions vain, gave in and in a state of chronic indignation against the world in general and Rose in particular, prepared to accompany him. The poor girl had a hard time of it and, but for her uncle, would have fared still worse. He was a sort of shield upon which Mrs. Clara's lamentations, reproaches, and irate glances fell unavailingly instead of wounding the heart against which they were aimed.
The days passed very quickly now, for everyone seemed anxious to have the parting over and preparations went on rapidly. The big house was made ready to shut up for a year at least, comforts for the long voyage laid in, and farewell visits paid. The general activity and excitement rendered it impossible for Charlie to lead the life of an artistic hermit any longer and he fell into a restless condition which caused Rose to long for the departure of the Rajah when she felt that he would be safe, for these farewell festivities were dangerous to one who was just learning to say "no."
"Half the month safely gone. If we can only get well over these last weeks, a great weight will be off my mind," thought Rose as she went down one wild, wet morning toward the end of February.
Opening the study door to greet her uncle, she exclaimed, "Why, Archie!" then paused upon the threshold, transfixed by fear, for in her cousin's white face she read the tidings of some great affliction.
"Hush! Don't be frightened. Come in and I'll tell you," he whispered, putting down the bottle he had just taken from the doctor's medicine closet.
Rose understood and obeyed, for Aunt Plenty was poorly with her rheumatism and depended on her morning doze.
"What is it?" she said, looking about the room with a shiver, as if expecting to see again what she saw there New Year's night. Archie was alone, however, and, drawing her toward the closet, answered with an evident effort to be quite calm and steady "Charlie is hurt! Uncle wants more ether and the wide bandages in some drawer or other. He told me, but I forget. You keep this place in order find them for me. Quick!"
Before he had done, Rose was at the drawer, turning over the bandages with hands that trembled as they searched.
"All narrow! I must make some. Can you wait?" And, catching up a piece of old linen, she tore it into wide strips, adding, in the same quick tone, as she began to roll them, "Now, tell me."
"I can wait those are not needed just yet. I didn't mean anyone should know, you least of all," began Archie, smoothing out the strips as they lay across the table and evidently surprised at the girl's nerve and skill.
"I can bear it make haste! Is he much hurt?"
"I'm afraid he is. Uncle looks sober, and the poor boy suffers so, I couldn't stay," answered Archie, turning still whiter about the lips that never had so hard a tale to tell before.
"You see, he went to town last evening to meet the man who is going to buy Brutus."
"And Brutus did it? I knew he would!" cried Rose, dropping her work to wring her hands, as if she guessed the ending of the story now.
"Yes, and if he wasn't shot already I'd do it myself with pleasure, for he's done his best to kill Charlie," muttered Charlie's mate with a grim look, then gave a great sigh and added with averted face, "I shouldn't blame the brute, it wasn't his fault. He needed a firm hand and—" He stopped there, but Rose said quickly: "Go on. I must know."