"Charlie met some of his old cronies, quite by accident; there was a dinner party, and they made him go, just for a good-bye, they said. He couldn't refuse, and it was too much for him. He would come home alone in the storm, though they tried to keep him, as he wasn't fit. Down by the new bridge that high embankment, you know the wind had put the lantern out he forgot or something scared Brutus, and all went down together."
Archie had spoken fast and brokenly but Rose understood and at the last word hid her face with a little moan, as if she saw it all.
"Drink this and never mind the rest," he said, dashing into the next room and coming back with a glass of water, longing to be done and away, for this sort of pain seemed almost as bad as that he had left.
Rose drank, but held his arm tightly, as he would have turned away, saying in a tone of command he could not disobey: "Don't keep anything back tell me the worst at once."
"We knew nothing of it," he went on obediently. "Aunt Clara thought he was with me, and no one found him till early this morning. A workman recognized him and he was brought home, dead they thought. I came for Uncle an hour ago. Charlie is conscious now, but awfully hurt, and I'm afraid from the way Mac and Uncle looked at one another that Oh! Think of it, Rose! Crushed and helpless, alone in the rain all night, and I never knew, I never knew!"
With that, poor Archie broke down entirely and, flinging himself into a chair, laid his face on the table, sobbing like a girl. Rose had never seen a man cry before, and it was so unlike a woman's gentler grief that it moved her very much. Putting by her own anguish, she tried to comfort his and, going to him, lifted up his head and made him lean on her, for in such hours as this women are the stronger. It was a very little to do, but it did comfort Archie, for the poor fellow felt as if fate was very hard upon him just then, and in this faithful bosom he could pour his brief but pathetic plaint.
"Phebe's gone, and now if Charlie's taken, I don't see how I can bear it!"
"Phebe will come back, dear, and let us hope poor Charlie isn't going to be taken yet. Such things always seem worst at first, I've heard people say, so cheer up and hope for the best," answered Rose, seeking for some comfortable words to say and finding very few.
They took effect, however, for Archie did cheer up like a man. Wiping away the tears which he so seldom shed that they did not know where to go, he got up, gave himself a little shake, and said with a long breath, as if he had been underwater: "Now I'm all right, thank you. I couldn't help it the shock of being waked suddenly to find the dear old fellow in such a pitiful state upset me. I ought to go are these ready?"
"In a minute. Tell Uncle to send for me if I can be of any use. Oh, poor Aunt Clara! How does she bear it?"
"Almost distracted. I took Mother to her, and she will do all that anybody can. Heaven only knows what Aunt will do if—"
"And only heaven can help her," added Rose as Archie stopped at the words he could not utter. "Now take them, and let me know often."
"You brave little soul, I will." And Archie went away through the rain with his sad burden, wondering how Rose could be so calm when the beloved Prince might be dying.
A long dark day followed, with nothing to break its melancholy monotony except the bulletins that came from hour to hour reporting little change either for better or for worse. Rose broke the news gently to Aunt Plenty and set herself to the task of keeping up the old lady's spirits, for, being helpless, the good soul felt as if everything would go wrong without her. At dusk she fell asleep, and Rose went down to order lights and fire in the parlor, with tea ready to serve at any moment, for she felt sure some of the men would come and that a cheerful greeting and creature comforts would suit them better than tears, darkness, and desolation.
Presently Mac arrived, saying the instant he entered the room: "More comfortable, Cousin."
"Thank heaven!" cried Rose, unclasping her hands. Then seeing how worn out, wet, and weary Mac looked as he came into the light, she added in a tone that was a cordial in itself, "Poor boy, how tired you are! Come here, and let me make you comfortable."
"I was going home to freshen up a bit, for I must be back in an hour. Mother took my place, so I could be spared, and came off, as Uncle refused to stir."
"Don't go home, for if Aunty isn't there it will be very dismal. Step into Uncle's room and refresh, then come back and I'll give you your tea. Let me, let me! I can't help in any other way, and I must do something, this waiting is so dreadful."
Her last words betrayed how much suspense was trying her, and Mac yielded at once, glad to comfort and be comforted. When he came back, looking much revived, a tempting little tea table stood before the fire and Rose went to meet him, saying with a faint smile, as she liberally bedewed him with the contents of a cologne flask: "I can't bear the smell of ether it suggests such dreadful things."
"What curious creatures women are! Archie told us you bore the news like a hero, and now you turn pale at a whiff of bad air. I can't explain it," mused Mac as he meekly endured the fragrant shower bath.
"Neither can I, but I've been imagining horrors all day and made myself nervous. Don't let us talk about it, but come and have some tea."
"That's another queer thing. Tea is your panacea for all human ills yet there isn't any nourishment in it. I'd rather have a glass of milk, thank you," said Mac, taking an easy chair and stretching his feet to the fire.
She brought it to him and made him eat something; then, as he shut his eyes wearily, she went away to the piano and, having no heart to sing, played softly till he seemed asleep. But at the stroke of six he was up and ready to be off again.
"He gave me that. Take it with you and put some on his hair. He likes it, and I do so want to help a little," she said, slipping the pretty flagon into his pocket with such a wistful look Mac never thought of smiling at this very feminine request.
"I'll tell him. Is there anything else I can do for you, Cousin?" he asked, holding the cold hand that had been serving him so helpfully.
"Only this if there is any sudden change, promise to send for me, no matter at what hour it is. I must say 'good-bye'".
"I will come for you. But, Rose, I am sure you may sleep in peace tonight, and I hope to have good news for you in the morning."
"Bless you for that! Come early, and let me see him soon. I will be very good, and I know it will not do him any harm."
"No fear of that. The first thing he said when he could speak was 'Tell Rose carefully,' and as I came away he guessed where I was going and tried to kiss his hand in the old way, you know."
Mac thought it would cheer her to hear that Charlie remembered her, but the sudden thought that she might never see the familiar little gesture anymore was the last drop that made her full heart overflow, and Mac saw the "hero" of the morning sink down at his feet in a passion of tears that frightened him. He took her to the sofa and tried to comfort her, but as soon as the bitter sobbing quieted she looked up and said quite steadily, great drops rolling down her cheeks the while: "Let me cry it is what I need, and I shall be all the better for it by and by. Go to Charlie now and tell him I said with all my heart, 'Good night!'?
"I will!" And Mac trudged away, marveling in his turn at the curiously blended strength and weakness of womankind.
That was the longest night Rose ever spent, but joy came in the morning with the early message: "He is better. You are to come by and by." Then Aunt Plenty forgot her lumbago and arose; Aunt Myra, who had come to have a social croak, took off her black bonnet as if it would not be needed at present, and the girl made ready to go and say "Welcome back," not the hard "Good-bye."
It seemed very long to wait, for no summons came till afternoon, then her uncle arrived, and at the first sight of his face Rose began to tremble.
"I came for my little girl myself, because we must go back at once," he said as she hurried toward him hat in hand.
"I'm ready, sir." But her hands shook as she tried to tie the ribbons, and her eyes never left the face that was full of tender pity for her.
He took her quickly into the carriage and, as they rolled away, said with the quiet directness which soothes such agitation better than any sympathetic demonstration: "Charlie is worse. I feared it when the pain went so suddenly this morning, but the chief injuries are internal and one can never tell what the chances are. He insists that he is better, but he will soon begin to fail, I fear, become unconscious, and slip away without more suffering. This is the time for you to see him, for he has set his heart on it, and nothing can hurt him now. My child, it is very hard, but we must help each other bear it."
Rose tried to say, "Yes, Uncle" bravely, but the words would not come, and she could only slip her hand into his with a look of mute submission. He laid her head on his shoulder and went on talking so quietly that anyone who did not see how worn and haggard his face had grown with two days and a night of sharp anxiety might have thought him cold.
"Jessie has gone home to rest, and Jane is with poor Clara, who has dropped asleep at last. I've sent for Steve and the other boys. There will be time for them later, but he so begged to see you now, I thought it best to come while this temporary strength keeps him up. I have told him how it is, but he will not believe me. If he asks you, answer honestly and try to fit him a little for this sudden ending of so many hopes."
"How soon, Uncle?"
"A few hours, probably. This tranquil moment is yours make the most of it and, when we can do no more for him, we'll comfort one another."
Mac met them in the hall, but Rose hardly saw him. She was conscious only of the task before her and, when her uncle led her to the door, she said quietly, "Let me go in alone, please."
Archie, who had been hanging over the bed, slipped away into the inner room as she appeared, and Rose found Charlie waiting for her with such a happy face, she could not believe what she had heard and found it easy to say almost cheerfully as she took his eager hand in both of hers: "Dear Charlie, I'm so glad you sent for me. I longed to come, but waited till you were better. You surely are?" she added, as a second glance showed to her the indescribable change which had come upon the face which at first seemed to have both light and color in it.
"Uncle says not, but I think he is mistaken, because the agony is all gone, and except for this odd sinking now and then, I don't feel so much amiss," he answered feebly but with something of the old lightness in his voice.
"You will hardly be able to sail in the Rajah, I fear, but you won't mind waiting a little while we nurse you," said poor Rose, trying to talk on quietly, with her heart growing heavier every minute.
"I shall go if I'm carried! I'll keep that promise, though it costs me my life. Oh, Rose! You know? They've told you?" And, with a sudden memory of what brought him there, he hid his face in the pillow.
"You broke no promise, for I would not let you make one, you remember. Forget all that, and let us talk about the better time that may be coming for you."
"Always so generous, so kind!" he murmured, with her hand against his feverish cheek; then, looking up, he went on in a tone so humbly contrite it made her eyes fill with slow, hot tears.
"I tried to flee temptation I tried to say 'no,' but I am so pitiably weak, I couldn't. You must despise me. But don't give me up entirely, for if I live, I'll do better. I'll go away to Father and begin again."
Rose tried to keep back the bitter drops, but they would fall, to hear him still speak hopefully when there was no hope. Something in the mute anguish of her face seemed to tell him what she could not speak, and a quick change came over him as he grasped her hand tighter, saying in a sharp whisper: "Have I really got to die, Rose?"
Her only answer was to kneel down and put her arms about him, as if she tried to keep death away a little longer. He believed it then, and lay so still, she looked up in a moment, fearing she knew not what.
But Charlie bore it manfully, for he had the courage which can face a great danger bravely, though not the strength to fight a bosom sin and conquer it. His eyes were fixed, as if trying to look into the unseen world whither he was going, and his lips firmly set that no word of complaint should spoil the proof he meant to give that, though he had not known how to live, he did know how to die. It seemed to Rose as if for one brief instant she saw the man that might have been if early training had taught him how to rule himself; and the first words he uttered with a long sigh, as his eye came back to her, showed that he felt the failure and owned it with pathetic candor.
"Better so, perhaps; better go before I bring any more sorrow to you and shame to myself. I'd like to stay a little longer and try to redeem the past; it seems so wasted now, but if I can't, don't grieve, Rose. I'm no loss to anyone, and perhaps it is too late to mend."
"Oh, don't say that! No one will find your place among us we never can forget how much we loved you, and you must believe how freely we forgive as we would be forgiven," cried Rose, steadied by the pale despair that had fallen on Charlie's face with those bitter words.
"'Forgive us our trespasses!' Yes, I should say that. Rose, I'm not ready, it is so sudden. What can I do?" he whispered, clinging to her as if he had no anchor except the creature whom he loved so much.
"Uncle will tell you I am not good enough I can only pray for you." And she moved as if to call in the help so sorely needed.
"No, no, not yet! Stay by me, darling read something there, in Grandfather's old book, some prayer for such as I. It will do me more good from you than any minister alive."
She got the venerable book given to Charlie because he bore the good man's name and, turning to the "Prayer for the Dying," read it brokenly while the voice beside her echoed now and then some word that reproved or comforted.
"The testimony of a good conscience." "By the sadness of his countenance may his heart be made better." "Christian patience and fortitude." "Leave the world in peace." "Amen."
There was silence for a little; then Rose, seeing how wan he looked, said softly, "Shall I call Uncle now?"
"If you will. But first don't smile at my foolishness, dear I want my little heart. They took it off please give it back and let me keep it always," he answered with the old fondness strong as ever, even when he could show it only by holding fast the childish trinket which she found and had given him the old agate heart with the faded ribbon. "Put it on, and never let them take it off," he said, and when she asked if there was anything else she could do for him, he tried to stretch out his arms to her with a look which asked for more.
She kissed him very tenderly on lips and forehead, tried to say "good-bye," but could not speak, and groped her way to the door. Turning for a last look, Charlie's hopeful spirit rose for a moment, as if anxious to send her away more cheerful, and he said with a shadow of the old blithe smile, a feeble attempt at the familiar farewell gesture: "Till tomorrow, Rose."
Alas for Charlie! His tomorrow never came, and when she saw him next, he lay there looking so serene and noble, it seemed as if it must be well with him, for all the pain was past; temptation ended; doubt and fear, hope and love, could no more stir his quiet heart, and in solemn truth he had gone to meet his Father, and begin again.
Chapter 16 GOOD WORKS
The Rajah was delayed awhile, and when it sailed poor Mrs. Clara was on board, for everything was ready. All thought she had better go to comfort her husband, and since her boy died she seemed to care very little what became of her. So, with friends to cheer the long voyage, she sailed away, a heavyhearted woman, yet not quite disconsolate, for she knew her mourning was excessively becoming and felt sure that Stephen would not find her altered by her trials as much as might have been expected.
Then nothing was left of that gay household but the empty rooms, silence never broken by a blithe voice anymore, and pictures full of promise, but all unfinished, like poor Charlie's life.
There was much mourning for the bonny Prince, but no need to tell of it except as it affected Rose, for it is with her we have most to do, the other characters being of secondary importance.
When time had soothed the first shock of sudden loss, she was surprised to find the memory of his faults and failings, short life and piteous death, grew dim, as if a kindly hand had wiped out the record and given him back to her in the likeness of the brave, bright boy she had loved, not as the wayward, passionate young man who had loved her.
This comforted her very much, and folding down the last blotted leaf where his name was written, she gladly turned back to reopen and reread the happier chapters which painted the youthful knight before he went out to fall in his first battle. None of the bitterness of love bereaved marred this memory for Rose, because she found that the warmer sentiment, just budding in her heart, had died with Charlie and lay cold and quiet in his grave. She wondered, yet was glad, though sometimes a remorseful pang smote her when she discovered how possible it was to go on without him, feeling almost as if a burden had been lifted off, since his happiness was taken out of her hands. The time had not yet come when the knowledge that a man's heart was in her keeping would make the pride and joy of her life, and while she waited for that moment she enjoyed the liberty she seemed to have recovered.
Such being her inward state, it much annoyed her to be regarded as a brokenhearted girl and pitied for the loss of her young lover. She could not explain to all the world, so let it pass, and occupied her mind with the good works which always lie ready to be taken up and carried on. Having chosen philanthropy as her profession, she felt that it was high time to begin the task too long neglected.
Her projects were excellent, but did not prosper as rapidly as she hoped, for, having to deal with people, not things, unexpected obstacles were constantly arising. The "Home for Decayed Gentlewomen," as the boys insisted on calling her two newly repaired houses, started finely and it was a pleasant sight to see the comfortable rooms filled with respectable women busy at their various tasks, surrounded by the decencies and many of the comforts which make life endurable. But, presently, Rose was disturbed to find that the good people expected her to take care of them in a way she had not bargained for. Buffum, her agent, was constantly reporting complaints, new wants, and general discontent if they were not attended to. Things were very neglected, water pipes froze and burst, drains got out of order, yards were in a mess, and rents behind-hand. Worst of all, outsiders, instead of sympathizing, only laughed and said, "We told you so," which is a most discouraging remark to older and wiser workers than Rose.
Uncle Alec, however, stood by her staunchly and helped her out of many of her woes by good advice and an occasional visit of inspection, which did much to impress upon the dwellers there the fact that, if they did not do their part, their leases would be short ones.
"I didn't expect to make anything out of it, but I did think they would be grateful," said Rose on one occasion when several complaints had come in at once and Buffum had reported great difficulty in collecting the low rents.
"If you do this thing for the sake of the gratitude, then it is a failure but if it is done for the love of helping those who need help, it is a success, for in spite of their worry every one of these women feel what privileges they enjoy and value them highly," said Dr. Alec as they went home after one of these unsatisfactory calls.
"Then the least they can do is to say 'thank you.' I'm afraid I have thought more of the gratitude than the work, but if there isn't any, I must make up my mind to go without," answered Rose, feeling defrauded of her due.
"Favors often separate instead of attracting people nearer to one another, and I've seen many a friendship spoilt by the obligation being all on one side. Can't explain it, but it is so, and I've come to the conclusion that it is as hard to give in the right spirit as it is to receive. Puzzle it out, my dear, while you are learning to do good for its own sake."
"I know one sort of people who are grateful and I'm going to devote my mind to them. They thank me in many ways, and helping them is all pleasure and no worry. Come into the hospital and see the dear babies, or the Asylum, and carry oranges to Phebe's orphans they don't complain and fidget one's life out, bless their hearts!" cried Rose, cheering up suddenly.
After that she left Buffum to manage the "Retreat," and devoted her energies to the little folks, always so ready to receive the smallest gift and repay the giver with their artless thanks. Here she found plenty to do, and did it with such sweet goodwill that she won her way like sunshine, making many a little heart dance over splendid dolls, gay picture books, and pots of flowers, as well as food, fire, and clothes for the small bodies pinched with want and pain.
As spring came new plans sprang up as naturally as dandelions. The poor children longed for the country; and, as the green fields could not come to them, Rose carried them to the green fields. Down on the Point stood an old farmhouse, often used by the Campbell tribe for summer holidays. That spring it was set to rights unusually early, several women installed as housekeeper, cook, and nurses, and when the May days grew bright and warm, squads of pale children came to toddle in the grass, run over the rocks, and play upon the smooth sands of the beach. A pretty sight, and one that well repaid those who brought it to pass.
Everyone took an interest in the "Rose Garden," as Mac named it, and the womenfolk were continually driving over to the Point for something for the "poor dears." Aunt Plenty sowed gingerbread broadcast; Aunt Jessie made pinafores by the dozen while Aunt Jane "kept her eye" on the nurses, and Aunt Myra supplied medicines so liberally that the mortality would have been awful if Dr. Alec had not taken them in charge. To him this was the most delightful spot in the world and well it might be, for he suggested the idea and gave Rose all the credit of it. He was often there, and his appearance was always greeted with shrieks of rapture, as the children gathered from all quarters creeping, running, hopping on crutches, or carried in arms which they gladly left to sit on "Uncle Doctor's" knee, for that was the title by which he went among them.
He seemed as young as any of his comrades, though the curly head was getting gray, and the frolics that went on when he arrived were better than any medicine to children who had never learned to play. It was a standing joke among the friends that the bachelor brother had the largest family and was the most domestic man of the remaining four, though Uncle Mac did his part manfully and kept Aunt Jane in a constant fidget by his rash propositions to adopt the heartiest boys and prettiest girls to amuse him and employ her.
On one occasion Aunt Jane had a very narrow escape, and the culprit being her son, not her husband, she felt free to repay herself for many scares of this sort by a good scolding, which, unlike many, produced excellent results.
One bright June day, as Rose came cantering home from the Point on her pretty bay pony, she saw a man sitting on a fallen tree beside the road and something in his despondent attitude arrested her attention. As she drew nearer he turned his head, and she stopped short, exclaiming in great surprise: "Why, Mac! What are you doing here?"
"Trying to solve a problem," he answered, looking up with a whimsical expression of perplexity and amusement in his face which made Rose smile till his next words turned her sober in a twinkling: "I've eloped with a young lady, and don't know what to do with her. I took her home, of course, but mother turned her out of the house, and I'm in a quandary."
"Is that her baggage?" asked Rose, pointing with her whip to the large bundle which he held while the wild idea flashed through her head that perhaps he really had done some rash deed of this sort.
"No, this is the young lady herself." And, opening a corner of the brown shawl, he displayed a child of three so pale, so thin and tiny that she looked like a small scared bird just fallen from the nest as she shrank away from the light with great frightened eyes and a hand like a little claw tightly clutched a button of Mac's coat.
"Poor baby! Where did it come from?" cried Rose, leaning down to look.
"I'll tell you the story, and then you shall advise me what to do. At our hospital we've had a poor woman who got hurt and died two days ago. I had nothing to do with her, only took her a bit of fruit once or twice, for she had big, wistful sort of eyes that haunted me. The day she died I stopped a minute, and the nurse said she'd been wanting to speak to me but didn't dare. So I asked if I could do anything for her and, though she could hardly breathe for pain being almost gone she implored me to take care of baby. I found out where the child was, and promised I'd see after her for the poor soul couldn't seem to die till I'd given her that comfort. I never can forget the look in her eyes as I held her hand and said, 'Baby shall be taken care of.' She tried to thank me, and died soon after quite peacefully. Well, I went today and hunted up the poor little wretch. Found her in a miserable place, left in the care of an old hag who had shut her up alone to keep her out of the way, and there this mite was, huddled in a corner, crying 'Marmar, marmar!' fit to touch a heart of stone. I blew up at the woman and took the baby straightaway, for she had been abused. It was high time. Look there, will you?"
Mac turned the little skinny arm and showed a blue mark which made Rose drop her reins and stretch out both hands, crying with a tender sort of indignation: "How dared they do it? Give her to me, poor little motherless thing!"
Mac laid the bundle in her arms, and Rose began to cuddle it in the fond, foolish way women have a most comfortable and effective way, nevertheless and baby evidently felt that things were changing for the better when warm lips touched her cheeks, a soft hand smoothed her tumbled hair, and a womanly face bent over her with the inarticulate cooings and purrings mothers make. The frightened eyes went up to this gentle countenance and rested there as if reassured; the little claw crept to the girl's neck, and poor baby nestled to her with a long sigh and a plaintive murmur of "Marmar, marmar" that certainly would have touched a stony heart.
"Now, go on. No, Rosa, not you," said the new nurse as the intelligent animal looked around to see if things were all right before she proceeded.
"I took the child home to mother, not knowing what else to do, but she wouldn't have it at any price, even for a night. She doesn't like children, you know, and Father has joked so much about 'the Pointers' that she is quite rampant at the mere idea of a child in the house. She told me to take it to the Rose Garden. I said it was running over now, and no room even for a mite like this. 'Go to the Hospital,' says she. 'Baby isn't ill, ma'am,' says I. 'Orphan Asylum,' says she. 'Not an orphan got a father who can't take care of her,' says I. 'Take her to the Foundling place, or Mrs. Gardener, or someone whose business it is. I will not have the creature here, sick and dirty and noisy. Carry it back, and ask Rose to tell you what to do with it.' So my cruel parent cast me forth but relented as I shouldered baby, gave me a shawl to put her in, a jumble to feed her with, and money to pay her board in some good place. Mother's bark is always worse than her bite, you know."
"And you were trying to think of the 'good place' as you sat here?" asked Rose, looking down at him with great approval as he stood patting Rosa's glossy neck.
"Exactly. I didn't want to trouble you, for you have your house full already, and I really couldn't lay my hand on any good soul who would be bothered with this little forlornity. She has nothing to recommend her, you see not pretty; feeble; shy as a mouse; no end of care, I daresay yet she needs every bit she can get to keep soul and body together, if I'm any judge."
Rose opened her lips impulsively, but closed them without speaking and sat a minute looking straight between Rosa's ears, as if forcing herself to think twice before she spoke. Mac watched her out of the corner of his eyes as he said, in a musing tone, tucking the shawl around a pair of shabby little feet the while, "This seems to be one of the charities that no one wants to undertake, yet I can't help feeling that my promise to the mother binds me to something more than merely handing baby over to some busy matron or careless nurse in any of our overcrowded institutions. She is such a frail creature she won't trouble anyone long, perhaps, and I should like to give her just a taste of comfort, if not love, before she finds her 'Marmar' again."
"Lead Rosa I'm going to take this child home, and if Uncle is willing, I'll adopt her, and she shall be happy!" cried Rose, with the sudden glow of feeling that always made her lovely. And gathering poor baby close, she went on her way like a modern Britomart, ready to redress the wrongs of any who had need of her.
As he led the slowly stepping horse along the quiet road, Mac could not help thinking that they looked a little like the Flight into Egypt, but he did not say so, being a reverent youth only glanced back now and then at the figure above him, for Rose had taken off her hat to keep the light from baby's eyes and sat with the sunshine turning her uncovered hair to gold as she looked down at the little creature resting on the saddle before her with the sweet thoughtfulness one sees in some of Correggio's young Madonnas.
No one else saw the picture, but Mac long remembered it, and ever after there was a touch of reverence added to the warm affection he had always borne his cousin Rose.
"What is the child's name?" was the sudden question which disturbed a brief silence, broken only by the sound of pacing hoofs, the rustle of green boughs overhead, and the blithe caroling of birds.
"I'm sure I don't know," answered Mac, suddenly aware that he had fallen out of one quandary into another.
"Didn't you ask?"
"No, the mother called her 'Baby,' and the old woman, 'Brat.' And that is all I know of the first name the last is Kennedy. You may christen her what you like."
"Then I shall name her Dulcinea, as you are her knight, and call her Dulce for short. That is a sweet diminutive, I'm sure," laughed Rose, much amused at the idea.
Don Quixote looked pleased and vowed to defend his little lady stoutly, beginning his services on the spot by filling the small hands with buttercups, thereby winning for himself the first smile baby's face had known for weeks.
When they got home Aunt Plenty received her new guest with her accustomed hospitality and, on learning the story, was as warmly interested as even enthusiastic Rose could desire, bustling about to make the child comfortable with an energy pleasant to see, for the grandmotherly instincts were strong in the old lady and of late had been beautifully developed.
In less than half an hour from the time baby went upstairs, she came down again on Rose's arm, freshly washed and brushed, in a pink gown much too large and a white apron decidedly too small; an immaculate pair of socks, but no shoes; a neat bandage on the bruised arm, and a string of spools for a plaything hanging on the other. A resigned expression sat upon her little face, but the frightened eyes were only shy now, and the forlorn heart evidently much comforted.
"There! How do you like your Dulce now?" said Rose, proudly displaying the work of her hands as she came in with her habit pinned up and carrying a silver porringer of bread and milk.
Mac knelt down, took the small, reluctant hand, and kissed it as devoutly as ever good Alonzo Quixada did that of the Duchess while he said, merrily quoting from the immortal story: "'High and Sovereign Lady, thine till death, the Knight of the Rueful Countenance.'"
But baby had no heart for play and, withdrawing her hand, pointed to the porringer with the suggestive remark: "Din-din, now."
So Rose sat down and fed the Duchess while the Don stood by and watched the feast with much satisfaction.
"How nice she looks! Do you consider shoes unhealthy?" he asked, surveying the socks with respectful interest.
"No, her shoes are drying. You must have let her go in the mud."
"I only put her down for a minute when she howled, and she made for a puddle, like a duck. I'll buy her some new ones clothes too. Where do I go, what do I ask for, and how much do I get?" he said, diving for his pocketbook, amiably anxious but pitiably ignorant.
"I'll see to that. We always have things on hand for the Pointers as they come along and can soon fit Dulce out. You may make some inquiries about the father if you will, for I don't want to have her taken away just as I get fond of her. Do you know anything about him?"
"Only that he is in State Prison for twenty-one years, and not likely to trouble you."
"How dreadful! I really think Phebe was better off to have none at all. I'll go to work at once, then, and try to bring up the convict's little daughter to be a good woman so that she will have an honest name of her own, since he has nothing but disgrace to give her."
"Uncle can show you how to do that if you need any help. He has been so successful in his first attempt, I fancy you won't require much," said Mac, picking up the spools for the sixth time.
"Yes, I shall, for it is a great responsibility, and I do not undertake it lightly," answered Rose soberly, though the double-barreled compliment pleased her very much.
"I'm sure Phebe has turned out splendidly, and you began very early with her."
"So I did! That's encouraging. Dear thing, how bewildered she looked when I proposed adopting her. I remember all about it, for Uncle had just come and I was quite crazy over a box of presents and rushed at Phebe as she was cleaning brasses. How little I thought my childish offer would end so well!" And Rose fell a-musing with a happy smile on her face while baby picked the last morsels out of the porringer with her own busy fingers.
It certainly had ended well, for Phebe at the end of six months not only had a good place as choir singer but several young pupils and excellent prospects for the next winter.
"Accept the blessing of a poor young man, Whose lucky steps have led him to your door, and let me help as much as I can. Good-bye, my Dulcinea."
And, with a farewell stroke of the smooth head, Mac went away to report his success to his mother, who, in spite of her seeming harshness, was already planning how she could best befriend this inconvenient baby.
Chapter 17 AMONG THE HAYCOCKS
Uncle Alec did not object and, finding that no one had any claim upon the child, permitted Rose to keep it for a time at least. So little Dulce, newly equipped even to a name, took her place among them and slowly began to thrive. But she did not grow pretty and never was a gay, attractive child, for she seemed to have been born in sorrow and brought up in misery. A pale, pensive little creature, always creeping into corners and looking timidly out, as if asking leave to live, and, when offered playthings, taking them with a meek surprise that was very touching.
Rose soon won her heart, and then almost wished she had not, for baby clung to her with inconvenient fondness, changing her former wail of "Marmar" into a lament for "Aunty Wose" if separated long. Nevertheless, there was great satisfaction in cherishing the little waif, for she learned more than she could teach and felt a sense of responsibility which was excellent ballast for her enthusiastic nature.
Kitty Van, who made Rose her model in all things, was immediately inspired to go and do likewise, to the great amusement as well as annoyance of her family. Selecting the prettiest, liveliest child in the Asylum, she took it home on trial for a week. "A perfect cherub" she pronounced it the first day, but an "enfant terrible" before the week was over, for the young hero rioted by day, howled by night, ravaged the house from top to bottom, and kept his guardians in a series of panics by his hairbreadth escapes. So early on Saturday, poor exhausted Kitty restored the "cherub" with many thanks, and decided to wait until her views of education were rather more advanced.
As the warm weather came on, Rose announced that Dulce needed mountain air, for she dutifully repeated as many of Dr. Alec's prescriptions as possible and, remembering how much good Cozy Corner did her long ago, resolved to try it on her baby. Aunt Jessie and Jamie went with her, and Mother Atkinson received them as cordially as ever. The pretty daughters were all married and gone, but a stout damsel took their place, and nothing seemed changed except that the old heads were grayer and the young ones a good deal taller than six years ago.
Jamie immediately fraternized with neighboring boys and devoted himself to fishing with an ardor which deserved greater success. Aunt Jessie reveled in reading, for which she had no time at home, and lay in her hammock a happy woman, with no socks to darn, buttons to sew, or housekeeping cares to vex her soul. Rose went about with Dulce like a very devoted hen with one rather feeble chicken, for she was anxious to have this treatment work well and tended her little patient with daily increasing satisfaction. Dr. Alec came up to pass a few days and pronounced the child in a most promising condition. But the grand event of the season was the unexpected arrival of Phebe.
Two of her pupils had invited her to join them in a trip to the mountains, and she ran away from the great hotel to surprise her little mistress with a sight of her, so well and happy that Rose had no anxiety left on her account.
Three delightful days they spent, roaming about together, talking as only girls can talk after a long separation, and enjoying one another like a pair of lovers. As if to make it quite perfect, by one of those remarkable coincidences which sometimes occur, Archie happened to run up for the Sunday, so Phebe had her surprise, and Aunt Jessie and the telegraph kept their secret so well, no one ever knew what maternal machinations brought the happy accident to pass.
Then Rose saw a very pretty, pastoral bit of lovemaking, and long after it was over, and Phebe gone one way, Archie another, the echo of sweet words seemed to linger in the air, tender ghosts to haunt the pine grove, and even the big coffeepot had a halo of romance about it, for its burnished sides reflected the soft glances the lovers interchanged as one filled the other's cup at that last breakfast.
Rose found these reminiscences more interesting than any novel she had read, and often beguiled her long leisure by planning a splendid future for her Phebe as she trotted about after her baby in the lovely July weather.
On one of the most perfect days she sat under an old apple tree on the slope behind the house where they used to play. Before her opened the wide intervale, dotted with haymakers at their picturesque work. On the left flowed the swift river fringed with graceful elms in their bravest greenery; on the right rose the purple hills serene and grand; and overhead glowed the midsummer sky, which glorified it all.
Little Dulce, tired of play, lay fast asleep in the nest she had made in one of the haycocks close by, and Rose leaned against the gnarled old tree, dreaming daydreams with her work at her feet. Happy and absorbing fancies they seemed to be, for her face was beautifully tranquil, and she took no heed of the train which suddenly went speeding down the valley, leaving a white cloud behind. Its rumble concealed the sound of approaching steps, and her eyes never turned from the distant hills till the abrupt appearance of a very sunburned but smiling young man made her jump up, exclaiming joyfully: "Why, Mac! Where did you drop from?"
"The top of Mount Washington. How do you do?"
"Never better. Won't you go in? You must be tired after such a fall."
"No, thank you. I've seen the old lady. She told me Aunt Jessie and the boy had gone to town and that you were 'settin' round' in the old place. I came on at once and will take a lounge here if you don't mind," answered Mac, unstrapping his knapsack and taking a haycock as if it were a chair.
Rose subsided into her former seat, surveying her cousin with much satisfaction as she said: "This is the third surprise I've had since I came. Uncle popped in upon us first, then Phebe, and now you. Have you had a pleasant tramp? Uncle said you were off."
"Delightful! I feel as if I'd been in heaven, or near it, for about three weeks, and thought I'd break the shock of coming down to the earth by calling here on my way home."
"You look as if heaven suited you. Brown as a berry, but so fresh and happy I should never guess you had been scrambling down a mountain," said Rose, trying to discover why he looked so well in spite of the blue flannel suit and dusty shoes, for there was a certain sylvan freshness about him as he sat there full of reposeful strength the hills seemed to have given, the wholesome cheerful days of air and sunshine put into a man, and the clear, bright look of one who had caught glimpses of a new world from the mountaintop.
"Tramping agrees with me. I took a dip in the river as I came along and made my toilet in a place where Milton's Sabrina might have lived," he said, shaking back his damp hair and settling the knot of scarlet bunchberries stuck in his buttonhole.
"You look as if you found the nymph at home," said Rose, knowing how much he liked the "Comus."
"I found her here," and he made a little bow.
"That's very pretty, and I'll give you one in return. You grow more like Uncle Alec every day, and I think I'll call you Alec, Jr."
"Alexander the Great wouldn't thank you for that," and Mac did not look as grateful as she had expected.
"Very like, indeed, except the forehead. His is broad and benevolent, yours high and arched. Do you know if you had no beard, and wore your hair long, I really think you'd look like Milton," added Rose, sure that would please him.
It certainly did amuse him, for he lay back on the hay and laughed so heartily that his merriment scared the squirrel on the wall and woke Dulce.
"You ungrateful boy! Will nothing suit you? When I say you look like the best man I know, you gave a shrug, and when I liken you to a great poet, you shout. I'm afraid you are very conceited, Mac." And Rose laughed, too, glad to see him so gay.
"If I am, it is your fault. Nothing I can do will ever make a Milton of me, unless I go blind someday," he said, sobering at the thought.
"You once said a man could be what he liked if he tried hard enough, so why shouldn't you be a poet?" asked Rose, liking to trip him up with his own words, as he often did her.
"I thought I was to be an M.D."
"You might be both. There have been poetical doctors, you know."
"Would you like me to be such a one?" asked Mac, looking at her as seriously as if he really thought of trying it.
"No. I'd rather have you one or the other. I don't care which, only you must be famous in either you choose. I'm very ambitious for you, because, I insist upon it, you are a genius of some sort. I think it is beginning to simmer already, and I've got a great curiosity to know what it will turn out to be."
Mac's eyes shone as she said that, but before he could speak a little voice said, "Aunty Wose!" and he turned to find Dulce sitting up in her nest staring at the broad blue back before her with round eyes.
"Do you know your Don?" he asked, offering his hand with respectful gentleness, for she seemed a little doubtful whether he was a friend or stranger.
"It is 'Mat,'" said Rose, and that familiar word seemed to reassure the child at once, for, leaning forward, she kissed him as if quite used to doing it.
"I picked up some toys for her, by the way, and she shall have them at once to pay for that. I didn't expect to be so graciously received by this shy mouse," said Mac, much gratified, for Dulce was very chary of her favors.
"She knew you, for I always carry my home album with me, and when she comes to your picture she always kisses it, because I never want her to forget her first friend," explained Rose, pleased with her pupil.
"First, but not best," answered Mac, rummaging in his knapsack for the promised toys, which he set forth upon the hay before delighted Dulce.
Neither picture books nor sweeties, but berries strung on long stems of grass, acorns, and pretty cones, bits of rock shining with mica, several bluebirds' feathers, and a nest of moss with white pebbles for eggs.
"Dearest Nature, strong and kind" knows what children love, and has plenty of such playthings ready for them all, if one only knows how to find them. These were received with rapture. And leaving the little creature to enjoy them in her own quiet way, Mac began to tumble the things back into his knapsack again. Two or three books lay near Rose, and she took up one which opened at a place marked by a scribbled paper.
"Keats? I didn't know you condescended to read anything so modern," she said, moving the paper to see the page beneath.
Mac looked up, snatched the book out of her hand, and shook down several more scraps, then returned it with a curiously shamefaced expression, saying, as he crammed the papers into his pocket, "I beg pardon, but it was full of rubbish. Oh, yes! I'm fond of Keats. Don't you know him?"
"I used to read him a good deal, but Uncle found me crying over the 'Pot of Basil' and advised me to read less poetry for a while or I should get too sentimental," answered Rose, turning the pages without seeing them, for a new idea had just popped into her head.
"'The Eve of St. Agnes' is the most perfect love story in the world, I think," said Mac, enthusiastically.
"Read it to me. I feel just like hearing poetry, and you will do it justice if you are fond of it," said Rose, handing him the book with an innocent air.
"Nothing I'd like better, but it is rather long."
"I'll tell you to stop if I get tired. Baby won't interrupt; she will be contented for an hour with those pretty things."
As if well pleased with his task, Mac laid himself comfortably on the grass and, leaning his head on his hand, read the lovely story as only one could who entered fully into the spirit of it. Rose watched him closely and saw how his face brightened over some quaint fancy, delicate description, or delicious word; heard how smoothly the melodious measures fell from his lips, and read something more than admiration in his eyes as he looked up now and then to mark if she enjoyed it as much as he.
She could not help enjoying it, for the poet's pen painted as well as wrote, and the little romance lived before her, but she was not thinking of John Keats as she listened; she was wondering if this cousin was a kindred spirit, born to make such music and leave as sweet an echo behind him. It seemed as if it might be; and, after going through the rough caterpillar and the pent-up chrysalis changes, the beautiful butterfly would appear to astonish and delight them all. So full of this fancy was she that she never thanked him when the story ended but, leaning forward, asked in a tone that made him start and look as if he had fallen from the clouds: "Mac, do you ever write poetry?"
"What do you call the song Phebe sang with her bird chorus?"
"That was nothing till she put the music to it. But she promised not to tell."
"She didn't. I suspected, and now I know," laughed Rose, delighted to have caught him.
Much discomfited, Mac gave poor Keats a fling and, leaning on both elbows, tried to hide his face for it had reddened like that of a modest girl when teased about her lover.
"You needn't look so guilty; it is no sin to write poetry," said Rose, amused at his confession.
"It's a sin to call that rubbish poetry," muttered Mac with great scorn.
"It is a greater sin to tell a fib and say you never write it."
"Reading so much sets one thinking about such things, and every fellow scribbles a little jingle when he is lazy or in love, you know," explained Mac, looking very guilty.
Rose could not quite understand the change she saw in him till his last words suggested a cause which she knew by experience was apt to inspire young men. Leaning forward again, she asked solemnly, though her eyes danced with fun, "Mac, are you in love?"
"Do I look like it?" And he sat up with such an injured and indignant face that she apologized at once, for he certainly did not look loverlike with hayseed in his hair, several lively crickets playing leapfrog over his back, and a pair of long legs stretching from tree to haycock.
"No, you don't, and I humbly beg your pardon for making such an unwarrantable insinuation. It merely occurred to me that the general upliftedness I observe in you might be owing to that, since it wasn't poetry."
"It is the good company I've been keeping, if anything. A fellow can't spend 'A Week' with Thoreau and not be the better for it. I'm glad I show it, because in the scramble life is to most of us, even an hour with such a sane, simple, and sagacious soul as his must help one," said Mac, taking a much worn book out of his pocket with the air of introducing a dear and honored friend.
"I've read bits, and like them they are so original and fresh and sometimes droll," said Rose, smiling to see what natural and appropriate marks of approbation the elements seemed to set upon the pages Mac was turning eagerly, for one had evidently been rained on, a crushed berry stained another, some appreciative field-mouse or squirrel had nibbled one corner, and the cover was faded with the sunshine, which seemed to have filtered through to the thoughts within.
"Here's a characteristic bit for you: 'I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an oxcart, with free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train, and breathe malaria all the way.'
"I've tried both and quite agree with him," laughed Mac, and skimming down another page, gave her a paragraph here and there.
"'Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.'
"'We do not learn much from learned books, but from sincere human books: frank, honest biographies.'
"'At least let us have healthy books. Let the poet be as vigorous as the sugar maple, with sap enough to maintain his own verdure, besides what runs into the trough; and not like a vine which, being cut in the spring, bears no fruit, but bleeds to death in the endeavor to heal its wounds.'"
"That will do for you," said Rose, still thinking of the new suspicion which pleased her by its very improbability.
Mac flashed a quick look at her and shut the book, saying quietly, although his eyes shone, and a conscious smile lurked about his mouth: "We shall see, and no one need meddle, for, as my Thoreau says,
"Whate'er we leave to God, God does And blesses us: The work we choose should be our own God lets alone."
Rose sat silent, as if conscious that she deserved his poetical reproof.
"Come, you have catechized me pretty well; now I'll take my turn and ask you why you look 'uplifted,' as you call it. What have you been doing to make yourself more like your namesake than ever?" asked Mac, carrying war into the enemy's camp with the sudden question.
"Nothing but live, and enjoy doing it. I actually sit here, day after day, as happy and contented with little things as Dulce is and feel as if I wasn't much older than she," answered the girl, feeling as if some change was going on in that pleasant sort of pause but unable to describe it.
"As if a rose should shut and be a bud again," murmured Mac, borrowing from his beloved Keats.
"Ah, but I can't do that! I must go on blooming whether I like it or not, and the only trouble I have is to know what leaf I ought to unfold next," said Rose, playfully smoothing out the white gown, in which she looked very like a daisy among the green.
"How far have you got?" asked Mac, continuing his catechism as if the fancy suited him.
"Let me see. Since I came home last year, I've been gay, then sad, then busy, and now I am simply happy. I don't know why, but seem to be waiting for what is to come next and getting ready for it, perhaps unconsciously," she said, looking dreamily away to the hills again, is if the new experience was coming to her from afar.
Mac watched her thoughtfully for a minute, wondering how many more leaves must unfold before the golden heart of this human flower would lie open to the sun. He felt a curious desire to help in some way, and could think of none better than to offer her what he had found most helpful to himself. Picking up another book, he opened it at a place where an oak leaf lay and, handing it to her, said, as if presenting something very excellent and precious: "If you want to be ready to take whatever comes in a brave and noble way, read that, and the one where the page is turned down."
Rose took it, saw the words "Self-Reliance," and turning the leaves, read here and there a passage which was marked: "'My life is for itself, and not for a spectacle.'
"'Insist on yourself: never imitate. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.'
"'Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope or dare too much.'"
Then, coming to the folded page, whose title was "Heroism," she read, and brightened as she read:
"'Let the maiden, with erect soul, walk serenely on her way; accept the hint of each new experience; search in turn all the objects that solicit her eye, that she may learn the power and the charm of her newborn being.'
"'The fair girl who repels interference by a decided and proud choice of influences inspires every beholder with something of her own nobleness; and the silent heart encourages her. O friend, never strike sail to a fear! Come into port greatly, or sail with God the seas.'"
"You understand that, don't you?" asked Mac as she glanced up with the look of one who had found something suited to her taste and need.
"Yes, but I never dared to read these Essays, because I thought they were too wise for me."
"The wisest things are sometimes the simplest, I think. Everyone welcomes light and air, and cannot do without them, yet very few could explain them truly. I don't ask you to read or understand all of that don't myself but I do recommend the two essays I've marked, as well as 'Love' and 'Friendship.' Try them, and let me know how they suit. I'll leave you the book."
"Thanks. I wanted something fine to read up here and, judging by what I see, I fancy this will suit. Only Aunt Jessie may think I'm putting on airs if I try Emerson."
"Why should she? He has done more to set young men and women thinking than any man in this century at least. Don't you be afraid if it is what you want, take it, and go ahead as he tells you
"Without halting, without rest, Lifting Better up to Best."
"I'll try," said Rose meekly, feeling that Mac had been going ahead himself much faster than she had any suspicion.
Here a voice exclaimed "Hallo!" and, looking around, Jamie was discovered surveying them critically as he stood in an independent attitude, like a small Colossus of Rhodes in brown linen, with a bundle of molasses candy in one hand, several new fishhooks cherished carefully in the other, and his hat well on the back of his head, displaying as many freckles as one somewhat limited nose could reasonably accommodate.
"How are you, young one?" said Mac, nodding.
"Tip-top. Glad it's you. Thought Archie might have turned up again, and he's no fun. Where did you come from? What did you come for? How long are you going to stay? Want a bit? It's jolly good."
With which varied remarks Jamie approached, shook hands in a manly way, and, sitting down beside his long cousin, hospitably offered sticks of candy all around.
"Did you get any letters?" asked Rose, declining the sticky treat.
"Lots, but Mama forgot to give 'em to me, and I was rather in a hurry, for Mrs. Atkinson said somebody had come and I couldn't wait," explained Jamie, reposing luxuriously with his head on Mac's legs and his mouth full.
"I'll step and get them. Aunty must be tired, and we should enjoy reading the news together."
"She is the most convenient girl that ever was," observed Jamie as Rose departed, thinking Mac might like some more substantial refreshment than sweetmeats.
"I should think so, if you let her run your errands, you lazy little scamp," answered Mac, looking after her as she went up the green slope, for there was something very attractive to him about the slender figure in a plain white gown with a black sash about the waist and all the wavy hair gathered to the top of the head with a little black bow.
"Sort of pre-Raphaelite, and quite refreshing after the furbelowed creatures at the hotels," he said to himself as she vanished under the arch of scarlet runners over the garden gate.
"Oh, well! She likes it. Rose is fond of me, and I'm very good to her when I have time," continued Jamie, calmly explaining. "I let her cut out a fishhook, when it caught in my leg, with a sharp penknife, and you'd better believe it hurt, but I never squirmed a bit, and she said I was a brave boy. And then, one day I got left on my desert island out in the pond, you know the boat floated off, and there I was for as much as an hour before I could make anyone hear. But Rose thought I might be there, and down she came, and told me to swim ashore. It wasn't far, but the water was horrid cold, and I didn't like it. I started though, just as she said, and got on all right, till about halfway, then cramp or something made me shut up and howl, and she came after me slapdash, and pulled me ashore. Yes, sir, as wet as a turtle, and looked so funny, I laughed, and that cured the cramp. Wasn't I good to mind when she said, 'Come on'?"
"She was, to dive after such a scapegrace. I guess you lead her a life of it, and I'd better take you home with me in the morning," suggested Mac, rolling the boy over and giving him a good-natured pummeling on the haycock while Dulce applauded from her nest.
When Rose returned with ice-cold milk, gingerbread, and letters, she found the reader of Emerson up in the tree, pelting and being pelted with green apples as Jamie vainly endeavored to get at him. The siege ended when Aunt Jessie appeared, and the rest of the afternoon was spent in chat about home affairs.
Early the next morning Mac was off, and Rose went as far as the old church with him.
"Shall you walk all the way?" she asked as he strode along beside her in the dewy freshness of the young day.
"Only about twenty miles, then take car and whisk back to my work," he answered, breaking a delicate fern for her.
"Are you never lonely?"
"Never. I take my best friends along, you know," and he gave a slap to the pocket from which peeped the volume of Thoreau.
"I'm afraid you leave your very best behind you," said Rose, alluding to the book he had lent her yesterday.
"I'm glad to share it with you. I have much of it here, and a little goes a great way, as you will soon discover," he answered, tapping his head.
"I hope the reading will do as much for me as it seems to have done for you. I'm happy, but you are wise and good I want to be also."
"Read away, and digest it well, then write and tell me what you think of it. Will you?" he asked as they paused where the four roads met.
"If you will answer. Shall you have time with all your other work? Poetry I beg pardon medicine is very absorbing, you know," answered Rose mischievously, for just then, as he stood bareheaded in the shadows of the leaves playing over his fine forehead, she remembered the chat among the haycocks, and he did not look at all like an M.D.
"I'll make time."
Chapter 18 WHICH WAS IT?
Rose did read and digest, and found her days much richer for the good company she kept, for an introduction to so much that was wise, beautiful, and true could not but make that month a memorable one. It is not strange that while the young man most admired "Heroism" and "Self-Reliance," the girl preferred "Love" and "Friendship," reading them over and over like prose poems, as they are, to the fitting accompaniment of sunshine, solitude, and sympathy, for letters went to and fro with praiseworthy regularity.
Rose much enjoyed this correspondence, and found herself regretting that it was at an end when she went home in September, for Mac wrote better than he talked, though he could do that remarkably well when he chose. But she had no chance to express either pleasure or regret, for the first time she saw him after her return the great change in his appearance made her forget everything else. Some whim had seized him to be shaven and shorn, and when he presented himself to welcome Rose, she hardly knew him. The shaggy hair was nicely trimmed and brushed, the cherished brown beard entirely gone, showing a well-cut mouth and handsome chin and giving a new expression to the whole face.
"Are you trying to look like Keats?" she asked, after a critical glance, which left her undecided whether the change was an improvement or not.
"I am trying not to look like Uncle," answered Mac coolly.
"And why, if you please?" demanded Rose in great surprise.
"Because I prefer to look like myself, and not resemble any other man, no matter how good or great he may be."
"You haven't succeeded then, for you look now very much like the young Augustus," returned Rose, rather pleased on the whole to see what a finely shaped head appeared after the rough thatch was off.
"Trust a woman to find a comparison for everything under the sun!" laughed Mac, not at all flattered by the one just made. "What do you think of me, on the whole?" he asked a minute later, as he found Rose still scrutinizing him with a meditative air.
"Haven't made up my mind. It is such an entire change, I don't know you, and feel as if I ought to be introduced. You certainly look much more tidy, and I fancy I shall like it when I'm used to seeing a somewhat distinguished-looking man about the house instead of my old friend Orson," answered Rose, with her head on one side to get a profile view.
"Don't tell Uncle why I did it, please he thinks it was for the sake of coolness and likes it, so take no notice. They are all used to me now, and don't mind," said Mac, roving about the room as if rather ashamed of his whim after all.
"No, I won't, but you mustn't mind if I'm not as sociable as usual for a while. I never can be with strangers, and you really do seem like one. That will be a punishment for your want of taste and love of originality," returned Rose, resolved to punish him for the slight put upon her beloved uncle.
"As you like. I won't trouble you much anyway, for I'm going to be very busy. May go to L this winter, if Uncle thinks best, and then my 'originality' can't annoy you."
"I hope you won't go. Why, Mac, I'm just getting to know and enjoy you, and thought we'd have a nice time this winter reading something together. Must you go?" And Rose seemed to forget his strangeness, as she held him still by one button while she talked.
"That would be nice. But I feel as if I must go my plans are all made, and I've set my heart on it," answered Mac, looking so eager that Rose released him, saying sadly: "I suppose it is natural for you all to get restless and push off, but it is hard for me to let you go one after the other and stay here alone. Charlie is gone, Archie and Steve are wrapped up in their sweethearts, the boys away, and only Jamie left to 'play with Rose.'?
"But I'll come back, and you'll be glad I went if I bring you my—" began Mac with sudden animation, then stopped abruptly to bite his lips, as if he had nearly said too much.
"Your what?" asked Rose curiously, for he neither looked nor acted like himself.
"I forgot how long it takes to get a diploma," he said, walking away again.
"There will be one comfort if you go you'll see Phebe and can tell me all about her, for she is so modest, she doesn't half do it. I shall want to know how she gets on, if she is engaged to sing ballads in the concerts they talk of for next winter. You will write, won't you?"
"Oh, yes! No doubt of that," and Mac laughed low to himself as he stooped to look at the little Psyche on the mantelpiece. "What a pretty thing it is!" he added soberly as he took it up.
"Be careful. Uncle gave it to me last New Year, and I'm very fond of it. She is just lifting her lamp to see what Cupid is like, for she hasn't seen him yet," said Rose, busy putting her worktable in order.
"You ought to have a Cupid for her to look at. She has been waiting patiently a whole year, with nothing but a bronze lizard in sight," said Mac with the half-shy, half-daring look which was so new and puzzling.
"Cupid fled away as soon as she woke him, you know, and she had a bad time of it. She must wait longer till she can find and keep him."
"Do you know she looks like you? Hair tied up in a knot, and a spiritual sort of face. Don't you see it?" asked Mac, turning the graceful little figure toward her.
"Not a bit of it. I wonder whom I shall resemble next! I've been compared to a Fra Angelico angel, Saint Agnes, and now 'Syke,' as Annabel once called her."
"You'd see what I mean, if you'd ever watched your own face when you were listening to music, talking earnestly, or much moved, then your soul gets into your eyes and you are like Psyche."
"Tell me the next time you see me in a 'soulful' state, and I'll look in the glass, for I'd like to see if it is becoming," said Rose merrily as she sorted her gay worsteds.
"Your feet in the full-grown grasses, Moved soft as a soft wind blows; You passed me as April passes, With a face made out of a rose,"
murmured Mac under his breath, thinking of the white figure going up a green slope one summer day; then, as if chiding himself for sentimentality, he set Psyche down with great care and began to talk about a course of solid reading for the winter.
After that, Rose saw very little of him for several weeks, as he seemed to be making up for lost time and was more odd and absent than ever when he did appear.
As she became accustomed to the change in his external appearance, she discovered that he was altering fast in other ways and watched the "distinguished-looking gentleman" with much interest, saying to herself, when she saw a new sort of dignity about him alternating with an unusual restlessness of manner, and now and then a touch of sentiment, "Genius is simmering, just as I predicted."
As the family were in mourning, there were no festivities on Rose's twenty-first birthday, though the boys had planned all sorts of rejoicings. Everyone felt particularly tender toward their girl on that day, remembering how "poor Charlie" had loved her, and they tried to show it in the gifts and good wishes they sent her. She found her sanctum all aglow with autumn leaves, and on her table so many rare and pretty things, she quite forgot she was an heiress and only felt how rich she was in loving friends.
One gift greatly pleased her, though she could not help smiling at the source from whence it came, for Mac sent her a Cupid not the chubby child with a face of naughty merriment, but a slender, winged youth leaning on his unstrung bow, with a broken arrow at his feet. A poem, "To Psyche," came with it, and Rose was much surprised at the beauty of the lines, for, instead of being witty, complimentary, or gay, there was something nobler than mere sentiment in them, and the sweet old fable lived again in language which fitly painted the maiden Soul looking for a Love worthy to possess it.
Rose read them over and over as she sat among the gold and scarlet leaves which glorified her little room, and each time found new depth and beauty in them, looking from the words that made music in her ear to the lovely shapes that spoke with their mute grace to her eye. The whole thing suited her exactly, it was so delicate and perfect in its way, for she was tired of costly gifts and valued very much this proof of her cousin's taste and talent, seeing nothing in it but an affectionate desire to please her.
All the rest dropped in at intervals through the day to say a loving word, and last of all came Mac. Rose happened to be alone with Dulce, enjoying a splendid sunset from her western window, for October gave her child a beautiful good night.
Rose turned around as he entered and, putting down the little girl, went to him with the evening red shining on her happy face as she said gratefully: "Dear Mac, it was so lovely! I don't know how to thank you for it in any way but this." And, drawing down his tall head, she gave him the birthday kiss she had given all the others.
But this time it produced a singular effect, for Mac turned scarlet, then grew pale, and when Rose added playfully, thinking to relieve the shyness of so young a poet, "Never again say you don't write poetry, or call your verses rubbish I knew you were a genius, and now I'm sure of it," he broke out, as if against his will: "No. It isn't genius, it is love!" Then, as she shrank a little, startled at his energy, he added, with an effort at self-control which made his voice sound strange: "I didn't mean to speak, but I can't suffer you to deceive yourself so. I must tell the truth, and not let you kiss me like a cousin when I love you with all my heart and soul!"
"Oh, Mac, don't joke!" cried Rose, bewildered by this sudden glimpse into a heart she thought she knew so well.
"I'm in solemn earnest," he answered steadily, in such a quiet tone that, but for the pale excitement of his face, she might have doubted his words. "Be angry, if you will. I expect it, for I know it is too soon to speak. I ought to wait for years, perhaps, but you seemed so happy I dared to hope you had forgotten."
"Forgotten what?" asked Rose sharply.
"Ah! You all will insist on believing that I loved him better than I did!" she cried, with both pain and impatience in her voice, for the family delusion tried her very much at times.
"How could we help it, when he was everything women most admire?" said Mac, not bitterly, but as if he sometimes wondered at their want of insight.
"I do not admire weakness of any sort I could never love without either confidence or respect. Do me the justice to believe that, for I'm tired of being pitied."
She spoke almost passionately, being more excited by Mac's repressed emotion than she had ever been by Charlie's most touching demonstration, though she did not know why.
"But he loved you so!" began Mac, feeling as if a barrier had suddenly gone down but not daring to venture in as yet.
"That was the hard part of it! That was why I tried to love him, why I hoped he would stand fast for my sake, if not for his own, and why I found it so sad sometimes not to be able to help despising him for his want of courage. I don't know how others feel, but, to me, love isn't all. I must look up, not down, trust and honor with my whole heart, and find strength and integrity to lean on. I have had it so far, and I know I could not live without it."
"Your ideal is a high one. Do you hope to find it, Rose?" Mac asked, feeling, with the humility of a genuine love, that he could not give her all she desired.
"Yes," she answered, with a face full of the beautiful confidence in virtue, the instinctive desire for the best which so many of us lose too soon, to find again after life's great lessons are well learned. "I do hope to find it, because I try not to be unreasonable and expect perfection. Smile if you will, but I won't give up my hero yet," and she tried to speak lightly, hoping to lead him away from a more dangerous topic.
"You'll have to look a long while, I'm afraid," and all the glow was gone out of Mac's face, for he understood her wish and knew his answer had been given.
"I have Uncle to help me, and I think my ideal grew out of my knowledge of him. How can I fail to believe in goodness, when he shows me what it can be and do?"
"It's no use for me to say any more, for I have very little to offer. I did not mean to say a word till I earned a right to hope for something in return. I cannot take it back, but I can wish you success, and I do, because you deserve the very best." And Mac moved as if he was going away without more words, accepting the inevitable as manfully as he could.
"Thank you that makes me feel very ungrateful and unkind. I wish I could answer you as you want me to for, indeed, dear Mac, I'm very fond of you in my own way," and Rose looked up with such tender pity and frank affection in her face, it was no wonder the poor fellow caught at a ray of hope and, brightening suddenly, said in his own odd way: "Couldn't you take me on trial while you are waiting for a true hero? It may be years before you find him; meantime, you could be practicing on me in ways that would be useful when you get him."
"Oh, Mac! What shall I do with you?" exclaimed Rose, so curiously affected by this very characteristic wooing that she did not know whether to laugh or cry, for he was looking at her with his heart in his eyes, though his proposition was the queerest ever made at such a time.
"Just go on being fond of me in your own way, and let me love you as much as I like in mine. I'll try to be satisfied with that." And he took both her hands so beseechingly that she felt more ungrateful than ever.
"No, it would not be fair, for you would love the most and, if the hero did appear, what would become of you?"
"I should resemble Uncle Alec in one thing at least fidelity, for my first love would be my last."
That went straight to Rose's heart, and for a minute she stood silent, looking down at the two strong hands that held hers so firmly yet so gently, and the thought went through her mind, "Must he, too, be solitary all his life? I have no dear lover as my mother had, why cannot I make him happy and forget myself?"
It did not seem very hard, and she owned that, even while she told herself that compassion was no equivalent for love. She wanted to give all she could, and keep as much of Mac's affection as she honestly might, because it seemed to grow more sweet and precious when she thought of putting it away.
"You will be like Uncle in happier ways than that, I hope, for you, too, must have a high ideal and find her and be happy," she said, resolving to be true to the voice of conscience, not be swayed by the impulse of the moment.
"I have found her, but I don't see any prospect of happiness, do you?" he asked wistfully.
"Dear Mac, I cannot give you the love you want, but I do trust and respect you from the bottom of my heart, if that is any comfort," began Rose, looking up with eyes full of contrition for the pain her reply must give.
She got no further, however, for those last words wrought a marvelous change in Mac. Dropping her hands, he stood erect, as if inspired with sudden energy and hope, while over his face there came a brave, bright look, which for the moment made him a nobler and comelier man than ever handsome Prince had been. "It is a comfort!" he said, in a tone of gratitude that touched her very much. "You said your love must be founded on respect, and that you have given me why can I not earn the rest? I'm nothing now, but everything is possible when one loves with all his heart and soul and strength. Rose, I will be your hero if a mortal man can, even though I have to work and wait for years. I'll make you love me, and be glad to do it. Don't be frightened. I've not lost my wits I've just found them. I don't ask anything I'll never speak of my hope, but it is no use to stop me. I must try it, and I will succeed!"
With the last words, uttered in a ringing voice while his face glowed, his eyes shone, and he looked as if carried out of himself by the passion that possessed him, Mac abruptly left the room, like one eager to change words to deeds and begin his task at once.
Rose was so amazed by all this that she sat down trembling a little, not with fear or anger, but a feeling half pleasure, half pain, and a sense of some new power subtle, strong, and sweet that had come into her life. It seemed as if another Mac had taken the place of the one she had known so long an ardent, ambitious man, ready for any work now that the magical moment had come when everything seems possible to love. If hope could work such a marvelous change for a moment, could not happiness do it for a lifetime? It would be an exciting experiment to try, she thought, remembering the sudden illumination which made that familiar face both beautiful and strange.
She could not help wondering how long this unsuspected sentiment had been growing in his heart and felt perplexed by its peculiar demonstration, for she had never had a lover like this before. It touched and flattered her, nevertheless and she could not but feel honored by a love so genuine and generous, for it seemed to make a man of Mac all at once, and a manly man, too, who was not daunted by disappointment but could "hope against hope" and resolve to make her love him if it took years to do it.
There was the charm of novelty about this sort of wooing, and she tried to guess how he would set about it, felt curious to see how he would behave when next they met, and was half angry with herself for not being able to decide how she ought to act. The more she thought, the more bewildered she grew, for having made up her mind that Mac was a genius, it disturbed all her plans to find him a lover, and such an ardent one. As it was impossible to predict what would come next, she gave up trying to prepare for it and, tired with vain speculations, carried Dulce off to bed, wishing she could tuck away her love troubles as quietly and comfortably as she did her sleepy little charge.
Simple and sincere in all things, Mac gave Rose a new surprise by keeping his promise to the letter asked nothing of her, said nothing of his hope, and went on as if nothing had happened, quite in the old friendly way. No, not quite, for now and then, when she least expected it, she saw again the indescribable expression on his face, a look that seemed to shed a sudden sunshine over her, making her eyes fall involuntarily, her color rise, and her heart beat quicker for a moment. Not a word did he say, but she felt that a new atmosphere surrounded her when he was by, and although he used none of the little devices most lovers employ to keep the flame alight, it was impossible to forget that underneath his quietude there was a hidden world of fire and force ready to appear at a touch, a word from her.
This was rather dangerous knowledge for Rose, and she soon began to feel that there were more subtle temptations than she had expected, for it was impossible to be unconscious of her power, or always to resist the trials of it which daily came unsought. She had never felt this desire before, for Charlie was the only one who had touched her heart, and he was constantly asking as well as giving, and wearied her by demanding too much or oppressed her by offering more than she could accept.
Mac did neither; he only loved her, silently, patiently, hopefully, and this generous sort of fidelity was very eloquent to a nature like hers. She could not refuse or chide, since nothing was asked or urged; there was no need of coldness, for he never presumed; no call for pity, since he never complained. All that could be done was to try and be as just and true as he was, and to wait as trustfully for the end, whatever it was to be.
For a time she liked the new interest it put into her life, yet did nothing to encourage it and thought that if she gave this love no food it would soon starve to death. But it seemed to thrive on air, and presently she began to feel as if a very strong will was slowly but steadily influencing her in many ways. If Mac had never told her that he meant to "make her love him," she might have yielded unconsciously, but now she mistook the impulse to obey this undercurrent for compassion and resisted stoutly, not comprehending yet the reason for the unrest which took possession of her about this time.
She had as many moods as an April day, and would have much surprised Dr. Alec by her vagaries had he known them all. He saw enough, however, to guess what was the matter, but took no notice, for he knew this fever must run its course, and much medicine only does harm. The others were busy about their own affairs, and Aunt Plenty was too much absorbed in her rheumatism to think of love, for the cold weather set in early, and the poor lady kept her room for days at a time with Rose as nurse.
Mac had spoken of going away in November, and Rose began to hope he would, for she decided that this silent sort of adoration was bad for her, as it prevented her from steadily pursuing the employments she had marked out for that year. What was the use of trying to read useful books when her thoughts continually wandered to those charming essays on "Love" and "Friendship"? To copy antique casts, when all the masculine heads looked like Cupid and the feminine ones like the Psyche on her mantelpiece? To practice the best music if it ended in singing over and over the pretty spring song without Phebe's bird chorus? Dulce's company was pleasantest now, for Dulce seldom talked, so much meditation was possible. Even Aunt Plenty's red flannel, camphor, and Pond's Extract were preferable to general society, and long solitary rides on Rosa seemed the only thing to put her in tune after one of her attempts to find out what she ought to do or leave undone.
She made up her mind at last, and arming herself with an unmade pen, like Fanny Squeers, she boldly went into the study to confer with Dr. Alec at an hour when Mac was usually absent. "I want a pen for marking can you make me one, Uncle?" she asked, popping her head in to be sure he was alone.
"Yes, my dear," answered a voice so like the doctor's that she entered without delay.
But before she had taken three steps she stopped, looking rather annoyed, for the head that rose from behind the tall desk was not rough and gray, but brown and smooth, and Mac, not Uncle Alec, sat there writing. Late experience had taught her that she had nothing to fear from a tete-a-tete and, having with difficulty taken a resolution, she did not like to fail of carrying it out.
"Don't get up, I won't trouble you if you are busy, there is no hurry," she said, not quite sure whether it were wiser to stay or run away.
Mac settled the point by taking the pen out of her hand and beginning to cut it, as quietly as Nicholas did on that "thrilling" occasion. Perhaps he was thinking of that, for he smiled as he asked, "Hard or soft?"
Rose evidently had forgotten that the family of Squeers ever existed, for she answered: "Hard, please," in a voice to match. "I'm glad to see you doing that," she added, taking courage from his composure and going as straight to her point as could be expected of a woman.
"And I am very glad to do it."
"I don't mean making pens, but the romance I advised," and she touched the closely written page before him, looking as if she would like to read it.
"That is my abstract on a lecture on the circulation of the blood," he answered, kindly turning it so that she could see. "I don't write romances I'm living one," and he glanced up with the happy, hopeful expression which always made her feel as if he was heaping coals of fire on her head.
"I wish you wouldn't look at me in that way it fidgets me," she said a little petulantly, for she had been out riding, and knew that she did not present a "spiritual" appearance after the frosty air had reddened nose as well as cheeks.
"I'll try to remember. It does itself before I know it. Perhaps this may mend matters." And, taking out the blue glasses he sometimes wore in the wind, he gravely put them on.
Rose could not help laughing, but his obedience only aggravated her, for she knew he could observe her all the better behind his ugly screen.
"No, it won't they are not becoming, and I don't want to look blue when I do not feel so," she said, finding it impossible to guess what he would do next or to help enjoying his peculiarities.
"But you don't to me, for in spite of the goggles everything is rose-colored now." And he pocketed the glasses without a murmur at the charming inconsistency of his idol.
"Really, Mac, I'm tired of this nonsense, it worries me and wastes your time."
"Never worked harder. But does it really trouble you to know I love you?" he asked anxiously.
"Don't you see how cross it makes me?" And she walked away, feeling that things were not going as she intended to have them at all.
"I don't mind the thorns if I get the rose at last, and I still hope I may, some ten years hence," said this persistent suitor, quite undaunted by the prospect of a "long wait."
"I think it is rather hard to be loved whether I like it or not," objected Rose, at a loss how to make any headway against such indomitable hopefulness.
"But you can't help it, nor can I so I must go on doing it with all my heart till you marry, and then well, then I'm afraid I may hate somebody instead," and Mac spoilt the pen by an involuntary slash of his knife.
"Please don't, Mac!"
"Do which, love or hate?"
"Don't do either go and care for someone else; there are plenty of nice girls who will be glad to make you happy," said Rose, intent upon ending her disquiet in some way.
"That is too easy. I enjoy working for my blessings, and the harder I have to work, the more I value them when they come."
"Then if I suddenly grew very kind, would you stop caring about me?" asked Rose, wondering if that treatment would free her from a passion which both touched and tormented her.
"Try and see." But there was a traitorous glimmer in Mac's eyes which plainly showed what a failure it would be.
"No, I'll get something to do, so absorbing I shall forget all about you."
"Don't think about me if it troubles you," he said tenderly.
"I can't help it." Rose tried to catch back the words, but it was too late, and she added hastily, "That is, I cannot help wishing you would forget me. It is a great disappointment to find I was mistaken when I hoped such fine things of you."
"Yes, you were very sure that it was love when it was poetry, and now you want poetry when I've nothing on hand but love. Will both together please you?"
"Try and see."
"I'll do my best. Anything else?" he asked, forgetting the small task she had given him in his eagerness to attempt the greater.
"Tell me one thing. I've often wanted to know, and now you speak of it I'll venture to ask. Did you care about me when you read Keats to me last summer?"