I thought it was a joke of some sort.
Then it occurred to me that this might be—somehow—Elena's answer. It was an interpretation which probably appealed to the Supernal Aristophanes.
He Reviles Destiny and Climbs a Wall
But now the spring was come again, and, as always at this season, I was pricked with vague longings to have done with roofs and paven places. I wanted to be in the open. I think I wanted to fall in love with somebody, and thereby somewhat to prolong the daily half-minute, immediately after awakening in the morning, during which I did not think about Elena Risby.
I was bored in Lichfield. For nothing of much consequence seemed, as I yawned over the morning paper, to be happening anywhere. The Illinois Legislature had broken up in a free fight, a British square had been broken in Somaliland, and at the Aqueduct track Alado had broken his jockey's neck. A mob had chased a negro up Broadway: Russia had demanded that China cede the sovereignty of Manchuria; and Dr. Lyman Abbott was explaining why the notion of equal suffrage had been abandoned finally by thinking people.
Such negligible matters contributed not at all to the comfort or the discomfort of Robert Etheridge Townsend; and I was pricked with vague sweet longings to have done with roofs and paven places. If only I possessed a country estate, a really handsome Manor or a Grange, I was reflecting as I looked over the "Social Items," and saw that Miss Hugonin and Colonel Hugonin had re-opened Selwoode for the summer months....
So I decided I would go to Gridlington, whither Peter Blagden had forgotten to invite me. He was extremely glad to see me, though, to do him justice. For Peter—by this time the inheritor of his unlamented uncle's estate,—had, very properly, developed gout, which is, I take it, the time-honoured appendage of affluence and, so to speak, its trade-mark; and was, for all his wealth, unable to get up and down the stairs of his fine house without, as we will delicately word it, the display and, at times, the overtaxing of a copious vocabulary.
I was at Gridlington entirely comfortable. It was spring, to begin with, and out of doors in spring you always know, at twenty-five, that something extremely pleasant is about to happen, and that She is quite probably around the very next turn of the lane.
Moreover, there was at Gridlington a tiny private garden which had once been the recreation of Peter Blagden's aunt (dead now twelve years ago), and which had remained untended since her cosseting; and I in nature took charge of it.
There was in the place a wilding peach-tree, which I artistically sawed into shape and pruned and grafted, and painted all those profitable wounds with tar; and I grew to love it, just as most people do their children, because it was mine. And Peter, who is a person of no sensibility, wanted to ring for a servant one night, when there was a hint of frost and I had started out to put a bucket of water under my tree to protect it. I informed him that he was irrevocably dead to all the nobler sentiments, and went to the laundry and got a wash-tub.
Peter was not infrequently obtuse. He would contend, for instance, that it was absurd for any person to get so gloriously hot and dirty while setting out plants, when that person objected to having a flower in the same room. For Peter could not understand that a cut flower is a dead or, at best, a dying thing, and therefore to considerate people is just so much abhorrent carrion; and denied it would be really quite as rational to decorate your person or your dinner table with the severed heads of chickens as with those of daffodils.
"But that is only because you are not particularly bright," I told him. "Oh, I suppose you can't help it. But why make all the actions of your life so foolish? What good do you get out of having the gout, for instance?"
Whereupon Mr. Blagden desired to be informed if I considered those with-various-adjectives-accompanied twinges in that qualified foot to be a source of personal pleasure to the owner of the very-extensively-hiatused foot. In which case, Mr. Blagden felt at liberty to express his opinion of my intellectual attainments, which was of an uncomplimentary nature.
"Because, you know," I pursued, equably, "you wouldn't have the gout if you did not habitually overeat yourself and drink more than is good for you. In consequence, here you are at thirty-two with a foot the same general size and shape as a hayrick, only rather less symmetrical, and quite unable to attend to the really serious business of life, which is to present me to the heiress. It is a case of vicarious punishment which strikes me as extremely unfair. You have made of your stomach a god, Peter, and I am the one to suffer for it. You have made of your stomach," I continued, venturing aspiringly into metaphor, "a brazen Moloch, before which you are now calmly preparing to immolate my prospects in life. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Peter!"
Mr. Blagden's next observation was describable as impolite.
"Fate, too," I lamented, in a tragic voice, "appears to have entered into this nefarious conspiracy. Here, not two miles away, is one of the greatest heiresses in America,—clever, I am told, beautiful, I am sure, for I have yet to discover a woman who sees anything in the least attractive about her,—and, above all, with the Woods millions at her disposal. Why, Peter, Margaret Hugonin is the woman I have been looking for these last three years. She is, to a hair, the sort of woman I have always intended to make unhappy. And I can't even get a sight of her! Here are you, laid up with the gout, and unable to help me; and yonder is the heiress, making a foolish pretence at mourning for the old curmudgeon who left her all that money, and declining to meet people. Oh, but she is a shiftless woman, Peter! At this very moment she might be getting better acquainted with me; at this very moment, Peter, I might be explaining to her in what points she is utterly and entirely different from all the other women I have ever known. And she prefers to immure herself in Selwoode, with no better company than her father, that ungodly old retired colonel, and a she-cousin, somewhere on the undiscussable side of forty—when she might be engaging me in amorous dalliance! That Miss Hugonin is a shiftless woman, I tell you! And Fate—oh, but Fate, too, is a vixenish jade!" I cried, and shook my fist under the nose of an imaginary Lachesis.
"You appear," said Peter, drily, "to be unusually well-informed as to what is going on at Selwoode."
"You flatter me," I answered, as with proper modesty. "You must remember that there are maids at Selwoode. You must remember that my man Byam, is—and will be until that inevitable day when he will attempt to blackmail me, and I shall kill him in the most lingering fashion I can think of,—that Byam is, I say, something of a diplomatist."
Mr. Blagden regarded me with disapproval.
"So you've been sending your nigger cousin over to Selwoode to spy for you! You're a damn cad, you know, Bob," he pensively observed. "Now most people think that when you carry on like a lunatic you're simply acting on impulse. I don't. I believe you plan it out a week ahead. I sometimes think you are the most adroit and unblushing looker-out for number one I ever knew; and I can't for the life of me understand why I don't turn you out of doors."
"I don't know where you picked up your manners," said I, reflectively, "but it must have been in devilish low company. I would cut your acquaintance, Peter, if I could afford it." Then I fell to pacing up and down the floor. "I incline, as you have somewhat grossly suggested, to a certain favouritism among the digits. And why the deuce shouldn't I? A fortune is the only thing I need. I have good looks, you know, of a sort; ah, I'm not vain, but both my glass and a number of women have been kind enough to reassure me on this particular point. And that I have a fair amount of wits my creditors will attest, who have lived promise-crammed for the last year or two, feeding upon air like chameleons. Then I have birth,—not that good birth ensures anything but bad habits though, for you will observe that, by some curious freak of nature, an old family-tree very seldom produces anything but wild oats. And, finally, I have position. I can introduce my wife into the best society; ah, yes, you may depend upon it, Peter, she will have the privilege of meeting the very worst and stupidest and silliest people in the country on perfectly equal terms. You will perceive, then, that the one desirable thing I lack is wealth. And this I shall naturally expect my wife to furnish. So, the point is settled, and you may give me a cigarette."
Peter handed me the case, with a snort. "You are a hopelessly conceited ass," Mr. Blagden was pleased to observe, "for otherwise you would have learned, by this, that you'll, most likely, never have the luck of Charteris, and land a woman who will take it as a favour that you let her pay your bills. God knows you've angled for enough of 'em!"
"You are painfully coarse, Peter," I pointed out, with a sigh. "Indeed, your general lack of refinement might easily lead one to think you owed your millions to your own thrifty industry, or some equally unpleasant attribute, rather than to your uncle's very commendable and lucrative innovation in the line of—well, I remember it was something extremely indigestible, but, for the moment, I forget whether it was steam-reapers or a new sort of pickle. Yes, in a great many respects, you are hopelessly parvenuish. This cigarette-case, for instance—studded with diamonds and engraved with a monogram big enough for a coach-door! Why, Peter, it simply reeks with the ostentation of honestly acquired wealth,—and with very good tobacco, too, by the way. I shall take it, for I am going for a walk, and I haven't any of my own. And some day I shall pawn this jewelled abortion, Peter,—pawn it for much fine gold; and upon the proceeds I shall make merriment for myself and for my friends." And I pocketed the case.
"That's all very well," Peter growled, "but you needn't try to change the subject. You know you have angled after any number of rich women who have had sense enough, thank God, to refuse you. You didn't use to be—but now you're quite notoriously good-for-nothing."
"It is the one blemish," said I, sweetly, "upon an otherwise perfect character. And it is true," I continued, after an interval of meditation, "that I have, in my time, encountered some very foolish women. There was, for instance, Elena Barry-Smith, who threw me over for Warwick Risby; and Celia Reindan, who had the bad taste to prefer Teddy Anstruther; and Rosalind Jemmett, who is, very inconsiderately, going to marry Tom Gelwix, instead of me. These were staggeringly foolish women, Peter, but while their taste is bad, their dinners are good, so I have remained upon the best of terms with them. They have trodden me under their feet, but I am the long worm that has no turning. Moreover, you are doubtless aware of the axiomatic equality between the fish in the sea and those out of it. I hope before long to better my position in life. I hope—Ah, well, that would scarcely interest you. Good morning, Peter. And I trust, when I return," I added, with chastening dignity, "that you will evince a somewhat more Christian spirit toward the world in general, and that your language will be rather less reminiscent of the blood-stained buccaneer of historical fiction."
"You're a grinning buffoon," said Peter. "You're a fat Jack-pudding. You're an ass. Where are you going, anyway?"
"I am going," said I, "to the extreme end of Gridlington. Afterward I am going to climb the wall that stands between Gridlington and Selwoode."
"And after that?" said Peter.
I gave a gesture. "Why, after that," said I, "fortune will favour the brave. And I, Peter, am very, very brave."
Then I departed, whistling. In view of all my memories it had been strangely droll to worry Peter Blagden into an abuse of marrying for money. For this was on the twenty-eighth of April, the anniversary of the day that Stella had died, you may remember....
And a half-hour subsequently, true to my word, I was scaling a ten-foot stone wall, thickly overgrown with ivy. At the top of it I paused, and sat down to take breath and to meditate, my legs meanwhile bedangling over an as flourishing Italian garden as you would wish to see.
"Now, I wonder," I queried, of my soul, "what will be next? There is a very cheerful uncertainty about what will be next. It may be a spring-gun, and it may be a bull-dog, and it may be a susceptible heiress. But it is apt to be—No, it isn't," I amended, promptly; "it is going to be an angel. Or perhaps it is going to be a dream. She can't be real, you know—I am probably just dreaming her. I would be quite certain I was just dreaming her, if this wall were not so humpy and uncomfortable. For it stands to reason, I would not be fool enough to dream of such unsympathetic iron spikes as I am sitting on."
"Perhaps you are not aware," hazarded a soprano voice, "that this is private property?"
"Why, no," said I, very placidly; "on the contrary I was just thinking it must be heaven. And I am tolerably certain," I commented further, in my soul, "that you are one of the more influential seraphim."
The girl had lifted her brows. She sat upon a semi-circular stone bench, some twenty feet from the wall, and had apparently been reading, for a book lay open in her lap. She now inspected me, with a sort of languid wonder in her eyes, and I returned the scrutiny with unqualified approval in mine.
And in this I had reason. The heiress of Selwoode was eminently good to look upon.
He Reconciles Sentiment and Reason
So I regarded her for a rather lengthy interval, considering meanwhile, with an immeasurable content how utterly and entirely impossible it would always be to describe her.
Clearly, it would be out of the question to trust to words, however choicely picked, for, upon inspection, there was a delightful ambiguity about every one of this girl's features that defied such idiotic makeshifts. Her eyes, for example, I noted with a faint thrill of surprise, just escaped being brown by virtue of an amber glow they had; what colour, then, was I conscientiously to call them?
And her hair I found a bewildering, though pleasing, mesh of shadow and sunlight, all made up of multitudinous graduations of some anonymous colour that seemed to vary with the light you chanced to see it in, through the whole gamut of bronze and chestnut and gold; and where, pray, in the bulkiest lexicon, in the very weightiest thesaurus, was I to find the adjective which could, if but in desperation, be applied to hair like that without trenching on sacrilege? ... For it was spring, you must remember, and I was twenty-five.
So that in my appraisal, you may depend upon it, her lips were quickly passed over as a dangerous topic, and were dismissed with the mental statement that they were red and not altogether unattractive. Whereas her cheeks baffled me for a time,—but always with a haunting sense of familiarity—till I had, at last, discovered they reminded me of those little tatters of cloud that sometimes float about the setting sun,—those irresolute wisps which cannot quite decide whether to be pink or white, and waver through their tiny lives between the two colours.
To this effect, then, I discoursed with my soul, what time I sat upon the wall-top and smiled and kicked my heels to and fro among the ivy. By and by, though, the girl sighed.
"You are placing me in an extremely unpleasant position," she complained, as if wearily. "Would you mind returning to your sanatorium and allowing me to go on reading? For I am interested in my book, and I can't possibly go on in any comfort so long as you elect to perch up there like Humpty-Dumpty, and grin like seven dozen Cheshire cats."
"Now, that," I spoke, in absent wise, "is but another instance of the widely prevalent desire to have me serve as scapegoat for the sins of all humanity. I am being blamed now for sitting on top of this wall. One would think I wanted to sit here. One would actually think," I cried, and raised my eyes to heaven, "that sitting on the very humpiest kind of iron spikes was my favorite form of recreation! No,—in the interests of justice," I continued, and fell into a milder tone, "I must ask you to place the blame where it more rightfully belongs. The injuries which are within the moment being inflicted on my sensitive nature, and, incidentally, upon my not overstocked wardrobe, I am willing to pass over. But the claims of justice are everywhere paramount. Miss Hugonin, and Miss Hugonin alone, is responsible for my present emulation of Mohammed's coffin, and upon that responsibility I am compelled to insist."
"May one suggest," she queried gently, "that you are probably—mistaken?"
I sketched a bow. "Recognising your present point of view," said I, gallantly, "I thank you for the kindly euphemism. But may one allowably demonstrate the fallacy of this same point of view? I thank you: for silence, I am told, is proverbially equal to assent. I am, then, one Robert Townsend, by birth a gentleman, by courtesy an author, by inclination an idler, and by lucky chance a guest of Mr. Peter Blagden, whose flourishing estate extends indefinitely yonder to the rear of my coat-tails. My hobby chances to be gardening. I am a connoisseur, an admirer, a devotee of gardens. It is, indeed, hereditary among the Townsends; a love for gardens runs in our family just as a love for gin runs in less favoured races. It is with us an irresistible passion. The very founder of our family—one Adam, whom you may have heard of,—was a gardener. Owing to the unfortunate loss of his position, the family since then has sunken somewhat in the world; but time and poverty alike have proven powerless against our horticultural tastes and botanical inclinations. And then," cried I, with a flourish, "and then, what follows logically?"
"Why, if you are not more careful," she languidly made answer, "I am afraid that, owing to the laws of gravitation, a broken neck is what follows logically."
"You are a rogue," I commented, in my soul, "and I like you all the better for it."
Aloud, I stated: "What follows is that we can no more keep away from a creditable sort of garden than a moth can from a lighted candle. Consider, then, my position. Here am I on one side of the wall, and with my peach-tree, to be sure—but on the other side is one of the most famous masterpieces of formal gardening in the whole country. Am I to blame if I succumb to the temptation? Surely not," I argued; "for surely to any fair-minded person it will be at once apparent that I am brought to my present very uncomfortable position upon the points of these very humpy iron spikes by a simple combination of atavism and injustice,—atavism because hereditary inclination draws me irresistibly to the top of the wall, and injustice because Miss Hugonin's perfectly unreasonable refusal to admit visitors prevents my coming any farther. Surely, that is at once apparent?"
But now the girl yielded to my grave face, and broke into a clear, rippling carol of mirth. She laughed from the chest, this woman. And perched in insecure discomfort on my wall, I found time to rejoice that I had finally discovered that rarity of rarities, a woman who neither giggles nor cackles, but has found the happy mean between these two abominations, and knows how to laugh.
"I have heard of you, Mr. Townsend," she said at last. "Oh, yes, I have heard a deal of you. And I remember now that I never heard you were suspected of sanity."
"Common-sense," I informed her, from my pedestal, "is confined to that decorous class of people who never lose either their tempers or their umbrellas. Now, I haven't any temper to speak of—or not at least in the presence of ladies,—and, so far, I have managed to avoid laying aside anything whatever for a rainy day; so that it stands to reason I must possess uncommon sense."
"If that is the case," said the girl "you will kindly come down from that wall and attempt to behave like a rational being."
I was down—as the phrase runs,—in the twinkling of a bed-post. On which side of the wall, I leave you to imagine.
"—For I am sure," the girl continued, "that I—that Margaret, I should say,—would not object in the least to your seeing the gardens, since they interest you so tremendously. I'm Avis Beechinor, you know,—Miss Hugonin's cousin. So, if you like, we will consider that a proper introduction, Mr. Townsend, and I will show you the gardens, if—if you really care to see them."
My face, I must confess, had fallen slightly. Up to this moment, I had not a suspicion but that it was Miss Hugonin I was talking to: and I now reconsidered, with celerity, the information Byam had brought me from Selwoode.
"For, when I come to think of it," I reflected, "he simply said she was older than Miss Hugonin. I embroidered the tale so glibly for Peter's benefit that I was deceived by my own ornamentations. I had looked for corkscrew ringlets and false teeth a-gleam like a new bath-tub in Miss Hugonin's cousin,—not an absolutely, supremely, inexpressibly unthinkable beauty like this!" I cried, in my soul. "Older! Why, good Lord, Miss Hugonin must be an infant in arms!"
But my audible discourse was prefaced with an eloquent gesture. "If I'd care!" I said. "Haven't I already told you I was a connoisseur in gardens? Why, simply look, Miss Beechinor!" I exhorted her, and threw out my hands in a large pose of admiration. "Simply regard those yew-hedges, and parterres, and grassy amphitheatres, and palisades, and statues, and cascades, and everything—everything that goes to make a formal garden the most delectable sight in the world! Simply feast your eyes upon those orderly clipped trees and the fantastic patterns those flowers are laid out in! Why, upon my word, it looks as if all four books of Euclid had suddenly burst into blossom! And you ask me if I would care! Ah, it is evident you are not a connoisseur in gardens, Miss Beechinor!"
And I had started on my way into this one, when the girl stopped me.
"This must be yours," she said. "You must have spilled it coming over the wall, Mr. Townsend."
It was Peter's cigarette-case.
"Why, dear me, yes!" I assented, affably. "Do you know, now, I would have been tremendously sorry to lose that? It is a sort of present—an unbirthday present from a quite old friend."
She turned it over in her hand.
"It's very handsome," she marvelled. "Such a pretty monogram! Does it stand for Poor Idiot Boy?"
"Eh?" said I. "P.I.B., you mean? No, that stands for Perfectly Immaculate Behaviour. My friend gave it to me because, he said, I was so good. And—oh, well, he added a few things to that,—partial sort of a friend, you know,—and, really—Why, really, Miss Beechinor, it would embarrass me to tell you what he added," I protested, and modestly waved the subject aside.
"Now that," my meditations ran, "is the absolute truth. Peter did tell me I was good. And it really would embarrass me to tell her he added 'for-nothing.' So, this far, I have been a model of veracity."
Then I took the case,—gaining thereby the bliss of momentary contact with a velvet-soft trifle that seemed, somehow, to set my own grosser hand a-tingle—and I cried: "Now, Miss Beechinor, you must show me the pergola. I am excessively partial to pergolas."
And in my soul, I wondered what a pergola looked like, and why on earth I had been fool enough to waste the last three days in bedeviling Peter, and how under the broad canopy of heaven I could ever have suffered from the delusion that I had seen a really adorable woman before to-day.
But, "She is entirely too adorable," I reasoned with myself, some three-quarters of an hour later. "In fact, I regard it as positively inconsiderate in any impecunious young person to venture to upset me in the way she has done. Why, my heart is pounding away inside me like a trip-hammer, and I am absolutely light-headed with good-will and charity and benevolent intentions toward the entire universe! Oh, Avis, Avis, you know you hadn't any right to put me in this insane state of mind!"
I was, at this moment, retracing my steps toward the spot where I had climbed the wall between Gridlington and Selwoode, but I paused now to outline a reproachful gesture in the direction from which I came.
"What do you mean by having such a name?" I queried, sadly. "Avis! Why, it is the very soul of music, clear, and sweet and as insistent as a bird-call, an unforgettable lyric in four letters! It is just the sort of name a fellow cannot possibly forget. Why couldn't you have been named Polly or Lena or Margaret, or something commonplace like that, Avis—dear?"
And the juxtaposition of these words appealing to my sense of euphony, I repeated it, again and again, each time with a more relishing gusto. "Avis dear! dear Avis! dear, dear Avis!" I experimented. "Why, each one is more hopelessly unforgettable than the other! Oh, Avis dear, why are you so absolutely and entirely unforgettable all around? Why do you ripple all your words together in that quaint fashion till it sounds like a brook discoursing? Why did you crinkle up your eyes when I told you that as yet unbotanised flower was a Calycanthus arithmelicus? And why did you pout at me, Avis dear? A fellow finds it entirely too hard to forget things like that. And, oh, dear Avis, if you only knew what nearly happened when you pouted!"
I had come to the wall by this, but again I paused to lament.
"It is very inconsiderate of her, very thoughtless indeed. She might at least have asked my permission, before upsetting my plans in life. I had firmly intended to marry a rich woman, and now I am forming all sorts of preposterous notions—"
Then, on the bench where I had first seen her, I perceived a book. It was the iron-gray book she had been reading when I interrupted her, and I now picked it up with a sort of reverence. I regarded it as an extremely lucky book.
Subsequently, "Good Lord!" said I, aloud, "what luck!"
For between the pages of Justus Miles Forman's Journey's End—serving as a book-mark, according to a not infrequent shiftless feminine fashion,—lay a handkerchief. It was a flimsy, inadequate trifle, fringed with a tiny scallopy black border; and in one corner the letters M. E. A. H., all askew, contorted themselves into any number of flourishes and irrelevant tendrils.
"Now M. E. A. H. does not stand by any stretch of the imagination for Avis Beechinor. Whereas it fits Margaret Elizabeth Anstruther Hugonin uncommonly well. I wonder now—?"
I wondered for a rather lengthy interval.
"So Byam was right, after all. And Peter was right, too. Oh, Robert Etheridge Townsend, your reputation must truly be malodorous, when at your approach timid heiresses seek shelter under an alias! 'I have heard a deal of you, Mr. Townsend'—ah, yes, she had heard. She thought I would make love to her out of hand, I suppose, because she was wealthy—"
I presently flung back my head and laughed.
"Eh, well! I will let no sordid considerations stand in the way of my true interests. I will marry this Margaret Hugonin even though she is rich. You have begun the comedy, my lady, and I will play it to the end. Yes, I fell honestly in love with you when I thought you were nobody in particular. So I am going to marry this Margaret Hugonin if she will have me; and if she won't, I am going to commit suicide on her door-step, with a pathetic little note in my vest-pocket forgiving her in the most noble and wholesale manner for irrevocably blighting a future so rich in promise. Yes, that is exactly what I am going to do if she does not appreciate her wonderful good fortune. And if she'll have me—why, I wouldn't change places with the Pope of Rome or the Czar of all the Russias! Ah, no, not I! for I prefer, upon the whole, to be immeasurably, and insanely, and unreasonably, and unadulteratedly happy. Why, but just to think of an adorable girl like that having so much money!"
All in all, my meditations were incoherent but very pleasurable.
He Advances in the Attack on Selwoode
"Well?" said Peter.
"Well?" said I.
"What's the latest quotation on heiresses?" Mr. Blagden demanded. "Was she cruel, my boy, or was she kind? Did she set the dog on you or have you thrashed by her father? I fancy both, for your present hilarity is suggestive of a gentleman in the act of attendance on his own funeral." And Peter laughed, unctuously, for his gout slumbered.
"His attempts at wit," I reflectively confided to my wine-glass, "while doubtless amiably intended, are, to his well-wishers, painful. I daresay, though, he doesn't know it. We must, then, smile indulgently upon the elephantine gambols of what he is pleased to describe as his intellect."
"Now, that," Peter pointed out, "is not what I would term a courteous method of discussing a man at his own table. You are damn disagreeable this morning, Bob. So I know, of course, that you have come another cropper in your fortune-hunting."
"Peter," said I, in admiration, "your sagacity at times is almost human! I have spent a most enjoyable day, though," I continued, idly. "I have been communing with Nature, Peter. She is about her spring-cleaning in the woods yonder, and everywhere I have seen traces of her getting things fixed for the summer. I have seen the sky, which was washed overnight, and the sun, which has evidently been freshly enamelled. I have seen the new leaves as they swayed and whispered over your extensive domains, with the fret of spring alert in every sap cell. I have seen the little birds as they hopped among said leaves and commented upon the scarcity of worms. I have seen the buxom flowers as they curtsied and danced above your flower-beds like a miniature comic-opera chorus. And besides that—"
"Yes?" said Peter, with a grin, "and besides that?"
"And besides that," said I, firmly, "I have seen nothing."
And internally I appraised this bloated Peter Blagden, and reflected that this was the man whom Stella had loved; and I appraised myself, and remembered that this had been the boy who once loved Stella. For, as I have said, it was the twenty-eighth of April, the day that Stella had died, two years ago.
The next morning I discoursed with my soul, what time I sat upon the wall-top and smiled and kicked my heels to and fro among the ivy.
"For, in spite of appearances," I debated with myself, "it is barely possible that the handkerchief was not hers. She may have borrowed it or have got it by mistake, somehow. In which case, it is only reasonable to suppose that she will miss it, and ask me if I saw it; on the contrary, if the handkerchief is hers, she will naturally understand, when I return the book without it, that I have feloniously detained this airy gewgaw as a souvenir, as, so to speak, a gage d'amour. And, in that event, she ought to be very much pleased and a bit embarrassed; and she will preserve upon the topic of handkerchiefs a maidenly silence. Do you know, Robert Etheridge Townsend, there is about you the making of a very fine logician?"
Then I consulted my watch, and subsequently grimaced. "It is also barely possible," said I, "that Margaret may not come at all. In which case—Margaret! Now, isn't that a sweet name? Isn't it the very sweetest name in the world? Now, really, you know, it is queer her being named Margaret—extraordinarily queer,—because Margaret has always been my favourite woman's name. I daresay, unbeknownst to myself, I am a bit of a prophet."
But she did come. She was very much surprised to see me.
"You!" she said, with a gesture which was practically tantamount to disbelief. "Why, how extraordinary!"
"You rogue!" I commented, internally: "you know it is the most natural thing in the world." Aloud I stated: "Why, yes, I happened to notice you forgot your book yesterday, so I dropped in—or, to be more accurate, climbed up,—to return it."
She reached for it. Our hands touched, with the usual result to my pulses. Also, there were the customary manual tinglings.
"You are very kind," was her observation, "for I am wondering which one of the two he will marry."
"Forman tells me he has no notion, himself."
"Oh, then you know Justus Miles Forman! How nice! I think his stories are just splendid, especially the way his heroes talk to photographs and handkerchiefs and dead flowers—"
Afterward she opened the book, and turned over its pages expectantly, and flushed a proper shade of pink, and said nothing.
And then, and not till then, my heart consented to resume its normal functions. And then, also, "These iron spikes—" said its owner.
"Yes?" she queried, innocently.
"—so humpy," I complained.
"Are they?" said she. "Why, then, how silly of you to continue to sit on them!"
The result of this comment was that we were both late for luncheon.
By a peculiar coincidence, at twelve o'clock the following day, I happened to be sitting on the same wall at the same spot. Peter said at luncheon it was a queer thing that some people never could manage to be on time for their meals.
I fancy we can all form a tolerably accurate idea of what took place during the next day or so.
It is scarcely necessary to retail our conversations. We gossiped of simple things. We talked very little; and, when we did talk, the most ambitiously preambled sentences were apt to result in nothing more prodigious than a wave of the hand, and a pause, and, not infrequently, a heightened complexion. Altogether, then, it was not oppressively wise or witty talk, but it was eminently satisfactory to its makers.
As when, on the third morning, I wished to sit by Margaret on the bench, and she declined to invite me to descend from the wall.
"On the whole," said she, "I prefer you where you are; like all picturesque ruins, you are most admirable at a little distance."
"Ruins!"—and, indeed, I was not yet twenty-six,—"I am a comparatively young man."
As a concession, "In consideration of your past, you are tolerably well preserved."
"—and I am not a new brand of marmalade, either."
"No, for that comes in glass jars; whereas, Mr. Townsend, I have heard, is more apt to figure in family ones."
"A pun, Miss Beechinor, is the base coinage of conversation tendered only by the mentally dishonest."
"—Besides, one can never have enough of marmalade."
"I trust they give you a sufficiency of it in the nursery?"
"Dear me, you have no idea how admirably that paternal tone sits upon you! You would make an excellent father, Mr. Townsend. You really ought to adopt someone. I wish you would adopt me, Mr. Townsend."
I said I had other plans for her. Discreetly, she forbore to ask what they were.
"You must not call me that."
"Why not? It's your name, isn't it"
"Yes,—to my friends."
"Aren't we friends—Avis?"
"We! We have not known each other long enough, Mr. Townsend."
"Oh, what's the difference? We are going to be friends, aren't we—Avis?"
"Why—why, I am sure I don't know."
"Gracious gravy, what an admirable colour you have, Avis! Well,—I know. And I can inform you, quite confidentially, Avis, that we are not going to be—. friends. We are going to be—"
"We are going to be late for luncheon," said she, in haste. "Good-morning, Mr. Townsend."
Yet, the very next day, paradoxically enough, she told me:
"I shall always think of you as a very, very dear friend. But it is quite impossible we should ever be anything else."
"And why, Avis?"
"That"—after an interval—"strikes me as rather a poor reason. So, suppose we say this June?"
"Dear me, aren't those roses pretty? I wish you would get me one, Mr. Townsend."
"Avis, we are not discussing roses."
"Well, they are pretty."
Still another interval.
"I—I hardly know."
"I—I almost think so,—and the horrid man looks as if he thought so, too!"
There was a fourth interval, during which the girl made a complete and careful survey of her shoes.
Then, all in a breath, "It could not possibly be June, of course, and you must give me until to-morrow to think about November," and a sudden flutter of skirts.
I returned to Gridlington treading on air.
For I was, by this time, as thoroughly in love as Amadis of Gaul or Aucassin of Beaucaire or any other hero of romance you may elect to mention.
Some two weeks earlier I would have scoffed at the notion of such a thing coming to pass; and I could have demonstrated, logically enough, that it was impossible for Robert Etheridge Townsend, with his keen knowledge of the world and of the innumerable vanities and whims of womankind, ever again to go the way of all flesh. But the problem, like the puzzle of the Eleatic philosophers, had solved itself. "Achilles cannot catch the tortoise," but he does. It was impossible for me to fall uncomfortably deep in love—but I had done so.
And it pricked my conscience, too, that Margaret should not know I was aware of her identity. But she had chosen to play the comedy to the end, and in common with the greater part of trousered humanity, I had, after all, no insuperable objection to a rich wife; though, to do me justice, I rarely thought of her, now, as Margaret Hugonin the heiress, but considered her, in a more comprehensive fashion, as the one woman in the universe whose perfections triumphantly overpeered the skyiest heights of preciosity.
He Assists in the Diversion of Birds
We met, then, in the clear May morning, with what occult trepidations I cannot say. You may depend upon it, though, we had our emotions.
And about us, spring was marshaling her pageant, and from divers nooks, the weather-stained nymphs and fauns regarded us in candid, if preoccupied, appraisement; and above us, the clipped ilex trees were about a knowing conference. As for the birds, they were discussing us without any reticence whatever, for, more favoured of chance than imperial Solomon, they have been the confidants in any number of such affairs, and regard the way of a man with a maid as one of the most matter-of-fact occurrences in the world.
"Here is he! here is she!" they shrilled. "See how they meet, see how they greet! Ah, sweet, sweet, sweet, to meet in the spring!" And that we two would immediately set to nest-building, they considered a foregone conclusion.
I had taken both her firm, warm hands in salutation, and held them, for a breathing-space, between my own. And my own hands seemed to me two very gross, and hulking, and raw, and red monstrosities, in contrast with their dimpled captives, and my hands appeared, also, to shake unnecessarily.
"Now, in a moment," said I, "I am going to ask you something very important. But, first, I have a confession to make."
And her glad, shamed eyes bemocked me. "My lord of Burleigh!" she softly breathed. "My liege Cophetua! My king Cophetua! And did you think, then, I was blind?"
"Eh?" said I.
"As if I hadn't known from the first!" the girl pouted; "as if I hadn't known from the very first day when you dropped your cigarette case! Ah, I had heard of you before, Peter!—of Peter, the misogynist, who was ashamed to go a-wooing in his proper guise! Was it because you were afraid I'd marry you for your money, Peter?—poor, timid Peter! But, oh, Peter, Peter, what possessed you to take the name of that notorious Robert Townsend?" she demanded, with uplifted forefinger. "Couldn't you think of a better one, Peter?—of a more respectable one, Peter? It really is a great relief to call you Peter at last. I've had to try so hard to keep from doing it before, Peter."
And in answer, I made an inarticulate sound.
"But you were so grave about it," the girl went on, happily, "that I almost thought you were telling the truth, Peter. Then my maid told me—I mean, she happened to mention casually that Mr. Townsend's valet had described his master to her as an extraordinarily handsome man. So, then, of course, I knew you were Peter Blagden."
"I perceive," said I, reflectively, "that Byam has been somewhat too zealous. I begin to suspect, also, that kitchen-gossip is a mischancy petard, and rather more than apt to hoist the engineer who employs it. So, you thought I was Peter Blagden,—the rich Peter Blagden? Ah, yes!"
Now the birds were caroling on a wager. "Ah, sweet! what is sweeter?" they sang. "Ah, sweet, sweet, sweet, to meet in the spring."
But the girl gave a wordless cry at sight of the change in my face. "Oh, how dear of you to care so much! I didn't mean that you were ugly, Peter. I just meant you are so big and—and so like the baby that they probably have on the talcum-powder boxes in Brobdingnag—"
"Because I happen to be really Robert Townsend—the notorious Robert Etheridge Townsend," I continued, with a smile. "I am sorry you were deceived by the cigarette-case. I remember now; I borrowed it from Peter. What I meant to confess was that I have known all along you were Margaret Hugonin."
"But I'm not," the girl said, in bewilderment. "Why—Why I told you I was Avis Beechinor."
"This handkerchief?" I queried, and took it from my pocket. I had been absurd enough to carry it next to my heart.
"Oh—!" And now the tension broke, and her voice leapt to high, shrill, half-hysterical speaking.
"I am Avis Beechinor. I am a poor relation, a penniless cousin, a dependent, a hanger-on, do you understand? And you—Ah, how—how funny! Why, Margaret always gives me her cast-off finery, the scraps, the remnants, the clothes she is tired of, the misfit things,—so that she won't be ashamed of me, so that I may be fairly presentable. She gave me eight of those handkerchiefs. I meant to pick the monograms out with a needle, you understand, because I haven't any money to buy such handkerchiefs for myself. I remember now,—she gave them to me on that day—that first day, and I missed one of them a little later on. Ah, how—how funny!" she cried, again; "ah, how very, very funny! No, Mr. Townsend, I am not an heiress,—I'm a pauper, a poor relation. No, you have failed again, just as you did with Mrs. Barry-Smith and with Miss Jemmett, Mr. Townsend. I—I wish you better luck the next time."
I must have raised one hand as though in warding off a physical blow. "Don't!" I said.
And all the woman in her leapt to defend me. "Ah no, ah no!" she pleaded, and her hands fell caressingly upon my shoulder; and she raised a penitent, tear-stained face toward mine; "ah no, forgive me! I didn't mean that altogether. It is different with a man. Of course, you must marry sensibly,—of course you must, Mr. Townsend. It is I who am to blame—why, of course it's only I who am to blame. I have encouraged you, I know—"
"You haven't! you haven't" I barked.
"But, yes,—for I came back that second day because I thought you were the rich Mr. Blagden. I was so tired of being poor, so tired of being dependent, that it simply seemed to me I could not stand it for a moment longer. Ah, I tell you, I was tired, tired, tired! I was tired and sick and worn out with it all!"
I did not interrupt her. I was nobly moved; but even then at the back of my mind some being that was not I was taking notes as to this girl, so young and desirable, and now so like a plaintive child who has been punished and does not understand exactly why.
"Mr. Townsend, you don't know what it means to a girl to be poor!—you can't ever know, because you are only a man. My mother—ah, you don't know the life I have led! You don't know how I have been hawked about, and set up for inspection by the men who could afford to pay my price, and made to show off my little accomplishments for them, and put through my paces before them like any horse in the market! For we are poor, Mr. Townsend,—we are bleakly, hopelessly poor. We are only hangers-on, you see. And ever since I can remember, she has been telling me I must make a rich marriage—must make a rich marriage—"
And the girl's voice trailed off into silence, and her eyes closed for a moment, and she swayed a little on her feet, so that I caught her by both arms.
But, presently, she opened her eyes, with a wearied sigh, and presently the two fortune-hunters stared each other in the face.
"Ah, sweet! what is sweeter?" sang the birds. "Can you see, can you see, can you see? It is sweet, sweet, sweet!" They were extremely gay over it, were the birds.
After a little, though, I opened my lips, and moistened them two or three times before I spoke. "Yes," said I, "I think I understand. We have both been hangers-on. But that seems, somehow, a long while ago. Yes, it was a knave who scaled that wall the first time,—one who needed and had earned a kicking from here to Aldebaran. But I think that I loved you from the very moment I saw you. Will you marry me, Avis?"
And in her face there was a wonderful and tender change. "You care for me—just me?" she breathed.
"Just you," I answered, gravely.
And I saw the start, and the merest ghost of a shiver which shook her body, as she leaned toward me a little, almost in surrender; but, quickly, she laughed.
"That was very gentlemanly in you," she said; "but, of course, I understand. Let us part friends, then,—Robert. Even if—if you really cared, we couldn't marry. We are too poor."
"Too poor!" I scoffed,—and my voice was joyous, for I knew now that it was I she loved and not just Peter Blagden's money; "too poor, Avis! I am to the contrary, an inordinately rich man, I tell you, for I have your love. Oh you needn't try to deny it. You are heels over head in love with me. And we have made, no doubt, an unsavoury mess of the past; but the future remains to us. We are the earthen pots, you and I, who wanted to swim with the brazen ones. Well! they haven't quite smashed us, these big, stupid, brazen pots, but they have shown us that they have the power to do it. And so we are going back where we belong—to the poor man's country, Avis,—or, in any event, to the country of those God-fearing, sober and honest folk who earn their bread and, just occasionally, a pat of butter to season it."
The world was very beautiful. I knew that I was excellent throughout and unconquerable. So I moved more near to her.
"For you will come with me, won't you, dear? Oh, you won't have quite so many gowns in this new country, Avis, and, may be, not even a horse and surrey of your own; but you will have love, and you will have happiness, and, best of all, Avis, you will give a certain very undeserving man his chance—his one sole chance—to lead a real man's life. Are you going to deny him that chance, Avis?"
Her gaze read me through and through; and I bore myself a bit proudly under it; and it seemed to me that my heart was filled with love of her, and that some sort of new-born manhood in Robert Etheridge Townsend was enabling me to meet her big brown eyes unflinchingly.
"It wouldn't be sensible," she wavered.
I laughed at that. "Sensible! If there is one thing more absurd than another in this very absurd world, it is common-sense. Be sensible and you will be miserable, Avis, not to mention being disliked. Sensible! Why, of course, it is not sensible. It is stark, rank, staring idiocy for us two not to make a profitable investment of, we will say, our natural endowments, when we come to marry. For what will Mrs. Grundy say if we don't? Ah, what will she say, indeed? Avis, just between you and me, I do not care a double-blank domino what Mrs. Grundy says. You will obligingly remember that the car for the Hesperides is in the rear, and that this is the third and last call. And in consequence—will you marry me, Avis?"
She gave me her hand frankly, as a man might have done. "Yes, Robert," said Miss Beechinor, "and God helping us, we will make something better of the future than we have of the past."
In the silence that fell, one might hear the birds. "Sweet, sweet, sweet!" they twittered. "Can you see, can you see, can you see? Their lips meet. It is sweet, sweet, sweet!"
But, by and by, she questioned me. "Are you sure—quite sure," she queried, wistfully, "that you wouldn't rather have me Margaret Hugonin, the heiress?"
I raised a deprecatory hand. "Avis!" I reproached her; "Avis, Avis, how little you know me! That was the solitary fly in the amber,—that I thought I was to marry a woman named Margaret. For I am something of a connoisseur in nomenclature, and Margaret has always—always—been my pet detestation in the way of names."
"Oh, what a child you are!" she said.
He Calls, and Counsels, and Considers
"I am now" said I, in my soul, "quite immeasurably, and insanely, and unreasonably, and unadulteratedly happy. Why, of course I am."
This statement was advanced just two weeks later than the events previously recorded. And the origin of it was the fact that I was now engaged to Avis Beechinor though it was not as yet to be "announced"; just this concession alone had Mrs. Beechinor wrested from an indignant and, latterly, a tearful interview.... For I had called at Selwoode, in due form; and after leaving Mrs. Beechinor had been pounced upon by an excited and comely little person in black.
"Don't you mind a word she said," this lady had exhorted, "because she is the Gadarene swine, and Avis has told me everything! Of course you are to be married at once, and I only wish I could find the only man in the world who can keep me interested for four hours on a stretch and send my pulse up to a hundred and make me feel those thrilly thrills I've always longed for."
"But surely—" said I.
"No, I'm beginning to be afraid not, beautiful, though of course I used to be crazy about Billy Woods; and then once I was engaged to another man for a long time, and I was perfectly devoted to him, but he never made me feel a single thrilly thrill. And would you believe it, Mr. Townsend?—after a while he came back, precisely as though he had been a bad penny or a cat. He had been in the Boer War and came home just a night before I left, wounded and promoted several times and completely covered with glory and brass buttons. He came seven miles to see me, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him, for I had on my best dress and was feeling rather talkative. Well! at ten I was quite struck on him. At eleven perfectly willing to part friends, and at twelve crazy for him to go. He stayed till half-past, and I didn't want to think of him for days. And, by the way, I am Miss Hugonin, and I hope you and Avis will be very happy. Good-bye!"
"Good-bye!" said I.
And that, oddly enough, was the one private talk I ever had with the Margaret Hugonin whom, for some two weeks, I had believed myself to be upon the verge of marrying; for the next time I conversed with her alone she was Mrs. William Woods.
"Oh, go away, Billy!" she then said, impatiently "How often will I have to tell you it isn't decent to be always hanging around your wife? Oh, you dear little crooked-necktied darling!"—and she remedied the fault on tiptoe,—"please run away and make love to somebody else, and be sure to get her name right, so that I shan't assassinate the wrong person,—because I want to tell this very attractive child all about Avis, and not be bothered." And subsequently she did.
But I must not forestall her confidences, lest I get my cart even further in advance of my nominal Pegasus than the loosely-made conveyance is at present lumbering.
And meanwhile Peter Blagden and I had called at Selwoode once or twice in unison and due estate. And Peter considered "Miss Beechinor a damn fine girl, and Miss Hugonin too, only—"
"Only," I prompted, between puffs, "Miss Hugonin keeps everybody, as my old Mammy used to say, 'in a perpetual swivet.' I never understood what the phrase meant, precisely, but I somehow always knew that it was eloquent."
"Just so," said Peter. "You prefer—ah—a certain amount of tranquillity. I haven't been abroad for a long while," said Mr. Blagden; and then, after another meditative pause: "Now Stella—well, Stella was a damn sight too good for me, of course—"
"She was," I affably assented.
"—and I'd be the very last man in the world to deny it. But still you do prefer—" Then Peter broke off short and said: "My God, Bob! what's the matter?"
So I think I must have had the ill-taste to have laughed a little over Mr. Blagden's magnanimity in regard to Stella's foibles. But I only said: "Oh, nothing, Peter! I was just going to tell you that travelling does broaden the mind, and that you will find an overcoat indispensable in Switzerland, and that during the voyage you ought to keep in the open air as much as possible, and that you should give the steward who waits on you at table at least ten shillings,—I was just going to tell you, in fine, that you would be a fool to squander any money on a guide-book, when I am here to give you all the necessary pointers."
"But I didn't mean to go to Europe exactly," said Mr. Blagden; "—I just meant to go abroad in a general sense. Any place would be abroad, you know, where people weren't always remembering how rich you were, and weren't scrambling to marry you out of hand, but really cared, you know, like she does. Oh, may be it is bad form to mention it, but I couldn't help seeing how she looked at you, Bob. And it waked something—Oh, I don't know what I mean," said Peter—"it's just damn foolishness, I suppose."
"It's very far from that," I said; and I was honestly moved, just as I always am when pathos, preferably grotesque, has caught me unprepared. This millionaire was lonely, because of his millions, and Stella was dead; and somehow I understood, and laid one hand upon his shoulder.
"Oh, you can't help it, I suppose, if all women love by ordinary because he is so like another person, where as men love because she is so different. My poor caliph, I would sincerely advise you to play the fool just as you plan to do,—oh, anywhere,—and without even a Mesrour. In fine go Bunburying at once. For very frankly, First Cousin of the Moon, it is the one thing worth while in life."
"I half believe I will," said Peter.... So he was packing in the interim during which I pretended to be writing, and was in reality fretting to think that, whilst Avis was in England by this, I could not decently leave America until those last five chapters were finished. So, in part as an excuse for not scrawling the dullest of nonsense and subsequently tearing it up, I fell to considering the unquestionable fact that I was in love with Avis, and upon the verge of marrying her, and was in consequence, as a matter of plain logic, deliriously happy.
"For when you are in love with a woman you, of course, want to marry her more than you want anything else. In nature, it is a serious and—well, an almost irretrievable business. And I shall have to cultivate the domestic virtues and smoke cheaper cigarettes and all that, but I shall be glad to do every one of these things, for her sake—after a while. I shall probably enjoy doing them."
And I read Bettie Hamlyn's letter for the seventeenth time....
For Bettie had answered the wild rhapsody which I wrote to tell her how much in love I was with Elena Barry-Smith. And in the nature of things I had not written Bettie again to tell her I was, and by a deal the more, in love with Avis Beechinor. The task was delicate, the reasons for my not unnatural change were such as you must transmit in a personal interview during which you are particularly boyish and talk very fast.
Besides, I do not like writing letters; and moreover, there was no real need to write. I was going to Gridlington; what more natural than to ride over to Fairhaven some clear morning and tell Bettie everything? I pictured her surprise and her delight at seeing me, and reflected it would be unfair to her to render an inaccurate account of matters, such as any letter must necessarily give.
Only, first, there was the garden of Peter's aunt,—which sounds like an introductory French exercise,—and then Avis came. And, somehow, I had not, in consequence, traversed the scant nine miles that lay as yet between me and Bettie Hamlyn. I kept on meaning to do it the next day.
And the next day after this I really did.
"For I ought to tell Bettie about everything," I reflected. "No matter if the engagement is a secret, I ought to tell Bettie about it."
When I had done so, Bettie shook her head. "Oh, Robin, Robin!" she said, "how did I ever come to raise a child that doesn't know his own mind for as much as two minutes? And how dared that Barry-Smith person to slap you, I would like to know."
"Now you're jealous, Bettie. You are thinking she infringed upon an entirely personal privilege, and you resent it."
"Well,—but I've the right to, you see, and she hadn't. I consider her to be a bold-faced jig. And I don't approve of this Avis person either, you understand; but we poor mothers are always being annoyed by slushy, mushy Avises. I suppose there's a reason for it. She'll throw you over, you know, as soon as her mother has had an inning or two. That's why she took her to Europe," Bettie explained, with a fine confusion of personalities. "Only she just wanted any quiet place where she could take aromatic spirits of ammonia and point out between doses that she has given up her entire life to her child and has never made any demands on her and hasn't the strength to argue with her, because her heart is simply broken. We mothers always say that; and the funny part is that if you say it often enough it invariably works far better than any possible argument."
I told her she was talking nonsense, and she said, irrelevantly enough: "Setebos, and Setebos, and Setebos! I don't think very highly of Setebos sometimes, because He muddles things so. Oh, well, I shan't cry Willow. Besides there aren't any sycamore-trees in the garden. So let's go into the garden, dear. That sounds as if I ate in the back pantry, doesn't it? Of course you aren't of any account any more, and you never will be, but at least you don't look at people as though they were a new sort of bug whenever they have just thought a sentence or two and then gone on, without bothering to say it."
So we went into Bettie's garden. It had not changed....
Nothing had changed. It was as though I had somehow managed, after all, to push back the hands of the clock. Fairhaven accepted me incuriously. I was only "an old student." In addition, I was vaguely rumoured to write "pieces" for the magazines. Probably I did; "old students" were often prone to vagaries after leaving King's College; for instance, they told me, Ralph Means was a professional gambler, and Ox Selwyn had lately gone to Shanghai and had settled there,—and Shanghai, in common with most other places, Fairhaven accorded the negative tribute of just not absolutely disbelieving in its existence.
Nothing had changed. The Finals were over; and with the noisy exodus of the college-boys, Fairhaven had sunk contentedly into an even deeper stupor, as Fairhaven always does in summer. And, for the rest, the unpaved sidewalks were just as dusty, the same deep ruts and the puddles which never dry, not even in mid-August, adorned Fairhaven's single street; the comfortable moss upon Fairhaven's roofs had not varied by a shade; and George Washington or Benjamin Franklin might have stepped out of any one of those brass-knockered doorways without incongruity and without finding any noticeable innovation to marvel at.
Nothing had changed. In the precise middle of the campus Lord Penniston, our Governor in Colonial days, still posed, in dingy marble; and the fracture of the finger I had inadvertently broken off, the night that Billy Woods and I painted the statue all over, in six colours, was white and new-looking. Kathleen Eppes had married her Spaniard and had left Fairhaven; otherwise the same girls were already planning their toilets for the Y.M.C.A. reception in October, which formally presents the "new students" to society at large; and presently these girls would be going to the germans or the Opera House with the younger brother of the boy who used to take them thither....
Nothing had changed; not even I was changed. For I had soon discovered that Bettie Hamlyn did not care a pin for me in myself. She was simply very fond of me because, at times, I reminded her of a boy who had gone to King's College; and her reception of me, for the first two days, was unmistakably provisional.
"Very well!" I said.
And I did it. For I knew how difficult it was to deceive Bettie, and in consequence all my faculties rose to the challenge. I did not merely mimic my former self, I was compelled, almost, to believe I was indeed that former self, because not otherwise could I get Bettie Hamlyn's toleration. Had I paused even momentarily to reflect upon the excellence of my acting, she would have known. So I resolutely believed I was being perfectly candid; and with constant use those older tricks of speech and gesture and almost of thought, at first laborious mimicry, became well-nigh involuntary.
In fine, we could not wipe away five years, but with practice we found that you would very often forget them, and for quite a while....
I had explained to Bettie's father I was going to board with them that summer. Had I not been so haphazard in the progress of this narrative, I would have earlier announced that Bettie's father was the Latin professor at King's College. He was very old and vague, and his general attitude toward the universe was that of remote recollection of having noticed something of the sort before. Professor Hamlyn, therefore, told me he was glad to hear of my intended stay beneath his roof; hazarded the speculation that I had written a book which he meant to read upon the very first opportunity; blinked once or twice; and forthwith lapsed into consideration of some Pliocene occurrence which, if you were to judge by the expression of his mild old countenance, he did not find entirely satisfactory....
So I spent three months in Fairhaven; and Bettie and I read all the old books over again, and were perfectly happy.
And what I wrote in those last five chapters of my book was so good that in common decency I was compelled to alter the preceding twenty-nine and bring them a bit nearer to Bettie's standard. For I was utilising Bettie's ideas. She did not have the knack of putting them on paper; that was my trivial part, as I now recognised with a sort of scared reverence.
"Of course, though, you had to meddle," I would scold at her. "I had meant the infernal thing to be a salable book. To-day it is just a stenographic report of how these people elected to behave. I haven't anything to do with it. I wash my hands of it. I consider you, in fine, a cormorant, a conscienceless marauder, a meddlesome Mattie, and a born dramatist."
"But, it's much better than anything you've ever done, Robin—"
"That is what I'm grumbling about. I consider it very unfeeling of you to write better novels than I do," I retorted. "But, oh, how good that scene is!" I said, a little later.
"Let's see—'For you, dear clean-souled girl, were born to be the wife of a strong man, and the mother of his dirty children'—no, it's 'sturdy', but then you hardly ever cross your T's. And where he goes on to tell her he can't marry her, because he is artistic, and she is too practical for them to be real mates, and all that other feeble-mindedness? Dear me, did I forget to tell you we were going to cut that out?"
"But I particularly like that part—"
"Do you?" said Bettie, as her pen scrunched vicious lines through it. Then she said: "I only hope she had the civility and self-control not to laugh until you had gone away. And 'We irrelevant folk that design all useless and beautiful things,' indeed! No, I couldn't have blamed her if she laughed right out. I wonder if you will never understand that what you take to be your love for beautiful things is really just a dislike of ugly ones? Oh, I've no patience with you! And wanting to print it in a book, too, instead of being content to make yourself ridiculous in tete-a-tetes with minxes that don't especially matter!"
"Well—! Anyhow, I agree with you that, thanks to your editing and carping and general scurrility, this book is going to be," I meekly stated, "a little better than The Apostates and not just 'pretty much like any other book'."
"Do you know that's just what I was thinking," said Bettie, dolefully. She clasped both hands behind her crinkly small black head, and in that queer habitual pose appraised me, from between her elbows, in that way which always made me feel I had better be careful. "Damn you!" was her verdict.
"Whence this unmaidenliness?" I queried, with due horror.
"You are trying to prove to me that it has been worth while. This nasty book is coming alive, here in our own eight-cornered room, with a horrid crawly life of its own that it would never have had if you hadn't been learning things my boy knew nothing about. That's what you are crowing in my face, when you keep quiet and smirk. Oh, but I know you!"
"You do think, then, that, between you and me, it is really coming alive?"
"Yes,—if that greatly matters to the fat literary gent that I don't care for greatly. Yes, the infernal thing will be a Book, with quite a sizable B. I am feeding its maw with more important things than a few ideas, though. The thing is a monster that isn't worth its keep. For my boy was worth more than a Book," she said, forlornly,—"oh, oceans more!"
All in all, we were a deal more than happy during these three very hot months. It was a sort of Lotus Eaters' existence, shared by just us two, with Josiah Clarriker intruding occasionally, and with echoes from the outer world, when heard at all, resounding very dimly and unimportantly. I began almost to assume, as Fairhaven tacitly assumed, that there was really no outer world, or none at least to be considered seriously....
For instance: Marian Winwood had come to Lichfield, and wrote me from there, "hoping that we would renew an acquaintance which she remembered so pleasurably." It did not seem worth while, of course, to answer the minx; I decided, at a pinch, to say that the Fairhaven mail-service was abominable, and that her letter had never reached me. But the young fellow who two years ago had wandered about the Green Chalybeate with her had become, now, as unreal as she. I glimpsed the couple, with immeasurable aloofness, as phantoms flickering about the mirage of a brook, throwing ghostly bread crumbs to Lethean minnows.
And then, too, when the police caught Ned Lethbury that summer, it hardly seemed worth while to wonder about his wife. For she was, inexplicably, with him, all through the trial at Chiswick, you may remember, though you were probably more interested at the time by the Humbert trial in Paris. In any event, no rumor came to me in Fairhaven to connect Amelia Lethbury with Nadine Neroni, but, instead, a deal of journalistic pity and sympathy for her, the faithful, much-enduring wife. Still quite a handsome woman, they said, for all her suffering and poverty.... And when he went to the penitentiary, Amelia Lethbury disappeared, nobody knew whither, except that I suspected Anton von Anspach knew. I could not explain the mystery. I did not greatly care to, for to me it did not seem important, now....
Meantime, I meditated.
"I am in love with Avis—oh, granted! I am not the least bit in love with—we will euphemistically say 'anyone else.' But confound it! I am coming to the conclusion that marrying a woman because you happen to be in love with her is about as logical a proceeding as throwing the cat out of the window because the rhododendrons are in bloom. Why, if I marry Avis I shall probably have to live with her the rest of my life!
"What if that obsolete notion of Schopenhauer's were true after all,—that love is a blind instinct which looks no whit toward the welfare of the man and woman it dominates, but only to the equipment a child born of them would inherit? What if, after all, love tends, without variation, to yoke the most incompatible in order that the average type of humanity may be preserved? Then the one passion we esteem as sacred would be simply the deranged condition of any other beast in rutting-time. Then we, with the pigs and sparrows, would be just so many pieces on the chess-board, and our evolutions would be just a friendly trial of skill between what we call life and death.
"I love Avis Beechinor. But I have loved, in all sincerity, many other women, and I rejoice to-day, unfeignedly, that I never married any of them. For marriage means a life-long companionship, a long, long journey wherein must be adjusted, one by one, each tiniest discrepancy between the fellow-wayfarers; and always a pebble if near enough to the eye will obscure a mountain.
"Why, Avis cannot attempt a word of four syllables without coming at least once to grief! It is a trifle of course, but in a life-long companionship there are exactly fourteen thousand trifles to one event of importance. And deuce take it! the world is populated by men and women, not demi-gods; the poets are specious and abandoned rhetoricians; for it never was, and never will be, possible to love anybody 'to the level of every-day's Most quiet need by sun or candlelight.'
"Or not to me at least.
"In a sentence, when it comes to a life-long companionship, I prefer not the woman who would make me absolutely happy for a twelvemonth, but rather the woman with whom I could chat contentedly for twenty years, and who would keep me to the mark. I am rather tired of being futile; and not for any moral reason, but because it is not worthy of me. In fine, I do not want to die entirely. I want to leave behind some not inadequate expression of Robert Etheridge Townsend, and I do not care at all what people say of it, so that it is here when I am gone. Oh, Stella understood! 'I want my life to count, I want to leave something in the world that wasn't there before I came.'
I arose resolutely. "I had much better go for a long, and tedious, and jolting, and universally damnable walk. Bettie would make something vital of me—if I could afford her the material—"
And I grinned a little. "'Go, therefore, now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks.' Yes, you would certainly have need of a miracle, dear Bettie—"
I started for that walk I was to take. But Dr. Jeal and Colonel Snawley were seated in armchairs in front of Clarriker's Emporium, just as they had been used to sit there in my college days, enjoying, as the Colonel mentioned, "the cool of the evening," although to the casual observer the real provider of their pleasure would have appeared to be an unlimited supply of chewing-tobacco.
So I lingered here, and garnered, to an accompaniment of leisurely expectorations, much knowledge as to the fall crops and the carryings-on of the wife of a celebrated general, upon whose staff the Colonel had served during the War,—and there has never been in the world's history but one war, so far as Fairhaven is concerned,—and how the Colonel walked right in on them, and how it was hushed up.
Then we discussed the illness of Pope Leo and what everybody knew about those derned cardinals, and the riots in Evansville, and the Panama Canal business, and the squally look of things at Port Arthur, and attributed all these imbroglios, I think, to the Republican administration. Even at our bitterest, though, we conceded that "Teddy's" mother was a Bulloch, and that his uncle fired the last shot before the Alabama went down. And that inclined us to forgive him everything, except of course, the Booker Washington luncheon.
Then half a block farther on, Mrs. Rabbet wanted to know if I had ever seen such weather, and to tell me exactly what Adrian, Junior—no longer little Adey, no indeed, sir, but ready to start right in at the College session after next, and as she often said to Mr. Rabbet you could hardly believe it,—had observed the other day, and quick as a flash too, because it would make such a funny story. Only she could never quite decide whether it happened on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, so that, after precisely seven digressions on this delicate point, the denouement of the tale, I must confess, fell rather flat.
And then Mab Spessifer demanded that I come up on the porch and draw some pictures for her. The child was waiting with three sheets of paper and a chewed pencil all ready, just on the chance that I might pass; and you cannot very well refuse a cripple who adores you and is not able to play with the other brats. You get instead into a kind of habit of calling every day and trying to make her laugh, because she is such a helpless little nuisance.
And tousled mothers weep over you in passageways and tell you how good you are, and altogether the entire affair is tedious; but having started it, you keep it up, somehow.
In fine, it is a symbol that I never took the walk which was to dust the cobwebs from my brain and make me just like all the other persons, thick about me, who grow up, and mate, and beget, and die, in the incurious fashion of oxen, without ever wondering if there is any plausible reason for doing it; and my brief progress was upon the surface very like that of the bedeviled fellow in Les Facheux. Yet I enjoyed it somehow. Never to be hurried, and always to stop and talk with every person whom you meet, upon topics in which no conceivable human being could possibly be interested, may not sound attractive, but in Fairhaven it is the rule; and, oddly enough, it breeds, in practice, a sort of family feeling,—if only by entitling everybody to the condoned and matter-of-course stupidity of aunts and uncles,—which is not really all unpleasant.
So I went home at half-past seven, to supper and to Bettie, in a quite contented frame of mind. It did not seem conceivable that any world so beautiful and stupid and well-meaning could have either the heart or the wit to thwart my getting anything I really wanted; and the thought elated me.
Only I did not know, precisely, what I wanted.
He Participates in Sundry Confidences
I was in the act of writing to Avis when the letter came; and I put it aside unopened, until after supper, for I had never found the letters of Avis particularly interesting reading.
"It will be what they call a newsy letter, of course. I do wish that Avis would not write to me as if she were under oath to tell the entire truth. She communicates so many things which actually happened that it reads like a 'special correspondent' in some country town writing for a Sunday morning's paper,—and with, to a moral certainty, the word 'separate' lurking somewhere spelt with three E's, and an 'always' with two L's, and at least one 'alright.' No, my dear, I am at present too busy expressing my adoration for you to be exposed to such inharmonious jars."
Then I wrote my dithyrambs and sealed them. Subsequently I poised the unopened letter between my fingers.
"But remember that if she were here to say all this to you, your pulses would be pounding like the pistons of an excited locomotive! Nature, you are a jade! I console myself with the reflection that it is frequently the gift of facile writing which makes the co-respondent, —but I do wish you were not such a hazardous matchmaker. Oh, well! there was no pleasant way of getting out of it, and that particular Rubicon is miles behind."
I slit the envelope.
I read the letter through again, with redoubling interest, and presently began to laugh. "So she begins to fear we have been somewhat hasty, asks a little time for reconsideration of her precise sentiment toward me, and feels meanwhile in honour bound to release me from our engagement! Yet if upon mature deliberation—eh, oh, yes! twaddle! and commonplace! and dashed, of course, with a jigger of Scriptural quotation!"
I paused to whistle. "There is strange milk in this cocoanut, could I but discern its nature."
I did, some four weeks later, when with a deal of mail I received the last letter I was ever to receive from Avis Beechinor.
Thank you very much for returning my letters and for the beautiful letter you wrote me. No I believe it better you should not come on to see me now and talk the matter over as you suggest because it would probably only make you unhappy. And then too I am sure some day you will be friends with me and a very good and true one. I return the last letter you sent me in a seperate envelope, and I hope it will reach you alright, but as I destroy all my mail as soon as I have read it I cannot send you the others. I have promised to marry Mr. Blagden and we are going to be married on the fifteenth of this month very quietly with no outsiders. So good bye Robert. I wish you every success and happiness that you may desire and with all my heart I pray you to be true to your better self. God bless you allways. Your sincere friend,
AVIS M. BEECHINOR
I indulged in a low and melodious whistle. "The little slut!"
Then I said: "Peter Blagden again! I do wish that life would try to be a trifle more plausible. Why, but, of course! Peter meant to go chasing after her the minute my back was turned, and that was why he salved his conscience by presenting me with that thousand 'to get married on,' Even at the time it seemed peculiarly un-Petrine. Well, anyhow, in simple decency, he cannot combine the part of Shylock with that of Judas, and expect to have back his sordid lucre, so I am that much to the good, apart from everything else. Yes, I can see how it all happened,—and I can foresee what is going to happen, too, thank heaven!"
For, as drowning men are said to recollect the unrecallable, I had vividly seen in that instant the two months' action just overpast, and its three participants,—the thin-lipped mother, the besotted millionaire, and the girl shakily hesitant between ideals and the habits of a life-time.
"But I might have known the mother would win," I reflected: "Why, didn't Bettie say she would?"
I refolded the letter I had just read, to keep it as a salutary relic; and then:
"Dear Avis!" said I; "now heaven bless your common-sense! and I don't especially mind if heaven blesses your horrific painted hag of a mother, also, if they've a divine favor or two to spare."
And I saw there was a letter from Peter Blagden, too. It said, in part:
I am everything that you think me, Bob. My one defence is that I could not help it. I loved her from the moment I saw her ... You did not appreciate her, you know. You take, if you will forgive my saying it, too light a view of life to value the love of a good woman properly, and Avis noticed it of course. Now I do understand what the unselfish love of woman means, because my first wife was an angel, as you know ... It is a comfort to think that my dear saint in heaven knows I am not quite so lonely now, and is gladdened by that knowledge. I know she would have wished it—
I read no further. "Oh, Stella! they have all forgotten. They all insist to-day that you were an angel, and they have come almost to believe that you habitually flew about the world in a night-gown, with an Easter lily in your hand—But I remember, dear. I know you'd scratch her eyes out. I know you'd do it now, if only you were able, because you loved this Peter Blagden."
Thereafter I must have wasted a full quarter of an hour in recalling all sorts of bygone unimportant happenings, and I was not bothering one way or the other about Avis ...
In the moonlighted garden I found Bettie. But with her was Josiah Clarriker, Fairhaven's leading business-man. He shook hands, and whatever delight he may have felt at seeing me was admirably controlled.
"Now don't let me interfere with your eloquence," I urged, "but go right on with the declamation."
"I make no pretension to eloquence, Mr. Townsend. I was merely recalling to Miss Hamlyn's attention the beautiful lines of our immortal poet, Owen Meredith, which run, as I remember them:
"'I thought of the dress she wore that time That we stood under the cypress-tree together, In that land, in that clime, And I turned and looked, and she was sitting there In the box next to the stage, and dressed In that muslin dress, with that full soft hair And that jessamine blossom at her breast.'"
"But I am not permitted to wear flowers when Mr. Townsend is about," said Bettie. "Did you know, Jo, that he is crazy about that too?"
"Well—! Anyhow, Meredith is full of very beautiful sentiments," said Mr. Clarriker, "and I have always been particularly fond of that piece. It is called 'Ox Italians.'"
"Yes, I have been previously affected by it," said I, "and very deeply moved."
"And so—as I was about to observe, Miss Hamlyn,—you will notice that the poet Meredith gowned one of the most beautiful characters he ever created in white, and laid great stress upon the fact that her beauty was immeasurably enhanced by the dainty simplicity of her muslin dress. This fabric, indeed, suits all types of faces and figures, and is Economical too, especially the present popular mercerised waistings and vestings that are fast invading the realm of silks. We show at our Emporium an immense quantity of these beautiful goods, in more than a hundred styles, elaborate enough for the most formal occasions, at fifty and seventy-five cents a yard; and—as I was about to observe, Miss Hamlyn,—I would indeed esteem it a favour should you permit me to send up a few samples to-morrow, from which to make a selection at, I need not add, my personal expense.
"You see, Mr. Townsend," he continued, more inclusively, "we have no florists in Fairhaven, and I have heard that candy—" He talked on, hygienically now....
"And that," said I, when Mr. Clarriker had gone, "is what you are actually considering! I have always believed Dickens invented that man to go into one of the latter chapters of Edwin Drood. It is the solitary way of explaining certain people,—that they were invented by some fagged novelist who unfortunately died before he finished the book they were to be locked up in. As it was, they got loose, to annoy you by their incredibility. No actual human being, you know, would suggest a white shirtwaist as a substitute for a box of candy."
"Oh, I have seen worse," said Bettie, as in meditation. "It's just Jo's way of expressing the fact that I am stupendously beautiful in white. Poor dear, my loveliness went to his head, I suppose, and got tangled with next week's advertisement for the Gazette. Anyhow, he is a deal more considerate than you. For instance, I was crazy to go to the show on Tuesday night, and Josiah Clarriker was the only person who thought to ask me, even though he is one of those little fireside companions who always get so syrupy whenever they take you anywhere that you simply can't stand it. The combination both prevented my acceptance and accentuated his devotion; and quite frankly, Robin, I am thinking of him, for at bottom Jo is a dear."
I laid one hand on each of Bettie's shoulders; and it was in my mind at the time that this was the gesture of a comrade, and had not any sexual tinge at all. I wished that Bettie had better teeth, of course, but that could not be helped.
"You are to marry me as soon as may be possible," said I, "and preferably to-morrow afternoon. Avis has thrown me over, God bless her, and I am free,—until of course you take charge of me. There was a clever woman once who told me I was not fit to be the captain of my soul, though I would make an admirable lieutenant. She was right. It is understood you are to henpeck me to your heart's content and to my ultimate salvation."
"I shall assuredly not marry you," observed Miss Hamlyn, "until you have at least asked me to do so. And besides, how dared she throw you over—!"
"But I don't intend to ask you, for I have not a single bribe to offer. I merely intend to marry you. I am a ne'er-do-well, a debauchee, a tippler, a compendium of all the vices you care to mention. I am not a bit in love with you, and as any woman will forewarn you, I am sure to make you a vile husband. Your solitary chance is to bully me into temperance and propriety and common-sense, with precisely seven million probabilities against you, because I am a seasoned and accomplished liar. Can you do that bullying, Bettie,—and keep it up, I mean?"
And she was silent for a while. "Robin," she said, at last, "you'll never understand why women like you. You will always think it is because they admire you for some quality or another. It is really because they pity you. You are such a baby, riding for a fall—No, I don't mean the boyishness you trade upon. I have known for a long while all that was just put on. And, oh, how hard you've tried to be a boy of late!"
"And I thought I had fooled you, Bettie! Well, I never could. I am sorry, though, if I have been annoyingly clumsy—"
"But you were doing it for me," she said. "You were doing it because you thought I'd like it. Oh, can't you understand that I know you are worthless, and that you have never loved any human being in all your life except that flibbertigibbet Stella Blagden, and that I know, too, you have so rarely failed me! If you were an admirable person, or a person with commendable instincts, or an unselfish person, or if you were even in love with me, it wouldn't count of course. It is because you are none of these things that it counts for so much to see you honest with me—sometimes,—and even to see you scheming and play-acting—and so transparently!—just to bring about a little pleasure for me. Oh, Robin, I am afraid that nowadays I love you because of your vices!"
"And I you because of your virtues," said I; "so that there is no possible apprehension of either affection ever going into bankruptcy. Therefore the affair is settled; and we will be married in November."
"Well," Bettie said, "I suppose that somebody has to break you of this habit of getting married next November—"
Then, and only then, my hands were lifted from her shoulders. And we began to talk composedly of more impersonal matters.
It was two days later that John Charteris came to Fairhaven; and I met him the same afternoon upon Cambridge street. The little man stopped short and in full view of the public achieved what, had he been a child, were most properly describable as making a face at me.
"That," he explained, "expresses the involuntary confusion of Belial on re-encountering the anchorite who escaped his diabolical machinations. But, oh, dear me! haven't you been translated yet? Why, I thought the carriage would have called long ago, just as it did for Elijah."